Sunday, March 05, 2017

Beethoven's Fifth

On February 5, I went to an all-Beethoven program at Lincoln Center, with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, conducted by Iván Fischer.  

They did two symphonies and a piano concerto, ending with the Fifth Symphony.  

I've certainly heard it before (and have long loved the PDQ Bach version with sports-style commentary) -- but some reason, the Fifth really got into my brain this time.  

For nearly three weeks afterward, I kept remembering particular segments or phrases, especially the inflection points or transitions between keys and themes.  

Now that I've gone back to look at Lincoln Center's page about the concert, I see that the NYT called Fischer “A dynamic, idiosyncratic Beethoven conductor.”  That assessment may help explain my own experience.

In retrospect, I'm sorry I didn't go see them the following night too, for their second all-Beethoven program (featuring the 8th & 9th symphonies).  The NYT wrote up both concerts, as "An Orchestra Triumphs Over Trump’s Travel Ban" by Michael Cooper (2/8/2017):
The Budapest Festival Orchestra and its conductor, Ivan Fischer, gave two of the freshest, least conventional Beethoven performances of the season at Lincoln Center this week. Music students [from Julliard and Bard] unexpectedly rushed the stage to join them in a soaring section of the Fifth Symphony, and incognito choristers popped up among the audience members to sing the Ninth’s “Ode to Joy.”
But apparently, Trump's executive order threw the orchestra's planned five-city U.S. tour into doubt:
As the orchestra prepared to leave Hungary last week, it was informed that one of its cellists, a longtime Hungarian citizen, would not be allowed to enter the United States because he also held citizenship in Iraq [...] 
Mr. Fischer did not take this lying down.  Instead, he called a State Department official and 
argued that his cellist [...] was as Hungarian as anyone in the orchestra, and that he did not believe that the executive order, which he read, applied to dual-passport holders.  The next day, after pressure from diplomats in Britain, Canada and elsewhere, Trump administration officials announced that dual citizens would be allowed to enter the country.
My own sad secret is that the second Beethoven concert conflicted with the chocolate tasting event -- and I made the wrong choice.  Alas!  I'll definitely have to catch Mr. Fischer again at the Mostly Mozart Festival this summer.

Post-Publication Irregular Round-Up

Here is a round-up of my lousy smartphone pictures...

Jacques Torres and Leonard Lopate at WNYC
In early February, I went to a chocolate and wine tasting at a local radio station's performance space.  Torres was quite personable and a good raconteur; I could see how he made the jump from pastry chef to celebrity chocolatier.  (Although not everyone knows him.  Indeed, I first learned of him through a guy's very cute first date survival package - it included a small box of Jacques Torres chocolates, plus exact change for a payphone, which he explained was so I could either call a friend and say how great the date was or call a cab to make my getaway.)

Torres talked a little bit about his family.  His first-born child is almost 6 months old now, which apparently means monthly visits to the pediatrician for vaccinations etc.  Torres says he keeps asking the doctor "When can I give my son chocolate?"  To which the doctor will only reply, "Not yet!"  Torres expressed self-deprecating optimism that the upcoming appointment will be the turning point.   Surely six months is old enough for chocolate!!
Cthulhu and the MTA
I also had the occasion to see a performance of Twelfth Night recently.  The audience's favorite scene, by far, was the one where Sir Toby and his fellow conspirators lurk around to watch Malvolio find their letter and fall into their trap.  Young kids and others unfamiliar with Shakespeare could very much get the physical humor in the way this scene was staged: the conspirators are so badly hidden that anyone but a self-obsessed gullible fool would have noticed them.  They pop up to react in outrage to Malvolio's reactions, and their fellow conspirators have to pull them back down into hiding again.  (It is the same broadly comic approach to a merry conspiracy as seen in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing.)

Malvolio is slow to find the letter initially

(The boy in the homburg - Fabian? - had remarkable
comic timing throughout the play.)

Sir Toby is outraged by Malvolio's arrogance

Now Sir Andrew Aguecheek is exercised...

... and immediately suppressed. 
Lewis Carroll has a good explanation of the general concept in his well-known treatise, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: "Here one of the guinea-pigs cheered, and was immediately suppressed by the officers of the court. (As that is rather a hard word, I will just explain to you how it was done. They had a large canvas bag, which tied up at the mouth with strings: into this they slipped the guinea-pig, head first, and then sat upon it.)"
The conspirators follow Malvolio and prepare to read over his shoulder

Olivia and her true love, Cesario (nee Viola)

Olivia and her other true love, Sebastian (Viola's twin)

The clown role was split and played by two actors, both of whom wore red noses.

