Wednesday, June 19, 2024

opera review: Innocence

A year ago, after I attended a semi-staged production of Kaija Saariaho's Adriana Mater at the SF Symphony and was impressed by it both dramatically and musically, a couple commenters suggested that in that case I really ought to attend when SF Opera was putting on Saariaho's Innocence the next spring.

So I signed up and last night (5th of 6 performances) was it.

I have to say, this is a powerful piece. I'd known it concerned the aftermath of a (fictional) school shooting and, especially after learning that one of the production sponsors was an anti-gun-violence group, I feared that it would be a polemic designed to berate the audience with the fervor of its righteousness. I've seen too many contemporary stage plays like that. I should have trusted the nuanced approach that Saariaho and her collaborators took to the topic of revenge in Adriana Mater. This was nothing like a polemic.

The topical theme for the bulk of the opera was the psychological trauma that surviving a mass shooting (either personally or by being the relative of a victim) imposes on the survivors. This was reflected both in the text (by Finnish novelist Sofi Oksanen, adapted by dramaturg Aleksi Barrière) and the music. Characters change singing style when under severe stress: a baritone rises to a falsetto keening, a woman nearly chokes on her words in Sprechstimme style, another woman sings in a piercing nasal folk style from rural Finland. Though the principal action is sung in English, another sign of stress is for characters to revert to their native languages. Along with the student survivors being from an international school and speaking - more than singing - in their native languages, the text was in nine different European languages. (Double supertitling rendered both the originals and translations.)

That being the case, I felt that this theme was rather undercut towards the end, partly by the students embarking on facile self-healing (the writeups deny any such thing happens, but it does) but more by the emergence of the real theme, reflecting the title, of breaking down the distinction between guilt and innocence. Some of the innocent turn out to be guilty also, in ways the audience is intended not to be expecting, and not just in the sense of having enabled the shooter by failing to intervene (though that comes up too). On the one hand, this reveals that the distinction between guilt and innocence can hang on a thread, which is a valuable point; but it also distracts from either the psychological damage theme or the process of healing from it, and while one principal character (Tereza) does begin that healing process, by a striking scene of her mental image of her dead daughter telling her to let her go, the other principals are left shattered and there's no resolution.

I can't say more without spoiling the plot (there was a warning on the synopsis in the program book, which I'm glad I didn't read in advance). Despite the sense that this is two pieces welded together, it was both powerful and effective. The music was clattery and anxious, giving a sense of dread even to opening scenes which are supposed to be calm and normal; the singing was chromatic and drama-oriented. The set was a two-story Bauhaus-modernist cube, whose rooms, with exterior walls of glass, were intended to represent multiple buildings at different times; it was constantly rotating to shift the viewer's attention from scene to scene. The first round of applause at the end went to the stagehands.

I haven't forgotten Adriana Mater and I won't forget this either.

Monday, June 17, 2024


I have been slowly reading my way through Richard Taruskin's epic Oxford History of Western Music, and have reached the chapter on Handel. Taruskin makes no excuses for Handel's plagiarism, which he says was not - as defenders sometimes claim - normal for the time; instead he quotes contemporaries citing how Handel was notorious for it.

Handel also borrowed from himself, and Taruskin mentions one that I was curious enough to go and look up. It appears that "For Unto Us a Child Is Born", my favorite number from Messiah (and you'll forgive me the arrangement I chose to link to) was reworked from an erotic Italian duet that goes like this. Fascinating.

But! Taruskin (or, possibly, the scholarly source he's quoting, but I doubt it) commits a horrible historical error in the same chapter: not related directly to music, so it's not his field but that's no excuse. He's quoting a reprint of a rapturous review of one of Handel's earliest oratorios, which speaks of "a crowded Audience of the first Quality of a Nation, headed by the Heir apparent of their Sovereign's Crown." At which point there is inserted a bracketed identification of that last person, "[the future George III]."

