Sunday, September 28, 2014

concert review: Symphony Silicon Valley

I had been booked to review this concert, but my editor phoned up the day before and said they'd decided there were too many reviews scheduled for this weekend, so they cancelled it. Huh. This has happened before, too. I could wish this stage of the decision-making process grafted onto the original scheduling. It's a good thing I hadn't yet pinned anyone down to go as my guest, because that would have made a mightily awkward situation.

It was also disappointing, because not only did I like the repertoire - rarely-heard works by major composers - but I'd reviewed the guest conductor's previous concert here and was intensely curious as to how she'd handle this program. So I went anyway, on my own few nickles.

Very well, it turned out. Kamensek's dry, rhythmically-based conducting style was well-chosen for this repertoire.

First we had Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances Suite no. 2, a popular work on the radio but rarely heard in concert. It was bright, chipper, and lively, especially in the "Danza rustica" bringing out complex subsidiary lines that gave the work the air of the raucous Italian street music that Michael Nyman began his career by emulating. Rhythmic intricacy is a key here, and that made the work go.

Then the ballet music from Verdi's Don Carlo, rarely heard because it's usually cut for length when the opera is staged. Forming a quick suite of varied moods, like much operatic ballet music, it's an absolutely typical chunk of Verdi orchestral music. The thythmic floor was secure in Kamensek's version, and that again made it go.

Lastly we had Harold in Italy, Berlioz's symphony with a viola obbligato so sparing that the soloist (here Patricia Whaley, SSV's principal, and completely up to the job) wanders off just after the start of the finale, delivering one last tiny utterance from offstage. Harold is less colorful than the Symphonie fantastique and vastly less well-known, but I think it's comparable in genius, particularly in the uncanny way it anticipates later composers: I keep hearing hints of Tchaikovsky, Nielsen, even Shostakovich whenever I listen to it.

Harold is capable of dragging, but Kamensek's regimen of rhythmic vigilance and conscientious phrase-shaping kept us well away from the indulgent school of Berlioz performance. Even the slow Pilgrim's March kept along at a fair clip and its repetitions became hypnotic.

Really glad I took the trouble to attend this one anyway.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

asperger's in literature

JG mentioned reading this Australian novel, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (not a typo). I put in a reserve for it at my library, and two months later finally got it a week ago. Popular book, even over here.

This is the second novel I've read from the viewpoint of a protagonist clearly on the autism spectrum, the other being The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. That book's character is generally said to have Asperger's, but I think he's genuinely autistic. This one's is an aspie but doesn't seem to realize it, though he's diagnosed the symptoms in himself pretty clearly. He actually gives a lecture on Asperger's - he's a genetics professor, and the lecture is the author's way of handling the infodump - without seeming to realize he's describing himself.

The plot concerns attempts by Don, the protagonist, to find a potential wife, which he calls The Wife Project. His method is to compile a questionnaire that all prospects must answer, to weed out all the deal-breaker characteristics that he otherwise wouldn't find out about until after investing a lot of time in them. (Apparently his dates habitually don't tell him that they're vegetarian until after arriving at his house for dinner, for instance.) His friends futilely try to explain that this is not how you go about it.

In the process, he meets this woman, Rosie, who - despite having several deal-breakers (she smokes, which would be a deal-breaker for me) - intrigues him, mostly for the way she catches him off-guard. He meets her as a barmaid, and only much later learns that she's actually a psych grad student with a part-time job. A romantic relationship seems doubtful, especially after she gets fed up with his aspie behavior on a date, but they bond in friendship over his offer to use his lab's gene-sequencing equipment to identify her unknown father. Naturally, he calls this The Father Project. (That it's both unethical and against regulations to appropriate the equipment for private use doesn't occur to him until it's too late.)

The story wraps up far too neatly for me to be comfortable with it as a slice of realism, but view it as a light comedy and it's fun to read. I found most of the comic set-pieces either a little too painful or a little too real to be laughed at, but the writing is bright and witty, and the unavoidable tendency to picture Don as being played by Jim Parsons was not too distracting.

