Friday, February 17, 2017

itemization: three books

These are just the ones I'm using to take breaks with in between massive bouts of library research, writing for TS, and concert-going:

Book no. 1: Twenty-six Seconds by Alexandra Zapruder (Twelve, 2016). A history of the film - the film - by Abe Zapruder's granddaughter. To the family, he was just Dad or Grandpa who happened to have been responsible for this thing that hung over them for decades. The author is convincing on her grandfather's and father's sense of moral responsibility to make the film available without letting it be tackily exploited; less so on their desire to make money off it. They wanted it to go eventually to public ownership, but her father told her, "We can't afford to make an $18 million gift to the federal government." But since they never intended to auction it for any such price, how would they lose money by a gift? The most unusual part of the book is a detailed description of the Seinfeld scene parodying the use of the film in Oliver Stone's JFK, included because it was the only occasion in decades of association with the film that the Zapruders found anything concerning it worth laughing about.

Book no 2: Midcentury Journey by William L. Shirer (Farrar Straus & Young, 1952). The foreign correspondent (and future author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich) travels to postwar Europe, ostensibly to take the pulse of the political landscape. Sounded interesting, so I read it. Unfortunately, there's none of the in-depth interviews or even the local color you'd expect from such a book today. Instead, it's punditry that Shirer could just as easily have written from his armchair at home. The bulk is a rehearsal, in the same incredulous tones one recognizes from Shirer's other books, of what he considers the fecklessness of 1920s and 30s politicians. And what of today, 1952? Shirer is convinced that the neo-Nazis are about to take over West Germany (didn't happen), and that Charles de Gaulle will come to power in France (he did that, five years later), throw out the constitution (he did that too), and become the latest fascist dictator (he didn't do that). Yeah, de Gaulle was the hero of 1940, but Petain had been the hero of 1916 and look what happened to him. The only thing that makes Shirer happy is Britain's NHS. He recognizes that the country is nearly bankrupt, but that doesn't seem to worry him.

Book no. 3: John Lennon vs. the USA by Leon Wildes (ABA, 2016). The infamous deportation case, told in full by Lennon's lawyer. He's writing it up now because it suddenly seems relevant again. Full of concrete but lucid detail on lawsuits (including one delightfully named Lennon v. Marks), but doesn't neglect the personal angle. Unsurprisingly, Wildes was as square as they come and had barely heard of Lennon before taking the case, but he boasts of quickly becoming, and staying, a confidant of Yoko (whom he depicts as a highly intelligent layperson who asked her lawyers really sharp questions) as well as John, largely because, unlike many of their minions, he was really competent at his job. What did Wildes think of John and Yoko hijacking his press conference by declaring the state of Nutopia? He thought it was delightfully witty. Not so square after all.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


It's the 30th Valentine's Day that B. and I have had together. Can you believe it?

On the 7th Valentine's, I proposed.

Somewhere around the 10th Valentine's is when we figured out that dining out in a restaurant on Valentine's Day is a really bad idea. We would pick a nearby weekend to celebrate in that manner, and eat comfort food at home on the day instead.

Today I cooked her up a bowlful of pan roasted Brussels sprouts, her favorites. Chopping them up into small pieces and roasting them to oblivion seemed the best way of dealing with the tennis ball-sized sprouts that have been in the stores lately. (For other purposes, B. much prefers the tiny ones.)

During the day, more mundane activities prevailed. She was at work, and so was I: I finished up and submitted a review (to be seen here later), and then drove over the mountains to Santa Cruz for more library research. So many roads are down due to the storms that I figured I'd better go now, before the rains come back in a day or two. It wasn't too hard getting there: I got without much delay through the one-lane section past the landslide that closed the northbound lanes. It's not very large, though the hillside it came from is towering, but it's large enough. However, the northbound traffic was backup for miles, and it was still backed up that far when I came back after finishing research and lunch. So I tried the back roads. I knew Soquel was closed, but I hadn't known that Glenwood was closed until I went there. Summit is closed, part of Skyline is closed, Congress Springs is still closed. I had to take the long way around to Page Mill again, eating up half the afternoon.

Still, that's nothing to the total evacuation of the better part of three counties in the Feather River valley yesterday, news which I've been following with horrid fascination. Though not quite as horrid as the way I try to remember how HRC was pilloried for keeping some not particularly secret e-mails on a server that just might have been susceptible to hacking. You recall how she was accused of treason for that? If that was treason, the world lacks a word to describe the restaurant table conference on North Korea of our current supposed leaders.

