Friday, May 31, 2013

three publications in one day

A personal record for me, I think. All three of them were written between Monday and Thursday.

1. Preview of this weekend's concert performance of Sweeney Todd. The Redwood Symphony people kind of pushed me into writing this one. Fortunately the Daily Journal is pushable; I couldn't place an article at SFCV under these circumstances. This is purely work for hire: I posed some open-ended questions to the conductor by e-mail, cut and pasted in chunks of his responses, and that's basically the article. My only personal opinion expressed here is agreeing with him that the movie sucks. I know nothing else about the current performance and can't testify to how good it will be; however, I am definitely going to see it. Perhaps you will too, the locals among you.

2. Review of SFS's new CD of Beethoven's Ninth. It's Beethoven's Ninth; you know how it goes. All the notes are there (except for the second repeat of the scherzo, but never mind that). I couldn't think of much else to say about it, except to crib from my blog review of the concert from which it was recorded.

I chuckled quietly at the CD's cover photo, of craggy mountains. I remember an imaginary dialogue that Leonard Bernstein once wrote, in which he's taking a car trip with a fuzzy-minded poet who looks at the craggy mountains out the window and murmurs, "Pure Beethoven." LB's fantasy self rounds on the poet and spends the rest of the trip mercilessly berating him for the superficiality and simple-mindedness of this equation until the guy cringes under the floorboards.

3. Review of Wednesday's SFS concert. This was more easily reviewable. One piece both more interesting and more horrifying than I was expecting; one simply enjoyable; one rather boring, though it was played exactly the same way. At least it wasn't half as boring, nor as useless, as the interminably detailed description of its scenario given by Scott Fogelsong, the pre-concert lecturer from an even further-off other planet, who seemed to think it was gripping. I feel so virtuous reducing the plot to two sentences in the review.

This was the evening when I headed up early to do my on-the-spot research regarding the sites of composition and first performance of Terry Riley's In C, as reported previously. Driving from Bernal Heights to the Divisadero Corridor via the Noe Valley, CD of the music blasting away on my car stereo, is an interesting route: I recommend it if you wish to prove to visitors that San Francisco is, indeed, composed principally of hills. After finding the concert space on Divisadero, I had a quick light dinner at the Thai restaurant across the street.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

mysteries in C

When I wrote my last post, about four "turning point" premieres in musical history, it wasn't difficult to find reference sources with the exact dates and locations for the first three. But Terry Riley's In C? Even its Wikipedia entry says only that it was composed in 1964.

I had to turn to the specialty book. The one and only, in fact: Terry Riley's In C by Robert Carl (OUP, 2009), the only monograph to date on the biggie. In the same spirit as his detailed analysis of the work itself, Robert Carl gives specifics on the history of its composition and first performance, derived from interviews with Riley and with some of the first performers - including Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, Stuart Dempster, and Morton Subotnick, all to become big names in the avant garde music movement.

But while he gives addresses, I'm not sure how well Robert Carl, who's from Connecticut, knows San Francisco. He says the concert address is in a district called the Western Division. There's no such place. He means the Western Addition. (Addition, Division, Multiplication, Square Root, Differential Equation, whatever.) But at least everyone agrees on the date and the address. (It's a second-floor space above the storefronts. I went by recently: now it's used to teach yoga classes.)

Rather more mysterious is exactly where and when Riley composed it. According to the text, Riley (who'd grown up in Northern California and attended UC Berkeley) returned from two years in Europe in February of 1964 and rented a house in San Francisco for a year before moving to New York for a while. The book actually has a photo of the house, taken by Riley, undated but, from some of the cars on the street, considerably more recent. It's a distinctive house: two stories and flatiron-shaped, it's wedged between two converging streets, with a regular-polygonal end room on the upper floor bulging out above the lower floor.

The address is given; Robert Carl says nothing of whereabouts in the city it is, but the address is in Bernal Heights. (Carl describes it as being a block away from its actual location, but the address is what matches the photo. He doesn't say that the house is actually two separate flats, and that the address he gives is the upper floor only.) The problem is that Riley has apparently always thought he lived on Potrero Hill, which is somewhere else. He says so in an interview in the liner notes of a 1990 recording of In C ("We rented a tiny house right at the top of Potrero Hill") and the composer bio in the program notes of the original concert, photoreproduced by Robert Carl, also say, "He's now living on Potrero Hill and generally enjoying himself." This discrepancy isn't addressed in the book.

Nor is the matter of date. The original handwritten score, also reproduced in the book, says "March '64," and Robert Carl takes that as given. Riley's 1990 interview says "April or May." The concert program dates it October. Though that's in the book, the text doesn't address the discrepancy. Further adding to the mystery is Morton Subotnick's interview for the book. Planning an all-Riley concert for the Tape Music Center's 64-65 season, he says he wrote or phoned Riley and asked, "Will you be back by November?" Back from where? This sounds as if he went off somewhere for the summer and/or fall, but the book has nothing else about that either.

There are mysteries here. I've written to Robert Carl to inquire.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

turning points in musical history

Today is the centenary anniversary of the first performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, one of the most famous, or infamous, premieres in musical history. It was also one of the most influential. My editors appear to have chosen not to run the article I sent them on spec about this, so I'll present to you instead my theory that The Rite of Spring was the third of four, so far, "turning point" musical premieres since 1800 which came along at roughly half-century intervals and seem to me to have sparked paradigm shifts in the writing of classical music. Not necessarily the greatest works, though they're among the greatest, they are the most influential. They violated the conventions of their day and set new conventions for the future, and pervade the work that came after them. (Curiously, though, they all took a decade or two to be absorbed before they became influential.) Here's the four:

Turning Point no. 1
Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 3, "Eroica"
First public performance, April 7, 1805, Theatre an der Wien, Vienna

What made Beethoven's Third Symphony stand apart from his first two, and from the Haydn and Mozart works that had been his models, was its sheer scale and size. It's an enormous piece of nearly an hour, which packs in entire fugues and huge towering climaxes that no previous symphony had had time for. That subsequent symphonies, like Beethoven's own Ninth and the works of Mahler, are even huger has blinded us to the impact of the "Eroica" and to how difficult it was for its first listeners to absorb. Supposedly a listener at the first performance cried out in agony, "I'd give another kreutzer if the thing would only stop!"

Beethoven's Fifth and Ninth symphonies, in particular, were even more daring. The "Eroica," though, was the pioneer. For a couple of decades, no other composer dared to follow Beethoven's symphonic path. Even Schubert kept on writing light symphonies in a Haydnesque mode. It wasn't until Schubert's abortive "Unfinished" of 1822 that another composer attempted to write a symphony of the scale and weight of the "Eroica," and not until his Great C Major a few years later that he completed one. After that came Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique, and the floodgates were opened. For the generation of the 1830s – Berlioz, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Liszt – Beethoven was the master, and by the time Brahms came around he could only groan that he heard Beethoven's footsteps forbiddingly behind him whenever he considered writing a symphony. Beethoven's is still the prime name among symphonists, and the "Eroica" is the work that made it so.

