Thursday, October 31, 2019


1. It looks as if the fire in Sonoma County is finally under control, and most of the towns under threat (including the one my acquaintances in the area live in) are relieved from duress. That's a relief. Their inhabitants can go back home, and the power is on. Here's the explanation for all the blackouts: essentially, a judge has forced the utility to take responsibility for the fires its equipment causes, so in lieu of actually trimming the vegetation and fixing their old sparkies, they're taking the passive-aggressive mode of turning the power off.

(There's been little wind down here, curiously, though we certainly occasionally get the Diablos, as they're now becoming known - this is, in case it's not clear, the identical meteorological phenomenon as what's called the Santa Anas in LA.)

2. What most people don't get about the World Series crowd chanting at DT "Lock him up" - they're trolling him. While they'd surely like for him to be duly punished, summary imprisonment isn't being seriously proposed. This is a sardonic reply to all the similar chants at his rallies, which are intended seriously and are actually chilling. This time it's mockery. Here's a columnist who gets it.

3. British politics report: They've called a general election. Chances that the Tories will win a majority, and Boris's plan will go through: Large. About half. Chances that there'll be a hung parliament like the one they have now, and nothing will go through: Large. About half. Chances that anything else will happen: Small. Chances that, if that something else requires a coalition between Labour and any of the Remain parties, that the coalition will break up before it ever gets going, over an argument on whether it requires Corbyn, as leader of the largest party, to be PM: inevitable.

(Footnote: There's no UK constitutional requirement that the PM in a coalition be the leader of the largest party in it. In the 1852 coalition, the PM was the leader of the smaller of two parties. Same in the 1916 coalition. In the 1931 coalition, the PM was the leader of the smallest of four parties. In the 1940 coalition, the PM was initially not the leader of any party.)

4. Activity of the day: the long-deferred clearing out some books to sell from the hardcover fiction shelves in the dining room to make room for some of the extras that have been piling up. Deciding on some authors that no, I don't think I'm ever likely to get around to reading them. Have not stocked up on candy, or substitute. Due to decreasing Halloween activity around here, we've just started bowing out for the last couple of years and keep our outside light off.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

concert review: Symphony Silicon Valley

I'm always on the edge when I'm sent to review a work that's jazz-inspired, because I don't have a feeling for jazz. The music doesn't appeal to me, it doesn't make intuitive sense to me as classical does, and I don't know its features or varieties.

So here we have a work inspired by three sets of pairs of collaborators in popular or jazz music, all of whom the now-venerable composer, David Amram, knew when he was a young musician in New York in the 1950s. I knew the work wasn't going to directly copy or transmit its dedicatees' music, just vaguely suggest the inspiration, but I figured I ought to tutor myself a little in what Amram had in mind.

First set, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, no problem. I'm not expert on either, but I know their music and what it sounds like. I even like some of it.

Second set, Lester Young and Billie Holiday. I'd heard of Billie Holiday, but I drew a blank on Lester Young. He turns out to be a saxophonist. I found a set of a dozen songs that the two of them recorded together around 1940. Only one of them was familiar to me, "Night and Day," which I know only because Allan Sherman guyed it in the 1960s. I listened to this version, knowing what I would get because I recalled having heard Billie Holiday before. Oh god: I know she's supposed to be some kind of sublime genius, but I can't abide this. Delete long rant on the subject here. At least Amram's invocation of it isn't that bad.

Third set, Machito Grillo and Celia Cruz. Who? Online sources suggest they invented Afro-Cuban jazz. Then I read what I wrote about Amram's earlier piece honoring Chano Pozo, and it suggests he invented Afro-Cuban jazz. Maybe they all did. Anyway, listening to bits of them confirms that I've heard Afro-Cuban jazz before, and also confirms what I thought I knew about its rhythms. It can be striking, but a little of it goes a very, very long way. But that's settled.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

fire warning

I haven't said anything about the latest round of California wildfires because they're far away from me, and I don't know any more about them than I read in the news. If the smoke is heading south, we haven't noticed it yet.

True, I have some distant acquaintances who live in the evacuation area, and I hope they'll be OK, but they're not people I have a regular direct way of contacting. When they told me, long ago, that they were moving up there, my more politely-phrased question was, "What the heck you want to live up there for?" and the answer was, "Because we can afford a house there."

Saturday, October 26, 2019

a tour of pandemonium

So a few weeks ago I was browsing around Atlas Obscura, looking to see what sites it's highlighted around here. Almost all the local ones I'd been to, but there's one I hadn't heard of: Pandemonium Aviaries, a rescue shelter for birds.

