The Casual Blog

Tag: North Carolina Symphony

Spinning hard, mental health, and getting inspired by a great violinist (Joshua Bell)


I’ve been finding it hard to get in a good gear recently at my weekly Friday morning spin class, but  yesterday I kicked butt and took names! My final score was a healthy 337, and I came in first by a good margin.  My recent scores have been a little over 300, and there have been several strong riders who have made that look quite unimpressive.  I appreciated their not showing up this week and letting me look good.

There was a report in the Wall Street Journal recently about the types of exercise that were best for mental health.   The best ones were team sports and group exercises, like cycling and yoga.   So spinning may be doing my brain some good. I’ve also been getting to yoga class a couple of times a week, which I’m confident is good for my head.  

Speaking of mental health, I finished up the introductory mindfulness meditation course provided by Calm, the smart phone app.    I found it worthwhile.  Mindfulness meditation is really simple, in a way, and it’s easy to find basic directions online.  But the Calm coaching gave me some new perspectives, and helped with motivation.

On Thursday, we had dinner at Capital Club 16, and then heard the N.C. Symphony play the Brahms violin concerto with violinist Joshua Bell.  Bell has been much hyped as perhaps our greatest living violin virtuoso, which is bound to raise questions.  But he completely lived up to the hype:  he was truly electrifying. I got big goosebumps and moist eyes, and also a richer understanding of this great concerto. He performed on a Stradivarius instrument that Brahms had heard play this very piece.  Bell’s cadenza, which he composed, was a brilliant distillation of Brahmsian thought.

Some great virtuosos are intimidating, and make music students think of quitting.  Bell, however, made me want to listen harder and be a better musician. Music in the classical tradition takes time and effort to enjoy, and it’s reasonable to wonder if it’s worth it in the modern world.  But Bell made a strong case for its survival. The Brahms is a supreme technical challenge for the violinist, but also dauntingly complex for inexperienced listeners. It was cheering that a concert hall full of North Carolinians seemed to get it and love it.  In fact, we gave Bell a good ovation after the first movement. In the U.S., we almost always wait until after the last movement to clap, but apparently we agreed that Bell deserved to have us break the rule.

I loved the little poem in last week’s Sunday Times magazine:  On a Line by Proust, by Adam Gianelli.  It you’ve never read Proust or Milton, it may not hit you quite as strongly, but it might inspire you to try them.  Like Proust, it evokes the painful joy of recovering past experience, and how our literary lives can illuminate our ordinary lives.  

I’ve been making my way through the NY Times special titled The Plot to Subvert an Election, by Scott Shane and Mark Mazetti.   It’s basically the story of Putin, Trump, and us.  It is hard to believe that this happened, and is happening, and easy to feel overwhelmed.  Shane and Mazetti have done some great reporting, which is worth reading.

I went to Raulston Arboretum this morning and found these butterflies.  There were a lot of beautiful creatures flitting beyond range of my camera.   I was grateful for these.

Birds of paradise, Dvorak, and Puccini

On Saturday afternoon I walked over to the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences to see the Birds of Paradise exhibit. I loved it! It was about the exotic and colorful species that live mostly in the rainforests of New Guinea and Australia. There were sections on early European encounters with the birds and the efforts of trailblazing naturalists, but the heart of the exhibit was gorgeous recent photos and videos by Tim Laman, who worked in partnership with ornithologist Edwin Scholes.

In 2004, these two brave souls undertook to document all 39 species of birds of paradise. This required numerous expeditions through dense forests and up into the mountains. Some of the species do their amazing displays in the treetops, so documenting them required building blinds high up in trees and sitting there for days at a time. Getting to the sites and getting the shots sounded more like the first ascent of Everest than a bird walk. This was high adventure. There’s a good web site about their work here. For an aspiring nature photographer, it was really inspiring.

And the birds are amazing! Some have iridescent colors, and others have wire like structures coming out of their tails. Some can transform their shapes into modernist sculptures. Their mating displays are hugely dramatic. It made me feel privileged to live on planet earth, where remarkable adventures are still possible, and such amazing creatures still exist.

We went to the N.C. Symphony that night, and heard Dvorak’s 7th Symphony. The orchestra was led by guest conductor Christian Knapp. Described in the program as “one of today’s foremost young conductor’s,” he seemed a bit shy and eccentric when he first appeared, and his gestural style seemed quirky and unathletic.

But he could play the orchestra! By that I mean, the orchestra was his instrument. He had a strong artistic vision, and the will to shape the music. His rhythmic flexibility was a welcome change from Grant Llewellan’s typically more foursquare approach. As Olga, my piano teacher, observed recently, the music is supposed to be interesting, not boring, and to make it interesting we have to find rhythmic solutions that go beyond the metronome.

On Sunday morning it was too chilly for golf. I took some pictures with my new wide angle lens, then went to O2 Fitness for a two-hour workout. I had success with my handstand (on the eleventh attempt)! I was focusing on doing a good variety of functional movements along with a lot of cardio: jumping rope, rowing, running, stairs, and elliptical. My average heart rate over the two hours was 135, with a high of 161, and I burned 1537 calories.

We had tickets to the Sunday afternoon performance by the N.C. Opera of Puccini’s La Boheme. I was planning to go mainly to give our local musicians some moral support, and wasn’t especially looking forward to it. In the past, I’ve found Puccini not quite to my taste – overly lush, with big, obvious emotions, and not much subtlety. But I also recognized that his music is dense and complex, and thought I might get him better if I listened more.

I’m so glad I didn’t skip it. This was a visually and musically spectacular production that was satisfying on every level. The sets by Peter Dean Beck were highly evocative (a long step up from NCO’s usual standard). The costumes were expressive and lively. The orchestra was a group of experienced professionals who sounded great. Guest conductor Robert Moody seemed to have a good feel for the music and good rapport with the singers.

The leads were all good, and tenor Eric Barry as Rodolfo was terrific. He did his big arias with great sensitivity and feeling, but he also had a sweet, funny presence, and good chemistry with his Mimi, Angela Fout. I enjoyed her singing, too, which I didn’t find quite as technically satisfying, but did find very expressive. Baritone Troy Cook as Marcello was also a fine singer and good actor. The chorus sounded good, the children’s chorus sounded good, and even the marching band sounded good. The crowd scenes were wonderfully staged – very lively. The English subtitles, projected above the stage, were also well done.

But the really amazing thing was how all these performers and technicians came together, melding into something that was, for 2:40, a complete world. This is the magic of opera. I really was drawn into Puccini’s vision of 1840s Paris and sweet, romantic, artistic Bohemians, and I cared about those dreamers. I got quite misty when poor Mimi died. It was a complete, powerful experience.