Wednesday, February 27, 2013

jan howard finder

who died yesterday at 73, though he always seemed far younger than his years, deserves to be remembered as, among other things, perhaps the first, and the most dedicated, professional Tolkien fan. By which I mean, Tolkien fandom for its own sake is what aroused his interest and enthusiasm. He wasn't noted for the creative or scholarly work he personally did; instead, he was the cause of it in other people. He liked to organize things, and he liked to enthuse about them: he organized some of the first scholarly Tolkien conferences in the 1960s, which eventually resulted in a book titled A Tolkien Compass with a couple of dandy pioneering papers in it, and he renewed the series of conferences in later years; the last time I saw him, at the Reno Worldcon, he was talking about the last one he'd done and the next one he planned. (Most of these were on the east coast, and I never had the chance to attend one.) As a general enthusiast, and as someone whose other fannish interests included costuming, he was equally burblish about the movies, and do I remember him also talking about organizing tours, trans-Pacific flights included, of New Zealand? It's just the sort of thing he'd do. It was impossible to criticize or look down on jan for the width and indiscriminacy of his enthuasisms: he was just too cheerful, innocent, and warm-hearted a guy.

Just don't ask me to explain about the wombats.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

a thought

What is so rare as a container of plain yogurt? (I needed it for cooking.) Yes, I found one, but - my word.

Monday, February 25, 2013

oboe oh no

But the most moving and disturbing news of the weekend was the collapse of San Francisco Symphony principal oboeist William Bennett from a stroke during a concert, and while playing the solo part of Richard Strauss's oboe concerto, yet. This article from the Mercury News reads a little more full than the SF Chronicle's, except that the latter says it took 20 minutes for the paramedics to arrive. That seems awfully long in the circumstances and considering the location. Time is everything in a stroke.

Whether Bennett will recover remains to be seen. But the incident itself, besides raising concern for his health, and for being a horrible embarrassment, is a musical tragedy, because Bennett is one of SFS's finest players. I would name three in the current lineup whom I've heard perform particularly outstanding in-orchestra solos, and Bennett is one. (The others are principal flutist Tim Day and associate principal horn Nicole Cash.) If he must depart, it would be a major loss.

(One point about the Merc article, where it tells you that a concerto is "a virtuoso piece where the soloist stands alone in front of the orchestra." I'm amused that it was thought necessary to explain this.)

morning after

I didn't watch any of the Oscar telecast: I contented myself with checking up on news websites a couple of times in the evening as I worked on the computer, which is also how I've been following election returns for the past decade.

So, with that comparison, it's appropriate to think of Nate Silver and his attempt to wade into Oscar predicting, a field with no reliable polling and no release of voting figures. He based his predictions entirely on the results of other movie awards, as a substitute for polling.

So far this morning I haven't seen any post-mortems on his predictions - maybe it's still too early in the morning - but, heck, here's his original article. Of the six categories he forecast, he got four of them right, and the two that he didn't were the ones that he acknowledged his data was insufficient for a reliable prediction on, and they still went to high-probability candidates.

So Silver has struck again, even in this unlikely field for election prediction.

My own comments on the results would be virtually nil, as there's no category I've seen more than 2 of the nominees in, except for Best Picture where I've seen 3. I thought they were all pretty good movies, but that speaks more to my ability to select the movies that I'd like than to the Academy's ability to select the movies that I'd like.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

all Beethoven with the Escher Quartet

I could hardly believe that I was sent to review this concert. For one thing, I don't recall that my editors told me about it before I found myself listed for it in the master calendar. It's a good thing they sent me only for the Friday concert of the two-concert set, because I'd already made a social commitment for Saturday evening by the time I found out about this.

For another thing: Beethoven, again. Not that I don't love Ludwig. But I have reviewed nearly twice as much Beethoven as any other composer, and this is the third time I have reviewed each of the three quartets on this program. Accordingly, even though I can't associate a given quartet's title with the music in my head as I can for Beethoven's symphonies, I didn't bother to listen to them beforehand, sure that I'd recognize everything in them in the concert as soon as I heard it.

Which was no problem, and remembering some of those earlier performances is what kept me focused on the ups and downs of this one. Beethoven's music is thought of as rough, but he writes some stunningly curvaceous melodies, which are darling when played with the right kind of neatly oiled grace. But that, more than anything else, is what was lacking in some otherwise technically amazing and vividly committed performances. Which, even more than the mention of David Soyer in the post-concert talk, is what brought the Guarneri Quartet to mind. I first heard the Beethoven quartets in recordings by the Guarneri and the Juilliard, the prestigious ensembles of the day, and they played just like this: heavy on the commitment and the energy, light on the beauty and the fun. As someone who didn't know the quartets at the time, I found them hard to get a grip on this way. It wasn't until I heard performances that differed markedly that I got to know and genuinely enjoy these works. Now I can appreciate any performance for its merits, but that's my reward for a heck of a lot of listening.

Saturday, February 23, 2013


Skipped the Santa Cruz clam chowder festival this afternoon because, though I like chowder, I didn't wish to face the heavy crowds, or to devote that much time.

Skipped one celebratory party this evening in favor of another to which we'd already accepted the invitation. Celebrated host likes unusual beers. All right, so I brought him a six-pack of bottles of assorted beers, one each from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Unusual enough for you? Shared out in sips among the party-goers, the Polish beer went well, or so much I gathered.

