Singing Brahms at the Barbican: “Ein deutsches Requiem”

It’s October again, which in my world means singing in the first Crouch End Festival Chorus concert of the new season! Last year, we sang Mozart’s Mass in C minor with the London Mozart Players (LMP). This year, we were lucky to be joined by LMP again, back at the Barbican for Johannes Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem (“A German requiem”). Soprano Erica Eloff sang Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) to open the concert, as well as the soprano solos in the Brahms. Baritone Benjamin Appl took on the male solos in the Brahms. Brahms’s requiem is unique in that it is not set to the traditional Latin mass, but rather Brahms chose selections of German text from the Luther Bible. Even for a non-believer like myself, parts of the libretto are quite moving.

Didn't get any pictures during rehearsal, so here's a City of London shot on my way to the Barbican.

Didn’t get any pictures during rehearsal, so here’s a City of London shot on my way to the Barbican.

Now I’m not sure you you feel about Brahms, but I’ve had mixed feelings about his music ever since first hearing and attempting to learn his clarinet sonatas back in high school. It took me ages to understand what seemed to be a lack of melody and get used to the irregular, dancelike rhythms. A track teammate at Oberlin introduced me to Brahms’s symphonies, numbers 1 and 4 of which grew on me. His piano concertos are great fun to listen to. But I’ve never felt quite the same connection with Brahms as I have with composers like Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach (what can I say? I like the traditional stuff). While I did go through a period of enjoying sweeping, Romantic-era orchestral music, I’ve always come back to my three favorites for their melodiousness and simple complexity (is that a thing?).

All of the above goes to say that I looked forward to singing Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem, but it didn’t enrapture me as much as it does some, including our chorus director (DT) and many fellow singers. But the piece grew on me, and I loved singing the rich, dark moments — like those in the second movement — where I could let out my inner mezzo soprano:

I also enjoyed singing in German, and we had a good language coach to help smooth out the choir’s tendency towards English diphthongs. Fellow soprano SG, also a German speaker, and I shared a few chuckles about how selige Toten (“blessed dead”) came out a bit like selige Torten (“blessed cakes”) at times! Overall, our hard work on the German paid off and the choir received many compliments on the clarity of our words — although F pointed out that we still had trouble with the “ch” sound, pronouncing Stachel more like “stackel.”

The performance went well. The LMP were incredible, as usual; Eloff’s singing was lovely (despite not having great German diction); and Appl’s diction was impeccable — it helps that he’s actually German — although he made a few mistakes, which I’m willing to forgive after seeing his busy event schedule. DT was very pleased, given the email he sent around to the choir afterwards, and I enjoyed finally getting a sense of the requiem’s story and drama when we sang it in full with the orchestra and soloists. My parents had come over to London for a week, in part to see the concert, and they loved it. A few current and former choir members in the audience were equally impressed. I’d say we pulled it off!

Next up: Sing Christmas! 2016 at St. Michael’s Highgate. Get your tickets now!


Summer Singing: “Reflections” in St. James’s Church, Piccadilly

IMG_3038And just like that, another year singing with the Crouch End Festival Chorus has gone by. We wrapped up the regular concert season this weekend with a varied a cappella programme in St. James’s Church, Piccadilly. St. James’s Church was a new venue for us and, though it doesn’t look like much from the outside (despite being designed by Sir Christopher Wren, best known for St. Paul’s Cathedral), it offers a lovely open space inside with a great acoustic. The theme for this summer’s concert was “reflections”: each piece we sang had some sort of reflective element (water, mirrors, a double choir, or simply a sense of internal reflection).

We started off the evening with Eric Whitacre’s Water Night. I’ve been a Whitacre fan for a while, but this was the first time I’ve had the pleasure of singing one of his pieces. It is magical, the way the dense chord clusters and harmonies melt together and shimmer. After a brief piano interlude (see below), we sang Mirror Suite, a contemporary piece written by composer Alan Charlton and set to poems by Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. This was a quirky, four-movement piece with various elements of reflection embedded within it: double (and triple) choirs, canons, inverted figures, birdsong, and fugues. I didn’t fall in love with the piece, but I did enjoy singing in Spanish and experiencing the different effects of the reflective elements. F liked the imitation of birdsong (a small group of soloists) in the second movement, Réplica.

Photo courtesy of FZ

Photo courtesy of FZ

The longest piece in the concert was Josef Rheinberger’s Mass in Eb Major. Have you ever heard of Rheinberger? Neither had I, until we started rehearsing his mass. Rheinberger lived right through the middle and end of the 19th century, and elements of his mass conjure composers as diverse as Mozart, Bruckner, Mendelssohn and Bach. It was an enjoyable mass to sing, and I think we gave it a good performance. My friend A, who attended the concert, said the church’s acoustics worked especially well for the piece’s double choir and rich harmonics.

We ended the concert with two short pieces: Stanford’s pure and beautiful The Blue Bird and a fun arrangement of Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror. Here is the Stellenbosch University Choir singing it:

A unique part of this summer’s concert was that we were treated to instrumental interludes for piano and cello. Our very own accompanist, Peter Jaekel, played some lovely solo Debussy, and he was joined by cellist Joely Koos for Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel and Saint-Saëns’ The Swan. The Pärt performance was a highlight for me and other audience members, being at once contemplative, reflective, and sorrowful yet healing and uplifting.

