Sunday, March 31, 2024

half a concert

My concert expedition on Saturday morning was not entirely successful. The Beethoven Center at San Jose State was sponsoring the annual Young Pianist's Beethoven Competition. I'd been to this once before. Spending a Saturday morning listening to six high school students of professional accomplishment play Beethoven sonatas in the cavernous concert hall of the San Jose State music building had been a pleasant experience.

This time, walking the half mile from the nearest convenient parking to the music building in the middle of campus was a chore. I arrived at 9:30, the announced starting time of the concert, to learn that it was actually scheduled for 10:00. About 30 people - fewer than there are Beethoven piano sonatas, and a small enough audience that instead of being spread out in this giant hall, we could have fit snugly in the tiny recital room in the Beethoven Center itself, which is a lot closer to where I parked - waited silently for the music to start. In the event, one of the judges didn't arrive until 10:15, the first pianist didn't appear on stage for five minutes after that, and then spent two minutes silently sitting at the piano bench, gathering his nerve or possibly just thinking about John Cage, before launching into the "Appassionata" Sonata. The second pianist spent her two pre-playing minutes flexing her arms by adjusting the height of the piano bench, and then played "Les Adieux." By the time of the third performer (Op. 90), I was thinking more about a visit to the restroom than about Beethoven.

By the time of intermission, it was almost 11:30, so I bailed on the second half. I hadn't found the performances that artistically inspiring, and I wasn't overwhelmed by the opportunity to hear somebody else play the "Appassionata" again. So I limped back to my car, stopping along the way for lunch at a new campus-side restaurant whose gimmick is that they put Texas-style barbecue meat in their Vietnamese pho soup. Interesting idea, which sort of works and sort of doesn't.

Friday, March 29, 2024

Hugo finalists

This year's Hugo finalists have been announced. There are finalists in Chinese scattered throughout several categories, no doubt a result of the members of last year's Worldcon, which was in China, being eligible to nominate. I see that several of the Chinese-language fiction stories have been translated, which will enable them to be considered on an equal basis with the other finalists by non-Chinese-reading voters.

Not long ago, a friend revealed that he'd nominated my essay collection, Gifted Amateurs, for the Best Related Work category. I felt quite honored, but I never considered it likely that it would make the final list, and it didn't. If it had, I'd have needed to appoint somebody as my designated acceptor at the awards ceremony, as I'm certainly not attending the convention in Glasgow myself.1 At least the category does have one book that I've read, Maureen Kincaid Speller's posthumous essay collection, A Traveller in Time. Maureen was a friendly acquaintance of mine and an excellent writer, so I'm pleased to see her collected and honored.

I have and have read one other written nominee, the fanzine Idea edited by Geri Sullivan, which is always worthwhile; and I've seen exactly one of the dramatic presentation nominees, the movie Nimona, which I thought was quite good. It has a coherent and touching plot, and the animation is imaginative. Of the two main characters, one's a gay man and the other is conspicuously non-gender. No big deal is made of any of this, which is how it should be.

I've read and enjoyed other works by some of the fiction nominees - John Scalzi, Nghi Vo, T. Kingfisher, Naomi Kritzer - plus a few others I didn't enjoy quite so much, and that about sums it up for me and this year's Hugos.

1. I've never been to Glasgow at all. I've been to Edinburgh, but not Glasgow. Standing in the queue for the big 1995 Steeleye Span reunion concert in London, which was just after the end of a Worldcon in Glasgow, I ran into friends who said to me, "We didn't see you in Glasgow," and I got to reply, "I wasn't there! I just flew in from the States this morning."

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

figuring out Taylor Swift

It's been nearly 40 years since I paid close attention to current popular music. The ratio of songs that really attract me is too low. Every once in a while I hear something, and it's often nice enough, but not something that I'd feel the urge to listen to again. When I hear a pop song new to me that does attract me, it turns out to date from 1982. (That is not hyperbole.) I don't despise current pop, I just don't find it interesting.

Nevertheless, the current fame and ubiquity of Taylor Swift - up till quite recently, I would have recognized the name but wouldn't have been able to say who she was - prompted me to check out her work. Figuring I should start with the most popular songs but having no idea which they were, I looked up her list of singles and their chart rankings on Wikipedia and then sought out on YouTube some of the biggest hits. Then the concert film of her Eras Tour came to Disney+ and I started to watch that.

