Tuesday, March 21, 2017

statistic

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is from Montana. He is, if my statistics are correct, the first US cabinet officer ever from Montana. (FDR was going to have one, but he died just before taking office.)

My statistics also say that this marks 48 states that have provided cabinet officers. The two states bereft of cabinet representation throughout US history are South Dakota (Obama was going to have one, but he had to withdraw) and Nevada.

He is also the first US cabinet officer to begin with a Z, thus completing that set except for Q and X.

concert review: St. Petersburg Philharmonic

I couldn't resist Shostakovich's Fifth performed by the same orchestra (though not, obviously, the same individual musicians) that gave the first performance nearly 80 years ago. (And to think the work was a mere stripling of 35 when I first heard it.)

The most notable aspects of this performance were the richness of the inner string sound in the slow sections, and the sheer vehemence, especially in the percussion, of the loud climaxes. Not so much the scherzo, which was light and witty, in violation of the current fashion for treating all Shostakovich scherzi as portraits in terror of Stalin; but the climax of the first movement and the entire finale were drastically enhanced. Even the slow wandering section in the middle of the finale seethed with looming menace.

But what I most appreciated were little touches of superb ensemble, such as the absolutely perfect meshing of celesta and harp in the final bars of the slow movement.

The other work on the program was Brahms' First Piano Concerto, a heavy warhorse of a different color. Garrick Ohlsson was the soloist, and as there's no pianist more capable of a light, silvery touch than he, it was quite a surprise in a hefty, dramatic Brahms concerto. But Ohlsson can pound it out with the best, too.

No surprise that it was conducted by Yuri Temirkanov, who's been leading this outfit since Mravinsky died some three decades past. Yes, I know. It's hard to keep track of famous Russian conductors making fools of themselves offstage, but Temirkanov is not the one who's cozying up to Putin, nor the one who thinks women are not properly suited to be conductors. He's the other one who thinks women are not properly suited to be conductors. Yes, there's two of these idiots.

It's self-evidently true that a lot of women can conduct just fine. But so can Temirkanov. He and his band gave a good show up in sopping wet San Francisco.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

an ending

Well. The news is, my father died yesterday.

I went over to Wales to see him last November. He had just turned 88 and was very frail, but seemed to be puttering along adequately. But he'd had medical scares in the past, and over the last month went into a serious decline. So I was mentally prepared for this. When I spoke with my stepmother on the phone after she came back from the hospital, she seemed more weary from accumulated stress than anything else. But she has a good support network and will be OK.

I will of course return for the funeral. The date hasn't been set yet. Lightning trips overseas are not something I'll find easy. But it will manage.

My relationship with my father was a complicated one which will not easily fit in this space. When I was a boy, some facile guidance counselor once suggested that Dad and I bond by tossing a ball around in the back yard. Neither of us could think of anything we were less interested in doing. Our ability to communicate in other ways was often at about that level.

Nevertheless, my father did much for me for which I remain grateful. He provided his part of a solid and secure family home life throughout my childhood. He, also with my mother's help, kept books and music around the house which I drew on for self-education. The books were mostly history; I was reading then-new tomes like The Arms of Krupp and Alistair Horne on the Fall of France when I was 12 years old.

He drove us on long vacations which took us to 36 of the 50 states before I left home. He paid for my undergraduate education (which is something a successful upper-middle-class income could easily afford in those days), and never raised any objections over my career choice of librarian instead of a more "manly" occupation like his own of physician. (He was an ob-gyn, which in any case is hardly the most macho of medical specialties.)

And he taught me two obscure but useful skills which I celebrated on his last birthday anniversary.

Friday, March 17, 2017

I'm not Irish

I'm seeing more St. Patrick's Day references in my reading list than usual, so this may be a good time to explain the effects of my not being Irish. Not even a little bit, unless something really surprising comes up when I take the genetic spit test.

B., however, has some Irish (though she's mostly German), and that came up when we were discussing what to have for dinner tonight. She's Catholic, and it's a Friday in Lent, so nothing with meat, and I won't have time today to make a complex dish. But the Irish in her didn't take to the idea of tofu or polenta on St. Patrick's, so I said all right, I'll roast her some tiny potatoes. She likes that, and there's nothing more Irish than potatoes.

