Sunday, October 24, 2021

two concerts

1) Music@Menlo held the first of its winter "residency" concerts of the year on Saturday afternoon. It was titled "Voyage Through the Americas," and one's first thought might be of a rather cramped idea of a sampling of composers of the Americas. Only 3 are South Americans, from just 2 countries; the other 5 are all U.S.ians, 3 of them from the "greatest generation" that flourished in the 1930s-40s. All 8 are men, of course; all but one white, all but one dead. Well, you review the concert you heard, not the one you might wish to have heard.

But it emerged that the plan in the minds of the curators and principal performers, pianist Michael Brown and cellist Nicholas Canellakis, was more specific than that. They wanted to show musical cross-pollination in the mid-20C between the U.S. and Latin America. Thus, the two Argentine composers both studied in the U.S. And most of the U.S. music on offer was directly influenced by Latin American style. This was obvious in the case of Copland's El Salon Mexico and Gershwin's Cuban Overture, both of which resulted from the composers' visits to the named countries in 1932, at which they were impressed by the local music and returned with chunks of it in their tourist bags.

But some of the connections were a little more strained, thus Barber's Souvenirs, a four-hand piano suite, played by Brown and Gilles Vonsattel, evoking, tongue slightly in cheek, the glossy ballroom dance music of the composer's 1910s youth. It earned its place on this program because one of the six dances is a tango. Of sorts.

Both the Copland and Gershwin were orchestral works, played here in piano arrangements dating from the time (2 hands for Copland, 4 hands for Gershwin), but with the orchestral percussion added back in for what the curators considered a necessary flavor. This was played with zest by virtuoso percussionist Ian David Rosenbaum and added as much to the texture as you might imagine.

All the playing was very good, reaching its height in Canellakis's rendition of the cello solos in Bernstein's Meditations from Mass written for Rostropovich. (Also a reduction with piano of an orchestral work, also with percussion reinserted.) I also liked his work in Golijov's Mariel, a lament for a deceased friend, in which the rumbling accompaniment comes not from a piano but - more agreeably, actually - from a marimba, clonked by Rosenbaum.

There was a little more - a cello/piano rhapsody by Ginastera and some brief piano pieces, modernist by Villa-Lobos from Brown and ragtime by Joplin from Vonsattel. An enjoyable outing altogether, regardless of what it consisted or didn't consist of.

2) Back to SFS on Thursday for another lightly populated EPS-conducted concert, this one featuring the U.S. premiere of a new violin concerto by Bryce Dessner. This is a most peculiar work, fast-paced, nervous, and chittery. The soloist, Pekka Kuusisto, for whom the work was written - did he ask for this? - saws quickly back and forth almost ceaselessly for the whole 24 minutes, but except in the cadenza he could rarely be heard, as the orchestral strings either match him or do something else that drowns him out. Meanwhile the rest of the orchestra is trying out fragmentary melodic material with a vaguely minimalist cast. Certainly the clanging chords for percussion and brass at the very end of the work bore more than a faint echo of Glass's Akhnaten.

This was surrounded by two standard repertoire but not blockbuster pieces, Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 2 (a more garrulous first draft for No. 3) and Schubert's Fifth Symphony, the most popular of his early essays in that genre. These received fast-paced but not over-hasty performances, smooth and genial but with hints of potential turmoil underneath.

Last week all the string and percussion players were wearing masks; this week only two or three players were. Neither did any of the performers at Menlo have masks. In both cases, though, by decree of the venue the audience was entirely masked up, with vaccinations checked at the door. This is a minor nuisance one can live with, especially considering the likelihood of dying without it. And I'm gradually learning to remember to have my vaccination record with me when I leave the house, instead of having to rush back in to fetch it.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

the most boring day of my life since I stopped attending summer camp

It wasn't just that it was jury duty. Jury duty - by which I mean waiting in the courtroom as part of the jury pool; I've been called up for voir dire once or twice but have never actually served on a jury - is only moderately boring. What turned this into the transcendental was covid restrictions requiring half the seats in the courtroom to be empty.

This meant that the lower half of the jury pool, including me, had to be seated in an empty adjacent courtroom with a video and audio feed of the proceedings. The video was tiny and nearly useless, and the audio was frequently inaudible. Nevertheless we had to sit there and pretend to be paying attention to it for hours on end.

The only interest came from the automated instant transcription system, which struggled terribly. It had no more success hearing what was being said than we did, and was out of its depth when it could. The word "juror," which predictably appeared rather frequently in the proceedings, was not in its vocabulary, so we got frequent "German" and "Karen" and the occasional "jerk."

