Thursday, November 16, 2017

English suites no. 11

We've already had a suite by Elgar commissioned in 1930 in the names of the little princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. But they're not the only royal infants to be immortalized in this way. Let's move down a generation to 1948, when Michael Tippett wrote a Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles. Not the birthday anniversary, the birthday.

Tippett was a modernist composer, but he could have a surprising populist side, such as the beautifully arranged American spirituals he inserted into his magnificent oratorio A Child of Our Time. This suite is a slightly spicy stew composed of a series of medieval religious and folk tunes of various origins. It's in five movements, identified on screen.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Santa Rosa and San Francisco

On my last trip to Santa Rosa, for a concert about six weeks ago, I took some extra time and drove around the hill residential areas above the town. I had a specific reason but that doesn't matter now. This was before the destructive fires swept through, and afterwards I wondered how well what I'd seen had survived. Tuesday I finally had a chance to go back. Big rains were expected to come through on Wednesday evening, so it was my last chance to get a pristine look (and, it turned out, to still smell the ghost of the ashy air). I no longer had access to the material by which I planned my earlier trip, but I followed my route by memory as best I could remember, and spent as many tourist dollars as I could reasonably manage.

Much of the lower hills had been untouched, and even when I entered the fire area within the rural zone, the damage was scattered. Trees and vineyards looked untouched, and while some homes were gone - invariably identifiable as home sites by the lonely stone chimneys sticking up - others were intact.

Only when I came down on Mark West Road to the flatlands did I find entire neighborhoods where all the homes were gone. That was a hideous spectacle and I passed through quickly. But across the major road, no apparent damage, even though the fire map suggested it was hit.

Strange patterns emerged. The Fountaingrove resort hotel, famously gone. The trailer park kitty-corner at the same major intersection, also (mostly) famously gone. The other two corners of the intersection, untouched. The supermarket where I'd bought lunch on my previous trip, on the edge of the fire zone, intact with a big sign saying it was open. The condos on the hill above it, apparently intact except for one building that appeared to have collapsed more than it had burned.

Around here, also, I saw the only scorched hillsides. This fire ignited more by floating cinders than by walls of flame, and that showed in the results.

I was back down in San Francisco in time for another event sponsored by Slate, my favorite political webzine. This one was less successful than the last. Apparently an attempt to produce a live version of a podcast - I hardly ever listen to podcasts; they just don't fit into my day - it consisted of four writers sitting around and chatting about current events for 90 minutes. Although I know their work (when they're not doing podcasts) and they're good writers, their remarks were neither so polished nor so witty as their writings, on top of the fact that none are trained speakers and it was often hard to make out what they were saying, and they jumped around between topics so much I couldn't remember much of what they said when I could deduce it. I'll be more selective of future offerings when Slate brings them to my city.

Monday, November 13, 2017

English suites no. 10

Sorry for the long pause, but I'm not nearly done yet. I was going to put in another Peter Warlock suite that I hadn't known about, but it got taken offline. Instead, we have here a piece by Gordon Jacob, a workman composer of the mid-20C. It's his William Byrd Suite, arrangements for concert band of music by the English Renaissance composer.

While there are a number of earnest amateur performances in single YouTube files, you really want to hear the classic professional recording of this one. Each individual movement of that is in a separate file, and while they'll play in succession automatically on YouTube, that doesn't work in embedding.

So instead of embedding this one, I'll just link to it, and there it is. The opening "Earle of Oxford March" is to my taste the most terrific, but the whole suite is absolutely charming.

not seating Roy Moore

... if he's elected.

Here's an article about that.

It offers three possibilities. One is to refuse to seat him, but it says that can only be done because of the irregularity of an election, e.g. ballot-stuffing or bribing.

The second is the extraordinarily high bar of actually expelling him, something that hasn't been done since Confederate sympathizers in the Civil War.

But the third (no. 2 on the list) is to refer his case to the Ethics Committee. The article doesn't say this, but it could defer his seating until the Ethics Committee had made his report. Something similar to this has happened since the Civil War. The notorious Mississippi racist Theodore G. Bilbo was investigated for his 1946 re-election on grounds of his inflammatory campaign tactics and shady finances. But impasse over whether to take action was postponed when Bilbo became ill and did not insist on being sworn in until he'd recovered and returned to Washington. The committee reports were tabled (which in US discourse means action was deferred). But instead of returning, Bilbo grew more ill and died several months later, which rendered the issue moot. Here's the official version of that story.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Peace with Honour

I guess since it's Armistice Day it's a good time to talk about this. Researching on A.A. Milne for my fisking of a recent movie, I came across, as I had before, references to his having considered himself a pacifist for much of his life, even though he'd served in WW1 after reaching that conclusion, and even though he eventually decided to support participation in WW2 as well. In 1934 he published his only serious non-fiction book, Peace with Honour, expounding his pacifist case, and I decided to read it.

I'd really like to put the Milne who wrote this book in a room with the Milne who supported WW2 and let them argue it out, because Milne-'34 is very prescient about what would happen and is entirely opposed to exactly and specifically the war that Milne-'40 would support, and in the meantime is also opposed to rearmament to prepare for that war, the meagerness of which is now considered Britain's greatest failing of the time.

Milne-'34 starts well, arguing against the glorification of war and pointing out that all the slaughter of WW1 hadn't wiped that attitude out. He scoffs at the idea of fighting for national honor, saying that this really means just national prestige, and that that prestige amounts to the ability to beat up other countries. His pocket summary of WW1 ("In the summer of 1914 an Austrian archduke was killed ... [This] led directly to the killing of ten million men who were not archdukes ...") is justly famed, but I liked even better his definition of a patriot ("a man who believes that other people are not patriots"). And insofar as he shows that stating that war is terrible is not arguing against a straw man he's on solid ground.

But he also dismisses the idea of a legitimate casus belli, assuming that every country will lie about its grievances and since it's impossible to get at the truth in a dispute, not bothering to try. (Imagine applying that attitude to today's "he said/she said" disputes.) And he uses this scoffery to evade his way out of addressing Christian "just war" doctrine.

But, the reader will ask - and Milne invents an imaginary reader who, at several points, does ask this question - if a country abjures war, what is it to do if it's attacked? In parts, Milne starts to respond to this, contrasting war with an individual being attacked by a criminal. There, there are police and courts, while war, because it's so destructive, is the equivalent of defending yourself by pulling out a bomb that would blow up yourself as well as the criminal, and the surrounding neighborhood: you wouldn't do that. A pacifist as prescient about the subsequent peace as Milne is about WW2 would discuss the creation of an effective international equivalent of a system of police and courts, but Milne doesn't: he doesn't even more than passingly mention the League of Nations, let alone analyze how it could be made to work better.

Like every other diagnostician of a world problem, from Marx on down, when it comes to proposing a solution Milne has only inanities to offer. His idea is to force (he doesn't say how) every world leader to swear a solemn oath by whatever God they hold dear to renounce war entirely, defensive as well as offensive, and then by golly they'll be forced to seek mediation of their differences by neutral parties (he doesn't say how they'll be chosen, and evades the question of how the countries will be forced to abide by the decision).

One odd part to this is that it doesn't comport with his ideas of disputes being unresolvable and not worth trying to resolve.

The other odd part is that he treats neutral mediation as a radical new idea he'll have to talk the countries into accepting; in fact it was a standard way for countries to settle differences they didn't want to get into wars over. The boundary dispute between the US and Canada over the San Juan Islands was settled in 1872 by asking Kaiser Wilhelm I to decide. Even wars could be ended that way: The Russo-Japanese war of 1905 was mediated by Theodore Roosevelt. But Milne makes no reference to this tradition.

But what, the reader insists on asking, if a country attacks you anyway? To this Milne goes to his most inane. Well, he says, assuming that other countries act in bad faith and thus preparing for war has always led to war, so why not assume they act in good faith instead? Couldn't be worse, could it? I shudder at that level of trust. Given your money to any Nigerian princes lately?

Oh come on, the exasperated reader says. What if it's THE NAZIS? And to his credit, Milne addresses that straightforwardly. He has a whole chapter, chapter 13, on exactly that question. He says that fascist dictators like Hitler or Mussolini keep control by keeping their people constantly on the pitch of threatening war. But, he says, 1) if they actually do declare war, they will begin to lose that control they hold most dear. And 2) if they should lose a war, that would be the end of them.

Here again Milne is prescient. Those gleaming fascist empires did indeed begin to crack when war was declared. And both Hitler and Mussolini met ends as degrading and humiliating as any anti-fascist could have wished for.

But Milne falls down with his conclusions from points 1 and 2. He says, 3) the dictators know this. I'm not sure if they did. Nothing I've read about Hitler suggests that he was aware of #1. He did know #2, but neither he nor Mussolini thought that could happen. They'd look out on their gleaming armies and think, "How can I possibly lose a war?" And then Milne says, 4) their talk of war is just bluster. They can't risk actually doing it.

This, I trust, is where Milne-'40 sadly shook his head and departed from his earlier self, because Milne-'34 was just flatly wrong about that. For one thing, he'd acknowledged that the dictators had to keep their populaces on the pitch of war, but he didn't realize that you can't do that indefinitely without eventually producing one.

