Friday, May 24, 2024


1. My favorite Chinese restaurant in Palo Alto closed last weekend. I've been eating at Jing Jing since they opened in 1986, and it's where I took the traveling Tolkien scholars on their last visit here. Fortunately - purely by luck, because I hadn't known they were closing - I stopped in just last week for a final taste of my favorite lunch special, the braised shrimp.

1a. On the other hand, the long-empty restaurant space just opposite the San Jose State University library has finally reopened, and as a Chinese restaurant. That means I can have lunch there when I visit the library, as I often do. I tried that for the first time also last week, and it was pretty good.

2. California is on the verge of banning plastic shopping bags altogether. (The little ones you put around meats or vegetables are still OK.) I don't know how thrilled I'll be with this, because recycled paper bags are often alarmingly flimsy. But when I pick up our weekly grocery order and it comes in up to 15 plastic bags, disposing of the bags is a nuisance. They can't go in regular recycling. I've been stuffing all the rest of the bags inside one, tossing the inflated lump of them in the back seat of my car, and waiting for the next occasion - maybe once a month - when I get to the one grocery which has a recycling bin for plastic bags.

3. I'm not sure I follow all of this. But remember the recount for the local congressional race? The rule in California is that two top finishers in all-party primaries go on to the finals, but there was a tie for second place. A judge ruled that all three go on to the finals, but somebody paid for a recount (which has to be paid for here by a volunteer, usually the losing candidate). And they found a few extra ballots, but the ironies are 1) the tie was broken for the candidate who tried to stop the recount; 2) nobody knows who paid for the recount, but the money appears to be traceable back to the first-place candidate, who evidently thinks he has a better chance of winning against one opponent than against two.

3a. Also: the candidate who was kicked off the ballot, a long-serving local rep whose dreams of Congress are now at an end, quietly accepted the result. He did not send a mob storming the state capitol or anything like that. In short, he behaved like a human being.

4. A correspondent writes that the Ellen Klages episode of Jeopardy, disappeared from YouTube just after I posted a link to it, may be found in chart form on the online Jeopardy Archive. No video, but you can see all the clues and who got them right. Leaving aside brain freezes during the actual game, which I'm sure would slay me were I an actual contestant if I ever did get the buzzer, which I doubt I would, I find that I could solve about half of the 61 clues in the game, including several that none of the contestants got. I knew Jesmyn Ward's "Salvage the Bones" finds a poor Gulf coast family riding out this 2005 disaster & its aftermath even though I'd never heard of the book, because "Gulf coast" and "2005 disaster" were enough clue for me. There were two categories where I knew all five clues: "Amadeus" (a Mozart category) and "Treaties" (a historical category), even though each had one clue that flummoxed all three contestants.

5. Sumer is icumen in. Cats shed much.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

a train to Santa Cruz

I've written before about Roaring Camp, which runs narrow-gauge trains with a vintage steam locomotive on excursion runs up a mountain in the hill country above Santa Cruz. But they also run a beach train from their station down to the Santa Cruz boardwalk. I'd never taken that, but I decided it was time to try. On summer weekends they make two runs a day - the trip takes about an hour in each direction. If you come back on the same run you went out on, there's a 45-minute layover, which isn't very long; but if you go on the first run and come back on the second, you have five hours from 11 AM to 4 PM, which is long enough to have a leisurely lunch and then hang around.

So that's what I did last Saturday, before taking my car over to Aptos and attending that bassoon concert where I won the audience quiz.

The train runs through some thick redwood forests and halfway up along the side of some vertical cliffs, before descending down into Santa Cruz where it passes through an industrial district and then settles along running down the middle of a street. I'd driven that street and seen the train tracks, but I hadn't seen a train along them before. The feeling was not totally unlike that scene in Inception. The train then makes a left turn and runs - slowly, so that pedestrians can get out of the way - along the boardwalk, puffing to a halt alongside the big century-old roller coaster ride.

Physically getting off the train without the ramp they have back at the station was a little awkward (there's steps, but they're difficult), but once off, I walked back along the boardwalk, past the roller coaster and the bumper car ride and the video game parlors - I didn't even know they still had those - way over to the other end where the wharf is, which is where the good restaurants in the area are.

Adequately lunched, I sat on a bench on the wharf, reading and looking out at the beach and ocean, and about 3 began wandering slowly back towards where the train would be. I spent some time gazing at a flock of beach volleyball courts, most of which were occupied by games of two people (both sexes well represented) per side. It occurred to me, first, that two per side isn't really enough people to play an effective game of volleyball; second, that clearly the reason for playing volleyball on a beach is to facilitate making a saving hit while diving head-first into the ground. I used to play volleyball occasionally - it was the only team ball sport I was ever the slightest bit good at - but never on a beach, only on asphalt. Clearly I was missing something.

