Tuesday, August 14, 2018

concert review: Cabrillo Festival

Every few years, I'm sent over the hills to Santa Cruz to review a concert in the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. This year I got one with two composers I'd heard there before, John Corigliano and Anna Clyne, the latter of whom I'd actually first discovered at Cabrillo, five years ago to the day.

It's kind of tough to cram in five new works into a short space, but I found some recurrent themes, and the result is here. I'm not kidding when I speak of "the accomplishment and powerful assurance" in Clyne's music: the weight and force in the music was palpable from the start, even in the quiet first movement. So if you ever see any ads for her music with the blurb
One of the great composers of our time - San Francisco Classical Voice
you'll know where it comes from.

About the Corigliano work I felt a little unsure. It's an early work, sounding not at all like the later ones I'm more familiar with. I could tell what it sounded like to me, but I wanted to triangulate that against what he thought he was writing like. I was anticipating having to go to the library to find detailed discussion of his origins as a composer, but I didn't have to: I was able to buttonhole the man himself after the concert. After saying I liked his piece (which I did) and noting his change of style, I asked what were his inspirations and influences when he was starting out. He replied by naming Copland, Stravinsky, Bernstein. I said, "OK. I'm reviewing this concert, and was was thinking of saying the concerto had an American populist style with a harder edge, and it looks like I was on the right track." So that's what I wrote.

Stopped on the way down at the grocery in Boulder Creek that carries sour cream & chive Pasta Roni, a flavor I've never seen anywhere else. Once in Santa Cruz, had dinner around the corner at a Thai place whose lamb dish turned out to be mostly green beans with what tasted more like beef than lamb. Wasn't bad, though. Encounter on the way back with a maniac who didn't like me changing lanes to get to my exit. Sorry, fella, but there's only a limited amount of space in which I can get over, and I did have my turn signal on: what do you think it means?

Monday, August 13, 2018

queuing up

or "getting in line," the more usual expression over here.

Urgent need for DMV visit. Appointments not available for two months, and non-appointment lines infamously long. What to do?

On checking website for hours, find that, while most offices open at 8 AM, there's a few that open at 7. And one is down in the San Jose industrial warehouse district, between the zoo and the county fairgrounds.

So I go there and arrive at 6:15 AM. There are 14 people already lined up. This turns out to be not too many, though the line soon becomes much longer. I spend 45 minutes reading, and then am in and have completed my business by 7:35.

It's the recent move to TSA-compliant ID (which they call "Real ID" as if others weren't real) that's causing the backups. At the DMV, you visit first a front desk, which is where they give you the customer number that you then wait to be called for being helped at one of the windows where your business will really be done.

But just to get everything ready so you don't waste time at the windows, it's at the front desk that they go through and make sure you have all the documentation necessary, line it up, and put a paper clip around it. This, as you can imagine, takes time, and makes the front desk line build up dramatically.

While you were still in the outside line, clerks went down giving out copies of the list of acceptable documents. It looks like this (PDF). Many of the people around me look as if they've never seen it before. I have; I copied it from the web site. In fact everything they say is news to some people but I already had it from the web site. It's an informative website.

What I wasn't sure was whether some of my old original documents would satisfy the 21st century sense of security. My original birth certificate - this is the same negative photostat copy my parents were given when it was filed a month after I was born, and which they solemnly handed over to me at a tender age - states authoritatively, in the frame section around the photostat, that it is only certified if it has the official seal affixed. The official seal was affixed in the form of a rubber stamp with blue ink. That piece of 1950s security, relievingly, turns out to be good enough.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Henry Clay Work: a great American songwriter

While listening to a performance of Four Australian Folksongs yesterday, it seemed to me that one of the songs I didn't know, "Click Go the Shears," had a particularly catchy tune. On investigation, I found that that tune had been lifted directly from "Ring the Bell, Watchman," a Civil War-era song that was one of the lesser known hits of Henry Clay Work.

Work has somehow been forgotten while his similar contemporary, Stephen Foster, is remembered, and that's a shame, because Work was just as good a songwriter and has had a deeper cultural impact than is realized. He was born to an anti-slavery Connecticut family in 1832, while his namesake was running for President against Andrew Jackson (he lost). That made Work 6 years younger than Foster, and he lived 20 years longer, until 1884. I'm here today to pay tribute to him. Here's some of the best of Work's works, mostly as sung by performers of note:

Johnny Cash sings My Grandfather's Clock:

This is the one Work song that may be considered to have lasted the course in American popular culture, at least as far as my own childhood, when I was familiar with it, though not with the composer's name attached. Allan Sherman wrote a parody version.

Tennessee Ernie Ford sings Marching Through Georgia:

This Civil War boast ballad was Work's biggest hit during his own lifetime, to the extent that General Sherman grew sick of it, because it was played at every public appearance he made. The tune is incredibly catchy, and I'm stunned that I never heard it until, curious about frequent references to the song in books about the war, I looked it up.

Doc Watson sings The Ship That Never Returned:

Does this sound vaguely like "The Wreck of the Old 97" or even more vaguely like the Kingston Trio's "MTA"? It should. This is the original from which those more famous spinoffs were altered.

Ken Burns Civil War documentary soundtrack version of Kingdom Coming:

Yep, this piece of Burns background music is a Work song. You don't want to hear the lyrics to this one, because it's in "darkie" dialect. Stephen Foster did some of these too. Oh dear.

Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band sing Ring the Bell, Watchman

Or, since this grouping specializes in nonconformist hymn tunes, you might prefer a less dirge-like rendition, like this one:

This is the song whose tune (and some of the words, actually) were lifted for the Australian sheep-shearing ballad "Click Go the Shears," which you may hear sung by the Australian national child-molesting balladeer, Rolf Harris, here. Sorry, but it is the best version I found online.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

rather like a concert

Since B. has switched the bulk of her music-making from vocal to instrumental (violin and viola, mostly), she's been looking for others to make music with. For a while she considered founding the world's worst string quartet, but eventually she found an existing volunteer group that rejoices in the name of the Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra. There are no audition standards except enthusiasm, and no limitations on membership. At a given rehearsal there might be seven flutes and no oboes, or whatever. B. decided to play second violin, as there were enough violists and most of the other violinists want to be firsts, and immediately became a leading member of the section.

TACO, as it prefers to call itself, allows friends and family to attend rehearsals, but states frankly that it can't imagine why anyone would want to listen. It does, however, also play occasional concerts, and there was one yesterday eve in a pop-up park on a closed-off side street in downtown Los Altos. I drove us, because I knew how to find a very nearby parking place, even though the proper entrance to the parking plaza was from the closed-off street.

By far the best performance of the day was of a set of Four Australian Folk Songs, arranged by Stephen Chin. Though B. reported the accompaniment not very interesting to play, it was colorful and performed mostly on point, and the singer, a San Jose State student named Marisol De Anda, was entirely competent, although her soprano was more of an oratorio voice than a folk-song one.

Of course there's lots this orchestra would need to do if it wished to outgrow its name, but if there's one thing I'd ask the players to do that's within their capacity, it'd be to pay more attention to the conductor, and to the conductor, Cathy Humphers Smith, to be bolder and firmer in what you ask for. The echo effects as some players got a bar behind everyone else, the occasional complete breakdowns, the time the conductor forgot the last page of the piece and had to interrupt the MC and hop back on the podium to add it, and the really weird effect the time the conductor signaled a fermata and half the players just kept going, made for a memorable performance.

Some of the pieces were taken very slowly, like what I'd have to call Tchaikovsky's Adagio cantabile (I bet you thought that was Andante cantabile, but not this time) or the Funeral March of the Valkyries. But the finale of Dvorak's Symphony from the New World, though hacked to pieces by the arranger who cut it down to size, was played at full speed and developed real power. All the big final chords came together and right on cue. It became actually satisfying.

Friday, August 10, 2018

fireless

The wildfires in California have been getting much news coverage, and I fear we in for conflagrations like these on a regular basis from now on. But this particular batch are, so far, curiously unaffecting us. It's rather hazy out, and the mountains are reduced to distant shadows, but the amount of smoke arriving here is little, and, unlike many previous fires, these are not threatening the homes of anyone we know. The Mendocino fire has burned to the shoreline of the lake where I once went fishing for trout when I was a child living in the back country for a summer, but that's about it. The earlier fire that closed I-5 in Siskiyou County for a while alarmed me: what if we'd been trying to get home from Ashland at that time? It would have been a long drive around, but at least I'd have known where to go.

But aside from that, this could be a lot further away: still alarming, but not personally affecting. The people whose houses have burnt are certainly having a far harder time of it than my personal logistical troubles are giving me, but that's no comfort.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

getting scores

So I reported yesterday that San Jose State, which is my default academic library and the only one I have borrowing privileges at - owing to its joint venture with San Jose Public, which they have recently begun to dismantle and I fear for its long-term prospects - has decided to declare its entire musical score collection non-circulating.

This is a burden on me, because I often borrow scores for study prior to reviewing a complex or unfamiliar piece, and, if it's a pocket-sized score, taking it with me to the concert to follow along. I trust I don't have to explain how tremendously useful this can be for a reviewer or other student.

I mentioned this to several people I talked with at the Menlo festival, who shared my dismay. Why did they do this? I don't know and I'm not planning on finding out. Past attempts to talk to SJ library administration on other matters have been so frustrating and useless that I'm not tempted to try again. Also, at most I would satisfy casual curiosity for the reason (which is likely to be specious anyway and hence frustrating to learn), and it certainly wouldn't reverse the decision. Not if the college music department isn't up in arms about it.

