Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Godwin alert

The title of the small volume - Hitler by A.N. Wilson, with a photo of his glaring mug (no, not Wilson's) on the cover - caught my attention. What would the famous gadfly (no, not Hitler) make of this topic?

In eleven short chapters of biography, followed by one of assessment, Wilson's principal theme is that Hitler was a lazy, shiftless sod who never had a proper job in his life, and who only achieved success when he discovered his talent for ranting - first in dictation, of Mein Kampf (which Wilson insists on calling My Struggle, though that's an anemic translation), then in speeches and in bullying other politicians, domestic and foreign.

Wilson accurately points out that Hitler's domestic political rise and success was due, not to a wave of anti-Semitism, but to economic crises. Voters wanted currency stability and rising employment, and were willing to overlook anything else until the beginning of the war brought a sinking feeling, and the turn of the tide a couple years later confirmed it.

But otherwise the book has Wilson's typically odd and unbalanced approach. He finds space in his unpacked 190 pages of text to tell us three times that Hitler was flatulent, and he only ever brings up Churchill to describe him making a misjudgment. But the true oddity of Wilson's approach only comes up in his conclusion, on Hitler's legacy in mainstream Western culture. He describes an unspecified "us" as having decided that virtue lies in "being [Hitler's] opposite in all things," and then implicitly accuses us of hypocrisy for not being consistent about it.

For, of course, nobody actually did set out to be the opposite of Hitler in all things, and, even in the things we did set out to be the opposite of Hitler in, Hitler was hardly the only, or sometimes even any, of the reason for it. I particularly question Wilson's logic in saying, "Hitler made homosexuals wear pink triangles, so we shall have gay marriages." There's plenty of domestic prejudice against homosexuals to overcome; rhetoric on the subject rarely particularly invokes Hitler. Nor is gay marriage, a recent crusade, a direct response to events 70 years past.

On the other side of the equation, things we do that are the same as Hitler, Wilson feebly argues that Hitler was a puritan modernist reformer, who "embraced science" and technology, vegetarianism and anti-smoking. This is stupid stuff. A leader who drives most of his country's leading scientists into exile, and proclaims their science ideas tainted because they had them, is hardly embracing science. More could be made of the Nazi penchants for public health measures and consumer conveniences (mostly unrealized, due to the war), but Wilson doesn't even mention the most glaring example of post-war Western embrace of a Nazi idea, the people's car or Volkswagen, particularly popular with hippies and Sixties liberals; and it would be silly to call an idea bad just because Hitler had it.

Some of Wilson's implications of Hitler's motives are even wrong. Hitler was (mostly) a vegetarian, yes, but not for moral reasons; his was a practical search for a diet that wouldn't aggravate his sensitive stomach. Wilson makes a big deal out of Hitler's abolition of the time-honored black-letter typeface from German printing and its replacement with modern typefaces like everybody else. That's not the way I've heard the story. Black-letter had already been fading out from German usage for decades; the Nazis initially revived it as part of their campaign for distinctive German nationalism, along with their evocation of German pagan gods (which Wilson mentions). And they did so in a particularly illegible form, called Sütterlin, which may have been part of the reason they abruptly banned it after the war began, supposedly because they'd found that the official notices they'd been posting in occupied countries not even the German-speakers among the natives could read.

Anyway, "modern" typefaces are directly descended from Roman ones, which are a lot older than black-letter anyway. So the whole topic is all wet. So is Wilson's claim that "The Olympic torch was a Nazi invention." No, the Olympic torch relay was. (Again, he could make a better case with the Volkswagen.) Using examples like these to argue that the Hitler virus has seeped deep into our culture only suggests that the infection is actually shallow and superficial. He'd do better to mention the BNP, the French Front national, and (if he wrote quite recently) the Greek Golden Dawn, but I suspect he finds these less alarming.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

three concerts and a haunted house

1. Free concert at Stanford. 20th-century American piano trios, by Ives, Cowell, and Jalbert. Pretty dry stuff.

2. Lecture-concert, also free, at Stanford. Different piano trio, to play Mendelssohn's Op. 66 and talk about what makes it great. Played it well enough. Talk, which landed like a thud in pieces between each pair of movements, was superficial, grossly oversimplified ("If it hadn't been for Mendelssohn, we'd never have heard of Bach today"), but still too techy ("you just raise the third here") to be of use for the beginners who might actually need it.

