Thursday, July 22, 2021

another Menlo concert

I thought I was done with Menlo, but the press officer invited me to Wednesday's "Prelude" concert, so I went.

Prelude concerts are performed by the young professionals of the International Program, and in normal years they precede the mainstage concerts, thus the name. But this year they're tucked in midweek, and there are only 6 players - 2 violin, 2 cello, 2 piano - so in place of the usual mix-and-match they're stuck playing programs of 2 piano trios. (Their ethnic makeup is interesting also: 5 women of East Asian origin or ancestry, and 1 African-American man.)

Furthermore, the musicians have also been put on the mainstage programs this year, something only tentatively tried out before, so I've heard most of them already.

This program contained two of the trios from Beethoven's Op. 1, in which you can hear him just beginning to figure out how to sound like Beethoven. Fine performances, restrained technically but full of drive and enthusiasm which kept the music from sounding routine.

Also, little trace of the overbearing-piano acoustical issues I'd noted before. The piano tended to be too strong in the tutti chords, but that was about it: no driving the strings aurally offstage or anything like that. I must presume the artists had heard the previous concerts and learned to adjust for the hall: they certainly wouldn't have needed my review to describe the problem. I heard similar adjustments over the first season in Bing, so this is normal.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Ireland and Brexit

I've been thinking about the dilemma of what to do about Northern Ireland under the Brexit regime, and how that turned out.

This was the surprise dilemma of Brexit. Nobody discussed it during the referendum campaign. But it became a huge problem during negotiations, because there were only three solutions, none of them at all acceptable.

If the UK was going to free itself from EU goods regulations, there would have to be a customs regime between Great Britain and the Continent, everybody accepted that. (Though in practice it turns out that many of them don't like it very much.) But what about Northern Ireland, which is on the island of Ireland but part of the UK? The three solutions were:

1. Re-establish a hard border, a customs regime, along the land border between NI and the Republic of Ireland. This would be a direct violation of the Good Friday Agreement which brought something resembling peace to the island after thirty years of Troubles, it would exacerbate tensions among the communities, it would impede travel and trade, it would encourage smuggling, and bring back the bad old days that its elimination got rid of. So that's out.

2. Keep NI in the EU regime while Great Britain leaves it. This would be equivalent to erecting a customs regime down the Irish Sea. This would violate the Ulster unionist proviso that NI is an integral part of the UK and tend to weaken its links, with its possible eventual separation. Which some would want, but the unionists are wholly against. So that's out.

3. Eliminate the necessity for a customs regime by keeping the UK under EU goods regulations. But that would delete the whole point of having Brexit in the first place, which they'd just voted for. So that's out.

Throughout the negotiations, the UK kept trying to fudge the question, but eventually when it came down to it, they picked option #2, the border down the Irish Sea. And I think I can see why they did that: because it offended the fewest people. Option 1 would offend everybody on the island of Ireland, both sides of the border. Option 3 would offend everybody in Great Britain who voted for Brexit. But option 2 only really offends the DUP, the extreme Ulster unionist party, and they can lump it.

Incidentally, it seems to me that if the unionists are so eager to be an integral part of the UK, they could start by joining the UK polity and having the same political parties the rest of the UK does. True, Scotland has the Scottish Nationalists, but as its name states, that's the people who want to leave the UK. Scots who want to stay have a choice of the same parties that the rest of the country does. But they hardly exist in NI: instead there's this confusing and oft-changing welter of unionist and semi-unionist groups with no relation to anybody else.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

live and in print

And here it is, my first review of a live, in-person music concert in nearly 17 months. As I remarked in turning it in to my editor, it feels real good to be back in harness.

This was not only the first Menlo festival weekend in two years, it was also our first review of their new hall, so I was requested to review the hall as much as the music. That I could do, though don't imagine that hearing Schubert's "Trout" Quintet, which is for piano and strings, in the same hall two days earlier didn't enlighten my opinion of the acoustics of both strings and piano in this concert.

But that review is for another venue and won't be coming out for a few days yet. This one has to stand on its own.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

memos from the posthumous self

Yesterday (more about the concerts later) Menlo held a lecture/discussion session on Schubert, and one question that was asked the presenter was, what do you think Schubert would have written had he lived longer than his ridiculously abbreviated life?

And the reply was, that while we can't possibly imagine what Mozart would have written had he lived to a reasonable age, Schubert is different. The speaker advanced an idea, which he attributed to a mentor of his, that since Schubert had known for some time that he was dying, his massive outpouring of late works - the string quintet, the last piano sonatas, the late song cycles, and more - were an attempt to squeeze out everything he had in him. You could think of them as memos from the posthumous Schubert - this is what I would have written more of in the future, had I lived. That if he had lived, it might have taken longer to write even these, because he wouldn't have been in such a terrible hurry.

