Sunday, February 19, 2012

concert review and ballet review

I've not much to say about Friday's SF Symphony/Edo de Waart reunion concert that didn't make it into my review. Most of the second paragraph is taken directly from the de Waart section of my unpublished (except on blogspot) article on "SFS music directors I have known." I also got to recycle a quip I made years ago about Franz Schreker being the most misnamed composer in all of classical music, which I'd been waiting for an opportunity to reuse ever since, as Schreker's name doesn't often come up.

On Sunday, as the weekend closure of the Bay Bridge threatened to clog even the land routes into the City, I took a (rather crowded) train up to see the ballet. This was my first ballet performance in something like ten years, so why now? Not surprisingly for me, I go to the ballet to hear the music. One of the pieces was choreographed to the tune of Ash by Michael Torke, one of my favorite works composed in my lifetime. This dramatic piece of Beethovenian minor-mode energy is a choreographer's favorite, too: I understand that something like 13 ballets have been made from it in its 23 years. Some of them have even been performed here, but I hadn't been alerted to them until now. I didn't want to miss a chance to hear it live, and it seems like the ballet is the only place one may do so.

Not surprisingly, the SF Ballet Orchestra under Charles Barker is not quite as good as the recording by Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony, but it was good enough, and great to hear live. Also on the program were Martinu's Harpsichord Concerto and a suite of alternately noisy and vapid pieces by somebody named Jody Talbot.

And the ballets? I don't mind looking at dancers while I listen to music, but I hear music so strongly as structure that, if the ballet doesn't adhere to that structure, it feels to me totally disconnected from the music, like movie subtitles shifted off cue. My recollections of Balanchine from long ago are that he didn't do that: his dancers' movements felt structurally connected to the music. These, in all three pieces, didn't. (Choreographers: Christopher Wheeldon, Mark Morris, and Wayne McGregor respectively, none of them names that mean anything to me.) There were some events I'd never seen before on a ballet stage: Morris had three or four of his male dancers carry another one onstage, his arms extended like Superman, and Wheeldon directed some of his to exit the stage by rolling off. McGregor has a ballerina shake her booty, if that's what it's called, at the audience, something I not only have never seen before, but hope not to see again.

The stagings were alarmingly minimalist. McGregor had a blank, all-white stage, apparently to make a point out of it. (His ballet was titled "Chroma".) The Morris men were dressed in what could be described as pastel leopard-skin tights, with a print of the same pattern hung on the back wall, reinforcing the impression already given by McGregor that these ballets were supposed to be taking place in a modern art museum. Wheeldon's had floors and walls of luminescent blue and green, and looked as if it were taking place in a light box.

Had lunch on the way up at Wise Sons, a Jewish deli that's just opened in the middle of the Mission district's Central American restaurant belt (it's on 24th just east of Van Ness). Charmed by the inscription on the outside wall reading "Since 5771" (they were previously a pop-up since last year), and impressed by the friendliness and attentiveness of all the staff including the bus-persons, if slightly less by the speed and the fact that I got a corned beef sandwich when I ordered pastrami. Well, I like corned beef too.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

how stands the abbey?

I haven't seen the tv show Downton Abbey, but I see that the first season is now on DVD, so maybe I'll borrow it from the library when the time pressure is next off. (Which means, I suppose, that I should put my name on the wait list now.) But I'm minded to think of it, partly because I do like Jim Carter, who plays the butler, but mostly because I saw an article on it that noted that its author, Julian Fellowes, is an actual British peer (albeit a life peer, which is not the same thing as a hereditary one at all), and that therefore, "if there is any puzzling detail in Downton Abbey, Fellowes has probably got it right."

That's what I want to find out. I have yet to see an American novel with British nobility as characters that didn't get the nomenclature totally wrong, and even some British life peers don't know where the "Lord" goes in their names, and it annoys me. Will Fellowes get it right?