An old show with MTT discussing the Eroica.

MTT conducting the entire Eroica with the London Symphony.

Turning Point no. 2
Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde
First performance, June 10, 1865, National Theatre, Munich

This time music history turns not on not just a single work, but a single chord, the "Tristan" chord, as it's called, which comes near the start of the prelude to this opera that Wagner had completed in 1859 but which took six years before he could arrange for a performance. The "Tristan" chord combines several different chromatic intervals – combinations of notes – considered exotic, even painful, in earlier music, all into a single sound. The result is something weird, tense, and strange. It riveted the ears of its listeners, and it set the course for avant garde composition for the next half-century, as composers explored further and further into harmonic discords and disintegration. Everything we call "modern music": the florid, hothouse air of Debussy and the Impressionists, despite their mixed feelings about Wagner, the equally lush and intense harmonies of Mahler and Richard Strauss, and finally the twelve-tone method – the complete negation of traditional, pre-Wagner harmony – pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg, may all be traced back to this single chord.

Stephen Fry babbling orgasmically about the Tristan chord.

Turning Point no. 3
Igor Stravinsky, Le Sacre du Printemps
First performance, May 29, 1913, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris

Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography was probably more scandalous than the music, but the music was strange enough. Its brutal angularity and complex, unusual, and sometimes conflicting rhythms made Stravinsky's reputation. It was a new thing in music, and, more importantly, a hugely influential thing. From the work of fellow-Russian Prokofiev to that of Americans like Copland and Bernstein and Europeans from Orff to Britten, generations of subsequent composers for half a century were permeated by Stravinsky's idiom – his orchestration, his harmonies and textures, and above all those rhythms – and no other composer and work of its time outweighed its importance.

There's an impressively accurate reproduction of the performance, and the audience reaction, at the beginning of the film Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky. The movie isn't on YouTube, but the first thirty seconds of this trailer give an accurate impression.

Part 1 of 4 of the SFS playing the Rite.

Part 1 of MTT's "Keeping Score" show on the piece.

Turning Point no. 4
Terry Riley, In C
First performance, November 4, 1964, Tape Music Center, San Francisco

After those marquee names in classical music history, Terry Riley? Maybe so. Certainly minimalism, which didn't start with Riley or In C, but for which this was the breakthrough work, has been the most innovative and influential movement in concert music in the last half century. That's true regardless of opinions of the music itself. Some listeners want to yell catcalls and blow whistles at minimalism, as their predecessors did to Stravinsky, or denigrate the composers as was done to Wagner. Supposedly a concertgoer at an early performance of Steve Reich actually screamed, "Oh God, just make it stop!" – just like the man who didn't like Beethoven. None of this has actually stopped musical innovation, or dented the broad appeal of many minimalist works.

In 1964 it was a startlingly new thing. Alfred Frankenstein of the San Francisco Chronicle, reviewing the concert, wrote that Riley "has developed a style like that of no one else on earth, and he is bound to make a profound impression with it." In C is the antithesis of the complex, strictly-determined Stravinsky and Schoenberg-influenced music then in vogue. The score is only one page, on one staff, consisting of 53 brief cellular modules to be repeated in a semi-improvisational manner by any number of instruments. After ten minutes, it may make the listener want to scream, but after half an hour, it can have an intensely spiritually calming effect that only minimalism can produce.

As Frankenstein predicted, it made an impression. In C became the first widely-distributed work of strict minimalism. Gradually, other minimalists like Philip Glass and Steve Reich moderated their technique by combining it with traditional structures. By the 1980s, minimalist techniques like Riley's cells, Reich's phase-shifting, and Glass's additive structures had become simply yet another set of ordinary tools in the compositional toolboxes of post-minimalist composers, starting with John Adams and continuing with many others.

And it all began right here in San Francisco. In C was composed in March of 1964 at a small house up on Bernal Heights, and first performed that fall in a small concert space on Divisadero Street between Oak and Page. Vienna, Munich, Paris – and San Francisco. And there you are.

A 15-minute excerpt of a good all-percussion performance of In C.

An impressively consonant performance of four minutes at the beginning.

If you prefer something more raucous, try this one.

Or this one. Both are full performances, but short (half-hour).

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

it's just a flesh wound

The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Tolkien has certainly been busy for an author dead for forty years; here's yet another new book. Actually, though, this one's been awaited for nearly that long, as this unfinished epic poem in alliterative verse was first described, and quoted from, in Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Tolkien in 1977.

And pretty fragmentary it is: the extant text consists of four cantos of about 220 lines each, plus about a quarter of a fifth canto, before the author abandoned it, sometime in the mid-1930s, though he long meant to pick it up again. That makes about a fifth of an already short book, the rest being editorial material.

As verse, I thought it astonishingly good: clearly written and intensely readable. Usually in epic verse I nod off for long periods when I'm not quite sure what the author is talking about, but not here. Even more than in Tolkien's other alliterative poems, he proves himself here a master of this ancient verse form used by hardly anybody else for five hundred years.

Although the narrative focus is abbreviated, more like the prose of The Silmarillion than anything in The Lord of the Rings, it has some vivid imagery, particularly landscape imagery, strongly reminiscent of Tolkien's more familiar writings. I liked a passage at the start of canto 4, describing horsemen riding through a drear country. "Night fell behind. The noise of hooves / was lost in silence in a land of shadow." Sound like anything else you've read? In canto 1, Arthur and his men pass through a forest called Mirkwood, a name Tolkien didn't invent, and it gets the descriptive treatment you'd expect.

The story is straightforward. Arthur and his men are campaigning off on the continent somewhere when they hear that Mordred, who'd been left behind as regent, has declared himself king and hired hordes of mercenaries. Arthur decides he'd better head back. Mordred - the most vividly drawn character, a cross between Saruman and Macbeth - learns of Arthur's imminent return. He rushes to the bower of Guinever, for whom he secretly lusts, and tells her she can be his queen or his slave, and she'd better choose quickly. Guinever defies him gallantly, and uses the little time he allows her to sneak off and run away, thereby earning herself a minor place among Tolkien's little-known list of gutsy female characters. A parenthetical canto on Lancelot explains that his affair with Guinever is long in the past, she'd been forgiven and he's living in exile, waiting for a summons back he never gets. Arthur returns, and wins the ensuing, very briefly described battle, and that's about where the poem drops off.

