Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Spell Of Bad Weather Is Over

Things have settled down now, weather-wise. Joshua and I are back home and, when we left my parents' house on Monday afternoon, their sidewalks and driveways were entirely free of any traces of snow or ice. (There were, however, giant piles of snow at the side and back of their house.)

My parents were happy to have us with them for two days during the adverse weather, from midday Saturday through midday Monday, and we were happy to see them and to take care of their snow removal for them.

A week from tomorrow, Josh and I head South--to Oklahoma, for a visit with his family and to attend the Big Twelve Conference Mens' Basketball Tournament, to be held this year in Oklahoma City. We are greatly looking forward to our trip. We will be with Josh's parents for six days, and it should be a wonderful visit. We have not seen Josh's parents and sister and brother since June of last year, and we are getting excited about seeing them again.

Josh's Dad has cleared his calendar for the entire six days of our stay, but his mother, a CPA, was unable to do so, immersed in the tax season, as she is. Still, we will see her in the evenings and, otherwise, as much as possible.

Neither Josh nor I have attended a major-conference end-of-season tournament before. Because Minnesota's basketball program has been on the skids for so many years, no one in my family has exhibited any interest in attending the Big Ten Tournament, and this has proven to be a wise policy, given how swiftly Minnesota exits the tournament every year. Josh has never attended the Big Twelve Tournament, as he was always in high school or college during the tournament weekend (and this year is the first year it has ever been staged in Oklahoma City, which is the only reason we have been invited by Josh's father).

Josh and I are also looking forward to this year's NCAA tournament very much. Ohio State and Wisconsin from the Big Ten should do well, and Texas and Kansas from the Big Twelve should be competitive. While Minnesota will not get one of the 64 spots, both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are likely to get into the NCAA field. We will have plenty of teams to root for.

Since Josh and I do not have a television, we shall have to spend some serious time during the tournament over at my parents' house!

My parents won't mind, and my Dad will enjoy having some company to watch the games with him.

Monday, February 26, 2007


On the Saturday afternoon we were in New York, Joshua and I walked over to the Metropolitan Opera to attend the matinee performance of Janacek's "Jenufa".

"Jenufa" is one of my favorite operas, and it was the first opera Joshua and I listened to together. When we were still in school, we would study together most afternoons, and often we would listen to music while we studied. "Jenufa" was one of the first pieces of music I played for Joshua.

"Jenufa" is an entirely atypical Janacek opera. Its musical score is nowhere near as fine as his later works, all of which are far superior. It is, however, a deeply affecting work, with a moving story and with moving characters, and the fact that it is so affecting accounts for its current status as the most popular of Janacek's works for the stage.

Between the ages of twenty and fifty, Janacek's primary activity was teaching, a field in which he excelled. His secondary activity, during those years, was collecting and editing and publishing Moravian folk music, an activity that won him acclaim in Central Europe. Composition was a tertiary activity for Janacek until he semi-retired from teaching in 1903, at which time he made composition his primary focus for the first time. This accounts for the fact that the score for "Jenufa" is very uneven in quality. The opera has a weak Act I, a powerful Act II, and an Act III that is unable to maintain its focus. However, none of the "Jenufa" music is "mature" Janacek and, in the final 25 years of his life, years devoted primarily to composition, Janacek was to develop, significantly, into an entirely different and better composer.

"Jenufa" was begun in the mid-1890's. Janacek quickly completed the music for Act I, and then set the score aside for several years. He resumed work on the opera during his only daughter's fatal illness (a lone son had died in infancy twenty years earlier), and the music for Act II of "Jenufa", the heart of the musical drama and the only inspired portion of the score, is a study in human pain and duress. Janacek's daughter often asked her father to play the score of "Jenufa" as she lay dying. According to Janacek's housekeeper at the time, the Act II music for the Kostelnicka is a self-portrait of the composer.

The story of the opera's composition and its long route onto the world's stages is almost as moving as the story of the opera itself. First given a provincial production in Brno, the opera had to wait twelve years before it was accepted at a major theater, in Prague. However, it was accepted by Prague on condition that the opera be revised and re-orchestrated by a third party, a condition to which Janacek assented.

Two years later, the opera was produced in Vienna, at the Hofoper, on orders from the new Emperor, Karl I, who was keen to keep the Austro-Hungarian Empire in one piece during the latter stages of World War I, when tension between ethnic groups was growing, and who believed that Czech and Hungarian works needed to be introduced into the court opera repertory in order to help guard against potential fragmentation of his empire.

So, one month before the March 1918 offensive--an offensive that almost succeeded in winning World War I on behalf of the Germans and Austrians--"Jenufa" was produced, for the first time outside Czech-speaking territory, in a very lavish production in Vienna. Janacek attended the Vienna performances, and he wrote that it was in Vienna that he saw and heard his opera staged, effectively, for the first time.

However, it required another six years for "Jenufa" to stake its claim in the permanent opera repertory. That occured after a 1924 Berlin production, conducted by Erich Kleiber, a production that caught the world's attention and has held it ever since.

Joshua and I enjoyed the Metropolitan Opera performance of "Jenufa" very much, even though it was not good. What we enjoyed was having the opportunity to hear this score live.

The Met physical production, imported from Hamburg, simply had to be ignored. At times, it looked like a bus-and-truck road company production of "Oklahoma" and, at other times, it looked like the Bemidji State Theater Department's first attempt at staging a Beckett play after fifty years of restricting itself to annual productions of "Arsenic And Old Lace". I have seldom, if ever, witnessed such an inept stage production of anything, opera, play or ballet.