Friday, February 22, 2013

And the Oscar for

Best Use of Movie Theme Music in a Cat Video

goes to ...


(Of course the cat was all right! Go ahead and laugh!)

(via a John Scalzi comment thread)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

start again

Sustained only by some old notes, I've been writing what I thought was going to be the actual text of my presentation at an upcoming Tolkien conference. I know that I'll have only 20 minutes for this, but I started writing last week, intermixed with a lot of other activities, and I've just now gotten to the start of the main point and I already have 2,000 words.

This is how all my papers get to be an hour long. But I don't have that luxury this time. I have to back up and start again.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

add to list of argumentative fallacies

The "shrillness as an indicator of weakness" fallacy

Twice in the last couple of weeks I've come across cases of people inclined to give credence to a fringe theory - in one case "intelligent design", in the other the Oxfordian theory - on the grounds that the orthodox reply to each is "shrill" or "hysterical".

Of course they're not arguing that this is dispositive evidence on the question (the biggest argumentative fallacy of all, one which I've never seen discussed, but would trash thousands of pages of denunciations of "logical fallacies" if anyone did, is mistaking your opponents' suggestive probabilities or triage to ignore the absurd as attempts at logical proofs). What they are saying is that a shrill response suggests that the opposing side has hit you a good one and that jumping up and down in fury is an attempt to hide the absence of a better answer.

But in both these cases, that assumption is completely mistaken, so it shouldn't be assumed to be helpful in other cases either. The shrillness of the orthodox response to both those theories is actually a result of:
1) Exasperation at how totally ridiculous they are to anyone who actually knows the subject;
2) Weariness at having extensively rebutted them over and over again, and finding that they still haven't gone away.

If you find that the orthodox response to a fringe theory is shrill and unsubstantive, make sure you check around, because the extensive and substantive arguments are probably already there, in some other source.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Princess Ida

I got to see a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Princess Ida. This was about as different from the Stanford Savoyards' H.M.S. Pinafore as may be, because it was by the Lamplighters Music Theatre, and the Lamplighters, though technically also nonprofessional, know emphatically exactly what they are doing. I rarely see their productions any more, because their normal venue for many years now has been the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco, which is all fine and dandy for an OtherMinds techno-post-modernism concert, but is as ill-suited for the warmth and intimacy of Victorian musical comedy as might be imagined.

However, sometimes they take their productions elsewhere for a weekend or two, and such was the case here. I like Princess Ida, which tends to be neglected: it has some magnificent music in it, and I once celebrated it in a post here.

Star, I think, of this production was the costumes, which, though of a completely default style for this show - vaguely pseudo-post-medieval; imagine an idealized 15th century - were magnificently done within that style. Scenic and costume design by John Gilkerson and Melissa Wortman, so all hail to them and their crew. I particularly liked that the girl student chorus in Act 2, though their gowns might have looked at first identical, were all wearing different styled hats and different colored sashes. It made them into individuals.

As singers, the chorus were loud and clear, and as actors, they were always clearly choreographed and involved in their roles. None of this confused milling around. Orchestra considerably less wobbly than I sometimes heard of the Lamplighters of old.

Ida was Jennifer Ashworth, a powerful low soprano. Her program bio says she's performed Mozart's Queen of the Night, and I can believe it. Hilarion, Robert Vann, had a highly reedy voice, but strong. I liked Florian, played by Chris Uzelac, who strongly resembles Stephen Fry both in appearance and manner. King Gama was played by veteran Lamplighters grossmith Rick Williams, who was just what you'd expect if you'd ever seen him before in anything. Jamie McDonald as Lady Blanche was thin but glowering and imperious. Charles Martin as Arac hulked impressively, and his brothers (Sean Irwin and Jordan Eldredge), though given nothing to do by Gilbert, made good character backups. King Hildebrand - a tough role, as apart from the Lt of the Tower in Yeoman he's the only character in all G&S who is both absolutely firm-minded and entirely competent - was carried with some dedication by Robby Stafford, and I liked the use of some moments between him and Hilarion in the first act to demonstrate that the king and his son share a warm mutual affection. This helps explain why the peppery, impatient king lets Hilarion head off on his unlikely expedition to woo the objecting and hard-edged Ida with flowers and wine.

On the other hand, while the crumbling of Ida's forces, the women's chorus at the start of Act 3, was impressively silly, Ida's own change of mind at the end of the act did not hang together well at all. It's possible that Ashworth's singing simply considerably outdoes her acting.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

a pair of concert reviews

It's been a busy week: I had two concert review assignments in one week, something which rarely happens. The Friday assignment came first, which smote my heart slightly, because the Wednesday concert was the one I really wished to attend, and it was supposedly sold out. (Something odd is going on at Bing, though, because there were more than a few empty seats.) But then I was asked to cover that, too, so never look a gift horse in the mouth.

Wednesday's review was the one I had fun writing, because I know these Sturm und Drang works, and I love them desperately: it's my favorite slice of repertoire in all of music. Here, just in case you haven't heard it, is the J.C. Bach symphony, in a tight, fast performance with particularly weird warbling oboes:

Friday's review was tougher. Had I been writing about the concert here, I'd have brushed it off in 150 words or so, like the last string quartet concert I attended, but for publication I need more than that. I wrote it in a tearing hurry this morning, after fumphing over it most of yesterday, throwing hunks of wet prose at the wall to hope they'd stick, because I needed to have it in by 11 when I was leaving for the day for an agenda to be named later.

