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


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?

Thursday, January 4, 2024

who's left?

A few years ago I got into a strange argument with Mike Glyer. Mike published a photo of four men sitting in a row (actors in character in A Clockwork Orange), and identified one of them as on the "far left."

I pointed out in comments that this was potentially ambiguous. The one sitting furthest to the left in the row was not the one whose head was furthest to the left, because the one sitting second was leaning forwards. So which are you going by, body or head?

Mike replied heatedly that there was no ambiguity, that it was obviously the head, that no sensible person would think otherwise, and that it was pedantic even to raise the question.

But I still thought there was ambiguity there. The problem has been sitting in the back of my mind ever since. What I needed was a well-known and often-cited picture with the same ambiguity to it, to see how the people in it are cited. And I've found one.

This is a drawing by "Spy" (Leslie Ward) of the members of a ginger group in the 1880s UK Parliament known as the "Fourth Party". The one standing on the left is the group's leader, Lord Randolph Churchill (now best remembered as the father of Sir Winston Churchill1). Sitting relaxed on the right is John Gorst (later Sir John).

But what interests us is the two in the middle. The one leaning back with his legs thrust out and his head against the backboard is, as you'll recognize if you've seen any other renderings of him, Arthur Balfour (many years later, as Foreign Secretary, promulgator of the Balfour Declaration). And the one sitting upright with his hand on a book is Sir Henry Drummond Wolff.

So which of them is further left, Balfour or Wolff?

Some reproducers of this drawing, like the National Portrait Gallery and Winston Churchill's biography of his father, agree with Mike and give Wolff first in a left-to-right listing of the four, because his head is further to the left.

But some don't, and list Balfour first, because he's sitting to the left.

Wikipedia goes by the bodies.

So does a 1915 print (look at the caption), and the sales catalog that lists it.

Notice that these give no indication of what basis they're choosing the ordering by. The ones that go by bodies are just as certain that that's the obvious way to list them as the ones that go by heads are.

It's ambiguous, OK? It's ambiguous.

1. A fate that would have surprised him considerably: during his lifetime – he died when Winston was 20 – he never thought his son would amount to much.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

someone else's comfort movies

So John Scalzi spent the month of December writing essays on 31 movies he considers December "comfort watches," that is, movies he likes to curl up with on a cold day and see again for the Nth time. You can read the essays laid out in his blog.

It isn't surprising he should do this - Scalzi started out his writing career as a film critic, and I guess he really still is one at heart. His insights into these movies' virtues are quite thoughtful, and mostly free of his usual snark. What I found I didn't share was his taste in movies. It took all 31 days before he came up with one that I'd call a "comfort watch" in his sense, The Princess Bride.

I did, however, watch, or try watching, some of the movies on his list that I hadn't seen before, though my plan to try all of them crashed when he posted no. 8, The Godfather, a movie I had already seen and detested. If he calls that a comfort movie, his tastes are just too different from mine. I only watched The Godfather because it was supposed to be a Great Movie, a motivation that has rarely worked out well for me.

Here's my classification of his results.

Movies I'd already seen and loved
31. The Princess Bride. I've rewatched this many times, and not just because my first viewing was ideal: a pre-release sneak preview, in a theater packed with other fans of the book, some of whom were friends of mine. Cary Elwes, Billy Crystal, and don't forget Peter Falk, in particular, were utterly perfect in their roles.

Movies I'd already seen and thought, "eh, ok"
2. The Emperor's New Groove.
12. Josie and the Pussycats. Music mediocre, women-bonding plot appealing, corporate-conspiracy-to-manipulate-teenagers plot stupid.
14. Crazy Rich Asians. I tried watching this rom-com a second time a while ago, and liked it a lot less than the first time. Why does he invite her to meet his family in Singapore without telling her a thing about them? The premise is just nuts, and the execution is clumsy.
16. Hail, Caesar! Absolutely terrific trailer which was diluted to failure when expanded to full movie length. Seems to be nothing more than an excuse to show Hollywood epic films of the 50s being staged. OK if you want that; I'm not interested.
17. The Nightmare Before Christmas.
19. Hidden Figures. Like Scalzi, I watched this one because I'm a moonshot space program buff who knew nothing about this aspect of it: the black women computers. Very informative movie.
21. A Knight's Tale.
26. Sleepless in Seattle. Rom-com whose implausibility outweighs its appeal.

Movies I'd already seen and hated
8. The Godfather. Three hours of men pointlessly killing each other.
11. Tootsie. Scalzi thinks that Dustin Hoffman's character being a jerk as a man is the point of the movie, but I couldn't stand being in his company.
23. Tangled. Bottom-of-the-barrel Disney. They can spend all this money on animation, why none on fixing the slackness in the plot?
25. The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Judged purely as movies, ignoring the adaptation, I found these visually impressive but tedious and pompous in the watching. To get that reaction from adapting my favorite novel of all time requires absolutely epic incompetence.
29. The Nice Guys. More jerks I didn't want to spend a movie in the company of.

Movies I watched because Scalzi listed them which I liked
9. Bolt. I doubt I'll ever rewatch it, but this Disney animated movie, which I'd never even heard of, about the love between a girl and her dog, is really touching the way that Toy Story was touching.
13. The 13th Warrior. I hadn't even known there was a movie version of Crichton's Eaters of the Dead. There's a lot of ruthless slaughter of bad guys in this movie, but the plot rolls along well and the male bonding between the naive Arab ambassador and the hard-bitten Vikings is superbly done.
28. Return to Me. As Scalzi says: extremely gentle rom-com with characters who all like each other (except for the obligatory bad dates). But the Duchovny rom-com I want to see is his new one, What Happens Later.

