Friday, December 15, 2017

musical book

Jack Viertel, The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)

Underneath the author's "aw, shucks" manner, this is a fiercely intelligent book on the construction of the classic American musical. Viertel is less interested in how the musical is actually made by the creators than on how it works for the audience. The characters and story have to involve the audience adequately, or else the musical will fail. Fortunately he's more interested in showing examples that work well than those that don't, but he does give enough of the latter to emphasize the point. (For instance, Camelot introduces Arthur and Guinevere each with a song about how they don't want to be there, and this makes the audience not want to be there either, even though they're good songs. And indeed, Camelot was not a stage success, and Viertel says this is why.)

Viertel's larger thesis is that the classic musical was built to a formula - not mechanically, which will fail, but by tried and true principles that work when used with imagination and flexibility - and that the fall of the form (he says the last classic was A Chorus Line, 1975) came when this was forgotten. He says the problem is that the classic musical was a hopeful, optimistic form (an odd thing to say when his prime examples of greatness are Carousel and Gypsy), and that the cynicism that arose in the 1970s made this no longer possible. (So far he sounds like Peter Thiel's theory of SF, that it was all cheerful, optimistic stuff before the 70s, suggesting that Thiel has never read any of it.) Some writers, like Sondheim, had grown up in the old regime and were intelligent enough to adapt it to the new circumstances and do great work, but many new ones didn't and failed through fumbling around. (And that sounds like a critique of post-Tolkien fantasists.) Yet he praises some newer work, notably The Book of Mormon and Hamilton.

The book is made out of chapters considering each type and placement of song a musical might have. Viertel doesn't use much of the old terminology I've heard of: he folds the "'I Am' song" into the "'I Want' song," and defines the "Eleven o'clock number" loosely to mean any searing event near the end of the show, even a non-musical one.

I'll go through Viertel's analysis of Act One to show how this works (Act Two tends to be messier and more conditional). He gives lots of examples; I'm citing mostly just a few with which I'm familiar.

1. Opening Number. This has the vital function of setting the tone and telling the audience what kind of show this is and what it's about. What kind of show is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum? "Comedy Tonight." What is Fiddler on the Roof about? "Tradition."

2. The "I Want" Song. The canonical example is "All I want is a room somewhere / Far away from the cold night air / With one enormous chair," but Viertel also defines Higgins' opening number as "I Want" (I want the English to learn to speak properly) though I'd define it differently as "I Am" (I am obsessed with language and social class). "I Want" songs can be subtle, but most of them aren't: "I wanna be a producer."

3. Conditional Love Songs. Best explained by citing the canonical example, "If I Loved You" from Carousel. The characters claim they're not in love yet, they're just going to talk as if they were. There are also sub-types: the aftermath song, in which a character alone tries to make sense of a perplexing romantic encounter ("On the Steps of the Palace," Into the Woods), or the buddy song ("We Can Do It," The Producers).

4. The Noise. To provide a little break and an energy boost. "Put on Your Sunday Clothes," Hello Dolly; "To Life," Fiddler on the Roof.

At this point, the story can take a number of turns. But there will usually be songs for one or more of the following:

5a. Second Couples. Ado Annie and Will in Oklahoma! Cable and Liat in South Pacific. Tuptim and Lun Tha in The King and I, who were introduced to have the big romantic ballads, inappropriate for the leads, who weren't that kind of singers anyway.

5b. Villains. Jud in Oklahoma! Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd. The dentist in Little Shop of Horrors.

5c. Multiplots. "No Life" in Sunday in the Park with George, which prepares the story for the shift in perspective in the second act.

Then the plot regroups with:

6. Star Turns. A big mid-act showcase for the star. Viertel finds the most interesting example to be "Adelaide's Lament" in Guys and Dolls, because the original performer wasn't a big star but the song showcases her anyway.

7. Tent Poles. Another high-energy number, this one more usually focused on a crux in the plot. The Havana sequence in Guys and Dolls. "Tevye's Dream" in Fiddler.

8. Curtain, Act 1. The presentation, or sometimes the anticipation, of a crisis. "Everything's Coming Up Roses" in Gypsy. "Soliloquy" in Carousel. Both of these are also big solo turns, but they're more dramatic than they are showcases.

Get the idea? Viertel presents all this very well.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

English suites no. 14

This, after Hubert Parry's, is the English Suite I started this series in order to include. It's Havergal Brian's English Suite No. 1 (1904).