Curtain Call

I also had the opportunity to observe an Introduction to Lacross session.  Apparently, girls are expected to play without body-checking their adversaries, and are therefore given much trickier lacrosse sticks (with virtually no basket).  Who knew?

Under the weather, but providing moral support

A few more highlights from Florida:
  • Naples Zoo: primate cruise, where you get to tour around several small islands containing two primates each.  
  • Also, the blind Florida panther, Uno, had memorized its landscape well enough to gracefully leap over the shrubbery to land near the keeper during her talk.  (Uno learned rather quickly that zookeeper = treat-bringer and planned accordingly.)
  • Wildlife Refuge: we spent a lot of time watching an osprey feeding its young.  We had a great view, as the nest was essentially on the main drag, and we had our best binoculars and a scope.  There were four chicks in the nest, and we watched as the parent tore off bits of fish to feed whichever chick happened to be squawking the loudest. (We got distracted a bit with a pileated woodpecker that flew into the general scene, but it was relatively shy and soon fled from sight.)   

  • Games of Cattan and Taboo
  • The traditional bike rides for breakfast and ice cream (although we tried a much closer ice cream shop this time, a new place - I liked their espresso chip ice cream, but they unfortunately did not have the beloved "magic shell" chocolate)

As I was preparing this post, I went to look for some emails I sent to two individuals describing some of my recent activities -- in particular, I had a very clear memory of telling #2 all about the chocolate tasting --  but could not find any such emails.  I looked on all my devices, searching draft folders and sent folders, and started to wonder if this false recollection might be the first sign of insanity...  And then I remembered, I'd sent them e-cards with messages, not regular emails.  I went to the e-card site, and found the messages easily.  Phew!!!

Polka Will Never Die: An Experiment

My theory is that this passage works without any explanation whatsoever.  The readers, or the audience, will make inferences about the circumstances and the characters -- perhaps the wrong ones, but it actually doesn't matter. They will see the important things.*  And I don't think you even need to be a Weird Al fan to appreciate it.
"Butters," Thomas said quietly, "if we stay here we're going to die."

"But if they've destroyed the car—" Butters began.

"We'll die," Thomas said. "But we don't have a choice. Whether or not they've destroyed it, our only chance of getting out of this alive is to get to the Beetle and hope it runs."

The little guy got even paler, and then abruptly doubled over and staggered over to the wall beneath one of my high windows. He threw up. He straightened after a minute and leaned back against the wall, shaking.

"I hate this," he whispered, and wiped his mouth. "I hate this. I want to go home. I want to wake up."

"Get it together, Butters," I said, my voice tight. "This isn't helping."

He let out a wild laugh. "Nothing I can do would help, Harry."

"Butters, you've got to calm down."

"Calm down?" He waved a shaking hand at the door. "They're going to kill us. Just like Phil. They're going to kill us and we're going to die. You, me, Thomas. We're all going to die."

I forgot my bad leg for a second, crossed the room to Butters, and seized him by the front of his shirt. I hauled up until his heels lifted off of the floor. "Listen to me," I snarled. "We are not going to die."

Butters stared up at me, pale, his eyes terrified. "We're not?"

"No. And do you know why?" He shook his head. "Because Thomas is too pretty to die. And because I'm too stubborn to die." I hauled on the shirt even harder. "And most of all because tomorrow is Oktoberfest, Butters, and polka will never die." He blinked. "Polka will never die!" I shouted at him. "Say it!"

He swallowed. "Polka will never die?"


"P-p-polka will never die," he stammered.

I shook him a little. "Louder!"

"Polka will never die!" he shrieked.

"We're going to make it!" I shouted.

"Polka will never die!" Butters screamed.

"I can't believe I'm hearing this," Thomas muttered.

--Jim Butcher, Dead Beat

FN*: In my view, the important things to glean from this passage are: (1) Butters (whoever he may be) is a coward and did not sign up for this particular adventure. (2) His companions are hardier than he, and determined to survive. (3) The narrator is using Butters's apparently overwhelming love of polka to get through to him so he can survive too.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Naples Zoo

I'd never been to the zoo in Naples, Florida before.  On the way, we read an excerpt from Henry V (the wonderful early scene with the French ambassador and his tun of treasure), and then the first few chapters of "A Study in Scarlet."

