Monthly Archives: August 2015

Mahler? I don’t even know ‘er – Yuja Wang at the SFSO

Last things first: Overlooking a couple of minor horn flubs and a reserved third movement, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony took Mahler’s First over the fence last Saturday night at Davies Symphony Hall. It was a great showcase for the orchestra’s woodwinds and brass who played their lungs out in preparation for an impending tour of European capitals.

In 2009, Yuja Wang made me appreciate Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto in a rip-roaring performance with Chuck D. and the LA Phil at Disney Hall. I never understood the fuss over this piece until that evening. So, I jumped at the chance to hear her play the Bartók Second especially when paired with the Mahler. Unfortunately, lightning didn’t strike twice. No fault to Wang, who was up to her usual brilliant self. The piece that can push her technique hasn’t been written yet. She did play with the score and managed to turn her own pages while dispatching every bit of pyrotechnic contained in it. There is no doubt that this is one of the most fearsome works in the repertoire but damned if I can find any reason for its popularity besides the chance to watch pianists scale its crags. The SFSO swamped her and the unaccompanied stretches were bravura for its own sake. Billed in the late Michael Steinberg’s program notes as a sonata, it came off as a long, uninteresting, exhausting toccata.  Apart from a couple of pedagogical works for students I’ve picked out on the keyboard, the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta is about the only piece of Bartók’s I’ve been able to enjoy.  Then again that was thanks to Rattle and the Berlin Phil early in Disney Hall’s life. Wang was my last hope of being shown that Bartók’s music is better than it sounds. Time to agree with Steve Martin, put him in the pile of the overblown, and move on.

Davies was built when I was in high school in the Bay Area 137 years ago and this was my first time in it. It’s a nice building and a pleasant auditorium with plenty of leg room. The SFSO has done a remarkable job of reaching young people. Lots of twenty- and thirty-somethings in the seats, most likely from the resurgent dot-com economy adjacent.  Lots of my Subcontinento-American brethren and sisteren as well, something which I seldom see in the southland. We were all effusive in our appreciation of Wang but she declined to do an encore after three curtain calls. So it goes and so they go to London, Edinburgh, Lucerne, and elsewhere.

The Month-of-Sundays Workbench

I ordered the ash for this workbench nearly five years ago and squared up enough of it to make a top. Then a series of curveballs beginning with the illness and passing of my father kept me away from woodworking until last summer. I resumed taking Sunday classes at Cerritos College and had to relearn just about every power tool skill through the class’s Shaker End Table project. I wanted to finish the bench – a hybrid of designs from Chris Schwarz’s book  and Benchcrafted’s plans. It started life as a split-top with plans for leg and end vises and wound up as a solid top, leg vise only, using any and all means to make the parts fit. It finally came together last week enough to call it done.   Scientists and engineers should continuously remind themselves what it actually takes to go from lines on a page to hardware on the dock.

The woodworking program at Cerritos College is a treasure. The facility is packed with high quality, well-maintained jointers, table saws, planers, sanders, bandsaws, and routers with copious dust collection. Each of these has the accessories from push sticks and sleds to full in- and outfeed tables. Power tools are not as easy as they look and it helps to be able to focus on building the technique to surface lumber well enough to get to joinery. Which, by the way, is even trickier than it looks in the videos. The school also provides for the hand-tool enthusiasts with a large collection from Stanley to Lie-Nielsen and Veritas. If that weren’t enough, there are assembly tables, a finishing shed, sharpening stations, and clamps, clamps, clamps. There can be no such thing as too many clamps.  I won’t get into the CAD/CAM tools for the  students in the degree program but suffice it to say that there are many of them and they are impressive.

Ultimately, the teaching and camaraderie trumps everything. I’ve been taking classes through the Community Education program which permits hobbyists access without impacting those studying for a formal certificate. The instructors are first-rate and support everyone from the absolute novice to the veteran with whatever help may be required. This bench was frankly well beyond my abilities and I ignored the staff’s recommendations to build back up to it through a couple of intermediate projects.  But, having gotten it going, it had to get done. Schlepping large boards, larger assemblies, and making huge joinery is not a one-man job and I had tremendous help from teachers and fellow students alike.  In the end, it took about thirty Sundays to recover from an almost endless series of mistakes, get it together, and get it home. Now, the task is to step back and re-learn for the first time how to use hand tools. My garage can’t accommodate all the powered hardware nor would the neighbors be pleased if I tried!

My sincere thanks go to the gents below for their guidance and help and below them is a selection of snaps of the bench, itself.

Team Roubo

From left to right: Instructors Adrian Miranda, Tony Gutierrez, and Robert Thornbury and students Mike Matsunaga and James Farrell

Roubo-inspired workbench.  88″ long x 26″ wide x 33″ high.  Ash supplied by  Horizon Wood Products of Pennsylvania

The craft so long to learn – Paul Sellers on woodworking

The online resources for wannabe woodworkers are so good and so vast, it is possible to get lost in them and never actually cut any wood. On one side there is the Vulcan brilliance of Matthias Wandel whose ingenious machines make even more ingenious products. On the other, there is Paul Sellers, an Englishman whose patient explanations of hand tools and their uses are no less mesmerizing.

Sellers’s videos are unusually long and detailed with some projects spanning multiple videos. The videos are in turn an extension of a school he runs in the Merrie Olde after having lived, worked, and taught in the U.S. for many years. He takes little for granted, shows the intermediate steps, tweaks tool and wood to bring out subtle knowledge and pitfalls, and works through the inevitable glitches as and when they happen. No strategic edits for him. With fifty years in the craft, he knows how to keep things moving. As many commenters have noted, he is to woodworking as Bob Ross was to painting – no mistakes, only happy accidents, and a voice that lowers blood pressure better than medication.

Some playlists from the master: