Siege Diaries 1/9/2020


Today’s Daily Stoic writing prompt: If I don’t control what happens to me, what’s left?

This one is simple:  I control what I can do in response–the way I think, the way I analyze and assess these events.  I can also understand my emotions in response to what happens to me, and to sit with them so that they do not pass out of my control.

It’s a quiet day while a world in turmoil spins, unperceived from my basement.   COVID cases continue to spike, although they were down a bit from yesterday’s high.  We are now exactly two weeks from when the province-wide lockdown started, so one can hope that there might start to be some results, but we’re still a week out from the last holiday where people might have been more likely to gather.  Quebec has imposed a curfew.  Meanwhile, in the SCA kingdom of Lochac, they held an SCA Crown Tourney, as they’ve continued to manage things well.  

In the US, insurrectionists who plastered social networks with gleeful selfies of themselves desecrating the Capitol building are now being identified and arrested.  The current president has been banned from all major social media.  Alternate social media site Parler has been thrown off of Apple and Google app stores, hugely limiting its reach.  Articles of impeachment are widely expected on Monday.   As I put it on Facebook, the Roach Motels are out and the cockroaches are getting caught in the sticky stuff, and both momentum and public opinion have hugely shifted in the past two days.  The problem is that cockroaches are clever bastards.  You don’t underestimate a species that can survive in extreme conditions.  The nature of wake-up calls is that you can’t hit the snooze alarm and go back to sleep, confident that you’ve staved off the threat.  Granted, we have an incoming administration in the US that should no longer be either openly or tacitly encouraging this kind of extremist, which is certainly an improvement, but this is just the first step in what could be a very long process. 

And it’s a process that needs to take place here in Canada as well.   It’s already clear that locally, for instance, white supremacist and related extremist groups are not just not taken seriously, they’re given considerable leeway.  Hamilton’s Mayor, for instance, thought the attempted coup was an opportunity for a joke about “binge watching the final season of the United States.”   Our election process may be better inoculated against US-style partisanship, vote suppression and gerrymandering, but we also have federal and provincial leaders in various conservative parties who have spouted MAGA-style dog whistles or have been seen shaking hands with far-right leaders.   It’s here, too.  

And how timely is it to get to the 13th Symphony in my listening sessions of the Michael Sanderling/Dresdener Philharmonie recordings.  One of the most noticeable things about the first movement is that it seems to be a softer, more nuanced recording than many.  You hear all of the voices in the orchestra clearly.   Oh, it’s plenty loud when it needs to be, but the mix is focused to bring bass Mikhail Petrenko’s voice to the fore, and he is a very expressive singer.  I absolutely love what happens after the loud climax when the the main theme returns.  First of all, the bells and percussion are allowed to continue to resonate as the theme comes in softly underneath. And you can hear the pain in Petrenko’s voice–and those bells being gently struck, gradually getting louder.  This is an incredibly powerful text–and Sanderling has the orchestra expressing the emotions in a way that really bolsters the sung words–which is, I think, important if you don’t know Russian.  You’ll know exactly what each section is about.

The second movement, “Humor,” probably has the biggest range of expression I’ve heard in this work.  It ranges from light and antic to a middle section where deep-pitched instruments I’ve never heard emphasized before in any other recording lend a downright menacing undertone.   The third movement, “In the Store” opens softly and gently, Petrenko again expressing a touching amount of sadness and weariness in his voice, while the orchestra behind him heaves and breathes.  This sense of heavy, ponderous breathing continues, woodwinds winding in and out over a wandering bassline, until Petrenko duets with the horn. This all eventually builds to a powerful climax, with the orchestra singing along with the choir, not accompanying them.  There is a real sense of choral phrasing in the entire movement. 

And then, the fourth movement, “Fears” rolls in, like distant thunder, the disturbing tuba solo more breathed than played.  The quiet menace is striking; somehow the tam-tam strikes never seem to actually be hit, but just reverb along with the rolling bass drum.  There is no comfort anywhere in this movement, as Petrenko’s expressive voice contends with the chilling cold of the orchestral accompaniment.  And you can absolutely hear every creepy note in the swirling harmonic strings under the last verse before the chorus comes in–and their voices crescendo, but seem to echo hollowly.  The following section swirls up with drama into an explosive climax, and a bell tolls-prominently for once– before settling back into submission, the higher strings and then the winds trying to reach for comfort and harmony as the lower strings slither and menace, before the sound of the flute enters like spring, gently.  I was struck particularly by the pizzicato string passages in “A Career,” the final movement, and then the spectacular fugal section that follows, ended by those gently-struck bells again.   Petrenko’s last stanza is sung, but with the expressiveness of the spoken word, and then the bells toll gently again, and it’s as if we’re watching a string quartet play through a muted haze, sweetly, gently before the final notes twinkle from a darkening orchestral sky, and the bell is caressed in response one last time.

This is, bar none, the best recording of this work I’ve ever heard.  It’s easy to lose the “symphony” component in a choral work like this one, but Sanderling, Petrenko, and the Estonian National Male Choir never forget that voices are instruments and that instruments have voices.   And I’ll be hearing those bells in my dreams.   I am immensely looking forward to listening to the 14th, with its vocals and more bells.

(The photo with this post is of a memorial to the children killed at Babi Yar.)