Friday, March 1, 2024

lecture and a play

I went to a guest lecture at Stanford because the topic sounded interesting. "A Poet's Thoughts on Perception, Cognition, and the Literary Image" was the subtitle, and it was by Richard Kenney, a noted poet who's an English prof at the UW.

He spoke of a lot of things, and ran considerably over his allotted time, but towards the end he focused on a neurological theory that what we think we see is generated by our minds predicting what we're likely to see, and only cross-checks itself against outside reality. I found this theory hard to believe, or if it is true that the cross-checking must be so frequent that it doesn't matter where the images originate, afterwards when driving home, relying on my perception of reality being accurate so I didn't hit another car when going through intersections without stoplights in the dark and pouring rain.

Kenney's purpose in bringing this up was apparently to suggest that if the theory is true, reality is no less a construction of our brains than the things we imagine are. So read more poetry and nourish your imagination, or something.

This and another remark that, if we removed all the words that are somehow metaphorical from the language, there wouldn't be much left, made me wonder if he'd read any Owen Barfield, because they were all things that sounded like what Owen Barfield wrote. But there was no question period, or if there was I didn't stick around for it.

The play came in online video form from the Mint Theater, which specializes in reviving obscure plays. Some are deservedly obscure, like the one I got on their mailing list from, but this is somewhat better. Never previously produced nor published, and sitting among the author's papers in a university archive, it's called Becomes a Woman and is by Betty Smith, author of the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I've never read the book, but I thought I'd try the play, and it was good enough (and excellently acted, in front of a live audience) to get through.

The heroine starts out as a 19-year-old singing sales clerk in a 1930s sheet music store. Her name is Francie Nolan, which is the name of the heroine of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but even considering the age difference their life circumstances are quite different, aside from being poor and living in Brooklyn, so they're not the same person in the fictive universe. Francie is young and naive, and she's very pretty, so every man who comes in the store asks her out, which earns her scorn and reinforces her cynical co-worker's theory that men are all alike and all want the same thing (i.e. to ask Francie out). But then in comes Leonard, who's handsome and suave and apparently well-off, and when he asks her out she changes her mind about being asked out.

That's Act 1. In Acts 2-3 things turn out quite differently. Leonard isn't what he makes himself out to be (of course), and Francie goes through some dramatic vicissitudes which change her mind and her approach to life. To the biggest crisis the reactions of the other characters are as clichéd as possible, but Smith doesn't write them as clichés. Francie's response is to harden and mature, and she Becomes a Woman, hence the title. Anyway, I found it worthwhile to watch and you could watch it too, free on the web for the next two weeks.

ETA: And what should get published this morning but an article revealing what Betty Smith really thought of Brooklyn.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

buon giorno Gioachino

After all, it's not every year we can celebrate Rossini's birthday.

Here's three of his lesser-known great overtures.







It's also Tim Powers' birthday. He's 18 in pirate years.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

browser wars

I usually keep two web browsers open on my desktop: Firefox, which is my regular browser, and Opera, which I use for a few things Firefox doesn't work on. For instance, if a vendor sends me a ticket as an e-mail attachment, Firefox will not display the QR code. I get an empty box. Neither will Opera display it, actually, but if I print it in Opera it comes out OK, which it doesn't in Firefox.

Some websites which didn't display well in Firefox now work better than they used to. One of them is Disney+, and this is fortunate because yesterday, Opera decided it no longer wanted to play videos, from any source. (The sound is still OK.) This happened directly in between one Disney video and another. Online advice for dealing with this problem included closing and reopening the browser, and clearing the cache. I don't know why I keep following advice to solve problems by clearing the cache, because it never works, nor did it this time.

Occasional websites, like Delta Airlines or Kaiser's video appointment service, won't function in either Firefox or Opera, so I have to drag out Google Chrome, which I otherwise avoid.

A non-web item that stopped working recently was our old reliable DVD player, useful for when we've already bought the DVD and don't want to pay additional money for streaming. As with Opera, the problem appeared directly between two files from the same source, in this case on the same DVD, and it took the same form: sound, but no picture. At first I thought the problem was with the monitor, then the disc, but testing proved that not so, and when the player made grinding sounds instead of loading another disc, I knew the end was upon us.

Suspecting that DVD players aren't major items in stores any more, I looked up the model number of ours on Amazon and found it's still in production and not too expensive. So I ordered another one, figuring I could swap it out without having to deal with any rigamarole regarding settings. I placed the new DVD on top of the old one, moved all the cords to the equivalent plugs, and pulled the old one out. Lo, it worked.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

concert review: Telegraph Quartet

Saturday evening I went to the Bing Studio, the little room in the basement of Stanford's concert hall, for a concert by the Telegraph Quartet. I was there to review them. They were playing modern music by three early-to-mid 20th century B's: Berg, Britten, and Bacewicz. All right, it wasn't all that difficult music - even the Berg, which is (mostly, effectively all) serialist, was not that hard to listen to, the Bacewicz is charming when played well, and the Britten is weird and fascinating - and they played it very well, as I acknowledged in my review. It was an enlightening and enriching experience, truly.

Yet the reason it was tucked away in the basement is that the main auditorium had been reserved by the Music Department for the quarterly concert by the student orchestra. The music from it was piped out to monitors in the lobby. At our concert's intermission, they were playing Ravel's Ma Mère L'oye, and when the string quartet concert was over, the orchestra was playing Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. And y'know, I would rather have been there.

Monday, February 26, 2024

on the cusp of bureaucracy

Hurrah, my new driving license arrived, just two weeks after my last visit to the DMV.

The process wasn't so much difficult - though it was that - as consequential, insofar as if anything went wrong I'd be without a license.

You can start as early as 3 months before the renewal date, and I did that. Went online and got an appointment at what I hoped was the most obscurely located (hence perhaps uncrowded) local DMV office - the one that opened at 7 AM that I used before has since closed. I arrive at noon, in time for the appointment, to find no open parking spaces and a long line for non-appointment customers. Go through the normal rigarmarole, to find a new wrinkle. Although in previous renewals my unusual optical situation (one of my eyes can't be corrected for distance vision) was merely checked off, this time they insist I get an eye doctor to verify it. They give me a form for the doctor to fill out, and a temporary license which, as it's only good for two months, expires before the real one does.

Then I have to get an appointment at the eye clinic. My local one has no appointments available for as long as they take appointments for. But it's easy to get one at another branch some distance away. I go there. Usual eye test, new prescription, doctor fills out form, notices that the DMV, when writing down the results of the eye test I took there, mixed the two eyes up.

I can't get an appointment online to turn the form in, because there's no option for this on the web site, which is very baroque and forces you to fill out the application form every time you log in, even if you specified you've already done that. So I decide to return to the same DMV office sans appointment, only this time when they open at 8.

This is much more successful. There's plenty of parking spaces and nobody in line. I get my business done without an appointment faster than I had with an appointment at a busier time. Clerk corrects error on the form, agrees that everything looks OK, confirms I did everything else on my previous visit, isn't put off by all the phantom applications I filled out on the web site, sends me off in the hope that the license will actually arrive soon.

It's two weeks later when I find that this was correct, and that brings us to today and, I hope, the end of this story.

Friday, February 23, 2024

theory in practice

So I've been watching, on YouTube, early episodes of the BBC quiz show Only Connect, which I'd long avoided because I hate the title. In practice it's strangely hypnotic. Its aim is to test both knowledge (over a broad field from academic and technical to British pop culture) and imagination. No one person is expected to display this; it's played in teams of three. I get the answers a lot less often that the teams do, but often enough that I could imagine myself being on a team, and every once in a while I get the answer faster than the teams do.

My favorite of its quizzes is the one where you're given up to three clues and have to guess what the fourth in the series is. Extra points if you guess the fourth after only two or (very rarely) one. (One case where they got it after one was where the one was the text of a 401 web error code and a contestant guessed very reasonably that the fourth would be the classic 404.) Some of the ones that I had no trouble guessing right faster than the teams did, and after only two clues, were
  1. Alexander the Great
  2. Aristotle
  1. Victoria
  2. Edmonton
  1. Ares
  2. Gaia
But my absolute favorite was the one which read
  1. Fear
  2. Surprise
The team given this was absolutely stumped. They were imagining something akin to the Five Stages of Grief (which has also been used in this quiz segment). Meanwhile the other team was chomping at the bit to answer it, and so was I. We knew that the fourth in that sequence is "devotion to the Pope," because "fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope" are the chief weapons - pardon, amongst our weaponry - of the Spanish Inquisition in the Monty Python sketch.

And this comes to mind because I was reading Ada Palmer's wise essay about censorship. And yes, she mentions the Spanish Inquisition. Amongst the article's weaponry is the point that censorship doesn't have to be formally conducted by governments. They can lure people into censoring themselves, and their chief weapons for doing this are described as
  1. fear
  2. deliberate unpredictability (i.e. surprise)
So you can see that, silly as Monty Python is, it's based on reality.

Answers to the unanswered quiz items above. Remember we want the fourth in the sequence.
1. Socrates (each was taught by the next).
2. Winnipeg (Canadian provincial capitals from west to east).
3. Hermes (planet names, inbound, in Greek).

Thursday, February 22, 2024

more world according to cats

It's not going to eat you, Maia: it's only a laundry basket.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

world according to cats

The cats were sleeping in the lazy hours of the afternoon as I hoisted the remaining half-bag of cat food from storage to the upstairs bathroom where we feed them. I managed to keep it silent enough that the food did not rattle.

Closing the bathroom door, I no longer worried about sound as I opened the canister we keep up there, poured the food in, and sealed it up again.

So I was not at all surprised, on opening the door, to find two faces at the threshold patiently looking in. As I left, the cats were scouring the bathroom trying to figure out where the food went. They knew they'd heard it, so it had to be there somewhere.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

presidential greatness

A news item has been running around that historians have once again been asked to rank all US presidents in order of greatness, with the obvious one coming last and the relatives of James Buchanan thanking the scholars for getting him out of the bottom hole at last. However, it's hard to get at the actual list, and I had to fight my way past a series of "Danger Will Robinson" warning labels from my internet security provider to do it.