The original stage director was Olivier Tambosis, a Frenchman educated in Vienna, and his direction of this production has been ridiculed everywhere, by everyone--even by its performers--and I am, frankly, surprised that the Metropolitan Opera even offered this production a second time. The Met should have done what Covent Garden did with this production: wash its hands of it after one go-around.

But Josh and I knew the history of this production going in, and we ruthlessly ignored the physical production to the extent that we could.

The musical performance, however, was also disappointing.

The conductor was Jiri Belohlavek, a very fine musician, and I was surprised that his handling of this score was so soft-edged. I do not think that Belohlavek would offer this same performance in Prague. However, there is great concern about Belohlavek's health, especially in London, where he was recently intalled as conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and perhaps he lacked the energy or stamina to give the kind of performance he would have liked.

The orchestra lacked a Janacek sound, which did not surprise me. The string sound was too opaque, too dull, too lacking in nuance, too lacking in rhythmic subtlety, and too loud. The brass section did not enjoy a good afternoon. The percussion did not "sound" as it should, at least in the back of the auditorium, where we were sitting.

The Jenufa was Karita Mattila. I have heard her twice before: in "Salome" in Paris in 2003 and in "Un Ballo In Maschera" in London in 2005. She was not entirely successful in either of those roles--in fact, her Amelia was not successful in the least, although she looked stunning in the gowns devised for her at Covent Garden.

Her Jenufa was better than her Salome or Amelia, probably because the role suited her voice better. She gave a capable performance, I thought, but she has not yet "internalized" the role, and she seemed to be giving a performance "by the numbers". Given how many times Mattila has performed this role around the world, I thought she might have offered a more convincing performance. However, this was the last of six Metropolitan Opera performances for her, and she may have already moved on, mentally, to her next engagement. This is a danger encountered when the last performance in a run is attended.

In April, Mattila will give a recital in Saint Paul, and my parents and Josh and I will attend that recital. It will be interesting to hear whether Mattila can command the recital platform. Personally, I think that Mattila should be singing Wagner, as she has always struck me as a natural Wagner singer, but she may not enjoy singing Wagner, or she may fear that singing Wagner will harm her voice.

The Kostelnicka was Anja Silja. Three times in the past, I have purchased tickets to hear Silja, and each time she cancelled. One of her cancellations I suffered was the 2003 Paris "Salome" with Mattila, in which Silja was scheduled to sing Herodias.

On Saturday, she did not cancel.

Her performance, however, was not to my taste. If one danger of catching the last performance in a run is that a singer may operate via remote control, another danger is that a singer will throw caution to the winds and offer a scenery-chewing spectacular. The latter is what Silja offered on Saturday. It was indescribable. Theda Bara would have been embarrassed to offer such an unbridled assortment of theatrics.

It was all Josh and I could do to keep from snickering and giggling as Silja got more and more carried away. Four seats down from us, in our row, there were two very well-dressed ladies in their forties, and they were both laughing so hard that they had to bury their heads in their purses. As they exited our row after the conclusion of Act II, Josh and I stood to allow them to pass, and Josh said to one of them "It seemed that you did not enjoy all the dramatics".

"Priceless. It was priceless" was her response, and both of the ladies started laughing again.

The role of the Kostelnicka is the most important one in the opera, and the opera does not work if the Kostelnicka is not convincing. I have only seen and heard one convincing Kostelnicka, and that was Agnes Baltsa in Vienna.

And Miss Baltsa was riveting. She held the entire auditorium in the palm of her hand, and she barely moved a muscle. There was none of Silja's facial contorting and there was none of Silja's shameless mooning and posturing. And yet Miss Baltsa was able to convey, fully, the conflicting emotions of her troubled character. I could barely breathe during all of Miss Baltsa's Act II. In Act III, when she was taken away by the authorities, there was no doubt that she knew that she was going to a certain death (the only penalty possible for infanticide in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time the story takes place) and a chill went through the entire Vienna State Opera House. By contrast, at the Met, one's reaction to seeing Silja being escorted away in Act III was "Darn! There goes the life of the party!".

It was, therefore, a mixed afternoon, all in all. Josh and I were pleased to have an opportunity to hear "Jenufa" live, and yet we were both disappointed that the performance was not on a higher level.

One thing I cannot understand is why the Metropolitan Opera offered to its audience this dismal Tambosis production a second time. Karita Mattila is on record as noting that she despises this particular production. Could not a new, worthy production have been created for her? Could not a better production have been borrowed from another house? Could not the Metropolitan Opera have revived its 1974 Gunther Rennert/Gunther Schneider-Siemssen production, only offered three times, once in the mid-1970's, once in the mid-1980's, and once in the mid-1990's? Has the 1974 production been destroyed?

My parents saw the 1974 production, and I asked them Saturday night whether that physical production had been any good. They described it as "gloomy" and "poorly-lighted", but that was all they remembered about the physical production.

"Gloomy" and "poorly-lighted" would have been pretty attractive that Saturday afternoon.

And so would the presence of Miss Baltsa.

New York City Ballet

On the Sunday afternoon of the three-day weekend we spent in New York, my mother and my sister-in-law and Joshua and I attended a performance of the New York City Ballet.

We went because Josh had never seen the interior of the New York State Theater, and because he had never seen a performance by the New York City Ballet.

Philip Johnson's State Theater is the best of the Lincoln Center buildings, by far, and it is a good building, although hardly a perfect one. In Minneapolis, Johnson is known for his IDS skyscraper, still the tallest building in the city after over three decades. Quite obviously, I know that building exceedingly well.

At the State Theater, I think it was a mistake to place the main public area one floor above street level. I also think it was a mistake to have such small public areas for the upper rings, practically forcing the entire audience to descend to the main promenade during each intermission.

The auditorium, however, is excellent. It has good sight-lines, it is handsome but not over-decorated, and it has aged well.

