Monthly Archives: December 2017

dressing for dinner? (orchestral attire)



Something I have been thinking about off and on for a while is the following: Why do performers and orchestras in classical music concerts always have to be attired as if they were dressing for dinner in Downton Abbey?

It creates, in my mind, a stuffy atmosphere that is unnecessary.

Last night, December 28, 2017, I saw a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City that included performances by the New York String Orchestra of a Mozart piano concerto and Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (“Scottish”).










Note how the orchestra is attired. Neatly, but casually. (The sort of attire which, when I worked for a corporation, was called “business casual.”)

Why couldn’t performers in classical musical concerts dress this way — if not always — at least often, or usually? Especially, but not exclusively, for chamber music, say. (Actually, this kind of dress is more often seen in such performances.)

I’m not saying that everyone should be, or could be allowed to be, dressed scruffily (as was the case in classes when I was in college), or that a certain degree of uniformity in attire is not desirable.

But look at the performers in the above photos. They are neatly, in fact spiffily, attired. There is a certain uniformity. Their dress does not call attention to itself. I am not an authority on fashion, but there is something cheerful and “smart” about their attire. They look youthful. It creates what I would term a more relaxed and “open” feeling.

Am I right?




A couple of amusing details.

Last night’s concert began with a brief orchestral piece by the contemporary American composer Gabriela Lena Frank. At its conclusion, a piano was wheeled onto the stage for the Mozart concerto, which featured the pianist Richard Goode. In the first photo, a female violinist — standing, front left — is shown. When the piano was wheeled out, she was sitting in her chair prior to the commencement of the next piece. Three men were wheeling the piano to the front center of the stage. They did not quite notice the violist, and she had to move her chair and shift her position, leaning back to get out of the way.

At a concert which I attended on Christmas Eve, December 24, one of the orchestra members, the continuo player, exited the stage after the first piece, a Vivaldi concerto. He walked to a door at the rear, stage right. He was unable to open it, despite trying several times. He finally gave up and walked back the other way and exited from another door stage left.

Not so stuffy, scripted, or predictable, the classical music world! At least not always.



— Roger W. Smith

   December 29, 2017

“I see Christ once more”



“I see Christ once more eating the bread of his last supper, in the midst of youths and old persons, ”


— Walt Whitman, “Salut au Monde!,” Leaves of Grass (1856 edition)


How — by what miracle of human inspiration and creativity — does the self-educated poet Walt Whitman make the old and familiar seem fresh and new, as if we were encountering and hearing about it anew, or perhaps for the first time?

(Hint: It’s because he created everything anew, relying on no preexisting models or poetic tropes.)

Such simplicity and, therefore, freshness.



— Roger W. Smith

   December 2017

we are blessed (and so am I): racial diversity in New York



This past fall, I saw the film Ex Libris, directed by the documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. It is a documentary film about the New York Public Library, both the library system itself and the vital role it plays in the life of the City.

The film includes scenes of library patrons participating in discussion groups. In one scene, a discussion group at the library’s main branch on Fifth Avenue is engaged in a lively exchange of views about Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera with respect to romantic love. There were several scenes of library patrons participating in similar meetings and discussion groups at branch libraries in Manhattan and in other boroughs such as the Bronx. Some were about books, some involved a presentation cum discussion on topics of current interest. Others concerned how to make the library more accessible or serve community needs better.

Something that struck me was that the racial/ethnic composition or makeup of the various local groups seen in the film was so diverse. Well, one might say, would you not expect this in a city such as New York? Everyone knows it is racially heterogeneous and always has been.

Yes, but.

I observed the same thing at a business presentation not long ago: a presentation by persons associated with an entrepreneurial company for attendees who had recently become involved as independent partners and persons interested in getting involved. It was a relatively small group and there was a lot of interaction among the attendees.

What I have observed is that in New York, people do not seem to notice or take account of racial differences. They just plain don’t matter.

At both the library sessions seen in the film and at the business meeting I attended, the ethnicity was varied: whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other groups. And, it was not as if there was just a smattering of or token representation by one racial or ethnic group or another. All were amply represented. There had obviously been no conscious effort to achieve “diversity” in the makeup of the audience/participants. It had just resulted, naturally, that the groups were notably diverse. In both instances, one did not get the sense of any one group predominating in any sense, numerically or otherwise.

The discussions were spirited. Persons were engaged. At no time — I observed this both in the film I saw and as a participant/observer at the business meeting — does one ever get the sense of consciousness by anyone — meaning speakers or audience; the give and take of participants who had something to say or just looked on with interest; group discussions — of race, their race or anyone else’s, being a factor that was taken or that one was expected to take into account, or that actually was noticed (which is to say, by an impartial observer), from what I could observe. Race was not a factor in any shape or form. It was clearly not something that might affect the content of the discussion and how someone or their contributions were viewed. People were just plain friendly and respectful, period. No one looked to be guarded or on the defensive. Everyone seemed fully accepted and welcomed. A priori. As a matter of course. No one is unwelcome nor patronized or talked down to.

