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Of cakes, biscuits and – oh, yes – focus

Have you ever tried to make a really magnificent cake from scratch?  Well, have you?  And how did it turn out?  That bad, yeah.  Some years ago, I, master of the oven, regent of icing, genius of the cake pans, decided I could make a Black Forest Cake.  For company.  If you’ve never enjoyed this masterpiece, a Black Forest Cake is composed of layers and layers of wonderfully rich cake interspersed with fillings of chocolate and nuts and fruit and pure magic and the whole thing’s topped with this chocolate icing that becomes a shiny, beautiful glaze.  There’s just one small problem:  it helps to know what you’re doing.  Four plus hours into this project, I had gone through most of the pots and bowls in my kitchen, there was chocolate everywhere and I was no closer to the imagined masterpiece than I had been when weighing the ingredients (oh yes, did I mention that this was a European recipe and the ingredients were given by weight?).  Sorry, guys, it’s chocolate ice cream over Oreos for dessert.  To quote a celebrity:  “So sad.”

But telling the story of my disastrous cake brought to mind the memory of my sainted mother – she with a degree in mathematics, minor in Greek; she who could make the world’s best roast beef and fried chicken – she whose biscuits would be coveted by the NHL as totally indestructible.  So maybe it’s genetic (not the math and Greek part).  My mother and I were not destined to bake wonderful things.  Or maybe it’s just a matter of focus.

…I had gone through most of the pots and bowls in my kitchen, there was chocolate everywhere and I was no closer to the imagined masterpiece than I had been when weighing the ingredients.

I have become convinced over the years of listening to and thoroughly enjoying musical compositions that are truly works of genius, that the secret of that genius, much like the secret of producing something as magical as a Black Forest Cake or a perfect biscuit, has something to do with the ability to focus.  Consider, for example:  Beethoven became deaf but could still compose music.  How?  His mind was such that he could not only remember sounds, but he could concentrate, focus on what he wanted to write.  I’m certain that the ability to do this involved enormous effort and powers of memory.

As you know, a great genius of our present day has just died. Stephen Hawking is another example of my thesis.  In his lifetime, he progressively lost the ability to express his genius by usual means, and yet he wrote books explaining some of the most complex concepts of the universe.  He couldn’t test concepts with his peers in the usual back and forth of creative conversation; he had a means of communication, but it was limited.  How much of what he thought was lost?  How much of what Beethoven heard in his mind was lost?  How much genius resides, untapped and unspoken, in the brains of geniuses?

Focus is the power to concentrate, to bring the mental powers we all possess to a greater or lesser degree, to the problem of musical composition or the power to intellectualize the workings of the cosmos.  Focus is also the ability that allows us mere mortals to appreciate the genius of music, the genius of beauty, the genius of astrophysics.

Focus is also the ability that allows us mere mortals to appreciate the genius of music, the genius of beauty, the genius of astrophysics.

And how many Black Forest cakes are out there, just waiting for me to bring my sterling intelligence and focus to bear on the task of creation?

– E Doyle

Review: The Brass Masters

You could have spent last Sunday glued to the television and watching the Oscar hoopla – or you could have enjoyed some real talent at the American Brass Quintet concert.  You could have paid homage to the little gold-plated statue at the Oscars – or you could have enjoyed some real, honest-to-goodness brass, learned something about canons (no, not the kind that fire cannon balls) and listened to music and poetry that go right to the heart.  You could have.

Just in case someone stole your pickup truck with your favorite hound in it, or Aunt Mattie over in Floresville was stuck in a tree, or your flu had come back so bad you couldn’t raise your head from the pillow – just in case, you poor soul, you missed this concert, I’ll be kind and tell you what you missed:

First there’s just the sound, the Temple-filling, soul-filling sound of five brass instruments.  Think about this:  can you imagine what honey or molten gold would sound like if they could sound?  Well, that’s what these five instruments in concert sounded like.  The tones and the harmonies blended and then flowed separately, then blended again.  You would have heard centuries’ worth of songs, music that would have been familiar to Queen Elizabeth I or King James I; music that would have been heard in old St. Petersburg; music that celebrates the common man and the joy of the everyday in the 20th century.

