Sunday, September 15, 2019

concert review: Cambrian Symphony

This local volunteer orchestra is now playing in the Hammer Theatre in downtown San Jose, a drama theatre not entirely suited to being a concert hall. This is the first time I've heard an unamplified orchestra there, and find that the acoustics are painfully bright from the strings in front, and muffled from the winds in back. At least where I was sitting; next time I'll try somewhere else.

I went to hear Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances and a suite from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, favorite modern works. Crisp and energetic performances, conducted with precision by Scott Krijnen. I got to talk with him afterwards, and asked, "In the slow themes of the Rachmaninoff, was that actually portamento I heard a few times?" He said, "Yes, that was us. We were trying to sound sentimental."

One other gem made an appearance, a piece by Helen Crane (1868-1930), an American composer so obscure she's not in the Grove Dictionary of Women Composers. The program notes say she's in Baker's, but not in the Slonimsky edition I have. Evidently she got played a bit during her lifetime, but mostly in Germany where she studied. This was, so far as anyone can tell, the American premiere of this work, titled Evangeline, Op. 11 (1905). Her scores and papers, donated to the NYPL after her death (she'd lived in Westchester), were noticed recently by a composer named Bernard Crane, who was tickled to find another composer with the same surname. (They appear to be very distant relations.) Looking through them, he picked this piece as a likely performance prospect and it wound up here.

Helen Crane dubbed Evangeline a concert overture, and it's typical of the breed: 12 minutes long, in sonata-allegro form. But it's not rigidly or textbook so. I found it fairly imaginative - a sequence of varying rhythmic figures at the retransition especially so - with a strong but not indulgent melodic sense and entirely accomplished orchestration. The idiom floated somewhere between Mendelssohn and Raff, which may seem antiquated for the period, but in fact a lot of lesser composers (MacCunn, Yamada, etc.) were still writing in that style. It wasn't an overwhelming discovery, but it was pleasant, and I'd like to hear more of her music. She wrote piano pieces, songs, chamber music (including 3 string quartets), a few suites and tone poems, a couple vocal-orchestral works, and two completed symphonies.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

not at play

Critique of re-creating school playground time for adults as the happy time of their childhood. My comments:

Oh yes, like you I detested school recess. I would stay in the classroom reading if the teacher would let me. Otherwise I'd wander around along the back fences of the yard, as far away from everyone else as I could get.

I wouldn't say that what I liked about childhood was the absence of things like bills or marital tension. My god, as a child I had virtually no money and couldn't buy anything unless I begged my parents, so money was a very tight issue; and as for adult interpersonal tensions, those have nothing on sibling tension or the heavy foot of parental authority, let alone being bullied by other children.

What I liked about childhood was where I did have agency and control over my own actions. I could read whatever I liked, and my parents trusted me so I could go off on bicycle expeditions anywhere I wanted so long as I was home by dinner.* That latter is a privilege few parents would allow their children today. But the point is: I can still read whatever I want, and I can still travel wherever I want so long as I can fit it in my schedule. What made me happy as a child is what still makes me happy today. It just has nothing to do with schoolyard playing, then or now.

*They trusted me because I was a whiz with maps. I was navigating family car trips by the time I was 8.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

a test

Today's reprinted Peanuts says:

It's possible that Schulz got this from an actual textbook, instead of making it up. I decided to see if it was possible to deduce the answer. Not by direct calculation; I wouldn't know where to start. But by brute force. Easy enough with Excel; you just enter a sequence of possible ages for the daughter in one column, and then calculate all the derivatives in other columns.

And the answer? The man is 41. His daughter is 7 (7x6=42, 1 year older than he is now) and his son is 10 (7+3). That has to be it, because 10 years from now, they will be 17 & 20 (= 37, which +14=51, 10 years more than his present age), and nothing else fits. Note that "the combined ages of his children" means their ages then, ten years from now, and not their ages today, because then the man would have to be 11 and his daughter 2 (2+5=7, 7+14=21).

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

something 11

One of the many purveyors of videos showing DT opening his mouth and having something odd come out showed him referring to 9/11 as "7/11." That's choice, but I don't have a link; instead:

Disturbing article on the trivial decisions that separated life from death on the day.

The story behind the trial that acquitted Joyce's Ulysses of obscenity. The article is by Michael Chabon, so not only is it immensely readable, but he compares the descriptions by those horrified of Ulysses to H.P. Lovecraft describing the Necronomicon.

Clear description of the beef public libraries have with publishers over e-book lending rights. B. reads a lot of library e-books, but I rarely do: I'll buy them, but I've found the hassles involved in library borrowing of them to be enormously dissuasive.

