Wednesday, October 5, 2016


With the weather getting colder, I knew that this would likely be my last chance to do any serious birding, at least for places out of town.  So I found myself anxiously watching the weather forecast in the days prior to my trip down to Calgary this past Sunday.  Things didn't look promising as it was cool and overcast in Edmonton and the downright wet and dreary by the time I reached Red Deer.  

Fortune smiled on me and by the time I reached Calgary around the noon hour, while it was still on the cool side at least it looked like the threat of rain was gone.  I checked in to my hotel and found a had a really good view of the Calgary window from my second floor room....

I had a good 3 or 4 hours before I had to be changed and on my way to my concert so I had plenty of time to check out Prince's Island Park.  I had really wanted to explore the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary in Calgary and had plans to do so before the whole evacuation ordeal threw a big wrench in the plan. I have every intention of getting there next spring.  In the mean time, Prince's Island Park certainly wasn't a bad option and it's absolutely gorgeous this time of year with the fall colours.  

I loved how tranquil the place is even though it's smack dab in the middle of Calgary.  There were a couple of wedding parties there as well taking photos.  It certainly makes for a romantic place.  I spent a good couple of hours here just enjoying the colours and the quiet.  Birding-wise, things started out rather slower than I had hoped.  The east side of the island which has a couple of small marsh areas and which I had explored back in the spring, was closed off due to work being down to repair some flood damage.  

For the first half-hour I saw plenty of magpies and chickadees....and squirrels, but nothing particularly interesting until I spotted my first double-crested cormorant.  Another one for the life list!  I reached the western tip of the island and found a park bench off to the side where I thought I could give my legs a rest and started thinking how nice it would be if something really cool just suddenly appeared right in front of me.......and then I spotted a groups of three common another one for the life list.

The photos don't really do the place justice and I found myself wishing I had more time but I'm sure I'll be back on a future date.

By the time I was ready to go I had a list of 12 species, which wasn't too considering the time of year and my skill level.  Here's what I saw....

Canada Goose
Blue-winged Teal
Common Merganser
Double-crested Cormorant
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Rock Pigeon
Black-billed Magpie
American Crow
Common Raven
Black-capped Chickadee

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A Little Chopin

I left Edmonton this past Saturday morning for a trip down to Edmonton to see my first concert of the season with the Calgary Philharmonic and what a treat it was.  This concert marked the 3rd time I have heard Polish-Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska perform, the previous occasions being a performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto #4  back in March in Edmonton and several years ago when I was attending university in Windsor, Ontario.

Fialkowska does have a pretty inspirational back story which made the evening's performance extra special.  Back in 2002, she was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer in her left arm, something that would normally be a career ender for an established concert pianist.  Not only did she best the cancer but she also took a long hiatus from her concert career to rehabilitate her damaged arm.  She did this in part by taking a couple of piano concertos written exclusively for the left hand....and then RE-WRITING them so they could be played with the right hand so that she could continue with some semblance of a concert career while she healed.    I found this very interesting to hear about since when you look at your hands you note right away that you don't have a very big gap between your ring finger and baby finger as you do between your thumb and index finger.  In a sense, by playing with the opposite hand, she had to learn to play backwards in a sense.  But persevere she did and at 65 she is still going strong.

Ms. Fialkowska performed Chopin's Piano Concerto #1 and I don't really have much to say other than I throughly enjoyed it.  I had a excellent seat to the left and the side of the stage so I had a great view of her hands as she played.  This woman is  simply amazing when it comes to Chopin.  I should also mention that present in the concert hall was the Head of Mission for the Polish Consulate in Calgary.

The second half of the concert was taken up with Bruckner's Symphony #4.  Bruckner isn't that familiar with me though I have heard parts some of symphonies from time to time.  I have to say that I absolutely loved this piece.  At 70 minutes, it one of the longer symphonies I've heard, but what a tour de force it was.  Dramatic, an absolute beast.  As a brass player in high school, I really appreciated the brass writing......4 trumpets, 3 trombones and tuba, and they were spot on.  Some very nice moments for the viola section as well as they were given a moment to shine.  If one of the goals of an orchestra (and it should be) is to make you curious to explore other great works you might not know then this performance has really made me curious to check out some of Bruckner's other symphonic works as well.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that it halfway through the opening movement when I noticed that Mastro Roberto Minczuk was conducting without a score.  I didn't notice this for the Chopin since the piano was in the way but he wasn't using a score as well that would mean the man basically conducted close to 2 hours' worth of music from memory.  Outstanding memory and musicianship.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Back to the Concert Hall

I had a busy weekend out of town as the concert season is now underway.  I took in a performance Friday evening with the Edmonton Symphony and then headed down to Calgary the following day to take in the Calgary Philharmonic.  These two concerts actually fell in to my schedule at a very opportune moment given that when I start back to work later this week my work schedule will be changing, adding a couple extra days to my shift.  It was nice to have a little R&R before I head back and the weather gets progressively colder.  