So as a public service, here's the list, enhanced by me with full names and terms of office. The authors forgot that there were two presidents named Harrison so they didn't distinguish them, so I just guessed which was which. Also, although Biden is called #46 there are only 45 names because there was a 19th-century president, Grover Cleveland, who served two separated terms and gets two numbers - a numbering practice not followed in any other case I know of office-holders more likely to experience repetitions.
  1. Abraham Lincoln (1861-65)
  2. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45)
  3. George Washington (1789-97)
  4. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09)
  5. Thomas Jefferson (1801-09)
  6. Harry S. Truman (1945-53)
  7. Barack Obama (2009-17)
  8. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-61)
  9. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-69)
  10. John F. Kennedy (1961-63)
  11. James Madison (1809-17)
  12. Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
  13. John Adams (1797-1801)
  14. Joe Biden (2021- )
  15. Woodrow Wilson (1913-21)
  16. Ronald Reagan (1981-89)
  17. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-77)
  18. James Monroe (1817-25)
  19. George H.W. Bush (1989-93)
  20. John Quincy Adams (1825-29)
  21. Andrew Jackson (1829-37)
  22. Jimmy Carter (1977-81)
  23. William H. Taft (1909-13)
  24. William McKinley (1897-1901)
  25. James K. Polk (1845-49)
  26. Grover Cleveland (1885-89, 1893-97)
  27. Gerald R. Ford (1974-77)
  28. Martin Van Buren (1837-41)
  29. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-81)
  30. James A. Garfield (1881)
  31. Benjamin Harrison (1889-93)
  32. Calvin Coolidge (1923-29)
  33. Chester A. Arthur (1881-85)
  34. George W. Bush (2001-09)
  35. Richard Nixon (1969-74)
  36. Herbert Hoover (1929-33)
  37. John Tyler (1841-45)
  38. Zachary Taylor (1849-50)
  39. Millard Fillmore (1850-53)
  40. Warren G. Harding (1921-23)
  41. William H. Harrison (1841)
  42. Franklin Pierce (1853-57)
  43. Andrew Johnson (1865-69)
  44. James Buchanan (1857-61)
  45. Donald J. Trump (2017-21)
I would find it difficult to vote in a survey like this. How do you account for actual malignancy in presidents? I count five clear-cut cases, not all of which are ranked at the very bottom; plus about three more with malignant traits passing beyond foolish or erroneous policy, and no, I'm not counting "being a slave-owner in a slave-owning society" as evidence of malignancy. (Though it is notable that only 3 of our first 18 presidents were entirely free of either the taint of this practice or of fellow-traveling in its favor.)

Monday, February 19, 2024

Hugo, I'll stay home

"We know of no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality." - T.B. Macaulay

I'm beginning to be reminded of that by some of the reactions to the scandal regarding last year's Hugos. No question that it was very badly run and all sorts of rules both written and implied were violated. The question at hand is, Now what do we do about it?

Here's a proposal that makes me wonder. The author sweepingly denounces
the cartel of self-proclaimed "SMOFs" (secret masters of fandom) who treat the Hugos - and Worldcon more broadly - as their birthright, playground and personal fiefdom. The Hugo Awards are supposed to be democratic in nature and process; the behavior of the self-proclaimed "SMOFs" is fundamentally anti-democratic - and this is by no means confined to Chengdu Worldcon.
Note that last clause in particular. That being the author's belief, why is one of the proposals that
Individual Cons should no longer administer the Hugo Awards - this should be done by an independent, rotating committee.
Wouldn't that continuing committee be a "cartel" even more than having each convention run the Hugos separately? Sure, if it's rotating it wouldn't be the same people every year, but that's what we have now. There is an informal mass of people known as the permanent floating Worldcon committee, who keep turning up doing the job - and a good thing that often is: they have experience, they're not starting from scratch every year - but each Worldcon is a separate entity and has its own administration. That means that, a few specific overlapping individuals aside (and the relevant one has resigned), the upcoming Worldcons in Glasgow and Seattle are in no way complicit in or tainted by anything that was done by Chengdu. If we had a permanent Hugos committee, we'd lose that.

In any case, practice has been to hermetically seal off the Hugo subcommittee from the main Worldcon committee, for the purpose of protecting the main committee - which can be an awfully large number of people, with uncertainty as to which workers formally qualify as part of it and which don't - from the constitutional provision that those responsible for the Hugos are ineligible as candidates. The main committee can't make the Hugo administrators do anything. Whether Dave McCarty, the Chengdu administrator, accepted direction from above is unknown - we only have his e-mails to his subordinates - but, if so, that was his decision. And a permanent committee wouldn't have been immune to unwonted sensitivity to Chinese censorship.

The current situation is that each Worldcon appoints its own Hugo administrators. And these are either seasoned trusted experienced people who've done it before - which class included Dave McCarty until last month - or new people without any historical baggage, or, mostly these days, some of each. A continuing committee would have the same sort of people, because who else is there to do the job? And without being individually selected by the Worldcon committee, who would select them? Would the committee choose its own new members? Would the Worldcon Business Meeting? If we don't trust the Worldcons themselves to do it - they're selected by the members, who are the ultimate authority.

Perhaps it's clear, then, why I'm also dismayed by another proposal, which reads
No one involved in the administration of the 2023 Hugo Awards, or who assisted in the collection of political evidence, can ever be allowed to have any role in administering the awards ever again.
What exactly is the point of this stricture? It must be just to punish the specific individuals involved and to chill all future administrators with the threat of this very meek form of cancellation, because it can't be to keep maladministrators out of office. It's fallacious to think that only the people who did this, could have done it. Nobody would have suspected Dave McCarty of it until he did it. If someone else were in his place, maybe they would have done the same thing. Human fallibility isn't limited to identified miscreants, but it's convenient to identify a scapegoat and then think you've solved the problem.

I don't think any Worldcon is likely to appoint McCarty again, even without directives. Some of the lower flunkies were perhaps naive or ill-informed and not as responsible. My belief is that we should learn our lesson from this, as we did from the Puppies affair, and move on. A constitutional provision specifically prohibiting the erroneous acts of Chengdu couldn't hurt, but being aware that this flaw in administration could happen is the best way to prevent it from happening again.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

not entirely there

This weekend was the Mythopoeic Society's Online Winter Seminar, whose topic was queerness in all its manifestations, and the papers that I heard mostly stuck pretty closely to it. One of the more interesting, if provocative, speakers defined queerness by saying that the meaning was inherently unstable, but that basically it means "transgression from the normative." This is what it meant, for instance, when a crusty hobbit told Gaffer Gamgee that "Bag End's a queer place, and its folk are queerer." And that's the root of the word's application to specifically sexual transgression, which as a common usage is generally dated from the trial of Oscar Wilde, though it was less prominently used in that sense earlier.

So, since if there's one thing fantasy literature is full of, it's transgression from the normative, there should be plenty to talk about. And there was, but I didn't get much out of it, and bailed early. This was partly due to not liking online conferences. Somehow it's one thing to sit in a cramped classroom chair in a stuffy room and listen live to someone read a paper, but less appealing to sit in my own chair in my own office and listen to someone on a computer.

But it was also due to the style of the papers. These presenters have obvious passionate personal commitment to their subjects, to which their own personal identities are tightly wrapped. But they're also trained industrial-production academics, most of them working on their Ph.D.'s, and they write in stultifying heavy-weather academese. It's a shame: what I like about Tolkien scholarship, or used to like about it, is that so much of it was not written in the academic style, even if it was by tenured academics. Scholars like Verlyn Flieger and Tom Shippey and Brian Attebery and Diana Glyer write like real humans imparting their brilliant insights into the literature that you and they have both read, in ordinary comprehensible language.

The conference was also dotted with the kind of severe correctives of personal failings, especially of those of the past who were not so enlightened as we, that so alarm right-wing critics of this sort of academe. Indeed, some of these right-wingers are former leftists who have decamped in disgust. I, at least, would never do this. Over the top (as Joe Biden would put it) as some of these correctives may be, the right wing's own directives are vast orders of magnitude worse, and far more thorough and sweeping, and more hurtful to those they hit. I know the difference between what's occasionally overloaded and what's thoroughly rancid.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

concert review: Oakland Symphony

The Oakland Symphony still hasn't gotten past the death of its long-time music director Michael Morgan two and a half years ago. It hasn't hired a new music director; this concert was guest conducted by Kedrick Armstrong, the young leader of an orchestra in Galesburg IL; like Morgan he is Black, and he once worked as Morgan's assistant on a guest-conducting gig, so he knew the man.

And the featured work on this program was the premiere of a work that Morgan commissioned. (Musical compositions can be a long time gestating.) It's a half-hour cantata, basically, on the life of Paul Robeson. One thing that emerged from the pre-concert talk was how few people today, even Blacks, have ever heard of Paul Robeson; even Armstrong hadn't when he was asked to lead this concert, which is why I linked to Robeson's Wikipedia page. But people my age, or Morgan's, though we postdate Robeson's career, have at least picked up resonances and heard his recordings.

The music, basically neo-post-Romantic, was by Carlos Simon, and the libretto, mostly from Robeson's book Here I Stand (which also provided the piece's title) and his public statements, by Dan Harder. It incorporated references to some of Robeson's vocal repertoire: a verse of "Joe Hill," a couple bits of spirituals, and a brief thematic reference - no lyrics, you wouldn't want them - to "Old Man River." The solo part, which mixed singing, speaking, and some in between, was delivered by Morris Robinson, whose range went if anything deeper than Robeson's own, but seemed less powerful or resonant, but that may be due to my sitting in the back of the auditorium beneath the overhang. The text focused on Robeson's political and social faith to help the African American and other suffering peoples (it did not shy from Robeson's use of the now-outdated word "Negro", sometimes using it in melismas); the chorus mostly chimed in, except for a scene taken from Robeson's HUAC hearings where it played the censorious congressmen.

