Friday, June 22, 2018

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

SFS is finishing up its season with a series of flashily-promoted concerts. I didn't go hear Susanna Mälkki, even though she's an outstanding conductor, because I didn't care for the repertoire. I didn't go to the semi-staged Boris Godunov. I'm not going to next week's finale, Mahler's Third (oh no, not again).

Instead, I went to this week's more quietly promoted program, MTT conducting two enigmatic Sibelius symphonies and one popular Rachmaninoff piano concerto.

Let me just say, that Sibelius Sixth was a transcendently great performance. It was lucid, compelling, and flowing. Too often when I hear the Sixth (as if it were anything other than rare), I wonder what the point of the work is or even if it has one. Not this time: I was constantly reminded of why, at its best, I love this music. It's a small piece of quiet lyricism, more like the Third than any other Sibelius symphony.

The Seventh is a very different-sounding piece and a harder nut, one I'm not sure I follow entirely, although it was played just as well. Unlike other good performances of the Seventh (easier to come by than good ones of the Sixth), this didn't feel sectional, but narrative, as if the joins were events rather than gateways. That flowing quality is what it had in common with this Sixth.

This was perfect enough that I thought of leaving at intermission, because nothing could surpass it, but I like Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto, so I decided to stick around. It was, I'm afraid, anti-climactic. Not that Daniil Trifonov isn't an excellent pianist: his playing was gentle, clear, and luminous (I'm trying to avoid the word "shining" in connection with this concerto), a good idea in this often plainly-marked work, and he kept it up even when the composer is directing the playing of clotted greeps. But the structure of the work didn't hold up: often it seemed wandering or superfluous. After Sibelius's severe order, this was indulgent, and needlessly so, because there isn't a major Rachmaninoff work that can't be tight and compelling. But that would have required a level of blistering energy that would have been out of place here.

Another thing I missed, by the way, was the annual Garden of Memory concert, which was the same day. I would have had to leave less than two hours into the four hour event in order to get over to SF in time, and fighting so much East Bay traffic to get there in the first place for so little reward didn't seem worthwhile.

Ironically, it was largely with the intent of being in town for Garden of Memory that I preferred to visit OSF two weeks ago instead of this week. Had I chosen otherwise, I could have stayed longer in Oxford ... and probably came down with the crud that all my housemates who stayed on got. And I would also have missed both June concerts, instead of just one, of the Redwood Symphony which I'm determined to attend and review this weekend.

And I would also have missed that sublime Sibelius, and though I'd not have known how great it'd be, that would have been a real loss.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

it is time

It is time.

It is time for me to be fed.

So say I.

For I am the cat.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

activities

It's time for the biennial (or so it seems) resealing of the roads within our condo complex. Most of the time the pavement looks rather ratty, which is probably why they keep trying to fix it so often, but it doesn't seem to take.

The main effect on us is that, every time this happens, we have to move our cars out to the outside streets for two days (or else leave them trapped in the driveway or garage). And we can't even walk on the pavement for much of that time, making it a narrow and hazardous enterprise along curbs and avoiding plantings even to get out from home to where the cars are.

This time the sealing was laid on Monday morning and had dried enough by the afternoon to allow painting of the parking and lane lines. So then, why were the workmen out on Tuesday morning laying down a new and even more noxious-smelling layer of sealing that, incidentally, entirely obliterated the newly-painted lines? They were re-painted again in the afternoon.

I wasn't at home while most of this was going on. I'd made my way out to my car to spend the better part of both days at my synagogue library. We have an online catalog, and now the directors want to automate circulation. Considering our relaxed library policies, I tend to consider this a mistake, but it's their decision and it's my job to facilitate this technically. From our catalog vendor we ordered a fat package of sheets of barcodes, which arrived last week. We're going to shelf-read the collection and paste the barcodes into the books and other items. That comes next week.

In the meantime, my job is to enter the barcode numbers into the catalog database, assigning one to each item. There's a utility program that will populate the database, or any portion of it that you select by key fields, with barcode numbers, but it's weird and balky. For one thing, the utility can add the numbers, but can't erase them. (There's another utility which will erase almost anything you ask it to, but not barcode numbers.) And if you do it by hand - a slow process; there's a display format that looks like an Excel spreadsheet, but it sure as heck doesn't work like one - the system doesn't know you've done it. This is relevant because it won't let you reassign numbers you've already used. Nor, it turns out, will it let you use numbers you've previously skipped over. I'd thought about assigning full sheets to discrete parts of the collection, and collecting up the leftover overage barcodes to use on other materials later. But it looks like I'd have to enter them manually.

