Wednesday, August 31, 2016

BISQC, day 3

On Monday, we heard four of the competing string quartets. On Tuesday, the other six. Today, we heard all ten of them. That wasn't as burdensome as it sounds, for they were each playing just one work, not two, and that work was their choice of something from the generally agreeable Romantic repertoire. Tonight's concert was the first in the competition for which a lot of day-trippers showed up; I suspect that will increase as the weekend arrives.

BISQC defines the Romantic repertoire as running basically from Mendelssohn through Ravel and Sibelius. Three of the groups chose to play Ravel's sole quartet, so each of the day's three concerts began with that. (Deja vu; see: deja vu.) The best of the three was, I thought, the Rolston Quartet's. They seemed to make the most expressive use of the potentialities of the score. It was exciting, and a little aggressive. The Castalian Quartet played the brightest and lightest version of the three. Their version of Ravel's fantastic scherzo wasn't airy, but it was energetic. That left the Tesla Quartet, which offered a smoothly lyrical, relatively heavy interpretation, and also the one that sounded the most like Ravel, albeit not that much. That would be a continuing theme of the day: composers who didn't sound much like themselves.

Another three played works from Brahms' Op. 51. Quartet Arpa's Second was the only one that sounded much like Brahms. It had bite but was relatively emotional and rhapsodic. A very good performance. Quartet Berlin-Tokyo also played the Second, in a bright, steely sound quite unlike this composer's usual. I would describe this relatively low-energy performance as more ruminative than rhapsodic. The Ulysses Quartet gave the First, in a dramatic, incisive, colorful, occasionally even Brahmsian rendition. Their Allegretto intermezzo in particular had real charm.

Certainly best of the remaining four was the Verona Quartet in Mendelssohn's Op. 44/2. This work is in E minor, and it got a dark, dramatic, tense and exciting reading totally subverting the Mendelssohn stereotype. I also liked the Omer Quartet's performance of the Debussy Op. 10. This was bouncy, and dry, dry, dry, as a dry wine is dry, and even rough with a hint of sandpaper. It didn't sound remotely like Debussy, but in this case that's a good thing. The less Debussy sounds like Debussy, the more I like him.

The Argus Quartet in Sibelius' Op. 56 found a hint of the true Sibelius flavor in his light Vivace scherzo. They also amazed with a ferocious "gypsy music" style finale, a rendition that would probably have been a surprise to the composer. Unfortunately, other parts of the performance felt a little impassive. The best part of the Aeolus Quartet's Dvorak Op. 105 was its "bear dance" scherzo, heavy but lively. There were some other dramatic parts, but otherwise it tended to sprawl. Earlier I had been talking with someone about what happens if you fall asleep during the concert. "It's best if you nod off during Dvorak," I'd advised. "He doesn't have anything worth saying that he isn't still saying when you wake up five minutes later."

Many of what I thought were the best of today's performances were by groups I ranked relatively poorly in the previous round. It's good not to be a judge.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

BISQC, day 2

It's been a slog, I am tired out and, no matter how fine the performances, I have had enough Bartok for one year, indeed three years, but we've gotten through the other six competing quartets for the first round of performance: one Haydn and one Bartok/Janacek apiece.

The Castalian Quartet, which is the only competing group to perform with the cellist seated at the end, is the one whose pre-competition videos I'd liked best, for vividness and immediacy. They were like that live as well. From the moment they started playing, it was as if someone had turned the treble and volume dials way up. They played a relatively serious Haydn Op. 76/1, but excelled at urgency of phrasing, at individual character, and at expressing varying harmonic moods. Where the Tesla's Bartok Six had been lyric, this was dramatic, but never overblown. Quiet, eerie sounds, energy and urgency when appropriate, outstanding clarity and definition in the contrapuntal passages, and an unerring sense of balance over principal and subsidiary voices, made for another great performance, though totally different from Tesla's.

The Quartet Berlin-Tokyo (sounds like the name of an Axis plot, but it's not) had a similar strong, bright sound, though perhaps a little tinnier. Their Haydn Op. 33/4 was fast, bright, and perky. It was a perfect embodiment of Haydn's sense of fun, especially in the surprises hidden in the finale. Bartok Five is anything but a perky quartet, but these folks did their damndest to make it so. It was bright and clear all the way through, those sometimes a little alarmingly vicious. Most impressive were the little patches of beauty they found here and there, like the chorale in the Adagio, which for once sounded like a chorale, and the little barrel-organ passage in the finale, which for once sounded like that, too.

The Quartet Arpa played an elegant, courtly, and dancelike Haydn Op. 33/2, mostly distinctive for the richness of its tutti sound. Their Bartok Five was light and fleeting in the fast movements, lyric and even lush in the Adagio without the glowing hush of Berlin-Tokyo, and carefully nuanced throughout. They too managed to give character to the barrel-organ passage.

The Ulysses Quartet is so named because the members live near Grant's Tomb. Perhaps they don't know Grant's reported comment on music: "I know only two tunes. One is 'Yankee Doodle,' and the other isn't." The most distinctive things about their Haydn Op. 76/5 were the beautiful blended sound and the unexpected speed of the finale. Their Bartok Four got the only thumbs-down from me this evening to that composer. Sounding as much like bees buzzing in a jar as it's possible for Bartok to sound, it had unvarying sonorities throughout, and such clogged voicing that I couldn't follow the score, the only time that happened. This is the kind of performance that gave Bartok a bad name, and which I'd hoped not to hear here.