But the best moment came when the clerk called a new juror candidate by name. As best as I could hear, his name was Stephen Kirwan or something like that, but it came out in the transcript as "Stephen King Kong."

Everybody in the courtroom laughed, the only moment all day when we could be said to be enjoying ourselves, but I suddenly remembered my sf-con costuming friends who've made a gimmick out of comic mashup costumes like Will Scarlett O'Hara or Red Sonja Henie or Salvador Dali Lama. This would be a good one for their list, so I've passed it on.

Friday, October 22, 2021

more on Malcolm Arnold

When I posted for Malcolm Arnold's centenary yesterday morning, I was in a hurry, for a Reason to be Named Later, so I didn't have time to put up more than the basic dance sets. But today I have the time to bring up a little more Malcolm Arnold.

First is a video of the only live concert performance I've ever come across of one of Arnold's symphonies. And it's his Fifth, the best work of the bunch. Even though it's a community orchestra and a little rough, it's actually a very good performance. If I'd known about this before it happened four years ago, I'd seriously have considered going to Phoenix to hear it. At least I can get the videorecording.

And when I wrote my long post on Arnold several years back, I said that someday I wanted to annotate the jokes in Arnold's staggeringly ridiculous parody of Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3. Well, today is that day. This parody was one of several pieces that Arnold wrote for the comedy concerts that the cartoonist and musical humorist Gerard Hoffnung put on in the 1950s.

The original concerts exist only in audiorecordings, but fortunately a Hoffnung revival concert was put on in Prague, of all places, in 1992, and that was videorecorded, so you can see the visual jokes as well as hear the audible ones. You can watch the entire concert here and here - the overture is near the start of the second part - but here's a clip of just the overture, with my comments below.

(Note that throughout the work, the orchestration is coarsened, with added thumps, whoops, and blats)
0.07-0.20 Opening chord held for several bars
0.28-0.58 Conductor responds to diminuendo by crouching behind podium
1.08 Portamento swoop by violins
1.40 Extra punch in a sforzando chord
2.37-2.44 Must be a pop tune that's inserted into the flute part here, but I don't know its source
3.06-3.18 First insertion in the wrong place of the offstage trumpet call scheduled for later in the work
3.29 Tutti chord fails to arrive on schedule as the separating wind chords just keep going
3.31-3.45 Tutti chords continue not to match when the conductor expects them
4.29-5.30 Main theme of the piece (in altered form) transferred to oompah band which marches onstage here
6.16-6.19 Particularly over-coarsened chords here
6.36-6.46 Here's that offstage trumpet call in the wrong place again
7.06-7.15 A little added percussion
7.52-8.06 And the offstage trumpet call misplaced yet again
8.07-8.14 Duple-time music turned into triple-time oompah
8.22-8.30 This time the conductor dances along with the triple-time oompah
8.50-8.58 And when the offstage trumpet is supposed to play? Nothing
8.58-9.14 Conductor backs up four bars and tries again. This time he gets the main-theme oompah band
9.30-10.15 And for the second scheduled appearance of the offstage trumpet? We get all the trumpets in the world and they won't stop until the conductor holds up a red flag
(At this point we just skip over the entire recapitulation and go straight to the coda)
10.35-10.50 Violins get stuck and won't go into the closing Presto until somebody blows a whistle
(11.39 Here most of the coda is also cut)

And here's one more amusing Arnold work, a suite of his music for the 1954 comedy film The Belles of St. Trinian's.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Malcolm Arnold centenary

Today is the centenary of the birth - in Northampton, England - of Sir Malcolm Arnold, one of the noted British composers of the last century and, fifty years ago, the first then-contemporary composer I discovered whose music, in the form of his English Dances, I really enjoyed.

I've written of him here before, notably in this post, but here I'll just put links to his most deservedly popular music, his earlier dance sets. Here, have 16 slices of charm:

English Dances:

Scottish Dances

Cornish Dances

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

another missing item

I'd put the recorded tv show on pause when I went to the kitchen to put the snack away. Then I came back to the living room, sat down in the armchair, and started the show up again. And I did this with the remote, right? Because the set itself just has an on-off button, no other controls.

But when an ad came on and I wanted to fast-forward, I could not find the remote. It wasn't anywhere around, not tucked in the seat, not on the table, not under the chair or its footstool. I even checked in the kitchen in case I'd somehow absently taken it with me (which I do sometimes) and left it there and unpaused by magic.

Nowhere. I had to watch the rest of the show straight through and use the set's button to turn it off.

Only then did I notice the tiny edge of a shadow way under the couch. It was the remote. What was it doing there? I hadn't sat on the couch. It couldn't have fallen there from where I was sitting. It's too big for a cat to carry, and no cats were around anyway.

