Wednesday, November 28, 2012


(This is a review of a concert hall that hasn't even opened yet, so it's both long and esoteric)

Because it was built on its founder's ranch, Stanford University has, geographically, the largest and most spread-out college campus in the US, and probably the world. Its music facilities, however, are gratifyingly compact. About 35 years ago the music department offices and library moved from a ramshackle mansion on a hill down to a purpose-built building right in the heart of campus, where they have a tiny recital hall, called Campbell, busy with performances of obscure or academic interest; and it's right next to the university's small concert hall, Dinkelspiel Auditorium, much used also by the university's public performances agency, which recently changed its name from the straightforward "Stanford Lively Arts" to "Stanford Live", which reads like something Igor would say to Dr. Frankenstein.

Unfortunately, Dinky, as we call it, has problems as a venue. It's old and bland, in a dull postwar composite-modern architectural style, the bathrooms are tiny and cramped, and parking availability in the heart of campus can be nonexistent at worst. The hall is in amphitheater shape, broader than it is deep, and while sightlines are good, acoustics are very spotty. (The larger hall, Memorial Auditorium a few blocks away, is in WPA style and even duller acoustically.)

So Stanford undertook a few years ago to build a new small concert hall, to replace both of them, and to be suitable for Music Dept. everyday use as well as concerts by both the department and Stanford Live. Because there's no more room in the center, it's over on the other side of campus, in the fringes of the arboreal greenbelt separating Stanford from the city of Palo Alto. It's called the Bing Concert Hall, for a wealthy alumnus donor whose name was already speckled over campus. It's opening in January. And yesterday was a press preview of the facility, to which the always-solicitous Stanford Live staff kindly invited me. At least that's how it was billed: I doubt that more than 15 of the 80 or so guests were press; the rest appeared to be mostly from other Stanford departments, with a few I recognized representing other local arts organizations, like Music@Menlo.

Strangely, although rehearsals are already going on there and we were told it sounds great, we didn't get to hear any music. There was a reception with coffee and noshables in the lobby, an hour's panel in the hall, and an opportunity to wander around the building, both auditorium and backstage. The panel included administrators from both SLA and the Music Dept., the architect and acoustician, a music prof whose opera will be premiered here this season, and two noted violinists, Geoff Nuttall of the St. Lawrence Quartet (Stanford resident ensemble) and David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet (frequent SLA performers). They ought to have been encouraged to bring along their violins and give us maybe a little unaccompanied Bach or something, but no.

Everyone involved in creating the place was so pleased with the accomplishment, and with the support from Stanford during the recession that proves the university's commitment to the arts. They spoke of a long-term plan to turn this isolated patch of campus into an arts center - there's already a nice new visual art museum some distance away, with more buildings to come. I don't think the music department will be moving any time soon, so its facilities will be far away, and I'll miss not being able easily to drop into the music library after concerts to look things up. At least there's lots of instrument lockers for student musicians to use here.

Bing is less conspicuous on the outside than it looks impressive from the inside. (The conceptual drawings on its website are wholly misleading.) The lobby is austere, high-ceilinged, and faces the outside with glass walls. There's plenty of room to sell CDs, upcoming tickets, or intermission snacks. The warm-looking auditorium, though much smaller than Disney Hall's in LA, resembles it so much that I was not surprised to learn that they were designed by the same acoustician (though not the same architect). I once described Disney Hall this way: "the auditorium inside consists of interlocking shells and resembles a symmetrical glass candy dish - except that it's made of wood - with the performers down in the base where the candy crumbs go." And that's what we have here, except that it has only 2 1/2 levels of seating areas as against Disney's five or more, and carries just 842 seats (Disney has over 2200). It turns out that this is called "vineyard" design, because the look reminded someone once of terraced vine cultivation [some folks like wine; I prefer to think of candy], it was invented half a century ago for the then-new Berlin Philharmonic hall, and a lot of blither was emitted at the panel about how it maximizes closeness to the performers, immediacy of the music, and intimacy and equality with your fellow audience members.

