Monday, May 23, 2022

concert review: Winchester Orchestra

This was the concert that this volunteer orchestra had originally scheduled for March, when B. signed up to play second violin in time for rehearsals, inspired by the chance to play in that ultimate monument of orchestral music, Beethoven's Fifth.

But then they replaced it with an all-strings program so that everyone could be masked during the omicron wave, and after playing in that concert B. decided not to continue with Winchester - the practice involved was too demanding for her - and so this dream concert went on without her. I decided to attend and hear how they did. The venue was the same Mennonite church as last time.

I am pleased to say that, under music director Scott Seaton (who carried a baton this time), it was a thoroughly righteous Beethoven Fifth. It carried both drama and subtlety of expression, and if the tuttis were somewhat raw, there were some lovely displays of individual sections, especially in the slow movement. Very pleasing.

Smetana's Moldau is a piece that our classical radio station plays about once a day, it seems, but I rarely hear it in concert. This, under assistant conductor Jevon Gegg-Mitchell, came out nicely, with an appropriate 'snap' in the country-dance section and big swells near the finish.

Max Bruch's Scottish Fantasy, under Seaton, was a bit more problematic, but only because it's not such a masterwork as the other two. Both the orchestral musicians and the solo violinist (Julian Brown, whom I last heard in a series of local concerts doing the whole sequence of Beethoven violin sonatas) had sure command over their parts, but Bruch's heavy and clotted orchestration resulted in a lot of blatting from the ensemble.

Before the performance, the principal trombonist stood up and gave a sad little talk announcing the recent death of Henry Mollicone, the orchestra's founder and first music director. It was originally formed, we learned, out of the community members of the Santa Clara University orchestra after SCU decided it wanted to have campus people only.

It may be overkill to criticize the volunteer ticket-desk people of a volunteer orchestra, but I do wish they'd decide who they're going to direct their attention to next and then finish the transaction with that person before turning their attention to something else.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

book reviews

Curtis Peebles, Asteroids: A History (Smithsonian, 2000)
That this book is over 20 years old has to be taken into account when it butts up against then-current science, and some of the technical material is wearying, but as a history it's quite entertaining, recounting the early discoveries and the establishment of what these objects were, the gradual systemization of asteroid search in the late 19C, a loss of interest by astronomers in planetary astronomy in the early 20C, and its subsequent revival.
The most delightful chapter is on naming: early asteroids were named for female figures in classical mythology, but these quickly ran out: there were so many asteroids that names had to come from anywhere. There are asteroids named for famous scientists, for authors (there's a Shakespeare and a Tolkien). An asteroid was named San Diego as part of a campaign to keep that city from adopting a form of streetlight that would interfere with the stargazing at Palomar. The climax came in 1985 when some astronomers named an asteroid for their cat, which had served astronomy by keeping them company on lonely nights at the observatory. The controversy that ensued was not so much over naming an asteroid for a cat but for the cat's name. The cat's name was Mr. Spock.
A considerable space is devoted to impacts, but the ones discussed at greatest length (the Cretaceous extinction event, Shoemaker-Levy) were actually comets, while Tunguska, which used to be thought to be a comet but is now believed to be an asteroid, gets much less space.

