Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

The Classical Style

20 June 2014

Last night Dave and I went to Hertz Hall on Berkeley campus to hear The Classical Style, a very silly one-act opera based — if that’s the word for it — on Charles Rosen’s book about the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The tickets were a gift from old friends who saw it at the Ojai Music Festival last week, enjoyed it, and apparently figured that if anybody else would enjoy it, too, Dave and I would. They were right; Dave and I howled with delighted laughter through the whole thing.

It’s not an opera for everyone, that’s for sure. The piece is full of jokes and loopy references that take a certain knowledge of classical music to get. (If you like Anna Russell and P.D.Q. Bach, you’d probably enjoy this.) I don’t think you’d have to have actually read Rosen’s book, but it sure doesn’t hurt. Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are themselves characters (stuck in heaven playing Scrabble for all eternity), as is Charles Rosen himself; there are also characters named Dominant, Tonic, and Subdominant (who go into a bar), as well as a mysterious, wandering stranger who wears a trench coat and eyepatch and who turns out to be The Tristan Chord. Characters from Don Giovanni wander in and out of the action as well, as does a nerdy young musicologist whose analysis of Giovanni has all too antierotic an effect on the Don himself. And many other characters as well, all played by a cast of eight who are kept busy doubling parts all over the place.

There is also a hilarious portrayal of an academic symposium on the sonata form, constructed as a great big movement in you-know-what.

The whole thing is an extended prank, but the invention and wit never let up.

To fill out the evening, the opera is preceded by a really splendid performance of Haydn’s “Rider” string quartet. Totally enjoyable evening.

One more performance tonight. There were tickets on Goldstar yesterday.

Mahler’s Markings

15 June 2014

This is a hoot. It begins:

Several weeks ago, we sent you a list of translations of the German markings in the Mahler [Symphony #1]. We now realize that this list contained many serious errors. These sheets contain the correct versions. So we don’t waste valuable rehearsal time on this, copy these corrections into your part immediately.
Langsam – Slowly
Schleppend – Slowly
Dampfer auf – Slowly
Mit Dampfer – Slowly
Allmahlich in das Hauptzeitmass ubergehen – Do not look at the conductor

There’s more. Funny stuff.

Still More About An Unexpected Journey

18 January 2013

Very good blog posting about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

I agree with the writer that I would have been happy to skip the incident of the stone giants in the mountains. Unless it’s leading to something in the later parts of the trilogy, it doesn’t go anywhere, and cutting it would probably have made the two big battles that follow it feel less like too much of a good thing.

I disagree, though, with what she writes about Azog seeming superfluous in the story. There are a number of clues in An Unexpected Journey that Azog’s significance in the story is going to turn out to be a lot greater than it currently appears.

The author writes, “I’m not assuming that Azog will turn out to be working for Sauron, though it’s possible.” But it’s more than possible, it’s certain, or Howard Shore wouldn’t have used the Mordor theme from The Lord of the Rings every time Azog shows up. In LOTR, the motif is used only with servants of Sauron, and his score is clearly intended to mesh with his score for LOTR. So Azog must be working for Sauron.

Furthermore, if you can put two and two together, there is a very strong clue in AUJ of a direct connection between Azog and the Necromancer. True, the Necromancer isn’t identified with Sauron anywhere in AUJ, but we know from Tolkien’s books that they are going to turn out to be one and the same.

So again, Azog must be working for Sauron.

Still More Hobbitry

8 January 2013

This is madness, but Dave and I went to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey a fourth time, in order to see it in the 48-frames-per-second version.

The good thing about this version is that, even though it’s in 3-D, everything is extraordinarily crisp and detailed. I was able to catch a lot of details that I had missed before. And at times there are a lot of details going by very quickly.

The bad thing is that somehow the quality of the lighting looks different, maybe a little overexposed somehow. It reminded me of a 1970s television show shot on video instead of film. Hopefully the technology will improve.

