Thursday, September 28, 2023

Shakespeare meets Marlowe

I read about the production at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre of a play about Shakespeare and Marlowe collaborating on the Henry VI trilogy, and bought a ticket for an upcoming streaming performance, before I learned that OSF has put the same play on its schedule for next year, so I'll probably see it again. It's called Born With Teeth by Liz Duffy Adams.

It'll be worth it, if it's well enough acted. I've seen it now; it's a virtuoso script for just the two actors as the playwrights taunt and test one another and yes, get some writing done. It starts with Marlowe in command, smirking and belittling the tyro Will. At one early point Shakespeare complains about Marlowe arguing with him and Marlowe says, "You think I'm arguing? I'm not even sharpening my teeth on you yet," and Shakespeare replies, "I think you were born with teeth."

Pause. Then they simultaneously point at each other and exclaim "I'm using that!" (It's in part 3, describing Richard of Gloucester.)

Marlowe shocks and disconcerts Shakespeare with tales of his other life as a spy working for the Queen's chief minister Lord Burghley. In this police state, as it's openly called in an expository aside to the audience, the currency is accusations against others, whether true or false, and Marlowe makes no bones about, if he's ever caught in a situation where he'd have to accuse Shakespeare to save himself, then it's him or me.

The play has three scenes, each about a year apart, as they work on the three parts of Henry VI, and Shakespeare grows in confidence, especially in his explanations that, while Marlowe displays himself in all his work, Shakespeare wants to hide himself behind his work and speak only through his characters. The play hits its real stride halfway through, when the two have a long discussion of religious belief, more even-handed than their earlier exchanges, and then act out a long passage from Part 2 (Suffolk's and Margaret's farewell). As always in plays about Shakespeare, the long quotes are the highlight. If you're wondering how Marlowe's death in 1593, the same year as the third part of this play, will be alluded to, patience, it'll get there.

Due credit to the actors, Dean Linnard, big and blustery as Marlowe, and Brady Morales-Woolery, smaller, darker, and less bold, but capable of equal firmness, as Shakespeare. I hope OSF finds people as good as these.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

guying Sondheim

As long as we're talking about Sondheim, here's something I picked up: a parody medley on the premise, what if his lyrics were all Jewish? Not that the sound quality is very good, but some of them can be picked up.

The original songs are (thanks to B. for identifying some of these):
1. The Ballad of Sweeney Todd
2. The Little Things You Do Together (Company)
3. Beautiful Girls (Follies)
4. Finishing the Hat (Sunday in the Park with George)
5. The Miller's Son (A Little Night Music)
6. A Little Priest (Sweeney Todd)
7. Marry Me a Little (Company)
8. Joanna (Sweeney Todd)
9. I Remember (Evening Primrose)
10. You Could Drive a Person Crazy (Company)
11. Into the Woods

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

lyrics in aspic

Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat (Knopf, 2010); Look, I Made a Hat (Knopf, 2011)

It's only in recent years that I felt I've come to know Sondheim's work as a whole well enough to read these collections of his lyrics. In one sense I still don't: I was dismayed to find that many songs that I knew, or thought I knew, I could summon up no memory of the tune by seeing the lyrics on the page. On the other hand, these books, especially the first one, are full of fascinating and witty commentary on the art of lyric writing.

Sondheim distinguishes lyrics from poetry. Poetry, written to be perused on the page at the reader's own speed (but what about live poetry readings?), is free to be dense and complex, but lyrics have to be understood while sung, so they have to be simpler, but as they're written to be accompanied by music, the music can carry much of the emotional charge, so the lyrics can get away with being simpler, which is how Oscar Hammerstein (Sondheim's mentor, whom he nevertheless isn't very much like) could do it.

Still, complexity is part of Sondheim's appeal (what about "Getting Married Today," which is rattled off at top speed?), and I enjoy inner and trick rhymes like "It's alarming how charming I feel," which Sondheim castigates his young self for putting in the mouth of Maria in West Side Story, who isn't otherwise so verbally precocious. I like it, though.

Elaborateness is one thing, but Sondheim has an essay fiercely defending exact rhyme, which he feels is essential for the ultimate purpose of lyrics: clarity. He castigates a contemporary lyricist who avoids exact rhyme because it interferes with his idea of feelings. Sondheim doesn't name this person, and otherwise avoids critiquing the living. The first book is full of little essays evaluating past lyricists, though, because being dead their feelings can't be hurt; and Sondheim lets loose on a lot of them whom he considers imperfect, which is most of them. His funniest remark on those lines is on Lorenz Hart, whom he finds sloppy and careless. Like "Your looks are laughable / Unphotographable." "Unless the object of the singer's affection is a vampire," Sondheim says, "surely what Hart means is 'unphotogenic,'" but there aren't many good rhymes for that.

(In that connection, this is the only book I've read in which the author can write 'Gershwin' and the reader knows it means Ira, not George.)

But Sondheim could write about George, because he's musically trained - he was a student of Milton Babbitt, which may sound surprising, but Babbitt was fond of popular song - and usually writes his own music, in a very distinctive style. (He chafed at being hired to write lyrics only for West Side Story and Gypsy, but Hammerstein persuaded him to do it, because they'd be great learning opportunities). But he avoids discussing the music, because while lyrics are just words and the technical side can be explained to any English-speaking reader, analytical writing about music can only be understood by the technically trained. Hey, I've had some technical training, I bet I could understand it; I wish he'd gone into it. If only he'd seen Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music, which is so full of technical analysis that even I skimmed over parts, but which has been read with appreciation by many with even less technical background than I.

Sondheim explains why he doesn't write the "book" (plot and spoken dialogue) of his musicals. He says that as a lyricist he's a miniaturist: writing the book requires a larger-scale feeling for development and pacing that he doesn't think he has. He's in awe of those who can do it well. He doesn't see himself as creating the characters he writes lyrics for; he's enriching and filling out the characters the book-writer creates, and he tries to do it in a manner befitting that particular writer's style. I knew that, and that's why when I cited Into the Woods in my Mythcon GoH speech as an example of mashing up fairy tales, I credited it to Sondheim and James Lapine. It was their idea, not just his. When Sondheim tells the story of its creation, he writes "James came up with the notion" and "we remembered something he'd concocted," not "I."

Buried in the back of the first volume, Sondheim explains why he titled it Finishing the Hat. That song from Sunday in the Park with George is "the only song I've written which is an immediate expression of a personal internal experience"; everything else, he's writing for the characters, not about himself. And when he gets to Sunday in the second volume, he tells what that personal internal experience is: it's the rare occasions on which he's gotten so wrapped up in his work that hours pass without his having noticed them, what he calls "trancing out." He wishes that could happen more often because it's amazing when it does. And I thought, hey, he's discovered monotropism. It happens to me all the time, mostly when I'm doing library research. Sondheim thinks it happens to everybody at least occasionally; I'm not so sure about that.

The book starts with what he considers his first mature work, Saturday Night, and goes on to his better-known stage shows from there. Only at the end of the second volume are there sections of apprentice work (which he cheerfully rips apart critically), unproduced and incomplete shows, TV musicals, incidental contributions to other people's shows, movie songs, and an amazing number of personal birthday songs for friends.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

food according to cats

It was approaching 5 p.m., a time of day when the cats are normally fed.

B. was already out, having gone to Saturday vigil mass, and would be back around 6:30.

I was about to head out to a concert.

Whether the cats would be fed or have to wait until B's return would be, we decided, a matter of circumstances.

But Maia came into the bedroom as I was getting ready to leave and gave out such importuning meows that I could not be so heartless as not to feed her. Cats know how to manipulate their humans. They rather resembled the meows that the late Pandora would use to try to persuade us not to take her to the vet, only in that case they didn't work.

But I didn't give the cats the treats that customarily follow the evening meal, and didn't they let B. know about that when she got home.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

autumnal equinox

It's that day which counts as the legal end of summer.

I know it's been much worse in other places, and ghu forbid I should be taken as denying global warming, but around here, this summer was not as hot as the last three summers.

For a couple of years now, I've been tracking local weather forecasts in a spreadsheet, mostly to keep tabs on impending heat waves. So I have documentation. This is daily forecasts, not weather reports (which I've been tracking much less long), but it gives an idea. If I define a heat wave as "above 90 F" which is about when I start feeling really uncomfortable, there were 21 days this year which passed that, and only one above 100 F, and they were all in July and August.

Last year there were 30, and they ran from early June to late September, with 4 above 100 F, and one brutal shot with 9 above-90s in a row.

The year before that, there were not so many above 100, but 40 above 90, and they ran from late May to early October.

The year before that I don't have figures for, but that was the year I went out one evening and got myself an air-conditioned hotel room for the night. On September 7. It was over 100 F. September 7 this year was 84 F, it hadn't been over 90 for over a week, and that only for one day.

I haven't felt it necessary to do that again since. Especially with B. having developed the practice of turning fans on in the upstairs rooms in the late afternoon when the temperature starts to go down, and not waiting for evening. It makes the nights fairly tolerable.

Meanwhile there have been large forest fires in the more isolated parts of the northwest corner of the state, generating smoke which has interfered with the outdoor shows at OSF, and is now drifting down here. But the first big storm of the season is arriving, and while it shouldn't hit us very much, it should drench the fire zone.

Friday, September 22, 2023

gone with the fish

I should take a time to pen an obituary for The Fish Market, a small restaurant chain whose last local outlet closed last week, cast out by the wave of expanding housing development.

The Fish Market had faded a bit in recent years, but it never lost its quality as some fading restaurants do, and in its heyday, 30-40 years ago, it was a very popular place, one of the few full-service restaurants around here which specialized in fish and had a wide variety. It had four or five outlets in the area in those days.