I, however, do not eat potatoes. At all. I'll have to have something else. Which is OK, but it gives me the opportunity to bring up a natural phenomenon in the form of a rule of thumb (that is, it's not precisely true, but it works as a generalization) that applies only to me.

[My liking of a culture's food] + [My liking of that culture's music] = [constant]

That is to say, the more I like the one, the less I like the other.

The two extremes of this are Irish and Cajun/Creole. Potato is, I'm reliably told, entirely ubiquitous in Ireland, and not eating it would be a real burden there. (I've never been.) On the other hand, I adore Irish folk music. It is my favorite folk music in all the world. I can listen to it endlessly. Do you know a 1970s group called the Bothy Band? Gee, I'd like to be able to sing like that. I even like a lot of ersatz Irish music, like Enya and the stuff from Riverdance.

At the other end, I love Creole and especially Cajun food. I have visited Louisiana four times in my life, and each time my primary goal was to eat. There's nowhere else I've taken entire trips to for that purpose. But I don't like their music. 95% of jazz does nothing for me; zydeco doesn't appeal either.

That applies across the board. What's my favorite European cuisine? Italian. (Special virtue: it eschews potato.) But what's the biggest hole in my appreciation of classical music? Italian opera. Just don't care for it. My Italian music canon consists of Gabrieli canzonas, Rossini overtures (just the overtures), and Respighi suites and tone poems, not a representative selection.

Even in the rest of the world. I eat Asian food of almost all kinds, except Japanese which I have to treat with great caution. But Japanese composers have written by far the finest Western classical music in all of Asia, really great stuff.

What other food is Irish? I think mostly of boiled meat, a method of cooking it that doesn't much appeal to me; it's usually served inextricably mixed with potato (e.g. Irish stew), and is out on a Friday in Lent anyway. Irish-Americans traditionally eat corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's, though I dunno what they'll do today (descendants of Ulster Protestants in this country tend not to consider themselves culturally Irish), and the dish's claim to be Irish and not just Irish-American is dubious. Jews also eat corned beef, but as a Jew I have to say that I find Irish corned beef to be exceedingly goyische. I think they boil it.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

victory over wordage

Wednesday was a successful working day. I tackled the one remaining item I needed to cover for the Year's Work in Tolkien Studies: a large anthology of commissioned articles. Too integrated to be appropriate to set out all the papers separately, but too important to treat as if it were a monograph, I ran down each paper in turn. (If this were a book review, I'd never have written it this way: I hate reviews that do that. But the Year's Work serves a different purpose.)

And I wrote all 2400 words of it in one day. I'd read all the articles before, months ago, but I only had notes for about half of them. So a lot of reading was involved too. And a whole lot of potting: it's rather challenging to describe 36 well-researched articles in an average of 64 words each, including the titles of the articles.

But that's done, and the next-to-last missing piece from other contributors has also come in, so the ship is that much closer to sailing.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Tolkien studied

Found in some of those journal articles I was perusing yesterday:

Gay landsmanship argument no. 1: When Sam finds Frodo in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, Frodo has been stripped naked by his captors. Nudity = sex, therefore Sam and Frodo are gay.

Gay landsmanship argument no. 2: W.H. Auden was wildly enthusiastic for The Lord of the Rings. Auden was gay, therefore - since he liked it so much - The Lord of the Rings must also be gay.

Gay landsmanship conclusion: Tolkien may have been married for decades to a woman and had four biological children, but either 1) he was gay; 2) he was subconsciously gay; 3) since he was writing a mythology for England, he realized that England was gay.

Moooviefan argument: Tolkien's dialogue is stiff, wordy, and antiquated. It's boring for Eowyn to say "But no living man am I," but when J-Eowyn says "I am no man!" instead, that's hot stuff, and the audience cheered because Jackson's dialogue is so much better, not because of the exciting plot crux. (You don't hear them cheering when they read the book, do you?)

