Thursday, December 31, 2015
I think the only things I had published this year were my usual concert reviews and my work in vol. 12 of Tolkien Studies, which just came out a couple weeks ago. Besides being co-editor, I did much of the work on the bibliography, one section for the "Year's Work", and a book review. Over in the music field, I wrote 29 reviews and two brief feature articles (both celebrating local conductors' thirtieth anniversaries) for my two outlets.
Travel has been more exciting. Here's the list of cities I stayed in when away from home:
Paradise Valley, AZ
Rohnert Park, CA (twice)
Fresno, CA (twice)
New Orleans, LA
Ashland, OR (twice)
Kansas City, KS
Carter Lake, IA
San Francisco, CA
Colorado Springs, CO
Pittsburgh, PA (twice)
Redding, CA (twice)
That includes three conventions - Potlatch in Seattle, the Popular Culture Association conference in New Orleans, and Mythcon in Colorado - plus two nephews' weddings (in San Francisco, which is nearby but for which we stayed overnight, and Austin), four trips just to attend plays or concerts (twice to Rohnert Park and twice to Ashland, two of those also going to Fresno), one business trip to Michigan (which also included play-going in Ontario, and brief stays at either end with my brother in Pittsburgh, whom I accompanied on the trip), and two actual vacations, one in Arizona (during which I also got to two symphony concerts) and the presidential sight-seeing trip in the Midwest (also with my brother). Three trips were with B. The four California/Oregon trips I drove on; the others all include plane flights.
Besides the ones I stayed overnight in, I also visited the state of Missouri during the Midwest trip (the better part of two days, but stayed across the border in Kansas), and the state of Sonora, Mexico, whose border town of Nogales I popped into by foot for dinner during my Arizona trip. This makes it 1) the only new high-level jurisdiction of this year's travels; 2) the third state of Mexico I've been to, in all three cases just to border towns; 3) the only state or province of all my travels in which I haven't ridden in a vehicle, well, save only the Vatican City; 4) the only time that I've visited both Mexico and Canada in the same calendar year.
Next year Mythcon means I'm going back to Texas again, and I'm going back to Ashland at least once; but Potlatch is local, and no PCA this year. Other trips may be in the works. I hope some writing is also in the works.
Wednesday, December 30, 2015
2. Cryptic but interesting article that's either arguing that The Silmarillion undercuts The Lord of the Rings or that it doesn't undercut The Lord of the Rings. I'm not sure which position the author is taking.
3. Survey to determine how fannish you are. I particularly like the trivia questions whose real answers sound even more improbable than the fake answers, like "Complete the organization's name 'The Society for the Prevention of ____________ in Science Fiction Magazines'". Not all the questions have straight-forward correct answers, however.
4. Sarcasm alert: If Joss Whedon were an anti-feminist conservative. Leaves out Dr. Horrible and Much Ado, because those are anti-feminist.
5. I'm giving away the punchline in my link text: The calculational power of typographical errors.
6. And a serious one: Slave labor peels your shrimp.
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
The dangle occurs in a paragraph discussing Leia and her place in the Star Wars universe, and it reads as follows:
"Like many straight men of my generation, she will always have a special place in my heart."
Wow; just - wow. And the author of this thing is an English don at the University of London. Yet all he can say when called on it in the comments section is, "Not a very well-made sentence that, no. I concede it." Not very well made? You'd have a challenge finding a worse-made sentence by a university English teacher. I'm sure you could find one, but I wouldn't envy you the task.
You may not want to read the review. Roberts doesn't believe in withholding spoilers, and he begins by lecturing you on why you don't like that, getting the motivations entirely wrong in a condescending way. He also writes as if he's discovered something new in the tired old phenomenon of the action-adventure movie which is nothing but its own trailer with padding added between the exciting bits. He also gets the business about fathers and sons, and the original trilogy's treatment of them, wrong in more ways than I have time or interest in writing about. There you go.
Friday, December 25, 2015
Having already had our tree overturned once this year by an overeager cat, all I could think was, "It's a good thing we don't have a pet elephant."
Thursday, December 24, 2015
I like this as a geographical challenge. There's a website listing homes in the area with particularly spectacular displays. So I plan our drive around a few of those. But we don't dart from highlight to highlight. The most garish are not always the best, and we don't care for the ones that pulse to the beat of the music on a 24/7-Christmas radio station. (I had my car radio tuned to the classical station, which was playing Bach's Christmas Oratorio - the whole thing. Much more agreeable holiday music.) It's the more thoughtful and well-designed displays we come across along the way, especially in clusters, that are most attractive.
Last night, on our way down to a highlighted site near El Camino, we found that a block that had been brightly lit on previous occasions had damped down considerably this year, but that a nearby long cul-de-sac (the street that Teri Hatcher grew up on) was still as rich and colorful as ever.
Ethnography plays a part in searching for good light displays. Middle-class white neighborhoods tend to be the best for this: not too rich, not too poor. There are many Asians in our area, and neighborhoods where they cluster tend not to have many lights, except for those homes still celebrating Diwali. I haven't checked heavily Hispanic neighborhoods, none of which are very close to us, and which tend to be on the poorer side, and/or mostly apartment buildings, also not a good source of light displays.
The best cluster of displays we found this year was in an isolated development we hadn't been in before, located in the fracture zone where the tail ends of Sunnyvale, Cupertino, and Los Altos run confusingly together. Someone had put three penguins in a boat on a curb. Another had a giant inflatable snowman which had partially deflated and fallen over. The weirdest display was at a corner house which had made the website list (which is why we visited this neighborhood in the first place). They'd even run lights up the stop sign at the corner. Amid the riot of displays were at least six Santas of various sizes, the largest of them behind the wheel of an old van parked in the driveway, a reindeer riding shotgun, and lights all over the hood.
Wednesday, December 23, 2015
1a) It features cartoons;
1b) specifically cartoons that we like;
2) It does not have "Bonus Material" on the back of the pages.
The reason for requirement #2 is that we use the old pages as notepaper.
Barnes & Noble is where I went in search of this, as the independent bookstores (even the one with the best selection of wall calendars) tend to be weak on page-a-days, and B&N wasn't too hot either. There were only about 6 offerings that met criterion #1a, and only one of those did not boast on its package of violating #2, so I can only hope that it does fulfill its promises of meeting #2 and #1b also.
Our wall calendars usually come from our favorite used-book store in Mountain View, which always has a big selection of nature calendars, both scenery and animals. Occasionally I've gone for a scenery one, but usually I get one with animals that we like, which in practice means we rotate from year to year among domestic cats, big cats (e.g. tigers), and penguins.
(I haven't had a Tolkien calendar on my wall since 1974, I think, which was the last year - at least for quite some time - that the US edition had Tolkien's own illustrations on it. The illustrators of the succeeding years I found repulsive, and after a while I just stopped keeping track.)
Again, another requirement for the wall calendar is that the squares not be filled up with chitchat, because B. uses it as her appointment book. For my appointment book, I use one of these, which I've been buying, usually from the same little stationery store in Menlo Park, every year since I was 18. I like its display features: I can see at one glance all my appointments for a month, and the approx. 1-inch squares are not too small to write my needs in. Occasionally I've been wooed by electronic organizers, but I find those unsatisfactory and have always returned to this. I still have all the old ones, which are occasionally useful, such as the time I made a list of all the books that our book discussion group had ever discussed. I usually get the new one in September, when my concerts and trip plans for the upcoming year began to pile up. (And any appointments I have that affect B. get copied on to the wall calendar.)
This calendar also includes an address book. But what I do with that is another story.
