Wednesday, June 29, 2016

concert ge bouw

You saw where President Obama attended some sort of entrepreneurship conference at Stanford last week? Yes, well, with or without the President, that conference pre-empted most of the guest parking lots on campus, so I didn't get to much of the annual Chamber Music Seminar that was going on at the same time. I heard just one of three lunchtime concerts, with the host ensemble, the St. Lawrence Quartet, playing Haydn's Op. 20 No. 2, and two pianists, one of them the inevitable and invaluable Stephen Prutsman, banging out a brief but lively suite by Milhaud.

Sunday mid-day was the marathon finale, in which each of the student, amateur, or young professional ensembles - that had come to the seminar to learn from the St. Lawrence, Prutsman, or other masters - got to play a movement from their repertoire to the general delectation. There were 21 of them, a typical number, and the process usually takes about 4 hours.

I got through 8 of them before my phone buzzed - of course I'd set it on vibrate; what do you take me for?; and I'd tested it beforehand to make sure this would work right - with a text message from B. that it was time to go pick her up from her mountain retreat. In these marathons, the least accomplished groups tend to go first, but they rapidly improve. The best one I heard was four shaggy guys calling themselves invoke (without a capital) who played the Burletta from Bartok's Sixth Quartet with the kind of jaunty comprehension that I expect to hear at Banff. Unusually, they also got an encore, in which they transformed themselves from a string quartet into violin, cello, mandolin, and vocalist, and gave us Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More."

That and the previously-reviewed Silicon Valley Music Festival have been occupying my free time, along with another Yelp invitational special, this one a large gathering for a tasting meal at a haute-yuppie Asian fusion place in the gleaming depths of reconstructed downtown Sunnyvale. As before, most of the attendees were intensely characteristic young people, friendly withal - two of them even sent me Yelp friend requests later that very evening, which I was happy to accept - but more interested in taking Instagram photos of their food than eating it. The restaurant, in turn, seemed primarily interested in serving us fried battered food - fried baby corn, fried shrimp (the best of the bunch), fried potstickers, fried chicken, fried fish, fried rice, and then fried noodles for dessert, with only a chow-mein style noodle dish and some vegetable curry to break the flow - curiously retro behavior for such a trendy place. The food was mostly pretty good, but the accumulation was a bit much for me, and I gave it 4 stars, which is supposed to be a good rating on Yelp but is actually like a prof under grade inflation giving you a B. When the Yelp manager who'd arranged the event wrote to ask what was wrong, I summarized the problem and she replied, "Thanks for keeping it real," a remark which I thought perfectly encapsulates the whole ethos I was visiting here.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

concert review: Silicon Valley Music Festival

B. has been on a spirituality retreat for a few days, and besides taking care of the cats I've been spending much of my time at the Silicon Valley Music Festival, which is conveniently five miles down the road.

I first came across this annual event three years ago on assignment from SFCV. It was hiding out in a small church in Alum Rock, and has since moved around to a variety of ad hoc venues. This year it's fetched up in a side gallery of the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara, acoustically live but small and dry enough (seating about 80) to avoid the overly wet sonics of some of their previous sites.

But though SVMF is scrappy in its locales, its performances are mostly quite unlike that, but glossy and smooth-toned. Flutist Ray Furuta, the artistic director, has a lot of musical friends, and he often gets them to come back. Many of the instrumentalists are skilled and experienced orchestral performers, so they're used to a big, solid sound.

This year I had no assignment to review them, so I was free to attend as many concerts as I could get to for an independent review of my own (which this is). I got to three of the four on successive nights, missing the first one, an American song recital with the stunning soprano Malinda Haslett, but getting a full dose of instrumental chamber music, including some surprising arrangements.

One of the performers whose work I knew was Gwendolyn Mok, who runs San Jose State's piano programs. She and the festival's other hard-working pianist, Katherine Dowling, played a four-hand arrangement of Gershwin's An American in Paris. I'm used to hearing Rhapsody in Blue this way, as it's a piano concerto anyway, but American in Paris isn't, and it sounded totally different this way: less gawky and actually more modernist.

