John Williams Concert review

Note: This is a lightly edited post that I wrote 12 years ago and posted to my old blog, which, mercifully, is no more. Since John Williams will be conducting the Indianapolis Symphony this coming February, I thought it’d be fun to re-post this now and then write up some thoughts after the Indianapolis concert.  I’ve seen John Williams conduct live three times – all with the Chicago Symphony – with the last concert of his I attended probably 10 years ago, so I’m looking forward to February 11th!

[Original post from November 30, 2005]

As my 4 faithful readers know, I traveled to Chicago to see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in concert last weekend. Seeing the CSO live is truly a memorable event. Their musicianship is unmatched; the atmosphere inside Symphony Hall is unlike any orchestral venue I’ve visited.

Of course, the other highlight of seeing the Chicago Symphony last week was the guest conductor, John Williams. This may come as a bit of surprise to my loyal readers, but I’m a small fan of Mr. Williams’ music. As I’ve mentioned before, it was the score for Star Wars that sparked my interest in orchestral music. The musical world I’ve discovered since (and am still discovering) has enriched my life in ways that I can’t articulate on my small blog and with my limited writing talents.

The Concert

The evening started with the Overture from The Cowboys, a 1972 John Wayne movie. I can’t comment on the movie; I’ve never seen it. But the music has a certain American West feel, akin to some of Copland’s work.

The next piece performed was a suite from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. From what I’ve read, this is Mr. Williams’ favorite personal composition. It’s a dark piece until the five note alien theme is heard and the piece pushes to grand conclusion.

Having featured music from a movie about friendly aliens visiting Earth, we were treated next to a suite from a movie about hostile aliens coming to Earth. “Escape from the City” and ‘Epilogue” from the recent War of the Worlds were both quite modern in their rhythmic and tonal qualities.

Mr. Williams also took time honor three film composers who passed on last year. Jerry Goldsmith’s Main Theme from Star Trek was played brilliantly. David Raskin’s love theme from Laura was stirring. The tribute ended with Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven played faster and more energetic than on any recording I’ve heard.

The first half the concert ended with Alfred Newman’s The Captain of Castile.

The second half began with this piece, and it was an absolute delight to hear live. The audience cheered during some themes (Star Wars, E.T.) and laughed during others (Pink Panther, Jaws).

For the next selection, Williams departed from the printed program (which called for Eric Korngold’s The Sea Hawk) and inserted his own “jazzy little piece” from a movie that “not many people saw” – Spielberg’s 1941. The movie is a comedy about WWII starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, I think. Williams’ march is fitting, almost a satirical look at military marches with some swing mixed in to remind us we’re in the jazz age.

Next up were two selections from Jaws. Neither featured the famous two-note motif but, for me, that made them more enjoyable. It was nice to hear selections from Williams’ second Oscar winning score not normally performed. The “Shark Cage Fugue” was especially enjoyable; the way he worked several motifs into a macabre fugue that underscores a shark attack was thrilling.

While I came to know and love the music of John Williams because of the Star Wars scores, many people younger than I were first introduced to the maestro though his scores for the Harry Potter movies (the most recent one excepted). Williams and the CSO played three selections from Potter series starting with “Hedwig’s Theme” which features the magical sounding celeste. “Aunt Marge’s Waltz” is a fun piece from the third Potter film. “Harry’s Wonderous World” is a collection of several themes from the movies, a kind of suite on its own.

Mr. Williams didn’t bother to introduce the final three pieces as he had for all the earlier works. He didn’t need to, though. The Star Wars suite began with the wickedly fun and completely terrorizing “Imperial March.” Next up was “Anakin’s Theme” a surprising choice, considering that this theme is not nearly as well known as others from the saga. It was a good choice musically to follow Vader’s theme, though, because Williams wrote Anakin’s Theme as a deconstruction of the Imperial March. The militaristic brass of the “Imperial March” are replaced by soft woodwinds and strings in “Anakin’s Theme”, The final piece of the night was, appropriately, “Throne Room and End Credits” from the original 1977 film.