I'd gotten to speak to the composer of the modern work, at intermission after hearing it, and I seem to have pleased him with the observation that the open harmonies reminded me of the Harris and Copland works he'd cited. I asked him one question, regarding the term "octatonic pitch collection" in his notes, which I wasn't familiar with. It turned out when I got home that it's a standard technical term that I just hadn't known. Oh well.

The comparison to Mark Volkert's Pandora is a coded message.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

disaster narrowly averted

A few days ago our neighborhood had a planned power outage. The power company sent out notices that they'd be disconnecting us for work on a nearby street. They blocked that street off all day, so I hope they further informed its residents that they wouldn't be able to get out of their driveways.

So, before I left for the day, I turned my computer off. When I turned it back on afterwards, the light came on, the machine emitted three beeps, but nothing else happened. Uh-oh. Good thing that I've acquired a portable hard drive, a much more useful tool, methinks, than flash drives for backups. (Flash drives are more convenient for carrying files around between computers.)

What do the three beeps mean, anyway? They must be a message of some kind, and since computers don't write their own messages, somebody programmed them, they must mean something. But neither of the phone computer help services I consulted knew anything more than "your hard drive crashed."

It turned out it hadn't. Before trying to take it in, I disconnected everything, and then thought, I'd better dust this down. So I dusted the outside, and then opened up the case and dusted and blew off (compressed air) the inside. Then I disconnected the cables to the hard drive, cleaned everything there off, and reconnected them. (Knowing these on sight is as virtuoso as my knowledge of computer hardware gets.)

Then I tried plugging the power back in, and sure enough, it worked just fine. I saved both time and money. Disaster narrowly averted.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

if you want to stay in business

Dear Barnes and Noble,

You get that the book business is changing, you really do. You have a fine, easy to use website, you sell e-books, and you have developed your own excellent e-reader, the Nook, for your customers.

Much has changed. But one thing hasn't changed: the desire of your customers to buy actual specific books, and not just gift certificates, as presents for their loved ones. On, say, Valentine's Day.

So here's what you need to do. You need to get the process by which one person buys e-books for another person's Nook account straightened out. You need to get your employees on the same page, so that an inquiring customer isn't told one process by one employee at Christmas, and then a totally different process by other employees two months later.

And you need to get them tutored in that process, so that it doesn't take three clerks, the last one called in from the back room as some kind of senior advisor, all of them well-meaning but the first two unable to help and the third unable to explain confusing parts of the process except by repeating himself (like, what do you need the customer's e-mail address for if a different customer is going to download the books?) and half an hour at the register, while other customers get heated at the slow-moving line, to complete the process.

And then, come up with something nicer-looking for the giver physically to give to the recipient than a cash register receipt with a download code printed on it.

You might want to consider these things, if you want to stay in business.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

ask not for whom the bridge tolls

Roiling the local traffic Q&A columns - by far the most interesting and useful part of the newspaper - has been the announcement that the Golden Gate Bridge, which is run by a different authority than the other seven Bay Area toll bridges (yes, seven - most people think there are only six), is about to eliminate human toll-takers altogether. It's already equipped for transponders, and for those who don't have them, you can pay online up to 30 days in advance or 2 days afterwards, or go to a machine (locations not yet announced), or wait for a bill to come in the mail to the registered owner of the license plate.

OK, locals can stick all that in their memory banks, along with other useful traffic advisories like when traffic is heavy on 101 so take 280 instead, but the question that's roiling the columns is: how are tourists supposed to know about this? You drive up to a bridge all unknowing, you prepare to pay the toll, but you can't pay it, and the detailed instructions online don't really work on a passing road sign. And if the car you're driving is a rental, the bill will go to the agency. No problem with their forwarding it to the renter, except that reports of experiences on toll-plaza-less tollways elsewhere reveal that the agencies charge a "processing fee" of $50 or $100. For a $2 toll. This strikes me as an abuse on the same order of outrageousness as airlines holding passengers hostage in parked airplanes for three hours, and deserves equivalent congressional action.

In the meanwhile, though, what can we do? This convenience of toll-less tollways is only making life more inconvenient for everyone except regular commuters. I'm afraid that the only solution is to add "check the rules on the local tollways and bridges" to the trip preparation process wherever you go. Ah, our brave new easy and simplified world. I was rather alerted to this problem several years ago when I visited Dallas, and the rental car agents warned me not to drive on the tollways because there were no toll plazas. I rather got the impression that there were, at least then, no cameras to snap license plates, and that it was illegal to drive on them without a transponder. Fortunately these tollways were geographically redundant, and there was always another way to get where I was going.

So now I'm planning a trip to Chicago, and will be driving the Tristate and the Indiana Toll Road. It's been close to a decade since my last visit, so much could be different. I unfondly remember the Tristate as the tollway that, instead of giving you a chit when you get on and expecting a one-shot payment by distance when you get off, as sensible tollways do, instead nickels and dimes you to death by making you stop every few miles and throw a little change into a hopper. I had learned to take lots of nickels and dimes, and quarters, with me on trips to Chicago and keeping them in the car's cup holder, because for years the toll at each stop was 40 cents, which for a minimum number of coins requires one of each. If you ran out of coins, there were staffed booths, but the wait was always long there, except for the exits just before the plazas, which charged a supplemental toll, and you'd better have the change because there was nobody to break a bill if you didn't.

