Wednesday, February 21, 2018

reading Le Guin

One peculiar, and not really justifiable, effect on me of Ursula K. Le Guin's death is that it took this freezing of her life work (except for what may come out posthumously, of course) to nudge me into looking over her list of books to see what I was missing.

Among the few was her last poetry collection, Late in the Day (PM Press, 2016). This just arrived. It begins with the text of a prose talk offering poetry as a way for people to learn to live wakefully with the environment around them: not just animals, but plants and inanimate things. This is not a new thought for Le Guin: her essay collection Cheek by Jowl (2009) concerns awareness of animals, and her earlier collection Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences (1987) includes stories and poems not just about animals but about plants and rocks. (Remember "The Direction of the Road," a story old even then [1974], that remarkable tree's perspective on the world?)

Reading the new poems, I am most struck by the close contemplation of physical objects, especially the one on two kitchen spoons, one new and one old. Feeling these poems seep into me, I find myself dropping into something possibly resembling free verse - I don't know if this works; I've never written in this form before - about a physical object that came into my awareness while I was sitting on the living room couch reading the book.


Someone will be hungry tonight.

For their breakfast has come out
by the way it went in
onto the carpet.

Warm and dun-colored
it nestles as I scoop it
into the paper towels.

Monday, February 19, 2018

concert review: Danish String Quartet

The four blond men with the three blond beards who made a hit at Menlo a few years ago, and whom I subsequently reviewed in Berkeley, are back, with what the presenter proudly advertised as their first San Francisco performance - their previous local concerts were outside the city limits, so you can technically get away with this claim.

They played the Bartok First in a late-late-Romantic style, making it sound garrulous, and the First Razumovsky* in a proto-proto-modernist style, making it sound choppy. Though I admit the Adagio molto hit a level of profundity that would do credit to Op. 132.

The program was filled out with the quartet's own arrangements of a series of Danish, Norwegian, and Faroese folk songs. The arrangements were delicate and tentative, with light vibrato-less melodies over one or two lines of counterpoint or soft chords. Listening to these made me feel as if I were relaxed at the Freight instead of tense at Herbst.

Through all of this, seated behind me were a pair of young boys who, from the noises they were making, were thunderously bored. Why were they there at all? This was not a beginners' program.

*If the Bartok First is the first quartet by Bartok, is the First Razumovsky the first quartet by Razumovsky? No, it's the first of three by Beethoven that were commissioned by and dedicated to Count Razumovsky, and they're just called that for convenience's sake. Classical snobs expect each other to know things like this. The Paganini Rhapsody isn't by Paganini either.

English suites and others no. 25

The final stop on our Celtic tour of the British isles is The Isle of Man. Man is a small island, famous more for its tailless cats than its music. The Bee Gees were born there, but they didn't stay long, and they're of no use to me anyway. The only classical composer I could find from Man was Haydn Wood (1882-1959), who was not Manx by origin, but who spent most of his childhood living there, and remained fond of the place. His catalog includes several Manx-inspired works, of which the best is a tone poem for symphonic band titled Mannin Veen, which means "Dear Isle of Man." The U.S. Marine Band, of all people, do it justice.

Like Edward German's Welsh Rhapsody, this is a single movement, rather than a suite, based on a series of contrasting folk tunes. But it's organized differently. Wood presents all four of his themes in the first half of the work, and then elaborates further on them in the second half. With the timing of their first appearances, they are The Good Old Way (Methodist air) (0.01), The Manx Fiddler (reel) (2.23), Sweet Water in the Common (3.25), and The Harvest of the Sea (Manx fishermen's evening hymn) (4.50).

After this, I have a few favorite haunts in continental Europe ...

Sunday, February 18, 2018

two recitals

B. accompanied me to Stanford twice this weekend for a pair of student vocal recitals, each by a collection of students of one voice teacher or another.

The better and more popular of these - it packed the small rehearsal hall it was held in on Saturday evening, to the surprise of the performers, though they shouldn't have been - was by students of the estimable Wendy Hillhouse doing an elaborate and extensive all-Sondheim program, 24 numbers from 11 shows written over a 25-year period. There were a few cases of miscasting, and a regrettably large amount of flubbing lines, but all the singers were good.

Judging purely by results here, Sondheim's best show is Follies, as the two solo numbers from that were highlights: the saturnine Ian Anstee (also the Wolf in Into the Woods and George in Sunday in the Park, and he should have done Sweeney) in Buddy's frantically neurotic blues number, and the turbo-powered Taylor Wright (who regrettably did nothing else) in "Broadway Baby." Zoë Sonnenberg forgot bits of her fast-nervous patter as Amy in "Getting Married Today" from Company, but she was hilarious doing it. The evening finished up with the first act finale from Into the Woods, as of course it would.

A regular Friday noon concert was less attended. This featured four sopranos and a tenor doing a couple songs apiece, a mixture from opera, concert song, and musical theater. B's professional ear and eye produced a few lessons for my consideration on the drive home:
1. If you're a soprano, don't sing a piece in the mezzo range. You won't be able to put any power behind it, and you'll be inaudible.
2. Even if your piece is an opera aria, don't act the whole thing out in a song recital.
3. A minidress that looks like your abbreviated nightie is inadvisable for this venue.

Some of the singing was good, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's setting of Desdemona's sorrowful "willow, willow" was an impressive compositional discovery. But the tenor, who badly needed a tune-up, and also some remedial lessons on the phonemes of English (not his native tongue) and stage presence, attempted King George's song "You'll Be Back" from Hamilton, with results as grisly as you might imagine.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

addendum to San Francisco Symphony

1) I noticed that several sections were being led by their second-chair players. The principals were off this week. That didn't prevent first-class playing. This orchestra has quality in depth.

2) The article on Beethoven in the program book was very short. In fact, this season all the program notes have been getting short. They already, a few years ago, introduced one-paragraph precis versions of the notes for those who didn't care to read the full essays; now they're not even giving you the option. All you can do is choose between short and shorter.

3) My travel habits to the City are changing drastically. The extra service charge that BART has slapped onto dedicated BART tickets is probably what convinced me to buy a Clipper card, which is what BART is trying to persuade its customers to do instead. The Clipper is the local multi-transit system electronic fare card, equivalent to London's Oyster card. I'd never bought one before, both because I don't take transit often, and because the instructions for using the Clipper were so bewildering. However, before buying it I phoned them up and got some helpful answers.

It turns out that the fuss involved in buying BART tickets for each journey (which I always purchased with cash, and never for large quantities, partly because the paper tickets are fragile) was one of the reasons I often drove to concerts in the City instead. Since buying the Clipper I've been to three concerts, and found myself taking BART to each one. Further, not having to buy a separate fare on Muni, the City's bus-and-streetcar system, has encouraged me to take that. I take BART to where I want to have dinner, and then take Muni, which can get me closer to Davies or Herbst than BART can.

The catch is leaving, since it's less convenient to take Muni back to BART. I can walk the several blocks to the nearest BART station, but it's a slog. Here's where the Symphony can be of help, because they've contracted with a private jitney bus system to provide post-concert shuttle service from the front of the hall to BART.

Well, in theory. Last week I waited 20 minutes until the concertgoers had entirely dispersed, but the bus never showed up. I'd put it out of my mind in the interim, but this week, on arriving, I went and talked with the Symphony's house manager about the problem. To his credit, though he has no control over the buses, he acknowledged that, since the Symphony contracts with them, it's his responsibility to ensure they run properly. He surprised me by saying this is not the only time the bus didn't show up. He thanked me for providing the specifics of a failure case, and invited me to drop by his office when I come back next week to hear what he'll have learned from talking with the bus company.

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Blomstedt week 2, and this venerable conductor (he's now 90) who gets in his retirement to specialize in the red-meat repertoire chose an utterly meaty program of Mozart's big G-minor symphony, K. 550, and Beethoven's Eroica.

No, it's not boring or overdone. These works are supreme accomplishments of the two greatest composers ever to work in orchestral music, and since music is a performing art that only lives if it's played, they need no excuses. Nor need a performance be revelatory so long as it's incisive, which these were particularly in the finales, traditionally Blomstedt's weak point, so good on him and the orchestra there.

An article in the program book bemoans the fact that Beethoven's music sounds familiar and expected to us. It was intended as shocking, and heard by its contemporaries as such. I don't worry too much about that. Beethoven well played is abrupt and dramatic enough when he intends to be as to convey the point.

And I haven't forgotten my own first encounter. When I first placed an LP of his Fifth Symphony on the turntable at the age of 12, my knowledge of his music was nil. I'd never heard any. All I knew of his symphonies was that there were nine of them and that number five went "da-da-da-dum." It was curiosity as to what else it did that led me to try it out.

It took some courage to do so. I'd been listening to light classics, but the term "symphony" intimidated me. I was almost afraid to listen to one. Would I be able to make any sense of it at all?

Actually it was love as soon as the needle hit the disk. I was awed and transfixed at the massive structure Beethoven built out of his four-note phrase, a form of musical construction I'd had no hint existed, and I was an instant convert: the heavy classics were for me. As the LP of the Fifth came from a box set, within weeks I was familiar with all nine and ready to move on to Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, and all the rest.