Monday, December 21, 2015
- 1. The Dead Parrot [season 1, overall episode 8] (which was once even cited by Mrs Thatcher, a person with no detectable sense of humor)
- 2. The Ministry of Silly Walks [2/14]
- 3. Spam [2/25] (which has given its name to "junk email")
- 4. The Spanish Inquisition [2/15] (source of the greatest-ever real-life pun: when Gen. Pinochet, the retired Chilean dictator, visited the UK for medical treatment and his presence in the EU was used by a judge in Spain as a chance to slap him with an order to extradite him to face charges for his regime's crimes against citizens of Spain, it surprised and shocked everybody, thus proving that nobody expects the Spanish extradition)
- 5. The Lumberjack Song [1/9]
- 6. Nudge Nudge [1/3]
- 7. The Cheese Shop [3/33]
- 8. The Argument Clinic [3/29]
- 9. The Funniest Joke in the World [1/1]
- 10. Self-Defense Against Fresh Fruit [1/4] (perhaps the only one that's funnier in the compilation film remake, And Now For Something Completely Different, than on Flying Circus)
- 11. The Upper-Class Twit of the Year [1/12] (like other Python sports sketches, it goes on far too long)
- 12. Dirty Fork [1/3] (which I find over-the-top: I identify too closely with the discomfiture of the diners)
Only the longest lists found room for other favorites of mine, such as the surely iconic "Election Night Special" [2/19] (whose Silly Party candidate names were actually adopted by the Monster Raving Loony Party) and "Dennis Moore" [3/37] (the Robin Hood parody), or "Gumby Brain Specialist" [3/32] (a particular delight for the way that Palin cracks up when Cleese's doctor looks for his brain in his trousers), "Ron Obvious" [1/10] (the hapless man who tries to jump the English Channel), or "Sir George Head" [1/9] (the Kilimanjaro expedition sketch). And nobody at all named another dozen of my favorites, notably many from the third season, "Njorl's Saga" [3/27], "Erizabeth L." [3/29], "The man who speaks in anagrams" [3/30] (which has rendered me unable to think of The Taming of the Shrew as anything other than The Mating of the Wersh), "The Summarize Proust Competition" [3/31] (nobody named that? nobody?), "Climbing the North Face of the Uxbridge Road" [3/33], or "The British 'Well, Basically' Club" [3/35] (of which I find myself frequently a member). Not very much from the fourth season made any lists, though I do like "Buying an Ant" [4/41], but my other favorite from that season, "Court-martial" [4/42] (the one with "Basingstoke, in Westphalia?") didn't make anybody's list.
Sunday, December 20, 2015
My uninterest is not so much for Sinatra in particular as it is for crooners in general. If I had to take one, I'd pick Dean Martin, who had a more pleasing repertoire. I generally prefer male pop-singing voices to have a bit of an edge to them.
I should add that, while my mother was of an age to have been one of the bobby-soxers who swooned over Sinatra when he was young and (I guess) sexy, she never cared for him either. She told me this more than once.
2. Recently gone, the conductor Kurt Masur. Kurt Masur was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of his forehead: When he was good, he was very, very good, and when he was bad, he was horrid.
3. And departed from us a month ago, the conductor and writer Robert Craft. Craft is controversial for his role as a sort of amanuensis for the elderly Igor Stravinsky in the 1950s and 60s. Apparently he put words in Stravinsky's mouth in his transcribed conversations, and he also wielded the baton on recordings that listed Stravinsky as conductor. That puts him in the category with the eerie young men who similarly manipulated the aged and/or deceased Bertrand Russell, C.S. Lewis, and even Beethoven, not to mention Shostakovich. Craft is also the person who persuaded Stravinsky to go serialist, for which it's hard to forgive him.
But there was more to Craft than that. He always insisted that his role with Stravinsky was fortuitous and that he was at least as interested in a lot of other modern composers. And he proved that, at least to my satisfaction, by his superb conducting of a recording of Ionisation by Edgard Varèse, the most fabulous work ever written for percussion ensemble (and by far my favorite piece by Varèse). This performance was not online when I wrote about Ionisation some years ago, and nothing I could find was satisfactory: but it's there now. If you've never heard this, prepare to have your mind expanded.
4. Mr. Speaker Paul Ryan has grown a beard, though it comes off more as if he's going for the unshaven look, which is not quite the same thing. Reactions online that I've seen so far range from analyses of how manly he looks with it, to polemics declaring that beards are no longer manly because Paul Ryan has one. But none of them answer the question I had on seeing it. The answer, I have determined, is "1925". That's the last time we had a Speaker of the House with a beard.
Friday, December 18, 2015
*Need I add that I know perfectly well what the allusion is actually to? Probably.
1a. And I introduced my second by saying, "I've tried reading this aloud several times already and have been unable to get through it without cracking up. Let's see if I can manage it this time." I did.
2. Hanukkah ran right at the height of Christmas warm-up season this year, so only my visiting brother could make it. In addition to the usual run of gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, and latkes, I added something else substantial in the form of a garlic-butter casserole of rice, chicken, and vegetables. Since my brother and I go on road trips, and he likes sports while I don't, I gave him this gonzo baseball road-trip book.
3. While he was here, we visited a couple local museums. The New Museum in Los Gatos, located in the old (not so old, actually) city library building, is currently running a display on old-time local amusement parks, circa 1960s-70s and long gone. Most of the attention was on Frontier Village, which I remember with some fondness, particularly for its fish pond, which was so well-stocked that the fish had to weave around each other while swimming. To fish there, you stuck in the baited hook, counted to two, and pulled out a fish. I did this when I was around nine years old, and later had dinner of the results. One of the two occasions in my life when I've actually gone fishing, if you can call this that.
3a. And, because it's there, the San Francisco 49ers museum at the new stadium. While we were there, watching videos testifying to the quality and spirit of the grrreat 49ers team, that team was getting shellacked in Cleveland. So you have to be a bit starry-eyed to enjoy this museum, and blimey do you ever have to be a football fan to appreciate it. As someone who'd only heard of about half the players eerily preserved in life-sized bronze-statue action poses in the Hall of Fame gallery, I found it a bit over my head. The long line of memorabilia, from the typewriter of the front office's first secretary to the file copy of Joe Montana's contract ("Player represents that he is skilled at the game of football"), was also more than we needed, and, as for the interactive videos, where you could stand on a pad and watch yourself catching a virtual football or dancing with virtual cheerleaders, we didn't try them.
4. Intrigued by the review from sturgeonslawyer, I ventured up to the City on Thursday for the musical A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, adapted from the old Alec Guinness black-comedy movie Kind Hearts and Coronets (though for legal reasons they had to pretend it wasn't, and change all the names; the plot has also been tinkered with, with the ending sequence considerably less nasty). I found it consistently amusing, and performed with ease and charm, particularly by the Nathan Lane-ish type playing all the Alec Guinness victim characters. The songs were lively and agreeable, with many clever triple rhymes, but without memorable tunes. The victims are an Earl and his family, and almost every single use of the nomenclature of British nobility was completely wrong. Sort of a world's record in that department. This would have bothered me a lot more if the show weren't such a ridiculous farce to begin with. The theatre was broad and low, probably with horrible acoustics, but it didn't matter as the whole thing, orchestra and all, was amplified out the wazoo, with the treble way up high.
I wouldn't give it my highest rating, which would be "Drag B. up to the City to see it," but it was good enough that, when at the curtain call one of the actors thanked the audience for being there on the day of the Star Wars premiere, I called back, "You're much better than Star Wars!"
5. Speaking of which. I am on record as opposing spoilers on the grounds that you can only see a movie for the first time once. After you know what happens, it's a different experience, and the other cannot be relived. But by the same token, if you don't want to see a movie, spoilers are a lifesaver. I read the Wikipedia plot summary of The Force Awakens and now I don't have to see the thing at all! I'm free, I'm free!
6. And then I turned on the radio this morning to the classical station and heard some unfamiliar music that sounded like synthetic imitation Stravinsky, rapidly turning into imitation Prokofiev and then imitation Ravel. Then, finally, a familiar tune, and I realized it was from Star Wars. They're celebrating.
