Tag Archives: Alan Smith

“There is nothing generic about human life.”

 

 

 

I am reading a recently published book by Kate Bowler: Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Ms. Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School. In 2015, she was unexpectedly diagnosed with Stage IV cancer at age 35.

The book is described as follows on Amazon.com:

Kate Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School with a modest Christian upbringing, but she specializes in the study of the prosperity gospel, a creed that sees fortune as a blessing from God and misfortune as a mark of God’s disapproval. At thirty-five, everything in her life seems to point toward “blessing.” She is thriving in her job, married to her high school sweetheart, and loves life with her newborn son.

Then she is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.

The prospect of her own mortality forces Kate to realize that she has been tacitly subscribing to the prosperity gospel, living with the conviction that she can control the shape of her life with “a surge of determination.” Even as this type of Christianity celebrates the American can-do spirit, it implies that if you “can’t do” and succumb to illness or misfortune, you are a failure. Kate is very sick, and no amount of positive thinking will shrink her tumors. What does it mean to die, she wonders, in a society that insists everything happens for a reason? Kate is stripped of this certainty only to discover that without it, life is hard but beautiful in a way it never has been before. …

Everything Happens for a Reason tells her story, offering up her irreverent, hard-won observations on dying and the ways it has taught her to live.

 

 

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On pages 123-125, I came across the following passage:

 

I can’t reconcile the way that the world is jolted by events that are wonderful and terrible, the gorgeous and the tragic. Except I am beginning to believe that these opposites do not cancel each other out. I see a middle-aged woman in the waiting room of the cancer clinic, her arms wrapped around the frail frame of her son. She squeezes him tightly, oblivious to the way he looks down at her sheepishly. He laughs after a minute, a hostage to her impervious love. Joy persists somehow and I soak it in. The horror of cancer has made everything seem like it is painted in bright colors. I think the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.

The flow of letters has slowed, but I still get at least one every day. Today I received a book in my campus mailbox about how to guarantee that I will communicate with my loved ones from heaven, and a handwritten card about scriptures I could repeat aloud to become a better conduit of God’s power. A pastor from a prosperity church has mailed me a large manila folder containing an enormous banner that reads: SEEK YE FIRST THE KINGDOM OF GOD AND ALL THESE THINGS SHALL BE ADDED UNTO YOU. I can’t help but think it’s a little passive-aggressive, but I appreciate the gesture. Sort of. He is asking me to employ a series of proven techniques that could help me reclaim my own health, if I would only try.

This is the problem, I suppose, with formulas. They are generic. But there is nothing generic about a human life. [italics added]

When I was little, to get to my bus stop, I had to cross a field that had so much snow my parents fitted me with ski pants and knee-high thermal boots that were toasty to forty degrees below zero. I am excellent in the stern of a canoe, but I never got the hang of riding a bike with no hands. I have seen the northern lights because my parents always woke up the whole house when the night sky was painted with color. I love the smell of dover and chamomile because my sister and I used to pick both on the way home from swimming lessons. I spent weeks of my childhood riding around on my bike saving drowning worms after a heavy rain. My hair is my favorite feature even though it’s too heavy for most ponytails, and I still can’t parallel park. There is no life in general. Each day has been a collection of trivial details—little intimacies and jokes and screw-ups and realizations. My problems can’t be solved by those formulas-—those clichés-—when my life was never generic to begin with. God may be universal, but I am not. I am Toban’s wife and Zach’s mom and Karen and Gerry’s daughter. I am here now, bolted in time and place, to the busy sounds of a blond boy in dinosaur pajamas crashing into every piece of furniture.

“Who’s my baby?” I ask him.

Zach is running long loops around the room and stopping at every ledge to run his car along it. He turns to me.

‘A boy?” he says hopefully.

“Yes,” I say, scooping him into my arms. He tolerates my tight hug for a few breaths and then squirms his way out, laughing. “Yes.” I say. “But not just any boy. You.”