Enormous amounts of time running tests on the database, and e-mailing or live chats with what is apparently our vendor's one and only tech guy, who's amazingly patient. Two days of work and still no barcode numbers definitely assigned. I'd better get that far tomorrow.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

what the Constitution means to Heidi Schreck

I went to this staged program at the Berkeley Rep theater called What the Constitution Means To Me, featuring Heidi Schreck, who's a dramatist and actor. It was in their small theater and lasted 90 minutes. Meanwhile, the large theater was doing Angels in America, so that audience was there all night.

I'm not exactly sure what the thing I saw was. It's not a play and it's not a lecture, but something in between. Schreck, who's in her 40s, comes onstage and explains that when she was 15, she earned enough money to pay for her college education from the honorariums she got as one of a set of students going around to American Legion posts giving talks on the titular topic. She attempts to reconstruct her talk - her mother threw the original text away - with the help of a male actor friend who plays the Legionnaire introducer, interspersing it with stories in her adult voice of dramas in her own and her female ancestors' lives. At the end, she brings on a real-life local 15-year-old high school debater and they hold a quick and reportedly unrehearsed debate on the question of whether the Constitution should be dumped and replaced, with audience applause deciding the question. ("No" won.)

So what does she say? Her reconstruction of her teenage speech is a lot of teenage fluff, but her stories are about women's citizenship and civil rights. Her own story is about her abortion at an early age - not the procedure itself, but deciding she needed it and arranging to get it. She ties this through the Griswold and Roe decisions to the 9th and 14th Amendments. Then she tells a story of her mother as a girl and her siblings being abused by their stepfather, and how her grandmother, though a strong woman, accepted this and her own abuse, and what that says about the evolution of women's civil rights. Her great-grandmother was imported without her volition as a bride on the northwest frontier in the late 19th century, and died young in an asylum, reportedly mentally ill, and what does that story tell? That women, and blacks, and Amerinds, were - often explicitly - excluded from the Constitution in earlier days is emphasized, but rather than condemning it for that (except in the explicit debate), she takes a Barbara Jordan position of noting how the Constitution's coverage has grown.

So there was a lot of meat here, but even though we each found on our theater seat an ACLU-sponsored pocket Constitution with space at the end to write our own thoughts, I find it a little hard to say what the Constitution means to me in those terms. What I can say is broader. It's that a Constitution, however noble its phrasing and aspirations, means something only in terms of the respect that its people and government give it. The Soviet Union had a constitution that reads very well, but its statements of rights meant nothing. To describe the US Constitution as intended to preserve rich white men's rights is historically illuminating, but it's incomplete unless we understand what it's preserving them from, and the aspirations that it embodied - aspirations that enabled the Constitution easily to be reframed, through interpretation and explicit amendment, to say yes it includes the poor, blacks, women. Upholding and uplifting it should be our goal. Denouncing its flaws rather than fixing them undermines its respect, and threatens the rights we depend on the Constitution to protect.

Meanwhile, what do we do when elected officials lack any respect for either the letter or the spirit of the Constitution? Well, I think one of the purposes of this show at this time is to counteract that.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

movie roundup

Thanks to DVDs and long plane flights, I've finally seen all the movies I want to see from this year's major-category Oscar nominees. (Some of them I definitely don't want to see.) Or as much of them as I want to see, which in some cases was only a few minutes. I have to say, though, that a restless seat on a transatlantic flight is not the best position from which to appreciate a movie. Even BritAir's Fawlty Towers episodes seemed tired and unfunny from that angle.

I find that this year's movies fall into two categories. One consisted of Lady Bird, Mudbound, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: small-scale stories about ordinary people, with absolutely stunningly deep and subtle characterization. Many movies aspire to this state of art, but few achieve it. These three all did. The only other movies I've seen recently that matched it are Boyhood and the little-known Margaret (the one with Anna Paquin). Last year's Manchester by the Sea tried to be that kind of movie, but failed not through inept moviemaking but because the characters were too repressed to come through properly. They weren't necessarily the best movies - Lady Bird was way, way too overlong and desperately needed cutting, and Three Billboards is morally obtuse - but they succeeded brilliantly at portraying the people in them.