3. Somewhat larger chamber-music concert (piano quartet & quintet) at Oshman. Brahms and his never-quite-forgotten epigone Mrs. H.H.A. Beach. Wholly amateur, though some of the players carried professional credentials, and fairly miserable. Sloppy and underpowered. Some concerts feel as if the performers were wired on caffeine or amphetamines; for this one, they all might as well have taken a few good whiffs of nitrous.

4. Haunted house, on a residential street a few blocks away. B. and I walked over after dinner. Impressively elaborate Disneylandesque walk-through set-up in the garage and back-yard, with about a dozen people whom you meet sequentially, playing fortune-tellers, pirates, ghouls, the Headless Horseman, and the webbed-up victim of a giant spider ("help me!") [resisted the impulse to reply, "Hi, Captain Crane"]). Only problem was, too dark to see much of the impressive decoration without a flashlight; fortunately, we had one.

I actually watched part of one of the World Series games on tv. It reminded me why I usually don't. Strikeout, strikeout, pop fly. End of inning. Switch sides, repeat. This is supposed to be exciting?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

concert review: Carducci Quartet

Having been otherwise occupied yesterday, I wrote the entirety of Sunday's concert review this morning. I hadn't realized I had so much to say about it, and I have no more to add here.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

trolling the web

If you go back and look at my last review (no, I'm not providing another link), you'll find comments from a couple people correcting my misidentification of the encore. I was grateful for the first person who knew what it really was, but the second one was rudely critical. I replied to both, because I wanted to acknowledge making an error, but also to indicate where I thought the limits of the sin lay. A mistake of this kind does not forfeit one's credibility.

My reply to the second poster actually brought me a phone call from my editor, warning me (not in these words) not to feed the trolls. I don't think I was; the comment was insulting but not trollish. If the commenter goes on further about it, though, I will refrain.

I can't say I'm entirely enthusiastic about Web 2.0 and its commenting functions. True that it makes it easier for readers to toss off a casual compliment or an informative aside, and I've gotten some of those. But it also makes it possible for any passing moron to leave a crude insult permanently appended to your professional work, and if you're not the publisher of your own writings, there's nothing you can do about it.

Some comments are easy to ignore. One of those passing morons recently accused me of preferring to display my erudition rather than reviewing the concert. True that this particular review tended in that direction - it was very straightforward repertoire; there wasn't that much to say about the performance - but my various reviews go both ways. Having received numerous compliments - more in person than online - for this quality in my writing, I choose to see an accusation of showing off my knowledge as a compliment. The commenter seemed jealous about not knowing as much about Respighi as I do.

It was easy not to reply to that one, or to the time (long ago now) that a commenter said that I'd spun out more wordage than anything I had to say, which on that occasion I must admit was unusually perceptive. But the people who huff about negative reviews deserve a smart slap, and I've given it to them. I was particularly incredulous at the ones who said that it isn't the reviewer's job to sit in judgment. What? It's hardly the reviewer's job to do anything else. To use aesthetic judgment to evaluate the works (if they're new) and the performance is what the reviewer is for. If you want a neutral description of the music, that's what program notes are for. And superlative adjectives should be saved for professionals at the top of their form. Non-professionals who do a good job by non-professional standards get milder compliments, and should be praised straightforwardly for what they do well, and it should be equally straightforwardly noted when they do not.

My motto is that of Le Guin, who conveniently - and revealingly - used a musical metaphor when writing about evaluating literature. I take it non-metaphorically.

In art, the best is the standard. When you hear a new violinist, you do not compare him to the kid next door; you compare him to Stern and Heifetz. If he falls short, you will not blame him for it, but you will know what he falls short of. And if he is a real violinist, he knows it too.
On LJ, where I do publish my own writings, I screen anonymous comments, and I will delete what I call "drive-by insults," but I've only done that a couple of times. Although, long after it was over, I once hid one long and fruitless comment exchange, I've never otherwise been tempted to delete a comment by a named LJ poster, except for editorial purposes (like accidental double-posts).

And I follow this principle in contributing to any dispute: I will keep responding as long as I have something to say and consider it worth the bother of saying. And when I do not, I will just stop. No-one can tell you, "I get to have the last word." You can only give that privilege to the other party. (And you can't do it by saying, "I'm quitting this argument, but here are some parting shots," sometimes with an explicit overlay of "And you don't get to respond." I see this too often. It's not kosher. Either you continue the argument, or you resign it; you don't get to try to do both at once.)

