Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ooh, Google+ integration!

With a few clicks of the mouse, my ancient profile photo from my 2004 business trip to Tokyo is gone, replaced by a photo from earlier this year(?), and I've linked this blog to my Google+ page. Unless there's a way to cross-post Google+ posts here, I don't see this making a big impact on my blogging life.

Friday, December 02, 2011

I could have predicted this would happen

The Times has an article today about the etiquette of talking to your cellphone's "personal assistant" in public. Surprise: most people don't like when others do it and think it's creepy. We are still working out the rules and behaviors for using this new feature on our phones. And while the best implementation is on the iPhone 4S, it won't be long before Android and Blackberry phones add personal assistants. We're only going to see more of these apps.

I have a iPhone 4S, but I haven't gotten into a habit of using Siri for much more than the occasional reminder or alarm. Even at home, where I'll talk to my cats like they're people, I'm reluctant to talk to my phone lest my girlfriend think I'm crazy. And at work? Forget it. My co-workers would think I'd lost my mind if I dictated messages to my phone. So that leaves out in public on the street, where I don't care what people think. Unfortunately, Siri doesn't work well in loud environments or in areas with poor network coverage, so dictating alerts or web searches is difficult. As the service improves and our societal comfort level with it increases, I'm sure I'll use it more. But for now I'll stick to typing out my messages as much as possible. It's cramped but it certainly is quiet.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Don Giovanni at the Met

On Friday evening we had the pleasure of seeing the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni.  It had been about five years since I'd seen a Mozart opera at the Met (or anywhere else) and Don Giovanni had long been on my my list of must-see operas, so I happily bought two tickets for this production.  Our seats were in the dress circle, which not only gave us a great view of the stage but of the orchestra pit as well.  We could watch conductor Louis Langree as he led the singers and orchestras through this long masterpiece, and we could see the musicians come and go as needed.  The trumpeters only appeared a few minutes before they had notes to play, disappearing through a back door as soon as they were done.  The lone trombonist played at the beginning and the end. 

The sets weren't too elaborate, allowing the singers to be the show instead of the scenery.  The fire effects that shot out of the floor at the end, when the Commendatore condemns Don Giovanni to hell for his actions, could be felt all the way in the back of the hall.  It was a most impressive ending.  

The opera itself was outstanding.  Mariusz Kwiecien played the title character as a breezily dark lothario, not quite evil but unconcerned with the repercussions of his womanizing ways.  Luca Pisaroni's Leporello provided plenty of comic relief throughout, but especially in Act II when he pretended to be the Don and distracted Donna Elvira.  Speaking of which, Barbara Frittoli played Donna Elvira mostly for comedic effect, though her pain at her multiple betrayals by the Don was evident in her arias late in the opera.  I enjoyed this production so much that by the end my face was sore from smiling. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Being late for the Philharmonic isn't so bad

We left Brooklyn at 6:45 PM for a 8 PM New York Philharmonic concert last night. The subways are always screwed up on weekends but I assumed that allowing ourselves over an hour would leave us plenty of time. However, the D train had other plans. Our train stopped between Broadway-Lafayette and West 4th Street, and we sat for about 20 minutes. The conductor told us that there was a power problem north of 59th Street, so the D trains were all unloading passengers at West 4th Street and that we would unload there as soon as possible. We didn't get to West 4th until 7:40 PM, and even after a quick transfer to the 1 train at Christopher Street we didn't get to Avery Fisher Hall until a few minutes after 8 PM. It was the first time I've ever been late for a concert.

The ushers directed us to the Helen Hull Room on the second tier level, where the orchestra holds its pre-concert lectures. There we found several rows of chairs facing a big-screen TV and high-quality speakers, and we were able to see and hear most of the first piece on last night's program, Schubert's Symphony No. 8, "Unfinished." I was a little out of sorts to really focus on the music, but I appreciated the balance among the sections. There were elements of the harmonies that conductor Kurt Masur brought out that I hadn't noticed before.

At intermission we took our seats in the hall for the second half, Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13, "Babi Yar." I like Shostakovich's music and I especially enjoyed the first two of the five movements. Yevgeny Yevtushenko's poems were the text that Shostakovich set to music, and his treatments of "Babi Yar" and "Humor" matched the words and reinforced the poet's message. "Babi Yar" was harsh, brutal, and mournful, while "Humor" was a scherzo full of jovial passages in the strings and winds. To be honest, the last three movements didn't really hold my full attention, and while I appreciated the work of the lower strings and the brass and the sounds of the soloist and mens' chorus, the music itself didn't really resonate with me. I will find a recording of this piece and listen to it again, though.

At the end of the symphony the nearly full hall gave the Philharmonic and Masur a long and resounding ovation. Masur has maintained the appeal that he had when he was music director here, and if anything, the city's love for him seems to grow each time I see him conduct here. I hope he has many more years of conducting ahead of him. He clearly has much left to say and do in that role.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The final chapter in the Steven Slater saga?

I saw this Gawker story yesterday while I was out of the office. Steven Slater got probation and a fine as a result of his emergency exit abuse in August 2010.

This has been your occasional update on Steven Slater, now and likely forever the number one story ever on this blog. I am in his debt and thus consider myself obligated to post about him whenever he resurfaces.

a quick coffee-buying rant

There should be two lines at the Dunkin Donuts on Cortlandt St. by my office. One for tourists and occasional coffee/donut consumers, and another for people like me who know what they want and are paying with a debit card. I can be in and out of there in one minute. I don't have time to get stuck behind four tourists who don't know what a cruller is or which cream-filled donut to try this morning. Make way for working stiffs like me.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

A quick trip through Occupy Wall Street

During lunch today, I took a walk through Zuccotti Park, home of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement.  I'd checked them out from outside the park many times, but I'd never ventured into the park itself, not since they moved in three weeks ago.  Maybe it was the fear that I'd see or smell things I didn't want to experience.  Maybe I was afraid I'd see a sign that struck me and I'd quit my job and join them.  Or maybe it was the thought that the minute I waded into the mass of people would be the moment the NYPD decided to clear the park and arrest everyone. 

None of those things happened.  I walked through the park unmolested.  In fact, it was enlightening.  They have a kitchen area with plates and bowls, and a "greywater" system for cleaning dishes.  They have a desk for registering volunteers, a library, and a cellphone charging station.  They have a daily message board with the park rules (including quiet time from 10 PM - 8 AM, keep your stuff bundled and wrapped when you're not sleeping, keep the central walkway clear).  If they don't have a cohesive list of "demands" or clear intentions, they at least have things organized down there.  It's a real community now, not unlike something out of a William Gibson novel

I had already decided that while some of the people there appear to be creative types looking for ways to express themselves, they're not all crazy hippies who are too lazy to get jobs.  My quick stroll today reinforced my impression that they're from everywhere, representing everyone.  I could be there, but for a few breaks I had earlier in my career.  They seem like rational, thoughtful people.  And I figured out after last Saturday's arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge that they're not going anywhere.  Even if the police moved in and arrested everyone in the park for trespassing, hundreds of people would be back in the space the next day.  The city, the state, and indeed the nation will need to figure out what to do with them. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Andy Rooney retires

In honor of Andy Rooney announcing his retirement from 60 Minutes, I'll link to my own blog post from a few years ago about Andy's commentary.  I'll miss Andy complaining that he doesn't understand fruit or those newfangled motor cars everyone is talking about.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I'm not live-blogging tonight's opening night concert by the New York Philharmonic, but I might tweet a little while I watch. So there's that.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Something a little different for the NYC Century this year

Until this year, I'd always been a riding marshal for the Transportation Alternatives NYC Century.  After a sub-par performance for me in 2009, I decided to try marshaling with the Brooklyn Bridge crew instead.  I missed last year's ride, so my debut on the bridge was postponed to this year.

