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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

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

Female Guitarists

Try Googling “female classical guitarists.” You will find a few dozen citations of people you’ve probably never heard of. I wondered why. There are female pianists and violinists by the score, but classical guitarists? The citations sooner or later descend to pop icons. It’s not that Janice Joplin wasn’t capable of playing, say, an andante, but the washboard style of playing is not really conducive to cantatas. I looked through the names and photos and found that many of the women were also composers, lauded for their talents during their eras, but not particularly well known now. For example: Have you ever heard of Ida Presti? Neither had I, I am ashamed to admit. She was that vanishingly rare person, a female classical guitarist. She was 10 in 1935 when she played her first professional concert at the Salle Pleyel in Paris; she continued to perform and compose music for the acoustic guitar until her death in 1967. When she was 16 years old, she had the singular honor of playing Paganini’s guitar in a commemoration of his death in 1940. She appeared in films and was widely known for her prodigious talent. Do you recognize the name yet? No?

When you check out lists of classical guitarists, you will find not one woman’s name until you come to Catherina Josepha Pratten, identified only as a German guitar virtuoso, born in Mulheim in 1821 and laying her guitar to rest in 1895. Certainly you’ve heard of Mme. Pratten?

In the early 20th Century, we come to Maria Luisa Anido, better known for her compositions than for her performances. She was born in Morón, Argentina in 1907, and died in the “mid 80’s” in Tarragona, Spain. The only concert mentioned was her debut in Wigmore Hall in 1952.

At last, in this century, we begin to see a few female names among the listings of classical guitarists, but the vast majority of names are male.

The guitar is the quintessential musical instrument for a woman to play. It can shade emotion, it can soothe or scream. It can express a range of feelings that go far beyond six strings.

Makes you wonder. Are women not able to play an acoustic guitar? Perhaps their fingers are not strong enough – but have you ever watched a female harpist at work? Perhaps they constitutionally have trouble focusing on two hands doing different things at the same time. Ever seen a female pianist – or, for that matter, a mother with two-year-old twins? Perhaps the violin is more suited to female musicians. After all, the movements are graceful, the music is sweet. But the guitar is an instrument of passion, an accompanier of flamenco and wild Gypsy dances. The guitar is the quintessential musical instrument for a woman to play. It can shade emotion, it can soothe or scream. It can express a range of feelings that go far beyond six strings.

So I hope you remember, as you listen to Sharon Isbin, a modern guitar virtuoso, that this particular woman understands the guitar. You will hear an instrument singing unlike any you have heard before, an instrument capable of expressing connections between the artist and the audience. And that’s the whole point, don’t you agree?

Don’t miss Sharon Isbin, multiple GRAMMY Award winning guitarist, in concert with the Pacifica String Quartet on Sunday, October 15th, 2017, 3:15 p.m. at Temple Beth-El. You will wish the concert never ends.

– E Doyle

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

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