Monday, October 23, 2017

On the Coffee Table: A Murder of Quality

Title: A Murder of Quality
Author: John le Carré
via Amazon
George Smiley is back.  This time, the brilliant yet eternally marginalized former spook, is investigating a murder at a prestigious English prep school.  This, the second Smiley novel, is a straight up mystery story, very little espionage apart from occasional allusions to the protagonist's past.  We get some insight into Smiley and his disastrous marriage in particular but again, details are sparing.  Those hoping for a spy novel would be disappointed but as a whodunit, it's not bad - lots of good misdirection.

The occasional morsels about Smiley's history are satisfying.  I especially appreciated this passage, one that reveals much of the art behind our hero's unassuming character:
The byways of espionage are not populated by the brash and colourful adventurers of fiction.  A man who, like Smiley, has lived for years among his country's enemies learns only one prayer: that he man never, never be noticed.  Assimilation is his highest aim, he learns to love the crowds who pass him in the street without a glance...he could embrace the shoppers who jostle him in their impatience...He could adore the officials, the police, the bus conductors, for the terse indifference of their attitudes.
Definitely up for more.  Next in the series is a classic of the genre: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Friday, October 20, 2017

A Window Above: All-Night Vigil

Piece: All-Night Vigil, Op. 37
Composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff
Premier: March 10, 1915, Moscow

The first piece I ever conducted in front of a live chorus was "Priidite, poklonimsya," the first movement of Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil, one of the masterworks of the a cappella repertoire.  It begins with a sustained, unison "amin" (Russian for amen) and my professor had stressed to me the difficulty of achieving a clean entrance.  He himself had struggled to get it right with our choir.  I was quite nervous standing in front of my singing colleagues.  Student conductors weren't a standard part of the experience for any of us so they were all watching me in curious anticipation.  I brought my hand down and they all came in, perfectly.  I was so surprised that I lurched a little, but I controlled my beat.  The main body of the piece is quite a challenge for a beginner, switching meters - unmarked in the score - every two measures.  We made it through together but I don't remember much else.  The moment that stayed with me, that will probably always remain with me, was that first, perfect entrance.  I expected many emotions from the experience: fear, anxiety, relief.  What I did not expect was the thrilling rush of power.  I brought my hand down and people sang.  Wow!

The All-Night Vigil is often mistakenly referred to as Vespers.  Only the first six of the 15 movements are from the Vespers service.  Movements 7-14 are from Matins and 15 is from The First Hour.  Our professor was a Russian choral music specialist and we performed several of the movements during my college career.  I would imagine that over the years, he's covered all of them.  It is also a piece my father has sung as a member of the Choral Arts Society of Washington.  That group made a recording of the work in 1987 at the National Cathedral, under the baton of Mstislav "Slava" Rostropovich.

I love several of the movements for different reasons.  #1, of course, is forever tied to the experience described above (we didn't do the chants in the beginning).



#2 is my favorite as a listener.  It is slow and luscious, with that dazzling final note for the basses.  I imagine myself lying in a meadow, staring up at a universe of stars.  (This clip's a particularly gratifying find for me, given the group and its conductor - recorded a couple decades too late for this blogger to have been involved)



#9 was my favorite to sing - wonderfully dramatic.  The second tenor solo was one of my first solos in the college choir.


Thursday, October 19, 2017

On the Coffee Table: Strengths-Based Leadership

Title: Strengths-Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow
Authors: Tom Rath and Barry Conchie
via Target
Like Emotional Intelligence, this was a book from last summer's grad school course.  Strengths-based learning is a major theme of the program and while we usually talk about emphasizing our students' strengths, in our leadership class, we were encouraged to explore our own.  Rather than fretting over our deficiencies, not to mention those of others, we should all be building on what we do well.

The book includes a passcode to an online assessment (more on that later).  My own strengths shook out as follows:

Input - "People strong in the Input theme have a craving to know more.  Often they like to collect and archive all kinds of information."

Learner - "People strong in the Learner theme have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve.  In particular, the process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them."

Intellection - "People strong in the Intellection theme are characterized by their intellectual activity.  They are introspective and appreciate intellectual discussions."

Context - "People strong in the Context theme enjoy thinking about the past.  They understand the present by researching its history."

Connectedness - "People strong in the Connectedness theme have faith in the links between all things.  They believe there are few coincidences and that almost every event has a reason."

In total, the book highlights 34 themes which fall into four different categories: executing, influencing, relationship building and strategic thinking.  Four of my five (all except connectedness) are strategic thinking strengths.  As I am comfortable in that area, I should look to build teams around me of those with strengths in the other three areas.  For the record, connectedness falls into relationship building.