We mostly organized our visit to the zoo around the keepers' talks, which were interesting (with a strong pro-conservation bent).  We first met Uno, the blind Florida panther, and went on from there.
Leopard (NOT A RUG)


Beaded Iguana - rendevous with reptiles / meet the keeper event

Branches of a possibly cauliflorous tree 

Ring-Tailed Lemurs on the Primate Cruise

I was impressed by the giraffe's long gray tongue, and the way it came out at an angle and swept around to corral the leaves the keeper gave it.
Tiger and Friends

Audience contestant gets instructions....
Four audience members were selected to compete against the animals.  This contestant was racing against a hornbill to collect worms. The hornbill used its beak, and the contestant used tongs.  Fortunatley, the hornbill won - I'm pretty sure the prize was getting to eat the worms!!
Racing against the hornbill!

Ranking of crimes in the U.S.A., by "popularity"

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Wildlife Refuge

A few good sightings in the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge: two alligators, two yellow-crowned night herons, and a green heron.   One gator and one of the yellow-crowns were on the Indigo Trail (specifically at the observatory).  The remainder were on Wildlife Drive.

We watched the gator exit the water and pose in a J shape with cactus arms:

The left rear leg had a ragged chunk out of it, as if bitten.

Nearby, on the other side of the walkway, we saw a yellow-crowned night heron which was very busy preening.

Green Heron

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Dragons Can Be Beaten

Apparently, it is Neil Gaiman who said in Coraline:
“Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
On the Federalist blog, this is listed specifically as a quote that is frequently mis-attributed to G.K. Chesterton.  They set forth a passage from Chesterton's "Red Angel" to support Gaiman's assertion that "The sentiment is his, the phrasing mine."  This seems to be the heart of it:
Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear. 
But I had also thought, vaguely, that Lewis and/or Tolkien had said something similar as well.

So here's what I found in Lewis's "On Three Ways of Writing for Children":
Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.  [. . .] And I think it possible that by confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you would fail to banish the terrors, and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable. For in the fairy tales, side by side with the terrible figures, we find the immemorial comforters and protectors, the radiant ones; and the terrible figures are not merely terrible, but sublime. It would be nice if no little boy in bed, hearing, or thinking he hears, a sound, were ever at all frightened. But if he is going to be frightened, I think it better that he should think of giants and dragons than merely of burglars. And I think St George, or any bright champion in armor, is a better comfort than the idea of the police.
Surprisingly, a quick perusal of Tolkien's "On Fairy-stories" does not immediately turn up a similar sentiment.  Perhaps the closest is this line:
I desired dragons with a profound desire.  Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighbourhood...

Thursday, January 19, 2017

"The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047" (NO SPOILERS)

Alas, the dystopian future of Lionel Shriver's novel strikes me as dismally plausible; the relatively optimistic and comforting conclusion, much less so.

Still, a small collection of quotes toward the end made me at least smile wryly:

  • "[R]epairing their own properties, tilling gardens, walking to save on fuel, and beating intruders with baseball bats had rendered Americans impressively fit."  p. 333 (nice use of a standard humor technique, the list with a twist; though it would be funnier to have only three items in the list -- I'd have deleted the second item)
  • "Rumors had long circulated about the 'über-rich.'  In folklore, these pampered fiscal vampires had retreated to fortified islands of sumptuous abandon, ... while their countrymen starved.  To discover ... that, if nothing else, they may not have escaped one another [] was satisfying."  p. 370 (considering that I just took a course on vampire folklore...!)
  • "It cared nothing for virtue.  It was crass, it was loud, it was heathen.  It was silly, and it was fake -- honestly, admittedly fake, which gave it a genuineness of a sort.  It did not apologize for itself."  p. 383 (written of a particular city, but potentially applicable to certain other contemporary phenomena...)
  • One character "took up coaching the debate team at their local high school, teaching precocious teenagers how to be show-off know-it-alls who tested adult patience.  He was very popular with the kids."  p. 401 (a cheap shot, but it works here)
The book is heavily laced with pointed observations and commentaries which are often, but not always, placed in the mouths of characters.  Two examples from late in the book:
  • "Presidents always rail against 'billionaires and trillionaires,' and then the top bracket conveniently kicks in, not at a billion, but 250K."  p. 383 (character dialogue)
  • "Everything in [a particular] newspaper wasn't accurate, but the odds of a given factoid being at least sort-of-true were better than fifty-fifty, which beat the internet by a yard." p. 400
And a prediction, of sorts, of the Clinton family's future relevance after a series of crises:
  • "The Chelsea Clinton administration quietly assumed that [_____] would crumple into a whimpering, remorseful heap within months if not weeks.  Except it's been five years."  p. 390 (character dialogue, year 2047)
(In light of the society described in year 2047, I would not say this prediction is one that puts the Clintons in a favorable light.)