All four of us would have preferred an all-Balanchine program, I believe, but the program on offer was the only one we could attend that weekend.

Christopher Wheeldon's "Klavier", Alexei Ratmansky's "Russian Seasons" and Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments" were the ballets performed that afternoon.

The Wheeldon was set to the Adagio of Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata, and I hated the ballet, perhaps because I was offended that a choreographer would choose such an iconic piece of absolute music as the basis for a ballet. I have never believed that there was a ballet waiting to escape from the "Hammerklavier" Adagio and, having now seen one, I still do not. Was not this the sort of thing that Isadora Duncan tried? My mother, my sister-in-law and Josh hated the Wheeldon work, too.

I did not know what to make of the Ratmansky ballet. The score was by Leonid Desyatnikov, a Ukrainian composer totally unknown to me, and the ballet--purely classical--sometimes suggested Russian folk dancing and sometimes suggested Russian Orthodox church rituals. I thought that the ballet was too long--it lasted forty minutes or so--and I thought that the ballet lacked a sharp focus. However, it was clear that Ratmansky is a very talented choreographer, and I would like to see this ballet again, but not for another six months or so.

"The Four Temperments" is a great ballet, and I enjoyed seeing it again very much. Josh did not like it, however, and he said that he thought that the music and the choreography were "too monochrome". I told Josh that if he saw the ballet three or four more times over the course of the next several years, he would probably grow to love it. He is not convinced.

New York City Ballet has changed the way it presents repertory programs. Instead of presenting a different sequence of ballets for each performance, it now presents a series of fixed, "themed" programs. The program we attended was called "Visionary Voices", a meaningless title no doubt dreamed up by the marketing department. Consequently, dance lovers who want to see "The Four Temperaments" have no choice but to see the Wheeldon and Ratmansky works, too, as these works are always offered together, as a package. I think that this new programming initiative is a mistake.

Peter Martins has been constantly criticized since he assumed the directorship of the company after Balanchine's death. His choreography has been criticized (with justification), his casting has been criticized, his training and development of dancers has been criticized, and his repertory choices and programming have been criticized.

Personally, I could care less whether Peter Martins is criticized. However, who else is there in the ballet world that might assume the same post and do a better job? Is there anyone, anywhere, with superior qualifications and a lifetime of immersion in the Balanchine repertory? I do not think so. Many persons have suggested that Suzanne Farrell might be a better candidate to lead the company, but she has been away from the company for so long (barred by Martins, in fact) that it may no longer be possible for her to step into Martins' shoes.

Martins, at least, has kept the company intact for the twenty-four years since Balanchine's death, and the company's administration and finances are widely-deemed to be efficient.

He is in an impossible position--having to follow a legend, an unenviable task, similar to the impossibility of following John Wooden at U.C.L.A.--and yet he has lasted almost a quarter of a century. That has to say something about his skills.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Minnesota Winter Weather

I am getting tired of our Minnesota winter weather. It used not to bother me at all, but I fear that spending the last seven winters on the Eastern Seaboard, with its milder winters, has made me forget how perilous our Minnesota winter weather often is.

It snowed yesterday--fourteen inches--and it is snowing again today, with an additional 18 to 20 inches expected to be on the ground by the time the current snowfall ends.

Joshua is not accustomed to so much snow, and over so extended a period. In Oklahoma, brutal snowstorms occasionally hit, but such storms are infrequent and not long-lasting. Here, it seems, Joshua has seen nothing but snow since Christmas. He tells me that he wants us to move to the Canary Islands, and no later than tomorrow.

Yesterday morning, after breakfast, Josh and I called my Mom and Dad, and we told them that we were going to go out and do their food shopping for them, and that afterward we were going to come over to their house and stay "for the duration".

We did this for them, not for us. We did this so that we would be in charge of the snow removal at their house, and not my Dad. We did this so that we would be out and about, driving on the treacherous roads, and not them (yesterday, in addition to all of the snow, there was also lots of ice, which even shut down MSP for a few hours, a very rare occurrence).

Josh and I arrived at my parents' house just past 11:00 a.m., and we quickly handed over the groceries and got started shoveling snow. There is a lot of shoveling at my parents' house--the front sidewalks and the driveway, which proceeds from the street to the side of the house to the back of the house. The driveway is a major project, and I wanted to keep the driveway clear in case my parents had an emergency or something.

Josh and I shoveled for an hour, until lunchtime, and after lunch we shoveled for an hour at a time during most of the afternoon. My Dad wanted to come out and help us, and we had to instruct my mother to keep him indoors, using the threat of deadly force if necessary.

Late in the afternoon, while Josh and I were taking a break from the snow removal, my mother asked us "Would you mind terribly if your father and I skipped tonight's concert?"

She was referring to a concert by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Before Christmas, Josh and I had agreed to accompany my parents to a Beethoven/Sibelius concert by the Minnesota Orchestra (we all attended that concert three weeks ago), and my parents had agreed to accompany Josh and me to a Schoenberg/Mahler concert by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

I don't think my parents wanted to go out last night and hazard the freeways to Saint Paul--they had been watching weather developments on television, and observing the poor condition of the roads on local news bulletins (the plows were having a hard time keeping up with the snow, just like Josh and I seemed to be fighting a losing battle with the driveway)--and I could sympathize with that.

I turned to Josh and I asked him "What do you say? Do you want to stay in tonight?"

"Yes, I do" was his instant response. So, with that, we all decided to skip the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concert.

The program was a good one--Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1, followed by the reduced orchestration of Mahler's "Das Lied Von Der Erde"--but I fear it may not have been worth fighting our way to Saint Paul. We would have been worrying about getting to Saint Paul safely, and then we would have been worrying about getting home safely. It simply did not seem to be worth all the effort and trouble and worry.

