Saturday, May 30, 2015

do you hear the people sing?

We heard them. B. and I went to see a concert performance of Les Misérables with the Masterworks Chorale in San Mateo this evening. Stirring, but then it's always a good show. Chorale members did the minor parts (it showed), and the ringers brought in for the big roles were mostly veterans of Pocket Opera and/or the Lamplighters, and they were fine. No Gavroche, fortunately for small mercies. It was satisfying. There's still another performance Sunday afternoon.

That's not all I did today. I went to hear the New Millennium Chamber Orchestra in a Spanish program - the usual crowd, de Falla and Turina and Rodrigo and all - mostly because I hadn't heard them since their premiere concert 3 years ago and I wanted to find out whether they're worth reviewing. They've certainly improved since last time.

And I began the day's outings at the Polish Festival in Belmont. Made a change from the Greek festival in San Jose that I more often attend. But this is their first year doing it and they haven't yet figured out about parking monitors or spacing out the food booths. There wasn't much there and the lines got very long. I gave up on trying for some pierogi, and instead had a kielbasa (large, but bland) and a plate of something called bigos, a cabbage stew with meat in it: tastier than I'd feared. There was music and dancing too, and I could have listened to something called the Kuzyni Polish Street Folk Band for rather longer than they played.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

It's Charles Dutoit again. This is at least the sixth time I've heard him conduct in the last five years.

He led an intriguing program: Jeu de cartes, a chunk of neoclassical Stravinsky that had only previously been heard here when the composer himself conducted it 75 years ago; Elgar's Cello Concerto; and the Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures.

The performances were good, mostly (the tuba was not quite up to the solo in Ravel's "Bydlo", but Nicole Cash, the ever-reliable hornist, and bassoonist Stephen Paulson, who's rapidly turning into the new star of the woodwinds, were A-OK), but they weren't tremendously exciting. The Elgar in particular was rather limp, and soloist Gautier Capuçon was quieter than the orchestra.

Scott Foglesong gave the pre-concert talk, and actually discussed all three pieces, a rarity for him: sometimes he doesn't even discuss any of the pieces. He was obsessed with the Elgar being in Aeolian, without explaining what that was for those who didn't know (to be fair, the difference between Aeolian and minor is picky), and his discussion of Pictures consisted mostly of playing the same bit in various different orchestrations, most of which sounded pretty much alike.

Going back a bit, last Friday I wandered over to Bing for the Stanford Wind Ensemble, because they were playing Holst's Suite No. 2, a favorite, and Grainger's Lincolnshire Posy. They also played Hindemith's Symphony for Band, and a band arrangement of Glière's Horn Concerto, twice the length of the typical horn concerto. (Anyone who knows his Ilya Murometz will not be the least surprised.) Typically of Stanford, the soloist, while of professional caliber, wasn't even a music student. He's a postdoc in cancer biology.

The seating being open, I ran another little experiment in the hall's acoustics. I sat for the first half way down in the front corner, and for the second in the top row. Sure enough, the sound really is better in the second place: more balanced and blended, and not at all distant.

Sunday, May 24, 2015


"Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot" was a department that ran in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for many years, written by Reginald Bretnor under the anagrammic pseudonym of Grendel Briarton.

Feghoots were exceedingly short short-stories which would conclude with the titular character uttering an awful pun which the entire story, such as it was, existed for the sole purpose of setting up.

Recently reading Jason Fisher's history of the "hobbit"/"habit" pun, I saw that there was a Feghoot using it, and that furthermore it included Tolkien as a character. That made it eligible for my list of the Inklings in fiction, so into the list it went, both its original appearance and its reprint in The Collected Feghoot (1992), which I have.

It then occurred to me that I could find my favorite Feghoots by making a quick list of the words or phrases being punned on. By doing so, I discovered that 13 of the 122 Feghoots are not puns, but spoonerisms, and that an additional 3 are the word-level equivalent of spoonerisms: that is, they depend on exchanging words in the way that spoonerisms exchange phonemes. The most convoluted of these, which also incorporates puns, is set in ca. 1960 geopolitics and sets up "Fidel roamed while Nehru burned" and you can sort of guess the story from that.

