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Two years ago when B. and I attended the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in June, it was so blazing hot that the power in the big indoor theater shorted out during a performance.

This year it was cold, and wet. A lot of, though not consistently, drizzle, with the occasional cloudburst. Even though we had to walk around in it, we know what we prefer.

We saw five plays this year.

Henry IV, Part I: A routine and not especially inspired modern-setting production, complete with strobes and machine guns in the battle scenes, and ridiculous accents for Glendower and Douglas, only partially redeemed by a sprightly (as opposed to the more usually played irritable) female Hotspur (Alejandra Escalante) and a brilliant delivery of Falstaff's speech on honor (V.1) (but, alas, nothing else) by Valmont Thomas.

The Merry Wives of Windsor: Another Falstaff play, but this time Falstaff was played by a woman, and appropriately a woman of age and size at that (KT Vogt), but unlike Hotspur the character was played as a man. This was one of OSF's patented fast and cheerful Shakespeare comedies, further livened by excerpts from and allusions to 80s pop songs with lyrics appropriate to the plot, with a band to back them up. The entire cast, in their Elizabethan costumes, sang and danced a couple, including something by Whitney Houston (I was told: don't ask me what, as I don't know anything about Whitney Houston) and Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart"; others were more individual, for instance (one of the few I recognized), Master Ford (Rex Young) expressed his rage and jealousy by singing "Psycho Killer" by Talking Heads, with the French parts of the lyrics interjected by the French suitor, Dr. Caius (Jeremy Johnson). Surreal, man.

Beauty and the Beast (stage adaptation of the Disney movie): OSF casts actors, not singers, but the singing here was all first-class and the best part of the show. The acting and pacing were likewise good, and I was never bored; but the staging, particularly of the supernatural elements, was so primitive as to be totally incomprehensible. Were it not for my dim memories of the movie (which I saw only once, when it first came out), I wouldn't have been able to figure out what was going on.

Shakespeare in Love (stage adaptation of the Miramax movie): Slightly spacier (as in, less coherent) than the movie version, played by actors who mostly (the Viola conspicuously excepted) physically resembled the ones in the movie, this was more like watching a remake of the movie than I was entirely happy with. But it was well done.

Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles (modern adaptation of the Euripides play) by Luis Alfaro: Begged for comparison with last year's The River Bride by Marisela Treviño Orta, likewise a new play of Latino pedigree with a strongly mythic plot. That one really socked me, in part because the myth was new to me; in this one, the plot was by Euripides, so I knew what was going to happen, searing as it was. Also, unlike as in Euripides most of the plot was packed into the last ten minutes, instead of slowly unfolding; the rest was mostly background. But it was well-done background; Alfaro translated that plot into his undocumented-immigrant LA setting well, and I was not expecting the marriage to Glauce to be translated as literally as it was. The acting was of course excellent. Sabina Zuniga Varela as Medea was as chatty and bubbly as any young actress in the post-show talk, but on stage, like a good actress, she was totally different: still, silent, and dangerously reserved.

Culinarily this was not much of a visit of discoveries, except for accidentally finding that the Black Sheep, the pseudo-British pub that's one of my favorite local spots, is closing down next month, so I'm glad I'd decided to eat there one last time. Most of the new restaurants in Ashland are the kind with tiny menus, specified side dishes (I hate that, as the mains I like are invariably paired with the sides I don't, and it's insulting the chef to try to mix and match), and high prices. We took advantage of slack in our time schedule to have our best meals out of town.
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or, some other things I saw in Virginia

Before my conference, I spent a couple days in the Shenandoah Valley. Mostly because I never had, really; I'd crossed it a few times, but not explored it.

Much of my focus was on the town of Staunton (pron. Stanton1). Staunton was the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson in 1856, though he moved away as an infant when his preacher father was offered a better-paying job in Georgia.2 Nevertheless his birthplace manse, on a hill above downtown, is preserved as a museum of life in those times and classes.3 Next door is a museum of Wilson's life, covering its pluses (he vetoed an immigration restriction) as well as minuses (he maintained segregation).

Downtown Staunton - all within easy walking distance from a sufficiently large parking garage - also has two large and worthwhile used book stores, a hearty restaurant specializing in ribs, and the American Shakespeare Theater, which plays in a small space described as the world's only reproduction of a Shakespearean indoor theater.4 They put on several plays in tightly-cast repertoire seasons; the one on the evening I was there was a basic Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. The line-reading was intense and invigorating, presenting the play as a bawdy comedy in the first half that then goes wrong.5 Romeo was eager and Juliet was earnest, and everything was good but I felt it would be tiring to see much more like this. Best feature was the costuming: basic Elizabethan, but the families were distinguished by putting the Capulets in reds and the Montagues in something around cyan or teal.

Outside town, the floor of the valley is littered with Civil War battlefields. At the ones still out in countryside, it's possible to figure out what was going on. I equipped myself with topographic maps photocopied from this book, and explored 4 or 5 of the, at last count, 16 that I drove through, victories of Sheridan and Hunter as well as defeats of hapless generals like Fremont. Driving along Sheridan's Ride in the opposite direction from which he rode it is slightly disconcerting.