A number of other pieces on the program were also arrangements. One of Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin for wind quintet copied a lot from Ravel's own full orchestration emphasizes the winds in the same way. This performance gave much blending of the disparate instruments, and some amazing individual clarity in the fast choppy final "Rigaudon." A large mixed chamber ensemble version of Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun also had some deeply impressive wind mixes. Largest of all was an 11-player version of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. I don't know who wrote the arrangement, but it was tangy, with a few odd harmonies in the accompaniment. The effect, quite unlike anything else on the program, was as if the symphony were being played by the rustic village band from its own scherzo movement.

At the other end of high elegance came such works as Misericordia, a suite for flute (played by Furuta) and string quartet by the contemporary, and intensely Japanese, composer Yuko Uebayashi, whose work I was introduced to at an earlier SVMF concert. Her style runs from impressionistic shimmering and staccato to a finale in the form of a hoe-down.

Another piece of sublimity came in Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, featuring an irrepressible clarinetist who's played here before, Ayako Oshima. In this work of pure beauty, Oshima put her power to work on restraint and clarity. Three of her accompanying strings were SJSU students or recent graduates signed up for the festival's ongoing young artist roster. The quintet was paired with Mozart's K. 376 violin sonata (Emily Daggett Smith with a firm light tone, with Mok at piano) and a few selections from early post-romantic works by a later Viennese prodigy, Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

Two other big pieces came on the program with the Pastoral Symphony. A mixed septet (Op. 74) by J.M. Hummel should be enough to prove his genius, and it was followed by an epic rendition of Brahms' Op. 87 Piano Trio that emitted as much power with three players as the Hummel had with seven: they were Mok, violinist Emma Votapek, and stalwart cellist (he was in most of the pieces) Daniel Lelchuk.

Something new this year was pre-concert talks by Kai Christensen, a musicologist known to those of us who arrive early for Kohl Mansion concerts. He is not only both knowledgeable and articulate, but he has the vocal power to be heard in the terrible Triton lobby acoustics.

This is the first time I've gotten to as many as three concerts of this festival. The quality of the performers is always high. This is a hidden gem: I'll be back.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

concert review: Garden of Memory

The silver lining to the longest day of the year is that means it's time for the annual Garden of Memory walk-through concert at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland.

On all previous occasions that I've attended this, I've spent much of my time listening to Amy X Neuburg down in the Middle Chapel. But I've seen her twice in other venues in the past year, which I hadn't before, so this year I decided to focus my four hours' time elsewhere.

I began in the main chapel, with half-hour sets by three performers: the women's chorus Kitka, who sang some of their Bulgarian chorus music, this time with electronic looping echoes manipulated by the avant-garde composer Pamela Z; pianist Sarah Cahill, whose 20C American set included music by Ruth Crawford (Ruth Crawford fans please note) and an extremely early piece by an extremely young Lou Harrison, which sounded more like his teacher Henry Cowell than Henry Cowell does; and a pianist-composer named Andrew Jamieson, who writes works which are, as he puts it, "in dialogue with" Afro-American spirituals. Put him somewhere between Ives and Rzewski on the giant map of musical sensibilities.

Wandering around for an hour and change produced one winner in the form of a violin and acoustic guitar duo called Probosci which played quiet, intricate, absorbing music, enough to keep me there for the rest of the set. Unfortunately it was within earshot of an electric guitar down the hall.

Otherwise, too much of what I heard on my wandering was squawky. I retreated to the hidden room where always awaits my #2 favorite of the regular performers, Laura Inserra, actually found a chair I could use, and sat in contentment with her beautiful and hypnotic music for the last hour of the event.

Three Tolkien novels, or, what Tolkien was doing when you weren’t paying attention

Here, in possibly excruciating detail, is what I presented to my fellow Tolkienists.

