Saturday, May 26, 2012

Music I'm Listening To: Hilary Hahn with Osmo Vänskä Conducting the San Francisco Symphony (May 25, 2012)

Last night Hilary Hahn joined guest conductor Osmo Vänskä and the San Francisco Symphony for what turned out to be a rather exhilarating evening of music. The concert opened with modern Finnish composer Kalevi Aho's one-movement Minea, a piece composed in 2008 on commission from the Minnesota Orchestra. Hahn was then soloist in Prokofieff's Violin Concerto No. 1. After intermission, the Symphony played the Shostakovich Symphony No. 6.

Minea, debuted by the Minnesota Orchestra in November 2009,  has not yet been released as a commercial recording. I heard it last night for the first time. The opening was memorable--a sustained tone held by many of the instruments on stage seemed to float over odd sounds produced on the brass instruments that suggested waves beating against a beach. The woodwinds were very much present, especially the flutes and bassoons, fluttering in long scale-like passages using many half steps evocative of Arabic or Arab-influenced Spanish music--something oriental anyway. Minea kept building through the addition of more instruments and a faster tempo. Eventually, the very large percussion section seemed to take the lead. By the time the piece was coming to a climax it had something of the relentless forward motion of Ravel's Boléro. Every section of the orchestra seemed to get a turn, which reminded me of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. Difficult to describe, but a lot of fun.

Hahn was wonderful in the Prokofieff. Although she seemed to lose her concentration momentarily near the beginning of the second movement, it was a brief lapse (if it wasn't my imagination), and the rest of the performance was fairly riveting. I especially enjoyed the way she very clearly articulated the raspy, chopped notes that punctuate the concerto and the wonderful metallic quality she gave to the sections played close to the bridge. Just watching her rather fierce concentration was mesmerizing. It helped to be in seat C106, virtually right in front of her, and no more than about three yards away. The whole orchestra sounded rather good from that position--with an unusual clarity for Davies Symphony Hall. Some of the members of the orchestra seemed as entranced as the audience. Hahn, meanwhile, while tightly focused, found time to look over her shoulder from time to time to take in the view of the orchestra, clearly enjoying herself--which seems to be her habit. I noticed her doing the same thing last time I heard her play live, when she performed the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in San Francisco, with James Gaffigan conducting, in November 2008. Last night Hahn wore a beautiful tapered black silk taffeta gown with starkly contrasting splashes of flowers and leaves in gold embroidery and appliqué. The performance was very warmly received.

Hahn delighted the audience by playing two encores, one modern, one not. She first played The Blue Curve of the Earth, which she herself commissioned from composer Tina Davidson--a scintillating piece of restrained energy with much use of pizzicato playing that I rather enjoyed. Hahn seemed almost apologetic when she took up her violin a second time, eliciting a laugh, this time to play a portion of the Bach A minor Sonata No. 2 for solo violin. "They gave me permission to play another one," she announced, and she played it very sweetly indeed. Hahn signed autographs after the performance. I asked her to date mine. She said matter-of-factly, "You'll have to tell me what the date is," no doubt a symptom of much travel.

I don't think I've heard a better reading of the Shostakovich. The ensemble was focused and tight. Vänskä elicited a memorable performance. All in all, perhaps the best concert this season--although I'd be hard-pressed to choose between this one and the December 8, 2011 performance with guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and soloist Leila Josefowicz. Happily, there's no need to choose.

Photo of Hilary Hahn by Peter Miller. Photo of Osmo Vänskä by Ann Marsden. Both photos courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony web site. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Beers I'm Drinking: Coedo Brewery, Japan

I don't have an appropriate category for a post about beer ("Food I'm Eating/Wine I'm Drinking" will have to do), but I recently had the opportunity to attend a restaurant trade show in San Francisco sponsored by N.A. Sales Co., a company that mainly trades in supplies for Japanese restaurants. I sampled food and many different types of sake and beer. I was impressed by some of the beers coming out of a number of small breweries represented, but particularly by the five offerings from Coedo Brewery, one such brewery in Kawagoe, about half an hour north of the northern part of Tokyo. Known sometimes as Ko-Edo, or "little Tokyo" (hence the beer's name), Kawagoe is famous for the many examples of Edo-period warehouse architecture that remain in its old commercial district and also for its sweet potatoes.

Good beer, like good wine, should be distinctive, and enthusiastic people in love with the product they make always seem to enhance the experience. Coedo has got both. I spent a pleasant fifteen minutes talking with Coedo president and CEO, Shigeharu Asagiri, who led me through a tasting. The blue-labeled Ruri (the word means "lapis" in Japanese: All of the beers are named after something Japanese associated with the beer by color) is a pilsener type (5% alcohol). Kyara (a yellow-brown traditional dye) is a lager (5%). Shikkoku (black) is a dark Schwarzbier (5%). Beniaka (red) is a barley lager (7%) that also uses the local sweet potatoes. Shiro (white) is a non-filtered hefeweizen, or wheat beer (5.5%). I enjoyed them all, but particularly Kyara, which had a clean, refreshing taste but not at the expense of flavor and body. Kyara has a rich malty aspect but manages to be quite crisp and dry at the same time--wonderfully balanced. These beers were a welcome change from the often overly hoppy local beers of northern California. Recommended--I just wish the stuff weren't so expensive.

[Update: More about Koedo beer.]

