Wednesday, February 21, 2018

reading Le Guin

One peculiar, and not really justifiable, effect on me of Ursula K. Le Guin's death is that it took this freezing of her life work (except for what may come out posthumously, of course) to nudge me into looking over her list of books to see what I was missing.

Among the few was her last poetry collection, Late in the Day (PM Press, 2016). This just arrived. It begins with the text of a prose talk offering poetry as a way for people to learn to live wakefully with the environment around them: not just animals, but plants and inanimate things. This is not a new thought for Le Guin: her essay collection Cheek by Jowl (2009) concerns awareness of animals, and her earlier collection Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences (1987) includes stories and poems not just about animals but about plants and rocks. (Remember "The Direction of the Road," a story old even then [1974], that remarkable tree's perspective on the world?)

Reading the new poems, I am most struck by the close contemplation of physical objects, especially the one on two kitchen spoons, one new and one old. Feeling these poems seep into me, I find myself dropping into something possibly resembling free verse - I don't know if this works; I've never written in this form before - about a physical object that came into my awareness while I was sitting on the living room couch reading the book.


Someone will be hungry tonight.

For their breakfast has come out
by the way it went in
onto the carpet.

Warm and dun-colored
it nestles as I scoop it
into the paper towels.

Monday, February 19, 2018

concert review: Danish String Quartet

The four blond men with the three blond beards who made a hit at Menlo a few years ago, and whom I subsequently reviewed in Berkeley, are back, with what the presenter proudly advertised as their first San Francisco performance - their previous local concerts were outside the city limits, so you can technically get away with this claim.

They played the Bartok First in a late-late-Romantic style, making it sound garrulous, and the First Razumovsky* in a proto-proto-modernist style, making it sound choppy. Though I admit the Adagio molto hit a level of profundity that would do credit to Op. 132.

The program was filled out with the quartet's own arrangements of a series of Danish, Norwegian, and Faroese folk songs. The arrangements were delicate and tentative, with light vibrato-less melodies over one or two lines of counterpoint or soft chords. Listening to these made me feel as if I were relaxed at the Freight instead of tense at Herbst.

Through all of this, seated behind me were a pair of young boys who, from the noises they were making, were thunderously bored. Why were they there at all? This was not a beginners' program.

*If the Bartok First is the first quartet by Bartok, is the First Razumovsky the first quartet by Razumovsky? No, it's the first of three by Beethoven that were commissioned by and dedicated to Count Razumovsky, and they're just called that for convenience's sake. Classical snobs expect each other to know things like this. The Paganini Rhapsody isn't by Paganini either.

English suites and others no. 25

The final stop on our Celtic tour of the British isles is The Isle of Man. Man is a small island, famous more for its tailless cats than its music. The Bee Gees were born there, but they didn't stay long, and they're of no use to me anyway. The only classical composer I could find from Man was Haydn Wood (1882-1959), who was not Manx by origin, but who spent most of his childhood living there, and remained fond of the place. His catalog includes several Manx-inspired works, of which the best is a tone poem for symphonic band titled Mannin Veen, which means "Dear Isle of Man." The U.S. Marine Band, of all people, do it justice.

Like Edward German's Welsh Rhapsody, this is a single movement, rather than a suite, based on a series of contrasting folk tunes. But it's organized differently. Wood presents all four of his themes in the first half of the work, and then elaborates further on them in the second half. With the timing of their first appearances, they are The Good Old Way (Methodist air) (0.01), The Manx Fiddler (reel) (2.23), Sweet Water in the Common (3.25), and The Harvest of the Sea (Manx fishermen's evening hymn) (4.50).

After this, I have a few favorite haunts in continental Europe ...

Sunday, February 18, 2018

two recitals

B. accompanied me to Stanford twice this weekend for a pair of student vocal recitals, each by a collection of students of one voice teacher or another.

The better and more popular of these - it packed the small rehearsal hall it was held in on Saturday evening, to the surprise of the performers, though they shouldn't have been - was by students of the estimable Wendy Hillhouse doing an elaborate and extensive all-Sondheim program, 24 numbers from 11 shows written over a 25-year period. There were a few cases of miscasting, and a regrettably large amount of flubbing lines, but all the singers were good.

