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Blanca Stella

How do you feel about summer?  Not the sweltering, where’s-the-next-air-conditioned-space summer, but perhaps the summers you remember from your past .  What about the summers that the song, “Summertime” bring to mind?  You know:  “Summertime,  and the living is easy…”  That kind of summer.  Think, for a minute, about the summers that included, perhaps, a beach, lazy surf, sandy towels, sand castles that were presented to the tide and, of course, seashells.  Is there a better occupation than strolling along an early morning beach, eyes downward, checking out the treasures the night tides have brought ashore?

You might have surmised by now that I am deep in beach reveries – and why not?  It’s summer, after all!  With Debussy’s beautiful melody in the recesses of my mind, I would like to share with you my very favorite beach reminiscence.

I was living in Brazil, a country whose coast is decorated with some of the world’s most beautiful beaches.  Specifically, I’m remembering the beaches closer to Sao Paulo than Rio, not the giddy revelry of Copacabana nor the bikini exhibitionists of Ipanema.  No, the beaches I’m thinking about have wonderful, silly names like Ubatuba.  There are no – or few – tourists and sometimes, no one at all.  The water is an unbelievable aquamarine (hence, the name of that gorgeous stone from Brazil) and it is just the right temperature for an utterly lazy summer float.  The sand is golden and, if you’re lucky, studded with sand dollars and little bright pink slipper shells.

So the stage is now set for the arrival of Blanca Stella.  Her family set up shop near my personal stretch of beach and soon, I heard Spanish being spoken – specifically Spanish with a distinctive Chilean accent.  As you know, Portuguese is the language of Brazil, so to hear Spanish on this rather remote Brazilian beach caught my notice.  Among the family members was a little girl, maybe four or five years old, who was called (often and sharply) Blanca Stella.  Now this is one of my very favorite names:  it means “white star” and the few people I’ve known who have carried it have been unfailingly interesting.  This little Blanca Stella was clearly a miscreant:   she didn’t want suntan lotion, she didn’t want a hat, she wanted only to get into that aquamarine water.  She flipped her long, black hair in an emphatic “NO!” when her mother suggested waiting a bit, and she was off like a shot, her father trudging through the sand in her wake.
Among the family members was a little girl, maybe four or five years old, who was called (often and sharply) Blanca Stella. Now this is one of my very favorite names: it means “white star” and the few people I’ve known who have carried it have been unfailingly interesting.

I went over to say hello to her mother.  I asked where they were from and, indeed, the answer was, “Chile.”  But she added that they were living in Brazil, owing to her husband’s military assignment.  Friends had told them about this wonderful beach on the kind edge of the Atlantic, and they decided to come see it.  Of course, Blanca Stella was very excited about a day at the beach.   It had been a long time since they’d been to a beach, and in Chile, the beaches tend to be very rocky and the water very cold.  So here they were – at “my” beach, but I was glad to share it with the family of beautiful, ecstatic Blanca Stella.

As the day settled into one of those bright, golden days that only happen on a Brazilian beach, picnics were eaten and everyone settles into a post-prandial languor of listening to the tide and watching the sea birds stitch the water.  Everyone, of course, except for Blanca Stella – and she wanted to run back to the water.  By now, her black hair was spangled with sand but she still resisted any attempt at a hat.  I offered to walk along the beach with her.  I was hoping we would see a little rivulet down the beach a way where I knew there was a colony of sand crabs.  I was thinking everyone likes to watch sand crabs as they scurry into their holes, then cautiously peek out, then ever so carefully emerge to grab a pebble or a bit of sand.  I think sand crabs are wonderful, but Blanca Stella lost interest at crab three or four.  So we headed back towards her family, but were stopped in our tracks by a conch shell that the tide had just brought in.  Still shining from the water, it was a rare jewel to find on this beach.

Blanca Stella lost interest at crab three or four.  So we headed back towards her family, but were stopped in our tracks by a conch shell that the tide had just brought in.

Of course, Blanca Stella ran over to it, picked it up fearlessly and asked, “Que es esto?” (What’s this?) I took it from her, checked it carefully for occupants, then held it to my ear. I said to Blanca Stella, “This is how you hear the sea.” Her dark eyes widened, partially in disbelief and partially in wonder, and she held out her hands to hold the treasure. She put it to her ear, and I asked her, “What do you hear?” After a moment of intense concentration, she sang to me what she heard.

“La cucaracha, la cucaracha, ya no puede caminar…” and then she danced to her own music, the shell still clasped to her ear.

So here is a beach treasure for you. I hope you enjoyed Blanca Stella and her personal shell music as much as I did. And while on the subject of treasures, of course: have you sent in your subscription for the treasure of a stellar music season that’s on the horizon from the San Antonio Chamber Music Society? This is our 75th Anniversary season, you know, and it will sparkle like the shells and the beautiful water of Ubatuba.