It was a favorite place of my mother's, and when I was working at Stanford, she'd pick me up for lunch once a week and we'd drive over to a nearby Fish Market. I'd usually have a lunch special they had in those days, two small fillets of cod (I think) and snapper, which I got with rice and green beans, and a cup of chowder. Otherwise the trout, which was butterflied and whose skin was an iffy proposition to eat.

I was in that same outlet of the Fish Market several years later, with my mother and brother, when Obama's image appeared on the little tv set over the lobby area and announced that Osama had been got.

Since my mother died, I hadn't been back all that often, but I went there with my brother, who liked it too, on his most recent visit, and a good thing too, as it was soon after that the closing was announced for a couple months hence. Of course I let him know right away.

I couldn't get there for some time, because this was when my car was in the shop for extensive repairs, but afterwards I did get back a couple times for my current favorite dish, extraordinarily lightly coated pan-fried petrale sole.

Well, there are still two Fish Markets in San Diego - one downtown on the waterfront and one north of town in Solana Beach - and if I ever get back to San Diego, it'll have to be on my list.

My mind keeps nagging me that there's somebody I need to tell about the closing. When I think it through, I realize that that somebody is my mother.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

not done

Our new patio fences are up, but there's still a lot of rubbish around and they're starting on our neighbors' fences, so the staging area occupying my parking space is liable to be there for a while. And one more thing ...

Yesterday morning, the chief workman came to our door and asked us to move B's car, which we'd put back in the driveway after they were done putting up the fence. He said they'd be painting the fence. We moved the car. The fence wasn't painted yesterday, or today either.

This is going to take a long time.

Monday, September 18, 2023


No. 8 in this post (there don't appear to be any internal anchors to link to) discusses others whom people commenting are reminded of by Elon Musk: their personalities, particular talents, methods of operating.

Walt Disney. Napoleon. Stalin.


Sunday, September 17, 2023

concert review: Nova Vista Symphony

The last symphony I'd heard in concert was at the beginning of June. It was Schubert's Great C Major.

Last night the summer hiatus finally ended, and I heard Schumann's Rhenish.

The Nova Vista is a community orchestra that conveniently played in the Mountain View CPA, and gave a pretty adequate performance, very plain interpretatively but competently played, thick and bold in sound despite a somewhat undersized ensemble, only losing the thread a little in the slow movement (the first one, nitpickers). I'm not surprised at the quality, as their music director, Anthony Quartuccio, who shows up locally a lot, is a pretty good conductor. Not a criticism: this isn't the major leagues, that's all.

Also got through two other works from the same milieu, Brahms's Academic Festival Overture and Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1, and gave an impressively supple performance of the encore, Brahms's Hungarian Dance No. 5. And if you think all this echt-German repertoire had a lot to do with why I chose to attend, you wouldn't be mistaken.

Solo violin in the Bruch was the winner of their young soloist competition, Riona Zhu, who's 14. As tall as an adult but otherwise obviously young, she put a lot of power and not a minuscule amount of expressiveness into her playing, only getting a bit awkward in some of the more complex fingerings in the finale. Quite impressive, in truth, and I'm sorry there wasn't a bigger audience to give her a bigger round of applause afterwards. The only thing she really has not learned to do is to take a bow with flair.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Thursday, September 14, 2023

day out

I avoided all the drilling and pounding going on in our front patio by taking a day out. My destination was an evening concert at the Freight by an Irish traditional band called Socks in the Frying Pan. Trio of accordion, fiddle, and guitar. Mostly jigs and reels played with the requisite speed and energy, interspersed with occasional guitar-led songs, not all of them slow. Small but appreciative audience. Enjoyable withal. Between numbers, they regaled us with travel horror stories from their current tour.

And as long as I was headed as far off as Berkeley, I made a full day of it by going out to Marin to plug a few loose ends from my previous visit.
I drove on the country road past Skywalker Ranch again with a better map, and this time was able to spot the entrance, which is a large gate with no markings or ID except the street number in large and conspicuous print.
I went back to Bolinas and had lunch in the cafe which I'd missed the previous time as it had already closed for the afternoon. Good soup and salad, and above the bar is hung, like a trophy head, the directional sign to town that the natives liberated from the now-unmarked highway turnoff years ago. They don't want anyone coming to Bolinas who doesn't already know how to get there.
And then I drove the high mountain back road to Fairfax that Tom B. had recommended to me. Twisty through alternating meadows and forests, very beautiful countryside, much like the back roads in the Santa Cruz Mountains that I'm more familiar with. Except the views were more spectacular, and there's a place where the road crosses a reservoir on top of the century-old dam, which is something else you don't get in Santa Cruz.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

do fence me in

update from

Having hauled away the old fence around our patio, dug (dugged?) new postholes, and cemented in the posts, the workers are now putting the slats of the new fence up. At least it has blocked the cats' unprecedented view out the window into the exotic lands of our neighbors' yards across the access road.

Finish this week? Let's bloody well hope so. We want our parking spaces (which they need to stage work in) back.

Monday, September 11, 2023

book discussion report

Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo (

Eight of us gathered in a small apartment to discuss our fantasy literature topic of the quarter. We'd all read the book, which is kind of rare, and we all liked it! Which is rarer. Well, one of us whose usual reading is epic trilogies and the like felt about a 98-page novella rather as if she hadn't had a full meal, but that was a quibble.

The deeply Asian (I guess Chinese?) setting seemed a bit alien to some of us westerners. Lines like the one about the moon having gone off to visit its other wife allude to folk tales we know nothing of. I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to remember which of a group of characters with equally strange (to me) names was which. But in the end that wasn't much of a problem, mostly due to the author's superb characterization. There's six traveling together and they're all memorable and distinct, and they each remain themselves despite changes in circumstances.

This is a story about storytelling. The characters tell stories to each other and the principal viewpoint character, Chih, a cleric - really a scholar, who I guess became a cleric because that was how you can pursue scholarship in this culture - who's on a quest to collect stories and history, laps them up and writes them down. One of us said it's a little like the Canterbury Tales. (Only much more succinct.) There are even more stories being alluded to, like the one about the moon, than are told, so there's always more outside your grasp, a sure way to lure the reader on. Chih, who knows little about the local customs and listens much, is our guide to the world.

I thought the characterization was most excellent in the scene where they find the dead body in the shed. This had impact to the reader mostly because of the way the characters react, and the full descriptions of how they feel about taking the body down and burying it. Then they all look at Chih. Oh yeah, I'm a cleric, I should say prayers over the grave, even though obviously pastoral work is not Chih's normal job.

There's more I could say but won't, because it didn't come up at the meeting. There's two more of these, also involving Chih but not, I gather, most of the other characters, and they look worth reading too.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

aged sportsman

Have you ever played bocce ball? I'd never even heard of it when B.'s sister announced that that's what she wanted to do for her birthday. We were all to gather at a local Italian restaurant-cum-bocce ball court, play for a couple hours and then have dinner.

I had to look it up and watch a couple instructional videos before I was sure that it was something that both B. and I, neither of whom can move about with any degree of alacrity any more, could physically do. Most of the instructions bogged down in details of the scoring and turn-taking rules, but I figured others could worry about that and tell us whose turn it was.

The playing itself was very simple, and I described it to B. as like the accuracy round of Golfimbul as we play it at Mythcon, except instead of hitting a doll's head with a bat at a stuffed bunny, with your hand you set a ball rolling along the ground at another ball.

The target is a small metal ball whose name I picked up as Il postino or some Italian movie title like that,1 except it was easier to think of it as the Golden Snitch. The balls you roll at it are bigger and heavy and made of ceramic I think, about the size of croquet balls, not that I have any memories of croquet less than half a century old.

Whoever comes closest to the Snitch wins, and an annoying number of our games (we played in teams of two) began with one of the opposing players rolling a single lucky ball that nestled up right by the Snitch, and the rest of the game consisted of an exercise in finding out how many other balls they would win by.

The game is played on a long court, maybe 10-15 yards in length, and while it's not slippery to walk on, it's almost frictionless as far as the balls are concerned, and most of my early rolls went right up against the backboard. I never quite got to the point of transferring to this hand movement my halfway-decent abilities at cue-striking on the much smaller field of billiards, because it turns out that the best action in bocce ball comes when you hit one of the balls that's already there and knock it out of the way.

The billiards master among our party turned out to be my niece Beth2, who was ruthless and skilled at hitting just about anything.

Meantime, as we were gently exercising on our reserved courts, the proprietors, who remember are also an Italian restaurant, were plying our party of 14 with enormous quantities of appetizers: fried calamari, crab cakes, bread, and cheese pizza, set out on the adjacent counter. The drinks menu included a lot of items like lemonade or ginger beer mixed with vodka, so they taste like the other thing but are firmly alcoholic.

When our time was up, we moved to an adjacent picnic table inside this cavernous space and dined on the contents of large serving platters passed around: pasta with meat marinara sauce, pasta with alfredo sauce, chicken milanese, and beef marsala. Basic Italian food, but quite good, and, most importantly, efficiently served. They got 5 stars on my Yelp review for that.

An interesting and unusual way for us to spend a birthday party.

1. It's actually il pallino, which I only mention to prevent people from telling me that. I could look it up, you know, and I did. It's just funnier to record how I got it wrong.
2. Beth is related to me exactly in the same way as Elizabeth Longford was related to Lord Dunsany. I'm her husband's mother's sister's husband, got it?

Saturday, September 9, 2023

I warned you this would happen

When the Peter Jackson-directed movies of The Lord of the Rings were about to appear, I warned you. I said that unless they were total commercial failures, they would bury the book. Media colonization of literature - it's a common thing.

Defenders of movie adaptations say, "The book is still on the shelf." That's about the most useless answer that could possibly be made. It doesn't matter where the book is, if the movie is in the head. The book is doing no good on the shelf unless somebody takes it down and reads it, and they won't read it if they think they already know what's in it because they've seen the movie. How shocked are people on first encountering Shelley's Frankenstein at how unlike the 1931 movie it is? How often do people get basic facts about the books The Wizard of Oz - The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, actually - or even The Princess Bride wrong because they got them from the movie? It's happened with Tolkien too. The frequency with which I read Sauron described as an impotent, helpless eyeball - he's supposed to be a powerful, threatening menace! The story doesn't work if he isn't!