Wait a minute, I thought. When was this? I checked: April 1739. In 1739, the future George III was a babe in arms, being about ten months old at the time, and unlikely to be heading a concert audience. Nor was he the heir apparent, that position being occupied by his father, Frederick Prince of Wales, who was 32. Though "poor Fred / who was alive and is dead" did not live to occupy the throne, he was certainly alive in 1739. You really ought to check this stuff up before you go around serenely announcing who is who.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

two concerts

1. Cambrian Symphony. Conductor Scott Krijnen ran on stage, leapt up to the podium, and instantly launched the orchestra into Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture, one of the fastest and most energetic works in the repertoire. Jennifer Higdon's blue cathedral and Debussy's La Mer which followed were likewise quite good, and the Hammer Theatre acoustics cooperated gratifyingly well.
However, one of the pieces in the second half was to be a concerto for electric cello, and the electric cellist was practicing on stage during intermission. Much of what was played sounded like hard rock electric guitar. I did not wish to hear that, so I just left.

2. San Francisco Symphony Chamber Musicians. It's worth traveling up to Davies to hear these concerts, if they're playing something you want to hear, because the SFS musicians are just so incredibly good: polished and sublimely skilled. They also have the advantage of being able to play odd works rarely heard because of the instrumentation: like Dohnanyi's Sextet (string trio, clarinet, horn, piano). Clarinet and horn are hard to find on the chamber music circuit, but in an orchestra they've got 'em.
The Sextet was a bit turgidly Brahmsian, but a marcato episode in the slow movement was particularly excellent, and I liked the way the coda of the finale suddenly changed keys in the last bar.
Also good was Kodaly's Serenade for 2 violins and viola, and Shostakovich's Piano Trio No. 2 brilliantly conveyed the existential horror of being a Russian citizen in the middle of WW2. Shostakovich does better expanses of gloomy Russian music than anyone else, if the players catch it accurately. Here they did.

ETA3. A third concert: My review of the Masterworks Chorale one held a week ago.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Wisconsin in July

Thursday was Take Your Felon to Work Day (descriptor courtesy of Senator-elect-to-be Adam Schiff), and the felon in question is reported to have told his fellow Republicans, "Milwaukee, where we are having our convention, is a horrible city."

Naturally, the ones from the area were upset by this, and claimed he was talking about the crime rate or the election results or something, but the most remarkable response was from Rep. Bryan Steil, who twitted, "I was in the room. President Trump did not say this. There is no better place than Wisconsin in July."

No better place ... The last time I was in Wisconsin in July (I've been back 3 or 4 times since, but not in July) was for the 1999 Mythcon, which was marked by a heat wave comparable to what's hitting the East (but not Wisconsin) this week. Here's an actual quote from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, taken from my B's con report: "The temperature peaked at 99 in Milwaukee, but just after 1 p.m. a record high dew point of 82 created a heat index of 119, a level considered dangerous to human health."

Mythcon was held in a conference center just south of Milwaukee. In what is now Rep. Steil's congressional district, by the way. It was right across the road from the shore of Lake Michigan, but that fact allowed us no relief, nor did the end of daytime. There was little air conditioning in the building, and after suffering through no sleep one night, B. and I decamped to an air-conditioned hotel room.

We arrived on Thursday. The weather finally broke on Saturday, and by Sunday morning the temperature was fine. Sunday was August 1st. No longer July. I didn't realize it would take 25 years to do it, but I think the weather was trying to tell Rep. Steil something.

Friday, June 14, 2024

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

The 90F+ heat wave of earlier this week has receded, but it was still plenty hot enough at home. But when I got up to the City, it was cold and foggy. Oh, nice! Traditional San Francisco summer weather, by the way.

EPS conducted. Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the young cellist who made a hit playing at Meghan and Harry's wedding, performed Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto. This is a tough work to judge a cellist by, being angular and crabbed in the usual Shostakovich mode, but it do-+++++ have its dazzling-performer moments, like a long lyric passage entirely in harmonics. [Inserted comment by Tybalt, rolling around on my desk.]

