Thursday, May 23, 2024

a train to Santa Cruz

I've written before about Roaring Camp, which runs narrow-gauge trains with a vintage steam locomotive on excursion runs up a mountain in the hill country above Santa Cruz. But they also run a beach train from their station down to the Santa Cruz boardwalk. I'd never taken that, but I decided it was time to try. On summer weekends they make two runs a day - the trip takes about an hour in each direction. If you come back on the same run you went out on, there's a 45-minute layover, which isn't very long; but if you go on the first run and come back on the second, you have five hours from 11 AM to 4 PM, which is long enough to have a leisurely lunch and then hang around.

So that's what I did last Saturday, before taking my car over to Aptos and attending that bassoon concert where I won the audience quiz.

The train runs through some thick redwood forests and halfway up along the side of some vertical cliffs, before descending down into Santa Cruz where it passes through an industrial district and then settles along running down the middle of a street. I'd driven that street and seen the train tracks, but I hadn't seen a train along them before. The feeling was not totally unlike that scene in Inception. The train then makes a left turn and runs - slowly, so that pedestrians can get out of the way - along the boardwalk, puffing to a halt alongside the big century-old roller coaster ride.

Physically getting off the train without the ramp they have back at the station was a little awkward (there's steps, but they're difficult), but once off, I walked back along the boardwalk, past the roller coaster and the bumper car ride and the video game parlors - I didn't even know they still had those - way over to the other end where the wharf is, which is where the good restaurants in the area are.

Adequately lunched, I sat on a bench on the wharf, reading and looking out at the beach and ocean, and about 3 began wandering slowly back towards where the train would be. I spent some time gazing at a flock of beach volleyball courts, most of which were occupied by games of two people (both sexes well represented) per side. It occurred to me, first, that two per side isn't really enough people to play an effective game of volleyball; second, that clearly the reason for playing volleyball on a beach is to facilitate making a saving hit while diving head-first into the ground. I used to play volleyball occasionally - it was the only team ball sport I was ever the slightest bit good at - but never on a beach, only on asphalt. Clearly I was missing something.

Train in the other direction, then hobbled back to my car and was off.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Ellen Klages on Jeopardy

Here it is, folks: my friend, and many of yours too, Ellen Klages as a contestant on Jeopardy today, May 22. First time I've seen anyone I actually know as a contestant on this show.

Two warnings, though:

1. It's a very defective recording. The video freezes, though the audio is OK, throughout the second half of the first round, including the contestant interviews, and Final Jeopardy is mostly cut off. I tried three different postings of the episode and they're all like that. If you find a better one, let me know.

2. Ellen got shellacked and came in third. The other two were faster on the buzzer, that was the main reason.

ETA: 3. And now they've all been taken down anyway. Puh.

As on other recent occasions when I've watched Jeopardy, I'm dismayed by the number of items that none of the contestants knew but I did. There were 6 of them this time, including one which Ellen got wrong, aargh! But would I have been able to do any better under the pressure of the actual show? I doubt it. So a warm round of applause to Ellen for doing her damndest.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Bing preview

I received an invitation to a 'preview party' for the next season from Stanford Live, the organization that puts on concerts at the Stanford campus, and I decided to go. About 60 people were there at Bing, Stanford's keynote concert hall. I think the event was mostly aimed at big donors, but there was room for at least one press person - me - though I didn't recognize anybody else as a classical journalist.

The administrators spent an hour describing the themes of the season and specific concerts therein, accompanied by video clips of the performers and, in two cases, the performers live themselves for sets of about ten minutes each. That was what most enticed me.

Katherine Goforth is a trans woman classical singer, the first I've encountered, though there was an interesting article about trans opera singers in SFCV recently. In speaking voice and in presentation - not just appearance, but how she moved and carried herself - like other trans women I've met Goforth was entirely a typical woman. But her singing voice was that of a baritone. (Her publicity says tenor, but it sounded baritone to me.) It had the rougher texture more characteristic of men's voices.
It was not disconcerting if you were expecting it. But trans vocal singing range is an interesting problem, and the SFCV article discusses how its practitioners deal with it.
Goforth's repertoire was Mahler songs accompanied by piano. One of the season themes is "Mahler and the Second Viennese School," be still my heart.

Edmar Castañeda is a Colombian folk-jazz harpist. (Harp is another of the season themes, and judging from one of the recorded clips of other performers, Philip Glass etudes sound really good on harp.) I can't describe Castañeda's style except to note that he pats the strings a lot.

Afterwards there was a reception in the lobby, with drinks and a small snacks table with berries, melon slices, and crunchy little cookies. You could pick up a copy of the printed season brochure straight from the boxes the printer delivered them in. I noticed two things of particular interest. 1) The entire London Symphony Orchestra is coming to play Mahler's roof-blasting First Symphony in Bing's tiny space. Something is going to blow a gasket. 2) Despite claiming that it's disbanding entirely, the St. Lawrence, Stanford's resident professional string quartet, is carrying on with its traditional once-per-term Sunday afternoon concerts, with the three surviving quartet players joined by others for chamber music collective programs like the others they've done recently. This year, two string sextet concerts and a collaboration with a student cello ensemble.

