Thursday, April 30, 2009

Raptor Rapture

The other day, I wrote about a pair of Red-Tailed Hawks that I see almost every day on my morning drive (read it HERE). That got me to thinking about the number and variety of birds of prey (called raptors) that I see in my neighborhood on a regular basis. Though raptors are not as common as many of our birds, they are there if you know where and how to look for them. On a typical day, I’ll see a dozen or more individual birds of prey around my neighborhood, around town, and even in my own yard.

What’s out there? Well, our most common daytime raptor in Connecticut is probably the Red-Tailed Hawk, a big, robust buteo, or soaring hawk, that has a striking orange-red tail. This is the chunky, brown-and-white hawk that can often be seen perched on a light pole or exposed branch along the sides of highways and other major roads. In and around my neighborhood, I know of at least four established pairs of Red-Tailed Hawks. I enjoy checking in on them as I drive about the area. Another less-common buteo in our area is the Red-Shouldered Hawk, slimmer than the Red-Tailed and with chestnut shoulders and a snazzy striped tail. Keep an eye out for this beautiful bird in swampy areas, including wet areas near roads; it enjoys frogs and snakes. Our smallest buteo, the Broad-Winged Hawk, is just now returning to our region after having spent the winter months in warmer climes. Look for this smallish hawk soaring overheard with wide-spread wings and boldly striped tail. Listen for its plaintive whistle; look upward once in a while!

Our “roadside raptors” prey on rodents that are feeding on the garbage that so many people throw from their cars. Unfortunately, they are often struck by cars when they swoop down on their prey. Please — don’t throw garbage or trash, even biodegradable food items, from your car.

If you have bird feeders in your yard, you may have seen a Sharp-Shinned Hawk or its larger and almost-identical cousin, the Cooper’s Hawk, as they snatch smaller birds from on and around feeder areas. These are both accipiters, or true hawks, skilled in high-speed flight and able to maneuver quickly in forested areas and around the feeders. They can take birds right out of the air, and will often pluck and eat them on the spot. This is fascinating to watch! Read HERE about encounters that I’ve seen at my backyard feeders between these hawks and some smaller feeder birds. Once or twice, always in the winter, I’ve seen a Northern Goshawk, the rarer, larger cousin of the two mentioned above. Big, pearl grey, fast. A silvery streak through the trees…

Last week, just a few miles from home, I spotted my first-of-the-season Osprey, a specialized raptor that feeds on fish that it takes live from rivers, lakes, and brackish waters. After it spots a fish — which it can do from 30-40 feet above the water — it dives feet-first into the water and grasps the fish with specialized talons that are equipped with very sharp claws and sharp spiky structures on the “palm” of its foot which help it to grip the slippery fish. After it rises from the water, the Osprey maneuvers the fish so that it is held in an aerodynamic head-forward position, making it much easier to carry the load back to the nest. We live near a large river and several lakes that offer great habitat for a good number of Osprey families.

The river is also a place to see Bald Eagles, mostly north and west of town, as they commute between river fishing areas and lakeside nesting areas. And one day last fall, I was stunned and delighted to see a Golden Eagle as it migrated south. During last year’s spring migration, I spotted a Northern Harrier (Marsh Hawk) in its tip-tilting low flight over the meadows, where it was probably hunting field mice. We see Harriers most often over salt marshes.

Of all the raptors, the falcons are my favorites. Our town includes some extensive agricultural areas, and I often see an American Kestrel, or Sparrow Hawk, when I drive through that area. Kestrels are becoming increasingly scarce as their preferred grassland habitat disappears to development. You can read about this situation in an article I edited for the Hawk Migration Association of North America; the article was originally published at the Environmental News Network (www.enn.com), but I think the only place you can read it online now is at http://tinyurl.com/cvzgfb

Once in a great while, I see a Merlin, a fairly-common medium-sized falcon that preys on small birds. Last fall, I was lucky enough to surprise a dark-plumaged juvenile Peregrine Falcon, and had some excellent close-range looks as it circled around me then took off in a big hurry. Peregrines, once nearly extinct, have rebounded nicely and can now be seen in many cities, where they nest on the tall office buildings that closely resemble cliffs, their preferred wild habitat. In downtown Hartford, a pair is busy right now incubating four reddish-brown eggs. You can follow the progress of this nest via a webcam at http://falconcam.travelers.com/

