Friday, September 27, 2019

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

In this, his final season as music director, MTT is focusing the repertoire for his own appearances on revisiting works especially meaningful to him. This week, my first venture there of the season, it was mid-to-late period Stravinsky. We had the Symphony in Three Movements, the Symphony of Psalms, and a lesser-known and later work, the Canticum sacrum. The first of these is for big orchestra, the other two for much smaller ensembles with chorus, with sacred lyrics in Latin.

I like the Symphony of Psalms a great deal, particularly the almost-minimalist serene outlaying of the conclusion. The Canticum sacrum sounds similar, except much drier, and to further evaporate the already naturally desiccated Stravinsky sound is tortuous. Stravinsky's late adoption of twelve-tone technique is responsible for a lot of this; MTT said in introducing the work that, for Stravinsky, twelve-tone was a neutral thing, just another tool to play with, but considering how he'd previously avoided it, I think that Robert Craft bullied him into using it.

These were good performances, but there was something - rushed? perfunctory? those are the wrong words, because they're too strong and harsh - about them.

That being the bulk of the program, what was Haydn's Cello Concerto No. 2 doing in the middle there? Unless it was just that they needed something to showcase soloist Oliver Herbert, and Stravinsky wrote nothing suitable.

I'd spent much of the afternoon in the Foster City library, visiting there in particular because they had a hard-to-find item I wanted to check out, and spending more time because the combination of air conditioning, good books, comfy chairs, and the right to loiter is my ideal way of beating summer mid-afternoon heat, even though now it's technically fall.

That put me, though, in an awkward position geographically to avoid traffic on my way up, and I found myself short of time and at the wrong BART station to get to the concert and, even more so, to get back again, not to mention getting anything substantive to eat.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

we have news

1. Writing about US politics now feels like writing about UK politics over the past months. Before you can finish writing anything down, the situation entirely changes. I can note the widespread impression that impeachment will only hurt the Democrats. Newt Gingrich thinks so, because that's what happened to him when he tried it. But how much will they, and the country, be hurt if they don't? The situation is entirely different from the last case. Clinton's personal sleaze was reprehensible but not impeachable, and neither was his technical crime, the perjury. I saw an article at the time: several DAs said they would never attempt to prosecute for perjury a business executive who'd done what Clinton did: it was too petty and insignificant. Whereas what we're seeing now: wow. Undoubtably this is how DT has conducted his business for forty years, so no wonder he doesn't see anything wrong with it. Clearly he has no idea how to be President. Remember how he was going to "pivot" and become "presidential" once he secured the nomination? He never did, nor has he since.

1a. Good article on the political situation, as it is now.

2. I started to watch Ken Burns' Country Music documentary, and gave up before the end of the first 2-hour segment, covering up to 1933, from the sheer slog of it. Although I recognized several of the talking heads who gave commentary, the only historical performers described in the narration I'd ever heard of were the Carter Family, of whom all I could have told you was that they existed. The material on the historical origins of the music has no heft, while the accounts of the featured performers drown in mind-numbing levels of unnecessary detail. How many times do we have to be told that some guy I'd never heard of had tuberculosis?

2a. And now I'm really confused about the distinction between country music and American folk music. The stuff described here seems like folk to me, but Burns never calls it that. To me, "country" is a commercial genre of pop music. Or is that wrong? Other sources don't help. Wikipedia says the Carter Family were a folk music group, and then that they were country music stars. I recognized one of their songs, "Worried Man Blues," because it was later covered by the Kingston Trio. But nobody ever called the Kingston Trio a country music group, surely?

3. Article on the 50th anniversary of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I really enjoyed that movie at the time, though it has its longeurs today (the suck fairy has made some inroads, but not entirely taken it over). People forget that, though he had equal billing with Paul Newman, Robert Redford wasn't a star when this movie came out. This is the one that made him a star. I followed his work avidly for a while after that. I got to see The Candidate and The Hot Rock because of that, and the latter led me to Donald Westlake's novel and thence to all Westlake's other work. I also followed William Goldman (who also did the screenplay for The Hot Rock), and that might be why I read The Princess Bride. Productive courses.

4. Looks like an insightful review of David Cameron's memoir. He doesn't get how badly he broke the system, does he? Saving this up for when the book hits the library, as I did for the one by Tony Blair, another guy who doesn't get what harm he did.

5. Christopher Rouse died. A famous composer, to be sure. I once reviewed one of his quartets. "Rouse wishes to pack an orchestra’s worth of potential dissonance into his chamber music. ... The repeated falling passages resemble that now-antiquated sound, an amplified phonograph needle scraping across the grooves of an LP, or sometimes, when they squawk to an awkward stop, a dentist’s drill. For all its noise, this work is not nonsensical. Rouse has something substantive to say in this idiom, and he says it all in about 10 minutes. Unfortunately, the piece lasts for 20 minutes."