The listing said it wasn't open to the public, but it also said that tours could be arranged. The click led to an AirBnB listing, where I found that yes, indeed, a few tours were now available for a limited period.

Well. B. loves to visit animals, especially cats (especially big cats), but birds are next on the list. I hastened to arrange this. I needed to create an account on AirBnB to do this, an interesting experience in itself, and I had some discussion with the proprietors to ensure the tour wouldn't be too physically wearisome on us, but it was arranged, and yesterday we went.

It's a quarter-acre lot on a dead-end back road in the tangle among the hills above Los Altos, and behind the house it's packed with small to medium aviaries. (Visitors don't go inside them, but you can see pretty much everything from the pathways.) There's parrots and parakeets, various species of oversize pigeons (many of them from the Indian Ocean, relatives of the dodo, and some of them looking a bit like the dodo), giant cranes, tiny finches of a vast variety of stunning colors, and much more. There's a lot of good photos on their own website.

There were 6 of us on that day's tour, plus the guide (one of the small regular staff), which is about as many as could fit in the cramped spaces, on a slightly too hot day. Various exotic bird calls were heard, but despite the place's name pandemonium did not erupt. We learned that keeping exotic birds is a challenge. These are species not covered in the regular vet manuals, and few people know much about them. What do they eat? What kind of environment do they like? How do you take care of them? What if they get ill? The owner started with one rescue dove, and now has over 300 birds and has moved into trying to propagate endangered species.

It turned out we were wise to take this opportunity. The reason they've started up the tours is because they've run out of space and will be moving next year, to North Carolina, far away from us. There they'll have room for regular tours, and decided to start getting the birds used to visitors, and also to use the tours, which are not inexpensive, to raise some of the money for the move. So here was a rare, once-ever opportunity to see the birds, close to home. Though it was a very exhausting couple of hours out, we're glad we did it. People around here who like birds should check to see what's available and go see them too.

Friday, October 25, 2019

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony. Played all over the US during WW2 as a symbol of Soviet-American wartime solidarity. Spent the next three decades unplayed and pointed at as proof that Shostakovich was a crappy composer. Since then it's reverted to proof that he's a great composer.

But no greater than he was last night. First-time guest conductor Karina Canellakis led this epic work (some 80 minutes) as if she sincerely believed in it, every note, and oh how it showed. Especially in the contrasting middle sections of the last two movements (loud and passionate in the Adagio, quiet and meandering in the finale) but also throughout, the coherent and expressive phrasing was spectacular: emphatically both meaningful and beautiful. This was the best Shostakovich at SFS since Semyon Bychkov's first turn at the Eleventh.

Also on the program, Prokofiev's First and shortest (15 minutes) Piano Concerto. Alexander Gavrylyuk played the solo part with the solid clang that made this sound like maturer Prokofiev than it is. Demonstrated his variety with an encore in the form of a wispy rendition of a bit of melancholy Schumann.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

new music

This was on the radio as I drove home from a concert a few days ago. I expect that my modernist-listening friends are going to hate this. But I thought it was very striking, especially the slow movement.

Georgs Pelēcis. Latvian composer, b. 1947. Not very much like Vasks. Piece: Concertino bianco for piano and orchestra. Alexei Lubimov, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, conductor Heinrich Schiff.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

an exercise in missing the point

London theatre to ban visitors from bringing single-use plastic bottles

They're not actually single-use. They're good for being refilled, and I've used some that lasted for months. They weigh less than permanent bottles, and if you forget yours when leaving the restaurant or theatre (a problem I've struggled with for years), they're easier to find for sale and less expensive to replace. And having to buy a new plastic bottle because you've lost your old one is, I submit, less harmful to the environment than having to buy a new permanent one.

Right now I'm using one whose brand name is "Oregon Rain." That's enough to remind me that I bought it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival theater snack bar nearly two weeks ago, because I'd accidentally left the previous bottle behind at a restaurant where I'd stopped for a snack. I'm doing the best I can with these things.

concert reviews: Bacewicz and others

It was a busy concert-going weekend. The main event was Bard Music West's sort-of-annual composer festival. Like last year's, this consisted of three chamber music concerts over two days in a tiny church up at the tip of the Noe Valley deep in a residential district of San Francisco. Last year's honoree was Henry Cowell, this year was Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-69), generally considered Poland's greatest female composer. (Judging from the speakers at the festival, the name can be pronounced various ways, but the one I found most congenial was Ba-SHEH-vitz.) I wasn't very familiar with Bacewicz, but I had heard of her, and I'd heard some of her music. Much of what I'd heard, like her Concerto for String Orchestra, was sinewy conservative modernism just the way I like it, rather resembling late Bartók of his exilic period.

