Sunday, April 25, 2010

All Stravinsky, all the time with the New York Philharmonic

I went to the NY Philharmonic's concert on April 24 with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theater Chorus performing an all-Stravinsky program.

The first piece, the music from the ballet Jeu de Cartes, depicts a card game.  I didn't have a chance to look at the program notes before the concert started so I just listened to the music.  The opening reminded me of Copland's music and the inner sections of the work just sounded frenetic. It wasn't until intermission when I read the program notes and saw that the piece included a number of dance interludes and that the recurring main theme indicated the number of "deals" of cards in the card game.

The second piece was Symphony of Psalms, a choral setting of three psalms with an unusual orchestration of winds, brass, and lower strings (no violins or violas).  The harmonies in this piece were far more atonal than anything of Stravinsky's that I've heard before.  The choral parts reminded me of Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms" though that might have been more of a mood than a musical reference.  The Mariinsky Theater Chorus gave the Latin text an ethereal feeling that echoed the religious fervor of the words. 

The highlight of the program was the complete score to Stravinsky's ballet The Firebird.  I've played one of the Firebird suites and I've heard various arrangements of the music, but I'd never heard the complete ballet until Saturday evening.  The ballet features much more music that enhances and expands the story of the Prince, the princesses, the Firebird, and Kastchei.  In addition, the full score employs a massive orchestra with extra winds, offstage trumpets, Wagner horns, and a battery of percussion.  I enjoyed listening for the music that was familiar to me and the buildups that sometimes led to parts less familiar.  It's always a treat for me to watch the brass section preparing to play, and when the percussionists stood up I knew something exciting was about to happen.  These are the things I miss when I play in an orchestra and focused on my own music.  There was a massive brass crescendo that I thought would lead into the "Infernal Dance" (one of my favorite parts of the ballet), and in fact the trombones and trumpets played part of the theme of the dance, but then the crescendo led into another scene.  But when the orchestra finally exploded into the "Infernal Dance" and the trombones blasted away, I was grinning.  And the final apotheosis gave me chills.  The audience was on its feet within seconds of the end of the concert and gave Gergiev a well-deserved ovation. 

Gergiev conducted without a baton and often seemed to be cuing the orchestra and controlling the type of sound rather than marking time with his hands.  Where some conductors favor broad, sweeping gestures and flowery movements of the baton, Gergiev kept his expressiveness to a minimum.  He gave cues, wiggling his fingers at the musicians, and kept time in only the grandest parts of the score and focused on individuals throughout the rest of the music.  It was a theatrical kind of conducting rather than musical.  With the energy he drew from the musicians, I thought that Alan Gilbert and the Philharmonic's management had made an excellent choice in selecting Gergiev to direct the Stravinsky festival.  I'm sure his interpretation of The Rite of Spring in a few weeks will be outstanding.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Classical music news: Lincoln Center and Philharmonic extend deal, Avery Fisher renovations still on hold

The NY Times reported on Monday that the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center had extended their agreement on Avery Fisher Hall, the orchestra's home.  According to the Times, the extension gives both sides more time to work out renovation plans for the hall.  They had a design in place in 2005 but never started on the work.  This extension pushes back any renovation plans for the hall for another few years while everyone involved haggles over the extent of the work and the cost.  From the article:

Lincoln Center and the Philharmonic have each appointed a subcommittee to address these issues over the next three years. In the meantime, both groups have agreed to proceed with plans for some possible short-term upgrades to Avery Fisher, like repaired elevators and seat upholstery.
“We’re going to make the auditorium as pleasing as we can for artists and for audiences, even as we work through the future of the hall,” Mr. Levy said.

Well, that is welcome news.  Ever since I became a subscriber three years ago I've been waiting for news of Avery Fisher Hall's renovation.  The auditorium is in serious need of an overhaul.  My seats alone are so worn out that I've thought about bringing some of those stadium cushions used for bleacher seats.  I have trouble sitting there for more than two hours for a concert.  I can't imagine how bad it can be for people older and in worse shape than I am.  I love listening to the orchestra in that hall (and I don't have any issues with the acoustics) but I'm ready to see Lincoln Center spend some time and money to update the hall.  Even if it's just minor upgrades, anything would be an improvement over what's in there now.