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

is the clock ticking?

People are asking if Boris Johnson will have the shortest term of any Prime Minister in Britain's history. Not counting one brief five-week caretaker prime ministership in 1834, which he's already outlived, Boris will have the shortest prime ministership in history if he's out by October 29th. But that person had also already served as PM once before (as had the caretaker); to be the shortest in total service, he could continue as far as November 18th.

But that's still cheating the record in a way, because both those PMs (Rockingham in 1782 and Canning in 1827) left office so quickly only because they died. To choose a PM who only served once and who left office for political reasons, the next step up is the previous record-holder for most hapless PM of all time: Lord Goderich, who served 131 days in 1827-8 and never actually met Parliament while in office. That would give Boris until the end of November to be bested by him; he's already even more hapless.

In other news, I was writing to a contributor to Tolkien Studies about typographical issues, and I started to write "in this case, house style trumps exact transcription," but even that innocent word is now so loathsome that I changed it to "house style is favored over exact transcription."

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

approximately three concerts

Having already been there once this season, Saturday I went back to Hammer for another symphony concert, this time on assignment for SFCV. Acoustics in bad auditoriums are usually worst on pianos, and though my reviews are usually pretty restrained, this time I let them have it: "an extraordinarily dampened and clanging tone, like a honky-tonk dipped in a river."

I trust I won't get any pushback on this one. I shared dismay with a couple people I knew who were there, asking them how the balance was where they sat, and also with a man who came up afterwards and asked, "Are you the guy from SFCV?"

So that was Saturday. Sunday was something different. Usually I choose my classical concerts on the basis of repertoire. If you tell me of some performer who's giving a concert, I'll say, "What are they playing?" But this one was different. It was a recital/chamber concert with violinist Stuart Canin.

Stuart Canin is 93 years old. But it wasn't the attraction of hearing so venerable a player that brought me. Stuart Canin was the concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony when I first started attending it, fifty years ago, and I quickly imprinted on his smooth and elegant performing style. I heard it again in the 1990s when he founded and led the New Century Chamber Orchestra, filling it with string players in his own idiom (it's still around, but it's different), and here was another chance.

The program was the Debussy sonata and a Bartok rhapsody with pianist Markus Pawlik, and the Brahms Op. 87 Trio with cellist Angela Lee. A program I'd be happy to hear if I were going anyway, but it wouldn't otherwise lure me all the way to Oakland. This one was sponsored by the Berkeley Symphony - I learned that Canin does this for them every year, but I wasn't on their mailing list before, so I didn't know about it - and was held at the Piedmont Center for the Arts, a converted house at the top of a hill in tony Piedmont. The venue was a large living room, laid out like the Great Hall at Kohl Mansion, only much smaller, and with vividly bright sound. Canin's sound has sharpened with age, and the Bartok piece and the Brahms scherzo suited him very well, but there's still something of the unique smoothness that originally appealed to me.

I sat outside on the yard bench beforehand, hoping to get some writing done on my review, but the conversations among others there was too distracting. I wound up conversing with a pair of violinists, former students of Canin's, who were so enthusiastic to hear him that they came up from LA just for this. They were professionals, one with the LA Chamber Orchestra, the other in the New Hollywood Quartet. We wound up comparing hall acoustics in our urban areas.

As long as I was going up for this, I decided also to make a stop at the Presidio Pop-up Orchestra. To celebrate the restoration of the Presidio Theatre - which is a hall actually in the Presidio, the old military reservation at the tip of San Francisco (and not a movie house in the nearby Marina commercial district, which is what you'll get if you put "Presidio Theatre" in Google Maps), a collection of musicians got together for a brief free concert of music associated with the WPA, which originally built the theatre back in 1939.

Of course it was sketchy, and the trumpet soloist in Copland's "Hoedown" was so out of it he might as well not have been there, but it was a pleasure to hear some Copland, and Barber, and one piece I wasn't likely to hear live elsewhere, an Appalachian folk-flavored scherzo from Ernst Bacon's "Americana" Symphony.

What I hadn't known, but the organizers of this concert should have before scheduling it early afternoon on a Sunday, is that on Sundays the parade green in the Presidio, which is right around the corner from the theatre, is taken over by a food truck festival, and packed with people. I arrived in plenty of time, but every single public parking space - and they're pay parking, even on weekends - in the central Presidio was full. I almost gave up, but my map-reading fu led me to discover a hidden stash, not far away, of mostly open spaces that didn't cost anything, and even the two-hour limit didn't apply on weekends. Am I going to reveal where this hidden treasure is located? Hell no!