I always enjoy our summer programs, as we get to sing a variety of shorter, unaccompanied pieces in beautiful churches and chapels: Southwark Cathedral; St. John’s College Chapel, Cambridge; Waltham Abbey. Rather than having our usual summer break now, the choir is singing in a BBC Prom at the end of July and recording Bach’s St. John Passion in September. I’m not doing all of it but am looking forward to Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem in October. We hope you’ll join us in the audience.


“Meyer, where are you?” — Jazz Brings Jewish Mobster to Life

Last week as part of the Crouch End Festival Chorus (CEFC), I had the privilege of singing in the world premiere of an ambitious and challenging new jazz work by composer Roland Perrin at London’s Southbank Centre. The piece, titled Lansky, the Mob’s Money Man, is billed as a “choral jazz drama” and depicts the life of Meyer Lansky, a Jew whose family emigrated to New York in the first decade of the 20th century to escape pogroms in their native eastern Europe. Lansky ended up rising high in the Jewish mafia’s ranks to become known as the “Mob’s Accountant.”

Photo courtesy of Paul Robinson

Performing in Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. Photo courtesy of Paul Robinson.

Perrin’s jazz drama tells Lansky’s story, from his life as a boy in a village to his arrival on New York’s Lower East Side to his travels in Cuba and his retirement in Florida. The chorus plays different roles throughout the 19-scene piece, while soloist Rachel Sutton sings as a number of the women in Lansky’s life and narrator Allan Corduner punctuates the music with brief accounts of Lansky’s doings (all in a great 1950s New York / film noir accent). The fantastic Blue Planet Orchestra, Perrin’s own jazz band in which he plays piano and accordion, helps hold it all together.

Let me tell you: this piece was hard. Perhaps one of the hardest things I’ve sung, in large part because I’d never really sung jazz. It took me at least a month of rehearsals to realize that the seemingly random notes we had to learn actually did fit together with the accompaniment and other voice parts into a comprehensive whole. Once I figured this out, Lansky turned out to be a lot of fun to sing.

I loved all the different styles that Perrin incorporated into his piece: ragtime, swing, blues, Klezmer (that was the most fun to sing), Afro-Cuban, crazy-sounding free jazz-like stuff — you name it and it was probably in there.

The performance itself went well, and I felt the most relaxed that I ever have in a chorus concert. Many audience members gave rave reviews, and luckily no one seemed to notice those few missteps in scenes 15 and 16… I really hope that Lansky gets performed again and perhaps even recorded one day — it is certainly a testament to Perrin’s versatility and it tells a fascinating story in a vibrant way.

My view from the first row of the soprano section

My view from the first row of the soprano section

Click here to see more photos from the concert, and watch the trailer below to get a sense of what the piece is like:

Up next for CEFC? Rachmaninov’s Vespers (glorious!) at Southwark Cathedral and St. John’s College Chapel, Cambridge in July.

Go for Baroque: Singing Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610

I’ve come to realize that chorus concert days are sort of like track meets: it takes a lot of endurance, focus, and conservation of energy to get through a long afternoon and evening. We have a 3-hour afternoon rehearsal, an hour-ish break, and then the concert. Like track meets, it’s tricky to figure out how and when to eat on concert days. I usually have to leave the house around lunchtime, travel an hour or so to the venue, sing for a couple hours, take a short break, sing more, take a longer break, and perform. I’ve finally discovered that frequent ingestion of high-energy food is the key to keeping me going on concert day: nibbles of oatcakes and cheese, a peanut butter and banana sandwich, apples, even sports drink.

Anyway, all that goes on in the background of rehearsing and performing incredible music in gorgeous venues, as I was fortunate enough to do as part of the Crouch End Festival Chorus this weekend. We performed Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, accompanied by the period-instrument English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble and fronted by a fantastic group of soloists. The venue was also beautiful: 300-year-old St. John’s Smith Square, a large church just south of Westminster Abbey that is now used primarily as a music venue (not surprisingly, as the acoustics are wonderful).

Gosh, where to begin? Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 is a remarkable 90-minute piece, full of florid early Baroque runs, trills, and invitations for improvisation for the soloists and musicians. The chorus is split into two choirs for most of the piece, as the various movements demand up to 10 different vocal parts. Traditionally, the choir would have been all men and boys, but in today’s modern age the top 3-4 parts are sung by women. It’s also really meant for a chamber choir, with just a few voices per part, but our director (DT) decided to go for the challenge of getting 140 of us to sound like a small choir. Here’s the masterful John Eliot Gardiner leading his professional Monteverdi Choir in a performance of the Vespers:

Intonation and blend are key in a piece like this, which requires a pure sound and Italianate Latin vowels. Diction is tough to coordinate and execute well — especially Latin, as these Brits speak with so many diphthongs! — with so many singers. And the standards were high, as we were accompanied by the well-known English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, who could probably play the Vespers in their sleep! (side note: cornetts are really cool and the theorbo was likened to a “Renaissance banjo” by DT.) Not to mention the incredible soloists, all clearly trained in the unique early Baroque style, which requires so much vocal control to sing all those 16th and 32nd notes. Highlights include the two sopranos singing “Pulchra es” (24:15 in the above video) and the tenor duet/trio with baritone, “Duo seraphim” (36:24, above).