The wood at Bing, by the way, is textured beech against the walls, and yellow Alaskan cedar in the stage area, a wood so reverberant and soft that you can feel that quality from just walking on it. It looks fine now, but it's going to get badly scuffed up real fast.

There's one other big difference between the halls: Although the performing area at Disney looks like it's down in the middle, it's actually neither quite the lowest spot nor quite centrally located. Only about 15% of Disney's seats, I'd guess, are actually behind the performing area. At Bing, it really is the bottom - the first row of front seats are right on the same level as the stage - and it really is in the middle, which means that half the seats are functionally behind the performers, and it's that which counters the fact that the seating capacity is actually greater than Dinkelspiel's, by about 130 seats. (And once the ticket tiers were revealed, we know that, in any sold-out concert, the folks you're looking at across the way are either paying a quarter what you are, or three times as much, depending which side you're on; so much for audience equality.)

Geoff Nuttall mused over the possibility that his quartet could sit in a square, all facing each other, instead of in the usual semi-circle facing the audience, and I hope they'll try that here. Somebody else mentioned rehearsing a chorus here that decided to sing in an inward-facing circle. Orchestras can't sit that way, but I suspect that won't make much difference here: the hall is small enough and looks reverberant enough that I doubt there'll be much differential acoustics for a large ensemble. The sound here is very exposing, Geoff said: whether that means the student orchestras will sound worse or learn to play better remains to be seen; probably both. What worries me most is pianists (who wants to sit behind the raised lid?) and, as my SFCV collegue Jason Serinus pointed out during the Q&A session, solo singers. I've sat behind solo singers, and, even at Disney, the muffled sound emerging from the backs of their heads is not artistically edifying.

The Kronos Quartet is planning a spring concert including work by Laurie Anderson with projected video accompaniment. This goes on the back wall, so nobody in the back half would be able to see it. A staff member I spoke with speculated that they'll just not sell tickets to that half (the ticket-biz term of art turns out to be "kill the seats"). What I tried to point out to him, but didn't seem to get across, is that, since Kronos concerts at Dinky are always sold out, killing the seats in Bing will create the problem that you're effectively moving them to a much smaller hall instead of a marginally larger one, while not killing them will prevent half the audience from seeing the visuals that they could have seen in the other venue.

I predict trouble over the seating here, lots of trouble, especially in the trying-out phase over the next couple years. Again, the bright-eyed staffers on the panel emitted a lot of blither, less about how all the seats will be equally good than about how different folks will prefer different seats. Maybe (and I've been known to enjoy sitting behind the SFSO at Davies - even though the sound is very different back there - but I don't want to sit there all the time or even most of that time), but I suspect it'll slant strongly in one direction. But I hope, more than expect, that the sound will be awesome and, for large groups, even more overwhelming than it can get at Dinkelspiel. We'll see.

Other amenities: I hope they put up more directional signs before the opening: it's slightly rabbit-warreny in here. The dressing rooms are pretty spacious, and have windows that open over a private courtyard. The public restrooms are merely slightly larger than the ones in Dinky, but there's three of them per sex, not just one, so lines should be mitigated. More alarming is that they're computerized. The stalls have green lights above them that are supposed to turn red when the door is locked, except that they don't. As the briefing indicated that they were already functional, someone ought to look into that. I didn't dare actually to use a toilet or urinal yet, but after trying several of the laser-operated sink faucets, I finally found one that worked, so I don't know if they're not quite functional yet either, or merely the kind that require users to wave their hands around futilely trying to get the faucet to turn on. (The soap dispensers are laser-operated too: lordy.)

