Tanglewood 2: John Williams 90th Birthday Celebration!

Last weekend, we made our second pilgrimage to Tanglewood—to attend the BSO’s sold-out celebration concert for my favorite composer John Williams’s 90th birthday year. It was magnificent. Guest performers included Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Branford Marsalis on sax, Jessica Zhou on harp, James Taylor with his voice, and surprise guest Itzhak Perlman on violin.

John Williams greets old friends (Boston.com)Boston.com

Most of the music was by Williams, most of it not the well-known film scores. One film excerpt that they did play was new to me, from Catch Me If You Can. It was mesmerizing, with Marsalis on sax and other guest performers on vibraphone and double bass. The surprise performance of the evening was the haunting theme from Schindler’s List, with Itzhak Perlman in a wheelchair reprising his performance of the original film recording.

Yo-Yo Ma and James Taylor celebrate John Williams (Boston.com)Boston.com

We camped out in the lawn area with a picnic dinner this time—great sound, following the orchestra on big video screens. (With our binoculars, we couldn’t see much of the orchestra directly over all the heads, but the binocs were useful in bringing the video images closer.)

Williams sat in the front row of the audience, taking it in. There were stirring tributes from directors and musicians he has worked with through the years, including Yo-Yo Ma, and ending with a video tribute from Steven Spielberg. The concluding number was the finale to Star Wars, and after all we had heard, that unexpectedly brought me instantly to tears. Truly, truly beautiful; I cried through the whole thing. Williams came to the stage afterward, and the assembled 18,000 people sang Happy 90th Birthday to him. (That brought Allysen to tears.) Finally, he was handed the baton for an encore, and he conducted the Boston Symphony in the theme to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Not a dry eye in the house, or on the lawn. It was a truly magnificent time.

My one regret is that he is close to retirement. I must accept now that there will never be a film adaptation of one of my books with a score by John Williams. There are worse fates, but that is a dream I now willingly let go.

Sunday at Tanglewood

The keynote event of our trip to the Berkshires was a Sunday-afternoon concert at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons conducting. Now this is the way to hear music. I had only been to Tanglewood once before, decades ago, sitting on the grass out in front of the music shed, and that was great.

Here’s Allysen, standing in front of the shed. The crowd was just beginning to gather.

This time, I decided that I was a grownup and it was time to spring for seats inside the shed, where I could see the orchestra. It was fabulous. (Although I still couldn’t see the wind instruments, which were completely hidden behind the strings, which frustrated me a little.)

The program included Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, Opus 34, No. 14, as well as his Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Opus 44. I say that as if I know something about it, but I’m just telling you what the program says. Sandwiched between the Rachmaninoff works was a premier performance of a contemporary-classical piece by Helen Grime: Trumpet Concerto, night-sky-blue, featuring Håkan Hardenberger on trumpet. I should note that the Rachmaninoff symphony featured virtuoso tweeting by birds in the rafters of the shed. They seemed totally in touch with the feeling of the final movement. Bravo!

Now, I have about as much business reviewing classical music as Fred Flintstone has reviewing one of my books. But should I let that stop me? As a point of reference, I might note that my absolute favorite orchestral works are Dvorak’s New World Symphony, John Williams’ various themes from Star Wars and Close Encounters, and Richard Rogers’ themes from Victory at Sea.

My favorite of this BSO performance was Vocalise. I can’t say why, just that it was lush and lyrical and swept me along. I need to find a recording of it to listen to again.

The Helen Grime concerto was…interesting. Cerebral, often dissonant, many musical voices speaking at once. The trumpet part was extraordinary in the playing ability demonstrated, but not exactly something to make me hum inside my head. I wanted to like it. I was excited to see a young composer have a new work premiered by the BSO; I felt I was in on something special. And yet… if there were melodies or themes, I was unable to pick them out. It was written during the pandemic, and it felt chaotic in a way that reflected that birthing. It felt like Stravinsky drenched in Jackson Pollock. No doubt this is my lack of understanding of classical music speaking.

The Rachmaninoff symphony began with an exquisite thread of clarinet and/or oboe, then segued into energetic full orchestral motion. I was unfamiliar with the piece, and I frankly couldn’t follow the musical themes for long, although there were passages I found quite beautiful. Unlike my reaction to the Grime, I was aware of the orchestra working together to craft themes I could hear, even if only for a few moments at a time, even if I didn’t follow where they were going. I want to listen to this again, also, though I doubt that any recording will feature the chirping of the birds nearly as effectively as in this performance.

All in all, it was a gratifying conclusion to the weekend. We now return to our regularly scheduled dimension.