Although I may be biased, I think we pulled it off. Even if not, it was certainly challenging and great fun to sing. Despite the Vespers being a religious piece, DT kept emphasizing that, in fact, Monteverdi’s music is incredibly sensual and erotic (ever seen/listened to his operas? I can still remember seeing Oberlin Opera Theatre perform Poppea back in 2008 and being struck by the sensuality of the 17th-century music). I completely agree. Part of what I enjoyed about singing the Vespers of 1610 is the variety of moods and styles in the piece: in some sections we had to sound like a children’s choir, while in others we broadened our sound to that of a symphonic choir. It was a real treat to sing this 400-year-old piece of music and start to get inside its complexities. Well done all!

Concert Review: London Philharmonic Orchestra with David Zinman & Emanuel Ax

Sarah accompanied me to this London Philharmonic Orchestra concert, for which I again scored £4 student tickets. The concert, on 19 March, was conducted by David Zinman and featured Emanuel Ax on the piano. [N.B.: David Zinman conducted the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra early in his career — I grew up in the Rochester house he lived in!]

The LPO concert, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, opened with one of Mozart’s late symphonies: No. 38 in D major, K. 504 (“Prague”). It’s called the “Prague” symphony because that’s where it was premiered in 1786. The three-movement symphony is a lovely piece — very “Mozartian” and pleasant to listen to, with glimpses of his late-style minor chords and introspection. As the concert opener, the symphony provided a great introduction to David Zinman’s conducting style: he is the subtlest conductor I have ever seen. A small, amiable-looking 77-year-old (!), Zinman conducts with gentle, non-distracting gestures — at one point during the Mozart, he completely stopped conducting, letting the orchestra carry themselves, until he took up the baton again for a cue. I loved watching him smile over to the first violins when cueing them. Such a kind-looking little man — and it was clear from the next two pieces that he and Emanuel Ax have much affection for each other.

Ax made his first appearance for Richard Strauss’ Burleske in D minor for piano and orchestra. I didn’t know this piece before the concert, but the performance made me want to hear it again. It has typical Straussian harmonic layers and hints of lush Romanticism in many of the piano’s lively passages. Most impressive were Ax’s cadenza and his superb call-and-response dialogues with the timpani and first flute at various points throughout the piece. Ax is fun to watch — we were close enough to see his mouth moving along to the music; during rests he would turn to watch the orchestra, clearly reveling in the wonderful music they were all making.

David Zinman and Emanuel Ax with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (photo credit: Sarah)

David Zinman and Emanuel Ax with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (photo credit: Sarah)

After the interval, Ax returned to the piano for a piece written some 150 years before the Strauss: Bach’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, BWV 1052 — one of the major precursors to the modern piano concerto, according to the program notes. Now I love Bach, and this piece was fun as always, but I found the balance to be slightly off — the grand piano, played with what I thought was a bit too much pedal for Bach, often overpowered the small string orchestra. Maybe that’s just because of where we were sitting — in the center of the fifth row — too close, in retrospect. Ax’s technical skill certainly cannot be doubted, and he plays with wonderful feeling.

The final piece brought us back to the late 19th century: Richard Strauss’ tone poem, Tod und Verklärung (“Death and Transfiguration”), Op. 24, which was premiered at the same concert as the Burleske we heard in the concert’s first half. I was looking forward to this piece, because I learned when we studied Tristan und Isolde in one of my MA classes that Strauss had in mind the (in)famous “Tristan Chord” from Wagner’s music drama when he was composing Tod und Verklärung. I did recognize glimmers of Wagnerian harmony throughout the piece, which is a vast, sweeping tone poem worth listening to if only for the haunting opening and breathtaking ending, which imparts a feeling of suspension with a bit of longing — the “transfiguration” or “transcendence” of the title, perhaps. Here’s a recording of Zinman conducting the piece with his “home” orchestra, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich:

Throughout the concert Zinman — as subtle as ever — drew a magnificent, full sound from the LPO, particularly from the low strings, timpani, and horns. Zinman and Ax’s clear enjoyment of the music made it seem like a cozy evening with friends — and great music, of course.

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Concert Review: London Philharmonic Orchestra with Vladimir Jurowski & Leonidas Kavakos

I recently learned that the London Philharmonic Orchestra offers £4 tickets to select concerts for students and people under 26. How did I not know this before?! All you have to do is call the box office, quote “NOISE £4,” and show up with your student ID to collect the tickets (thank goodness for being a grad student). So I called and got tickets to the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s “Championing Freedom” concert on 22 January, featuring violinist Leonidas Kavakos and conducted by the LPO’s principal conductor, Vladimir Jurowski. For £4, our seats were even closer than when we got discounted tickets from Time Out London last year.

The concert’s first half consisted of two all-string (plus one harpsichord) pieces featuring Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, a tall, lanky character with shoulder-length hair and what you might call “hipster glasses.” The program opened with Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, BWV 1041 (1717). As the music started, a smile came to my face as I recalled that this is one of my dad’s and grandfather’s favorite concertos. Kavakos lead the small string ensemble — with Jurowski on the harpsichord — in a subtle and controlled performance, blending into and emerging out of the orchestra when necessary.