One other amenity I do expect to be better besides the restroom lines is the parking. There's a new parking lot across Campus Drive, rather farther away than the Tresidder lot is from Dinky, which will be a bit of a pain when it's raining, but it looks larger and Bing will have less competition for using it. However, it exits onto Lasuen, which is a one-way alley that empties onto a busy artery without a light, so I predict that exiting after a full concert will be a mess of congestion, at least as bad as at Tresidder.

But I'm really, really looking forward to hearing the music here, come January and the spring. This is going to be a fun place to attend concerts.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

more things Vanessa did

Even after an obituary written in the first shock, memories are flooding back.

1. She introduced me to the San Francisco burrito, one of my favorite culinary treats. (This was on the same occasion that she changed clothes in the middle of the sidewalk, though not while eating.)

2. With the permission of the management thereof, she organized a stations-of-the-cross-like ritual to give blessings for the bounteous offerings at her local Trader Joe's. (She wasn't a trained, degree-bearing performance artist for nothing.) I wasn't present on this occasion, unfortunately, but B. was.

3. She could make a bowling ball sandwich of herself. She would stand barefoot on one bowling ball, and balance another one on the top of her head. She demonstrated this for me once in her apartment; alas I didn't see the time she ventured across the Golden Gate Bridge this way.

4. She participated in the only genuine physical fight I've ever seen between two grown women. (I think she started it.) While this was going on - it lasted about 20 seconds - three or four men, including myself, stood around looking sheepish.

Friday, November 23, 2012

dictionary prescriptivist

The real story behind the term "Black Friday". It wasn't meant to be cheerful.

Another term that's been retroactively re-defined: blue moon.

Thanksgiving report

I'm thankful for the feast and for members of B's large, boisterous family to enjoy it with.

I'm thankful that we avoided any political discussion, even though some of them have the most appalling political views this side of the Rockies.

I'm thankful that my own microscopically-sized family was able to join us.

I'm thankful for all the leftovers forced on us to take home.

I'm thankful that the Redskins shook sportsmanlike hands with the Cowboys after beating them in the football game we were desultorily watching.

I'm thankful that my niece-in-law, whom I'd never had a really serious conversation with before, turned out to be a Tolkien reader and sat down to ask me about the upcoming Hobbit movie. (Perhaps her husband, on whom I'd tried to push the book back when he was 12 years old, had told her this was an interest of mine.) I was polite about the subject, as I usually am to outside inquirers, even if certain online idiots don't appreciate it, and promised to send her my review.

I'm thankful that her mother-in-law specifically invited me to their customary family Christmas dinner, even though B. has to work that day and can't go and I'm not even a Christian.

I'm thankful for the friends I saw in LA last week (about which more later, I promise), and for B. - for letting me go off for a week and for so much else.

I'm thankful for the memories of my late great friend Vanessa, more of which have been flooding back in mind (with a supplementary post soon, I expect).

I'm thankful to you for reading my meanderings.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


I came home last night from a week-long trip (going to have to write about that later, instead of now) to find that V., whom I'd known was back in the hospital, was in ICU - I'd already intended to visit today if she was capable of receiving - and the first thing I learn when I get up this morning is that she died last night. Oh no.

V's was one of my longest-standing and most vigorous friendships. At first she was an elusive will-o'-the-wisp, discernible only in apazines, whose corporeal existence was of dubious veracity. Then James L. pinned her down and introduced us in a café in the City, and from then on, her boon companionship was a regular feature. For a while, we had an active social circle of Lasfapans (whatever those might be) in the Bay Area, until it broke up in an argument over the morality of maid service, if I recall. During this period, a newfound geographical proximity allowed her and APW to act on a long-standing interest in becoming sweeties, but experience taught them that while they didn't work out as a romantic couple, they fit together just fine as housemates. I don't know how the dynamics of that operated, and I'm not sure if they did either.

A and V were among the co-founders of the Bay Area English Regency Society, and its dance-balls were for long our favorite activity. We most liked to dance the Black Nag, because we could goof off while doing it, and annoy John Hertz.

