Monday, November 29, 2021

illustrated by the author

I've received my Hanukah present: the new hardcover edition of The Lord of the Rings, with plates containing various illustrations, both polished and sketches, by the author; all previously seen, but most new to an edition of the book they depict.

Besides the illustrations themselves, this is a lovely edition: solid and compact, with a design that feels warm, in contrast to the coldness of the 50th Anniversary Edition, the next most recent I have (ten altogether, why do you ask? And I'm a piker next to some people). The typeface is a pleasure to look at: it resembles the hard type of the original edition without the fussiness of its design [see the page references at the end of the second page of Appendix A in the older editions for what I mean by "fussiness"], and there's judicious use of red for headers and initials. The volume itself is only 22.5 cm tall and about 6 cm thick, not too large or heavy to pick up and carry. (Remember that LR was originally published in 3 volumes not because it wouldn't fit into one but because that one would be too expensive for people to be likely to buy from a little-known author, but that point is no longer an issue.)

I think I'll make this my reading copy from now on; just from flattening down the pages (you all know how to open a new book properly, right?) and then browsing through it I've already re-read at least a third of it ...

Sunday, November 28, 2021

contra Jackson

I'm writing this post as a way of keeping a note to myself about some online articles I want to link to.

One of my basic points about the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies, dating back to my original article on the subject in 2004, is to dispute the defense of the changes to the story on the grounds that (and here I'm paraphrasing the tone of voice used by those who make this argument) "They haaad to do it that way because it's a mooooooovie."

In other words, that there are inviolable Laws of Movie-Making that have to be followed by anyone who wishes their blockbuster not to tank at the box office.

I've doubted this from the beginning, partly because of all the blockbusters that have faithfully followed the then currently fashionable rules (and that's another thing that made me skeptical, the extent to which the rules consist of "whatever worked for the last successful blockbuster") and did terribly anyway, mostly because the film-makers forgot to follow a more fundamental rule, which is "Don't make a movie that sucks."

A couple years before Jackson's Fellowship was released, I got into a conversation with a man who was absolutely certain that the script would have to tear apart Tolkien's entire plot and rebuild it in the form of the Three-Act Structure, because all successful movies had to conform to the Three-Act Structure.

Well, it didn't.

In fact, I am certain that, when Jackson changed Tolkien's story, it was because he wanted to, not because some mythical Laws of Movie-Making forced him to. And this is because Jackson boldly violated the conventions of movie-making when he wanted to. And he endured criticism for it: the prime example is the supposed "five endings" of The Return of the King when it keeps seeming as if the movie is about to wrap up with a celebration scene and then it keeps going. Here, Jackson is trying to follow Tolkien, but he's not doing it very well, because Tolkien's versions of these scenes don't read like a series of postponed endings (and not because you can see the physical end of the book coming up, because in fact 160 pages, in the paperback, of appendix and index intervene between the end of the story and the end of the book).

One major movie rule-breaking Jackson indulged in was to make a trilogy of movies that were three parts of one story (again copying the books, albeit ignorantly). Series of interconnected movies, as opposed to stand-alone sequels, were (unusual? unknown?) then. They're common now, of course, but that's because the rules consist of "whatever worked for the last successful blockbuster" and The Lord of the Rings was certainly a successful blockbuster.

The story of how Miramax wanted Jackson to make two movies but New Line took a gamble on three is well-attested. Here it is retold by someone who was privy to the inside scoop at the time.

Linked to that, here's an article on the radicalism, in movie terms, of the treatment of Boromir's death scene. Key quote:
It would have been easy, following the lead of other early 2000s blockbusters, for the Lord of the Rings trilogy to have catered to the times, and taken a turn for the self-aware, self-embarrassed, and glancingly-to-overtly homophobic. But with the quiet power of Boromir’s death scene, Jackson and company gave the hardened mainstream audience of 2001 a different idea of what masculinity could look like — an older idea.
That in turn is linked from this article, more about the book than the movies, concerning the romance between Sam and Frodo. The author threads a delicate line here, because a romance need not have a sexual component, but while I have some issues with this article - for one thing, Frodo is not described as Sam's "mate," it's a comparison - but the fact that the comparison is made is striking - I think the author has valid points.

Saturday, November 27, 2021


The obituary articles for Stephen Sondheim have these embedded musical clips of his songs, see, and the songs they choose are all the slow, sad, lyrical numbers, inevitably headed by "Send in the Clowns."

But there's another side of Sondheim, you know? And I'm here to present some of it. Have these, please.


Peter Jackson's long-awaited documentary of the Beatles at Twickenham in 1969 (the Let It Be sessions) is now out on Disney+. I haven't seen more than one review (highly favorable) of it. What I have seen a lot of is obituaries of Stephen Sondheim, whose reputation is fortunate that it couldn't be any higher (and deservedly so) posthumously than it was while he was alive. I recommend particularly Tim Page in the Washington Post and Isaac Butler on Slate. They cover most of what there is to be said; me, I'm just another person who's enjoyed listening to some Sondheim. Into the Woods is my favorite.

