Monday, May 30, 2016

Tolkien Studies 13: an announcement

On behalf of myself and my co-editors, Michael D.C. Drout and Verlyn Flieger, here are the expected contents of volume 13 of the journal Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review. All of the works are now in the hands of our publisher, West Virginia University Press, and the volume is scheduled to be published in softcover and on Project MUSE later this year. - David Bratman, co-editor

Tolkien Studies 13 (2016)
  • Simon Cook, "The Cauldron at the Outer Edge: Tolkien on the Oldest English Fairy Tales"

  • Paul Acker, "Tolkien's Sellic Spell: A Beowulfian Fairy Tale"

  • John D. Rateliff, "'That Seems To Me Fatal': Pagan and Christian in The Fall of Arthur"

  • T.S. Sudell, "The Alliterative Verse of The Fall of Arthur"

  • Dennis Wilson Wise, "Book of the Lost Narrator: Re-Reading the 1977 Silmarillion as a Unified Text"

  • Jeremy Painter, "'A Honeycomb Gathered from Different Flowers': Tolkien-the-Compiler's Middle-earth 'Sources' in The Lord of the Rings"

  • Michael Potts, "'Evening-Lands': Spenglerian Tropes in The Lord of the Rings"

  • Matthew M. DeForrest, "J.R.R. Tolkien and the Irish Question"
Book Reviews
  • In the Nameless Wood: Explorations in the Philological Hinterland of Tolkien's Literary Creations, by J.S. Ryan, reviewed by Christopher Gilson

  • Tolkien and Philosophy, edited by Roberto Arduini and Claudio A. Testi, reviewed by Andrew Higgins

  • The Body in Tolkien's Legendarium: Essays on Middle-earth Corporeality, edited by Christopher Vaccaro, reviewed by Valerie Estelle Frankel

  • Tolkien in the New Century: Essays in Honor of Tom Shippey, edited by by John Wm. Houghton, Janet Brennan Croft, Nancy Martsch, John D. Rateliff and Robin Anne Reid, reviewed by Valerie Estelle Frankel

  • The Art of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, reviewed by Sarah Beach

  • Arda Inhabited: Environmental Relationships in The Lord of the Rings, by Susan Jeffers, reviewed by Kristine Larsen
  • David Bratman, Edith L. Crowe, Jason Fisher, John Wm. Houghton, John Magoun, Robin Anne Reid, "The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies 2013"

  • David Bratman, "Bibliography (In English) for 2014"

Sunday, May 29, 2016

concert review: Curious Flights

I skipped out on the opportunity to hear the Redwood Symphony power its way through Beethoven's and Shostakovich's Fifths (two of my favorite symphonies, but they don't really go together) so that I could take the exceedingly rare (west coast premiere, it says) opportunity to hear Marc Blitzstein's World War II epic The Airborne Symphony from a rather ad hoc, but magnificently skilled, ensemble called Curious Flights.

But this is the last time I try to dine in the City before a Saturday concert. I sat for so long without even a glass of water or an attempt to take my order that I realized that even two hours wasn't going to be long enough to have dinner in; so I got up and left and, nourished only by a salami stick and some corn chips from a nearby deli, hobbled over to the main hall of the SF Conservatory for the concert whose first half consisted of some other curious works of that era from American composers: Copland's Sextet (clarinet, piano, string quartet), one of the more agreeable outputs from his early modernist period. Samuel Barber's A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, his setting of a poem by Stephen Spender (or, as the typo-ridden program book had it, "Splender") about the death of a soldier in the Spanish Civil War for men's choir accompanied by timpani. Extremely eerie, and hard to believe it was by the composer of Knoxville: Summer of 1915. And, some film score songs by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, some with exceedingly fruity lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, sung with full-throated disregard of campiness ("I mean to say 'I love you'!!") by tenor Brian Thorsett.

Blitzstein spent most of WW2 writing The Airborne Symphony, though it didn't get finished and performed till 1946, hampered by the disappearance in shipment of a trunk with most of the score in it; Blitzstein had to rewrite the work from memory and then found, when the trunk turned up, that the second version was much better. I can only wonder what the first was like.

It's scored for large orchestra, men's chorus, two male soloists, and an unceasingly chatty spoken narrator, who is probably most responsible for the work's obscurity. (The program note suggested that the history of narrated music, in which it cites Lincoln Portrait and A Survivor from Warsaw but not Peter and the Wolf, is not a successful one.) Perhaps only the earnest and unironic performance of radio announcer David Latulippe in this role saved it. Blitzstein wrote all the texts, so blame him.

The symphony is in three movements, each divided into several parts: the first movement traces the history of dreams of flight up through Kitty Hawk; the second on the horrors of aerial war; the third taking the view of Allied airmen. The bulk of the music is of a kind familiar to anyone who knows Soviet patriotic music of the same period, or all the other fanfares from the same series as Copland's for the Common Man but which have been deservedly forgotten. It's a huge sound, brassy, featuring striving melodies over large blocky harmonies.

There are, however, breaks from this program. The second movement includes a sarcastic choral hymn to Hitler in erratic, bouncy, heavily dotted rhythm. The third movement depicts the airman's life in a light choral song on the theme of "hurry up and wait." This is followed by an extremely quiet account of one such man trying to write a letter home to his girlfriend, sung softly and tenderly by baritone soloist (Efrain Solis) with all the true emotion missing from the bombastic Korngold songs. For the ending, Blitzstein avoids getting all peroratory, allowing darker harmonies in his scoring and having the narrator repeatedly intone the words "Not without warning!"

This monster of a piece - it's an hour long - was excellently and cleanly performed by all, under the direction of Alasdair Neale, a conductor with a heart-on-sleeve style and a willingness to tackle all sorts of odd repertoire. I doubt I will ever need to hear this again, but I'm so glad I heard it this once.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

concert review: Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale

Every once in a while, Symphony Silicon Valley summons up its Chorale to sing along with it. And, once a year, the Chorale gets to play the lead and have the orchestra accompany it instead for a change. Friday was that night, over at Santa Clara Mission, an almost ornate enough building, in its Spanish colonial style, to match the big choral structures from the long 18th century that filled it last night.

We had works from a wide variety of distinctive great composers: one of Purcell's Birthday Odes, one of Handel's Chandos Anthems - both large, multi-movement works - a couple varied Mozart church pieces from his Salzburg period, a Haydn motet, and Schubert's Mass in G, my secret favorite early masterwork of his. The retro-Baroque Credo movement has a strange, stealthy beauty that rivets me, and it covers an enormous amount of text in very little time.

The chorus was in fine shape, full-bodied and fully in control of the counterpoint. There was a canonic series of entrances in the Purcell that was just spine-tingling. Only in some of the more irregular jagged parts of the Haydn could they have used more stiffening.

There were guest soloists in most of the music too. Soprano Sandra Raquel Bengochea was the most operatic and the most expressively free. Matthew Knickman is a deep enough baritone to cover the depths of Purcell's bass parts. Blake Morgan has a pure tenor voice with carefully precise placement of every pitch and every phoneme. Cortez Mitchell is more grounded than many countertenors, but his voice didn't carry well in the choral pieces. To compensate for that, he got a solo showpiece in the form of Handel's Largo (the aria Ombra ma fu from Serse) which was just stunning.

Only complaints were the backwards-collated page in the unstapled program book - it took 3 of us several minutes to figure out how it was supposed to go - and that the program notes should have been run past somebody with a better command of English before publication. One sentence on Schubert, "Having only lived for 31 years, the sheer volume of musical output is staggering," a sentence with no detectable subject, was a striking but representative example.

Friday, May 27, 2016

concert review: Peninsula Symphony

I was a bit nervous about covering the Peninsula Symphony for the Daily Journal, as the last concert of theirs I went to, while imaginatively programmed, was wretchedly performed.

This time, fortunately, the wretchedness was confined to the accompaniment of the violin concerto, and instead I could concentrate on the soloist, who not only was very good, she wrestled down to agreeability what I usually find a rambling and tiresome concerto.

The big piece was the Ninth. The Ninth: Beethoven's. I don't care what larger structures have since been built by Mahler and other megalomaniacs: this is the biggest symphony of them all in the subjective and hence meaningful sense. (Though it isn't the greatest, and not even Beethoven's best.) It takes nerve to tackle it, and it was worth whatever extra rehearsal they stole from the rest of the program in order to get it right.

