Saturday, June 29, 2013

intellectual jokes

Here's a good thread that was sent me from Reddit: What's the most intellectual joke you know?

I haven't read all of these, not by a long shot, because the thread is a very long shot indeed, but my favorite of the ones I read was:
Two women walk into a bar, and talk about the Bechdel test.
Delving into my own meager mental file of jokes (I like jokes, but I can rarely remember them) produces two that I heard at SF conventions in the early 1980s that stuck with me. If they're on the Reddit thread, they're way down there somewhere. One is merely a portrait, a sad tale:
The computer programmer was found dead in the shower, in his hand an empty bottle of shampoo. The label read: "Lather. Rinse. Repeat."
The other is a simple riddle.
Q. Why did Douglas R. Hofstadter cross the road?
A. To make this joke possible.
There's also my small and select collection of Polish jokes that aren't insulting to the intelligence of Poles, but I'll leave those for now.

My question for you now about the above 30-year-old jokes, especially if you're no more than a decade or so older than the jokes are, is: are they obsolete? Do endless loops still exist in computer programming language, and, if so, do today's programmers know about them? And does anybody still remember Douglas R. Hofstadter? Once upon a time, his name and work came up constantly in conversations around me, but now he's almost as vanished from the common discourse I hear as is the then equally ubiquitous Julian Jaynes.

Friday, June 28, 2013

performances on the road

I squeezed an eight-day road trip in between my last two San Francisco Symphony concerts of the season. Since my trip was to the north, and so is San Francisco, I simply made those the first and last stops on the drive, driving on for a couple of hours after last Wednesday's concert to reach my hotel reservation, and organizing myself to return in time for dinner before this Thursday's.

I tapped out a brief review - which was all it deserved - of the first concert on my Nook while on the road. But that isn't all I did musically or theatrically.

Tuesday, June 25: Oregon Bach Festival, Bend
In the Tower Theatre, which appears to be an old converted movie house of rather small size, the OBF, which is mostly in Eugene starting this week, presented a touring prelude concert of chamber music on modern instruments by an ensemble from LA called Bach's Circle. Played also Fasch, Goldberg, Couperin, and Vivaldi. Sloppy but enthusiastic.

Wednesday, June 26, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland
Two plays in their big indoor theater, the Bowmer, left me much happier than on my last visit two years ago. Taming of the Shrew in a modern vernacular setting - Baptista runs a hot dog stand on the boardwalk (Kate throws a bag of popcorn at one of the suitors), and Petruchio is a rockabilly guitarist - evaded incongruity and skated over the play's sex-role problems by simply bursting with energy and verve. Not just Ted Deasy as P. and Nell Geisslinger as K. but everybody kept the script popping along at top speed, as if this were A Comedy of Errors. Best incidental comedy bit: John Tufts as Tranio incessantly mispronouncing Bianca's name, a different way each time. The ending was solved with added stage business showing that Kate has Petruchio tamed as much as the other way around. This isn't really textual, but no matter. They close with the two singing a duet, her playing his guitar.

Rather to my surprise - I thought it'd take longer to drive over the back mountain highways from Bend than it did - I arrived in Ashland in time for both lunch and a lecture by a visiting prof arguing that even Shakespeare himself and his contemporaries were aware of the dicey aspects of this story, and adducing as evidence an almost proto-feminist sequel by John Fletcher called The Tamer Tamed. This is the only sequel by another hand to a Shakespeare play to appear in his lifetime; I certainly know of Fletcher, so why had I never heard of this play? I didn't agree with everything the prof said, but he was a very entertaining speaker.

And after the play, those who knew to duck through a particular side door in search of a post-performance Q&A by one of the actors were greeted by Royer Bockus, who played Bianca. She was a rare case of an Ashland newcomer in the cast; she talked of the expected casting and directing issues, revealed that her dream role is someday, when she's older, to play Sondheim's Mrs. Lovett, and said that she conceived Bianca as a happy, cheerful person - why not; everyone loves her - though I'd say that the result came across more as bobbled airhead.

OSF has taken to performing occasional musicals, and this year's was My Fair Lady. Though enjoyable, it felt odd. Partly it was the arranged accompaniment for two pianos (grands with the lids down, in the middle of the set-less stage where they, and the pianists, could occasionally be incorporated into the action - Liza (Rachael Warren) sang part of "I Could Have Danced All Night" while lying on top of one - and partly it was the casting. Musicals are usually performed by singers who can act, and this was by actors who could sing, which makes a big difference. Of course there are always exceptions; the original musical Higgins was an actor who couldn't sing. This Higgins (Jonathan Haugen) could and did sing, but he was short (shorter than his Liza), stocky, and peppy, an unusual type for the role. Imagine Ross Perot as Higgins - without the accent and the mannerisms, but that kind of guy. Liza was middling, without extremes of either refinement or fire, at both of which the original musical Liza excelled. Her accent, and everyone else's, warbled, switching unexpectedly and inappropriately among American Actor's Imitative RP, watered-down Cockney, and their own American. Best "saved by the bell": moment: Freddy (Ken Robinson) turning "On the Street Where You Live" into a comedy number by lying down and writhing on the floorboards, making love to his Liza-metaphor.

Thursday, June 27, San Francisco Symphony
And exactly 24 hours after seeing My Fair Lady at OSF, I was back in the City for the Symphony's West Side Story. Hey, I could get used to this kind of life.

This was a just-the-music performance - no staging, no dancing, no dialogue except for the parts with musical underscoring, not even a plot summary in the program book - intended for a future CD of the complete music of WSS as Bernstein wrote it, before director Jerome Robbins made his cuts. This freed them from having to cast dancers, so they could go straight for the best singing possible. All the cast, mostly musical theater rather than opera people, were good, especially Cheyenne Jackson as Tony - a rare combination of a light, high tenor with real power behind it - and the vibrato-filled Julia Bullock (one of the few grand opera veterans) as the anonymous girl who introduces "Somewhere". Every time the chorus sang, they jumped out at you in quality, because they were select members of the SF Symphony Chorus. MTT took some awkwardly slow tempos, but he conveyed the emotion and complexity of Bernstein's score, with premonitions of songs from later in the show appearing in the underscoring. If not totally inspiring, it was a vividly clear performance of a masterwork.

More on the trip later.

Friday, June 21, 2013

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

All Stravinsky, all the time. 3 works from 3 distinct periods, in reverse chronological order.

The ballet Agon, which sounded enough like a cell phone going off that, when one did go off, it fit right in.

The Violin Concerto, an exercise in forcing Gil Shahan to play as painfully and horribly as humanly possible.

I like some of Stravinsky's middle and late works, but these are not two of them.