The Omer Quartet also played Op. 76/5, doing so in as openly emotional a manner as Haydn will allow. Tense, stormy, tragic, and frantic by turns, it sounded at times more like Mozart. Janacek's First is a cross between Romantic and modernist, setting the two styles up to clash in the third movement, which consists of lyrical passages constantly interrupted by horrible screeching sounds. We got that here.

The Rolston Quartet played Haydn's very late Op. 77/1 with an energetic snap of exchange among parts, even though this group's style is even more first-violin heavy than the Tesla. The finale lost a little luster, however, and became routine. Janacek's Second came out like the First with a big emphasis on the abrupt contrasts of sounds, particularly in dissonant trills alternating with tender, lush passages. This group came close to the Argus Bartok Four in the weird sound qualities eked out.

Fortunately I'm not a juror, so I don't have to vote, but overall on this round I'd give particular honors to:
Haydn: Berlin-Tokyo, Verona (though almost everybody was good in this)
Bartok: Argus, Castalian, Tesla (Arpa and Berlin-Tokyo were also very good)

Monday, August 29, 2016

BISQC, day 1

I'm at the 12th triennial Banff International String Quartet Competition, at the Banff Centre for the Arts, a collection of random buildings scattered in the woods below the imposing mountains of western Alberta. I saw a family of elk grazing outside the buildings on the way in yesterday. For the audience, about 250 of us, it's a lot like a Mythcon, except that the sessions are all plenary and consist mostly of music. We're staying in a building best described as 1960s college dorm, we're taking group-seating buffet meals in the cafeteria next door (the food is fabulous, as I'd guessed when I read an interview with one competing group that had been here before; when asked why they wanted to return, they said "For the food"). And while we're kept hermetically sealed off from the contestants and the jury, who are working and have no time or energy to socialize, thrust on our own resources we're having a great time, conversing intelligently over meals or during intermission. Most of the attendees are older, but both physically and mentally spry. They're also mostly Canadians, many from Toronto. When I tell them I'm from San Francisco (well, roughly), they exclaim what a long way off that is. I don't have the heart to tell them it's actually closer than Toronto.

The contestants are ten young-professional string quartets, all (it's hoped) ready for the big time, which doing well at BISQC should launch, as it often has in the past. There's four rounds for all ten, plus a fifth for the three finalists, over the course of a week. Today was part one of the first and longest round. Each quartet plays two works, one by Haydn (whose large output is the foundation of the string quartet repertoire) and one 20th-century. Within each, each quartet has free choice, but though there's a large set repertoire for the latter, everybody this year has chosen one of the same five Bartok or Janacek quartets. So today, split into two concerts (afternoon and evening), we had four groups doing one Haydn and one Bartok apiece. Yikes. But it was interesting, and distinctive, and each group's style was reflected in both works.

My top honors of the day go to the Argus Quartet, the only group to dress informally. Their Haydn (Op. 76/5) was gentle, soft, even cozy, a bit cautious in approach but lively, especially in the finale, and with a charming lilt to the melodic line. Their light touch served them well in the two scherzi of the Bartok Fourth. Airy, fleeting, feathery, with weird sonorities, and the softest possible pianissimo. Big slashing tuttis in the outer movements also expressed weird Bartokian sounds well and arrestingly, but an even balance among the players made the more contrapuntal passages sound a bit chaotic.

The Tesla Quartet, who are all very tall, did Haydn's dramatic minor-mode Op. 33/1 in a cool, crisp, "first violin and accompaniment" style with careful attention to the melodic line. This same attention really brought out the faded, decrepit late Romantic beauty of the Bartok Sixth. It was stunningly and unexpectedly gorgeous, and I noticed they paid careful attention to relative dynamics, too. (What, you think I'm going to listen to all this Bartok without scores in hand?) Unlike the Argus, they dialed the special Bartokian effects way down, except in the Burletta movement, which dove into glissandi and grinding harmonic dissonance with satirical relish.

The Verona Quartet's Haydn (Op. 50/1) was another dark-toned work, at least in this performance, until it broke out into high spirits in the Vivace finale. Little swells and accents made the work throb with half-hidden emotion. This was the day's best Haydn, but I had trouble digesting their Bartok Fifth, which was way over on the Expressionist end of the spectrum. This was a hard and stony modernism, but it was utterly clear and there was never any doubt as to what they were saying or what it meant, so I have to count this as a good performance of a highly indigestible work.

Also very good, but fourth of today's groups in my estimation, was the Aeolus Quartet. Their Haydn (Op. 64/6) was firmer, more grounded, and overall more old-fashioned in style than the others. The sound was well-blended from divergent elements. The effect was genial, but not witty. They also did the Bartok Sixth, but it wasn't anywhere near as affecting as the Tesla's. It was serious and heavy, especially in the slow finale, with some interesting silvery sounds, but quite grim throughout.

