Tuesday, October 28, 2014

not the only critic

Lisa Irontongue has alerted us to the existence of a whole institute for (classical) music criticism - you know it's classical because they don't specify what kind of music; we classicists are that arrogant - um, next week.

Wow, I should go. This is the profession I've fallen into, and have practiced for ten years now, though I'm conscious of my status as a lowly practitioner of it. I might learn something from all the renowned names in the field who will be speaking.

This is not the sets of all-day series of presentations that the Stanford "Reactions to the Record" symposia are - and, by the way, I should mention that there's another one of those coming up in April. I suspect the famous guests will be spending much of their time closeted with the student fellows, and the rest of us will have to be content with a few public events.

There's a keynote speech by Anthony Tommasini - not the name on the participant list I most respect, but oh well - on Wednesday, and panels on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. I hope to go to all of those.

Then four of the critics are giving the pre-concert lectures to concerts by different ensembles on Thursday-Sunday. Plus, they're holding an "Everyone's a Critic" audience participation, whereby audience members are invited to submit reviews of those concerts, with a prize to be given for the best on at a ceremony on Monday morning.

I'm going to skip out on all of that, though. I wasn't planning on attending any of those concerts, and none of the programs particularly excite me. I'd have to study up on most of the repertoire to be able to write competent reviews, which I'm not going to do without surety of being paid. Plus I'm not sure whether, as technically a professional in the field, I should be eligible for an audience prize. And most of all because the deadlines are too tight. I'm not a journalist by training, and a 9 AM deadline after an evening concert is way too soon for me. I might dash off a brief comment on LJ when I come home at night, but never when I've come from so far away as SF or Berkeley, and 9 the next morning is about when I'm ready to think about starting my review.

I have, however, started thinking about some of the issues in my own concerns about the work I do that I hope this institute will address, and I may write about those later.

Monday, October 27, 2014

concert review: Symphony Silicon Valley

Ah, I went down to San Jose for a concert on Saturday. Dined at Louisiana Bistro, which was brand new the last time I was there, in January. As before, the appetizer (1, crab cakes; 2, catfish nuggets) was far superior to the main (1, "jambalaya" - so called, but it wasn't; 2, gumbo). There are better places right across the street; I may not be coming back.

SSV now has at least two items on my list of Best Performance of This Work I Have Ever Heard: a Sibelius Second from a dozen years ago, and now Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. This work never had much of a profile for me, but now it's etched in all its finery. Just fabulous. Here's my review.

There was just one thing that annoyed me. The pre-concert lecturer thanked her audience profusely for the sacrifice we were making by skipping the game to be there. For me, it was no sacrifice, and probably not for most of the others. This wasn't even the concert, after all, but the optional lecture for no added cost. Sports fans, this is why us non-fans seem so irritated by sports: this general cultural assumption that the World Series (or, worse, because it goes on so long, the Olympics) is The Most Important Thing In The World to everybody. I don't mind giving a cheer for the local team in your comments section, just to be polite and join the festivities, because it's your own enthusiasm you're sharing, you're not trying to enforce it. It's when people assume that everyone has it that it puts my bridle up.

Friday, October 24, 2014

concert review: Master Sinfonia

Daniel Glover is a local pianist who plays concertos with many of the smaller orchestras hereabouts. In previous encounters, I've found him fluent but rather dull and characterless. So I'm pleased to be able to say that I liked his rendition of Dohnányi's Variations on a Nursery Song. Good thing, as I was reviewing it and could therefore show genuine enthusiasm.

I got to talk with him in a group at the post-concert reception, where he mentioned deliberately plonking out the main theme with two forefingers to make it look and sound as childlike as possible - after which, in the first variation, the piano part becomes highly challenging and exposed. He said he'd never heard the piece in concert except when playing it himself, and jokingly asked if any of us listening wanted to take on the following day's matinee for him. I said, "Well, I'll do the main theme."

(No kidding: that's about the extent of my piano skills. I play a few themes with my left hand - though I'm right-handed, my right hand isn't dextrous enough to play the piano - except for a couple (Joplin's "The Entertainer" and Tom Lehrer's "The Irish Ballad") which I play with two forefingers.)