Longer than the poem is each of 3 appendical essays by CT. The first tries to place the storyline in the history of a confusing welter of similar but differing, interchangeably-titled medieval Arthurian tales from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Malory. I had a lot more trouble understanding this than I did the poem. The third describes the voluminous draft material for the poem at hand. And the second and most interesting analyzes the notes and drafts for the unwritten part of the story. What's going to catch the reader's eye here are the note that Lancelot is to set sail into the West and never return, and some material identifying Avalon with Tolkien's earthly Elvish paradise, Tol Eressëa. But the latter should not be a surprise to Tolkienists, as the writings making that equation had been published in The History of Middle-earth as much as 25 years ago. The suggestion that Lancelot is to be identified with Eriol/Ælfwine, the sea-wanderer who, in Tolkien's earliest tales, comes to Tol Eressëa and has the stories of the Silmarillion recounted to him, doesn't hold up for me, because the important thing about Ælfwine is that he comes back and passes on those stories. By longing for the West, but we never learn if he gets there or not, it seems to me that Lancelot here is to be placed with Tuor and Amandil, who share his yearning and his unknown fate.

Chewy stuff, but only for devotees. Even the readability of the poem doesn't make this anything more than a specialty-interest volume, and it's a little embarrassing to see it published as a general-interest trade book, the more so as the grumbling about "laundry lists" is already being heard, again. It's not a laundry list. Those who neither know what they're talking about nor care about it had best just ignore it.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Greatest 20th Century Symphonists You've Never Heard Of. Post 2: Cornelis Dopper

Post 1: Kurt Atterberg

For this post, we have Cornelis Dopper (1870-1939).
Cornelis Dopper was Dutch. Dutch? Dutch master painters are a by-word, and there's a good number of famous Dutch musical performers, but for some reason internationally famous Dutch composers are absent on that level. If you go to the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam's justifiably renowned concert hall, you will see, along the balustrade running in front of the balcony around the hall, the names of composers inscribed in, if I recall correctly, gold leaf. Most of these names are very famous. A few you will never have heard of. Those are mostly Dutch.

So Cornelis Dopper begins with one strike against him already. Nobody in search of great historical composers is liable to be poking around in the Netherlands. Another is that he was a conservative composer in a radical age, the turn of the 20th century. There's a story, evidently true, from a concert with one of his symphonies. Matthijs Vermeulen, a critic later to be known as a strongly modernist composer,1 found Dopper's work far too jolly, upbeat, and stiffly tonal for him, and the use of brass reminded him of a marching band, not to his pleasure. So, at the end of the piece, before the applause could start, he called out, intending irony, "Long live Sousa!"

Unfortunately, many of the audience thought he said, "Long live Troelstra!" Troelstra was a Dutch socialist politician who had recently sparked off a failed revolutionary coup.

A small riot broke out, and Dopper's music picked up a bad smell from the incident. Most unfair.

Dopper was the assistant conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Many people didn't think he was a very good conductor, either. Willem Mengelberg, the renowned principal conductor, liked Dopper's works and performed them, but hardly anybody else did, and after they both died Dopper faded into obscurity. I haven't even been able to get a reliable list of when all of Dopper's symphonies were written: all the standard music encyclopedias differ. There are a couple books about Dopper, but they're in Dutch and no available U.S. libraries have them.

Fortunately there are a few recordings. That's how I first came to know of him: I got a CD of old Mengelberg cuts because I wanted to hear Mengelberg's conducting. It had a tone poem by Dopper on it. I investigated further. I struck gold with his last two symphonies.

Dopper wrote seven symphonies between the 1890s and 1917. Of the five I've heard, all make good listening, but pretty much each one is better than its predecessor.

It follows, then, that the finest of the set is the Symphony No. 7 "Zuiderzee" (1917), the one Vermeulen hated so much, and you can listen to it here:

It's called the "Zuiderzee" because it's intended to honor the 17th century war against Spain, much of which was fought on that inland sea. Dopper uses, as principal themes, about half a dozen different Dutch folk and patriotic songs of the period. His original audience would have easily recognized them; contemporary Americans will not. But they give a dignified and hymn-like air (Dopper was always good at writing in a proud hymnal manner) to the symphony.

It's in four movements. The first, Allegro animato, introduces several of these themes in short order before plunging into a protracted development (3:25). The second movement is a tiny folk-dance Humoreske (12:22) in place of a scherzo. The slow movement (Andante rubato) (16:26) has a salt-air feel to those sudden brass chords and its second theme (19:00), doesn't it? The Finale is the wildest movement. It begins (26:25) with a fugue in the strings, whose theme re-starts several times in the first half of the movement, one time for a most unusual instrumentation (29:05) - unusual, that is, for anyone but Dopper, who uses this same trick in other works. Eventually (starting at 31:39) one of the 17C themes from the first movement (the one from 2:35)2 gradually starts to take over as the tempo and energy crank up by increments, and it finishes the movement blasted out hymn-like by the brass, in counterpoint with a chattering theme derived from the earlier fugue. Sousa lives indeed! Sousa should be so exciting.

Now, once you've heard that, take a step back to the Symphony No. 6 "Amsterdam". It's just as delightful, as bright, shiny, and quirky as the Seventh, and it also uses Dutch songs in the finale. If you don't have time for the whole symphony, at least click the time slider to 17:11 and listen to the scherzo, because it is just the best scherzo ever written.

And, hey, the scherzo from his Symphony No. 2 "Scottish" is really good also (starts at 14:15). It features a medieval-style shawm dance tune with a snap (15:29) that makes it sound vaguely Scots and is responsible for the symphony's nickname.

Dopper's symphonies are not as deep or subtly constructed as Atterberg's - most conspicuously, he's not very interested in harmonic development - and I won't argue with anyone who calls him rather superficial. But I find his music thoroughly delightful and, of equal importance, highly distinctive. Nobody else sounds quite like him, and I can recognize his style immediately - and those, for me, are essential criteria for greatness.

1. If you insist on being curious about Vermeulen, here's what he was writing at about the same time. Don't say I didn't warn you.
2. It's called O Nederland! let op u saeck ("O Netherlands, attend to your affairs") and you can hear a straight rendering on piano here.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Greatest 20th Century Symphonists You've Never Heard Of. Post 1: Kurt Atterberg

The title above is only valid for certain values of "you," of course, but I expect that few of these composers will be known to the casual classical listener. By "greatest," I mean they wrote works which move me as the canonically great 19th century symphonies do: with fluid and subtle construction, strong and varied emotions, and memorable melodic material imaginatively presented and developed. For me, a great work of music has to click in my brain: after only a few listenings (and I want many of them) I find I've essentially memorized it: at all times while listening to it, I know what's about to happen next, and that something makes sense in context. At the same time, these works are modern: they have the sound of their time, and are unmistakable for earlier work. Jean Sibelius, Carl Nielsen, Serge Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Ralph Vaughan Williams are great 20th century symphonists by my standards, and these names belong in their company. (Note: most of the links that follow are directly to YouTube audio files.)

For this post, we have Kurt Atterberg (1887-1974).
Kurt Atterberg was one of an extended generation of great modern Swedish composers, the biggest flowering Scandinavia has ever had and a major contribution to European music. Unlike his near-contemporaries Hugo Alfvén and Dag Wirén, he never wrote a (once-)famous pops classic, but he was a better symphonist than either.