Judging purely by results here, Sondheim's best show is Follies, as the two solo numbers from that were highlights: the saturnine Ian Anstee (also the Wolf in Into the Woods and George in Sunday in the Park, and he should have done Sweeney) in Buddy's frantically neurotic blues number, and the turbo-powered Taylor Wright (who regrettably did nothing else) in "Broadway Baby." Zoƫ Sonnenberg forgot bits of her fast-nervous patter as Amy in "Getting Married Today" from Company, but she was hilarious doing it. The evening finished up with the first act finale from Into the Woods, as of course it would.

A regular Friday noon concert was less attended. This featured four sopranos and a tenor doing a couple songs apiece, a mixture from opera, concert song, and musical theater. B's professional ear and eye produced a few lessons for my consideration on the drive home:
1. If you're a soprano, don't sing a piece in the mezzo range. You won't be able to put any power behind it, and you'll be inaudible.
2. Even if your piece is an opera aria, don't act the whole thing out in a song recital.
3. A minidress that looks like your abbreviated nightie is inadvisable for this venue.

Some of the singing was good, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's setting of Desdemona's sorrowful "willow, willow" was an impressive compositional discovery. But the tenor, who badly needed a tune-up, and also some remedial lessons on the phonemes of English (not his native tongue) and stage presence, attempted King George's song "You'll Be Back" from Hamilton, with results as grisly as you might imagine.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

addendum to San Francisco Symphony

1) I noticed that several sections were being led by their second-chair players. The principals were off this week. That didn't prevent first-class playing. This orchestra has quality in depth.

2) The article on Beethoven in the program book was very short. In fact, this season all the program notes have been getting short. They already, a few years ago, introduced one-paragraph precis versions of the notes for those who didn't care to read the full essays; now they're not even giving you the option. All you can do is choose between short and shorter.

3) My travel habits to the City are changing drastically. The extra service charge that BART has slapped onto dedicated BART tickets is probably what convinced me to buy a Clipper card, which is what BART is trying to persuade its customers to do instead. The Clipper is the local multi-transit system electronic fare card, equivalent to London's Oyster card. I'd never bought one before, both because I don't take transit often, and because the instructions for using the Clipper were so bewildering. However, before buying it I phoned them up and got some helpful answers.

It turns out that the fuss involved in buying BART tickets for each journey (which I always purchased with cash, and never for large quantities, partly because the paper tickets are fragile) was one of the reasons I often drove to concerts in the City instead. Since buying the Clipper I've been to three concerts, and found myself taking BART to each one. Further, not having to buy a separate fare on Muni, the City's bus-and-streetcar system, has encouraged me to take that. I take BART to where I want to have dinner, and then take Muni, which can get me closer to Davies or Herbst than BART can.

The catch is leaving, since it's less convenient to take Muni back to BART. I can walk the several blocks to the nearest BART station, but it's a slog. Here's where the Symphony can be of help, because they've contracted with a private jitney bus system to provide post-concert shuttle service from the front of the hall to BART.

Well, in theory. Last week I waited 20 minutes until the concertgoers had entirely dispersed, but the bus never showed up. I'd put it out of my mind in the interim, but this week, on arriving, I went and talked with the Symphony's house manager about the problem. To his credit, though he has no control over the buses, he acknowledged that, since the Symphony contracts with them, it's his responsibility to ensure they run properly. He surprised me by saying this is not the only time the bus didn't show up. He thanked me for providing the specifics of a failure case, and invited me to drop by his office when I come back next week to hear what he'll have learned from talking with the bus company.

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Blomstedt week 2, and this venerable conductor (he's now 90) who gets in his retirement to specialize in the red-meat repertoire chose an utterly meaty program of Mozart's big G-minor symphony, K. 550, and Beethoven's Eroica.

