Boston 2017: Part 3

We awoke to our third and final day in Cambridge. For those of you keeping count, that is a different place each night. Our first night was in Boston, second in Westport, and third in Cambridge. And as luck would have it, we spent our first day in Cambridge and our final day in Boston!

We headed to the one of the finest museums in the country: the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Due to the generosity of our friend, we had passes to go and were able to bypass the incredible line outside to get in. What a place. We started in the brief exhibition of paintings by Renaissance Grandmaster Raphael. Very few of works ever make their way to America. While small, it did have some really exquisite pieces of his work along with some of his contemporaries. Here, his work outshined them all.

Our next stop was a gallery of musical instruments, which I adored. There was a piano with blue white Wedgewood decorations, crazily shaped horns, and a wooden case filled with glasses that you filled with water and played! Next to the gallery was a little exhibition about revivalist jewelry; different eras of history became fashionable in jewel form.

The main special exhibition was an interesting pairing of Matisse’s paintings with the objects he owned and featured in said paintings. It had gotten really good reviews. It was thought-provoking to see certain objects depicted in multiple paintings but many weren’t his most interesting works. They did have some wonderful paintings of wall hangings and Moroccan chairs etc. that were worthwhile. You really got to see his passion for color jump out. It ended with some drawings of robes he made for the Matisse Chapel in Vence, one of my all-time favorite chapels!

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We spent the next hour or so wandering the museum as our whims took us. We ended up in the American wing to see some gigantic photos of Washington. I personally fell in love with this portraitist; I had seen his work earlier in an exhibition about food at the art Institute. This painting of a young boy and his pet squirrel made me particularly happy.

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We also ended up in the section of American indigenous art (in the same wing as the other American art!). I loved that they had incorporated some contemporary Native American art into the gallery of Native American artifacts. I always love seeing the juxtaposition of tradition and interpretation. This piece by Stan Natchez, inspired directly by Picasso’s Guernica, was particularly striking.

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By popular demand, we headed to the impressionist wing to check out the Monet’s. I found another one of Degas’ ballerinas, one of my favorite sculptures. The Art Institute has one. And so did the Harvard Art Museums. Two on one trip!

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We ended our trip to the museum with a brief foray into the contemporary art wing where I got to see a lovely Kara Walker and a Guerilla Girls piece. Next time, we’ll have to spend more time here.

We had a final lunch of sushi at a nearby restaurant and then headed to the airport.

It was a good but exhausting trip. Next time, we might try to stay put in one place and see a little bit more of Boston itself.

That’s all!

Part 8: France and England

This is part 2 of our adventures at Hampton Court, a Tudor palace. I was very keen on hearing some period music while we were there. Some of the historical reenactments mentioned musicians so I was bound and determined to listen to something medieval. I wanted to go medieval on that bass. (Sorry, I couldn’t help).

Some context: Back in graduate school, I belonged to an instrumental guild for the Society of Creative Anachronism who like to recreate the better parts of the Medieval Ages and the Renaissance. We played various types of recorders (soprano down to a bass) and performed a variety of medieval and Renaissance music. I loved it; it was the best thing I did in grad school. And there is nothing like playing music while people dance. Seriously. Best feeling in the world. I only wish there was something easily accessible in Chicago so I could continue it.

So I went to the courtyard to learn that the Master of Ceremonies was facing a quandary. He had two sets of musicians to choose from but could not decide what was appropriate. Should he hire a gentle and melancholy lute player to resonate with the king’s illness or should he hire boisterous and happy musicians to remind the king of the good times? We were to help him make his choice. So we wandered into the apartments to a small hall behind the Great Hall. This had a wonderful gold and white ceiling, beautiful stained glass, and additional tapestries.

The lutist played a slow sweet tune and then a trio of musicians played a lively tune that they recently learned in Spain. I was so happy to hear this music! The audience voted to determine which musician(s) should become the new court musicians. The trio of musicians won. However, the head of security, I think it was Thomas Seymour, had some questions for the musicians. He was suspicious about the musicians’ travels across Europe and decided to arrest them for further questioning. Alas! So the lutist won out. It was all very delightful to watch!