Brian (1876-1972) was one of the great eccentrics of English music, living to a great age and writing crabbed and difficult music nearly to the very end. Some of this music is great, some of it is hot air, some of it is vitamin pills. But only for a brief period in his youth did he write music that is also tuneful and enjoyable, and this suite is basically it. (His successor English Suites are not of the same caliber.)

The key to Brian's style as evidenced here is an unexpected wit turning up in the form of abrupt and startling shifts of mood, key, or dynamics, which combine with a colorful and sentimental Englishness to make the music sound like the work of some demented Elgar.

I love this suite, but for many years the only recording available was by a school orchestra that just wasn't up to the demands. I was so happy when a competent professional performance came out, and here it is:

The six movements are: Characteristic March (0.00), Valse (4.48), Under the Beech Tree (10.03, continuing without break), Interlude (13.32), Hymn (15.45), Carnival (19.35).

The Carnival is in turn divided into continuous sections: Introduction (19.35), The Dancers (20.02), Punch and Judy (20.45), The Sleeping Beauty (21.44), Fat Woman (23.28), Finale (24.12).


1. It's Hanukkah, so I made matzo ball soup for dinner. It's also Advent, which B. celebrates, so there are going to be a lot of lights on the counter for the next few days. By the same token, we have a Christmas tree. B. bought me new shoes, and Judah Maccabee left B. some Hanukkah presents under the tree. (And if you think that's a sacrilegious mixture of religions, did you know - surely every secular Jewish child in the US knows this - that if you unwrap one of those foil-covered chocolate Maccabee soldiers, the chocolate underneath is molded in the shape of Santa Claus?)

2. B. is still having her voice studied. Kaiser referred her to the speech therapy clinic up in Oakland, where they have experience with singers. I drove, as I do that. A speech therapist with a stutter, how about that: no doubt that inspired him to choose this line of work. We did fine.

3. The pianist I've been listening to play Beethoven sonatas in a local church won an SFCV readers' award for a concerto she'd played, so my editor thought we should review her in something. What fit my schedule was the "Archduke" Trio. Which I've finally now learned to like.

4. I'm not sure I follow the results of the Comic Con trademark suit. All sorts of cons call themselves "Comic Con," some with and some without licenses from the one in San Diego. How can they defend their trademark if they haven't been doing so consistently? Also, San Diego claims that "Comic Con" means just them, but how can it do so if they're giving licenses to other cons with no connection to them except the license?

5. Ed Lee, Mayor of San Francisco, suddenly died. That's a shame: he seemed a good man. More drama in the City.

6. How did Doug Jones win in Alabama? Turnout. Turnout. That's the key to elections. Note well.

6a. What's disturbing are the number of people who said that the dalliances with 14-year-olds are what caused them to turn against Roy Moore. That means that they were OK with all the public things Moore did before this came out, which strike me as even more horrifying.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

an odd remark

Ursula K. Le Guin, for whom my respect is profound, has nevertheless sometimes made what I thought an odd remark. One such occurs in a recent much-linked essay, in which she recounts her 1970s refusal of a Nebula award from the Science Fiction Writers of America in protest against its withdrawal of an honorary membership from the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem.

Le Guin says "They invoked a technicality to deprive him of his membership and insisted on applying it" on the grounds that "There was a sizable contingent of Cold Warrior members who felt that a man who lived behind the iron curtain and was rude about American science fiction must be a Commie rat who had no business in the SFWA."

Ironically, she says, the award then went to the runner-up, a story (she doesn't name it, but it was "The Bicentennial Man") by "Isaac Asimov, the old chieftain of the Cold Warriors."

I just came across Le Guin telling the same story in 2002, in an essay on Lem reprinted in her recent essay collection, Words Are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016). There she says that the reason was that "many members of the association disapproved strongly of admitting a citizen of a Communist nation" and calls Asimov "a vociferous cold warrior."

What's odd about this is calling Asimov "a cold warrior." The capitalization in the 2017 version associates him with the same capitalization of the anti-Lem faction in SFWA. I do not know Asimov's position on the Lem issue; I don't have access to the SFWA files, and Asimov doesn't mention this in his memoirs. Possibly he was opposed to the honorary membership and this accounts for Le Guin's characterization; I don't know.

But to call Asimov a cold warrior in any other sense, that is, a vociferous anti-Communist, or, even more, a political conservative suspicious of Communist infiltration into liberal causes, is absolutely wrong.

