Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Christopher Robin, hello

There's a movie coming out called Goodbye Christopher Robin, one of those modern historical dramas so popular recently. It's a genre I'm very susceptible to, so I'll go see this one.

But before I have to throw in a comparison of the movie with reality, I'd better triangulate reality with the general impression of it. For The Enchanted Places, Christopher Milne's memoir of his childhood and the story behind the books, is the most seriously and comprehensively misread book that I know. This is pervasive; it's not just one or two cases. People read it, but what they get out of it isn't there.

You know the basics. A.A. Milne, successful dramatist and humorist, published between 1924 and 1928 four children's books of fanciful poetry and stories inspired by, and using the real name of, his small son Christopher Robin and his collection of stuffed toy animals. They became huge and lasting successes, to some irritation of the author who preferred to be known for more serious or adult work, and to his son, who, as the end of The House at Pooh Corner points out, did not remain a small boy playing with stuffed toys.

That part's true, but a mistaken emphasis on the irritation has created false stories of a bizarrely dysfunctional, but imaginary, family out of the memoir that Christopher Milne, as in adulthood he preferred to be known, published half a century later in 1974. (I'm citing the 1975 US edition from Dutton.)

False story #1: That A.A. Milne was a cold and distant father with no interest and little contact with his son as a real person.

Partial truth to this: That as a small child, Christopher was largely raised by a nanny. This was absolutely standard practice in upper and middle-class families in Britain at the time, and for many generations earlier. Some parents were cold and distant, some were warm and loving. They all had nannies. You can prove nothing from this. The Milnes, at least, were not the kind of parents who only see their child for a few minutes at bedtime and allow no real interaction then, though they've been falsely accused of that.

Another partial truth to it: AAM did not have a gift for playing with and relating to small children. (Not the only renowned male children's author of whom this was true: Dr. Seuss was positively uneasy with small children in a way that Milne was not.)

But CRM is not resentful. He calls his childhood "happy" (p. 5) and is sympathetic to his father: "Some people are good with children. Others are not. It is a gift. You either have it or you don't. My father didn't. ... My father was a creative writer and so it was precisely because he was not able to play with his small son that his longings sought and found satisfaction in another direction." (p. 36)

But CRM also says that this applied only to nursery days. "Later on it was different, very different." (p. 36) And he proves this with extensive anecdote throughout the book. First, AAM did have the courtesy to arrange for the nursery visits of an acquaintance whom the boy called Soldier, who did have that knack with children (ch. 4) Even from when CRM was still small, the book tells some remarkable anecdotes showing AAM as a father of both sensitivity and wit. My favorite is this:
Once, when I was quite little, he came up the nursery while I was having my lunch. And while he was talking I paused between mouthfuls, resting my hands on the table, knife and fork pointing upwards. "You oughtn't really to sit like that," he said, gently. "Why not?" I asked, surprised. "Well ..." He hunted around for a reason he could give. Because it's considered bad manners? Because you musn't? Because ... "Well," he said, looking in the direction that my fork was pointing. "Suppose somebody suddenly fell through the ceiling. They might land on your fork and that would be very painful." (p. 120-21)
That's the species of wit I'd like to show with small children, and have very occasionally had the luck to come up with. And that was in the deprecated nursery days! Read the father gently correcting a factual error the son had been taught in school (p. 119-20) or the truly extraordinary way he weaned his son, then aged about ten, from an interest in shooting (ch. 21). And the cherished family holidays (ch. 22). The son says he and his father were very close for many years, and there's plenty to back this up. When CRM was in his 20s, his father sent him philosophical books, hoping the son would share his beliefs but not pressing him to do so (p. 142-44); this is discussed in CRM's third book, The Hollow in the Hill, which is not really a memoir but, as its subtitle states, "The search for a personal philosophy." In his second book, The Path Through the Trees, which is a memoir and a sequel to The Enchanted Places, there's lengthy discussion of AAM's role in helping CRM join the Army in WW2 and in his positive enthusiasm in helping the son realize his aptness for and to qualify for his post as a sapper, a combat engineer; and post-war pulled strings in the book industry to help CRM get set up as a bookseller.

A further warp, and yes I've actually seen this claimed, is that "his dad bought him Tigger because he wanted to see what personality young Christopher gave him -- in other words, A.A. was not being a thoughtful dad but seeking copy as a writer." That is an unjust insinuation worthy of a cruel prosecutor. Here's what CRM actually says: "Both Kanga and Tigger were later arrivals, presents from my parents, carefully chosen, not just for the delight they might give to their new owner, but also for their literary possibilities." (p. 77) So the charge is as if it was just his father. As if the parents couldn't have both motives, of being thoughtful and generating ideas. As if there's anything wrong in AAM's hoping he might get a story out of this. People post amusing videos of their children on YouTube all the time, and I hope you can tell the difference between the ones who are actually exploiting and abusing their children and those who are just delighted to share something amusing.

False story #2: That Christopher Milne spent his life in burning resentment of his father exploiting him as a literary character.

What people who purvey this are thinking of is a passage in the epilogue to The Enchanted Places in which CRM recounts a shadow that came between him and his father in the post-war years when he struggled to find a job and a career. "In pessimistic moments ... it seemed to me, almost, that my father ... had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son." (p. 165) Emphases added. CRM is not fully endorsing this bitter view, even for the time period that he had it. Eventually he realized that "If I wanted to escape from Christopher Robin, so, too, did he." (p. 166) AAM's burden, of course, was being known just for that, or having his other works judged only in that context.

As a boy, CRM would sometimes be teased by other boys over Christopher Robin. But that wasn't a heavy burden. If it weren't that, they'd find some other excuse to tease. CRM is clear that this was no more than an occasional irritant: Its "appearances at school were few. Mostly we were occupied with other things ... mostly I had other things to think about ... it never occurred to me that perhaps I ought to be blaming somebody for it all. ... My relations with my father were quite unaffected." (p. 163-64)

In adulthood, he retained continued discomfort with Christopher Robin, but it's something he came to terms with; it could hardly have been otherwise once he settled on a career as a bookseller (as was pointed out to him by his mother, "who always hit the nail on the head no matter whose fingers were in the way," p. 167). All he says about its place in his maturity is that "posing as Christopher Robin does today make me feel ill at ease" (p. 5) and "he still fills me with acute embarrassment ... after years of practice I am still terribly bad at this sort of thing" (p. 168). That's only acceptance insofar as he was willing to tell the story in his book, instead of hiding out altogether; but it's far removed from the kind of burning resentment, especially of his father (to whose memory he dedicated both his second and third books), of the brief spasm of 1947 and of the false story.

I hope, probably in vain, that we can have done with the misreadings of the book, before whatever misreadings generated by the movie descend on us.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

museum visit

Our friend E. recommended the exhibit on Teotihuacan current at the de Young Museum in the City. So, B. having the day off work today, we went. It's a pleasure to have such things within the range of doing on impulse without prior notice.

Most of the Mexican pyramidal sites that people know are in the Yucatan, but this one is in the central highlands near Mexico City. It predates the Aztecs, but whether it was built by their ancestors or someone else is unknown. It's been excavated for over a century, but a lot of valuable material has recently been discovered in tunnels.

I was most attracted to the carvings in serpentine, jade, onyx, and other stones, but there were also a lot of intriguing ceramic pieces, carvings on large conch shells, etc. One of their favorite images was the feathered serpent, sometimes depicted on wall murals at 6 to 8 foot length, and just begging to be incorporated into a fantasy novel. (It's been done, by Kenneth Morris and perhaps others I don't recall.) There were also feathered felines (the captions used the word feline for all such creatures, whether feathered or not, as their resemblance to what we'd call cats was elusive), birds with hands, and people with ghostly imperturbable expressions akin to those of moai statues, carved from stone but with eyes of shell or pyrite. It was all memorable and distinctive stuff.

We added a successful browse through both of the museum's gift shops, and then drove down, out of Golden Gate Park where the de Young is located, to Borderlands in the Mission district, passing by a whim past their future site on Haight a couple blocks east of Ashbury, to which they're in the process of buying the freehold; this turned out to be a better route to the current store than the one I'd been previously contemplating. There we had cider in the attached cafe - ah, fall! when the cider blooms - while waiting for the store to open at noon, where we bought more books.

Lunch at a Mexican place in South City where I'd been before, and then home, and that was our half-day out.

Monday, October 16, 2017

concert review: American Brass Quintet

Sent out to hear and review a brass quintet concert. A brass quintet? Never done one of those before. Yes.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

English suites no. 8

Like Rossini and Sibelius, Elgar wrote little in his last years. Much of what he did write was reworkings and expansions on old notebook material, but the results could be good, like this work, the Nursery Suite (1930).

Elgar was inspired to put it together by the suggestion that he could dedicate it to a nursery, specifically that belonging to a young royal mother, Elizabeth, then Duchess of York, for her two small daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. Yes, the present venerable Queen was a dedicatee of this work at the age of four. Nor was this the only occasion in recent history that a royal infant has caught the attention of a major composer, as we'll hear in a later entry.

It's got quite a variety of movements, most of them gentle and appropriate to the topic. They are: Aubade (Awake) (0.00), The Serious Doll (4.48), Busy-ness (7.59), The Sad Doll (10.17), The Wagon Passes (12.10), The Merry Doll (13.55), Dreaming (15.26), and Envoi (Coda) (18.43, continuing on from the previous without a break). Of these, the shortest and highly atypical "The Wagon Passes" - which sounds more like Mussorgsky's "Bydlo" than anything else that is not, appropriately as they have the same topic - and the "Envoi" - which recapitulates previous movements' themes amid a violin cadenza - are the most interesting.

concert review: San Jose State University choirs

As a graduate of, and also long-time alumna participant in, the SJSU choral program, B. very much wanted to attend this special concert to celebrate its 70th anniversary, and I was happy to go along. (She also attended a reunion gathering that I did not.)

The Choraliers, the top chorus; the larger Concert Choir; and the simply enormous Alumni Choir all sang in the Cathedral Basilica downtown, mostly acapella and otherwise with minimal accompaniment, a wise choice as the basilica has some of the wettest acoustics I've ever heard. The building is shaped like a short and stubby cross, with the chancel in the middle of the transept crossing rather than at one end. [I have to look up these church geography terms every time I use them.] This encouraged creative placement of the chorus, which variously was split into contrapuntal groups, or lined up behind the audience, or slowly marching through the aisles. The High Catholic interior, with saints in niches and otherwise fiercely decorated, with a ceiling Boschian in elaboration if not in irreverence, helped the atmosphere.

All three choruses were thoroughly excellent. Naturally the sacred classics, by the likes of Schütz and Victoria, came off best; there was also a good one by Charles Stanford, whom I wouldn't have thought had it in him; and the huge Alumni Choir, with its powerful bass section, simply exploded with Bruckner's Locus Iste, my favorite motet of all time. There were also some powerful hymns and folk songs, though the piece by Morten Lauridsen gave ammunition to the argument of a friend who claims that this much-honored choral composer simply doesn't know how to set text. (Apparently he wasn't expecting words like "choreographer" to have so many syllables.) A few other pieces, notably the one in Latvian (they also sang in Sotho and Tagalog as well as English and Latin), were not in good taste; but Ned Rorem's setting of Tudor-era poems, From an Unknown Past, was delightful as well as amusing.

The concert was led and introduced by university choral director Jeffrey Benson, with contributions by some grad students in choral conducting, and guest appearances by Benson's esteemed predecessor Charlene Archibeque, who was director when B. was there and, with a 35-year tenure, was known by just about everyone else too, getting a delighted standing ovation.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Kesh fire report

Wakwaha has been overrun with flame.

Tachas Touchas is seriously endangered.

The other seven towns are OK at the moment, but Kastoha has been evacuated and others are in potential danger, including Ounmalin and Sinshan.

"What Makes It Great?"

I get pretty exasperated at a lot of what passes for music appreciation talks, but one that impressed me was given at Stanford ten years ago by a traveling lecturer named Rob Kapilow, who gives his talks under the rubric "What Makes It Great?" His topic then was Vivaldi's Four Seasons, which you'd think would be too simple to need analysis, but Kapilow's subject was the tiny, small-scale tricks of composition that make this music as enjoyable as it is, about which he was both learned and lucid.

So he came back to Stanford last week with a program on Dvořák's "American" Quartet, another work that might seem too simple to need discussion. It's not, being built very craftily by an experienced master, as we learned at the talk. I took the opportunity to sign up to review it, and I'm fairly pleased with capturing the themes and principles, not just some fragmentary specifics, of Kapilow's presentation.

My one regret, which I had to leave half-implied because of my own space limitations, is that one tightly-packed hour of technical lessons, which was long enough, left Kapilow no time to discuss what was American about the "American" Quartet. In the first program of a series on American music, it was a frustrating omission.

But it would, as I said, have taken another hour. I'd like to try to make two points here. First, the educational context. Dvořák was so deeply imbued with his own Czech folk culture, employing the rhythms and style of Czech music and even speech as inspiration, not as quoted source material, that he thought American composers should do the same with what he thought were the most distinctive features of its culture, namely ones from Black and American Indian subcultures.

And the composers who came along in his wake tried. But the problem was, Dvořák was Czech; this was natural to him. Most of these American composers were WASPs from Boston and New York; Black spirituals and tribal rituals were no more native to them than they were to Dvořák, and they didn't have his synthesizing genius as an outside observer. As a result, they came up with passingly pleasant but weak-tea pieces like (and this is the best of them) Edward MacDowell's "Indian" Suite. (Dvořák did have one major Black pupil, Harry Burleigh, but he did not write much concert music.)

It wasn't until some 25 years later that American composers hit on different and more effective ways to sound American. New York Jews like Gershwin and Copland wrote jazz-inflected music. Jazz had been invented by Blacks in New Orleans, but it came to New York and became part of the entire urban culture there. And several composers, of whom Copland was just one, figured out a way to convey the open prairie in music, and not just by quoting cowboy songs, but its spirit in their harmonies and phrasing. Some (e.g. Roy Harris) had been raised out in the open countryside; Copland had not, but again, cowboy tales in Wild West shows, dime novels, and, later, movies had seeped into the hindbrains of Americans who'd never been there. But by this time Dvořák was dead, and didn't see how he'd both gotten the point and missed it.

Closer to Dvořák's point would have been the equally later music of composers who were themselves Black, like William Grant Still and Florence Price, both of whom I want to write about later. (Concert composers of Native American Indian ancestry only seem to have come along more recently.)

The other point concerns the Americanness of Dvořák's "American" music. As Kapilow pointed out, Dvořák himself was convinced he was writing music in a different way here than he would at home. But was he, and if so how? This has actually been a matter of contention. Leonard Bernstein, who was the father of the sort of enthused, intelligent music appreciation we had here, once gave a talk on nationalism in music claiming that Dvořák's American music was no less Czech than anything else he wrote, and attempted to prove it by inventing Czech patriotic lyrics (in English) which he sang to the Largo of the Symphony from the New World, a melody so like a Black spiritual that it's since been turned into a Black spiritual.

