Tuesday, August 14, 2018

concert review: Cabrillo Festival

Every few years, I'm sent over the hills to Santa Cruz to review a concert in the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. This year I got one with two composers I'd heard there before, John Corigliano and Anna Clyne, the latter of whom I'd actually first discovered at Cabrillo, five years ago to the day.

It's kind of tough to cram in five new works into a short space, but I found some recurrent themes, and the result is here. I'm not kidding when I speak of "the accomplishment and powerful assurance" in Clyne's music: the weight and force in the music was palpable from the start, even in the quiet first movement. So if you ever see any ads for her music with the blurb
One of the great composers of our time - San Francisco Classical Voice
you'll know where it comes from.

About the Corigliano work I felt a little unsure. It's an early work, sounding not at all like the later ones I'm more familiar with. I could tell what it sounded like to me, but I wanted to triangulate that against what he thought he was writing like. I was anticipating having to go to the library to find detailed discussion of his origins as a composer, but I didn't have to: I was able to buttonhole the man himself after the concert. After saying I liked his piece (which I did) and noting his change of style, I asked what were his inspirations and influences when he was starting out. He replied by naming Copland, Stravinsky, Bernstein. I said, "OK. I'm reviewing this concert, and was was thinking of saying the concerto had an American populist style with a harder edge, and it looks like I was on the right track." So that's what I wrote.

Stopped on the way down at the grocery in Boulder Creek that carries sour cream & chive Pasta Roni, a flavor I've never seen anywhere else. Once in Santa Cruz, had dinner around the corner at a Thai place whose lamb dish turned out to be mostly green beans with what tasted more like beef than lamb. Wasn't bad, though. Encounter on the way back with a maniac who didn't like me changing lanes to get to my exit. Sorry, fella, but there's only a limited amount of space in which I can get over, and I did have my turn signal on: what do you think it means?

Monday, August 13, 2018

queuing up

or "getting in line," the more usual expression over here.

Urgent need for DMV visit. Appointments not available for two months, and non-appointment lines infamously long. What to do?

On checking website for hours, find that, while most offices open at 8 AM, there's a few that open at 7. And one is down in the San Jose industrial warehouse district, between the zoo and the county fairgrounds.

So I go there and arrive at 6:15 AM. There are 14 people already lined up. This turns out to be not too many, though the line soon becomes much longer. I spend 45 minutes reading, and then am in and have completed my business by 7:35.

It's the recent move to TSA-compliant ID (which they call "Real ID" as if others weren't real) that's causing the backups. At the DMV, you visit first a front desk, which is where they give you the customer number that you then wait to be called for being helped at one of the windows where your business will really be done.

But just to get everything ready so you don't waste time at the windows, it's at the front desk that they go through and make sure you have all the documentation necessary, line it up, and put a paper clip around it. This, as you can imagine, takes time, and makes the front desk line build up dramatically.

While you were still in the outside line, clerks went down giving out copies of the list of acceptable documents. It looks like this (PDF). Many of the people around me look as if they've never seen it before. I have; I copied it from the web site. In fact everything they say is news to some people but I already had it from the web site. It's an informative website.

What I wasn't sure was whether some of my old original documents would satisfy the 21st century sense of security. My original birth certificate - this is the same negative photostat copy my parents were given when it was filed a month after I was born, and which they solemnly handed over to me at a tender age - states authoritatively, in the frame section around the photostat, that it is only certified if it has the official seal affixed. The official seal was affixed in the form of a rubber stamp with blue ink. That piece of 1950s security, relievingly, turns out to be good enough.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Henry Clay Work: a great American songwriter

While listening to a performance of Four Australian Folksongs yesterday, it seemed to me that one of the songs I didn't know, "Click Go the Shears," had a particularly catchy tune. On investigation, I found that that tune had been lifted directly from "Ring the Bell, Watchman," a Civil War-era song that was one of the lesser known hits of Henry Clay Work.