Finally, The Rite of Spring. MTT said at the start of the concert that he considers this happy music, and he gave it an interpretation so bustling and cheerful that I heard a kinship to Gershwin's American in Paris.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

concert review

I hadn't even heard of the Silicon Valley Music Festival until I was asked to review it. Nor did I know any of the performers, though I have heard of some of their teachers. As for the eight modern composers on this program, I already knew of four, which is not a bad ratio. Looking the rest up beforehand yielded some information, but I was dampened to discover that I wasn't going to get anything additional about the music out of the program book. This called for emergency backup work. It being a small and informal festival, I was able to meet and briefly interview the music director half an hour before the concert started, and then I did a little more investigation on getting home.

One real masterpiece, I'd say; several more either clever or charming; one ignorable; one would have been agreeable at a third the length. What's rare for me in reviewing music this odd and unfamiliar is for the extremely high quality of the performers to be so immediately clear.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

it's better than walking

A brother, even more analytical and logic-chopping than myself, is planning his first driving trip to the U.K., and wrote to ask for my advice and experience (credentials: six long trips there, all including extensive driving, between 1979 and 2005). I wrote:

1. Some people find driving on the left to be alarming. I did not. The only trouble I had was that I found that my instinctive knowledge of where the passenger side of the car is, in relation to outside objects (as viewed from the driver's seat) did not instinctively transfer over. And since British roads are narrow, with parked cars in unexpected places, and stone walls or hedges often tightly bordering the lanes, it's very easy to hit something by accident. As a result, I always get CDI when I drive in the UK, though I never use it at home. And, at least twice, I've needed it because I accidentally hit something with the passenger side of my car. The first time I drove there, a passing stone wall swiped the passenger side mirror off.

2. Everyone drives very fast. Even many of what look on the map like major highways are single-lane-each-way winding country roads, and drivers dash down at 55 mph on roads that no sane person would take at over 35. And if you drive slower, they'll come up behind you and honk furiously, but because of those stone walls and such, there's often no place to pull over. And if you're behind someone slow, because the roads are twisting, passing takes a lot of nerve.

2a. As a photographer, you'll find this very frustrating. Perfect view, nowhere to stop is a common experience.

2b. It also means it's hard to pull over and look at a map. Signage on country highways is good, less good on back roads. City street patterns are so complicated it's impossible to figure out where you're going without repeatedly checking a map. If you're comfortable using GPS, consider getting it.

3. On the freeways (which they call motorways, and which are very limited access, like turnpikes) and multi-lane highways (which they call dual carriageways), they also drive very fast, but the cops enforce the speed limits strictly. I don't have enough experience to be sure how these facts interact.

3a. But one thing is clear on multilane highways. Always, ALWAYS keep in the slow lane unless you're passing (which they call overtaking). The kind of wandering down the freeway in any lane you like that we have here, with only the vaguest obeisance to the idea of fast and slow lanes, was absolutely unknown there when I first visited the UK, and had barely made an appearance the last time.

4. Despite 2 and 3 above, it takes a long time to get anywhere. The UK is about the size of California, but in terms of travel time it's much bigger. Expect everything to take longer than you were expecting.

5. There are very few traffic lights, and those mostly in large inner cities. Intersections are mostly handled by traffic circles (which they call roundabouts). The British are very skilled at handling these. Rule: when it's your turn, GO. Just go, don't hesitate. If you pause, you'll mess up all the traffic around you.

5a. Same thing applies to stop signs. There basically aren't any. Where the US would have a stop sign where you have to stop and pause and look in all directions despite the fact that's perfectly clear that nobody's coming, the British manage rural and residential traffic with road markings indicating who yields to whom. If you don't yield, you just go. If you have a yield marker but nobody's coming on the cross road, again, you just go. You don't stop and look; you look while you're going, and then you just continue. If someone is coming, you wait for them and then you go. It's much more sensible.

6. Mention of lane markings reminds me to advise taking a prior look at Her Majesty's Driving Regulations (or whatever they're called). Signage is unlike ours, and it's useful to know what they all mean.

7. Her Majesty's gasoline (which they call petrol) grades are also unlike ours. Ask the rental car people what grade of petrol you should be getting. And it comes in pounds per liter instead of dollars per gallon, so it's hard to figure out how much it costs, except that it's over twice what it costs here. (Higher taxes, and it does discourage driving.)

Now, on to your specific questions:

> Where in the UK have you driven to?

All over England, most of Wales, and one venture into Scotland. I've been to Edinburgh, around the countryside south of it, and one quick trip north to St. Andrews. No farther than that.

> - do the rental cars come with stick or automatic?

Unless this has changed since I was last there, almost all rental cars are stick. Automatic has to be arranged beforehand. Right-hand drive doesn't affect anything else: you move the stick with your left hand instead of your right, but first gear is still upper left, etc. Clutch, brake, and gas pedals are also in the normal order.

> - are hotels in rural parts of northern UK just as easy to come by as in
> the US?

No. Motor inns of the Comfort Inn/Quality Inn sort are common enough along major highways and big towns, but not in small towns and rural areas. What I usually did in my roaming-around-the-countryside trips was that early in the day I'd figure out whereabouts I'd want to stop that night, and then go to the nearest British Tourist Office and have them book me ahead a bed & breakfast for that night in wherever I'd be going, which they would do for a small fee. Of course that was before the web, which changes things.

There are 3 kinds of bed & breakfast. B&Bs proper are actually spare rooms in someone's private home which they rent out. I found that idea a little creepy and never used it. Instead, I stayed in the second category, Guest Houses. Those are also houses, but they've been made up as tiny hotels, and are usually pretty professionally run. What they call hotels are usually also converted older buildings; they have all the disadvantage of guest houses (in terms of being old and idiosyncratic) but because they're larger they're also more impersonal.

> - given the population base, is the amount of freeways (or other
> multi-laned highways) similar to that which would be found in the US?
> Greater? Less?

Less. London is a huge city with one beltway (the M25) and virtually no freeways inside of it.

> - Do the hills stay green year round? Or do they change colors
> significantly like in the coastal hills of California?

They stay pretty green. Britain can be wet at any time of year.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Greatest 20th Century Symphonists You've Never Heard Of. Post 5: Malcolm Arnold

Post 1: Kurt Atterberg
Post 2: Cornelis Dopper
Post 3: Joly Braga Santos
Post 4: Alan Hovhaness

The next name on this list is known, if he's remembered at all, primarily as a film composer. But he was also a fine if somewhat challenging symphonist, and many other things as well. I've mentioned him already in this series, so it's time for him to take center stage. Let me introduce you to:

Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006).
This English composer - a veteran principal trumpet for the London Philharmonic before he took up full-time composition - achieved sufficient renown in the movie industry that he won an Oscar for the best-known of his film scores, the one for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). After saying which it is always necessary to add that no, he didn't compose "The Colonel Bogey March" - it was a genuine WW1-era Royal Army marching tune - but he did arrange it and he did put it in the film which made it famous.