So I was looking forward to this, but what I got was not what I was expecting. Bacewicz started out as a neoclassicist, then after WW2 was affected by a combination of shell shock (she'd been in Warsaw) and Soviet cultural oppression (this is when the Concerto for String Orchestra came out), until the international music festival of 1956 revealed to Poland what had been going on in the west, and the Polish composers got all ultra-modernist and skanky. Bacewicz was far more restrained than Penderecki or Górecki, both much younger than she, but her subsequent music was definitely influenced.

I missed the first program, on her earlier years, and the only piece that really appealed to me from the rest of it was her String Quartet No. 4, another postwar work, played brilliantly by the Tesla Quartet, one of the best groups from my first visit to Banff. They'd have made an even bigger hit there if they'd played this then. There was too much of virtuosic solo music for violin or piano for Bacewicz herself to play, all of it nonstop and rattling. (Another attendee remarked to me that this sounded like very angry music, a surprising but understandable judgment.) Her later music became fragmented and disintegrated, and I found this true of the String Quartet No. 7, no matter how well the Tesla played it.

The programs included a lot of other music, by predecessors, contemporaries, and later composers influenced by the honoree, and such music had been the highlight of the Cowell festival. It was less so here, particularly for the new music. A brief documentary on Bacewicz from Polish television (subtitled) screened before the second concert, and readings from her letters between pieces, revealed that she disliked talking about her music, and this would have been good advice for the voluble composer of and violinist in a string trio that was commissioned for the festival. Her music, though, once we got to it, was actually pretty good, and so was a postminimalist piece for piano four-hands. Some other pieces, though, were solo music that sounded as if the performers were making it up as they went along. Worst was a piece for snare drum and taped electronics, which made me wonder why the live performer even bothered to show up.

The reason I missed the first concert was that I had a ticket to the Z.E.N. Trio at Herbst. The name is the initials of the performers, but as a word it was also a good description. You might not think that Brahms' Op. 8 piano trio, or Shostakovich's Piano Trio No. 2, would be good works to show performers zoning out, like the cat that just spent half an hour splayed belly-up across my lap, but they did their best.

Then, Sunday after the festival, I went on assignment to review the season's first concert of the San Jose Chamber Music Society. Having been, like half a dozen other presenters, kicked out of the Trianon when the owners decided to turn it back into a church (unanswered question: why? Plenty of churches host concerts at other times; see the Bacewicz festival among many others), they've found a better refuge than the unfortunate Hammer Theatre. I was a little nervous at the prospect of the rather voluminous concert hall in the university music building, where I've heard a few distant-sounding piano recitals from time to time (B. has also sung there, long ago), but the acoustic shell was cannily placed, and the string quartet seated in front of it had a good playing space.

This was the Calidore Quartet, and their performing style sounded so different from my two experiences with them at Menlo that I wondered if there'd been a personnel change. There hadn't, and they deserved and got a good review anyway. That Caroline Shaw is an immeasurably superior composer to some of those duffers on the Bard festival program did not escape my thoughts in the review.

Then on Monday, the same group was playing pretty much the same thing up at Herbst. Oh boy.

Monday, October 21, 2019

o Canada

It appears from the initial results that Justin Trudeau will be forming a minority government. This may seem disappointing to his supporters, but the likes of this have happened before.

His father Pierre received a minority plurality of seats in his second election in 1972, following on his glorious initial victory four years earlier.

So son is no worse off than father was. And less than two years later, Pierre called another election, after the NDP withdrew their confidence & supply support, and he won a majority again. So.

fish I dislike

Why I'm posting about this now beats me, but upon seeing a shelf of cans of tuna in the store, I realized I have a list. Generally I like fish, but these are the exceptions.

ling cod1
drum (croaker)2

These fish are either too dry for my preference (first two) or have an odd taste (the rest).

1. But not other kinds of cod, just this.
2. According to the wikipedia article, this kind of fish is generally not considered good eating, and having had some I can see why. But then why did I find it as the fish of the day in one of the finest restaurants in New Orleans?
3. To my regret, I find that the works of the renowned author by this name also have an odd taste.
4. I don't really dislike snapper that much, I just had too much of it when it was the regular special at the Fish Market.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

what they did

I'm here to talk about pronouns. Not to criticize the growing tendency to use "they" to refer, not just to single hypothetical persons of any gender, but to specific known persons who prefer not to use gendered pronouns. What I'm here to do is to caution writers on its use.