EPS told the audience the well-worn story of the time in 1936 that Stalin went to see Shostakovich's opera, and a few days later a review appeared in Pravda titled "Muddle Instead of Music" and concluding with blood-chilling finality, "This is a game that could end very badly." No wonder Shostakovich was terrified for the rest of his life. EPS says he reminds his students of this when they're upset about bad reviews. "There are good reviews, there are bad reviews, and then there's this. So chill out."

Also on the program, Fairytale Poem by Sofia Gubaidulina, a short piece written, like Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, for children's radio, and almost as delightful. Has the eerie Gubaidulina flavor while being charming and lively and colorful. And Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini, a tone poem which the composer dismissed as "cold, false, and weak," and which the program note describes as "buffet[ing] us violently about." The performers did their best to make it sound convincing.

I tried an experiment on my way in. Usually going up to the City for a Symphony concert, I have dinner at Tadich Grill, an old-line seafood restaurant claiming to date back to Gold Rush days. But recently the Chronicle published an article slamming Tadich for lousy food and surly service - neither of which I've ever had there - and pushing a similar vintage seafood place called Sam's instead. So I tried Sam's. And the food wasn't bad, but not a patch on Tadich. The petrale sole fillet was smaller than Tadich's, it was breaded in some egg coating that didn't work well, and it was insufficiently deboned, yccch. The clam chowder had a nice broth, but was quite deficient in the clam department, again unlike Tadich's. Nope, I'm going back to my old reliable in the future.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024


Today was our Big Round Number wedding anniversary. It's big ... and round ...

Did we do anything? No. That's because we're old and creaky, and even before we were that we were homebodies. We gave each other cards (no presents). I baked a chocolate cake - something we do only for birthday and wedding anniversaries. And I made our favorite dinner dish, a turkey meatloaf, with brussel sprouts and broccoli on the side.

The only time I went out today, in fact, was to rush down to the grocery store to buy eggs for the cake, because we were out.

We might go out for dinner some other day. We have already taken one vacation this year, to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and are planning another in a couple months, so maybe those could count as anniversary trips. Otherwise it's a quiet life here with just each other, the cats, B's musical instruments, and our books.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

world according to cat

Things have returned to normal around here. Maia is willing to be in the same room as Tybalt, and Tybalt has resumed climbing on to my desk and knocking things over.

Monday, June 10, 2024

A Woman of the Iron People

is a novel by Eleanor Arnason, who's Guest of Honor at Mythcon this summer, so we chose it as our topic of discussion for the June meeting of the Khazad-dûm book discussion group. Some of us liked it, others said they were glad they'd read it but didn't plan ever on reading it again. I was sort of in between; I enjoyed the book; I'd enjoyed it when I read it on publication in 1991, but I hadn't read it again until now, but more because I didn't have to: it stuck with me.

Looking beforehand for material on the book, I came across Jo Walton's review from 2012. She seems extraordinarily exercised by the fact that it won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. It's not fantasy, it's science fiction, she says.

I find from the comments at the end that I'd responded to this at the time, but I'd like to do so more fully now. She's right that it is science fiction; specifically anthropological science fiction in the mode of The Left Hand of Darkness (another book I find it unnecessary to re-read). But she seems unnecessarily hung up on the definition of the term fantasy. First, defining fantasy and science fiction as mutually exclusive categories leads to all kinds of fruitless arguments over the borderline, over everything from Darkover and Pern on down. Second, before "fantasy" came to mean a publishing genre, which happened during the 1960s-70s, it was a more generic term for nonmimetic literature as a whole, including science fiction. As late as the 1930s, some science fiction fans even abjured the term "science fiction" as too newfangled. That's why, for example, when a group of science fiction fans founded their own APA in 1937, they called it the Fantasy Amateur Press Association.

