“Cruciverbalism”

10:53 pm and I just finished today’s Listener puzzle, “Cruciverbalism” by Poat. It looks incredibly tough at first, and I was wondering whether I’d be finishing this one by Monday at all. The puzzle is another diagramless sort, and I had to solve about half the clues cold, without any help from crossings, before I was able to start to fit even a few of the answers together; but the puzzle became quite a bit easier once I’d gotten the first few words into the grid, and then when I saw what the omitted letters were going to spell, the rest fell together pretty easily.

Vänskä conducting A London Symphony

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?

“Ups and Downs”

I just finished today’s Listener puzzle, “Ups and Downs”, at about 6:00 pm after less than two hours’ solving time — just part of my lunch break and the first half hour of my commute home. Very satisfying puzzle, too, even if it turned out to be a relatively easy one. The references in most of the clues to either music, especially Handel works, or the Bible are a sweet touch (and of course a teaser to the nature of the theme), and I found gradually piecing together the theme of the puzzle to be a lot of fun.

The Rite of Spring and “Carte Blanche en Tore”

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.