Can I join a Ciekiewicz and Biernacki fan club?

LaraTadcrop

 

In the movie Callas, Forever, Maria Callas played by Fanny Ardant says God answers prayers, but the problem is that we ask for the wrong things.  Regardless of religious beliefs, most of us ask for things or want something at one time or another.  I spend a lot of time wanting the wrong things.  But as I awoke today feeling aged, worn out, and irrelevant, I wanted to be enlightened, to find meaning in the wasteland that life sometimes appears to be.  No small order, right?

The answer came.  My request was answered at the Millennium Concert Series performance with soprano Lara Ciekiewicz and Tadeusz Biernacki in the form of poetry, musical poetry.  Their collaborative music was a revelation that penetrated to the deepest of one’s core.

Ciekiewicz’s voice resonated in a powerful magic that spellbound everyone.  Tears swelled in my eyes from her opening notes of the Kálmán piece.

Ciekiewicz.  Her presence — captivating.  Her voice and acting — nuanced in a palette of colours.  Her generosity — boundless.  To choose a word for the collaboration between Ciekiewicz and Biernacki — transformative.  Ciekiewicz’s voice pulls the audience toward the centre of an answer, to life’s very meaning itself, with the gravity of a black hole whose centre is a supernova explosion of beauty.  The answer, my friend, is music.  It must be.

During Dvorák’s Gypsy Songs Lara prefaced the pieces by saying they are about love and death.  The piano and voice carried us on a meditative journey, a peaceful one resonating with a message that everything is okay.  And in that sacred space of the Roman-pillared hall everything was okay.  I felt an answer in that delicate state of being present that life’s questions will be resolved with a surety equal to the piano’s final notes of the seventh piece.

With the Mozart aria, “E Susanna non vien…Dove sono” from Le Nozze di Figaro came more tears on my part.  Any doubt that had bred in me before about anything vanished as music transported the audience to extra dimensions.  Who needs space travel when you can travel through music here in the musical city of Winnipeg?  Listening to Mozart, especially sung in the clear yet resonant tones of Lara Ciekiewicz, can only be described as a spiritual experience.

The musical theatre selection uplifted and also guided the heart and spirit.  In the Sondheim piece “No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods was the text that people make mistakes.  Forgive my ignorance for the context of these words, but they brought to me the peace of a confession and an offered forgiveness.

Lara introduced “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music by presenting it as a protest song and to illustrate the relevance of music on the world stage.  She told us to do our part and be good, if recollection serves.  The song did good for the audience as she invited us to sing, to participate, to join her in song in a white musical purity.

I’m privileged to recently have attended concerts performed by Evgeny Kissin, Leon Fleisher, and Rolando Villazón.  Kissin’s virtuosity is unparalleled.  Every note Fleisher plays unveils his genius.  And Villazón.  His joy, playfulness, sonority, and relaxed posture are as instructive as years of vocal lessons.  But I feel privileged here in Winnipeg too to bear witness to the paragons of musical gifts offered by talents such as Lara Ciekiewicz and Tadeusz Biernacki.  Thank you for sharing your gifts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Review of Landsdowne Poetry Prize Winning Comma by Jennifer Still

Award-winning poet Jennifer Still’s new collection, Comma, meditates on spaces, pauses, and commas in time. Comma is a field guide for taking a breath in the daily rush-hour of life and for finding the poem in the pauses of the day. The poetry collection serves as a map not just for deliberating in the fragmentation both of life and poetry but also for when we cannot locate ourselves.

The pattern of the words on the page, the spaces between them, slow down the trek of thoughts and serve as a compass. The book guides the reader via whispers and secrets and meditations and hums. Its needle points inward, yet not in a claustrophobic, self-indulgent, and binding way, but in self-reflection to inflate and lift the reader out of herself. To float.