Also today, a lecture from the resident mathematician (yes, they have one) on how he superintends the scoring system for the judges, and a master class for two quartets of teenage Canadians, playing Mendelssohn and Beethoven, conducted by cellist Joel Krosnick, recently retired from the Juilliard Quartet.

Tomorrow, six more Haydn and Bartok (or Janacek) pairs. Into the breach!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

vive Edmonton

Forty-two. SF fans know that as the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. It's also the number of years since I was last in Alberta. But today I have returned, and ventured as far north as Edmonton, which I had never visited at all. It had attracted me as the provincial capital, and indeed I got to see the Legislative Assembly building, what in the US would be the state capitol, an impressive edifice with an excellent and enthusiastic guide. I also found, outside of town, a historic oil well that has been turned into an oil drilling museum, full of miscellaneous technical bricabrack, and with an old drilling rig outside that you can actually climb up on, which was neat.

But Edmonton is more than that. It is a city lost in and forgotten by time. In the Strathcona district, once a separate city and now where all the interesting shops and restaurants are, there are within five blocks no fewer than three large and thriving used book stores. Once no more than you'd expect in any large city, today it is a glorious atavism. And in one of those stores I found a stash of old SF paperbacks of the kind also forgotten by time. So now I have ... well, tell you later.

For an occupation in the evening, I'd picked up a ticket for a small local theatrical company's production held over from the previous week's Edmonton Fringe Festival. It was a local playwright's perennially locally popular one-act musical (jazz trio accompaniment) about two men, frustrated songwriters in 1930s New York, who meet the women of their dreams and have a big production number over a Chinese takeout dinner. It was amusing enough, and well acted, but the highlight was inadvertent. One of the actors had fractured her foot in overenthusiastic performance last week, and came on tonight on crutches, doing her big dance number while seated in a chair, which really had to be seen to be believed. One of the more distinctive theatrical highlights of my experience.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

This happened at two separate AT&T stores. (I went to the second one because the clerk at the first one was alone in the store and too busy to deal with my follow-ups.)

Me: I want to know about using my GoPhone [AT&T's cheap prepaid service] in other countries.
Clerk: It doesn't work in other countries.
Me: Really? I've used it in Canada before.
Clark: Oh, it works in Canada.
Me: Perhaps you don't know this, but Canada is another country.

I wasn't laying a gotcha, either: I was conflating two questions. 1) confirm it would work in Canada (when I used it before, I was close to the US border; this time I won't be); and 2) could I use it overseas? Turned out you can, you just have to change the payment plan.

Other option, I suppose, is to buy a disposable phone when I get there, but I don't know anything about those, and Googling "disposable phone" got me a raft of what were intended as helpful articles that were of no help whatever. Either they were answering different questions from the ones I was asking, or else they assumed things I guess I didn't know.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

daily bippie

I needed a new button battery for my travel alarm, so I meandered over to the pharmacy near the corner, and while I was there I got some travel packs of antacids. As I handed over my selections, I thought of saying to the clerk, "Yes, you need a lot of antacids when you eat a battery," but decided not to take the risk that it wouldn't be read as a joke.

Instead, I complimented the store on having something I'd not seen before but badly needed: a sort of pegboard with holes into which you slip your old battery to see what model it is, because the numbers engraved on the battery itself are no help. It determines not just the diameter but the thickness, which hadn't occurred to me and without which I would probably have bought the wrong one.

Once home I received another survey phone call, which went like this:
Them: May I speak to the homeowners, please?
Me: They're not here. They'll never be here.
Them: I don't understand.
Me: Have you ever heard of ... rentals?

This blooming incomprehension of an elementary datum reminds me of the time, three decades or more agone now, that I was in the midst of an early area-code split. We kept getting calls at our new office number from people who couldn't understand why, if they'd dialed the correct (seven-digit) number, the party to whom they were speaking was not the store in another town they'd intended to call. I usually let them stew over this cryptic mystery for a bit before saying "Have you ever heard of ... area codes?"

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

movie tally

Despite quite recently declaring proudly my complete ignorance of the popular culture of the 21st century, I was intrigued by this list of the top films of that century so far. (There's supposed to be 100, but it lists 25.) Well, perhaps many of them are not so popular.

I've seen 12 of these 25, almost exactly half, and I'm pleased to say that I enjoyed 9 of them. (Of the other 3, one I found so boring I turned it off, one I just dislike the lead actor, and one I thought a piece of pretentious crap. But none of those were what I suspect are the two most controversial films on the list, Mulholland Drive and Lost in Translation, both of which impressed me quite a bit. No, the piece of pretentious crap was There Will Be Blood.

But though I liked the nine movies, and think they're good movies, only one or two would I consider as among my own favorite films, and what I consider the best new movie I've seen in this time period, Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, isn't on the 25. I hope it's somewhere else down the full list.

I do not exist

Yesterday I tried contacting the software vendor whose product we use at my library. Usually I phone them, but this time, weird things happened when I called either of their numbers and I did not get through. Details aren't important, but I found on their website they also have an online chat function. I tried that and it worked, and after we finished the business I'd wanted to consult about, I raised the issue of the problems with the phones.

I can't get over their response, even though it's the one I usually get in such circumstances. They said - and I have it right here on the chat transcript - "We have not been having any problems receiving phone calls." So I put right back, "Yes, you have been having problems receiving phone calls. You've had problems receiving mine. You just didn't know that, because you didn't receive them."

