Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Season of Darkness, and Music, and Lights

The absence of snow has made the season seem darker. We got a little dusting on Monday night—just enough to remind us what we're missing. The next morning there were raccoon tracks all over the street, running from one curbside drainage grate to another. They also proceeded around our garage and up onto the back deck. I didn't need to check if there was any feed left in the feeders. Not a chance.

Out on the road there were also a few deer tracks, one squirrel, and perhaps a cat. As we returned to the house I also saw two huge sets of tracks, identical except that one set was much larger than the other. This was a clear sign that Hilary and I had set out on a stroll a few minutes earlier in the pre-dawn light.

Evenings have been brightened by music. A Messiah sing-a-long which was plenty rousing, though slightly less compelling at Orchestra Hall than the one we attended a few years ago at Central Lutheran Church downtown. An Anglican ceremony of lessons and carols at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral. Ah, these are the familiar readings, the familiar hymns, along with some beautiful renderings of unfamiliar carols sung by a very polished choir. And how convenient that we could participate on a Sunday evening at five, rather than struggling to stay awake on Christmas Eve.

The most unusual concert we heard was given by the Rose Ensemble, who performed a selection of Christmas pieces written during the seventeenth century for the cathedral church on the island of Malta. None of the pieces were familiar, which isn't surprising, considering the scores have been languishing in some archive on a  Mediterranean island for the last three hundred years. And the lyrics to the pieces were in Latin, with one or two exceptions, so the event had very little of a Christmas "feel" to it.

Yet the concert was gorgeous, due to both the quality of the voices and the richness of the harmonies involved, which struck me—unschooled in the period though I am—as less flamboyant that the music of Monteverdi, more concerned with texture, less with ornamentation and vocal display.

The ensemble knows how to program a show, interspersing choral pieces with solos and small vocal parings. One of my favorites was a tenor solo Tre Lezioni Per Il Primo Notturno (per la Nativita del segnore) sung by Andrew Kane. It certainly had plenty of ornamentation, and the lyrics also struck me as unusual.

...You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born ...

The program also included the world premier of a piece by composer Timothy Takach that had been commissioned by the ensemble. It somehow succeeded in sounding fresh and modern without fracturing the tonal atmosphere within which the rest of the concert unfolded. It contained quite of few of those close (shall we say 'dissonant'?) harmonies that would have sounded dreadful, had they not been executed with the utmost grace and precision. It turned out to be a highlight of the evening.

As it happened, Hilary's brother Jeff was sitting with his family two rows in front of us, and we enjoyed chatting with them all at intermission.

On the longest night of the year, we were visited by two great lights. The lesser of these was the fire I built in the fire pit out on the deck. The greater was the arrival of our friend Dave, who visits us annually  at about this time of year. Dave and I have been friends since high school, and Hilary has known him almost as long. He moved to Texas maybe forty years ago, but he still has family in Minnesota, and we've kept in touch.

Over the years we've followed Dave's career in the world of art handling, which got more complicated about ten years ago when he and a few colleagues decided to start their own business. At about the same time, Dave bought a warehouse in a run-down neighborhood near the Trinity River. Alongside the living quarters, the space was suitable for storing his vast collection of mission furniture. Dave also had the idea that when a proposed bridge was built across the river, his property might end up being worth a lot more than he'd paid for it.

A decade later, Dave's business is thriving, the bridge has been built, development is well underway all around him. But the city of Dallas has been putting the squeeze on him, granting an easement to widen the road in front of his building, threatening to condemn the property—doing everything in its power, in short, except pay him a fair market price for it. (This is a simplified and inaccurate recount; if you want more details, you can find them here.)

Dave fought city hall, and he lost. But during the process, the developers finally realized that they were also losing vast sums waiting for Dave's endgame with the city to play itself out, and they made him an offer. It wasn't what the property would have gone for on the market, but it was enough for Dave to buy 78 acres of land in the country, complete with living quarters, warehouse,  pond, woodlot, creek, and plenty of buzzards and coyotes.

Meanwhile, he's been gradually stepping back from the business he started, and is now in the process of selling his shares. Dave will soon be a gentleman farmer—"What do you mean? I am a gentleman farmer!" he says—and he's already got plans for building a bridge across the creek, buying a tractor and some goats, and sitting out on the front porch in the evening, watching the sun go down and listening to the whippoorwills.

It's a far cry from the hype and worry of the Texas art world, and not a life-style Dave was thinking much about a few years ago. But he's taken risks and made bold decisions before. There's been dissonance in his life from time to time, but hearing about these new developments around the campfire, it sounded to me less like a false cadence than a grand resolution, rich in elements to be whipped up into an entirely new movement.

I wouldn't mind learning a little more about Texas birds myself.    

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