In any case, I am not confident that we missed a particularly distinguished concert. Three professional musicians who attend our church, and whose opinions I greatly respect, had attended Thursday night's presentation of the same program, and they had provided us with extremely negative reports about the concert. According to all three musicians, the conductor, Douglas Boyd, had not been a satisfactory conductor of Schoenberg or Mahler, and the singers, Monica Groop and Vinson Cole, had been distinctly unimpressive. All three musicians told us that the concert had greatly disappointed them.

(Today, I see that the "Pioneer Press" gave the concert an extremely unfavorable notice. No review has appeared yet in the "Star Tribune".)

Further, my parents had just attended a Minnesota Orchestra concert the previous evening, and it just did not seem to be the right thing to do to go to the Saint Paul concert.

So we stayed home last night, and we had an excellent dinner (at my mother's house, is there any other kind?). My mother prepared stuffed pork chops, and potatoes au gratin, and homemade applesauce, and lima beans and corn and carrots, and a special cole slaw (my mother must have 30 different recipes for preparing cole slaw, all of which are magnificent). For dessert, she made a cherry cobbler for us, and we ate that with ice cream.

After dinner, my father said to me "Why don't you go pick out some CD's to listen to? If you want, play for us the pieces we were going to hear tonight."

And that is precisely what I did. I selected Simon Rattle's version of the Schoenberg on EMI, as it is the finest I have ever heard (I do not normally care for Rattle performances, and this excellent version truly surprised me the first time I heard it) and I selected the Haitink version of the Mahler on Philips, with James King and Janet Baker, as it is my father's favorite version of the Mahler (I am partial to the Fritz Reiner recording myself, a version which everyone else on the planet seems to hate).

And we sat and we listened to the Schoenberg twice, and then we listened to the Mahler. Of course, the Mahler we heard was the full orchestral version, not the version with the reduced orchestration that the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra was to play. And we enjoyed the music very much. Josh was overwhelmed by the Mahler, which he had never heard before. I am glad that he liked it so much. We shall have to listen to it again soon.

I think that we made the right decision to stay home last night. We had a lovely evening, and I do not think that we would have had a better time in Saint Paul.

Very early this morning, I rose by myself, and I went outside to do more shoveling, in case my parents wanted to go to church this morning. After only a couple of minutes, I noticed that someone was turning the outside deck lights on and off, which is a sign to come indoors. I walked up onto the deck, and through the glass doors I could see my father standing in the kitchen, watching me.

He motioned for me to come inside, so I stepped into the kitchen.

"Your mother and I are not going to go to church this morning" he said to me. "It's supposed to snow twenty more inches."

"I thought you were going to tell me that I was making too much noise" I answered. "I was trying to be very quiet."

"I heard you get up and go downstairs, and I knew what you were up to" my father responded. "There's no need for you to be out there now, this early. Stay inside."

"Let me stay out for another twenty minutes, so at least the dog can get his exercise" I said. "Then I'll come in, and we can have coffee together."

So I went back outside and I shoveled for another twenty minutes. As I shoveled, the dog ran around the back yard, excited, jumping around on the snow. Every few minutes, he would come over to me and jump on me and lick my face, and I would pet him until he wanted to go back and jump around in the snow again.

When he seemed to have had enough fun, I went back inside, and I saw that my father was back in the kitchen, and that coffee had been made. We gave the dog his breakfast, and we sat and drank coffee until Josh and my mother came down to the kitchen.

"No church today" I told Josh. "My parents are staying in."

And we have stayed home all day today. After breakfast, Josh and I went outside and shoveled again, for an hour at a time.

My mother made us a chicken chowder for lunch, and after lunch we went outside again, and shoveled for an hour at a time the rest of the afternoon.

My mother is preparing a pot roast for dinner. It is dark now, and we are done shoveling for the day.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A Wonderful Time In New York

We had a wonderful time in New York, and it was too bad that our visit only lasted three days.

I continue to be amazed how quickly my nephew grows. He has grown noticeably since the last time we saw him, which was just over six weeks ago.

He eats more and he talks more than he did over the Christmas and New Year holidays. He makes lots of "eek"-like sounds when he is having fun--playing with his toys, for instance--and when he wants more food. He also gestures more, pointing at things and pointing at people.

He was in bed for the night when we arrived on Friday evening, so we really did not get to see him until early Saturday morning. Although we all looked into his bedroom to watch him sleeping, it was only on Saturday morning that we were able to hold him and feed him and play with him.

My brother and my sister-in-law had told him that we were coming, but they did not know whether he understood this or not. I do not think that he did understand. My middle brother and Joshua and I rose at 7:15 a.m. on Saturday morning in order to be ready for him when he woke up (my nephew wakes up at 7:30 a.m.). We went into his bedroom at 7:30 a.m., and he was standing in his crib, waiting, and he seemed to be very excited to see us, but also very surprised. He held out his arms, and my brother picked him up and we took him into the kitchen to get him ready for his breakfast.

My parents rose shortly thereafter, and we all gave him his breakfast and held him and played with him while his parents slept in.

He is eating more and more different food types, and it is fun to watch him eat. He picks up peas from his plate, one by one, and puts them into his mouth. He does the same with tiny pieces of boiled chicken. He can hold a very thin and quartered grilled cheese sandwich and take bites from it.

He loves homemade chicken noodle soup and homemade tomato-cream soup. He loves whipped sweet potatoes, sweetened with a touch of pineapple juice. He loves crushed carrots, sweetened with a touch of maple syrup. He likes gingerbread now. My mother made homemade butter noodles for him (and for everyone else, too), and he loved them.

