Soju


Let me take a step back and explain. My better half was out of the country, managing family matters for nearly six months, while I was living the bachelor life, last year; and then again for a little over two months, this year.

During that time, she started watching Korean soap operas. Because she was watching them, I started watching them too (also, peppering my Korean viewing habits with some ultra violent action movies). Now, we watch them together, though our tastes differ slightly.

In those soap operas, characters drink a lot of soju, a clear, malted liquor, similar to sake, but with a much rougher feel. At it’s best, it’s taste could be compared to a combination of the flavors of vodka (real vodka, not whatever flavored garbage they’re selling to college kids with fake IDs) and sake. At it’s worst, it tastes like something that could power your riding lawnmower. I like it, either way.

I like it, but it can be damnably expensive. Schneider’s in DC carries almost everything, but it’s soju options consist of an overpriced ($33.99) bottle or a Japanese brand that costs less ($17) but whose taste is more on the lawnmower fuel side. Presumably, I could go to an H Mart (a Korean grocery store chain), but I mostly go to one in Montgomery County, Maryland, where local laws don’t allow the store to sell alcohol. I could go to Virginia, I suppose, but my better half and I were walking around the edges of neighborhood when we passed a liquor store that had a Korean looking fellow behind the counter and another Korean looking fellow chatting with him. We went inside and were directed to nice looking bottle of $9.99 soju. Haven’t tried it yet, but it looks very promising.

The man behind the counter told use that soju had become wildly popular in Korea again because of the same soap operas that turned me onto it. Twenty years ago, only old men would have been seen drinking, but now, because it featured so prominently in beloved television shows, people everywhere in the country were quaffing unhealthy quantities.

So, I guess the point is, I am as shallow as a Korean soap opera buff. Hurray for me, I guess.

It’s A Brave New World, As They Say (I Think That My Father Used To Say That, Even Though He Was Never A Particular Fan Of Aldous Huxley; For Myself, I Think That ‘Crome Yellow’ Is An Underrated Novel If You Want To Read Something By Him That’s Not, You Know, ‘Brave New World’)


Perhaps it is because I (and other residents of the District and, indeed, almost everyone in America) have been protected by what has become a comforting layer of incompetence that covers everything he does like a bulletproof vest whose actual purpose is to protect everyone around the wearer.

Or maybe it’s because he’s never here and is busy inflicting himself on the patrons Palm Beach County’s Mar-A-Lago retreat for the super wealthy.

More likely though, I have been deluding myself.

After all, I have spent my career trying to make things better for this country. More specifically, I have spent more than a half decade helping to make tangible improvements in the lives of several groups working people in the DMV (that’s DC, Maryland, and Virginia). And this administration really has no time for that kind of thing. Insofar as they have an interest, it is in seeing that kind of work stopped.

Because his comforting incompetence has stalled so many of his priorities (so many of them hilariously and depressingly opposite from those he campaigned on), I haven’t had to think too much about the ways they would devastate the lives of my friends, my family, my neighbors, etc.

I assume the United States of America will survive this. It seems an article of faith. We survived a Civil War. We survived moral blights like chattel slavery, Japanese internment, and a mixture of accidentally and deliberately genoicidal actions towards native peoples, and while we didn’t come out as well as we might have hoped, we did come out a little better, surely. Of course, that ‘we’ is a white people ‘we.’ A reminder of an easily slippery slope. unless you somehow think American Indians came out better for my ancestors arriving and eventually founding this country, in which case, you are too stupid for me to even bother trying to sell you a bridge or mineral rights of a magazine subscription.

That easy slope is why he is so dangerous, too, right?

And maybe I’ll be fine, because I’m white and male and straight. And maybe my person of color better half will be fine because she will be protected by my beneficent aura of whiteness.

Or maybe we are all simply f–ked.

Choral Works At The National Cathedral


First of all, I was glad to see that nets were gone at the Washington National Cathedral. For a long time, post-earthquake (which was in 2011 or 2012, I think), there nets strung up inside the Cathedral to protect visitors and worshipers from falling bits of cathedral. While appreciated, from a safety perspective, it took away a bit from the sense of awe, grandeur, and general aesthetics.

