Saturday, October 15, 2016

2001: a musical odyssey

I don't quite get the current fad of accompanying movies with a live orchestra. I can understand it for silent films; I once attended a screening of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin with the San Francisco Symphony playing a score stitched together from chunks of Shostakovich symphonies, less because I wanted to see Battleship Potemkin again than because the prospect of hearing a nonstop wad of 75 minutes of Shostakovich thrilled me to the bone. It was as good as I'd hoped. And the movie wasn't bad either.

But a recent film, usually a crappy adventure blockbuster, with the high-quality music track stripped out but the dialog left in, and a live orchestra trying to match the precision timing of the original? It seems pointless to me.

There's just one sound-era film I thought worthy, both musically and cinematically, of being performed this way: 2001: A Space Odyssey. This week the SFS did it, so I went. It was the first time I'd seen the movie on a big screen since the original release in 1968 (though not, this time, in the original Cinerama format). Seeing it for the first time back then was one of my formative experiences. I was awed by the whole thing, not least by the music, all of which I was hearing for the first time, even the Blue Danube Waltz (hey, I was eleven). As for the Ligeti, I didn't realize it was supposed to be music until I got the soundtrack album.

The live performance this time, conducted by Brad Lubman, was actually at its best in the Ligeti pieces. The Blue Danube was a little too dance-band in style and less of the cool elegance of the Karajan recording on the soundtrack. But the live music did bring a vividness that contrasted with the slightly canned sound of the soundtrack. I shudder at the thought of the contrasts to be heard when they do Casablanca, a movie whose music is not at the top of the list of its memorable qualities, later this season.

Nearly half a century on, 2001's dialogue is rather hokey and often unintentionally funny (the cost of Dr. Floyd's phone call caused particular amusement, as did HAL's overweening self-assurance). But the special effects still hold up beautifully, in a way that Star Wars' don't. Even the ape-men still look like real ape-men more than what they actually are, which is mimes in ape suits. And the space sequences, including the lunar surface, are awesome.

There was a special pre-concert treat, a brief interview with Keir Dullea, the actor who played Dave. He told us three things of interest, all having to do with sound. First, he suggested that the reason for the terseness of the dialog in the spaceship scenes is that Dave and Frank have been in space together for weeks already - "there isn't a lot to talk about." Second, that Douglas Rain as the voice of HAL was dubbed in during postproduction. On the set, the person who read HAL's part to cue the other actors was the assistant director. Dullea then performed for a us a few of HAL's lines as this guy did them: purest Cockney. To this day, he says, he thinks of HAL with a Cockney accent.

Third was that, when they were filming Dave's reaction shots to the Stargate scene (the infamous "light show" sequence), Kubrick played music to set the mood. But it wasn't Ligeti. It was the cold, slow "Landscape" movement from Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Antartica. (Which was, by the way, derived from a film score, so we've gone full circle.)

Thursday, October 13, 2016

shall have prizes

So Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This might or might not be much of a new extension of the prize's coverage of literature: I'm familiar with the poetry of virtually none of the previous poets who've won the prize, so someone else will have to tell me whether any of them wrote on the same scale as Dylan's lyrics.

I would just like to say that I would far rather see Bob Dylan win a prize in literature than one for music.

ETA: And I should have added this from the beginning:
I heard Eric Bogle sing this at an outdoor folk festival in Vancouver in 1982, and we were all rolling on the floor laughing. Literally: we were already sitting on the ground, so it was easy.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

weee are Lucy and Suzzy

Last Friday I went to a folk music concert, I did. I headed up to the Freight to hear Suzzy Roche, old favorite from the days she was in a group with her sisters, now touring with her daughter instead. "Hi," the latter said from the stage, "I'm Lucy Wainwright Roche." "And I'm her mother," added the former. I don't know how much stage work they've done as a duo, but they have put out two albums together. I didn't have those, but I do now.

Suzzy was always the most flamboyant of the Roches, and her clothing still is. In what I guess is still a typical look for her, she was wearing tennis shoes over black leggings, along with a lot of other stuff not convenient to describe. Her voice has only graveled a little with age. But her song-writing has sobered, mostly, and there was a lot of serious quiet stuff here, good stuff for a folk concert.

Lucy, more conventionally folky in jeans with a shirt-tail hanging out, has a high light voice like her Aunt Terre's, though not as stratospheric. Her songwriting too suggests the same mode. The two made interesting vocal harmonies together, sometimes abandoning the melody entirely for descant and harmony. Some of this could be heard in the two covers of songs I actually know, "Both Sides Now" and the Beatles' "For No One." (There was another cover that made everyone laugh except me: since I didn't know the song I didn't get the joke.)

