Saturday, December 31, 2011

And that was 2011

Hello! Hello! I hope everyone is well and having a good end of the year holidays season!

I had a rather unexpected change of residence again a month ago. Was going to move out of state to snowier pasture, but was blown away by a whirling wind of weirdly freaky circumstances and now I'm hanging in limbo for another month. May still move to another state later in January, or may stay put as a Southern Californian beach bum. Don't know how it'll go. We'll see!

For a boring smorg, 2011 was rather eventful: I made some new friends and got closer to a few who are effortlessly even nicer and more caring when the times are rough than when the going is good. Even if you don't know who you are (darn these good Samaritans! They do good deeds so naturally that they don't recognize their own goodness much of the time!), you are a jolly good fellow, fellas. Thanks very much!
Being boring can be a virtue in dog-trainers...
 Inspired by the amazing Youtube clips by Kikopup (Emily Larlham) I also acquired another side job/hobby of dog-training. There are dog-trainers and then there are dog-trainers! It is amazing what you can teach just about any dog to do with positive-reinforcement technique only... with no punishment at all! Once you get the concept, it is quite easy... Of course, the hard part has to do with training the dog owners to stay with the program and not give in to intimidation/punishment-based 'short cuts'. As tempting as they are short cuts have ways of coming back to bite you in the long run! Anyhow, I got to meet quite a lot of cute and cool dogs in the past year for this. It may make the neighborhood cats more wary of me (you look sort of like a human but you smell like 4 or 5 different dogs. What the flea is wrong with you???), but on the whole it really is a lovable experience!

I slacked off this year a bit on the opera/concert-going front, though. I don't know if I'll be around to catch the San Diego Opera's 2012 season yet, but it sure looks a very tempting one! For the first season since the 2008 market crash the SDO now has enough cash flow to put on four operas instead of just three. What's more, they even managed to poach Renee Fleming, who will turn up here in America's Finest City for a concert in March.

Renee Fleming is coming to San Diego on March 24th, 2012!
After years of dodging religious evangelists at street corners and bus-stops, I broke my tradition and hung out with a few Mormon missionaries for quite a few months. A few are staying friends even though there isn't much hope of them ever converting me to that strangely socialistic and polytheistic religion. It is possible to love people even while being utterly repulsed by their dogma, I found. I hope our encounters benefited them as much as they benefited me.

Ever since I broke away from religions I've loathed to look back on the days that I spent in one. The missionaries reminded me of my younger evangelical Christian self, and it has been endlessly fascinating to re-examine things from such a different perspective. The more I learned about Mormonism the more inclined I am to worry about my new friends... but these gals are intelligent, I think, perhaps more so than I was. If I could escape my net, then I'm sure they can, too... and their journey is one they have to make themselves.

Having been such a slow reader of late, I am surprised to find that I managed to read more books than I thought I would in 2011. Robert Conot's River of Blood: Years of Darkness about the 1965 Watts Riot in Los Angeles started of the year on an alternatively chilling and instructive note.

I'm a genre-spree reader. I get into a certain sort of books and read a bunch of them one after another. Having labored through Bill Clinton's pudgy biography, My Life, I went a bit flaky and picked up Andrew Morton's Diana: Her True Story from a pile at a thrift shop's books section... along with one biography of her former spouse, Charles: Prince of Wales, by Anthony Holden. While Morton's homage to Princess Diana seems to have been written by someone a bit overly sympathetic to his subject, Holden's treatment of the young Prince Charles (before he married anyone) is quite fair and incisive. Pele's autobiography, Pele: My Life and The Beautiful Game, was a revelation. I already knew of his technical grace on the football field, but what he overcame to get to where he was and to still maintain his integrity was very inspiring.

Reading Gordon Ramsay's Roasting in Hell's Kitchen somehow didn't make me admire the man more. I love his UK version of Kitchen Nightmares, but the US version put a bad taste in my mouth (why does Fox have to turn every show into another version of hyper-sensationalized Judge Judy?). His sure is an interesting life, though he is such a type-A personality even in writing that I needed a break from the dude by the end of the book.

