Sat 2023-Jun-10

Thinking While at the Symphony

Tagged: Beauty / NotableAndQuotable / Religion / TheDivineMadness

Two nights ago, I was at Symphony Hall in Boston waiting for the Boston Pops to perform, when I saw that Trump was indicted. Clearly a big subject to wait for the next day, hence yesterday’s blog post. With that good news out of the way, let’s talk about what it’s like to go back to the symphony after years at home.

Boston Pops: A European Musical Tour, Rick Steves Narrating

We haven’t been to the symphony much. It’s a combination of:

  • being cautious in the COVID-19 pandemic, and
  • before that being extremely busy winding up my career before retirement.

The last couple years are like finishing a PhD thesis: getting everything on record, making sure others can use it, leaving your mark, arranging your ducks collinearly in matters of estate planning, pensions & other financial matters, winding down complex investments, arranging different insurance, and so on.

It’s been a busy time.

Boston Pops Ticket 2023-Jun-08: A European Tour, Narrated by Rick Steves But… your humble Weekend Editor has had 6 COVID-19 vaccinations, and the august Weekend Editrix has had 5 (soon to be 6, as a birthday present). Perhaps it’s time to venture out a bit more? We have, after all, started going back to restaurants. So when some friends invited us to accompany their family to the Boston Pops, we figured it was a good time.

Rick Steves and Arnold Schwarzenegger

(NB: Here and further below, most pictures will expand to larger versions when you click upon them.)

The Boston Pops is a bit unusual: it’s mostly Boston Symphony Orchestra players, though not always each of the first-chair players. There’s some complicated relationship – which I’ve never bothered to figure out – with the part of the orchestra who decamp westward in summer to Tanglewood. The music they play is “pop with a bit of classics” or “classical music with the boring parts left out”, as Liberace used to say. (Please excuse me for a minute while I go wash my mouth out with soap for making that comparison…)

Symphony Hall 2023-Jun-08: Stage view, before starting Symphony Hall 2023-Jun-08: Back view, before starting Shown here are first balcony views of the stage, and the back of the house, before the start. Yes, the backlighting is in the colors of the Ukrainian flag; you’re allowed zero guesses why.

Sure, it’s crowded and the balcony seats seem designed for the sans patella subspecies of H sapiens, just like budget airlines. Or, perhaps recycled from an evil design collaboration between Torquemada and Savonarola: the torture from the former being designed to distract you from enjoying the art so despised by the latter. On the other hand, it’s gorgeous in an over-the-top 19th century way, and has amazing acoustics with a rich history.

So it might be worth it just to go sit in the building for a few minutes, even without a concert.

In addition to the unusual nature of the Boston Pops and Symphony Hall, this concert was a bit unusual thematically. The music was a tour of various European countries, mostly in the 19th century, which is completely ordinary. The unusual part is they recruited tour operator, PBS personality, and bon vivant Rick Steves to narrate.

Boston Pops 2023-Jun-08: Rick Steves's Brochure Cover I have… complex feelings about him. On the one hand, he’s a relentless promoter of his (expensive!) group tours: the concert program was just 1 lousy page, but his brochure that came along for the ride was 62 pages! Fair enough; that’s his business and he wants you to know that going in. On the other hand, after watching a number of his PBS shows during COVID-19 when we couldn’t travel, I kind of like him. He’s got a very gentle voice, he actually listens to people, and seems to have a preternatural skill for making friends with anybody. This comes through in his descriptions, when he continually reminds us how beautiful the world can be, and how friendly most people are.

It’s important to get this right, especially in an ugly era of history full of war, fascism, poverty, pandemic, and helplessness of our crippled institutions.

Now, I’m not generally fond of travel. The Weekend Editrix very much is, though, so a certain amount of persuasion just short of dragging me on a leash is usually in order. (If I had my way, I would obey my maxim: “If the MBTA doesn’t go there, I don’t either.”) So Rick Steves has a bit of an uphill climb here, persuading me that it would be a good idea to haul my bones off to certain parts of the world, just for fun?!

I don’t know that he succeeded in that. But he did succeed in convincing me that wandering about Europe in tow behind him would be a good experience, though more because of the company than the locale.

In a few ways, he’s like my recent change of heart about Arnold Schwarzeneggger. Initially I thought he was some testosterone-poisoned, toxic masculinity figure who went from an athlete in a sport I don’t like to an actor in movies I don’t like, and so on. We’ve mentioned him favorably, more than once, on this Crummy Little Blog That Nobody Reads (CLBTNR):

… And I realized I was badly, badly mistaken: this is a good man who deserves my respect.

And so it is with Rick Steves: he’s an expert in something that I generally don’t like much, but he’s good at it. He also seems to be quite generous with charities in his private life. He’s convinced me that traipsing about Europe for a week or so, in his personal wake, might be pretty nice. Just basking in the warm glow as he makes friends with everybody standing still (or even moving slowly) would be worth it. The expert explanations of history, culture, and the lives of people he knows personally are probably brilliant.