Sunday, February 12, 2017


I went to another political rally today. No marching. What used to be called the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society decided to make today the National Day of Jewish Action for Refugees. I went to a local gathering in the Mountain View civic plaza, where a couple hundred people - not all Jewish - gathered for an hour of exhortatory speeches, personal testimonies, prayers, group chants, and songs in English and Hebrew, a little like an extremely populist guitar service. A little more variety than some such occasions, and hence a little more interesting.

There were signs reading things like "My People Were Refugees Too." There were apposite quotes from the Book of Exodus. There was a moving expression of solidarity from a local Muslim community leader. The director of the local Jewish Family Services group said, "Thanks to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for making America great again." And one of several participating rabbis said, "If we do not protest, we are complicit." And so we protested.

The organizers had suggested that we bring along photos of our immigrant relatives. I dug up a large studio portrait of my maternal grandfather, my one ancestor of that generation who immigrated and my only immigrant ancestor whom I knew. He was maybe 6 when he came here from what was then the Russian Empire, now Lithuania. Need I say I'm glad that the US let him in?

Saturday, February 11, 2017

musical theatre review: 1776

After South Bay MT's first show of the season, I wasn't sure how good their chops were, but their 1776 was up to snuff. There were only a couple of minor characters who couldn't act, a couple more who couldn't sing, but the only song that was scuffed thereby was "Momma Look Sharp". Everybody else was good, some excellent. Dickinson was the best actor of the bunch; Richard Henry Lee pranced vigorously throughout his song without losing breath (I complimented him on this after the show and he explained, "Aerobic exercise"); a more stolid and weathered Adams than the usual contributed to the power and hence amusement value of his interruptions of the chorus in "But Mr. Adams". Abigail was a woman of size, and not afraid to use it. So was Franklin: this and several lesser parts were played by women, and except for the one who couldn't figure out what octave she should sing in (see above criticism) you'd hardly notice.

It's a little difficult to watch 1776 today, when our long democratic story is lying choking in its own blood upon the ground (to borrow a phrase), but a good enough production can make you forget that ... momentarily.

Friday, February 10, 2017

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Second week of the annual Blomstedt festival, more of the same heavy German classics. I am so there.

Blomstedt was frailer this week, requiring someone to walk arm in arm with to enter and leave the stage. Still, he is 89.

Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. Yefim Bronfman distinguished the piano from the orchestra in the slow movement's dialogue of opposites by playing very slowly rather than gently.

Brahms' Third Symphony. Slightly stiff interpretation, but the sound was rich and gorgeous. I just wallowed in the sheer Brahmsitude of it all.

Earlier in the day, I was at Stanford for a free noontime performance by the Elias Quartet. Their Mendelssohn Op. 13 did not remind me of the Pacifica Quartet: Elias has a much gruffer, heavier style. Only they could make Mendelssohn's fairy-light trio sound like the dance of a large animal. Appropriately, they paired this with Op. 95, the gruffest of Beethoven's quartets and one of several models in his output for Op. 13.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

breaking a thing

Anyone interested in reading an insanely convoluted argument in Tolkien scholarship is welcome to it.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

stranger than fiction

So I'm casually re-reading Big Trouble, which was humor columnist Dave Barry's first novel, from 1999. I find this scene at the start of chapter 9. A drunk, overzealous and incompetent wanna-be vigilante has been taken in by the police, who are trying to soothe him.
"I got rights," said Crime Fighter Jack Pendick, for perhaps the fourtieth time since he had been taken into police custody.
"Indeed you do, Mr. Pendick," said Detective Harvey Baker. "You have rights up the wazoo. And I'm sure you're going to exercise every single one. But first you're going to go with these officers, who are going to take you to a nice room where you can lie down and see if you can get your blood alcohol content down below that 300 percent mark, OK?"
"Do I get my gun back?" asked Pendick.
"Of course you do!" said Baker. "Just as soon as we run a couple of tests and a giant, talking marshmallow is elected president."
Well, that happened. He can have his gun back now.

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

I find on checking my records that, though I used to review the San Francisco Symphony often (and thereby once contributed the most prominent blurb to the ads for one of their concert recordings), it's been four years since my SFCV editor called me up and asked me to go.

He did last Wednesday morning. "Want to hear the San Francisco Symphony this weekend?" "I'm already going tonight," I replied.

I was going because it was conductor emeritus Herbert Blomstedt doing the big heavy stuff, which is what I most like to hear. It was the Ninth, the Ninth, and it was righteous.

And I arrived in the City early enough to have time for dinner at the place in Bayview that cooks your fried chicken to order from scratch. Yum.