Then they said, "This is the only comment we've received such as yours."

That assumes nobody else just gave up. There's something uniquely belittling about being told you're the only one with this problem as if that somehow mitigates it. So I said, "I feel like I'm being told I do not exist. But I do exist, and this happened."

Then they said they'd check into it, but I didn't want to wait around while that happened. So I thanked them, said we'll see what happens next time, and logged off.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Hugo report

Just got through watching the better part of the Hugo ceremony on the streaming channel. The winners, please.

This was an amazing year for me as a voter, but I guess that's because I was there to follow the crowd. No fewer than ten of my first-place votes won, in another three the second place, and only in one category that I voted in did it go to someone below that, and I'm not at all unhappy with the winner.

What it mostly means is victory over the Rabid Puppies, which is what I paid my supporting membership fee to do, and special note to Hugo winners Neil Gaiman and N.K. Jemisin, whose speeches (both read in absentia) specifically went out of their way both to criticize the R.P.s and to observe that they don't represent fandom or the community.

I will not be the first person to point out that all four of the fiction winners are women, and that three of them are non-white. Take that, those who oppose diversity but claim that we're the ones who oppose it.

A job well done.

Friday, August 19, 2016

theatrical review: Julius Caesar

Drove out this evening several miles up the twisty mountain roads to a small, dirt-floored and bug-bestrewn outdoor amphitheater in a state park for a local Shakespeare company's production of Julius Caesar.

In a vaguely contemporary setting with crowd and battle sound effects in the background, it was a solid small-scale production. Cassius and a number of smaller parts (Lucius, Decius, Tintinius, Messala, others) were played by women. I don't mind that at all, and the actress playing Cassius was vividly cast (middle-aged, stocky, stern, and appropriately dressed in a military uniform from the start), but the pronouns were changed for individual references, which made rhythmic hash of Caesar's famous speech. Confusingly, though, groups including cross-cast women were still referred to as "men".

This play really rides on Cassius and Brutus and the relationship between them. The players in these roles were adequate, and that's praise from me. They showed individual character, they spoke their lines with expression, they had reactive interactivity. But they lacked the overwhelming compelling quality that makes great Shakespeare great. The best acting came in some smaller parts: Casca, whose big descriptive speech was both vivid and comic, and Portia, whose pleas to Brutus made for the play's most moving scene.

Brutus was harried and distracted, which probably explains his bad decision-making. Mark Antony was small and peppy, which probably explains his gift for speech-making. Octavian was big and flaccid and looked on the verge of forgetting his lines, which probably explains why he went on to become Emperor. And Caesar looked and dressed like a Mexican drug lord, which probably explains why he got assassinated.

Retro Hugo report

There's a Worldcon going on, I hear, and the Retro Hugos were awarded last night. I'd joined to vote against the Rabid Puppies, but though they weren't relevant to the Retros, I cast a ballot on that too. Here's my comments, and, if you're keeping score, here are the finalists.

Novel: I only read Slan once, decades ago, and found it readable but ultimately trivial. Still, I don't doubt it would have won at the time, with only Doc Smith as real competition. I dared to vote first for T.H. White.

Novella: Heinlein's "If This Goes On ..." Yeah, I went along with that.

Novelette: I'm hardly surprised that Heinlein won again, and this is the story that represents him in The SF Hall of Fame, but I voted first for "Farewell to the Master", because it's a unique classic.

Short Story: A retrospective award if there ever was one, because nobody would have paid attention to this piece of fluff at the time, and Asimov wasn't a major author until "Nightfall" the following year. Still, I enjoyed this story, and don't mind it winning, although again I went out of field and dared to vote first for Borges.

Graphic Story: A little out of my field. The Spirit and Batman are the only ones I know, and I voted for them in that order.

Dramatic Presentation-Long: Fantasia stands out above all others. No contest.

Dramatic Presentation-Short: Why Pinocchio is short while Fantasia is long I'm not quite sure - while Pinocchio is nominally below the cut-off point, it's well within the grey zone, and they're both features - it still dominates. Disney was the master at the time, and the transformation scene scared me footless as a kid. "A Wild Hare" introduced the great Warner catchphrases ("Be vewy quiet, I'm hunting wabbits" and "What's up, Doc?") but the cartoon unit was just starting out and it doesn't cohere yet.

Professional Editor: If Disney was the master, so was Campbell. No contest.

Professional Artist: When I think visually of the SF of this period, it's Rogers covers that come to mind, so I voted first for him. But I can't argue with Finlay either.

Fanzine and Fan Writer: Bradbury is by far the most famous now, so of course he won, but in actually he was still a crude beginner. Ackerman was the towering fan then, not the out of touch figure he was in his last years, so I voted first for him.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

appalling to the young

I'm avoiding unnecessary rows with the commenters on my reviews, so I'll save for here my response to a comment on Igor Lipinski's piano magic show as described in my latest.

The commenter wrote, "Classical music needs more of this kind of showmanship if it wants to attract an American audience under 60." Bah. You know, I'm American and I'm still under 60, so I expect to be listened to when I say that I don't want that kind of showmanship except as an occasional lark, which is how I took this. Even then, it derives its amusement value largely from the contrast of knowing what the same music sounds like when taken seriously. I would much prefer a regular diet of the other pianists at the concert, even though much of their repertoire was not my favorite.

