Thursday, May 30, 2019

frost and fortitude

Wednesday was the postponed (due to rain) media event at the about to re-open Frost Amphitheater at Stanford, which I attended representing SFCV. A historical venue with many past speakers and performers from Dag Hammarskjöld to the Grateful Dead, Frost gradually fell into disuse because of its complete lack of facilities. Everything from tents to use as backstage to port-a-potties for the audience had to be hauled in for every show over the high berm that surrounds the venue.

So as part of rebranding this part of campus as an arts center - Frost is right next to Bing Concert Hall, though I'd always been vague on exactly where it was, as I'd never been in it and it's hidden from outside view by its berm - Stanford built a completely new and full stage facility. Outside, on the Memorial Way side, there's a sunken loading dock (so the truck's bed is at ground level), which leads directly to a short wide flat concrete tunnel that goes through the berm and puts you directly on the roof of the stage facility, right in front of, ta da, a large freight elevator. Anyone who used to work stage crew there will be green with envy at how easy this has become. Downstairs backstage there's dressing rooms and a green room, plus a barn-sized door for loading onstage through the large rock wall that backs the stage, forming both a tasteful view (against the berm and trees the audience will see around behind the stage facility) and a broadcast reflector of sound.

The seating area is still grass terraces with ancient chipped concrete frames, except that 1) several areas have been paved for ADA seating; 2) there's now also an audience entrance tunnel through the berm from Lasuen Street; 3) and some brand-new restroom facilities. For classical concerts, they say they'll load the lower seating area with full-height chairs for reserved seating; I hope so, as some of us classical-goers are too old to sit on blankets or those ground-level beach chairs people take to outdoor concerts.

The SF Symphony, which long ago abandoned its only South Bay venue, the extremely peculiar Flint Auditorium, has signed up to give two summer festival programs in July, MTT conducting an all-Tchaikovsky show with Gil Shaham sawing away on the Violin Concerto, and Beethoven's Ninth under new guest conductor Gemma New, the latter in both evening and late-afternoon shows. As for the acoustics, they'll find out on the day, but as with most outdoor venues, there'll be tasteful (one hopes) amplification.

Stanford has also signed up a pop concert promoter who'll be bringing in various acts including Lionel Richie, whom I cite because I've heard of him (I don't actually know who he is offhand, but the name's familiar).

That was noonish (and included a box lunch for all us media folks). For that evening, I had a ticket for a lecture in the City on a topic so trivial I'm not even going to tell you what it was, and which I knew I'd done the right thing in abandoning when I got an e-mail from the promoters burbling about how there'd be time for networking afterwards. Networking, très yuppie.

I abandoned it for an event near home so moving that I felt obliged to give it my support. You may have read that, just over a month ago, a car ran over some pedestrians at an intersection in my town, injuring 8, some severely. It further emerged that it was a deliberate attack and that the driver, who had mental issues, targeted this group because he thought they were Muslim. It just keeps getting more disturbing.

So the mayor and city council decided to hold a "unity gathering," an event for support of the injured and the community, for general healing and intercultural support. It was held in a community center meeting room that holds 300 and was packed to overflow. A few speeches, but the main event was a panel of people representing a large variety of ethnic and religious groups, to talk about their reactions to hate and how their groups fit into the community. It was interesting in itself to see a Jewish rabbi, an Islamic community leader, the Buddhist abbot of the local zen center, a Hindu lawyer, and a Sikh software engineer (two women, three men) sitting in a row onstage, and that was only some of them. When they were asked what they'd like people to know about the group they represented, the Buddhist abbot asked, "Have you ever had the experience of really being at peace with yourself?"

The event ended around 8.30 with a couple of the Muslims taking the podium to announce that sunset was arriving and it was time to break the Ramadan fast. They explained the religious purpose of Ramadan (which, though they compared it to Jewish fast days like Yom Kippur, sounded to me more akin to Shabbat in its intent to carve out a regular period of time away from the mundane world for reflection), chanted a prayer, and invited us all to the back of the room for a snack of samosas, dates, and strawberries. This was my first experience with an Islamic religious event and, simplified though it was, I'm glad to have had it.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

a spring harvest

This is perhaps appropriate to bring up on the day after Memorial Day.

If you've seen the new bio-pic Tolkien, you'll have noticed a fair amount of attention devoted to the poetry of Tolkien's friend Geoffrey Bache Smith, one of his school fellowship the T.C.B.S., who died on duty in World War I in December 1916. There's a scene in which Tolkien tries to persuade Smith's mother to allow a collection of his poems to be published.

In fact, Mrs. Smith initiated the idea of the collection, asking Tolkien to gather up any poems of her son's that he had copies of, and the book was actually published, with a brief introduction by Tolkien, in June 1918.

The book, which was sadly and wistfully titled A Spring Harvest, came to mind when I saw an interview with the director and stars of the movie, conducted by Stephen Colbert. At the end, the director handed Colbert a few books, one of which I could see was a reprint edition of A Spring Harvest.

I remembered reading a few years ago that someone was preparing this, but having a scan of the original I hadn't bothered to get this. I did so now, however, getting the Amazon POD edition, and let me advise you that you'd be much better off with the Kindle e-book version, at least if you get the version with images. (I found it on Project Gutenberg.) The e-book is a reasonable facsimile of the printing of the original. The new printed edition is not. It lacks italics, it lacks breaks between verses, and, oddest of all, it prints poem titles in the same typeface as the text, immediately following the last line of the previous poem. This makes this edition hard to read and even harder to find anything in, and I have underlined all the titles in my copy. (There is a different paper reprint on Barnes & Noble which is more expensive but which I suspect is a better edition.)

