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Where are they now? – the personal edition December 27, 2008

Posted by Peter Hornby in chorale, personal, Uncategorized, worklife.
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The note in Tony’s Christmas card wondered what had happened.  This was a fair question, since verb. sap. has been completely silent since  late July (not that it was particularly prolific before then).  And since Tony is a substantial fraction of my readership, I feel impelled to bring things up to date.

What happened was that I got a job. 

I’d been looking around, with steadily increasing conviction, since March, and I’d actually interviewed at a couple of places.  Then, out of the blue, there came a suggestion from my ex-colleague and choir buddy Mike that I might consider talking to the company for which he, though ostensibly retired, was still putting in hours.  The company was Agilis Solutions, based in Portland, Oregon and run by an old friend of Mike’s who, like him, was an ex-Unisys VP.  I talked to a number of people at Agilis, liked what I heard, and, pretty much, that was it. I started in early August.

Agilis Solutions is a small software development house.  Typically, we work with software companies facing challenges in bringing their products to market quickly and cost-effectively.  We use a blended model which combines onshore technical leadership and project management with a strong group of smart, experienced offshore developers to allow projects to be completed more quickly, more cheaply and more effectively than would otherwise be possible.

So that’s the boilerplate out of the way. 

From a personal perspective, it’s going really well.  I mostly work from home, although more on that later.  The project I’ve been working on is also Oregon-based, as is my project manager, so I spend a lot of time on Skype with Oregon and Ha Noi, Vietnam, which is where our group of developers is located.  Lorraine and I share an office at home, which works remarkably well, even though it’s an understatement to say that it’s sometimes a tight fit.  The people at Agilis Solutions are wonderful – supportive, outgoing and friendly.  There are less then twenty of us, and it’s such a refreshing change to work in an organisation where you know everyone,  your boss runs the company and what you do actually makes a difference.

I spent a couple of weeks in Springfield, Missouri in September, working with the technical lead for the customer. In October we decided we had to make things move a little more quickly.  The initial plan was for me and the customer lead to spend two months in Ha Noi, working directly with the development team.  Lorraine, the intrepid traveller and selectively occasional corporate wife, thought that this was a splendid idea, and started buying guidebooks while I was trying to organise visas.  So, of course, it didn’t happen.  The team decided that they liked the  let’s-get-everyone-together plan, but the location was moved to Oregon.  So I spent nine weeks in Portland living and breathing the customer’s application, finally returning home a couple of weeks ago.  The work was intense, in a way which I hadn’t really experienced since my days in fly-and-fix field support twenty years ago, but there was a good positive atmosphere around what we were doing, and there were always my new friends at the Riverwood Pub  to keep me sane, which they mostly did.

So there hasn’t been much room for anything else since August.  Lorraine  had a successful Sawdust Festival, her second, in July and August, but the Winter Fantasy festival in November and December was very subdued.  No-one seemed to be buying anything.  In a sense, though, the Festival is its own reward.  We both love being there, seeing artists who have become friends in the space of two festival seasons – people like Christopher Jeffries (with his wife Jitka and their new son Ry), Greg Thorne and Ray Caruso.  We’re both looking forward to next year.

There’s one final thing to record.  The choir I’ve been singing with for almost fifteen years, the Saddleback Master Chorale, had a fund-raiser this year, something which, for some reason, has to be called an Opportunity Drawing.  We sold just over 300 tickets at $25 each, and the prize drawing took place last weekend at the group’s holiday concert.  Imagine our astonishment when my name was pulled from the hat!  So, slightly shell-shocked, we’re now the proud owners of a four-night Junior Suite stay in any Fairmont hotel or resort in the US or Canada, plus round-trip airfare to get there and back.  This is not going to be easy.  Fairmont operates the Plaza in New York, the Empress in Victoria, BC, and – my nomination for the most beautiful place on the planet – Chateau Lake Louise in the Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.  However, the current edition of the plan calls for us to use the prize to spend some time in Montreal, Lorraine’s birthplace, staying at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth. It’s not clear when we’ll fit this trip in, but be sure that we will, and I’ll talk about it here, I promise.

So that’s the brief update.  Normal service will now resume.

(And, for readers with long memories, I’m still stuck on 1453!)


