Tuesday, February 28, 2023

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

And once again - third time in a year - SFCV has sent me up to the City to review the premiere of a new piano concerto. What made me an expert on unknown piano concertos?

I didn't enjoy listening to Sam Adams's effort as much as I had that of Mason Bates, but I could tell it was written with care and imagination, it was never tedious or wheel-spinning or ineptly balanced (the flaw in Magnus Lindberg's), so it deserved a good review.

When I read (in the program book) Adams's testimony that he's now trying "to write more directly communicative music," of course I thought immediately of Aaron Copland, who was about the same age (Adams is 37) when the same insight struck him. Up to that time, Copland's music had been difficult and bristly - a conductor had once joked that Copland's next step would be to commit murder (if that's a joke) - but after it, he spent the next decade writing things like Rodeo and Appalachian Spring before reverting to form. Adams's past music - I've reviewed him before - isn't anywhere near as alarming as early Copland, and I didn't find this concerto all that different in idiom - more assured, maybe; Adams's music has previously struck me as being made up as he goes along instead of planned ahead, relying on his native talent to keep it upright - but I wish him luck with his newfound insight.

This is also the third time I've reviewed Bruckner's Sixth Symphony, my favorite of his but one I've always thought neglected: perhaps not.

This was also the day I spent five hours watching Oscar-nominated shorts in a movie theater (also in the City) - see previous post - and quite fortunately I was able to do it all without getting exhausted. Bringing along something to eat instead of trying to dine during the 80 minutes (including 15 minute bus ride) between movies and concert helped a lot.

Monday, February 27, 2023

I saw ten Academy Award-nominated movies

I spent five hours in a movie theater, with nought but two restroom breaks, watching this year's nominees for Best Documentary Short Subject and Best Animated Short Film, five of each. I'd say that four of the documentaries but only two of the animateds were worth watching. Here's my pocket-sized reviews for each category, arranged from my most to least favorite. Spoiler alert.

Best Documentary Short Subject

1. The Elephant Whisperers. An elderly couple in southern India are assigned - I guess they volunteered for this, but that isn't clear - to take care of an orphaned baby elephant. They do so well with it they're given a second one. They love their elephants, and the elephants love them back. Really touching. Lots of footage of elephants being cute, with brief appearances by tigers, monkeys, birds, and other animals. In Tamil, the principal language around there, with subtitles.

2. How Do You Measure a Year? There was once a movie called Boyhood, which was filmed over 12 years and tracked a boy growing up. This is an even more extended but concentrated version of the same thing, and nonfiction too. A man interviews his daughter on her birthday every year from 2 to 18, and films it. He asks her the same questions each time, but fortunately the excerpts given are not repetitious. Very funny when she's small. She sings, too, including the song from Rent which provides the movie title. Amazingly, 18-year-old Ella likes the ritual and doesn't object to it being preserved. I suspect she hasn't seen the films.

3. The Martha Mitchell Effect. Very condensed history, mostly archival newscasts, of the brief fame of the woman who, I realized when listening to Slate's podcast on the topic, very few people too young to remember Watergate are likely to have heard of. The Mitchell effect is being brushed off as crazy but turning out to have been correct, and she was warning against Watergate before anyone else was. But the story is too pulverized here to prove the case, and is unlikely to interest anyone beyond Watergate junkies and fans of historical outspoken women.

4. Stranger at the Gate. Retired Marine develops, post-9/11, a raging hatred for Muslims. To prove that they're all terrorists, he visits the local Islamic community center to gather evidence. Just what he thought he was going to find is not explored, but he is welcomed with such warmth that, within two months, he's ready to convert, and later becomes the center president. He's not a loner: he's married and has a stepdaughter; it's learning that she has a Muslim classmate that set him off. The movie is mostly interviews; near the end his wife, who says that conversion was "not for me," reveals that they're no longer married, but doesn't say why. Though this isn't the only story I've read of a reflexive bigot being cured by love, I suspect there's more to this story than we're being told. The degree to which he's impressionable - in both directions - is rather alarming.

5. Haulout. No explanation as to what's going on here until some captions at the end of the movie, so I don't rate this one highly. What it actually is: Russian marine biologist visits the northern Siberia coast every fall to wait for the annual walrus invasion of the beach (called a haulout). After they leave he counts the bodies of walruses trampled in the rush or otherwise dead. The captions say the number is worse every year, due to global warming. The one human speaks in Russian, not that there's anyone to talk to but his pocket recorder; with subtitles.

Best Animated Short Film

1. My Year of Dicks. Teenage girl tries to figure out which, if any, of the boys she knows is worthy of giving up her virginity for. Quite raunchy, but extremely amusing. The problem with most dirty jokes is that they're not actually funny. This is funny, especially the scene where the girl wants to tear her ears off in agony (this is animation, so she can) as her father gives her a hideously embarrassing talk about sex. There's no frontal nudity in this movie; you have to go to The Flying Sailor for that.

2. An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It. Man in a stop-motion animated world realizes he's living in a stop-motion animated world. Very meta. Depiction of bleakly boring office life also wry.

3. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. The four titular characters can all talk, but all they say is moral platitudes. The boy appears from nowhere in the snowy wilderness and acquires these companions; when he finally gets the chance to go inside he decides he'd rather stay with them: huddled in the snow, with no food, no shelter, but they're happy. Where The Elephant Whisperers is about love, this movie is about nauseating virtue-signalling. And it also has one of the stupidest plot twists of all time. Yet at least it has a full storyline, so it's not the worst of the animated films.

4. Ice Merchants. No dialogue. This is wacky, but not in a good way. A man and a boy live in a house pinned halfway up a sheer vertical wall of ice several miles high. They harvest ice not by chipping off chunks from the wall, but by pouring water into a small tray and letting it freeze outside overnight. In the morning they chip out the ice and parachute (yes, parachute) to the city in the valley far below, their caps blowing off in the wind every time. Then they use a pulley system to get back up. They do this day after day. Then one night the water doesn't freeze. The house starts to come loose, and they jump without their parachute, which had already fallen off the balcony. They land safely - in a huge pile of their missing caps. Oh, come on.

5. The Flying Sailor. No dialogue. Based on a true story from an explosion in Halifax in 1917. A sailor is walking along the boardwalk and stops to light a cigarette as two ships nearby in the harbor crash into each other. One is loaded with dynamite, so it explodes. This sends the sailor hurling through the air and strips off his clothes. What happens after that is not clear. His life passes before his eyes, perhaps?

Sunday, February 26, 2023

cat in the corner

On Friday, Maia went to the vet to have her teeth cleaned. This was after the bloodwork (to ensure she could take the anesthesia) the previous week.

We try to trap cats needing transport in the bathroom when they come in to eat, but Maia, besides not getting any food that morning, was wary, and ran off. After some running after her, we cornered her behind the extra chairs in the corner of the dining nook. It was too far in for B. to reach, so I grabbed Maia's neck scruff and hauled her out, and held on while B. ran and fetched the cat carrier.

Usually B. gets the cats while I get the carrier, because she's better at cat wrangling. But I can do this when I have to, and I've done it before. Fortunately Maia knew when she was defeated and gave up, unlike the time when the only way to get the late Pandora out of my closet was with heavy gardening gloves, and I still got my hands scratched up.

The bad side of this was that, having been the one who physically captured the cat, she blamed me, and wouldn't come in to the bathroom to eat the next morning when I fed them. But she'd forgiven me by the day after that, and both cats had taken on the persona of Mountain Cats. That is, cats that live on Mountain Standard Time and are absolutely convinced it's 5 p.m., feeding time, when it's actually 4 p.m. out here in the Pacific zone, and make this opinion known most vocally.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

in the rain or snow

The weather reports here have been predicting showers, but instead we've been getting heavy rain, the kind we had during the big storms in January. And with much stronger winds, thus - with the soaked ground for an assist - causing an unusually large number of treefalls, blocking roads and cutting power.

And, with fairly low temperatures, in the mountains and even in the lower hills (say 1000 ft elevation) there's been snow. This is uncommon but not really surprising in those places; it's about as common as, say, an earthquake bigger than a minor tremor. It's more surprising when the snow gets down to sea level, as it did in Santa Cruz. Not for 30 or 40 years?

What's taken people not from here by surprise is the warnings for blizzards "in Los Angeles." No, those are for the high mountains, 4000 feet up. Hardly anyone lives up there, or even drives. At lower levels, less snow, but still only in the mountains. The idea of huge snowdrifts covering Beverly Hills or Santa Monica, the way they do in places like Minnesota, is purely imaginary. In LA, snow in the mountains is worth noting, but not startling or unusual.

It once gave rise to one of the great japes in SF fandom, about 40 years ago, which I'll tell you about now.

As Charles Curley told the story - I'll be quoting his account from memory now - he was driving along the freeway one day and noticed that "not only were the Hertz Rent-a-Mountains* back, but they were covered with snow. Snow. In Los Angeles. Marty Cantor lives here. Marty Cantor hates snow. Marty Cantor moved to Los Angeles to get away from the snow. Yet here the snow was, right on Marty Cantor's doorstep. Marty Cantor's doorstep? Wait a minute. A mad, insane plan was born."

So Charles recruited some friends and drove up into the mountains with a pickup truck and shovels. They loaded snow onto the tarp in the truck bed and took it back down, and then, in the quiet of the night, unloaded a big pile of it by the (outdoors) entrance to Marty Cantor's apartment. When a neighbor came by and asked what they were doing, they said, "He misses the snow."

Marty was really touched that they cared enough about him to pull the stunt, but he added, "Don't ever do that again."

*Sometimes called that because smog renders them often invisible

Friday, February 24, 2023

concerts review: Pivot Festival

Last year, the Catalyst String Quartet gave several programs for SF Performances, spread throughout the year, of 250 years of music by Black composers. I was familiar with all these composers and was happy to hear them again, so I went to as many of these as I could.

This year, the Catalyst took a different tack, playing three programs on successive nights for a miniature festival of rediscovered composers: ones who were mostly of note in their day but whose music has been forgotten and often unavailable until quite recently. The composers chosen spread over the same 250 year period, though concentrating around the year 1900, and fit into one or two of three unfairly neglected groups: Blacks (all of whom had been played last year), women, and Latin Americans.