The book itself is a secret whisper. A glimpse into different dimensions of language. It’s easy to imagine seeing the words dangling as a mobile or falling down as raindrops, seeing them in three dimensions rather than on the two of the page. Comma includes not only printed text artfully spaced on its pages but also handwritten words, reproductions of images, drawings, and typed fragments cut from paper and arranged on the page all from various sources noted at the end. Still cites the manuscript as a “silent collaboration with [her] brother’s handwritten field guide of prairie grasses, composed while he was in SICU and recovery at Winnipeg’s Health Science Centre” from a coma. The pages presenting visual content form an integral component of the composition. They catapult our imagination and slow time, allowing us to look deeper at the butterflies and the flowers integrated with blurred and erased words and to deliberate on what remains. Some of the words in the images disappear beyond legibility, yet this doesn’t diminish the impact, the message of the secret unknowable and fading of order and direction. In Comma, Still brings something novel to life and a birth, a conception, arises from the methods of erasure and disappearance. Through the fragments, thoughts patch together in a quilt of deep sadness, a stir of the evanescent condition of what it means to be human, a longing, a vulnerability, all the colors of humanity. Still includes photographs of her erasure work and experiments with needle and thread, sewing through the language. The invisible strand of the breath is what connects the piece together, creating a continuity among the white space on the pages.

Much of what Still investigates through stitches, the field guide from her brother, other sources, and turning inward is what lies underneath, the biomass, as her brother says when he awakens: everything underneath the forest that makes it thrive yet remains invisible. She uses poetry to resolve her “conflicting impulse to connect and hide.” The words and images on the page, the stillness, the quietness of the work belie the network and growth underneath. The book provides a haven, the not so elusive safety of the quote she includes from Rebecca Solnit to protect the “frail and vulnerable” and the “impractical and local and small.”

Our lives hold a secret, something incomplete that changes. Different shades of blue. In her book, Still shares the breath, the secrets, the nonverbal communication yet via the conduit of language. The language isn’t linear. The words turn inside out and backwards, invert, a topology of language all unto itself. It doesn’t follow rules. It’s saddening to think of how bound our lives have become to arbitrary rules. We often veer from our life’s intended path, deflecting and defecting from the original plan. None of us can imagine when we create our rules where we will land, what illnesses might befall us, and how the rules might break even when we follow them. We think in terms of logical conditions. If p then q. Jennifer Still contests the logic of language, which forms the mathematical basis for our thoughts. She challenges us to break free from our conventions that might be trapping us in some way and to learn to float. Contradictions arise as words scramble, she plays with words within words and words that sound alike. The poems blur the line between secrets and what is manifest, between the sadness that inhabits our identity and the joy of picking something apart and rearranging it and discovering something new, which we might do with our own lives as well as the words on her page. In her poems is a music composed of form as well as language counterpointed with the silences of the spaces interspersed with quotes and meditative prose picked up as pebbles along the path. None of us can anticipate either the comma or the crack. Neither did Still when her brother fell into the coma which prompted Comma.

There are so many ways to crack open and to shatter, despite one’s best efforts to stay intact and on course. Yet in Still’s Comma, a crack, like in the Leonard Cohen song, lets the light in. A detour is not the end. When we break, as the words do on Comma’s page, we can reform into something new and singular and poetic.

Reading Comma, we learn that if we turn upside down, the words we might utter from our own pain that sink and weigh, like the words in the book, float. The poetry offers a lens, a prism, through which we can distort the distorted. Restore ourselves to ourselves, perhaps, through a glimpse outside. Which we do by focusing inward.

Life is but a comma between birth and death, between being and not being. I hope to return to this book again and again when I need a pause, a breath, a restorative Comma.

A Dialogue on Reading Clifford Johnson’s The Dialogues

Dialogue

Note: May contain spoilers.

Higgsino: Honey, I can’t follow Star Wars. I’m sure it’s good, but in twenty minutes they’ve introduced 10 characters, and I can’t follow the narrative. I keep thinking about how I’d rather be reading The Dialogues. Can we leave the theatre?