Movies I watched because Scalzi listed them which I thought OK
4. While You Were Sleeping. Rom-com whose plot is continuously hideously embarrassing. (Sandra Bullock is mistakenly identified as fiancee of man in coma. His family are so delighted to meet her that she doesn't have the heart to correct the error.) My problem is that when I come across an embarrassing scene in a streaming movie I have to turn it off to recover. This one was so full of such scenes, it took me about a week to get through it.
5. Invictus. I don't watch sports, and I knew nothing about rugby except "a form of football", but like some other sports movies this was kind of inspiring.
10. Noelle. This wants to be a warm-hearted Christmas movie, but the "Santa Claus is real" premise is too rickety. Much of it is a "fish out of water" scenario in which Santa's daughter visits Phoenix, of which (having spent her life at the North Pole) she's so ignorant she can't pronounce "Arizona." But her people skills are great, so at the end she inherits the job of Santa; yay woman power, but it's done kind of dutifully.

Movies I rewatched because Scalzi listed them
18. Die Hard. Action thriller which is really about the characters and the dialogue, both well-written and well-acted, which puts it several steps above the average action thriller.
30. Pride and Prejudice (2005). Better than I remembered it the first time, but still far inferior to the cluster of late-1990s Austen movies. Not as crisp, and at the end turns totally soggy.

Movies I watched because Scalzi listed them which I turned off because the remake was superior
7. Much Ado About Nothing (1993). Not terrible, but the Joss Whedon version is oh so much better. Branagh and Thompson are too declamatory; they forget they're not on stage. Kate Beckinsale, who's usually great in period films, is Hero and is totally inert.
24. A Christmas Carol (1984). Sorry, but The Muppet Christmas Carol outclasses this.

Movies I watched because Scalzi listed them which I turned off almost immediately
1. The Holiday. Sucky rom-com. How can a movie with both Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet be dull and badly made? But it was. I turned it off at the point when Diaz asks Jude Law, whom she's just met, to boink her.
3. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. This was so alienating I wanted to be on a different planet.
6. Down With Love. I like some extremely stylized movies (Raising Arizona), but this one's style was not for me.

Movies I still might watch
20. Addams Family Values. As a fan of the original cartoons and the 1964 tv show, I thought the Addams Family movie was disappointing, and I had no desire to go on. But Scalzi says this second one found its groove better than the predecessor.
22. Stranger Than Fiction. This one's been somewhere down on my want-to-see list for some time.

Movies I have no intention of watching
15. Speed Racer
27. Pacific Rim

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

making dinner

Sometimes my plans change. My original thought for dinner tonight was ravioli with sauteed spinach on the side. But I spent most of the day having my car serviced (it's an annual job, so why not January 2?), and that's near the grocers' with the excellent fresh crab cakes. So on my way home, as I often do, I stopped and got four of those and pan-fried them for our dinner, with the spinach on the side.

For Christmas eve this year I made fried rice, one of my regular dishes, because I had the leftover rice. B. wondered if that had something to do with the tradition of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas Day. Nothing of the sort. I never even heard of any such tradition until I was an adult. Investigating this mystery later - why was I totally unfamiliar with something supposedly so universal among my people? - I discovered that it was originally a New York City thing, and spread among families that moved out from there. Ah, that explains it. My family never lived in New York. We were midwesterners: Kansas and Texas to Missouri on one side, Wisconsin on the other.

I'm not sure, but I think the only time I had Chinese food prior to college was when my class when I was 9 took a field trip to a fortune cookie factory in San Francisco, and we had lunch at a restaurant with a big lazy susan on the table. I suspect there'd have been a lot of grumbles if we'd had it at home. Finding dinner for four kids who were all picky eaters was a challenge. And we didn't often eat out - too expensive for a large family. When we went out, it was usually to Denny's, and once a week we'd meet my grandparents, who lived nearby, at a large cafeteria restaurant called The Menu Tree. It had a dozen different stations, so everyone could get what they wanted. I usually went to the bbq counter and got a half chicken. Chicken was safe, as long as it wasn't gussied up: when we had takeout at home, it was usually KFC. No Chinese. I do recall eating at Mexican restaurants - usually an anglofied chain called Tia Maria, though it did have homemade tortillas, and the woman making them was doing so at a station in the back of the dining room - though I think I was mostly there with my parents but without my little brothers. Probably for the best.

Monday, January 1, 2024

first concert of the year

As is sometimes traditional, I attended the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra's New Year's Day concert. It was at the Concrete Tent (a church in Palo Alto which fits that description), which was large enough to hold everybody who wanted to attend (SFCO concerts are free).

It began with a new piece, Sketch at Seven by Sumi Tonooka, whose background is in jazz and film music. This was a lot more film music than it was jazz, with much of the thick unison string writing characteristic of the breed.

Schumann's Cello Concerto was played by Sara Flexer, who's 15 and looks possibly younger, but who had a mature cello tone, both in sound quality and in expression. Only fading on some high notes betrayed her. She was in the junior division at Music@Menlo the last two years, and their people are always top-rate.

Finally, Schubert's Great C Major Symphony, delivered with all the bounding energy it needs. Good show.