Sunday, September 18, 2016

musical theatre review

To South Bay Musical Theatre this afternoon for Cy Coleman's City of Angels, a show I knew nothing about, but we subscribed this year and it's on the season. It's about a 1940s Hollywood screenwriter who's writing a film noir, which is taking place on the other half of the stage as he writes it, its actors lit by a sickly green light so their skin looks as black-and-white as their clothing is. The show becomes something of a fantasy when the P.I. protagonist of the film starts arguing with his creator, shades of Asimov's "Author, Author" (and, actually, a number of other stories).

It's probably not that great a show, though the book is by Larry Gelbart which meant at least that the story wasn't boring, but the music was not all that much to my taste. A number of the songs in the film scenes are diegetic and partake of the pop song style of that time, which I really don't care for. The best number by far was "You Can Always Count On Me," a song that echoes some of the bawdy swing of "Big Spender," which is almost the only other Coleman song I know. This mourn of the lovelorn woman was belted out energetically and on-pitch by Glenna Murillo, who gave the same pizzazz to the rather similar role of Marie in Fiorello! here a few years ago. I also enjoyed "All You Have To Do Is Wait," sung by a Hispanic police detective in the film, while at the morgue investigating a murder, in a lively quasi-Hispanic style while doctors, cops, and reporters dance flamboyantly behind him. The incongruity of this was the funniest thing in the show.

The acting ranged up the scale to adequate; so did the singing. The actor playing the P.I. looked like Nicolas Cage and talked like a low-rent Bogart. The orchestra was too large and too loud for the small venue. The question I would like to ask the choreographer is, "Had jazz hands been invented in the 1940s?"

Saturday, September 17, 2016

not educational

I went to some trouble - to be described later - to arrive at Stanford this evening in time for the Brahms program. Advertised as free, it drew a tremendous crowd. The St. Michael Trio, plus additions, played pretty good performances of individual movements from various Brahms chamber pieces, interweaved with an educational lecture by their pianist about Brahms, his life and his music.

Now, it is possible to talk or write about music at a level understandable and interpretable by a lay audience while respecting the integrity and the complexity of the music. Robert Winter, in his old Voyager CD-ROM on Beethoven's Ninth, did it. Rob Kapilow, who gives traveling musically-illustrated lectures on individual works under the rubric "What Makes It Great?", does it, at least in the Vivaldi session that I heard some years ago.

That's one way of doing it. The other way is to dumb it down, to oversimplify and trivialize the music, the composer, and the intelligence of your audience. That's what we heard tonight.

One time I saw red during the lecture was when he "simplified" sonata form down to a level so trivial and meaningless as to make it unintelligible why anyone would bother to write in such a form, let alone Brahms who supposedly raised it to a peak in his Piano Quintet (the opening movement of which they then proceeded to play). So definitive was this work, the man said, that no great piano quintets have been written since. Bang goes Cesar Franck, then, along with Edward Elgar (who'd been earlier quoted praising Brahms' work), and Shostakovich, along with Arensky, Dohnanyi, Bloch, Schnittke ...

Another time I saw red was when he explained Brahms' unpopularity among some people by saying he was pessimistic. Besides trivializing some deeply-felt aversions on the part of people whose opinions deserve respect (Stravinsky, Britten), he contrasted Brahms in this respect with Mozart, whom he described as a composer of cheerful, lighthearted music. (And every time he mentioned Mozart in this context, he played one appropriate snatch of music.)

But it's also trivializing to characterize Mozart this way. Mozart, the author of some of the darkest, most dramatic and even harrowing music in the repertoire, like this and this and this (which I've linked to before) and (remember the opening scene in Amadeus, with the old Salieri screaming Mozart's name in delirium, and the dark, stormy music playing over it? That was) this? Cheerful and lighthearted? You don't know Mozart.

There was a lot more, including the expected tired interpretation of Brahms writing his subsequent music in the throes of unrequited passion for Clara Schumann. (And not even a word about Agathe von Siebold, whose name he actually encoded in his music.) I'd expected to enjoy an evening of Brahms, but I left ready to swear out an arrest warrant for crimes against musical education.

Friday, September 16, 2016

concert preview

I'll have to miss Redwood Symphony's production of Brecht and Weill's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny next week. I'm not sure if that's a misfortune or a narrow escape. Brecht and Weill are brilliant, caustic artists, and I've never seen this show; but even The Threepenny Opera is a little too Weimarish for me, and this one seems more so.

So I made it up to Redwood by putting the concert as the forefront centerpiece of my upcoming season roundup for the Daily Journal today. Like most of these roundups, this is a workaday article whose virtues should be measured by how much information I was able to cram in to a limited space.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

MTT conducted 3 symphonies in C. (But not Stravinsky's.)

