Wednesday, February 8, 2023

massive book review

No, the book is massive, not the review. It's Watchmen Annotated, edited by Leslie S. Klinger (DC Comics, 2017). It's 12 inches square, over one inch thick, and I felt as if I needed a handtruck to extract it from the public library. It contains the complete text and line drawing of the classic graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons - but not any of the color! - with wide margins to put the annotations in.

I view annotated editions with a skeptical eye. Too many of them are useless, omitting far too many useful points and including mostly superfluous ones. I once glanced at an annotated Sandman that fit that description. This one appeared somewhat better. Written without Moore's participation but with plenty of help from Gibbons, including access to his copies of Moore's scripts, it has lots of useful analysis from the point of view of the artist interpreting the script. There are many annotations pointing out small things in the background, giving full texts of headlines and posters and graffiti that you can't quite read on the page, occasional patterns in the art and layout, observations of the relevance of paintings on the walls of the rooms where the scene is taking place, and other matters easily overlooked by a casual reader. The sugar cubes in Dan's kitchen are a continuing theme of oddly emphasized importance.

Some annotations specifically mention the art. Klinger seems anxious to chart the change in the shape of Rorschach's word balloons depending on whether he's wearing his mask, and is even more determined to point out every one of the very occasional use of motion lines.

Changes in the script are sometimes noted (not always with an indication of who changed it), and quotations from Moore's descriptions of scenes are valuable for imparting knowledge of what he wants the viewer to get out of it, which isn't necessarily obvious. One wishes for more of that.

As the book goes on, more and more of the annotations are simply explanations of real-world things alluded to in the text or art. Most of these will not be needed by anyone who was already an adult in the 1980s when this was first published. To my knowledge they're mostly accurate, though a few are a little odd. When Laurie, out with Dan rescuing civilians from a fire, tells them she's "Smokey the Bear's secret mistress," there's an annotation whose main point seems to be that Smokey Bear and Smokey the Bear, though the same character, are completely different names. When Adrian famously tells Dan "I'm not a Republic serial villain," the annotation explains all about Republic Pictures but without saying a word confirming, denying, or expounding on their villains' purported tendency to reveal their secret plans to the heroes.

There isn't a lot expounding the plot, though there are a few rather coy references in the beginning to "the End-Is-Nigh man." My favorite annotation is at the point where Rorschach, encountering his landlady Mrs. Shairp, looks at her crying, snot-nosed kid and, perhaps remembering his own blighted childhood, leaves off berating her for traducing him. Klinger's annotation says, "This is a powerful moment, in which the uncompromising Rorschach ... remains silent. Perhaps his sessions with Dr. Long in prison had an effect after all."

The best anecdote in the book, in a footnote in the introduction, concerns not Gibbons or Moore at all but Neil Gaiman. Gaiman was at a party and met a literary editor who looked down on him when learning he wrote comic books, until realizing he was talking to the author of Sandman. "My dear fellow," he says, "you don't write comics, you write graphic novels."

Monday, February 6, 2023

concert review: David Finckel and Wu Han

David Finckel and Wu Han are more than a duo who go around playing sonatas for cello and piano. Finckel was for many years the cellist of the renowned Emerson Quartet, and he left that group to spend more of his time playing other things, including recitals like this one, and to allow himself and Wu Han to focus further on their work as artistic administrators. They run the Music@Menlo festival out here in California every summer and also program the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in NYC where they live. And they've been married for over 35 years. But they're both active as performers in their festivals, and they still play recitals also. I got to this one on Sunday in Hertz Hall at UC Berkeley - a favorite venue of theirs, Wu Han said in introducing the concert. It's a simple raked auditorium, small enough to project soloists to the top of the back where I was sitting, and the acoustics are good. It was pretty well packed for this concert.

Menlo concerts are usually for larger ensembles, but they're often like this: a lot of standard repertoire classics, something that ought to be a classic but you haven't heard it, and a bit of new music. Of the two 19th century works on this program, Brahms's Sonata No. 2 in F, Op. 99 is the standard, and Saint-Saëns's Sonata No. 1 in C minor, Op. 32 is the one I hadn't heard before. It's got more of the dark energy that animates a work like the Organ Symphony than do most of the other Saint-Saëns chamber works I've heard and consequently it could be as well German as French. Paradoxically it made the Brahms sound more superfluous than it does when played with the other Brahms cello sonata, Op. 38. Especially because of the similar procedure of each work's slow movement, with one instrument playing a lyric theme against a background of detached "raindrop" notes from the other. Saint-Saëns is more systematic about switching the two roles back and forth, and he's more clever and light-hearted about it, because who wouldn't be more of those things than Brahms? I like Brahms, but the Saint-Saëns was the more outstanding piece in this half.

