Beautiful Music: Prokofiev

I have, over the years, watched a lot of classical music on TV (yes, there is classical music on TV, once there was rather a lot of it.) But I’ve never seen something shot quite like this, a video of the last movement of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata #7, “Precipitato” given a strong performance by Denis Kozhukhin.

The photography and the editing border on the hyperactive, but then so does the piece, starting with its jumpy 7/8 time signature.

Prokovief, 7th Piano Sonata

In fairness to the composer, it is good to remember that his art encompassed not just music that was driving forward in relentless ways, like the 7th Sonata, but works music with tunes, that, as Andre Previn once remarked (of the 5th Symphony I think), he must have sold his soul for.

To wit: the second movement of the 8th Piano Sonata, with Ashkenazy weaving the magic spell.

A Writer at WordCamp Baltimore

This blog and thousands of others (or more) uses WordPress, picked mostly because I knew it a bit from a blog (and hosting company) I like, Laughing Squid, which used it. It is open source, and had that “do it yourself” feel of the early web (pitching their “5 second install”), and I was able to put up a little site for an inn keeper friend of mine in about a weekend a few years back. (I later moved it to and it’s still up, if looking its age a bit.)

In the intervening years, WordPress has grown up into more than a blogging tool, providing a platform for a lot of web publishing and building a large developer (and designer and user) community. It has become an ecosystem, perhaps not to the level of Linux (the open source operating system that is used on many web servers), but it is now providing platform infrastructure for between 18 and 20% of the Web.

That is among the tidbits I gleaned at WordCamp Baltimore, a meeting for WordPress types last weekend at the University of Baltimore. For $20 and a train ride up and back it was worth it to see both who attended and the texture of the presentations. It was, in the way of many a tech conference, pleasantly shaggy when it came to organization. No sign on the conference building itself, and confusing ones inside, which meant I ended up in sessions I didn’t intend to attend. But a certain amount of conference chaos means both serendipity and that you have to talk to people to find out where things are, not a bad thing.

Some random notes from the sessions I attended: Russell Heimlich from Pew talked about caching. (Would that I had enough readers to worry about caching or even moving off, but did speak to WordPress’ ability to scale for big sites.

A lawyer turned WordPress entrepreneur Byron Warnken, who has done several successful digital projects relating to law, did a session on content marketing. This was, understandably, focused on commercial uses of WP, but had some intriguing tidbits even for somebody like me who has made his career mostly in not-for-profits. First, “content marketing” pre-dates the web. Byron’s example was “The Furrow,” a magazine from the John Deere tractor company, which gives “relevant content to customers” –that is, content marketing. Wikipedia dates its founding to 1895 and notes a million plus subscribers. Wikipedia lists the Michelin Guide as another preweb example of content marketing, & I assume that beloved book of my youth, The Guinness Book of World Records, would qualify as well.

This was eye-opening for me as previously I saw the whole content marketing idea as separate from “real content” — that is, not influenced mostly by the desire to sell you something, therefore not objective. That still seems broadly true, but it gets usefully blurry around the edges, at least got me to wonder about what content the various companies and non-profits I am involved with can offer as legitimately helpful and engaging (versus what is to sell, I suppose). Byron was engaging and provocative, a very good presenter.

(One provocative (if flaky) observation to fall out of this: what are MOOCs if not Content Marketing on a massive scale? If that logic is correct, when do John Deere, Guide Michelin, and Guinness start their first MOOC? I bet their production values and UX will be an improvement on what is out there from the mighty Coursera and edX. If the Guinness people need an instructional designer for a MOOC-based drinking game, I am at the ready!)

Also worth noting:
Really good session on SEO (that’s search engine optimization, for the two of you who get my blog via parchment scroll in Latin) by principals at WebMechanix, a Columbia, Maryland, company that does optimization for your site (good content marketing gizmo on their home page, as an aside). A lot of familiar stuff (which is like being reminded by the dentist to floss):

  • Meaningful page titles, correct use of title tags.
  • Metadescriptions
  • Meaningful file names for images, alt-tags, good captions
  • Page headings (and logic of the page) even more important than it used to be.