And it occurs to me to contrast this with other composers: Mendelssohn, who also died young. You can hear in his last works - I'm thinking particularly of the string quartet op. 80 - a new direction in his composition; that if he'd lived he would have evolved into a very different composer from the Mendelssohn we think we know. But I hear op. 80 not as a posthumous memo, in the way the Schubert works are postulated, but simply as a road sign indicating the direction Mendelssohn was traveling.

You could say the same of Beethoven, who was not cut off anywhere near so early but could also have easily lived much longer than he did. There was a fourth period looming up in his work, but he never quite got there.

Friday, July 16, 2021

if Tolkien is ...

A recent conversation presented me with a chance to answer the question, "If Tolkien is my favorite fantasy author, who are my other favorites?"

To answer this, I'm going to have to turn back to a long-ago time, before recent fantasy giants like Martin and Pratchett, before even Donaldson and Brooks, not quite before the Ballantine Unicorn's Head series but before I was aware of it, and report on my perplexity at the recommendations I was getting from friends and helpful librarians for "things like Tolkien" to read after him. They were sword-and-sorcery authors like Robert E. Howard, and the likes of comic-book superheroes. I tried these things, but I was not even remotely attracted to them. I could see the superficial resemblance - battles involving mighty heroes, often in a semi-barbarian pseudo-medieval landscape - but that's not what Tolkien was about, or what he was like. They were badly written, crudely plotted, and their heroes were all like Boromir. The likes of Frodo and Sam didn't even exist there. They only had the crude surface resemblance, and not what I went to Tolkien for: his soul, his depth of creativity, his sense of morality. I quickly learned that surface resemblance has nothing to do with what makes Tolkien distinctive or worthwhile. That inoculated me against falling for all the Tolclones to come just because they were Tolclones, as so many did (and the Jackson movies are Tolclones in that respect).

What gave Tolkien quality I learned when I read the original Earthsea books by Ursula K. Le Guin. These books were not very like Tolkien in surface appearance, but they had the depth of creative impulse, and a sure sense of moral imperative. Le Guin's moral principles were different from Tolkien's, but they were consistent, and morally defensible, and above all they were palpable. That's what taught me that a coherent moral vision was what made for a real resemblance to Tolkien.

If you wonder more about what I mean by Tolkien's moral vision, I mean "That which George R.R. Martin's fans praise him for lacking." Oh yes they do.

But in fact I wasn't much of a fantasy reader in those days. What I read mostly was history. And in The Lord of the Rings what drew me most was the palpable sense of a realistic history of almost unfathomable depth and complexity. I turned to Appendices A-C with the eagerness than others devoted to the linguistic appendices, E and F. I did things like create comparative timeline charts for the kings of Arnor, Gondor, and Rohan, the same way as I'd done for England, France, and Spain.

But eventually I learned something else. I learned that historical appendices do no good if they aren't at the service of a great and meaningful story. I learned that from reading Katherine Kurtz's Deryni books. They had plenty of timelines and genealogical charts. But the story wasn't very interesting, so of what use was the historical apparatus? It had nothing to fasten itself on to.

Eventually I found the Unicorn's Head series and discerned from there two older authors whom I could cherish as, while not the same as Tolkien, special ones whom I could absorb and appreciate, if not the whole of their oevures, a wide swath of their outputs, and I put them with Ursula K. Le Guin as a third: Lord Dunsany and Mervyn Peake. Dunsany primarily for his morally stark and typologically eerie early short stories, and Peake primarily for his epic Gothic constructions Titus Groan and Gormenghast, though I have a liking for some of his shorter works and poetry, and I seem to be one of the few people who appreciates that Titus Alone, offbeat as it is, is not a result of failure of authorial capacity, but does exactly what Peake intended for it to do.

At this point one asks, what about E.R. Eddison? I read Eddison with appreciation, but I found him an author easier to admire than to like. This applies to The Worm Ouroboros, which reads as if it were designed as an appealing adventure story, but whose ending - hinted at in the title - reveals its profound moral distinction from Tolkien, who would never do something like that. It also applies to Zimiamvia, which is much closer to the essense of Eddison. I read Zimiamvia twice - I can still hardly believe I did that - and came to the conclusion that the way I approached it the second time, "backwards" as it were with The Mezentian Gate first, is the more satisfactory and comprehensible reading order.

There are other post-Tolkien fantasy authors whom I like, notably Patricia A. McKillip, but of fantasy works published since The Lord of the Rings that I've read, there are three that utterly awed me at first encounter and that I still cherish as among the very best fictional works I know. All three of them I read before I was 30 years old, and I wonders, yes I wonders, if increasing age and tiredness and cynicism are responsible for the absence of any additions to their numbers. Yet I cannot think of any novels I've read since of which I thought, "If only I'd read this when I was young and eager, I'd have loved it as much as ..."