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After the drama of the court musicians, we decided to check out the fantastic gardens of Hampton Court. Directly behind the palace, there are perfectly manicured trees leading out (like spokes from a wheel) to a body of water. Each tree shaped a bit like a cone. The body of water had a gathering of geese, swans and ducks. Quite delightful. And then we decided to check out the full size hedge maze. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever been to another maze like this. The hedge walls go up fairly high so you can’t see over them. When we got into it, it was clear that there were families who seemed genuinely lost. Some were bickering about whether they had taken the turn before! Of course, they may have been lost for the sake of the children. But we’ll never know. We managed our way through it quickly with a few wrong turns.
Those conical trees!

Those conical trees!

We then tried to get to the last set of gardens on the other side of the palace. There are several rectangular gardens right next to each other. One is quite open with some hedges, flowers, and a nice fountain. A few were only accessible by sticking your head through a fence (metal or leafy) to see the garden. It made those gardens seem secret. We did see the longest grape vine that had been planted in 18th century. It took up such a large plot of land! I’d love to come when they are harvesting the grapes.
More manicured gardens

More manicured gardens

Then it was sadly time for us to depart. I was quite pleased with our time at Hampton Court. But we wanted to be back for a wine and cheese shindig at the Middle Temple with the rest of the Loyola London program. We boarded our train and went back to London.
That’s all for now! Tomorrow we’ll talk about the Natural History Museum and Fortnum and Mason’s tea.

Best Concerts 2014

I’m going to try something new. I’m going to talk about music. I haven’t really done a lot with this since I wasn’t sure I knew how to talk about music. But I’ll give it a try for my top nine list of best concerts of the year.

In no particular order:

  1. Carolina Chocolate Drops at the Blues Festival and City Winery

This all African-American blue grass group is so good I saw them twice in three days. I already had tickets for the City Winery (strange place with disappointing wine), when I heard they were also playing at the Blues Festival. Since the concert was free and I had time, I also went. Sure, they played most of the same songs but they are so good, that I didn’t care. The lead singer Rhiannon Giddons has such an amazing voice. And there is a bones (two small flat wooden sticks) duel. You have to love that. I will see them as many times as they are in Chicago.

  1. Nickel Creek at the Taste of Chicago

To clarify, this is not Nickelback. This is a folk band led by the fiddler Sarah Watkins, a regular on Prairie Home Companion. I was really excited about seeing her fiddle and sing and was not disappointed. The band was great, silly at times, serious at times. Well worth the trip through Taste to see them. One of their new songs, “Hayloft”, blew me away.

  1. Anna and Elizabeth at the University of Chicago Folk Festival

Yes, there is a lot of folk music on this list. It’s my preferred music right now. This duo wowed me at the Folk Festival. They’ve been collecting songs in the South, talking with old musicians, and bring that tradition to life. They also have a visual component to the show where they use a “cranky,” a scroll with pictures moved by a crank, to tell a story. I think my favorite song of theirs is “Sun to Sun” about working in a chain gang. It just blows me away every time.

  1. Arcade Fire at the United Center

There are few bands that I’d see in such a huge venue. Arcade Fire might be the only one. The show was great. The band marched in wearing giant papier mâché heads, like it was a giant party. They had dancers, sparkles, and flickering lights to accompany their amazing songs. My only disappointment was that they did not play “We Used to Wait.”

  1. My Brightest Diamond at Lincoln Hall

My Brightest Diamond was my find this year. I had tried to go see her play at Millennium Park but the rains came and canceled her concert. But the two and a half songs she played had me hooked. Her music is haunting with a touch of electronica. Her opening piece “Pressure” includes a marching band in each city she goes. In Chicago, she had the amazing Mucca Pazza play with her. So neat. During the Lincoln Hall concert, she wore a white suit with red sneakers, which is just awesome. She also is seems to be a very caring and thoughtful person who is willing to share the spotlight.