Originally I was going to go on Friday, even though that was up in San Mateo: it's a better auditorium than Flint, which was built for Steve Jobs to pontificate in. (Not really: it predates him.) But then I got the offer from SFCV to cover the Oakland Symphony, which played only on Friday, and after hesitating I accepted and then hastily contacted PenSym to change my ticket to Saturday.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

the last resort show

Having to wait around all day while my car was getting a much-needed overhaul (3 trips to SoCal in the last couple of months), I took the city's jitney shuttle downtown, visited the library, had lunch. Finding I needed yet more time, then I wandered over to the last remaining weekday downtown moviehouse to see what was on.

I had two choices. Eschewing the one with Susan Sarandon as a woman who's driving her daughter crazy - I saw that plot when it had Shirley MacLaine, and I didn't like it then - I went for Dough, a feeble British comedy with Jonathan Pryce as an old Orthodox Jewish baker who, lacking any other assistance in his small shop, hires his cleaning woman's son. They are black Muslims from Africa, so cue a lot of ethnic and religious sparks. The son is also, unknown to his mother, a pot dealer, and one day hides his stash in the boss's bread dough. The challah becomes very popular that week, and the bakery starts going gangbusters until, inevitably, he's found out.

Also, the baker is a widower devoted to his wife's memory, and his landlady is a widow who bats her eyes at him in the manner of Angela Lansbury playing Mrs. Lovett.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

concert review: On the Town

A special semi-staged production of the Bernstein/Comden-and-Green musical by the San Francisco Symphony under MTT. The last time they did one of these, an excellent performance of West Side Story, they did without the dancing. This time the dancing was there, all of it, so the singers had to be people who could dance too, which is perhaps why the songs didn't strike me as coming out as crisp as in a purely concert performance I heard of several of them a few years ago.

West Side Story is of course a classic, but there's a lot of good and funny songs in here too that would make great character pieces even out of context if only they'd get sung more: "Come Up To My Place", "Ya Got Me"*, "I Understand", and especially "Carried Away"** (a duet which Comden and Green wrote for themselves for the first production).

The only problem was one thing that West Side Story has in superb form, but which On the Town lacks entirely: a plot. Wandering around from nightclub to nightclub waiting to see if the guy's date is going to show up is just not that interesting for an audience to watch. The plot problem starts at the very beginning, with the famous opening number in which the sailors sing that they have only one day's shore leave in New York, so there's no time to waste ... presumably on things like standing around singing about how there's no time to waste, so what the hey? A stage play, whether or not it's musical, is a different genre from abstract concert music, and it has to have a storyline that catches the interest, and this one - with three identically-clad protagonists simultaneously introduced, so it took most of the show to remember which was which - just didn't.

But I'd really advise rescuing a few of the cleverer songs from this mudge.

*Four out of the five performers here are the ones I heard this evening.
**These are the performers of the concert version I enjoyed so much.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

concert review: Oakland Symphony

Getting to an Oakland Symphony concert from here is both very difficult and very easy. The afternoon traffic around the South Bay is the worst I have to deal with, but once you (finally!) reach the end of the BART line, the parking lot is emptying of the commuters who fill it up all day, and it's a short quick ride to literally half a block from the theatre.

I got a late assignment to review this one, but I was happy to go. There'd be Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, probably my favorite of his works because parts of it sound proto-minimalist (but not in this performance, alas). There'd be Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915, the fourth time I've heard this piece in performance in the past year, after a lifetime of never hearing it live at all. Why this, all of a sudden? At least I don't mind: it's both short and very lovely. And there'd be John Adams' Dharma at Big Sur, probably his most extensive essay into spiritual stillness. And which afforded me the opportunity to allude to both Kerouac and Keats in the same review.

Dharma was written for a jazz violinist, Tracy Silverman, because he knew how to bend the notes as Adams wanted, and he performed it here too. It was Silverman's encore that gave me trouble. Just after he began, a smattering of applause came from the audience, so some of them recognized it, but I did not. The next morning I called up the Symphony's publicity officer and asked; he said it was a medley of Stevie Wonder's "I Wish" and Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Rain", so that's what I wrote. I've heard of both of them but I don't know their work. It was the copy editor who informed me that Hendrix wrote "Purple Haze"; "Purple Rain" is by Prince. I had no idea which one got played, of course, so he checked with the publicity people again. You can count on me to tell you which of Tolkien or C.S. Lewis wrote "The Nameless Land" and which one wrote "The Nameless Isle" (I once submitted a copy edit note correcting an error on that) but purple pop songs are outside of my field.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

