Saturday, October 24, 2015


1. This is interesting. We have Tolkien's correspondence with Pauline Baynes regarding adding names to the poster-map of Middle-earth she drew in 1970, but I think the actual copy of the book's map she sent him to annotate is new.

2. Let's get this straight. The makers of the vegan substitute for mayonnaise claim that the reason they put a picture of an egg on the label was to show it was made without eggs, and further that they called it "mayo" so as to distinguish it from mayonnaise. They'd better hope the person who questions them on this is Trey Gowdy.

3. Yes.

4. Also (this is a video): Yes, yes, [click on yes button many times] (via Bruce Schneier)

5. Somewhere beyond the grave, Deryck Cooke is smiling.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

movies on the road

I had some awkwardly-timed downtime during my trip; I had some new movies I wanted to see; so I went.

The Martian. Which I saw mostly because I couldn't maintain my credentials as an SF fan without it. But it was pretty good as a movie, particularly in telling a story that basically consists of two years of waiting without being tedious about it. But I had some grumbles: 3) After a while it tends to drop interest in the stranded astronaut in favor of the events back in NASA. 2) The astronauts are way too snarky with each other. 1) I've seen this movie described as "competence porn" and it is. Repeated sequence: Character proposes something daring and audacious; authority emphatically forbids it because it's too dangerous and risky; character goes ahead and does it anyway; it works like a charm, even when that strains credulity. The only time a plan doesn't work, it's not because it's risky but because they cut corners to save time.

Steve Jobs. I think this is a movie for people who worship Apple products, who need to have the cult of Jobs taken down a peg. I don't like Apple products, so I'm not really the audience. The structure built on the pre-game shows for three product launches over 15 years is ingenious, but requires packing in too much backstory that doesn't fit. The same half-dozen people show up each time and say the same things, like ghosts haunting Ebenezer Scrooge, whom Jobs in this movie rather resembles. And if it's hard on Jobs, it's even worse on Woz, who is presented as an obsessive moron. (In the previous Jobs movie dramatization, Woz was Jobs's conscience, like Jiminy Cricket.) The one who comes off unexpectedly well is Sculley, possibly because the real guy talked to the screenwriter after having kept silent for over 20 years.

What I enjoyed seeing in this movie was the settings: three halls, all played by their real-life equivalents, each of which I've attended dozens, at least, of concerts in. It was amusing to see them on the big screen. Judging from the buildings surrounding it, the San Francisco parking garage featured near the end must be at least half a mile from Davies Symphony Hall, but artistic license.

Bridge of Birds, no, Sighs, no, Spies, that was it: Bridge of Spies. Nowhere near as good as the trailer had made me hope. Rather tedious, despite the action-packed plot. I think the director had trouble figuring out where the focus of the story was. And Tom Hanks dialed down the gravitas of his character way too far.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

concert review: Fresno Philharmonic

The last time I ventured out to Fresno for a symphony concert, it was to hear a work by Martinu. I hope to go again in April to hear Alexander Nevsky and Kalinnikov. This time it was for Bruckner's Seventh.

All this interesting programming is the responsibility of music director Theodore Kuchar, who's retiring at the end of this season. I hope he's replaced by somebody whose sense of programming is equally enticing.

And who's equally good, because this really was a splendid concert. This venture into Bruckner was superior to SSV's first venture into Bruckner last year. With only a few rough spots where the wheels scraped against the tracks, the sound was rich and full, with Kuchar leading a rather lean but still broad and weighty interpretation. No softening into warm fuzzies during the Adagio, the bane of too many performances of this work. Kuchar's approach was summed up for me by one moment in the first movement, where the first major climax is suddenly succeeded by a jaunty staccato theme in B minor. He took this theme unexpectedly fast, zooming out of any sense of anticlimax that his emphasis on the structural joins in the work might otherwise have engendered.

Also on the program, Saint-Saëns's Piano Concerto No. 5, with the solo part played with firm and serious elan by Pascal Rogé, and a short work by a local composer, Walter Saul, titled Kiev 2014, featuring an oboe, representing peace and independence for Ukraine, winning out against the orchestra's tumultuous representation of war and occupation.

I liked this well enough that I bought a CD from the composer's sales table, featuring his religious-inspired works for piano, including a song cycle on Biblical texts that I figured B. might like even if I didn't. Unfortunately neither of us did. Hack modernism. The piece in the concert was much better.