From what I've read at the Wikipedia articles on the show, perhaps he does. The principal noble characters in Downton Abbey are an earl and his wife (an earl's wife is a countess), and their three daughters. The Earl in full is "Rt. Hon. Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham". Robert is of course his first name, which only his family and close friends would use; Crawley is his family name; and Grantham is his title. His name in the above form would only be used in things like genealogical directories; he would be known officially as the Earl of Grantham and more generally as Lord Grantham, without further specification, and never as "Lord Robert" anything. In a later day, a casual-minded peer might go in public as "Robert Grantham", but except possibly in signing letters to fairly close friends, not in the 1910s or 20s when this is set. Similarly with his wife, Cora; she is Lady Grantham; more formally, the Countess of Grantham.

Their daughters, however, bear "Lady" before their first names as their courtesy right as daughters of an earl, and their own last names. They are Lady Mary Crawley, Lady Edith Crawley, and Lady Sybil Crawley, and are all Lady [first-name] for short. None of them are Lady Crawley or Lady Grantham, nor are any of them Miss Crawley, and outside the family you'd have to be mightily intimate to call any of them by first name without the "Lady" attached. None of them may inherit their father's title, for as with most the patent is written for heirs male only. When one of them marries, she's Lady Sybil Branson, still Lady Sybil for short, not Mrs. Branson, even though her husband is a plain Mr. Branson. (If she'd married a peer, she'd take the female counterpart of his title and cease being Lady Firstname.)

The same as the Earl and Countess would go with any other nobles - viscounts and viscountesses, marquesses or marchionesses, who show up - except for the Duke of Crowborough. A duke is not called Lord anything, but always the Duke of Crowborough, and you address him as "your grace" instead of "my lord".

If the show gets all of that right, then it will have some valuable lessons to teach everyone else who wants to fool around in this arcane subject, and maybe it will trickle down.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

concert review: Chicago Symphony

This is the third of the Great American Orchestras that SFS has invited in as part of its own centennial celebrations, and it gave the best concert yet. Music director Riccardo Muti took Franck's Symphony in D Minor, not normally one of the larger works in the repertoire - assuming you get to hear it in concert at all, which isn't often - and made an epic out of it. In the first movement, slow tempos, a husbanded layering of sound in crescendos, and a thorough exploration of each section of the movement as if it were a separate room by itself gave the massiveness of Bruckner. Franck's orchestration doesn't sound much like Bruckner's - he's much more addicted to doubling, for one thing - but they were both organists and they both treated the orchestra like an organ, a single entity that emits a multitude of sounds.

The music continued. The Allegretto was slow and gentle. The finale was slow and blindly wandering in sections, like the middle of the finale of Shostakovich's Fifth, jumping into fast vigor whenever the music goes into a forte theme statement. This was the only part where I couldn't quite grok what Muti was doing, but even there it was thoroughly satisfying. And the orchestra was, of course, marvelous. Fairly light but solid strings, clean brass, and the most awesomely liquid English horn (played by Scott Hostetler) imaginable.

Interesting stuff on the rest of the program, too. Pacific 231 by Arthur Honegger, one of the pioneering 1920s exercises in making music that's simply noisy. By today it's inoffensive and even a bit quaint. And a new work, which they premiered at home two weeks ago, Alternative Energy by Mason Bates. I know Bates' work - he's been heard at Cabrillo more than once - and I tended to dismiss him as a composer made largely of tics and an unreliable sense of when to use them. But he's matured now. Alternative Energy is a fairly large work - four movements, nearly half an hour - and here Bates has taken his style of landscape music built of oft-repeated, jumpy motifs irregularly overlaid with beaten percussion, and made it coherent and integrated, so that it works on a large scale while varying between movements, and not sounding like giant insects are stalking his landscape. Big success with the audience, and lo, it was good.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

not quite a concert review: Tokyo Quartet

Any real judgment of this performance is going to have to wait until further concerts in this series enable me to calibrate the dread question, "Well, what are the horrible Oshman acoustics going to be like this year?" This year the sponsors have bought their own acoustic shell, which looks a lot less effective than the borrowed one they were using last year, and the rub is whether it sounds a lot less effective too.

But the more I think about it, the more I conclude that the sonic inadequacies of last night's concert may be placed securely at the thing's feet. Surely that dry high-treble strongly-textured shiny and bony sound is not something a string quartet would cultivate on purpose? It leeched any warm beauty out of Schubert's string quintet (Jean-Michel Fonteneau, second cellist), and since the Tokyo is not an ensemble that makes much out of the inner structural logic of the works anyway, the result was deadly. Bartok's Third was even worse. It sounded like a rap DJ scratching and rubbing the needle over an LP. Only the Haydn (Op. 77/1) survived the experience.

