Summer clarinet and piano

Photos courtesy of Luz Zambrano

Photos courtesy of Luz Zambrano

Like the TARDIS, Wellfleet seems bigger on the inside. The array of activities seems impossible for a town its size.

Last night I saw that the array was not just in quantity, but in quality as well. Monika Woods on clarinet and Deborah Geithner on piano offered a concert worthy of any featured event in a major city. The full house, the standing ovation, and the encore were testament to the beautiful music.

coverIt is easy to understand why Monika was the first prize winner at the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra Soloist competition this year. You can listen to one of her performances here.

The programme yesterday evening featured Bach, Schumann, Saint-Saëns, Vaughn Williams, and Massenet. Every piece was a pleasure to hear, not something I’d say about many concerts. The feeling of a special event is enhanced by the fact that each attendee’s copy of the programme is individually penned, as is Deborah’s tradition.

The Saint-Saëns Clarinet Sonate in E-flat major, Op. 167, which he composed in his 86th and last year of life, was a highlight that elicited wows and bravos. The Allegretto first movement was especially ethereal and welcomed when its theme returns in the fourth movement. The piece as a whole was captivating.

The Sonate showed off the dialogue of clarinet and piano, as did Massenet’s Méditation from the opera Thaïs (Andante Religioso). That was another very moving selection. but it’s futile to make too much of any one piece, since every offering was excellent.programme

It was no surprise that the audience would demand an encore. The reward was Este a székelyeknél (Evening in the Village), by Béla Bartók. It’s a simple, lyrical piece, with two contrasting themes, which balance beautifully.

Drawing on elements from Transylvanian folk songs, Este a székelyeknél completed the evening’s theme of familiar, entrancing melodies, revealed by great composers and two great performers.

Monika Woods & Deborah Geithner

Monika Woods & Deborah Geithner

The concert was part of the Summer 2013 Concert Series at the Wellfleet United Methodist Church. This series has been a big plus for the community, drawing in people even while it’s still light enough for beach-going. The sanctuary last night was filled with nearly 100 concert goers.

Hoffmann’s feverish dreams

E. T. A. Hoffmann

E. T. A. Hoffmann

One doesn’t just read, but rather descends, into the tales of Hoffmann. Sir Walter Scott must have agreed when he judged that Hoffmann didn’t need literary criticism as much as he needed medical assistance:

It is impossible to subject tales of this nature [referring to “The Sand-man”] to criticism. They are not the visions of a poetical mind; they are scarcely even the seeming authenticity which the hallucinations of lunacy convey to the patient; they are the feverish dreams of a light-headed patient.

Lunatic he may be, but somehow Hoffmann manages to convey essential truths through his grotesque tales and drawings.

The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker

In conventional stories, a character has an identity that we learn about as events unfold. Often that identity develops or evolves, but generally, we at least know whom we’re talking about. Supernatural elements, if they appear, may be hard to explain, but we can usually distinguish them from the ordinary. There’s typically some sort of resolution, which gives us a semblance of coherence.

Hoffmann is quite different. Writing two centuries before post-modernism, Hoffmann turns the rules inside out. Neither we as readers, nor the characters, nor, as I suspect, Hoffmann himself, always know whether a given event is real or imagined. Is it an hallucination, a metaphor, a dream, or a supernatural occurrence? Is the kobold we encounter an independent entity, or simply a buried aspect of some character’s personality? Is this one a person, or a doll that the character assumes is alive? Is some occurrence the dream of a character, of Hoffmann, or one that we forgot that we’d been having and now can’t eliminate from our thoughts?

The Tales of Hoffmann

Spalanzani & Coppélius in “Tales of Hoffmann”

Combining rich, believable realism with extravagant fantasy, Hoffmann gets the reader to probe deep into the story, whatever the reader imagines that to be. He challenges Aristotle’s Poetics by offering only the beginning and the middle, but not the end, or resolution: He shows us that it’s a disservice to a good story to bring it to an end; the reader should be allowed to carry it onward.

In one of his best stories, The Golden Flower Pot, We struggle along with Anselmus to make sense of a world that doesn’t make much sense. The Archivarius tells him,

the gold-green snakes, which you saw in the elder-bush, Herr Anselmus, were simply my three daughters; and that you have fallen over head and ears in love with the blue eyes of Serpentina the youngest, is now clear enough.

The elder-bush, then a snake, now becomes the love of his dreams:

The Student Anselmus felt as if he now merely heard in plain words something he had long dreamed of, and though he fancied he observed that elder-bush, wall and sward, and all objects about him were beginning slowly to whirl around, he took heart, and was ready to speak; but the Archivarius prevented him; for sharply pulling the glove from his left hand, and holding the stone of a ring, glittering in strange sparkles and flames before the Student’s eyes, he said: “Look here, Herr Anselmus; what you see may do you good.”