It wouldn't be so bad if we could wall the movies and other media adaptations off. They do their thing over there, the book does its thing over here, all is peaceful. One can shuttle between them if one wants, and not if one doesn't. The movie defenders imply that. If one complains about differences, they say "movies are different from books." Fine, then, let them be different.

But that doesn't happen. The media keeps colonizing. You can't avoid the colonization. At Oxonmoot last week talk of The Rings of Power was frequent - a series that, whatever its virtues, is completely unlike Tolkien in tone, in style, in content, in fact in everything except a few character names. Surely that's not enough to fool Tolkienists into accepting it as an allied work. But apparently it is.

The proof came in the foreword to a new book, Tolkien in the Twenty-First Century: The Meaning of Middle-Earth Today by Nick Groom. My friend CFH, one of the few really sensitive to this issue, alerted me to this. Groom writes,
In contrast, Twenty-First-Century Tolkien takes as its starting point the Tolkien phenomenon today: a multi-media mix and fix of literature, art, music, radio, cinema, gaming, fandom, and popular culture - a never-ending Middle-Earth. We cannot return to a purely literary Middle-Earth independent of, primarily, Sir Peter Jackson's extraordinary films. We should therefore accept that any assessment of newly published works drawn from the Tolkien archives - as well as new adaptations of his tales and imagined histories - are inevitably going to be deeply coloured by the multifaceted twenty-first-century Tolkien 'industry', for want of a better term.
So there it is: as far as Groom is concerned, you can't just read the book any more. You can't take it down from the shelf and ignore the movie: the movie you will always have with you. It's even appropriated the name of Tolkien, though Tolkien had nothing to do with any of this: he just wrote the book.

"In contrast," Groom begins: in contrast to what? To books dealing with "arcana" for the "cognoscenti," "bogged down in the minutiae," or whose "extreme erudition stifles the appreciation of the works" with their "twists and turns of invented languages."

Well, look. This is a caricature. Yes, there are books that deal with the "arcana" of the invented world, though some of them, like Robert Foster's Complete Guide to Middle-earth, are easy to use and to understand and are designed for the beginner. And many of the most devout fans of movie and media adaptations are very eager to delve into that arcana and minutiae. You won't pick up half those character-name references in Rings of Power if you don't. (Harfoots, for instance.)

As for the erudite scholarship, yes it can be boring if done poorly, but I'm impressed by how much of it is done very well. When done well enough, it bristles with mind-exploding insights. Skip the first chapter, maybe, of Tom Shippey's The Road to Middle-earth, but you can't read the rest without learning so much about Tolkien's work and what he intended to convey by writing it. In one of the few things Groom writes that I agree with, he says that if The Lord of the Rings were the simplistic story of good and evil it's sometimes charged as, we wouldn't still be reading it now, 50 years after the author's death.

And what made it last? It was the deep thought and erudition that Tolkien put in to the story, things which a fluent and captivating scholar like Shippey - or many others - can bring out for you. You don't have to be a scholar yourself to understand the basics here, and it will help your appreciation a lot.

As for what Groom wants from other books, ones which avoid details and erudition and encourage "the appreciation of the works as literature," there are those too. That's what I tried to do in my article "J.R.R. Tolkien: An Introduction to His Work" in my book Gifted Amateurs. Shippey's other Tolkien book, J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century, goes into how and why Tolkien is appreciated. And Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon by Brian Rosebury is the best of several books which show how Tolkien is a masterful writer and fun to read. No arcana, no cognoscenti. He even, as his subtitle suggests, goes into adaptations and the wider "phenomenon," insofar as it existed 20 years ago when he wrote. Yes, Jackson is discussed. It's like an earlier version of Groom, but much better. (Judging from Groom's aggressively obnoxious foreword, and his first chapter, which is a foggily cluttered potted biography of Tolkien: that's as far as I've gotten so far.)

Thursday, September 7, 2023

construction update

Lots of jackhammering and other loud noises from outside as the workers dug new holes around the patio for the fenceposts. Concerned looks from the cats.

At one point they struck against the water pipe, so our water ran brown for a while. Fun!

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

give me destruction

Our dining nook has a glass outside wall, with sliding glass door in it, that faces a concrete patio in front of our house. The patio has a wooden slat fence around the other three sides, with a gate in one corner, and a stucco facing on the outside of the far wall.

We don't use the patio much, although once we had friends over for B's birthday and did some of the festivities out there. Mostly it's a home for our trash bins.

The fence has been a problem. The gate sags and has already been replaced once. More recently the slats from the fence have started coming loose and falling off. I was thinking about hiring somebody to replace them - it'd be beyond my skill - but now I don't have to.

The association for the townhouse complex we live in has decided to replace all the fences. Work started today. We're at one end of the complex and they started with us. All this morning, men were knocking down the fence, sawing up the stucco with a battery diamond saw, and hauling it all away. Not only did they appropriate the patio, which they'd warned us of, they also took over our parking spaces and driveway, which they had not warned us of. B. was out and I had to phone to alert her.

They seem to have gotten most of that done, and have started on our neighbors, but there's still a lot of trash around. I suspect they'll gut all of the fences before they start building new ones. Meanwhile our cars are parked way out on the street. It'll be no fun bringing groceries in.

Also, our house number was on metal digits attached to the stucco. They saved that part - I saw them do it - but it's no longer up. I know that the post office disapproves of delivering to homes without visible numbers, so I printed out our number very large - 256-point seemed to do - and taped it with packaging tape to the garage door just over the mail slot. I hope that will do for now.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

it must be delivery day

Because, assuming everything's going OK, that's what comes after labor, right? Three items today of increasing seriousness.

Item 1. Of all the things I never expected to see a live stage performance of, this is up near the top.

Item 2. By far the most valuable paper I heard by Zoom at Oxonmoot, but which got left out of my previous list because it was one of several entries that had disappeared from the "earlier events" online schedule by the time I wrote, was a brilliant piece by the Rev. Tom Emanuel on how the works of Tolkien, an author rooted in Christian ethics and metaphysics, can make such a strong emotional and even ethical and moral appeal to non-Christian readers. Basically it's that he points at his spirituality but doesn't evangelize. But there's more to it than that. Anyway the really good news is that now you can read Tom's complete paper.

Item 3. A newly-prominent civil rights issue: caste discrimination among Indian Americans. That's my state senator who introduced the bill; this is going on right here in Silicon Valley, but as I'm not of Indian origin it's invisible to me except as I read about it. Lots of opposition to the bill: either because it singles out an ethnic group (but what other ethnic groups have this?) or denial that the discrimination exists. But there's lots of testimony that it does, and the denial is coming from the high-caste beneficiaries of any discrimination. Allow me to be skeptical of the denials. Do I remember Southern whites denying that there was any discrimination against Blacks? Yes I do.

Monday, September 4, 2023

the president sings Amazing Grace

Cody Keenan, Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America (Mariner Books, 2022)

We all know about how President Obama, speaking in 2015 at the memorial service for the victims of the Charleston shooting, wowed the congregation by seguing from talking about grace into actually singing the hymn "Amazing Grace." And Zoe Mulford wrote a song about it, "The President Sang Amazing Grace." I wrote about the song and linked to Joan Baez's recording.

So I'm browsing in the public library and find this memoir by Obama's chief speechwriter at the time, and think, "I bet he has some interesting background information on that." He does. First is that the speech preparation is embedded in a week of utter chaos, as the president and his staff also wait for the Supremes to issue rulings on the ACA and marriage equality, and the speechwriters have to prepare speeches in advance for every possible way those could go. Then there's the challenge of a white guy writing a sermon, basically, for a Black president to deliver in a Black church (actually in the basketball arena down the street, because it was larger), which he handles by intense collaboration with the president and by a lot of consultation.

So they've just finished reacting to the Obergefell decision, Obama reads the good-news speech and calls Obergefell to congratulate him, and then rushes off to fly to Charleston. Keenan, as keeper of the speech and manager of any changes to be made to the text, is at the president's side for the flight, and as they get into Air Force One, this happens:
He stood up, ducking under the ceiling as he buttoned his coat. "You know, if it feels right, I might sing it."
Halfway through stuffing the pages into my backpack, I froze and looked up at him. I was pretty sure I'd just heard him say he might sing "Amazing Grace" during the eulogy. ... But I wasn't about to tell him that singing was a risk. I knew he thought of himself as a good singer.
He was looking at me, waiting to see what I thought ... Bone-tired, all I could come up with was a phrase he'd recently told me Sasha was fond of.
"You do you, man."
When they arrive at Charleston, the Obamas go to the arena while Keenan, the pressure off because it's out of his hands now, relaxes on the plane. He sends an e-mail to his staff back at the White House.
"P said he might sing 'Amazing Grace' in the eulogy."
"Um, what?" Terry replied.
"OMG," added Kristen.
"That would be the greatest thing ever," Ben wrote. "Such a good idea. People will love it."
Keenan watches the speech from the plane on TV. He gives a detailed report from a professional speechwriter's perspective: how the speech is going, the reaction of the extremely responsive Black audience, the particularly moving passages, where Obama had written the text himself and where he improvises while speaking. Then we get to it.
Now he'd outdone himself, stepping up to turn the text into a script ... A Black president, backed by Black bishops, eulogizing a Black victim to a crowd of mostly Black mourners. A Black church service on national television. How often did America see something like that? How often was something like this a quintessentially American event? ...
He'd long since grown into being president. We were watching him make the presidency bigger in real time. And there was one act left ...
"If we can find that grace ..."
"Uh huh ..."
"... anything is possible."
"My my."
"If we can tap that grace, everything can change."
Fewer than a dozen people in the world knew what was about to happen.
"Amazing grace."
He paused, then repeated the words for good measure.
"Amazing grace."
Obama looked into the distance, looked down at the text, and shook his head in awe.
Eleven seconds went by. It was a moment of genuine drama. Was he making up his mind? Was he going to take the leap of faith?
I wondered what people who were watching must be thinking: Had he lost his place?
Then he began to sing.
After the first two syllables, "Ah-maaaay," one of the bishops laughed in astonishment. But it was too early for most of the world to know what Obama was dong.
Obama leaned into the next two syllables - "ZIIII-iii-iiiing graaaaaaace" - to make damn sure they knew.
The choir leaped to its feet ... By the time Obama hit "how sweet the sound," the whole arena was singing with him. ... Obama's bet, that he wouldn't be left alone, had paid off.
On the flight home, he explains something:
"What was with the pause? [asks Keenan] Dramatic effect?"
"No, man. You know what the thing about 'Amazing Grace' is? ... You gotta start low. Or by the time you get to 'a wretch like me,' you're in trouble. Your voice cracks."
Later, Keenan marries his co-worker Kristen. A week after Joe Biden is elected, they have a daughter. They name her Grace.

