Wednesday, November 24, 2010


It means "Hall of Splendor", or if you are translating in haste for someone in the Kantine, "fancy room". I played a gig there last night, in the room of splendor of the Austrian National Library. The Nationalbibliothek is part of the Hofberg complex, the spectacular lodgings of emperors past, and it turns out that in addition to the great furniture and tracts of land, the Habsburgs also collected the occasional Buch.

80 meters long and 30 meters high, cathedral-like in dimension and jaw-droppingly beautiful, this is the former great hall of the Imperial library. Marble floors and pillars support the frescoed dome and the walls lined with centuries of thought written down in all languages. The first display case I saw upon entering the hall contained a 5th century parchment illustrating the mail routes of the Roman empire. It's like a pretend fantasy library from some great yet-unmade movie, Harry Potter meets the DaVinci Code.

See old Karl VI in the center there? Last night he was surrounded by life-size images of some very beloved Alfred Roller designs:

My colleagues and I were the entertainment for "100 years of Rosenkavalier". That wonderful piece is having a big anniversary in 2011, and a small, fascinating group of supporters had a preview of the installation last night. The Roller designs were just a taste. I stared for many minutes at some of von Hofmannsthal's original notes for the first scene between the Marschallin and Oktavian. He brought them to Strauss for an initial meeting, and as they talked together (no doubt over coffee), Strauss came up with a few melodic ideas. There they were, the opera's initial ascending horn call and the sighing violin answer, born as doodles in the margins of some hastily sketched dialogue. 

We performed in the unheated hall and then repaired to the comfort of a reception. I talked to a former Austrian Supreme Court justice, a diplomat, a professor of literature, opera lovers all. I was moved by the connection of this audience to this piece, and by their grateful connection to the performers. I walked back to the streetcar with the mezzo, a woman experienced in this opera but buzzing with anticipation over her first Oktavian at the Staatsoper, coming in just a few weeks (especially after talking to our audience members about who they've heard in that house!). 

And then at home, the messages were waiting for me. I found my brother-in-law on Skype. He was drying the big pot for the mashed potatoes that may or may not get made, waiting to hear if he should take my nephew on to choir practice or to the hospital where my mom and siblings had already gathered. My grandmother was admitted about a week ago, and Mom's gut feeling was that she wasn't coming home. Still, she had rallied in the last 48 hours, enough so that my uncle was planning to bring her home for the holiday. Yesterday things changed quickly, and now it seems that the liver cancer she's been fighting since the summer will take her soon, most likely during this holiday weekend. 

Some of the people who read this have met Alice. I wish you all knew her. She has lived a great life, an epic life. It started with immigrant parents, a mother who couldn't ever communicate well in English, two siblings who died young, the wish for education squelched by her father, a marriage ended after just five years with her beloved young husband's death, and the decision to leave her baby daughter behind in New Ulm and travel to Minneapolis for work. She was a single mother during the war, was terrifyingly poor, tough, and resourceful. She had a disastrous second marriage and a troubled third to a sad and loyal WWII veteran. She was a working woman until retirement, she took care of her grandchildren; she completed her GED at the age of 70 and nursed her husband through a long, relentless illness. She traveled the world and learned line dancing, she chopped her own ice out of her gutters, she was a terrible driver and has always been an avid card player. She came to Houston to visit me a few years ago, refused the airline's wheelchair and walked through Intercontinental, and insisted on going to Lakewood Chapel to see Joel Osteen. She's Rosenkavalier's younger sister by five years. She hasn't ever heard the piece, but I imagine she'd enjoy the music while recognizing exactly none of its privileged characters. 

It's Thanksgiving Day. My family's in a splendid room in Minnesota.

Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding
Wenn man so hinlebt, ist sie rein gar nichts,
Aber dann auf einmal, man spürt doch nichts als sie.
Sie ist in uns herum, sie ist auch in uns drinnen.
In den Gesichtern rieselt sie. Im Spiegel da rieselt sie,
In meinen Schläfern fliesst sie,
Und zwischen mir und dir da fliesst sie wieder, lautlos...
Allein, man muss sich auch vor ihr nicht fürchten.
Auch sie ist ein Geschöpf des Vaters, 
Der uns alle erschaffen hat.

Time, that's a strange thing.
When you're absorbed in your life, it's nothing,
But then, all at once, you're aware of nothing else.
It's all around us, it's inside us too,
It's flowing through our faces, in the mirror,
In my veins, and silently between the two of us...
Only, we shouldn't be afraid of it.
It's another creation of the Father who created us all. 


Friday, November 12, 2010


Like Keanu Reeves with the plug in his head, I suddenly know kung fu. Halfway through yesterday, in the middle of a simple administrative task, I could suddenly see it: the Staatsoper season. Something shifted over, the edges of the square peg gave a little bit, and suddenly the information started to fit. The inside of my head unclenched to an unsmall degree. I went upstairs to the Orgelsaal, played a Giovanni rehearsal, met friends out in Meidling for Martinigänserl, went home, and slept easily through the night.

At almost exactly three months into our Austrian life, this feels like the end of a large, classic, and probably quite predictable arc. Initial excitement leads to exhaustion and estrangement. A restorative reunion with family and friends enables a return with widened perspective and new equilibrium. Just because it's an old script doesn't mean it's not a good one.

