Monday, September 25, 2017

English suites no. 3

I'd started with Gustav Holst, so one's thoughts then turn to his close friend and colleague Ralph Vaughan Williams. VW is, to my ear, the greatest of all 20C British composers, but he wasn't as keen on the suite as a form as Holst was.

He did write a few, though, and a highly characteristic one is the Charterhouse Suite for strings. This has an unusual origin. VW wrote it for piano, an instrument he was not often drawn to. It was arranged for strings by another hand, but it still sounds a lot like VW, in part because the arranger was good, he worked under VW's supervision, and also because much of the music is modal, typical of his work.

The six movements are Prelude (0.01), Slow dance (1.44), Quick dance (3.40), Slow air (5.57), Rondo (9.40), and Pezzo ostinato (11.43). Enjoy the attractive views of the English countryside on the visual side of this file, too. Since RVW was pre-eminently the composer who caught the spirit of the land ("cowpat music," those who didn't like it called it), that's appropriate.

old movies

I came across a list I once made of movies that had been nominated for major Oscars (picture, acting, directing, writing), which seemed to be the best way to manipulate Oscar statistics to most closely approximate a list of notable movies.

I'd also noted which ones I'd seen, and have been filling in gaps of time by watching (from YouTube, which has a lot) some famous early 50s movies I'd never seen before. 3 1/2 of them, and they are:

Sunset Boulevard. The real winner of the bunch. The gothic atmosphere, and outstandingly vivid performances by leads Gloria Swanson (Norma) and William Holden (Joe) - Swanson is playing a grotesque caricature of herself, and why did she agree to do it? - made for an engrossing movie. This despite holes in the plot. When did the swimming pool, which plays such an important part in the story, get cleaned and filled up? It was empty and had rats living in it when Joe arrived at Norma's mansion. This relates to a general inconsistency as to whether Norma is keeping glamorous and up to date - her clothes are - or is a crazy cat lady recluse. Also, Joe is one of those characters so common in old movies who keep abruptly and inexplicably changing their minds. He dumps the (rather insipid) Betty by declaring his satisfaction with being kept by Norma, and then immediately turns around and leaves Norma, saying he's going back to Ohio, the one option he'd ruled out earlier as it would be an admission of failure in Hollywood. WTF does he want? Is he self-destructive? If so, he gets what he wanted.

All About Eve. Another movie about actors, and also so negative I'm astonished they could get any actors to perform it. Bette Davis (Margo) and Gary Merrill (Bill) got married in real life as their characters do in the movie, and a few years later had the same messy divorce that you can see Margo and Bill headed for. The movie seems pretty well performed, but perhaps it's flat writing that made it less interesting than Sunset Blvd. At a party, Margo is being pissy, and her friends say they've seen her like this before; is she getting over it or getting into it? She walks away and then turns around and delivers one of the most famous lines in film history: "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night." But it isn't, not really. And if I started discussing Eve, I'd be here all day, so let's drop it. I should just add that there's a minor, and apparently unnecessary, ingenue character played by a then-unknown washed-out blonde named Marilyn Monroe. I wouldn't have predicted much of a career for her.

High Noon. I recognize that this is an Important Political Message flick, but it's not really a very good movie. The Big Bad is coming to town on the noon train, and marshal Gary Cooper spends a tedious hour wandering around town trying to find deputies to help him fight the guy, but everybody chickens out and he has to face him down by himself. That's it; that's the whole movie. There's a huge lack of context: who is this Quaker woman Coop has just married, and why did they hitch up? If he's so sure the Big Bad is going to be trouble, why can't he do anything about the 3 henchmen hanging around the train station? (And talk about scenes that ought to be suspenseful but aren't: wow.) And even if Big Bad is sure to shoot Coop if he sees him, if Coop skips town - which everyone is expecting him to do - what will Big Bad do then? As far as I can tell from what the townsfolk say, his evil plan is to liven up the saloon and bring more customers to the hotel.

Father of the Bride. I think maybe I should just avoid old comedies. This one was too painfully bad and unfunny to watch.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

a memorial for Jordin Kare

This was held yesterday afternoon, at Jordin's sister's house in the Presidio Heights of San Francisco, a neighborhood so pleasant it actually had available street parking.

A fair but not overwhelming crowd appeared, of SF fans, filkers, and scientist-engineers, all of which Jordin was. Many were people B. and I knew, though some I had not seen for many years.