Returning to last night's program, I'd note also that Blomstedt took both slow movements unusually fast, at least in the context of the relatively moderate tempo speeds he used for the fast movements.

This concert was not in my series, so I wound up sitting, though in pretty much the same relative position as my regular seat, on the other side of the hall. To my surprise the music sounded different there: more compressed, condensed, and seeming to emanate from a single point down below, as a result of which it sounded almost monophonic. Maybe that explains why some listeners dislike the side balconies so.

Friday, February 16, 2018

English suites and others no. 24

Say, remember our Celtic musical tour? Across the sea now to Ireland. Our tourist guide to Irish folk tunes is Leroy Anderson - an American of Swedish descent, not Irish at all - who was the staff composer for the Boston Pops for many years. Many of the brief pieces he wrote them became embedded in American popular culture, such as "Sleigh Ride," which with lyrics added became a Christmas carol. Anderson also had a knack for music about mechanical objects, such as one called "The Syncopated Clock" or his concerto for typewriter and orchestra. (Jerry Lewis had a routine in which he would mime to this piece and lose track of his place, but I'll spare you a link to that.)

So here Anderson applies his quite impressive Harvard-trained skills at orchestration and arrangement to a set of what passed in 1940s American ears as typical Irish melodies: a mixture of ballads of the kind that used to be sung by John McCormack with some equally hoary dance tunes, all played by the Boston Pops under its venerable conductor, Arthur Fiedler.

For this Irish Suite, we've got The Irish Washerwoman (0.00), The Minstrel Boy (2.56), The Rakes of Mallow (7.24), The Wearing of the Green (10.42), The Last Rose of Summer (14.07), and The Girl I Left Behind Me (18.05). Applause separates each movement - this is a Pops concert, after all - so you can tell where you are even if you don't know the tunes, though I expect you will.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

on this bus

Deb N. read The 57 Bus, "a true story of two teenagers and the crime that changed their lives," by Dashka Slater. I was curious and decided to pick it up from the library. It's 305 brief pages and reads fast.

The incident occurred in 2013 in Oakland. Two students from different high schools are on a city bus. Sasha, white, a senior, identifies as agender (preferring the pronoun "they"), likes to wear both neckties and skirts, is dozing in the back of the bus. Richard, black, a junior, has been in trouble but is identified by himself and others as mostly a good kid, is fooling around with some friends, flicks a lighter and touches it to Sasha's skirt.

It's flammable, and ignites. Sasha is seriously burned, but eventually recovers. Richard is arrested the next day and charged as an adult.

You'd think the book would mostly cover the aftermath, and it does, but the author is just as concerned with portraying both characters and the contexts of the lives they led before the incident. It's very interesting, but my own takeaway focuses on two other things:

1. Why did Richard do it? The first assumption of many observers is that it's some sort of homophobic hate crime and the police interview tends to confirm that; but Richard insists he intended no serious harm and just thought it would be funny for someone to wake up and find their clothes smoldering, which is what he thought would happen.

We can discuss whether playing with fire is an appropriate occupation for 16-year-olds, a conversation this book evades, but the point is that it'd be a different conversation than one about homophobia or "hate crimes."

2. The story offers a continuing lesson that agendered pronouns present a different and more complex socio-linguistic challenge than pronouns for binary transsexuality do. Sasha had made an announcement at school: "It's important to respect people's preferred pronouns and if you're not sure what those are, you should ask."

Fine, but there's no time to ask a stranger about preferred pronouns when you're trying to put out their clothes that are on fire. In the description of this scene, which is evidently transcribed from the bus's security camera video, everyone refers to Sasha as "he," which - the author has eventually gotten around to telling us - is what Sasha was born as and evidently still looks like. (And which is a given if Richard is to be charged with homophobia over the skirt.) Even Sasha's parents, who know the preferred pronoun, keep getting it wrong, and not just under stress. These are very deep waters we're getting into, much deeper than we've experienced with previous linguistic adjustments.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Going to the wrong airport.

Fortunately, I've never done that. Ensuring I have the right airport is something I check while booking. I narrowly missed it once, though. The valet who fetched the taxi when I was leaving my hotel from a conference in Chicago said to me, "Going to the airport?" to which I just nodded, but then he made an unwarranted assumption and said to the driver "O'Hare." I had to correct this and told the driver, "No, I'm going to Midway." Fortunately, if I hadn't heard the valet, I know Chicago well enough that I'd soon have realized if we were heading the wrong way.

When planning our trip to Rome some years back, my first attempt at an airline booking was British Airways, to change in London. But I read the fine print and noticed that while our arriving flight landed at Heathrow, the departure was from Gatwick. No, I don't think so. But a bus between those two might have been less bad than what we got from Air France, which was a walk across the De Gaulle airport terminal. What was terrible about that? The cigarette smoke.

What I have to watch out for is near-duplicate street names.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

musical notes

1. I reviewed a concert from last weekend, the Redwood Symphony. The music director in forwarding this to his mailing list called it very nice, but opined that "much more enthusiasm in the tone is warranted."

Yes, it could have been much more enthusiastic. It wasn't. There's a reason. It was a good concert, but I wasn't enthused. The Stravinsky was very well played, and I did say the players "were at their finest," but when I called Kirke Mechem's 1960s symphony "a worthy slice of chromatic tonal modernism," the implication that it's interchangeable with a lot of other slices was deliberate. I've heard a lot of works like that from that period that neither attracted nor repelled me. If I wrote with enthusiasm, what words would I have left for something which genuinely enthused me?

What interested me more was Mechem's statement that he no longer wrote symphonies, or much other concert music, after 1970, because he couldn't get his conservative modernism played. He elaborates on this in his memoir, Believe Your Ears, which I read through before the concert. To an extent it's an indictment of the serialist hegemony, the one whose proponents continue to insist it never existed. Mechem considers himself a victim of it. To the argument that lots of tonal composers continued to write all that time, including himself, Mechem says: look at the textbooks and the listeners' guides to modern music of the time. Those composers were ridiculed, belittled, dismissed, or totally ignored. And I certainly noticed that at the time, in the 1960s and 1970s. That's why I call them the Hidden City.

2. Enough of that. Obituaries have been appearing for Vic Damone, a lesser figure among the great wave of Italian-American male crooners so prominent in American popular music in the mid 20C. I confess I only know his name for the occasion that he, along with Dean Martin, a better-known crooner of the same ethnicity, shared a TV session with Allan Sherman - who was neither Italian nor a crooner - to sing some of Sherman's briefer and punchier song parodies, some of which made it on to his own albums and some of which didn't. The first one is a rather cranky generational clash, but the rest are just silly. The three of them had a fun-filled and unedited time of it. Watch Damone at 4:45 stumble over a spoonerism on his way to one of the most telegraphed puns in musical history.

Friday, February 9, 2018

two concerts

1. Zephyros Winds, Stanford. The members of this woodwind quintet hail from a variety of countries, but none are from Hungary, which is where most of their music came from. They played a variety of pieces by György Ligeti. If you remember his music from the movie 2001, you won't be surprised that some of this was so piercing that audience members actually plugged their ears with their hands, something I'd never seen at a classical concert before.

On the other end of the modern spectrum came a quintet by an obscurer Hungarian composer named Endre Szervánszky, who turned out when I looked him up to be one of the Righteous Gentiles. He also wrote a charming rustic scherzo.

2. San Francisco Symphony, Davies. First week of the annual two-week visit by music director emeritus Herbert Blomstedt. Blomstedt usually brings along a hefty pack of the serious Austro-German repertoire, plus some Nordic music usually by Sibelius or Nielsen. This year's Nordic entry wasn't by Sibelius but it might as well have been. It was the Second Symphony by Wilhelm Stenhammar. Stenhammar actually withdrew his First Symphony in embarrassment when he heard some Sibelius and realized how much like Sibelius his own work sounded. If he'd heard this performance of his Second he'd have withdrawn that too. I have recordings of this work with passages that do not sound like Sibelius; such passages were absent from this performance. It sounded like slightly watered Sibelius all the way through, except for a few passages in the finale that sounded more like Bruckner (another Blomstedt specialty).

Not that I'm complaining, exactly. It got respectful applause, but not as hot as did the other work on the program, Beethoven's last and greatest piano concerto, the Emperor. It was a toasty warm performance, with the piano keys under the feathery touch of Garrick Ohlsson. So fine was he that his encore, the Adagio cantabile from Beethoven's Pathétique Sonata, was enthrallingly perfect.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

news from the north

1) Five Canadian authors discuss their favorite Ursula K. Le Guin books. Jo Walton selects The Dispossessed. That doesn't surprise me in the least. Robert J. Sawyer selects The Lathe of Heaven. That doesn't surprise me either. Guy Gavriel Kay selects The Language of the Night. That does surprise me. (Me? Always Coming Home, without a doubt.)

2. The feud between British Columbia and Alberta. B.C. is holding up the pipeline to Vancouver out of concern for Alberta's oil spilling. Alberta's response is to stop importing B.C. electric power and B.C. wines. The premier is telling her people to drink Alberta craft beer instead. Presumably in the dark. What's weird is that they're both left-wing governments, but I guess that in Alberta, "left-wing" has to be interpreted in the context of Alberta.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

critics, performers, and moral responsibility

An article on the moral responsibility of restaurant critics regarding writing about chefs accused of assault caught my interest. Should they take that into account when choosing which restaurants to review and what standards they evaluate them on?