I woke up at 4:45 AM and arrived at the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge at 5:40 AM.  On my way across I played my favorite game: "Who's Just Going Home Now vs. Who's Up As Early As I Am?"  It turned out that most of the people on the bridge at that hour were early-rising tourists.  There were only a couple of other people there, and none of them were in charge.  There were also a couple of crackheads arguing over by City Hall Park, and I'm pretty certain they were just winding up a wild and crazy Saturday night.  As the eastern sky started to brighten, I noticed a tent going up over in the plaza by the park.  That was the rest stop/marshal sign-in station, so I got set up with a reflective vest and a marshal kit.  A few other marshals were there with traffic cones and signs, and they said I should just go pick a spot on the bridge to stand for the next four hours.  

I rode halfway across and set up directly between the two bridge towers, which seemed like a fantastic spot for photos and for telling riders to stay on the left and avoid pedestrians.  I was directly in the path of the riders as they came over the bridge from Manhattan, so they could see me and I could see them.   While it was a great location for those things, it was a terrible location to be in considering the conditions.  It was a chilly morning with a strong breeze coming from the east.  Even with the sun, I was shivering the whole time I stood there.  After a couple of hours walking back and forth and picking up wayward traffic cones, a rider coming from Brooklyn stopped and suggested that we put someone further down on the Brooklyn side, saying that there had already been an accident back there.  I wasn't sure what she meant, but seeing as how I wasn't doing much other than freezing in my original location, I decided a move was in order.  I rode down to the Brooklyn tower and stood facing Manhattan, directing riders to be careful as the next section of the path was narrower than the rest of the path on the bridge.  But I quickly figured out  the real problem: riders (not on the bike tour) coming from Brooklyn were riding right into the flow of cyclists on the tour coming from Manhattan.  I saw at least a half-dozen near-collisions, and one woman fell off her bike right in front of me trying to avoid an oncoming cyclist.   There was nothing much I could do other than politely shout at everyone to slow down and be careful.

I loved the views from the bridge, and I enjoyed looking up at the top of the tower and watching the clouds wheel past, making it look like the Brooklyn Bridge itself was moving.  But by 9 AM the novelty had worn off.  I was freezing, and no amount of pacing, shivering, or waving my arms was helping.  At 10 AM my shift ended, and I wasted no time riding back to the Manhattan side for a rest stop visit.  I told the rest stop crew I'd planned to ride part of the route, and they asked me if I would ride it as a marshal, so I agreed.  I rode back across the bridge to Brooklyn and picked up the ride route.  

Since I was about four hours behind my usual 100-mile pace, I decided to ride the 55-mile route for a change.  The first part followed last weekend's route to Coney Island and Marine Park, but then veered north and east through Brooklyn's Chasidic neighborhoods.  There was a heavy head wind along the East River in Brooklyn and Queens but I made it to Astoria Park around 2:30 PM.  After a few minutes rest I decided that I felt good enough to tack on the Bronx part of the ride for the bonus mileage.  I didn't have a cue sheet for the Bronx, so I caught up with some other riders who had sheets.  Even so, there was a little confusion in our group as we left the Van Cortland Park rest stop, and I think we may have ridden up a few hills that weren't on the route.  We got back on the route without too much trouble and returned to Central Park just before 6 PM.  That's usually the time I finish when I ride the whole century, so it was odd to see only 65 miles on my odometer.  

I had a harrowing ride down 2nd Avenue on the way home, featuring my closest near-miss with a car all year (thus fulfilling my yearly quota of near-misses).  I crossed the Manhattan Bridge as the sun set over Manhattan, giving me a little bookend for my day.  And I walked in my apartment at 7:05 PM.  At least it wasn't dark when I got home - that happened a few years ago.  Somehow I think I'll be more sore tomorrow than I was last week after my 92-mile ride.  Maybe it was all the pacing and shivering?


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dan Fienberg's takedown of the CW's new show "H8R" is required reading for TV fans, reality show fans, or people who just enjoy rants about terrible people doing terrible things.  Don't miss it. 

Friday, September 09, 2011

another Blogger redesign?!

Google updated the behind-the-scenes Blogger interface again. Now it looks more like Google+ or Gmail than it did before. But does this mean I need to upgrade my template again? I just switched to this one a year ago!

Google also released an official iPhone/iPad app for mobile posts. My previous mobile posting app, BlogPress Lite, never actually posted anything, so an official app is an improvement. Maybe I'll try it this weekend and see whether it works.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

We missed the whole thing

I keep missing the big storms in New York.  I was out of town at Christmas when a massive blizzard swamped the city in 2-3 feet of snow for a week.  And last weekend I had the good fortune to be out of town for Hurricane Irene's visit to my adopted hometown.

My girlfriend and I had already planned to be out of town this past weekend for a couple of family events in Ohio.  By the time we were ready to leave on Thursday morning, the NWS had just updated Irene's projected path for New York.  As we were packing Mayor Bloomberg was on TV telling people to prepare to evacuate low-lying areas.  While we live in Zone C and we're well up a hill from the Gowanus Canal, I went to my basement storage room anyway and moved a few valuable boxes off the floor.  And I moved my viola onto the bed, just in case potential floodwaters came up into the apartment itself.  We left the cats with plenty of food and water (and I'd arranged for a friend to check on them on Saturday) and we got on the road.

By Friday afternoon the predictions of doom and destruction had gotten so bad that we went to Wal-Mart in Boardman, OH, to pick up some emergency provisions in case we returned to a Brooklyn devoid of power and rife with anarchy.  They had bottled water for sale at $4 a case, and I insisted we get three cases.  At that price, it would have been irresponsible not to buy it.  We also bought two heavy-duty LED flashlights, candles, granola bars, peanut butter, and jelly.  I thought we'd get bread on Sunday on our way back to the city.  As the weather predictions grew worse, on Friday night we decided we'd try to go back to New York on Monday instead.  I wasn't able to fully relax until Saturday afternoon and evening, no doubt helped by the samples of homemade wine my girlfriend's uncle served at a family picnic/tasting that night.  We got home late and I found myself watching a Times Square webcam, comforted by the bright lights and the knowledge that the city was still standing, at least at that hour.

As soon as I was awake on Sunday morning I was back online, checking Twitter and news sites for updates on the storm.  By 10 AM it was clear that the hurricane had spared the city the worst of its fury.  I relaxed and hoped that I wouldn't see a photo of a tree branch through my living room window.  I worried a little when I saw photos of the Gowanus Canal close to cresting its banks, but I never heard anything about the canal actually overflowing.   We drove to Johnstown to see my mother, secure in the knowledge that our apartment was OK.  Late on Sunday night, a friend tweeted that he'd gone to a bar on 4th Avenue and confirmed everything down there was clear.

The return trip to New York was the least eventful drive I've had in the past few months.  It was busy but there were no long delays or backups.  As we drove through Park Slope, we marveled at the lack of evidence of a hurricane.  The damage we saw looked like it was from a strong microburst, not a sustained storm.  The cats were fine when we got back.  Based on the mess they left us, they must have had quite a hurricane party.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

32 (now 33) blog posts this year? WORST. BLOGGER. EVER.

It's true: Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr have all killed my blog.  Also, work has been kind of busy lately, so I haven't had much time to write.  But right now, I'm looking at my worst year ever and I'd really like to keep this blog going into a 10th year.  I'm not giving up on this forum yet.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

And now, a rant about Duke Nukem Forever

About two months ago, I pre-ordered Duke Nukem Forever for the Xbox 360.  I was a huge fan of Duke Nukem 3D in college and waited patiently but in vain for this follow-up game throughout the ‘90s.  By the time I moved to New York in 1999, I’d given up hope that the world would ever see the sequel.  I was as shocked as everyone else to find out a few years ago that the game would finally come out in 2011.

