Monday, May 23, 2022

concert review: Winchester Orchestra

This was the concert that this volunteer orchestra had originally scheduled for March, when B. signed up to play second violin in time for rehearsals, inspired by the chance to play in that ultimate monument of orchestral music, Beethoven's Fifth.

But then they replaced it with an all-strings program so that everyone could be masked during the omicron wave, and after playing in that concert B. decided not to continue with Winchester - the practice involved was too demanding for her - and so this dream concert went on without her. I decided to attend and hear how they did. The venue was the same Mennonite church as last time.

I am pleased to say that, under music director Scott Seaton (who carried a baton this time), it was a thoroughly righteous Beethoven Fifth. It carried both drama and subtlety of expression, and if the tuttis were somewhat raw, there were some lovely displays of individual sections, especially in the slow movement. Very pleasing.

Smetana's Moldau is a piece that our classical radio station plays about once a day, it seems, but I rarely hear it in concert. This, under assistant conductor Jevon Gegg-Mitchell, came out nicely, with an appropriate 'snap' in the country-dance section and big swells near the finish.

Max Bruch's Scottish Fantasy, under Seaton, was a bit more problematic, but only because it's not such a masterwork as the other two. Both the orchestral musicians and the solo violinist (Julian Brown, whom I last heard in a series of local concerts doing the whole sequence of Beethoven violin sonatas) had sure command over their parts, but Bruch's heavy and clotted orchestration resulted in a lot of blatting from the ensemble.

Before the performance, the principal trombonist stood up and gave a sad little talk announcing the recent death of Henry Mollicone, the orchestra's founder and first music director. It was originally formed, we learned, out of the community members of the Santa Clara University orchestra after SCU decided it wanted to have campus people only.

It may be overkill to criticize the volunteer ticket-desk people of a volunteer orchestra, but I do wish they'd decide who they're going to direct their attention to next and then finish the transaction with that person before turning their attention to something else.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

book reviews

Curtis Peebles, Asteroids: A History (Smithsonian, 2000)
That this book is over 20 years old has to be taken into account when it butts up against then-current science, and some of the technical material is wearying, but as a history it's quite entertaining, recounting the early discoveries and the establishment of what these objects were, the gradual systemization of asteroid search in the late 19C, a loss of interest by astronomers in planetary astronomy in the early 20C, and its subsequent revival.
The most delightful chapter is on naming: early asteroids were named for female figures in classical mythology, but these quickly ran out: there were so many asteroids that names had to come from anywhere. There are asteroids named for famous scientists, for authors (there's a Shakespeare and a Tolkien). An asteroid was named San Diego as part of a campaign to keep that city from adopting a form of streetlight that would interfere with the stargazing at Palomar. The climax came in 1985 when some astronomers named an asteroid for their cat, which had served astronomy by keeping them company on lonely nights at the observatory. The controversy that ensued was not so much over naming an asteroid for a cat but for the cat's name. The cat's name was Mr. Spock.
A considerable space is devoted to impacts, but the ones discussed at greatest length (the Cretaceous extinction event, Shoemaker-Levy) were actually comets, while Tunguska, which used to be thought to be a comet but is now believed to be an asteroid, gets much less space.

John J. Stephan, Hawaii Under the Rising Sun: Japan's Plans for Conquest After Pearl Harbor (University of Hawaii, 1984)
This is a strange and disturbing book. I saw a reference to it in an alternate-history article, but this book isn't alternate-history, though it does discuss a surprisingly extensive early-20C literature, both Japanese and American, imagining future Japanese invasions of Hawaii.
The book's ostensible subject takes up a relatively small space: plenty of disputes among rather disorganized-sounding Japanese military planners as to whether they should attack Pearl Harbor, and then whether they should follow up in Hawaii or go off and attack Fiji and Sri Lanka instead. The Battle of Midway shows that the Hawaii-campaigners won the argument, and if the battle had succeeded it would have been followed by a full-scale invasion, details for which are given.
But the bulk of the book is about the ethnically Japanese in Hawaii, the immigrants (issei) and their US-born children (nisei). Stephan emphasizes their ties to Japan: many nisei went there for education; some didn't come back. Under Japanese law, all issei and most nisei were Japanese citizens, even if the nisei were also US citizens (issei weren't allowed to naturalize). Stephan says, in what he treats as a tone of sweet reasonableness, why shouldn't they be loyal to the country of which they were citizens, especially as the country of which they were resident discriminated against them?
But if that's true, it would justify all the hostile enemy-alien treatment that the US government meted out against the Japanese immigrants and their families after the war broke out, and is that really what Stephan is saying? He notes how many nisei showed their US loyalty by signing up with the US Army, but doesn't integrate that into what he says about the community.
Apparently there were issei so sure of Japanese superiority that they were convinced that the news of Japanese surrender in 1945 was a media hoax, and climbed the hills around Pearl Harbor to wait for the Emperor's brother to sail in and accept American surrender, which they expected to occur imminently. But regardless of any of this, the Japanese themselves considered nisei to be hicks and bumpkins - often a disagreeable surprise to nisei visiting Japan - and took very little intelligence data from them.
So this book left me in a muddle of uncertainty.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

concert review: Oakland Symphony

I've never had a bigger, nor actually less welcome, surprise at a concert than the one B. and I got as we settled into our seats at the Paramount Theatre Friday evening, opened our programs, and discovered that the big work of the concert - Michael Tippett's oratorio A Child of Our Time - had been canceled and replaced by Elgar's Enigma Variations.

Now, the Enigma Variations is a worthy piece, and I always enjoy hearing it, as indeed I did enjoy it last night. But I didn't fight my way through 90 minutes of heavy traffic to Oakland, and furthermore bring along B. who rarely goes out and can only be coaxed to a concert for choral masterworks, for an orchestral piece I hear all the time. Whereas A Child of Our Time is a rarely-performed choral monument I've heard live only once before.

It emerged from guest conductor Leonard Slatkin's talk before the piece that he realized it would not be possible to perform the Tippett at Monday's choral rehearsal when, due to Covid - both cases caught and fear of getting it - only a few of the chorus members showed up. That was Monday. According to Lisa of the Iron Tongue, nothing had been put on the website by Wednesday.

And they didn't inform ticket holders, like myself. I'm not on any Oakland Symphony mailing lists, because - as I've informed them every time they phone and ask me to subscribe - I can rarely get to a concert. But I bought these tickets six months ago - that's how much I was looking forward to this - and they were delivered by e-mail, so the Symphony knew how to contact me. As I wrote in Lisa's comments, changing a program item is something that happens, you can't complain about circumstances. But not informing the ticket holders ... that's unforgivable.

So we had the music on offer. The Enigma is a specialty of Slatkin's, which must be why he was able to get the orchestra to give such a good, hearty, and emotionally varied rendition of the work on four days' notice. But the most entertaining part was his prefatory remarks, in which he gave his solution as to the piece's enigma, the secret behind the main theme, a solution which, once known, can never be forgotten, so I'd best not tell it to you.*

As A Child of Our Time is quite sizable, I had been surprised that it had been tucked into the second half of the concert, preceded by a full first half. This outline fit the briefer Enigma Variations better.

The concert began with contemporary composer Cindy McTee's Circuits, a quick ear-popping moto perpetuo with an oompah base. It made a very odd contrast with the exceedingly somber rendition of Barber's Adagio for Strings which followed. But the circle was squared with the remaining first-half piece, Hovhaness's Mysterious Mountain, generally a contemplative work, but which Slatkin injected with such vigor and hasty-pudding energy that the central fugal section sounded like a reprise of the McTee.

*Oh, very well. Slatkin discounts the notion of an unidentified other melody with which the main theme is in counterpoint, as it's impossible to prove one. Instead, building on the piece's form as the composer's personal view of his friends and himself, Slatkin observes that the theme is a series of four-note phrases, each with a different rhythm and emphasis, and theorizes that it goes "Edward ELgar, Ed-ward Elgar ..." I'm reminded of Robert Winter's theory that Dvorak's New World Symphony goes "Hi-a-wath-a, Hi-a-wath-a."

Thursday, May 19, 2022

emergency library visit

So the finalists for the Mythopoeic Awards have been announced. I'm on the committee for the scholarship awards, and while I'd read most of the finalists, there are two I'd only seen online excerpts of. But I have to read them all in full for the final vote, so it was time to check their library holdings.

Stanford is still out, but WorldCat shows one in hardcopy at Berkeley, the other online at Davis. I figure I'd better grab the hardcopy one as soon as I can, before somebody with borrowing privileges checks it out. The afternoon of the next day, Wednesday, is my only free day for the remainder of the week. Berkeley is on intersession at the moment, and the stack privileges desk is only open by e-mail appointment. Amazingly, I get a reply early Wednesday morning that they could be there in the afternoon. So I fire back confirming, and drive up there to discover it's the middle of graduation week: people in cap and gown are wandering everywhere, stopping to get their photos taken, etc. (Berkeley doesn't have one mass graduation ceremony: each department holds its own in various venues at various times over several days.)

Fortunately I'm able to find parking, trudge up to the library, get in, find the book, and spend the next few hours speed-reading its fortunately brief corpus. I also find that Berkeley also has on-campus online access to the other book, the one I'd thought I'd have to go to Davis to get, so I download that one onto a flash drive and take it home. No long drive to Davis next week after all.

I enjoy the book I read a great deal, despite the fact that it's a study of something that I don't know much about. Whenever it touches on something else I do know, it seems impressively insightful, and the rest appears coherent as well. Will get a good rating from me, but all the other books in the category are good too, so cogitation will be necessary.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

casual outings

Both these were whims that I wasn't sure would be worth the trouble of going to them, but they both turned out to be enjoyable and worth that effort.