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

I had the BBG's nature walk/birding tour with the Kleins on my agenda for today.  Despite the bright sunshine, with one thing and another, I gathered up my binoculars and camera and headed out for BBG about 20 minutes after I thought the program had begun.*

Things did not look good at 150 Eastern Parkway. The beautiful gate was closed and locked, without explanation, and there was no sign of any personnel.  So I headed over to 990 Washington Avenue (next to the visitor center and gift shop).  Another locked gate, but now I could see some guards moving around inside the garden.  Things were looking up!  A guard directed me on to the administrative entrance halfway down the block at 1000 Washington Avenue.  And fortunately, I had wildly misrecorded the start time for the nature walk and arrived with a few minutes to spare!**

For the tour, we had to stick to the plowed paths, which pretty much meant staying in the lily pond and magnolia tree area.

Even the hardiest water-lilies were nowhere to be seen...
It was very, very cold (I'd needlessly worried about being overdressed), but we had a few great sightings.

Pride of place goes to the Cooper's hawk.  It very graciously perched in plain view on a tree for a good 20 minutes or more -- long enough for the entire group to take turns observing it through the scope, take photos, and hear all about the distinguishing features etc.

According to our guide, the hawk was a juvenile (based on the vertical feather pattern on its chest), and probably female (based on its relatively large size).  He said the Cooper's hawk is often confused with the sharp-shinned hawk; the tell-tales are (1) pale arcs (like eyebrows) over the eyes and (2) thinner vertical markings on the chest.

The right leg has been pulled up into the chest feathers to keep warm.

She was not interested in the various robins that flew by, nor in the gull far overhead.

We did see her chasing after a mourning dove later on, but the prey got wise to the chase and undertook evasive action, so the predator abruptly gave up and turned aside to the woods.

Cooper's hawk, sitting pretty

Brad explained that juveniles are more commonly seen than mature hawks, because the life of a hunter is very hard - probably 50% do not survive their first year.  Apparently, Cape May in the autumn is great for watching juvenile hawks -- they follow the NJ coastline south, and then turn around when they realize they have a huge expanse of water to cross.  They go back north, and cross the Delaware River where it is relatively narrow.  Only juveniles do this, however -- apparently if they survive that first year, they don't make that mistake again!!

(He also had some funny stories about birds perching on one leg.  This is apparently something they do to keep at least one leg warm while the other leg is holding on to a cold branch. It seems that ometimes they are so reluctant to remove the warm leg from its comfy "pocket" that they'll just doggedly hop around on the other leg. And apparently many novice bird-watchers are certain they've seen a one-legged bird.  He also mentioned a book "H is for Hawk" which has a very pretty cover illustration of a hawk, but the artist might not be a trained scientific illustrator.  The evidence?  The bird's front has a bulge, as if one leg has been pulled up into the bird's chest, but then the artist still showed two legs holding the branch!)

We also saw, in the distance, a red-tailed hawk heading away from us into the sun, and a falcon over the rooftops to the east.  Brad noted that the falcons and gulls have evolved to resemble each other more closely; a sort of arms race (or survival race) between predator and prey.  They both have long narrow wings, for example.  But he noted that the gull's wings are longer, as they often need to glide over the sea for long distances.

Magnolia trees with snow "berries"

Shayne Dark, "Glacial Series: Drop Stones" (2014) [corten steel, bronze]***
At the end of the tour, I went into the greenhouses to warm up!!!  What a relief.  

bonsai and icicles (from the outside)

bonsai and icicles (inside out)
bonsai and icicles (outside in)
I was looking forward to a nice dry heat in the desert room, but it was actually less toasty than I expected.