None of these were songs I had ever heard before. In both cases I found the songs in themselves to be pleasant enough, though I was a bit surprised by the extremely downbeat lyrics of some. Two I remember as being particularly good were "Cruel Summer" and "The Man," but nothing of their melodies stuck in my head. But in both cases, the singles and the concert video, I found that two or three songs was about all that I could take of the heavy arrangements. Unobjectionable but not for me was my conclusion.

Consequently I was taken totally by surprise by her NPR Tiny Desk Concert. Entirely acoustic, just her: two songs with piano, two with acoustic guitar. And, despite her between-songs patter needing considerable tightening up, it worked for me. If she were to play a concert in this manner in a folk-music coffeehouse like the Freight and Salvage, I could be there and enjoy every minute of it.

For that's what she's writing. Her songs are in the mode of acoustic folk singer-songwriters, not those of the catchy tunes and hypnotic rhythms that make for the pop songs I remember. Here, though, her wandering melodies and introspective lyrics virtually define the genre. If she had chosen that route of music-making, she could have fit right in as a distinguished colleague of a couple dozen such women I've heard concerts by.

Of course, coffeehouse audiences of a few hundred, a tiny level of fame, and barely making a living touring around this way - that would have been an entirely different fate than the one she's got now. And I do have the highest respect for the way she seems to have grounded herself as a level-headed person in the face of extreme celebrity. That's rather rare.

Taylor Swift actually showing up to do a coffeehouse concert would be impractical, but she could make more solo acoustic recordings. And if she does that, then and only then will I be likely to listen to some more.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

keep not traveling

Here's somebody's idea of the 24 Best Islands in the World. I had to go all the way down to no. 24 to find one that I've visited: Kau'ai. I was there on a family vacation cruise when I was 19. We docked at Lihue and took a hired car tour to Waimea Canyon. It was very pretty. Then we went back and sailed away, all in one day. That was it.

During part of their period of frequently shifting abode during their retirement, B.'s parents lived on Kau'ai. B's sister went to visit them, and we were encouraged to go too. But besides the expense, and the time and trouble of getting there, any idea of going was stymied by the question of, what would we do there? Visiting B's parents, but they were often visiting here. Sitting around relaxing we can do at home. Viewing scenery would be nice, but not as the sole necessary reason for a long trip. So we didn't go. Most of the other 23 islands on the list are of no more interest to me.

My idea of the best islands in the world would be quite different. My choice for the best island in the world would be the island of Great Britain. It has lots of things that attract me, starting with some of the people who live there. It has blazes of historic sites and fascinating old buildings, it has bookstores and museums and great concert halls and some interesting food. I've been there nine times, the last six years ago, but what with pandemics and health issues I'm not sure if I'll ever be back.

I'd also put a high ranking on the island of Manhattan. I'm less fond of it as a place, because I found living there for a week to be exhausting in a way London isn't, but it sure measures almost as high as Britain on the scale of interesting things to do.

Now I have an opportunity to go back there. But I'm not taking it. We got an invitation from dear friends to a special anniversary party to be held very near Manhattan in an interesting venue. Once upon a time I'd have been willing to take the trouble to go all the way across the country for such a tempting reason, and would have tacked on other things to do. But loss of physical agility ... the still-high risks of pandemic ... the only partially-consequent decay of my ability at and interest in party socializing ... and the corrosive experience of the time I lost my bag in the airport due to trying to do four things at once ... I'm not up to that any more.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

concert review: Prometheus Symphony

Sometimes it's the venue that makes or breaks a concert.

I don't understand it, actually. I've heard the Prometheus Symphony - a nonprofessional group from Oakland - in this church - a rectangular cavern of red brick that calls itself St. Paul's Episcopal - before. I've even heard them play Carl Nielsen here before.

So why was Nielsen's Third Symphony such an acoustic disaster? Except for a few quiet passages, and the beginning of the finale when the whole orchestra plays the theme tutti - this symphony, which doesn't have more different things going on at once than the average complex symphony - came out like a slab of undifferentiated mud. Only the fact that I already knew how it was supposed to sound enabled me to pick out the melodic line or anything else from the chaos of noise.

Insofar as I could tell, the orchestra was doing a pretty good job, though it seemed a bit hesitant over the rhythmically irregular sequence of chords which started the work off. Of the other work on the program, a cycle of four French songs that Benjamin Britten composed at the age of 14 - I won't even attempt an evaluation. Soprano Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmi, whom I've heard before, has a strong voice, but I wouldn't have been able to make out any of the French words even if they were printed in the program, which they weren't.