I would nominate as his best and most characteristic film score, however, the one for Whistle Down the Wind (1961). (Brace yourself: we got the entire movie right here.) Like Life of Brian, it's about a man (Alan Bates) who gets mistaken for Jesus Christ; in this case, the disciples are a band of naive modern-day farm children led by Hayley Mills. Arnold's score is full of distinctive touches; the best is his transmutation of "We Three Kings" into a march when the children come bearing gifts.

In his photo, Arnold looks jolly, and this fits his early character. At the start of his career, he earned a reputation as the clown of contemporary English classical music, and he deserved it, with works like an overture with solo parts for three vacuum cleaners, an electric floor polisher, and a posse of wandering armed hunters, and his staggeringly ridiculous parody of Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3 - sometime I'd like to annotate what's going on in this one, but not right now - both of them written for Gerard Hoffnung's comedic concert series.

Better-known, and a little more normal but still funny as well as fun, in the light music vein are Arnold's sets of national dances, which sound folk-like but are all original tunes. Some of these have become staples in the kinds of nonprofessional venues that ensure that there's a large number of bad performances of them online, but here are better versions of the English Dances, set no. 2 and the Scottish Dances. Each set includes four dances; in the Scottish set, listen for the "shave and a haircut" ending of the opening strathspey (2:15) and the wobbly-drunken bassoon turn in the succeeding reel (3:30).

All this time, though, Arnold had a serious side as well, and his great quest was to find a way to integrate this with his humor and cheekiness. He wrote nine numbered symphonies altogether, and in three or four of them I think he managed that union splendidly well. The technique he used at his best could be compared to pop art: take something normal and conventional, even hackneyed, and draw the musical equivalent of huge black crayon question marks all over it.

The Arnold symphony you should start with is Symphony No. 2 in E-flat, Op. 40 (1953), the one in which he forged this cutting weaponry. I wish Sir Charles Groves' old recording with the Bournemouth Symphony were available; it's a terrific performance that really grasps the piece. Alas, all I can get is the late Richard Hickox, a dutiful but not always the most inspired conductor. It'll have to do. This one comes in three boxes.

The first box contains the first two movements, Allegretto and a Vivace scherzo. Like his First Symphony, this is music that's competent and interesting but also rather stiff and tense.
Then, in the second box, comes the slow movement, Lento. This starts out the same way, but the Shostakovich-like climax of the movement, which comes at 7:12, is the precise moment when Arnold the mature symphonist is born. Suddenly, the music releases its tension and becomes comfortable in its own body. (Oh, how I wish Hickox conveyed this better.) Listen for the funereal drum and fife accompaniment (7:35) and the weird and eerie wind passage (8:40): here Arnold's natural voice is coming through. Besides showing his superb talents as an orchestrator (after all those years sitting in the back of an orchestra, he knew how to write for one), these are what I meant by the image of black question marks, and their dynamic impact is unmistakable.
And after that, the finale, Allegro con brio, in the third box, is a different but equally ingenious blend of the somber and the jolly. Listen for how the perky, English Dances-like opening theme interacts with the the cutting, angry contrapuntal counter-theme (0:53), suddenly popping out of it in the calmest possible manner (1:48 and again in the recapitulation at 4:33), not to mention the astonishing attempt to convey both moods at once (2:15, at the start of the development, and again in the coda at 4:57).

The Third is also masterful, but it's altogether much darker-toned and more somber. (It reminds me a bit of the Sibelius Fourth.) It's online (mvts 1, 2, 3), and I wish I could also find there the Fourth, whose Caribbean influences make it the oddest and most distinctive of Arnold's early symphonies. Instead, let's go on to Symphony No. 5, Op. 74 (1961), possibly the finest of them all. The sound on this recording is not too great, but it's a tight and punchy performance by the BBC Concert Orchestra under Charles Hazelwood.
  1. Tempestoso. This starts out rather chromatically but has its long-breathed lyrical side (3:05) and its "nobody but Arnold" moments (3:27). And don't miss the theme for harp, celesta, and glockenspiel (0:55)!
  2. Andante con moto. The slow movement is daring for being utterly sincere, with none of the expected sarcasm at all. It begins with a sentimental string melody, followed by an equally effective counter-melody (1:20 - the odd initial sound is top-register bassoon combined with bottom-register flute).
  3. Con fuoco. One weird scherzo, with all the crazy stuff Arnold left out of the slow movement: strange clangs and shudders, hushed expectant jungle noises (bongos and tomtoms, held over from the percussion battery in the Fourth, help with both of these), lumbering brass fugues (0:45), and a completely unexpected sort of big-band interlude (2:05).
  4. Risoluto. The finale takes a military dance melody for piccolos and vigorously scribbles over it until the Big Tune from the slow movement abruptly makes a grand entrance (3:40), but then the harmony wrenches out of place (4:35) and the music settles for a quiet ending. This is the movement most like Arnold's later music.
These symphonies were not successful at establishing Arnold as a serious composer. Tending to distrust his caustic side, critics were even more suspicious of Arnold when he was being populist, as in the Big Tune of the slow movement of the Fifth and an even more notorious example in the first movement of the Fourth. Bitter at being dismissed by the establishment as a clown, as the 1960s and 70s went on Arnold began trying to be the clown who played Hamlet, never a wise move. At the same time, his previously settled personal life began to fall apart. There were divorces, frequent relocations, stays in mental facilities, alcoholism, and other unhappy things. Then he lost his creative juices, and even his later sets of national dances became gnomic and crabbed. Aside from squeezing out a thin, bleak Ninth Symphony and a few other works during a brief Indian summer of composition in the mid-80s, for most of his last 25 years he was kind of out of it and rarely wrote a note. But, before his death, his music underwent a revival in the UK, and he was compos enough to know that this was so. He was honored at a number of performances and festivals, and he was even eventually knighted during this period. Arnold's English Dances were among the first pieces of good modern music that I discovered, many years ago, and this composer has been sustaining me ever since.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

a song for father's day (but not mother's day)

It's grim, but he's just about the most devoted husband and would-be father you will ever meet.


This performance, clearly modeled on Martin Carthy's, is the best by anybody else I've heard.

PS. Want a goofy, off-key, semi-dramatized version? This goodly gift you too shall command.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Prof. Donald A. Glaser

I just came across the fact that one of my undergraduate professors died a few months ago. He played a small but uplifting role in my life.

In high school, I'd been one of the few college-bound students not to take biology. (I'd fulfilled the science requirements with physics and chemistry.) There were parts of biology I liked, such as genetics, but the physiology and behavioral aspects of animals or even plants, what fills zoology and botany, didn't interest me. (Having subsequently become a long-time cat owner, I'm now much more interested in animal behavior than I was then.) But college is more specialized.

