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Archive for October, 2010

Toward the end of my research trip to France, I made the unfortunate discovery that during la rentrée, the end of la fermeture, when everyone comes back to Paris and school begins, it’s imperative to reserve a seat at the BnF the second that reservations open….or you’ll fail to get a spot at all. Which is what happened to me, after three weeks of easy access and learning the system. It meant the few hours at the end when I did manage to get into this strange subterranean building were pretty frantic, but there was a fun silver lining.

My mother and I had a lovely lunch with a family friend who works at the BnF and gave us the enormous treat of going “behind the scenes” to the staff canteen (this being France, there are at least 3 public cafés elsewhere in the library). Then, because I couldn’t get in to do actual work, we got to go up the towers with him!

First, a note on the strange/genius/ghastly/stunning architecture of the relatively new Bibliothèque nationale main site, François-Mitterand. It provokes strong, polar reactions in visitors and users. So far, I’ve met two historians who are definite fans (mostly because the highly automated, centralized, organized system for reserving places to work and books from the collection is apparently a big improvement on the old library). But others find the underground labyrinth confusing and the architecture a bleak error in the classic Parisian landscape.

All the books are kept in the four huge towers, while the readers sit underground. This caused a now infamous problem: the architect forgot to protect the books from sunlight, and heavy wooden shutters had to be installed.

So, those shutters may work well to preserve the collection, but not, let me tell you, to give a feeling of security at your back while you’re standing on the outside in front of floor-to-ceiling glass and all of Paris is spread out in miniature at your feet.  My mother bravely walked all the way along one edge with our host, but I chickened out and crept back to the safety of the elevator.

I did, however, get to see lots of other neat things behind the scenes. For example, the books are transported from various nooks and crannies in these enormous towers via little pods on moving tracks, sort of like the train at Curtis Orchards.

This video will let you see the books traveling on their merry way, though it also reveals that we weren’t the very first explorers allowed in to see the inner workings (there are regular guided tours). Still, it was an unbelievably cool experience for us!

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Performance(s)

(No, not the “Judy Bkind of performance this time…a momentary break from the academic world.)

I’ve been blessed with a group of friends with special talents on a variety of stages. Their gifts have been on my mind after a series of terrific shows I’ve seen in the past month, all events I would have enjoyed even without the extra smug benefit of Knowing a Performer. (Though, n. b., no-one has yet offered me an official All-Access Backstage Pass.)

At the end of September, I was lucky enough to be home in Urbana for a tiny but perfect window of time to catch the Rantoul Theatre Group’s thrilling production of Dracula. My sometimes-twin Karen Hughes was a sensation as the alternately ridiculous and terrifying Lucy. Here’s a brief YouTube clip from the play.

Catch upcoming shows at RTG in December (A Christmas Story), March (The Miracle Worker), and May (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

After a week back in Minneapolis, I geared up for the opening concert of VocalEssence’s 2010-2011 season. I knew the music and spectacle of a staged operetta (John Philip Sousa’s El Capitan) would be fantastic, but I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the performance fully without feeling a little sadness that I wasn’t on stage with this phenomenal group. (After singing with the chorus for the past two years, I reluctantly had to give it up this year because of too much research travel.) But really, the performance was so charming and hilarious (especially from the hardworking chorus and the swoonable Bradley Greenwald) that I forgot about regrets and simply enjoyed myself. Hint: get your tickets now for the Garrison Keillor Thanksgiving concert, because I’m sure it will sell out soon.  Two clips for your listening pleasure below, a rehearsal video of El Capitan and last season’s WITNESS concert with Sweet Honey in the Rock:

And just this past weekend, I trekked out to Madison, WI to catch a tantalizing smorgasbord performance of the University of Wisconsin’s many choirs. My dear friend Sarah Riskind (follow that link for her professional website as a performer, conductor, AND composer) is a choral conducting graduate student there and directed several of the performances. The range in the choral program blew me away, as well as how polished and compelling the performances were this early in the semester.

In the immediate future, I’ll be benefiting from my friends’ talents in the form of a University of Minnesota studio recital presentation of “Sondheim at 80!,” (including the marvelous Jean Anderson) and, I hope, Uni friend Chris Otto’s Jack Quartet November concert at Madison. Not to mention upcoming shows I’ll be very sorry to miss: the Williams College Elizabethans’ fall concert (early this year, November 20); Brad Wells’s remarkable ensemble shown below, Roomful of Teeth (though, secret: I’m holding out hope that I might be able to make it for the first time this year); and Karen’s part in Parkland Theatre’s Weekend of One Act Plays.

So now, you ones of readers out there, let me know in the comments of any performances coming up that I shouldn’t miss!

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Two more little finds-of-the day from the BnF in this post, trying to catch up as we make our way into October in real time (although it was warmer in Minnesota this weekend than it was two months ago in Parisian summer!).

1.  Did you know that we lose an hour and 22 minutes of day throughout the month of August? Source: Almanach des Enfans Pour l’Année 1835

2.  As is so often true, Jane Austen has the best words on the subject of today’s find-of-the-day book:

Mr. Collins: “I am happy on every occasion to offer those little delicate compliments which are always acceptable to ladies.”

“You judge very properly,” said Mr. Bennet, “and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?”

“They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.”

While looking at French almanacs published for kids in the late eighteenth century, I came across the Almanach des Enfants: Nouveau Recueil de Compliments et de Modèles de Lettres pour le jour de l’an, Les Fêtes de Famille, etc., etc. (1851). It’s an example of an apparently expansive genre providing readers (in this case, children) with prepared little compliments in poetry or prose that can be memorized and delivered to a parent, sibling, or teacher on particular occasions.

Now, I love my brother very much, but I have to say that I can’t think of any particular occasion on which I would be moved to recite the following to him:

It is not in vain that a mother

nourished us from the same milk,

As a brother I cherish you,

I love you as the equal of a father.

One can only hope that the audience didn’t all grow up into Mr. Collinses:

*    *    *

Ce n’est pas en vain qu’une mère

Du même lait nous a nourris,

Comme un frère tu me chéris,

Moi je t’aime à l’égal d’un père.

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