The words of Robert Frost April 15, 2008

Posted by Peter Hornby in chorale.
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One of the pieces we performed on Sunday was a piece with a quite remarkable, if depressing, history.  The story is told by the composer, Eric Whitacre, in the introduction to the score.  The song is called “Sleep”, and it’s a wonderfully evocative piece.  However, the piece we sang is a long way from the way it started, back in 1999.

The piece was originally a commission.  The lady wanted a setting of Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”, in memory of her parents, who had died within weeks of each other after fifty years of marriage, and whose favourite piece it was.

Whitacre took on the commission, and the piece was premiered in 2001, to great acclaim.  He started getting requests from conductors across the country.  And then, the shock.  Whitacre discovered that the Robert Frost Estate, through their lawyers, had closed the door to all settings of Frost’s work.  He had, perhaps naively, thought that the existence of Randall Thompson’s “Frostiana” was a sign that Frost’s poetry could be set to music and performed. And, again, perhaps naively, he hadn’t checked.  But no, until Frost’s poems enter the public domain, in 2038, Eric Whitacre’s setting of “Stopping By Woods” has to sit in a chest under his bed.

And then, an astonishing brainwave.  Whitacre himself commissioned his friend, the poet Charles Anthony Silvestri, to write a new poem to fit the already existing musical setting.  To quote Whitacre:

I was asking him to not only write a poem that had the exact structure of the Frost poem, but that it would even incorporate key words from “Stopping By Woods, like ‘sleep’. Tony wrote an absolutely exquisite poem, finding a completely different (but equally beautiful) message in the music I had already written.

And it was the Whitacre/Silvestri piece “Sleep” that we performed on Sunday.  It’s just a stunning work – for me, one of the major highlights of the program.

To finish with Whitacre again, expressing a sentiment that’s hard to disagree with:

..my only regret in all of this was that I was way too innocent in my assumption that lawyers and heirs would understand something as simple and delicate as the choral art.

A Tribute To Our Poets April 15, 2008

Posted by Peter Hornby in chorale.
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Last Sunday, my choir, the Saddleback Master Chorale, performed a concert with the title of “A Tribute to Our Poets”.  The program was an interesting collection of settings of poems, from John Rutter’s beautiful setting of Shakespeare’s “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind”, from “As You Like It”, to Randall Thompson’s lovely treatment of Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” and “The Road Not Taken”, from “Frostiana”.  There’s a story about another “Robert Frost” piece we – kind of – did, and I’ll get to that in the next post.

First, though, I wanted to describe an experience I had in the concert.  We’d decided to interleave the songs with some readings, and I volunteered to start the program with the opening lines of “Twelfth Night”. You know the speech – Duke Orsino and “If music be the food of love, play on…”.  Well, it’s only fifteen lines, so I decided to learn the speech and attempt to actually convey my sense of what was going on in Orsino’s head when he spoke it.  I spent a good deal of time committing the words to memory, and trying to get a sense of the intent of the speech.  I practiced and practiced in the privacy of my shower, and it started to sound pretty good, at least to my own ears.  I thought I was communicating what I saw as a kind of sardonic bitterness in the first few lines, followed by a dreamy reaction to the music (“O it came o’er my ear..”), followed by a reversion into his bitter depression with “O spirit of love…”.

So, what happpened when I got to the stage?  Well, the microphone didn’t help.  I didn’t want it, but was overruled by our Music Director.  That’s not the point, though.  The majority of my homework went out of the window as I just wanted to make sure that I remembered the words.  I don’t think I got across a quarter of what I meant to.

And the point of all this?  This was fifteen lines of poetry. FIFTEEN LINES!  I have always respected the actor’s craft, but never quite as much as I did after finishing my thirty second performance on Sunday, and realising just how much I had failed to get across to my audience.  The Shakespearean actor is a breed apart.


Christmas with the Saddleback Master Chorale December 20, 2007

Posted by Peter Hornby in chorale.
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For the last fourteen years, I’ve been singing with the Saddleback Master Chorale, a choir which traces its history back to a small group set up in 1963 to provide voal accompaniment to the Laguna Beach “Pageant of the Masters”. There’s a direct line from that choir to our own group – indeed, some of our members have been singing with the group for over thirty of those forty-some years.