7. Over her protests, and two bitten fingers on me, Maia went to the vet this morning for a checkup and shots. Now she can sing an adaptation of the old "Down Under" song: I met a strange lady / She made me nervous / She took me in and felt my kidneys. Pippin, the timid giant, reacted to Maia's being snatched by huddling in his safe spot, not even coming out to eat his breakfast the whole time we were gone.
Thursday, December 17, 2015
2. What shall we do with a drunken sailor?
3. Please don't ever "help anybody again." With help like this, we don't need hindrance!
4. Epic legal sarcasm, anti-Trump dept.: "Should your client actually be elected Commander-in-Chief, will you be the one writing the cease and desist letters to Vladimir Putin, or will that be handled by outside counsel?"
5. There is nothing more delectable than a keenly analytical review of a series of lousy novels.
6. The best that The Force Awakens can do is be "on par with the average quality of the first three movies." That's not good enough to make me want to see it.
Tuesday, December 8, 2015
It was the 35th anniversary of Lennon's death.
It was a day I spent much of in the dentist's chair, having a crown prepared.
It was also a day I discovered that someone has read my criticism of Colbert's mischaracterization of Smeagol as hinting that he is Not A Real Tolkien Fan.
How could anyone who knows me even slightly misread me so badly? I have not the slightest interest in handing out inalienable certificates of trufannishness. (If I were, wouldn't calling Colbert "quite the Tolkien trivia master" qualify as an endorsement?) I am interested in one thing and one thing only when I judge statements in this category: are they true or not? (I'm not discussing here evaluations whose truth value is indeterminate or irrelevant; but ones like these. Either Smeagol was demonically possessed by the Ring and turned into an entirely different persona, or else Gollum was a development and degradation of Smeagol's own baser instincts under the growing influence of the Ring, one or the other. They're too different to be both true.)
If what you say is false, I will criticize it. If what you say on some other topic the next day is true, I will praise it. I don't hand out certificates of True Tolkienist or False Tolkienist that hold no matter what you say. I've criticized John Rateliff, Verlyn Flieger, even Tom Shippey when I thought they got things wrong, and their credentials are all better than mine. They're also great scholars who are almost always right. But they're imperfect, and they got something wrong. So have I, on occasion. So has Colbert, on this occasion.
I made the same point in another context here.
Someone else said that I scorn anyone who likes the Jackson movies. Not so. I've said this many times before, but apparently I have to say it again. It doesn't bother me at all if someone likes the movies, even though I don't. What bothers me is when they confuse or conflate the movies with Tolkien. I'm death on that - especially when a movie-only reading appears in a scholarly paper that's supposed to be just about Tolkien - but it should bother the real Jackson fans even more than it bothers me. For what is it that the Jackson fans always say to defend the movies from complaints that they distort the book? "Movies are different from books." That raises a whole host of questions it's intended to dismiss, but if we take it at face value, then fine: if the movie is different from the book, then don't confuse or conflate them with each other. See? Easy!
Sunday, December 6, 2015
Oh, there's lots that could be discussed here, but what attracted my attention was an offhanded incidental remark, asking incredulously, "Does anyone really believe that all men - and women - are created equal?"
That one's a bug of mine, so I wrote:
Of course I do, and you do too, it's just that's it's now so self-evident you don't know what it means. Do you believe in universal adult suffrage? Do you believe that everyone, no matter what their race or sex or religion or wealth or IQ, has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Do you believe that anyone, in all the above categories, should have a fair say and representation and consideration before the law?
If so, then you believe that all men and women are created equal.
That doesn't mean that they're created the same whether in wealth or IQ or anything else. But nobody ever claimed that they were. Jeffersonian equality was still a radical notion in 1776, but it is now so burned into our system that violations of it shock us and it's hard to believe he had to say that, so people cast around for something else he could have meant and come up with something ridiculous.
The highlight of this program was its conclusion, a trio for flute, cello, and piano by Weber, one of his few chamber works, with a really bang-up scherzo and finale, especially in this performance by Ray Furuta, Jonah Kim, and Christina Dahl (respectively). The rest of the concert sort of unpacked this ensemble. Kim played a Beethoven cello sonata with a lovely textured tone, but not as entertainingly as in the Weber. Furuta was joined by his one-time flute teacher, Carol Wincenc, for a two-flutes and piano suite by the contemporary Japanese composer Yuko Uebayashi, a tremendously impressive little piece, enough to crown its author as the best composer I know to begin with a U. It alternates quiet Debussyean impressionist harmonies, long a Japanese specialty, with a lively, bouncy style strikingly reminiscent of mid-20C Japanese composers like Hashimoto or early Akutagawa. (I love throwing these names around!) Wincenc also played a couple characteristic pieces by Casella.
All these were with piano accompaniment played by Dahl. The composers often kept her in a self-effacing role, but her rhythmically energetic playing did much to keep the music going. She got one solo spotlight, William Bolcom's entrancing Graceful Ghost Rag.
Nice little concert with some pleasant surprises.
Friday, December 4, 2015
What made it tempting was the presence of a work by Sofia Gubaidulina, the difficult but always profound and fascinating dean of Russian composers. Titled Fachwerk (she's been living in Germany for some years now, and the language has entered her soul), it's a concerto for bayan, the Russian national button accordion. In a vastly over-detailed half-hour pre-concert lecture on the history of the accordion - there were two other guests on stage,2 but they hardly got a word in edgewise - the soloist, Geir Draugsvoll, failed to explain what made a Russian button accordion different from other button accordions, and despite the moderator asking him several times, and the conductor likewise at the start of the concert, he didn't say much about the work either.
What he did explain is that the button accordion is good at playing chords with a single button. Consequently the music turned out to be rich and thickly harmonized, though often dissonant. At times the bayan sounded like the Phantom of the Opera gone mad, and it ended the work by giving out the dying croaks of a doomed airship. Most of the concerto, however, consisted of soft stealthy alternating phrases between the accordion and the orchestra (strings, supplemented by a little percussion).
Carneiro, clad in a long heavy skirt far too restricting for the amount of movement she was trying to do in it, is an intense and dynamic conductor. Frequently looking as if she was about to either stab the orchestra with her baton or clobber them over the heads with it, she led nevertheless relatively calm performances. The old standard that filled out the program, the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition, pleased in this rendition by being well-shaped and graceful rather than raw or exciting.
1. Unlike the train that goes to San Francisco, BART still runs at the time evening concerts let out, so I can make use of it for those outings. So, incidentally, did a contrabassist for the orchestra, who was sitting opposite me with his instrument for a while on the way back.
2. One of whom was Laurel Fay, the pre-eminent American authority on modern Russian music, and one might have liked to have heard more from her.
Thursday, December 3, 2015
1. That Sauron, at the time of the War, is a disembodied giant eyeball.
2. That Aragorn is reluctant to become king.
And the latest additions,
3a. That Smeagol is a different character from Gollum,
3b, and is basically good.
Friday, November 27, 2015
Redwood Symphony was in a raucous mode this time, a little brasher than Barber's gentle music would suggest. It was up to the challenges of Britten's "4 Sea Interludes," though, and impressively bashed its way through Tchaikovsky's Fifth, a delightful performance even though the conducting was deficient.
Here's proof that my evaluation of a conductor's performance is governed more by that conductor's appreciation and understanding of the work than my own. Redwood's Eric Kujawsky is a strong advocate of Mahler, a composer I generally detest; his native understanding and appreciation of that music allows him to create what even I consider some of the best Mahler interpretations out there. But while I enjoy Tchaikovsky, Kujawsky is critical. His pre-concert talk consisted of poking fun at some of Tchaikovsky's longest and most repetitious decrescendo-decelerando passages. But while they may be funny out of context, they work within the larger structure, or they do to a conductor with an intuitive understanding of why they're there. On the podium, Kujawsky didn't seem to see much point in any of Tchaikovsky's repetitions, and since Tchaikovsky is the most insistently repetitious of all major composers, that did great harm to a symphony that can be completely coherent and convincing in more sympathetic hands.
