REVIEW: These Precious Days by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett’s recent collection of essays, These Precious Days, is a tour de force that traverses a wide range of themes and the author’s life experiences. There is, however, a weighty thread running through the book, which reads more as a personal memoir than an essay collection – mortality, particularly in connection to the pandemic and the last several years.

In the book’s introduction, entitled “Essays Don’t Die,” Ms. Patchett, a prolific novelist, explains that when she is working on a novel, “were [she] to die, [she’d] be taking the entire world of [her] novel with [her]”, and “the thought of losing all the souls inside [her] was unbearable.” On the other hand, essays offer a way out: “death,” she notes, “has no interest in essays.” Hence, These Precious Days is a collection borne out of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting inability to avoid our own mortality. “Death always thinks of us eventually,” she writes, adding that “the trick is to find the joy in the interim, and make good use of the days we have.” Ms. Patchett’s essay collection is a tabulation of that joy.

The essays themselves are vivid without being florid, and poignant, but certainly not saccharine. They are humorous at times, and melancholy at others. They offer a small window into Ms. Patchett’s childhood, education, writing process, and personal life, touching on her family, relationships, bookstore, and even her knitting. One of my favorite essays, titled “Reading Kate DiCamillo” is a reflection on children’s literature from an adult reader’s perspective. (Ms. Patchett writes: “These books had given me the means to look backwards. I marveled at the resilience of children who were strong enough to read such sad and beautiful novels full of prisons and dungeons and hunger and sorrow and knives.”)

“These Precious Days,” the book’s title essay, is simultaneously the unlikely story of how Ms. Patchett and her husband spent quarantine with Sooki Raphael, who happened to be Tom Hank’s assistant, and a meditation on life, death, and the human experience. Though the essay could gleam with the star power of the celebrity names included in it, it instead ends up being a real and tender story of regular people. Ms. Patchett notes in the introduction that this “essay was so important to me that I wanted to build a solid shelter for it” (These Precious Days, the book, being the result). It is the longest essay in the book, pithy and raw in a way that stings, and I stayed up reading it into the early hours of the morning because I could not stop in the middle.

Though death is a current present throughout These Precious Days, “the river that ran underground, always,” the essay collection is ultimately about life, and the people and moments to be cherished. It is a beautifully-crafted literary reminder in trying times that, even when death and shadows lurk, there is still life, and there is still joy.

REVIEW: The Philadelphia Orchestra – Night 2

After Friday’s phenomenal concert, I was almost worried that Saturday’s concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra could not possibly measure up to the impossibly high standard of the previous evening. However, as I should have expected, the Philadelphia Orchestra did not disappoint! The second evening’s program included Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) by Missy Mazzoli, Violin Concerto No. 1 in g minor, Op. 26 by Max Bruch, and Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944 by Franz Schubert, and was conducted by Nathalie Stutzmann, Principal Guest Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Ms. Stutzmann presided over the orchestra with a joyful and dynamic ease, and I must note how exciting it was to see a professional orchestra concert conducted by a woman – an unfortunately rare occurrence, and something that I had never actually experienced before this concert. Indeed, in addition to her position with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Ms. Stutzmann (who is also an accomplished contralto singer) was recently named the next music director of the Atlanta Symphony (beginning with the 2022-23 season), making her only the second woman ever (and only woman currently) to lead a major orchestra in the United States.

The program was similarly exciting. I was not familiar with contemporary composer Missy Mazzoli, whose ethereal, atmospheric piece Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) opened the concert. Mazzoli aptly describes her composition as being “music in the shape of a solar system, a collection of rococo loops that twist around each other within a larger orbit,” and “a piece that churn and roils, that inches close to the listener only to leap away at breakneck speed.” Threads of music wove in and out, ebbing and flowing in a way that was simultaneously challenging, fascinating, and enjoyable.

Next, the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 in g minor, Op. 26 featured violin soloist David Kim, Concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra. His interpretation of the piece, a standard for violinists, highlighted exquisite control, technical proficiency, and expressivity that was a privilege to witness. As I often gravitate toward the slow movements of pieces, I especially enjoyed the concerto’s second movement, the Adagio. The violin sings above the orchestra throughout, and the movement ends superbly peacefully.

Finally, after an intermission, Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944 was a fitting close to an evening of excellent music. As with Friday evening’s program, it showcased the Philadelphia Orchestra’s rich sound, and particularly their world-class string sections, in a way that listening to recordings cannot capture.

The only disappointment about Saturday’s concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra was that, unlike Friday night, it did not include an encore!

REVIEW: The Philadelphia Orchestra – Night 1

This past Friday evening, the Philadelphia Orchestra, with Music Director and Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, took the stage at Hill Auditorium for a concert that was one of the best that I can remember. The program paired Wynton Marsalis’s brand-new Tuba Concerto (which premiered in December 2021) with Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 in c minor, Op. 68.

The Tuba Concerto, which was performed by Carol Jantsch, Principal Tubist and University of Michigan graduate (for whom the piece was, in fact, written), was spectacular. Though the tuba is an orchestral instrument that generally maintains a low profile musically, if not physically, this piece featured it in all its glory. Defying categorization, the four-movement piece incorporated a wide range of musical genres and idioms, including jazz and blues. Indeed, it was energetic, maintained a toe-tapping groove at times, and showcased the mind-blowing technical and stylistic range of Ms. Jantsch. In one of the most fascinating parts of the concerto, during the first movement (entitled “Up!”), Ms. Jantsch employed multiphonics, a technique in which she played one note on her tuba while simultaneously singing a different pitch. The effect is almost mystical, and one that causes listeners to sit forward in their seats and wonder where the additional pitches, which almost sound like a sort of humming, are coming from. The concerto also made use of a wide variety of percussion instruments and sounds, including vibraphone, cymbals, bells, handclapping, and others, to create an ever-changing soundscape. Because this piece is so new, no recordings yet exist, but I am anxiously awaiting when I can hear it again!