At least this trip was a brilliant success logistically. I drove to the nearest BART station, 35 minutes if there's no traffic, and took the train in. I used to walk the half-mile to the church from the station to these afternoon concerts, but that kind of distance is beyond me now, so Google maps found me a bus line that stops only a block away. Afterwards I took the bus back to downtown for dinner. My favorite Chinese restaurant there, close to the Paramount Theater which is my usual destination, closed during the pandemic, but I found another one, a tiny hole in the wall several blocks away but with stunningly good food, so I was happy.

Friday, March 22, 2024

concert review: South Bay Philharmonic

After having tried out other ensembles, and getting far enough in one of them to play in a concert with them two years ago, B. has settled on the South Bay Philharmonic to fill her retirement dream of performing in a nonprofessional orchestra. The conductor has a clear beat and a lack of exasperating rehearsal habits, he doesn't take the music too fast, and rehearsals are not held farther from the nearest parking space than aging bodies can handle.

These are mighty virtues on B.'s scale of standards, so now she is a contented member of the viola section, and tonight was the first concert that she'd rehearsed for. At the same open-plan church that Harmonia California played in last week (this is how I heard about that), the concert was well-attended and parts of it were excellent.

I particularly liked the rendition of Sibelius's quiet little bon-bon Valse triste. Lacking the eccentric tempo variations common in professional performances, it was rehearsed enough to be played with full competence and even a little exquisite sweetness. Haydn's "Surprise" Symphony was also pretty good. Square and placid, in the traditional way, it was mostly, if not entirely, graspable by these performers.

I was less happy with two concerted works. The compositions were less inspired. The soloists had full command of getting the notes out on time, but their tone quality left much to be desired. And the orchestra needed some help at several parts also.

The four pieces were each written in a different calendrical century, so conductor George Yefchak dubbed this the symphony's Eras Tour. Cue Taylor Swift reference, which took the form of a surprise encore in the form of an arrangement of her song "Love Story."

If anyone local wants to hear B. play viola, come to the First Congregational Church (Hamilton and Leigh) on May 17 for the SBP's next concert, a truly scrumptious program of Dvorak, Faure, and Florence Price.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

four concerts

1. I picked this concert by the Master Sinfonia to review for the Daily Journal because it was three symphonies, and that's the kind of meaty program I like.

2. Then SFCV sent me to cover an (almost) all winds and percussion concert by the California Symphony. Pieces like these don't fit in to conventional symphony programs. At the end of the review is the rhetorical question, "Despite the fame of [Mozart's] 'Gran Partita' in recordings, have you ever heard a performance live?" Actually, I have, once. It was an impromptu pick-up session with George Cleve conducting the winds of Symphony Silicon Valley, as it was called at the time, and it was purely fortuitous that I heard about it when I was in a position to go.
Scott Fogelsong in his pre-concert talk framed Lou Harrison's turn to Asian musical inspirations as a reaction to the serialist hegemony, which was apparently already a going concern when Lou was at school in the 1930s. "They wanted their students to write music that sounded like this," said Scott, and played a clip of I know not what, but it was Webernian pointillism.

3. Another little birdie told me that a string orchestra calling itself Harmonia California was giving a concert in a nearby church on Sunday afternoon. With Warlock's Capriol Suite and Bloch's Concerto Grosso No. 1, two of my favorite neoclassicals, on the program, I rearranged my schedule to be able to go. The orchestra was quite good, a bit heavy-handed on the rhythms for the more ethereal sections of the Warlock, but very good for the Bloch, which is supposed to sound like that. However, they only played 3 of the Bloch's 4 movements, with no indication one was missing. Since it was St Patrick's Day, they concluded with a lush arrangement of "Danny Boy," which they played rather badly: probably not enough rehearsal.

4. Last night, student chamber music showcase at Stanford, or, demonstrating what they've been working on all semester. A movement from a Bartok quartet - unusually plush, it sounded as if Alban Berg had written it - was very unusual for Stanford students, we were told, though B. comments that she heard enough Bartok to last a lifetime when she was a music student at San Jose State years ago.

Sunday, March 17, 2024


Well, I've got some news.

First, that The Collected Poems of J.R.R. Tolkien is being published this fall. My first excursion into Tolkien arcana was tracking down some of the obscure anthologies and magazines where Tolkien published occasional fugitive poems in the 1920s and 30s - some of them tangents to his then otherwise completely unknown Silmarillion mythology. And now nobody will have to do that. I've put the details up on the Tolkien Society blog.

