Thursday, September 24, 2009

I could have coached a better game than the guy from "Coach"

I checked my Facebook page when I got home from work last night and saw that one of my friends was watching All The Right Moves, a movie about small-town high school football filmed in my hometown of Johnstown, PA. I replied that I am in the bleachers for the big football game and that I should get out my copy of the movie, find myself, and post the screencap. That's how I wound up watching the football game scene a couple of times.

In the movie, Ampipe High School is the blue-collar, smaller team facing off against Walnut Heights High School, the bigger and stronger white-collar team. Ampipe plays tough but trails most of the game. They take a 14-10 lead late in the fourth quarter and only need to keep Walnut Heights out of the end zone with less than four minutes to play. It starts to rain and, in true movie fashion, the field turns into a muddy pit in about 30 seconds. Walnut Heights throws the ball (in the rain!), moves the chains and they get to the Ampipe 10-yard line. Walnut Heights throws for the end zone and Stefan, Tom Cruise's character, gets called for pass interference on the play. Stefan protests, but it's the most blatant pass interference call in movie history. Walnut Heights gets the ball on the 1-yard line, but somehow Ampipe's defense holds. Ampipe gets the ball back on their own 1-yard line with a few seconds left. The coach (played by Craig T. Nelson) calls for a running play but the quarterback and halfback fumble the exchange. Walnut Heights recovers the ball in the end zone for the touchdown and the 17-14 win. Later, in the locker room, Coach berates Stefan for the pass interference call, without which he claims Walnut Heights wouldn't have been in position to score. Stefan gets kicked off the team and later in the movie Lea Thompson takes her shirt off.

I'm no football expert, but I could have won that game for Ampipe. All the coach had to do was order the quarterback to run out of his own end zone for a safety. That makes the score 14-12, but Ampipe gets to free-kick the ball back to Walnut Heights. Ampipe's defense had just kept a superior team from scoring from the 1-yard line. With only a few seconds left in the game, even if Walnut Heights got the ball back at midfield they have a small chance of scoring or even getting to field goal range. Unless they throw it at Stefan, who's just going to wrap up his man for another interference call. But why try a risky running play from your own end zone with the field a wet, muddy mess? In that situation, even a swing pass from the 1 is a better call than a run. A catch or an incomplete pass run time off the clock, which is your main opponent at that point. If the QB or receiver gets tackled in the end zone, it's still a safety and it's still 14-12, Ampipe wins.

I did find a shot from the movie which may or may not have me in it. About 36 minutes in, there's a shot of the crowd in the stands with a small boy in the lower-left corner of the screen cheering his head off. He's wearing a green and brown jacket with a red and white snow cap. It might be me, but I'll have to ask my mother. I remember going to the stadium for one of the nights of filming the big game scenes. I was about nine years old and it was a cold night in October. They started with a few hundred people in the stands but as the shooting went on the crowd shrank to about a hundred or so huddled in one section. At some point my mother noticed the cameras filming people standing at the railing at field level, so she sent me down there to push my way into the shot. I stood there for a while and watched the cameras moving back and forth. They told us to look at the field, not the cameras. I don't remember being told when to cheer, so I'm not sure the kid in the shot is me. If it is, do I get my own page on IMDB?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Gilbert and the NY Philharmonic play Mahler, make blogger euphoric

It's difficult for me to be write objectively about music I love, such as Mahler's symphonies. So if the following review is more than a little gushing, please keep that in mind.

