Tuesday, November 29, 2011

books report

The Other Barack by Sally H. Jacobs. That's right, a biography of the president's father. Would never have been written if his son hadn't become president, an event irrelevant to the (by then long-deceased) father's life, but that's what makes it so interesting. Most biographies are of people who were either successes at what they're famous for or at least spectacular failures (notorious criminals, fallen dictators). This is the biography of an average failure, a promising technocrat whose career fizzled. Jacobs says Barack Sr. was a competent economist; it was alcoholism, womanizing, jealousy of more fortunate contemporaries, and a certain amount of racism (of the Kikuyu against the Luo - it's inescapable, isn't it?) that did him in, as it was drunken driving which killed him.
Also valuable as a view of the flip side of the relationship: Dreams From My Son. Turns out there wasn't much; Ann and the baby were a small incident in a colorful life. Years later in Kenya, when Barack Sr. would mention he had a son in Hawaii, people would think it was just one of his fibs; apparently he was prone to them. Without discussing Birtherism, Jacobs makes clear just how batty the whole idea of the president being born in Kenya is: not only would it have been logistically incredible for Barack Sr., let alone the young and untraveled Ann, to have made the long trip back for a visit then, but he was trying to hide from her that he already had a wife and family back home. He was also trying to renew his student visa while hiding from the INS that he was, as Jacobs brutally puts it, "a bigamist with a mixed-race child." So he told them she was planning to put the baby up for adoption, though this was apparently not true.

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal. Here's a biography of one of those notorious failures. I was mostly curious as to how this German kid got away with convincing people, including his wife of several years, that he was actually an American plutocrat named Clark Rockefeller. Sheer gall, I guess. When people who actually knew the Rockefellers would tell him "I know the Rockefellers, and they say they have no cousin named Clark," he'd reply that he'd changed his first name to preserve his privacy, even though if you think about it that makes no sense (he changed his first name? when his last name is Rockefeller?). I once knew a charming, voluble guy in England who claimed to be a hereditary peer and (as many of them were in those days) a member of the House of Lords. Curious, since it was possible, I checked and he wasn't, but I didn't beard him on it; why bother? I just contented myself with quietly correcting other friends who'd swallowed the story.

The Use and Abuse of Literature by Marjorie Garber. Literary criticism is about literature. This book is about literary criticism. I find such rarified atmosphere comfortably breathable, when presented in a relaxed style as this is. I had to sigh at the point she denounced a popular books list which included The Lord of the Rings as "disenheartening" because it didn't have any canonic great literature on it. But there was some better stuff, especially a chapter on biography as literature. Garber polemically distinguishes between biographers who draw their characterizations and psychological insights skilfully from the actual source material (conspicuous good example: David McCullough) and those who build castles of assumption upon presumption upon assertion. I have my own problems with McCullough, but I agree he's exemplary in this respect, and this needs to be pointed out. Garber gets very tired of biographers who say their subject "must have" thought this or that when nothing of the sort need have been, and so do I.

C.S. Lewis's Lost Aeneid, edited by A.T. Reyes. I was turned off the Aeneid by a forced feeding in college lit class, so I'm not here for the translation, though it looks pretty readable. I want to know the story behind this book. Tina Turner would ask, "What's 'lost' got to do with it?" The introduction claims that Lewis's literary executor has had the manuscript since just after Lewis's death 48 years ago. But he never dropped any hints that it had survived, until this volume was recently announced for publication. If that's the story, it's only "lost" if for decades he forgot he had it. Or is there something funnier going on here, as there have been whiffs of regarding other posthumous Lewis publications that the executor has pulled out of his hat over the years? Unfortunately the chief sniffer on this topic went batty from the fumes and then died some years ago, but I'd like to hear what she'd have to say about this one. I just noticed that the Library of Congress cataloging record does not include Lewis's name as an author of this book. Are they trying to tell us something?

Monday, November 28, 2011

what I've learned so far about piano movers

1. Piano movers don't answer their phones, even on Monday morning.

2. Though they have company names, their messages say things like, "This is Jim" and give the number, leaving you in doubt as to whether you had the number right in the first place.

3. Though the piano movers don't answer their phones, piano stores that don't do moving do answer their phones, and will be glad to give you the number of their recommended mover, who turns out to be the above company known as Jim.

4. Piano movers ranked highly on Yelp aren't in the phone book. Piano movers in the phone book don't appear in the high Yelp ratings.

5. Companies with display ads in the phone book have phone messages telling you they only do long distance moving; to find their local affiliate, check their web site. The local affiliate turns out to be a piano store that doesn't do moving any more, and doesn't know it's still listed as the local affiliate of a long-distance piano mover.