Anyway, an effective piece, and it was paired with two other works which could be packaged as showing the composer as social activist: Joan Tower's Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 6, rushed and angry, and Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, for which Armstrong took the slow and quiet parts of all four movements as slowly and gently as possible, the better to contrast with the fast and loud parts without overloading them. Also an effective performance.

Friday, February 16, 2024

concert review

Nearly fourteen years ago, I reviewed a Paganini concerto with a staggeringly talented fourteen-year-old boy named Stephen Waarts as soloist.

Yesterday, I heard him again at Herbst: in his late twenties, very tall, and playing Janáček's gnarly First Violin Sonata from memory (Juho Pohjonen, pianist). But the principal attraction of the evening was a pair of piano trios (Jonathan Swensen, cellist) by composers who were themselves teenagers at the time they wrote them: Dmitri Shostakovich's, which was incipiently modernist, and César Franck's, which was stealthy and hypnotic. This weirdly attractive piece (Op. 1 No. 1 in F-sharp minor) ought to be heard more often, or, indeed, at all. (Music@Menlo has just announced this year's festival, which is focused on French music but includes no Franck whatever. What were they thinking?)

Arriving in the Herbst lobby over an hour before showtime, I was genially accosted by an elderly woman in a wheelchair who wanted to talk at me incessantly. She was interesting enough, and even asked permission to follow me over when I went to sit on a bench, so I welcomed her company. She told me that she'd once been engaged to sing Tosca at La Scala, but canceled to return to the States to take care of her ailing mother. She told me this several times. She was also frantically looking through the plastic bags of stuff in her lap for her misplaced credit card. I suggested that she spread the stuff out on the bench to make it easier to look. This worked and she was grateful. Then she went off to buy a ticket and then came back. Not sure if she'd ever stop talking, at least if she had me to talk to, when the hall opened I pointed her towards the wheelchair seating and went myself off down some steps. Phew.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Hugo mess

(This will only make sense to people who've been following the controversies over last year's Hugo Awards. My apologies to anybody else: just skip it.)

So Kat Jones has resigned as Glasgow Hugo Administrator, presumably because she was complicit in the censorship decisions made at Chengdu.

The thing is, though, that she's been complicit all along, and she knew she was complicit. The rest of the world didn't know it, but she did. She knew what was going on. She knew what lay behind Dave McCarty's infamous non-answers to legitimate questions, and why he wasn't answering them. Perhaps she even knew why that long delay ensued before the release of the statistics (Diane Lacey did).

So, if this was so shameful, why didn't Kat resign earlier? If her reputation is so besmirched that she has to be "removed from the Glasgow 2024 team across all mediums" (e-mail from Glasgow announcing the resignation), why did she join Glasgow at all, assuming she did so after the Chengdu vetting period?

What bothers me is that the sequence of events says that it's not being complicit in Chengdu that's the fault here, but being publicly known to be complicit. Either that's the real reason for Kat's resignation, or else Glasgow has over-reacted to the revelations. (Not their transparency decisions: those are good. But the cleansing of any trace of Chengdu. If it was that dishonorable by those involved ... well, I've made my point already.)

actual age on election day, UK edition

I had so much fun compiling the historical chart of the ages of US presidential candidates that I decided to do the same thing for major-party leaders at UK general elections for the same period, since 1945. I'm assuming that the general election due in 2024 will be held towards the end of the legal eligibility period, which expires in December. As to the comparative age distributions, I'll let that pass without comment.

76 Churchill 1951
75 Churchill 1950
74
73
72 Attlee 1955
71
70 Churchill 1945, Corbyn 2019
69 Foot 1983
68 Attlee 1951, Corbyn 2017
67 Attlee 1950, Callaghan 1979
66
65 Macmillan 1959
64 Howard 2005
63
62 Attlee 1945, Starmer 2024
61 Douglas-Home 1964, Thatcher 1987
60 May 2017
59 Brown 2010
58 Heath Oct 1974, Wilson Oct 1974
57 Eden 1955, Heath Feb 1974, Wilson Feb 1974, Thatcher 1983
56
55 Johnson 2019
54 Wilson 1970, Major 1997
53 Gaitskell 1959, Heath 1970, Thatcher 1979
52
51 Blair 2005
50 Wilson 1966, Kinnock 1992
49 Heath 1966, Major 1992
48 Wilson 1964, Blair 2001, Cameron 2015
47
46
45 Kinnock 1987, Miliband 2015
44 Sunak 2024
43 Blair 1997, Cameron 2010
42
41
40 Hague 2001

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

precursor valentine's

B. and I have learned not to try to dine out on Valentine's Day; instead we go out on a shoulder day. Usually afterwards, but this year the day before worked better for our schedule. We picked a high-end Italian place that had gotten good rankings locally for romantic atmosphere. Well, the lighting was dim, and the service was (nearly) impeccable, but it was crowded and noisy and the food, though good, was not great. The best parts were the lobster bisque soup, and the chocolate mousse that I had for dessert. This came in a champagne snifter, and was accordingly a large serving, so why did the waiter look so startled and dismayed (this was the one peck in the service) when I asked to take the bulk of it home? Last time I had chocolate mousse out, it was a smaller serving but the servers didn't quail at the same request. Anyway, he did decant the mousse into a little box, and it's in my fridge now.

More sweets for our little nominal Valentine's presents. B. was delighted with what I'd found: a package of frosted animal cookies, not in the usual shapes of circus animals, but as mythical creatures: unicorns, dragons, mermaids, and sea serpents. What a cute idea, and there's nothing preventing them from being made this way, so why didn't someone think of this before?

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

concert review: Beo String Quartet

Finally out to a concert for the first time in two weeks and a lot of other water under the bridge. To Willow Glen to review my first chamber music concert in the church that several of the wiser concert promoters in San Jose have moved to after being evicted a couple years ago by the closing of the hall they'd all been using.

The concert was a rather mixed grill of a program by the Beo String Quartet, a young ensemble of players from Pittsburgh. One of them attended Carnegie Mellon, and I guess he swept the others, who'd studied elsewhere, in. One Haydn, light and witty as not everybody does Haydn; one Shostakovich, moderately high on the grimdark scale; a chunk of serious Bach fugues; and three contemporary compositions, one by a quartet member, the others by established women composers whose work I've heard before (Missy Mazzoli and Gabriela Ortiz).

Pretty satisfying evening, though I had to equip myself with a large army of cough drops to ward off the remnant of a long-departed cold.

actual age on election day

81 Biden 2024
80
79
78 Trump 2024
77 Biden 2020
76
75
74 Trump 2020
73 Reagan 1984, Dole 1996
72 McCain 2008
71
70 Trump 2016
69 Reagan 1980, Clinton 2016
68 Bush 1992
67
66 Eisenhower 1956
65 Romney 2012
64 Truman 1948, Bush 1988
63 Ford 1976
62 Eisenhower 1952
61
60 Kerry 2004
59 Nixon 1972
58 Bush 2004
57 Humphrey 1968
56 Stevenson 1956, Johnson 1964, Carter 1980, Mondale 1984
55 Goldwater 1964, Nixon 1968, Dukakis 1988
54 Bush 2000
53
52 Stevenson 1952, Carter 1976, Gore 2000
51 Obama 2012
50 McGovern 1972, Clinton 1996
49
48
47 Nixon 1960, Obama 2008
46 Dewey 1948, Clinton 1992
45
44
43 Kennedy 1960

"Voters are just going to have to choose between 'a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory'* or a contemptible, malicious, elderly rapist with a poor memory" - Stephen Colbert

*Special Counsel's report on Joe Biden

Sunday, February 11, 2024

antiquarian book fair

I was wondering what to do on Super Bowl Sunday. It's a good time to go out, because I have no interest in the game but it occupies other people, leaving it quiet and uncongested out there.

Then I read in File 770 an item linking to an NPR news story that the dealer who bought the original Leo and Diane Dillon painting that formed the cover for the first edition of Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness would be displaying it at the Antiquarian Book Fair in San Francisco.

So I thought, OK, I'll go. I've been to the Book Fair before a couple times. I like books but I'm not much of a collector, certainly not of antique nor expensive ones, and the offerings are no more than pleasant to browse through. But at least "antiquarian books" include modern classics, and more and more those classics are apt to include ones that I've read.

So it was this time. It was not very crowded and there was very little sports talk. I headed first for Mark Funke's booth where the painting was indeed on display, with a price tag of (IIRC) $20,000. The most striking difference from the reproduction was the acrylic three-dimensional relief on the little white circles that decorate the painting. I talked with Mr Funke a bit about what the book has meant to us, and then passed on to other things.

I kept my eye out for Tolkien. One dealer had a semi-first edition of The Lord of the Rings for $25,500. It was the first printing of volumes 2 and 3, plus a second printing of volume 1, whose first printing was a shorter run and hence considerably rarer. Another dealer had the same mixed copy for $51,000. But a third dealer had a genuine first all the way through for $42,500. I pulled volume one down and checked: it was indeed a first; it didn't have the typos which entered in the second printing and infected the book for decades. I asked them if they knew how lucky they were to have the true first: they were, but they hadn't known about the typos in the reprints.

There were some more things. A first American Hobbit for $35,000. A first of Farmer Giles for $1200. Some of the same dealers had some early Gnome Press editions of Isaac Asimov. Asimov seems more popular than Heinlein, Bradbury, or Clarke. One of the same dealers had a Shakespeare Fourth Folio for some large amount of money. Popular children's books included Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (no mention of how the early editions differ from the later ones) and - this slightly surprised me - Bridge to Terabithia.

