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Arts & Culture

2020: A Personal Year In Review

This year was supposed to be different.

The words echo on the lips of everyone you know. Exactly two weeks after Texas Public Radio moved into our new headquarters in downtown San Antonio, nearly all of us began working from home as our key crew of Norma Martinez, Steve Short, David Martin Davies, Lauren Terrazas, and Jerry Clayton, plus reporters and producers, not only kept the Texas Public Radio ship going, but brought new insight into the pandemic, racial tension, and an election that captured the attention of the world.

KPAC continued to provide respite from the day’s trouble and inspiration with great classical music, and despite our limitations, we hosted a half-dozen live broadcasts on 88.3 FM with the help of partners like Agarita and the Olmos Ensemble.

Even though the Year That Seemed Like A Decade is over, 2021 promises a long road toward a light at the end of the tunnel. We look forward with hope.

Meanwhile, what were the good things that happened in 2020? There were some. Here are a few of the sights, sounds and activities that I enjoyed this year.

The Gurwitz Piano Competition: Unger the aegis of Musical Bridges, the Gurwitz International Piano Competition was born with a spectacular series of performances over the course of one week in January. It began with 12 outstanding musicians from around the world and culminated with a final round featuring three pianists each performing a concerto with the San Antonio Symphony. Texas Public Radio’s KPAC 88.3 FM was there to record the performances and broadcast them on the radio, including a live broadcast of the final round, which coaxed our old friend and former KPAC host Randy Anderson back onto the radio to co-host. The Gold Medalist was Jiale Li, who thrilled the audience at the Tobin Center and on the radio with Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2. (Below: an excerpt from Li's early round performance.)

Washington, D.C. and the NPR Tiny Desk: In February, I traveled with two of my TPR colleagues to NPR’s headquarters in Washington as part of an alpha group of member stations who were training on a new content management system for station websites. The software, Grove, is more complicated to use than our old CMS, but is also more flexible, allowing us to better present stories online. We were lucky enough to be at NPR on the day of a special Tiny Desk concert that was months in the making. Alicia Keys serenaded the building with four songs, including the premiere of “Gramercy Park,” from her then-forthcoming album.

Quarantine Cooking: In 2020, I became a better cook. While working at home during the pandemic, I’ve taken to cooking about 75% of our family’s meals. I do so both because I’m interested in food, but because my wife eats plant-based, so I’ve tried to tailor the meals at home to please everyone. Using recipes from online sources, Forks Over Knives, and a few of our own imagination, we’ve enjoyed dishes such as minestrone soup, Mediterranean lentil soup, okra jambalaya, at least three different types of chili, Impossible meat enchiladas, and much more. Plus, I actually lost weight this year by not eating out as often! (The kids and I still enjoy the occasional take-out pizza or sushi.)

Sketching: During the #coronatimes I returned to a hobby I’d mostly given up 25 years ago. I was an Art/Art History minor in college, and enjoyed painting and drawing. Buying blank, pre-stamped 3 x 5 post cards allowed me to return to art in a modest, scaled-down fashion. In April, I began sketching neighborhood buildings and environments while out on my nightly walks, and kept up the hobby through the summertime and early fall, branching out into other parts of town, and eventually sending out over 50 hand-drawn post cards to friends and family. I also shared the sketches on my Twitter feed, and you can see a few examples in the slide show at the top of this page.

Trilloquy: While out on my aforementioned evening walks, I did a lot of listening in 2020. My favorite podcast of the year was “Trilloquy,” hosted by Garrett McQueen and Scott Blankenship. As they explain, “all cultural music is classical,” and the hosts each week work to “de-colonize” classical music by bringing new context to the art form—specifically through a racial and social lens. What I like about the show is that Garrett and Scott really listen to one another and their guests, are genuinely curious, and admit that they sometimes don’t know all the answers. Even on the occasions when I’ve found myself disagreeing with an opinion, the show always makes me think twice. If you enjoy classical music, you owe it to yourself to listen to this program. Recommended episode: this Opus on the life of Paul Robeson.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always: One of the great performances on film this year was given by first-time actor Sidney Flanigan as a Pennsylvania teen named Autumn who travels over state lines to New York so she can get an abortion without parental consent. The movie never spells out explicitly why she has to hide it from her parents, but there are answers between the lines, and in the film’s title, which references a scene in the film depicting a series of answers to questions about Autumn’s sexual partners. Flanigan, as Autumn, carries herself with quiet determination to free herself from an untenable situation. It’s also worth noting that "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" doesn’t present Pro-Lifers as dopes. There are great performances all around in this movie.

