Heart

Just finished this Friday’s Listener puzzle, “Heart”. Whew. It’s essentially a diagramless crossword, with some additional quirks that have to be discovered. The clues are given in the correct order but with no other information, not even where the across clues end and the down clues begin. We’re told that the grid has 180-degree symmetry, though, which turned out to be very helpful.

At first the thing looked just about impossible, and by Friday night I had solved only 12 of the 42 clues and had put nothing into the grid. I didn’t get much puzzle time in on Saturday, but this morning I figured out where the break was between the acrosses and downs, which helped me make it to maybe 17 or 18 answers. At that point I found four answers that could plausibly interlock, and solving got much easier after that. There are some further instructions to apply to the filled-in grid in order to get the final grid, but they didn’t take me long — the difficulty in this puzzle was all at the beginning.

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Dukas, Dorman, and Prokofiev

Really terrific concert last night at Davies, David Robertson conducting Dukas’s The Sorceror’s Apprentice and Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto and First Symphony, the Classical, along with the first public performance ever of a new piece, Uriah: The Man the King Wanted Dead, by a young Israeli composer named Avner Dorman. Tickets had been discounted so I went online the night before and bought the pair of seats in the very center of the very last row of the last balcony, Dave’s favorite place to sit. (In most concert halls, Davies included, the sound is best in the back of the last balcony.)

Dave and I had just heard MTT conduct The Sorceror’s Apprentice maybe six months ago, but it’s always a treat to hear it — there’s always a difference between hearing a piece on a recording and hearing it live, but with Sorceror it seems almost like hearing a different piece that happens to use the same melodies. And it was interesting to hear it played by the same orchestra but under a different conductor with a different take on the piece. Both were delightful in different ways; it was brighter and brisker and more of a showpiece under MTT, and there was more irony and earthy humor under Robertson. At times Robertson’s tempi seemed plodding compared to what I’m used to hearing, but the very choice of a plodding tempo in those places was itself a wonderful bit of scene painting and made me chuckle more than once.

I don’t really know the violin concerto, but Dave tells me it’s usually performed as a fiery, virtuoso showpiece (which I expect is exactly how Prokofiev intended it). Under Robertson, though, it sounded light as chamber music or a baroque concerto. Leonidas Kavakos was the soloist, and his playing was terrific, graceful and understated, never calling attention to his technique or the difficulty of the music. The whole thing was irresistible. Dave’s heard the piece many times and he told me during the intermission that he’d never heard it played that way, and that he liked Robertson because he always seemed to have a fresh take on even a familiar piece and could make you think about it in a new way. (Little did we realize there was one more such, and a jaw-dropper at that, to come.)

After the intermission came Uriah, a tone poem in five sections. I’m not musical enough to venture much of an opinion after a single listening, but I liked it and would like to hear it again sometime. The first movement is powerful and fierce, representing (according to the composer’s short talk before the piece, assuming I’m remembering it correctly) God’s anger at King David, who arranged for Uriah to be abandoned by his own men in battle so that David could marry Uriah’s beautiful wife; the second movement is slower and somewhat melancholy, representing Uriah’s thoughts and feelings on the morning of the coming battle; the third is a “presto barbaro” representing the battle and ending with Uriah’s death; the fourth is gentle and lyrical and represents the angels whom the composer hopes attended Uriah and guided him into heaven (2 Samuel is silent on this point, however); the final movement is a short epilogue repeating themes from the first movement.

Last was the Classical Symphony, which is usually played as a relentless snarkfest of mockery, and which I usually find pretty tiresome — a very clever music student’s prank, sure, and lots of fun the first two or three times I heard it, but since then I have felt like, OK, I get the point already and now I’d rather hear something else — like maybe one of the symphonies by Haydn or Mozart that Prokofiev was parodying, which stand up to repeated listening many times better than the Classical, but which nevertheless get programmed far, far less often. (I am a great lover of Prokofiev’s music, by the way, including all his other symphonies. It’s just his first one I don’t like all that much. But that’s the one that gets performed over and over and over again.)

Well, Robertson played the Classical as though it were one of those symphonies by Haydn or Mozart — the texture was light and transparent, the tempi were lively without being frenetic, the wit didn’t sound sneering, the lyrical sections were allowed to be sincerely and unsnarkily lyrical, and I heard all kinds of subtleties in the music I’d never heard before. Wow. It was wonderful and astonishing and ear-opening and probably the complete opposite of what Prokofiev meant it to sound like. I said to Dave afterward that I thought we’d just heard the first performance of the Classical Symphony ever to be informed by period performance style.

Cross-Country

I just now finally finished last weekend’s Listener puzzle — “Cross-Country”, by MynoT — over lunch, with some help from Dave via text messages. I’d finished the grid on Monday morning, but there’s one last step: Solving all the clues gives a final instruction that has to be followed, and you can’t follow the instruction until you know what the theme of the puzzle is, and the only information given about the theme is that it’s a two-word, 21-letter phrase.

I spent all sorts of time trying to find a phrase of the right length running or snaking through the completed grid in some way, with no success. Today over lunch, though, I noticed something curious about the grid of letters that didn’t have any meaning that I could see but that seemed way too unlikely to have occurred by chance. I texted Dave about it, asking if he could see any significance in it. He couldn’t, but he made a suggestion that started me thinking in an opposite direction, and a minute or two later I’d figured out the theme and how to carry out the instruction. Whew! Talk about tough, though — there’s really very little in the puzzle to point you in the right direction, and even having spotted what I’d spotted, I wonder if I’d ever have gotten from there to the answer without Dave’s idea.

It may be too late now for my entry to get to England by next Friday anyway, but at least the puzzle is solved.

Mass Production

Generally with a Listener crossword, you solve clues and put the answers into the grid, and gradually figure out what the theme of the puzzle is, sometimes not figuring it out until the very end when it suddenly flashes on you with a great aha! moment what the heck is going on here and what you have to do to get the final pieces of the puzzle to fall into place.

With this weekend’s puzzle, though — Mass Production by Hedge-Sparrow — I think it has to be the other way ’round. I cannot imagine how you could get much of the grid filled in until you’ve figured out what the theme is, so you pretty much have to tumble to it without any help from the grid. There are just too damn many uncertainties until you know what the thematic words and phrases running through the grid are going to be, and then those help you fix the location of the letters of the regular words.

If you take the right approach, you could probably tumble to the theme quickly. I didn’t take the right approach, though, and it was a while before it even occurred to me to try to suss out the theme while the grid was still mostly empty. Once I did, though, I figured out all but one-half of the other thematic entries fairly quickly.

There was a nice little aha! moment for me near the end, though. I had only figured out what one-half of one of the thematic rings of letters was going to spell. It gave me a nice little aha! moment and a chuckle when I got close to finishing the grid and saw what the rest of that ring was going to be.