I received the game on June 14, its release date.  By that time I’d already read a couple of advance reviews and they were not positive.  But I’ve played mediocre games before, most notably the Star Wars: The Force Unleashed series, and I’ve had fun with them.  The Star Wars universe is always entertaining to me.  I hoped that I’d find a return to Duke Nukem’s world of misogyny, quips, big guns, and aliens would be as much fun as it was in 1996.  I was wrong.  I’ve actually quit playing the game part of the way through, and I’ve never quit on a game like that before.  It’s that bad.

Duke Nukem Forever is not fun to play.  It feels like work.  It’s a formulaic first-person shooter, and by that I mean you go through level after level of shooting halfway intelligent aliens and solving puzzles so you can shoot more aliens.  None of that gameplay is new to shooters, but in most shooters there’s something appealing about the effort.  For example, in Halo, the worlds in which you fight are gorgeous, lush tropical paradises, terrifying underground caverns, or creepy wrecked spaceships.  In The Force Unleashed, you play on familiar Star Wars worlds.  DNF is set in a half-destroyed Las Vegas, but there’s nothing particularly unique about the levels.  While there’s interactivity with the universe, I’m not interested in playing with toilets or making popcorn in a microwave.  Yes, you can throw objects at your enemies when you run out of ammunition (and you often run out of ammunition) but while you’re looking for a barrel or box, the aliens are killing you.

When you die, you reload the game from the last automatic save.  Duke Nukem Forever’s levels aren’t graphically intense but for whatever reason (bad coding? Bulky graphics engine? Poor overall game design?) they take over a minute to load.  And when you die often, that’s a lot of wasted time.  If I were enjoying the game play the long load times would be annoying, but in a game that feels like punching a clock, they remind you that you could be doing better things with your time.  You could be playing a better game.  At least DNF lives up to the “Forever” in its name.

After you’ve killed enough aliens, you face a big “boss.”  Again, bosses are a feature of just about every shooter I’ve ever played.  Duke Nukem’s bosses are gimmicky in that there’s a trick to defeating them.  I don’t remember the first boss I faced or how I beat it, but when I got to the “queen” alien with three giant breasts protected by impenetrable wings, I gave up.  It was such a predictable Duke Nukem thing to do.  I saw the gimmick right away: wait until the queen screams and spreads her wings, then fire rockets at the breasts.  But while you wait for her to scream, she’s throwing her offspring at you and trying to crush you with her tail (or something like that).  It was a pointless and frustrating moment in a game full of pointless and frustrating moments. 

That’s when I stopped playing.  I’ve gotten bored with games before and not finished them, or gotten distracted by another new game.  I never finished Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, GTA: San Andreas, or GTA IV, but with all three games I felt like I got my money’s worth.  (There’s always a chance I’ll go back to GTA IV if there’s a massive blizzard.)  And in the San Andreas and IV cases, I had a feeling going in that the games would be so big I’d never finish them.  I had every intention of playing Duke Nukem Forever from beginning to end, just to see where the story went and for the sheer nostalgia of shooting pig cops and flying monsters.  But I can’t do it.  I have a limited amount of time to spend on video games, and I’m not going to waste those precious hours on something that I don’t enjoy.  I played Call of Duty: Black Ops for about 45 minutes last night and had more fun in that time then in all the hours I put into Duke Nukem Forever.  There’s no chance I’ll ever put that game back into my 360.

So, does anyone want a slightly used copy of Duke Nukem Forever?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Chris Mueller on how to fix what went wrong in last night's Pirates-Braves game

In lieu of a half-assed rant from me about home plate umpire Jerry Meals' bad call that cost the Pirates a win in a 19-inning game, just read what 93.7 The Fan's Chris Mueller has to say about it.  Chris rants with his whole ass, and I mean that sincerely.  Also, follow Chris on Twitter and check out his call-in show.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The battlefield at Gettysburg

We spent the weekend in Gettysburg, PA, at a friend's wedding.  We arrived late on Friday night and left Sunday afternoon, so we didn't have time to spend a full day at the museum and battlefield.  So we opted to drive around the site and see as many landmarks as we could before driving back to Brooklyn on Sunday evening.

The battlefield is a national park surrounding the town of Gettysburg.  (I highly recommend looking at that link for details on the places in my photos.)  You can't walk five feet without stumbling into a memorial or monument or plaque that commemorates a regiment or a civilian hero of the battle.  But many of the key events of the battle took place on the hills and fields outside the town itself, and most of the open spaces are preserved much as they were in July 1863 when the battle occurred.  For example, when you stand on Little Round Top and look across the field at Devil's Den and the tree lines, it's not impossible to imagine what the scene must have looked like on those three days.

I want to return to the battlefield after virtual reality technology has advanced to the point where I could see an overlay of the scene in 1863 on the current landscape.  No matter how much I read about the Civil War, I'll never know what it would have felt like to be present on the field that day.  I suspect I don't really want to know.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Once again, I want to write something about my job, and once again, I will not.  You never know who's reading this thing.  It's a great job but there are times when I find it exasperating.  I shouldn't need to parse my emails as much as I do sometimes.

Friday, July 08, 2011

This week on House of PUNTE...

I'm a "special guest" on this week's House of PUNTE, AKA the KSK podcast. I talk about the Tour de France and laugh at everyone else's jokes. Please give it a listen.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Articles like this one by Justin Davidson make me happy to be a New York Philharmonic subscriber.  At the same time, I'm even more upset I passed on the chance to hear Magnus Lindberg's Kraft this past season.  What was I thinking?  I should have been there.

I know I should have posted a full review of the orchestra's season finale, Leos Janacek's opera The Cunning Little Vixen.  It was delightful, a spirited woodland fairy tale with creative costumes and set design.  The music was fantastic, of course, but it was almost secondary to the costumes and the set.  It was another triumph for Alan Gilbert, Douglas Fitch and his Giants Are Small production company, and the Philharmonic.  They're not doing an opera next year, but I'm confident that Gilbert and the orchestra have an impressive season ahead of them.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Who are these data-abusing monsters?

Gizmodo had this article about cellular carriers abandoning unlimited data plans.  In the comments, several people bragged about being grandfathered into unlimited data plans and how they used 17 GB of data last month, or in one case, 22 GB.  Who are these people?  Do they not have Wi-Fi anywhere in their immediate vicinity?  I'm the rare customer who actually likes AT&T's network, and I've rarely had problems with 3G coverage in New York.  It's slower than Wi-Fi, but it's fairly reliable.  Even so, I'd rather wait to listen to streaming radio until I'm in my apartment or office (both of which have abundant Wi-Fi coverage on fat Internet pipes) than listen to a stream while walking around outside.  And forget downloading music or apps while I'm out: I do that stuff indoors, in Wi-Fi, too.

The problem, as always, is that a small number of network users consume the most bandwidth, making it harder for the carriers to support the rest of us who use our phones sensibly.  I hope that these carrier issues will someday be a thing of the past, as Wi-Fi and WiMAX and other broadband wireless technological advances make it easier to get online anywhere.  Until then, if you believe Gizmodo, guard your unlimited data plan with your life.  Or if you're like me, get a home Internet connection, leave the house with all the music you'll ever need, and don't worry about it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

For my dad (who doesn't use Twitter or Facebook)

Here's a better photo of the new setup on my desk at work. And once again my MacBook Pro came to work today.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Manhattan loop, or 30 ever-changing miles around a metropolis

I spent part of my Sunday morning and afternoon on my first Manhattan loop of 2011.  I've been riding the greenways around the perimeter of the island since 2002, and every year there's something different.  Sometimes it's different each month, if you take the never-ending construction in lower Manhattan into account.  But I always enjoy seeing the improvements in the route each year, and the areas that are still in dire need of upgrades.