Back to the Beatles. As we have Disney+ I began watching the documentary. I'm not sure at what rate I might continue, though. On one level it's very good: restoration is amazingly clear, it's well-framed in terms of presenting what's going on and when it's happening. One thing that emerges is how ridiculously ambitious the project - to prepare a new live album in a couple of weeks - was; one feels again that if Brian Epstein were alive he could have given the boys a few tips on what could reasonably be accomplished.

But at this level of detail I'm finding it surprisngly boring, something I never felt about previous Beatles documentaries, including the old Let It Be film which I once saw in the theater about 1980. It's just John, Paul, and George noodling endlessly around - Ringo plays a little but hardly says a word - and I can't follow much of what they're dong because I don't know the songs that well - I've never been a fan of most of the Let It Be album, and most of the rest are songs that didn't appear until solo albums which I mostly don't know; I remember from the Let It Be film that a lot of Abbey Road will turn up, but so far it mostly hasn't. And they speak to each other in a kind of shorthand, rarely uttering a complete sentence: what they say is fragmentary or trails off and I can't follow the meaning. Maybe it's because they'd been working together for ten years that they used this shorthand, but an outsider needs guidance.

Jackson is weird in a couple ways. The film begins with a condensed Beatles history, which takes the time to present a clip from the A Hard Day's Night film that will explain a joke the Beatles make in the studio; but there's no explanation of the remark when three Beatles want to make a foreign tour, but Ringo doesn't, that they should just take Jimmy Nicol. (Jimmy Nicol was the drummer who substituted on part of a tour in 1964 when Ringo was having his tonsils removed. I knew that, but if you didn't you'll miss it. Jackson explains who other people mentioned are, but not this.) The condensed history also heavily implies that the Beatles stopped touring in 1966 because their popularity had tanked after incidents like the "more popular than Jesus" remark and the snubbing of Imelda Marcos. There were controversies, yes, but they were still popular, and the end of touring was just as much because it was pointless - they couldn't hear each other over the screaming and they were playing badly.

Friday, November 26, 2021

a quiet Thanksgiving

Unlike last year, when I had to make our own Thanksgiving dinner at home, the family was able to gather this year, at least niece's immediate family at her house: husband, sons, parents, aunt and uncle (us), 2 cats and 1 small dog. Her brother was feeling unwell (nothing contagious) so he stayed home under the care of his visiting mother-in-law, while his wife and her father attended. A pair of friends also dropped by. Everyone is vaxxed, so we eschewed masking, and even got some hugs in.

Two turkeys, one gently roasted and one smoked; various other sides and desserts including a popular banana cream pie. I made broccoli with cheese sauce, the latter of which didn't stay reheated very well on a serving table, so I may pick different recipes in the future.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

a show and a concert

Wednesday was my first attempt to spend an entire day out since before the pandemic. I went up to the city for a matinee of a touring show of My Fair Lady on the same day as an evening SF Symphony concert, and I had both lunch and dinner out. I was surrounded by a lot of people, but I had my N95 mask, and I was more concerned about how my aging stamina would take it. A lot of caffeine kept me from nodding off, but it didn't mean I didn't get groggy during the shows.

My first thought was to follow an old practice, park in an outlying BART station's commuter lot when the restriction expired at 10 AM, and take that in. But, having overestimated traffic, I got there at 9.30, and rather than wait around I decided to drive in and settle in a parking garage near both venues. This had plenty of spaces, and avoided my having a long walk back to the BART station after the concert. SFS used to have a shuttle bus that dealt with that, but not any more; and the late walk is a bit much for me now.

My Fair Lady was a touring version of the same production I saw in New York 2.5 years ago, and as I was sitting in the lobby before the doors opened, I struck up conversations with two random nearby people who had also both seen it in New York. It was a good production both times, but the venue had problems. A crackling tinny amplification made the performers feel detached from the audience, and this was worse for a musical. The performance also felt hasty and the emotional effects consequently not delved into. The one exception was Liza (Shereen Ahmed) standing there looking increasingly dismayed as Higgins (Laird Mackintosh) and Pickering (Kevin Pariseau) sing "You Did It" - probably the finest bit of acting in the show.

There was enough time afterwards for me to venture downtown to Tadich's for dinner for the first time since before the pandemic (one of the waitstaff remembered me!), where the pan-fried petrale sole with steamed broccoli made for one of the most delicious meals I've ever had. I kept an eye on my watch and noted that while dinner took only 40 minutes, it was 2 hours total to get down there and back again, useful information for planning if I do this again when I'm only up for an evening.

SFS was much more packed than any of the previous concerts this season, but that may be because the offering was Beethoven's Ninth. Daniel Stewart, normally conductor of the youth orchestra (he's also music director in Santa Cruz, where I've seen him before), led an unaffected, even unshaded performance with enough vigor and dedication to make it shine. This was, as Stewart pointed out to the audience, the first choral concert at SFS since the pandemic. The singers (soloists as well as chorus were in the balcony, as is often done) were spaced out. The chorus but not the soloists wore masks coming in, but took them off to sing.