(And I also disagree with the following commenter who writes that Lipinski's set, though different from all the others, still worked in a sequence of four with different styles. But my point had been that the difference in the other three's styles was minuscule compared to Lipinski's from all of them.)

The first commenter surely doesn't intend this, but he's indicting every American under 60 as an ignorant buffoon incapable of appreciating serious music. (And that would apply, by the way, just as much to things like art rock without fancy stage shows as it would to classical, or jazz, or ...) I don't think they're that stupid, and I further think that dumbing it down is not the way to win an audience for something that's inherently not dumb in the first place.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

the greatest symphonies?

BBC Music's September issue features "The 20 Greatest Symphonies of all time." What they did was get 151 conductors, many but not all well-known, to offer their choices of the 3 greatest symphonies each. So the result isn't really the 20 greatest symphonies of all time, but the 20 top candidates for the 3 greatest symphonies of all time. Can you see how there might be a difference?

The favored 20 included five by Beethoven (and you can guess which five), the Fantastique, all four Brahms, two Bruckner (Nos. 7-8), three Mahler (2, 3, 9), two Mozart (the Great G Minor and the Jupiter), Shostakovich 5, Sibelius 7, and the Pathetique. Except for the Mahlers, of course, those all get thumbs up from me, though I find Sibelius 7 difficult, while I have no trouble with his famously difficult No. 4.

The votes were included, but not the tabulation, so I compiled that myself, and found that the top 20 each received from 6 to 32 votes. There were 97 works nominated altogether, a few of them not labeled as symphonies (Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde), and 40 of them got only one vote each. The most popular composer who didn't have anything make the top 20 was Elgar, interestingly enough.

Most of the conductors chose pretty conventionally, and as the top two choices were Beethoven's 3rd and 9th, I have to conclude that the concept of "greatest" symphony melds in some minds with that of "most monumental" symphony. (That would also explain the large wad of Mahler.)

Only a few conductors chose two works by the same composer. I give special points to Alexander Lazarev, whose choices were the 3 symphonies by Rachmaninoff. (A few others also picked No. 2.) The only list of 3 that nobody else picked any of was not that eccentric: Erik Nielsen had Haydn 104, Schumann 3 (everybody else who picked a Schumann had No. 2; I'd have gone with No. 4 if any), and Schubert 9 (the only one for this masterwork? The problem with limiting to 3 is that someone like Schubert gets drowned out by Beethoven and Mozart). The most eccentric list had to be those of Kristjan Järvi, who picked Gelgotas 1, Stravinsky Symphony in 3 Movements, and Sumera 2. One other person also picked the Stravinsky, but I've never even heard of Gelgotas (who must be Gediminas Gelgotas, a young Lithuanian whose Wikipedia entry doesn't list any symphonies). Closely followed by Kirill Karabits, a fan of obscure Soviets, who picked Liatoshinsky 3, Prokofiev 5 (OK, not obscure), and Terterian 3. Honorable mention to the famously unpronounceable Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who picked Bruckner 6 (as did 3 others: also my favorite Bruckner), Haydn 6 (I like it too, but greatest?), and Weinberg 1 (not a work I know by this prolific and uneven composer whom I respect more than like).

What would I have picked? My first reaction would have been that I would find it impossible to pick the 3 greatest symphonies. Maybe the 50 greatest, but not the 3. On second thought I would have gone for a conventional list spread across periods: Beethoven 7 (less monumental than 3 or 9, but oh so supremely flexible), Dvorak 9 (which I believe is the closest existing work to the Platonic ideal of a symphony), and Shostakovich 10 (for which "deep" is the best adjective). For a more eccentric choice, I might go for 3 20th-century Symphonies No. 6 by big name composers but that nobody else picked: Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Vaughan Williams, all really tough, gnarly works that I like a lot.

I wrote a few years ago about my choices for The Three Greatest 20th-Century Symphonies by Composers You've Never Heard Of: Atterberg 6, Dopper 7, and Santos 4. And, for a booby prize, here's my list of The Three Worst Symphonies by Composers Capable of Writing a Better One (And Thus Excluding Mahler): Tchaikovsky Manfred (the absolute worst symphony by a good composer of all time), Khachaturian 3 (utterly terrible Soviet kitsch), and - let's find something a bit older - Mendelssohn 5 (which is actually No. 2 in date of composition, but gets to be No. 5 because the composer had the sense not to publish it, and it only came out after his death).

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

concert review: New Piano Collective

I hope that the reason I wasn't sent to review any concerts from the Cabrillo Festival this year, even though I live fairly near it, was not the hot water I get in with some readers for my insufficient respect for the avant garde, but the simple fact that I was out of town for its first weekend. The reviewers who did cover it live considerably further away than I do. And we weren't covering anything from the second weekend.

Instead, on that weekend I was sent up to San Francisco, which is nearer to where those other reviewers live, to cover a group piano recital. Piano recitals are not normally my specialty, nor is most of the music played at this one, but fortunately my reviewing ears were sufficient to distinguish each pianist's quiddity of style.