In New York City, race really doesn’t seem to matter — as a public thing, that is: in social interactions and events, business, or commerce. In other words, in daily life, which goes on as it should. This is a welcome and edifying thing. It energizes and gladdens me.



— Roger W. Smith

  December 2017

the wrong word?



“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.”


— Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas




I have always have felt that “sinner” is the wrong word here and have mentioned this now and then to some English professors. No one ever responded. They didn’t care, apparently. Perhaps because they don’t teach Victorian lit, or don’t like A Christmas Carol. (Maybe they find it not worth deconstructing.) Who knows?

I queried family members about this over the past few days. We had the following exchange.





Hi, everyone.

Regarding the above Dickens passage, I always have felt that “sinner” is the wrong word here. Any thoughts?





My brother wrote back: “With what would you replace it?”





I responded to my brother as follows:



Thanks for the email. To answer you as best I can:


Dickens wrote:


Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change [by which slang term Dickens meant what we would nowadays call the Stock Exchange], for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. …

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain. …

Scrooge never painted out Old Marley’s name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the ware-house door: Scrooge and Marley. The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley. Sometimes people new to the business called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes Marley, but he answered to both names. It was all the same to him.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner. Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often came down handsomely, and Scrooge never did.

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Scrooge, how are you. When will you come to see me.” No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blindmen’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master! ”

But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call nuts to Scrooge.


A Christmas Carol, Stave I, “Marley’s Ghost”


What I think:


There is nothing in this passage to indicate that Scrooge was immoral, which is how “sinner” is commonly understood. The passage instead conveys, unmistakably, with no other inferences, that Scrooge was a cold fish devoid of human feeling.

We learn throughout the story that Scrooge is uncaring to persons such as his clark, Bob Cratchit; hard edged as a businessman; and feared by his creditors. He lacks the virtue of Christian charity or “fellow feeling,” but he does not appear to have vices normally associated with sinners.


I think better would be:

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old ____”






I think “misanthrope” would actually be the best choice.





A conclusion (as I view it)


The following are my thoughts subsequent to the email exchange:

Michael Slater, Charles Dickens’s biographer, describes A Christmas Carol as being “written at white heat.” It was completed in six weeks.

Dickens often wrote hastily, and was always pressured by deadlines (as are most writers).

It has been said that James Joyce (as related by Samuel Beckett, and told in Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce) spent a whole day writing and endlessly rewriting a single sentence of Ulysses (not Molly Bloom’s soliloquy).

Dickens, in contrast to perfectionists like Joyce and Flaubert, wrote hastily, without obsessing over niceties of style. He is a great stylist in his own way, I would be inclined to say, but his genius is broader in scope. Another writer who resembles him on a certain level is Balzac, who churned out novel after novel with characters such as Père Goriot invented out of whole cloth who were idiosyncratic and memorable for that reason — yet entirely human (not abstractions or papier-mâché characters), but you can never forget them or put his books down. (They are eminently readable). Yet, Balzac was a careless writer and seemed not to care about style.

What about Dickens? He outranks Balzac in genius and stature. But, he could occasionally be careless.

Which is a comforting thought for other writers, no?

I think I’m right. “Sinner’ was the wrong word here, and it rings false.



— Roger W. Smith

   December 2017

A Slap in the Face? Or, Reverse Racism?




‘A Slap in the Face’: Pick of White Man to Lead Council Draws Fire

by Jeffery C. Mays And J. David Goodman

The New York Times

December 22, 2017


“For months, black political leaders watched the bare-knuckled, back-room race to lead the New York City Council with a mix of hope and trepidation. Five of the eight candidates were black or Hispanic — offering the prospect of a first black speaker — but two of the most prominent front-runners were white men.

“In the end, one of those white men, Councilman Corey Johnson of Manhattan, emerged victorious. Now black leaders are railing against a process that produced another white face atop the government of a majority-minority city that already has white men in the roles of mayor, comptroller, three of five district attorney’s offices and at the heads of various city agencies.”

… ‘This is a slap in the face,’ said Rev. Jacques Andre DeGraff, associate pastor of Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem. ‘People feel offended.’ ”





“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr.





my thoughts:


How far we have come since the idealism of those days. Or, should I say, how sad that the political dialogue when it comes to race has reached such depths.

Why should be being white be an impediment to being a viable candidate?

“[B]lack leaders are railing against a process that produced another white face atop the government of a majority-minority city. …,” the article states. What if I stated the opinion that there should be more whites in leadership positions for some reason or other? Think I wouldn’t be labeled a white supremacist?

And, what do “white” and “black” mean anyway? See my previous post


“this isn’t racism?”


Has the possibility that they themselves might be engaging in reverse racism ever occurred to the black leaders quoted in this article. Has the mere THOUGHT ever crossed their minds, troubled them, or caused them to do some self-examination?



— Roger W. Smith

  December 23, 2017; reposted December 26







a comment by my friend Ella Rutledge (posted on Facebook):

“I differ with you on this, Roger. How can Dr. King’s dream come true if positive action is not taken, sacrifices made? Reverse racism? So what? At least white guys then get to know what racism feels like.”

musical (and non-musical) musings



On Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017, I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York which included a performance of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante in E-flat Major, K. 364.