In other musical news, here's my published review of the St. Olaf's concert I wrote about last week.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

long day's journey to Ashland

I'd already been up to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival once this year, but I returned to catch another production that had gotten very good reviews.

This was of Pericles, one of Shakespeare's obscurer works, and one can see why. It's a rather goofy play, about a man who loses his kingdom, his wife, and his daughter, all through no fault of his own; and when he is so wracked with grief that he cannot move, he cannot eat, he cannot sleep, he can just barely growl, he suddenly gets them all back again, through no virtue of his own.

Despite the tragic content, much of the play is at least potentially comedic, and this production took it as a romp, which made it totally delightful. The good reviews were all emphatically deserved. The virtuosity of the actors in multiple parts was particularly exquisite. Scott Ripley as both the imperious king Antiochus and the scattered and ingratiating king Simonides, or Brooke Parks as both the good queen Thaisa (think Belle from Beauty and the Beast) and the evil queen Dionyza (think Cinderella's stepmother) were models of what actors can do when they try. Everyone in it, even Wayne Carr as the infinitely put-upon Pericles, seemed to be having a ripping good time. So did the audience.

As long as I was going to be there anyway, I also decided to contribute to my cultural education by scoring a ticket to that acclaimed masterwork of modern drama, Long Day's Journey into Night by Eugene O'Neill. Well, it was long anyway. Topic: a dysfunctional family of drug addicts argue with each other, interspersed with reminiscing, for four hours (real time).* The director's note in the program book spoke of how deeply meaningful he finds the play to him personally, but when I consider the question, what does this play mean to me?, what comes to mind are the legendary Victorian matrons who went to see Hamlet and whispered one to the other, "How unlike the home life of our own dear Queen."

It was very well acted, I'll give it that.

I'd seen Death of a Salesman, I'd seen A Streetcar Named Desire, I'd seen plays by Ibsen and Strindberg and even Sam Shepard, all here at Ashland in excellently-acted productions, with varying degrees of wondering "Why did I subject myself to this?" and now this, with the same bloody question.

I could have done without the moment when one of the actors broke character to ask the audience to turn off their cell phones, and so, I'm sure, could he.

*The mother is addicted to the morphine in her pain medication, and her husband and sons scorn her as a "dope fiend," as if she were morally responsible for her failing, but they're all alcoholics, so they should talk.

Friday, October 16, 2015

I have looked on beauty bare. It looked better garbed.

Mount Shasta, Northern California's snow-capped symbol, is now almost completely bare. There's still a little ice on the northern slopes, and a few wisps elsewhere, but basically it's just a big brown cone.

This is unprecedented; a little sad; more than a little frightening.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

three concerts

1. The St. Olaf Orchestra, Saturday. St. Olaf is a small liberal-arts college in Minnesota known for its music program, which is huge for a small college. The music faculty has 60 members; I don't think even Stanford's is that big. And the orchestra is excellent. They played the Enigma Variations as if it were a suite of separate movements, which was just the way to counter-act the glaring shifts of mood with which it abounds. They also played a new work inspired by Bill McKibben's writings on global warming, which was just as depressing as you might guess.

This was the first concert on their west coast tour. They take a tour somewhere every year: last year Florida (where they did not play the global-warming piece, though they had it then, because they didn't think it would be welcomed, despite Florida being even more vulnerable than California), next year Argentina. This year was NoCal's turn. The concert was at a church in San Mateo that was really too small for a large orchestra, but whose music director is a St. Olaf alum. I heard about this because they sent a press release to the Daily Journal, so I covered it for them. The review won't be published until later, so I'll link to it then.

2. Diablo Symphony, Sunday. I drove all the way to the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek for this amateur community orchestra because I loved the program, which was specifically chosen to highlight gems you never get to hear in concert. Unfortunately it's not a very good orchestra, and its performances of Suk's Scherzo Fantastique and Arriaga's Symphony in D - both absolute treasures and completely unknown to the general - were sluggish enough that they mostly served to remind me of better recordings heard in the past. The Respighi Adagio for cello and orchestra was worse, and the soloist, though the principal cellist of a couple of better orchestras, was completely inadequate.

However, they somehow worked up the gumption to close the concert with a wonderfully incisive and witty performance of Malcolm Arnold's Scottish Dances, with tremendous renditions of Arnold's signature brass "whoop"s. Arnold has been one of my favorite composers for 45 years, since my earliest days of listening, and this is one of my favorites of his works, yet I had never heard a note of his performed at a live concert until now.