So on three consecutive late afternoons, I drove up to the end of the BART line and took the rapid transit in to the city, stopping to eat at one of the collection of exotic places where I transfer from BART to the bus, and then on to Herbst Theater. It was like commuting. There I heard a whole bunch of music most of which I'd never heard before, though most of the composers had familiar names.

One real masterpiece came out of the programs, the String Quintet in E, Op. 1 (1884) by Ethel Smyth, redoutable British composer. The vivid and irregular rhythmic themes in this work insistently claimed the listener's attention: there was no mind-wandering while this was on. Fabulous music.

Several other pieces were of interest. The Dumka for piano trio (violin, viola, piano) by Rebecca Clarke is uncharacteristically consonant for this composer, a little bit in the Dvorak tradition. The last and most interesting movement of the String Quartet in C-sharp Minor (1919) by Germaine Tailleferre (of Les Six, the saucy young French composers of the Twenties) was like Ravel with a dollop of Shostakovich, except this was effectively before Shostakovich. Fanny Mendelssohn's Quartet in E-flat (1834) got a much perkier performance than I heard last week in San Jose. Over the course of the three evenings, we got to hear all six of a set of string quartets (1779) by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the mixed-race impresario and conductor who commissioned and performed Haydn's "Paris" Symphonies, now being rediscovered as a composer. They were light, short, obviously Haydnesque, and charming. In fact the only piece I didn't like was the only one I'd heard before, the Piano Quintet in F-sharp Minor (1908) by Amy Beach. I like some of her works, like her String Quartet, but too much of her work is clotted uninspired late Romanticism.

Now I want to stay home for a while, but that's not in the cards either: I'm back up to the City four more times in the next ten days, twice on assigned reviews.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

blustery day

A mighty wind passed through our area yesterday. It became difficult to walk across open intersections. Several trees fell. While driving home last night, I found that a fallen tree was blocking all three southbound lanes of the freeway. The emergency crews were at work, and had funneled the traffic onto the inner shoulder.

My other regret is discovering, on revisiting for the first time in several years the acclaimed deli in the City, that as far as I'm aware there is no longer an authentic-style Jewish deli in the Bay Area. (At least we still have a first-rate bagel shop.) The last good deli closed a while back; the remainder have abandoned Jewish style, or were never very good in the first place. This one the food is good, but the pastrami is under-brined and too lean, and the bread is thick gentile American bread, and where's the mustard? It's like Peter Jackson's movies: you can't fault it for succeeding at being what it is, but what it is is alien to what it claims to be.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Dahl house

So now there's fuss over changes being made in the texts of Roald Dahl's children's stories, like no longer calling Augustus Gloop "fat."

Leaving aside the appropriateness and consistency of the specific changes, it seems to me that the entire exercise is superficial. Dahl's writing is nasty and brutish (and, by contemporary standards, short), and if he's problematic, that's the problem and one that can't be fixed by changing a few words. I've enjoyed some of his fiction; but on the other hand when I went to a children's bookstore and asked for recommendations for an 8-year-old girl, the clerk suggested some Dahl, and I blanched. I didn't think her parents, culturally conservative folk, would be very happy with that.

But further putting this in ironic context, this isn't the first time the texts of Dahl's books have been changed. I refer you to the information in this article. And I'm not referring to the statement that Charlie Bucket was originally written to be Black - which would make a lot of sense in terms of the story - and was changed at the urging of his agent, who thought a Black hero wouldn't sell. Because that happened before initial publication.

But changing of the text of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory after publication - that's already happened too. Article:
The Oompa Loompas in the original version were black pygmies from Africa. The news in 1970 that there was to be a film of the book drew the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to the work and they said the importation of the Oompa Loompas to the factory had overtones of slavery. Dahl insisted there was no racist intent behind the Oompa Loompas but also said he found himself sympathising with the NAACP. As a result, he rewrote them in time for the second US edition as white hippyish dwarves hailing from an invented place, 'Loompaland.'"
I've met people who heatedly deny that the black pygmies version exists. But it does, and I have it. At a tender age I was given as a present the then-new first American edition (Knopf, 1964). Which is still on my shelf. And here's part of what Willy Wonka says about them (p. 73-76):
Pygmies they are! Imported direct from Africa! They belong to a tribe of tiny miniature pygmies known as the Oompa-Loompas. I discovered them myself. I brought them over from Africa myself - the whole tribe of them, three thousand in all. I found them in the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had ever been before. They were living in tree houses. They had to live in tree houses, otherwise, being so small, they would have been gobbled up by every animal in the jungle. They were practically starving to death. ... The one food that they longed for more than any other was the cacao bean. But they couldn't get it.
And so, since Wonka owns a chocolate factory that uses tons of cacao beans, he offers the Oompa-Loompas jobs and all the cacao beans they can eat "(speaking not in English, of course, but in Oompa-Loompish) ... So I shipped them all over here, every man, woman, and child in the Oompa-Loompa tribe. It was easy. I smuggled them over in large packing cases with holes in them, and they all got here safely. ... They love dancing and music. They are always making up songs." Dahl did keep the Oompa-Loompas' moralistic songs, didn't he? I especially like the one denouncing television and complaining about how children used to read, because when more recent get-off-my-lawners have made the same complaint, they seem to think that 1964 was part of the Golden Age they're remembering with misty yearning.