Your turn, if you care to take it.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

a useless trip

Well, not entirely useless, but not accomplishing what it was intended to.

First I had some errands near home. Those went reasonably OK. Then I was to drive up to the City for an SF Symphony concert. Traffic was very heavy and slow, and it took twice as long as usual. But I was early enough that I still had time for dinner in a Chinese restaurant on the fringes that I've been meaning to try for a long time now. (It was quite good, though the dish I had turned out to be one I've had under another name at another place recently, where it was even better. Though this time I did have the pleasure of watching the server, who I think was also the chef [very small restaurant], wave my dish under the noses at another table on its way out and say, "You should have ordered this one.")

That was my mistake, for if I'd bowed to the traffic gods and parked at the end of the BART line, as I sometimes do, I wouldn't have encountered the problem I found when I arrived, which was: No parking. At all. Even the pay lot I sometimes use for last resort was full, which I'd never seen before of an evening. One reason was some kind of motorcycle demolition derby being set up in the civic center plaza, but there must have been more. On a Thursday?

It was still an hour before showtime, but, given traffic, that wasn't long enough to drive back out and take BART in. I wasn't particularly interested in the program; it was just something that happened to be on my series. I had a choice of either continuing to search for an unlikely or far-off parking space, or just giving up and going back home. The latter sounded like the less unpleasant option.

So I drove home and cleaned the oven.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

heading out

Two cultural activities last Sunday, not just one. First, to San Jose Rep for the play Freud's Last Session. This was a "what if?" story involving C.S. Lewis. Inspired by a nonfiction book contrasting the views of Lewis and Freud, the play imagines that Lewis had come to see Freud for a philosophical discussion during the 16 months that Freud lived in London between his escape from Nazi-occupied Vienna and his death. It works pretty well, and comes off as dramatic rather than rarified. None of the issues are resolved - how could they be?; they've been disputed for centuries - and the script terminates the various discussions with various interruptions, after each of which the discussants get on to something else. I don't know that much of Freud, but the author has read Lewis, and introduces ideas from his writings without making Lewis sound as if he's just mouthing his books (something which the famous Shadowlands had some trouble with). The catch is that, though the character expresses Lewis's ideas, he doesn't always do so in Lewis's voice. But since the real Lewis could be a heavy and underhanded debater, this play's open-hearted character makes a better discussion partner.

Then on to a concert for review. I don't cover piano recitals very often, and they don't offer much cover for a reviewer who doesn't already know the music. I didn't know these particular big works by Liszt and Chopin, so I spent a lot of time beforehand with various recordings and the scores. This was the first time I'd studied the scores of either, and I got a distinct impression of their difference. Chopin's sonata is dense and convoluted. Liszt's suite is open and - "simple" isn't the right word; look at the harmonies - broad, straightforward, un-convoluted. I like the Chopin better, but the pianist did a superior job with the Liszt.

And then I goofed up by mishearing the name that the pianist announced as the composer of her encores, and didn't have the chance to check with authority. No wonder I couldn't find them in the wrong composer's oeuvre.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Fall of Arthur

This news has been slowly inching its way across Tolkien circles for a couple of months now, having leaked out from publishers in a rather daftly irregular fashion, but it's official now, and I'll pass it along here in case anyone who hasn't heard is interested.

Tolkien's The Fall of Arthur will be published next year. It's an incomplete epic narrative alliterative poem (over 900 lines, plus outlines and drafts), in the same kind of modern English that he used for The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun. He worked on it in the early 1930s, about the same time as The Hobbit. From what we know of it, it's probably based not so much on Malory as on other late medieval Arthurian literature.

If you want a sample, the opening lines are quoted in this news article, and the bits that appeared in Humphrey Carpenter's biography 35 years ago (so, you see, the existence of this piece is not news) are quoted (along with those opening lines again) by John D. Rateliff.

The mostly-unseen poem has not loomed large in Tolkien studies, though unlike the Sigurd material it's been generally part of people's conscious awareness. Some years later Tolkien wrote that one of the reasons he created his own mythology is that he felt that the Arthurian mythos, while straightforwardly British, was only "imperfectly" (his word) English; that is, he didn't feel it spoke that deeply to his own ethnicity, whatever the Welsh might feel about it. So it wasn't really his.