Work has somehow been forgotten while his similar contemporary, Stephen Foster, is remembered, and that's a shame, because Work was just as good a songwriter and has had a deeper cultural impact than is realized. He was born to an anti-slavery Connecticut family in 1832, while his namesake was running for President against Andrew Jackson (he lost). That made Work 6 years younger than Foster, and he lived 20 years longer, until 1884. I'm here today to pay tribute to him. Here's some of the best of Work's works, mostly as sung by performers of note:

Johnny Cash sings My Grandfather's Clock:

This is the one Work song that may be considered to have lasted the course in American popular culture, at least as far as my own childhood, when I was familiar with it, though not with the composer's name attached. Allan Sherman wrote a parody version.

Tennessee Ernie Ford sings Marching Through Georgia:

This Civil War boast ballad was Work's biggest hit during his own lifetime, to the extent that General Sherman grew sick of it, because it was played at every public appearance he made. The tune is incredibly catchy, and I'm stunned that I never heard it until, curious about frequent references to the song in books about the war, I looked it up.

Doc Watson sings The Ship That Never Returned:

Does this sound vaguely like "The Wreck of the Old 97" or even more vaguely like the Kingston Trio's "MTA"? It should. This is the original from which those more famous spinoffs were altered.

Ken Burns Civil War documentary soundtrack version of Kingdom Coming:

Yep, this piece of Burns background music is a Work song. You don't want to hear the lyrics to this one, because it's in "darkie" dialect. Stephen Foster did some of these too. Oh dear.

Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band sing Ring the Bell, Watchman

Or, since this grouping specializes in nonconformist hymn tunes, you might prefer a less dirge-like rendition, like this one:

This is the song whose tune (and some of the words, actually) were lifted for the Australian sheep-shearing ballad "Click Go the Shears," which you may hear sung by the Australian national child-molesting balladeer, Rolf Harris, here. Sorry, but it is the best version I found online.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

rather like a concert

Since B. has switched the bulk of her music-making from vocal to instrumental (violin and viola, mostly), she's been looking for others to make music with. For a while she considered founding the world's worst string quartet, but eventually she found an existing volunteer group that rejoices in the name of the Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra. There are no audition standards except enthusiasm, and no limitations on membership. At a given rehearsal there might be seven flutes and no oboes, or whatever. B. decided to play second violin, as there were enough violists and most of the other violinists want to be firsts, and immediately became a leading member of the section.

TACO, as it prefers to call itself, allows friends and family to attend rehearsals, but states frankly that it can't imagine why anyone would want to listen. It does, however, also play occasional concerts, and there was one yesterday eve in a pop-up park on a closed-off side street in downtown Los Altos. I drove us, because I knew how to find a very nearby parking place, even though the proper entrance to the parking plaza was from the closed-off street.

By far the best performance of the day was of a set of Four Australian Folk Songs, arranged by Stephen Chin. Though B. reported the accompaniment not very interesting to play, it was colorful and performed mostly on point, and the singer, a San Jose State student named Marisol De Anda, was entirely competent, although her soprano was more of an oratorio voice than a folk-song one.

Of course there's lots this orchestra would need to do if it wished to outgrow its name, but if there's one thing I'd ask the players to do that's within their capacity, it'd be to pay more attention to the conductor, and to the conductor, Cathy Humphers Smith, to be bolder and firmer in what you ask for. The echo effects as some players got a bar behind everyone else, the occasional complete breakdowns, the time the conductor forgot the last page of the piece and had to interrupt the MC and hop back on the podium to add it, and the really weird effect the time the conductor signaled a fermata and half the players just kept going, made for a memorable performance.

Some of the pieces were taken very slowly, like what I'd have to call Tchaikovsky's Adagio cantabile (I bet you thought that was Andante cantabile, but not this time) or the Funeral March of the Valkyries. But the finale of Dvorak's Symphony from the New World, though hacked to pieces by the arranger who cut it down to size, was played at full speed and developed real power. All the big final chords came together and right on cue. It became actually satisfying.

