Friday, November 27, 2015

concert review: Redwood Symphony

This is the third time in two months that I've gone to a concert including Agee and Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 - each with a different soprano for the solo part - a work I'd not heard at all in concert before then. Maybe the centennial of the summer described is responsible for the sudden profusion, though none of the sponsoring organizations took note of that.

Redwood Symphony was in a raucous mode this time, a little brasher than Barber's gentle music would suggest. It was up to the challenges of Britten's "4 Sea Interludes," though, and impressively bashed its way through Tchaikovsky's Fifth, a delightful performance even though the conducting was deficient.

Here's proof that my evaluation of a conductor's performance is governed more by that conductor's appreciation and understanding of the work than my own. Redwood's Eric Kujawsky is a strong advocate of Mahler, a composer I generally detest; his native understanding and appreciation of that music allows him to create what even I consider some of the best Mahler interpretations out there. But while I enjoy Tchaikovsky, Kujawsky is critical. His pre-concert talk consisted of poking fun at some of Tchaikovsky's longest and most repetitious decrescendo-decelerando passages. But while they may be funny out of context, they work within the larger structure, or they do to a conductor with an intuitive understanding of why they're there. On the podium, Kujawsky didn't seem to see much point in any of Tchaikovsky's repetitions, and since Tchaikovsky is the most insistently repetitious of all major composers, that did great harm to a symphony that can be completely coherent and convincing in more sympathetic hands.


Sunday, November 22, 2015

Tolkienist on the loose again

You've seen Stephen Colbert on The Late Show criticizing the scientist who named a species of spider after Sméagol? You wanna know what I think?

blow, winds

For various reasons we need something cheerful today, so here is my all-time favorite work of chamber music for winds, an obscure piece you may not know: Rimsky-Korsakov's Quintet for Piano and Winds. I first heard this piece around 1971, at which time I was not listening to much chamber music, but I loved this one instantly and ever since:

Friday, November 20, 2015

C.S. Lewis, detective

Richards, Kel. The Corpse in the Cellar: a 1930s Murder Mystery, and The Country House Murders: a 1930s Murder Mystery. London: Marylebone House, 2015.

C.S. Lewis as detective? Yes, it's true; or, rather, it's fictional. The fad for enlisting real people, preferably deceased authors, as amateur sleuths in mystery novels has reached the Inklings. Kel Richards, an Australian radio broadcaster and crime novelist, and also the author of a translation of the Bible into Australian vernacular, is undertaking a series of classic "cozy" 1930s-style murder mysteries with "Jack" Lewis interweaving detecting with conversations about mere Christianity. The British publisher is an imprint of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, so the apologetics are intended as the real point.

The narrator is a fictional character named Tom Morris, a former student of Lewis's at Oxford who in the first book accompanies Jack and his brother Warren on a walking tour in the summer of 1933 in a fictional area somewhere in England. Reference to nearby Cambridgeshire at the start of the first book implies we're in East Anglia, but the presence of moors and seaside cliffs later on and in the second book, which is set in the same area a year later, make me more doubtful.

Tom is an atheist, and, in breaks between bouts of detecting, Lewis responds to his skepticism about the value of religion, in the first book, and Christian beliefs about death and immortality, in the second. Richards is highly adept at condensing Lewis's apologetics and casting them into dialogue form that makes believable Lewisian exchanges. His understanding of and ability to convey the basic points of Lewis's thinking are actually superior to those of some non-fiction writers of Lewis apologetics manqué; I name no names.

Richards is also clearly familiar with Lewis's biography and the breadth of Lewis's oeuvre, filtering facts from these in unobtrusively. For instance, in the second book, in answer to Tom's question as to what he thinks Hell is like, Lewis outlines the concept of The Great Divorce, a book he wouldn't write for another dozen years. Of course Richards says nothing about that book, leaving it to the reader to recognize it. Nor is there an explanation of an allusion showing that Lewis in this book has already read Tolkien's yet-unpublished The Hobbit.

This is all delightful and should be most satisfactory to Lewis fans. The problem is that these conversations don't mesh with the conventions of the "cozy" 1930s-style murder mystery. They function as digressions from the plot, even in the second book where Tom himself is the chief suspect, so a discussion of the fate of the soul after death should be of considerable interest to a man facing a possible capital murder charge and fretting terribly about it. Based as they are on Lewis's apologetics, the conversations seem a little airy for the circumstances.