Those three are:

1. Watership Down by Richard Adams. The only later-day quest story with some of the same mythopoeic quality and the vast epic scope of Tolkien's, despite its tiny size on the linear-mile scale.

2. Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones. Despite the similar language used in all of her books, I find DWJ a massively inconsistent author, not in quality but in how her works hit me. Some I bounce off of entirely, some are captivating, but this one stands alone as an awesomely complex masterpiece, the ideal recasting of medieval folk ballads.

3. Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin. An exercise in sub-creation as rich and full as Tolkien's though on a much smaller scale, brilliantly framed as an anthopological study. It works, and when you peer inside, the stories have resonance too, though they depend on the background for full impact.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021


I saw articles today concerning the Florida condo collapse with headlines like "Searchers recover personal possessions from rubble," and I was so glad to see that. People who fled the building with nothing, and couldn't return to their still-standing apartments because of the danger of further collapse, surely there ought to be some way to sort through the rubble after the remains were torn down, and get back at least some of their belongings? And it turns out there is.

This hasn't always been the case. Often times in the past, after disasters like earthquakes, still-standing but dangerously wobbly buildings have been knocked down and the rubble and everything in it has been hauled off to the dump without any consideration for the owners of the lost material. Sometimes they've had to go off to the dump and personally try to sort through it there.

Sure, it's easy to mock people. They're alive when others are dead, surely they should be grateful for that and not worry about measly material things. But if they're to carry on, the less they have to start over from scratch the better; and it's not up to the authorities to decide if the survivors' gratitude for being alive should require them to give up on everything else. It's over now: those who are dead are dead and those who survived are alive; the building is gone and no longer a danger. The survivors should have a right to recover what's recoverable, and I'm glad that in this case they were given that chance.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021


Things are pretty quiet here. The cats have remembered who we are and have resumed their feline behavior. Tybalt kept walking in front of my computer screen during our Zoom play reading yesterday (2 Gents of Verona) so I kept having to pick him up, incidentally displaying him to the camera (which is a plug-in that I keep to the side).

Both B. and I suffered from mild cases of post-trip crud, though they quickly faded so I don't think it was the virus. In her case it was undoubtably allergies from whatever sort of hell air they have in the super-baked Central Valley. I don't have allergies, but whatever it was came and seems to have gone away.

Quiet on the news front too. I'm not particularly interested in what either the president or the ex-president are doing, and there's nothing to fret about either, the former being calm and the latter irrelevant, so relax.

Exciting times trying to get on my computer this morning, though. Often it reboots itself and I have to log in. But occasionally it also makes me go through a Microsoft sales campaign. No, I don't want to sync my computer with an Android smartphone; I don't have a smartphone. Skip. That sort of thing. Only this time, it also wanted me to sign in to my Microsoft account. I know I have one, but I don't remember the password; it's stored on the computer, the one I now can't get in without the password. Well, there's a "forgot password" function. Which sends a message to your e-mail account. The e-mail that I use on my computer, the one it won't let me into. We go around on this a few times, then suddenly it says you're good to go and lets me in.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

test results

A few further comments on our test vacation over the course of the last week:

1. The long drive home was through the heat wave, which gets much worse in the Central Valley than out in the coast. It was consistently 110F throughout the Valley; a balmy 89 when we got home. Fortunately we had air conditioning and a sufficiency of water, though I drank about 6 tumblers after I got home.

2. We'd worried that the cats would sulk at having been neglected. Instead, they seemed to have some initial difficulty remembering who we were. We caught Tybalt's interest with a new cat toy, a rare souvenir from this trip. In gratitude to an Ace Hardware in South Pasadena where we'd used the restrooms, we wandered about looking for something we were in need of to buy; B. led us towards the pet supplies, where we found this nifty rock-toy on a string with an advanced retractable pole.

3. Best new restaurant of the trip, the Belgian Cafe in Solvang. We'd always eaten at Paula's Danish Pancakes, but the line was so long that we gave up and figured there had to be other breakfast places in town, and found this one where we subsisted on waffles.

3a. Worst, an unnameable cafe in Monrovia which serves Earl Grey when you ask for English Breakfast tea (they are not the same thing) and the water is too tepid to steep properly anyway.

3b. A quaint little Italian place where we once ate many years ago no longer has menus; you're supposed to scan a QR code on the table instead. But we don't have smartphones. After some thought, the waitress brought us the takeout menu.