For Haydn, C Major meant "bring out the trumpets and drums," and that's what his rather military Symphony No. 69 is like. It sounded to me like an inferior remake of his more exciting Symphony No. 48. (Listen to the opening bars of the first movement of each, and you'll hear what I mean.) But the performance was very Haydnesque.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 is actually in C Minor, and doesn't get to C Major until the finale. This famous work is a hard and craggy masterpiece, so I was struck at the smooth fluidity of this fine and vivid performance.

Sibelius' Symphony No. 3 is totally different from these, being rather quiet and reflective. Another inspiring and beautiful, if rather over-fast, performance of perhaps Sibelius' most obscure symphony, but my favorite of his. The Maazel recording of the slow movement, with its mournful falling theme, was my comfort music for melancholy moods when I was in college. It was great to hear the piece live again, perhaps only the third time I've ever had the pleasure.

The SF Opera, which is right across the street from the Symphony, is now running a free shuttle bus from the BART station three long blocks away. The Symphony has signed up also, insofar as the buses also leave (though from in front of the Opera House) when the Symphony lets out as well as when the Opera lets out. With my walking what it is these days, I was grateful for the lift.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Philip K. Dick under the stethoscope

The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick by Kyle Arnold (OUP)

The problem with using any of the pre-made tool kits of literary, artistic, or personal analysis - whether it be Marxism, Freudianism, or any of the more recent inventions - is that you have to pick the right subject. The kit that works well on one subject is completely inapt for another. All I can say after reading this book is that the tool kit of clinical psychology is ideally suited for the study of Philip K. Dick, because damn, is this book ever piercingly insightful.

The author, a practitioner of same in Brooklyn, has closely read both PKD's fiction and all the biographical material about him, and builds his conclusions and surmises, carefully labeled as such, on a firm basis of knowledge. The book proceeds generally through PKD's life, stopping to examine stories and novels where they're relevant to the biography, not necessarily when PKD wrote them, and expending entire chapters on points of special psychological interest, in particular the death of PKD's infant twin sister (which haunted him all his life) and the mysterious burglary of his house in 1971 (Arnold inclines towards the view, expressed also by others, that PKD trashed his own stuff in an amphetamine haze and then forgot he'd done it). And, of course, the visionary pink light he received in 1974. Arnold, a specialist in delusions and psychosis, makes a strong argument that PKD's lifelong amphetamine use, starting with childhood medications, was responsible for most of the weirdness; but shrewdly he points out that even if the specifics were delusionary they contained genuine, often metaphorical, insights into reality.

The wit, imagination, and acumen of this book are nicely summed up in a paragraph in which Arnold imagines what it would be like to be PKD's therapist:
Dick attended psychotherapy sessions religiously and says that they were helpful. Perhaps his life would have been even more painful without them. Nevertheless, it is hard to count any of Dick's long courses of therapy as successful. Indeed, a psychotherapist working with him would face a nearly insurmountable task. Imagine he walks into your consulting room. If you are a Freudian psychoanalyst, as some of Dick's therapists were, you might ask Dick to free associate. Big mistake. Speaking rapidly, Dick spins out stories about his life that are a mixture of fact and fiction. He free associates to books, theories, and fictional characters, that may or may not be relevant. You try to get clear on what is going on, try to see through the fabrications, but you can't: you are dealing with Philip K. Dick. He is familiar with all of your therapeutic procedures and outsmarts all of them. If you challenge his intellectual defenses, he pretends to agree with you, and presents brilliant pieces of self-analysis that later turn out to be specious. Eventually, you decide that it is fruitless to try to keep up with the racing twists and turns of Dick's intellect, and you fall back on brute force. You start giving Dick orders. Stop smoking dope. Eat better. Stop picking girlfriends that are bad for you. Clean up your apartment. Dick tries to follow your directives, but something is missing. He stops using drugs for a few months, but then buys some from the housekeeper he hired to clean his apartment. He pays lip service to selecting more suitable partners, but keeps ending up in unhealthy relationships. He tells you he has improved his diet, and when you ask for specifics, he says that he is dating a drug addict who cooks fantastic veggie burgers. Does he just not get it? Or is he toying with you? You wonder how serious Dick is about therapy and tell him that it does not seem to be helping him. Despondent, Dick complains that you are one of those people in his life who is going to abandon him. You are trapped. You have become another character in a Philip K. Dick story. Checkmate.

