Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Remembering past New Year's Eves

Before 1990, I stayed home and watched the ball drop on TV. I think there were a few pre-teen years when I went to a friend's house for a sleepover. I didn't drink on New Year's Eve until 1993.

1990: watched fireworks in Johnstown, PA

1991: watched MTV's Top 20 video countdown, then went out to watch fireworks in Johnstown

1992: same as 1992.

1993: went to Pittsburgh and partied with some friends from high school. Got drunk, sobered up, dented Dad's Dodge Omni the next morning when I backed it into another car.

1994: went to a frat party at St. Francis College in Loretto, PA with the same HS friends as the previous year. The party ran out of beer at 12:30 AM after the frat guys used it up in a "beer fight" at midnight. Tried to sleep, failed, drove home sober at 5 AM.

1995: watched movies with some other friends from high school.

1996: low-key party at someone's apartment in DC with recent Georgetown graduates

1997: best NYE party ever with some friends at their house in Arlington. Had a great time and didn't get too drunk. Or I sobered up a little before we left.

1998: I don't remember, which must mean it wasn't that good.

1999: stayed home, drank a $40 bottle of champagne and watched TV waiting for Y2K to happen.

2000: stuck in Starkville, MS because of a blizzard in NY that canceled our original flight home before the holiday and a freak snowstorm in MS that nearly kept us from getting home on New Year's Day. I drove 30 MPH on icy Southern roads to get us to Memphis in time to catch our rescheduled flight home.

2001: had a long dinner at Tio Pepe, a restaurant in our neighborhood.

2002: went to the show at Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village. Had fun for the first 3 hours, but should have left at 12:30 AM instead of sticking around until 2 AM. Those extra drinks did us in.

2003: Stayed home, watched movies.

2004: Went to New Orleans. Had dinner at Commander's Palace, got beer thrown on us in the French Quarter, then we went to a strip club to avoid the crowd.

2005: crazy party on the Upper East Side. Fun for a while, but I should have left shortly after midnight.

2006: same crazy party as 2005, only more crowded. This time we did leave just after midnight.

2007: stayed home, watched TV, cheered on Dick Clark and made fun of Ryan Seacrest

2008: I think we're going out to dinner, then staying home. It's cold and snowy outside.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Geeking out on my holiday vacation

I spent last week in Johnstown, PA, where I could have been blogging, but I chose to relax and spend time with my family instead. (I hope they appreciate the sacrifice on my part.) I had the opportunity to hang out with my mom and my brother and talk about music, computers, cooking, and coffee, among other things. We couldn't make coffee in the morning without discussing whether to use the electric coffeemaker or the French press, or which of the estimated 20 varieties of coffee beans to try that day. I come from a family of coffee addicts, and I admit that I feed my mother's coffee-collecting habit. In fact, her present this year was a gift box of three different varieties of beans from Gorilla Coffee in Brooklyn, my new favorite coffeehouse. On our last day in Johnstown, we did a direct taste-test with the same coffee made in the electric coffeemaker and in the French press. Both were drinkable without milk or sugar, but I thought the French press version had more "notes" to it. There was a extra flavor to the press coffee that the electric seemed to have filtered out. But I don't plan to use my French press more often. My four-cup Mr. Coffee is still more convenient.

My brother and I also managed to break my mom's computer while we were there. We were trying to hook up a spare hard drive internally when the power supply died. Since we couldn't resurrect that computer right away, we hooked up her old Pentium III/Windows 98 PC from 2001 and ran Damn Small Linux on it for a day. Michael called Dell tech support and to our surprise they sent replacement parts and a technician to our house on Christmas Eve to replace the power supply. So we only suffered for a few hours with less than two functioning computers in the house. We never did get the hard drive installed internally; we bought an external HD enclosure and used that instead.

