Christmas cheer

Happy holidays, everyone. I’m shutting down the blog — well, shutting down my blogging — till January 4. I’m off to visit family, and take a much-needed break. Comments might not be posted during that time (remember that, as protection against spam, they have to be approved before they go online). Though here I want to give a shout of Christmas and year-round thanks to Douglas Lautstsen, who’s been helping me tremendously by going online to approve the comments for me. 

So, again, best wishes for the holiday season. I hope all my readers have a good, constructive, warm couple of weeks, and that the new year will be fulfilling. And, to quote one of the people I went to elementary school with, who sent a holiday message around, I’ll hope “for at least incremental change for the good in the world.” 

I’ll leave you with some holiday thoughts. I’d mentioned Christmas music. But how could I forget Bob Dylan’s incomparable — well, unique — Christmas album, released last year, Christmas in the Heart? Holiday music on the radio (which, I’m sure like everyone else, I’ve heard a lot of in the past few weeks, in stores and taxis) has  some common problems. Insincerity, for one. Or blank good cheer. Or the appearance of blank good cheer. Or neglect of the words, as someone moves through a song that’s gotten so familiar it’s almost meaningless. 

Dylan doesn’t have those problems. Exactly what the point was of the album escaped me last year, as I listened to Dylan rasp through the familiar songs, with perky backup singers so sly and perfect that I’m sure they used autotune. (To good effect.) I thought of a homeless man, standing at the edge of some glitz-filled outdoor Christmas event in the heart of a messy city. And that seemed good enough for me — welcome, in fact. A bit like Frank Sinatra singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a track I encountered at Starbucks yesterday (the one in Adams-Morgan, in DC, at the corner of Columbia Road and 18th Street). Sinatra really feels the words, both in their official meaning, and then with a wistful and maybe slightly bitter subtext that seems to say, “But we know things aren’t really that nice.” 

So Dylan brought a touch of reality to Christmas. This year, though, I hear him simply having fun, as if there’s no reason he shouldn’t like these songs as much as anybody else. And then I remember an interview with his son Jakob, who said his father had been an exemplary (and quite normal) dad. Maybe they sang Christmas music at home. 

This could be a good last-minute download

But also let me give a shout to two good things at the University of Maryland. First, some lovely touches at a concert of the school’s symphony orchestra. The musicians wore black, but with color accents — touches of blue and green, sashes, ties, belts, hairbands, ribbons tied to the high end of someone’s double bass, a lovely shawl that one of the second violinists wore. Gave a quiet, festive touch to the evening, and certainly blue and green were the right colors for Mahler’s Fourth, which crowned the program (and which, with James Ross conducting, the students played radiantly). 

While out in the lobby were childhood photos of many of the musicians, along with reminiscences they’d written about how they first played music. Again a lovely, personal touch. Combine things like this with steps to bring in a new audience (which we’ve been working on), and maybe some new people will come to love these concerts.

The next day, I went back to the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (where the university’s concert hall is), to hear the Gamer Symphony, a terrific student-run group that plays videogame music. Free tickets. Full house (which they always get). Very happy crowd. Expertly produced concert, with a sense of fun, of welcome, and close attention to detail that went far beyond what you’ll see from most orchestras, of any size. 

And here’s a measure of success. The group’s president announced from the stage that they faced a $5000 shortfall for the spring semester. People were asked, if they liked, to donate, by putting money in boxes out in the lobby (which — attention to detail! — were staffed by Gamer Symphony members talking to people, welcoming people, and thanking them for their contributions). 

By the end of the evening, the group had raised more than half the money it needed. Talk about success! I wish them continued triumphs in 2011 — and the same for all of us. Warmest wishes, once again, to all. 

(One quieter note — John Cage’s silent piece failed to make the top of the British pop charts, despite a movement to put it there, which I blogged about. But stlil, they tried! And getting silence on the pop charts at all was yet another triumph.)

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