6. Piano movers don't take credit cards.

two concerts

1. SF Symphony on Wednesday. I already had tickets to this one, because I wanted to hear Gil Shaham, whom I'd recently heard play unaccompanied Bach, in a Brahms concerto. Then I was called in last-minute to review it. This involved making a special trip ahead of time to turn in my existing tickets for something else, as you can't do that the day of the concert. (It was OK: I had to go up anyway to confirm that a fact I was looking for was not in a rare book held by the UC Berkeley library, as indeed it wasn't.) Sitting in the close-up reviewer seats probably improved the positive slant on my review, such was the intimacy of Shaham's performance. I don't feel I captured the essence of that, though I could certainly feel it, as well as I did the profound weirdness of Schoenberg's orchestration of Brahms' G-minor piano quartet, a work which, such is the deep impact of the arranger on this echt-Brahms piece, sounds as if it was written at no known date in musical history.

2. The New Esterhazy Quartet, Sunday afternoon as the sun was setting on that dark and echoing bunker known as All Saints Church in Palo Alto. The program was of "Haydn & His Students," which attracted me. This group, as its name implies, specializes in Haydn, and standard Haydn is what they do best. Op. 20 No. 2 is not standard Haydn. This coarsely dramatic piece came out with a Baroque restraint, its drama tampered down to wistfulness. It sounded as if it was by Corelli. I'm not complaining, exactly. From Haydn's most famous pupil, Beethoven, we had Op. 95. A knotty mature Beethoven quartet like this one is rather outside of this group's range, and it felt like wandering around in the dark (by this time it was pretty close to dark even inside the church), except for the scherzo and the finale coda, which snapped together fairly well.

The two obscure works by lesser-known composers were more interesting. A brief D minor quartet by Beethoven's drinking and whoring buddy Baron Zmeskall (also the dedicatee of Op. 95) concluded with a lively rustic finale. And last, the Op. 94 No. 3 in F minor by Ron Drummond's favorite, Anton Reicha. (And the almost textless program leaflet bore a credit: "Thanks to Ron Drummond for supplying performance materials for the Reicha Quartet.") This was fun and full of unexpected things. The first movement is based largely on an unpromising-sounding rhythmic motif, something Beethoven would do, but Reicha's elaborations on it are more Italianate, in a Mozartean style perhaps, than Beethovenian. Only the occasional cross-bar notes really betray Haydn's influence. The slow movement starts with formal loud/soft call/response phrases, and features imaginative flights in the cello line. The austere minuet has pairs of instruments playing in canon, but surprisingly does not return to this minimal scoring in the da capo. The finale won my favor with a reminiscence of the Pastorale Symphony's scherzo, countrified throbbing drone passages over which the first violin played off-key, or are you telling me that last feature was not deliberate?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

sleepless thoughts

Let's just say I'm up this early because I'm not feeling too well, and trying to put myself to sleep reading The New Yorker, where on page 46 of the 11/28 issue, in the middle of George Packer's profile of Peter Thiel, we find the venture capitalist's diagnosis of when "the collapse of the idea of the future" began. He dates it to the oil shock of 1973, and says you can measure it in "the collapse of science fiction." He says that before then it was all sweetness and light. He says - I can hardly believe I'm typing this - "the anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, 'Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,'" whereas now it's all full of depression and danger.

Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon?

I'm looking at a list of the Hugo and Nebula nominated SF published in 1969 (awards given in 1970) and 1970, and while some of them are reasonably positive stories - including a couple of award-winning novels which might, if you're willing to be misleading, be summarized as "Me and my friend the androgyne went for a walk on the glacial field" and "Me and my friend the Pierson's Puppeteer went for a walk on the Ringworld" - it also includes such cheerful charmers as Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, Wilson Tucker's The Year of the Quiet Sun (in which racism wins out), Joanna Russ's And Chaos Died, Robert Silverberg's "Passengers" (in which homosexuality is the ultimate horror), James Tiptree's "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain" (in which everybody dies, literally), and last but not least Harlan Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog" (oy).