I crossed the East River via the Manhattan Bridge and turned south onto the East River greenway, under the assumption that foot traffic at the South Street Seaport would still be light at 11 AM.  While it was, the NBA had set up some sort of fan festival there, so I had to take South Street all the way down to the Staten Island ferry terminal.  I took the marked bike paths around the ferry terminal (those are only a year or two old) and found myself in Battery Park.  The presence of a few Park Police squad cars convinced me to walk my bike around to the northwest exit of the park, where I picked up the West Side greenway.

There's a new detour around the World Financial Center, and I almost rode into traffic on the West Side Highway before I saw the signs directing cyclists around the back of the WFC and onto the esplanade on the river's edge.  Once I was north of the WFC the detour led back onto the greenway, which has been fully developed at least since 2002.  The path was busy but it was a straight shot all the way to the George Washington Bridge and the steepest hill I've climbed in New York.  The short but steep hill just north of the GWB is always a challenge.  I still remember when the northernmost part of this path was a rotting asphalt nightmare and riders had to take the footbridge across the Henry Hudson Parkway onto the streets near the bridge.  But it's been a well-paved path for at least seven or eight years.

I took Dyckman Street over to the Harlem River greenway, once used for horse-and-buggy races, and rode south to St. Nicholas Avenue.  I turned east onto the bike path on 120th Street, but a bike race blocked my path.  I would have loved to watch the races, but it was hot, I was getting tired, and I didn't have much in the way of food.  I doubled back onto 118th Street until I passed the race and then took 120th St. over to the northern section of the East River greenway.  The sections of this path north of 96th Street are in dire need of repairs.  Apparently the city thinks that metal barriers and orange cones are all the repairs giant sinkholes need.

The greenway took me past my old favorite park, Carl Schurz Park, where I spent many hours reading and watching the boats go by when I lived in the neighborhood.  Another construction detour forced me onto the street, so I rode over to 2nd Avenue and took that all the way down to 38th Street where I could pick up the greenway again.  Along the way, I saw all of the disruption of the 2nd Avenue Subway construction, and thought about how lucky I was that I moved before all of that work began.

The southern sections of the East River greenway haven't changed much in the past few years, though they are long overdue for a repaving.  I was grateful for the shade that the FDR overpass provides, as it was the hottest part of the day by the time I reached the Manhattan Bridge to cross the river back to Brooklyn.  I got home at 2 PM, 3 1/2 hours after I'd left, with 40 miles on the odometer.  The ride through Brooklyn to and from the Manhattan Bridge adds the extra miles, which I forgot before I set out with only a handful of energy bars and two water bottles.  Also, I say this every time, but this time I mean it: I'm leaving earlier next time.

Friday, June 10, 2011

No Concerts in the Parks this summer for the Philharmonic

On Tuesday the New York Philharmonic announced that they were canceling their free summer Concerts In The Parks for 2011.  The orchestra said that the musicians need time off and that they will perform a free concert with tenor Andrea Bocelli in September in Central Park.  But the announcement seemed to have caught parks officials and caterers (not to mention the general public) by surprise.  I can't find it now, but I read an article yesterday that quoted an Upper West Side caterer who said she had prepared bags for pre-made meals that she sells to hungry concert-goers.

I know that the orchestra is busy year-round -- their season ends in late June and begins in September, with a stop in Vail, Colorado for a music festival -- but it's odd that they used "scheduling conflicts" as an excuse.  I have a feeling that some of the sponsors decided not to participate this year.  Those concerts may be free to the public (and partially taxpayer-funded, as the New York Daily News pointed out in an editorial yesterday), but they're not free by any stretch.

I don't think the orchestra is obligated to perform in the parks each summer.  I appreciate that they do it.  For some New Yorkers, it's the only exposure they get to classical music all year.  And while the concerts have devolved into excuses for people to picnic in the park and chat with friends, sometimes to the detriment of the rest of us who are just trying to enjoy the music, I think these concerts still fulfill a vital cultural role in New York.  The Philharmonic says the concerts will return next summer.  I hope that they do.

Friday, June 03, 2011

A few quick thoughts about Thursday night at the Philharmonic

It's not a proper New York Philharmonic season for me if I don't see Anne-Sophie Mutter perform.  Her reading of Beethoven's Romance in F was lyrical and sweet.  Sebastian Currier's Time Machines, a concerto he composed for Ms. Mutter, was an unusual seven-movement work with touches of Barber, Glass, and Reich in places.  I especially enjoyed the fifth movement, titled "entropic time," in which the themes and cohesion of the music gradually disintegrated into snippets of phrases and random echoes from different instruments of the orchestra.

Bruckner's Symphony No. 2 was well-played throughout but it was the third movement that drew me into the work.  Alan Gilbert led a ferocious reading of the Scherzo that had me on the edge of my seat.  The fury of the strings combined with blasts from the brass and loud bursts from the timpani energized the orchestra and carried over to the finale.  It had been 40 years since the Philharmonic last performed this symphony.  In the program notes Gilbert states that Bruckner is a composer whose music he could conduct every day for the rest of his life.  I hope that means more Bruckner on Philharmonic programs in the future.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Return to "Foundation"

I don't have any major summer reading projects this year.  I had planned to read Infinite Jest this summer, but got pulled into an online reading project last fall and finished it in March.  I do have a sizable stack of books at home just waiting to be read, so I'll work my way through those.  One will be Noah Andre Trudeau's Gettysburg, since I'm going to a wedding there in July and I'd like to know more about the battle before I see the battlefield.  I have a few other non-fiction history books to read, such as a book on the Jewish Resistance during WWII and David McCullough's book about the Johnstown Flood.

But before I dive into all of that boring history nonsense, I'm re-reading Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels.  I devoured Asimov's fiction (and some of his non-fiction) as a kid.  I tore through the Robot novels, the Empire novels, and the Foundation series, all before I was in high school.  I remember them as fast reads but I don't recall much of the detail.  I do remember enjoying the Foundation novels more than any of his other books.  I think it was the concept of psychohistory that captivated me more than the ideas of robots solving crimes or a decaying galactic Empire. When I was home last October, I grabbed all five of the books I have in the series (not counting the two prequel novels, which Asimov wrote much later in his life) and brought them back to New York.  I think I'll read a Foundation novel, then read some non-fiction, then read another Foundation novel.  I think of them as palate cleansers.  Also, it means I'll spread out the fun over the summer.

I rarely re-read books.  The last time I remember re-reading anything was 2001, when I read the Lord Of The Rings trilogy for the third time, in preparation for the movies.  But every once in a while I think it's worth revisiting books that I've loved.  I listen to the same music over and over (though I introduce new albums all the time, I return to my favorites far more often) and I re-watch movies I love.  Why not re-read books and see what I missed the first time around?  Also, it's an excuse for me to keep all those books on my shelves.  I can always say "hey, I might want to read that again" when it comes time to clean the apartment.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Don't kill off high school English!

As an English major in college and a fan of great reading and writing, I read Kim Brooks' essay "Death to high school English" in Salon with more than just casual interest.  Brooks' descriptions of her students' high school English classes sound similar to my own experience with the same curriculum twenty years ago.  And I could see the roots of the English education that students receive now.