3. Pavel Haas Quartet, Monday. The standout venue for chamber music in the City is the 1930s Herbst Theatre, but it's been closed for earthquake renovation. It's just about to reopen, but this concert was scheduled for the interim fill-in site, off-nights at the still-new SF Jazz Center. Since I'm unlikely to go there for the music it was built to play, this was my last chance to try out the Jazz Center, so I got a ticket for this concert.

It's an interesting hall. Steeply raked to improve sightlines (not generally considered a big thing in classical) with wrap-around seating on three sides (classical sites tend to be fussier about acoustical placement) and some flat seating on the floor that can be removed for large ensembles, it resembles the old Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium in layout more than any other hall I know. There are cupholders in the armrests, something you'd never see in a classical venue. The acoustics are very bright and close up, almost unnervingly so, but also extremely dry and unreverberant, something else you wouldn't have in a classical venue.

But it was fairly appropriate for this program of three tough quartets that might please aesthetically-touchy modern jazz listeners: Beethoven's Op. 95, Prokofiev's First, and Bartok's Fifth. The music received extremely expository readings, with the material laid out neatly and precisely.

Monday, October 12, 2015

the making of an error

Rummaging around Netflix, came across a recent British TV movie called The Making of a Lady, adapted from a novel I'd never heard of by Frances Hodgson Burnett of Secret Garden and (more to the point) Little Lord Fauntleroy fame.

It's very strange. Setting: Victorian London. Young woman - not poor, exactly, but impoverished middle-class - is doing secretarial work for a haughty aristocrat (played by Joanna Lumley, the only cast member familiar to me) when suddenly Lumley's painfully reserved but occasionally fun-loving nephew proposes marriage to the young woman.

He's a catch, actually: a widowed marquess under pressure from his aunt to re-marry and father an heir, he likes our heroine a lot better than any of the drippy young heiresses the old lady is pressing on him. Like any good Austen heroine, she initially refuses this impetuous man she hardly knows; but instead of the story being about either her slow re-wooing by a good man or his eventual revelation as a cad, it jumps immediately to her acceptance.

Will it then be about her learning to act in her new aristocratic position, thawing and winning over her reticent husband and the dour and unfriendly staff on his isolated country estate? A few scenes hint that it's going in that direction, but no: the plot suddenly makes a left turn and becomes a psychological horror story.

A few comments here:

1) One review I read described it as being like Downton Abbey. This only proves that we've devolved to the point where any story about post-Renaissance British nobility is described as being like Downton Abbey, no matter how unlike they are in every other possible way, in much the same way that any medievalized setting with warriors and some magic is described as being like The Lord of the Rings, no matter how unlike they are in every other possible way. I'd describe this, at least the earlier parts, as being more "budget Merchant-Ivory". For one thing, notably unlike Downton Abbey, it has only one plot.

2. The reviewer also described the story as racist. I'm not going to say it's not, but not for the reasons given: the reviewer was not paying attention to the diffusion and location of the villainy.

3. However! The screenwriter, Kate Brooke, though herself English and of aristocratic descent - her grandfather was a political viscount and he in turn the younger son of an Anglo-Irish earl* - makes the mistake in titles that Americans always fall for. Though the marquess is usually correctly called "Lord Walderhurst" and often just "Walderhurst" by his intimates, at one point a news clipping about him is read that calls him "Lord James Walderhurst". That is wrong! In news stories he would be called "The Marquess of Walderhurst". He'd only be "Lord James" if he were the marquess's younger son. And any Victorian newspaper would know that.

Notably, Burnett does not make that mistake in the novel, although she does use the continental spelling marquis instead of the British marquess.

*She is also the first cousin of the author of How to Train Your Dragon, for what that's worth.

Friday, October 9, 2015

o to be a blogger

1. Many of my readers will want to see this one: an article about invented languages. With a fair amount about Tolkien, yes. Makes the point that Tolkien used his creative imagination on reconstructing gaps in Anglo-Saxon texts in the same way that he used it to create the Elvish tongues. The article is a review of a book by the linguist who's inventing languages for George R.R. Martin. Doesn't discuss the oddity of a supposedly creative author contracting this intensely personal task out. Describes the linguist's act of modeling secondary-world linguistic history on primary-world examples as "cultural interpretation" in a vaguely disapproving tone. Not sure if the author realizes that Tolkien did the same thing.