Throughout both these works, Finckel kept the same sober, calm, rich and full tone coming out of his cello no matter what was going on, while Wu Han attacked the piano part with the animated blaze that always characterizes her playing.

The other half was more recent material. Shostakovich's Sonata in D minor, Op. 40 is actually an early work, just predating the first time the Soviet regime denounced his music, and consequently has a bit of an innocent air. This is especially obvious in the Largo, which is lyrical without the anguish that characterizes his later work. (A similar air suffused the encore, the Andante from Rachmaninoff's G minor Sonata, Op. 19, except that Rachmaninoff lets the piano go on a lot longer.) But Shostakovich's scherzo is every bit as violent as the later ones that are supposed to be portraits of Stalin, and the finale has the cheekiness that was in his work from the beginning. Wu Han gave this piece the same drive that she employed in the other works, while Finckel varied his cello tone more, giving a welcome expressiveness.

The concert was filled out with two movements from a work recently commissioned for these performers, Ephemeral Objects by Pierre Jalbert (US-American, Quebecois ancestry). The performers wanted a suite of seven movements contrasting sufficiently that any selection of them in any order could be put in a concert depending on what would fit. Jalbert went along with this utilitarian plan, and we heard two movements on Sunday: a slow one featuring Wu Han reaching into the piano to pluck or thump on the strings, and a jagged scherzo that outfoxed Shostakovich the way that Saint-Saëns outfoxed Brahms.

Have I conveyed just how skillful and experienced, in terms of knowing how to express the music, the playing was? This was a bit of a rarefied recital, though less so than some chamber music concerts I've heard at Hertz, but it was well worth the expedition into Berkeley for it.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

another useless list

Monarchs of England/Great Britain since the Conquest, in order of age at the time of accession.

0 Henry VI, 1422
9 Henry III, 1216; Edward VI, 1547
10 Richard II, 1377
12 Edward V, 1483
14 Edward III, 1327
18 Edward IV, 1461; Henry VIII, 1509; Victoria, 1837
21 Henry II, 1154
22 George III, 1760
23 Edward II, 1307
24 Charles I, 1625
25 Henry V, 1413; Elizabeth I, 1558; Elizabeth II, 1952
26 Mary II, 1689
26-31 William II, 1087 (birthdate uncertain)
28 Henry VII, 1485
30 Richard III, 1483; Charles II, 1660
31 Richard I, 1189; John, 1199
32 Henry I, 1100; Henry IV, 1399
33 Edward I, 1272
36 James I, 1603
37 Mary I, 1553; Anne, 1702
38 William I, 1066; William III, 1689
39 Stephen, 1135
40 George VI, 1936
41 Edward VIII, 1936
43 George II, 1727
44 George V, 1910
51 James II, 1685
54 George I, 1714
57 George IV, 1820
59 Edward VII, 1901
64 William IV, 1830
73 Charles III, 2022

Saturday, February 4, 2023

concert review: Remembering Geoff Nuttall

I've mentioned before about the death of Geoff Nuttall, first violinist of the Stanford-based St. Lawrence Quartet. He was one of those vital forces of nature who's really missed. Curious as to what the quartet was going to do about their next concert scheduled for Jan. 29, I checked their schedule and found they'd replaced it with a "Remembering Geoff Nuttall" event. I decided to go. It was ticketless but they asked for RSVPs, mostly to figure out what attendance would be. I signed up.

The day before the event, I got an e-mail from the sponsors. It said there would probably be more attendees than could fit in the hall. It said they'd put it on a screen in the lobby, and it also provided a private link to watch it at home. I'd been prepared to show up hours early and wait, but on this news I decided to stay home and watch it there. Good thing, too. It lasted 2.5 hours without intermission, and I favor breaks. I took one while some guy who did not identify himself was rambling on and on and on, and when I came back he was still rambling. I did miss the reception afterwards, but receptions with people I don't know personally have always been difficult for me, and tougher under covid.

There was a program list online with eleven musical items, and it turned out they were interleaved with talks between each pair of items. The first piece was a Haydn symphony movement with about 20 chamber musicians, all friends of Geoff - including all the other 6 people who've ever been long-time members of the St. Lawrence Quartet, one of them their first cellist who retired 20 years ago.