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Tolkien's yahrzeit

Saturday is, as one of the Oxonmoot speakers pointed out, the 50th anniversary of Tolkien's death. To think I first read his work when he was still living ...

I heard several papers online today. I haven't got everything, though, as the program they're running the schedule on causes most past events to disappear from the list even after you press the "show earlier events" button. But all of these were very fine.

1. The noble Jeremy Edmonds traces the history of the assumption that "the Authorities" who mysteriously rule on the legitimacy of Bilbo's "What have I got in my pocket?" riddle (in the Prologue to LR) are the Valar, and concludes that yes, that was Tolkien's intent, regardless of scholars who can't believe the Valar would spend their time on something so trivial. Regarding the One Ring? Maybe not so trivial after all. Remember also that the riddle game is a mighty matter of lore in Norse mythology ... and often includes, as a legitimate riddle, a question to which only the questioner knows the answer.

2. Christian Trenk on Galadriel and Celeborn as a power couple. He's not a cipher as sometimes thought: he's the home affairs guy, welcoming the visitors and seeing to their comfort. Galadriel is the Foreign Secretary. Of course, when Celeborn says that if he'd known about the Balrog he wouldn't have let them in, that doesn't speak well of his immigration and refugee policy.
This paper was apparently inspired by the "They're taking the hobbits to Isengard" video (the only form of the Jackson movies I actually enjoyed), which contains Celeborn saying, "Tell me where is Gandalf, for I much desire to speak with him." In the book it's Galadriel who says that, and she says "tell us." Christian thought there was a paper in that, especially when he brought Tolkien's drafts in.

3. The redoubtable John Rateliff on writing to Inklings (Owen Barfield, Robert Havard, David Cecil, Nevill Coghill, some others). He undertook this in the late 1970s and early 1980s, figuring they'd not be around forever and the worst they could do was brush him off. Actually they were very friendly and he met some on trips to England. He showed some letters on screen and read from them and others. The main thing he learned is something I've been trying to put across for some time: that the Inklings were an amorphous, loosely-knit group, not a tight club. Many didn't know each other or their work very well; some didn't consider themselves Inklings at all. (They weren't the only ones.) I took notes.

4. Cameron Bourquein, very illuminating on a character history of Sauron across the history of the legendarium. Most people there knew he started out as an evil monster cat in The Book of Lost Tales, but there were also a wizard and a demon in that book that went into the oft-mutating and many-named character. (Wizards and demons and cats? Oh my!)

5. Hannah Emilius on anthropocene environmental issues in Middle-earth. Yeah, I should say so. Sorry I missed most of this paper as my internet connection kept fritzing out.

Friday, September 1, 2023

queer theory and Tolkien

Last night began the online Oxonmoot conference from the Tolkien Society, which since it's there and I'm here meant much of the most interesting material was on in the middle of the night. Fortunately I'm often up in the middle of the night. There's been a lot of work recently applying "queer theory" - the deconstruction of standard gender and sexual identities - to Tolkien, and in the middle of last night I found two outstandingly excellent papers exemplifying the genre.

One was by Mercury Natis on Bilbo and Frodo as leaders of a "chosen family." LGBT people are often ostracized by their biological families and build up social support networks that become their families of choice. Bilbo is unmarried and without close relatives, he's estranged from his closest, his cousins the Sackville-Bagginses, he's considered odd and crazed by many of the neighbors (the word "queer" is actually used in this context), so he makes his friends among his younger cousins when they begin to grow up, even adopting one of them, Frodo, as his heir. Frodo was another isolate, an orphan, a Baggins in Buckland, a Brandybuck in Hobbiton. He needed the family Bilbo could provide, and in turn follows Bilbo's pattern, making his friends, like Merry and Pippin, among his younger cousins. When Merry says they'll follow Frodo on his quest because they are his friends, he's understating the case: they're taking on a really awesome responsibility because they're his family.
Did Tolkien intend this reading? Maybe to an extent: he too was an orphan and needed in part to build up his own family, so he understood. But whether he intended it or not, this is a reason so many queer readers love his book and identify with the hobbits so closely.

The other was Sara Brown on Eowyn and Dernhelm. Brown's main point, her queer-theory reading, was that Dernhelm was not a disguise, a false front that Eowyn puts on in order to fight, but is the masculine part of her. Brown described the repressed background that put Eowyn in this situation - Gandalf's lecture to the clueless Eomer in the Houses of Healing is a major source text here - and Tolkien reinforces this by always using the masculine pronoun to describe Dernhelm, and at the moment of revelation penning the definitive sentence, "Eowyn it was, and Dernhelm also." They're both real people within the story, and yet both the same person.
Brown goes as far back as Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex to draw a distinction between physical bodies and sexual identity. You're born with a female body but you have to become a woman. And she had several more theoreticians making the same point. And I was thinking, "Here's the exact argument that's being made by supporters of trans rights, decades before the current discourse arose, the argument that the 'X and Y are the whole story, the end' crowd refuse to accept." I've not seen these earlier writers cited in defense of trans rights, though I suppose they must have been. Anyway I'd like to see it more often.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

to Marin

I didn't tell you what I did after leaving the Gravenstein Apple Fair a couple weeks ago, did I?

It was 2 pm, I wanted to rest up before heading home, and a perfect place to take a break would be a public library. Chairs. Air conditioning. Books.

I'm not GPS equipped, and I didn't have maps with me, but most cities have little directional signs on the streets directing you to the library. (As also the nearest hospital, etc.) But it took me four towns before I could find the library that way. The first two I saw no signs. In the third, there was a sign on the main street pointing straight ahead, and I drove slowly down a mile and a half to the end of the street, then turned around and came back. No sign of the library.

When I got home I checked a map, and discovered that to get to the library, I should have turned right at an intersection soon after the straight-ahead sign. But there was no turn-right to the library sign.

I visited the city's website to find out who to complain to, and found an online form to fill out trouble tickets. I filled it out. A few days later a city worker phoned me! But all he wanted to do was argue with me about exactly where the straight-ahead sign was located.

I said I'd go back and check again, but I couldn't do that for a couple of weeks. (By then my car was in the shop having the dents pounded out.)

Tuesday was my day to go back. But I wasn't going to drive all that way just to check a sign. So I made a day of it. I had lunch at a highly-regarded bbq joint I'd seen a review of. It was tucked in to an exceedingly yuppie mall. The meat was extremely good, the sauce less so. (The trend now is to have two sauces, mild and spicy. The spicy = mild + nasty.) I drove past Skywalker Ranch, or where it's supposed to be: I didn't see anything. I drove out to Bolinas, a wildly funky town on the coast where I'd never been before, and came back over Mount Tam. On the way out there, in the ranch country, I stopped at the farm store for a cheese factory. They make only French cheeses, brie and camembert, which are not my style, so I didn't get any cheese. There were other things to gobble in the store, though, including soft-serve chocolate ice cream from Straus Creamery, a nearby mfr whose pints are a feature of some of my regular grocers, and their chocolate is their highlight. Oh, that was good.

And I went to the missing library, and talked to the clerks on duty, and picked up a mail-in comment form addressed to the director, and I may fill it out in case the city guy doesn't return my call.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

corroborative detail

One odd side-effect of spending time in the company of The Mikado is that one begins to notice the holes and other odd points in the plot. For this, I'll revert to the standard text, as you won't have access to the Ducato version.

Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah, and Pish-Tush seem more flustered by the letter from the Mikado than they ought to be. Yes, his threat to reduce Titipu to the rank of a village is surprising and dismaying, but the reason for it - that there have been no executions for a year - is, it ought to be mentioned, something they deliberately engineered. Go back to Pish-Tush's song, "Our great Mikado, virtuous man." Executions for flirting seemed excessive to the Titipu town fathers, so, the last verse explains, they short-circuited the process by appointing Ko-Ko as Lord High Executioner, because he was "next to be decapited." No other executions can take place until after his, and he can't execute himself, so the whole chain is held up.

But now they're talking about whether he could execute himself, which if he could would have eliminated the reason for appointing him.

Also, we've apparently forgotten that finding a victim shouldn't be a problem. Ko-Ko's got a little list! He's got a little list! Why don't they turn to that? Well, it appears elsewhere that "flirting is the only crime punishable with decapitation" (Ko-Ko to Nanki-Poo, Act 2, just before "Here's a how-de-do"), so the entire little list is meaningless. But this isn't said; the list is just dropped as if it didn't exist.

It's essential to the plot that Nanki-Poo wants to die, he doesn't mind being executed. In a farcical comedy, this brushes aside the depth of the despair he must be in. We had last seen him exiting sorrowfully after the sad duet with Yum-Yum "Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted" and when he comes back he's about to commit suicide. He must want Yum-Yum desperately.