Sunday, November 22, 2015
Friday, November 20, 2015
C.S. Lewis as detective? Yes, it's true; or, rather, it's fictional. The fad for enlisting real people, preferably deceased authors, as amateur sleuths in mystery novels has reached the Inklings. Kel Richards, an Australian radio broadcaster and crime novelist, and also the author of a translation of the Bible into Australian vernacular, is undertaking a series of classic "cozy" 1930s-style murder mysteries with "Jack" Lewis interweaving detecting with conversations about mere Christianity. The British publisher is an imprint of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, so the apologetics are intended as the real point.
The narrator is a fictional character named Tom Morris, a former student of Lewis's at Oxford who in the first book accompanies Jack and his brother Warren on a walking tour in the summer of 1933 in a fictional area somewhere in England. Reference to nearby Cambridgeshire at the start of the first book implies we're in East Anglia, but the presence of moors and seaside cliffs later on and in the second book, which is set in the same area a year later, make me more doubtful.
Tom is an atheist, and, in breaks between bouts of detecting, Lewis responds to his skepticism about the value of religion, in the first book, and Christian beliefs about death and immortality, in the second. Richards is highly adept at condensing Lewis's apologetics and casting them into dialogue form that makes believable Lewisian exchanges. His understanding of and ability to convey the basic points of Lewis's thinking are actually superior to those of some non-fiction writers of Lewis apologetics manqué; I name no names.
Richards is also clearly familiar with Lewis's biography and the breadth of Lewis's oeuvre, filtering facts from these in unobtrusively. For instance, in the second book, in answer to Tom's question as to what he thinks Hell is like, Lewis outlines the concept of The Great Divorce, a book he wouldn't write for another dozen years. Of course Richards says nothing about that book, leaving it to the reader to recognize it. Nor is there an explanation of an allusion showing that Lewis in this book has already read Tolkien's yet-unpublished The Hobbit.
This is all delightful and should be most satisfactory to Lewis fans. The problem is that these conversations don't mesh with the conventions of the "cozy" 1930s-style murder mystery. They function as digressions from the plot, even in the second book where Tom himself is the chief suspect, so a discussion of the fate of the soul after death should be of considerable interest to a man facing a possible capital murder charge and fretting terribly about it. Based as they are on Lewis's apologetics, the conversations seem a little airy for the circumstances.
More serious is the way that Lewis can discuss the Christian view of the immortal soul in one chapter and show almost total lack of interest in the immortal soul of a murder victim in the next, nor for that of the culprit when finally caught at the end. (Lord Peter Wimsey, in the Dorothy L. Sayers novels, does not forget to concern himself with his culprits.) One of the conventions of the "cozy" is that the initial murder victim should be someone whom the other characters dislike intensely. This convention, which Richards follows precisely, serves two plot functions: one is to give everyone a motive for murder, and the other is to prevent the reader from being distracted by sympathy for the victim. A novel featuring grieving over a death would be a different kind of story. The victim in a "cozy" is not a human being, but serves the sole function of a plot point to kick off a puzzle. And sleuth Lewis in these novels must follow that convention too.
In the course of each story, a second murder occurs – this is telegraphed in the second book by the plural in the title – and this ratchets up the tension over the course of Richards' extremely readable and entertaining prose. Lewis, of course, eventually solves both cases. These explanations are exceedingly improbable, but Richards has followed the "cozy" plot convention of coming up with something that's possible physically, if not in other respects, and which will not have occurred to the reader. While I doubt the real-life Lewis's capacity to serve as such a sleuth – he was in some ways very unworldly – it is, allowing for the conventions of the "cozy," a believable portrait of what he would be like if he did.
Despite the references to other Inklings whom Lewis already knew at this point in his life, none appear onstage except Warren in the first book. (In the second book, Jack comes to the country house where Tom is working as a librarian at Tom's urgent request to defend him from the murder charge.) Warren is depicted as a pleasant sidekick; he likes his drink, but he is not the maniacal dipsomaniac described in some recent biographies. Warren also appears in a third book, The Floating Body (scheduled to appear in the UK in 2016), also set in a fictional locale.
All three books originally appeared in Australia under different titles: C.S. Lewis and the Body in the Basement, C.S. Lewis and the Country House Murders, and The Floating Corpse. The author reports that he's recently returned from a trip to Oxford researching the fourth book in the series, The Sinister Student, which will feature the rest of the Inklings. Although these are light novels without – apologetics apart – the weight or seriousness of Sayers at her best, I enjoyed reading them, and am looking forward to the succeeding volumes.
Tuesday, November 17, 2015
Although he had various ways of checking this hypothesis - varying the size of the prize to see if that varied the results; putting the same quiz to proctored students to see how well they did - I'm a little more doubtful.
Naturally, this being a quiz on music, I had to see how well I'd do myself. "To minimize the test's cultural bias," it says, there were 3 questions on pop music with "global name recognition" and 2 on classical, which "is also known in non-Western societies." Let's pass by the skeptical looks at these assumptions, shall we? Here's the quiz:
1. Who wrote the composition "Für Elise"?
2. What is Lady Gaga's real first name?
3. Name the drummer of the rock group Nirvana.
4. In what year was Claude Debussy born?
5. How many valves are there on a standard modern trumpet?
6. Name the town and state of the US where Michael Jackson was born.
It's "Questions 2, 4 and 6 [that] were designed to be very difficult for almost anyone to answer, but very easy to look up online." Easy to look up, sure, but very difficult for almost anyone to answer? Having spent years looking at classical catalog listings, I can rattle off the life dates of dozens of composers offhand, and Debussy is among them. What's more, though I had to guess where Michael Jackson was born, I guessed right. And I don't even know very much about Michael Jackson, but I do know what city the Jackson 5 came out of, and according to Wikipedia he was born there too. Ta-da. As for Lady Gaga's real name, I looked her up a while ago to find out who the heck she was, and if I'd only remembered the name I'd have gotten that right too.
And the supposedly easier questions ... #1 is no problem for me, but I'd put even money on whether I'd have gotten #5 right; and the drummer for Nirvana? Look, all I could tell you offhand about the membership of Nirvana is that it was Kurt Cobain and ... some other guys, just like the way the Doors were Jim Morrison and ... some other guys, and that's all I have even though I've seen the Oliver Stone bio-pic. I could name you the drummer of the Beatles; will that do? I could even name you the previous drummer of the Beatles. I could name you the drummer of the Who. I could probably remember the name of the drummer of the Rolling Stones. But for really famous rock groups, that's about as far as I go.
So I'd get between 3 and 5 right (2 of the 3 being "difficult" ones) out of 6, depending on how well my memory was working. How about you?
Monday, November 16, 2015
Sunday, November 15, 2015
How bad is the traffic in Austin? The bride was an hour late arriving to her own wedding.
Nor was the wedding in Austin, exactly. You drive way out of town, and turn left on a country highway - well-paved, which is one thing Texas does really well. Then you make a couple more turns and wind up on a rougher back country road. Then you turn right at a mailbox, and find yourself on a one-lane track that rapidly devolves into a gravel path twisting through a bramble forest. Then you park by the side, trample through the forest, and soon find yourself on a lush meadow, where the wedding is set up.
Popcorn snacks before the ceremony, a little girl screeching "Hi Mommy!" at the matron of honor during it, and fajitas for dinner afterwards. Followed by the obligatory several hours of heavy-beat dance music of the kind that isn't objectionable moment by moment, but which a diet of quickly induces in me a sense of oppressed nausea. Before I retreated to the car to read to the more dulcet tones of Austin's classical radio station, I heard just two songs I recognized: Michael Jackson's "Beat It", which I only know because Weird Al guyed it, and Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes", which by some freak accident, or error of the DJ's, is a song I actually like. Both these are about as old as the bridal couple are, so I guess they've lasted. Most of the stuff sounded a lot newer than that.