Higgs: Okay, if you need to. These action movies today are all about the action. They don’t have much plot.

A little later

Higgsino: My brain…isn’t functioning. It’s not working. Can’t think. Feel confused.

Higgs: Honey, you’re just having a hard day. Maybe we should call someone for a chat?

Higgsino: Let’s read The Dialogues and listen to Yo-Yo Ma.

Higgs: Okay.

Higgsino: Let’s read them out loud, like a dialogue.

Higgs: Haha.

Reads from introduction by physics Nobel Prize winner and luminary Frank Wilczek

Higgsino: Hey, The Dialogues follows in the same tradition. Plato, Galileo, Johnson…

Higgs: And he talks about “show, don’t tell” like what all the writers instruct.

Higgsino: It’s like a guidebook. And it’s like physics which includes language, equations, even cartoons which are based on the language of math, and visuals. It’s multi-dimensional.

Reading Dialogue I

Higgsino: It’s a really funny and lighthearted discussion. It’s even a meta-graphic novel at times, talking about science comic books.

Higgs: I never thought about how because of science, we all have access to superpowers. Even simple objects like the optics in the glasses we wear are tools that give us better vision.

Higgsino: Yeah! I love how the characters connect over scientific discussion. So romantic…

Higgs: Why isn’t that how people meet in rom-coms more often?

Higgsino: I don’t know. It should. This book makes a contribution by introducing science as fun, significant, provocative, and accessible in an analogous way as science improves society.

Higgs: And you’re smiling. I like that.

Higgsino: And it really does demonstrate that within math and equations is a beauty that can rival van Gogh that I dare anyone to refute.

Higgs: You won’t get an argument from me!

Reading Dialogue II

Higgs: This one is sweet, cute, comedic, and playful!

Higgsino: That’s how science should be done, and life lived, not this stressed-out mode of publish or perish!

Higgs: I love how the kids conduct an experiment and test their hypothesis!

Higgsino: Exactly. And their curiosity about food. Food and coffee play a major role in this book. It’s like the science and playful repartee between the characters nourish us just as the food and ideas do for the characters.

Higgs: I like how The Dialogues explains pragmatic phenomena as well as presents more sophisticated theories that will appeal to a wide audience.

Higgsino: The point is that science is not just a rarefied field for elite scientists to develop. It’s the world we live in, and we can all be curious about it and participate in one way or another. Even when we’re thinking about daily activities, like cooking.

Higgs: Yeah, cooking doesn’t have to be a chore! It can be a chemistry experiment!

Higgsino: These dialogues show how wonder about science enriches everyone’s experience of day-to-day life and is as fun as playing games.

Higgs: Isn’t that what science is all about? Solving riddles and mysteries? This book definitely shows how fun it is!

Reading Dialogue III

Higgs: Hey, those sequence of pictures are in time, like a diagram would be in a physics book.

Higgsino: What I like about this conversation is the brilliant presentation of the multiverse and anthropic principle. I never thought about it this way, but Johnson’s thoughtful analogies with history and other fields of physics is ingenious!

Higgs: The optimism about the state of physics is great too! I’ve heard from some physicists that the field will die unless something new is discovered at the Large Hadron Collider. But Johnson shows there will be an endless supply of questions and theories.

Higgsino: It’s definitely an uplifting read. The discussion of the “controversy” of string theory is accurate and gently teaches the readers that sometimes the media misrepresents the state of things. We all need to be scientists and detectives to discern the validity of press releases which might sometimes be sensationalized to attract an audience.

Higgs: Yes, it’s valuable for teaching readers to check their sources and provides comprehensive ones for further exploration at the end of each chapter. It’s an important part of doing science not to treat every statement as fact but to see how it’s motivated or backed up or to question where the fact comes from.

Higgsino: There’s just one thing I can’t find easily.

Higgs: What’s that?

Higgsino: These images are gorgeous. I wonder where I could find out all the locations for the visuals?