Second, that not one but three short stories by the late, great, and utterly weird Howard Waldrop are being made into movies. They're all short films, but I don't know when they're being released. But there are trailers online! They are:

The Ugly Chickens, starring Felicia Day

Mary Margaret Road-Grader. That looks like Keanu Reeves, but he's not in the IMDB credits.

Night of the Cooters, starring Vincent D'Onofrio. That one has already been released, but I hadn't known about it.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Friday's SFS concert came in the wake of institutional trauma unleashed the previous day. Thursday morning the Symphony unveiled its schedule for next season, 2024-25 (I haven't looked at it yet; there's no point until I know which concerts will be on my series). That afternoon was a matinee performance of the same program I would hear on Friday. In between, however, Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen released a statement that he will not be seeking to renew his contract which expires at the end of next season. "I do not share the same goals for the future of the institution as the Board of Governors does," the statement said waspishly.

He didn't say what those goals were, but the CEO of the orchestra said in an interview that it was due to financial cutbacks, especially hurting EPS's pet projects, that were undreamed of when he was hired.

But SF Chronicle critic Joshua Kosman thinks there's more to it than that. I got into terrible difficulties when I tried to summarize what he wrote, so let me just quote him:
What went wrong?

The simplest answer to that question is banally obvious: COVID-19.

Salonen announced plans for his first season as music director in February 2020. It was supposed to begin that September with an inventive festival spotlighting the eight artists and thinkers he’d tapped as Collaborative Partners, and to include an array of dynamic, inventive programming.

A month later, it all crumbled in the face of the pandemic. Some might argue — OK, I would argue — that the Salonen era in San Francisco never fully recovered from that initial blow.

Nearly everything Salonen undertook for the first two years of his tenure had to function as a survival strategy, and later a recovery strategy, in the face of the pandemic.

He took the Collaborative Partners online with “Throughline,” an ingenious but slender digital program with a score by pianist and composer Nico Muhly. He reconfigured SoundBox, the orchestra’s experimental music series, to function as a digital offering.

And in spring of 2021, when audiences were finally able to trickle back into Davies Symphony Hall for in-person performances, he created ingenious programs that worked around the logistical constraints of masks and social distancing.

All of this was handled with imagination and dexterity. But it wasn’t what anybody wanted — not the orchestra, not its audiences, not (I assume) Salonen. Even after regular concerts resumed in earnest that fall, there was still that faint shadow across the proceedings, a sense that we had all gotten off on the wrong foot together.
One should remember that EPS doesn't need the music director job. He didn't want another music director post after retiring from the LA Philharmonic; he wanted to compose and to guest-conduct occasionally. He acceded to SFS's offer because the opportunity to do the work he wanted was irresistible. If it no longer is giving those opportunities, why should he continue beyond what he's already contracted for? He'll be turning 67 about when next season ends; maybe it's time to go.

That gives management about a year to find a replacement, assuming they don't go the "seasons of discovery and decision" route of making a season or two out of auditioning people in guest conducting slots. SFS tried that once before, in the early 1950s: it did not produce a successful result. Nor did it work well for the San Jose Symphony in the 1990s. On the other hand, the California Symphony is happy with the music director it got that way, after firing its previous director because of - ta-da - financial disagreements.

So how was Friday's concert? EPS conducted, and there's no question what the audience thought about the situation: he received rapturous applause and cheers from the full house when he entered, though that was nothing compared with what he got when he finished. He took his bows standing in the midst of the orchestra, as if to emphasize the musical partnership which is unaffected by what management does, and the orchestra members presented him with a huge bouquet of flowers, which they'd also done on Thursday.

EPS specializes in new music, but if you're going to have a conductor from Finland, you can't prevent him from indulging in Finland's most renowned composer, Jean Sibelius, and doing a fabulous job of an all-Sibelius program. He took the famous tone poem Finlandia with great solemnity, grand and slow with biting brass and timpani. In the Violin Concerto, soloist Lisa Batiashvili, who specializes in this piece, gave a sweet and caressing tone throughout double-stops and harmonics and whatever else threatened to be difficult. Meanwhile, EPS kept the orchestra fully involved in dialogue with the soloist, not an easy accomplishment in this concerto. I didn't catch Batiashvili's announcement of the shivering piece she played as an encore, though I think she said it was (like herself) from the nation of Georgia, but I'm not reviewing this concert so I don't have to worry about it.