Then Geoff's wife, Livia Sohn, who was one of the violinists in the Haydn ensemble, stepped to a microphone and said that Geoff hadn't wanted a memorial but she talked him into permitting it. But he set a couple of conditions: nobody wears black - most had colorful shirts like Geoff himself liked to wear, and Livia was in a bright orange dress, his favorite color - and that there should be more music than talking.

That latter condition was not met. Some of the speakers went on awfully long. Others were good to hear from, like St. Lawrence violist Lesley Robertson, who unlike her colleagues never speaks to the audience at concerts. Some of what was said I jotted down and preserved in the review - really more a report - that I wrote for the Daily Journal and, if you can access it, is here.

Checking for other videos on Vimeo, I came across one recorded a couple years ago by Barry Shiffman, former second violinist with the quartet (he played in the memorial ensemble but didn't speak) talking about how the St. Lawrence would be appearing at some festival he runs (his main activity these days). And he said something about Geoff which captures his character:
There's nobody I know that loves the music of Joseph Haydn more than the first violinist of the St. Lawrence Quartet, Geoff Nuttall. There's an almost religious zeal that he has when he talks about Haydn. It's as though he knows him like his brother, like his best friend. And having been able to sit beside Geoff for years in the quartet, and feel that excitement that he has for this music, was one of the more exhilarating memories I have of my time in the quartet.
There were no regular chamber ensemble pieces in the event. I think they wanted to avoid anything from which Geoff's absence would be too conspicuous. Livia was the only violinist who played a solo piece. There were a few cellists, and some singers. Besides a Purcell aria and a Rachmaninoff concert song, and the premiere of a Shelley setting by frequent St. Lawrence collaborator Osvaldo Golijov, who was there as was his piece (he's infamous for missing deadlines), there were a couple non-classical items. Tenor Paul Groves, who sang the Rachmaninoff, tried to rouse the audience up in "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey, but I don't know the song so I was unmoved. On the other hand, when Vienna Teng sat at the piano and sang her song "Level Up," despite her being unfamiliar to me I thought, I'd heard this song before. And yep, when I checked later I recognized having watched the video once, at somebody's recommendation. It was, in any case, appropriate for the Geoff Nuttall memorial, as it has the most determinedly upbeat lyrics of any song I've ever heard.

Friday, February 3, 2023

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

I'm not sure how to describe the piece I heard last night. The program notes call it a song cycle, but that's hardly an adequate description. Though the composer, Gabriel Kahane, is the son of conductor and pianist Jeffrey Kahane, his creative base is closer to popular music than classical, though this is not his first classical ensemble piece.

The title, pretentiously eschewing capital letters, is emergency shelter intake form, which sounds like some kind of post-nuclear holocaust hellscape, but it's actually a form that homeless people have to fill out to get a bed for the night, and that's what the piece is all about. The bulk of the text is questions from such a form, morphing into evocations of the emotional impact. "Have you ever been evicted? How many times? If yes, how did it feel to hold the pink paper as you stood in the melting snow where men in coveralls tossed your belongings onto the pavement?" This material was sung by mezzo Alicia Hall Moran, in an incongruously plummy tone, in a close to monotonic semi-chant. There was also a "Chorus of Inconvenient Statistics," three non-classical singers including the composer, who interjected into this, and also sang (as soloists) two long inserted songs, more in pop song style and with actual melodic content: one sarcastically attacking NIMBY opposition to affordable housing developments and the other telling the story of the sub-prime mortgage loan crisis, lengthily and incomprehensibly, as like all such tellings it assumes you already know what they're talking about. (e.g. "Say you've got yourself a pile of different loans ..." but who is "you"? It never says.)

Leaving aside the rants, the material in bureaucratic format, with the cruel conclusion ("For enduring this and more" we're offering you a bed for tonight "in a concrete church basement ... You will need to be gone by 6:30 AM") is an effectively bleak evocation of life at that level. The tone is similar to that of John Scalzi's piece "Being Poor." Overall, yes, it was an effective message work.

The orchestral accompaniment is in a style hard to describe. Except for a few deliberately dissonant spots, it's thoroughly tonal, but it's not like any other music I'm familiar with. It might be said to be distantly descended from mid-20C American nationalist music.