Smith's poetry shows talent; it's probably both more voluminous and more obviously promising than a collection of Tolkien's would have been, had he been the one who died in 1916, even though he was nearly three years Smith's elder. Some of Smith's poems are mythic, in particular the opening work, which is his own version of a Fall of Arthur story, focusing on the tale of Bedivere.

There's a couple musically-related poems, one titled for an obscure piano piece of Schumann's that I wonder might have been intended to be sung to it; another is addressed "To a Pianist," whose playing evokes "soft sounds of summer seas / In a melody most fair," whereas others cause "most doleful threnodies / [to] chase about the air." Was the pianist Christopher Wiseman of the T.C.B.S.? Or could it have been Edith Tolkien?

But most moving are a hail and farewell to Oxford, depicting its college scenes in winter, and two in memory of the other T.C.B.S. member Rob Gilson, killed in battle several months earlier than Smith. One is bitter, asking God to "accept this sacrifice" for his own "inscrutable purposes." The other, without using any names, gently asks the remaining T.C.B.S. members to "sit silently, we three together ... And he, the fourth," from his grave "shall ... draw nigh unto us for memory's sake."

Honored memory to Smith and to them all.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

not a day of rest

Friday. First I had to await the late morning arrival of the cable company technician. Our old DVR box had been glitching, so after much unsuccessful online rebooting, they sent us a new one. Which set up fine, but then proved not to work at all. We couldn't even watch TV as it just sat there and pouted. The guy on the phone thought it was my cable, but the visiting tech quickly proved that false by running a long bypass cable from the modem upstairs down the stairwell and directly into the box. Then he said, maybe it's your modem which is really old (trans: over five years). So now we have a new one, plus wi-fi which I had dreaded ordering. But that wasn't it either. Turned out the DVR was refurbished but the old account had never properly been deleted, so there was an authorization conflict. So now we have yet another new DVR, and a new remote which glows in the dark too.

Then, to UC Berkeley for some library research, looking over Mythopoeic Scholarship Award nominees and finishing touches in the Tolkien Studies bibliography. Didn't arrive until 2 pm, but finished up, to my surprise, in less than 3 hours, which is good because on intersession Fridays they close at 5. Here's an annual journal volume that says it's the 2017 issue in one place and the 2018 in another. (The previous issue was 2016, and I guess they were just running late: they're not the worst offender.) Applied library cataloging rules to determine priority.

Had driven in to save time over the "last mile" issue on public transit, so had time to dart down to the Oakland hills to try out a restaurant I'd seen reviewed, before heading back up to a convenient BART station on the direct line to the City for an SF Symphony concert. Krzysztof Urbański returned with his bounding manner and big shock of hair, to conduct only one section of the orchestra at a time, as is his wont, bringing along another piece from his homeland, this time the nominal curtain-raiser of an Overture (that's the whole title) by Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-69), Poland's greatest woman composer, slowly emerging from international obscurity. It had the bustling energy of Bernstein's Candide without sounding in the least like it. Followed by an equally bustling and energetic rendition of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony.

Also on the program, Elgar's enormous (55 minutes in this performance) Violin Concerto. This at least sounds more typically Elgarian than his Cello Concerto, but it's equally rambling. Doesn't speak to me at all. Beautiful harmonies, though, with silky playing from soloist Vilde Frang, who's very tall and very thin and from Norway.

Ignoring several BART trains headed in various wrong directions later, finally back to my car and home about 12 hours after I left, i.e. very late.

Friday, May 24, 2019

this is the joke

Mark Evanier administers a juried award called the Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing. The Finger Award is intended to compensate for the Fickle Finger of Fate by honoring unjustly neglected figures in that field, of whom Bill Finger - the writer who co-created Batman, but was long ignored in favor of Bob Kane, the artist - is said to be the prototypical example.

The Finger Award comes in two categories, living and posthumous, and for this year's posthumous award, the jury has fingered E. Nelson Bridwell. Not being much of a student of comics, I had never heard of him, but it turns out I should have. Evanier's announcement credits Bridwell with co-creating a comic called The Inferior Five, which I'd never heard of either. A quick visit to its Wikipedia page proves that it's exactly what it sounds like, a sort of precursor to Mystery Men, a rare case of a superhero movie I rather liked. So I might enjoy The Inferior Five as well, especially as Evanier says that Bridwell's "writing was marked by a wicked sense of humor."

But it was by clicking from there on Bridwell's own Wikipedia entry that I discovered what he really deserves to be remembered for. While writing for MAD Magazine in the 1950s, he created one of our culture's truly classic, memorable, and lasting jokes. It's usually rendered something like this:
The Lone Ranger and Tonto find themselves surrounded by hostile Indians.
"Well, Tonto," says the Lone Ranger, "we're really in trouble now."
And Tonto replies,
"What you mean 'we', white man?"
I can't tell you how often I've seen that last line invoked, often without any further reference to the joke which readers are assumed to know. And sure enough, whenever lazy essayists or reviewers - and they're usually white men - assume their personal reactions are universal and write something like, for instance, Edmund Wilson on The Lord of the Rings that "we never feel Sauron's power," I'm there to murmur, "What you mean 'we', white man?"

And did Bridwell invent this joke? Apparently. According to Wikipedia's sources, nobody's been able to find it told earlier than a 1958 MAD article by Bridwell and artist Joe Orlando depicting moments you'll never see in popular TV shows. In Bridwell's script, Tonto just says "What you mean ... we?" but it's the same joke.

For that alone, he is worth honoring.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

ecce homines, pars VI

Returning to my three-volumes-at-a-time survey of the American Presidents series, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. This installment covers the presidencies of 1861-1877.

