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A Major good time: ‘The Trout’ at RHUMC

From l to r: Benjamin Lash (cello), So-Mang Jeagal (piano), Kaelan Decman (double bass), Justin Woo (violin), Kevin Hsu (viola)

Amateur musicians are justifiably in awe of their professional counterparts.  We struggle with rhythm, tempo, dynamics, intonation, and sight reading.  They’ve mastered all that and more at an  early age.   It is all maddening especially the sight reading part.  I’d do a deal with Mephisto in a heartbeat if I could do that without actually working for it.  But, on the positive side, we schmoes reap the benefits of the pro’s superior talent and diligence in concert.   The USC Thornton School sent five graduate students to Rolling Hills last Sunday for a rollicking ‘Trout Quintet’ to a packed and savvy house.  Fine ensemble playing by a group that assembled and converged for this event.   It was damned hard not to hum along, especially with the fourth movement.  Video/audio to be posted if made available.

Ashes to Ashes, Hirst to Hirst

Our last encounter — I remember it well.  Pavilion at Lord’s in ’39, against the West Indies.  Hutton and Compton batting superbly, Constantine bowling, war looming.
— Hirst to Spooner in ‘No Man’s Land’

Pinter, cricket fancier, named his “No Man’s Land” antagonists Hirst and Spooner after two well-known players.  The play nicely mirrors the game –  stretches of  groundwork and moments of  attack, usually ending in a draw.  At one time videos of the 1978 tv adaptation with Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud were available on the web [January 2018 Update: And are again – see below].   I downloaded a full version without knowing why.   The characters are unlikeable, their purposes unclear, and the author famously, contemptuously, refusing to answer any questions about his intentions and denying  meaning to any of it.   Like a lot of Pinter, it is hard to like yet it tends to stick.   I’ve seen three different stagings in person and this grainy recording from the videotape era is more vibrant and three-dimensional than any of them, even the overpraised Stewart/McKellen effort from 2013.   It works surprisingly well without the visuals.  I’ve taken the two Sirs on walks, cellphone in my pocket, headphones in my ear.  Their poetry made time and distance disappear for me as the Pinter does to their characters.

Here is a gem of a short film about the sport narrated by a younger Richardson.  The Pavilion at Lords features prominently as do Hutton and Compton, although not batting as superbly as in ’39.  England’s hope for the Ashes fell to ashes under the captaincy of  Australia’s legendary Donald Bradman.   A short clip from the tv production still on the web follows and then the author himself reading one of the most mournful and beautiful passages from it.

Channel: British Council

Channel: filmnoir2019

Channel: hildyjohnson

 

[Update 6 January 2018 – This full performance recently reappeared on the Johnny Cassettes channel]

Common Ancestor: ‘Miss Julia’ at Encuentro 2017

Miss Julia by Vueltas Bravas

Gina Jaimes and Jhon Alex Toro in ‘Miss Julia’. Photo by Federico Rios courtesy Vueltas Bravas Producciones

With ‘Dance of Death’ still running at the Odyssey, Encuentro de las Américas 2017 brings another Strindberg to Southern California.   Vueltas Bravas Producciones slices, dices, transposes, and dances the battles of wills and wiles in the foundational ‘Miss Julie’ as adapted by J. Ed Araiza.  Nineteenth century Sweden gives way to twenty first century Colombia where wealthy,  nutty, and bored-out-of-her-gourd Miss Julia (Tina Thurman*) forces herself on  servant Juan (Jhon Alex Toro).   The casual hookup has not percolated to this part of South America and there are emotional attachments and expectations a-plenty.  Julia sees Juan as a way out, he sees her as a way up, and his fiancée Cristina (Gina Jaimes) isn’t having any of it.