For a while, V. edited a BAERS newsletter, for which I wrote sarcastic historical articles on the monarchy and Regency politics. She was always, always late to BAERS events at sf cons, because she'd always been off making last-minute photocopies of flyers. Eventually, health issues gradually sidelined us both.

V. could argue like the dickens. I think she was wrong, but then, I would say that, wouldn't I? She had the ability to persuade me into activities where my staid self would not normally be seen, like a Jamaica-themed party, or standing guard while she changed clothes in the middle of the sidewalk, or a hunt for ice cream at 2 AM. I also twice was among a passel helping her move house at peculiar hours of the night: more memorable scenes.

She was a performance artist and a journalist. She introduced me to the music of the Bobs. This was so long ago that they were still good. Sometimes we attended their concerts together.

More recently, when her health and schedule permitted, she was among those who accompanied me to classical concerts I review. She was studying harmony at a community college, and worked hard at it. Our last in-person conversation was a long late-evening chat over ice cream (that again!) at Tresidder after a concert at Dinkelspiel a few months ago. Among much else, she gave me a full account of the parlous state of her health, and confessed that it was the free public health services in San Mateo County that were keeping her alive. In another county, she would have died long since. I hope the people who oppose the likes of Obamacare are bitterly disappointed that she lasted as long as she did.

What especially bothers me is that she was 58. Not just that that's young: it's a fatal age. Arthur Sullivan, Charles Williams, Roger Zelazny, James Joyce, Andy Warhol, Richard Burton, George Harrison, so many greats gone at 58.

Here is V. when she was young:

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

online lecture courses and music

This is an interesting article arguing that online (and usually free) college lecture courses are reaching the tipping point that MP3s as a format and Napster (and its successors, like itunes and Pandora) as delivery systems represented for online music: that they're now good enough, common enough, and easy enough to access that they'll become the default method for a simple higher education. Though audiophiles (and most classical listeners) still prefer CDs, or at least the more sound-enriched WAV files that CDs are made of, and some even still stick to LPs, or *gasp* live concerts, for your average pop listener the MP3 - and, significantly, the better-quality compressed formats that have succeeded it - is good enough.

Similarly, the article says, while online education won't compete with truly elite and high-quality universities, or with stimulating seminar courses and other one-on-one or one-on-a-few forms of education at those universities or elsewhere, the average college whose curriculum is based on routine lecture courses, and even more so the baleful for-profit university, is facing real competition. This is even more critical for education than for music, because higher education is now considered a minimum for a decent career, and because traditional delivery methods are now so expensive.

I'm inclined to think this is so, and several consequences and follow-ups occur to me.

First, video education courses are nothing new. Colleges have been offering "distance learning," which includes such methods, for a long time now. Video and audio courses on DVD or CD, and other formats before them, have been popular. Half a century ago, before the rise of the slick documentary series, PBS daytime programming used to consist mostly of professors educationally droning on before the camera. I myself am a devotee of a learning-absorption system that allows you to proceed through the lecture at your own pace, skim or speed up, go to a quick overview mode to see the context of a given point, and easily access past material to review it, known as the "book".

But if all this is so, why is the tipping point only now? Three reasons occur to me. The article alludes to one, that the quality of the video courses, specifically of the lecturers using it, has recently vastly improved. Those old-time PBS professors droned on, I said. They were not very enthralling. Well, many professors lecturing in the flesh aren't very enthralling, either. But it takes more charismatic oomph to reach students through video than in the classroom, and now the video formats are attracting a sufficiency of professors who are good enough at that.

The second reason is the convenience and ease of use of the format. Even little improvements in the simplicity and transparency of the technology can lead to large increases in usage. (Again, this principle is nothing new. I remember from library school a study of corporate technical library usage showing that researchers who worked on the same floor of the building as the library were more likely to use it than otherwise-identical researchers who worked on different floors.) (And, by the way, e-readers are so far nowhere near simple and transparent enough yet. The amount of nuisance it often takes to load books has discouraged me from using mine as much as I'd like. I read things like this with its blithe references to various competing apps and e-readers and I want to run away. I don't want to learn or figure out all that stuff. I want to open up a book, physical or virtual, and read it.)