It’s painfully obvious what Anselmus should not do, yet, he does. We as readers follow obediently and disastrously, learning along the way the preposterousness and the tragedy of romanticism from one its major initiators.

The Doll (DIe Puppe)

The Doll (DIe Puppe)

Thanks to these features, Hoffmann’s stories invite a variety of interpretations on multiple levels. The nutcracker may be Napoleon and the seven-headed mouse king, his seven cabinet members. But they may also be Hoffmann’s critique of romanticism, or a manifestation of buried aspects of the personalities of Clara and Fritz. Or, maybe they’re just idle fantasies, and Hoffmann has seduced the reader into unveiling his own psychic disturbances.

Ernst Theodore Wihelm Hoffmann is best known by his pen name, E. T. A. Hoffmann (Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann). But if my experience and that of a few friends is any guide, he’s not known well known by any name today, at least in the US beyond scholars of German romanticism, and certainly not anywhere near what his contributions deserve.

Some people are familiar with Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, an opera based on Hoffmann’s short stories with him as the main protagonist, or with the Powell and Pressburger film. Fewer still know that Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker was inspired by Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” That may be due to the fact that the sweet Christmas performances of the ballet lack the disturbing edge that Hoffmann works into all of his stories.

Kapellmeister Kreisler

Kapellmeister Kreisler

But I didn’t know that Hoffmann’s stories inspired many other famous works of music and film (e.g., Alfred Hitchcock, Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander); that his writings were a major influence on Edgar Allen Poe, Nikolai Gogol, Charles Dickens, Charles Baudelaire, George MacDonald, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Robertson Davies, Alexandre Dumas, père, and even Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung; that he wrote the first (Western) detective story, a novella (Mademoiselle de Scudéri); that his stories are the basis for much of modern gothic, ghost, sci-fi, and other genres; that he was arguably the first romantic composer in music, inspiring Robert Schumann and others; that his music and literary criticism were major influences on romanticism; or that he was an accomplished sketch artist, political satirist, and philosopher.

Worth getting to know. Just be careful about those dreams.

References

Hoffmann, E. T. A. (1967). The best tales of Hoffmann (edited with an Introduction by E. F. Bleiler). New York: Dover.

Scott, Sir Walter (1827). On the supernatural in fictitious composition. The Foreign Quarterly Review, I(1), 60-98.

Veronica Robles at the Methodist Church

Veronica Robles

Veronica Robles

I had a very enjoyable evening thanks to Veronica Robles, who performed Saturday for a Habitat for Humanity fund-raiser at the Wellfleet United Methodist Church.

Her show was a great introduction to the dance, costumes, songs, language, and histories of different states in Mexico, including Michoacán, Jalisco, and Chiapas. Robles is co-producer and host of the popular Telemundo show – “Orale con Veronica (Let’s Go with Veronica)”. You can hear samples of her music on the Orales website.

A major goal of hers has been to connect Latino families with social services and programs. She co-developed the Latino Art and Culture Initiative at Centro Latino de Chelsea and founded Dance, Camera, Action! at the Charlestown Boys and Girls Club. She has six CD’s out and recent appearances at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.

Veronica is a natural teacher, who takes her show to public schools in Boston and beyond, promoting arts, diversity, and cultural understanding. She performs with authentic outfits from different regions. The performances are interactive, with group singing and opportunities to dress up and learn dances. There was much amusement at some of the clumsy volunteers, such as myself.

Mariachi in Wellfleet might seem at first to be an odd fit. But it worked surprisingly well and made a nice addition to life here.

See Best bets things to do this weekend | CapeCodOnline.com.

A house concert with RUNA

Moving to Wellfleet, I wondered whether I’d be trading cultural life for nature. With the National Seashore, ocean and bayside beaches, 17 ponds in Wellfleet alone, walking and biking trails, forest and dunes, I was prepared to make that trade, assuming that we’d seek out music, art, and so on, in Boston or other places. But the reality has been the opposite. Yes, the natural world feels especially close at hand, but cultural events seem more, not less accessible.

I do miss the human diversity of the university or the large city, but there’s been more on that score than I expected. In terms of public events, we’ve been to many galleries and art shows, enjoyed the Saturday Tea and Music concerts in the Wellfleet Public Library, book talks, and just saw the Blind Boys of Alabama in the recently renovated Provincetown Town Hall.

About a week ago we attended a wonderful house concert by RUNA, a Celtic music group. They’re an international ensemble comprising vocalist Shannon Lambert-Ryan, guitarist Fionán de Barra, percussionist Cheryl Prashker, and fiddler Tomoko Omura. They play both traditional and more contemporary Celtic songs and instrumental pieces from Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and the US.