1. Coastside Community Orchestra. I'd known there was a volunteer orchestra out on the (relatively) isolated coast side of San Mateo County, but I'd never found a concert listing until they advertised in the New Millennium program book last week. So I decided to try it out, maybe consider reviewing it at some future time.
Concertmaster (Elizabeth Ingber) soloed in Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4. A little short of professional level in intonation and dexterity but otherwise extremely impressive. Back in the first violin seat, she tried gallantly to lead her section in Schubert's Symphony No. 5, but the rest of this group is in the lower tier of ability of volunteer orchestras that do real concerts. Conductor Robert Smith is a little old man with a very odd beat: wobbles like mad during fast movements, but it's not an ailment because he doesn't do it in slow movements.
Somewhat better playing (no squawks) from a wind ensemble in the Petite Suite Gauloise by Theodore Gouvy, a 19C French composer unfamiliar to me. Players included my old friend James L. on clarinet (temporary, to fill a vacancy, he said). Good ensemble work from both composer and performers, lively writing resembling Gounod's wind symphony (which they played last time, they told me) with odd long pauses in the first movement, which other conductor Sara Lomax told me she milked for effect.

2. Silicon Valley Shakespeare. Began its season with a free Midsummer Night's Dream in the beer garden patio of the market on San Pedro in downtown San Jose. None of the bugs of their usual venue up in a mountain park. Exceedingly informal. Players in street clothes; Peter Quince, dressed as a college cheerleader, carried but didn't much use an acoustic loudhailer. Other than that: three folding chairs, a robe and donkey-ear knit cap for Bottom after his transformation, and the flower with the magic potion completed the list of costumes and props. No memorization; everyone carried scripts and sometimes alluded to this. ("Turn page!") Audience was encouraged to shout along and chug beer every time a character said the word "O" which they do a lot. The one dog in the audience participated in this enthusiastically.
Despite all this, and the terrible acoustics in a noisy environment which meant that half the dialogue was hard to make out, it was a good performance, lively and involving and quick (90 minutes, no intermission, moderate cuts). Lovers were not sappy, mechanicals not knockabout, fairies not imperious.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

days 5-6 at Kalamazoo

Though I'd have liked to attend some other items, in the end all I got to attend online of the last two days of the International Medieval Congress was 1.5 of the 2 Tolkien sessions.

One on the new book The Nature of Middle-earth was billed as a roundtable, which meant only that the 3 papers had less formal status than they would otherwise, and that the session wasn't recorded, which means that I can't go back and check on what I heard. Which is a problem, because it didn't hold my interest while it was going on. Two of the presenters didn't really talk about the book at all, but discoursed to no particular effect on Tolkien's use elsewhere of themes that are in the book, one of whom reinvented all the tired weak arguments we've heard before as to why Tolkien was not a racist. Only the third had anything interesting to say about the book, and its value was matched by one offhand remark made in a paper about something else in another session.

The other session was boldly titled "New Readings of The Lord of the Rings," but I only got to hear two papers before my internet connection started to fry as it frequently does in the late afternoon, and frankly I was getting a little tired of hearing presentations, however earnestly and skillfully done, of very old and basic readings of The Lord of the Rings.

I'll credit my own schedule and availability issues, and the difficulty I have in sitting through extensive non-interactive online sessions, with about half of the disappointment I felt with this year's Congress. But only half.

Friday, May 13, 2022

concert review: New Millennium Chamber Orchestra

I put this concert down to review because the program, including three works by women, looked so interesting. Small orchestras can afford to do this kind of offbeat thinking. It was a nicely satisfying event.

I realized, as I sat leafing through the program book pre-concert, that this one presented an unusual reviewing challenge. The music director/conductor is a recently-hatched trans woman, but the program in some places used the new name, in some places the deadname, and in some both together. I needed a policy clarification here.

So, seizing a chance at intermission, I went up to where the conductor was on the podium. "Maestra," I said,* "I wanted to introduce myself," and did so as the reviewer and we shook hands. Then I said, "I do have one question. The program book has left me uncertain what name I should call you by in the review." She said to use the new one and we arranged to get me a copy of a new photo, which you'll see at the head of the review.

I gave the whole background to my editors with the review, asking them to follow my practice of using the new name only, without further ado, and they did so. So no problem here.

*And here I want to give due credit to Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, the author and Italian-opera expert, who many decades ago answered my innocent question, "What's the feminine for maestro?" I haven't forgotten the answer.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

days 2-4 at Kalamazoo

No, you didn't miss day 1: I did. I bought a membership in the International Congress on Medieval Studies, which is being held online this week (and is organized by and in pre-pandemic times held at Western Michigan University, thus the eponym), but I haven't Zoomed my way in to very much.

There was a Tolkien panel on Tuesday, on his use of medieval conceptions of evil. The paper most interesting to me was on music in the Ainulindalë. The presenter pointed out that evil v. good in the Ainulindalë is expressed as dissonance v. consonance, and then stated - which was news to me - that the association of dissonance, even the abominated tritone, with evil was purely an 18th, even 19th, century concept; medieval writers just thought dissonance sounded bad, they didn't make any moral judgments on it. So Tolkien is being modern here, not medieval.

This led to consideration of Wagner, and I was interested to note how little these medievalists knew about even the existence of voluminous writings in other areas of Tolkien studies over the contentious question of what, if anything, and if so how much, of his plot and themes regarding the Ring(s) Tolkien borrowed or derived from Wagner as opposed to other sources.

Wednesday there were no Tolkien sessions, and all I got to was a part of what said it was a virtual visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's medieval art collection, which turned out to be a PowerPoint display of photos of intricately carved ivory scenes, together with the curator holding up a plaster cast of one so that she could point at various features. I asked a question about the techniques and tools by which these were carved, but got only further exclamation of how intricate the work is.

Thursday I'd gotten decent enough sleep the previous night that I was up at 6, which meant that I could attend the best session so far, one on Tolkien and medieval depictions of animals. Fascinating papers. Tolkien's homages to medieval bestiaries, including the oliphaunt poem. The modernism of the fox in The Lord of the Rings, which isn't medieval at all; and the significance of the repeated image of dancing bears in his work. Tolkien's dragons, an obvious but well-explored topic. Tolkien and bats, yes bats, of which there's more to say than you might think.

But I was less pleased with a session on Tolkien's poetry, which featured one speaker who had so much trouble with his microphone one could not make out more than half of what he said, and I was dismayed at all these Tolkien experts who could not pronounce Húrin or Eärendil properly. Not one! It's especially dismaying when you're discussing the rhythmic pattern of poetry and you think that Eärendil has only three syllables. If this had been a live session I might have tried to read the room to see if I could phrase an acceptable way of correcting all of this. Instead I just slipped quietly out, which on Zoom you do by clicking the "Leave" button.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Patricia A. McKillip

The word has been spreading on the net today that Patricia A. McKillip died a few days ago, and once again I am bereft of one of my favorite authors, like most of the others of very long standing.

When I joined the Mythopoeic Society in 1975, the new fantasy novel that was being most talked about was The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, the first major work by this young (she was then about 27) author. I read it and was delighted by the cool and realistic-detailed portrayal of fantasyland, the witty banter between Sybel and her father's beasts, the unfolding of the plot.

I put McKillip on my collect list, and acquired all of her books, even the obscure early this-worldly juveniles. When she was Guest of Honor at Mythcon in 1985, I realized I'd read all of her then ten or so books, and began a practice of writing surveys of the GoH's work for Mythprint.

I pretty much kept up with McKillip in subsequent years, but it became a little tricky. Her books, while all quite distinct on a close level, had similar enough settings and literary approaches that I sometimes had trouble remembering which was which and whether I'd read it. I saw in one obituary an enthusiastic recommendation for her last novel, Kingfisher, and I had to check to be able to say, "oh yeah, the Arthurian one with all the restaurants" to be able to remember it.* I enjoyed all her books, but that one was particularly good. I reviewed it here. The Bell at Sealey Head was particularly good too. I think she was getting better, as well as more purely herself, over the years.

But I also think that even Forgotten Beasts doesn't really stand out among her other books. She wasn't the author of a single masterpiece, but of a body of work. It wasn't any one or even any several of her books that was outstanding, it was the whole oeuvre. It all seems to meld together, at least in my mind; that's why I have such trouble with her titles. A few years ago I made a checklist of her books to assure myself that we had them all; she was about the only current author that I'd have to do that for, or that I'd want to. I just did it again, and found one older one missing, and one newer one I don't think I ever got. Have to correct that.

I met her in person a few times, including when she was at Mythcon. The first time I met her, at a signing at the tiny Dark Carnival bookstore in, must have been 1977, I interviewed her for a fanzine. But I always had the impression she didn't really enjoy having fans and making appearances, even though she was willing to do so, so I didn't press or presume on acquaintance.

*Not that restaurants, kitchens, housekeeping of all sorts, were otherwise alien to her fiction: not at all. When Glenn Glazer interviewed her on her GoH appearance at Westercon, the first question he asked was, "Have you ever worked in an industrial kitchen?"

Saturday, May 7, 2022

concert review: Emerson Quartet

It was overcast, even drizzly, in the City last night, unlike the increasingly warm weather at home, as I found when I headed there for this concert.

The Emerson Quartet have been performing together for 46 years with only one change in personnel, which makes them one of the most senior such ensembles currently on the boards. I'd thought they were on the verge of hanging it up, but the program notes indicated they have a lot of future tours planned.

They played two repertoire works whose fame is nevertheless vastly overshadowed by that of their own slow movements, taken out of context and played separately: Borodin's Second Quartet, source of the "Nocturne," and Barber's sole Quartet, source of the "Adagio for Strings."

Unfortunately for whatever reason, I was in no mental shape to appreciate a concert such as this, and it was that, rather than the choice of work following intermission, which caused me to bail at that point and head home. The Emersons gave the most remarkable warm lyricism to the rough and tumble outer movements of the Barber: if they could do the same thing to the Bartok First which followed, it would be a truly amazing thing.