Also got to compliment composer Jeremy Cavaterra on his Monterey Suite. Good tonal tone poem work with enough structure that it doesn't devolve into hack film music. We need more music like that.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

how to reach someone

1. Write to the e-mail address you used when you last contacted him several years ago, and which is still listed on the web page you then got it from.

2. Get a bounce message.

3. Since it says, "mailbox temporarily disabled," figure it may be one of those storms that periodically hits every e-mail provider.

4. Wait a few days.

5. Repeat step 1.

6. Repeat step 2.

7. Search him on Google. Fortunately he has an unusual name. After some searching, find a likely address. Be no more than momentarily confused by the same street address appearing in various sources with the names of two roughly adjacent (from your own dim knowledge of the area) cities.

8. Do a supplementary search with his name and various forms of the place name and find a profile from the online bulletin board you know he's active in, confirming that he does indeed live in that part of the world.

9. Do an online phone directory search for his name and address. Find a phone number.

10. Call the number.

11. Get a disconnect intercept with no forward.

12. Search Google with the address. Discover from a real estate website that he recently sold the house.

13. Find no clue online as to his new address. Briefly consider looking up the phone number of the old house's new owner, to ask if they know.

14. Do, however, find another e-mail address for him. Write to that.

15. Repeat step 4.

16. Google the e-mail address and find it associated with another web page that hasn't been updated in far longer than the web page from step 1.

17 (should probably have been step 3). Write to the one person you know who is in communication with him on the bulletin board from step 8 and ask for help.

18. After a decent interval, receive an e-mail with a) yet another e-mail address, and b) an offer to ping him on the bulletin board.

19. Take option 18a.

20. Repeat step 4.

21. Take option 18b.

22. After a decent interval, receive reply to e-mail. Hallelujah!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Guest Christian Zacharias conducted and played solo piano in a rather eclectic concert:

Two high classics, Mozart's D-minor piano concerto, K. 466, the darkest of the set and one with a particularly exquisite slow movement, making it essence of Mozart; and Haydn's Symphony No. 93, one of the most genial and witty of his London symphonies, making it essence of Haydn.

Two 20C American works, Copland's Appalachian Spring Suite, from the third and greatest of his Americana ballets, making it essence of Copland; and Morton Feldman's Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety, an unusual Feldman piece insofar as it lasts only about five minutes instead of more like two hours, making it an introduction to Feldman for the impatient or short on time, which is not the way to get to know Feldman, and for that reason this piece will probably drive anybody not already grooved into Feldman's idiom crazy, consisting as it does of ninety repeated "cuckoo" sounds.

For various possible reasons more likely to be me than the music, I found the performances adequate rather than inspiring, despite the enticing repertoire.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

concert review: St. Lawrence Quartet

My review tempered the expression of my feelings. This was a sandwich of a concert. The outer parts were great masterpieces, magnificently put across. The inner slice ... was not.

Performers keep having this idea that they can uplift some worthless new piece by pairing it with the great monuments of the past. I've noted this before. It doesn't work that way - not unless, perhaps, the new work really is as great as its company, and the average new work isn't going to meet that standard. (Pairing it with secondary old works might come out better.) Instead, it only magnifies the gap.

Even the composer knew better. Speaking before the music, he expressed unease at being sandwiched between Haydn and Schubert, and he was right to be uneasy. It did him no favors, and I left feeling even more uncertain whether he deserved any.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Tolkien trivia

A Tolkien reference that it took me enough effort to track down that I wanted to write about it, but which turned out to be so mindbogglingly trivial that I couldn't bear to do so here. It went straight to the Tolkien Society blog, where they might appreciate it.

Friday, October 17, 2014

women named "Junior"

Cecil Adams tackles the question, Why are girls and women not given the title “Junior,” “II,” etc.?

First he says it rarely happens, and then he gives a few examples of when it does. But his examples are mostly not very good ones. Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr. - yes, that was the name she was known by. Not some of the others.

