Saturday, March 31, 2012

concert review: Borromeo Quartet

All the cool kids are going to see Abel Gance's Napoleon with the live orchestra this weekend. Not me. I professed uninterest in an epic unfinished silent film about Napoleon when it first re-emerged many years ago at a length of 4 hours. I'm no more interested in it now at five and a half hours and still unfinished.

Instead, I heard the Borromeo Quartet play the Beethoven Razumovsky Third - yes, that again - from the original manuscript score. And watched them, too, as they had the score - here it is in a big PDF - displayed on laptop computers on their music stands, and it also appeared on a large screen facing the audience.

This was the second time I'd attended a concert at which the score was displayed to the audience. The first time was at an SFS performance of In C a dozen years ago. On that occasion the purpose for doing so was to allow members of the audience - In C is a participatory work - to play along. But the score was in print and is only two pages long for a 45-minute work. A score for a big classical string quartet is considerably longer than that.

On this occasion, I had to devote so much attention to trying to follow Beethoven's illegible scrawls that I had none left to devote to considering the quality of the performance. I think it was pretty good.

With computer but without audience-readable projection were a piece of fragmented modernism by somebody named Stephen Jaffe, thoroughly uninteresting; Bach's C-minor passacaglia BWV 582, very well arranged by the first violinist and played with a gleaming sheen wonderful to hear; and an encore in the form of Brahms' choral prelude no. 8, another arranged organ work, just as good.

The venue was St. Luke's in Los Gatos, the last remaining building in that quarter of downtown dating from before the yuppies took over. The location afforded us the opportunity for modestly upscale Mexican dining and some exceedingly upscale window-shopping before the concert.

Friday, March 30, 2012

bureaucratic hells

I've had the time and occasion in the last few days to think a bit about bureaucratic hell.

You know when the organization staff members you deal with are incompetent, don't care about you, pass the buck to each other in the pattern of a maze of twisty little passages all alike, and generally behave in the eerily not-quite-human manner of a PKD android?

That's hell, but it's not a bureaucratic hell.

A bureaucratic hell is when each individual person or department is skilled at their job, dedicated to doing it well, patient with their customers and willing to take the time to address their concerns. But they also don't communicate with each other, so important data doesn't get passed on by person A or read by person B, you don't know which. They give inaccurate or misleading instructions as to what the next stage of your procedure, in some other department they've literally never been to themselves, is going to involve. They forget that you don't have their technical knowledge and talk really fast and over your head, and when you ask them to explain more slowly they say the same thing just as fast. They forget, also, that your lack of technical knowledge means you have no context in which to judge whether what they tell you is an absolute imperative or just a useful rule of thumb, so you have no idea whether, when two experts tell you different things, you should be alarmed or not. And, despite the speed with which they talk, they're so dedicated to taking the time necessary to deal with their customers' concerns that they're always running two hours late, and a one-hour appointment is likely to take all afternoon, all day if you need to see two or three of them in succession.

Most of these items show that the problem isn't with the individual people doing their own jobs. The real problem is with the network, the interstitial relationship among them. That's a bureaucratic hell. And that's what I've had the time and opportunity to contemplate.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

CDs review

So when I opened the package from my editors and these two CDs for review fell out, I felt like someone was pointing a finger at me and saying, "Quick! Tell me everything you know about Albert Roussel!"

Uh ... not a lot, really. I didn't have a lot of his music, I hadn't listened to any in a long time, and the first other composer I mentally associated him with was Arthur Honegger, which doesn't really make much sense. Honegger was a generation younger than Roussel, and their compositions don't sound much alike (well, up to a point: see below). I later realized that the association was because I'm interested in symphonies, and Roussel and Honegger were the two leading French composers of symphonies in the first half of the 20C.

