Saturday, February 29, 2020

buon giorno Gioachino

After all, it's not every year we can celebrate Rossini's birthday.

Here's three of his lesser-known great overtures.







It's also Tim Powers' birthday. He's 17 in pirate years.

Friday, February 28, 2020

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Final guest visit by Esa-Pekka Salonen (henceforth EPS) before he takes over as Music Director next season. Three works all of dramatic construction: that is, they all seemed more interested in startling juxtapositions and intently communicating impressions and images rather than forming a coherent and regular shape. But it became an enlightening and rewarding concert.

First and briefly, the Beethoven celebration got its oar in with the King Stephen Overture, possibly his most obscure in this form. Abrupt heavy blasts interrupting variously heavy-footed and whimsically clockwork jollity felt very odd, with intimations of both the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies.

EPS's own Violin Concerto, with soloist Leila Josefowicz for whom the work was written a decade ago. Dominated by the soloist who saws vigorously back and forth in the fast movements and gives lyric wanderings dominated by double-stops in the slow movements, with light and unusual accompaniment (e.g. a duet with muted trumpet), interrupted by occasional terrifying orchestral eruptions. A better piece than this sounds, it was consistently interesting and communicative, a rare thing in modern violin concertos and more effective than other works I've heard by EPS too.

Nielsen's Fifth Symphony. In the context of his earlier work, this piece sounds like a nervous breakdown, engendered either by shell-shock over World War I (which ended a couple years before this was written) or by the beginning of a breakdown in the composer's health. But unlike some composers' difficult late works, it's a masterpiece. The catastrophic episodes were impressive, with the snare drummer going up to the terrace to another instrument for his wild ad lib tattoo, then putting on a carried instrument and walking offstage to deliver his final blasts from there. (He didn't reappear for the remainder of the piece, but EPS brought him out for a special bow afterwards.) Despite this, EPS put strong emphasis on the long-breathed lyricism of the work, which the orchestra played with full-bodied warmth. This gave a wholeness to the piece that was as surprising - I'd never heard it played in quite this healing way before - as it was welcome. Many of these passages gave a hint of Shostakovich works as yet unwritten, or Ives in his most ecstatic spiritualist mood, but always there was the echo of the pre-war Nielsen, also sometimes hard to bring out here.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

back catalog

some books I've read in the last few whatevers

The Dandelion Insurrection by Rivera Sun
The only fiction on this booklist. The writer is Author Guest of Honor at Mythcon this year, so I figured I should try her work. This title is the first listed under her con bio, and was also the easiest to find in a library, so I went here first. It's not a fantasy as we customarily define them. It's set in a dystopian near-future US, with curfews and checkpoints supposedly to protect against terrorism, where an illegitimately-elected president presides over an increasingly rapacious government-industrial complex. In short, it depicts the textbook definition of fascism, though if the word is used at all it's not emphasized. The story focuses on a man who's a polemic underground journalist rather in the Glenn Greenwald mode, and a woman with a vision of a new society but who also carries the style of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. They essentially pull into existence by its own bootstraps what they insist will remain a nonviolent opposition movement, the Dandelion Insurrection of the title. In respects it resembles Occupy Wall Street, which predated this novel by two years, and the subsequent course of events in the novel is about what I suspect the organizers of Occupy Wall Street hoped would happen. It didn't.
As fiction, the book is competently written and flows easily. No scintillating prose, but nothing for Thog to smack his lips over either. There's a certain amount of heroes-get-the-last-word wish-fulfillment and self-congratulatory sleet to follow, but it's entirely devoid of the rancid. The author even draws a sedate curtain entirely over the sex scenes. In the choice for a polemic novelist between loading the tale with specifics at the cost of bogging the story down, or keeping the story moving at the cost of being vague in the message, the author leans strongly to the second option, but that may be because she's offloaded her list of nonviolent protest techniques to an appendix, and a protester's guidebook and a collection of the hero's journalism to separate books which I haven't seen. There's also a sequel to the novel, with a third book reportedly on the way.