The concert finished with Sibelius's First Symphony. EPS pulled out all the grand and solemn stops he'd used in Finlandia for the finale, but otherwise the piece was bright, crisp, and bold. I was particularly impressed by the emphasis on the strophic outline of the opening of the gorgeous and touching slow movement, yet without a sense of repetitiveness. A magnificent performance that kept me rapt throughout. It deserved all the applause it got.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

in bloom

Lucy H. reported that two weeks ago she drove down I-5 from the Pacheco Pass to Bakersfield and was astonished to see the usually dry and dusty country blooming with nut trees in blossom. I decided I had to see some of that, so today I headed over there, a 90-minute drive from here. I spent little time on I-5 and didn't go anywhere near as far as Bakersfield but mostly drove back farm roads in the area immediately adjacent to the road coming from Pacheco.

The top of the blossoming has faded by now, but I did see some orchards still in bloom, and the main street of one small farm town in Merced County* was lined with trees which, like ones I remember from my childhood when the area I live in was still mostly orchards, were so full of white blossoms they looked from a distance like popcorn trees. Popped popcorn trees.

This trip also gave me the chance to have lunch at my favorite Basque restaurant in the area, possibly my last chance to eat tough chewy food for now, as the dentist is scheduled to have at me tomorrow and things may be tender in there for a while.

*Or possibly Fresno County. The road signs said it was Fresno, but the map said it was Merced.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Oscar the grouch

So Oppenheimer was the big winner, taking home Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, and a couple of technical awards. I saw that one when it came out, but mostly because I'm a sucker for historical films on topics that interest me. I wasn't terribly impressed by the movie, and have no desire to see it again, and that's largely because it tried too hard to be Big and Impressive, probably the very qualities that endeared it to the Academy voters.

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

I've seen two other of the Best Picture nominees: Maestro (7 nominations, no wins), which I was lured to for the same reason I saw Oppenheimer, and which was impressively made but is so focused on its subject's personal life that it's of no possible interest to anyone who isn't fascinated by Leonard Bernstein as a person; and The Holdovers (5 nominations, 1 win for Supporting Actress), an intensely feel-good movie about the redemption of a curmudgeon, so much so that even the sour ending feels feel-good. I'm not inclined to see either of those again soon either.

I saw Nyad, which didn't get a Best Picture nomination but did get two acting nominations, which I thought well-deserved. I had no interest in the subject matter and tend to feel that a feat like that depicted here is pointless. Yet I enjoyed this movie more than any of the above.

Strangely, I have seen a couple other winners in the category of "not really candidates for Best Picture," because they showed up for free online. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (Best Live Action Short) is a highly stylized film in a style I enjoy, captivating though the plot doesn't make much sense. The Last Repair Shop (Best Documentary Short), however, is a strangely unsatisfactory film though adequately watchable. The topic is a musical instrument repair shop which services the instruments given by the LA school district to its students. Interviews with repair personnel telling their inspiring life stories are intercut with students testifying to how much they appreciate their instruments, but there is hardly any music played. At one point a student plays a few bars of Beethoven on the piano, but the camera is focused on her head, pulling down to the keyboard only just as she stops. I'm not sure what to make of the repairers, either, especially the one who claims to have once been a major success as a bluegrass fiddler. Count me skeptical of his importance once I found that his group has no entry in Wikipedia. And he doesn't say anything about how, in that case, he wound up with a lowly job in musical repair, still less why he's working on wind instruments and not violins.

Friday, March 8, 2024

way up high

So here's a musical conundrum that I learned of courtesy of File 770, not normally a source for musical stories, but it's a science fiction fanzine and this story relates to a fantasy movie, so the story's presence there is no more dragged in from the dirt than is the content of the story itself.

The question is, is the melody of "Over the Rainbow" - the song famously sung by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, composed by Harold Arlen with words by E.Y. Harburg - plagiarized?

This article goes into the matter in detail.

The putative source is a Concert Etude, Op. 38, for piano, by the Norwegian composer and pianist Signe Lund (1868-1950), who was living in the U.S. when she published the work in 1910, and apparently played it widely. Could Arlen have heard it? Maybe. He was five years old when the piece was published, and he studied piano as a boy. His testimony (quoted in the song's Wikipedia article) is that the melody just suddenly occurred to him one day while he was thinking of other things.

But even if Arlen's subconscious dredged Lund's piece up, is his just copied or is his song a substantially original composition? I'd say the latter.

Here is Lund's Concert Etude, played by the pianist who noticed the resemblance. The section with the resembling melody begins at 1:24. You can follow along with the score of that section which is reproduced in the Hollywood Reporter article.