4. The ONLY POOL CAR lanes on the freeways in LA were of some help in getting around, but traffic could be tight.

5. Google Maps fails us again. We needed to get from I-210 east of Pasadena to the spot where I-405 separates from the 22. Obvious route is to take I-605, right? Google Maps thinks otherwise. It routed us on the 57. (Take a look at a highway map of LA and Orange Counties if you want to see how stupid this is.) Why? Construction, it said. It took some searching to establish that the construction was not on the 605, but consisted of the exit ramp I wanted onto Bolsa Chica being closed. A look at an Actual Map established that I could take the next exit from the 22 and turn right, which would put me right back on Bolsa Chica where I wanted to be, and indeed an electronic sign on the 405/22 connector advised doing just that. But not in the world of Google, which could think of nothing better than to send us way out on the 57 and back on the 22 from the opposite direction.
(Note: This is Southern California, so I speak Southern Californian when referring to local conditions.)

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Europe, 1953

Theodore H. White, Fire in the Ashes: Europe in Mid-Century (Sloane, 1953)

A few years ago I read a book by William L. Shirer - later of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, but at the time best-known for his dispatches from Berlin in the 1930s - about postwar Europe. I did not think it was very good. It was mostly armchair punditry, and Shirer was more interested in revisiting the fecklessness of the pre-war years than in Europe of his day, about which in any case he was pessimistic, seeing the return of fascism everywhere.

Recently I found that Theodore H. White - later of the Making of the President series, but at the time best-known for his dispatches from China in the 1940s - had written a similar book at the same time. This is more like it. White is interested in what's going on now, 1953. He's up to date, discussing the diplomatic prospects in a post-Stalin world. (He's hopeful that the new Soviet leaders may be less paranoid and self-destructive. Well, ha ha, didn't quite work out that way.)

The book is framed by a detailed diplomatic history of the postwar years: close-up views of the beginnings of the Cold War, NATO, the Marshall Plan, and of the nascent European Union, about which he's very hopeful, and this time justifiably so, though it didn't proceed quite as fast as he expected. While much of this is framed as US v USSR, the Western Europeans are also major actors. The Russians keep alienating everybody by acting contrary to even their own interests, and Europe is eager to bloom.

The central part of the book is detailed portraits of the three countries which, as Shirer did, White considers the only ones that matter in Europe: France, West Germany, and what he calls England (and he means it too: Scotland and Wales are hardly mentioned, and Northern Ireland not at all). Each national chapter is followed by one forming a portrait of a figure of that country, a successful bureaucrat of proletarian origin, and his personal background is the book's only discussion of the pre-war and wartime years. I found Wikipedia entries on the French guy (better-known from later life as a literary scholar than as the policeman he was to White) and the German one.

White is very good on matters like how the Germans were able to rebuild a successful economy so quickly out of the ruins, of why the French couldn't form a stable government, and why the British voters turned against Labour in 1950-51. Also on why the British declined to involve themselves in the European project, and he's quite sure they won't be coming back.

Unlike Shirer, White makes no speculations about whether de Gaulle might be coming back to power, but he does devote a lot of attention to what he considers the greatest burden France has to carry, wasteful of both money and personnel: the Indochinese war. Ah, France soon realized White was right, but they managed to pass that tar-baby on. (Meanwhile, Algeria hadn't erupted yet, and goes unmentioned.)

Pretty good book, especially for its close-up view of the diplomatic events of 1946-53 when they were still vivid in recent memory.

Friday, July 9, 2021

a test vacation

I've just driven home from LA in 8 hours, including time for lunch and several pit stops, along the I-5 Death Run, and I'm nothing left but groggy, especially considering that I hadn't had a good night and was subsisting on caffeine, and that's now wearing off. (The drive down was much more leisurely, and on 101.)

It was all part of a test: after 21 months of not leaving home together, could we manage a small vacation in the post-pandemic world? After 21 months of losing our chops on the details, and the physical decay involved in aging during a pandemic with little opportunity to get out, could we plan it all, manage the driving, haul our luggage, stay in a hotel room, socialize in-person with our friends?

The easiest and most agreeable way to test this out was a drive to LA: the closest out-of-town destination we'd have multifarious reasons to visit, with several friends we'd like to see. So we contacted them, set up meeting times, and arranged the trip. We made a relaxed time of it, and mostly hung around our hotel room in the mornings. The only thing we did in LA without company was a stop at Galco's, the retro soda-pop store, to pick up some rare diet cream sodas and root beers.

But the trip involved, both on the way and as outings with company, a number of meals in large, crowded restaurants that were not very masked, except for the employees. We and all our companions are fully vaccinated, but there's still a risk. Had we been planning this after the spread of the delta variant had become clear, we might have done it differently. Well, let's see if we're still healthy in two weeks.

In the meantime: we enjoyed seeing people, and on its own terms the trip was a success. Thinking of a longer and more elaborate sequel in the fall.