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K’naan just wrote a piece for the New York Times in which he address his gradual stylistic changes … I’ve been meaning to say a bit about the new album (which I do not like) and the gradual trend (which I also do not like), but for now I noticed that he mentions his beautiful song Fatima:

In 2008, with a recording budget, I went on my own to Jamaica, to Bob Marley’s old studio, and sang of a lovely, doomed young friend:

“Fatima Fatima, I’m in America, I make rhymes and I make ’em delicate, you woulda liked the parks in Connecticut… Damn you shooter, damn you the building, whose walls hid the blood she was spilling, damn you country so good at killing, damn you feeling, for persevering.”

That was my truest voice — my continent’s angst in a personal story. When I sang, my audience wouldn’t just hear music; they would see geography. And yes, it made me well known.

Something I wrote on Fatima can be found here.

Probably more than a few attendees of Opening Night at the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) gladly donned tuxedos in place of their Red Sox gamer jackets. Fresh on the heels of the epic collapse of the Olde Towne Team, some of us were more than happy to escape into the musically pleasant world of Mozart’s violin concertos in the hands of none other than Anne-Sophie Mutter.

For the opening night festivities, Mutter and the Mozart-sized BSO treated us to No. 3 and No. 5. Like any violin student, I’ve played No. 3 and count it among my favorites. In my opinion, in only the very rarest of occasions can an artist manage to squeeze something new and profound out of Mozart, so with these concertos, artists in equal measure either seem to maintain the status quo or miss the mark. Mutter was firmly in the former camp, with her articulation and tempo choices complementing the phrasing of her interpretation. She was as bold as her fire-red dress during her first movement cadenzas in both pieces, and it left me wishing they were longer. I was impressed with the tasteful slow movements of both pieces as well, and my impression is that it is on this type of music that she particularly excels.

Previously, I had only listened to recorded Mutter, and I have to admit that they had left no indelible mark on me — if anything, I had emerged with no reason to seek out her work. This was mostly due to interpretive disagreements with relatively straightforward pieces, including the recorded versions of these very violin concertos. This performance has compelled me to revisit those earlier versions to try and understand them better. While there were standard intimations of technical imperfection in the form of missed chords and attack, these did not detract wholly from the performance.

Like the cadenzas, the opening night performance to the public audience was all too short, but I was thankful to be a part of it. Despite a series of missteps, I ended up with the last pair of tickets available through the CollegeCard program and took M to her first ever symphony performance. These Mozart concertos represent a perfect introduction to this wonderful world of western art music, as it is far more palatable than much of the modern repertoire, easily recognizable, and less intense than my beloved Brahms et al. But hopefully they’ll serve as the gateway to the riches of this music, a truly opening night into the world of classical music and particularly the BSO.

The venerable Lorin Maazel was in town again at the helm of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), in the final night of their performances of Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and Scriabin. I have been a bit absent from writing up the last two performances of the BSO that I’ve attended because I have been writing at work for the last few months.

Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 is something like — but not quite — a symphony, a peculiar type of piece. Perhaps because I am not familiar with the form, it was difficult for me to get an overarching sense of the music. Individual movements, especially the somewhat ironically malaise waltz, were certainly reminiscent of the Russian composer’s more famous symphonic works. Perhaps the most easily associated music were the often grand variations on the theme in the final movement.

I have to admit that my familiarity with Stravinsky’s music, though growing, is not even characterizable as elementary. Of the work of his I’ve heard, I can say off the top of my head that I enjoyed Petrushka. Today, the BSO performed Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale. I enjoyed the immediately recognizable Chinese theme early on but was not particularly compelled by the piece as a whole.

And finally, in my first experience hearing the music of Alexander Scriabin via The Poem of Ecstasy, I waited in eager anticipation for the bellowing of the Symphony Hall organ. Seated in the orchestra section, Row E and almost all the way to the audience left of the stage, I happened to have been perfectly placed to watch the organist — whose name I could not locate in the program — wait patiently throughout the majority of the piece before his bars appeared. Unfortunately, their effect was more of a massive thunder whose melody was lost from my vantage point in the cacophony of the bellowing orchestra: I could not place any sort of unique timbre reminiscent of my experiences with church organs and the like. I should have liked to hear the organ alone, but I believe that this was my first concert at Symphony Hall at which the organ was employed.

The last two concerts in the subscription series have had somewhat odd programming to me. It has been difficult to understand any underlying theme, probably due to my lack of familiarity with the music. One interesting note for this concert series was that in Maazel’s second week with the BSO, in 1960, they performed both the Stravinsky and the Scriabin. I believe that this is the first time since then that he has performed these two pieces again here in the same performance, which marks a special moment in my mind that ties together his history performing with this orchestra. That is a truly long engagement to Nevertheless, as always the exposure to new music is endlessly intriguing, and as always, I’m grateful for the opportunity.