John J. Stephan, Hawaii Under the Rising Sun: Japan's Plans for Conquest After Pearl Harbor (University of Hawaii, 1984)
This is a strange and disturbing book. I saw a reference to it in an alternate-history article, but this book isn't alternate-history, though it does discuss a surprisingly extensive early-20C literature, both Japanese and American, imagining future Japanese invasions of Hawaii.
The book's ostensible subject takes up a relatively small space: plenty of disputes among rather disorganized-sounding Japanese military planners as to whether they should attack Pearl Harbor, and then whether they should follow up in Hawaii or go off and attack Fiji and Sri Lanka instead. The Battle of Midway shows that the Hawaii-campaigners won the argument, and if the battle had succeeded it would have been followed by a full-scale invasion, details for which are given.
But the bulk of the book is about the ethnically Japanese in Hawaii, the immigrants (issei) and their US-born children (nisei). Stephan emphasizes their ties to Japan: many nisei went there for education; some didn't come back. Under Japanese law, all issei and most nisei were Japanese citizens, even if the nisei were also US citizens (issei weren't allowed to naturalize). Stephan says, in what he treats as a tone of sweet reasonableness, why shouldn't they be loyal to the country of which they were citizens, especially as the country of which they were resident discriminated against them?
But if that's true, it would justify all the hostile enemy-alien treatment that the US government meted out against the Japanese immigrants and their families after the war broke out, and is that really what Stephan is saying? He notes how many nisei showed their US loyalty by signing up with the US Army, but doesn't integrate that into what he says about the community.
Apparently there were issei so sure of Japanese superiority that they were convinced that the news of Japanese surrender in 1945 was a media hoax, and climbed the hills around Pearl Harbor to wait for the Emperor's brother to sail in and accept American surrender, which they expected to occur imminently. But regardless of any of this, the Japanese themselves considered nisei to be hicks and bumpkins - often a disagreeable surprise to nisei visiting Japan - and took very little intelligence data from them.
So this book left me in a muddle of uncertainty.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

concert review: Oakland Symphony

I've never had a bigger, nor actually less welcome, surprise at a concert than the one B. and I got as we settled into our seats at the Paramount Theatre Friday evening, opened our programs, and discovered that the big work of the concert - Michael Tippett's oratorio A Child of Our Time - had been canceled and replaced by Elgar's Enigma Variations.

Now, the Enigma Variations is a worthy piece, and I always enjoy hearing it, as indeed I did enjoy it last night. But I didn't fight my way through 90 minutes of heavy traffic to Oakland, and furthermore bring along B. who rarely goes out and can only be coaxed to a concert for choral masterworks, for an orchestral piece I hear all the time. Whereas A Child of Our Time is a rarely-performed choral monument I've heard live only once before.

It emerged from guest conductor Leonard Slatkin's talk before the piece that he realized it would not be possible to perform the Tippett at Monday's choral rehearsal when, due to Covid - both cases caught and fear of getting it - only a few of the chorus members showed up. That was Monday. According to Lisa of the Iron Tongue, nothing had been put on the website by Wednesday.

And they didn't inform ticket holders, like myself. I'm not on any Oakland Symphony mailing lists, because - as I've informed them every time they phone and ask me to subscribe - I can rarely get to a concert. But I bought these tickets six months ago - that's how much I was looking forward to this - and they were delivered by e-mail, so the Symphony knew how to contact me. As I wrote in Lisa's comments, changing a program item is something that happens, you can't complain about circumstances. But not informing the ticket holders ... that's unforgivable.

So we had the music on offer. The Enigma is a specialty of Slatkin's, which must be why he was able to get the orchestra to give such a good, hearty, and emotionally varied rendition of the work on four days' notice. But the most entertaining part was his prefatory remarks, in which he gave his solution as to the piece's enigma, the secret behind the main theme, a solution which, once known, can never be forgotten, so I'd best not tell it to you.*

As A Child of Our Time is quite sizable, I had been surprised that it had been tucked into the second half of the concert, preceded by a full first half. This outline fit the briefer Enigma Variations better.

The concert began with contemporary composer Cindy McTee's Circuits, a quick ear-popping moto perpetuo with an oompah base. It made a very odd contrast with the exceedingly somber rendition of Barber's Adagio for Strings which followed. But the circle was squared with the remaining first-half piece, Hovhaness's Mysterious Mountain, generally a contemplative work, but which Slatkin injected with such vigor and hasty-pudding energy that the central fugal section sounded like a reprise of the McTee.

*Oh, very well. Slatkin discounts the notion of an unidentified other melody with which the main theme is in counterpoint, as it's impossible to prove one. Instead, building on the piece's form as the composer's personal view of his friends and himself, Slatkin observes that the theme is a series of four-note phrases, each with a different rhythm and emphasis, and theorizes that it goes "Edward ELgar, Ed-ward Elgar ..." I'm reminded of Robert Winter's theory that Dvorak's New World Symphony goes "Hi-a-wath-a, Hi-a-wath-a."