The word I had trouble with was one to describe the music of the composer Federico Mompou. I'd been listening to it, so I had an impression but hadn't yet thought of words. Then before the work the pianist quoted another pianist as calling it "music of evaporation." Pretty good, I thought, but to quote it myself I would have had to credit both of them, and I was already pushing my word limit. The phrase I came up with was "took impressionism to the last degree of vaporescence." My copy-editor said that was a great if obscure word, but that it was also the brand name for a pot-ingesting device, and did I want that connotation? I let him suggest "evanescence", which when I looked it up proved to be closer to my meaning than I'd thought it meant, and so I get to look erudite.

I had been virtuous in attending this concert. It was a Spare the Air day, and I took the train. The venue was near the other end of the line for the bus that serves the train station, so that was easy enough. I was even early enough to have time to stop off at the main city library, which is also on the bus lines, to look up a copy-editing query for Tolkien Studies in a book they happen to have there.

Interestingly, as before the lecture I attended last week I'd eaten at Wise Sons, one of SF's two good NY-style delis, because it was right near the venue, this venue was right near Miller's, the other good NY-style deli, so I had another cup of matzo ball soup and pastrami sandwich, which is what I always have at delis.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Mythcon report, part 4: the place

San Antonio, remember that? Beastly hot and all? B. and I had been in central Texas (Austin) last November for her nephew's wedding, at which time B. felt that she'd had quite enough of Texas-style food, thank you; so that made two reasons to keep this trip short. However, we did come in on Thursday for the Friday-starting convention, to get orientated and as insurance in case of flight delays, something that didn't strike us but did hit a number of our friends.

It did give us Friday morning open, so instead of the Alamo, which I've been to before, we went to the zoo. It was closer, and of more interest to us. Everyone in San Antonio, at least everyone I talked with about it, is proud of their zoo, and well they should be. It's large and impressive, and what it's best at is birds. I like walk-through aviaries, and it's got several, none particularly large, but large enough to get immersed into. There's one just for Australian birds, one just for lorikeets (very up close and personal, those), and more. Just landbirds, though. We also hit the right time for the lion cubs. There's three of them, and they just turned a year old a couple weeks earlier, which means they're nearly full-grown in size but still bounce around like kittens, which they did entertainingly with a few cuffs from Mom while Dad presided regally in the background.

After zooing, we had lunch at a nearby coffee shop, the mother locale of a local chain called Jim's. The history on the menu explained that Jim had started out renting bicycles for use in the park the zoo is in, then he began selling watermelon slices to his hot summer customers, then he added hamburgers, and soon enough he had a coffee shop. The food was very good and the service outstanding.

Upon picking up our car around the back of the airport the previous evening, I'd figured it was simpler to drive across the city's country-club district to our hotel than go around on the freeway. This also took us past a promising Italian restaurant called Milano's, where we had a genteel and, by design, not very conventionally Texan dinner. This time the food was better than the service, but both were OK.

Room at the convention came with breakfasts in the restaurant, quite adequate - they had blueberry sausage, though I don't know if anybody tried it - and group dinners in the ballroom. Two of these were functional but unmemorable plates with chicken, including the banquet which did not lend itself to anything memorable in food sculpture. I was happier, though those allergic to chile were not, with Saturday's Mexican buffet dinner.

The committee also persuaded the hotel to do something for lunch, which originally they hadn't intended to, and provided box lunches for those who wished to sit around chatting to have something to eat. I skipped out on those. I wanted to go out by myself and taste the best in what was to be had in local food, and I found it: one day outside of town to Rudy's, reputed to be the best bbq closer than Lockhart, and I'll go along with that (great spicy rub on the ribs), and the other day halfway around the beltway to the Acadiana Cafe, where I found - oh joy - the same distinctly creamy boudin sausage I'd had in deepest Iberia Parish when I was out there last year. To eat this stuff, you slit open the casing, which is basically inedible, and squeeze out the filling. Heavenly. Previous visits to Houston and Longview had taught me that there's good Louisiana food in eastern Texas, and now I know that's true as far west as San Antonio.

Friday, August 12, 2016


Leftover from before my trip, because it went up on the web while I was gone, is my review of the Redwood Symphony Mahler 8. This, Joshua Kosman, is how you review a good performance of a work you strongly dislike.

(I subsequently learned that the choir mikes were not set properly during the first part, though they were fixed at intermission. That may have contributed to the acoustic problems, but I'm convinced there was more to the acoustic difficulties than that.)

Wednesday, after returning, I went up to the City - another obscure venue in the Mission district - for a talk, because I'd gotten an invitation for it. John Dickerson, whom I gather is something or other on television, but I know him for his writings on Slate (which issued the invitation, because I subscribe), would be telling stories from his new book Whistlestop: My Favorite Stories from Presidential Campaign History, and a copy of the book was included in the price. I thought I'd like the book, and the talk sounded entertaining, so I went.

It was indeed entertaining. Dickerson gave his stories with witty relish, making even obscure scandals of the 19th century come alive, and he began with a tale with local flavor: the 1964 Republican convention. As he described the venue, the Cow Palace, as "an aging concrete Quonset-like structure outside San Francisco," those of us who've been there nodded sagely. Then he told the story of Nelson Rockefeller getting booed there, and didn't neglect to draw the parallels with Ted Cruz getting the same treatment from the same party this year.