Monday, September 12, 2016

weekend: one concert, one book discussion

Friday I was at the San Francisco Symphony, literally the first regular subscription concert of the season. An all-American program. Soprano Susanna Phillips sang some of Copland's Emily Dickinson settings - deeply art-songy, these, Copland missing a bet by failing to set any of them to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas" - plus two more than obvious Gershwin numbers. For "I Got Rhythm", the singer employed a microphone - explaining into it beforehand "because I'm not Ethel Merman." It provided focus for her rather foggy and indistinct voice, and she should have used it more. Filling out the first half, Copland's Billy the Kid suite, which MTT conducts as if it's an outlier from Copland's earlier modernist period.

Everybody else in my row disappeared at intermission, so they missed the really good part in the second half, which consisted of two heavyweight three-movement works by the most emotionally effective, for me, of all recent composers, Steve Reich. Double Sextet (2007), played by members of the orchestra accompanying Eighth Blackbird, the ensemble for which it was composed, was succeeded by Three Movements (1985) for more conventional full orchestra.

The opening of Double Sextet was raucous, even scratchy, but it settled down as it went along, and the other work was smoother. It seemed to me that Double Sextet was largely an exercise in irregular rhythms that form a more stable pattern as perceived over a larger span of time, while Three Movements was the opposite, consisting of more regular rhythms that form a more irregularly-shaped larger pattern. Or maybe I was hallucinating it. Reich's music tends to send me off into another mental state.

Sunday afternoon our Mythopoeic book discussion group, joined out in a spacious yard by the resident Five Chickens of the Apocalypse, the first time we've had live chickens at a book discussion, tackled Newt's Emerald by Garth Nix. Amazingly, we found things to say about a book which seemed on surface a Regency romance comfort read. The heroine is full of agency, so much so that she repeatedly ignores other characters' pleas to stop exercising it so much at risk of her life. Also, it isn't often that you get to read a light romance novel in which the young, inexperienced heroine gets to (spoiler alert) kill two people. The heroine and hero meet both under disguise as different people, and it takes more than a while to straighten that out. Since Nix is well-enough versed in English history to play with intelligently, adjusting it only insofar as necessary to insert magic into it, and making allusive references to as far back as King Canute, I found it irksome that he's formed an Australian chapter of the American guild of novelists who insist on writing about British nobility while totally and ignorantly bollixing up the nomenclature of same. Others weren't bothered, but I bet we'd never hear the end of it if it were something they knew and cared about.

Monday, September 5, 2016


After a week of ethereal music and exquisite food, I have spent the day sitting in the Calgary airport, sustained only by an occasional packaged Caesar salad. It's a life, of sorts.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

BISQC, day 7

It was hard choosing among the performances in the finals round of the string quartet competition. Each played a big, serious version of a big, serious quartet: Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" (Castalian), Beethoven's Op. 131 (Tesla), or his Second Razumovsky (Rolston). Beethoven's finales are bouncier than Schubert's; that was about the only difference.

So I'm still glad I'm not a judge, but it was on the basis of earlier exposure to all the groups that a lot of my fellow attendees, and this includes myself, were rather shocked that the grand prize winner turned out to be the Rolston. They're fine performers, but so was everybody else, and there was a top cut of performing effectiveness which the other finalists (and two or three non finalists) made but the Rolston didn't. One person I talked to said they didn't belong in the final round at all, and is worried about whether the group will survive the pressure of being the BISQC winners. In an interview session this morning, the Dover Quartet, winners of the last round 3 years ago - and whom everyone agreed deserved it with bells on - talked about how their careers have been transformed by this credential. They're a strong, seasoned ensemble and have weathered it, but BISQC winners have faded and collapsed before, and I'd be sorry if this happened again.

The fact that Rolston is the hometown team, the only competitors from Canada and in fact a group that formed three years ago at a chamber music residency at this very Banff Arts Centre, also casts a question mark. If BISQC gets a reputation of overly favoring Canadian groups, that will not be good for its health.

On the other hand, the judges do have their own criteria. Two men sitting near me were talking about how the judges are absolute death on technical mistakes. These could be so minute as to be inaudible to ears listening for emotive flow. The judges tote that number up and if it's too high, the group is gone. I turned to the men and said, "What about breaking your string? Does that count as a mistake?" Because the Rolston is the only quartet that did that during a concert. So I can't say. One woman told me she'd been coming for decades and never got the winner.

After the concert, there had been a break of about an hour while the judges made their final deliberation, while we milled about outside, then one of those "end of intermission" bells was rung, we all filed back in to the auditorium, and then, after a wait long enough for a few performances of John Cage's 4'33", people finally came on stage. Each of the ten competing quartets filed up and received a huge and sincere round of applause, and sat down in a bank of chairs, then the awards, including those for best performance of the Haydn and of the commissioned work, were made. The director announced various appropriate persons of note to make the awards, but in fact he announced them, and these notables were just there for photo-ops with the winners.