2. Thoughtful article on Governor Jerry Brown's even more thoughtful decision to sign California's end-of-life option bill. This is governing as it should be: where a genuine moral choice meets the practicalities of public policy.

3. Movie I haven't seen entry 1: What the new Steve Jobs movie leaves out: how he became The Man while still thinking of himself as an iconoclastic rebel.

4. Movie I haven't seen entry 2: This article argues that The Martian is not "competence porn" while providing extensive evidence that it's exactly that.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

concert reviews

Saturday, to Symphony Silicon Valley to review the season-opening concert, the one George Cleve was going to conduct when he was still alive and well enough to do it. Verdict: the Schumann symphony one of the best performances I'd ever heard; the Beethoven concerto, well, not one of the best I'd ever heard.

I did not recognize the pianist's encore. Felt better on inquiring and being told it was by Medtner, a composer of deserved obscurity. The contact told me who Medtner was - a Russian pianist/composer contemporary with Rachmaninoff - but I already knew that; nor did my assigned word-count allow room to explain who the author of the encore was.

I first heard of Medtner - and have rarely heard of him anywhere else since - from a passing reference in the Rachmaninoff chapter of Harold C. Schonberg's Lives of the Great Composers, a then-new book I read in 1971 when I was still a budding learner. Schonberg calls him "a good craftsman who seldom came up with an original idea," a distinction with which Schonberg pairs him with Ernst von Dohnányi.

Now that's interesting, if a little misplaced, because on Sunday afternoon, after virtuously turning in my review, I ran down to Palo Alto specifically to hear a work by Dohnányi. It was his Piano Quintet No. 2 in E-flat minor, Op. 26, a piece I discovered and fell hard for when the Menlo festival programmed it 3 years ago. It's not the only Dohnányi work I'd hold as a masterpiece, either: his Suite for orchestra, Op. 19, is a long-time favorite.

The performers didn't expect the Dohnányi would be a draw: in speaking beforehand, one asked for a show of hands of anyone who'd heard the piece before. Only a few of us responded; I'm surprised, as I'm sure others there besides myself heard it at Menlo.

The concert was by a new, or at least re-invented, group called the Ives Collective. Their website is ambiguous as to whether two of the members of the old Ives Quartet have quit; what is certain is that the other two have decided to expand their repertoire by organizing concerts drawing upon a larger variety of players. This one featured works for piano and varying numbers of strings: besides the Dohnányi quintet, we had the Schumann Op. 47 quartet and the Mendelssohn Op. 66 trio.

Performances were good, though the old Ives penchant for occasionally dodgy intonation has not gone away, but the venue - an unusual one for them, and new to me; maybe their regular one wasn't available that day - was not ideal. It was a church apparently built as a grandiose monument to 1950s ecclesiastical architecture, and while it was vaguely in shoebox shape, which is good, the layout made it impossible for the performers to sit close to the back wall, so the sound diffused and echoed its way around the space.

Monday, October 5, 2015

an anecdote from Denis Healey

Denis Healey, who died at 98 on Saturday, was Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer 40 years ago. That's a long time. He had his wit - he's the guy who described being attacked in debate by Geoffrey Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep," probably the line he's most remembered for, at least here over the water. No surprise, then, that I greatly enjoyed reading his memoirs - many British politicians, unlike American ones, write exquisite and delightful memoirs - and in particular for this anecdote about American politics, which oddly I've never seen reproduced anywhere else.

The setting is 1987. Healey is foreign affairs spokesman for the Labour Party, and accompanies his leader, Neil Kinnock, on a trip to Washington to meet Reagan. (It's worth noting also that this was published in 1989.)
When we entered the Oval Office, President Reagan strode immediately towards me, thrust out his hand, and said: 'Nice to meet you, Mr Ambassador!' The real Ambassador murmured plaintively: 'But I've already met him, eleven times.' I confess I was nonplussed myself, until I was told by a senator at lunch that, only a week earlier, the President had mistaken General Powell, the immensely able black Deputy to his National Security Advisor, for the janitor.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

theatrical review: Fiorello!

I used to rely on my mother to keep track of and inform me of things like the fact that South Bay Musical Theatre is running Fiorello!, a bio-mus [if "bio-pic", then "bio-mus"] of La Guardia and one of my favorite musical shows. But she's gone now, so I had to discover it for myself. Anyway, they are running it, through next weekend at the Saratoga Civic Theater, and B. and I went on Friday. So there's still time to go.