The third is interactivity, and that's the important point. Not having taken online courses myself, I don't know much about how this works. But if you can e-mail the prof and get responses, or form study groups with other students, and write assignments and papers and get them graded, that improves the educational experience dramatically. How the prof does this if he or she is teaching 11,000 students online simultaneously, I don't know. Maybe a lot of TAs, but that would be expensive.

Anyway, that's my second point. I got a good college education at a top-ranked public university. But the lecture courses were the least valuable part of that. The discussion sessions, the small seminars, the forced thinking and the forced interactivity with the readings caused by paper assignments, were where the education really lay. And what it taught me was how to think more than specific facts. When I think of my academic knowledge of history or of music, the two subjects I know best, far more of it comes from my outside reading than from any courses I took. I took a college course in Beethoven from one of the world's most pre-eminent Beethoven scholars, and it taught me something, but nowhere near as much as getting an A in the course proved that I already knew. Maybe the best thing I got out of that course was the assignment to write what happened to be my first-ever concert review. Only in my profession of librarianship did I get more out of my grad-school coursework than my own reading. Books on librarianship tend to be insufficient, and dull. Books on history and music are plentiful and often excellent.

You can, even today, get a college degree that consists mostly of lectures and tests. (Even at my prestigious school, there were history courses that required no writing assignments whatever.) Probably you can't get quite such a minimal education in science, where hands-on lab assignments are where the real learning occurs. But my biggest fear of online education is that it will increase the number of supposedly-educated students who just sat there and let lectures wash over them making no impact. Interactivity in online education will help counter that.

Two more minor points, specifically about music. The article says that part of the popularity of Napster-style delivery systems for songs is that it enabled customer selectivity.

The story the recording industry used to tell us went something like this: “Hey kids, Alanis Morisette just recorded three kickin’ songs! You can have them, so long as you pay for the ten mediocrities she recorded at the same time.” Napster told us a different story. Napster said “You want just the three songs? Fine.”
I laughed at this, because, again, the Napster offer described here is nothing new. Why do you think the 45 was so popular in the vinyl era, especially the early vinyl era? Because it enabled listeners to buy only two songs at once instead of investing in a whole album. Here, read this: "Previous rock 'n' roll albums had generally consisted of one or two smasheroos diluted with nine or so throwaways, and anyone interested in a listenable album was obliged to wait for the Greatest Hits." Previous to what? Previous to the Beatles; they "practically invented the L.P. as a credible pop medium" by having all the songs be good or at least interesting; it was an "odd feature of Beatle songs ... that almost every one was a hit." (This is from page 10 of The Beatles Forever by Nicholas Schaffner, an insightful history of their cultural impact.) Other rock groups in their wake were forced to at least aspire to the same level of quality, and it seems that it's only in the last couple of decades that the influence has faded away and pop albums have gone back to the "three smasheroos diluted with ten throwaway mediocrities" model. That was after the LP was supplanted by the CD, and the vinyl 45 single became obsolete. For a while that gap in the pop music market - attempts to create the CD single didn't fare well - apparently didn't matter much, but later it became critical, and Napster filled it. Now everything is singles and it's the album that's an obsolete concept.