Lost Transmissions: The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy by Desirina Boskovich
Collection of brief essays, many of them guest-written, on things in the field that the author considers obscure or underappreciated. Covers literature, media, and some fan phenomena. In the literature section, I was pleased to find pieces on yea, even George MacDonald, David R. Bunch, and Phil Dick's Exegesis, along with some people I didn't think were so obscure, like Mervyn Peake and Angela Carter, and some even I didn't know. A piece on the Inklings is pretty bad, including errors like "Lewis's son Christopher" and defining the Inklings' influence as whatever crap fantasy happened to cross the author's mind. But pieces on two controversial works, The Dark Tower (the CSL one) and The Last Dangerous Visions, are admirable in their accuracy and judiciousness.

MetaMaus by Art Spiegelman
This book has been out for some years, but I only now have seen it. It's the making of Spiegelman's famous Holocaust comic, Maus, filled with memoirs and interviews (some with his family) and lots of illustrations of his drafts and of his earlier comics incorporating the same themes. Explains the relationship between the people in Maus and the real people they're based on, and the bizarre backstory to Spiegelman's idea of drawing humans as mice, cats, pigs, etc. in the first place. Should only be read by people well familiar with Maus, but if that work moves you, this is illuminating.

What's Your Pronoun?: Beyond He & She by Dennis Baron
I knew there was a long list of attempted neutral pronouns, from ae to zie - Baron's got a catalog of them all - but what I hadn't known was the huge legal argument that went on in the 19th century over whether he included an assumed she or not. When the topic was tax codes or criminal codes, the establishment would argue that of course the laws applied to women too: he meant she as well; that was how everybody used the language; it was understood. But when the laws concerned voting rights, defined eligibility for officeholders, or said who could be a lawyer, all of a sudden the same people insisted that women were excluded, because he meant only he. That's what it said, wasn't it? End of discussion. It was one thing if you had a grammar law stating openly that he meant she here and not there, and some jurisdictions had that, but these arguments were conducted on the basis of complete self-evidence with universal application.
Baron favors singular they, and points out its long history, but he doesn't draw a sufficient distinction among 1) they for ambiguous usages between singular and plural (everyone, no one), which all his pre-modern examples are, 2) they for a single but nonspecified or unidentified person, and 3) they for a specific known individual. I find these are distinctive usages which sit in the brain in different places and ways. Using #1 or #2 with comfort and ease doesn't mean you can pick up on using #2 or #3 with any facility whatever.

Music: A Subversive History by Ted Gioia
This is a social history of music, and can consequently spend many chapters on the place of music in the classical and early Mesopotamian world where a more technical history wouldn't be able to get very far. Gioia's thesis is that musical trends start out as subversive but then regularly get co-opted by the cultural establishment. His latest examples of co-opting, cited frequently, are Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize and Elvis visiting Nixon in the White House. (He doesn't seem aware that the visit was Elvis's idea.) He gets quite exercised over Pythagorean music theory turning from a descriptive account into prescriptive rules. There's a lot of good stuff on medieval church music, but I kind of lost the thread after the chapter on classical music from Bach through the 19th century, in which he treats it as a big surprise that Bach and Beethoven were subversive figures in their day. You only need look at a picture of Beethoven, with his untidy clothes and mop of wild hair, to realize that he's no orthodox dominant repressor.

Superheavy: Making and Breaking the Periodic Table by Kit Chapman
The first half, on the WW2-era and early postwar ventures into creating new elements at UC Berkeley, was very much to my taste, and not just because I attended UC and know all those buildings, but after the Russians and Japanese get into the picture and it just becomes a big international motorcar race to capture the next element, it got a lot less interesting.

Dominion by Peter Ackroyd
Came across this in the library; it's a volume in Ackroyd's history of England, this one covering 1815-1901. At that scale of coverage I was surprised to see it's only the fifth volume; the earlier ones are much more wide-spanning. I found this lucid enough; it's very clear, though once or twice inaccurate, on the political makeup of the successive governments, which is what I most want from an 18th or 19th century British history. Mostly chronological, it frequently dives into broader considerations of social history which are reasonably well cemented in, or picks up specific incidents like the Tichborne claim which aren't handled as clearly.

Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11 by Mitchell Zuckoff
Very large and necessarily grim account of the tragedy in detail, but it makes urgently compelling reading. It's in two parts: one in the planes (plus ATC and other controls) and one on the ground. For each part, Zuckoff has picked a lineup of specific characters to follow, beginning with their personal histories and then jumping back and forth as the timeline proceeds. He's pretty good at getting past the problem that there are no surviving witnesses to a lot of this stuff. This procedure works well in the first part, which is shorter, has fairly few characters with fairly parallel stories, and you already know everybody's fate. Part 2 is harder to follow: longer, with more characters with more diverse stories, and unless you've already read about them you don't already know which victims will survive. I took to digging out the successive entries on individuals just to get some coherence into it. I'd already read a book on the Twin Towers which took this approach (102 Minutes by Dwyer and Flynn), so I knew much of that, but it was still dismaying to read of burned victims, still conscious and functional, being carefully escorted down the stairs and handed off to medical care, only to die in the hospital. And I'd read nothing of this level of detail about the Pentagon, which in some ways is more horrifying because some of the people in the impact zone survived, so they can tell Zuckoff what it was like in there, or the bizarre account of being just a volunteer firefighter out in rural Pennsylvania, going about your business, when all of a sudden ...

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

toys according to cat

One thing Tybalt is entirely enthusiastic about is his cat toys. Frequently, especially after breakfast, he will jump into B's chair in the living room and start trilling loudly. That means he expects me to start wiggling toys so he can chase them.

But what kind of toys? I seem to get the best results with things that are attached directly to the end of a stick, without a string, or at least not a long string, separating the toy end from the pole. That way I have more control over the movement of the toy end than I do when it's on a long string. Recently I bought a stick with a passel of strips of suede dangling off the end. This is a huge hit, and even attracts Maia to play, determined to keep her end up in Tybalt City.

We have some others of the same general sort, and I've also been getting good results with peacock feathers. The problem is that with a cat of Tybalt's ferocity, a feather will last only a couple days before it's mauled into unusability, and the supply is limited. For some reason pet stores don't sell them, and we can only get them from vendors at cat shows.

Tybalt's goal with the other toys is to grab the toy material in his mouth. His jaws are pretty strong, and once he has it in there I can't wrest it out without risking breaking the toy. We've had a couple of plush fish and mice detached from strings that way, though it turns out that Tybalt likes chasing the string as much as he did the original toy.

He can clamp that in his jaws too. In that case I just give up and drop the pole. He trots off, carrying the toy in his mouth, while the pole dangles along amusingly behind him. He'll then take it to a corner and drop it. From which I must fetch it again, for I've found that if I leave it there, he'll eventually come back and take it to some other corner, one which isn't obviously visible. This is not a wise move on his part, since I can't play with him if I can't find the toy.

The blurbs on cat toy packages often emphasize the invisibility of the string, so as to fool the cat into thinking the toy is independent prey. I don't think that matters to cats. Their hunting urge is focused on moving objects, or non-moving objects that they know will move if they don't pounce fast enough, and they don't really care if it's attached to anything or not. Even if the hunting instinct was designed by evolution to catch prey (and there's actually some doubt about that), that doesn't mean that cats will most efficiently hunt that which most closely resembles prey. The instinct focuses on certain characteristics of prey, and it's that which most has those characteristics that most attracts them, whether it looks like prey or not.

As you can see from all of this, cats in action take up a lot of my attention at home.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

world according to cat

Tybalt is two years old now, and just beginning to show hints of calming down into adulthood. A little. Sometimes when he curls up right beneath my pillow, he's now willing to cuddle, to take the petting hand without grabbing at it with claws and teeth as if it were a cat toy. Sometimes.

And once I woke up from a nap on the living room couch to find him curled up on top of me, and disinclined to move as I struggled to get up.

Most of the time, though, it's playtime in Tybalt City. To run to expectant spots in the living room and meow loudly until one of his favorite toys is produced so that he may chase it: this is how he prefers to spend his mornings. Maia will come and observe and perhaps play too, and Tybalt will let her, the more amazing that.