Can you imagine what honey or molten gold would sound like if they could sound?  Well, that’s what these five instruments in concert sounded like.

And there was a special treat:  music composed around a breathtakingly poignant poem by Carmen Tafolla, San Antonio’s own poet laureate.  The poem spoke ever so simply and ever so eloquently of the river, our river and, as recited by the author, it would have just broken your heart.  The music, composed by James Balentine, was equally simple and eloquent.  Performed as it was by this particular group, the music spun out the story of the poem in a universal language of pure beauty.  By the way, it was also a world premiere of the work and was commissioned for San Antonio’s 300th birthday. Take that, Hollywood!

And then the canons of the 16th century.  Imagine the great castle halls and the cathedrals with this glorious music resounding in the vast spaces.  Imagine the pleasure of following the musical lines through their twists and turns, counterpoints and harmonies, understanding the inherent structure where there seems to be none.  How do they do that?  I think it’s magic, pure and simple.  Finally, the composition by American composer Eric Ewazen, a work dedicated to the American Brass Quintet on the occasion of their 30th anniversary, demonstrated the artistry and complete versatility of these five musicians.  In three movements, the music went from languid to playful to joyous to sonorous.  Pick your adverb; it was all of that and more.

Michael Powell, the ABQ trombonist, described brass players as “plumbers,” since their artistry depends on pipes and tubes and conduits, but I assure you that if the ABQ are plumbers, then I am in line for a Pulitzer.  Just sayin’. No, these gentlemen, all teachers of the next generation of premiere artists, are truly brass masters.  Don’t say I didn’t tell you…

In three movements, the music went from languid to playful to joyous to sonorous. Pick your adverb; it was all of that and more.

And don’t forget the last concert of this exceptional, sparkling season:  the Orion String Quartet, a group that has become the standard of excellence in the world of chamber music, will perform April 15th at Laurel Heights United Methodist Church, 227 W. Woodlawn (corner Belknap).  Buy Aunt Mattie a ladder and be there!

– E Doyle

 

Trees

Bear with me, please:  I’m off on yet another tangent and I ask your kind indulgence.  The subject is trees.  My dad loved his trees and I suppose, therefore, that there is something genetic about the love of trees because I love my trees, too.

Let’s talk about oak trees, those friendly stalwarts of the South Texas landscape.  They live to an incredible old age and faithfully tolerate tire swings hung from limbs, small children climbing where their mother’s expressly forbade (as in, “Don’t you dare climb up that tree and if you do, I’ll kill you!”), the pure beauty of Christmas lights and piñatas and the indignity of generations of cats, squirrels, raccoons and dogs with a death wish clawing their way up the trunk.  Standing close to an oak tree, you can’t help wonder how many people how long ago have enjoyed the beauty of this very tree.  How many storms has it weathered, how many droughts have sent its roots ever deeper into the earth?  How many generations of birds have called it home? This and more:  have you ever noticed areas of worn bark about 4 feet up on oak trees?  If the tree is very old, that comes from cows and horses rubbing against the tree, scratching what itches and smoothing the bark in the process.

Standing close to an oak tree, you can’t help wonder how many people how long ago have enjoyed the beauty of this very tree.

I grew up with oak trees and experienced their welcoming shade and shelter.  There was no better place to be when one needed to ponder the deeply serious problems of adolescence than at the base of an oak tree.  Being of Irish heritage, I was also pretty sure that “my oak trees” housed leprechauns in their roots.   I remember that, during droughts, my dad would carry buckets of water from the barn to the trees to help them survive.  In return, the oak trees gave my family never-failing beauty.  Now I live in a neighborhood that was once an oak grove; this land was once on the banks of a creek and, historians say, was part of the ranch that was home to the vaqueros of the missions and their herds.  There are huge oak trees lining our streets and gracing our yards and, yes, I’ve found the tell-tale signs of cattle and horses rubbing their imprints into the bark.