Second on the program was a new piece for me: Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s (1905-1963) Concerto funebre for violin and string orchestra, written in 1939 as a protest piece against the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. Kavakos displayed an entirely different set of skills in this concerto, which required powerful, quick technical playing — in an incredible cadenza — as well as extremely high notes sustained as softly as possible. The piece itself, divided into four movements — between which Jurowski hardly paused — was an intense and moving experience. There were echoes of Vaughan Williams-like harmonics in many of the lush, swelling string passages. Moments of extreme Romanticism were speckled amongst jagged and jarring “modern”-sounding phrases. Jurowski’s conducting was crisp and clear, and Kavakos shone as the angry yet mournful voice of the world.

If you want to get an idea of Kavakos’ skill, here’s a clip of him playing the Brahms concerto with Jurowski and the London Philharmonic:

After the interval, the orchestra filled out — winds! horns! timpani! — and Jurowski led them in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55 (“Eroica”) (1805). This piece was revolutionary upon its premiere, both for its unprecedented length and its playing with traditional symphonic form. Seeing it live brought out subtleties and complexities that I hadn’t heard before. Jurowski communicates so well with his orchestra — he was fun to watch — and really highlighted the symphony’s tempo contrasts, especially in the fourth movement. In that same movement, I enjoyed watching the main theme bounce around between instruments and be broken up here and there by tempo shifts and interjections. Jurowski also brought out the horns and double basses in ways that you might not notice on a recording. I heard the basses’ slow rolls for the first time in the brilliantly executed second movement (marcia funebre), which Jurowski took quite slowly while sustaining the tension and emotion so it never lacked for energy.

Overall, the concert was fantastic, and I loved watching Jurowski and Kavakos work with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. If you ever get a chance to see any of them, do it. Personally, I’m looking forward to the next opportunity for £4 LPO tickets…

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John Legend, “Love in the Future”

Confession: I have a weak spot for R&B, especially sung by a man with a smooth, sexy voice.

John Legend certainly fits that bill. I used to listen to a lot of his music but hadn’t heard his most recent albums.

Until I read this article from Die Zeit; it’s a review of Legend’s newest album, “Love in the Future,” and it gushed enough that I immediately started listening to the album on Spotify.

It’s been hard to turn it off. I fell even more in love when I heard the song “All of Me.” Then I found the video of John Legend singing said song Live on Letterman. Just wow. Watch it yourself and see if you don’t melt:

Yes, Legend has a super sexy voice and isn’t bad looking. But he is also an actual musician — you can’t say that about every artist these days — who plays the piano in addition to singing (Legend’s closest female equivalent would probably be Alicia Keys, who I also admire). Sure, as the Die Zeit review points out, Legend still employs plenty of electronics/computer-generated effects in his tunes, but he has a nice balance of electro-R&B and piano ballads.

On that more electronic side, “Made to Love” is a catchy, futuristic, yet still romantic song (albeit the video is a bit strange):

Conclusion: while R&B can be cheesy and unimaginative, and in recent years has leaned more toward the sounds of pop, John Legend still keeps it real with his genuine musicianship and originality.

What’s your take on R&B?

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News Roundup: The Humanities, Exercise and Addiction, Women’s Rights, & Kristof’s return

Sorry for the lack of recipes lately — I’m certainly making delicious things in the kitchen here at my parents’ house for the summer, but they are mostly standard family dishes that I don’t think to post here, or that I didn’t take enough part in the creation to justify posting. More recipes coming soon, promise! In the meantime, here is this month’s News Roundup, with a bit of everything: comedy, wisdom, addiction, abortion, the humanities, breastfeeding, and eggplant… It’s a mish-mash, but I hope you’ll take the time to browse through the list and click through to read the pieces that look most interesting to you.

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Broccoli, Eggplant, & Wisdom

Exercise, Addiction, & Body Image

  • “Addicted to Endorphins” is one of the NY Times‘ “Room for Debate” topics, where they ask a handful of experts to write in their thoughts; this topic asked, “Is all this emphasis on exercise healthy, or dangerously compulsive? Can exercise like running be addictive?” One of my favorite responses came from evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman:

Our deep evolutionary history as physically active foragers and hunters helps explain why our bodies are inadequately adapted to long-term physical inactivity. Almost every organ in the body—from bones to brains—needs periodic physical stress to grow and function properly.

It is often said that exercise is medicine, but a more correct statement is that insufficient regular exercise is abnormal and pathological. In this regard, wanting to be physically active every day is no more an addiction than wanting to get eight hours of sleep.

  • Watch this TEDxMidAtlantic talk by model Cameron Russell, called “Looks aren’t everything. Believe me, I’m a model.” It’s a smart, honest, well-thought-out talk that both men and women, especially anyone who has ever dealt with body image issues, should spend less than 10 minutes watching.