Reading Dialogue IV

Higgs: This dialogue continues from the first one. It’s about how beauty sometimes lies in the imperfections, both in art and physics.

Higgsino: Yeah, this dialogue illustrates that art and physics aren’t as different as people think, since both have symmetry as underlying principles.

Higgs: And that both get messy which can be beautiful too.

Higgsino: All the characters in this book are smart, diverse, and really witty. I wish I could know these characters; they’d make great friends!

Higgs: Just open the book when you get lonely.

Higgsino: I wish each dialogue were longer though.

Higgs: Each dialogue presents an idea, like how theories originate in each period in history. It’s like our lives. We’re each on a segment of the time-line. But there isn’t always a nicely tied up resolution.

Higgsino: The book mimics a Feynman diagram in physics where instead of particles interacting, exchanging particles, and then going off in their own directions, the people do and exchange conversations about science – the spark of light is the dialogue in each scenario.

Higgs: Yeah, it’s kind of like life. We’re all just passing through, in each other’s lives and in the universe.

Reading Dialogue V

Higgs: Platonic ideals, religious debates, and making peace about human mortality! These are things we all grapple with!

Higgsino: This one’s in the middle of the book, a keystone that offers how science can solve pragmatic issues that plague humans on a philosophical level.

Higgs: It also has an in-joke reference to Johnson’s blog.

Higgsino: Yeah, this book really balances profound insight into science, and people’s search for understanding, with lightheartedness.

Reading Dialogue VI

Higgs: This one’s my favourite!

Higgsino: Why?

Higgs: It gives one of the best explanations I’ve seen about the stretching of spacetime and debunking the myth that space travels faster than the speed of light during inflation.

Higgsino: I also love the analogies. Is it true that the strings in string theory are part of space-time?

Higgs: Well, a graviton is a massless state of a string. But in relativity it’s a quantum ripple in space-time.

Higgsino: This book will spark a lot of dialogues; it’s a launchpad for physics discussions among lay people and physicists alike. Especially since the different areas of physics can be so specialized.

Higgs: But it also brings abstract concepts down to earth with concrete analogies. Love the sport and cooking analogies.

Higgsino: Yeah, but it’s making me hungry for stew.

Reading Dialogue VII

Higgsino: The ideas in The Dialogues are completely distracting me from the daily toils of life.

Higgs: Yeah, I think that’s the point and at the heart of the book. You can lose yourself in the fireworks of scientific dialogues.

Higgsino: It’s got everything: black holes, the Big Bang, beginnings, endings, general relativity, special relativity…

Higgs: It’s true. This book is proof that thinking about science melts away anxieties of the human condition and elevates us through telling the story of the universe. What could make a better story than the history of the universe and the attempt to understand it?

Reading Dialogue VIII

Higgsino: Hahaha, it’s funny how Johnson introduces Feynman diagrams which are pictures used to calculate many phenomena such as particle interactions and then mentions the power of cartoons, since the book is a graphic novel.

Higgs: Yeah, the book is really funny at times. I love how the visuals reflect the discussion and often include relevant math. As a character mentioned in an earlier dialogue, anyone can appreciate the beauty of the math, like a work of art, and Johnson often breaks them down for clarity.

Higgsino: This dialogue really explores the nature of how science is done.

Higgs: And makes quantum electrodynamics accessible and leads you into deeper ideas.

Higgsino: The Dialogues covers so many major areas of cutting-edge modern physics and more subtle points usually reserved for rarefied academics. But it makes science exciting and accessible.

Higgs: Like translating a book from Latin to English for English speakers.

Higgsino: This chapter even makes me want to review quantum field theory. I forgot how fun it is and haven’t thought about it in so long!

Higgs: Advancing science is one of humanity’s finer feats. I think this book celebrates the wonder and delight we can all share in physics and offers light in bleak hours, just as Maxwell’s equations describe light.

Reading Dialogue IX

Higgsino: This chapter really hones in the idea that all scientific research might be useful, even mistakes along the way.