Even though I'm not a fan of operatic coloratura sopranos (though I'd make exceptions for Edita Gruberova and Natalie Desay), I was not above picking up Beverly Sills' Bubbles while browsing a local bookstore one summer evening. For all the bubbly persona she displayed in her public image, the gal was one tough cookie... and a heck of a singer, too!

I also got into a spree of real life adventures reading with Bear Grylls' Facing Up, Sir Edmund Hillary's 'Nothing Venture, Nothing Win', Stephen Venables' Everest: Alone At The Summit, Freddie Wilkinson's One Mountain - Thousand Summits, and Peter Jenkins' Across China. Except for the last one, these recount high-altitude climbing. Grylls was the youngest Briton to summit Everest in 1998 at age 23. He is better known to us Americans as the weirdo who does dare-devil stuff doing extreme survival things on a tv program where he seems to enjoy taking his clothes off for a skinny dip and eating raw fish fresh from the stream. Somehow his book persona seems quite more normal and sane by comparison. 

Venables' account of his amazing first oxygen-free ascent of Everest via the Kangshung Face is gripping and gives a great glimpse into what sort of mentality drives people to risk so much to achieve something that doesn't really seem to benefit anyone. Freddie Wilkinson's telling of the 2008 K2 disaster not surprisingly made me revisit the similar story of the infamous Everest tragedy of 1996. It amazed me that the only two climbers (Chhiring Dorje and Pemba Gyalje) on K2 in 2008 who had enough stamina to mount a rescue attempt after having summitted the peak themselves were, like Anatole Boukreev and Lopsang Jambu on Everest in 1996, superfit professionals who were climbing without the aid of supplementary oxygen. It's food for thought, at least, that in the end technological short cuts are no match for knowledge and rigorous preparation.

Sir Edmund Hillary's memoir is now one of my favorite books for his no nonsense and amazingly understated and unassuming narration of his remarkable life. The man was so bent on not crowing about his own abilities that I almost felt the urge to slap my mental image of him in the head... Of course he mentions his ascent of Everest, but that is only an icing on an already remarkable cake, I think. I hadn't known anything of his leading an expedition to the the South Pole, and the various other things that he went about doing that most people would only dream about. It takes a very secure man to not let all that get to his head.
I don't climb high mountains, though that doesn't stop me from reading about them.
Peter Jenkins didn't climb any mountain in his book, though he walked across quite a magnificent expanse of foreign landscape. I was familiar with him from his first book, A Walk Across America, a very interesting tale that got a bit less interesting for me when the dude turned religious toward the end of it.

I got 3/4 way through Rebecca West's venerated tome, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, about her travel through the Balkans in the 30's, but didn't finish it. It is an amazingly insightful book... though sometimes the author annoys me to no end with her philosophy.

The more interesting books I read this year, though, were Bronislaw Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Akio Morita's Made in Japan, Azar Narfisi' Reading Lolita in Tehran, Stephen Jay Gould's Ever Since Darwin, and Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. Malinowski's account of the Trobriands of the Kiriwina Island (near Papua New Guinea) almost made me wish that I had majored in anthropology in college instead of biochemistry. If Indiana Jones could write a book about his exploits... I don't know, I think I'd still go for Prof Malinowski's vividly objective prose.

Akio Morita was a co-founder of Sony Corporation, and his self-made story is one capitalist Americans would love to claim for our own but can't. I suppose most of you readers will have read Narfisi's book and already wonder how to write like that in one's second language. Being a slow slug I'm still trying to catch up on the background reading required to completely understand her lessons!

Having to take lots of biology classes in college saved me from having to catch up on much background readings for Stephen Jay Gould's Ever Since Darwin, though I still found that I feel a bit smarter each time I re-read the book. The man made critical thinking seem so sexy...