Then attendees had what was billed as a special buffet dinner, but it was in fact another version of the same (excellent) dinners we've been having in the dining room all week, just served somewhere else. That and the end of the festival meant we could sit around and chat a lot longer than in the past, and I had a long talk with a Canadian as interested in the US as I am in Canada, trying to fill in the holes in each other's knowledge of the other country's politics and history. One thing she said she didn't know about was the US's treatment of its aboriginal inhabitants. That entailed explaining what the Trail of Tears was (a term she'd heard but didn't know the meaning of), and it also entailed something I'd noted about this conference. At least twice, welcoming messages had begun by noting which treaty the land we were standing on had been ceded under, which tribes had inhabited the area, and thanking them for the use of their land. That is something that would just not be done in the US. No speechmaking bureaucrats would know which treaty a given piece of land was ceded under - I doubt there was one where I live; the Spanish apparently just came in and started gathering the natives into missions - or care much which tribes were settled there. It's a different country.

Anyway, I'm glad I've been here. Will I be back when they do this again in another three years? Very possibly.

BISQC: the finalists

I'm awake at this odd hour, which is frankly not unusual for me, and the announcement is up, so I might as well chat about the three finalists of the string quartet competition. It turns out that what you need to do to be a finalist at BISQC, at least this year, is play the Ravel, because the three finalists are the groups that did that. I couldn't say I'm at all disappointed at the choice, but then I would hardly have been disappointed at any of them. But I do have preferences between them from their work so far.

Tesla Quartet: If there was one piece that really knocked my socks off this year, it was Tesla's Bartok Six. It was a thing of sheer beauty - and from a Bartok quartet? As I wrote in Tesla's guest book (one of the perks the festival provides for each entrant), "I didn't know the old boy had it in him." Their Haydn and Ravel were also solid performances, and I really admire their unique courage to buck the modernist trend and play the Italian Serenade and La oracion del torero for the ad lib round, as well as for playing them with such finesse.

Castalian Quartet: This was my pre-game favorite, from the video clips they had online. I liked the vividness of their sound, and that, rather than particularly outstanding individual performances, is what they've most contributed to this festival. Their style runs towards the serious. No jokes in their Haydn: it was dramatic, and excellently so. Their Bartok Six was completely different from Tesla's, but just as fresh and convincing. The other reason I rooted for this group was their choice of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" if they made the finals. I didn't want to leave here without hearing that, my favorite of all quartets. And now I won't.

Rolston Quartet: The only all-Canadian competitor this year, founded here in Banff in fact, and could that have been a contributing factor? Because while I'd say they did the best of the three Ravels, they were the only competitor whose Haydn was maybe a little dull at times. Well, their choice was probably a matter of taste. When I praised the other group that did the Janacek Second, another attendee said he preferred the Rolston version, because he thought harsh and anguished was what that work needed. And I had to agree that, if that's what you wanted, theirs was the performance to go for.

This afternoon we'll hear the three, each in a different giant epic by Beethoven or Schubert, and then they'll be ranked, one-two-three.

As we say farewell to the other competitors, here are my personal awards:

Best Haydn: Berlin-Tokyo Quartet. Such an ideal embodiment of Haydn's wit! That's what we listen to Haydn for. The work was Op. 33/4.

Best Modern Round: Tesla Quartet for their Bartok.

Best Romantic Round: Verona Quartet, for a hauntingly dramatic Mendelssohn 44/2.

Best Ad-Lib: Ulysses Quartet, for really capturing the spirit of the Janacek Second.

Most Elegant Performances: Arpa Quartet. Elegance and beauty of performance don't get due respect. If instead of judging the competitors by their best performances, I judged them by their worst, Arpa would take my prize. Nothing they played was at all disappointing, and I can't say that about anyone else.

and a few non-musical awards:

Friendliest: Argus Quartet. Their violist, Diane Wade, actually came out and chatted with a few of us during one intermission, and I haven't seen anyone else do that.

Best-Dressed: Ulysses Quartet. Three women in matching (but not identical) gowns of striking elegance: one evening they were all in electric blue; the next, it was black with sequins. Plus one man in a nondescript grey suit. He looked like their driver.

And the consolation prize for Most Unfairly Interrupted by Cell Phones: Castalian Quartet. Twice I've heard phones going off during concerts, once during one of Haydn's most dramatic pauses. Both times were while Castalian was playing. I hoped the judges didn't hold that against them, and apparently not. I just hope it doesn't happen again today. Don't you mess with my Schubert!