If we want an anthology with a slightly wider chronological view, it so happens that 1970 was the year of publication of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, volume 1, SFWA's choice of the all-time greatest pre-1965 SF short stories and novelettes. And yes, while some of the 26 stories, like Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey" and Murray Leinster's "First Contact" (in both of which humans meet aliens and make peace), even - if you look at it that way - Fred Brown's "Arena" (the interstellar war does stop, doesn't it?), are fairly positive stories about a beckoning future, it also contains Asimov's "Nightfall", Judy Merril's "That Only a Mother", Kornbluth's "The Little Black Bag", and then, in a consecutive five-puncher near the end of the book, Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life" which is almost the essence of an SF horror story, Tom Godwin's infamous "The Cold Equations", Bester's virtuosically nasty "Fondly Fahrenheit" (me and my friend the robot share a psychopathic breakdown), Damon Knight's hiddenly cruel "The Country of the Kind", and Daniel Keyes' brilliant tearjerker "Flowers for Algernon", the cumulative effect of which could send you suicidal, and which certainly shook me up when I read them all for the first time in a lump on encountering this book a couple of years later.

Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon. GMAFB, Mr. Thiel. You know as little of SF as the article shows you knowing about politics or humor.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

My father used to profess, whenever he saw a sign reading "Not A Through Street", that the name of the street was "Notathrough".

Clearly, this was developed by someone with a similar sense of humor:

Friday, November 25, 2011

debunkers are us

Here's a crisp debunking of the notion that "Black Friday" originally had anything to do with "going into the black" financially. Instead, it's an old Philadelphia term referring to the hellish day, dreaded by retail workers and cops alike, when crowds swarmed the stores in between Thanksgiving and the Saturday Army-Navy football game.

Excellent. Now that we're done with that one, can we disabuse ourselves of the equally ridiculous notions that "Blue Moon" means "second full moon in a calendar month" or that centuries can only begin in years ending in "01"?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

no, really, it's a football question

After giving thanks for bounteous blessings and a departed life well-lived, we sat around postprandially and snoozed, or, perforce, watched a little football. I noticed that, at least for the part of the game that I saw, before most of the plays in which he participated, Alex Smith, standing behind his crouched linemen, would extend his arms in front of him, elbows bent, and roll his forearms over each other a few times. What did that mean? I asked the football mavens in the household and they didn't know.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Q. Who was the first woman to win a Hugo for fiction?


reader response criticism

Cheryl Morgan says she found an article which "gets to the heart of what is so good about the Song of Ice and Fire series." Oh, good, I thought, maybe someone can explain it to me. I read only the first book and found my desire to go on gradually leaking away over its 800 pages. The problem was mostly one of literary style and approach. GRRM had a style quite adequate for the atmospheric SF he was writing in the 70s, when he was one of the most promising young authors. But I was disturbed by a growing blocky crudity in the descriptive passages and plotting even of his highly imaginative dark fantasy novels of the 80s, though I nevertheless liked them very much, and it's only gotten worse since then. I can't get over the way he relies on adjectives to convey flavor, and heavily leans on detailed physical description of movement and actions to indirectly reveal character, all of it in a dull, workmanlike tone. It's a legitimate way of writing, and others do it as well. It just feels low-rent to me, and it bears no resemblance to any prose that I cherish.

And that's beside the deadly amorality, tending to immorality, that has often been noted. Any time a character even begins to aspire towards honor, let alone nobility, he's ruthlessly knocked down, sometimes literally. Nothing is stable, nothing can be relied upon, there's no viewpoint from which a reader can stand and watch the action. I can't put myself in the story; there's no way I could imagine wanting to play this game. (Noblemen who didn't want to immerse themselves in the hothouse of Louis XIV's Versailles just stayed on their country estates. They missed advancement, but they didn't pay the price either.) Of course I admire the breath and detail of Martin's world-creating, but that's not in any way relevant as to whether the book is any good, as we're always being admonished by those who believe Tolkien has nothing else to offer.

So here's the article that Cheryl recommends. What does it have to say for its topic?

With ADwD, Martin is back to top form, and he brings some of his best characters back into the spotlight — Jon Snow, Danaerys, and the incredible Tyrion Lannister.
If he's back to top form, does that mean he was off it in the previous book or two? The author doesn't say, but if not, then the whole phrase is merely publisher's blither. Note also the way the characters are referred to as if you've already heard of them, not the way to seduce potential new readers. I consider this kind of writing cousin to smarmy salesfolk calling you by your first name, as if you're already friends. As for the abbreviation ADwD, at least LotR was vaguely pronounceable.

Martin's Westeros is not a world of heroes, of hope and redemption; it's a world full of people stabbing one another.
A passing nod to the obvious questions, like "Why can't we have some of both?" and "Do I really want to be the sort of person who prefers reading about the latter?", and then just note that such a prioritization is the opposite of Tolkien's - even the Silmarillion, which is full of stabbings, is also full of heroes and hope - and thereby disqualifies the author from being "the inheritor of Tolkien's epic fantasy legacy" which he is elsewhere called.