I expected to be impressed with Alan Gilbert's interpretation of Mahler's Symphony No. 3 and I was not disappointed. From the beginning of the symphony to the closing chords, Gilbert was in complete control. He held together the immense forces before him yet stayed out of the way and didn't let his direction overshadow the music. I noticed elements of the score that I hadn't heard before, and I like to think I know this music well after years of listening to it and even playing it once. The quietest drumbeats were as clear as the loudest declarations from the brass section. Gilbert did an excellent job keeping the musicians together despite the distance between them, especially when a solo violin played a duet with the principal horn. During the third movement's offstage post-horn solo, the audience was quieter than I've ever heard in that hall. It was as if time had stopped while the unseen soloist played. When the rest of the orchestra joined him a few measures later, you could feel the audience relax. And when the last movement started, I felt the same chills I had three years ago when I played this symphony with NYRO. At the climax of the movement, when the entire orchestra plays the theme, the strings did something I rarely see from a world-class orchestra: they bowed freely. I remember running out of bow on each note of that section. The Philharmonic's strings avoided that problem by bowing each note freely. It looked odd but sounded brilliant. I don't think I've ever heard a D major chord as gorgeous as the one at the end of last night's performance. The hall got a little dusty as the music came to a close.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Alan Gilbert is already making changes

I missed this article in yesterday's New York Times about New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert's changes to the orchestra so far. On opening night, I noted the new seating arrangement for the orchestra, which puts the violin sections on either side of the conductor and the lower strings in the middle. Several musicians spoke to the Times about the changes and most of them seem happy with the new arrangement. One of the violists, Irene Breslaw, liked the change, saying that she can now hear what's happening in the wind section. However, the Philharmonic's tubist, Alan Baer, may have gotten the short end of the stick. He hasn't moved, but the basses have, to the opposite side of the stage. Since the low instruments usually play together, Baer has to listen for the basses from the other side and match them.

Speaking of the Philharmonic, this evening is my first subscription concert of the new season. The orchestra is wrapping up three performances of Mahler's 3rd Symphony and as my regular readers know, if they're playing Mahler, I'm there. I thoroughly enjoyed Gilbert's interpretation of Mahler's 1st Symphony last spring, and I can't wait to hear what he does with this immense work tonight. I'm also going to a performance this weekend, after I received an e-mail offering bargain prices for Brahms and Schoenberg. And I'm going to another concert next Wednesday when my mother and her boyfriend will be here. I may have an addiction.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Did the Steelers lose, or did I affect the outcome?

I have an unhealthy number of superstitions when it comes to watching the Steelers play. I wore the same clothes for every game in the Steelers playoff run last season, and they won the Super Bowl. I hadn't bought a Steelers jersey since 1996 until I bought the Harrison jersey last week. I wore my new #92 for the game yesterday and even put a photo of myself in full regalia on my Twitter feed. Was that hubris? When the Bears started moving the ball on the Steelers, I moved myself to the kitchen. I watched a few of the Penguins' playoff games from my kitchen and they seemed to play well when I did that. The kitchen didn't work for me yesterday. Or maybe it was working, but then I moved back to the couch because the food I made was ready to eat? And that's where I was when Jeff Reed miss his second field goal of the night. What if I'd stayed in the kitchen for the second kick? Would he have made it?

And what about the new jersey? Does this loss taint it? Does it have bad "mojo" now? Or was it the kitchen? Maybe I should have worn my old black jeans to watch the game instead of blue jeans. Sure, they're out of style, a size too big, and worn out, but I wore them throughout the 2008 playoffs.

These are the questions I ask myself the day after a Steelers loss.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

New York Philharmonic Opening Night Live Blog

It's opening night for the 2009-10 season of the New York Philharmonic. It's also Alan Gilbert's debut as music director of the orchestra, taking over for Lorin Maazel. Tonight's program begins with Magnus Lindberg's EXPO, a world premiere of a composition for the Philharmonic. Renee Fleming will appear as soloist for Olivier Messiaen's Poemes pour Mi, and the concert concludes with Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.

I'm watching this concert on PBS, from the comfort of my couch. I could have gone to Lincoln Center to watch the concert on a big screen with my fellow music lovers, but I decided to stay home for a few reasons. So, here I am. Updates will appear at the bottom, since I don't have sophisticated live-blogging software at my disposal.

7:59: The TV is on PBS and channel Thirteen wants me to know how valuable I am as an audience member. Thankfully, it's not pledge week.