No, it's not boring or overdone. These works are supreme accomplishments of the two greatest composers ever to work in orchestral music, and since music is a performing art that only lives if it's played, they need no excuses. Nor need a performance be revelatory so long as it's incisive, which these were particularly in the finales, traditionally Blomstedt's weak point, so good on him and the orchestra there.

An article in the program book bemoans the fact that Beethoven's music sounds familiar and expected to us. It was intended as shocking, and heard by its contemporaries as such. I don't worry too much about that. Beethoven well played is abrupt and dramatic enough when he intends to be as to convey the point.

And I haven't forgotten my own first encounter. When I first placed an LP of his Fifth Symphony on the turntable at the age of 12, my knowledge of his music was nil. I'd never heard any. All I knew of his symphonies was that there were nine of them and that number five went "da-da-da-dum." It was curiosity as to what else it did that led me to try it out.

It took some courage to do so. I'd been listening to light classics, but the term "symphony" intimidated me. I was almost afraid to listen to one. Would I be able to make any sense of it at all?

Actually it was love as soon as the needle hit the disk. I was awed and transfixed at the massive structure Beethoven built out of his four-note phrase, a form of musical construction I'd had no hint existed, and I was an instant convert: the heavy classics were for me. As the LP of the Fifth came from a box set, within weeks I was familiar with all nine and ready to move on to Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, and all the rest.

Returning to last night's program, I'd note also that Blomstedt took both slow movements unusually fast, at least in the context of the relatively moderate tempo speeds he used for the fast movements.

This concert was not in my series, so I wound up sitting, though in pretty much the same relative position as my regular seat, on the other side of the hall. To my surprise the music sounded different there: more compressed, condensed, and seeming to emanate from a single point down below, as a result of which it sounded almost monophonic. Maybe that explains why some listeners dislike the side balconies so.

Friday, February 16, 2018

English suites and others no. 24

Say, remember our Celtic musical tour? Across the sea now to Ireland. Our tourist guide to Irish folk tunes is Leroy Anderson - an American of Swedish descent, not Irish at all - who was the staff composer for the Boston Pops for many years. Many of the brief pieces he wrote them became embedded in American popular culture, such as "Sleigh Ride," which with lyrics added became a Christmas carol. Anderson also had a knack for music about mechanical objects, such as one called "The Syncopated Clock" or his concerto for typewriter and orchestra. (Jerry Lewis had a routine in which he would mime to this piece and lose track of his place, but I'll spare you a link to that.)

So here Anderson applies his quite impressive Harvard-trained skills at orchestration and arrangement to a set of what passed in 1940s American ears as typical Irish melodies: a mixture of ballads of the kind that used to be sung by John McCormack with some equally hoary dance tunes, all played by the Boston Pops under its venerable conductor, Arthur Fiedler.

For this Irish Suite, we've got The Irish Washerwoman (0.00), The Minstrel Boy (2.56), The Rakes of Mallow (7.24), The Wearing of the Green (10.42), The Last Rose of Summer (14.07), and The Girl I Left Behind Me (18.05). Applause separates each movement - this is a Pops concert, after all - so you can tell where you are even if you don't know the tunes, though I expect you will.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

on this bus

Deb N. read The 57 Bus, "a true story of two teenagers and the crime that changed their lives," by Dashka Slater. I was curious and decided to pick it up from the library. It's 305 brief pages and reads fast.

The incident occurred in 2013 in Oakland. Two students from different high schools are on a city bus. Sasha, white, a senior, identifies as agender (preferring the pronoun "they"), likes to wear both neckties and skirts, is dozing in the back of the bus. Richard, black, a junior, has been in trouble but is identified by himself and others as mostly a good kid, is fooling around with some friends, flicks a lighter and touches it to Sasha's skirt.

It's flammable, and ignites. Sasha is seriously burned, but eventually recovers. Richard is arrested the next day and charged as an adult.

You'd think the book would mostly cover the aftermath, and it does, but the author is just as concerned with portraying both characters and the contexts of the lives they led before the incident. It's very interesting, but my own takeaway focuses on two other things:

1. Why did Richard do it? The first assumption of many observers is that it's some sort of homophobic hate crime and the police interview tends to confirm that; but Richard insists he intended no serious harm and just thought it would be funny for someone to wake up and find their clothes smoldering, which is what he thought would happen.