After an hour of talk and half an hour of answering questions, there was an opportunity to stand in a long line to get the book signed, but I skipped out on that and trudged back to the BART station, dipping into the thoroughly non-chronological book on the ride home.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Mythcon report, part 3: the music

The original and best-known Tolkien song setting is the cycle The Road Goes Ever On, music by Donald Swann. This has been performed occasionally at Mythcons, and this year, tenor Garry Leonberger came to perform it. Leonberger is an enthusiast for Swann's generally neglected serious music, and is writing a doctoral thesis on it, which he summarized in a pre-concert talk.

Leonberger has a strong, clear voice of medium range. His singing emphasized a strong rhythmic accentuation, with a careful attention to diction, especially in the Elvish lyrics, proper pronunciation of which he has studied extensively, likening its vowels to Italian's. (Tolkien linguist Carl Hostetter said from the audience afterwards that Leonberger's Elvish pronunciation was better than Tolkien's own.) There was no breaking of the rhythm or other characterization portrayals except for the spoken-word part of "Errantry". Leonberger told me afterwards that he envisages the songs as being all sung by Bilbo, which is why he didn't try to differentiate his hobbit voice from his elf voice.

The vocals came reasonably through the unpromising acoustics of a carpeted hotel ballroom. No arch to the low ceiling, no reverberation, high absorption. It came out pretty well, even though near the end he began to lose his voice, becoming clouded and rough and losing some of his low notes. Linda James valiantly accompanied on both piano and flute. Swann's style, though pleasantly diatonic, is highly abstract and rather arty. I've heard this cycle sung with more winning informality, but Leonberger gave the music, and its lyrics, great attention and concentration. I hope he comes back next year, as hoped for, in better voice with Swann's other arrangements of the songs, including choral ones, and perhaps professional accompanists and some other Tolkien settings.

After closing ceremonies the next day, our tenor, feeling somewhat better, and Hannah Thomas gave an impromptu performance of the drinking song from La traviata to the general delight.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Mythcon report, part 2

These are just some of the papers that I got to. There were many more.

Joe Christopher gave a typically long and careful report on text analysis of the late fragment "The Dark Tower" to see if Lewis actually wrote it. Shows that it proves nothing. Apparently cusum analysis, the method in question, despite scientific language surrounding it, is a highly subjective process. What gets me is that apparently nobody has ever attempted to calibrate this technique by measuring it on two highly disparate works by the same author: say LWW and The Allegory of Love, or The Book of Lost Tales and Mr. Bliss. Surely, no matter how distinctive or individual an author, there'll be some measurable difference between these, no matter what you're measuring.

Chip Crane, in the course of discussing the evolution of Tolkien's prose style and distinguishing that from changes in the plot of the Silmarillion, noted that when the Book of Lost Tales Beren and Tinuviel disguise themselves to enter Tevildo's feline lair, they're cosplaying.

Nicole duPlessis addressed the Entwives and the depiction of marriage in Tolkien. As usual in his work, when there's conflict between good peoples, both are right.

Rob Tally brought along a passel of his undergraduate students to give as talks their class assignments: write the biography of a Lord of the Rings character of your choice. Fortunately there was a minimum of "Faramir was born in Third Age 2983" and a maximum of careful reading of each character's own words and action, taken directly from the text and not filtered through previous critics. We had Faramir, Denethor, and a real tour de force from a creative writing major in the form of a biography of Sauron as written by an admiring orc.

John Rosegrant gives that rare and valuable thing, psychiatric analysis that illuminates, instead of obscures, its topic. Here he discussed how the abortive stories The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers exorcised Tolkien's anxiety-induced Atlantis dream, enabling him to embark and later continue on The Lord of the Rings. Also noted how Tolkien gave Fëanor the artistic-creative hubris that he himself was careful to abjure. This paper particularly interested me because my own also addressed The Lost Road. Note to self to send the author a reference to John Garth's article on Tolkien's emotional complexities relating to a different hitch in the composition of The Lord of the Rings.

David Emerson gave the only paper I attended that wasn't on Tolkien or Lewis. His topic was Neil Gaiman's reinvention of mythology, and was I relieved when he said he'd limit his discussion of this broad topic to Sandman and American Gods, as I've read both of those. David discussed the "pan-pantheon": Gaiman's treatment of religion and mythology as if every system is equally real. He was particularly good at pointing out the connections that are obvious once you see them, such as that every collection of three women in Sandman is some kind of echo of the Triple Goddess. Like: Unity, Miranda, and Rose; Thessaly, Hazel, and Foxglove. Yes.

Janet Brennan Croft briefly considered each and every introduction, preface, or foreword that Tolkien ever wrote.

Elise McKenna did a nice job finding the Greek elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water in the Valar Yavanna, Manwë, Aulë, and Ulmo respectively. Surely the quintessence, then, should be Varda? Elise seemed to think that too obvious. Thoughtful paper despite some interesting pronunciations: Valar as if it were "Vaylar", scholar Verlyn Flieger as if she were "Flayger", and Tolkien's wife as if her first name were "Eddith".