One other person there I knew, Rachel H.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Bill Warren

Word is spreading that Bill Warren has died. I hardly know what to say. Bill's writing was encyclopedic in its display of knowledge, captivating and entertaining in its style, and above all voluminous, mostly on subjects on which I really had no interest. His specialty was trashy 50s skiffy films, which most of them were (50s skiffy films, I mean). He was so good on this that he's worth reading even though the movies aren't worth seeing, in fact even better than he is on the few that are worth seeing. His epic tome on this subject, Keep Watching the Skies, is two huge volumes and entirely comprehensive. I wish he'd chosen to devote more of his mighty talent to other topics.

But he and I mostly did not get along personally. He seemed to find me irritating, and I certainly found him so. I once spent an entire convention panel trying to fight off his simplistic belief that "The book is still on the shelf" is a satisfactory response to complaints about a movie adaptation. He once described in my presence a scene from an experimental movie so disgusting that I've never been able to forget it, even though I've never seen the movie. And he was my first encounter with the opinion, among people who hold that a comparison to Hitler is a Go Directly To Jail card that means you've comprehensively lost the argument, that defending the reasonableness of your position by saying "It's not like I compared you to Hitler" counts as a comparison to Hitler. (There have since been others. A couple of times since I've tested it deliberately, because I couldn't believe the response the first time.)

Regardless, his presence enriched the world, which will be a lesser place without it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

in memoriam, Kate Yule

Yesterday afternoon many of us lost a spirited friend, a wonderful mind and captivating personality, curious, incisive, intelligent, witty, and an ideal mate for her David. They bore her long illness as a shared burden, together.

As I alluded in an earlier post, I went up to Portland to see them last Monday. Kate's state was grim, but she was hanging in there. I've done my share of vigils by the bedsides of people dying of cancer, and from those experiences I could tell from this, and from the reports David has been posting, that the end was near, though of course I said nothing of the sort, hoping that I was wrong. Even I didn't expect that it was quite this near.

I may have been the last person outside of family and caregivers to see her walk - she could only manage a few steps - or to have an actual conversation with her - a bit abortive in getting words out, but the voice was the same and one could feel the same mind behind it. These finalities are chilling and sad, but also make me even more certain than I was at the time that taking the extra leg on my trip was the right thing to do.

On that occasion I did something I'd been meaning to do for a long time. A few years ago Kate wrote of attending a classical concert with Tchaikovsky's Serenade, and wishing that classical music came with a road map, to tell you what was going on and where you were. I could help with that. I brought along a CD of the Serenade, and we played the first three movements - one at a time, with breaks - as I narrated the events of the music. There wasn't time for the finale, so I promised to send that in written form by e-mail when I got home.

I did, but I doubt she was able to listen to it. So you can do it for her. Here's the recording I linked to of the finale of this piece she enjoyed, played by my local favorites, the New Century Chamber Orchestra, with my road map to the music.
0.03. Begins with the same high note with which the previous movement ended.

0.12. SLOW INTRODUCTION, theme. This is actually a Russian folk song, a Volga boatmen's song.

0.39. Repeat, now with the theme in cellos, and the violins playing counterpoint on top.

0.52. Here you can start hearing, embedded in the theme, the three falling notes that began the introduction to the first movement. Remember I said at that point that they'd be important later.

1.02. Here, closing off the theme, are those three notes open by themselves.

1.10. Now they're being repeated with smaller, less emphasized notes added between the main notes. What's actually happening here is that the introductory theme is being metamorphized into:

1.30. The MAIN THEME of the movement. This is fast and bouncy, and it includes those three notes in its opening phrase. This is another Russian folk song, so rather than being built out of the three notes, the three notes were actually extracted from it.

1.42. Repeat, louder.

1.52. Repeat in cellos, with the other strings playing pizzicato.

2.02. SECOND THEME, more lyrical. This one is a Tchaikovsky original.

2.20. Since that appeared first in the cellos, this time the repeat is in the violins, with the cellos playing the curlicues underneath.

2.34. Now it's beginning to close off into the coda of the exposition, reintroducing phrases from the main theme.

3.09. DEVELOPMENT section. This is an important part of sonata form that was left out of the first movement. Here bits and pieces of the themes are played around with and varied in different keys. Listen for bits of the second theme being played over bits of the first theme.

3.22. The second theme opening phrase being played over in higher and higher pitches to increase tension. Very typical Tchaikovsky development style.