  1. Lúnasa at Old Town School of Folk Music

Lúnasa has been my favorite band for 14 years. They play traditional instrumental Irish music and they wow me every time I see them in concert. Their songs are simply marvelous examples of Irish music. Their stage presence is fun and delightful. This concert I learned that the fiddler Seán Smythe is not only this world renown fiddler, he is also a medical doctor. That’s just blows my mind every time I think about it.

  1. Nellie McKay at the Space

Nellie McKay is full of mischievous glee. She seems shy, she barely talked to the audience but that’s okay by me. Her songs are delightful and bitter at times. She plays piano and ukulele. At the end, she ended taking suggestions from the audience and played a medley of her best hits. I got to hear my favorite song “Caribbean Time” as part of the medley.

  1. Sarah Donner at a house concert

Sarah Donner is a singer songwriter on guitar. She is simply wonderful and thoughtful. She has witty songs like “The Rebuttal of Schrödinger’s Cat”, which imagines the response of the cat to this experiment. Her songs have some wonderful geek friendly themes but also many are about the Northeast too. Just lovely. Yes, the concert was in someone’s home which made the experience extremely intimate and fun.

  1. Ari Eisinger at the University of Chicago Folk Festival Workshop

I saw Ari Eisinger, a folk guitarist, as part of a workshop he held at the Festival about folk guitar. It actually got really technical; he talked about chords and whatnot with the audience members that was lost on me. But the two songs that he performed at the workshop earn a mention on this list. He seems to play songs that herald back to 1920s-1940s of folk music in the south. He’s simply magnificent. I hope I can hear him at full concert sometime in the near future.

Tomorrow, I’ll end on best movies in theater that I’ve seen this year.

That’s all!

City Alive with Dreams Concert

A few weeks ago, I mentioned the tremendous project by Carron Little called “City Alive with Dreams.” It is a multi-faceted project based on interviews about people’s nighttime dreams that she conducted on a weekly basis for at least a year. She wrote poetry based on the interviews and they were turned into wondrous songs. I had attended the first production of those songs. The choir performed at the Cultural Center last week where Carron Little is an Artist-in-Residence. Sadly, I missed the show since I was away. However, I was pleased to that I could make another performance of the work at the Hyde Park Art Center on Saturday.

It was being held in John Preus’ the Beast. It’s an art installation of a space within a room. He constructed this giant beast where the belly is a room that faces the outside. Within there are chairs, a chalkboard, even a swing made from old school desk chairs. There is even a little space to go upstairs. Inside the building but outside of the beast, you can actually see the head. The Beast is a meditation on public spaces. So it has a lot of events within it like “City Alive with Dreams.” If you are in the area, it’s worth checking out.

John Preus' The Beast

John Preus’ The Beast

It was one of those wonderfully serendipitous moments for the choral concert. One of the songs was based on a classic chasing dream. The song was about a giant beast pursuing the dreamer. Seemed appropriate given we were inside the beast. I love it when these incredible coincidences happen!

The concert began with the choir walking out slowly chanting. Each member was wearing a blue and pink mask. They were led by Carron Little as Queen of Luxuria. (In fact, each mask is composed of the negative space in the Queen of Luxuria’s outfit).

Queen of Luxuria conducting the concert

Queen of Luxuria conducting the concert

Then there was a single baritone signing hauntingly about a train pulling into the station. With his incredible voice, he communicated the dread and the fear of this train, constantly pulling in. For me, the song spoke largely of the nightmare of the Holocaust. This was the train to take people to their horrific dooms. The song was bone chilling and simply marvelous.

Another poem/song that resonated with me dealt with notion of the world being a stage. The singers painted a portrait of a house so vividly I felt like I could move between the rooms in my mind’s eye. At one point, there was the incredibly apt line, “The door is a proscenium.” For me this resonated strongly in general and with this series. This line suggests that everything is a stage; the most private is public. For me, this entire project is taking the private, dreams, and turning it into something strongly public. There is a strong commitment to presenting art in public spaces. I love that there have been multiple performances of these works at very different locations of the city: the Green Mill in Upton, the Cultural Center in the Loop, and the Hyde Park Art Center in Hyde Park.