Next month, Stephen Hough, a pianist I already know, is coming to play the Moonlight Sonata and some Scriabin, and if those sound like this, then I'll know that Oshman is back to being seriously scrod.

Monday, February 13, 2012

book review

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House)

A social history of the migration of American blacks from the South to Northern cities would not ordinarily be at the top of my personal reading interest chart. But a sufficiently good book on any subject is interesting, and Debbie Notkin warmly recommended this as a sufficiently good book. And from such a book, I can learn something of a subject I previously knew little about.

The first thing I learned from this book is that the migration was not primarily a feature of the 1910s and 20s, as I'd ignorantly thought. It began then, but Wilkerson's first point is that it continued at full throttle through the 1960s. The book is structured as the stories - entirely unconnected, but interwoven in the narrative by juxtaposing their equivalent stages - of a woman and two men who migrated from different parts of the South to different cities of the North between 1937 and 1953. Each had different backgrounds and different experiences. (David Oshinsky's review will tell you who they are and a bit about them.) At intervals Wilkerson steps back to give briefly a broader demographic picture, skilfully evaluating how representative her chosen subjects' stories are.

I was trained as a historian in college, and it seems to me that this book demonstrates how a journalistic approach can tell a story of this kind better than a traditional historical approach can, at least when practiced by a journalist as dedicated as Wilkerson. (She says she interviewed over a thousand migrants for this book, though there aren't that many in her acknowledgments, before choosing her main subjects; and she did the main interviewing a dozen years before finishing the book; all three of the main subjects, already elderly then, have since died.) The stories are written as feature journalism, with the invented or reconstructed conversations and descriptions typical of such articles, yet much more briskly and from a greater overview height than a novelist would tell it. A historian couldn't take such liberties, but by consequence would be crippled from Wilkerson's aim to tell her subjects' life stories as the subjects themselves saw them.

This itself is a limitation, of course. Feature journalism is not investigative journalism. Wilkerson has checked facts against records and on the ground where possible, but apart from a little blithe psychological character analysis in the epilogue, she's not out to second-guess or interrogate her subjects. You have to take her accuracy, and theirs, on faith. Certain personal problems of the subjects (cases of adultery, gambling addiction, and work issues including strikebreaking and accusations of medical malpractice) are not delved into. This is their stories, told from their point of view, and since they've been unheard, we need to hear that first.

Long work on the topic and a good comparative eye frequently gives Wilkerson's overview sections a solidity that journalism of this kind doesn't always have. Her comparisons of the black migration to various white migrations from oppressive backgrounds, including Jews leaving Nazi Germany, is particularly skillful. On the one hand, the blacks didn't feel they were emigrating, since they were within the same country, and could and did return for frequent visits (though Emmett Till shows even that could be perilous); on the other hand, effective economic slavery and authorities' use of Jim Crow laws even to prevent blacks from getting on trains made it often impractical and risky.

The one thing I didn't get was Wilkerson's rebuttal to the claim that the migrants turned the northern black communities dysfunctional and dependent. What does a brief list of politically or culturally successful child migrants or children of migrants prove, when one of her earlier points was that there were few northern blacks before the migration? In any large enough group of people, there will always be success stories (she doesn't discuss the tragedy of Jesse Owens' life after his Olympic victories), and simple demographics dictates that most of those among northern blacks of that generation will be of migrant origin.

Regardless, this is an excellent book that gets more compelling as it goes along, and I now feel that the great migration has become part of my cultural awareness, which is what Wilkerson wants to make happen for her readers.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

two redux concerts

1. The Lark Quartet came to Stanford's small recital hall with baritone Stephen Salters to repeat the two new vocal works from the concert I reviewed two years ago. This time I took B., as a Valentine's present, because there also was a third vocal piece on the program, being premiered here, Billy in the Darbies, words by Melville set by William Bolcom, a composer whom we rather extravagantly admire. I have to say that the new piece was better than either the Wiprud or the Ruehr held up as, despite their more appealing subjects. Better still, actually, was Bolcom's other contribution, the only instrumental work, his Three Rags from 1967-71. Only the third actually sounds like a rag, but they were all delightful and clever no end. All the more impressive considering the date, which puts them before the ragtime revival and during the height of the days when, if a serious composer produced something as populist and witty as this, Pierre Boulez would have him boiled in twelve-octane oil.