I hope that most people who care about their writing have noted already the extreme care one needs to exercise with pronouns when writing about a complex interaction between two people of the same gender. You need to be very careful that, whenever you write "she", or "he" as the case may be, it's clear which of the two people the reference goes back to. If it's unclear, your writing may be very confusing or even positively misleading. I see problems in this area occurring all the time. In practice, this is one of those things that writers usually can't see unless they put their work down and come back to it later, which sometimes there isn't time to do, or unless the work will be reviewed by a good editor, a rare commodity.

It's striking how much easier it is to write about such an interaction when the two people are of different genders. Then you can just drop in the words "she" or "he" without a second thought, confident that they'll always go back to the same person regardless of what else has intervened since the last name reference. When I was writing fiction, and consequently who interacted with whom was a matter of my unfettered choice, I would usually make one-on-one conversations between two people of different sexes, because I'd noticed how much easier those are to write. And this was over forty years ago, because I haven't written any fiction since then.

Well, "they" has even more writing traps. Not only can it be unclear which of two persons "they" refers to, but it can also refer to both persons, or even to something that's not a person at all. And that means writers have to be even more careful to avoid ambiguities.

I just came across a curious example of this. It was in an article by Matt Ford about the current state of the impeachment inquiry. Ford writes, "The original whistleblower's central claims are so thoroughly corroborated at this point that their testimony almost seems unnecessary." The possessive pronoun "their" surely refers to the whistleblower, whose sex or gender is unknown. But the topic of the sentence is not the whistleblower, but the whistleblower's claims. Which would also be referred to as "they" or "their". Could the claims give testimony? No, I guess, but they could be given in testimony.

This isn't really ambiguous, and even if it is ambiguous it isn't treacherously misleading, since there's no ambiguity of person. But it's awkward. It trips the reader up momentarily, like a loose or ill-fitting cobblestone in the pavement. And if you're trying to write a straightforward news article, and are not playing around with experimental prose, why would you want to trip the reader up? There's obvious reasons not to use the assumed "he", but it would have had the advantage of whipping the reader past the claims as sentence topic and focus it on the person.

Since we don't do that any more, we have to be more careful in our writing. So watch it. Be cautious with your "they"s and "their"s.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

first record

Every so often, somebody of roughly my generation, or perhaps a bit younger - but old enough to have been buying records in their youth - will name the first record they ever bought with their own money.

It's always some current pop record of whatever period it was, which makes me feel alienated, because mine wasn't.

But at last, someone after my own heart. Terry Teachout, who these days is mostly a theater and jazz critic, but who has classical music firmly in his background, names the first record that he ever bought, and it's Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony.

Well. I didn't buy a copy of the Pathétique until years later, because it was included in one of the box sets my parents had, but that's more my style. The first record I ever bought was of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. Collegium Aureum, original instruments, RCA 2-disc set. Found in a small record shop in a now totally-rebuilt shopping center near a cafeteria restaurant where we frequently went out to dinner.

I would probably have been 13 when I bought this. I had recently taken up listening to the heavy classics, and in those box sets and my parents' other records I found a lot of symphonies and other works with numbers on them, that demonstrated that they were parts of numbered sets. One of those works was Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, and, while I liked it a good deal, the reason I fixed on the Brandenburgs as my first purchase was that, unlike other sets which required either multiple separate LPs or a large, clumsy box set, I could get all six Brandenburgs on two discs in a single gatefold slipcase. And so my collection of this set was complete. This was the foundation stone of decades spent accumulating many hundreds of classical recordings.

Want to hear that original recording of the Brandenburg set? Here it is, the whole thing:

(Order: 1, 3, 4, 5, 2, 6.)

Monday, October 14, 2019

Harold Bloom

If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me - Alice Roosevelt Longworth

Harold Bloom, who died today, was an eminent critic who came to believe in his own eminence. That is, he behaved as if any random critical thought his brain farted out was the wisdom of the ages.

Bloom was prolific - according to the obit, he wrote over 20 books, which is quite impressive for heavy-duty criticism - but that's only a tiny fraction of the number of books with his name on them. He turned himself into a book factory, issuing hundreds of volumes of collections of critical essays (by various hands) on particular literary authors or specific works. How much Bloom was personally involved in choosing and vetting the essays, and how much he farmed the job out to then-junior flunkies like Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, is questionable; but certainly the selection of essays had a sense of randomness to them, and their quality tended to decline over the years. But one thing he did write himself was the introduction to each volume, and it is here that his self-confident blowhard ignorance can be shown up.