Lastly and most importantly, though it is called a fantasy award, it is also said to be for mythopoeic fiction "in the spirit of the Inklings" and mythopoeic science fiction is certainly in the spirit of the author of Out of the Silent Planet. Mythopoeic science fiction is rather rarer than mythopoeic fantasy (in the narrower sense of fantasy) but it exists. Jo again is confused here; she thinks that the judges must have felt that the myths of the natives in the story are fantasy from the human viewpoint, so maybe that qualified it as fantasy? No, nothing so complicated. By creating these fictional myths, fantasy or not, Arnason is a mythmaker. Her work is mythopoeic. That qualifies it for the award.

And I should know: I was the administrator of the Mythopoeic Awards at the time, and neutral though I was as vote-counter, I thoroughly approved of this book's eligibility.

Sunday, June 9, 2024

nitwit Tolkienists

I'm not going to name this book, because I haven't finished reading it yet, but it's not the only recent book on Tolkien to begin by rudely and inaccurately denouncing all previous Tolkien studies for failing to fit the standards of the author's own perfect and unimpeachable work.

Once it gets past that, it does have some interesting and original things to say, but I was stopped cold by this sentence:
Merry ... finally contributes to the fighting in a decisive way, using his magic sword to slay the Black Rider, thus saving Éowyn's life.
There are about three things wrong with this sentence.

First and least importantly, "Black Rider" is rather an obsolete term to use for the Nazgûl at this point. The horses which originally earned them that description from the hobbits disappeared long ago at the Ford of Bruinen. True, the Nazgûl still has a steed in the form of that monstrous flying creature, but even though Tolkien still uses the term "Black Rider" for him, more often he's the Ringwraith or the Lord of the Nazgûl, better choices for describing the scene.

Secondly, "magic sword." That's a clumsy and inappropriate term. The blacksmith whose country's enemy was the Witch-king of Angmar did not cast a spell when forging this sword. Its particular virtue and appropriateness for this deed is subtler than that. Read Tolkien's description:
So passed the sword of the Barrow-downs, work of Westernesse. But glad would he have been to know its fate who wrought it slowly long ago in the North-kingdom when the Dúnedain were young, and chief among their foes was the dread realm of Angmar and its sorcerer king. No other blade, not though mightier hands had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will.
"Magic sword," with its implications of cheap hack fantasy, doesn't do it justice. Sam and Galadriel's conversation about "Elf-magic" should have taught you that, if nothing else.

Thirdly and most importantly, Merry doesn't slay the Nazgûl! Merry, who's been crawling on all fours, sick with horror, manages to stab the Nazgûl in the leg from behind. The Nazgûl topples forward, and Éowyn, struggling up from her knees, raises her sword - which has no particular animus against the Witch-king - and drives it into what passes as his face. Éowyn kills him; Merry provides essential assistance. It's all very clear on the page. Read the fricking book before you try writing detailed analysis of the author's prose, why don't you?

Thursday, June 6, 2024

concert review: Stanford Early Music Singers

Driving to Stanford last evening was a dicey proposition, as it's graduation time and the parking lots were packed. But I persevered, because I wanted to attend William Mahrt's retirement concert.

He's a music professor whom I once took an extension class from, and who's best-known on campus for having founded and directed, for 52 years (!), this ensemble, which at first he wanted to call the Grateful Quick. (I don't need to explain the references there, do I?)

It's 20-25 members, a few students but mostly faculty and community people, who give acapella concerts in the reverberant acoustics of Memorial Church. This one was nearly 2 hours, and included two sets devoted to a single composer each, Josquin and Lasso, for the variety of their output; also one of English motets by Tallis and Byrd; also works by Victoria, Gallus, and a number of others. Mostly in Latin, of course, but German, French, Italian, Spanish, and English were also heard.

Beautiful stuff, emotionally healing, and it was cool in that grandiose stone edifice on a hot evening. Glad I went.