But not for me. I just wasn't up to it.

At least I was able to make the whole wearisome journey (25 minutes wait for a BART train, due to system delays) on my newly-acquired senior-citizen transit card, which I'd bought on my Thursday outing from the service center at the downtown station, they not being available at the regular account-refill vendors.

Friday, May 6, 2022

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

This week's concert had a similar layout to last week's concert: guest conductor, curtain-raiser by a living composer, concerto, and a standard-repertoire symphony.

The conductor, not a newcomer here, but new to me, is Xian Zhang, music director of the New Jersey Symphony, formerly in Sioux City, originally from Beijing. Conductors get around.

The key piece was the concerto, the Piano Concerto by the now-renowned African-American, Florence Price. Soloist was Aaron Diehl, whom I heard in the marathon Philip Glass etudes concert a few years back.

Price packs three condensed movements of material in one nominal movement. The orchestral music is typical stuff for her, but the piano varies. The opening was a lot of Lisztian flourishes - banging chords, runs up and down the keyboard - played mostly separated from whatever the orchestra was doing. The slow middle part had the piano accompanying a spiritual-like oboe solo in the manner of the salon music of Price's youth. And the finale, a juba dance - a form Price was very fond of - came out in the piano a little like ragtime.

The opener was Primal Message by Nokuthula Endo Ngwenyama, an American composer whose bio describes her as "of Zimbabwean-Japanese parentage," which suggests that she's not of traditional African-American background. Nevertheless, her piece, which is for strings lightly sprinkled with percussion, sounded like fragmented bits of spirituals.

All this put Dvorak's "New World" Symphony into a different context. Dvorak came to the US in the 1890s on the strength of his brilliant incorporation of his native Czech folk elements into his concert music: promoters hoped he could teach American composers to do the same thing. At a time when white American music - at least that available to Dvorak - was still mostly European unseasoned into naturalization, Dvorak naturally concluded that the distinctive American music was Black spirituals and American Indian music, and he incorporated those styles into this virtuoso "tourist" symphony. The melody he wrote for his slow movement was such a perfect replica of spiritual style that it's been adapted as one.

The program notes say that most white musicians disagreed with Dvorak's findings, but they didn't, not really. His symphony was widely acclaimed, and many American composers took up his suggestion. The problem is that they were mostly WASPs from Boston. Black spirituals were no more native to them than to Dvorak, and they didn't have his talent for assimilating alien styles. It wasn't until some 40 years later, when white American music had evolved, that much younger composers like Aaron Copland and Roy Harris developed a distinctive white American style quite different from this.

Dvorak did have some Black pupils, but they didn't write large-scale concert pieces. It was up to the in-between generation of Black composers like Florence Price, who was a child at the time of Dvorak's visit, to write in the spirit that Dvorak hoped to see.

So Zhang conducted the "New World" with rhythmic vigor and with motifs that popped out like little crystalline jewels. The brass opening theme of the finale was particularly crisp. Good concert.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

thoughts from the garage

I found myself thinking about the White House state dinner that my grandparents had attended, which I found the souvenirs of yesterday. If I'd ever been invited to a White House dinner, would I have gone?

I'm not sure, actually. It is of course a tremendous honor to be invited, and it would undoubtably have been a memorable experience. But I don't think I would have enjoyed it very much. A formal gathering with a bunch of strangers ... not my thing.

But I'm sure that's my introversion speaking. Looking at the list of guests, there's only two others whom I'm sure my grandparents knew, and both were much more prominent (one was the President), so unlikely to be available for hanging out, if "hanging out" is even an applicable term for a state dinner.

This is unlikely to have bothered my grandparents much. They were much more social animals than I. My grandfather attributed much of his success in business to social lubrication, and I'm sure this was so, even though he was careful not to partake of his own product (he was a beer distributor). Sometimes he would try to give little lectures to encourage me to be better at this, but I don't think he grasped what an uphill task that was.

All he knew was that I had my head in a book all the time, and while he respected learning, he felt it was useful to get out of there. Once he told me, "There are things you need to learn that aren't in books." I replied, "Then someone should write books with those things in them," and I wasn't being snarky, not intentionally anyway. It wasn't until I was much older that I realized what he'd meant, which is that you can only learn these things from experience - and that's one of them.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

found in the garage

B. and I are slowly cleaning out old odd stuff stored in our garage, so you may be in for a series of posts under this title. I inherited a number of possessions of my grandfather's after my mother and I cleaned out his belongings after his death, and I hadn't even known I had this or indeed that it existed: apparently never previously unsealed by me, underneath its huge cardboard wrappings it proved to be a 32" x 24" glass-covered picture frame in which my grandfather had had professionally framed all the souvenirs of the most star-studded night in his and my grandmother's lives, the time they attended a state dinner at the White House.

As a prominent businessman in Grand Rapids, Michigan, my grandfather had been an early supporter of his congressman, Gerald Ford, and they remained in occasional touch; so after Ford became President, he rewarded him with this invitation to a dinner in January 1976 for Yitzhak Rabin, then Prime Minister of Israel. The list of guests, clipped from some Washington newspaper, is one of the framed items, and my grandparents were the only Grand Rapids locals among a lot of Jewish machers, such as the national chairman of the United Jewish Appeal (Frank Lautenberg: you may have heard of him, he later became a senator). A mixed assortment of other famous Jews (Danny Kaye, Herman Wouk, Calvin Klein), plus the usual political notables, only some of whom were Jewish - Vice President Rockefeller, Secretary Kissinger, Ambassador Moynihan, etc etc, a whole lot of senators, "Richard B. Cheney, assistant to the President, and Mrs. Cheney" - oh god. Also, perhaps because of the President's sports background, a bunch of sports stars, none of whom were Jewish: Chris Evert, Carlton Fisk, Terry Bradshaw, Tom Landry.

There's the formal invitation ("Black Tie"), the envelope it came in, the pass to the White House gate, the seating cards, all of them on reinforced cardboard and neatly glued to the backing. Also the menu. I always wonder whether I would have liked the food at something like this, and the main course here was fish ("Suprême of Striped Bass"), rice, green beans, and tomatoes - sounds tasty). Also the program for the after-dinner entertainment, which revealed that Helen Reddy and Carol Burnett (also both listed among the guests) would be singing "Songs of the Sixties" (which I guess would leave out "I Am Woman," which is from the 70s).

I can understand my grandfather keeping this stuff as a souvenir, but framing it? For public display? In a big, unwieldy ... I'd known they'd been to this dinner - elsewhere I have a photo of them shaking hands with the Rabins in the receiving line, but it's not in the frame - but it's not worth keeping this massive thing beyond the warm memories of the original attendee. Instead, I'm memorializing it in this blog post.

Monday, May 2, 2022

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

When I attended this concert last Thursday, I had no idea that I would be writing an SFCV review of it. I learned that the next morning, when my editor phoned and asked if I could do it, figuring that I could attend one of the repeat performances that evening or Saturday.

Instead, I surprised him by saying "I went to hear that last night" - though this is not the first time this has happened. "Can you ginger up a review?" he asked, since of course I would not have been listening to it with reviewing it in mind. "I think so," I said, and it proved to be so.

This was most strikingly so with the Alban Berg Violin Concerto. I'd been thinking about writing a blog review in which I said that listening to this was like hearing a speaker passionately emote in a language I didn't understand. But I can't say that in a professional review, so I thought back on the performance and realized that, yes, I did have a sense of its particular style and character. I just didn't have a lot to say - I borrowed "silky" as a description of the soloist's tone from my blog review of her previous appearance here - so I filled out the paragraph with some background on the work, which is something I've done enough of for Shostakovich.

The Shostakovich Tenth was the work I was there for, and I certainly had some specific reactions to that. But just to triangulate myself, after I drafted the review I looked up what Kosman of the Chronicle had to say. His view of the interpretation was pretty much the same as mine, except that I liked it better than he did. I had made the comparison to Dudamel on my own, but I'd forgotten about the Urbanski performance that Kosman mentions. But I'd attended it, and found on my blog review the phrase "urgently propelled" which I borrowed here.

But Kosman's real complaint seems to be that he doesn't like the Shostakovich Tenth enough to want to hear it twice, or maybe even once, in five years, and he says so in the review. My comment, "I for one am happy to hear the Tenth as often as the Symphony cares to program it," was inserted specifically as a response. I've noticed that Kosman seems to dislike a number of works he's called upon to review performances of. I wonder if he's in the wrong profession.

And then to bitch about it in the review, which he's also done before. Look, I was thoroughly unthrilled by the prospect of hearing the Alban Berg Violin Concerto again, but you don't catch me snarking about it in a professional review.

I ran my sartorial description of the conductor past B., because I was unsure of the wording. When I mentioned he had a handkerchief in his breast pocket, she assumed it was there for mopping his brow after an exhausting piece. A lot of conductors do that, usually tucking the cloth loosely in their trouser pocket. But no, this was the sartorially-perfected gentleman's breast-pocket handkerchief, the one that's purely for show, and at least in the movies would never ever actually be employed except perhaps to aid a lady in distress. I reworded myself to be clearer.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

reeling from a time abyss

I found the time abyss in a miscellaneous assorted box of old cassette tapes that I decided to clean out. It turned out to be a recording of some of the programming from Mythcon X. That was in 1979, 43 years ago. The most interesting item was a panel discussing reactions to a then rather newly published book, The Silmarillion. The panelists weren't named, nor are they listed in the con's program book. Here's where having been there was of help: I was able to identify all of them by voice and manner of speaking.

One of them was myself. The second was Jim Allan - scholar Guest of Honor at the con, and the first important scholar of Tolkien's invented languages. The third was Jim Wallace, sometime president of the Fantasy Association, a MythSoc spinoff group. I haven't been in touch with Jim Allan for many years now, but I did stay in contact with Jim Wallace until he died about eight years ago. Was it spooky to hear his voice again? A little, but it's more that it brought back memories.