Other: “thou shalls” from them:

  • Overall: Think about your page from a “how easy it is to index this?” perspective. That is, produce sites from an “easy to index” mindset.
  • Religiously share your content on social networks.
  • Think about off and on page SEO (corollary to the one above)
  • Benchmark
  • Use plug-ins for SEO
  • Use the Google site map generator thingie and make xml site maps and give them to the Google beast for ingest.

New to me (although it’s not that I really do any of those ordinary things very diligently) was thinking about various implications of schemas in search (schemas are tagging schemes, sort of like cataloging that makes content more recognizable to search algorithms (and by implication to APIs or for other uses). It reminds me of headings in library catalogs (except that schema go beyond subject to include type etc). has an explanation and a bunch of already existing schema (one is for instance ratings stars). Google has an “author snippet” akin to a schema, which hooks a comment to a profile, and is important in search. Somebody is probably working out schema for education topics and formats now (or if they aren’t they should be). But more on that later.

The notion that giving search engines more about the semantic structure and content of your pages helps in SEO is really thought provoking–in both directions. You start thinking about this structure as a writer and Google as a reader. The guys who were presenting seemed so positive about this–and were also great presenters–that it was easy to forget it’s slightly freaky to think about Google as your number 1 reader, now telling you how to organize your writing.

Arthur’s WordCamp t-shirt selfie.

Given that I (and probably a lot of others) think about SEO as a question of how do I get a site to show up on the first page of Google and then get people there, this idea of Google as a reader, and everything you write as content, eye-opening. Starts with using snippets and schema, and soon morphs to considering your (or your company’s) digital presence as not just your web site or app, but all these bits and piece

s of content out in the web eco-system. It makes me want to have a lie-down and listen to some very calm Palestrina, who, as yet, has not been the subject of a WordCamp session, (although if I ever present at one, I’ll be sure to work him in.)

So overall my first WP was a great experience, and if you are at all in this WordPress cult, check out one in your area, or watch them on WordCamp.TV, which gives you a feel for what they are about. I enjoyed the WordPress for writers out of the Providence WC by Jess Jurick and there are lots more.


Poem of the Season: Keats

Yes, it is  one of the “the most anthologized poems in the English language” but still worth a visit on a crisp September Day:


John Keats (1785-1821)

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.


Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
   Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.


Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.


Dumbarton Oaks, a museum and garden in Washington DC. A photo I took last fall on a visit when I had the place to myself. No lambs were bleating, however.

Artistic words: Chang on Gauguin

Reading Written on Water, a book of essays by Eileen Chang, I came across this evocative description of a Gauguin painting.

There are some paintings I will never be able to forget, but only one of them is famous, Gauguin’s “Nevermore.”  A Hawaiian [Tahitian] woman lies naked on a couch, quietly listening to the conversation of a man and a woman as they walk past her door. The rosy sunset glow of springtime in the background seems to spray skyward like mist, giving a feeling of transcendence to the scene, and yet for this robust woman, who looks about thirty years old, everything is over and done. The woman’s face is coarse, with narrow slitted eyes, and she cups her cheek in her hand, sending her gaze slanting upward in a slyly flirtatious gesture so reminiscent of many a young Shanghainese woman that it strikes us as being quite familiar. Her body is the golden brown of hardwood. The dark brown of the sofa, though, is rendered in a shade more like ancient bronze, and little white flowers are visible on the sofa cover, semitranslucent like mother-of-pearl. Inlaid on this dark bronze background is the atmosphere outside: colored glass, blue sky, red and blue trees, a pair of lovers, a big clumsy bird from a children’s fairy tale perched on a stone railing. Glass, bronze, and wood: these three textures seem to encompass the different worlds that we can touch with our hands, in a way that is as tangible as the woman herself. She must have loved with every fiber of her being and now “Nevermore.” Although she sleeps on a civilized sofa, her head nestled on a ruffled pillow embroidered with lemon-yellow flowers, there is still a primal sadness here. It is nothing like our own society, in which a woman no longer in her prime who wants love but has already lost it will almost certainly be confronted with countless little indignities and grinding difficulties, to the point where her self-respect is torn and shredded. This woman is not prone to the same sedimented sadness, because she retains a sense of clarity and resignation. On her golden brown face, there’s still a trace of an irrelevant smile, as if a mirror had cast a fugitive fragment of the sunlight outside across her face.