Friday, August 10, 2018


The wildfires in California have been getting much news coverage, and I fear we in for conflagrations like these on a regular basis from now on. But this particular batch are, so far, curiously unaffecting us. It's rather hazy out, and the mountains are reduced to distant shadows, but the amount of smoke arriving here is little, and, unlike many previous fires, these are not threatening the homes of anyone we know. The Mendocino fire has burned to the shoreline of the lake where I once went fishing for trout when I was a child living in the back country for a summer, but that's about it. The earlier fire that closed I-5 in Siskiyou County for a while alarmed me: what if we'd been trying to get home from Ashland at that time? It would have been a long drive around, but at least I'd have known where to go.

But aside from that, this could be a lot further away: still alarming, but not personally affecting. The people whose houses have burnt are certainly having a far harder time of it than my personal logistical troubles are giving me, but that's no comfort.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

getting scores

So I reported yesterday that San Jose State, which is my default academic library and the only one I have borrowing privileges at - owing to its joint venture with San Jose Public, which they have recently begun to dismantle and I fear for its long-term prospects - has decided to declare its entire musical score collection non-circulating.

This is a burden on me, because I often borrow scores for study prior to reviewing a complex or unfamiliar piece, and, if it's a pocket-sized score, taking it with me to the concert to follow along. I trust I don't have to explain how tremendously useful this can be for a reviewer or other student.

I mentioned this to several people I talked with at the Menlo festival, who shared my dismay. Why did they do this? I don't know and I'm not planning on finding out. Past attempts to talk to SJ library administration on other matters have been so frustrating and useless that I'm not tempted to try again. Also, at most I would satisfy casual curiosity for the reason (which is likely to be specious anyway and hence frustrating to learn), and it certainly wouldn't reverse the decision. Not if the college music department isn't up in arms about it.

One person suggested an alternative. San Francisco Public has lots of scores and is on the user-accessible inter-library loan system that San Jose Public is on. I could borrow from there.

True, but that requires time for the loan to arrive, which I don't always have after being assigned a review. Many's the time I've dashed down to the library for the score of a work I've just been assigned to review the next day.

Also, I found this. The inter-library loan search page does not allow searches to be limited by type of material. That means any search for a musical work will have the scores drowned by results for recordings.

The only thing I could think of to do is to go first to SFPL's own web catalog and find an item, copy down its exact title-page title, and search for that on the ILL page (which is where I'd have to go to get it by ILL). That produced fewer false drops on the test search I made, but I also found the SFPL's pocket score of this work is incorrectly called a set of parts (which I don't want), and is grouped with another library's holding, which might be the one I get if I make an ILL request.

At least for chamber music works, which tend to be few enough pages to copy, it's probably less trouble to do what I did for the pieces I needed for Menlo, which is to download the score from IMSLP (an excellent online score library) if it's available there, or scan a library copy - probably at Stanford, which has a bigger music library than SJSU and whose scanner is more likely to be operational, when they feel like letting non-affiliates use it - and then print out a photocopy. IMSLP's are full-sized, so I printed them out and then copied that copy at 2-page-to-1 reduced size to make a pocket score. What a nuisance, and it cost about $10 and took half an hour, but it's what I had to do.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

lost and found

One big event I mentioned to several people at Menlo to their shock, but haven't yet mentioned here, affected my reviewing. I'd gone to the San Jose State library to check out a bunch of scores I'd need for upcoming concerts, tough things like the Bartók Fifth Quartet and Verklärte Nacht, which I'd never attempt to review without a score in hand during the performance.

Only to find that the library had just declared their entire score collection non-circulating. Even the circulation counter folks had been taken unawares when that was announced.

This is a major hassle. I need those scores. I took the entire Bartók set with me to Banff, for instance. So now, unless I can get some of them by interlibrary loan - which requires advance notice I don't always have - I have to rely on scanning and photocopies, which take time. And really only work for chamber music, as orchestral scores are ridiculously large. I recently happily paged through the score of Elgar's Cello Concerto during a performance of that I was reviewing. Won't be able to do that any more.