My parents claim that I would read the TV Guide to them before I was two years old.  I was a "gifted" student in elementary and middle school.  In my school district, the "gifted" class was mostly a double period of English, with some special projects in other areas (never math and science, though) thrown in.  I was probably atypical even then; I would read longer books than my classmates, like novels by Asimov and Clarke, and even George Orwell's 1984 in 1984 when I was 10.  (I admit that I was too young to understand much of that book, but I wanted to read it anyway.) 

When I got to high school, the students in the "gifted" program merged into the rest of the class year, and while we had a more advanced English class, we read much of the same material as everyone else in our freshman year.  I remember reading Romeo and Juliet, then watching Zeffirelli's movie of the play.  Then we watched West Side Story, because why not?  It's the same story, or so our teacher told us.  In my sophomore English class, the material became more challenging, and our teacher assigned a few of us Faulkner's Light In August as a small group project.  We had to give a presentation to the class, and after our bumbling effort she acknowledged that the book had probably been too difficult for us.  (It definitely turned me off to Faulkner -- I haven't read any of his other books yet.)  We wrote papers and took exams as well, but there were always group projects.

I took AP English my junior and senior years, and these classes were the reason I became an English major in college.  We read some of the same books and plays as our non-AP classmates, in particular Richard III, Macbeth, and King Lear in 11th grade and Hamlet in 12th grade.   And we had group projects.  But we also had surprise essay tests in junior year, which I realized too late were meant to prepare us for the AP English test.  (I never took the AP English test.)  Our 11th grade teacher taught us the MLA style manual and worked with our AP History teacher on grammar and spelling, since many of us took history as well.  She was tough but fair, never fun and seldom funny, but we learned a lot. 

My senior year English teacher took matters a step further.  We kept a journal four or five days a week, in which we had to fill two pages.  At first, she would give us a topic every day, but as the year went on and our ability to fill those two pages (and sometimes more) increased, she would give us a "free topic."  My friends and I used those free topics to write about our lives, comment on the news, and even dabble in fiction.  I researched and wrote a long paper on humor in literature and a senior theme on science fiction.  She was also tough but fair, and she encouraged us to be creative and find our own voices. 

I think I enjoyed my music and history classes a little more, but when I think about high school I remember reading Beckett's Waiting For Godot aloud as a class and writing an almost passionate explanation of Godot as God.  I think about writing that science fiction paper and editing it until it was perfect.  I think about those English classes and how they prepared me for college-level writing.  I left for Georgetown thinking that I would major in history, but my experiences in high school English and a few classes with excellent professors showed me that English was the better path.  But I was in high school English classes with other bright, creative thinkers.  I don't know what the rest of my classmates were doing, but I have a feeling it was more along the lines of what Brooks describes.

Brooks points out all the deficiencies of the modern high school English curriculum but doesn't offer any suggestions on how to improve it. Problems like class size, teacher workload, and classroom time aren't going away and are likely to get worse.  She talks about the need for greater emphasis on teaching how to research and on teaching style and grammar.  But the bottom line is here, from a discussion with her friend Amelia Shapiro, a writing tutor in Hawaii:

When I ask her why she thinks there's such resistance to prioritizing and teaching writing, given its numerous applications, given its overlap with critical thinking skills, analytical skills, basic communication skills, she hesitates for a moment, then answers in three words: "It's not fun."
My experience in high school was that writing was something fun.  I looked forward to writing in that journal senior year.  I still look forward to writing, even if it's just emails at work.  Despite all the obstacles, I hope that more students can see the value of good writing skills, and that those skills are the most important thing they can take away from their twelve years in the school system.  Any animal can eventually pound out a barely coherent email or text message.  Writing is what makes us human.   

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Were you voted "most likely to succeed?"

I was voted "Most Musical" in high school and I think I've lived up to that as best I could. But I hadn't thought about it at all until I saw this article.  If you're 30 and still dwelling on something from high school, you might want to talk to a professional.  You've got bigger problems on your plate.

Also, this (from Gawker writer Jeff Neumann):

The takeaway here? High school still sucks long after it's over.

Amen, brother.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Emanuel Ax and Mahler at the NY Philharmonic

Saturday evening's concert opened with a solo performance of Debussy's Pagodes, a “slide show” for piano (as Ax and music director Alan Gilbert explained before the concert).  Gilbert said that they decided earlier in the week to perform the Debussy work back-to-back with Olivier Messiaen's Couleurs de la cité céleste, as the two pieces were similar in style and theme.  The Debussy was a short but pleasant work, and Ax's work was delightful and charming.  Gilbert, who had been standing at the podium through Ax's performance, then cued the small ensemble (horns, trumpets, trombones, winds, and percussion) for the Messiaen piece.  I'm not a fan of Messiaen's music.   The only thing I could think during the performance (which was excellent, by the way) was that his music sounds like what happens when you try to make sense of a two-year-old banging on a piano.  His music doesn't sound like music to me.  It's barely controlled random notes.  And I say this having performed Messiaen with NYRO a few years ago.   I didn't understand it then either.

After intermission, I returned to the hall to a stage filled with chairs and percussion for Mahler's Symphony No. 5.  I heard Gustavo Dudamel lead the Philharmonic in this work a little over two years ago, and I think Saturday night's performance with Alan Gilbert was ever so slightly better.  Gilbert was in full control at the podium, using every inch of space he had to hold the massive ensemble together.   Each movement had moments that gave me chills and I hung on nearly every note.  Phil Smith on trumpet and Phil Myers on horn were both magnificent, and each received well-deserved cheers at the end of the piece.   I've been to every New York Philharmonic Mahler concert this year, and I think this one was my favorite.  I'm going to be thinking about this performance for a long time, or at least until they open next season with Mahler's Symphony No. 2, my all-time favorite.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Philadelphia Orchestra's bankruptcy filing and the state of classical music today

I was as dismayed as everyone else in the classical music community when I read that the Philadelphia Orchestra had declared bankruptcy.  It's a tough time for American orchestras.  The Detroit Symphony Orchestra's musicians' months-long strike ended just a few weeks ago.  The New Mexico Symphony Orchestra folded, as have a few others recently.  But Philadelphia is one of the most renowned American orchestras, on a level with the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  It's difficult to see an orchestra with that kind of history in financial straits.  However, bankruptcy is not the end of a business.  It's a chance to reorganize, get clear of debt and continue operating.  It's a bad thing for an organization's credit, but it's better than shutting down completely.  The Philadelphia Orchestra isn't going anywhere. 

But as this commenter on the New York Times pointed out, modern orchestras are not lean, mean musical machines.  They're bloated, with far more musicians on the regular payroll than are required by most classical works.  They have a limited repertoire.  They play the same concert three to five times a week.  And let's not even get into the aging audience for this music. 

On the other hand, I like this quote from Arts Beat's Daniel Wakin:
Some have argued too that there is nothing wrong with orchestras serving — in part — the function of museums, keeping the classics on view.
That's an argument for the status quo.  Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart aren't writing any new music, and there's a good reason orchestras keep programming Beethoven's Fifth Symphony: people will pay to hear it.  No one complains when Bruce Springsteen sings "Born To Run" in concert for the 10,000th time. And regardless of whether you listen to classical music, it's a link to our shared musical past.  It's important to keep this art form around, just as we wouldn't throw out a Picasso painting or a Giacometti sculpture.