Anyway, you may all shudder at the original Oompa-Loompa text now. That's what I read in 1964, and accordingly that's what made me the twisted person I must be today.

Friday, February 17, 2023

not on Valentine's

B and I long ago learned not to have our Valentine's Day dinner out on Valentine's Day. That was Tuesday. We ate out on Wednesday instead.

We like Italian, so we tried a newish place that attracted B. for its unusual pizza offerings. She had a pizza with, and I quote from the menu, Mozzarella, Blue Cheese, Walnuts, Asian Pears & Drizzle of Honey. She thought it was delicious, and took half home for lunch the next day. The number of bets I wouldn't eat something like that on is uncountable, but Jack Sprat and all that ...

So I had fish (petrale sole) picatta - I always like picatta - which was quite good but which was dwarfed in size by the vegetables on the plate. These were winter vegetables, so there was a big hunk of sauteed spinach (tasty, but few people know how to wash all the grit out of spinach), cauliflower, carrots, and something like carrots except they were yellow and very hard and didn't taste like carrots.

Bread beforehand wasn't warm but it did have just a slightly burnt edge to the taste of the crust, which I just relish, and the desserts were great (lemon cake with just a hint of chocolate hidden inside the frosting).

Ambience, though? Crowded, noisy, floor and walls that reflected the noise instead of absorbing it. Service very fast, but a couple odd things. Two successive servers asked if we wanted water, and neither spoke up enough to be heard over the ambient noise. I dropped my napkin; a server picked it up and whisked it away, which is good, but never brought me another one, which is strange.

Good food, and I'm not sorry we went, but: somewhere else next time.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

two concerts and a play

1. Sometimes Herbert Blomstedt's concerts with the San Francisco Symphony disappoint me. This one didn't. I live for that enraptured experience when going through a masterpiece.

I'm particularly happy with this review, because I managed, without I hope going too far off topic, to convey 1) my impression of the retro character of Beethoven-era symphonies by other composers; 2) the point that Schubert broke out of it; 3) the unique character of his Ninth (the Great C Major) and how there was nothing else like it in music until, well, Dvořák's Eighth; 4) that Dvořák's Eighth and Ninth (the "New World") sound completely different, my dig at Leonard Bernstein who claimed that there was nothing any different about Dvořák's American works from his Czech works; 5) that Voříšek, whose symphony I had certainly heard before, was Czech and not, as the editor who assigned me this concert thought, Swedish.

2. The San Jose Chamber Orchestra didn't play a concert in the church in Willow Glen with the terrible sightlines but passable acoustics. Instead, their string principals played a quartet by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, sister of Felix and said to be equally talented. Good piece, sounded like Felix in the fast movements, not so much in the slow. Then, a visiting group called the Julius Quartet - whose second violinist was once the SJCO youth orchestra's concertmaster - played the quartet that Viktor Ullmann wrote in the Terezin concentration camp. Chromatic to the point of teetering on twelve-tone, it was successfully lyrical. Then, in obedience to the rule that any concert featuring two string quartet ensembles should have them join forces in the Mendelssohn Octet, they did. The Julius first violinist played lead, with sufficient force. The scherzo was not feathery, but quite sprightly enough, and that the finale was the same way was even better.

3. Assassins by Stephen Sondheim, from the Hillbarn Theatre, a small local group. I'd seen this show before, but it didn't stick. This production was livelier. Somewhat cut down - tiny pit band, the Proprietor and Balladeer were the same character - but well-acted, with more of an emphasis on the monologues (Booth and Sam Byck were particularly well-performed) than the songs. The creepiest part is the end, where all the other assassins, past and future (!), form a club and talk Oswald into shooting Kennedy, basically on the grounds that it'll mean people will pay attention to him and, by extension, them. Well, it worked - I mean, here we are watching a musical about them - but surely there's a difference between being famous and being infamous? Anyway, nobody walked out on the performance, which wasn't true the first time I saw this show.

I think Sondheim is going through a posthumous career like that of Philip K. Dick. His status, already high, jumped up even higher as soon as he died and hasn't gone down. Productions of Sondheim's works are popping up all over the place. This is just the first of five of them, by different companies, that I'm scheduled to see in the next ten weeks. And that's not counting the Stanford production of Company that I skipped because, based on sampling the tv recording of the Neil Patrick Harris/Stephen Colbert stage version, I don't want to see Company. The fact that I found those characters too disagreeable to want to spend time with, but I was willing to see a show about presidential assassins, underlines just how disagreeable they are. There's a difference between evil and disagreeable.

Monday, February 13, 2023

wasn't there

Mark Evanier got asked a stupid question: "I'm expecting your usual infallible Super Bowl prediction that you won't be watching but I'm curious why. You're an American Male. How can you not be interested in football?"