Salters has too powerful a voice for such a small venue. Any shading or subtlety went out the window, or would have if the room had any. The quartet remains excellent, and their violist remains the heart and soul of the ensemble.

2. Back to the Mission Chamber Orchestra, which I heard and reviewed, none too enthusiastically, a year ago. No repeated works this time, but I went because of the program. Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 1, which I hadn't heard in concert before, and two movements from Dvorak's Serenade for Strings, which I've heard often enough, both of which I love, both very nice in this group's amateur way. Dance Panels, a forgotten work by Aaron Copland, and now we know why it's forgotten, don't we? As Jackie Kennedy said on another such occasion, "Oh, Mr. Copland!"

Lastly, a piece I heard from SSV several years ago, and described at that time as "something unusual" thusly: "Astor Piazzolla's Cuatro Estaciones porteƱas (Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) arranged and to some degree recomposed (a no-no in classical music, but then Piazzolla wasn't really a classical composer) by Leonid Desyatnikov into a concerto for solo violin and small string orchestra, to which the arranger added - this wasn't Piazzolla's idea - sly little references to Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Pachelbel's Canon, Bach's Air on the G String ..." This time the soloist was SSV's assistant concertmaster, of all people, Christina Mok, much improved from the last time I heard her as a soloist. This was her first time playing the piece in concert. She was quite good. The orchestra ... MCO isn't anywhere near SSV's match in professional chops, but they actually did a better job in conveying what a good performance of this potentially immensely witty and enjoyable work would actually be like, if only we could get one.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

You have to really, really like Bruckner's music to want to attend a concert consisting solely of his hour-and-a-half Fifth Symphony, not quite his longest but probably the most formidable. And I do like it, I do. (If it had been Mahler's Fifth, I wouldn't have been there.)

This performance offered a new variation on the Blomstedt Special. The first two movements, especially the slow movement, were the most magnificent things I had ever heard. It wasn't so much that Blomstedt shaped and structured the music with obvious brilliance (though, as it turned out, it was brilliant), or even that the playing was totally without flaw (a too-blatant gasp for breath from the flute here, a wobble in the trumpet there), it was the rich and deep and weighty and totally enormous sound of the orchestra. It was a sonic cathedral. Heaven is vibrations in the air.

But then it began to decay. The sound remained the same, but the importance of the conductor's sense of shaping became critical when the finale began to feel as if it was spinning its wheels and not getting anywhere. It wasn't bad, exactly, and I've given good reviews to performances no better than this, but - to adapt a phrase - after such perfection, what forgiveness?

The good news, though, was that it didn't dribble out at the end. The coda picked itself up and concluded fairly satisfactorily.

My area of seating often sells late one-off tickets, and I sometimes am surrounded by people of specific types I don't usually see there. This time it was a lot of teenage girls slouching in blue jeans. I was afraid they might talk while the music was on, as sometimes happens. Not a peep.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

enlightenment by book review

The Muslim Next Door by Sumbul Ali-Karamali

Once in the course of a religious discussion, I defined God as "the being worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims." The evangelical Christian I was talking with replied that Muslims do not worship God, but a demon called Allah.

This book is addressed to people who suffer from that level of belligerent ignorance. The author (she is an American of Muslim Indian origin) not only points out that "Allah" is no more a different being from "God" than "Dieu" is, she spends most of the book repeating over and over that the overwhelming majority of Muslims, and certainly all the ones you'll meet as your neighbors, are just people practicing their own religion the way you practice yours. She's quite straightforward about what that means to her as an individual.

To a Muslim, the terrorists are no less weird outliers who misrepresent the religion they claim to follow than the Klan, who used Christian panoply to justify their terrorism. The only difference is whether the media treat them as exemplars of their religion. (But the author weakens her point by also citing terrorists who happen to be of Christian origin but aren't claiming Christian justification for their acts.)