And some of these books were on Tolkien.

Specifically, two of them were titled J.R.R. Tolkien and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, published by Chelsea House in 2000. Two new books under the same titles were published by Bloom's Literary Criticism in 2008. Nominally they're revised editions of their predecessors, but the selection of essays is in both cases entirely different, losing a lot of the particularly notable names from the first edition, like Paul H. Kocher, Tom Shippey, and Humphrey Carpenter.

What is the same, or nearly so, in both the revised volumes and their predecessors is Bloom’s very brief and superficial introductions, and it is my review of these in The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies 2008 that I'm relying on here.

In both introductions, Bloom refers nostalgically to Roger Sale as "Tolkien's best critic," probably because Sale's tone was negative, but Bloom undercuts this tribute by removing Sale from the revised contents. The introduction for the Lord of the Rings volume denigrates the novel that the book has been created to discuss, a judgment shared by few of the critics included. Bloom's primary beef is with Tolkien's style, to which he attributes a "heavy King James Bible influence," and he carefully selects a paragraph out of context from the peroration at the end of Book V, Chapter 8 to prove this. (He says he "opened [the book] pretty much at random," but he could have found less elevated language on the same two-page spread, so I don't believe his claim that he didn't go looking for this. But that would have undercut his claim that the novel consists of "about fifteen hundred pages of this quaint stuff.") Bloom acknowledges that Tolkien "met a need" in the 1960s, though he doesn't say what need he thinks 1500 pages of King James Biblical met; in the 2000 version of the introduction, he concludes, "Whether [Tolkien] is an author for the coming century seems to me open to some doubt." Aware that eight more years had passed and Tolkien had still not gone away - indeed, after the Jackson movies he became more popular than ever - in the revised edition Bloom altered "the coming century" to "the duration of the twenty-first century," thus illustrating Tom Shippey's observation that Tolkien's negative critics assume, with hope springing eternal, that the fad will pass any minute now if they can just outwait it.

Another decade having gone by, Bloom is now gone and The Lord of the Rings is still here.

not at home

Having spent precisely the right days up in Oregon, we missed California's Great PG&E Blackout. The power was going out as we drove north, but though I'd studied the map (from a newspaper website: PG&E's own was consistently unavailable), it was hard to tell from the freeway whether the power in neighboring areas was out or not, though I thought I spotted a working traffic light in a place that was supposed to be dark by then. The only effect I noticed was that a couple of rest areas in blacked-out areas were closed, though the DOT had listed them as open the day before. We stopped and had lunch in a town that the map said would be unaffected. And the blacked-out areas didn't quite reach to our house, so there was no need to discard all the contents of our refrigerator when we came home.

So this didn't affect us much, but it sure irritated a lot of other people. The prospect of going through this clumsy and disorganized thing regularly is not an appealing alternative, even to rampaging fires, but I think I know why PG&E did it. It's passive-aggressive behavior. Stung by being (justifiably) blamed for their equipment causing previous years' fires, and being unable or unwilling to correct the actual problems, they're exaggeratingly avoiding risking fires by taking the most complicated and disruptive method possible.

This is the sort of behavior which nationalization was invented to correct.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

two parts Shakespeare

B. and I have returned from our annual visit to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Last year we went in June and saw preview performances of the outdoors plays. This year we saw the closing performances of two plays. Altogether we saw six.

Two Shakespeare: despite obvious differences they curiously resembled each other. All's Well That Ends Well, which if I'd seen before I didn't remember, is about a woman who goes to elaborate and complicated lengths to trick a man into marrying her. Macbeth, which I remember very well, is about these three witches who go to elaborate and complicated lengths to trick a man into doing evil.

Royer Bockus, all geeky in a t-shirt reading "Misfit" and large glasses and frizzy hair, played Helen. Danforth Comins, all stocky mesomorph, played Macb. They and everybody else were good.

Two modern classics: B. loved Hairspray: The Broadway Musical. I found it overloud with crappy amplification, and the characters amazingly hard to relate to. However painful high school was whenever it was that I was there, I'm just glad it wasn't in 1962 when this is set. A circa 1930 (I couldn't find the exact date anywhere) adaptation of Alice in Wonderland - actually both books, one in each act - brilliantly captures the manic grotesquery of the originals, with some loopy characterizations by some very experienced actors, and a grumpy and exasperated Alice running through it. The adapters were Eva Le Gallienne and Florida Friebus (yes, Dobie Gillis's mother).