If Martin were to retell the Mahabharata, a crippled, maddened, monstrous Nakul would have been the only Pandava survivor of the Great War; Arjuna wouldn't have made it to adulthood.
Further elaboration on the above. Why should I want this? It doesn't strike me as in any way a superior story.

Martin stands alone largely because of the sheer scale of his work ... His greatest success, though, lies ... in the extreme degree of involvement his work inspires in his fans ... hundreds of people have worked together to not only create a comprehensive wiki of the Ice and Fire world, but also huge discussions on every aspect of the world.
Oh, so it is relevant to whether the book is any good. Actually, I agree that it is; but don't waste your time using that argument on someone who doesn't already accept the premise.

Martin's success [has] been achieved through years of incredibly hard work
No doubt it has, but as an explanation of what makes the books good, which is what I was sent to this article to find out, this is insufficient. An A for effort is not a final grade.

But this frenzy is something the author should feel genuinely proud of; this is an excitement generated ... by superb storytelling skill and more than a decade of hard work.
Leaving aside the puffery of the final phrases, this is actually a good point and a gentle rebuff to Gaiman's "GRRM is not your bitch" line (which the article cites in this context): if he hadn't engrossed his readers so in a long-term incompleted story, they wouldn't be clamoring so for its conclusion. Remember that Tolkien too got a lot of anxious letters when the publication of vol. 3 of The Lord of the Rings was held up for half a year after its original date (and if you recall how vol. 2 ends, you'll understand why).
The question I face, though, is: all these other people got caught up in the story and care about what happens next. Why, then, didn't I get caught up; why don't I care?

So the next time someone tells you that there's no chance of something both smart and complicated succeeding in this dumbed-down world, hit him on the head with a George R.R. Martin boxed set. And when you go to jail for murder, spend the time constructively by reading the series again.
And, along with that earlier line about the pleasures of reading about "a world full of people stabbing one another," I guess we have the article's answer of why the series appeals to its readers and not to me: it's a work aimed at an audience of incipient and vicarious thugs. I don't think it really is so aimed, but if this article really does get "to the heart of what is so good about the Song of Ice and Fire series," then that's what it's trying to tell me that the heart of it is: a heart with a knife sticking out of it. Ugh.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

concert review: Redwood Symphony

Oh boy, was this intrepid but amateur orchestra not ready to play this challenging concert last night. They sounded more like the S******a Symphony (the nadir of amateur orchestras around here) than like the bottom tier of professional groups, and they're usually closer to the latter. They actually got through it all, though, in reasonable order, and that's some kind of accomplishment.

Strange bleeps and squawks enlivened the whole show. While pianist Daniel Glover made his fleet and (sometimes) deft but totally uninflected way through Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (imagine a rapid but monotonic reading of a lyric poem), the orchestra was running after him trying to keep up, tripping over its own untied shoelaces. And in the Prelude to Das Rheingold, the bassoons holding the open fifth shouldn't be louder than the horns playing the theme, though it was probably a mercy that they were. And that's just for starters. Still, by the time they got to Siegfried's funeral march and the Immolation scene, some kind of grandeur had slowly gathered, despite itself.

What's that, you say, did they play the entirety of Wagner's Ring? No, it just seemed that way. If you've ever heard one of his operas and thought, "This would be really good music if only the singers would shut up and go away," you're not alone. Wagner is responsible for encouraging such thoughts, having authorized the concert performance of what are usually known as "bleeding chunks" without voices (in context in Die Walküre, for instance, the concert favorite "Ride of the Valkyries" comes with assorted valkyries trying to yell over it), and saying things like "the key to the work is in the orchestra" (by which he was referring to his use of Leitmotifs, brief instrumental tags associated with particular characters or plot points, which he dredges up and bashes you over the head with whenever the original referent is subsequently alluded to). There seemed to be a market for orchestral Wagner in between the "bleeding chunks" and the whole opera, so a few years ago noted conductor Lorin Maazel undertook to fill it by preparing what he called a "symphonic synthesis" of the whole Ring, lasting about 70 minutes non-stop, and it was this which we heard last night. It's less a maniacally fast run-through of the plot than a series of jump-cuts. Here's the dwarfs laboring in Nibelheim (with a total absence of rhythm); slam, now here's the Rainbow Bridge. The Rhinemaidens are taunting Siegfried; whoops, now he's dead.