Like many of the greats, Atterberg composed nine symphonies. He hit his stride with his Third of 1916 and maintained his quality through the Sixth of 1928. After that he took a 15-year break from symphonies, and his style had changed when he returned: still good, but thinner. (The best of his later works is the folk-influenced Eighth.)

His masterpiece is the Symphony No. 6 in C Major, Op. 31 (1928). I'd already acquired his brief and charming Fourth by happenstance, but the Sixth is the piece that sold me on him. I'd sought it out from curiosity over an event in regard to its origin: Atterberg completed it to submit to a competition sponsored by an American record company for symphonies in the spirit of Schubert in honor of the centenary of his death. And it won the grand prize - beating out, among others, the now better-known "Gothic" Symphony by Havergal Brian (one of the few symphonies with its own promotional video) and Franz Schmidt's Third. Because of the prize, it's sometimes known as the "Dollar" Symphony. Atterberg, whose day job was as a Swedish patent official, bought a car with the money, and there exists a recording of the symphony with a picture of Atterberg with the car on the cover. (It's an excellent performance, by the way.)

Listen to the symphony here:

The first movement is a tensely dramatic sonata structure, beginning with a yearning horn theme, followed by a brisk transition (0:51), a lyrical second theme in strings (1:33), and a folkish closing theme in winds (2:05). The development quickly follows (2:40); its climax comes with a sequential march episode (4:50) that for me is the most exciting moment in Atterberg. This brings us back to the recapitulation (5:44), where the lyric theme is rewritten and extended for cellos (6:58).

The slow movement (9:59) is a stunningly beautiful landscape portrait with a haunting theme for clarinet (10:43), later reaching a stirring climax on horn and trumpet (19:20). This is the piece I listened to, over and over, on my music player when I woke up at 4 a.m. and stood alone on the quiet deck of the small ship that was cruising us through Alaska waters a decade ago, looking out through the faint June-night sunlight at the misty islands and glaciers. If you're as moved by this music as I am, by all means listen to its composer's intensely atmospheric Third Symphony also.

If the Sixth has a flaw, it's that the third movement, the finale (22:23), is disconcertingly bouncy and lightweight after its sober predecessors. On its own terms, though, it's delightful, full of comically-presented counterpoint and polytonality, and with a surprise at the ending that I won't spoil. This movement was the only part written with foreknowledge of the competition, and the jaundiced or at least amused composer called it "a sort of satire."

You won't find this flaw in our next two composers, whose chosen symphonies actually bear their heaviest weight in the finales. Not tomorrow, but over the next week, I'll have those for your listening.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Amazingly enough, today is the bicentenary of the birth of Richard Wagner. (The other colossus of opera born in 1813, Giuseppe Verdi, doesn't arrive until October.)

Here's a celebration I have strongly mixed feelings about. I have the famous Solti/VPO first studio recording of the Ring, and I've sampled various parts of it, but whenever I try to give the whole thing a serious listening, the same thing happens. I get through the prelude, Das Rheingold, an ensemble piece, all right, but then I get bogged down in Die Walkure, which consists mostly of various pairs of characters alone on stage emoting loudly at each other. If I get as far as "The Ride of the Valkyries," it's distracting because in the opera it's accompanied by all these women trying to shout over it. I wish they'd keep quiet and let me listen to the music. The "Ride" sounds great as an orchestral showpiece by itself, divorced from the rest of the opera and the singers. It seems to me that Wagner's real talent was as an author of orchestral tone poems, but he didn't know it.

What might give me the discipline to get through the Ring (or Tristan und Isolde, the listening of which would probably be an even better test of the ability to appreciate the "emoting loudly at each other" approach) would be a Wagner listening group similar to the Proust reading groups that were popular for a while. Nothing would get me to read Proust, but this might be enough to get me to listen to Wagner. And even the Ring, largest single structure in repertoire classical music as it is, is only 15 hours long, which is a lot less time than it takes to read Proust.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

one composer departs, another arrives

Harold Shapero has died, I learn from Lisa Irontongue who was his student at Brandeis. Shapero was perhaps the last survivor of the robust American tonal generation that flourished in the 1940s. I can't call him an American nationalist because he wasn't one; instead, he was a slightly latecomer neoclassicist. And "flourished in the 1940s" is exactly the way to describe him, because as a composer he fell pretty much silent after that, though whether this was due to the rise of the serialist hegemony or not is not clear in his case.

The only work of Shapero's I know well is his Symphony of 1947, a brightly orchestrated, crunchy and nervous, oddly breathless work of music, though some of those characteristics may be due to the style of Leonard Bernstein, who conducted the only recording of it I've heard. It's not on YouTube now, though as it appears in the autocomplete if you type his name evidently it used to be, but some piano sonatas you will find there bear some resemblance to it in style. But it's up there with Erich Wolfgang Korngold's of 1952 as one of the great forgotten singleton symphonies of the mid-20th.

Meanwhile, I've been getting more surrounded by Lee Actor, a fate not unpleasant in the least. He's a local composer whose career has taken off since he retired from his day job (coding video games: certain friends of mine take note) ten years ago and devoted himself to music. I've heard a few of his pieces at local concerts, and decided not to miss the one of his current batch of local premieres that was to be played by the best orchestra, so off I went to the Peninsula Symphony at Flint Saturday evening, to hear Daniel Glover play Actor's new Piano Concerto.

It was a large-boned, broad-scaled work in three movements, but not one requiring any epically grand playing. Nevertheless it did remind me of Rachmaninoff at times, but only at times, when it wasn't sounding more in the traditions of Ravel and Bartok, but not of the later Russians. It was pretty good, but I wonder if Actor really puts as much color into his concertos as he does into his purely orchestral music. There were some dandy ideas - the slow movement begins as a creepy thing, for instance - but they don't always lead anywhere appropriate.

Also on the program (music director Mitchell Sardou Klein conducted) was Beethoven's Pastorale Symphony, in a rough-hewn rendition as might have been given by the town band from the third movement. Odd approaches, especially to the lower strings in the slow movement and the bird-calls at the movement's end. The Peninsula Symphony teeters on the edge of being professionally qualified, and this was a particularly teetering performance.

Friday, May 17, 2013

applying an elephant gun

The Mythopoeic Award nominees have been announced. I'm on the scholarship committee, and two or three of my choices in each category made the finalists. Reading through the preliminary list (not publicly announced) for the myth and fantasy category was particularly depressing this year, as it contained several anthologies, particularly on recent authors, filled with the most deadly dull, plodding, and straining routine academic essays. Most of them, of course, were from McFarland, though the worst one of all wasn't. I read enough of these that I began to worry if the problem was myself, but then I turned to the Inklings material and cheered up immediately. A lot of good stuff in that category. Fortunately, the other committee members seemed to agree, and none of the awful anthologies made the ballot.