(PDFs, you say? Not on, and not just because the print is too small. Not only do I currently not have a tablet - see "Atlanta, bag lost in" - but they glow in the dark, which is not on at a classical concert.)

Meantime I've replaced my computer keyboard. The ergonomic one I'd been using died, and my repair shop handed me the only wired keyboard they had handy, which was not ergo and had none of the special keys I like.

So I bought one. Online, because I doubt stores have much of a selection of wired keyboards any more. I'm still getting used to typing on it, but at least the space bar works consistently. And it has a number of those special keys that save a lot of trouble manipulating things on screen: keys for turning the speaker on and off and adjusting the volume, keys that bring up the calculator or your e-mail client (which is great, because mine frequently closes itself without my say-so), keys for going forward and backward on web searches. But there are a number of keys I can't figure out, and there's no manual. There's a key with a star on it. I'd have thought that meant "bookmark web page," but it doesn't do that. There's another, prominently placed between the left and right halves of the keyboard, that's in the form of a slider. I'd have thought that would scroll up and down, but it doesn't do that either.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Music at Menlo, week 3

The Menlo festival is over now, which is both sad because I got to hear a lot of good music, and a relief because it occupied most of my time for three weeks and I had to write six reviews.

Indeed, I probably couldn't have lost my pocket calendar (which went with my bag in the Atlanta airport) at a less disruptive time, since the Menlo calendar is so detailed I was keeping, as I usually do, a timeline in a printout from a computer file, so all I had to do was print out another copy when I got home, and then remember my very few non-Menlo appointments of the period, like the dentist.

As for six reviews, two of them came in the final week, of the Budapest concert and the Vienna one.

The Budapest one I approached with some trepidation. I wasn't that familiar with the music, as I mentioned last week, and I was a late substitute for a colleague who couldn't go. On top of which it was the third review I had to write within 7 days. I never intended to be so prolific when I took up reviewing, and I approached the concert with a sense of mental exhaustion, feeling my creative juices squeezed dry. I jotted down various hopelessly random phrases between movements, but somehow it turned into a review. I count it one of my better efforts at conveying the character of what I heard, especially in the Bartók. I only wish I'd had DGK there to hear it with me. He would have been as gobsmacked as I.

I got to just one of the three master classes held during the final week, but there was also a "Café Conversation" held in the same noon-hour time slot on Tuesday. This was an interview with the Calidore Quartet, who went on to play that Bartók that evening, conducted by festival co-director David Finckel. Finckel doesn't speak much at Menlo, for instance never giving the introduction that precedes each mainstage concert, but he was unstoppable here, talking more than all four quartet members combined, and interrupting the interview to give a spontaneous and lucid 15-minute lecture on the history of the string quartet. When the quartet did speak, they were lucid too. I've long been irked at the movie A Late Quartet, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a second violinist who's disgruntled because he can't explain what a second violinist does. Any real second violinist, I thought, wouldn't have any trouble with that question, and this one didn't. (He likes the variety of roles he plays in the music, and being part of the glue that holds the sound together.)

Other concerts I got to included the final blowout Prelude concerts by the International Program students - a delightful menu of the Franck Violin Sonata, Brahms' Piano Quartet No. 3, and the Schubert String Quintet - a Young Performers concert (the 10-to-18-year-olds) that featured two movements of an early and rather uncharacteristic Piano Quintet by Bartók, and an innovation at Menlo, what they're calling "Overture" concerts, collaborations between mainstage artists and International Program ones, who continually prove themselves ready for prime time. The Calidore players mixed it up with four of the I.P. folks in the Mendelssohn Octet, one of four or five 19C chamber music pieces I never miss any opportunity to hear.

Now I get to catch my breath a little before going down to Santa Cruz next weekend for the Cabrillo new music festival for my next assignment.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

making a better music list

So Terry Teachout, who likes to pull out links to his own older writings in his blog, tagged one I must have missed at the time, ten years ago: a list of classical pieces composed since 1950 that he "finds interesting."