 

 

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This a marvelous passage. It needs no explication, but it says so much. And, I might add, does so with a minimum of words. And doesn’t just affirm something, but shows it with details that hit the mark and resonate.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   June 2018

 

 

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Addendum: Ms. Bowler grew up in Manitoba, Canada. She writes: “I have seen the northern lights because my parents always woke up the whole house when the night sky was painted with color.”

This reminded me of a Christmas Eve in our house in Massachusetts at some indeterminate past time when I was a teenager. My father woke us children up in the middle of the night in great excitement. He wanted us to go to a window in the upstairs hallway and gaze out of it at a bright star. It was like the Star of Bethlehem, he said. I tried to look, but I was so sleepy I was unsteady on my legs and could barely hold my head up. I seem to recall something very bright. I believe there had been something in forecast models about an especially bright North Star during that particular month and year.

 

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The Gospel According to St. Matthew

2:1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Wise-men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, 2:2 Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we saw his star in the east, and are come to worship him. 2:3 And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 2:4 And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ should be born. 2:5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written through the prophet,

2:6 And thou Bethlehem, land of Judah,
Art in no wise least among the princes of Judah:
For out of thee shall come forth a governor,
Who shall be shepherd of my people Israel.

2:7 Then Herod privily called the Wise-men, and learned of them exactly what time the star appeared. 2:8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search out exactly concerning the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word, that I also may come and worship him. 2:9 And they, having heard the king, went their way; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. 2:10 And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 2:11 And they came into the house and saw the young child with Mary his mother; and they fell down and worshipped him; and opening their treasures they offered unto him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 2:12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

the importance of professionalism (as seen by a writer)

 

 

Last winter, I emailed a relative with the following comment: “Largely because of having had professional experience, I know I’m not fooling myself when I say my stuff is good, unlike a lot of people who fancy themselves writers or poets.”

A few months later, we were having a discussion about various matters, including my blog. I came from a very literate family and have three siblings, all of them gifted writers (as were my parents). I emailed my relative again, saying: “I am ahead of the rest of our family in one key respect: I have had professional writing experience (plus a journalism degree) and have written for publication in scholarly journals, reference books, major newspapers.”

My relative seemed to think I was bragging, was guilty of puffery, for no reason, and, besides, what was the point of making the comparison, which it appeared to my relative was an invidious one, but which I thought was worth mentioning. “I am not questioning your writing credentials, which are very strong and give you more knowledge of and experience in writing than anyone in our family,” the relative wrote back. “But I do not understand why you are comparing yourself to your family in this regard. There is no family writing competition.”

 

 

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I did not intend, did not mean, to disparage anyone, or to exalt myself. I merely wished to make a point. To wit: that professional experience is crucial for anyone who wants to master a craft.

I was thinking when I made the observation to my relative, and have often thought in the past, about my father in this regard. My father was professional musician: a pianist, church organist, and piano teacher. He was born with musical talent. His mother was a church organist and attended a music school in Boston for a couple of years (of which she was very proud). It was said that her mother (my father’s maternal grandmother) played and/or conducted choir music in a church in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where my grandmother grew up.

My grandmother recognized my father’s talent and encouraged him. He began piano lessons at a very early age. By the time he was a teenager, he was moonlighting as a musician with bands in the Boston area. At a young age, he was hired as a piano teacher in a studio in Boston, where he worked for several years before becoming an independent piano teacher. He appeared on radio programs in the 1930’s, playing and discussing music.

His experience was extensive. After serving in the Army in World War II, he went back to college and got an A.B. degree from Harvard College in music. In his senior year, he took five music courses. One was a course in composition with the renowned composer Irving Fine. He told us children that on the final exam, Fine said: “You have been studying composition all semester. Your requirement for the final is to write a four-part piece.”