Oh, but it gets worse. In chapter 8, the one in which Milne evades Christian responses to pacifism, he has his imaginary reader bluntly ask, What if Germany invaded anyway? Would you acquiesce, then, in their conquest of Britain? Milne's response defines "acquiesce" as liking it. He says, and here I quote: "In fact, I should hate them. It would be easy to feel intensely humiliated by them. But then ..." Oh, I can hardly bear to type this: "But then it is easy for an author to feel intensely humiliated whenever his play is rejected or his novel is a failure." And he provides several other examples of the same sort, and says, you don't kill people over that.

Oh, Milne-'34, you silly old bear. Do you really think those two forms of humiliation - an author's book not selling and the Nazis conquering a country - are even remotely comparable? All he can say to defend this position is to point out that, if we fought Germany, women and children would be killed, and (the reader he's addressing at this point is a Christian) we might have to ally ourselves with godless Russia. Well, those things were both true, but they didn't seem to bother Milne-'40: ask him. You don't even need to conjure up the ghosts of six million Jews and as many other Romani, homosexuals, et al, to argue this point: that mostly hadn't happened yet in 1940. But even then, Milne-'40 had figured out that there are things worse than war.

The problem is that Milne-'34 is so terrified by the memory of WW1 that he considers another war worse than literally anything else. The one other thing he's as certain of as the points I numbered 1 and 2 above is that another general war will be the end of European civilization, and he quotes that noted expert on world affairs, Stanley Baldwin, in support of this. (I'm being sarcastic: Baldwin was probably the least internationally-oriented politician in British history.) Milne-'34 is in the position of Chamberlain-'38, who was moved by the same terror to do anything to prevent another war. Remember that, technically, Munich was Chamberlain mediating - just as Milne would want - a dispute between Germany and Czechoslovakia. But it wasn't a real dispute, it had been gingered up out of nothing by Hitler. And the reason appeasement didn't work is not because appeasement is inherently bad, but because Hitler would not negotiate in good faith. In chapter 17 in describing his utopian plan for forced mediation, Milne says this assumes "(i) a Germany which recognizes that another European war will be disastrous, and (ii) a contented Germany." But such a Germany did not exist, and under the dispensations then existing in Europe, which only WW2 changed, such a Germany could not exist. So the entire argument is nugatory.

Nice try, Alan, but I prefer your children's books.

world according to cat

There's much excitement in the mornings. Because there will be food. Fooood. Food, that knits up the raveled sleeve of care, or something.

Pippin says, "If She* is getting fed, then I will get fed. I will now run around the living room several times to express my excitement at the prospect of being fed."

Maia, meanwhile, is jealous. When she and Pippin were on different kibbles, she wanted his kibble and would go to any lengths to sneak past my watchful eye and scarf some out of his dish. Was it just that it was his or did she actually like his kibble better? Then we put her on the same as his and lo, she was content. But now he's been switched to some lovely stinky wet food, and she's jealous again. These changes have all been for medical or dietary reasons, not to annoy Maia, but she is not to know that.

*who must be obeyed, of course

here's one I don't get

British department store chain spends £7 million to kick off its Christmas ad campaign with a 2-minute ad by an Oscar-winning director.

OK, it's a touching story of a little boy and the monster under his bed, but what is its point as an ad? The boy gets a toy with lights on it for Christmas, and it makes the monster go away. Or it doesn't make the monster go away. Or both. It seems to me that the toy the ad is actually trying to push is the monster, but they don't sell that at John Lewis. Or do they?

Friday, November 10, 2017

departed persons

In the last couple weeks, I've been to two Catholic masses in honor of the deceased: one funeral, one memorial service, but the only difference was whether the remains were present.

One was for B's niece's mother-in-law; the other for onyxlynx, who was part of a social circle I'm on the edge of. At the first, the eulogy was given by her son, who told of his mother's harrowing childhood in China, of which I'd known little; at the other, by her sister, who told of family gatherings back on the east coast, a part of her life I'd also not known, even unto the name she was known by her family, never heard among her friends.

In both cases the departed was a woman with a background and character far different from my own, and whom I did not know intimately; but who was friendly and welcoming and interesting, whom I could converse with easily and was always a pleasure to see. Who brought, as I said of onyxlynx before, texture to my life.

I wanted to honor and commemorate their lives, and let their loved ones know that others, too, missed them. And that's why I was there, yes?

Monday, November 6, 2017

two concerts

Last year a kind soul on the neighborhood association mailing list alerted us that a local pianist named Tamami Honma, who works as a music minister at a nearby Methodist church, was giving a series of concerts at that church covering Beethoven's piano sonatas. All 32 of them.

I went to some of these, which were overseen by a large cardboard cutout statue of Beethoven, and I enjoyed them. But whoever notified us of these concerts must have drifted away, because it was only on Saturday, from another source, that I learned that that evening Ms Honma was giving the second of three concerts covering Beethoven's piano concertos at the same church.

So I'd missed the first, and can't get to the third. But I hastened over for the second, which was a particular treat because it featured the concertos Nos. 1 and 5 (the latter is the "Emperor"), my favorites. The cardboard cutout statue was still there, so were Ms Honma and her percussive off-brand piano, and so was a small orchestra of peculiar roster.

The double winds of a full orchestra were all present. But in the strings there was only one player per part. This imbalance made for a wind-band sound much of the time, the more so as both these concertos include trumpets and timpani (which was also there). In a few passages where strings alone accompanied the piano, it became of chamber music intimacy. Interesting experience.

The orchestral musicians were from a variety of local community orchestras, and despite the fact that this included the Saratoga Symphony, they were fairly decent. Some horn wobbles during the transition between the Adagio and the Rondo in the Emperor left this magical moment basically unimpaired. I've heard less inspiring renditions in professional concerts.

Then on Sunday afternoon I ventured up to Redwood Symphony, with B. along, to hear Mozart's Requiem because I was reviewing it. I did not know until a couple hours before we left that it'd be a requiem for 26 Baptists from Texas. The chorus board president alluded, nonspecifically, to this in his introductory remarks, and I was pleased to be just as nonspecific in passing the allusion along. I wanted to acknowledge the moment, but reviews are required to be brief and on topic. There are other places to say what has to be said, and in some of them, it's being said. It may be only MAD Magazine, but I admire the concision in this.

May I just add that it really bites when an ensemble giving the world premiere of a work that they commissioned misspells the title in the program listing? It was right in the descriptive notes. I was just looking at the review and then the program listing and sent a hasty correction to my editor, and then had to follow it with a hastier uncorrection.

Friday, November 3, 2017

et tu, Wolfie

I've just received an assignment to review a performance of Mozart's Requiem this weekend. Now, I've heard Mozart's Requiem in performance at least three times, but I never paid close attention to what was going on in it. Time to do so. So I fetched out B's old vocal score (of course she has one, and there it is next to Brahms's Requiem and Verdi's Requiem) and followed along with a recording. I like what he does with matching up the soloists, especially in the Tuba Mirum where each successive solo entrance stomps on the last note of the previous one.

But I was also curious if I could tell from ear alone where Mozart stopped. As we all know from Amadeus, Mozart didn't live to finish the piece, but Salieri had nothing to do with it. The work had been commissioned, and Constanze was anxious that the patron not find out that Wolfie hadn't finished the job, or she might not get paid. So she hastily enlisted a handy composing friend (possibly a student of Mozart's, or maybe she made that up) named Süssmayr to quickly finish up the work in secret.

Besides the fact that it's somewhat windier? Yeah, there's a couple of things.

First: "Hosan-NAH." Süssmayr! Who pronounces it that way?

Second: A moment just before the end of the Agnus Dei. Mozart would never spiral down into a mere half-cadence that way. It's just not him.

science fiction in real life

Remember the scene in Asimov's Second Foundation where Arkady Darrell turns on the voice recognition program to write her term paper on Seldon's Plan, and forgets to turn it off when she starts to talk about something else?

Imaginative science fiction, seventy years ago.

A simple fact of life today.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

of a friend

Wild-irises posts in memoriam for onyxlynx, who died last week.

Of her nature and character you can read there. Here I will just say that I feel wounded. She was one of those people who brought texture to my life. I like the word "indirect" that wild-irises uses; that was how I experienced her communication, and it was something you got used to. I felt honored that she was my DW friend, and we went on communicating in that same indirect way that I'd first learned when we were in an apa together in the late 70s. I found that staying up late in a bleary haze was the best state to appreciate her writing and to respond appropriately. This broadens and stretches the mind, children.

Of course she used a different name in apas than she did offline. Nor did she litter her online journal with clues to her identity either; figuring out who this "onyxlynx" person was was just part of the fun.

We both disliked dogs. We both disliked potatoes. We may have been the only ones.

I'd sometimes come across her among the niches at the Garden of Memory concert - she's the Tall Black Woman whom I'd report having seen there - and we'd converse there in that happenstantial way of casual occasional friends. She thanked me for posting a reminder of this summer's concert and planned to be there, but alas it did not happen and she sent regrets. And that was the last ...