One of the things we talked about at some length on this panel was ... fan fiction. Yes! In 1979! And the reason we were talking about fan fiction was in reaction to our shared comment about how sketchy The Silmarillion was. It was full of tales told only in the briefest of outline, or not told at all but only referred to, sometimes with reference to how the full story appears in ... some other imaginary document. This generates the urge to tell some of these stories that Tolkien never got around to, and thus fan fiction. We made reference to the only easily-available Tolkien fan fiction at the time, Marion Zimmer Bradley's stories The Jewel of Arwen and The Parting of Arwen. Both of these, though based on The Lord of the Rings, have the same function as what we were imagining: to fill in parts of the story that Tolkien left out.

Then what should happen, soon after I listened to this tape, was to have the opportunity to participate in a Zoom discussion of scholarly study of Tolkien fan fiction, with guest speaker Dawn Walls-Thumma, author of this article on fan fiction, which I found interesting enough to want to discuss. Among the points she makes is that the oft-cited distinction in Tolkien fan fiction between "bookverse" and "movieverse" is somewhat illusory: even dedicated movie-inspired writers will draw material from the book as well, in part because there's so much to draw from.

So what I wondered was whether there was a distinction between those who, like us in 1979, seek to write in Tolkien's spirit and merely to fill in gaps in his stories, and those who, like many writers today, write altering the characters to be whatever they want - to, in the words of one of the participants, re-invent the myth to fit their contemporary needs. And the answer turned out to be yes: the technical terms in fan-fic criticism are "affirmational" and "transformational," that while transformational fic predominates, there are affirmational writers, some of them so dedicated they seek to replicate Tolkien's literary style as well as his form of content (no word on how well they achieve this). It's nice to know that.

Another point made at this meeting which gratified me was a distinction between fan fiction and reactive fiction in general. Advocates of fan fiction often try to validate and legitimize their activity by co-opting all fiction that reacts and responds to earlier works and call it fan fiction, e.g. Paradise Lost is Bible fan fiction. But it's not. It's like the definition of fandom itself: fanac is not defined by its content - it can be about anything - but by the context in which it's done, that of fandom. Similarly, fan fiction is a communal activity with certain characteristics, among them that it's not commercial - you'll note that back in 1979 we didn't cite Bored of the Rings as fan fiction, because it's not, it's a commercial parody - and, particularly important to the person making this point, it's predominantly women writers. Claim Milton and Shakespeare for fan fiction, you're just putting the same dead white males in charge again. It's like science fiction writers claiming Gilgamesh and Lucian of Samosata as their progenitors: those you're seeking to impress will not be paying attention to your claims.

But the co-opting of distinguished past reactive fiction as fan fiction has an aim beyond self-aggrandizement. It is to legitimize a form often denigrated as illegitimate and parasitic. See, they say, if Milton could do the Bible I can do it to the latest novel or TV show, and the creators have no cause to complain. But the objection being raised by authors to fan fiction of their own works isn't against the aesthetic right to be transformative or reactive, it's on the legal and moral question of invading the under-copyright work of living authors. (n.b. that Tolkien is no longer living, and while his work is still under copyright, under a reasonable time limit much of it would no longer be.)

(Oh, and the cassette? On its way to the MythSoc archives at Southwestern Oklahoma State U.)

Friday, April 29, 2022

the BISQC lineup

Today was the announcement of the ten quartets that will be performing in the Banff International String Quartet Competition at the end of August. I'm not attending this year, though I went to the last two triennial events, but I'm still interested, and I believe the concerts will be live-cast, so I intend to listen to at least a lot of them. (But that's aspirational. Doubting I'd have the stamina to attend them all any more is one reason I'm not going in person.)

They did livecast the announcement today. So far they haven't put up any information on the quartets or their repertoires for the competition, but I did at least copy down the names and look them all up. They were identified by country or countries of origin, and I've classified them thus here. Interestingly, no Canadian groups this time: local favorites have traditionally done well at Banff. There was a point made to say that no countries were excluded.

So I'm putting them down here so that I have links to them and can listen to their clips at leisure:

US groups
Abeo Quartet
Balourdet Quartet
Isidore String Quartet

European groups
Quatuor Agate (France) (a 2019 competitor)
Animato Quartet (Netherlands, also Norway)
Karski Quartet (Belgium, also Poland)
Opus13 String Quartet (Norway, also Sweden)
Sonoro Quartet (Belgium, also Ireland)

Miscellaneous groups (both based in the US)
Dior Quartet (US/Israel/Korea/St. Lucia)
Terra String Quartet (US/Venezuela/Iceland/Australia)

The director of Banff is named as a mentor of the Dior Quartet, but he's not one of the judges so I don't know how much of an edge that will give them.

One thing I'm eager to see about the repertoire is that, where each previous BISQC has begun with a recital round of one Haydn and one "modern" (basically post-1905) quartet, this one is asking for the modern piece to be written 2000 or later. So out with the Bartok, Janacek, and Ligeti which have dominated in the past; if you want to play one of those (and I suspect most will), you'll have to save it for the ad lib round. I've gone through the complete list of compositions played, and find that, to date, six compositions that meet the date requirements have been played in ad lib rounds at the last two competitions - not counting the new compositions commissioned by Canadian composers for all the quartets to play. So there's plenty of material out there, some of it actually good. I'm looking forward to this.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

language and linguistics

My latest reading is a scholarly anthology called Language Invention in Linguistics Pedagogy, ed Jeffrey Punske et al (OUP, 2020). I'm not recommending this to you - for one thing, it's rare enough that I had to get it by inter-library loan from a university 2000 miles away - but it struck some interesting thoughts.

It's a book that kept turning up when I was searching for Tolkien references in the 2020 literature for my bibliography, so I had to look at it to see if there was enough about Tolkien in it to make it worth listing. There isn't, but he's frequently referred to. The topic is using invented or constructed languages ("conlangs" is the accepted term) in linguistics courses, and most of the contributions are by professors or college instructors reporting on classes they've taught. Often this involves having the students construct their own languages, but most of the classes begin with surveys of existing conlangs, and Tolkien's Elven tongues are always mentioned.

There are also frequent citations to Tolkien's essay A Secret Vice, an early and extensive discussion of the motivation for and practice of creating artistic conlangs, and several authors cite that Tolkien's "novels were developed in order to situate his invented languages in a time and place ... Thus, while other writers created conlangs for their fiction, Tolkien created fiction for his conlangs." Tolkien did say something like this ("The invention of languages is the foundation. The 'stories' were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse"), but to present it baldly, as these writers do, and without the context Tolkien's statement is embedded in, does rather oversimplify the process.

I found the most interesting chapter to be Arika Okrent's (a linguistics PhD but a journalist, not a professor) on how budding linguists find and develop their love for languages, and how they're distinct from other language students. Linguists are attracted by the structure and grammar of languages, not so much by the opportunity to read literature in that language, which is the customary motivation. Indeed, linguists who major in a specific language often find themselves hitting a brick wall with the analysis in their literature classes, which they find alienating. One French major tells of a class on Stendhal's The Red and the Black. He was asked "Why do you think Julien Sorel took the hand of Madame Renal?" and he says he wishes he had the nerve to reply, "I have no idea, but what I want to know is, why he used the subjunctive?"

I found I could identify with this, but only to an extent. I'm not a linguist, I'm linguistics-adjacent. I took Spanish and German in school (I switched to German because it was fun to pronounce and in hopes of reading the liner notes on German classical LPs), but I found memorizing vocabulary to be nerve-wracking, and I never got fluent enough to take literature classes in it. (But I hated the Leavisite dogma I was getting in my English lit classes, so I doubt I would have done well.) So while I was actually pretty good at language, I disliked learning the topic, which is also how I stood with mathematics.

I majored in history at university; sticking mostly with American history meant that other languages didn't come up much. UC had a linguistics department, but it didn't occur to me to check it out until I took the basic intro course in my senior year. Surprise, I loved it. It wasn't about languages and the drill of memorizing them, it was about language, the concept, and the structural comparison among lots of languages which you studied on that level, but that you weren't expected to know well enough to speak or to read fluently. This was much more interesting than studying one individual language in detail. I learned enough about linguistic theory to disagree with Noam Chomsky, and a lot else.

I could have done with more of that, but it was too late. If I'd discovered this in my freshman year and the follow-up courses had been equally enticing, I might have changed my intended major, who knows?

Monday, April 25, 2022

reading Henry IV

Our Zoom play-reading group has been proceeding slowly - we skip some weeks due to schedule conflicts, and it took 3 sessions to get through Shakespeare's Richard II. A reference to Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time by someone who'd momentarily forgotten which one was Richard II and which one was Richard III led to the amazing discovery that Tey had written a play about Richard II. She wrote it in 1932 for John Gielgud, after seeing him in the Shakespeare play, having determined that a broader perspective on Richard's life might make him more understandable and sympathetic. It employed the then-daring notion of contemporary 20th century language for these 14th century characters, and reportedly made Gielgud's name outside the Elizabethan stage. It's titled Richard of Bordeaux (Richard was Richard of Bordeaux for the same reason that his uncle was John of Gaunt, because he was born there) and we read it next, having found it in the Australian Project Gutenberg archive. Terrific drama, and it ought to be revived.

Now we're back to Shakespeare's next history play, Henry IV Part 1, which we began today. I get to play Falstaff. And here's the historical background notes I wrote for my fellow thespians:

In our previous plays, the inadequate King Richard II had been deposed and replaced by his first cousin, Henry IV. There's a catch, though. Henry wasn't Richard's legal heir to the throne. Richard's father, the Black Prince, was Edward III's eldest son, but Henry's father, John of Gaunt, was the third surviving son. The second son was Lionel of Antwerp. He had left a daughter who married into a gentry family called the Mortimers, and her current heir by this time is her grandson, Edmund Mortimer. It is he who, by strict primogeniture, should have succeeded Richard as king.