One person suggested an alternative. San Francisco Public has lots of scores and is on the user-accessible inter-library loan system that San Jose Public is on. I could borrow from there.

True, but that requires time for the loan to arrive, which I don't always have after being assigned a review. Many's the time I've dashed down to the library for the score of a work I've just been assigned to review the next day.

Also, I found this. The inter-library loan search page does not allow searches to be limited by type of material. That means any search for a musical work will have the scores drowned by results for recordings.

The only thing I could think of to do is to go first to SFPL's own web catalog and find an item, copy down its exact title-page title, and search for that on the ILL page (which is where I'd have to go to get it by ILL). That produced fewer false drops on the test search I made, but I also found the SFPL's pocket score of this work is incorrectly called a set of parts (which I don't want), and is grouped with another library's holding, which might be the one I get if I make an ILL request.

At least for chamber music works, which tend to be few enough pages to copy, it's probably less trouble to do what I did for the pieces I needed for Menlo, which is to download the score from IMSLP (an excellent online score library) if it's available there, or scan a library copy - probably at Stanford, which has a bigger music library than SJSU and whose scanner is more likely to be operational, when they feel like letting non-affiliates use it - and then print out a photocopy. IMSLP's are full-sized, so I printed them out and then copied that copy at 2-page-to-1 reduced size to make a pocket score. What a nuisance, and it cost about $10 and took half an hour, but it's what I had to do.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

lost and found

One big event I mentioned to several people at Menlo to their shock, but haven't yet mentioned here, affected my reviewing. I'd gone to the San Jose State library to check out a bunch of scores I'd need for upcoming concerts, tough things like the Bartók Fifth Quartet and Verklärte Nacht, which I'd never attempt to review without a score in hand during the performance.

Only to find that the library had just declared their entire score collection non-circulating. Even the circulation counter folks had been taken unawares when that was announced.

This is a major hassle. I need those scores. I took the entire Bartók set with me to Banff, for instance. So now, unless I can get some of them by interlibrary loan - which requires advance notice I don't always have - I have to rely on scanning and photocopies, which take time. And really only work for chamber music, as orchestral scores are ridiculously large. I recently happily paged through the score of Elgar's Cello Concerto during a performance of that I was reviewing. Won't be able to do that any more.

(PDFs, you say? Not on, and not just because the print is too small. Not only do I currently not have a tablet - see "Atlanta, bag lost in" - but they glow in the dark, which is not on at a classical concert.)

Meantime I've replaced my computer keyboard. The ergonomic one I'd been using died, and my repair shop handed me the only wired keyboard they had handy, which was not ergo and had none of the special keys I like.

So I bought one. Online, because I doubt stores have much of a selection of wired keyboards any more. I'm still getting used to typing on it, but at least the space bar works consistently. And it has a number of those special keys that save a lot of trouble manipulating things on screen: keys for turning the speaker on and off and adjusting the volume, keys that bring up the calculator or your e-mail client (which is great, because mine frequently closes itself without my say-so), keys for going forward and backward on web searches. But there are a number of keys I can't figure out, and there's no manual. There's a key with a star on it. I'd have thought that meant "bookmark web page," but it doesn't do that. There's another, prominently placed between the left and right halves of the keyboard, that's in the form of a slider. I'd have thought that would scroll up and down, but it doesn't do that either.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Music at Menlo, week 3

The Menlo festival is over now, which is both sad because I got to hear a lot of good music, and a relief because it occupied most of my time for three weeks and I had to write six reviews.

Indeed, I probably couldn't have lost my pocket calendar (which went with my bag in the Atlanta airport) at a less disruptive time, since the Menlo calendar is so detailed I was keeping, as I usually do, a timeline in a printout from a computer file, so all I had to do was print out another copy when I got home, and then remember my very few non-Menlo appointments of the period, like the dentist.

As for six reviews, two of them came in the final week, of the Budapest concert and the Vienna one.

The Budapest one I approached with some trepidation. I wasn't that familiar with the music, as I mentioned last week, and I was a late substitute for a colleague who couldn't go. On top of which it was the third review I had to write within 7 days. I never intended to be so prolific when I took up reviewing, and I approached the concert with a sense of mental exhaustion, feeling my creative juices squeezed dry. I jotted down various hopelessly random phrases between movements, but somehow it turned into a review. I count it one of my better efforts at conveying the character of what I heard, especially in the Bartók. I only wish I'd had DGK there to hear it with me. He would have been as gobsmacked as I.

I got to just one of the three master classes held during the final week, but there was also a "Café Conversation" held in the same noon-hour time slot on Tuesday. This was an interview with the Calidore Quartet, who went on to play that Bartók that evening, conducted by festival co-director David Finckel. Finckel doesn't speak much at Menlo, for instance never giving the introduction that precedes each mainstage concert, but he was unstoppable here, talking more than all four quartet members combined, and interrupting the interview to give a spontaneous and lucid 15-minute lecture on the history of the string quartet. When the quartet did speak, they were lucid too. I've long been irked at the movie A Late Quartet, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a second violinist who's disgruntled because he can't explain what a second violinist does. Any real second violinist, I thought, wouldn't have any trouble with that question, and this one didn't. (He likes the variety of roles he plays in the music, and being part of the glue that holds the sound together.)

Other concerts I got to included the final blowout Prelude concerts by the International Program students - a delightful menu of the Franck Violin Sonata, Brahms' Piano Quartet No. 3, and the Schubert String Quintet - a Young Performers concert (the 10-to-18-year-olds) that featured two movements of an early and rather uncharacteristic Piano Quintet by Bartók, and an innovation at Menlo, what they're calling "Overture" concerts, collaborations between mainstage artists and International Program ones, who continually prove themselves ready for prime time. The Calidore players mixed it up with four of the I.P. folks in the Mendelssohn Octet, one of four or five 19C chamber music pieces I never miss any opportunity to hear.

Now I get to catch my breath a little before going down to Santa Cruz next weekend for the Cabrillo new music festival for my next assignment.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

making a better music list

So Terry Teachout, who likes to pull out links to his own older writings in his blog, tagged one I must have missed at the time, ten years ago: a list of classical pieces composed since 1950 that he "finds interesting."

I'm at least vaguely familiar with all the composers he names, though I don't know all the specific works, and some of those I do know I would not rate highly. But they're all at least interesting composers, and an enquirer who's not necessarily expecting more than "interesting" probably won't go wrong here.

Teachout's goal here, as explained in the column linked to (behind a paywall), is to respond to a complaint by Joe Queenan, who'd suffered through an opera by Harrison Birtwistle, that nothing popular has been written in classical music since Verklärte Nacht. Teachout demurs, and so do I (I don't even like Verklärte Nacht).

But I'm more intrigued by Teachout's style limitations. He doesn't like "crunch and thump" music, which is his description of Birtwistle. I yield to no-one in my distaste for the work of Birtwistle, but I don't find that a good description. Even less do I accept his complaint about "the over-and-over-and-over-again minimalism of John Adams and Philip Glass." Glass hasn't written like that since the 1970s, and Adams never did. Criticism of minimalism by painting crude and false caricatures of the music is a common phenomenon, but from me it only earns scorn.

But I think I can create a better list of newer music that's more than just interesting. Rules:
1. Beginning date of 1970, not 1950. Otherwise I'd fill it up already with 1950s symphonies.
2. No composers whom Teachout lists. It's already a handicap on me to eliminate Shostakovich, Bernstein, and Arnold.
3. If Teachout hates Glass and Adams so much, none of them either, though otherwise they'd both surely make my list. No Steve Reich or Terry Riley, the other canonical minimalists, either, though there will be some music here by other hands that's definitely minimalist.
4. Nothing that's just "interesting." It has to have delighted or amazed or moved me.
5. 12 pieces, not 10.
6. And Teachout didn't have any women. I have three. It would have been four if I could have found an online recording of Wintersong by Stefania de Kenessey, and it could have been more had I included more composers I know primarily from concert encounters.

Here they are, with links to YouTube recordings when I could find them. A couple of these pieces I have introduced you to before. I don't expect anyone to like all of these except me.

William Bolcom, Three Ghost Rags (1970)
Henryk Górecki, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1976)
Arvo Pärt, Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977)
Alfred Schnittke, Polyphonic Tango (1979)
Michael Nyman, Water Dances (1984)
Paul Schoenfeld, Café Music (1985)
Michael Torke, Ash (1989)
Arturo Márquez, Danzón No. 2 (1994)
Belinda Reynolds, Circa (1996)
Jennifer Higdon, Blue Cathedral (1999)
Osvaldo Golijov, Ayre (2004)
Caroline Shaw, Partita for 8 Voices (2012)

Saturday, August 4, 2018

midsummer night's play and other items

1. In a break from concert-going at Menlo, B. took me to see the SF Shakespeare Festival in Midsummer in the park in Cupertino. Excellent rendition. Dark-fay fairies. Enthusiastic comic turns by the lovers in the mixup scene. A Bottom who faintly carried the air of Robin Williams. A Hippolyta/Titania who somehow found dignity in both her roles. Best of all: Puck was double-cast as the sober Philostrate, Theseus' master of the revels. After escorting the mechanicals off at the end after their play, he shed his outer garments and turned back into Puck on stage for the epilogue. Magical.