We can discuss whether playing with fire is an appropriate occupation for 16-year-olds, a conversation this book evades, but the point is that it'd be a different conversation than one about homophobia or "hate crimes."

2. The story offers a continuing lesson that agendered pronouns present a different and more complex socio-linguistic challenge than pronouns for binary transsexuality do. Sasha had made an announcement at school: "It's important to respect people's preferred pronouns and if you're not sure what those are, you should ask."

Fine, but there's no time to ask a stranger about preferred pronouns when you're trying to put out their clothes that are on fire. In the description of this scene, which is evidently transcribed from the bus's security camera video, everyone refers to Sasha as "he," which - the author has eventually gotten around to telling us - is what Sasha was born as and evidently still looks like. (And which is a given if Richard is to be charged with homophobia over the skirt.) Even Sasha's parents, who know the preferred pronoun, keep getting it wrong, and not just under stress. These are very deep waters we're getting into, much deeper than we've experienced with previous linguistic adjustments.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Going to the wrong airport.

Fortunately, I've never done that. Ensuring I have the right airport is something I check while booking. I narrowly missed it once, though. The valet who fetched the taxi when I was leaving my hotel from a conference in Chicago said to me, "Going to the airport?" to which I just nodded, but then he made an unwarranted assumption and said to the driver "O'Hare." I had to correct this and told the driver, "No, I'm going to Midway." Fortunately, if I hadn't heard the valet, I know Chicago well enough that I'd soon have realized if we were heading the wrong way.

When planning our trip to Rome some years back, my first attempt at an airline booking was British Airways, to change in London. But I read the fine print and noticed that while our arriving flight landed at Heathrow, the departure was from Gatwick. No, I don't think so. But a bus between those two might have been less bad than what we got from Air France, which was a walk across the De Gaulle airport terminal. What was terrible about that? The cigarette smoke.

What I have to watch out for is near-duplicate street names.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

musical notes

1. I reviewed a concert from last weekend, the Redwood Symphony. The music director in forwarding this to his mailing list called it very nice, but opined that "much more enthusiasm in the tone is warranted."

Yes, it could have been much more enthusiastic. It wasn't. There's a reason. It was a good concert, but I wasn't enthused. The Stravinsky was very well played, and I did say the players "were at their finest," but when I called Kirke Mechem's 1960s symphony "a worthy slice of chromatic tonal modernism," the implication that it's interchangeable with a lot of other slices was deliberate. I've heard a lot of works like that from that period that neither attracted nor repelled me. If I wrote with enthusiasm, what words would I have left for something which genuinely enthused me?

What interested me more was Mechem's statement that he no longer wrote symphonies, or much other concert music, after 1970, because he couldn't get his conservative modernism played. He elaborates on this in his memoir, Believe Your Ears, which I read through before the concert. To an extent it's an indictment of the serialist hegemony, the one whose proponents continue to insist it never existed. Mechem considers himself a victim of it. To the argument that lots of tonal composers continued to write all that time, including himself, Mechem says: look at the textbooks and the listeners' guides to modern music of the time. Those composers were ridiculed, belittled, dismissed, or totally ignored. And I certainly noticed that at the time, in the 1960s and 1970s. That's why I call them the Hidden City.

2. Enough of that. Obituaries have been appearing for Vic Damone, a lesser figure among the great wave of Italian-American male crooners so prominent in American popular music in the mid 20C. I confess I only know his name for the occasion that he, along with Dean Martin, a better-known crooner of the same ethnicity, shared a TV session with Allan Sherman - who was neither Italian nor a crooner - to sing some of Sherman's briefer and punchier song parodies, some of which made it on to his own albums and some of which didn't. The first one is a rather cranky generational clash, but the rest are just silly. The three of them had a fun-filled and unedited time of it. Watch Damone at 4:45 stumble over a spoonerism on his way to one of the most telegraphed puns in musical history.