We didn't get to our other long-term back-burner project of getting old files from our childhood Commodore 64 onto modern media. I did some Google searching yesterday on the best way to interface an old Commodore 1541 floppy disk drive to a Windows PC. (Mac would appear to be out of the question entirely.) It would take a hacked-up serial-parallel cable, some special software, and we would have to hope that the 5.25" floppy disks and the 1541 drive still work after 18 years in a hot attic. Given the magnitude of the project, I think that if we ever get around to doing it, we'll have to ship all the old equipment to my dad's house and let him hack away at it. It sound like his kind of project, especially since he's the one who keeps suggesting it. I'm interested in what we have on those old floppies (mostly papers and short stories we wrote as kids) but I think I could live with myself if I never got that data back.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Kaplan - NY Philharmonic story gets more interesting

A Google alert in my mailbox pointed me to this Metafilter post about Gilbert Kaplan. At first I was excited -- someone read my blog and quoted it! -- but then I read the post. Since I am on the record as not being a regular reader of the New York Times, I missed this article this past Tuesday that discusses the New York Philharmonic's dissatisfaction with Kaplan's performance with the orchestra. On the day of the historic performance I attended on December 8, the musicians met with the Philharmonic's president and complained about Kaplan's conducting. The Times article and the Metafilter post linked to the blog of David Finlayson, a trombonist in the Philharmonic, who wrote a long post critical of Kaplan. What I saw as "textbook" conducting gestures and a lack of overexpressive motion the musicians saw as an inability to shape phrases or give dynamic changes. Finlayson pointed out that Kaplan had trouble keeping the beat in one section and asked the orchestra to help him. Kaplan acknowledged the orchestra's comments and said that "if some people are displeased, I can't help it." According to the Times, the Philharmonic won't invite him back, and Kaplan wasn't expecting a return engagement. The December 8 concert was a special occasion.

Even in light of these stories, I'm not going to take back my comments about the performance that night. I love Mahler's 2nd Symphony, and I think Kaplan did an excellent job leading the orchestra through it. It was a performance that I'm going to remember for many, many years. I bought Kaplan's 2003 recording of the symphony, partly because of his story, but also because of his edition of the work with his corrections. But I don't think I'll seek out a Kaplan-led concert in the future, because I've already heard him conduct this piece and he doesn't conduct anything else. As for my quote in the Metafilter post, I meant it as a compliment. I see too many conductors whose gestures are unclear and muddled, and I prefer to see a clear beat over expressive emotional gestures.

I sympathize with the Philharmonic's musicians. I can see why they are upset. No one wants to be used for the gratification of someone else's ego. But I think the Philharmonic made the right choice for the concert. Kaplan is an expert on Mahler's 2nd, he's a well-known name in the music world, and he's got a compelling story (albeit, one that's only possible because of his immense wealth). I'm sure the Philharmonic considered other conductors with connections to the orchestra's past, and they chose Kaplan. It would have been a rousing concert with anyone on the podium. I still think Kaplan acquitted himself well, and I'm glad I was there that night.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Another sign of the times: Novell cancels BrainShare 2009

Novell's BrainShare conference has been an industry tradition for 20 years, but it won't happen in 2009. Novell announced yesterday that next year's conference has been canceled due to a significant drop in customer registrations and comments from said customers that they're cutting back on travel and other expenses in light of the current economic climate. I went to BrainShare in 2002 and 2004, and I enjoyed both conferences immensely. I learned more about the Novell products I was already using, and attended sessions on new products that would help me in my job and in my career. My firm's decision to switch from Novell NetWare to Microsoft Active Directory signaled the end of my BrainShare experiences. When I read this story, my first thoughts were of the people of Salt Lake City that work for the Convention Center where they hold the conference, and for the hotels and businesses that depend on that business. I doubt there's another major conference scheduled for Salt Lake City that will make up that loss of business. It's sad, but many people are probably going to lose their jobs as a result of this decision. I can't blame Novell; it's not their fault the economy is what it is. If customers weren't going to make the trip to Utah for the conference, then Novell and the local businesses would lose money anyway. But it's bad news all around. Apple announced on Tuesday that it will pull out of MacWorld after 2009. I wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft cuts back or even cancels its annual TechEd conference. That would be bad for me in particular, as I think it's my turn to go to TechEd in 2009. That's if my office allows me to go. It's a vicious circle.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Another Mahler success for NYRO

I should have turned down that second glass of wine at dinner on Saturday evening. Kate and I met her parents, my mother, and my mother's friend Dave for dinner before the concert. The first meeting of the parents went extremely well, and I was having a good time so I had that extra wine. I thought I would be OK since I had plenty of water and ate a healthy amount of pasta and bread. But when I left the restaurant to get to the church for the concert, I realized I was just a little bit drunk. I hoped the slight inebriation would make me more relaxed for the concert, and for the most part it did. I played my part for the Britten violin concerto as well as I had in rehearsal and most importantly, I didn't play in the rests. By the intermission, I felt like I had sobered up, which left me nervous for the Mahler symphony in the second half.