The Ninth was preceded by a 15-minute piece by Anna Clyne and then an intermission which lasted longer than her music did. Though titled Sound and Fury, it largely eschewed brass or percussion (2 horns, 2 trumpets, and a xylophone, that's it) and consequently sounded very light by Clyne's standards. Very restless and scurrying music, not much sonic resonance, but enough weight to not seem ridiculous before the Ninth.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021


"I dislike Dune with some intensity" - J.R.R. Tolkien

He was of course referring to the book. I also have read the book - once - about 45 years ago - and have barely cracked it open since. Nor have I seen either of the previous screen adaptations. I admired the book's scope but didn't really enjoy it, and have only general memories of the plot and characters. But this movie struck me as a good adaptation, subject to the condition that my memories of the book gave me a basic understanding of what was going on.

Of course I was mightily impressed with both the Villeneuve films I'd previously seen, Sicario and Arrival, which primed me on this, and those reactions are indeed as responsible as anything about Dune the book for my decision to go see this.

When I came home from the theatre (a nearly deserted multiplex matinee), B. asked how the movie was. "Epic," I said. That seems the best adjective. It told a fairly simple story with grandeur and scope, and while there was plenty of brisk action, the plot was given space: it breathed, it took its time - how unlike P---r J-----n in that respect - but without becoming slack or boring. "Epic" seems the closest description of this mode of storytelling.

In fact I found the movie better than the book in several ways. I disliked the book's ornate political maneuvering, which is whittled down in the movie. I even more disliked the way the book's characters relentlessly tried to psych each other out in thought balloons, which left hardly a trace in the movie. And most of all I remember preferring the first, court-based, half of the book over the second half of woo-woo mysticism out in the desert, and this movie only covers the first half. Nevertheless I was impressed enough with its handling of the story that I'll probably see part 2. (Though my track record on following up on expectations like that is poor.)

I was pleased with Timothée Chalamet as Paul. Physically unprepossessing, which is accurate for the character, he exudes enough inner strength to make his gradual transformation from a boyish scion into a lord duke and a skilled man of action credible, and to enable him to carry the movie despite a largely passive character arc. This was pleasantly surprising, since I detested him in Little Women. But since he played a weak man there, I wonder now if the problem is that he was just miscast.

Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica was less strong. I thought her very good in the last two Mission Impossible films, but here she seemed to have less grasp of her character. Just a little bland, maybe? She is also only 12 years older than her screen son, but that's typical of movies. Oscar Isaac and Josh Brolin were good but rather watered-down versions of roles they've been more vivid in during other films (A Most Violent Year and, yes, Sicario). I was more pleased with Charlotte Rampling (a one-scene cameo) and Javier Bardem (two major scenes), especially because neither of them mumbled which was a problem with a few others.

That's all niggling. The sfx, of course, and the vast scenery and even vaster spaceships were all impressive. Unlike a lot of big-scene movies it wasn't dark all the time, and when it was dark (which the indoor scenes mostly were) at least you could still see. How unlike P---r J-----n in that respect too. Dune proved you can still make a large-scale movie with plenty of action yet without the exclamation-point conflict, grotesque violence, and cartoon-pink characterization of superhero comic-book movies (and yes, I've seen some of those, so I know whereof I speak). It was at minimum an adequate movie, at least for those who did not dislike the book with some intensity, and it was not a waste of time or space.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Tolkien Studies supplement: an announcement

On behalf of my co-editors, Michael D.C. Drout and Verlyn Flieger, and myself, I wish to announce a special supplemental issue to vol. 19 of the journal Tolkien Studies. The material for this special issue is now in the hands of our publisher, West Virginia University Press, and the volume is scheduled to be published in softcover and online on Project MUSE in the spring of 2022.

The contents of this issue consists of one document/article, unusually large in both size and importance:
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Chronology of The Lord of the Rings," edited, with introduction, notes, and commentary, by William Cloud Hicklin

Together with this article is a preface by William Fliss, and a special introduction by the editors. - David Bratman, co-editor

Monday, November 22, 2021

late review: Masterworks Chorale

A week ago Sunday, B. and I went to a choral concert. Yes, an actual chance to hear people singing in a group, with their (and our) masks on, despite the pandemic. The reason I didn't mention it earlier is that I was attending it for reviewing purposes, and while the review appeared in print the next Friday, it didn't show up online, here, until today.

There was no printed program, so I had to jot the pieces down in the flyleaf of the book I was carrying (in pencil, and it's my book) because I forgot to bring any paper or notebooks, putting unfamiliar composers' names down phonetically and looking them up later. Much of the music was new to me, and from the director's remarks much of it was new to him too. Here's some other performances of some of the better discoveries of the day:

Alice by Sarah Quartel, an appropriately silly setting of Lewis Carroll:

Only in Sleep by Ēriks Ešenvalds, and if this isn't beautiful I don't know what would be:

Luminous Night of the Soul by the popular choral composer Ola Gjeilo, being typically Ola Gjeilo-ish (that's him at the piano in this performance also). Yeah, it largely consists of shameless series of sequences, but that's a tried and true technique for musical excitement.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

concert review: Bay Area Rainbow Symphony

I finally chose Bay Area Rainbow Symphony over Redwood Symphony, not because of the latter's programming of Philip Glass, whose work I like - those who denounce Glass wholesale invariably use a caricature of a style Glass stopped writing in nearly 50 years ago; catch up a little, why don't you? - but because of Luciano Berio. Berio's Rendering is a favorite of conductor Eric K, and he's always excellent at music he really likes; but I've heard Rendering before, and my only desire to repeat the experience would be educational, and I'm not in the mood to be educated about music I dislike.