Train in the other direction, then hobbled back to my car and was off.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Ellen Klages on Jeopardy

Here it is, folks: my friend, and many of yours too, Ellen Klages as a contestant on Jeopardy today, May 22. First time I've seen anyone I actually know as a contestant on this show.

Two warnings, though:

1. It's a very defective recording. The video freezes, though the audio is OK, throughout the second half of the first round, including the contestant interviews, and Final Jeopardy is mostly cut off. I tried three different postings of the episode and they're all like that. If you find a better one, let me know.

2. Ellen got shellacked and came in third. The other two were faster on the buzzer, that was the main reason.

ETA: 3. And now they've all been taken down anyway. Puh.

As on other recent occasions when I've watched Jeopardy, I'm dismayed by the number of items that none of the contestants knew but I did. There were 6 of them this time, including one which Ellen got wrong, aargh! But would I have been able to do any better under the pressure of the actual show? I doubt it. So a warm round of applause to Ellen for doing her damndest.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Bing preview

I received an invitation to a 'preview party' for the next season from Stanford Live, the organization that puts on concerts at the Stanford campus, and I decided to go. About 60 people were there at Bing, Stanford's keynote concert hall. I think the event was mostly aimed at big donors, but there was room for at least one press person - me - though I didn't recognize anybody else as a classical journalist.

The administrators spent an hour describing the themes of the season and specific concerts therein, accompanied by video clips of the performers and, in two cases, the performers live themselves for sets of about ten minutes each. That was what most enticed me.

Katherine Goforth is a trans woman classical singer, the first I've encountered, though there was an interesting article about trans opera singers in SFCV recently. In speaking voice and in presentation - not just appearance, but how she moved and carried herself - like other trans women I've met Goforth was entirely a typical woman. But her singing voice was that of a baritone. (Her publicity says tenor, but it sounded baritone to me.) It had the rougher texture more characteristic of men's voices.
It was not disconcerting if you were expecting it. But trans vocal singing range is an interesting problem, and the SFCV article discusses how its practitioners deal with it.
Goforth's repertoire was Mahler songs accompanied by piano. One of the season themes is "Mahler and the Second Viennese School," be still my heart.

Edmar Castañeda is a Colombian folk-jazz harpist. (Harp is another of the season themes, and judging from one of the recorded clips of other performers, Philip Glass etudes sound really good on harp.) I can't describe Castañeda's style except to note that he pats the strings a lot.

Afterwards there was a reception in the lobby, with drinks and a small snacks table with berries, melon slices, and crunchy little cookies. You could pick up a copy of the printed season brochure straight from the boxes the printer delivered them in. I noticed two things of particular interest. 1) The entire London Symphony Orchestra is coming to play Mahler's roof-blasting First Symphony in Bing's tiny space. Something is going to blow a gasket. 2) Despite claiming that it's disbanding entirely, the St. Lawrence, Stanford's resident professional string quartet, is carrying on with its traditional once-per-term Sunday afternoon concerts, with the three surviving quartet players joined by others for chamber music collective programs like the others they've done recently. This year, two string sextet concerts and a collaboration with a student cello ensemble.

Monday, May 20, 2024

concert review: Peninsula Symphony

I hadn't covered the Peninsula Symphony for the Daily Journal yet this season, so I reviewed their big blowout season finale, big grand extroverted - and also very well-known - works by Sibelius, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky. Performed with all the panache the orchestra could summon, except that the guest pianist in the Grieg Concerto, Jon Kimura Parker, wanted to be fairly quiet and ruminative.

At the pre-concert talk he told an amusing story of his first performance of this concerto. He's originally from Vancouver BC, and went off to attend Juilliard. Soon after his arrival, one Saturday he got a phone call from the Vancouver Symphony, saying that they knew he was a rising local pianist, and hoping he'd be available for a concert next spring. Parker was impressed to hear from the orchestra he'd grown up listening to. But when they asked, "Do you know the Grieg Concerto?", if he said "No, but I'm a really fast learner," he was sure they'd cancel the invitation. So he said "Sure, I know it well." And they said, "Great. Our guest conductor, Harry Ellis Dickson, will be in New York on Tuesday; you can play it for him then."

