Each time it comes around, I am in a different place, but the hot electrical current, that creative spark arcing through the air through my fingertips, still rips through me, and I find it hard not to yield to its call. This time, it became apparent part of the way through that we had no chance of finishing all the tasks. Team members had other commitments or ailments. No matter. For me, these challenges are my chance to do things simply because they are there to be done.
It started with a Dad joke (told, in fact, by my employer’s CEO):
Model horses. In hospital.
There were things to paint, to sew, to shoot, to experiment with.
There were short research papers on the Ursuline nuns, the story of Agnodice, the Song Lines of Australia, and Wak Chanil Ajaw (a Mayan queen).
There was Hamlet, in sonnet form:
Avenge me! Cries his father’s ghost and speaks
To Hamlet, murder’s tale: to wit, his uncle’s plot,
His mother’s marriage new. So forth he seeks
In Elsinore, to test: be truth or not?
An antic disposition Hamlet wears
Rejects Ophelia’s love, conspires to prick
The conscience of a king, with trav’ling players.
The Ghost spake true, alas! To Gertrude, quick!
Polonius slain, and Hamlet sent away
His uncle plots his death, but Hamlet learns.
Ophelia, maddened, dies. On fun’ral day
A duel arranged, A plot of poison churns
But ‘tis said that best laid plans oft gang awry
And in the end all but Horatio die.
And a few other challenges. I managed to finish 21 of them. The illuminated poem (by Wordsworth) is my favourite.
II: 90 Days
I am officially past my probation period in my new position. I’m continuing to forge ahead, taking on more and more responsibility in presentations. It’s a wonderful feeling, and I am so happy I landed here. What a difference one year makes. It was around this time last year that I began feeling increasingly useless and treated in a patronizing manner in my previous position. Now I’m learning again, on the list for a training course in the fall, a valued voice in team meetings, and feeling as though I am among friends and truly working as a team.
In the midst of all this, the switch was finally thrown to write the Pelican ceremony for my friend. It’s been accepted, with people lined up to speak. Yesterday I finished the loros, or ceremonial sash, with its two embroidered pelicans in silk and couched gold thread. I am currently doing the final goldwork on a third pelican, for what’s mentioned in the original as “tablets”–in my version, they will be a scroll case presented as part of the ceremony.
A snowstorm blew in on Wednesday, the day I’d set for my tattoo. Calling ahead a couple of hours before, things were still ago, so I ventured forth. One hour and a lot of talk with Zach, who did the work, about cats later, I emerged, with my long-planned eighth. The Fibonacci reference in this one, along with the cat, was a conscious reference to the events of this, the year of my 55th birthday (and while I’d love to make it to my next Fibonacci birthday, the 89th, this will certainly be the last Fibonacci year that I would want to get a tattoo).
The new issue of DSCH Journal has been proofed and sent off.
But there’s more than that. This weekend I attended both of the TSO’s performances of Shostakovich 5. I’d had the ticket for Sunday since I bought the subscription, and then picked up the one for Saturday as part of a multiple-ticket deal for Black Friday. The Sunday seat was in the mezzanine, one of the better seats in the house; the Saturday one, towards the back of the main floor (this will become important in a moment.) I’d never heard of the guest conductor, Tarmo Peltokoski (and there’s a reason for that, too. The concert also featured the Kaija Saariaho piece Ciel d’hiver and Brahms’ op. 77 Violin Concerto, featuring concertmaster Jonathan Crow.
I love the Saariaho piece; I think it evokes perfectly the winter sky through its use of shimmering, glissando-laden strings, contrasts of highs and lows, harp and percussion (particularly the celesta). But the conductor was–unexpected? He was a tiny man, with pitch-black hair (the likes of which I’d never seen on a Finn before, who gave a quirky bow from the waist before taking up the baton. He looked about 12. I knew he was “young”, but hadn’t read any more on him. My Saturday seat didn’t really afford much of a view of the orchestra, but he seemed to do a fine job with the work of his fellow Finn. When Jonathan Crow came out to play the Brahms, the height differential was stunning–Peltokowski on the podium looked about the same height as the famously tall Crow did on the floor. It was a nice performance, with a fun final movement. (Disclaimer: Brahms has never really caught my imagination.)