One other odd point. The article introduces the concept of Baumol's cost disease, a situation where expenses go up without productivity increasing, because productivity has reached a limit point. "The classic example is the string quartet; performing a 15-minute quartet took a cumulative hour of musician time in 1850, and takes that same hour today." That's a very strange example to use in a discussion involving recorded music, because recordings mean that that's no longer true. One hour of musician time can produce an unlimited number of hours of listening time, and the listeners control when and how that listening occurs. Of course, it's not a live, in-person performance; but an online lecture isn't a live, in-person performance either. The import of the article is that this distinction no longer makes that much difference. To an extent the same is true of music. A live performance has something that recordings don't, which is one reason I still go to them; but the same is true of attending lectures in person. The article's whole point is that in both cases, the other form is sometimes good enough.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

movies notes

1. I haven't gone to see Spielberg's Lincoln, even though I'm willing to overcome my aversion to Spielberg and all his works to do so. I'm willing to do so because it sounds like it won't push my Spielberg buttons. Trust Tony Kushner. I haven't gone yet because, for now, it's only playing up in the City. For a movie, I can wait. I have, however, brushed up on the history of the Thirteenth Amendment in my relevant history books to prep myself.

2. What I have seen in new movies, because it's playing in the little art house cinemas that I can get to, is A Late Quartet, a melodrama about personal strains and stresses in a string quartet. This may be a rising genre; I saw a stage play on the same subject a couple years ago. Totally different plots, though with intriguing thematic overlaps: for one thing, both quartets are playing the same work, Beethoven's Op. 131. If this causes that work to become considered a sort of singular ne plus ultra among quartets the way that Shine did the Rach 3 among piano concertos, I shall bite something. The movie has less technical detail than the play, and when the second violinist couldn't explain what a second violinist does that's different from a first violinist, I winced. The miming of instrument playing is better than in the play, but not good enough,* and there isn't much actual music. Reviews cite the great acting, but I guess that in a story like this, I can't distinguish great acting from merely good acting, especially with a rather dull script and duller direction.

*The quartet's cellist is beginning to suffer from Parkinson's and is considering retirement. This is described with a matter-of-factness that may be realistic but doesn't engage interest. The main problem, though, is that at no point does the movie distinguish Parkinson's from vibrato. The cellist plays with a much stronger vibrato than his colleagues (who mostly use none at all), and the actor, Christopher Walken, doesn't portray it well. The result of all this is that his vibrato looks like the result of his disease, even though the disease is clearly not that bad yet.

3. And, as they're on sale online now, I'm avoiding the crowds by having bought my ticket to a premiere-day showing of The Hobbit Part I now. I feel like I've signed my own death warrant. Weep with me. (What's that you say? "Then don't go see it"? What makes you think that, while remaining an active Tolkien fan or indeed a person occasionally exposed to American pop culture, that I could possibly avoid this movie by not seeing it? Better that I should do so the first day, get it over with, and have my own reactions unaffected by reading others'. For a dozen years I have been bludgeoned with Jackson's LOTR, and I would be not one whit less bludgeoned if I had never seen it, but I would be a lot less well-equipped to fight back.)

4. On that subject, I am so sick of the response to complaints about movies that "it's only a mooovie" or "the book is still on the shelf." Those responses are so stupid, so thoughtless, so ignorant. One of the reasons I'm willing to see Spielberg's Lincoln is that Kushner is a screenwriter who gets the point, which is no less relevant, perhaps even more so, for a film based on history rather than on literature.

“A film is a huge, huge thing,” Kushner said of the power of cinema to shape a dominant version of history. “And a film can do damage. I mean, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ or ‘Gone With the Wind’ helped support a reading of the Civil War that I think is hugely historically erroneous in a particularly dreadful way. So there’s a responsibility that you have.”
The closest thing I have for a soundbite version of this is, "It doesn't matter where the book is, if the movie is in the head."

On the other hand, Peter Jackson made similar remarks about his duty to the literature before the release of his first Tolkien movie. Afterwards, when it turned out that he hadn't fulfilled that duty, he changed his tune and began claiming that he'd fixed the problems in a lousy, deficient book that had just happened inexplicably to have sold millions of copies over half a century and inspired the love of a legion of devotees.

On the other other hand, Tony Kushner isn't Peter Jackson and his team. We already know that Kushner is a good writer.