I do hope the Philadelphia Orchestra finds a way through its current financial problems and comes out the other side stronger than ever.  But I think it will take some serious re-evaluation of the presentation and performance of classical music to get there.  Other orchestras should keep a close watch on developments in Philadelphia before their organizations reach the same state.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Masur conducts Liszt, Gubaidulina and Brahms with the New York Philharmonic

Last night's concert by the New York Philharmonic was something of a "greatest hits" show bookending a brand-new song.  And we had the rare experience of seeing two different conductors on the same program.  Kurt Masur, the scheduled conductor for the program, had an temporary eye infection that "[impeded] his ability to see the score" (according to a program insert from the Philharmonic), so he conducted the opening and closing works on the program, and stepped aside in favor of New York Philharmonic Assistant Conductor Daniel Boico for Sofia Gubaidulina's Two Paths: Concerto for Two Violas and Orchestra.

The Philharmonic opened the concert with Franz Liszt's symphonic poem Les Preludes, one of my favorites.  Masur took the podium and received loud cheers before the orchestra made a sound.  He conducted this work (and the Brahms symphony after intermission) from memory and without a baton.  Throughout the concert, his conducting consisted more of cues and occasional indications of tempo changes than what I think of as actual conducting.  But Masur is in his 80s and while he moved well, he looked his age.  He is also Music Director Emeritus of the Philharmonic, and as his audience reception showed, he is still beloved by audiences and familiar with the orchestra and its musicians.  I got the feeling that Masur could have communicated whatever he needed to the musicians with his eyebrows and the concert would have been fantastic.  And opening with Les Preludes is sort of like Bruce Springsteen opening a show with "Born To Run."  It's a great piece of music, an audience favorite, a showcase for the entire orchestra, and music everyone in the group knows well.  And it was exciting to hear.  The brass fanfares were impressive, but what I enjoyed even more was the balance among all the instrument groups.  I heard melodies in the piece that I hadn't heard before.  I think I say that often, but it was certainly true last night. 

Daniel Boico took the podium for the Gubaidulina concerto.  His conducting was almost the polar opposite of Masur's: clear and precise beats for every measure, left hand cues when necessary, and he kept a close eye on the score.  To be fair, these concerts are only the second time the Philharmonic has performed this piece, so everyone in the room was paying extra attention, including Boico.  He had the task of being pressed into service as conductor for this piece at the last minute, and to a neophyte conductor like myself, that seems like a massive challenge.  But what an opportunity!  Boico performed admirably, managing the music and the soloists.  Principal Violist Cynthia Phelps and Associate Principal Rebecca Young were equally impressive as the soloists (they also premiered this work with the Philharmonic in 1999, under Masur).  Phelps took the higher part while Young explored the lower registers of the viola.  The music became a conversation between the soloists and the rest of the orchestra, including solo turns from Carter Brey on cello, Michelle Kim on violin, and from the winds.  It was a melancholic and mysterious piece, and well suited to the dusky tones of the violas.  I really enjoyed it, and not just as a violist.  I'll have to listen to the radio broadcast of this concert to hear it again.

After intermission, Masur returned to the podium for Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1, another personal and audience favorite.  Phelps and Young also returned to the stage, as the first stand in the viola section.  I thought that was interesting; I'd expected them to have the rest of the night off since they had already performed as soloists.  Masur took the tempi in the Brahms just a touch slower than other versions I've heard.  Maybe the two were unrelated, but I thought that the slightly slower tempi enhanced the tension in the first movement and brought out some of the melodies and harmonies that might otherwise remain hidden.  At the end of the work, the rousing finale brought most of the audience to its feet and Masur received another loud and extended ovation.  The audiences in New York really love his work.  I hope he keeps coming back here to conduct as long as he's able to do so.

Sports bloggers as Muppets

I don't know if there's anyone who reads my blog and doesn't follow me on Twitter or Facebook, but if you're out there, you need to read Dan Levy's post on sports bloggers as characters from the Muppets, Sesame Street, and Fraggle Rock.  I've enjoyed Dan's daily podcast for three or four years now and I'm going to miss having it as part of my daily routine.  This post is possibly the best farewell I've ever seen.  It's a labor of love that deserves a read.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Supporting the Prospect Park West bike lane

This morning I rode my slowest mile in recent memory, but it was for a great cause.  Park Slope residents organized We Ride The Lanes, a family- and community-oriented ride in support of the Prospect Park West bike lane.  Kids and adults on bikes of every shape and size rode from Grand Army Plaza to the traffic circle at 15th Street.  I didn't partake, but there were cupcakes, lemonade, and smiles all around at the end of the ride.  (Then I rode 18 miles in the park, because why not.)  There's a video of the event here, and I can be seen at about the 0:55 mark in the extreme upper left corner, waiting my turn to ride the lane.

As I was riding along the bike lane with hundreds of fellow cyclists, I realized that I just don't understand the fight over this bike lane.  It's just a bike lane!  We have much bigger problems in New York than this 20-block stretch of pavement alongside a public park in a residential neighborhood.  Transportation Alternatives, Councilman Brad Lander, and others have pointed out the safety benefits of the lane.  The traffic data shows cars are moving slower on Prospect Park West and that accidents for pedestrians and cyclists are down.  This lane is a good thing for the neighborhood.  I would hope that those opposed to this lane realize the sheer ridiculousness of the argument and turn their activism toward more urgent causes.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Wikipedia has all the answers

I was watching the 25th anniversary Les Miserables concert on PBS and it finally bothered me that all of the lower-class characters speak and sing with British Cockney accents.  Why?  Why not French accents?  Don't get me wrong: I love this musical.  But I've always wondered: why the British accents for the characters?

Wikipedia knows: it's used to represent Parisian criminal 'argot.'

Well, that was anticlimactic.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The NSO takes on Messiaen's "Turangalila"

My brother and his girlfriend are going to hear Olivier Messiaen's gargantuan "Turangalila-Symphonie" performed by the National Symphony Orchestra this weekend in Washington, DC.  I'm not a big fan of Messiaen's music but I'd go see this work in concert in a heartbeat.  It calls for a massive orchestra with obsolete instruments and makes demands on the players and audiences that few pieces do.  In short, it's a spectacle.  And I love spectacles, musical or otherwise.  It's disappointing that there were "hundreds of empty seats" at the Kennedy Center last night.  I think that New York audiences would turn out for this piece.  (A quick check of the New York Philharmonic's history shows that they've performed it twice, in 1988 and 2000, so it must have been popular enough for a second hearing.)  I look forward to hearing my brother's review of the performance.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

At the Philharmonic: Szymanowski and Mahler

I got a ticket for this concert for Mahler's Symphony No. 4, so Karol Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 1 with concertmaster Glenn Dicterow as soloist was a bonus. The orchestra for the concerto was easily the largest I've ever seen for a solo work: lots of strings, full wind and brass sections, an armada of percussion, a piano, celeste, and I'm sure I'm forgetting something. It was a formidable mass of instruments for guest conductor Daniel Harding to manage against Dicterow's solo violin. The music was dense and thick, as one might expect with forces of that size. Harding kept the orchestra from overwhelming the soloist, while Dicterow played with conviction. He's not a flashy soloist, more conservative than risk-taking, but he plays as if the violin was an extension of his body. I've watched Dicterow for a number of years both as a soloist and as concertmaster, and he always looks as if the violin is as much a part of him as his arms or legs. Szymanowski's music straddled a line between late Romanticism and early modernism, with Asian melodic lines sprinkled throughout. I wasn't about to leave the concert humming any of the tunes, but I'd listen to this piece again, especially if Dicterow is playing.

Harding is only 35, but he showed no signs of hesitation or tentativeness on the podium. His crisp movements reminded me of other young conductors I've seen, like the Philharmonic's own music director, Alan Gilbert. Harding didn't waste motion or conduct with an overly flashy or fluid style. He was precise and exact. I can't imagine what it would be like to be that young and that talented, to command the respect of musicians twice his age with decades of experience. He seemed unaffected by the position and the orchestra appeared to have enjoyed working with him. I hope he returns to Avery Fisher Hall soon.