It actually turned out to be not too bad of a weekend.  I wasn't keen on the overcast and rainy weather but at least I wasn't stuck working in it.  And I even managed to fit in a little birding, though I'll get to that in a later post.

But first, the ESO...

The evening was an all-Mozart affair featuring a piano concerto, a symphony, an overture and 3 smaller works.  To be honest, I really struggled with what to blog about for while I had been looking forward to this concert for a few months now, I wasn't always keen on the interpretation.  I'll chalk this up partially to the fact that most of these pieces are ones I've heard before (several times, in fact) so I have pretty well-defined ideas what how I feel they should sound.

The evening kicked off with what is probably my favourite of Mozart's overtures, the one for 'The Escape from the Seraglio' and the evenings seemed rather promising.  Also featured were a couple of concert arias which marked the first time I had heard any live vocal works in quite a long time.  It's unfortunate that these aren't performed more often as Mozart wrote 40 or 50 or them with all sorts of combinations of instruments.  I won't pretend to be an expert in 18th century vocal music here but I did find the soprano's voice very impressive and a treat to listen to.  It did seem that the orchestra overpower her voice a little bit at times, to my ears at least.

Another of the smaller works performed was a Violin Rondo, which, while a great little stand-along piece, was originally written as an alternative finale to Mozart's Violin Concerto #1.  Nothing flashy, just well-executed and nice to listen to.  

One of the main works, which closed out the first half of the concert was Mozart's Piano Concerto #21.  Also known as the 'Elvira Madigan', it is probably the best-known of his piano concertos.  Again, I've heard this piece countless times so this likely coloured my judgment of it.  I will say that it was great to see this piece conducted from the keyboard by ESO conductor Bill Eddins, a practice you don't see as often these days, and he wrote his own cadenza which I also rather enjoyed.  Now there were a couple of flubbed notes before the cadenza and I did find the bass section a little overpowering (Five double basses for a Mozart piece).  There was also the little matter of an audience member's cellphone going off just as the first movement ended, something I find extremely annoying, though Mr. Eddins handled it graciously enough and even made a small joke about it afterwards about how the ring tone could have at LEAST been Beethoven.  

And since I've touched on the subject of the audience, I really don't mean to sound like pedant here, but I did want to mention one practice I find highly irritated (other than errant cell phones), specifically applauding between movements, something that also occurred with the symphony that concluded the evening.    It's long been a practice that the only time this is done is after the first movement, particularly for a difficult piece or for a particularly well-done cadenza.  Applauding after every movement is something I find distracting and while normally I wouldn't make a huge deal out of it, when it happens after every single movement, it's a tad frustrating.  Those silences between movements are there for a reason.

The evening concluded with the Symphony #35, the 'Haffner'.  Among his nicknamed symphonies, this is one of favourites (another would be the 'Prague Symphony' which features well in the 1985 movie 'Amadeus')  A well-balanced piece throughout though I found the 3rd movement a tad too fast for my taste but no big deal.  My biggest gripe with the piece was that it was over-conducted....way over-conducted.  I can understand conductors getting in to the moment so to speak but I often wonder if this can be over-used to cover up a poor performance.  I'm not saying this was the case here by any means but I do find it disappointing when I leave a performance hall and overhear people talking about the conductor's antics rather than the music itself.  

So a bit more detail about the concert than what I usually write but I grew up listening to Mozart piano concertos and symphonies and was fortunate to study quite a few of them in university so I suppose I've developed very strong opinions about what I like.  Overall, it was nice to hear Mozart since I didn't have an opportunity to hear any during any of my spring concerts.  While I did appreciate this concert, I do have to admit to being a tad disappointed at times.

Since I really wanted to fit this photo in but really had no good place to mention it, I'll include it here. I had a great view of the recently opened Rogers Centre from the top floor of my hotel across the street.  With luck, I might be able to catch an Oilers game this season.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Composers Behaving Badly

One of the things that has always fascinated me as I've delved further in to classical music and history is the disconnect between peoples' conceptions of classical music and the composers who wrote it and reality.    To a certain degree, most people's ideas of the concert hall as being all staid and austere, where you dressed to the nines, sat board-stiff in your seat (and heaven help you if you dared clap between the movements of a symphony or a concerto) are just a stereotype.  But I thought I'd focus more on composers themselves.  Behind some of that saintly music of the church, the royal court or the concert hall lay some pretty interesting antics, which would no doubt have them splashed all over social media (or even in jail) had they lived in our current age.  I've included a mix of well-known and perhaps not-so-well-known.    