I had no idea what to expect for the Shostakovich. What I heard and saw was–strangely flat. The orchestra seemed sloppy. Peltokowski was making liberal use of rubato, and it sounded like the orchestra just wasn’t quite in line with the unconventional tempo changes. It didn’t really feel he had full control of the orchestra. The balance seemed off–the chord at the beginning of the fourth movement, for instance, sounded thin. Peltokowski had some exquisite moments–his use of dynamics in the first movement; a jaunty, sarcastic second movement, and he didn’t Bernstein the ending–but the third movement? It just didn’t do it for me, and that, unfortunately, coloured what happened afterwards. I wondered whether the rest of the audience was hearing the same thing.
They were not. Peltokowski received an immediate and enthusiastic standing ovation.
Maybe…it was me, then?
Spoiler alert: It probably was–mostly. Well, not so much me as where I was sitting. Because the Sunday performance was everything the Saturday one wasn’t. It was definitely crisper–the orchestra had benefited from performing the work all the way through the previous night, with the rubato under exquisite control–but the balance issues were gone. And as I listened, I realized that the seat I had had on Saturday had been in an area I’d had issues with in the past in terms of balance. Not only that, from my mezzanine seat on Sunday, I could watch just how effective his direction actually was, and his crisp, impulsive, and energetic style–including his little bounce at the end of the fourth movement. This time, the dynamics in the first movement were not only interesting, they were absolutely mesmerizing. After the traditional fortissimo opening, the theme in the strings was played quietly and slowly, almost as if in shock. The entire first movement was whiplash back and forth, but it it ended quietly–the violin solo was played so softly as to be barely heard all. So quietly–it’s a quiet ending, of course, with the celesta…
Wait–what does this all remind me of? And into that sarcastic second movement, where the winds were literally bopping their heads?
My gods. What I saw right there is the clear pedigree of the 5th symphony as a descendent of the 4th symphony. Shostakovich himself said that the 5th was full of “tombstones” from the 4th–and I know some of them, the little snippets here and there, but this was the sound world of the 4th. And that was absolutely dazzling.
Maybe that was part of it, too. The first time I heard the 4th? I didn’t get it. It came to me on the second full listen-through.
But the Largo–that’s the one movement that doesn’t really have a true root in the 4th. It’s its own thing–and I believe that it, above any other part of the 5th, is the movement that could not have been written in 1936. It is pure 1937, which is why it brought the audience at the premiere to tears. But having been properly set up by the previous two movements, this time the Largo shimmered in the lushness of its harmonies, blooming, just growing and gushing forth, in contrast with the solo passages, those moments of solitude in public, and yes, I cried.
And this time, the finale, the 252 As–played slowly, laboriously–exhausted–but exalted–so exactly right.
This was not the absolute favourite 5th I’ve heard–the NYPhil last June still wins that prize, with honourable mention to the RCO this past fall. But it was definitely the most idiosyncratic, and in a mostly good way (even if I’m not a huge fan of rubato). Peltokowski definitely put his stamp on the work, and found new things in Shostakovich’s most-played work that highlighted just how complex it really is.
And Peltokowski? He’s not 12. He’s one decade older–22. His rise to prominence in Europe has been meteoric since he stepped in for Valeri Gergiev when the latter had become persona non grata due to his connections with Vladimir Putin. He’s been named a prinicipal guest conductor for a German orchestra and is now debuting all over the world. This performance was his North American debut. And he’s Filopino-Finnish–which accounts for the dark hair.
It was a fascinating experiment in just how much the seat or the view can affect the impact of the performance on the listener. I really, really wonder what it sounded like from a better seat on Saturday.
Side note: I didn’t notice on Saturday, but on Sunday I noted that Jonathan Crow had joined the orchestra at the back of the first violins for the Shostakovich, after his performance of the Brahms concerto. He’s right by the basses in the back row.
Before the concert on Sunday, I arrived in downtown Toronto early so I could spend some time at the AGO. Friends had praised the Leonard Cohen exhibit there, and I also wanted to finally see the Yayoi Kusama Infinity Room. But it was an exhibit I ran into on the way to the latter that had the biggest impact on me. More on that momentarily.
