Thursday, September 29, 2011

Classical Busker, Orange Croc, and Cloudy September

I was walking around in the Gaslamp Quarter area in Downtown San Diego a couple of weekends ago when I spotted a street busker playing something street buskers just don't play in this part of the world -- classical music!

Naturally I stopped to have a listen... along with a few other fascinated folks who weren't in a hurry to get anywhere just then. To be honest, his playing is nothing special; technically far from proficient and transmitting nothing more than a string of notes. But really, who the heck plays Vivaldi or Bach out on the streets of San Diego, California anyhow? (The music captured in this clip, though, were Corigliano's The Red Violin and the 3rd movement from Vivaldi's A minor violin concerto) The dude may not be able to enliven the music very well, but he was daring enough to go about playing the decidedly unpopular genre in public. I admire that!

On another note, I ran into this rather amusing news section today:

It makes me nostalgic for my college days in the Midwest. We had a patient came in looking quite as orange as that croc does once... from drinking nearly a gallon of carrot and tomato juice everyday. Apparently some idiot alternative-medicine quack had told him that that would cure his severe myopia (he was so nearsighted his eye glasses' lenses looked like they were made from the bottom of vodka bottles). He didn't see any better after a month of drinking only carrot and tomato juice in place of water, but it sure was easier to spot him in any crowded room. He was so orange he nearly glowed in the dark! Luckily xanthodermia from excessive intake of carotene and lycopene (the things that give carrots and tomatoes their orange/red pigmentation) is quite harmless and naturally reverses itself after a while once you've stopped stealing carrots from your pet bunnies. 

It was gloriously gray along the Del Mar shore last week
September is on its way out of town and we have been enjoying some gorgeously cloudy and gray days along the coast (I don't live anywhere near the coast, though my a-bit-out-of-town job is). I don't really know why, but I like overcast and foggy weather... Maybe not being to clearly see things has a lot to do with it. To me it sort of facilitates pensiveness... not having to focus on anything in particular makes it easy for me to lapse into my own jumble of thoughts, and sometimes that even leads to coherence writing! Not that you would find any of that here, mind. It's late in the afternoon and I'm still trying to make sense out of my latest meeting with the Mormon sisters (they had shuffled them up again, steady Sister Stetig had gone off somewhere else and now I must come up with another fitting pseudonym for the newcomer). My head hurts just thinking about it...

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Mormon Encounters: Part 1 - Well Met, It Seems

A chance meeting with a couple of very clean cut religious young lasses from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS or Mormon) a month or so ago has turned into a series of alternately fascinating and alarming experience for me. As of today we have had 5 discussions and 2 church dates so far. I don't think they have made much progress in terms of convincing me of the veracity of their dogma, but I think we have learned quite a bit about each others and our ways of thinking, and that makes it all quite worthwhile for me. 

We first met near my current apartment one evening as I was taking my roommate's dog (Indi the tenacious non-Rottweiler) out for a walk. Two rather conservatively dressed 20 something lasses had just gotten out of their car in the parking lot and crossed our path as they headed for a neighboring condo, one spotted Indi and zoomed right over in the hope of petting her - a simultaneously brave and foolhardy move considering that Indi is the temperamental terror of the neighborhood. Luckily Indi was in a good mood and tolerated the petting for a bit before starting to cringe her nose - the first step in her rapid-grumpying-sequence that usually ends in a very unsanitary attempt excision of her fondling admirer's nose. Recognizing the change, I pulled her out of striking distance, of course, and made to head out toward the park nearby.

Not missing any beat, the brave lass looked up at me and asked if she and the other lass could come over to share some 'good news'. Being an ex-Evangelical Christian I pretty much knew exactly what the nature of this 'good news' would be. These gals were Mormon missionaries, however, and that was something I'm not terribly familiar with. Not being one to wave well-wishers off without giving them due audience, I said yes.