FDR's wife and daughter, both legally Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, are only distinguished as "Sr." and "2nd" in legal documents. The mother was known as Eleanor, as everyone jolly well knows (and possibly because her mother's name was Anna), and the daughter was known as Anna, so in general usage, even before Anna's marriage, there was no possibility of confusion.

Dorothy Fuldheim's daughter the professor, I don't know how she was referred to before her marriage, but she bylined her Ph.D. thesis Dorothy Fuldheim Urman. Unfortunately, she died a couple years later, so that's her only publication I could find.

Nancy Sinatra is sometimes called "Jr." in news stories, but I don't believe she's ever used the addition on her albums.

Here's a datum to add to the list. I have a friend who is known to her family as June, not because her name is June - it isn't - but because she has the same first name as her mother and is hence a Junior. In bylines and to her friends she uses her legal name, which is Edith, but without a "Jr." appended, not that there'd be any likelihood of confusion anyway.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

five concerts in five days

Yes, the fall concert season must really be rolling if one can do that. And so I did. From the ridiculous to the sublime, in roughly that order ...

Saturday, South Valley Symphony. Bargain-basement community orchestra that plays at a 2-year college on the far side of Gilroy. I went all the way down there for the opportunity to hear Tchaikovsky's First, which doesn't come one's way very often. Parts of it were tolerable, especially the slow movement which had more melodic effect than some professional performances. Good job by 16-year-old pianist Henry Smolen on the Saint-Saëns Second Concerto. He couldn't do light and fleeting, which this concerto really needs, but he didn't drag or sludge for an instant.

Sunday, Saratoga Symphony. But this is the amateur group that sits at the true bottom of the local barrel. I've heard them before, but I still might go if it's something enticing, though I'll barely recognize it. This time they cheerfully and genially massacred Nielsen's Second, though they did quite decently with some dances by Grieg (including the one that Allan Sherman lifted "I Can't Dance" from), and a gaseous clarinet concerto by the sub-Mozartean Bernhard Crussell, with, again, a competent soloist, Adam Pease. Apparently kicked out of their Saratoga ecclesiastical venue, they're now playing in a tiny church in Cupertino.

Monday, London Philharmonic Orchestra. On to the professionals. Visiting orchestra at Davies in the City, which I couldn't resist for the program of Rachmaninoff's Paganini Rhapsody and Shostakovich's Eighth. Led by Vladimir Jurowski, they took a crisp, jaunty way through the Rhapsody, with soloist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet contributing punchy thumps. The Shostakovich was less chipper: the long adagios meandered listlessly, while the climaxes exploded. I've heard this symphony played more interestingly, but never louder. Clear, cool platforms of sound from the orchestra, though. A buzzing piece of soundscape by Magnus Lindberg completed the program.

Tuesday, Harmony for Humanity. Stanford's annual Daniel Pearl memorial concert, in honor of the journalist murdered in Pakistan in 2002 - he was a Stanford grad and music-lover. A student ensemble with the members of the St. Lawrence Quartet as section leaders played a Telemann oboe concerto and a Bach cantata. Memorial Church's echoing acoustics were fine for the strings and oboeist James Austin Smith, not so good for baritone Kenneth Goodson. In between, St. Lawrence cellist Chris Costanza played a Bach suite from down on the main floor, where most of the audience couldn't see him or, as it turned out, hear him.

Wednesday, San Francisco Symphony. Thin audience for a program of good stuff from the 1930s. It wasn't until I got there that I remembered that I'd heard guest conductor Stéphane Denève lead the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances before, with the LA Phil six years ago. I didn't like his technique of abrupt and erratic tempo changes much better this time, though the orchestra sounded great. Britten's Violin Concerto I hadn't known, so I can't say what Denève did to it, though the weird orchestration was again fascinating, and soloist Isabelle Faust kept on top of everything. Denève led the Barber Adagio as if to show that the music had been proceeding inaudibly for quite some time before the piece started, and continued after its conclusion also.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Columbus Day

Yes, Columbus discovered America. It was his coming here that directly led to the awareness of the continents by the rest of the world. The Vikings, if they were here at all, didn't do that, and the previous inhabitants kept the place to themselves. In science, you can find whatever you like in the laboratory, but if you don't publish first, you're not the discoverer, and you don't get the Nobel Prize.

