Sunday, July 24, 2016

Menlo, part 3

Saturday night's concert was the one that the Menlo festival's publicity manager urged me to attend, because of how well the previous night's performance of the same program had gone. I'm glad I did. The Calidore Quartet simply burned their initials into Tchaikovsky's First Quartet. Let me try to tell you what happened.

The idea was to trace Tchaikovsky's heritage from Mozart, his favorite composer, by juxtaposing works by the two of them with those of two intermediate composers also inspired by Mozart: Mendelssohn and Glinka.

The Mozart set a high bar, as it was his K. 593 Quintet in D. As a quintet with an extra viola, it's darker and weightier than most quartets, and it's very late Mozart with considerable profundity. It was played well by an assortment of Menlo faculty all of whom I'd heard earlier this year.

The Calidore Quartet made their first appearance before my ears with Mendelssohn's Op. 44 No. 1. I generally find the Op. 44 quartets less weighty or significant than the earlier or later quartets (especially Op. 13, my favorite of the Mendelssohns), but this is a good rendition, sober and significant without dragging it down.

The Glinka was the odd bit out of the evening. Yes, it's a set of variations on a Mozart theme, so that's appropriate, but it's the only work on the program for piano instead of strings, it's the only one not in D Major, and to my ears it carries not a whiff of Glinka's other significance in a Tchaikovsky context, his voice as the founder of Russian nationalist music. This piece sounds more like Chopin or, as the program note suggests, John Field.

Then the Calidores came back out to do Tchaikovsky's First Quartet, a piece famous for its melodic Andante cantabile, and mildly infamous for its chattery finale. It runs the risk of being wet and soggy. It was anything but that here. The players kept a firm dry control over all the lyricism, so that the Andante, and anything else beautiful in the music, had the kind of heft to its beauty that you expect of Mozart. An understanding of the structure of the finale, of why everything was there, kept it from sounding mindlessly repetitious. And best of all were the four-part chordal passages in the first movement and scherzo. This performance sold this music effectively. I was enchanted.

In the afternoon, the festival's young performers, ages 11-18, gave their first weekly recital, the 30 of them grouped up to perform single movements. This time there were two movements from Brahms' Piano Quintet, one of my favorites. The ones who, they said in introducing the piece, had been told by their coach that they should remember that Brahms was big and heavy-set and play it that way were the more successful. There were two movements by this year's lost-discovery composer, Arensky. Another highlight was the four-hand version of part of The Rite of Spring, enthusiastically hammered out with more violence than the professionals had brought to it last week.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Menlo, part 2

Well, part 1, actually, because the first thing I did at the festival was attend the Prelude and first main concert last Saturday, and then write this review of them.

Then I went to the the talk on Rostropovich I already wrote about on Tuesday, then to a master class and main concert on Wednesday, the review of which probably won't be up until Monday.

Yesterday I attended another master class, specifically because this one was being taught by the violinist I will be hearing on Sunday's concert, which I'm also reviewing. Having already been impressed by the Arensky piano trio I'd heard on Wednesday, I was even more attracted by the first movement of a string quartet by him that was one of the master class subjects. It's an unusual string quartet, having one violin instead of two, a viola, and two cellos instead of one, giving it a dark sound all the more appropriate for the opening section which channeled a Russian Orthodox choral hymn. Anton Arensky: not a composer I'd previously paid much attention to, I'm counting him as the big win from this year's festival. After that we moved onto another group doing the finale of Brahms' Piano Quintet, and the half hour of discussion was devoted entirely to the brief slow introduction. You could go on for hours like this.

This morning I find an e-mail from the festival's publicity officer beseeching me to attend tonight's concert too. Well, um, I had something I was going to do, but I didn't make any commitment, so, uh, OK, I'll go.

Friday, July 22, 2016

opera in camera, supplemental

This comes of posting when I'm tired. I left out the most interesting parts of my visit to the library to hear a San Jose Opera preview.

