Three days in Boston

If you’re lucky to spend time in Boston when the weather’s nice, walk across the Arthur Fiedler Memorial Bridge and trace deeply-carved composers’ names on the band shell where the Boston Pops plays in the summer along the banks of the Charles River. Spend half the time getting lost in opulent Beacon Hill. Follow the Black Heritage Trail. It’s all good.


I just returned from three days in the city, and the weather was perfect for strolling.  The trees shimmered with the last red and gold leaves of autumn.  I also stumbled upon three portraits in originality.


The whole point of the trip was to see a friend, indie pop artist Dave “DM” Stith performing with singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens.  I’ve been a Stevens fan since he released “Illinois” a few years ago. It’s a tuneful and energizing album blending compelling stories with original instrumentation. Stevens uses a lot of folk instruments: banjo, recorder, violin, and so on. Our friend Dave (who’s resettling in Rochester after this tour ends to start work on his next album) opened for Stevens in the Orpheum Theatre by sitting in a chair, cradling his guitar, and placing his feet on pedals in front of him.  He sang four songs and used the foot pedals to create layers of sound on the spot, mixing hisses, pops, tones, and percussive elements to wash the audience in a kind of electronic chorus.  The crowd seemed transfixed.


Later, when Sufjan Stevens and his band and dancers appeared, I realized we were far from the folksy songs and pastoral fields of Illinois. His new album, the “Age of Adz” is all flash and fire, electronic grooves and assaulting, repetitive phrases, punctuated by strobe lights, special effects, and videos. No storylines.  During the concert he described it as part future, part hippie, part ’80s and part Lady Gaga. “But it’s all me,” he added. 


I’m still trying to decide if I like the new Sufjan Stevens sound or not.  But during the concert, just when I started to feel seriously annoyed at the fragmentary, confusing nature of the new stuff, he would step to the edge of the stage and offer a delicately orchestrated love song. I forgave him on the spot.


The second day, we explored Trinity Episcopal Church, across from the Boston Public Library. Architect Henry Hobson Richardson built Trinity in 1877 in a neo-Romanesque style, cloaking the walls in rich colors and surrounding parishioners with richly-carved woodwork.  Compared to the bare, wooden planks of early New England homes, this building is a sumptuous, wildly-colored Turkish carpet.  Richardson was a young man when he took on the work of building a masterpiece in the swamp. The central tower weighs nearly 10,000 tons and rests on a foundation bolstered by 4,500 trees driven down like stakes into the wetland beneath. It was difficult and radical to build, but it worked. Trinity established Richardson’s reputation.  Architects still list it as one of the most important and influential buildings in America. (When we walked in, our tour guide suggested the building was intended to embrace us with its warmth and open floor plan. I found it somewhat oppressive, however.)



Finally, we happened on a trio of films about composer Igor Stravinsky at the Paramount Center’s new screening room.  The first, “Stravinsky,” was my favorite. It was made in 1966 when he visited Toronto to conduct the CBC Symphony Orchestra for a major musical event: the recording of his Symphony of Psalms.  (The chorus I belong to in Rochester is preparing this work, so I was especially interested.)  The National Film Board of Canada followed Stravinsky around, capturing droll, profound, and mundane moments in his life.  He rolls up his sleeves to conduct, meets with his old friend Nabakov, and pours himself a scotch. On the ship to Hamburg, he jokes that he doesn’t get sea sick, he gets “sea-drunk.”  This 50-minute film, directed by Roman Kroiter and Wolf Koenig, offers a funny and tightly edited portrait of the composer with humor and imagination.  Charming and fascinating. 


The composer reportedly hated this portrait. He said, “A plague on eminence! I hardly dare cross the street anymore without a convoy, and I am stared at wherever I go like an idiot member of a royal family or an animal in a zoo; and zoo animals have been known to die from stares.”