Toronto pensive

Frost in May?

No, this is not the novel by Antonia White (which I highly recommmend). Just an unexpected blast of cold air in Western MA this weekend, including snow flurries this morning and last night with a little touch of freezing rain.
In spite of that the garden progresses--we did put a blanket over the one zucchini plant last night but the kale (yes, I know) and chard were just fine and the other stuff has yet to go in. We're using a little teeny portable greenhouse and it's done a brilliant job with the seedlings. For the first time, because of Covid-19, we are still spending much more time out in Shelburne than before and at last we are able to start our own annuals from seed. Before, we either left them to fend for themselves in Cambridge or in Shelburne, and they dried up or damped off before we could get to them. Right now we have Honesty (lunaria), Zinnias (mixed although I would rather have had single colors), Cosmos, and Tithonia, the brilliant orange "Mexican Sunflower" which I hope will make a splendid duet with aconites later this summer. Sweet peas and snowpeas have just broken ground in the vegetable beds. And thanks to Margaret Roach of the NYT I can now identify a weed that I yank up every summer--CLEARWEED, a horrible little thing that spreads even faster than Covid-19. Fortunately easy to pull up.
My next project is to Teach Myself To Draw. I think that my first portrait will be of an onion, since it stands still and won't become self conscious from being stared at.
Toronto pensive

Back again after so many years

Where to begin? It's been something like 12 years since I wrote anything but now, amid the Covid-19 epidemic, with work cut to a couple of days a week and spending most of my time out in the country, why not resurface?

A few major events since 2008:

My mother left this world for the next one, 2010. Missed but not mourned: her life wasn't very enjoyable at the end, bedridden and deaf and dealing with the after-effects of a frontal lobe bleed that made her at times very irritable indeed, although mostly as sharp and clever as she always had been. Rust zacht, lieve Mama.

My beloved friend Joost Barbiers died in 2015 at only 66 from the side-effects of medication he was taking to replace the lithium he'd been on for years. Dear, beautiful Joost, how I loved you, how I still love you. In sure and certain hope... totdat we elkaar weer ontmoeten in een betere wereld.

My translating work continues both here and overseas. More and more our life (Bill's and mine) revolves around the garden, especially now that Bill is retired and we can spend more time out here even when we don't have to. The orchard progresses slowly; we just spent hours digging out more entrenched pachysandra from one of the spots that we want to turn back into a flower bed.

In the meantime I have become a great fan of the wonderful English baritone Simon Keenlyside (unrequited love is such fun) and I am having a sort of fantasy affair with Vincent van Gogh (my weakness for redheads has never changed).

My hair is turning grey; my beard and moustache are white now...well, 68, after all.

I hope that all my friends here are doing well.
Toronto pensive

Here I am again

It's been ages. After a busy summer, hot and wet but not in a good way, civilized weather has returned, apples are ripe, the zucchini vines are dying (I hope), the dahlias are still producing, there is almost frost at night, and the hills of western MA are putting on a show as they usually do.
My Bill left for a 3 month sabbatical in Oxford last Tuesday (the 30th) so I am very much on my own. The first couple of days are always rather sad and then I bounce back in a thoroughly callous fashion, reverting to my way of life as it was during the 10 years between LTR # 1 (Wim) and the present one.
Last Saturday I received an enjoyable visit from Franco (london67) and Adrian (whose moniker I don't recall) at the house in Shelburne. They brought me some rather nice tea and I was able to try out my new cheese scone recipe on them as well as an apple pie. Both disappeared (scones and pie, not Franco and Adrian) with flattering speed. On Sunday I went down to Worcester to hear a friend kick off his series of concerts covering the complete organ symphonies of Charles Widor. Brett is a fine player indeed. Widor...well. French late 19th century organ music is not my thing although there were a couple of good fugues in it.
In a couple of weeks I head off to Amsterdam for a month--Bill will join me there from England for a weekend and I will be traveling to England, Scotland, Germany, Belgium, France, and possibly Norway. A lot of traveling for a month, but then there are so many people I know and never otherwise get to see.
This is just to update my friends here on my Barbara Pym like existence. I feel that I should now make a cup of ovaltine or something.
Oh yes...singing this year for the High Holidays...the one Jewish activity in my life. I suppose that it balances out the restored foreskin? An intriguing thought.
Toronto pensive