And I still felt that very little was gained by seeing the movie in 3-D. A really sharp 2-D print would be just fine with me.

Some more things I noticed this time around (warning — some mild spoilers ahead):

The dwarves’ facility with juggling things, which is set up in the opening sequence in Bilbo’s home, is much more of a constant theme running through the movie than I’d realized before. All through the movie they are tossing things to each other and deftly catching (or sometimes dodging) things that are thrown at them.

Likewise their acrobatic skill. The battle with the trolls, for example, shows the trolls trying to catch the dwarves over and over, and never quite able to do so. The dwarves are always dodging them, jumping out of their reach, rolling between their feet to pass under them, and so on, always a step ahead of the trolls. Bilbo, though, isn’t as nimble, and the group is put in danger as a result.

The escape from the goblin caves shows this over and over. The dwarves toss weapons to each other, jump from swaying bridges with split-second timing, join forces to make use of unlikely objects they find at hand, and all without ever having to discuss how they’re going to do this — they just know. It’s a densely choreographed sequence, and this time through it didn’t seem a moment too long — maybe because the greater clarity made it easier for me to see and understand everything going on.

Some more observations about the music:

I’m not sure, but I think the Arkenstone has a musical theme associated with it, four ascending notes. When Thror fumbles and drops it, and the Arkenstone falls down the stairs to be lost in Smaug’s hoard of gold, I think I heard the theme being played in reverse, so that the notes are descending. Nice touch, if I’m right about that.

There were two themes associated with Gollum in the score for The Lord of the Rings, one poignant and pathetic, the other cold and sinister. Both themes turn up in the Riddles in the Dark sequence in An Unexpected Journey. The sinister theme is the one you hear when Gollum first appears, and it’s the only one you hear from that point to when Gollum and Bilbo meet. The poignant theme is heard for the first time just as Gollum’s face lights up at the thought that Bilbo might like to play a game with him.

Wow. I teared up at that moment — the theme underscores that inside this sinister little monster is a tragic, miserable, sorry creature, and it comes with a lot of associations for me already from its use in LOTR. So for it to come in at precisely that moment was somehow just a real heartbreaker.

I now have a copy of the Unexpected Journey soundtrack, in the form in which it was released on the Internet in November, on my iPhone, and I’ve started listening to it during my commute. I’ve only gotten through the opening so far. I’m hearing a lot in it that I didn’t hear before, probably because until now my attention to the music has been divided, due to, you know, watching a movie at the same time. (It’s also possible that there were some changes made between November and the movie’s release, though they’re unlikely to be substantial.)

The music for the prologue is much more complex and beautiful than I’d realized while watching the movie. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there are prominent themes for Thorin and Erebor (the Lonely Mountain); what I hadn’t noticed before is that the two themes are closely related, both being based on three rising notes, the third, fourth, and fifth notes of the minor scale. (To be precise: If we’re in the key of C minor, the Erebor theme, which we hear first of the two, begins C-E♭-C-F-C-G, the distinctive feature of the theme being those leaps from C up to E♭, then F, and then G, suggestive perhaps of a mountain rising higher and higher before us as we approach it. Thorin’s slow, yearning theme is introduced soon after, and begins with the notes E♭-F-G-G-D, with that E♭-F-G sequence emphasized.) The two themes are juxtaposed and developed in some very lovely and moving ways, and the connection between the two themes makes the point that what it is that Thorin yearns for is to return to Erebor.

There is a very clear musical theme for Smaug. So clear, in fact, that I’m amazed I didn’t detect it during four viewings of the movie. I can only figure that it’s an exciting sequence and I was caught up in the visuals at that point. (Again, if we’re in C minor, Smaug’s theme begins C-B-C-B-G♭-F, this time snaking downward from C instead of rising.)

A theme consisting of rising and falling minor arpeggios may, or then again may not, represent the wanderings of the dwarves after losing their homeland. I’m not sure. I need to listen some more.