Still, that didn't prevent him at least starting to adapt it here. It will be interesting to see from the ancillary material (of which there must be a lot, as the new book is to be over 200 pages long) how long the poem might have been if finished. One eccentric Tolkien scholar built a whole argument about the importance of the Arthurian mythos to Tolkien out of a mistaken reading of the data that the poem is nine thousand lines long instead of nine hundred, and therefore one of Tolkien's biggest projects. Oops.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

John Cage

I've never been really tight with the work of the famously eccentric and avant-garde composer whose birth centenary was a month ago, but I've enjoyed some of his music, and I appreciate his sense of whimsicality (his most notorious work is the one consisting of the performer sitting there for 4'33" not playing anything; I get the point Cage is making by this, even though I disagree with it). So I thought I might like a little centenary festival that Stanford put on the last couple of days, consisting of a discussion panel, and a piano recital and chamber concert each containing music by Cage and some compatible (in the programmers' view) composers.

Wrong. It ran fast up against the limits of my interest in and tolerance for Cage, and was terminally tedious. The main problem was the performances, which were all serious and sanctified. Even Rzewski's Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, an astonishingly stomping piece of piano music that I've heard and enjoyed before, was dull. The Cage pieces, none of which I knew, seem to have been picked to fit with the context, and the context included a lot - too much - of Christian Wolff, but then he was there in person. The result was a lot of the cold, disconnected "bleeps and whispers" school of modernism, rather than the gentle, warm delicacy of Cage's best work.

I passed the time between sets reading from the epically-detailed new biography of Henry Cowell, a favorite composer of mine and one of Cage's mentors, and learned an interesting piece of Cage's background I hadn't known before. In the mid-1930s, Cowell and Cage took an auto trip across the U.S. (Cowell did most of the driving, as Cage tended to wander around the roadway.) They spent a lot of time in roadside diners, and got rather annoyed by the continual sound of the penny jukeboxes. Cowell remarked that he'd be willing to spend a penny for a five-minute record of silence. Fifteen years later, that germinated an idea in Cage's mind ...

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

concert review: Ives Quartet

What I like most about the Ives Quartet - besides the fact that they're good if somewhat offbeat performers, they're nearby and play frequently, and their concerts never come close to selling out (which is a shame for them, but means you can always get tickets) - is that they almost invariably include something unusual or new in their otherwise conventional program repertoire. Of the older composers whom I already knew about but had not been expecting to hear live, I particularly cherish getting to hear string quartets by Dane Rudhyar (even though I didn't much like the music) and Leo Ornstein (which I liked very much) at Ives concerts.

So I had it on my calendar as a red-letter day when the Ives was scheduled to play Henry Cowell's Fourth, a quartet I'd heard before and love. And after I selected it for an SFCV survey as one of the concerts to watch out for this fall, I got assigned to review it.

It was an offbeat performance of an offbeat work, but I should expect nothing less of the Ives. The degree to which they made it sound like Cowell's earlier work startled me. Meanwhile, expressionist intensity all over Smetana's From My Life was satisfying in itself, but dampened the emotional contrasts that the composer intended. And the Haydn, which could have flourished under a dose of the same strong medicine, was restrained. Had the players switched the styles around, I might have been happier, but they'll do it as they see fit. The main problem, as I noted in the review, was that they seemed a little uncomfortable with what Haydn and Cowell asked them to do. You need to pick music you have faith in.

Still, it was a good concert, and I'd recommend its further performances in Palo Alto and Berkeley (the latter, previously unknown to me, is mentioned in comments). Not in Palo Alto or Berkeley, but the Vietnamese place right around the corner from le petit Trianon turned out to be quite tasty, and with a friendly explanatory waitperson; thanks to K. for leading us there. I had a dry noodle bowl, like pho without the broth; the brothlessness' superiority at not making a mess turned out to be limited. It was called bun,* though a glance at the Vietnamese cuisine article on Wikipedia suggests that the nomenclature is a lot more complicated than that. Querying elsewhere on other occasions will definitely still be necessary.

*Not to be confused with buns (Chinese bao), which in Vietnamese are apparently called banh. I think.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

My editors sent me to review the blue-rinse matinée, because it was the first performance of the set. I don't like going to these, because the audience is normally so somnolent, though Respighi's march of the Roman soldiers along the Appian Way, the conclusion of The Pines of Rome, kind of woke them up. (This work was written after Mussolini came to power, and the descriptive preface to the score even notes that this section is "a fantastic vision of bygone glories," the realization of which was Mussolini's driving motive, so if you've ever wondered what Fascist music sounds like, this march is it. If you don't know it, here's a particularly evil-minded performance.)