1. The singers were accompanied by their rehearsal pianist, who was very good, on the library's upright, which was not quite ready for prime time.

2. The opera's general director, who had the kind of personality you'd give to a character of that role in a tv comedy about an opera company ("I have the best job in the world ... they rehearse across the hall from my office ... it's a wonder I get anything done"), ended the program with a plea for subscriptions in the context of what he said was an unprecedented closing of opera and other performing arts companies (San Jose has lost its principal theatrical company and its ballet company just in the last couple of years). He said we don't want to return to the bad old days of the 1940s and 1950s when there were only two professional opera companies in the US: the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera, all the other earlier ones having been killed off by the Depression.

And I thought, that's interesting, because those were considered part of the heydays of classical music as a central part of middlebrow culture. True enough, though, that as far as opera was concerned that mostly consisted of listening to the Met's weekly broadcasts on the radio, and going to see their touring companies when they hit town.

3. On the way in to the library, we saw a mother and a 6 or 7 year old girl examining a cornerstone on the terrace-edge brick wall outside the building. "1985," the girl read. "That's really old." "Yes," said Mom, "that's the year I was born." The girl left impressed with the depths of the abyss of time.

4. Nothing to do with the opera show, but in other musical news, I saw this report of the first day of the RNC, including a clip of the band playing what the writer described as "Baby Boomer Boogie." The clip was there so that you could appreciate the sight of Republicans "moved to something that was not totally unlike dancing," but what struck me was a couple shots of people who found the music too loud and had their fingers to their ears. That would have been me. Despite being of that generation, I have no appreciation for that kind of music, and still less for the volume it's usually played at live.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

opera in camera

Took B. down to the local library for a little season preview by singers from San Jose Opera. Apparently they do this every year, but this year we heard about it. They're doing four operas, but one of them, Kevin Puts' Silent Night, isn't amenable to concert excerpts, so we had to be content with eight arias and duets, all from 19th century Italian operas (Lucia, Barber, Boheme). Lots of fine singing, and even characterization, despite street clothes, in a small program room. The hardest part of singing Lucia, the tenor said in introducing his aria, is pronouncing Italian with a Scottish accent.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

in the room the cellists come and go, talking of Rostropovich

The Music@Menlo festival has begun, and will be occupying a fair bit of my time for three weeks. More then the Republican convention, that's for sure. I've already attended one concert, review to appear later, and today ventured onto the festival's Menlo School hq - this year under construction, the lawns all torn up, the parking lots taken over by trailers, and a man standing in front waving his finger vaguely in an effort to indicate you should look for parking over there instead - where noted cellist David Finckel, normally the quiet half of Menlo's artistic codirectorship, talked about the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Turns out that Finckel was quite the Rostropovich groupie in his youth, once traveling to England to camp out in front of Benjamin Britten's house in hopes that Rostropovich would show up, until he was told by Peter Pears that Rostropovich was in America.

He talked mostly of Rostropovich's unorthodox teaching methods, mostly intended to get his pupils to play outside of the box. He once ignored all the music a student had prepared, and told her to play instead something she'd performed only a long time ago. "I want to hear how you play the music you've forgotten," he said. Other times he told a pupil to play triplet exercises in duplets, or to play the piece he'd brought along transposed half a step downward, which would require you to rethink the entire piece.

R. was a great cellist (and conductor - the only capacity I ever heard his work in person in - and pianist, and protester against Soviet tyranny), who enlarged the cello repertoire tremendously by commissioning works from just about every composer he met, and then memorizing the music as soon as he got it.

PS: Am I plagiarizing T.S. Eliot, or are literary allusions that educated people may be expected to get exempt?

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


So you've probably seen people post a test site display flash page announcing some large but meaningless number boasting of their English vocabulary score. I won't annoy you by posting mine, but I will say it took some looking to find the test site. If you haven't taken it, you might like to know that it consists of multiple choices questions for the synonym or antonym of some given word. The hard aspect of the test is not the words - there was only one word on the 50-word test I didn't know - but paying attention to which questions want a synonym and which want an antonym. So it's more a test of alertness than of vocabulary.