Monday, June 20, 2016

long weekend

I spent three days escorting a dozen mostly out-of-town visitors around and organizing much of their time. Age cannot wither them nor custom stale their infinite variety, but age at least can slow them down a little, and everybody conked off quite early each evening, leaving me time actually to show up for a while at the Solstice party on Saturday, at which I ate exactly two shrimp but had conversations worth a lot more than that.

Back to the visitors, my first task was to point them to used book stores, for I know what they like. Last time I had them here, we started at Bell's in Palo Alto because they open at 9:30, then went on to Wessex and Feldman's in Menlo Park before lunching across the street at Su Hong. But Su Hong is no longer there (neither is Wessex), and I didn't want to take them to the rather alarming Fey, which is the only high-caliber Chinese sit-down place left in Menlo, so I fell back on my old favorite Jing Jing. But that's back in Palo Alto, a block from Bell's, and we couldn't start at Feldman's because that doesn't open until 11. So on Friday we just did Bell's and walked over to Jing Jing, where we gave up any attempt to order family-style and just had lunch special rice plates. Which fortunately are very good there (I wouldn't have wanted to do that at Su Hong).

Fortunately, our Sunday brunch was at Stacks (reserved long in advance, because it was Father's Day, not that Stacks isn't always busy on Sunday morning), which is half a block from Feldman's, and further fortunately Feldman's is open on Sunday which Bell's isn't. My guests startled and pleased the proprietors of both bookstores with the eager enthusiasm which which they relieved the shelves of philological esoterica.

For dinner on Friday we had takeout from Pizza My Heart, which I picked up from the Lytton Plaza outlet, finding that carrying 5 pizzas a block to my car was heavier than I'd imagined. Saturday morning I brought in real bagels from down the street at Izzy's in Mayfield (a strange time to have bagels, but it's when was convenient), of which the combo bagels were by far the most popular; maybe next time I should just get those. For lunch we broke from our scholarly sessions to raid the Mollie Stone's deli for sandwiches, and for dinner that evening we ventured down to Vive Sol in Mountain View for a taste of what the good Mexican restaurants around here are like. Most of the party followed my advice and ordered the ¡memorable! mole poblano, except for me because I've had it before and will have it again later so I got shrimp diabla which I really like. Vive Sol doesn't take reservations, and Yelp is full of cautionary tales of large parties that didn't get seated for two hours and then were turned away, but I thought we could avoid that, so we arrived at 5:30 and had no problem; I watched the crowds around us and concluded that, at least that evening, we could have gotten away with coming as late as 6:15.

After cleaning out Feldman's on Sunday our business was over, so after a coffee stop I took the remaining stragglers on an art tour of the Stanford campus: MemChu, the rest of the Quad, Cantor plus the land art in front and the Rodin sculpture garden around the back, the bridge over SLAC, and the New Guinea sculpture garden, which as one of my grizzled male companions put it brought out the adolescent boy in each of them. (The last people I took there were two women who examined it solemnly.) Then it was time to eat again, so for a slightly different local specialty I took them down to Pho Vi Hoa for bowls of soup. My experienced guests pronounced the pho good, which was a great relief to hear.

So that's what we did for books and food, two of the essential pleasures of life. Call this a partial report.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

concert review: Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra

I don't often review PACO, as it's purely a student training orchestra, but they were having a 50th anniversary celebration last weekend, so I thought it was about time to feature them in the Daily Journal, published yesterday. But experiencing the concert was an unwonted, and unwanted, adventure.

What I didn't know, because the news hadn't made it onto the website as of the last time I'd checked a couple days before, and I wasn't on the orchestra's mailing list even though the managers knew I was coming, was that the venue had changed. I arrived at Spangenberg, a high-school auditorium at the near end of Palo Alto, about 15 minutes before showtime, later than I'd intended, and found it deserted, fortunately except for one woman left outside, like a William Morris character, to direct the lost, who told me the show had been moved to the Methodist Church on Hamilton. Ah, the Concrete Tent, I know it well, and a superior venue acoustically, but it's downtown, way over on the other side of the city. I jumped back in my car and tore off down Arastradero, across on Alma, and up Channing, and actually got there and parked in 15 minutes, which might impress those of you who know Palo Alto, to find fortuitously that the starting time had also been postponed half an hour.