And the first thing I notice is that Lund's melody completely lacks the most distinctive characteristic of Arlen's: the octave leap at the beginning. It does have the subsequent smaller leaps, in which its resemblance to "Over the Rainbow" principally lies, but their effectiveness comes from the way they follow the initial leap. See Rob Kapilow on why "Over the Rainbow" is such a haunting and memorable song. It doesn't make such an effect in Lund. Also there's the bridge section of "Over the Rainbow" and its echo at the end, also mentioned by Kapilow and absent from Lund's version.

If I'd been presented with the two with no indication of priority, I'd have been far more likely to guess that Lund's more elaborate melody was a variation and elaboration on Arlen's rather than that Arlen had boiled Lund's down to get his own. And I'd think that based on my experience of listening to how classical composers work when writing variants of melodies. Though Arlen wasn't a classical composer, so who knows.

Furthermore - see the Wikipedia article again - it's already been noticed that "Over the Rainbow" also resembles a melody from an intermezzo from an opera by Pietro Mascagni - and the opera, Guglielmo Ratcliff, predates Lund's publication by 15 years. So who's copying from whom?

So it's possible, but by no means certain, that parts of the melody to "Over the Rainbow" came from Lund. And in today's fiercely puritan environment, that may be enough to find guilt in copying. But it's clear enough to me that the genius in the melody - what keeps the song alive today - was put there by Harold Arlen and by him alone.

Thursday, March 7, 2024

snappy answers to obvious questions

"You got your hair cut!"

1. No, I got all of them cut.

2. Oh, so that's what that guy was doing!

A more challenging thing to answer is the barber's question, How long do you want it?

I've taken to saying that I want the hair by the earlobe to be as long as will take it up to the earlobe but no further; I don't want it over the ear. And the same length all the way around.

I have no idea how else to say it. I can't estimate inches off, which they sometimes want to know, and in any case hair on different parts of the head grows at different rates, so it can't be consistent.

Often I have to give my answer two or three times. Yesterday I had an inexperienced barber and had to say it about 15 times. Even then he didn't do it right. No, the hair is still going over the ear. See? It needs to be shorter than that.

Eventually I got a satisfactory haircut, but this is why I find barbering such an unpleasant experience.

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

concert review: Castalian Quartet

I'd been very impressed with the Castalian Quartet on my first visit to the Banff String Quartet Competition eight years ago, and this was my first chance to hear them since, nonwithstanding that only two of the four members are still the same people.

It still sounded much the same, navigating a serious-minded way through Haydn's Op. 20/5 with bright, intense colors, and playing Brahms's Piano Quintet, one of my all-time favorite chamber works, with pianist Stephen Hough. The treble intensity of the quartet made the first two movements sound a bit thin, as if fewer instruments were playing than usual, but they made up for it by emitting the scherzo as a ferocious roar.

Also on the program, a quartet by Hough himself, which he'd been commissioned to write for a recording otherwise of French quartet music. So he decided to write a piece reminiscent of Les Six, though none of them were among the composers on the record. Yeah, it sounded a little like Les Six at times, but it didn't sound much like Stravinsky in the parts that were supposed to sound like Stravinsky, and much of it didn't sound like anything at all. You want to be very careful before you position yourself between Haydn and Brahms.

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

obituary: Richard Plotz

A notable figure in the history of Tolkien appreciation passed from us last Saturday. Richard Plotz was the founder of the Tolkien Society of America. Though not the first Tolkien fan club, it was the one that took off and served as foundation stone of the Tolkien fan boom of the 1960s.

Dick was a bright 16-year-old high school student from Brooklyn, auditing classes at Columbia University, when he saw some graffiti in Tolkien's Elvish at a subway station. Various similar comments went by for some time, until finally Dick impulsively scrawled the date and time for a meeting of a Tolkien club on campus.

On the date, half a dozen people showed up - none of whom was the original subway scribbler, but one of whom, Deborah Webster Rogers, later became co-author of the Twayne's English Authors series volume on Tolkien. They talked Tolkien for an hour.

This was February, 1965, before the Ace paperbacks, let alone the Ballantine paperbacks, were published later that year. All these people had read The Lord of the Rings in hardcover.

Clearly there was a surging interest in this. The group continued and formalized. Dick placed a classified ad in The New Republic and attracted more people. W.H. Auden, known to be a Tolkien fan since his laudatory reviews of The Lord of the Rings in the New York Times, attended a meeting, and an attending reporter wrote about it in The New Yorker.