2. Worldcon has posted its revised schedule. There are memorial sessions for Harlan Ellison, Gardner Dozois, and Karen K. Anderson, but not Ursula K. Le Guin. Interesting. Did not enough people there know her personally? There's also a panel called "Fantasy canon from the margins." When the schedule first went up, this was "Tolkein from the margins." Ah, yes, Tolkein: that oft-cited but non-existent author.

3. Warning: very long and very grim. But at the end, this article on how both scientists and politicians tried to address global warming back in the 1980s, when it was still possible to head it off, explains why it failed. The person who torpedoed the efforts and will consequently be responsible for the death of our ecosystem is: John Sununu. A credentialed mechanical engineer who was sure he knew more of how the machine of our planet worked than those fancy-pants scientists did.

4. Less apocalyptic warning: Goat alert, or what about the goats rampaging through Boise and why the professionals don't do it that way.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Music at Menlo, week 2

During roughly the second week of the Menlo festival, I reviewed two more concerts: the "Leipzig" concert, which I found relatively easy to do - mostly familiar music, and pretty straightforward - and a viola recital, which was a bit more challenging, involving as it did close consideration of an instrument I couldn't even begin to play in some pretty abstruse repertoire. I wound up treating the violist's playing entirely separately from describing the works played, and in the process of drafting cut a lot of explanatory sentences about the playing which might have been useful to less knowledgeable readers, but which I thought looked too naive and elementary in context. At one point I added and then immediately cut a sentence explaining that I was not a viola player.

I've also been to a couple of prelude concerts, a couple of master classes, one of the student marathon concerts (at which a crisp version of the first movement of Dvorak's "American" Quartet was the highlight), and the last one of the year of what Menlo calls its Encounter sessions. These are lectures, usually by visiting experts, on topics related to the theme of the annual festival. They're ticketed and fairly expensive, and since I'm not reviewing them directly, and thus don't feel eligible for a comp ticket, I rarely go.

But I was added as a late substitute reviewer for the third week's Budapest concert, in place of my fellow reviewer who's actually Hungarian but can't make it, and I know little about Budapest, so I hoped the Encounter on Budapest and Vienna (which I'm also reviewing) would be enlightening.

It wasn't. The touted expert turned out to be an expert on prehistoric archaeology, and while he was very interesting on what we know of the cultural life of the Stone Age Danubian peoples, once we jumped to the 18th century his knowledge was much thinner and no more than mine, in truth. He also said a few things I wished to query factually, but my attempt to wait to catch his attention after the talk was pre-empted by the arrival of the festival directors, who wished to whisk him away for a late dinner, so I missed my chance.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Mythcon in Atlanta: programming

So yes, I was going to get to this.

The theme was "On the Shoulders of Giants," how work has been built on the foundations of our predecessors. Both our Guests of Honor gave their plenary talks on this theme. Robin Anne Reid, the scholar who is one of the contributors to my "Year's Work in Tolkien Studies" consortium and who penned a useful Year's Work-like historical survey for the Mythsoc Press's recent collection of essays on Tolkien and women (including his female characters), talked about scholarship in the context of one's predecessors. Donato Giancola, who's painted a number of covers for recent Tolkien book editions, gave a slide talk illustrating his development as an artist in the context of the artists he most admires. While I don't much personally care for Giancola's "muscular realism" style, it's an honorable tradition in Western art history and he carries it on worthily.

My own talk, more than an academic paper, and which I delivered entirely off the cuff due to the disappearance of all my notes (see previous entry), was on the development of the "Year's Work": what goals I'm trying to accomplish by doing it and how both the individual entries and the complete annual report are put together. All that was missing was some of the more pungent entries I was planning to quote.

Other papers I attended discussed:

The moral dynamics of Frodo's journey to Mordor, with the vital roles of Sam and Gollum;

The sense of fate, that's both in a sense foredoomed and something you have to work to achieve (or avoid), that Tolkien got from Beowulf;

Frodo as a Faustus character, an interesting and unprecedented comparison from a high-school student who happened to be reading both works at once;

A stout recovery of Edith Tolkien, JRR's wife, from the calumnies the presenter perceived that biography Humphrey Carpenter poured on her;

How Tolkien may have (might have?) used the theme of music in his works to reflect his own relationship with his mother;

A close biographical and personality analysis of Sam Gamgee as a person in Tolkien's fiction;

A comparison of how C.S. Lewis and H.P. Lovecraft reacted to World War I;

An analysis of characters in Orphan Black as Parsifal figures (OK, that may sound like stretching it, but the argument was coherent);

A moderated group discussion session on thoughtful quotes from the essays of Ursula K. Le Guin;

A talk describing Mythlore's new online archives, by the editor and the archivist;

A description by its creator of a cross-edition Lord of the Rings citation system, which would be more useful if it included more editions and (if copyright allowed) more pull quotes (he actually wants us to adopt his system of numbering all the book's paragraphs - I don't think so); and his also not-very-complete index to Tolkien's published art.

Mythopoeic Awards: neither winner of the Scholarship Awards got my first-place votes, but both I consider worthy books. On the other hand, I know at least two members of the Fantasy Awards committee who disliked the Adult winner so much they refused to give it any points at all.

My personal choice for the winner of the most ingenious food sculpture at the banquet is the same young man who gave the paper on Faustus, who arranged some bits of pork loin on a plate in the shape of a large letter "S", explaining that it was the Worm Ouroboros: a worm, or a boar "S".

Thursday, July 26, 2018

This must be Thursday. I never could get the hang of Thursdays.

Last Thursday was the most personally distressing day I've had in a while; and if the succeeding days have also been bad, it's because of that Thursday. And the full story is here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Mythcon in Atlanta

The Mythopoeic Conference was at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Atlanta this year, and therein marks a landmark: not merely only the second time it's been in the South (Nashville, 2003). Traditionally on college campuses or in conference centers - and still was last year - in recent years Mythcon has been moving more to hotels. But this was the first time that hotel was central city, and therein marks a significant shift in functioning.

The group cafeteria meals at traditional campus Mythcons are the making of its social cohesion. You get your food from the counter and can sit down at a table with anyone, newcomers and old-timers alike. We meet each other and can discuss programming and other events.

While at hotel-oriented SF cons, while it's possible for a newcomer who knows no-one to hook on to a dinner expedition, it's not that common or easy. It requires both boldness and luck to find one.

Consequently, at previous hotel Mythcons, which have mostly been out in the suburbs where a car is necessary for much of a choice of restaurants, we've had the hotel cater all our meals. But this is much more expensive at a hotel than on a campus, and adds logistical hurdles not a concern at campuses which were going to serve cafeteria meals already.

This year we had just two catered meals in the hotel's ballroom (obscurely located downstairs from the lobby: the meeting rooms where we held programming were easily findable on the 3d floor), bumped up from one (the Sunday banquet) when we found we weren't meeting their catered minimum. The hotel had a restaurant, which so far as I know nobody used (its menu didn't appeal to me), so all our other meals had to be out.

The committee did several intelligent things to mitigate the disruptiveness of this to the Mythcon atmosphere, although several of those things could have been executed better:

1. Downtown locale. Lots of restaurants in easy walking distance, at least a dozen within 2 blocks. However, only 7 of them plus a mall food court, not all of them that close, made it into the list buried inside the program book. This should have been much more extensive.

2. Full two-hour break from programming for lunch (and no formal programming at all on the unplanned dinner night). I was hoping they'd know you can't gather and execute a convention meal expedition in less time than that, and they did.

3. Reservation for Saturday lunch at the Irish pub across the street. We had their back room, so it was easy to chat freely across the table. On Saturday we packed at least 35 people in that room. And not only was the food as good as at any other restaurant I ate at in Atlanta, but the service was awesomely efficient. Drinks, food, and bills all handled at top speed with absolutely no errors in who got what or standing around asking, "Who had the fish?" About a dozen of us went back the next day (the program listing said we had a reservation then too, but the pub didn't know it: this didn't prevent them from giving us the same room or sending latecomers trickling in to find us).

It was a brilliant success; the only problem was that only by carefully reading the restaurant listings buried in the program book could one learn about the reservation. It only got mentioned at a plenary session because I asked about it from the audience.

4. The "buddy system", an innovation whereby old-timers and newcomers could sign up to give the latter ready-made acquaintances to talk with and show them around. B. and I signed up, had a pleasant conversation with our "buddy" (a college student giving an excellent paper on Beowulf) and coaxed her along to the big Saturday lunch. After that we didn't see her much; I trust that she made enough other friends. The problem with this system is that, though the committee had been considering it for some time, it was only announced at the last minute. I have no idea how much it was actually used.

It seemed to me, as an old-time Mythcon programmer, that all these were good ideas. But we heard at the members' meeting from people who still found themselves isolated, friendless and without meal expeditions. So it didn't work perfectly, and I think lack of publicity and explanation was the cause of the problem. On the other hand, I've met people who attended campus Mythcons and didn't feel part of the community either, so the problem may not be completely solvable.

Oddest was the case of the two finalists for the Mythopoeic Awards who were at our table at the banquet, with no indication from the committee to the general membership that they were there. There might have been more finalists at other tables, and I'd have no idea of it, as none of the actual winners were present. It was astonishing to me that they'd come and the con would have no programming with them. But while Mythcon programming is mostly academic papers, there's usually some discussion panels and readings, and there were none this year. Available space and time-slots were tight, but it would have been easy enough to squeeze more events in.

I learned from one of the finalists that she'd actually been offered a comp membership. This hadn't been done for finalists when I was running Mythcon: we told them about the con and said they'd be welcome, but we strictly limit comps and didn't offer them any. I think changing that policy could be a good idea, but only if you then put them on programming. The final ballot comes out 3 months before Mythcon, and you then have to hear back from the ones who are coming, but that still leaves time to fit them into the program. As programmer on any Mythcon I've run, I would have signed both of these two up in a flash.