The author convinces, or should convince, that the Muslim next door is not planning to murder you in your bed. But the book is also useful for many of us who weren't suffering from any such delusion, to gently inform us how little we know about Islam. It's a major religion with as complex a history, theology, organization, and structure of customs as Christianity or Judaism, but I discovered here that I know almost nothing about it. (I'd never known of any Islamic holidays besides Ramadan, for instance.) You'd need a handbook to learn, and this isn't it, but at least it should humble those who didn't realize their ignorance.

I was particularly appreciative of the discussion of the Nation of Islam (the Elijah Muhammad/Farrakhan group), which I'd always found puzzling. The author says it's just a farrago of notions put together from Islam, Christianity, and various other sources, and not adhering to the Qur'an at all, and thus not actually Islamic whatever it may call itself. (Malcolm X's break with the group, she says, was when he'd realized its nature and decided he wanted to be an actual Muslim instead.) It strikes me that this is the equivalent of the "Jews for Jesus": they call themselves Jews, but they aren't. She also explains the place of sufism, which is not a branch of Islam but a mystical practice. Another parallel she doesn't draw: it's Islam's kabbala.

Nevertheless the book is not entirely reassuring. Despite the personal tone and the grounding in everyday religious practice, it's almost numbingly repetitive, sloppy (she attributes "the pursuit of happiness" to the Constitution), and erodes trust by practicing unwarranted landsmanship. (She says "It is generally accepted that Dante based his Divine Comedy on the story of Muhammad's night ascension to heaven," and footnotes a scholar who, I found on checking, says the same words with no source in an editorial introduction in his collection of Islamic religious texts. Puzzled, since she also cites Edward Said, who says nothing of the kind and is scorching on Dante's prejudice against and ignorance of Islam, I checked the Dante Encyclopedia, which says it's not generally accepted at all. It's one of those fringe "I see some parallels so I've found the real inspiration!" source theories that are wearisomely familiar to me from Tolkien studies. There is, by the way, an Islamic source theory for Tolkien, too.)

The author's assurance that the extremists are plainly violating the Qur'an and are abhorred by all reasonable Muslims doesn't set the mind at ease when those extremists include the governments of major countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia. As Rick Santorum isn't President yet, where's the Christian equivalent of that? Nor when much of Islam's bad historical reputation is attributed to misguided early theologians who resisted Muhammad's reforming intent. If the mainstream of Islamic clerics could get off on the wrong foot from the start, that doesn't speak well of getting everyone on the right one later. (Maybe Christians, who had huge early schisms over what Jesus and Paul actually meant, can relate.) Nor when other behaviors that the author disapproves of as much as we do are attributed to cultural rather than religious impetus. Granted, if they're not religious then the whole body of believers aren't responsible for them, but those are some mighty alarming cultures you have in your religious orbit.

When discussing the hijab, she both points out that many observant Islamic women don't follow those rules (a fair enough point: I wonder how many non-Jews realize that even most observant Orthodox Jews don't dress like hasidim?) and attempts to defend them on feminist grounds, which don't quite mix.

Lastly, it appears from her description of religious practice that, while there are a variety of Islamic theological traditions (which is where Sunni vs. Shi'ite comes in), and while there are unobservant Muslims and observant ones who interpret the rules loosely, Islam apparently entirely lacks the idea of liberal sects or movements as exist both in Christianity and Judaism. Nor is it clear how much liberalizing influence there is in an essentially conservative religious movement as there is in Catholicism, or what reforms a la Vatican II have been offered (which ought to be easy to do, as even individual Islamic traditions don't have a single papal-type authority).

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

concert review: Nova Vista Symphony

Yesterday I went on longer than I'd intended about the new undergraduate music concert I'd attended on Sunday, so I omitted also going on about the concert I'd attended on Saturday. This was a local community group called the Nova Vista Symphony. Local groups can be the mischief, so I usually only go if I can't resist the program, and I liked the idea of a self-indulgent Brahms festival just two miles from my house, cheap.

Nova Vista, which I hadn't heard before, turns out to be of middling quality for an amateur group. The usual constant intonation problems in all sections, and more than enough spots where the ensemble rots into chaotic sludge, are compensated for by a very nice tone quality and an ability to dream of interpretive subtlety if not reach it.