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Miscellaneous: Bookshelves and Manifest Destiny (May 22, 2012)

Reading--once infected with it, there's no real cure. At least the symptoms are pleasant: Reading is a happy virus. Reading and acquiring books don't always go hand in hand--we have libraries--but I like to own the books I read, even if I sell them, trade them, or give them away once finished. I never know when I'll get around to the many books that interest me, but I like always to have something ready to go. It's a luxury, perhaps, to be able to walk into a room with bookshelves full of choices when it comes time to start something new, but it's a luxury I allow myself. It seems, however, that there's never enough space. Bookshelves fill quickly. Then books get slipped sideways into the gaps between the shelves and the tops of books below (the crack fillers). Books begin to pile up on the floor....

I decided recently the time had come to build a wall-mounted bookshelf behind the desk in my office/studio. I've been working on the project for about a week with the help of my brother, who is much better at these things than I am. It was he who suggested using European birch plywood rather than the pine I had had in mind. Pine, it turns out, tends to be poorly seasoned these days. It's usually young and wet and therefore lacking in dimensional stability. So I designed a simple bookcase seven feet wide and two feet deep, with a shelf in the middle, providing room for two long rows of books, the middle shelf supported by a divider. In the end, I decided I liked it better with only one divider (in the bottom), so I will fill the slot we made in the upper side of the middle shelf where an upper divider was to have gone.

Now that the bookcase is mostly built, I've begun to mentally fill it with the books that already need a home. I can see most of the new space disappearing almost immediately--as soon as the paint's dry. What's left of the empty space will call to me as the land of the American West called to settlers looking for living space in the 19th century. Manifest destiny.

It will be only a matter of time--and not much time--before all the new space has been filled. The crack fillers will begin to appear again. Then little stacks of books will rise here and there on furniture and on the floor, and very little will have changed.

Of course, the cat has been helping. He said something about inspecting the drop cloth....

[Update: Go here for a shot of the finished project.]

Books I'm Reading: Once Upon a Town

I've been to North Platte, Nebraska. I've driven along its quiet streets, looked at the grassy park near the center of town, and visited the Union Pacific Railway's classification yard there. I went to North Platte on a little detour during a drive across the country a few years back--an impulsive act resulting from my realization that I'd never really seen much of the United States between Lake Tahoe and St. Louis, Missouri, and by a certain restlessness. I had purchased a book called Road Trip USA (Jamie Jensen, Avalon Travel, 5th Edition, 2009) just before leaving home that recommended lesser known points of interest along some of this country's lonelier roads. I was surprised to read in the section on Nebraska that the southwestern part of the state, along Highway 80, was a beautiful place. In my mind, there had been little to distinguish any part of Nebraska from the image of unrelenting flatness I associated with its southern neighbor, Kansas. The area right around Highway 80 proved rather boring, in fact, but at Laramie, Wyoming I turned off the interstate and headed north on Highway 71 to Scottsbluff, Nebraska and the countryside there was very beautiful, indeed (photo below).

North Platte is known as the hometown of Buffalo Bill Cody. Here you'll find Buffalo Bill State Historical Park, site of Buffalo Bill's Scout's Ranch. There's a Buffalo Bill Rodeo in the summer. Railroad enthusiasts go to North Platte to visit the rail yard used to configure freight trains coming across the country (below), the biggest classification and switching yard in the world. As I noticed on my trip across country a few years back, today's interstate highways often follow paths cut across the country many years before the automobile. North Platte was a stop on the Oregon Trail and it was a Pony Express stop. The Lincoln Highway, America's first transcontinental road, followed the Oregon Trail in this part of the country. North Platte was part of that road as well.

I must have been close to the location of what became known as The North Platte Canteen, but I saw no sign of it and didn't think to look, although I had heard something of the story before. Bob Greene's Once Upon a Town (Perennial, 2003) tells that story in detail.

During the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of soldiers moved across the country on troop trains to their deployments, usually on the coasts. Many troop trains went through North Platte. Some soldiers passed through on their way back home on leave or after the war ended. Someone local got the idea of handing out food and drinks to the servicemen on their brief stops in the town (usually 10-15 minutes at most). It was an idea that took hold. Once started, the informal canteen provided a steady stream of refreshments, encouragement, gratitude, and friendly words to young men on their way to war--many of them having left home for the first time. It's remarkable that the canteen was open without fail from 5:00AM until after midnight on every day of the year in every year of the war (and for a period afterwards, greeting men coming home), staffed and supplied entirely by volunteers. Every train was met, without fail. All the food and drink was donated by the citizens of North Platte and surrounding communities. It was an act of love.

The North Platte Canteen disappeared when it was no longer needed. The building that temporarily housed it has been torn down. North Platte--then and now a place known mainly as somewhere on a road to somewhere else--for a few years was an overflowing well of the most generous hospitality. Once Upon a Town, based mainly on interviews with people who volunteered at the canteen and of the soldiers that found brief solace there becomes somewhat repetitive because of the use of personal accounts (many of which are necessarily similar), but the cumulative effect of the many little stories is to create a vivid picture of one corner of the home front during WWII--a picture that seems worth handing on to future generations.

Cars: 1961 Studebaker Hawk (May 22, 2012)

This car parked a few slots down from me yesterday at the grocery store. It's a 1961 Studebaker Hawk. 1961 was the last year of production, according to the man driving the car. He seemed pleased I noticed it and said something about it. I thought it was pretty, so I photographed it.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Miscellaneous: Annular Eclipse of the Sun (May 20, 2012)

I just got back from Reno, having made a spur-of-the-moment decision to drive there this morning to get a better view of the annular solar eclipse today (actually, now yesterday). From Santa Rosa the full ring at the peak of coverage would not have been visible. We went to the Fleischmann Planetarium on the Reno Campus of the University of Nevada--it seemed a likely spot to find people who'd be watching. Unfortunately, it clouded over exactly at the best moment (photo), which obscured the views of the ring of light around the moon's shadow, but it was still a lot of fun to see.
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