Oddly enough, I found Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible reading through one of my favorite Mormon missionaries' favorite books list. It is a remarkable book. I should have liked to come across it while I was still a teenage Jesus-freak. I don't regret having gone down that road once, but I do regret the amount of time I spent on it... that and the lost opportunities. The book probably reads quite differently for those going through a religious phrase than it does for me. All the same it still flabbergasts me a little how anyone can read and like this thing and still volunteer to go on a religious mission afterward. confused smiley #17417

Anyhow! Tonight the calendar flips to a new page. I guess I will be staying up late, though mostly to try to get more work done than to watch the ball drop in Time Square. I don't think the cats around here even know what a 'new year' is, so I don't really celebrate days like this as much as normal people do (on the other hand, I love it when the wind changes to bring in a new season... or when the earth does strange things like trying to swallow the moon like it did earlier this month!). I'll be too busy to post much here for a week or two, so here is thanking everyone for putting up with my rambling posts. Wishing you all a very happy holiday season and 2012!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Mostly Religion-Friendly Holiday Music CD

Happy Holidays!

My holiday music playlist this year is a bit more religion-friendly than usual since I've been spending way too much time with some really religious people of late. The Mormon missionaries I hung out with are required by their mission rules to avoid music that aren't church-based or classical instrumental. That quite foils my attempt at introducing them to many of my favorite tunes since the best bits of the juiciest opera tend to involve more passion than so chaste a post- and pre- polygamy religion can handle. But, a bit of compromise goes a long way in making and keeping friends who don't think the same way I do about things, so I made my favorite missionaries a custom CD of relatively religion-friendly opera and classical for Christmas. Here it is!

1. VILLA-LOBOS: Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 [Elina Garanca]
2. MONTSALVATGE: Madrigal - El cant dels ocells [Garanca]
3. Bulgarian folksong: Svatba [Cosmic Voices of Bulgaria]
4. MOZART: Cosi fan tutte: Soave sia il vento [Lorengar, Berganza, Bacquier]
5. HUBAY: Le Zephyr [Mirijam Contzen & Valery Rogatchev]
6. MASCAGNI: Cavalleria Rusticana: Intermezzo
7. MASCAGNI: Cavalleria Rusticana: Regina coeli [Julia Varady]
8. Armenian folk hymn: Soorp [Isabel Beyrakdarian]
9. Rumanian hymn: O, ce veste minunata [Roberto Alagna] 
10. Bulgarian folksong: Day mi, Bozhe, krila lebedovi [Vesselina Kasarova]
11. VERDI: La forza del destino: La vergine degli angeli [Leontyne Price]
12. SAINT-SAËNS: Samson et Dalila - Danse Bacchanale
13. MENDELSSOHN: Violin concerto in E minor [Tasmin Little]

I know I gave her a hard time in a few early reviews of her recordings, but Elina Garanca has been growing on me quite much. The voice is just to die for, and her musicianship is exquisite. She still isn't as keen on varying her vocal color as I'd like her to, but I'm finding her live performances a lot more engaging now than a few years ago. I love her in recital pieces, though. While the opera tracks from her Aria Cantilena CD leave me cold, Villa Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 and Montsalvatge's arrangement of the Catalan madrigal, El cant dels ocells, are great showpieces for her gorgeously flawless sound... and even benefit, I think, from her detachment. The first is a nature-loving chant, and the latter an intonation of the nativity as witnessed by the birds. I wonder if ancient Bethlehem was home to the same sorts of birds that live in Catalan now... but that's besides the point, I think.

One of my all time favorite recordings has to be the first CD of Le mystere des voix bulgare, which features this really cool Boyar wedding song, Svatba. Sung by the Cosmic Voices of Bulgaria Women's Choir, I thought its rousing spunk might spark celestial thoughts in a few listeners. It helps that the tune somehow transfers really well into the farewell trio from Mozart's farcical opera, Cosi fan tutte. The story is silly, but sometimes even the flakiest of ladies are capable of some really benevolent benefaction!

Of course, benevolent benefaction should prudently be taken in small doses or else immediately followed up by an upshot of merry laughter. I would supply my own, but imposing my mischievously evil laughter onto others this time of year could very well be considered bad form, so I outsourced it to a good humored pair of laughadelic violinist and pianist instead, belly-quaking to Jeno Hubay's The Zephir.