There was also a rehearsal dinner at a famous barbecue joint more notable for quantity than quality, but the best meal we had was by ourselves at the old reliable Threadgill's, where I eschewed the chicken-fried steak because I'd had enough heavy food already, and went for sauteed catfish and turnip greens, and B. had a spinach salad. Just what we needed.
But the event was joyful, the newlyweds looked happy, and we'll be seeing them again very soon. And at least in November we didn't return to our car to find a blast furnace in it, as happened when I was in Texas in August.
Tuesday, November 10, 2015
This was in Herbst Theatre, SF's premiere venue for chamber music, just reopened after being closed for two years for earthquake retrofitting and remodeling. The auditorium looks nicer; so do the restrooms, though they're still eccentrically located and of dubious size. I sat just underneath the overhang, which I'd never done in this auditorium before. Perhaps that's why the sound came across as muffled, and often rather plush.
I've never considered the Alexanders a very exciting quartet. Their Schumann and Brahms were dutiful and well put together, but not particularly distinctive. The Schnittke, in which the piano and quartet play much more separate roles than the melded style of the other composers, perhaps came across the best, due to crisp and vivid playing by Ms. Yang.
Monday, November 9, 2015
This was, I think, the first time I've heard in person the work of the orchestra's now venerable music director, Zubin Mehta (who is not Jewish). That was one reason to come. Another was curiosity about the obligatory opener from the orchestra's homeland, A Journey to the End of the Millennium by Josef Bardanashvili, a long (23-minute) tone poem inspired by an Israeli novel, by a composer born in then-Soviet Georgia and now living in Israel. In large part non-tonal, this was nevertheless an extremely interesting work that kept the attention. Packed with material, and never a slack passage, it drew interest to its colorful and well-balanced orchestration, and intricate work in rhythm and melody. It alternated primitivist music of brass cries and heavy percussion with quiet keening string solos full of minor intervals.
The heavy percussion and abrupt rhythms carried on into Ravel's La Valse, which in orchestration alone if not tone color or anything else could have been by the same composer, as far as this performance went.
After that, Beethoven's Eroica, one of his heaviest and most uncompromising symphonies, felt light and almost chamber-like, even though the timpani beats were still overly strong.
There was no encore. As soon as Mehta grabbed his concertmaster by the hand and started to drag him offstage (something I'd only seen Neville Marriner do previously), the thick applause went out like a light. It's as if the audience was thinking, "Why applaud if we won't get anything for it?" However, the concert had been prefaced by the playing of both the U.S. and Israeli national anthems, something I'd not heard a visiting foreign orchestra do the equivalent of before.
Sunday, November 8, 2015
I attended the first concert, by the Stanford Wind Ensemble, i.e. concert band, not at first sight a promising way to honor Sibelius, since he didn't write any music for concert band. However, some hand unnamed in the program book had arranged two of Sibelius' popular early works for that grouping. The Karelia Suite was rather beyond the players' capacity, but they produced a magnificently growly Finlandia. That was about 1/3 of the concert; the rest was music actually written for this instrumentation, including one of Gustav Holst's echt-English suites and an equally echt-American suite by that mainstay of band composition, Alfred Reed.
I didn't attend the student symphony orchestra concert, due to awkwardness of timing and the fact that my desire to hear Sibelius' Second Symphony was outweighed by my desire not to hear Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto.
The symposium consisted of talks by three guest speakers. All were illustrated by music clips, and the computers were far less uncooperative than they usually are at the historical recordings symposia. All three engaged with the question of Sibelius' scholarly reputation, which was very low for decades and has only recently re-emerged, a disparagement whose initiation they all attributed to the famed musicologist Theodor Adorno having given Sibelius a severe thumbs-down in an essay in 1938. All three gently suggested that Adorno had not studied Sibelius' scores very closely and did not know what he was talking about.
Daniel Grimley of Oxford University discussed the sense of landscape in Sibelius, identifying this technically as consisting of a spaciousness in his music, and attributing its inspiration to the composer's sensitivity to both the sights and sounds of the Finnish countryside. The sound aspect is particularly interesting; Grimley showed us a scholarly article with a sound map of a wilderness area, i.e. it showed what sounds you'd predominantly hear in different parts. He also pointed out that, when some British pilots made a documentary film of their flight over Everest (the first ever) in 1934, the music they used for the scenes of rugged, frozen Himalayan landscapes was Sibelius' then-recent and highly challenging Seventh Symphony. Very appropriate.
Erik Ulman, a composer at Stanford, asked what inspiration Sibelius could, and in his case does, give to a very different, atonal modernist composer like himself. Frequently apologizing lest his technical discussion went over the heads of his audience (it didn't go over mine), he used the tone poem Tapiola as his text to identify various exquisite nuances of instrumental color, texture, harmonic design, and fragmentation of melodic line. I was particularly struck by Ulman's pointing out that sheens of string sound that he called "sound sheets" are actually intricately constructed of different lines trading notes off, giving the sheen an almost subliminal but strongly-based rhythmic construction. I was reminded of the way Sibelius uses overlapping lines to create the famous horn call in the Fifth Symphony.
Laura Gray of the University of Waterloo (Ontario) gave a lighter historical overview, comparing Sibelius' reputation (among the public and music critics rather than in scholarship) in Britain and the US in the 1930s. In those days he was exceedingly popular in both countries, and considered the epitome of a virile, rugged, gruff, outdoorsy composer. (Whether he was actually personally like that, though articles at the time claimed he was, Gray considered beside the point.) The difference was that, in the US but not in Britain, his use as a polemic weapon against the avant-garde produced a counter-movement, including dismissals by composer-critics such as Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, turning Sibelius into a shuttlecock in the culture wars.
There was a reception afterwards, sponsored (I gathered) by some Finnish-American cultural group, small and informal enough that I got to speak with all the presenters. One of the other attendees I spoke with was a man who described himself as a Wagnerian who knew little of Sibelius (I recommended the First and Fifth Symphonies as the ones most likely to appeal to a Wagnerian, and should have mentioned some of the tone poems like Pohjola's Daughter), who told me how he had taught his then 3-year-old daughter the Ring by describing the action as the music played and having her draw pictures of it. I thought, but did not say, that some of the plot themes were rather mature for a 3-year-old, and imagined him getting to the end of Walküre and saying, "And this is what happens to little girls who don't obey their fathers."
Saturday, November 7, 2015
I have a theory about the history of art that I call "the hidden city". Read conventional histories of the arts written in the mid-20C, or take college classes in them during that era, which is what I did educating myself in the subject at the time, and you'll find that the declared sequence of masterpieces in any field had the classic and beloved works of the 18-19C succeeded around 1900 by modernist works that were tougher and less user-friendly, and still somewhat controversial a half (now a full) century later. Some of these instructors will even declare that it's the audience's fault for not appreciating The Art Of Our Time (and that it's they, not the audience, who get to decide what part of the multiplicity is The Art Of Our Time). I call this viewpoint the modernist hegemony.
What's not in those history books and courses, but is more considered in newer ones covering the same period, is the hidden city: the artists whose work, while distinctly of 20C origin - it couldn't have been created earlier - follows the tradition of its predecessors and ignores the policy of throwing out the past and starting from scratch that was such a huge fad beginning around 1910 and influenced what came later. This is art whose appeal is to subjective emotion and not to logical rules about what art should be. The hegemony, which made what was considered the canon because it had the megaphones, belittled or ignored this work and the philosophy behind it.
The hidden city started to emerge in the 1970s and 80s. It was partly due to polemics: Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House, which I didn't read until after I'd formulated this theory, is precisely a "hidden city" analysis of architecture. It was partly a generational shift which made high modernism the creaky old conservatives now. And it was a rise in fans of the hidden city and its shinier new successors into the academy, first as students, then as young professors mostly in smaller, less prestigious institutions. There are still people defending the modernist hegemony, but its overall status is far weaker than it was 30-40 years ago.