As for the deplorable things that Columbus and his successors did, all of us who live here except those solely descended from those previous inhabitants are the beneficiaries of that, so while we can deplore it, as we should, denouncing its practitioners root and branch doesn't look too good on us. Considering the state of the world, our descendants won't look too kindly on us, either.

So let us celebrate, by the relentlessly logical procedure of closing the post offices, preventing me from mailing packages to B's sister and niece until tomorrow. I will give my thankfulness that the auto repair shop is not closed, and was able to repair and reinstall the flat tire I got yesterday on the freeway: exciting times.

Hobbling on my spare tire over there, I saw a nice indication of the ethnic dominance of this area in the form of front yard signs for school board and city council candidates named Chang, Zhang, and Huang.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Great Divorce

A few years ago I attended a stage adaptation of C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters that was touring the country and came locally. Now the same people have adapted his The Great Divorce.

The Great Divorce is a much less well-known book, but I think a more powerful one. Its critiques of human self-delusion get under my skin more than Screwtape's do. It's in the form of a narrative in which Lewis dreams that he accompanies ghosts from Hell - which he depicts as a drab, ugly town stuck in an eternal twilight - on a bus trip to Heaven, where the spirits there (often past earthly friends of the visitors) try to persuade them to cast off their delusions and transform themselves into heavenly residents - and occasionally succeed.

The point is that whether you return on the bus or not, and even whether you take the trip at all, is entirely voluntary, and as this trip is an allegory for accepting spiritual humility, it's a struggle in the minds of those who have to decide whether tis better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven (a line quoted in the book). Lewis's Big Idea here is that Hell is only Hell if you stay there; if you leave, it was Purgatory all along. God doesn't sentence people there; they commit themselves there of their own self-righteousness. God is just waiting for them to repent, which means giving that up.

I don't know how theologically orthodox this idea is, but if it is, it offers a complete rebuttal to the "God is evil because he sends people to Hell" theory, one of the few times Lewis really strikes home. (There is, here, no torture in Hell, just a complete drabness and people totally wrapped up in themselves, assuming you don't call that torture.)

I don't know if I've conveyed this. If it seems nonsensical, read the book. It's very short.

So, the play. It was about 75 minutes long, no intermission. Most of the book was there; the Dwarf and Tragedian were the most conspicuous omission. Three actors, two men and one woman, played all the incidental roles of spirits and traded off the part of Lewis (as character and narrator). Quick costume changes helped convey this, and I guess it was to make clear to the audience that they'd all be Lewis that the frame narration began with all three speaking, and moving, in unison while identically costumed (as dons in tie and sweater). This was risibly reminiscent of the scene with the three burglars in Noises Off.

One of the male actors, though good, was flop-sweaty in that "Hey, I'm acting here!" way. The other man was smoother but didn't differentiate his characters. The woman, Christa Scott-Reed, was by far the best: she played three supercilious women in the course of the play (Lewis had a bug on about that kind of woman: they show up throughout his fiction) and made them all different.

The scenery was portrayed through elaborate back projections (and a lot of REALLY LOUD background noises, a feature of the Screwtape as well), and this reliance on technology gave rise to the weirdest moment. There's a scene in the book where one of the ghosts is trying to pick up one of the heavenly apples to take back (the ghosts are insubstantial, and Heaven is so intensely real that the grass cuts their feet - something the actors, who performed barefoot, constantly remind you of). The voice of an angel admonishes this ghost.

In the play, the angel's voice comes amplified from above. The weird moment occurred in the previous scene, where the same voice, with the same amplification, interrupted the play, addressed the one actor then on stage by name, and told him to leave the stage momentarily. The house lights came up. Was it a medical emergency in the audience? No! The computer that directs the backdrops had frozen, and they had to reboot it. As Lewis could have told them, put not your faith in technology.

Friday, October 10, 2014


This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

musical commentary

Lisa Irontongue is passing along a meme of asking for pieces you never want to hear again and pieces you want to hear more often.

