The Casual Blog

Tag: N.C. Symphony

A homecoming, new flowers, and a Shakespeare concert

Raulston Arboretum, Raleigh, NC  May 9, 2015

Raulston Arboretum, Raleigh, NC May 9, 2015

Our Gabe sold or tossed most of his possessions and loaded up the car with the rest, then he drove east, along with his golden retriever, Mowgli. He’d lived in the beautiful ski town of Telluride, Colorado for six years, and had decided that that was enough. He enjoyed the long drive, until his car broke down in eastern Tennessee on Sunday. He had to wait there until Monday to get it fixed. He arrived in Raleigh Monday night, and we gave him a big hug. Mowgli and Stuart sniffed each other.

Gabe, who’s been working as an accountant, is thinking of taking a new career direction. He’s planning to stay with us for a bit and consider his options. We’re all hoping to stay good friends and not make each other crazy. In his younger days, he had a bad habit of borrowing my clothes without permission, but so far he’s been good about that.

I made a quick trip to Raulston Arboretum on Saturday morning and took a close look at some new flowers. There were lots of little insects at work on them, and I had a go at capturing their images, but with limited success. Afterwards I went to Flywheel for a spin class, which was tough. I was happy to finish in the top four, but was way behind the champion.

In the afternoon, I spent some time experimenting with Lightroom, Adobe’s photography database program. I’m in the middle of my 30-day free trial, and am determined to test it out, if I can figure it out. I get the basics, but a lot of it isn’t at all intuitive. I’ve been reading and watching videos, and making some progress.

We went to the N.C. Symphony on Saturday night, where they were joined by actors from the Playmakers Repertory company and the N.C. School of the Arts in performing a musical version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We enjoyed the wonderful Mendelssohn and other music, but were less enamoured of the acting. In recent seasons, the Symphony’s programming has gotten increasingly conservative (lots of warhorses), and, for us, not very exciting. It’s good to see them trying something different, but this program didn’t really work for me.

Sleepwalking, yoga, Bach, Schlosser on the nuclear precipice, and Spiegelman’s Maus

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So I apparently had another bizarre sleepwalking experience. After what seemed like a normal night’s sleep, I got up to find several unusual things. There were two wine glasses full of beer on the coffee table – one sitting on top of my laptop. There was a bowl with popcorn kernels, and a lot of popcorn on the floor. In the kitchen, the light on the stove hood vent was on, and the microwave popcorn wrappers were strewn about.

My first thought was that we’d had a break in, but the various quasi-valuable things in the vicinity were still around, and the door was locked from inside. That left just two possibilities – Sally and me. When she got up, she verified she had not knowingly done any of this eating and drinking.

From my prior somnambulism, I figured it had to be me. But I had absolutely no recollection of any such activity. And I would never, ever put beer in a wine glass – or worse, set the glass on my computer! And I did not know exactly how to operate the light on the stove hood, which I never use.

It is very strange to think of such complex activity happening without any consciousness whatever. Eating and drinking without meaning to is bad, but it could get worse. Is there any safety module that keeps the sleepwalker from going over the balcony rail? And falling twelve stories?
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In the last few days, I’ve taken note of various waking automatic behaviors and strange forgetful episodes. I expect everyone has some. Did I take that pill already or not? I parked that car, but where? My foot is bouncing up and down, which I did not tell it to do. Sally had a good one: she couldn’t find the pomegranate juice, and looked high and low, before realizing she’d already gotten it out of the refrigerator.

So a lot of our behavior is taking place without our consciously knowing anything about it. This is at times surely a good thing, allowing us to save mental energy for where it’s most needed. Cultivating good habits is partly an accommodation to the reality that there’s just not enough time or energy to think about every behavior. We choose a template that we think is likely to be effective in different future situations and repeat it until it is automatic.

But still, sleepwalking is pretty weird.

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Some yoga

The weather for most of this week was unseasonably warm and sunny, but it turned cold and rainy for the weekend. So no golf, but I did get in two yoga classes. On Saturday morning Suzanne filled in for Yvonne at Blue Lotus, and led an hour-long open level vinyasa class. She kept things flowing pretty fast, which I like, and I did a reasonable amount of sweating.

