Friday, June 26, 2009

The end of an era at the NY Philharmonic

I have tickets to tonight's New York Philharmonic performance of Mahler's 8th Symphony. 18 months ago the orchestra announced its schedule for 2008-09, Lorin Maazel's final season as music director. When I saw that Mahler's 8th was the last work he would conduct in that role, I couldn't get my subscription tickets ordered quickly enough. Of course, I want to be there for the spectacle that is Mahler's largest symphony (by the number of musicians involved -- this work is informally known as the "symphony of a thousand"). I also want to be there for Maazel's last weekend in his role as music director.

When the Philharmonic chose Maazel as their music director in 2002, I was surprised and a little disappointed. With all due respect to Maazel, they picked him to replace Kurt Masur, so it was a change of one older conductor for another. I had hoped that the orchestra would choose a younger music director, and I saw Maazel's appointment as one of "caretaker" of the orchestra. And as at least one classical music writer noted, Maazel has been just that in his seven-year tenure. I don't agree with the notion that an American orchestra has to "stand" for something. In Maazel's case, I think the Philharmonic hired him in part because they didn't want to have an agenda. The agenda, if there was one, was 'steady as she goes.' I've always enjoyed Maazel's work at the podium. I am continually impressed at his ability to conduct large works without a score, and for a man of his age he is energetic and enthusiastic. The musicians adore him and their feelings show in the music they produce for him. All of his concerts have been excellent musically, and some of them have been utterly thrilling. I'm really excited he's leading the orchestra tonight, and I'll miss him when he's gone.

But the most captivating Philharmonic performances I've seen this past year have been with younger conductors leading the orchestra. Gustavo Dudamel's Mahler 5 in January was incredible. And Alan Gilbert's two concerts with the orchestra in May showed that the Philharmonic will be in great hands when he takes over as music director this fall. In choosing Gilbert to lead the Philharmonic, I think the orchestra implied that they want to go in a different direction. I can't wait to see where he leads them.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

More Philharmonic history than you'll need

As I was leafing through the program at last Thursday's NY Philharmonic concert, I noticed an ad for the Philharmonic's new online performance history database, set to launch on June 22. I checked the orchestra's web site yesterday and found that the database had gone live as scheduled. You can search for any composer, performer, or concert from the orchestra's founding in 1842 up to the present day. I played around with the database for a few minutes, looking up various Philharmonic performances that I've attended in New York. Then I remembered a Philharmonic concert I attended at the Kennedy Center in Washington when I was a freshman at Georgetown. I searched for performances in Washington, DC during the 1992-93 season and found the one I attended. It was the Philharmonic's 11,990th performance and they played Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, along with Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks and Barber's Adagio for Strings. The site even notes the time of the performance: 5 PM. I wonder where I went for dinner after the concert.

It's fun to look up artists to see how many times they've performed with the orchestra, or which works a particular conductor led, or how many times the Philharmonic has performed some of your favorite symphonies (they've played Mahler's Symphony No. 2 34 times in their history, and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony 107 times). I'm still looking for a more academic usage of the database. The search results don't link to program notes or artist bios, so they are without a historical context. The "about this search" page reads like this historical information is there, so maybe I've just missed it. But for a first effort at a task like this, the Philharmonic has done a phenomenal job.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Up front at the NY Philharmonic

We attended Thursday's performance of the NY Philharmonic with free tickets. Well, they weren't really free. I had two pairs of ticket vouchers for this season. One was for having bought my subscription extra early last year, and I used that voucher for last month's performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 with Alan Gilbert conducting. The other was for answering a long online survey about the Philharmonic's Summer Classics concert series. I don't remember which voucher I used for tonight's concert, but the point is that the tickets weren't my usual seats in the first tier. These seats were in row H of the orchestra section, to the right of the conductor's podium. So we were about 20 feet from Lorin Maazel when he took the stage to conduct two of his own works and Sibelius's Symphony No. 2.