Women’s Rights / Feminism

  • “What happened when I started a feminist society at school” is a smart essay in The Guardian written by a 17-year-old who set up a feminist society at her school and for doing so, received an appalling amount of verbal abuse from the boys at her school. She and her group posted pictures with girls holding handwritten signs stating “I need feminism because ______” as part of a project called Who Needs Feminism. Rather than being celebrated for this, the girls were ridiculed and the school made them take the photos down. It’s sad. In the author’s words,

We, a group of 16-, 17- and 18-year-old girls, have made ourselves vulnerable by talking about our experiences of sexual and gender oppression only to elicit the wrath of our male peer group. Instead of our school taking action against such intimidating behaviour, it insisted that we remove the pictures. […]

It’s been over a century since the birth of the suffragette movement and boys are still not being brought up to believe that women are their equals. Instead we have a whole new battleground opening up online where boys can attack, humiliate, belittle us and do everything in their power to destroy our confidence before we even leave high school.

  • But there are good men out there! This Guardian piece is a heartening take on abortion from the male perspective. The author says: “I support a woman’s right to safe, legal abortion because centuries of history shows us that women are going to get abortions whether they’re safe and legal or not. And when they’re not safe and legal, these women will often die terribly or be damaged irreparably.”
  • Nicholas Kristof, my favorite NY Times opinion writer, returned after 5 months off with two fantastic op-eds. “A Free Miracle Food” is actually the second one, with the main point that breastfeeding is a natural and necessary thing to do and that it can especially help decrease infant deaths in developing countries. Kristof explains,

…in the poorest countries, the main concern is that moms delay breast-feeding for a day or two after birth and then give babies water or food in the first six months. The World Health Organization strongly recommends a diet of exclusively breast milk for that first half year.

In a village in Mali…I watched a woman wash a baby — and then pour handfuls of bath water down his mouth. “It makes the baby strong,” a midwife explained.

On hot days, African moms routinely give babies water to drink. In fact, breast milk is all infants need, and the water is sometimes drawn from unsanitary puddles.

  • The NY Times featured a long essay last week called “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too.” The author focused on students at U Penn and how women are now “hooking up” more frequently; it’s not only the guys, seemed to be her point. My first reaction was “DUH.” Many (female) acquaintances and some of my friends at Oberlin often had one-night stands, some drunkenly and some not. I found a lot of things to contend with in this article. Here’s my list (but you should read it, too, and tell me what you think): A) Nothing should preclude a serious relationship — when it happens, it happens, and you work it out, sometimes having to make cost-benefit decisions. B) If someone is so rigidly fixated on exactly what (s)he must do for the next 10 years and refuses to change, (s)he is probably too busy for a relationship anyway or will be too focused to notice when a good one passes him/her by. C) Also, the things the article brings up are ultimately genderless — it’s not about men vs. women, it’s about people and the decisions they make. That said, the “default answer,” when drunk/high, is definitely not “yes.” D) Finally, you don’t by any means have to choose between marrying young and not having a relationship at all, especially in 2013…seriously?!

The Humanities

  • Before we get into the “are the humanities dead?” debate, here’s a fun graphic of Dickens’ novels, ranked by “most Dickensian.” It’s whimsical, but I love it and totally agree that Bleak House should be at the top.
  • And now, “Are the humanities dead?” I am a proud English major / literary scholar and lover of the humanities, so this debate hits close to home and I’ve been following it closely.

Former English majors turn up almost anywhere, in almost any career, and they nearly always bring with them a rich sense of the possibilities of language, literary and otherwise.

That kind of writing — clear, direct, humane — and the reading on which it is based are the very root of the humanities, a set of disciplines that is ultimately an attempt to examine and comprehend the cultural, social and historical activity of our species through the medium of language.

What many undergraduates do not know — and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them — is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.

…outside of this elite set of private schools, the humanities are holding their own, and at institutions with a far wider demographic of students. At schools nationwide, the number of students majoring in the “softest” humanities — English, foreign languages and literatures, the arts — has been remarkably steady over the last two decades, hovering between 9.8 percent and 10.6 percent of total bachelor’s degrees awarded. […] Students remain grabbed by the questions we pose in humanities classrooms — about style and character, politics and perception, love and ethics — and by how we follow these lines of inquiry into the pages of a novel, or the composition of a painting, or the prose of a philosophical treatise.

Kristof’s Return!

  • I promised you another Nicholas Kristof op-ed. “How Could We Blow This One?” was his first piece after five months of leave, and he certainly hit the nail on the head: “Doesn’t it seem odd that we’re willing to spend trillions of dollars, and intercept metadata from just about every phone call in the country, to deal with a threat that, for now, kills but a few Americans annually — while we’re too paralyzed to introduce a rudimentary step like universal background checks to reduce gun violence that kills tens of thousands?”

That’s it! As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of these. Leave a comment or email me at whereveriamyouaretherealso@gmail.com

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News Roundup: Food, Culture, Taxes, & Telecommuting

There has been lots going on in the national and international news since my last news roundup. Allow me to walk you though the articles that most strongly caught my eye in the last month and a half. We’ll cover everything from economy, taxes, and class to food, arts, Ukraine, and telecommuting. I’ve tried to categorize them so you can skip sections that don’t interest you. As always, click the links through to read the full articles.