The argument we're having in these posts is, how hidden was the hidden city? You could argue this both ways; it depends how you look at it. It's not like hidden-city artists like Tolkien in literature, Frank Lloyd Wright in architecture (the hero of Wolfe's book), Wyeth or Rockwell in painting, or Sibelius in music [I'm in the middle of a Sibelius festival right now: more on that later] were unknown, unsuccessful commercially, unpraised in some quarters, or even unstudied academically. The hegemony consisted of the scorn and dismissal by those who set the standards of discourse that others followed, who wrote what was accepted as the canon, who taught the young, and the rigidity and strictness with which this was held. (Merely having different tastes is not enough to create a hegemony.) It was, to borrow a term from more serious and consequential aspects of life, an environment of oppression.
So now there are those who would downplay or even deny the hegemony's power or even its existence, using the success - in fame, commerce, esteem from non-hegemonial critics, and such academic quarters as bucked the trend - of the hidden city as evidence. This is what I bridle at. These writers' motives may be love of high modernism (there have always been some people who genuinely liked it; there's nothing that nobody likes) or simply to prove that the hidden city flourished when it was hidden (which of course it did - my theory is based on the contrast between that and the thoroughness with which it was ignored by the hegemony). The facts these writers present are true, but the view depicted is partial, misleading, or even entirely false. The hidden city was only literally hidden in limited quarters, but it was hidden there and the hegemony was real - in many of those same quarters, it still is.
Thursday, November 5, 2015
The Carmen suites, and the warhorses galloped across the stage.
Saint-Saëns' Organ Symphony is equally a warhorse, but this was more like a python slithering across the stage. It was smooth and slinky - check out the string sound in that Poco adagio - slow and stealthy, and powerful and muscular. The organ was set to reedier stops than is usually heard for this work, so it stood out conspicuously, yet not enough to make the orchestra's full throat seem lesser or secondary.
Ravel's Left Hand Concerto, with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet holding on to the piano desperately with his other hand while trying to play in all registers at once, was spiky and prickly, the embodiment of the twirky modernism that Ravel wrote the concerto in. (Did Paul Wittgenstein, the conservative one-armed pianist who commissioned the piece, like what he got? He did not.) It was a very suitable and characteristic performance, yet I found it uncompelling.
Dinner beforehand was interesting. We went to the Hayes Street Grill, and I ordered the grilled scallops on the day's menu. I'm not too fond of scallops, but I'll eat them if they're cooked really well, which I correctly assumed they would be; but I ordered this mostly because what they came on appealed to me: polenta (very light, rather like grits) with pureed kale mixed in.
Wednesday, November 4, 2015
This was with Robin Goodrin Nordli, a longtime stalwart in the shifting company of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and consequently an old familiar face to me. The title of the show, "Virgins to Villains: My Journey with Shakespeare's Women," turns out to mean less a discussion of what the female characters mean and their part in the work, though there is some of that, than an account of her personal experience playing them. It's told in an autobiographical manner, not in the bald terms of a resumé, including even mention of the hiatus when her first husband guilt-tripped her off the stage for six years.
The "virgin to villain" theme was embodied in a long consideration of Queen Margaret, whose complex and varied life story is told across the Henry VI/Richard III tetralogy. Nordli seems to consider this the greatest Shakespeare role she's played, and I'd say she was outstanding in it: I wrote of H6/3 at the time that "Robin Nordli spits fire as the toweringly bellicose Queen Margaret." And she said that, no matter how villainous the character may seem, no matter who you play - from Margaret to Hedda Gabler - you'll view sympathetically through her eyes. Nordli sees acting, and she clarified this in the Q&A afterwards, as being down in the trenches doing the hard work. She has no sense of the broad overview of the production.
It wasn't just serious: she depicted her failures as well as her successes, to great audience amusement. Her attempt, off in Oklahoma in college, to play Helena in the local accent; her disastrous audition, returning to the stage after her long exile, of Portia's "quality of mercy" speech with large hand gestures; and the time she played Desdemona in an outdoor festival, and while lying there dead [other actors have told me that can be the hardest part of a performance], a swarm of flies settled on her face. For this she depicted not her own part, but that of her Othello, trying to emote over her body and shoo flies at the same time.
What she learned from that disastrously over-acted audition was the truth of what her high-school drama teacher had told her: don't "act", just say the lines and behave like you mean them. That was rule one; rule two was: pay attention to what other characters say about your character; it's a guide to interpretation. (This in response to young Robin's attempt to act Ophelia's mad scene as if "mad" meant "angry". What happened to "gentle Ophelia"?)
There were a couple of odd glitches. She mentioned Dame Judith Anderson and called her "Edith". She kept referring to the rebellious Duke of York in the H6 plays as "Gloucester". There's two Gloucesters in the tetralogy, and neither of them is him, so I was very confused.
In the Q&A, she responded to the authorship question by describing herself as agnostic, though she didn't use that word. Her skepticism arises not directly from the supposed paucity of information about Shakespeare of Stratford, but from how much less is known about him than other playwrights of the period. And I wondered, is that true? I didn't think it was, but I'm not expert on that point.
And the future? In high school, she'd seen the then aged 73 Dame Edith, I mean Judith, in her tour-de-force of playing Hamlet, and maybe some day ... In the meantime, she's playing Gertrude (a new role for her) at Ashland next year, and her present husband, whom she met at OSF, will be Claudius. I'm not currently scheduled to see that, but I may make a second trip again next year.
Still, it's been a busy day. It started about 9 AM when the doorbell rang. I want to tell you about this because it says something about how I interact with strangers. I cracked the door open and peered around. A man stood there in casual work clothes. "Hi, how are you doing?" he said. I waited, wondering what he was going to try to sell me and how quickly I could get rid of him. Then he identified himself as the supervisor of the roofers.
The roofers! The ones who have been working intermittently in our complex for weeks and whom we knew would come around to our unit sooner or later. Why, this man has legitimate business with me, and deserves my full attention and courtesy. I pulled the door open, stepped outside, and we had a busy conversation on various related issues for a full five minutes.
So the lesson is: if you're a stranger who accosts my attention with a phone call or a doorbell, don't waste time trying to make friends first. It'll only increase my suspicion that you're trying to put something over on me. Tell me who you are and what your business is first, and then I'll know how to react. And most of those who do have legitimate business with me know that.
Then I went out for an appointment with a new accountant. Our old one has retired. This one was fun to talk with, and seemed on top of her game. So I left her with our last 3 years' worth of tax returns to chew over, since - like B. eating brussel sprouts - she seems to have an appetite for them. Now's the time to get acquainted with our finances, since it's the slow season.
And one with a retirement counselor. Not a financial adviser, I'd explained when making the appointment, though he does that work too, but someone to act as a guide through the thicket of rules and a sounding board to make big life decisions. Even on this initial appointment, I learned much about how Social Security and Medicare - things I'm going to have to deal with fairly soon - actually function, things I had not known, and which I'd rather get in a clear verbal explanation, where I can interrupt and ask questions and say "I don't understand this part," rather than in a bramble of written government legalese. I had had an amazingly difficult time figuring out what kind of person could give me this advice (my own broker, who serves as my financial adviser, didn't know anything about it) or convincing anyone I consulted about this question that I needed someone to do this.
Then in the evening I went to ...
Monday, November 2, 2015
2. Speaking of tricks, or treats, B. is one person who would actually like this.
3. Would you like to see what a university library conservation lab does? Here's Stanford's. When I was working in the main library 30 years ago, the lab was across the hall from us on the top floor of the old wing of the library. Now it's several miles off-campus. So are most of the books these days.