Changed perceptions

I had an interesting experience the other night, listening to the Harvard Radio station's program of historical recordings. The program included pioneering 20th century recorded performances of Monteverdi's madrigals, made at a time when Monteverdi was very far from being the household word that he now is, at least in Baroque music circles. The recordings, as some of you may know, were made under the auspices of the venerable (not so venerable then) Nadia Boulanger, muse and teacher of composition and musical theory to so many composers of the 20th century. A study period with her seems to have been an almost obligatory stage in the development of many composers, much as it was with Padre Martini in the 18th century (for proper counterpoint). And indeed she must have been a remarkable teacher, counselor, coach, and so on, in spite of being disagreeably anti-Semitic, among other things. oh well.
So here we were with madrigals from various different collections by Monteverdi. When I was in Amsterdam, during the very purist new baroque interpretation years of Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, and many of their less gifted and more dogmatic followers, I believe that it was the done thing to sneer at these performances which were so far from "authentic". Voices with vibrato! A piano playing the continuo! Non-historic violins! Horrors! Nowadays I listen and hear so much more real devotion to the spirit if not to some of the aspects of the letter of this wonderful music....yes, there are more "authentic" performances, although the term "authentic" is certainly dodgy. No performance except a premiere is "authentic"...but let that pass.
I would rather hear "Hor che'il ciel" in the hushed, tense, shadowy performance it receives here than in some pissy tofu-conditioned vegetarian interpretation by a bunch of white English voices led by the original pissy queen soprano, dreadful bitch Emma Kirkby (are my prejudices showing?). What really knocked me for a loop was a performance of "Zefiro Torna", a beautiful duet for 2 tenors on a repeating chaconne bass. I hadn't really heard the piece since I was in my late teens and it made a profound impression on me back then. Hearing it now, even with the aforesaid piano continuo bass, was mesmerizing, not least because of the first tenor, Hugues Cuénod, who is still alive today at 105-plus after making his met debut at 85 (in a character role) and who recently married his long-term partner. More power to him! His voice on this recording, as always, is a feather weight tenor which has an indescribably innocent sweetness and charm. His singing is deeply musical and very moving. I suggest listening to the recording if you can find it (probably not hard to find as it is of historical importance....)
Here is the text of the madrigal (can you imagine how teary I got, listening to it? See my earlier entry on music that moves me to tears....)

Zefiro torna,e di soave accenti
l'aer fa grato,e'l pie discioglie a l'onde,
e mormorando tra le verdi fronde,
fa danzar al bel suon su'l prato i fiori.
Inghirlandat'il crin Fillide e Clori
note tempran d'amor care e gioconde;
e da monti e da valli ime e profonde
raddopian l'armonia gli antri canori;
sorge piu vaga in ciel l'aurora,e'l sole
sparge piu luci d'or,piu puro argento
fregia di Teti il bel ceruleo manto.
Sol io per selve abbandonate e sole,
l'ardor di due begli occhi e'l mio tormento,
come vuol mia ventura,or piango or canto.

my translation:
The west wind returns, and with its sweet sound
Renders the air delightful and unleashes the dancing seas,
And murmuring among the green leaves
Makes the flowers dance on the meadow to its lovely singing.
Their hair strung with garlands, Phyllis and Chloris
Sing sweet enchanting songs of love
And from the hills unto the valleys, both high and low,
The singing caves redouble their harmonies in echoes;
Yet more beautifully, the dawn rises in the skies, and the sun
Casts ever more brilliant golden rays, and a purer silver
Ornaments the lovely azure robe of Thetis.
I am alone, in lonely woods and forests
The burning brightness of two lovely eyes is my torment,
And, at the mercy of my fate, now I weep...now I sing.
Toronto pensive

Spring, the sweet (hmm?) Spring

Well actually, spring hasn't exactly arrived in Western Franklin County yet. But the 2 plus feet of snow out in Shelburne have really started to recede and portions of the garden beds have become visible. And as usual, that means that
Bill and I went to buy SEEDS and PLANTS this weekend.
I think that this represents the triumph of hope over experience, a phrase used to describe something else many years ago. But here we are.
Perhaps I was galvanized by a call from Jim the Gardener asking me to check the depth of snow out by the orchard-to-be, because the fruit trees and shrubs will be arriving in mid-April. Since one of the big raised beds that Jim put in for me is intended for a cutting garden, and another is going to be for vegetables, this is what I did to get started:

1) Cutting garden: 14 dahlia tubers, to be started in pots in a week or so in order to have them a good size when it's warm enough to plant them out. They include "Kelvin Floodlight" (large yellow), "White Perfection" (no prizes offered on that one), a purple, "Thomas Edison" and a mid-red, "Barbarossa". The combination in the bed itself will probably be loud and vulgar, but that's not why I planted them; they'll give plenty of flowers to cut later this summer.
Also seeds for:
Zinnia single "Pinwheel mixture"
Zinnia tall decorative "Purple Prince"
Sunflower "Lemon Queen" (no queen jokes please)
Mixed bush sweet peas "Knee High"
Perennial Lupine (deep blue, semi-wild)
I might also try some annual larkspur and nigella.