I haven't sat up front for an orchestra concert before. I don't like being that close to the orchestra; it's impossible to see any of the musicians beyond the first two rows of strings. I like to watch the brass and percussion, but from our seats those instruments were just sounds coming from somewhere in the rear of the stage. However, the benefit of sitting that close was that we had a fantastic view of Maazel as he conducted, and we could see his rapport with Glenn Dicterow and the other principal strings. I especially enjoyed watching Maazel's gestures and facial expressions. He's not an animated conductor, so when his face became particularly emotional, it was clear what he was feeling and what he expected from his musicians. And watching Dicterow, for example, you could see the respect that the orchestra has for him. Maazel's two compositions were interesting, though I don't think I'll run out and buy recordings of them. There were some melodic moments in the second piece, but mostly it was loud bangs from the percussion and bleats and honks from the brass, with glissando string accompaniment. I've become more tolerant of atonal music as I've grown older, but it's still not really my thing.

The Sibelius symphony was as tonal as the first two works were atonal. I've always loved Sibelius's Second Symphony, and this performance was as exciting and energetic as I could have hoped. I know the work well but I'm not familiar with the details of the score. Maazel conducted without one, and as always I have no idea how he managed to get through a work full of tempo changes and dynamic adjustments without referring to the music. Even at his age, his command of the music is undiminished. The viola section was directly in front of us, so I could watch the musicians' fingers and note how they played certain passages. I was surprised to see that some musicians fingered a part one way while others used a different fingering. For some reason, I'd assumed that not only did Philharmonic musicians coordinate their bowings down to the inch, they used identical fingerings as well.

My favorite part of the night's performance was the last movement of the symphony. I know how the work ends, with broad brass chords and strings sawing away, but the buildup to the grandiose finale always fools me. The lead-up to the coda is a repeated minor key passage with the winds playing the melody and the strings playing a quiet accompaniment. The passage repeats, with the volume gradually increasing, but each time the orchestra reaches the end of the phrase, it returns to the minor key. I knew that the turn back to the major key was coming, but the repeated returns to the minor melody built the tension in a way I'd never felt just by listening to a recording. When the orchestra finally reached the major key turning point, Maazel gave a huge cue to the brass and there was a sense of glorious release. It was practically sexual, which I really didn't expect from Sibelius. But it really was that intense a feeling. I had chills throughout the last movement. I was out of my seat almost as soon as the music ended, and I had a brief sense that people sitting on that level aren't supposed to be that enthusiastic that quickly. But I didn't care.

Next weekend is Maazel's final concert series as music director of the Philharmonic, and they're performing another one of my favorite works: Mahler's Eighth Symphony. I'm going to next Friday's concert, and I'm already excited. You can expect more words on this subject in this space next week.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

And I thought I had some bizarre game rituals

Nothing I've ever done for the Penguins or the Steelers -- wearing particular clothes, watching a game from a particular place, or standing in my kitchen through most of game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals -- comes close to what these people put themselves through for their team. God bless each and every one of them. Especially that "Youngblood" guy. He's really taking one for the team.

Train-wreck television

I missed the premiere of "Joe Buck Live" last night, but the best parts are online today. For some reason, Buck (or his producers) booked Artie Lange for the first show as part of a comedians' roundtable discussion. Lange proceeded to do what he does best and rip Buck a new one. Watch the first part of the show (second clip, while it's still available), then see the online "extra" portion that HBO took down from their site. Poor Paul Rudd and Jason Sudeikis look like they want to be anywhere but on that stage. And Joe Buck's new HBO show might be over before it starts.

UPDATE: The more I think about this and read the popular reactions, I agree that HBO and Buck got exactly what they wanted by putting Artie Lange on the show. Many sports bloggers and media columnists are talking about Buck Vs. Lange today. If nothing else, this kerfuffle should boost the ratings for the next "Joe Buck Live."