I was fortunate enough to attend a seasonal performance of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, performed by the Houston Ballet and choreographed by Ben Stevenson. In the world of ballet, with which I am not at very familiar, it appears that the primary attribution for a production goes to the choreographer. But to me what is constant, pervasive, and the foundation of it all is the music, and so I call this Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker with no disrespect to Mr Stevenson. I admit that this was my first ballet in many, many years, when I saw a Russian ice ballet performance in college. Just a few words about ballet in general: it is easily one of my favorite musical forms, and it really only recently dawned on me, could it be difficult or even impossible to recreate the original choreography of a ballet? Were ballets written with specific groups or specific visions in mind, as was often the case with concertos being written for a certain soloist? I admit I love the movement in ballet. It is artistry, elegance, and athleticism, and to me it’s just as spectacular as watching a Ryan Kalish somersault diving catch at Fenway Park. To connect the ballet music that I know so well in The Nutcracker with the live performance and dance was really a treat. While I struggle to keep up with and fully appreciate opera, I think I should attend more ballet (but never see the movie Black Swan again, due to its agoraphobic intensity — it’s actually quite a well-made film).

We sat in the first balcony in a packed Wortham Center Theatre, next to a family with a young child. Because this is a very family-oriented production, it was only natural to hear children squealing and being hushed throughout the performance. But the wonderment and delight that was experienced by this young lady next to us was quite amusing: from the Mouse King (ew, is that real?) to the emergence of the Nutcracker Prince (wow, how did they do that?), the magic of the story really came alive again.

Naturally, the performance was beautiful, and I was impressed by both the quality of the set design and the choreography. Granted, I do not have the longstanding tradition of Nutcracker performances by which to measure this one, but I tend to think that most performances will be very high quality. Only the rare, bold and adventurous deviation from the standard Nutcracker or obviously low quality exceptions might exist somewhere, but certainly not on this stage tonight. Our performance was led by Simon Ball as the Nutcracker Prince, Karina González as the Sugarplum Fairy, and the impossibly cute Emily Bowen as Clara. Aside from their excellent solos, I particularly enjoyed the Spanish and Arabian dances and was surprised by a familiarity to even more pieces here than I had realized. I am definitely familiar with all of the pieces in any Nutcracker Suite, but I really do want to get the entire piece on a recording or even better in performance to see it in its entirety again.

For their part, the orchestra performed admirably, though I have to say that I’m spoiled by our excellent Boston-area venues with respect to the sound. Our vantage point was great for seeing depth of dancers on the stage, but I found the sound to have little dramatic presence in the relatively tiny space up in the balcony and around us. Sounds seemed to die a bit more. I enjoyed, however, the percussive addition of pointe shoes on the hardwood stage, which I imagine was purposefully done.

At the symphony, I enjoy most to close my eyes and listen intensely to the music: to me to experience the orchestra is not to see them but to try and listen for their signature nuances. While I had only passing moments in overtures to experience the music here, ballet is obviously demanding of visual attention, but the music is richer for it.

It also occurs to me that I cannot imagine how I would know the names of any of the parts if it weren’t for the program: as far as I can tell, there is no outright mention of the name “Clara”, for instance, anywhere during the actual piece.

We saw this performance the day after Christmas, but since we had all been working tirelessly up until Christmas day, it sort of provided for me the capstone on the best parts of my musical holiday. The sublime dancing, the beautiful music, and the expert commentary really sealed the experience. I’m sad to be missing other Houston Ballet performances, but perhaps I should resolve for the new year to attend more ballet with our excellent group in Boston.

I managed to go again this year somehow to the Holiday Pops concert, again with SG, with whom I went last year. Unfortunately on this occasion there was no HH to complete our merry band of Acadia wanderers. But we did get in touch with HH while at the concert to express our well wishes while she could not be with us, as she’s since moved to the West coast. I love the Pops concert each year; it’s the most casual of times in Symphony Hall and usually the only time I get to hear Santa performing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and Keith Lockhart.

I suppose the one story I’ll tell — aside from spinning basses, jolly Tanglewood, audience caroling, and last year’s excellent ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas reading — is the story of the lonely orchestra member. Bear in mind that this is not a sad story but somewhat of an amusing one, at least to me. I will not give away too much information for fear of indicting this person, but I will say this this is an orchestra member who has performed in the last two seasons of Holiday Pops concerts. I suspect he is an annual fixture. It is my strong suspicion that this person, yes, whose name I know, did not grow up celebrating in the Christian tradition. There are strong reasons to assume such a thing, though I cannot know for sure. However, this person wore plainly on [his, for simplicity] face that he did not want to be there, as his eyes darted around the room while he dutifully sustained his musical part during the Christmas carols. A half-grin adorned his sheepish face, and one could easily see the cartoon of the moment lifting thought bubbles that questioned, “What am I doing here?” I always like to point this person out to others because I find it hilarious, but this year held a surprising difference. This year, our favorite Holiday Pops musician was looking rather sprightly, and he actually appeared to be enjoying the Christmas music that so clearly had irked him just the year before! It was a Christmas miracle and a welcome transformation. But, to that musician (and you know who you are, I’m sure!), I will continue pointing you out to my table companions in the future and tell them your delightful tale.

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