But Bernstein was being disingenuous, because most Americans wouldn't know what a Czech patriotic song (in English) would sound like. To my ears, there really is a difference in style, and I can easily point it out. Listen to the opening theme of the "American" Quartet (the first 45 seconds will do). Hear the clear-cut two- and four-bar phrases, the repeating motives, the strong and regular rhythms? That's the American aspect, whether it fits with what Bernstein says is American or not. Compare it with a piece of Dvořák's Czech music, the opening theme of his Eighth Symphony (again about 40 seconds). It's freer, rhapsodic, less "regular" in every respect. Not all his Czech music is so unlike the American, but nothing he wrote here sounds like this.

Friday, October 13, 2017

concert review: JACK Quartet and Joshua Roman

The air was smoky up in the City today - about 10% of the people I saw on the street were wearing breathing masks, not among them the man who wondered aloud to me if there was an epidemic - but I went up there anyway to be part of the small audience for this concert of extremely new string chamber music at Herbst.

The JACK Quartet is so named because those were the initials of the original members; it no longer quite fits. Joshua Roman, who joined them to make a quintet, is the cellist who has also been grabbed as a late substitute soloist for next week's SFS concert, which I'm going to.

The bulk of the concert consisted of works by four living American composers, the youngest of them Roman himself (he's 33). What struck me about these works was how four composers with such closely overlapping technical vocabularies could produce works with such different style and ethos.

That didn't mean they were all equally good, or equally bad, either. Amy Williams's string quartet was too dry and abstract, and John Zorn's piece for two cellos too noisy and frantic, to be very interesting. But the two pieces for full quintet were excellent, and not just because the composers were not afraid to include diatonic harmonies in their toolbox. Jefferson Friedman wrote an emotionally vivid tragic lament, full of long chromatic solo melodies over a variety of backgrounds, from piercing high held notes to pounding jagged rhythms that sounded as much like climaxes by Hovhaness as anything else. Roman's piece was an almost cinematic depiction of a tornado hitting the land of his Oklahoma childhood. It begins and ends with peaceful folk-like melodies, and in the middle goes wild with the effects, including alarm sirens wailing and Isserlis-like wooden doors banging.

Also on the program, something old but just as edgy: quintet arrangements of some 5-part Gesualdo madrigals. The arranger, a former JACK violinist, puts color in the pieces with nasal-sounding passages on the bridge.

In a Q&A session at the end, without mentioning which pieces or what I thought of them, I asked the performers if they were conscious of the same stylistic range in the choices as I was. Their answers all focused more on the importance of composers each learning to develop his or her own style, and on the pleasure of following a composer as it's developed. With all of this I certainly agree.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

English suites no. 7

This isn't called a suite, though with three light and contrasting movements, I maintain that in practice it is one. It's one of my favorites of the lighter and lesser-known works by Edward Elgar, one I heard on LP at an early age and imprinted on. The Three Bavarian Dances are actually orchestral arrangements taken from a larger set of choral songs with piano that Elgar (music) and his wife Alice (lyrics) wrote in commemoration of holidays they took there.

Once you know the titles you are not, I assure you, missing anything important by not getting the lyrics. The three dances are: The Dance (0.00), Lullaby (3.31), and The Marksman (6.45). The final one is actually the best, so stay with it.

how they got their names

1. In the 1850s, the northwestern part of the US was one jurisdiction, Oregon Territory. Most of the American settlers lived south of the Columbia River that bisected it, and those who lived north felt neglected by the local government. So they petitioned Congress to be created a separate territory. The name they proposed in the petition was Columbia, after the river.

But Congress thought that would be confusing because there was already a District of Columbia. So they changed the name to Washington instead.

(Did anyone in Congress notice how stupid this was? Eventually someone did, but by that time it was too late to amend the bill without putting it off until the next year. So they judged it better to let it go through as it was.)

2. The Beatles were recording an album they intended to title Everest. As the name of the world's highest mountain, it appropriately signified a majestic achievement. But in fact they'd chosen the name casually: it was the name of the brand of cigarettes their recording engineer smoked.

The plan was to fly to Nepal after finishing the album, and take a cover photo posing in front of the mountain. But the Beatles decided that was too much of a drag, flying all that way just to take a picture. So they had the idea of taking the least possible effort instead: they'd walk out the front door of the studio, take the cover photo in the middle of the street outside, and title the album after the street.

So that's what they did, and that's why the album is called Abbey Road.

3. Rex Tillerson is frequently compared with a dog, not just for his dogged allegiance towards his abusive master, but because his name is Rex. That's his real name, but he's not named for a dog; his parents named him for a movie cowboy named Rex Allen. (That was his real name too.)

Rex Harrison, on the other hand, is a nickname, and he did get it from a dog.

Interestingly, Rex Tillerson's middle name is Wayne, which came from another movie cowboy, the better-remembered John Wayne. John Wayne's nickname was, famously, Duke. That also came from a dog.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

bad news cont'd

Latest fire map shows the fire area actually over-running Jeanne and Alan's house. We know they're safe, but though this doesn't prove anything, for the property I fear the worst.

two sessions

Thanks to a timely departure and a quick dash across town, I got to two public educational sessions in the Palo Alto area last evening.

The first was a Stanford Music Dept. lecture by guest Malcolm Bilson, a specialist in classical-period fortepiano whom I've seen before at the historical recordings seminars they've held. His talk was very much in that vein, urging performers to form inflections of style based on thorough study of the expression marks in the score (which he says most ignore in favor of plodding through without inflection) and through development of taste (a term used by many writers of the time to define good performance and composition) to determine subjectively how the score should best be expressed in the playing. For instance, he said nobody plays the quiet phrases in the opening bars of Beethoven's Op. 90 slower than the loud ones, when he considered it obvious they should be. He didn't say why, in that case, Beethoven didn't add a ritard marking as he did a few bars later, but I'm sure if asked he would have responded that it was too obvious to need specification for anyone with taste.

Then down to the city library for a panel session on the future of libraries, by which they meant mostly public libraries. Being functionally retired, I don't hear much about that any more. Two library consultants and one search expert from Google gave presentations and then the two who were physically present (one of the consultants is away on business and gave a prerecorded talk) answered questions from a journalist and from the audience.

I detected a tension both between the speakers and within their talks, between seeing libraries as incorporating new technologies into their established general mission and changing the fundamental purpose and nature of libraries. The established mission includes providing information and training users in evaluating it - much talk on how this can be done with uncurated web material. The change in mission turns libraries from places where individuals access material into community gathering centers, and from sources of material into forums for patrons to create their own. While one speaker argued that "community gathering center" has always been one function of libraries (meeting room rental, storytelling sessions), the latter is a more general educative function and not one that exploits what libraries specifically do, and the trend away from the older functions struck me as throwing babies out with the bathwater, something I've already noticed with changes in the search capacity of online catalogs (my own specialty). That libraries as we know them are unlikely to disappear in the next 20 years - the Google expert's conclusion - was the most comforting thought.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

movie not finished

Cutter's Way (1981). Recommended to me as an investigation thriller. Sluggish. Crippled veteran who thinks this excuses his stupendous obnoxiousness* (John Heard) and his best pal, a slacker who frequently and inexplicably takes off his shirt (Jeff Bridges; in a later era this part would have been played by Keanu Reeves) make vague desultory attempts to discuss a crime Bridges witnessed, but by halfway through the movie they still haven't done anything about it, even though they know who the culprit is, so there isn't even anything to investigate. Two women (Lisa Eichhorn, Ann Dusenberry) stand around and don't do much either.