Thursday, May 19, 2022

emergency library visit

So the finalists for the Mythopoeic Awards have been announced. I'm on the committee for the scholarship awards, and while I'd read most of the finalists, there are two I'd only seen online excerpts of. But I have to read them all in full for the final vote, so it was time to check their library holdings.

Stanford is still out, but WorldCat shows one in hardcopy at Berkeley, the other online at Davis. I figure I'd better grab the hardcopy one as soon as I can, before somebody with borrowing privileges checks it out. The afternoon of the next day, Wednesday, is my only free day for the remainder of the week. Berkeley is on intersession at the moment, and the stack privileges desk is only open by e-mail appointment. Amazingly, I get a reply early Wednesday morning that they could be there in the afternoon. So I fire back confirming, and drive up there to discover it's the middle of graduation week: people in cap and gown are wandering everywhere, stopping to get their photos taken, etc. (Berkeley doesn't have one mass graduation ceremony: each department holds its own in various venues at various times over several days.)

Fortunately I'm able to find parking, trudge up to the library, get in, find the book, and spend the next few hours speed-reading its fortunately brief corpus. I also find that Berkeley also has on-campus online access to the other book, the one I'd thought I'd have to go to Davis to get, so I download that one onto a flash drive and take it home. No long drive to Davis next week after all.

I enjoy the book I read a great deal, despite the fact that it's a study of something that I don't know much about. Whenever it touches on something else I do know, it seems impressively insightful, and the rest appears coherent as well. Will get a good rating from me, but all the other books in the category are good too, so cogitation will be necessary.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

casual outings

Both these were whims that I wasn't sure would be worth the trouble of going to them, but they both turned out to be enjoyable and worth that effort.

1. Coastside Community Orchestra. I'd known there was a volunteer orchestra out on the (relatively) isolated coast side of San Mateo County, but I'd never found a concert listing until they advertised in the New Millennium program book last week. So I decided to try it out, maybe consider reviewing it at some future time.
Concertmaster (Elizabeth Ingber) soloed in Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4. A little short of professional level in intonation and dexterity but otherwise extremely impressive. Back in the first violin seat, she tried gallantly to lead her section in Schubert's Symphony No. 5, but the rest of this group is in the lower tier of ability of volunteer orchestras that do real concerts. Conductor Robert Smith is a little old man with a very odd beat: wobbles like mad during fast movements, but it's not an ailment because he doesn't do it in slow movements.
Somewhat better playing (no squawks) from a wind ensemble in the Petite Suite Gauloise by Theodore Gouvy, a 19C French composer unfamiliar to me. Players included my old friend James L. on clarinet (temporary, to fill a vacancy, he said). Good ensemble work from both composer and performers, lively writing resembling Gounod's wind symphony (which they played last time, they told me) with odd long pauses in the first movement, which other conductor Sara Lomax told me she milked for effect.

2. Silicon Valley Shakespeare. Began its season with a free Midsummer Night's Dream in the beer garden patio of the market on San Pedro in downtown San Jose. None of the bugs of their usual venue up in a mountain park. Exceedingly informal. Players in street clothes; Peter Quince, dressed as a college cheerleader, carried but didn't much use an acoustic loudhailer. Other than that: three folding chairs, a robe and donkey-ear knit cap for Bottom after his transformation, and the flower with the magic potion completed the list of costumes and props. No memorization; everyone carried scripts and sometimes alluded to this. ("Turn page!") Audience was encouraged to shout along and chug beer every time a character said the word "O" which they do a lot. The one dog in the audience participated in this enthusiastically.
Despite all this, and the terrible acoustics in a noisy environment which meant that half the dialogue was hard to make out, it was a good performance, lively and involving and quick (90 minutes, no intermission, moderate cuts). Lovers were not sappy, mechanicals not knockabout, fairies not imperious.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

days 5-6 at Kalamazoo

Though I'd have liked to attend some other items, in the end all I got to attend online of the last two days of the International Medieval Congress was 1.5 of the 2 Tolkien sessions.