It's a mystery.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

home on the range

We have a new range/stove/oven. Our old one, which had been getting weird and cranky for some time, spectacularly expired a week ago when I turned the oven on and the heating element sparked and then physically fell apart, with a clunk.

The local appliance store where I bought our washer and dryer has gone out of business, but left behind a web site urging its customers to patronize other local independent stores, which it named, and stay away from the big box stores. I went to the independent I would have visited anyway the first time if it hadn't been closed on Monday, which was the day I'd been doing my shopping. All their units were over $2000.

This seemed improbable. Consumer Reports lists most of its recommended electric units at under $1000 and says that extra money doesn't get you extra quality. I defected and went to a big box store, Best Buy. (Although I found gas cooking preferable when I had it, years ago, I'm not buying a new gas stove at this stage of the environmental game. Not to mention that my house probably has no gas line to the kitchen.)

First step was to limit my search to the brand that Consumer Reports found generally most reliable, Samsung. Then to sort through the models listed on the web site. The way it works in this field, every minor variant in features is a different model, so they proliferate. A model with fingerprint-resistant coating is $100 more than otherwise exactly the same model without it. Then to see which ones they had in stock.

A visit to the local store, to perform a reality check by examining these treasures in person, provided also employees who were eager to be friendly and helpful, if not always well informed. Because it best suited our purposes of those that were in stock, we wound up with this one. It differs most dramatically from the old in the heating elements all being hidden underneath a featureless glass surface, which is true of most of the electric stoves these days.

Delivery, installation, and bringing out of the dead were performed by a different entity but arranged for and paid through Best Buy. That happened today, and this evening I made my first attempt to use the thing. I made the simplest dinner in my repertoire, heating up a Bertolli's frozen pasta entree with some extra chicken and veggies thrown in.

At first it didn't work. Ten minutes is enough to heat this meal up, but this time nothing happened. Had the designers of the heating elements forgotten that a layer of glass would come between the heating and the pan? I eventually concluded I'd been using too small a burner, although the manual warns you strongly against using a burner larger than the pan's contact area. But I picked a larger burner and it came out OK.

I think my next step is to try boiling a lot of pans of water under different circumstances and seeing what happens. But not tomorrow, as I have an all-day Occupation to be Named Later.

We also tried running the oven, and learned that when it turns off after the amount of time you set it for, the machine plays electronically a little song. This seems to be a Samsung thing. Our washer from the same mfr plays a verse of Schubert's "Die Forelle." This one I didn't recognize, but it wasn't "Home on the Range": they missed a bet there.

Monday, October 18, 2021

who killed Colin Powell?

Gen. Colin Powell has died from complications of covid, even though he was vaccinated. One is already hearing some fools say that this shows that the vaccines don't work. No more than a person dying in a high-speed fiery crash, even though they wore a seatbelt, proves that seatbelts don't work.

Nothing is perfect protection, but there are likelihoods. And Colin Powell was quite elderly (84) and suffered from a cancer that reduced his immune system. Someone in that category is not going to get the same degree of benefit from the vaccine than the younger and healthier. But they're still less likely to suffer severe covid with the vaccine than without it, it's just that the danger in either chance is greater than for others.

What would have saved Colin Powell from covid is not getting the virus in the first place. And the way to stop it from floating around is for everybody to get vaccinated. Then the virus will have nowhere to go and random people will be less likely to pick it up or, if they do, be as infectious or for as long.

In other words, it was the unvaccinated who killed Colin Powell. I hope they're humbled and shamed by this.

Public health is one area where your actions don't affect just you, but everybody else. If you won't get vaccinated, get quarantined. You don't get to decide for yourself whether to spread deadly virus around any more than you get to decide for yourself that green means stop and red means go.

(Article explaining this. Another one, better but possibly behind a paywall)

Sunday, October 17, 2021

two talks and a set of awards

Stanford sponsored a couple of online talks that looked interesting.

The first one was by a calligrapher who's undertaking the job of reproducing, in fresh calligraphy on fresh vellum, the entire text of Beowulf. This seemed like a promising idea until my heart sank as the calligrapher revealed that 1) she doesn't read Anglo-Saxon; 2) she doesn't understand the script that Beowulf was written in. She just intends to reproduce verbatim the strokes of the original without having any idea what they represent.
That's bad enough, but then how do you do this for a text parts of which have been lost through decay and having the edges of the sheets burned off in an 18th century fire? You can research what scholars think the lost words and letters say, but without knowledge you can't make your own decisions about which ideas you think are right; and if you don't know the language or the script you can't possibly draw those characters in a way that will look real.