Of course, the humor depends on the reader knowing the phrase "Nero fiddled while Rome burned," and if you don't, you'll just go huh? There's a lot of the originals that would be worth doing generational tests on, as I feel old-fashioned just being able to remember them myself, this among them. But I may not be that old, or Bretnor ran out of steam, for there were 2 Feghoots, both near the end of the run, that I didn't get at all, and another 6 that were close enough to not making sense that I might be missing something.

What distressed me more than that, however, was the discovery that the Feghoots I remember most fondly aren't in the collection at all. Uh-oh. Were they in the previous collection, which I used to have, and edited out for this one? (The ordering and numbering do not appear to be consistent.) Fortunately that turned out not to be the case. The ones I remember aren't Feghoots at all. They're from Randall Garrett's parodies of Feghoots, "Through Time and Space with Benedict Breadfruit," and I have to say, they're better than the originals. The most painful is set on a planet with a royal fiat against picking squash, and concludes:
"But why can't I pick a pumpkin, father?" asked the child.
"It would be a violation of the Gourd Edict, son."
And you have to remember an SF writer named Gordon R. "Gordy" Dickson to get that one, but even if he'd never done anything else, it'd be worth remembering him just for that.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Tolkien Studies 12: an announcement

On behalf of my co-editors, Michael D.C. Drout and Verlyn Flieger, and myself, I wish to announce Volume 12 of the journal Tolkien Studies. All the contents are now in the hands of our publisher, West Virginia University Press, and the volume is scheduled to be published both in physical copy and online on Project MUSE in August or September.

Several important new features or highlights about this issue:
  • Starting this year, physical copies of Tolkien Studies will be in sturdy softcover rather than hardcover in boards. We regret the necessity for this change; not just cost but the difficulties attendant on the greater physical weight of the hardcover and the logistical challenges of producing it have led to this decision. In particular, the Press anticipates that overseas customers will have less trouble receiving their copies under a softcover regime. Customer price will be set by the Press later.
  • This change has also provided the impetus and opportunity for a cover re-design. The new design will be striking and we hope you like it, and it's not entirely dissimilar from the old design.
  • This year, we've acquired an entire phalanx of sturdy Dwarven scholars to compile "The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies," and we expect to continue this practice in the future.
  • See under "Notes and Documents" for the ultra-rare Tolkien reprint I alluded to last year, and which this year is actually ready to appear.
And now, the contents. - David Bratman, co-editor
Tolkien Studies 12 (2015)
  • Kelley M. Wickham-Crowley, "'Mind to Mind': Tolkien's Faërian Drama and the Middle English Sir Orfeo"
  • Kris Swank, "The Irish Otherworld Voyage of Roverandom"
  • Simon Cook, "The Peace of Frodo: On the Origin of an English Mythology"
  • Carrol Fry, "'Two Musics about the Throne of Ilúvatar': Gnostic and Manichaean Dualism in The Silmarillion"
  • Alban Gautier, "From Dejection in Winter to Victory in Spring: Aragorn and Alfred, Parallel Episodes?"
  • Sherrylyn Branchaw, "Boromir: Breaker of the Fellowship?"
Notes and Documents
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, "Henry Bradley, 3 Dec. 1845-23 May 1923," an obituary for his supervisor at the Oxford English Dictionary, with commentary by Tom Shippey and Peter Gilliver
Book Reviews
  • Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary together with Sellic Spell, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, reviewed by Michael D.C. Drout
  • The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond, reviewed by Richard C. West
  • A Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Stuart D. Lee, reviewed by Jorge Luis Bueno-Alonso
  • Tolkien: The Forest and the City, edited by Helen Conrad-O'Briain and Gerard Hynes, reviewed by Patrick Curry
  • Tolkien, by Raymond Edwards, reviewed by David Bratman
  • "The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies 2012," by Merlin DeTardo, Jason Fisher, David Bratman, Marjorie Burns, John Wm. Houghton, John Magoun
  • "Bibliography (in English) for 2013," compiled by Rebecca Epstein and David Bratman

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

The idea behind Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra is that a concerto is normally a virtuoso display piece for a soloist. What the Boston Symphony commissioned in 1943 was a piece that would display all the members of the orchestra, thus the title.