Also on the floor of the valley, out in an isolated industrial park, at least as interesting as any 150-year-old battlefield, and a lot tastier, was the Route 11 Potato Chips factory. You can stand at large windows that peer into the factory floor and watch the cooking, sorting, seasoning, and bagging of the chips, and, as you do, informative company employees will come up and explain to you what's going on. Then you can munch on a few samples of freshly-cooked chips, and buy 2 or 6 ounce bags of every flavor they make. Really good chips, too.

Winchester is a bustling town with a large museum of Valley history and art, another great used book store, and a downtown pedestrian mall lined with restaurants, of which the only one empty of customers at noon on a Wednesday was Italian. I ate there anyway, making it one person from empty, and enjoyed my fish and sauteed spinach, marred only when what looked like a couple slices of baked apple on the plate turned out to be potato. Chips I'll eat, but that's it for me and potato.

I drove a stretch of Skyline Drive, the Blue Ridge summit road through Shenandoah National Park. Impressive views from the overlooks, particularly west to the valley (the plains to the east were misty), though there isn't much else to do up there unless you have all day to take a couple hikes. The visitor center display on the history of the park informs on how disruptive the 1930s land confiscation was to the mountain people, and of how it took 12 years to get the concessionaire to stop having race-segregated picnic grounds: it may have been "the custom of Virginia," but it was against the law for federal facilities.6

But, as I noted in an earlier post, the Confederacy is still deeply embedded in the Valley. They must be very grateful for Stonewall Jackson around there, because otherwise they wouldn't know who to name anything after. Stonewall Jackson Road. The Stonewall Jackson Highway. Stonewall Jackson High School. The Stonewall Jackson Hotel and the attached Stonewall Jackson Conference Center. u.s.w.

1. There's also a town called Strasburg, pron. Strawsburg; there's no explanation of this.

2. Wilson was one of 2 U.S. Presidents to have lived under the jurisdiction of the Confederacy. Can you guess the other? Jefferson Davis doesn't count.

3. They don't shy away from telling you that the family "servants" would have been slaves. Not their own slaves, but ones rented for their talents at housework from the surplus at large plantations. Contracts would have specified their care, but the owners got all the money.

4. It isn't, actually: the Wanamaker Playhouse in London, part of the Shakespeare's Globe complex, is built to basically the same design, and I've been there too. But it's not as if they're common.

5. It occurs to me that Much Ado is built to the same plan, though it manages to rescue itself at the end, as R&J does not.

6. But if that's so - and I think it was, because the point of the Freedom Riders was that segregated seating was illegal on interstate buses - then why were there segregated restrooms on the NASA base in Hidden Figures, over a dozen years after segregation was ended in the park?
calimac: (JRRT)
So the maze of twisty little passages that I've been holed up in for the last two days is the National Conference Center in Leesburg, Virginia, a vast expanse of meeting rooms (at least 50 on each of several floors of each of several buildings) that look as if they've been xeroxed from each other, appropriately so as rumor has it that this used to be a Xerox corporate training center, and what you were mostly being trained in was how to find your way around. The title of this post is a description one attendee has of the place.

And the conference that's occupying some four of the rooms in one corner of the building (but with the sleeping rooms over here and the dining hall over there, so walking is necessary) is MythMoot IV, a Tolkien conference sponsored by Signum University, an online learning venture specializing in teaching Tolkien-relevant subjects that brick universities can't work up the critical mass for any more, like Old Norse. The presiding genius is Corey Olsen, who podcasts as "The Tolkien Professor."

Sometimes my aging Tolkienist friends wonder where all the younger Tolkien scholars are, or indeed if they are. They are. They're here. Most of the presenters here are young, they're all as sharp as we were at their age, as insightful, as well-educated, and they give great papers. I feel very gratified when a young man can say to an appreciative audience, "I don't think I have to explain to most of you who Boethius is." There's a few of us veterans around, and we add up to a total of 120, about Mythcon-sized.

I've heard papers tracking the disappearance of the Ilkorindi from the legendarium, defining the Destruction of the Ring as the final resolution of a plot beginning with the Rebellion of the Noldor, computer-analyzing the text of The Hobbit to see which chapter stands out for the words used (it's not the one you'd think), and considering the awareness of Tolkien's characters that they're part of a cyclical history, and another one arguing much the same about Beowulf. I gave a paper myself, titled "C.S. Lewis, Númenorean" (from which it should be possible to guess its subject), and spoke on a panel describing and outlining the journal Tolkien Studies along with my co-editors, who are also here: it was a rare chance for us all to meet in person.

They're both special guests, giving robust plenary speeches, Michael Drout on the challenges of being a philologist in an age when philology is discounted and the secrets of the great philologists of the past, like Tolkien, are largely lost; and Verlyn Flieger on instances of the sense of wonder in Tolkien's work. (When Gimli rapturously describes the Glittering Caves of Aglarond to Legolas, he's marveling at the caves, but we're marveling at how they have raised the gruff, taciturn Gimli to eloquence.) There's more. Ted Nasmith displayed his Beren and Luthien art, and John DiBartolo told how his song about Gil-galad's spear, Aiglos, inspired an enthusiastic swordsmith to design and make a reproduction of the spear, which he brought along. Not a form of Tolkien art I'd have thought of, but it was a beautiful piece of work.