These are the presidents of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The coming of the Civil War was a huge watershed of American history, so much so that reading about these wartime and postwar presidents' pre-war lives feels as if they're different people or were somehow dropped in an alien environment.

George McGovern on Abraham Lincoln is more of a schematic diagram of Lincoln's presidency than a personal portrait, and it makes no attempt to tell a history of the war. The former presidential candidate and, one remembers, former executive administrator offers a dry and administrative look at the major issues of the presidency in the Civil War: preserving the union, waging the war, dealing with political pressures, and deciding to emancipate the slaves. Then it takes odd sidetracks to deal with side issues like Lincoln's relationship with each of his cabinet members, while ignoring other points, like foreign relations during the war. Lincoln, had he written it, would have leavened this account with a few jokes, and I missed other things I would have liked to see, like Congressman Lincoln's trenchant criticisms of the legality of the Mexican War (uncannily applicable to Iraq 160 years later). Despite the dry tone and the omissions, it's a good evaluation of the importance of the things Lincoln did.

Annette Gordon-Reed on Andrew Johnson is the boldest, and one of the best, matches of author and subject in the series. Gordon-Reed is the historian who penned the major study of Jefferson's black family, the Hemingses. She cannot be expected to like her present subject, the most racist president America has ever had (present company excepted), and she doesn't, but instead of spending her space denouncing him, she seeks to understand the cultural and personal context that made him what he was, why many hoped that acceding to the presidency might produce an epiphany in his attitudes, and why it didn't. Nor has she forgotten the corresponding strengths of his weaknesses (absolute obstinacy can be a virtue if you're a Southerner minded to stick with the Union), nor her biographer's remit to cover all of his public life and major events of his presidency, even those irrelevant to her thesis, like the Alaska Purchase. This is one of the best books in the series.

Josiah Bunting III on Ulysses S. Grant is another military writer on a military president. Bunting goes through Grant's military career with the same clear-sighted, straightforward attention on the task at hand that he credits as the key to Grant's greatness as a general. But when Bunting turns to the presidency he gets strangely waffly, as, apparently, did Grant. Grant tended to appoint subordinates without performing due diligence, but ... his cabinet members were all top-class men regardless of this, but ... somehow bad things happened anyway. Bunting is reluctant to blame Grant for anything except insofar as he was too passive in addressing problems, and goes through an entire chapter of scandals sweeping them aside this way. The strangest chapter is the one on Indian affairs, where Grant's determination to solve the native problem by assimilating them all to white culture, which nowadays would be called cultural genocide, is praised as noble. Yet Little Big Horn happened on Grant's watch, but this is somehow not connected to anything.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

concert review: two pianos and political culture

The publicity agents for this concert invited me to attend. Then I got my editor to agree to publish the review.

The theme was recent piano compositions inspired by the search for social justice. As I noted in the review, the concept sounds deadly, and one of the pieces indeed was, but what I didn't say but should have was that the reason I jumped at the opportunity to go was the list of composers. I was familiar with work by six of the eight on the program, and at least four of those I was more than happy to hear music by again. Both of the ones new to me turned out pretty good too.

I hesitated a bit at whether I should approach Elinor Armer, when I saw her at the cheese and crackers table after the concert. Then I did. I complimented her on the wit of her composition, and mentioned her set of collaborations with Ursula Le Guin, most of which I heard in concert when they were new. We agreed that we both missed Ursula terribly, and she said that she was planning a CD of her previously unpublished settings of UKL's poetry. I'm looking forward to that.

Since her piece was a tribute to her composition teacher, the noted French composer Darius Milhaud (who spent many years part-time at Mills College here), I asked if by any chance she was familiar with my harmony instructor, who was also a Milhaud composition student. She didn't recognize his name, and I said, "Well, he was probably before your time. He would have been rather older than you." She said, "I'm 80 years old, you know." I said, "Yes, but he was my teacher nearly 50 years ago, and he wasn't a young man then." Anyway, we had an agreeable conversation.

Then I took my notebook home and wrote the review. With a program full of new works and only one I'd ever heard before, it was hard to evaluate the performances, but I could certainly describe the music, so that's what I mostly did.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Stop Thebans

Today was the day of nationwide protests against the draconian anti-abortion laws from Alabama and Georgia and such benighted places, and while a quick transporter to go there was not available, I could at least show up locally, even though around here such protests are preaching to the choir.

Publicity said that protests were to be gathering at town squares and such places, but we don't have a lot of town squares around here. A web site showing locales showed that two of the three local events would be at shopping centers. Oh, I've seen that kind of protest before. A bunch of people gather on the sidewalk to yell at passing traffic. When I'm the passing traffic, I never know what to do. I can never make out what they're yelling, anyway. Not to be one of that crowd is a strong desire of mine.

But look. The third protest is at San Jose city hall. That's a plaza, at least, if not a town square, and it was the staging area for the Women's March which I've attended twice, and they're the sponsoring group for this one, so I'll go there.

So I do, and arrive as the rain stops just before official starting time to find ... they're all gathered up against the sidewalk to yell at passing traffic. Oh well. At least there's enough - about 300 people, I'd guess, virtually no children but a few men, not as large a proportion as at the Women's March - to mill around. I park myself on one of the artificial rocks and hang around agreeably for an hour. If any media types try to interview me, I'd say, "I'm here to support the women. Why don't you go talk to some of them?" but nobody does.