The performances were excellent. I especially enjoyed the traditional songs, but some of the more recently composed ones, too. The video here is not from the concert we attended, but we did hear Fionnghuala there.

Persian night in Göteborg

We just had an amazing evening in an Iranian restaurant.

Vida La Vida (formerly Coffee Dance) at Fjärde Långgatan 48 Linnaeus, Göteborg, is a small, but imaginatively decorated place that plays an important role in the local art scene. The eponymous Vida is the multitalented owner and for us this evening, a very charming host.

We were invited to enjoy music and dinner at Vida La Vida by Bernardo Borgeson, an Ecuadorian/Swedish filmmaker, who has directed many critically acclaimed documentaries and short films. He’s also worked with marginalized youth to tell their own stories through film. These are often quite powerful and disturbing films.

We shared a small table with Bernardo’s friend. The only other table was a large one with Vida’s Iranian family and their friends, several of whom were visiting from the U.S.

Various individuals performed on the tar, daf, and other instruments, and sang songs such as Dele Divane and Soltane Ghalbha. The singing was beautiful, almost hypnotic. Many of the songs convey a sadness and sense of longing or loss, even if one doesn’t undertand the words.

There was also a lot of group singing, which we were invited to join, with song sheets showing the Farsi words in a Latin alphabet. All of this occurred as we enjoyed an excellent dinner of salmon, fresh vegetables, and good Persian bread.

The large group included a young couple about to be married. There was also a woman celebrating her birthday, so we sang happy birthday in Farsi (Tavalodet Mobarak), Swedish (Ja, må du leva), and English. They brought us into all parts of the evening, which went on for several hours, and included an excellent dinner plus birthday cake.

Need I add that this was not what we had expected in Göteborg? The evening was topped off by a walk home in which we saw ladybugs, witches, and skeletons. The intensity of the evening at Vida La Vida made us forget that it was Halloween here!

Dance your Ph.D.

Have you ever been asked to explain your Ph.D., or for that matter, any complex project, to someone who won’t even understand the words in the title?

Imagine you’re Maureen McKeague, working on “Selection of a DNA aptamer for homocysteine using systematic evolution of ligands by exponential enrichment.” How would you summarize that in a way that conveyed the general sense of the work without trivializing it, or alternatively, putting your listener to sleep?

One answer is to create a dance video. This year’s “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest run by Science, received 45 submissions from around the world. I was impressed with all four of the finalists, but voted for McKeague’s because it seemed to most naturally fit the choreography to the logic of the research and I liked the dance itself.


Selection of a DNA aptamer for homocysteine using SELEX from Maureen McKeague on Vimeo.

You can enter your own vote on the Science site.

Now I’m trying to imagine how to choreograph my own dissertation, The Logical Structure Underlying Temporal References in Natural Language.

Threadgill’s Home Cookin’

A couple of nights ago, my sister, mother, and I went to Threadgill’s Home Cookin’ on N. Lamar in near north Austin. It’s not far from where I lived when I was in graduate school at the University of Texas.

I used to listen to Kenneth Threadgill and the Hootenanny Hoots when they played at the Split Rail in south Austin, so going to the restaurant brought back many fond old memories.

We had a delicious dinner in the kind of informal, but comfortable setting that I like a lot. At least for my own experience, I agree with the claim on the restaurant website that:

It is a simple fact that the Threadgill’s restaurants, museum and live music venues have more to do with Austin’s cultural and musical heritage than most any other institution within the city limits.

The history goes on to add:

Perhaps country music lover and bootlegger Kenneth Threadgill had more in mind when he opened his Gulf filling station just north of the Austin city limits in 1933, for the day that Travis County decided to “go wet ” in December of the same year, Kenneth stood in line all night to be the first person to own a liquor license in the county. Soon, the filling station became a favorite spot for traveling musicians since it was open 24 hours for drinking, gambling and jamming. Kenneth would sing songs by his beloved Jimmie Rodgers nightly. Musicians who came to play were paid in beer. Such was the atmosphere at Threadgill’s, it was only when a curfew was enacted in 1942 that its owner had to get a key for the front door, before that it had yet to have been locked.

Threadgill’s was important in the development of the Austin music scene. While Threadgill sang Jimmie Rodgers songs, Janis Joplin developed her country and blues hybrid. Other performers brought in rock & roll or music from Mexico.

Claude Matthews produced and directed a very good documentary video about Threadgill and his restaurant, Singin’ the Yodeling Blues. Here’s part 1, with links to parts 2 and 3 on Youtube: