Tuesday, October 25, 2016

3 concert and 2 expeditions

I was sent to Symphony Silicon Valley to review Scriabin's Piano Concerto. Have you ever heard Scriabin's Piano Concerto? I hadn't even known that there was a Scriabin's Piano Concerto until I was handed this. At first I was dismayed. I've battered my head against Scriabin's music before, often without success particularly for the orchestral music. Then I listened to this concerto. It's really good! Like Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff concertos, only without the surplus fat. I enjoyed this performance.

I went to Stanford last Tuesday to hear the Quartetto di Roma in Mendelssohn's Op. 13. I learned to love this quartet, essentially a very early homage to Beethoven's Op. 132, under the tutelage of the Pacifica Quartet, which played a Mendelssohn cycle at Menlo some years ago. That stuck with me so strongly that whenever I closed my eyes during this performance, I saw the Pacifica Quartet before me in my mind's eye, and whenever I opened them, I saw these guys instead, a disconcerting experience.

Then up to the City on Sunday for a special SF Performances concert in honor of their newly-retired founding impresaria Ruth Felt. The Alexander Quartet, which can be gritty when they really want to be, applied that to Beethoven's Op. 95, followed by Marc-Andre Hamelin in a tentatively soft version of Brahms' piano intermezzi, Op. 117. This was the Brahms who composed the Lullaby. Hamelin crossed over to the rougher side of the force for a fairly harsh run through of Schumann's Piano Quintet. In between, Midori (that's Midori Goto, the violinist) played some solo Bach, and they managed an encore with all of the above, a movement from Chausson's concerto for solo violin and piano quintet, another work I know from Menlo.

A new shopping center has opened deep down in the Silicon Valley industrial district, which I knew about because they sent me some coupons, for a Whole Foods and a branch of Books Inc., the local independent bookstore chain. They turned out to be hard to find in a poorly-marked sprawled-out mostly-office complex. At Books Inc. the clerk, who did in fact look vaguely familiar, claimed he recognized me from another branch. I have in fact appeared there occasionally, but he also said he remembered me without a beard, which I've had far longer than that branch has been in existence, so I may have another doppelganger, an occasional problem in the past.

After much travail involving websites that send unhelpful error messages and shipping agencies that automatically generate arrival announcement e-mails for the wrong day, I've acquired a Visitor Oyster Card for London transport for my upcoming visit there. Now I have to tutor myself in how to use it, having never gotten myself the local equivalent due to the complexity of the rules - touch this, not that; touch now, not then - and the rarity of my need for it. But I expect to have a busy week in London shuttling back and forth on the Tube, so into the future we go.

However, the amount that AT&T employees don't know about whether my phone plan will work in the UK, or even whether I can charge the phone on UK voltage, would fill the British Library. This despite my responding to every statement of "I don't know" with "Then who would know?" and repeated declarations that, since I cannot be the first customer in AT&T history to wish to travel to the UK with a cell phone, somebody in their organization must know something, and that is the person I wish to speak to. I think I'll have to buy something when I arrive, though whether it'll just be a SIM card or a whole new disposable phone - and I know nothing about disposable phones; I've never had to inquire about one before - I have no idea.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Han, solo

So I see that the franchise's response to having killed off Han Solo is to offer an upcoming movie about his earlier years. I can't help feeling that this is a mistake, in terms of the artistic integrity of Star Wars. Just as the plot function of Luke Skywalker in the original story was to be raised from backwater obscurity into greatness, the plot function of Han Solo was to be rescued from self-serving irrelevance and made, for the first time in his life, to work for a cause greater than himself. (And Leia? She's the princess. Her function is to be rescued. I don't like that either, but we knew this was an old-fashioned story when we took it.)

It follows that any earlier story of Han's would be just a trivial adventure with no greater significance. You can make a popular movie this way - it worked for Indiana Jones - but it'll feel shoddy. If you try to charge it with significance by making it a turning point and personal revelation for Han the way that the first Star Wars was, you undercut the significance and meaningfulness of that first Star Wars. Now you're saying he already went through that, and either backslid (in which case he could do so again) or else just needed reinforcement. Either supposition trivializes.

Also: Luke, Han, and Leia are a triad. They work best together. This was why Force Awakens didn't work: its treatment of the iconic characters was too fragmented, and, unlike the original movie which was a complete story as well as first of a trilogy, TFA wasn't enough of a complete story to make anything iconic out of Rey, Finn, and Poe (characters I remember so well I actually had to go and look their names up just now).