1. Since we get so few trick-or-treaters even in a good year, and since the light by the carpath in front of our house has been out for over a month (our landlord keeps pinging the management agency for the complex, but nothing happens, and our porch light doesn't extend that far), we decided just to eschew Halloween this year. No pumpkin, no candy.

2. The big news is, Michael Tilson Thomas is announcing his retirement from the San Francisco Symphony. Like a good music director, he's giving three years' notice, but it's still a big change. Reading his statement, he feels that at 75, which he'll be then, it's time to give up the administrative work and go back to just conducting. So he's not going away entirely. Still, he's been so monumental and so much a fixture - 25 years in the post, longest in SFS' history - that contemplating his replacement is an awesome challenge, bigger than it's seemed before. SFS' last 3 MDs have all been good at their job, albeit with differing styles, but the shoes to fill have gotten even bigger, and the wrench into a different style will be greater.

3. Latest quick grab from the library shelf, A Charlie Brown Religion by Stephen J. Lind, on the spiritual life of Charles Schulz both in and out of the comic strip. The big Schulz biography by David Michaelis says he gradually lost his faith and became an unbeliever. That must be one of the ways the Schulz children felt Michaelis misrepresented their father, because this book, accompanied by their enthusiastic blurbs on the back, says not. Schulz's Midwestern Protestant distaste for organized, authoritative religion, which is part of what caused him eventually to stop attending church and to dub himself a secular humanist (by which, Lind insists, he did not mean atheist or unbeliever), did not cancel out his Christian devotion or his interest in Bible study - as indeed can be guessed from the strip, which remained Biblically conversant through the end, without the heavy-handedness of certain other Christian cartoonists. Typical of Schulz is his opposition to official school prayer when that was a hot issue. He wrote to a church publication at the time, "If our spiritual lives need the support of governmental laws, then we are already doomed." Naturally his comic in which Sally whispers to Charlie Brown as a great secret, "We prayed in school today," was widely misread.

Some of what's in here is interesting - did you know that the Great Pumpkin began as a sarcastic joke about seeing Christmas decorations in October? in 1959? - and some disturbing, like the Peanuts nativity set featuring Lucy as Mary, Charlie Brown as Joseph, and Woodstock as Jesus: supposedly the gang are putting on a pageant, but still ... Lind is not a minister, but he sounds like one, keeping a minister's positive upbeat tone about everything, even Schulz's divorce and his failure to discuss morals and ethics with his children (he didn't want to come across as an Authority, see).

4. Speaking of fathers, it's my father's birthday today, the first one he's not around to celebrate, alas. It's also the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, whose exact date I hadn't known before, an interesting coincidence. Balfour gets in bad repute these days, but nobody has a plausible answer for where the Jews were supposed to go instead (my ancestors were already here, and the US soon after stopped letting dusky foreigners in) or notices that the Declaration explicitly calls for territorial justice for the Arabs as well.

Monday, October 30, 2017

concert review: cello and piano

A tentative plan for Sunday afternoon had to go out the window after I received a call from my editor requesting that I cover a cello and piano recital in Berkeley. My schedule makes me available for emergency fill-ins like this, so I get a lot of them. My editor didn't want a program with three U.S. premieres to go unobserved by us. And so I observed it.

So there was a lot of new music here, and the performers' reputation as well as the composers' names suggested a pretty austerely modernist program. And indeed it was. Hertz is not a large auditorium, and it was only half full, which in my experience never happens. High modernism is not my favorite style by any means, but after half a century's experience I know how to listen to and evaluate the stuff. Pascal Dusapin can be a pretty good composer, and even not at his most appealing he sounds like he knows what he's doing; Fred Lerdahl is a basic academic modernist of the kind the US is so effective at churning out; the composer I didn't know is one of those guys who writes as if Anton Webern were still alive. I don't know where these people come from. He bears the truly unfortunate first name of Ashkan, and if you're going to say where his music belongs ... well ...

Thoughts of taking BART vanished when I wasn't ready to leave 5 hours before the concert started. So I drove. Although a quiet Sunday afternoon, there was still a huge plug on the Nimitz in Hayward, so I detoured to Hesperian, and arrived in sufficient time for a quick lunch and an even quicker visit to the music library next door to the hall.

media colonization

is my term for when a movie adaptation drowns out the novel, or the real-life events, that it was based on.

Apologists for movie adaptations are always telling us that the changes they make from the source material are "necessary," though they rarely explain why and even more rarely do so adequately.

Then fine; in that case, I say, let the two go their separate ways and don't confuse the one with the other. But that doesn't happen: the movie drowns out the source.

That's why I wrote my post on Goodbye Christopher Robin. I wasn't there to critique the movie as such, of which I had nothing to say but "rather dull and slow-moving," but to lay out its differences from the records of known facts and the memories of Christopher Milne.

Of course I've been on about this for years regarding the Lord of the Rings movies, whose revisions and changes have infected Tolkien scholarship. Frankenstein, too. It doesn't matter if the book is still on the shelf if the movie is what's in the head.

When I first raised concern over media colonization regarding The Lord of the Rings, which was slightly presciently for the Jackson movies, because it was at a Mythcon panel in August 2001, over 4 months before the first movie came out, my friend Lee thought he had a rebuttal. He stood up and pointed to his t-shirt, which bore a portrait of L. Frank Baum, one of his favorite authors. Baum's Oz, he said, has survived the famous movie adaptation.

Maybe for him and his fellow Oz fanatics, it has. They've virtually memorized every word that Baum, Ruth Plumly Thompson, and everyone else has ever written about the place. I know they have: I've been to their conventions and witnessed their trivia contests.

But, I said, not for the general world, too much of which doesn't know 1) that it's not a dream, 2) that they're not ruby slippers, or even 3) that the book has a different title than the movie.

Another example, a very small but telling one, has been playing out in the newspaper comics the last week, in the strip Luann by Greg Evans. Luann is a college student who's started mentoring a shy 13-year-old girl named Fay. Fay wants to go into theater but was too shy to audition for her school's production of The Wizard of Oz. So Luann is trying to build up her confidence about doing such things.

The thing about Fay is, she's never seen the movie. She doesn't even know it's a musical. But she has read all of Baum's books about it (there's 14 of them, a trivia fact I know from hanging around Oz fans).

So then why does she refer to "the flying monkeys"? In the movie the monkeys aren't called anything, though the Witch tells them to "Fly! Fly!" So if all you know is the movie it's a reasonable extrapolation to call them flying monkeys. But if you've read the book, you'd know that they're called Winged Monkeys, and since the movie doesn't contradict this, writers about the movie who have read the book call them Winged Monkeys when discussing the movie also. Even Wikipedia half-knows that. (It uses both terms.)

I also question Fay's interest in playing Dorothy. Judy Garland was 16 when the movie was filmed, and played Dorothy as somewhat younger, but nowhere near as young as in the book. I don't recall if Baum gives Dorothy's age, but in the illustrations she's a little girl, not even a pre-teen.

Or Fay's interest in Glinda. Glinda is not as important a character in the book as in the movie, where she's an amalgam of two characters from the book. And, of course, Luann dresses Fay up like Glinda from the movie, not Glinda from the book.

OK, it may be a bit much to expect the comic strip to show Fay asking, "What is this costume?" But to have her, wearing it, play out a quote that isn't from the book, and apparently isn't from the 1939 movie either, but one of the recent spinoff movies (though reputedly it's originally from Edward O. Wilson) - well, it shows that Fay isn't the book nerd she pretends to be. She's been infected by media colonization too.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

good grief, Christopher Robin

I already tried posting this once, but it came out like a fine whine. Let's see if this is better:

The greatest virtue of the movie Goodbye Christopher Robin is that it's rather dull and slow-moving. With luck, it will soon be forgotten and not muddy the already murky waters of confusion any further. It's part meticulous, but mostly Make Stuff Up. Shall we count the ways?

Movie: A.A. Milne witnessed terrible things on the front lines in WW1.
Reality: True. He was on the Somme about three months. He was actually in the same area at the same time as J.R.R. Tolkien, with the same rank doing the same job (signals officer); they were invalided for the same reason (trench fever) and came back to England at the same time, though I couldn't find out if it was on the same ship. The movie doesn't invent them meeting; it missed a bet there.

Movie: After the war, Milne suffered from terrible attacks of PTSD.
Reality: In Movieland, WW1 veteran = PTSD. Not inevitably in reality. What's more, when Milne later wrote about having seen men killed in front of his eyes, he wrote with the same whimsical cheerfulness that he wrote about everything else.

Movie: And writer's block.
Reality: Writer's block? A.A. Milne? Don't put me on.

Movie: So he moves with his family out of the pressure cooker of London to a home in the country.
Reality: They didn't move. They lived in London. The country home was for weekends and holiday getaways, as well-off Londoners have long done.

Movie: His wife, Daphne, is a blunt and outspoken person.
Reality: True, though I know of no source for any of the specific examples in the movie.

Movie: They have a small son whose name is Christopher Robin, but they call him Billy Moon.
Reality: Christopher Milne tells us in his memoir The Enchanted Places that "Billy Moon" was a rare appellation. He was called Billy until about the age of 5. After that his father - and others, but apparently not his mother - called him Moon.

Movie: They hire a nanny named Olive who used to work for the Chilean ambassador.
Reality: True, intriguingly enough.