Choir

The Choir and their masks

If you want to learn more about the project, here is the website of City Alive with Dreams.

I am so looking forward to the many other public performances from this series later this summer. I’ll keep you all informed of the schedule of events.

Review: White Snake

I went to see the Chinese fable White Snake at the Goodman Theatre. I really enjoyed it. The play was full of music and delight. I would recommend seeing it.

The story is about a White Snake who was searching for Enlightenment. She studied for thousands of years and developed magical powers. One restless evening, she decides with her rascally friend, the Green Snake, to leave their mountain and see the world. However, when they descend into the world as a young woman and her maid, the White Snake falls in love with a man. They marry and start an apothecary business. However, despite their good deeds, an evil Buddhist monk decides to take it upon himself to destroy their happy life together because it is “unnatural” that a snake spirit consort with a man.

The staging is simply magnificent. Both snakes are represented by snake puppets that are really well employed. They have their own wonderful distinct personalities (I have a real soft spot in my heart for Green Snake). They also used a series of green and white parasols also to represent the snake. Several people in a line would each hold a parasol and it would taper off into the tail, represented by one person holding two smaller ones. They would whirl around on stage. My favorite effect was when they simulated rain by gentle dropping dry grains of rice into a metal container while beautiful blue fabrics rolled down from the ceiling. Simply magical. There were also lanterns, and stilt walkers and live musicians. They also made use of projections onto the back wall that changed from lake sides to flowering trees to hide tides. Nice interplay of the projections and the wonderful fabrics throughout the play.

I can’t help to compare it with the Lookingglass production of The Little Prince I saw earlier this year. Both had this ethereal quality to it but I felt that there was something lacking in the Little Prince. The White Snake, on the other hand, felt complete. I’m not sure what it was. Maybe the acting was better in the White Snake and so I could feel the pain and joy of the characters while I could not connect with the characters in the Little Prince.

I like how this fable resonated with issues of the day. For instance, the basic premise of a happy family threatened by a person who felt threatened by their “unnatural relationship” seems very reminiscent of the debate over gay marriage. Moreover, I couldn’t help to see the feminist bent of the play. White Snake gets famous for her medicinal powers and a powerful monk gets jealous and decides to destroy her. Hard not to see some gender dynamics there. Like any good work, there are many wonderful ways to interpret the story.

So go on and see the play if you have a chance. It closes June 8th.

That’s all!

Part 3: Hiking in Wales

So there was one hike that I forgot to mention in my brief series of Hikes in Wales. On our very first night, we drove out to the Welsh town Llangollen (pronounced Clan-gloughlin). The town is next to a river near green soaring hills. There are canals where you can actually be towed by a horse.

We stayed at a little bed and breakfast where our hosts gave us tea and banana bread as a welcome. It was exactly what we wanted without us even knowing it was. While we feasted, we met these Australian hikers in their 50s and 60s who were doing a 100 mile (or maybe kilometer) hike through England. They’d hike several miles per day, moving from town to town along this path (not Hadrian’s wall but something like it.) That day was a  rest day so they were going to just explore the town. They were good folks.

We decided that we were going to go up to Castell Dinas Brin just before the sunset. The Australians applauded this and told us it would be about a 10 minute hike. Well, it took ups about 30-45 minutes.The Austrialians and the locals were much more savvy hikers than us. But it was a stunning hike. To get to the foot of the hill, we found the path between farm fields with sheep grazing in them. At one point, we did wander through a field with sheep munching away at the grass. They all had greenish/blue markings on their wool, presumably so farmers would distinguish their flock from others. They moved slowly away from us.