I could have been asked the same question, and this is a perfect example of what's been frosting me about being a male, or for that matter being American, my entire life. Even as a child, I was never interested in most of the things that boys were supposedly interested in - sports, cars, dogs, saying naughty words ("telling dirty jokes" isn't accurate - most weren't funny, they just had naughty words in them), beating each other up, harassing girls. I just wanted to stay in the library and read a book, and for that I was called 'weird.' I didn't want to be a boy if that's what boys were, but I wasn't a girl either (these days I wonder if, in that situation, anybody might raise the idea that I was), so what was I? The answer, I eventually realized about the time I reached adulthood, was that there are more types of male, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

(One reads many reports of this kind of alienation from males who turn out to be gay, but I wasn't gay. To be sexually attracted to these males one found socially repulsive? That must be even more dissonant. I liked girls: I liked them as people, and I found them attractive. So one difficulty I was spared at least.)

At the same time I wasn't comfortable being a let-it-all-hang-out, hail-fellow-well-met American either. I'm an extreme introvert. I envied the idea of being a repressed Brit instead. It took me a while to get used to the idea, once I started meeting Brits socially, that many of them envied the idea of being loose and wild and American.

Ironically, I'm less uninterested in American football than in most other spectator sports. It has a plot - except for the half-time kickoff, every play arises from what happened in the previous play, unlike other sports which frequently clear the board of everything except the score. I understand most of the rules and can follow what's going on. But I only actually look at it when it's on a tv in front of my face in someone else's house, so I hardly ever do so. And any players I've ever heard of have long since retired.

For me what the Super Bowl means is it's a great time to go out shopping, because the stores are deserted of crowds. That's the only reason I have any interest in the question "What time does the game start?" I went out on some errands yesterday, and then picked up some takeout dinner and then went to a chamber music concert (review later).

When I got home, B. reported that she hadn't seen Tybalt in hours. (Don't worry, she had Maia.) Within a couple minutes after that, he was in my arms, demanding to be held and cuddled. See above list again: cats, those are the pets for me.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

spoiler alert book review

Who Killed Jane Stanford? by Richard White (Norton, 2022)

In the dictionary of contemporary terms, next to the entry for "TMI" is a picture of the cover of this book. It is absolutely drowning in detail concerning the question posed in its title.

Jane Stanford, widow, railroad heiress, co-founder of Stanford University, maintained power and influence over the university even after nominally ceding control to an academic president and a board of trustees. She died in 1905, and most people think she just died, but in fact she was murdered by strychnine in her bicarbonate of soda, a fact publicly known in the wake of the event but later hushed up. Even stranger, there'd been another attempt at the same thing a month earlier, which puzzled Jane. Like the Queen in the Dunsany play, she claimed to have no enemies, and couldn't imagine who'd want to kill her.

The first source of TMI in this book is the revelation of all the mismanagement and corporate politics in running the university. The president wanted to grow it into a major research institution - obviously this eventually succeeded - while Jane was having second thoughts about the whole co-ed university project and wanted to reduce the place into a boys' school for Christian moral training. On top of which the president was being accused of hiring professors on grounds of academic politics rather than quality of work, and refusing to fire ones who said things Jane didn't like, and so on. Jane was on the point of wanting to fire him.

The second source is the feuds and backbiting going on around Jane's household staff, often involving Jane as well. Some of the staff were Chinese immigrants, so we get some excursions into Chinese tong wars also.

And the third is the details of the poisonings. Who was what where when, do the stories of different people conflict, do one person's stories from different times conflict, are the newspaper reports which are often all that survive accurate, all gone over in painful detail.

The obvious candidate for poisoner is Jane's secretary, who was the only other person present for both incidents.* But where would she have gotten the pure strychnine used in the second poisoning? Most people could only get strychnine in rat poison without leaving a record of having bought it. White thinks he's solved the question when he notes the secretary's connection with an elusive druggist whose name appears only a few times, usually misspelled, in the surviving documents, after which he mysteriously disappears.

So White says the secretary, who lived out her life unmolested, did it, with the university president as accessory after the fact for hushing it up. But does he ever take the long way round, chronicling every step of the path, to reach that conclusion.

*So what would be her motive? That lies buried somewhere in the feuds and backbiting part of the tale. I didn't really follow all of that. I don't think the tong wars had anything to do with it, but in that case, what are they doing in the story?

Friday, February 10, 2023

musical chairs

I had to read the classical music blogs to learn that Gustavo Dudamel has been appointed next music director of the New York Philharmonic. After a meteoric rise to fame, as such things are counted within that world, Dudamel was appointed to his first directorship, of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, when he was only 26 (although he didn't take over for a couple more years). He's been there ever since, and I've been down there to hear him a couple of times. Now he's 42, pretty well established (though there are some critical circles who don't like him, as is always the way), but when his appointment takes effect in a couple more years, he'll be leaving for the greener pastures of New York. I'm sorry he's going, but on the other hand the NYP seems deliriously happy to have him, especially as their current leader turned out rather ehhh.