I tried some of their other tests. A geography test showed outlines of countries and asked you to identify them from a list which did not include any tough choices. (For instance, the one of Slovenia didn't include Slovakia as a possible answer.) So easy it was boring; Sporcle does this sort of test much better. For a test of emotional intelligence, I tried to answer with what I'd be most likely actually to do, because I wouldn't know how to do the other things, and did predictably badly. A test to pick the movie that audio clips came from was advertised as extremely tough, but while I had no idea which of four gangster movies a quote came from, or which of four Batman movies, most of them were dead easy even if you hadn't seen the film ("Rosebud" "I'll be back"), even leaving aside the ones that actually included the title of the movie. I got 40 out of 50, considered a high score. A test to pick the city in the U.S. that was best for you consisted mostly of questions about outdoor activities, to all of which I picked the "no, thanks" answer, and gave me Indianapolis. Indianapolis? And be invaded by fans of noisy auto races every year? No, thanks.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016


Just as I'm baffled by people who insist that the verb "discover" may only be used of the first person ever to find something, which would e.g. render it impossible to say that you'd discovered a great new restaurant, I am baffled by people who insist that the verb "matter" may only be used if the attached noun is the only thing that matters.

I refer, of course, to those who take tremendous offense at the slogan "Black Lives Matter," who may well be the same people as those who take tremendous offense at attempts to politely acknowledge that not everyone is Christian by saying "Happy Holidays" when addressing strangers.

It's not necessary to talk about other lives mattering; those are not in dispute. But there is plenty of evidence that, in the U.S. today, in many circumstances black lives are treated, intentionally or not, as if they don't matter. Therefore it is necessary to remind us: Black lives matter.

Whence comes this silly belief that the phrase is preceded by an invisible "Only"? I think I know, but it's not from any previous use of the grammar. I just today remembered that nine years ago I attended a one-off academic fantasy-lit conference called "Fantasy Matters". When I first saw the name, I wasn't sure if it wasn't a plural noun, but no, it's an intransitive verb.

But nobody went around complaining that, if fantasy matters, we were somehow saying that other forms of literature didn't matter. That would have been silly. So stop it.

Monday, July 11, 2016

British prime ministerial statistics

Now that Theresa May is set to become Prime Minister on Wednesday, it's worth noting that it's rather rare for a Home Secretary to become PM. That's not a coincidence: as minister for such matters as the police and immigration, it's full of political traps and is consequently rarely sought after by the politically ambitious, who fear it'll be the graveyard of their reputations rather than the making of it. (See Jacqui Smith, Gordon Brown's first Home Secretary, for a typical trajectory.)

Yet May, who was probably not thinking of ever moving up when she took the job, has managed neatly to avoid most of this. And not only is she merely the fourth Home Secretary to become PM since back in the mid-19th century, she is also the only Home Secretary who had not also held one of the other top jobs (Chancellor of the Exchequer or Foreign Secretary) to become PM in all that time too.

Just to wig you out further, here's a list of all the PMs since the First Reform Act (by their first date in that office) with their previous Cabinet experience.

