Wednesday, December 7, 2016

a pictorial trip to Britain

Click on the links for the pictures; there's more than I want to upload here.

At the feet of the statue of Dorothy L. Sayers is a statue of her cat. (This is in Witham, Essex, the town where she lived in her later years, and the first of many I visited that had no mobile phone stores. I even visited the town tourist office which told me, "We used to have one, but it closed.")

The village of Dedham, also in Essex, often considered one of the most beautiful in England. Where Constable painted. More. More.

Benjamin Britten's house, in Suffolk. His concert hall, nearby. The rather astonishing all-wooden interior (not by me).

Tolkien's Kortirion, alias Warwick: the town centre, the ancient church of St. Mary's, a glimpse of the castle.

Stratford-upon-Avon is a neat, bright, clean town (and where I finally found a phone store), with only one dilapidated Elizabethan building, on the left here: Shakespeare's purported birthplace.

This factory-like edifice is actually the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre, where I saw The Two Noble Kinsmen.

The Swan of Avon.

My faithful rental car, parked by the village green of Brill - alias Bree Hill - Buckinghamshire, near Oxford.

A place-name nearby, appropriated by Tolkien for Farmer Giles of Ham.

The grave of CSL and WHL and the church by which it lies. Also present, Mrs. Moore. (There are actually two Mrs. Moores in this grave; she's the second one.)

The tower of St. Peter's College, Oxford, a truly strange attempt at imitating "Cotswold domestic architecture" by an architect with the iron of modernism in his soul; a possible model for CSL's Dark Tower.

Just to illustrate what a wonderful place Blackwell's is, here's less than half of its sheet music department.

I just happened across this pub and recognized the name: The Jolly Farmers. This is the pub where Oxford student Richard Adams, later the author of Watership Down, gave his 20th birthday party in 1940. Despite it also being the day the Germans invaded France, it was a great success. "No one had ever thought of giving a party in a pub before," Adams writes in his memoirs. "I can't think why not: it was the easiest way imaginable to give a party. You simply handed the landlord a capital sum and told him to serve the company free until it was exhausted."

In the village of Sutton Courtenay, south of Oxford, you may find the tomb of H.H. Asquith, notable British Prime Minister in 1908-16. And, to make this one churchyard doubly notable, just behind those trees in the background is the stone marking the grave of Eric Arthur Blair. Oh, come on, you know who he was, yes you do.

Out in deepest Sussex, somewhere near Cold Comfort Farm no doubt, is the grave of Mervyn Peake. Its church. The Sussex downs that overlook it.

A bookcase in Jane Austen's house in Hampshire. The dye garden. The resident cat. (Lives across the road, the staff told me, but spends its time over here.)

Ty Newydd Country Hotel, at the foot of the Brecon Beacons, where I stayed in Wales. The head of the long road leading up to it. The view out my window. Despite the age and isolation, a nice room, with a huge wardrobe and a functional bathroom. One warning: Dim ysmygu!

You gotta love Aberdare, the upper valleys town just below: the only town I know where the statue in the middle of the town square is of a choral conductor. Details. This is also where you can ask, why did the hedgehog cross the road?

On to Bristol: at the Clifton Suspension Bridge. (I hope some day to have her photo at the Golden Gate Bridge.) Me at Mrs Moore's house where CSL spent his leave during WW1. Various attempts at photographing steepholm's cat.

And then we decamped to Oxford for a special treat: a talk by scholars Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins on Tolkien's "A Secret Vice" paper on language creation, given on the 85th anniversary of the paper's presentation in the place - Pembroke College - where Tolkien gave it, date and place established by Fimi and Higgins themselves and discussed in their recent book containing the essay and associated papers. My own photos did not come out well, so here's the noble scholars, the rapt audience (I'm in front of the door opposite), the aftermath, and the seething celebration from the website that also has the video of the talk.

My favorite tourist site in London on this trip was an Inigo Jones monument, the Banqueting House, site of most state occasions in the 17th century, and the only surviving part of Whitehall Palace, then the monarch's principal home. What made it so great was the ingenious tourist aids visible in this photo I found online: the beanbag chairs and mirror-topped tables (on wheels, so you can move them around) for the better viewing of Rubens' allegorical ceiling paintings. A truly clever idea (though no cleverer than allowing Rubens to paint in his studio and hoisting the paintings up after he was finished, instead of making him hang from the scaffolding like Michelangelo). I told the staff they should write to the Vatican and suggest the same accoutrements to the Sistine Chapel; I got such a crick in my neck in there.