Instead, I went to BARS, which was playing three pieces I already know and like, in the form of a memorial tribute concert for Oakland's Michael Morgan, all of which sounded good to me. This overcame my doubt about visiting the City on a Saturday evening, always a dubious proposition. I managed the traffic and dinner all right, but it was depressing to know nobody else there when everyone else seemed to know everybody there. The last BARS concert I attended, which was my last symphony concert before the pandemic, I did know some people there.

That one was in the main auditorium of the Conservatory; this one was in a small upstairs theatre in the Herbst building; about one-third stage and two-thirds rising bleachers for seating (with, fortunately, real chairs built in).

To mark the return of the orchestra after 20 months, the concert began with Corigliano's Promenade Overture, the opposite of Haydn's Farewell Symphony. Four percussionists are onstage, and they suddenly begin to beat out a rhythm. The conductor (Dawn Harms) steps onto the podium and stops them with a swish of the baton. An offstage fanfare from brass is succeeded by each section of the orchestra - first piccolo, then flutes, then celli, etc. - marching in while playing (difficult for cellists, but they managed). Then the music turns lyrical, and ends after the last player, the tuba-ist, darts in.

Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, chosen, Harms said, for its cheerful and welcoming opening. I'd describe it more as fierce, but it was a nice jolly performance with only intermittent weakness (this is a volunteer group after all).

Lastly, Florence Price's Third Symphony, which I heard Morgan conduct in Oakland a couple years back, and which he was going to do with SFS this year. The first movement was rough, a lot rougher than the Beethoven, so that some of the grandeur was lost; but both here and in the finale the resemblance to Henry Cowell, which is one of the things I like about Price, was strong. However, the Andante was a gift of simple lyricism and the third movement Juba gently swung charmingly. Despite the unpromising auditorium the sound was better balanced than in Oakland.

Friday, November 19, 2021

things I've learned about SF writers

1. Jane Yolen, after years of widowhood, recently remarried. And her new husband (whom she had actually dated in college), who messes around in boats, helped her write the YA spinoff of Moby Dick she'd been dreaming of for most of her life.

2. George R.R. Martin isn't, as he thought, the grandson of an Italian immigrant. He's the grandson of an Ashkenazi Jew.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

This was a bifurcated concert. Michael Tilson Thomas, still recuperating from major surgery a few months ago, decided that a second full program in two weeks was more taxing than his energy level could handle.

So Ludovic Morlot - former music director in Seattle* - came in as a late substitute for the first half. Probably because there was a limit on how much new material he could learn at short notice, the originally programmed William Grant Still piece was replaced with Ravel's Ma Mere l'Oye Suite. This received a soft and gentle performance, ideal for this delicate flower of a work.

Morlot did keep the premiere of the concerto that SFS principal trombone Timothy Higgins wrote for himself. This had been commissioned by SFS and had already been postponed once due to the pandemic. In Higgins' hands, it turns out, the trombone is a rather quiet instrument, even quieter with the mute on, and it tended to get overshadowed by the exceedingly colorful orchestration. An enjoyable piece, with spiky modernism but consonant, and coherent and substantive, not spinning its gears.

After intermission, MTT led an excellent performance of Copland's Appalachian Spring, the full-orchestra version of the complete work. This was especially notable for the sinew expressed in the slower passages, but it was just great throughout. But that's just what we were expecting.

*And the former assistant in Boston who conducted that orchestra when they came for a visit here in 2011, after the resignation of J---s L----e.

just a note

This is just to say, I have this morning jotted down a 550-word outline for what I hope will be my Mythcon Guest of Honor speech. It combines a couple of ideas about Tolkien that I've already had floating around in my head (one of them for quite a few years), but it was reading The Nature of Middle-earth that sparked off this particular writing.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

a movie and a concert

The movie was The Most Reluctant Convert, an adaptation of a one-man stage show retelling C.S. Lewis's Surprised by Joy. It's very stagy, consisting mostly of Max McLean, who looks very much like the middle-aged Lewis, at least once he's in makeup, giving the lengthy narration as he wanders around Lewis sites in Oxford (including his house, the Kilns) and often in and out of flashback scenes without interacting with the other characters. McLean at least speaks his part well, and the scenery and flashbacks provide variety and verisimilitude. Naturally there is absolutely nothing about Mrs. Moore, though there's a rather odd emphasis on Lewis's early adolescent crush on his dance teacher.

A few thoughts while watching the movie:
Did Kirkpatrick actually call himself The Great Knock?
If Lewis really didn't care for Virgil, why did he go on to translate much of the Aeneid?
Did Tolkien give Lewis the idea for his Trilemma?
Why would Lewis doubt Tolkien remembered their Addison's Walk conversation? Tolkien recast his argument on that occasion into a long poem; surely Lewis was able to read it?