The first sign I see appears to read STOP THEBANS. I figure that's some species of alien, like, I dunno, Thermians. Then I figure it out. Other signs read:



GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUNdamental human rights


PRO CHOICE, because other people's choices are none of my fncking business

which I particularly like because it pretty well sums up my own reasoning for picking this side. Once upon a time I considered abortion vs. forced pregnancy an insolvable moral dilemma. I might not like abortion, but where did I get off telling women they had to keep pregnancies because of my moral qualms? That arrogant I'm not. Eventually I decided that if I couldn't solve the dilemma, it was up to the woman who had the problem to solve it for herself. When it dawned on me that that was exactly the pro-choice position, I took that stand and have never wavered since.

Anyway, so we're all milling around and clustering by the sidewalk, and every time a passing vehicle toots its horn, everybody cheers. Especially when it's a heavy construction vehicle or, in one case, a city fire truck. Oh, so that's what drivers are supposed to do. It feels wrong to me, for whom car horn = hostile intention. But, whatever. In between cheers, a few speakers wielding highly directional bullhorns, so I don't catch more than a drift of what they're saying. But the drift sounds good.

After an hour everyone begins drifting away and the rain starts up again. I like to think that $DEITY arranged that break for us.

Monday, May 20, 2019

an excellent sf movie

First, you have to understand that I'm no fan of those big blockbuster movies that get all the attention. I tend to like quieter and well-crafted films. Even my favorite space adventure movies are 2001 and Dark Star (yes, Dark Star), but a lot of my favorite sf films are actually modest little things with here-and-now settings that integrate their sf elements into real dramas of human beings. For instance, I was quite taken with a little film from 2012 called Safety Not Guaranteed, which was set in a small town on the Washington state coast and which may, or may not, have involved time travel.

Now I've seen another film of that kind which is just as good, in some ways better. It's just been released on Netflix and it's called See You Yesterday. In this one, there really is time travel. Two bright juniors at the Bronx High School of Science have built a modest time machine which they've just now gotten to work.

Here's one of the things. These kids, they live in the East Flatbush ghetto in Brooklyn. They're black. Almost all of the characters in the movie (except their science teacher* and a couple of cops) are black. Their life is the ghetto. This movie was produced by Spike Lee, though not directed by him. The events of life in the ghetto, including the possibility of being randomly shot, by police or otherwise, are present in this movie and intimately intertwined with the story of the time machine.

It's really brilliantly written (and performed, and directed), especially the ending, which is both heartbreaking and audacious**, and which I've rewatched several times just to admire it.

*And guess who was coaxed out of retirement to play the part. I was utterly delighted to see him again.

**There's one old favorite movie of mine whose audacious ending reminds me a little of this one. But I can't tell you what it is, because I don't want to spoil this.

book report

White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo (Beacon)

This is a book by a white person, intended to explain racism to white people.

I don't think it's going to work.

The problem isn't with the substantive content of what DiAngelo has to say. I entirely agree with her on that. In particular, I'm in sad communion with her observation that the election of Obama was hardly the end of racism in the US, as was sometimes proclaimed, but the signal for a renewed outbreak of the kind of toxic, blatant, Jim Crow-style virulent racism that some of us were foolish enough to think had permanently faded away.

No, the problem is with the tone and the framing.

Early on, DiAngelo has to patiently explain, as she does every time she brings this subject up with a discussion group, that when she says that white people are racist, she doesn't mean they consciously hate or belittle black people. She's talking about "the racial status quo."

This becomes clear later on when she says that black people can't be racist, even when they're discriminating against white people on racial grounds. Only whites can be racist.

Here it is - or ought to be - as clear as it can possibly be that DiAngelo's definition of racism does not lie in individual acts of racist behavior, but in the whole cultural context of how whites and blacks relate to each other in US society.

Fair enough, but that's not the way she writes. She points to individual whites and says they're racist. She does that to focus them on the problem, but the focus is off. If racism lies in cultural context, then it doesn't consist of individuals' behavior, even when that behavior is discriminatory, and even though the cultural context is formed out of accumulated individual actions. The point is that if that's the definition of racism, then there's nothing any one individual can do to be any less racist, or any more racist for that matter, so the pointing finger is pointing too directly.

I wonder if we need two words, one to mean an inevitably racist context, and the other to mean specific acts of racism.

The people who really need this book - the whites who think that racism is obsolete but who casually demean black people - are unlikely to read it. They'll have been put off by DiAngelo's opening mea culpa breast-beating attitude long before they get to be told to breathe deeply when they're told they're racist, and if they ever get to the point where they read that black people can't be racist while all white people are, they'll just shut down completely.

If you make it to the end, there's some concrete suggestions for how white people should behave in a context of endemic racism, and those are useful, and go against the grain of blaming an endemic problem on individual actions; but first you need to get that far.

Sunday, May 19, 2019


After a preview of the heat of summer, a mixture of rains and threatening weather returned starting a few days ago, wreaking schedule alterations on outdoor events which are normally common in May.

A press tour of Stanford's outdoor amphitheater, to which symphony concerts are returning this summer, was put off from last week for two weeks. While outdoor concerts are not much my thing, I have never been in this amphitheater, so I'm curious to go.

Today was supposed to be the Barron Park May Fête, Barron Park being a small community hidden away inside Palo Alto, whose town park is the location of the corral where lives the donkey, the one used as model for the character in Shrek. (I've seen the donkey at past events, and they look exactly alike.) I was especially eager to go because Brocelïande would be playing, but the rains this morning made it look doubtful, and indeed I found a Nextdoor listing that said it had been canceled. So, stay home and do some work.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

half a day at a book festival

The day I went to the California Symphony, which was Sunday a week and a half ago now, that was in Walnut Creek in the late afternoon, so it gave me time to spend part of the earlier part of the day at the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley.