Also in London, Old Abe in Parliament Square. I'm not sure what he's doing there, but I was glad to see him. Churchill taking a ride on the top of a van. Monty, looking insufferably pleased with himself. Theresa, and Larry the cat, hang out in here. Monument to the women of WW2. Lastly, I came across this in the heart of the City: he's everywhere.

Monday, December 5, 2016

concert review: China Philharmonic

Yes, yes, I've been close to 3 weeks in England and Wales, and I'll report on it soon, once I get my photos and my sleep schedule organized. I didn't have any trouble adjusting to the time going there, but coming back has been a bear, as it usually is for me going west, and even the caffeine equivalent of two cups of coffee barely kept me going through tonight's concert at Davies.

I know why I went to the UK, but I'm not sure why the China Philharmonic and its artistic director, Long Yu, traveled all this way to give bog-standard performances of bog-standard repertoire like Beethoven's First Piano Concerto and Dvorak's New World Symphony. They're great pieces, but we can hear them any time from anybody. All that was unusual tonight were some emphases in the Dvorak and a bizarrely wooden way of playing the "weeping" ending of his slow movement.

And the pianist in the Beethoven, whose name is Serena Wang and who is Twelve. Years. Old. with feet dangling from the piano bench. Her performance was entirely competent, so it seems churlish to have to report that it was also rather stiff. She gets an A for learning her part, but she's not going to win any piano competition votes from me, not this year. Come back in another few and we'll see.

As with most such programs, there was an imported curtain-raiser, Enchantements oublies by Qigang Chen. As the title suggests, this is, like much Western music by East Asian composers, heavily influenced by French impressionism, and in particular in this case by Chen's teacher, Messiaen.

But what most impressed me was the encore, a little piece of Chinese folk music whose characteristic bent notes and micro-glissandi were handled with a confident assurance by the Chinese violinists that no non-native could match. This is the kind of music they're good at, and it's more of this they should be playing, not trying to best Westerners at a European game.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

trip notes

Although the UK does not have Thanksgiving, weirdly it does have Black Friday. You took the wrong part of American customs, guys.

Rumblings Underground: Staying out near the end of the Piccadilly line becomes exciting when a broken signal causes a blockage just out from where it starts crossing other lines. Stumbling out onto the street in some unknown suburb called South Ealing, blessings fall in the form of a bus whose destination sign reads Ealing Broadway. A lightbulb goes on when I remember that's the name of the station at the end of the Central line. However, chaos re-emerges in town. The District line is half-closed, and the Circle line is entirely closed, facts only revealed in the form of inaudible station announcements, and more slowly in the form of trains that don't arrive.

Thing I brought with me that I turned out not to need: a voltage converter. Turns out the chargers I use for my tablets are 240-friendly. Could have used a second plug adapter, though. As for my electric toothbrush, first off it holds a charge for well over a week, which I hadn't expected; and second, there's a 115-volt outlet in the bathroom of at least two of the hotels I've stayed in, and it takes the American plugs, too. It's labeled "shaver only," but I won't tell if you won't.

Thing I didn't bring enough of but should have: the unfoldable gauze dressing I use on my skin condition, which every pharmacy chain in the US carries in various quantity boxes, is completely unknown in the UK. I have to make do with tiny little pads, which I rip off from the bandages they're mounted on and apply in large numbers. (It goes under my compression socks, which is why I don't need anything else to hold it in place.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

concerts in two iconic locales

I was admiring the large, famous, and cathedral-like King's College chapel in Cambridge - the informational leaflet says the roof is 80 feet high, but it looks taller than that - when I noticed the sign listing the musical program for that evening's Evensong service. The college singers would be performing Bruckner's Locus iste as the introit. Locus iste is my favorite motet of all time, so I decided to go.

Not the first time I'd attended a Christian religious service, but the first time I'd attended an Anglican one in a medieval edifice. The chorus (two colleges' worth, combined), about 50 strong, were excellent, and the acoustics were reverberant. We guests sat in the stalls, facing inward from the two sides, at the lower end of the church; the chorus sat likewise in the middle, with their conductor standing in the aisle between them; and the ministers were up at the top somewhere, where we couldn't see them but could hear them.