Accordingly, the Percy family - noble magnates from the north of England, the brothers Duke of Northumberland and Earl of Worcester, and Northumberland's son, known as Hotspur - who had rebelled against Richard II, now step up again. They find cause to quarrel with King Henry over the same thing they quarreled with Richard about - confiscatory royal finance, because the king always needs money, no matter which king he is - and they (the Percys) seize on Edmund Mortimer, to whom they're related by marriage, as the banner of their rebellion. They also ally with the always-rebellious Welsh, led by the shaman Owen Glendower. They make an odd assortment, as we'll see later in the play.

The other factor in this play is the king's son and heir, known here as Prince Hal. Shakespeare depicts him as a carefree carouser. This is according to a widespread legend, but we don't know how much truth there is in it. Hal's fellow carousers, though - the famous Sir John Falstaff and all the rest - are completely fictional, Shakespeare's own inventions. Shakespeare is careful, though, to ensure that he depicts Hal as not too naughty, and to let some hints emerge of the sober and mighty warrior king he will someday become.

Changes from history: Hotspur is depicted as a young hothead to contrast him with Hal, but he was actually an older seasoned warrior by this point. And the play combines two Edmund Mortimers: the warrior/rebel in this play was the (non-heir) uncle of the actual young heir.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

end of Pesach

As the light slowly closed on the last day of Pesach aka Passover on Saturday, I was at the family seder to which I'm customarily invited as a supernumerary member. This was news because it was the first time we'd done it in three years. Everybody was vaccinated - and I was fresh out of my second booster shot the previous afternoon, that's my other news - so we were feeling pretty easy about it. Even the cats were cool.

Normally it takes about two hours to get through the prayers, narratives, responsive readings, tiny skits, songs, and ritual eating (this is the matzo of affliction, these are the bitter herbs) and drinking (this is the second cup of wine, praise to the Lord who created the fruit of the vine) that make up the bulk of the seder before the meal is served - there's more afterwards, and you're not in a hurry: this is a relaxed occasion. But Jena, our hostess and mother of the clan, who acted as leader, took a turbo-charged way through the opening, reading fast and skipping a lot, and got through it in 65 minutes flat. Mark, her husband, prepared a fine lamb roast for the main dish plus magnificently tasty matzo-ball soup with home-made schmaltz as an ingredient and eggs fresh from the 15 chickens they have living largely in their back yard (this is out in the country to be sure). Guests brought sides; I made the same broccoli I had for B's family last week. Some sort of whiskey-infused flan and chocolate mousse for dessert.

Home again before falling asleep, fortunately.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

towering influence

Several Tolkienists have written about the influence on his writing that they see from the works of John Buchan. One of them led a discussion today of Huntingtower, a book deemed a particular influence on The Hobbit.

I read Huntingtower for this - first book by Buchan I'd read - and I don't really see it. There are certain parallels, to be sure - middle-aged business-like homebody goes out on long country walk, has adventures, gets kind of subsumed by the story as it reaches its climax - and some specific detailed resemblances - Huntingtower takes place in the Scottish district of Carrick, which means "rock", and Bilbo visits a Carrock, which is a large rock - but I'm not too impressed with claims that the Gorbals Die-Hards are like the dwarves, even though both sets are short and numerous, or that rescuing the Russian princess is like reclaiming the treasure of Thror. Nor do the prose styles seem at all mutually reminiscent. Huntingtower was entertaining enough and readable, but I think The Hobbit is much better crafted. For one thing it doesn't turn slack and lose interest when the battles begin and Bilbo recedes from the forefront of the story, whereas Huntingtower does at the equivalent point.

I tried my hand at tenuous parallels by proposing one between John Heritage and Gandalf. He's initially a guide, he's initially somewhat obnoxious, he becomes a friend and a commander of the expedition but disappears from the viewpoint for a large part of the middle of the story ...

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

end of civilization

So now they're ending mask mandates on public transportation, just when I was barely beginning to think it was safe to use it again, at least until the next omicron spike rises. Fortunately I have a choice; many people don't. I just have to hope we're still in a lax trend when I next get on a plane in three months.
Biden was asked, “Should people continue to wear masks on planes?” and gave the supremely unhelpful reply “That’s up to them.” No! If it's up to anyone there, it's all the people around you! This is public health: what you do affects those around you as well as yourself. Freedom does not include the right to breathe deadly virus on those around you. You don't get to decide for yourself whether to take protective measures during a pandemic any more than you get to decide for yourself whether to drive on the right or the left, or whether to stop at red lights. The virus is not done with us yet, and there have to be enforced rules.

In other end-of-civilization news, I read that the AAA is discontinuing paper maps. That's a grave shame, as electronic maps, while very useful, are no substitute for big unfolding paper maps, the only kind where you can see detail and the big picture at the same time, and thus adequately understand where you're going. Online directions can be followed, but don't give a sense of why you're turning here or there, and even with today's advanced algorithms, it's still my hard-learned navigational smarts and knowledge of the area that has saved me from some absurd electronic directions; see my trip to LA last summer, when the directions took me miles out of the way to avoid one closed freeway exit, when taking the regular route and just getting off at the next exit was a satisfactory option.
It's also frustrating because, apart from the very occasional use of emergency road service, which I guess is worth the trouble to pay for it, maps are the only thing I belong to the AAA for.

Monday, April 18, 2022

holiday season

Friday was the first night of Pesach, and since it was also Good Friday and I'm married to a Catholic, it was appropriate to make matzo ball soup (with imitation-chicken broth) for dinner.

Sunday was the party at B's niece's house for the holiday I know, for the nature of the celebration it entails, as Eatster. I made an even simpler than ever before broccoli dish, which got entirely eaten this time: just steamed broccoli with a pine nut-basil-parsley-parmesan-lemon juice dressing that gets mixed and poured over it just before serving. Found it in the broccoli cookbook I bought at the Salinas Valley broccoli festival all those years ago.

Plenty of relatives including children and friends-o'-the-family around, so let's just hope there was also no virus.

And with a little hopefulness for the future, I've just learned that the seder from friends that I customarily attended pre-pandemic has been revived this year for next Saturday afternoon, just in time to fit into Pesach itself.

Meanwhile I'm awaiting the last-minute corrections in our tax return to be made, and am looking for consultation on a fairly minor but urgent legal matter, and am also finishing up another deadline ...

Sunday, April 17, 2022

success in Berkeley

I accomplished the research I needed for the Tolkien bibliography at UC Berkeley on Saturday with no more trouble than I'd had in Davis on Thursday, although a lot more walking with a lot more hills. The only irony is that Thursday and Saturday were the two days lately on which it's been raining and they're the two days on which I've gone out. But, after having been unable to find parking at UCB on Thursday afternoon, I thought Saturday might be easier: not only less commuting, but a number of permit-only lots on campus are open to public parking on weekends and evenings.

(And if you're worried, as B. was, that they might be closed because it's Easter weekend: nah. Not a Catholic school, after all. Open today, too, but today I'll be busy.)

I am in fact impressed at how easy UCB makes work for outside scholars. In the library's computer banks are several machines labeled "Public access terminals," and you just go into the catalogs and look up the online sources, and if you've plugged in a thumb drive the computer automatically knows to save the downloads there.

Then I needed to go into the stacks to get some hard copies, and though the privileges desk doesn't open until 1 pm, the registration process was no-fuss. Checked my ID, then (as I knew they would) asked for the call number of something I'd be consulting. I handed over one of the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award first-ballot lists on which I'd carefully written the call numbers of the two books I needed that UCB has in hard copy, and that did it.

Then there are the absolutely fabulously user-friendly scan machines in the stacks, which assume you have a thumb drive, walk you through the process, show you each page as you scan it, show the number of pages you've done in the set so far, and display big "finish" and "delete" buttons along with the "scan" (next page) button at every stage. On top of which, the scanner is sensitive to what you put on its bed, and if it's a two-page spread with a blank left page, it still scans the whole spread.

The only problem is that the main library is a huge ornate old building, and the computer banks are up here, and the stack entrance is down there, and the elevators are on the other side, and it's a long walk from the nearest parking, longer even than Davis with hills and stairs. Fortunately I know both the library and the campus well, so even in my decayed state I at least knew where I was going.

So all I need now is to wait for the stuff I've ordered by inter-library loan to come in, and the bibliography will be ready; and reading for the awards is coming along too.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

day in another library

Stanford is still closed to visitors (they're private, they can do what they want), so there was nothing for it to complete what I could of the Tolkien bibliography research at UC Berkeley, which is an hour's drive from here without traffic, and UC Davis, which is two hours in the same direction. And it ws best to go as soon as possible before the next wave of virus hits. This week was good: quiet, no appointments, B. out at church rehearsal on Thursday, so no dinner at home.

My plan had been to go to Berkeley first, and finish up the lesser amount of material at Davis later in the day. But then on checking the hours I found that Berkeley is on intersession (Davis is not), and while the library was open in the morning, the privileges desk doesn't open until 1 pm, and a visitor without pre-existing access needs to stop there first.

So it was Davis in the morning, then, and Berkeley afterwards. I left on schedule at 7 AM, well fortified with caffeine, arrived at Davis on schedule at 9, long trudge from the nearest garage to the library (no privileges desk at Davis). Got some hard-copy items I needed to scan. The guy at the computer room help desk was apologetic but knew nothing, but a very helpful person at the circulation desk (and that's a phrase I don't type very often) knew how a visitor could scan items (though not that I had to buy a $1 copy card first, though it didn't charge for the scans), and even where the computers with guest accounts are so that I could access the library's online databases. At which point I found they had some books available online that their catalog didn't know about, aha.