Having dutifully signed up for my first term at UC Berkeley for courses in my intended major (history) and freshman comp, I found a hole in my schedule. I needed another low-credits course to be taking enough. So I browsed through the catalog for something that was interesting, met at a convenient time, and wouldn't be too taxing. Most of the science departments offered a non-technical lower-division course for non-majors. One of them was the Molecular Biology Department. That sounded cool - genetics, but from a different angle - so I signed up.

It was a simple 3 hour/week lecture course, no assignments but the midterm and final, held in the department building's small lecture hall at the top end of campus. The lecturer was a Prof. Glaser, a soft-spoken, unprepossessing man. He gave us a lot of information, and I absorbed much about nucleic acid transcription and such topics. I learned about bacteriophages, which I found intriguing, particularly for their alien-spacecraft appearance, and when I founded an on-campus SF club I proposed calling it the Phages, which gave us a neat logo and addressed the deficit of SF clubs with biological references in their names.

I got an A in the class, by the way. And even after nearly four decades, with all the subsequent advances in the field and all the fading of my own memories of the course's details, I still better understood the scientific issues in the recent gene-patenting case than did the average U.S. Supreme Court justice.

A few weeks into the course, when leaving the hall one day, I overheard a couple other students saying something about a Nobel Prize. Wait a minute - could mild Prof. Glaser up there actually be a Nobel laureate? I looked him up and ... he was! Before he became a molecular biologist, he'd been a particle physicist, and got his prize for inventing the bubble chamber. I knew what that was.

How unutterably cool, I thought, to be a first-term freshman and have one of your professors be a Nobel laureate. Not a unique experience at UCB, either. Laureates Glenn Seaborg and Melvin Calvin were also known to give lower-division lectures and even to teach occasional sections of freshman chem lab. (Chemistry at Berkeley being a local specialty and hence such a large-scale industrial process, I never took it there myself.)

And that makes me ... Well, a few years ago I was on an SF con panel about hard SF. The first two panelists to introduce themselves (both women, by the way) were rocket engineers, so at my turn I said:

"After that, I need to burnish my scientific credentials. I could say that I studied molecular biology under Nobel laureate Donald Glaser at U.C. Berkeley. That sounds good.

Actually, I took a freshman lecture course from him."


But it is a neat thing to have done that, and both for the cachet and the content, I'm glad I did.

Friday, June 14, 2013

with friends like these ...

... you really, really, really don't need enemies.

How about a neo-Nazi film critic who loves the Jackson Lord of the Rings movies? The Southern Poverty Law Center, always monitoring extremist hate groups, found him.

"Despite his gripes, Lynch manages to find at least a few films worthy of praise. Chief among these is the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy, which Lynch - tipping his cap to Hitler's lieutenant - gives a 'Goebbels Award' for 'contain[ing] not a shred of Jewish propaganda.' Rhapsodizing about his favorite of the trilogy, Lynch writes, 'I urge every White Nationalist to see 'The Two Towers' for a glimpse, in the here and now, of the white civilization that we have lost, and that we are working hard to create again.'"
How shall we deconstruct this?

1. You can't control nutty interpretations of your work. Charles Manson thought the Beatles' White Album was a call for race war. Apparently this guy thinks battles with imaginary orcs are too.

1a. Can you really take seriously someone who gives out the "Goebbels Award"? Either it's a put-on, or it ought to be.

2. But, unfortunately, this kind of reaction isn't unique, or limited to the movies. In some parts of Europe, a liking for Tolkien is generally taken as a sign of affiliation with extreme-right, even neo-fascist, politics.

3. For those reasons, I don't blame Jackson for engendering this, even though I think the movies' differences from the book facilitated this misreading.

4. For instance, if our critic had read the book as well as seen the movie of TT, he might have been able to tear his eyes away from the stirring spectacle of an army of handsome white guys defeating an army of ugly not-white guys and notice that those bad guys are the tools of a megalomaniac white guy played by Christopher Lee.

5. The book might also have clued him in that TT is not a stand-alone story about the Battle of the Hornburg, but part of a larger story with a broader meaning. Specifically, that arms alone cannot win this war, and that, though the dark guys are evil, evil is emphatically not about being dark.

5a. In one of the other movies, for instance, there was this Denethor guy, whose symbolic function in the story is to show how even the principal leaders of the good guys can fall into error, a lesson that it would have been very useful for Herr Adolf H. to have known.

5b. Then there's the Mouth of Sauron, who is described in the book as a renegade Numenorean, and hence an ordinary if twisted white man. In the movie, however, his face is masked except for a mouth with orc-like teeth, and he speaks in one of those amplified Darth Vader voices. (You know, I had to get out the dvd to check this. I was delighted to realize that I had completely forgotten what the movie's depiction of the character was like. I had also forgotten that, in the movie, Aragorn chops his head off. What??)

6. And, as noted by many commentators, that the Dwarves are rather Jewish.

7. Nevertheless, the existence of this particular fan is liable to give ammunition to those who consider Tolkien rather racist.

8. But, see point 1. And I think that this actually only highlights the difference between Tolkien's views and those of genuine toxic racism.

9. And it's a good demonstration of just why Tolkien said he had "a burning private grudge" against Hitler, who spoiled legitimate ethnic patriotic pride for Germanic peoples everywhere.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

trailer critic: Hobbit part 2

(embedded here if you want to watch it)

The first of the three Hobbit movies actually covered almost exactly one-third of the text. If the second movie also covers a third, it will go through Beorn and Mirkwood and end with Thorin and Company arriving at Laketown. From the trailer, it appears to go further than that, all the way to the Mountain and including at least Bilbo's first and possibly his second journey down into the lair. That might not seem to leave much for no. 3, but that's OK, because the third installment will be mostly battles, and no Jacksonian filmmaker worth his salt can't draw out even the most briefly-described battle into half a movie all by itself.

0.10. Voice-over, apparently Thranduil: "You seek that which would bestow upon you the right to rule." Way to get things backwards, guy. Thorin seeks what he already has the right to, it having been stolen from his grandfather by a dragon. If the treasure were a McGuffin that made anybody who had it into the King Under the Mountain, then Thorin really could be the anonymous ragamuffin that the Lake-men originally take him for. And Smaug's rule (he claims he's the real King Under the Mountain) would be just as legitimate as anyone else's.

0.21. There he is. The "they're supposed to be supernatural non-human creatures, but they look like guys in silly costumes" problem is particularly acute with elves. By the way, why does Thranduil know Thorin's quest? It's essential to the plot that he does not.

0.23. Thorin, with a dark look on his face. Do you not agree that he would make a terrific Aragorn like that, far more like Aragorn than Viggo Mortensen ever was (and, not incidentally, not a bit like book-Thorin)?