There was a session teaching Scottish Gaelic waulking songs ("waulking" is beating new-woven cloth to soften it, and waulkers sing work songs for the same reason that sailors and chain-gangs do: the results are strophic verse/choruses, but built totally unlike conventional folk songs), and last evening about a dozen of us gathered outside in the warm night air around a firepit to read aloud, round-robin, Tolkien's "Tale of Tinúviel" from The Book of Lost Tales and lately reprinted in the new Beren and Lúthien. I liked some of the unusual pronunciations we got, of which my favorite was "Tuna-ville."
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I am in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.

in a state

May. 31st, 2017 01:05 am
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I'm still irked at the time Stephen Fry posed a gotcha trivia question to the effect that the US had only 46 states because the other four are called commonwealths. I'm in the Commonwealth of Virginia right now, and it's a state. I see road signs saying it's State Law to yield to pedestrians, and ones on how to contact the State Police. It's a state.

It's also a state, at least this part of it, where every other road is named for Stonewall Jackson. If you're not on Stonewall Jackson Road, you're on the Stonewall Jackson Highway. And, of course, the town square has a statue of a soldier on a tall pillar emblazoned "C.S.A. 1861-1865." Anyone wishing to undo memorials to the Confederacy around here will have a lot of work ahead of them.
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Today is Memorial Day. Today is also the centenary of the birth of JFK. JFK was a veteran. Oo-ee-oo.

During the previous presidency, we used to hear occasional grumbles that it was somehow inappropriate for troops to be ordered into combat by a President who wasn't a veteran. We're not hearing any of that this year, though: funny about that.

Of course, FDR wasn't a veteran. Some say he served in the Navy in WW1, but he didn't: he was a top civilian administrator of the Navy, no more ex officio a veteran than the President was. Nor was his Secretary, Josephus Daniels, a veteran; nor was his President, Woodrow Wilson.

Abraham Lincoln, though, he was a veteran. At age 23, he spent two and a half months fighting mosquitoes in the Black Hawk War, as he himself later put it. Never saw combat, though he did see some victims of it.

My late father was a veteran: he was a Navy physician (though never a combat surgeon) during and just after the Korean War, and he continued occasionally but regularly serving Naval families as a Naval Reserve officer for many years afterwards.

B's father was in the Seabees (that's the Naval Construction Battalions) during WW2, which is where he met her mother, who was in the WAVES (that's the Women's Naval Reserve). So I owe the US Navy a lot.

They're all gone now, but their naval service was touched on in their funerals.
calimac: (Haydn)
While everyone else is at Wiscon or Baycon or whatever, I went to two musical theatre productions, both from the South Bay Musical Theatre. Both were ... mixed.

Their regular production was My Fair Lady. Of all the classic shows from the classic period of Broadway history, this is the classicest, if that's a word. Every song in it is better than good, most are great. Eliza had a very strong voice, and kept her accents straight. If only she'd put more power in "Show Me" and "Without You", which is where she really tears loose. Higgins developed character over the course of the show, as if the actor gradually stopped being afraid of the part, but he wasn't that great a singer. Doolittle cut the rug with his music-hall songs pretty well. Freddy was ... unmentionable. The best actor in the show was the Mrs. Higgins, but the best moment was the look on Mrs. Pearce's face as Higgins sings the last verse of "A Hymn to Him" to her. The costumes were impressive throughout: When Eliza steps out, she's rigged for the part.

B. was with me for that one, but one was enough for a weekend for her, so she didn't go back the next evening for Chess in concert, first of a mere two-performance run. The reason for doing it in concert, just the music with a thin skein of narration, proved to be to cram in as many songs from as many different versions as possible without having to make them fit or to deal with what the director, who delivered the narration, feels is a basically unstageable plot.

Because it was a concert, the parts were all divided up among a lot of different people. Some were quite good, and some were ... not. (The ones who could never hit the right note; the ones who kept shifting between octaves in the middle of the song. On the other hand, then there was the singer who plowed through on the right notes despite the orchestra being completely out of tune.) The problem was that there wasn't enough of the good ones. By far the best of a lot of medium-good Florences (pinch-faced, but excellent voice with good characterization) sang "Nobody's Side" and hardly anything else. I also liked one Anatoly with a really deep voice. A woman sang "One Night in Bangkok," but maybe it should have been some other woman. And maybe her microphone shouldn't have kept cutting out. The narrator was right; the storyline falls apart in Act 2, and it went on too long.

In between, I got up to Davies for a gratifyingly heterogeneous SF Symphony chamber music concert. In order of increasing oddness, Barber's String Quartet (where the famous Adagio for Strings comes from), a flute-oboe-piano trio by Eugene Goossens (very French-sounding), a wind-quintet-and-piano sextet by Poulenc (a chaotic work from his "Stravinsky fils" period), and the Varied Trio by the centennial boy, Lou Harrison, for violin (played normally), piano (sometimes with its strings plucked), and percussion (alternatingly xylophone, rice bowls (some with water in them), and baking pans), exotically peaceful.
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In commemoration of the impending 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, I am proud to present you with ...

what I believe is the first cover version of any of its songs to be released. It was released in June 1967, same month as the original album, and it was produced by the same George Martin who produced the album. It's a comic actor and musical comedian artist of his (remember that Martin got his start in comedy records) named Bernard Cribbins, singing "When I'm Sixty-Four."