1.  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - I was actually hesitant to include Mozart simply because many people have seen the 1984 blockbuster "Amadeus", which left many, including myself, cringing a little at how he was portrayed.  I think the cackling laugh and "man-child" image was a bit overplayed although there is still a degree of accuracy in his lack of money management skills and womanizing.  But back to the man himself.  He was still well-behaved compared to some others I'll be mentioning.  One of the reasons we know so much about Wolfgang's life was that the Mozart's were prodigious letter writers.  The correspondence highly "scatological" and makes for some interesting reading to say the least.  Some of the letters are filled with phrases like "Go shit in your bed and fill it up."  Apparently, this was slang for "Have a good night."  He also wrote a cannon for 6 voices entitled "Leck much I'm Arsch".  I'll let you work out the translation.

2.  Johann Sebastian Bach - Mr. German, so Lutheran, so.....ornery?  Bach once got into a scrap as a student when he drew out his sword after what he he took as an insult from another student and snipped off a part of the man's ear.  Aside from this, his first wife was his second cousin with whom he had seven children.  He met his second wife when he was 35.  She was 19...and they had a further 13 children.   (The poor woman).  From what I understand, a few of the Lutheran congregation were concerned that perhaps it wasn't just music Bach was creating up in the organ loft.

3.  Hector Berlioz - Berlioz was a Romantic composer perhaps best know for his "Symphonie Fantastique".  As a young artist working to establish himself in Paris, Berlioz took a second job working in a mortuary and would shock his friends by going in to graphic detail about what he saw.  He was also quite the womanizer who would recount his "conquests" to those in his inner circle....again in very graphic detail.  Berlioz also came close to be being a homicidal maniac when he learned his finance's wife wished to have his future bride married off to a man named Pleyel (the piano manufacturer).  He left Italy, where he was at the time, and set out for Paris to do the deed but realized he had forgotten his disguise.

4.  Arnold Bax - But why just brag about a love conquest when you can immortalize it in music?  English composer Arnold Bax did just that.  To be fair, his many many love interests aside, the man was well-respected as a composer during his lifetime as he was knighted, named to the Royal Victorian Order and had an honorary doctorate from Oxford.  He wrote a tone poem, "November Wood", in which he sought shelter from a storm in a copse of tree with his love interest, Harriet Cohen (who happened to be his nurse during the war....she was 19; he was 34).  The couple then find themselves in a cosy hotel room, and well.......A couple years later he met 23-year-old Mary Gleaves and for the next 20-odd years, Bax maintained a "warm relationship" with both women.

5.  Thomas Weelkes - Admittedly, Weelkes isn't that well-known, except perhaps to university students or those who have studied early English vocal music.  Weelkes got himself dismissed as the organist at Chichester Cathedral for a long list of antics, including urinating on the Dean, drinking in the organ loft during services and using long strings of profanity between pieces.  

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Trump Jr.'s Asinine Refugee Analogy

For the most part I've done my best to ignore or at least not get too worked up over a certain election in a certain country south of the border.  I have seen a certain analogy made by a certain candidate's son however that is so off base in terms of basic math and logic that I couldn't let it pass without comment.  

This internet meme isn't exactly new as its been around for a couple of years and the earlier ones used M&M candies rather than Skittles but since I was partial to Skittles as a kid, let's go with this one.  Not only does the analogy mistakenly conflate refugees with terrorists (like all the other false analogies the Republican camp has pumped out) but the math involved here is completely off base.

The Centre for Global Research lays out some interesting statistics on your odds of being killed by all manner of different things, from traffic accidents to septicaemia to being struck by lightning. According to their statistics, an American is 187 more likely to die of starvation then to die of terrorist-related causes.  They are 2059 times more likely to die by your own hands (i.e. suicide) than at the hands of a terrorist.  Heck, I'm much more likely to be killed moving my tv.  As for terrorism, an American's odds are 1 in 3.6 MILLION.  If you're Canadian like me, the odds are 1 in 3.8 MILLION.

