The Casual Blog

Tag: Schubert

Looking for eagles, My Brilliant Friend, patterning, and a brilliant string quartet

Red shouldered hawk (I think)

On Saturday and Sunday mornings I went up to Shelley Lake to see if I could spot and photograph the eagles.  I had no luck on Saturday, though I enjoyed walking around the lake and seeing other birds. On Sunday I located the eagles’ nest and got a brief view of one of them, but it flew before I could raise the camera.  I waited around for a while hoping it would return, and some other nature lovers stopped to share eagle news. A photographer named Don said that his buddy got a shot of the eagles mating a couple of weeks ago, which could result in eaglets in a month or so.  I didn’t see the eagle again, but I did get a close view of (I think) a red-shouldered hawk.

This week  I finally finished the fourth and last book of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.  Ferrante has a kind of passionate naturalness, and something that seems fundamentally true.  At the start, I had my doubts that I could get involved with a long story of working class Naples, Italian literati, crime families, and complicated female friendships, but I did.  I loved some big chunks of it, though by the end I was ready to move on.

I also read again a good portion of The Patterning Instinct, by Jeremy Lent.  Lent’s subtitle is A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, and it’s hard to improve on that description.  At a high level, the book covers the entirety of our history as a species, and compares and contrasts major cultures and their modes of thought.  For anyone interested in why how human consciousness works, it is very thought-provoking. It’s also highly readable.

Lent breaks down the hierarchy that we in the West think of as natural, with rational thought given a privileged position, and all other modes of thinking and sensing viewed as far inferior.  He draws a connection between many of our belief systems and the way we generally view nature as separate from us, with it having no importance other than sustaining humans. This orientation has caused us to wreak enormous havoc on the natural world, and indirectly on ourselves. But it is certainly possible to change that perspective, and to view our relationship with nature more as an organic whole, regarding our human lives as vitally connected with those of non-human lives.  I’m working on that.

I also came across a lively, much shorter discussion of some of the inherent flaws in ordinary human thinking on  Vox.com:  Brian Resnick’s interview with David Dunning, co-discoverer of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which concerns people’s tendency to overestimate their own intelligence and abilities.  Dunning explains the broad applicability of the theory — we all are prone to such errors — and has a few suggestions as to how to address the problem. Thinking in terms of probabilities, rather than certainties, should help, and consciously seeking to hear the views of others.  He’s in favor of cultivating intellectual humility.

There’s a lovely new biographical essay in the last New Yorker magazine by Robert Caro.  I’ve been a Caro fan from his first book, and have read each volume so far of his biography of Lyndon Johnson.  In his essay, he writes about becoming a journalist who loves to dig through files and provoke people to honesty.  As part of his Johnson research, he lived for three years in the Texas Hill Country where the future president grew up.  That’s commitment!  At age 83, Caro is still working hard on the last volume of the Johnson biography and planning a memoir.  Let’s wish him a very long life, with much for him and us to look forward to.

We heard some excellent live music in the last week.  The N.C. Opera did a wonderful production of Carmen. The performance we attended last Sunday looked to be sold out, and the crowd was enthusiastic.   On Saturday evening at Duke’s Baldwin auditorium we heard the Schumann string quartet. This young group of three Schumann brothers from Germany and violist Liisa Randalu from Estonia,  was superb — technically flawless, intellectually rigorous, and emotionally powerful. Their account of Schubert’s great Death and the Maiden quartet was epic — a battle to the death, as first violinist Erik Schumann called it. Before playing a Mozart encore, he also told the audience that it was a privilege to play for us in Baldwin, which he said was acoustically the best hall they’d ever played in.  Nice to hear!

Construction work, butterflying, golfing’s promised land, and some rough rugby

Demolition work this week in downtown Raleigh

This week there was a lot going on at the site of the gigantic fire of last March.  They’ve been tearing things down and cleaning them up, and I’m guessing we’ll soon see new construction.  This operation — knocking down the almost completed parking deck — was what we saw from our balcony on Tuesday, the day before we moved out.  

Since last May, when our dishwasher overflowed and destroyed part of the hardwood floor, our condo has been in disarray —  bare concrete underfoot and furniture situated in unusable places.  It took some time to get estimates, and more time to get the insurers to step up to the plate.  Then we had to pick new flooring and get on the contractor’s schedule.  Then we (that is, Sally — thanks,  Babe!) had to pack up everything that normally sits on the floor.  It’s been a trying time.  