Economic Segregation & Equal Opportunity

  • Equal Opportunity, Our National Myth is an insightful opinion piece by Joseph E. Stiglitz about the near-impossibility of social mobility in America today. It’s really worth a read — I’ll leave you with his words to spark your interest:

“It’s not that social mobility is impossible, but that the upwardly mobile American is becoming a statistical oddity. According to research from the Brookings Institution, only 58 percent of Americans born into the bottom fifth of income earners move out of that category, and just 6 percent born into the bottom fifth move into the top. Economic mobility in the United States is lower than in most of Europe and lower than in all of Scandinavia. […] After 1980, the poor grew poorer, the middle stagnated, and the top did better and better. Disparities widened between those living in poor localities and those living in rich suburbs — or rich enough to send their kids to private schools. A result was a widening gap in educational performance — the achievement gap between rich and poor kids born in 2001 was 30 to 40 percent larger than it was for those born 25 years earlier, the Stanford sociologist Sean F. Reardon found.”

  • On the note of wide economic gaps, watch this short film about the distribution of income in the US. It is shocking and even a bit disgusting but necessary to know so we can try to change it.
  • And again, because of the appalling income distribution in the US, Why Taxes Have to Go Up (for the richest of the rich):

“As it happens, those taxpayers are the same ones who benefited most from Bush-era tax breaks and who continue to pay low taxes. Even with recent increases, the new top rate of 39.6 percent is historically low; investment income is still taxed at special low rates; and the heirs of multimillion-dollar estates face lower taxes than at almost any time in modern memory. […] On the spending side, Republicans are resisting cuts to defense. That implies brutalizing cuts in nondefense discretionary areas, like education and environment, which are already set to fall to their lowest level as a share of the economy since the 1950s.”

Food and Healthy Eating

  • This in an interesting piece from The Atlantic about how Americans spend money on food.
  • You’ve probably heard about how good the “Mediterranean diet” is for you. Well, it’s true! Yet another study as affirmed that a diet rich in healthy fats, vegetables, fruits, legumes, fish, and wine may prevent diseases and help you live longer. Mark Bittman writes this nice column about how the Mediterranean diet is really just synonymous with eating real, fresh food. In his words, “What’s new is all the junk that been injected into our foods and our diet since the end of World War II. What’s not new is that eating real food is good for you.”
  • Staying on the “real food” kick, Bittman also has a great piece in the NY Times Magazine from the weekend of April 6th. He examines fast food and asks if it’s possible to have healthy fast food. The answer? Yes, but it’s going to be tricky to balance fast with cheap with healthy.

“…there’s now a market for a fast-food chain that’s not only healthful itself, but vegetarian-friendly, sustainable and even humane. And, this being fast food: cheap. […] What I’d like is a place that serves only good options, where you don’t have to resist the junk food to order well, and where the food is real — by which I mean dishes that generally contain few ingredients and are recognizable to everyone, not just food technologists.”

Peace Corps & Ukraine

  • I will continue to advocate for the Peace Corps for as long as I live. My Ukraine experiences were unforgettable. This Huffington Post article, called “Not Your Parents’ Peace Corps” (that’s certainly true — and I would know! My dad was a PCV in Tanzania in the ’60s), mentions the impact that today’s PCVs can have, both in their countries of service but maybe even more so back at home:

“‘The impact of Peace Corps service lasts a lifetime.’ Living and working in villages and communities far from home, volunteers learn to see the world in new ways and to communicate in new languages, to adapt to new environments, manage teams, troubleshoot obstacles and organize large-scale initiatives. Put simply, the Peace Corps is a life-defining leadership experience and launching pad for a 21st century career.”

  • This is a wonderful short film of Ukraine, made by a couple who spent some time cycling through (mostly) western Ukraine. Sniatyn doesn’t appear, but you will see shots in Kolomiya, the next biggest city, and the beautiful Carpathian Mountains. This video made me miss Ukraine.
  • In not-so-chipper news, Ukraine continues to struggle to define its position between Russia and the E.U. If you’re interested in the political side, read this opinion piece.

“…the E.U. would like to sign and ratify an Association Agreement with Ukraine by the time of the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November. For this to happen, the E.U. is looking for progress in Ukraine’s handling of three issues: prevention of selective justice, elections with international standards, and other reforms as defined in a jointly agreed Association Agenda. […] The most persuasive steps that the Yanukovich administration could take would be to free Tymoshenko and Lutsenko. […] An Association Agreement with Ukraine serves fundamental E.U. interests. It would also serve the interests of the people of Ukraine and increase the chances that Ukraine undertakes necessary political and economic reforms.”

Music & Literature

“Beethoven’s music is too often seen as exclusively dramatic, expressive of titanic struggle. In this respect, the “Eroica” and the Fifth symphonies represent only one side of his work; one must also appreciate, for example, his “Pastoral” Symphony. His music is both introverted and extroverted and it again and again juxtaposes these qualities. The one human trait that is not present in his music is superficiality. Nor can it be characterized as shy or cute. On the contrary, even when it is intimate, as in the Fourth Piano Concerto and the “Pastoral” Symphony, it has an element of grandeur. And when it is grand, it also remains intensely personal, the obvious example being the Ninth Symphony.”