Unfortunately the difficulty of parking, and the lack of ticketing for the concert, meant people were still pouring in while the music was playing. Afterwards I wandered down to the green, where I had a cup of chowder that wasn't quite worth the 20 minutes I had to stand in line for it.

Altogether an adventurous day out, by my standards of adventurous.

Friday, September 20, 2019

on fiction

The latest kerfluffle over fan fiction, and memories arise of my previous encounter with advocates, not from a separate community but what I'd thought was my own, who insisted not only that I accept the right of fan fiction writers to publish their work, in violation of copyright and the original author's wishes, but that I aesthetically admire not just the fact of fan fiction's profusion but the stories themselves, and who abused me mightily for staying uninterested.

I think the problem is that my reasons for liking or even cherishing a body of fiction are quite different from those of most people.

Most people seem to have two strong responses to finding a work or body of fiction that they greatly like.

One is, they want to see it made into a movie. You can see this here, in a thoughtful article on Tolkien that nevertheless assumes that the dearest wish of all Tolkien fans is to see his work made into a really good movie.

I do not have this desire. I do not imagine visually, still less cinematographically. When I go see a movie, it's because I expect it to be good, not because I like movies as movies. I have no interest in movies as an art form. Consequently when I read a piece of written fiction, my mind does not turn to imagining a movie adaptation.

Furthermore, the more I cherish a work of fiction, the more the news that it's to be made into a movie arouses in me feelings of fear, anxiety, and foreboding. This is because I know that the "really good" adaptation is a chimera. The more I love the written work, the more the inevitable changes in the adaptation, not to mention the equally inevitable misreadings, will pang me. This is not pleasant. I watched the Tolkien adaptations in a state of near-continuous agony, even while admiring some other (mostly visual) aspects. The last movie of a book I liked, that I liked better than the book (though only in some respects), was The Princess Bride. And that movie was written by the book's author, so he understood the intent of the book. Furthermore, while I liked the book, I didn't like it that much.

The other reaction is, they fall in love with the characters and the setting. This is what inspires fan fiction, to give them more of both.

I do not. Yes, I like the characters and the setting; if I didn't, I won't like the book. But I like them as a function of the author writing about them, and writing it well. If a work of fan fiction is as well-written as the original, I will admire it accordingly, and this has happened. But if the original is very good, this is extremely rare. Rather than read more about the same characters, even sometimes from the original author, I'd rather re-read what I already have.

What makes me cherish a work of fiction is largely the quality of the writing. By this I don't necessarily mean pellucid prose. The authors I like most, like Tolkien, are often criticized by high-literary types for their prose. And indeed it has flaws, but even Homer nods. The prose I like is plain and clear, but above all else compelling. In lighter work, I like wit and sparkle. But good writing is more than that. I like depth of imagination, I like evidence of serious thought about the creation, and I like the upholding of moral standards. I realized I liked these things when I first read some of the other books recommended to me by people who knew I liked Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings is about magical war in an imaginary pseudo-medieval realm, so they gave me sword and sorcery books about the same thing. And I was totally uninterested. I realized that they lacked these additional things that Tolkien had.

Another thing I like that applies specifically to Tolkien is the fact that all this brilliant profusion of imagination is the work of one man. Not only does that make it more awesome, but it gives it both a unity and authority that a shared-author work doesn't have on its own. Given that, why would I be interested in a fan fiction addition to the creation by somebody else? It's completely irrelevant to my interests, and if I have to study the original scholastically, the additions will only needlessly clutter up my head.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

book review

Tim Bouverie, Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War (Duggan)

I saw this on a new book shelf while visiting the library for another purpose, and a quick glance was enough to convince me it was worth reading. I know a lot about this topic, but I figured with such well-written detail I'd learn more. I did.

This is essentially a history of British high politics, as manifested in diplomacy and Parliament, from the rise of urgent concern with the dictatorships in the mid-30s up to the collapse of the final attempt to negotiate with them at the time of the Fall of France. The allies, the adversaries, and their victims all play a part, but the focus is all on the British. For instance, the August 1939 mission to negotiate a treaty with Russia is described in detail, but the announcement that the Russians had drawn up a treaty with the Nazis instead is presented as as big a surprise as it was to the British.

The vagaries of unofficial opinion are also skillfully presented, from the various Anglo-German friendship societies of the earlier period to the determination of much of the populace to defend the Czechs in a way the government declined to do.

Reading of Chamberlain's meetings with Hitler preceding the Munich Agreement - Chamberlain flew to Germany three separate times over a period of a couple of weeks - one feels both his frustration at being unable to pin Hitler down to a solution, and one's own frustration at Chamberlain's repeated attempts to find an accommodation where none could be had, constantly backing up and giving away more and more.

