Tommy Ingram's Eclectic Variety Show

How these curiosities would be quite forgot, did not such idle fellows as I am put them down.

Still alive

How time flies. It’s been nearly a month since the last time I posted anything up here, and longer since I’ve put up anything worth reading. Music-wise, I’m not really in a place where I have time for a lot of writing I’m not getting paid for. There are ideas bubbling in my head for articles and projects, but they’ll have to wait until the end of April.

In the meantime, I’m slowly working my way through Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II, a game that is fantastically difficult to find. I’ve been looking for it for years, but I’ve never seen it anywhere but online stores and only at exorbitant prices. A while ago my brother bought it and we’re playing through it co-op. A full review might be forthcoming some time in the next few weeks, but for now let’s just say that, while it’s a lot harder to take seriously than the first game, it has many of the same attractions. It’s good fun, if you can get ahold of it.

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Oscar retrospective

So, I called it in seven out of nine (or 6.5, if you want to get technical) categories in which I made predictions. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the two I missed were Best Picture and Best Animated Feature. I liked Argo but I didn’t seriously think it would win—the Academy is not subtle and the most obvious choice is usually the right one.

As for Brave, it’s a pretty lazy choice that solidifies Best Animated Feature as the Annual Pixar Award. The movie did not make a big splash—its box office was respectable but not outstanding and no one was talking about it a week after it came out. Paranorman had outstanding voice acting, a solid script, and a new method of animation that was very well executed.

This year’s Oscars

Tonight everyone except me will be watching the Academy Awards broadcast. I would, but I am rehearsing Rhapsody in Blue and Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques from 8:30 to 10:15. Counting transit to and from the hall, this more than covers the time of the broadcast. I’ll get the results online when I get home—if I’m not finding out at the same time as everyone else, there’s no point sitting through the tedious ceremony.

Here are a couple predictions, based on very little information. (I always predict awards ceremonies and elections based on vague impressions, and I never do worse than anybody else).

Best Picture: Lincoln is still the obvious choice to me. Les Miserables would seem at a glance like a strong contender, but it doesn’t seem to have gained much traction. Several critics are now changing their predictions to Argo, but I’d be surprised if it actually won.

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis.

Best Actress: No strong front-runner, as far as I can tell.

Best Supporting Actor: A weird category this year. It could go to any of them.

Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway.

Best Director: Spielberg or Ang Lee. Not sure which.

Original Screenplay: Tarantino, but I’m not confident in this guess.

Adapted Screenplay: Argo.

Animated Feature: If it’s not Paranorman, it would be disgraceful.

Original Score: Hard to call, because it’s similar to the Supporting Actor category. Lots of regulars in here, so it almost doesn’t matter who they award it to.

Original Song: I’m still thinking Adele for “Skyfall”, but maybe the song from Les Miserables will win (it’s got everything going for it, Oscar-wise, except for the fact that it’s completely unmemorable).

As for Gershwin and Messiaen, the concert is next week. Also on the program is Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds. If you live in Winnipeg, you may never get another chance to hear the Stravinsky or Messiaen. 7:30 at Eva Clare Hall, free admission.

What’s the use of that?: an apology on a musical career

I am strongly of the opinion that nothing but superlative excellence in art can excuse a man or woman for being an artist at all. It is not a light thing in a world of drudgery for any citizen to say, “I am not going to do what you others must: I am going to do what I like.” I think we are entitled to reply, “Then we shall expect you to do it devilish well, my friend, if we are not to treat you as a rogue and a vagabond.”

—George Bernard Shaw, The Nation, 22 June 1918

He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

—Deuteronomy 8:3

Those of us who attempt to enter artistic fields professionally will sooner or later be forced to defend our choice. At an age where all questions about careers and goals sound like power plays or veiled criticism, we are asked to justify ourselves to Philistine relatives and authorities far more often than our colleagues in the sciences, in skilled trades, or in business. Tactically, the best response is to deflect and change the subject. But no matter how deftly we avoid answering the question “What’s the use of that?”, it hangs in the air, ringing in our ears, forcing us to do soul-searching that no one else is ever made to do.