We often forget about the raptors that populate our neighborhoods at night – owls. Perhaps because we so rarely see them, some people think of owls as mysterious or even spooky. Take a few minutes to learn about owls; they are fascinating! In the summer, we often hear a Screech Owl or two in our backyard; their call is the most amazing tremulous glissando! Several weeks ago, I saw what looked like a large splash of thick white paint on our deck; it was owl feces, often called “whitewash.” Some large owl, perhaps the Great Horned Owl I hear occasionally, had been in the tree that overhangs our deck, probably hunting mice that were picking up seeds around our bird feeders. Or maybe it was a Barred Owl; I hear their who-cooks-for-you-all calls pretty regularly, and just a few weeks after seeing the whitewash on the deck, I spotted a large and beautiful Barred Owl down the street.

All the birds I mentioned here were seen in my yard, in my neighborhood, or within a few miles of my home. Raptors are all around us…do take time to look for them! They are an important part of our ecosystem, keeping populations of smaller animals in check. They are beautiful to look at and interesting to watch, too.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

“A Kiss for All the World”

As I prepare for an upcoming performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the “Choral”), I’ve been thinking about this music and its place in our cultural awareness. Yesterday, in writing about why each singer in the ensemble should invest ourselves fully in this performance, even if we have performed this music umpteen times in the past few years, I said, “Spiritually, the Symphony belongs to the world and to every person in it. Every performance of this music has the potential to become an affirmation of the joy in living that Beethoven, despite his often-tragic life, was able to comprehend and communicate so clearly.” (Read the entire essay HERE.)

But is the Ninth Symphony primarily about joy? Certainly Beethoven, through Schiller’s words, exhorts us repeatedly to experience Freude! And Beethoven’s musical setting, which exalts and illuminates Schiller’s text in the way that only music can do, creates joy in us and in our listeners. Countless critics and interpreters have come to the same conclusion. For example, in his Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford UP, © 2005), program annotator Michael Steinberg observes: “Just think of what Beethoven [achieves] in the Ninth Symphony, how he can make us believe in the power of joy as no lecture or dissertation on joy could, and more important, as Schiller’s ode cannot do by itself.”

Others contend that Beethoven’s theme in this Symphony is brotherhood, and that we achieve joy through our bonds with our fellow humans. Music critic and composer Alexander Serov (1820-1871), explaining the musical and thematic integrity of the Symphony, posited that the overall theme of the symphony is “the idea of brotherhood,” which is expressed musically through the “joy” theme. (Quoted by Nicholas Cook in Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, Cambridge UP, © 1993).

But I think there’s more to it than that.

Certainly, in the emphasis Beethoven places on the words Freude and Brüder, we can see and hear that these concepts are indeed important to him (and, by extension, to us). But why use a multi-movement symphony as the framework for what could have been composed as a free-standing, independent choral work? Are the first three movements necessary to our understanding of the fourth? What is Beethoven getting at in insisting that we listen to almost an hour of instrumental music before we hear his setting of Schiller’s poem?

In trying to answer this question, I did a lot of reading and thinking and listening. In my research, I came across an article by composer and musicologist Jan Swafford that seemed to articulate the idea I was struggling to define, that is, that the music is at the core of the symphony, not the text. Rather than try to paraphrase his ideas, I’ll offer the key excerpts that spoke to me most clearly:

In a singular way, the Ninth enfolds the apparently contradictory qualities of the epic and the [elusive]. First movement…Big and loud…wildly unstable…searching…inconclusive…. At the end there's a funeral march… But who died…? Next comes the scherzo… a Dionysian whirlwind, manically contrapuntal … The third movement is peculiar mainly in its cloudless tranquility… one of those singing, time-stopping adagios that mark Beethoven's last period. … The famous finale is weirdest of all. … Why does this celebration of joy open with a dissonant shriek that Richard Wagner dubbed the “terror fanfare”? Then the [string] basses [play] … a recitative with no words… One at a time, themes from the earlier movements are introduced only to be rebuffed by the [string] basses… This, then: The Joy theme is unveiled by the [string] basses unaccompanied, sounding … like somebody (say, the composer) quietly humming to himself … Then … the terror fanfare again. And now up steps a real singer, singing a real recitative: “Oh friends, not these tones! Rather let's strike up something more agreeable and joyful.” Soon the chorus is crying, “Joy! Joy!” and the piece is off, praising joy as the universal solvent… [here’s the part that strikes home in me:] The finale's Joy theme is almost constructed before our ears, hummed through, then composed and recomposed and decomposed. The Ninth is music about music [emphasis mine], about its own emerging, about its composer composing. And for what? “This kiss for all the world!” runs the telling line in the finale, in which Beethoven erected a movement of epic scope on a humble little tune that anybody can sing. The Ninth, forming and dissolving before our ears in its beauty and terror and simplicity and complexity, ending with a cry of jubilation, is itself his kiss for all the world… When the bass [soloist] speaks the first words … [the] invitation to sing for joy [comes] from Beethoven, not Schiller. It's the composer talking to everybody, to history."

Music about music. And consider that this quintessential music about music was composed by a deaf man, a sometimes bitter and despairing man who created for us this most human, most loving Symphony, given to us now and forever as his “kiss for all the world.”

Swafford, Jan. “The Beethoven Mystery: Why haven't we figured out his Ninth Symphony yet?” Slate.com, June 30, 2003 http://www.slate.com/id/2084948/


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

“An Opportunity to Create an Extraordinary Musical Experience”

In 2008, I had the opportunity to perform Beethoven’s two extra-human choral symphonies, the Missa Solemnis (in May) and the Ninth Symphony (in October). I wonder how many choral singers have the opportunity to perform these two extraordinary pieces within the space of just six months.

The year with Beethoven was an extraordinary journey of learning and discovery. As usual, I supplemented my musical preparation with research and reading, and posted my observations and discoveries in a number of essays posted here at Quodlibet. (You can read my Missa Solemnis essays HERE and the Ninth Symphony essays HERE.)

Now, as I prepare for another performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the “Choral”), I find myself revisiting some of my earlier explorations and thinking about how to prepare mentally for yet another performance of this epic work. After all, many choral singers  could probably perform the Ninth Symphony in their sleep.  
It would be so easy to show up this weekend and just “sing the notes,” wouldn’t it? After all, we’ll be performing with an unfamiliar orchestra, working with a new conductor none of us have met, and singing for an entirely different audience with whom we do not have an established relationship. Will it matter, and will anyone even know, if we don’t invest ourselves fully in this performance?

Yes, of course it matters.

Though the Ninth Symphony is widely known, frequently recorded, and often performed, there’s a good chance that there will be people in our audience who have never heard it before, or who have never heard a live performance. Perhaps an aspiring musician or poet will be listening. Perhaps a would-be philanthropist is wondering if he or she should invest in local arts organizations, and came to hear if we are any good. Perhaps there’s a member of the orchestra who has never performed this music before! Our performance just might be a life-changing event for someone. We can sing well for that person.


Musically, the Symphony demands the utmost from every musician who performs it, whether that musician is in the orchestra or in the chorus. There’s no “half-way” in this music, no “sort of,” no “good enough.” The music commands our attention, our interest, our investment, and our commitment as musicians, as singers, and as thinking people. To perform the Symphony with anything less than our best musicianship would be to deny ourselves the opportunity to create an extraordinary musical experience, which we can appreciate as individuals and as members of an ensemble. We can sing well for ourselves.

Spiritually, the Symphony belongs to the world and to every person in it. Every performance of this music has the potential to become an affirmation of the joy in living that Beethoven, despite his often-tragic life, was able to comprehend and communicate so clearly. As performers, we have a duty to present this music and text with dignity and passion, as Beethoven conceived it and as he wished it to be performed. To do less is to cheapen both its intrinsic worth and ourselves as choral artists. We can sing well for the world, to whom this music belongs.

So yes, it matters.