As it was, this finalist told me she had heard nothing back from the committee, had no idea what to do at the con (though she'd been to Mythcons before) and spent most of the time in her hotel room. I think that's sad, and while one could be a little more proactive in wandering downstairs and seeing what's going on (and I know she found the hospitality suite the previous evening), they shouldn't be entirely dependent on having to do that.

Mythcon committees are small and sketchy and overworked and, of course, all volunteer, and things get missed, but this is how we learn to do better. In both cases, not grasping what it is that people don't already know may be the insidious culprit.

As for programming events, and the searing (non-con-related) experience that made this Mythcon regrettably memorable for me, those'll come in later posts. See you on the flip side.

Monday, July 23, 2018

concert reviews: Music @ Menlo

I'm just back from Mythcon in Atlanta, and while it's too early (or too late, in the evening that is) to report on the conference, at least I can tell you what I was doing much of the previous week, which was attending the first week of the annual Menlo chamber music festival, and reviewing same.

Reviews of the week covered the first two of the festival's seven keynote concerts inspired by the output from various notable European cities: London for the Daily Journal and Paris for SFCV.

The original set of press photos for the London concert included one of facially expressive violinist Angelo Xiang Yu in mid-grimace. It was a great photo, but the authorities must have decided it was too grim, so they deleted it before I could pass it on to my editors.

The allusion to Paris being a hard sell is no exaggeration either. I was surprised at the number of people otherwise available who declined my offer of my companion ticket to this concert because they just didn't find the repertoire appealing.

At least ... well, let's save that up too.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Tolkien exhibit

The Bodleian Library's Tolkien exhibit, which I got to at its opening at the beginning of June, runs through October 28, and I hope many will be able to attend.

What I hadn't seen until now is the exhibit's promotional video.


This is good, featuring several intelligent experts, although I question one sequence with the people from the local Tolkien society: I don't know the source for claiming that Tolkien and Lewis would commune at Merton's stone table (which they could only have done long after their most productive collaborating years), still less that it's the inspiration for the one in Narnia, to which it bears no resemblance other than being stone and a table. (And as for reading aloud in the Black Speech to honor Tolkien, that's just inconsiderate.)

But the other news is that the Morgan Library in New York has now officially announced that the exhibit is coming there next year, January 25-May 12. Although a few pieces that the Bodleian only borrowed from other Oxford institutions aren't coming along, it should still be a grand exhibit when transplanted, and I'm thinking of going again.

Friday, July 13, 2018

orphaned in black

B. rented the fifth and final (I hope) series of Orphan Black, and I've been sort of playing catch-up given that only sometimes am I home when she's watching an episode, and I can't always figure out time to watch one when I am.

Anyway, I think I caught them all, in some order, and the first thing that occurs to me is that I don't think of a show like this as having "episodes" at all, just hour-long chunks of a continuing storyline without much to differentiate them except which pieces of plot occur when. With half a dozen major characters, each usually in different places doing different things, all being followed at once, no episode has a distinct individual plot, and nothing ever ends. This makes it hard to nominate or vote for episodes of shows like this for the Hugo, and with their dominance I'd favor just eliminating the rule that divides them up for voting.

Yet, I find on dipping into the extra features (which thankfully do not consist of unnecessary promos for the show - you've just watched the DVD of the whole thing, what would you need that for? - but interviews with the cast and crew, but my do they blither on), that the writers and directors do think of each episode as a distinct entity with an individual character and style, as in a traditional show. That surprises me.

Having given up any hope of believable plot or character motivation by the end of the second season, by this point I'm just watching it to get to the end of the story, which at least it does, and to admire the acting, which despite everything remains good. But in the meantime we're treated to endless scenes of characters being abruptly bumped off, other characters whom you thought had been bumped off coming back to life, then getting bumped off again, and far too much of characters being told to sit tight and not do anything while we wait for the rest of the plot to catch up. In particular, it's been clear since near the start that Alison, though a great character, is absolutely useless for the main storyline, and is good for nothing except to sit around fretting with an occasional irrelevant domestic drama to distract her. Sarah is mostly shunted off to a corner to suffer physically,* and Felix, once the bulwark of the show's emotional support, is now used only to schlep little pieces of the plot around. I will give them credit, however, for having hit on, in Rachel, the rare knack for creating a character who's simultaneously sympathetic and a nasty villain.

*She goes through hell to rescue Cosima, who, when she finally finds her, says basically, "I'm good." Then she goes through hell to save Kira from Rachel, until Kira changes her mind. Then Rachel changes her mind.

Usually a show's cast and crew hold a party to honor the ending of the show's run. In this case, the characters hold the party, probably because this way, multiple Tatiana Maslanys can show up. During it, Helena (probably the most interesting character overall, and I've already heard one good Mythcon paper about her) says that she's going to write up their story - presumably as the show we've been watching five seasons of - and she's going to call it "Orphan Black." And everybody says that's a good idea, but why black, anyway?

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

concert review: Bridge Piano Quartet

Yikes, did this ever turn out to be a challenging review to write.

First, it featured a work to which the music was virtually inconsequential, and was all about the texts the narrator was reading. So I had to focus on that, which is not what I was expecting of a concert review. (When I covered the discussion panel on anti-Semitism in Bach, I at least was clear on what I was getting before I started.)

That the topic was early 20C Asian immigrants and their travails with bureaucracy in trying to get into the US immediately suggests contemporary parallels, and the connection was drawn in the pre-work talks. So I alluded to that, but without making explicit my own opinion. Nobody on stage would have disagreed if I had been explicit, but I dislike it when reviewers throw in personal political views that aren't germane to the concert, even (maybe most so) when I agree with them. For instance in this week's issue, here. It doesn't add anything to the review and is either obvious or annoying. There are other forums for that.

Second, the acoustics. It was pretty awful for the narration, which knowing the hall I could have predicted beforehand, not that the narrator had a good voice for such work, a fact I tried to elide over - I don't want to insult her. But I had to be blunt about the basic problem. I did not have room to mention that the concert had been played at Old First Church in the City last week, and it probably came off a lot better there.

I had a fairly lengthy chat with the composer afterwards, not discussing the acoustic problems, but asking him musical questions as I was anticipating saying more about the work musically than I eventually decided to do.

I also learned of the origin of his interest in things Asian. Not only has he worked with both Japanese and Chinese musicians, but his bio says he speaks Japanese fluently, and he's learning Chinese (says Wernher von Braun). He told me his interest in Japan had been sparked when he was sent there on his Mormon missionary tour.

Now that's interesting, because he can thus be added to several people I know of Western origin, with no previous personal connection with Japan, who have fallen intensely in love with the country and its culture. I suppose this dates back to the fad for things Japanese that swept Britain at the time of the Knightsbridge exhibition in the 1880s, but the intensity of it in the cases I know, though focusing on different forms - anime in one case, literature in another, J-pop in a third - is striking.

It's also baffling to me, because I have no particular interest in things Japanese (apart from their composition of Western classical music, in which they are supreme among all non-Western countries), and insofar as I have a cultural learning in the East Asian world, it's decidedly towards things Chinese instead. I prefer Chinese painting, folk music, literature (insofar as I've read any from either culture), and above all food. Of course, I also have one friend so interested in China that she visits it frequently, and I wouldn't go that far either. Well, everybody has their passions, and I'm just curious about the choice.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

on the day

With a little bit of help - for none of the non-library-worker volunteers came back this week, though a few had trailed on to the end of the previous week, beyond the dates we'd originally scheduled them for - the library barcoding project is pretty much done. Some of the more obsolescent media material still needs to be done, and the cleanup ahead of me is immense, and will take at least the whole of next week, but at least we can return the library to normal circulation operations.

Another piece of news I'd passed by that went into effect that previous week is that we have a new cat sitter. What generated this was Pippin being moved for medical reasons onto canned wet food. We've always fed the cats twice a day, but when we were gone we'd have the cat sitter put two meals' worth of kibble out once a day and hope the cats would pace themselves (because they weren't getting any more until tomorrow), but that won't work for the wet food, which once opened won't keep without refrigeration, and also because Maia craves the stuff though it's not hers and she only diminishes Pippin's portions.

But the cat sitter we already had couldn't come twice a day because the traffic around here is too thick. So at her recommendation we bought an automated cat feeder with ice packs. But then last month, on our first trip since then that required the sitter to refill the feeder, she didn't understand how it worked, despite my having devoted considerable time to writing out detailed instructions and then rewriting them when she didn't understand the first batch. Fortunately she brought in a ringer to take the other daily visit and not leave the cats in the lurch, but this isn't a permanent solution.

So B. put out a call on a neighborhood list and we found a professional sitter who's more local and can visit twice a day with no problem. She came over, chatted a lot (cat people love to talk), actually saw both cats (which I wasn't expecting: they're shy), filled out paperwork and took the key, and we await her maiden working visit.

So the cats don't have anything to worry about. I do. So here's the question. Which induces more existential dread, the wave of record-breaking temperatures or the retirement of Justice Kennedy?

Thursday, July 5, 2018

day out

That it was a holiday was not a big concern of mine. I went in to work in the morning anyway, because the project still needs to get done.

And I didn't need to leave until at least noon for the annual backyard grilling, noshing, and schmoozing party of my (non-Jewish, despite those adjectives: some activities are universal) friends whose anniversary this is.