More serious is the way that Lewis can discuss the Christian view of the immortal soul in one chapter and show almost total lack of interest in the immortal soul of a murder victim in the next, nor for that of the culprit when finally caught at the end. (Lord Peter Wimsey, in the Dorothy L. Sayers novels, does not forget to concern himself with his culprits.) One of the conventions of the "cozy" is that the initial murder victim should be someone whom the other characters dislike intensely. This convention, which Richards follows precisely, serves two plot functions: one is to give everyone a motive for murder, and the other is to prevent the reader from being distracted by sympathy for the victim. A novel featuring grieving over a death would be a different kind of story. The victim in a "cozy" is not a human being, but serves the sole function of a plot point to kick off a puzzle. And sleuth Lewis in these novels must follow that convention too.

In the course of each story, a second murder occurs – this is telegraphed in the second book by the plural in the title – and this ratchets up the tension over the course of Richards' extremely readable and entertaining prose. Lewis, of course, eventually solves both cases. These explanations are exceedingly improbable, but Richards has followed the "cozy" plot convention of coming up with something that's possible physically, if not in other respects, and which will not have occurred to the reader. While I doubt the real-life Lewis's capacity to serve as such a sleuth – he was in some ways very unworldly – it is, allowing for the conventions of the "cozy," a believable portrait of what he would be like if he did.

Despite the references to other Inklings whom Lewis already knew at this point in his life, none appear onstage except Warren in the first book. (In the second book, Jack comes to the country house where Tom is working as a librarian at Tom's urgent request to defend him from the murder charge.) Warren is depicted as a pleasant sidekick; he likes his drink, but he is not the maniacal dipsomaniac described in some recent biographies. Warren also appears in a third book, The Floating Body (scheduled to appear in the UK in 2016), also set in a fictional locale.

All three books originally appeared in Australia under different titles: C.S. Lewis and the Body in the Basement, C.S. Lewis and the Country House Murders, and The Floating Corpse. The author reports that he's recently returned from a trip to Oxford researching the fourth book in the series, The Sinister Student, which will feature the rest of the Inklings. Although these are light novels without – apologetics apart – the weight or seriousness of Sayers at her best, I enjoyed reading them, and am looking forward to the succeeding volumes.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

concert review: Imani Winds

My editor had been after me to review this group on its appearances here for a few years now, but they were never when I was available. Until now, when I got back from Texas the previous day. They sounded like ... like they had broken out from orchestra and were determined to misbehave freely now that they didn't have a conductor watching over them with a stick. I put this to them as a query - a bit more genteelly worded - at the post-concert Q&A, and they said, "Observant question."


are you trivial or dishonest?

via Kevin Drum, I came across a PDF of a "scientific" study of honesty. The researcher posted a quiz about music and invited people from various countries to answer the questions, instructing them not to look up the answers on the Internet, while offering a small prize if they got them all right. Then he figured that if they did get them all right, they probably cheated. (Results: every country is full of cheats, but Chinese cheat the most, British the least.)

Although he had various ways of checking this hypothesis - varying the size of the prize to see if that varied the results; putting the same quiz to proctored students to see how well they did - I'm a little more doubtful.

Naturally, this being a quiz on music, I had to see how well I'd do myself. "To minimize the test's cultural bias," it says, there were 3 questions on pop music with "global name recognition" and 2 on classical, which "is also known in non-Western societies." Let's pass by the skeptical looks at these assumptions, shall we? Here's the quiz:

1. Who wrote the composition "Für Elise"?
2. What is Lady Gaga's real first name?
3. Name the drummer of the rock group Nirvana.
4. In what year was Claude Debussy born?
5. How many valves are there on a standard modern trumpet?
6. Name the town and state of the US where Michael Jackson was born.

It's "Questions 2, 4 and 6 [that] were designed to be very difficult for almost anyone to answer, but very easy to look up online." Easy to look up, sure, but very difficult for almost anyone to answer? Having spent years looking at classical catalog listings, I can rattle off the life dates of dozens of composers offhand, and Debussy is among them. What's more, though I had to guess where Michael Jackson was born, I guessed right. And I don't even know very much about Michael Jackson, but I do know what city the Jackson 5 came out of, and according to Wikipedia he was born there too. Ta-da. As for Lady Gaga's real name, I looked her up a while ago to find out who the heck she was, and if I'd only remembered the name I'd have gotten that right too.