Uh-oh. Parker ran out and bought the printed music, then disappeared into a Juilliard practice room for three days. He was a fast learner; by Tuesday he had the first movement practiced and memorized; not so much the rest of the piece. When he met Dickson, he put him off by offering to play the Beethoven Appassionata Sonata, which he did know well and which is half an hour long. Finally, Dickson said, "Let's hear the Grieg now." Parker started, and halfway through the first movement Dickson waved him to stop. "OK, that's enough," he said. "See you in March."

By which time, of course, Parker had learned the whole concerto, and did well enough that Dickson invited him to play it with his home orchestra, the Boston Pops, of which he was assistant conductor.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

concert review: Santa Cruz Chamber Players

I ventured down past Santa Cruz to a tiny church perched on a hilltop on the fringes of Aptos - a town that already consists mostly of fringes - for one of the quaint little events that this concert series specializes in. It turned out to be far better performed than the last time I heard this rubric over a decade ago, but then the personnel were entirely different.

Concert director Ivan Rosenblum, a pianist formerly an instructor at UCSC, had decided to put on a concert in celebration of the bassoon, an instrument that proverbially "don't get no respect." For a soloist he recruited Michelle Keem, the new principal bassoon with the Santa Cruz Symphony. She was an excellent performer, and made fewer breathy or grunting noises than any other woodwind player I've sat so close to - did I mention this was a tiny church? - at a concert.

Keem began with a bassoon arrangement of a C.P.E. Bach sonata for unaccompanied flute, and the rest of the bassoon music was trios for bassoon, clarinet, and piano, with Rosenblum on piano and local notable Erica Horn on clarinet. Glinka's Trio pathetique sounded more like Mozart or a bel canto operatic duet than like the echt-Russian music Glinka's better-known for. A trio by Bill Douglas, a jazz performer who also works the classical side, had no more than a touch of jazz and was very agreeable. One by Rosenblum himself, from his student days in the 60s, records his rebellion against the serialist hegemony of the day by placing counterpoint against dissonant piano chords but ending with a consonance. And Mendelssohn's fussy little Concert Piece No. 1 for clarinet and basset horn, with the latter arranged for bassoon.

Plus some tiny pieces for unaccompanied clarinet by Stravinsky, and a couple short piano pieces commenting on the program: a sad little elegy by Fanny Mendelssohn, which couldn't have been her response to her brother Felix's death because, pace Rosenblum, she died six months before him instead of the other way around; and one by C.P.E., who, again pace Rosenblum, wasn't J.S.'s eldest surviving son - that was W.F.

* * *

But that wasn't all. To give the bassoon its due respect, the concert began with an audience participation quiz. Keem played three solo passages from the bassoon's orchestral repertoire. If, after hearing them all, someone in the audience could identify all the works, they'd get a free ticket to one of next season's concerts.

I guess I was the only person to raise my hand, because I was called on, and everyone seemed very impressed that I got them all right. Rosenblum asked, "Are you by any chance a bassoonist?" and I replied "No, I've just been listening to classical music since I was shorter than that bassoon." (A bassoon is about 4 1/2 feet tall, if you're curious.)

And indeed, I could have identified these pieces as easily when I was 12 as I could today, though I didn't say that. I'd been expecting something like the bassoon melody that opens the finale of Shostakovich's Ninth, but the choices were, I thought, dead easy. But since everyone else was so impressed at my identification skill, I'm giving you a chance. I've managed to excerpt and strip the ID off recordings of the three, and here they are.
  1. Number 1
  2. Number 2
  3. Number 3
First accurate reply in comments gets the star.

I didn't drive all the way to Aptos just for this concert. I had another errand in the area and picked this day because it coincided with an agreeable concert. What else I was doing, I'll tell you later.

Friday, May 17, 2024

concert review: South Bay Philharmonic

B's second concert as a member of the viola section of this community orchestra. The players communicated the charms of both Florence Price's Dances in the Canebrakes and Gabriel Fauré's Dolly Suite. Antonín Dvořák's Symphonic Variations was another matter: it's probably mostly the composer's fault that it wanders around directionless for most of its length. Unity of ensemble was this orchestra's biggest virtue, though it often took a few measures to get this into shape at the beginning of a movement or, in the Dvořák, in successive variations.

As an addition to the program, a string quartet made out of regular orchestra players performed a movement from a Haydn quartet in a sprightly manner, plus an arrangement of "Yellow" by Coldplay, which I infinitely preferred to the original, and which came out - as a lot of recent pop songs do when played by classical ensembles - sounding rather minimalist.