Chang is the author of Lust, Caution a superb read, also made into a film by Ang Lee.

And here’s the painting she describes:

Gauguin: Nevermore

Beautiful Music: CPB Bach on Flute & Harp

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The manuscript (but perhaps not in CPE’s hand) of the Flute Sonata in A.

CPE Bach’s music, long overshadowed by his father’s achievement, has been finding its way back onto concert programs. I heard Peter Wispelway give one of Emanuel Bach’s Cello Concerti with the Boston Symphony a few years back and was delighted by the charm and scale (the teeny-tiny little development section in the sonata-form first movement was clearly done tongue in cheek.)

I encountered CPE, like many student pianists, through the Solfegietto in C-minor (page 12 or so of ’59 Piano Solos You Like To Play’) courtesy of my childhood piano teacher. (She couldn’t help sniffing at it a bit, the junior Bachs, no matter how revered in their own era, have been overshadowed by JSB).

Years later, I’m no longer worried whether CPE was an epigone, or a fine composer in his own right, today I simply enjoy listening and playing his music both for the feeling of expressive improvisation, sly virtuosity, and also a very tender way with a slow movement melody. So what if the father built cathedrals in sound, while the son merely finely-wrought pieces of classical furniture? There is room for both.

To wit two examples:

A gorgeous performance by flautist Denis Bouriakov of the Solo Sonata in A Minor.

And a harp sonata of his that I found on YouTube, while looking for an acceptable performance of the Solfeggietto (couldn’t find one). This is harpist Marie-Claire Jamet recorded from an old Nonsuch LP (complete with surface noise, which I somehow find endearing). The performance is droll and lively: a beautiful, optimistic way to start your day (which in Cambridge is a perfect wash of September sun with a touch of briskness).


Reasonable Words: Manil Suri on Math Appreciation

Novelist and math professor Manil Suri penned a lovely op-ed yesterday advocating studying math for the beauty of the experience, as one might take a course in music appreciation or enjoying art.

“As a mathematician, I can attest that my field is really about ideas above anything else. Ideas that inform our existence, that permeate our universe and beyond, that can surprise and enthrall. Perhaps the most intriguing of these is the way infinity is harnessed to deal with the finite, in everything from fractals to calculus. Just reflect on the infinite range of decimal numbers — a wonder product offered by mathematics to satisfy any measurement need, down to an arbitrary number of digits.”

Even though I’m hardly any wiz at math (he would likely furrow his brow at the phrase), it was mostly my favorite subject, and I took a lot of it, somewhat to the surprise of my journalist parents. What caught my interest were just these interesting and sort of unfathomable ideas, but which you could work with despite not being able to “get your head around them.”  Suri mentions infinity, and my elementary school apprehension (in both senses of the word?) that you could just “keep going” out there in whole numbers without ever stopping was amazing. Later, realizing that there was an infinity “in between” any two fractions–getting smaller and smaller and smaller–was also head spinning, and even later that it was possible to talk about sizes of different infinities, some were bigger than others, well, that one still keeps me going.

Another idea, picked at random, was n-dimensional space, which a teacher or a book simply illuminated for me as adding more coordinates to the plane old Cartesian grid provided that same fizzy head spin. Two coordinates get you up and over, three (z) adds dimension “out”, the fourth maybe time, but no reason to stop there, even though we can’t visualize (or at least I can’t visualize) past four, you can have 9-dimensional space, it’s a coordinate grid where a point is described by 9 coordinates.

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 7.27.08 AMIt’s all wonderful ideas once you get past the paperwork: non-Euclidean geometry, about which I  wanted to write a play in college (didn’t). And then there is catastrophe theory, the subject of an intriguing little book, Mathematics And the Unexpected, by Ivar Elkund, which I only half-understood, but that engrossed me totally. (It had a Bruegel on the front cover, keeping with the theme of art and mathematics that Suri started with.)

Recently there was a post about catastrophe theory by Steven Strogatz, a math blogger for the NYTimes who wrote about it as applied to, among other things, sleep.  I’ll let him explain it and leave you with an intriguing animation from his article, demonstrating why things that seem to be working in an orderly, predictable way based on clear rules, can have unexpected outcomes.