What most caught my eye was the behavioral descriptions. For instance, this observation when Don realizes that a friend of his had lied about a motive to the person Don is speaking to: "It seems hardly possible to analyze such a complex situation involving deceit and supposition of another person's emotional response, and then prepare your own plausible lie, all while someone is waiting for you to reply to a question. Yet that is exactly what people expect you to be able to do." I could really identify with that one.

Yet I found Don a little hard to parse at times. His complete inability to detect irony weighs a little heavily over on the imperceptive side. Yet on the other hand, when an old woman he's befriended complains that, with her husband in a nursing home with dementia, he'll no longer be able to buy her her favorite flowers for her birthday as he'd always done, Don thinks, "The solution was obvious," and buys them for her himself. This shows high emotional intelligence. The typical aspie ranking low on that scale doesn't find performing such kind deeds natural, and while not ignorant of or opposed to the concept, has trouble recognizing when an unexpected situation is an opportunity to do it. Yet Don is bewildered when the woman cries over the flowers, and thinks he's done the wrong thing. He's always thinking he's done the wrong thing when it's the right thing, and the right thing when it's the wrong thing, and that's epically believable.

It was a good and quick read. I took it along on my trip, and was glad I found a used book store early, so that I'd have more stuff to read for the rest of the trip. There's a sequel coming out, but the library doesn't have it yet. I hope it doesn't spoil the happy ending of the first book.

Friday, September 19, 2014

return to Ashland

B. and I visited the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in June, to see some non-Shakespeare plays. I saw something else in their repertoire list that attracted my interest, so I decided to return later on. That was this week's trip. I drove up by way of the coast, so was able to pay a visit to old friends David #17 and K. in their remote fastness before heading over the mountains: a 5-hour drive, much of it on twisty back roads, to Ashland.

The play in question was a Shakespeare, The Tempest by name, and the reason for my interest was the casting of Denis Arndt as Prospero. Arndt was a regular at OSF in the wayback, some 30 years ago, and a truly great Shakespearean actor. A production of Coriolanus with him in the title role, depicting the dictator as a reasonable if impatient man driven to exasperation, was the finest Shakespeare production I've ever seen anywhere.

Arndt's ability to speak the words with a fully natural inflection was the secret of his success, and he hasn't lost it, though his Prospero wasn't the marvel he might have been in a tougher role. Still, he kept the show moving, and not mired down in waiting for the denouement to roll around, and that's a notable achievement. Otherwise it was a decent, unexceptional production. The lovers were a little dull, the lords a little pack-like. Caliban was somberly earnest, and well-done in that style; Ariel achieved non-humanity through a slightly eerie touch of roboticness; this could have been borrowed from the simultaneous production of A Wrinkle in Time (which we saw in June), where the actress played Mrs. Murry. The Stephano and Trinculo could have given the guys I saw in Boston Common's Twelfth Night more than a few lessons in how to play Shakespearean buffoonery.

The set in the indoor theatre was the most striking thing about the play. It consisted of a shag carpet with a ramp in the back. Trap doors surfaced only as invisible slits in the carpet; this enabled both Ariel and Caliban to make their initial appearances slithering up through the slits as if the earth was voiding them forth. Four silent male dancers, hairless and painted gray, wearing loincloths, represented the spirits that Prospero and Ariel command.

While I was going to be there, I decided also to see The Great Society by Robert Schenkkan. This is the first production of his sequel to All the Way, the play about LBJ that Bryan Cranston has been playing in on Broadway, and which also premiered at Ashland two years ago. (I didn't see it.) Jack Willis had played LBJ here; he and other OSF actors reprised their roles in the sequel, which covers the four years of the presidency after the 1964 election.