The Dolly Suite has a quaint origin. It's formed out of what were originally piano pieces that Fauré wrote to amuse the young daughter of his mistress, a girl nicknamed Dolly (real name, Regina-Hélène). The movement titles include a couple that sound as if they're cat references, but they aren't. "Mi-a-ou" isn't a cat sound, it's the infant Dolly's attempt to say the name of her elder brother Raoul. The "Kitty Valse" isn't about a cat either. Kitty (actually Ketty) was the name of the family dog.

Footnote: After her affair with Fauré had run its course, the mistress, whose name was Emma Bardac, ran off with Raoul's piano teacher, whose name was Claude Debussy. They had a daughter of their own, whose nickname was Chouchou (real name, Claude-Emma), and the piano pieces that Debussy wrote to amuse her form his Children's Corner Suite.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

this is amusing

It seems that the professional women's basketball league, experiencing an upsurge in popularity, is starting new teams, and the one here is to be called the Valkyries.

Good name for a women's sports team, I thought, especially one in a game that requires a lot of bounding around; but the result has been a flood of queries to Google as to what "valkyries" might mean.

Oy. Haven't they ever heard this?

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

this is just to say that

I have sworn eternal hostility against every claim that Apple device interfaces are "user-friendly." A more frustrating, illogical, incomprehensible, inconsistent screen I never hope to see. Bah.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

concert review: Mission Chamber Orchestra

This was a difficult review to write. The MCO, already the diciest in technical quality of those local orchestras which claim professional quality, has gone distinctly downhill in that aspect since I heard them last a year ago. I suspect, though not with enough assuredness to say so in print, that the retirement of the longtime music director, Emily Ray, is responsible: her militarily-precise conducting style kept them pretty firmly in line.

I felt I would be remiss if I didn't mention the problems honestly. But the performances were still enjoyable and effective, and I had to emphasize that too. I hope I managed this balance. At any rate, the editors did very little tinkering with the text, so they must have judged it a satisfactory report.

Monday, May 13, 2024

sort of like KFC

A while ago I came across somewhere what purported to be the original recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken. I remember the KFC of my childhood, much tastier than the stuff they have today, so I saved it in my recipe book, but I didn't pull it out until now, when the prospect of an evening's dinner at home on my own made it feasible to try the rather elaborate directions.

I bought a couple pounds of my favorite chicken piece, wing mid-joints, as they're called in the Japanese market which is the only place I know where you can buy a package without having to get drumettes along with them, lined up the other ingredients, turned on my little portable deep fryer, and set to work.

First you soak the chicken for half an hour in a buttermilk and egg mixture. The recipe is for a full 8-piece regular chicken, and my wing flats were less than that, but I had to make a double helping of the mixture to cover all the chicken.

On the other hand, I had more than enough of the mixture featuring the famous eleven herbs and spices. I already had ten of these in my pantry, and the last was easy enough to get. You take varying amounts, usually a tbsp, of each, totaling about a cup of material altogether, and mix it with two cups of flour. Dredge the chicken in the bowl of the mixture, let it sit again for another half hour, and it's ready to cook in small batches.

The recipe said fry at 350 for 15-18 minutes, but wing flats, which I've fried before, are very small and don't take nearly that long. I tried the first batch for 8 minutes, and found the coating was a dark brown, not the "medium golden brown" the recipe states. I then tried a batch for 5 minutes, which is closer to my usual frying time for flats. The meat, when I tasted it, was juicier because not overcooked, but the coating was just as dark.

It didn't taste much like KFC. The seasoning was faintly reminiscent, but not nearly enough so to have been worth the trouble of assembling a small army of spice jars to make it. And the coating, besides being rather dark-tasting, was hard and crisp, not the soft and dangly of traditional KFC. It was good chicken, but not very akin to KFC.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

a talent to annoy

Compilations of annoying things that people do never include this one, but it's happened to me more than once.

A group of people (not co-workers in an office, but e.g. a committee of volunteers, with other things in their lives) needs to hold a meeting. Careful planning is done to ensure it's an acceptable and feasible date: either it's discussed extensively at a previous meeting, or through one of those online apps that enable people to say what times they're available.

Then somebody complains that they can't make that date. Either they weren't part of the previous discussion, or their plans have changed, or something.

So the organizer makes a unilateral decision to change the date of the meeting, without checking with anybody else as to whether it suits them. And this after the elaborate procedure to try and establish a good date the first time!

Well, guess what: I have a conflicting engagement. Do I register my own objections? In this case, my conflict is unimportant: I can just cancel it, though I wouldn't have said I was available on this date if I'd been asked the first time. So I don't object: I can't feel arrogant enough to put the group through another date-setting hassle for a trivial reason.