Their First Piano Concerto was utterly expressionless, which suited the style of the pianist, Helene Wickett, but at least she does it deliberately and hits all the notes competently. (I've heard her before, and she's always like this.) The Academic Festival Overture was OK, certainly better than the last time I heard it, from the Stanford Symphony, and I positively enjoyed our cruise through the Second Symphony, full of shoals and wobbling waves though it was.

The conductor, Anthony Quartuccio, whom I've also seen before, looks exactly like Victor Herbert.

Monday, February 6, 2012

concert review: new music at Stanford

I was sitting in the coffee house at the Stanford student union, having a chicken salad for dinner, at the moment the Super Bowl ended. I know this coincidence of events because the coffee house is full of big-screen TVs. Although I was trying to read a book, I didn't mind the game being on; what annoyed was the post-game events: the fatuous interviews and back-patting ("Eli, you forgot to take the keys to the new car we just gave you") and the veritably fascist music in the form of a repeated trumpet call as the game trophy was marched up to the podium. (And by "fascist music," I mean, "sounds as if it had been written by a cheap Respighi imitator in the 1930s.")

I was eating at Stanford because I was there to attend a concert. You need a fair amount of money (or, if you're me, a reviewing gig) to hear the St. Lawrence String Quartet's regular programs, so who could resist a free concert by this superb ensemble? A lot of people, apparently, because almost everybody else in the Music Department's small recital hall looked like classmates of the composers. The composers, five of them, were all Stanford sophomores and juniors. As their professor explained to begin the program, this concert was the outcome of a fall-term composing seminar class in which the Quartet was involved. What a treat, to compose in class and have a first-rate professional string quartet try out the result. But that's part of what the St. Lawrence are university resident artists for.

The compositions, the prof said, varied markedly in style, and they did, but within the entire range of possibilities, they occupied a remarkably narrow range. They were all tonal, fairly consonant with the dissonances embedded in the harmony rather than sticking out, and though often disjointed never devolved into pointillism. The moods tended to the somber, with some embedded wit, but never cold. Scoring in the slow movements was flowing but notably sparse; there was much ostinato under long melodies in medium tempo; and the fast movements were built on repeated motifs. (But they were developed in modernist style; the minimalist toolbox was left unused.) There were canons but no fugatos. Lots of pizzicato, some notes at the highest range, but an almost total absence of any other special effects.

This was 21st century music quite different from the academic composition of the last century. Forty years ago, when I was first listening to new music, all the young academic composers sounded like Webern: wispy, atonal, totally fragmented, and without their special effects they would have felt crippled. (Earlier in the last century, Stravinsky was the most influential composer because everybody absorbed his rhythm and scoring as the base of their work; before that, Wagner was the one other composers felt breathing down their necks, and before him, it was Beethoven.)

How things have changed, and for the better. For it seems to me that the composer at the root of all these students' styles is Shostakovich. Only in a few places, mostly slow movements, did any of them actually sound much like him, but their built-in assumptions of how you write for a string quartet, and what the music is for, all come from his work whether they're conscious of it or not.

And as an admirer of that sort of music, I enjoyed the result. At long last, the words "new music" have ceased generating thoughts of "run away, screaming." Credit, then, to Nathan Cheung (String Quartet No. 1 "Autumn", which had the most diatonic melodies, over soundscape chords and rippling ostinatos), Patrick Kennedy ("Drift", another scenery-inspired work, glassy and similar to Cheung's in melodies over ostinato), Byron Walker (String Quartet in D Minor, an expressionist work with long intense solos and a jagged air), Eric Tran (String Quartet Op. 10, the most Shostakovich-like with fragmentary wandering lines in the slow movement and a four-note motif dominating the fast one), and Theo Lim ("Polyglot", an appropriate title for the most eclectic work, the only one to use glissando or ponticello, a thinly-scored slow movement and a doggedly canonic fast one - more Shostakovich techniques - and, for a conclusion, an off-kilter waltz that provided a strong flavor of Paul Schoenfield, the only other specific resemblance that really jumped out at me.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

group work lunches

B. clipped me this Dilbert

with a note to the effect that this is how group work lunches seem to her.