He loves fresh poached pears, warm, which he often gets in the afternoons after his nap. He still loves crushed bananas and poached and pureed apricots and peaches.

He eats lima beans now, and tiny pieces of fresh apple. Of course, he still loves mashed potatoes and macaroni-and-cheese. Everything he eats is fresh--my sister-in-law has more or less abandoned jars of Gerber, which she was never high on--and although he still is restricted to easily-digestible fare, he gets to eat well.

Meat is one of the foods that he gets very little of--he still generally eats boiled chicken, and nothing more--but he has been served a very bland tuna salad a few times, and he liked it. He also eats a very bland and very finely-ground hot chicken salad, a recipe of my mother, and he likes that, too.

My nephew is also capable of doing more and more things by himself now.

For instance, he walks quite well now, and he generally does not need the support and assistance of furniture to make his way around his parents' apartment. He walks around the large living room at will, and he walks around the kitchen.

He can retrieve his toys from his toy box without assistance now--the toy box is not tall, and it has no lid--and he takes out his things and puts them on the floor and plays with them. He drags his large stuffed dog around the living room and places it next to him on the floor, and he tries to talk to the stuffed dog and he tries to get the stuffed dog to play with his toys. This tells me that he thinks of his stuffed dog as a real, live creature. He can ride around the living room now in his fire truck, which he loves to do, but he cannot get into it and out of it by himself. For that, he requires assistance.

He watches everyone much of the time now, and he makes noises and gestures as he looks at people, as if he is trying to talk to them. He sometimes glances at the television for a few seconds at a time if he hears an interesting sound coming from the television.

He still loves it when others sit on the floor and play with him and his toys.

He still loves to be held and talked to, and he loves to be held by everyone. He loves it when his parents hold him, he loves it when my parents hold him, and he loves it when my middle brother or Josh or I hold him.

His normal daily routine is to be held by his father for fifteen minutes first thing every morning, after which my brother goes to work. Then he gets his breakfast and his bath, and he spends the rest of the morning playing with his toys and watching his mother and being held by his mother.

If my sister-in-law has errands to run, she does them in the morning and she takes him with her in a stroller. When he goes out, he does not know yet what to make of the outside world. He sometimes looks at things, and then quickly tries to search for his mother. If he cannot locate his mother almost instantly, he becomes distressed and goes into a near panic and starts to cry. As soon as he sees that his mother is next to him, he is pacified. Often he goes to sleep in his stroller during my sister-in-law's morning errands. Sometimes, when he spends the entire morning at home, he sleeps for an hour or so before his lunch.

He does not like strangers. He does not, for instance, like his doctor, and he cries when his doctor touches him or holds him.

I always worry that he will forget about my parents and my middle brother and Josh and me between visits. Happily, this has never happened. Apparently we have always spent enough time with him so that he has always recognized us and been comfortable with us.

My sister-in-law's own parents were not so lucky. Her parents have only seen my nephew once, during a three-week visit last August, when they flew from London to New York to stay with my brother and my sister-in-law. My nephew was almost ten months old at the time, and it took him five days to become accustomed to his other set of grandparents. He will not see that set of grandparents again until this coming August, and it is very likely that he will not remember them after a year and, once again, have to start from scratch.

This has to be heartbreaking for my sister-in-law's parents. However, they can only travel when Parliament is on extended break, because my sister-in-law's father is a civil service employee whose career is in the administration of the Houses Of Parliament. (This has its advantages, however--my sister-in-law's father escorted my middle brother and me through the entire Palace Of Westminster when my brother and I were on vacation in London in 2004, and he showed us practically every nook and cranny in the building, including the many historical portions of the building never open to the public. My brother and I were in heaven. He also arranged for us to visit Marlborough House and Clarence House and Lancaster House, all of which are generally closed to the public, and my brother and I were given private guided tours of those venues. In 2005, during another trip to London, he even arranged for my brother and me to see things at the Imperial War Museum not then on public display. He extended to us every possible consideration and courtesy.)

My sister-in-law has never left my nephew with a sitter. She finds the very idea inconceivable, and this has nothing to do with the fact that my nephew dislikes strangers. She has left him with his father, of course, and she has left him with my parents, and she has left him with my middle brother, and she has left him with me, but no one outside the family has ever been permitted to care for my nephew. My sister-in-law is a loving and nurturing and dedicated mother, and she zealously watches over my nephew all the time.

I have always adored my sister-in-law, since the first time I met her in London, and she and I have always been close and able to talk to each other, openly and seriously, from the day we met.

I have often asked her whether she regrets not working in her chosen field, psychiatry, and she has always told me that she would only be interested in working if she had to do so in order to support herself. She has told me, often, that she appreciates the education she received, and that it taught her a great deal about a great many things, but that her years of study were only a means to an end--being able to support herself in an interesting and challenging field--and that, otherwise, she has no interest in pursuing a demanding, full-time career.

My sister-in-law likes being home alone all day with her son. After she spends the morning with him and gives him his lunch, he takes a long nap, and for two or three hours my sister-in-law has time to herself, the only such time she gets all day. She generally reads during this time, or sends email messages, or takes a nap herself.

When my nephew wakes from his nap, he gets a snack, after which his mother keeps him in the kitchen as she begins to prepare dinner. Around 5:30 p.m., my nephew starts to get excited, because he knows that my brother will be home from work soon. When my brother arrives home, he holds and plays with my nephew for an hour in the kitchen, after which they all have dinner.

After dinner, they all adjourn to the living room, and my nephew plays with his toys and sits with his parents. For the final fifteen minutes before he goes to bed, he always wants to sit on his father's lap--only then is he ready to go to sleep for the night.

Having us there this past weekend did not much alter my nephew's daily routine--he simply had more people to play with and to hold him and to make a fuss over him. He had a ball, and so did everyone else.

