Wednesday, August 29, 2018

early movie review

Finding myself at loose ends at the end of the afternoon quite near a theater that was the only one showing a movie being released today that I had some interest in, I decided to go see it.

Operation Finale (2018)

The immediately preceding trailer was for the re-release of Schindler's List, in which Ben Kingsley plays the Jewish clerk who helps Schindler compile the list. In this movie, Ben Kingsley plays Adolf Eichmann. It's a change.

This is a movie about the Israeli operation to abduct Eichmann in Buenos Aires in 1960. Oscar Isaac plays the impossibly noble chief Israeli agent, a composite character. I didn't know much about the details of the operation, and after seeing the movie I still doubt that I do. The abduction itself occurs about halfway through; the agents then have to hide Eichmann in a safe house for over a week because of some bureaucratic snafu regarding scheduling the departure of their airplane (which is on a cover mission).

I don't know if this happened in reality or not. According to Wikipedia the delay in transporting Eichmann was spent confirming his identity. In the movie Eichmann steadfastly denies being Eichmann until he suddenly caves and admits it, and this doesn't have much to do with the delay. Also in the movie, but perhaps not in reality, the Israelis twice narrowly escape being captured by a posse of Argentine police who are after them. And as I watched those scenes, what was inevitably running through my head was this.

Kingsley speaks in something of the same odd sing-songy accent he used for the role of Dmitri Shostakovich in Testimony.

Conclusion: Not as boring as Bridge of Spies, but not as exciting as an undercover spy movie ought to be, either.

Monday, August 27, 2018

book found in the worldcon dealer's room

Where Memory Hides: A Writer's Life by Richard A. Lupoff (Bold Venture Press, 2016)

When I was a young sf fan in Berkeley, among the older people I met and got to hang out with a bit were Dick and Pat Lupoff. (Not the only fannish couple I've met named Dick and Pat, none of whom were in any other way like the Nixons.) They were known for having once published a Hugo-winning fanzine called Xero, an anthology of which was subsequently published by Tachyon, and Dick under his formal byline had become a professional fiction writer of note.

In that capacity he was protean, capable of everything from homages to pulpsters like ERB and HPL to the most esoteric New Wave style science fiction or exotically Japanese-influenced epic fantasy. Perhaps because he didn't have a single definable authorial personality, Lupoff's sf/fantasy career never gained traction, and he subsequently sailed off into the friendlier waters of detective/mystery fiction.

With a few small exceptions, I found that I bounced off most of his fiction, or it went into areas I just wasn't interested in following, but I really enjoyed Dick and Pat themselves and their company. I was consequently a good audience for a book Dick wrote a couple decades ago called Writer At Large, a collection of essays about various experiences, in particular his stint teaching writing to inmates at San Quentin. It was highly illuminating and worth reading for anyone with an interest in inmate life or indeed in adult education.

There's a bit more about that in this memoir, which I think was compiled by stitching together various autobiographical writings. It rambles around with little regard to chronological order and repeats the same anecdotes in different places, even acknowledging that it does so. It talks about his sf and fantasy, his mysteries, how an old white male writer created a young black female detective character (by observing the black women he'd known over his life, he says), his dealings with editors and publishers, his fanzines, his childhood, his time in the army and as a bureaucrat in a soulless government department, teaching at Q and working as a radio personality and in a fabulous independent bookstore. It also contains a chapter attempting to argue, by use of selected quotes, that there is absolutely no difference in literary quality between high literature and pulp fiction, which I find hard to credit from a writer with such sensitivity to differences in style, but let that pass.

I doubt this book would be of much interest to anyone not as fond of Dick Lupoff the man as I am, unless they were really powerfully interested in his fiction. So why am I writing about it? Because I find from its pages that today - this very day! - is Dick and Pat's 60th wedding anniversary. I haven't seen either of them in several years, but I hope they're doing OK, and I wish them a very merry anniversary.

