Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Welcome Incursion

As I'm pretty sure I mentioned in a previous post, during my last trip down to Calgary I picked up a new camera so hopefully we will now see some improvements in picture quality.  It's much easier to do some posts about my birding excursions when I have a half-decent camera to use.  (I've actually started to give some thought to starting another blog devoted just to birding, but we shall see.)  

Ironically, now that I have a new camera I haven't really been able to use it all that much, partly because we are seriously lacking in sunlight here with the sun setting just before 4pm and partly because of work.  I now leave for work in the dark and return home in the dark.  The other big complication (until this afternoon really) has been that there really hasn't been anything of interest poking about.  I'm used to filling up my backyard feeders about once a week but I haven't had to do that for a couple of weeks now and all I've seen around date house lately are the ubiquitous ravens and magpies.  

Fortune, however, smiled on me this afternoon as I was hit with a rather large incursion of waxwings.  My ash trees didn't really grow that many berries this year so I'm not sure how long they will be able to attract large flocks, making today's "invasion" all that more welcome.  

For about 20 minutes, there must have been between 80 to 100 waxwings in the front yard and while I wanted to get a wide shot of them I was too nervous about startling them away.  While they are one of my favourite winter birds, they are also notoriously skittish.  If you're looking for displays of territoriality and dominance amongst a flock of waxwings, you'll be sorely disappointing.  They all just get along swimmingly.

I had a fantastic vantage point from a couple of second floor windows so I was able to get set up and sneak in a few shots without freaking them out too much.  Given the overcast skies and that the sky will soon begin to darken AND the fact that I am hardly a professional photographer, some of my shots turned out not too badly.  Certainly they are a big step up from what I was able to manage in the past.  Anyhow, here are the best of the bunch.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Evening Down by the Bow

By the time I reached Prince's Island Park, the last place I wanted to get to before my weekend concert, the light was really starting to fade on me.  Again, I didn't see anything new but it gave me a chance to have some camera fun and grab a few close ups.  I had no shortage of willing subjects.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Urban Wildlife

After visiting the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary I headed to an urban park closer to the downtown.  I didn't expect to see much in terms of birds (and I didn't) but it gave me an opportunity to play around with my camera and see a bit of wildlife I don't usually see close up.

There actually IS a common merganser swimming around out there.

Friendly neighbourhood squirrel.

These little guys were all over the place.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016


After a series of delays, many of which brought on by the May fire, I was finally able to get down to the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary in Calgary this past weekend.  This place had long been on my radar. and while I doubted I would see anything new for my year list at least I got there, which was just fine with me.  While it was quite overcast, it didn't rain and the temperature was a balmy 12C so I wasn't about to complain.

I should add as well that I was using a new camera I had picked up that morning (waiting for the battery to charge in my hotel room was the longest 2 hours in my life).  I brought an old zoom lens with me to make sure it would fit the new camera which it did but it made for a few challenges since I wasn't used to it.  The lighting also wasn't the greatest but at least I had an opportunity to see the place and 'm sure I'll have plenty of time to learn all my camera's bells and whistles so it was a start.

Below is Colonel Walker House, the original home named after a former NWMP office and rancher whose property later became the sanctuary.

The next couple shots are along the bank of the Bow River which forms part of the eastern boundary. Apart from the traffic on the nearby Deerfoot Trail, the place was great urban respite and for the next hour I had the place pretty much to myself.

No beavers but I did eventually glimpse a few common mergansers off in the distance.

One things I had hoped to see were wood ducks, which had been introduced in to the sanctuary.  They would have made a nice last addition to my year list.  Alas, it wasn't to be though there were plenty of other things to see that day.

It's a bit dark but I did manage to get a half decent shot of a mallard as it swam by.

Lots of deadfall around, no doubt due to the 2013 flooding.

A curious chickadee obliged my by sitting still long enough for a decent shot.

And to round things off, a hairy woodpecker.

Monday, November 14, 2016


If I could only get to one concert this season it would have to be this past Saturday evening's concert with the Calgary Philharmonic.  Featuring Beethoven's Piano Concerto #4 and the Mozart Requiem, I truly would have walked to Calgary if I had to.  Fortunately, Greyhound took me instead.  I spent a couple of nights in the city so that I would be well-rested and focused.  I also used mu time to pick up a very nice new camera and do some bird-watching but I'll get to that in a future post.

My only fear with this concert is that I've heard both works so many times I thought I might be disappointed simply because I have a very clear idea in my mind of what I like.  I first heard the Mozart Requiem back in my early teens and having played piano growing up, I've known this particular Beethoven piano concerto for probably just as long, if not longer.  Suffice it to say, I was very impressed.

Most Mozart music seems rather happy and cheerful, because it does tend to be happy and cheerful for the most part.  The Requiem comes as a bit of a shock, darker and more foreboding.  Like the Piano Concerto #20, the Requiem is also in the key of D minor, and it uses a lot of older forms, the fugue in particular, hearkening back in time to something Bach was a master at, rather than looking forward to, say, Beethoven.  Call me stuck in the 18th century, but I've always loved fugues.  I really have no idea why.  I just love how a composer and take 3 or 4 different lines of music and fit them together in such a way as to make them harmonious rather than just a mess of sound.  All this to say that the Kyrie, which was written in fugal form, was absolutely brilliant.  As an aside, I went to university with the CPO's choir master Timothy Shantz, and he did an outstanding job with the choir. Altogether, this was a little darker-sounding piece than what I was used to hearing at a slightly faster tempo and it just worked for me.  

Coming just a day after Remembrance Day, this piece seemed a very appropriate choice and I must say hats off to the CPO for having a number of military and first responders in uniform as guests of the orchestra.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

6 Months

It's hard to believe that six months have now passed since the day I was forced to leave work, my house and then my community due to a raging wildfire that has since been dubbed The Beast.  Almost exactly six months ago to the minute I was sitting in my tenant's truck outside the recreation centre in Anzac still trying to wrap my brain around what was happening before slowly drifting off to sleep.  I had no idea if my house was still standing and no idea that it would be thirty-three days before I would be able to make my way home.  I also had no idea that within 24 hours I would be evacuated yet again, fleeing down Highway 881 to Conklin, where I spent a second night sleeping in a truck before finally making it to Lac La Biche.

Today was actually very much like May 3 in some respects for me.  Like that fateful day, today was also a work day.  Work was actually shut down today as well, although this shut down only lasted a couple hours and was caused by a solid bout of freezing rain rather than a fire.  Other than this though, my experiences today diverge wildly from that day 6 months ago.  I got to go home on my work bus and catch a little sleep rather than in a panic in a taxi.  I get to sleep in my own bed tonight rather than a truck and the cat, I'm sure, is much more content curled up beside me than crammed in to a cat carrier.  Three days after the evacuation I had had plans to see the Calgary Philharmonic.  Tonight I booked a ticket to see them again and I rest assured that this time I won't have my plans interrupted by a major civil emergency.  Life is certainly much more stable than on that day six months ago and I'm profoundly grateful. 

My area of the city has been pretty much back to normal for some time now though other areas still have a long road ahead of them.  Within the past couple of weeks the sole house in my neighbourhood that was engulfed by The Beast has been levelled and a new home is quickly taking form.  Now that all the leaves have fallen, it can be hard on some days to even see  any damage in the forest around my neighbourhood, at least from a distance.  

This city had already been reeling from the effects of the oil crash and several rounds of layoffs before the Beast roared in to town.  I count myself fortunate to have made it thus far with only a few small bumps and no major concerns to have to deal with.  Six months.....it's been quite the journey since that day.

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 mergansers...so 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. Bach...so 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.