And the supposedly easier questions ... #1 is no problem for me, but I'd put even money on whether I'd have gotten #5 right; and the drummer for Nirvana? Look, all I could tell you offhand about the membership of Nirvana is that it was Kurt Cobain and ... some other guys, just like the way the Doors were Jim Morrison and ... some other guys, and that's all I have even though I've seen the Oliver Stone bio-pic. I could name you the drummer of the Beatles; will that do? I could even name you the previous drummer of the Beatles. I could name you the drummer of the Who. I could probably remember the name of the drummer of the Rolling Stones. But for really famous rock groups, that's about as far as I go.

So I'd get between 3 and 5 right (2 of the 3 being "difficult" ones) out of 6, depending on how well my memory was working. How about you?

Monday, November 16, 2015

from a public library blog

A little girl who was checking out a stack of books turned to her mother and said, “Mom, I don’t want to go to the mall! I want to go home and read!”


This post has been for my B.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

an outdoor wedding, in November

And not in Australia, either, but in Texas. Texas.

How bad is the traffic in Austin? The bride was an hour late arriving to her own wedding.

Nor was the wedding in Austin, exactly. You drive way out of town, and turn left on a country highway - well-paved, which is one thing Texas does really well. Then you make a couple more turns and wind up on a rougher back country road. Then you turn right at a mailbox, and find yourself on a one-lane track that rapidly devolves into a gravel path twisting through a bramble forest. Then you park by the side, trample through the forest, and soon find yourself on a lush meadow, where the wedding is set up.

Popcorn snacks before the ceremony, a little girl screeching "Hi Mommy!" at the matron of honor during it, and fajitas for dinner afterwards. Followed by the obligatory several hours of heavy-beat dance music of the kind that isn't objectionable moment by moment, but which a diet of quickly induces in me a sense of oppressed nausea. Before I retreated to the car to read to the more dulcet tones of Austin's classical radio station, I heard just two songs I recognized: Michael Jackson's "Beat It", which I only know because Weird Al guyed it, and Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes", which by some freak accident, or error of the DJ's, is a song I actually like. Both these are about as old as the bridal couple are, so I guess they've lasted. Most of the stuff sounded a lot newer than that.

There was also a rehearsal dinner at a famous barbecue joint more notable for quantity than quality, but the best meal we had was by ourselves at the old reliable Threadgill's, where I eschewed the chicken-fried steak because I'd had enough heavy food already, and went for sauteed catfish and turnip greens, and B. had a spinach salad. Just what we needed.

But the event was joyful, the newlyweds looked happy, and we'll be seeing them again very soon. And at least in November we didn't return to our car to find a blast furnace in it, as happened when I was in Texas in August.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

concert review: Alexander String Quartet and Joyce Yang

I love piano quintets (string quartet + piano). I couldn't miss a concert with three of my favorites in the genre: Schumann, Brahms, and (in a distinctly different idiom) Alfred Schnittke.

This was in Herbst Theatre, SF's premiere venue for chamber music, just reopened after being closed for two years for earthquake retrofitting and remodeling. The auditorium looks nicer; so do the restrooms, though they're still eccentrically located and of dubious size. I sat just underneath the overhang, which I'd never done in this auditorium before. Perhaps that's why the sound came across as muffled, and often rather plush.

I've never considered the Alexanders a very exciting quartet. Their Schumann and Brahms were dutiful and well put together, but not particularly distinctive. The Schnittke, in which the piano and quartet play much more separate roles than the melded style of the other composers, perhaps came across the best, due to crisp and vivid playing by Ms. Yang.

Monday, November 9, 2015

concert review: Israel Philharmonic

Visiting foreign orchestras usually attract a lot of members of the country's ethnicity to the audience. When we had an orchestra from Venezuela, there were Venezuelans. When we had one from Kazakhstan, there were Kazakhs. This time there were what appeared to be a lot of Russian Jews.