Monday, May 20, 2024

concert review: Peninsula Symphony

I hadn't covered the Peninsula Symphony for the Daily Journal yet this season, so I reviewed their big blowout season finale, big grand extroverted - and also very well-known - works by Sibelius, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky. Performed with all the panache the orchestra could summon, except that the guest pianist in the Grieg Concerto, Jon Kimura Parker, wanted to be fairly quiet and ruminative.

At the pre-concert talk he told an amusing story of his first performance of this concerto. He's originally from Vancouver BC, and went off to attend Juilliard. Soon after his arrival, one Saturday he got a phone call from the Vancouver Symphony, saying that they knew he was a rising local pianist, and hoping he'd be available for a concert next spring. Parker was impressed to hear from the orchestra he'd grown up listening to. But when they asked, "Do you know the Grieg Concerto?", if he said "No, but I'm a really fast learner," he was sure they'd cancel the invitation. So he said "Sure, I know it well." And they said, "Great. Our guest conductor, Harry Ellis Dickson, will be in New York on Tuesday; you can play it for him then."

Uh-oh. Parker ran out and bought the printed music, then disappeared into a Juilliard practice room for three days. He was a fast learner; by Tuesday he had the first movement practiced and memorized; not so much the rest of the piece. When he met Dickson, he put him off by offering to play the Beethoven Appassionata Sonata, which he did know well and which is half an hour long. Finally, Dickson said, "Let's hear the Grieg now." Parker started, and halfway through the first movement Dickson waved him to stop. "OK, that's enough," he said. "See you in March."

By which time, of course, Parker had learned the whole concerto, and did well enough that Dickson invited him to play it with his home orchestra, the Boston Pops, of which he was assistant conductor.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

concert review: Santa Cruz Chamber Players

I ventured down past Santa Cruz to a tiny church perched on a hilltop on the fringes of Aptos - a town that already consists mostly of fringes - for one of the quaint little events that this concert series specializes in. It turned out to be far better performed than the last time I heard this rubric over a decade ago, but then the personnel were entirely different.

Concert director Ivan Rosenblum, a pianist formerly an instructor at UCSC, had decided to put on a concert in celebration of the bassoon, an instrument that proverbially "don't get no respect." For a soloist he recruited Michelle Keem, the new principal bassoon with the Santa Cruz Symphony. She was an excellent performer, and made fewer breathy or grunting noises than any other woodwind player I've sat so close to - did I mention this was a tiny church? - at a concert.

Keem began with a bassoon arrangement of a C.P.E. Bach sonata for unaccompanied flute, and the rest of the bassoon music was trios for bassoon, clarinet, and piano, with Rosenblum on piano and local notable Erica Horn on clarinet. Glinka's Trio pathetique sounded more like Mozart or a bel canto operatic duet than like the echt-Russian music Glinka's better-known for. A trio by Bill Douglas, a jazz performer who also works the classical side, had no more than a touch of jazz and was very agreeable. One by Rosenblum himself, from his student days in the 60s, records his rebellion against the serialist hegemony of the day by placing counterpoint against dissonant piano chords but ending with a consonance. And Mendelssohn's fussy little Concert Piece No. 1 for clarinet and basset horn, with the latter arranged for bassoon.

Plus some tiny pieces for unaccompanied clarinet by Stravinsky, and a couple short piano pieces commenting on the program: a sad little elegy by Fanny Mendelssohn, which couldn't have been her response to her brother Felix's death because, pace Rosenblum, she died six months before him instead of the other way around; and one by C.P.E., who, again pace Rosenblum, wasn't J.S.'s eldest surviving son - that was W.F.

* * *

But that wasn't all. To give the bassoon its due respect, the concert began with an audience participation quiz. Keem played three solo passages from the bassoon's orchestral repertoire. If, after hearing them all, someone in the audience could identify all the works, they'd get a free ticket to one of next season's concerts.

I guess I was the only person to raise my hand, because I was called on, and everyone seemed very impressed that I got them all right. Rosenblum asked, "Are you by any chance a bassoonist?" and I replied "No, I've just been listening to classical music since I was shorter than that bassoon." (A bassoon is about 4 1/2 feet tall, if you're curious.)

And indeed, I could have identified these pieces as easily when I was 12 as I could today, though I didn't say that. I'd been expecting something like the bassoon melody that opens the finale of Shostakovich's Ninth, but the choices were, I thought, dead easy. But since everyone else was so impressed at my identification skill, I'm giving you a chance. I've managed to excerpt and strip the ID off recordings of the three, and here they are.
  1. Number 1
  2. Number 2
  3. Number 3
First accurate reply in comments gets the star.