On Sunday morning, based on the recommendation of Larisa (my personal trainer), I tried a class with Hayley at Evolve. Her style involved holding poses for longer, which was challenging. When she said we’re going to do hand stands, I was surprised, but game. I managed to kick up and stay up for a while against the wall. Then Larisa asked Hayley to give me some pointers, and I had another go and managed to have a fairly spectacular crash. But I learned something: Hayley theorized that I got a little surprised when I touched the wall and let my elbow bend. Onward and upward.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

On Saturday night we had a fine Italian dinner a Caffe Luna, then went to a performance of the N.C. Symphony and the N.C. Master Chorale of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. I was not familiar with the piece, but liked it very much. The chorus sounded great in some very challenging choral writing. The four soloists had pleasing voices and style, and the orchestra played well. Our friend trumpeter Paul Randall had a very high and prominent part in the last cantata, and shined.

My only complaint was conductor Grant Llewellyn seemed overly metronomic — without much rhythmic flexibility. I guess that’s one way to do it, but it seemed to me Bach would have liked more expression. We went out for a drink with Paul and a couple of his colleagues afterwards. It was interesting hearing the younger musicians talk about the intense challenges of auditioning for orchestra jobs.

Command and Control — the Nuclear Weapons Precipice

Speaking again of sleeping problems, for several nights recently I had anxiety dreams, inspired, I think, by reading Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion o Safety, by Eric Schlosser. The headline is: for decades we lived frighteningly close to the edge of an accidental nuclear disaster. A hydrogen bomb could have exploded in any of numerous training or maintenance accidents, while the huge arsenal of missiles could have been unleashed through computer error or human misjudgment.

In the final chapter Schlosser indicates that the risk of an accidental explosion from a US weapon has gone down, but it may have gone up in countries like Pakistan and India. And we’ve still got the irreducible human factor – that is, imperfect humans are in charge of these incredibly destructive weapons, and they could make a bad decision that could cost thousands or millions of lives.

Even before reading the book, I was generally of the view that it is insane to build, maintain, and keep on alert nuclear weapons capable of destroying many millions of innocent civilians and much of the planetary ecosystem – ending, as they say, life as we know it. This was true in the cold war, but even more so now, when there is no existential military threat. Why would any rational person or society do such a thing? After reading the book, and learning more about the theories of nuclear war and the practical engineering problems of the weapons, it seems even crazier.

How can it be that de-nuclearization is not a high priority issue in national and world politics? Of course, we do much hand wringing about Iran’s potential for a nuclear weapon, which makes it even odder that we somehow mostly avoid discussing our own weapons and their disastrous potential. It’s like we’re sleepwalking. Perhaps Schlosser’s book will help us start to wake up.


On a cheerier note (ha!), I started reading Maus, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel masterpiece about the Holocaust. It’s in part about Spiegelman’s relationship with his father, who was concentration camp survivor. The early pages are about his life in pre-war Poland, first as a bachelor and then meeting Spiegelman’s mother. It’s surprisingly sweet, but also direct and honest, and remarkably vivid. I’ve never read anything remotely like it, and I really like it.

Ecstasy and agony: a sweet homecoming, my first handstand, a good massage, a difficult dental appointment, and some beastly Brahms

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Happy birthday to Gabe! He’s 29 today, and his mumsy and popsy are proud as can be. He came out from Telluride to visit us for a few days, and it’s been good to catch up.

He’s working hard on his music, experimenting and doing some recording with his band mates. In high school, he got to be a strong drummer, but then lost interest. But he’s come back to making music! All those music lessons were not wasted! And he’s learned the secret of getting better at his instrument (and other things): practice, practice, practice.

Along with his music, Gabe has been experimenting with photography using his iPhone and Snapseed. He starts with something straightforward and does various color processes for a new look. It’s lively and interesting. He’s also following others on Instagram, including someone called yoga_girl. He showed me a couple of yoga_girl’s yoga feats, which included some extraordinary handstand variations.

I hadn’t mentioned that I’d made up my mind to learn how to do a handstand against a wall. I’d gotten a short lesson from Larisa, my wonderful functional fitness trainer, and also gotten Suzanne, my wonderful yoga teacher, to show me her approach after a recent class. And I’d given it several serious tries, which were close – but no cigar.