8:02: Jack Donaghy is the new host of the Philharmonic's broadcasts. I saw Alec Baldwin at a concert last June but I wasn't allowed to talk to him. Next time, I'm asking him about Button Classic.

8:04: Alan Gilbert is wearing a white tie & tails. When I've seen him conduct before, he's gone with a black smock-like thing. And they're opening with the national anthem. All the musicians stand up, except for the cellists.

8:06: I don't know anything about Magnus Lindberg, so I'll have to refer to his Wikipedia page. He's the Philharmonic's composer-in-residence for the next few years so I expect I'll get to know his music soon enough.

8:10: Looks like Gilbert went with the 19th century seating arrangement for the orchestra. The 1st and 2nd violins are on either side of the conductor, at the edge of the stage, the violas and cellos are in the middle, and the basses are on the conductor's left, behind the cellos and 1sts.

8:14: I like this new work. It's modern, but melodic and tonal. Interesting harmonies, too.

8:19: Renee Fleming appears in a picture-in-picture window to talk about the Messiaen piece. The composer wrote this work, a song cycle, as a tribute to his wife and their young marriage. We played one of Messiaen's compositions last season in NYRO. I didn't really care for it, but it wasn't the worst thing I've ever played. Faint praise, I know.

8:22: Uh oh. Of course, the text is in French and it's subtitled. I have to pay attention to what's going on now.

8:24: The "Thirteen" logo in the bottom right of my screen obscures some of the words in the subtitles. That's OK, I don't care that much what Fleming is singing.

8:29: My mother told me about a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert she and my father attended many years ago where the orchestra was playing one of Messiaen's works. Apparently the audience reception was so bad that the conductor had to ask patrons not to leave and to give the piece a chance.

Wait, what is this song about? That last line was something like "chunks of flesh will pursue you and haunt your dreams." I thought this was a song cycle about a happy marriage?

8:32: I found the program notes on the Philharmonic's web site. Here's the text I just saw flashed on my screen (and in my nightmares later):

"Bloody scraps would follow you into the
shadows Like vomitous retching, And the noisy rapping of rings on the
unmendable door Would sound the rhythm of your despair."

OK, then. Messiaen wrote the words as well as the music, by the way.

8:39: That was cool. The piccolo had an out-of-time solo, during which Gilbert stopped conducting with his right hand (the one with the baton) and cued the soloist with his left hand, almost like he was teasing the melody from the instrument. It's hard to describe, obviously.

This next song is not what I would have expected. Messiaen writes about two people in battle. But I think it's really about sex. It's the line about "sacramental warriors" and the other one about how two people become one. Messiaen was deeply religious, and many of his works were influenced by Catholicism. But he also viewed sexual love as a divine gift (according to Wikipedia, my sole source of Messiaen facts tonight).

8:48: "Oh, some flowers for Renee Fleming!" The TV voice-over announcer sounded surprised. The soloist always gets flowers.

8:51: That's intermission. Fleming and Baldwin are talking about the Messiaen work. Fleming says the work needs some preparation for the listener so you can know the story behind Messiaen and his wife. That would have helped with the warrior song, I'm sure.

8:56: Gilbert and Baldwin are discussing Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. Gilbert says the piece is as fresh today as it was in 1830 when it was premiered. The interview ends with that little awkward thing where the two men stand there waiting for the director to tell them they're clear.

9:00: For anyone reading this who doesn't know the story told by Berlioz's work, here's a quick summary I wrote for a friend a few years ago:

Hector Berlioz was a French composer in the mid-19th century. This work is an excellent example of "programmatic music," music that tells a story without words. At 23, Berlioz was hopelessly in love with an actress, Harriet Smithson. She became the inspiration for this symphony. The story behind the music is that an artist, also desperately in love, and with an active imagination, has taken an overdose of opium. He falls into a fevered series of dreams, the contents of which are described by the different movements of the symphony. Each movement contains a theme, called the idee fixe, which represents the girl he (the artist) loves. (It's the same theme in each movement, so once you hear it, you will recognize it each time it returns.) The second movement is a ball, during which the artist sees the girl at the dance. The third movement has them in the countryside, calling out to each other. In the last two movements, the artist first dreams that he is being hanged for murdering his beloved, and then that he is the guest of honor at a witches' sabbath, where the idee fixe appears in a grotesque transformation into a dance tune.