So what do they have now? At least we have the web. If I didn't already know the system, I wouldn't be able to make head or tails out of this chart, but I'm guessing that the boldface lines are the everybody-stops plazas, and the others are the supplemental tolls at particular exits, except that a footnote reveals that those no longer take cash at all, and the "cash" fee is what non-transponder drivers have to pay later online. (Unlike at the Golden Gate Bridge, waiting for an envelope incurs an additional fine.) And even the plazas, which do take cash, apparently still take only coins, and require one heck of a lot more coins than they did a decade ago.

And the online payment page, I see, requires personal info about the plate owner. Obviously I'll have lots to talk with the rental car agency about. If they'll just rent me a transponder and not charge $50 for the privilege, that would be best.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

movie seen

Safety Not Guaranteed

This is a quirky little independent film concerning a (possibly) mad inventor who is building a time machine to travel into the recent past.

I want you to see this movie. I want you to see it, and then I want you to look me in the eye, and tell me that you agree with me that it is a much better movie than Back to the Future.

If you can say that, I will be inclined to take your further recommendations for movies. If not, I probably won't.

concert reviews

1. The Szymanowski Quartet, at Oshman, Monday. Four burly Polish guys, with a strikingly individualistic way of playing, constantly tweaking note lengths, phrasings, and emphasis. This made for a delightfully witty Beethoven Op. 18 No. 4, a piece admirably suited for such an approach, and a genial and relaxed Dvorak Op. 106 - a little too relaxed, as Dvorak tends to get garrulous if you don't tighten up. It didn't work so well on Ravel's Quartet, because Ravel was writing with tighter control of his players' aesthetics, and the scherzo in particular sounded loose and sloppy, as if its shirttail were hanging out. Not a lovely image for the dapper Ravel. Fortunately they didn't play anything by their namesake composer, which could have been grisly.

Everybody there who knows I write reviews - and that's a lot of them, because Oshman is in the same complex as my mother's senior living community - asked me what the encore piece was. I didn't know. (If I were reviewing the concert, I'd e-mail the presenters afterwards and ask.)

The presenter for another local concert series was also in the audience, recognized me, and bearded me for some discussion of upcoming events. He wanted to email some stuff in, and dammit but I hadn't brought along my newly-minted SFCV business cards. From now on I'm keeping some in my wallet, not just in my pocket datebook which I'd left at home.

By the way, the acoustics were fine. If this keeps up, I'm going to suggest to my editors that we review here.

2. The Redwood Symphony, at Cañada, Saturday. Three well-known American works all a couple decades old, just at the point where we have to start thinking seriously about whether they're masterpieces and likely to stay the course or not. I have to say I was intrigued, but I was more than intrigued, I was worried, when I was assigned to review it. Not over whether the music was within these amateurs' capacity - on past experience, I could guess what they could handle well and what they couldn't, and that none of it would be as tough on them as Thomas Adès whom they've also done, and my guesses were correct - but over my own grasp of the music. Not Jennifer Higdon's blue cathedral, the work that originally sold me on this composer in the first place, nor Lou Harrison's Piano Concerto, which I didn't know (I got the CD from the library to prepare), but which, being Lou Harrison, could be counted on to be mellow, but John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1. This is his response to the AIDS epidemic, and much of it is angry music. I'm afraid that the first time I heard this piece my reaction was, "OK, I get it, the AIDS victims suffered. So why does the audience have to suffer too?"

This is not an attitude to take to a professional performance review (hear that, Joshua Kosman and your hate-on for Carmina Burana?). I need enlightenment, to get with the program. I took the CD of the Slatkin performance that I'd once picked up cheap (see, this is why I collect music I don't like: it can be handy), I ripped it to my mp3 player, I sat down in the Stanford library with the score, and I went over it and over it. I can't say enough in favor of score-reading while listening to a recording, at least for me: it focuses my attention, brings details to my notice, and clarifies the structure. After three times through, I knew this piece, in the sense that I could hear it again and think, "OK, now this is going to happen next," and, more importantly, that I understood what Corigliano was saying in the way that he said it, and that I could judge another performance for its own aesthetic quality.

So, behold, a review focused on the artistry and not whining about the repertoire.

Monday, February 11, 2013

I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered.

The Pope is resigning. This is a big deal not just because it will trigger off another conclave - it's always gothic whenever a prominent office, whether potent or figurehead, is filled by election by a small body of voters; see previous remarks here about the Chancellorship of Oxford University, another normally lifetime job - but because he's the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years, since two competing popes resigned at once to clear the boards to end the Great Schism. He cites age and infirmity, two factors rendered more likely to hit by modern life-extending medical science. It's critical in the case of the Pope, who is usually elected old and serves older, because he is not normally a figurehead but the actual leader of his Church.

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands is also resigning, or abdicating as it's called for royalty. She is also a senior citizen, but considerably younger than the Pope. (She's 75, he's 85.) No election is needed here; she has an heir in place, and her job is mostly ceremonial and nominal; there's no reason to drag it out. Her mother and grandmother before her did the same.