Higgs: What do you mean?

Higgsino: Sometimes I have philosophical crises about research since there are so many models to hope to understand or learn about some phenomena, but most of them are wrong. The point is not whether your contribution is right or wrong because it’s all useful in the journey.

Higgs: I really like the idea of the fluidity of dimensions. And the conceptual and technical aspects captured in the visuals.

Higgsino: Yeah, the beauty of ideas is paralleled by the stunning visuals. I’ll have to reread the book to absorb all the artistry and the notes and references at the end of each chapter. I kept wanting to turn the page to find out what happens next.

Reading Dialogue X

Higgsino: This chapter introduces really current areas of research.

Higgs: A lot of the chapters do, but the multiverse controversy and quest for a satisfactory resolution make it particularly germane.

Higgsino: It all comes together as characters appear in more than one dialogue and interact with the different characters, converging all the dialogues. And a lot of the ideas build on each other too and return.

Reading Dialogue XI

Higgsino: This one made me want to cry.

Higgs: Why?

Higgsino: It talks about how anyone interested in science should explore it. I wish I hadn’t been so discouraged in life to pursue a life in physics.

Higgs: Well, let the characters encourage you now. It’s never too late. And anyone who wants to learn can. Even just by taking the first step and reading this book. It’s not like a secret club with people with special brains, as Johnson writes.

Higgsino: Yes, and to quote the last words of the last dialogue, “Thanks for the story.”

The Dialogues is a hip, multidimensional, stunning tour de force where science meets art, and, like good art and science, medicine for the mind, heart, and soul.

Amy Poeppel’s Small Admissions: A Hilarious Glimpse into New York Prep School Admissions

Amy Poeppel’s debut novel, Small Admissions, should not be read while eating or drinking. Because you’ll likely choke as you laugh throughout this hilarious story. As the parental figures say at the end of the book, some people are flat, and some are bubbly. This goes for books too. And Small Admissions definitely fits in the sparkling variety.

Young Wellesley alum Kate Pearson ditches her anthropology graduate school plans to follow her sexy almost-fiancé, Robert, to Paris. Where he promptly dumps her. What follows is her return to her bosom (and meddling) friends and sister in New York City and her subsequent downward spiral spent mostly on the couch in her fifth floor walk-up sublet. She works as a disastrously ill-equipped dog walker, seemingly dragged through her depression as much by the dogs as by her heartbreak. Her drunken evenings and inability to function last until Kate’s sister, Angela, fortuitously meets Henry Bigley, the desperate admissions director at the elite private institution, Hudson Day School. The ensuing novel is a comedic patchwork of interwoven plot lines from multiple character perspectives that all converge beautifully. The novel offers glimpses into the bizarre worlds of New York City admissions, academic culture, unconventional families, close-knit friends, socialites, online dating for friends, and one very charming Parisian playboy.

Small Admissions abounds in laugh-out-loud scenarios, wisdom issuing from unlikely sources, a commentary on contemporary friendships and family, and likeable characters. In fact, the novel is so comedic, I could barely contain myself during many of the scenes. For example, during Kate’s job interview, she rambles at great length about many inappropriate topics – including nudity – in response to Henry Bigley’s prompt, “So tell me about yourself.”

After she lands the job, Kate exemplifies an independent woman who doesn’t need her friends for a makeover (despite their best efforts) but does it herself in keeping with a Wellesley graduate fashion – by doing her homework. In fact, her ascent out of her depression is practically an instructional self-help guide for anyone who might be stagnated in a funk. Kate’s viral energy inspires the reader as she transforms herself from a pajama-wearing depressive on the couch to a young organized professional entering the workforce for her new job. Although she soon discovers she’s overwhelmed, she veers into unknown duties and situations and grows to overcome her impostor syndrome with the support of her boss.