My former therapist, discussing my versatility in writing, once brought up the actor James Cagney during a session with me. He quoted Cagney as once having said, “I could always play any part, any type of character, they asked me to.” He said that this was a significant statement. My father was the same way. He played in nightclubs, on a pleasure boat making daily cruises, at ice skating shows, briefly in a burlesque house orchestra, with back up Big Bands, as an accompanist to singers such as Dinah Shore (who was making a demo record early in her career), at functions such as wedding receptions and bar mitzvahs, as a church organist, and for many years as the entertainment in a restaurant/lounge. He played the accordion when required (e.g., on the excursion boat) and the organ in a Unitarian church. He told me, “I never mastered the organ,” explaining that to really do so required mastering the pedals and stops. This admission by him was not a sign of weakness. It showed the kind of awareness that professionals have of what their true strengths are, as well as their limitations. Similarly to my father’s case, I know that I excel as an essayist and writer of scholarly articles, and have reportorial and research skills. At the same time, I know that I can’t write fiction or poetry.

 

 

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My father once had a revealing talk with me, which I never forgot, about his technical skills and expertise as a pianist. It wasn’t braggadocio, it was a matter of actual fact.

For years, my father was the pianist at the Chart Room, a restaurant bar in Cataumet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. He would play there six nights a week for around six hours each night. People came to hear him play.

My father told me something that might have seemed trivial or not worth noting, but that I found quite significant for what it said about him, and his self-awareness when it came to professional capabilities. He would take a 15 to 20 minute break after a set. During the break (when he was probably enjoying a drink at the bar and would be chatting with customers), someone, it seemed, would always get up, sit down on the empty piano stool, and start playing. My father had no problem with this.

As my father told me, they would play simple tunes and enjoy emulating him, encouraging customers to sing along. My father pointed out to me — this was significant — that they would always play in the key of C. To my father, this distinguished the amateurs from him. He could play in any key that was required and was proficient at accompanying vocalists and singers because of this. And, by the way, my father had perfect pitch. One of my siblings would be practicing piano in the living room when my father was in the dining room. If they hit a wrong key, he would say, without leaving his chair, “E flat!” or “G sharp!”

 

 

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Like my father with the advantages of not only being born with musical talent but also of having had professional experience — where he honed his skills and kept developing and refining them — professional experience in writing has been invaluable to me. One learns certain lessons as a professional that are crucial to one’s development. And, then, as was true in my father’s case, and was also true in mine, there is formal education.

What seems to be the case with most people (athletes are a good example) is that there has to be inborn talent — one has to have the “genes,” endowment, or makeup for achieving the highest levels of excellence in writing/verbal expression, music, or sports — but then one will never reach that level without rigorous training and professional experience. This often means formal training, such as a good writing instructor(s) or education in general, or a professional level coach. Some writers and athletes seem to be naturals who do not get that much formal training. But think of all those who do. Writers such as Thomas Wolfe and James T. Farrell come to mind. They started out as writers in college and graduate school. Similarly, my writing instruction began in the “writing workshop” (writers’ boot camp?) of my high school English teacher, Robert W. Tighe — where we wrote almost every day, and were trained to do so “on demand,” on any given topic, in class — and continued with a superb education in the humanities in college and as a postgraduate special student taking college courses in languages, editing, and translation.

My point is that some would be athletes, musicians, writers, and so forth never progress beyond the amateur stage. In the playgrounds and parks of New York, there is a plethora of amateur athletes who exhibit great talent — basketball players, say — but who, at some point, never progressed beyond achieving distinction on sandlots and in playgrounds.

 

 

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From professional experience, which means writing for pay and actual publication, I have learned:

— to become less fearful of criticism and failure as a writer

— to be able to write to specs, adhering to a specific word limit (not to be exceeded under any circumstances; I found out that 600 words means 600 words, not 625 or 650; your editor does not want to have to do the work of cutting your submission to achieve the right length); and how to “shoehorn” in ideas and information that you want to include in a piece — within, so to speak, a tight space

— becoming hyper attuned to the actual editor who you turn your work into, and to the “editor in the sky,” and thereby to become more vigilant and careful in trying to avoid errors, having the final, published piece and how it will look always very much in one’s consciousness (a rule of thumb I learned when working as a freelancer for a daily newspaper: if your pieces go into the paper virtually unedited, that means you are meeting expectations and can consider yourself a success)

— continually engaging in fact checking as one writes (the way a copy editor does) and not relying on someone else to do it for you — in short, having a hyper sense of responsibility when it comes to accuracy. (A good writer knows that when one is sloppy about facts — as well as about grammar, for that matter — the whole piece is likely to be called into question.)