The concert was pianist Federico Colli at Herbst: young, slightly built, pointy-bearded. He played Bach, Scarlatti, Mozart, and Schubert, and he played them all in a very odd manner: grabbing, or in some cases creating, slow introductory passages which he played at an exaggerated crawl and very quietly, while hesitating over, delaying, and even eliding entire notes.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

some things I learned from reading The Nature of Middle-earth

Read them here.

It's all about NoME (a great abbreviation, as the book is gnomic in more than one sense).

You should also read Jeff LaSala's thoughtful piece on the subject.

I have one quibble with Jeff. He calls NoME "kind of an unofficial thirteenth installment" for the 12-volume History of Middle-earth, but the 13th volume of HoME already existed before the series was published. It's Unfinished Tales, most of which would have fit very nicely in parts 2-4 of The Peoples of Middle-earth, v. 12 of HoME, if it hadn't already appeared.

But then what about John D. Rateliff's 2-volume The History of The Hobbit? That too surely qualifies. So that makes NoME at least v. 16.

Monday, November 15, 2021

yes, again

I'm not going to waste a reply on this latter-day review of Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring movie to the post's comments section, since I know from experience that the author rarely replies to comments. Instead, I'll write it here.

This is another golden example of a fan of the Jackson movies not getting what's wrong with them as adaptations. Again, I don't mind people liking the movies as movies. What bristles me is when they ship their liking into thinking the movies are adequate specifically as an adaptation of the book.

First N. says "there's very little to object to," but the list of objections he brushes off are entirely of things omitted. Everyone who loves the movies thinks that what people who disapprove of the adaptations want is to have everything in. No: the omissions are tolerable. In fact I'd rather not have Bombadil than have Bombadil done badly, which Jackson, who has no feel for anything in Tolkien other than the tense dangers and horror, and a little of the spectacle, would undoubtably do. It's not what Jackson left out, but what he put in, that spoils his adaptation.

But then N. goes on to note that "the fervent Tolkien fan" (that's a loaded term right there - "fervent." Makes us sound slightly unhinged) must "twitch at the infantilisation of the characters of Merry and Pippin." "Twitch" is putting it mildly. I knew we were in for trouble at the added scene of the lads stealing the fireworks at Bilbo's birthday party. Not that they might not have done such a caper: it's an entirely plausible notion. But if Tolkien had conceived it, it wouldn't be written, as this is, in the form of bad fan fiction. (And I specify bad fan fiction because not all fan fiction is bad.)

What most frosts me is when N. notes that "the timescale of the book is drastically compressed," which it is, but calls that "the last and most trivial ground of complaint." It's not trivial at all. Jackson systematically eviscerates the epic scale of the story, both in time and in space. The scale is an essential part of the greatness of Tolkien's story. It's not that Jackson doesn't take 17 years for Frodo to leave the Shire. It's that, when the hobbits do leave, it's rushed. The Black Riders are nipping at their heels almost the entire way. One result of that is that the actual attack in the book loses its power, because it's been anticipated and flattened. This is a consistent policy of Jackson's. He can't trust to Tolkien's sense of suspense, which is a pity, because it's Tolkien's sense of suspense, a concomitant of his sense of scale, that makes the book so engrossing.

On the same lines, Jackson miniaturizes the geographic space of the story. Instead of a whole continent, Jackson's story feels like it's covering only the space of a tabletop role-playing game grid. Example: Saruman monitoring their path over Caradhras and himself sending the snowstorm.

But wait, doesn't N. in his next paragraph praise Jackson's "sense of scale"? Yes, but he's referring to the physical size of the characters, making hobbits and dwarves look smaller than men and elves even though the actors aren't. And yes, the technical side of filmmaking Jackson handles very well (at least in The Lord of the Rings; in The Hobbit he gets tired and sloppy). As technical achievements in filmmaking, this trilogy may be the greatest set of movies ever made. Getting such a huge project completed on time and in budget is itself award-worthy. But that has nothing to do with evaluating its adaptation of the book.

The spectacle too is good, as long as it's on the scale of spectacle. Hiring John Howe and Alan Lee to design the film is the wisest move Jackson made. But while Jackson can do awesome to beat the band, he can't do beautiful. His Rivendell is rather bad and his Lorien is truly dismal. Plus those celebration scenes at the end of Return of the King are teeth-numbingly horrifying.

The net result of the achievement in spectacle is that New Zealand playing Middle-earth is by far the best actor in the movie. I can't agree with N. that the human-acting in this movie is very good. I know Elijah Wood is a good actor; I've seen him in other movies. Here he's namby and inert. Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn is a hopelessly introverted mumbler. The film actor who'd do a good job as Aragorn is Richard Armitage as Thorin in The Hobbit. He's a lousy Thorin, but he'd make a good Aragorn. Cate Blanchett as Galadriel would be good except for that transformation scene. I think Jackson read where Tolkien has her say that she shall be "beautiful and terrible," so he made a scene causing any sensitive viewer to say "That's terrible!"