The problem is that, after seeing these movies, everything else looked crass by comparison. Especially The Shape of Water, which aspires to being a fairy-tale, a different kind of story. But since from a realistic perspective - which is the space my head was in at the time - nothing that any of the characters do makes any sense at all (and that includes the monster), I found it more annoying than enchanting.

The other fictional character-oriented movie of the year was Roman J. Israel, Esq. Denzel Washington got a Best Actor nomination for this one as an autistic civil-rights lawyer: well-deserved, but it's all the movie deserved. It takes place over about three weeks, which is ludicrous, as it follows ups and downs in the character's career which ought to have taken at least three years. Nor is it well-written: Washington delivers a lot of impassioned speeches, but I was at a total loss as to what he was talking about, even though the plot is perfectly clear.

Movies telling recent history are a weakness of mine, so I went off early to see both The Post and Darkest Hour (a movie I persistently misremember as titled Greatest Hour). Despite its framing, The Post is not about the Pentagon Papers, but about the paper's moral dilemma in publishing them (a dilemma more complex and difficult than that of the NY Times, which is why this movie is about the Post and not the Times, even though the Times was the one that did the work on the Papers). It's impressively historically accurate, but as a journalism suspense movie it didn't have the sizzle of All the President's Men or Spotlight. Darkest Hour, though, while it looked meticulous in all its physical details, was persistently off in its plot and characterization - they wanted a villain, so they grotesquely paint Halifax as one - in the same way, though not the same extent, that The King's Speech was off.

For historical depictions, that leaves I, Tonya, whose topic I'd of course heard of but knew little about. It's highly illuminating, vivid, and funny as well as sad, most outstanding in its portrayal of that hard-to-depict kind of character, the incompetent bad guy. While in England I got to see on BBC the second episode of A Very English Scandal (Hugh Grant plays Jeremy Thorpe), the episode in which the dog gets shot, and by gum it's exactly the same thing as I, Tonya: people with a problem they want solved brutally hire an inept would-be criminal mastermind, who hires an even more inept thug, who totally blows the assignment, getting everybody above him in the chain of command into heaps of trouble.

Two more movies I saw were somewhat more problematic. Molly's Game I watched solely because it had an Aaron Sorkin script. Like Denzel Washington's acting in Roman, this got an Oscar nomination and is the sole reason to watch the movie. It's about a young woman with no obvious talents who suddenly discovers she has a knack for running high-stakes poker games in hotel rooms. As she rapidly learns the rules and lingo of her new profession, the non-poker-playing viewer rapidly falls behind. Eventually Molly gets in trouble for "taking a rake," a term which is never explained; my best guess is that she's betting on her own games. It's snappy, but bewildering.

The Big Sick, however, is just disturbing. It's written by a married couple about how they met and fell in love. It ought to be charming, but it's not. First off, the husband, who's a stand-up comic, plays himself, but the wife is not an actress, so she's played by somebody else. If the characters were both played by actors it wouldn't be weird, but here's the real guy pitching woo to an actress playing his wife, with his real wife's connivance. That's creepy. And the plot is worse. I'm not going to describe it in full, but he crassly and insensitively manipulates her life in two separate ways. She points this out to him and even breaks up at one point, but he seems oblivious to his flaws, and then somehow at the end they get back together again. Apparently she's won over by his sincerity, despite his expressing it crassly. This movie ought to have been made 70 years ago and been forgotten by now.

That leaves two movies I had hopes for but turned off after a few minutes.

All the Money in the World immediately delves into a series of flashbacks intended to inform you that J. Paul Getty had a lot of money. No kidding, Sherlock. Off.

The Florida Project begins with three six-year-olds gleefully spitting onto their neighbor's new car for no reason other than that they can. Do I want to spend a whole movie with such obnoxious kids? Off.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

things I shouldn't have to do

1) In the past, our cats were on dry food, and though we fed them twice a day, we could get by with once-daily visits by the cat sitter when we were away, trusting the cats to pace their eating. But now Pippin is on wet food that needs to be portioned and kept cold when opened but not eaten.