In another case, I then went to great lengths to change my engagement on the new meeting date to the only other possibility, the old meeting date; and I only complained when the organizer then changed the date back again for equally arbitrary reasons. I said I cannot remain part of this committee if it's going to be run in this manner.

It's not just that a carefully-planned process can be overturned if it doesn't work for one person; it's not that the date couldn't be changed again if necessary; it's that the organizer made a unilateral decision, suddenly dropping the previous principle of being generally consultative.

Friday, May 10, 2024


1. As I've mentioned, I do not watch TV news, but I do watch the released videos of the monologues of Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Jon Stewart, et al, and those have clips. And this is where I've noticed what I wouldn't learn from print, which is that there seems no certainty as to how to pronounce the name of DT's lawyer Susan Necheles. Some say 'necklace', some say 'nichols'.

1a. Meanwhile, even the print media covering the trial is descending into inanity. I've seen articles discussing when the defendant has his arms crossed.

1b. I do give Stormy Daniels credit for the best snappy comebacks ever to cross-examination questions in a real-life trial.

2. Barron Trump, now 18, will be a delegate to the RNC. He is now an adult, he is now a practicing politician; that means the exemption shielding children from political commentary and attacks is now officially off as far as he's concerned.

3. In local news, the recount breaking the tie for second place in the November runoff for a Congressional seat has now been broken in favor of the candidate who opposed the recount from the start.

4. As I've mentioned privately, Pete McCloskey has died. Former Congressman (in my district, I'm proud to say) and the last liberal Republican, that is until 2007 when he finally gave up and joined the Democrats.

5. In media news, Peter Jackson has announced he's going to make more Lord of the Rings-inspired movies. One is of the hunt for Gollum, which has already been done as a fanfic movie, the other of the backstory of the Rohirrim. I thought Amazon was prohibited from using Third Age material, but apparently Jackson is not. This is producing in me moans of agony you're fortunate that you can't hear. Will I have to go see these, or has the necessity of knowing how they screw Tolkien's story up, so that I can better watch out for the distortions entering future scholarship, reached the point of diminishing returns?

5a. The article on this says that "The news that Jackson, Boyens and Walsh will be involved in the new film franchise is sure to calm any concerns from loyal fans." Loyal fans of what? Certainly not of Tolkien. Loyal fans of the Lord of the Rings movies, the ones who came up to me after the Hobbit movies came out and said "Now we understand what you were complaining about," are not going to be reassured either, because that trio were also responsible for the Hobbit disasters.

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

evaluating musical genres

The Post polled people on their opinions of various genres of music. The choices were Love it, Like it, Not sure, Dislike it, Hate it. It might have been easier if the choices were Love it or Leave it, but whatever.

It may be perilous for me to attempt my ratings, as several of these categories I have only the most tenuous acquaintance with. So my evaluations may reflect ignorance and rampant stereotyping, but here goes:

Classic rock. This was the most-loved genre among respondents, so the accompanying article had the most to say about it. It seemed to exemplify this genre as Aerosmith and the Eagles, two bands I have little use for. I like the Beatles, but the article defined classic rock as beginning with Sgt. Pepper, which is close to the end of my favorite Beatles segment, what I'd call "mid-period Beatles." So my full answer on this genre is "mixed, mostly nah," so I'll put Dislike it.

Pop. I'm not sure what typifies this category, though I'm sure it isn't the wailing guitars of classic rock. I like some pop songs, to be sure, though mostly ones now pretty old. I'd have to put Not sure.

R&B. Uh, I don't think so. I count myself fortunate that I even know what those initials stand for. Dislike it.

Blues. "I'm gonna sing a line three times / I'm gonna sing a line three times / I'm gonna sing a line three times / Then I'm gonna sing another line that doesn't rhyme with it." Really annoying music. Hate it.

Country. I've heard some that's OK, even enjoyable, but mostly it irritates me because it twangs. I'll have to say Dislike it.

Classical. This is about 70% of my listening. Unfortunately they don't separate out opera, which to my ears is an entirely separate genre. Love it.

Jazz. Various friends have tried to sell me on jazz, but 99% of it does absolutely nothing for me. With this one I'm sure of my opinion, because I've spent hours on end listening to it on the sound systems of dusty old used book stores, where it is the musical genre of choice, and I've remained completely unmoved. Dislike it.

Soul/funk. More annoying than blues. Hate it.