I wonder where the Philharmonic would play while Avery Fisher is closed.  When I lived in Washington, DC and had season tickets to the National Symphony Orchestra, the Kennedy Center renovated the Concert Hall over the course of about eight months.  The NSO played an abbreviated season in the Concert Hall and played other concerts at other venues in the city, like Constitution Hall.  I don't see the Philharmonic cutting its season short in any way, so they'd have to play elsewhere.  But there aren't many other concert halls in New York that aren't booked years in advance.  The logistics of a move like this, especially a temporary one, must be unimaginably complicated.  I'm having trouble imagining them.

Monday, April 19, 2010

If this is the new iPhone, I'll keep my old one

Gizmodo has a scoop on what appears to be the next iPhone.  Gadget sites have posted blurry screenshots of new toys before.  This isn't a hazy third-hand report of something that may or may not be a real phone.  This is an actual prototype phone someone found in a bar in California.  Gizmodo's writers took the thing apart and confirmed that it has Apple hardware inside and a general Apple hardware feel to the outside.  Apple remotely "killed" the phone before the editors could play with the OS but everything else they were able to do indicated that it's as close as we'll get in April to a new iPhone slated for a June release.  It's as thorough a dissection of a prototype gadget that I've ever seen from a blog.

What makes me happy about this information is that there's not much in their analysis that makes me feel that I'll need to get my hands on a new iPhone this summer.  I'm really happy with the iPhone 3GS I bought last July.  I don't want to be one of those people who has to get the newest phone as soon as it's released every year.  I bought my 3GS with the intention of keeping it for two years.  From what I've seen of the new iPhone, I'll be happy with my old phone and the iPhone OS 4.0 upgrade when it's released later this year.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

How I remember Allen Iverson

This evening I watched ESPN's "30 For 30" documentary on Allen Iverson, "No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson" directed by Steve James of Hoop Dreams fame.  The movie is superbly done, focusing on the racial divide in Iverson's hometown of Hampton, VA and the events surrounding Iverson's involvement in a 1993 brawl in a bowling alley that resulted in his spending four months in prison.  Iverson, of course, went to Georgetown University after his release and went on a successful career in the NBA.  But it's his time at Georgetown that I think about when I hear Iverson's name.

I was a freshman at Georgetown when I heard about the brawl and the subsequent trial.  At the time I didn't even know where Hampton, VA, was.  I assumed it was somewhere south of DC (which it is, on a peninsula in the Chesapeake Bay).  I didn't have an opinion of the trial, Iverson's conviction, or his release and pardon by then-Governor Douglas Wilder.  But shortly after Iverson's release we heard that Georgetown coach John Thompson was trying to get Iverson to come to Georgetown.  Even then, I thought that Iverson was just another one of Thompson's reclamation projects.  I don't think anyone I knew cared about his past or worried about how he'd affect the team. 

I didn't realize what kind of talent we had on our team until his first few games as a freshman in 1994.  He was unlike anyone I'd ever seen play basketball.  The way he threw himself into games was unreal.  He could make shots out of nothing.  I only went to one game in person during his time at Georgetown, an ugly, foul-filled game against Boston College, and I don't remember anything specific about Iverson other than his energy and incredible shots.  When the Hoyas played in the 1996 NCAA Tournament, I had high hopes that Iverson would lead us to a championship.  It didn't happen, but he took us for an unforgettable ride.