He also gets up, further than before. The top of the refrigerator is now one of his regular hangouts. On the kitchen counter, if you come close, he will raise his front end and lean in - and, all of a sudden without realizing it, you find that you are carrying a cat, a long meat loaf across your arms. Scritch his head with whichever hand reaches over there; he likes that.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

concerts on the run

1) Princess Ida, Gilbert & Sullivan, Lamplighters Music Theatre. This is a revival of a production from the 90s, so I must have seen it before, purportedly rewritten slightly to make Ida's marriage to Hilarion at the end voluntary instead of enforced on her. If so, it didn't work: still looked enforced to me.

Excellent staging (great medievalist costumes) and brilliant performances as usual. Best parts were the very strong high voices of the two leads, Jennifer Ashworth and Robert Vann, and the stage business for Ida's two younger (and usually neglected) brothers, which was very amusing and served to emphasis just how dimwitted the characters really are.

2) New Millennium Chamber Orchestra, an all-Beethoven program because it's the anniversary year. I still like Beethoven anyway, so I decided to go. Leonore 3, with the offstage trumpet onstage. Finale from the Violin Concerto, with concertmaster Colyn Fischer as soloist. Arrangement for winds of a piece for musical clock. Lastly, the Eroica. This built up into a powerful performance: by the finale, it became - except for a glitch in a winds section where the oboe dropped out - as if a mighty machine were just running on its own momentum.

Friday, February 21, 2020

by the pricking of my thumbs / something licensed this way comes

At least I'm finished with the paper temporary plates flapping in the breeze.

Strangely, I seem to have memorized the plate number already (useful for hotel checkins, mostly, and now for finding one white car out of many in a parking lot), despite thinking it unmemorable.

The state is on 7-digit plates in a NXXXNNN format, where X is a letter. One can watch the sequence progress on the roads. This one is an 8P. The car I got a year ago was 8J. My previous car, then ten years old, was 6E. The world might still be intact by the time we get to 9Z and find out what happens next.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

blast from ye past

Barbara Remington has died, at 90. Really old-time Tolkienists will remember her name as that of the artist who created the covers for the first issue of the Ballantine paperbacks of The Lord of the Rings, which may be seen pictured in her obituary here. (Note they're all actually one painting split into three parts, which was also issued as a single poster without overprinting.)

Ballantine's goal was to get the books in the shops quickly, to compete with the unauthorized Ace paperbacks, so they gave Remington very little time to work. She hadn't then read the novel and had little opportunity to find out anything about it, consequently this surreal and impressionistic thing came into being.

Tolkien, unsurprisingly, hated it. He erupted in dismay at the sight, and to the publisher's attempts at explanation commented, "I begin to feel that I am shut up in a madhouse." (A quotation I found singularly apt to use as an epigraph when I came to write on Peter Jackson.)

But to those of us who were weaned on The Lord of the Rings in the early paperback years (this cover was used from the first paperbacks in 1965 until about 1973), we imprinted on this bizarre artwork the way a baby bird will imprint on a plastic doll in the absence of its mother. The transition from a peaceful if inexplicable Shire (emus? pink bulbs?) to the hellhole of a blasted Mordor with what look like tissue-paper monsters writhing in front does, at least, convey the point Bilbo made to Frodo about the world they live in:
It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountain or even further and to worse places?

Monday, February 17, 2020

immersion weekend

I've been attending various events with the Violins of Hope's current local residency, some to review them, because this is a big deal locally, some for background, and some just out of curiosity, since they're only here for two months and this is the only chance I'll have. A few of them converged on this weekend.

First, there was in San Mateo the most locally convenient of several programs of folk music, appropriate as many of the violins were klezmer instruments in their previous life. We had short sets by specialists in klezmer (accompanied by accordion), Irish folk (accompanied by guitar), American (mostly cajun and Mississippi delta, also with guitar), and - something of an outlier in this bunch - Indian classical music (accompanied by tabla). This was very popular, and it's a good thing I got there an hour early, because there were almost enough people already lined up to fill the room.

That evening there was a pay event at the nearby Jewish Community Center with the Ariel Quartet, who'd be playing a concert with some of the instruments the next day. They performed a preview of part of the concert, and answered questions (some of which proved useful), and the audience, mostly local machers, preened itself.