As far as Berlioz was concerned, he wrote letters to Smithson but she ignored him for years and eventually left Paris. Several years later, she heard this symphony and realized she was the reason behind it. She met Berlioz and they were married in 1833. Unfortunately, they divorced nine years later -- they weren't such a good match.

9:04: Cartoonist Richard Thompson wrote a blog post earlier this week about Berlioz as a subject for drawing and caricature. I like what he came up with (scroll down the page).

9:09: This is what I love about Alan Gilbert at the podium. I know the members of the Philharmonic have played this piece dozens, if not hundreds, of times. It's difficult to get excited about a work that's so familiar. But he brings a fresh spirit to the music. Maybe it's because he's new and new to them so they have to pay closer attention to his gestures and interpretation. But I'd prefer to think that he's imparting a younger, more vibrant energy to the orchestra.

9:15: I'm "air-conducting." I'm surprised it took me this long. I'd go get my score of the symphony from the bedroom, but then I'd have to stop the live-blog.

9:26: I almost bought tickets for tonight's concert. As a subscriber, the Philharmonic sent me numerous e-mails about opening night. The ticket prices weren't as outrageous as I expected. But I'm going next Tuesday for Mahler's 3rd Symphony, and I've spent plenty of money on the Philharmonic already this year. Plus, I think I would have had to go in my tuxedo and get my picture taken for all the high society magazines.

9:32: I could not disagree more, Mort. The only thing I'll grant you is that the audio for this concert has little depth, so it's hard to get a sense of what this concert sounds like in the hall. But I don't hear Rachmaninoff at all. As for the clarinet solo, I was about to point out that this is the first opening night in decades where Stanley Drucker hasn't been playing clarinet.

9:40: Sorry, I got caught up in the March to the Scaffold.

9:45: More air-conducting here. I used to "conduct" this piece in my room in front of my stereo, imagining I was in front of a real orchestra.

9:52: Bravo! I love a slam-bang ending.

Well, that was fun. Maybe next time I'll live-blog a Met Opera broadcast. Thanks for watching and listening along with me tonight.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Appearing tomorrow night in this space...

I have fantasies of writing about classical music, and I can't think of a better time to start down that path than Wednesday evening. The New York Philharmonic will broadcast its opening night concert on PBS starting at 8 PM. It's Alan Gilbert's debut as the orchestra's new music director, and they will performing the world premiere of a new composition, a seldom-heard piece by Olivier Messiaen with soloist Renee Fleming, and Hector Berlioz's wonderful Symphonie Fantastique. And I'm going to live-blog the performance from my living room. I have no idea if an orchestral concert (or the TV broadcast of the same) can be live-blogged, but I'm going to find out tomorrow.

Monday, September 14, 2009

I'm ready for some football

I know you're all dying to see how I look in my new #92 James Harrison jersey, so here you go.

From the front:

And from the back:

Contrary to my appearance in these photos, I do not have anything wrong with my shoulders.

Not my best day on the bike, but a good day anyway

I woke up at 4:30 AM on Sunday for the annual TA New York City Century bike ride. Let me rephrase that. The words "woke up" imply that one was asleep at some point prior to the alarm. I didn't sleep at all on Saturday night. I'm not sure what caused the insomnia but the possibilities include:
  1. an overactive mind thinking about the next day's ride and waking up at an ungodly hour
  2. being overstimulated from watching football and talking to my brother before bed
  3. spending Saturday afternoon drinking beer (slowly! and with plenty of water!) and eating barbecue.
Whatever the reason, I spent nearly all of Saturday night tossing and turning, waiting for sleep that would not happen. Whenever I began to doze off, some remote corner of my mind would point out "Hey, I'm falling asleep! Excellent!" and then I would snap out of it. When the alarm went off at 4:30 AM, I was already wide awake and wondering just how much time I had until I needed to be up.

