I’d say that 2022 marked an official return to normalcy except there’s something still off about our sense of time. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, in fact all of 2020, seems so very long ago, and yet as I enter 2023 with a teenager heading to college in a matter of months, life is also passing by faster than ever.
Whether slow or fast, I did manage to find time for some memorable experiences this year. Here are a dozen of my favorites (plus one not-so-great).
Things Fell Apart: BBC documentarian Jon Ronson’s podcast series “Things Fell Apart” looks at the origins of several hot-button culture war battles, including book banning, critical race theory, abortion, and cancel culture. Beyond being a deep dive into recent history, what I like about these stories is they illustrate the shades of grey we all have within our opinions about any given topic, and how we might come to more consensus or understanding if we approach others with curiosity, and even kindness, rather than forming a prejudgment. Two standout episodes: “A Miracle,” recounting the day evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker invited an AIDS patient onto her popular TV show, and “Believe the Children,” about how one day care worker got caught up in the Satanic panic of the 1980s.
“From the Top” in San Antonio: In April, TPR hosted the popular NPR music program “From the Top,” showcasing talented teens who perform classical music. Three San Antonio-area musicians were recorded in our studios, along with kids from north Texas who traveled to San Antonio for the taping. Hosts Peter Dugan and Charles Yang engaged the performers in fun conversation about their lives and musical studies, and the kids tore it up on performances of music by Andrès Martin, Franz Schubert, and Lera Auerbach. It was inspiring to be in the same room with so much great music-making. Two episodes of the show were culled from the recordings, and broadcast to a nationwide audience in May and June.
Cinema Tuesdays returns in person: After two years of online Amazon watch parties, TPR’s summer film series, Cinema Tuesdays, returned to in-person screenings again, much to my delight. I was happy we were able to keep the community connected through the online events, but there’s simply no substitute for the theatrical experience, with an audience. Because of the closing of the Bijou, TPR worked with Santikos Entertainment to try out three different locations for the summer film series, my favorite of which for Cinema Tuesdays may be the Northwest theater. Highlight shows this summer? “Casablanca,” “Malcolm X,” a terrific Buster Keaton night with critic and author Dana Stevens, and the Mexican film “Enamorada,” which I’ve been trying to track down and program for five years. It was worth the wait!
California Road Trip: I’ve driven to New Mexico several times. I’ve driven to Tennessee and back. But I’ve never driven as far or as long as I had this summer when the family packed up and headed west to California. It took roughly two and a half days of driving to reach the coast, and I’d do it again in a second, because I love passing through the desolate desert landscape so much. (If you’d like to see some photos, follow this link to my Tumblr blog.) In Los Angeles, we visited Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood (where I got to see the “Psycho” house in person!), and the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Along the way, we dipped our toes in the Pacific, spent an afternoon hiking around Joshua Tree National Park, and got…
COVID: Toward the tail end of our trip to California, three of us tested positive for COVID, and so our drive home was adorned with Kleenex and punctuated by coughs. We were all vaccinated and boosted; thankfully none of the symptoms were very strong, save for a short time when I felt a little dizzy, and my ears were so stopped up I felt like I had plugs in them.
Austin Butler in “Elvis”: He doesn’t look much like him, but Austin Butler completely sold me as Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s dazzling, kinetic biopic. The voice, the physical mannerisms, and the stage moves, are all spot on. There’s also a real emotional heft to the performance. He’s a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, and maybe even the win. And of the Luhrmann films I’ve seen, this is my favorite since “Romeo + Juliet.” Check the clip below — “Elvis” doesn’t just tell you about how audiences responded to him in his prime, but it actually makes you feel the same way, today. It’s exciting.
A Tribute to Disney at Jazz, TX: When drummer Brandon Guerra and saxophonist Adam Carrillo told me they were programming a “Tribute to the Music of Walt Disney” show at Jazz, TX, I knew we had to get it on the radio. Disney songs are the modern versions of old standards. Like the music of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, or Duke Ellington in the 1930s, everyone today knows Disney songs—and as Carrillo pointed out to me, the songs are deceptively simple: “We both discovered this music is very complex, if not harder than ‘jazz,’ which kind of blew my mind. In my own musical playing away from Disney-related stuff … I’m using a lot of those concepts that I learned from the Disney show.”