0.26. Bilbo with the butterflies. Nice that that moment got in from the book, though the colors are all wrong, and that the movie hasn't completely forgotten that Bilbo is there.

0.30. Wait a minute. First, the dwarves aren't sealed in the barrels. They're going to get drowned! Oh, wait, this is a movie, so they'll be OK. And, are those elves actually chasing them? So the prisoners are not going to escape from the castle unnoticed, and instead there's going to be another frantic chase scene, in which the only reason they don't get caught is because that would completely derail the book's plot.

0.38. Aha, it's Legolas. I appreciate that Jackson refrained from putting ten-year-old Estel in his movie, but yeah, he's got to have Legolas. Who is going to look over a decade older than he did in the movie taking place nearly 80 years later. Elves are immortal, but they don't live backwards.

0.43. And Arwen! All right, if it isn't Arwen, it might as well be. She shoots, she rides, she glowers, she's generic Warrior Elf Princess, which is just what Arwen was in the Fellowship movie. She voice-overs, "When did we allow evil to become stronger than us?" Sometime back in the Elder Days, actually. Didn't you read the Silmarillion, lady?

0.49. And she's going to sweet-talk Legolas into caring. Oh, be still my churning stomach.

0.51. I always hoped a pile of endless gold would be shinier than that. Everything has to be gloomy in Jackson.

0.53. "What if it's a trap?" Any wizard who asked Gandalf such a stupid question would get his staff broken double-quick. The scene might be better, however, if at 0.56 I could make out exactly what Gandalf is saying in response.

1.10. Same orc as in the last movie. Yawn. Ho-hum.

1.14. Exactly how many giant neon billboards out in the wilderness does Rhovanion have?

1.16. "If you awaken that beast, you will destroy us all." This is a good example of a sentiment reasonably derivable from the book, but rephrased into pompous mush, and delivered with a portentious grandeur achievable only by the finest in bad acting.

1.22ff. Wizard-fu! Elf-fu! Dwarf-fu! Barrel-fu!

1.27. OK, by this point it has devolved into another theme-park ride, like the falling bridge in the first movie.

1.31. Oh yeah, now I remember what's been absent from this trailer before now, when not in barrels: all the other dwarves.

1.48. Is that scary or not? I can't tell; it's too dark.

Monday, June 10, 2013

a long-awaited book

Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman by Mark Cohen (Brandeis University Press, 2013)

I've been an Allan Sherman fan since his first album appeared in 1962, an addiction that hasn't diminished over the years: I bought the My Son, the Box CD set as soon as it came out. So I'm a perfect reader for this cleverly-titled book.

In many respects, it delivers. It's a lucidly written narrative biography, with plenty of hard details and facts, freeing Sherman's early life from the whimsy of his (ghost-written, as it turns out) autobiography, A Gift of Laughter, and bringing his brief decline and fall out from the shadows, though it's reticent on the lurid details. I've read (e.g. in Steve Allen's memoir of Sherman) that at the end of Sherman's life he was an indigent living in the charity Motion Picture Country House, which doesn't square with the fact that he was working on an unfinished new album of golf stories at the time of his death. Cohen makes it clear that Sherman, though he'd blown through his earnings, was surviving well enough to perform occasionally and to live in his own apartment, except for the few months shortly before his death he spent in the Country House's associated hospital on the last of his many weight-loss programs, which must be where the story that he was in the House itself came from.

Cohen is good at summarizing Sherman's recording career, and pays equal attention to the events and flow of his live and TV gigs. It's all well-integrated into the life story, without feeling like the story is being halted to discuss the work for a while. Cohen doesn't mention every song Sherman released, but does most of them. He has lots of good material on unreleased songs, he quotes from them liberally, and he sticks an album's worth of their lyrics in an appendix. (There's no discography.) He's good on tracing the gradual shift in Sherman's topics from the Jewish to the de-ethnicized suburban, on the growth of a grumpy "get off my lawn" attitude towards the rising youth culture that's apparent in several songs, and, it must be said, on a gradual shift from the funny to the not funny. Cohen wins my allegiance by firmly placing the album For Swingin' Livers Only among the not funny. Many Sherman fans, inexplicably to me, consider it the best of his later work. (I'd name in that category My Name Is Allan, and perhaps Cohen would too, though he's not ringingly endorsing any of the later albums.)

On the other hand, he doesn't much like Peter and the Commissar, either, which I liked even long before I got interested in the classical music which is its topic of parody, and he entirely misreads the song "Peyton Place U.S.A." (from My Name Is Allan). He repeatedly refers to it as a "moral grandstanding" denunciation of libertine sex life - contrasting that with Sherman's real-life pursuit of sex wherever he could get it - but in fact it displays rather leering envy of what the characters on Peyton Place supposedly get up to. That, and attributing one original source song to Irving Berlin when it's by the Gershwins, are the only outright errors I caught.

The book gets off to a rough start with far too much detail on the subject's ancestry, and yet even so manages to avoid explaining how his Polish Jewish grandfather wound up with the surname Sherman, which sounds neither Yiddish nor Polish. Maybe it was assigned at Ellis Island, but Cohen doesn't say so, and he uses it for when gramps was still in Poland, implying he already had it. Nor is any light shed on the strange tale in A Gift of Laughter of the movie career of great-uncle Max the violinist. (Cohen gives the violinist uncle's name as Abraham, which only makes it more mysterious.)

Soon enough, though, the narrative settles down, interrupted only by an odd tendency to jump back and forth in the tale, cryptically mentioning something only to delay explaining it for five or ten pages. (Example: he tells you on p. 129 that "The Ballad of Harry Lewis" has Sherman's best pun, but doesn't relate the pun itself until p. 140.)

Cohen also is really big on setting Sherman's career in its cultural context. This is far less ludicrously done than in some books, and I'll certainly buy the account of changing tastes in the mid-60s that led to Sherman going out of date, but I'm not sure I believe the sweeping and name-filled thesis that Sherman's debut came at a unique cultural moment when Jewish humor would have a cross-ethnic appeal, when America somehow wasn't ready for it in the 40s or 50s, and that his immediate epic success is due to his having supplied the material just when it was needed.

Regardless of its flaws, this is generally a good book, and I'm very satisfied that it was written and that I could read it.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

and I also have seen Arcadia

Tom Stoppard's Arcadia has come to ACT in San Francisco, and I've been to see it. I'd seen the play once before, in Ashland in 1996, but didn't recall much of the detail, and more importantly my own experience with the intellectual problems faced by the characters was much less then.

It's a fascinating, provocative play, but was this a good production? I'm not sure. The actors were more than adequate at their craft, but I can't help thinking that, if the whole had really added up to anything compelling, I wouldn't have spent so much time distracted by thoughts of how long the play was. But maybe it was just the cramped, uncomfortable seats speaking.