This brings up the question, how much does Ko-Ko want Yum-Yum? He objects to Nanki-Poo marrying her for a month, and had already said "To think how entirely my future happiness is wrapped up in that little parcel!" But he also says, "Really, it hardly seems worth while." And when the Mikado is about to arrive, Ko-Ko gives Yum-Yum up to Nanki-Poo without any hesitation at all.

Speaking of despair, note that Katisha has not one but two soliloquies about her sadness and loneliness ("The hour of gladness" and "Alone, and yet alive / Hearts do not break"). Gilbert is often accused of mocking her, but he does also give her a say and reveals that she has feelings too. What the production I just saw showed is that if you have a really really good singer in the role, she can pull these often-ignored laments off effectively.

Going back a step to the revelation that, when a married man is beheaded, his wife is buried alive. Yum-Yum raises her opposition to this in a most hesitant manner, as if she fears she has no right to object, but Nanki-Poo is in entire agreement with her. Ko-Ko, however, seems to think she's some sort of hypocrite for objecting to being buried alive. Why? That wasn't in the contract she'd agreed to, or Nanki-Poo either. The song "Here's a how-de-do" is about the dilemma the two are in - "I must die without a wedding" - but Nanki-Poo had agreed to be executed on condition that he marry Yum-Yum first; this new and unacceptable condition voids the contract. That would leave Ko-Ko without a victim, so it ought to be he, not the others, who's in a dilemma (as he amusingly is at "The flowers that bloom in the spring").

The most exquisite moment of comedy comes when Ko-Ko, Pitti-Sing, and Pooh-Bah are told that the man they've executed is the heir to the throne. It's all the funnier because they haven't actually executed him but they can't say so. The Mikado insists that he's "not a bit angry" about it; he should be played so that this is true, and he usually is. It's already been established that he's completely without familial affection, having already ordered Nanki-Poo to marry Katisha "or perish ignominiously on the scaffold," and Nanki-Poo, telling Yum-Yum this, compares his father to Lucius Junius Brutus, the Roman consul who executed his own sons for rebellion. So it isn't just Katisha who's "just a little teeny weeny wee bit bloodthirsty."

Sunday, August 27, 2023

going Ducato-wards

I did it. When I saw the Lamplighters' Il Ducato on its opening weekend two weeks ago, I was so delighted that I determined to go see it again on the closing weekend, though that was further away from home.

I was not expecting how much of the freshness had been due simply to not having seen this production before, and the performers, rather than inhabiting their parts more fully as I've been told happens during theatrical runs, seemed a little tired, and even went up on their lines a couple times. To be fair, they'd already done a matinee on the same day as the evening performance I saw.

But it was also clear that they conveyed the cleverness and wit both of the original and of this production. The audience was rather small but it was tightly bunched in the auditorium and very responsive to the performance. At the meet and greet afterwards I got to tell Lawrence Ewing, the lead performer as Coco (Ko-ko), that I'd enjoyed it so much the first time I had to come back for a second.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

recasting oneself

A few years after the ending of my last professional posting as a librarian, I finally acknowledged that I wasn't a librarian any more, and changed the job title on my tax return to "writer/editor" which was my new career starting up just about the time that my library career was winding down.

I've found that somebody else in a slightly parallel situation did the same thing.

At the time that W. invaded Iraq, a US diplomat in Greece made a 40-minute wonder on the news by resigning in protest. This interested me in particular because he'd been a high-school classmate of mine: not that we were personal friends, but I had known that he'd gone into the foreign service and I'd casually wondered what he thought of the events.

Later he published a book about it, which I read. He still considered himself a diplomat, and encouraged young people to go into the foreign service, but he also wondered what was to become of him now.

I just happened to look him up again. He's still living in Greece, which he loves, but his bio page says he's "returned to scholarship" as an ancient historian/archaeologist - which is what he studied in grad school before joining the State Department - "after a twenty-year detour working as a diplomat." That's the word he uses, detour. Despite what he thought at the time, it's not what he really was, it was something that distracted him for a while.

That's awfully parallel, and in fact I spent the same 20 year period as a librarian that he spent as a diplomat. But I dunno if his conclusion applies to me. There's a part of me that will always be a librarian, that decided when I was about 13 that that was the career I wanted. But an alternative double career as an editor of Tolkien scholarship and a reviewer of classical music concerts wasn't really an option, though if it had been I might have taken it. It's what I'm doing now, though: not to earn a living, since I'm retired and the income is nominal, but it does occupy my time in much more agreeable circumstances than a lot of my library work did. So that's what I am.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023


1. I got my car back, one or two days early, which is better than late. All the bumps and scratches on the bumper are gone, even the ones the driver who backed into me had nothing to do with. They also vacuumed out the interior and left me a mint life-saver candy.

2. I did not watch the Republican debate. I am not interested in anything these people could possibly have to say.

3. A man found a group of people stealing his car's catalytic converter in the middle of the night. He confronted them. They shot him. In the leg. Then they ran away. This was a few blocks from here. He'll be OK, but watch it out there.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

a touch of life

So there's a point in the movie Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret where Margaret, who's almost 12, goes with her mother to the store to buy her first bra. She puts it on in the changing room, and this happens:

MOM: How's that feel?
MARGARET: I cannot wait to take it off.
MOM: Yeah. Welcome to womanhood.

It was at this point that the movie convinced me it was for real, because at least one woman I've known intimately enough to discuss bras with feels the same way.

Monday, August 21, 2023

looking for Richard

At last, our little play-reading group, having puttered its way through Shakespeare's history cycle in between other things, has arrived at Richard III. I've been assigning the big meaty parts in the earlier history plays to the other members so that I could save up this one for myself. I remember famous Richards I've seen on stage or screen and let their readings of individual lines leave inflections on my own. I remember Ian McKellen saying "But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks" or Kevin Spacey, you should excuse the expression, saying "What though I killed her husband and her father" or Al Pacino's bone-chilling rendition of "I'll have her, but I will not keep her long."

We had a little sprinkling of rain today. No wind. That is what it's like living on the far, far edge of a tropical storm.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

dry days

Lots of news about the tropical storm ex-hurricane that's headed towards Southern California. In a sense I'm not surprised, any more than I was about Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. I remember being quite surprised when I first learned that hurricanes in the eastern Pacific were a regular thing, because you never heard about them, as opposed to Caribbean hurricanes which made huge headlines thousands of miles away. But owing to the geography, Pacific hurricanes rarely hit land, and when they did, it was in Mexico. Racist condescension alert, Mexican weather didn't make headlines in the US. The only effect they had in the US was to bring a little unseasonable rain to southern California or Arizona as they petered out.

This one, though, looks like it's headed pretty much full force into California, centering around the Salton Sea, and headed straight north. But where I am, we aren't directly north of that area at all. Nevada is. It's Las Vegas which has to worry next. There was a few days ago a chance that we'd get a little stray rain on Monday or Tuesday, but that's disappeared from the forecast.

And what can you say about Hawaii? Geez, another entire town wiped out by a utility-caused fire that was allowed to get out of control, with several roomsful of dead. Just like Paradise. How dreadful. I fear we're in for more of these.

Meanwhile, I'm sitting at home without a car, while mine is having the dents pounded out. I'm not going outside at all except to make the per diem deposit of a bag of cat leavings in the trash can. Some days it's a bit too hot in the afternoons when the temperature hits the 90s F, but it's pleasant enough in the mornings, and by 4 or 5 pm opening up the windows and turning on window fans does the trick. It's a bit of a relaxing change from spending three weeks driving to Menlo for festival concerts almost every day. It's quiet out there and my first symphony concerts aren't till October. Dog days, except we don't have dogs, we have cats, who are demonstrating that it's dog days by the dog-like behavior of lying around in the heat spread out on the linoleum.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

scholarly dalliance

I've finished writing that hairy book review. Over a third of it is my taking apart its mistakes about the Inklings. The other two-thirds-minus is mostly praise, actually: other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, it's a pretty good book.

This journal wants reviews in under 5000 words. How long is it? 4746. That's without the header and the Works Cited list (I'm citing 13 other items), which would put it over 5000.

We'll see how it goes over. This is a chance to deal with errors that have bothered me for years. One writer takes a leap in the dark and assigns an exact date that there isn't any warrant for to an event, and everyone else sees it, thinks they must have a reason for it, and copies them. The icing comes when somebody lines them all up to say, They all agree so they must be right.

Friday, August 18, 2023

world according to cat

He is a mighty hunter. He hunts cat toys.

Thursday, August 17, 2023


I'm all the more eager for the new edition of Tolkien's Letters to come out, as the better part of the index has fallen out of the old softcover I'm using as my reference copy. I'm using it a lot right now, as I'm writing an extremely hairy review of a book which gets most of its facts about the Inklings wrong.

This week I've been pretty much stuck at home and will be next week as well, as my car is in the shop having the dents pounded out, and that's how long it takes. This is all because somebody bumped into my car in a parking lot in June; the damage was minor but the insurance company is insistent it be repaired. Of course I can take B's car if I have to, and I do for the weekly shopping and for a medical appointment, but it's a nuisance to adjust the seat and all, and I'd rather not. So I'm checking the shopping list extra careful to ensure we have enough and I don't have to take any supplementary trips.

Monday, August 14, 2023

not going to the opera

Alex Ross writes about the Santa Fe Opera. He thinks he's being enticing, but he's not.

Mostly it's because he praises the open-to-the-outside amphitheater, which he compares to the Hollywood Bowl. I've been to the Hollywood Bowl. Once. My very strong reaction was "Done that; now I never have to come here again."

He also calls the Santa Fe Opera inexpensive; you can get a 5-opera season for $200. Maybe if you sign up far in advance, but the last time I was in Santa Fe, which was 12 years ago, I looked up the opera just out of curiosity, and found that for my dates I could have gotten tickets for La Boheme at about $100 a pop. This exceeded my desire to see La Boheme by about $100, so I didn't bother trying.