I'd gone to a couple panels at this three years ago and have been on their mailing list ever since. But I hadn't found anything that looked worth making the trek to Berkeley for until I suddenly found one of this year's guests, Carlos Lozada, on my radar. Lozada has been the nonfiction book critic of the Washington Post for a while now, but I'd only come across him a month earlier when I read his takedown of the now-ex Baltimore mayor's children's book. You heard about this? The mayor resigned after a scandal around the large sums of money she got selling vast numbers of copies of her self-published children's books to various state institutions that could use a mayor's (or a state legislator's, which is what she was previously) help. Anyway, while the scandal was still boiling Lozada got hold of a copy of one of the books (which wasn't easy to find) and gave it a hilarious (and rather atypical of him) review. Since then he's also reviewed the Mueller report in its capacity as a book to read, rather than parsing it purely for intellectual content.

So Lozada was to be on this panel in a hotel ballroom on "Courage in Publishing in an Age of Political Polarization," which sounded interesting, so I went. At first the heavily overpopulated panel looked as if it wasn't going to go anywhere very useful, with heavy remarks about "cancel culture" and the "new prudishness" and whether the news that Woody Allen can't find a publisher for his memoirs means that publishers lack courage. Someone tried to draw a distinction that what's called "cultural appropriation" is not a bad thing in itself; borrowing is enriching; it's disrespect and exploitation which are bad. Well, good luck at maintaining that distinction.

But the moderator kept good traffic control, and when Lozada got a chance to speak, he put forth some good points from his Mueller review. I wrote him down as saying, "The report is the best of the inside White House books because Robert Mueller has subpoena power. Imagine if Bob Woodward had subpoena power. That would be really interesting." They then got into the question of whether the report is going to be an unread bestseller. Another panelist said, "The Attorney General doesn't seem to have read it," to which Lozada quipped, "Then he shouldn't have reviewed it."

Lozada also got a chance to deliver a bit on the kinds of over-common and repetitious books that political reviewers like himself see too much of these days. They cross the political spectrum. The ones on the left that he's tired of are, he said, "resistance anthologies consisting of essays by obsessively like-minded writers who keep screaming 'this is not who we are' over and over again, which I don't think is very useful," and on the right he finds either accommodationist apologias for Trump or else "book-length breakup letters to the Republican Party without addressing the author's own complicity in making it this way."

After that I wandered over to the Freight, whose auditorium had also been rented by the Festival and which turned out to be a good place for Lozada to interview one Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher with, judging from his interview, an excessively dainty approach. He's recently published a book called The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity which I haven't seen anywhere, nor do many libraries seem to have his earlier books though they're from major publishers. Apparently all his writings focus on identity, which you can understand why it obsesses him once he explains that he's half Ghanaian and half English country gentry with a politically radical side (his grandfather was Stafford Cripps), and now he lives in the US. What am I, anyway? he may well ask.

After that I wandered down to the display area in the city's central park. There were some publishers' booths with nothing I wanted to buy and some food booths with nothing I wanted to eat, so I drifted away.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

concert review: San José State University, School of Music and Dance

Probably the most fun, and certainly the most anticipated, thing I did last weekend was to attend SJSU's production of Bernstein's Mass. This is not a work one gets to see staged often - this was the fourth time total for me - and never before for me in a college rather than professional production.

My editor had phoned to ask if I could cover some other concert that evening and I had to say, "Sorry, I'll be at SJSU for their Bernstein Mass." Then I thought for a moment and said, "Would you like me to review that instead?"

He said sure, so here it is. You may thank my resident Catholic, who was enthusiastically there with me, for the comments on liturgical significance (the shroud on the cross, the Celebrant's vestments), because that's not stuff I would know.

I took our two CDs of the work up to my office with me to help with the review. Then I put them back down on the rack in the kitchen where they came from. Now I can hear from downstairs that B. is listening to one of them while doing the post-dinner dishes. (Just as a reminder: I cook, she does the dishes.) We like this work. And I've started writing cat lyrics to it.

Monday, May 13, 2019

An announcer on our local no-brow classical station just named a famous flutist as "Sir Galway."

tiny tyrant

That's what B. called Tybalt when I came back to bed Saturday morning after a couple hours up early. "Did you feed the tiny tyrant?" she asked. Even before I got up, that active young cat was nibbling at our toes, licking our hair, even switching off the CPAP machine, and just causing chaos to our attempts to sleep in.

Tybalt isn't a hostile cat, though: he wants love. It's very frequent, while I'm working here at the computer, for him to squeeze in past the open arms of my office chair and sit next to me in the chair. If only he'd stay there. He's the only cat we've had since we've been together who likes to be picked up, and that's what happens next. He doesn't try to lie on my lap, either. He latches in and goes up my chest. As you can imagine, this feels considerably different depending on whether or not I'm wearing a shirt. What he wants is to sit on my chest, with me holding him up with one hand and petting him with the other. This is fine if I'm reading a long article or listening to music; not so great if I'm trying to write something or take notes.

Tybalt also ventures into places in the kitchen where no cat has gone before, specifically up on the counter, especially when I'm working there on dinner. At first I tended to ignore him, and even work over him, unless he actually threatened to stick his nose in the food (and probably eat it: he's eaten things like spicy potato chips off the floor). But now I'm trying to be more strict, and if he comes up, I scoop a hand under him and drop him back on the floor. Assuming, that is, that my hands aren't covered with something I don't want to get on a cat. Lesson does not usually get through, though in other ways I can see Tybalt modifying his behavior in light of the way things are done around here. But I'm often scooping 15 or 20 cats off the counter in the course of fixing one meal.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Tolkien: the bio-pic

When I wrote in March of my visit to New York, and the Morgan Library's Tolkien exhibit, and the two-day conference for which many distinguished Tolkienists gathered, I left something out.