This was, I think, the first time I've heard in person the work of the orchestra's now venerable music director, Zubin Mehta (who is not Jewish). That was one reason to come. Another was curiosity about the obligatory opener from the orchestra's homeland, A Journey to the End of the Millennium by Josef Bardanashvili, a long (23-minute) tone poem inspired by an Israeli novel, by a composer born in then-Soviet Georgia and now living in Israel. In large part non-tonal, this was nevertheless an extremely interesting work that kept the attention. Packed with material, and never a slack passage, it drew interest to its colorful and well-balanced orchestration, and intricate work in rhythm and melody. It alternated primitivist music of brass cries and heavy percussion with quiet keening string solos full of minor intervals.

The heavy percussion and abrupt rhythms carried on into Ravel's La Valse, which in orchestration alone if not tone color or anything else could have been by the same composer, as far as this performance went.

After that, Beethoven's Eroica, one of his heaviest and most uncompromising symphonies, felt light and almost chamber-like, even though the timpani beats were still overly strong.

There was no encore. As soon as Mehta grabbed his concertmaster by the hand and started to drag him offstage (something I'd only seen Neville Marriner do previously), the thick applause went out like a light. It's as if the audience was thinking, "Why applaud if we won't get anything for it?" However, the concert had been prefaced by the playing of both the U.S. and Israeli national anthems, something I'd not heard a visiting foreign orchestra do the equivalent of before.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Sibelius festival

It's still a month until the 150th anniversary of the birth of Jean Sibelius, but Stanford is holding its festival this weekend. It's a small event: two concerts by student ensembles, neither event all-Sibelius, and a tiny 3-hour scholarly symposium.

I attended the first concert, by the Stanford Wind Ensemble, i.e. concert band, not at first sight a promising way to honor Sibelius, since he didn't write any music for concert band. However, some hand unnamed in the program book had arranged two of Sibelius' popular early works for that grouping. The Karelia Suite was rather beyond the players' capacity, but they produced a magnificently growly Finlandia. That was about 1/3 of the concert; the rest was music actually written for this instrumentation, including one of Gustav Holst's echt-English suites and an equally echt-American suite by that mainstay of band composition, Alfred Reed.

I didn't attend the student symphony orchestra concert, due to awkwardness of timing and the fact that my desire to hear Sibelius' Second Symphony was outweighed by my desire not to hear Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto.

The symposium consisted of talks by three guest speakers. All were illustrated by music clips, and the computers were far less uncooperative than they usually are at the historical recordings symposia. All three engaged with the question of Sibelius' scholarly reputation, which was very low for decades and has only recently re-emerged, a disparagement whose initiation they all attributed to the famed musicologist Theodor Adorno having given Sibelius a severe thumbs-down in an essay in 1938. All three gently suggested that Adorno had not studied Sibelius' scores very closely and did not know what he was talking about.

Daniel Grimley of Oxford University discussed the sense of landscape in Sibelius, identifying this technically as consisting of a spaciousness in his music, and attributing its inspiration to the composer's sensitivity to both the sights and sounds of the Finnish countryside. The sound aspect is particularly interesting; Grimley showed us a scholarly article with a sound map of a wilderness area, i.e. it showed what sounds you'd predominantly hear in different parts. He also pointed out that, when some British pilots made a documentary film of their flight over Everest (the first ever) in 1934, the music they used for the scenes of rugged, frozen Himalayan landscapes was Sibelius' then-recent and highly challenging Seventh Symphony. Very appropriate.

Erik Ulman, a composer at Stanford, asked what inspiration Sibelius could, and in his case does, give to a very different, atonal modernist composer like himself. Frequently apologizing lest his technical discussion went over the heads of his audience (it didn't go over mine), he used the tone poem Tapiola as his text to identify various exquisite nuances of instrumental color, texture, harmonic design, and fragmentation of melodic line. I was particularly struck by Ulman's pointing out that sheens of string sound that he called "sound sheets" are actually intricately constructed of different lines trading notes off, giving the sheen an almost subliminal but strongly-based rhythmic construction. I was reminded of the way Sibelius uses overlapping lines to create the famous horn call in the Fifth Symphony.