Well, no matter how good Koussevitzky's Bostonians may have been, they couldn't possibly be a match for MTT's San Franciscans when they are on, and they were really on tonight. This was a performance of unsurpassable precision, verve, and power. Particular high points were the character and the chuckle that the bassoons brought to their duet in "Game of Pairs", and the revelation throughout of really interesting and complex string work that's not normally heard.

Mozart's Sinfonia concertante, also exquisitely played, was also something of a concerto for orchestra, as the soloists were principal concertmaster Alexander Barantschik and first violist Jonathan Vinocour.

There was also a short piece by Sam Adams commissioned by a youth orchestra - putting the SFS on that is a bit like asking a chess grandmaster to play tiddlywinks - that seemed carefully crafted to prevent the casual listener from telling whether the performance was any good or not.

Weird disagreement between the pre-concert lecturer and the program notes about the Bartók, not that the lecturer cited the dispute. Bartók's "Interrupted Intermezzo" is interrupted by a brief outbreak of the march theme from Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony (the one representing the invading Germans), which Bartók greets with a musical raspberry. The story that Bartók's son told is that his father put this in because he was so irritated at hearing the Leningrad over and over on the radio during its brief heyday.

The lecturer said that new research in the former Soviet archives has proven that the march theme is actually a melody from Lehár's The Merry Widow. What did they need new research to discover that for? The resemblance between the themes has been noted from the beginning, but they're not actually the same. Anyway, the lecturer said that there's a new theory that of course Bartók recognized the Merry Widow reference, and instead of thumbing his raspberry at Shostakovich, he is laughing with Shostakovich at the Germans by quoting the Merry Widow part of the theme.

Maybe. But the program notes say that no, Bartók didn't know it was from The Merry Widow until someone pointed it out to him.

And it's still not the same theme flat out, just one that borrows its opening note sequence and changes its character. Here's Lehár. Here's Shostakovich. And here's Bartók.

Monday, May 18, 2015

concert review: Music@Menlo

Got a last minute call from my editor: want to cover the clarinet concert at Menlo? My clarinetist friend was out of town, so lacking time for anything else I went by myself, finding that in fact the press tickets had to be organized at the door, and this after the overhead sign at the ticket table clocked me in the head.

I was a little nervous that, of 7 pieces on the program, I was only sure that I'd ever heard two before, but I figured that not many others would have heard many either. They all turned out witty and lively - my eventual seatmate had never heard of Paul Schoenfield before, but I had, and on being asked what to expect I said "If you think that Bartók piece sizzled, this one will burn your skin off."

This was important for a reason beyond what I got into in the review. Menlo poses as a kind of temple of chamber music, and an air of solemn worship of Greatness tends to suffuse the place. Fortunately the performances are usually very good, because when they aren't there's nothing left but a stuffy smell. That's why it's so interesting, as well as a little out of character, that Menlo should have chosen these pieces and not, say, one of the Brahms clarinet sonatas, which would have been more typical of them and which would have totally altered this concert's character, not to mention dampen its irrepressibility.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

concert review: Modesto Symphony

And what concert program attracted me to Modesto, a two-hour drive away? Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony, a glorious choral-orchestral work that you don't get to hear very often. This was, I think, my fourth live performance of it, and I've been seeking them out.

I was clued in as to what this slightly esoteric selection was doing occupying a whole program in Modesto (they didn't play anything else) when conductor David Lockington walked on stage and, on opening his mouth to deliver some pre-concert blither, proved to be British.

It was a workmanlike performance. The orchestra was certainly adequate at the very least, as were soprano Amanda Hall and baritone Philip Cutlip (that's a terrible name for a singer). The large chorus, the orchestra's own supplemented by chorales from the local state university, was so oriented towards a welling of sound and away from diction that I couldn't make out where we were in the libretto even with the words open right in front of me.