My father and my brothers and Josh and I would all sit on the living room floor, amongst all the toys, and play with my nephew for two hours at a time. My nephew would go back and forth between toys every few minutes and, when he got bored with his toys, we would push him around the room in his fire truck and we would carry him around the room and carefully swing him through the air, and we would give him horseback rides, always with someone holding him while he sat on one of us. It was a beautiful time, and a beautiful weekend.

My nephew has a very sweet disposition, and he is very good-natured, probably because he has been shown nothing but love and affection since the day he was born.

My nephew is very curious about things. For instance, early on Saturday morning, and again early on Sunday and Monday mornings, he was very curious and noticeably puzzled why both sofas in the living room had been pulled out and transformed into beds (my middle brother slept on one while Josh and I slept on the other; my parents, naturally, occupied the guest room). The living room, of course, is my nephew's main play area, and he knows it well. Inevitably, he could not understand why it had been altered overnight.

My brother and Josh and I tried to explain to him that we had slept there, but I do not think that my nephew was able to comprehend our explanations. We tried to demonstrate to him by sitting and lying on the beds, and then by putting the beds back into their natural states as sofas, but I do not think that we were successful in making him understand why the sofas had been changed into beds and back again. However, we showed him, over and over, how the sofas were pulled out and extended into beds, and then pushed back into sofas again, and he loved watching this process again and again.

My nephew is also very curious about people. When he is in the kitchen, he prefers to sit in his high chair so that he can see what is going on, which he cannot do if he is standing on the kitchen floor. However, in the living room, he prefers to stand or sit on the floor, because he can keep an eye on everyone from the floor in the living room.

Whenever he sees people leave a room, he follows them with his eyes, and then he looks at his mother for an explanation. Generally, she says "They will be right back", and he accepts this explanation and goes back to whatever he was doing. Sometimes, however, he follows the persons leaving the room in order to see what they are up to. This is especially so if he sees them going into the kitchen, which he obviously associates with food and meal times.

On Saturday, Sunday and Monday mornings, my brothers and my father and Josh and I went out for morning walks shortly after breakfast. Each morning we left while my nephew was having his bath, and we did this deliberately so that my nephew would not see his father leave. While my nephew never fusses when his father heads to work each weekday morning at 7:45 a.m., he DOES fuss at other times that my brother leaves the apartment.

On Monday evening, when it was time for us to leave, my nephew probably did not realize that we were leaving him. He just smiled as we held him and kissed him. We, however, were all in pain, knowing that the visit had come to an end and that we would not be seeing my nephew and his parents again until Easter weekend. When we said "Good-Bye" to my brother and sister-in-law and nephew, it was all we could do to keep from crying, because we will miss them so very much between now and Easter. However, my nephew just smiled at us as we departed. Today, he has probably already forgotten that we were there at all.

But I have not forgotten, and neither has anyone else. We were glad that we had the chance to see him and his parents again, and to spend precious time with them, and to enjoy their company and hospitality, and to give them our love.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Columbus Day Weekend

This coming weekend Joshua and I, and my parents, and my middle brother, are going to New York to visit my older brother and his family. It will be good to see everyone again.

On Saturday afternoon, Josh and I will attend a performance of Janacek's "Jenufa" at the Metropolitan Opera. On Sunday afternoon, Josh and I, and my mother, and my sister-in-law, will attend a performance of the New York City Ballet at the New York State Theater.

Otherwise, we will just stay at my brother's place, and visit. It will be a fun weekend.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


My parents have already attended "The Glass Menagerie" at the Guthrie Theater, and they have recommended it to Joshua and me. They have told us that Harriet Harris creates a memorable Amanda Wingfield.

This past weekend my parents attended the world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon's opera, "The Grapes Of Wrath", at the Minnesota Opera. Several months ago, my parents asked Joshua and me if we wanted to attend that opera with them, and we declined.

I dislike Ricky Ian Gordon's music--he is simply not very talented, and there is no kinder way to put it--and I despise Steinbeck, and I especially despise "The Grapes Of Wrath", surely one of the worst novels ever written.

Josh is from Oklahoma and, like most Oklahoma natives, he finds the entire subject matter and treatment in "The Grapes Of Wrath" overwrought and insincere and agenda-driven.

My parents were surprised when Josh and I told them that an operatic version of "The Grapes Of Wrath" simply held no interest for us, and I think that they were slightly disappointed that we did not want to attend that opera.

However, now that my parents have seen and heard "The Grapes Of Wrath", they have informed Josh and me that, wisely, we missed a dog of a work.

Apparently the physical production was quite good, and the cast did fine work. However, the score, according to my father, was "pure claptrap". He said that "hundreds--no, thousands--of Americans must be able to write a better opera score".

My mother said that the music was "paper-thin" and that there were approximately 17 minutes of music stetched, with water, into a four-hour score.

My parents said that the only reason they were able to endure the entire four-hour performance was because the physical production was so fine.

I did point out to my parents that I had warned them that Ricky Ian Gordon's music was not any good--heaven knows, I have heard enough of it--and my father replied that "he must be the least talented composer on the planet".

No arguments from me on that point.

An Assemblage Of Short Playlets

On Saturday night Joshua and I did go see the film "The Queen". We should have stayed home.

Stephen Frears began his directing career in television, and he has never been able to adapt whatever directing skills he has to the film medium. His films look like television--and not even good television--and they do not succeed on the large screen.

This is especially true of "The Queen", which actually was made as a movie for television. Given a theatrical release instead, in the theater the film looks precisely like the low-budget, quickly-put-together evening soap opera that it is.