Saturday morning, before any of the other conference events occurred, most of the conference presenters converged from various directions in the chilly quiet of a March weekend morning in New York, on an otherwise deserted (not yet open for the day) spacious multiplex movie theatre out on the far fringes of East Midtown. (I hadn't known there were any multiplexes in Manhattan, did you?) This was the first most of us had seen of each other on this visit, and it was a strange way to greet old friends. I was walking along a deserted street towards the theatre, for instance, when a man crossed the street and fell into step beside me to greet me: it was Peter Grybauskas. In the theatre were many more, including John Garth, the British scholar whose biography Tolkien and the Great War is the closest thing to a book equivalent to the movie we were there to see, which was of course the Tolkien biographical film which is just now hitting general release.

And the reason I haven't said anything about it until now is that we all had to sign embargo forms before entering the theatre. This didn't surprise me: I've previously been asked not to publish pre-release reviews of movies I've seen in private previews, though this was the first time I had to sign a form. Curiously, the form bore no date on which the embargo expired, so I wrote "until the film's general release" on the form before signing it. Others were less punctilious, but at least one person there blanched at the form and refused to sign it at all, and therefore (as far as I know) did not see the movie.

But now it's out so I may speak. So I'll tell you what I said. When the lights came up I turned to Janet Croft and David Emerson, who were seated near me, and said, "If they're going to make stuff up, why can't they at least make a coherent and interesting story out of it?" Only I didn't say "stuff."

The plot covers Tolkien's life from the time his family moved away from idyllic Sarehole (at which time Tolkien was 8, though he's played as a boy by a young man who was something like 16 at the time of filming) until his return from France during WWI, with a couple of later epilogues. The elements mostly come from his life, but by the time he gets to Oxford, the sequence and causality of the plot have departed sufficiently from historical fact that it's essentially made up. But if they're going to play so loose with history, why not include even any of the historically known ways that Tolkien's life inspired his fiction, let alone make any up which they were free to do?

The movie is being promoted as "explor[ing] how ... time spent in college and his service in the British army ... and other events influenced his classic works," but that’s exactly what it doesn't do.

For instance, in an epilogue title card we’re told that the names of Beren and Lúthien appear on Ronald and Edith’s tombstone, but nothing is said in the movie itself of the inspiration for that story. There's a brief shot of Edith dancing in the woods (at a different date than the occasion which actually inspired the story), but the allusion is left completely untouched.

I subsequently saw an interview with the director who said that he was trying to avoid the implication that Tolkien's fiction encoded his life. An admirable concern, but that ship has sailed. The only point in making a commercial movie of Tolkien's early life is to show how he became the man who wrote the fiction, and you can do that without reducing the fiction to a commentary on the life. See John Garth's book for a start.

But it's worse than lacking that connection. The movie keeps telling us that Tolkien was marvelously creative, but what it shows us is a man who's mostly inert or at best reactive (more often unreactive). There's a scene at the TCBS where the others ask Tolkien what he's written lately and he says he hasn't written anything. Why is this scene in the movie, then? There's another scene where he brings Edith to meet the TCBS (I don't think this ever actually happened) and the conversation is awkward at first, but as soon as Edith gets into a juicy discussion of Wagner with Christopher Wiseman, Tolkien jumps up and says they have to leave. Why does he do this? In the next scene Edith chews him out for it, but there's never any explanation or an attempt to fit this in to a larger pattern of behavior. There's almost as much attention in this movie to G.B. Smith's poetry as to Tolkien’s writings.

Nor does the movie entirely avoid showing Tolkien's creativity being inspired. But what it does show – fragments of some stories which have nothing to do with the legendarium; a hallucination of mounted knights clashing on the Somme; artwork pinned to Tolkien's walls that appears inspired by the Book of Ishness but is far grimmer than anything actually appearing there – is of a tenor to give more the impression that Tolkien is the author not of his books but of Peter Jackson's movies. At the end there's a casual attempt to wrap up every experience Tolkien has had and claim they went together to make up The Hobbit, but it's glib and the book doesn't carry that kind of weight.

I found this movie dull and meandering. By far the best acting in it came from by far the best-known actor in it, Derek Jacobi as Joseph Wright. Laura Donnelly (new to me) as Tolkien's mother shows some zest, and the bit in which she reads from Völsunga saga to her boys is my favorite scene in the movie, as well as the one most relevant to Tolkien's inspiration. Nicholas Hoult as the adult Tolkien looks pained a lot. Lily Collins as Edith pouts a lot. The actors playing the other TCBS members as adolescents have a liveliness to them which disappears when they're replaced by the actors who play them as adults. I don't anticipate this movie having a major impact on public perception of Tolkien, simply because it doesn't have the kind of appeal, as a film on its own account, that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies certainly had.

concert review: Music@Menlo

So as I explained while reviewing their previous offering, Music@Menlo is trying out a new format for its winter concerts, Focus Residencies. And evidently they like it, because they've scheduled two more for next winter's season.

In these, one of Menlo's regular musicians is asked to serve as guest artistic director for a program. This person chooses a topical theme, selects appropriate repertoire, and assigns performers. The resulting concert is preceded by a lecture on the theme.

This time I got to attend both the concert and the lecture, Thursday and Friday of last week, and that was the first of my three weekend concerts. The Curator (that's what they're called) was regular Menlo violinist Arnaud Sussmann, who explained at both events that he started with the performers: he wanted to play with his violin mentor Pamela Frank, and with Menlo's pretty fabulous violist, Paul Neubauer.