Sunday, August 26, 2018


Having been released from hospital duty by the successful discharge of the patient, I had the time for a couple of artistic outings.

First to Stanford, for a concert by a series of student pianists who played Louis Andriessen, Frederic Rzewski, and a whole big wad of Schubert. A rather peculiar combination.

Then to the Livermore Performing Arts Center for the latest Lamplighters production of The Pirates of Penzance. I liked the theater, which I hadn't been to before. Though likewise arena-sliced, it's smaller and more focused than Lesher in Walnut Creek, and consequently sounds better. Nor is it any farther from here to drive to. Excellent singing, especially from Michael Desnoyers as Frederic and Erin O'Meally as Mabel. But the innovations in staging, largely intended to update the Stanley daughters to 1890s "new women," sat incoherently with the plot.

A missed turn on the drive home sent me zooming off towards Pleasanton, which at least is not far out of the way, so I decided to take the opportunity to stop off at the Inklings coffee & tea shop there, just because of the name. If you order your strawberry-mint lemonade, which is just about the only thing they had that wasn't either coffee or tea, from the side of the counter with the menu on it, they'll direct you over to the other side where the computer is, then direct you back again to the original spot to pick up the drink. Confusing.

There were lots of small tables and comfy chairs around. The walls were lined with bookshelves, but a close look suggested something a bit of the poseur quality to it, as despite a few Lewis and Williams volumes scattered about, most of the contents were yard goods: a volume of Winston Churchill's war history here, Zane Grey and Tom Clancy novels there, a bunch of law textbooks over there, and lots and lots of Readers Digest Condensed Books. In one spot by some branded t-shirts and coasters and the like is a sign indicating two books are for sale. One is by Lewis, Perelandra, and the other isn't. The hand-lettered sign gives the title as Voyage to Articus. Jiminy Cricket and all the little fishes, it's supposed to be Arcturus.

Also on the walls are some nicely-done pencil portraits of the four principal Inklings (Lewis, Tolkien, Williams, and Barfield) and on the opposite wall some framed quotations, one real one from Tolkien and two ones falsely attributed to Lewis that are actually spoken by his character in the Shadowlands movie or play. Tsk.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

it's Bernstein's centenary

As you'll know if you've seen today's Google doodle, it's the centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, who grew up in the Boston area and attended Harvard before going off to New York and making his name as a young composer and conductor.

The tension between those professions defined Bernstein's professional life. He wanted to buckle down to serious work as a composer, but even though he resigned his position as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1969, kept finding that conducting - and his related need to educate, both in mentoring younger conductors and performers (many of whom are at the top of the profession today) and in giving public, often televised, talks in music education - kept distracting him.

As a conductor, Bernstein was highly emotional and a bit eccentric. He liked to exaggerate the structural joins in large compositions, which actually made him a good choice for a young enthusiast learning his way around the standard repertoire, which is what I was in the 1970s when Bernstein's recordings of it - just about all of it; he was insanely prolific - dominated the record-store shelves.

I also weaned on Bernstein's musical education programs and writings, particularly those geared to children. I later came to disagree with some of his views, but there's no question he was gifted as an educator and imaginative as a pedagogue as well as learned in musical theory and history. But not all of it was that simple. I'd like to direct your attention to this video from a Harvard lecture, a virtuoso five-minute whirlwind summary of the development of tonal harmony. It's perfectly clear technically though historically oversimplified, but I wonder if it makes sense to those uneducated in musical theory or does it fly over your heads?

As a composer, Bernstein was most at home in musical theater or other works with at least a whiff of the stage about them. He made his name with stage shows in the 40s and reached his pinnacle in that form in the 50s with West Side Story (which was a hit in its first production) and Candide (which was not - largely due to the book, the spoken-word part, which was later replaced and the show's done better in revivals). After that, Bernstein tended to feel he wasn't devoting enough time and thought to his compositions and wished he had more to give, but he was too busy and too distracted.