Done by 11.30, lunch at a Burmese restaurant in town (good food in a rather fetid sauce), fueled the car, in Berkeley by 2, which would leave me 6 hours - just enough - to get my work done before the library closes (intersession rules again) if I could have found long-term parking. But by that time of day there was none to be had near enough to walk, and by the time I established that, not enough time to find one further way and get in by bus. Did find a short-term space by the GTU library, but that was only a little help.

So a satisfactory A for the day at Davis, a complete F at Berkeley, and I'll have to try again when I can come back in the morning.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

concert review: Redwood Symphony

My editor sent me to this concert, for my first SFCV review in six months, because they were biting off something bigger than a volunteer community orchestra would be expected to chew: Absolute Jest, John Adams's concerto for string quartet and orchestra.

Sounds congested, but in fact the quartet mostly plays as a group, not as four individuals trying to hog the spotlight, which is what multiple soloists in concertos usually do. I did what I could to study the work in advance, since I knew it had to be the focus for my review, but Adams's jittery, chaotic writing is not always easily absorbed. But I think I got the hang of it.

The other pieces, Beethoven and Copland that I know well and have been listening to since the days you had to get them on LP, were easier. Technical quality was kind of sloppy, but they got the jist of the music and gave it drive and enjoyability. The one thing I didn't find room to mention is that the Copland, which was the opening work, was accompanied by the sight and sound of ushers showing late-comers to their seats. Usual practice is to wait for a break in the music to do that.

And as I mentioned at the end, this is the third concert I've heard in a month - three weeks, actually - that was introduced with the Ukrainian national anthem. Winchester Orch, California Sym, now Redwood. Each with a different arrangement, too. As a gesture of support, it just shows how counter-productive Russian policy is. I wonder: if this were 1914, would we be hearing the Belgian national anthem?

Monday, April 11, 2022

names they should know

One source of amusement is closed captions written by people who don't know the subject matter of the (documentary, in this case) that they're captioning. (This is also why I declined the request to index a book on a subject I wasn't familiar with.)

Veteran orchestral player, elderly and perhaps a bit less than announcer-crisp, but quite intelligible if you know what he's saying, is talking about great conductors under whom he's played. And one of those names appears at the bottom of the screen as:

Fert Lengliff.

Care to guess who that is? It's perfectly obvious in the audio if you know it.

An even worse transcription is "Malcolm [mumbling]," which is quite intelligible as Malcolm Sargent.

Friday, April 8, 2022

concert review: Catalyst Quartet

Up in the City, this was the last concert in the Catalyst Quartet's series of the music of Black composers. I missed the previous concert because of the omicron wave, but I was particularly happy to get to this one, because it was an all-Florence Price concert. Not only that, it was all little-known works, all of which this group has recorded, but one of which they said neither they nor anybody else had ever performed in concert before this evening.

Two works for string quartet and two piano quintets with Michelle Cann, who proved most voluble when introducing the first work. When she begins by saying that Florence Price was born in Little Rock in 1887 and her father was a dentist, settle back, you're in for a long story.

The Piano Quintet in A Minor was written circa 1935 and fits the pattern of Price's other big works of the period. Four movements, starting with an earnestly Romantic, somewhat Dvorak-like, deracinated opening movement, followed by a gorgeous slow movement with a melody along the lines of African-American spirituals, then a lively Juba dance (again an African-American folk style), concluding with an equally lively but more deracinated and Dvorak-like scherzo.

The other piano quintet, which is in E Minor, is rather different. Three movements (possibly it's unfinished, but it doesn't sound so to me), the first much tougher and more irregular than other Price works I've heard, the Andante and concluding Allegretto more normal for her, but all of them very brief, which is unusual, for Price is normally a rather expansive composer.

The String Quartet No. 1 in G was unusual the other way around. It's definitely unfinished, having just two movements in the form of the normal first two. This time it was the first movement which was normal Price, typically agreeable. The second movement, instead of covering a single extended melody, was sectional with some repeating sections, of contrasting character, of which the most striking was the stealthy melody over a creepy walking pizzicato line from the cello.

The fourth work was Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint, not to be confused with the better-known Five Folksongs in Counterpoint, although catalogs often do, and the quartet said that until they saw the score they weren't sure if this was a different work or not. There's four songs here, of which I recognized two. I'm just reproducing the spellings Price gave them when I say that the two are "Little David Play on Yo' Harp" (which I know as "Little David Susskind, Shut Up," because what I know it from is an Allan Sherman album) and "Joshua Fit de Battle ob Jericho" (which I know as "Joshua Got a Bottle of Geritol," same reason). In both cases, playing it "in counterpoint" means using the opening phrase of the song as a fugue theme and running the piece out from there.

For dinner beforehand, I tried out a little Japanese-Korean restaurant that I ran across on my previous visit when I wasn't able to get off the bus until the next stop after the concert hall. I was curious enough to check the menu online and this time went back deliberately. It's mostly sushi and sashimi, which are outside my eating range, but they do have a decent menu of cooked food as well. I was a little alarmed when they told me the Korean-style fried chicken appetizer was five pieces, but it turned out that meant five small boneless strips, not five big pieces, so I could have ordered with it more than a plate of gyoza. But those chicken strips, besides being crispily fried, were inside fabulously moist and tender. I'll have to come back and try a more serious meal here.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

take me to your census

This is fun. I've been looking relatives up in the 1950 US census.

I found my mother in her college dorm, and her parents - even though the enumerator misspelled their name - back at home, with their two live-in maids. (Did I know my grandparents had a maid? Yes, I recall my mother mentioning this. Did I know the maid was live-in? Well, I sort of presumed that. Did I know they had two? No.)

I was unable to find my father. He would have been either at university or med school then, but he turned up in neither city, nor could I find his mother. But the two of them had moved around a whole lot after the divorce when my dad was 12. I did find my grandfather, who stayed put for the rest of his life.

B. wasn't available at the moment to ask, but I guessed what city her parents were living in then, and found them on the first shot, with a 3-year-old daughter, their only child at the time. (You will not get B's sister to admit how old she is today.)

Then there's the enumeration district maps. There's a terrible search interface for these at the National Archives, but someone has made a much better one. These are only necessary if you know the address you're looking for and can find it on a map, and need to know the district to limit your search. I found the name/county search function was sufficiently powerful that I didn't need that. But I did enjoy looking at the maps of the area I grew up in. Clearly the post-war boom which was going full-throttle in the 60s had not started yet in 1950, judging by the tiny towns and the vast agricultural zones (orchards, mostly, I remember, from what was left of them) separating the towns. A different world.

Monday, April 4, 2022

another 48-hour Shakespeare play festival

Silicon Valley Shakespeare does this annually: giving teams each with 4 actors, a writer, and a director 48 hours to write and rehearse a 10-minute skit based on a given Shakespeare play and employing a given premise, each different for each skit, and then perform them before an audience when the 48 hours are up. I've seen these before, and they can be pretty funny.

This year the venue was Foothill College, and the premise was to mash up your assigned Shakespeare play with a popular TV show of your choice. The most successful premise, as well as the most obvious one - possibly these facts are connected - was Titus Andronicus as Chopped, the cooking competition show (which I've actually seen). With one actor as the host and two as the judges, that left one to play all three contestants: Titus, Tamora, and Aaron, which she did virtuosically.

Best single line, however, was in another skit when Captain Kirk, trapped in a Shakespeare re-enactment, wonders how it will come out, and is told, "Not well. It's Richard the Third. Star Trek is never good when it's an odd number."

I also liked one with brilliantly goofy acting by a guy who keeps coming on stage as different characters who all promptly get killed, with his body repeatedly having to be dragged off stage by the same long-suffering other actor.

And the Puck, who, though the Dream mash-up was nominally with Buffy, kept singing snatches of "We Don't Talk About Bruno."

These few highlights aside, though, I thought this year's version was less amusing, and less coherent, than ones I've seen in the past.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

air-fry at last

So now that I have the basket necessary for my oven's air-fry function, after six months of waiting for it, what shall I do with it?

Cook some chicken wings, of course. I'd seen coating mixes for sale specifically formulated for air-fryers, so I picked up one of those and tried it today.

The biggest mystery was the difference between the cooking instructions on the mix package and in the oven manual. The manual said cook chicken wings at 425-450 for 27-32 minutes; the package said 375 for 15-20 minutes. The latter seemed awfully fast; could the difference have anything to do with the oven manual saying no preheating was required for air-frying? For baking/roasting it takes about 12-15 minutes to heat up to such a temperature. Or could it be that the package instructions were for a dedicated air-fryer and not for an air-frying function on an oven?

I decided to lean towards the latter, preheated the oven, and cooked it at 425 for 24 minutes, which was quite long enough.

The basket is a metal mesh pan, with a slight basket indentation, with handles on both ends, almost as wide as the oven. (The ordering instructions had specified the size of the oven.) It's big enough to hold ten small-medium wings. You put it on a low middle shelf and place a baking sheet below it to catch any drips.

And it cooked fine, and it did not smoke up the kitchen. (An important point, since we don't have a kitchen fan.) Nice crispy and crunchy breading, but not too thick, on well-cooked but not dried-out wings, still tasty after they'd cooled off, a tasty meal. No grease, because no oil, ta da. But rather messy: coating dripped through the basket onto whatever surface I placed it on both before and after cooking, and adhered to the basket, which is too large to soak in our sink. So considering the cleanup, I may not do this too often, but it did taste impressively good.

Saturday, April 2, 2022

short answer to the day's burning science question

According to this article, the star-namers did have Tolkien in mind. Earendel was the name for the morning star (Venus) which Tolkien found in Old English poetry and which inspired him to create the character, originally of the same name, in The Silmarillion. In his later work he took to spelling it Eärendil, and that's how it appears in the published books. (The diaeresis over the "a" is to remind you they're two separate vowels, not a diphthong.)

concert review: Ragazzi Boys Chorus

And this is how I write a review when I want to emphasize how good the chorus was - when the local symphony or opera need a boys' chorus, this is who they get, and well-deserved - and de-emphasize some of the choice of repertoire and the instrumental part of the program.