And here they are at work, l. to r. Frank, Neubauer, and Sussmann.

So, then, what great music is there for two violins and a viola? Sussmann could think of two often-played pieces by Antonín Dvořák and one by Zoltán Kodály, though curiously they're never all played together. On further search he found a couple more good ones by Sergei Taneyev and Eugène Ysaÿe, which made enough to form a concert.

And then he had a theme, too, because Dvořák, Kodály, and Taneyev - Czech, Hungarian, and Russian respectively - had one thing in common, that they were nationalist composers inspired by their own countries' folk music.

So we had a nice little concert in the bright precincts of St. Bede's Church with Dvořák's Terzetto and Four Miniatures, Kodály's Serenade Op. 12, Taneyev's Trio in D Op. 21, and Ysaÿe's Le Londres. The Ysaÿe, the non-folkish one of the bunch, was a challenging, counterpoint-heavy work with a lot of imitative work and an entire fugato.

The other pieces, the folk-influenced ones, were more ingratiating. The Taneyev, a hefty four-movement work, was a real find. It starts out sounding like a pastiche of Mozart, and then shifts into a more typical circa 1900 Russian style, though less heavy or bear-like than Tchaikovsky or the Mighty Five would do it. Taneyev hasn't gotten much respect since Harold Schonberg dismissed him as a sterile academician, but Schonberg hadn't heard much of Taneyev's music.

The Kodály was most notable for a slow movement dialogue, which begins with Sussmann's violin audibly laughing at Neubauer's viola's emotional pretense, all over a continuous tremolo from Frank on the unheralded other violin.

And the Dvořák pieces were full of Czech intensity, double-stops, frequent key changes, expressiveness, and - in the slow movements - weeping hesitations. The Miniatures were thicker and more intense, the Terzetto more lively and friendly.

Patrick Castillo gave the introductory lecture the previous evening in Stent Hall on the Menlo School campus. (Martin, the usual lecture venue on campus, had to be abandoned because the school was rehearsing Bye Bye Birdie just outside, and I was thinking, do today's students even believe that there once existed the culture depicted in that show? I can barely remember it and I don't believe it.) Some of his musical examples were recorded, but those which could be played by the three musicians of the concert live, were. So we got a preview of the concert.

What I found most interesting in his talk was his addressing of the scoring problem. He viewed this kind of trio as like a string quartet with the cello missing. So what do you do without your bass line? Several possible ways. One, you can use the viola as the bass, and that's a highly recommended procedure when you have the powerfully strong viola voice of Paul Neubauer at your disposal. That type of scoring in the concert worked exceptionally well. Another is to thicken the texture by playing a lot of double-stops. Ysaÿe really went for that one. And a third is to exploit the fact that violin and viola have similar timbre, and cluster them together in a medium-high range, defying the lack of cello.

Oh yes, we heard all those things, brilliantly rendered. Here, all you fine performers, take a curtain call:

Monday, May 6, 2019

concert review: Symphony Silicon Valley

Proceeding backward through my weekend, then, we get to Saturday at Symphony Silicon Valley. I was there to review this, so there it is.

The program, of Petrushka (by Stravinsky) and Rach 2 (the piano concerto), is one I could have used a refresher on. I know these works, but not particularly well, and I'd have liked to have gone over each with a score and a recording beforehand. But there just wasn't time, what with spending Friday rushing off to libraries 50 miles away and going to another concert that evening (next up in this travelogue) and so forth.

So this was more impressionistally written than I'd intended, but at least it was written Saturday night when I got home, leaving me free for a packed Sunday. (The Cal Sym concert wasn't the half of it. More on that later too.)

Sunday, May 5, 2019

concert review: California Symphony

I went to three concerts this weekend, but owing to logistics I'll probably be covering them in reverse chronological order. At any rate, third on the list was the California Symphony, under its music director, Donato Cabrera, on Sunday afternoon at Lesher in Walnut Creek.

Their current composer in residence, Katherine Balch, contributed a new violin concerto. Balch turns out to be an unreconstructed modernist. The soloist, Robyn Bollinger, her best friend since conservatory days - with friends like this, etc etc - sounded variously like a baby bird in pain, a mule in pain, a cow in pain, and a car alarm in pain. You know, it's still possible to write great music today, even great music which by no means sets out to soothe the listener, but this ain't it.

But that wasn't why I was here. I was here for Bruckner's Seventh. I'm always eager to hear what a second-tier orchestra will do with such a work. The big waves of sound lined up to crash across the dry and unresonant stage in a powerful but neatly-ordered fashion. It wasn't subtle, but it was sincere.

Lesher is still selling single-serving containers of ice cream at intermission, but there's been a change since the last time I was here and complained about this in a professional review. Now the ushers equip themselves with small trash bags so customers have a place to throw the empty containers away. Good going.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Colbert does it again

People have criticized me for unfairly ragging on Stephen Colbert's Tolkien spasms on his tv show, but this time ... this time he's really gone and done it. This time, nobody can say he's not totally mixed up.

So he's interviewing Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins, the stars of the new bio-pic about Tolkien, and Colbert is saying Toll-kin with emphasis on the first syllable and they're saying Toll-keen with even emphasis on both syllables and they're saying that's right and that they learned it from listening to Judi Dench narrate a documentary, and they're trying to teach it to Colbert and he's having a hard time getting it.

And in fact they are right, -keen is the preferred second syllable.

And then Colbert tries to explain how he got it wrong. He says that in high school, the people who read Tolkien were much the same as the people who read science fiction (true enough, at least in his day and mine), so they would say Toll-kin because they said Robert A. Hine-lin because they're spelled the same.