Whoever wrote the script is not knowledgeable about the British political scene, nor is the writer knowledgeable about British Royal history. The teleplay was hackwork, and quite obviously rushed hackwork. It should have been rejected by the original producer, and reassigned to another writer.

However, the entire subject matter is rather silly, and the project obviously was designed to appeal to a lower-class British audience that keeps only half an eye--if that--on politics. Why was the decision made to give this television project a theatrical release?

The answer, no doubt, is because of Helen Mirren's portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II. Miss Mirren, as presented, looks a bit like the current British sovereign, and this resemblance gives the film whatever limited interest it holds. Miss Mirren's portrayal is not convincing, and not even particularly interesting, but there is in her performance a sly undercurrent of nervous energy just beneath the surface, and that is the only thing that makes the film watchable.

The other actors are hopelessly miscast, except for the actress who portrays Cherie Blair, in real life a very obnoxious and troubled woman. The actress that filled this small part caught the inherent disreputable rub that is such an essential component of Cherie Blair's character. As for the actors assigned to Prince Philip, Prince Charles and the Queen Mother, one could only ask "Why were these unsuitable individuals given these roles?"

Although no director could have made a success of this project, most directors could have surpassed what Stephen Frears has wrought. The film is poorly photographed and edited, and far too many of the details are wrong.

For instance, Buckingham Palace is now open to the public six weeks each year, and it is peculiar that the film makes no effort to recreate realistic interiors of the Queen's London home, as millions of persons have now toured the premises. The floors are wrong, the windows are wrong, the wall coverings are wrong, the room sizes are wrong. Should not these details, at least, have been observed in the interest of verisimilitude?

"The Queen" is the fifth Stephen Frears movie I have seen. I have also seen "Prick Up Your Ears", "Dangerous Liaisons", "The Grifters" and "Mrs. Henderson Presents". Each one of those films looked like it was assembled by a television newsroom crew, and "The Queen" follows suit. How does Frears even obtain financing for his ventures?

Frears does not have a clue what a camera can do, and he is equally clueless about film editing and sound editing. Each scene in each of his movies derives from the stage--his films are nothing more than an assemblage of short playlets, captured on film, and then strung together, daisy-chain style, into a rhythmless sequence. Could not Frears contact Martin Scorcese for some filmmaking lessons, or enroll in the film school at U.S.C.?

The best thing about "The Queen" is that it was not very long.

Josh hated the film even more than I did, which is really saying something. Every ninety seconds, he would turn to me and say "I can't believe how bad this is" or "I can't believe how dumb this is" and I would always respond "I know. It's unbelievable, isn't it?"

I think we should have gone to "The Glass Menagerie" at the Guthrie Theater instead.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Staying Home

This weekend I think that Joshua and I are just going to stay home and rest.

Josh and I saw my parents last Sunday, and again on Wednesday night, and we will be with the entire family next weekend in New York, so we are going to spend this weekend alone.

We probably will go out and play basketball on Saturday and Sunday, and we are thinking of going to see "The Queen" on Saturday night, but otherwise I think that we will just stay home.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Golden Gophers

Tonight my Dad and Josh and I are going to go see the Minnesota Golden Gophers play the Iowa Hawkeyes. It will probably be the only Minnesota mens' basketball game we will see this year.

At 6:00 p.m. tonight my Dad and I are going to meet Josh at the bookstore where Josh works. My Mom drove Josh to work today so that tonight's car arrangements will be simple. From there, we will all three go directly to the game in my Dad's car, stopping en route to grab a quick sandwich somewhere.

My Mom does not like to watch sports, so she will be attending a church function this evening.

The game starts at 7:05 p.m., and it should be over by 9:00 or 9:15 p.m. We will stop at my parents' house on the way home, since my mother will have prepared a late-night snack for us--homemade soup and sandwiches. Afterward, my Dad will drive Josh and me home.

It should be fun.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Sunday Quiet

Yesterday Joshua and I spent the day with my parents. We went to their house after church, and we stayed until 9:00 p.m. My mother fed us, and fed us well, and we played with the dog and we talked and we played scrabble.

We talked to both of my brothers yesterday, and we all decided to get together in New York two weeks from now during the February holiday weekend. We will go to New York late on Friday night, and return late on Monday night.

Later this week, Josh and my Dad and I will attend a University Of Minnesota mens' basketball game. It will be the first game this year for all three of us.

Music In Houston

While I was in Houston, I attended a Houston Symphony concert conducted by the orchestra's Music Director, Hans Graf.

The program consisted of Dukas's Prelude to "La Peri" and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", Debussy's "Jeux" and Dvorak's Cello Concerto. The cellist was Yo-Yo Ma.

Because of the presence of Yo-Yo Ma, the concert sold out, apparently a very rare occurrence in Houston, where the orchestra is known to suffer from very serious attendance problems.

The Houston Symphony is not an orchestra with a natural command of the French style, and the two Dukas pieces and the Debussy did not come off. The orchestra was much more in its element in the Dvorak, but the Dvorak Cello Concerto amounted to very little because Ma did not bring much to the solo part.

I have always found attending a Yo-Yo Ma concert to be a very jarring experience. Ma emotes shamelessly while he plays, but his facial contortions and histrionics are not mirrored in his playing, which is invariably bland. I spent the entire 45 minutes of the Dvorak Cello Concerto wishing for Heinrich Schiff to enter the concert hall and save the day.

I did not know what to make of the Houston Symphony. It was a fine orchestra, but it seemed to be marking time, waiting for someone to give it a reason to play. I do not think that Hans Graf is the right conductor for this particular orchestra.

During the concert, large video screens provided close-ups of the performers. These video screens are in use for some, but not all, Houston Symphony performances. I ignored the video screens, but apparently some Houston concert-goers like them.