But after seeing Gabe and yoga_girl, the next morning I had my 5:30 a.m. session with Larissa, and amidst her other challenges, requested another handstand lesson. She suggested approaching it like a cartwheel. We worked on cartwheels for a bit, with some improvement, and then tried again. And I did it! Thanks, Larisa!

When I told Gabe of my milestone the next evening, he was of the view that I also owed some thanks to him and yoga_girl. True enough. He was inspired to try his own handstand. Without a wall. He was there by the third try. That’s my boy!
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The same day I did my first handstand, at lunchtime, I had my first massage with Kirsten Bachmann. After a massage hiatus, I’d decided to audition some new massage talent, and possibly get a regular routine for taking care of that part of my make up. I liked Kirsten. She started out with this surprisingly effective machine called the Thumper, which gives you a good Thumping. She did some great work on my right shoulder, which needed it. I look forward to our next session.
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But not all my experiences with new technology this week were as wonderful. I was two months late for my six-month tooth cleaning, and drew a new hygienist who used a device called the Cavitron. The tool vibrates at a high frequency, which, she said, “blasts the bacteria.” Maybe. But my it also caused my tooth nerves to vibrate at a frequency resembling a root canal. I like to think that I have a fairly high pain threshold, and tried hard to bear up, but finally had to say, no mas.

Also unpleasant was the piano soloist at the N.C. Symphony on Friday night. Beforehand we had tasty empanadas and margaritas at Calavera, and we enjoyed the first half of the program, which featured Sibelius’s moody and quirky Third Symphony.

But the second half of the concert, Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, featured a Finnish pianist named Olli Mustonen, who was almost comically bad. For the first few minutes, I thought perhaps I was simply not understanding his radical conception, or was just put off by his ridiculously broad gesticulating and other affectations.

But I ultimately concluded that he wasn’t listening to the orchestra, or even to himself. At times he shrugged off the conventions of normal musical phrasing and shaping, and what was left was just not musical. To me, it was painful. I should note, though, that many in the audience apparently found his waving, swaying, banging, and jumping around exciting, since a majority stood up and clapped at the end.

An eye update, and a very musical weekend

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It was quite a musical weekend, with three concerts, but before I get to that, for those kind souls following my eye surgery saga, a brief update: my one week postop checkup was last Tuesday. While Dr. M was away speaking at a conference, I got examined up by Dr. S, one of his fellows. I did substantially better on the chart test, seeing part of three rows (up from zero the previous week). But things were still very foggy. Dr. S detected corneal edema, which sometimes happens after surgery, and likely would clear up in a few weeks. From what he could see of the retina, he thought it was doing OK.

Friday evening was mild and clear, and we sat outside for dinner at Buku. Their pad thai may be the best in town In any case, it was delicious. I tried the flight of three wines from Naples, which were worth trying. For dessert we got two spoons and one apple tart with cinnamon ice cream, which was a treat, then walked three blocks to hear the N.C. Symphony.

It was our first symphony concert of this season, and I was looking forward to it. The highlight of the evening was Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnol, a piece with rich colors and textures that featured sectional solos from most subgroups of the orchestra. The sound was fantastic. I was particularly struck by the warmth and vibrancy of the strings, which made me think of the famous Philadelphia sound. Conductor Grant Llewelleyn always looks great, but at times he’s struck me as too rhythmically literal and rigid. Not last night – there was a lot of rhythm flexibility as well as high energy. It was a brilliant performance worthy of a great ensemble.

Also featured on the program was a young Korean pianist named Joyce Wang, who played Cesar Frank’s Symphonic Variations and Manuel De Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain. I liked the de Falla, and I really liked her. She was unquestionably a real musician — sensitive, imaginative, and willing to take risks. And she had a spectacular silver shimmering gown, which fit her nicely.

Does it matter how a pianist looks? I’d like to think that the sound is ultimately what matters, but a recent short piece in the Economist points strongly the other way. Experts and musical amateurs tried to rank the three top finishers in a piano competition based on either sound alone or video alone. With sound alone, the amateurs didn’t get close to agreeing with the original judges – but neither did the experts. With video, both amateurs and experts came much closer to the actual results, and agreed together. This suggests that showmanship is a big part of what we enjoy about a musical performance, and how we distinguish one player from another.