As a reader of restaurant reviews, I'd say no. I want to read a review of the food, not of the chef. I think the real problem here is the desire not to steer business, through praise or awards, to reprehensible people, and I can understand that; though I should also point out that, unless they're currently imprisoned, even reprehensible people deserve the right to earn a living.*

But what really interested me was one provocative chef putting some of the culpability for the culture on the restaurant critics themselves. Anthony Bourdain says: "Chances are, in this very small pond, where 'access' is often so important, the overwhelming likelihood is that they have known and heard and observed things and kept silent. They, as much as anyone, are responsible for creating and sustaining a Hollywood-style star system that has been almost entirely male."

And I thought, does that apply to me as a music critic? I'd object. That type of "access" critic is not me. I go to the concerts, but I'm not part of the culture. I don't hang around backstage; I know very few professional musicians personally; I rarely have even the opportunity to share gossip about performers. Most of what I know about their lives comes from public sources, and not much of that, as I don't read heavily in that field. I believe my integrity as a critic depends on keeping a polite distance. Bourdain says that "many other factors other than the merits of the food and service have influenced supposedly impartial restaurant reviews for so long," but mutatis mutandis that's not true of classical music reviewing as I know it or practice it.

One other factor more specifically pertinent to performing arts is involved. I once wrote a piece on classical record collectors dividing them into three specialties, and I think the same division applies to attending performances. The three types focus on repertoire, on performers, and on sound quality. I'm emphatically a repertoire person. When I'm asked to attend a concert, my question is what's being played, not who's playing it. I compare a performance to my previous experiences hearing the same work, not the same performer. In fact, if I wish to form a mental image of my own evaluation of a performer in general, unless I hear them very regularly I have to go into my files and see what I wrote about previous concerts by the same person. I don't carry around such images of performers in my head, not the way I do for every single composer in the repertoire, literally hundreds of them.

*In the process of Googling the performers at one irregular concert in search of photo links, I found that one of them was a registered sex offender. I didn't mention that in the review; it seemed irrelevant to the performance, and it would have been tough fitting it into a 650 word review anyway.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

mass purchase

Occasionally one will see at stores an offer to purchase for a discount price a large quantity of some item, ideally non-perishable, that one would use up at a slow rate. It might, indeed, be a lifetime supply.

I've never succumbed to this, but I have had long-lasting supplies of a couple of stationery items.

While in high school, I worked part-time in the library of the local NASA installation. My work involved making a lot of photocopies, and as recycling was in a primitive state I saved up the discards and, with permission, took them home. At the end of the stint I had a huge stack of blank versos, which lasted as scratch paper through my entire 7-year college and grad school career. I typed the first drafts of all my term papers on them, for instance. By the time it ran out, I was beginning to transition to doing work on computers.

When my friend Seth Goldberg died, I inherited his supply of large-sized padded mailer envelopes that he used for FAPA, the fannish apa of which he was Official Editor. I put out the next mailing using this and other supplies, before passing the job on to other hands, but FAPA had 65 members and came out quarterly, so Seth had a very large box of these envelopes.

I didn't often have a need for envelopes this large, but occasionally I could use one, or fold it over in half after inserting a smaller item, and seal it with package tape. As they aged and the stickum faded, I began using package tape whenever I used one of these envelopes.

So a historic moment has passed, for after slightly over 20 years I've just used up the last one. It's gone off to the UK as have a number of its predecessors.

Monday, February 5, 2018

English suites and others no. 23

Our Celtic tour takes us next to the big country in the north, Scotland. William Alwyn was an English composer, usually of serious mien, who popped across the border long enough to collect a light and quick Suite of Scottish Dances: folk dances, that is.

They are The Indian Queen (0.00), A Trip to Italy (1.07), Colonel Thornton's Strathspey (1.57), Reel: The Perthshire Hunt (4.09), Reel: Loch Earn (5.06), Carleton House (6.08), and Miss Ann Carnegie's Hornpipe (6.55).

Unusually for a light suite of this kind, the slow movement - in this case, the strathspey, and the only one lasting much over one minute - is by far the most compelling. If you want a link to it just by itself, it's here.

atavistic blogger

One reads that nobody actually blogs any more. Huh.

1. Water conservation is a big issue in California, and much of the focus has been on big agribusiness and its cultivation of water-intensive crops. All the urban domestic water use in the state is a drop next to that bucket. Naturally, in the farming regions in the Central Valley they feel strongly about being expected to carry the weight on that, and along the freeway there are many hostile signs posted on the edges of orchards or ranches. One common one, pre-printed, is a banner reading "Is Growing Food Wasting Water?" I'd say that depends. It depends on whether you're wasting water doing it. Here's an article about that, featuring a fruits-and-nuts baron whose realm I passed right through on the trip to LA.

Most interestingly, the fruits-and-nuts baron's wife:
1) Is responsible for coming up with the brand name "Cuties" for the realm's Mandarin oranges;
2) Was, in a former life, Anthony Russo's girlfriend, the one who owned a small ad agency and let Russo and Ellsberg use its photocopier to copy the Pentagon Papers.

2. About a month ago I remarked, concerning a review of an article on pioneering American women composers, "My candidate for the first great American woman composer is Florence Price, but nobody writes about her."

Behold Alex Ross. My wish is his command.

(Fort Smith Symphony in May, eh? Hmmm.)

3. Mustn't leave out my latest review, of a concert I went to simply because I like all the pieces in it.

4. The only impact of the Super Bowl on this household was the denudation from the grocery store shelves of the shrimp, and the broccoli.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

concert review: Los Angeles Philharmonic

B. and I drove (to avoid the hassle of a flight) the 6 hours to L.A. for a relaxed two-night stay to see the Philharmonic's Leonard Bernstein centenary concert production of his theater piece Mass. Yes, we like the work that much.

This is the third time I've heard the L.A. Phil in Disney Hall (I've also heard them elsewhere), the third time I've heard Gustavo Dudamel conduct (never previously here), and my third performance of the Mass: the other two - also both with B. - were by Marin Alsop at the Cabrillo Festival and by Michael Morgan in Oakland.

When the Mass premiered in 1971, very much a child of its time, it was widely derided as trashy kitsch, which shook the composer's self-confidence, you may be sure. But it's since come to be acclaimed as a masterpiece of eclectic postmodern art, and Dudamel is a notable addition to its champions, for unlike Alsop and Morgan he's too young to have worked with Bernstein personally as they both did.

Most Mass performances emphasize the jazz, rock, pop, and musical theater influences and interjections in the work, exploiting their contrast with the classical base. Dudamel didn't do that. Conceptually, he treated Mass as an integrated classical work of motivic-based structure, rather as if it were a successor to Wagnerian opera. In sonic style it was modernist; the heart of this performance was the relatively harsh and querulous instrumental Meditation sections. It was less fun to listen to than other performances, but it brought out Bernstein's profundity as a composer, a proposition badly needing a champion.

It's almost superfluous, but necessary, to praise the musicians. The Phil is a great orchestra. The LA Master Chorale is a superb chorus, and B. was particularly admiring of their handling of the difficult opening of their role. The Street Chorus were more musical theater people than opera singers, but handled the operatic presentation of their parts fairly well. The boy soprano, Soren Ryssdal, was stunningly good.

And the Celebrant, the central role, was Ryan McKinney, who is an opera singer, and what is more a bass-baritone in a part designed for a tenor or light baritone. But he had all the high notes he needed; his voice merely got stronger as it went down, whereas most Celebrants get weaker. He gave a dark, introspective performance, and his reading of the Fraction scene was a dramatic exploration of character.

As has happened with this work before, the weak point was the staging. Despite Dudamel's timeless musical conception, the street chorus was dressed in a period-bound but inconsistent mixture of hippie and disco. They writhed around a lot, distractingly but pointlessly. And B. was particularly critical of the way the liturgical objects and vestments were designed and used: too inaccurate to reflect Catholic usage and too incoherent to be a pointed critique of it.

Well, we're glad we went. We also squeezed in visits to Vroman's (better than any bookstores we have up here, and yes, they had a nice little Le Guin memorial display up) and the Norton Simon Museum (where B. gave me a docent tour of the medieval religious art), pre-concert dinner at my favorite Olvera Street restaurant, a wild post-concert tour of the downtown L.A. freeway maze when the exit to the Disney parking garage put me out where I wasn't expecting and I had to figure out on the fly how to reorient our path in the right direction, and brunch the next day with she who is our friend and my distinguished academic colleague.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

English suites and others no. 22

Our next Celtic stop is Cornwall. Malcolm Arnold was not Cornish, but he lived at St Merryn on the north coast of that county for several years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and threw himself into the musical life of the community, organizing Cornish music concerts and writing Cornish-inspired works.

Among them was a set of Four Cornish Dances along the lines of the English Dances we've previously heard. Like them, these are based on original material, but they sound like folk tunes, each evoking some aspect of Cornish life.