I expected them to come knocking on my door later that evening after they were done visiting the neighbor, but they didn't turn up until a few days later when I was out of town. So we kept missing each other for a while (since I haven't got a telephone... No, I really don't!). Once they've caught me at home, though, they have been dropping in at my pad once a week or so ever since, 'teaching' me their 'discussions' about their church and belief, and I have tagged along with them to the nearby ward church a couple of times. It's been an interesting experience!

By the end of the first appointment, I must admit, I pretty much knew that our 'discussions' wouldn't progress toward my being converted into the LDS church. Don't get me wrong, the ladies are delightful company and have impeccable manner, even if rather very formal by Southern California standard. Sisters Stetig and Wendig (they call each other Sister + surname and insist that others do the same when addressing them. Apparently the male missionaries are called Elder + surname) always dress conservatively (skirts and heels, never pants or casual tee), stick together like Siamese twins, and are endlessly polite. They even listen and try very hard to relate their dogma to me in terms that they think I would relate to. It is just that the doctrine they espouse doesn't make any sense to me, and there were something about what they said that bugged me to no end. 

First off, they claim to be 'Christians', but dogmatically they clearly are not... And they don't seem to realize this. Their notion of the Christian creed seems weirdly askew (and I'm trying to type this with a straight face since Christianity, to me, is already quite well twisted to begin with). Sure, they use a lot of the same words the Christians use, but they use them to mean different things. And I have yet to find anything in the Christian dogma that claims that there was a pre-existence where everyone - god the father, Jesus, Satan, you and I all included - are all familial relations; that god the father, Jesus, and the holy ghost are three separate gods rather than a weird singular trinity; or that man can become god; or that 'salvation' doesn't hinge on spiritual repentance (what the evangelical Christians would call 'being symbolically born again in spirit', but in repentance AND being obedient (with no emphasis on 'what' one is to be obedient to), etc.

Secondly, they claimed that their church is the only true church, the only one with complete information/instruction from god even though they know nothing of the dogma of Deism or Hinduism or Islam or Buddhism. How can one claim to have the only truth when one has yet to examine if not all then most of the different truth claims out there? And, like pretty much all the religious folks I've had the opportunity to chat with, there is a distinct blind spot when it comes to distinguishing their faith in what they themselves understood as 'god' from their faith in what other humans (in this case, the LDS prophets and the Book of Mormon) say 'god' says or wants.

Whenever I asked for their definition of 'god', all I ever got back is this standard, 'God is your father and he loves you,' line. It's nice and cozy, but really tells next to nothing about god, not nearly enough to help me form any sort of expectation out of this 'god' so that I would be able to tell for myself what sort of action or revelation could be reasonably attributed to 'god' and not to the men who have a knack for pretending to be god's mouthpiece. The sisters' only suggested remedy to that is the assertion that I could always 'pray to god and ask if such and such commands are really from him.' That doesn't do it for me, since they hadn't defined what their 'god' is in the first place, and just about the only description of god that I could allow as possible is a naturalistic one of 'nature itself or the most fundamental physical law that makes nature work the way it does.' And how does one pray to something like that?

We had a good and pleasant first visit, nonetheless. They gave me a free copy of the Book of Mormon and asked that I read the introduction part of it by the time they come back for another visit a week later. As we said our good-bye, the sisters made it a point to tell me before they leave that if I decide to check their church out online, I should only confine myself to their official website ( as all the others are false and misleading (and that the weird people - evidently those polygamist ones - that others think are Mormons aren't Mormons at all... even though they claim to be ones).

Now, if that doesn't raise all sort of alarm flags going haywire in your head, you should immediately check the flagging system's batteries or switch to a more effective model. Mine was doing all sorts of acrobatic flipping, but being an arrogant push-over that I am, I thought I'd humor them for a week and refrain from reading anything about Mormonism at all except from that nice little BoM that they gave me. After all, Thomas Paine didn't need anything other than the Bible itself to turn him away from Christianity. Any book that is presented as coming straight from god ought to be able to stand or sink on its own merits and failings, right?