I suppose the best way to deal with all this for the impending movie would be to make a story that shows how Han became such a cocky bastard in the first place. It still wouldn't have any larger significance, but at least it'd be a complete story with a plot function end point.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Aiee! There are llamas!

Today we paid our annual visit to the vacant lot in Saratoga that mysteriously turns into a "pumpkin patch" in October, to select our jack-o-lantern to be. We like this particular place because, for the amusement of the kiddies and the delectation of B., they always host a small petting zoo with baby animals. This year, in addition to the usual pigs (the cause of the smell that kept me viewing this from the outside), goats, rabbits, and chickens, there was a llama. Hadn't seen one of those, at least outside a regular zoo, since stumbling across a llama farm out on the Montara coast years ago.

Waited at the register behind a young mother buying a ticket for her 3-year-old for the "cow train," a tractor with a trail of single-passenger child-sized cars shaped as cows, with offset axles so they wobble up and down amusingly as they go. She was concerned about her son standing up and possibly ejecting himself as it went. The clerk assured her that the driver keeps an eye on the children, and that she could run after the thing, which doesn't go very fast, if she wanted. However, as we left, we saw the cow train going, with Mom having somehow inserted herself into the first car with the kid on her lap. I hope they had a good time.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

concert review: Late Style 1

Come along, earthman, or you will be late.
Late? Late for what?
Late for the Beethoven "Late Style" concert, of course, which I nearly was, owing to the difficulty of finding parking in San Francisco on a Saturday evening. I count nabbing a space in an alleyway only a block and a half from Herbst, ten minutes before the concert, as one of my greatest achievements.

The concept of "late style" is a fashionable one, "of interest to writers and philosophers from Adorno to Said," as the program book puts it. It applies to all the arts, but seems especially notable in music. Doesn't matter how old the composer was at the time, something about accumulated mastery plus, perhaps, the sense of impending death, makes for a gestalt considered worth chewing over.

The gimmick for this one is that the Brentano String Quartet and pianist Jonathan Biss would play Beethoven's final work in each of the three large-scale genres in which he was most prolific: piano sonata, string quartet, and violin sonata. (Actually, depending on how you count the number of works, Beethoven could be considered as having written more piano trios than violin sonatas, but let that be.)

The last violin sonata, Op. 96, is not very late, dating from 15 years before the composer's death, but the last piano sonata, Op. 111, is much later, and the last string quartet, Op. 135, was his last completed full composition. Although each work had its dramatic passages - raised to violence in the quartet, which played them as if it were ripping something not easily repairable - what struck me was the resignation and peace throughout long stretches of all three works, something again emphasized by the quartet with a light but clear, feathery tone.

All three, however, were highly abstract and, though consonant, not at all ingratiating. I'd expect a concert of late Schubert chamber music (which would ideally consist of the G-major Quartet and the String Quintet) would feel very different. There's another of these coming up, by a potpourri of composers, but no Schubert.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

2001: a musical odyssey

I don't quite get the current fad of accompanying movies with a live orchestra. I can understand it for silent films; I once attended a screening of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin with the San Francisco Symphony playing a score stitched together from chunks of Shostakovich symphonies, less because I wanted to see Battleship Potemkin again than because the prospect of hearing a nonstop wad of 75 minutes of Shostakovich thrilled me to the bone. It was as good as I'd hoped. And the movie wasn't bad either.

But a recent film, usually a crappy adventure blockbuster, with the high-quality music track stripped out but the dialog left in, and a live orchestra trying to match the precision timing of the original? It seems pointless to me.

There's just one sound-era film I thought worthy, both musically and cinematically, of being performed this way: 2001: A Space Odyssey. This week the SFS did it, so I went. It was the first time I'd seen the movie on a big screen since the original release in 1968 (though not, this time, in the original Cinerama format). Seeing it for the first time back then was one of my formative experiences. I was awed by the whole thing, not least by the music, all of which I was hearing for the first time, even the Blue Danube Waltz (hey, I was eleven). As for the Ligeti, I didn't realize it was supposed to be music until I got the soundtrack album.