Moooviefan misprision: OK if you want to write an article about Jackson and not about Tolkien. You are, after all, writing in a film studies journal. But in that case, why put Tolkien's name in your title, and not Jackson's?

On the other hand, I was convinced by the proposition that George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire owes less to The Lord of the Rings than to Lord of the Flies; and I chuckled at this anecdote (unrelated to Tolkien, but good) from an interview with Peter Beagle in Foundation:
I can remember being the middle man on a panel in Oregon State. Lord, this would have been 1975–76, with Ursula Le Guin on one side of me and Vonda McIntyre on the other; they’re both old friends, both marvellous writers. For me, Ursula is still the master. And I was enjoying myself immensely just listening to the two of them, but there got to be rustling and grumbling in the back of the hall, a number of male students complaining they had come to hear talk about some good ol' rocket-jockeying science fiction, and not all this 'shrill feminism'. I remember the phrase. And as though they had been planning for it, Ursula peered around me and said, 'Vonda, I don't know how many times I’ve told you about being shrill.' And Vonda, without missing a beat said, 'No, Ursula, dear, I’m strident. You're shrill.' I remember that as a great moment in show business, me in the middle just listening.

Monday, March 13, 2017

concert review: Andras Schiff

For some reason I've never cottoned to Schubert's piano sonatas as I do to his string quartets and symphonies. Schiff played very clearly, but it still didn't strike any emotional resonance with me.

This may have been partly explained by the set of Schubert Impromptus. These can be charming and pretty music, but Schiff's compressed phrasing and his uniformity of tone made them sound sing-songy.

But I wasn't in the most receptive mood, true. I'd just driven up the scenic coast road from the UC Santa Cruz library, where I'd spent a full day hunched over a set of hot research databases. I had my work on my mind, and the news, plus some distressing personal news that's been coming from overseas via e-mail.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

hinky figures

Here's the thing. All winter long, I turn on the front porch light each afternoon that B's at work, because it's dark when she comes home at 6 pm.

Then, just as it's starting to get light enough in the spring that I don't have to do that any more, the clocks change, and she comes home an hour earlier. What's the good in that? If it has to change at all, shouldn't it be going the other way around?

Especially as, just as it's also starting to get light enough for her to see in the morning as she leaves, suddenly she has to leave an hour earlier and is plunged back into darkness again.

Truly it has been said that Daylight Saving Time is like cutting off the end of a blanket and sewing it on to the other end.

It seems to me that the real beef of the proponents of DST is not with human time measurement, but with the axial tilt of the earth. Perhaps they should try passing a law modifying that, and see how much luck they have with it.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Buffy signal-boosting

I found this site averaging out ratings of BTVS episodes. It's several years old, and I also looked up some new 20th-anniversary best-episodes lists, which showed some strong consensus. (Google "best buffy episodes," you'll find plenty.)

It occurred to me that, rather than make my own tiresomely repetitious best episode list (the major variant is that I'm less fond of the season-ending Big Battle episodes than most people are), I should offer my opinion of the most under-rated episodes. I mean, we all know that "Innocence" and "The Wish" and "The Zeppo" and "Doppelgängland" and "Something Blue" and "Hush" and "Who Are You?" and "Restless" and "Once More with Feeling" and "Conversations with Dead People" and the like are great, right? But what about the ones that don't make all the best-of lists or get high ratings in complete evaluations?

DB's Most Under-rated Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episodes (chronological order)

Lie to Me (2.07)
During the show's heyday, I was on a lot of convention panels about it. On one, we were posed the interesting question: since this show took a while to hit its stride, what's the best episode to introduce people to it with? Had to be a stand-alone, had to hit the major themes, had to be good. Ben Yalow suggested "Lie to Me," the vampire wanna-be episode, and I think he was right.

What's My Line, part 1 (2.09)
Worth it for the (at the time) stunning final line: "I am Kendra, the Vampire Slayer."

Faith, Hope and Trick (3.03)
The first episode I saw. Evaluations mostly diss Mr. Trick. I thought he was a great villain, so suave and cool.