Next evening, the Ariel concert, at Kohl Mansion, which I was there to review, though in this case I might have come anyway. I'd dug up enough clips of the Ariels performing other works that I had some idea of the blistering commitment they'd bring to Schubert's "Death and the Maiden." I felt as if I'd been taken apart by the coruscating second movement; the remaining two put me back together again.

Writing the review was an interesting challenge. I've said before that I place no significance in listening to a violin because it went through the Holocaust, even though that's the whole point of the project. I said if I reviewed these, I'd just be concerned with their sound. And here's what happened: the Ariel quartet players are so very good that it became obvious to a reviewer's ear that the violins aren't very good. Nor should they be. It's the Holocaust that makes them significant: other than that, they're just 19th century German workaday instruments, not fit for the hands of a great quartet. So I wrote around that and tried to place more emphasis on what the players did manage to do with them.

Perhaps fortunately, my editors counter-acted this by loading the article down with photos of historical significance.

That was for SFCV, so since I couldn't cover this one for the Daily Journal, I had to pick something else for them for this month. So I went to Stanford for the Philharmonia Baroque concert. This featured Bach's comic-opera "Coffee Cantata." I had my best moment thinking up an adjective describing the voice of the soprano singing the part of the coffee-addict daughter. Her style was bright, her mien was briskly energetic, in short she was ... oh come on, it's too obvious.

peak nerd

This is unutterably nerdy: a ranking of every holder of the office of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland since the British government established the post in 1972.

And, since it starts at the bottom and goes upward, it has a happy ending with even a romantic touch.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

the couple that ---- together

Any of you other couples out there, has this ever happened to you?

B. and I gave each other the same Valentine's card.

It had cats on it: that's why.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Sunday, February 9, 2020

blank

None of the Oscar wins has aroused in me any desire to see any movies I haven't already seen.

In the meantime, I spent the afternoon at a matinee performance of a stage adaptation of Hitchcock's The 39 Steps. This was perhaps a strange thing for me to attend, as I've never seen the movie (though I have read the John Buchan book: same premise, rather different contents). But the premise of the play is that it's a depiction of a production with only four actors (for a rather large set of characters) and one rather lazy stagehand, and that it becomes a farce through improvisation and miscasting.

I like that sort of thing, but found this example passingly amusing, not tremendously funny, perhaps due to an energetic and competent but not overly brilliant cast in the real acting roles. I did learn that the movie is the source of a Firesign Theatre reference I'd never known that I didn't get. I think I actually chuckled twice, once when someone playing a Scottish farmer "forgets" his Scottish accent, and the other when someone calls on a character who's gone offstage and realizes that the whole cast is now onstage in other parts, so he's run out of actors. Well, maybe you had to be there.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

in the media

Academy Award ceremonies are tomorrow night, so perhaps it's best to report now on the two nominated films I've managed to see in the last couple of weeks - just about the only two I'd wanted to see, and just about the only two left in the theatres - before they get wiped out on awards night for being too good.

Little Women - It's considered axiomatic in the flick biz that no man will go see a movie of this story. Yet I love adaptations of Little Women (better, in truth, than I do the original book). So if I'm not a man, then, what am I? At any rate, this adaptation is really designed for lovers of the story, who know it backwards and forwards. Because this version is told backwards and forwards, and tyros will be completely baffled. Even I had trouble putting sororal name to face at first, and would like to see it again. Except for one thing. This movie has the most irritating and obnoxious version of Laurie ever put on celluloid. I'll wait for the DVD so I can fast-forward past him.

Jojo Rabbit - This movie falls in an unusual recent category that also includes the Coen Brothers' Hail Caesar: the comedy-drama movie spoiled by its own trailer. This peculiar problem comes about when the trailer, instead of being conceived as an invitation to watch the movie, is written as a precis, a summary, of the movie's plot, and is constructed by taking all the clever bits from the movie out of context and stringing them together. The trailer, then, is a bright and shiny string of pearls, in which context the actual movie, instead of seeming like an interesting story studded with clever bits, becomes a series of clever bits padded out with dull filler, dull because you already know the story and were expecting more clever bits.