The fair was in a two-story event hall located oddly enough on a cruise ship docking pier on the waterfront. There was something of a glitch getting there because BART was down for some reason so I took a bus all the way to the Embarcadero before transferring to the other bus that went past the right pier. Returning was less stressful.

Friday, February 9, 2024

Seiji Ozawa

The famous conductor, probably the first internationally renowned conductor of Asian origin, has died at 88. Obituaries rightly focus on his long tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony, but they also mention his time at San Francisco, which he passed through in 1970-76 with the same hoopla with which he arrived at Boston, for which he rather crassly abandoned us. I remember Ozawa at SFS; attending it under his direction was my introduction to symphony concerts.

I can best express an honest, unfettered reaction to Ozawa by reproducing what I wrote about him a decade ago in an entry on SFS music directors whose work I've known:

Ozawa, one of the first of the many Leonard Bernstein protégés to be launched on the conducting world, was brought in with the level of hoopla that would later accompany MTT's arrival in 1995, only in 1970 style. He was young! (35 at the time) He had a Beatles haircut! He wore a turtleneck sweater while conducting! He was announced with pop art posters! Unfortunately, unlike MTT, he didn't live up to the hype. His conducting was unexciting, his repertoire choices wayward. (I liked his penchant for obscure Haydn symphonies, but others didn't; even Herb Caen carped about it occasionally.) The orchestra had terrible flaws in technique during Ozawa's tenure, and the conductor got caught up in debilitating personnel wars when he tried to do something about it. I recently picked up a CD re-release of their recording of Dvorak's Symphony from the New World; it perfectly captures the blatty sound of the SFS of those days, and listening to it made me drip with nostalgia (which proves you don't have to like something to be nostalgic for it).

Ozawa's greatest sin, however, was that, though he'd assured everyone he was committed to San Francisco and wouldn't be just a jet-setting hired hand dropping in every now and then, after only three years on the job he accepted simultaneously the music directorship of the Boston Symphony. It was hard to believe he could devote sufficient attention to both at once, and soon afterwards he gave up SFS entirely for Boston, where critical consensus is that he stultified a great orchestra for an enormous tenure of thirty years. He's never been back, but he did leave one great legacy in San Francisco: He created a permanent symphony chorus, instead of hiring community groups whenever we needed one; the result has been continually one of SFS's most solid assets.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

human-made disaster

Of the several reasons I've never gone over completely to using a cell phone - dislike of holding one up against my brain for long periods of time, keeping track of charging and turning the thing off and on - one particularly stands out. It's the spotty reception service where I live. This is striking because I live in the heart of Silicon Valley, one mile from Apple world headquarters. But the cell phone reception here is weak.

Then there's our internet service. It's not so much weak as unreliable. It keeps going out, usually for short periods, especially but not only on summer afternoons. It used to be worse - hours on end - but it's never been entirely fixed.

We've been lucky regarding electric power. Outages are few. We had one a few months ago when some equipment went bad. But neighborhoods just like ours around here are still waiting to get their power back from the storms a few days ago that knocked out power lines.

You know what we don't lose? POTS. Plain Old Telephone Service, the landline. It doesn't sputter like the internet. When the electric power goes out, the phone always remains on. It's reliable. And the more unreliable the others are - especially in the mountainous areas, where power outages are especially likely, so are road blockages - the more necessary it is for emergency communication.

Which accounts for the widespread dismay at AT&T's proposal to discontinue it. For most of this region, AT&T is the legally-mandated default carrier, the one that has to maintain a phone line for anyone who wants it. (A few towns are designated for GTE, but mostly it's AT&T.) They find it a burden that prevents them from expending resources on other things. They want to be relieved of the responsibility, and have thus petitioned the state Public Utilities Commission.

Hearings are going on. I hope the PUC declines. Other human disasters going on - wars throughout the world, legislative breakdowns, the rising tide of bigotry which hasn't hit me personally yet though it affects many others, the continued presence of DT in our political discourse (what's he doing there? Surely universal revulsion should have driven him off the stage long ago?) - don't affect me so directly and are well-enough covered by other commentators that I don't have anything to add. (I particularly note the analysis of Supreme Court decisions before they're made or even argued before the Court.)

But this one has not been widely discussed, and hits me close and personal.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

wet days

Monday I arose from my bed of convalescence and actually headed out on errands. Most of our supply of now-needed medical monitoring devices needed new button batteries. It was supposed to be less blustery a day than Sunday, but it wasn't. Plenty of rain and wind. No fallen trees anywhere I was, but plenty of piles of miscellaneous leaves and small branches littering the streets, and a few neighborhoods with the power out.

Today the weekly release of reviews on SFCV came out, and the SFS concert I would have reviewed on Friday had I not been hospitalized was not on it. Apparently the editors weren't able to find a substitute. And that was supposed to be the week's headline event. This only makes me feel more guilty that I wasn't able to attend. Not that I didn't attend, you understand, but that I couldn't. If they'd let me out of the hospital early I could have forced myself back in by trying to attend; on top of which, as B. pointed out, fellow concertgoers would not have appreciated me coughing.

Also today, in the mail a credit card bill, including the air fare to Mythcon next summer that I bought a couple weeks ago. The credit card split it up into numerous separate charges, so I looked it up on the airline's website to ensure the totals matched. They did, but it was at that point that I discovered what the airline had not bothered to tell me, which is that their schedules have changed and our choice of their one non-stop flight to MSP now involves a change of planes.

Now I have a choice:

1. Stick with it, despite our intense aversion, due mostly to age-related immobility, to changing planes. You can get assistance, but it is still a tremendous hassle with plenty of chance for things to go wrong, or if not wrong, stressful.

2. Switch to the new nonstop flight, which is at an inconvenient time, with no guarantee there won't be another schedule change.

3. Buy a new ticket with the other available airline, with all the hassle that involves, and hoping that the guaranteed refund on the first airline is for real.

Still weighing these options.

Monday, February 5, 2024

Darling redux

Many's the year ago that I took along a videorecording (VCR; DVDs hadn't quite come out yet) of an Oscar-winning film as an AV addition to the scholarly paper I was giving. The movie was Darling (John Schlesinger, 1965), and the reason for my need of it was the appearance, in a cameo role, of Hugo Dyson, the Inkling I was giving a paper on. Dyson gave a lot of academic talks to camera, but he wasn't otherwise much of an actor, so this was an unusual appearance. In the movie, Julie Christie plays a model who forms an extramarital alliance with a radio & tv interviewer played by Dirk Bogarde, and he takes her along with him on an interview with a famous elderly writer, and that's Dyson's part.

That's fairly early on in the movie, and while I watched quickly through the rest at the time just to know what happens, I didn't pay close attention. It was only recently that, coming across the cast list, I noticed that it includes a couple actresses who went on to appear in Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner. Intrigued, because it's always fun to spot a performer you know in a different role, I decided to watch the film again more closely.

This was tricky, as it's not available streaming. However, a couple of public libraries still have DVDs of it, so I got it from one of them.

Dirk Bogarde's character is supposed to be a deep, book-reading man, but in fact he's a twit. He does programs like man-on-the-street interviews of What's Wrong with Britain. The answers turn out to be things like traffic, people wanting sumpfin for nuffin, and the rising tide of homosexuality (yes, really). But it's because Dirk is so deep and stuffy that Julie gets tired of him, which she expresses by insulting his character. She runs off to experience the glamorous life in continental high society. Here is where we meet the Prisoner actresses. Georgina Cookson (Mrs. Butterworth) plays a catty woman who exchanges elegant insults with Laurence Harvey. Then Annette Carell ("B" from "A B & C") plays a sculptor - she's always talking about the shape of people's heads - who lures Julie into a strange party game which involves taking off most of your clothes, putting on somebody else's, and then performing a sarcastic imitation of them.

Eventually Julie accepts a marriage proposal from a wealthy widowed Italian prince, but finding herself alone and lonely in his spacious mansion, she suddenly decides that Dirk was the man for her after all and rushes back to London to meet him. But guess what, he's had enough, he doesn't want her any more, and he bullies her into getting on a plane back to Rome.

I can't say I believe any of this, or am very interested in it. Everybody's cretinous - except Hugo Dyson, he's a nice old man - and none of what they say makes much sense. Even during the halcyon period when Julie and Dirk are supposedly happy together, their love talk is nonsensical blither, their usual response to any question of what they want is "I don't know," and they keep being more meta-concerned about their state of happiness than actually experiencing it.

I had to watch parts of the movie three times through to catch the people I was looking for, because I kept falling asleep. Now I have perhaps conveyed what it's like to suffer through it.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

concert review: Symphony San Jose

Having been otherwise occupied last Saturday, I attended the Sunday matinee of Symphony San Jose's program under instruction to review it. The review wasn't difficult to write and, unusually, I got it done by the next morning. If I'd waited for the deadline on Tuesday it would have been too late (see previous post).

The selling point of this concert was the concerto written as a collaboration between a composer and an A.I. program, which had been trained on the composer's own works. I considered this something of a gimmick and not a very successful one, insofar as the A.I.'s music sounded like a copy of the composer's and didn't go much of anywhere he didn't, despite his and the programmer's avowals in the pre-concert talk that it was dashingly creative and quickly passed beyond normal human ken or whatever.

But I tried not to be too declarative about this and mostly contented myself with a series of sarcastic remarks, not just about the A.I. concerto but for Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra, which, we were told, earned its way on the program due to its association with 2001, a movie with a malevolent A.I. in it.

That seemed to me rather dim grounds for making the audience sit through half an hour of Straussian sludge, just for the opening fanfare, spectacular as it is. But they did at least do a good job with the piece as a whole.

Saturday, February 3, 2024

out of contact

This is my first post since last Sunday because I've been in the hospital for most of the intervening. Some of my vital functions went off the rails and needed repair. After the initial few hours of physical distress were over, it was mostly a matter of sitting around for several days as the functions were gently lifted back on their tracks, or, to vary the metaphor, waiting for the glue to set.