Our performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 was as lyrical and bombastic as I had hoped it would be. From where I sat the piece sounded incredible, though my friends told me that the sound was muddled in the back of the church. We knew that would happen, given the cathedral-like architecture of the church. Still, it was exciting to see the winds with their bells up in the second movement, and I risked a quick glance at the horns when they stood up in the final moments of the symphony. I think we captured a little of the magic we had two years ago when we played Mahler's 3rd Symphony in another majestic Manhattan church. I hope we have another Mahler symphony on a future NYRO program. I vote for Symphony No. 5.

During this concert, I realized that while I enjoy playing Mahler, I would rather listen to it than perform it. Mahler's music is not the most difficult I've ever encountered, but it requires a level of concentration that I'm not used to in performance. By the time I play a symphony in concert, I've practiced and rehearsed it enough that I can play some of it on a form of "auto-pilot." My mind wanders a bit even though my fingers, eyes, and ears are fully engaged in the performance. Maybe I'm not the violist I used to be, but even though I know Mahler's 1st Symphony intimately, on Saturday night I found that when my mind wandered I stopped counting or had to scramble to get ready for my next entrance instead of being prepared. I had to concentrate more on what I was doing than with nearly everything else I've played recently. It was a useful lesson for me to learn that I should avoid those lapses in concentration and focus on the performance. I'm up there playing because I enjoy it, but also because I want to give the best performance possible so that my friends and family enjoy the music as well.

Now NYRO takes a short break, but we'll be back in January preparing for our next concert on February 14. I know that's Valentine's Day, but what's more romantic than an evening of classical music?

Friday, December 12, 2008

tech update: the Mac battery is not healthy, but the TV looks great

I've kept an eye on the "battery health" meter on my Dashboard and on how long my battery lasts when I unplug the power cord. The health hovers at about 25% and battery life has been under an hour for the past week. It's in a sorry state right now. I want to run the recalibration process (and I might be able to give that a go this weekend) but I think I'm going to need a replacement battery. That will require either a cal to support or a trip to one of New York's Apple stores to speak to a Genius. I think I'll try the Genius route if I can get an appointment before I leave for the holidays. I don't like the idea of fighting the crowds in the store to get tech support at the height of the shopping season, but if I can get a new battery in the store, that would be worth the effort.

My calibrated HDTV still looks spectacular, so I think that effort a few weeks ago was time well spent. The incredible thing about owning a HDTV is that I am always impressed by the picture quality, even after 18 months. I will never get tired of watching sports and movies with a picture that amazing.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hair you just can't trust

I knew there was something about Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich's hair. It's crooked hair. Bad hair. The kind of hair that cheats you and then brags to its friends about it. Others have made this point far better than I can.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Gilbert Kaplan, the New York Philharmonic, and Mahler's Symphony No. 2

As a frequent Philharmonic attendee, I've had the chance to see the orchestra work with a few different conductors. Most of the time I've seen Lorin Maazel at the podium. I like Maazel. He's experienced, he knows the music inside and out, and the orchestra is accustomed to his conducting style. There's a certain energy in the room when he conducts. I don't think there's a significant chance of a mistake. But when there's a different conductor at the podium, I think it's more exciting. The orchestra is not as familiar with the new conductor's style or gestures, so they pay closer attention. And when they're playing music that isn't as familiar to them, with a new conductor, it just adds to the degree of difficulty. The orchestra doesn't play Mahler's 2nd Symphony that often, given that it's a long, enormous piece involving a choir, soloists, and an expansive orchestra. And last night was Kaplan's Philharmonic debut, so they'd never worked with him before. On top of that, it was the 100th anniversary of Mahler conducting the New York Symphony (which merged with the New York Philharmonic in 1928 to form the current orchestra) in the US premiere of the symphony. So I was looking forward to an exciting concert.