I've no objection to beefing up Arwen's role, as such, even though keeping her under wraps was a deliberate strategy of Tolkien's: it shows there's more to Aragorn than you suspect. But there are other, less sexist, ways of presenting the material. (I've no objection to Tauriel in The Hobbit as such, either - probably the least objectionable of all Jackson's additions there.) It makes sense, too, on a film's scale of storytelling to fold Glorfindel into another character so that we don't have to waste time being introduced to someone who appears briefly and then basically disappears. (Bakshi folded him into Legolas, which makes even more sense: then you don't have to have the introductions of Legolas and Gimli and Boromir all dumped on you at once.) The objection to that scene is not to who provides the horse: it's that Jackson's Frodo isn't allowed to be the hero of his own story. Arwen rides the horse for him, she curses out the Nazgul for him, while a semi-comatose Frodo is strapped to the back like a sack of potatoes. Jackson can't figure out any less extreme way of showing the effects of the Morgul-blade.

N. praises moving the death of Boromir to the end of Fellowship from the start of The Two Towers. This should make no difference in the book, which Tolkien wrote as one continuous story. It was only divided into three volumes by the imperatives of publishing.

As for the music, it does the job asked of it. Howard Shore is always competent. But inspiration, greatness, worthy of the story it's being asked to accompany? No.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

which of two concerts?

They're on at the same time. They're both good orchestras. Which one should I attend?

1) Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3
Philip Glass: Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra
Berio: Rendering for Orchestra

2) Corigliano – Promenade Overture
Beethoven – Symphony No. 8
Florence Price – Symphony No. 3

Saturday, November 13, 2021

two more concerts

This week successive concerts on successive nights gave me the chance to hear both of the fabulous McGill brothers, clarinetist Anthony - whom I've heard several times before - in chamber music on Thursday, and flutist Demarre - who's principal of the Seattle Symphony, but whom I had not otherwise heard - in a concerto on Friday.

Thursday was the second installment of the Catalyst Quartet's four-concert survey of music by Black composers, to which I subscribed. With Anthony McGill they played the Clarinet Quintet of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1895), a work in a drier and more incisive style than one might expect for that period, notable mostly for its striking rhythmic profile rather than melodic charm, though it is lyrical and pleasant.

The quartet alone played the String Quartet No. 1 (1956) by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, who yes was named for his predecessor and was, we learned, known to his friends as "Perk" or "Perkie." In complete defiance of the academic expectation of his time, this was a thoroughly consonant work with a little grit, reminding me in style - and not just because it included one of the same folk hymns - quite a lot of the remaining piece on the program, Florence Price's "Five Folksongs in Counterpoint." In this, she takes songs like "Shortnin' Bread" and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and applies some blistering technical development and overlays to them, proving definitively that it's not true that once you've played a folk song in a classical music piece, the only thing you can do is play it again.

Friday at the San Francisco Symphony was an Event - the long-awaited return of Michael Tilson Thomas to the podium. Since we last saw him here, we and he have been through a lot. His retirement season as music director was interrupted by the pandemic and the planned grand finales went unheard; then last season was mostly canceled; and this summer he had brain surgery, taking three months off to recover. Only three? Maybe it should have been longer, because he announced yesterday that, to "conserve energy," he's cutting back to just half of next week's concert.

But there he was last night, considerably frailer and perhaps a bit balder than when last seen, briefly acknowledging the instant standing ovation and then turning to the podium and getting down to work. Whatever may be the state of his physical person, his conducting is unimpaired, possibly better than ever. We heard a set of Mozart's German dances, presented with a weightiness and sense of integration that transformed it into a substantial composition; and Schumann's First Symphony, in a brilliantly dark, intense performance that made it sound as if it had been composed by Beethoven. The tutti passages in this work can sound shrill, but MTT and SFS had them ideally under control. This was a treasurable interpretation.

And Demarre McGill was soloist in a brief concerto for flute and strings by MTT himself, titled Notturno. This begins lyrically and builds up into a lot of fast fingering for the flute, played with disarming smoothness by McGill, barring a couple places near the end where he is apparently directed to spit into the mouthpiece.

Very good evenings out. Will I be back next week, even if MTT is only half there? You bet!

Sunday, November 7, 2021

two concerts

California Symphony
I'd heard several times before with pleasure this orchestra that plays at Lesher Center in Walnut Creek, out in the further East Bay. But this year's schedule included some programs so tempting that, despite the distance from home, I plumped for a three-ticket subscription. (And found on my seat a new subscriber's gift in the form of two chits for intermission drinks at the bar. I had a diet Coke, my usual in those circumstances.)
This concert, for instance: an all-strings performance, featuring two large scale works that are favorites of mine. The first was Vivaldi's Four Seasons, all of it, led (without a conductor) by violin soloist Alexi Kenney in a dry, crisp, steely manner as if it were by Telemann. Often very fast: Winter's Largo movement was taken as Allegro con moto and was consequently over in about one minute. The other weird feature was the continuo. During some of the slow movements the harpsichord player transferred his fingers to an adjacent positive organ and played elaborations which gave a church-music air to the proceedings.
The other large feature, for a much larger ensemble, was Mahler's orchestration of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet, a version of that beloved piece I always like to hear. Led by music director Donato Cabrera, this was a serious and weighty interpretation, better with the tender and ethereal than the driving and intense, reaching impressive sublimity with the close of the Andante.
Also on the program, two short works by African-American composers: George Walker's inescapable Lyric, very much living up to its title; and Jessie Montgomery's busy and rushed Starburst.