  • Another NY Times Magazine feature article, this time on “The Epic Ups and Downs of Peter Gelb,” the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager. Worth reading, if you are at all interested in the classical music and opera world.
  • As an English major, I was struck by this piece on the value of teaching how to write through literature. I love this:

“The question “What was your favorite moment in a story?” is an easy entry point for both a student schooled in the finest prep academy and a science major straight out of a substandard district. Anyone can find a favorite line. Placing further pressure on those lines — Why did you like it? What changed at that moment that brought energy to the text? — can help students trust their instincts: they were on to something! It’s a less intimidating approach to literature, free from the burden of historical background and devoid of grad-school jargon.”

Women’s Rights & Telecommuting

  • I’m sure you’ve caught wind of the telecommuting debate (to allow it, or not to allow it?) sparked by the new Yahoo CEO who banned it. I completely disagree with her decision, both from my own experience and for many of the reasons stated in the article: “[…] numerous studies show[] that telecommuting workers are more productive than those working on-site. […] a work force culture based on long hours at the office with little regard for family or community does not inevitably lead to strong productivity or innovation.” There are, of course, good reasons for working regularly in an office setting amongst other people, but there are also many reasons for a company to allow employees some flexibility in where they work some of the time.
  • A smart opinion piece urging the UN to take a stance on violence against women. I particularly agree with this: “Violence against women must be seen as a human rights issue, and that has nothing to do with culture or religion.”

Just For Fun

  • Those of you interested in languages and word origins should look at this, “Visualizing English Word Origins.” 
  • A dense but worth-reading excerpt by the late philosopher Ronal Dworkin’s forthcoming book, Religion Without God.
  • “Diagnosis: Human” is an op-ed on today’s over-diagnosis of ADHD and excessive diagnoses of other disorders. The author argues that, rather than trying to diagnose every little thing — too much energy, depression from grieving — we should remember that we are, after all, human and are therefore allowed to — and should — experience human emotions:

“Ours is an age in which the airwaves and media are one large drug emporium that claims to fix everything from sleep to sex. I fear that being human is itself fast becoming a condition. It’s as if we are trying to contain grief, and the absolute pain of a loss like mine. We have become increasingly disassociated and estranged from the patterns of life and death, uncomfortable with the messiness of our own humanity, aging and, ultimately, mortality.”

 

What have you been reading lately?

прощальний концерт

Proshchal’nyy Kontsert = farewell concert.

My 11th form class invited me to the assembly hall on Saturday at 13.00 for a farewell concert they had organized. Suffice to say the concert was wonderful: dancing, singing, a slideshow, well-wishes — all in English! Some of my 8th, 9th, and 10th form pupils also participated. I’ll let the photos and videos tell the rest:

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Yulia and Tanya’s beautiful rendition of “Yesterday” by The Beatles:

Nazar’s hip-hop dance:

Olha and Diana sing Pink’s “Family Portrait”:

11th formers, Khrystina leading, sing a fun rock song:

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Teachers’ Day, 2012 edition

З ДНЕМ ВЧИТЕЛЯ! (z dnem vchytelya) — Happy Teachers’ Day!

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Yes, Teachers’ Day in Ukraine has arrived again. The holiday technically falls on the first Sunday of October but it’s usually celebrated at school on the Friday before. Throughout the day, pupils present teachers with well-wishes and gifts like flowers, chocolate, and useful household things. Remembering Teachers’ Day last year, I prepared myself in advance and put on a pretty dress and good mood for the school day!

Sure enough, things started off at 8:30am in the aktovyy zal (assembly hall) with a nice speech by our new school director. Following that, a group of 4th formers (many of my pupils included) presented lovely wishes and a song:

Here are Olha and Kolya singing a traditional Ukrainian folk song with the words rewritten for Teachers’ Day:

And a proclamation from Nazar, my school’s King of Knowledge:

Following the performances, the 11th form pupils presented each teacher with a nice, thin-tipped black gel pen — my favorite.

I was supposed to have the first lesson with the 11th form but after sitting in my classroom for 15 minutes no one had arrived. My colleague, DD, came in and asked me where they were — they were neither with me nor with her, so we set off to find them. Sure enough, on our way to the teachers’ room we encountered the entire class, all dressed smartly in traditional embroidered shirts and black pants or skirts. They stopped us in the hall and presented each one of us with a lovely tablecloth. I asked if they would rather have an English lesson or continue handing out gifts — most said gifts, but I heard Vitaliy say “English!” So I gave them a choice, and said that whoever wanted to speak English could come with me to the classroom, and whoever wanted to hand out gifts could continue doing that. So Vitaliy and Vlad followed me to my classroom and we spent a really nice 20 minutes chatting about technology and computers (both of them are into technology, programming, and web design).

As the boys and I were chatting, various pupils and parents wandered into the classroom to give me gifts. The haul includes: a few boxes of chocolates, a nice potted flowering plant, a tablecloth, a magnetic spice rack, and a sunflower-adorned pie plate.

After the second lesson, all of us teachers gathered in the teachers’ room for cake (quite tasty, for Ukrainian cake) and champagne.

In the afternoon the 9A class had prepared a beautiful presentation of words and music for us teachers. This included a couple of hilarious skits by a few of the teachers and a slideshow of teachers who have died (including our late director, Viktor Mykolaiovych). I’ll let the videos below speak for themselves.

