Saturday, February 14, 2009

Miscellaneous: Not Wasted, Just Different

At about 10:30 this morning, I zipped off to the Saturday farmers market downtown to buy some honey. I arrived home at nearly 5:00PM. The market closes at noon. What happened to the missing five hours you wonder? Read on.

I had planned to get home quickly. I wanted to finish the blog entry below, and I had other work to do. I picked up a jar of honey and started home. Suddenly, the car died. The engine just stopped. It started up briefly a moment later, allowing me to drive a few hundred feet more, then died completely. The battery light came on and I had to coast to a stop on Sonoma Ave.--in a no parking zone, right in front of the main police station. Santa Rosa's main fire station is right next door. "If the car spontaneously combusts, I'm in good shape," I thought to myself. (Actually, that's a lie, but it sounded good, so I threw it in there.)

When it became apparent that I'd have to wait three hours for a tow, I decided to make the best of things. I walked downtown (a few blocks), got a sandwich and a cup of coffee at the kosher deli on 4th St. (I didn't know Santa Rosa had a kosher deli, but there it was. Great.) Afterwards I walked around town, looked in the bookstores, stopped by the library, and spent a few minutes watching the people that were people-watching from the chairs in front of Peet's Coffee. After leaving the car for repair on Monday, I finally made it home (thanks Mom) with not only a jar of honey but also a book (The Girl with the Pearl Earring) and a couple of musical scores bought cheap at the used bookstore. I even had an interesting conversation with the tow truck driver--comparing notes on the trials associated with restoring and running old cars and motorcycles.

Not a wasted day, just not the day I had planned.

I bought honey today for the first time in eight years. Because I keep bees, I'm not used to paying for honey, but I just hived a new swarm last spring after losing the colony that I had going, and I judged the brand new colony too weak to take honey from this past fall. We just used up the last from the harvest of the year before. Honey has gotten remarkably expensive in the interim. I almost balked, but decided to look at it as support for the local beekeepers at the market that often give me free advice.

Music I'm Listening to: The San Francisco Symphony

Heard an interesting SF Symphony concert this evening. Charles Dutoit conducted. The program was Debussy's Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, Stravinsky's Symphony in C, and Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade.

On the downside, the audience was very noisy. Why on earth people can't unwrap cough drops before the music starts, I do not know. Is being courteous to the musicians and other listeners really such a difficult concept? Do concerts attract people prone to coughing fits? I don't think I've ever felt the need to cough during a concert, ever. Also, Davies Symphony Hall has parquet flooring under the seats, not carpet. Every foot that moves, every object dropped is audible. Who thought that was a good design concept, I wonder? And why not add carpet now to remedy it? Acoustics perhaps? I don't know. Finally, I thought the first two pieces indifferently played. 

Now for the upside: The Scheherezade was a gem. 

When I first began going to concerts of my own volition, I listened to rock music. The gap between the recorded versions I was used to and live performances was a big one that took some getting used to. In popular music more than classical music, the original recording is the iconic version. I wanted to hear what was on the record, not a new interpretation, even if it was a live interpretation by the original artist. Even in the world of classical music, where it's normal to hear various interpretations of the same repertoire, nearly perfect performances by the world's greatest artists (of today and generations past) are so readily available as recordings that it's just as easy to go into a live classical concert with unrealistic expectations of perfection. 

When my interest shifted away from popular music and toward classical music (around 1979) I began to attend classical concerts. Perhaps predictably, I had unrealistic expectations. With time, however, I came to accept the fact that even the most famous of performers have good nights and bad. An exceptional performance is just that: exceptional. It is something to be grateful for when it happens, not something to assume will happen in advance. Tonight's Scheherezade was special, one to tuck away among the other memorable performances I've been privileged to enjoy over the years.   

Although I am a collector by nature--art, stamps, plants, rugs, books, insulators, paperweights, recordings, wine--and I enjoy making lists, which is another kind of collecting, I have never assembled a list of all the concerts I've attended, but there have been many. The gems, however, have been comparatively few. I can call them up in an instant. The first is easy. Itzhak Perlman, Columbus, Ohio, 1983 or 1984, Mershon Auditorium on the Ohio State University campus. I paid $8 for the ticket--cheap even then. I don't remember the program. What I do remember is one part of it--and that is the point; one piece he played was perfect, making the whole concert worthwhile; no need for perfection in everything (which is not to say the rest was flawed). He played one of the Bach unaccompanied partitas (or one of the unaccompanied sonatas) so perfectly that it still sends shivers down my spine to think about it. 

Scientists who study complex systems speak of "emergent properties." (Don't worry, I'll get back to music in a second.) Emergent properties are independent second-order properties that result from the operation of simple, first-order principles. I'm sure a specialist could explain it better than I, but the best example I remember from my reading is flocking behavior. A flock of birds, or a school of fish, for that matter, seems an independent entity--alive, almost sentient. Yet, the behavior of a flock of birds is actually an emergent property of myriad individual decisions by the birds that are part of it. No bird intends to create or contribute to the motion of the flock. Two simple rules cause the flock to behave as it does. Each bird need only: 1) try to stay as close as possible to the center of gravity of the group, while 2) trying to maintain a fixed minimum distance from its nearest neighbor. That, it appears, is sufficient to create flocking (or schooling) phenomena.  