We will leave aside questions of the practicality of entering, e.g., the music business. One certainly hopes that all music students have some kind of plan as to how they intend to make a living. But so much depends on individual cases—where you live, how competitive things are there, how good you are, etc.—that no really general answer to these objections is possible. I propose to answer the objection that is always implied but rarely given voice, namely: just who do you think you are, spending your life on something useless in this world of drudgery? Read the rest of this entry »

Mozart and Prokofiev

Yesterday’s concert was billed as a Valentine’s Day extravaganza because of the presence of extracts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet on the program. The real main attraction, though, was Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Major, K.503, one of the finest pieces of music ever written. The soloist, Angela Cheng, played with delicacy and ease. One might object to the character, which was floating and detached the whole way through—this was pure Apollonian Mozart, and I think there are at least a couple points where emotional release is warranted. But it was a satisfying performance overall.

The Prokofiev, which consisted of selections from all the R&J suites arranged to roughly follow the story of the play, hits that sweet spot period in musical history where orchestras were big and harmonies rich but the perverse tendencies of classical composers hadn’t yet completely taken over. The WSO was fortified with several extra musicians, including an oboe, a clarinet, a flute, two percussionists, two extra violinists, two keyboardists, a contrabassoon, and a tenor saxophone. This last was a very nice touch. The sound of saxophone and orchestra is really quite beautiful, and it’s a shame that so few composers have taken advantage of it.

The music draws on a broad expressive palette and was sensitively played all around. In particular the percussion was very good. This year has been a bit rocky, perhaps, but this concert is redemptive. Definitely one of the top two of the year.

Thoughts on adaptations

My review of The Hobbit focused almost entirely on how the movie relates to the book. I thought this was odd as I wrote it—I wanted to mention more specific information about the acting, the visuals, the music, but I couldn’t find a way to work it in and it didn’t seem all that important, compared to the overriding question of how well the transition to the screen was carried off. We know that The Hobbit is a good yarn, we know that Peter Jackson won’t make a movie that’s not at least watchable, we know Ian McKellen can act and Howard Shore can bang out a tune. These are not interesting questions to ask. On the other hand, “Did Peter Jackson fundamentally misconceive The Hobbit?” is.

We’re dealing here with a matter of minor controversy in the genre fiction community. On the one hand are the people who want to be told a story, preferably with guns and aliens and simplistic morality, and don’t care all that much about the way it is told. Such people are the reason that, e.g., Stephen R. Donaldson has a career as a writer. TV Tropes is important to them. Adapting a book to film is, to them, paying it a great compliment, and the result will always be judged based on how well it adheres to the source material.

On the other hand are the more educated and intelligent (but sometimes too clever by half) people, the ones who are able to join in on beatdowns of this guy while simultaneously holding this guy in contempt. They will point out that there is more to a novel than the sequence of events it narrates, that not everything will adapt well to the screen, that perhaps the adaptation should try to be good in its own right, in film terms, instead of slavishly following the book. They have, in general, a nicer and more sophisticated way of looking at the world, and if they read it they’d probably object to my Hobbit review. I think they’d be wrong. Read the rest of this entry »

Argo

Finally got round to seeing Argo. It’s basically everything it’s been made out to be—a fine take on a historical watershed, very interesting and educational with some good acting and snappy lines, but nothing life-changing. The 70s aesthetic is hilariously spot-on, Arkin and Goodman are as entertaining as ever, and Ben Affleck is remarkably not annoying. Tension runs high, but in a subdued way, in facial expressions and little glances. It never gets graphic, but some scenes implying tortures and executions are quite visceral. Alexandre Desplat’s music is very nice.

Oscar chances: set against Lincoln and Les Mis, not good. Alan Arkin for Supporting Actor is not completely ridiculous, but although his moments were excellent, he was so busy supporting that he was hardly even in the movie. Adapted Screenplay seems pretty likely (assuming Lincoln doesn’t pick it up in some big sweep). Original Score is actually pretty likely, because Desplat has been passed over several times—I don’t know that I’d give it to him over Thomas Newman, but we’ll see what happens.