Movie: A.A. still can't write, so Daphne threatens to leave him.

Movie: So - though he's uncomfortable with small children -
Reality: True, though the depiction of him as unsure what to do with a crying baby is probably invented.

Movie: He makes friends with his son with a deliberate plan to develop material.
Reality: Opposite of the truth. He didn't have the knack with small children, remember? He observed his son carefully, but mostly from a distance. As for why children's books, he later explained there wasn't a plan: he's already a protean writer, why not write whatever comes to hand?

Movie: The name "Winnie," short for Winnipeg, comes from a Canadian bear at the zoo.
Reality: True. "Pooh" and "Moon" came from where the movie says they did too. And they really did play Poohsticks.

Movie: The books are wildly successful.
Reality: True. Milne was rather dismayed at having suddenly turned from a famous adult dramatist into a famous children's writer, which the movie doesn't get into.

Movie: There are incessant interviews and photo ops, which the boy hates.
Reality: He often enjoyed these, and his parents kept them under tight control.

Movie: He's devoted to his nanny Olive, and even asks her to marry him instead of her fiancee.
Reality: True.

Movie: She doesn't like being compared to Alice in the books.
Reality: Christopher Milne doesn't say what Olive thought of it, but he's emphatic that she was caring and attentive, not like the distracted Alice.

Movie: Her departure is dramatic and heartbreaking.
Reality: Nonsense. The fiancee was no secret. CRM was nine and went off to boarding school, that's all. He just didn't need a nanny any more. It's a normal part of growing up.

Movie: His boarding school life is literally nothing but merciless, brutal teasing; he calls it "hell."
Reality: He tells us that Christopher Robin's "appearances at school were few. Mostly we were occupied with other things." He did get teased on occasion, and he found this painful, though he says nothing about being thrown downstairs. It didn't bother him to have Christopher Robin mentioned when teasing was not the intent. "But mostly I had other things to think about and didn't bother about being Christopher Robin one way or the other."

Movie: His father ignores him once the books are written.
Reality: Opposite of the truth. As he grew out of nanny-age, son and father became extremely close. The movie's scene of the father teaching his son not to hold his utensils trencherman-style really happened, though in CRM's telling AAM is much wittier than he's shown in the movie.

Movie: CRM joins the army to get away from being Christopher Robin.
Reality: More nonsense. At that stage he had no resentment. He joined, he says, out of a general patriotism that felt Hitler was worth fighting against, a feeling that his father, though he'd previously called himself a pacifist, fully shared.

Movie: A telegram reports him missing presumed dead.
Reality: It said he had been wounded, hit by a shell in the head. It didn't say not seriously. His parents were, naturally, deeply concerned. They were very proud when they heard how calmly he'd taken it.

Movie: After CRM returns from the war, father and son have a reconciliation.
Reality: This is actually when the break occurred between them. CRM had a hard time establishing himself in a career, and became bitter about his father having achieved fame and fortune on his son's back. But the bitterness was never total, and it didn't last. In later life he always disliked being Christopher Robin, but it never dominated his life: he came to terms with it and was willing to discuss it; eventually he even wrote that book explaining the history.

Movie: AAM's biographer Ann Thwaite is listed in the credits as a consultant.
Reality: The posters say "Inspired by a true story." Inspired, but only loosely based on.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

three concerts

1. San Francisco Symphony, Thursday. The return of Krzysztof Urbański, with more Slavic music. Dvořák cello concerto, slightly less boring than usual, but I didn't care for the cellist's tone. Also, the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra, a piece I respect more than like, but it was a very crisp, pleasing, and impressive performance. One of my colleagues reviewed this.

2. Oakland Symphony, Friday. First concert of the season. Birthday celebration for music director Michael Morgan. I wrote a thanks on a a giant birthday card for him, and signed it with "your agemate." Asst. conductor led the orchestra in playing "Happy Birthday." No National Anthem, thank ghu. I went to this concert for the rare chance to hear Shostakovich's Fifteenth, an enigmatic, hushed, introverted symphony, which made an odd pair with Beethoven's Fifth, a forthright, loud, extroverted symphony. But they were both fairly well played. Another colleague of mine reviewed this.

I go to Oakland concerts when they're playing something I really want to hear, because they're not physically easy for me to get to; but I may stop if I get any more phone calls like the one I got from them this morning, which when I gave this explanation tried to argue me into thinking that all the rest of the season's concerts are equally fascinating to me.

3. Symphony Silicon Valley, Saturday. Brahms Third and the Khachaturian Violin Concerto, two pieces I like but wouldn't travel to Oakland for. I would, however, travel to San Jose for them, and glad I did, because they were beautifully done. Returning soloist Mayuko Kamio had as weird and peculiar a sound as ever, but plays it well, and first-time visiting conductor Mei-Ann Chen was a truly impressive leader. This concert, ta-da, was reviewed by me.

A couple things on the review. About the blooper on the last chord, I wound up writing, "Technically, the playing was nearly flawless until just before the end when a few missteps crept in," because I think I caught another glitch a little earlier. It sounded like the entire wind section momentarily put its foot wrong, as it were. It could have been a hidden inner voice revealed by the exposed playing style, but it didn't sound like something Brahms would do, and though I didn't recall the exact moment it happened I couldn't find anything in the score when I checked later, so I'm going with the assumption.

Also, I noted that Chen was the only first-time conductor on this year's roster. (Last season they had 2, the season before none.) What I did not note, but could have if I'd chosen to play that card, is that she's also the only woman to conduct here in three years. (Actually, I'd forgotten it was that long since Karen Kamensek last appeared.) I could also have made irony out of the difference in programming between the new music and women composers featured at Chen's home base and the conservative program here, but in fact I have mixed feelings about that. I'm in favor of newer and unusual music, and that's what I go to Oakland for; and I put up with a feeble local amateur group because they were doing an all-women composer program, but I also believe that music is a performing art, and even the hoariest of classics only lives at all because people still play it. So bring on the Brahms, because he's as great as his reputation says; and the Khachaturian, which is nowhere near as much of a warhorse as it used to be.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

symphonic variations

Here's the problem I'm facing now:

The orchestra of modest prestige was surpassing itself with a flawless, even revelatory, performance of the great symphony. It ends with an elegant, quiet, dying fall. And on the final note: BLAT!

I can't avoid alluding to this somehow, so how do I bring it up in my review?

the world according to cat

Seeking insights in The Trainable Cat by Bradshaw and Ellis, I found this:
As an illustration of just how flexible their behavior is [in their third month], one of the skills that young cats learn during this period is how to get our attention, specifically by meowing. This socialization is so characteristic of cats that it is often presumed to be instinctive. However, feral cat colonies are generally rather silent places, the cats communicating mainly by body language and scent, and not vocally: cats generally reserve this sound for communicating with humans. Young kittens instinctively meow to their mother to attract her attention, but she stops responding when she wants to wean them, and when they discover that calling out to her no longer provokes a reaction, they stop doing it. However, the meow, though dormant, evidently remains in their repertoire, and as they adapt to their new home, cats find that meowing has become effective once more, this time in attracting the attention of our own species.
The book goes on to say that meowing becomes an idiolect, with meows for different purposes understandable by each cat and owner but meaningless to anyone else.

I can testify to the motivation in which "every cat works out for himself which meow produces the desired result," because I could hear our former cat Pandora trying it out on the drive to the vet. She would meow constantly, using a variety of pitches, lengths, and other variables, in evident hope of hitting upon the one that would persuade us to turn around and take her home.

Maia, however, didn't begin to meow until fully into adulthood, and has no special code. She comes into my office and meows in the same general way whenever she wants something, and since she only ever wants three things - food, petting (actually scritching and nuzzling), or playing with a peacock feather - I determine which she wants by where she goes on leading me out of the office.

If she wants food, she goes to the hall bathroom, where her dish is kept. If she wants petting she goes to the bedroom, because she's learned that petting only takes place on top of the bed, where cat and I can most easily be on the same level. If she wants playing, she flops down on the hall landing, which is cue for me to go halfway downstairs, fetch the feather from on top of a downstairs bookcase, and waggle it at her through the railing. Maia is the laziest huntress in the feline kingdom, her method of chasing the feather consisting of lying on the floor on her back and wiggling all four paws at it.

Friday, October 20, 2017


1. I just finished a work project that had been hanging over me for two months. It's not like it took that long to do the work, just that it was hard to face doing it. It's a detailed critique of a paper whose author had taken extremely ill to my temerity in giving initial reports of errors and unclear material. What reaction I get to the full report will determine what happens next.

I got lots done in the interim, but it was all small or extremely time-bound projects. Bigger jobs I should have gotten started on, I thought, "No, I have to get this done first." Didn't help.

2. Took All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders to read on the way to a concert last night. (More on the concert later.) I'd also seen somebody reading it at last weekend's brass quintet concert. It took me until the end of the YA section at the beginning to figure out what other author that section was strongly reminding me of. Not at all Cory Doctorow or Jo Walton, Anders' stated inspirations for that part (and I've read the relevant books by both). Look: juvenile characters, trying to run their lives around their oblivious parents. Extremely ordinary mundane opening setting and situation, and then Really Weird Stuff starts happening which the characters have to deal with without freaking out. A subtle but pervasive wacky goofiness underneath. And all told in a plain, clear, almost over-simple language. Who is this like? (Doctorow is more didactic than this, Walton more elusive.) The author I'm thinking of is very American, whom Brits may not know, but I think most of my American readers will have read this person. Clue: has a cult following. Can you guess?