What I haven't seen mentioned is that Dudamel is following uncannily in the footsteps of Zubin Mehta, also a youthful sensation in his day, who also became music director in LA at the age of 26, who also had a huge impact on the orchestra, and who also decamped for the NYP at 42. (Though in his case those were the ages it actually happened.) Mehta then stayed in New York for 13 years, less time than he'd spent in LA but long by NYP standards, but I don't recall hearing much about his impact there. I have recordings he made in LA (I learned Holst's The Planets from one of his), but none from NY.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

in memoriam

I think the best words to memorialize Burt Bacharach are to quote William Goldman describing the hole he was leaving in the screenplay of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, that Bacharach and Hal David later filled with "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head."
Musical Interlude Number One. There are going to be three of them before the film is over. This, the first, is a song sung while Butch and Etta ride the bike. The song will be sung by male voices, and the feel of it is terribly contemporary, because in fact, the sound of the songs of this period are shockingly close in feel to the popular music of today. ... The song that we hear will not be along the lines of 'A Bicycle Built for Two.' None of the songs in the film will make a literal comment on scenes, but rather an emotional one. This song, for example, will not be loud. But it will be poignant. And pretty as hell.
And so it was.

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

massive book review

No, the book is massive, not the review. It's Watchmen Annotated, edited by Leslie S. Klinger (DC Comics, 2017). It's hardcover, 12 inches square, over one inch thick, and I felt as if I needed a handtruck to extract it from the public library. It contains the complete text and line drawing of the classic graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons - but not any of the color! - with wide margins to put the annotations in.

I view annotated editions with a skeptical eye. Too many of them are useless, omitting far too many useful points and including mostly superfluous ones. I once glanced at an annotated Sandman that fit that description. This one appeared somewhat better. Written without Moore's participation but with plenty of help from Gibbons, including access to his copies of Moore's scripts, it has lots of useful analysis from the point of view of the artist interpreting the script. There are many annotations pointing out small things in the background, giving full texts of headlines and posters and graffiti that you can't quite read on the page, occasional patterns in the art and layout, observations of the relevance of paintings on the walls of the rooms where the scene is taking place, and other matters easily overlooked by a casual reader. The sugar cubes in Dan's kitchen are a continuing theme of oddly emphasized importance.

Some annotations specifically mention the art. Klinger seems anxious to chart the change in the shape of Rorschach's word balloons depending on whether he's wearing his mask, and is even more determined to point out every one of the very occasional use of motion lines.

Changes in the script are sometimes noted (not always with an indication of who changed it), and quotations from Moore's descriptions of scenes are valuable for imparting knowledge of what he wants the viewer to get out of it, which isn't necessarily obvious. One wishes for more of that.

As the book goes on, more and more of the annotations are simply explanations of real-world things alluded to in the text or art. Most of these will not be needed by anyone who was already an adult in the 1980s when this was first published. To my knowledge they're mostly accurate, though a few are a little odd. When Laurie, out with Dan rescuing civilians from a fire, tells them she's "Smokey the Bear's secret mistress," there's an annotation whose main point seems to be that Smokey Bear and Smokey the Bear, though the same character, are completely different names. When Adrian famously tells Dan "I'm not a Republic serial villain," the annotation explains all about Republic Pictures but without saying a word confirming, denying, or expounding on their villains' purported tendency to reveal their secret plans to the heroes.

There isn't a lot expounding the plot, though there are a few rather coy references in the beginning to "the End-Is-Nigh man." My favorite annotation is at the point where Rorschach, encountering his landlady Mrs. Shairp, looks at her crying, snot-nosed kid and, perhaps remembering his own blighted childhood, leaves off berating her for traducing him. Klinger's annotation says, "This is a powerful moment, in which the uncompromising Rorschach ... remains silent. Perhaps his sessions with Dr. Long in prison had an effect after all."

The best anecdote in the book, in a footnote in the introduction, concerns not Gibbons or Moore at all but Neil Gaiman. Gaiman was at a party and met a literary editor who looked down on him when learning he wrote comic books, until realizing he was talking to the author of Sandman. "My dear fellow," he says, "you don't write comics, you write graphic novels."

Monday, February 6, 2023

concert review: David Finckel and Wu Han

David Finckel and Wu Han are more than a duo who go around playing sonatas for cello and piano. Finckel was for many years the cellist of the renowned Emerson Quartet, and he left that group to spend more of his time playing other things, including recitals like this one, and to allow himself and Wu Han to focus further on their work as artistic administrators. They run the Music@Menlo festival out here in California every summer and also program the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in NYC where they live. And they've been married for over 35 years. But they're both active as performers in their festivals, and they still play recitals also. I got to this one on Sunday in Hertz Hall at UC Berkeley - a favorite venue of theirs, Wu Han said in introducing the concert. It's a simple raked auditorium, small enough to project soloists to the top of the back where I was sitting, and the acoustics are good. It was pretty well packed for this concert.