I took the subway to the start in Central Park and picked up my marshal kit and vest. The vest was a heavy-duty one made of some raincoat-like fabric that didn't breathe well. During the cool morning hours I didn't mind the retained body heat, but as the day wore on and the sun came out, the vest became a mobile sauna. I took it off late in the ride and felt immeasurably better. Next year, I'll bring my own orange vest, thank you.

With the lack of sleep and my general feeling of crappiness from the previous day, I ruled out a trip to the Bronx early on in my day. I kept telling myself that if I could make it to Astoria Park I would be only a few miles from the end of the ride and an hour from home. My mood and physical condition improved the more I rode, and I considered riding the Bronx part of the route after all. I didn't want to skip the Bronx, since that would mean I'd miss out on the official 100-mile route. It would be a personal disappointment, as well as a volunteer one. I was a 100-mile marshal, and I wanted to fulfill my obligation.

Around mile 60 the route took us to the Kissena Park Velodrome, a bike race track that has become a landmark on the ride. I always get a little excited to ride a lap around the velodrome, and I kicked my bike into high gear when I got onto the loop. I must have kicked it a bit too hard, because I felt a slight twinge in my right knee. I rode the quarter-mile to the next rest stop, aware that something was wrong with that knee. It ached every time I pedaled. I managed to get through the next 20 miles to the Astoria Park rest stop, but my knee was giving me some serious trouble. I had reached my early-morning goal, and now I knew that riding through the Bronx was a foolish idea. I sat for about a half hour in Astoria Park, enjoying the weather and trying not to fall asleep. When I started out again, the knee was slightly better, but not enough that I could finish the whole route. The pain was especially intense climbing the stairs on the Triborough Bridge. I coasted as much as I could the rest of the way and returned to Central Park with 89 miles on my bike odometer.

After another break and some stretching, I decided to try to ride home. It was a beautiful day, the pain wasn't that bad once I got started riding, and I really wanted those last 10 or so miles on my odometer. So I rode home. I rode slower than usual, and every time I pushed off with my right leg I winced. But the knee pain didn't get any worse or any sharper so I assumed I wasn't doing any permanent damage. I got home about 6 PM, with 101.3 miles on the odometer. While I was disappointed I didn't ride the full Century, I was happy to be home and able to walk without too much pain.

I spent the rest of my evening on the couch watching TV, icing my knee and taking ibuprofen. My knee feels better today. But I feel old. I may be 35, but I've always thought of myself as much younger. I guess I've reached the physical age where things are going to start breaking down. I see more ibuprofen in my future.

As for the ride itself, I think I need to try a different volunteer job next year. 2009 was my tenth time on the ride either as a participant or a volunteer marshal. I used to think of the Century as my favorite day of the year on my bike. But the past few years my attitude has changed. I still enjoy the ride, but the thrill has faded. The route doesn't change much from year to year and while I love seeing the outer boroughs on my bike and helping people, I don't like the early wake-up call or the shlep to Central Park on the subway. However, the Brooklyn Bridge is about 20 minutes from my apartment by bike. Riding across the bridge at dawn is one of my favorite things about the Century. Why not make that the focus of my volunteer experience? If I volunteered for the bridge crew I could sleep a few precious minutes longer and I'd spend my morning working at my favorite location on the route. And I could still ride part of the route after all the riders cross the bridge, or I could go home and go back to bed. Either way, it's a change of pace and I'll still get to be a part of a great ride.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Really early thoughts on iTunes 9

I seem to have become an early adopter. I had to grab iTunes 9 as soon as it "dropped" this afternoon. It took me about 25 minutes to download the 82 Mb installation file and roughly two minutes to install it. I launched iTunes and after the usual licensing page it went into "updating iTunes Library" mode. I had left my Time Machine backup disk connected to the laptop, and while iTunes claimed to be updating my library, my Time Machine disk was running. I didn't pay much attention at first, as Time Machine regularly backs up the disks during the day. But after 10 or 15 minutes and no change in the status, I took a chance and forced iTunes to quit. Then I disconnected the backup drive and re-launched iTunes. This time iTunes came right up. It must have detected a copy of my iTunes library on my backup disk and started to organize it. That's bad, iTunes. Leave my backups alone!