3. And while up in the City, dinner at a Nicaraguan restaurant. Why not? I never had before. Liked me them Nicaraguan tamales, which have rice in the light masa mix, and a big hunk of pork inside, plus olives and sliced tomatoes. It occurs to me that, of however many countries there are in Latin America and the Caribbean (at least 40, counting the more important island colonies), I've now eaten in restaurants representing only ten of them. I should collect some more - easy to do in the City - despite many of the countries being tropical, which means a fondness for plantains and yucca, which I don't like.

4. What I most miss from my old XP computer is the solitaire game. I hate the newer versions, which have ugly designs and which, when you pick up a card from the tableau, automatically turn over the face-down card beneath it. I hate that. I don't want computers that play the game for me. If they do, why am I there at all? All I want the computer to do for me is shuffle, which with physical cards I am incapable of. (One of many sporting tasks I can't do. I can hit a golf ball, a volleyball, or a bowling pin: that's about it. At tennis, ping-pong, or softball I am beyond hopeless.)

Anyway, there's lots of instructions online for getting the good solitaire on a newer computer, but they all start with porting it from your old XP, and I no longer have my old XP. But, aha! I finally found the right game downloadable online. It's here. It's not perfect - if you make it full screen, the cards don't get larger, just further apart - but it's what I want.

5. Astonishing analysis - by William Saletan, who does politico-cultural analysis as well as anyone - of how moral conservatives can bring themselves to defend Trump. It's easy. You just abandon every moral principle you've ever advocated, and turn it all upside down.

6. The moving story of a cartoonist who lost his home in the Santa Rosa fires, told in his chosen medium.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

English suites no. 9

A fairly well-known suite by an otherwise obscure composer, Peter Warlock's Capriol Suite is from a favorite genre of mine, 20th-century retellings of much older music. It's a selection of French Renaissance dances from the collection of Thoinot Arbeau, faithfully transcribed, but with touches of orchestration that make it Warlock's own, particularly in spicing it up. For instance, that pungent chord at 0.12 is intentional, and not the result of the players' wobbliness, which I chose this performance in spite of, preferring the vigor and energy of this rendition above others. There's a lot more pungent dissonance in the finale.

The very brief movements are Basse-Danse (0:00), Pavane (1:24), Tordion (3:26), Bransles (4:33), Pieds-en-l'air (6:37), and Mattachins (Sword Dance) (9:30).

Literary authors writing under pen names is fairly common, and not just among women hiding as men: Mark Twain, O. Henry, George Orwell, Cordwainer Smith ... But though there have been musical forgeries from time to time, Peter Warlock is the only composer of any note I can think of who was a pen name. The choice of name either reflected his interest in the occult or didn't, depending on who you read; his legal name, Philip Heseltine, he used only on his critical and scholarly writings, in which he specialized in studying Renaissance music.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Christopher Robin, hello

There's a movie coming out called Goodbye Christopher Robin, one of those modern historical dramas so popular recently. It's a genre I'm very susceptible to, so I'll go see this one.

But before I have to throw in a comparison of the movie with reality, I'd better triangulate reality with the general impression of it. For The Enchanted Places, Christopher Milne's memoir of his childhood and the story behind the books, is the most seriously and comprehensively misread book that I know. This is pervasive; it's not just one or two cases. People read it, but what they get out of it isn't there.

You know the basics. A.A. Milne, successful dramatist and humorist, published between 1924 and 1928 four children's books of fanciful poetry and stories inspired by, and using the real name of, his small son Christopher Robin and his collection of stuffed toy animals. They became huge and lasting successes, to some irritation of the author who preferred to be known for more serious or adult work, and to his son, who, as the end of The House at Pooh Corner points out, did not remain a small boy playing with stuffed toys.

That part's true, but a mistaken emphasis on the irritation has created false stories of a bizarrely dysfunctional, but imaginary, family out of the memoir that Christopher Milne, as in adulthood he preferred to be known, published half a century later in 1974. (I'm citing the 1975 US edition from Dutton.)

False story #1: That A.A. Milne was a cold and distant father with no interest and little contact with his son as a real person.

Partial truth to this: That as a small child, Christopher was largely raised by a nanny. This was absolutely standard practice in upper and middle-class families in Britain at the time, and for many generations earlier. Some parents were cold and distant, some were warm and loving. They all had nannies. You can prove nothing from this. The Milnes, at least, were not the kind of parents who only see their child for a few minutes at bedtime and allow no real interaction then, though they've been falsely accused of that.

Another partial truth to it: AAM did not have a gift for playing with and relating to small children. (Not the only renowned male children's author of whom this was true: Dr. Seuss was positively uneasy with small children in a way that Milne was not.)

But CRM is not resentful. He calls his childhood "happy" (p. 5) and is sympathetic to his father: "Some people are good with children. Others are not. It is a gift. You either have it or you don't. My father didn't. ... My father was a creative writer and so it was precisely because he was not able to play with his small son that his longings sought and found satisfaction in another direction." (p. 36)

But CRM also says that this applied only to nursery days. "Later on it was different, very different." (p. 36) And he proves this with extensive anecdote throughout the book. First, AAM did have the courtesy to arrange for the nursery visits of an acquaintance whom the boy called Soldier, who did have that knack with children (ch. 4) Even from when CRM was still small, the book tells some remarkable anecdotes showing AAM as a father of both sensitivity and wit. My favorite is this:
Once, when I was quite little, he came up the nursery while I was having my lunch. And while he was talking I paused between mouthfuls, resting my hands on the table, knife and fork pointing upwards. "You oughtn't really to sit like that," he said, gently. "Why not?" I asked, surprised. "Well ..." He hunted around for a reason he could give. Because it's considered bad manners? Because you musn't? Because ... "Well," he said, looking in the direction that my fork was pointing. "Suppose somebody suddenly fell through the ceiling. They might land on your fork and that would be very painful." (p. 120-21)
That's the species of wit I'd like to show with small children, and have very occasionally had the luck to come up with. And that was in the deprecated nursery days! Read the father gently correcting a factual error the son had been taught in school (p. 119-20) or the truly extraordinary way he weaned his son, then aged about ten, from an interest in shooting (ch. 21). And the cherished family holidays (ch. 22). The son says he and his father were very close for many years, and there's plenty to back this up. When CRM was in his 20s, his father sent him philosophical books, hoping the son would share his beliefs but not pressing him to do so (p. 142-44); this is discussed in CRM's third book, The Hollow in the Hill, which is not really a memoir but, as its subtitle states, "The search for a personal philosophy." In his second book, The Path Through the Trees, which is a memoir and a sequel to The Enchanted Places, there's lengthy discussion of AAM's role in helping CRM join the Army in WW2 and in his positive enthusiasm in helping the son realize his aptness for and to qualify for his post as a sapper, a combat engineer; and post-war pulled strings in the book industry to help CRM get set up as a bookseller.

A further warp, and yes I've actually seen this claimed, is that "his dad bought him Tigger because he wanted to see what personality young Christopher gave him -- in other words, A.A. was not being a thoughtful dad but seeking copy as a writer." That is an unjust insinuation worthy of a cruel prosecutor. Here's what CRM actually says: "Both Kanga and Tigger were later arrivals, presents from my parents, carefully chosen, not just for the delight they might give to their new owner, but also for their literary possibilities." (p. 77) So the charge is as if it was just his father. As if the parents couldn't have both motives, of being thoughtful and generating ideas. As if there's anything wrong in AAM's hoping he might get a story out of this. People post amusing videos of their children on YouTube all the time, and I hope you can tell the difference between the ones who are actually exploiting and abusing their children and those who are just delighted to share something amusing.

False story #2: That Christopher Milne spent his life in burning resentment of his father exploiting him as a literary character.

What people who purvey this are thinking of is a passage in the epilogue to The Enchanted Places in which CRM recounts a shadow that came between him and his father in the post-war years when he struggled to find a job and a career. "In pessimistic moments ... it seemed to me, almost, that my father ... had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son." (p. 165) Emphases added. CRM is not fully endorsing this bitter view, even for the time period that he had it. Eventually he realized that "If I wanted to escape from Christopher Robin, so, too, did he." (p. 166) AAM's burden, of course, was being known just for that, or having his other works judged only in that context.

As a boy, CRM would sometimes be teased by other boys over Christopher Robin. But that wasn't a heavy burden. If it weren't that, they'd find some other excuse to tease. CRM is clear that this was no more than an occasional irritant: Its "appearances at school were few. Mostly we were occupied with other things ... mostly I had other things to think about ... it never occurred to me that perhaps I ought to be blaming somebody for it all. ... My relations with my father were quite unaffected." (p. 163-64)

In adulthood, he retained continued discomfort with Christopher Robin, but it's something he came to terms with; it could hardly have been otherwise once he settled on a career as a bookseller (as was pointed out to him by his mother, "who always hit the nail on the head no matter whose fingers were in the way," p. 167). All he says about its place in his maturity is that "posing as Christopher Robin does today make me feel ill at ease" (p. 5) and "he still fills me with acute embarrassment ... after years of practice I am still terribly bad at this sort of thing" (p. 168). That's only acceptance insofar as he was willing to tell the story in his book, instead of hiding out altogether; but it's far removed from the kind of burning resentment, especially of his father (to whose memory he dedicated both his second and third books), of the brief spasm of 1947 and of the false story.