After intermission the Philharmonic returned to the stage for Mahler's Symphony No. 4. It's Mahler's smallest symphony, both in terms of length and in orchestration. He excluded the trombones and tuba from his orchestra, reduces his normal battalion of percussion, and only has four horns and a more manageable wind section than his usual oversize symphonies require. It's long been my least favorite Mahler symphony. I first heard it (or saw it) on TV in England in 1989 while on vacation visiting my grandparents. It was a terrible way to see and hear this work. I didn't get any sense of the musical flow, I thought the melodies made no sense at all, and the finale, a soprano solo song about life in Heaven, underwhelmed me. So I avoided this symphony for a long time. It's only recently that as I've explored Mahler's music in depth that I returned to the Fourth and discovered how wonderful and lovely this symphony can be.

The second movement was interesting to watch as associate concertmaster Sheryl Staples switched violins several times with a spare, deliberately out-of-tune instrument on a chair in front of her. The interplay among her, clarinetist Mark Nuccio, and principal horn Philip Myers was entertaining as well. The massive E major chord in the third movement, signifying the glorious light of Heaven, gave me chills. The end of the third movement flowed directly into the finale as soprano Lisa Milne walked from the rear of the stage to the front to sing the words that describe Heaven as a place of childlike wonder, where everyone is free from worry and enjoys unimaginable food and drink prepared by saints and angels. It reads a bit hokey but it was blissful to hear. At the end of the symphony, the last notes came from the bass section and were barely audible. As they faded out, Harding kept his baton up, barely moving it as the sound faded. There were several seconds where no sound could be heard and no one in the audience dared to so much as breathe. I've never heard a concert hall go silent like that. At last, Harding lowered his hands, and the audience applauded vigorously for what was a fantastic performance.   

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

James Levine resigns as Boston Symphony Orchestra music director

One day after cancelling the remainder of his appearances this season with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, music director James Levine stepped down from his post, citing his ongoing health problems as preventing him from fulfilling his duties.  He's missed many performances in Boston and with the Metropolitan Opera in New York over the past few years.  He had rotator cuff surgery and other surgeries during that time.  His continued absences made things difficult for both organizations.

It's too bad that Levine's tenure in Boston has to end this way.  And I'm a little surprised that it happened so quickly.  But like a professional athlete, he knew that it was time to go.  The workload of managing a top-flight symphony orchestra is heavy enough, and adding his responsibilities at the Met (a post that he will maintain) was clearly too much for someone with his health problems.  With only one job, Levine will be able to focus on the Met's needs and appear as a guest conductor with orchestras if he wants.  I've enjoyed watching him at the Met and I hope he's able to continue in that position for as long as he wants.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Today in "I feel old..."

Daniel Harding is 35 and making his debut with the New York Philharmonic this weekend.  I tried to remember if I ever conducted a rehearsal of anything when I was 16.  I don't think so.  If I did, it certainly wasn't Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire.  It would have been something like an arrangement of songs from Les Miserables or The Phantom of the Opera, both staples of my youth orchestra's repertoire.  A videotape of those pieces wouldn't be worth much today.

If anyone does have footage of my brief appearance on stage at Georgetown University's Gaston Hall conducting the Georgetown U. Orchestra with a plastic chicken, I'd like to see it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

RIP Sidney Harth

My mother passed along the obituary for Sidney Harth, who passed away a few days ago.  I never got to hear him play the violin, but I saw him conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1987 at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and then I had the privilege of working with him a few years later at the 1991 MENC All-Eastern Orchestra Festival in Pittsburgh.  OK, "worked with" is being generous, since I was in the far back of the viola section.  He was a firm and knowledgeable conductor for that weekend.  We only played one piece, Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini, and he made sure we were fully prepared to play every note.  We were so well-prepared that one afternoon of the three-day festival he decided we would sight-read instead of rehearse.  So he split the orchestra in half (by having us take turns) and half of us read Schumann's Symphony No. 3 while the other half read a Brahms symphony.  I got to play the Schumann, which was a real treat for me as it quickly became one of my favorite symphonies.  I still have the recording of our rendition of the Tchaikovsky.  I only wish we'd been able to play at Heinz Hall instead of a massive concrete hall in the Lawrence Convention Center; the sound would have been so much better in a proper space.

It's hard for me to believe that was twenty years ago.  I remember it like it was last week.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Beethoven, Sibelius, and Nielsen: "New" music at the New York Philharmonic

This weekend's New York Philharmonic concerts featured works by Sibelius and Nielsen that the orchestra hasn't performed in years, if at all.  There was Beethoven too, if you like hearing music you've heard dozens of times before.  (Not that I have any problems with Beethoven -- I love the guy -- but it's wonderful to hear something unfamiliar now and then.)  The music wasn't unfamiliar to me, though; I played the two Beethoven works and the Nielsen symphony with NYRO several years ago.

The concert opened with Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 in F.  I would call it a boisterous reading, with great work from the two horns in the third movement, excellent attention to dynamics (especially the recapitulation in the first movement, when the upper strings and winds play fortississimo and drown out the melody in the cellos) and I especially enjoyed watching the timpanist playing like mad on three drums at the end of the piece.  (Although there's only two drums in the score, so I don't know what he was doing, but it looked amazing from where I sat.)

A smaller Philharmonic came onstage for Beethoven's concert aria "Ah, perfido!"  Soprano Karita Mattila brought the singer's words to life, portraying a scorned woman going through a variety of emotions through ten minutes of music.  Music Director Alan Gilbert kept the orchestra out of her way, but also brought out the woodwinds when their lines and Mattila's intersected and complemented each other.

After intermission, the Philharmonic and Mattila performed three songs by Jean Sibelius.  I'd never heard these songs before (and neither had New York audiences -- two of the three had never been performed by the Philharmonic before, and the third one not since 1965) but they were unmistakably Sibelius.  I'd know those harmonies anywhere.  Once again, Mattila's voice was perfect for this music.

Finally, the Philharmonic marshaled all of its forces for Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 2, "The Four Temperaments."  I've noted before in this space that Nielsen's music is not as popular here as it would seem to deserve.  I hope that's changing.  In the program notes, Gilbert wrote of his love for Scandinavian music (from his years as music director of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra) and his puzzlement at the lack of exposure to Nielsen's works.  He wrote that he plans to program all of Nielsen's symphonies over the next few years, which excites me as a musician and a fan.  The last time the Philharmonic had played Nielsen's 2nd was in 1973, shortly before I was born.  That's too long.

The first movement was crisp and stormy, with the winds and brass completely on point with short, loud blasts.  The second movement, with its languid phrases, put some of the people around me to sleep.  The ones who weren't sleeping applauded between movements, which baffled me.  Who are these people?  We don't clap between movements here!  Yes, I'm a stickler for concert etiquette.  The third movement, representing melancholia, was moving and powerful.  I just adore the long brass and string melodies in this movement, and the orchestra played them beautifully.  The last movement was spirited and bold and brought the concert to a close that the audience really seemed to appreciate.  I felt sorry for the few patrons I saw leaving at intermission.  What a treat they missed!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Another crazy ride on Amtrak

I don't have a great record with Amtrak and the regional trains to Maryland over the past few years.  In October 2009 I had a long delay for "police activity" and a sick passenger in Wilmington, DE.  Then in December 2009 Penn Station lost power to the tracks for several hours, turning a three-hour trip into an all-day ordeal.  These problems are unusual, but what's not unusual is that the regional trains are routinely late or delayed for reasons unknown.  And I had another such experience this past Friday night.