Hard rock/metal. No, no. If this comes on, I have to leave the room. Is there a category stronger than Hate it?

Reggae. I don't like it, but it can be fun to listen to in small doses. In-between ranking, hence Not sure.

Gospel/choir. Pretty much the same, except "fun" isn't the word: maybe "moving." Not sure.

Dance/electronic. That term could mean a lot of things, but I think what it's intended to mean is more stuff for which I have to leave the room. Hate it.

Folk. This can be narrowly defined (the song has to have been found by a credited collector in the dusky woods in the dark of night) or broadly defined (any singer and/or songwriter with an acoustic guitar). Broadly, it's another 20%-25% of my listening; either way, it's the other category for which I'd say I Love it.

Rap/hip-hop. I really only know this from having it blasted at me from the speakers of cars stopped next to mine at red lights, but based on that, may I say that I don't even think this is music, without being taken as criticizing it? It's a very interesting form of organized sound, which is a perfectly legitimate thing to be, it just isn't music. But I don't really want to listen to it. Dislike it.

Latin. "Music from Latin America" is a very broad category. I suspect that what's meant by the generic term "Latin" is the kind of music associated indelibly in my mind with Mexican restaurants. Because I hardly ever hear it anywhere else. Dislike it.

Alternative/indie. I'm not exactly sure what this is, but it might include some of what would be scooped up under a sufficiently broad definition of "folk." But I'm Not sure.

Contemporary Christian. Musically this is pleasant enough to listen to, but there's a limit to how much I can take of lyrics extolling Gee-zus, and that limit is very low. Dislike it.

Punk rock. This was coming in when I was in college, and all I could think was "Why?" Hate it.

New age. If you're cool, you hate this, but I'm not cool. Like it.

World music. More of the same. Like it.

Besides leaving out opera, they've left out the related but quite distinct category which occupies most of the other 5% or so of my voluntary listening: musical theater. Rodgers and Hammerstein? Sondheim? You've heard of them? Where would they go in the above list? (I'd put Gilbert and Sullivan here too, because if you class their works as operas, they'd have all of my five favorites.) And I'm sure you can think of other genres of music not included here.

Anyway, of the 20 genres listed here, I love 2, like 2, not sure about 4, dislike 7, and hate 5, so my negative genres outweigh my positive ones 3 to 1, which is about what I'd have thought.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

200 x 9

Today is not only the birthday anniversaries of both Brahms and Tchaikovsky, but this very day is also the bicentennial of the first performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in 1824.

Like other famous Beethoven premieres, it was probably a pretty badly under-rehearsed performance in uncomfortable conditions, but it was a great occasion anyway.

The Ninth stands out among Beethoven's symphonies - it's long, monumental in scale, and it has that huge choral finale, something almost (not quite) unprecedented in symphonies, certainly in Beethoven's - but it's not always appreciated how distinctive the Ninth is.

The length. It had been the Eroica which was the path-breaker here, nearly twice as long as any symphony ever previously written, but none of its successors, however monumental (the Fifth!) attempted to outdo it in length. Until the Ninth, which was far longer still - and not outdone by anybody else in symphonic form for some 70 years to come.

The Ninth was the first symphony Beethoven had written in 12 years. He'd written all the other eight during the previous 12 years. Then, nothing. (Lots of other stuff - his profound last piano sonatas among them - but no symphonies.) So for a long time, Beethoven was the composer of eight symphonies. That was it. Then, big surprise, a Ninth, an epic unlike anything he'd done before.

This upcoming season, San Francisco Opera is putting on a performance of the Ninth in the opera house. Probably in lieu of another opera production, since it's a lot less expensive (no sets, no costumes, no acting). This isn't unprecedented: the Ninth was the only music not by himself that Wagner allowed at Bayreuth, considering it the seed of his own work. The Opera is permitting the Ninth as a choice for a subscription package, and since there's little else on their schedule I want to see, I'd have taken it, except that there's only one performance and I have a date conflict.

So, no live Ninth for me this year, though I've certainly heard it often enough in the past, most recently in a two-piano arrangement, but before that, last fall in one of MTT's final concerts with the SFS. I'll take that.

Monday, May 6, 2024

why a pause?

I've never seen this discussed or explained, but I see it all the time. (I don't watch tv news programs, but I see this on clips, typically embedded in online news articles.)

Whenever a news broadcaster is interviewing a person who is not in the same room, a pause of a couple seconds ensues every time the interviewer finishes a question or a comment needing reply, before the guest reacts and starts to respond. It's as if they're not receiving the interviewer feed at the same time the viewer is.