New Millennium Chamber Orchestra
The music director was out sick, so the conductor was the assistant, Tabitha Tetreault, normally a utility instrumentalist with this volunteer group. Less eloquent (her word) and more succinct (mine) than her boss, she spoke only briefly before each piece, and otherwise referred inquirers to the impressively specific program notes. On the podium, she has a textbook baton style, with the left hand copying the right when it isn't giving expressive marks or cues.
Center of the program was The Blue Room by Reena Esmail, a violin concerto in a sort of Shostakovich/modal style that NMCO played once before in my hearing, four years ago, with the same soloist, concertmaster Colyn Fischer.
The rest of the concert was taken from the miscellaneous drawer of the standard repertoire: Beethoven's Egmont overture, Brahms's Haydn Variations, Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances Suite 1, and Ravel's Mother Goose. The music was a little stodgy - thus the Brahms was played as if each variation were a separate movement - but it had line and coherence. The Beethoven, as the only single undivided work, was the one which had a chance to build up some dramatic power. But the others are more designed to be charming, and some fine instrumental color managed to convey that.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

not online

Once again I am not doing what I hoped to be spending today doing, attending a Tolkien Society online seminar. You know, I attend Zoom meetings all the time and they work fine, just not the second and now the third Tolkien Society seminar. (Oxonmoot didn't do this, nor did the first seminar last February.) When I try to join in, I get plunged into a welter of sign-ins, log-ins, pop-up windows, and new browser windows I never asked for, and I never get to the seminar. The passcode they provide doesn't work; the webinar ID they provide doesn't work; I've tried all the useless suggestions they gave when I asked for help last time, and I'm not going to insult my intelligence by asking again. Feh, this is disgusting.

I'm boosted

Friday was my appointment to get the Pfizer booster. Originally I had a jab scheduled for two weeks earlier, but I changed it when it was clear I'd still be on jury duty that day. (Ironically, the court let me out early enough that I could just have made it up there on time if I dashed, but I didn't care to make that much effort to face a probable argument with the bureaucracy.)

I expected to be in line amid a sea of 5-11 year-olds, but no. Adults, older ones getting the booster and younger ones finally getting around to their first jab. This clinic was rather small-scale. They'd moved it indoors from the parking lot set-up where I got my initial jabs in the spring, and into a conference room in an adjacent clinic building. This also meant I had to park in a garage I was unfamiliar with, the kind where you can't get oriented and find your car when you come back, yadda yadda.

There was a line, but it was fast and efficient, and in the post-shot waiting area there were giant tv screens all showing, with the sound way down, Shrek. So I got to watch a chunk of that excellent film, from "Ogres are like onions" to "It talks!" "Yeah, it's getting him to shut up that's the trick" (I already know all the dialogue from this movie, I don't need to be able to hear it) before heading on my way, now prepared, I hope, to face a family Thanksgiving and all.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Bill Gresham's first wife

Some of us in the Mythopoeic Society e-mail discussion list have gotten caught up in an unanswered historical trivia question: What was the name of Bill Gresham's first wife?

I need to explain. C.S. Lewis, one of our central interests, married Joy Davidman Gresham in 1956. She was a divorcee from America. Her first husband was William Lindsay Gresham, best known as the author of a sinister carnival novel called Nightmare Alley, which is about to be made into a movie (having already been made into one in 1947 with Tyrone Power). His place in Lewis's life starts with his and Joy's joint conversion to Christianity under the tutelage of Lewis's books, followed by his correspondence with Joy, and then with Lewis himself after Joy died in 1960, mostly over the care of the two sons Joy and Bill had had, who'd been left in Lewis's custody.

However, there's also this wheeze involved. Much to Lewis's distress, the Church of England refused to give him and Joy a church wedding, because Joy was divorced and the Church did not recognize divorces. (I don't grasp how the Church arrived at this position after having been founded by Henry VIII, but I'm sure someone will tell me.) But, Lewis pointed out: Joy's previous husband had already been divorced before he married her. So by the Church's rules, Joy and Bill's marriage was also illegitimate and thus by their reasoning she had never been married at all. Therefore she was an unmarried woman and free to be wedded in the Church to an unmarried man. But the Church didn't buy that argument. (However, a sympathetic Anglican priest conducted a second wedding anyway.)

So who was Bill Gresham's first wife? Biographies of Joy and of CSL that we've consulted don't say much about her. She was "a New York woman." They married in 1935, and divorced in 1942 so that Bill could marry Joy. During that period Bill was a professional folksinger, a Communist, and a fighter in Spain, on the Republican side of course. Nothing we've found so far gives her name. Odd.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021


1990: Both houses of Congress won by Democrats. (In this case they'd already held it.)
1992: Presidency gained by Democrats from Republicans.
1993: But, Governorships of New Jersey and Virginia gained by Republicans from Democrats.
1994: And, Both houses of Congress gained by Republicans from Democrats.
1996: Nevertheless, the Democratic President wins re-election rather handily, though without regaining Congress.

2006: Both houses of Congress gained by Democrats from Republicans.
2008: Presidency gained by Democrats from Republicans.
2009: But, Governorships of New Jersey and Virginia gained by Republicans from Democrats.
2010: And, House gained by Republicans from Democrats. (Senate would follow in 2014.)
2012: Nevertheless, the Democratic President wins re-election rather handily, though without regaining the House.