Like other such gatherings I've attended, it featured people taking turns to offer reminiscences and tributes, but unlike some it did not last interminably. The tributes lasted no more than an hour and a half, after which we milled and ate from the table spread. B. and I were able to make our rounds and then leave early enough to get home for dinner, which made things easier for us and also for the cats.

The first speaker was a scientific colleague who spoke of Jordin's energy and prolificity as marked by his hundreds of patents with hundreds more still pending (it's a slow process), by the end of which he will be one of the few, all very recent, who have surpassed Thomas Edison's record for greatest number.

When it was my turn, I spoke of much that I said in my memorial post, emphasizing how in organizing The Westerfilk Collection and encouraging his colleagues, including myself, to do our best and hardest work, he was displaying the same leadership skills he'd later apply to building rockets and designing laser propulsion.

Of course we also spoke of Jordin's quick wit. My favorite story of the day came from a SF con panel at which one had described his experiment in which rats were taught to run a maze; but by giving them an electric shock afterwards they forgot it all and had to re-learn from scratch the next day. Jordin immediately spoke up.

"So you pulled a habit out of a rat," he said.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

English suites no. 2

This is here to show that Gustav Holst could also write music that doesn't sound hearty-English. Many European composers have written "tourist music," assimilations of flavors from elsewhere in the world to the European idiom, inspired either by visits or sometimes just by a score collection of music from that country.

Holst really did visit Algiers; the Beni Mora Suite is his report on North African music, and my favorite of his out-of-the-regular-order music. An exotic and hypnotic piece, especially in its third and final movement, beginning at 10:24, which repeats a tuneless phrase that Holst heard a bamboo flute player perform nonstop for two hours. (Here it lasts less than 7 minutes.)

(Some critics have called this movement "proto-minimalism," proving only that they don't have the slightest idea what minimalism is.)

notes

1. Another commitment today means I can't attend the Redwood Symphony's opening concert tonight, despite my interest and the pleas both of my editors and its conductor to have me there reviewing it, so I substituted by using it as the kick-off for a round-up of the local classical concert season. Word-count restrictions meant I had to stuff the professional chamber music societies at the end (and I even left out entirely the one that plays in a dreadful hall).

2. Cat report: Maia has a particular sound, a rising trilled purr, which means "Please resume scritching my head." Every time I took even the briefest pause from this arduous duty, she'd utter this. Petting sessions customarily last about ten minutes (until she jumps down from the bed), twice a day after meals. You can count on it. Pippin, meanwhile, is still thinking outside of the box, to the pleasure only of the accountants in the paper towel industry.

3. If Jimmy Kimmel knows more about health care than a passel of Republican Senators, which sadly he does, then it's no surprise that John Cleese knows more about political analysis than a passel of reporters. In this interview he points out something that's puzzled me. Every time I see an article purporting to explain why Trump won so many working-class votes, the article goes into great detail about economic suffering, particularly in rural areas, but never - not once - do they go on and address the question that this is the first time I've seen put in print. In Cleese's words, "why on Earth did the less successful people think Trump was going to do anything he said he was going to do to help them?"

4. I'm not happy with having a "president" implying threats of nuclear war against another country, are you? I suspect the rest of the world isn't thrilled either. And as long as it's still limited to trading verbal personal insults, I have to say that the other, non-English-speaking, party has a more virtuosic command of English-language insults than our English-speaking one has.

5. Anybody re-watched the video of "Despacito" since the hurricanes hit Puerto Rico? Wondering whether anything in the outdoor scenes is still standing? That'd make a great hook for a feature article, but I haven't seen anything of the sort.

6. I was not tremendously thrilled by my experience having an evening out at a comedy club in LA, but it wasn't a bad experience, and lordy lordy was it nowhere near as awful as this.

7. Another thing I did in LA was return to the Richard Nixon Presidential Museum. I'd been there once when it was a private entity, and I awed at its description of Watergate as a conspiracy organized by John Dean and Sam Ervin to overthrow Nixon. I wanted to see how it's changed now that the museum is federally-owned. The contents have been entirely revamped, and the Watergate display is a detailed timeline of impressive veracity, but other parts of the museum are more slanted (there's an implication that South Vietnam fell only because Congress failed to appropriate enough money to support it after the US pulled out), and the only books on Watergate in the gift shop are more conspiracy theory nut jobs.