My only other encounter with Iverson happened a few months later, after Iverson announced that he would leave Georgetown two years early to enter the NBA draft.  My mother was in town for a visit and we were walking from campus to M Street.  As we crossed Prospect Street, a luxury car stopped short about ten feet from us.  I don't remember exactly but I'm fairly certain we had the right of way, though I will admit we might have been jaywalking.  I looked at the driver and it was Allen Iverson.  It was as close as I would ever get to our superstar player.  He and I made eye contact for a second.  As we walked away, I said to my mom, "You know, that was Allen Iverson who nearly ran us over just now."  We thought it was funny.  And no, this isn't the first time I've told this story.  It probably won't be the last, either.

Yes, we really did need a solo album from Slash

I may be a classical music snob, but I've also got a weakness for glam metal from the '80s.  Earlier this week  I heard on Twitter that Slash from Guns 'N Roses had just released a solo album.  I had to get it from Amazon as soon as humanly possible, which was about an hour, or as long as it took me to finish my workout and run home.  (Yes, I check my Twitter stream while I'm at the gym. I have an iPhone and I'm not afraid to use it.)

The album has shades of Slash's recent work with Velvet Revolver mixed with riffs from his Guns 'N Roses days.  The songs are throwbacks to the kind of music GnR used to make but updated and processed for 2010.  By no means do they sound as raw as "Appetite for Destruction;" they're closer in style to "Use Your Illusion," but without Axl Rose's overwrought drama and pathos.  Rather than use one lead singer, Slash showcases 13 different artists, including Fergie, Ian Astbury, Kid Rock, and Iggy Pop.  Some work better than others.  Ozzy Osbourne sounds out of place with Slash's music, but Ian Astbury and Myles Kennedy fit right into his style.  I never thought Fergie would be able to rock out like she does on "Beautiful Dangerous."  And I like Chris Cornell's song "Promise" better than just about everything he did with Audioslave. 

The album doesn't sound so much like a cohesive whole as it does an all-star assortment of songs, but who cares?  I like Slash's style.  I don't think he made this album to impress critics or make new fans.  The man doesn't need the money.  He made an album because he could, and he wrote the music he wanted to write.  And as a fan whose musical tastes haven't evolved far beyond what I liked in 1992, I wholeheartedly approve.

No matter what, the album puts Axl's "Chinese Democracy" to shame. 

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Cycling started early this year

With the recent weeks of gorgeous weather, I've been able to get my bike out of the storage room and onto the streets earlier than ever.  In past years the bike hasn't come out until the middle of April.  But I went for my first weekend rides the third weekend in March and my first weekday morning rides this week.  I'm already at 122 miles for the year.  I doubt the weather will cooperate through all of April but I'm off to a good start.  My winter regimen of cardio seems to have kept me in decent shape.  I haven't felt sluggish or slow.  I've decided to tweet my bike mileage all year as I remember to do it.  So follow me on Twitter if you want to know how many miles I rode last weekend or my insights on a variety of subjects not related to cycling.

I'm going to need all this early cycling work if I want to ride well this summer.  My summer vacation will be a cycling tour from Prague to Vienna.  I've always wanted to see both cities and I found several companies that run tours from one to the other.  I'll be in Europe for ten days in July, six of them on a bike exploring the Czech and Austrian countryside.  It's the trip Mozart would have made if he'd had a bike.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

I'll see you at Blogs With Balls 3.0

I bought a ticket and booked a flight to Chicago for Blogs With Balls 3.0.  I guess this means I'm a sports blogger now. 

Actually, I have a few reasons for attending.  One, I skipped BwB 1.0 when it was here in New York last summer.  I should have gone but I considered it for weeks before deciding that I'm not enough of a sports blogger to make the cost worthwhile.  Then of course I heard about how much fun the entire event was and I regretted passing on it.  So I'll make up for it this time.

Another reason for going is to see friends that I've made online who write about sports and haven't seen in person in a long time, or in some cases, ever.  And while I don't write exclusively about sports, I think that some of the topics at the conference could apply to the subjects I do write about, like music.

Finally, I don't take enough vacations, so a weekend trip to Chicago for a sports blogging conference is as good an excuse as any to get out of town for a couple of days.

Now I just need a hotel room or someone willing to let me sleep on their couch.