Back So Soon? | Pushing the Wave

Back So Soon?

Opinion, 9 December 2022
by L.A. Davenport
Christmas cheer on the San Antonio Riverwalk
Christmas cheer on the San Antonio Riverwalk
It’s a strange thing to travel back a place just over a month later, and an even stranger thing when it’s all the way across the Atlantic to Texas, and San Antonio. In my line of work, it’s not unheard of to end up working in same city two years in a row, and I’ve been to Barcelona twice in the same year more than once. But it is not at all common to come back to a place in such quick succession, and certainly not to such a far-flung location.

But here I am, turning out news articles in the same conference centre as I was at the end of October. But if that might sound rather repetitive and even tedious, it couldn’t be further from the truth.

For a start, it’s a different conference, on a different, albeit related, topic. There are many more attendees and the organisers have used a different configuration of rooms. The attendees are different, as they’re not working in the same field necessarily, and the level of media interest in the event is on another scale.

But there’s more to it than that. I’m staying in a new hotel in a new part of town, which has lent a fresh perspective. For those of you who don’t know the place, San Antonio is famous for its Riverwalk, which I discussed in my column on 31 October, and staying at the opposite end of the loop in an area I never visited before has been revealing.

The other big change is the shift in seasons since the last time I came. I don’t mean the weather, as that has stayed relatively balmy and very humid, and it’s not quite winter yet, whatever that means here. No, the big change is that it is now the Christmas season. The Americans, especially the Texans, are not known for doing things by halves, and this is no exception.

The sheer amount of festive decorations that line the Riverwalk is quite extraordinary, and while it would look out of place and a bit over the top in Europe, it seems to fit perfectly with the surroundings. That’s not to say that San Antonio is a brash town. It’s gaudy in places, but the people are unassuming and not at all in-your-face, and the same could be said for the architecture. They talk quietly and without affectation, beyond the local accent and, without exception, they step back politely out of the way as soon as they see someone (me, usually) walking quickly along the sidewalk. The same cannot be said for many places.

Maybe it’s the time of year, or simply the effect of being around all the decorations and seasonal cheer, but I have found myself slowing down and appreciating my surroundings much more than I did last time I was here. Then I was partly swept up in the energy of being back in the USA, and of doing my first US conference since before COVID, so perhaps I wasn’t as capable of smelling the roses, so to speak. But here and now, I am hearing and seeing the place, and the people, much more.

It helps that one of my closest and most important friends has also been here, working alongside me as we file news stories. Before I met him, I had no idea what a mentor was, or what they did for people. It’s a word that is bandied about a lot but with few explanations. It all made me rather sceptical, even cynical, until I met him. He seemed to subconsciously take on a role that was initially more of a guiding light, until, frankly, I grew up a little more and we could become friends.

It takes a few days to settle into being with someone if you don’t see them for a while. You have to wade through the daily conversations and preoccupations that crowd our minds before you can start to get into the topics that really matter. Consequently, after four short days I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. It seemed like we had barely scratched the surface.

But here I am, alone again in a far-away place, feeling the vibrations of a people who are different, but somehow related. Shaw is meant to have said that Britain and America are two countries separated by a common language, and what separates us can sometimes seem bewildering when we clearly share so much.

Then again, San Antonio is a rather unique place. Seventy per cent Hispanic, it is as much Mexican as it is Old South, and this former frontier town has its own fertile and rich mix of the two cultures.
But enough of all that. I have to confess that I love the Christmas season. I always have, and not because of the anticipation of opening of presents or even all that Christmas food and drink, although I enjoy it.

It’s more about what comes over people as big day approaches. They drop their guard and have more time for each other. Smiles come more easily, and causal, easy conversation springs to people’s lips much more than at any other time of year. The lights in the streets reflect the newfound light in people’s hearts, and life is the better for it.

We all sense the need to see friends and family, and to let bygones remain just that. To have at least one drink with everyone about whom we care, so as to not let a year go by without toasting to their very good health, becomes an urgency, even if it’s a rushed glass of something while standing beside a bar before we head off into the early night.

I also have some traditions in the weeks before Christmas. I suppose they help me get in the mood, but I have been doing them long enough they have become part of the occasion, or rather its build-up.

One of them is that every December, alongside a selection of his other wintery stories, I read A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. I have written elsewhere that I am no fan of Dickens’ work as a whole, but this book stands out for me as a brilliant reminder of all that we should strive for in our lives, not just at Christmas but all the good year long.
When I am on the road, I tend to get heavily into a type or style of music, which becomes a soundtrack of sorts to my trip. More often than not, it’s classical music, and usually it’s Mozart. But this time I took a while to settle on something.

I started out listening to quite a bit of Shostakovich. Not his symphonies, which I was listening to before I left, but rather his ballet and film music. Great though it is, it didn’t really chime with my mood, and I restlessly hopped around different things, trying on some Hovhaness, among other things, before settling on Bruckner.

It has been a while since I listened to them but, for me, the Georg Tintner recordings of the complete symphonies on Naxos are the most insightful and revealing interpretations that I have ever heard. When I was young, you were called an idiot if you listened anything other than Eugen Jochum’s versions. But I never connected with them. They seemed, like so many recordings by Big German Conductors of that era, all noise and no trouser, as one might say.

I fell briefly but deeply under the spell of Gunter Wand’s admittedly excellent recordings for RCA, but then I came back, after a long interval away, to Tintner’s set. And what a set it is. The pacing is perfectly judged, and the orchestras respond to his expert direction with a nimbleness that sweeps one along in the majesty of the works. The recording quality us more than adequate to capture the fullness of Bruckner’s rich orchestration and innovative writing and, while one can argue over the versions of the symphonies he records, I can scarcely see how it coud be bettered.

I will add that the Stanislaw Skrowaczewski set of Bruckner symphonies on Arte Nova is excellent and, for me, comes a close second to Tintner’s efforts, but he will always have the edge.
While on the flight over to San Antonio, I took the chance to catch up on a few films.

I had never watched Citizen Kane, nor Suspicion, and I enjoyed them both a lot, although Cary Grant’s brilliant and nuanced performance in the latter was perhaps the greater surprise. I also watched a very old ‘horror’ film called Cat People, which was better than I had imagined it would be, and I have the sequel teed up on my iPad ready for the return leg.

I also returned to a film I saw for the first time only recently. 2001: A Space Odyssey is, largely, an excellent film, although there are longueurs that sometimes try one’s patience. However, the build of tension between Hal and the astronauts in the third part is a masterclass in film making and one of the most finely wrought dramatic sequences in any art form. It makes Interstellar look like a second-rate pastiche.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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Back So Soon? | Pushing the Wave