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.

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.

The Nickelback Theory Of Downballot GOP Candidates

Imagine you are the opening act for a popular band about to go on tour. Now, their most recent album hasn’t done very well, but they have been around for a while and one bad album won’t be keeping the fans away.

Unfortunately, they are touring at the same time as another popular band. But, you think, we are still going to get plenty of people coming to our shows. Also, even though we are only the opening act, we have our own fans who will come to see us, even if they aren’t very excited about the headliner.

And then it happens.

The headlining act announces that, for this tour, instead of playing their hits, they will play nothing but Nickelback covers.

So, sure, in some locales, where there is not much competition for entertainment dollars, you will still do okay, but basically, you are about to get your clock cleaned.

And you can tell yourself that you still have your fans, but your fans have just found out that you are touring with a Nickelback cover band and they’re going to think that you must a Nickelback fans, as well, and they ain’t coming to see you anymore.

The opening act, of course, is a symbolic of downballot GOP candidates and Trump is the Nickelback cover band.


‘The Flame Of Life’ By Gabriele D’Annunzio

I bought this book in complete ignorance of anything buy visual and tactile beauty; as a physical object. But I wasn’t wrong in guessing that I would enjoy what would surely be some wonderfully overwrought prose.

The plot is wafer thin (Monty Python reference) and driven by issues and concerns that seem positively ridiculous. A dionysian poet named Stelio enthralls a lushly imagined Venice with his wild declamations on art and beauty. Among those enthralled a beautiful actress (former courtesan, too?) alternately called Perdita and La Foscarina. Their love (and presumably, their passionate sex, though that is never mentioned nor described) is voluptuously erotic, but it is haunted by La Foscarita’s greater knowledge of impending knowledge. Yes, she is a nearly decrepit thirty-four (I’m guessing the young genius poet is in his mid-twenties). I’ll admit, those concerns pulled me out of the narrative a bit. Maybe if he had been twenty and she was thirty-nine, I’d have seen the problem more clearly… She is also haunted by the memory of a beautiful and, needless to say, virginal singer named Donatella. Poor Perdita believes that Donatella is destined to be Stelio’s life partner.

But it’s not about plot. It’s about lengthy digressions on art and poetry and architecture and Richard Wagner’s death (which bookends the novel; placing the action around the year 1883). It’s about painfully decadent prose stylings that you will either love or that will force you set the book down before the fifth page.

‘Iraqi Nights’ & Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here

On a Wednesday, I saw Dunya Mikhail at the Hill Center, where she was interviewed/conversed with the Post‘s Ron Charles. Sadly, it was the most disappointing of these events that I’ve attended. Whether it was the language barrier (Arabic being her first language and the one she writes in) or something else, the conversation never quite took off. Ron couldn’t seem to get an extended reaction nor dialogue out of her. It didn’t help that she wasn’t very familiar with the English language translations of her poetry that Ron was reading from.

I read her collection, Iraqi Nights and enjoyed it, but didn’t love it. The idea that this was a poetic take Iraq’s travails through the lens of The Arabian Nights never quite came through and some of the poems bordered on being just pithy lines.

On the following Saturday, I dragged a semi-reluctant friend for an event honoring the ninth anniversary of the bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad’s ‘Street of Booksellers.’ Poets and musicians, including Dunya Mikhail, were there.

Unfortunately, there was a solid forty-five minutes of self-congratulatory back slapping by some white people that was just… too much.

This is Washington, DC and the year 2016 and we don’t need to be told that Bush’s invasions were colossally incompetent, misguided, and deceitful farces not worth the tiniest amount of the blood and treasure they cost. If you really want to drive this idea home, though, the best way would be to get out of the way and let the Iraqi artists speak through their works.

The last part of the event was a musical performance that sounded almost liturgical in chant-like signing accompanied by an oud and a piano (and wind chimes), but I left early, not because the music wasn’t wonderful (it was), but because those ridiculous opening ceremonies/lectures/chidings/backslappings had left a wound that festered and drove me out.

Fortunately, I did get to see a short video while I was still there – a video the showed the pointlessness of the opening lectures by older white people. It was a simple video. Some footage of the street, including archival footage from before the bombing, but mostly it was just focused on a man who owned a cafe on the street and had lost four of his five sons and one grandson in the bombing. Absolutely heartbreaking, especially once you realized that when he was talking about his son missing a leg, he wasn’t saying that his son was now crippled. He was saying that they couldn’t find all of his son’s body parts. When a man is telling you that story, you don’t need an anti-war lecture.