When our cat sitter said she's unable to visit twice a day due to the heavy traffic around here, we invested in an automated feeder with a lid on a timer and an ice pack underneath. But despite claiming to be familiar with automated feeders, the sitter found this one incomprehensible, even despite my investing considerable time in writing specific descriptions of exactly what needed to be done each day.

We're looking for a new cat sitter, one who lives closer and can visit twice a day.

2) Facing a Tolkien Studies submission in the form of a paper which dismayingly turns into yet another claim that the author has found the Real-O True-O sub-creational identity of Tom Bombadil, different from all the other Real-O True-O identities that a dozen other enthusiasts have come up with before.

Found myself writing in response, "Does the fallacy need to be explained? Bombadil isn't necessarily really anything. He's a fictional character."

Sunday, June 10, 2018

kalimac in Ashland

B. and I have just returned from three full days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where we -

sorry, the cat just walked in, announced imperiously (in Cat), "So you're back. Come and pet me." and there went twenty minutes.

- saw six plays in what was not too bruising a schedule. Bursts of rain failed to interfere in the outdoor shows. Three of these plays have been running since February. The other three were literally on first or second previews. You wouldn't have been able to tell.

Shakespearean

Othello.
I find this an inherently problematic play. It's no longer acceptable for Othello to be played by an actor who is anything other than black, but there aren't a lot of other parts for black actors in Shakespeare, so when I've seen it before, Othello was played by a young actor without much Shakespearean experience, and since the character is a credulous fool, making him all the tougher to perform adequately, the grizzled white veteran invariably cast as Iago just wiped the floor with him.
The solution to this problem has arrived with the recently wide-spread advent of color-blind casting in other Shakespearean roles. According to his cast bio, Chris Butler, cast as Othello here, has previously been in eight different Shakespeare plays at various theaters (I saw him as Don John in a somber-toned Much Ado, when he previously popped up here in 2004), and though his character is still stupid, he had the chops to tackle this large and weighty part and stand up against OSF veteran Danforth Comins, who is not about to lose my vote as the finest Shakespearean actor currently treading the boards, as Iago. Alejandra Escalante, a strong and powerful Desdemona, also triumphed over what can be a wimpy role.

Romeo and Juliet. Emily Ota, though a fine actress, seemed to me too mature and forceful to be well-cast as the young and impetuous Juliet. William Hodgson as Romeo was adequate but not very memorable. The memorable and brilliant stars of this production were a pair of OSF veterans cast as chatty sidekicks: Robin Nordli, hilariously gabby as the Nurse, and Michael Hume, fretfully gabby as Friar Laurence. Notable frontiers in casting: the actress playing Lady Montague is deaf, so any scene with her in it had a lot of sign language.

Love's Labor's Lost. Played as OSF plays Comedy of Errors, as a roustabout comedy, and for the same reason: to make a crusty old script funny for a modern audience. Succeeded through a combination of goofballing and anachronisms. For the masque depicting the Nine Worthies, one character shows Hercules by ripping his shirt open, and another guesses who he's playing: "The Incredible Hulk!"

Increasingly Non-Shakespearean

The Book of Will
by Lauren Gunderson. A new play depicting Shakespeare's surviving colleagues conceiving, editing, and publishing the First Folio. Tribulations bring drama, but mostly this is a tribute to their love of the memory of Shakespeare the man (much discussed but not depicted onstage) and their desire to preserve his work after they're gone. A lively mixture of humor and melancholy, with lots of gratifying assumptions that the audience knows its Shakespeare well. The editors' wives and a grown daughter play major roles both substantive and in encouragement. This is, among other things, a play about mature men who love their wives, so I could really identify.

Sense and Sensibility, adapted from Austen by Kate Hamill. A good adaptation in both substance and style, framed by having those actors not in a given scene standing around giving gossipy narration. If there's one character in this year's offerings as young and impetuous as Juliet Capulet, it's Marianne Dashwood, so who plays her? Yes, Emily Ota. Excellent performance, but it was hard not to wonder what she's doing there. Elinor (Nancy Rodriguez) gets overshadowed. Actually, rather as with the veterans in R&J, the florid K.T. Vogt as Mrs Jennings outacted everybody. Post-show talk by Nate Cheeseman, a first-year actor with a big chin, who played Willoughby. Said he'll be in an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice soon: as Wickham. I think his chin has typecast him. There was one clunker in the play, and I checked: it's in the script. At one point a servant introduces Sir John Middleton as "Lord Middleton". Oh dear: no, no, no, NO.

