The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston)
February 19, 2009
The breadth and diversity of cultural experiences available here
in Boston is amazing. So perhaps it should not surprise me that I
could walk four minutes beyond my front door to find myself
transported to another
world in the sumptuously-appointed Tapestry Room of the
Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, listening to a hauntingly
anachronistic yet infectiously lively performance of… circus
music. (But surprise me it does!)
One must clarify what we mean by circus music. “What makes
it circus music,” writes bandleader, accordionist, and former
clown Peter Bufano in the concert program, “is that I wrote
it for the circus.” What he means is that their music has
nothing in common with Thunder and Blazes
or Wurlitzer band organs. It is a study of circus music from
multifarious regions and traditions. Middle eastern grooves give
way to strains of jazz. Klezmer becomes Turkish. The waltzes are
dark and creepy but swinging—minor-key reminders of the
festive and more intimate circuses of the past.
Bufano’s expressive accordion pairs nicely with the
complementary timbre of Käthe Louise Hostetter’s
five-string fiddle. Michael Dobson’s drumming is subtle
but complex and peppered with occasional novelty sounds. Michael
Milnarik holds things together on the tuba while Sammy Lett lets
loose with sweet staccato sax solos. Sublime.
Cirkestra, like the circus, is meant to be enjoyed live, but
their records are pretty impressive too. Check them
Winters as cold and snowy as this one cry out for a long and thought-provoking winter book.
I finished re-reading Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale the other day, and only
today’s 40-degree heat wave has managed to break the contemplative spell in which it left me.
The book may be a paean to New York, a morality tale, or a treatise on beauty and justice, but it’s also a window—a window
through which we can see not just the struggles of another time, but the way in which humanity
struggles against everything which it cannot know or control in blind pursuit of ideals, principles, happiness, and survival.
Living as I do in an engineer’s world of specificity and detail, it is humbling to
consider the city on such a scale. But Helprin’s gift is to make it seem
magical and effortless, like the passing of the seasons.
Photo: Self-portrait at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, 2008.
Orpheum Theatre (Boston)
30 January 2009
After a lukewarm but warmly-received opening by the Swedish
indie-folk group Lonely Dear, amidst a constant shuffle of activity
to and from the bathroom (blame the $10 cups of Harpoon IPA!),
Andrew Bird appeared alone on stage wearing a dark suit. He played
a few notes on the violin, or perhaps even a whole tune—I
don’t remember—but he earned his second round of
applause when he leaned down to untie his shoes. Those bright red
socks must be the source of his musical powers.
Boston was stop number two on the Noble Beast tour. Some of the
numbers were a little rough around the edges, with several false
starts, tuning problems, and frequent on-stage appearances by a
tracksuit-clad guitar tech. Bird, ever the perfectionist,
apologized if it seemed that the band was “playing stickball
in a sandlot,” but nobody minded at all. The show simply
The concert climaxed at the first encore, when Bird re-appeared
alone to pluck, bow, and wail his way through a complex and
version of “Why?” The muse had clearly possessed
him: his violin exuded virtuosity and his pipes became inexplicably
calibrated to deliver a maximum of raw emotion. The audience was on
their feet and the air was electric—boisterous men stood
mostly silent, languid women swayed, and a few girls near the front
of the house interjected screams like they were on the brink of
ripping their clothes off.
Verdict: see it if
Happy New Year!
After years of thinking about it, I finally checked out
Boston’s First Night festivities. What a fantastic array of
arts and culture events to attend, all within walking distance of
one another! Here are some notes:
The Post-Meridian Radio Players
The two radio dramas performed by this Somerville-based theatre
troupe were awesome! The acting was excellent and the technical
backup (a combination of live foley and pre-recorded effects) was
flawless. The first performance, “Countdown to Chaos!”
is a modern mash-up of 1930’s and 40’s science fiction.
The second, “Chicken Heart,” is an original 1937 NBC
radio program. Watching a radio show live on stage—complete
with fake commercials and campy humor—takes some adjustment,
but it’s a great time. Thanks to Rhode for suggesting
Light and Serious Music for Organ
This AGO-sponsored concert,
held at the Arlington Street Church, featured three performers at
the helm of a very nice Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ. The first
organist, Brink Bush, performed the most technically complex
pieces: Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G Major and the powerful
finale from Widor’s Symphony No. 6. He
was followed by Fredrick Guzasky, who apparently teaches piano at
MIT. He provided the “light” part of the concert, which
included an arrangement of John Williams’s “Theme from
Jurassic Park.” Lois Toeppner concluded the show, and
although I didn’t like any of her pieces (Mendelssohn?) I
think I preferred her style of playing. Frankly I was expecting
Fox moments, and there were none. These players were subdued
but quite competent.
We arrived at this concert about two minutes before its midnight
conclusion, so I can hardly say much about the band (the program
promised “woozy pictures of Kerouacian misadventures”).
But I liked the way they built a musical groove around the
Other thoughts about First Night: the events run like clockwork,
starting and ending almost exactly as promised. That’s pretty
impressive. But our attempts to get drinks in between events were
less successful. There are surprisingly few bars within walking
distance of the events, and a good majority of them were charging
astronomical covers ($25?!) or completely closed to the general
public. If I do this again, I’m bringing a flask.
Saw Andrew Bird and Wilco at Tanglewood last night. They run a
tight ship over there—Bird stepped onstage promptly at the
advertised time of 6:30. He launched into a couple of solo numbers
which began with his signature pizzicato violin, to which he added
layers (thanks to loop pedals) of bowing, singing, and his
prodigious whistling punctuated with some occasional glockenspiel.
His band joined him on stage for the rest of the set, which was
brilliant, weird, and excitingly fresh. The crowd was fuller and an
order of magnitude more energized for the main act, Wilco, which
was surprising because Wilco’s show, while very good, was
considerably less inspired. I had read that Wilco is famous for
being stylistically diverse. Perhaps that is true of their
recordings, but on stage, they happily embrace the strutting
personas of arena rock stars hammering through their catalog of
Tanglewood, by the way, is the most fabulous and distinctive
venue for rock shows I’ve ever seen, for several reasons: It
is a beautiful location. It has pretty remarkable acoustics (for a
shed). The security is friendly and unobtrusive—no bag checks
or pat-downs—and the few cops I spotted were chatting
boisterously with concertgoers. You can BYOB (or anything else you
want). Vendors sell only reasonably-priced beer and ice cream from
local New England suppliers (Ben & Jerry’s, Magic Hat,
Sam Adams). The grounds are meticulously clean. Parking is easy.
Restrooms are plentiful. And strangely enough for a rock show,
there is not a single piece of advertising anywhere—just you,
nature, a stage, and music. Now if only you didn’t have to