Developers tend to take down these wonderful, old trees and replace them with fast-growing intruders that can’t survive our climate for more than a few years.  It will take much patience and probably many generations of homeowners to see the results of a new oak tree.  That phrase doesn’t even look right; “new oak tree”?  What’s that?

But I’m not done, you’ll be so very happy to know.  Let’s talk laurels.  We call them “mountain laurels” in these parts, but they have nothing whatsoever to do with mountains.  Our treasured little laurel trees (aka, Sophora secundiflora) love our limestone-enriched soil and, with their wonderful flowers and scent, give us the hope of spring.  My experience with laurels goes back a few generations (it’s the old DNA thing again).  My grandmother planted laurels from seeds and nurtured them so that when I was a child, I knew them as a part of our home landscape.  As an adult, I decided to buy a house on the basis of a 30-foot tall laurel growing in the front yard with a grove of her children nestled around her.  (Did I mention that laurel trees are female?)  I wasn’t as concerned about the stability of the home’s foundation or the beauty of its design, but it was love at first sight for that laurel tree.  Years later, when I was terribly ill, I used to think that as long as that laurel tree was there to keep an eye on things, I would survive.  It did and I did.

…when I was terribly ill, I used to think that as long as that laurel tree was there to keep an eye on things, I would survive. It did and I did.

There’s another feature of laurel trees that, if you didn’t grow up here, you may not know:  laurel trees produce these beautiful bright red berries.  They’re not edible – in fact, they’re poison – but if you are a mischievous child bent on revenge, you could take the berry, rub it vigorously on concrete (think sidewalk) and then apply it smartly to the arm of your big brother who had been bullying you.  It burns like fury when properly prepared.

I haven’t even started on mesquite trees, pecans and chinaberries.  Perhaps a later walk through the woods?  But aren’t trees really incredible?  Just think about it:  shelter, beauty, sound, scent and a symbol of continuity and strength.  Poems, music and art have all praised trees and with good reason:  just like poems, music and art, trees are gifts to be treasured.

And speaking of treasures, there’s that music – you knew I’d get there, didn’t you?  There are two glorious concerts remaining in this our 75th season:  the American Brass Quintet (March 4th) and the Orion String Quartet (April 15th: at Laurel Heights United Methodist Church, don’t forget).  We are not quite as old as my favorite oak trees, but with your continued support and attendance at these delightful concerts, we may just endure.

– E Doyle

WOW10th!

What can I say that hasn’t already been said about the fabulous Chanticleer.  It is simply hard to believe that 12 men can produce the music, sounds, sheer entertainment that this group so ably can.  I sincerely hope you were at the San Antonio Chamber Music Society’s January 21st presentation of Chanticleer.  Only 500+ music lovers filled Temple Beth-El for this alternately moving, sentimental, humorous concert – and everyone left humming the encore presentation, “Bei mir bist du Schön.”

The true art of Chanticleer is the production of a musical fabric, in this case “Heart of a Soldier.”  The first songs dated from the 14th Century to the 20th, and covered battle-connected poetry and songs created through all those ages.  Chanticleer wove these into a fabric with voices blending and moving through scales of harmonies.  As I listened, I realized that what Chanticleer was weaving was a tapestry:  each thread with a voice, each voice with a color.  The whole cloth told stories of praise, of fear, of reliance on a greater power and of comradery.

Chanticleer was weaving was a tapestry:  each thread with a voice, each voice with a color.

Still keeping with their theme of soldiers’ hearts, the second half of the program moved into the 20th century with wartime popular music that (for some of us elders in the audience) brought back visions of the Andrews Sisters as well as of Peter, Paul and Mary.  Their rendition of “My Buddy” tugged at my own memories of military funerals, red poppies in lapels and the solemn white markers at Arlington.  “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” was a Vietnam-era song, so poignant in its simplicity and so meaningful to all the young men and young women who faced tragedy in those years.  Chanticleer made a hymn to peace out of Pete Seeger’s pop song.