The concert music I most devoutly wish never to hear again consists almost entirely of bloated, self-indulgent and self-aggrandizing sludge from the gasbag Giganticist period of the turn of the 20th century, and a Top Ten might look like this.
  1. Mahler, Symphony No. 5
  2. Mahler, Symphony No. 6
  3. Mahler, Symphony No. 7
  4. Mahler, Symphony No. 8
  5. Mahler, Symphony No. 9
  6. Mahler, Symphony No. 10
  7. Strauss, Death and Transfiguration
  8. Strauss, Ein Heldenleben
  9. Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra
  10. Brian, Gothic Symphony
It only remains to be noted that the openings of the last two works are absolutely gripping, and it's a pity that they soon both devolve into acres of worthless crap. Everybody's lists of "want to hear more often" seems to focus on early and recent music. I can still find some 18th and 19th century composers I'd like to hear more often. To name one I have heard in concert a couple times, how about Arriaga? One striking piece of his I have heard played is this. The orchestral supposed warhorse that's the most underplayed these days compared to its deserts is the Franck Symphony. It has three movements, and here they are in the best recording I've ever heard, by Pierre Monteux and the Chicago Symphony: first, second, third. Over at my workplace, it appears that reviews of the Kronos Quartet attract angry responses even when I don't write them. One of our newest reviewers got slammed in comments for a "hit job" when, it seemed to me, his only crime was daring to give a negative review for a piece the commenter liked. I've been there, so I stepped in for the defense - even though I'd heard the work at another venue and liked it more, though possibly the venue accounts for the difference. I also know and like another piece on the program better than he does, but he justifies his opinion well, so I have no complaints.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

world according to cat

"The most relaxing way of hunting is to lie on my back with all four paws waggling in the air. Of course, it helps if the object of my hunt is a cooperative peacock feather."

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Orphan Black, season 2

(vague semi-spoilers)

Oh, Orphan Black, you are a harsh mistress. You make me care about these characters, and then you screw me over with the plot.

The end of season two featured a striking example of what I call the old Arlington Road Trick, which features prominently in that Jeff Bridges conspiracy thriller movie. The Arlington Road Trick occurs when a bad guy leaves a piece of false information around for a good guy to find and be misled by, while leading the good guy to believe that she'd only discovered it by happenstance.

It requires a very specific level of concealment to hide something well enough that the good guy won't suspect it's a plant, while simultaneously having it conspicuous enough that there's no chance the good guy will overlook it. Note again that the only reason for concealment is to establish the false information's bona fides - making the good guy believe the info could only have come by happenstance, that it couldn't have been planted.

But that's not all. The bad guy's plot also depends on knowing exactly how the good guy will react to the discovery. Will she call the person who needs to know? No. Will she go and tell it in person? No. She will drive to the building the person is in, send in a message, and have them come out to the car. Otherwise the bad guy's plot won't work.

For extra added bonus, the bad guy has to get to the same building before the good guy does, execute a meticulous change of costume, and know someone she's barely met better than two people who've known her all her life.

The common thread in all of this is that the reason the various good guys - four of them in this instance - and the audience never suspect a trick is that the trick would, in fact, be impossible to pull off. Or, at least, to be sure you could pull it off - and, if it failed, it would be disastrous to the plotter.

I was less disturbed by the gratuitous introduction of a new clone character who makes no discernable contribution to the plot, for the sole purpose of throwing an even tougher acting curveball than ever before at Tatiana Maslany, because her acting skills are just awesome and deserve this showcase. And an Emmy, which in her case she has not got.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

calendrical rod

Why is it that so many 12-month wall calendars for the succeeding year have a page with the last three months of the current year? What do I need that for? I already have a calendar for this year. What might be useful would be one with the first three months of the following year, so that one has a place to write upcoming appointments as they start to creep up, before one puts up, or even acquires, the next year's calendar.

B. and I use the wall calendar for shared appointments, e.g. things we'll do together or those we do individually that impact each other, e.g. if I'll be out for dinner because of a concert. We usually get one with pictures of cats or something equally appealing. I know where the best selection is to be found, and I've just come home with one.