I haven't directly compared this with the original, but it seems to me as if George Martin just took the backing tracks from the original recording, stripped out the backing vocals (none too well), slapped the new lead vocal on top, and called it a day.

I gather that Bernard Cribbins is well-known in the UK, but he's not so familiar over here. I had to be reminded who he was, and who he is to me is the comic actor who played Mr. Hutchinson, one of the most memorable guests ever to stay at Fawlty Towers. Yes, he's this guy.
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After too long an absence from other scholarly venues than the one I edit for, I got to finalize the texts of two papers today, OKing the final tweaks from their editors.

Both are fairly short, but it's good to have them out. And for one of them, it means I get to be in this.

Also, I've gotten the reading text of the paper I'm giving at a conference next week down to 25 minutes, by cutting out everything that could possibly be considered extraneous. When I gave it at Mythcon last year, it was nearly 50 minutes, but I had an hour slot. This time I have half an hour, so it'll just barely fit if I talk fast.

Among the things I cut out was this:

"Early science fiction was often breezy about the problem of people on other planets speaking different languages than ours. In Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, for instance, the protagonist discovers on arriving that he's somehow grown a new organ that the natives have, which conveniently allows them to read minds and instantly learn each other's language, thus bypassing entirely any question of translation. This is the sort of thing that Douglas Adams was parodying when he invented the Babel Fish."
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I managed to do everything I planned on Saturday.

First to the downtown Redwood City street fair. They were holding a chicken wing cookoff, and I didn't want to miss that. Eleven booths in a row were cooking up their own varieties, and $10 was reasonable for eleven coupons good for one wingette each, plus a voting coupon to insert in one of the boxes on the side of the ticket booth to honor your favorite.

Some of the wings had sauces, some had rubs. One had a hugely thick breading. Some were spicy, some not. A couple of the more tangily Asian varieties had the booth workers precariously balancing tiny pieces of cucumber or sprigs of cilantro or whatnot on the wings, from which they'd fall off, usually into the bowl of sauce on the preparation counter, and if not, then in the customer's hands before you could eat it. Not really very well planned.

Also badly planned: no napkins, anywhere.

All this to the accompaniment of a very loud band down the street which was performing actually quite good cover versions of all the songs you used to hear on the top ten radio 30 years ago: "Hotel California", "Eye of the Tiger", and that song that goes "Leo, woah woah woah woaoaoah" - what is that song, anyway?

However, the wings were mostly pretty good, and that was my lunch, before heading to Bing for the afternoon to hear the Stanford Symphony in Anna Wittstruck's farewell concert as conductor. Stanford's reaped the reward of insisting she's been only the Interim Music Director these last two years, and she's leaving for a more stable job at the University of Puget Sound. (So, see, all you Seattleites: there is culture in Tacoma, or at least will be when she gets there.) She's been a good director, and we'll miss her.

She led a dynamic concert with Arturo Márquez's Danzón No. 2, a fine performance completely devoid of the flat Anglo accent that most norteamericano orchestras give it, plus a similar Cuban rumba-inspired piece, a new Dance Suite by Stanford faculty composer Giancarlo Aquilanti, and Beethoven's Seventh, all also well done. In fact all of the music was dance-like (Wagner called Beethoven's Seventh "the apotheosis of the dance"), except for a new piece by another faculty composer, Mark Applebaum, which he titled Xenophobe: In Memory of Democracy. One guess why he called it that, and one for what it sounded like.

No time for dinner: I had to rush up to the City for Other Minds' big Lou Harrison centenary concert, at Mission Dolores in the evening. I already had a ticket for this; if I hadn't, I might have fugged out, but I'm so glad I went. I've never been a big Lou Harrison devotee, but I've always enjoyed his music when I've heard it. Perhaps not so much the two astringent organ pieces that made up much of the first part - one of them was for foot pedals alone; an interesting idea, and we should have thought of applauding it by stamping our feet - but the very long second part was old Lou at his primest. It consisted of two multi-movement suites, both written in the 1970s, both in his mature modal, old-temperament, Asian-influenced, serenely spiritual style, and both accompanied by the "American gamelan", a collection of found percussion instruments that Lou and his partner Bill Colvig had conjured up out of tin cans, old oxygen tanks, and the like, wielded here by the William Winant Percussion Group, because really, who else would do it?

One was the Suite for Violin composed with Richard Dee, played by Shalini Vijayan, and the other was La Koro Sutro, a big choral setting of a Buddhist prayer translated into Esperanto. Don't laugh: Lou was a big proponent of Esperanto, which he found more useful than English in talking to Asians of various cultures on equal terms. Both works were hypnotically enchanting.

The concert began at 7:30. It ended at 10:30. Not just because the pieces were long. So was the intermission. Why? Well, the basilica was packed, but it has only 3 restroom stalls per sex, and that includes the portapotties they trucked in. Fortunately the Mission District is still hopping at 10:30 on a Saturday night, so I was able to get something to eat, finally, before heading out on a BART slowed by a derailment earlier that day.