— being very alert to one’s audience — that is, readers — and cautious about making assertions or stating facts that might be ambiguous or questionable.

Regarding the “inner editor,” I notice that nonprofessional writers — good ones, well-educated ones — frequently make the same mistakes repeatedly because they lack professional experience. For example, a professional writer working in a newsroom or for a publishing firm knows where a period or comma goes: inside or outside closing quotation marks. Some basic style points have never been learned by amateurs who are otherwise excellent writers. The same thing with spelling. I never really learned to spell until I wrote professionally. An instructor I had in journalism school (a longtime New York Times reporter) told the class that there was zero tolerance in the newsroom for stories submitted with any errors whatsoever, including typos. Another way of putting this is that any professional (including writers) learns at the outset of his or her career some common mistakes to avoid. But you can spot the amateurs because of the obvious errors (small but nevertheless “impermissible” ones) they make.

 

 

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I worked for four years in the publishing industry before getting my first freelance writing assignments. My job was writing advertising copy for scholarly/technical books and textbooks. The job and subsequent ones enabled me to acquire an essential skill: how to process and digest information for rendering, so to speak, in publishable form.

Someone hands you a prospectus — often no more — of a book about to be published. One of the first I ever wrote advertising copy for was a textbook on neurology. From a professor’s dry summary of a few paragraphs (often leaving out key points that would be relevant from a sales point of view), I would come up with a cogent, readable advertising brochure. I faced similar challenges early on as a freelance writer for reference book publishers and as a freelance reporter for a daily metropolitan newspaper and a business magazine. One has to dig for information and quotes, weigh them, verify them, then do the best one can with what one has by way of facts/information and quotes. Until one has worked for a daily newspaper, I doubt anyone realizes how difficult it can be to get good quotes. To get an interview. To dig out information and verify its accuracy. I once wrote a routine article having to do with an elementary school. I was at my cubicle in the newsroom for a good part of the evening calling a source again and again to make sure I had all of the school personnel’s names spelled correctly and got other facts about the school (from the picayune to what some of the major issues were) right.

The editor of the business magazine liked my writing and had me writing a couple of stories every month, including cover stories. When you are a beginning writer, you are thrilled to get any sort of assignment.

The editor asked me to write an article about cooling systems (e.g., fans) used in commercial buildings, which ones were most cost and energy efficient and so on. It was not a topic of interest to me, but it was to businesspeople in the area, and that was what mattered to the editor. Needless to say, I had zero knowledge, but I interviewed building managers, asking them not only which systems they preferred but also to educate and bring me up to speed on the subject.

I pulled it off a la James Cagney.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    June 2018

Roger W. Smith letter to Rev. Paul Gallivan, December 6, 1989

 

 

 

imageedit_1_7710755523 (2)

 

I wrote this letter to Father Paul Gallivan, a Roman Catholic priest, on December 6, 1989.

Father Paul delivered a eulogy at my father, Alan W. Smith’s, memorial service in Bourne, Massachusetts on November 17, 1989.

 

 

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See also my post:

 

Father Paul Gallivan

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/04/21/father-paul-gallivan/

 

Although my father and Father Paul were of different faiths, they were close friends and meant a great deal to one another.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    June 2018

 

on happiness vis-à-vis sadness (and the other way around)

 

 

 

“We are more apt to feel depressed by the perpetually smiling individual than the one who is honestly sad. If we admit our depression openly and freely, those around us get from it an experience of freedom rather than the depression itself.”

 

— Rollo May, Paulus: Reminiscence of a Friendship (1973)

 

 

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These thoughts, this post, are occasioned by a film I saw about beleaguered people in a foreign country.

I was transfixed — totally engrossed in the people’s stories and the picture the film gave of their daily lives.

I shared my enthusiasm for the film with someone close to me and suggested that she see it with me.

She said no, she had no interest (despite my strong recommendation) in seeing the film.

“Why?” I asked.

She answered (perhaps she was looking for excuses), “I don’t want to see something that will make me sad.”