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 7.35.27 AM

As one of the comments on Strogatz’ blog post puts it:

“Easy to see why Mathematicians fall heads-over-heels in love with their subject.”

Beautiful Sights and Sounds: The Proms Wrap Up

Now this is how you do a music festival!

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The 2013 BBC Proms in under 4 minutes. Great festival and great trailer!

The BBC Proms have just finished, but you can still watch some video clips and hear a few of the last concerts over on the BBC site. The famous “last night” (this year with Marin Alsop, Joyce DiDonato, and bad-boy violinist Nigel Kennedy, among others) will be available for another day, and was a good show.

New York City Opera’s Woes

Yesterday, zombie grammar rules and today zombie opera companies. Some might argue that New York City Opera (a place dear to many, including to me, as their first entrée into the art form–Turandot, 1976) is already the walking dead, unsteadily traversing different venues, with neither a set home nor a sufficient budget. Dead, and nearly dead companies are not unknown in recent years: not a happy roll call: Opera Boston was borked while I was still up there, Cleveland Opera, Opera Pacific…these are just the ones I can mention from memory. I’m sure there are others.

City Opera is different, not only because it was (despite at least two near-death experiences earlier in its history) a big part of the NYC and national opera scene, full season, launching pad for many starry careers (Sills and Domingo get mentioned most, but Ramey and von Stade were also NYCO babies once upon a time and their web site claims Reneé Fleming too). It also, particularly during the Julius Rudel years, in retrospect likely to be considered the company’s golden age, did first-rate work in an adventurous and plucky way.  To pick one, not quite at random, milestone–the production in 1966 of Handel’s Julius Caesar by NYCO with Sills as Cleopatra (she sort of extorted Rudel into casting her instead of Phyllis Curtin) was a big hit, adding energy to what would become a world-wide interest in Handel’s stage works, now part of most opera companies’ rep.

More recently though, things seem like a mess, particularly on the business side of the house. The ill-fated Gerald Mortier appointment was head-scratching for many in and out of the biz. Venue problems, labor problems, board and governance discord. George Steele, the general manager and artistic director, and who some considered over-parted in at least the gm part of the role, (a Rodolfo cover being asked to sing Siegmund?), has been credited with leading some artistically daring and successful projects (in the NYCO tradition) but he has not done well, at least by my lights, in solving the biggest problem the company faces, namely creating an identity for NYCO as anything other than a permanent invalid.

Granted, forging an identity can be a tricky thing. Big personalities like Sills don’t come along every day. The Met has stolen some of what was once NYCO’s thunder–young talent shows up there first (the phenomenal Pretty Yende might have been a City Opera find a generation ago, yet earlier this year she went straight to the Met); The Met’s GM Peter Gelb has also championed new works, innovative directors, and then there is the Met in HD, which, for all its pleasures, cannibalizes even the Met’s own subscribers.

But an identity is not something an arts organization can opt out of. City Opera’s desperate answer to the “who are we?” question is “We are the People’s Opera,” flogged as a phrase to rally around. It shows up in my FB feed, and they have opened a KickStarter campaign to raise $1 million (a fraction of what they need). Like most KickStarter campaigns, it’s got a video, and that left me unfazed, in fact a little hostile.

No, NYCO, I’m not giving you money just because you need it. To me “The People’s Opera” rings false because it describes what the company once was, not what it is today. I would give money because I identify in some way with the organization, believe in it as it is now, and have a reasonable expectation that what it is becoming will provide some artistic meaning and experiences worth the magnitude of the ask. Tell me that story (better yet, let others —audience members, composers, and artists, for instance—speak for themselves on what the company is and means to them). (Even if Steele is the right NYCO head, he cannot be the only voice, given the doubts, justified or not, many have about his leadership.) Make it clear to me that the company has a chance to be functional business-wise and coherent enough artistically to be around along enough to make good on my support.

In short, tell me why I should come along on what looks like a zombie road trip with you. “Salve me, fons pietatis,” won’t suffice. And although, I ardently hope it’s not Mimì’s death scene, frankly that is preferable, for me at least, to indefinite zombie operatic hospice.

Julus Caesar
A memento of a better era in City Opera’s history: Sills’ spectacular Cleopatra. (Excuse the terrible video.)
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