Traded Shakespeare festival information with one of my more Shakespearean friends, and told stories of the Oxford and Montana trips. Learned why neither daughter of the house was present: elder daughter (who teaches at the University of Michigan) is at a scientific conference in Budapest, of all places, while younger daughter (who lives here) went to Detroit to meet her sister on the way out to pick up her car, which she's buying, and is now driving it all the way back to California. Having once made precisely that drive myself (carting my late grandfather's belongings), I was nostalgic.

Tried a couple of experiments with the grill. I've grilled sausages before, but not English bangers, which I usually cut up and pan-fry. They came out well grilled, but the shrimp skewers did not. I'm not sure why. Shrimp normally cooks fast, but these did not, and came out chewy. Saved most of them for my next batch of jambalaya.

Saw a few fireworks on the way home, fewer than usual, but then I left earlier than usual. After I got home, heard a few explosions, or they could have been gunshots for all I knew, but I trust they were fireworks or -crackers. That was about the extent of festivities.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Harlan Ellison sayeth

This is not the sort of quote I'd have expected from such a source, but I'll take what I can get, as a quick memorial for a complicated and problematic man:

"Kittens only have two purposes in life. One is to make everything that's moving stop, and the other is to make everything that's stopped, move."
- Harlan Ellison

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

multi-day

A lot of things have been going on. I'm still spending most of my days over at my congregational library, trying to organize, supervise, and put my own hand in to our barcoding project. Despite the decline in volunteers (we originally only recruited them for a few days at the start of the project), it's plugging along and I'm determined to get all the circulating books barcoded by the end of this, the second week of work. Then we can reopen the library to circulation, from which it's been effectively closed. Then another week should take care of the reference books and the obsolete media, and then the project will be over but I get to plunge into the online cleanup, which I may attempt to describe when it happens.

It's interesting being in charge of this project. I've worked on large organizing projects in professional libraries where I've worked (including being on the teams reshelving all the books that fell over during major earthquakes), but this one I had to plan and organize myself. Fortunately I've been observing long enough that I knew what to do. It's turned out pretty well, and the inevitable glitches haven't been paralyzing.

Meantime I also have reviews to write. Feeling guilty about having missed the Redwood Symphony's last regular concert of the season because I was in England, I decided to attend their annual outdoor pops gathering. There wasn't a lot to say about it, and I had to finish it off in a blazing hurry, but that got done. The Daily Journal likes me to end reviews with alerts for upcoming concerts. It was easy enough to cut-and-paste a little about Redwood's next pop concert from the press release they sent me without any prompting from me, but the beginning of next season? At the concert they said a brochure was available, but I forgot to pick one up, and the info wasn't on their website; in fact, two weeks later, it still isn't. I had to find out what they're playing, and when, from the website of a ticket broker service.

Then I got to the Silicon Valley Music Festival, which was just crammed full of weird stuff, which with considerable handling I managed to get into a review. When I called one piece "reassuringly postmodernist," I meant it: after all this strange and exotic music, it relaxed my listening tension to find something in an idiom I comfortably understood.

The Redwood concert was on the same day as the Solstice Party, a major event on my social group's annual calendar. I thought I might get over to the party first before the concert, but I was just too busy and it didn't work. I did, however, drop by the still flickering party after the concert, where quiet conversation included my insistence, in response to a question, that no, I'm not attending the SF Opera Ring cycle. I've heard all these operas on recordings, and I am not sitting through any more of them on stage.

One day while I was at the SVMF, B. was off at an evening (fortunately, as the daytimes are too hot for this) march and rally to protest family separation and the administration's other inhumane refugee policies. I'm pleased we got represented, at least. B. carried a sign reading "Brown Families Matter," which I thought was cleverer than any of the signs I saw reproduced in photo reports of the rallies.

Friday, June 29, 2018

concert review: Visual Piano

There's a lot of small and obscure performing arts venues in San Francisco, and last night I was at one of the smaller and obscurer, the Center for New Music, carved out of a bit of a warehouse in the Tenderloin, for a program called Visual Piano.

Two performers from Italy were featured on this program. Francesco Di Fiore played the piano nearly unceasingly, and with unflagging high energy, for forty minutes, while Valeria Di Matteo stood over in a corner manipulating her laptop to show films on a large screen.

The music consisted of a dozen short pieces, succeeding each other with no formal breaks, by five contemporary composers of three nationalities: two Italian (Di Fiore himself and Matteo Sommacal), two American (William Susman and Olivia Kieffer), and one Dutch (Douwe Eisenga). Despite their varied origins, and definite individual distinctiveness, their music was all of basically the same kind.

As for what kind that was, one other concertgoer I talked with described one piece as a combination of Ginastera, Prokofiev, and Bartok. This determined attempt to graft the evening's music onto a respectable high modernist (if presumably primitivist) pedigree was a valiant try at selling it by a now old-fashioned set of standards, but allow me to suggest that the comparison was specious.

This music was post-minimalist. It consisted almost exclusively of repeated arpeggiated phrases over oscillating accompaniment, which is the basis of process minimalism; and what made it post- was, it achieved variety not through cell-shifting or additive processes, but by assortments of speeds, timbres, and energy levels. Nor, except occasionally, did it cease abruptly. The other most obvious influence was smooth jazz of the Windham Hill school, which contributed not just phrasing and sound quality but also, it seemed to me, much of the individual pieces' structure.

That there are so many composers willing to write, not just tonal and pleasing, yet distinctively 21st-century (nothing like this existed before about 30 years ago), music, but nearly identikit cadre music the way that the modernist hordes used to write identikit serialist music is astonishing to me, but not entirely unwelcome. I liked all of this music and would happily give all the composers the time of day, but its tight similarity of style was a little disconcerting. I did say the composers had some individual character, but Susman - the only one I'd ever heard before - differs from all of the rest far more than any of them differ from each other, and sounds like a dissonant modernist in this context, which is actually a pretty hilarious observation.

The visuals were short films tied to each individual piece. Some of them were Reggio-like divided-screen stuttering close-ups of the inside of a piano or of feet on an escalator or the like, but my favorites consisted of grease-pencil shore-scape drawings with tiny bits of quiet animation - seagulls (depicted as wavy line fragments) or a motorboat going by, trees waving in the wind, etc. - salted in.

That was half the program; the other consisted of 25 minutes of more music of the same kind by Di Fiore, played by the piano duet Zofo or by half of Zofo plus a soprano sax, a variety small enough to look silly, though it sounded good. Tiny instrument, tiny program, tiny pieces, tiny venue, tiny audience, but a big enough reward to be worth the trip up to the City for it.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

news

1. It isn't often, these days, that I'm working in an office all day every day, but that's what I've been doing this week as my congregational library undertakes its inventory and barcoding project, of which I am in charge, giving instructions and advice to as many as a dozen volunteers at once, plus answering questions and resolving snags. It will probably take most of next week too, and then there's some equally consequential followup to undertake. Thus recent bouts of radio silence.

2. Justice Kennedy is retiring, thus providing another opportunity to prove that the US Supreme Court is nothing but a turf war. That he chose this time to retire speaks volumes, as do some of his recent opinions. Tonight I had dinner in a mall food court, and found myself sitting within earshot of a woman trying futilely to explain to her male companion that it's inconsistent for the Court simultaneously to prohibit states from requiring anti-abortion outfits from revealing that they're not medical clinics (on the grounds that free speech means you can't make someone say something) while allowing states to require doctors to read medically nonsensical anti-abortion statements to their relevant patients. That the man was so soft-spoken I couldn't hear his replies is the main reason I was able to resist the impulse to join in and back the woman up.

3. Harlan Ellison has died. (Perhaps reading the recent teeth-grating biography of himself was enough to kill him.) Truly, though, one thought he would live forever, because in a sense he has. He maintained the status of enfant terrible to a greater age than anyone else in human history. And at times he wrote some searingly memorable stories. ("I have no mouth. And I must scream.") So now what happens to The Last Dangerous Visions?

4. Milo Y., up until recently a conservative darling, told people he'd like to see some journalists shot up, and now someone has. I await the declarations as to why there's nothing wrong with Milo's statement, coming from the same people who insist that social shunning of Trump administration officials for their immoral policies is going too far.

Monday, June 25, 2018

concert review: San Francisco Symphony (the same one)

So here's what happens when my editor phones and asks me to cover the same SFS program I'd just heard an earlier performance of and written about here: I take my post, cut out some of the personal chatter, and expand and elaborate on the rest, including some expository info, to review size.

That this is also how I wrote my first review for them, offering them an expansion on a blog post when I saw they hadn't covered a particular concert, is not something I've forgotten.

Friday, June 22, 2018

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

SFS is finishing up its season with a series of flashily-promoted concerts. I didn't go hear Susanna Mälkki, even though she's an outstanding conductor, because I didn't care for the repertoire. I didn't go to the semi-staged Boris Godunov. I'm not going to next week's finale, Mahler's Third (oh no, not again).

Instead, I went to this week's more quietly promoted program, MTT conducting two enigmatic Sibelius symphonies and one popular Rachmaninoff piano concerto.

Let me just say, that Sibelius Sixth was a transcendently great performance. It was lucid, compelling, and flowing. Too often when I hear the Sixth (as if it were anything other than rare), I wonder what the point of the work is or even if it has one. Not this time: I was constantly reminded of why, at its best, I love this music. It's a small piece of quiet lyricism, more like the Third than any other Sibelius symphony.

