Sunday, May 20, 2018

second concert: supplemental

I forgot to say about Philip Glass's Piano Concerto No. 3 that the long ending, with an oft-repeated phrase drifting to the far ends of the piano, reminded me of the passacaglia section in the Piano Quintet of Alfred Schnittke, not a composer I expected to be reminded of by Philip Glass.

In the lobby before the concert I heard two men talking about Scotland, especially the unexpectedly luminous quality of the light there. I considered chiming in to agree, but decided I had nothing in particular to add that would justify the interruption.

Then one of them was describing his trip to the Highlands. "We took a ferry to the Isle of Mull," he said, and I was thinking, OK, I know where that is. "Then we took another ferry to the Isle of Iona," and I thought, Yes, that's how you get there. And then he said, "That's where the Book of Kells comes from," and I had to bite my tongue to keep from correcting him. Then they abruptly switched to talking about Iona Brown: it was a classical concert, after all. But no Mendelssohn references, peculiarly enough.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

two concerts

Peninsula Symphony, last weekend, reviewed. I got the score of the Elgar Cello Concerto out of the library to follow along, because I tend to consider this work, like most of Elgar's more ambitious compositions, a featureless wad.

Without review assignment, I went to hear the New Century Chamber Orchestra last night. This was so that I could hear Philip Glass's new Piano Concerto No. 3, which dedicatee Simone Dinnerstein has been taking around the country on a premiere tour.

This could have been asking for trouble, because a dozen years ago I heard his Piano Concerto No. 2 at Cabrillo, and was not impressed: uninspired noodling with astonishingly bad sonic balance. But No. 3 was much better, as hypnotically entrancing a work as Glass has ever composed. It's a very long work and could have been longer as far as I was concerned, mostly slow and quiet. The Glassian figurations are confined to the string orchestra, which never drowns out the piano even when the strings are busy and the piano is playing slow chords, which it often is. The chordal work was dominant in the piano part, and only the harmonic progressions were a sure giveaway of Glass's hand. At times it sounded like a string work with piano obbligato, at others like pianist and orchestra were playing entirely separate works simultaneously.

Dinnerstein also played Bach's G Minor concerto (more familiar in its violin form, in which it's in A Minor), which she's been taking along with the Glass. The orchestra also played Purcell's Chacony, a Corellian concerto grosso by Geminiani, and Bryce Dessner's Aheym, a raw-sounding little piece that's far more "minimalist" in style than anything Glass has written since around the time that Dessner, who's 42, was in elementary school.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018


Friday my editor phoned, wondering if I might be able to cover that week's SF Symphony concert. "I went to last night's performance," I said, "and I think I could ginger up a review." My editor said he really wanted to know what I'd made of the new work by Connesson, and we discussed it for a while, and I realized that this conversation was actually writing my review for me. So I completed it in written form and here it is, complete with grumblings against the serialist (well, post-tonalist) hegemony. Won't he ever stop going on about that? Not as long as the attitudes that engendered it still exist.

We took advantage of a week's maintenance shutdown of B's workplace to do something that would be too time-consuming and tiring to do on an ordinary day off, which was to take the 3-hour (each way) drive out to visit niece and family off in the distant rural expanses of the Central Valley. Children well-behaved, but also very energetic. Fun to be with for a bit, but glad we never had any of our own. Greeted at door with announcement from knee-level: "I'm four!" "Four what?" I asked, to see what she'd say. "Four and a half!" she replied. And as her birthday is September 12, that's true.

Spending several days back at the research libraries, this time reading through the long nomination list for the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award, for which I'm on the jury. Some good books out there, also some dubious ones, also some ones needing copy-editing. More on that later, perhaps. Got caught up like a ping-pong ball batted back and forth in a turf war between the check-out clerk and the security officer. More on that later? Perhaps not.

Oh, and my upcoming trip to England, a very tightly-scheduled event, just keeps getting more exciting. First my flight got canceled. Not discontinued; just canceled, that day's flight and no other. They say they decided to inspect the plane that day. Got rebooked onto another flight going somewhere else; will get home about 5 hours later than previously expected. Then the show I was going to see in London got canceled. Just that one performance and no other. No reason given. Can't make any other, so switched to another show; fortunately there was one I'd been considering and the same agency covered it.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

bonus revelation

How much of a fan of Monty Python and the Holy Grail am I?