Queen Elizabeth of Her Various Realms and Territories is not resigning. She's in good health, we hear, though she's older, by a year, than the Pope. (Rule of thumb: You know you're getting old when you're older than the President of the U.S. You know you're actually old when you're older than the Pope. And you're truly mindbogglingly venerable when you're older than the President of the LDS Church, but that's another story.) And her job is even more ceremonial than Beatrix's: both queens certify governments, which in the U.K. is almost always a nominal process; in the Netherlands, due to a more complex party system, it's a bit more complicated than that. And a monarch of the U.K. stands on a lot more ceremony than one from the more easy-going Low, or Scandinavian, countries.

The question of whether a voluntary resignation by a Pope or a monarch could lead to pressure on future incumbents to resign involuntarily has been raised. It's also been raised in regard to assisted suicide. It was even raised by Richard Nixon in an attempt to forestall his resignation, first ever by a U.S. President, but the precedent doesn't seem to have had much effect on his successors so far. Abdication due to a desire just to hang it up is considered beneath the dignity of a U.K. monarch, due to all that ceremony, I guess. (Abdication for more pressing reasons, most recently practiced in 1936, is another matter.) Still, there's her successor waiting in the wings, only ten years younger than Beatrix, and now older than his venerable great-great-grandfather Edward VII was when he finally succeeded his even more venerable mother Victoria.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

composer gallery

I've had these things sitting in my document file for two years now, so I might as well do something with them. I was commissioned to write three pieces for the "composers' gallery" at the website I work for, but only one of the three was ever published and paid for, and that in a heavily edited form. So I'm putting them up on my website now, prompted by an inquiry about one of the composers, Paul Hindemith.

The format I was asked to write in - I copied it from the entries already present - is rather peculiar, and I probably didn't quite master its maximization of the use of present tense. Also, the section titled "Explore the Music" apparently isn't supposed to be very specific. But, whatever.

I did a little library research on Rimsky-Korsakov (27th most voluminous composer in my collection), and read an entire borrowed biography of Hindemith (71st), but the piece on Bruckner (21st) was written entirely out of material I had at home.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

symphonies by the numbers

David Levine heard a catchy classical theme, looked it up online in Barlow and Morgenstern, and found that it was from Dvorak's Symphony No. 5.

Actually, it's from his Symphony No. 9, better known as the Symphony from the New World, and it occurred to me that this would be a good occasion to lay out my guide to major symphonists, by the numbers.

Haydn: In the 18th century, music was considered a disposable art, and composers did not number their symphonies, as nobody was expected to collect them all. Accordingly, the numbers we use today were applied retrospectively by somebody else. Haydn's symphonies were numbered in the early 20th century by a scholar named Mandyczewski. He did a pretty good job. He omitted any misattributed works and caught all but two genuine extant works. (Those two, early and obscure works, are now known as Symphonies A and B.) And, although there are a few chronological clangers in his list, he got them mostly in a roughly accurate order of composition. Accordingly, Mandyczewski's list of 104 Haydn symphonies may be, and is, used with confidence.

Mozart: Much more of a headache. The standard list of 41 Mozart symphonies was compiled in the early 19th century by a publisher that wasn't paying much attention. Though the chronology was accurate, due to Mozart's habit of dating his scores, the list included a few works that Mozart didn't compose, but only had manuscript copies that he'd written out (this is why you never hear anything of a No. 37), and it omitted almost as many early works as it included, minding the additional problem that, with Mozart, it's sometimes hard to tell what counts as a symphony and what doesn't. The fuzziness, however, is mostly with juvenilia: mature Mozart, the 15 or so symphonies from No. 25 on up, is a stable body of work. But the list of 41 has no authority (and if anybody ever says, "Mozart wrote 41 symphonies," that's a sure sign they know nothing about Mozart), and to be a member in good standing of the effete corps of Mozartean snobs, you will refer to his symphonies, not by those numbers, but by their Köchel numbers, those being the equivalent of opus numbers, the serial numbers from a scholar's catalog of all of Mozart's works. By this, for instance, the "Jupiter" Symphony is not Symphony No. 41, but K. 551.

Lesser 18th century composers are even more of a mess than Mozart, so be thankful that you don't have to read me trying to explain those.

Beethoven: The first major composer to number his symphonies himself. Nine, in chronological order. No problems.

Schubert: Did not number his, but the problems are not of his making. He wrote six early symphonies easily numbered in chronological order. After that it becomes difficult. The standard list continues with, in chronological order: No. 7, incomplete, a full-length sketch in E Major without orchestration; No. 8, also incomplete, a torso of two fully-orchestrated movements in B Minor, followed by sketches for a third but no fourth; and No. 9, the Great C Major Symphony, the only other fully complete symphony he wrote. No. 7 you are unlikely to come across, while No. 8 is the famous "Unfinished" Symphony. The problem is that some scholars don't think No. 7 belongs on the list. (There are also some other incomplete sketches that aren't on it.) They deal with this in one of two ways: 1) by kicking the other two down a notch, making the Unfinished No. 7 and the Great C Major No. 8; 2) by leaving the Unfinished at No. 8 and folding the Great C Major in as No. 7, even though it was written afterwards. Accordingly, the Great C Major may be No. 7, No. 8, or No. 9, on different lists. Just to make things more complicated, a reconstructed version of a set of sketches that postdate the Great C Major are sometimes listed as Symphony No. 10.