Laura Gray of the University of Waterloo (Ontario) gave a lighter historical overview, comparing Sibelius' reputation (among the public and music critics rather than in scholarship) in Britain and the US in the 1930s. In those days he was exceedingly popular in both countries, and considered the epitome of a virile, rugged, gruff, outdoorsy composer. (Whether he was actually personally like that, though articles at the time claimed he was, Gray considered beside the point.) The difference was that, in the US but not in Britain, his use as a polemic weapon against the avant-garde produced a counter-movement, including dismissals by composer-critics such as Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, turning Sibelius into a shuttlecock in the culture wars.

There was a reception afterwards, sponsored (I gathered) by some Finnish-American cultural group, small and informal enough that I got to speak with all the presenters. One of the other attendees I spoke with was a man who described himself as a Wagnerian who knew little of Sibelius (I recommended the First and Fifth Symphonies as the ones most likely to appeal to a Wagnerian, and should have mentioned some of the tone poems like Pohjola's Daughter), who told me how he had taught his then 3-year-old daughter the Ring by describing the action as the music played and having her draw pictures of it. I thought, but did not say, that some of the plot themes were rather mature for a 3-year-old, and imagined him getting to the end of Walküre and saying, "And this is what happens to little girls who don't obey their fathers."

Saturday, November 7, 2015

report from Gondolin

It seems to me that in my comments on this post about music and this post about literature, I'm saying the same thing.

I have a theory about the history of art that I call "the hidden city". Read conventional histories of the arts written in the mid-20C, or take college classes in them during that era, which is what I did educating myself in the subject at the time, and you'll find that the declared sequence of masterpieces in any field had the classic and beloved works of the 18-19C succeeded around 1900 by modernist works that were tougher and less user-friendly, and still somewhat controversial a half (now a full) century later. Some of these instructors will even declare that it's the audience's fault for not appreciating The Art Of Our Time (and that it's they, not the audience, who get to decide what part of the multiplicity is The Art Of Our Time). I call this viewpoint the modernist hegemony.

What's not in those history books and courses, but is more considered in newer ones covering the same period, is the hidden city: the artists whose work, while distinctly of 20C origin - it couldn't have been created earlier - follows the tradition of its predecessors and ignores the policy of throwing out the past and starting from scratch that was such a huge fad beginning around 1910 and influenced what came later. This is art whose appeal is to subjective emotion and not to logical rules about what art should be. The hegemony, which made what was considered the canon because it had the megaphones, belittled or ignored this work and the philosophy behind it.

The hidden city started to emerge in the 1970s and 80s. It was partly due to polemics: Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House, which I didn't read until after I'd formulated this theory, is precisely a "hidden city" analysis of architecture. It was partly a generational shift which made high modernism the creaky old conservatives now. And it was a rise in fans of the hidden city and its shinier new successors into the academy, first as students, then as young professors mostly in smaller, less prestigious institutions. There are still people defending the modernist hegemony, but its overall status is far weaker than it was 30-40 years ago.

The argument we're having in these posts is, how hidden was the hidden city? You could argue this both ways; it depends how you look at it. It's not like hidden-city artists like Tolkien in literature, Frank Lloyd Wright in architecture (the hero of Wolfe's book), Wyeth or Rockwell in painting, or Sibelius in music [I'm in the middle of a Sibelius festival right now: more on that later] were unknown, unsuccessful commercially, unpraised in some quarters, or even unstudied academically. The hegemony consisted of the scorn and dismissal by those who set the standards of discourse that others followed, who wrote what was accepted as the canon, who taught the young, and the rigidity and strictness with which this was held. (Merely having different tastes is not enough to create a hegemony.) It was, to borrow a term from more serious and consequential aspects of life, an environment of oppression.

So now there are those who would downplay or even deny the hegemony's power or even its existence, using the success - in fame, commerce, esteem from non-hegemonial critics, and such academic quarters as bucked the trend - of the hidden city as evidence. This is what I bridle at. These writers' motives may be love of high modernism (there have always been some people who genuinely liked it; there's nothing that nobody likes) or simply to prove that the hidden city flourished when it was hidden (which of course it did - my theory is based on the contrast between that and the thoroughness with which it was ignored by the hegemony). The facts these writers present are true, but the view depicted is partial, misleading, or even entirely false. The hidden city was only literally hidden in limited quarters, but it was hidden there and the hegemony was real - in many of those same quarters, it still is.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Yan Pascal Tortelier conducted. He's a solid, sober-looking man in his late 60s, but he bounces energetically on the podium. The program was all French, and not too heavy.