Back to music--specifically, Bach. The birds in this case are the notes as Bach wrote them. When played the way Itzhak Perlman played them that evening, there were "ghost melodies." I don't know how else to describe what I heard. There were lines of melody hanging in the air above him that were an emergent property of the playing of the underlying notes. It was as if a second violinist was on stage. It was eerie and wonderful--and memorable.  I believe this to have been a real phenomenon, related to interactions of overtones. Whatever was happening, I will never forget the concert.

Having recently read Walter Piston's Orchestration, perhaps it was inevitable that I went into last night's concert more than usually eager to watch precisely how the music was constructed--to watch it move from section to section, to watch the way the sounds are interwoven. I suspect that Scheherezade was a piece particularly well-suited to my frame of mind. 

It's been a long time since I've heard Scheherezade, and I had never heard it live before. I had forgotten the hauntingly beautiful solos for violin. I had forgotten the many other solos in the piece. One is handed to the principal cello, one to the first clarinet, one to the first bassoon, and there are others. This last--the bassoon solo--is especially beautiful and it was played last night with striking aplomb. I might go so far as to say those few seconds of the performance were worth the entire price of admission. 

The piece is orchestrated with remarkably clarity. The performance struck me as precise, allowing the clarity to show, but it was warm, and that seems appropriate to the music. I was pleased to see that I was not alone in thinking the bassoonist did especially well. After the piece had finished, when the conductor was acknowledging the various soloists, the bassoonist was rewarded with the biggest surge of applause. All in all, a beautiful performance. 

Other musical gems, each with its own little story, would include hearing pianists like Radu Lupu, Melvin Tan, and Imogen Cunningham doing Schubert in recital; hearing Elly Ameling sing Brahms lieder; hearing cellists like Yo Yo Ma, David Geringas, and Mstislav Rostropovich in recital--Rostropovich with more energy than most men half his age; hearing a performance of Beethoven's Romance No. 2 in Tokyo with Kyung-wha Chung as the soloist--a relaxed encore that was better than anything in the main program; hearing Kyung-wha Chung doing Prokofiev sonatas in recital; hearing the Tokyo String Quartet doing one of the late Beethoven Quartets; hearing Alicia de Larrocha in recital in Milan. To this list I now add hearing Charles Dutoit conduct the SF Symphony in Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade.

What a fool I am ever to want more than I already have. And yet I do.

Photo of Charles Dutoit used with permission, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Tidbits: Courtesy

Courtesy rarely costs much more than a little time; but time more than anything is what people seem to have too little of. 

Miscellaneous: To Friend or Not to Friend?

That is the question. Or, the question may be whether or not to unfriend. Sometimes the problem involves a decision about refriending--or being refriended. How long will it take for these words to appear in dictionaries?

I got to wondering recently about social networking etiquette. Knowing the Internet, there are Emily Post-style guides out there, but I prefer to muse in ignorance for the time being. 

I'm not the social networking type, really. I'm the sort that is, for the most part, quite happy all alone--reading, planting things, making wine, drinking wine, listening to music, driving in the California sunshine--I'm more than capable of keeping myself amused in solitude for long periods of time. Despite that (because of that?) I'm always the last person to leave a party. A party is a kind of story. I like to know how things turn out--not that I go to many parties these days.... I guess I hate unfinished stories. 

Having said all that, I recently joined Facebook. Why? mostly because an old friend from college in St. Louis asked me if I was a member. I got curious. Also, I had reason to believe I might find other old acquaintances there that I knew had joined recently. My biggest disappointment has been that you have to be officially connected with someone through the site beforehand to see their profile. You have to friend them or have been friended by them (there's a great example of a verb form for a grammar textbook--to have been friended--sounds oddly Shakespearean, too). On one level that makes the whole thing seem pointless, but I've decided it makes sense if you just understand that Facebook is intended more to allow friends to stay in touch, than as a tool for making new friends, and for that it seems to work well enough. I hate to admit it, but I've enjoyed my foray into social networking.   

But, back to etiquette. What if I have a "friend" that I  want to unfriend--someone I friended just to be polite? Oh dear. Do I tell him? Do I explain? Do I say nothing--silently unfriend him? Will he get a notification? Will I simply disappear from his friends list? I don't know, but I don't want to be rude. If I do unfriend him, will he try to refriend me, assuming my unfriendly behavior was a mistake? Then what do I do? Despite the facelessness of much of the communication on Facebook, we are social beings; the usual considerations of people's feelings seem to come into play. Perhaps countless unwanted Facebook friends just sit in other people's lists, unloved but somehow inviolate--like the pair of gaudy goblets in the garage that can't be thrown away because they were a present from a sister. Is there sympathy friending? In looking up old friends, I have come upon strangers with no friends at all, which seems sad. And what about people you want to friend, but feel you can't for some reason or other? How do you tell them how you feel? These are small mysteries. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Miscellaneous: Pouring with Rain

Heavy rain today. It's really pouring. The first real rain we've had all season. Out and about doing errands today, the relief is palpable. People in the grocery store, the woman that cuts my hair, the man at the post office, the woman at the bank--all mentioned the rain and made a point of NOT complaining about the weather. 
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