Andrew Lazo descended upon us with a blaze of rhetoric in an attempt to argue that it really matters whether C.S. Lewis's theistic conversion were in 1929, as he wrote in his memoirs, or 1930, as other evidence suggests it really was.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Mythcon report, part 1

B. and I had a saintly day yesterday. We flew from San Antonio home to San Jose via San Diego. We'd been in San Antonio for the weekend, of course, for Mythcon, the annual Mythopoeic Society conference which settled up there this year.

San Antonio was beastly hot. 3 digits F. were normal. Fortunately we didn't have to head out much. Mythcon was self-contained inside a typically perishingly air-conditioned big cubic tower of a hotel on the edge of a commercial strip out in the country-club suburbs of the city. Small breakout programming rooms were up on the top, 20th, floor, as was the con suite (evening socializing). Meals and plenary programming were in the large function room wing down on the lobby level. Every time a group of us headed down in the elevator from the 20th and pressed that button we were, as I didn't refrain from pointing out, embarking on the Descent Into L.

Scholar Guest of Honor was Andrew Lazo, whose vocation as a high-school teacher is perhaps responsible for his intense and even eccentric lecturing style: anything to keep those kids engaged. For his keynote speech, he talked of the Inklings - Lewis and Tolkien in particular - as creatures of the modernist period, engaged in redirecting the modernist impulse in a different direction, straightening out a wrong direction that dated to the traumas of WW1. Canonical modernists used myth too (Eliot and Joyce most obviously), but the Inklings had a different use in mind. Lazo described Lewis as flipping myths around. When Eustace becomes a dragon, he's the inverse of Narcissus. Lewis also runs myth through as a theme. Lazo referred to scholar Michael Ward's theory that the Narnian books are each controlled by one of the Greek planets; then he quoted the Fox, the Greek tutor in Till We Have Faces, calling the local goddess Ungit their version of Aphrodite. Ungit is Aphrodite, Aphrodite is Venus, Venus is Perelandra. It all ties together. Lazo also became here one of the small band of heroic scholars correctly analyzing the much-misread "Problem of Susan". In quoting Lewis saying that perhaps Susan will eventually get back to Narnia in her own way, he concluded with, "Susan needs to come to Mythcon."

Author GoH was Midori Snyder, who spellbindingly told the Sudanese myth of the Monkey Girl and explained how it helped give her strength and direction in her own life. A very brief version of this appears on her website, but it lacks both the detail and the intense fascination of her oral storytelling. Later I was with a small group who heard her tell another African folk tale, the story of two men who cuckold each other, amusing as well as captivating.

There was also a plenary speech by another Lewis scholar, Robert Boenig, who'd won our scholarship award for his book on Lewis and the Middle Ages last year. He spoke on the character of the materialist magician in Lewis's fiction (Uncle Andrew in The Magician's Nephew, the scientists of the N.I.C.E.) and its application to the primary world.

All three of them were on the closing panel on Monday, at which Boenig described himself as a strange figure on the Texas A&M campus, teaching classes on Tolkien and walking around with a wizard's robe and staff, to which Lazo added, "... and declaring to his students, 'You shall not pass!'" Each was asked to recommend a favorite story. Boenig the medievalist offered the Lais of Marie de France. (Pronouncing that last word correctly, he was asked how to spell it.) Lazo described how his imagination had been baptized by Alexander's Prydain and Le Guin's Earthsea, and for a more recent book, offered Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad. Snyder named the folk tale "The Armless Maiden," of which she's also written on her blog.

Mythopoeic Awards went to: Adult fiction, Uprooted by Naomi Novik; Children's fiction, Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon; Inklings scholarship, Charles Williams: The Third Inkling by Grevel Lindop; Myth and Fantasy scholarship, The Evolution of Modern Fantasy by Jamie Williamson. I was on the scholarship committee and those were both my top choices.

Next year's Mythcon will be July 28-31 in Champaign, Illinois, and that's all the information I have about that.

There were many fine papers and ... a concert. More on all that later.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Mythcon pre-port

Just finished typing down the last of my Mythcon paper, or at least a version I can present. Considering that up until last Thursday, not a word of it had existed outside of my head, and now it's 8200 words (a good length for an hour paper, I think), and that I also prepared for, attended, and reviewed a concert during the same period, that's very good production for me. The title is "C.S. Lewis, Númenórean," and those who can figure out from that what it's about may be interested in hearing it.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Menlo, part last

Since last Tuesday I've been back to Menlo three times - it would have been five, had time and car repair permitted - but today's was the last for me, though the festival lasts for the remainder of the week.

Two Prelude concerts, one featuring the Franck Piano Quintet - an old favorite that can be played very well or very badly; this was pretty good - and the other with the Borodin String Quartet No. 2, an unabashed piece of wet Romanticism that I'm pleased someone had the nerve to program.

Today's item was a talk by Stuart Isacoff on Scriabin. Not particularly deep or scintillating, its most interesting points were the semi-technical discussions of Scriabin building harmonies based on the tritone (a term Isacoff conspicuously avoided) to allow either note of that interval to be a pivot point from which he could reach any harmonic base. Illustrations at the piano of how that influenced modern jazz. I don't care for modern jazz, and I'm not that fond of Scriabin either, but it was interesting to learn about.