The audience surrounds the  narrow alley of a set (Andrew Thurman)  nicely conveying the claustrophobic society in which the hapless characters are embedded.   Thurman is outfitted as a  cross between Miss Havisham and a hapless ballerina.  Her Spanish, sounding more learned than native, adds a hint of North and South American political tension to the more obvious class and power struggle.  Jaimes’s Cristina is both earthy and mesmerizing as Juan’s social equal and moral superior.  She spends a good part of the show asleep or sleepwalking.  This is a shame as she commands the stage when on it and she and Toro have  palpable chemistry.

This is highly physical theatre with  movement, dance, and symbolic props all adding their dimensions while condensing the story.  A wheeled table serves pre-show rum and also serves as the cursed magic carpet taking these broken souls to their fates.  Julia is frenetic and angular in marked contrast to the sweeping and fluid Juan and Cristina.   All switch seamlessly between English and Spanish with dim supertitles available to the eagle-eyed monolingual.  Helen Yee (violin),  a fine but uncredited percussionist, and a Mac notebook add off-stage sonic color although the balance sometimes overpowered the small space.

Miss Julia by Vueltas Bravas

Tina Thurman and Jhon Alex Toro. Photo by Federico Rios courtesy Vueltas Bravas Producciones

If this all sounds oddly familiar it is because it is the kind of work that Tina Kronis and Richard Alger have been doing at Theatre Movement Bazaar for  twenty years.  Wheeled furniture and athleticism also feature prominently in La Razón Blindada soon to be up at this same festival.   ‘Miss Julie’ is said to be  about social Darwinism – the replacement of a weak, stagnant, older order by a vigorous, aspirational, newer one.  So, we may well ask if there’s a last common ancestor to this style of work.  Vueltas Bravas does not have much of a web presence but the Australian Thurman (here identified as  Mitchell) explains in a Youtube video their origins at a SITI Workshop in New York City some ten years prior.  ‘Miss Julia’ is making the rounds of the festival circuit having played at La MaMa and the Chicago International Latino Theatre Festival prior to its Los Angeles engagement.   Kronis and Alger are said to have some SITI influence to their work as well.  ‘Miss Julia’ is well-made, well-performed, and enjoyable but if the purpose of the festival is to bring new and distinct theatrical viewpoints (ha!) and styles to the forefront, it is jarring to hear Latino voices filtered first through a canonical text and then through a U.S. theatrical school of thought.

Nota bene:  Many of the Encuentro productions are performed without intermission. ‘Miss Julia’ is one of them and clocked in at about one hour.  Those interested in festival productions should consider seeing multiple productions in a day to take advantage of ticket packages as well as to minimize ticketing fees and the notoriously larcenous downtown parking lots.

*Credited as Tina Thurman in the program, Tina Mitchell elsewhere on the Web

Miss Julia
Vueltas Bravas Producciones
Directed by Lorenzo Montanini
Through 19 November at the Encuentro de las Américas Festival
Los Angeles Theatre Center
514 Spring Street
Los Angeles, CA
Six performances remaining through 19 November 2017
Tickets: $44 general,  $22 Seniors/students/veterans
See website for times and online ticketing

 

A different time you understand: Woodward on B12

Chemist Robert Burns Woodward – Courtesy Harvard Archives

Robert Burns Woodward (1917-1979) is as well known to chemists as his namesakes are to poets and journalists. His contributions to the synthesis of organic compounds cannot be overstated and a staggering number of now-famous professors passed through his labs at Harvard.

Chemistry was and is a huge field but the part that most people see is beakers, retorts, and churning solutions cooking up complex molecules. This is where Woodward became a legend at an early age. His unshared 1965 Nobel Prize was for “for his outstanding achievements in the art of organic synthesis” and not for any specific synthetic accomplishment. Interestingly, he felt that he deserved a share of the 1973 Nobel to Fischer and Wilkinson and would certainly have shared in the 1981 prize to Fukui and Hoffman, had he lived long enough.