The weekend’s entertainments

Quartet came out in Canada on Friday. It’s an hors d’oeuvre, but a good one. Billy Connolly is a great dirty old man, the music is very nice, and there’s a shout out to, of all things, Lovreglio’s Traviata fantasy for the clarinet.

The WSO concert was Ligeti, Prokofiev, and Dvorak, and it was a little more mixed. Ligeti’s “Concert romanesc” is a stunning little work by a composer I had underestimated. Unfortunately, Saturday night’s rendition of it was marred by some pretty awful balance issues and insipid tone from the cellos and bassoons. This carried over into Prokofiev (the third piano concerto). The soloist, Nobuyuki Tsujii, is a little too tentative and clean. The piano was actually inaudible at points, sometimes fairly crucial points. And he was too nice. The third piano concerto, especially in the first movement, is meant to be sloppy and vulgar. It’s witty, but foul-mouthed. Wrong notes are acceptable, even encouraged.

The Dvorak (seventh symphony) was much better—it’s pretty clear where all the rehearsal time went. So far this year, the meaty symphonic music has come off well, but the equally important crowd-pleasing character pieces have fallen a little flat.

I’m no expert on disability studies, but I strongly suspect there is something undignified in the way Tsujii was put on display. Like a freak show—“look everybody, blind people are people too! Some of them even play the piano!” The fact that he is blind seemed to overshadow the fact that he’s a fine, well-trained musician playing a great piece of music. The pre-concert talk was all about the challenges of blind pianism, and hardly mentioned Prokofiev. The standing ovation was for his heartstring-tugging story, not because his performance was astounding (it wasn’t).

More standing ovation-related hypocrisy: I confess I didn’t have the strength to stay seated during the whole ovation. In my defense, I defied the crowd at the end of the Dvorak, which didn’t bring many people to their feet because no one had to overcome anything in order to perform it. But the Dvorak was better.

The Oscars

The list this year includes a boatload of movies I meant to see but never got round to. At this point it looks unlikely I’ll see any of them before the Oscar ceremony, because I’m looking at an insane concert schedule through February and late January.

So, what can I say that hasn’t already been said elsewhere? The Animated Feature slate seems unusually strong this year—i.e., they actually found five films worth nominating, and they’re all good enough that they could plausibly win. I’d like to see it go to ParaNorman, for being the most interesting, original movie on the list and for the effort put into the animation. I also wonder if Pixar isn’t losing their touch. Brave was an underwhelming idea with (I’m told) underwhelming execution, and it follows up on the bankrupt Cars 2. Coming up, they have two sequels and a couple movies that don’t look very interesting.

For Original Score, we’ve got two previous winners (Marianelli, Williams) one new guy (Danna), and two frequently snubbed composers (Desplat and Newman). I’d give it to Newman for Skyfall—I’m sure the score for Lincoln is great, but John Williams has plenty of Oscars already. For Original Song, I would again give it to Skyfall.

Other than that, I have nothing to say. Here’s a Bruckner symphony for you:

Review: The Hobbit, part 1

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation has always struck me as one of the most smooth transitions from the page to the screen. He captures the essential spirit of the books but is ruthless about anything unimportant, difficult to dramatize, or stupid in them. I’ve not seen Return of the King, but the first two, at least, can satisfy even the most exacting Tolkienians while still entertaining a general audience.

The Hobbit, on the other hand, has looked more like a potential disaster the more we’ve heard about it. First Guillermo del Toro was set to direct, an exciting move that would give the project some much-needed independence from the main franchise while still keeping it under the auspices of Peter Jackson. That didn’t work out. Shortly after that, we heard the news that what was planned as a single film would have to be split up into three instalments, which strongly implied that they’d got The Hobbit all wrong.

Now filming has finished, as I understand it, and the first instalment has hit theatres. At the very least the movie is not terrible, but it has its problems and Tolkienians may be a little hesitant to give it the gesture of benediction. Read the rest of this entry »