Set in the same room in a northern English country house in alternating scenes some 200 years apart, Arcadia explores both investigations into the fundamental nature of the universe and literary-historical investigations made by the latter-day characters into the earlier ones' lives. The characters keep saying that it's really all about sex, but that in itself is a trivial aspect of this story.

What was important struck two personal chords with me. The modern characters, having discovered the notebooks of the visionary schoolgirl Thomasina of the earlier period, realize that she was trying to work out the theories of entropy and determinism using hand calculations, foiled only by the immensity of the mathematical task involved. If only she'd had a modern computer at hand, what could she have done? And I thought of my own interest in calculations of historical population growth in given geographical areas, and of how easy it is to work these out with downloadable census files and an Excel spreadsheet. As a child I used to do work like this with pencil, paper, and a desk calculator, and even that was wearying compared with what I can do with no trouble today.

Even more striking for me was the literary-historical aspect, because as a scholar I do exactly what Hannah and Bernard do in the play, work out biographical history using incomplete and misleading documentation. The only difference is that my topic is the Inklings rather than Byron. Hannah warns Bernard not to jump to unwarranted conclusions using hypothesized or unclear evidence, yet she does not follow her own advice. I try to be a follower of Hannah's advice, and have written, for instance, warning of other scholars' possible but completely hypothetical chronologies and personalia of the origin of the Inklings. The evidence we actually have is flashes of light amid darkness, and no period in Inklings history is darker than the early 1930s when they began.

This experience followed a visit to the vacation home of B's niece T in the Napa Valley. Anticipatory experience of the day: picking wine-country-soil-grown blackberries from the backyard trellis for the trip home. T told how the house was bought some three years ago, after many years of visiting the area, staying in guest homes and hotels. She and her husband had been coming up here since they were in college, back in 1991.

At which point in the conversation, her nine-year-old son exclaimed, "Wow, that was a long time ago!" He then tried to work out how many years ago it was, but the mathematics of the calculation defeated him. It's the curse of Thomasina.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Greatest 20th Century Symphonists You've Never Heard Of. Post 4: Alan Hovhaness

Post 1: Kurt Atterberg
Post 2: Cornelis Dopper
Post 3: Joly Braga Santos

With this post, I may be stretching the meaning of the term "you've never heard of" and even the term "symphonist". But what I'm not stretching is "greatest". I'm including this composer because, like his predecessors in this series, he was a huge hit in the Sherwood Smith household.

For this post, we have Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000).
Possibly because he's American, Hovhaness is somewhat better known, at least in this country, than the foreigners I've discussed previously. But he's still not too far from obscure. And though this manically prolific composer - he could, and did, write scores on the backs of envelopes while waiting for the train - left 67 numbered symphonies (which makes him, so far as I know, the fourth most prolific symphonist of the last two centuries), whether most of them actually are symphonies is open to some doubt.

If the only definition of a symphony is "a piece of music with the word 'symphony' on it," then of course they qualify. But there's an argument that a work isn't really a symphony unless it employs the procedures crafted by the form's founders, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and carried on by their distinguished successors. These involve a weight of utterance, typical symphonic structures, and a dynamic, development-oriented treatment both of themes and tonality.

The problem is that this is an inherently teleological structure. A symphony is trying to get somewhere and is focused on its own ending. Think of Beethoven's Fifth and Ninth, both of which achieve their heroic endings after tremendous struggles and transformations of both themes and keys.

But Hovhaness was anything but a teleological composer. Intricate and subtle craftsmanship, elaboration and transformation, he could do, but he was absolutely uninterested in making his music go anywhere. It's already arrived at where it wants to be. He was a pioneer in the view of music later taken up by most of the minimalists. Other music does. Their music simply is. It doesn't tell a story; it stays there to be contemplated. Hovhaness believed in Oscar Wilde's dictum that "The artist is the maker of beautiful things," and this influenced both the way he wrote his music and the language he wrote it in.

Hovhaness, originally from Boston, was a member of the younger cohort of the great wave of American composers who swept into prominence in the 1930s and 1940s. Like some of the others, particularly Henry Cowell, he was interested both in the folk traditions of his own ancestry and in Middle Eastern music. Only in Hovhaness' case, they were the same thing, because he was of Armenian descent. Armenian liturgical music influenced a tremendous amount of his early work; this would later be joined as influence and inspiration by Indian and Korean musics, mystical visual art, and the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, where he settled in the 1970s.

Hovhaness was fairly popular and well-known in the later 1940s and 1950s, getting a fair share of performances and recordings, but the latter decade and the 1960s were hard on the surviving members of the greatest generation of American composers. The serialist hegemony had risen, and was trying to browbeat everyone else into following its lead. Some older composers, like Aaron Copland, always an experimentalist at heart, joined the bandwagon. Others, like Samuel Barber, were belittled into silence, or, like Roy Harris, shriveled into insignificance. Hovhaness, though, went on as he always had. The self-confidence which was expressed in the calm serenity of his music carried him through the dark years and on to the bright revival of the 1980s, when music such as his began to be popular again. In the meantime, he actually adapted some modernist techniques to his own purposes, notably aleatoric (random or unpredetermined) elements, as we'll hear.

Hovhaness' other secret was a talent at self-promotion. The story goes that he learned a key to this from Leopold Stokowski. In 1955, the flamboyant maestro, then music director in Houston, commissioned a large-scale orchestral work from Hovhaness, and got a suite in three big movements that the composer titled Mysterious Mountain. "It's a symphony," said Stokowski on seeing the score. "Is it?" asked the puzzled composer. Stokowski explained that audiences love symphonies, especially numbered ones, and that anything that can be passed off as a symphony, should be. Then he asked, "What's the opus number?" "I don't use opus numbers," said Hovhaness. "Audiences love opus numbers too," said Stokowski. "You should use them."

So, pulling numbers out of a hat - for besides being prolific Hovhaness was disorganized and didn't know all of what he had written - the composer redubbed his suite Symphony No. 2, "Mysterious Mountain", Op. 132, and everyone was happy. Hovhaness then spent several years trying to match up his existing output with the numbering pattern he had thus created, with only partial success. But from then on, everything he wrote had an opus number, and the symphony numbers started to pile up.

Besides enticing curious listeners - who were to include me - with all these symphonies with opus numbers, Hovhaness made his music easily available by starting his own record company. He recorded and pressed his orchestral music on the cheap, and distributed it to record stores. I first found Hovhaness in the Schwann record catalog in the early 1970s, at which point his symphonies numbered in the low twenties. Intrigued by the voluminous listings for this already unusually large number of symphonies, and encouraged by the fact that he went completely unmentioned in the books on contemporary music I was reading, which ordered me to genuflect at the shrines of Boulez and Stockhausen, I went to Tower and bought one of his records.

But though I tried Hovhaness because of his catalog listings, I stayed because I loved the music.