Mendelssohn: Wrote two sets of symphonies. His juvenile symphonies or string symphonies, usually so referred to, number twelve or thirteen, depending on whether one counts an incomplete movement. His mature symphonies number five, but they're not in the order of composition but of publication. Mendelssohn only published three of them: No. 1, a light piece in C Minor; No. 2, "Lobgesang", which is really an oratorio rather than a symphony; and No. 3, the "Scotch" or "Scottish". He withheld No. 4, the "Italian", because he wanted to revise it (but never finished doing so), and No. 5, the "Reformation", because he thought it sucked, a judgment with which I cannot entirely disagree. Those two were published with those numbers after his death, but the symphonies were written in the order 1, 5, 4, 2, 3.

Schumann: On the surface, a simple canon of four symphonies, but it's more complicated than that. No. 4 was actually written contemporaneously with No. 1, but, like Mendelssohn with his "Italian", Schumann withheld it for revision. Unlike Mendelssohn, he did get around to finishing it, but only after he wrote No. 3, so he called it No. 4. So there's two versions of that one floating around. There's also an early incomplete work known as the "Zwickau" Symphony, for where he lived when he wrote it, and another piece he wrote at the same time as No. 1 and No. 4 that he called "Overture, Scherzo, and Finale". It's a symphony without a slow movement, and many Schumannophiles count it as one.

Bruckner: Not much of a numbering problem, except for the amusement value of an early work he considered not up to snuff as a numbered symphony and called "Die Nullte" or No. 0. There's also a student work predating that sometimes called No. 00 (but not by the composer). No, the problem with Bruckner is the multiple versions of his symphonies, but that's another matter.

Brahms: Four symphonies. No problems.

Tchaikovsky: On the surface, six symphonies. But there are a couple of catches. First is that he also wrote a work called the "Manfred" Symphony which he published but, for some reason, didn't number. It comes between No. 4 and No. 5. Second, between No. 5 and No. 6 he sketched out in full a symphony he abandoned and reworked into a piano concerto. (Not the Tchaikovsky piano concerto, which is No. 1; this one is No. 3.) It's been reconstructed as a symphony and called No. 7, as the lowest available number, but it's rarely played.

Dvorak: A real headache, but only if you use old sources. Dvorak wrote four early symphonies he never published; indeed, the score for one was lost and not found again until decades after his death. Then he wrote five more which he did publish, but he numbered them in the order of publication, not the order he wrote them in. Around the 1960s it became customary to resurrect the unpublished four and renumber all of them in the order he wrote them. So on current lists you'll see him as the author of nine. The catch is those older sources, which are sometimes not easily identifiable as such. But, as each successive Dvorak symphony is more popular than the one before, on a very steep curve, if you see a casual reference to No. 2, No. 4, or No. 5, chances are they mean the works you know as No. 7, No. 8, or No. 9, respectively. (No. 9 alias No. 5 is the famous Symphony from the New World.) But ... No. 7 is alias No. 2, you say? How did that happen? Order of publication vs. order of writing.

Mahler: No numbering problems, but this does give me the opportunity to tell about Mahler's paranoia over the Curse of the Ninth Symphony. Both Bruckner (Mahler's mentor) and the great Beethoven died during or soon after writing their Ninth Symphonies, and Mahler was obsessed with fear that he'd do the same. So when he wrote his vocal ninth, he didn't number it, and just titled it Das Lied von der Erde instead. Then he wrote a purely orchestral work and called it No. 9, and figured he had cheated Death. Silly Mahler! He should have remembered Bruckner's "Die Nullte" and figured out that the curse isn't about how many symphonies you actually write, but what numbers you give them, because soon afterwards, while working on No. 10, he died, at an early age.

Vaughan Williams: Nine symphonies, now straightforwardly numbered, but it didn't start out that way. His early symphonies were either descriptive works with titles or abstract works identified only by key. It was only when he published one that he called Symphony No. 8 that the numbers retroactively dropped on its predecessors, and they've been used ever since. Fortunately in this case there was no ambiguity; there is a minor 19th century composer whose Symphony No. 2 leaves unresolved which of two earlier unnumbered works he considered to be Symphony No. 1.

Prokofiev: Seven symphonies. No. 1 is the famous Classical Symphony and was only numbered in retrospect; the number isn't always used. No. 4 exists in two versions, the revised one coming just after No. 6.

Copland: The only Copland symphony regularly heard is No. 3, the last one, which is the only one without any numbering footnotes. A work usually called the Short Symphony is No. 2. The Symphony for Organ and Orchestra is No. 1, but that number only properly applies to a revised version without the organ. There's also an unnumbered Dance Symphony.

Shostakovich: Fifteen symphonies. The only thing you need to know is that some works performed under the titles Chamber Symphony or Symphony for Strings were not Shostakovich's idea, but are arrangements for orchestra by the conductor Rudolf Barshai of some of Shostakovich's string quartets.

Anybody else, either no numbering problems (some composers didn't number their symphonies at all, like Berlioz or Liszt or Stravinsky or Britten) or I'm arbitrarily declaring them not that major.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

I like choral concert works, I really do. Many of them, at least. (Opera is quite another matter.) But I rarely listen to them. Consequently both of the works on Charles Dutoit's week 2 program were new to me.

I loved Francis Poulenc's Stabat Mater. Luminously gorgeous, every phrase and harmony exquisite.