The kids' programming in the basement of the conservatory was well attended.  They seemed to have four different activities going on in the four corners of the play area.  In one, they had origami water lilies on tiles to move around.  That was very cute.  In another area, they had a petting zoo, complete with straw, in a little enclosure.  Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed an adorable little goat or lamb lying down near the entrance.  I walked around to check it out, and realized the littlest kids in the central sub-enclosure were just playing with stuffed animals (e.g., a fuzzy mallard duck, etc.).  Very obviously fake.  So it would seem that only the older kids got to ... No, waaaait a minute!  ALL the animals were stuffed animals!!!  Including the little goat that had attracted my attention in the first place!  But the hay was real, OK?  Anyone could have made this mistake.  I mean, really!

Shayne Dark, "Windfall" (2010) [applewood, aircraft cable]  

After that, I wandered back up to the magnolia area and discovered they'd plowed and opened the path leading to the gift shop and entrance #2. 

Always remember to stop and smell the flowers

A nice vista with the Shinto Gate


After that, I cut through the Brooklyn Museum's parking lot and lobby to get to Eastern Parkway.  There were a lot of kids sledding on the little hill behind the BBG.  I don't recall seeing this sculpture before, though:

I had always assumed the squat, disproportioned statue of liberty replica in the museum's back lot was a crude parody, intended as some sort of scathing commentary on the USA or its institutions, or our notions of freedom, or the like.  Instead, the plaque advises that an entrepreneur commissioned it in 1902 to adorn the rooftop of his Liberty Warehouse in Manhattan.  The museum's website provides some information about the statue and conservation efforts.

Hangover sufferers of yore

Hedwig, is that you?
I'd always figured this sculpture was a modern piece (1980s or later) with some kind of (perhaps ironic) racial commentary, depicting whites over blacks, although the whites are hardly sitting pretty -- they seem to be in agony.  And I couldn't figure out why they had wings.  And what's with the snakes?

Well, I was pretty close with my guess - only off by a hundred years or so!  The work is by Salvatore Albano (Italian, 1841-1893).  It's called The Fallen Angels, or The Rebel Angels, and dates from 1893 (marble); 1883 (base). 

The official plaque says: "At the apex of this sculptural group, a sword-wielding Satan struggles alongside his rebel angels against God and his army (both absent) in heaven.  Below, under a coiled serpent, a defeated angel (possibly Satan again) lies facedown and mangled in hell.  Such continuous narratives were common in monumental ancient Roman sculpture, a major influence on the academically trained Florentine Salvatore Albano.  Here, the angels are so idealized that only the snakes in their hair identify them as fallen."

I'm not sure I'd agree that "only the snakes in their hair" identify them as fallen -- I think the expressions of torment reflect their separation from God.

 The website also offers some commentary on the work: "It depicts 'The Fallen Angels.' In the Bible, fallen angels are those who rebelled against God along with Lucifer, an archangel who became the Devil. The dark base, where the snake slithers over a body, is probably the depiction of hell, and the figure down there could be Lucifer himself. The expressions on their faces are remarkable. There are so many different emotions carved into the marble. One figure is biting his knuckle in anguish or torment!"

He doesn't look dead quite yet...

Snakes in the hair - not just for Medusa anymore!

marble fingers sinking into marble flesh
Additional commentary from the museum website: 
"I encourage you to get as close as you can and look at how the artist, Salvatore Albano, handles flesh. He makes it seem so soft and realistic for being carved out of stone. This is a technical masterpiece of carving stressing how the figure can be seen in the round from all angles."

Wavy sword - did it melt when used against heaven's angels?

snakes, feathers, and feet


Not sure that sword is gonna be much use to you now...

So all in all it was an educational day.  Celebrated with two loads of laundry and a viewing of the Signum Symposium on Rogue One & Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

FN* My lack of urgency was perhaps in part because I'd seen on the BBG's website yesterday that the garden was closed for snow removal; despite their assurance that they'd be open "tomorrow," I had my doubts.
FN** It turns out the garden was not really open, after all, at the time I arrived -- the public was being allowed in only for the conservatory and the First Sunday programs.  That's why it was such a big deal that I'd made it in time for the nature walk!  When I initially told the guard I was there to walk around the garden, she gave me the stink-eye and handed me the program list. 
FN*** According to wikipedia, "Weathering steel, best-known under the trademark COR-TEN steel and sometimes written without the hyphen as corten steel, is a group of steel alloys which were developed to eliminate the need for painting, and form a stable rust-like appearance if exposed to the weather for several years." So we may be seeing the possible slow death of a trademark here if people are using corten steel as a synonym for generic weathering steel, just as they use kleenex as a synonym for generic tissue.