The second talk was by a pair of scholars on the intersection of art, sex, and the law. One was telling the story of NYC avant-garde artists in the 1960s (Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman) and their problems with obscenity prosecutions; further on how their archives have been mucked up by pandemic-forced moves and will take years to straighten out again. I was relieved when the start of the talk, giving the artistic context, was littered with the names of lots of other people I've heard of, from LaMonte Young to Yoko Ono, so I had a knowledge base to hold on to.
The other speaker was more academic in style and I had a harder time following her drift, but the main point seemed to be how NAFTA-initiated intellectual property restrictions are making it hard for Mexican trans people to import specific fashion and artistic supplies from the US. On top of the difficulties you can already imagine about being trans in Mexico. So that was interesting if regrettable to hear about.

This year's Mythopoeic Awards were announced today. The online awards ceremony was a glorious bouquet of mispronunciations, and the winners struck me as mixed. I was only able to vote in the Myth and Fantasy Scholarship category, and while Anna Vaninskaya's Fantasies of Time and Death was not my top choice, I considered the top three to be nearly equal in quality, and this was one. I was out on the Inklings Studies category because of having an essay in one finalist collection, but I did express my opinion on the other finalists, and I did not put Tolkien's Lost Chaucer by John M. Bowers on top. As a history of Tolkien's ill-fated scholarly Chaucer edition I thought it quite useful; as a description of Tolkien's unpublished Chaucer scholarship somewhat less so, and as a literary source study on Chaucerian influence on The Lord of the Rings, well, that part would better have remained unpublished. No, the outstanding books of the year were Catherine McIlwaine's Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth (the Bodleian Library exhibit catalog) and John Garth's The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, with the former taking the edge since this was its last year of eligibility.
B. was pleased when A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon) took the Children's Literature award. I'd read, or started to read, two of the Adult Literature finalists, but I didn't like the winner, The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune, as much as Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Bowers' and Klune's acceptance speeches in which they express wonderment that their work was considered worthy of the award may be more level-headed than they realize.

Friday, October 15, 2021

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

My last previous SFS concert, 18 months ago, was Esa-Pekka Salonen's last appearance as a guest conductor before he was scheduled to take over as music director. Since then they had a few concerts last spring, none of which I attended, and we're now a few weeks into the next season, and on Thursday I got to hear EPS in his new capacity. (The initials have not yet taken over. His parking space in the executive lot has his last name on it, as does everyone else's; previously it read "MTT".)

Vaccination was required at the door and masks inside. Possibly due to the exotic repertoire, this concert was lightly attended. I was the only person in the 34-seat balcony side box where I normally sit, and I think that's the first time this has happened since they abandoned Wednesday concerts.

As in San Jose, the string and percussion players were all masked, the winds and brass not. EPS, also unmasked, came out to applause and stood motionless, arms by his sides, on the podium. Linda Lukas, the third flute and about the only one left (the first two flutes, a married couple, both retired last year and have not yet been replaced), sat equally motionless, instrument raised to her lips. This tableau lasted for a long time as silence seeped throughout the auditorium.

Then, without any signal from EPS, she began the opening solo of Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. EPS started to conduct with a couple pickup bars before other players joined in. A delicately sumptuous, but vigorous and dramatic, performance of the work followed.

Connections between the concert's pieces were craftily planned. Where Debussy was inspired by a poem by Mallarmé, Kaija Saariaho (who turned 69 on Thursday - happy birthday!) was inspired by a poem by Saint-John Perse for her Aile du songe. This is functionally a brief flute concerto. The orchestra of strings and percussion (no winds) mostly hovered in the background, spectrally, while soloist Claire Chase, who came on stage with a bit of a Groucho walk, made her instrument jump around with various flute-like sounds and a few un-flute-like noises which sounded rather intestinal.

Perse's and hence Saariaho's work was intended to evoke birds, and so - as its title proclaims - was Olivier Messiaen's Oiseaux exotiques, which is functionally a brief piano concerto. Here the pianist, Jeremy Denk, and the orchestra (winds and percussion, no strings) were more in it together than in the Saariaho, but despite the claim of being based on birdsong, this hunk of angular modernism with post-Stravinsky whooping noises more evoked the sounds of a factory. I like some Messiaen, but not this one.

Lastly we returned to Debussy for a run through La mer. This rendition got warm applause from the audience but did not please me. The slow parts sounded tentative while the fast ones were increasingly hasty and brusque. I'm hoping for a better result when I return next week.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

world according to cat

The most desirable thing in the world is getting under the bedsheet and wrapping yourself up in it, while the human is trying to make the bed. Being ferreted out and tossed off the bed shall not stop you from instantly resuming your appointed rounds.