4. At last, an answer to a long-standing question I had about Monty Python. The surviving Pythons always describe Graham Chapman, before he went on the wagon in the late '70s, as so incapacitated by alcoholism that he couldn't even remember his lines. I kind of wondered if they were exaggerating in a way they couldn't do if Chapman were still alive to answer back. That's because he had some very complex and wordy parts in Flying Circus that could never have been performed by someone in the condition they describe [or, perhaps more precisely, that the others would never have agreed to his performing if they had that impression of his condition]. I remember particularly a courtroom scene in which he plays a pepperpot who's called as a witness and immediately starts gossiping at top speed with hardly a stop for breath, not ceasing until physically removed.
But now we have John Cleese saying that Chapman's alcoholism only became a burden with the third season. And - I checked by watching Python while waiting for any more Halloween doorbells - the pepperpot court witness was first season, third episode.
And I wondered, how long has it been 30 years? In the early days, the SF field hadn't been around very long, and because it was small, new names could easily make a big impact. I remembered that Robert Heinlein was GoH at the third Worldcon in 1941, only two years after he sold his first story. That would be highly unlikely to happen today, even for another Heinlein.
So I made a list of all the professional fiction writers who've been Worldcon GoH over the years. Just the authors, because the SF Encyclopedia is conscientious about listing first published stories, but it's not so rigorous with the entry dates of artists or other categories of pros. Making a quick chart, I found that less than 30 years was the rule up until about 1970, and, that among authors, only Hugo Gernsback (1952, 41 years since his first published SF story, but he was really honored as an editor, and it was only 26 years since he'd founded Amazing), Murray Leinster (1963, 44 years), and Edmond Hamilton (1964, 38 years) exceeded it, though a few others came close.
Since 1970, under-30s have been less common, though for many years they still occurred frequently (Zelazny, 1974, 12 years; Le Guin, 1975, 13 years; Ellison, 1978, 22 years; Haldeman, 1990, 21 years; and some others). But since 2001, there have only been two authors with less than 25 years: Bujold in 2008 (23 years), and 2017's Nalo Hopkinson (who will be 21 years at that point).
I also calculated the age of the GoHs, not at the time of their GoH-hood, but at what age they entered the field as professional authors. That average has remained unchanged over the decades; averages over ten-year periods consistently come up with age 25-28.
Sunday, November 1, 2015
Concert no. 2: Palo Alto Philharmonic. Another community orchestra, not as good as the Winchester, and they play in a tiny hall about the right size for a piano recital. As a result, Schumann's Rhenish Symphony sounded totally crude and blatty, even though the execution and interpretation were decent. The original problems with the orchestration may have been Schumann's fault, but the conductor should have known to have adjusted for this. My friend who used to be a cellist with this orchestra has left, so I may just stop going very often.
Concert no. 3: Dalí Quartet. I was sent to review this one. True, this quartet isn't quite up to the highest standards in Mozart - glaringly so, because the clarinetist they were playing with was up to it - but, like the Winchesters playing Gershwin, do they ever sizzle at the stuff they're made for, which is South American dance music. With allowances for personnel changes at first violin, here they are in two pieces, which I hope you will enjoy. First, Efraín Amaya's Angelica, the piece I liked so much:And here's their wild tango encore:Recognize that tune, do you? So did I - it is, among other things, the tango that Joe E. Brown and Jack Lemmon dance to in Some Like It Hot - but how could I identify it for my review? I had no idea what it was called or indeed that it had a name at all. Figuring that it's the first tune you'd think of when you think of tango, I tried googling "default tango" and got articles on Argentine economics with tango metaphors in their titles. "Standard tango" didn't help either. "Famous tango", that did it.
Concert no. 4: San Francisco Symphony. Arrived at this so late that I plopped into my seat without grabbing a program. But even without remembering what was on, I guessed the first piece before it started because I recognized what some of the players were warming up with: Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé. The late Michael Steinberg's program notes say "Comments about the film are vague and contradictory," suggesting he never saw it, even though it still exists. Gidon Kremer played Bartók's other violin concerto, the one written in his youth in infatuation with a female violinist who didn't love him back - according to the program notes, she was a Catholic who was revolted when he preached atheism at her. And lastly, Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 3, "the finest" of his four suites according to the notes, but its bloat and repetition don't win it many points from me. No. 1 is the finest. Andrey Boreyko conducted the lot.
Saturday, October 24, 2015
2. Let's get this straight. The makers of the vegan substitute for mayonnaise claim that the reason they put a picture of an egg on the label was to show it was made without eggs, and further that they called it "mayo" so as to distinguish it from mayonnaise. They'd better hope the person who questions them on this is Trey Gowdy.
4. Also (this is a video): Yes, yes, [click on yes button many times] (via Bruce Schneier)
5. Somewhere beyond the grave, Deryck Cooke is smiling.
Thursday, October 22, 2015
The Martian. Which I saw mostly because I couldn't maintain my credentials as an SF fan without it. But it was pretty good as a movie, particularly in telling a story that basically consists of two years of waiting without being tedious about it. But I had some grumbles: 3) After a while it tends to drop interest in the stranded astronaut in favor of the events back in NASA. 2) The astronauts are way too snarky with each other. 1) I've seen this movie described as "competence porn" and it is. Repeated sequence: Character proposes something daring and audacious; authority emphatically forbids it because it's too dangerous and risky; character goes ahead and does it anyway; it works like a charm, even when that strains credulity. The only time a plan doesn't work, it's not because it's risky but because they cut corners to save time.
Steve Jobs. I think this is a movie for people who worship Apple products, who need to have the cult of Jobs taken down a peg. I don't like Apple products, so I'm not really the audience. The structure built on the pre-game shows for three product launches over 15 years is ingenious, but requires packing in too much backstory that doesn't fit. The same half-dozen people show up each time and say the same things, like ghosts haunting Ebenezer Scrooge, whom Jobs in this movie rather resembles. And if it's hard on Jobs, it's even worse on Woz, who is presented as an obsessive moron. (In the previous Jobs movie dramatization, Woz was Jobs's conscience, like Jiminy Cricket.) The one who comes off unexpectedly well is Sculley, possibly because the real guy talked to the screenwriter after having kept silent for over 20 years.
What I enjoyed seeing in this movie was the settings: three halls, all played by their real-life equivalents, each of which I've attended dozens, at least, of concerts in. It was amusing to see them on the big screen. Judging from the buildings surrounding it, the San Francisco parking garage featured near the end must be at least half a mile from Davies Symphony Hall, but artistic license.
Bridge of Birds, no, Sighs, no, Spies, that was it: Bridge of Spies. Nowhere near as good as the trailer had made me hope. Rather tedious, despite the action-packed plot. I think the director had trouble figuring out where the focus of the story was. And Tom Hanks dialed down the gravitas of his character way too far.
Sunday, October 18, 2015
All this interesting programming is the responsibility of music director Theodore Kuchar, who's retiring at the end of this season. I hope he's replaced by somebody whose sense of programming is equally enticing.
And who's equally good, because this really was a splendid concert. This venture into Bruckner was superior to SSV's first venture into Bruckner last year. With only a few rough spots where the wheels scraped against the tracks, the sound was rich and full, with Kuchar leading a rather lean but still broad and weighty interpretation. No softening into warm fuzzies during the Adagio, the bane of too many performances of this work. Kuchar's approach was summed up for me by one moment in the first movement, where the first major climax is suddenly succeeded by a jaunty staccato theme in B minor. He took this theme unexpectedly fast, zooming out of any sense of anticlimax that his emphasis on the structural joins in the work might otherwise have engendered.
Also on the program, Saint-Saëns's Piano Concerto No. 5, with the solo part played with firm and serious elan by Pascal Rogé, and a short work by a local composer, Walter Saul, titled Kiev 2014, featuring an oboe, representing peace and independence for Ukraine, winning out against the orchestra's tumultuous representation of war and occupation.