*How obnoxious is he? He's introduced in a scene in which he calls a black man the N-word, excusing himself on the grounds that he can't keep track of the preferred term. I should have stopped watching right then.

Monday, October 9, 2017

English suites no. 6

Here's another charmer by Hubert Parry, Lady Radnor's Suite. Helen, Countess of Radnor, was an enthusiastic amateur musician who conducted the first performance of this suite with her all-female string orchestra at a charity concert in 1894 (not 1902, an oft-cited date which is when it was published).

It's a precursor to the neo-Baroque music which became so popular in the 1910s and 1920s. The movements all have Baroque-evocative titles. The contents are Prelude (0:00), Allemande (2:40), Sarabande (5:06), Bourrée (8:10), Slow Minuet (11:18), and Gigue (13:37).

bad news

Several large wildfires broke out, apparently last night, in the Santa Rosa and Napa areas. Not having checked the news, I heard about it from B., who could smell the smoke at her workplace, some 70 miles away.

Yikes. We get wildfires in the deep forest in Northern Cal, but these are LA-style fires of a kind previously essentially unknown here, where it breaks out in the rural hills just above town and then moves in on inhabited areas. (The 1991 Oakland fire, which was also a mid-October fire driven by dry winds, was not quite in that category.)

Here's the best maps I could get. That's the first thing I look for, to learn exactly where the fires are and thus who might be in danger. There's one relatively small one in the hills west of Napa, a few miles west of the home of B's sister G, but I'm more worried about the one reported to be in Glen Ellen. Has anyone heard from Alan and Jeanne? The map shows the fire closer to Kenwood to the north and east, and they live on the SW side of Glen Ellen, but there's no indication of how big it is and close is not comfort.

Even more shocking is the huge one on the north side of Santa Rosa, which has moved in on a fully if not tightly settled area of homes, businesses, hotels ... all of which have gone ... hospitals (evacuated). I was just up in Santa Rosa last week. The hall I attended a concert in is not in the evacuation area, but the nearby grocery where I grabbed lunch first is ... and so is the Charles M. Schulz Museum and its next-door Snoopy's skating rink ... and the evacuation boundary has expanded on that side since I first checked it earlier this morning. Evacuation areas are much bigger than fires, as I learned from Oakland, but there are places I drove through last week that have definitely been hit.

In news disturbing in a different way, there's Harvey Weinstein's excuse for his obnoxious behavior. He says he “came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.”

What kind of excuse is that? Harvey was born in 1952. He was still only 10 years old when Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was published, and 19 when Ms. first hit the stands, well back in his formative years. There was plenty of feminism in the air already. I know enough men his age who picked up on it. And he was a secular Jew from Queens, a cosmopolitan man. There's still lots of sexism around and probably always will be, but something so noxious as the retro-Hollywood "casting couch" line, in which career advancement is a quid pro quo for sexual favors, is so egregious by this point in history that no appeal to the ways of olden culture can explain it, let alone excuse.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

classical rumble

Here's a couple of articles about classical music that I take some dispute with.

First, Anne Midgette on classical music in the movies. My points here are relatively minor:

1) to note that her painfully-enunciated distinction between music "as a regular soundtrack" and music "as a plot point" is a standard concept in film criticism, and is described as non-diegetic vs. diegetic;

2) to express surprise that she considers it noteworthy when bad characters in Apocalypse Now and The Silence of the Lambs are shown as loving classical music, thus "subvert[ing its] wonted role as signifier of the good"; per contra, love of classical music has long signified villainy in the movies, from Alex the Beethoven buff in A Clockwork Orange (a movie which Midgette mentions) down to the stereotyped mad scientist who passes the time playing Bach's Toccata in D Minor on his haunted castle's handy organ;

3) a matter of taste concerning the use of diegetic music in the movie Margaret. Midgette accuses writer/director Kenneth Lonergan of essentially outsourcing the trigger of the viewer's emotional response to two scenes where the characters go to the opera. I see what she means by that; but I found the scenes effective, as unlike her I found the music, even though one of the pieces was merely Offenbach's "Barcarolle", capable of carrying the emotional weight it was handed. Since Midgette's criticism includes terms like "trite" and "a hundred times," maybe the movie was more effective for me because I don't attend the opera as much: a great performance is a special occasion for me.

Then there's this piece on the history of performance practice. It was actually written over four years ago, but I only found it recently. Though the author, Gerald Elias, is a professional orchestral violinist, the history in it is irritatingly inaccurate.

First off, I'd like to know who are these advocates for "Historically Informed Performance" who insist on using no vibrato whatever. Nobody I know in the field eschews it entirely; they use much less of it than modern performers do, but it is employed as an ornament. In arguing for its presence historically, Elias is defeating a straw man.

Then he mocks the term, H.I.P. You can't win; the term was adopted as a more modest substitute for the earlier term of "authentic performance," the arrogance of which tended to irritate people. Elias says that all professional musicians are historically informed, but they're not: not in the sense that H.I.P. means. They study the score, which is a historical document, yes; they may study the composer's life and the context in which the music was written. But the entire difference between H.I.P. and regular performance is whether you incorporate (our best surmises at) performance practices not in the score which are different than the normal ones of today. H.I.P. players do; others don't.

In order to push the case for the practices of Francesco Geminiani over those of Leopold Mozart, Elias derides Leopold as a country bumpkin who'd be forgotten were he not father to his famous son. That's historical malpractice. Leopold was a respected musician and composer, and his violin method was a major work of its kind. Had his son never existed, Leopold would be about as well-remembered today as Geminiani, and for the same reasons.

Despite Elias' claim that near-continual vibrato has been a regular historical practice, we know for a fact that it was not. While we only have documents for earlier periods, and most of them do request limited vibrato - Geminiani, who used it extensively, was considered an eccentric violinist in his day - we know for sure that string players trained in the mid to late 19C were very sparing in their vibrato. We know this because we have recordings of them made in the early 20C, and that's how they play. Listen to Joseph Joachim, considered the most intellectually sublime violinist of his day, playing Bach. By our standards it sounds pretty awful.*

And, contrary to those who'd like to claim excuses, that's not an artifact of the primitive recording, either. As far as we can tell from the recorded evidence, the modern vibrato-heavy style was introduced around the 1910s by Fritz Kreisler and Pablo Casals, and became standard practice over the next 20-30 years. Here's an early (1915) acoustic recording of Casals playing Bach, and despite the truly dreadful recording and playback quality, he sounds like a cellist of today.

*So why don't H.I.P. string players sound like that? From what I've heard at and deduced from conferences I've attended on the subject, they don't have the nerve. H.I.P. is always a compromise with the present, and not just consciously. Other things string players and singers of the past did that have since vanished are the use of portamento and expressive ritards. Today's musicians know they're supposed to do these things when performing historically, but they're so drilled in modern practice that they can't do it. I've heard them trying: they make some gestures, but they just can't entirely do it.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Krzysztof Urbański, a young guest artist who occasionally would stop doing anything recognizable as conducting and just dance in place on the podium, led a solid meaty program of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and Shostakovich's Tenth. The soloist was the equally young (early 30s) Augustin Hadelich, who belied his Stradivarius with a dry, unresonant tone. But his phrasing was urgently energetic and made for a brisk, winning performance.