Friday, November 9, 2012

concert review: Collage Vocal Ensemble

What I was busy at on Sunday afternoon was a potluck at B's church, which I attended as a chance for her to introduce me to some of these people. She's active in the choir, which rehearses Thursday evenings, and there was this man there who was apologizing for having to miss the upcoming rehearsal because he was singing in a secular choral concert. And his description of it sounded so interesting that I inquired further, so he organized a ticket for me. That was nice. So on Thursday, while B. was at rehearsal, I drove up to Ladera, a tiny community in the hills above Menlo Park, to hear the Collage Vocal Ensemble.

The concert was held in the Ladera Community Church, as tiny as the village it's in, which is fortunate because its small size negated any bad effects of the not-entirely-dead but extremely unresonant acoustics. The program contained a large number, about two dozen, short pieces, mostly acappella, a few accompanied by piano, one chorus from Bach's cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden with cello continuo, and one folksong (an American variant of the Irish song "The Two Sisters") with guitar. There were a few carols and other Christmasy premonitions, but it was mostly secular works by classical composers running up to John Rutter, with the one folk song, an arrangement of Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More," and, surprise, the Night Waltzes from Sondheim's A Little Night Music. (A piece I have trouble believing in; the people I've met who actually live near the Arctic Circle are used to the long summer twilight and don't find it disconcerting.) Most of the pieces were in English, some in German, and one in Finnish, a folk lullaby set by Toivo Kuula, the only composer of the evening I didn't know, and who must have been a relative of P.D.Q. Bach because his life dates were given in the program as 1783-1718. (He actually lived 1883-1918; I don't know how that typo happened, and I didn't detect any others.)

Singing a wide variety of pieces, mostly unaccompanied with nothing but a rolled piano chord beforehand to set the pitch, the chorus proved itself impressively able, even of professional quality, in many of the pieces. I was particularly knocked out by five soloists delivering a modestly complex Elizabethan madrigal by Thomas Weelkes with the jollity of the old Oregon Shakespeare Festival madrigalists at their finest. The Finnish hymn was beautiful, as were the Stephen Foster, the Bach, and many other pieces. The only problem with the Bach was that it lacked power; but the strength of a Gustav Holst choral folksong astonished me, and pieces by Britten and Vaughan Williams matched it. The modern English repertoire is clearly where this group is at their best, though they're also good on things like Mozart and Haydn canons, especially if they spread out as they did for the Mozart and take advantage of antiphonal effects.

The one piece of negative advice I'd give this ensemble is, lay off the Brahms vocal quartets. Keeping the harmonies in tune defeated them, and the imbalance of the ensemble (11 women and only 5 men) was fatal in Brahms' layered and balanced approach. The men's voices turned weak and the women's hard and metallic. It was strange to hear the same people turn around and do the Holst with such simultaneous strength and beauty. There was nothing minuscule or diminished about the men there, or in a Vaughan Williams piece for the men alone.

I'm guessing that a lot of it had to do with comfort level, and this was most evident in the solos. Trained choral singers know what to do with an Elizabethan madrigal, but in Sondheim most of them lacked forwardness and power, what actors communicate through stage presence. They were pretty well in tune there, and in the solos in Britten's "Shepherd's Carol" (with nonsense words by W.H. Auden), but less so in those of the shepherds' chorus from Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors. So I think they need to learn what they're best at, and focus their considerable abilities on that. But they shouldn't be afraid to explore as well, because the variety of this concert was part of its delight.

(Also the cookies afterwards. Don't forget the cookies.)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

concert review: no, those other guys

Friday morning I rather obsessively double-checked the online listing for the string quartet concert I was to review on Monday, only to discover that the scheduled ensemble had canceled (someone taken ill, it turned out) and been replaced by another group with an entirely different repertoire. What a relief that at least the sponsoring group updated their website! A lot of organizations wouldn't bother to do that.

