Monday, July 29, 2019

Summer Chestnuts Roasting In An Open Park

The magnetic pull of live music once again drew me back to Wolf Trap National Park on another beautiful summer evening (second concert in three nights). It was back to the pleasantly wooded shed to bathe in the oh-so-clear and floating sounds of the National Symphony, playing effortlessly the lyrical Tchaikovsky‘s Violin Concerto, and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – – both chestnuts of the world of classical music. In a pre-concert dialogue with NPR’s Rich Kleinfelt, I learned that both pieces, while so widely accepted now, were very poorly received in their first performances and caused serious emotional setbacks to their sensitive composers.
Tchaikovsky‘s Violin Concerto was considered unplayable at its completion (because of its many double stops, trills, leaps, and bounds into somewhat dissonant notes for its time), and was very poorly received at its debut in Vienna in 1881. Tchaikovsky apparently never forgot that chilly reception and could recite by heart the full review of one severe critic who commented that the work “gave out a bad smell.” By contrast, on this night at Wolf Trap, the piece was eminently playable, and effortlessly mastered by the orchestra (its musical director, Gianandrea Noseda, in his first Wolf Trap performance) and the soloist, violin virtuoso Ning Feng, playing a 1721 Stradivari violin.
Beethoven’s Fifth premiered in a poorly organized and somewhat under-rehearsed and overlong concert of Beethoven’s pieces, played in a cold and uncomfortable hall in Vienna in 1808, with Beethoven conducting the orchestra himself. The reaction and the reviews were very negative that night, at a time when Beethoven was fighting growing deafness, and the reception that night was a setback for the emotional Beethoven. Beethoven’s Fifth starts quickly with those memorable four notes (three short and a longer one, a kind of “knocking at fate’s door”), which are repeated throughout the piece in various ways. Those four notes became associated with British resistance in World War II and symbolized “V” for Victory. Later, the notes ironically influenced the beginning of John Fogerty’s rock classic “Proud Mary.”
On this night, I remembered my deep connection to those four notes, because, in my childhood, I wanted to explore the world by becoming a radio amateur operator (a pre-Internet way to interact with people throughout the world). To be a radio amateur, I needed to master the seemingly impenetrable Morse Code. The four key notes of the Fifth, which are “V” in Morse Code, were relatively easy to master, and gave me the confidence that I could learn the rest of the letters. This forgotten connection to Beethoven and learning, filled the night air with a sense of joy that Beethoven, unfortunately, could not experience at the debut. I was also joyful at the large (full-house) crowd filling Wolf Trap for the National Symphony, at a time some symphony orchestras are sadly struggling.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

A Night for Music with Family and Friends

A couple of family members and I recently spent a pleasantly-weathered summer evening at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts listening to gifted singer-songwriter Amos Lee and his band, including my talented guitarist cousin, Ryan Hommel. The band was versatile, creative, and utterly tight, and the songs and vocals wandered enthusiastically through the American soundscape of folk, funk, rock, and rural and citified blues. Amos' vocal range and easy-going story-telling was expansive, building the audience into a crescendoing chorus of cheers and enthusiasm.
We were able to wander backstage to meet my cousin and catch up on his and other band members' touring experiences. We also talked with Amos as he chatted warmly about his challenging times of teaching second grade in Philly, and he offered many suggestions for education reform along the way. I shared my memories of last seeing Amos on his first national tour with Bob Dylan. A perfect night of sharing music, warm memories, and education reform with family and new found friends.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

It's A Mad, Mad World...And Now For Something Completely Different and Over The Top—An Overlong Tribute To Mad Magazine—You May Want To Stop Reading Now—So Please Be Forewarned—This May Be Injurious To Your State Of Mind.

Every great civilization needs a sense of humor. It cannot take itself too seriously; it needs to be able to withstand self-deprecating humor, parody, and irreverence. For more than sixty-five years (from 1952, to be more exact) we have had Mad Magazine, and “its usual gang of idiots,” and those it influenced or its direct or indirect descendants—Tom Lehrer, Steve Allen, Jean Shepard, Lenny Bruce, Jack Paar, Bob and Ray, Ernie Kovacs, Stan Freberg, The Realist, National Lampoon, Firesign Theatre, SNL, the Simpsons, Monty Python, Dave Letterman, Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, Mrs Maisel, and so many others.
Mad kept us honest and gave us perspective, and allowed us to be “in on the joke.” But now Mad Magazine, owned ironically by WarnerMedia, as acquired by AT&T, is about to cease print publication and go on re-runs.
Mad Magazine has taught many to read and helped bring up many generations, and taught individuals to see the ironies in daily life, and to deal with them. It taught many how to be skeptical and inquisitive, and to be good doctors, lawyers, and a good every other occupation. It spawned many great illustrators and graphic novelists. It gave hope to those who did not fully "fit in"; it opened eyes and minds to multiple views of the same idea; and invigorated multiple life styles and life choices.
By satirizing the way things are and were, Mad taught many the way things should be, an idealism that persists, and is as American as Mad is. By looking at the worst of what is, or at the underside, somehow you always knew that things can and should get better, and 'What me worry' became yes, maybe you should be concerned, but that even the worrisome could be fun, and that there was hope. The every-person character of the gap-toothed Alfred E. Neuman gave us comfort and hope no matter who we were and how we looked.
Readers of a New York Times article about Mad recently eulogized Mad in the following manner:
“It helped teach me to think critically. It demonstrated how to analyze an issue and learn how to challenge the merits of the issue.”
“As a female, I went over to the neighbor boy's house to read the magazine because it was not for girls so my family thought! Little did my family know how much this magazine shaped my thinking through humor. It taught me well and I still use humor to explain the [sometime] absurdity of American [life].”
“The writers revealed how to see the other side of an issue and question the motives in almost every element of American life: art, politics, culture, film etc....”
“The world is unfair, exploitative and brutal and we’re all going to die and the grown-ups have been secretly having sex the whole time [and enjoying life]. You feel ripped off. You feel lied to. But then there is Mad."
“The truth is always told in jest. Mad Magazine was a volume of truth in a world of spin.”
“It was an alternative way of processing the conventional wisdom of the world at large.”
Efforts at humor such as Mad are a national treasure, and should be preserved and guarded as a national utility. But since humor is purely a state and local matter, I do not expect a Department of United Humor, and Analytical and Critical Thinking (or DUH-ACT) any time soon. But I am an optimist and believe in our American system of checks and balances, free speech, and democracy, and I know that the spirit and lessons of Mad Magazine will live on in some form whether it be in a magazine, a CD, or in the ever streaming mind.
I was not even an avid reader of Mad Magazine (maybe if I was, it would have a brighter future), but friends would often share it, and it was good to know it existed, and I am sad to see it go—for now, at least. But its sense of humor, its contributions to the lives of many, and its hope for the future lives on.