I hope, probably in vain, that we can have done with the misreadings of the book, before whatever misreadings generated by the movie descend on us.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

museum visit

Our friend E. recommended the exhibit on Teotihuacan current at the de Young Museum in the City. So, B. having the day off work today, we went. It's a pleasure to have such things within the range of doing on impulse without prior notice.

Most of the Mexican pyramidal sites that people know are in the Yucatan, but this one is in the central highlands near Mexico City. It predates the Aztecs, but whether it was built by their ancestors or someone else is unknown. It's been excavated for over a century, but a lot of valuable material has recently been discovered in tunnels.

I was most attracted to the carvings in serpentine, jade, onyx, and other stones, but there were also a lot of intriguing ceramic pieces, carvings on large conch shells, etc. One of their favorite images was the feathered serpent, sometimes depicted on wall murals at 6 to 8 foot length, and just begging to be incorporated into a fantasy novel. (It's been done, by Kenneth Morris and perhaps others I don't recall.) There were also feathered felines (the captions used the word feline for all such creatures, whether feathered or not, as their resemblance to what we'd call cats was elusive), birds with hands, and people with ghostly imperturbable expressions akin to those of moai statues, carved from stone but with eyes of shell or pyrite. It was all memorable and distinctive stuff.

We added a successful browse through both of the museum's gift shops, and then drove down, out of Golden Gate Park where the de Young is located, to Borderlands in the Mission district, passing by a whim past their future site on Haight a couple blocks east of Ashbury, to which they're in the process of buying the freehold; this turned out to be a better route to the current store than the one I'd been previously contemplating. There we had cider in the attached cafe - ah, fall! when the cider blooms - while waiting for the store to open at noon, where we bought more books.

Lunch at a Mexican place in South City where I'd been before, and then home, and that was our half-day out.

Monday, October 16, 2017

concert review: American Brass Quintet

Sent out to hear and review a brass quintet concert. A brass quintet? Never done one of those before. Yes.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

English suites no. 8

Like Rossini and Sibelius, Elgar wrote little in his last years. Much of what he did write was reworkings and expansions on old notebook material, but the results could be good, like this work, the Nursery Suite (1930).

Elgar was inspired to put it together by the suggestion that he could dedicate it to a nursery, specifically that belonging to a young royal mother, Elizabeth, then Duchess of York, for her two small daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. Yes, the present venerable Queen was a dedicatee of this work at the age of four. Nor was this the only occasion in recent history that a royal infant has caught the attention of a major composer, as we'll hear in a later entry.

It's got quite a variety of movements, most of them gentle and appropriate to the topic. They are: Aubade (Awake) (0.00), The Serious Doll (4.48), Busy-ness (7.59), The Sad Doll (10.17), The Wagon Passes (12.10), The Merry Doll (13.55), Dreaming (15.26), and Envoi (Coda) (18.43, continuing on from the previous without a break). Of these, the shortest and highly atypical "The Wagon Passes" - which sounds more like Mussorgsky's "Bydlo" than anything else that is not, appropriately as they have the same topic - and the "Envoi" - which recapitulates previous movements' themes amid a violin cadenza - are the most interesting.

concert review: San Jose State University choirs

As a graduate of, and also long-time alumna participant in, the SJSU choral program, B. very much wanted to attend this special concert to celebrate its 70th anniversary, and I was happy to go along. (She also attended a reunion gathering that I did not.)

The Choraliers, the top chorus; the larger Concert Choir; and the simply enormous Alumni Choir all sang in the Cathedral Basilica downtown, mostly acapella and otherwise with minimal accompaniment, a wise choice as the basilica has some of the wettest acoustics I've ever heard. The building is shaped like a short and stubby cross, with the chancel in the middle of the transept crossing rather than at one end. [I have to look up these church geography terms every time I use them.] This encouraged creative placement of the chorus, which variously was split into contrapuntal groups, or lined up behind the audience, or slowly marching through the aisles. The High Catholic interior, with saints in niches and otherwise fiercely decorated, with a ceiling Boschian in elaboration if not in irreverence, helped the atmosphere.

All three choruses were thoroughly excellent. Naturally the sacred classics, by the likes of Schütz and Victoria, came off best; there was also a good one by Charles Stanford, whom I wouldn't have thought had it in him; and the huge Alumni Choir, with its powerful bass section, simply exploded with Bruckner's Locus Iste, my favorite motet of all time. There were also some powerful hymns and folk songs, though the piece by Morten Lauridsen gave ammunition to the argument of a friend who claims that this much-honored choral composer simply doesn't know how to set text. (Apparently he wasn't expecting words like "choreographer" to have so many syllables.) A few other pieces, notably the one in Latvian (they also sang in Sotho and Tagalog as well as English and Latin), were not in good taste; but Ned Rorem's setting of Tudor-era poems, From an Unknown Past, was delightful as well as amusing.

The concert was led and introduced by university choral director Jeffrey Benson, with contributions by some grad students in choral conducting, and guest appearances by Benson's esteemed predecessor Charlene Archibeque, who was director when B. was there and, with a 35-year tenure, was known by just about everyone else too, getting a delighted standing ovation.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Kesh fire report

Wakwaha has been overrun with flame.

Tachas Touchas is seriously endangered.

The other seven towns are OK at the moment, but Kastoha has been evacuated and others are in potential danger, including Ounmalin and Sinshan.

"What Makes It Great?"

I get pretty exasperated at a lot of what passes for music appreciation talks, but one that impressed me was given at Stanford ten years ago by a traveling lecturer named Rob Kapilow, who gives his talks under the rubric "What Makes It Great?" His topic then was Vivaldi's Four Seasons, which you'd think would be too simple to need analysis, but Kapilow's subject was the tiny, small-scale tricks of composition that make this music as enjoyable as it is, about which he was both learned and lucid.

So he came back to Stanford last week with a program on Dvořák's "American" Quartet, another work that might seem too simple to need discussion. It's not, being built very craftily by an experienced master, as we learned at the talk. I took the opportunity to sign up to review it, and I'm fairly pleased with capturing the themes and principles, not just some fragmentary specifics, of Kapilow's presentation.

My one regret, which I had to leave half-implied because of my own space limitations, is that one tightly-packed hour of technical lessons, which was long enough, left Kapilow no time to discuss what was American about the "American" Quartet. In the first program of a series on American music, it was a frustrating omission.

But it would, as I said, have taken another hour. I'd like to try to make two points here. First, the educational context. Dvořák was so deeply imbued with his own Czech folk culture, employing the rhythms and style of Czech music and even speech as inspiration, not as quoted source material, that he thought American composers should do the same with what he thought were the most distinctive features of its culture, namely ones from Black and American Indian subcultures.

And the composers who came along in his wake tried. But the problem was, Dvořák was Czech; this was natural to him. Most of these American composers were WASPs from Boston and New York; Black spirituals and tribal rituals were no more native to them than they were to Dvořák, and they didn't have his synthesizing genius as an outside observer. As a result, they came up with passingly pleasant but weak-tea pieces like (and this is the best of them) Edward MacDowell's "Indian" Suite. (Dvořák did have one major Black pupil, Harry Burleigh, but he did not write much concert music.)

It wasn't until some 25 years later that American composers hit on different and more effective ways to sound American. New York Jews like Gershwin and Copland wrote jazz-inflected music. Jazz had been invented by Blacks in New Orleans, but it came to New York and became part of the entire urban culture there. And several composers, of whom Copland was just one, figured out a way to convey the open prairie in music, and not just by quoting cowboy songs, but its spirit in their harmonies and phrasing. Some (e.g. Roy Harris) had been raised out in the open countryside; Copland had not, but again, cowboy tales in Wild West shows, dime novels, and, later, movies had seeped into the hindbrains of Americans who'd never been there. But by this time Dvořák was dead, and didn't see how he'd both gotten the point and missed it.

Closer to Dvořák's point would have been the equally later music of composers who were themselves Black, like William Grant Still and Florence Price, both of whom I want to write about later. (Concert composers of Native American Indian ancestry only seem to have come along more recently.)

The other point concerns the Americanness of Dvořák's "American" music. As Kapilow pointed out, Dvořák himself was convinced he was writing music in a different way here than he would at home. But was he, and if so how? This has actually been a matter of contention. Leonard Bernstein, who was the father of the sort of enthused, intelligent music appreciation we had here, once gave a talk on nationalism in music claiming that Dvořák's American music was no less Czech than anything else he wrote, and attempted to prove it by inventing Czech patriotic lyrics (in English) which he sang to the Largo of the Symphony from the New World, a melody so like a Black spiritual that it's since been turned into a Black spiritual.