While I was in Houston, I also attended two opera performances offered by the Houston Grand Opera: Gounod's "Faust" and Rossini's "La Cenerentola".

Neither performance was especially good, but I am glad that I attended.

I have a marked weakness for 19th-Century French opera, and I have always believed that "Faust" is a very serious stage work. In Houston, the ballet was cut, but otherwise most of the score was offered.

The performance was minimally adequate, nothing more. The singers more or less met the demands of their parts, but did not proceed beyond meeting the basic requirements. The orchestra and chorus were not good. The physical production--stage direction, stage design, lighting design--was quite poor.

The "Cenerentola" was not much better. The production was imported from Barcelona, and it was a very minimal production, indeed. The Angelina was American mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato, and she sang cleanly and with much liveliness. However, she lacked charm and sweetness and vulnerability, which made her Cinderella very hard-edged and, ultimately, not very winning. One did not care whether she got her prince or not.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Concerts By Our Two Local Ensembles

On the Saturday night before I had to go to Houston on business--Saturday night, January 13--Joshua and I attended a concert by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

It was the first Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concert Josh and I had attended together, and it was the first time Josh had heard the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

The concert was the final one before the orchestra embarked on its European tour the following week, and the program featured music from the tour repertory: Rossini's "L'Italianna In Algeri" Overture, Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 2, Ligeti's "Ramifications", Haydn's Symphony No. 93 ("Surprise") and Rossini's "The Barber Of Seville" Overture. The program was a long one, but it was a good one.

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has had an unusual history. When it was founded in 1959, it was America's first full-time chamber orchestra and today, forty-eight years later, it remains America's only full-time chamber orchestra.

The orchestra has always had difficulties finding the right conductor. After the founding conductor, Leopold Sipe, retired, the orchestra was conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, Pinchas Zukerman, Christopher Hogwood, Hugh Wolff and Andreas Delfs in turn. None of those conductors possessed the necessary musicianship to keep the orchestra and its audience happy long-term, and the orchestra currently operates without a Principal Conductor.

The orchestra plays at a high level, but the orchestra does not have a special sound and the orchestra does not have an individual character or personality. It is a "faceless" ensemble.

Josh and I enjoyed the concert very much. The conductor was Roberto Abbado, and he was a good Rossini conductor and a good Haydn conductor, and he was also good in the Schoenberg and in the Ligeti.

The Ligeti "Ramifications", for twelve solo strings, was my favorite work on the program, and it received an exceptional performance. It demonstrated that the modern American orchestra can play anything with ease and flair.

Last night Josh and I accompanied my parents to a concert by the Minnesota Orchestra. On the program was Sibelius's "Night Ride And Sunrise", Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 and Sibelius's Symphony No. 5. The conductor was Osmo Vanska, the orchestra's Music Director.

Vanska tends to over-conduct, and this tendency was on conspicuous display in the Beethoven, where Vanska was unable to leave well enough alone. Vanska also plays around with dynamics far too much, and his constant (and often too-emphatic) alterations in dynamic levels quickly become tiresome. However, the orchestra's level of ensemble has improved under his stewardship, and for that he must be given credit.

The best performance of all was of the Sibelius tone poem, an oddly-constructed work that is very difficult to bring off. I thought that Vanska did wonders with the piece.

Saturday night was the first time that Josh and I attended a Minnesota Orchestra concert with my parents. We were glad that we went.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Glad To Be Back Home

Last evening I returned to Minneapolis after two weeks of legal work in Houston, and I am very, very glad to be back home. Although I was only away for fourteen nights, it felt more like fourteen months.

The past two weeks were the first time Joshua and I have ever been apart and, in that regard, the past two weeks were very painful. I missed Josh terribly the entire time, and I had a great deal of trouble sleeping at night. I am very grateful that the two weeks are over.

The past two weeks were also the first time I have been apart from my parents for any prolonged period of time since I returned to the Twin Cities after graduating from law school. I missed my parents terribly the past two weeks, too, and I told them this last night over a late dinner at their house (my parents and Josh had held dinner last night, waiting for my arrival; I was dropped at my parents' house just past 8:00 p.m. last night by one of the attorneys from my firm who had also been on the Houston trip).

In fact, last night I said to my parents "I don't know how I ever got through seven years of undergraduate work and law school, being so far away from home". When I said this, my parents looked at each other, and my father said "And WE don't know how WE got through those seven years, either. We were just asking ourselves that very question last night!"

Happily for everyone, Josh had my parents for companionship the last two weeks, and my parents had Josh for companionship the last two weeks, and it worked out splendidly. Josh had my mother's company until he went to work each morning, and he had my mother's and my father's company on evenings and on both weekends.

They did not do anything special the last two weeks; mostly, they just stayed home, and read books, and watched college basketball games on ESPN, and played with the dog. Josh loves to read, and he would sit in the kitchen in one of the rocking chairs and read, and my father would sit in the kitchen in another of the rocking chairs and read, and my mother would sit in the kitchen in yet another of the rocking chairs and read and do crossword puzzles, and the dog would rest at their feet, snoozing. This was the perfect way for each of them to spend the cold January nights and weekend days.

In Houston, I was extremely busy, which was all to the good. I had wanted to find time to visit the Houston Museum Of Fine Arts, America's sixth-largest art museum, but I was unable to do so, as I had to work every single day. I did, however, make it to one concert of the Houston Symphony and two performances of the Houston Grand Opera at night.

It is good to be back home. Josh and I will just stay home by ourselves until Saturday night, when we will go with my parents to a concert by the Minnesota Orchestra, a Beethoven-Sibelius concert we agreed before Christmas to attend with my parents.

We have still not decided what our plans are for the coming three-day weekend in February, and we will make a decision this coming weekend.