Why is that? I suspect that the showing of the feed with the guest in it is being delayed for censorship purposes, so that someone can have their finger on the bleep-out button in case the guest says something naughty that should not be broadcast. But I don't know if that's the reason.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

yes, a theatrical review

When B. and I went to New York in 2000 and wanted to see a musical on Broadway, we wound up at a revival production of The Music Man. (The Producers hadn't opened yet.) Yesterday we went to see a local production of The Music Man. It was just about as good as the one on Broadway.

The costumes and set designs were outstanding and very evocative of the period at which the story is set. (So was the recorded music during intermission, which was Babes in Toyland.) Marian had a very strong voice and a firm rather than feisty personality. Harold Hill was no Robert Preston, but who else on earth is? He was very good anyway and sold that charm well.

But the real stars of the show were the ensemble. The large number of children, both teens and pre-, were outstanding, especially in the enthusiasm of their movements, dancing and otherwise. The adult ensemble shone most brightly in their singing. The "Pick-a-little/Goodnight Ladies" number jumped crisply and was the highlight of the show.

It was the chipper enthusiasm with which everything was done which really sold this show. Even those awkward moments when the lights were cut and a large cast had to clear the stage for the next scene didn't slow this baby down.

Only problem was that the orchestra was too loud. It's The Music Man, so they had 3 trumpets and 4 trombones, yeeks.

It's playing through next weekend (Friday-Sunday), so anyone near Palo Alto with a taste for this stuff should run and see it immediately. Tickets here.

Saturday, May 4, 2024

not an anniversary

Anybody inclined to call this Star Wars Day because May the Fourth be with you - I've seen that joke twice already this morning and it's only 10 AM - should remember that the actual anniversary of the release of the first movie is May 25.

Its Wikipedia article says that "It was released in a small number of theaters ... and quickly became a surprise blockbuster hit." It was a small number of theaters to show it on the biggest screens available - that was how you got the impact of the opening scene with the Imperial ship coming overhead on and on and on. And that it was a hit was no surprise in the SF community, which had been talking about it for months and which hardly could have been more than a small percentage of the people who lined up at those few theaters to see it on opening day.

I had been rather skeptical - a neo-space opera didn't sound like my kind of movie - but I was convinced to go see it by a big writeup in the previous week's Time magazine (hardly the mark of a movie whose hit status was going to come as a surprise), which argued that it was less an adventure story than a fun story. All right, I'll go see a fun movie.

And I came out thinking, "Hmm, not bad." Had the world been of my taste, the movie would have amused inoffensively and been forgotten.

And there certainly would have been no sequels. I'm going to put aside the increasingly dismayed feelings I had upon watching each of its successors until I quit doing so after "Phantom Menace" and also the increasingly dismayed feelings I had on rewatching the first two movies, which are the only ones tolerable enough that I ever have rewatched them, and merely pass on my firm conviction, reinforced every time I do watch them, that Darth Vader is NOT Luke's father. I am absolutely convinced, and what I've read about the writing of the scripts confirms this, that that equation was never intended or even thought of until the final scene to "Empire" was added, because nothing else said about either Vader or Anakin in either movie makes sense unless they're different people. This goes far beyond what Obi-Wan says to Luke about how Vader killed Anakin. This is an example of a "surprise" story in which the eventual "true" explanation makes less sense than the "false" ones discarded along the way.

(It's not the only example of this. Similarly, Norman Bates isn't dressing up as his mother. The movie doesn't make any sense if he is.)

By the way, "Darth" isn't the title of a Sith Lord in the first movie. It's Vader's given name. Obi-Wan uses it that way.

If I'm going to have a Star Wars mythology, I prefer the original.

Thursday, May 2, 2024

not a theatrical review

The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder

I'd seen The Matchmaker and Our Town, I thought I'd go see a local production of this. What little I'd read about it suggested this play was very weird, which is usually a plus in my book. I carefully avoided reading anything else about the play, or the text itself, so that my reactions would be fresh. A couple of very small-local reviews (forwarded in e-mail by the theater) were enthusiastic, so I was hopeful.

The ticket info said it would be 3 hours long and there'd be only one intermission. The intermission came one hour in. I decided I didn't want to sit through another two hours of this, and just left. If anybody from the theater had accosted me and asked why I was leaving, I'd have rolled my eyes and said, "If you have to ask ..." But you, lucky people, weren't there, so I'll try to explain it.

A bit was the acting. The actors tried very hard. The trouble was that you could see them trying. They didn't inhabit the characters, they spoke the lines with over-earnest emotion.