To avoid daytime parking hassles in the City, and because the matinées, unlike the evening concerts, don't end after CalTrain stops running1, I took public transit all the way. And since I got B. to drive me to the local station in the morning (I took the local bus home, as she was out in the evening), and I walked the two miles inbound from the City station to Davies because I had plenty of time, the transit set my wallet back a total of $18, which is probably less than it costs in gas now to drive. This expedition also gave me the chance to try out two conveniently-located but otherwise elusive restaurants on my "gotta check these out sometime" list, one for an early lunch and one for an early light dinner.2

But with sluggish, desperately crowded Muni and an awkward train schedule, from the time I finished my sandwich until I got home took three hours for a 45-mile trip, even though nothing went seriously wrong, and that's just too enervating when I'm facing a deadline.

From my concert review, the perspicacious should be able to detect three things: 1) that I wrote blog reviews of guest conductor Vasily Petrenko's two previous performances here, 2) that even though I know Pines well, I got the score anyway (the translation of the dynamic instructions, though not of the preface, is my own, though translating Italian like ppp il più possibile isn't difficult), and 3) that I skated over the Bartók because I don't know it as well as I should.

Compare also Kosman's review in the Chronicle, a Kosman Special in which he spends most of the review complaining that he doesn't like the repertoire, and giving the orchestra backhanded compliments for playing it well. I try not to write like that, though as an occasional freelancer I'm not subjected to music I dislike very often. But I'm getting kind of personally exasperated with some of his dislikes. So you think Respighi sucks? I'll stick up for him as my favorite post-Baroque Italian composer, bar none. Keep all those opera guys, Verdi and Puccini and Bellini and Donizetti, yea even Rossini, not to mention the avant-garde like Berio and Scelsi and Nono [an excellent name for that composer], I'll stick up for Respighi. In fact I'm relistening to de Waart's fine SFS recording of Pines right now, just because.

1. Actually, after an evening concert, the slow, balky local bus is likely to get you to the train station just after the 10:40 train has left, which means you have to wait 80 minutes for the midnight milk run, which takes another hour and a half to get to San José, so fnck that idea.
2. Did I tell you I started reviewing for Yelp at the start of this year? Not that I trust Yelp - not much, anyway - but it seemed a good place to emit restaurant comments that I didn't want to bore this blog with. Here's lunch and dinner.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

a musical weekend

Saturday evening I headed to San Jose to cover Symphony Silicon Valley's opening concert. Verdict: for three out of four works, excellent.

That morning I'd gotten an urgent phone call from my editor. He was running out of reviewers who were all unavailable; despite the fact that I was already doing a concert this week (one per week is the usual maximum, one that I've broken only once before, under different management), could I go to Walnut Creek on Sunday and review the California Symphony's opening concert? Apologies for sending me so far away, but no problem, I said, as I'm already going to UC Berkeley that day for the Cal Performances Fall Free-for-All.

And I agreed to cover the concert without even knowing what they'd be playing. It might have been the Berg Violin Concerto and Tod und Verklärung for all I knew.* When I got off the phone and went to look it up, I actually laughed. This is going to be easy, I thought.

And not too difficult it was. Meanwhile, the idea of the Free-for-All is to fill auditoria around the UCB campus with free concerts up to an hour long each, all day. The one catch is, Berkeley's got hills, so truding between one and another in a five-minute break is not always easy. Having arrived late because it seemed more efficient to search for free street parking than spend time in a long line of folks each unsuccessfully trying to navigate the instructions on the parking permit machine, I got to hear half of a Cypress Quartet concert, all of a harpsichord recital, and what amounted to an abridged concert perfomance of Sondheim's Assassins, by local theatre group that's producing it. With a whole hour to play with, they could present functionally the whole show, with pit band behind them.

And it was good. Berkeley is a little far from here for B. to want to go for an evening, but otherwise I would, because the performers were very good. I particularly liked the Booth, who had all the glowering fury of the original, and the Guiteau, who had all the maniacal cheerfulness of the original.

Then off across the hills to Walnut Creek, and here's the final result.

*I'm trying to think of a plausible concert program not involving Mahler or a concert opera that would seize me with a sense of cosmic horror.