Destiny of Desire by Karen Zacharias, a play in the style of a telenovela. A Mexican family melodrama packed with romance, adultery, baby-switching and other long-lost relatives, financial chicanery, medical malpractice, and murder, all of it played strictly for laughs. Performed with intense verve by an all ethnically Latin cast.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

kalimac in Oxford

The process of arranging for my visit to Oxford for the opening of the Bodleian's Tolkien exhibit was an epic in itself. Tolkienian linguist Carl Hostetter was the one who originally suggested gathering with colleagues and friends for this event, and when, early this year while looking over my calendar, I asked him how plans were going, within a few busy weeks he and Mythopoeic Society organizer Lynn Maudlin had concocted a viable practical plan. They rented a large (4-bedroom, with extra beds) house for a week off Airbnb, and reserved a private room at one of the Inklings' favorite pubs for a vast quantity of local and visiting Tolkienists for the evening of the opening day. Lynn coaxed four of us who would all be converging on Heathrow the previous day to buy a group-discount round-trip (return) coach ticket to Oxford which, since we were coming back at different times, would be transferred to a somewhat different group of four people for the return.

Even more fun was that the house we rented was the Headington Shark, a locally famous landmark in the form of a suburban row house (just off the main road, so convenient for the bus) with a 50-foot fiberglass shark crashing head-first into the roof. (And, in case you're one of the many who ask, no there isn't a shark head emerging from the ceiling on the other side.) The sculpture's actual title, as revealed in a plaque by the front door, is "Untitled 1986." As a rental property, the house was professionally-run, clean and well-kept, with a spacious kitchen and sitting room, the latter ideal for an extra guest in the form of Tolkien biographer John Garth, who stayed over the night of the opening rather than running the hour home so that he'd have more time to write his Telegraph review of the exhibit which was due early the next morning.

We all contributed to the knowledge base. Carl had researched the bookstores, Jason Fisher the pubs; I knew the local geography so could offer advice on bus lines and knew which block of stone belonged to which college on the history-steeped two block walk from the bus stop to the Bodleian. ("And those," I said, pointing through an archway, are the twin towers of All Souls, and they have at least as good a claim to be the original of Tolkien's Two Towers as any pair of smokestacks in Birmingham.")

The exhibit is small, and while admission is free they were expecting demand to fill up, so you could buy a timed ticket online for a small fee, and our group went in at various times on the first two days, some of us at least twice. The group pub gathering was a fine place to meet: Every strange face I introduced myself to turned out to be some renowned Tolkienist, usually one I'd corresponded with, so we had a very focused set of conversations. Other than that, we bookstored (besides Blackwell's and the Bodleian shop, we were happy with St Philip's in St Aldate's), avoided the rain which at times came down in torrents, surrounding the Bodleian with a 5-foot-wide running moat, and pubbed. In 2 1/2 days in Oxford I had 5 meals out, each with a passel of friends in a different pub. All were old and atmospheric, all had good cider which is my drink, and quickness of service was purely a function of how crowded they were, so there isn't much to base a comparative ranking on except the size of the quarters and the food. From bottom up they were:

5. The Turf. Large, with many back rooms. One of the most famous pubs in Oxford, particularly prized by those who can boast of knowing how to find it - it's down a winding and narrow passageway, set far back from the nearest streets. The meat pie had interesting filling (with marrow in it) but a very dull crust. One of our party had to leave unfed as there was nothing gluten-free she could eat.

4. The Kings Arms. Very large, with reservable private rooms, so it was the ideal locale for our large gathering. It's also an Inklings pub, where C.S. Lewis liked to meet with Tolkien and others after a day's research at the Bodleian, which is across the street. At one time this had the best pub food in Oxford, but that was quite a while ago. I had the fish and chips, and while the chips were great - double-fried and very crisp - the fish was mealy and tasted more like battered mashed potato than fish. The White Horse down the street was better for that.