Asimov got his start in SF in the 1940s in the "Campbellian stable," the authors nurtured and published by John W. Campbell, Jr., then editor of Astounding. And Campbell, at least by the 1960s, was that kind of cold warrior. (Back around 1960, Campbell had opined that Vietnam was a quagmire. But once the hippies took up the cause, you wouldn't find him agreeing with them about anything.) But the authors who wrote for Campbell didn't necessarily share his views, and Asimov least of all. One sold to Campbell in the 1940s because he was then by far the outstanding editor in the field, whether you agreed with his politics or not.

And Asimov got into hot water with Campbell from the beginning. Irritated by Campbell's insistence that, in any story in which humans encounter aliens, the humans must come out on top because of their superior abilities, Asimov invented the Foundation universe, in which there are no aliens - something Asimov considered highly unlikely to be true of the real universe, but it enabled him to sidestep the problem at an early stage in his career when he didn't feel capable, or willing to take the risk, of arguing with Campbell. (Later on he argued a lot.)

Asimov stayed liberal, also. In the 2002 essay, Le Guin says "the division over Lem followed much the same lines" as a famous 1968 pair of ads dividing SF writers into those supporting and opposing US involvement in Vietnam. Le Guin was opposed, of course. But so was Asimov. Here they are. To that end, Asimov "was heart and soul with Eugene McCarthy" in the presidential race that year (In Joy Still Felt, chapter 27). Later on, in opposition to many other SF writers, he vociferously denounced Reagan's SDI program, saying that it "probably won't work and even if it does work, won't do us any good," and giving as his reason for opposition "not because I'm a science fiction writer ... but because I like to think I'm a sane human being." (I remember, but cannot now find, Asimov telling a story of being confronted by a defense of the expertise of the SDI proponents, and shaking his interlocutor severely by replying, "I don't doubt their expertise. What I doubt is their sanity.")

I could multiply examples. Asimov's opinion, expressed in his science columns, was that the biggest threat to world peace was (not Communism, for ghu's sake, but) overpopulation, to which end he supported the use of birth control and other ways for women to take control over their own lives, and he was scathing at claims that women lacked certain abilities. Ironically, in person Asimov was a notorious groper - he thought it was a game, all in fun, the old lech - but honorable opinions and obnoxious personalities have co-existed before and since, see Al Franken.

I'm guessing that the reason for the odd characterization of Asimov as a cold warrior lies in Le Guin's analysis of the reasons that those who opposed Lem's honorary membership did so. She's entirely correct that the opponents were irritated at Lem's blunt criticisms of American SF, and that he was removed on a technicality. But that the motivation was suspicion of "Commie rats"? Or even disapproval of "admitting a citizen of a Communist nation"? Nothing else I've read about this much-discussed incident suggests anything of the kind. The impression I've always had is that the opponents thought Lem's critiques were so rude as to make him the guest who crapped in the punchbowl. Why honor such a person?

Here's the account by Frederik Pohl, who was the president of SFWA who found and applied that technicality to remove Lem, and who says he did it to avoid dealing with the nuisance of complaints. Pohl could be pretty blunt in his later years, but he says nothing about fear of Commies in his account of the reasons for opposing Lem. He says the main complainants were Philip José Farmer and Philip K. Dick - both of whom, by the way, were also, like Le Guin and Asimov, on the anti-Vietnam War side of the famous ad. So that's another strike against Le Guin's theory that the Lem controversy was a proxy for the Cold War. (Pohl signed neither side, possibly staying out on the grounds that he was the editor of the magazine where the ads appeared.)

I'm sure there's more evidence that can be found on this, but I'm stopping here. I won't speculate further on Le Guin's reasons for attributing an anti-Communist motive to people whose actions irritated and offended her so, but I tend to doubt that that was it.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

two Christmas choral concerts

I don't usually get to two of these in one year, but fate decreed.

First was the Ragazzi Boys Chorus, which I attended with athenais, and reviewed at the behest of the chorus' publicity people, who were rather persistent. But it was only fair; after four years at the Daily Journal, I'd never covered one of their own concerts before.

Some nice stuff, especially the English Renaissance anthems, and some modestly imaginative new works. The carol singalong, though, didn't work: the throbbing heavy organ was out of place, and the choral arrangements were too complex for a singalong to latch on to.