Earlier, in London, on a lark I went to one of several performances of a "Classical Spectacular" program at the Royal Albert Hall, a building I'd never been inside before, though I've seen plenty of videos of concerts there. It's an enormous Victorian circular-shaped monument with something of a football-arena vibe to it. What the acoustics are like I've no idea, as everything was under tinny amplification, even the Royal Philharmonic, a normally respectable orchestra which formed the bulk of the musicians. Some quieter pieces, like "Clair de lune" and "The Lark Ascending", were perhaps poorly chosen for the festive atmosphere, which seemed intended to re-create The Last Night of the Proms in November. The most interesting part of it was the odd feeling one gets as a foreigner sitting among Brits being wildly patriotic over "Land of Hope and Glory", Parry's "Jerusalem", and "Rule, Britannia" with a baritone, clad in the British equivalent of an Uncle Sam coat, doing the hard-part verses from Thomas Arne's original. Does being a flag-waving Brit today indicate that one is pro-Brexit? I'm not sure.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

things I've learned in Britain

that are not related to mobile phones:

1. At the feet of the statue of Dorothy L. Sayers, there is a statue of her cat.

2. Sheep may safely graze on the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo.

3. Materials conservation at a historic house converted into a museum is a lot more like housekeeping than it is in the academic libraries where I know it.

4. If the essential eating-while-standing-outdoors food in Hawaii is a shaved ice on the beach at Haleiwa in August, the equivalent in England is fish and chips on the shore of the North Sea in November. I have now had both.

5. The only dilapidated building in the entirety of Stratford-upon-Avon's neat and clean town centre is Shakespeare's (supposed) birthplace.

6. There is an entire book on the history of the London Underground map. I now have a copy of this book. (Are you not surprised?)

7. The Two Noble Kinsmen, by Shakespeare and Fletcher, is a much better Fletcher play than it is a Shakespeare one.

8. On the other hand, the unpromisingly dry Milton Comus was alchemized at the Globe Theatre's indoor playhouse into a riotous hoot.

9. When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, he had not yet grown his famous beard. You'd never recognise him.

10. A transplanted Yorkshirewoman explained to me that the last words of the song lyric "On Ilkla Moor baht 'at" mean "without a hat." I had had no idea, and had guessed it meant "about eight o'clock."

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

I'm disappointed

The greatest lie in Britain isn't the idealized Brexit terms that fooled gullible voters. The greatest lie in Britain is the claim that it's easy to find a shop that will sell you a mobile phone.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

ah

Turned out there was a reason God took Leonard Cohen from us at the moment He did. It was so that we could get the full effect of this double memorial.

Pay particular attention to the third verse. (There are different versions of the lyrics. These are all authentic Cohen.)

non-arrival

(This is intended to be a non-spoiler. I hope to thoroughly confuse anybody who's not already familiar with one or the other of the prose fiction or film I'm discussing.)

A couple weeks ago, as reported here, I went to a preview showing of the film Arrival, and was impressed with this thoughtful, intelligent, cerebral SF film. Of course, I'd already read "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang on which it's based, so I had a leg up on the actually profoundly disorienting plot. (It is a Ted Chiang story.) But the publicity people told me that others who'd seen the movie without knowing the story had found it intelligible.

Now it's been released, and I'm reading the reviews and I'm not so sure.

San Jose Mercury News: "Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics called in by the U.S. government to attempt communicating with the visitors. Banks still wrestles with the guilt of losing a daughter to an incurable disease and is immediately presented as a complicated and passionate character."

The Guardian: "Unknown to anyone, there is a secret tragedy in Louise's life: a lost child, dead of cancer in her late teens. Her attempts to communicate with the aliens cause painful, illuminating echoes in her consciousness."

Are these misdirection to avoid spoiling the ending, or did the reviewers actually not get what's going on? The Guardian might be the former, though I'd guess not; but the Mercury News definitely the latter, even though the reviewer also wrote, "as in “Interstellar,” the point remains hidden until nearly the end." I wonder what the reviewer thought the point was.