The concert was an assorted mishmosh, largely of music that included pastiches of other music, and the program book said that the Holst piece, which was an except from the St. Paul Suite, was from the Capriol Suite, which is actually by somebody else. (I corrected that silently in my review.) But the music making was pretty good, the speech making interleaved with it was tolerable and understandable (even the one who'd taken the instruction "less than 15 minutes" to mean 14'59"), and the big group finale of 150 strings playing Bach was awesome.

One thing about a 50-year-old student orchestra is that you get a lot of adults who used to be members, and I got to use all of the words alumnus, alumna, and alumni in the review. This is a usage that's seldom got right, so I was pleased to demonstrate it.

Thursday, June 16, 2016


There's a novel that very few people have read, but everyone who has read it, loves it. Except me. That novel is I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I didn't hate it, I just did not find the characters interesting or relatable.

In an effort, which I've sometimes found successful in the past, to use the movie as a way into a book I've found difficult, I watched the movie adaptation, which is now 13 years old. It had its charms, but it reinforced my feeling that the problem of the two young women at the center of the story is lack of self-awareness. The movie's tagline is "You can't choose who you fall in love with," but the unintended lesson of the story is that if you pay attention, you can figure out what's going to happen to your feelings, something I've certainly found true in my own experience.

The field of view which these two young women have before them is filled with three handsome hunks, and what I found most interesting about the movie was spotting the actors who played the handsome hunks. They are:
  1. The guy who went on to play Superman in the recent Superman movies
  2. The guy who played Riley on Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  3. The guy who, far in the wayback, played the kid in E.T.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Last concert on my season ticket. James Conlon conducted a jagged and dramatic Britten Sinfonia da Requiem, followed by conventional, but no less well-done for all that, renditions of Mozart's K.482 piano concerto (Jan Lisiecki, soloist) and Dvorak's Eighth Symphony. Orchestral playing was as exquisite as usual.

I've got an etiquette question, formed at the back of the Davies elevator. What should you do if you need people to move out of the way, but you've said "excuse me" two or three times and nobody's noticed? Time is pressing, because the elevator door might close. If you raise your voice and say it louder, they just get all indignantly offended. I even got swored at in strong language in just as loud a voice as I'd spoken in, though all I'd said was "excuse me," which is supposed to be considered polite.

Monday, June 6, 2016

concert review: Symphony Silicon Valley

I hope my editors correct soon the bobble they made in the headline over the pianist's name [ETA: they did], but here's my latest review.

As often, I wish my mother were still here to have attended this with me, for she was a great fan of the Franck Symphony, a piece that doesn't get played much, and would have enjoyed this interpretation. I was the first on my feet after the piece ended. Everybody had jumped up after the piano concerto, and that was impressive too, but I know true greatness when I hear it, even if it's not so flashy.

For once I'm grateful for the word count restrictions, for this forced me to delete an awkward extension of the already peculiar comparison of Nakamatsu's pianism to an oil driller. I was going to bring up how he'd become famous by winning the Van Cliburn Competition, and then mention how Cliburn was from the oil-drilling part of East Texas (it's true: there's a display of derricks occupying part of his home town's downtown), but ... nah, better not.

I'd rushed down to the concert after coming home from Forbidden Broadway, passing through the by now quiet scene of Thursday's Trump riots, only to find some kind of street fair occupying the theatre's street and the aftermath of a high-school graduation pouring out of the hall itself, so I immediately drove to a place where, though several blocks away, I've never failed to find a free parking space no matter how full downtown San Jose is. Am I going to reveal its location? No! I hope it lasts longer than my secret parking stashes in San Francisco have.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

two panels and a concert

Dropped in at the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley this morning for two panels. The first, on "The Many Faces of Fantasy," could have been at one of those SF cons I'm no longer attending: four medium-to-youngish authors whose work I don't know saying the kinds of things they'd say there.