Only one minister, Duff Cooper, resigned over Munich, but many others were dismayed, and Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, quickly separated himself from appeasement as the diplomacy sank into absurdity, and much to Chamberlain's dismay advocated a tougher line. Halifax's reputation has been tainted by his attempt to find a negotiated peace at the Fall of France, but this was only a proposal, not an undercutting of Churchill, and he was much tougher earlier on than he's often given credit for.

Bouverie also quickly disposes of any idea that Munich was a tactical retreat to allow more time for the buildup of British defense. No. Chamberlain was concerned for a lasting peace and only that, and this was his project. In that connection, Bouverie answers a question I've long had. Since the year's delay before war actually broke out did allow the UK some time to build its military, didn't it also allow Germany time for the same thing? And which had the greater relative improvement? The answer is, Germany gained more against the UK than vice versa. It would have been tactically more advisable to have fought Germany over the Czechs than the Poles. True, Britain was in no condition in 1938 to defend against the Battle of Britain, but Germany was in no condition in 1938 to have launched it, so no loss.

One thing I hadn't known that not only surprised me, but suddenly seems searingly relevant. On August 4, 1939, right in the middle of the growing tensions over Poland and the launching of negotiations with Russia, Chamberlain put Parliament on a two-month summer recess. This wasn't a prorogation, but a recess. It had to be voted on. Members were shocked. Churchill said in his speech it would be "disastrous", "pathetic", "shameful" to have Parliament unavailable in this crisis. The opposition parties feared that the government would use the recess to break its pledge to Poland and resume appeasement.

So did the motion lose? No, it won. The whips put the pressure on government MPs. Those who abstained (didn't even vote against) were told they'd be blacklisted, and were threatened with deselection from their seats.

How much does that sound like what has happened recently?

In the end, Parliament was recalled on Aug. 24, after the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed, to pass an emergency powers bill, again the next week for further news from the government, and again a few days after that for the final crisis which led to a continuous seven-day sitting. Still ...

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

reviews and events

1. Went off to the California Symphony on Sunday, to produce this review. Which doesn't say anything about how the program book proclaimed we would hear not Lieder by Mahler but his Leider, which probably captures more of my feeling about Mahler; and advertised a forthcoming Symphony-sponsored cruise starting in Amsterdam and then going down the Rhine to Basel. That's right, down. The convention that south is down overcomes a rise in actual elevation of nearly a thousand feet.

2. The slow closing of the area's old-line Chinese restaurants, the ones designed to appeal to Western tastes, has been going on for at least twenty years (there were a lot of them), but two more notable ones have bit it. Both for the same reason: the owner decided to retire. (There was nobody to pass it on to? What do the employees think?) The one where my mother and I used to go weekly closed last month; and another, the ghost of the also-gone restaurant where I took my visitors in the year 2000 for a festive lunch, has announced its closing at the end of this month. I decided to go there for lunch today, and so did a lot of other people. This may have flummoxed them. I had a bowl of soup, and after the busser took the empty bowl away, a server arrived with another one. I had to say I'd already had mine, so the server hustled it off and consulted with another; apparently somebody else had also ordered the same soup.

3. In addition to curling up in my arms to cuddle, something no previous cat I've had ever wanted to do, licking my hair, and vocalizing loudly when he's bored and wants some cat-toy action, Tybalt has developed a hankering to sleep with me. I'm lying on the bed and he curls up next to me and "makes bread" on me. If you don't know this, it's a cat comfort habit, akin to human children sucking their thumbs and for much the same reason. Kittens knead the mother's breast to expel milk, and grown cats will still mimic the motion as a comfort thing. Usually they do it on blankets, but Tybalt does it on me. This would be cute except that when I'm not wearing something thick, which I'm usually not (and I don't sleep under blankets unless I'm very cold), the fact that he never entirely retracts his front claws becomes apparent. Ouch, cat, ouch.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

concert review: Cambrian Symphony

This local volunteer orchestra is now playing in the Hammer Theatre in downtown San Jose, a drama theatre not entirely suited to being a concert hall. This is the first time I've heard an unamplified orchestra there, and find that the acoustics are painfully bright from the strings in front, and muffled from the winds in back. At least where I was sitting; next time I'll try somewhere else.

I went to hear Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances and a suite from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, favorite modern works. Crisp and energetic performances, conducted with precision by Scott Krijnen. I got to talk with him afterwards, and asked, "In the slow themes of the Rachmaninoff, was that actually portamento I heard a few times?" He said, "Yes, that was us. We were trying to sound sentimental."