Perhaps because of that quality in the chorus, Lockington, like Andre Previn in his recording of the work, tried to put the focus on the orchestra. The problem was that, unlike the chorus, the orchestra was slightly undersized, so that didn't really work.

As long as I was there, I decided to attend the afternoon concert of the senior and junior youth orchestras too. Good string intonation for lower-tier youth groups, but they need work on the sound quality, which seemed to be coming out of a fish tank. The senior orchestra lacks a trumpet player this year, which made it a puzzling mistake to program Copland's "Hoe-Down", a piece depending on one. The adult ringer who played the part was absolutely terrible, miles worse than any of the high-school students surrounding him.

Both concerts were held in the larger of the two theaters at a sumptuous new CPA downtown, named (of course) the Gallo Center for the Arts (well, this is Modesto). Out on the street I found a historical placard commemorating the American Graffiti cruising route. There are also street signs reading "No Cruising," sic transit. Between concerts I went out to the west side, the shadier side of town, to have some really good bbq ribs for dinner, another reason it was worth the while to go to Modesto. There is good bbq in Northern California, you just have to travel way out into the periphery to find it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

opera, a touch of it

Lisa Irontongue wants everyone to buy a ticket to the SF Opera production of Berlioz' Les Troyens. A 5 1/2 hour opera based on one of the most boring books I've ever read? Not for me, thanks.

But, while it's true that "opera" is not much more enticing a word to me than is "5 1/2 hours" or "boring", there are some things operatic I'll attend. I've already proven my devotion to the greatest of all opera composers, Sir Arthur Sullivan, having been to productions of two of his lesser-known operas this year alone; and tonight I was more than pleased to attend, at Stanford, a piano recital of a few arias and duets from a new legal opera, Scalia/Ginsburg, by composer and lawyer Derrick Wang.

I'm glad I took the trouble to go. It was so clever and witty and erudite, both musically and (in its libretto) legally. The law is based on precedent, right? Well, Wang composed based on operatic precedent, with quotations and pastiche all over. To tell their backgrounds, Ginsburg sings a Mozartean aria for her favorite composer; Scalia's, for his Italian ancestry, is based on Puccini. (Voice from the background: "Puccini's too good for him!") Wang said he was initially inspired by Scalia dissents which read to him like Baroque rage arias: full of strong emotion exposed on the surface, and firmly rooted in the 18th century. So he gets one of those too.

Monday, May 11, 2015

concert review: Symphony Silicon Valley

A choral concert from SSV afforded me finally an opportunity to hear Rachmaninoff's The Bells, a work I'd long been curious about but had never listened to. It was quite impressive, with all that dark Russian drama. And I reviewed it.

I was sorry that the new also-inspired-by-bells choral work that was going to be premiered at the concert got cancelled. The announcements made about this were rather unclear as to the reason for the cancellation; I got my information from private sources. A mischievous imp suggested that I should review it anyway. I know this composer's music: I could work up a plausible fake description. I could even say that it sounded less "potato-drenched" than the Rachmaninoff. (Would anybody get that reference?) I ignored the imp, of course.

Really important news that didn't seem appropriate for the review is that the private parking lot across from the California Theatre has abandoned its policy of charging a flat $10 for parking on event nights. Now they charge $5/hour, which means that if you arrive in time for the pre-concert lecture at 7, by the time you get out at 10 you'll have been there for just over 3 hours and get charged $20. You also pay on the way out instead of in, so you'd better hustle or else wait in a long line.

On the good side, my editors have finally decided to spell Rachmaninoff's name the way he wanted it.

On the other, the concept that the music is set to the words rather than the other way around was added by the editors in the process of recasting a sentence. Please don't hurt them.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

out librarying

Spent Friday visiting libraries, in some cases re-visits, to solve nits on the Tolkien bibliography. This required much driving around. I left UC Santa Cruz for UC Berkeley - 80 miles, one mountain range, and two congested urban areas, at 2:30, which turned out to be way too late. Had to circle around to avoid the congestion in Santa Cruz where several roads squeeze into one to become the freeway. At 4 pm I was stuck in heavy traffic still 30 miles from my destination.

