Tuesday, May 31, 2022

review found in a garage

When The Silmarillion was published, the editor of my local science-fiction club's newsletter, knowing of my interest in Tolkien, asked me to write a brief (250-word) review.
This is one of my first-ever published reviews, and the first one of a book by Tolkien. There are many defects here, but being fortunately under no obligation either to critique the review or to write it again, I will pass over these in silence. (Allusion intentional.)


Professor Tolkien's long-awaited masterpiece is out at last. It is flooding bookstores (except for those cordially ignored by the publisher) and generally making itself heard of.

Tolkien's prose, while usually acknowledged to be beautiful, has never been considered particularly assimilable. And The Silmarillion is by far the densest of Tolkien's works. Consequently, some reviewers have dismissed the style, out-of-hand, as "biblical." So it may be, but not nearly so much as Dunsany. But biblical the work is in a more important sense. It is account (which may be found, in predigested form, in appendix A of The Lord of the Rings) of the creation of the world (which in substance if not style reminds me strongly of Terry Carr's "The Dance of the Changer and the Three") and the epic battles of the Elves and the Edain against the Great Enemy, Morgoth, in the First Age of Middle-earth. The mythology is not entirely in conflict with that of Judeo-Christian tradition, and has many beauties of its own.

The Silmarillion is not a novel. It is a collection of epic mythological tales. Close and detailed descriptions of events are very few. This is not a homely tale of Hobbits, but a high and distant account of noble figures of yore: the Valar and the Elves. Readers are well advised to keep this in mind, for there is much pleasure and appreciation to be gained from the power and splendor of this work.

Monday, May 30, 2022

travelling hobbily

It's just two months now until Mythcon in Albuquerque. B. and I will be taking our first flight together since - since the Atlanta Mythcon in 2018, actually. (That's an experience I don't care to repeat, since that's when I lost my carryon bag at the airport.) 2019 was in San Diego and we drove, and there hasn't been an in-person one since, and since Potlatch has ceased we don't go to anything else. I am slowly getting my travel-planning muscles working again.

Age and infirmity increases the number of things one has to remember to carry with one or arrange for, and here's one fairly new: B's handicap parking placard. Will it be good in New Mexico? I Google the question. Can't find anything on the New Mexico DMV website that addresses the question, but Google does offer this on its own authority:
Out-of-state visitors can use their handicap parking pass from their home state, since New Mexico will honor it. However, if you become a permanent resident of New Mexico, you must fill out a new application.
It also says this:
Can I use my California handicap placard out-of-state?
Travelers with a disability placard issued in California may use their parking placard in any other US state. California residents who have a permanent (non-removable) parking placard ...
Yeah, well, I don't have to worry about the rest because ours is removable.

Well, that sounds pretty authoritative - if you trust Google, that is. But wait, that's not the end of it. Google has a list of questions, one of which is "Can I use my Texas handicap placard in NM?" I'm not from Texas but I look it up. And it turns out you can't. There's a link to an article from a year ago about a NM-resident family that got a ticket when they used their visiting grandma's Texas handicap placard, because Albuquerque - where we're going - has a city ordinance prohibiting the use of out of state handicap placards.

Another article, however, points out that the ordinance is in contradiction to a state code provision permitting it, and both articles say the ordinance is likely to be repealed. I didn't see any follow-up, but I hope it is.

Saturday, May 28, 2022


11 a.m. on Friday is customarily the time I drive down to the supermarket to pick up the week's grocery order, stopping off at a Chinese takeout in the same shopping center (which opens at 11) to pick up lunch and the makings (viz. a serving of steamed rice) for home-made fried rice for dinner that evening. Meanwhile, B. is usually heading out at the same time for the gym.

But not this day. This day our cars were stuck in their parking spaces due to the large tree-trimming truck occupying too much of the narrow space of our complex's access driveway to get past. Nor had management sent a warning notice about this, as they do when the asphalt is to be re-sealed.

B. walked down and asked the trimmers how long they'd be. Language difficulties meant they had trouble understanding the question, but the answer turned out to be several hours. Fortunately for us, but not for the people at the other end of the complex, part of that time turned out to be spent on the other branch of the access driveway, so we could at last get out by car.

Even more frustrating was the moving van on the previous day. To a query about how long he'd be blocking the driveway, the driver suggested to B. that she go out the other exit. There is no other exit.

Meantime, we had another household excitement when B. bought patches online to fix the holes in the patio screen door. Putting them on the inside, with the help of a kitchen step-stool, didn't work because the glass door just tore them off. Put them on the other side of the screen door? Yes, but due to the step down to the patio, the holes are higher on that side than a step-stool can enable one to reach.

Solution, a genuine ladder. Surprise, we have one. I bought it at our old house to clean out the gutters. We don't have to do that here, as management has someone take care of that, and besides this house is two stories, too high for our ladder to be good with. But it was fine for this. Being aluminum, it hadn't decayed in the 15 years since we last used it. I brought it down and out from its storage place in the garage, set it up, and B. carefully ascended a couple of steps to apply the patch.