One other gem made an appearance, a piece by Helen Crane (1868-1930), an American composer so obscure she's not in the Grove Dictionary of Women Composers. The program notes say she's in Baker's, but not in the Slonimsky edition I have. Evidently she got played a bit during her lifetime, but mostly in Germany where she studied. This was, so far as anyone can tell, the American premiere of this work, titled Evangeline, Op. 11 (1905). Her scores and papers, donated to the NYPL after her death (she'd lived in Westchester), were noticed recently by a composer named Bernard Crane, who was tickled to find another composer with the same surname. (They appear to be very distant relations.) Looking through them, he picked this piece as a likely performance prospect and it wound up here.

Helen Crane dubbed Evangeline a concert overture, and it's typical of the breed: 12 minutes long, in sonata-allegro form. But it's not rigidly or textbook so. I found it fairly imaginative - a sequence of varying rhythmic figures at the retransition especially so - with a strong but not indulgent melodic sense and entirely accomplished orchestration. The idiom floated somewhere between Mendelssohn and Raff, which may seem antiquated for the period, but in fact a lot of lesser composers (MacCunn, Yamada, etc.) were still writing in that style. It wasn't an overwhelming discovery, but it was pleasant, and I'd like to hear more of her music. She wrote piano pieces, songs, chamber music (including 3 string quartets), a few suites and tone poems, a couple vocal-orchestral works, and two completed symphonies.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

not at play

Critique of re-creating school playground time for adults as the happy time of their childhood. My comments:

Oh yes, like you I detested school recess. I would stay in the classroom reading if the teacher would let me. Otherwise I'd wander around along the back fences of the yard, as far away from everyone else as I could get.

I wouldn't say that what I liked about childhood was the absence of things like bills or marital tension. My god, as a child I had virtually no money and couldn't buy anything unless I begged my parents, so money was a very tight issue; and as for adult interpersonal tensions, those have nothing on sibling tension or the heavy foot of parental authority, let alone being bullied by other children.

What I liked about childhood was where I did have agency and control over my own actions. I could read whatever I liked, and my parents trusted me so I could go off on bicycle expeditions anywhere I wanted so long as I was home by dinner.* That latter is a privilege few parents would allow their children today. But the point is: I can still read whatever I want, and I can still travel wherever I want so long as I can fit it in my schedule. What made me happy as a child is what still makes me happy today. It just has nothing to do with schoolyard playing, then or now.

*They trusted me because I was a whiz with maps. I was navigating family car trips by the time I was 8.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

a test

Today's reprinted Peanuts says:

It's possible that Schulz got this from an actual textbook, instead of making it up. I decided to see if it was possible to deduce the answer. Not by direct calculation; I wouldn't know where to start. But by brute force. Easy enough with Excel; you just enter a sequence of possible ages for the daughter in one column, and then calculate all the derivatives in other columns.

And the answer? The man is 41. His daughter is 7 (7x6=42, 1 year older than he is now) and his son is 10 (7+3). That has to be it, because 10 years from now, they will be 17 & 20 (= 37, which +14=51, 10 years more than his present age), and nothing else fits. Note that "the combined ages of his children" means their ages then, ten years from now, and not their ages today, because then the man would have to be 11 and his daughter 2 (2+5=7, 7+14=21).

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

something 11

One of the many purveyors of videos showing DT opening his mouth and having something odd come out showed him referring to 9/11 as "7/11." That's choice, but I don't have a link; instead:

Disturbing article on the trivial decisions that separated life from death on the day.

The story behind the trial that acquitted Joyce's Ulysses of obscenity. The article is by Michael Chabon, so not only is it immensely readable, but he compares the descriptions by those horrified of Ulysses to H.P. Lovecraft describing the Necronomicon.

Clear description of the beef public libraries have with publishers over e-book lending rights. B. reads a lot of library e-books, but I rarely do: I'll buy them, but I've found the hassles involved in library borrowing of them to be enormously dissuasive.

Also in the news, T. Boone Pickens has died. Back in the 1980s, when he was at his height of fame and/or notoriety, I was working at Stanford; and I was over at the Business School one day to have lunch in their cafeteria, when I saw a poster advertising a student drama production. It had a blurb on it: "I'll buy a ticket. In fact, I may buy all the tickets." - T. Boone Pickens

Monday, September 9, 2019


Book group discussion yesterday: Borderline by Mishell Baker. After many examples of books which begin fuzzily or confusingly, I liked the bright energetic opening of this one. (First sentence: "It was midmorning on a Monday when magic walked into my life wearing a beige Ann Taylor suit and sensible flats.") I was particularly impressed by the author's skill at conveying the counter-intuitive meaning of one word in a conversation here:
Maybe it was the aftermath of adrenaline, maybe it was a surge of contrition. But something made me blurt out, "Do you know anything about the Arcadia Project?"
After a moment of incomprehension, Dr. Davis's face suddenly hardened into an expression I'd never seen. "No," she said, like a snuffer on a candle. Not the no of ignorance, the no of don't even think about it.
The only cloud on the horizon at this point was my inability to figure out if the protagonist had two prosthetic legs or only one; the descriptions seemed contradictory. Other readers more attuned to this type of issue explained that one of her legs is amputated above the knee, the other below. This had not been made clear enough, at least where I could notice.