– E Doyle

En train – literally

Your fearless blogger has indeed dared a train ride, but a very special one.  This was the Rocky Mountaineer which slithers sensuously through Canada’s snow fields, glaciers and, oh yeah, mountains.  Ten days of ooh-ing and ah-ing at gorgeous scenery, bears, elk and big horn sheep, but nearly spoiled by music, of all things.

Now I want you to understand that I am not a snob and can usually get along with just about anyone.  With that proviso in mind, also note that a cluster of really drunk Aussies can spoil even the most magnificent scenery (my fault for not have noise abatement equipment – but it never occurred to me I might need it on a train, of all things).  So here’s the story:

Cruising along in quiet – no train noise at all (remember this is Canadian Pacific, not Amtrak) – seated in a very comfortable, heated seat (no, really) with a glass of Canada’s Okanagan wine on the tray table, we are watching eagles and osprey enjoying themselves dipping and swooping above us and various ungulates grazing calmly on mountainsides, seemingly unaware that one misstep would spell disaster and totally nonplused by the train.  Occasionally, we descend to the dining car and you know what they say about train food:  fattening and utterly delicious.  Blueberry pancakes made with fresh berries, salmon that the day before was leaping in the frigid river.  Does it get any better?

Ten days of ooh-ing and ah-ing at gorgeous scenery, bears, elk and big horn sheep, but nearly spoiled by music, of all things.

Enter the Aussies.  They seem to have collectively decided to drink themselves blind drunk.  They counted up 29 empty bottles of Bailey’s Irish Cream, and there were only about ten of them.  Do the math.  So what does a group of drunken Aussies do when they’re feeling their spirits?  They sing, of course.  And what do they sing?  Waltzing Matilda, of course.  Over and over and over.  I was reminded of a long-ago account of Panamanian ex-dictator, Manuel Noriega, who was held in a prison in Panama City.  He was in solitary confinement and his captors ardently wished to have information about some drug smuggling he’d been engaged in.  No luck: he wasn’t talking.  So he received piped-in music.   He was bombarded with screeching sounds of some long-forgotten grunge rockers, played over and over again.  He cracked.  Such is the power of music!

Well, it was still a memorable trip and I really hope that none of our traveling companions went overboard on their subsequent Alaska cruise (or were put out on a glacier to reprieve Waltzing Matilda).  As we went along, I thought of the wonderful music of Sibelius and Grieg.  They who were accustomed to snow and glaciers and could transcribe this scenery into immortal music.  And now that we’re back in good ol’ H&H (that’s hot and humid) Texas, I think I’ll put the mostly magical train trip in my memory bank and turn my attention to anticipation of a truly sterling set of performances I will thoroughly enjoy come SACMS’ silver anniversary season.  Please do look at the web site, SACMS.org, to see the wonders in store.  If you should hear any faint strains of Waltzing Matilda, just have a nice glass of wine and ignore the Philistines.

– E Doyle

The Moment

Everyone who has ever attended a symphony performance has experienced it:  that crystal moment that quivers in the air right after the house lights dim and just before the conductor walks on stage.  It’s a moment of anticipation, it is delicious.  A few people are still chattering, but for the most part, everyone is quiet, focused on the stage and the musicians.  The musicians may be running the first bars of the music through their minds, thinking about the sounds they are about to produce.  Do you know the first selection to be performed?  If so, you too may be running the melody through your mind in glorious anticipation of what you are about to hear; if not, you may feel the expectation that you will hear music that will open your mind and create an emotional response.  The maestro arrives, picks up his baton; instruments come to shoulders, chins, lips and there is a collective response from the audience.  Some sit forward, straining to see; some relax back into their seats, awaiting that first wonderful measure.   Every performance is the same.  Every performance is unique.

And then there is the moment just before a performance of chamber music – so different from an orchestral performance.  Three or four or five musicians walk onto the stage, arrange their music stands, perhaps tune their instruments to one another – and then it happens:  the moment of anticipation, of the sure confidence that you are about to hear magic.  Symphonic musicians read a score; chamber musicians read one another’s mind.  You know that from this small group you are about to hear sounds that will evoke a smile as a familiar sonata is performed or that will astonish you with the fresh air of new music.

Symphonic musicians read a score; chamber musicians read one another’s mind.

We often talk about conversations among musicians as they perform.  For orchestral musicians, the conversation occurs between sections – the violins pick up the cellos’ theme, the horns echo the strings.  For chamber musicians, each one is precisely attuned to the other.  You could call it a “neat trick,” but actually it represents hours and hours of practice, of listening to one another and adding just the right color with his instrument, be it voice, viola, piano or clarinet.  Chamber musicians must develop an intuitive knowledge of musical emotions and then be able to express this knowledge at the right moment.