First off, they're not spelled the same. J.R.R. Tolkien. Robert A. Heinlein. I-E in one, E-I in the other. Unless Colbert is one of those cretins who spells it "Tolkein"?

Second, I don't know what they may have said down in South Carolina where Colbert comes from, but I've never heard anyone say Hine-lin. Where I've heard it, it's universally Hine-line. Even emphasis on both syllables, like Toll-keen. They're both German names, and that's the vowel in German; I-E is pronounced E and E-I is pronounced I. That's not how that combo is always in English, and some people with German names in the US reverse the pronunciation, but most don't.

The science-fiction writer they always get wrong is Fritz Leiber. Nobody misspells his name, like Tolkien's, but they say Lee-ber. That's wrong; it's Lye-ber. I have that from the man himself. I don't know why they get it wrong; it's the same combo as Heinlein. I've taken to referring to the latter as Heen-leen to mock this, but it doesn't help.

So, Colbert, what the bleeping bleep?

Friday, May 3, 2019


I had one more research thing to do for the 30,000-word survey of a year's worth of recent Tolkien literature that's going to press next week: look up a few bibliographic references in a book I don't have. That's it.

Stanford has the book, or claims it does, but like all the recent lit crit it's in storage. So I ordered it up last Sunday. Supposed to arrive in the on-campus library by Tuesday afternoon.

I went in Wednesday morning. It wasn't there. Clerk told me something went wrong with the request. He re-ordered it under his own name. Supposed to arrive by Thursday afternoon.

Checked Thursday evening; still wasn't there. Friday morning delivery? No. What is wrong here? I've never had trouble with Stanford delivery before.

Time for Plan B, because I can't do this over the weekend and can't wait as long as Monday. Plan B is to visit the next nearest library with a copy. This is a junior college that I'd never heard of before, 50 miles away. I drive there in the late morning, before the afternoon commuter traffic kicks in. (And it's already kicking in, I see from across the freeway, at 1 PM as I'm driving back in the other direction.)

Friday's a quiet day on this little campus - it shuts down at 4 PM - and I find a parking space near the Learning Resource Center, which is junior college lingo for "library." (The implication that the rest of the campus is not a learning resource center is what's so quintessentially junior college about it.)

I've been in a lot of junior college libraries before, but never one whose stacks were so small, especially considering that they've got a book held by no other libraries for 50 miles around. I take note of the minitude of their Tolkien collection: 13 volumes altogether. Seven books about Tolkien, of which the one I need is the only one less than about 20 years old. They're all basically introductory books, none of them terrible, but Carpenter's biography is the only one on the essential reading list for students of the subject. They do not, for instance, have Kocher's Master of Middle-earth, a very old book which everybody has and everybody should have. One book is specifically about The Lord of the Rings. Two are specifically about The Hobbit. But they don't have The Hobbit. They have a 3-volume LotR, they have The Silmarillion, The Book of Lost Tales vol. 1, and The Treason of Isengard. Interesting selection.

I take the book I need down from the shelf. I copy down the half-dozen references. Takes less than ten minutes. All that trouble for just this. But it's done. I drive to a nearby shopping center in search of lunch. I find a Malaysian restaurant with more unusual food than you'd expect in a suburban shopping center. Makes the trip feel more worthwhile.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Banff: the repertoire

As I've alluded to, I'm going back to the Banff International String Quartet Competition this summer. Ten string quartet ensembles will give 4 or 5 (depending on whether they make the finalists or not) performances each, grouped into 13 concerts over a week, and then a winner will be named.

Yesterday they've announced the competing quartets and what they'll be playing.

Usually at BISQC, one or two of the quartets are repeats from the previous competition - you're allowed two goes, unless you're one of the top two winners. Last time, unusually, everybody was new. This time there are two returns whom I heard last time, the Omer Quartet (whom I've also heard at Stanford in the interim) and the Ulysses Quartet. Neither have had any changes in personnel, I'm pleased to say, and I'm looking forward to hearing both again.

The Omer have been together for ten years; all the others have 3 to 6 years experience as groups. Their origins are mixed, almost all European or North American. So what are they playing?

Haydn - A gratifyingly varied list, and 4 of the quartets are from Opp. 20 or 33, which particularly pleases me.

Modern - Seven Bartoks. Last time eight, this time seven. Still, the folks who come here are really good at Bartok. Two Ligeti Firsts, a work I could live without, and one Szymanowski Second, which at least is different.

Romantic - Four Mendelssohns (3 Op. 80 and 1 Op. 13, my favorite); one Brahms, one late Dvorak, two Debussys, two Ravels.

Schubert - For one concert they're required to begin with the opening movement of one late Schubert quartet. We're getting 4 from the G Major and six from Death and the Maiden. Six renditions of that powerful movement. From six quartets. In one day. That'll be worth the trip all by itself.

Ad lib - And the rest of that concert they can fill with anything they want. We're getting quite a mixture here, including full quartets by a couple of composers I don't know, Salvatore Sciarrino and Thierry Escaich. Plenty of stuff I do know, though: Thomas Adès and Lera Auerbach among the living, and a few older famous names including one bit of Shostakovich.

Finals - The three groups that make the final round have to play one of the eight big Beethoven quartets, but all ten have picked their item, and eight of them have taken one of the same two, Op. 59/2 or Op. 132, wouldn't you know it. We could easily wind up hearing three performances of just one of those. Make it 59/2 in that case; Op. 132 is just too intense to listen to 3 times in a row.

So I'm looking forward to this, even if we only get one movement from a quartet by Shostakovich (and it's the Tenth).