Symphonies are not generally considered a French specialty, not after Berlioz anyway, and to write a lot of them marks a French composer as an academic, or, worse, Teutonic. But that's unfair. Listen to Roussel's early ballet The Spider's Banquet and you're apt to say - or at least I did - that this is lush, lurid romantic impressionism like Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe. And the association with the Impressionists does make chronological sense, as Roussel was halfway in age between Debussy and Ravel. He just seems weighted later, because he considerably outlived Debussy, and remained active up to his death, which the ailing Ravel did not.

The dirty secret is that I don't much like Daphnis et Chloe; it's my least favorite Ravel work. But that's partly because it seems to go on too long, and The Spider's Banquet is at least succinct.

Turn to the other CD, though, which is very late Roussel, and you have a different though related composer. Impressionist decadence of harmony is gone, and in its place is a vigorous dryness, that gets drier as it goes along. Does it really excite or grab me? Frankly, no. But I do like the general cut of the older Roussel's jib, and I particularly liked the style of the Sinfonietta for strings, one of the last-composed works on the album. It had the crisp vigor of a lot of northern European string music of the same era, the mid/late 1930s (Britten, Wiren, Larsson), and it's uncannily similar to - surprise! - the direction that Honegger was moving in around the same time. As I described it in a concert review a couple years ago. In these works, Roussel is the more complex, sophisticated composer, but Honegger is the one with more genius. C'est la musique, or something like that.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

concert review: San Jose Chamber Orchestra

This concert was full of unpredictabilities and surprises. For one thing, I didn't decide until literally half an hour before it started that I was definitely going to go. Fortunately, le petit Trianon is only 15 minutes from here when the traffic permits.

For a second, Eric Kujawsky of the Redwood Symphony, who was going to guest conduct, was ill, and SJCO music director Barbara Day Turner led the program instead.

For a third, I did not know until I arrived and saw the program book which Beethoven string quartet they were going to play in a string orchestra adaptation, as the orchestra's web site listed two different quartets for this role in different places. It turned out to be the Razumovsky Third. The scoring was the responsibility of Kujawsky, whose contribution basically consisted of designating on which forte passages the bass would double the celli, assigning a few virtuoso moments to soloists, and - judging from the quality of the performance - writing the tempo/characterization instruction "sluggish" on various parts of the score.

As a performance of the quartet it was distinctly unremarkable, but it was nevertheless interesting to hear this piece blown up to the size of a (small: 16 players altogether) string orchestra.

Also on the program: Strut by Michael Daugherty, his attempt at an evocation of the Harlem Renaissance. Its only resemblance to the music of that time came in the presence of a lot of what the Nazis called "pattering on the sordine" when they banned it. (Link courtesy of Arthur Hlavaty here.) This being Daugherty, there's lots of mechanistic flair, including plenty of short glissandi disguised as bent notes.

And Copland's Clarinet Concerto, the one written for Benny Goodman, played here by Michael Corner. Corner is about as good a clarinetist as you'll find down in these parts, but though his phrasing was fine, for whatever reason his tone was harsh and glaring in the opening slow section. Maybe it was the acoustics, because towards the end of that section he adjusted his mouthpiece on the fly and afterwards sounded much better. During the concluding fast section he mouthed along with the orchestra whenever he was not playing, as if willing them to swing as smoothly as he did. It was an uphill struggle.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

CDs received

From Arkiv Music, a fine source for classical CDs if you already know what you're looking for - for one thing, its search format eliminates the frustrations of near-duplicate work titles and ambiguous album labeling endemic in classical music, which are such a pitfall in keyword searching on other sites - I've picked up CDs of four works that have long been on my want list.