I could have occupied the time posting via wifi, but unfortunately I'm between tablets. My old one is losing function and I hit reset on it recently in vain hopes of restoring this, but it does mean I lost my logins. And the newer one that B. just got me (an ipad mini, refurbished, because they don't make that size any more - one nurse thought it was a weirdly large smartphone) isn't set up yet and requires a lot of data I only have at home.

In the meantime I could browse the web, the free sites anyway, and read such hard copy material as B. had to bring me.

I'm a person who likes frequently to get up from where I'm sitting, or lying, and wander around for a bit, but even ambulatory patients are not permitted to do that on their own in a hospital. For one thing you're connected to far too many tubes. The hospital bed was comfortable, but lying face up in it for hours on end is extremely irksome to me unless I'm actively falling asleep. I felt more at ease in the reclining chair next to it, and with blankets over my feet and behind my shoulders spent most of my time there, even entire nights with a little sleep.

The restriction not to move is enforced by alarms if the bed or chair senses a significant shift or loss of weight. It did not escape my attention that setting the alarm off got staff members to appear a lot faster than pressing the call button did, and I did take advantage of this when I thought it necessary. Not too often. For though the pace of service is a lot more relaxed in the hospital dorms than it is in the emergency treatment bays, where I spent a while because no hospital room was yet open, all the personnel were helpful and absolutely dedicated to their jobs. A hospital patient has to ask nurses and aides for a lot of trivial tasks that ordinarily one could do for oneself, but I never felt as if I were unnecessarily imposing.

No physical therapy program impinged on me, but the aides did take me for a couple of walks along the corridors with a walker. This was helpful what with not otherwise walking anywhere. When I got out I hobbled pretty badly for several hours, but I think I'm getting the hang of it back.

The highlight of your hospital day is meals. For my first breakfast, which I didn't have the chance to order, they brought a cheese omelet with spinach and mushroom. Not bad, and I had it again another day. Lunch was a little dull, with a choice of sandwiches of chicken, turkey, tuna, or egg salad. I suppose there were others if one really objected, and I'm sure there's a vegan option and so on. But I just sighed and ordered the turkey sandwich every day, being sure to load it down with the entire contents of a tiny packet of mustard that came with. Dinner had more variety in the offerings, but I was so happy with the fish I got the first night - cod, seasoned, with seasoned rice and steamed broccoli, my favorite, that I just re-ordered that, and I'd have it again right now if I could. The ordering clerk couldn't tell you what veggie or starch each option came with, and I felt I'd struck it so lucky with the broccoli that I'd better stick with it.

B. came by every day, and my brother phoned regularly. Despite lacking access to my files, I went through with a previously scheduled editorial phone meeting for Tolkien Studies, and we accomplished what we needed. My co-editors worried that it was imposing too much on me, but in fact it was a pleasant break in my day. I also, as soon as I could, contacted my SFCV editor and canceled out on reviewing the same concert yesterday that Herbert Blomstedt had already canceled out on conducting, knowing that even if I was out on Friday I'd be in no shape to go up to the City, especially as it turned out to be a very inclement day.

However ... oh, well, tomorrow's post.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

concert review: California Symphony

And yesterday, it was the turn of the California Symphony, with a program featuring three American works from the 1920s and 30s, the period that gave birth to serious Americana in classical music.

The biggest hit on the program was Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. No simple pianist to play the solo part, we had a jazz trio, the Marcus Roberts Trio. Roberts on piano made up his own part for the solo piano sections, but when playing with the orchestra he stuck with what Gershwin gave him. This reminded me of the limits Peter Jackson faced in how far he could depart from what Tolkien gave him. The bassist and drummer stuck in their oars from time to time. The encore was something barely recognizable as "I've Got Rhythm."

Samuel Barber's compact Symphony No. 1, not often played. (Conductor Donato Cabrera suggested it's too short to conveniently anchor a program.) Big hearty performance this time.

And William Levi Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony, exceedingly rare: championed by Stokowski but hardly ever played by anyone else. Everyone's on Florence Price these days as the African-American composer of the period, and William Grant Still gets an occasional look in, but Dawson is mostly still forgotten. Although some of his tunes here are genuine Black spiritual melodies, there was nothing that I recognized, and unlike Price's his music doesn't otherwise have that distinctly Black ethnic quality. It was nice but a little overlong and not as striking as I'd hoped.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

three concerts and an art museum

I've been out the last three nights attending the Pivot Festival, which is an annual new-music event in SF's Herbst Theatre. This year the curator is Gabriel Kahane, who is a singer-songwriter (mostly with piano) who's also a classical composer. The SFS performed a mixed-genre song-cycle/oratorio of his last year. I don't find Kahane's songs very appealing (unlike, say, Vienna Teng and Richard Thompson), but I do like that he does classical work, and I really wanted to hear the performers he'd brought in to collaborate with at Pivot: the Attacca String Quartet, whom I first heard at Menlo when they were starting out two decades ago, and Roomful of Teeth, the avant-garde a cappella vocal group which came to attention a decade ago when a piece written for them by one of their members, Caroline Shaw, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Shaw, who is still with the group, has gone on to become a leading young composer of instrumental as well as vocal music, and a favorite of mine.

For the first concert, on Wednesday, the Attacca interleaved the movements of Ravel's String Quartet, which they played in a soft and pillowy manner, with the movements of a heavier and more emphatic quartet by Paul Wiancko, the new cellist of the Kronos Quartet, and some songs by Kahane, which he sang at the piano with obbligato accompaniment by the quartet. The Attacca also played a quartet by Kahane, a succession of a variety of postmodern styles: traditional modernist, minimalist, pointillist, spectralist ...

For the second concert, on Thursday, Roomful of Teeth sang several works, one of them by Caroline Shaw, with abstract piping sounds of various kinds. Some were a cappella, some had light accompaniment. Some were wordless, but if there were words they were completely unintelligible. The last and longest piece, however, was a song cycle by Kahane, Elevator Songs, which was more conventional in style and worked somewhat better. The songs were written for the individual members of the group. Most were serious and not easy to make out the words of, but a couple that were intelligible were deliberately funny and quite amusing in performance.

The third concert, on Friday, brought in both groups and reverted to Wednesday's interleaving style, alternating Roomful of Teeth singing the movements of Shaw's Pulitzer-winning Partita with keyboard pieces by François (and Louis) Couperin crisply arranged for Attacca by Kahane. The alternation of entirely contrasting styles turned out to be quite refreshing, and this evening, by far the best-attended, was also the most successful musically.

One afternoon before the concert, I ventured into the Asian Art Museum two blocks away at the recommendation of Lucy H. to see the exhibit of notoriously cutesy1 Japanese artist Takashi Murakami's entirely contrasting monsters. Some, with giant bulbous heads and rows of huge pointed teeth, reminded me of drawings I'd made as a child, and of course there was a Godzilla wreathed in flames, but the most impressive was a mural maybe 50 feet long featuring, among other weird things, knots of a dozen wrestlers each, clad only in loincloths, their limbs and hideous heads all entangled, watched by a cluster of observers with various odd features like pumpkin heads, long rope-like necks, and so on. Murakami's work is of course closely akin to manga and anime, and the captions say his strongest Western influence is Francis Bacon, but this mural made me wonder if he's seen any Hieronymus Bosch, because the impact was very similar.

1. He's the guy who does flowers with little faces on them surrounded by multi-colored petals. Some of these showed up in the background of the works with the big-teeth monsters.

Friday, January 26, 2024

concert review: The St. Lawrence something

I made sure I was awake and alert not just for the Sacramento Philharmonic concert I attended last Saturday evening, but for the two-hour drive home at 10 pm. What I hadn't taken into account was that I was to review a concert for SFCV the following afternoon. I don't think I had entirely succeeded at banishing grogginess by that time, but I succeeded in absorbing enough to write a review anyway.

I'm not entirely sure what the name was of the ensemble I heard on this occasion. This series used to be the St. Lawrence String Quartet, but now just three of them are carrying on since the fourth died. The concert promoters usually call them just "The St. Lawrence" now. The concert program billed it as the Stanford Chamber Strings, which I hadn't heard of before but which on checking turned out evidently to be a student ensemble, except that this time the three St. Lawrence players acted as section leaders. But after two pieces with this grouping, the three principals joined a pianist for Schumann's quartet for 3 string instruments and piano. So, mixed offering, I guess.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

state of the primary

Most of the news reports I've seen on the New Hampshire Republican primary simply say "DT won" and leave it at that. And of course that's how his people are spinning it. But that's no reason for everyone else to follow suit. Only one report I've seen - and now I can't remember which one - pointed out that he won only 54% and Haley got 43%. That's surprisingly low for a supposed triumphal march to the nomination, and shows that Haley is right that the race is still on. (Remember, too, that DT got only 51% in the Iowa caucuses, despite their being biased highly in his favor; his statewide win proves only that his support was evenly spread geographically, not that it was universal.) Though if, as seems to be in the offing, Haley loses South Carolina, her own home state, that probably will be the end of it.

At this point, with few delegates chosen, it's a game of expectations. It's possible to lose while winning: that is, to win so anemically that it shows weakness rather than strength. This was proven dramatically by the NH Democratic primaries of 1968 and 1972. Perhaps nobody else remembers these, but I do. In 1968, President Johnson running for re-election won 50%, and insurgent challenger Gene McCarthy 42%. That was so remarkably high for a challenger against a supposedly impregnable leader that the message was that Johnson lost, even though technically he won. And you could say the same of Haley against DT - if you wanted to. In 1968, Johnson dropped out of the race three weeks later: that's how bad his win was for him.

In 1972, again it was expectations. Ed Muskie was the leading candidate, he came from the neighboring state of Maine, he was expected to sweep NH. He got 46%. George McGovern, out of nowhere, got 37%. McGovern was the big news of the night, and that began the sweep that got him the nomination.