Rather to Dick's surprise, the group continued to grow. Mail poured in. An at-first sketchy magazine called The Tolkien Journal was published. Dick's friend Bob Foster started compiling an annotated glossary of names in Tolkien's world, later published as A Guide to Middle-earth. Seventeen magazine sent Dick to Oxford to interview Tolkien. Tolkien, exhibiting more patience with the fan group than he inwardly felt, wrote Dick several letters, informative on himself and his creation. The most valuable of these was a declension of Quenya nouns, the only first-hand material on Elvish grammar then available; it was passed around in a semi-hushed fashion among devotees until it was finally published over 20 years later, and it may now be found on p. 522-23 of the new edition of Tolkien's Letters.

Come 1967, Dick graduated high school and went off to Harvard. College pressures as a pre-med student forced Dick to give up the Society, which was taken over by Ed Meskys, a science-fiction fan from circles there which had been discussing The Lord of the Rings since its publication. When Ed's health problems in turn forced him to give it up in 1972, the Mythopoeic Society (founded in 1967, another fruit of the college and teenage Tolkien boom) took it over.

Dick eventually got his medical degree, became a physician specializing in cancer research, married a woman he'd met in the TSA, and devoted his leisure time to family genealogy. He left active Tolkien fandom behind him, but his contributions haven't been forgotten.

Obituary for Richard Plotz

Recent video interview with Richard Plotz and Robert Foster

Thanks to Carl Hostetter and Gary Hunnewell for information.

Monday, March 4, 2024

counting Hugo ballots

So here's another proposal to fix the Hugos. This one wouldn't hive the entire administration off to a permanent committee (which I think would be a mistake) but would create a continuing committee to watch over the software for counting ballots.

For it seems that "convention committees all seem to have at least one person on them, in a position of authority, who wants to be the one to invent the software suite to rule them all that will solve all future fannish endeavours henceforth," so they all reinvent the wheel, and this was done particularly badly at Chengdu, where McCarty wrote his own software which 1) had plenty of code errors in it 2) can't be corrected because the code is proprietary and he won't release it.

My, how different things are from when I co-administered the Hugos thirty years ago.

First off, in those days almost all ballots were on paper. (We got a few by e-mail. We printed them out, so they'd fit with all the others.)

Second, we only used software to count the final ballots. Nominating ballots and voter ID check were done by hand. The idea of creating software to count the nominating ballots seemed to me ill-advised. There were too many different nominations, too much irregularity in how they were identified. Maybe if there'd been 5 or 10 times as many ballots we'd have been forced into it, but a few hundred nominating ballots, most of them largely empty? Not a problem.

As for that final-ballot software, all three years we used the same program, which had been devised by the administrator from seven years before our first run. Why? Well, it was a reliable program, and its author was a friend of ours. I think others used it too, and I always presumed it (revised by the author as rule changes required) was the standard ballot-counting program, at least for a while.

I'm not computer programmer guy, so I have no idea what computer language it was written in, but I do know the code was simple and accessible. It could be filled out so that the names of the actual finalists would appear on the data entry screens, and then the end users just typed in the sequences of numbers from the ballot. Finish your batch, save the file, run the program for the complete results on that file if you're curious, then when the ballots have all come in, combine all the files and run the program for the final result. Then do recounts on categories where the results are tight. Us two administrators and a couple volunteer assistants did all the data entry work.

This program was only designed for manual data entry, so it couldn't count the electronic ballots used today without inserting an unnecessary and stupid manual step. And I suspect that the EPH rules of the far future would have been beyond it without a massive rewrite.

But it did everything we needed it to do back then. It even calculated adherence to the 5% rule which caused so much vexation in those days. The 1st ... nth place result cascades that we submitted to Locus and other news sources? Those were a direct cut-and-paste from the output of our wonderful little program.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

musical theater review: The Lamplighters

Having successfully transplanted The Mikado from Japan to Renaissance Italy, the G&S company The Lamplighters has now experimented with Ruddigore or, in the spelling they prefer, Ruddygore.

Ruddigore is a satire of early 19th-century melodrama, and it must have occurred to somebody that its plot - of witches, ghosts, madness, a family curse, and a plot twist leaving a woman unsure which of three men she's engaged to - resembled a Mexican telenovela.

And while the result isn't much like Jane the Virgin or the stage play Destiny of Desire, the only telenovela-inspired works I know, it is set in Mexico, late 19th century. The character names and spoken dialogue were tinkered with a bit, but the English core of the story, unlike the Japanese one of The Mikado, is apparently irreducible, so the setting is a real town which was settled in the 1820s by Cornish miners. So the characters are mostly either Mexicans of English descent or actual English who immigrated to be with their ex-compatriots.