Later: The motif of rising and falling minor arpeggios (in 6/4 time, I think, with the first quarter note of each measure dotted and the second halved, giving a small but distinctive skip in the rhythm) becomes something of an ostinato through much of the scene in which the dwarves show up to dinner at Bag End. Only in this scene, it’s played humorously, and the rhythmic skip seems jaunty rather than sorrowful. Hard to believe I missed it while watching the movie. So this theme does seem to be connected with the dwarves, though whether specifically with their wanderings, I’m not sure.

Azog, the Pale Orc, is frequently associated throughout the movie with a motif of falling thirds, strongly reminiscent of the Dies Irae, that is always associated in LOTR with the servants of Sauron. So I guess that’s going to be a revelation to Thorin and the other dwarves in one of the later movies. (Gandalf may already suspect — surely he’s clever enough to pay better attention to the clues in the music.)

More inexplicably, though, at one point when Thorin and Azog are facing off, we hear music that in LOTR is always associated specifically with the Nazgûl, who I don’t think even exist yet at this point in Tolkien’s chronology. As far as I know, they don’t appear in the history of Middle Earth until about ten years after the events in The Hobbit. It’s a interesting riddle, then, to speculate on what that curious musical connection is supposed to mean. And Mr. Shore’s score is too meticulously organized for it not to mean something. I do have a theory, actually, that fits with some of the other plot points we’ve been given, but I think I’m going to keep it to myself for now.

About the Music in The Hobbit

27 December 2012

On my third time seeing The Hobbit, I paid more attention to the score than I had before. As in the score to LOTR, Shore uses leitmotifs in a deliberately Wagnerian manner, and I was able to figure out and follow a few of them through their development. The most prominent is the Song of the Lonely Mountain, which the dwarves sing in Bilbo’s home and the melody of which becomes a major recurring theme. There are also clear themes for Thorin and Erebor that come up a lot.

I’m less sure about the themes that come up less often, such as for Radagast, his rabbits, the Arkenstone, Sting (whose theme may just be a minor second “sting” in the music), and so on. I think there may be a general sword theme, and maybe a theme representing the diaspora of the dwarves after the fall of Erebor.

There are themes carried over from LOTR, too — the Shire, the Ring, and so on. One lovely touch (among many, really): When Bilbo evades the question of how he escaped from the goblins, Gandalf clearly suspects something, and in the music the Ring theme starts and then stops, uncompleted, telling us that Gandalf thinks briefly about the One Ring, but then puts aside the thought.

Eric Does Eric

3 June 2012

Dave and I had a great time tonight at “Eric Does Eric”, a one-man show with Eric Ranelletti singing a dozen or so songs by Seattle songwriter Eric Lane Barnes. Eric R. is a terrific singer and actor, with an amazing command of detail and nuance. The songs by Eric B. are full of good things, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny and sometimes very moving, and Eric R. made the most of them, shaping each of them into virtually a one-act play. A real treat from beginning to end.

Six Brandenburgs at the San Francisco Symphony

9 May 2012

Dave and I saw both halves of the San Francisco Symphony’s two-part “Baroque Delights” concerts (what an awful name that is), each concert including three of the six Brandenburg concertos and one or two popular Handel suites. The tickets were discounted on Goldstar, and the Brandenburgs are always terrific and, well, I’m sure Handel won’t care if my mind wanders while listening to his Royal Fireworks and Water Music once again. (After all, he wrote them in the first place as background music, as music intended to accompany but not distract you from whatever else you might be paying attention to at the same time. It seems to me that he was altogether successful in this, and the suites are perfectly pleasant pieces to listen to while reading or working; but why they keep turning up in concerts baffles me.)