But the experience did influence my proposal for a paper of my own for Mythcon this year. The conference theme is "the land and its inhabitants in fantasy," and B. had suggested I depart from Tolkien and give a paper on ecology in Dr. Seuss. The prospect of reading all of his children's books - I never have, not all of them - and combing them for environmental considerations (is the Cat in the Hat wasteful? Is Sam-I-Am? what about a tweetle beetle battle?) had potential, but the fact is that most of Dr. Seuss's explicit lessons in that realm - Horton, Yertle, the Lorax - are pretty heavy-handed, and well-known enough that they need no help from me. And I don't think I'd have time for that much research.

But I've noted that both scholars studying children's lit, and readers reminiscing about their favorite childhood authors, tend to ignore picture books, and I want to correct that, so my thoughts then turned to my earliest favorite author, one of Dr. Seuss's Beginner Books colleagues, P.D. Eastman. I picked his first three books, all of which were brand-new in my childhood and very dear to me, and one of which provided a catchphrase I still use today. Eastman practiced an equally zany but far more disciplined form of nonsense than Dr. Seuss, and he had some particular recurring themes in teaching children about the world that I find interesting.

And, I thought as I leafed through the books with this in mind, I can do this with the same determined and strained air of all those boring academic essays and thus, like Asimov with thiotimoline, exorcise the demon.

So here, just accepted, are the deliberately pompous title and abstract of my paper topic for Mythcon:

"Ecology, Environment, and Resources in Three Novels by P.D. Eastman"

P.D. Eastman is an important fantasy author too long neglected by scholarship. His first three titles for Random House's classic "Beginner Books" series - Sam and the Firefly, Are You My Mother?, and Go, Dog, Go - skillfully combine fantastic imagination and humor with a restrained pedagogical motive, inculcating in readers an appreciation of the place in their lives of the environment around them, both natural and artificial, with particular attention to identification with animals, understanding of traffic rules, and a knowledge of the uses and limitations of machinery. Comparison will be made to works by parallel authors including T.S. Geisel and William Pene du Bois. Eastman deserves the same degree of scholarly scrutiny and attention often given to authors for slightly older children, like Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman, and in this hour he's going to get it. N.B.: As this presentation will include the actual reading aloud of picture books, attendees are encouraged to dress for naptime and bring their own cups of water.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

recent historical movies without Lincoln

Hitchcock. Blatant but half-hearted attempt to depict Hitchcock's creativity as a function of his psychology. Focused half around the making of Psycho, which actually gets scanted (if you're seriously curious, read the book about it), and half around a hackneyed, probably half-invented crisis in his marriage, which at least gets resolved and they walk away happy. Anthony Hopkins sounds rather like Hitchcock but looks nothing like him, instead resembling a gigantic hideous malformed superannuated baby. Actors I didn't recognize until I read the credits: Toni Collette as Hitchcock's stereotypically long-suffering secretary, Peggy, and Michael Wincott as Ed Gein (the real-life murderer who was Bloch's inspiration for Norman Bates), who frequently appears in Hitchcock's imagination as his psychotherapist. Bloch does not appear but is namechecked, as is Anthony Boucher in whose review Hitchcock learned of the book, and Hopkins pronounces Boucher's name correctly, so somebody was paying attention.

Hyde Park on Hudson. Another movie that can't decide what it is, a memoir by FDR's mistress Daisy or an account of King George and Queen Elizabeth's visit to Hyde Park, much of which Daisy missed. The latter is much more interesting and amusing, as the King and Queen whisper to each other trying to figure out the hidden political implications of being served hot dogs. Daisy is naive to the point of being dull, and the film reaches its nadir when she tearfully discovers she's not FDR's only mistress (ya think?). The opposite of Anthony Hopkins, Bill Murray doesn't sound much like FDR, but manages physically to resemble him impressively. Surprising presence: Olivia Williams as Eleanor (doesn't look much like her). Regrettable absence: any reference to the fact that Daisy bred Scottish terriers, and, over a year after the events of the film, gave FDR the immortal Fala as a present.

Hatfields & McCoys. Considering that I panned The Godfather as three hours of men pointlessly killing each other, why, then, did I so richly enjoy this mini-series, which is five hours of men pointlessly killing each other? Possibly because it didn't pretend to be anything else. The whole point is the futility and the stubbornness that makes it futile. And it's really well done, grippingly written with yeoman work on a filmmaking quality standard that hardly existed forty years ago. Kevin Costner as old man Hatfield and Bill Paxton as old man McCoy are both really good - no Costner ticks - and lead a memorable cast. The historical accuracy is impressive, especially considering that so is the lucidity - the clear flow of the story, plus the fact that, in a story where a state line running down the middle of the battlefield is a major factor in the plot, the script is always clear whether you're in West Virginia or Kentucky at the moment with virtually no use of title cards.

42. Jackie Robinson's uniform number, a piece of trivia I hadn't known. Covers the first two years of Robinson's career with the Dodgers, one year with a farm team and one in the majors. Ends with the Dodgers winning the pennant (they lost the Series, so who wants to end with that?). Another uneasy balance of a movie, between the black man in a hostile world and the Good whites being noble. Bridges this by giving Robinson other blacks to talk with (his wife and a semi-narrative sportswriter) and by showing Bad whites unflinchingly. The baseball itself, besides being rather advanced for this non-fan, is genteel, much more so than in A League of Their Own - no pissing, no managers yelling at boneheaded plays - but the racist catcalls from the stands are unabridged. A scene with an opposing manager trying to get Robinson's goat with the crudest possible insults is chilling. Added extra bonus disconcertion: he's played by Alan Tudyk.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

books of too much detail

Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro
Another volume in the mighty multi-volume biography of LBJ, this one presenting a mixed grill of his attempt at a 1960 presidential campaign, his vice-presidency, and the beginning of his presidency, thus 1959-1964. As before, a monumental but curiously mixed-quality project. Caro is good on the mixed feelings and consequent half-hearted manner with which LBJ approached running for president (though he never squarely faces the fact that the 1957 Civil Rights Act, climax of the previous volume, which LBJ intended to be his bona fide to northern liberals, was perceived by them as a weak betrayal), excellent on addressing the fundamentally conflicting evidence over whether JFK really wanted LBJ as his running mate or not and on why LBJ accepted, and pretty good on the frustrations of LBJ's vice presidency.

Yet in other ways the book is weak. Caro must deal again with a question from the previous volume, which is what made LBJ think he could continue running the Senate from the vice presidency, at which he singularly failed. In the previous book Caro left it as a puzzle, but I noted, hidden in the text, the answer, which is that LBJ had watched Vice President Garner lead the Senate in the 1930s, so he figured he could do it too.

I actually wrote to Caro saying this (and several other things). He never replied, but he puts an implicit reply in this book, by describing the collapse of Garner's relationship with FDR, and his failure to be considered a potential presidential candidate in 1940. Implied conclusion: Garner's history is nothing to emulate. The facts are true, but the conflict with FDR had arisen because Garner had chosen the path of leading the Senate into conflict with the President, at which he had been quite successful. Yet conflict with the President was not inevitable in the Senate; LBJ had achieved many of his 1950s triumphs by cooperating with Eisenhower, so Garner's ultimate frustration is no reason LBJ wouldn't try to emulate his success. Caro's answer in this book to the basic question is essentially, though not explicitly, to state that LBJ's ego was so towering that he was sure he could bend not just the Senate, but JFK, to his will. I don't think that's an entirely credible answer.