So I was happy to listen to him talk, in his dryly humorous but well-informed way, about the history of various regions, and what drove the next musical piece we were about to hear. I’m a complete fool for listening to warm, friendly people with deep expertise.

Someday I’d like to be a person like that. Someday.

Rimsky-Korsakov and ‘Misunderstandings’

Symphony Hall 2023-Jun-08: Stage view, concert in progress Symphony Hall 2023-Jun-08: Back view, concert in progress Boston Pops 2023-Jun-08: Program Here’s a view of Symphony Hall under full concert lighting. I really like the way the statues around the top of the 2nd balcony are lit, and the reflection off the gilt railings during the concert with some artfully controlled spotlights to make them glow. Lighting technology has come a long way since I last worked in theatre in the early 1970s!

Also, here’s the concert program. As you can see, it is just what it says on the tin: a quick tour of mostly western European music from mostly the 19th century (excerpted to leave out “the boring parts”, as alluded to above with the Liberace smartassery).

Due to a ticketing complexity, the Weekend Editrix was sitting with the family of the people who invited us, and I was alone several meters to her left (as is true politically, as well).

That led to some woolgathering, looking at the historic sculptures mostly drawn from Greek and Roman myth, with deep colored lighting in the darkness. These are all modern artifacts in imitatione of ancient, now-dead civilizations. Our civilization will also die. Will it be because of general human extinction, given the state of the world?

Some related gloomy thoughts:

  • What if climate change crashes our agriculture and we can’t raise enough food?
  • What if rising seas inundate our coastal cities (one of which is my personal home)?
  • What if the global-scale wildfires make the air practically unbreathable in many places, at least not without cumulative lung injury?
  • What if the resulting migrations cause even more xenophobia and fascism?
  • What if revenant fascism world-wide leads to something worse than war in Ukraine, causing mass death and possibly burning us in nuclear fire, leading at best to a collapse of human civilization and at worse general extinction of humanity and a lot more?
  • What if we can’t depose the would-be aristocrats of economic inequality, and they move from our current New Gilded Age to a New Dark Ages of hierarchical, fascist society?
  • What if the idiots developing AI willy-nilly, in a huge Tragedy of the Commons, pursue private interests to our extinction as a species, as seems the case now?
  • What if this isn’t just woolgathering of a depressed nerd with post-COVID-19 cognitive impairment, and is instead depressive realism?

And most importantly:

  • What if this is what it feels like to be in the last generation of humanity? While I have religious hopes, imagining the ruins of Symphony Hall as one of the few remnants of 200,000 years of human striving made me unbearably sad, to the point of discreet tears.

Now, fortunately I got control before my depression could drive me over a cliff in public.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, cropped from Serow, sourced at Wikimedia What did the trick was Rick Steves’s introduction to extracts from Nicolai Rimksky-Korsakov’s orchestral suite Capriccio Espagnol. The fact that they only played an excerpt is unfortunate, as I vaguely recall a complete performance (at the proper tempo) is about 15 minutes or so.

So why was Rick Steves the right guy here? Because he’s an expert on travel, and especially how to respect and appreciate other cultures. This was a time of “musical exoticism”, in which foreign patterns of harmony, rhythm, and style held great currency. (And by “foreign” we mean something a bit narrow by modern standards, i.e., just within Europe. Who can say what they’d have thought of a Japanese geisha playing a koto, a multitonal piece from China or something played on a Arabian oud, complex African drumming and dancing, or a Neanderthal flute? Or, for that matter, something atonal from Schönberg? Pretty sure I couldn’t cope with at least some of those!)

The Rimsky-Korsakov piece is a perfect example: Russian composer, music along Spanish themes. The kicker: according to Steves, Rimsky-Korsakov never set foot in Spain! Approximate quote: “He just sorta liked the stuff, and thought he’d try making some himself.”

That really grabbed my interest!

Now, you can look at this from a couple different directions:

I’m with the last group: anything Rimsky-Korsakov “misunderstood” was (a) unintentional, and (b) probably handled so brilliantly it looks less like a misunderstanding and more like a creative innovation.

As I pondered that, I came up with a way to say this in a nutshell. Drawing upon a long history of Deep Nerdery, it’s a riff on Clarke’s 3rd Law, which says that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”:

Any sufficiently brilliant misunderstanding is indistinguishable from creativity. So don’t fear misunderstanding people; fear boring them.

The Weekend Conclusion

So, the world may be ending. Humanity may be ending. I can’t fix that. (If you can, please do so. I’ll make you chocolates?)

Cognitive Hazard: from Wikimedia But in the meantime, at least try to be respectful the cultures of others. Don’t be afraid of misunderstanding; instead be creative with your mistakes, and be interesting.

Also, thinking alone at the symphony has its cognitive hazards. But not all cognitive hazards are bad: sometimes they just warn you to pay attention.

So pay attention… if you want to take advice from a guy who spent part of a concert not paying attention.

Notes & References

1: Nah.

Published Sat 2023-Jun-10

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