2) Vegetable seeds:
Beans, Romano bush
Peas, Laxton's Progress
Turnip Tops "Seven Top" which also produces an underground turnip of good quality even tho' I'm planting for greens)
Kale, Blue Scotch
Parsnip, Hollow Crown (very King Lear, no?)
Radish, French breakfast.

Of course there will be tomato seedlings, basil, and other cutting flowers, but this is a start....
Cross your fingers......
Toronto pensive

Deadly beauty

Last weekend, driving over the mountain from Readsboro to Searsburg on the way to visit my mother in the hospital in Bennington, VT, I suddenly found myself surrounded on both sides of VT route 8 by trees encased in ice. The sun shone brilliantly on this forest of glass, and I was so struck by its beauty that I had to wake Bill up, even though he was sitting next to me in the car and had fallen asleep in his usual adorable way (he is truly adorable when he's asleep....the silvery beard, the little tiny cute ear, the closed eyes...all right, enough mawkishness for now).
But of course the aftermath of an ice storm is terrible for the trees. Even now, here and there, I could see strips of raw wood where the weight of the ice had torn whole branches away. But at the same time, the breeze playing through the frozen branches made an unearthly tinkling sound, like thousands of chandeliers dancing in the wind.
And then...after all I am a singer...and after all I know a bit of German poetry....the Brahms song "Es hing der Reif" came to mind. It's not a song I'll ever sing in public, most likely, because it requires a kind of disembodied, floating quality. I remember the song chiefly from classes in Schenkerian harmonic analysis at Princeton, which almost succeeded in transforming this beautiful song into "an example of complex neighbor motion around 5 and 6", but somehow the song survived. It's set to a poem by Klaus Groth, who was also a friend of Brahms, and here it is, some of it applicable to that strange view on the mountain:

Es hing der Reif im Lindenbaum,
Wodurch das Licht wie Silber floß.
Ich sah dein Haus, wie hell im Traum
Ein blitzend Feenschloß.
Und offen stand das Fenster dein,
Ich konnte dir ins Zimmer sehn
Da tratst du in den Sonnenschein,
Du dunkelste der Feen!
Ich bebt' in seligem Genuß,
So frühlingswarm und wunderbar:
Da merkt' ich gleich an deinem Gruß,
Daß Frost und Winter war.

The frost hung on the linden tree
The light poured through it in a silvery flood.
I saw your house, illuminated as in a dream
A dazzling faerie fortress!
And your window was open
I could see you in the room
You walked into the sunlight
You, darkest of faerie beings!
I trembled with heavenly delight
As warm as the spring, wondrous
And then I saw suddenly from your greeting
That frost and winter reigned.
Toronto pensive