More successful than Wagner or Rachmaninoff was the opening piece, not on the program, and conductor Eric Kujawsky didn't tell us what it was going to be or who wrote it, but when a man in a green eyeshade wheeled a manual typewriter on a stand onstage and sat down at it, I knew we were in for Leroy Anderson's notorious two-minute concerto for typewriter and orchestra. (The curious may see and hear [if the sound on your computer is working, ahem] a performance - this one with the soloist also serving as conductor - here.) Before starting, Kujawsky said, "Oops, we haven't tuned up yet; give me an A." And the man in the green eyeshade gave him an A.

The hall at Cañada College was full. Why parents had brought so many squirmy 8-to-10 year-olds for such enormous pieces as the Rachmaninoff and Wagner, I don't know. Right in front of me were two high-school students with clipboards, attached to which were pads of paper and their music class assignment: you are the critic; attend a concert and write a review. I was touched to see budding colleagues, and as professional courtesy I told them the name of the composer of the typewriter piece, since Kujawsky had not been forthcoming. What their reviews will be like, I don't know, as they both spent much of the rest of the evening asleep. Maybe they'll grow up to be Virgil Thomson.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

computer expert manqué

Have you ever accidently dropped some carefully intricate but non-fragile construction, and had the constituent pieces roll out on the floor? All the pieces are there, none of them are broken, but it'll take endless time to put them back together again as they were.

That's what it's been like setting up Windows XP on my mother's computer when it needed to be reinstalled from scratch after a replacement of the hard drive. Our paid expert acquired and plugged in the drive, and installed the programs and her backed up document files, but everything else was my job, because my mother's computer knowledge is strictly basic end-user of installed software. I changed the desktop background and icons, I reinstalled MS Office from a CD, I reinstalled Norton Security from the website on her subscription, I changed the password and display preferences on the e-mail client, I upgraded to IE8 (the one thing that was a lot easier than I thought it'd be), I tricked the taskbar control into allowing quickstart icons which it didn't want to do, I installed the service pack, which took not one but two endless intervals, and a whole bunch other stuff.

The one thing I couldn't do was get the computer to play sounds. It'd play a test demo from the RealTek audio controller software, so I knew the speakers were working, but no Windows sounds, no sound on Web videos or streams or podcasts, and if you put a CD in the coffee-holder drive, it'd give an error message saying "No audio device," which is also what the control panel, in its uncommunicative way, was trying to tell me.

Prior to consulting with the paid expert, I decided to search online. What should I find on old support board threads but that apparently this was a common problem in XP installation back in the day. Posts tended to fall into five categories:
1) Complaints that the user had the problem and could find no solution;
2) Proposed solutions;
3) Little goat-cries of bliss from people for whom a given one of the solutions worked;
4) Little goat-cries of despair from those for whom the same solution didn't work;
5) Protestations that that isn't the real solution, this is.

I copied down or printed out eleven different solutions altogether, and tried them all, spending a couple hours cruising around the raw frontiers of my computer knowledge. Each solution carried the imprimatur of ecstatically happy users. But for me, some of them didn't work. The rest turned out to be inapplicable. Here follow the stations of the cross:
1) Changed the sound scheme from None to Windows Default. Didn't work.
2) Changed the Audio Service control from manual to automatic. Didn't work.
3) Checked all the audio devices for claims of nonfunctionality and searched for new drivers. They all insisted they were OK and up to date.
4) Changed the playback device on the audio tab of the audio devices control, or, rather, didn't, because it was grayed out. ("No Audio Device," remember? though this proposed solution specifically said it was applicable for that case.)
5) Downloaded a new audio codec driver from RealTek. Got an error message when I tried to install it.
6) From the same source, downloaded something called an AC '97 driver, or rather, didn't, because they all proved to be for earlier editions of Windows.
7) Replaced the "ISAPNP Read Data Port" device, whatever that was, with a Plug & Play Software Device Enumerator, whatever that was. This was generally held online to be the cleverest solution, and certainly required the craftiest tricks in order to do properly. Didn't work.
8) Uninstalled a duplicate Plug & Play Software Device Enumerator. This was actually the one I created in step 7. Didn't even get me quite back where I started from.
9) Updated the driver for something called a PCI Bus device, or would have, except that I couldn't find a PCI Bus device.
10) Deleted a particular line from the registry, or, rather, didn't, because there was no such line in the registry.
11) Saved this one for last resort: Gulped hard and prepared to uninstall the entire soundcard control software, planning to trust to the Add Hardware function to find and reinstall it. It wouldn't uninstall. Said it was necessary for startup.