The last time I saw a concert here, it was period pieces from the 17th and 18th centuries, composed or performed for the French court (and played using period pieces). The music was beautiful, but the acoustics just swallowed the orchestra’s sound (maybe it was the nets).

This time, the sound just soared wonderfully. It was the cathedral’s resident chorus, plus New York Polyphony (an all male vocal quartet), a guest soprano soloist, strings (roughly the size of chamber music orchestra, which is to say, larger than a quarter, but smaller than a full orchestra), and the cathedral’s own organ.

The selections were actually dominated (marginally) by either pieces by contemporary composers or else by pieces arranged by contemporary composers. With a few, arguable, exceptions, they were religious works – often liturgical. I say arguably, because one of the works set some stanzas by Whitman to music and, especially in America, Whitman could be considered to be almost religious.

That said, there wasn’t as much variety among the pieces as I might have liked. At a certain point, one Ave Maria starts to sound like another. That being the case, I could make the argument that they might have been better off taking a longer piece by someone like Tallis and playing that as the entirety of either the pre- or post-intermission half.

Alisa Weilerstein Playing Shostakovich (And Other Stuff)


By other stuff, I mean a short piece by Texas composer Tobias Picker and Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony (which I have always known as the Ninth, but apparently there’s not universal agreement on that number) which did not feature Ms. Weilerstein.

I’ve never seen Weilerstein play before, but you can put me down as a fan now. She really threw herself into the Shostakovich piece. Despite being in a major key, this was not a happy piece, but felt sort of desperate. I am not a musician, so many of intricacies of interpretation are beyond, but the playbill talked about it as being philosophical and I could hear as a sort of conversation. In the first movement, I heard a progressive (subversive?) professor speaking to his class, trying desperately to get them to think for themselves, with the final three movements being more of the dialogue that the playbill suggested (though I didn’t hear the horn as being the other side of the dialogue, so much as it suggested).

One thing I noticed. During some energetic, frenetic, staccato bowing, she was shaking her head with the movement, but her head seemed turned towards the First Violin and for a moment I thought, is she criticizing the First Violin? Took me a moment to realize it was just her head moving with the action of her cello, but the image stuck with me.

This was my first encounter Tobias Picker. I won’t be looking for more opportunities. The playbill called it emotionally neutral and tried to make that sound like a compliment, but the whole thing (thankfully, brief) sounded like the score to a Hallmark Channel movie.

Schubert is Schubert. Never been one of my ‘go to’ composers, but, of course, I appreciate him. Like Shostakovich, the key may have been major, but the emotions were in a minor key, but with fierce desperation. The playbill did try to brush off the final movement’s appropriation of bits from the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth as being minor or unimportant, but I did find them very ‘noisy,’ so to speak.

‘Lingotto’ By Mario Merz


I have no idea who Mario Merz is (though I suppose I could look him), but I loved this piece. Maybe I couldn’t even tell you why.

I finally visited the fully renovated East Wing of the National Gallery of Art. They added a lot of useful gallery space and I give whole thing an unreserved thumbs on for practical improvements. For some reason, though, I was in a mood to see paintings by the time I got there. Not just paintings, but traditional paintings. Nineteenth century landscapes with ruins and picturesque peasants. You know the type.

But was making a good faith effort to walk through the galleries and I came out of one space and into another and Lingotto was directly opposite the doorway I passed through and I was instantly struck by a my own little Stendahl episode. There was just something about it. Maybe the ritualistic aspect, the shrine-like quality. But I was just amazed.

I’m Back, I’m Not Back


I’ve been away, first thinking only about the election and then contemplating the aftermath.

It’s not a happy aftermath. My wife is an immigrant and a person of color. I have low income family members who depend on Obamacare. All reasons to fear for the well being of people I love.

So, in what do we take solace?