On the other hand, Hector Berlioz' Te Deum was Te-Dious. Too much of it was simply being As Loud As Possible. And even those parts that weren't had no creative beauty.

Monday, February 4, 2013


Responding to my earlier post linking to someone's "essential SF library," I thought I would calibrate by giving a list of my own favorite SF novels.

1. This is not a list of what I consider "essential" books. It is of books that I like. Some of them I consider downright inessential, but I love them. I have not put anything I consider "important" on the list if I just don't care for it very much.
2. One book per author.
3. Because I consider SF to be usually at its best in short fiction, I've allowed collections of linked short stories to stand as novels if I consider that the author's best.
4. Although all the authors are SF authors, I've occasionally used a specific book that I consider crosses the line into fantasy.
5. Many of these books I've re-read frequently. But some I've read only once; they just stuck with me.

Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In spirit, this seems to be more of a philosophical satire than an SF novel.
Poul Anderson, Three Hearts and Three Lions.
Eleanor Arnason, A Woman of the Iron People. The premier anthropological SF novel.
Isaac Asimov, The End of Eternity. I'm a little unhappy with this choice. Asimov's pre-1980s work is my favorite oeuvre of a Golden Age author, yet in this case it's conspicuous how much my regard is based on his short fiction.
Gregory Benford, Timescape. The premier SF novel about doing science.
Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination.
Michael Bishop, Catacomb Years.
Arthur C. Clarke, Tales from the White Hart.
L. Sprague de Camp, Lest Darkness Fall. The seminal alternate history novel.
Philip K. Dick, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Not the first PKD novel I read, but the one that really made me a fan of his work.
Thomas M. Disch, On Wings of Song.
Stephen Fry, Making History. Yes, that Stephen Fry. Has anybody else actually read this astonishing alternate history novel?
Lisa Goldstein, A Mask for the General.
Ken Grimwood, Replay.
Damon Knight, Why Do Birds?
Michael Kurland, The Last President.
Dave Langford, The Leaky Establishment. Really a bureaucratic satire, and barely SF.
Ursula K. Le Guin, Always Coming Home. I consider this fantasy rather than SF, though the author might disagree, but I also consider it the magnum opus, the single greatest work ever written by a genre SF author. Its place for me is like that of Dune for many other readers, and for similar reasons.
C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength.
George R.R. Martin, Tuf Voyaging.
Pat Murphy, The City, Not Long After.
Larry Niven and David Gerrold, The Flying Sorcerers.
George Orwell, 1984.
Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants. I'm unhappy with this choice for the same reason as for the Asimov.
Mike Resnick, Kirinyaga.
Kim Stanley Robinson, The Wild Shore.
Michaela Roessner, Vanishing Point.
John Scalzi, Agent to the Stars. This is the only novel by him I've actually read. I didn't get the impression I would like his later work nearly as much.
Robert Silverberg, Dying Inside. Fighting it out with The Book of Skulls, which might not be SF.
George R. Stewart, Earth Abides.
Amy Thomson, The Color of Distance.
Jack Vance, The Dying Earth.
John Varley, Millennium.
Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle.
Gene Wolfe, Free Live Free. Fantasy, I think, but the one perfect novel by an ambitious but often problematic - for me - author.
Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light. Fighting it out with Doorways in the Sand.

That's 1930s (1), 1940s (3), 1950s (6), 1960s (2), 1970s (5), 1980s (12), 1990s (6), 2000s (1).

From this list I think my weaknesses may be summed up as: 1) Humor; 2) Alternate history; 3) Local settings. There's a certain number of classic gutwrenchers here, but I think my preference is for well-wrought, intricate plots.

Authors whose short fiction I am particularly fond of, but who either wrote no novels or none that I think measure up, include: Fredric Brown, George Alec Effinger, David D. Levine, Robert Sheckley, William Tenn, James Tiptree Jr., Howard Waldrop.

Authors conspicuous for their absence altogether include: Lois McMaster Bujold, Orson Scott Card, Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison, Robert A. Heinlein, Joanna Russ, Theodore Sturgeon, Connie Willis. A couple I actively dislike; the rest just don't normally do it for me, for one reason or another. This is not counting scads of authors of the last 2 or 3 decades that I've never seriously read.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

concert reviews

My fortune from Chinese lunch on Friday read, "An interesting musical opportunity is in your near future."

1. The Stanford Philharmonia Orchestra is running a "Beethoven Project" this year (cue for those who disapprove of orchestras playing composers that everybody's heard of to roll their eyes), and Saturday's installment was my chance to find out what Bing sounds like from the seats behind the orchestra.

The strings sounded strong, and, particularly in the Symphony No. 2, they were not overpowered by the winds. There was more of a problem in the Symphony No. 8, especially with the solo cello in the Minuet trio. However, the strong instruments in the very back - the horns, trumpets, and timpani - did rather stick out, most notably the natural horns used in the Piano Concerto No. 2. Jon Nakamatsu was soloist in this, Beethoven's least interesting piano concerto (well, if you're going to do all five, it has to go somewhere). Last week, for a solo recital by Emanuel Ax, the concert managers dealt with the problem of a large part of the audience seated behind by removing the piano lid altogether, for which my colleague Anatole Leikin excoriated them. Nakamatsu's lid was left on, a more problematic case because he had an orchestra to contend with. The result from behind was a piano that was not too inaudible, but that did sound rather muffled.