The Carmen suites, and the warhorses galloped across the stage.

Saint-Saëns' Organ Symphony is equally a warhorse, but this was more like a python slithering across the stage. It was smooth and slinky - check out the string sound in that Poco adagio - slow and stealthy, and powerful and muscular. The organ was set to reedier stops than is usually heard for this work, so it stood out conspicuously, yet not enough to make the orchestra's full throat seem lesser or secondary.

Ravel's Left Hand Concerto, with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet holding on to the piano desperately with his other hand while trying to play in all registers at once, was spiky and prickly, the embodiment of the twirky modernism that Ravel wrote the concerto in. (Did Paul Wittgenstein, the conservative one-armed pianist who commissioned the piece, like what he got? He did not.) It was a very suitable and characteristic performance, yet I found it uncompelling.

Dinner beforehand was interesting. We went to the Hayes Street Grill, and I ordered the grilled scallops on the day's menu. I'm not too fond of scallops, but I'll eat them if they're cooked really well, which I correctly assumed they would be; but I ordered this mostly because what they came on appealed to me: polenta (very light, rather like grits) with pureed kale mixed in.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

an evening with Shakespeare

One of my most cherished theatrical memories is of attending, years ago, Ian McKellen's one-man Shakespeare show, embedding speeches from a variety of plays in a script embodying his own thoughts about the works. Last night I got to see another one like that, at Stanford.

This was with Robin Goodrin Nordli, a longtime stalwart in the shifting company of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and consequently an old familiar face to me. The title of the show, "Virgins to Villains: My Journey with Shakespeare's Women," turns out to mean less a discussion of what the female characters mean and their part in the work, though there is some of that, than an account of her personal experience playing them. It's told in an autobiographical manner, not in the bald terms of a resumé, including even mention of the hiatus when her first husband guilt-tripped her off the stage for six years.

The "virgin to villain" theme was embodied in a long consideration of Queen Margaret, whose complex and varied life story is told across the Henry VI/Richard III tetralogy. Nordli seems to consider this the greatest Shakespeare role she's played, and I'd say she was outstanding in it: I wrote of H6/3 at the time that "Robin Nordli spits fire as the toweringly bellicose Queen Margaret." And she said that, no matter how villainous the character may seem, no matter who you play - from Margaret to Hedda Gabler - you'll view sympathetically through her eyes. Nordli sees acting, and she clarified this in the Q&A afterwards, as being down in the trenches doing the hard work. She has no sense of the broad overview of the production.

It wasn't just serious: she depicted her failures as well as her successes, to great audience amusement. Her attempt, off in Oklahoma in college, to play Helena in the local accent; her disastrous audition, returning to the stage after her long exile, of Portia's "quality of mercy" speech with large hand gestures; and the time she played Desdemona in an outdoor festival, and while lying there dead [other actors have told me that can be the hardest part of a performance], a swarm of flies settled on her face. For this she depicted not her own part, but that of her Othello, trying to emote over her body and shoo flies at the same time.

What she learned from that disastrously over-acted audition was the truth of what her high-school drama teacher had told her: don't "act", just say the lines and behave like you mean them. That was rule one; rule two was: pay attention to what other characters say about your character; it's a guide to interpretation. (This in response to young Robin's attempt to act Ophelia's mad scene as if "mad" meant "angry". What happened to "gentle Ophelia"?)

There were a couple of odd glitches. She mentioned Dame Judith Anderson and called her "Edith". She kept referring to the rebellious Duke of York in the H6 plays as "Gloucester". There's two Gloucesters in the tetralogy, and neither of them is him, so I was very confused.

In the Q&A, she responded to the authorship question by describing herself as agnostic, though she didn't use that word. Her skepticism arises not directly from the supposed paucity of information about Shakespeare of Stratford, but from how much less is known about him than other playwrights of the period. And I wondered, is that true? I didn't think it was, but I'm not expert on that point.