This struck me as patently ridiculous. Since when has it been imperative to avoid things — in life, in art — with the potential to make oneself sad?

 

 

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It should be obvious that true art mixes joy and beauty with pathos.

In his Poetics, Aristotle developed the theory of catharsis (from the Greek κάθαρσις, catharsis, meaning “purification” or “cleansing” — the purification and purgation of emotions — especially pity and fear — through art”; as explained on Wikipedia). Note that, as explained in the online encyclopedia article, catharsis represents an “extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration” (italics added).

The film which I saw was a documentary about North Korea entitled Under the Sun. More about this below.

 

 

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So much for theory. Let’s consider some examples. But first, a digression about happiness in PEOPLE.

To what extent is happiness a desideratum? Can we expect it? Is there even such a thing — is it real? How should we regard others who are, seem to be, or claim to be happy?

My father, Alan W. Smith, thoroughly enjoyed life, on many levels: an interest in things (including the delight he took in little things, such as observing what happened once to dry ice when he threw a chunk of it over the side of a ship into the water; he wanted us to see it), including intellectual curiosity; a love of music (chiefly as a performer); a delight in people and their company; a delight in little amusements; pleasures such as eating, drinking, and the outdoors (experienced as an everyday citizen, not as a woodsman; e.g., raking leaves in the fall, a walk with his wife or the dog on the seashore, a blizzard). He had a keen appetite for life.

Unlike a lot of adults, he loved his work. He never begrudged, never complained about anything. Welcomed everything and anyone who came his way.

He could loosen and cheer up a group simply by being himself and by virtue of his presence. He didn’t mind looking ridiculous, making fun of himself (or being made fun of), or being regarded as extravagant or incautious.

Oftentimes, he would enter a parlor with people leaning forward in their chairs — tight lipped, looking uncomfortable.

“What’s everybody looking so glum for?” he would say. The complexion of the group would change just like that and people would begin talking and joking. In the words of Louisa May Alcott*, he “pervaded the rooms like a genial atmosphere, using the welcome of eye and hand which needs no language to interpret it, … making their [his guests’] enjoyment his own.”

He took the weather with equanimity, be it a blizzard, a hurricane, or an earthquake.

My father happened to be in the Bay Area, visiting my older brother in the late 1980’s, shortly before the former died, when an earthquake struck. “I’ve always wanted to be able to experience what an earthquake feels like,” he told me afterward. As my former therapist pointed out, such an attitude showed an appetite for life and an eagerness to experience it.

A hot summer’s day? A great excuse for setting off a few fireworks in our back yard, or for a lobster cookout (which both my parents loved) in the front yard of our rented summer house on Cape Cod.

I remember a blizzard in my home town of Canton, Massachusetts when I was in high school. Everything was shut down. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do. An idea came to my father. Wouldn’t it be great to toast marshmallows and cook hot dogs in our living room fireplace? There was a problem, however — we didn’t have the ingredients. Such niggling problems never seemed to stand in the way of the fun planned by my father. Come to think of it, how about a walk? We walked, tramped about two miles each way through snowdrifts, found a store that was open, and bought marshmallows, hot dogs, and buns.

There was, of course, another side to him. He could be pensive and gloomy. He could be irascible and had a bad temper. His cheerfulness was only one side of the coin.

When something untoward happened to him — an argument with his second wife, for example — he would say to himself through gritted teeth (as she used to tell me), “I’m not going to let it ruin my day.”

 

 

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Phony Cheerfulness

 

A truism: no one is happy all the time.

There was a nice looking, perky girl in the class a year ahead of me in college: Marie E______.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say this. It will sound petty and perhaps mean spirited. But Marie’s perpetual cheerfulness grated on me.

A friend of mine, who lacked emotional depth and (often) insight into human relationships, was eager to get to know Marie and had several tennis dates with her. The relationship went no further.

“The thing I like most about her,” he told me, “is that she’s always cheerful.” This comment seemed obtuse and fatuous. It nettled me. I would be willing to bet that Marie’s perpetual cheerfulness was her way of dealing with insecurities that she probably felt.

