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Thursday, July 20, 2017

For this Concert Goer, 7 a.m. Tanglewood Concerts Are for the Birds

On July 27-30, Tanglewood Takes Flight, the music festival’s first-ever collaboration with Massachusetts Audubon, may attract birders who fancy classical music more than the other way around. Three of the collaboration’s five concerts, after all, take flight at 7 a.m.; a fourth is on Sunday morning at 8.  No big deal for a bona fide birder, but more than a stretch for this classical music consumer and, I’d wager, other like-minded children of the night.

The impetus behind the early-morning convocation, in fact, was to sandwich recitals between high-yield bird walks, directed and curated by Audubon. For the 7 a.m. recitals, that means hitting the trails at 5:30 a.m.—an avian-animated hour that no doubt would have appealed to the great composer-ornithologist, Olivier Messiaen.

Messiaen’s musical tributes to birds, in fact, will take center stage throughout the three-day fest. Much of the aerodynamic lift will come on Thursday* from the pianistic wizardry of Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Arguably today’s foremost piano exponent of French impressionism and neoimpressionism, Aimard will traverse much of Messiaen’s monumental Catalogue of the Birds. That means getting musically up-close-and-personal with the likes of the woodlark, the tawny owl, and eleven other avian friends. 

No Apologies for the Starling

That won’t include the much-loathed (by songbird fanciers) starling. Little  wonder. With mercurial aplomb, they drive songbirds out of earshot, out of sight. But hear this witness for the bird’s defense.   Mozart’s Starling, a 2016 book by naturalist Lyanda Lynn Haupt, recounted the composer’s deeply appreciative, three-year bonding with his starling, purchased in a Viennese pet shop. With minor alterations, the bird, reveals Haupt, faithfully reproduced the first movement’s theme in Mozart’s G major Piano Concerto, No. 17. Common European starlings share accomplished mimicry honors with nightingales, which can imitate some sixty different songs after hearing each only a few times, notes Jennifer Ackerman, in The Genius of Birds (2016).

And Mozart, whose own personal soundscape surely transcended the tidy
domain of consonance, valued his companion for similar eclectic tastes. Starlings, notes Haupt, are kin to mynahs, both which exhibit a dazzling repertoire of vocalizations. My own year of close contact with a friend’s mynah, in fact, revealed a rich sonic bouillabaisse.  Hellos, goodbyes, one liners (sacred and profane), and simulations of squealing car brakes, a toilet flushing, and the next-door neighbor’s asthmatic cough—their edginess and unpredictability captivated Sinbad’s many admirers.   

Saved by Dusk

And so, I plan to forgo the 7 a.m. hoe downs in favor of Aimard’s 8 p.m. recital on Thursday evening at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall. Tanglewood publicists describe it as “a fascinating centuries-spanning program that will explore the many recreations of birdsong in music by composers from the Baroque to the present day.” They will include Daquin, Schumann, Ravel, Bartók, and Julian Anderson. “The centerpiece of the concert,” the schedule notes continue, “will be a selection of movements from Messiaen's Catalogue of the Birds, to be interspersed with electronic works by French composer Bernard Fort, incorporating the same bird calls. The program will be preceded by a "Birds at Dusk" session on the Tanglewood Grounds with Mass Audubon ornithologist Wayne Petersen.” Just as birds frolic at dawn and dusk, I’m thrilled that Tanglewood gives a morsel of crepuscular cred to challenged listeners like me.

*It’s uncertain from Tanglewood’s schedule notes whether he will also play in scheduled Catalogue recitals on Friday and Saturday morning. On Sunday morning a “Tanglewood Music Center Chamber Music Concert will include Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques. Here is the full Tanglewood Takes Flight schedule.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Case of Jacksonian Road Rage

As a 2016 election post mortem, I read Lynn Hudson Parson’s The Birth of Modern Politics to get a handle on the origins of the “outsider” in American presidential politics. In the book’s central subject—the presidential election of 1828—the outsider, Andrew Jackson (i.e., Trump’s spiritual forebear), unseated the establishment incumbent John Quincy Adams.