On the other hand, there's no fewer than 3 operas that San Francisco Opera is doing this season that interest me. But I'm terrified of getting a subscription because then they'll never stop badgering me to keep it. I go to one opera in a decade, which I did a couple years ago, and afterwards they kept phoning me until I forced them to stop. Maybe I'll get the livestream versions.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

review: Il Ducato

Several years ago The Lamplighters light opera company decided to respond to charges that Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado was derogatory towards Japanese people by re-setting it in Renaissance Italy. (I have not heard if the opinions of persons of Italian descent were solicited.) I didn't see that production, but they've revived it so I went to see it.

Let's just say that the restaging did not spoil the show and that it was an utterly magnificent production with hilarious acting and tremendous singing, and get on to the question, what did they change? Well, costumes, of course, which I'm not really qualified to discuss. As for wording,

Japan = Milan, as if it were a country, which it was until Napoleon steamrollered over it, and thus

Japanese = Milanese

The Mikado = Il Ducato, though all references to the Emperor have been left intact

Some other names were pronounced identically. Ko-Ko = Coco. Pooh-Bah = Poobà. Katisha = Catiscià. Others are different. Nanki-Poo = Niccolù, which isn't at all the same. Yum-Yum = Amiam, which is pronounced as if it were Um-Yum.

Titipu, the town = Tiramisu, or Tirmasu in songs to preserve the scansion

Opening number ("If you want to know who we are / We are gentlemen of Japan") = the only one rewritten. They're gentlemen of Milan, of course, and describe themselves as poets and artists.

"My father, the Lucius Junius Brutus of his race" = "of his day," very nice and subtle change

"Perhaps if I were to withdraw from Japan, and travel in Europe for a couple of years" = "Perhaps if I were to withdraw from Milan, and travel in Japan for a couple of years," clever

"O ni! bikkuri shakkuri to!" the words they interrupt Katisha with = "Amor vincent omnia," which really makes more sense

"Miya sama, miya sama" etc., the Mikado's entrance song = "O Fortuna," words from the opening of Orff's Carmina Burana, but sung to Sullivan's pseudo-Japanese tune

"I seized him by his little pig-tail" = "by the scruff of his neck"

"Gone abroad! His address?" "Knightsbridge" = "North Beach," a traditionally Italian neighborhood of San Francisco

"[Nanki-Poo's real name] might have been on his pocket-handkerchief, but Japanese don't use pocket-handkerchiefs" = cut entirely. I once saw a production, with no change of setting, where this line was replaced with "It might have been on his American Express card, but he must have left home without it"

Apart from the change of setting, there were the usual re-writes of the "Little List" song, written by Lawrence Ewing as Coco. He denounced promoters of self-driving cars and AI, and got particular cheers for "All billionaires who want to be the leader of the pack / Let's put them all in orbit and forget to bring them back." Chung-Wai Soong as Il Ducato made a few small alterations to "Let the punishment fit the crime," but my favorite moment was when he says his son is going about as a Second Trombone, he takes a peek down into the orchestra pit. At the meet-and-greet afterwards, I complimented the actor for this little breach of the fourth wall, and he said, "Where else would you go looking for a Second Trombone?"

Of the cast in general I can't speak too highly. They were just magnificent, delightful. Special note to Sara Couden, who simply blew away the part of Catiscià, both in singing and acting. Lawrence Ewing as Coco is a veteran Lamplighters funnyman, a different type of actor than Couden but equally good, and their long scene together in Act 2 was as completely perfect as any G&S I've ever seen. The show began its run here and is concluding at Lesher in two weeks. It was so good that I'm considering going again.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Gravenstein festival

The Gravenstein is a rare and esteemed variety of apple. Around here it's only grown in a small section of Sonoma County, two hours north of here, and its season is just a few weeks in August. Few Gravensteins make it into grocers down here, and usually the season is over before I notice it's started.

But this year I noticed in advance that there is an annual Gravenstein Apple Fair in Sebastopol, the town at the heart of the apple's range. So I decided to go and bought a ticket. Today was the day. It turned out to be a good day to go, with temperatures in the 80s F; tomorrow, the second day, threatens to be much warmer.

It was very popular. It's held in a semi-rural park on the edge of town, and there isn't much parking. A nearby business and church that aren't using their parking lots on weekends (a church? if they say so ...) volunteered theirs as offsite lots, and a perpetually overloaded shuttle ran people back and forth. I arrived at 11 AM, an hour after it started, and already lines were long but moving quickly.

The fair is full of booths of various vendors. Plenty of Gravenstein apples, both whole and in recipes. I forewent the popular fritters, and instead had a slice of caramel apple spice cake from this bakery. Also some freshly squeezed apple juice for right then, and a jar of apple sauce to go, all Gravenstein of course.

As I leaned against a tree eating my cake, a small girl (with her mother nearby) holding a half-eaten apple was staring up at me in curiosity. She said nothing, but I talked to her about apples and trees.

Looking beforehand for some serious lunch, I found a few vendors of that and contented myself with a bowl of paella from one of those vast commercial paella pans. It was a large serving, and, while the ingredients were good, the results were rather bland.

Later, I found a place to sit in the shade and listen to the pleasant set of this singer-songwriter and his unaggressive rock band. His backing vocalist took the spotlight for one number, an eccentric but appealing cover of Gershwin's "Summertime."

By the time that was over it was 2 PM, I'd been there for three hours and done what I came to do; time to leave.

Friday, August 11, 2023

another thing I don't get

Gymnastics. I read an article about the return of Simone Biles, whose performance was described as so fabulous that I watched the video. Fortunately it was only two minutes.

Several times she runs across the mat and does flips through the air. I'm sure this is very hard to do, but I am too ignorant of gymnastics to be able to discern what makes her so much better than all the other gymnasts who do the same thing. The flips are too fast for me to follow anyway.

That's a problem for me with a lot of fields of artistic endeavor, including acting. I can't tell the difference between excellent work and merely good work. (In classical music, I can tell the difference. In fantasy literature, I really really can tell the difference.)

But that's not what really baffles me. In between runs across the mat, she prances around, waving all four limbs about. Is that part of the gymnastic routine or is it just posturing?

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Music@Menlo, week three, part two

The most important thing I did in the last three days of Menlo was to attend and review their final concert. This was the current-events edition of their historical survey of chamber music. I was struck by how much the new music of today reminded me, not of the high-modernist new music of my youth, but of conceptual art of the Fluxus model. And I should know what that's like, because I once reviewed a Fluxus event for SFCV. It's true that theatrical impulses invaded high modernism also, but those were of later date than the early 60s I was referring to, or else were of the John Cage school which wasn't high modernism.

So I had plenty of opportunity to slip in digs at postwar high modernism. The line I claimed that they'd say sneeringly, "Who cares if you listen?", is the title the editors at High Fidelity slipped on to a 1958 article by high-modernist icon Milton Babbitt. Babbitt protested that he didn't say that, and he didn't, but he meant it, though he denied that too, so I think using it is a legitimate dig.

There was lots of fun in this concert. The big photo at the top illustrates the line, "second violinist Kristin Lee danced around each of her colleagues while playing wildly," though it doesn't explicitly say so.

What was most informative to me was the talk by two of the composers on the day before the concert. There wasn't space for me to go into this in detail, but I can say here that David Ludwig began by putting forth the explicit proposition that, within the last 30-40 years, composers have found a new desire to communicate with audiences, to write accessible and palatable music. He attributed this partly to the increasing complexity of high-modernism disappearing up its own ass (though he didn't put it that way) and partly to the ameliorating influence of popular music, which is part of the background of many serious classical composers today in a way rarely true before.

Ludwig also put forth forcefully the proposition that music only exists while it's being played. The score is only instructions for making it. I quietly cheered at this, because it's the exact opposite of the high-modernist heresy of Augenmusik, in which the score is the real music, and a performance is only an imperfect representation of the Platonic ideal - necessarily imperfect, for most music written to that standard is impossible to play with complete accuracy to the instructions.

Wang Jie said so much that was vague or spiritual or without clear reference that I couldn't make much of it beyond what I put in the article. (She made much of some comparison to tomato sauce, apparently a reference to a food preference study that she assumed we already knew.) Except for one thing: asked what Beethoven (this year's featured composer) meant to her, she said that listening to his music and thinking of things that she would have done differently showed her two things: first, that Beethoven was just a human being; second, that she could change those things, and therefore she could be a composer too.

Earlier on Saturday I got to the final Young Performers concert, where the 12-to-19 year olds of amazingly professional quality played assorted individual movements. This time what I was really there for was the opening movement of Mendelssohn's Octet. It was all splendid, and I would have added a paragraph to my review if I hadn't already been running overlong.

Thursday, August 3, 2023

Music@Menlo, week three, part one

Right on the heels of reviewing last Thursday and Friday's concerts, I went back to Menlo to review Sunday's. I liked the performances, but I spent some time in the review disputing the premise. This was the 20th-century entry in the historical survey, and they called it "The Turbulent Century," but the choice of music was hardly that. Half the pieces were ingratiating, and the others were too captivating to deserve the term "turbulent," which to me has something of a negative connotation, and deserves to be attached to more aggravating music. At any rate the principle by which music must be advanced to the point of obnoxiousness, so much promulgated in the last century, was entirely absent from this concert. Good riddance as far as I care, but not very accurate to the historical portrait.

I went to the Prelude concert beforehand, intending to include it, but I decided I'd said enough already. Besides, it included a repeat performance of the Beach Quintet, which I'd already mentioned (against my initial intent) in Thursday's review, and in any case I thought Thursday's was a better performance.