Williams and the CSO were quickly given a standing ovation; they rewarded the audience with three encores. Continuing with the Star Wars themes, the orchestra played “Luke and Leia” from Return of the Jedi. Next, Williams announced a piece that is rarely heard in its full form unless “there’s a slow news day” – The Mission Theme from NBC Nightly News. (I think the Maesto writes his own jokes, by the way.) To cap off the evening, we were treated to a spirited version of “The Raiders March” from Indiana Jones. For a moment it appeared there might be a fourth encore, which I was loudly yelling for, but alas, it was not to be.

The concert was spectacular, well played, well programed, and well conducted. After the concert, totally by chance, I ran into a fellow IU alum and Marching Hundred member. We exchanged stories about John Williams pieces we played while in the Hundred, band geeks all the way.

Advertisements

A year in books 2017

This is not a comprehensive list of what I’ve read in 2017 but it’s close I think. Here are some further thoughts on what I’ve been reading.

Book you pushed the most people to read?

I still really like The Expanse series from S.A. Corey, which is now on its 7th novel plus that many more short stories and novellas exploring all the wonder and horror of the human colonization of the Solar System.

Also, Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren Much of life is dull, repetitive – washing dishes, brushing teeth, feeding the kids, cleaning the house, etc. Nevertheless, God meets us in this – our ordinary life – and Warren write beautifully about that.

Book that didn’t quite live up to the hype?

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey – Really fun premise – MAN EATING HIPPOS OF LOUISIANA! – but didn’t deliver like I wanted it to. It was a quick read, and fairly entertaining, but each chapter felt like so much more could have been said about the world-building, the villains, the backstories of our team of heroes, etc. Just a lot left unwritten, which is unfortunate because MAN EATING HIPPOS!!!

Best series you started in 2017?

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman – can’t wait to finish this series in 2018.

Book that had the most impact on you?

Silence by Shusaku Endo. Read this with a friend, which is the best way to read, well, anything, but especially books that provoke so much thought around religious freedom, syncretism, missionary work, Catholic & Protestant ecclesiology, devotion and more.

Best World-building/Most Vivid Setting You Read This Year?

Probably, again the Expanse series but honorable mention also to
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden which takes place in a medieval Russia so cold, you need blanket just to pick up this book.

Reflections on Rowan Williams’ visit to St. Louis University

 

When I found out in mid-February that my favorite living theologian, Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and current head of Magdalene College at Cambridge, was giving lecture at St. Louis University, I was excited to make the 3+ hour drive along I-70 from Indianapolis. It’s not everyday that an Archbishop of Canterbury visits the Mid-West, let alone one whose writing and devotion has had such an impact on my own religious life.

Image result for rowan williamsDr. Williams’ lecture, entitled Christ, Creator and Creature: Reflections on Christology and the Nature of Created Being, began by summarizing the work of Austin Farrer, who Williams described as “certainly the most important Anglican theologian of the 20th century.”  (Farrer taught at Oxford in the mid-twentieth century and was a contemporary of C.S. Lewis and the other Inklings.) This first section of the lecture focused on the metaphysics of Farrer’s works, especially The Glass of Vision. Here, Farrer shows that there need not be any competition or hostility between divine and human agency, between infinite being – what we call God – and finite being – us.

Through this non-competitive framework of Infinite and finite agency, Farrer says we  have a key to understanding certain paradoxical tenets of Christianity – grace and human free will, the efficacy of prayer, and the two natures of Christ. During the question-and-answer session, Dr. Williams was asked to expand on this idea as it applies to prayer. We shouldn’t view prayer as us doing business with another agency that we can bend to our purpose, but instead, take the more contemplative view that prayer is about being open to God’s will and purpose just as the Son is eternally open to the will of the Father.

Williams went on to discuss the development of the Christological doctrines, what he called the Church’s continual clarification of the nature of Christ and but also of God. He noted that the early church often reached for ideas and understanding found in the Hebrew Scriptures – of heavenly beings coming down to mediate God’s will – like Michael the Archangel or the High Priest Melchizedek. But the Church also soon realized that this language was not enough, and the conflicts that arose in the 4th and 5th centuries – the condemnation of Arius’ teaching, the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon – all which may seem so technical and arid, were important so that when we say Jesus was God, we must can mean nothing less than God, the very ground of being and agency.