Some of the repertoire was good. I actually decided to go to this concert because they had scheduled Bruckner's Locus Iste, which is my favorite motet of all time, and they did a gorgeous job with it. In fact, they did a gorgeous job with all the choral music, including some pieces that were not worth the trouble of performing. While the arrangement of "How Can I Keep From Singing?" was brilliant (and by a noted choral composer), the arrangement of Stephen Foster's "Hard Times" was, as I suggested in the review, "rather elaborate." At the least. And that final "Ave Maria" - there are better versions.

But on the decision to show off a couple of the choristers' abilities as pianist and violinist, I had to write with considerable restraint. Just because you're a good singer, and can also hit all the right notes on that instrument you play on the side, doesn't mean you should do the latter in public. The pianist eked out a dull version of a Debussy prelude, and the violinist played most of the first movement of the Mendelssohn concerto with perfectly adequate intonation and rhythm but no inflection or character whatever. Imagine a robot voice reading a Shakespeare soliloquy; it was like that. When he launched into the cadenza, which is designed for the violinist to show off, I could hardly believe the bleak landscape.

Fortunately that didn't last too long. Ragazzi's publicists are always after me to cover them, but it's hard to review concerts consisting of 16 short pieces, and it's harder to schedule reviews of groups that don't put their schedule out at the beginning of the season. Since I wanted to go to this one anyway, I filed for a review; and the opportunity to hear good chorusing inspired B. to come along, once I had made a scouting visit and established there were handicapped parking spaces within a reasonable walk of the mission church, which is situated in the middle of the pedestrian-only section of the Jesuit university campus.

Friday, April 1, 2022

XPO customer

Kevin Standlee often writes in his blog about XPO, the company he works for doing shipping logistics. Well, I have become an XPO customer. They delivered a package to me today, and I'm here to tell you about it.

For six months now, since we bought our new Samsung oven, Samsung has been promising to deliver the air-fry basket that goes with it that I ordered separately. They kept giving me delivery dates and then delaying them, a few days or two months. April 1 was like the sixth date I was given. But this time it wasn't delayed. On Wednesday I got an e-mail from Samsung saying it had actually shipped and they were handing me over to their delivery service, XPO.

On Thursday, I got a phone call from XPO. It started out as an automated phone call, but as soon as I pressed the first button on instruction, the automated voice said there was a technical problem and it would hand me off to a human. It did. First we went through some confirmation blither, then the human seemed to tell me that the basket wouldn't be delivered on Friday after all; then she said it would. (Possibly she was the idol that neither always tells the truth nor always lies but gives a random answer.) But after we got that straightened out, she said no delivery time window had yet been set, and they'd call me back when it was. Furthermore, the delivery guy would phone 30 minutes out. But an adult needed to be home to accept the package; they wouldn't leave it on the porch.

I was just telling B. about this, so she'd know about the expected calls and the delivery, when the phone rang again. Same deal: automated voice, technical problem, human, confirmation blither. This is my phone number, this is my name & address, with zip code, yes you may call me by my first name. (You'd think that the first time they'd have a checkmark they could click: "Yes This Customer Will Permit You To Call Them By Their First Name. Christ, Give It A Rest Already, Will You?") But this guy didn't have the delivery time window either. Instead, he seemed to think he was the first call. Same info. I listened patiently; clearly his computer hadn't told him that I'd already heard this stuff.

Despite these assurances, I never got a call with the delivery time window. Instead, I got it by e-mail. 12:30-4:30, Friday afternoon. Fine.

The phone rang at 11:30 AM. Good thing I was already back from my morning errands by then. He'd be there in 20 minutes. Took closer to 30, but he was there. Handed over the package, took a photo of me with it with his phone. No signature or any other fuss.

And that's my experience with XPO. Much more conscientious about their service than a lot of companies one deals with in this manner, but still subject to weird glitches, from the technical problem with the automated phone call, to some unclear statements by the first person, to a needless repeat of the first phone call, to being told I'd get another phone call but getting an e-mail instead, to a delivery before the time window, which is OK except that I might have missed it; and generally an immense amount of fuss over a package, the kind that Amazon would just drop off and that would be an end to it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

day in the library

Monday was my day for researching the annual Tolkien bibliography in the library, having exhausted the free databases at home. I drove over our local mountains to Santa Cruz, where the university library is the most useful for online searching and visitor-friendly of any I know. I bought a daily parking permit at the gatehouse, $10, drove over to the appropriate parking lot, and then walked the most stunningly beautiful quarter-mile walk from a parking lot to a college library of any I know. Even Cornell, which is the only other campus I know with pedestrian bridges over canyons as deep as this one's, isn't as attractive as UC Santa Cruz.

This was the first time I'd been there in three years, but I used to go annually so I remembered it well, including where to go to park, which isn't obviously labeled. Getting through campus is a drive through fields and forests, with only occasional buildings visible in the distance, one of which is a residence hall cluster with a vague similarity to The Village from The Prisoner.

Inside the library, masks were required and most everyone had one. The foyer to the library, which you must pass through on your way inside, is a cafe, and nobody there had masks. I settled down at a computer and spent five straight hours online searching, interrupted only by the obvious restroom breaks and much more frequent visits to the help desk, starting with one following seeing that the login screen no longer tells you what the visitor login is. (Though it does say there is one.) Then there was a hitch when it wasn't clear that inter-library access isn't available to visitors: it actually gives the option to enter a visitor account, and that's sure misleading. Lastly, when I left, I gave them a list of those databases on their pull-down menu where I found that the link was broken. You'd think they'd check this occasionally themselves, but maybe not. What if they're paying subscription fees for databases they can't access?

My other momentary paralysis came when I was about to save a file and realized I'd forgotten to bring along my thumb drive. Help desk provided the answer I should have thought of for myself. Save the file to the computer's download folder. Open up my webmail and send it as an attachment to myself. That worked except for one file which was too large to mail. Fortunately I remembered the web address and password to access the control panel for my personal website, so I stuffed the file up there until I got home.

As the years have gone by, I've had to spend less and less time in the stacks. Even the one relevant serial that UCSC gets in hard copy that no other library in my ambit gets is now available in online databases. And now, I'm finding that the pay databases have fewer items that aren't in the free databases than they used to. What the pay databases have is more complete citations (irritating to find a great article but the entry doesn't give the author's name) and, of course, many of them have full text. These I was grabbing so that I'll have them available to hand out to the Year's Work contributors next year.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

the slap

So people in the public sphere are talking about The Slap at the Academy Awards on Sunday, when presenter Chris Rock made a tasteless joke about Jada Pinkett Smith - wife of Will Smith, Best Actor nominee (and, later in the evening, winner) - having lost her hair. And Will, having apparently originally thought it was funny, caught the distressed look on Jada's face and decided to do the Really Macho Husband thing, walked up on stage and socked Rock in the kisser.

At this point the sound cut out on the U.S. show, but a very revealing verbal exchange between the two was captured by other broadcasters, revealed in a Twitter feed embedded in this article. Here's what they said:

Rock: Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me.
Smith (who by this time has returned to his seat): Keep my wife's name out your fuckin' mouth.
Rock: Wow, dude.
Smith: Yes.
Rock: It was a G.I. Jane joke.
Smith: Keep my wife's name ... out ... your ... fuckin' ... mouth!
Rock: I'm going to. OK?

Here's my thoughts:

1) From the audience gasp at Will's first statement, this may have been their realization of why he did it.
2) Note Chris Rock's defense. He thinks that comparing Jada's current disease-caused shaven head with the cropped hair of a female military officer in a half-forgotten old movie is a joke about the movie? Dude, that's fucked up.
3) Will, probably from stress, is not clear. What he means is "Don't make crude jokes about my wife." But what he says is, "Don't mention her name." At all. And when challenged he just repeats the same words.

I have to say, though, this wasn't the most distressful moment of the ceremony for me. Part of it was that I've never seen any of Chris Rock's movies; I wasn't exactly sure who he is, so that it was him who got slapped didn't mean anything to me. (But then, this was The Evening Of The Presenters I'd Never Heard Of.)

No, the most distressful moment for me was, after much earlier having promised the first live performance of "We Don't Talk About Bruno" (it wasn't: one of the many cover versions on YouTube is live and uncut) and they cut the lyrics and turned it into an Oscars pitch song. Feh.

You know, it would have been a lot better if Will Smith had gone up, refrained from hitting, grabbed the microphone, and sung "We Don't Talk About Jada." A better reaction, and a better parody song.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

concert review: California Symphony

I bought a 3-concert series this year with the California Symphony, a small-scale professional orchestra that plays at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek in the outer East Bay. I missed the concert I was most eager to attend because it was at the height of the omicron wave, but I was at today's, the last in my set. They seem pathetically grateful to their subscribers; taped to my seat I found a personalized thank-you card from the principal trombonist, and it looks like others had similarly.

The California Symphony has a composer-in-residence program that lasts three years per composer, who premieres one new work in the spring each year. The composer for 2018-20 was Katherine Balch, but guess what: her third work, for March 2020, was postponed, and didn't get its premiere until this weekend's concerts.

But it almost got kicked in the pants again. With unnervingly good timing, just as the music had finished and the applause was breaking out, a fire alarm went off in the theater. So instead of the scheduled intermission, we all - audience and performers alike - spent 45 minutes out on the sidewalk in the cool dusk as the firefighters inspected the building.