 

 

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Happiness in a person without an admixture of sadness seems to be inimical to the human condition. One wants to get to know both sides of a person — to hear about their highs and lows from him or herself.

What about my father? you might ask. Didn’t I just wax rhapsodic over his cheerfulness and capacity to enjoy life?

I noted that he had another side that, while it was less often seen, would suddenly be displayed in bursts of anger. And, my father knew profound grief from family tragedies for which he did not bear responsibility but in which he was the chief mourner and suffered the most.

A capacity for joy does not preclude an awareness of sadness, does not obviate sadness.

Who wrote the Ode to Joy? The same composer who in his late quartets, beautifully, incomparably, expresses pathos, sadness.

 

 

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The film mentioned above is Under the Sun (2015), a documentary about North Korea. It was directed by the Russian documentary filmmaker Vitaly Mansky.

It is beautifully done and tugs and pulls at the viewer emotionally on many levels. The central person in the film, who is unforgettable, is an adorable eight-year-old North Korean girl named Zin-mi. The plot is ostensibly about Zin-mi going through steps, including school, as she prepares to join the Korean Children’s Union. At the film’s conclusion, she breaks down and cries upon being admitted to the children’s union. She is perhaps crying from relief that the stress of achieving the goal is over and, it seems, from what one would call joy mixed with sadness.

As I noted in a previous post:

re “Under the Sun” (a film about North Korea)

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/08/25/re-under-the-sun-a-film-about-north-korea/

 

The compelling thing about the film is that you come away caring about the people and touched by the film’s PATHOS — despite the fact that one is aware that the people live incredibly hard, regimented lives in a totalitarian state where they have been effectively brainwashed and reduced almost to automatons (or so it often seems).

The film features beautiful, elegiac music composed by a Latvian composer, Karlis Auzans. It captures the pathos musically, for example, in a scene where you see North Koreans having family photos taken in a sort of assembly line fashion. A couple stands proudly in front of an automatic camera with their children. The photo is taken and another couple poses. And so on. As they stare into the camera, one sees expressions of pride but also feels a great sadness. The music rises to an emotional pitch and captures this. One feels empathy with the people posing, with the North Koreans! One feels that they are people, just like us. That, despite very hard lives, they experience feelings like ours. One feels like crying oneself, but one, at the same time, experiences a kind of joy in contemplating the miracle of human existence, and how this elemental reality links us all, regardless of circumstances.

 

 

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This got me thinking about pathos in literature and music. About the comment “I don’t want to see something that will make me sad.”

Anna Karenina ends sadly. Does that make one any less desirous of reading it? It seems that in most operas the plot involves a tragic love affair, often with someone committing suicide, dying of grief. Art (in the broad sense of the word) is full of grief, so to speak, as well as happiness — as depicted by the artist drawing upon a profound knowledge of human life. Would one wish all art to be reduced to the level of a situation comedy?

What about music? Ever hear stirrings of pathos? In Beethoven’s late quartets, in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony, and so forth?

Case closed.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  February 2018; updated May 2018

 

 

*In her novel Work: A Story of Experience (1873).

 

 

 

 

 

a February concert

 

 

 

Last night I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall.

The program:

Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550; Orchestra of St. Luke’s; Robert Spano, conductor

Bryce Dessner, “Voy a dormir”; Kelley O’Connor, Mezzo-Soprano

Beethoven, Piano Concerto in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (“Emperor”); Jeremy Denk, piano

I jotted down some notes and impressions as well as personal thoughts on my way home.

 

 

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Mozart symphony no 40

have known and loved the first movement from a very young age

but, to my surprise, I think I enjoyed the second movement (Andante) even more tonight … it is a musical conversation between the instruments … Mozart THINKS musically (as I noted in a previous post)

The second piece, “Voy a dormir,” was the world premiere of a work by a young composer … beautiful soprano voice (the composer collaborated with her on the work) … Spanish text, based on poetry by Alfonsina Storni (Argentinian)

It is pleasurable to hear Spanish and to be able to follow the lyrics, since I know the language. It sounded so beautiful, as are all the Romance languages. All kind of the same — in a way — and at the same time each unique with its own “melody.” En el fondo del mar / hay una casa / de cristal.