This is where I started dodging logistical bullets. I thought, "I could take BART," the urban rail system. I could get to the station in ten minutes, the infamously-full parking lots would be starting to open up by now, and it'd get me to Berkeley in an hour.

Well, no. BART was suffering a systemic meltdown that day. After ten minutes of the electronic boards continually announcing that a Richmond train (the one I wanted) was due in 4 minutes, a train pulled in. It was going to Daly City (which the boards said wasn't due for 20 minutes). This was the wrong direction, but I got on anyway. Only long-standing knowledge of local geography enabled me to pull this off: I got off at West Oakland, switched back to a Pittsburg train on the opposite track (also the wrong direction), since that was what was arriving in profusion, got off at Rockridge, and took the bus to Berkeley. The bus worked fine.

I got to the library at 6 pm. I couldn't help feeling that, despite traffic, driving would have been faster. However, either way, I'd arrived after the privileges desk, which issues stack passes to the unaffiliated*, had closed for the day. The circulation desk had no authority to let me in. However, the staffers were willing to go fetch the one book I desperately needed, and let me use it at the desk. Bless you, kindly staffers.

Fortunately, also, I've learned to take a flash drive with me on university library visits. Photocopiers are on the way out. Scanners are in, darkly.

There wasn't enough time to get over to the City for the concert that evening, even if I had skipped dinner, so no review of the SF Conservatory's production of Albert Herring from me. So I stopped off at Top Dog for a linguiça (their best product) on the way back to BART. By this time the arrival announcements were just contradicting each other, like the parking announcers in Airport, but the trains were running normally.

*Yes, I could join the alumni association and get stack privileges that way. But that's the only thing the alumni association offers that I'd want, and I've never had trouble getting access from the privileges desk.

Friday, May 8, 2015

damp squib

The results of the British general election are something of a disappointment for outside observers who like to watch the British living through interesting times. Instead of another tightly hung parliament, the Conservatives actually took a majority, which means no need for the Liberal Democrats, or anyone else, to immolate themselves further on the altar of coalition. (Five years harnessed with the Conservatives has now lost the Lib Dems 85% of their seats; another five years like that and they'd be left with only one seat, probably Orkney and Shetland.)

So, no delicate negotiations, no malignant (from the Tory pov) Scots looming over everything, just another straightforward John Major-style government. And that comparison is probably apt, because the Conservative majority is only 5 seats, possibly 6 if they take the last one still undeclared at the moment (St. Ives, previously a Lib Dem seat: probably waiting for the Scilly Isles boat to get in). But Major had a majority of 11 seats in 1992 and still lost his majority entirely, through by-elections and other attrition, over the course of that parliament. Now that the Conservatives have no-one to blame but themselves, will this be high tide for them, with erosion to follow again?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

political earthquake in Canada

Oil country gets more types of earthquakes than the literal kind caused by fracking. Recent news makes anything that could happen in the UK election today into a relative snore. In Canada - a country prone to political earthquakes, where the rules of party balance that have held sway for decades may be suddenly swept away - they've had what may be their biggest political earthquake ever, and on the provincial level. The NDP just took Alberta.

I cannot emphasize enough what a big deal and what a surprise this is. Imagine if Bernie Sanders had been elected Governor of Texas; that's about the closest equivalent. Not only does it overturn all the rules of Albertan political culture, but it also means that, for the first time in living memory, the tar sands will be under the control of politicians who believe that stewardship of the planet means something other than sucking all the oil out of it.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

concert review: Benvenue House Music

It's called "chamber music" for a reason, folks, so I went to hear some in a chamber. The chamber was the living room of one of those attractive and cozy old houses in Berkeley, this one a few blocks south of the UC campus. About 30 people, and one white cat, gathered around, most on folding chairs, pretty much filling up the adjacent front parlor and foyer facing the musicians in the main room. Those not near the front couldn't see very well, but nothing impeded the listening.