A Weekend in the Berkshires

With Allysen, I drove the Mothership to western Massachusetts and the Berkshires this past weekend. We stayed at the Mt. Greylock Campsite Park, somewhere near the base of Mt. Greylock, the tallest peak in Massachusetts. Before taking on the mountain, however, we set off for Stockbridge and the Naumkeag Public Garden, to view a collection of kinetic sculptures by George Rickey. The sculptures were fascinating—all stainless steel, and (I think) most of them in motion from wind energy. This is a double-triangle, slowly twisting in the wind:

The grounds were beautiful. This is a great place to visit if you are in the area. Here’s Allysen and the moving circle sculpture. Except that it’s a still photo, and you can’t see it moving. Use your imagination.

And a tree-lined lane with a shifty-looking writer trying to be inconspicuous:

After the garden closed, we hightailed it back to Mt. Greylock, in hopes of driving to the summit on the scenic parkway. Alas, we arrived at the gate to find a sign prohibiting all vehicles over 22 feet in length from the parkway. At 24 feet, they were looking at us. Undeterred, we parked at the visitor center and set out on an easy walking trail loop on the lower part of the mountain. Easy, my aching feet! Easy for the young’uns. In truth, it was a beautiful hike through the woods, maybe four miles or so; it didn’t feel like more than ten, what with the uphill slopes. (Note to self; buy some decent hiking shoes.) Here we are, cheering ourselves on:

Oddly, we never did get a view of the mountain. You know, as a big, well, mountain rising up before you. Its 3,489-foot height, from where we came in, was pretty much obscured by a sea of forest. Nevertheless, it is the highest point in Massachusetts. Next time, we’ll have to come by car, so we can drive to the top. Yes, I know you can hike it. You can hike it. We’ll pick you up at the summit.

Here’s a lovely fern meadow:

Next stop, Tanglewood.

A Day at the Beach with the Carvers

We wanted to do something fun this weekend, and we had not yet tried taking the dogs with us in the Mothership (campervan). So we decided this was the time. We threw together some things for a day trip—mainly just food and dog supplies—and hit the road.

Hah! First of all, it took two hours longer than we expected to get ready (although part of that was going online and picking out a destination). We chose one of the loveliest beaches we know—Wingaersheek Beach in Gloucester—propelled by the discovery that April 30 was the last day that dogs were allowed on the beach before summer rules kicked in. That settled, I needed to implement an untested arrangement of harnesses and cushions to let the dogs ride safely strapped into the third and fourth seats of the campervan. (Mixed results on that one.)

Finally, though, we really did hit the road. Ten minutes in, Allysen realized she’d forgotten her glasses. Should we turn around? No, not that important. Five minutes more, and I realized I’d forgotten my wallet. Should we turn around? Yes. So we circled back, and I got my wallet. Also, Allysen’s glasses. Also, I shut the garage door that someone had left standing wide open. Back on the road.

Without further delay, we drove to Wingaersheek Beach. It was late in the day, uncrowded and gorgeous. There were some dogs there, off leash, so we let our guys run, too. Captain Jack had a ball, racing around, swimming in the tide waters, playing (peacefully!) with other dogs. He did steal one dog’s ball, but he gave it up and I threw it back to its owner. Even shy McDuff reveled in trotting free of the leash, though she never strayed far from us. By the end, they were exhausted. Or no, wait—that’s in the other universe. In this universe, they were ready and raring for more, and continued that way for the rest of the day. (Jack, you will recall, is an 11-year-old  cancer survivor.) When we got home, they absolutely had to be bathed, so we did that. By midnight, when they should have been totally zonked, they were still jumping around, Jack squeaking a toy in his mouth, looking for someone to play with. Who are these dogs, and where does that energy come from? Zero-point energy from the quantum flux?

Unanswerable questions. But that’s how we do a trip to the beach at the Star Rigger Ranch.

Beware the Tides of Ida

It’s been an interesting couple of days. This time last night my phone was screeching warnings to take shelter because of possible tornadoes and flash floods from the remnant of Hurricane Ida, which, having left a swath of destruction across the heartland, was now pummeling the Northeast. The only shelter I had available was the stern of the Mothership, so I just kept my head down and listened to the rain pound on the roof. I was fine, am fine. But I couldn’t help noting the irony that here I was in the path of Ida this weekend, when I’d postponed my original plans, last weekend, to stay out of the way of Henri.