In the second half of the concert, Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 in c minor, Op. 68 was equally stunning, for different reasons. The rich sounds of Brahms’s composition were a perfect match for the Philadelphia Orchestra, and they enveloped Hill Auditorium. In particular (although I am biased as an oboe player), I will not soon forget the tender, singing oboe solo at the beginning of the symphony’s second movement (Andante sostenuto), performed by principal oboist Philippe Tondre.

To rapturous applause, the Philadelphia Orchestra concluded the concert with an encore of “Hail to the Victors,” performed on tuba by Ms. Janstch, complete with blazing technical display. For the final chorus, the full orchestra joined in, led by Mr. Yannick Nézet-Séguin wearing a University of Michigan cap.

Program aside, it was an enormous pleasure to be able to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra in Hill Auditorium. Their depth of sound and musical coordination is evident in everything that they play, and Mr. Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s energy and connection with the orchestra as a conductor is clear, even from the upper rows of the auditorium. It was a performance not to be missed!

PREVIEW: The Philadelphia Orchestra – Night 2

At 8 pm on Saturday, March 12, the Philadelphia Orchestra returns to Hill Auditorium for the second night of their two-performance residency!

Saturday evening’s program includes Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) by Missy Mazzoli, Violin Concerto No. 1 in g minor, Op. 26 by Max Bruch, and Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944 by Franz Schubert. The Bruch Violin Concerto will feature David Kim, concertmaster, on violin, and the performance will be conducted by Nathalie Stutzmann, principal guest conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Tickets for the Philadelphia Orchestra are available at the Michigan League Ticket Office or on the University Musical Society website. Students may purchase discounted tickets for $12 or $20 with valid student ID, or, for a free ticket, make use of the UMS Bert’s Ticket program!

PREVIEW: The Philadelphia Orchestra – Night 1

On Friday, March 11, 2022 at 8:00 PM, the Philadelphia Orchestra will return to Hill Auditorium for the first performance of a two-day residency. Friday’s program, which will be conducted by music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, features Wynton Marsalis’s Tuba Concerto and Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 in c minor, Op. 68.

The Tuba Concerto is particularly exciting, because it will feature Carol Jantsch, principal tubist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the first female tuba player in a major symphony orchestra, and University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance alumna! Jantsch performed the world premiere of the concerto in Philadelphia in December 2021.

Tickets for the Philadelphia Orchestra are available at the Michigan League Ticket Office or on the University Musical Society website. Students may purchase discounted tickets for $12 or $20 with valid student ID, or, for a free ticket, make use of the UMS Bert’s Ticket program!


REVIEW: The Four Winds

Set in the 1930s and telling the story of a family who fled Dust Bowl-ravaged Texas for California, The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah is not a comfortable book to read. That said, however, its descriptive prose and well-developed characters has the potential to draw readers in, and certainly kept me turning to the next page. Furthermore, despite the immense pain contained in the book’s pages, there is also an undercurrent of hope and survival, making it a worthwhile read in the current times. At over four hundred pages long, it is an excellent book for summer reading.

Elsa Martinelli, the main character of the book, is a woman who does not know her strength. As a young girl, a heart condition kept her from participating in many activities. Her family treated her as weak and as an outsider, and the resulting feelings of inadequacy haunted Elsa in a failing marriage and into middle age. However, she rises from these ashes to find family in her children and mother- and father-in-law, whom she fights fiercely for. This fierce love leads her to make one of the toughest decisions of all – to leave the Texas farm that is her family’s livelihood, but where everything is dying as a result of the dust storms, in search of a better future for her children.

However, life is not automatically better in California. Although the Martinellis escape the dust and its associated health consequences, work is hard to come by. Migrants fleeing the dust storms, referred to by California locals by derogatory terms such as “Okies” or “your kind,” were forced to live in inhumane tent camps, scraping together money to afford the most necessities. Though the story takes place nearly a century ago, it is hard to read it and not draw comparisons to the treatment of twenty-first century immigrants and refugees. So much progress has been made in so many areas since then, and yet we still tolerate, and even perpetrate, the same gross violations of human rights and dignity:

“Elsa couldn’t believe people lived this way in California. In America. These folks weren’t bindle stiffs or vagabonds or hobos. These tents and shacks and jalopies housed families. Children. Women. Babies. People who had come here to start over, people looking for work.”

However, fortunately, the human spirit also remains today as it did in the 1930s. In the Author’s Note, Kristin Hannah observes that strength can be drawn from others’ persistence in past hardships and applied to current struggles like the pandemic: “We’ve gone through bad times before and survived, even thrived. History has shown us the strength and durability of the human spirit. In the end, it is our idealism and our courage and our commitment to one another – what we have in common – that will save us.”

Even when things kept getting worse for the Martinelli’s when it seemed as though it was already as bad as it could get, they held onto one another, to friends, and to hope for better days. That is a message well worth four hundred pages.