Nevertheless he did get some fine works done, although his magnum opus as a composer, Mass of 1971, received some scathing reviews for its "vulgar" populism, which damaged the composer's self-confidence you may be sure. It's not really until since Bernstein's death in 1990 that Mass has come to be accepted as the giant achievement in early postmodern art that it really is, and one of the few truly great spiritual choral-orchestral masterpieces of its century.

A good introduction to Bernstein's work as a composer is this little summary here. I like its choice of clips, though the sound quality of the one from Mass is poor, and I'm not sure how well an excerpt works out of context, as Mass is very much a work of its cumulative power.

If you're ready for some first-rate full-length performances of Bernstein's staged masterpieces, I have two of them online here: an impressive Mass from the BBC Proms, conducted by Kristjan Järvi,

and an utterly delightful Candide from the NY Philharmonic (the one from which Kristin Chenoweth's "Glitter and Be Gay" is excerpted in the introduction piece linked above), conducted by Marin Alsop (a Bernstein protege).

Thursday, August 23, 2018

buzzer in my pocket

Those who read closely a certain blog may be able to deduce that much of my time since the Worldcon has been spent in aid of a friend from out of town who was taken from that convention to a hospital and is now at a different hospital, recuperating from surgery. I've run errands and spent time on cheering bedside visits. Others helped from the convention end, but then they had to go home; my particular virtue is being local.

Both this, and keeping in touch with B. during the con itself, have put a lot of usage on my cell phone, particularly the messaging function. I count myself fortunate that the Great Disappearing Act of July which disposed of a newish phone I didn't much like enabled me to replace it by reverting to the previous model which is much easier to use. For one thing, I didn't have to use any absurd or complex Bluetooth to add my preferred ringtone. All I needed was to open the browser and type in the file's URL. The phone downloaded the file automatically and then asked if I wanted to set this as my ringtone. Why, yes I do, and that took care of that.

But I haven't actually used the ringtone much, and not just because most of my calls are texts, which use a different, pre-set sound. Experience at the convention rapidly convinced me that it makes more sense to most of the time leave the phone on vibrate mode. I can feel that in my pocket better than I can hear the ringtone in a noisy room, and I don't have to constantly be turning it on and off as program items end and begin. The only catch is that it buzzes the same way regardless of whether I've received a call or a text, and I'm still training myself to look properly to determine which it is.

I'm also still getting used to typing messages by the system by which you type in a word's numerical equivalent and the phone guesses what matching word you want. No, I want 7378464 to mean "resting," not "serving." That sort of thing. The challenge is ignoring the phone's various guesses on the screen as you type digit after digit and try to remember where in a long or messy word you are.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Worldcon panels with Tolkien in them

The two best panels I attended at Worldcon 76 were both relatively sparsely attended, perhaps because they lacked famous names at the table. Instead, the panelists were young writers unfamiliar to me, representing a variety of ethnicities and gender/sexual identities. They were as articulate and interesting as any more famous names would have been, probably more so. The topics were intriguing, which is why I was there.

And both panels discussed Tolkien, in rather different contexts.

The panel on "Fantasy Canon from the Margins" had originally been titled "Tolkien from the Margins" (actually "Tolkein from the Margins," so it's a good thing it was changed). But this attempt to broaden the remit wasn't broad enough, as the works discussed represented pop culture in general, not specifically an established fantasy canon. And the margins considered were just ethnic/racial ones; sexual or gender issues were barely mentioned.

The theme of the panel was dealing with works you personally love, or which you respect as superbly crafted, but which perpetuate negative stereotypes. Suzanne Walker (Lebanese-American) told of how as a child she loved Disney's Aladdin because it had a princess who "looked like me," but she came to realize that it's full of unfortunate stereotypes. It's two things at once. SL Huang (Chinese-American) agreed that it was the same for her with Mulan. And that summed up the panelists' dilemma: They weren't going to drop these works that they loved, but they couldn't avoid acknowledging the glaring problems.