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Presented with little commentary

Here is my favorite quote from this story about the delirious revelry that overtook Pittsburgh last night:

"Its awesome!" shouted Dan Jacobs, 23, of Baldwin, who was back on the South Side after four years of college in Boise, Idaho. He joined up with friends at a party on 17th Street. He paused to show off his Jordan Staal jersey -- "because he's so hot" -- before rushing off with girlfriend Renee Amendola to find a rest room.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are your 2009 Stanley Cup Champions

I've been waiting a long time to see the Pittsburgh Penguins win a 3rd Stanley Cup. I was barely a hockey fan when they won their first two championships in 1991 and 1992. I knew little of the rules of the game and I watched only a few of the games in those playoff runs. I remember watching the clinching game 6 of the 1991 Stanley Cup Final, but I wasn't really aware of what it meant to be a hockey fan.

Two years later at Georgetown, I was surrounded by sports fans of all kinds. I bet all of my friends on my dorm floor that the Penguins would repeat (or "threepeat") in 1993. And when the Penguins won 16 or 17 straight games at the end of the regular season, it seemed like a safe bet. Sadly, the Penguins lost in the conference semifinals, and I learned not to bet on my teams again.

Since then, I've watched the Penguins falter in the conference finals in 1996 and again in 2001, and then last year in the Stanley Cup Final. When the Penguins were in 10th place in February, I didn't expect them to even make the playoffs. They switched coaches and went on a tear. When they were down 2-0 to the Capitals, I thought Ovechkin had their number. Then the Pens came back to blow out the Caps in game 7 in Washington. They swept the Carolina Hurricanes, something I never expected, and that put them back in the Stanley Cup Final against the Detroit Red Wings. They were overmatched by last year's Red Wings squad, and I feared the same fate would befall them this year. When they were down 2-0 to the Wings, once again I thought all was lost. I should have had more faith in my team. They won every must-win game, beating the Wings at home in games 3, 4, and 6, and in the process overcoming a terrible 5-0 blowout in game 5. Going into game 7, all I could think was "anything can happen."

The Penguins played out of their minds in game 7. They controlled the puck, clogged the area in front of their net, and blocked shots as much as possible. Marc-Andre Fleury deserves all the credit in the world for bouncing back from a disastrous performance in game 5 to allow only two goals in the last two games. The Penguins played most of game 7 without team captain Sidney Crosby, who left the game early in the 2nd period with an injury and only played two shifts in the 3rd. Throughout game 7, my heart was in my throat. I thought I got worked up for Steelers games, but it turns out that it's easier for me to watch football than hockey. In football, I scream at the TV on every play, but each play is only 10 seconds long. Then I get a break and a chance to breathe. During game 7, I held my breath every time the Wings got the puck into the Penguins' zone. As the game wore on and I saw my team playing their game for the first time all series at Joe Louis Arena, I was able to relax a little. Then the Wings tied the game and I was back to hyperventilating and trying not to scream at the TV.

When it was over I nearly forgot to cheer. I saw my team carry the Stanley Cup around the rink. Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Fleury, Staal, and the rest will have their names on the Cup along with Lemieux, Jagr, Ron Francis, and the rest of my heroes from those great teams in the early 1990s. It was a great night for hockey. Now I need to make room for a Penguins poster on my Steelers championship wall.

Friday, June 12, 2009

"...something called the 'Internet'"

It's hard for me to believe it, but there was once a time when instant messaging, online shopping, and 3D multiplayer video games were but figments of our imagination. Tom Brokaw takes us back to that time in the video clip featured here. I remember most of the programs and computers shown in the video. I feel older than usual right now.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Reboot Star Wars?

io9's Charlie Jane Anders writes that Star Wars should and will get a Hollywood "reboot" sometime in the future. Rather than argue against this idea, Anders suggests a number of ways in which a Star Wars remake could be a good thing. As a massive Star Wars nerd from way back, I think remaking the original would be a colossally bad idea. But I'd probably go see it anyway. I will add one suggestion to Anders' list: get someone else to direct besides George Lucas. He did a great job with the first movie, and wisely let someone else handle the reins on Empire and Jedi. But he couldn't resist directing the prequel trilogy (which I like, by and large) and I think the new movies suffered from his lack of directing chops. Lucas can get the story credit, let someone else write the dialogue, and bring in a skilled director to run the show. I think that movie would have a chance to equal the original, or at least approach it.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Wish me luck

On Sunday afternoon I embarked on a long-awaited journey: I'm reading War and Peace.