Disclaimer: I won't publish the photos of my Mormon contacts, and all their names are pseudonyms fashioned by me to protect their identity.

Monday, September 26, 2011

It Takes Two To Tangle...

I've been running around town(s) a lot lately, so much so that I'm making both me and my camera dizzy. We're having a serious case of the double vision...

chirping twins on a hiking trail
It started one day on a hiking trail when I heard chirping from an unexpected direction. The sight so surprised my hiking companion that he went to check his vision at a nearby fountain...

But of course, there was nothing wrong with his eye sight.

True to form, the rhinos were already done and resting while the tortoises were still grinding their way through it.
The local critters are really enthusiastically sharing their enjoyment of life in mild-weathered Southern California and are no longer observing the 'wait until the spring' rule.

September in Southern California is, indeed, a happy month...

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Know Your Opera Singers? - Who Are Sesto & Cornelia?

Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt) is considered by many to be George Handel's best of many wonderful opera for its overabundance of enticingly beautiful music... much of which goes to everybody's favorite historical femme fatale, Cleopatra. For lovers of the lower voiced operatic women, however, there are always the mother and son pair of Cornelia and Sesto to busy our ears with.

But have your ears been busy enough with today's great mezzos and contraltos? Have a listen to the clip above and see if you could guess who the 9 singers of Cornelia and Sesto are! All the singers are pretty much contemporaries (though, unfortunately, not all are still with us)... And one of them has one Y chromosome too many, so to speak. :P tongue

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Vesselina Kasarova in Moscow (2011)

Vesselina Kasarova, the White Shirt Republic's favorite muse, has been in the Russian capital of Moscow for the last few days to give a concert during the 3rd Grand Festival of the Russian National Orchestra. Luckily for us, the internet is quite alive with coverage of her time there. I've compiled some here:

First off, here is a news video of the concert's press conference from Russian channel tvkultura:

The biggest source of information, of course, is Denis Zakharov, the Russian author and bona fide Kasarova-fan who has traveled to see VK in different venues in Europe. When he popped up with a bunch of beautiful flowers at her orchestra rehearsal, he was recognized by our muse and allowed to hang out and take lots of photographs and videos of her. Generously, Denis turns right around and shares his happiness with us on his blog and Youtube channel.

Den!s' Blog Posts
- First meeting at rehearsal (with video). 
- Second meeting: strolling around seeing Moscow.
- Third meeting: 2nd rehearsal, news conference (with video).
- After concert.

Denis posted a few more Youtube clips aside from the ones associated with his blog post, so I took the liberty of compiling Denis' videos of VK onto a single playlist for ease of access.

Also in the audience at the concert was the White Shirt Republic's Russian residenz (so to speak), Arashi. Arashi is a young soprano-in-training and had waited a long time for the chance to finally experience VK live in person.

Arashi's Blog Posts:

Sergei Belousov's review of concert (English translation).

What a trip! I'm forever grateful that Frau Kasarova allowed Denis to hang out with her, and that Denis so generously shares his experience with us. It is fascinating getting to see the rehearsal footage, listen to VK's thoughtful words (what a gal! She squeezed a benefit concert for the Japanese earthquake/tsunami victims into her busy schedule on very short notice when she was in Berlin. Then before the encores of this Moscow concert she dedicated one of the most gorgeous of arias to the Russian hockey team lost in a plane crash near Yaroslavl a couple of days before), and even get to see a bit of the Russian capital... including the Tverskaya! I've been wanting to see what that street looks like ever since I first read Mikhail Bulgakov's Master i Margarita. It is definitely an item on my personal bucket list to make it to Moscow one day and take the Bulgakov tour.

Congratulations again to Frau Kasarova on another successful performance at a new venue... and for speaking Russian so fluently! And thanks to all of her fans who share their goodies with us who wish we could have been there but couldn't!