Our neuropsychologist was impressed as could be at the author's descriptions of a largely mentally disordered cast. (The book's title is the protagonist's personality disorder.) It was clear, sympathetic, and showing deep understanding of the nature of their mental processing. I couldn't judge this, but I certainly agreed that the personalities were clearly presented and understandable.

The problem I had with the book came on a different level. The protagonist is being hired by a covert agency which keeps tabs on the fairies who are the hidden muses of Hollywood. In other words, it's Men in Black. (They hire mentally disordered people apparently because, if they go off the reservation and reveal the secrets, nobody will believe them. This reminds me of Ford Prefect's story in The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy about the "teasers," but whatever.) There's the issue of, as in most stories where the viewpoint character has to learn about the supernatural in a hurry, most of the lessons are delivered as casual asides by other characters in the form of rules of behavior which operate with ironclad certainty - what in real life works this way? - and which have to be accepted without question. But I got past that. Our heroine is put to work searching for a fairy who's gone missing, and I started to have the problem I have with most mystery novels: I couldn't bring myself to care. I like the heroine, but I've never met this missing fairy on the page, I have no reason to care about him, and plunging in to the details of the case just doesn't seem very interesting. After this went on for a while, I began to hope this would wrap up real soon, and then I checked how far I was in the book on the e-reader. 35%. Nowhere near far enough. So that's when I quit reading.

Also on the agenda, the quite functional-looking office chair our hostess had set out on the driveway. Yes, we're not done with chairs around here. I could do with replacing my chair, and B. has been using a kitchen chair in her office since forever. A free chair? Well, why not? We had my hatchback. I got it in the back no trouble, and when we got home we wrestled it upstairs, and now it sits in B's office, waiting to be baptized by sleeping cats.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

o chair

I found B. yesterday afternoon among the eccentric and eclectic furnishings of the local Pier 1 Imports outlet, sitting in a green velvet armchair. "This is the one I want to buy," she said. She'd phoned me at home and asked me to come over.

Besides a couch, we have one usable sitting chair in the living room, mostly used by B, who needs the support. (I sometimes use it, but mostly sit on the couch.) The current occupant was an adjustable-height swivel chair which of late had been deciding that it preferred to sit at the lowest height setting. This usually happens with adjustable-height chairs eventually, so we thought: why not buy an unadjustable chair that's the right height to begin with?

I was there to try it out and see if it was comfortable for my height also (it was) and a hatchback car capable of carrying the chair home in.

An employee confirmed they had one in stock, and then we waited in line to make the purchase. A lot of people buying chairs today, they noted. I began to muse. Faith hope and chairity? Sonny and Chair? Chair and chair alike? Ma chairie? Nothing seemed appropriate.

Eventually I pulled my car to the loading dock in the alleyway behind the store and took possession of a very large cardboard box (which eventually found its resting place on a quick trip to the city recycling lot, it being too large to be conveniently cut up for our own recycling bin). Inside was an identical chair, except that the legs had to be attached.

I'm used to furniture legs that just screw into place. This involved multiple bolts and washers, and an Allen wrench (included) that had to be awkwardly manipulated around the cloth bottom of the chair. I got the legs installed after much grisly wrenching, only to discover that, though this looked like the right way to install the junction between legs and chair, the back legs were in backwards, curling in instead of splaying out. B. thought, because of the placement of the installed washers, this was still the right way and the legs' placement in the slots just had to be adjusted slightly. I thought they had to be turned around entirely, despite the absence of washers on the other side. I phoned the company's help line, but after half an hour of being automatically told every ten minutes that I had less than five minutes to wait, I gave up and just did it the way I thought it should go.

We now seem to have a comfy chair which B. used happily today.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

BISQC followup

Here's the page with all the videos from the Banff string quartet competition. You might want to consult my daily reports before choosing which of these to listen to: there's a tremendous amount of music there, and some of it is more appealing to the casual listener than others.

Oh, and the story I told there about the restaurant background music? It's like this:

This was a very long time ago, in fact over forty years ago, and it'll be helpful to remember that.

