Haydn’s Symphony No. 85, Mozart’s Piano Concerto in F Major, and Schubert’s Symphony No. 4

The New York Philharmonic on Thursday, March 22.

What I love most about classical music (and by this I mean music of the classical period, roughly 1750 to 1820) is its irrepressible buoyancy. Composers then didn’t think of music as self-expression (that began in the romantic period that followed), so angst and pain rarely weigh down their compositions. Mozart, for example, wrote some of his loveliest, airiest pieces during some of the darkest times in his life.

I love tense, impassioned music as much as the next person, but there’s something very special about those bright classical works. To me, they express an unearthly sense of innocence. It’s as if the music is coming from a different plane, a world without suffering or trouble.

I went to Thursday’s concert feeling moody and glum. Work had been frustrating, the skies were grey, and Sean had to work late and couldn’t join me. Then the concert began—Haydn’s lilting “La Reine” symphony followed by one of Mozart’s piano concertos, with the glorious Mitsuko Uchida as soloist—and the music was so radiant and clean, so unaffected and blithe, that all those petty concerns evaporated. That’s the power of classical music.

The Bronx Zoo

What limited appreciation I have for the natural world comes largely from my grandfather. Left to my own devices, I’m the sort of person who believes that lack of air conditioning and an overabundance of insects make the great outdoors unfit for human habitation, but Grandpa is more broad-minded.

When I was little, I sometimes joined him when he visited the family’s old overgrown farm on Terra Ceia Island on the gulf coast. There I learned to identify a few marine birds (herons, egrets, anhingas, osprey) and to climb citrus trees to reach fruit on the higher branches. Those trips were fun, but Grandpa finds plenty to appreciate in our small-town backyards, as well. He leaves peanuts on window ledges so we can see the squirrels up close through the glass when they come to snack. He e-mails us about various celestial happenings—a lunar eclipse, a meteor shower, Mars particularly low in the night sky—and urges us to watch for them. He cultivates vegetables and flowers in his backyard garden and greenhouse, and though I’ve never been any help to him, I enjoy tagging after him to watch him examine the greenery when I visit.

So when I heard Grandpa was coming to visit us in New York, I knew immediately that I wanted him to see Central Park and the Bronx Zoo. In mid-March, still not quite spring, it wasn’t an ideal time for either, but we had a good time. At the very least there weren’t any mosquitoes out to sting us.

A few photographs, courtesy of Dad, after the jump …

The Lives of Others

In theaters.

Gerd Wiesler is an unlikely protagonist. A member of East Germany’s much-feared secret police, the Stasi, he is conducting an interrogation when we first meet him in East Berlin before the fall of the Wall. Wiesler has deprived his subject of sleep and forced him to sit awkwardly on the backs of his hands for hours, and the man is ready to crack. He is pitiful, begging for rest, crying with exhaustion, repeating his cover story with increasing desperation, and Wiesler never flinches, never stops pressing the poor man to betray his friends.

But Wiesler isn’t a sadist. He’s a consummate professional, performing even his most horrifying duties with great skill and tireless efficiency. Only gradually do we realize that, more significantly, Wiesler is also a true patriot, a quietly earnest believer in the unrealized ideals of his decaying country. What first appears to be bloodless workmanship is actually something more complicated: not zeal, exactly, but the sincerity of a man who believes he is doing the right thing.

The Lives of Others tells the story of how Wiesler loses that belief, how he awakens to the corruption of the Stasi and begins to incrementally reject the organization’s goals and methods. It takes the shape of a thriller but has the soul of a character study, tracking Wiesler’s gradual transformation parallel to that of Georg Dreyman, a playwright on whom he has been assigned to spy. The elegant pairing, subtle and thought-provoking, is indicative of the artistry of the film, the remarkable feature debut of writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Now playing at Circle in the Square on Broadway.

The cast of characters in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a field guide to early adolescent geekdom. The relentless academic overachiever, the hyperactive boy clinging to childhood, the shy introvert with an oddball sense of humor, the hormone-addled boy who crumbles into inarticulate giggles around pretty girls, the too-precocious kid who spouts her parents’ beliefs without truly understanding them—they’re all here, awkward and vulnerable and eager to please.

Spelling Bee sometimes leads a bit too hard on cliché (the overachiever is, of course, an Asian-American girl), but for the most part, it gets the kids right. They’re at the age when the pressure to grow up and fit in hasn’t yet softened or sanded off or veiled the idiosyncratic lumps of their personalities, and Spelling Bee embraces that, affectionately reveling in the young spellers’ foibles and quirks.

The Pirates of Penzance

The New York City Opera on Saturday, March 10.

The Pirates of Penzance is as frothy as any Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, but years ago, it taught my brother and me the meaning of the word paradox, the seemingly impossible contradiction in which, for example, a young man might have lived twenty-one years but, having been born on leap year, celebrated only five true birthdays. In a weird way, that one little personal fact encapsulates Pirates for me. The story is completely ludicrous (the leap-year twist figures into a bit of intrigue surrounding a contract of apprenticeship to pirates), but underneath that goofiness is a real satiric edge, a kernel of substance that sticks with me, like that memorable vocabulary word, even as I giggle at the matrimony-obsessed buccaneers and primly bloodthirsty maidens.

Family in town—same old drill

I’m always thrilled to have family visiting (this time it’s Mom and Dad and Grandpa), but it does cause delays in writing, and I end up posting something like this as a feeble explanation.

The Sims 2

On the PC. 

I debated writing about this, but seeing as how I’m in the midst of one of my periodic Sims binges, it seemed somehow dishonest not to write about it. But part of me thinks it’s a little shameful: I’m a 27-year-old woman with a job and a husband and a great life in a wonderful city, and I become obsessed with the imaginary lives of little pixelated people in my PC.

This American Life: What I Learned from Television

A Chicago Public Radio Production at Avery Fisher Hall on Monday, February 26.

I wrote here about This American Life once before. It was one of my earliest blog efforts, and I struggled to articulate what makes the radio program so special. The stories it features are so diverse in type and tone and subject matter that it’s difficult to capture what it even is, much less why I love it so much, why I babbled merrily for days to anyone who would listen when it became available as a free podcast. (Seriously, I’m evangelical about this. Visit iTunes and check it out.)

When I heard the show’s creators had agreed to do a television version for Showtime, I cringed, partly because I worried that This American Life’s beautiful, literate craftsmanship could never make the transition to TV and partly because Sean and I don’t get Showtime, so I won’t be able to see it—mixed feelings, clearly.