One poll says a large percentage - maybe half? - of Haley voters in NH wouldn't vote for DT in November. That sounds doubtful - the urge to rally round the nominee is strong once the finals are close - but it does indicate a weakness, in November if not in the primaries. We can only hope.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

concert review: Sacramento Philharmonic

This is the other orchestra of which the Oakland Symphony's Michael Morgan was music director until his death three years ago. But while Oakland still hasn't appointed a permanent replacement, Sacramento has. As of this season, their "Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor" is Ari Pelto, an American of Finnish descent. Sacramento seems to be doing well for itself: attendance is bursting the bounds of its very spacious venue, and as of next season they plan to give each concert twice, as San Jose does (Oakland doesn't).

I've been at one time or another to several orchestras in the Central Valley, but this event on Saturday was my first concert in Sacramento. Pelto arranged for a concert with a couple of my not-often-heard favorites, and I couldn't resist, despite the long drive and, as it turned out, the rain.

The program's main piece was the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto. The soloist was Michelle Cann, whom I remember from some Silicon Valley Music Festival concerts a few years back. She's matured into a powerful soloist with a way of putting legato smoothness even into the "tolling bells" opening of this concerto. Due perhaps to the very wide shape of the auditorium, the piano sound dissipated and didn't focus well, so Cann didn't always dominate over the (quite large) orchestra as she should have. But the liveliness of her performance was outclassed by the encore: she began Rach's Prelude in C-sharp minor with slow gravity, and then suddenly switched to an ultra-fast jazzed-up version, making free with rhythm and emphasis. Heuwell Tircuit would have hated it.

In a pre-concert talk, Pelto said he wanted Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé Suite to reflect the irony and farce of the movie it's arranged from, and I thought, how refreshing. Music sources used to claim (falsely) that the movie had never actually been made, and now here's a conductor who's seen it. (As have I.) It was light and energetic, with some of the solos almost hinting at the same kind of freedom with rhythm that Michelle Cann took in her encore.

And lastly, Sibelius's Third, his most understated but most beautiful symphony. This again was a light-toned performance, feeling fragile in its careful charm.

I was very happy with all of this, and yes it was worth the trouble I took to get there.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

pretty damn gone

In memory of Peter Schickele, concoctor of P.D.Q. Bach, here are my favorites of old P.D.Q.'s choral works: one carol, one madrigal.



Friday, January 19, 2024

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

This was going to be an MTT concert, but he's been frail and ill enough to decide to reduce his two-week residency to one. He'll be here next week to conduct Mahler, but I won't be here to listen to it. The podium for this week was handed over to Dalia Stasevska, whom I heard last season conducting Sibelius.

Wearing what looked like a white lab coat with black splotches all over it, this time she led Dvořák's New World Symphony in an exciting, pile-driving performance of the old warhorse. In the first movement, an ultra-slow mysterioso introduction jumped into a ringing clarion call of the main theme, and finishing up with a whip-snap stretto coda. The Largo underplayed the music's sorrowful side and was punctuated by shattering fortissimo explosions, I bet you forgot they were there because they're not usually this dramatic. And so forth all the way through, with plenty of expression in tempo and volume and a lot of typically dazzling SFS playing.

Along with it, Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto with Seong-Jin Cho, whom I've also heard before. He managed to be both crisp and lyrical at the same time, while the orchestral playing was more sedate than in the Dvořák. But both piano and orchestra were brilliantly colorful, and that was the main virtue of the performance. Cho's encore was one of Liszt's soggy Petrarch sonatas: you take what you can get.

Overall a good show, and I'm glad I got to this one.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

a thought

John Garth asks, Was Queen Margarethe's abdication inspired by her reading of ... Tolkien?

We know she read and liked The Lord of the Rings: as princess she drew some illustrations of it and sent them to an admiring Tolkien; some were later published in an edition of the book.

John compares the abdication to the voluntary death of Aragorn in "The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen"; a closer parallel as not involving death, though perhaps unknown to the Queen if she never went on to read Unfinished Tales, not published until after her accession, is the earlier monarchs of Númenor, who laid down the scepter voluntarily before being enfeebled by age. (John mentions the later kings, who clung to life and power until they died unwillingly.)

One particular parallel to Aragorn is that he tells Arwen, "Eldarion our son is a man full-ripe for kingship." Also the case here. King Frederik is obviously in the prime of life to serve in the formal post of constitutional monarch. I wish him and his country well, and the former Queen a happy retirement. Maybe she'll now have time for some more artwork.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

quoting Howard Waldrop

Who just died a couple days ago, a science fiction writer of an unsurpassed combination of erudition and weirdness, author most notably of "The Ugly Chickens," surely one of the greatest SF stories ever, and surely the greatest ever in which the science was ornithology, and a story with an unforgettable bite in its ending.

I heard him read stories a couple of times, but only personally met him once, when we discussed the merits of hot pickled okra over the con suite buffet at the Austin Corflu in 2007. Not the sort of conversation I have every day though perhaps Howard did.

Curious readers can find a sampling of his nonfiction in the form of his columns preserved in the archives of Infinite Matrix.

When Barack Obama faced Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries, I found myself with appropriate quotes for both of them. For Obama, I had Mike Royko telling his readers to calm down and not quiver and quake at the prospect that Harold Washington would be elected Mayor of Chicago. And for Clinton, this by Howard Waldrop from another strange future-apocalyptic reversion-to-stereotypical-tribal-behavior story:
"My brothers!" he began, so I figured he would be at it for a long time. "We seem to spend all our time in Council, rather than having fun like we should. It is not good, it makes my heart bitter.
"The idea that a woman can get a hearing at Council revolts me. Were this a young man not yet proven, or an Elder who had been given his Service feather, I would not object. But, brothers, this is a woman!" His voice came falsetto now, and he began to chant:
"I have seen the dawn of bad days, brothers.
But never worse than this.
A woman enters our camp, brothers!
A woman! A woman!"
He sat down and said no more in the conference.
It was my turn.
"Hear me, Pullers and Stealers!" I said. "You know me. I am a man of my word and a man of my deeds. As are you all. But the time has come for deeds alone. Words must be put away. We must decide whether a woman can be as good as a man. We cannot be afraid of a woman! Or can some of us be?"
They all howled and grumbled just like I wanted them to. You can't suggest men in Council are afraid of anything.
Of course, we voted to let her in the contest, like I knew we would.
Changes in history come easy, you know?
- Howard Waldrop, "Mary Margaret Road-Grader", 1976

Monday, January 15, 2024

yeah, I read it

Woody Allen, Apropos of Nothing (Arcade, 2020)

Woody's infamous autobiography. I didn't find it anything like the unreadable wad described in most negative reviews; in fact I had trouble finding it on the library shelf because it was far shorter (392 p.) than the giant tome the reviews had implied. It's also - for the most part - interestingly written and it swims along energetically. There are no chapter breaks, but Woody is always clear when he's changing subjects, especially when he enters into or leaves a digression, the more so as many of these involve jumps forward or backward in time, but there's no confusion about where or when you are.

The exception is the long rant against the molestation charges, which is flat writing on top of everything else. It's as if he suddenly switched gears and became a lawyer. I wouldn't be surprised if he had a lawyer ghost-write those parts. The sophisticated arguments are especially surprising coming from a guy who likes to paint himself as being as naive and innocent as some of the characters he plays in movies.

We can specify that molesting 7-year-olds and dating 17-year-olds are entirely different kinds of creepy behavior, and that a man would do one does not at all imply he's likely to do the other, but he can't deny the one. He doesn't give exact ages, but he says Soon-Yi was in college before he started dating her, hence presumably over 18. He implies that Stacey Nelkin was under 18 when he started dating her when telling the story, but later in the book says she was not underage. (This denial is apparently false.) His constant awareness of the hotness of any woman of an age where this can be measured has dismayed some readers, but that's just standard hormonal straight male mindset. Woody insists that when he's making a movie, his mind is purely on the movie and he doesn't try to date his actresses, but apparently that doesn't apply if he's already dating them, or maybe in some other situations ...? It's not entirely clear.

But to the charge that he's a mature man who dates unnervingly young women, 17 or not, his defense is that there were only two of them (he says he never dated Mariel Hemingway, they were only friendly outings: he says nothing about her claim that he intended them to share a room on his proposed trip to Paris), and most of his dates have been his own age. As a justification, that reminds me of an old dirty joke which will perhaps come to mind if I refer to it as the "Seymour the bridge-builder" joke.

Even weirder is his explanation for not casting Black actors in his movies. He trots out his civil rights and "some of my best friends are" credentials, and says the casting works out as it does because he just has to go on his instincts. Has it not occurred to him that his casting instincts might be a wee bit racist? Try imagining a story with Black characters in it, Woody, and then see what happens.

Another strange thing is his name. He started out his career by sending jokes to newspaper columnists, and then when he saw one in print with his (original) name on it, he suddenly felt horribly embarrassed about the possibility of people he knew seeing it. So he needed a pseudonym, fast. But what is the point of having that as a shield if you don't use it as one? He adopted it as his new name, he began to live his public life under it, it doesn't protect him from being identified as the guy with that name at all.

Well, not all the book trips you up like that, and there are some interesting stories about the ideas behind and the making of his movies. He pays warm tribute to Mia Farrow as an actress. But what most interests me is Woody's view of his own talent. Later on in the book he does list talent as among the reasons he's been successful, but towards the beginning he discounts it. He says outright that his success has been simply due to luck, nothing more. A little later he describes himself churning out reams of material for comedy television, and he treats that as just a reasonable task. It doesn't seem to occur to him that not everybody can do that. That fits in with something I've noticed elsewhere: that people often don't think they're talented, they think that what they do is easy. It's only when they notice that most people can't do it that it might occur to them that they think it's easy because they have a talent for it.