I was on a date, having dinner at a nice but moderately-priced restaurant in San Francisco. There was music playing on the house stereo in the background. It was not loud or obtrusive, so it was hard to make it out clearly against the ambient noise even of a not particularly noisy restaurant.

Still, it was obvious enough that the music was for symphony orchestra, and it was consonant. But it wasn't anything I recognized, and after a while, my music-listening ears began to pick up something odd about it. It was mostly the harmonic progression. The chords didn't succeed each other in anything like a normal way, there were no obvious cadences, and there was something odd about the phrasing too. It seemed weirdly modernist, but that was out of place both for the venue and for such lush and consonant music.

After a while I figured out what the explanation must be. I called over a waiter, and asked, "Is your house stereo on a reel-to-reel tape?" He said yes. I said, "Perhaps you should check it. I think it's playing backwards."

He went away, and a few minutes later the music stopped. Then it started up again. Now it was Swan Lake.

(And my date? She wasn't musical, but was used to my behaving like this, or would never have agreed to date me in the first place.)

Tuesday, September 3, 2019


Now that I'm home from my Canadian expedition, I can say with security that the biggest difference on the whole trip from my previous attendance at the same event three years ago was the Calgary airport. Partly the arriving - last time I was grilled by Customs on my reason for visiting Canada, and they didn't believe I didn't have confirmatory e-mails stored on my phone, but this time I filled out the questions on the automated terminal and then they waved me straight through - but mostly the return. Last time I stood in long lines at both US Customs (which has a station there) and then security, so that even though I arrived 2 hours in advance I still missed my flight, and then had to sit around in the secure area of the airport for the rest of the afternoon, with nothing available to eat except grotty packaged salads. Now they've built an entire new international terminal, and my it's efficient. Through security and Customs (in that order this time) in less than half an hour, and then finding myself in an enormous hall with, among other things, purveyors of genuine hot meals, with plenty of time to eat lunch, which I'd expected to have to miss. Nothing great, but edible. Only problem is: not much seating by the gate areas, though there's plenty of room for it.

Back at the Banff Arts Centre, meals were served cafeteria style, and though one got a little tired of repackagings of the same basic materials over and over again over the course of a week, the food was both good and vastly plentiful. Then comes the question of where to sit. The dining room - with huge plate glass windows overlooking a stunning view of mountains and woods - has both long and round tables. At Mythcon meals, I've no trouble finding old friends to sit with and, as a senior member, am comfortable welcoming new people. But at Banff I'm one of the junior attendees, I have to be cautious about how well I fit in socially, and I don't want to impose my company on the same people too often. As a result I ate a lot of meals alone, especially as I tended to come in very early. The time it feels easiest to take a seat at a mostly-occupied table is later on in the meal, when it's busy, and it's recognized that new arrivals will have to squeeze in somewhere.

Regardless, whenever I did sit with people I had good conversations. Banff audiences tend to be divided into those who really know their chamber music (many of whom are administrators of chamber music series in their home towns) and those who just like to listen to the music and profess no ability to judge it. I'm in the lower division of the first group (though I didn't meet anyone else there who professed to be an active reviewer) and I found that a number from the second would actively seek me out for my opinion of the latest concert. Even some of the more learned seemed to find my thoughts interesting, as I did theirs, and a couple of those shook my hand in farewell as we were leaving. So did even one of the competing performers, with whom I'd had a couple of post-performance chats. His group didn't win anything, but I wished him best of luck and said that if his group ever got out to Stanford, I'd be sure to come and hear them.

One thing I could do better than most in the table conversations, and that was make puns. I remember one of them. At breakfast one day, the talk was mostly on Wagner, though other topics interjected, including the food itself. I wasn't eating all of my melon bowl, and I explained that the pieces had a lot of rind in them. Maybe they were cut by the Rind-Maidens, I said.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

BISQC, day 7

You want to know who won the competition, do you? It was a TIE, the first ever in BISQC history. (As an old Hugo administrator, I could have told them about those.) Marmen and Viano shared the prize. Callisto was second; don't feel sorry for them, as without the tie it would have been third.

How they're going to split the prize money, the attached residencies, the required tours, etc., I have no idea.

Some people were cynical. They say it couldn't really have been a tie, as there were seven judges. (They voted by points.) They say the Marmen were the real winners, and Viano was only stuck in to get a Canadian group in there. I discount all this.

In the Beethoven round, Marmen played Op. 131. They did a good job of imposing structure on this large and potentially shapeless work, and their rhythm was strong. But though Marmen started out well enough in my ears this week, and I really liked their Mendelssohn, I am getting a little tired of their eccentric and sometimes unattractive tone color.

Viano played the Razumovsky Third, and their splendidly blended tone brought out the melodic charm and beauty of this underappreciated work. I had had very mixed feelings about their Bartok, but I've liked everything else they've done, especially their Ades.

