Thursday, 28 May 2009

How to Look Like an Intellectual Without Even Trying

LIVING IN THE MIDST OF A SORT OF "CAFE CULTURE" as I do, I cannot help but think (and it is a comforting thought, for a moment) that intellectuals are considered fashionable these days. As I walk along the streets, I see so many young people carrying books under their arms (the titles prominently displayed), so many pairs of dark-rimmed glasses, so many laptops and paper cups full of coffee, so many pregnant pauses in the conversation, so much ruffled hair that suggests that the young man or woman in question was just leaning over a desk, head in hand, thinking and--

. . . well, I do believe that many of these characters seem at first glance rather appealing to a career academic who spends a lot of time with fountain pens and paintbrushes, but I wonder whether they are trying too hard, so to speak, to appear intelligent when there is a much easier (and perhaps cheaper) way. The quickest and easiest way to look like an intellectual is to actually be one!

It may sound as if that venture will require a ridiculous amount of time reading that could have been spent sitting in a coffee shop looking contemplative or talking to strangers in said coffee shop, but this is hardly true. Thirty minutes to an hour per day of serious study or practice is often enough time to be well on one's way to learning a new language, developing one's writing skills, or any other such intellectual pursuit (though more time spent intelligently will speed the process and allow for fine-tuning, certainly). The hours my generation spends lurking on the internet to merely pass time could equal great masterpieces of literature or art or astounding new findings in science-- it is one thing to use our online tools to connect with others, explore the creativity in the world, or share information, but quite another to spend all of one's free time in a state of internet-induced stupor (or, in fact, ennui). In order to be able to do something well, beyond having a bit of a natural aptitude for it, one must simply to do that thing consciously and regularly. . . we work on our computers consciously and regularly, so why not our language skills or our knowledge of mathematics or our ability to reason? I would think that trying to figure out how to dress like a "geek" without looking as awkward as one would be far more complicated.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Montreal in Spring

DESPITE MY CRITICISMS regarding the state of upkeep of many areas of Montreal and my dislike of aspects of the city which I find demoralizing, there are surely also beautiful things to be found, and more than enough scenes, pleasant or unpleasant, to inspire any photographer. These are my favorite shots from this week.

Photography by Christina Wegman Copyright 2009

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Chopin in the Afternoon: Jean-François Latour at the Place-des-Arts

RUE SAINTE-CATHERINE on a breezy, overcast Sunday. The sidewalks are quiet except for the occasional beggar or passerby, and the atmosphere, with its odd mix of seedy dépanneurs, the occasional clothing store, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores, graffiti, strip clubs, sex shops, and pubs, is gritty and apathetic. It seems shameful that Montreal's most distinguished concert venue and cultural center, the Place-des-Arts, would end up surrounded by such a decrepit neighborhood, and yet there it is, a modern-ancient temple, cryptic, gray, and grand, with pink flowering trees peeking out of the corners. A man is curled up under a blanket with his two black dogs near entrance to the ticket office.

I had come to see Jean-François Latour, a celebrated young Canadian pianist, play Chopin. Salle 5 was dreary and I was surprised that it was not filled with concert-goers, but perhaps 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon is not prime-time for such performances. The audience settled and the pianist took the stage.

As a great lover of Chopin's works, I have certainly developed a number of fixed ideas about how they should be interpreted, and was initially skeptical as Latour began with the Polonaise in C-sharp minor. The opening chords sounded heavy and the notes of the trills were often slightly different from those which I have become accustomed to hearing at other concerts and on my recordings at home, but my overall impression was that the playing was admirably deliberate and imaginative. As Latour delved into Opus 33 (Four Mazurkas), it was as if he were taking us on a comfortable, contemplative tour through an unsentimental but beautiful dream-turned-reality, and I must add that the listener was forced to wake up far too soon. This was quickly remedied, of course, as he played all twenty-four preludes from Opus 28 in smooth, rapid succession. The ending was dramatic, and as Latour's hands fell into his lap, a man in the audience began calling "Bravo! Bravo!", and after much clapping, we were treated to a delightful encore.

I was inspired by Latour's calmness, long breath, and control, particularly insofar as these qualities lent beauty and thought to the works without making them the least bit stiff. This was not wild, emotional, intuitive playing by any means, and I was fascinated when, during a particularly difficult passage, I noticed that Latour appeared to be gently smiling! This virtuoso is no flamboyant, self-centered showman, but rather a tranquil voice in a chaotic world-- the dirty city streets were left behind and my visions of beauty and order were happily restored to me. Such is the transformative power of the arts in the hands of a master; we are reminded, in a dignified and pleasant manner, to look at our surroundings and care about them, never to let them deteriorate into our nightmares, but to work, calmly and happily, to turn them into something closer to our greatest dreams.