I didn't get home until after 1 AM, but I was finally up and awake in time for a late Sunday afternoon concert in San Mateo by Viva la Musica, the choir to which [personal profile] athenais is a lately-adhered soprano. For a volunteer choir that doesn't even audition, I thought it did more than pretty well, and I was very impressed by the recently-composed repertoire: a mesmerizing "holy minimalist" setting of St. John of the Cross' "dark night of the soul" prayer, music by Ola Gjeilo, a composer who's impressed the gizzard out of me before, beautifully matched for the choir and instruments (including a piano whose part sounded like a cross between Rachmaninoff and George Winston); and a Jubilate Deo by Dan Forrest, setting its psalmist text in about seven different languages in as many musical styles, all of them slightly florid. Forrest is less incisive or truly inspired than Gjeilo, but still workmanlike and interesting, with a lot of captivating rhythmic accents in his fast movements. The only real flaw was the addition in the Mandarin setting of an erhu, the Chinese equivalent of a haegeum, and you already know what I thought of that.

Also this weekend I had published a review from last week. I actually attempted to interview the 15-year-old soloist after the concert, though I didn't get much out of him, except a few basic facts most of which make up my second paragraph; he seems a lot more confident on stage playing the violin.

And what do you know, the choir from the last concert will be pairing with the orchestra from this one some time next year, so maybe I can review that and get two birds with one. We'll see how the schedule works out. The number of groups I've had to turn down because I'm going to be gone one weekend in June is unbelievable.
calimac: (JRRT)
I confess I've never read much of the criticism of F.R. Leavis. What I have read was enough to demonstrate that, rather to my surprise, Frederick Crews' famous "Simon Lacerous" parody - "Another book to cross off your list" - isn't much of an exaggeration. Leavis really was that brutally waspish - or waspishly brutal.

At one time, around the 1950s, he was the most influential critic out there. His disciples, trained by him at Cambridge or by his own earlier disciples, infected English departments everywhere, and the loaded terms seem appropriate. I've read one account by a dismayed college don whose department welcomed its first Leavisite, or tried to. He refused to engage in everyone else's give-and-take conversation about critical views. Either you accepted the master's dogma whole or you were beneath his notice.

The don emphasized that Leavis himself, whom he didn't really know, wasn't like that. But the style was in keeping with the severity of his critical views. Nowadays, I understand, Leavis is out of fashion. An age which eagerly studies even the confessed trash of literature - even if it's really only because everything else has already been done to death - on the grounds of what it says about popular taste and the publishing and societal context in which greater works were written, isn't going to have much time for a view of literature consisting of a tiny canon of unquestionable masterpieces and a vast realm of outer darkness.

But back when establishing a canon was the way to go in literary studies, it was he whose canon was the smallest and purest who became the highest priest, and that, I suspect, was the core of Leavis' appeal.

What I didn't read enough of Leavis to establish was what criteria he used to determine his canon. Which is why I was so interested to read this summary in a lucid book called Literary Feuds (Leavis' is with C.P. Snow, of course) by a state college professor named Anthony Arthur. He writes that Leavis saw great literature "as a positive moral force within society, particularly in the ways it exemplified the virtues associated with preindustrial rural life and exposed, as he saw it, the hollow and degrading materialism that the Industrial Revolution had unleashed."

And it occurred to me that anyone who holds those views ought to have loved The Lord of the Rings. Positive moral force? Check: Tolkien has one of the strongest moral visions in literature; to him, virtue consists of acting virtuous. It isn't inherent in the white hats the good guys wear. Perils threaten on every side. Contrast Tolkien with later fantasists like George R.R. Martin, for whom the absence of any moral force is treated as a feature, and you'll see the difference.

Virtues of preindustrial rural life? Check: By Tolkien's own account, the Shire is an idealized English Midlands village of his own 1890s childhood, with the Industrial Revolution entirely stripped out. The societies the hobbits visit on their journeys are equally idealized icons of cultures in the medieval literature that Tolkien studied professionally.

Exposed the hollow and degrading materialism of the Industrial Revolution? Check: The villains are manic industrialists, pouring out pollution and slag heaps everywhere. They're driven by self-aggrandizement and a lust for power and control. Saruman in particular rapes the Shire for his own creature comforts and to deny them to its inhabitants (see not just the Scouring of the Shire, but the stocks of goods that Merry and Pippin find in the ruins of Isengard).

This adds up to a book that Leavis should have been pleased to consider worthy of his canon of great literature. But somehow, you know, I suspect that he didn't. Leavis never wrote anything about Tolkien - probably he considered him beneath his notice, and the one thing that rings false in "Simon Lacerous" is the idea that Leavis would have bothered to attack Winnie-the-Pooh at such length at all - but less fastidious but equally high-minded critics like Edmund Wilson and Philip Toynbee did attack Tolkien. I don't need to cite how they violated their own loftily-stated critical principles in dismissing The Lord of the Rings - in Toynbee's case, stated not four months earlier in the same newspaper review column - because Tom Shippey has already done it in The Road to Middle-earth.

Would Leavis have done the same, had he bothered? Probably. His loss.
calimac: (Haydn)
This turned out to be quite the worthwhile concert.

The conductor was Roberto Abbado, new to me but a nephew of the late great Claudio Abbado (not that his bio in the program book says a word about that; they never say anything interesting.)

The first piece on the concert was also new to me, selections from a suite of incidental music to Gozzi's play Turandot, composed by Ferruccio Busoni some 20 years before Puccini's opera on the same topic.

