Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

Woodwinds Rule!

Posted in Classical,Music by bourdaghs on the June 16th, 2010

Bernard Haitink is stepping down later this month as principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony, and he’s going out with a bang: he’s leading the orchestra through the full cycle of Beethoven symphonies in a special series of concerts this summer. Satoko and I headed downtown to Symphony Center last night to catch the penultimate program in the series: it closes out this weekend with, of course, the Ninth.

They opened last night with Symphony #1 in C Major, Opus 21, a work in which Beethoven doesn’t realize yet that he is Beethoven. It’s a pleasant combination of Mozart and Haydn, and the orchestra played it smoothly: at times, I found myself imagining an accordion winding its way through a Viennese waltz as I floated down the Danube River. We noted that concertmaster Robert Chen, one of our favorites, was absent from the stage, his place ably filled by assistant concertmaster Yuan-Qing Yu.

The first half closed out with the more Beethoven-like Leonore Overture No. 3. Here, the real stars of the evening began to emerge: the woodwind section, especially principal flutist Mathieu Dufour, who played with such aching beauty that the audience exploded in cheers when Haitink acknowledged him during the ovation. On the haunting trumpet call from the distance that occurs twice in the piece, it seemed to me that none of the visible members of the brass section were playing, and I wondered if they were using an extra trumpeter in the back corridors behind the stage (we saw the orchestra use this trick with the chimes-from-hell in Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique a year or two ago). But no one emerged from backstage during the ovation, so now I’m not so sure….

After the intermission, the orchestra played my favorite of the symphonies, No. 7 in A Major, Opus 92. The last time I saw this rendered live was about fifteen years ago in a wretched, underrehearsed summer gig by the Minnesota Orchestra, but last night was simply brilliant. The cellos and basses at the beginning of the second movement played with such warmth as to be physiologically chilling. The woodwinds again played spectacularly well (the cheers they received were even louder than those following the Leonore overture). Robert Chen was in his usual seat for the piece, and the violins played wonderfully. Haitink took things fast, especially in the third and fourth movements: I cut my teeth on the Seventh with George Szell’s impatient recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, but last night Haitink left even Szell in the dust. But it all worked magnificently well, and the audience lept to its feet for an enthusiastic standing ovation at the conclusion.

For the first time all evening, as he slowly shuffled off and then back onto the stage to acknowledge the applause, Haitink looked his age (81). He had conducted with great energy and fire, and it was clear now that he had given his all during the performance–just as he has given his all during his four-tenure here in Chicago. Godspeed, Mr. Haitink, and thanks for a magnificent 7th. And here’s hoping the woodwind section sticks around for a few more years: it will be fun to see what Riccardo Muti, the incoming Music Director, does with their talents.

Maybe It’s Not All Bad….

Posted in Change is Bad,Current Events,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the June 11th, 2010

For the most part, I accept the thesis — argued, for example, by Nicholas Carr (thanks for the link, Linda) — that the Internet is making us all stupid and asocial. On my visit to Japan a couple of months ago, a friend put her finger precisely on why reading text on a computer screen is less satisfying than reading a book: when we pursue virtual reading, we enter into the same mental frame as when we watch television.

And yet, and yet…. This afternoon in my office on campus, I took a break from stultifying end-of-the-year administrative work to watch the second half of the Uruguay-France World Cup match being streamed live by ESPN. A so-so game (Uruguay’s defense was the highlight, and you know how exciting defensive soccer can be), I was still thrilled to be watching it in my office, thanks to the Internet.

The first World Cup I followed was in 1978, well before the rise of the Internet or even cable television. As I recall, that year only the final championship game was shown on American television–and at a taped delay, at that. During the 1982 tournament, I was luckier: I was doing the backpack-through-Europe thing and watched games at pubs, youth hostels and train stations across the continent. I was in Frankfort staying with cousins for the final match between Italy and West Germany, and I remember all the Gastarbeiter waiters and janitors from Italy exploding onto the streets of Frankfort to celebrate their team’s win–and to rub it in the faces of their employers.

In subsequent tournaments, cable television kicked in, giving us futbol-ignorant Americans better and better access each time around. Now we get it streamed live over the Internet so that we can watch it in the office, on trains, in coffee shops.

Perhaps not all change is completely bad. Maybe stupidity and alienation are a small price to pay. I’ll have to mull on those thoughts a while longer, if my Internet-addled brain can hold the problem in focus long enough. In the meanwhile, I’ll be setting my alarm clock to get up early tomorrow morning to watch South Korea play Greece, followed by the U.S. taking on England for the first time since the great 1950 upset match, still the greatest moment in American soccer history.

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This and That

Posted in baseball,Current Events,Music by bourdaghs on the June 5th, 2010

It won’t last for long, which is all the more reason to commemorate the occasion here: as of this morning, I have moved into first place in the “Critical Asian Studies” fantasy baseball league. It’s a nice little ending for what’s been mostly a chaotic week.

Sad news from Los Angeles re the passing of legendary basketball coach John Wooden. One of the pleasures of teaching at UCLA in the late 1990s and early 2000s was that every once in a while you would walk past the great man on campus, still quite spry in his 90s. “Don’t give up on your dreams,” he once said, “or your dreams will give up on you.”

Kan Naoto, the new Prime Minister of Japan, was actually our local Diet representative when we lived in Fuchu-shi in western Tokyo from 2005-2007. We used to see posters of his face all around the neighborhood at election times. And now I live just a few blocks from the residence of the current President of the U.S. Apparently, I am fated to haunt the neighborhoods of power….

Finally, here’s a lovely new feature on one of the last Kinks’ music videos, “Lost and Found” (1987). A rarely seen clip based largely on Ray Davies’ cinemaphilia, it takes up a lovely, melancholic tune, and the folks at the Kast Off Kinks website have tracked down several people involved in filming the video. Be sure to check out the video and the interviews there, but for now let me leave you with another video of the Kinks ‘performing’ the song ‘live’ in a late 1980s television appearance:

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