The Seventh is a very different-sounding piece and a harder nut, one I'm not sure I follow entirely, although it was played just as well. Unlike other good performances of the Seventh (easier to come by than good ones of the Sixth), this didn't feel sectional, but narrative, as if the joins were events rather than gateways. That flowing quality is what it had in common with this Sixth.

This was perfect enough that I thought of leaving at intermission, because nothing could surpass it, but I like Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto, so I decided to stick around. It was, I'm afraid, anti-climactic. Not that Daniil Trifonov isn't an excellent pianist: his playing was gentle, clear, and luminous (I'm trying to avoid the word "shining" in connection with this concerto), a good idea in this often plainly-marked work, and he kept it up even when the composer is directing the playing of clotted greeps. But the structure of the work didn't hold up: often it seemed wandering or superfluous. After Sibelius's severe order, this was indulgent, and needlessly so, because there isn't a major Rachmaninoff work that can't be tight and compelling. But that would have required a level of blistering energy that would have been out of place here.

Another thing I missed, by the way, was the annual Garden of Memory concert, which was the same day. I would have had to leave less than two hours into the four hour event in order to get over to SF in time, and fighting so much East Bay traffic to get there in the first place for so little reward didn't seem worthwhile.

Ironically, it was largely with the intent of being in town for Garden of Memory that I preferred to visit OSF two weeks ago instead of this week. Had I chosen otherwise, I could have stayed longer in Oxford ... and probably came down with the crud that all my housemates who stayed on got. And I would also have missed both June concerts, instead of just one, of the Redwood Symphony which I'm determined to attend and review this weekend.

And I would also have missed that sublime Sibelius, and though I'd not have known how great it'd be, that would have been a real loss.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

it is time

It is time.

It is time for me to be fed.

So say I.

For I am the cat.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

activities

It's time for the biennial (or so it seems) resealing of the roads within our condo complex. Most of the time the pavement looks rather ratty, which is probably why they keep trying to fix it so often, but it doesn't seem to take.

The main effect on us is that, every time this happens, we have to move our cars out to the outside streets for two days (or else leave them trapped in the driveway or garage). And we can't even walk on the pavement for much of that time, making it a narrow and hazardous enterprise along curbs and avoiding plantings even to get out from home to where the cars are.

This time the sealing was laid on Monday morning and had dried enough by the afternoon to allow painting of the parking and lane lines. So then, why were the workmen out on Tuesday morning laying down a new and even more noxious-smelling layer of sealing that, incidentally, entirely obliterated the newly-painted lines? They were re-painted again in the afternoon.

I wasn't at home while most of this was going on. I'd made my way out to my car to spend the better part of both days at my synagogue library. We have an online catalog, and now the directors want to automate circulation. Considering our relaxed library policies, I tend to consider this a mistake, but it's their decision and it's my job to facilitate this technically. From our catalog vendor we ordered a fat package of sheets of barcodes, which arrived last week. We're going to shelf-read the collection and paste the barcodes into the books and other items. That comes next week.

In the meantime, my job is to enter the barcode numbers into the catalog database, assigning one to each item. There's a utility program that will populate the database, or any portion of it that you select by key fields, with barcode numbers, but it's weird and balky. For one thing, the utility can add the numbers, but can't erase them. (There's another utility which will erase almost anything you ask it to, but not barcode numbers.) And if you do it by hand - a slow process; there's a display format that looks like an Excel spreadsheet, but it sure as heck doesn't work like one - the system doesn't know you've done it. This is relevant because it won't let you reassign numbers you've already used. Nor, it turns out, will it let you use numbers you've previously skipped over. I'd thought about assigning full sheets to discrete parts of the collection, and collecting up the leftover overage barcodes to use on other materials later. But it looks like I'd have to enter them manually.

Enormous amounts of time running tests on the database, and e-mailing or live chats with what is apparently our vendor's one and only tech guy, who's amazingly patient. Two days of work and still no barcode numbers definitely assigned. I'd better get that far tomorrow.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

what the Constitution means to Heidi Schreck

I went to this staged program at the Berkeley Rep theater called What the Constitution Means To Me, featuring Heidi Schreck, who's a dramatist and actor. It was in their small theater and lasted 90 minutes. Meanwhile, the large theater was doing Angels in America, so that audience was there all night.

I'm not exactly sure what the thing I saw was. It's not a play and it's not a lecture, but something in between. Schreck, who's in her 40s, comes onstage and explains that when she was 15, she earned enough money to pay for her college education from the honorariums she got as one of a set of students going around to American Legion posts giving talks on the titular topic. She attempts to reconstruct her talk - her mother threw the original text away - with the help of a male actor friend who plays the Legionnaire introducer, interspersing it with stories in her adult voice of dramas in her own and her female ancestors' lives. At the end, she brings on a real-life local 15-year-old high school debater and they hold a quick and reportedly unrehearsed debate on the question of whether the Constitution should be dumped and replaced, with audience applause deciding the question. ("No" won.)

So what does she say? Her reconstruction of her teenage speech is a lot of teenage fluff, but her stories are about women's citizenship and civil rights. Her own story is about her abortion at an early age - not the procedure itself, but deciding she needed it and arranging to get it. She ties this through the Griswold and Roe decisions to the 9th and 14th Amendments. Then she tells a story of her mother as a girl and her siblings being abused by their stepfather, and how her grandmother, though a strong woman, accepted this and her own abuse, and what that says about the evolution of women's civil rights. Her great-grandmother was imported without her volition as a bride on the northwest frontier in the late 19th century, and died young in an asylum, reportedly mentally ill, and what does that story tell? That women, and blacks, and Amerinds, were - often explicitly - excluded from the Constitution in earlier days is emphasized, but rather than condemning it for that (except in the explicit debate), she takes a Barbara Jordan position of noting how the Constitution's coverage has grown.

So there was a lot of meat here, but even though we each found on our theater seat an ACLU-sponsored pocket Constitution with space at the end to write our own thoughts, I find it a little hard to say what the Constitution means to me in those terms. What I can say is broader. It's that a Constitution, however noble its phrasing and aspirations, means something only in terms of the respect that its people and government give it. The Soviet Union had a constitution that reads very well, but its statements of rights meant nothing. To describe the US Constitution as intended to preserve rich white men's rights is historically illuminating, but it's incomplete unless we understand what it's preserving them from, and the aspirations that it embodied - aspirations that enabled the Constitution easily to be reframed, through interpretation and explicit amendment, to say yes it includes the poor, blacks, women. Upholding and uplifting it should be our goal. Denouncing its flaws rather than fixing them undermines its respect, and threatens the rights we depend on the Constitution to protect.

Meanwhile, what do we do when elected officials lack any respect for either the letter or the spirit of the Constitution? Well, I think one of the purposes of this show at this time is to counteract that.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

movie roundup

Thanks to DVDs and long plane flights, I've finally seen all the movies I want to see from this year's major-category Oscar nominees. (Some of them I definitely don't want to see.) Or as much of them as I want to see, which in some cases was only a few minutes. I have to say, though, that a restless seat on a transatlantic flight is not the best position from which to appreciate a movie. Even BritAir's Fawlty Towers episodes seemed tired and unfunny from that angle.

I find that this year's movies fall into two categories. One consisted of Lady Bird, Mudbound, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: small-scale stories about ordinary people, with absolutely stunningly deep and subtle characterization. Many movies aspire to this state of art, but few achieve it. These three all did. The only other movies I've seen recently that matched it are Boyhood and the little-known Margaret (the one with Anna Paquin). Last year's Manchester by the Sea tried to be that kind of movie, but failed not through inept moviemaking but because the characters were too repressed to come through properly. They weren't necessarily the best movies - Lady Bird was way, way too overlong and desperately needed cutting, and Three Billboards is morally obtuse - but they succeeded brilliantly at portraying the people in them.

The problem is that, after seeing these movies, everything else looked crass by comparison. Especially The Shape of Water, which aspires to being a fairy-tale, a different kind of story. But since from a realistic perspective - which is the space my head was in at the time - nothing that any of the characters do makes any sense at all (and that includes the monster), I found it more annoying than enchanting.

The other fictional character-oriented movie of the year was Roman J. Israel, Esq. Denzel Washington got a Best Actor nomination for this one as an autistic civil-rights lawyer: well-deserved, but it's all the movie deserved. It takes place over about three weeks, which is ludicrous, as it follows ups and downs in the character's career which ought to have taken at least three years. Nor is it well-written: Washington delivers a lot of impassioned speeches, but I was at a total loss as to what he was talking about, even though the plot is perfectly clear.

Movies telling recent history are a weakness of mine, so I went off early to see both The Post and Darkest Hour (a movie I persistently misremember as titled Greatest Hour). Despite its framing, The Post is not about the Pentagon Papers, but about the paper's moral dilemma in publishing them (a dilemma more complex and difficult than that of the NY Times, which is why this movie is about the Post and not the Times, even though the Times was the one that did the work on the Papers). It's impressively historically accurate, but as a journalism suspense movie it didn't have the sizzle of All the President's Men or Spotlight. Darkest Hour, though, while it looked meticulous in all its physical details, was persistently off in its plot and characterization - they wanted a villain, so they grotesquely paint Halifax as one - in the same way, though not the same extent, that The King's Speech was off.