Camille Saint-Saëns, Suite Algérienne. Marco Guidarini, Nice Philharmonic (with works by Jules Massenet and Gustave - not Marc-Antoine! - Charpentier).
I have this work on an old LP, but the performance was deficient. I kept it anyway because at the time it was the only complete recording available of this charming and rarely-heard work. Saint-Saëns spent a lot of time (mostly for his health) in then-French Algeria, but this, like so much other 19C music depicting landscapes foreign to the composer, is scenic picture-painting rather than adaptations of indigenous music. The first three movements are all beautiful, and increasingly memorable, culminating in a passionately intense slow movement. But then they are all, quite unfairly, simply blown out of the water by the incredibly catchy finale, a French Military March which has become a pops favorite and is the only part of this suite you ever usually get to hear. (Very well played on the album, and not nearly this insanely fast.) It was thinking "If this is so great, what's the rest of the suite like?" that led me to look for the complete work in the first place.
Strangely, although this is a fine performance, and I already liked the rest of this work, I had to learn to like it all over again by playing it several times before it clicked. Now I'm distracted and haven't yet gotten to the rest of the album.

Alondra de la Parra (conductor), Mi Alma Mexicana = My Mexican Soul. Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas. Music by Chavez, Revueltas, Moncayo, Ponce, and a bunch of people you haven't heard of.
What I wanted this for was a good recording of the Danzon No. 2 by Márquez and some other Mexican pops favorites that wasn't by Gustavo Dudamel's Venezuelan students, who are very good but not professional. Since this is a 2-album set, I got a lot of other 20C ultra-Mexican nationalist stuff along with it, interesting but not in the same class, and a few late 19C works. Although the late 19C was the heyday of nationalist music in Europe, that news hadn't reached the Mexicans yet, who were still composing soggy late-Romantic salon pieces. Imagine my surprise when one of them turns out to be the origin of this famous hoary old circus tune.

Henry Cowell, String Quartets No. 2-4. Beaux Arts Quartet (with Homage to Iran).
I heard Cowell's United Quartet (No. 4) in concert a few years ago, and was immediately and utterly won over by what I described in my review as its "whining modal rhythmic primitivism ... like Alan Hovhaness on the proverbial acid." Too bad it's never been recorded, I thought. But it had. It was on a CRI LP back in 1963 or so, and all those LPs have been re-released on CD by New World. I must have this.
Blimey, it was like Saint-Saëns again, only more so. I don't know if it's the performance, or what, but the qualities that so appealed to me on the spot when the Colorado Quartet played it live had to be eked out slowly over repeated listenings from this CD, and, even now, only the concluding march do I feel I really get in this rendition. Too bad the Colorado Quartet hasn't recorded it, then.
The other quartets date from the same period, and No. 3 in particular seems to have a similar, if less quirky, character. (The Colorado has recorded that.) I'd go to this in concert like a shot.

Roy Harris, Symphonies No. 5 and 6. Marin Alsop, Bournemouth Symphony.
This is Harris in his sweet spot, after he emerged from his rugged early Ivesian period and before his talent began to run out of gas. These are the two symphonies he wrote during WW2, both of them broad, spanning efforts in the tonal American nationalist style that was flourishing in these years. No. 6 is especially luminous - I'd heard it before, and it's my favorite Harris work - and must have been impressive in concert. It's dedicated to the centennial of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, while No. 5 was dedicated to our noble Soviet ally. Oh, well. Good performances of this raw American music from a British orchestra. Maybe they heard some premonitions of the symphonies of Sir Malcolm Arnold, because I certainly do.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

two concerts

Friday: The string quartets on the Mandelring Quartet concert at le petit Trianon aren't particular favorites of mine, but I do know them well enough, so it was no trouble evaluating the performances in my review. The other half of the concert, however, consisted of unfamiliar music (mostly: I'd heard one of the pieces before, once) by obscure postmodern composers, in the eye-catching form of quintets with marimba. Marimba, yes, and quite a virtuoso playing them, and pleasant enough to listen to, but other than noting the eerie smoothness of the playing in the more familiar work, how were they? Hard to say.