Woody Allen has a talent for comedy. He has less of a talent for channeling the likes of Ingmar Bergman, and he has no talent for self-introspection.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

concert review: Bay Area Youth Orchestra Festival

I saw an article touting this, and thought it'd be enjoyable. No fewer than five local youth orchestras - high school students, but of professional caliber - exist in this area (the specific districts they draw from are somewhat different but overlap), and all of them come together for a biennial concert at Davies, home of the SF Symphony Youth Orchestra as well as the professional ensemble. Each orchestra plays a work, 10-15 minutes long, and then selected players from all five groups play a sixth work.

As a work to be suitable for this needs to employ extensively the full orchestra, including brass and percussion, the selections were agreeably colorful. We had the Overture to The Wasps by Vaughan Williams, a dance from The Three-Cornered Hat by de Falla, a dance suite from West Side Story by Bernstein, Umoja: Anthem of Unity by Valerie Coleman (which I'd just heard at a New Millennium concert), the finale from Tchaikovsky's Fourth, and - for the grand finale - Márquez's Danzón No. 2. All pieces known to me and which I was happy to hear again, played with dedication and very few flubs if rather flat interpretation.

After each piece the musicians of that orchestra would exit the stage (reappearing in the balcony behind to hear their fellows play) and, while things were set up for the next one, an emcee (a retired local tv news anchor) interviewed the conductor of the next ensemble. All the conductors were male, although the orchestra managers (unseen, but cited by name for a round of applause at the end) were mostly female.

The students were a thorough mix of genders. Ethnically the vast majority were of East Asian descent: some whites, a few South Asians, a few Hispanics, but as far as I could see not a single Black (not counting the composer Coleman, who is Black but didn't make a personal appearance).

The audience was packed, probably mostly with family members of the players, but there must have been a few other unaffiliated music-lovers like myself.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

hallelujah

So I came across this documentary on Netflix, Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen: A Journey, A Song. It's the story of the late Canadian singer-songwriter's career, focusing in the second half on the adventures, extending far beyond Cohen himself, of his most famous song, "Hallelujah."

A number of the interviewees agree that it was the song's appearance in the movie Shrek in 2001 that was the turning point in its rise to fame. That was certainly where I encountered it. Up to that point I wasn't at all familiar with Cohen's work, though I knew of him. What struck me about this was its perfect placement in the film. In a traditional comedic plot, there's a point just before the happy ending when everything seems lost, doomed to failure. This is that spot in this movie. Shrek and Fiona are both claiming to be satisfied with how things have turned out, but in fact they're both deeply unhappy. What better to illustrate that odd and specific combination of feelings than a song whose repeated exclamations of the joyous word "hallelujah" are belied by the song itself being deeply subdued, even mournful? It stuck with me, and obviously with others.

The documentary's greatest service is to straighten out the confusion over the song's lyrics. Cohen claims in interviews to have written dozens, even over a hundred, verses for the song over several years of gestation, though the notebooks shown in the film suggest that many of those verses were fragmentary or just variants of others.

The wording varies a little from what the film presents in graphics onscreen (or for that matter from what Cohen sings), but the standard verses are all here and you can follow along.

Cohen recorded the song in 1984 for an album which his label refused to release, so it didn't make much of an impact, though the album found its way to market via a small label. At that time the song had four verses, which were the four numbered verses in the link. That's what the documentary calls the sacred version.

Several years later, Cohen, when singing it in concert, changed the lyrics. According to the documentary, he dropped the first three verses and replaced them with new ones, keeping only the fourth. The new verses are the three labeled in the link as "additional lyrics." The documentary calls this the secular version. (Although in this performance from 1988 he doesn't include the old fourth verse but repeats the first of the new verses, and in later years his performances reverted to the sacred version.)

When John Cale recorded a cover version, accompanied by himself on piano, for a Cohen tribute album in 1991, he combined the two sets of lyrics. He dropped verses 3-4 of the sacred version, including the verse that Cohen retained for the secular version, and sang verses 1-2 of the sacred version plus the three new ones from the secular version, creating a five-verse version.

According to the documentary, this combo was the basis (allowing for small variants in wording) of most subsequent cover versions of the song, specifically one by Jeff Buckley that seems to have been the impulse for a lot of other performers to take it up, including (interviewed in the documentary) k.d. lang (who reduces Cale's version to four verses by omitting the second of the secular verses).

It was Cale's recording that was used in Shrek, though a different one by Rufus Wainwright appeared on the movie's record album. For the movie, the song was cut down to three verses, both to fit the time needed and to eliminate what the director calls the naughty bits. Those verses are the first of the sacred version, and the first and third of the secular version - minus the first line, "Maybe there's a God above," of the last verse. (Wainwright's recording is of the full Cale version.)

Alexandra Burke, who is shown in the documentary winning one of those British "you've got talent" competitions with a gospel-tinged cover of the song, also used three verses from Cale, but a different three. Hers has the first two verses of the sacred version plus the third verse of the secular version.

More intriguing for me, but unmentioned in the documentary, is the version that Kate McKinnon played on piano and sang in the persona of Hillary Clinton to open the post-election show of Saturday Night Live in 2016. She sang the first of the sacred version and the first of the secular version, as in Shrek, but concluded by resurrecting Cohen's final verse from the original version, which Cale had omitted (it's verse 4 in the online lyrics). These lyrics - "I did my best, it wasn't much / ... / And even though it all went wrong / I'll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah" - are uncannily appropriate for the circumstances, especially with McKinnon's Clinton then turning to camera and saying, "I'm not giving up, and neither should you."

Friday, January 12, 2024

van Zweden takes two Fifths

Originally I was scheduled to review this San Francisco Symphony concert for SFCV, and that's the headline I would have suggested. Guest conductor Jaap van Zweden, currently closing out his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, conducted two of the most iconic Fifth Symphonies in the repertoire, Beethoven's and Shostakovich's. They don't sound at all alike, nor did van Zweden approach them in a similar manner, but they actually have a lot in common.

Both are large, serious-minded works of substance and depth, the embodiment of what the word 'symphony' traditionally means. Each begins with dark, brooding, jagged music in the minor mode, and concludes with a vigorous explosion in a long-delayed achievement of the same key in the major mode. The difference is that Beethoven's finale, though actually more garrulous and repetitive than Shostakovich's, feels more integral, more earned as an outcome of what's come before. Shostakovich's often sounds tacked on, shrill and empty of a feeling that it's the outcome of an honest struggle.

Of course, there's the theory that Shostakovich intended it that way, as a satirical dig at the forced celebrations of the Soviet Union, but such explanations have always seemed to me to resemble a cat, caught in some clumsy or embarrassing position, emerging with a look of "I meant to do that" on its face.

It's up to the performers to make Shostakovich's Fifth hang together, and that seems to have been the goal of SFS under van Zweden's direction. I first heard van Zweden here, years ago, apply a technique of whizzing speed with crisp articulation in the fast parts, and a slowness amounting to lethargy to the slow parts, of Tchaikovsky's Fourth. Something like that, dialed down only a little, was his approach to Shostakovich. It has two slow movements, the first and third of four, and van Zweden took the outer, quiet parts of each with long-breathed sobriety, speeding up for the climaxes in the middle. The finale has the opposite structure, loud and boasting outsides and a quiet wandering section in between. This performance took the outsides with simple vigor and energy, robbing them of any sense of shrillness or inappropriateness. The middle, though quiet and slow, was similarly bold and exhibitive, without any feeling that it had lost its way. The only problem was some difficulty in ramping the speed back up again when the middle was over.

Beethoven's Fifth has only one slow movement, the second of four, and it's not that slow, so van Zweden approached the work as if it didn't have any. This performance had no abrupt tempo changes or even much variation in speed. The entire piece was briskly paced, compact in shape and size, and punchy in sound and volume. It was Beethoven's Fifth as if it were his Eighth. The conductor gave variety and character to the piece with emphases and extended notes, for instance exaggerating Beethoven's instruction to extend the second fermata in the opening motto much more than the first, which he hardly acknowledged at all. Various accompanying figures popped out, sometimes drowning out the principal line. He applied similar techniques to Shostakovich.

Despite the dissimilar approaches to overall shaping, the works both came out serious and straightforward in nature. They didn't feel in conflict or indigestible together. I wasn't expecting this concert to work together as a unit, but it did.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

spot the granny, and the witch

One of the fun parts of watching movies or tv is spotting actors whom you already know from other roles.

I came across this photo, which is a still from a 1948 rom-com called Texas, Brooklyn & Heaven, and knew I had to watch it even though it had a mediocre reputation (only partially deserved, I'd say). It's free on Amazon Prime, which we have, so I went ahead.



It's about a young couple who take most of the run-time to figure out that they're in love. They're from Texas and are going to New York to seek their fortunes; at the end they move back to Texas, which they consider Heaven, despite what General Sheridan said about it.1

They're not in this photo. Impersonating siblings, for no particular plot reason, they've equally bafflingly adopted an old con woman as their supposed mother, and they're all living in a boarding house in Brooklyn. The woman in the spotted dress (Florence Bates) is the mother, and in this shot she's trying to teach her landladies to play poker. (She's a bad teacher, telling them what to do with their hands but not why to do it.)

The landladies are three dour, middle-aged sisters, and it's who's playing them that caught my interest enough to send me to the movie. They are, left to right:
  • Angela Lansbury's mother (Moyna Macgill)
  • Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies (Irene Ryan)
  • The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton)
What a trio! They're rather funny.

1. Philip Sheridan was the Union general assigned to occupy Texas during Reconstruction. After being there a while, he said, "If I owned Texas and Hell, I'd rent out Texas and live in Hell."

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

end of Boston Market

Passing regrets at the disappearance - at least in many areas of the US, and possibly nationwide - of the fast-casual restaurant chain Boston Market, once a regular custom of mine.