Of the four, only No. 1 (0.00) actually sounds much like a dance, and that an irregular one, the first beat of each repetition stomping on the last beat of the previous one. Perhaps it's for fishermen wobbly after getting off the boats. No. 2 (1.36) is slow and spooky, perhaps evoking a trip down a Cornish tin mine. No. 3 (4.45) is an entirely serious Methodist chapel hymn. No. 4 (7.21) seems to mix the moods of all the other three into one.

two concerts reviewed

The Menlo Festival asked me to attend their latest winter series concert, a pairing of Brahms and Dvorak. So I slipped it into my Daily Journal schedule and reviewed it.

And then SFCV sent me off to hear some Schubert songs with the piano accompaniment arranged for string quartet. That was rather different.

Also on the program was Britten's Second Quartet, a work for which I needed to do a little study, so I checked the score from the library. And therein I found something unannotated which I couldn't explain: all over the chaconne movement were brackets covering phrases of two or three notes. They looked like the mark put on a note for a mandatory downbow stroke, but those are only on single notes, and as such these wouldn't make musical sense. (Also, I later noticed some on pizzicato notes, so no: not bowing.) They could be ties, indicating notes should be played together as a flowing phrase, but ties are rounded: these were square. So they must mean something else.

B. didn't know. The retired professional cellist who gives the pre-concert talks didn't know. So I asked the quartet at the post-concert Q&A. Three of them didn't know either, which is really disconcerting considering they'd just given a professional performance of the piece. They hadn't found out what the composer was telling them?

But the first violinist knew. They're rhythmic instructions specific to a chaconne. A chaconne is in 3/2, a slow triple time, with the emphasis normally on the second beat. These brackets appear on pairs of beats to indicate when the emphasis should be on the other beat. OK, that makes sense, and I see crescendo markings and accents that confirm this.

contentious remarks

1. I saw a number of posts asking if readers were going to watch the State of the Union. I don't know why: I don't recall ever being asked about watching them before, why should I now? I find my desire not to see that man is strong enough that I even turn off parody versions of him.

2. I've been seeing a lot about how the tale of a woman's date with Aziz Ansari (of whom I'd never previously heard, btw) has become a generational divide, particularly among women. Younger ones are appalled by his behavior, older ones say it was just a bad date, what's the deal? One reply even said what he was guilty of was not reading her mind, even though her objections to his advances weren't just implied through body language.

I thought that I'd be with the older cohort on this, until I read the actual account. Then I was appalled. Not so much that he specifically ignored her objections, but just at the boorishness and heavy-handedness of his advances. People who think that he wasn't smothering her agency must have no idea what a genuinely consensual romantic or sexual encounter is like.

3. A while ago I wrote a mocking advice list of How Not to Respond to Angry People, which received some approbation. I've recently seen an account of a perfect example of this in real life, one employing a technique I hadn't mentioned.

It's in this story about an audience member who hijacked a panel at ConFusion, an sf con. The problem wasn't anything done by the moderator, who wrote the post: she seems, at least in this her own account, to have behaved judiciously. It's something else she mentions: one of the other panelists "backed me up and pointed out that it was not Q&A period and not his turn to talk," so "This man got up and stormed out in a huff." And "as he departed," that same panelist "cheerfully sa[id], 'Bye!' to him."

It's the cheerful "Bye!" that did it. The best word I can think of for that is smug. It's fortunate that the departing man didn't turn around, come back, and punch the panelist in the snoot, because it wouldn't have been out of character if he had. If someone wants to stalk off, don't sneer at them as they go. De-escalate, don't reinforce and compound bad behavior.

Monday, January 29, 2018

postal price calculator

This is just to show how difficult it is to find out simple things. I have all the steps recorded in my browser, so I shall reconstruct them here.

B. wants me to mail this birthday card she's bought and prepared to her sister. It's an ordinary flat envelope, but it's rather large. I'm vaguely aware that the USPS charges extra postage costs for extra-large envelopes, but how large is extra-large? I shall visit their web page to find out.

Here's the front page. Where shall I go? Pull-down menu reads "Mail & Ship". In the menu is "Calculate a Price." Looks about right.

Which takes me here. It wants to know origin and destination zip codes. That's only relevant for large packages, not for one-ounce cards, but I fill it in anyway. It's not a postcard, it's not a box, it's an envelope, so I click on "View Flat Rate Envelopes."

Now it wants to know the weight. Christ. 0 pounds, 1 ounce, OK? Now, "Letter" or "Large Envelope". Well, uh, what I'm trying to find out is which category it is. Just to be safe, I click on "Large Envelope".

Another option page. It's rigid, OK?

Ack! $24.70? $24.90? Even $6.70? I'm looking for something that should cost 50 cents or a dollar!

Try again. Oh look, up at the top of the page, a pull-down menu for "Pricing." Price Charts in HTML, that looks good.

And another list. Domestic, First class mail, that's what I want.

At last, here's the right prices. It's clear on how much a stamped letter costs, how much a large envelope costs. But I still don't know which I have. That's what I'm trying to find out, and it's getting kind of annoying not finding it.

Oh look, there are footnotes. Scroll down. They don't help.

But wait! Underneath the footnotes! In obscure small type! Behind a sign reading "Beware of the Leopard." "See this page for size dimensions."

THERE IT IS! AT LAST! The size in inches of what qualifies as a letter! It took ten steps and a lot of hunting around on web pages and lucky observations to get it, but there it is. And the card is well within the limits, so one stamp will do. But what a nuisance confirming that.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Warning: bizarre and grotesque.

Grotesque 1: At a large Asian supermarket in San Jose, pork meat was delivered to the store by piling it high, unwrapped, in shopping carts from the Costco across the street and rolling it in the front door during business hours. A customer snapped photos of this and caused a Facebook uproar.

Bizarre 1: This was covered more extensively (above) in the Washington Post a continent away than locally, although there is a link to a local paper online article about it.

Bizarre 2: The customer posted this on FB as a warning not to seat children in those shopping carts rather than as an issue in meat delivery, although she added that she would only buy packaged foods from this market.

Grotesque 2: I wouldn't buy fresh meat from them anyway. I've been in other San Jose area outlets of this particular Asian supermarket chain, and the first thing that struck me was the rancid stench that hits you as you walk in the door. Other Asian markets I've been in are not like that.

Bizarre 3: Neither the market nor the delivery company will take responsibility for this strange delivery method, though both are eager to blame the guys who pushed the carts, who were fired as soon as the news came out. However, I can easily imagine them being low-level grunts who were never trained in sanitary procedures and who were ordered to do this by supervisors who expected their instructions to be obeyed without objection. In which case the responsibility would hardly be theirs.

Grotesque 3: The market has said they've discarded the meat. But there's no suggestion that they would have done so if it hadn't become a public scandal. Nor is there anything about cleaning and disinfecting the shopping carts.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

David Oberhelman

The flu season has been particularly bad this year, with many fatalities, and that's struck home because it's taken David Oberhelman.

David O. was a stalwart of the Mythopoeic Society (where there are many Davids: we also have David E., David L., and David B. among the prominent members, all present or former officers), where he was Awards Administrator for many years before stepping down at the end of last year.

At tabulating votes and keeping rein on the discussions among the awards committee members, David O. did an admirable job; and he presided over the awards ceremonies at Mythcon each year, which was a greater challenge to him because he had the most severe case of stage fright I've known personally: tough enough that it sometimes physically prevented him from giving conference presentations. But he got through the ceremonies, and not just ours: here he is, at left, giving a best paper award to a presenter at the Southwest Popular Culture Association last year. Duty to facilitate the organizations he belonged to was a strong sense in him. He was also friendly, an involving conversationalist, and a good man to have around.

David O. was a librarian at Oklahoma State University, and it was increasing responsibilities at his job there which had caused him to step down from his Mythopoeic Awards post. He is survived by his cats. He will be missed.

Friday, January 26, 2018

English suites and others no. 21

Having spun out my collection of favorite English suites, what's next? Now I'm going to embark on a little tour of the five Celtic nationalities of the British/Irish archipelago, one stop for each.

This will mostly be tourist music, as of the five composers only one is a native of the nation represented. But it will also mostly be folk music, as four of the five works are based on folk music.

Our first visit is to Wales. Sir Edward German, though born just over the English border (as was David Lloyd George), was thoroughly of Welsh descent: his name was actually the Welsh forename Garmon, and his real last name was Jones, than which there is nothing more Welsh.

German is best-remembered for his turn-of-the-20th-century operettas, successor after the death of Sir Arthur Sullivan as the leading British composer in this form, until taking up Sullivan's mantle of collaborating with the irascible W.S. Gilbert drove him to swear off the theatre.

In the course of events he also wrote this memorable Welsh Rhapsody on delightfully catchy Welsh folk tunes. It's not a suite, actually, but an integrated composition with symphonic development to its melodies, mixed in with thematic material of German's own. Accordingly I'm giving two timings for each section, one where the section begins and then when the folk song first appears in full.

The folk songs are: Ymadawiad y Brenin (The Departure of the King) (0:01/0:08); Hela'r Ysgyfarnog (Hunting the Hare) (4:48/4:58) mixed with Clychau Aberdyfi (The Bells of Aberdovey) (5:51); Dafydd y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock) (8:38/9:12); Rhyfelgyrch Gwyr Harlech (Men of Harlech) (13:54/14:50).