Monday: Stephen Hough, pianist, at Oshman. Surprisingly, the acoustics behaved themselves. Whether it was because the shell was pulled forward or because there was only a piano in front of it, instead of being awful, it was just rough, like unsanded wood. This is not ideal when the piece you're playing is Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata - the girders kept showing, in the sense that the sound of the harmonies came out too crisply and overpowered that of the flow - but at least it wasn't agonizing to listen to. The acoustics undoubtably contributed to a brusque, harsh Scriabin Fifth Sonata. Hough also played a long sonata of his own, which sounded as if he'd knocked it together from scraps one afternoon in his basement workshop, and he played the Liszt Sonata the same way, quasi-improvisationally, with one intriguing sound or effect following another with no sense of what they were doing there. Still, a peaceful interlude in a tough and uncomfortable day that promises many more to come.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

a rose by any other taste

Nearly three weeks after my early return from Seattle, we've finally finished eating the small canister of rose-flavored Turkish Delight that I bought at Pike Place, and which caused me to decide to check my bag on the return flight because I had no idea what the TSA scanners would think of an unlabeled tub of flour-dusted jellies. (Which was worth it for the hassle-saving anyway, as I was flying a putt-putt to Portland and changing planes there.)

Turkish Delight is not a well-known sweet in the U.S., and is familiar mostly from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where the White Witch tempts Edmund, who has a passionate greed for the stuff, with it. For some unfathomable reason this scene has caused most every CSL fan I know to become obsessed with the topic of Turkish Delight. I find this almost as baffling as Tolkien fans who inscribe "Ash nazg durbatulûk" on their rings. If you believe Lewis, leave the stuff alone! Can't you see it's dangerously seductive?

We, however, are not as easily seduced as Edmund, and had no problem paying homage to our diets by restricting ourselves to one piece, daily after dinner, apiece.

After three weeks, Turkish Delight gets slightly crusty. I actually like it that way.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

It's American Mavericks festival season again, and all the same old mavericks are still mavericking away as at all MTT's previous Mavericks festivals several (but apparently not enough) years back. Not only were all the composers repeats from previous years, so were three of the specific pieces. And though there are some premieres in this year's festival, all of this concert's offerings were fairly old: two from the late 1920s, two from the late 1960s. "Same old, same old" is not the feeling one should have on approaching a concert of Mavericks.

Though I had the ticket in my series, I gave some passing thought to just skipping out on this concert, and maybe I should have. First, the current blustery weather wreaked havoc on traffic. Every few miles, the freeway would clog up again because of yet another accident up ahead. Then there were the people in my row who'd used my seat to pile their coats on, and somehow couldn't comprehend that it was my seat. That they didn't seem to speak English (I think they were Russian) may have contributed to the difficulty in communication, though it was the only open seat in the row and I kept pointing at it and waving my ticket. Eventually I fetched the usher, who was as slow on the uptake as the patrons.

And then there was the music.

The first half consisted of Song Books, one of John Cage's later semi-theatrical works that consists more of a set of instructions than a score. Three wooden huts had been erected at the back of the stage, with assorted tables and paraphernalia in front of them. Various musicians stood in the huts and sang, or wandered about the stage playing or hitting things and making noises with their bodies. Yes, I know what you're thinking, and a good loud fart would have enlivened the proceedings considerably. Instead, the music wandered on in a semi-hushed semi-random fashion for half an hour, and even the fact that one of the singers was Jessye Norman (!) did not much help.

According to the program note, Song Books consists of about 90 brief discrete events, but you couldn't tell it from here. Everything blurred together. Apparently it has texts in English, but I could not make out a single intelligible word in the entire piece. Eventually it just stopped, as if someone had turned out a light: in fact someone did, and the stage went dark. Musically, it had the kind of meandering airy openness typical of mature Cage, and if you groove on that, you might have enjoyed it.

Immediately after the curtain call, a small army of stagehands and carpenters swarmed onstage to dismantle everything, but it still took them a 45 minute intermission to cart all the Cagean apparatus away and set the orchestra's chairs up for the more conventional second half. This was actually more interesting to watch than the Cage had been to watch and listen to, because despite its prolixity it looked like it was going somewhere. Where it led to was this triptych:

Phorion by Lukas Foss. Bach's solo violin Prelude in E sent through a potato masher. Sounded a bit like bad radio reception and a bit like the aural equivalent of a funhouse mirror. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with notions like this, it was a five-minute idea in a fifteen-minute bag.