Back again

More than eight weeks away from LJ! I hadn't realized just how long until I got a nudge from Franco (London67) who actually missed my contributions.
About a week ago I returned from a much-needed 2 weeks in the Netherlands, visiting my old friends and staying with my ex-and-still-best-friend Wim. It was a very musical visit, not surprisingly since we are both musicians. The day after I arrived I got to hear the Concertgebouw (in which Wim plays) doing the first act of Die Walküre, which only requires three singers and is often excerpted for that reason. Siegmund was a fine American heldentenor, Clifton Forbis, whose work I didn't know but who impressed me a great deal. Hunding was the wonderful English bass Sir John Tomlinson, who studied with my old teacher Otakar Kraus. I know John, just a little, and I am happy to report that at well over 60, he is still singing stunningly well, with a hugely voluminous voice and great expression. The sound itself has changed very little. Perhaps a touch less opulence on top, but that's not needed for this role.
But the Sieglinde!!!
Wim had wanted me to come and hear the relative new-comer, a Dutch soprano named Eva-Maria Westbroek. This summer he had brought over a recording of a broadcast that she had done of Fanciulla del West, which was certainly impressive.. but I was completely bowled over by the intensity, power and beauty by Westbroek's real-time singing Sieglinde. Her voice is large, powerful, effortlessly produced, even in scale, and very beautiful in quality. And she has tremendous presence, with an understated but completely convincing acting style. She is a tall (about 6 foot) statuesque blond woman, with a handsome, large-featured face that works well on stage.The electricity between Siegmund and Sieglinde was palpable from the very start. Whenever Westbroek looked at Forbis and smiled, or tentatively raised her hand in this concert performance, one could sense the growing attraction.
The orchestral playing under Bernard Haitink (approaching 80 now) was spectacularly beautiful. This is a beautiful score to begin with, but I have never heard it sound so good.
The day after we heard Paul McCreesh's group doing a couple of St. Cecilia Odes by Purcell. Beautifully performed but a bit...small...after Wagner. Not usually what I would say, since I love Purcell.
Shortly after that a recital by tenor Christophe Prégardien, which didn't do much for me...I found the singing rather effortful and I don't think that the 'Knaben Wunderhorn' songs work well with the piano. Fine accompaniments by Michael Gees.
A few days later to a very clever and charming production of Delibes's ballet "Coppélia". Whereas I am severely critical of performances in my own field of singing, anybody doing something I can't do, like classical ballet dancing, reduces me to a state of reverent admiration. To watch those men and women seemingly weightlessly floating across the stage, speaking with their hands, their feet, their entire bodies..quite wonderful.
A couple of days later I preceded Wim down to Brussels where we were to meet our friend Charles--I left a day or two earlier to meet another friend of mine in Afflighem (near Brussels) and do a photoshoot. Guido took some really rather good shots of me which I may post here sometime soon. The next day he dropped me off at Charles and Jos's house in Brussels, where Wim had arrived that afternoon, and that evening Jos put together a spectacular five-course meal (she has a professional culinary background). Next day we went to a matinée of "Wozzeck" at the Théâtre de la Monnaie. A good performance, with less than spectacular voices--but "Wozzeck" needs star-caliber voices less than it does a good ensemble and fine acting. As always, the story was shattering--Wozzeck destroyed by his environment, driven to murder his unfaithful wife, meeting death in the pond where he has thrown the murder weapon...
On returning to Amsterdam I got to hear yet another song recital by the English soprano Sally Matthews. She is a spectacularly good singer, what one would call a "large lyric", not the same weight as Westbroek's voice but of ample size, with an unusual almost "echo-y" quality in the middle register. For me the highlight was a performance of Britten/Auden's "On this Island" and within that cycle, her performance of "Nocturne" was especially striking.
Then it was back to Boston and Shelburne, with a load of books, CDs, chocolate, and 'stroopwafels', the Dutch wafers with caramel inside...and now Bill and I are on a low-carbohydrate diet which I am glad to say is working quite well--of course it will be a while before I lose my intended 15 pounds (it's difficult because people constantly tell me I don't need to lose weight--what do THEY know?).
Still more than a foot of snow in Shelburne. I wonder if the daffodils will ever come up or whether our gardener will ever be able to put in the fruit trees and perennials...
It has been confirmed that Bill will be on sabbatical this fall for several months in England. A handy excuse for me to come and finally pay a visit to my dear friends in London, Scotland, and Ireland....not to mention the Netherlands and Scandinavia....watch this space.
Toronto pensive

While working on Dichterliebe

Every now and then I realize that a particular poem means more to me than I first thought. I am revisiting Heinrich Heine's poems as so unforgettably set by Schumann in his "Dichterliebe". This "poet's love" song cycle charts an unhappy love affair and all of the poems are memorable. Schumann's sensitivity to words and moods is unrivalled, and his literary background makes his music particularly rewarding to sing.
I used to have a hard time getting through this song without breaking down. Its desperate longing resonates deeply with something in my heart. For your possible interest, here is the original poem, and a translation that I just put together, trying to express something of what I feel while singing it.
Without the music it's hard to imagine, but there you have it. The noble, hymn-like quality that Schumann gives to the next-to last stanza is unbearably moving.

Aus alten Märchen winkt es
Hervor mit weißer Hand,
Da singt es und da klingt es
Von einem Zauberland;

Wo bunte Blumen blühen
Im gold'nen Abendlicht,
Und lieblich duftend glühen,
Mit bräutlichem Gesicht;

Und grüne Bäume singen
Uralte Melodei'n,
Die Lüfte heimlich klingen,
Und Vögel schmettern drein;

Und Nebelbilder steigen
Wohl aus der Erd' hervor,
Und tanzen luft'gen Reigen
Im wunderlichen Chor;

Und blaue Funken brennen
An jedem Blatt und Reis,
Und rote Lichter rennen
Im irren, wirren Kreis;

Und laute Quellen brechen
Aus wildem Marmorstein.
Und seltsam in den Bächen
Strahlt fort der Widerschein.

Ach, könnt' ich dorthin kommen,
Und dort mein Herz erfreu'n,
Und aller Qual entnommen,
Und frei und selig sein!

Ach! jenes Land der Wonne,
Das seh' ich oft im Traum,
Doch kommt die Morgensonne,
Zerfließt's wie eitel Schaum.