But it was mostly the script. It was weird, but it wasn't coherently weird. The author hits the audience over the head with what would have been clever allusions if they'd been a bit more subtly introduced. The characters keep saying the same things over and over again, as if they didn't think anybody else was paying any attention, and they might have been right. On top of which they also keep changing their minds, back and forth, in a vertiginous manner that seems overgenerated by any stimuli. My interest in the characters rapidly descended below zero.

It might have been funny - at times - without all these problems. After I got home I read the play's Wikipedia article. Had I known it was based on or inspired by Finnegans Wake, I would never have gone at all.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Kosman speaks

I passed on the news that Joshua Kosman, classical music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, is retiring after 30 years as the paper's chief (and mostly only) classical critic, and that he'd be giving a public conversation next week. That was Tuesday, and I went.

The venue was terrible. It was the stuffy, tiny back room of a bar in the Mission district, jammed with couches and folding chairs so that it was almost impossible to get past anybody. Sitting there was uncomfortable and cramped.

But the talk, essentially an interview with an audience question period, was very interesting. Some of the highlights:
  • Kosman became a critic when he got to university (Yale, I think he said) and found a classical review in the student paper. I can do that, he thought, and volunteered. It was a way to have "a career in music without [having] any particular musical talent."
  • When he arrived at the Chronicle in 1988, there were three full-time critics. Every Monday they'd have a meeting and the chief critic, Robert Commanday, would hand out assignments for the week. (I've read of other papers working the same way.) Now he's the only critic, and outlined his priorities for deciding what to cover: A-list performers (the SF Symphony, SF Opera, visiting big names), and otherwise what's interesting: new artists, unusual repertoire.
  • He enjoys his work - the point of doing this, he said, is not so much being paid as to get the free tickets - but it's a job. When he was single he learned not to invite dates to accompany him to concerts he was reviewing. "Don't bring a date to your job."
  • Try to write for a wide variety of audience, both specialists and the curious general reader. Don't write down to people, and don't write about artists you dislike: it doesn't do anybody any good. (I've noted that Kosman doesn't apply that stricture to works he dislikes.) He doesn't like to take notes: it leads to a boring play-by-play description of the concert. (I don't find it so.) Don't be brutal about bad performances (I agree): as an artist he'd criticized once told him, you can be both honest and a mensch. Try to keep a large vocabulary: "go to the well for words." The artistic possibilities are infinite.
  • The nicest performer he's ever met? Yo-Yo Ma. His best work? The recent commentary on the background to Salonen's resignation from SFS. (I agree.) His worst mistake? Praising David Helfgott's Rachmaninoff recording under the spell of the movie Shine. Best concert he ever heard? Victoria de los Ángeles emerging from retirement at 72 as a substitute performer for a recital with SFS. He'd figured her voice would be gone, but the event was "transfixing, mesmerizing." Best anecdote? The time the SFS marketing exec invited him to lunch and slid over a piece of paper with the name of the next music director on the other side. According to the marketing guy, Kosman "jumped out of his seat" when he saw it was Salonen, because Salonen had told Kosman personally that he wasn't interested in the job, and he was the only plausible candidate whom Kosman would find exciting. Also, the time Michael Tilson Thomas - whom Kosman calls a superb raconteur - told Kosman about visiting the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, who in turn told MTT about visiting the French composer Olivier Messiaen. So there's MTT imitating Takemitsu imitating Messiaen, and Kosman said he couldn't possibly imitate that himself.
  • Asked about musical controversies in general, Kosman's immediate response was "Yuja Wang can wear whatever she wants." She's one of the great artistic geniuses of our day, he says.
  • The future of SFS? He wonders if it and the Opera aren't "punching above their weight." It's rare for an urban area this small to have such world-class institutions (what about Cleveland? I wondered), and guesses it may be inevitable that they'll go down a bit in prestige.
  • The future of reviewing? Moving online has changed things a lot: you're going for clicks, and Kosman found that an interview he did with Igor Levit about the rare Busoni Piano Concerto, in which Levit described it as the most challenging piece he's ever performed, got more hits than anything else he'd written when the paper used that comment as the headline without identifying the work: people clicked on the article to find out what it was.
  • But what will happen at the Chronicle after he's gone? He has no way of knowing. But at this point, a woman in the audience, apparently Kosman's editor, piped up to say that they'll cover the scene as best as they're able, whatever that means, and that they're looking for freelancers. (Will I try to sign up? Probably not. I have two venues that I'm happy with, and that's enough.)