Same could be said for Urbański, whose Shostakovich wasn't so much big or powerful as it was propelled, even in the quiet sections featuring lone wind instruments wandering around in the desert. No matter how low the stove was turned, the skillet was always simmering.

But there was one other piece on the program: Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima by Krzysztof Penderecki. Now that choice was interesting, and not just for the conductor's Polish boosterism. When I was first learning classical music in the early 70s, the Threnody, which was written in 1960 when the composer was 26, was considered the hottest and most significant thing in contemporary music. I have here, for instance, a Basic Record Library suggestion list put out by the Schwann catalog ca. 1970, and of the works or series of works marked with stars, meaning "we feel [they] are really basic," only two date entirely from after 1946, and one of them is Penderecki's Threnody.1 But I haven't heard much about it since then, which is even more striking considering that Penderecki, who is still alive, has remained one of Poland's leading composers - indeed, now that Lutosławski and Górecki are dead, indisputably its greatest living one. It's rather more avant-garde than his later work, and might be passed off as a youthful over-enthusiasm.

In truth, I'd hoped the Threnody had gone away for good. It's a work for string orchestra that consists of some nine minutes of the most painful possible dissonant held chords, interspersed with patches of chaotic noise. The juxtaposition of that music with the full title ("threnody" is Greek for "wailing ode") implies, as does John Corigliano's symphony in memory of AIDS victims, that since the victims of Hiroshima suffered, then by gum the listener is going to suffer too. And if that sounds offensively bathetic, the fault lies not with the commentator who points it out, but with the composer who invites the comparison in the first place.

At this point some smartass will undoubtably point out that Penderecki wrote the music first and came up with the title afterwards. But that's no defense. In that case, Penderecki was putting his listeners through this gauntlet not to honor the victims of Hiroshima but for no reason whatever.

Whatever its extramusical connotation, the fact is that listening to the Threnody, and other such works thrust at me by sources like the Basic Record Library, back in 1970, is what convinced me that the kind of contemporary music they were pushing was worthless crap, and set me off on my long quest to find better stuff, and I'm pleased to see that more recent music appreciation guides have also taken a more balanced approach.

With works like, for instance, Shostakovich's Tenth, a mere seven years older than the Threnody, but which is not named in the Basic Record Library.2 It's since risen to be considered the greatest of mid-20C symphonies, but it didn't stand out in 1970. But listen to it. It's got anguish, it's got despair, it's got tragedy; but it's also beautiful and meaningful, it speaks to rather than assaults the listener. The two goals are not antithetical, and this work proves it. If it took the threat of Soviet persecution to make Shostakovich write this way, that's merely ironic. He did turn out forelock-tugging junk, but he also wrote this. He understood that the job of art in the face of suffering is to be centripetal:3 to hold the world together rather than break it apart.

And that's why, some half a century later, Shostakovich's Tenth lives, while Penderecki's Threnody, which I'd never heard live before,4 has been reduced to a curtain-raiser for a Polish conductor who wants to wave the flag, and sounds even more ridiculous when immediately succeeded by the conventionally gentle strains of Mendelssohn.

1. The other is the series of Synchronisms by Mario Davidovsky, something else that's fallen off the cultural chatter list in the interim. The cross-threshold series are the songs of Poulenc and the symphonies of Shostakovich, of which the only post-1946 one specified is the 14th, then brand-new.
2. The Shostakovich symphonies are cited, but the 10th is not among the ones specified.
3. A useful word I got from Bernard Levin, who used it in a passionate article making this same point in 1983.
4. It's been played only once previously by SFS, by Ozawa in 1977, when absurdities like it were still fashionable. Ozawa once played George Crumb and literally got laughed at for his trouble.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

grumbles of the day

My overzealous credit card issuer is at it again. Having noticed a small recurring transaction I've had for over two years, they suddenly decided it was a fraud and put a hold on my card. I discovered this when I tried to use it on a purchase. At least their script for responding to people calling to complain about this now begins, "Wow, that must have been embarrassing." I pointed out this has been a recurring transaction. They said it's recurring when it's a fraud. I pointed out that, if it were a fraud, surely I'd have reported it before now.

Purchase was some OTC medications at the Kaiser pharmacy. I got my labs and a flu shot at the same time, so now I have pokes in both arms. Due to the excitement of parking at Kaiser, I like to do as many things as possible at once there.

My editor wants me to review a concert next month with Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin. I've heard that twice in recent years and didn't like it either time. Now I have to study it to do it justice. Ugh. The other piece on the program is by Corigliano, another composer I have to work on to get.

I really don't understand the people who say this is not the time to talk about gun control. (When do they think would be the time?) It seems to me this is exactly the time to talk about gun control. Imagine if FDR had gone before Congress on December 8 and said, "Now is not the time ..."

This was written for the results of the 2004 Presidential election. It now seems generally applicable for all circumstances.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

silence not necessary

So B. is well into her first week at work under a medically-enforced complete rest of her voice. That means no talking. Her boss is sufficiently divorced from the world around him that at first he didn't notice. (She'd sent him an e-mail over the weekend, but he doesn't read his e-mail.)

What most interests her is what she calls the "librarian effect," which is the tendency of others to react by getting quiet and hushed themselves. Somehow they think that if she can't talk, they can't either.

One reaction I found less than funny. This was her co-worker who cracked, "Your husband must really be enjoying this." He doesn't know me, but I found it rather offensive to be assumed to be the kind of MCP* who'd like to muzzle his wife.

Besides, B. doesn't fit any of the stereotypes that men traditionally complain about their wives having: late, or taking too much time, or talking too much. I once got trapped in a line behind a guy who started delivering to me one of those "am I right, or am I right?" rants on the subject, and not wishing to engage in competitive Sweeping Declarations, all I could say to his dicta about How Women Are was, "Not my wife."

As for me, I find half-silent conversations a little eerie, but I'll get used to it.

*Does anybody still use that acronym? Its meaning is not very prominent in search results.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

English suites no. 5

This is one of the suites that I had in mind to present to you when I started this series. It's by Hubert Parry, who was Vaughan Williams's composition teacher (and one of Holst's too). Though he was respected by his students, Parry is rather forgotten today, at least outside of Britain where he's remembered mostly for his grand choral setting of Blake's "Jerusalem", but he was one of the bright names of British music of the late 19C, along with Arthur Sullivan, and unlike Sullivan he survived a ways into the 20C.

The English Suite is a late work, not published till after his 1918 death, but it's an absolute charmer, with an especially cheerful finale. The movements are Prelude (0:00), In Minuet Style (3:48), Sarabande (6:44), Caprice (10:00), Pastoral (12:38), Air (15:16), and Frolic (17:16).

movie talk updated

Argh, when I was listing Movies With Surprise Endings that Don't Work, I forgot to put in two of the most irritating examples I've come across. Supplemented, then, and I'm trying to be provocative, since many of these are well-loved movies:

1. Movies where the surprise ending comes out of left field and doesn't fit with anything that's been established earlier. Examples: The Empire Strikes Back, The Usual Suspects.

2. Movies where the writers deliberately mishandled the script to hide that in this story the surprise ending was not possible. Example: The Sixth Sense, Psycho.

3. Movies where the surprise ending depends on the manipulating characters having impossibly certain knowledge of exactly what other characters will do so as to fall into their plan. Example: Arlington Road. Also, season 2 of Orphan Black.