Well, there was the time I was in a hotel ballroom at Mythcon which was being set up for a stage presentation I'd be participating in later that day. At one point the technicians asked me to speak into the microphone to test it. I walked up and opened my mouth with no idea what I was about to say.

What came out was, "Look: strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government."

So last night I was attending a small social gathering and one of the other attendees was describing a radio station trivia contest she once took part in. Explaining how it worked, she said, "They ask you five questions ..."

And I instantly interjected, "Three questions."

Again, I had no idea I was going to say this.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Tolkien Studies 15: an announcement

On behalf of myself and my co-editors, Michael D.C. Drout and Verlyn Flieger, here are the expected contents of volume 15 of the journal Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review. All of the works are now in the hands of our publisher, West Virginia University Press, and the volume is scheduled to be published in softcover and on Project MUSE later this year. - David Bratman, co-editor

Tolkien Studies 15 (2018)
  • Nicole duPlessis, "'Changed, Changed Utterly': The Implications of Tolkien's Rejected Epilogue to The Lord of the Rings"

  • Tom Hillman, "These Are Not the Elves You're Looking For: Sir Orfeo, The Hobbit, and the Reimagining of the Elves"

  • Jane Chance, "Tolkien's Classical Beowulf and England's Heroic Age"

  • Chiara Bertoglio, "Dissonant Harmonies: Tolkien's Musical Theodicy"
Notes and Documents
  • Stuart D. Lee, "'Tolkien in Oxford' (BBC, 1968): A Reconstruction"

  • Janet Brennan Croft, "Doors into Elf-mounds: J.R.R. Tolkien's Introductions, Prefaces, and Forewords"

  • Denham, Robert D., compiler, "References to J.R.R. Tolkien in the Collected Works of Northrop Frye"
Book Reviews
  • The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, revised and expanded edition, by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond, reviewed by Jason Fisher

  • Beren and Lúthien, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, reviewed by Sherwood Smith

  • There Would Always Be a Fairy Tale: More Essays on Tolkien, by Verlyn Flieger, reviewed by Alyssa House-Thomas

  • The Sweet and the Bitter: Death and Dying in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, by Amy Amendt-Raduege, reviewed by Robert Steed

  • J.R.R. Tolkien: Romanticist and Poet, by Julian Eilmann, reviewed by Jay Rimmer

  • The Inklings and King Arthur: J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, & Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain, edited by Sørina Higgins, reviewed by John D. Rateliff
  • David Bratman, Jason Fisher, John Wm. Houghton, John Magoun, Robin Anne Reid, "The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies 2015"

  • David Bratman, "Bibliography (In English) for 2016"

Thursday, May 10, 2018

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Two French guest performers, both of whom I'd heard before, appeared in a concert of Franco-Italian travelogue music. Stéphane Denève, his wild mane of hair beginning to recede in front, conducted.

The all-French work on the program was the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Camille Saint-Saëns, with the solo by Gautier Capuçon. He had a firm, mellow tone in this mostly lively and fairly choppy work. The unusual feature is a courtly minuet in the middle, played crisply and softly in the strings. Capuçon's encore was also by Saint-Saëns, "The Swan" accompanied by orchestral strings and harp.

There were two somewhat mixed-provenance works on the program. Escales (Ports of Call) by Jacques Ibert is a 1922 suite depicting Mediterranean countries the French composer visited on his honeymoon: Italy, Spain, and Tunisia. The idiom, in orchestration and slightly seasick harmonies, was very much "school of Debussy," though Debussy never wrote anything as exotic as Ibert's Tunisia.

A brief and very recent work by the French composer Guillaume Connesson, also depicting the Italian landscape, bears a long title in Italian translatable as "The river is clear in the valley." It surprised me with its retro quality, being in what seemed a combination of neoromanticism and neoclassicism. Only a few odd harmonies betrayed for certain that it had not been written a century earlier.

Lastly, The Pines of Rome, the most famous of Ottorino Respighi's sets of panels depicting the city. Denève stationed extra brass for the finale around the balconies, resulting in weird echo effects. This was also done for the recent San Jose performance, though I don't recall seeing it earlier. But this was a refined and dignified performance where San Jose's was raucous.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

concert catchup

Over the weekend, my editors sent me to hear Symphony Silicon Valley do Haydn's The Creation, and it was good, much better than the last rather low-rent performance I heard. As usual Karen S. was in the choir, which did very well for itself.