Thus Richard, though clearly a Mexican (and played by an actor who looks and sounds Mexican), whose pet name for himself is Rico instead of the original's Dick, has still joined the British Navy, sings the same boastful British mock-patriotic song, and as in the original waves a Union Jack to protect his fiancée.

On the other hand, Sweet Rose Maybud (also an obviously ethnically Mexican performer) has had her name changed to Rosa Capullo de Mayo, though she's still "Rose" in the songs because "Rosa" wouldn't scan. Mad Margaret's code word Basingstoke is replaced by Cocoyoc (it's a town in central Mexico), and the place that Ruthven gets it confused with is Calistoga.

The cleverest plot addition, however, had nothing to do with the Mexican setting. In the scene where the ghosts torture Sir Ruthven for not committing his daily crime, which usually consists of Roderic pointing his finger at Ruthven who writhes in agony without obvious cause, this time the torture consisted of the ghosts - the male chorus - singing "Poor Wandering One" and "Little Buttercup" in falsetto. Writhe away, Ruthven.

The big change, of course, is in the costumes and sets, all of which are meticulous 19th century Mexican style. Very impressive. Many of the ghosts are made up in the fashion of Day of the Dead figures. The dances are whatever Mexican folk dances the choreographer could find that fit Sullivan's music.

The setting was explained to the audience by a combination of supertitles and animated pictures on the scrim backdrop during the overture. (During the opera itself, the supertitles were in both English and Spanish.) The ghosts made their entrance by just walking in from the wings without even covering smoke, but at the same time their portraits vanished from the frames in the scrim, and reappeared when they left.

As a performance, this was OK. It didn't have any of the Lamplighters star performers, so it lacked their ability to achieve the transcendently wonderful. It's good to introduce Hispanic performers trained in this kind of material, but even the non-Hispanic ones were ... OK. The acting was OK (Noah Evans as Ruthven was a lot funnier as a clumsy bad baronet getting caught up in his cape in act 2 than he'd been as a clumsy yeoman farmer in act 1), the singing was frequently more than OK, but overall it was merely all right, and the Mexican setting didn't really click into place in all tabs.

Saturday, March 2, 2024

two concerts and half a dance recital

Well, that was weird (see previous post). Betty Smith is an author I'm capable of not having a thought about for decades on end, and then she shows up twice in my feed in a matter of days.

Back to slightly more normal events. I reviewed for the Daily Journal a string quartet concert taking place the day after my previous concert. But it was a string quartet concert with a difference. A dance company founded and run by Deaf people would be performing along with the music. Turned out there were just three of them, and it was less than half of the music, which raised the question of why there was so little dancing when they were going to special lengths to invite members of the non-hearing community to attend? What were they supposed to do while there was no dancing? Just watch the musicians busily sawing back and forth?

The next Saturday, which was today, the small music department recital hall featured one of its student showcase concerts: various ensembles play a movement or two of something, followed by a different ensemble playing something else, and so on. And if you read the bios, it turns out that most of the students are either computer science majors or pre-med.

The best instrumental performance on this program was a movement from a Brahms Piano Trio. More problematic was a movement from the Franck Violin Sonata, the same work that B. is struggling with at home. Turned out that this violinist was struggling with it a bit too.

But the highlight of the event was something a bit unusual for these concerts: song recitals. Three songs each by a tenor and a soprano. The tenor, probably more of a light baritone as his low notes were strong but his high ones a bit chancy, sang Rodgers and Hart's "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" too slow and Bernstein and Sondheim's "Maria" too fast. The soprano, Moira O'Bryan, with a light but firm voice, sang three songs that I (nor B., when I showed her the program afterwards) didn't know, and she brought the house down with a dazzling romantic breakup number called "If You Hadn't, But You Did," music by Jule Styne and lyrics - unsurprisingly considering their virtuosity - by Comden and Green.

You have to hear this, so here's a recording by Dolores Gray from the original cast album. That's probably the best version all around, though it's also been picked up by Kristin Chenoweth, Liza Minnelli (sounding more like a Christine Pedi impersonation of her than Christine Pedi does), and Carol Channing - this is probably the best, certainly the funniest, of the cover versions, despite or perhaps because of Carol losing the thread of the fast-paced lyrics as she sings to an increasingly dismayed Perry Como.

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.