That’s How Rumors Get Started: I’ve been a fan of Margo Price since stumbling on her SNL performance in 2016. “That’s How Rumors Get Started” is a deliberate departure from Price’s country roots to a more rock-oriented sound. My favorite track right now is probably the anthemic, gospel-tinged “Hey Child,” which will sound great in concert one day, once concert tours resume.

Stars & Stripes Drive-In: San Antonio hasn’t gone without the movies for much of the pandemic thanks to Santikos, who in May were among the first theater chains to open up in the country, with enhanced safety protocols. But for many going into a theater still feels risky, and business has been booming at drive-ins across the country. Early in the summer I took my daughter to her first drive-in experience at the Stars & Stripes in New Braunfels to see “Jaws” on the big outdoor screen, and we repeated the visit in December for “Wonder Woman 1984.” I was impressed by the picture on screen and how well the sound from my car radio synchronized with the movie. It’s also worth noting the concession area at Stars & Stripes is spotless, and spacious.

MoBetterBlues_SpikeLee_Bluray.jpg
Kino Lorber

Kino Lorber: Some of the most interesting home video releases this year came from Kino Lorber, a boutique label similar to Criterion that specializes in rescuing hidden films and bringing them to appreciative audiences in theaters, and on video. In February, the company put out a set of five Spike Lee films from the 1990s making their debut on Blu-ray, including “Mo’ Better Blues,” Lee’s jazz and relationship-themed follow up to “Do the Right Thing” that plays even better today than when it first came out. In August, Kino Lorber released a film I have been waiting years for on Blu-ray: the beautiful Texas-based film “Tender Mercies,” starring Robert Duvall as an alcoholic country singer who redeems himself with the love of a young widow. Also that month came the 1981 French thriller “Diva” and an Australian curio starring San Antonio’s own Henry Thomas, “The Quest.” Kino Lorber also released a series of ten Yiddish films from the 1930s and early 1940s that’s a revelation.

Bob Dylan: What music has gotten me through the pandemic? Everything, but I think the artists I turned to the most – especially during the initial months of lockdown – were The Byrds and Bob Dylan. Why Dylan? I don’t know, something about the timeless nature of his music, especially the homespun material he recorded in Nashville from 1967-1970, puts me at peace. Then, lo and behold, a miracle! After three recent albums of warbling old standards, Dylan put out “Rough and Rowdy Ways” in June, capped by the monster-length “Murder Most Foul,” a song ostensibly about JFK that’s seemingly filled with more cultural references than a half-dozen “American Pies.”

Voices of the Sani: After hearing a song on TPR’s World Music with Deirdre Saravia, I immediately purchased this infectious album from the Yunnan, China band Manhu. The traditional melodies on "Voices of the Sani" are fused with infectious modern beats; two of the songs are about the joys of drinking, specifically how “the drinking of three cups of liquor brings a deep sense of wellbeing.” 2020 approves.

Other things I enjoyed this year: Demitasse’s lovely album “Perfect Life,” hearing Agarita perform live in TPR’s brand new Alvarez Theater with Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson, the movie podcast "Unspooled," TPR's "Petrie Dish" podcast that brought context to pandemic news, Disney’s “The Mandalorian,” starting a “Lost” re-watch with the family, and giving my daughter a copy of “Dark Side of the Moon” on vinyl for Christmas.

I plan to finish 2020 with Pixar’s “Soul,” and start 2021 with a viewing of Francis Ford Coppola’s new edit of “The Godfather Part III,” now titled “The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone.”

What did you enjoy in 2020? Drop me a line through email (ncone@tpr.org) or Twitter any time.

I wish you all the best for 2021!

—Nathan Cone