I'm glad I let the festival's communications person talk me into getting the recorded livestream of the Calidore's concert of Beethoven's Opp. 130/133 and 132 quartets. Someone I talked with later didn't like the performances, but I thought they were quite adequate. The tenderness and beauty all came out where it should; the Heiliger Dankgesang's Molto Adagio was about as slow as it could get without losing motion, and it melted nicely in to the Andante; and that was about as light and cheerful a Grosse Fuge as I've heard, as it bounced its way along.

Despite a general rule that works should be played in the last version the composer left us, it's now pretty much obligatory to play Op. 130 in the initial version with the Grosse Fuge finale. Beethoven let his publisher convince him to detach this and publish it separately - thus Op. 133 - and provide a replacement finale, but not only was that replacement not played in this supposed complete cycle of Beethoven's quartets, the program notes are written as if they're expelling it from the canon. It was the last composition Beethoven ever wrote, so surely it's worth something.

But why did Beethoven, normally so uncompromising with his work, let his publisher convince him to change his mind? David Ludwig (no relation to Beethoven: he actually brought this up), the next Wednesday's lecturer, said Beethoven published it separately to give people more of a chance to get to know this difficult work, and indeed he also published an arrangement for piano four-hands, a common way then of bringing orchestral music into the home but rare for chamber music: that's Op. 134. That would explain it; I'm satisfied with that reasoning.

Ludwig's talk was on Beethoven's influence on later composers. He said that Beethoven's developments in scale, range, complexity, and musical syntax make him not just the most influential composer, but the most influential artist ever in any medium on that medium. He gave an example of Beethoven's technical innovations in how Beethoven builds the entirety of his Fifth Symphony out of that four-note motive at the beginning. A remarkable example, because that's exactly the work that initiated my own devotion to the heavy classics, and that's exactly the aspect of it that did so.

After noting Schubert and Brahms and their response to the heavy tread of Beethoven behind them, Ludwig focused on three subsequent composers: Schoenberg, who faithfully applied Beethoven's principles to his own more harrowing music (including that all-encompassing motivic development, except that Schoenberg forgot to provide a good motive); Debussy, who set himself up as the anti-Beethoven: no clarity of form, no narrative focus, no clear contrasts; and the contemporary Joan Tower, an admirer of Beethoven's principles who also incorporates the influence of Debussy.

Monday, July 31, 2023

Music@Menlo, week two

Last week was the second week of the annual three week chamber music festival, and I've been busy. My editor asked me to cover Thursday's mainstage concert, which was the late Romantic entry in the historical survey of chamber music, and Friday's "Overture concert" in the same review. The Overtures are collaborations between the mainstage artists and the 'young professionals,' who are here in a student capacity but, really, are fully professional in every way. They put on the Prelude concerts before the mainstage events, and they're often better. I threw in a paragraph on Thursday's for no extra charge.

So here's that monster, having been trimmed by my editors lightly but intelligently, in the manner of a delicate haircut. The briefer pieces in the mainstage event could have been cut with no loss, but the big solemn Brahms and Dvořák, plus the strange and weird Suk and Elgar quintets in the Overture, were all very nicely done. I like piano quintets (that's quintets for piano and strings); they're my favorite genre of chamber music, and to get three of them - Beach, Suk, and Elgar - plus Brahms's clarinet quintet in two concerts, with Bloch's quintet coming up (I heard that on Sunday, much better than the usual performance), was a delight.

I also snuck into an earlier Prelude concert the previous Sunday for a chance to hear Brahms's Op. 25 piano quartet, another favorite work (Beethoven's "Ghost" piano trio was also on the program). Because the clarinet would be so prominent in Thursday's concert and also on next Sunday's which I was also to review, I decided to go to the clarinetist's master class, which was on Tuesday. Since the students (both levels) are only strings and piano, this was an opportunity to hear what happens when none of the students are playing the master class instructor's instrument.

Some master class instructors focus closely on the instruments they know. If it's a piano-and-strings work and the instructor is a string player, the pianist may not get a single word of advice. Or, even more conspicuously, if the instructor is a pianist, the student pianist may get all the attention while the string players are ignored. The best instructors don't do that, and focus more on the general import and effect of the sound, and not on technical details of playing. That way they can address all their students at once. The clarinetist was fairly good at that, though it turned out that the Beethoven violin, cello, and piano trio being played was actually an alternative edition of a trio for clarinet, cello, and piano, which the clarinetist knew well and indeed kept saying clarinet when he meant violin.

The second of the weekly Young Performers concerts (these are the teens and preteens, also amazingly professional) was on my must-go list because it included a movement from Brahms's B-flat Sextet, one of my favorite works ever, and also some other great stuff including two groups doing successively the first and final movements of Dvořák's A major quintet (ta-da, another piano quintet), plus an impressively delicate reading of the opening of Ravel's Piano Trio. The pianist, speaking beforehand, had trouble pronouncing the name Ravel, but she had no trouble playing his music.

I didn't get to any of the Beethoven string quartet concerts, but I did buy the livestream/recorded version of the Razumovsky quartets. But this time I was skeptical of the results. The problem is that the Calidore Quartet's signal virtue is the dry intensity of their playing. This is an enormous, even spellbinding, virtue in some repertoire, but I'm not sure if it's the best way to approach Beethoven. Especially in his late quartets, Beethoven is already dry and intense enough. The way to transcendent performances of those is to crack them open and find the sweet moisture inside. Too many can't do that, but those who can ... yum.

The Razumovskys aren't late works, but something of the same applies. I thought these performances of the first two were dull, dry, and ineffective. For the third quartet, however, the Calidore caught on and did a dandy, lively and effective, job. Should I listen to some more later? My jury is still out on that one.

Sunday, July 30, 2023


I'm still going frequently to the Menlo Festival - more on that later, when my paid reviews begin to come out - but on Friday I took in (via Zoom, which was the better way to do it) a panel discussion at UC Berkeley on Robert Oppenheimer's years at the university (he was a professor of physics there in 1929-43), geared to the new movie though not all the panelists had seen it.

There were professors of journalism (Jon Else, creator of the documentary The Day After Trinity), history, theoretical physics, and nuclear engineering, all at Berkeley, and a weapons physicist at the Los Alamos lab (where Oppenheimer was famously the director who made the A-bomb in 1943-45). The last made frequent references to interesting documents he'd found while rooting around in the Los Alamos archives. "Of course, that's still classified," he would add.

Little of what they said was new or original; its value came in its endorsement by their considered opinions. Only about a quarter of what was said related to Oppenheimer's pre-war physics work: he did some of the earliest work applying quantum theory and was the first person to theorize the concept of what were later named black holes, but though his physics was original and valuable, it wasn't at Einstein level; Oppenheimer's true worth came in his creation of the first major US school of theoretical physics here at Berkeley, one which - his successor proudly informed us - maintains its leading status to this day. That Oppenheimer had an equally brilliant experimentalist in Ernest Lawrence to collaborate with was an important factor. And he did all this while still in his 30s.

Most of the discussion focused on what made Oppenheimer a great lab director at Los Alamos, some of which tied in to the characteristics that had made his physics leadership at Berkeley successful. His wide knowledge; his ability to learn, understand, and communicate new material; his organizational ability - he would reorganize lab departments as circumstances changed; his reliable intuition for making necessary decisions in the absence of experimental data; his insistence on allowing open interchange of ideas among the scientists. You can't generate the spark of creativity to get the job done if you try to bottle up info for security reasons; the way to respond to security concerns is to run faster.

It was Lawrence who convinced the scientific directors of the Manhattan Project (Compton & Bush) to consider Oppenheimer as a candidate for lab director. It was his post-war change to opposition to bomb work, as much as his pre-war flirtation with communism, that was probably responsible for the loss of his security clearance in 1954. Meanwhile, the growth of Berkeley physics after the war (both theoretical and experimental) was generated by government funding that built on the reputation of the Manhattan Project.

The panelists also noted the short amounts of time involved. It was only 7 years from the discovery of the neutron to its use in creating generated nuclear fission. The a-bomb was tested and then dropped within weeks. The real time crunch for making the bomb was not the design process at Los Alamos but the production of plutonium and enriched uranium elsewhere in the project.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

habemus librum

When I was first chosen as Scholar Guest of Honor for what turned into the 2022 Mythopoeic Conference, I was uncomfortably aware that I lacked something that most Guests of Honor had: a book.

True, I had published one book with the Mythopoeic Press, the book-publishing arm of the Mythopoeic Society, some years earlier: an edition of Charles Williams's Masques of Amen House. But it wasn't really mine: I'd edited it, not written it.

I had some essays, especially ones given as Mythcon papers. I knew my papers had been popular among a small circle of enthusiasts. Some of the essays had been published in obscure places and hadn't come to the attention of scholars who could have benefited from them. Some of them I'd never gotten around to publishing at all. I'd been wondering what to do about these, and here was my chance.

I wrote to Leslie Donovan, the publisher of the Mythopoeic Press - and incidentally the co-chair of the Mythcon that was having me as GoH - and suggested a collection of my essays. She said yes. Much selecting, permission-obtaining, editing, and laying-out followed. It should have been done in time for that Mythcon, but it's a year late.

Anyway, it's here now. It's titled Gifted Amateurs and Other Essays: on Tolkien, the Inklings, and Fantasy Literature. Some of you may have many books; this one is mine. Not up on the MythSoc website yet, but the purchase links are live.