Also in dramatic news, I found myself booked for a meeting in a couple weeks in the middle of the City's theater district, and which ends at 7:30. "I could see a show," I thought, "and without taking an extra trip." So I set out trying to find ones. Aggregator sites listing everything playing were either too hard to use or I didn't trust them, and in any case some of the theaters are too far away to be feasible. So I gathered a list of all the nearby theaters by a combination of memory and scouring Google Maps - yes, I know that isn't trustworthy either - and then looked up each's site.

Alas, there's nothing I want to see, even if I don't have to travel to get there. I don't want to see Hamilton. I don't want to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I especially don't want to go to a small dining theater that puts on improv shows and quotes reviews calling it "a party spot" and "a hot scene." One theater which does have an intriguing list of shows for the season is dark that week. So I guess I'll just get back on the train and go home.

Friday, February 7, 2020

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Blomstedt, week 2. This week he led two famous symphonies, so the hall was packed, and ready to applaud at every full stop. Last week only one of the symphonies was famous, so the hall was half-empty.

The two famous symphonies were Beethoven 2, by all odds his most cheerful, and Brahms 4, by all odds his most melancholy. Excellent renditions both, both for little touches and large-scale sweep. I was most impressed by some of the transitions, like the way Beethoven's slow introduction melted into the allegro, or how the second subject in Brahms's andante floated out of the first.

Came up very early, so as to have time, finally, to see the exhibit portion of the Violins of Hope program, which is only open 4 hours in the afternoon, 4 days a week. (A fact which it took me 2 phone calls to discover, but I see that at least now they've taken my advice and posted the hours at the exhibit itself.) Quite a few violins, mostly hung to show the backs, several of which have inlaid Mogen Davids, some in stone and some in distinctive wood. Long exhibit notes on the histories of the particular violins, laid down on the bottoms of large upright cases, are not very readable that way.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

scholarship non-award

I was delighted to come across this list, Ten Best Books of the Decade, 2010-2019: Fantasy Studies. Actually it includes 12 books, but of the 7 older books on the list, 2 were Mythopoeic Scholarship Award winners, and 3 more were finalists, including such fabulous entries as Brian Attebery's Stories About Stories and the Levy/Mendlesohn Children's Fantasy Literature: An Introduction (the two winners) and Stefan Ekman's Here Be Dragons.

But of the 5 new books, those that would be eligible for the award this year, none were familiar to me. But among such exalted company, they were worth checking out. I'm a long-time member of the awards committee, and I'm always on the look out for candidates.

Well, I've found copies of all 5 of them. Mind you, I've read none in full. I just dipped in and sampled parts, to get a sense of whether they'd be worthy of being considered as nominees for the award. In particular, as I always do for triage in the general fantasy category, I look to see what they have to say about Tolkien, if anything: because the complexity of his work makes him a challenge to study, but if you can't get him right, there's no point in going any further.

And I'm dismayed to find that not one of these five books strikes me as a worthy candidate for the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award. If someone else nominates them, I'll examine them more closely, but otherwise I'm not going to make the effort.

1. The Canons of Fantasy: Lands of High Adventure, Patrick Moran (Cambridge University Press, 2019)
This is hardly a scholarly treatise at all. It's very short, and is evidently one of a series of books intended as brief overviews of their topic. The author cites Jamie Williamson's The Evolution of Modern Fantasy (which won the MSA in 2016), but hardly seems to have read it. Instead of a research book, as Williamson wrote, this is armchair theorizing that doesn't even seem to have spent enough time cogitating in the armchair. It's well-written and intelligent, but there's not enough here to qualify it as an award candidate.

2. The Shape of Fantasy: Investigating the Structure of American Heroic Epic Fantasy, C. Palmer-Patel (Routledge, 2019)
Actually this book came out with a 2020 publication date on it, so it's not eligible yet this year. The goal of studying the relatively uncharted fantasy epics of 1990-2010 is a worthy one, but the relentless mediocrity of most of the chosen subjects, plus a clumsy writing style and a lack of the deep insights into structure needed to make a study like this work, show this as a sorry sight next to Roz Kaveney's brilliant brief study of the epics of the 1970s and 80s (in Eaglestone's Reading The Lord of the Rings).