I’ve been reading Cicero’s De Officiis in a lovely little miniature hardback edition. I love those books, on a tactile level, like the original Modern Library editions from the teens, twenties and thirties. This isn’t one of those, but the same principle. Also, just reading a literate account of how to be decent person in society. While some is specific to the society of the late Republican/early Imperial Rome, most is not. And in a post-Trump world, it seems both relevant and terribly sad. But perhaps Cicero, who wrote this after being forced into a sort of exile for his support for the norms of the Republic would relate. Though I still don’t see this as the end of democracy in America. A touch of class, too, in Cicero. Not that kind of class (though he’s very classy), but socio-economic class. And jealousy. On my part. Cicero can retire to his villa, send his son to study abroad (he’s learning from a Greek philosopher in Athens), and spend his days writing awesome things like De Officiis.

I was in my study the other day. Actually, if I’m being honest, I was video chatting my way through a Dungeons & Dragons game (thankfully, we’re meeting in person next week; sometimes, technology is a hindrance to play, a statement that you should take several ways). While waiting for technology to right itself or else during lulls in the action, I found my eyes wandering around to all my books. Honestly, I’ve got some pretty awesome books.

Among them, James Lasdun’s The Horned Man, I book that I read many years and deeply enjoyed and I felt compelled to reread upon seeing it on my shelf. Like Cicero, maybe I’m looking for parallels. In this case, an unreliable narrator who quickly constructs a strange and inexplicable conspiracy. So how does this relate? Trump, the unreliable narrator spinning his improbable narratives? Me, trapped in a world created by people who see conspiracies in the quotidià of modern life? Or am I the narrator, feeling a strange noose tighten for reasons I can’t understand (bear to understand?)?

Wordworth’s The Prelude which is one of the highlights of western civilization, but which, thankfully, has nothing to with Trump. Or does it? I just called it one of the highlights of western civilization and doesn’t that relate to Trump making his closest presidential adviser a man tied to a racist, separatist, apartheidist, ethno-european nationalist movement? That doesn’t make Wordsworth particularly racist (though I’m sure he was, being a man of his erea), but am I merely taking a more highbrow kind of comfort in the same white mythologies as Trump’s supporters?

I picked up Kenneth Rexroth and Ikoko Atsumi’s translated text, Women Poets of Japan and found myself less enthralled than I remember. While waiting in line to vote, I was reading The Book Genji and the titular Prince Genji and the beau monde in which moved frequently communicated via poems, but a quick, returning glance at that once favored collection of Japanese poetry left me itchy for something else. If that something else was a white, male poet (Wordsworth), does it make my reaction more fraught?

 

 

Emmanuel Ax, Beethoven, Shakespeare


Last week, I cashed in one of my birthday presents – two tickets to see Emmanuel Ax play Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto at the Kennedy Center, followed by a Shakespearean themed program.

This was my second time hearing Ax play and, of course, he’s good; and he really seemed to enjoy playing such a youthful piece. I’m not a music expert and can’t even play the triangle, but it did seem to me that he had some rough moments during the first movement, but then really hit his stride, especially of the middle movement.

When they have stars like this, I wish they wouldn’t put them first, because, after hearing a great pianist play Beethoven, pretty much whatever follows is going to disappoint. I like Berlioz, but if one of his pieces immediately follows Bach’s Passion of Saint Matthew, well… it’s going to be a bit of a letdown, isn’t it?

The three pieces that followed were Erich Korngold’s Much Ado About Nothing Suite, Richard Strauss’ Macbeth, and Antonin Dvorak’s Othello Overture. I liked Dvorak the best, but the Korngold was fun. Also, I found out that Korngold wrote the scores to two of my favorite Errol Flynn swashbucklers: Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood!

One of the cool things they did was have two actors who feature a lot locally come out and perform bits from the relevant Shakespeare. I lost the paper that told me who they were, but the man was someone I had seen in many, many plays at the Folger Shakespeare Library (off the top of my head, I’ve seen him in District MerchantsTwevlth NightRosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Mary Stuart. He got a great presence and a delicate comic touch that works even better, because he himself is such a big guy.