That was the lot of them. I give up. And modern computers are supposed to be so simple!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Geraldine Anne Albrecht Phillips, 1922-2011

B's mother died in the hospital Tuesday morning at 3:30. Surgery had not relieved the swelling on the brain that was keeping her in a semi-coma, she'd apparently had a major stroke as well, and there just wasn't anything left to do.

You know the slogan, "Shop till you drop"? That's literally what happened. Ma (as her children called her) loved to shop, and was happiest on a trip to the mall. That's where she was with B's sister on Friday when, on getting into the car to leave, she slipped and fell, and her head hit the pavement heavily. After that it was mostly downhill, and all hospital. At least she went out doing what she loved best.

The doctors and nurses commented on how tough and strong she was, even in this losing ordeal. She should be tough; she was a WAVE in World War II. That's how she met her husband, who had just been discharged from the Seabees. The marriage between a middle-class Catholic storekeeper's daughter from Rochester, New York, and a poor Baptist dirt-farmer's son from west Texas caused a certain amount of alarm in both families, but it lasted to his death a few years ago, and produced 7 children, 12 (if I haven't forgotten any) grandchildren, and so far a few great-grandchildren. You'd think raising all those children - all by herself at times when their Pa was working on construction projects overseas - would be enough, but she also taught school.

By the time I met her, all the children had left home, and in retirement she had what she called "itchy feet." The two of them moved every few years among various developments around Northern California and even Hawaii. For a long time they had a cat named Oberon (Obie for short), a hairless Cornish Rex with a gigantic body and little tiny feet, and he'd walk on visitors in the guest bed, leaving imprints. In widowhood, Ma settled permanently in an apartment in San Jose, close to several children, until physical conditions made living entirely on her own no longer feasible, and she moved to independent living quarters in a senior facility a few months ago.

I could count on my mother-in-law for several things: to always have a box of See's candy around and to partake of it herself without stint; to give Barnes and Noble gift cards for Christmas; and to always be ready to take B. out for dinner (usually at a coffee shop or the Cheesecake Factory) on Saturdays after the two of them went to Vigil mass together (their regular custom), if I was going to be out that evening. She remained the center of her family, as was always obvious at any of their large, boisterous gatherings, and I too will miss her. As S. Gross's bull said to the calf when the cow jumped over the Moon, "Son, your mother is a remarkable woman."

Monday, November 14, 2011

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

A somewhat more cheerful time was had back on Friday at Davies in the City. I'd already been planning to attend that evening's concert on my own when I got the call to be fill-in reviewer. That meant I could save the price of a ticket and take a friend, and it also meant I had to write up my thoughts, which - a bit unusually for me - I drafted immediately on getting home. Fortunately, too, since unexpectedly I spent all of Saturday otherwise occupied. Here's the published result.

I'm particularly pleased with the simile I used to describe the presence of Schubert's Overture to Alfonso und Estrella, which didn't quite fit with the rest of the program, despite being by the same composer as the rest. I spared the review's readership the complicated story from the program notes, which I don't quite understand, to the effect that this overture is actually also the overture to the incidental music to Rosamunde, despite the fact that the piece that is always identified as the Rosamunde Overture is something entirely different and apparently has nothing to do with Rosamunde at all. I have two recordings which claim to be of the Rosamunde Overture, and they're both of the other one. To say that that famous, graceful, and tuneful piece is MUCH BETTER than the pompous little squib we heard on Friday is to underestimate the difference between them.

Well, that was a curiosity. What really brought me to this concert was not to hear the "Trout" Quintet in the vast, chamber-unfriendly confines of Davies, but the string orchestra transcription of the "Death and the Maiden" Quartet. (Never mind that the transcription is by Mahler. Mahler didn't compose it; he only tinkered with the line disposition. Schubert composed it.) One of my shameful secrets is that the original recording of this arrangement, made soon after some scholars dug it up in 1984, is what I learned the Quartet from. Only afterwards did I pick up a recording of the original version (by the Alban Berg Quartet) and learn that. Rather as Steeleye Span was the hinge that turned me from a folk music fan into someone capable of appreciating the virtues, such as they are, of rock music, Mahler's edition of "Death and the Maiden" was one of the hinges that turned me from an almost exclusively orchestral music listener into a more serious connoisseur of chamber music. It's an evolution many classical music listeners go through as they age, though each one's journey must be unique. I still also listen to orchestras, of course, and unlike Barshai's orchestral Shostakovich quartets - which just don't work for me, because the originals are so intimate - Schubert's big, bold quartet fits well in orchestral guise, even handled as gently as in this performance. The comparison to Tchaikovsky's Serenade is one that hadn't occurred to me before.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

not the most pleasant day

90% sitting around in hospital waiting rooms, 10% making computer backups. Hope you had a better one.