I've read most of Dostoyevsky's novels, Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, and in college I read Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and loved it. But when it came to War and Peace, I was skittish. I remember my 9th grade English teacher's warnings about that novel: it was long and every character had six names. The scope of the novel was daunting enough, and then there was the strong possibility that I wouldn't have a clue who anyone was. Also, I remember a series of Peanuts comics in which Charlie Brown had to read the book. If my teacher's admonitions didn't do the trick, seeing that poor kid struggle with Tolstoy kept me away from the book for decades.

A few years ago the New Yorker ran an article about Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the husband-and-wife translating team whose editions of Dostoevsky's novels received great reviews. I read their versions of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov and while both books took me months to read, I relished the experiences. When I learned that they were working on a version of Tolstoy's masterwork, I couldn't wait to read it. I waited a bit longer than I thought. Their translation was published in late 2007 and I picked up my copy last year. After I finished The Road last week, I waited a few days to pick my next book. I couldn't hold out for long.

At the moment I'm only 20 pages in and constantly referring back to the list of characters in the front, but I have a decent idea who everyone is. Tolstoy's descriptions of the people and the settings reminds me of Anna Karenina, so I'm in familiar territory. On the other hand, the text is in English and French (with translations at the bottom of each page), plus historical endnotes. No matter. If I enjoy War and Peace as much as I enjoyed Tolstoy's other masterpiece, I have a delightful few months ahead of me.

Friday, June 05, 2009

60 years with the NY Philharmonic

The New York Philharmonic's principal clarinetist, Stanley Drucker, will retire at the end of the orchestra's current season and the Times has a feature on him in today's edition. Not only has he been in the orchestra for 60 years, he's used the same mouthpiece since 1948. Last month, he filled in at the last minute on the 1st clarinet part for Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1, which is by no means the kind of music the average musician should attempt to play without a rehearsal. Drucker may be 80, but he's hasn't lost a step. (Maybe I should say "a fingering." I have no idea what the equivalent analogy would be for a clarinetist.)

Drucker is one of a handful of musicians in the orchestra that I've known by name since I was a child. When I watched the Philharmonic on "Live From Lincoln Center" with my mother, she would point out her fellow clarinetist when he appeared in closeups. I own many recordings of the Philharmonic, and it's safe to say that Drucker plays on all of them. While it's well known that the city will bid farewell to Lorin Maazel as music director at the end of the season (and his departure will be the more celebrated one), I think Drucker's loss will have a stronger impact. You can't replace a 60-year veteran that easily. I'm sure the orchestra will find an exceptional musician to take Drucker's chair, but I'll miss seeing a familiar face when I go to their concerts.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Beware the guy driving like an old man

I live in Brooklyn and I don't own a car. My girlfriend owns a car, but she keeps it in Connecticut so we don't use it often. When I do drive, it's always an unfamiliar car like a rental. I drive like a little old lady. I'm not sure how big the car is so I can't judge whether I'll fit through the narrow gap between other cars or into tight parking spaces. And while I've lived in New York for nearly 10 years, I travel above ground on foot or by cab. I don't know which lane to take or the best bridge to get to the FDR Drive from Brooklyn. So today's escapades, which required me to drive from Park Slope to the northern limits of Manhattan and back in a rented Dodge hatchback, taxed my limited driving skills. I had other drivers honking at me and presumably swearing at me as well. I learned that the reason you take the Brooklyn Bridge to get on the FDR Drive is that the Manhattan Bridge doesn't have an ramp onto the highway. I took the Manhattan Bridge and had to noodle around the streets of Chinatown for 10 minutes at the height of rush hour. Once I got onto the FDR Drive, I felt more comfortable behind the wheel. The rental car had Sirius satellite radio, so I enjoyed flawless classical music while muscling through lane changes and chastising other drivers from the safety of my private travel environment.