Also in the news, T. Boone Pickens has died. Back in the 1980s, when he was at his height of fame and/or notoriety, I was working at Stanford; and I was over at the Business School one day to have lunch in their cafeteria, when I saw a poster advertising a student drama production. It had a blurb on it: "I'll buy a ticket. In fact, I may buy all the tickets." - T. Boone Pickens

Monday, September 9, 2019


Book group discussion yesterday: Borderline by Mishell Baker. After many examples of books which begin fuzzily or confusingly, I liked the bright energetic opening of this one. (First sentence: "It was midmorning on a Monday when magic walked into my life wearing a beige Ann Taylor suit and sensible flats.") I was particularly impressed by the author's skill at conveying the counter-intuitive meaning of one word in a conversation here:
Maybe it was the aftermath of adrenaline, maybe it was a surge of contrition. But something made me blurt out, "Do you know anything about the Arcadia Project?"
After a moment of incomprehension, Dr. Davis's face suddenly hardened into an expression I'd never seen. "No," she said, like a snuffer on a candle. Not the no of ignorance, the no of don't even think about it.
The only cloud on the horizon at this point was my inability to figure out if the protagonist had two prosthetic legs or only one; the descriptions seemed contradictory. Other readers more attuned to this type of issue explained that one of her legs is amputated above the knee, the other below. This had not been made clear enough, at least where I could notice.

Our neuropsychologist was impressed as could be at the author's descriptions of a largely mentally disordered cast. (The book's title is the protagonist's personality disorder.) It was clear, sympathetic, and showing deep understanding of the nature of their mental processing. I couldn't judge this, but I certainly agreed that the personalities were clearly presented and understandable.

The problem I had with the book came on a different level. The protagonist is being hired by a covert agency which keeps tabs on the fairies who are the hidden muses of Hollywood. In other words, it's Men in Black. (They hire mentally disordered people apparently because, if they go off the reservation and reveal the secrets, nobody will believe them. This reminds me of Ford Prefect's story in The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy about the "teasers," but whatever.) There's the issue of, as in most stories where the viewpoint character has to learn about the supernatural in a hurry, most of the lessons are delivered as casual asides by other characters in the form of rules of behavior which operate with ironclad certainty - what in real life works this way? - and which have to be accepted without question. But I got past that. Our heroine is put to work searching for a fairy who's gone missing, and I started to have the problem I have with most mystery novels: I couldn't bring myself to care. I like the heroine, but I've never met this missing fairy on the page, I have no reason to care about him, and plunging in to the details of the case just doesn't seem very interesting. After this went on for a while, I began to hope this would wrap up real soon, and then I checked how far I was in the book on the e-reader. 35%. Nowhere near far enough. So that's when I quit reading.

Also on the agenda, the quite functional-looking office chair our hostess had set out on the driveway. Yes, we're not done with chairs around here. I could do with replacing my chair, and B. has been using a kitchen chair in her office since forever. A free chair? Well, why not? We had my hatchback. I got it in the back no trouble, and when we got home we wrestled it upstairs, and now it sits in B's office, waiting to be baptized by sleeping cats.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

o chair

I found B. yesterday afternoon among the eccentric and eclectic furnishings of the local Pier 1 Imports outlet, sitting in a green velvet armchair. "This is the one I want to buy," she said. She'd phoned me at home and asked me to come over.

Besides a couch, we have one usable sitting chair in the living room, mostly used by B, who needs the support. (I sometimes use it, but mostly sit on the couch.) The current occupant was an adjustable-height swivel chair which of late had been deciding that it preferred to sit at the lowest height setting. This usually happens with adjustable-height chairs eventually, so we thought: why not buy an unadjustable chair that's the right height to begin with?

I was there to try it out and see if it was comfortable for my height also (it was) and a hatchback car capable of carrying the chair home in.

An employee confirmed they had one in stock, and then we waited in line to make the purchase. A lot of people buying chairs today, they noted. I began to muse. Faith hope and chairity? Sonny and Chair? Chair and chair alike? Ma chairie? Nothing seemed appropriate.

Eventually I pulled my car to the loading dock in the alleyway behind the store and took possession of a very large cardboard box (which eventually found its resting place on a quick trip to the city recycling lot, it being too large to be conveniently cut up for our own recycling bin). Inside was an identical chair, except that the legs had to be attached.

I'm used to furniture legs that just screw into place. This involved multiple bolts and washers, and an Allen wrench (included) that had to be awkwardly manipulated around the cloth bottom of the chair. I got the legs installed after much grisly wrenching, only to discover that, though this looked like the right way to install the junction between legs and chair, the back legs were in backwards, curling in instead of splaying out. B. thought, because of the placement of the installed washers, this was still the right way and the legs' placement in the slots just had to be adjusted slightly. I thought they had to be turned around entirely, despite the absence of washers on the other side. I phoned the company's help line, but after half an hour of being automatically told every ten minutes that I had less than five minutes to wait, I gave up and just did it the way I thought it should go.

We now seem to have a comfy chair which B. used happily today.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

BISQC followup

Here's the page with all the videos from the Banff string quartet competition. You might want to consult my daily reports before choosing which of these to listen to: there's a tremendous amount of music there, and some of it is more appealing to the casual listener than others.

Oh, and the story I told there about the restaurant background music? It's like this:

This was a very long time ago, in fact over forty years ago, and it'll be helpful to remember that.

I was on a date, having dinner at a nice but moderately-priced restaurant in San Francisco. There was music playing on the house stereo in the background. It was not loud or obtrusive, so it was hard to make it out clearly against the ambient noise even of a not particularly noisy restaurant.