Friday, November 11, 2011

on beyond armistice

11:11, 11/11/11

new tv shows

An early-term report on the new tv shows I've tried watching this fall:

Ringer. Sarah Michelle Gellar, looking not much older than she did at the end of BTVS, plays two identical twin sisters, one of whom is impersonating the other. This is not a premise for a stable ongoing series, but for a plot-driven, end-oriented miniseries, and after some eight episodes, I'm still not sure which it's going to be. The plot keeps getting more convoluted each week, which almost keeps my mind off the inconsistencies and unaddressed questions of exactly how alike in appearance or personality the two sisters are supposed to be, and whether it's implausible that people like, oh, say, the impostee's husband aren't going to notice the switch, whether the fact that he didn't know his wife had a twin sister makes any difference, and whether that changes when he finds out she does. The fact that SMG is one of those "all her characters are essentially the same person" actors doesn't help, though she's not as far out of her depth as Eliza Dushku was in Dollhouse. Watching the impostor, who's supposed to be the bad sister but is really the good one, taking blame for and trying to repair the wrecked personal life of the impostee (which she didn't know about when she took the job) is potentially interesting, and so far the plot twists and multiple levels of deception are keeping me hooked. To date, neither sister has gotten mixed up about who she's supposed to be (the impostee is hiding out and impersonating someone else altogether), which they would do if Donald E. Westlake had been writing this.

Once Upon a Time. Small town in Maine is inhabited (entirely? apparently so) by fairy tale characters who've been sent there and had their minds wiped by evil queen, who's seen doing this extensively, and tediously, in lengthy flashbacks. Their designated outside rescuer is an incongruously slutty-looking (and -dressing) woman who learns she is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, spirited away at birth just before the disaster, and dragged in to the plot by her own ten-year-old son, given up at birth and adopted by the evil queen, now posing as the mayor of the town. Like Ringer, this is a miniseries concept, not an ongoing one, because the only plot drive is, when are the characters going to find out they're fairy tale creatures and when is Ms. Shrek going to save them from the swamp? Note also that Ringer has a high concept expressible in eleven words, a proper length for a high concept, while to explain this one took eighty words, not counting the snide comments. I liked the first episode, but halfway through the second episode the arbitrary fairy-tale rules and the "hey, I'm emoting here" acting got to be too much and I abruptly stopped, leaving many unanswered questions. Like: If they've all been in Maine for thirty years and nobody's aged, hasn't someone noticed this? Hasn't anybody moved in or out of town? How can there be children? The protagonist boy has aged from birth to ten while living there, so how does he fit in? And above all, if the evil mayor/queen doesn't know that Ms. Shrek/Slut is Snow White's daughter or indeed anybody special at all, why did she adopt her son and bring him in from outside? It seems a strange thing for a monomaniacal villain to do.

Grimm. More secret supernatural, except this one really is the premise for an ongoing series. Portland (OR) cop learns he is mystically-chosen slayer of - I'm not quite sure what - werewolves, apparently. Concocted by former Whedon minions, so unsurprisingly feels a lot like Buffy. You've got the protagonist who apparently should have learned his destiny long ago and is now desperately trying to catch up. You've got the Giles mentor figure (his aged, dying aunt); you've got the Angel figure of the reformed monster who provides expository lumps; you've got the Scoobie buddy; you've got lots of local color from the setting. Above all, even more clearly than in Buffy, you've got a world simply infested with evil inhuman creatures who pass as ordinary people, and our misunderstood hero is just about the only person who can reliably unmask them, confidently penetrating their firm and otherwise convincing denials, or even sometimes their unawareness, that they are actually agents of evil. Does this premise remind anyone else of the attitude of Commie-hunters in the Joe McCarthy days? Nevertheless, I've enjoyed the two episodes I've seen so far, and will probably continue watching at least until David Levine makes his cameo appearance.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


1, to a concert review: I wrote, "once he put the violin on his shoulder ... nobody was going to check their watch again." I was wrong. Old Grumpy from the Mercury was checking timings all through the recital. (Also, he misremembered which movement was filled with embellishments.)