I can’t claim to be a huge Leonard Cohen fan–at least of his singing, although his gravelly baritone has grown on me, especially as a direct evolution of his voice as a poet. It’s his poetry and lyrics that have always had appeal. I’d heard that the AGO exhibit was stunning for anyone who enjoys the accidental archives of a life–and Cohen kept everything–journals for daily scribbling (both verbal and sketching), photographs, typewritten drafts of poems and songs, artwork, and even his old report cards. He considered these, collectively, to be his masterwork, and many of the items are now held by the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at U of T. The items shown in the exhibit only scratched the surface, but they were, as had been described, a spectacular gaze into the gaze of a poet–his working process, the way he saw himself, the art he created from everyday objects, and the people around him–particularly his partners and children. There were also three video presentations–one of archival video of his thoughts on life, one of tour footage, and one “immersive installation” of performances. I purchased the exhibition catalogue, and I’m looking forward to spending even more time with these revelatory documents.
To see the Infinity Room, you booked a spot ahead of time (the gallery wasn’t excessively busy, so this was not an issue), and then, at the appointed time, they let your party (in my case, it was only me) into the room for 60 seconds. I was surprised how small it was–but, of course, it is purposely difficult to tell how large it actually was. 60 seconds was exactly the right amount of time to appreciate the mirrored space bedecked with silver orbs.
But on the way there, I ran across something called Obsidian (Hrafntinna). I had no inkling of what this was, although I recognized the Old Norse root word hrafn- (meaning black — the raven takes its name from this word). But I liked the feel of those words in my mouth, the black wall with the information about the installation, and the darkness inviting me in.
When I entered, it was so dark that I could not see, and I fumbled my way forward. The air was full of sound–a rumbling sound, as if I were standing near a volcano. There was a faint smell of burning, and flashes of light. As my eyes adjusted, I realized that I was at the centre of a circle of black speakers. The intro I had breezed through had mentioned that you could sit on a circular plinth at the centre of the exhibit, and so I did–and that was what changed everything, because the plinth itself rumbled and vibrated. I can barely describe what that felt like–as if I’d plugged into the earth itself. After a time, I finally left, and as I did, I read more–that the artist, Jónsi, a member of the Icelandic experimental group Sigur Rós, had created the installation in 2021:
“Through sound, reverberation, smell and lighting, the artist evokes the sensation of being inside a volcano. Unable to witness the eruption of the Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland in spring 2021 due to the pandemic, Jónsi has imagined this unique event as a sixteen-channel composition, played across 195 speakers, accompanied by a sweet and smoky scent. Overhead, a single circular light alludes to the summit of the volcano, out of which sound and smell spill like lava, speaking to the intimate poetry of knowing or understanding a place through sense and memory.”
This was it exactly. I have never been near an active volcano, but I have studied them, been fascinated by them, since I was a child. I did not know this place, but I understood what it was, and was drawn back to it, to dwell in it as long as I could, to feel the vibrations through my body as I sat there. (Had I had the place to myself, I would have stretched my whole body out on the plinth.). I had some time to wait before seeing the Infinity Room, so I went back to Obsidian and sat there for a good ten minutes. This time, the sounds were more ethereal, punctuated by bursts of rumbling.
Here is a video of the installation, but it only hints at the power of this amazing work of art. You really need to sit in it–and for a decent amount of time–to truly experience it.
Quite coincidentally, I purchased a year-long pass to the AGO (it was only $5 more), figuring it was worth it if I even used it one more time. I’ll be back for sure to spend even more time in this astounding place.
I am awaiting the start of the next sweep of events. Tomorrow, a long-awaited performance of Shostakovich’s iconic Quartet no. 8. Then, the SCA event on Saturday, delivery of our new mattress on Sunday, and a performance of Shostakovich Symphony no. 4 on the following Saturday (I am just realizing, given what I just wrote, how timely that will be.). The weekend after, a long-delayed extended weekend in Ottawa, which will include a gaming day. I will be once again free of significant craft deadlines for about four weeks, and I’m looking forward to getting started on a long-term commitment for 24 embroidered Christmas ornaments, to be delivered in the summer.