The first of the two concerts, which was conducted by Jane Glover, was lovely. The sound balance was poor during the Water Music suite that opened the concert, and the lower strings were just about inaudible (couldn’t they have borrowed a shell from Berkeley Symphony or somewhere?). This boded ill for the rest of the concert, but as it worked out, different subsets of the orchestra were needed for each work, so the players rearranged themselves in between works, and the balance problems were mostly fixed for the rest of the concert. Whew.

I’ve heard more exciting performances of these three Brandenburgs (I love the sharper tang of period instrument performances, myself), but this was certainly one of the suavest — clear and polished and full of crisp colors. The first of them to be played was No. 3, which was enjoyable but a little on the polite side for my taste — in the last movement especially, I like a faster pace and for the occasional cross rhythms to have more of a kick to them.

No. 2, which was next on the program, was a particular joy — all four soloists (Nadya Tichman on violin, Robin McKee on flute, Jonathan Fischer on oboe, and John Thiessen on trumpet) were terrific, both individually and as an ensemble. In No. 6, the four solo violas were led by Jonathan Vinocour, who can produce an amazingly beautiful, rich sound out of his instrument. (He is also looking very woofy lately with his scruffy red beard.) The ensemble playing, the back-and-forth conversations where a theme is tossed around from instrument to instrument, all of it was clear and intricate and a lot of fun to hear.

The concert ended with Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks and I’m afraid my mind started wandering again.

The second concert, a few days later, was conducted by Alexander Barantschik, who also played all the violin solos — halfway through the program it finally dawned on me that Brandenburgs Nos. 1, 4, and 5 have in common a violin among the soloists, and that’s why the six were divvied up that way.

This concert is now a strong candidate for the least enjoyable concert I’ve ever attended performed by an orchestra that wasn’t actually playing wrong notes. The Brandenburgs aren’t concertos in the modern sense; they’re not showpieces for a virtuoso soloist with the rest of the orchestra reduced to a supporting role. Each of the Brandenburgs has at least three soloists, and they spend more time playing as a small ensemble than they do playing individually. The point is in the musical conversation back and forth between the large group and the small group. So — with the exception of one portion of one movement, which I’ll get to in a moment — the orchestra is every bit as important as the group of soloists.

Mr. Barantschik and his players, though, seemed to think that these were bravura violin concertos in the Romantic style, or at least that they could be turned into something resembling that with enough determination. The result wasn’t happy.

No. 1 (my personal favorite of the six) was the most successful of the three, mostly because the violin is only one of six soloists. Three of the others are horns, in fact, and the parts Bach wrote for them are scene stealers.

But now and then Mr. Barantschik did have a violin solo, and when he played, it suddenly seemed like he’d stepped in from the wrong century. His playing was yearning, passionate, rhythmically free, with more than a touch of Gypsy in it, and it floated above all the other instruments instead of blending with them. His violin was even tuned slightly sharper than the rest of the orchestra, the way a soloist in a nineteenth-century violin concerto will sometimes do to make him stand out against the orchestra rather than blend in. There was no back-and-forth between the solo violin and the other instruments, just the violin soaring rhapsodically above the background music provided by the rest of the orchestra. Which is perfectly fine for a bravura showpiece for a star violinist, but not so good for intricate baroque counterpoint. Considered apart from its context, it was beautiful, even sumptuous playing, but oh did it ever not belong in this music.

This was only an intermittant annoyance in No. 1, but it got sillier and more irritating in No. 4. With fewer soloists, and none of them horns, there were more frequent opportunities for the violin to seize attention at the expense of the music as a whole.

But then No. 5 actually made me angry. I had already said to Dave at intermission that I didn’t see why they didn’t just use a modern grand piano instead of a harpsichord if they were going to play the concertos in this way. With the louder modern instruments playing in the louder modern style, the harpsichord was very difficult to hear in the first two concertos, just an indistinct tinkling in the background.