You know what I forgot to mention about the Lou Harrison centenary concert?

Pianist Sarah Cahill's iPad failed on her, twice. This was the one she was trying to read her piano part from, so it was kind of vital. She provided commentary on this: it had just been charged, it was on 99%, and it still died.

Fortunately the violinist also had the piano score, so Cahill borrowed that.

Lesson: Put not your faith in technology. Especially if you're playing the low-tech work of Lou Harrison.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

another Lou Harrison centenary concert

I couldn't resist this. I don't count myself a big fan of or expert on Lou Harrison's music, but I've always enjoyed listening to it.

A full slate of tasks and errands to do on Wednesday, plus a heavy rainstorm, made the trip up to the city seem wearisome and tightly-scheduled enough that I thought of skipping out on it, but in the end I applied the General Grant theory of how to get somewhere (just point yourself in the right direction and go), and since where I had to be was just outside a BART station at the unusually late starting time of 8:30, it worked. Indeed, the introducer thanked the audience for coming out in the heavy rain, which makes a change from introducers thanking us for coming out instead of watching some sporting event, which they invariably do when possible.

The performers were a passel of folks I know from Garden of Memory and other newer-music events: pianist Sarah Cahill, violinist Kate Steinberg, William Winant and his Percussion Group, and the more conventionally respectable Alexander String Quartet. So we had small-ensemble chamber music pieces for piano, string quartet, and parts of the previous combined with various percussion instruments, including a full gamelan, which occupied large swathes of the stage. This led to exchanges like this, when Cahill as emcee of the show asked Winant to explain what he'd be playing:
CAHILL: So these are rice bowls?
WINANT: Yep, everyday rice bowls in various sizes. Played with chopsticks.
CAHILL: Where did they come from?
WINANT: They came from Lou Harrison's kitchen. So did the baking pans over there.
As with Lou's teacher Henry Cowell pressing his forearms on the piano keyboard, or his fellow student John Cage fastening small bits of hardware to its strings, this found-materials battery - which also included a set of auto brake drums Lou salvaged from a junkyard - produced not a raucous din but gentle tinkles and washes of sound. Of all the attractive pieces, the best was a 1986 work called Varied Trio, for violin, piano, and the assorted percussion. As in some similar Cowell pieces, one performer or another would sit out some of the brief movements.

The concert was overambitious in one respect: intended to last 60-75 minutes, it went close to two hours, which is a long time to go without an intermission, especially after 8:30.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Ursula K. Le Guin: speaking for myself

Oh very well. Buried among my un-uploaded web files, I found one of my collected Le Guin book reviews, and another of the introduction to her work that I wrote when she was Mythcon Guest of Honor in 1988. I prepared these when I first put up a personal web page in the early 2000s, but I never loaded them, I'm not sure why. Oh yes, I remember why I didn't load the essay: it was already seriously outdated by then, and I meant to add annotations, a la UKL's own reprinting of From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, but I never did that either. Well, I'm not doing it right now, but I can put the files up.

So here's what I had to say about the living Le Guin, and it will speak for what I wish to say now.

The 1988 introduction, unrevised.

The reviews, except for:

Gifts, Voices, and Powers, which I had already uploaded for some other commitment.

And lastly, a favorite recent Le Guin quote, from the essay "Living in a Work of Art", on her childhood Maybeck home, from her recent collection Words Are My Matter. Here's a variant on Hide-&-Seek that I didn't know, but admire the ingenuity of:
Does anybody play Sardines any more? For Sardines, you have to have a large house, quite a lot of people, and darkness. One person is It. Everybody but It waits noisily in one room, long enough for It to find a hiding place somewhere else - under a bed, in the broom closet, in the bathtub, anywhere It pleases. Then the lights go off, and separately, in silence, everyone hunts for It. When you find It, you say nothing: you simply join It in the hiding place. If that's a broom closet there may be room for quite a few; if it's under a bed, there are problems. One by one other humans find the site, and squash themselves into the sardine can, and suffocate giggles, and try not to move, until at last the final hunter finds them and they all burst free at once. It's a good game. Our house, with its endless nooks and corners, was a perfect Sardines house.

Ursula K. Le Guin

I shall have to find a new favorite living writer. The long-time occupant of that post has vacated it. Ursula K. Le Guin is dead at 88.

Le Guin's works, and occasionally her person, have been part of my life for most of it now. I must have seen original hardcover editions of A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan on bookshelves somewhere, because, although I did not read the books at that time, I thought that any writer who could draw maps like those had seen within my soul.

I read the books, and their sequel The Farthest Shore, when they came out in paperback a few years later, and found that the stories matched the maps in piercing meaningfulness, as well as being fantasy with a moral center to it that thereby reminded me of Tolkien far more than his more obvious imitators did.

Here, and in other works to come, I found that Le Guin would take me to places so valuable and insightful that I would follow her anywhere she wished to go.

I want to say everything about it. Nothing at this point seems adequate. A defense or explication of her work seems inappropriate right now, an account of personal interactions trivial. Before her eloquence I bow in silence.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Oscar the grouch

Correlating the Oscar nominees with my movie-going reveals a pattern. I've seen 3 of the nominees in the theater, and they were all modern-setting historical dramas based on real-life events about famous people, a currently popular type of movie I have a weakness for. I think they're the only movies I've gone out to see in the last several months.

They were The Post (Best Picture and Best Leading Actress, which it deserved), Darkest Hour (Best Picture, Best Leading Actor, and a bunch of production categories, which it also deserved), and Marshall (Best Original Song: I don't remember it even having a song).

But I also saw one other nominee, and that not in a theater: Mudbound, which I streamed via Netflix on the very computer on which I'm now typing. Mudbound is a kind of story that normally doesn't interest me, about people doing stupid and insensitive things and then getting hit on the side of the head with a clue-by-four, but I'd read that it was well-regarded, so here's the thing: watching it on Netflix is like waiting for the DVD. You can watch it at home, you don't have to spend movie-ticket prices, and above all, if you don't like it you can turn it off without disturbing other people as you leave the theater or feel as if you wasted your time and money going there.

And it was good: I watched the whole thing with captivation, which is far more than I can say for any of the online original TV series I've tried to watch lately.

But it was fear that I'd be trapped in a theater with something I wouldn't like that kept me away from a number of other movies. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, for instance: it's an intriguing premise and the cast is outstanding; but it was written and directed by the same guy who made In Bruges, a movie with an intriguing premise and a good cast but which made for one of the more tedious afternoons I've spent in a moviehouse.

I just don't want to risk going through that again, so I'll wait for the DVDs on Ebbing, and Lady Bird and The Shape of Water and All the Money in the World and I, Tonya, and Roman J. Israel, Esq., all of which I also thought about going to see but didn't.

Two Best Picture nominees I won't watch under any premise: Dunkirk - I don't do big-battle war movies, I just don't - and Get Out - I don't do horror movies, I just don't.

So how were the ones I did see? I liked all of them.

I didn't already know the specific story in Marshall, but I was struck - though nothing I've read about the movie has mentioned this - by the similarity of the case Marshall tries to the one in To Kill a Mockingbird (a book not yet written when this takes place). The premise is close to identical, and I'm surprised how, even today, the race-relations side of the story entirely drowns out the sex-relations side.

The Post is impressively historically accurate. Various writers for the New York Times have grumbled about it leaving out the Times more important role in the Pentagon Papers publication, but the movie's opening is misleading: this isn't about the Papers themselves. Due to the course of events, the Post faced a thornier dilemma of journalistic ethics - the Times had already been legally enjoined from publishing; should the Post defy the spirit of the order and go ahead? - and that's the center of the story. The scene where a flustered Graham tells the editors to go ahead is straight out of her memoirs, though it omits the reason for her decision: the paper's lawyer had said he wouldn't do it, but she noticed he provided no justification (the possibility of prosecution, the threat to the stock price), leaving her, she felt, the freedom to go the other way.

As for Darkest Hour, what's the opposite of "pitch-perfect"? "Pitch-imperfect"? This movie is meticulously made in all its physical detail, but the script is continuously slightly off, and sometimes not-so-slightly. The need to paint Churchill as a hero and therefore Halifax (and Chamberlain) as villains infects everything. They were all of them flawed but honorable men doing the best they could, and an honest movie like The Post would reflect that.

Monday, January 22, 2018

English suites no. 20

Here's something a bit different. Percy Grainger was an Australian pianist who came to England and went folk-song collecting (as did Holst and Vaughan Williams). He arranged some of his findings into A Lincolnshire Posy suite for concert band.

But this is not the original suite. This is a full-scale arrangement of that played by the English electric folk group Home Service. An unusual thing to find on a popular music album, but there it is. Appropriately, Home Service included brass players among its members, so there is some overlap in sound. Home Service also had vocalists, so you'll hear two of the selections, nos. 2-3, "Horkstow Grange" (the song the name Steeleye Span comes from) and "Rufford Park Poachers," sung as well as played.