I started in the group in early 1994 with a performance of the Bach Mass in B Minor. I hadn’t sung in a group since I left school in the early Seventies, and the emotional impact of that astounding work was overwhelming. Since then, we’ve sung a huge variety of music, from show tunes to opera choruses to the great works of the choral literature – Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Verdi. I love the discipline of learning music at weekly rehearsals with a group of fine singers, and the spine-tingling joy you sometimes get from a combination of a great piece of music and a performance which, in some unaccountable fashion, just works.

In somewhat less exalted vein, we finished our holiday concert season last night with a “Words and Music” performance at Irvine Heritage Park Library. We enjoyed ourselves, and the audience had a good time too, I think. The group, now about 25 singers, has come together well in the last year, both musically and socially, and most of us continued the party at a local bar after the show.

Next up for the group is an April concert entitled “A Tribute to Our Poets”. If you’ve heard Randall Thompson’s arrangements of Robert Frost’s poems – “Choose Something Like A Star” or “The Road Less Travelled” – you’ll know the kind of thing to expect.

That’s all very well, but I’ve always said that the Mass in B Minor is the one piece I’d crawl over broken glass to sing again, and there’s an opportunity coming up. Another local choir, the Concordia Master Chorale, is planning an April performance, and allegedly will welcome new singers who can demonstrate a reasonable degree of musical competence. So I’m planning to audition for them and I’m dusting off my score. It’ll be a busy musical spring, but I think I have a little time to spare…

Keeping the customer satisfied July 24, 2007

Posted by Peter Hornby in anchovy, chorale.
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The choral group I sing with, Saddleback Master Chorale, has, in recent years, been taking baby steps into the connected world.  We have a web site, which I occasionally remember to update (note to self: now would be A Good Time) and this year, we’ve started selling tickets online.  So, back in January, I was looking around for a company to work with in this space. A friend recommended Vendini, so I gave them a call, talked to Spencer Rosen, and we signed up.  Vendini does full-scale box-office solutions, but they seem to be happy with clients at the lower, less sophisticated end of the scale, which is where we sit.  In any case, we’ve run two concerts through them, and everything has worked just fine.

However, that’s not what I’m here for today.  Today is a case study of how to deal with a customer service problem.  Yesterday, I received an e-mail from Mark Tacchi, CEO of Vendini, apologising for an outage which impacted the service his company provides to its customers.  With Mark’s permission, I include the message below.

We had a network outage on Friday July 20, 2007 that affected several organizations.  I understand how important a role Vendini plays within your organization.  We’ve worked hard to build a system that you can trust will be available and responsive and I know that we’ve let you down.  I want to tell you that I am very sorry if this affected you.

Although we have taken much care in creating a redundant and fault tolerant system, the problem stemmed from three linked and cascading issues that made it difficult for our engineering team to quickly diagnose.  The first was our primary read/write database becoming unresponsive while replicating over to its slave servers and read only servers.  The second issue was an address conflict issue on the system’s private network which prevented certain servers from communicating with others.  The third issue was our primary firewall to the main application and database servers had reset its configuration.  This resulted in turning away requests to the system on that firewall for a period of time.

I was personally involved with the network engineering team at our data center in San Francisco to assist in coordinating a solution.  We had all hands on deck working to resolve the problem.

Going forward, we are taking several steps to make certain this does not happen again.  We intend to procure additional computer equipment, add additional staff, and tighten up our operations process.  We are committed to providing a world-class solution.

Please accept both my sincere gratitude for the trust you have placed in us, and my apology for this unanticipated service lapse. We take your business very seriously and your success is our success.

Please feel free to contact me should you wish to discuss further at…


Mark Tacchi
President & CEO
Vendini, Inc. – http://www.vendini.com

It’s hard to see how Mark, and Vendini, could have handled this situation any better.  Here is a CEO admitting to a problem, describing the nature of the problem, having hands-on involvement in the solution and talking about the steps they’ll take in remediation.  Mark also included his phone number and e-mail address. This is transparent, honest ownership of the issue, and, as a small customer, who wasn’t even affected by the outage, it makes me feel as though we made the right choice when we picked Vendini.

I don’t believe good customer service is rocket science, and, if we lived in a sensible commercial world, a message like Mark’s probably shouldn’t be worthy of comment.  Unfortunately, we don’t, and so it is.