Meanwhile, we got a new Korean  dishwasher that does its job amazingly quietly and has a charming trick:  when it finishes, it plays a few bars of Schubert’s immortal Trout theme.  Of the thousands of engineers at Samsung, there’s at least one who’s a music lover.  

Dragonfly at the pond at the N.C. Museum of Art, August 26, 2017

Anyhow, on Wednesday we packed our bags and moved out, and the construction got started.  We’re staying at a hotel in our neighborhood. It’s fine, but we miss Rita, our cat, and there’s no good way to eat out every night and not gain unwanted pounds.  It will be nice to be back home with Rita and the new floor.

On Saturday morning I had my fourth lesson on the butterfly stroke.  I’ve been practicing diligently, and was quite pleased when my teacher gave me an 8 on a scale of 10.  He challenged me to get more power from the dolphin kicks and make it less about about the arms.  We started working on improving my breast stroke.  There’s a lot more technique involved in good swimming than I realized.  It’s challenging, but also very pleasing to discover new ways to move through the water.  

I’ve also continued my project to improve my golf swing.  Gabe has made up his mind to become a real golfer, and it’s been fun practicing as a father-son duo.  He’s advanced quickly, and is now beating me.  In my search for the perfect swing, it may be that like Moses, I won’t make it to the promised land, but I could still have the happiness of seeing him get there.

But I’m not ready to throw in the towel.  I’ve changed my swing path substantially to come from inside to out and figured out how to get my hips moving separately from my torso.  I can hit a draw.  There are still some bad shots, but more of them are flying closer to my ideal.   

Saturday night we watched the Rugby League national championship game between the New York Knights and the Atlanta Rhinos.  We’re new to rugby, but learning fast, because Kyle, Jocelyn’s boyfriend, is a key player for New York.  The game was played in Atlanta.  It was streamed online with lots of technical difficulties (periods of loud buzzes, slowed video, no video, no sound), and the color commentator seemed heavily biased in favor of Atlanta.  And despite our best fan efforts, our Knights got beat.  

But hats off to Atlanta, which, from what we could see, played a strong game with excellent defense.  And congratulations to the Knights for a great (undefeated except for this game) season.  Afterwards we went to the Mellow Mushroom for some comfort food — a veggie pizza and beer.  

Listening to the Tokyo String Quartet for the last time

On Sunday afternoon Sally and I went to a concert of the Tokyo String Quartet. It was a wonderful concert by one of the world’s great chamber music groups, After 44 years, the TSQ is calling it quits after this season, so I don’t expect I’ll hear them again. It made me listen with more-than-usual concentration. They played Haydn’s quartet in D Major, Op. 20, No. 4, Webern’s five pieces Op. 5, and Schubert’s Quarter in G Major, Op. 161, D. 887.

It was such a privilege to hear these master musicians performing such great music. The group performed on Stradivarius instruments made in the early 18th century and collected by Niccolo Paganini for his own performances. Paganini loved the viola in this group he commissioned a work by Berlioz that featured it. I’ve wondered at times if the Stradivarius name was overhyped, but the sound of these instruments as individuals was gorgeous, and together they were stunningly beautiful. I particularly loved the cello, which sounded to me as rich as I’ve always imagined a cello could sound.

I particularly loved the Schubert, which has one of the most beautiful cello melodies ever written. If you do not know the piece, you should sample it. Here’s a performance on YouTube by the Skampa quartet. The TSQ’s performance was brilliant and very moving. I got major goosebumps.

As valuable as recordings are, they are no substitute for a live performance. At my last piano lesson, Olga and I discussed this. She’s drilled me in the importance of considering each tiny detail of the music, thinking about the many different ways each note could be approached, and planning out each aspect of each gesture. After all that, I was surprised to hear her say that she expected that each time we play a piece, it will be different. Each piano is different, the acoustics of each room are different, and we’ll have different feelings each time. The master musician is not a CD player.

I don’t think this is a well understood aspect of the classical tradition. I once heard an interview with James Levine (the conductor of the Metropolitan Opera), in which he said that a recorded performance was to live performance as a postcard of the Grand Canyon was to the actual Grand Canyon. I thought he meant that the sound was different, but he may have meant what Olga meant: master musicians are making unique music at a particular moment in their lives and ours, responding to subtle variables that will never again recur.