Wednesday, March 12, 2014

concert reviews: Vienna Philharmonic and Väsen

The Vienna Philharmonic, perhaps the most distinguished orchestra in the world (an elderly and rather deaf lady to whom I reported that I'd been to them looked blank for a moment, and then said, "I heard 'harmonica'") came back to Berkeley - I reviewed them when they were here before, three years ago - for another three concerts, this time scheduled to be with three different conductors.

My editor wanted to send me to review the Saturday concert, because it was being conducted by the new music director of the Boston Symphony, whom we were curious to hear out here. But my schedule made that impossible, and between Friday's and Sunday's we picked Sunday's, mostly because I wanted to hear the VPO play Bruckner's Sixth enough that I might have bought my own ticket.

Sunday proved fortunate for two reasons, though someone at the concert, learning that I was a reviewer, began to berate me for not reviewing the first concert in the series, even though I said it probably wouldn't see print soon enough to affect sales for the last concert. The first reason is that the Friday concert got drastically poor reviews. The second reason is that the scheduled conductor of the Sunday concert cancelled at the last minute, leaving his Saturday colleague to substitute for him. So I got to hear him after all.

One of the editors, reacting to this remarkable save by the fates, kindly commented on the good luck I bring wherever I go. Well, not so good for the ailing conductor who had to be replaced, and I have someone on a bed of anguish whom I dearly wish I could have brought some good luck to when it could still have helped, but it was a kind thought.

My review mentioned the self-flagellating panel discussions on the history of the orchestra, but I had no space to get into that and only time for a little of it. (Nothing about the orchestra's sex ratio that I heard: that was not yet an issue at the time of the world wars. Expelling all its Jews and joining the Nazi Party en masse, however, was.) What most intrigued me, however, was the talk by this unreconstructed Schoenbergian I mentioned. He mocked the idea that art should be a constant to hold on to in a changing world, and the audience duly tittered. He believed that the function of art is to act as a shock wave heralding changes in society. That put him in direct conflict not only with the following speaker, an orchestra representative who mentioned how its concerts provided solace (his word) to the Austrian people during World War I, as well as its role in acting as a cultural ambassador for the Emperor Karl's peace feelers - neither of which you could do by offending listeners with artistic shock waves - but with the lush, moving performance of Schoenberg's own early, pre-atonal Verklärte Nacht that we'd just heard. I say he was speaking arrant nonsense. The function of art is to move and affect the hearer or viewer emotionally. If you can do that by being edgy, fine, but that's not the only permissible way; and getting edgier and edgier to outdo previous generations of edginess rapidly yields diminishing returns: you wind up triumphantly holding up the package and leaving out the contents.

But that wasn't all I did. Seeing that I would be with the VPO in the afternoon, I checked to see what the Freight and Salvage, just a few blocks away downtown, was playing in the evening. Väsen: "leading Swedish folk revivalists." Sounded good, so I went. I used to attend lots of folk concerts. I've trailed off for various reasons, one of which is that this prime venue is a long drive from home, and my principal nudge to go, a friend who would call me up and say things like "I want to hear Dougie MacLean at the Freight!", was long ago bought by Microsoft and shipped off to Seattle. It's been so long, in fact, that this was my first visit to the Freight's no longer so new quarters downtown. I was impressed. It's superior in sight lines, comfort, general maneuverability, and - above all - restrooms to the old home, at little cost in acoustics or in warm and toasty atmosphere. It's still too dark to read in, even before the houselights go down. I didn't see anyone I knew, but the house was filled with people who looked like I ought to know them. I sat there in contentment as the peaceful and relaxing sound of viola, guitar, and nykelharpa (a long viol with accordion-like keys as string stops) filled the air, and let Schoenbergian artistic theory go hang itself.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

world according to cat

I have just passed the challenging final exam for my master's degree in distinguishing the hand that pets from the toy to be played with.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

passing through fog

I was able to make an appearance at FOGcon in Walnut Creek for a few hours on Friday. I fear I won't have the time to be back for the rest of the weekend, but it was agreeable as far as I saw, and I was able to compliment Guy Thomas on presiding over a fine & pleasant gathering.

I got to hear Tim Powers speak on two consecutive panels on secret-history fiction. His words of wisdom included:
"Infodumps should be interesting."
"Leave out the parts that readers skip over." (quoted from Elmore Leonard)
"I want to lead the reader into expressing credulity to something they'll later be embarrassed to have expressed credulity over."
and, speaking as a reader to writers instead of as a writer to readers:
"You work for me. I'm not meeting you halfway. Bring it to me and make it tasty."

I got to hear Juliette Wade say, "I have this world, and it has cats in it." Well, what decent world doesn't?

I got to write down a number of tasty book recommendations, particularly from Debbie Notkin's "Lesser-Known Writers That Deserve To Be Read" panel.

I got to see a woman sitting in the back of the audience at one panel who looked a lot like Patricia McKillip. (Was it?)