For historical depictions, that leaves I, Tonya, whose topic I'd of course heard of but knew little about. It's highly illuminating, vivid, and funny as well as sad, most outstanding in its portrayal of that hard-to-depict kind of character, the incompetent bad guy. While in England I got to see on BBC the second episode of A Very English Scandal (Hugh Grant plays Jeremy Thorpe), the episode in which the dog gets shot, and by gum it's exactly the same thing as I, Tonya: people with a problem they want solved brutally hire an inept would-be criminal mastermind, who hires an even more inept thug, who totally blows the assignment, getting everybody above him in the chain of command into heaps of trouble.

Two more movies I saw were somewhat more problematic. Molly's Game I watched solely because it had an Aaron Sorkin script. Like Denzel Washington's acting in Roman, this got an Oscar nomination and is the sole reason to watch the movie. It's about a young woman with no obvious talents who suddenly discovers she has a knack for running high-stakes poker games in hotel rooms. As she rapidly learns the rules and lingo of her new profession, the non-poker-playing viewer rapidly falls behind. Eventually Molly gets in trouble for "taking a rake," a term which is never explained; my best guess is that she's betting on her own games. It's snappy, but bewildering.

The Big Sick, however, is just disturbing. It's written by a married couple about how they met and fell in love. It ought to be charming, but it's not. First off, the husband, who's a stand-up comic, plays himself, but the wife is not an actress, so she's played by somebody else. If the characters were both played by actors it wouldn't be weird, but here's the real guy pitching woo to an actress playing his wife, with his real wife's connivance. That's creepy. And the plot is worse. I'm not going to describe it in full, but he crassly and insensitively manipulates her life in two separate ways. She points this out to him and even breaks up at one point, but he seems oblivious to his flaws, and then somehow at the end they get back together again. Apparently she's won over by his sincerity, despite his expressing it crassly. This movie ought to have been made 70 years ago and been forgotten by now.

That leaves two movies I had hopes for but turned off after a few minutes.

All the Money in the World immediately delves into a series of flashbacks intended to inform you that J. Paul Getty had a lot of money. No kidding, Sherlock. Off.

The Florida Project begins with three six-year-olds gleefully spitting onto their neighbor's new car for no reason other than that they can. Do I want to spend a whole movie with such obnoxious kids? Off.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

things I shouldn't have to do

1) In the past, our cats were on dry food, and though we fed them twice a day, we could get by with once-daily visits by the cat sitter when we were away, trusting the cats to pace their eating. But now Pippin is on wet food that needs to be portioned and kept cold when opened but not eaten.

When our cat sitter said she's unable to visit twice a day due to the heavy traffic around here, we invested in an automated feeder with a lid on a timer and an ice pack underneath. But despite claiming to be familiar with automated feeders, the sitter found this one incomprehensible, even despite my investing considerable time in writing specific descriptions of exactly what needed to be done each day.

We're looking for a new cat sitter, one who lives closer and can visit twice a day.

2) Facing a Tolkien Studies submission in the form of a paper which dismayingly turns into yet another claim that the author has found the Real-O True-O sub-creational identity of Tom Bombadil, different from all the other Real-O True-O identities that a dozen other enthusiasts have come up with before.

Found myself writing in response, "Does the fallacy need to be explained? Bombadil isn't necessarily really anything. He's a fictional character."

Sunday, June 10, 2018

kalimac in Ashland

B. and I have just returned from three full days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where we -

sorry, the cat just walked in, announced imperiously (in Cat), "So you're back. Come and pet me." and there went twenty minutes.

- saw six plays in what was not too bruising a schedule. Bursts of rain failed to interfere in the outdoor shows. Three of these plays have been running since February. The other three were literally on first or second previews. You wouldn't have been able to tell.

Shakespearean

Othello.
I find this an inherently problematic play. It's no longer acceptable for Othello to be played by an actor who is anything other than black, but there aren't a lot of other parts for black actors in Shakespeare, so when I've seen it before, Othello was played by a young actor without much Shakespearean experience, and since the character is a credulous fool, making him all the tougher to perform adequately, the grizzled white veteran invariably cast as Iago just wiped the floor with him.
The solution to this problem has arrived with the recently wide-spread advent of color-blind casting in other Shakespearean roles. According to his cast bio, Chris Butler, cast as Othello here, has previously been in eight different Shakespeare plays at various theaters (I saw him as Don John in a somber-toned Much Ado, when he previously popped up here in 2004), and though his character is still stupid, he had the chops to tackle this large and weighty part and stand up against OSF veteran Danforth Comins, who is not about to lose my vote as the finest Shakespearean actor currently treading the boards, as Iago. Alejandra Escalante, a strong and powerful Desdemona, also triumphed over what can be a wimpy role.

Romeo and Juliet. Emily Ota, though a fine actress, seemed to me too mature and forceful to be well-cast as the young and impetuous Juliet. William Hodgson as Romeo was adequate but not very memorable. The memorable and brilliant stars of this production were a pair of OSF veterans cast as chatty sidekicks: Robin Nordli, hilariously gabby as the Nurse, and Michael Hume, fretfully gabby as Friar Laurence. Notable frontiers in casting: the actress playing Lady Montague is deaf, so any scene with her in it had a lot of sign language.

Love's Labor's Lost. Played as OSF plays Comedy of Errors, as a roustabout comedy, and for the same reason: to make a crusty old script funny for a modern audience. Succeeded through a combination of goofballing and anachronisms. For the masque depicting the Nine Worthies, one character shows Hercules by ripping his shirt open, and another guesses who he's playing: "The Incredible Hulk!"

Increasingly Non-Shakespearean

The Book of Will
by Lauren Gunderson. A new play depicting Shakespeare's surviving colleagues conceiving, editing, and publishing the First Folio. Tribulations bring drama, but mostly this is a tribute to their love of the memory of Shakespeare the man (much discussed but not depicted onstage) and their desire to preserve his work after they're gone. A lively mixture of humor and melancholy, with lots of gratifying assumptions that the audience knows its Shakespeare well. The editors' wives and a grown daughter play major roles both substantive and in encouragement. This is, among other things, a play about mature men who love their wives, so I could really identify.

Sense and Sensibility, adapted from Austen by Kate Hamill. A good adaptation in both substance and style, framed by having those actors not in a given scene standing around giving gossipy narration. If there's one character in this year's offerings as young and impetuous as Juliet Capulet, it's Marianne Dashwood, so who plays her? Yes, Emily Ota. Excellent performance, but it was hard not to wonder what she's doing there. Elinor (Nancy Rodriguez) gets overshadowed. Actually, rather as with the veterans in R&J, the florid K.T. Vogt as Mrs Jennings outacted everybody. Post-show talk by Nate Cheeseman, a first-year actor with a big chin, who played Willoughby. Said he'll be in an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice soon: as Wickham. I think his chin has typecast him. There was one clunker in the play, and I checked: it's in the script. At one point a servant introduces Sir John Middleton as "Lord Middleton". Oh dear: no, no, no, NO.

Destiny of Desire by Karen Zacharias, a play in the style of a telenovela. A Mexican family melodrama packed with romance, adultery, baby-switching and other long-lost relatives, financial chicanery, medical malpractice, and murder, all of it played strictly for laughs. Performed with intense verve by an all ethnically Latin cast.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

kalimac in Oxford

The process of arranging for my visit to Oxford for the opening of the Bodleian's Tolkien exhibit was an epic in itself. Tolkienian linguist Carl Hostetter was the one who originally suggested gathering with colleagues and friends for this event, and when, early this year while looking over my calendar, I asked him how plans were going, within a few busy weeks he and Mythopoeic Society organizer Lynn Maudlin had concocted a viable practical plan. They rented a large (4-bedroom, with extra beds) house for a week off Airbnb, and reserved a private room at one of the Inklings' favorite pubs for a vast quantity of local and visiting Tolkienists for the evening of the opening day. Lynn coaxed four of us who would all be converging on Heathrow the previous day to buy a group-discount round-trip (return) coach ticket to Oxford which, since we were coming back at different times, would be transferred to a somewhat different group of four people for the return.

Even more fun was that the house we rented was the Headington Shark, a locally famous landmark in the form of a suburban row house (just off the main road, so convenient for the bus) with a 50-foot fiberglass shark crashing head-first into the roof. (And, in case you're one of the many who ask, no there isn't a shark head emerging from the ceiling on the other side.) The sculpture's actual title, as revealed in a plaque by the front door, is "Untitled 1986." As a rental property, the house was professionally-run, clean and well-kept, with a spacious kitchen and sitting room, the latter ideal for an extra guest in the form of Tolkien biographer John Garth, who stayed over the night of the opening rather than running the hour home so that he'd have more time to write his Telegraph review of the exhibit which was due early the next morning.

We all contributed to the knowledge base. Carl had researched the bookstores, Jason Fisher the pubs; I knew the local geography so could offer advice on bus lines and knew which block of stone belonged to which college on the history-steeped two block walk from the bus stop to the Bodleian. ("And those," I said, pointing through an archway, are the twin towers of All Souls, and they have at least as good a claim to be the original of Tolkien's Two Towers as any pair of smokestacks in Birmingham.")

The exhibit is small, and while admission is free they were expecting demand to fill up, so you could buy a timed ticket online for a small fee, and our group went in at various times on the first two days, some of us at least twice. The group pub gathering was a fine place to meet: Every strange face I introduced myself to turned out to be some renowned Tolkienist, usually one I'd corresponded with, so we had a very focused set of conversations. Other than that, we bookstored (besides Blackwell's and the Bodleian shop, we were happy with St Philip's in St Aldate's), avoided the rain which at times came down in torrents, surrounding the Bodleian with a 5-foot-wide running moat, and pubbed. In 2 1/2 days in Oxford I had 5 meals out, each with a passel of friends in a different pub. All were old and atmospheric, all had good cider which is my drink, and quickness of service was purely a function of how crowded they were, so there isn't much to base a comparative ranking on except the size of the quarters and the food. From bottom up they were:

5. The Turf. Large, with many back rooms. One of the most famous pubs in Oxford, particularly prized by those who can boast of knowing how to find it - it's down a winding and narrow passageway, set far back from the nearest streets. The meat pie had interesting filling (with marrow in it) but a very dull crust. One of our party had to leave unfed as there was nothing gluten-free she could eat.