4. Movies where the surprise ending is just too stupid to be believed. Example: The Village, The Prestige.

Monday, October 2, 2017

two concerts

Symphony Silicon Valley, Paul Polivnick conducting. A nautical opening, with Wagner's Flying Dutchman Overture and the Passacaglia and Interludes from Britten's Peter Grimes. Followed by Beethoven's Seventh. Should maybe have picked that big Schubert symphony instead, for not only does it bounce along like a boat over the waves, also it's in C.

Fairly tight, fast performance, not overwhelming but this isn't the San Francisco Symphony. More than adequate work with only a couple bobbles. The hall has a drier sound than I recall from it.

Sonoma County Philharmonic, Norman Gamboa, music director, conducting. I'd never heard this orchestra before, but I couldn't resist going up for this concert because it featured something I'd never heard before, Dvorak's complete "Nature, Love and Life" cycle. (Usually only the "Carnival Overture" panel is remembered.) Put the pieces in context, but the highlight was Tchaikovsky's First. Well suited for this community orchestra's precarious attempts at balance, and the very clotted acoustics of their hall, one of those old high-school auditoriums with insufficient brick-covered lobby space.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

movie talk

Discussion at last night's party about movies led to my attempt at a classification of the widespread phenomenon of Movies With Surprise Endings That Don't Work owing to Inadequate or Malevolent Screenwriting:

1. Movies where the surprise ending comes out of left field and doesn't fit with anything that's been established earlier. Examples: The Empire Strikes Back, The Usual Suspects.

2. Movies where the writers deliberately mishandled the script to hide that in this story the surprise ending was not possible. Example: The Sixth Sense.

3. Movies where the surprise ending depends on the manipulating characters having impossibly certain knowledge of exactly what other characters will do so as to fall into their plan. Example: Arlington Road. Also, season 2 of Orphan Black.

4. Movies where the surprise ending is just too stupid to be believed. Example: The Village. (About which Ebert famously wrote: "It's so witless, in fact, that when we do discover the secret, we want to rewind the film so we don't know the secret anymore. And then keep on rewinding, and rewinding, until we're back at the beginning, and can get up from our seats and walk backward out of the theater and go down the up escalator and watch the money spring from the cash register into our pockets.")

Saturday, September 30, 2017

hush, and restless

The same medical issue that put paid to B.'s singing career is now, it turns out, being exacerbated even by her talking, and she's been prescribed complete vocal silence. For three months.

Like Buffy in a similar situation, albeit a different cause, she's gone out and bought a dry erase board, and that, plus a lot of notepads, a computer display, and some gesturing are enabling her to communicate. But you may see her even less than usual at social events for a while.

The hope is that, with sufficient rest, she might even be able to sing again, and nobody could be against that except the viola lobby.

Meanwhile, I went out with two items on my agenda. First, lunch with my stepmother, visiting from Wales on a long-delayed trip that had not been possible while my father was still alive but unwell, and which she's describing as probably her farewell trip to California. So that affects the agenda on future trips I take to the UK.

And to buy my pocket calendar/address book for next year from the little stationers' with the best selection. Only to discover that the manufacturer has discontinued the model that I buy. That I have been buying annually for over forty years. Some loyalty to their customers they have. I searched long and hard for an adequate substitute among the other varieties, considering switching from a month-at-a-glance to a week-at-a-glance, or to an otherwise adequate one that's too big to fit in my pocket, and wound up taking one whose most serious deficiency is that the spaces for weekend days are half the size of the others. Since most of my appointments are on weekends, that's a burden, but I think I can live with it, especially as it also has a notepad which I can use for the miscellaneous notes with which I am increasingly inclined to festoon the calendar.

Friday, September 29, 2017

English suites no. 4

We've had suites for strings, how about one for winds? This is Vaughan Williams' Suite for Pipes. He evidently meant a quartet of home-made bamboo flutes, but it's usually played on recorders, here by the late David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London, who were always up for later music if early instruments could play it.

There's four movements, rather loosely titled Intrada (0.01), Minuet (3.10), Valse (6.13), and Jig (9.02).

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

My first concert of the new season, and my change to regularly going on Thursdays because they're no longer playing on Wednesdays.

I go all the way to the City to hear things like MTT leading the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique like he did last night. Pure clarity in the blocky orchestration, huge thrumbing rhythmic drive in the bass, cool smooth lyricism without heaving in tempo or dynamics which Berlioz does not call for, weird dying falls in the cut-off notes at the beginning of the finale.

Fine performance, though the most interesting thing was the pre-concert lecturer giving evidence that Berlioz, who idealized Beethoven, modeled the "March to the Scaffold" as a negative image, a kind of emotional inversion, of the finale of Beethoven's Fifth, and the "Witches' Sabbath" similarly on the "Ode to Joy." There's a moment in the "Ode to Joy" where a fugato leads to a triumphal reappearance of the main theme; in the "Witches' Sabbath" a fugato leads to a dark triumphal spouting of the "Dies Irae". That sort of thing.

Also on the program, Jeremy Denk doing an unvarying mumble through the solo part of Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 2. The orchestra did well, but that didn't help much.

Monday, September 25, 2017

English suites no. 3

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

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

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

old movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 24, 2017

a memorial for Jordin Kare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 23, 2017

English suites no. 2

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 21, 2017

English suites no. 1

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

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

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

oh Hillary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


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

Saturday, September 16, 2017

concert review: Pacific Symphony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

going out

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

eating like kings

You all remember this classic Far Side cartoon:

I think it was David Levine and Kate Yule who would remark, "They're eating like kings on the front porch" whenever a spider web had managed to cross their front walkway.

Well, a large spider visible at the center of its web managed to do the same thing at ours today, and that was a feat, because the nearest available fastening points, the walls surrounding our front and side patios, are some eight feet apart. The main web, an impressive structure on its own some two feet high, was near the side, and a pair of long but sturdy threads connected it over to the front wall.

It was with some regret that I cut those connecting threads prior to walking through, and the big spread-out web promptly curled up into a ball with the spider still in the middle of it. Better site planning next time?

Monday, September 11, 2017

a sign

1. The most interesting unintended point in my recent reading, apart from the scholarly treatise with a footnote on p. 307 reading "See p. 307" (this book is from the 1950s, so it's not a sign of the recent decline in copy-editing), came in a book titled Beatles '66: The Revolutionary Year by Steve Turner (HarperCollins, 2016). The idea of discussing just one year in the Beatles' career - this is the year in which they transformed from a mop-top touring pop band to mod-dressed studio artists recording "Strawberry Fields" and "Penny Lane" - is to give a closer focus on their lives than a broader coveraged book can do.

Anyway, the detail is extensive enough to discuss the theatrical acting career of Jane Asher, Paul McCartney's girlfriend. And there's an illustration in the form of a copy of the program from a play she appeared in. It's on p. 37 and it looks like this:

Did you notice - because Turner says nothing about it - a name of particular future moment on that cast list? And yes, I've checked, and that person was associated with this company, so that is the same one and not a namesake. I was tickled and perhaps you shall be.

2. Possibly in honor of the anniversary of 9/11, I watched World Trade Center, Oliver Stone's movie about the two cops who were pulled out alive from the wreckage after being found the next day. It's tasteful, it doesn't indulge in conspiracy theories, and it's detailed on what the cops had been doing that got them caught in the first collapse, but the rescue was simultaneously overdramatized and oversimplified, and I got more uneasy the more attention was spent on the wives and families. The movie doesn't try to hide that most people still missing the day after never came back, but to push these two gives the impression that the movie is saying they somehow deserved a happy ending more than others. I don't think that was intended, but that's how it comes across.