Like The Donald, General Jackson appealed to testosterone-inspired angels of the electorate’s nature. (The General’s border “wall” was the Mississippi. His Indian Removal Act of 1830 sent the so-called Five Civilized Tribes—the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee—packing west across the great river. Before his election, Jackson had bedeviled many of them as an Indian fighter. But he was an equal opportunity exterminator:  At the Battle of New Orleans, his troops took 25 minutes to mow down over 2000 British (700 killed; 1400 wounded) in a make-shift shooting gallery.

The Battle of New Orleans elevated Jackson to national hero status. No surprise then to see the General and his cronies heading down the Mississippi in a steamboat toward the Big Easy in January of election year 1828. At their destination, anniversary gatherings celebrated the candidate and the great battle.

But before reaching New Orleans, the emotionally volatile Jackson (103 duels to his credit) had to clear the river of a pesky boat that impeded his own ship’s progress.  Having sniffed the juices of road rage, I feel blessed to share the passage below from The Birth of Modern Politics.  It works for me as a nineteenth century harbinger of the RR affliction.  Perhaps it will for you.

The voyage flirted with disaster when Jackson, annoyed at the frequent crisscrossing of another boat in front of the Pocahontas, grabbed a rifle and threatened to shoot the pilot of the offending vessel. According to Hamilton, it took Rachel’s [Jackson’s better half] intervention to calm the general down.

With that advisory, Wig & Pen wishes you a happy new year and four years of Happy Motoring!

Thursday, September 29, 2016

From the Annals of Razor Blade Disposal

Want to induce culture shock among the millennials (and others) in your life?  Introduce them to the widespread Postwar-era practice of razor blade disposal lovingly depicted in this blog post.  Back then, a significant minority of shavers would discard their used double-edged blades through a slot in the back of their bathroom medicine cabinets.

Out-of-sight, out-of-mind, the rusting, blood-flecked blades would accumulate, sometimes for years, in the narrow space between the walls of one’s bathroom and an adjacent room. The yield:  a distinctive detritus for future homeowners and home restorers. (And perhaps down the road for a forensic DNA researcher or two)  

You can still buy slotted medicine cabinets on eBay.  But they’ve gone the way of household ephemera like coal chutes, dumbwaiters, milk doors, and root cellars.  

With the slotted cabinets, the idea was to maximize personal safety by minimizing handling and injury from the used blades. They were, after all, marketed as safety razor blades.

That disposal strategy, with its relative disregard for inheritors of the mess, flies in the face of today’s expanded consciousness, which emphasizes recycling and a systems-oriented mindset that accounts for the consequences and destinations of disposal. Still, razor blades are not on the list of items that I can drop into my recycle bin in “progressive” Amherst, Massachusetts. So, like many of my friends and neighbors, I pitch them, ensconced in their plastic containers, into the trash. I for one would be grateful for clear instructions and a behaviorally convenient solution to the matter.

Of course, there’s always the Norelco solution, which has been with us since the days of razor-blade wall slots. (see below)

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Montreal Fashion Oddities


A newly arrived visitor to Montreal, a.k.a. “the Paris of North America,” instantly encounters a fashion-driven integument that venerates external appearances. Shop windows and signage, thriving cosmetics retailers, and stylish homo sapiens on the street—all announce that looks and style are more than skin deep.

An exemplar of high-style eyewear, the optician below enjoys extraordinary “location.” He is right off the gift shop in Montreal’s world-class Museum of Fine Arts. In that building, there are frames around paintings and frames (for sale) around lenses.

And for the subterranean fancier, here’s an image captured in the Montreal Metro. It underscores the maxim that less is more while attesting to the power of contrast via that jet black, utilitarian handbag. (Expand the photo to view the tryst of clothes and skin.)