Buy in paperback format: $19.95
Buy in Kindle format from Amazon: $9.99
Buy in Other ebook versions (from Smashwords) $9.99

Here's the table of contents:

Part 1: Tolkien
1. J.R.R. Tolkien: An Introduction to His Work
2. The Literary Value of The History of Middle-earth
3. Top Ten Rejected Plot Twists from The Lord of the Rings: A Textual Excursion into "The History of The Lord of the Rings"
4. The Artistry of Omissions and Revisions in The Lord of the Rings
5. Hobbit Names Aren't from Kentucky
6. Smith of Wootton Major and Genre Fantasy

Part 2: Inklings
7. "Gifted Amateurs": C.S. Lewis and the Inklings
8. The Inklings and the Pacific Ocean
9. C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy: An Informal View
10. Unmasquing Charles Williams

Part 3: Others
11. Imaginary Worlds, Sliced and Preserved
12. How Do You Solve a Problem Like King Arthur?
13. The Plays of Lord Dunsany
14. Mervyn Peake, the Gormenghast Diptych, and Titus Alone
15. The Geography of Earthsea
16. Roger Zelazny, Mythopoeic in the High Desert
17. A Game of You - Yes, You

Part 4: Squiggles
18. The Fellowship of the Ring: A Review, 1954
19. The Condensed Silmarillion
20. The Case Against Peter Jackson
21. Yes, There Is Religion in Middle-earth
22. Paul Edwin Zimmer, Swordsman and Poet
23. The Making of a Tolkien Fan: A Personal Reminiscence

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

recipe rules

Brithistorian has posted some Laws of Following Recipes:
  • 1. Before you start cooking, read the entire recipe. Be sure you have all the ingredients and all the equipment and that you understand everything the recipe is asking you to do.
  • 2. If the recipe writer goes to the trouble of specifying a brand name or other adjective for any particular ingredient, they probably have a good reason for it. Either follow their instruction or, if you're going to make a substitution, be damn sure you understand why they made the choice they did so you can make an intelligent substitution.
I'll go along with these, with some caveats and additions.

1a. After following Law 1, begin the cooking process (i.e. after marinating and other pre-cooking activities) by laying out everything you're going to need on the counter. This is easy for ingredients, which are listed in the recipe, somewhat more difficult for utensils and cookware. You're guaranteed to forget something and have to dig it out later.

1b. If the recipe includes a step where you add a whole bunch of different herbs and/or spices at once, put them all in a small bowl together first. This will save frantically measuring and scooping numerous items while the dish is (over)cooking.

2a. Caveat: Cooking recipes (skillet dishes, casseroles) are forgiving. Measurements can be approximate - yeah, that looks like about a tablespoon of butter - and substitutions are easy. Not as wacky as chopped jalapeños for relish, but certainly on the level of vegetables. If you don't like mushrooms, don't put any in! Even if the recipe is for stroganoff or marsala. Only occasionally does this go off the rails. I ate at a Chinese restaurant once that offered Mongolian pork, and I discovered why this dish is usually made with beef. On the other hand, I've had Mongolian shrimp and liked it.

2b. But! Baking recipes (cookies, cake) need to be followed precisely - measure everything exactly, and no substitutes or changes - or disaster will follow. Cooks like me who like to wing it need to revert to severe conventionality in this repertoire.

2c. Quiche is a good example of how laws 2a and 2b intersect. Go ahead and tinker lightly with the filling as long as the quantity remains the same; but be exact with the eggs and cheese.

Monday, July 24, 2023

minds at work

I read two online political cartoonists. Both publish weekly. This week, Tom Tomorrow and Ruben Bolling tackle the same issue.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Music@Menlo, week one

It's the first week of the local chamber music festival, and I've been keeping moderately busy there. I reviewed the first mainstage concert, which was the Baroque installment in a six-concert history of chamber music. This was more successful than the miscellaneous-looking listing in the program book promised. A crisp concerto for four violins and no accompaniment by Telemann and a soprano solemnly hooting her way through Handel arias delighted me most. I'll be back for reviewing more in this series later.

I'll also get to hear a few more of the short prelude concerts, of which this week I only went to the one before the mainstage event. It featured the return of the Dohanyi Piano Quintet No. 1, a piece Menlo puts on, usually in this spot, frequently. Sometimes it's dynamite and sometimes just OK. This one was just OK. The Beethoven C-minor piano trio also gets played fairly often; this was better than usual, mostly due to the pianist's ability to make a modern grand sound like a circa 1800 fortepiano.

Saturday was the first of the three weekly Young Performers concerts. A couple dozen kids, mostly late teens but ranging down (the youngest this year is 11, which is high by past years' standards) are chosen each year, sorted into groups each week and assigned to play a movement or two of an appropriate work, and they always do an amazingly professional job. I'd been looking forward to hearing Schumann's Piano Quintet divided between two groups, but one of them lost their pianist and were reassigned to a Haydn quartet instead, which they did very well; the others dropped the scherzo and just played the finale. This was not only technically admirable but really caught the vitality of the work. This impressed me all the more, as last Tuesday I heard them play the scherzo in a master class with one of the senior violinists, and while they had all the notes I thought they lacked some oomph. So evidently they really progressed in the intervening week, and after the concert I caught their cellist and paid her my compliments.

I've also been to three talks, all of them focused on the other concert series, a survey of the Beethoven quartets, none of which actual concerts I'm going to. They're in the small hall so they quickly sold out, and I haven't been asked to review any of them. But the topic interests me, and I couldn't miss talks by Jan Swafford and Aaron Boyd, who are both terrific lecturers. Swafford, who is a music historian and biographer, talked on Beethoven's compositional procedures, most relevantly postulating that in his early Op. 18 quartets Beethoven was not ready to challenge Haydn on his own turf so he took a relatively modest approach, but six years later in Op. 59 he was prepared to go full Beethoven on him. I fancy not all scholars would agree with this interpretation. But Swafford spent most of his time analyzing the "Eroica" Symphony, which is not on the program at a chamber music festival, but at least he was the first person I've encountered to have an answer to a question which seems to have puzzled most commentators: if the symphony is a portrait of a hero (initially Napoleon, until his crowning as Emperor disillusioned Beethoven about him), why is the second movement his funeral march? Swafford's answer is that the first movement portrays a battle, and the funeral march is the one after the battle, not the hero's personal funeral. That makes the scherzo the return to cheerfulness that occurs after mourning.

Boyd, one of Menlo's senior violinists, gave an elegant overview of the classical Viennese quartets, rather implying that greatness in chamber music composition ended after that, and then introduced us to the characteristic styles of several mid-20C quartet ensembles, rather implying that greatness in performing ended after them. He didn't mean that literally in either case, but the impression came across because Boyd is an unapologetic elitist in art, a rather bold position to take nowadays. He criticized the premise of "historically informed performances" in exactly the same terms that the late Richard Taruskin used to, and he issued a regret at recent decreases in attention span and its impact on classical music, though he had to modify that in the light of all the excellent youngsters Menlo is able to find every year.

I thought of my own first encounter. I craved music as a child, but though I enjoyed some popular stuff - not the pop songs of the day, which were mostly crap (the good ones have survived), but things like my parents' musical theater records - it didn't really satisfy me. Stumbling across some of the big heavy classics opened up a world of music I hadn't known about, and they had the heft - the weight and size - that satisfied my cravings and has ever since.

The third talk was by the Calidore Quartet, the ensemble (and a really terrific one: I've heard them before) who are performing the Beethoven cycle. They told how the pandemic gave them the opportunity to work on the entire cycle. Like other quartet ensembles I've heard talk, they consider the Beethoven quartets to be the greatest music ever by the greatest composer ever, so there's no reason not to invest the time.

Menlo isn't entirely retro in its repertoire - the last concert in the mainstage program is entirely living composers, and its historical material goes into some odd corners like the Dohnanyi - but its focus is definitely on the traditionally great.

Friday, July 21, 2023


I escaped from the expected 94F temperatures this afternoon by sitting in an air-conditioned movie theater and watching a film about an explosion at some 50 million F. It was, of course, Oppenheimer which opened today, and despite my intense interest in the subject I found it a less enticing three hours than Mission Impossible.

Especially the early part. I've never enjoyed wide-spanning bio-pics, which jump from this significant scene to that significant scene, and this started out as one of them. Eventually, once we get to the Manhattan Project, the story begins to cohere, but it's less about the bomb than it is about security issues. The bomb finally gets a look-in with a long sequence about the Trinity test, and after that it goes back to security issues, focusing on the two things that have framed flashbacks all along, Oppenheimer's 1954 security hearing and Lewis Strauss's 1959 Senate committee hearing for his cabinet nomination. And these move along quite briskly, thus making a movie that gets significantly less boring over time, a rare phenomenon.

This is, however, a Christopher Nolan Auditorily Obnoxious Special. Except when making a speech or giving testimony, Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) mumbles to show how diffident he is. Only about half of what he says is audible. Meanwhile Nolan blasts you with the subwoofers any excuse he can, from the sound of nuclear bombs exploding to the sounds of an applauding audience stomping its feet on stadium bleachers. They're equally loud.

I knew that the movie co-stars Matt Damon, a rather more genial General Groves than descriptions of the original, and Robert Downey Jr. as the malevolent (from an Oppenheimer pov) Strauss, and I knew of some of the more cameo appearances, from Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr to Gary Oldman doing one scene as President Truman. But nobody had told me that one of the senators at the Strauss hearing was Harry Groener, whom old Buffy fans will remember.

At one point in the movie, Groves says he's appointing Oppenheimer as "project director," and that may be the reason behind the frequent appearance in articles about the movie of false statements that Oppenheimer was the director of the Manhattan Project, leaving Groves - who was the actual director of the Manhattan Project - as the military liaison or some other side character. No, no. The Manhattan Engineering District, which was the official name, was so titled to classify it as a unit of the Army Corps of Engineers, though it operated directly under the authority of the Chief of Staff. It was a military operation, and Groves, an experienced Army engineer, was its commander.

This included a vast array of operations - the huge uranium and plutonium processing plants in Tennessee and Washington state, uranium mining sites and procurement offices, labs for radiation and chemical and metallurgical research in Chicago and at Iowa State and elsewhere, intelligence operations, and much more. That's what Groves was in charge of. Oppenheimer had nothing to do with those. Under Groves as his superior, he was director of the Los Alamos laboratory, which was one small unit of the project, charged with designing, manufacturing, and testing the bomb. Clear?