Well, in No. 5, the soloists are the violin, flute, and harpsichord, and the first movement — the exception I mentioned earlier — ends with a very lengthy, difficult, and flashy cadenza for the harpsichord. This is far and away the most prominent solo turn in all the Brandenburgs, the one time any instrument is actually called on to show off for a couple of minutes while the rest of the orchestra keeps quiet. Music historians point to this movement as a percursor, in fact, to what the concerto later became.

Furthermore, playing the harpsichord was Robin Sutherland, the Symphony’s phenomenally wonderful keyboard player. So we figured at least the harpsichord cadenza would be stunning, as it’s the one place in the Brandenburgs where this kind of all-focus-on-the-virtuoso approach is not completely misguided.

Well, the way the orchestra was arranged for No. 5, the harpsichord was behind the other two soloists, the violin and the flute, when it desperately needed to be up front and center — no, it really needed to be positioned smack in the middle of the audience, if only that were possible. In any case, something, anything that would have helped correct the imbalance ought to have been done. Even just seeing Mr. Sutherland more clearly might have helped things, if only psychologically. But as it was, even during the passages where no one was playing but the three soloists, the harpsichord was faint against the other two instruments, and the effect was of a duet for flute and violin with some unimportant harpsichord doodling in the background to fill in the harmonies.

What’s happening in the music during this passage, as we move toward the cadenza, is that the harpsichord is gradually taking on more and more importance and the flute and violin are being reduced to melodic fragments. But with the harpsichord weak in the background, none of that came off — it just sounded like Bach was running out of music for the two real soloists, the violin and the flute, to play.

During the big cadenza itself, the rest of the orchestra was silent, so at least we could finally hear the harpsichord distinctly. But the volume was still so low compared with everything else we’d been hearing the whole evening that it came off as anticlimactic.

This was frustrating, but hey, even great artists now and then make really dumb miscalculations, and I was ready to give everybody the benefit of a doubt and write it all off as a bizarre but ultimately well-meaning attempt to try something different that just didn’t come off. However, Mr. Barantschik’s manner during the cadenza pushed me over from merely frustrated to actually angry.

As I said, the way the soloists were arranged for this concerto, Mr. Barantschik and the flautist were standing in front of the harpsichord. As the cadenza started, Mr. Barantschik stepped several feet to one side, which sounds innocuous enough in writing but which in the moment seemed like an ostentatious, attention-drawing movement — the star of the show gracious stepping aside to let someone else have his brief moment. Even sillier, Mr. Barantschik actually picked up his music stand and carried it with him, which had no purpose that I could see other than to make the gesture that much more theatrical — it wasn’t like moving the music stand was going to help us hear the harpsichord any better. The flautist, I have to say, did the same thing, but a moment later, and it looked like he had not been expecting this and was uneasily following Mr. Barantschik’s lead.

Then, instead of paying attention to (or at least feigning attention to) Mr. Sutherland’s cadenza, Mr. Barantschik stared intensely at his music, nodding his head with the beat all the while — an attention-drawing movement that I and my fellow amateur musicians have been sternly warned against by the conductor in every musical group I’ve been part of since grade school, so how is it that Mr. Barantschik doesn’t realize how distracting it is? Anyway, I know the cadenza well enough to know roughly where we are in it without having to stare at the music — just by, you know, listening — and surely Mr. Barantschik knows the music far better than me. So this seemed like gratuitously ungracious behavior.

As Mr. Sutherland approached the climax of his showpiece, Mr. Barantschik lifted up his violin with an air of getting himself ready to come in on time — except that it was much earlier than he actually needed to get ready, and I cannot see what point there was to this other than to make a large physical movement that would pull the audience’s attention back to him (or at least the attention of that portion of the audience that wasn’t already focused on the bobbing of his head) a moment before the high point of another soloist’s turn.

The Handel piece that night — yet another Water Music suite — turned out to be the most satisfying thing the whole evening, in spite of its relative triviality as music. The orchestra was clearly enjoying itself as it played, everybody was listening to one another and responding to one another, and nobody was trying to twist the music into something it wasn’t. This is a fine orchestra, and if they’d played the three Brandenburgs in that spirit, it would have been a fine concert.