After JFK's assassination, this book falls apart. Caro paints an extraordinarily florid picture of LBJ as The Man of Decision, waiting there coiled for three years as VP and suddenly springing into decisive and carefully-planned action the moment he's first addressed as "Mr. President." But the actual story Caro tells doesn't match this. LBJ's initial decisions had their share of fumbles and dead ends, nothing really critical, but quite at odds with this attempt to paint him as the unreachable master, and, weirdly, Caro describes the fumbles with as much detail as the successes.

The detail becomes excruciating in a ludicrously extended portrait of a hokey Christmas spent entertaining German chancellor Erhard at the LBJ ranch. Again we are somehow supposed to see this as some kind of master act of politics, when it was just the basic attempt to entertain an ally. (Erhard's political power in Germany would soon rapidly collapse, something Caro makes no note of whatever, so the visit had little long-term political consequence.)

And all this puffery leaves far less space than is necessary to describe this book's climax, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This was the real thing for which 1957 had been just a softening-up punch, and it deserves more. But Caro makes several references to complex political maneuverings vital to the bill without describing them at all, which is bizarre from a guy to whom detailed descriptions of complex political maneuverings are his regular fare and responsible for many of his best pages.

The First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and the Human Imagination by Matthew Guerrieri
A whole book just on da-da-da-dum? It could be great; it could be a collection of random piffle. It's a collection of random piffle. At times Guerrieri dives into more detail than anyone could possibly want, including a lengthy and painstaking discussion of the significance of the quarter-note rest that precedes the first four notes in the score. It's more the literary/symbolic significance than the musical significance, so it's mostly pretentious hogwash anyway.

He tries to discuss virtually everything in Western culture that refers to those four notes, with total lack of discrimination over whether the reference is significant (e.g. Ives' "Concord" Sonata) or totally trivial, and he has very little worthwhile to say about them, the ineptness being typified by the epigraph quotation from the scene in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy where Arthur Dent hums the four notes in a desperate attempt to convince the Vogons that Earth is worth saving; this is inept both because, as evidence of the Fifth's importance in our culture, it's worth about a penny, and because the quotation is presented in such a way that a reader who doesn't already know HHGG will not have the slightest idea what is going on.

Extra bonus, stuff with even less significance to Beethoven's Fifth, including, for instance, an entire history of 19th century aspirational humanistic philosophy, apparently on the grounds that Beethoven shared such aspirations, though their direct influence on the Fifth isn't and can't be settled, so the significance of the whole thing is purely guesswork.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

from the child's mouth

Long ago, I entertained my readers by describing the index I had compiled to a story by a five-year-old, daughter of friends.

Many years have passed. Today she is eleven. She still writes, at a vastly more advanced level of course, and she also reads like a demon. That combination of talents has encouraged her to start her own book review blog. Her favorite author is Brian Jacques. Check it out.

concert review: Garrick Ohlsson, piano

It was Ohlsson vs. the Oshman acoustics at this concert, and the results were something of a draw. Ohlsson wants to play with the most intensely subtle shades of color and tone, while Oshman's acoustics insist on turning everything into big bold splashes of primary crayons.

Ohlsson managed to get his point across in a few miniatures by the American impressionist Charles Tomlinson Griffes, but his Chopin (Opp. 31 and 49) was less successful. I've heard him play these pieces with melting beauty before, and was sorry to have it knocked out of the park this time.

As for the louder and noisier half of the program, Beethoven's Op. 28 sonata and Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy - the latter probably the noisiest of Schubert's piano music - forget it. Ohlsson lost the battle and the crayons ruled. I was particularly sorry at the absence of the soft stealthiness that ought to dominate Beethoven's Andante, one of my favorites of his slow movements.

This was the last Oshman concert of the season, and the first one ever, I think, featuring a performer I'd heard before, or even heard of.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

concert review: Beethoven a camera

The same Stanford piano professors who sponsor those symposia on the study of early recordings that I've attended in the past have put on a stand-alone concert at Bing. In keeping with this year's Stanford Music Dept. concert theme, it was all Beethoven. And the concert featured something unusual: period arrangements of Beethoven's orchestral music for chamber ensemble.

I was aware of the existence of such things - they were the customary way of making orchestral music portable in an era of few public concerts and no recordings - but I'd rarely heard any, which was rather the point of making Saturday's concert out of them.

The big work on the program was the Piano Concerto No. 4, with the orchestra replaced by a string quintet, in an arrangement probably not written by Beethoven, but certainly authorized by him. The sound was startling at first, but I got used to it. Kumaran Arul was the pianist, and apart from adding some approved decorations here and there, played it pretty straight. This was a performance for listening to the unusual arrangement rather than pondering the depths of interpretation, so it ticked along a little, but it was awfully fun.

Also on that part of the program, the scherzo from Beethoven's own piano-and-strings trio arrangement of the Symphony No. 2, and an 1840s reduction of the Egmont Overture for piano, both played by Arul with entirely unprecedented and offbeat phrasing, definitely weird and disconcerting stuff.

The other half of the program included selections from some of the unarranged sonatas for string and piano, plus a vocal treat. Wendy Hillhouse, who carries interesting repertoire wherever she goes, sang some Scottish folk songs in Beethoven's arrangements with strings-and-piano trio. This is a major part of his oeuvre which is completely neglected: this is only the second time I've ever heard any. Beethoven's Scottish publisher sent him the tunes, Beethoven provided the accompaniments, and they both made a lot of money from the publication. Most of the songs are fairly obscure, but one in this selection is still pretty well known: "Auld Lang Syne", from which you can hear how much serious effort Beethoven put into his arrangements.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

a Sorcerer

Having written some publicity blurbs for the Stanford Savoyards' production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Sorcerer, I figured I should at least go to the show. It premiered last night, and continues over the weekend.

First I should say that I considered this a satisfactory amateur production. It conveyed the charm and appeal that does exist in the music of an operetta whose songs don't appear in the G&S hit parade, and it was well-paced and kept moving a plot that takes a long time to get off the ground. There was real choreography in the staging, and the performers mostly managed to keep to it. I was satisfied.