When I was done with the work portion of my day, I still had a few hours' left on my rental agreement, so I decided to take my day-off party to Ikea in Red Hook. Wednesday afternoon is a great time to go to Ikea. It was virtually empty. There were a few families and young couples, and one woman trying out different chair and desk combinations in the workplace showroom. I was there specifically for office furniture. I'd been using an old Ikea dining table as a desk in my bedroom, and I wanted a real desk with a monitor stand to replace it. And since you can't go to Ikea without buying something you hadn't thought of buying until you realized you needed it, I bought a new desk chair. My old chair is 12 years old and filthy and the fabric is stained and worn from constant cat scratchings. The new chair is smaller but more comfortable and it looks far better.

Things didn't go as well with the monitor stand. The base didn't have the holes drilled in it for the feet I picked up. Now I have to deal with Ikea's returns and exchanges department. For the time being I'm using the same stack of music books as a monitor stand as I used before. Until I get a proper desk sorted out, there will be no photos of the new furniture.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

First impressions of Conan on "The Tonight Show"

Based solely on two shows, I like what Conan has done with "Tonight." He's transplanted his old show to LA and kept the same zaniness that he had at 12:35 AM in New York. His interview style is the same, his rapport with his guests (Will Ferrell and Tom Hanks thus far) is well established, and I love that they kept the old band and the old show theme. Having Andy Richter back as his Ed McMahon-esque announcer is a great move, partly because it's good to see Andy getting work. I loved Conan's interview with Tom Hanks. Hanks is a great sport. One of my favorite jokes on "Late Night" was an early interview with Hanks where Conan presented him with a dog skeleton that he claimed belonged to Hanks' one-time co-star, Hooch. Last night, Conan hit Hanks with a meteor, and Hanks played along, even losing a shoe in the assault.

Tom Shales of The Washington Post doesn't agree with my sentiments. He didn't like that on Conan's opening night Ferrell appeared on the show after midnight. However, I don't remember too many nights when Jay had his guest on the show before midnight. Also, Shales pointed out that Conan's opening routine in which he ran from New York to LA was accomplished via "the magic of editing." Thank you, Captain Obvious. Did anyone watching the show really think Conan ran to LA? Finally, Shales said that Conan's monologue was "weak" and that "the sooner O'Brien stops introducing himself and starts telling funny jokes, the better." Conan has never been the stand-up comedian that Jay Leno is. He acknowledges that all the time and makes fun of his lack of joke-telling skills in his monologue. His strengths have always been his sketches and taped segments and his chemistry with his guests. I thought that Shales would know that, but maybe he never stayed up late enough to watch "Late Night."

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

I am only moderately self-righteous

Today's "Pearls Before Swine" pokes fun at cyclists:

For the record, I do think I'm great. But I don't ride around telling people they're out of shape.

And cars should share the road.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Life after the end of the world?

I've been enjoying post-apocalyptic fiction lately. ("Enjoying" isn't the right word for something so bleak, but we'll go with it for now.) There's "Life After People" on The History Channel, showing realistic portrayals of what would happen to our world if people suddenly disappeared. Two weeks ago I saw Terminator Salvation which is a different sort of apocalypse. And this evening I finished Cormac McCarthy's The Road, about a father and son trying to survive after a holocaust of unimaginable proportions. Plus, any time I Am Legend pops up on my cable box I end up watching part of it, and I watched 28 Weeks Later over the weekend. And I still think about Stephen King's The Stand, though I read it over 10 years ago. I'm on a bit of a nightmare hellscape kick lately.