It lasted close to an hour, which isn't quite enough for an evening symphony concert, so they paired it with Gershwin's Concerto in F. The orchestra, led by Edwin Outwater, did well enough, but it was pianist Conrad Tao who really had the Gershwin swing. The music brightened up considerably whenever he began playing.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

all sketchy ideas are contained in ...

I'm thinking of taking a trip. This would probably be in late May. This trip would require airplanes, two of them in each direction, with a layover. About 9 hours with the layover.

What I'd like the group wisdom on is, would this be a reasonable risk for somebody like myself - no longer young, no longer in robust health, and thus accordingly more vulnerable - to take who has not had the Covid and wishes not to get it?

I'm less concerned about another trip I'm thinking of with a short, single-hop flight, but the problems with this one are the 3 airports in each direction instead of 2 - I'm told the airports are more risky than the flights - and that I wouldn't be able to keep my mask on at all times, because I can't spend 12 hours (the effective length of the trip) without eating.

My heart wants to take this trip, but my head is skeptical of its feasibility. What do you think?

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

concert review: Third Coast Percussion

SFCV publishes its weekly "push" to subscribers on Tuesdays, so reviews of concerts over the weekend have to be turned in in time to be edited and published then. Reviews of weekday concerts are usually handled in the course of the week, but for whatever scheduling reasons, this review of a Wednesday concert, which I turned in Friday morning, didn't appear until this next Tuesday.

I'd seen Third Coast Percussion perform before, but this was the first time I was reviewing them. I felt rather like I was skating on the edge trying to describe the individual character of these pieces. Listened to on one set of preconceptions, they all sound alike, almost indistinguishable. But by another, closer listening, they reveal vast stylistic differences, mostly in their treatment of how the players' rhythms relate to each other, and that's what I was trying to command the language necessary to describe.

I was also a little flummoxed on describing the style of the composer Jlin, who has no classical training at all, working in forms of popular music that are completely foreign territory to me. The program notes said her sound "is rooted in Chicago's iconic footwork style," which sounds as if the reader is supposed to know what that is. But I'd never heard of it. Looking it up, I find it derives from something called house music. I don't know what that is, either.

I'm always ready to use technical stylistic terms like Impressionism and atonal music in my reviews, even though some of my readers may have no idea what those sound like. I know what they are. But I'm not going to employ terms that mean nothing to me as if I know them equally well, and I'm not going to write something like "whatever that is" in a professional review.

I was accordingly driven back to generalities. All these unknown things seem to be dance music typically played in clubs, so that's what I wrote that Jlin's background was in. It was the editor who put in "a style called 'footwork'", which communicates the "whatever that is" attitude without saying so explicitly.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

hard times of old Ashland

A couple weeks ago, those of us who are members of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (now they call us "change makers," blegh) received an e-mail signed by the Artistic Director announcing that the Executive Director, who runs the business side of the organization, has abruptly resigned, and that the "restructuring" this is part of also "unfortunately, include[s] 12 staff separations and 7 employee furloughs, as well as putting a stop or delay on hiring 18 open positions."

Holy bard! What is going on here? The rest of the text was administrative blither that doesn't really make sense to an outside observer: "a necessary part of stabilizing the organization as we turn our focus toward building a solid infrastructure to address inherited structural deficits, aligning budget to post-pandemic industry realities," yadda yadda whatever that means.

Then we get an invitation to a webinar to discuss this further with the Artistic Director and the newly-promoted interim COO. That was yesterday afternoon on Zoom. It didn't begin well. Asked by the moderator to explain the Executive Director's departure, the Artistic Director talked about how much she had valued his work. A question immediately appeared in the Q&A, "Yes, but why did he leave?" which was never addressed though several later-posted queries were.

After that, though, they got down to a more straightforward English-language discussion of what it said in bureaucratese in the e-mail. OSF is in financial crisis. It's actually been in more trouble for many years than it appeared - this was hidden due to a practice of listing the value of its capital assets, like buildings, among its financial assets - but it's the post-pandemic era that has really pressed this. During the pandemic, no theater was going on so little money was being spent, but last year's season was severely overproduced considering that only 45% of the pre-pandemic audience showed up. (We were there in September and noted how unusually empty the theaters were.)

Next year's season will have fewer productions, and a couple planned ones were additionally canceled, but that turned out not to be enough. Thus layoffs. And now they want to rebuild the relationship between the artistic and business sides. I was quite surprised that they need to do so: I'd never pictured OSF as the kind of organization which keeps finance and artistry strictly separate, not expecting the artistic staff to worry their little heads about how much money there is and to mutely accept budgetary dictates while the business side meanwhile doesn't ask how these dictates will affect productions. Now they want decisions to be made in mutual discussions. Well, duh.