Vänskä conducting A London Symphony

10 April 2011

Dave and I went to a terrific concert at Davies last night. Osmo Vänskä, who has become a favorite conductor for both of us in the last couple of years, was conducting. First was a new work by Thomas Larcher, titled Red and Green. It was interesting and listenable, but all in all it seemed rather cerebral and I didn’t get much of a sense of shape from it. Still, I’d have to hear it again to have much of an opinion: I’m not good at picking up new music from a single hearing, and the list of works that I found rather dull the first time I heard them but later grew to love is embarrassingly long. So I can’t say much about it.

However, in a discussion after the concert, the composer at one point mentioned that the title, Red and Green, was deliberately unspecific in order to “give the listener space” to create his or her interpretation. I think this is a bad idea, rather like saying I’m going to keep as much sand as possible out of the oyster bed in order to give the oysters more space to create their own pearls. It just doesn’t seem to work that way. What I have always found is that the audience’s determination to create its own interpretations (and misinterpretations) of your work is limitless, or at least vast beyond your power to affect; you don’t have to do anything to help make it happen. Write as specifically as you can and you provide the material onto which each listener can project a different, deeply personal interpretation; write generally and the audience will have less for their unconscious minds to grab onto, and they’ll find your work vague and bland as a result.

Whether this is in fact true of Red and Green, I can’t say, not after one listening; what the composer says about his own process of creation isn’t necessarily true. It was just a comment that set off an alarm for me.

Next was the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, with Alexander Barantschik soloing. Dave and I heard this work live not that long ago, and I didn’t need to hear it again so soon — my sweet tooth for this kind of showpiece is easily satisfied. But this was a wonderfully light and transparent performance, taken more drily and less sweetly than I’ve heard the piece before, and I enjoyed it.

After the intermission came the best part, the best performance of Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony that I ever expect to hear in this lifetime — just stunning from beginning to end. Dave pointed out to me today that Vänskä was conducting the slow movements of the Vaughan Williams rather as though he were conducting Sibelius, with lots of airiness and gradual unfolding of the themes. Well, whatever it was that he was doing, it was wonderful, each phrase seeming to blossom organically out of the previous phrase throughout the piece.

Unfortunately, this was also one of the noisiest audiences I’ve sat among in quite a while. To our left was an elderly man, apparently hard of hearing, who was unaware of how much noise he was making adjusting his headset and rattling his program booklet and opening and closing some kind of case he had on his lap; the couple directly in front of us snuggled and whispered to each other throughout, despite catching my glare at least twice. And everywhere was coughing, coughing, coughing. You’d think that people would have coughed themselves out with all the noise they were making during the quieter sections, but then at the breaks between movements the coughing would really let fly and you’d realize that they’d actually been holding back. And every time a movement ended quietly, you could count on somebody having a coughing fit about one measure before the final note. It’s been explained to me that I should be more understanding and sympathetic, and that if you have to cough, then you have to cough, and I’m just fortunate in not having the kind of health problems that make coughing unavoidable. But if people know they are frequent coughers (and you can’t convince me that they all have conditions that just suddenly seized them for the very first time on entering the hall that night), couldn’t they bring handkerchiefs to cough into and at least try to muffle the sound a bit that way?

The Rite of Spring and “Carte Blanche en Tore”

4 April 2011

Friday was an excellent day both for chamber concerts and for cryptic crosswords. In the evening Dave and I went to hear the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra at Herbst Hall. The first half of the program was pleasant and charming but not terribly exciting — a Vivaldi concerto for guitar and viola d’amore, a set of variations on “Là ci darem” by Beethoven, and a new piece by Gabriela Lena Frank called Inca Dances — all of it played with spirit and delight but none of it very powerful stuff.