The music was three trios for clarinet, cello, and piano, spanning approximately the course of the 19th century: Beethoven's early Trio in B-flat, Op. 11, of 1797; Glinka's Trio pathétique in D minor, of 1832; and Brahms' late Trio in A minor, Op. 114, of 1891. What made this survey particularly interesting was the use of instruments of the kind played at the time each work was written. Tanya Tomkins played the same - gut-stringed, naturally - cello throughout; that instrument didn't change much during that period. But the other two musicians both actually collect period and period-reproduction instruments, and showed off their wares.

Small as the house was, it actually had room for four pianos - flush up against the walls - as well as the audience, and we heard three of them. Eric Zivian played first a reproduction of a 1795 fortepiano for Beethoven, then one of an early modern piano for Glinka. Then we all turned our chairs around to face the parlor, where he took up a modern Steinway for Brahms. Each successive instrument was more powerful, hardly needed in this tiny space, and to keep the Steinway tamed the lid was just slightly open, propped on a medium-sized book.

Eric Hoeprich, we were informed, owns more than a hundred antique clarinets - well, they take up less space than pianos. His three were all antique wooden clarinets. Unlike the piano's, the clarinet's sound didn't change much over the century, but increasing sophistication of the mechanisms allowed players to perform more complex and chromatic music, which the composers took advantage of.

They also took advantage of the piano's increasing range. Zivian pointed out that both Glinka and Brahms delighted in the far end notes unavailable to earlier composers. The thunderous lowest note on a modern grand is an A, the tonic note of Brahms' trio, and don't think he didn't use it to deepen a few chords down to the bedrock.

The sound of the pianos underlined the difference in style of the pieces and the performances. The 1795 fortepiano gave a lively and crisp sound to the Beethoven. Tomkins used a little portamento, expressive sliding of notes, in the Adagio. The richer bell-like sound of the second piano emphasized the Romantic soul the players brought to Glinka. And, with Zivian's Steinway as anchor, to the Brahms the musicians brought additional measures of both grace and passion. Hoeprich plays a cool, restrained clarinet, appropriate for this civilized chamber music. All three works were given charm and beauty in these performances, as well as their own individual character.

This concert was the last of the season for Benvenue House Music, which has been running these house events for several years now. The same folks are starting up a new festival this July, the Valley of the Moon Music Festival, with three weekends of concerts at the concert hall of the Hanna Boys Center in Agua Caliente, near Sonoma, and additional winter-season concerts at the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University. As with the Benvenue concerts, the principle here is to play 18th and 19th century chamber music on the original instruments of each composer's day (or reproductions thereof), in an intimate chamber setting. Sounds good, and worth taking a trip to Sonoma for - not to mention those of you who live near there anyway.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

buried in bibliography

So now I'm buried in compiling the last bit of work for the Tolkien journal, the annual bibliography of work in the field, this time covering 2013. We have a former grad student who does the first pass through the databases and thus accomplishes much of the grunt work, and then I go through and add more detail. Lots more detail. 2013 was actually a light year in the field (2014 was much heavier), but I spent all of yesterday - apart from one nap, and cooking and eating dinner, from 4 am to about 10 pm - doing online searches for the bibliography, and I'm still not quite finished with what I can do at home. Next step is to look up stuff I need to check up on in online catalogs of libraries, and then go to the libraries, where also they have numerous additional databases I can't check at home. I'm supposed to be done by the end of the week, but I'm not sure that will happen.

The challenge is trying to miss as little as possible - easier if you know the tricks of the trade, such as important publications in the field that tend not to get indexed online - but of equal concern to me is the artificial boundaries set on inclusion. One of these is advertised in our title: we only cover English-language material. But with books published recently collecting translations of papers by Tolkien scholars from countries like Italy and Poland, it's obvious that we're missing a lot. Other artificial limitations are not so specified, and I'm surprised we haven't been called on them. Maybe just nobody is paying attention to what we list. But ever since the advent of the web, the traditional concept of a comprehensive bibliography has ceased being viable, and we may soon get to the point where subjective judgment of the value of the intellectual content may be the only way to put on the limits necessary to create a useful list.