When we walked into Avery Fisher Hall we saw that they'd extended the stage into the first few rows of audience seats so they could fit the massive orchestra and full choir onstage. There were two sets of timpani and a battery of drums and bells on one side of the stage. The cellos had been moved to the edge of the stage (when Maazel conducts, the violas sit at the edge). A few minutes after 8, Gilbert Kaplan came to the podium. He looked the part of the conductor with his tails and bearing, but I was skeptical. This man was not a professionally trained conductor. He ran a magazine and got coached in how to conduct this particular piece. Granted, he's been doing it for over twenty years, and he's the world expert on the work, but how would he conduct? What kind of style does a conductor have if he's learned only one piece? (Incidentally, he conducted without a score. I remember reading that Kaplan originally conducted without a score because he didn't know how to read one. I assume he knows now, but he didn't need it.) His gestures were precise and deliberate. Each cue was exact without a wasted gesture. His beats were about as textbook as I've ever seen from a conductor. He only made a few gestures for one group or another to play loud or soft. Nearly every time he indicated a tempo change or dynamic, the orchestra gave him exactly what he wanted. At one point in the third movement, with nearly 45 minutes left in the entire work, he accidentally broke his baton on the bar mounted on the back of the podium and most of it went flying off the stage. I don't remember, but I might have gasped. I had no idea what he would do. He didn't have a music stand in front of him with a spare baton ready. Unless he had one in his pocket he was stuck. But he wasn't stuck; he just kept conducting like nothing had happened. He conducted the rest of the symphony, including the offstage bands (via video), the soloists and the choir with what was left of the baton, a nub about an inch or two long. He might have made his gestures a little more precise but otherwise he acted as if he had a full size baton in his hand.

Of course, the Philharmonic didn't disappoint me. They were focused on Kaplan's every movement and aware of the magnitude of the music. The strings sang with emotion, the E-flat clarinet squawked away, and the horns and trombones lifted their bells and threatened to shake the chandeliers. Then there was the percussion. Kate said afterward that the way the percussionists moved around from drums to bells and back was the same way that puppeteers help each other out when two or three people are performing with one puppet. One percussionist had to move to play a set of upright bells (that Kaplan had provided for the concert), then back to a drum, then he assisted one of the timpanists during a particularly loud moment. He moved in and out without disrupting the other players' performances. Watching all of the percussionists playing at once in a massive drum crescendo was thrilling. During the parts of the last movement with offstage brass and drums, the music sounded otherworldly. The choir entered and the music built to a majestic, ethereal climax that moved me almost to tears. When the orchestra reached the last few bars of the piece and the choir sang "Auferstehn!" at full volume, with an organ(!) backing the mighty forces assembled on stage, I was grinning and shuddering and barely holding myself together. It was unforgettable.

UPDATE: Here are two stories from the New York Times about Gilbert Kaplan and his career as an interpreter of Mahler's Symphony No. 2, one from last week and one from a few years ago when he re-recorded the work with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Regarding the latter link, I hope it wasn't Mahler's baton that Kaplan broke last night. If I were in Kaplan's shoes and owned Mahler's baton, of course I would have used it in last night's performance.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

A musical couple of weeks

In addition to my usual Thursday NYRO rehearsal, I've had rehearsals (and a concert this evening) with a chamber-sized ensemble at a friend's church. We're playing Saint-Saens' Christmas Oratorio, which sounds like the text of The Messiah but with different music. As a result I've been out late the past three nights. That's cut into my blogging time.

I'm practically giddy with excitement about Monday's New York Philharmonic concert with Gilbert Kaplan leading the orchestra in Mahler's Symphony No. 2. The "Resurrection" Symphony is one of my favorite works, and Kaplan is possibly the world's foremost expert on this piece. His recording of the symphony became a bestseller. I downloaded it from Amazon yesterday morning and listened to it at work. Except for one tiny blip at the end (which happened because of the way they broke up the movements into different tracks) the performance is incredible. If that recording is indicative of the performance I'm going to hear on Monday, I can't wait.

And then there's our big NYRO gala concert next Saturday. I haven't been playing as well as I'd like for the past several months, but this week's rehearsal was my best in a long time. I relaxed, paid close attention to the rhythms, and reminded myself that I know the music. I went into the rehearsal confident that I could be a valuable part of the orchestra, and it worked. I still missed a few notes (most notably in the last movement of the Mahler where the violas have an exposed fortissimo entrance) but I know what I have to work on for next weekend. I'm as excited about playing Mahler as I am about hearing it on Monday night. So it will be another busy week, but with what should be a fantastic payoff.