Reflection

Why Festivals Enchant

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A recent review of the closing of the Toronto Summer Music Festival is highly positive but questions why the audience is moved to so many standing ovations. In one way I know what he means.  Some years ago at the conclusion of a performance of Mahler's Symphony of a Thouand, I found myself propelled to a standing position by the sheer force of it.  There was nothing polite about it involving a decision to get up. It just happened.

The critic wishes that the crowd wouldn't jump up so enthusiastically so often, even though he commends the Festival format with its combination of free and paid performances, a tight time frame and a summer timetable.

Perhaps I can help - as a well tempered listener who attended more than 25 of the events.  The reviewer does note that there is a core audience  like me that attends everything.  I'm a relative newcomer, but some have attended in the same way over the last 13 years. They know the returning performers by name and have a strong sense of who they are.

I had the privilege of sitting at the feet of the late Nicholas Goldschmidt  in the 80's. At that time Niki was already more than twice the age of current artistic director Jonathan Crowe and he had honed the concept with an understanding that Festivals create excitement and momentum in a way that a single performance never can.  Even subscriptions, great as they are, have too much space between events for that. 

Niki's Festivals often crossed artistic discipline lines.  Jonathan's combine different musical genres and levels of experience in the presenters.  One of the strengths of this Festival is that it unites up-and-coming instrumentalists and singers with the finest professionals.  The pros mentor the emerging artists by rehearsing and playing with them in public - or in the case of the singers, by conducting public masterclasses.  The result is an immersion in all kinds of music and levels of understanding for both for performers and the listeners. Audience members stroll up the shady Philosophers Walk night after night fulfilled and happy.

The critic, perhaps correctly, thought the young instrumentalists in the final concert were too energetic and needed more nuance. Probably that is true.  But what he perhaps misses in the standing ovations of the appreciative audience is their dominant demographic. Put aside for the moment the worry that there will be no audience for classical music in the decades to come.  What those of us at this stage of our life recognize is the sheer beauty and poignancy of so much of what we are hearing - perhaps for the last time.  It's worth standing up and applauding for that.

 

Egged On

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The author Ursula LaGuin died in 2018 at age 88 after a long career as a distinguished novelist, poet and essayist. I picked up a book of her essays, No Time to Spare, Thinking About What Matters and very much enjoyed the opening one, “In Your Spare Time”.  She reflected on the survey she had received from Harvard asking about how she used her own spare time, with a checklist of 27 items.  The first was “golf” and she didn’t put a check mark there.  I wouldn’t either. But as she went on to say, this is a strange question to ask people in their eighties.  I agree.  All our time is spare time. 

LeGuin observes that normally we think of spare time as free time left over from a job or working hours.  There were other things to check on the Harvard list that she didn’t tick off and I wouldn’t either. Racquet sports? – No.  Bridge? – definitely, No.  When my husband was alive he always chose to play against me.  When he won he was happy and when he lost he was amazed.  Shopping? – “if necessary would have been better than -Yes.  TV? – we would be lying if we said No – and last but not least, “Creative Activities” – specified further as Paint. Write, Photograph etc.                                                                                      

Like LeGuin, I don’t regard “Write” as a spare time activity.  I’ve written all my life as I am doing right now.  Most of my writing would be regarded as non-fiction whether paid or otherwise.  It includes reports, newsletters, articles, grant proposals, a book.  journals, letters, minutes, agendas, websites, blogging (since 1995) and more recently posts and tweets – plus a few poems.  Writing is a continuum.  It’s not about spare time.  It also suggests the Harvard survey writer didn’t have a clue what it might be like to live for eight decades.  I find myself thinking that way about a lot of other people too.

It came up when I read about my university’s alumni celebration dinner – to be honest I wasn’t reading at all but watching a video - containing a frame picturing a large collection of golden spoons.  Those who graduated fifty years ago were to be recipients, as I was nine years ago.  “That’s lovely”, I thought – “but has anybody asked whether that’s what we really need from the university after fifty years?”   Were any alternatives considered?  A massage certificate?  A discount for upgraded reading glasses or hearing-aid batteries?  Boots with better treads?

But LeGuin, bless her, has come up with the proper use for the golden spoon.  Maybe between our fixation on probiotic yogurt and fibre-filled cereals, we have forgotten about the frequent menu item of our childhoods – the soft boiled egg.  In her chapter, “Without Egg”, she even gives instructions on how to cook one for the benefit of recent feminist grads who wouldn’t be caught dead in the kitchen.  And to go with it, she spends a bit of time on the egg cup.  Apparently American homes no longer have them – and I am tempted to put a picture of one on Facebook in the “Share if you know what this is” category. Of course I still have one – three in fact.  I also still have the Corning ware with the blue flowers on it which was a popular shower present for weddings in 1959.

After some discussion as to whether the egg should be placed in the cup with the larger or smaller side up, LeGuin moves on to the search for the proper spoon. Before that, she notes that a knife must be made of steel and the spoon must be untarnishable. “I’ve never seen a gold egg spoon but I’m sure one would do” she says.  VOILA!  I rushed to buffet drawer filled with odd bits of silver and there sat the spoon unopened in its little plastic gift box.  Now it becomes a neessity and like Leguin, I start the day with a boiled egg and an English muffin – and browse another of her essays.  My favourite to date is entitled, “Would You Please F*cking Stop!  You’ll have to read it yourself to find out what it’s about.

 

Culture or Trauma

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Like many Canadians, I watch America with deep concern.  An article in this week's New York Times has echoes of one I read in the New Yorker about the Florida woman who has had such a profound effect on gun laws there and across many other states on behalf of the NRA.  The article is here in the April 1 magazine.

As the writer confronts gun culture as his personal culture, there is an interesting revelation.  His fear started when as a young boy he was robbed in a dark alley.  He has reacted ever since by arming himself with more and more guns.  He shares that experience with the Florida advocate who was also robbed as a teenager.

Both are suffering from post traumatic stress that this writer is starting to acknowledge.  It's something that is shared more widely by a fearful culture that finds it hard to trust anyone and has mistakenly put its trust in weapons designed to destroy.. That doesn't work. Whether this writer and his culture can heal itself is the challenge. It's not helped by its leader.  The only charitable response is that the leader might be most frightened of all - of what we are still to learn - and perhaps we never will.

Family Retreat - A Literary Summary

The house was magic - with its glass door wood stove, copious living room windows that let in the bright sunlight of the 19 below zero cold day.  some braver scond generation souls departed to stock the already over-flowing larder while the senior and younger set settled in for an introduction to The Settlers of Catan - the perfect game for the place.