There's a slightly different look and feel to the interface. The icons along the left side have subtle changes. The smart playlists now have a gear icon instead of a note, so it's clear from the icon and the color that those playlists are different. The list view shows artists on the left and songs on the right, and the grid view has a white background instead of the older dark gray background. You can change the columns in the list view, and you can switch back to the older view with the columns on top. I'll have to play with it for a while to see which way I like it. The Podcasts page mimics the iPhone podcasts view by using a half-filled circle to indicate which podcasts you've listened to only in part.

More importantly for me, there's also an iPhone update to version 3.1. There are some video tricks and MMS enhancements in there, but the feature I like most is the ability to drag and drop your iPhone apps from iTunes. When the iPhone is connected to the computer, the Apps page shows you all of your iPhone apps by the "page" on the iPhone. You can move apps from one page to another and remove apps from the phone with the mouse. Now I can roughly organize my apps by type: one page for music-related apps, one for productivity, one for restaurants and movies, and so on.

Apple also introduced iPod Nanos with video cameras, updated the iPod Touch line with new hardware with more memory and faster video chips, and bumped the iPod Classic to 160 GB. I should say that they bumped it back to 160 GB, because I own a 160 GB Classic I bought two years ago. But this new Classic uses a one-platter hard drive, so it's thinner. But it's good to know that Apple still has an iPod for geeks like me who want to carry around all their music. And if my old Classic dies, I can replace it without spending too much or sacrificing space.

Friday, September 04, 2009

It's football season... where's my jersey?

The NFL season starts next week, and I realized a few days ago that I haven't fulfilled one of my offseason goals: buying a new Steelers jersey. My last jersey purchase was in 1996, when I bought a reversible home/away Greg Lloyd jersey. Lloyd retired a few years later. The Steelers had a couple down years in the early part of this decade, and I didn't want to risk buying a jersey with a name of a guy on the team who wouldn't be with the team the following season. But it's 2009 and the Steelers have won two championships in the past four years. I've worn a "Here We Go Steelers" long sleeved t-shirt for the past few playoff runs and while I'm usually a "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" guy, in this case I think it's OK for me to trade up. I can always go back to the t-shirt for the playoffs.

The question is which player's jersey do I want? I grew up a Terry Bradshaw fan. While I can get a custom-made Bradshaw jersey, that would strain credulity. I'd like to be able to walk into a Steelers bar in the city and NOT have fans laugh at me. I'd like to stay away from the other offensive star players. I love Ben Roethlisberger, but #7 jerseys are plentiful and I don't want to be perceived as a bandwagon guy. The same goes for Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, and Willie Parker. On the defensive side, I'm tempted by Troy Polamalu's #43, but when I think of defense I think linebackers. So that leads me to James "Silverback" Harrison's #92. Harrison had the second most memorable play of last year's Super Bowl when he ran back a goal-line fumble 100 yards for a touchdown. Sure, he lost his mind in the second half and earned a costly penalty, but the Steelers won the game and the championship so all is forgiven. Plus, Harrison just signed a contract extension, so he's going to be with the team for a few more years. There's low risk and high reward in celebrating my team's recent championships with a #92 jersey.

Here's the real question: can I get away with paying $80 for a replica jersey? Or am I not considered a true fan unless I pay $275 for the authentic game-day jersey? I'm leaning toward the former. I bleed black and gold, but I'm not made of money.