I'm reminded of an incident in the memoirs of the late Roy Jenkins, the biographer of Gladstone and Churchill who was also a politician known for his tastes for prandial comfort. As a young British government minister in 1965, he was sent on a tour of various countries, and reports:
New Zealand I liked less than Australia, thinking it more claustrophobic, and in Wellington found this prejudice perfectly confirmed. The Prime Minister kindly invited me to lunch with all his colleagues. "How often do you have these Cabinet lunches?", I asked him. "Every day," he said. "We always lunch together; only those abroad unfortunately miss it."

I decided that the social aspects of political life in New Zealand would not suit me.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Week one of the annual fortnight of The Return of the Blomstedt, always the part of the season I look forward to the most. And he's going to lavish as much care and thoughtful consideration upon Tchaikovsky's Fifth as any more intellectually formidable symphony by Sibelius or Bruckner. This was a serious, cultivated performance. He didn't light fires - no blaring, no flailing, no giant pregnant pauses - instead, the underlying power just swept through, keeping the music clipping at a steady gear.

The sound was as much like a Russian orchestra as I expect an American one could manage: deep, echoing, woody. Not quite Borodin rather than Tchaikovsky, but close. This is pretty much the direct opposite of the serrated sound that MTT was cultivating at the beginning of the season, so this shows how versatile the orchestra can be.

Part of Blomstedt's aim seemed to be to meld the winds into the string sound, like raisins in a pudding. Sometimes, if anything, they were buried too deeply; it was quite an achievement in Tchaikovsky, who orchestrated as if separated choirs were part of his religion. It certainly affected the flavor of the result.

Also, Garrick Ohlsson - "the great Garrick Ohlsson," as another concert-goer we talked to insisted on dubbing him, not unjustly - tickled the ivories through Mozart's K. 271, the best of his early (well, early middle) piano concertos. Very small orchestra in accompaniment; nice balance, blend, and coordination.

For sustenance beforehand, we tried out The Grove, a newish restaurant which confusingly is not on Grove Street, but behind Davies at Franklin and Hayes. Counter service, not enough uncomfortable seating. Limited bistro menu, so you have to like what they have, but it was good. My meatballs were big and hearty, though still outweighed by the cheesebread they came with, and I'm not that fond of cheesebread. My companions liked their chicken pot pies, and raved over the scones, lemonade, and orange juice. So, good for a fairly quick light meal.

Also in the musical line: review of a piano recital CD. I'd had this for over a month and kept putting it off, partly because I'd bolloxed up my understanding of how the CD review deadlines work. Fortunately, they took it late.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

history day

One perk of being a graduate of the History Department at Big Public University is the invitations to the annual History Day, an event designed for alumni at which professors give short presentations on their topics of research. I can't often get to these, but I did this year. The theme was the History of Food. We heard about whether the frequently and lengthy Eastern Orthodox fasts were debilitating or redundant on 19th century Russian peasants who were starving anyway, on contemporary gooseberry picking as a relic of the traditions of the yeoman American farmer, on surviving detailed descriptions of the dishes delivered by the bishops of medieval Florence as gifts to their general factotums (pork steaks with pork side dishes, giant fifty-egg quiches), and, most interestingly, on the history of olive oil.

The presenter began by showing pictures and diagrams of olive oil presses from various places and time periods, illustrating the great variety of ways in which the oil can be extracted, with or without crushing the pit, etc. In the 18th century Mediterranean, a traditional olive oil that was dark, opaque, and acidic, was replaced by an oil that was light, clear, and non-acidic - more like the extra virgin olive oil we're familiar with today - much to the distress of traditionalists at the time. Why did this happen? Well, most of that oil was being exported to Britain and the Netherlands. What? Was London experiencing an outbreak of Italian restaurants? No: it was going to lubricate the machines of the Industrial Revolution. The new kind of olive oil stored and lubricated better than the old, and indeed was the best oil for the purpose then available. (Modern mineral oil would arrive later.) Conclusion: what's good for machines is good for you.

After the fast talks, the feast: appropriately, a table loaded with sweets and savories, a huge swarm as people tried to figured out how to arrange themselves to get at the table, and a certain amount of standing around and talking. I spotted one fellow alumnus whom I knew, but he was intensely occupied.