What you get from this company, which I've been to before, though not recently, is a solid production by skilled local enthusiasts: not professional, but definitely competent. The singing was generally better than the acting; the acting managed to get the point across. Tim Reynolds as Fiorello was strong and peppy, vital for a role which generates the show's energy and does so mostly through dialogue: he doesn't get to sing very much. (An odd omission for a title character: doesn't the Music Man sing? Don't Mame and Annie and my fair lady?) The strongest singing came from some of the women: Jen Wheatonfox as Dora gave a perky "I Love a Cop", and Glenna Murillo as Marie belted out an intensely vivid "The Very Next Man". Jeffrey Henson as Ben Marino, the political operative, looked like Fred Thompson, and Kayvon Kordestani as Mitzi the showgirl sounded like Carol Channing.

The sound balance was excellent. The orchestra was in the back, behind the low-slung sets. Even when the body mikes went out, which happened once, the vocalists did not have any trouble being heard. The only catch was that the choruses (very strong throughout, even more than necessary: shouldn't the striking women seem a little anemic before Fiorello arrives and perks them up?) couldn't always hear to set their pitch properly.

As for the show itself, it's the heart-warming and generally optimistic tale of how Fiorello uses populism and sheer vigor to get himself elected, first to Congress and then, eventually, as Mayor of NYC, but is somewhat more hampered in his romantic life. It was effective enough as drama to win the Pulitzer Prize (but then, so did Of Thee I Sing). It's full of terrific songs. Here's a BBC Proms performance of the greatest show-stopper, a second-act number in which Ben and his political cronies make fun of the corruption hearings that would bring down Fiorello's political rival, Jimmy Walker.

Why this stupendously catchy song isn't better-known escapes me. And remember, it was written by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, the same guys who went on to do She Loves Me and, er, um, Fiddler on the Roof.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Tchaikovsky's Pathétique is the work that really tests any theories of how, or if, music expresses the inner state of its composer's emotions. With its searing "crawling out of the grave" bassoon opening and dour, anxious first movement, and its soul-crushingly depressive slow finale, it's about the most suicidal-sounding work in the classical repertoire - only a couple pieces by Shostakovich really match it - and the fact that the composer died unexpectedly a week after conducting the premiere has added fuel to rumors that he did commit suicide.

Claims that the work isn't really that depressing don't hold up. The two middle movements are much cheerier, and the third, a jolly march, ends with such a bang that it usually receives applause even from audiences not otherwise minded to clap between movements. (They did so last night: MTT, who was conducting, just ignored it.) Yet Tchaikovsky had written triumphal conclusions before, but they were always at the end of the symphony: this one isn't the last word, that Adagio finale is. In context, the middle movements act as a kind of intermezzo that's in denial of the suffering around it.

Yet Tchaikovsky was really happy, even cheerful, about his composition, and the word "pathétique" (or its Russian equivalent) doesn't mean "pathetic" as it would in English, but more "passionate" and "emotional". And the theories that he did commit suicide have turned out to be so much nonsense. If he hadn't died, how would we read this work? (How do we read Shostakovich's Eighth Quartet, possibly meant as a note for a suicide that wasn't carried out?) The premiere audience was puzzled, as well they should have been by such an oddly-shaped symphony unfamiliar to them, but that may have been also because Tchaikovsky wasn't a very good conductor. It was only after he died that it all fell into place and a narrative was born.

It's a tough question, and I mused over it while listening to this fine performance. Greatest plaudits to Carey Bell for dying clarinet falls so quietly and distantly played that it sounded as if he were offstage.

Also on the program, the emotional antithesis to the Pathétique, the serenely calm and warm-hearted Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Samuel Barber's setting of James Agee's prose poem remembering the happy times of his childhood before tragedy struck his family. Susanna Phillips sang, with supreme technique but not enough volume.

And a recent work by Ted Hearne, a young composer (now 33) with a pop background who confesses himself intimidated and alienated by the symphony orchestra, which is why he titled his work Dispatches as if he were a foreign correspondent here. It begins in quiet consonance interrupted by bursts of chaotic dissonance which gradually take over. There are some imaginative episodes along the way, but the work gave me no sense of structure, and generally sounded like the improvisations of a bright 9-year-old. I wish that younger composers could learn from Barber and Tchaikovsky that it's possible to write strong emotions into your music without devolving into noise.