8. Teenagers who don't drink, drive, or date. Note that this is only a trend. "The portion of high school students who’d had sex fell from 54 percent in 1991 to 41 percent in 2015." Still a lot on both sides at both dates. Apparently the reason they haven't learned to drive is that the only reasons they see to drive are to get you to places where you can drink or date. Well, even back in my day I didn't drink nor date in high school, but I did drive, because it was the only way to get anywhere in the trackless suburbs, even to go shopping. And my parents were thrilled to have me available to drive my little brothers to their lessons et al so that they didn't have to do it; they encouraged me to get my license at the first available opportunity. The newer law prohibiting under-18s from driving other minors without an adult present would not have pleased my parents. And maybe that's a reason for the difference.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

English suites no. 1

This has been Gustav Holst's birthday, as the radio announcer kindly informed me, so it's as good a time as any to use a Holst work to launch a musical project I've been mulling for some time, which is a series of pleasant, mostly modern, suites, first by English composers and then branching out.

This is probably the best-known one I'll be presenting in the entire series, Holst's St. Paul's Suite. It's played by a student orchestra from Poland, which might account for the unusual sonority. The players are all female, appropriately, as Holst wrote the work for the students of the St. Paul's Girls' School, where he taught music for many years.

Like many of the suites to come, it's in four movements vaguely replicating sonata form, and the finale, as with many of Holst's best works, incorporates a sturdy old English folk tune.

oh Hillary

In the airport, waiting for my flight out, I wandered into the bookstore to see what there was to read, and saw the newly-released Hillary Clinton memoir, What Happened (this was last Thursday, and the official publication had been that Tuesday).

Excellent. This was my chance to register my vote against those who had been declaring that she should keep silent and disappear. So I bought a copy, and read it on the trip. Now B. has it.

Anyone who says that the author blames everyone but herself hasn't read the book. She takes on a full measure of responsibility and owns up to some specific mistakes, as well as to some decisions that might have been mistakes or not (like not calling out Trump when he stalked her onstage), because who knows how it would have come out if she'd done differently?

But, you know, 'it takes a village' and Comey and the feckless media deserve their share of blame too. (And if defeating Trump should have been a slam dunk, then why couldn't Jeb, Mario, Ted, or any of the rest of that gang do it? Especially after all the pleadings to suspend the rules and do it?) In fact, the only people whom Clinton doesn't blame at all are her staffers.

Which points to the problem with the book, which is that, while Clinton may be willing to own up to having committed faults, I don't think she really understands what they are. Too much of her defense consists of demonstrating that she tried hard, as if that amounted to doing a good job (the "A for effort as a final grade" fallacy). Nor does she seem to be able to think of appropriate sound bites to respond to attacks. She was flustered by the quoting out of context of the "putting coal miners out of work" line, so why didn't she respond by putting it back in context by simply repeating the next line of the original speech, which amounted to therefore we must take care of these people?

Like the policy wonk she is, Clinton spends a lot of the book diving into specifics of proposals, which is fine; but, like Obama too often, she lacks aspiration, stars to steer by, goals that may be unreachable but that at least you aim for. That's what gives people hope, and gives them the energy to work for the lesser, practical goals that are actually achievable. Bernie Sanders understands this, and that's what generated enthusiasm. Electing a woman shatters a barrier but isn't a substitute for this.

There'll be plenty of time to move on to the next thing. But as historians, we need to understand where we've been and how we got there. This is a start.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

why

You travel hundreds of miles to attend the memorial service of someone you hardly ever met because of your love and affection for the mourners in their family, whom you do know well. That's why it's more than worth the trip.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

concert review: Pacific Symphony

I'd known that Orange County had its own professional orchestra, but up until now almost nothing about it. But opportunity arose, so I found my way to the office park between Santa Ana and Costa Mesa where lies the Segerstrom Concert Hall. It's right next door to another venue also called Segerstrom Hall, which had on a stage play. It would be futile to suggest that this is confusing.

The hall is small, shaped more like a hatbox than a shoebox, and has bright beefy acoustics. This was ideal for displaying the orchestra, led by longtime music director Carl St. Clair, in the Farewell and Magic Fire Music chunk from Wagner's Die Walk├╝re, completely riding over even the immensely powerful and profoundly deep voice of experienced Wotan Greer Grimsley. (Grimsley looks rather like Patrick Stewart with a full head of long hair, and sounds not unlike him too.)