What struck me about The Road was the utter bleakness of the environment. McCarthy doesn't tell the reader how long it's been since the big event that destroyed the world. But judging from how little his protagonists are able to scavenge from the houses and stores they encounter, it's been a few years. Nearly everything consumable has long been picked over. They find empty cupboards and bare shelves in crumbling houses. What little they do find may be contaminated. They drink filthy water from feeble streams and sift rat droppings out of cornmeal. There is no hope that the world they once knew will ever be restored.

The universe of "Life After People" isn't as desolate, but it is just as lonely. Within a matter of days, nature will begin to reclaim our cities. In a few years habitable buildings will become barely recognizable relics. The natural world would go on without us. If humanity were decimated but not eradicated by a global virus (for example), it would be virtually impossible for the survivors to maintain civilization as we know it. Our cities would crumble and fall, and there would be no going back to that kind of life, not for hundreds of years. We would be bereft of all the modern comforts of electricity and heat.

(That's one thing that bothered me about Terminator Salvation. Where did the resistance get all their technology? They had laptop computers and futuristic touchscreen cellphones. If Judgment Day had happened in 2004, then there would have been no more laptops or cellphones after that year. Anything they had would have to be cobbled together out of spare parts, and would look appropriately jury-rigged. That's not quite how things looked in that movie. There were far bigger problems with it than the look of the technology, but the fact that the resistance didn't seem to be limited by their scavenged gear took me out of the movie.)

I think the first year after a cataclysmic disaster would be the worst. Assuming you were one of the survivors, you'd have to figure out how to get along without running water, heat, or light. Everything you knew about life in the 21st century would be gone, never to return. Just as an example, I thought about my iPod. Its battery would last for about 15 hours, used conservatively, and then my MP3 player would be a useless hunk of metal and plastic. Eventually you'd find a way to live without these conveniences, but what kind of existence would it be? I don't know if I could survive in that world. I hope I never have to find out. I don't really worry about the end of the world, but if I think about this subject when I'm trying to fall asleep, I tend to be awake longer than I'd like.

Paper or plastic? No thank, I've brought my own bags

I used to silently make fun of people who brought their own bags to the grocery store. Ooh, look who's trying to take care of our planet! How are you going to fit all of your food in those little canvas tote bags? Why can't you take plastic bags like the rest of us, and re-use them for cat litter and bathroom trash? That's what I do, and I feel great about the environment, thank you very much.

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend went shopping and brought home a couple of these canvas grocery bags, ostensibly for her to use when she's here. But I'm a liberal, bleeding-heart, "save the Earth" Democrat, and now that the bags were here (and I didn't have to make the effort of buying them in the first place), I've started to use them.

On Sunday afternoon, I decided to make grilled sausage sandwiches for dinner. The recipe recommended fresh sausages, which meant that I had to go to the Key Food supermarket down the street instead of the Associated grocery store just around the corner. The Key Food has a broader selection of fresh meat than the Associated. I took one of my grocery bags and put it at the bottom of the basket at the store. When I got to the checkout line, I opted for the self-checkout, because I always like doing things with computers instead of people when I have the chance.

First, my grocery bag was underneath all the groceries in the basket. So I started by putting things in one plastic bag just to keep the checkout machine happy. When I reached the bottom of the basket and pulled out my bag, I tried to swap the plastic bag with the canvas one. Somehow, this move upset the checkout computer, which insisted I had a "weight error" and didn't respond until one of the store employees came over to key in her secret code. I managed to finish checking out the rest of my groceries and got out of there without any further assistance, but I'm sure I looked like a fool fumbling with the machine. And on my way home, carrying my canvas tote bag, I wanted to punch myself in the face. I know, I'm doing my part by using fewer plastic bags, and it's actually easier to carry the canvas bags than a handful of plastic ones. But I still felt like I had become more like all of my neighbors, and I don't like the idea that I've assimilated. I can't use the canvas bags every time, because I still need the plastic grocery bags for cat litter. But if I buy a Prius, the transformation to full-fledged Brooklyn resident will be complete.