I confess never having given Busoni's music the attention it deserves. This was impressive stuff, extraordinarily colorful, based on the winds and brass with nearly omnipresent timpani, and the strings mostly in a supporting role. It was highly rhythmic and great fun to listen to, in the same realm as another much later piece, Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber, part of which is based on - surprise! - Weber's incidental music to Turandot.

Followed by a slow drift into more familiar territory. Veronika Eberle was soloist in Schumann's soft and dreamy violin concerto, and it wrapped up with a rhapsodic performance of Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony.
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A few weeks ago somebody in my FL commented on and linked to an article praising the movie Tomorrowland for its positive vision of the future. I recalled an intriguing trailer for this movie before it was released, but I hadn't heard another word about it since.

I should have taken that as a warning (it's not always deserved: some obscure movies are really good), but I borrowed it from the library.

An interminable distance in, the bratty teenage girl who appears to be the hero is, along with the viewer, desperately trying to squeeze out some clue to the plot from the even brattier pre-teen robot who's been manipulating her life, when the robot threatens to shut down if she asks any more questions.

"Yes! Do it!" I thought, and then I thought, "I have the power to do it to you. It's called the 'stop' button." So I did, and then I checked the scene selector to discover that it was still less than halfway through the movie.

Yikes! Neither the presence of George Clooney nor of Hugh Laurie (badly miscast: should have tried someone like J.K. Simmons), nor a walk-on character named Hugo Gernsback (nothing to do with the original), can save this terminally boring clunker.
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The Lamplighters, A Song to Sing, O!, written by Barbara Heroux

I can't send you to this one, because this was the last performance. Wish I could, though.

Once before, maybe 30 or 40 years ago, the Lamplighters did a show with this premise, telling the story of G&S through their music. That one was an original stage musical with the real people as characters, with the songs taken from G&S but with new lyrics written.

This one isn't like that at all. It's essentially a concert performance of highlights from the G&S repertoire, delivered mostly in chronological order and performed by a cast of ten, not consistently representing any particular original performer, in evening dress with a minimum of costuming (usually just the headgear appropriate to a pirate or policeman or poet or peer). This is embedded within a part-dialogue, part-narrated script, delivered mostly by two non-singing actors as Gilbert and Sullivan, mostly from inside shells at the sides of the stage decorated as their personal studies. Much of the script is taken directly from letters and other original sources, and it includes just enough plot summary to make sense of the songs' context.

Most of the songs (some of them abridged) are greatest hits, though there were a few surprises (Katisha's solo, which is often cut), and the requirement to cover every show has put in such gems as the "matter matter" trio from Ruddigore and the Christy Minstrels number from Utopia Limited. At the end, after the description of G&S's deaths, comes the sorrowful "The world is but a broken toy" from Princess Ida, which makes a lot more sense here than in its original place.

Occasionally a song will interact with the narration, as when Bunthorne begins his solo with his recitative "Am I alone and unobserved?" and then stopped and glared at Gilbert in his study until he retired, before going on with "I am." And the narrative description of the Carpet Quarrel is illustrated by the agitated "In a contemplative fashion" quartet from The Gondoliers, the show that had immediately preceded the quarrel.

The stagings, though simple, were always clever and imaginative (other cast members walked across the back of the stage illustrating each of the Mikado's crimes and their punishments), and the performers were the cream of the Lamplighters' estimable crop. There were two unsurpassable comic baritones, Lawrence Ewing and Chris Uzelac; two lyric tenors, Samuel Faustine and Patrick Hagen; two darker baritones, the veteran William Neely and the outstandingly strong Robby Stafford; two lyric sopranos, Jennifer Ashworth and Erin O'Meally; a Katisha/Buttercup in Sonia Gariaeff; and an alto in Cary Ann Rosko to play Psyche, Pitti-Sing, Phoebe, and Tessa (the Jessie Bond parts). It was just excellent all the way through, it was stuffed with 33 superb numbers, and it took three hours.
calimac: (Default)
The unanswerable question is, How is it that someone as fond as I of the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail had never seen its stage musical spin-off, Spamalot?

Well, I have now. Palo Alto Players is doing it, and they're doing it with such zest and imagination, plus quality, that it's terrifically worth seeing it, and it finishes this weekend, so locals should act now.

It only loosely follows the movie, with just a few parts of the script directly taken from it - and several of these, notably the Black Knight and the reading from the Book of Armaments, were performed quite differently - but it was terrific fun on its own account.

There's gobs of anachronisms, and the fourth wall may never recover from the amount of breakage it took during this show. But what I liked best of the added material was the fair number of really cheap puns, like this one:

ARTHUR (explaining the Holy Grail to uncomprehending knights): It's a symbol.
ORCHESTRA: [cymbal crash]

The songs are quite lively and several, even among the new ones, are memorable, and the spirit and characterization brought even by the back-of-the-stage ensemble members was admirable. I was particularly impressed by Michael Monagle as Arthur; not only did he both look and sound like Graham Chapman, but he had the combination of comedian and straight man mixed perfectly. (Others were more incongruous, but still good: Galahad looked like Jack Black, and Robin looked like Roddy McDowall.)