I try not to worry about this too much. I'm just trying to get a lot of work done here.

Monday, May 4, 2015

and more

After seeing Gilbert and Sullivan's The Grand Duke, I've taken to finding bits of it on YouTube, not an urge I had after previous encounters with it. Here's the overture, professionally played. (The first theme is the chamberlains' march that I mentioned earlier.) True, I now have the advantage of having heard the whole opera well-performed, but isn't this charming and tuneful? Sullivan doesn't sound tired out or phoning it in to me.

Having taken my visiting LA friend to Moe's Books in Berkeley, a return visit he'd long craved, I came out forsooth with a few books myself, one of which is a detailed account of Abraham Lincoln's Cooper Union speech, with which he essentially launched his presidential campaign in 1860. (It's a great speech, full of fisking of Stephen A. Douglas and snarky rebukes of Southern misapprehensions of Lincoln's political positions, proving these phenomena wasn't invented by the Internet.) Being as detailed as it is, one thing the book lists is competing cultural events also going on in New York the day that Lincoln spoke. Some of them were musical, so I reported this to B. You could go hear Jenny Lind give a recital, or you could attend a performance of a then-popular opera called Martha (it's by an otherwise-forgotten composer named Flotow), starring a 16-year-old soprano sensation ... and B. burst out with the name before I could ask her to guess it. Before you click on the link, can you?

Sunday, May 3, 2015

musical theatre review: The Lamplighters

The Grand Duke, or, The Statutory Duel, is the last and least of the 13 extant Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. It's the least performed, anyway. I've actually seen it three times, from different troupes. Of the previous productions, one was pretty enjoyable, the other was not. Now I've seen it from the Lamplighters, and it was as good as anything this venerable and often first-rate band has ever done. This was the last performance, so I'm sorry I can't send you to see it. I went over to Lesher in Walnut Creek for this one, so that I could meet up with friends from LA who'd come up for it. It was worth their trouble. We were transported with delight.

A ponderous comedy about a theatrical troupe trying to take over the government of a small German principality, The Grand Duke features a man whose attempts at scheming lead him to find that he's acquired contractual obligations to marry four different women at once. That everyone gets satisfactorily and conventionally paired off at the end suggests that there are a lot of characters to keep track of.

One key to making The Grand Duke work is to cut it. The better of the earlier productions was cut pretty severely. This one was cut moderately: several additional verses to songs, a couple whole numbers, and lots of dialogue went out. It still lasted 160 minutes with intermission.

The other key is simply strong and energetic performances. Everybody here threw themselves into it with enthusiasm, the three principals particularly so. Light baritone Chris Uzelac turned the thoroughly unlikeable Grand Duke Rudolph into a comic masterpiece, fretting and fussing all over, and, when he dives into the court fountain to retrieve his hat, contorting his legs around absurdly as Rudolph desperately tries to attract help from another character obliviously soliloquizing. The powerful low soprano Jennifer Ashworth regally strutted as the theatrical prima donna Julia, giving a parody of operatic mugging as she demonstrates how she'd play a jealous Grand Duchess. Robby Stafford as Ludwig, the company's leading man who becomes interim Grand Duke, was less dim and fatuous than I've seen the part played, but made up for that with vivid stage presence and an enormously strong voice.

Staging was completely fluid, and I particularly liked the formal entrance march of the chamberlains, who used passages of strong beats in the music to stop marching and hop in place instead.

Everybody else was good too, and another key was the instrumentalists down in the pit. The 20-person orchestra was so together that it sounded bigger, and conductor Monroe Kanouse had real mastery of the music. It's not top-drawer work of Sullivan's any more than it is of Gilbert's, but in these hands all the songs were at least pleasant, none felt tiresome or superfluous, and some were even slightly catchy. In general it was as good as any other lesser Sullivan works I've heard, which means better than any other operettas I know.

During the run, the Lamplighters recorded it, and when it's released it'll be for sale here. You'll miss the acting and staging and pacing, and the delighted audience reaction, but the songs will be as well-performed as they possibly could be.