People often ask me what my most favorite opera is. It's not an easy question to answer since there are many favorites and they tend to appeal to me differently depending on my differing moods. The safest choice that I can always listen to, though, is Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana... with its gorgeous intermezzo and, since we're being friendly to religious listeners here, Easter hymns. Well, I know it isn't Easter yet, but at least it's better suited to the occasion than Turiddu's lusty Siciliana or his spatty duet with Santuzza (my favorite parts of the show! But then I'm a heathen).

While roaming around youtube checking out various clips by my favorite singers, I chanced on this rather cool one of Isabel Beyrakdarian singing an Armenian hymn. I liked it so much I looked up a few more Armenian songs, then decided to branch out a bit and searched for hymns from other countries with famous opera singers I know of, and hit pay dirt with Roberto Alagna's rendition of the Romanian hymn O ce veste minunata (he isn't Romanian, but his then wife, Angela Gheoghiu, is). Of course, that also led me to Bulgaria and this clip of Vesselina Kasarova singing 'Give Me, God, Wings of the Swan' with the Cosmic Voices of Bulgaria.

I figured to close the CD with a proper Italian opera prayer, Leonora's prayer from la forza del destino, but there was a lot of room left on the blank disc, so I couldn't resist filling it up with a few instrumental favorites. First off the bat, just because I can only stand listening to so much religious music without a proper break, the 'or classical instrumental' escape clause that the Mormon mission gave their missionaries is my main excuse for breaking out of the pious mode with the (in)famous Bacchanale Scene from Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila. After all, the story is biblical! 

Amazed that there was still so much room on the disc after all that, I turned into a spoiled brat and put in my favorite recording of Mendelssohn's famous and extremely popular E minor violin concerto that just about every concert violinists has recorded. There are tons of awesome renditions of this thing around, but the fiddler who strikes it closest to my ideal combination of fleet-fingeredness and passion is the rather not that well-known (at least on this side of the Atlantic) English virtuoso Tasmin Little. The lass makes me dance... three legs and all!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

December has been here two weeks already???

Sorry I've neglected the blog a bit. Have moved to another part of town and been settling in and sorting out mails that kept going to the wrong address!

We are having our slice of the rainy winter this week. I sort of luck out since I did my traveling last weekend and can now enjoy the cool rain from inside the dry house. Will have to go out tomorrow, though I think the rain clouds will have left us for the greener pasture east of the Rockies by then.

I'm busy writing articles at the moment, and when I'm not writing I'm trying to catch up with a bunch of reading. Aside from all the books I've been meaning to read since before the local sycamore trees were still leafy, I'm still reading the Book of Mormon and James Talmadge's Jesus the Christ. No! I'm not converting, though my lovely missionary sisters had inscribed messages in the latter before presenting it to me as a parting gift, so I'm sort of compelled to be a good sport and read the thing. Besides, it gives me a good excuse to still meet up with them every now and then, you see. I don't find the church and the dogma very sensible, but the Mormons themselves do intrigue me a bit.

Anyhow, Christmas/Winter Solstice will be here before long, so here's to jump start the holiday season a bit with Elina Garanca's gorgeous rendition of Montsalvatge's arrangement of the Catalan madrigal 'El cant dels ocells' (Song of the Birds). It's the birds' experience of nativity, I think.
“En veure despuntar …… When they saw the rising glow,
El major illuminar ………. of god’s great star,
En la nit mes joiosa; …….. Which floods the earth abright;
Els ocellettes cantant …….. The birds arise in song,
a festejario van, …………… warbling all night long
Amb sa veu melindrosa,…… of joy and glad tidings.

Ocells, veniu, veniu……… Come birds, come,
A festejar l’aurora, …….. And rejoice in the dawn,
I a la millor senyora, ….. And with the great lady;

La garsa, griva i gaig, ….. Magpie, thrush and jay
dieun: la ve lo Maig; ….. Say: ‘May is here’;
respon la cadernera: …. The goldfinch answers:
Tot arbre reverdeix: ….. ‘Every tree revives,
Tota planta floreix ……… Every plant abloom
Com si fos la primavera. .. As if it were spring.”