Revelations (3.07)
Gwendolyn Post! Another great guest spot, and an interesting preview variant on Wesley. I was so sorry when Joss didn't hire the same actress to play Adelle on Dollhouse.

Gingerbread (3.11)
The "witch-hunt" episode is important as the only one to face head-on the peculiar premise of mid-period Buffy, when the vampires had become too common to support the early seasons' "secret history" premise, but were not yet openly acknowledged. People were just in denial of the obvious, and this one shows that in operation.

Enemies (3.17)
The "Mr. Light Show" episode. Awesome drama with sinister implications.

The Freshman (4.01)
Had a particularly good gang of guest vampires. "Are we going to fight, or just have a giant sarcasm rally?"

This Year's Girl (4.15)
The essential prelude to the immortally-good "Who Are You?" Faith's blistering encounter with Buffy and Willow is one of the most dramatically intense scenes of the entire series.

Superstar (4.17)
The Jonathan episode. No further comment should be necessary.

Real Me (5.02)
A lot of viewers dislike Dawn, who's the central figure here. I don't; I find her funny rather than annoying. But even better, this is the episode in which the airhead vampire Harmony had her gang of minions, one of whom was played by Tom Lenk, who later returned as Andrew.

Family (5.06)
The yet-to-be-famous Amy Adams plays Tara's Cousin Beth. She only has one big scene, but it's a stunner.

Intervention (5.18)
Introduction of the Buffybot. Her computer readouts are a delight, and so is her Anya-like conversation, especially with Anya. Another demonstration of SMG's acting versatility.

The Weight of the World (5.21)
Widely disliked, but I found this episode in which Willow rummages around inside Buffy's comatose subconscious to have some of the same surreal quality that made "Restless" so good.

And that's about where my real good memories of lesser-known episodes runs out, sorry.

Friday, March 10, 2017

20 years ago today ...

... as various articles have been reminding us, was the premiere of the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was not an event I paid any attention to at the time.

I was never interested in the sort of movies that Joss Whedon was guying by making a girl called Buffy into a vampire slayer, and for many years television and I had not gotten along. Every time I wandered into the living room and caught bits of some show that B. was watching, within 15 minutes I was making so many sarcastic remarks that I would leave before I was kicked out.

So for two years I resolutely ignored everything that B., and my old confederate DGK, and various others were saying about how great this program was. What I finally wandered in to the living room and watched was the last part of "Faith, Hope and Trick," which was the third episode of the third season. It actually looked kind of interesting, and I started paying more attention, and gradually figuring out who the characters were.

The episode that really sold me on Buffy was "Doppelgängland," the 16th of the season. I'd seen the previews the previous week. I'd figured this episode was going to be pure fan service for the boys who wanted to see Alyson Hannigan in leather again. I rolled my eyes. But it was so clever, with Hannigan not only playing two disparate roles, but also playing each of them trying, and trying unsuccessfully, to impersonate the other. I can't resist that sort of acting coup, or the level of wit involved. (Not the only time that kind of wit would succeed on Buffy.) Meanwhile, I was also getting caught up in the drama of the increasingly unstable Faith and the increasingly sinister Mayor Wilkins.

I was hooked. I'd drunk the Buffy Kool-aid. Now it was the turn of some other people to be dismayed. As was proven the year an episode was nominated for the Hugo and almost all the voters ranked it either first or not at all, you either loved the show or hated it.

And, by the end, it took some effort to keep loving it. The last season and a half were spun out to lengths far beyond any sinew in the material. But, at its best, it was transcendently good. It's stuck with me. I've even quoted from Buffy in my concert reviews. ("Reduced to the compass of two pianos, the terrifying Rite of Spring makes the listener want to pat it on the head and coo, 'Who's a little fear demon?'")

I'll tell you my pick for the single best moment in Buffy. It was near the beginning of the musical episode, "Once More with Feeling." Special musical episodes have a mixed history in television. They can be great, or memorably awful. I wondered which this one would be. Buffy is singing her first song, "Going Through the Motions." Just watch it. It's at 2:08. And it rhymes. At that moment, I knew we were going to be in good hands for the rest of the episode, and oh, were we.