This was an awesome play, simply amazing in its impact. It's all about public policy; there's no time to waste on private shenanigans or other incidentals. But it's not lofty or high-minded: these were brutal times, and the tale is brutal. Yet few characters are simply evil: everyone has their policy goals, and the competing pressures they bring on Johnson are the story. As someone who remembers those days, I can testify that Schenkkan, who remembers them too, has caught the air and feeling that the news gave at the time, without any sense of artificiality, and that's a rare gift. To see this play is to remember, or to learn, what it was like to live through it.

What's most remarkable is how very Shakespearean it is in construction and approach, like a historical tragedy on the lines of Richard III or Macbeth, though with very different types of characters. Like Shakespeare, Schenkkan packs in a long sequence of events into tightly-wound scenes that run each after the other without feeling like a rushed fast-forward. As with Shakespeare, there's a few major characters who reappear throughout the play; besides LBJ, these are primarily MLK and RFK, sometime colleagues and sometime antagonists, and HHH, who's sort of the Buckingham or Banquo of the play: though his fate is very different, in all cases uneasy lies the head of the confidante. As with a typical Shakespeare production, the other roles who pop in for a scene or two or three here and there are played by an ensemble cast who take up to five or six roles each.

And, as with the protagonists of those plays, this one is about the decline and fall of an initially confident man. LBJ begins with a folksy story comparing himself to a bull-rider at a rodeo: he knows he'll get thrown eventually, so the point is the joy and triumph while he's still on. He masterfully manipulates the AMA on Medicare and Governor Wallace on the Selma march, but as the pressures mount on him from either side - and Vietnam is just one thing here, the increasingly urgent quest of the blacks for justice (which MLK can barely control) and the growing white backlash against it, with LBJ unable to satisfy either side, takes more of the attention - the president, like Macbeth and Richard before him, grows megalomaniac and paranoid, loses his touch, and is finally crushed by events. The only difference is his fate. In the last line of the play, he wraps his arm around his wife (another continuing character, though less present than some) and says "Let's go home, Bird."

And that was it. Three hours of bitingly intense drama, brilliantly done.

On the way home I stopped off in San Francisco for an SFS concert, conducted by MTT. Bach's Brandenburg Third (without conductor) was the Brandenburg Third. Henry Brant's Ice Field was spatial music: a lot of bleeps and twitters coming from various parts of the hall. Tchaikovsky's Fifth was a gritty performance. Like Menard's Quixote, this was as if the music had been written by a modernist maverick and the notes had just happened to coincide with those of Tchaikovsky's Fifth. Another awesome performance.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Lewis talk

The local C.S. Lewis society sent out notification of a talk being given at a church in Sausalito. I went; I'm not sure why, unless it was because of the guest speaker, the editor of the NY CSL Society bulletin, which just published an article of mine. It was pretty much as neat to meet him as I'd hoped. His talk, though well presented, and informative to much of the audience, had nothing new in it for me. Large parts of it consisted of the quoting of choice nuggets from Mere Christianity, completely nonsensical ones mixed in with the good ones.

I kept my mouth shut during that and some other foolish political remarks, but in a side conversation with someone whose excuse for the Hobbit movies was that Hollywood won't fund anything but action-adventure, trotted out my newest response quip, "That must be why Alexander Payne is starving in a garret, then," but it went right over the guy's head.

Lunch at what turned out to be a vastly-overrated seafood restaurant, and dinner at the same deli I went to the last two times I was in Marin. I find it difficult to land good places to eat there.

Friday, September 12, 2014

attack of the many tomatoes

It turns out that the dangerous part of visiting B's sister's house nowadays is the impossibility of leaving without being weighed down with a bag of gift tomatoes. There are tomato plants there now, which produce more than can be consumed locally.

Sister's husband likes to munch on them raw, but I don't like them that way, and B is allergic to the raw. There was nothing for me to do but to learn how to make marinara sauce. I downloaded about 5 divergent recipes, choosing the parts I liked best - 20-minute cooking time, not 90 minute; 7 cloves of garlic, not 2 - but basically it was simple. Saute onions and garlic in olive oil, add the tomatoes and a little wine and whatever herbs you like, and it's done.