A sinfonia concertante (also called symphonie concertante) is an orchestral work, normally in several movements, in which there are parts of solo instruments, generally two or more, contrasting a group of soloists with the full orchestra.

Prior to attending the concert, I received an email from my brother. He wrote, “The second movement [of the Sinfonia concertante], with the soloists playing off against each other with marvelous lyricism and wit, is one of the most beautiful compositions I’ve ever heard.”

So true.

While listening to Mozart, and during the concert in general, several thoughts crossed my mind.





I don’t quite know how to express this thought. But, as is well known, there is something ethereal, otherworldly, about Mozart’s music. This is almost a truism.

It encourages, stimulates deep concentration. It seems to take one into another realm of contemplation. This reflects where it was coming from, the “musical subconscious” of a genius.

I know these may be platitudes. But, I was thinking about when this happens. When you are listening not just to notes, or admiring specifically the musical structure or form, but are in a realm of pure aesthetic delight and feel like you’re entering into another’s consciousness, which is to say, sort of like being ushered into a new sphere for the privileged (that is, us listeners). And, that the composer is “speaking” from his subconscious, or supra-consciousness, to yours. A sort of mystical fusion?

I don’t quite know why, but I was reminded — when listening to the second movement of the Sinfonia concertante — of Mozart’s Maurerische Trauermusik (Masonic Funeral Music; K. 477; K. 479a), in which the listener has the same experience.

I was also thinking about how and when this can or does occur also with literature. Suddenly, you are not just reading sentences, following a plot, etc. You are in synch with the author’s subconscious, which is to say that his genius has transported you to a new level as a reader. This happened to me when reading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. It’s not just a good yarn or a book about whaling — it’s a book about the mystical qualities of the sea, nature, cetology, and what underlies them; the wonder and terror of the physical world conjoined with the deep truths that can be found; human existence and the ironies of daily life. Melville was writing at such a deep level — he was truly inspired. His genius is what strikes you and unmans one, so to speak. The same thing is true of other literary works of genius such as Paradise Lost and Tolstoy’s novels.





Thought number 2 of your faithful correspondent. This occurred to me mostly while listening to other pieces on the program.

It’s okay if the mind wanders during a concert. If fact, it’s by no means a bad thing if it does. Great art stimulates the mind. (Another truism.) To appreciate, enjoy, and savor it. But also, to think deeply, energetically. Even if the work doesn’t seem to be ABOUT anything.

For instance, in my post


“Mozart, Alexander L. Lipson, and Russian 1 with Professor Gribble”


I explained how at a concert I attended in November, listening to one of Mozart’s greatest quartets led me by a train of associations to think about Pushkin and, by the same “inner logic,” about a Russian course I once took.

What I find happening is that my mind wanders sort of back and forth, from the music being performed to all sorts of thoughts and musings inspired by it. These range from thoughts about the music itself (including the sort of thoughts that might be classified under the rubric “music appreciation”) to thoughts somewhat related to the music (such as listening to a requiem and musing about death) to thoughts that suddenly arise having little or nothing to do with the music. However, this is tricky. Music from classical to popular comes laden with associations. A piece may evoke a train of thoughts or memories that only you can explain, arising perhaps because the music reminds you of when you first heard the piece, of similar music you have heard, of other works by the same composer, and so forth. It’s kind of like what happens with dreams: seemingly bizarre associations, but one can often relate them to “facts” buried within one’s subconscious and known only to oneself.

I find that I come home from a concert mentally refreshed and stimulated, with the stimulation producing creativity and earnest thinking.



— Roger W. Smith

   December 2017









Mozart, Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major, K. 364; 2nd movement, Andante




Mozart, Maurerische Trauermusik (Masonic Funeral Music) in C minor, K. 477 (K. 479a)



The Masonic Funeral Music is an orchestral work that was composed by Mozart in 1785 in his capacity as a member of the Freemasons. It was performed during a Masonic funeral service held on in memory of two of Mozart’s Masonic brethren.










Haydn, symphony No. 6 in D major (“Le matin”)





This splendid symphony starts out — in the first movement, which is marked “Adagio – Allegro” — so quietly you can barely hear it.

The reason: the sun is rising! (Which is why the symphony is nicknamed “Le matin.”)

The music increases in volume as the sun “rises.”

I was intrigued to learn from a biography of Haydn which I read a long time ago that he grew up in rather humble circumstances and that he must have known and appreciated nature from boyhood.

I don’t think Haydn — great and prolific as he was, as admired as he was and is by his contemporaries and by music historians and connoisseurs — gets enough credit or attention nowadays. He practically invented the symphony and the string quartet. In his later years, he wrote splendid masses and oratorios, having been inspired by the example of Handel.





Also posted here is “In vollem Glanze steiget jetzt die Sonne strahlend auf” (In splendor bright is rising now the sun) from Haydn’s monumental oratorio Die Schöpfung (The Creation). This section starts out with the same musical depiction of the sun rising in splendor.








See also my posts of three of Haydn’s masses at:



— Roger W. Smith

   December 2017