3. Lamb & Flag. As large as the Turf, also with many back rooms. This is directly across the wide St Giles high street from the smaller but more famous Eagle and Child pub known as where the Inklings met. Unfortunately the crowds know that too, and it was too crowded to eat in. But what we knew that most of the crowds didn't is that at one point the Inklings themselves abandoned the Eagle and Child (they didn't like the remodeling) for the Lamb and Flag, which we found decently uncrowded. In addition to several kinds of meat pies, they also have suet puddings, which at least is a little bit different. And yes, one of those is lamb (no flag, though).

2. The White Horse. Very small pub, right next to Blackwell's. Also an occasional Inklings gathering place. Besides having probably the best cider, it had wonderfully textured and tender fish in its fish and chips.

1. The White Hart. Medium-sized, but with a large back garden. The hidden find of the trip, not in central Oxford at all but in Old Headington, which is a quiet little area a couple scenic blocks' walk north of the main Headington shopping area, and hence close to our house. Easy to get to, but hardly anyone does. Not much up here, aside from houses, except the pub and the medieval church across the street, which is also worth visiting, except the church doesn't have drinks or an extraordinarily extensive (about 8 varieties) selection of truly excellent meat pies, admirable not just for the fillings (beef, chicken, venison(!)) but for the light and flaky crusts. And yes, they'll make a gluten-free one on request.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Tolkien in Oxford

The Bodleian Library's new Tolkien exhibit, which opened on Friday and runs for 5 months, was the goal of my trip to England. The Bodleian holds many of Tolkien's papers (and they borrowed for this exhibit some items from Marquette University, which holds many of his manuscripts, and old records from Oxford's Exeter College, his undergraduate college), but this is their first Tolkien exhibit in 25 years and far more extensive than its predecessor.

It's in a gallery in the Weston Library, which has been much refurbished and cleaned up from the dingy "New Bodleian" that it used to be. You walk in through a foyer in which enlarged images from Tolkien's maps of Middle-earth have been projected on the floor, so you're walking across Middle-earth, a clever touch. Then you turn into the exhibit itself, one large room full of things - "wonderful things," as Howard Carter would say. Like King Tut's tomb, the room is murkily-lit and not very clearly organized. It's full of glass cases in which are suspended the artifacts, with captions mostly down at around waist level. But they are wonderful to see.

There are cases on his childhood, his university and war service years, his physical creative environment as an adult (including a desk and chair he used), and a whole series mostly around the perimeter on his creative work: his early artistic Book of Ishness, The Book of Lost Tales (yes, the original school notebooks in which he wrote it), The Hobbit (mostly the illustrations) and The Lord of the Rings (mostly the maps). After a case of the elaborate paisley-like doodles he drew on newspapers in his later years, there's a case of editions and translations of his books plus fan letters (including one from a teenager named Terence Pratchett, and another from an old man named Sam Gamgee who'd heard his name was in the book), and that's it. You go out another door, and the gift shop (a whole story in itself, believe me) is over to the right beyond the cafe.

Now, much of this material has been published before, the art in reproductions and the written material in transcriptions. But much of the material is hard to reproduce adequately - a map might have both the deepest India ink and the faintest of pencil markings - and there's also the human need to see the originals. What gets me at this exhibit, and on previous occasions when I've seen Tolkien's art displayed, is the vividness and intensity of his craft and the minute tiny details he fills it with. It has the same appeal as a lot of Chinese art.

Tolkien's creative craft in geography is also illustrated not just by his maps, but by a couple more original tech items the exhibitors dreamed up themselves, which as they're not archival material are at least brightly lit. They're map displays with moving lights showing the travels of the characters in The Lord of the Rings. One's a vertical comparative map, and the other is a table with a 3-dimensional relief map of the imaginary landscape, on which are serially projected the various stages of the journeys.

As for the artifact aspect, seeing original handwritten texts I'm long familiar with from scholarly book texts is itself a wonder. I have no doubt as to what was the most moving single item in the exhibit, and it's not by Tolkien himself. Tolkien served in WW1 on the Somme along with one of his closest school friends, Geoffrey Bache Smith, another budding poet. Smith scribbled Tolkien a letter which ends, "May God bless you my dear John Ronald and may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them if such be my lot."