We also keep a page-a-day cartoon calendar, and I've got one of those too. Requirement for these: blank back sides, because we use them for scrap note paper.

I keep my own personal appointments in a bare functional month-at-a-glance calendar. This does have a spread for the next year, in fact spaces for all 12 months, which is very convenient. Along about September, though, it starts getting jammed up, so it's time to buy the next year's. I've done that and transferred all my appointments and commitments, so now I can see when there'll be room to take a couple of trips.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

not such great movies

The Railway Man
Colin Firth in the true story of a veteran of the Bridge Over the River Kwai who cures his PTSD by going back to Thailand and confronting the Japanese officer who'd yelled at him while he'd been tortured. In true stereotyped Japanese style, the man grovels apologetically, and all ends happily.
There were several problems with this movie as a piece of storytelling. Eric (Firth's character) is introduced as a crusty but charming old bachelor who meets this woman on the train (Nicole Kidman) and enriches her vacation by spouting historical trivia. First problem: His subsequent tracking of her down is only not stalking because she likes him, though she's so reserved and British I don't see how he can be sure of it. Second problem: His PTSD only appears on screen the morning after their wedding, and quickly escalates, giving the evidently false impression that the marriage set it off. Third problem: Though she says she's a nurse, her efforts to help him consist of looking pained a lot. Fourth problem: Eric and his old army buddy (Stellan Skarsgård, evidently mandatory casting for characters such as his) refuse to talk about their POW torture because they say it was hideous beyond imagination: in flashback scenes it proves to consist of the likes of waterboarding and being locked in tiny bamboo cages; this is indeed horrible, but today not beyond imagination. It's no longer cogent to make a movie on such topics in pre-Iraq terms. Fifth problem: There's much less of that than there is of the officer yelling at him that he's lying, which again is horrible but doesn't really measure up on the torture scale to the advertising. Sixth problem: The reconciliation plot just doesn't grow or flow organically.
Further problems with the movie require exterior context. Seventh problem: Though the filmmakers in the commentary tell us that Thailand was hot, humid, rainy, and full of bugs, none of this comes across in the movie. It looks balmy, even during the war. Eighth problem: In real life, Eric wasn't a bachelor. He was already married and left his wife for this woman. That knowledge really puts a damper on the meet-cute opening.

Palo Alto
I only rented this movie because it's set in the town I know well, as I live near it and used to work there. I already knew it was actually filmed in SoCal. Some of the settings could pass for Palo Alto and some could not. (Too many palm trees.) However, as after 20 minutes or so the plot consisted of nothing but slacker teenagers getting wasted, I turned it off.

books not finished

Becoming Drusilla by Richard Beard
This was recommended to me as a road to understanding transsexuality. I found it harder to engage with its prose style than it seemed to be worth continuing. It's nonfiction, but Beard is primarily a novelist, and he kept trying to tell the story novelistically.
Beard feels that memoirs by transsexuals themselves are not best aimed at bystanders, and I expect he's correct. More promising might be this, a book by a cis friend of a transsexual: Beard's camping buddy, who after years of friendship came out as a woman. Alas, in at least the first half, Beard's energy is focused mostly on convincing skeptical readers that yes, transsexuality is a thing. That I already knew. So far, on critical questions like when she realized she was a woman, why and how she kept up pretenses as she did, Dru is elusive or mum, and I wearied of wondering whether she'd ever become more forthcoming.

The Invisible Bridge by Rick Perlstein
I picked up this massive, wide-ranging book on the growth of the conservative movement in the 1970s US, turned to a random page, and read a random paragraph, discussing Truman nostalgia, of all things. In it, I found two minor but annoying factual errors, both based on the author failing to check up on exactly when people actually died. Both incorrect factoids could easily have been omitted without affecting the paragraph's point. Probably the entire paragraph could have been omitted without affecting any larger point. But if you're going to include details, get them right. I knew this stuff; why didn't the author of a massive detail-filled book?
I put this book back on the shelf and don't intend to read any more.