The live performance this time, conducted by Brad Lubman, was actually at its best in the Ligeti pieces. The Blue Danube was a little too dance-band in style and less of the cool elegance of the Karajan recording on the soundtrack. But the live music did bring a vividness that contrasted with the slightly canned sound of the soundtrack. I shudder at the thought of the contrasts to be heard when they do Casablanca, a movie whose music is not at the top of the list of its memorable qualities, later this season.

Nearly half a century on, 2001's dialogue is rather hokey and often unintentionally funny (the cost of Dr. Floyd's phone call caused particular amusement, as did HAL's overweening self-assurance). But the special effects still hold up beautifully, in a way that Star Wars' don't. Even the ape-men still look like real ape-men more than what they actually are, which is mimes in ape suits. And the space sequences, including the lunar surface, are awesome.

There was a special pre-concert treat, a brief interview with Keir Dullea, the actor who played Dave. He told us three things of interest, all having to do with sound. First, he suggested that the reason for the terseness of the dialog in the spaceship scenes is that Dave and Frank have been in space together for weeks already - "there isn't a lot to talk about." Second, that Douglas Rain as the voice of HAL was dubbed in during postproduction. On the set, the person who read HAL's part to cue the other actors was the assistant director. Dullea then performed for a us a few of HAL's lines as this guy did them: purest Cockney. To this day, he says, he thinks of HAL with a Cockney accent.

Third was that, when they were filming Dave's reaction shots to the Stargate scene (the infamous "light show" sequence), Kubrick played music to set the mood. But it wasn't Ligeti. It was the cold, slow "Landscape" movement from Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Antartica. (Which was, by the way, derived from a film score, so we've gone full circle.)

Thursday, October 13, 2016

shall have prizes

So Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This might or might not be much of a new extension of the prize's coverage of literature: I'm familiar with the poetry of virtually none of the previous poets who've won the prize, so someone else will have to tell me whether any of them wrote on the same scale as Dylan's lyrics.

I would just like to say that I would far rather see Bob Dylan win a prize in literature than one for music.

ETA: And I should have added this from the beginning:
I heard Eric Bogle sing this at an outdoor folk festival in Vancouver in 1982, and we were all rolling on the floor laughing. Literally: we were already sitting on the ground, so it was easy.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

weee are Lucy and Suzzy

Last Friday I went to a folk music concert, I did. I headed up to the Freight to hear Suzzy Roche, old favorite from the days she was in a group with her sisters, now touring with her daughter instead. "Hi," the latter said from the stage, "I'm Lucy Wainwright Roche." "And I'm her mother," added the former. I don't know how much stage work they've done as a duo, but they have put out two albums together. I didn't have those, but I do now.

Suzzy was always the most flamboyant of the Roches, and her clothing still is. In what I guess is still a typical look for her, she was wearing tennis shoes over black leggings, along with a lot of other stuff not convenient to describe. Her voice has only graveled a little with age. But her song-writing has sobered, mostly, and there was a lot of serious quiet stuff here, good stuff for a folk concert.

Lucy, more conventionally folky in jeans with a shirt-tail hanging out, has a high light voice like her Aunt Terre's, though not as stratospheric. Her songwriting too suggests the same mode. The two made interesting vocal harmonies together, sometimes abandoning the melody entirely for descant and harmony. Some of this could be heard in the two covers of songs I actually know, "Both Sides Now" and the Beatles' "For No One." (There was another cover that made everyone laugh except me: since I didn't know the song I didn't get the joke.)

One other person there I knew, Rachel H.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Bill Warren

Word is spreading that Bill Warren has died. I hardly know what to say. Bill's writing was encyclopedic in its display of knowledge, captivating and entertaining in its style, and above all voluminous, mostly on subjects on which I really had no interest. His specialty was trashy 50s skiffy films, which most of them were (50s skiffy films, I mean). He was so good on this that he's worth reading even though the movies aren't worth seeing, in fact even better than he is on the few that are worth seeing. His epic tome on this subject, Keep Watching the Skies, is two huge volumes and entirely comprehensive. I wish he'd chosen to devote more of his mighty talent to other topics.

But he and I mostly did not get along personally. He seemed to find me irritating, and I certainly found him so. I once spent an entire convention panel trying to fight off his simplistic belief that "The book is still on the shelf" is a satisfactory response to complaints about a movie adaptation. He once described in my presence a scene from an experimental movie so disgusting that I've never been able to forget it, even though I've never seen the movie. And he was my first encounter with the opinion, among people who hold that a comparison to Hitler is a Go Directly To Jail card that means you've comprehensively lost the argument, that defending the reasonableness of your position by saying "It's not like I compared you to Hitler" counts as a comparison to Hitler. (There have since been others. A couple of times since I've tested it deliberately, because I couldn't believe the response the first time.)