This already began last year. One of the shows of the cancelled 2020 season was to have been a guest production by the Upstart Crow Collective of the Henry VI trilogy. OSF wanted Upstart Crow to appear in 2022, but decided that the big Henry VI was too expensive, so the groups worked out a revival of an old Upstart Crow production of King John instead. We saw that and it was an outstandingly good show.

Various other points were addressed, including why the "change makers" nonsense (originally it was supposed to be a new alternative to membership, but it got changed to a replacement when the Artistic Director wasn't looking, and after that it was too much work to change back), but what really got the Artistic Director and COO - who are both Black women, by the way - hopped up was responding to some catty comments they've gotten denigrating the production of new plays and of "woke" attitudes. They found this insulting, and pointed out that OSF has always put on new plays, starting in 1951 with Death of a Salesman. I chimed in in comments by saying there was no more "woke" period in OSF's history than the 1970s, when the then Artistic Director put on plays about burning contemporary issues like Vietnam or apartheid every year, it seemed. So there's nothing new about this. It's an OSF tradition.

So OSF's goals are to run more effectively, to seek more sources of funding and partnership, and to increase outreach: more touring productions, experiments with online theater, using that to involve people who can't come back, convincing new audiences to come. The Artistic Director cited her dental hygienist back in her hometown of LA, a young white woman who comes from this area and visits often but has only been to OSF once. Well, why not more? It's for rich people, she says. Gotta get past that attitude.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Oscar the grouch

I've seen four and a bit of a fifth of the movies nominated in this year's Academy Awards, which is more than average for me. I saw Tár because I was curious to see a movie about a symphony conductor. I found it intriguing but baffling. I saw Everything Everywhere All At Once because it was highly praised in circles I frequent. I found it clotted and unnecessarily incoherent: it tried but failed to make its messiness a delight. I saw Turning Red because it was supposed to be a good animation about a girl on the fringe of adolescence: not bad, but a sad runner-up in a world with Encanto in it. I saw Top Gun: Maverick for the heck of it, because I'd enjoyed other recent Tom Cruise blockbusters: also not bad, and far more watchable than its predecessor, but the plot was naked button-pushing that broke the implausibility meter. Other action movies go over the top with glee and gusto; this one just went. And I started Glass Onion, because it also has been highly praised in circles I frequent, and the opening scenes were impressively imaginative, but it soon settled down to being a country-house murder mystery, a genre I have no interest in, so I turned it off. And Daniel Craig was hideously miscast. To think he used to play James Bond, yeesh.

There's not much else on the nomination list I want to see. I might see The Fabelmans mostly because I'm curious about an autobiographical film by someone who used to live in my neck of the woods. I don't want to see Avatar: The Way of Water because one of those was enough. I don't want to see The Banshees of Inisherin because I don't want to see a movie about friends having a gruesome argument. I don't want to see Living because I don't want to see a depressing story that's merely a showcase for great acting. And I don't want to see Women Talking because I already know that men are scum, I don't need it pounded in.

Monday, January 23, 2023

let there be updates

So I recently wrote about a piano recital of Chopin scherzos, "During Scherzo No. 3, heavy knocking sounds were occasionally heard, as if someone was pounding on a door backstage. Deljavan ignored it. But when it recurred at the start of No. 4, he stopped playing, walked offstage, came back five minutes later and resumed, with no explanation then or later."

Today comes an e-mail from the president of the presenting organization, who writes, "I would like to personally offer my sincere apologies for the disruptions that occurred during the Alessandro Deljavan concert on Saturday night. We very much regret these disruptions." Still no explanation of the knocking sounds.

So my next concert is a review at a venue which has ceased giving out printed programs at concerts. They put up a sign with a QR code in the lobby and invite you to scan that. For those who are not thus equipped, or who simply don't care to read program notes on a smartphone, in both of which categories I put myself, they've put up the program notes on their website in advance. But this time, I found no notes.

So I wrote this morning and asked, first carefully confirming on their press info webpage that the contact person is still the same. Only to get an automated e-mail reply that this person is no longer with the organization and that I should write someone else. So I wrote the new person. And got a response that it's up at a different page. Which, I noticed when I went there, was date stamped this morning.