What was interesting to me was learning how to peel the tomatoes. First you cut out the stems with a knife - some recipes say to do this afterwards, but they're wrong - and make a little notch in the base with the same implement. Then you give the tomatoes a quick sauna: 30 seconds in boiling water, scoop them out and dump them for a minute in ice water, and the skins slip right off. I wonder if this would work for humans.

I found an odd-appearing implement in the miscellaneous kitchen-tools drawer - it resembled a realization of something from a wiring diagram - that looked as if it might do for crushing the peeled tomatoes, at which it worked splendidly. I learned from B later that it was in fact a potato masher, something I've never had any use for.

There was a bit more sauce than I needed for my regular baked ravioli dish, so two days later I turned the remainder into ketchup (add a little vinegar and maltodextrin, heat and let reduce slightly) and used it as glaze on my newfound turkey meatloaf recipe.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

the worst classical concert blurbs ever written

They were issued by the old San Jose Symphony in the brochure for the 1986-87 season.

I dug these out of an old apazine, where I'd first reprinted some of them, because it's fall and a mumbledy-aged reviewer's fancy turns to thoughts of concerts coming up.

The San Jose Symphony at this time was thinking big. Two decades earlier it had been an amateur community orchestra, but it grew dramatically. In 1986, thriving under a major conductor, George Cleve, it became a full-time professional orchestra, and issued its most elaborate ticket brochure, filled with photographs and little colored boxes and a choice of multiple concert series numbered A to G, just like the San Francisco Symphony did.

Unfortunately the SJS's reach far exceeded its grasp. Ticket sales were never high enough to justify such munificence, the principal venue was an acoustically dreadful barn, and management was incompetent. In following years they backed down from this big-time style, but it wasn't enough. Finances, and musical interpretation after Cleve departed, slowly sank, and 15 years later the orchestra closed up shop, to be replaced by Symphony Silicon Valley, a more cautiously-run organization.

Part of SJS's problem was that their aspiration towards big-time included no sense of style of how to do it, and in the 1986-87 brochure this was glaringly evident in a section of blurbs about each of the 42 works in the season's repertoire, something SFS didn't initiate until much later, and theirs, which cover the whole concert instead of attacking each individual work, have never been this geeky. The combination of awkward earnestness with the style of a gauche boor butting into someone else's conversation (the use of unprompted "Indeed ..." and "Yes ...") and a certain looseness with facts and interpretations has to be read to be believed.

Here's the ones I copied:
MOZART: SYMPHONY NO. 29: "Amadeus" was indeed marvelous theatre, and its protagonist-genius composed divinely inspired symphonies like this one.
ELGAR: "ENIGMA" VARIATIONS: This is indeed a puzzle wrapped in a mystery, presumably about fourteen of the composer's friends. Whether or not we solve that mystery, this piece is endlessly charming.
TCHAIKOVSKY: SERENADE FOR STRINGS: What composer can make his strings sing such lovely arias? A treasure of unpretentious delight for fortunate listeners.
BRAHMS: SYMPHONY NO. 4: Yes, autumnal melancholy is present in this work described by its modest creator as "a trifle," for it was the last symphony he was to compose. Yet it is epic in its power and irresistible in its musical sweep!
IVES: SYMPHONY NO. 2: Here's one of ours - a native composer come into his own - via this exuberant "bustin' out all over" flamboyance - as unmistakably, and irresistibly American as a country fair!
JANACEK-TALICH: CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN: This suite derives from a brilliantly original opera, replete with its Moravian folk inflections, in which animals and humans are jollily juxtaposed!
COWELL: SYMPHONY NO. 4: The music of this Charles Ives disciple is as American as deep-dish apple pie.
I particularly admire the last, a meaningless statement not a word of which is true except for "music" and "American". On the other hand, they did play it, the only time I've ever heard a Cowell symphony in concert. I was delighted to hear it, but when it was over there was as close to complete silence in the audience, except from me, as was compatible with politeness. So they never did anything like that again, either.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


In keeping with the age-old "If this is good, it's not science fiction" meme, here's a reviewer who thinks that if novels of a dystopian future aren't Hunger Games clones, then they "aren't exactly fantasy," even if they're by a past winner of the World Fantasy Award.