One other line I particularly appreciated. Having been instructed by the Knights of Ni to seek success on Broadway, and having been informed that this can't happen unless you have some Jews, Arthur is in despair on finding any until Patsy reveals that he's half-Jewish.

ARTHUR: You never told me that.
PATSY: It's not something you say to a heavily-armed Christian.
calimac: (Default)
Jim C. Hines has been writing about his depression issues, and one point he keeps bringing up is to say "Depression doesn’t make me creative or smart. My creativity, my work as a writer, these things happen in spite of my depression, not because of it. ... Please stop spreading the bullshit myth that creativity and intelligence are in some way enhanced by mental illness."

Maybe not, at least in his case. And certainly it's better for your mental health not to believe it.

But I'm thinking of two of the twentieth century's most beloved creative artists. And while I don't know whether they suffered from clinical depression or not - and neither does anybody else, because they never got diagnosed or treated for it - they did at least both suffer from profound melancholia so severe that it crippled their social lives, and they were both absolutely convinced that it was the entire engine of their creativity. Which is why they refused to have it treated.

And they may have been right, because a deep sadness and melancholy pervades their best work, and that's what people love it for - though that's along with an equally pervasive sense that you have to accept what life deals you and keep on grappling with it, no matter what happens.

No matter how much the toad work squats on your life. Or no matter how often Lucy snatches away the football.

For the two beloved creative artists I'm thinking of are the English poet Philip Larkin and the American cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. Despite the interesting fact that they were born the same year (1922), they never had any interaction so far as I know, and it would never have occurred to me to think of them together had I not happened to be browsing through biographies of both in close succession.

Then it stunned me how much they have in common, in particular how much that pervasive sadness in their work is responsible for its distinctive character, and - from the biographies - how certain they were that they'd rather live with it than risk losing the creativity they were sure was bound up with it.

Of course, there's more to it than that. Both men's intimates testify that they could be be boon companions, riotous fun to be with; but it's also true that both were totally averse to public lives and rarely appeared there - Larkin had a particular response to the idea of speaking or reading in public; he said "I don't want to go around pretending to be me" - and tended not to travel much, preferring to hole up at home. Larkin had his job as a university librarian; Schulz, who always said he was good at only one thing, had his cartoonist's studio.

There were differences, of course. Larkin, though he never got less melancholy, dried up as a poet in later life, much to his distress, while Schulz, tied to newspaper deadlines, managed to crank them out, publishing a strip daily, with only one short break, for nearly fifty years.

Another difference is that Larkin never married, though he kept a couple of women stringing along for years thinking that he might; an aversion to domestic obligations and to children seem to have been his problems here. Whereas Schulz married twice and had five children. But here's where the melancholia theory really hits the road. Schulz's biographer, David Michaelis, while attributing much of the breakdown of his first marriage to Schulz's inertia and withdrawal, also says that Schulz considered his first wife something of a bully. She was the model for the character of Lucy. Charlie Brown was always saying, "My stomach hurts"; well, Charles Schulz's stomach always hurt. After he divorced and embarked on a much happier second marriage in 1972, his stomach never hurt again, and neither did Charlie Brown's.

But here's the thing. That's also just about the time that Peanuts lost its edge and began to turn into the random mush that disfigured its later years. Maybe he was right: he needed to be unhappy to create great work. Good grief.
calimac: (Default)
Tom Shippey, Hard Reading: Learning from Science Fiction (Liverpool University Press)

Tom Shippey is, of course, the renowned Tolkien scholar, famous for his lucid explanations of what Tolkien was actually trying to do, and his robust denunciations of critics who carp at Tolkien from positions of cluelessness as to either his intent or achievement.

I knew that Shippey was also interested in SF, partly because he's edited collections of both the literature and of criticism, and because I knew of his interest in SF and fandom on a personal level. Once when I got to spend most of an afternoon in his company, he spent much of his conversation with me discussing Peter Weston (to whom this book is dedicated) and his fanzines, perhaps because I was the only person Shippey would be meeting on that trip who knew Peter Weston.

But this collection of essays, some of them dating back 40 years, is the first I've read of Shippey's own criticism in the field. And sure enough, he treats it just as he does Tolkien, explaining lucidly how SF works and chiding critics who don't get it. The first chapter, following the same principle of close reading pioneered by Samuel R. Delany in The Jewel-hinged Jaw, compares a sample opening scene in an SF novel (Pohl & Kornbluth's The Space Merchants) with a similar opening "man performing his morning ablutions" scene from a mainstream novel (Orwell's Coming Up for Air), and showing how the details in each give you information about the society you're in, but whereas Orwell's are designed to fix the character in a socio-economic context known to the reader, Pohl and Kornbluth are giving you new information ("depilatory soap"? "trickle from the fresh-water tap"?) and force you to store it in your mind until you've accumulated enough to form a picture of the society you're reading about. SF readers are used to reading this way. People who find SF unreadable don't.

Even better is a set of two chapters on a novel that forms an ideal topic for Shippey's approach. Usually when an established mainstream author writes an SF novel, the results are pretty dire, because they've wandered into a field they don't know how to write. But what happens when an author of high literary reputation who does know the SF field and its conventions writes an SF novel? Well, you get a competent SF novel. But what you also get is a large set of book reviews by literary critics who'd normally never touch SF, but who review this book because of its author's high literary repute. So Shippey has dug up all such reviews of Kingsley Amis's 1976 alternate-history novel The Alteration, and analyzed their near-universal and comprehensive Not Getting It.