On Saturday night Diane, my mother-in-law, and I went to the N.C. Opera’s new production of Mozart/da Ponte’s Cosi Fan Tutte. I’d enjoyed listening to it on my iPad during my morning workouts, but had never seen it. It was a really good show! The set was classically elegant, and the period costumes almost sumptuous. English subtitles were projected above the stage. The six principles were all musically and comically gifted. And Mozart’s music is sublime. So much melody, so natural but so inventive and surprising!

The plot device is oddly dissonant to a non-eighteenth-century audience: it is a comedy on the theme of women’s (but not men’s) inconstancy in love. There are moments that seem harshly cynical and misogynistic. But the meta message is more cheerful: human attraction is unquenchable, touching, and also at times very funny.

On Sunday afternoon Sally and I went to a concert by the Jerusalem Quartet, which played Mozart, Shostakovich, and Dvorak. They were four intense young men in dark suits and ties, and they were excellent. This is really a world-class ensemble, with a brilliant first violinist. I

Starting the weekend with some exercise and music

Late Friday afternoon I returned some phone calls, cleaned out my e-mail queue, checked my to-do list one last time, jammed some weekend work in my book bag, and did the short drive home. Sally had left for a tennis tournament, but had first fed the animals, so they were sleepy. I played the piano for a few minutes and moved to a different mind zone — a Chopin nocturne (D flat major), a Debussy prelude (La cathedrale engloutie), Liszt’s Sonneto del Petrarca 47. I also played J. Strauss’s Blue Danube waltzes in honor of the poor Danube, currently under assault by toxic sludge. I filled a small plate with some leftover pepper casserole and brown rice, warmed it in the microwave, poured a glass of pinot gris, and had a quiet, delicious dinner.

Then I walked over to hear the N.C. Symphony do the first fall concert of our series. It was a lovely fall evening, mild and clear, and I savored the walk. This is one of the pleasant things about living in downtown Raleigh. There were two new buildings going up along the way, and people on Fayetteville Street eating dinner at sidewalk tables or walking about.

I had an unusually strong sense of physical well being. It was a good week for exercising — no travel or serious time crunches at work — so I’d gotten up at 5:30 a.m. every day to either swim a freestyle mile (2x), do a yoga class, or take a spinning class (2x). Spinning is still new to me, and I’m still enthusiastic — it’s an amazing aerobic workout. The basic idea of stationary bike plus music, rhythmic movement, group activity, and a cheerleading coach previously struck me as not at all my style, but it is remarkably effective in (a) raising my heartrate, (b) making me sweat, and (c) leaving me feeling pleasantly endorphinized.

With fall in the air, I’m looking forward to winter, and skiing in Colorado, and I’m using ski thoughts for extra workout motivation. Last year the hour-long climb in the snow at over 12,000 feet up the narrow ridge to Highlands Bowl at Aspen Highlands taught my body a brutal lesson it won’t soon forget. I was, in truth, too whipped to attack the long double black diamond run from the top, but there was no alternative way down. I survived, but next year I hope to do more than merely survive such situations — to exult! That may be too much to hope for. It will always be difficult to go from a few hundred feet above sea level one day to vigorous activity at several thousand feet the next, but I’m looking to be in better shape next season and bettering my odds.

At a leisurely pace, it took 23 minutes to walk to the concert hall. (Afterwards I picked up the pace and got home in under 20.) I was interested to hear Rachmaninoff’s first piano concerto. The composer was still a student when he made it, but it has the seeds of the more familiar and almost too gorgeous second concerto. It is certainly a virtuoso showpiece, and Jean-Philippe Collard played it with power and authority. I was mainly interested in the second half of the concert, a performance of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, a piece I was not familiar with. It was strange and beautiful, with novel and varied textures, and diverging moods. It approached the richness of Mahler. There were good loud places, where the brass expressed themselves fully, and a fine solo for the bassoon. I plan to get a recording and listen to it some more.