Note: The video embedded at the bottom of the review is labeled "Herbert Blomstedt conducts Beethoven's Ode to Joy," but the music he's actually rehearsing in the video is from the first movement; the Ode to Joy is the finale, or more precisely most of it.

Monday, February 6, 2017

the vanishing American

I sent a link to my last post to the Stanford music prof who'd convened the panel. He wrote back to say thanks, and commented that he was delighted with the full house turnout, "especially on Super Bowl Sunday!", a conjunction he'd mentioned at the time, too.

I get this at every concert or lecture I attend that happens to coincide with a major sporting event, sometimes even ones I wasn't aware of until the convenor mentions them: astonishment that there are actually people present who'd skip that in order to attend this.

You know, folks, there are a lot of us who don't give a hoot about the Super Bowl, and the audience was probably drawn from that not-small segment of society. For the last several years, the TV audience in the US for the Super Bowl has been about 111 million people. That's a lot of people, but at the last census, the US had 308 million people. So, considering that the population has gone up since then, that's at least 197 million who aren't watching it, 177% the size of the number who are.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I don't mind that other people are interested in sports. People are interested in all sorts of odd things, and I'm glad they have a hobby. What makes me grumpy is the assumption that everybody is interested in sports, which is not something you get when the topic is, say, gardening or train-spotting. It's not even remotely true, and I dislike the assumption that I am among 197 million Americans who do not exist.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Music and Nationalism: Engaging with Orff's Carmina Burana

Such was the title of the panel discussion I attended at Stanford today: in recognition of an upcoming campus performance of the work, five experts delivered thoughtful little talks inspired by this most famous of all musical works to have been composed in Nazi Germany.

Anna Schultz, professor of ethnomusicology, began by examining the definition of nationalism. The ability to define it both by ethnicity and by territory lies behind much of the Nazis' evil. As for Carmina Burana, Nazi music critics were at first puzzled by the work, put off by its hedonism and jazz-like rhythms, two things they abhorred; but then they embraced it for what they saw as its celebration of Aryan ethnicity.

David Abernethy, chorus baritone and professor emeritus of political science, spoke of the challenges of coping with living under a totalitarian regime. Orff did cooperate with the Nazis, most infamously by composing a set of Midsummer Night's Dream incidental music to replace the banned Mendelssohn's. But in other respects he kept himself aloof, despite pressure from the regime. Abernethy concluded passionately by saying it's easy to criticize Orff's failings, but no option for behaving is morally clear. We should avoid facile condemnation of human frailties in horrific circumstances.

In comments later, Abernethy added that, although totalitarian regimes push mass culture and a hive mind, they're ironically highly individualistic as their honors and condemnations, in the arts as elsewhere, are based on the Leader's whim.

David Wilson, tenor and grad student in musicology, gave several comparisons to show that culpability under the Nazis has little relationship to subsequent reputation. His best example was the two leading conductors who stayed in the Nazi regime. Wilhelm Furtwängler actively helped Jewish musicians and avoided open propaganda, but his willingness to conduct before high Nazi officials all the way to the end has stained his reputation so badly that a biography is titled The Devil's Music Master. Whereas Herbert von Karajan actually joined the Nazi Party and had no compensating virtues, but his reputation, based on his post-war work, is clean.

(In speaking of Richard Strauss and his cooperation with the Nazis which has left him still a popular composer, Wilson rhetorically asked, "Who would do without Ein Heldenleben?" Thinking of that bloated and self-indulgent work, I muttered "I would." I intended to speak sotto voce, but was heard throughout the lecture room. Oops.)

Eric Tuan, choral studies administrator, examined Orff's pedagogical method, the Schulwerk. Originally conceived with leftist political overtones in the Weimar era, it proved adaptable to Nazi educational goals. For instance, its child-centered approach and primal content appealed to their anti-intellectual prejudices. And Orff went along with this. Tuan's conclusion was that nothing about the Schulwerk is inherently fascist, but it's easily appropriated.

Anna Wittstruck, conductor of the Stanford Symphony, classed Carmina Burana as a neo-classical work, and noted that this communitarian, accessible style is compatible with mass nationalism. She noted Orff's debt to Stravinsky's Les noces, and played video clips of a stage performance to show that Les noces (and also Le sacre du printemps) enact hive mind rituals right on stage. Orff intended for Carmina Burana also to be staged, a project in sensory immersion that would short-circuit critical distancing.

We also had some music. Wilson sang the tenor solo from Carmina, the lament of the roasting swan (accompanied by three choristers and a pianist) and then, just to demonstrate the musical similarity between Nazi music and Weimar music, pitched in to Kurt Weill's "Mack the Knife."