Now, according to there are 54 skittles in every bag of these candies.  Let's say I put 3 bags (that would be 162 candies) in to a bowl including the 3 that could supposedly kill me.  Mathematically I'd have a 1.9% chance of dying.    (Trump's numbers are deliberately vague so I'll just pick three bags in a bowl for the sake of argument.)  According to the CATO Institute, the odds of being killed by a refugee are 1 in 3.64 BILLION every year.  That works out to a whopping 0.000000027%.

Clearly, you would need one hell of a big bowlful in order for Trumps Jr's  to work.  And if you really did eat that many Skittles in one go from a bowl hypothetically large enough to hold them all, I would submit that a terrorist refugee would be the least of your concerns.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Ponds Of Timberlea

There are a  few places in Timberlea and Eagle Ridge I've been wanting to explore and do some birding but for a number of reasons I just haven't found the time to get over to them.  Until today. With the days getting shorter and the weather starting to cool off, I decided to bite the bullet and get over there this afternoon no matter what.  And I'm glad I did.  There were three storm ponds I was curious to check out and to be honest I am now kicking myself that I hadn't done this much sooner.  There were a couple of species I was hoping to add to my year list and realistically, this was probably going to be my last chance to do it before they  leave for the winter.  

Eagle Ridge was still being built when I moved to Fort McMurray.  I took a drive through back around 2010 or so and this was the first real time I had been back.  I HAD travelled through part of it back in May but that was during the evacuation from the big forest fire so it was nice to be able to take my time rather than be in a panicked rush to get home.  Appropriately enough, given my purposes for the afternoon, all the streets in Eagle Ridge happen to be named after birds.

Mallards and Blue-winged Teals...and there was the odd American Coot swimming in there as well closer to the reeds.

This is the same pond but looking in the other direction.  None of those house or condos in the background were there when I first visited the area.  How quickly this place has changed in the mere 6 years that I've lived here.  A brief  moment of levity occurred when I thought I had spotted some type of owl only to look through my binoculars and discover it was just a rather large dark cat hiding among the reeds.

The next couple of photos are from the second pond I visited over by a couple of newly-constructed elementary schools.  My birding journey started out mostly with song birds and it took me awhile to familiarize myself with the many types of waterfowl.  I still sometimes forget that if I'm careful enough I can get up pretty close.  These guys are more likely to swim away from shore if they feel spooked rather than fly away.  My big weakness (that I AM working on) is being able to identify birds in flight, so I always appreciate it when they stick around.

American Coots......

American Coots and Mallards co-existing...

It started to cloud over a bit by the time I reached the last pond off of Brett Drive.  I've been by it the odd time  but this was my first chance to really explore it and I wasn't about to let overcast skies spoil things.  I also never realized how big the place was.  

Initially it was frustrating as all I managed to see were insane numbers of grackles that I managed to flush out of the scrub along the pond's edge.    I also came very close to landing on my backside when I lost focus when walking through a patch of mud at the pond's edge.  Persistence paid off when I spotted something I hadn't seen before...ever.  I had to slowly make my way around to the other side of the pond to figure out just exactly what I was seeing as they were at quite a distance.  All I was seeing were dark shapes they really could be anything....except the head just looked different.

After several moments of angst (I lost sight of them a couple times) and fearing that they would fly off before I reached a better vantage point, the mystery birds revealed themselves to be eared grebes. Four of them.

So all in all, not too bad of a day.  A new species for the life list along with two or three others for the year list.  I don't really know if I'll have a realistic shot at getting back over there before the snow hits the ground though I am definitely keeping these little urban oases in the back of my mind for the future.

Friday, September 9, 2016

It's Really Sad The Things Some People Get Offended Over

Politics aside, I try to not delve in to too many controversial issues.  I did a lot of that with my Nunavut blog, especially when it came to issues surrounding the seal hunt and traditional culture and  if you go to the proverbial well too many times, you end up opening the door to all sorts of trolls and nut jobs.  Let's just say that I won't be getting a Christmas card from anti-sealing activist Paul Watson anytime soon.

I'm sure most people will be familiar with the above 1972 photograph taken by Nick Ut during the Vietnam War.  It's historic.  It's iconic.  It's an important reminder of what happens when, to take an idea from the writings of Clausewitz, humanity stops the conversation, picks up  a weapon and conducts its politics through other means.  It's also, according to some thin-skinned social justice warriors, HIGHLY offensive.

Yes, for 44 years, no one had an issue with this photo (at least no one you would take seriously) but now all of a sudden, the media giant Facebook, in a fit of ignorance that boggles the mind, suddenly became very anal over it.  While I realize this photo was posted as part of protest over some larger issues with the media giant surrounding free speech, I seriously have to question the logic and intelligence of some people.  Rather than looking into the history and significance of this photo (and if you're under 40 and don't know, you really should look it up), Facebook performed a simple knee-jerk reaction by not allowing it to be shown.  