I am fully on board with the basic thesis: make the most of your own strengths and, when you can, those of others.  Here's the problem: you'll get the most out of the book if you take the online assessment and each individual book copy comes with its own passcode.  So, sharing books doesn't work.  Everyone needs to buy their own copy. 

If you're interested in strengths - and you should be - a more satisfying self-evaluation route might be the VIA Survey.  Their strengths cover a broader range of life endeavors AND the initial survey and the basic report are free.  For the record, my top five VIA strengths:
  1. Love of learning
  2. Judgment
  3. Curiosity
  4. Love
  5. Prudence

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Squid Mixes: Casino

The casino is a tasty drink combining gin, lemon juice, Maraschino liqueur and orange bitters.  It tastes a lot like a Manhattan, actually, but with gin instead of rye.  I got my recipe from The New York Bartender's Guide.

The Little Squirt sends her regards.

Friday, October 13, 2017

A Window Above: Moonshadow

Song: "Moonshadow"
Writer: Cat Stevens
Original Release: September 1970



To my mind, Cat Stevens is the world's most under-appreciated songwriter.  Born Steven Demetre Georgiou and now known as Yusuf Islam, he may not have the overall body of work to compare with the McCartneys, Dylans, Paul Simons and Joni Mitchells of the world.  But Cat Stevens has a remarkable gift for creating authentic-sounding folk songs.  I don't mean the political anthems created by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger for the labor movement.  I mean songs that genuinely sound as if they sprung from an ancient oral tradition.  The two best examples I know are "The Wind," which I featured in this post, and "Moonshadow."

While I probably first heard the song in my early teens, I never gave much thought to moon shadows as being a real thing until I moved to Vermont in my late 20s.  For the Londoner Yusuf, the revelation came while on vacation in Spain.  For me, it was on I-89.  On my way to White River Junction to be an All-State judge the next morning, I saw moon shadows of pine trees on virgin snow.  So enchanted, I was tempted to turn off my headlights in order to see them more clearly but fortunately thought better of it.  The following evening, I dragged my wife out for a night drive to find more.  Poetically, the direction we picked led us towards the more rural area where we live now.  15 years later, I still look forward to clear winter nights when the bright moon reflects off the snow to create quasi-daylight and reveal those magical shadows.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Squid Mixes: Rum Buck


Ladies and gentlemen, I believe we have our Thanksgiving beverage.  One sip of the rum buck - light rum, lime juice and ginger ale - and my wife proclaimed "very nice."  We may play around with ginger ale vs. ginger beer but we have a winner.  My recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide.

Bucks are a family of drinks combining ginger ale or beer with a citrus juice and a base liquor.  The Moscow Mule, which uses vodka, is probably the most famous example.  With gin, it's a Ginger Rogers.

Friday, October 6, 2017

A Window Above: A Whiter Shade of Pale

Song: "A Whiter Shade of Pale"
Writers: Gary Brooker, Keith Reid, Matthew Fisher
Band: Procol Harum
Release Date: May 12, 1967



13 years ago, we were still living in our stuffy apartment in Burlington.  One day, I was home alone with the baby.  She was fussy.  None of the usual tricks - feeding her, changing her, cuddling her, playing with her - seemed to help.

"A Whiter Shade of Pale" came on the radio with its soothing, ethereal, Bach-inspired organ intro.  The fussing stopped instantly.  It was my first awareness that she was actually listening to the music.  What's more, even before she had the words to express them, she was already developing her own opinions about the songs.  A lifelong love was already underway.  It was, without a doubt, one of the great musical moments of my life.

"A Whiter Shade of Pale" is one of the most frequently played songs in the history of recorded music.  It is one of fewer than 30 singles that has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and is a shoe-in for any greatest songs list anyone puts together.  It has been covered by at least 1,000 different artists and turns up in movies all the time, most memorably for me in The Commitments:



It is an unusual hit song for the fact that so much of it is instrumental only.  Over a four-minute recording, there are only two verses and two choruses.  The organ is the star.

The trippy lyrics are suggestive of a sexual encounter, though Reid claims a more basic girl-leaves-boy scenario was intended.  He also swears it's not about a drug experience (though they all say that).  Whatever the words are about, they're certainly beautiful, well worthy of the song's musical sophistication:

"The room was humming harder
As the ceiling flew away"

and

"I wandered through my playing cards."

Good stuff.

Procol Harum, formed in Essex, England and active for years, can't be considered a true one-hit wonder.  In total, they charted six songs in the UK and three in the US.  But "A Whiter Shade of Pale" will always be their greatest legacy, one of which they can surely be proud.