It has been our great pleasure to enchant you with remarkable music this season.  We have been performing magic for 74 years, but the musicians and music we present are fresh, memorable and thoroughly enjoyable.  As for me, I love that wonderful moment of anticipation just before a concert begins.  It is a privilege to bring you these great performances, to enhance the cultural life of our city and to provide our audiences with those special moments.

Now, just wait until you hear the 75th season:

Pacifica Quartet with Sharon Isbin, guitar – October 15, 2017
Rebel Baroque with Matthias Maute, flute – November 12, 2017
Chanticleer – January 21, 2018
American Brass Quintet – March 4, 2018
Orion String Quartet – April 15, 2018

– E Doyle

Coffee Houses

This all started with the search for a good summer read, and then one thing led to another.  The book I found was a novel about the coffee trade in Holland in the 15th-16th centuries (The Coffee Trader, by David Liss).  Coffee had recently been introduced to Europe, and everyone, for reasons that are totally incomprehensible, took to the dark, bitter liquid made from the coffee bean like Gen Xers to Starbucks.  Go figure.

From this fascinating historical novel, I began thinking about the effect of coffee – and specifically, coffee houses – on the culture of Europe and subsequently, America.  And that (plus Google) led me to Zimmermann’s Kaffeehaus in Leipzig .  No ancestor of Starbuck’s here;  no strangely named, expensive concoctions with little resemblance to actual coffee and consumed by individuals lost in their phones and tablets.  This grand institution was founded in 1702 by Gottfried Zimmermann in Leipzig at 14 Kathrinenstrasse – the  most elegant street in all of Leipzig, and the place where Bach and his buddies hung out (in a manner of speaking).

So I checked out  the Coffee Cantata by Bach, and things just went all over the place from there.  I soon discovered that one cannot talk about Bach and his concerts at Zimmermann’s without learning about perhaps the most famous (certainly the most prolific) composer and musician of his age, Georg Phillip Tellemann. Sit back, read and prepare to be amazed.  (You may want a cuppa to enjoy while I enlighten you….)

Tellemann was born in 1681 in Magdeburg, the son of a Lutheran deacon who had the poor foresight to die when his son (and his other three children) were still quite young.  Early on, young Georg showed a talent for music, but when his widowed mother sought the advice of the Lutheran higherups, she was told, reportedly, that if he followed a career in music, he would be “….no better than a clown, a tightrope walker or a marmot trainer.”  (How does one train a marmot?  I’ll Google that next!)  But the boy won over his mother at last and received some musical education at the Old City School.  No Julliard, apparently, OCS left Georg to pretty well teach himself, and teach he did; he played flute, violin, viola da gamba, oboe, trombone, double bass and a variety of keyboard instruments.  Eat your hear out, Elton John.  Oh, and he also commposed his first opera at age 12.
At 20, Georg set out for Leipzig to study law, apparently thinking that the practice of law might be more profitable than training marmots.  In Leipzig, he met another Georg, that being Georg Friedrich Handel, then 16 years old, and before long, Tellemann was back to composing cantatas for the churches of Leipzig, producing a new one every week!  By 1722, he was the Director of the Leipzig Opera and turned out 4 operas in 3 years. Just weep, Frank Lloyd Weber.

After a long and incredibly productive life, Tellemann died in 1767 at the age of 86 – oh, an in his spare time, he had published his own music.

Now, the road leads back to Zimmermann’s Kaffeehaus.  In 1702, Tellemann founded the Collegium Musicum which was hosted – at no charge – by Gottfried Zimmerman.  Admittance was also free, and herr Zimmermann was able to profit by the patrons’ proclivities for beautiful music and really good coffee.  One of the habituees was none other than Johann Sebastian Bach, who took over the Collegium Musicum in 1729 and directed its productions of recitals and chamber music (see? You knew I’d get to chamber music eventually!) until 1739.  The music essentially died with Zimmermann in 1741, but the building existed on Kathrinenstrasse until the bombing of Leipzing during World War II. It was, sadly, reduced at last to rubble.

All of the above at long last brings up the Coffee Cantata by Bach – see the connection?  Think about the ladies – yes, ladies were allowed to attend the musical events at Zimmermann’s – and gentlemen in their satins and lace thoroughly enjoying their coffee and some of the most remarkable, enduring music the world has ever known.

By the way, you too will enjoy some of the most remarkable, enduring music in the world (sans coffee)  at San Antonio Chamber Music Society concerts.   This season will conclude at Temple Beth-El with “Calmus” – an a cappella vocal quintet from Germany, singing music inspired by Shakespeare. You are going to love it!