I was supposed to take a 6:20 PM train from Penn Station to New Carrollton, MD, arriving at 9:20 PM.  When I got to Penn Station at 5:45 my train was already 30 minutes delayed.  Five minutes later the delay increased to 50 minutes.  The PA announcer said that our train would be in the station and ready for boarding by 7:10 PM.  I called my dad and told him that I'd be at least an hour late.  We boarded the train a few minutes after 7, but we did not leave on time.  As we sat on the platform at Penn Station the train conductor read what sounded like the entire information sheet for the train, covering oft-unmentioned items such as "there are bathrooms in each train car,""don't ride in the vestibules," "a wide variety of snacks are available in the cafe car," and "we hope you are having a lovely evening in New York and we apologize for the delay."  A woman across the aisle from me asked to no one in particular "when are we leaving?"

We finally departed around 7:30 PM.  Arriving at Newark, NJ a few minutes later, we sat at the platform there for at least five minutes, which was about four minutes longer than usual.  Around 9 PM, outside of Trenton, the lights went out in the train and we ground to a halt.  The train conductor said we'd lost power and that the engineers were trying to fix the problems but until they could do so, we were "dead in the water."  I started to get a bad feeling about the whole trip as I remembered another Amtrak train stuck on the tracks between Philadelphia and Baltimore during the December blizzard.  Another conductor came into our car to apologize for the delay and to tell us that we had a "helper engine" on the way to rescue us.  The power came back on a few times, only to go off again a few minutes later.  I tried to read my book by flashlight and not think about how bad things could get.  I'd had dinner, I had used the bathroom before the power went off, and I had several warm layers in my bag.

My fellow passengers were not as outwardly calm as I was.  The woman across from me continued her running commentary, possibly on her phone, though I think she was just talking to herself.  When the conductor apologized again and suggested that we call 1-800-USA-RAIL with any complaints, a man a few rows up called them.  He demanded action on this stalled train issue and wanted a full refund.  Apparently, they told him to call back once he reached his destination.  I don't think that was the answer he wanted.

The aforementioned helper engine appeared around 9:45 PM and towed us to Philadelphia.  The conductor told us that they would change engines in Philadelphia, requiring another delay.  Or we had the option of changing to the next Washington, DC-bound train when it arrived on the opposite platform.  But Amtrak didn't say how long the engine change would take.  The chatty woman said "I ride these trains every day.  An engine change takes a half hour or 45 minutes.  I'm leaving."  Everyone in my car began packing their belongings, except for the young couple behind me.  She and I had been discussing Infinite Jest and I considered staying where I was, since I was comfortable, already late and whoever was going to pick me up in New Carrollton would have to stay up anyway.  But when the next train appeared, the car emptied out except for this couple.  She said to her boyfriend "we'll have the car to ourselves.  We can make out."  I smiled at them and said "Now I'm switching trains.  Have a good night."  I found a seat on the other train and a few minutes later we were on our way.   I wonder how long it was before that train moved.

I arrived in New Carrollton at about 12:30 AM, over three hours late.  My girlfriend (who had driven all the way from Ohio for the weekend) met me at the station, and after the ordeal I'd been through she was a most welcome sight.  In retrospect, it wasn't the worst time I'd ever had on a train, but it wasn't any fun at all.  I don't think it's too much to ask that for my $150 I get to my destination as close to on-time as possible.  Three hours is definitely not close to on time.

Some of my friends suggested that I take the Acela next time, saying that the regional trains are always unreliable.  While the Acela doesn't seem to stop at New Carrollton, I might be able to manage going to Baltimore or BWI or even Union Station instead if I could work out the schedules.  So rather than abandon Amtrak entirely, I'll give that a try next time.  Otherwise I might take advantage of one of those rental car deals that keep popping up in my e-mail.  Or one of those DC buses that are ridiculously cheap.  But I think I'm done with the regional trains for a while.

Monday, January 24, 2011

See you in Dallas in two weeks...

I hope this feeling of excitement never gets old.  The Pittsburgh Steelers are back in the Super Bowl for the third time in six seasons.  Six years ago I could only hope that this team would make it back to the championship game after a long drought.  Now, with two rings and another within our grasp, I'm just as giddy as I was in 2006 and 2009.  I can't believe I'm going to watch the Steelers play the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV in Dallas in two weeks.

I watched Sunday's AFC Championship game in Maryland with my family, as I owed them a visit after missing them at Christmas.  My stepmother and I screamed at the TV on almost every play, which was more screaming than might have been completely necessary.  As we built a seemingly insurmountable 24-3 lead before halftime, we all dared to dream about what we'd do for the Super Bowl: where we'd watch the game, who would travel, and so on. I tried to keep calm.  There's plenty of football left.  I took comfort from CBS's note that the Steelers led the Broncos 24-0 in the AFC Championship in 2006 and went on to win.

Then the New York Jets came out after halftime and cut the lead to 24-10 and ultimately to 24-19.  My heart was pounding (although that might have been from the giant sandwich and metric ton of seven layer dip I'd consumed in the 1st quarter).  I watched the clock tick down, moving far too slowly. Like the Patriots did last week, the Jets took their time marching down the field in the 4th quarter.  With 3 minutes left, they kicked off deep instead of kicking it onside (my greatest fear at that point was that they'd recover an onside kick).  I kept thinking “one more first down. Just one.”  The Jets used up their timeouts before the 2-minute warning.  One more first down was all we needed.  And when Ben Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for those precious few yards, my dad said “that's the game!” and I laughed and stood up and waved my Terrible Towels (I have two now) and everyone thought I was going to cry.  Ike Taylor threw his hands in the air, Rex Ryan threw his headset, and the Steelers kneeled to seal the game.

Now we move on to Dallas and the Packers.  Green Bay is a solid, dangerous team and I am not about to underestimate them.  The Steelers have experience on both offense and defense and a coaching staff that knows what it's like to play on the game's biggest stage.  I'd like to think those are advantages, but New Orleans came into last year's game against Indianapolis and proved that they could beat a talented quarterback and a recent Super Bowl champion.  Green Bay will not let Pittsburgh have a 24-0 lead by halftime.  We are in for a fight in two weeks.  We played these Packers on my birthday last year (a game I was supposed to attend until a snowstorm kept me in New York) and we only beat them at the last minute.  These are two evenly matched teams.  I think it's going to be a great game.  I'm thrilled to be a part of it.

One more thing: my superstitions might be getting out of control.  When I'm at home by myself, I wear my Steelers shirt, a Harrison jersey, carry two Terrible Towels, and I make chili (and watch the game from the kitchen sometimes) and that usually leads to victory.  Since I was at my dad's house, I couldn't make chili or watch the game from the kitchen.  Instead of ignoring my superstition for the foolishness that it is, I came up with a new one.  We all stayed seated for for most of the first half as we were eating and drinking, and the Steelers looked like world-beaters.  In the second half, my brother and his girlfriend got up to get drinks and dessert and spent a few minutes in the kitchen.  The Jets scored a touchdown.  Then my brother got up to get another drink in the 4th quarter and the Jets got a safety.  I realized that we'd been in our seats in the first half and the Steelers had played well.  I nearly ordered everyone to sit where they'd been sitting in the first half, because who knew if that had been helping the team?  I tweeted that I was threatening to tie everyone to their chairs.  My father had to use the bathroom and waited until the 2-minute warning to get up.  OK, I felt a little bad about that one.  But a trip to the Super Bowl was on the line!  You do whatever it takes to help the team.

I will try to calm down a bit for the Super Bowl, but it's going to be tremendously difficult. We're going for our seventh championship. I need to remember that nothing I do can affect the way the Steelers play. Except for what I wear, and where I watch the game, and where I hang my Steelers banner, and what I eat....