I'm at least vaguely familiar with all the composers he names, though I don't know all the specific works, and some of those I do know I would not rate highly. But they're all at least interesting composers, and an enquirer who's not necessarily expecting more than "interesting" probably won't go wrong here.

Teachout's goal here, as explained in the column linked to (behind a paywall), is to respond to a complaint by Joe Queenan, who'd suffered through an opera by Harrison Birtwistle, that nothing popular has been written in classical music since Verklärte Nacht. Teachout demurs, and so do I (I don't even like Verklärte Nacht).

But I'm more intrigued by Teachout's style limitations. He doesn't like "crunch and thump" music, which is his description of Birtwistle. I yield to no-one in my distaste for the work of Birtwistle, but I don't find that a good description. Even less do I accept his complaint about "the over-and-over-and-over-again minimalism of John Adams and Philip Glass." Glass hasn't written like that since the 1970s, and Adams never did. Criticism of minimalism by painting crude and false caricatures of the music is a common phenomenon, but from me it only earns scorn.

But I think I can create a better list of newer music that's more than just interesting. Rules:
1. Beginning date of 1970, not 1950. Otherwise I'd fill it up already with 1950s symphonies.
2. No composers whom Teachout lists. It's already a handicap on me to eliminate Shostakovich, Bernstein, and Arnold.
3. If Teachout hates Glass and Adams so much, none of them either, though otherwise they'd both surely make my list. No Steve Reich or Terry Riley, the other canonical minimalists, either, though there will be some music here by other hands that's definitely minimalist.
4. Nothing that's just "interesting." It has to have delighted or amazed or moved me.
5. 12 pieces, not 10.
6. And Teachout didn't have any women. I have three. It would have been four if I could have found an online recording of Wintersong by Stefania de Kenessey, and it could have been more had I included more composers I know primarily from concert encounters.

Here they are, with links to YouTube recordings when I could find them. A couple of these pieces I have introduced you to before. I don't expect anyone to like all of these except me.

William Bolcom, Three Ghost Rags (1970)
Henryk Górecki, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1976)
Arvo Pärt, Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977)
Alfred Schnittke, Polyphonic Tango (1979)
Michael Nyman, Water Dances (1984)
Paul Schoenfeld, Café Music (1985)
Michael Torke, Ash (1989)
Arturo Márquez, Danzón No. 2 (1994)
Belinda Reynolds, Circa (1996)
Jennifer Higdon, Blue Cathedral (1999)
Osvaldo Golijov, Ayre (2004)
Caroline Shaw, Partita for 8 Voices (2012)

Saturday, August 4, 2018

midsummer night's play and other items

1. In a break from concert-going at Menlo, B. took me to see the SF Shakespeare Festival in Midsummer in the park in Cupertino. Excellent rendition. Dark-fay fairies. Enthusiastic comic turns by the lovers in the mixup scene. A Bottom who faintly carried the air of Robin Williams. A Hippolyta/Titania who somehow found dignity in both her roles. Best of all: Puck was double-cast as the sober Philostrate, Theseus' master of the revels. After escorting the mechanicals off at the end after their play, he shed his outer garments and turned back into Puck on stage for the epilogue. Magical.

2. Worldcon has posted its revised schedule. There are memorial sessions for Harlan Ellison, Gardner Dozois, and Karen K. Anderson, but not Ursula K. Le Guin. Interesting. Did not enough people there know her personally? There's also a panel called "Fantasy canon from the margins." When the schedule first went up, this was "Tolkein from the margins." Ah, yes, Tolkein: that oft-cited but non-existent author.

3. Warning: very long and very grim. But at the end, this article on how both scientists and politicians tried to address global warming back in the 1980s, when it was still possible to head it off, explains why it failed. The person who torpedoed the efforts and will consequently be responsible for the death of our ecosystem is: John Sununu. A credentialed mechanical engineer who was sure he knew more of how the machine of our planet worked than those fancy-pants scientists did.

4. Less apocalyptic warning: Goat alert, or what about the goats rampaging through Boise and why the professionals don't do it that way.