4. The Kings Arms. Very large, with reservable private rooms, so it was the ideal locale for our large gathering. It's also an Inklings pub, where C.S. Lewis liked to meet with Tolkien and others after a day's research at the Bodleian, which is across the street. At one time this had the best pub food in Oxford, but that was quite a while ago. I had the fish and chips, and while the chips were great - double-fried and very crisp - the fish was mealy and tasted more like battered mashed potato than fish. The White Horse down the street was better for that.

3. Lamb & Flag. As large as the Turf, also with many back rooms. This is directly across the wide St Giles high street from the smaller but more famous Eagle and Child pub known as where the Inklings met. Unfortunately the crowds know that too, and it was too crowded to eat in. But what we knew that most of the crowds didn't is that at one point the Inklings themselves abandoned the Eagle and Child (they didn't like the remodeling) for the Lamb and Flag, which we found decently uncrowded. In addition to several kinds of meat pies, they also have suet puddings, which at least is a little bit different. And yes, one of those is lamb (no flag, though).

2. The White Horse. Very small pub, right next to Blackwell's. Also an occasional Inklings gathering place. Besides having probably the best cider, it had wonderfully textured and tender fish in its fish and chips.

1. The White Hart. Medium-sized, but with a large back garden. The hidden find of the trip, not in central Oxford at all but in Old Headington, which is a quiet little area a couple scenic blocks' walk north of the main Headington shopping area, and hence close to our house. Easy to get to, but hardly anyone does. Not much up here, aside from houses, except the pub and the medieval church across the street, which is also worth visiting, except the church doesn't have drinks or an extraordinarily extensive (about 8 varieties) selection of truly excellent meat pies, admirable not just for the fillings (beef, chicken, venison(!)) but for the light and flaky crusts. And yes, they'll make a gluten-free one on request.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Tolkien in Oxford

The Bodleian Library's new Tolkien exhibit, which opened on Friday and runs for 5 months, was the goal of my trip to England. The Bodleian holds many of Tolkien's papers (and they borrowed for this exhibit some items from Marquette University, which holds many of his manuscripts, and old records from Oxford's Exeter College, his undergraduate college), but this is their first Tolkien exhibit in 25 years and far more extensive than its predecessor.

It's in a gallery in the Weston Library, which has been much refurbished and cleaned up from the dingy "New Bodleian" that it used to be. You walk in through a foyer in which enlarged images from Tolkien's maps of Middle-earth have been projected on the floor, so you're walking across Middle-earth, a clever touch. Then you turn into the exhibit itself, one large room full of things - "wonderful things," as Howard Carter would say. Like King Tut's tomb, the room is murkily-lit and not very clearly organized. It's full of glass cases in which are suspended the artifacts, with captions mostly down at around waist level. But they are wonderful to see.

There are cases on his childhood, his university and war service years, his physical creative environment as an adult (including a desk and chair he used), and a whole series mostly around the perimeter on his creative work: his early artistic Book of Ishness, The Book of Lost Tales (yes, the original school notebooks in which he wrote it), The Hobbit (mostly the illustrations) and The Lord of the Rings (mostly the maps). After a case of the elaborate paisley-like doodles he drew on newspapers in his later years, there's a case of editions and translations of his books plus fan letters (including one from a teenager named Terence Pratchett, and another from an old man named Sam Gamgee who'd heard his name was in the book), and that's it. You go out another door, and the gift shop (a whole story in itself, believe me) is over to the right beyond the cafe.

Now, much of this material has been published before, the art in reproductions and the written material in transcriptions. But much of the material is hard to reproduce adequately - a map might have both the deepest India ink and the faintest of pencil markings - and there's also the human need to see the originals. What gets me at this exhibit, and on previous occasions when I've seen Tolkien's art displayed, is the vividness and intensity of his craft and the minute tiny details he fills it with. It has the same appeal as a lot of Chinese art.

Tolkien's creative craft in geography is also illustrated not just by his maps, but by a couple more original tech items the exhibitors dreamed up themselves, which as they're not archival material are at least brightly lit. They're map displays with moving lights showing the travels of the characters in The Lord of the Rings. One's a vertical comparative map, and the other is a table with a 3-dimensional relief map of the imaginary landscape, on which are serially projected the various stages of the journeys.

As for the artifact aspect, seeing original handwritten texts I'm long familiar with from scholarly book texts is itself a wonder. I have no doubt as to what was the most moving single item in the exhibit, and it's not by Tolkien himself. Tolkien served in WW1 on the Somme along with one of his closest school friends, Geoffrey Bache Smith, another budding poet. Smith scribbled Tolkien a letter which ends, "May God bless you my dear John Ronald and may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them if such be my lot."

It was his lot. Not long afterwards, Smith was hit by shrapnel, the wounds became infected, and he died at the front. And there, suspended in the case, is the last page of that last letter ... hastily scribbled ... in pencil, yet. One turns in tears.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

two concerts and a show in London

Why I'm in London will wait for later, but I took the opportunity of being there to attend two concerts at the Southbank Centre, a collection of monumentally ugly 1960s brutalist concrete slabs on the Thames immediately opposite the West End. Inside those slabs, however, are some spacious wood-lined auditoriums.

The real attraction for me was the appearance at the Royal Festival Hall of the Berlin Philharmonic, which Simon Rattle is taking on a last round of tours before his retirement from the music directorship next month. What they played was even more enticing: Bruckner's Ninth Symphony, in its completed version. Bruckner finished up three of an intended four movements, and those are what is usually played; but when he died, the finale still consisted of a collection of scraps and pieces, and since Bruckner's genius consisted largely of how he put the pieces together, completing it is a daunting task. It took four musicologists to concoct this version of the finale, which is just over 20 minutes long - a good length - and what I can say for it is that it seemed to comport well with Rattle's approach to the genuine article, which is to treat Bruckner as a composer of Big Paragraphs, and not to worry about anything so quotidian as themes. I don't think Rattle has quite as deep a command of Bruckner's large structure as some conductors, and the climaxes didn't tower quite as much as they should (an unreverberant hall didn't help), but the musicologists didn't seem afraid to make a conclusion big enough that it wasn't quite anticlimactic for the end of an epic 90-minute symphony.

As the piece ended, I muttered to myself (through having nobody else to talk to), "I always wanted to know how that one came out."

Like many conductors with similar pieces on their plates, Rattle chose to preface his epic with something brief and completely incongruous, in this case a piece of crypto-modernism by Hans Abrahamsen.

A chamber music concert at the much smaller Queen Elizabeth Hall, physically an unbroken slope-fest that reminds me of Snape Maltings, was intended as a reproduction of a famous concert that took place there nearly 50 years ago when the place was new. Daniel Barenboim, Jacqueline du Pre, and some other hot young talents of the day had played Schubert's Trout Quintet. So today, pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, who's 25, gathered together some age-mates, including violinist Hyeyoon Park and cellist Kian Soltani, to play the same piece, plus the Schubert Notturno, the Brahms Op. 25 Quartet, and a violin-piano rhapsody by Bartok. They were bold and fearless in all these pieces. The Brahms survived an unfortunate man who was horribly sick on the seat a couple rows in front of me, the man was led gently away and I heard he'd be all right, and I hope the hall survived too, judging from the number of employees busily scrubbing away at it during intermission.

Over across the river in a West End theatre boldly named the Coliseum, I got to a musical show from the other end of my tastes, a revival production of Chess. This show, which I've seen before, has a topic that appeals to me, plus an inordinate number of good songs, far more than any other post-1970 musical I've heard. The production had a lot of splashy lighting effects that overshadowed the tiny actors down on the stage, but made up for this with huge video projections of them during most of the songs, which, despite videographers prowling the stage, I eventually figured out were not live.

The stars, Michael Ball and Tim Howar, are, I understand, big names in this line of work, and they certainly did entirely satisfactory jobs on the big emotional ballads, the kind of song anyone who's not a consummate professional would make a complete hash of. But the performer who impressed me the most was the lesser-known Phillip Browne as Molokov, the Russian handler, who brought wit and vividness, not to mention a basso profundo, to this normally imperturbable role.

Further notes on visiting London:

1. I already knew that all theatres here charge extra for programmes, but the Brits seem to have trouble with them, as at all events I heard plaintive queries as to where they could be found, which I'd had no trouble with.

2. The better restaurants all include a service charge in the bill. It's labeled as optional, but only a churl would wish to reduce it, and I for one am happy to be relieved of the burden both of deciding how much to leave and of figuring out the amount. The rate is, universally, 12.5%. This strikes me as eminently reasonable for a lot of impressively attentive service. To leave 15% here would be impossibly generous, and 20% would be a studied insult by rich Americans throwing their money around. This is not to say the food is inexpensive: at these places, it certainly isn't.

3. On the other end of the economic spectrum, I saw more homeless on the streets than I ever had in London before. San Francisco claims to be embarrassed by its profusion of homeless. I don't think it's anywhere near as far out of the typical as it thinks, or than it used to be.