Piano Concerto by Henry Cowell (Jeremy Denk, soloist). A fairly early work, hence edgy. Also noisy: far more hammering than in Cowell's solo piano music, and the orchestra more than responds in kind. The central movement, which sometimes tried to pass for a slow movement, was the best part and had the nearest thing to a resemblance to anything else by Cowell, a composer I usually like.

Sun-treader by Carl Ruggles. MTT led a quite creditable performance of this load of expressionist angst. But since listening to this and several others of his works on record once 30 years ago, as part of my self-imposed musical education, I haven't paid any attention to it, or its composer, in the interim. Checking in again after three decades is not a bad idea, but what I thought of it then is not printable and nothing that happened last night did anything to change my mind. Ruggles' flinty integrity and the infinite care he took in crafting a tiny output tends to be mistaken for profundity.

Perhaps I was not the only patron to spend much of the evening checking my watch. For a while now, the SFS program notes have given the durations of the pieces, and now they're printing them in boldface. Are they trying to tell us something? I left feeling rather bludgeoned. I'm glad I didn't buy the pass for the whole festival. This ain't Cabrillo, folks, and one concert like this a year, or maybe a decade, is enough for me.

Monday, March 12, 2012

an evening with Morton Subotnick

Morton Subotnick got out of the car in the bitter cold, having just driven the last few miles to Colgate University, where he was giving a concert that evening, in reverse because the car's forward gears had conked out from the temperature, and he began to laugh. Tears were running down his cheeks, and the friends he'd come with started to laugh in response, and so did the garage attendant. Finally someone managed to ask why he was laughing. I've finally figured out what I want to do with my life, he said. I want to go this way while everybody else is going that way.

That was one of the stories he told at his guest lecture/demonstration this evening at Stanford's electronic music center. I was there because I wanted to see a legend. When I was being introduced to music, forty-mumble-odd years ago, Morton Subotnick was one of the hottest names at the cutting edge of contemporary composition. He created electronic music. He was said to be the first composer to have written a composition directly for a recording, rather than to be played in concert first. (This was at just about the time the Beatles were inventing the same thing in pop music.) Frankly, I didn't care for the bleeps and pops he called music, but the sheer magnitude and pervasiveness of his renown made it hard to deny that he was important, and interesting.

Judging from the look of the audience, there weren't very many people there who weren't old enough to have heard of him then. But if Subotnick's fame has receded, he's kept busy. His talk - it was more that than a concert - ran through his whole professional life. When he started out, things were so different that credit cards did not exist. (As someone who could have used some credit lines in his early days, he seems particularly obsessed with that.) He told various anecdotes, and dived into techy detail about electronics setups. He discussed using analog electronics for what they're good for, and digital electronics for what they're good for, and what the difference is.

And he played clips of his music from computer files. Some of those bleeps and pops sound strangely attractive now.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

concert review: BluePrint New Music Ensemble

I'm not up at the SF Conservatory for the Hot Air Music Festival today, but I was there yesterday for a chamber ensemble concert. What attracted me to it was curiosity to hear a Harpsichord Concerto by Philip Glass, which turned out to be just what you'd expect: a hunk of Glassery with a harpsichord in it. Better balanced than his piano concerto, that's for sure; partly acoustics, partly that the harpsichord didn't have to fight a larger ensemble.

The winner of the evening, however, turned out to be a vocal piece by Neil Rolnick. Daniel Cilli, a baritone I've heard in the title role of The Barber of Seville, plays a man moaning over the discovery that he has Anosmia (that's the title of the piece), a complete loss of the sense of smell, or, as the two women singing together in a kind of ghostly echo of his words add, "Bye bye nose / Do do wah do wah do." If the text goes on rather too long as our hero works out his karma, the music doesn't pall. I particularly liked Rolnick's instrumental accompaniment: passacaglia-like repetitions in the bass with crisp tags running over them in a highly distinctive style. I doubt I'll ever want to hear this again, but I'm very glad I heard it once.