But then the second half was Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, reorchestrated for a chamber orchestra of 14 players. That turned out to be an astonishing and thrilling experience. The Rite of Spring is a piece I’ve known since studying it in college a quarter of a century ago, but this performance made it all very fresh again, as well as harsh and shocking and brutal and potentially riot-inciting. It was like hearing the piece again for the first time, and I heard a lot in the transparent textures and harmonies that I don’t remember noticing before.

Plus, for those who like their ballet scores accompanied by some choreography, you could watch the two percussionists doing their obviously well-rehearsed dance as they scurried around the back of the stage managing the drums and marimba and all the rest.

All in all, this may have been the most exciting concert I’ve been to in quite a few months.

Friday’s Listener puzzle, called “Carte Blanche en Tore”, is also my favorite in a while. It’s essentially what in America is called a diagramless puzzle. I love this kind of puzzle, love the process of finding how the words fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces, though it’s also true that this sort of puzzle also tends to be pretty hard, as you have to solve a fair number of the clues before you can start figuring out how the answers fit together in the grid.

This one is made even trickier because words can go beyond the right and bottom edges of the grid and continue at the left and top (always in the same row or column), which makes the grid topologically equivalent to a torus (doughnut shape).

Around 1:00 in the morning I was thinking that I really should get to bed and continue it in the morning, when I found a way to interlock four entries in such a way that, if they were right, a particular as-yet-unsolved entry would have to include a particular two-letter combination. I looked at the clue and was able to solve it now with the help of the two letters. Now I had five entries interlocking, and with a little more experimenting I got it up to eight. Knowing I had broken into the grid at last, I stayed up to keep chipping away at it and finally finished the grid about 2:00 am. A very satisfying challenge.

Koopman at Davies

15 February 2011

Dave and I spent the whole day together on Saturday, a rare and sweet occurrence for us, given our incompatible work schedules. First was lunch with a few friends at the Bagdad Cafe. Then to the Old Mint to spend an hour or so at the San Francisco History Expo, then to the Concourse for the Antiquarian Book Fair. We didn’t end up buying anything — we saw a few things that would be wonderful to have, but they were all out of our budget. Some, of course, more out of our budget than others. I would have loved to come home with a first edition of an important book by Jean-François Champollion, the man who worked out the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics in the 1820s using the Rosetta Stone and a hero of mine since childhood, but at $22,000 that was obviously just not going to happen. On the other hand, I was very tempted for a while by a copy of Gordon Craig’s biography of Henry Irving, numbered and signed by Craig and with an autograph letter by Irving (or so it was claimed; the handwriting was just about illegible, though if you looked carefully you could just figure out how to make “Irving” out of the signature) thrown into the package; it was probably a pretty good deal at $400, actually, but times are hard and money’s tight and that was more than twice what I had figured I could reasonably afford to spend if I came across something I really, really wanted and was willing to eat peanut butter sandwiches for lunch for two weeks in order to have it. So I put it back on the shelf, and we went home empty-handed.

Still, there’s a thrill at being able to see so many incredible old books. Going to the book fair is like visiting a museum of books. First editions of important scientific works by Newton and Pascal and Gödel, manuscript scores by Schumann and Stravinsky, signed copies of books by J. R. R. Tolkien and Willa Cather and John Steinbeck, autograph letters by Hart Crane and J. D. Salinger and Abraham Lincoln and Richard Wagner and on and on.

In the evening we went to a surprisingly tepid concert at Davies, Ton Koopman conducting. On the program were J. S. Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite, Haydn’s Second Cello Concerto, a C. P. E. Bach symphony in G, and Schubert’s Fifth Symphony. Other than the C. P. E. Bach, there wasn’t much fire in any of it; Koopman’s tempi and dynamics were very restrained and moderate throughout, without much variety. Everything was beautifully played, even sumptuously so, but without ever creating much feeling of structure or forward movement.


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