The articles say that Buffy kicked off a Golden Age of television. Has it? I watched Angel ... for a while. I watched Veronica Mars ... for a while. People said it was the show for people who missed Buffy, and I could see the resemblance, but it just wasn't anywhere near as good. Except for Firefly, which I adore even more than Buffy, nothing I've seen since then has matched it. Even shows I did tag along with for a while, like Castle or Jane the Virgin, just didn't win my loyalty. They offered no Kool-aid. We binge-watched the first two seasons of Orphan Black on DVD, and loved the acting, similar to Buffy body-switching episodes at their best, but felt bludgeoned by the screenwriting.

Sorry, there's nothing else like the best. I have complete sets of five TV programs on DVD on my shelves:
The Prisoner
Monty Python's Flying Circus
Fawlty Towers
Firefly
and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

embedded concert

The advantage of making it today that I spent all of it doing Tolkien bibliography research at the Stanford library was that I could take an hour's break in the middle of the day - and by then I sorely needed it - to sidle up to the music department and hear a free noon concert by the Rolston Quartet.

This is a big deal, even more that it's for free. The Rolstons are one of the most distinguished of young quartets, and, as the program noted, won the Banff String Quartet Competition last year. The people sitting behind me, whom I've seen at concerts like this before, were remarking and musing on that before the show, so I turned around to say that I was there and heard them win it.

And, indeed, they played today two of the pieces from their Banff repertoire, the Janacek Second and Beethoven's Razumovsky Second. I didn't mind hearing them again. The Janacek was a dramatic combination of searing and subtly intimate, with lots of startling mood shifts, and the Beethoven was played in much the same manner, with those slashing opening chords succeeded by quiet but tense rumination.

And to think I didn't even consider the Rolston one of the highlights of the competition! That just goes to show how stratospherically high the standards at Banff were. This was a great little noon concert. And free.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

on the cliff

Visitors are also a good excuse to get to places. I've been through the Tom Santos Tunnels (bypassing the treacherous Devil's Slide along the coast south of San Francisco) several times since they opened four years ago, but I'd never had the time to explore the conversion of the old road into a park trail. It's a satisfying idea, though, because on the old road drivers could see out of the corners of our eyes that the scenery was spectacular, but taking attention off the road even for a moment was far too dangerous, and there was no place to pull off either.

Thanks to the bypass, there is now, so thence my brother and I went on Monday. It was an alarming day, full of cloudbursts, in the morning, but the weather softened in the afternoon, and, it being the shoulder season when the temperatures of land and ocean were in harmony, there was no fog. There's parking lots now at both ends, with a 1.3 mile trail between, but if you're not minded to walk the whole thing, the south end has the good ocean views.

It was clear enough that I could actually see 25 or so miles out to the Farallones, or the Far-Along Islands as I call them.

Here I am along the trail, and you can actually almost see the islands in an enlarged view.

Monday, March 6, 2017

concert review: 18th century opera ... in Hebrew

"Esther is the story of an unwise and powerful leader under the influence of an evil advisor. Any similarity to present-day events is both coincidental and unfounded."

So read the placard on the titles screen opening up a (professional-quality, I'm pleased to say) performance of this rare and unique artifact: a 1774 Purimspiel in Hebrew, telling the story of the Megilla in opera form.

It was commissioned by the Jewish community of Amsterdam, who hired a rabbi, Raphael Jacob Saraval, to craft an appropriate libretto and transliterate it into Latin characters for the sake of the non-Jewish composer, Cristiano Giuseppe Lidarti.

Lost for centuries, the manuscript score was found in a booksale about 20 years ago, and has since been published and performed occasionally. I couldn't miss this chance. 18th-century recitatives and arias in Hebrew? In truth, the scoring was so elaborate that it was hard to make out the words, but it was an adequately composed and enjoyable work.