Also on the program, Eight Miniatures for quartet of flute, bassoon, violin, and piano, by a student composer named Stefan Cwik (that's apparently pronounced swick rather than quick). Subtitled "Hommage a Stravinsky," and no kidding, too. In the notes, Cwik loftily tells us that "Stravinsky's music was the largest influence upon me as a young and developing composer." Come on, man, you're 25 years old: unless you're Mozart, you're not out of being young and developing yet.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

a little Seattle

For once, a trip to Seattle contained a little extra time for me to get out and wander the city a bit. I still remember my way around from when I lived there long ago; my main concern is unexpected changes in the bus routes. The temperature was usually about 40-50 F, but that's no bother at all. Without wind, I like it that way.

From the Potlatch hotel it was a half-hour walk through Belltown to the Pike Place Market, and I went down there every day (good exercise) to browse and nosh. I also got, finally, to the no longer so new main public library, which I found an interesting and somewhat alarmingly attractive building. Perhaps if I had to use it regularly I might learn to hate it with the passion of some of the locals I talked with about it, but no luck with that so far. The most disturbing thing I found in the library was its recommended fantasy literature reading list, the contents of which would be enough to convince me that if that's fantasy, I hate fantasy.

And I got up to Capitol Hill for bookstore-hunting, as Elliott Bay Books has relocated from its bayside location, and Twice Sold Tales (the Used Bookstore With The Cats), already in the neighborhood, had to move a couple blocks away from its old building being demolished for the new light rail station.

I had an early dinner at the Coastal Kitchen a hefty walk away, a restaurant notable for serving paella for one, but that was in fact the only dinner I had on this trip alone, having made arrangements beforehand with several friends, most not at the convention though some could have been, and some more elusive than others, and succeeded at having several joyous feasts thereby.

Friday, March 2, 2012

last of the Potlatch

I made my solo way to Seattle for what, at present, looks like the last in the annual series of Potlatch, a literary-oriented SF con. Book of Honor was A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, and many of the panel topics intelligently spun off from topics suggested by this novel. I was a bit surprised at the choice, for though we've never been loath to criticize our BoH at Potlatch, at last year's panel on the similarly post-holocaust Earth Abides, the only book which got slammed more than that BoH was A Canticle for Leibowitz, a book I'd never heard anything seriously negative about before. I mentioned both these points while participating in the "How We Pick a BoH" panel, which produced a lot more suggestions for future BoHs than offers to run the convention.

But though there was a panel this year specifically labeled "BoH Deconstruction", it was not in fact very critical of the book. One of the other panels spun off the book was a librarian panel, libraries and the preservation of documents being an important topic in the story. Although I had offered to participate in this panel, I did not find out until two days before the panel that not only was I to be on it, but that I was to moderate it. And since I was already in Seattle by then, if I hadn't brought my e-mail with me I might never have found out at all. As it was, I did have time to outline the panel topics, and tell my fellow panelists that I wanted this to be more a panel to explain what librarians actually do than a forum for airing current issues of concern, though we could and did get into that too. For after all there was another whole panel on data preservation. We had a good variety: a public reference and children's librarian, a corporate information resource person, myself a cataloger, and another cataloger who preferred to call himself a "metadata specialist", a term I avoid for myself whenever possible. For my set piece I talked about how keen-eyed librarians in the 1960s, aware that card catalogs would someday migrate to computers, created a pioneering hypertext markup language (called MAchine Readable Cataloging or MARC), that encoded every possible datum, search need, and sorting mechanism that one could possibly want to get out of a catalog card. It became my job, in the 1980s and 90s, to convert retrospectively the existing catalogs of several different colleges (the last one of which I did almost entirely by myself, with the help only of one assistant inputter: it took two years), so I define myself as the person who took your card catalog away and stuffed its contents into a protesting computer. Next step, putting the books themselves on computer, but that is quite another story.