Second was by the Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale, subscribed to with enthusiasm by myself and B. and all the other Friends of vgqn, who sings therein. It was at the California Theatre in downtown San Jose, where SSV plays, and was led by associate director Michael DiGiacinto.

This highly textured and well-balanced chorus was most excellently displayed in superb arrangements (by Dan Forrest and Peter Wilhousky, respectively) of "The First Noel" and "Carol of the Bells," plus James McKelvy's wacky setting of "Deck the Halls" in 7/8 time.

The big pieces on the program were two oft-played modern British classics. Britten's Ceremony of Carols, accompanied by harp (Karen Thielen, a true master of tone color on her instrument) was vigorous and charming, and the more angular Gloria of John Rutter - whose finale starts out sounding like Carl Orff and finishes up like John Williams - was likewise invigorating and sometimes unexpectedly beautiful.

Rutter calls for an instrumental ensemble of brass, percussion, harp, and piano doubling organ, and as long as the brass was there, we also had a couple antiphonal pieces by Gabrieli and Praetorius with the chorus forming one choir and the brass the other. Interesting experiment, and it worked pretty well.

And there were singalongs here too, better arranged than Ragazzi's, and encouraged by mugging comments by the conductor. One set of secular carols - "The Christmas Song" (you know, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire"), which was co-authored by Mel Tormé, probably requires Tormé to do it justice - and one set of sacred ones. The latter included "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" ("Hark the Herald Tribune sings / Advertising wondrous things" - T. Lehrer) and "O Come All ye Faithful" ("Oh come let us adore him / Pippin the Cat" - Kalimac).

On the way over, we stopped for a brief walk-through of Christmas in the Park. Every year, Chavez Plaza is filled with Christmas trees which are decorated by various local organizations, both religious and secular (clubs, charities, schools, etc.), and in among them, as festive as any others, were trees by the local atheist group and the Satanic Church. The sight of these would probably cause Roy Moore's wig to fly off, but around here we take such diversity in stride. Also dioramas with recorded music playing, one of The Nutcracker in such sound quality as to suggest it was recorded by Tchaikovsky himself, and another of "Deck the Halls" at the speed of a dirge.

Friday, December 8, 2017

world according to cat

We closed the doors to the bedrooms last evening, and the cats began to fear and tremble. This rare event means the closing off of hiding spaces in preparation for the most dreaded of all feline events, Going To The Vet. Pippin even decided that hiding (downstairs) was a more productive use of his time than eating his dinner. If you know Pippin, that's a dramatic decision.

Perhaps due to the totalitarian threat implied by the doors, they came along fairly quietly when it was time to enter the carriers. Two cats, two carriers. Some authorities advise that if your cats get along with each other, as ours do, you could use just one carrier. But considering what Pippin does in his fear in the carrier, it's just as well that Maia not be there. Also, a cat carrier in our house is like an electron shell that only holds one electron. If you open up the shell when there's already an electron there, it shoots out. You'll never get a second one in at the same time.

At the vet's, though, it's entirely different. Here, getting them out is the trick. When we opened up Maia's carrier, she cautiously stuck out her head and one paw, staying in that attitude for a long time. When she finally finished emerging, I intoned, "That's four small steps for a cat, one giant leap for cat kind."

They're doing fine, and everybody's shots are now up to date.

Thursday, December 7, 2017


1. Despite the date, I hastened to San Jose Tofu to buy a block - first stage in a campaign to have as much as I can stand to eat (perhaps one a week) in the month remaining - and to give the retiring owners best wishes.

2. Changing bandages is difficult when in the company of a curious cat.

3. Wandered by the living room just as B. turned the television on. Heard announcer say, in a shocked voice, "He's marrying a divorced American actress who's three years older than he is." Can't determine which part shocks the announcer most, but realized with a mixture of amazement and regret that I know who's being discussed.

4. Firefox updated itself, again. This time I had trouble figuring out what happened to my bookmarks. I could bookmark a page, I could find (under the icon of a bookshelf) the list of recent bookmarks, but where was my big classified file? And, once I found it, what was an easy way to display it? Turned out they did something very sensible with it: Ctrl-B toggles it on and off as a sidebar, which is much more convenient when I want to consult multiple bookmarks than the old pull-down menu was. I like that; what I didn't like was how difficult it was to figure that out.

5. More big fires, this time in the LA area. Collaterals of friends are being affected by these. Those who say "In December?!" don't know California. I'm afraid this is going to be normal.