Menlo concerts are usually for larger ensembles, but they're often like this: a lot of standard repertoire classics, something that ought to be a classic but you haven't heard it, and a bit of new music. Of the two 19th century works on this program, Brahms's Sonata No. 2 in F, Op. 99 is the standard, and Saint-Saëns's Sonata No. 1 in C minor, Op. 32 is the one I hadn't heard before. It's got more of the dark energy that animates a work like the Organ Symphony than do most of the other Saint-Saëns chamber works I've heard and consequently it could be as well German as French. Paradoxically it made the Brahms sound more superfluous than it does when played with the other Brahms cello sonata, Op. 38. Especially because of the similar procedure of each work's slow movement, with one instrument playing a lyric theme against a background of detached "raindrop" notes from the other. Saint-Saëns is more systematic about switching the two roles back and forth, and he's more clever and light-hearted about it, because who wouldn't be more of those things than Brahms? I like Brahms, but the Saint-Saëns was the more outstanding piece in this half.

Throughout both these works, Finckel kept the same sober, calm, rich and full tone coming out of his cello no matter what was going on, while Wu Han attacked the piano part with the animated blaze that always characterizes her playing.

The other half was more recent material. Shostakovich's Sonata in D minor, Op. 40 is actually an early work, just predating the first time the Soviet regime denounced his music, and consequently has a bit of an innocent air. This is especially obvious in the Largo, which is lyrical without the anguish that characterizes his later work. (A similar air suffused the encore, the Andante from Rachmaninoff's G minor Sonata, Op. 19, except that Rachmaninoff lets the piano go on a lot longer.) But Shostakovich's scherzo is every bit as violent as the later ones that are supposed to be portraits of Stalin, and the finale has the cheekiness that was in his work from the beginning. Wu Han gave this piece the same drive that she employed in the other works, while Finckel varied his cello tone more, giving a welcome expressiveness.

The concert was filled out with two movements from a work recently commissioned for these performers, Ephemeral Objects by Pierre Jalbert (US-American, Quebecois ancestry). The performers wanted a suite of seven movements contrasting sufficiently that any selection of them in any order could be put in a concert depending on what would fit. Jalbert went along with this utilitarian plan, and we heard two movements on Sunday: a slow one featuring Wu Han reaching into the piano to pluck or thump on the strings, and a jagged scherzo that outfoxed Shostakovich the way that Saint-Saëns outfoxed Brahms.

Have I conveyed just how skillful and experienced, in terms of knowing how to express the music, the playing was? This was a bit of a rarefied recital, though less so than some chamber music concerts I've heard at Hertz, but it was well worth the expedition into Berkeley for it.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

another useless list

Monarchs of England/Great Britain since the Conquest, in order of age at the time of accession.

0 Henry VI, 1422
9 Henry III, 1216; Edward VI, 1547
10 Richard II, 1377
12 Edward V, 1483
14 Edward III, 1327
18 Edward IV, 1461; Henry VIII, 1509; Victoria, 1837
21 Henry II, 1154
22 George III, 1760
23 Edward II, 1307
24 Charles I, 1625
25 Henry V, 1413; Elizabeth I, 1558; Elizabeth II, 1952
26 Mary II, 1689
26-31 William II, 1087 (birthdate uncertain)
28 Henry VII, 1485
30 Richard III, 1483; Charles II, 1660
31 Richard I, 1189; John, 1199
32 Henry I, 1100; Henry IV, 1399
33 Edward I, 1272
36 James I, 1603
37 Mary I, 1553; Anne, 1702
38 William I, 1066; William III, 1689
39 Stephen, 1135
40 George VI, 1936
41 Edward VIII, 1936
43 George II, 1727
44 George V, 1910
51 James II, 1685
54 George I, 1714
57 George IV, 1820
59 Edward VII, 1901
64 William IV, 1830
73 Charles III, 2022

Saturday, February 4, 2023

concert review: Remembering Geoff Nuttall

I've mentioned before about the death of Geoff Nuttall, first violinist of the Stanford-based St. Lawrence Quartet. He was one of those vital forces of nature who's really missed. Curious as to what the quartet was going to do about their next concert scheduled for Jan. 29, I checked their schedule and found they'd replaced it with a "Remembering Geoff Nuttall" event. I decided to go. It was ticketless but they asked for RSVPs, mostly to figure out what attendance would be. I signed up.

The day before the event, I got an e-mail from the sponsors. It said there would probably be more attendees than could fit in the hall. It said they'd put it on a screen in the lobby, and it also provided a private link to watch it at home. I'd been prepared to show up hours early and wait, but on this news I decided to stay home and watch it there. Good thing, too. It lasted 2.5 hours without intermission, and I favor breaks. I took one while some guy who did not identify himself was rambling on and on and on, and when I came back he was still rambling. I did miss the reception afterwards, but receptions with people I don't know personally have always been difficult for me, and tougher under covid.

There was a program list online with eleven musical items, and it turned out they were interleaved with talks between each pair of items. The first piece was a Haydn symphony movement with about 20 chamber musicians, all friends of Geoff - including all the other 6 people who've ever been long-time members of the St. Lawrence Quartet, one of them their first cellist who retired 20 years ago.