Let's see: Mozart and Mendelssohn, ok, in fact I just reviewed another performance of the same Mendelssohn quartet two weeks back; Stravinsky, I have that work; Thomas Adès, uh-oh. I am not reviewing a quartet by so thoroughly intricate a modern composer without studying it first. The score I can photocopy from Stanford, but what about a CD? Stanford has it, but I have no access to their CDs. The nearby public library that recently started charging out-of-town borrowers $80 for a year's card has it; is it worth $80 to me to get it from them? No. I could buy a copy for less than that, but would it arrive in time? It's not as if I can just pop down to Tower, or even Barnes & Noble whose CD selections have been whittled down to nothing, any more. Check WorldCat for a broader library search. Santa Cruz. Forty miles away and over a mountain. They have it. At a branch closed on Friday and Saturday, and I'm busy on Sunday. All right, Monday morning over the hill to Santa Cruz I go. Now I have seven local library cards, and a CD of the Adès to feed my ears as my eyes examine the score.

Running around like this on Monday leaves me tired enough to be slightly zoned out during the concert. (This is why I like to relax on concert days and get there early.) I sit down afterwards at home to write my review not entirely sure what I'm going to wind up saying. It comes out like this.

Saturday, November 3, 2012


The first hat I had to wear on Thursday was that of academic journal editor, for a long phone conference with my fellow editors and our publisher. Much talking. The rest of them were all in the path of Sandy, so it got rather wet out there.

Next hat, that of concerned pet owner, as Pandora went grumbling in for another medical exam. We are in the "adjust dose of medicine, then have another blood test" phase of diagnosis.

Third, my social hat, because it was time for one of those approximately biennial confabs of writers and editors for the classical reviewing website. Up in the city, but naturally. And in a wine bar. Recognized immediately the editor I almost never encounter in person, managed at first to overlook the one I see more often. Hovering waiter asked what I wanted to drink; a request for white wine, not too dry, produced something which nursed perfectly for the hour-plus that I was there. Editor mused: she'd had beer and champagne, what should she drink next? Suggestion that she proceed down the alphabet and have a wee dram kind of passed everyone by.

Lastly, my reviewer's hat, for it had been lately suggested to me by competent authority that, as I would be coming up to the city for the confab anyway, I proceed a few blocks further to the symphony hall for the evening's concert. The funny thing was that, not having known they were going to say that, I'd come up for an overlapping but not identical concert the evening before. So they got a review of two concerts for the price of one.

Only a few times earlier had I gone to two performances in the same set of one work, and this was the first such occasion where I could really hear a distinct difference in the two renditions. As for the part of the program that changed, as far as I'm concerned there's not that much to choose from between Lou Harrison and Henry Cowell - they're both great - or between Prokofiev's Second and Third Piano Concertos.

Between the pianists, however, young and Chinese though they both were, a huge gulf lay. Yuja Wang is great stuff. Her playing is powerful but clean, and she knows how to hold back and drop pearly notes. But then there's Lang Lang. I'd heard of him, of course, but never in person and I'd never really listened to him before. What is this guy, a put-on? My first thought was "musical quackery, like practicing medicine without a license." Comic pianists of yore like Victor Borge and Jonathan Edwards (oh, probably nobody remembers him) should look to their laurels.

Friday, November 2, 2012

i hear a symphony

Some person or persons has been occupying the last several months by uploading sound files of most of my favorite really obscure twentieth-century symphonies to YouTube, and I'm finding links to some composers I don't know at all and will have to check out.

Right now I'm listening to an utterly dandy 1950 work that I thought nobody knew but me. I'm going to have to introduce you folks to some of this stuff after I get it sorted out.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

one-line movie reviews

Argo. Not like Lord of Light.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Love Actually for old people.

Hysteria. Hysterical, but not in a good way.

Bernie. Finally, another movie forcing Jack Black to play someone other than himself.

WarGames (1983, but previously unseen by me). Exciting up until the frantic helicopter/jeep/motorcycle ride that would be entirely unnecessary if this world had telephones. Wait, it does.