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

calimac: (Haydn)
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.
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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.
calimac: (Haydn)
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.
calimac: (Haydn)
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.
calimac: (Haydn)
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.

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
calimac: (Haydn)
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

Oct. 9th, 2017 11:38 am
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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.
calimac: (Haydn)
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.
calimac: (Haydn)
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.
calimac: (Default)
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.
calimac: (Default)
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.
calimac: (Haydn)
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).

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