And the future? In high school, she'd seen the then aged 73 Dame Edith, I mean Judith, in her tour-de-force of playing Hamlet, and maybe some day ... In the meantime, she's playing Gertrude (a new role for her) at Ashland next year, and her present husband, whom she met at OSF, will be Claudius. I'm not currently scheduled to see that, but I may make a second trip again next year.

a day without voting

I got up Tuesday feeling as if there was something I ought to be doing that I was missing. Figured out what it was: voting. Our city has just changed its municipal election dates from odd-numbered years to coincide with state/national elections to save money. So this is the first Election Day since we moved here that there's been nothing to vote for.

Still, it's been a busy day. It started about 9 AM when the doorbell rang. I want to tell you about this because it says something about how I interact with strangers. I cracked the door open and peered around. A man stood there in casual work clothes. "Hi, how are you doing?" he said. I waited, wondering what he was going to try to sell me and how quickly I could get rid of him. Then he identified himself as the supervisor of the roofers.

The roofers! The ones who have been working intermittently in our complex for weeks and whom we knew would come around to our unit sooner or later. Why, this man has legitimate business with me, and deserves my full attention and courtesy. I pulled the door open, stepped outside, and we had a busy conversation on various related issues for a full five minutes.

So the lesson is: if you're a stranger who accosts my attention with a phone call or a doorbell, don't waste time trying to make friends first. It'll only increase my suspicion that you're trying to put something over on me. Tell me who you are and what your business is first, and then I'll know how to react. And most of those who do have legitimate business with me know that.

Then I went out for an appointment with a new accountant. Our old one has retired. This one was fun to talk with, and seemed on top of her game. So I left her with our last 3 years' worth of tax returns to chew over, since - like B. eating brussel sprouts - she seems to have an appetite for them. Now's the time to get acquainted with our finances, since it's the slow season.

And one with a retirement counselor. Not a financial adviser, I'd explained when making the appointment, though he does that work too, but someone to act as a guide through the thicket of rules and a sounding board to make big life decisions. Even on this initial appointment, I learned much about how Social Security and Medicare - things I'm going to have to deal with fairly soon - actually function, things I had not known, and which I'd rather get in a clear verbal explanation, where I can interrupt and ask questions and say "I don't understand this part," rather than in a bramble of written government legalese. I had had an amazingly difficult time figuring out what kind of person could give me this advice (my own broker, who serves as my financial adviser, didn't know anything about it) or convincing anyone I consulted about this question that I needed someone to do this.

Then in the evening I went to ...

Monday, November 2, 2015

while we waited for the end of the month

1. Quiet Halloween here. One trick-o'-treating pack of about ten kids of Indian descent (there's hardly anybody else left in this neighborhood) who've taken up this American custom the way their dads carry out the British custom of playing cricket in the park.

2. Speaking of tricks, or treats, B. is one person who would actually like this.

3. Would you like to see what a university library conservation lab does? Here's Stanford's. When I was working in the main library 30 years ago, the lab was across the hall from us on the top floor of the old wing of the library. Now it's several miles off-campus. So are most of the books these days.

4. At last, an answer to a long-standing question I had about Monty Python. The surviving Pythons always describe Graham Chapman, before he went on the wagon in the late '70s, as so incapacitated by alcoholism that he couldn't even remember his lines. I kind of wondered if they were exaggerating in a way they couldn't do if Chapman were still alive to answer back. That's because he had some very complex and wordy parts in Flying Circus that could never have been performed by someone in the condition they describe [or, perhaps more precisely, that the others would never have agreed to his performing if they had that impression of his condition]. I remember particularly a courtroom scene in which he plays a pepperpot who's called as a witness and immediately starts gossiping at top speed with hardly a stop for breath, not ceasing until physically removed.

But now we have John Cleese saying that Chapman's alcoholism only became a burden with the third season. And - I checked by watching Python while waiting for any more Halloween doorbells - the pepperpot court witness was first season, third episode.

another worldcon statistic

The San Jose Worldcon bid wants to crowdsource suggestions for Guests of Honor. It says that among "the traditional criteria for Worldcon Guest of Honor consideration" is "an established career, usually considered to be 30 years from entry into the field."

And I wondered, how long has it been 30 years? In the early days, the SF field hadn't been around very long, and because it was small, new names could easily make a big impact. I remembered that Robert Heinlein was GoH at the third Worldcon in 1941, only two years after he sold his first story. That would be highly unlikely to happen today, even for another Heinlein.

