White Election

Okay, maybe that was a little too snarky. But I think Gordon Getty’s song cycle White Election would be a sharper and more effective piece if it were half the length. There didn’t seem to me to be enough going on in either the words or the music to justify a song cycle that’s long enough to include an intermission. I have to admit that I’m not much of a lover of Dickinson’s poetry, though. After a while it sounds to me like they all begin, “How sweet to never live your life!”

Lisa Delan sang very beautifully but with so-so diction and without finding a way to make the 32 songs into some kind of progression; they came across as a long string of pleasant but mostly rather similar songs. Mikhail Pletnev was at the piano, and it was fun to see him in action relatively close up.

I Crept into a Yellow Church

I crept into a yellow church
And folded there my wings
And heard, as blossom hears the day,
A cycle spun from songs.

The poems were by Dickinson
And one by one they came
Till two and thirty stood in line,
Their meters all the same,

Until the sound of anapest
And dactyl seemed as far
As ancient lute or mandolin
Played on a distant shore.

Mere two and thirty daffodils
Could never be enough.
With verses, though, by Dickinson,
They might have stopped at five.

The Russian National Orchestra at Zellerbach

Dave and I went to hear Mikhail Pletnev conducting the Russian National Orchestra at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley Friday night. The program began with a short cycle of three songs composed by Pletnev himself, based on Yeats poems. The music seemed rather ordinary to me, no surprises in how the words were set, and the poems by Yeats are not particularly exciting subjects to begin with, but the orchestration was clear and full of vivid colors. The soprano, Lisa Delan, was very good. The best of the three was the last, a setting of the poem “When You Are Old”.

Next was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, with a young violinist named Stefan Jackiw as soloist. Jackiw has plenty of technique and it was a very showy performance, lots of dazzle but not much heart. However, he looks very young, so one can hope he’ll grow into it. The second half of the program was Shostokovich’s Ninth Symphony, a piece I don’t think I’d ever heard before. Even without knowing anything about the musical codes that I gather are said to be planted in the melodies, it wasn’t hard to figure out why Stalin thought Shostokovich was flipping him the bird.

Pletnev’s conducting throughout was extremely low-key, often barely keeping time, yet the orchestra was always very crisp and polished in their playing. The encores were two more pieces by Pletnev, very jazzy and a lot of fun; once again the orchestration was startlingly bright and colorful, while the melodies and harmonies seemed much less inventive.

“Printer’s Devilry”

I put the last letters into yesterday’s Listener puzzle around 12:30 am this morning and then fell asleep. It’s called “Printer’s Devilry” and it actually felt to me like it was too complicated, that there was too much going on — and I’m not one to say that lightly when it comes to a puzzle. There are three kinds of clues: some contain one misprinted letter (you have to find out which one is misprinted and what it should be); in other clues, a letter has to be dropped from the answer wherever it appears before you put it in the grid (in other words, REFERENCE might be entered as REERENCE or EFEENCE or RFRNC and so on, depending on which letter you had to drop); in still others, the answer had to be encoded before being entered. Individually these are all interesting twists to put into a puzzle, but the combination was less fun to solve than I thought it was going to be. And in spite of several very enjoyable discoveries along the way: Finally figuring out the two-word phrase that the puzzle is organized around was a pleasant surprise, and the final grid turns out to be more orderly that it first appears — really a remarkable piece of construction, in fact.

I was mostly frustrated by the misprinted clues. I’ve most often seen this gimmick used in cryptic crosswords where the instructions said that the misprint was always in the definition part of the clue, and it has seemed to me that this is the most satisfying way to use it. (Thus the definition part of the clue might be, oh, “word from a quilter”, and the answer might turn out to be UNCLE and you’d have to figure out from the rest of the clue that “quilter” should be “quitter”.) In this puzzle, though, the misprinted word could be anywhere in the clue. In one case it was the anagram indicator that was misprinted, and I could think of at least three possible words that the “correct” (that is, before the misprint) word could have been. In another case it was in a two-letter word and there are two clearly valid possibilities for the correct word. Since you’re supposed to be keeping track of the changed letters and using them to spell out a message, it turns out that the only way you can actually figure out what the correct words are supposed to be is to guess the message without the help of those clues and then back-solve from the answer. This seems inelegant to me.

There were also cases where the “correct” wording of the clue seemed awfully tenuous and contrived to me. Probably because of the restrictions imposed by that very message spelled out by the changed letters. Both the original and the changed letters were involved, which may have been too much of a constraint for the constructor. It’s one thing to come up with an interesting clue for UNCLE using the misprint gimmick; quite another when because of all the other constraints you’ve worked into the puzzle, the clue must involve specifically, say, the letter N being misprinted as an I. Going to be tricky enough to find any valid clue at all under those circumstances, let alone a really satisfying one.

The rest of the puzzle, though, was mostly sharp and fun to solve. Learned a couple of bizarre new words, too.

Unusual Sight

A great egret wading up in the creek in Twin Pines Park in Belmont, poking its beak into the grass here and there at the water’s edge as it strolls. Must be stopping for a cool break on its way to somewhere else.

“Quartet” Finished

After a lot of slow chipping away at the blank grid, I finished the Listener puzzle tonight. I broke into the puzzle at last when I got four answers from Set 3, which was just enough answers to enable me to hypothesize that, unless there’d been a fluke and the answers were all across or all down, there was only one way to fit them into a quadrant with valid crossings. That hypothesis turned out to be the right one, and from there I was able to complete the quadrant. I finished the rest of the puzzle one quadrant at a time, too, and put the last letter into the grid just as the house lights were going down a few minutes after eight for the evening of ten-minute plays Dave and I were in the audience for.

Speaking of which, we were pleased to find that our friend Martha had written what was easily the best-crafted playlet of the evening, one of the two best in both Dave’s and my opinion. And fortunately not the one containing the line that really set my editorial teeth on edge. No, no, no, the name Zoë does not have an umlaut, it has a diaeresis. A certain naïve writer may want to coöperate in some preëmptive reëducation.