I got to take Brad Lyau and Fred Moulton out to my favorite Chinese restaurant in the area (Sichuan Fortune in Pleasant Hill), where we feasted on mixed appetizers, lamb in something called XO sauce, and fried chicken wing nibblets drowned in chili pepper pods, not too spicy, actually. All excellent.

I got to see what seemed to be the only hall costume at the entire conference, a man dressed as Dr. Horrible.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Doll Bones

I just read a YA fantasy called Doll Bones by Holly Black (Simon & Schuster, 2013). B. had been reading this library book to me aloud while we were out driving one day, and I was sufficiently caught up in it to ask to sub-borrow it to finish.

I like the characters; they're captivating and are what made me want to finish the book. I like the fact that they play imaginary-world games together but do not fall into the cliche of visiting their own imaginary world. I like the fact that the fantasy element is elusive and possibly imaginary, manifesting itself in the form of what would be awfully eerie coincidences. I like the fact that the secret quest takes the heroes to an obscure town in eastern Ohio that I've actually visited. I like the it's-assumed-you-know-them references to earlier fantasy that the characters have read (especially Lloyd Alexander, and also Tolkien). I like that this is a present-day book in which the heroes are able to get away with doing things that are illegal (stealing bicycles and a sailboat), immoral (tearing pages out of a library book), and fattening (eating donuts for breakfast).

Here's another thing I particularly liked. The protagonists are three pre-teens whose friendship had been forged by improvising stories taking place in their shared imaginary world. But now the youngest of them fears that the other two are outgrowing it.
"I thought that ... we'd have something that no one else had - an experience that would keep us together. I can see you changing." She turned to Zach. "You're going to be one of those guys who hangs out with their teammates and dates cheerleaders and doesn't remember what it was like to make up stuff. And you--" She whirled on Alice. "You're going to be too busy thinking about boys and trying out for school plays and whatever to remember. It's like you're both forgetting everything. You're forgetting who you are. ... We had a story, and our story was important. And I hate that both of you can just walk away and take part of my story with you and not even care. I hate that you can do what you're supposed to do and I can't. I hate that you're going to leave me behind. I hate that everyone calls it growing up, but it seems like dying. It feels like each of you is being possessed and I'm next."
And that is what happened to Susan Pevensie in the Chronicles of Narnia. Is it clear now? Can we get out of our thick heads the ridiculous notion that Lewis damned her to Hell because she'd become sexually mature? That's not what this was about in Lewis, and not in Black either.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


If you call and announce that you're from some sort of research firm, and then ask if you may speak to my B., whom you tellingly call by the formal form of her name which she never uses, my answer will invariably be, "No, you may not."

no thank you

I've occasionally heard women snort in amusement that they've received spam e-mails for penis enlargers.

I've just received one for a breast pump.

Sunday, March 2, 2014


1) Cat show. It's become smaller over the years, and for the last couple has been moved by the county fairgrounds into a smaller hall. Full of Persians and Maine Coons. One of the breeders of the latter was called Bounding Maines. Do Maine Coons - big, stolid-looking cats - actually bound? The breeder said yes, they do.

The cat show remains the only convenient place to buy peacock feathers as cat toys. (Pet stores don't carry them.) After years without much need, we now have Maia who loves them. Loves them to pieces, in fact: we bought a dozen. If those last a year, it'll be because she loses interest.

2) Baptism of infant grand-niece Alex(andra). She cried lustily; so did the other baby up for the fount. In stereo! Loud family celebration afterwards.

1.5) In between, lunch at a late-breakfast place that serves apricot French toast and blueberry-banana pancakes. And a visit to my mother at the nursing facility, not that I haven't been spending most of my time there lately anyway.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

a slate of good articles

Slate online has been publishing a lot of interesting articles lately. Interesting to me, at least. Since who the heck knows where the links to them disappear to after they go off the front page, here's some links of my own.

1. Having once spent a semester researching and writing a paper on the background and history of the 17th Amendment, I know why repealing it and returning the election of senators to the state legislatures would be a really bad idea. It's for the reasons we got rid of it in the first place. This article gets it, not perfectly, but better than anything else I've seen.
2. I have one of these ugly and embarrassing Bush-era new U.S. passports. Fortunately I haven't had to use it yet.

Alarming Social Trends
1. The return of Jim Crow. Against gays.
2. If civilization is a place where you can walk down the street without worrying all the time about being shot, then we're abandoning civilization.

1. An article about computer code that I can actually understand!
2. It's my conviction that ten, or at the most 15, years from now, Facebook will look utterly quaint and obsolete. (No, that's not why I refuse to join it.) Remember that once, AOL stalked the Earth. This article explains why it's going down.

Life, the Universe, and Everything
1. Time zones are wonky. I can no longer trace how that article led me to this map.
2. "Every accent Meryl Streep has performed" says the headline. They missed at least one. Perhaps they didn't realize that this character from Angels in America was Meryl Streep.