Monday, September 8, 2014

old Scots tote

Surely somebody has calculated this already, but if they have, I haven't seen it.

Scotland is holding a major referendum on Sept. 18, to determine if the government should secure independence from the UK, a union officially sealed as long ago as 1707. The political impetus for this has been the chafing of Scotland, which mostly votes Labour in national elections, at the doings of Conservative governments. How an independent Scotland would vote may best be guessed at by examining the results for the Holyrood parliament over the last 15 years, but what would happen to the rump UK? Without Scottish Labour MPs, would it be doomed to eternal Tory domination? Let's find out.
actual results   notional results
year   Con  Lab  oth     Con  Lab  oth     real winner         notional winner
1945   213  393   34     184  356   29     Labour              Labour
1950   298  315   12     266  278   10     Labour              Labour
1951   321  295    9     286  260    8     Conservative        Conservative
1955   344  277    9     308  243    8     Conservative        Conservative
1959   365  258    7     334  220    5     Conservative        Conservative
1964   304  317    9     280  274    5     Labour              Conservative
1966   253  363   14     233  317    9     Labour              Labour
1970   330  287   13     307  243    9     Conservative        Conservative
1974a  297  301   37     276  261   27     Labour (min.)       Conservative (min.)
1974b  277  319   39     261  278   25     Labour              Labour (min.)
1979   339  269   27     317  225   22     Conservative        Conservative
1983   397  209   44     376  168   34     Conservative        Conservative
1987   376  229   45     366  118   24     Conservative        Conservative
1992   336  271   44     325  222   32     Conservative        Conservative
1997   165  418   76     165  362   60     Labour              Labour
2001   166  412   81     165  357   65     Labour              Labour
2005   198  355   93     197  315   75     Labour              Labour
2010   305  258   86     304  217   69     Conservative (min.) Conservative

So there's the answer, all other things being equal. A Labour blowout would be preserved, but a narrow victory like 1964 or 1974 would be lost, and in the current term, Cameron's Tories would have won outright: no need for a coalition deal with the Liberal Decmorats. Scotland's secession would give the Conservatives a leg up in the rump UK, but not a total command.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Alex Ross answers his own question

He pens a column asking why bother to collect CDs any more?
Why bother with space-devouring, planet-harming plastic objects when so much music can be had at the touch of a trackpad—on Spotify, Pandora, Beats Music, and other streaming services that rain sonic data from the virtual entity known as the Cloud? What is the point of having amassed, say, the complete symphonies of the Estonian composer Eduard Tubin (1905-82) when all eleven of them pop up on Spotify ...?
And then he goes on to say,
... albeit in random order? (When I searched for “Tubin” on the service, I was offered two movements of his Fourth Symphony, with the others appearing far down a list.)
And there you are. He elaborates:
Spotify is notorious for its chaotic presentation of track data. One recording of the Beethoven Ninth is identified chiefly by the name of the soprano, Luba Orgonášová; I had to click again and scrutinize a stamp-size reproduction of the album cover to determine the name of the conductor, John Eliot Gardiner.
I haven't even tried Spotify, but the same thing is true of services I have tried online. They don't understand classical music. Not realizing that works may have more than one movement, or how to label them if you do, are common. Only YouTube, whose classical services are run by the dedicated and knowledgeable pirates who upload ripped recordings, is at all reliable in its packaging or labeling.

And that's enough, surely. Not even necessary to get into the sound quality or the economics.