Dr. Williams ended his talk by considering the Lectures on Christology (1933) by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for whom, Dr. Williams was quick to point out, the question of Christology was anything but an academic exercise. Specifically, Bonhoeffer says that if we take seriously the notion of that the Church is Christ exsisting as community, then the non-competiative relation between the Divine and human, which was real in Jesus, will also be real in the Church. This connects Christology with our sacramental theology.

Dr. Williams explained, “Because God needs no defense, God’s human form is defenseless. So if we live in the Body of Christ and the mode of our human existence is shaped by that, then the defenselessness of Christ is the mark of the Church.” Williams argues that in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the very technical and sometimes dense language of Infinite and finite agency becomes, dramatically, an ethic and ecclesiology for our time.  If we can begin to understand this, Dr. Williams said, we the Church may be “more free, more able, even more eloquent, in telling the world that the God who made the world, loves it and is a God who is in no sense afraid of its flourishing, and whose eternal purpose is fixed on its joy.”

Matthew Stevenson, May 9, Feast of St. Gregory of Nazianus

 

Winter reading 2017

IMG_1463Our national politics may oscillate between terrifying and depressing, and the dumpster fire that is the IU basketball season is about to flicker out (have you filled out your NIT bracket??) but I still have some good books and a small child who likes to nap on me, so life is pretty great. My ancient Barnes&Noble Nook, which primarily sees action when I travel, is very handy for reading a 400 page novel while balancing a baby. Here are some books I’ve enjoyed this winter.

A Very Expensive Poison by Luke Harding – Heard about it on Fresh Air, and true to form this book is engrossing (hah! NPR-based puns score double, I think?) Fascinating, vaguely terrifying, and unfortunately timely.

Everfair by Nisi Shawl – I’m always on the lookout for good Steampunk – that is something more than re-hashed adventure stories with a veneer brass and leather – and when I find one, I talk about it for good while. Needless to say, Everfair is very good Steampunk – fresh, alternative history (set in the Belgian Congo), an impressive variety of interesting characters, and a grand scope leaving me wanting more time in this re-imagined world.

The Lion’s World by Rowan Williams So I drove 7 hours round trip to hear my favorite living theologian, Rowan Williams, speak at St. Louis University recently. It was a wonderful lecture (more on that later, I think). I hope I get to hear him again in person, but Archbishops of Canterbury rarely venture (quite rightly) to the Mid-West so, who knows? Anyway, I’ve read lots of Rowan Williams, but never his lovely treatment of my childhood love, CS Lewis’s Narnia books. (I absolutely wrote Narnia fanfiction as a child). There is a certain fashion among theologians to dismiss Lewis – and certainly not all of his works have held up well – but Williams rightly identifies the power of the Narnia series as not just a simple allegory of the Christian story (a reading which Lewis too rejected). Instead, Narnia is primarily about the joy of discovering God-in-the-world, a joy that Williams locates at the center of Christian life.

 

 

 

Catching up

It’s been quite a while since I’ve written in this space. For all my good intentions of maintaining something like regular posting here, work and family life have left little time for writing. Here’s the news.

I have two kids now, a girl and a boy! They are two years old and three months old, respectively. I may not have time to read as many novels as I once did, or to enjoy a meal that isn’t book-ended by changing poopy diapers, but I have become an expert on all aspects of life on the island of Sodor (which as far as I can tell, is a quasi-feudal dystopia where all economic, social, and political life is directed by the sinister Hatt family and put in service to the maintenance of obsolete, obstinate, and often extremely stupid steam engines) so that has to count to for something.

Truth be told, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Though there are plenty of challenges – mental, physical and financial – parenting these young kids is more joyful, more delightful, than I ever imagined.  I get the sense that every day is an adventure for my children and I am lucky enough to tag along with them (and occasionally be a horse to ride or a mountain to climb or a tickle monster to fend off).

Life at the library has been pretty good too. We recently acquired a bicycle and custom trailer/mobile library. We’re taking them to parks, the farmers’ market, summer festivals, bringing a small selection of the library to places and people who might not normally stop in. We also bring along a few tablets so we can demonstrate some of the digital services that the library provides. On a recent outing, we were joined by an impromptu escort of sorts, which one of my co-workers was good enough to capture. I’ve spent a fair amount of time this summer riding around the streets and trails of Plainfield. cnl8ajhviaeyyyk-jpg-large
Somehow, I have managed to read a few good books unrelated to Sodor Railways.