The songs are: Lisbon (Dublin Bay) (0:00), Horkstow Grange (1:21), Rufford Park Poachers (3:58), The Brisk Young Sailor (6:22), Lord Melbourne (The Duke of Marlboro) (7:54), and The Lost Lady Found (10:49).

This is the last of my strictly English suites that I've been offering occasionally, but wait, there's more ...

Sunday, January 21, 2018

busy and crowded day

I attended last year's local edition of the Women's March, so I saw no reason not to attend this year's as well. B. was also physically up to attending, and signed up as a volunteer. She was stationed in the park at the end of the march, where she spent most of her time trying to keep the crowds from trampling through the bushes (where the grapes of wrath are stored, no doubt).

Whether this year's march was bigger than last year's was hard to tell from ground level, though I think it was. There were certainly more pussy hats, given more time to knit them. Many of the same signs made a re-appearance. Of the new signs, I most liked the puns:

(another sign read WE ARE NOT OVARY-ACTING. What's the message here?)

There were also a strange number of misspellings that don't seem to have been intended as puns:

However, despite the need for remedial English, the march was better organized than last year. It commenced on time, instead of an hour late (possibly because it adopted the clever technique of designating last year's actual starting time as this year's intended starting time), and took a different, rather longer path to a much larger park, where long lines of port-a-potties, informational booths, and a few food trucks awaited. Last year's speakers were mostly local politicians who bloviated; this year's were more community organizers who burbled. After a bit I started hobbling slowly back towards the starting area, where we'd parked and where I could rest up for a bit in the city library.

After reuniting by cell phone and via car with B. and her fellow-volunteer friend to whom we'd given a ride, whom I hadn't seen for 6 hours since the organizers whisked them away at the staging area two hours before starting time, we drove back and then I left again for a conveniently-scheduled birthday party for my 3-year-old nephew.

The kids played in one room under the eyes of their mothers while I sat in another, which my sister-in-law had festively decorated with balloons and letter-shaped cookies (the latter spelling out the boy's name), listening to a group of men my brother's age have a wide-ranging conversation touching on military service, computer programming, sports, and other topics I know nothing about, culminating with them mock-bragging to each other about how little Tagalog they know, underlining that what they and my brother have in common is that they're all white guys who've married Filipina women. That's the social group here. I and our only local cousin, with whom I had a more productive conversation, were the odd ones out.

But I had to leave early from that too, to get back closer to home for a concert. Chamber Music Silicon Valley, a small but scrappy local group, was putting on a mini-marathon concert, what they boldly hope will be the first annual rendition, of all six Brandenburg Concertos by J.S. Bach.

I've heard such a program before, under the sedate gaze of the Carmel Bach Festival. This one was livelier.The Brandenburgs may be played as chamber pieces, but the varied instrumentations mean you still have to gather a lot of players, so putting this together was a big job. One important role went unfilled, alas, and the clarino trumpet part in No. 2 was played by one of the French horns recruited for No. 1. May I say that this substitution did not work.

Other than that, though, from the dissonant village-band style of the massive No. 1 through the parts in Nos. 4 and 5 where the ensemble coordination threatened to, and in one place actually did, come totally unstuck, it was fun and a bit edgy. The six were played in the order 6, 3, 4, 1, 5, 2, which connoisseurs will observe is approximately the order of increasing instrumental color. It was a good show, even at the end of a tiring day.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Candide in concert

As part of the celebration of Leonard Bernstein's centenary, MTT led the San Francisco Symphony in a semi-staged concert performance of LB's musical comedy Candide which I attended last night. The principal singers were stationed on a raised platform behind the orchestra and in front of the chorus (who were higher still).

The first problem any production of Candide faces is which version to use. It was not a success on its first production in 1956, and has been reworked any number of times, not always very satisfactorily. This version, which was created for Scottish Opera in 1989 and approved by the composer, seems to work pretty well. It dumps the spoken book entirely in favor of quick linking plot-summary passages delivered by a narrator (who also plays Pangloss), thus leaving room to stuff in as many songs as possible in a running time of two hours (plus intermission). It's still, the program notes said, only about 40% of the music written for the show at one point or another. But it's astonishing how many truly great songs passed across the stage in the course of the evening: "Best of All Possible Worlds," "Oh Happy We", "Auto-da-fe", "Glitter and Be Gay", "I Am Easily Assimilated", "My Love", "The Kings' Barcarolle", and my favorite, "What's the Use?" In fact, the only great Candide song omitted from this version was "Dear Boy".

This version is closely related, though not identical, to the one that Marin Alsop conducted on Great Performances in 2004 (which did manage to squeeze in "Dear Boy"), and I'm just sorry to say how much better that performance was than this one's. Not in talent of the performers, but in appropriateness of style. Last night's production was approached as if Candide were a serious opera. But it's not: it's a light musical comedy. MTT led with slow and stately tempos, lacking in sprightliness. And the principals were opera singers, bringing gorgeous voices with big rounded sound - and leaving most of the lyrics unintelligible. The only good comic singing came with Meghan Picerno as Cunegonde maniacally chortling over her jewels in "Glitter and Be Gay". Picerno, who does have a hefty list of musical theater leads in her vita along with the opera roles, deserves a runner-up slot in the Kristin Chenoweth competition.

For some music, including much of the music I love best, big rounded gorgeous sound is appropriate. But it's not Candide, it's not Bernstein, who melded classical technique and sophistication with the spirit of a Broadway stage composer steeped in greasepaint in all of his music, even for the concert hall. Music is not just music: it has varied kinds of excellences, and I look for awareness and appreciation of that. Still, I enjoyed this: in the right version, it's a terrific show.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

inside Edmund Wilson

Deducing what actually seems to have been going on in the mind of the author of the famous review trashing The Lord of the Rings: my latest Tolkien Society blog post.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Retro Hugos for 1942

This year's Worldcon, of which perforce I am a member, is giving out the Retro-Hugos 1943 (works of 1942). So it's time to resurrect something I've done for Retros before, though not since before I started this blog, which is to survey the eligible works of my favorite old-time authors: the three major Inklings, plus Lord Dunsany and Mervyn Peake.

Well, Tolkien and Peake may be discarded forthwith, as neither published anything in that fraught wartime year. Charles Williams had a theological treatise, The Forgiveness of Sins, a few theological articles, and a lot of book reviews, but those aren't much help. That leaves C.S. Lewis and Dunsany.

Lewis, by contrast, had a very big year. He published two eligible books. A Preface to Paradise Lost is a set of scholarly lectures which would easily qualify for Best Related Work; I leave it to any Miltonians reading this as to how worthwhile it is, as I've never tried reading the Lewis book myself. (I have tried reading Paradise Lost, but let's leave it at that.)

The other is The Screwtape Letters, one of Lewis's most famous books. It's a little hard to say what kind of book this is. At its core it's a set of Christian moral lessons, and the Library of Congress classifies it as such, but it's clothed in a fictional framework of such piquancy as to have made the book's reputation. It's in the form of the letters of advice sent by a senior devil, the Screwtape of the title, to a junior tempter who's sitting on the mental shoulder of a nondescript young man living in wartime England. (We never learn the man's name or much about his life: this doesn't interest Screwtape, whose only interest is in acquiring the man's soul.)

The idea, of course, is to goose readers into accepting Christian moral lessons by presenting them from the perspective of someone trying to undercut them. Screwtape is a suave but nasty bureaucrat, as Lewis felt it was in those haunts, and not in Dantean dens of iniquity, that the true evil of his time was taking place - e.g., though he could hardly have known about it, the Wannsee Conference, which took place just as the book was being published.

Lewis has great fun with Screwtape chortling in evil glee over things people are tempted into doing that they don't realize lead to their damnation, for instance Letter 17 on the Gluttony of Delicacy. "She would be astonished - one day, I hope, will be - to learn that her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality, which is quite concealed from her by the fact that the quantities involved are small."

Lewis once said that, while the book was easy to write, keeping his mind in Screwtape's persona was cramping, and to my mind the book's biggest flaw is that the author isn't always able to keep it up. Though Screwtape's raging frustration at not being able to figure out what God is really up to is amusing, he can also say things like, "Remember, always, that [God] really likes the little vermin" (Letter 13), after which Lewis realizes that Screwtape is likely neither to say such a thing nor to believe it, and has to make him backtrack (Letter 19).

This brings up the point that the letters were probably written in first draft and never revised. Which is relevant to the Hugos because the sequence was in its entirety (except for a brief preface to the book edition) serialized in a church newspaper in 1941, so it's technically not eligible for 1942. (A definitive edition, with a longer preface and a new Screwtape piece, didn't come out until 1961.) But I won't tell anyone if you won't.

Also, the book is, at a quick estimate, not much over 30,000 words long, so by Hugo standards it's a novella.

Now for Lord Dunsany. In 1942 Dunsany published five stories, all very brief, and about a dozen poems, mostly in Punch. Most of the poems are hopeful gazes towards military victory, and a couple of them introduce the allegorical figure of Liberty, so they could technically be considered fantasy.