Two new plays: How to Catch Creation by Christina Anderson, though soberly and realistically written, was in plot a tangle of interwoven melodrama about the lives and loves of six middle-class African Americans. Anderson says she wanted to depict their life without putting it in contrast against whites. She also wanted to subvert stereotypes: her characters include two men who want to be fathers, and several lesbians who are not "covetous [and] lecherous" (that's what it says here the stereotype is: don't look at me, I didn't write this). Good characterization, good acting.

The title of Between Two Knees refers to the two famous events at Wounded Knee, the 1890 massacre and the 1973 occupation. This is the second time OSF has imported intact some other troupe's production (this was written by a collective calling itself the 1491s), and like the other, a reworking of The Yeomen of the Guard, this was a complete disaster. Anything it might have had to say about the history and lives of Indians (I was taught not to call them that, but that's what they're called in the play) in the 20th century, the ostensible topic, is drowned in a load of overlong, crude, unfunny, and irrelevant neo-vaudeville schtick.

When we made our bookings a year ago (Ashland fills up fast), we snagged a room in the nearest hotel, the one a quick two-block walk from the theatres. That worked well last year, but unfortunately our mobility has decreased since then, and that walk looks a lot longer now. B. has acquired a knee scooter which she's successfully using to get around between buildings at work, but applied to the irregularly-paved sidewalks and steep hills of Ashland, she gave up after a day and reverted to the cane. Next year we'll stay further out in a more comfortable hotel and drive in to the parking garage right behind the theatres.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

electric highway

After several incidents in previous years in which autumn winds or storms have knocked trees into rural electric transformers and caused what became huge fires, the utility has decided to be mercilessly proactive. Strong winds are predicted for the next day, so they're shutting down all electric transmission in wide swathes of the state.

This would be bearable except that, since they can't tell without looking what damage might have been done to equipment that's been turned off, they'll have to check each piece by hand before turning the power back on, and this could take up to a week.

They've put out a map showing the affected areas. To my surprise, as I don't think of myself as living in the arboreal wilderness, the marked shutoff zone comes within about a quarter-mile of my house. Nor am I sure how precise these geometrical zone lines are. For instance, the border passes through the middle of campus of the local community college. Is it going to lose power just on the west half?

What's more, I'm about to take a long drive through some of the most heavily affected areas. Will I be able to buy lunch, pump fuel, even use the restroom facilities? Guess I'll find out.

Monday, October 7, 2019

concert review: Symphony Silicon Valley

This review was a challenge to write: I knew exactly what I had heard that was distinctive in the performance, but could I translate it adequately into words?

Not sure how well I succeeded, but I did note how susceptible Tchaikovsky's Pathétique is to varying interpretations, roughing out the extremes between which they lie. There's an adventure in going to hear a work as malleable as this - Shostakovich's Fifth is another one - because you don't know until you hear it how it's going to come out.

It's a little like going to see a similarly malleable play, like Hamlet. Are you going to get a neurotic Prince, unable to decide what he wants to do? Or will there be an angry Prince, sure of his intentions but raging over the controls both external and internal that prevent him from fulfilling them? Or any of a number of other possible readings? All are justifiable from the text, and differing emphases and interpretations of particular lines make the difference.

There were a lot of unfamiliar faces in the winds, with no explanation in the roster save for note of a vacancy in first flute, which must mean that the new flutist they got two years ago has left. So who was playing, and who the third one was, I have no idea. But the principal bassoonist is still listed as the same, except that was definitely not her playing. I could have mentioned this, or attempted to query for names, but decided not to bother.

I found myself sitting next to a woman who turned out to be a member of the symphony board. Experience with, and formerly being on, the Mythopoeic Society board cures me of awe at such lofty personages, and indeed she was much younger than myself. I said I was a reviewer, and I complimented symphony management for its wise course keeping the organization solvent by not over-reaching. Occasionally over the years they've cautiously experimented as expansions of one sort or another, and if they don't work they're quietly withdrawn from. Quite different from the behavior of management at the old San Jose Symphony 20 years ago, which I'm convinced was responsible for that organization's collapse. What I said at the time was that they needed to keep the same musicians (nothing wrong with them) but get an entirely new management, and they did exactly that on both counts.