Kate is surrounded by a supportive family and well-meaning friends, but, as a psychiatrist character in the novel brilliantly points out, their efforts to help her as their project might very well result from their own egotism and personalities. Who among us is guiltless from trying to fix someone who might not desire our aid or wish us to meddle in their romantic affairs? Wisdom emanates from such quirky places as the liquor lady (who advises Kate to turn herself into the kind of person her job requires quickly) and her interviewees (with whom she discusses her relationship problems as hypothetical problems for the children to solve). Even the French playboy, Robert, has an uncannily insightful perspective. For example, in one instance he suggests that what we all need is a nice dinner with friends to defuse a tense or difficult situation, a simple, yet likely solution to most problems. And then at another time he says, “Life happens ze way life happens,” echoing not only European laid-back sensibilities but wisdom worthy of a philosopher. Poeppel portrays her characters as so likeable, she even manages to pull off making Robert lovable.

The way Poeppel unfolds the novel by allowing the reader to discover the bread crumbs of the characters and story is an exact demonstration of masterful writing and “showing” and not “telling.” One critique is the narrative was a little disjointed with the multiple character perspective and different plot lines leading me to some confusion in the beginning. However, the novel quickly becomes a page turner, and the narratives meld together in a brilliantly planned storyline. All of the players populating the book stay in character throughout. For example, Kate continually writes wickedly sarcastic notes on the interviewees, mirroring her spunky personality. Kate’s sister Angela seems to be on a mission to transform Kate into who Angela envisions Kate should be. Kate’s friends’ agendas remain true to their characters as well. My only wish for the book was that the characters’ alternate imaginary scenarios and inner fantasy worlds in early chapters continued throughout the novel.

If you need to get out of a reading rut and interact with flawed yet lovable characters who will take you to a world of young New York City professionals or just need some comic relief from a smart, engaging book, I highly recommend Amy Poeppel’s Small Admissions. The continual laughs the novel engenders seal the deal for me that we should all have more fun in life and not take everything (or ourselves) so seriously. Reading Small Admissions is definitely one step in that direction.

Meditations from Manitoba Opera’s Madama Butterfly

There is nothing like attending a live musical performance. You can sit at home and listen to the music over and over for years, yet do you really hear it? Last night I think I heard Puccini’s Madama Butterfly for the first time. Sitting in a theatre, your concentration is entirely on the music, on the performance, stirring and touching you, stimulating a meditation on how the performance connects to you and your life.

The story of Madama Butterfly is simple. Military officer Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton marries Japanese geisha Butterfly with the preconceived plan of deserting her once he tires of the marriage. And he does. He dissolves his marriage without ceremony or even her notification. He leaves Japan with her under the impression he will return. She patiently awaits his return, and, when he does three years later, it’s with a new wife in tow and the intent of removing their child to the US. Pinkerton betrays his faithful wife. The Manitoba Opera, as well as the singer David Pomeroy who portrayed Pinkerton, encouraged us to boo him after our ovation for his dramatically compelling performance.

The composer, Puccini, weaves the American national anthem into his score to accompany Pinkterton’s appearances. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard the Star-Spangled Banner, though it accompanied my childhood attending (and even singing in a choir at) sports events in Philadelphia. Although my personal anthem is more aligned with Bruce Springsteen, the melody played in this context moved me. Pinkerton followed the stereotype of the American taking what he wants without regard to others. A parallel occurs in the role of the US president in the film Love Actually (played by Billy Bob Thornton) opposite the British Prime Minister played by Hugh Grant. We must strive to evade the fate of becoming this stereotype by being faithful and kind to our family and friends, upholding principles, being generous, and not stereotyping others based on their origins.