Vesselina Kasarova's new agent webpage.
Her updated performance schedule.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Eventful Thursday

Well, Thursday sure was a lot more interesting than I had anticipated. The day started on a rather good note with more blog update from Den!s, the extremely generous Kasarova fan in Moscow who has been fortunate enough to spend the last 3 days with The White Shirt Republic's favorite muse as she prepared for her first ever concert in Russia. Den!s was armed with a camera and made very good use of it... :x lovestruck

Quite a few videos of VK in Moscow have popped up on Youtube, so I went around bunching them all up into a single playlist for easier access... here.

The sweltering heatwave that had been upon us here in Southern California wasn't quite done with its business, though, and the thermometer mercury wasted no time bubbling up into the 90F region by noon time. I could hardly think when it gets like that. I was expecting the two Mormon missionaries to come over for lunch around 1PM, so I was sort of expecting to be doubly grilled by the late afternoon.

What's a Smorg to do but to opt for the easiest brunch menu imaginable? Scrambled eggs on toast. I threw a bunch of tomatoes into the broiler and looked out the window to be delightfully surprised by the sight of not two but three cute young lasses making a beeline straight for my pad. Better yet the unexpected third Mormon gal was a dead ringer for the marvelous Latvia operatic mezzo-soprano, Elina Garanca. A split image right down to the hair style!
Elina Garanca (photo from I could have sworn that her long lost twin sister was brunching in my living room yesterday!
Of course, she wasn't Elina Garanca, but she did turn out to be the most adept of the three in some outside-the-ideological-box thinking. Alas, I'm afraid I'm still not proficient enough at relating to them the reason why I no longer find the notion of an emotional god (rather than a naturalistic and impersonal one) reasonable enough to merit believing in... And that 'God is your father and he loves you,' makes as much sense to me now as 'Oud is your father and he loves you,' does.... That's nice, but what the heck is Oud/God??? We had a good discussion, though, and I am quite happy that they don't seem to find me too obnoxious to discuss things like their religion with. We have a church date set for this upcoming Sunday. I'm sure it will be interesting!

My Mormon friends left just before 3PM and I was just settling down to answer some emails when, poof, the power went out. We didn't have any notice of planned outage due to SDG&E maintenance or warning of possible heat-induced rolling black out, so I figured it was probably some minor problem that would be fixed in a few hours. After a while, though, words got around that the power outage was affecting the whole San Diego county, so I switched on the radio for news updates. 

The news was rather startling... A utility worker at an electrical substation near Yuma, AZ made an error during a maintenance procedure, and that resulted in tripping out the only high voltage power line leading into San Diego from the east. The outage then threatened to overload the nuclear reactors at San Onofre, which supply the only other set of power line running into San Diego (this time from the north), so they had to shut those reactors down as a safety precaution. The result? Complete power outage in all of San Diego County, Imperial County, part of Orange County, and Southwestern Arizona, and most of Baja California.confused smiley #17478 Whoever designed the redundancy safeties for our power grid has some redesigning to do, I gather.
A couple of neighbors in front of their condo. I obscured the house number for obvious reason...
There were lots of good experience during this unexpected period of darkness, however. The next door neighbor who has a gas-run generator came round and allowed my roommate and I and a couple other neighbors to hook our refrigerators up to it to keep our food from spoiling. A bunch of neighbors who don't normally get to visit with each other a lot came out and lounged around a lantern in the common driveway listening to the battery-operated radio, enjoying the company and the return of the cool evening breeze. The night was so beautifully dark with the absence of street and house lights that we could see a lot of constellations in the night sky. We were expecting to be without electricity well into late Friday when, voila, the light came back on half-way through midnight. Those electrical engineers over at SDG&E really performed miracles restoring power to most of the affected area by Friday morning! confused smiley #17434

Considering that the outage didn't last longer and that the heatwave was essentially over a couple of hours after the loss of electricity, we mostly dodged a big bullet last night. I'm afraid a lot of folks were stuck at various parts of town since the trolley system was down and so were most of the gas stations. All outgoing flight from Lindberg Field was canceled and many inbound ones were diverted elsewhere.. And no civil disorder... (but then again, the episode only lasted one evening/night. Who knows what would have happened if it had gone on for days the way Irene-induced black out went on the upper East Coast?).