Last Thursday, while I was still posting here about Montana, I went up to a San Francisco Symphony concert under Juraj Valčuha, mostly so that I could hear Prokofiev's rough and angular Third Symphony again. This performance smoothed out and made the work as lyric as possible, but without sacrificing drive. It was pretty satisfactory. Ray Chen played the Brahms Violin Concerto, a performance I thought subdued and retiring but which my fellow reviewer characterized as driving and even reckless. Opening up was Unstuck by Andrew Norman, a young composer I've found interesting before. This piece felt like ten minutes of imaginatively conceived, brightly-colored fragments that seemed deliberately designed not to add up to anything.

And a couple weeks ago, before my trip, I was at Herbst for the Takács Quartet, the farewell performance (though the conservative ensemble made nothing out of this) of their founding second violin, Károly Schranz, who's retiring this month. The expected deep consideration of a lot of non-flashy repertoire, Mozart's K. 387, Mendelssohn's Op. 80, and Dohnányi's Second.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Montana: other travelling notes

Great Falls: Where my flights terminated and where I stayed three of the seven nights of my journey, something of a home base and the only city I spent much time in, Great Falls has lost an industry (or two: hydroelectric power and smelting) and not yet found a role. It's a large city but curiously vacant: there was hardly anyone there and no significant traffic, even on the main drag at commute hours. Yet it was not closed down or boarded up as decaying midwestern or southern cities are. It seemed healthy but there wasn't much there. In particular, I had trouble finding anything not a chain (and not too many of those, either) open for lunch on a Sunday except diners still serving only breakfast food. I had a great omelet, though.

Countryside traffic: Not too much of that, either. On any of the back unpaved roads, if a vehicle, usually a pickup, is coming the other way, raise your hand to greet its driver, because they will to you. You're probably the only other driver they've seen all day.

The California of Montana: The only even moderately heavy traffic I saw was while passing through the outskirts of Missoula, my only encounter with that city. The road (Reserve St.) was lined with malls and chain outlets, more of it in 5 miles than in all of Great Falls. I told a store clerk in an outlying village that it was the only thing I'd seen in Montana that reminded me of urban California, and she thanked me warmly for confirming her own impression.

Montana Leisurely: The reason I was chatting with the store clerk is because by then I'd learned that that's what you do in Montana. Even in Great Falls I found the service style I dubbed "Montana leisurely." It's not unfriendly or uncaring, it just takes a long time. Allow two hours for a meal at a restaurant that would take one hour elsewhere. And, in particular, for checkout clerks, chatting extensively with customers who've already completed their purchase takes a much higher priority than helping the next person in line. If you're the next person, you'd just better get used to it. (And, while nobody was unfriendly, by far the warmest and most friendly were the clerks and servers at every place I stopped in the small towns of the Bitterroot Valley. They really make you feel welcome there.)

Steaks? Since I like to focus on local cuisine wherever I go, you may wonder how many steaks I ate in a week in Montana. Three, actually: one basic sirloin, one small marinated ribeye, and one T-bone so huge and thick that my first act was to saw off the strip side to save it for the next day. A couple hamburgers, lamb chops in a chop house, and a Butte-area special, the (boneless, needless to say) breaded pork chop sandwich. In Salmon, Idaho, I figured that I'm not often in a town named for a food, so when I saw that namesake food on the menu, I ordered it. Two meals in the small Montana town of Dillon rather surprisingly yielded me 1) some of the best jambalaya I've had outside of Louisiana, 2) the best tamales I've had outside of ex-Mexican territory.

Unexpected echo: In some of the smaller towns (smaller than Dillon), the best place to eat was often a saloon, a bar (for drinks) with a table seating area off to one side and a small menu focusing on burgers, steak sandwiches, and the like. This is not a kind of establishment I've seen in California, though some of our restaurants have bars, which is more the other way around, and felt more like eating at an English pub than any other experience I've had over here, albeit with a very heavy Western American accent. For one thing, you might find yourself sitting underneath a majestic antlered deer head mounted on the wall, or if you skittered away from that, next to a player piano on the other side of the room.

On the reservation: Members of the Blackfoot tribe are very proud of being Blackfeet. Even the ones panhandling in front of the tribal museum are very proud of being Blackfeet. I gave them a generous tip in hushed respect.