One on the new book The Nature of Middle-earth was billed as a roundtable, which meant only that the 3 papers had less formal status than they would otherwise, and that the session wasn't recorded, which means that I can't go back and check on what I heard. Which is a problem, because it didn't hold my interest while it was going on. Two of the presenters didn't really talk about the book at all, but discoursed to no particular effect on Tolkien's use elsewhere of themes that are in the book, one of whom reinvented all the tired weak arguments we've heard before as to why Tolkien was not a racist. Only the third had anything interesting to say about the book, and its value was matched by one offhand remark made in a paper about something else in another session.

The other session was boldly titled "New Readings of The Lord of the Rings," but I only got to hear two papers before my internet connection started to fry as it frequently does in the late afternoon, and frankly I was getting a little tired of hearing presentations, however earnestly and skillfully done, of very old and basic readings of The Lord of the Rings.

I'll credit my own schedule and availability issues, and the difficulty I have in sitting through extensive non-interactive online sessions, with about half of the disappointment I felt with this year's Congress. But only half.

Friday, May 13, 2022

concert review: New Millennium Chamber Orchestra

I put this concert down to review because the program, including three works by women, looked so interesting. Small orchestras can afford to do this kind of offbeat thinking. It was a nicely satisfying event.

I realized, as I sat leafing through the program book pre-concert, that this one presented an unusual reviewing challenge. The music director/conductor is a recently-hatched trans woman, but the program in some places used the new name, in some places the deadname, and in some both together. I needed a policy clarification here.

So, seizing a chance at intermission, I went up to where the conductor was on the podium. "Maestra," I said,* "I wanted to introduce myself," and did so as the reviewer and we shook hands. Then I said, "I do have one question. The program book has left me uncertain what name I should call you by in the review." She said to use the new one and we arranged to get me a copy of a new photo, which you'll see at the head of the review.

I gave the whole background to my editors with the review, asking them to follow my practice of using the new name only, without further ado, and they did so. So no problem here.

*And here I want to give due credit to Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, the author and Italian-opera expert, who many decades ago answered my innocent question, "What's the feminine for maestro?" I haven't forgotten the answer.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

days 2-4 at Kalamazoo

No, you didn't miss day 1: I did. I bought a membership in the International Congress on Medieval Studies, which is being held online this week (and is organized by and in pre-pandemic times held at Western Michigan University, thus the eponym), but I haven't Zoomed my way in to very much.

There was a Tolkien panel on Tuesday, on his use of medieval conceptions of evil. The paper most interesting to me was on music in the Ainulindalë. The presenter pointed out that evil v. good in the Ainulindalë is expressed as dissonance v. consonance, and then stated - which was news to me - that the association of dissonance, even the abominated tritone, with evil was purely an 18th, even 19th, century concept; medieval writers just thought dissonance sounded bad, they didn't make any moral judgments on it. So Tolkien is being modern here, not medieval.

This led to consideration of Wagner, and I was interested to note how little these medievalists knew about even the existence of voluminous writings in other areas of Tolkien studies over the contentious question of what, if anything, and if so how much, of his plot and themes regarding the Ring(s) Tolkien borrowed or derived from Wagner as opposed to other sources.

Wednesday there were no Tolkien sessions, and all I got to was a part of what said it was a virtual visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's medieval art collection, which turned out to be a PowerPoint display of photos of intricately carved ivory scenes, together with the curator holding up a plaster cast of one so that she could point at various features. I asked a question about the techniques and tools by which these were carved, but got only further exclamation of how intricate the work is.

Thursday I'd gotten decent enough sleep the previous night that I was up at 6, which meant that I could attend the best session so far, one on Tolkien and medieval depictions of animals. Fascinating papers. Tolkien's homages to medieval bestiaries, including the oliphaunt poem. The modernism of the fox in The Lord of the Rings, which isn't medieval at all; and the significance of the repeated image of dancing bears in his work. Tolkien's dragons, an obvious but well-explored topic. Tolkien and bats, yes bats, of which there's more to say than you might think.