From this experience, then, I'd say that the seats behind at Bing, while not ideal, are better than in most halls for producing a sound akin to the balanced one you ideally get in front. In short: modified rapture.

2. My San Francisco Symphony subscription comes with a free ticket to a chamber music concert. This year I picked today's. How was I supposed to know, back then, that it would be Super Bowl Sunday and the SF team would be in it? On the way to the hall - I walked the two miles from the train station - I saw a number of people wearing team regalia, but fortunately none of them called on me to cheer for their darlings, because I'm not sure if I would have been able to bite my tongue and refrain from replying, "That gang of homophobes? No thanks." And, equally fortunately, I was able to slip back out of town before the game ended; judging from what happened after the World Series, win or lose, the fans were liable to trash the streets.

On the program: a piece by the film & tv composer Bruce Broughton for five French horns and tuba, commissioned by a horn manufacturer that's putting it up bit by bit on its website (a less crunchy performance than we heard today). Where else but a first-rate symphony orchestra would you find five horn players good enough for such a work?

Followed by: Ravel's String Quartet, in a Debussyan performance that simply oozed overripe harmonies; and Brahms' Op. 60 Piano Quartet, possibly his strangest and darkest work, in a performance that might have been much more powerful if the sheer size of Davies hadn't diffused it.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

This is up there with Me Claudius. Ladies and gentlemen, Sesame Street proudly presents ...

sic transit

Shameful as it is to admit, I sometimes eat at chain restaurants. Mostly when I'm pressed for time, so I rarely eat of my own volition at sit-down chains (Applebee's, TGI Friday's, etc.); if I'm going to take the time for a full meal, I'd rather go somewhere unique if I can find one. And I avoid the low-end fast-food places; in my youth, I found Jack-in-the-Box and Taco Bell actively nauseating, and I haven't been back in decades. I would rather not eat than be faced with a place like that. If absolutely desperate, I will eat chicken nuggets at McDonald's; as I once wrote, they taste as if they might once have been in the same county as an actual chicken. But that's as far as I go. Some of the other burger places are tolerable.

What I mostly look for if I'm pressed for time is a place with bone-in chicken. There's a limit to how much processing can screw that up, though I've found a couple chains in the midwest that succeed at being inedible. KFC [which no longer stands for anything; isn't that weird? They're afraid of the word "fried"] I find tolerable, but there are others I like more, which I first found on trips elsewhere and which subsequently followed me home, sprouting up in this area where they had not previously been. El Pollo Loco from LA in the mid 80s, I think; Popeyes [which, in the absence of an apostrophe, I pronounce "pope-yes"] on a trip to Florida a few years later; and Boston Market, whose astonishingly tender rotisserie chicken assuaged me from hunger when I was stuck in otherwise desolate Worcester, Massachusetts, for a convention around 1995.

Though I was pleased by its appearance here soon afterwards, I was a bit alarmed at the rapidity of its expansion. Were they overextending themselves? Companies have a natural life cycle, I guess, because I drove past the one in Palo Alto yesterday and found that it had closed. (At least they took the signs down.) This was annoying; I've often used it for a hasty dinner when I'm at Stanford all day, don't have time for anything slower, and the on-campus eateries are either closed, crowded, or I'm just tired of them. Their remaining outlets are much fewer now, and further away.

I might have guessed that Boston Market was struggling for consumer attention when they recently introduced sauces to go over their chicken. This was poorly-judged: the sauces don't go well with their way of cooking chicken, and only make the food messier to eat than it is already. (Let us pause now to remember the tasty but very messy chicken at a long-gone small chain called Koo-Koo-Roo, which may have died from customer irritation at their implacable stinginess at giving out paper napkins.)

At least, though, Boston Market's chicken and sides were both still good at last encounter: the chain didn't enter the death spiral of trying to cut costs by diminishing quality, which drives more customers away, which results in more quality-cutting. This has been the fate of Fresh Choice, the original local soup-and-salad buffet. In the mid 80s when it was new, it was one of my favorite places - I would even take visitors there when they said they wanted good California food - but I recently ate at one for the first time in years, and was shocked at how much the quality of the food had declined. The food counters were poorly maintained, and it had the desolate air of a seedy neighborhood coffee shop. Now I hear that the firm has gone into bankruptcy, and I can't say I'm surprised.

But why hadn't I been to one in so long? Because it's lost the evolutionary fitness struggle in its ecological niche to something called Sweet Tomatoes. That's another one that followed me home from LA, where it's called Souplantation. B. and I first found one in Pasadena around 1989, and, even though that was still Fresh Choice's heyday, we thought this was better. And it still is. Somehow Sweet Tomatoes has maintained its quality and is flourishing, full of bouncy employees and happy customers, and the price is still reasonable. This is the right track. Their clam chowder in particular is the best I've found anywhere around here, and it's stayed good.

Friday, February 1, 2013


Here's a list of 50 essential SF books that I consider rather depressing, as I've only read half of them, and, of those, only about five of them did I really enjoy, and, of those five, two are sufficiently old and quaint that I'd be reluctant to recommend them, and two are not my favorites by their authors. That leaves The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Also, at least one of my favorite SF novelists isn't on the list, not to mention several favorite short-story writers who aren't at their best in novels (a circumstance also true of several writers who are on the list). Also, I've only read two of the books published in the last 30 years, and one of those I purely hated.