In defense of fantasy, they said things like, "I grew up wanting things to be stranger than they are" (V.E. Schwab) and "A lot of literary stories are depressing, and if I'm going to be depressed I might as well read non-fiction" (Na'amen Tilahun). Richard Kadrey testified that, as a child, he had a negative image of fantasy, but enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, not thinking of it as fantasy (in his stereotyped image) because it was so rigorous and even anthropological. Marie Brennan agreed that fantasy does have its form of rigor, contrary to those SF authors who say it doesn't, but added that any such creation will have its holes. Tolkien's work is great on some things, she said, but is unclear on, for instance, how lembas is grown.

Well, that's an amusing example, I thought (but didn't get to say), because Tolkien actually wrote an entire essay specifically on the cultivation and manufacture of lembas (it's in the posthumous volume The Peoples of Middle-earth). Brennan was right in saying Tolkien's sub-creation is not complete, but this shows that you never know what you'll find.

On the topic of diversity in characters, both Schwab and Brennan said that, if there's a character in a novel that they intend to treat really badly, e.g. by getting unexpectedly killed at the end, they're likely to make that the whitest person in the story, just to avoid risking bad stereotypes of minorities. If any right-wing conspiracy theorists were listening, this would confirm everything they've ever feared about SJWs.

On to a discussion with David J. Peterson and Nick Farmer, both of whom invent languages for TV shows, on "The Art of Language Invention." This was refreshingly specific and rigorous, though, curiously, when giving examples of their general principles, both tended to use not their own invented languages but compare Spanish to English. Peterson made the very Tolkienian remark that he likes creating vocabulary because he feels like he's telling the story of a people by coming up with the words they say and how they're constructed. He also said that, in college, he initially shied away from linguistics because linguists study language abstractly, and he didn't see the point. Curious, I thought, because for me, to whom learning actual languages is a slog, the abstract and generalizing quality of linguistics was catnip, and I only wish I'd discovered it earlier in my college career.

Then over to the SF Conservatory for a concert by a mixed pro/amateur group called Symphony Parnassus. They played a new English horn concerto by Stefan Cwik which was less interesting than its title and inspiration, which both were The Sword in the Stone. The woman sitting next to me was sure the program had been changed, because she thought the solo instrument was a clarinet. Then, Shostakovich's Tenth. Aside from the French horns strangling on the Elmira theme in the third movement, and the winds vanishing entirely for passages of the finale (which confused the entire orchestra and made them have to stop and try again), it was pretty good.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

it should have stayed forbidden

Went to the South Bay Musical Theatre's production of Forbidden Broadway: Greatest Hits. We'd enjoyed the then-current version of this in a nightclub venue on a visit to NYC quite some years back, but that was with a top-flight NYC cast. This one was with locals, and not even as well done as a typical SBMT show.

Much of the material was pretty good. You can't parody Spamalot's "The Song That Goes Like This", so they just pointed out that it's "The Song They Stole From Us". And I always find it clever to apply some classic old song to a different show, so I got a kick from putting Rodgers and Hammerstein to the use of Lloyd Webber with "I Enjoy Being a Cat". But some was dull, and it got pretty repetitive after a while.

The cast were all sufficiently hammy for a parody show, but maybe being overhammy was the trouble. Their diction was bad, virtually not a one of them could sing on pitch - some of the songs I actually wondered if there was some copyright reason they couldn't use the original tune - and their impersonations of famous thespians (Streisand, Patinkin, and especially Channing) were a sorry sight to behold.

Various audience members felt it appropriate to whoop and screech in response to all this, but at least a quick word was enough to get the ones seated immediately behind us, where it'd particularly pierce our ears, to cease.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Dave Swarbrick, 1941-2016

Folk fiddler and multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, mainstay of the band Fairport Convention for the heart of its existence, and as responsible as any one person for the creation of British electric folk.