As we all knew, this was a concert that would be special – and indeed it was.  It elicited a range of emotions just as the voices of these remarkable musicians created a range of harmonies.  The fact that they were also performing in several languages simply attests to their skill.  I hope you were there to enjoy this most remarkable vocal concert.

And don’t forget another concert that promises a wonderful afternoon of musical bliss:  the American Brass Quintet performs for our 75th season March 4th at Temple Beth-El.  Having experienced the magic of 12 incredible voices, you won’t want to miss the magic of these wizards of brass!  Remember, you can use any ticket from this season’s concerts or bonus tickets for either the American Brass or Orion String Quartet on April 15th at Laurel Heights United Methodist Church.  Hope to see you there!

– E Doyle

The Kings and I

I was enjoying myself in France the other day and while in the Loire Valley happened on some of the most gorgeous chateaus in all the world.  They had been the property, in the XIV Century, of two remarkable regents, their queens, their favorite ladies and an assortment of friends, progeny and others to whom was owed vast sums of money. The chateaus are filled with crystal chandeliers, tapestries and precious furnishings – and cold.  Really, it’s no wonder that progeny were so numerous:  everyone was just trying to stay warm!

In France, you could start in the 13th Century with Louis IX and work your way slowly (and painfully) through all the Phillipes, the Charles, the Louises and the Henris, but it is très confusing!  So for clarity’s sake, let’s begin with François1ierAn imposing person, he stood a smidge over six feet tall – and remember, s’il vous plait, this was the Fifteenth Century, when you were considered “tall” if you measured about five feet six.  How do I know this?  Well, about the fourth time I banged my head on a castle lintel, I figured it out:  either people walked around all bent over or very bruised; in fact, one of the French kings smacked himself on a lintel and died of brain injury.

 

Anyway, back to Francis I.  He was born two years after Columbus touched the shores of what would become the New World.  He married Claude of Brittany, his cousin, when he was 20 and upon the death of his uncle,  Louis XII, her father, became King of France.  Now ponder this:  here’s a very young man with very limited knowledge of his world and his times, not even raised to be a ruler, and suddenly, he’s one of the most powerful people in Europe and, arguably, much of the rest of the known world.  Furthermore, he may have been one of the first true “Renaissance Men.”  As he matured – and fathered seven children – his interests ranged across a wide spectrum:  art, architecture, poetry, foreign relations, philosophy and letters.

His dearest friend was none other than Leonardo da Vinci who accepted Francis’ invitation to come to Amboise, bringing with him a few paintings he had dashed off:   the Mona Lisa, Saint John the Baptist and The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.

His dearest friend was none other than Leonardo da Vinci who accepted Francis’ invitation to come to Amboise, bringing with him a few paintings he had dashed off:   the Mona Lisa, Saint John the Baptist and The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.  Leonardo received 1,000 gold crowns each year, but his true worth during those years at Blois was the counsel and friendship he provided to Francis.  Leonardo may have been the mastermind behind one of Francis’ most extravagant projects, the magnificent Chateau de Chambord. He died at Amboise in 1519, leaving us to wonder what other marvels were percolating in his fruitful brain.

Francis died at the age of 52, and again one can only wonder what this most interesting man could have accomplished had he been given a few more years.

But on  (or, a continuer, as we say in France) with my new friends, the Kings of France.  Francis’ son, Henri II, succeeded Francis in 1547 – and here was another most interesting person.  As a child, Henri and his older brother were held hostage in Spain for four years in exchange for their father who had had the misfortune to lose a battle to Charles V.  His older brother, the Dauphin, purportedly died after a game of tennis (I’d love to know who he was playing, wouldn’t you?) and so Henri was crowned in 1547.  He was already married to Catherine of Medici – yes, one of those Medicis.  He spent a great deal of his reign in wars, intrigues and your basic 15th Century turmoil, but still found time to initiate a patent law to protect inventions, produce 10 children with Catherine plus three children with three mistresses.  But his long-time and most famous favorite was the beautiful (if a touch greedy) Diane de Poitiers, 15 years his senior, to whom he gave the Castle at Chenonceau, among other properties.  He also raised the future Mary Queen of Scots at his court:  at 15, she was married to Henri’s son, Francis Duke of Anjou.  So, you see how all of these fabulous people lived intertwined lives and politics and wars, marriages and liaisons make our own era seem a little anemic?