I'm dismayed, because I thought the filmmakers handled this really well. Not only did they include verbatim my favorite moment from the story, the vertiginous shift in perspective pivoting on a single term that occurs between p. 295 and 296 of the original publication, but, just in case anyone missed it, they used it as lead-up to a more blatant appearance of the same effect later on that was entirely invented for the film. (The phone-call scene.) What impressed me about this is that it's the opposite of what Peter Jackson would do. One of the besetting sins of his Lord of the Rings films was repeated anticipation and flattening: he'd copy Tolkien's most striking effects and add them to scenes earlier on in the storyline, thus undercutting the drama of Tolkien's part of the story when it finally arrives.

Arrival does the opposite: by putting its invented scene later, it underlines and emphasizes what it reproduces from Chiang's original. See, it really does matter what order you experience events in, doesn't it?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

opera review: Akhnaten

Open are the double doors of the horizon.
Unlocked are its gates.
I'm not much of an opera-goer, and it's unprecedented that I would travel out of town just to see an opera. But it's not out of character for me if that opera is Akhnaten by Philip Glass. I only know Glass's earlier theater works, and there are parts of Satyagraha and The Photographer I cherish most. But overall, Akhnaten is my favorite. A production by the LA Opera was a golden opportunity for a work rarely staged, and I made a quick trip down to see Thursday's performance at the Chandler Pavilion, a hall I'd been to before when the LA Philharmonic was still playing there, before they moved to the newer Disney Hall across the street.

Akhnaten was the Egyptian pharaoh who essentially, at least as Glass understood the history, invented monotheism. At a pre-show talk, conductor Matthew Aucoin described him, as depicted in this opera, as a visionary reformer whose achievements were erased by his successors; sound like anybody we know? Without getting further into politics, Aucoin suggested that this performance would be a catharsis that we all needed. He described Glass as also a visionary reformer, ridding music of unneeded complexity as Akhnaten had the pantheon of gods, in revolt against the serialist orthodoxy (Aucoin used that word) of the previous generation.

Akhnaten is not a plot-based opera; it's a series of near-static tableaus, focused on the music rather than the action, which is part of why I like it so much. I also like the dark sound quality; as with the Brandenburg Sixth, another favorite work of mine, there are no violins; but this is otherwise a big orchestra with a full sound.

This production was imported from the English National Opera. The sets and costumes, though not Egyptian-inspired, were weird and fascinating. The special feature was a troupe of ten silent juggler/acrobats integrated into the story; the repetition and shifting patterns of their juggling reflects the music. Except for the jugglers, however, everyone on stage moved extremely slowly. Even Akhnaten's violent overthrow at the end took place in such slow motion that it could seem motionless moment-by-moment.

This too reflected the music; but I found it not at all boring, but beautiful and gripping all the way through. Not all agreed, though. After each intermission the audience was slightly smaller, but most of us appreciated all 3.5 hours of it. It was an enrapturing performance that was worth the effort I took to get there.

SFCV's review of the premiere last week has details and photos. And the LA Times review has more; I thought the orchestra was fine by the time I heard them, though the Chandler acoustics hadn't improved; but then, that I was prepared for.

Here's a recording of the part of Akhnaten with the most interesting vocal work, though it's still totally unlike anything opera-lovers would normally expect to hear. It's a trio for Akhnaten - a counter-tenor, an eerie voice type meant to come as a surprise after his silent appearance in the previous scene for his coronation - his mother Queen Tye (soprano) and his wife Queen Nefertiti (mezzo). By using the high range of the man's voice and the low ranges of the women's, Glass intertwines them fascinatingly. What language is that they're singing? Ancient Egyptian, of course; what else?

Friday, November 11, 2016

late review

Last weekend (seems so long ago now), The Peninsula Symphony, fortunately playing only works they were capable of playing, which made it easy to review. I thought of covering the Masterworks Chorale in Rachmaninoff's Vespers instead, and putting the PenSym off till March when they're doing Anna Clyne (whom I like a lot) and Scheherazade, but I fear they won't be able to be very adequate in Scheherazade, and writing disappointed reviews of amateur ensembles is painful. Also, I don't know the Rachmaninoff Vespers and lacked the time to learn it, whereas Masterworks' March concert is the Verdi Requiem, which I don't have to worry about.