Still, it was obvious enough that the music was for symphony orchestra, and it was consonant. But it wasn't anything I recognized, and after a while, my music-listening ears began to pick up something odd about it. It was mostly the harmonic progression. The chords didn't succeed each other in anything like a normal way, there were no obvious cadences, and there was something odd about the phrasing too. It seemed weirdly modernist, but that was out of place both for the venue and for such lush and consonant music.

After a while I figured out what the explanation must be. I called over a waiter, and asked, "Is your house stereo on a reel-to-reel tape?" He said yes. I said, "Perhaps you should check it. I think it's playing backwards."

He went away, and a few minutes later the music stopped. Then it started up again. Now it was Swan Lake.

(And my date? She wasn't musical, but was used to my behaving like this, or would never have agreed to date me in the first place.)

Tuesday, September 3, 2019


Now that I'm home from my Canadian expedition, I can say with security that the biggest difference on the whole trip from my previous attendance at the same event three years ago was the Calgary airport. Partly the arriving - last time I was grilled by Customs on my reason for visiting Canada, and they didn't believe I didn't have confirmatory e-mails stored on my phone, but this time I filled out the questions on the automated terminal and then they waved me straight through - but mostly the return. Last time I stood in long lines at both US Customs (which has a station there) and then security, so that even though I arrived 2 hours in advance I still missed my flight, and then had to sit around in the secure area of the airport for the rest of the afternoon, with nothing available to eat except grotty packaged salads. Now they've built an entire new international terminal, and my it's efficient. Through security and Customs (in that order this time) in less than half an hour, and then finding myself in an enormous hall with, among other things, purveyors of genuine hot meals, with plenty of time to eat lunch, which I'd expected to have to miss. Nothing great, but edible. Only problem is: not much seating by the gate areas, though there's plenty of room for it.

Back at the Banff Arts Centre, meals were served cafeteria style, and though one got a little tired of repackagings of the same basic materials over and over again over the course of a week, the food was both good and vastly plentiful. Then comes the question of where to sit. The dining room - with huge plate glass windows overlooking a stunning view of mountains and woods - has both long and round tables. At Mythcon meals, I've no trouble finding old friends to sit with and, as a senior member, am comfortable welcoming new people. But at Banff I'm one of the junior attendees, I have to be cautious about how well I fit in socially, and I don't want to impose my company on the same people too often. As a result I ate a lot of meals alone, especially as I tended to come in very early. The time it feels easiest to take a seat at a mostly-occupied table is later on in the meal, when it's busy, and it's recognized that new arrivals will have to squeeze in somewhere.

Regardless, whenever I did sit with people I had good conversations. Banff audiences tend to be divided into those who really know their chamber music (many of whom are administrators of chamber music series in their home towns) and those who just like to listen to the music and profess no ability to judge it. I'm in the lower division of the first group (though I didn't meet anyone else there who professed to be an active reviewer) and I found that a number from the second would actively seek me out for my opinion of the latest concert. Even some of the more learned seemed to find my thoughts interesting, as I did theirs, and a couple of those shook my hand in farewell as we were leaving. So did even one of the competing performers, with whom I'd had a couple of post-performance chats. His group didn't win anything, but I wished him best of luck and said that if his group ever got out to Stanford, I'd be sure to come and hear them.

One thing I could do better than most in the table conversations, and that was make puns. I remember one of them. At breakfast one day, the talk was mostly on Wagner, though other topics interjected, including the food itself. I wasn't eating all of my melon bowl, and I explained that the pieces had a lot of rind in them. Maybe they were cut by the Rind-Maidens, I said.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

BISQC, day 7

You want to know who won the competition, do you? It was a TIE, the first ever in BISQC history. (As an old Hugo administrator, I could have told them about those.) Marmen and Viano shared the prize. Callisto was second; don't feel sorry for them, as without the tie it would have been third.

How they're going to split the prize money, the attached residencies, the required tours, etc., I have no idea.

Some people were cynical. They say it couldn't really have been a tie, as there were seven judges. (They voted by points.) They say the Marmen were the real winners, and Viano was only stuck in to get a Canadian group in there. I discount all this.

In the Beethoven round, Marmen played Op. 131. They did a good job of imposing structure on this large and potentially shapeless work, and their rhythm was strong. But though Marmen started out well enough in my ears this week, and I really liked their Mendelssohn, I am getting a little tired of their eccentric and sometimes unattractive tone color.

Viano played the Razumovsky Third, and their splendidly blended tone brought out the melodic charm and beauty of this underappreciated work. I had had very mixed feelings about their Bartok, but I've liked everything else they've done, especially their Ades.

Callisto played the Razumovsky Second with their typical bright shiny precision. They were something of the finalists' black sheep. When I recited the newly-released list to one inquirer, he responded "Callisto?" in a mixture of surprise and disdain. But they were a favorite of mine. I liked everything they did, including their Ligeti, which, almost alone, I rated much higher than Marmen's.

And so the great string quartet adventure of 2019 draws to a close.