Around that time, Hovhaness lost control of the record company, and the works it issued, in a divorce. So, with the help of a new wife, he started up another company, and began composing even faster to provide it with repertoire. This is why he came to write another forty symphonies in the next twenty years. Unfortunately, this flogging of his genius was not good for his music, and much of his later output is excessively watery.

By this time, Hovhaness was living in Seattle. I saw him on the street once when I was living there too in the early 80s, his tall frame packed into the passenger seat of a small red car, his wife driving as they negotiated the traffic on the Ave. In later years, as respect for his music grew, he became a local institution. The Seattle Symphony played his works, and his death at a distinguished age was widely reported and mourned.

So where should you start with Hovhaness? There's so much of it. First, I'd suggest restricting yourself to works from between about 1944, when he found his voice, and the early 1970s. Then, unfortunately, avoid his own recordings. Those performances he made on the cheap for his own record company are mostly not very good. He wasn't a good conductor and tended to massacre his own masterpieces. Hovhaness is still a minority taste, and not very many musicians of talent have taken him up. The result is that the best recording of a Hovhaness work is not of one of his greatest pieces, but it's so brilliantly performed that it more than makes up for it.

It's Rudolf Werthen conducting I Fiamminghi in the Symphony No. 6, Op. 173 "Celestial Gate" (1959). It's brief, only 22 minutes in one movement, and it is, simply and unashamedly, the beautiful thing that Oscar Wilde expected an artist to make.



Celestial Gate could probably serve as the slow movement of a larger symphony by the traditional definition of "symphony", but even so it's of unusual form. There's a main theme, introduced by clarinet at 1:35, given a fugal treatment at 3:54 and a varied contrapuntal one by four solo violins at 6:00, then repeated at 9:50. Other themes are related or derived from it. Two other motives make repeated appearances: a rising-falling figure of increasing and lessening intensity (first heard at 1:19) and a chaotic rumble (first heard at 7:42) that's actually aleatoric, as the players are instructed to play fast figures at individual speeds without coordination. A variant of the rising-falling figure highlights the symphony's most intense passage, which begins with a hard horn theme at 11:16. The almost inaudible pizzicato double-bass accompaniment from the main theme's first appearance then takes a front of stage bow at 13:25.

For an even purer taste of Hovhaness, here is the St. Vartan Symphony (retroactively called No. 9, Op. 180, though it predates both Celestial Gate and Mysterious Mountain, having been written in 1950). It's one of his best, though most absolutely motionless, symphonies in, unfortunately, an intermittently wretched performance (not even conducted by the composer) in tinny antique sound quality. It's in the unusual form of a mosaic of 24 tiny movements, most of them solo songs or dances for a brass instrument with string accompaniment. Not one of the movements really does anything. It's the shape of the whole that forms the work.


In case you actually want to follow along and not just revel in the beauty, the movements, with solo instruments, are as follows. Rather revealingly, whoever ripped this copy from the LP didn't notice they'd put side 2 on first. With Hovhaness, it may not make much difference.
  1. Yerk (Song), trombone (15:22)
  2. Tapor (Processional), trumpets (16:59)
  3. Aria, horn (17:58)
  4. Aria, trumpet (21:00)
  5. Aria, horn (23:02)
  6. Bar (Canonic dance) (24:20)
  7. Tapor, trumpet (25:59)
  8. Bar (28:38)
  9. Bar (29:20)
  10. Estampie (Dance) (31:04)
  11. Bar (32:27)
  12. Bar (32:56)
  13. Aria, trumpet (34:03)
  14. Lament, trombone with piano (35:53)
  15. Estampie, trumpets (38:27)
  16. Yerk, saxophone (0:00)
  17. Aria, trombone (2:04)
  18. Estampie (4:54)
  19. Bar (5:53)
  20. Aria, trumpet (7:07)
  21. Bar (9:58)
  22. Bar (10:31)
  23. Bar (11:17)
  24. Finale Estampie, trumpets (11:51)
Some more Hovhaness symphonic work, if you want it:

He was one of the first modern classical composers to write many works for band. Here is the best of his several wind symphonies, the Fourth (1959)

The most truly unforgettable - and dissonant - moment in all of Hovhaness: the third and final movement of his Symphony No. 50 "Mount St. Helens" (1982), the part in which the mountain blows up. This is one of only two depictions of a volcano in action that I know of in the symphonic literature.

And one more atypical "just to prove that he could do it" moment, a folk dance scherzo. This is from his Symphony No. 22 "City of Light" (1970).

And I guess I can't leave you without Mysterious Mountain, can I? Of course not.

  1. Andante con moto
  2. Double Fugue
  3. Andante espressivo

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

a concert review and a memoriam

The concert was "A Britten Celebration" in the series Curious Flights, at the San Francisco Conservatory.

It's Ben Britten's centenary this year, and this little tidbit of a concert of his obscure music seemed just the way to celebrate it. It was held in the Conservatory's big hall, the one amply large enough to contain everybody who might be interested in hearing something this specialized.

First we had two short student works, a string quintet (instead of the usual quartet) and a wind sextet (instead of the usual quintet). Both began with fragments played over a single line, and the course of the piece was devoted to making those fragments cohere into a grander structure.

Then, a work of his maturity, Canticle III, an eerie setting of Edith Sitwell WW2 allegorical Passion poetry for tenor with piano and horn.

Finally, a real treat, a reconstruction of the Clarinet Concerto made by Colin Matthews (the same ghoulish fellow who wrote a "Pluto" for Holst's Planets just before Pluto was demoted). While in the US in the early 1940s, Britten met Benny Goodman, who commissioned a concerto from him (not a unique event when Goodman met classical composers). Unfortunately, when Britten left the country to return home to the UK, the US emigration officials thought his draft for the first movement looked like a secret code, and they confiscated it. Eventually he got it back, but the project had lost momentum. Matthews orchestrated the draft, and concocted two more movements out of other abandoned Britten works of the period. He's right that the first movement would sound unfinished by itself, and I liked the succeeding movements better: the pulsating flow of the slow movement and the arresting lower-strings tutti that begins the finale.

Brenden Guy, a British clarinetist who's studied at the Conservatory, played the solo part with fluency; he was also the clarinetist in the wind sextet. Alasdair Neale, a conductor of considerable local reputation, led the scrappy orchestra.

**

I come home from this to learn that local fan Hugh Daniel has died. What? How can such a dynamic, vibrant, enormous force of human nature suddenly cease to be? I am stunned.

Hugh and I moved in overlapping social circles, but we never had much personal interaction. The things he tended to talk about he was more interested in, and knew much more about, than I. Had we ever had any extensive one-on-one, I would have tried to find some common ground, but that never happened. Typically he was the center of a large circle of conversants.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

movie preview review: Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, 2013)

Yes, it's a film version of the Shakespeare play, direction and screenplay by The Man. I got to a preview showing last night; it opens this weekend. If you were expecting Hero to come back from the dead as a vampire or something, forget it, OK? This is not that Joss Whedon.