Tolkien came in with Walker discussing the Jackson Lord of the Rings movies. She liked the first one, but the second dismayed her. Nor was she familiar with just the movies, but compared them with the book. Jackson could have made different choices, she said, but instead elevated the stereotypes that were already there.

Note the assumption that the source material, Tolkien's novel, is fundamentally racist. Libia Brenda (Mexican) was explicit on this point, describing herself as "heartbroken" by the racism in Tolkien, Harry Potter, Star Wars. Though she also emphasized that these were good works with admirable qualities that should not be avoided. Just acknowledge the flaws and be critical: don't stop reading the canon, but expand upon it.

Fine, but I wondered just what Walker and Brenda found so racist in Tolkien. They didn't elaborate on the point. Is it just that the bad guys are described as swarthy? Is it the hierarchy of ethnic groups? The entire book is a demonstration that this hierarchy in no way dictates virtue or nobility of character. Does Tolkien's depiction of the good guys as ethnically diverse bear no weight here? Do the fact that he's not lecturing you on ethnic virtue, and his personal opposition to racist policies, at least place him in a different category than authors who use fantasy as a tool to advocate racism? There was no way this question could be asked on the panel, so I let it go, at least for now.

A panel asking "What Does a Nontoxic Masculinity Look Like?" intrigued because it's a question often avoided in discussions of the toxic kind. But there was no evasion on this panel, which featured four persons of a wide variety, not fully expounded in the introductions, of gender identities. The best I can say is that three seemed to fall somewhere in the female realm and the fourth in the male.

What I was not expecting was for Tolkien to make an appearance in the discussion.

To the panel's topic question, Reuben Baron immediately responded, "Mr. Rogers," and was rewarded with a burst of audience applause. "He's the bingo free space in discussion of non-toxic masculinity," said Baron.

But Leigh Ann Hildebrand had an objection. The problem with all these Sensitive New Age Guys, she said (not that Mr. Rogers was in any way New Age, but it was clear what she meant), is that - at least to her taste - they're not sexually attractive. She wants a tough guy with sensuality who yet avoids misogyny. Her examples were men from her personal life, but she found a well-known example later.

All of these were real-life. The question was posed: what about in fiction? and Reuben Baron immediately slapped the buzzer down again with Sam Gamgee. He's emotionally expressive, but a fighter. As for his relationship with Frodo, Baron said, "If you think it's gay, write your fan fiction. But it's still a positive role model for platonic male friendship."

Others added more examples from Tolkien or elsewhere. Foz Meadows mentioned characters in The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette) and the Books of the Raksura by Martha Wells, among others, in this context, and then brought in Tolkien's Faramir, "a man who is trying to do the right thing," in contrast with his father Denethor. Baron mentioned Legolas and Gimli as characters who overcome their mutually hostile racism and become friends. And Hildebrand added the winning entry by describing Gandalf in his fight with the Balrog as a great moment of "dynamic masculinity" (her term), the quality that she's looking for. To which moderator Vanessa Rose Phin added, from Tolkien's posthumously-published material, that Gandalf also has the estimable ability to listen, as shown by his having learned patience and pity from the female Vala Nienna.

Good panels.

Monday, August 20, 2018

76th World Science Fiction Convention

Informally only "Worldcon 76" - the traditional city-name-inspired titles by which the previous San José Worldcon was called "ConJosé" seem to be on the way out. Because it was so local I was inevitably drawn into its orbit and attended, although my interest in these events has been rapidly decreasing, and this is the first Worldcon I've been to since the last one within reasonable driving distance, Reno seven years ago. I'm not expecting another in my time.

Like its local predecessor, the con was held at the city's convention center, a corridor extending along a long city block, anchored by attachments to major high-rise hotels at each end, with programming rooms - most of them far too small for the numbers who wanted to attend items - at either end and a giant ballroom and an even vaster concrete exhibit hall in the middle. The latter had art show at one end, dealers at the other, and miscellaneous exhibits and lounges in between.