Our dinner, by the way, had nothing to with gin or vodka, but with the Austrian tradition of eating goose on St. Martin's day. We sat in a traditional restaurant and everybody spoke in German and English, including Paul, and laughed and chilled out on a warmish Friday night. Today we'll get on a train and meet some people at their house out in the wine region.

Want some more? Oh HELL yes.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

suck it up

Endlich zu Hause. At last I'm home, sick (thank you plane flight!), drinking tea, and hanging out with MtMn as he obsesses over his latest writing project. I'm happy. I'm down. I'm exhausted. I'm a headachy bandana tied to a big rope on parents' day at camp, I'm the sneezy meat in a lesson sandwich. I'm the in exquisite middle of the tug, the bite, blowing my nose, looking for a way out.

I admire and pity a man strange and dear to me. His turtleshell armor helps to cause the adversity that it enables him to endure. How unlike and like him I am, now and ever. I know the cold won't last, not the infection in my chest or the temperature in this new city. Yet even as my diamond mind breathes in patience, monkey shrieks and looks to pick the lock on the cage. Let me out, help me stay.

Long term projects are my specialty. I know I can hang in there, suck it up, stay strong. That's been my goal as long as I can remember. But is it right? Where is the strength that doesn't do violence? 

More coughing rattles me like punishment. That's a crazy and cruel thought all by itself. My heart's soft enough, maybe it can still teach my mind.



Tuesday, November 2, 2010

the wit and wisdom of Rock 92

I always forget that the radio station in my home town is no longer classical, a serious fault when you consider that the changeover is at least five years old. One of the colleges here was home to a great classical music and NPR station, and now it's one of those corporate "college" channels, The Man embarrassing in a Che Guevara T-shirt. I flipped it on reflexively in my rented Chevy Aveo and heard something about a young man seriously lacking in vocal energy having a dyslexic heart. It's because he can't read his girl's signals, see? Aaaaarrrrgggghhhh. This from the same place on the dial where I first found music that bonded to every molecule in my body. I cursed quietly but with inappropriate passion and pressed "scan" twice, seeking public radio, but this was a few days before the election and the lyrics there were even sadder. No more Beethoven, no more Democratic Farmer Labor party, my hopeful early Minnesota life lost forever and the airwaves full of twaddle.

Scan, scan. If it had to be lame, let it be the lame I remember, the tinny lame from the transistor radio out in the yard on the hot summer days that Annie and I laid out together covered in pre-Live Strong baby oil. Let it be the lame I heard my uncle striving for in the garage with his shirtless friends. Summer of the late seventies, I summoned you to my car, calling up days whose enormous frustration held enormous promise.

somewhere along the lonley road I had tried ta find ya

The old house is one of the few old bungalows from the twenties, shakily standing in a neighborhood full of lot-straining new construction. I climb in bed with her, spooning as the TV preacher bellows. She likes him because he is so intelligent. I have learned so much about the old testament! she tells me. My uncle brings soup. He's set up high-speed so he can work from the house, and when she decides she wants to get dressed, I go set up Skype. Her green sweater is a beautiful color for her. She tells me stories from her trip to Sweden and she dozes off on my shoulder. I look at a picture of her just after the war on the steps of the house, strong and tan in a halter top, smiling at whatever lover holds the camera.

we gotta get outta this place
if it's the last thing we evah do yeah yeah

He watches me put up pictures in the new room. This OK? Nails in my mouth as I re-center the framed photograph. Sure, honey, whatever you think. But I ask with each picture, still expecting exactitude, criticism, disappointment. They never come. He watches the Vikings and thinks Favre should have retired. Since August he's lost half of his hair and his teeth hurt him, so he falls asleep without them. His mouth is tiny between steroid-swollen cheeks.

I'll just sit tight through the shadows of the night
Let it ring forever more

The difference between the fifth grade band and the sixth grade band is huge! Half the town is in the bleachers of the high school auditorium to hear all the middle and high school bands play. Fifth grade is all a Dudamel-inspired version of Twinkle Twinkle, no music, with different sections standing and sitting to take their turn in the spotlight. By sixth they're all white-shirted behind their stands, the conductor has a baton, the pitch has begun its long process of detente. My nephew is cool in the enormous sax section, true to his Scandinavian roots, no swaying in response to the percussion of Fiesta Time! or counting unconsciously with his head.

they say the sea turns so dark
you know it's time, you read the signs

My retired choir director sits behind me. I remember the night in 1979, right before we moved to Arizona, when we did the best choir concert ever in that auditorium, when I cried at the thought of leaving that choir because I couldn't imagine one finer, couldn't imagine music outside of the college on the hill with its amazing radio station, couldn't imagine a better piano teacher than mine. My heart was full of sorrow as we headed away from town. How I wanted to stay, how I wanted to flee. How music lifted me, carried me away, keeps bringing me back.

My sister-in-law (also standing in a fateful place, having blown out her knee in Lady Raiders basketball a few feet from where the band now sits) holds her youngest up to the rail to see his brother. My niece slips her hand into mine.

'scuse me while I kiss the sky.