It's just a straight version of the play, filmed in black and white, which emphasizes that watching it feels like taking a long sip of cool, dry wine (in which you're joined by most of the characters). There's only a few notable changes.

First, modern setting. Except for the interrogation scene in a police station, the entire movie is set at a wealthy suburban home in Spanish colonial style and on its extensive grounds. The men are usually wearing contemporary suits with narrow ties (including the cops: I guess they're supposed to all be detectives); the women, mostly summer dresses or maids' uniforms, depending.

Conrade is a woman (and Don John's lover); the script is uncertain whether to adjust the pronouns to acknowledge this. And a couple of brief scenes seem to be flashbacks saying that Beatrice and Benedick had a past romantic relationship; this would be a catastrophic misunderstanding of the characters and is best ignored.

Never mind all that. Mostly, this movie is a performance of the play emphasizing the light comedy (I've seen stage productions treating it as a near-tragedy), with a cast mostly filled by established members of the Joss Whedon repertoire company, with everybody giving the most easy, naturalistic, non-declamatory readings of their lines imaginable. That's the real achievement of this movie, one which the trailers don't adequately convey. Nathan Fillion, entirely in his element as Dogberry, is the most amazing, as good as any I've ever seen, but they're all terrific.

Of the other actors whose work I know, the most like what you'd expect are Tom Lenk as Verges (Dogberry's assistant) and Sean Maher (though lacking the big black mustache that his Simon Tam once said he'd grow on establishing himself as a villain) as Don John. Alexis Denisof plays a Benedick who's entirely the seasoned Angel Wesley and not a touch of the awkward Buffy Wesley, even when the character is at his clumsiest or most foolish. Amy Acker as Beatrice and Fran Kranz as Claudio are playing characters entirely unlike their Whedon TV series roles, and accordingly act entirely differently. Acker omits the burning rage of most stage Beatrices; instead, she's sly and piercing. Kranz, who has to be shy rather than nerdy, is at first almost unrecognizable.

And little touches of physical humor make the play. The sexton, incarnated as a female police stenographer, rolling her eyes at Dogberry's attempts to give dictation; Benedick and Beatrice each cavorting in astonishment as they eavesdrop on the testimonies of their loves; Leonato and Don Pedro calming Claudio down as he gives an implausibly overheated description of Beatrice pining; Dogberry and Verges finding they've locked themselves out of their car when leaving at the end; and the moment that will probably make this movie immortal in cinematic history, though it goes by so fast you could blink and miss it, The Scene With The Cupcake.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Greatest 20th Century Symphonists You've Never Heard Of. Post 3: Joly Braga Santos

Post 1: Kurt Atterberg
Post 2: Cornelis Dopper

For this post, we have Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988).
Today we have a Portuguese composer: again, a major western European country that somehow gets overlooked in the musical sweepstakes. Aren't the Romance countries supposed to be the most musical? Spain has major composers, and has inspired more great tourist music by foreigners than any other country. France is one of the top three of all countries in music, and Italy, well, it's numero uno. Even Romania has one famous composer, George Enescu, who, alas, was not a particularly notable symphonist, but who did write this.

But Portugal? It has Joly Braga Santos, who ought to be heard of, but isn't. He lived a quiet life as a composer and conductor. (Portuguese names, by the way, work differently from Spanish ones, and though he is often alphabetized under B, properly he belongs under S.) JBS, as I'll call him to be completely ambiguous about it, followed an unusual path for a Romantic-country composer. He started out aiming to write big, heavy, serious symphonies in a mode more usual among Germanic and Slavic composers, and he succeeded awesomely. He wrote six symphonies altogether, the first four in a quick lump in the late 1940s. Then, like Atterberg, he took a 15-year break from the symphony. By the time he returned, unfortunately, like many composers at that time, he had been infected with the modernist virus, and his music had lost its savor.

But we still have the first four, all of which are mature works despite the composer's tender age, and which are real symphonies with real heft like Atterberg's. The longest, heftiest, and possibly best of them is the Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 16 (1950), and here it is in all its glory:

JBS's symphonies, particularly this one, sound a lot like Bruckner and Sibelius, and, if you want to win my favor, those are good composers to sound like. They also display a sound quality uniquely his own, and that is also a good thing.

The large first movement of the Fourth is a sonata form beginning with a slow Lento introduction (much of this is particularly Brucknerian) that ramps up to Allegro con fuoco starting at 3:22, with the jagged main theme coming in at 3:46, a similar second theme at 4:40, and the development at 5:50. After a number of episodes, the true recapitulation starts to lurk with a quiet key change at 9:13 and finally hits at 10:14.

The equally large-scale Andante slow movement (13:52) has a solemn main theme (14:10). A gentler second section (16:38) builds up into a strikingly Sibelian climax (starting at 17:54 and getting near the top after 18:35), which, after subsiding, pays off with a third section featuring one of JBS's most characteristic melodies (19:42), and then mutates back into the main theme (23:15) and closes sounding a little like Shostakovich (24:53).

The scherzo, Allegro tranquillo, starts off with string pizzicato runs and an oboe theme that sound really like Sibelius (26:14, even more at 27:59) and then suddenly gives a premonition of Malcolm Arnold (26:48) before reassuring us that it's nobody but JBS (27:23). Rhythmic modulations are unusual in music, but the brass modulates from 3/4 into the 5/4 rhythm of the trio section at 29:25, with another ideal JBS melody (29:40). The scherzo returns (31:17), then the trio (34:25), and a scherzo-based coda (36:07).

The finale is the biggest, most complex, and most distinctively JBS, of the movements. This is the part of the symphony you should listen to if you try nothing else. It starts with another Lento slow introduction (37:22). Again there's a ramping up (39:08) to a jolly Allegro con brio which hits with a bang at 39:47, presenting a cheerful theme derived from material in the introduction. The second theme, again prepared for rhythmically by the brass, is an irregular "bear dance" (41:20). The music starts to move into a closing section (42:22) and reaches a brief development (again uncannily pre-channeling Malcolm Arnold for a bit) at 43:38. The main themes return at 45:06 and 46:28.

Then, after what you probably thought was the final climax, comes something entirely new, an Epilogue (48:15) with an unforgettably grand theme that JBS apparently intended as his equivalent of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" (48:41). It starts off in the low brass and then is taken up by more and more of the orchestra as it keeps repeating until the true coda (52:35). Wowza.

If there's one other movement from a JBS symphony that I'd most recommend, it's the scherzo from his Second. Click on this and hear a bustling Allegretto pastorale that's both pure JBS and uncannily reminiscent of RVW.