MTT conducted basic works by Schumann and Brahms, plus The Death of Cleopatra by Berlioz, more of an operatic recitative and aria in the guise of a concert piece, in which Cleo does the thing that Romantic opera heroines like to do best, which is to commit suicide, at considerable length. Susan Graham sang, very well I suppose - I'm not really a judge of this kind of music. More interesting was the circumstance of its composition. Berlioz wrote it as his qualification entry for a composing fellowship that he was tipped to win, but the music was considered too advanced and he failed. "I prefer soothing music," explained one of the judges. "But sir," replied Berlioz, "if you want me to write soothing music, don't set me a text of a despairing queen who dies in agony."

The Brahms, which was the Haydn Variations, and the Schumann, which was the Fourth Symphony, were basic readings out not to reveal, but to clarify. Schumann's melodic line consists of a series of short phrases, and MTT was out to separate those phrases and balance them against each other. He also introduced a bit of welcome grit into the slow movement; in fact, both this and the trio were entirely devoid of the cloying and incongruous sweetness that's the usual flaw in performances of this symphony. A solid job, and soon to be released on CD, they say.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

new coat

Over the last few days, we've been watching our little Minnipin Cottage and all its neighbors in this small townhouse complex metamorph from pale beige caterpillars to ... darker beige butterflies.

Yes, the paintners* are here. And we've been getting various notices about their blast washing, or clambering over this or that part of your building. This morning, by appointment, they did the front door. By appointment because it had to be left open for two hours to dry. Though the cats are unlikely to wander out the front - why should they? there's no food out there - I still thought I ought to block off the foyer some way. I checked a pet store for gates, all of which were designed for dogs and would have to be covered up anyway to deter cats, and were very expensive anyway. So I put up three flattened packing boxes over the 44-inch gap, anchored by slipping the end of one behind a bookcase on the near wall.

All this work has been accompanied by carpenters replacing the rotted old yard fences and gates, for which it's about time. They'll get painted too.

*Oh when the paintners go marching in
Oh when the paintners go marching in
Just make sure they put a dropcloth
When the paintners go marching in.
- Allan Sherman

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

no man is an island, but many gulls are

One of those things I'd always wanted to do: visit one of the Channel Islands, eight outcroppings off the coast of Southern California. One, Santa Catalina, is actually inhabited and easily accessible, but I've never been there. Two others are Navy bases and not open to the public. The remaining five make up Channel Islands National Park, and it was to the smallest and closest of these, Anacapa (strictly East Anacapa, one of a chain of islets, one mile long and 1/4 wide) that I sailed on the concessionaire's day trip last Thursday. It's an hour out there, not counting the time we stopped to watch the dolphins and whales feeding (an awesome sight as the dolphins leap into the air to herd the fish by creating subsurface booming sounds while coming down), and you get about four hours on the island. There are no services on the island, not even water for public use, just a couple pair of outhouses, so bring your own lunch and lots of water, and take your trash away with you.

For the first two hours, I was struck by how weird and alien a place Anacapa is. After that, I found myself reveling in its strange beauty. During that time I walked it pretty much end to end.

A tilted mesa surrounded by steep cliffs on all sides - it's a 155-step climb up from the dock - East Anacapa lies in a rain shadow and is covered with low scrub, even a little cactus, plus weird bushes called tree sunflowers. These bloom violently in March, but by May almost all that was gone. What the island did have in May was gulls. Thousands of seagulls spread over the island, and every gull was nesting, and every nest had exactly three speckled green eggs in it. And every gull squawked continuously if you got very near its nest, which since they were everywhere meant there was constant squawking.

The eggs were just beginning to hatch, and the 20 or so of us adult day tourists (there were also 2 groups of high school students on field trips on our boat) saw just a few fuzzy chicks, alerting each other to them as we occasionally passed each other on the lonely gravel trails.

Here's my photo album of the trip. If you take it on slide-show view, you'll see my explanatory captions for each photo. And you'd better read them, because the chicks are almost invisible against the background.

Like Alcatraz, but for different reasons, this is an island I doubt I'll ever return to, but am very glad I visited: an experience not to be forgotten.