3. A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic, James Gifford (ELS Editions, 2018)
I found this book almost unreadable. There are worse examples of turgid, convoluted prose in academia, but this one is bad enough. The relentless insistence on viewing everything through politically-colored lenses (alternately Marxist and anarchist), whether it's suitable or insightful to the topic or not, is also extremely tiresome. I hope nobody makes me read this in full.

4. The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (New York University Press, 2019)
Now this is an intelligent, insightful, and productive study of an important but neglected aspect of several very popular fantasies of recent times. I got a lot out of the Harry Potter chapter (which I picked to read because I'm familiar with the topic), and I'm almost ready to nominate it. Yet in the end I was too dismayed by the author's choice to spend much of the chapter defending herself from charges of plagiarism that erupted on the Internet regarding her fan fiction. It's just not appropriate to raise a personal beef like that in a serious scholarly work.

5. Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century, Maria Sachiko Cecire (University of Minnesota Press, 2019)
This is another intelligent and well-written treatise, and one which I actually look forward to reading in full. Unlike the first three, which bring in Tolkien more as a totem than a topic, this book actually discusses him (and C.S. Lewis), and so far as I've seen gets its facts right. Yet something smells off about the discussions, the way old food in the fridge smells off. In her intent to propose an alternative social value structure from the one held by Tolkien and Lewis (which she also posits as shared by Pullman, which is one of the things that smells off about it), the author reads them with a level of skepticism and scorn that casts their principles as illegitimate. This is not an appropriate candidate for an award created in these authors' honor.

Monday, February 3, 2020

three or four symphonies

Towards the end of last week I had two concerts, featuring music by a total of four composers: 19C Johannes Brahms and Franz Berwald, and 20C, both Polish, Karol Szymanowski and Witold Lutoslawski. It's interesting that all four of these composers wrote four symphonies each. But I didn't hear four symphonies.

First concert was the first of two weeks of Herbert Blomstedt's annual return visit to SFS. He led Brahms's Third, which is evolving into his most respected symphony, and Berwald's First or "Sérieuse." Some may ask, who is Berwald? I wondered the same thing when I first saw his name on a chapter of the 1967 Penguin Books symposium on the symphony, one of the books that taught me the repertoire. Most of the chapters were on individual composers, and they were arranged chronologically by birth, so the first four were Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven ... and Berwald. Clearly this was someone I'd better learn about. But only 2 of his 4 symphonies, including the "Sérieuse," were then available on disc, on an LP from Nonesuch, the discount oddities label. I bought it and was delighted with what I heard: beautiful and thrillingly inventive. I still count him as the outstanding "unknown" 19C post-classical symphonist. Years later, when Blomstedt was SFS music director, he also recorded with them 2 of the 4 Berwalds, including the "Sérieuse." A shame he didn't get around to the other two, though he's been known to conduct at least one of those elsewhere. I have the SFS CD too, as well as a complete set from elsewhere. Here's Blomstedt in the "Sérieuse" with another orchestra. Notice in particular the immensely dramatic crescendos at the beginning.

Thursday's performance struck me as rather more crabbed than the recordings, but it was still well-done and an outstandingly rare opportunity to hear Berwald live. Interesting, too, is that, though Berwald and Brahms use almost exactly the same orchestra, their dispositions are so different. Berwald makes much more use of the brass than Brahms, while Brahms is much more generous to the winds.

Friday it was to Bing to review a visit by the Wroclaw Philharmonic, from Poland with a conductor from Central America and a solo violinist from Korea. It wasn't yet announced what they were going to play when I signed up for this review, so in a sense it was potluck. We got one German symphony, the Brahms First, plus an overture and a concerto by the two Polish composers, all excellently played. I'd been scratching my head over recordings and a score of the Szymanowski concerto all week, but it clicked nicely in concert.

I struck up conversation with my neighbors before the concert, and sure enough one pointed to the name Szymanowski in the program and said, "How do you pronounce that?" So I did. Remember that "Sz" is in Polish essentially what English represents by "Sh" and that their "w" is approximately our "v" with leanings towards "f" and that should help.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

final word

Well, good, the other team won. (I learn this only late, coming back from an evening spent on other things.) That means I can go up to the City in peace this week, and not have to worry about fending off riotous celebrations.