I didn't drive all the way to Aptos just for this concert. I had another errand in the area and picked this day because it coincided with an agreeable concert. What else I was doing, I'll tell you later.

Friday, May 17, 2024

concert review: South Bay Philharmonic

B's second concert as a member of the viola section of this community orchestra. The players communicated the charms of both Florence Price's Dances in the Canebrakes and Gabriel Fauré's Dolly Suite. Antonín Dvořák's Symphonic Variations was another matter: it's probably mostly the composer's fault that it wanders around directionless for most of its length. Unity of ensemble was this orchestra's biggest virtue, though it often took a few measures to get this into shape at the beginning of a movement or, in the Dvořák, in successive variations.

As an addition to the program, a string quartet made out of regular orchestra players performed a movement from a Haydn quartet in a sprightly manner, plus an arrangement of "Yellow" by Coldplay, which I infinitely preferred to the original, and which came out - as a lot of recent pop songs do when played by classical ensembles - sounding rather minimalist.

The Dolly Suite has a quaint origin. It's formed out of what were originally piano pieces that Fauré wrote to amuse the young daughter of his mistress, a girl nicknamed Dolly (real name, Regina-Hélène). The movement titles include a couple that sound as if they're cat references, but they aren't. "Mi-a-ou" isn't a cat sound, it's the infant Dolly's attempt to say the name of her elder brother Raoul. The "Kitty Valse" isn't about a cat either. Kitty (actually Ketty) was the name of the family dog.

Footnote: After her affair with Fauré had run its course, the mistress, whose name was Emma Bardac, ran off with Raoul's piano teacher, whose name was Claude Debussy. They had a daughter of their own, whose nickname was Chouchou (real name, Claude-Emma), and the piano pieces that Debussy wrote to amuse her form his Children's Corner Suite.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

this is amusing

It seems that the professional women's basketball league, experiencing an upsurge in popularity, is starting new teams, and the one here is to be called the Valkyries.

Good name for a women's sports team, I thought, especially one in a game that requires a lot of bounding around; but the result has been a flood of queries to Google as to what "valkyries" might mean.

Oy. Haven't they ever heard this?

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

this is just to say that

I have sworn eternal hostility against every claim that Apple device interfaces are "user-friendly." A more frustrating, illogical, incomprehensible, inconsistent screen I never hope to see. Bah.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

concert review: Mission Chamber Orchestra

This was a difficult review to write. The MCO, already the diciest in technical quality of those local orchestras which claim professional quality, has gone distinctly downhill in that aspect since I heard them last a year ago. I suspect, though not with enough assuredness to say so in print, that the retirement of the longtime music director, Emily Ray, is responsible: her militarily-precise conducting style kept them pretty firmly in line.

I felt I would be remiss if I didn't mention the problems honestly. But the performances were still enjoyable and effective, and I had to emphasize that too. I hope I managed this balance. At any rate, the editors did very little tinkering with the text, so they must have judged it a satisfactory report.

Monday, May 13, 2024

sort of like KFC

A while ago I came across somewhere what purported to be the original recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken. I remember the KFC of my childhood, much tastier than the stuff they have today, so I saved it in my recipe book, but I didn't pull it out until now, when the prospect of an evening's dinner at home on my own made it feasible to try the rather elaborate directions.

I bought a couple pounds of my favorite chicken piece, wing mid-joints, as they're called in the Japanese market which is the only place I know where you can buy a package without having to get drumettes along with them, lined up the other ingredients, turned on my little portable deep fryer, and set to work.

First you soak the chicken for half an hour in a buttermilk and egg mixture. The recipe is for a full 8-piece regular chicken, and my wing flats were less than that, but I had to make a double helping of the mixture to cover all the chicken.

On the other hand, I had more than enough of the mixture featuring the famous eleven herbs and spices. I already had ten of these in my pantry, and the last was easy enough to get. You take varying amounts, usually a tbsp, of each, totaling about a cup of material altogether, and mix it with two cups of flour. Dredge the chicken in the bowl of the mixture, let it sit again for another half hour, and it's ready to cook in small batches.

The recipe said fry at 350 for 15-18 minutes, but wing flats, which I've fried before, are very small and don't take nearly that long. I tried the first batch for 8 minutes, and found the coating was a dark brown, not the "medium golden brown" the recipe states. I then tried a batch for 5 minutes, which is closer to my usual frying time for flats. The meat, when I tasted it, was juicier because not overcooked, but the coating was just as dark.

It didn't taste much like KFC. The seasoning was faintly reminiscent, but not nearly enough so to have been worth the trouble of assembling a small army of spice jars to make it. And the coating, besides being rather dark-tasting, was hard and crisp, not the soft and dangly of traditional KFC. It was good chicken, but not very akin to KFC.