This acoustic quality would be highly exposing of performing flaws, but there really weren't any. St. Clair gave an urgent searching quality to Wagner, Strauss's Don Juan, and the anchor of the program, Beethoven's Fifth. An abrupt way with the fermatas on the opening theme reinforced that. The orchestra was tightly marshaled without being strained, and had a smooth sound with only the piccolo poking out on top.

There's a huge video display above the orchestra, though the hall is not so large as to need one. But this is LA, where nothing is real unless it appears on screen.

Pre-concert lecturer Alan Chapman noted the simple construction of Beethoven's famous opening motif, and said that "the genius of Beethoven (or Mozart) is to take something that simple and make something that complex from it." That's exactly right, and sums up what awed me about this work on my first encounter with it, an encounter which made me a permanent fan of the heavy classics.

In other good news, availed myself of proximity to have a long palaver with Sartorias in her lair.

In sad news, heard of the recent death of DavE Romm. Alas. I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

going out

As for why I'm in LA, that will come later. But as long as I'm here, I decided to try out two iconic entertainment venues that I'd never been to before.

My reaction to the Hollywood Bowl was, "And now I don't ever have to come here again." Hearing that parking was dicey, I took a park-and-ride bus that delivered us to the front entrance. But words are insufficient to describe the battery of elevators, escalators, tunnels, and other passages, plus a metal detector, that it was still necessary to pass through, past an assortment of stands selling hot dogs and banh mi sandwiches, and picnic tables packed with people eating them, to head further uphill to the arena itself. It was an even longer and more arduous walk afterwards to where they parked the buses to leave, though at least that was downhill.

The arena itself is huge. I splurged on a plastic sports-stadium seat, instead of the wooden benches. I think I was a quarter mile from the stage, and yet still less than halfway up the seating area. There are large video screens by the side, and a tinny amplification system. This did not enhance an otherwise creditable all-Mozart program by the LA Phil. And the Bowl's clout does not extent to prohibiting aircraft from flying overhead during the concert. I would far rather have gone back to Disney Hall, if only the regular LA Phil season there had started yet.

The Comedy Store was a new experience for me. In my extreme youth (and I mean extreme) I saw live both Bill Cosby (in a theater) and Allan Sherman (in a hotel lounge). But I don't think I'd seen live comedy since then. I didn't know quite what it'd be like. The main room is a nightclub setup, with upright chairs and small cocktail tables. The doorwardens ask you how many are in your party, and escort you to seats they choose. I wound up sharing a table with two young women who conversed during the entire show. The performers' microphone was loud enough that I didn't have trouble hearing, but the distraction was still annoying. Fortunately we are long past the days when smoking was allowed in such places.

The show consisted of a series of 15 or 20 minute stand-up comedy sets, each ending by the performer abruptly announcing, "I gotta leave now" (did a red light go on at the back of the room?) but then having to stick around for the degrading job of introducing their successor, after asking the PA guy who it'd be. It started at 9 pm, and how long it lasted I don't know, because after about 2 hours people started to leave, enabling the performers to start making whining jokes about how few people were still there to hear them. I stayed for 3 hours and heard 10 or 12; I lost count. One black man, one white woman, the rest all white men. Lots of jokes about male-female relations, mostly rueful about the foibles of men. Most of the performers were in their 40s or older; the audience looked mostly under 40. This enabled a couple of the Gen-X types to make jokes about Millennials, rather hostile ones. One of the oldest performers made jokes about AA meetings, an underexplored and impressively productive topic for humor. The only performer I'd ever heard of was Yakov Smirnoff, though I gathered from the introductions that some are known for their podcasts or tweets; it's a new world. Most of the performers were pretty good, a couple decidedly not.

Tickets were actually a $20 cover charge; you're required to buy at least two drinks, but considering that this is a profit-making function, it wasn't too much a ripoff at $8 for a glass of wine or $4 for a Coke, which were my choices. Fortunately the servers were on the ball, because they take your credit card when you order your first drink and don't bring it back until you finish your last, which is alarming. They claim to offer vouchers for parking at a garage 3 blocks away (a long walk), but there was nobody at the exit to give me one when I left.