So I made a list of all the professional fiction writers who've been Worldcon GoH over the years. Just the authors, because the SF Encyclopedia is conscientious about listing first published stories, but it's not so rigorous with the entry dates of artists or other categories of pros. Making a quick chart, I found that less than 30 years was the rule up until about 1970, and, that among authors, only Hugo Gernsback (1952, 41 years since his first published SF story, but he was really honored as an editor, and it was only 26 years since he'd founded Amazing), Murray Leinster (1963, 44 years), and Edmond Hamilton (1964, 38 years) exceeded it, though a few others came close.

Since 1970, under-30s have been less common, though for many years they still occurred frequently (Zelazny, 1974, 12 years; Le Guin, 1975, 13 years; Ellison, 1978, 22 years; Haldeman, 1990, 21 years; and some others). But since 2001, there have only been two authors with less than 25 years: Bujold in 2008 (23 years), and 2017's Nalo Hopkinson (who will be 21 years at that point).

I also calculated the age of the GoHs, not at the time of their GoH-hood, but at what age they entered the field as professional authors. That average has remained unchanged over the decades; averages over ten-year periods consistently come up with age 25-28.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

a week's concerts

Concert no. 1: Winchester Orchestra. San Jose-based community orchestra I hadn't been to before. I'd put them pretty high, at the second rank, in that category. The program for this one attracted me, including as it did two highly differing masterpieces from 1924, Sibelius' Symphony No. 7 and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. The Sibelius was a challenge and not a work the orchestra really had a grasp on, but the performance sounded much more like Sibelius than it didn't, so points for that. They fully got into Rhapsody in Blue, however, giving real individual personality to the solo parts for clarinet and trumpet. A nicely-matched pair of pavanes by Fauré and his student Ravel were marred only by Ravel's choice of French horn to play the smooth opening, a passage that a non-pro hornist can get through only by sheer luck. The Danse macabre by Saint-Saëns became an oddity: the concertmaster who played the solo violin part was fully up to the job, but the rest of the orchestra couldn't keep up with him at that speed and kept dragging the tempo back while he kept pushing it forward. The conductor sided with the concertmaster and wasn't giving anybody else any help. Sounded like a car that couldn't decide what gear it's in.

Concert no. 2: Palo Alto Philharmonic. Another community orchestra, not as good as the Winchester, and they play in a tiny hall about the right size for a piano recital. As a result, Schumann's Rhenish Symphony sounded totally crude and blatty, even though the execution and interpretation were decent. The original problems with the orchestration may have been Schumann's fault, but the conductor should have known to have adjusted for this. My friend who used to be a cellist with this orchestra has left, so I may just stop going very often.

Concert no. 3: Dalí Quartet. I was sent to review this one. True, this quartet isn't quite up to the highest standards in Mozart - glaringly so, because the clarinetist they were playing with was up to it - but, like the Winchesters playing Gershwin, do they ever sizzle at the stuff they're made for, which is South American dance music. With allowances for personnel changes at first violin, here they are in two pieces, which I hope you will enjoy. First, Efraín Amaya's Angelica, the piece I liked so much:

And here's their wild tango encore:

Recognize that tune, do you? So did I - it is, among other things, the tango that Joe E. Brown and Jack Lemmon dance to in Some Like It Hot - but how could I identify it for my review? I had no idea what it was called or indeed that it had a name at all. Figuring that it's the first tune you'd think of when you think of tango, I tried googling "default tango" and got articles on Argentine economics with tango metaphors in their titles. "Standard tango" didn't help either. "Famous tango", that did it.

Concert no. 4: San Francisco Symphony. Arrived at this so late that I plopped into my seat without grabbing a program. But even without remembering what was on, I guessed the first piece before it started because I recognized what some of the players were warming up with: Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé. The late Michael Steinberg's program notes say "Comments about the film are vague and contradictory," suggesting he never saw it, even though it still exists. Gidon Kremer played Bartók's other violin concerto, the one written in his youth in infatuation with a female violinist who didn't love him back - according to the program notes, she was a Catholic who was revolted when he preached atheism at her. And lastly, Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 3, "the finest" of his four suites according to the notes, but its bloat and repetition don't win it many points from me. No. 1 is the finest. Andrey Boreyko conducted the lot.