Lord Melbourne (1834): Home Secretary (3 yrs, 8 mo.)
Sir Robert Peel (1834): Home Secretary (8 yrs, 1 mo.)
Lord John Russell (1846): Paymaster-General, Home Secretary, War and Colonies (9 yrs, 9 mo.)
Lord Derby (1852): Chief Secretary of Ireland, War and Colonies (8 yrs, 2 mo.)
Lord Aberdeen (1852): Chancellor of the Duchy, War and Colonies, Foreign Secretary (8 yrs)
Lord Palmerston (1855): Secretary at War, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary (21 yrs, 8 mo. - all-time tops in previous experience)
Benjamin Disraeli (1868): Chancellor of the Exchequer (3 yrs, 9 mo.)
William Gladstone (1868): President of the Board of Trade, War and Colonies, Chancellor of the Exchequer (9 yr, 7 mo.)
Lord Salisbury (1885): India Secretary, Foreign Secretary (6 yrs, 10 mo.)
Lord Rosebery (1894): Commissioner for Works, Lord Privy Seal, Foreign Secretary (2 yr, 4 mo.)
Arthur Balfour (1902): Secretary for Scotland, Chief Secretary for Ireland, 1st Lord of the Treasury (13 yrs, 9 mo)
Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1905): War Secretary (3 yrs, 3 mo.)
H.H. Asquith (1908): Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer (5 yrs, 3 mo)
David Lloyd George (1916): President of the Board of Trade, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Minister for Munitions, War Secretary (11 yrs - all continuously, without a break)
Bonar Law (1922): Colonial Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Privy Seal (5 yrs, 10 mo.)
Stanley Baldwin (1923): President of the Board of Trade, Chancellor of the Exchequer (2 yrs, 1 mo.)
Ramsay MacDonald (1924): none (because he was the first Labour PM)
Neville Chamberlain (1937): Health Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer (11 yrs, 3 mo.)
Winston Churchill (1940): President of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, Chancellor of the Duchy, Minister for Munitions, Air Secretary, War Secretary, Colonial Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer (18 yrs, 2 mo. - greatest number of offices and longest period of time (32 years) during which held, as well as 2nd on the all-time most experienced list)
Clement Attlee (1945): Lord Privy Seal, Dominions Secretary, Lord President of the Council (5 yrs)
Anthony Eden (1955): Minister without portfolio, Dominions Secretary, War Secretary, Foreign Secretary (12 yrs)
Harold Macmillan (1957): Air Secretary, Housing Secretary, Defense Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer (5 yrs, 5 mo.)
Sir Alec Douglas-Home (1963): Dominions Secretary, Lord President of the Council, Foreign Secretary (8 yrs, 6 mo.)
Harold Wilson (1964): President of the Board of Trade (3 yrs, 7 mo.)
Edward Heath (1970): Labour Secretary, Lord Privy Seal, President of the Board of Trade (5 yrs)
James Callaghan (1976): Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary (7 yrs, 9 mo.)
Margaret Thatcher (1979): Education Secretary (3 yrs, 9 mo.)
John Major (1990): Chief Secretary of the Treasury, Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer (3 yrs, 5 mo.)
Tony Blair (1997): none
Gordon Brown (2007): Chancellor of the Exchequer (10 yrs, 1 mo.)
David Cameron (2010): none
Theresa May (2016): Home Secretary (6 yrs, 2 mo.)

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

where not to find barbecue

It was Fourth of July yesterday, a holiday in these parts, and many were out in the back yard hovering over the grill, which will happen occasionally for the rest of the summer, as we have it in these parts.

Some may also be seeking out barbecue, which is not the same thing as grilling although they're often confused, and since barbecuing is slow and complex, one seeks a good barbecue restaurant.

But not, in my experience, around here. The Bay Area seems strangely bereft of good barbecue. (And we also rank low on other American regional cooking. Asian, though - of any possible variety - that we've got in profusion.)

So I find this list of "Where to find barbecue in the Bay Area". But it doesn't say good barbecue. Now, I haven't been to all of these places, and some of them might be good. But I have been to four of them in the Bay Area (nos. 1, 4, 15, and 20), all of them highly recommended to me, and all of them "eh ... ok" except for no. 20 which was dreadful. So I agree with no. 13, which was the post saying "I'm continually disappointed in barbecue" here.

There is one place on the list I found good. It's no. 22, which is in Calistoga. By my South Bay standards, that's way out on the outskirts, not really in the Bay Area. What I've been telling people is that, if they want good barbecue, they have to go way out ... to Sacramento. Or Modesto. Or Castroville. Or Calistoga. I've found good barbecue in all those places.

What do I consider good barbecue, and what's lacking in the inner Bay Area places? Three things: good barbecue must be 1) tender, 2) juicy, 3) flavorful.