Callisto played the Razumovsky Second with their typical bright shiny precision. They were something of the finalists' black sheep. When I recited the newly-released list to one inquirer, he responded "Callisto?" in a mixture of surprise and disdain. But they were a favorite of mine. I liked everything they did, including their Ligeti, which, almost alone, I rated much higher than Marmen's.

And so the great string quartet adventure of 2019 draws to a close.

BISQC, day 6

It rained all day in Banff on Saturday, but it hardly mattered, because except for rushing the short distances between the residence hall, concert hall, and dining hall, I was never outdoors. It was another marathon concert day at BISQC, with all ten contesting quartets playing fairly long sets, organized into three two-hour concerts.

The theme was "Schubert-plus." Each group played the first movement only of one of the great late-period Schubert quartets, and then filled the rest of their time - about 15 or 20 minutes - with whatever they wanted to play, free choice.

For the Schubert, six of the groups chose their opening movement from the "Death and the Maiden" Quartet in D Minor, and four from the G Major. "Death and the Maiden" is my favorite of all quartets, and the prospect of hearing six different performances of it in one day was thrilling. I was very happy.

But I didn't find much to choose between them, in interpretation. Some were a little more or less vehement in the fortes, some paused more or took quiet sections slower, but they were all in the same order, which was not true in any of the previous rounds. What was different was tone color, and here, quite surprisingly, the difference came with some of the groups being deficient. What the heck happened to the Eliot Quartet's second violinist? It sounded as if he'd traded his instrument in for a toy box. The Marmen, also, had some unplanned screeching. (The Marmen also, who played the G Major, were the only group of all ten to play the exposition repeat.) In the Elmire, the cello was for some reason very loud and prominent. I spent the whole piece listening just to that.

It was in the choices of repertoire for the rest of the round that the quartets really differed. The Ruisi played some fantasias by Purcell. Other listeners reported being bored by this, and Baroque music is not always exciting if you're used to listening to later periods, but I found it, as a change of pace, enormously refreshing. The Eliot played part of Prokofiev's Second Quartet, and in all the heavy and folkishly colorful fun sounds here, the weird second violin didn't stand out so much. The Ulysses played the Adagio from Shostakovich's Tenth Quartet and then an Andante by Pavel Haas (a Czech Holocaust victim). What most of the audience didn't know is that the slow movement of Shostakovich's Tenth doesn't come to a full stop; it flows right into the finale. So the Ulysses played it flowing right in to the Haas. Immediately it stopped sounding like Shostakovich, but at the end, though it was intermission, almost everybody just sat there waiting for the next piece.

I'd been hoping somebody would follow the opening movement of "Death and the Maiden" with the rest of the quartet. Nobody did, but the Callisto did something clever, which was to play the second, third, and fourth movement each from a different quartet: Ades, Bartok, and Ravel.

Naturally, there had to be some worthless modernist crap. This came from the two composers I'd never heard of, and now I know why I'd never heard of them. On the giant map of worthless modernist crap, I'd previously identified the stuff that sounds like bees buzzing, like cars honking, and like people moving furniture around. Now I've heard Salvatore Sciarrino (from Marmen), who sounds like seagulls squawking (other listeners described it as more like cats fighting), and Wolfgang Rihm (from Agate), who sounds like the signal from a radio station you can't get.

It's not just the sound quality that makes this stuff bad, but the sense that it's just miscellaneous noodling that doesn't add up to anything. By contrast, the other severe modernist offerings, even if I didn't care for them, were incisive, well-constructed, and meaningful-sounding. This applied to the Schnittke and Auerbach from Vera (strange, I remember hearing Auerbach I liked better than that), and even the Webern and Kurtag - two composers I'm normally happy to deprecate - from the Omer. But the two complete modern works on the program were far better than that. The Elmire did an outstanding job with Dutilleux's Ainsi la nuit, the best performance of anything by Dutilleux I've heard yet, and the Viano were almost beyond brilliant in Ades's The Four Quarters.

After the last concert, instead of heading down to the computers to write this entry, I headed towards the bar to hang out and discuss what we'd heard with other listeners, and wait for the announcement of the three finalists. The director stepped up to a microphone about an hour and a half later, and named, in alphabetical order: Callisto. Marmen. Viano.

Well. To my tastes, they all did some good stuff. I could have named three other groups that did just as well to my ears, but I could also have named three groups whose appearance as the finalists would have caused me to say, "Gee, I dunno."

I'll have more to say after the final concert Sunday afternoon - they're each playing a big middle or late quartet by Beethoven (chosen in advance, and fortunately no two of them chose the same work) - and the announcement of the grand prize winner.