Preparation was more scattered than I'd intended. I had made the chance to hear the other work, an unfamiliar one by Kodály, and to get the score from the library, but not both at the same time. For the first time since it was built, and that was some 20 years ago too, the library parking garage is entirely occupied with student permit parking, so visitors can't park there during the week, and there isn't anywhere else nearby to go, unless you snag street parking and that's only good for brief visits. So I couldn't take the time for a potentially frustrating visit until Saturday, which was the day of the concert. Just before the concert, in fact, leaving only time for dinner in a small Thai restaurant down the street that must have been overwhelmed by the (not overwhelming) dinner-time crowds, since it took half an hour for my meal to be served, almost longer than I had free to wait.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

concert review and more

The concert review was of the Redwood Symphony. Interesting program, but hard to find much to say about it. First time I'd reviewed one of Zoltán Kodály's best-known works, the Háry János Suite, and I'm getting another Kodály piece this weekend.

Another staged experience came my way: at my previous visit to the Hammer Theatre, I saw a poster advertising a production called The Other Mozart. Closer inspection showed that the subject was Nannerl, Wolfgang's sister. I didn't know much about Nannerl, so I decided to go, even though I had no idea whether what I'd be getting would be a concert, a play, or what.

It turned out to be a one-woman play, written by its performer, Sylvia Milo. Dressed in what was apparently intended as 18th-century underwear, but with no underskirts, Milo delivered a long monologue covering Nannerl's early life, focusing on her being alternately fêted for her keyboard talents and ignored in favor of her little brother. Lots of fast conversations in which Milo uses eccentric accents to distinguish the voices of her father, mother, and brother. In a quiet epilogue, Nannerl long outlives Wolfgang and eventually becomes the object of pilgrimages by the rising flood of Mozart fans. A huge skirt, about 18 feet across, is spread across the stage and covered with scattered manuscript pages. Occasionally Milo steps into it and pulls it on over her underwear and then takes it off again. What the meaning was behind this action, I couldn't say.

Strange piece, and while I learned a little, I didn't find it very successful or meaningful.

Friday, October 4, 2019

o to be a blogger

1. I've been having trouble following the latest twists on Brexit, including the details of Boris's proposed deal, because the Guardian has been preferring to run its coverage in liveblogs, which are thin on details and background. So I'm grateful for this week's Slate This Week in Brexit column.

2. Live link to an hour-and-a-half documentary on Fawlty Towers. That's the length of three episodes. I haven't had time to watch much of this, and I'm tired of keeping the tab open.

3. Best English Lit comedy I've seen in a long while: Off-the-cuff translation of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.

4. No kidding: it's the entire corpus of Peanuts, online.

5. For locals only: community submission draft maps for city council districts for Pacifica and Sunnyvale. I participated in the workshops for the latter, where I live, but decided not to submit my map because the regulations dictating what criteria you could use to draw them were too much of a tangle for me. None of the final maps resemble mine; nos. 101 and 105 (from the complete submission file) look the most like mine.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

how I travel

John Scalzi has written on things he splurges on for travel. The main point is, "If there's an ocean involved, when possible, buy a lie-down seat."

I've never had one of those, and I wonder how much it would help for me. Unlike Scalzi, I can sometimes sleep sitting up, and in fact I prop myself up as much as possible whenever going to bed, but I can't always sleep lying down either.

On the other hand, I've never flown transpacific either, and I doubt I ever will, because that's too long to spend in a plane whatever the position. Ten-hour transatlantic flights I've managed, but lately I'm finding even a 5-hour transcontinental flight is too wearying. (I lost my bag in the airport due to exhaustion after one of those last year.) My last such trip I scheduled a long layover, and that helped. It would only work when I'm traveling alone, though, because B. has trouble with the schlepping around dependent on any airport transfer.

(Would I, as Scalzi contemplates, leave the airport during a sufficiently long scheduled layover? I did that once, but I think it was pre-9/11. No, I'm not navigating both security and transit. Find something decent to eat in the airport - easier now than that used to be - and spend the rest of the time reading. Much more relaxing.)

My number one travel rule - and this applies to any mode of transportation, car or bus or even foot as well as plane - is: Always spend more time at your destination than you do in total transit. Scalzi says he's on "a week-long trip to Australia" and doesn't say if that includes travel time. It takes the better part of two days to get there, and if that's part of his week that would leave him only 3+ days there. I find it too wearying even to drive an hour if I'm not going to be there at least 2 hours, preferably more, and one reason I don't take the train to the City is that it means a 2-3 hour trip each way. I'm not going to be up there for 6 hours, and even as a passenger that's too much.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

ecce homines, pars X

Continuing my three-volumes-at-a-time survey of the American Presidents series, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. This installment covers the presidencies of 1921-1933.

These three Republican presidents are generally considered the pygmies in between the giant Democratic figures of Wilson and Roosevelt. The authors of these volumes are out to convince you that their subjects are more interesting than that.