You Can See a Lot Just By Looking

Each day, I drive past a golf course where a pair of Red-Tailed Hawks has taken up residence. I see at least one of them there every day, perched in a tree or on a fencepost, patrolling the area for prey. I often have to stop for the traffic light in front of the property, so I have a chance to look for them and see what they’re up to. A few weeks ago, I pulled over to watch the female consume what looked like a rabbit.

This morning, as I slowed for the light, I saw the male of the pair (he’s the smaller of the two) perched in a still-bare tree right next to the road, just a few feet from the passing traffic. He had his back to the road, and was looking carefully down at the lawn and hedges below him, probably hoping to find some breakfast. That particular traffic light is on a slow cycle, so I had plenty of time to study the brown-and-white chevron on his back, notice the loveliness of the patterns produced by the different sized feathers, and note the size and strength of his talons. That’s how close he was – no binoculars needed!

I was curious…did any of my fellow commuters see this magnificent bird perched just a few feet away? I looked around – nope. About half of them were on their cell phones (what do they all talk about??), one woman was applying eye makeup (in the car??), two people were eating, and the rest had that staring-straight-ahead-blank-thought-bubble look that seems ubiquitous these days… Not one person that I could see looked at the beautiful bird, about two feet tall, that was perched right next to the road almost at eye-level.

How much of life’s beauty and wonder do we miss simply because we are not paying attention? I will always be so grateful to my mother, who opened my eyes to the wonder of the world around me when I was just a tiny girl. From her, I learned to appreciate the colors and textures of tree trunks and leaves, the infinite variety of birds’ songs, the subtleties of light and color in the sky during the course of a day, and so much more.

Thanks, Mom. My life is all the richer for you.

All of a Sudden

Though spring has been emerging and blooming steadily for some weeks, it finally burst upon me fully today. Early this morning — 4:30! — I was woken by the song of the House Wren in our back yard, a cheerfully optimistic sound I look forward to each year. He must have just returned from his southern sojourn yesterday, or perhaps overnight. The House Wrens nest on the edge of our yard; I never tire of the bubbling cascade of his song. It’s like an inexhaustible champagne fountain. I have not recently seen the Carolina Wrens that came to our feeders all winter. Last year, they nested nearby and I saw them every day during the summer. Perhaps they’re busy nest-building and will be more active later.

This morning on my way to the office (!) I stopped at one of my favorite birding spots, a museum that has extensive property, both landscaped and natural. I parked by the little pond, where forest, swamp, meadow, and lawn areas come together, producing a good mix of birds. I saw Palm Warblers there last week; today Black and White Warblers were scaling the trunks of the shagbark hickories, looking for all the world like zebra-striped Nuthatches. I saw my first-of-year Yellow-Rumped Warbler, too, a bird that always makes me think of Acadia, where we see so many of them during the summer. Bluebirds were everywhere, and I saw one pair already feeding young. Another Bluebird pair seems to have appropriated a nest box that had initially been claimed by a pair of Tree Swallows.

At the pond, a pair of Canada Geese fed quietly together; they became alert when a pair of Wood Ducks splashed in. Red-Winged Blackbirds, Robins, and a noisy Mockingbird dotted the trees at the water’s edge; some painted turtles were hauled out on the muddy bank to catch the early sun. I didn't see either of the resident Red-Tailed Hawks that patrol the hillside, but I did have a chance the other day to get a long look at a Sharp-Shinned Hawk preening and resting. And two Turkey Vultures sailed overhead; they are among the most buoyant and graceful of our birds.

I could hear call notes of many birds as they passed over and around me. One in particular caught my ear: Pik, pik – the call-note of the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak, one of our most beautiful birds and one of the best songsters in our region. I waited…and there it was, high in an oak tree just beginning to leaf out. Bright black, brighter white, and the most lovely rose-red on its upper breast and under the wings. He gave a brief phrase or two of that cool, clear warble, but he was more intent on looking for caterpillars, as he must have been hungry after his long migratory flight. We’ve had a pair of Grosbeaks nest in or near our yard for the past two years…hope they return again.

Spring doesn’t really arrive, though, until I spot my first Northern Oriole. And when I pulled into my office (!) parking space, there he was in the maple tree. What a bird! His song is just delightful, a jaunty whistle as bright and memorable as his black and fluorescent orange plumage.

All of a sudden, it’s spring.