Then Geoff's wife, Livia Sohn, who was one of the violinists in the Haydn ensemble, stepped to a microphone and said that Geoff hadn't wanted a memorial but she talked him into permitting it. But he set a couple of conditions: nobody wears black - most had colorful shirts like Geoff himself liked to wear, and Livia was in a bright orange dress, his favorite color - and that there should be more music than talking.

That latter condition was not met. Some of the speakers went on awfully long. Others were good to hear from, like St. Lawrence violist Lesley Robertson, who unlike her colleagues never speaks to the audience at concerts. Some of what was said I jotted down and preserved in the review - really more a report - that I wrote for the Daily Journal and, if you can access it, is here.

Checking for other videos on Vimeo, I came across one recorded a couple years ago by Barry Shiffman, former second violinist with the quartet (he played in the memorial ensemble but didn't speak) talking about how the St. Lawrence would be appearing at some festival he runs (his main activity these days). And he said something about Geoff which captures his character:
There's nobody I know that loves the music of Joseph Haydn more than the first violinist of the St. Lawrence Quartet, Geoff Nuttall. There's an almost religious zeal that he has when he talks about Haydn. It's as though he knows him like his brother, like his best friend. And having been able to sit beside Geoff for years in the quartet, and feel that excitement that he has for this music, was one of the more exhilarating memories I have of my time in the quartet.
There were no regular chamber ensemble pieces in the event. I think they wanted to avoid anything from which Geoff's absence would be too conspicuous. Livia was the only violinist who played a solo piece. There were a few cellists, and some singers. Besides a Purcell aria and a Rachmaninoff concert song, and the premiere of a Shelley setting by frequent St. Lawrence collaborator Osvaldo Golijov, who was there as was his piece (he's infamous for missing deadlines), there were a couple non-classical items. Tenor Paul Groves, who sang the Rachmaninoff, tried to rouse the audience up in "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey, but I don't know the song so I was unmoved. On the other hand, when Vienna Teng sat at the piano and sang her song "Level Up," despite her being unfamiliar to me I thought, I'd heard this song before. And yep, when I checked later I recognized having watched the video once, at somebody's recommendation. It was, in any case, appropriate for the Geoff Nuttall memorial, as it has the most determinedly upbeat lyrics of any song I've ever heard.

Friday, February 3, 2023

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

I'm not sure how to describe the piece I heard last night. The program notes call it a song cycle, but that's hardly an adequate description. Though the composer, Gabriel Kahane, is the son of conductor and pianist Jeffrey Kahane, his creative base is closer to popular music than classical, though this is not his first classical ensemble piece.

The title, pretentiously eschewing capital letters, is emergency shelter intake form, which sounds like some kind of post-nuclear holocaust hellscape, but it's actually a form that homeless people have to fill out to get a bed for the night, and that's what the piece is all about. The bulk of the text is questions from such a form, morphing into evocations of the emotional impact. "Have you ever been evicted? How many times? If yes, how did it feel to hold the pink paper as you stood in the melting snow where men in coveralls tossed your belongings onto the pavement?" This material was sung by mezzo Alicia Hall Moran, in an incongruously plummy tone, in a close to monotonic semi-chant. There was also a "Chorus of Inconvenient Statistics," three non-classical singers including the composer, who interjected into this, and also sang (as soloists) two long inserted songs, more in pop song style and with actual melodic content: one sarcastically attacking NIMBY opposition to affordable housing developments and the other telling the story of the sub-prime mortgage loan crisis, lengthily and incomprehensibly, as like all such tellings it assumes you already know what they're talking about. (e.g. "Say you've got yourself a pile of different loans ..." but who is "you"? It never says.)

Leaving aside the rants, the material in bureaucratic format, with the cruel conclusion ("For enduring this and more" we're offering you a bed for tonight "in a concrete church basement ... You will need to be gone by 6:30 AM") is an effectively bleak evocation of life at that level. The tone is similar to that of John Scalzi's piece "Being Poor." Overall, yes, it was an effective message work.

The orchestral accompaniment is in a style hard to describe. Except for a few deliberately dissonant spots, it's thoroughly tonal, but it's not like any other music I'm familiar with. It might be said to be distantly descended from mid-20C American nationalist music.

It lasted close to an hour, which isn't quite enough for an evening symphony concert, so they paired it with Gershwin's Concerto in F. The orchestra, led by Edwin Outwater, did well enough, but it was pianist Conrad Tao who really had the Gershwin swing. The music brightened up considerably whenever he began playing.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

all sketchy ideas are contained in ...

I'm thinking of taking a trip. This would probably be in late May. This trip would require airplanes, two of them in each direction, with a layover. About 9 hours with the layover.

What I'd like the group wisdom on is, would this be a reasonable risk for somebody like myself - no longer young, no longer in robust health, and thus accordingly more vulnerable - to take who has not had the Covid and wishes not to get it?

I'm less concerned about another trip I'm thinking of with a short, single-hop flight, but the problems with this one are the 3 airports in each direction instead of 2 - I'm told the airports are more risky than the flights - and that I wouldn't be able to keep my mask on at all times, because I can't spend 12 hours (the effective length of the trip) without eating.

My heart wants to take this trip, but my head is skeptical of its feasibility. What do you think?