The Grand Re-Opening Of The Freer/Sackler Galleries; Or ‘Illuminasia’


The Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art, also know as the Freer/Sackler, is one of my favorite museums. Not only is it directly by the Smithsonian metro station, but it is less crowded than many other museums on the National Mall and has some of the best spots for quiet contemplation you are likely to find.

After almost two years closed for renovations, the galleries are finally open. The grand celebration was called Illuminasia. Lots of cool stuff for the kids and some lovely music and some frustratingly long lines for food (the bao was excellent, but not worth the thirty minute wait).

There’s a nice exhibit on cats in ancient Egypt and a genuinely inspiring exhibit called ‘Encountering the Buddha’ that I can’t wait to see again (it does well with a complicated subject, without ‘dumbing’ things down; it’s a great exhibit for an audience that is not a specialist in the subject, but is reasonably educated).

The first video is of a member of the Silk Road Ensemble performing in a room of Indian Buddhas. The second is of a group of Tuvan throat singers and musicians (Tuva is a Central Asian Republic; don’t feel bad, because I had to google it, too).

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Tom Petty


I’m one of many people who started mourning too early. But even after it became clear that the reports were premature, it felt like a bad episode of a medical drama. People around me crying, Wait, wait! He’s not dead! We can save him. And me thinking, he’s gone, but you just can’t see it yet. On a practical level, it was because, it wasn’t a hoax that he had been found unconscious following cardiac arrest. That’s not something you come back from. As Christopher Hitchens said after being asked about his prospects after being diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer, there’s not a stage 5. Miracles happen, but the world doesn’t feel very miraculous right now. We have inched closed to nuclear because of the rage tweets of a thin-skinned man child; another angry white man with a guy massacred dozens of people and we won’t do anything about gun control; and more, but I’m just not up to it, right now.

Tom Petty’s death affected me more than the horror in Las Vegas. It’s attributed to Stalin, but who knows if he ever said: one death is a tragedy, but a millions deaths are a statistic. And mass shootings feel like a statistic now. It’s just one of the costs of living of America, like toxic drinking water and institutional racism. We are just supposed to be grateful, right?

I digress.

I felt like I knew Tom Petty. He was from Florida. He was the greatest songwriter of the last thirty-five or forty years. Every song on Damn the Torpedoes is amazing. No isn’t reassured by Don’t Back Down. Which is probably the song we need right now.

But I feel like backing down. I’ve been feeling that way for a while.

My child will never know Tom Petty. I try to make my child appreciate American Girl, but I’m not sure it will work. My child will be an American Girl, but also not. But mostly, my child will be from a place where Tom Petty, in a sense, does not exist. Which is a reminder of my own mortality. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities wrote about the moment where the number of dead, a person know, outnumbers the living. I’m not close to that yet. Not by decades. But I can see the balance shifting. Tom Petty has shifted to the other balance.

‘More Than Human’


To dispel some, perhaps, common misconceptions: the novel More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon is not very much like the White Zombie classic, More Human Than Human. One is grand guignol rock classic and the other a meditation on identity.

The novel dragged a bit to begin with and it wasn’t until about a third of the way through that the disparate pieces started to come together. There was a bit of second rate Faulkner-ism in the third person limited narrative sections featuring children and brain damaged adults and I honestly couldn’t see what Sturgeon was doing. I now see, but I’m not convinced it was worth it.

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.

More Cowbell


There has been a lot of hand wringing, panty bunching, and knicker twisting about Clinton’s loss in 2016 (as well as the failure of several Democratic candidates to win statewide races, mainly Senate races, in swing states).

First, let me say that serious ‘post-mortems’ are absolutely necessary after elections (win or lose) and, as Democrats, we need to do the same. And we need to make some changes, no doubt.

But if there’s one thing we learned, it’s the so-called ‘foundational’ models were the most accurate in predicting the outcome (though the national polls were ultimately, correct, if we allow a reasonable MOE, regarding popular vote totals). Nonetheless, Clinton came within a comparative handful of votes in three states in particular (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan) of winning it all.

So what if we allow ourselves to say, we just needed more cowbell in some key regions. That doesn’t mean criticisms are wrong. For example, that cowbell could have taken the form of additional Clinton appearances in those states. Maybe a tweaking of emphasis in the message. A lot of possibilities. But maybe we can chill a little, eh? Doesn’t mean we don’t need to follow the base and the energy which opposition to Trump (who, as president, now owns the GOP) has generated. Doesn’t mean we don’t need new blood. But these are commonsensical. We shouldn’t be freaking out about the future of our party right now.

We just need to make sure we have more cowbell next time.

On a side note, I have seen the Blue Oyster Cult in concert four times and I love that freaking song.

https://vimeo.com/55624839