It was his lot. Not long afterwards, Smith was hit by shrapnel, the wounds became infected, and he died at the front. And there, suspended in the case, is the last page of that last letter ... hastily scribbled ... in pencil, yet. One turns in tears.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

two concerts and a show in London

Why I'm in London will wait for later, but I took the opportunity of being there to attend two concerts at the Southbank Centre, a collection of monumentally ugly 1960s brutalist concrete slabs on the Thames immediately opposite the West End. Inside those slabs, however, are some spacious wood-lined auditoriums.

The real attraction for me was the appearance at the Royal Festival Hall of the Berlin Philharmonic, which Simon Rattle is taking on a last round of tours before his retirement from the music directorship next month. What they played was even more enticing: Bruckner's Ninth Symphony, in its completed version. Bruckner finished up three of an intended four movements, and those are what is usually played; but when he died, the finale still consisted of a collection of scraps and pieces, and since Bruckner's genius consisted largely of how he put the pieces together, completing it is a daunting task. It took four musicologists to concoct this version of the finale, which is just over 20 minutes long - a good length - and what I can say for it is that it seemed to comport well with Rattle's approach to the genuine article, which is to treat Bruckner as a composer of Big Paragraphs, and not to worry about anything so quotidian as themes. I don't think Rattle has quite as deep a command of Bruckner's large structure as some conductors, and the climaxes didn't tower quite as much as they should (an unreverberant hall didn't help), but the musicologists didn't seem afraid to make a conclusion big enough that it wasn't quite anticlimactic for the end of an epic 90-minute symphony.

As the piece ended, I muttered to myself (through having nobody else to talk to), "I always wanted to know how that one came out."

Like many conductors with similar pieces on their plates, Rattle chose to preface his epic with something brief and completely incongruous, in this case a piece of crypto-modernism by Hans Abrahamsen.

A chamber music concert at the much smaller Queen Elizabeth Hall, physically an unbroken slope-fest that reminds me of Snape Maltings, was intended as a reproduction of a famous concert that took place there nearly 50 years ago when the place was new. Daniel Barenboim, Jacqueline du Pre, and some other hot young talents of the day had played Schubert's Trout Quintet. So today, pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, who's 25, gathered together some age-mates, including violinist Hyeyoon Park and cellist Kian Soltani, to play the same piece, plus the Schubert Notturno, the Brahms Op. 25 Quartet, and a violin-piano rhapsody by Bartok. They were bold and fearless in all these pieces. The Brahms survived an unfortunate man who was horribly sick on the seat a couple rows in front of me, the man was led gently away and I heard he'd be all right, and I hope the hall survived too, judging from the number of employees busily scrubbing away at it during intermission.

Over across the river in a West End theatre boldly named the Coliseum, I got to a musical show from the other end of my tastes, a revival production of Chess. This show, which I've seen before, has a topic that appeals to me, plus an inordinate number of good songs, far more than any other post-1970 musical I've heard. The production had a lot of splashy lighting effects that overshadowed the tiny actors down on the stage, but made up for this with huge video projections of them during most of the songs, which, despite videographers prowling the stage, I eventually figured out were not live.

The stars, Michael Ball and Tim Howar, are, I understand, big names in this line of work, and they certainly did entirely satisfactory jobs on the big emotional ballads, the kind of song anyone who's not a consummate professional would make a complete hash of. But the performer who impressed me the most was the lesser-known Phillip Browne as Molokov, the Russian handler, who brought wit and vividness, not to mention a basso profundo, to this normally imperturbable role.

Further notes on visiting London:

1. I already knew that all theatres here charge extra for programmes, but the Brits seem to have trouble with them, as at all events I heard plaintive queries as to where they could be found, which I'd had no trouble with.

2. The better restaurants all include a service charge in the bill. It's labeled as optional, but only a churl would wish to reduce it, and I for one am happy to be relieved of the burden both of deciding how much to leave and of figuring out the amount. The rate is, universally, 12.5%. This strikes me as eminently reasonable for a lot of impressively attentive service. To leave 15% here would be impossibly generous, and 20% would be a studied insult by rich Americans throwing their money around. This is not to say the food is inexpensive: at these places, it certainly isn't.

3. On the other end of the economic spectrum, I saw more homeless on the streets than I ever had in London before. San Francisco claims to be embarrassed by its profusion of homeless. I don't think it's anywhere near as far out of the typical as it thinks, or than it used to be.