2018: House (but not Senate) gained by Democrats from Republicans.
2020: Presidency, and Senate, gained by Democrats from Republicans.
2021: But, Governorship of Virginia gained by Republicans from Democrats, and New Jersey nearly so.
2022: ?
2024: ??

when critics disagree

First you need to read Lisa Hirsch's post about the reaction to two negative reviews of a popular classical recital singer.

Then you need to read Joshua Kosman, one of the critics, responding to the reaction.

Then I need to clarify that I myself have no opinion on the particular issue, having little experience with recitalists and no knowledge of the tenor Jonas Kaufmann, the singer in question. Though I have had the experience of failing to see the appeal of some wildly popular performers, Yo-Yo Ma and Lang Lang being two.

So here's my reaction as a reviewer.

Yes, critics have different opinions. I myself feel uncomfortable being the only published reviewer of a particular concert. I feel it imposes on me an obligation, even if I don't succumb to it, to be authoritative: to reflect the consensus view and avoid expressing what I know are my own eccentricities. If others are reviewing it, I can say what I really think and it's relieving if others think something else, particularly when it involves observations of things I hadn't noticed.

But also, it's more than "gut-level satisfaction" to read a review you entirely agree with. It was reading reviews of concerts I attended, reviews that made me think, "Yes! I noticed that. And the evaluation agrees with what I was already thinking," that convinced me I had the chops, the capacity to judge and discriminate, to become a professional reviewer in the first place.

People who complain about reviews - it's always negative reviews, they never complain about positive ones - yes, I've had that. Sometimes they say bizarre things like stating the reviewer has no right to judge the quality of the performance. What? That's what reviewing is all about. What does this reader want, program notes? You've already got that. I sense what Kosman senses, that what these complainers mean is "... not if your opinion is different from mine."

What I've never had is the classic "You must have been at a different concert." (It's possible. A couple times I've attended multiple performances of the same program. Yeah, they were different.)

As for the fellow critic who was so exasperated to have told Kosman that he should never be allowed to review anything at all, Lisa H. is shocked that someone would express such a view over a single disagreement, but I'd guess that this response, though extreme, was probably not over a single disagreement but was the result of long-accumulated exasperation with Kosman, a reviewer easy to get exasperated with. (My candidate for Kosman's low point was a review of Carmina Burana which was devoted entirely to how much he hates the music. I once let my bias show in reviewing a work I purely hated - it was Mahler's Ninth - but I put that up front and spent the rest of the review on the impact of the performance on my views, which was easy to do because it was an outstanding performance. I think I was more professional than Kosman in this particular set of reviews. But that was a unique occasion. The rest of the time I simply keep my biases to myself in my professional reviews. I reviewed Zemlinsky's The Mermaid and bit my tongue the whole way. But I do let them hang out in my blog and am willing to defend them, as one of my readers recently learned.)

I'd prefer it if the Chronicle had more reviewers and didn't rely purely on Kosman, just because, as I noted, multiple voices are good. But if Kosman is sometimes exasperating, he can also be illuminating and judicious, so his voice is worth having among the chorus, Jonas Kaufmann or no Jonas Kaufmann.

Monday, November 1, 2021

a little day music

The Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra held another public rehearsal, in the same grass amphitheater in the Mountain View civic park that they played in on the Fourth of July. As before, B. was in the principal violin seat, and I came along as driver and listener. This time it was Halloween, so the repertoire was a bit different from July.

The Balletto from Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances, the least obviously seasonal of the repertoire; Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King," a great workout for the winds; Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette," which got its place in this concert due to having been Alfred Hitchcock's tv theme tune; Saint-Saens' "Danse Macabre," with several of the violins playing the solo part at once, which wasn't nearly as awful as it sounds; and a couple of pops pieces to close off: a 1940s song called "Autumn Leaves," known, though not previously by me, for having lyrics by Johnny Mercer; and a medley of spooky theme songs.

This last supposedly included the theme song from Scooby-Doo, which I don't recall any theme song from and didn't recognize any here; and the theme song from Ghostbusters, which doesn't have a theme song: all it has is a guy shouting "Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!" which the orchestra vocalized here, thus proving my point.

The "Funeral March" turned out to be the most challenging piece, due to its frequent shifts of tempo and key, and detailed repeating sections. One remembers that its composer was most at home in opera, and he brought some of that composing style to his other works. Then when the conductor tried to insert a main theme reprise into "Autumn Leaves," I understood what she meant the first time but most of the players had considerable trouble. However, most of the playing was quite adequate for an amateur group and a genuine pleasure to hear.

The small audience - this didn't get as publicized as much as July did - included a lot of small children in costume carrying goodie buckets. It was nice to know they're still making Halloween-celebrating kids, since trick-or-treaters stopped coming by in our neighborhood several years ago, so we've ceased putting anything out or buying candy that'd only get leftover.

The boys wore a variety of costumes, though dinosaur-shaped full-body onesies were popular among the toddler set; the girls were mostly princesses, though I did spot one 3-or-4-year-old Spiderwoman.