But I digress.  Excusez- moi.  Henri II also experienced an interesting leave-taking from this earth.  He was to joust with a Scottish knight and, in a show of disrespect for the Grim Reaper, he decided to do so without using the armor that covered his face.  Score one for the Reaper:  the knight’s lance went into his eye and a few days later, Henri II was no more.  And furthermore, Catherine de Medici extracted her revenge on Diane de Poitiers, turning her out of Chenonceau, but “awarding” her Chaumont, an estate heavily in debt.

Walking through these fairy-tale castles in the Loire Valley, I thought I caught a whiff of very old wood smoke every now and then.  It was probably my imagination, but there was also a very faint sound of viola de gamba and footsteps on the stairs.  As the chandeliers glistened and danced in an unfelt breeze, it occurred to me that these great homes are haunted – I certainly hope so!

On January 21st, as I enjoy the ethereal sound of Chanticleer, I am going to think of my kings and their lavish homes, their incredible lives that have resounded through the centuries and enriched imaginations for 500 years.  I think Chanticleer’s voices echoing through the Temple will fit right in, don’t you?

– E Doyle

The Mystery Program

I know you were shuffling through your program notes at Sunday’s concert.  I saw you.  You had no idea what Pacifica String Quartet – let alone Sharon Isbin – would be performing next, and, like me, you feel insecure when you don’t know who the composer is, how many movements there will be, when it will be time to applaud (or get caught out as the only person in the room who is doing so).  I know.  But I will let you in on a little behind-the-scenes wizardry/witchery that went on about an hour before the doors opened at 3:00.

You know that Pacifica and Sharon Isbin are incredibly talented musicians, right?  They don’t give those Grammys away like marshmallows at a camp out.  So about an hour before the concert began, first violin Simin Ganatra told a few of the board members that Pacifica and Ms. Isbin would like to make some changes in the program.  They would rearrange the sequences and could throw in a few surprises, if that would be ok.  And I’m standing there thinking, “Good grief!  What kind of versatility does it take to change a whole program only an hour before a  performance?!  How can they have practiced and prepared a whole basket of music that they can just draw out at will and perform?!”

... about an hour before the concert began, first violin Simin Ganatra told a few of the board members that Pacifica and Ms. Isbin would like to make some changes in the program. They would rearrange the sequences and could throw in a few surprises...

So that’s how the program got shuffled.  Now you know.  And I’ll bet you know something else, as well.  Pacifica has earned its stellar reputation for precision, lyricism and, yes, pure enjoyment.  Theirs is an almost ethereal  joy in performance, and tell me you didn’t really feel the pathos of the third movement of the Haydn.  The composer himself would have cried.

And then there’s Sharon Isbin.  It’s difficult for me not to repeat what’s been written time and time again about her uncanny ability to elicit thoughts of a Spain that we all imagined:  white marble, the scent of oranges, the swirly of color in dancers’ skirts and the haunting loneliness of a midnight street in Barcelona.  All of these and more ran through my mind as I listened to the brilliant tones and the smoky echoes of her truly magical guitar.  Centuries of exquisite sounds and rhythms tumbled out.  It was pure magic, don’t you agree?

I’m so glad you were there to enjoy this extraordinary concert with me, and I hope you’ll come back for more.   The New York based ensemble, Rebel Baroque, will weave more magic with the help of flutist Matthias Maute November 12.  I promise enchantment.

– E Doyle

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