The costuming was deliberately random and eclectic, in an attempt to make the setting seem like an imaginary land to emphasize the magic in the story. (I'm not sure I follow the logic here. Unreal/unspecific lands = magic? I guess if you read enough secondary-world fantasy it may seem so.) Constance wore a leather bustier; Wells was a seedy 19th-century circus hustler; Aline dressed like a flapper; her mother dressed like nothing on earth. The spirits directed to speak from offstage during the spellcasting are present throughout, made up like the fairies from a typical Midsummer Night's Dream production, invisible to the mortals but directing their actions in a way sometimes seen in Iolanthe. A version of a cut scene in Act 2, in which the sorcerer Wells appeals to his demon master for a way to break the spell, was inserted, lending some coherence to the problematic ending where Wells pulls the arbitrary answer out of his copious hat. Though there was no trap door, Wells' disappearance was handled with successful stagecraft. The lights dimmed and the fairies hustled him offstage, leaving his cloak behind. The illusion that he had vanished came off.

The singing and acting, of course, varied. There was one really first-rate singer in the show, a newcomer cast in the secondary female role of Constance, and some of the best comedy was in her love scene with the ancient Notary, who is supposed to sing badly and emitted a deliberately comic croak. The lead female, Aline, also had a good, though hard-edged, voice. Alexis, the lead male, could emit powerful, strong notes on pitch, and if he could only succeed in doing that with two notes in a row, we might have something. That he spent the entire show wearing the facial expression of Graham Chapman playing the Upper-Class Twit of the Year didn't help. (I know it's not his natural face: he dropped it for the curtain call.) The rest of them managed, and, as always with such pieces in Sullivan, even the weakest voices came off well in the 5-part madrigal, "I rejoice that it's decided."

Friday, May 10, 2013

Tolkien Studies 10: an announcement

My co-editors, Michael D.C. Drout and Verlyn Flieger, are currently at the Kalamazoo medieval studies congress, where Tolkien tracks are a major event, so it is left to me at home to acquaint that small part of the Tolkienian world that is not there with the expected contents of Volume 10 of the journal Tolkien Studies. Oh, there's much I could say about these, but I'll let the titles speak for themselves. All of the works are now in the hands of our publisher, West Virginia University Press, and the volume is scheduled to be published in hardcover and on Project MUSE in July or August. - David Bratman, co-editor

Tolkien Studies 10 (2013)
  • Claudio A. Testi, "Tolkien's Work: Is it Christian or Pagan?: A proposal for a 'synthetic' approach"

  • Nils Ivar Agøy, "Vague or Vivid?: Descriptions in The Lord of the Rings"

  • Hope Rogers, "No Triumph without Loss: Problems of Intercultural Marriage in Tolkien's Works"

  • Thomas Honegger, "My Most Precious Riddle: Eggs and Rings Revisited"

  • Michael Organ, "Tolkien's Japonisme: Prints, Dragons and a Great Wave"

  • Renée Vink, "'Jewish' Dwarves: Tolkien and anti-Semitic stereotyping"

  • Derek Shank, "'The Web of Story': Structuralism in Tolkien's 'On Fairy-stories'"

  • Benjamin Saxton, "Tolkien and Bakhtin on Authorship, Literary Freedom, and Alterity"
Notes and Documents
  • Kris Swank, "Tom Bombadil's Last Song: Tolkien's 'Once Upon A Time'"
Book Reviews
  • An Hobad, translated by Nicholas Williams, and Hobbitus Ille, translated by Mark Walker, reviewed by Harley J. Sims

  • The Quenya Alphabet, edited by Arden R. Smith, reviewed by Edith L. Crowe

  • The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, reviewed by Sarah Beach

  • Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, by Corey Olsen, and There and Back Again, by Mark Atherton, reviewed by Jason Fisher

  • Green Suns and Faërie, by Verlyn Flieger, reviewed by John D. Rateliff

  • The Broken Scythe, edited by Roberto Arduini and Claudio A. Testi, reviewed by John Garth

  • A Hobbit Journey, by Matthew Dickerson, and A Hobbit Devotional, by Ed Strauss, reviewed by Donald T. Williams
  • Merlin DeTardo, "The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies 2010"

  • Rebecca Epstein, David Bratman, and Merlin DeTardo, "Bibliography (In English) for 2011"

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

spring is here

And it's bottlebrush season again.

There are these huge shrubs overhanging the outdoor parking spaces in our complex. They're native to Australia and they're known as bottlebrushes because their flowers look like this. There's quite a lot of them in these parts, and I remember them from my childhood as well.

Every spring, they drip sap and goo down on to anything underneath, like a parked car. Fortunately this only happens for a couple of days, and I use the occasion as an excuse to go have my car washed. This year, the annual long conversation with the employee at the head of the line over which of their multiple offerings I want revealed the existence of an option to get the doors and dashboard and all the other hard interior surfaces washed down with soap without also spending hundreds and hours to have all the seats shampooed, so I took that along with the basic outside wash.

After the bottlebrushes are finished dripping sap, they start shedding their little red needles or stamens or whatever they are for a while, and those get all over the car instead. Turning on the windshield wipers for a moment after getting on the freeway is usually enough to cause any of those still on the car to fly away in a whoosh.

In another news, feline ailments continue to soak up most of our medical attention. The vet says Pandora could use more fiber, and suggested canned pumpkin, if she'd eat it. I wasn't sure where to find that in the market - it wasn't with the canned veggies - until I remembered it'd probably be used mostly for pies and looked in the baking section. Mixed a spoonful in with Pandora's regular food, and she gobbled it all up. She's been shy on foods when under distress, but she's never been one of those "only what I had when I was a kitten is food, and all else shall be ignored" cats.

Monday, May 6, 2013

William Bennett memorial

Ten weeks ago, San Francisco Symphony principal oboeist Bill Bennett suddenly collapsed of a stroke - not only in mid-performance, but while playing the solo part of a concerto. I wasn't at that concert, but I mentioned it here at the time, as it was a major loss to the symphony - he was one of their best players.

Bennett died a week later without, I believe, regaining consciousness. The SFS community has been in mourning ever since, and one thing they did was schedule a free public memorial event at Davies this afternoon. I decided to go. I hadn't known him personally, but I wanted to honor his music-making.

Several friends, family members (both of his sisters, one of his sons), and symphony colleagues spoke. This is the first time I've ever heard MTT speak, either live or recorded, where he didn't seem to be on stage (although he literally was on stage, if you take my meaning). As usually happens at such events, the varied descriptions gave a lively sense of personality. The most amusing anecdote came from a friend. Bennett's wife is a doctor, and apparently Bennett got a little tired of meeting other doctors in his social life who, on learning that he was a musician, would introduce themselves by saying, "I'm a doctor, but my real passion is for music." Bennett took to pre-emptively introducing himself by saying, "I'm a musician, but my real passion is for neurosurgery."

There was one of those video programs made of home movies, which emphasized Bennett's goofy side - he was capable of playing the oboe in the water, while shaving, or even while brushing his teeth.

And some other colleagues played a little music between the spoken reminiscences. Nothing with oboe, of course, but we did have kindly renditions of the slow movements from Mendelssohn's D-minor piano trio and Mozart's clarinet quintet, and brass quintet arrangements of Praetorius's Es ist ein Ros entsprungen and the Brahms chorale prelude on the same theme.