None of the stories are SF or fantasy, though the only one of them that's worth reading could possibly squeeze in by courtesy. It's a Jorkens story reprinted in The Fourth Book of Jorkens (1947), where it's the shortest piece in the book. Jorkens is Dunsany's long-running clubman character who's prone to making outrageous claims or telling absurd stories which nobody can disprove. In this brief tale, "On the Other Side of the Sun," that topic comes up - "I wonder what's there?" - and Jorkens astonishes all by stating, "I have been there." His regular patsy, Terbut, demands "When, may I ask?" At Jorkens' reply, "Six months ago," any red-blooded SF reader should know instantly how the story is going to end, but the penny doesn't drop for the hapless Terbut until after he makes a large bet that Jorkens is lying.

The year's other Jorkens story, "The Khamseen" (also in Fourth Book) doesn't even rise to that level of triviality. This time the strained topic is a man with icicles in his hair. Jorkens says he met one once - in the Sahara. Turns out he had a freezer (nothing is said about how it's powered) and was trying to prevent heatstroke.

Similar dorkiness infects the three remaining stories, mercifully uncollected. "Westward Ho!" (Punch, 11 Nov.) asks the unnecessary question, if the Middle East extends as far west as Libya, then where's the Near East? And two exceedingly tiny squibs ("Neutrality Over Berlin", Punch, 21 Oct., and "The Higher Neutrality", Punch, 2 Dec.) depict a wise-guy Irishman named Muirphaigh whose sole function is to enable Dunsany to mock the Irish Republic's position of neutrality in the war.

I should also add that 1942 was the year of publication of Islandia, extracted from the notebooks of its already deceased author, Austin Tappan Wright. Islandia is another story that's fantasy by courtesy, as there's no magic in it, but it describes, in awesome world-creating detail matched only by Tolkien, an imaginary country on an imaginary continent somewhere in the South Atlantic. Even in the abridged published version it's very long, and forms a kind of utopian wish-fulfillment, making Islandia the only novel I know that I would rather live through than read.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

calm and centered

The second annual Women's March is coming through our town on Saturday. B. has signed up to be a Safety Monitor, which means she can participate while being stationed at a particular spot, in her case in the park where the march is terminating, instead of walking a mile, which would be hard on her feet. She's received the same training and handouts given to the Peace Ambassadors, who are the front-line people for dealing with conflict and counter-protesters.

One of the handouts describes "The CLARA Method of De-Escalation" and particularly interested me, because it shows the very rare grasp of how to deal with angry people. (I'm referring here not to counter-protesters, who have a pre-arranged agenda, but to people who've gotten spontaneously angry just because they're PO'd about something.) The name is an acronym for 5 steps: 1, Calm and Center; 2, Listen; 3, Affirm; 4, Respond; 5, Add Information. A similar though not identical text to the handout is on p. 8-9 of this online PDF.

The handout says that most people tend to start with step 4, especially with hostile opponents, but in fact step 4 - which is "answer the question; respond to the issue the person raised" - would still be better than what most people do, which is the exact opposite of all five steps. The usual escalation of conflict technique, refined to perfection by employees of organizations whose procedures are designed to produce frustrated and angry patrons and customers, is: 1, Get Angry Yourself; 2, Don't Listen (pay no attention to the substance of the complaint; this shows that you don't care about the problem); 3, Deny Them Agency (by the time-honored technique of ordering them to calm down before anything else happens; this shows further that you're not interested in the substance of the issue and are only concerned with establishing your own dominance); 4-5, well, you don't even need to get to that, because by now you've riled up the other person so much that you can order them out of the building or slam down the phone, and thus be rid of them, which is all you really wanted anyway.

The CLARA handout says not to proceed beyond step 3, Affirm, "until the speaker has calmed down and seems willing to listen." This is so exactly right! What steps 2 and 3 do is show that you are interested in their complaint and that you do care about dealing with it. If you do that, they will calm down spontaneously. Really, it works! Remember that they didn't start out angry: they got angry out of frustration that their issues were not being dealt with. If you order them to calm down, you're just reinforcing that. Even if you can't solve the problem, showing concern or suggesting amelioration or workarounds can work wonders.

I'm far from a master of interpersonal communication, but when I've been the face of an organization and therefore responsible for speaking for it - as a reference librarian, or running a convention - I've employed these principles for dealing with complaints, a sort of home-brewed version of CLARA, with great success.

The one caution I would give concerns step 3, Affirm. This says, "Express the connection that you found when you listened ... The exact words don't matter." This is wise, but it can easily - too easily, I fear - be assimilated into a pop-psych technique of affirming by repeating back to the person what they said. That only works if it's done with exceptional skill; mostly it's either parroting the exact words (prefaced with "So what you're saying is ...") or some idiotically simple analysis ("You sound really angry"). What these fail to show, what you have to do, is that you've not just heard them but assimilated, understood, grasped the meaning of what they said, by putting it through your own mind and taking the next responsive step.

Monday, January 15, 2018


It seems appropriate to post something that is largely going to repeat a post I put up on this holiday a few years ago. And I'm going to have to change a link to go to the Internet Archive to do it. But it's worth it.

I commemorated MLK day by reading Dr. King's 1964 interview with Playboy (published in the January 1965 issue).

In the interview, Dr. King makes a lot of the same points he'd recently made in his Letter from Birmingham Jail and elsewhere, but why not, they needed to be repeated, and still need it today. His rhetorical style tends to the oratorical even in a one-on-one interview, but he doesn't put on a self-abnegatory show when asked to address personal matters, and he's willing to consider tactical and practical considerations as well as high moral ones. He also has the invaluable ability to issue the necessary caveats to his generalizations without getting sidetracked, sounding imbalanced, or otherwise losing the point. The same is true of his historical comparisons to causes not directly involving blacks; see, for instance, his reference to the Holocaust. I am also struck, mostly because I don't meet a lot of people like that and am always struck when I do, how thoroughly his theological training and his calling as a minister permeate the entirety of his thinking. This is an intellectual and moral force you're reading here, the way that Lincoln was one. Now you can see why King's name is also in our commemorative pantheon.

King has an interesting theory defending the morality of civil disobedience, which I've rarely seen stated so forthrightly, and towards the end he brings up the matter of social welfare spending, which is where I think he'd be most dismayed by the situation today. There's much else I could say about this, but I'll close here and just refer you to the interview for more.

Friday, January 12, 2018

English suites no. 19

No title could possibly sound duller and more academic than Four Pieces for Orchestra by Simon Jeffes. It's the kind of title you'd expect on some horrifying chunk of atonal modernism from the Second Viennese School. But nothing could be more unlike what you are about to hear.

Though Jeffes was classically trained, he wasn't really a classical musician. He was a free spirit who tried all the established forms of music, both classical and popular, of his time, and was dissatisfied with all of them. One day in 1972, in a delirium from food poisoning, he dreamed that he heard the words, "I am the proprietor of the Penguin Café. I will tell you things at random."

Through some logical process he was capable of discerning, this inspired Jeffes to found a scratch band called the Penguin Café Orchestra, to play little experimental pieces of his own composition. Its membership was variable, but a typical PCO lineup included a few violins and cellos, guitar and ukulele, perhaps some winds and a trombone, a drum kit, and a portative organ. It made quite an impact in the odder and more eccentric circles of British music before disbanding on Jeffes' early death from cancer in 1997.

Anyway, the Four Pieces for Orchestra are simply arrangements for full conventional orchestra of four of the PCO's greatest hits. There's a bit of "world music," a bit of pop, a bit of minimalism, a bit of a lot of things. If the minimalist repetition of the first movement gets to you, don't give up: the two slower movements that follow are quite different.

At least two of these pieces have achieved further life. I was reminded of Jeffes' work recently by hearing "Perpetuum Mobile" as the music closing the fourth episode of the HBO Handmaid's Tale. And "Music for a Found Harmonium" has actually entered the folk process. The title tells what it is, some noodling that Jeffes improvised on a harmonium he found abandoned on a street in Kyoto, Japan, during a PCO tour there. But what Jeffes didn't realize is that his tune was ideal for adaptation into an Irish reel. The all-star Irish band Patrick Street so adapted it: listen to this, it's hot stuff!

Since then it's been picked up by Irish and Irish-style folk musicians everywhere. (These guys have got a little surprise for you just after four minutes in.) Or, if you want to know what it sounded like when the Penguin Café Orchestra played it:

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Davis and Davies

Drove up to UC Davis today for some library research. It's easier to get in than either Berkeley or Stanford, and has some things they don't. It also has an entire viticulture collection, which strangely was one of my destinations.

Since I don't get there often, I marveled again at how exceedingly difficult they make it to figure out how to pay for your parking.

I picked today for this expedition so that it could be concluded by sidling over to Davies Hall in the City for an SFS concert. I had dinner in the less-known, but better, of the two seafood restaurants in the little mill-port town of Crockett, and set out the last 30 miles in at 6:30. Took just under an hour until I pulled into the garage parking lot two blocks away, which was doing pretty well.

The hall was not very full, and got emptier after intermission when the program took an esoteric turn and introduced Schoenberg. Emanuel Ax, who's 68 and looks older, nevertheless retained an elegant touch at the keyboard throughout two piano concertos, one by Mozart (K.449) that's rather fetching, and Schoenberg's, which isn't. Schoenberg is a bright and colorful orchestrator, to be sure, but that's all I found attractive here.