6. Al Franken has to go, but Roy Moore is not being prevented from arriving, and Donald Trump is still there. Isn't there something wrong with this disposition? I'd have Franken say, "All right, I'll resign: to take effect the minute that Moore is either defeated or expelled, and Trump is impeached."

6a. I have to agree, though, with regrets, that Franken has passed his sell-by date. It's not so much the incidents themselves, which were routine creepy masher gropings (bad, but deserving a more measured denouncement), but the sanctimoniousness of his response that got him. To the first charge he said it was just one case of bad judgment which he regrets. That might have been forgivable, but no surprise, it turns out he did it all the time. The gap here is what kills it. Kevin Spacey had the same kind of response, and though the charges against Spacey were much worse, it was, again, the divorce of that response from reality which made it game over.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

culinary tragedy

The news came out today: San Jose Tofu is closing at the end of the month.

This is a culinary tragedy because this tiny shop in San Jose's Japantown makes the best tofu in the Western hemisphere - possibly, these days, in any hemisphere. It's made fresh every day, it doesn't keep more than a couple of days (even refrigerated), and where every packaged tofu I've ever had is gross, slimy and rubbery, this stuff is light, tender, and tasty.

But the third-generation owners are getting old, and tired of hauling buckets of soybeans around, and they can't get replacement parts for their machinery even from Japan any more, and apparently there isn't a fourth generation available to carry on.

Despite its small daily output, San Jose Tofu has distributed to local Asian markets, and that's where I first found it, at a tiny market near where we used to live. When that place closed down, I transferred to an excellent Japanese-Hawaiian produce place near our new home, and when that closed, although there's a Japanese supermarket that also carries it intermittently, I started dropping by the home office whenever I was downtown. I could always park on the street, not bothering to feed the meter, duck into the doorway, ask the lady who was always there - Amy, her name is - for one tofu, please. She'd fish a block out of the vat, put it and some liquid on a small styro square in a plastic bag, I'd give her $2.25 and be out in a jiffy. Then home to the fridge to be stir-fried with veggies and mabo sauce for that evening's dinner.

I'll miss it. I just hope we still have for a while the other server of great things that I go to deepest San Jose for, the equally aging lady who sells the best tamales I've had, from a shop which - unlike San Jose Tofu - has been through 3 locations in the 12 years I've been going there.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

concert review: Symphony Silicon Valley

Oh, was this ever an interesting reviewing assignment.

A new violin concerto.

Played as soloist by the composer.

Who's 12 years old.

It's not as bizarre a circumstance as it may seem. As I noted in the review, I hear equally proficient young performers every year, and while juvenile genius composers are not common, they're not unknown, even now. For a recent example, I didn't even mention Jay Greenberg, who caused a flurry over a decade ago, but has been less heard of since he reached adulthood.

But I was determined to give full and honest consideration to Alma Deutscher the composer, and not to coo over the child prodigy. I was encouraged in this by her own attitude towards her composing abilities as expressed in her 60 Minutes segment, in which she also declared a belief in the purpose of music that I'd heard before.

Oscar Wilde expressed the credo, "The artist is the creator of beautiful things." I've read similar principles expressed in music by people like the composer Alan Hovhaness and the critic Bernard Levin. Levin once wrote that music is centripetal, a term I thought of using in the review and then thought better of.

Then I got to the music. What do I say? Some people seem to hold that music written in what we generally consider a 19th-century style is all right for those old buffers from the 19th century but is anathema if anyone tries doing it today. I cannot accept that attitude. While I believe that to understand a work one must consider the circumstances of its creation and the intent of the creator (as context, not as the end-all answer to its meaning), I also believe that, in measuring quality, the work stands on its own, and is good or bad regardless of its date stamp or other circumstances of its creation. If we're going to criticize Alma Deutscher for writing 19th-century-style music, we have to find reasons for that criticism in the work itself.

Some would say that latter-day epigones will never be as good because the style isn't native to the creator. That's true in some cases: contrast Tolkien, steeped in his medieval inspirations, with his imitators who are not. And that may be the case here. As I listened to the concerto, the word that crept into my mind was "anodyne," and that I did put in the review. When I listen to really bad genuine 19th-century music, that's not how it sounds. What I think then is "full of hot air." Alma Deutscher is not full of hot air: her music is concise and well-, if simply, shaped. She may be more anodyne than the writers of 19th-century hot air, but she is also a better composer than they are. I hope I made it clear: if I wasn't bowled over by simple precocity, I'm also not saying this is bad music. I said in the review that it was pleasant and agreeable, and that's praise as far as it goes. I can still remember themes from it, which is more than I was expecting.