As the audience left, we were all handed courtesy copies of a private CD, not for sale, collecting the stage tapes of three of Bennett's concerto performances with SFS: the Mozart concerto, with MTT, from 1995; an oboe-and-violin version of the Bach keyboard concerto, BWV 1060, from one of Barantschik's 18th-century concerts, from 2007; and the Richard Strauss concerto, the very one he was playing when he collapsed, from the previous night's performance of the same program. A bit of a chilling thought, but listen to the performance, which I've just done, and it's wonderfully fluent. You never would guess.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

two concerts, a musical, and a whaddayaknow

I had a plan for what I was going to do on Wednesday, which was the day I was taking off from the durance vile of journal editing this week, but it was derailed midmorning when I fortunately was still at home to get an e-mail - he didn't have a phone with him - from Ron Drummond, who was actually in San Jose - a fact of note since these days he's usually in upstate NY - and had the day free. So we spent a jolly afternoon, first with lunch at the Thai restaurant that KMS first alerted to me to, which he'd already discovered on his own, then touring the King Library downtown for its hidden public art installations, then around the scenery of the Stanford campus, and finally dinner at one of the North Fair Oaks taquerias.

"Too bad it isn't tomorrow evening you're free," I'd told Ron, "because if it were I'd have you as my guest for the San Francisco Symphony concert I'm reviewing." "Oh, but I am," he replied, as it turned out he was transferring abode to the City that afternoon. What an elegant concatenation of logistics. So I drove him up and dinner and a concert followed.

And the concert? The thread of this program was "Early Beethoven," and some of it was very early. When I first saw the season schedule, I was dismayed at the appearance of the snappily-titled Cantata on the Death of the Emperor Joseph II, because it's really not any good. Beethoven was only 19 when he produced this, his first major composition, on commission, and while Mozart had been writing mature masterpieces at 18, Beethoven wasn't Mozart.

And then my editors sent me to review it! Well, I said what I could for the thing, and had more praise for a performance of the Second Symphony which they're recording for what will make a terrific CD. But best of all was a tiny little sonatina for mandolin and fortepiano. Here's a little-known fact for you: Beethoven invented bluegrass. Here, have a listen:
And the performance we heard on Thursday was almost as lively as this one.

Ron's presence hereabouts was to enable him to give a reading in the City of his essay "The First Woman on Mars," followed by a discussion with Kim Stanley Robinson of the possibilities of a human future there ('cause we sure don't have one here on Earth), at what I gathered was the launch party for the new issue of a poetry magazine edited by Kiwis from Taiwan. Or something like that. That was on Saturday afternoon, but I couldn't make it. I have, however, seen:

On Friday, the local high school's production of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. A lot of off-key singing, but crisply timed, and some decent acting. Nobody looked embarrassed to be there or at what they were doing, fairly bold chutzpa for a high school cast. And, considering how many characters have to be shuffled around stage, good staging too. I knew it would be good when the cast got through the opening "Comedy Tonight" with energy and enthusiasm and without a hitch. It was a full production, too, including the often-cut song "Pretty Little Picture."

Over the hill Saturday evening to the Santa Cruz County Symphony, to hear the elusive Dvořák Sixth Symphony, elusive because my several previous attempts to hear this live have all been derailed by last-minute program changes or the like. Finally I was successful. It's one of my favorite Dvořák symphonies, and this movement should show you why:
The SCCS is going through one of those music director searches where they spend a season inviting candidates to conduct one program each, and this one's victim was Rebecca Miller, a woman of determined face and frizzy hair, an actual Santa Cruz native who's been leading a group in London for some 15 years. The Dvořák came out quite well, definitely worth the trip to hear it; the rest of the concert, Kodaly's Galanta Dances and Beethoven's Emperor Concerto (with Hans Boepple), not so great. SCCS plays well enough that it doesn't deserve any excuses for sub-professionalism, but not so well that it doesn't need them. The notes were all there in the right places, but a certain stiffness, dryness, and, worse, dullness couldn't be entirely eliminated.

SCCS plays in a peculiarly gymnasium-like hall which is also the main home of the Cabrillo Festival. I've been to many Cabrillo concerts there, but the last time I heard SCCS, several years ago, was at their matinee series in Watsonville. The cheap seats are on the main floor with the orchestra, presumably cheap because of the impaired sightlines, and the expensive ones on the risers behind them. At this concert, attendees seated on the main floor would dart up to unoccupied seats in the risers between pieces, leaving the section partially abandoned by the end of the evening. I'd never seen that behavior at Cabrillo.

Friday, May 3, 2013

a comment

1. An NBA player recently came out as gay, and I'm repeatedly reading that he is the first player in American major team sports to do so.

I have a firm recollection, however, of an NFL player doing the same some years ago. I cannot remember his name, or anything else about it, except that the interview with him discussed life among the naked men in the locker room. About which I believe he just said it was cool, not a big deal.

Perhaps this player was retired already at the time of the announcement? Would that excuse him from the uniquenesses claimed for Jason Collins?

2. Yglesias says there's no housing boom in Silicon Valley.

Indeed there is not; the person he's responding to means a price boom, which there certainly is. The cause, however, is not an influx of new workers, but a reduction of the housing stock because rich foreigners are coming in and buying houses at higher-than-asked prices as investments. I don't think they're renting them out much, either. The result is that it's even harder than it was before to find a place to live here, and even harder to buy one.

Why there is no boom in housing stock is the more interesting question, and I think the answer is 3-fold. a) Because the shortage is artificially engineered, it's hard to take seriously over the long-term process that urban planning requires. b) Most of the available land for housing is already built up, and authorities are deeply reluctant to use eminent domain to condemn existing, non-decrepit housing in a suburban region with little past history of urban redevelopment (though there has been some in commercial areas, notably in downtown San Jose and at "Whiskey Gulch" in Palo Alto). c) Transportation infrastructure. Our roads are at about full carrying capacity, and we can't afford to build denser housing without tearing all the roads up for rebuilding too, which is beyond economic imagination at this point.

3. A few days ago I posted my first-ever comment on The Comics Curmudgeon, because it was the first time I thought of something to say that it didn't turn out that somebody else had thought of it first.

And I got a couple replies in the same tongue-in-cheek "let's see what happens if we take this goofy strip seriously" mode I'd written in.

That was fun.

How different from a site I used to hang out at, where, if you said something unobjectionable they'd just ignore the opportunity for conversation, and if there was anything to disagree with they'd all gang up and abuse you. And to think I used to admire those people, or consider their company in any way desirable.

4. Our vacuum cleaner, which was seven years old, has given up the ghost. (I guess they don't make them like they used to.) B. went out and bought a Dyson machine, expensive but on sale. This particular model is the smallest floor vacuum they make, and probably designed for smaller places than ours, but B. likes the idea of one she can easily carry up and down stairs. It needs a lot of maintenance, but it's highly modular, and so easy to put together than even the instructions from the Ikea School of Cryptic User Manuals did not entirely defeat my efforts to do so.