We got to the base of the hill and took the slightly winding path. It was a bit steep but nothing too hard for us. At the top, we were breathless, both from the hike and the view. We could see for miles of Dee Valley, full of the red and green hills, brilliant green fields, dark forests and the small towns of Wales. We could see all of Llangollen with its river and railroads. In one direction, it seemed misty as if a fog was moving in (and it was!). There were livestock all over the place and we could occasionally hear a “Moo” or “Baa” from cows and sheep.
The Dee Valley Elisa Shoenberger (c) 2013

The Dee Valley
Elisa Shoenberger (c) 2013

At the top of Castell Dinas Brin, there was actually the ruins of hillfort. According to one source, Dinas Brin means “Crow Castle.” There were just a few walls of rough rock jutting up. It kinda of looked like a mouth with missing teeth from below. The guidebook made the snarky comment that these weren’t the trip but the view was. We disagree; it was totally worth it. I think I finally understood the Romantics obsession with ruins.

Castel Dinas Brin Elisa Shoenberger (C) 2013

Castel Dinas Brin
Elisa Shoenberger (C) 2013

According to the Clwyd-Powys Archeological Trust, “The castle was built towards the later part of the 13th century by the princes of Powys Fadog and was the site of a meeting between the sons of Gryffydd Maelor in 1270 when they granted the lands of Maelor Saesneg for the upkeep of their mother, Emma Audley. During the wars between Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales and Edward I of England the castle was burnt by the Welsh before it was captured in 1277 by Henry de Lacy, earl of Lincoln. It was not repaired and ceased to be used after the 1280s.”
On the way down, we met some folks who were walking with their dog. It was pretty apparent that this was a daily activity of hiking up Dinas Brin everyday. It’s very impressive how easily they did it.
I hope that we’ll make it back to Llangollen one of these days. It seemed like a lovely town and I’d love to attend the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod.

Symphony of Chicago

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I recently discovered the delights of Roman Mars’ radio program 99% Invisible. For those who haven’t had a chance to check it out, it’s a program about design, architecture; basically, it’s about the small or large details that people thought about putting together that one normally misses. For instance, Ladislav Sutnar is the man who put parentheses in telephone area codes when they were introduced.

Anyway, as I make my way through the podcasts, there was one that struck my fancy. It’s about  Arseny Avraamov, a Soviet composer who believed that the city was a symphony. In 1923, he conducted from a Moscow roof with flags. There were factory sirens, cannons, and marches; the noises he knew from the city. He called the piece “Symphony of the Sirens.” However, there was a military parade so most people didn’t even know it was going on. He considered it the music of the future. This 30 minute clip claims to be a version of the work. It is just sounds of the city. I think it is beautiful and inspiring. I love cities and I especially love Chicago.

What got me thinking was that he believed that every city had its own symphony. Which made me wonder, what would the symphony of Chicago sound like?

Well, first and foremost, there would the sounds of the L: the recorded voice of the L train announcing the stops and the rumble of the El tracks over ground. There’d be the sound of construction and ambulance sirens. There’d be the sounds of protests and ethnic parades like the Pakistani and Irish parades. The chatter and slap of feet in Michigan Avenue and State Street would have to be included. Then I’d include the sounds of many religious services in different languages from Ukrainian Village, Pilsen and more. There’d be the tolling of bells in the churches in Ukrainian Village and the sound of bagpipes. There would be the noise of airplanes landing and taking off and maybe the announcements from Metra trains. The cheers and booes of both stadiums would be natural. And some organ music and strains of the blues.

On a somber note, there would have to be gun fire since that is a part of the experience of many Chicagoans.  On a happier note, there’d be the calls of the tamale man, the twinkle of those paleta carts and the Ice Cream Truck jingles. There would be voices of local anchor-people talking about the latest scandals. And there would definitely be people cursing out: Ventra, the parking meters, and the cold. The sound of an open fire hydrant and of course, the howling of the wind in the winter. I’d include the fireworks at Navy Pier and the far away strains of the symphony over the hot summer wind.

And there would have to be someone who pronounces the s in Illinois.

What sounds am I missing from this grand city of ours?