My education was in physical chemistry, far removed from organic synthesis. I scarcely recall seeing any of faculty members from that area when I was in graduate school – the field is that fragmented. Unlike many others of my stripe, I enjoyed my undergraduate organic chemistry classes although I struggled in them. Legions of students have been told that the subject is to be endured, not enjoyed, and requires only memorization. This is utter claptrap. If taught well, and Berkeley did (at least back then), it is like learning a language; alphabet to words to grammar, sentences, literature, and interpretation. Those with an artistic bent also find a lot of fun in the complex three-dimensional structures that are represented out of necessity in two-dimensional drawings. You can’t speak this or any other language by memorizing a dictionary. Organic’s problem is that the material has to be presented and assimilated in such a short time.

Woodward’s generation of chemists didn’t have the modern arsenal of apparatus to determine the composition and structure of what they had made. In fact, they helped develop – or at least drive the need to develop – x-ray crystallography, magnetic resonance, optical and mass spectroscopy, and a variety of other methods closer to physics and physical chemistry. Deduction and inference played a starring role. E.J. Corey, only a few years younger than Woodward, later developed retrosynthetic analysis into a fine art leading to his own unshared Nobel in 1990. Corey looks at complex molecules as assemblies of successively smaller molecular fragments. Some of these might exist as stable compounds, others as hypothetical fragments that could be prepared with the right hooks for further use. Any molecule may be disconnected in several ways and the chemist has to use physical laws, experience, and intuition to decide which approach makes the most sense. Repeat recursively and it is usually possible to get to a relatively simple path from a desired product to commonly available starting materials – a common examination question and a standard tool in the modern chemist’s repertoire.

Some thirty two years after my undergraduate degree, I find myself using the retrosynthetic approach far from its original use. I try to look at problems as a nested collection of subproblems, going down the tree until they become relatively tractable. At the end of this, I have a plan that has traded off time, cost, and risk ending up with a list of materials, procedures, checks and crosschecks, time and personnel estimates, and a good idea of which step or steps pace the effort. In engineering, these map to schedules, risk analyses, bills of materials, assembly, test, and reporting plans, quality control, critical path analyses, and cost although in no particular order. People who do this are called System Engineers in my industry and many companies have claimed to have invented the concept.

Looking backward is how organic chemistry students are encouraged to approach problems if they want to succeed in their courses. The temptation is of course to apply it everywhere and that’s not quite so appropriate. It works if there’s a clear idea of what needs to be done. What sets Woodward, Corey, and their equivalents in other fields is knowing what to go after and what to set aside. That can be done many ways but it helps to be brilliant. If the computers can be taught to do that as they have been taught to do systematic decomposition, it’s over for us. A second temptation is to over-romanticize. These accomplishments in synthesis are usually the result of large research groups implementing a plan and doing the long, often tedious bench work which, when complete, is associated with the group leader’s name. This is where chemistry and high-energy physics intersect. This method of chemical training is imperfect and is periodically questioned when things go horribly wrong at the human level. The scientific and artistic merits of the work have to be assessed in that light.

There are not many films or recordings of Woodward and his equally legendary multi-hour lectures. He transcended his field and his institution, given leeway to do what he liked how he liked it. Dylan Stiles has unearthed a gem from the Harvard archives – a rare departmental seminar from 1972 where Woodward presents the 15-year collaborative effort between his group and Albert Eschenmoser’s lab resulting in the total synthesis of the large, unwieldy, and beautiful Vitamin B12. The introduction by Prof. David Dolphin is itself thirty minutes long with insights into the departmental culture of that time. The main event is a brutally clear and patrician exposition while the speaker chainsmokes in-between sips of his daiquiri. The grainy black-and-white visuals are charming but somewhat hard to read. Nathan Werner’s slides from a 2010 seminar are a very useful supplement.

Via the Youtube Channel of Dylan Stiles:

 

Take a Leap: Frasier Crane on the 29th of February

Twenty years ago, Dr. Frasier Crane urged his listeners, family, and friends to use February 29th as a “free day” to take chances.  It didn’t end well.  Here’s the famous clip of Crane trying to sing his “signature piece” for a PBS Pledge Drive.

Context and (over?)analysis at The Onion’s AV Club.

Frasier sings buttons and bows

Watch this video on YouTube.