MTT bookended the lot with two war ponies, the Leonore No. 3 and Till Eulenspiegel. (Ludwig van Beethoven and Richard Strauss, respectively.) Leonore's trumpet call from the tower was played from the top balcony, out in the hall with the door half-open for the first, softer, appearance, and inside for the second.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

King Albert the Not

This is just a little historical notice that's come to my attention.

When Queen Victoria died in 1901, her eldest son, Prince Albert Edward - who'd been known throughout his life to his intimates as "Bertie" - took the throne not under the name Albert, but as Edward VII. He gave a gracious accession speech explaining why. "He did not, he said, undervalue the name of Albert," which had been his father's name, "but there could be only one Albert," that late father of his. "He intended, therefore, to be known in future as Edward, a name borne by six of his predecessors." (Philip Magnus, King Edward the Seventh, p. 271)

One occasionally sees statements that this was Victoria's intention, that there should be only one Albert, her beloved husband. But if that were the case, why did she name her son Albert?

In fact, that's the opposite of the truth. Victoria had named her son and heir Albert (for her husband) Edward (for her father), and insisted that he name his eldest son and heir the even more self-aggrandizing Albert Victor, with the full intention that they would reign as the double-barreled Albert Edward I, Albert Victor I, and likewise down through the depths of time. (Magnus p. 85) This plan was thwarted when Albert Victor died young, but Victoria's stamp remained: she wanted all her descendants to bear the name Albert or Victoria (or Victor or Alberta) somewhere within their often-numerous forenames, and during her lifetime this was largely adhered to. (Did you know that her grandson Kaiser Wilhelm II's full given name was Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert?)

It's well-known that the easygoing Bertie chafed at his parents' formidable fit-for-a-king upbringing. It's clear, too, though nothing is said explicitly, that he also chafed at being smothered by their names. There's several pieces of evidence for this:

1. Bertie "avoided carefully making any promise" to his mother about what the regnal names should be. (Magnus p. 85)

2. The common use name that Albert Victor's parents, and the boy's subsequent intimates, used for him informally was neither of these, but Eddy.

3. The interesting fact that the ukase decreeing the use of the names Albert and Victoria did not survive the Queen's death. All 3 of Bertie's sons bore the name Albert somewhere among the forenames, and all 3 of his daughters Victoria likewise, but of his grandchildren, the 6 born before the Queen's death all had Albert or Victoria, but the 3 born afterwards all didn't. This pattern was not entirely consistent among Victoria's other descendants, but it roughly held.

4. And Edward VII's accession speech, gracefully phrased as a tribute to his father but which served to get him out of the shadow of the name.

Victoria herself could have guessed this would happen. At the insistence of the then-Prince Regent, she had been christened Alexandrina Victoria, Alexandrina for her godfather, the Czar Alexander I, and Victoria as a sop to her mother whose name that was, but after infancy Alexandrina was entirely dropped and she was known purely as Victoria. (Julia Baird, Victoria the Queen, p. 17)

Edward VII's successors George V and Edward VIII had the "Albert" buried in their middle names somewhere, but at the latter's abdication, another first-named Albert-called-Bertie came to the throne. So what did he do? Followed his grandfather's example, chose the previously-used one among his middle names, and reigned as George VI.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

English suites no. 18

This entry is not a retelling of ancient music. It's pastiche. It's the musical facet of a 1950s scrub-brush-clean image of medieval or Renaissance times.

William Walton began his career in the 1920s as a continentally-oriented urbane sophisticate of a composer. He was the kind of person who hung out with the Sitwells, and indeed his most famous early work was a setting of Edith's verse.

But later his image changed to something more insular and home-grown. It may have been the exceedingly popular heartily English march Walton wrote for the coronation of George VI in 1937 that inspired Laurence Olivier to commission Walton to create the music for all three of Olivier's epic Shakespeare films of 1944-55.

The Shakespeare Suite (so titled by the conductor who put it together a few years later: Walton held that film music should stay in films) is a compilation from the incidental music to Olivier's Richard III from 1955. At most it's pseudo-Shakespearean, a major part of what marks the movie as a product of its time. But it's good stuff. It follows an epic and rather long prelude, mostly taken from the title music, which you can go back and listen to also if you like. But it's the suite that has the charm I'm looking for in this series. This is a rather broader and calmer performance than the one on the soundtrack.

The movements are titled: Fanfare (7:44), Music Plays (8:22), The Princes in the Tower (10:18), With Drums and Colours (13:14), I Would I Knew Thy Heart (14:38), and Trumpets Sound (18:28).

Sunday, January 7, 2018

you never live it down

A thought that occurs to me on looking at today's celebrity obituaries.

Here's actor and comedian Jerry Van Dyke. Can they mention his even more famous brother without implying that Jerry spent his career in Dick's shadow? They can. But they can't avoid naming the biggest embarrassment in Jerry's career: My Mother the Car. Almost as embarrassing is this personal admission: I watched that show.

And here's astronaut John Young. Not one of the biggest celebrities among the early astronauts, he was nevertheless an important pioneer in spaceflight. They mention he walked on the Moon, they mention that he was the first-ever commander of a space shuttle flight. But they don't mention that he was the first to fly solo in lunar orbit, or the second pilot ever to dock his spacecraft in flight (the first was Neil Armstrong). That stuff gets left out. So what do they expend more words on than anything else? The corned-beef sandwich. On the first manned Gemini flight (another pioneering checkmark for Young), he hid a take-out corned beef sandwich in his spacesuit pocket, and pulled it out in flight for his commander, Gus Grissom, to take a bite. Though this was not the first sandwich to fly in space, NASA threw a fit over crumbs floating around and getting in sensitive equipment. Young never lived it down. Even death did not release him.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

English suites no. 17

It's another 20th-century retelling of Renaissance music: Edmund Rubbra's Improvisations on Virginal Pieces by Giles Farnaby. Rubbra (1901-1986) was a generally seriously-minded modern composer who occasionally broke out into charm like this; Farnaby (1563-1640) was an Elizabethan composer who contributed extensively to the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, a collection of keyboard music which was a source for both this work and Richard Strauss's opera Die schweigsame Frau.

The pieces are: Farnaby's Conceit (0.00), His Dreame (3.33), His Humour (6.26), Loth to Depart (8.51), and Tell Me, Daphne (12.44).

Friday, January 5, 2018


There are certain medical procedures which have a reputation in the popular culture as being outstandingly painful or agonizing to go through. I can now add a third one to the list that I found no more than ... definitely uncomfortable. I wouldn't welcome it, but there was nothing searing about it.

1. Prostate exam
2. MRI
3. Root canal surgery

On the other hand, there's something non-medical that we're always told is easy to do, and ought to be easy, but which is instead always difficult, frustrating, time-consuming, even infuriating; and that thing is:

1. Electronic device migration

By which I mean, setting up to your preferences, learning the new protocols of, and transferring your programs and data to a new computer, cell phone, or other electronic device. The programs I use at work, which all manipulate a database format that has been standardized for literally fifty years, are the same way: they don't import the data from the old program accurately, and they require entirely new ways of accessing and editing it. (One of many reasons I dread the prospect of getting a smartphone, on which migration to a new device is likely to be frequent and, past experience suggests, particularly nightmarish.)

Thursday, January 4, 2018

theatre review

An inspiration took me to go see the national touring company of the recent Broadway musical Something Rotten! The nearest it was coming to me, at least on this round, was Sacramento, so thither I went today. Sacto is a two-hour drive from here at the best of times, which dictated a weekday matinee for me. I feared it would be somnolent, but an appreciative audience of all ages (including children: perhaps schools are still on winter break?) and a skilled cast with energy and enthusiasm assured it was not.

As a meta-show about Shakespeare, filled with deliberate anachronisms, this work occupies a conceptual space close to Shakespeare in Love, only less clever and less light-handed. The principal characters are a pair of journeyman play-writing brothers in 1590s London, struggling to make their way in a show biz dominated by Shakespeare, who is depicted as an acclaimed glam-style rock star with all the patina of unique renown that the real Shakespeare didn't acquire until he was more than a century dead. This Shakespeare pleases rapturous fans by giving rapper-style concerts consisting of repeating famous lines from his early plays. He also, it appears, has plagiarized most of his output, especially from our heroes.

Frustrated, one of the brothers consults a soothsayer, asking him to identify Shakespeare's greatest as-yet-unwritten play, so that he can plagiarize it back. The soothsayer's crystal ball is cloudy, and the best he can come up with is something about a ham omelette, so that's the topic of what the brothers put on. The crystal ball also produces a number of lines and references from far-future musicals, from The Sound of Music to Cats, which also find their way into the production, puzzling the recipients rather in the manner of the Roach in Dave Sim's Cerebus receiving intimations of (as of the date the story takes place) yet-unwritten comic book superheroes.

It was fast-paced, and silly, and bawdy, and full of rocked-up songs that were energetic without being either memorable or dull. I did learn, however, that the co-author was responsible for the screenplays of the movies of The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The Spiderwick Chronicles, which are not achievements I would point to with pride. This musical was at least better than those. I am not at all unhappy I saw this, but going to Sacramento for the likes of it is not a thing I would wish to do very often.