Listening to the Emperor Concerto performed live. What an experience. There is such a range of emotions in Beethoven — e.g., from the first to the second movement.

One can HEAR such a difference in and evolution of styles between and from Mozart to Beethoven. From classical to romantic. But, to me, Haydn is the clearest exemplar of the classical style — not Mozart (not to detract from Mozart; it’s just a question of musical styles).

I had unusually good seats. It was great to watch the conductor, Robert Spano, and the piano soloist close up.

There must be such an incredible feeling of power to be the soloist in a piano concerto.

 

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I thought of my father, a pianist who conducted occasionally

and of my family’s experience with music as performers

my father, who graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in music and who was a professional musician and piano teacher

my mother, who was in the Radcliffe College chorus and played the piano

my three siblings, all of whom are gifted musicians, notably on the piano, and each of whom achieved proficiency in more than one instrument

my maternal grandmother, who — I never knew this during her lifetime — is said to have played the piano well

my paternal grandmother, who was a church organist and choir director … and my father the same

my paternal grandmother’s mother (my great-grandmother), who, I was told by an aunt, played the piano and sang in a Methodist Church in the nineteenth century

 

 

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I have hazy memories of my father conducting once or twice … I see him striding down the aisle proudly with his usual good posture, perhaps a bit more serious of mien than usual, but not overly so; assuming an appropriate air of dignity … being applauded … the performance commencing

where did he learn to conduct? … guess it’s not difficult if you have performed in orchestras … he did not, to my knowledge, conduct classical works

 

 

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when one is growing up, one takes one’s parents and nuclear family largely for granted … they are a given, like your front yard or neighborhood

your parents’ unique or distinctive attributes are something you are not likely to think about until much later in life

watching this particular concert, I felt a twinge of sadness, loss, and regret for my father and mother — occasioned by thoughts of what such a concert would have meant to them; how we could have talked about it (and would have enjoyed doing so); and how their existence and persons not only made mine possible, but endowed me with musical and aesthetic sensitivity

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 16, 2018

 

 

program

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Mozart. Symphony No. 40

second movement (Andante)

 

a trip to Massachusetts (and its disappointing aftermath)

 

 

During the month just ended, I took a trip to Massachusetts to attend the American Literature Association’s annual conference in Boston, and also to take photos of personal interest from the point of view of my personal history and also from a genealogical angle.

I grew up in Massachusetts, in the Greater Boston area.

Practically all of my relatives came from Massachusetts. My father’s ancestors, on his father’s side, emigrated from Scotland to Boston in 1872. His relatives on his mother’s side emigrated during the colonial period and lived mostly in Essex County, north of Boston, and subsequently in the Greater Boston area.

My mother’s relatives were originally mostly from Cape Cod; some of my relatives continue to live there.

The following is a trip itinerary with photographs.

 

 

 

Continue reading

reflections about my Dad as a pianist

 

 

 

 

 

The following is the text of an email of mine to family members (plus, note audio file above):

 

 

I have been sort of in the dumps today.

Wanted to listen to some light music.

I am listening to Dad’s private mini concert for Marge, from 1981.

I haven’t listened to it in years.

I am surprised by how much I am enjoying it.

He starts out the first piece pounding away, and it doesn’t seem like a good quality recording, but the recording quality gets better for the remainder.

I just listened to Dad’s rendition of “Lida Rose.” Not bad.

Now, he’s playing “New York, New York.” He should have gotten a job at Yankee Stadium!

Now he’s playing “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

Old chestnuts.

He has a predilection (too much) for boogie-woogie.

I can see why people liked to hear him play, how much enjoyment they got from it, and how it must have relaxed them after a day’s toil.

I think a factor would be how much he enjoyed playing — playing for other people, that is  — and, though he could be a bit of a showoff, I guess (what musician isn’t?), his playing is anything but ponderous. He just wants you to enjoy the music as much as he does.

At least, that’s the way it seems.

 

— Roger W. Smith

     November 13, 2016