3. And today's weather featured a midwestern-style late afternoon thunderstorm, donner and blitzen fizzing out of a not entirely overcast sky without a drop in temperature or humidity, unlike the uniformly bleak vista from pole to pole and low temperatures that are normally required to get such action in California, and that normally only in late fall or winter. It's changing, all right.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Kingfisher, by Patricia A. McKillip

The topic for today's meeting of our Mythopoeic Society discussion group. As usual with a McKillip, I enjoyed reading this book, especially for passages like this one:
"Sorry, sirs," the driver announced upon consultation with his dash. "Both lanes are blocked up ahead for nearly a mile. They don't know how long before the road is cleared." He paused, listening again. "They're - ah - they're advising people to turn around, catch another road back in town that runs through the hills around the - ah, the - ah - problem."
He sounded oddly shaken. Leith asked, "What exactly is the problem?"
"Seems to be a mythological beast in the middle of the road, sir."
Or this one:
"You disgrace the name of King Arden." Somehow Leith and Val had pushed their way into the tightly crowded kitchen. "You disrupt people's lives and steal from them," Leith continued sharply. "You are not true knights, and no true god would accept your worship. You're nothing but marauding thieves."
"We are questing knights, Sir Leith," Prince Ingram protested. "You can't change facts by calling people names."
"You're trashing a restaurant kitchen. How proud would your father be of that?"
But don't think from these that this is a book that lives off the ironic contrast between a modern setting on one hand and medievalist and mythic content on the other. In fact they're strangely well integrated. This is a story set in a standard fantasy imaginary kingdom with monarchs and princes and wizards and lore and magic, with landscape modeled on the Oregon coast, that just also happens to have cars and cell phones and restaurants, lots and lots of restaurants. McKillip, who's always concentrated on the domestic arts in her stories, and has set plenty of previous books in inns or castle kitchens, also focuses this one on cookery and even more on dining.

But it's more than that. I began to realize what kind of book I was reading in chapter 3, when it dawned on me that the file of staff marching into the dining room of the all-you-can-eat seafood restaurant was actually a Grail Procession. This is a Grail quest Arthurian novel with different names, but it's not just a one-on-one encoding, as the characters are more complex than that, not everything fits neatly, there is (as one observed at the meeting) a considerable amount of The Faerie Queene mixed in also, and the characters are actually descendants of the original "Arthur" centuries ago.

Further, another informed us at the meeting that the villain's cookery appears to be a parody of a current high-end restaurant trend that I'd not heard of, called molecular gastronomy.

There's a lot to this book; the characters are lively and well-drawn even though quite a lot of them have to be crammed in to a relatively short space, and the main dispute - a scholastic/theological one - is never resolved, so maybe there'll be a sequel? I enjoyed reading this one.

Saturday, September 9, 2017


So one epic-sized hurricane drowned much of east Texas, and another one is at this moment bearing down on Florida, with a third right behind it that may miss Florida but has already socked the small Caribbean islands that the previous one already got.

Closer to home, there's been huge wildfires around both LA and Portland.

What we had locally was merely an epic heat wave over Labor Day weekend, 109 F according to the high-school sign down the street. Occasionally over the summers it's gotten too hot to stay up on the upper floor of our townhouse over the days, but never before quite this extreme or this extended.

Then, after that was over, we had a power outage, which explains my general absence from online for a few days.

This isn't the "new normal." We're long past the tipping point (by over 20 years now, I'd guess), and have reached the stage where climate will probably continue to get measurably worse nearly every year. This article seems as accurate as anything I've read on what to expect.

I'm going to go on as I have been, because it's too late to do anything else. I keep thinking of editor Malcolm Edwards' only work of fiction, a short story called "After-Images." That was about nuclear war, but it illustrates the principle of what people do in a situation like this.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

in memory of Houston

I see some bloggers are memorializing the flooding of Houston, since it's not likely to fully recover for quite some time, with their own memories of the place. So why not: I've only been to Houston once, ten-and-a-half years ago (that long, really?), and here's what I wrote about it at the time:

I was so glad that Corflu was scheduled for February. The last time I'd visited Texas was in August, and the heat was memorable. I wasn't going to do that again. But as long as I was to be in Austin again, I wanted to see some more of Texas. On my one previous visit, I'd gone into the Hill Country, and though I would have been happy to return, I preferred to try somewhere else within driving distance where I'd never been before.

Houston. Houston sounded good, especially in February. That meant I would be going east, and I determined to go far enough east to find good Cajun food, which was said to leak over on to the Texas side of the Louisiana border. And I could visit the one tourist attraction that any red-blooded science-fiction fan would want to see in Houston, the NASA Space Center.

The more caustic tourist guides told me that the visitor center there had been turned into more of a NASA theme park, but I didn't find it all that bad. It's a large functional museum with such interesting material as a walk-through mockup of the space shuttle crew area, which is much smaller than you might expect. My only complaint, besides the appalling cafeteria, was that all the relics of past glories - one of the original Mercury capsules, the original Skylab mockup used for crew training, a moon rock display - are tucked into a dark back room with no sign telling you how to get there. A 90-minute shuttle trip took us onto the main campus, with stops at the original Mission Control (into which the original 1965 equipment - complete with dial phones - was reinstalled when the room was decommissioned a decade ago), the crew training facility (from a mezzanine catwalk we could look down onto the huge main floor filled with mockups of everything that currently flies, including pieces of the space shuttle in various different orientations), and one of the original spare Saturn V rockets, lying on its side in a shed built around it to protect it from the elements (with an excellent docent lecture on the rocket's function and role - not that any of this was new to me, but it was a pleasure to hear it well told).

I'd picked a motel on the edge of Houston for ease in getting around, which put me in the most desolate suburban sprawl imaginable. Within three blocks (though they were big blocks) of the motel were two different Chuck E Cheeses. I didn't eat there. On the day I ventured into central Houston I did find a genuine Cajun diner of the kind I'd seen in Louisiana. It's called Zydeco. At lunchtime you join a line of hungry businessfolk stretching out the door. The line moves quickly and you pass a menu board that does not do justice to the variety of unidentifiably brown things in the steam table trays. On reaching the server, shout over the noise at him the same unintelligible syllables that the guy before you said. This will get you a bowl of what looks like watery mud. As you sit down at one of the cafeteria tables and dig in, the first couple spoonfuls will make you think "What the hell is this?" but after that it tastes really good. Yep, that's the genuine Cajun diner experience all right.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is worth a visit. It has a big walk-through butterfly cage, where large quantities of impossibly colored wings flit before your face or settle down on little birdbath-like stands where their bodies gorge on honeycombs or fruit pieces. It has dinosaur skeletons. It has displays with everything you could possibly have wanted to know about oil drilling. It has a gem room, a hushed chamber with huge uncut stones still attached to hunks of the living rock from which they were wrenched, all reverently lit behind glass. And when you've finished looking at those, you notice a corner around which there's another whole room of them. And another beyond that. And all the time you are there, the sound system is discreetly emitting Pachelbel's Canon.

On the other hand, I have never seen a bigger ripoff than the Rothko Chapel on the University of St. Thomas campus, this despite the fact that they don't charge anything to see it. I knew that Rothko was a minimalist painter, but I hadn't realized that even he would decorate an uninspiring and otherwise empty concrete octagonal chamber with 14 paintings every one of which was in flat undifferentiated black. I sat on a plain bench for a couple of minutes to act respectful-like while the docent read a book in the corner, and then walked out shaking my head, any desire to visit the modern art museum a couple blocks away completely squelched.