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Classical Music Apparitions: Virtuosi Buskings & Flash Mobs

You might have heard of this already, back in January 2007 the American virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell went undercover for 45 minutes as a street violinist playing some of the most virtuosic music ever written on one of the most expensive musical instruments ever made - the 1713 Gibson ex Huberman Stradivarius - for changes at L'Enfant Plaza Metro Station in Washington DC. He was participating in a social experiment arranged by the Washington Post to answer the question; "In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?". The Post's article on the episode summed it up;
"In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look. (Weingarten)"

A few months later on the island across the Atlantic Ocean British virtuoso violinist Tasmin Little (and her 1708 Regent Stradivarius) embarked on the same type of stint at bustling Waterloo Station in London, England, with just a slightly better result (probably because she was more interactive with her audience than Bell was);
"After 45 minutes, it's time to wrap up and retire to a café to count the takings and take soundings. Tasmin has made £14.10. Eight people had stopped to listen to her, of whom one was under the age of three, out of an estimated 900 to 1,000 passers-by. (Duchen)"
Such stellar musicians, such dismal reception... Surely it wasn't their playing that caused such indifference, otherwise other undercover busking wouldn't have drawn such enthusiastic applause even in places like the market or an airport. Though I used the wrong word, what the latter are are 'flash mobbing' rather than 'busking', the difference is that the performers move around and the impromptu audience aren't burdened with the prospect of having to make an unsolicited donation. The musicians are clearly there for fun, and it is a lot more fun to all involved when there isn't an invisible 'quid pro quo' elephant in the room.

Here is the Macon Symphony's flash mob 'Can Can' from Jacques Offenbach's Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld) at the local stores and market. It's a part of a Knight Arts program called Random Acts of Culture, which, apparently, is participated by many American orchestras and classical choruses (sadly, though, none from San Diego area yet).

My favorite classical flash mob so far is the one pulled off by the Copenhagen Philharmonic at the Copenhagen Central Station earlier this year.

One minute they are there, and the next they had melted away into the crowd... a delicious apparition!

You know, I'd love to see more well known artists embarking on this thing (especially when they're doing opera flash mobs... Some opera arias just don't sound all that appetizing when they aren't sung well). I know it is a bit of labor for no pay, but it helps promote the art-form that supports your livelihood... and it helps those who hadn't been to a symphony or opera performance ever to see that classical musicians are people just like they are when they aren't wearing the official gown and tux. 

By the way, if you didn't already know it, Tasmin Little is so keen on spreading the love for classical music she actually offers one of her albums, The Naked Violin, for free download at her website. Check it out and have a blast!

- Weingarten, Gene. "Pearls Before Breakfast." Washington Post. 8 April 2007.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Who Are Xerxes?

The fumbling green-thumb Serse of Georg Handel's 1738 opera may not bear much resemblance to the historic Khashayah Shah (Xerxes) of Persia, but he sure has a timeless aria every tuneful person wants to sing! 'Ombra mai fu' is marked larghetto on the score, though is commonly known as Serse's Largo... perhaps because of our common wish for all good things in life to linger on for a bit longer, especially when singers with big lungs are singing it.

The original Serse was the Italian castrato Caffarelli. There are, thankfully, no castrato around to sing the part today, however, so Serse is usually sung by an operatic mezzo-soprano instead. We are lucky to have many of these wonderful low-voiced ladies around, so here's a little quiz. Can you identify the voices singing Serse's love tune to his plane tree in this video clip?