Lost in Austen

I'm here to add my voice to the chorus praising the new movie Love and Friendship. Jane Austen's epistolary novella Lady Susan is actually rather sketchy, though it does have a few choice lines most of which make it into the movie. But the dialogue and characterization here are mostly the work of writer-director Whit Stillman. I'd only seen one of his movies before, and I didn't like it, but this is an Austen pastiche for the ages.

The acting as much as the writing makes it so. Kate Beckinsale is ideal as Lady Susan. Those little asides she makes in her conversation are tossed off with perfection. This is a performance to match her epochal turn as Flora Poste in Cold Comfort Farm twenty years ago: equally manipulative characters but otherwise entirely different.

In Cold Comfort, the fatuous twit was Mr. Mybug, played unmatchably by Stephen Fry. He'd accordingly have been ideal for Sir James Martin here, except that he's now too old for the part. He does appear, in a very small role, and Sir James instead is played by Tom Bennett, a British TV actor unfamiliar to me. Unlike Mr. Mybug, Sir James is an amiable gentleman, but he's also mesmerizingly dim-witted. Bennett develops a perfect air of Sir James not having the slightest idea of what he's going to say until it comes out of his mouth. My favorite bit is his reverie, having being told that there aren't twelve commandments but only ten, on which two we should therefore discard. I've read that Stillman added this in a fit of inspiration and handed it to Bennett just before filming; you couldn't tell.

The movie dumps a huge load of characters, some of whom aren't very important, on you at the beginning, so the unfamiliar may need some time to sort things out. It'd probably be best if you read Lady Susan first. There will still be some surprises in the plot. And pay attention throughout, as some of the more important events happen offstage.

Only flaw I noticed: some anachronisms in the greetings and introductions. You wouldn't quietly greet someone by saying "Hello" at this date. And "Mrs. Catherine Vernon" is an incorrect form of address for this character.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Charles Williams: The Third Wheel

John D. Rateliff has written about Geoffrey Hill's review in the TLS of Grevel Lindop's new biography of Charles Williams, Charles Williams: The Third Inkling.

I haven't seen the review itself and won't comment on the criticisms, except for one point on which I think Hill was correct: that The Third Inkling was a bad choice of subtitle for the book, an opinion I've already submitted to print myself in a book note for the upcoming edition of Tolkien Studies. Even if it's true that Williams is primarily known today for his connection with the Inklings, even if a biography of him would never have been published without the level of interest generated by his Inklings connection, nobody would read such a book - full-scale, over 400 pages long - unless they were interested in Williams for his own sake, regardless of how they originally came to know about him. And if someone whose interest was purely in Williams as the third Inkling were to read the book, they would be disappointed, for it has no particular focus on that area, but treats it as a minor aspect of Williams studies as indeed it was of his life.

I would further question John's blanket statement that "surely the only reason anyone reads or has even heard of Wms today is through his links with the Inklings; it's pretty much the only thing that has kept him from sliding off into oblivion." Were the last word obscurity I might agree with the second part, but oblivion is a very strong word and few writers of any importance may be said to have achieved it. And while many, perhaps most, of those who read Williams today came to him through the Inklings, and I don't except myself from that number, I doubt it is all of them. I'd like to see a survey of the members of the Charles Williams Society: I suspect that most of them did not read Tolkien or Lewis first, if only because many active in the CWS do not appear among scholars of the other Inklings.

I am further struck by a comparison once made by Lois Lang-Sims, the sometime devotee (and sexual assault victim) of Charles Williams. She wrote, "Neither Lewis nor Tolkien were original thinkers: their popularity depends upon a fashion which rates academic fantasy-weaving above the capacity to move freely in the realm of ideas. Charles Williams will be remembered when they are forgotten." (Letters to Lalage, p. 16) The denigration is ignorant and absurd, the ranking otiose - why should any of them be forgotten? Literary renown is not a zero-sum game - and the aggressiveness may be disguised defensiveness at Williams's lesser fame. Yet here is one person who, though no longer living, ranks Williams far higher than the other Inklings for his unique qualities. And where there is one there may be others. Not many, but enough to falsify a blanket denial of their existence.