The premiere work, designated a song cycle but more an amorphous vocal thing, was titled Illuminate and sets a farrago of poetry by Arthur Rimbaud, Adrienne Rich, and various others for three female singers, whose voices leap and cascade over each other, entangling and merging, as if playing leapfrog in the murky pond of the poetry. Balch warned in the pre-concert talk that we wouldn't be able to make out most of the words. Indeed, despite the stunning excellence of the singing, even with the lyrics in front of me I couldn't usually tell where we were, which puts paid to the composer's notion that the music reflects the meaning of the words even if you can't discern them. Not that the instrumental parts seemed to vary: it was insistent fragmented industrial, often squealing and squawking to a momentary stop. Balch studied with David Lang, and it shows in her vocal work, the high piping quality of which also curiously reminded me of the Masque in Michael Nyman's Prospero's Books.

It was preceded by an orchestral work, Three Studies from Couperin by Thomas Adès. This was more of the same: fragmented, hollowed out arrangements of the Couperin pieces leaving nothing familiar or detectable inside.

The main work after the extended intermission was Ravel's Ma Mère l'Oye, which was played in a cautious crystalline fashion as if this is what the previous works would have sounded like before someone broke the glass and left it all littering the floor.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

not quite yet

Four years and a few months ago, I reviewed a concert with a 12-year-old prodigy named Alma Deutscher playing her own violin concerto which she'd written at the age of 9.

I had rather mixed feelings about the music. On the one hand, I didn't think a pleasantly melodic work should be penalized because it was written in 2015 instead of 1845 which is what it sometimes sounded like. On the other hand, it was anodyne enough that I doubted it would get played at all if it weren't for the publicity attendant on the composer's age.

On the third hand, I could hardly blame the composer. I pointed out that even the greatest child-prodigy composers of the past, Mozart and Mendelssohn, were writing at the same age music that was likewise pleasant and fully competent, but no more than that: impressive mostly just for the composer's age. They didn't produce any of the masterpieces they're remembered for until their late teens - Mendelssohn wrote his Octet when he was 16 and Mozart his 'little' G-minor symphony at 17.

So I concluded, "I would like to check in with Deutscher in a few more years and hear what she’s writing then."

And lo and behold, the San Jose Opera has announced a production of Deutscher's opera Cinderella for the next season. Deutscher herself, now 17, will be making her debut as a conductor. But! This isn't a new work, it's another one from 2015 although it has been revised since then, and this is actually a revival of a production put on in tandem with the symphony concert I reviewed. Apparently nothing of hers that's been recorded is much more recent than that either, so I'll have to wait a bit longer to hear what Deutscher is composing a few years later.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

senseless, unsensible

A local theater group has been heavily promoting their production of a stage musical version of Sense and Sensibility. I actually saw their equivalent version of Pride and Prejudice and liked it, but I hadn't felt as enthused about this, even after learning you could see it livestream.

Then they released a video consisting of tiny clips from the songs. And one of those clips consisted of the words:

But my sweet Marianne
All you see is a man
On the wrong side of five-and-thirty

I think I'll give it a miss.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

serious nonfiction for the general reader

Philip Ball, The Modern Myths: Adventures in the Machinery of the Popular Imagination (University of Chicago Press, 2021)
Here's a great work of mythopoeic scholarship, lucid and imaginative. A modern myth, says Ball, is one which originates, or at least is utterly transformed, in modern times with a modern setting. It's not a reconfiguration of older myth like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. It becomes myth when it becomes a cultural icon beyond its original literary form, and for that purpose it helps for that origin not to be of too high a literary quality, or else the story will become literature and not a myth, too tied to the original telling.
You can get a sense of what Ball means by his examples, each taking a chapter: Robinson Crusoe, Frankenstein (for the monster), Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Dracula, The War of the Worlds (for the alien invasion), Sherlock Holmes, and Batman. A final chapter speculates on the mythic potential of zombies.
Each chapter traces the history of the myth through precursors if any (a lot of them for vampires), details how the author of the core story presented the character, and then how it was transformed in later retellings, especially in movies. And there's also a lot of speculation on what makes these myths gripping. What does it mean that the ultra-rational Holmes was created by an author who fell for hoax fairy photos? Is Mr. Hyde a sexual predator? Is Dracula? Is Batman?
This is all soberly and thoughtfully, not luridly, handled, and Ball doesn't hesitate to evaluate a lot of bad movies or otherwise cast his opinions. (Batman and not Superman, for instance, because Ball thinks Superman is boring.)

Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019)
The author is an academic historian, but this is a general reader's book, not an academic treatise. It's several books in one.
First is a rather fuzzy account of 19C continental expansion, though it goes into guano islands and their contents with great gusto. It's sketchy on the effects on the Indians, and it ignores the long-standing lust for acquiring Canada and brushes off Caribbean filibusters because that would contradict the narrative that the great colony-grabbing of 1898 was an entirely new turn for the US.
At this point the book becomes a history of the Philippines and Puerto Rico as colonies - there's very little on any others; even the guano islands get dropped at this point - but this is the best part of the book, as it tells little-known stories of the US's appalling behavior as a colonial power: the brutal military suppression of the independence movement in the Philippines which our own liberation of them from Spanish rule had fostered; the racist and dehumanizing medical experiments carried out on Puerto Ricans by doctors with reputations as great humanitarians because their sojourns on the island have been brushed out of their biographies. Immerwahr is also pretty caustic on cultural depictions:
West Side Story ... was first conceived as a Romeo-and-Juliet story about a Jewish woman and a Catholic man. But the creative team, seeking relevance, swapped out the Jews for Puerto Ricans. Sondheim was nervous. "I can't do this show," he protested at first. "I've never even known a Puerto Rican." His lyrics bore that out. ...
World War 2 offers an interlude with the only serious considerations of Alaska - the building of the Alaska Highway - and Hawaii. If you've ever wondered why Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps on the mainland but not in Hawaii, the answer turns out to be that military rule there was so strict as to make the whole islands effectively internment camps.
But after the Philippines win their independence (another strange twist in US policy) and Puerto Rico becomes a commonwealth, the book changes course into soft empire, and here it takes on a strange boosterish quality, as - starting actually with WW2 - American plastics, materiel, mechanical standards (like uniform screw sizes), and the English language take over the world. Immerwahr even credits American empire with the success of the Beatles, for it was a massive nearby US air base that brought American rock & roll records to Liverpool and kicked off the locals' enthusiasm for listening to and making that kind of music. Or so he says. Books on the Beatles usually explain the cultural exchange by pointing out that Liverpool was a cosmopolitan port city. Weirdly, there's little about the harmful effects of these bases. It's blasé about Gitmo and doesn't even discuss Diego Garcia, which you'd think would be red meat for Immerwahr.
So I have my doubts about this book's viewpoint and broad-scale accuracy, but it sure has some interesting things to say.

Sherrod Brown, Desk 88: Eight Progressive Senators Who Changed America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019)
Democratic Senator from Ohio writes about predecessors who carved their names into the same desk that he uses on the Senate floor. (Apparently this is customary, though there's the occasional puritan who refuses to deface government property.) Some of them are pretty well-known, like Hugo Black, Bobby Kennedy, George McGovern. Others are obscure except to Senate buffs like me. What's curious is that Brown can't hide, and doesn't even try to hide, that two of the least-known, Herbert Lehman and Theodore Francis Green, got a lot more done as governors (of New York and Rhode Island, respectively) than they ever did after coming to the Senate, where they kind of ossified.
The lesson seems to be that yes, you can change America. But only with a heck of a lot of effort and you can't change it very much.

Monday, March 21, 2022

concert review: Winchester Orchestra

This was not an ordinary concert, not for us.

B. has decided to occupy much time in her retirement with practicing and improving her playing on the violin. Along with taking lessons and playing chamber music with friends, she's wanted to join a non-professional orchestra. She's been practicing with a wholly amateur group called the Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra, which I've mentioned here before; but what I hadn't mentioned is her quest to try herself out in an ensemble which, while still non-professional, is a serious orchestra that puts on serious concerts.

And she alighted on this group, the Winchester Orchestra, which looked like a potentially achievable challenge and which offered the further temptation that their March concert was scheduled to include Beethoven's Fifth, a worthy goal for any orchestral musician to aim for. And so for a while, the sound of the second violin parts of Beethoven's Fifth and the other works on that program filled our house during B's lengthy home practice hours.

But then the omicron wave arrived, and the music director decided to postpone that concert and substitute an all-strings program so that everybody could be masked. And so B. switched to practicing this instead. Either way, she found it a challenge: the level and above all the speed at which the conductor had the orchestra play, the challenges of getting to nighttime rehearsals at the isolated music building in the back of a hillside junior college, and the sheer amount of time and sweat that practicing entails has made this more drudgery than fun. So for her next act, B. is thinking of going down a notch in the non-pro sweeps. More on that when performance time arrives.

But she made it through to this concert, and from this listener's standpoint it was worth the effort. The orchestra has the usual wobbles of a non-pro group, but mostly I thought it shone very nicely. The conductor, Scott Seaton, has a clear beat despite not using a baton in concert (he did at rehearsal), and has definite ideas about interpretive matters like emphasis and phrasing that he's able to communicate to the players and have them respond to. The result was a work of art in the performance as well as in the composition, and that's what you want of a concert.

The orchestra had further luck in the venue, a Mennonite (of all things) church in Willow Glen, whose small but spaciously-shaped sanctuary had stunningly great acoustics that gripped the 24-member orchestra and enlarged the sound to be as rich and full as it deserved. About 60 people attended and got to hear a good 75-minute concert. Winchester is so lucky it didn't wind up in the theatrical but unmusical Hammer Theatre in downtown San Jose like some of the other local groups.

The program included, as appetizer, Mozart's unutterably catchy Divertimento in F, K. 138, which I was surprised to find, when the conductor asked, that I was one of only 2 people in the audience who knew it; for the main course, Tchaikovsky's gorgeous and wholly characteristic Serenade; and for dessert, an arrangement of Astor Piazzolla's lively little Libertango for strings plus piano and clonk (I don't know what it's called, but you hit the two halves of it together and it goes clonk). Plus, as unscheduled introduction, the national anthem of Ukraine. Because of course you do that.