***
Out of old legends
A white hand beckons to us,
With songs and music
From a magical country

Where colored flowers are blooming
In golden evening light
And send forth lovely scents
From their sweet bridal faces,

And the green trees sing
Ancient melodies
And the breeze murmurs secretly
And the birds fill the air with singing

And vaporous figures rise
Out of the depths of the earth
And dance wondrously together
In weightless circles

And blue sparks begin to snap
From every leaf and branch
And red lights race about
In wild, dazzling circles,

And springs burst roaring
From boulders of marble,
And in the streams,
The reflections shine strangely

Ah! Ah!

If only I could get there
And fill my heart with joy,
And escape from all my pain,
And live in blessed freedom!

Ah, that blissful country
How often have I seen it in my dreams!
But then comes the morning sun
And it crumbles away like useless foam.

[at the end of the song, the music dances away into thin air...]
Toronto pensive

Ghosts of Christmas

Last week, on December 7th, I was walking home and a recycling truck drove past, piled high with discarded Christmas trees on their way to be chipped and turned into compost. How appropriate it seemed: the trees had performed their role for the holidays, it was the day after Epiphany and it was time for them to retire....but not before their departing spirits saturated the street with a cloud of balsam, which hung in the air for several minutes after the truck had turned the corner and disappeared.

Last night Geoff and I performed the Brahms Serious Songs (yes, I think I will continue to call them that) and Ibert's "Don Quichotte à Dulcinée" at an informal musicale in Cambridge. Very nice and appreciative audience. I tried the experiment of reading the King James translations of the Brahms texts before each song and it seemed to heighten people's interest and attention.

Another snowstorm has obliterated the unseasonable spring weather of last week and the trees are plastered postcard-fashion with snow. I wonder how long it will stick. We stayed home this past weekend because I had to work on an emergency translation on Saturday and I had to sing on Sunday evening anyhow, but I wish I could have watched the snow falling in Shelburne.

The Harvard radio station is just finishing up the Beethoven orgy with the Op. 131 C sharp minor quartet, one of my favorites. It was this piece that made me think over 20 years ago what a good idea CDs would be...I always felt that the hushed opening fugue was "music for 3 in the morning" and how wonderful it seemed that someday it would be possible to listen to it without any surface noise. The late Quartets were some of the first CD recordings I bought back then and I am happy to say that they justified my imaginings.
Toronto pensive

As the year winds down

Darker, colder, snowier, but curiously cosy in its way, winter enfolds New England. There was so much bad weather this weekend that Bill and I stayed home in Cambridge and I made the first steamed pudding of the year. Can this be a solstitian reflex? I suppose it doesn't count because it wasn't a suet pudding (the suet is in the freezer in Shelburne). Nevertheless it made a nice indigestible finish to a meal otherwise consisting of scalloped cabbage with ham.
Moving right along into Sunday with not much to do, we put together our first Chistmas letter ever (hoping that it wasn't going to be as tacky as some we have received in the past). It must have been the weather because the entire batch of vanilla thins I baked for tea disappeared.... Bill wanted me to try some rolls I had mentioned to him from Elizabeth David's magisterial "English Bread and Yeast Cookery" which got me started on bread baking 30 years ago, so I made a batch of "Aberdeen Rowies" which are like little square croissants. The rolling and folding and so on went very well but when the butter began to run out of the rolls and burn in the oven, all of the flat's smoke alarms went off at once...we were running up and down, cursing, opening windows, and flapping towels to drive out the smoke. Eventually several neighbors came to enquire anxiously about our wellbeing, but quiet reigned at last. The rolls were delicious, by the way, with a batch of clam chowder. I think we'll try to live on steamed veg for the rest of the week.
Today being Beethoven's birthday, the Harvard radio station felt compelled to air one of his most tiresome compositions, the 9th Symphony (people will now write furious comments). I think that the first three movements are quite wonderful, but that banging, thumping last movement, with its variations on what must be one of Beethoven's stupidest tunes, always irritates me a great deal.
Now the radio is playing that curious recording of "Turandot" (not a fave either) with the never-on-stage cast of Dame Joan Sutherland as dragon lady (certainly no problem with the high notes), Monserrat Caballé as Liù (better pianissimi than anyone else in the role but a BIT of mutton dressed as lamb for a young frail girl), Luciano Pavarotti as Calaf (well, if you like that sort of thing) and the wonderful Nicolai Ghiaurov as Timur.
I haven't been here for a month, now I look forward to reading all of my friends' contributions for the past month.
If I don't get back here in time, I wish you all an enjoyable Christmas, a peaceful and happy new year, and remember--Dubya is on his way out.....