And now I’m off to continue the Teachers’ Day celebrations at a restaurant in town with some of the teachers…

The End is Near: Group 39 COS Conference

Group 39: we made it to COS! (Thanks to Amanda for the photo)

A few months before leaving their country of service, each group of Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) has what’s called a “COS Conference.” COS stands for Close/Continuation-of-Service. I am part of Group 39 — the 39th group of PCVs to serve in Ukraine — and we had our COS Conference from 23-25 September in Chernihiv, the city not far from the village where my cluster and I lived during Pre-Service Training (PST). Over the two and a half day conference, we had sessions on: reflecting, giving feedback to Peace Corps, medical COS procedures, COS administrative procedures (i.e., get lots of papers signed), writing the DOS (Description of Service), getting recommendations from PC staff, RPCV (Returned PCV) services and benefits, resume writing, job searching, international career opportunities, readjusting to life after PC, and saying goodbye. I won’t go into detail about all of these sessions but I’d like to share some highlights of the conference.

Reflection session

One of our very first sessions at the COS Conference was about reflecting on our time here. Iryna, our amazing training manager and conference organizer/leader, asked us to think about a few questions and then gather in groups to reflect on four areas of our service. Here’s what the groups came up with:

  • Questions to Consider
    • How has Peace Corps affected me?
    • Who were you before PC?
    • What did you learn to do without?
    • What became more or less important to you as your service went on?
    • What do you now appreciate more or less?
    • How has your world perspective changed?
    • How have you changed?
  • Impact on Sites  (Professional  & Individual)
    • Professional Level
      • increasing the level of English of our colleagues
      • resources gained
      • teacher trainings & grants
      • encouraging colleagues to try new methods
      • risk-taking –> gains
      • bridging gaps between students–>teachers–>administration
    • Individual Level
      • new leaders emerge
      • dreams/ideas become reality
      • personalities are remembered
      • cross-cultural bonding/trust
      • flexibility/patience
      • sharing personal stories
  • Impact on Communities (Professional & Individual)
    • networking — bringing people together
    • inspiring creativity
    • diversity — encouraging explorations of different cultures
    • opening doors to new opportunities (FLEX, international programs, etc.)
    • developing awareness of global issues (HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, etc.)
    • PC Goal #2 (bringing the USA to Ukraine)
    • making Ukrainians proud to be Ukrainian
  • Challenges
    • lack of communication & collaboration
    • unclear expectations
    • progressiveness (resources, opportunities)
    • marks
    • unwillingness to change
    • social interactions
    • red tape — dealing with authorities to do projects
    • different social relationships (lack of professionalism)
    • possessiveness
    • too much power in status quo — lack of initiative
  • Lessons Learned (I was in this group)
    • be persistent
    • desire is not an option
    • things can/will always change
    • trust takes time
    • trust your baba!
    • failure is okay & success comes in many flavors
    • embrace solitude
    • have a thick skin
    • be honest & open
    • don’t assume
    • resourcefulness & determination
    • be your own advocate
    • stay on your toes & be flexible
    • you’re always being watched
    • always carry toilet paper
    • thriftiness/frugality

“Tell a Story”

Throughout the conference, the PC staff — and Country Director, Doug — kept stressing how when we return home most people will ask us about our two years in Ukraine but not actually expect a detailed answer. They recommended that we think of a few short (1-2′) stories to tell that encapsulate/convey/illuminate some of our experiences during PC. I’ve thought of one potential story but am still racking my brains for others…

Words from Doug

Doug is the PC/Ukraine Country Director and he gave a short speech on the last day of the conference. I jotted down a few things that touched me:

  • Peace Corps has three goals, but Doug has added his own “Fourth Goal,” which is personal and professional growth through service.
  • Doug shared a great quote with us (he loves quotes) — I don’t remember who originally said it, but this is it: “It is strange how, when a dream is fulfilled, there is little left but doubt.”
  • “Go beyond ‘should.'”
  • “Follow your dreams, follow your passions.”

“Show of Talent”

Now that I’ve shared the serious stuff, here’s some fun. Adam and Theo MC’d a hilarious and eclectic talent show during one evening of the COS Conference. Here are some video highlights:

A singalong of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (sorry for my cold-induced low/cracking voice):

Matt, Amanda, and Molly led us in an American folk song:

Nathaniel sang/played a few songs, including this Russian folk song:

And last, but by no means least, Holden’s hilarious, super-clever rap about PC/Ukraine life:

My training cluster and link cluster: all of us made it the full 2+ years of service! From L: (back-ish) James, Michelle, Andrew C., Andy K., Chris, Kate, Andrew G.; (front) me, Janira, Phil

Ukrainian Independence Day, year 2

Last year — 2011 — was the 20th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence, so the 24th of August was a huge day filled with celebrations: I sang with the teachers’ choir, Sniatyn’s parade was huge, and concerts went on into the evening. This year, the 21st Independence Day, was a bit more modest. My boyfriend was with me in Sniatyn so we watched the (modest-sized) parade and checked out a few singing and dance performances in the center of town. I’ll let the videos and pictures give you an idea of the celebrations:

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