I found a far better, and positively fannish, work of art in a neighborhood not far away. You've heard of the Tower of Bheer Cans to the Moon; well, in Houston there is a beer can house, a house covered in aluminum siding made entirely of beer cars. The owner made a decades-long project of removing the tops and bottoms of beer cans, flattening out the rest, and attaching them to his house with the various brands arranged in pleasing color patterns. He also made a low front fence out of intact beer cans. There was nothing to do but admire this from the street, so I didn't find out if he drank all that beer, or what.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

women composers

A topic much explored by Lisa Irontongue, who's noted the peculiar tendency of major orchestras to under-program them. The relative dearth of important women composers historically is less due, I think, to neglect of their works - though there's that too - than to the barriers of access to the highly technical art of composition being then even higher for women than for men, so few ever got a chance to write anything, notable or not.

But in the last century education has become more equitable, and today interesting and important new composers are as likely to be women as men. Yet even in their contemporary music offerings, those major orchestras tend to book mostly men. They might throw in one piece by Kaija Saariaho and that's it.

My discoveries of contemporary women composers in concert have been in other venues, and over the years I've learned to look forward to seeing names of unfamiliar women on contemporary concert programs, because the chances are higher for women than for men that I'll find somebody really good. Whether it's because the women, being suppressed by other outlets, are more apt to be unknown gems, or simply that women are more likely to write in a style that appeals to me, I don't know.

But that's why I was so eager to hear the New Millennium Chamber Orchestra's concert of music all by women composers, and to take the chance to review it for the Daily Journal. And sure enough, I found a dandy composer new to me: Reena Esmail, whose The Blue Room you can hear in full here, in a performance more technically accomplished but perhaps less winning than I heard last weekend.

This also gives me a chance to link to Anne Midgette's top 35 20C/21C female composers, with plenty of sound clips. Many of those names are ones I've found in delighted discovery since I began reviewing: Caroline Shaw, Jennifer Higdon, Anna Clyne, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Gabriela Lena Frank, Valerie Coleman; and others I've known longer: Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, Julia Wolfe, Lera Auerbach, Sofia Gubaidulina, Libby Larsen, Judith Weir, and the criminally forgotten Florence Price. Of course there are some on the list whose music has impressed me less, some I don't care for at all, and a full 8 I still hadn't heard of, but so it goes. Reena Esmail is not on the list; neither are two other of my favorite discoveries, Belinda Reynolds and Stefania de Kenessey; so there's always more work to be done.

Friday, September 1, 2017

uh-oh, I patronized the KKK

That is not a subject line I ever expected to write. But perhaps, since it's weird enough, this local story may have gone viral: the one about the restaurant in Santa Cruz which closed after widespread dismay over the revelation that the owner had contributed to David Duke's senatorial campaign.

I ate at that restaurant. Fairly frequently. It was the best Chinese restaurant on Santa Cruz's westside, and I'd often repair there for lunch after a hard morning's research at the UCSC library. The outside facing was a blank wall with high unrevealing windows and a plain, dingy door: the look of the most uninviting dive imaginable. Inside, though, it was modestly elegant and a little glossy, as was the food. I used to defend it from bad reviews, and my only complaint was that they charged you extra for tea, which no other Chinese place does in my experience.

I'm not in favor of organized boycotts of businesses for political opinions unrelated to the topic of their business, but if the entire customer base of Santa Cruz and sundry chooses spontaneously to recoil in revulsion at this news about the owner, I will in this case find myself among them.

The owner, who is white and not Chinese, plays a supporting role in the article, both feet stuck firmly in his mouth. He calls the population "stupid," which he then corrects to "ignorant," for believing that David Duke is anything but innocuously "defending the civil rights of European-Americans, whites." Uh-huh. You go on believing that, and that "European-Americans" is the name of a legitimate ethnic group,* and we'll go on avoiding your restaurant.

He also wonders why it is that only white people get called "Nazis." Does he? Does he really?

*Do I need to explain why it isn't? Somebody - might have been Ta-Nehisi Coates, but I can't find it right now - wrote an essay about the illegitimacy of the bunching of white ethnicities into a racial solidarity movement. I'll go to a German-American festival, where I expect to find jolly men in lederhosen serving beer and bratwurst, but if I read the words "European-American festival," I expect to see skinheads with swastika tattoos. Or not see them, because I won't be there.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

reviewer talk

I've been mostly offline for a few days because my computer was in the shop.

And I was out much of today to ensure I was up in the City in time for the early-evening start of an SFCV staff writers' meeting.

I like to go to these because our work as reviewers is so solitary. It's soul-feeding to have an occasional tangible reminder that I'm part of a team who are all doing the same thing, and not just by reading their work.

This one, besides the social chatter, took the form of a round table discussing the journalistic aspects of our work. It's useful for those of us who've never worked in traditional journalism - my professional writing training was exclusively that of an academic historian - to learn a little from those who have had that experience.

A few points of particular interest to me, which I note here mostly for my own reference:

One advised us to write our reviews as soon as possible, to preserve the immediacy of the reaction. Another advised waiting, to let the thoughts jell. I find myself more and more tending to jot down phrases between pieces and at intermission, preserving the immediacy that way, and then writing the review the next day basically by stringing those phrases together. I wonder if that's really a good way to write, but the reaction was, "If it works for you ..."

I am concerned about vocabulary. Alex Ross says writing about music is easy, but he's Alex Ross. The rest of us aren't. I tend to think of only a small percentage of the words I actually know. Often I find myself using a thesaurus, but not to find said-bookisms, just to remind myself of other words I know that might fit. That wasn't deprecated, but one who has taught English suggested that finding yourself overusing one word is a clue that you need to rethink what you're saying: useful advice if you have the time and wit to take it.

How much allowance should we make for the imperfections of non-professional performers? Should they not be held to standards they're not claiming to achieve, or are the standards of music absolute? SFCV's editorial policy is not to review non-professional groups that don't meet professional standards, and to drop them if they fall below that - something I could have reported on in a couple cases where I wrote with kid gloves in the review itself. But it's tougher for me since my other outlet has a beat with only two professional venues and a lot of prominent non-pro groups, so I have to review them all the time. My policy - of always mentioning their non-pro status and judging them by how far above or below a fairly tight interpretation of that standard they fell - seemed to receive approval, though one doubted that such groups should be reviewed at all. Not in prominent outlets, perhaps, but my other outlet is a local free paper. I write there to let the readers know what's going on musically in their community, and to give the performers a chance to accumulate press clippings.

Talking afterwards with our top piano reviewer, he said that he reserves strong criticism for professionals who play sloppily or make dumb mistakes. I agree, though I lack his chops to discern technical problems beyond a certain level except in pieces I know well. I judge performers by the emotional impact they make; to me a bad performance is one where the player is just "phoning it in."

Lastly, there's structuring of reviews. One recommended the "layer cake" approach of alternating between background and present-day matters, but that's mostly useful for opera and other cases of single-work concerts. For concerts with 3-5 works, my usual beat, I try to avoid the "and then they played ..." approach and present the works by some theme that's the backbone of my review, which may not be the order they were played in. With a large program - e.g. a guitar recital which may have 17 pieces - you don't have to mention everything. Pick out some highlights or themes and concentrate. Even with fewer pieces you can do that. (Closest I came to that was when I reviewed a concert with a premiere of a concerto when I knew that's what I was there to cover. I tucked the rest of the program into one brief paragraph at the end.) True enough that the one time I reviewed a gala potpourri with 20 different pieces, I managed to at least name-check every composer on the program, but that was before the word limit was cut. Actually leaving part of the program out of the review is a big step I'd have to brace myself to take.