Thankfully, common sense has prevailed and this iconic photo has been deems not offensive.  As it should be.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Out of the Ashes

A stretch of rainy, windy and generally unpleasant weather had kept me cooped up inside for a few days so I jumped at the opportunity to head out yesterday to stretch my legs and enjoy what turned out to be a pretty decent day.  One of my regular birding routes I follow takes me by a section a of a neighbouring subdivision that was hit hard by the fires back in May and while it felt great to be able to add four new species to my life list*, it was even better to see the changes slowly being made to our community as it rises up and brushes itself off.  The bulk of this particular area has been demolished (as least as far as I could see through the trees).  It's still a bit tough to look at, this giant gaping wound that has been ripped open only a short walk from my own home.  

It was encouraging the see signs of the rebuild starting to happen as is evidence by this one new home, slowly rising out of the ashes.

*shoveller duck, grey-cheeked thrush, green-winged teal, gadwall

Monday, August 29, 2016

Oompah Loompah Doompedee Do

The film adaption of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" came out not too long before I was born and has long remained one of my favourite childhood movies.  (The 1964 Roald Dahl book is quite likely one of the first fantasy-type books I read when I was learning to read on my own.) Its main character was a quirky, blue-eyed figure who made a teachable moment without sounding preachy.  Perhaps I'm starting to sound my age but I much prefer these older style of imaginative stories that used real people and bright colours compared to a lot of the computer-generated pablum we see today.  I never saw the 1995 remake of the original film and don't intend to.

At any rate, to get back on topic, I was quite saddened to hear of the death of Gene Wilder who will forever be known to me as Willy Wonka.  While I know he did do other work and play other characters, for me at least, Willy Wonka was his defining role. As with the passing of a figure who was part of my childhood, I'll admit it was tough not shed a bit of a tear.  Thoughts of oompah loompahs solemnly carrying his casket did bring a smile to my face and I'm sure Mr. Wilder would have  seen the humour in that.                                                                                                 

Thank you Mr. Wilder for being part of my childhood. 

Monday, August 15, 2016


It seems that we had a really short summer on account of all the drama back in May.  The past few days I've really started to notice the daylight getting shorter.  I still get home before the sun sets (at a little after pm) but that won't last too much longer).  And while it may mean that fall is around the corner, it also means that the upcoming concert season is fast approaching as well.

With the season schedules in hand (Calgary actually mailed one to me.  Aren't I special?) for both Edmonton and Calgary, I began planning out concerts that I can get to on my days off.  The work schedule I have only runs to the end of the calendar year but I sat down recently and worked out my work schedule on paper all the way until next June so that I could plan out the entire concert season.  My schedule could potentially change but I don't see it happening any time soon which allows me to predict future concert dates with a reasonable degree of certainty.

I even have a potential concert planned to see the Vancouver Symphony in late November.  I'm not sure if I'll be able to see it given the distance and the fact that hotels in Vancouver seem to be priced just as insanely as its other property prices.  But hey, its the VSO so how many opportunities will I really get to see something like that?  And for a Rachmaninoff piano concerto and a symphony by Sibelius, I'd gladly do what I could to make it there.

As for my Edmonton and Calgary concerts, it really is amazing how much great music I could potentially see.  I doubt I will be able to get to all the concerts on my list but I'll give it a shot.  I plan to be as prudent as possible to fit as many in as I can at any rate.  

The list is just so Edmonton there's Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 21 and the "Haffner" Symphony, Chopin's Piano Concerto no.2,  Vivaldi's "The 4 Seasons" (overplayed but seeing the entire thing live will still be a treat.), the Faure Requiem, the Dvorak Cello Concerto(!), Brahms' Symphony no.2, Sibelius' Symphony no. 7, and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (take THAT wild fire for messing up my chance to see in Calgary back in May!

As for Calgary, there's Chopin's Piano Concerto no.1, the Brahms Requiem, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, Shostakovich's Symphony no.9, Mahler's 9th Symphony, Mozart's Piano Concerto no.21 again (because hey, why hear it once when you can hear it twice?), Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 23, and his lone bassoon concerto, Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony, Beethoven's Piano Concerto no.3 (a personal favourite) and his 6th Symphony, "The Planets" by Gustav Holst and a golden opportunity to see the Juno-winning Gryphon Trio perform.

It's all just so tantalizing. It's happening soon....and it all kicks off September 30 in Edmonton.