– E Doyle

A learning experience

Some things I’ve learned from a knee replacement surgery:

Don’t ever sit in a chair with wheels (unless you want to go to the next room or possibly outside very quickly).

The walker is your friend.  Yes, it’s ugly, scares the cat half to death and is incredibly clumsy, but use it you must unless you feel an urgent need to return to the hospital.

Under no circumstances, turn on the TV during the day.  Unless your selection is far broader than mine, you will “enjoy” incredibly old series such as all the various SVUs and CSIs and be treated to topical comedy shows from the Bush I years.

Radio – remember radio?  The music on KPAC is always there for you and something wonderful by Mozart may even help you forget how much your new knee hurts.  There’s also that collection of CDs awaiting you; never mind about the Christmas ones – it’s too depressing to think about all those people having fun in the snow when you can’t even get out of the house.  Go for the strings:  guitars, violins, violas, cellos (always cellos!).  They soothe.  Brass is just too – well – brassy and winds just make me wish for spring.  Strings are the way to go.

Go for the strings: guitars, violins, violas, cellos (always cellos!). They soothe. Brass is just too – well – brassy and winds just make me wish for spring. Strings are the way to go.

The surgeon is dedicated to the strange notion that hacking into your leg will not have painful after- effects, therefore he has enriched your pharmacy with prescriptions for virtually every pain killer known.  Now, I’m not saying you should eschew chemical assistance in your recovery, just beware.  You have to remember that if you’re taking any of this stuff you cannot drink any, and I mean any alcohol.  Everyone toasting the New Year?  Put water in a champagne glass and pretend.  Furthermore, even if you haven’t had even a teensy-weensy sip of wine, you will most assuredly stagger around like a drunken sailor.  These pharmaceuticals will, I guarantee, cloud your thinking (just try to do a NY Times Crossword puzzle!) and seriously impede judgement (as in, “I don’t think I need the walker anymore”).  So you want to go back to the hospital with a broken hip?

Grin and bear it.  People will send you cards and flowers and chocolates.   You’ll receive charming e-mails.  Don’t mess with the Oxycontin: pain builds character.  Turn on your favorite music, sip some water and aim to be able to make it to the next San Antonio Chamber Music Society concert on April 23.  You can do it!

– E Doyle

The Cello-phile

 

I’m a sucker for cellos.  I freely admit to this weakness.  While all stringed instruments are completely magical – and I don’t claim to understand how anyone masters performance on a violin, viola or bass, for that matter – cellos for me belong in a different category.  I’m informed that the cello has the same range as the human voice and that’s why the cello is so appealing.  I’m not buying it.  If I ever came across someone who sounded like a cello, I would never leave his  or her side.

And even as I watch these words appear on my computer screen, I’m listening to a cello.  Not just any cello this: it’s the cello that belonged to Pablo Casals, perhaps the greatest cellist ever.  And it’s a repetition of Casals’ last concert.  His cello is being beautifully played by a friend, Amit Peled, who has performed for the San Antonio Chamber Music Society in two memorable concerts.  He now plays the Casals cello, loaned to him by Casals’ widow.  This isn’t just a magnificent instrument, I do believe it has a soul, and I think Amit Peled is the luckiest cellist alive to be able to call forth the soul of this very special cello.

A cello is never shrill, it doesn’t scream “Listen to me, listen to me!” It’s sometimes content to just play accompaniment to its more feeble siblings, and without the cello, they would sound, well, thin.

So I’m wondering:  what is it about a cello that appeals to me? I would walk across glass to hear  a Yo-Yo Ma performance.  Perhaps there are other “cello-philes” out there and they no doubt have their own reasons for loving cellos.  But for me, a well-played cello can perform the music of a ho-hum composer and transform it into a masterpiece.  A cello is never shrill, it doesn’t scream “Listen to me, listen to me!”  It’s sometimes content to just play accompaniment to its more feeble siblings, and without the cello, they would sound, well, thin.  But a cello in concert, all on its own, played by a master, can simply make me cry.  As I listen to Casals’ cello and the artistry of Peled, I find myself thinking of things like the Sistine Chapel, fresh baked bread, a field of flowers, the perfection of a scarlet wine – I could go on, you know.  But when I listen to the music of Fauré , for example, performed by a cello – this cello, especially —  I listen.  I am absolutely attuned (for want of a better word) to this swirling music that is so perfect for the instrument.  I guess you could say that it strikes a chord.  Or I guess it just makes me happy.

If you haven’t heard it yet, be sure to listen to Amit Peled’s “Casals Homage.” It will make you happy, too.  And for even more happiness (does your cup runneth over?), remember to come hear the Aeolus Quartet next January 22.  There will be a cello, of course!

– E Doyle

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