Culture in Montana: The Great Falls Symphony plays in an auditorium inside a WPA-era building labeled "City Hall" on that side and "Convention Center" on another side, and which is consequently hard to find. The musicians were dressed formally, but in the audience I saw a couple men in sports coats but not a single necktie. This was, already in late April, the last concert of the season, under first-year music director Grant Harville. The theme was music connected with movies. Of the two standard concert works, Gershwin's American in Paris was relaxed and easy but Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé (I was probably the only person there who'd actually seen the original movie) was stiff and awkward. Two chunks from more recent movies, Empire of the Sun (John Williams) and The Mission (Ennio Morricone), both featured chorus, an outstandingly clear and balanced ensemble directed by Paul Ritter, just then retiring.

A newspaper article alerted me to a children's theater production of the first act of Sondheim's Into the Woods and I couldn't resist that, so I adjusted my schedule to stop in Butte in time to see a performance. The tiny theater was even harder to find than the symphony hall, requiring one to pass sequentially through the lobby of a Masonic temple, a large gymnasium, and a door labeled women's restroom (it wasn't) in order to enter. The cast was mostly teenagers, with parts for younger children in a few cases that were obvious (Jack, Little Red) and some that weren't (Rapunzel's Prince). Like Linus's pumpkin patch, the show had sincerity, but what came out of anyone's mouth could not charitably be called singing. The narrator, for instance, was a girl made up like a Midsummer Night's Dream fairy, with a strong stage presence and a good line in eerie contortionate gymnastics, but ... she could not sing.

Bookstores: One advantage of the back of beyond is that there are still big used bookstores there. Second Edition Books in Butte (commercial space, wide open plan) claims to be the best used bookstore in Montana, and it's good but I'd give that prize to Montana Valley Books in Alberton, 30 miles outside Missoula (converted house, packed and cramped but not musty).

Saturday, May 5, 2018

travelling expeditiously through Montana

1. Take a map, a really good map. I took the DeLorme 3 miles to an inch road atlas, and it was vital. Directions to Lewis and Clark sites will send you off down obscure unpaved roads, and while those roads have names, Montana is chary of putting those names on road signs, and the map is the best way to find out where to go.

2. Nevertheless, don't be afraid to drive those unpaved roads. Montana keeps them in good condition. Only the occasional washboarding and the even rarer gully. But while the speed limit was typically 40 mph, 35 was about as fast as I could go without kicking too much gravel up. Once, far up in the mountains about a mile below the Continental Divide, I found a tree had fallen across the road. In my SUV, I was able to drive over the trunk, but I fancy that the sports car I passed going the other way a few miles later was in for an unpleasant surprise.

3. And when you get to your L&C site, even if it's far out in the wilderness, don't be surprised if there are interpretive signs, often well-researched and with very few factual errors. Comparing these with the info in my older guidebooks, it looks like the signage has been blooming in recent years.

(3a. OK, what errors were there? Two different signs said that Lewis left Sgt. Ordway in command of the portage camp at Great Falls when he set off to explore the Marias. No, Ordway and the canoe party hadn't arrived from upstream yet. Sgt. Gass was in charge pending Ordway's arrival. In the town of Salmon, Idaho, which dubs itself Sacagawea's birthplace (she was probably born somewhere in the area, but we don't know for sure), there's a sign claiming that her reunion with her brother, now the chief of their band, took place there as well. No, that happened over on the Montana side, at Camp Fortunate.)

4. And there's some very good museums. Best was the Forest Service's museum in Great Falls, of all things, whose extensive exhibit recounts the entire journey of the expedition, with emphasis on the native tribes they met, each referred to by both its common Anglo and own tribal name (though I'm not always confident in the accuracy of the latter). My favorite exhibit was the one where, if you press buttons for the language names in the right order, a recording of actors and a hypothesized script will reproduce the entire five-person translation process by which Lewis negotiated for horses with the Shoshone. The pathway winds creatively through the building, and when you get to the point where Lewis and Clark parted to take different routes on the return journey through Montana, the pathway briefly splits.

5. Also, the Sacajawea Center in Salmon, which is small but excellent. Gives a full account of her contributions to the expedition, which were useful, extensive, and honorable without having to make up any stories about her guiding the explorers across the continent, and, even more impressively, puts it in the context of modern Shoshone knowledge about their aboriginal customs and beliefs. So it forms a biography: first you see her as a Shoshone girl among her people, then as a captive of the Hidatsa, then heading off with these strange white men for a hoped-for reunion with her people. And what happened afterwards? The exhibit accepts the historically-likely story that she died in 1812, while noting the existence of a tradition that she lived to a great age in Wyoming, which is a fair way of putting it.