Described by the impresario of this performance as being in the style of early Mozart, it sounded more like leftover post-Baroque to me, especially in Haman's pompous and heavily-dotted music. Using the same vocal ranges as Handel's oratorio on the same topic, but with a considerably less elaborate libretto, it tells a simple version of the story with many opportunities for arias. The chorus, whose part is small, has two soprano lines and bass, but nothing in between. That, the speaker suggested, implies that the composer was used to writing trio sonatas and just borrowed that technique.

Kyle Stegall as the king was an especially good lyric tenor, and the orchestra, the Albany Consort on period instruments, gave excellent backup.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

gob

I collect really bad blurbs, and I'm putting this one down here so I don't forget it. The downside of bibliographical research on Tolkien in high-recall library databases is that the net scoops up every lousy fantasy novel with a publisher's blurb that claims it's inspired by Tolkien. Like - judging from its blurb - this one, Enchanted Realms by Valan Peters:
Unlike other tales of fantasy, Enchanted Realms ties historical facts with fiction in an effort to suggest to readers that this tale of magic and mysticism could be true. The story weaves the tale of two men rewarded for their bravery after the Battle of Hastings. They are given land close to the Princedoms of Wales and, on their journey to their new lands, the men encounter a stranger who prophesised the births of each man's child. He tells them that these children will be instructed in the secrets of magic and the ancient mysteries. Over the years all his foretelling comes to pass. He gave his name for the first time. "I am known as Whitnecromancer the Great. Remember this night and all the things I have told you for never again shall we meet." Inspired by authors such as Teilhard de Chardin, J. R. R. Tolkien, and J. K. Rowling, Enchanted Realms is a historical novel woven with visionary fantasy to create a unique read.
Gob.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Picked up my visiting brother at the airport and took him out for exquisite fried chicken and an evening with MTT. On the menu:

Incidental music by Mikhail Gnesin, very Yiddish-theatery.

Cello Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich, very Shostakovichy. (Gautier Capuçon was the growly cellist.)

Tchaikovsky's Pathétique, very thick and full sound with highly flexible tempi, as if the score had been printed on a rubber mat.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

itemization

1. I spent a full eight hours at work in the library today. And if you mean, as I do, "work" in the sense of being a librarian rather than doing research, it's been a while since I could say that. But our new cataloging program must be installed and configured and tested, and the data from the old program migrated into it (always a hair-raising procedure), and the volunteer data inputters trained in the small but subtle differences between the programs. And this wasn't the first nearly-full day and won't be the last.

2. Found time to attend the C.S. Lewis book group's discussion of The Screwtape Letters. In a later preface to the book, Lewis said his insights into sin were not the fruit of deep theological study, and quoted "'My heart' - I need no other's - 'showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly.'" (Psalm 36: well, that's one translation) And one can see Lewis applying this tough self-critique in the work itself, as in Letter 3, where the devil uses the man's exasperation with his mother as a way of getting him to pray for an abstracted person while never noticing how uncharitable his real feelings are.

But then our moderator asked for examples of Screwtapian evil in modern life, and while the participants made many fine abstract declarations, when they got into specifics it was all about those pernicious liberals: a women's group cursing out a visitor whose only crime was to have voted for Trump, as if there were no harm in that; or hypocritically promoting scientific reliability while ignoring the American College of Pediatricians (and with a name like that, you just know they've got to represent the settled opinion of 98% of scientists) declaring that juvenile transexuality is merely a mental disorder. The members of this Lewis group call themselves Christian; did they really not notice that by their examples being only crude charges against their opponents how perfectly uncharitable they were being? Apparently not.

3. Also got out to a youth symphony concert featuring an excellent rendition of the rarely-heard work I went there for, Glazunov's Fifth Symphony. This is about my favorite of the lesser-known czarist-era symphonies. Here, this is a good performance, though various coughs and such from right by the videographer made me jump.

4. And what am I reading to cleanse my mind between intense bouts of Tolkien-editing? I'm re-reading Continental America by D.W. Meinig, the absolutely definitive geographical history of the expansion, developing boundaries (including internal), settlement patterns, and the geographic side of economic history and race relations, of the 19th century U.S. You've seen those popular books that explain how the states got their shapes? They're trivial fluff. This is the book with the full and real story.

5. B. sent me this. Oy.