Beethoven, Mozart, John Paul Jones and More Thai Food

Beethoven and Mozart: On Saturday night, we went to the concert of the Smithsonian Chamber Players, held in the Hall of Musical Instruments of the National Museum of American History. The Chamber Plays use period instruments. At this concert, they played a viola built in 1762, a contemporary oboe modeled after one made in 1798, a contemporary clarinet modeled after a 1780 clarinet, contemporary French orchestra horn, modeled after an 1810 horn, a contemporary bassoon, modeled after an 1800 instrument, and a contemporary forte-piano, based on a Viennese forte-piano from 1800. All of the music was in E flat, a Mozart trio and quintet, and a Beethoven quintet. To me, the trio and the Beethoven sounded wonderful; I felt the Mozart quintet lagging a bit, but I must admit that I am not familiar with any of the music.

As interesting as the concert, however, was the hour before the concert, when all of the musicians formed a panel to describe and discuss their instruments. This was fascinating because, in addition to explaining how each of the particular instruments were made, and giving examples of what was easy and hard on the various instruments (how some notes, some combination of notes, some tones, and some volume levels were reached much differently than on instruments of today), they discussed the history and development of each of the instruments, explained how the pieces were going to sound differently than if played on modern instruments, and explained what was in the composers’ minds as they wrote the pieces. Much was new to me.

John Paul Jones: I read Evan Thomas’ biography of John Paul Jones, subtitled “Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy”. Usually I have an idea, when I finish a book, as to whether I think it’s a good book or not. This time, I have no clue. I say that not because the book was not well written, but because the John Paul Jones that Thomas describes is such an odd-ball that I had a hard time believing that this is really what John Paul Jones was like.

As Thomas tells the story, Jones had two very different personalities, one the suave, refined man on land, and two the swashbuckler and intemperate ship captain at sea. He was driven not by money but by glory, and I guess you could argue that he had determined that glory on land (success with the women and relationships with the high and mighty) required a different personality than that needed to gain glory on the oceans.

Born in Scotland, going to see as a young teenager, showing skill and soon gaining command of a small trading vessel, he killed one of his crew members (whether he needed to or was right in doing so is unclear), and was abandoned on a Caribbean island, from which he escaped to the American mainland, still in the hands of the British. He became a proponent of American independence and hoped to lead an American army. While he did have some sea-borne tasks, he also spent a lot of time cooling his heals, in part because he had developed a reputation for being so hard on his crews and stirring up mutinous thoughts. During the Revolutionary War, he was sent to France, which was allied with the colonies and decided to counter the English attacks on American vessels by bringing a war of terror to British coastal towns. His success was mixed, but was enough to stir fear among the Brits and to impress the French and Americans. Yet again, it took a long time for him to get another command, this time on a refurbished commercial vessel which he renamed the Bonhomme Richard (after Ben Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac), and in which he engaged a much stronger and quicker British ship in a vicious battle (“I have not yet begun to fight”) which he won, but after which the Bonhomme Richard sank. Again, this achieved a high degree of praise, but again (in large part because of his personality), he had a hard time getting another ship, he never was raised to the rank of admiral, he was not entrusted with the creation of an American navy and, with the permission of the now independent USA, went to serve Catherine the Great in the Russian Navy, fighting the Turks for control of the Black Sea.

A very, very weird story.

Thai Food: Having had a good meal last week at Paragon in Cleveland Park, I had lunch today with an old friend at Bangkok Joe’s, in Georgetown’s Washington Harbor. Basil chicken – very good.

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