5a. This museum was still closed for the season, but unlike others that were closed had a notice on the website saying they'd open it by appointment. As I'd be on the road, I wasn't sure beforehand exactly when I could show up, but I phoned them and we worked something out, and someone was there to turn on the heat and let me in.

6. The other really good museum I visited was the Museum of the Rockies on the Montana State University campus in Bozeman. Nothing about Lewis and Clark, but a thunderously superb exhibit on the topic of dinosaur bones, Montana's leading geological product. Made an excellent update to my memories of long-ago college paleontology class.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Montana landforms

In following Lewis and Clark, I have no interest in re-enactment. Their journey was slow, wearying, and distinctly uncomfortable. I'm only interested in being where they were and seeing what they saw, particularly the forms of the landscape. So it was in Montana.

Despite its name, only the western third of Montana is mountainous. The rest is high plains, but it's not as flat as Kansas is reputed to be, or even than Kansas really is. It's rolling land full of dips and rises and surprising features like the one-time glacial lake spillway called the Big Sag; there's massive and often steep bluffs by the rivers; and throughout are dramatic buttes formed of volcanic rock plugs. The natives used to use these as buffalo jumps, a couple of which are preserved as state parks. And the land throughout is uniformly covered with golden dry grass.

This is the landscape that Charlie Russell specialized in painting, and you can get a good sense of it by studying his work closely. (I visited the Russell museum in Great Falls, which is behind his house.) It's a beautiful austere country, but after driving through several hundred miles of it, I have to say that, if you've seen part of it, you know what the rest looks like. I'm glad I didn't try to cram an eastern Montana loop into my week's journey.

Especially in the Blackfoot reservation in the north, the Rocky Mountains rise so abruptly from the landscape that the sight appears unreal. Even far off you can see them, looking like some kind of giant outdoor fresco wall mural.

If you follow the Missouri River upstream, as Lewis and Clark did, the river hits the mountains just past the town of Cascade. From there until near Helena, the riparian landscape is as dramatic as you could possibly wish for: huge cliffs and jagged rocks looming directly over the roiling water. But upstream from Helena, the land broadens. The mountain ranges are separated by wide gentle valleys with soggy wetlands in the middle, down which meandering streams wander, getting smaller as they branch going upstream (all of which made life difficult for L&C's men, dragging long pirogues slowly upriver), frequently shifting course (which makes life difficult for historians tracking L&C's precise route).

To my surprise, the region south of Helena, including west into the Lemhi Valley of Idaho, is of desert vegetation in many areas, sagebrush and all. No wonder the Shoshones L&C met there were frequently starving. Further north there is no desert, and there's certainly none in the most beauteous valley of all, the glacially-carved Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula. The valley here runs directly north from its tip, and in that direction Lewis and Clark traveled, always looking anxiously westward, which was the direction they wanted to go, but up that way were the highest and most jagged mountains of the region. And what's behind those mountains? More mountains! ("What do you burn apart from witches? More witches!") To this day, no road penetrates through that region. Finally, up north near the foot of the valley, L&C hit the spot where the natives had a westward mountaintop trail across today's northern Idaho, a route still so difficult that an auto road was only built in the 1960s.

L&C came through in late summer, and didn't hit an early snowfall until that westward Idaho trail, but throughout the higher elevations in April I found frequent patches of snow. These looked charming and harmless enough at a distance, but, as I found, they're perilous to walk on. In some places, the snow crust is solid enough to bear your weight, but in others your foot will suddenly crash through a foot or more of crunchy snow, landing on the slippery ice underneath. I'm glad I brought my heavy-duty shoes (even though they're so old their soles completely disintegrated under the use), and I certainly wouldn't attempt to drive a vehicle without chains through a heavy patch of this stuff.

In the far north, there'd been heavy snow but it melted. I heard there was flooding and even read a news story of a driver nearly washed away, but all I saw was lots of large ponds where I suspected ponds should not be ("As I came home / so drunk I couldn't see, oh / There I saw a pond / No pond should be there"). I guessed this because usually range fences do not pass through the middle of ponds. Fortunately I didn't hit any impassable wet spots on the unpaved roads, though as I mentioned a fair amount of mud did get on the car, especially the underside.

I'd only been to Montana once before, in childhood many years ago, and even then saw very little of these places. It was a real pleasure finally to track the slow struggle upstream, the anxious trip over the mountains, the return by an easier pass, Lewis's exploration of the Marias River in the northern plains, Clark's encounter with the Yellowstone after Sacagawea showed him the best mountain pass.