The day before that? Beautiful, sunny. I rode Buckbeak to Woods Hole, looked around at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, where fifty years ago, as a fresh college grad, I knocked on the trailer door of just-becoming-famous undersea explorer Robert Ballard and asked him about careers in undersea exploration. (He was totally gracious to this wet-behind-the-ears wannabe writer/diver who had interrupted his work.) I also stopped by the Landfall Restaurant, where that same summer I’d worked as a dishwasher and busboy, and I had a cup of chowder and chatted with the granddaughter of the man I’d worked for. (She’s now one of the owners.)

Riding back, along the seashore, I stopped to sit and gaze across the water at Martha’s Vineyard, unaware that my friend Richard Bowker (read his stuff!) was over there, taking his own holiday. Neither one of us saw President or Michelle Obama, that I am aware of.

Tomorrow morning I pack up and head home. Was it a good trip? Yes. Did I start to unwind and think meaningful thoughts about my book? Yes. Did I get a lot written? No. But productivity was always a secondary goal. Thinking and rediscovering the threads of creativity was primary. On that, I got a start. I think I have more of these retreats in my future.

The Importance of Reading Schedules (Correctly)

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Our Mothership, aka Winnebago Era campervan, needed to have some work done on the camper side of things. On advice of our mechanic, I took it to an RV center in Bourne, just across the canal on Cape Cod. It needs to be there for a week, and it’s an hour and a half drive. I did a lot of thinking about how to drop it off without Allysen having to drive all that way behind me to give me a ride home.

My solution was ingenious. Take the train. I packed my bike in the back of the camper, and from the RV center, I biked to a nearby restaurant, the Lobster Trap, and had an early dinner on their outside patio. (Inside, there was no consideration at all to Covid distancing or mask wearing. Seriously, how stupid can people be? Don’t answer that.) Then I stopped for some ice cream and biked a couple of miles toward the tiny platform beside the canal bike road where the Cape Flyer train stops on its way between Boston and Hyannis. I had my ticket; the train features a free bike-carrying car; I had an hour to sit and read. Perfect.

Except… when I pulled up to the crossing by the RR lift bridge, half a mile from my destination, the lights started flashing and I heard a train horn. What’s this? Even as I took a picture, I felt my heart sink. I watched as the Cape Flyer rolled by, close enough to touch, and slow enough to jump aboard if this had been a movie. Rumble rumble, onto the bridge, over the canal, and my ride to Boston was going, going, gone. If there’d been a bike lane on the bridge, I could have chased it to the next station (Buzzard’s Bay, not far beyond). But no.

I whipped out my phone and checked the app. What had gone wrong? Where’s that schedule? There it is, right there! Leave Bourne at 8:35 p.m.! Not at 7:00!

Which, upon closer examination, turned out to be true. On Friday evening. But this was Saturday, and on Saturdays, it left Bourne at 7. And yes, it’s the only train.

Ringa-ringa-ringa… “Hi babe, you feel like taking a little drive in the truck? To Cape Cod? Right now?”

No, let’s not talk about how stupid people can be, okay?

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 10

We’re home! Back in Boston. I have never felt so tired in my life. I finished the deck railing well after dark on the last day and moved on to other essential repairs—such as securing the planks on a little bridge that were flipping up like a cartoon gag when you stepped on them. Here’s the final deck railing section, and the finished project the day we left:

By some miracle, we made it to San Juan in time to catch our JetBlue flight, after a near-all-nighter cleaning up the construction zone (the whole house) and packing. I tried to sleep on the flight, but it was a lost cause. Now, though, I’m all refreshed (hah!) after ten hours of sleep in my own bed. My own bed! I plan to rest for a week. Maybe two.

I thought I’d close this year’s Chronicles with some stray oddities.

Last year I wrote about the Ho Chi Dog Trail we’d discovered running through the property. Stray dogs had found a gap in the fence at one end and periodically came racing through in well-behaved packs, going about their business and disappearing up near the car gate. It was kind of fun, but not the sort of thing weekend renters want to see. I found the gap and plugged it with metal fence rails hastily zip-tied into place. That was a year and a half ago. This year, the gap was back: one rail knocked out and cast aside. Did the dogs do it? Who knows? But mark my words, they won’t do it again. We had the rails welded into place, by the fencing crew who were on the job last week putting up real fence in place of the mangled old cyclone fencing.

Speaking of putting things up, one small but important task was figuring out an appealing way to hang curtains in a room with concrete walls and awkward corners. Allysen came up with copper pipe as a great curtain rod, and I figured out a way to carve blocks of wood to drop them into, so they’d look good and be easy to take down, and yet not fall down when you wanted them to stay up. Securing them to the walls was the hardest part. Even with a hammer drill, that old concrete was tough!