I have been re-reading The Lord of the Rings. I haven’t read them since high school. I’ve become such a softy. I cried when Frodo & company left the Shire, knowing how much they and the Shire would be changed when they eventually return. I’m not sure what my emotional state will be when I arrive at the end of the story but I wasn’t expecting this when I pulled it off the shelf.

The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton. Ok, so that Cheeky Little Engine is so ingrained in my mind that even when I read an adult novel, I turned to a story about trains. It was delightful though.

The Temeraire series by Naomi Novak is great fun, combining the Napoleonic Wars and dragons. Novak is a fantastic writer, creating great characters and seamlessly weaving  fantasty world-building with historical fiction.

The Expanse series by James SA Corey. The Syfy Channel did a pretty good job of adapting the first book of the series, Leviathan Wakes, but the books are some the best science fiction out right now.

In other news: I built a table in my basement to display part of my LEGO collection. I am not a carpenter. When I finished, I realized that the table was not quite square but 1) it is quiet large and 2) it will probably not collapse so, that’s good enough for me. My daughter is old enough to not eat every LEGO in sight (this is an important developmental milestone) so she enjoys playing with my collection, and when I say ‘playing’ I mean scattering carefully sorted trays of bricks far and wide. But, literally everything she does is adorable, so I am happy to indulge her.

 

The planets in their courses …

For the last several weeks, the Sunday Mass at the Cathedral has included the oft-neglected Eucharistic Prayer C, the so-called Star Trek Prayer. In all my time at the Cathedral, we’ve never used this option. (There are four Eucharistic Prayers in the Book of Common Prayer; prayers A and B are used most often and D, my very favorite, is usually reserved for the Easter Vigil.)

I admit I was less than enthusiastic about Prayer C; it has a different cadence than the others, sounds dated, rather than timeless like the other prayers, and it’s a little odd hearing the phrase “vast expanse of interstellar space” in a Eucharistic Prayer. However, Prayer C has grown on me. The news the last few weeks has been full of images from the New Horizons spacecraft as it approaches Pluto. 3 billion miles away, New Horizons is sending back absolutely stunning images of that distant world. Did you know the two Voyager spacecraft, launched in the late ’70s, are still sending data and responding to commands, even as they both have now left the solar system and crossed into interstellar space? I’ve been browsing through the pictures NASA has released this week and well as reading from Jim Bell’s new book about the Voyager mission – The Interstellar Age and thinking about those words of thanksgiving. It is truly good and right to give thanks to God for “the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.”

Books on Trains

I recently had the opportunity to take a train to Oregon, a 40 hour journey. Most might balk at the thought of trundling along at 70 mph, making stops every hour or two along the way, and occasionally getting delayed by freight trains stuck in tunnels, but I’ve come to enjoy train travel, limited though it is for those of us not living in the Northeast. I read 4 books on my trip – all dutifully loaded onto my Nook via Overdrive beforehand – and I’d like to review two of them here.

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

I read this book, published in 1983 (making it nearly as old as I am, being, as it were, published in 1982) because it was suppose to be ‘steampunk‘. It was most definitely not steampunk, but no matter – The Anubis Gates was absolutely thrilling, difficult to put down, and very likely the best novel I’ve read this year. Even 30 years on, Tim Powers’ masterfully woven story of time travel, sorcerer-magicians, Lord Byron, Samuel Coleridge, demented clowns and long-dead gods, all perfectly blended with bits horror and humor, still makes for a grand adventure.

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

This is the fifth of Eco’s novels I’ve read and each time I pick one up, I get the same overwhelming sense – like drowning by book. But I should really should have more faith in Eco by now because undoubtedly 50 pages in, I’m totally hooked. Such was the case with The Prague Cemetery. Eco is a gifted storyteller, bringing alive history, philosophy, theology and more, in stories that, while complex, reward careful reading. The protagonist – Simone Simonini, a raging anti-Semite – is thoroughly repulsive but captivating nonetheless.