But what about her native style? Well, what is her native style? She's 12 years old! She may not even have one yet. I've noticed before that even Mozart was only a child prodigy, and not an immortal genius, until he was 18 - and that's early; most non-prodigy composers didn't write anything immortal until their mid-20s. I'd like to hear if this one grows into her shoes as she reaches maturity.

But I may not get much of a chance to find out. Because a child prodigy is a child prodigy, but a former child prodigy is merely an adult. I'm well aware that, no matter what I think of her music, or whether it's actually up to the quality of its 19th century models, no self-respecting orchestra of any reputation would play a new work that sounds like this if it weren't by a child prodigy. I've heard new music in antique styles before, music that was as good as this, written by adults. It was self-published and lingered in obscurity. So does much else that isn't atavistic, for that matter; getting on stage is not simply a matter of pure quality and never has been.

All of this was playing around my mind as I kept the review succinct, by word count limits, and as focused as I could.

Monday, December 4, 2017

driving to Santa Rosa

Seeing that next year's SMOFCon will be in Santa Rosa, I visited its website from curiosity. I'm unlikely to go - even when I was working on conventions, they were of a different order or my work was of a different kind and I wasn't part of that community - but I was curious as to their site - is it in an area that was affected by the recent fires? No - and the directions.

On that, I have a few comments.

They recommend San Francisco (SFO) for flights, and do so on the grounds of its larger size and greater number of options. I wouldn't put it that way. I'd say that those are the reasons you might find yourself using SFO regardless of whether it's the best airport or not.

When I'm picking among multiple possible airports, I start by figuring out which one best fits my ground transportation needs. Then I see what the flight options and costs are. Only if some other airport's advantages in that respect outweigh its ground disadvantages do I switch.

So if you just want to go to Santa Rosa and not drive around a lot, Sonoma County (STS) is obviously best. The site says fares there can be quite high. I'm sure that's true (I've never had to price them myself), and that could indeed drive you to consider SFO or Oakland (OAK) even if you had no plans to visit those cities.

But which of SFS or OAK is logistically superior, leaving aside which has more flight options? (And OAK has some non-stops to unexpected far-off places: it could surprise you.) You have to weigh those.

SFO is far more likely to be socked in by fog, and that's a consideration at this time of year.

OAK being smaller is frequently less crowded. However, my minimal experience there says that security checkpoints are more likely to be overwhelmed there, and once I saw baggage claim chaos at OAK worse than almost anywhere else.

The site says SFO has an airport shuttle; it doesn't say about OAK, but actually the same service goes to both.

Both are major airports as far as airline and rental car selection are concerned.

If you drive, the difference in traffic is likely to be a wash. SFO directly connects to the 101 freeway, but you have to drive on surface streets through the City. OAK is a long mile from the 880 freeway, but once you're there it's all freeway. Commuter traffic, if you hit it, can be very bad on either, but it's worse on the OAK route, at least in the part of the route that's I-80, between Emeryville and Richmond.

Bridges. You have to cross over one on each route, and they both charge tolls, but in one direction only. SFO-Santa Rosa goes over the Golden Gate Bridge, which charges toll on the way back. Those tolls are only taken electronically, so you'd best talk to your rental car company about that. OAK-Santa Rosa goes over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, which charges toll on the way to the con instead (I could explain the discrepancy, but you wouldn't want to read it), and that one does still take cash, $5 for cars.

However, if you've never been over the Golden Gate Bridge, then for Ghu's sake do. It's one of California's finest sights. But that gets into tourist attractions, and that's another post. This one is just practical logistics.

There's another airport option, you know. Sacramento (SMF). Check flights to that. There's no toll bridges on the drive. While SFO and OAK are 70 miles away from Santa Rosa, SMF is 100 miles, which is not that much of a difference at that scale, and for most of the route the traffic will be less, unless you hit holidays. Google Maps will route you through Vallejo, which looks at first glance out of the way. If efficiency is the goal, I'd go down I-80 at least as far as Hwy 12 at Fairfield. The direct route over Hwy 128 and local roads is scenic, so it's good for meandering, but it's mountainous and twisty and will save you neither miles nor time if those are concerns.