I liked this well enough that I bought a CD from the composer's sales table, featuring his religious-inspired works for piano, including a song cycle on Biblical texts that I figured B. might like even if I didn't. Unfortunately neither of us did. Hack modernism. The piece in the concert was much better.
In other musical news, here's my published review of the St. Olaf's concert I wrote about last week.
Saturday, October 17, 2015
This was of Pericles, one of Shakespeare's obscurer works, and one can see why. It's a rather goofy play, about a man who loses his kingdom, his wife, and his daughter, all through no fault of his own; and when he is so wracked with grief that he cannot move, he cannot eat, he cannot sleep, he can just barely growl, he suddenly gets them all back again, through no virtue of his own.
Despite the tragic content, much of the play is at least potentially comedic, and this production took it as a romp, which made it totally delightful. The good reviews were all emphatically deserved. The virtuosity of the actors in multiple parts was particularly exquisite. Scott Ripley as both the imperious king Antiochus and the scattered and ingratiating king Simonides, or Brooke Parks as both the good queen Thaisa (think Belle from Beauty and the Beast) and the evil queen Dionyza (think Cinderella's stepmother) were models of what actors can do when they try. Everyone in it, even Wayne Carr as the infinitely put-upon Pericles, seemed to be having a ripping good time. So did the audience.
As long as I was going to be there anyway, I also decided to contribute to my cultural education by scoring a ticket to that acclaimed masterwork of modern drama, Long Day's Journey into Night by Eugene O'Neill. Well, it was long anyway. Topic: a dysfunctional family of drug addicts argue with each other, interspersed with reminiscing, for four hours (real time).* The director's note in the program book spoke of how deeply meaningful he finds the play to him personally, but when I consider the question, what does this play mean to me?, what comes to mind are the legendary Victorian matrons who went to see Hamlet and whispered one to the other, "How unlike the home life of our own dear Queen."
It was very well acted, I'll give it that.
I'd seen Death of a Salesman, I'd seen A Streetcar Named Desire, I'd seen plays by Ibsen and Strindberg and even Sam Shepard, all here at Ashland in excellently-acted productions, with varying degrees of wondering "Why did I subject myself to this?" and now this, with the same bloody question.
I could have done without the moment when one of the actors broke character to ask the audience to turn off their cell phones, and so, I'm sure, could he.
*The mother is addicted to the morphine in her pain medication, and her husband and sons scorn her as a "dope fiend," as if she were morally responsible for her failing, but they're all alcoholics, so they should talk.
Friday, October 16, 2015
This is unprecedented; a little sad; more than a little frightening.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
This was the first concert on their west coast tour. They take a tour somewhere every year: last year Florida (where they did not play the global-warming piece, though they had it then, because they didn't think it would be welcomed, despite Florida being even more vulnerable than California), next year Argentina. This year was NoCal's turn. The concert was at a church in San Mateo that was really too small for a large orchestra, but whose music director is a St. Olaf alum. I heard about this because they sent a press release to the Daily Journal, so I covered it for them. The review won't be published until later, so I'll link to it then.
2. Diablo Symphony, Sunday. I drove all the way to the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek for this amateur community orchestra because I loved the program, which was specifically chosen to highlight gems you never get to hear in concert. Unfortunately it's not a very good orchestra, and its performances of Suk's Scherzo Fantastique and Arriaga's Symphony in D - both absolute treasures and completely unknown to the general - were sluggish enough that they mostly served to remind me of better recordings heard in the past. The Respighi Adagio for cello and orchestra was worse, and the soloist, though the principal cellist of a couple of better orchestras, was completely inadequate.
However, they somehow worked up the gumption to close the concert with a wonderfully incisive and witty performance of Malcolm Arnold's Scottish Dances, with tremendous renditions of Arnold's signature brass "whoop"s. Arnold has been one of my favorite composers for 45 years, since my earliest days of listening, and this is one of my favorites of his works, yet I had never heard a note of his performed at a live concert until now.
3. Pavel Haas Quartet, Monday. The standout venue for chamber music in the City is the 1930s Herbst Theatre, but it's been closed for earthquake renovation. It's just about to reopen, but this concert was scheduled for the interim fill-in site, off-nights at the still-new SF Jazz Center. Since I'm unlikely to go there for the music it was built to play, this was my last chance to try out the Jazz Center, so I got a ticket for this concert.
It's an interesting hall. Steeply raked to improve sightlines (not generally considered a big thing in classical) with wrap-around seating on three sides (classical sites tend to be fussier about acoustical placement) and some flat seating on the floor that can be removed for large ensembles, it resembles the old Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium in layout more than any other hall I know. There are cupholders in the armrests, something you'd never see in a classical venue. The acoustics are very bright and close up, almost unnervingly so, but also extremely dry and unreverberant, something else you wouldn't have in a classical venue.
But it was fairly appropriate for this program of three tough quartets that might please aesthetically-touchy modern jazz listeners: Beethoven's Op. 95, Prokofiev's First, and Bartok's Fifth. The music received extremely expository readings, with the material laid out neatly and precisely.
Monday, October 12, 2015
It's very strange. Setting: Victorian London. Young woman - not poor, exactly, but impoverished middle-class - is doing secretarial work for a haughty aristocrat (played by Joanna Lumley, the only cast member familiar to me) when suddenly Lumley's painfully reserved but occasionally fun-loving nephew proposes marriage to the young woman.
He's a catch, actually: a widowed marquess under pressure from his aunt to re-marry and father an heir, he likes our heroine a lot better than any of the drippy young heiresses the old lady is pressing on him. Like any good Austen heroine, she initially refuses this impetuous man she hardly knows; but instead of the story being about either her slow re-wooing by a good man or his eventual revelation as a cad, it jumps immediately to her acceptance.
Will it then be about her learning to act in her new aristocratic position, thawing and winning over her reticent husband and the dour and unfriendly staff on his isolated country estate? A few scenes hint that it's going in that direction, but no: the plot suddenly makes a left turn and becomes a psychological horror story.
A few comments here:
1) One review I read described it as being like Downton Abbey. This only proves that we've devolved to the point where any story about post-Renaissance British nobility is described as being like Downton Abbey, no matter how unlike they are in every other possible way, in much the same way that any medievalized setting with warriors and some magic is described as being like The Lord of the Rings, no matter how unlike they are in every other possible way. I'd describe this, at least the earlier parts, as being more "budget Merchant-Ivory". For one thing, notably unlike Downton Abbey, it has only one plot.
2. The reviewer also described the story as racist. I'm not going to say it's not, but not for the reasons given: the reviewer was not paying attention to the diffusion and location of the villainy.
3. However! The screenwriter, Kate Brooke, though herself English and of aristocratic descent - her grandfather was a political viscount and he in turn the younger son of an Anglo-Irish earl* - makes the mistake in titles that Americans always fall for. Though the marquess is usually correctly called "Lord Walderhurst" and often just "Walderhurst" by his intimates, at one point a news clipping about him is read that calls him "Lord James Walderhurst". That is wrong! In news stories he would be called "The Marquess of Walderhurst". He'd only be "Lord James" if he were the marquess's younger son. And any Victorian newspaper would know that.
Notably, Burnett does not make that mistake in the novel, although she does use the continental spelling marquis instead of the British marquess.
*She is also the first cousin of the author of How to Train Your Dragon, for what that's worth.
Friday, October 9, 2015
2. Thoughtful article on Governor Jerry Brown's even more thoughtful decision to sign California's end-of-life option bill. This is governing as it should be: where a genuine moral choice meets the practicalities of public policy.
3. Movie I haven't seen entry 1: What the new Steve Jobs movie leaves out: how he became The Man while still thinking of himself as an iconoclastic rebel.
4. Movie I haven't seen entry 2: This article argues that The Martian is not "competence porn" while providing extensive evidence that it's exactly that.