2, to a city council election: A couple of close races here, but it appears that the weakest of the "establishment" candidates has actually lost to the perennially-running irritable gadfly. (This happens, occasionally. Two elections ago an incumbent, not just an anointed candidate, lost to a flaky challenger.) We'll see what hits the fan after he takes office. Also apparently elected: the unstoppably cheerful woman who put her childhood photos on her campaign mailing, and the retired cop who thinks his "integrity" protects him from conflict of interest in voting on police salaries. We already have on the council a retired fireman who talks in the same blunt but foggy manner, and who looks exactly like this guy too; now we have two of them.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

concert review: Gil Shaham plays Bach

Dinkelspiel Auditorium is not a very large hall; that's one reason its nickname is "Dinky." So it's surprising how many parking spaces on the Stanford campus its occupants can take up when the hall is full. When I arrived 40 minutes before the start of Gil Shaham's Bach recital on Sunday afternoon, there were still plenty of spaces in the other half of the nearby lot, the part that's reserved for parking stickers on weekdays. But by the time my concert-going companion athenais arrived 20 minutes later, they were gone. Everything was gone. She couldn't find an open non-permit permissible space even on the other side of campus. Nor can I explain why, as I was standing outside the hall with my cell phone on and in my hand, it didn't ring when she called. Fortunately I kept checking it and got the message. We did connect eventually and I directed her to a secret spot nearby where spaces can often be found and, on this occasion, fortunately were. (Am I going to tell you where it is? Maybe not!)

Heart attacks of fear were avoided by my having earlier overheard the hall manager calling for a five-minute hold, which enabled reaching our seats in time. First the concert series director came out and blurbed for a bit. (Blurb: originally a verb, meaning "to talk like a publisher.") Then Shaham himself - shyish, a bit foot-scuffing, doesn't look like one of the world's master violinists - gave a bit of a talk warning us about what he was about to do with the music he'd play. By the time he concluded, it was 20 minutes after the starting gate. But once he put the violin on his shoulder, and, without any hesitation or further ado, began the Preludio from the Third Partita, nobody was going to check their watch again. It was rapturously entrancing, fast as hell - that was what he'd warned us about - but bouncy and vigorous, not at all cold or mechanical. (I'm looking at you, Gidon Kremer.) Wonderful sound, too, on a Strad built when Bach was 14 years old.

Shaham didn't have much to worry about; like many violinists, he's been playing these pieces as private exercises for decades. I was the one who was nervous about reviewing it. I didn't know the Bach solos well, and I sometimes find him too abstruse a composer. There's nowhere for a reviewer, any more than for a performer, to hide behind in a concert like this. It's you facing pure musicianship, and you'd better be able to judge it adequately. So I spent much of my time the last two weeks listening to a variety (and a wide variety, too) of recordings, following and studying the score and making notes all over it, and reading whole books about it, which sounded like this: "in the continuo passage in bars 57-9, the bass is a decorated version of the chromatic countersubject." (Yes, I know what that means.) Not to pass a test on Bach, but to bring myself to a level of comfort and familiarity with the music, so that I could write a review that might be, however analytic in my usual mode, a way to convey what it was like to attend this concert.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Son of a gun, I've finally found a composer that Semyon Bychkov isn't outstanding at conducting, and that composer is Richard Strauss.  The two works of his on tonight's program were good, but Not particularly Memorable.  Don Juan lacked some of the heft in the strings that I know SFS could have given it, and received a weird interpretation focusing on the wandering and quiet sections: Don Juan on the Psychiatrist's Couch.  Also on the program, a one-movement piano concerto titled Burleske.  I'd never heard of it before, and now I know why.  It's very early Strauss, from back when his music still resembled Brahms, but this piece doesn't resemble Brahms at all, though the program notes say it does.  It wants to be light and fluffy, as if it were French, but Strauss doesn't do French.  Imagine a concerto by Saint-Saëns trying to dance while wearing a heavy weighted lead suit.  Pianist Kirill Gerstein played with all the fluency he could muster, but it didn't help much.

The other half of the program, however, featured a composer I've heard Bychkov conduct before, and that composer is Robert Schumann.  To say his Second Symphony was layered, textured, interwoven, hardly does this marvelously transparent (and people say that Schumann was a thick, soggy orchestrator! Hah!) performance justice.  Contrapuntal movement is particularly important in this symphony, and every line was both audible and integrated.  Marvelously luminescent sound too.  And it still all smelled like Schumann, with the weight and stateliness that he brings to all his works of this kind.

Dinner beforehand at the Thai restaurant with the hide-and-seek menu, the one where you have to guess which items will not cause the waitress to come back a couple minutes later with "I'm sorry, we're out of that too."

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

reflection on the current news

I had to go to Wikipedia to determine that a Kardashian is not the same thing as a Cardassian.