John W. Dean on Warren G. Harding is the man who brought down one president (Nixon), and he's here to rehabilitate another, whom he's fond of because they had the same home town. And he does it in a manner befitting a one-time Nixon flunky. It's a pity, because when it sticks to the facts, this is a useful and informative Harding biography, demonstrating that he had a political philosophy and sought to carry it out. Other books in this series have indulged in special pleading for their subjects, but none match the shifty exculpation here. Dean quotes caustic criticism of Harding's gaseous speeches, and then rebuts it by pointing out that Harding was popular with voters (at least in 1920; his party crashed in the mid-term elections), so presumably somebody must have liked what he said. Dean dismisses Nan Britton's account of her affair with Harding because he thinks she's a fabricator: unfortunately, DNA testing a few years after this book was written proved that her child was Harding's. He recounts the administration's scandals as if Harding bore no responsibility for what his subordinates did, a particularly Nixonian defense, and even seems to say that Denby stealing government money for the Teapot Dome oil was OK because he intended to pay it back, which sounds like something Oliver North would say. I was most astonished by Dean's claim that, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee questioned Wilson about the League of Nations, Harding got the better of their exchanges (p. 47). I went and read the stenographic transcript, and that's not how it looks to me, or to any other commentator I've read.1 Dean does not reprint Wilson's own comment, which was that "Senator Harding had a disturbingly dull mind, and that it seemed impossible to get any explanation to lodge in it."2

David Greenberg on Calvin Coolidge is one I was looking forward to, because Greenberg is an academic historian who wrote a brilliant book called Nixon's Shadow, a history of his image and reputation in their disparate manifestations. Could he be so coruscating concerning Coolidge? He could. Greenberg conveys a clear and coherent canvas of Coolidge's character, showing the principles by which Coolidge was so retiring, and so eager to delegate responsibilities and then step back once he'd done so. We learned how Coolidge's plans worked and how, just as frequently, they didn't. As he was with Nixon, Greenberg is particularly interested in Coolidge's image. He has complete command of the paradoxes by which this dour puritan became the symbol of the United States in the wild and roaring 1920s. Coolidge was simultaneously deaf to the emerging notion that the president is the emotional leader of the nation, and yet keenly aware of the value of publicity and very capable at selling himself. In short, Greenberg concludes that Coolidge was a bridge between the 19th and 20th century conceptions of the presidency, and while not a great president, did not deserve the plummeting that his reputation fell into during the Depression. He was lax on regulating business, on principle, but controlling the overheated economy would have been beyond his ability to deal with.

William E. Leuchtenburg on Herbert Hoover faces the question facing several previous volumes in this series: how did such a brilliant man become such a terrible president? An academic historian like Greenberg, Leuchtenburg takes a similar approach of an analysis of personality, except that - apart from an observation that Hoover's severe personality was probably shaped by his Dickensian childhood - Leuchtenburg makes no attempt to analyze his subject's inner life. He even begins with an epigram, quoting one of Hoover's officials describing him as unknowable. All he has is what Hoover said and did. So when Hoover, helping stranded Americans and feeding starving Belgians in World War I, proclaims that his successes show the virtues of volunteerism from private enterprise, all Leuchtenburg can do is note that in fact these ventures relied mostly on government finance and governmental authority, and can't explain why Hoover thought otherwise. That's one thread explaining Hoover's failures in the Depression: that he couldn't grasp that the crisis was beyond private charities' ability to ameliorate, even when specifically told so. But another thread is found in Hoover's prickly personality, which made him numerous enemies. (When he was in the Cabinet, Harding admired him, but Coolidge, though finding him useful, scorned him.) What becomes clear is that Hoover was a brilliant administrator but a lousy leader, and since the presidency is leadership, leaving administration to subordinates, it didn't suit him. Yet Leuchtenburg has a very strange chapter on the early part of Hoover's presidency. The first half is about what a good president he was, and the second half is about what a bad president he was. The line used to divide these is tortured: in the first half, for instance, we learn of his three popular Supreme Court nominations, and only in the second half is it revealed that there was a fourth which was controversial and failed. Similarly, we learn that Hoover took many initiatives to ameliorate the Depression: they just weren't enough, and, like Coolidge, he was a complete failure at providing the emotional rallying that FDR would be so brilliant at.

1. The transcript ought to be online, but I haven't been able to find it there. It was a government document, and is reprinted in, among other places, v. 62 of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson.
2. This is quoted in many accounts, but I had a hard time locating the source. It's as reported by Secretary of Agriculture David F. Houston, Eight Years with Wilson's Cabinet (1926), v. 2, p. 17.