I’ve yet to address a crucial subject: craft beers. They have a number of really good craft beer makers here on the island. You can buy their beers in the grocery stores now, which previously you couldn’t. My favorite is Ocean Lab Brewing Company’s Ocean Ruby Grapefruit Pale Ale. But weirdly, you still can’t get it in restaurants! If you ask for Puerto Rican beer, you get your choice of Medalla or Medalla. (Pronounced “meh-dah-ya.”) Medalla’s a light lager, on a par with Bud Light—decent enough, if you’re hot and tired and want to glug something to quench your thirst. But as a tasty brew with a meal? Not even close. When we asked the restauranteurs why they don’t carry the local craft beers, they said, “Not enough demand. Only the tourists want it.” Well, but… don’t you want to attract tourists?

Still, my preferred drink down here is rum punch, following a recipe created by Allysen’s dad, Phil Palmer. “One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, and four of weak.” Fresh-squeezed lime juice, dark sugar syrup, amber rum, and water (in the form of crushed ice). Top with Angostura Bitters and fresh-ground nutmeg. Simple, and unbeatable. We’ve cut the sugar some, and are more straightforward about the weak. So now we say, “One of sour, one-and-a-half of sweet, three of strong, and forget the weak.” (We still use the ice, of course.)

(At home, in fact, my recipe for frozen margaritas is based on this formula: “One of sour, one of sweet, three of strong, and three of stronger.” Lime juice, dark sugar, Triple Sec, and tequila. And lots of ice.)

Here’s the final rum punch of the trip, and a fitting close to this year’s Ponce Chronicles:

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 9

I haven’t posted in a while. That’s because I’ve been building a deck. If you haven’t been following, I’ve been replacing a rotted-out wooden deck beside the swimming pool at Casarboles, my wife’s family’s place in Ponce, Puerto Rico. I’m in a race against the clock (we leave for home in two days, having already extended our stay by two weeks), and it’s been a bear. In the middle of it all, I developed an ear infection, probably from protecting my ears with noise-canceling earbuds, complete with ground-in dirt. Did I let that slow me down? I did not! (Well, maybe a little.)

Here’s a sort of stop-motion record of what I’ve been doing:

Grinding and painting the steel supports…

Last floor plank laid, yours truly ready to keel over…

The new floor, shown to the audience in daylight by a far more attractive model; old, rickety railing system still in place…

Old railing gone, new railing begun… two days to finish…

Okay, back to work!

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 8

Progress! With a capital P. Here’s the pool deck yesterday. I filled in that gap and then some, today. Geez, I’m tired. But I have hope of getting it finished before we leave.

And here’s a new bit of railing. It replaces the well-crafted, elegantly curved railing that Allysen’s dad built, and which some boneheaded weekend tenant broke and tried to conceal by hiding the pieces in the bushes. Deep breath.

By the way, in case you’re wondering how I got those curves in the wood to so nicely match their pairs on the other side…

I found two pieces of warped lumber at Home Depot. Their curvature was exactly what I needed.

 

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 7

Puerto Rico is called the Isle of Enchantment. There is, in fact, remarkable beauty to be found just a short walk down the hill from Casarboles. The first thing you see is the Caribbean, just beyond the view of Ponce. From here, you can turn to your left to enter the grounds of the Japanese Gardens and Cruceta del Vigía.

We were treated to a private tour by the lovely activities director Luciris on a day the museums were closed (Allysen’s dad was once very active on the board of directors). We first entered the Japanese Garden, which might seem a little incongruous in this land of Latin culture, but it’s enchanting, just as promised. Here’s a view across the grounds.

And a strange and beautiful tree. I don’t know what kind.

Looking back at Cruceta del Vigía, which you can go up to the top in, but we didn’t.

Just around the bend in the road, you find the Castillo Serralles, now a museum but once a home for some of the wealthy members of the Serralles family, owners of the Don Q rum distilleries. It (and the gardens) are popular locations for wedding and parties.

I wasn’t at first very interested in seeing the inside of the Castillo (you’ve seen one Hispanic mansion, you’ve seen them all, right?). But was I wrong. The gardens adorning the grounds are breathtaking. Here’s a sampling…

Ending with a monkey pod tree:

For a while, all of the carpentry and masonry and plumbing floated away. And then, I admit, after the tour, I went back to the house and started work on framing an opening for the second aircon (!) and the deck.

Lexi and I walked around today, trying to map out all the circuit breakers—and there are a lot. She’s determined to create a reference for future sanity, and I say, You go, girl! Sadly, she flies back to Boston tomorrow, leaving just Allysen and me. Two more weeks to finish everything!

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