The Disney show continues to be a popular night at Jazz, TX, selling out each time it’s offered, so if you want to go, don’t sleep on it!
Vikingur Ólafsson – “From Afar” Among all the new music releases I listened to this year, Víkingur Ólafsson’s double album “From Afar” was my favorite. On this, his “most personal” release, the pianist builds a collection of miniatures and shorter works from Johannes Brahms, Wolfgang Mozart, Franz Schubert, around music by the album’s dedicatee, György Kurtág, a composer still active today in his 90s. The result is a meditative collection of moody music for a quiet evening at home, which I’ve enjoyed on several occasions this year. Ólafsson also revels in sharing something new with his listeners, and here there are two surprises—the album was recorded twice, on grand piano and on a felt-covered upright, making an interesting aural comparison. Also, I was immediately taken with a composition from Ólafsson’s native Iceland, a setting of “Ave Maria” by Sigvaldi Kaldalóns. Listen below.
Going Viral on Twitter: I’ve been on Twitter since 2009, and have a modest number of followers on my account. Rarely does any one tweet of mine get more than a couple dozen “likes.” So imagine my surprise when I casually posted an image snapped from my television poking fun at the erasure of cigarettes from old movie stills and images. The one tweet made over 633,000 Impressions, and garnered over 6,100 “likes.” I spent most of the weekend observing it keep going, and going, and occasionally responding to replies. It was weird, bewildering, and kind of fun! But not something I’d wish to happen all the time. (And for the record, I’m not in favor of cigarettes or smoking. Just against dumb revisionist censorship.)
Denzel on Criterion: Fans of Denzel Washington were lucky to get not one but three stellar films starring him in deluxe home video versions this year thanks to the Criterion Collection. There was the interracial romance “Mississippi Masala,” which in 1991 opened a window to hidden communities in the South, the neo-noir “Devil in a Blue Dress,” where Washington finds himself learning how to be a detective in 1940s Los Angeles, and finally the towering “Malcolm X,” one of the greatest biopics ever put on screen, that should have cleaned up at the Oscars, but wuz robbed instead. All three are amazing performances that demonstrate Washington’s range, using his commanding voice, physical self and whole body.
Elton John in concert: Our tickets high in the rafters at the Alamodome having been secured over a year ago, the wait was worth it to see Elton John perform. “Tonight is my 81st concert in Texas,” he announced at one point, before adding that it would also be his last. The set list was heavy on hits but not without some deep cuts, including “Have Mercy on the Criminal” and “Burn Down the Mission,” the title of which probably plays very differently in San Antonio than anyplace else! Still in great voice, John brought along a crackerjack band that included legendary percussionist Ray Cooper.
KPAC’s 40th brings new music and an old format: On November 7, 1982, classical station KPAC first signed on the air to the sounds of Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.” Forty years later, we celebrated with the live premiere and recording of a brand new work, the moving chamber opera “Ribas-Dominicci” by South Texas composer Nathan Felix. Also in November, I hosted a series of throwback all-vinyl hours on the radio, playing some classic recordings in the KPAC library, as well as showcasing brand new vinyl releases that sound amazing. Thanks to Universal Music Group for supporting the project and sending us albums by Hilary Hahn, Lang Lang, Lara Somogyi and others.
Onstage in “The Nutcracker” One of my great regrets in life is that I never took any theater classes in high school or college. I was just too shy to go on stage and attempt to “act.” So I was delighted to finally be a part of the theatrical experience in November for a few minutes as Mother Ginger in Ballet San Antonio’s annual production of “The Nutcracker.” All I had to do was get painted up, wheeled out on stage, and act crazy for two minutes! It was loads of fun, and thanks to everyone at Ballet San Antonio for making it so.
Other things I enjoyed this year? Reading Margo Price’s memoir, “Maybe We’ll Make It,” seeing Bob Dylan in concert at the Majestic Theatre, and Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical movie “The Fabelmans.”
Highlights over a year of emergence. In 2023, I turn 50. What else will the year bring? What are you hoping for in the New Year? Let me know anytime, through email or on Twitter.
Happy New Year!