My principal interest was in the dealers' room, into which I immediately disappeared and emerged with eight books, to which I added four more later. Most of them were single-author short-story collections, my favorite kind of box to consume science fiction from, though one of late only much available from small-press publishers.

Saturday's costume presentation in the giant ballroom was mostly notable for the number of times that tech failed to play the presenter's chosen music, and for the on-stage nervous breakdowns these glitches gave the emcee.

The Hugo Awards, Sunday, same venue, went smoother. The winners were inspiring, especially N.K. Jemisin with her unprecedented third consecutive Best Novel win. She's the big cheese in SF writing now, no question. But despite noble intentions I hadn't read any of the nominees or voted, so I viewed it from a figurative as well as literal distance.

Of the other evenings' ballroom events, Friday's series of concert sets - mostly songs with guitar - by the convention's various musically-enabled Guests of Honor was very pleasant. But of Thursday's original stage musical inspired by Snow White, the less said the mercifully better. Perhaps I should have gone to that night's alternative programming, a reception presenting the 1943 Retro Hugos, even though it was to be immediately followed by the truly shudder-inducing prospect of an 80s dance. (Why not a 40s dance? Bring on the Andrews Sisters!)

I didn't attend a lot of programming, and indeed was prevented from a few by lack of seating. Not all were worth attending.

1. A talk by the author of a forthcoming biography of famous old-time SF editor John W. Campbell featured his explaining how his publisher had persuaded him to focus on some of Campbell's authors as well, and he'd picked Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard as both important and central to Campbell's own story. This was followed by cluelessly name-collecting audience members asking why not Poul Anderson, Henry Kuttner, Eric Frank Russell? To all of which the author gave the same reply, which he'd already given before they asked.

2. A panel on the future of libraries, at which I'd hoped to learn something, was half-filled by the panelists giving detailed accounts of their vitas, and didn't say anything of note in the other half either.

3. A memorial panel for Harlan Ellison ran with the accepted mixed view of his legacy. I wrote down some of the quips. "Harlan never met a deadline he really liked"--Christine Valada. "I knew Harlan for about fifty years. I think we were friends for about thirty of those years"--David Gerrold. "When he was good he was very good. You know the next line"--Robert Silverberg.

A couple panels that actually discussed Tolkien were more intellectually productive, and I'll write about those in a subsequent post.

Fortunately I had something else to occupy a lot of otherwise dead time. I attended the Business Meeting, something I don't often do. Last year's Hugo Administrator, Nicholas Whyte, had proposed a technical constitutional amendment in the Hugo rules, and not planning to be present this year had sought out co-sponsors. As a former Hugo Administrator myself, I liked his proposal and volunteered. Of the three co-sponsors, one wasn't present at the meeting when it was considered (though he was at the con) and one was the sergeant-at-arms, so I was the principal speaker in its favor at the brief schedule-setting session. The motion was rejected from full consideration by a vote of 59-26, which is closer than it looks because it requires 2/3ds of those voting to do so. This continues my unbroken string of being on the losing side of any Worldcon Business Meeting motion I speak on, but besides being based on only 5 or 6 data points over many years, it's neither bad luck nor malevolence, as I am not a skilled parliamentarian and only speak when the arguments I support are not being presented more ably by someone else. Which means they're probably going down.

SF cons are famous for their room parties, but I only attended one such party during the entire con, hosted by my friend and former editing/publishing colleague Lisa Harrigan in memory of her late husband (also a friend, and a mighty mentor in computer hardware) Harold. It was quiet, mostly people who knew Harold. I spent most of it in detailed conversation on reading-reception issues with the erudite John Hertz.

One other perception enlivened Worldcon, best conveyed in a quick exchange I had with a passing personage on Thursday, the first afternoon of the convention.
ME: So far, sir, I have been mistaken for you twice.

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


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)
Jennifer Higdon, Blue Cathedral (1999)
Osvaldo Golijov, Ayre (2004)
Belinda Reynolds, Open (2009)
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.