Too often I find myself just trying to get through another day while searching for the elusive purpose and meaning to this existence I share with others on earth. Often I get cranky, I’ll admit, as I saw on a recent blog post I made, since I work and have worked very hard in my life without any or much compensation. Maybe this is in part how I conform to the stereotype of the culture I was born to. I do feel immensely grateful for everything I have, and I mean everything, including being able to walk and to type right now and for any moment not in some kind of severe discomfort. But perhaps there is still a selfishness to my attitude. Even in just wanting to feel satisfied there is meaning to existence. Because, as I learned from the Gita, it’s not about what we want to do with our life. It’s about pursuing our duty. And not enjoying the fruits of our labour. There is honour in serving our duty. I admit I don’t entirely know the full breadth and depth of my duty, but I have a sense of it. And in serving our duty we have honour.

Madama Butterfly, sung by Hiromi Omura, was a woman of honour. Omura portrayed Butterfly with grace, honesty, authenticity, and honour. Her aria, Un bel di vedremo, was powerful. I saw in Omura’s Butterfly more puissance and strength than fragility, yet it suited the character’s sense of honour. I briefly discussed the opera with a Japanese woman this morning who, like me, also enjoyed Manitoba Opera’s production, this her inaugural experience as a member of an opera audience. I can only hope that in my novels where I portray characters of backgrounds different from my own, with the intent of honouring these cultures I so admire, my readers will respond positively to my treatment, like this woman did to the Manitoba Opera’s portrayal of her culture. I struggle greatly with concerns of accidental cultural appropriation, as opposed to cultural appreciation, so I do my homework, consult with others, and ask their permission. Yet do I succeed in my goal?

With every breath we might aim to follow our duty and to live a life of authenticity and honour. To give to others rather than to follow the stereotype of greed that might plague us from our origins. I remember a piano teacher telling me that music is about giving. Every time we sit at the piano to practice we must give to the music and to the piano, even if no one is listening. I’m learning that music is part of my duty, even if others are more talented than I am or more skilled. Because through the practice of music we develop both as practitioners, as audience members, and as people. It’s the local Winnipeg arts organizations like the Manitoba Opera that give so much to us; they give us high calibre music, an experience, a spectacle even, and a moment of reflection about our place in our communities and the world.

 

 

WSO Concert: Transformative. Enlightening. Redemptive. Awakening

Last night I attended the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra concert featuring pianist Natasha Paremski, soprano Nathalie Paulin, and conductor Daniel Raiskin.

The concert opened with Nimrod by Edward Elgar in memory of a symphony violist who had passed away.  A yellow rose was placed on the chair where she would have played, and the piece was meant to express with music what words cannot, as she would have desired.  The tribute and moment of silence moved me to tears, as did the music, ethereal and somber, sensitive and sweet.  The violist’s symphonic family expressed their love for her through music and silence, through a rose.

Beethoven’s Overture for The Creatures of Prometheus followed in the program.  The string instruments hummed, reminiscent to me of insect wings.  This piece, new to me, was lively and invigorating.  Despite a comprehensive collection of CD’s at home, I am always delighted by the WSO program which introduces work unknown to me.

Natasha Paremski played the piano in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor next.  The opening bars transported the audience in time to another era.  The orchestra and Paremski conjured Romanticism and Chopin, as the music rang through the auditorium.  Paremski’s performance leaves me at a loss for words, the experience indescribable; Chopin lived through Paremski’s conjuring of his music, his presence palpable.  It captivated.  It enchanted.  It enthralled.  Paremski channelled the very essence of Chopin in a transformative way.

The final piece was Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 Op 36, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” featuring soprano Nathalie Paulin.  The inspiration for the symphony was Gorecki’s experience of witnessing the horrors of Auschwitz at the end of World War II.  The music captured the horrors of the unthinkable as well as the fragile hope and beauty which might be humanity’s only redemption.  Conductor Daniel Raiskin delivered a pre-concert discussion before the symphony.  He conveyed Gorecki’s belief in spiritual beginnings and the human innocence at birth before corruption. Raiskin urged the audience to use the piece as a means of self-reflection and meditation.  He discussed the present situation where people don’t know where to go and keep running and Dostoevsky’s quote about how “beauty will save the world.”  The music was relevant both for the world stage and its players as well as for the individual, for the macrocosm as well as the microcosm.  I think as individuals we are often running as well.  Running away from the inevitable pain of being human and not knowing where to find solace.