In another essay, Shippey uses The Alteration to examine the rules and conventions of alt-history in general. In a third chapter he compares and contrasts it with "change the past" stories, literally drawing a matrix whose axes are the desirability of changing the past, and the possibility of actually doing so (given the opportunity to try). For instance, Lest Darkness Fall and A Connecticut Yankee both treat change as desirable, but in the one it succeeds; in the other it fails.

I really appreciated a chapter on magic in SF in the Unknown Worlds tradition, which treats it as a predictable, reliable science (actually more engineering). Shippey points out that this derives, directly or indirectly, from Frazer's The Golden Bough, which codified rules of magic from societies which consider them predictable and reliable. It's an entirely different view from one treating magic as religion. He contrasts this with stories in which whether, or how well, magic works depends on who's doing it (citing Earthsea, about which he has a whole separate chapter, as an example of this). But isn't it true even in our world that some people have the engineer's equivalent of a "green thumb" and others just don't?

Another place where I felt a little cautious came in a generally excellent chapter on cultural engineering in SF. Shippey discusses two stories by Poul Anderson and Winston P. Sanders (bashfully admitting in an introduction that he hadn't realized when writing the essay that they were the same person) showing that SF authors (at least this one) realize you can't just show up and engineer a culture around: if you try, there will be blowback and other disasters. (See also Le Guin's "The Word for World is Forest," which Shippey does.) What got me was a citation of John W. Campbell getting this point by writing an editorial in ASF in 1959 saying that American intervention in Vietnam would accomplish no good. Shippey commends Campbell for having the self-control to avoid crowing about this perspicacity ten years later; but I think it's far more likely that by ten years later, Campbell had changed his mind. I suspect that someone as right-wing as he would be unable to resist the temptation to be on the opposite side from the anti-war protesters.

Oh, there's much more in this book: a discussion of why 1984 doesn't really work, either as SF or as a novel; discussions of Jack Vance, Bruce Sterling, and Starship Troopers. I'd recommend it with enthusiasm for anyone interested in the thought that goes into SF literature.
calimac: (Haydn)
Charles Dutoit conducted two big pieces - Mozart's K.482 piano concerto with Emanuel Ax, and Debussy's La mer - and two bonbons rarely heard from orchestras at this level, de Falla's Three-Cornered Hat dances and Sibelius' Karelia Suite, the latter of which SFS had never done before.

The pre-concert speaker described La mer as not trying to portray the sea in the way that Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony portrayed a storm, but more to portray one's feelings in response to the sea.

And I thought, is this a case of the locating emotional response solely in the respondent and not in any inherent qualities of what's being responded to that C.S. Lewis railed against in The Abolition of Man?

Maybe, but the performance itself put the lie to the premise. It was most outstanding in the surging sections, the parts that carried the most dramatic onomatopoeia of the sea. That was the highlight of a compact and intense performance.
calimac: (Haydn)
Two of them have been published lately.

First, I went to Kohl Mansion in Burlingame to hear a Russian piano trio in the last concert of the Kohl season. A piece by Rimsky I'd never heard before: interesting.

Then, I went to Lesher in Walnut Creek to hear the California Symphony in the last concert of its season. I'd reviewed Dan Visconti's guitar concerto here last year, and that was pretty good, and his cello concerto was more of the same. So I was happy to expend my space on that, even though the reason I wanted to go was for a chunk of Bruckner.
calimac: (Default)
My plan for Saturday was to occupy part of the day by heading out to Bodega Bay for lunch at one of the fish & chips places there.

I didn't get any further than Sebastopol, a modest-sized town less than halfway out to the coast.

I'd made a brief stop at a used-book store, and then noticed in the window of the ice-cream parlor next door a big poster for the Tiger Crawl, a tasting tour of 23 restaurants in town, and it was to be that day.

No information on time and tickets. The ice-cream parlor wasn't yet open for business for the day, but the door was unlocked, so I went in and asked. Yes, they were one of the participants. It was a fund-raiser for the local high school, tickets could be had there, and it began at lunchtime in an hour and went at your own pace.

So I went to the high school and bought the ticket, which consisted of a large colored sheet of paper with a map on one side showing the restaurants, and a more detailed list on the other. At each stop there was a box for them to sign you off, or just as often forget to do so.

In theory the restaurants were all within walking distance, but it'd be a long walk. I drove around to the more outlying ones, which were in clusters, including the ones at the end of the list on the other side of town where I was one of the first customers, then going back to downtown to finish up.

At most places they'd set up a trestle table on the sidewalk, staffed by volunteers, usually students from the high school, and one or two of their signature dishes, of which they'd give you a bit. It's best to take very small portions at these; it's easy to get quite stuffed.

The best items I had were corn and bean samosas (no potato) at a brewpub, and the equally vegan veggie & dumpling stew at a highly-rated little cafe. But I was also impressed with the tender pulled pork at an aggressively Texan bbq place.

I finished all 23, though it took over 3 hours to do it, and despite the car a lot of walking. I went back to Santa Rosa and rested for the rest of the day until the evening's concert, including skipping dinner for which I had no mind. Oof.
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