But Bernstein was being disingenuous, because most Americans wouldn't know what a Czech patriotic song (in English) would sound like. To my ears, there really is a difference in style, and I can easily point it out. Listen to the opening theme of the "American" Quartet (the first 45 seconds will do). Hear the clear-cut two- and four-bar phrases, the repeating motives, the strong and regular rhythms? That's the American aspect, whether it fits with what Bernstein says is American or not. Compare it with a piece of Dvořák's Czech music, the opening theme of his Eighth Symphony (again about 40 seconds). It's freer, rhapsodic, less "regular" in every respect. Not all his Czech music is so unlike the American, but nothing he wrote here sounds like this.

Friday, October 13, 2017

concert review: JACK Quartet and Joshua Roman

The air was smoky up in the City today - about 10% of the people I saw on the street were wearing breathing masks, not among them the man who wondered aloud to me if there was an epidemic - but I went up there anyway to be part of the small audience for this concert of extremely new string chamber music at Herbst.

The JACK Quartet is so named because those were the initials of the original members; it no longer quite fits. Joshua Roman, who joined them to make a quintet, is the cellist who has also been grabbed as a late substitute soloist for next week's SFS concert, which I'm going to.

The bulk of the concert consisted of works by four living American composers, the youngest of them Roman himself (he's 33). What struck me about these works was how four composers with such closely overlapping technical vocabularies could produce works with such different style and ethos.

That didn't mean they were all equally good, or equally bad, either. Amy Williams's string quartet was too dry and abstract, and John Zorn's piece for two cellos too noisy and frantic, to be very interesting. But the two pieces for full quintet were excellent, and not just because the composers were not afraid to include diatonic harmonies in their toolbox. Jefferson Friedman wrote an emotionally vivid tragic lament, full of long chromatic solo melodies over a variety of backgrounds, from piercing high held notes to pounding jagged rhythms that sounded as much like climaxes by Hovhaness as anything else. Roman's piece was an almost cinematic depiction of a tornado hitting the land of his Oklahoma childhood. It begins and ends with peaceful folk-like melodies, and in the middle goes wild with the effects, including alarm sirens wailing and Isserlis-like wooden doors banging.

Also on the program, something old but just as edgy: quintet arrangements of some 5-part Gesualdo madrigals. The arranger, a former JACK violinist, puts color in the pieces with nasal-sounding passages on the bridge.

In a Q&A session at the end, without mentioning which pieces or what I thought of them, I asked the performers if they were conscious of the same stylistic range in the choices as I was. Their answers all focused more on the importance of composers each learning to develop his or her own style, and on the pleasure of following a composer as it's developed. With all of this I certainly agree.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

English suites no. 7

This isn't called a suite, though with three light and contrasting movements, I maintain that in practice it is one. It's one of my favorites of the lighter and lesser-known works by Edward Elgar, one I heard on LP at an early age and imprinted on. The Three Bavarian Dances are actually orchestral arrangements taken from a larger set of choral songs with piano that Elgar (music) and his wife Alice (lyrics) wrote in commemoration of holidays they took there.

Once you know the titles you are not, I assure you, missing anything important by not getting the lyrics. The three dances are: The Dance (0.00), Lullaby (3.31), and The Marksman (6.45). The final one is actually the best, so stay with it.

how they got their names

1. In the 1850s, the northwestern part of the US was one jurisdiction, Oregon Territory. Most of the American settlers lived south of the Columbia River that bisected it, and those who lived north felt neglected by the local government. So they petitioned Congress to be created a separate territory. The name they proposed in the petition was Columbia, after the river.

But Congress thought that would be confusing because there was already a District of Columbia. So they changed the name to Washington instead.

(Did anyone in Congress notice how stupid this was? Eventually someone did, but by that time it was too late to amend the bill without putting it off until the next year. So they judged it better to let it go through as it was.)

2. The Beatles were recording an album they intended to title Everest. As the name of the world's highest mountain, it appropriately signified a majestic achievement. But in fact they'd chosen the name casually: it was the name of the brand of cigarettes their recording engineer smoked.

The plan was to fly to Nepal after finishing the album, and take a cover photo posing in front of the mountain. But the Beatles decided that was too much of a drag, flying all that way just to take a picture. So they had the idea of taking the least possible effort instead: they'd walk out the front door of the studio, take the cover photo in the middle of the street outside, and title the album after the street.

So that's what they did, and that's why the album is called Abbey Road.

3. Rex Tillerson is frequently compared with a dog, not just for his dogged allegiance towards his abusive master, but because his name is Rex. That's his real name, but he's not named for a dog; his parents named him for a movie cowboy named Rex Allen. (That was his real name too.)

Rex Harrison, on the other hand, is a nickname, and he did get it from a dog.

Interestingly, Rex Tillerson's middle name is Wayne, which came from another movie cowboy, the better-remembered John Wayne. John Wayne's nickname was, famously, Duke. That also came from a dog.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

bad news cont'd

Latest fire map shows the fire area actually over-running Jeanne and Alan's house. We know they're safe, but though this doesn't prove anything, for the property I fear the worst.

two sessions

Thanks to a timely departure and a quick dash across town, I got to two public educational sessions in the Palo Alto area last evening.

The first was a Stanford Music Dept. lecture by guest Malcolm Bilson, a specialist in classical-period fortepiano whom I've seen before at the historical recordings seminars they've held. His talk was very much in that vein, urging performers to form inflections of style based on thorough study of the expression marks in the score (which he says most ignore in favor of plodding through without inflection) and through development of taste (a term used by many writers of the time to define good performance and composition) to determine subjectively how the score should best be expressed in the playing. For instance, he said nobody plays the quiet phrases in the opening bars of Beethoven's Op. 90 slower than the loud ones, when he considered it obvious they should be. He didn't say why, in that case, Beethoven didn't add a ritard marking as he did a few bars later, but I'm sure if asked he would have responded that it was too obvious to need specification for anyone with taste.

Then down to the city library for a panel session on the future of libraries, by which they meant mostly public libraries. Being functionally retired, I don't hear much about that any more. Two library consultants and one search expert from Google gave presentations and then the two who were physically present (one of the consultants is away on business and gave a prerecorded talk) answered questions from a journalist and from the audience.

I detected a tension both between the speakers and within their talks, between seeing libraries as incorporating new technologies into their established general mission and changing the fundamental purpose and nature of libraries. The established mission includes providing information and training users in evaluating it - much talk on how this can be done with uncurated web material. The change in mission turns libraries from places where individuals access material into community gathering centers, and from sources of material into forums for patrons to create their own. While one speaker argued that "community gathering center" has always been one function of libraries (meeting room rental, storytelling sessions), the latter is a more general educative function and not one that exploits what libraries specifically do, and the trend away from the older functions struck me as throwing babies out with the bathwater, something I've already noticed with changes in the search capacity of online catalogs (my own specialty). That libraries as we know them are unlikely to disappear in the next 20 years - the Google expert's conclusion - was the most comforting thought.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

movie not finished

Cutter's Way (1981). Recommended to me as an investigation thriller. Sluggish. Crippled veteran who thinks this excuses his stupendous obnoxiousness* (John Heard) and his best pal, a slacker who frequently and inexplicably takes off his shirt (Jeff Bridges; in a later era this part would have been played by Keanu Reeves) make vague desultory attempts to discuss a crime Bridges witnessed, but by halfway through the movie they still haven't done anything about it, even though they know who the culprit is, so there isn't even anything to investigate. Two women (Lisa Eichhorn, Ann Dusenberry) stand around and don't do much either.

*How obnoxious is he? He's introduced in a scene in which he calls a black man the N-word, excusing himself on the grounds that he can't keep track of the preferred term. I should have stopped watching right then.

Monday, October 9, 2017

English suites no. 6

Here's another charmer by Hubert Parry, Lady Radnor's Suite. Helen, Countess of Radnor, was an enthusiastic amateur musician who conducted the first performance of this suite with her all-female string orchestra at a charity concert in 1894 (not 1902, an oft-cited date which is when it was published).

It's a precursor to the neo-Baroque music which became so popular in the 1910s and 1920s. The movements all have Baroque-evocative titles. The contents are Prelude (0:00), Allemande (2:40), Sarabande (5:06), Bourrée (8:10), Slow Minuet (11:18), and Gigue (13:37).

bad news

Several large wildfires broke out, apparently last night, in the Santa Rosa and Napa areas. Not having checked the news, I heard about it from B., who could smell the smoke at her workplace, some 70 miles away.

Yikes. We get wildfires in the deep forest in Northern Cal, but these are LA-style fires of a kind previously essentially unknown here, where it breaks out in the rural hills just above town and then moves in on inhabited areas. (The 1991 Oakland fire, which was also a mid-October fire driven by dry winds, was not quite in that category.)

Here's the best maps I could get. That's the first thing I look for, to learn exactly where the fires are and thus who might be in danger. There's one relatively small one in the hills west of Napa, a few miles west of the home of B's sister G, but I'm more worried about the one reported to be in Glen Ellen. Has anyone heard from Alan and Jeanne? The map shows the fire closer to Kenwood to the north and east, and they live on the SW side of Glen Ellen, but there's no indication of how big it is and close is not comfort.