But I was less pleased with a session on Tolkien's poetry, which featured one speaker who had so much trouble with his microphone one could not make out more than half of what he said, and I was dismayed at all these Tolkien experts who could not pronounce Húrin or Eärendil properly. Not one! It's especially dismaying when you're discussing the rhythmic pattern of poetry and you think that Eärendil has only three syllables. If this had been a live session I might have tried to read the room to see if I could phrase an acceptable way of correcting all of this. Instead I just slipped quietly out, which on Zoom you do by clicking the "Leave" button.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Patricia A. McKillip

The word has been spreading on the net today that Patricia A. McKillip died a few days ago, and once again I am bereft of one of my favorite authors, like most of the others of very long standing.

When I joined the Mythopoeic Society in 1975, the new fantasy novel that was being most talked about was The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, the first major work by this young (she was then about 27) author. I read it and was delighted by the cool and realistic-detailed portrayal of fantasyland, the witty banter between Sybel and her father's beasts, the unfolding of the plot.

I put McKillip on my collect list, and acquired all of her books, even the obscure early this-worldly juveniles. When she was Guest of Honor at Mythcon in 1985, I realized I'd read all of her then ten or so books, and began a practice of writing surveys of the GoH's work for Mythprint.

I pretty much kept up with McKillip in subsequent years, but it became a little tricky. Her books, while all quite distinct on a close level, had similar enough settings and literary approaches that I sometimes had trouble remembering which was which and whether I'd read it. I saw in one obituary an enthusiastic recommendation for her last novel, Kingfisher, and I had to check to be able to say, "oh yeah, the Arthurian one with all the restaurants" to be able to remember it.* I enjoyed all her books, but that one was particularly good. I reviewed it here. The Bell at Sealey Head was particularly good too. I think she was getting better, as well as more purely herself, over the years.

But I also think that even Forgotten Beasts doesn't really stand out among her other books. She wasn't the author of a single masterpiece, but of a body of work. It wasn't any one or even any several of her books that was outstanding, it was the whole oeuvre. It all seems to meld together, at least in my mind; that's why I have such trouble with her titles. A few years ago I made a checklist of her books to assure myself that we had them all; she was about the only current author that I'd have to do that for, or that I'd want to. I just did it again, and found one older one missing, and one newer one I don't think I ever got. Have to correct that.

I met her in person a few times, including when she was at Mythcon. The first time I met her, at a signing at the tiny Dark Carnival bookstore in, must have been 1977, I interviewed her for a fanzine. But I always had the impression she didn't really enjoy having fans and making appearances, even though she was willing to do so, so I didn't press or presume on acquaintance.

*Not that restaurants, kitchens, housekeeping of all sorts, were otherwise alien to her fiction: not at all. When Glenn Glazer interviewed her on her GoH appearance at Westercon, the first question he asked was, "Have you ever worked in an industrial kitchen?"

Saturday, May 7, 2022

concert review: Emerson Quartet

It was overcast, even drizzly, in the City last night, unlike the increasingly warm weather at home, as I found when I headed there for this concert.

The Emerson Quartet have been performing together for 46 years with only one change in personnel, which makes them one of the most senior such ensembles currently on the boards. I'd thought they were on the verge of hanging it up, but the program notes indicated they have a lot of future tours planned.

They played two repertoire works whose fame is nevertheless vastly overshadowed by that of their own slow movements, taken out of context and played separately: Borodin's Second Quartet, source of the "Nocturne," and Barber's sole Quartet, source of the "Adagio for Strings."

Unfortunately for whatever reason, I was in no mental shape to appreciate a concert such as this, and it was that, rather than the choice of work following intermission, which caused me to bail at that point and head home. The Emersons gave the most remarkable warm lyricism to the rough and tumble outer movements of the Barber: if they could do the same thing to the Bartok First which followed, it would be a truly amazing thing.

But not for me. I just wasn't up to it.

At least I was able to make the whole wearisome journey (25 minutes wait for a BART train, due to system delays) on my newly-acquired senior-citizen transit card, which I'd bought on my Thursday outing from the service center at the downtown station, they not being available at the regular account-refill vendors.