Regardless, his presence enriched the world, which will be a lesser place without it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

in memoriam, Kate Yule

Yesterday afternoon many of us lost a spirited friend, a wonderful mind and captivating personality, curious, incisive, intelligent, witty, and an ideal mate for her David. They bore her long illness as a shared burden, together.

As I alluded in an earlier post, I went up to Portland to see them last Monday. Kate's state was grim, but she was hanging in there. I've done my share of vigils by the bedsides of people dying of cancer, and from those experiences I could tell from this, and from the reports David has been posting, that the end was near, though of course I said nothing of the sort, hoping that I was wrong. Even I didn't expect that it was quite this near.

I may have been the last person outside of family and caregivers to see her walk - she could only manage a few steps - or to have an actual conversation with her - a bit abortive in getting words out, but the voice was the same and one could feel the same mind behind it. These finalities are chilling and sad, but also make me even more certain than I was at the time that taking the extra leg on my trip was the right thing to do.

On that occasion I did something I'd been meaning to do for a long time. A few years ago Kate wrote of attending a classical concert with Tchaikovsky's Serenade, and wishing that classical music came with a road map, to tell you what was going on and where you were. I could help with that. I brought along a CD of the Serenade, and we played the first three movements - one at a time, with breaks - as I narrated the events of the music. There wasn't time for the finale, so I promised to send that in written form by e-mail when I got home.

I did, but I doubt she was able to listen to it. So you can do it for her. Here's the recording I linked to of the finale of this piece she enjoyed, played by my local favorites, the New Century Chamber Orchestra, with my road map to the music.
0.03. Begins with the same high note with which the previous movement ended.

0.12. SLOW INTRODUCTION, theme. This is actually a Russian folk song, a Volga boatmen's song.

0.39. Repeat, now with the theme in cellos, and the violins playing counterpoint on top.

0.52. Here you can start hearing, embedded in the theme, the three falling notes that began the introduction to the first movement. Remember I said at that point that they'd be important later.

1.02. Here, closing off the theme, are those three notes open by themselves.

1.10. Now they're being repeated with smaller, less emphasized notes added between the main notes. What's actually happening here is that the introductory theme is being metamorphized into:

1.30. The MAIN THEME of the movement. This is fast and bouncy, and it includes those three notes in its opening phrase. This is another Russian folk song, so rather than being built out of the three notes, the three notes were actually extracted from it.

1.42. Repeat, louder.

1.52. Repeat in cellos, with the other strings playing pizzicato.

2.02. SECOND THEME, more lyrical. This one is a Tchaikovsky original.

2.20. Since that appeared first in the cellos, this time the repeat is in the violins, with the cellos playing the curlicues underneath.

2.34. Now it's beginning to close off into the coda of the exposition, reintroducing phrases from the main theme.

3.09. DEVELOPMENT section. This is an important part of sonata form that was left out of the first movement. Here bits and pieces of the themes are played around with and varied in different keys. Listen for bits of the second theme being played over bits of the first theme.

3.22. The second theme opening phrase being played over in higher and higher pitches to increase tension. Very typical Tchaikovsky development style.

3.48. Now it mixes the first and second themes together and rises to a climax.

4.27. And it merges into the RECAPITULATION, the return to the original themes.

4.53. Second theme.

5.28. And closing off into the coda, except it's more elaborate this time, because it's the end of the entire movement. Except not quite, because:

6.10. Surprise, the return of the FIRST MOVEMENT INTRODUCTION, original and unaltered.

6.50. But what's it doing now? It's metamorphizing into the main theme of this movement again. Remember how they began with the same notes? So even though they're in different styles, they're really the same theme. And that leads directly to

7.20. The real end of the movement, and of the entire work.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

concert news and reviews

I wanted to go hear this, but did I buy a ticket? No, I convinced my editor to send me to review it. Heh. This is why I tend not to think of having a forum to express my thoughts as "work."

Meanwhile, I learn that one of my favorite Bay Area venues caught on fire while I was out of town over the weekend. Best wishes to all those who perform there and those who host them.