Friday, May 27, 2022

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Nathalie Stutzmann, who's French, is 57, so though she didn't get an early start as a conductor, she's been around for a while, not a 26-year-old prodigy. And she was recently appointed music director in Atlanta, only the second woman ever to have such a major post at a US orchestra. So why hasn't there been more hoopla over this, and why had she never been on the SFS podium until this week?

She ought to be there, because on it she did an audacious, ground-breaking, well-nigh unbelievable job on Tchaikovsky's Pathetique. I was there to hear it last night and I'm not sure I believe what I heard.

The Pathetique consists of two tragically melancholic outer movements surrounding two joyous and chipper inner movements, and the relationship between these two extremes is the challenge of the Pathetique. Some conductors play the inner movements in vigorous defiance of the outer melancholia. Some play them in oblivious denial of their surroundings.

Stutzmann did neither. Her inner movements were as darkly foreboding and ominous as the rest. If you know this symphony, you may think, "That's not possible." But it is possible, and she made the orchestra do it. The storm clouds continuously lurked over this waltz and scherzo, and sometimes even burst open.

The outer movements were, naturellement, even more so. They surged, they growled, they thundered, they rasped. Stutzmann was controlled enough not to telegraph the sudden pow! at the start of the first movement development, and the orchestral playing wasn't wild, but it was fierce. The timpani and percussion were conspicuous, but even the strings had the same spirit. Even the passage of up-and-down scales in the third movement cut like a buzzsaw.

The other half of the program, three short choral-orchestral pieces by Brahms (Nänie, Gesang der Parzen, Schicksalslied), was less successful. If Stutzmann caught the melancholy of Tchaikovsky, she found the more open melancholy of Brahms more elusive. I've heard these pieces before and they don't have to be this dull and characterless. The sound of the chorus - this week guest-directed by the director of the SF Girls Chorus; they've been subsisting on guests since the regular director was dismissed for being anti-vaxx, which is an insane thing for a choral director to be (well, anybody actually, but especially a choral director) - anyway, as I was saying, the sound of the chorus was fine, but I couldn't make out anything they were saying even with the text in front of me, except for the hiss of an occasional "s" passing through the ensemble.

James M. Keller's pre-concert talk was more than usually amusing, consisting largely of an account of the few personal meetings between Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky didn't like Brahms's music - he once called him a "giftless bastard" - so things became awkward when Tchaikovsky, in Germany on a conducting tour, went to visit the home of the violinist who'd premiered his Violin Concerto only to find a chamber music rehearsal going on, a Brahms piece with Brahms at the piano. Tchaikovsky was not the kind for insincere compliments, so the atmosphere got a little dicey when the piece was over, until - the door burst open and, ta da, Edvard and Nina Grieg walked in. As the tenor of Edvard's music might suggest, the Griegs spread joy and cheerfulness wherever they went. Everybody was happy, and Brahms and Tchaikovsky went out, got drunk over a few bottles of wine, and parted friends.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

a play of some importance

In search of other plays to read and separate out our Shakespearean ventures, our online play-reading group stumbled upon Oscar Wilde's A Woman of No Importance. This is probably the least-known of Wilde's 'drawing-room' plays, and unlike the most famous, The Importance of Being Earnest, it isn't a comedy. In fact it has a rather grim plot and a nasty ending, in which a character who's been slowly emerging from amiable disguise as a villain gets a comeuppance.

How this play is put together interested me considerably. The plot involves four characters, though this only becomes clear as the play goes on. But the bulk of it takes place at a garden party and in drawing rooms, and there are many other guests: eight of them, who talk quite a lot, clogging up the first act and then slowly disappearing as the play goes on. (There are also servants, who have very few lines.)

I found it interesting that they have particular verbal ticks, which become apparent as you read the play aloud with characters being done by different readers. Of the superfluous guests, three I thought were particularly interesting verbally. Lady Hunstanton is always forgetting what you'd think are salient features of her anecdotes. "Poor Lord Belton died three days afterwards of joy, or gout. I forget which." "There was also, I remember, a clergyman who wanted to be a lunatic, or a lunatic who wanted to be a clergyman, I forget which." If there's comedy in the play, it's mostly in lines like these from her.

Then there's Lady Stutfield, who has a habit of repeating words, usually very. "It is so very, very gratifying to hear you say that." "It is very, very helpful." Then there's the Archdeacon, who is always describing his wife's ailments - besides losing both sight and hearing, she has arthritis and dementia - in an oddly cheerful tone as if there's nothing wrong.

Each of these speaking styles is distinct to that particular character.

But the most interesting speaking style is that of one of the main characters, Lord Illingworth. I took this part and found it difficult to navigate, in the sense that I was uncertain what style and tone of voice to use for it. Lord Illingworth is capable of having a serious conversation in which he talks like a normal human being, and proves it twice during the play. But the rest of the time, whether addressing one person or the whole company, he is nothing but a slot machine that emits an unending series of Oscar Wilde quips. The most famous in his description of a fox hunt - "the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable" - but that's immediately followed by a typically paradoxical statement that "We in the House of Lords are never in touch with public opinion. That makes us a civilised body." And it just goes on, and on, and on.

It's a difficult play but a very interesting one.

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.