Even more shocking is the huge one on the north side of Santa Rosa, which has moved in on a fully if not tightly settled area of homes, businesses, hotels ... all of which have gone ... hospitals (evacuated). I was just up in Santa Rosa last week. The hall I attended a concert in is not in the evacuation area, but the nearby grocery where I grabbed lunch first is ... and so is the Charles M. Schulz Museum and its next-door Snoopy's skating rink ... and the evacuation boundary has expanded on that side since I first checked it earlier this morning. Evacuation areas are much bigger than fires, as I learned from Oakland, but there are places I drove through last week that have definitely been hit.

In news disturbing in a different way, there's Harvey Weinstein's excuse for his obnoxious behavior. He says he “came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.”

What kind of excuse is that? Harvey was born in 1952. He was still only 10 years old when Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was published, and 19 when Ms. first hit the stands, well back in his formative years. There was plenty of feminism in the air already. I know enough men his age who picked up on it. And he was a secular Jew from Queens, a cosmopolitan man. There's still lots of sexism around and probably always will be, but something so noxious as the retro-Hollywood "casting couch" line, in which career advancement is a quid pro quo for sexual favors, is so egregious by this point in history that no appeal to the ways of olden culture can explain it, let alone excuse.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

classical rumble

Here's a couple of articles about classical music that I take some dispute with.

First, Anne Midgette on classical music in the movies. My points here are relatively minor:

1) to note that her painfully-enunciated distinction between music "as a regular soundtrack" and music "as a plot point" is a standard concept in film criticism, and is described as non-diegetic vs. diegetic;

2) to express surprise that she considers it noteworthy when bad characters in Apocalypse Now and The Silence of the Lambs are shown as loving classical music, thus "subvert[ing its] wonted role as signifier of the good"; per contra, love of classical music has long signified villainy in the movies, from Alex the Beethoven buff in A Clockwork Orange (a movie which Midgette mentions) down to the stereotyped mad scientist who passes the time playing Bach's Toccata in D Minor on his haunted castle's handy organ;

3) a matter of taste concerning the use of diegetic music in the movie Margaret. Midgette accuses writer/director Kenneth Lonergan of essentially outsourcing the trigger of the viewer's emotional response to two scenes where the characters go to the opera. I see what she means by that; but I found the scenes effective, as unlike her I found the music, even though one of the pieces was merely Offenbach's "Barcarolle", capable of carrying the emotional weight it was handed. Since Midgette's criticism includes terms like "trite" and "a hundred times," maybe the movie was more effective for me because I don't attend the opera as much: a great performance is a special occasion for me.

Then there's this piece on the history of performance practice. It was actually written over four years ago, but I only found it recently. Though the author, Gerald Elias, is a professional orchestral violinist, the history in it is irritatingly inaccurate.

First off, I'd like to know who are these advocates for "Historically Informed Performance" who insist on using no vibrato whatever. Nobody I know in the field eschews it entirely; they use much less of it than modern performers do, but it is employed as an ornament. In arguing for its presence historically, Elias is defeating a straw man.

Then he mocks the term, H.I.P. You can't win; the term was adopted as a more modest substitute for the earlier term of "authentic performance," the arrogance of which tended to irritate people. Elias says that all professional musicians are historically informed, but they're not: not in the sense that H.I.P. means. They study the score, which is a historical document, yes; they may study the composer's life and the context in which the music was written. But the entire difference between H.I.P. and regular performance is whether you incorporate (our best surmises at) performance practices not in the score which are different than the normal ones of today. H.I.P. players do; others don't.

In order to push the case for the practices of Francesco Geminiani over those of Leopold Mozart, Elias derides Leopold as a country bumpkin who'd be forgotten were he not father to his famous son. That's historical malpractice. Leopold was a respected musician and composer, and his violin method was a major work of its kind. Had his son never existed, Leopold would be about as well-remembered today as Geminiani, and for the same reasons.

Despite Elias' claim that near-continual vibrato has been a regular historical practice, we know for a fact that it was not. While we only have documents for earlier periods, and most of them do request limited vibrato - Geminiani, who used it extensively, was considered an eccentric violinist in his day - we know for sure that string players trained in the mid to late 19C were very sparing in their vibrato. We know this because we have recordings of them made in the early 20C, and that's how they play. Listen to Joseph Joachim, considered the most intellectually sublime violinist of his day, playing Bach. By our standards it sounds pretty awful.*

And, contrary to those who'd like to claim excuses, that's not an artifact of the primitive recording, either. As far as we can tell from the recorded evidence, the modern vibrato-heavy style was introduced around the 1910s by Fritz Kreisler and Pablo Casals, and became standard practice over the next 20-30 years. Here's an early (1915) acoustic recording of Casals playing Bach, and despite the truly dreadful recording and playback quality, he sounds like a cellist of today.

*So why don't H.I.P. string players sound like that? From what I've heard at and deduced from conferences I've attended on the subject, they don't have the nerve. H.I.P. is always a compromise with the present, and not just consciously. Other things string players and singers of the past did that have since vanished are the use of portamento and expressive ritards. Today's musicians know they're supposed to do these things when performing historically, but they're so drilled in modern practice that they can't do it. I've heard them trying: they make some gestures, but they just can't entirely do it.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Krzysztof Urbański, a young guest artist who occasionally would stop doing anything recognizable as conducting and just dance in place on the podium, led a solid meaty program of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and Shostakovich's Tenth. The soloist was the equally young (early 30s) Augustin Hadelich, who belied his Stradivarius with a dry, unresonant tone. But his phrasing was urgently energetic and made for a brisk, winning performance.

Same could be said for Urbański, whose Shostakovich wasn't so much big or powerful as it was propelled, even in the quiet sections featuring lone wind instruments wandering around in the desert. No matter how low the stove was turned, the skillet was always simmering.

But there was one other piece on the program: Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima by Krzysztof Penderecki. Now that choice was interesting, and not just for the conductor's Polish boosterism. When I was first learning classical music in the early 70s, the Threnody, which was written in 1960 when the composer was 26, was considered the hottest and most significant thing in contemporary music. I have here, for instance, a Basic Record Library suggestion list put out by the Schwann catalog ca. 1970, and of the works or series of works marked with stars, meaning "we feel [they] are really basic," only two date entirely from after 1946, and one of them is Penderecki's Threnody.1 But I haven't heard much about it since then, which is even more striking considering that Penderecki, who is still alive, has remained one of Poland's leading composers - indeed, now that Lutosławski and Górecki are dead, indisputably its greatest living one. It's rather more avant-garde than his later work, and might be passed off as a youthful over-enthusiasm.

In truth, I'd hoped the Threnody had gone away for good. It's a work for string orchestra that consists of some nine minutes of the most painful possible dissonant held chords, interspersed with patches of chaotic noise. The juxtaposition of that music with the full title ("threnody" is Greek for "wailing ode") implies, as does John Corigliano's symphony in memory of AIDS victims, that since the victims of Hiroshima suffered, then by gum the listener is going to suffer too. And if that sounds offensively bathetic, the fault lies not with the commentator who points it out, but with the composer who invites the comparison in the first place.

At this point some smartass will undoubtably point out that Penderecki wrote the music first and came up with the title afterwards. But that's no defense. In that case, Penderecki was putting his listeners through this gauntlet not to honor the victims of Hiroshima but for no reason whatever.

Whatever its extramusical connotation, the fact is that listening to the Threnody, and other such works thrust at me by sources like the Basic Record Library, back in 1970, is what convinced me that the kind of contemporary music they were pushing was worthless crap, and set me off on my long quest to find better stuff, and I'm pleased to see that more recent music appreciation guides have also taken a more balanced approach.

With works like, for instance, Shostakovich's Tenth, a mere seven years older than the Threnody, but which is not named in the Basic Record Library.2 It's since risen to be considered the greatest of mid-20C symphonies, but it didn't stand out in 1970. But listen to it. It's got anguish, it's got despair, it's got tragedy; but it's also beautiful and meaningful, it speaks to rather than assaults the listener. The two goals are not antithetical, and this work proves it. If it took the threat of Soviet persecution to make Shostakovich write this way, that's merely ironic. He did turn out forelock-tugging junk, but he also wrote this. He understood that the job of art in the face of suffering is to be centripetal:3 to hold the world together rather than break it apart.

And that's why, some half a century later, Shostakovich's Tenth lives, while Penderecki's Threnody, which I'd never heard live before,4 has been reduced to a curtain-raiser for a Polish conductor who wants to wave the flag, and sounds even more ridiculous when immediately succeeded by the conventionally gentle strains of Mendelssohn.

1. The other is the series of Synchronisms by Mario Davidovsky, something else that's fallen off the cultural chatter list in the interim. The cross-threshold series are the songs of Poulenc and the symphonies of Shostakovich, of which the only post-1946 one specified is the 14th, then brand-new.
2. The Shostakovich symphonies are cited, but the 10th is not among the ones specified.
3. A useful word I got from Bernard Levin, who used it in a passionate article making this same point in 1983.
4. It's been played only once previously by SFS, by Ozawa in 1977, when absurdities like it were still fashionable. Ozawa once played George Crumb and literally got laughed at for his trouble.