3.48. Now it mixes the first and second themes together and rises to a climax.

4.27. And it merges into the RECAPITULATION, the return to the original themes.

4.53. Second theme.

5.28. And closing off into the coda, except it's more elaborate this time, because it's the end of the entire movement. Except not quite, because:

6.10. Surprise, the return of the FIRST MOVEMENT INTRODUCTION, original and unaltered.

6.50. But what's it doing now? It's metamorphizing into the main theme of this movement again. Remember how they began with the same notes? So even though they're in different styles, they're really the same theme. And that leads directly to

7.20. The real end of the movement, and of the entire work.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

concert news and reviews

I wanted to go hear this, but did I buy a ticket? No, I convinced my editor to send me to review it. Heh. This is why I tend not to think of having a forum to express my thoughts as "work."

Meanwhile, I learn that one of my favorite Bay Area venues caught on fire while I was out of town over the weekend. Best wishes to all those who perform there and those who host them.

5.5 plays by Shakespeare

When B. and I went to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in March, only one of their five Shakespeare plays of the season had yet opened; we filled our card with other material. But that one Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, was outstanding, and its excellent Sir Andrew, and last year's truly great Benedick, Danforth Comins, was to star in Hamlet this summer. I had to see what he would make of the Dane, so I returned a week ago to catch all five of the Shakespeares in three days.

Comins was good, but I would not call this an outstanding Hamlet. He played an anxious, nervous Prince, more notable for his body language than his speech. The show otherwise lacked much pitch or tension, a problem facilitated by a profoundly wooden Claudius. (He stood up at the murder of Gonzago, but any emotional reaction to it had to be guessed at.) The production's most unusual feature was that Hamlet never speaks his most famous line. He came on stage, stuck a microphone - this was a semi-modern production that occasionally used them for emphasis - into the face of an audience member, and coaxed her into saying "To be or not to be." (I'd like to see her blog post: "I played Hamlet at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.") Then he took the mike back and continued the speech. This was funny, but pure gimmick, contributing nothing to the art of the work.

Perhaps inspired by the number of Asian-American actors in the cast, the production of The Winter's Tale featured a Sicily set in Han Dynasty China and a Bohemia modeled on, if anything, the Patchwork Girl of Oz. As with The Tempest, the plot largely consists of people sitting around talking about what they're going to do later. A good production of either consists of disguising this. By that standard this was not a good production, though it had some fine performances, particularly by Cristofer Jean and Miriam Laube as Camillo and Paulina, the two most long-suffering of a large cast of long-suffering courtiers.

Twelfth Night was still great the second time, even with a lately-cast understudy playing Orsino. Also great was Richard II, a play I tend to consider wordy and overstuffed, but not this time. Christopher Liam Moore, playing Richard, is short with a high voice. These aided in a portrayal of the king as fussy, pompous, and out of his depth. In the Flint Castle confrontation, he was dwarfed by a huge cape that literally spread across the stage. But after Richard's fall, Moore deployed a powerful inner strength that gave sympathy to the character and made his fate moving. The rest of the cast was also consistently terrific, especially Tony DeBruno as Uncle York.

Timon of Athens was carried by the big, bold Anthony Heald as Timon and the smaller, wiry Vilma Silva (yes, a woman) as Apemantus. Their scene of dueling curmudgeons near the end was a terrifically hot rendition of one of Shakespeare's least-known gems.

But! I stayed on for an extra day, so that the day after I saw Timon I could catch a special one-off performance of a staged reading of Kenneth Cavander's translation of the play into modern English. That's the .5, because it's only half Shakespeare. You've heard of this project to update all of Shakespeare: it's been denounced widely for its sacrilege. The idea is that Shakespeare's language is now too antique for the average audience to fully comprehend at speed, so why not translate it to a modern form as is done for other languages? And they started with Timon because it doesn't have any famous speeches where you can hear how they mangled the poetry.

Well, I bought the text of the updated Timon, and they did mangle the poetry. Contrary to the claim, the rhythm is often altered or ignored. However, it's not dumbed down, and the line-by-line translation preserved the particular ornate floweriness that's Shakespeare's most distinctive quality. It read well in the actors' hands, and I confess: not knowing Timon well, there were some critical plot points that I missed in the original-text production that were entirely clear in the modern-text version. Plot, structure, and the feel of the large-scale flow were unchanged, but it was as if the play's windshield had been thoroughly wiped down.

The entirely different cast did make for a different feel in other respects, especially in its much more stolid Timon, read by Jeffrey King, who had stared imperturbably as Bolingbroke at the king in R2. But that didn't affect the experiment. Purists may mourn my defection, but I'd be willing to try another of these.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016


I did not watch the debate last night. My one-liner on that is that I have never been fond of horror movies. "The Lady and the Buzzsaw" is not an appealing title.