I discovered Boston Chicken, as it was known then, in 1994 when I attended Readercon in Worcester, Massachusetts. There were few places to eat in Worcester, at least that I could find, but just across the city line was an outlet of Boston Chicken, which kept me fed during the convention.

Soon afterwards, its outlets began to appear out here in California: this was one of three times that a chicken chain from elsewhere has followed me home. The first was El Pollo Loco from L.A.; the third was Popeyes, which I found in Florida. El Pollo Loco grills its chicken; Popeyes is fried; but Boston Market was rotisserie. It is the only chicken chain I've found that could consistently deliver tender breast meat. The chicken was always good, and the side dishes were palatable, but that's all they were good at. The sauces they'd occasionally concoct and offer to drape over the chicken never added anything except messiness, and their attempt to expand into ribs was a complete disaster. Just stick to the original chicken.

I went there often as the number of outlets expanded, until it became as ubiquitous as Popeyes is here today; but gradually the number of outlets decreased, and I only went when I was near one and needed a quick meal. Last weekend I found one closed with a lock fastening the door. A little research revealed that a new and fiscally incompetent owner had been failing to pay suppliers and even the rent, and swaths of the chain across the country had been closing down. Their web site claimed only three open outlets in the whole of the state; one was nearby, and I found it as closed as the rest, with a sheriff's confiscatory notice stuck to the door. Apparently they really had not been paying the rent.

So I guess it's gone, probably permanently.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

short films

So as long as I was going out to Berkeley for a matinee concert anyway, I figured I might as well stop over in the City on the way back for a showing at the Roxie independent theater of this, er last, year's Sundance Film Festival Short Films. Short films are hard to find outside such anthology programs, and they're a good opportunity to try something you don't know if you'll like, because any given one will be over soon and on to the next one.

In this case there were seven films totaling about 90 minutes. Most were directed and written by a single person, and that's who I'm identifying as the author. The two I liked best were both amusing guyings of the corporate world. One (Pro Pool, by Alec Provonost) was a French-Canadian story about a young man who takes a soulless job in a store selling swimming pools (I guess: most of its offerings seemed portable) and eventually decides to take this job and shove it. Lots of snappy editing gets the viewer through his boring daily routines on the way. The other (Help Me Understand, by Aemilia Scott) was a slower-paced character study of six women sitting in a conference room acting as a customer panel evaluating detergents by their smell, going off on tangents and dealing with the fatuous word associations their (male) corporate mentor wants them to make.

I was also fairly struck by a more serious film (Take Me Home, by Liz Sargent) about a young developmentally disabled woman trying to live by herself but having trouble. (She learns the hard way not to open a can of soup and heat the metal can in the microwave.) She keeps phoning her sister at work, interrupting her job and exasperating her by not being able to describe what she wants. Oh yeah, Mom is apparently there but she's not moving; should I be worried? That sort of thing. There's a lot of clashing but eventually the sisters come to an accommodation.

There was one documentary film (Parker) about some family members who want to change their last name, it was not at first clear why. It emerges that an older couple had long ago had a baby when the woman was still legally married to someone else, so their son got the other man's last name. But the couple have been together ever since, and the son now ca. 40 wants to change his name to Parker to match his parents, and his two teenaged kids want to go along with it too. So they talk about what it means to have a new name, and at the end they all go to court and do it.

There was also a stop-motion animated film in which characters built out of light switches have a party, and two more live-action ones about family gatherings of some sort where I could not follow what was going on or make out all of the dialogue.

So a 4 out of 7 success rate, not tremendously high and nothing I really loved, though the 4 have kind of stuck with me at least for a few days. So it would not have been worth making a trip for, but it was worth stopping for on the way home from something else.

Monday, January 8, 2024

concert review: Berkeley Community Chorus

What I'd gone to Berkeley for was this concert, in Hertz, the smaller concert hall on campus and the one with good acoustics. And the music I was going for was Michael Tippett's anti-war, anti-persecution oratorio, A Child of Our Time, written in response to but without direct reference to Kristallnacht. And the reason I went such a distance to hear it is that it's a masterpiece I hadn't heard in concert in 17 years, having it snatched away two years ago when the Oakland Symphony cancelled a performance at the last minute because the chorus didn't show up due to covid, and they didn't let the ticketholders know. That whetted my appetite for another chance, though this was a free performance by a volunteer chorus and orchestra. (B. was tempted but decided it was farther away than she wanted to go.)

The soloists were all in excellent voice, including the powerful duo of bass Kirk Eichelberger, whom I last heard as Candy in Livermore Opera's Of Mice and Men, and alto Sara Couden, whom I last heard as Katisha in the Lamplighters' The Mikado. Tenor Jonathan Elmore and soprano Brandie Sutton also very fine.

The chorus and orchestra were both adequate (most of the tenors were women); but somewhere in the interpretation the piece lost something. It didn't have the power, or the subtle rhythmic drive, of the Santa Cruz Symphony performance I heard back in '07. What survived best was the melting of Tippett's music into the transcribed African-American spirituals which are scattered strategically around the score.

It was conducted mostly by the chorus's music director, Ming Luke, whom I once heard conduct a Berkeley Symphony concert that I didn't find entirely satisfactory either. I say "mostly" because he turned over the podium for part 3 to his assistant, Samantha Burgess. Luke's greatest contribution was the remarks he made beforehand, noting that while the theme of the oratorio seems particularly relevant today, that's true whenever it's performed.

Also on the program, the premiere of a piece by Sam Wu setting Ezra Pound's rendering of a poem by Li Po about an abandoned frontier post. Quiet singing over oscillations in the orchestra, building up to a roar of anguish as the lyrics consider the war and destruction that led to the abandonment. Prefixed by Elgar's somber Sospiri for strings.

It was raining, not too heavily, as I walked up the hill to the hall, but the rain had stopped by the time the concert ended.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

ave atque vale, People's Park

I was in Berkeley on Saturday - what for, I'll recount later - so I got a chance to see what's been done to People's Park. Both flanking streets, Haste and Dwight, are blocked off half a block below at Telegraph, and Bowditch, the cross street, a block above at Channing. Haste is blocked a full two blocks up to College Avenue, though Dwight not so far. I didn't see what they've done at Hillegass or Regent.

The blocks consist of barricades across the streets and sidewalks, a small fleet of Highway Patrol cars - which could have been out patrolling the highways - parked blocking each street two or three rows deep, and a lot of people looking like private security guards standing around, ensuring that not only cars but pedestrians were not allowed in. All the businesses in those areas are therefore closed; what the residents do I have no idea. This has been the status for several days now.

Where it's possible to look inside, cargo shipping containers, stacked two high, surround the park itself on all sides, blocking it from view or access. It's a thoroughly authoritarian, even fascist, sight.

What's going on requires an explanation of what People's Park is. In the early 1960s, the University of California, whose campus abuts the neighborhood on the north, condemned three half-blocks in this built-up district around Telegraph Avenue - the main business/residential service district to campus, and the heart of what "Berkeley" means in popular culture - to build high-rise student dormitories. They're still there; I lived in one for two years when I was a student.

In 1967, the university condemned a fourth half-block and tore down the existing buildings but never built the dorms. It just sat there, an ugly empty lot full of mud and abandoned cars, for two years. Then the protest movements took note of it. These had begun with the Free Speech Movement on campus in 1964, and continued with civil rights and anti-war protests, mostly held in the campus plaza adjacent to the end of Telegraph. A speaker said, that land is a blight and it's not being used; let's turn it into a park. So they did: went in and cleaned it out, planted trees and grass and gardens and turned it into a public space.

The authorities responded in the most heavy-handed fashion: called in the police, erected metal fences around the park. The people tore them down; the conflict became violent; many people, not all of them protesters, were shot by the cops, one fatally; Governor Reagan and his aide Ed Meese called in the National Guard, which occupied downtown Berkeley a mile away.

In the end the official forces withdrew and the park was allowed to stay. Every few years the university would try to block it off or build some sports facilities or a parking lot, and the barricades or construction would get torn down. So the park has stayed for over 50 years. It's grungy and attracts the homeless - who are around a lot anyway - and crime - that's around a lot too - but it's a monument. It's an official city cultural and historic landmark and it's even on the National Register of Historic Places.

What it means to people was shown to me one day in the mid-80s. I was hanging around at The Other Change of Hobbit, the SF bookstore in the neighborhood, when an SF fan from the east, whom I and the proprietors knew by name, came in. She was a young woman whose presentation could best be described, in the language of the time she was evoking, as "hippie chick." She'd never been to Berkeley before and was interested in seeing the historic sites she'd read about. So I volunteered to show her around. We went everywhere in the neighborhood from the patch of sidewalk on the edge of campus that the Free Speech Movement was fought over, on down. And when we turned the corner and I gestured to the green space in front of us and said, "And this is People's Park," she ran forward, dropped to her knees, and kissed the ground.

So with that degree of cultural importance and holiness, really, and the degree of defense the park attracts to any attack on its integrity, it takes a real fascist crackdown, timed for intersession when few students are around, to overcome it. The university authorities have been saying sanctimonious things like "We wish we didn't have to do this," but they don't. They only have to do it to destroy the landmark that fifty years of the people of Berkeley have wanted there, and have defended with their bodies and their lives. They call this defense "violent" and "unlawful," but what's violent and unlawful, or at least unethical and obscene, depends on viewpoint, and most of us who love Berkeley prefer the anti-fascist viewpoint.

It's likely to stay as this gash on the neighborhood for some time, as the authorities still don't have permission to build the dorms - something to do with environmental impact requirements, I think. True, the university needs more dorms, even though more have since been built. But it's needed them since 1967, and it didn't build them then. But the neighborhood also needs open space, which the park provided, and historic landmarks, which it's been one of for a long time now, deserve respect.

The defense of the park is defense of our democratic traditions and institutions, which is why the police actions to destroy the park are the entire opposite of the police defending the Capitol from an anti-democratic insurrection on a previous January 6; I hope that's clear?