Perhaps the answer is in the spirituality and beauty of music, a language more universal and more comprehensible than the feeble words we use to try to capture an emotion.  The night was unexpected.  It transported us not to the moon or to Mars, but to our own spiritual beginnings.  It awakened in us a hope that we, too, might be able to find the music to comfort our wounds, enlighten us, and fill us with the spirituality and meaning without which we might be empty.

Thank you to the WSO and all the performers.

Susan Elia MacNeal’s The Paris Spy: A Light Still in the City

Maggie Hope is a special agent for World War II Britain dropped in France in Susan Elia MacNeal’s The Paris Spy. Her mission is twofold: 1) to unravel the mystery of a potentially compromised fellow agent and 2) to uncover her sister’s whereabouts and to bring her safely home. As I read the book I noted the themes of Sleeping Beauty and clocks, the pressure of time, threading throughout. Danger and threat hover ominously from even the beginning pages, leading the reader on a tense, heightened journey that the word page turner does not do full justice; it is a novel meant to be binge read.

Superficially perhaps the novel is about revealing a double agent, finding a sister, and completing a mission. The novel is really about courage. Most obviously, it’s about the strength and the lengths people will go and what they will sacrifice to fight against those who don’t value religious minorities and the mentally or physically disabled. The courage to fight against fascism and those who don’t value everyone’s right to exist and with equal rights. I championed Maggie and her friends for fighting for their principles and all of those resisting the oppressive, censoring, intolerant, horrific, and truly inhumane Nazi culture. I relished the line in which “Resistance comes in all forms,” referencing how art can be a form of resistance, even the ballet and the colours worn on the dancers’ costumes. Resistance to immoral forces can be subtle or overt, just as strength can be. Very timely motifs.

I enjoyed Maggie’s realistic use of mathematical games, such as reciting the digits of Pi or calculating the Fibonacci sequence to calm herself. Like Maggie, I find math to be comforting, a safe place to go in my mind. For me I use the game 24 to relax. 24 is where you use the four basic operations of arithmetic to form the number twenty-four from four numbers between 1 and 13 (for example, if your numbers are 3,5,7,11 you can take 7 minus 3 to get 4, then take 11 minus 5 to get 6, and then multiply 6 times 4 to get 24; it’s extremely soothing and addictive). I loved how Maggie described the meditative nature of math, how almost prayer-like it is, an experience of divine proportions. Even with math we can quiet our minds to defeat the foes who try to suppress us. In a sense, math can be a form of resistance as a way not to allow others to trample our minds and spirits.

But what I think The Paris Spy is really about is Sleeping Beauty and love. Like Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Maggie and her friends wake up to what’s really important, which is love. Again and again through the Maggie Hope series, Maggie and her friends learn the depth of a love of country, love of freedom from fascism and extreme intolerance, love of peace, and a love for the bonds that connect her coterie. It’s a coming-of-age story for Maggie where she wakes up to who she and her sister are meant to be, even if she might despise the moral dilemmas she encounters. In the book, circumstances push her and her friends to their limits which test their characters, and Maggie, in particular, wakes up to the most fundamental meaning of duty and learns where hers lies. I cannot help but be reminded of the Bhagavad Gita’s teaching us to follow our duty, what we are meant to do in our lives. Through the course of The Paris Spy, Maggie learns who are her allies, who are not, and she grows up to witness the horrors of a game which is not as black and white as chess.

There is a line in the book, “Love is what matters.” As I journey through reading the Maggie Hope books, I see that they really form an unconventional epic love story. It’s not the romances that occasionally pepper the books that form the love story, but a more encompassing love, one of true fidelity to friendship and sisterhood and one to the very purity of mathematics that governs our world. As I myself age, I realize how I wish all of life could be as simple as math. I think Maggie must agree with me.