Instead, I spent part of the day in Portland, visiting my ailing friend and her equally friendly husband. Many of you will know who they are. We conversed, insofar as that was practical, listened to Tchaikovsky (she had once expressed unsatisfied curiosity about what's going on in his Serenade; well, I can help with that), and had takeout tacos for dinner. I am very glad I saw them, and hope I contributed a little cheer and variety to their day.

As for why I was in Oregon at all, that is another story for a later post.

Friday, September 23, 2016

an artistic day

The reason it was such trouble for me to arrive at the 7:30 PM Brahms program at Stanford last Saturday was because I'd been up in San Francisco reviewing a string quartet concert that had begun at 4. Despite consisting of four Haydn and Mozart quartets, the performers managed to get it in at just under two hours, mostly by cutting repeats ruthlessly. One of the performers had buttonholed me before the concert started to alert me to this, and to explain that the length of the concert had alarmed them too when they were preparing it. Here's the review. Despite my recent experience hearing ten Haydn quartets at the Banff festival, neither of this concert's works were among them: not too surprising, considering that he wrote over 60 of them. As for Mozart, not a note of him had been heard all week at Banff, one of two indispensable string quartet composers of whom that was true (the other was Shostakovich; some might add Elliott Carter to that number, but I wouldn't).

So, having carefully located a street parking space near the church venue for the concert, I hopped it directly down to Stanford as soon as it ended, and found a space down there in only the third lot I tried.

Ironically, the same string quartet concert was being repeated in Palo Alto on Sunday afternoon, which would have made more sense for me except that that was when B. and I were at City of Angels, having already changed the date from the one on our series ticket which we can't make because of another random concatenation of events. And thus our lives consist of assembling jigsaw puzzle pieces.

A lucky puzzle-piece find occurred when I realized that, since the concert in San Francisco began at 4, that would leave me time to attend the first showing of the afternoon of Ron Howard's documentary on the Beatles' touring years, which was playing half a mile down the street at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema (yes, that's its name) in Japantown, the closest to me it was appearing, but farther than I'd want to make a trip just for. Illuminating movie, with lots of film clips I didn't even imagine existing, like of the Beatles cavorting in their hotel rooms, and plenty of interviews - recent ones with Paul and Ringo, archived clips of John and George - reminiscing, describing how exciting they found Beatlemania at first, and how tiring it had become four years later. And every time the band is shown playing, it's of a different incredibly classic song. There's even a comparison, by a musicologist, of their creativity with that of Mozart and Schubert, which put me in a good mood for the live music to come.

As I walked through Japantown towards the theater, it occurred belatedly to me that, with a little preliminary research I might have found a restaurant there suitable for lunch - Japanese food and I require considerable negotiation before we can come to an accommodation - but I hadn't; I'd started off with a visit to the deli another mile away.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

musical theatre review

To South Bay Musical Theatre this afternoon for Cy Coleman's City of Angels, a show I knew nothing about, but we subscribed this year and it's on the season. It's about a 1940s Hollywood screenwriter who's writing a film noir, which is taking place on the other half of the stage as he writes it, its actors lit by a sickly green light so their skin looks as black-and-white as their clothing is. The show becomes something of a fantasy when the P.I. protagonist of the film starts arguing with his creator, shades of Asimov's "Author, Author" (and, actually, a number of other stories).

It's probably not that great a show, though the book is by Larry Gelbart which meant at least that the story wasn't boring, but the music was not all that much to my taste. A number of the songs in the film scenes are diegetic and partake of the pop song style of that time, which I really don't care for. The best number by far was "You Can Always Count On Me," a song that echoes some of the bawdy swing of "Big Spender," which is almost the only other Coleman song I know. This mourn of the lovelorn woman was belted out energetically and on-pitch by Glenna Murillo, who gave the same pizzazz to the rather similar role of Marie in Fiorello! here a few years ago. I also enjoyed "All You Have To Do Is Wait," sung by a Hispanic police detective in the film, while at the morgue investigating a murder, in a lively quasi-Hispanic style while doctors, cops, and reporters dance flamboyantly behind him. The incongruity of this was the funniest thing in the show.

The acting ranged up the scale to adequate; so did the singing. The actor playing the P.I. looked like Nicolas Cage and talked like a low-rent Bogart. The orchestra was too large and too loud for the small venue. The question I would like to ask the choreographer is, "Had jazz hands been invented in the 1940s?"