For years, it has been the custom of my parents to travel to New York to spend Columbus Day Weekend with my older brother and his family—and my middle brother and I have generally joined them.
Since my older brother and his family no longer reside in New York, long holiday weekends in New York are a thing of the past, mostly.
Columbus Day Weekend has always been a good weekend for my parents to undertake a visit, situated—as it is—six weeks after the end of summer and a few weeks before the major, labor-intensive holidays of November and December.
Last year, my parents spent ten days on the East Coast in conjunction with Columbus Day. They spent Columbus Day Weekend and the ensuing week in New York, and they spent the following weekend in Boston visiting Joshua and me.
This year, Josh and I suggested to my parents that they visit Boston over Columbus Day Weekend. The weekend coincided with an interesting Boston Symphony program, an interesting Handel And Haydn Society program, and a run of “Giselle” performances by Boston Ballet.
The bait must have been sufficient, because my parents accepted the invitation.
They flew in Thursday night, taking the very same flight that my brother had flown one week earlier—and, once again, Josh and I were waiting at Logan to retrieve visitors and bring them home.
We had a good dinner Thursday night.
As soon as we arrived home, we prepared sesame chicken and rainbow pasta, a solid starter course that would keep everyone’s appetite in check for a couple of hours.
Our main dinner was roast pork served with cheddar potatoes, succotash, parsnips, homemade stewed tomatoes and homemade applesauce. This is one of my father’s favorite dinners, and we knew he would like it.
The dinner being more than ample, we skipped dessert.
Our main activity for Friday was an early-afternoon Boston Symphony concert. We had purchased tickets to hear Daniele Gatti conduct Brahms’s Third Symphony, Hindemith’s Concert Music For Strings and Brass, and Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosencavalier” Waltz Sequence, but for some reason Gatti had cancelled his appearances in Boston. To our disappointment, the concert featured not only a different conductor but also a different program.
We were not happy about the changes in conductor and program, yet we decided to attend the concert anyway—but only because we had already purchased tickets.
I had to work Friday morning, and Josh had classes, so he and I left my parents to fend for themselves until 1:00 p.m., when we all were to meet at Symphony Hall half an hour before the concert was to begin. Indeed, Josh and I left the apartment before my parents even rose for the day.
My parents were not without plans or transportation. They had a leisurely early morning in the apartment, after which they drove our car downtown and spent a couple of hours before the concert visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which they had not visited for several years.
The concert was not a satisfying one.
The replacement conductor was Vasily Petrenko, a Russian conductor who works with a provincial orchestra in Liverpool. The replacement program was Stravinsky’s Scherzo Fantastique, Rachmaninoff’s The Isle Of The Dead and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10.
We had contemplated skipping the first half of the program and arriving at 2:15 p.m. in order to hear the Shostakovich and only the Shostakovich. Nonetheless, we gamely sat through the whole thing.
The Stravinsky composition was one of the composer’s early works, written during his “Rimsky-Korsakov” period. The piece, mercifully short, has little to recommend it beyond its glittering instrumentation.
The Rachmaninoff tone poem is considered to be among the composer’s finer works, but The Isle Of The Dead has never appealed to me. There are only a handful of works by Rachmaninoff I can tolerate—the Corelli Variations, the Third Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Paganini Variations, Etudes-Tableaux and a small number of isolated piano pieces—and The Isle Of The Dead is not among them.
I used to believe that the Shostakovich Tenth was the composer’s finest symphony, but I am no longer of that opinion.
The extended first movement is expertly crafted, and probably Shostakovich’s finest (and certainly most sophisticated) example of sonata-form writing. It is by far the best thing about the Tenth Symphony, although the musical materials themselves, all built from the six-note motif that begins the symphony, are not distinguished or memorable in the least.
The brief scherzo, a musical portrait of the demented Stalin, speaks for itself.
Things start to go awry in the Allegretto, a typical Shostakovich movement that may be interpreted either as tragedy or as a parody of tragedy. No matter how interpreted—and my assumption has always been that the composer was being deliberately ambiguous—the movement does not work, even in the hands of a Karajan or a Mravinsky, nor does it supply a satisfactory emotional fulcrum for the symphony.
The finale has the very same weakness: it may be taken as a genuine symphonic finale, but it equally may be taken as a parody of a genuine symphonic finale. Irony is everywhere, from the inane doodlings of the clarinet at the beginning of the movement to the repeated hammering of the D-S-C-H theme that serves as the movement’s—and the symphony’s—culmination. Everything may be taken at face value, and yet nothing need be taken at face value—and, in either case, the music is completely hollow (which, again, may very well have been the composer’s intent).
Scholars argue whether the Tenth Symphony was written in response to Stalin’s death or completed two or more years prior to the dictator’s demise. The symphony’s obvious similarities with the Violin Concerto No. 1 support the latter view. Whatever the date of the work’s composition, it was undoubtedly written by a composer with frazzled nerve endings.
I was not sure what to make of the performance we heard.
It was Petrenko’s debut with the Boston Symphony, and one cannot expect much from a conductor in his very first encounter with an orchestra.
The Boston Symphony can play the Shostakovich Tenth in its sleep; the score holds no technical challenges for the orchestra.
Nonetheless, the members of the orchestra did not seem to be fully engaged Friday afternoon. The lack of engagement was most apparent in the long first movement, which frequently slipped out of focus, a clear sign of lack of concentration on the part of the players. Lack of engagement was also evidenced by ensemble lapses and less-than-pure intonation from the winds.
Oddly, five measures into the second movement, things completely fell apart for a few seconds. Portions of the orchestra started playing ahead of the beat, portions of the orchestra started playing on the beat, and portions of the orchestra started playing behind the beat. It took Petrenko seven measures to clear up the mess, a mess that had to have been created by Petrenko’s imprecise baton technique.
Ordinarily, I would place blame for lack of engagement on the conductor, but my instinct tells me that Petrenko and the orchestra simply were not on the same wavelength.
Petrenko is very much a minute-by-minute conductor. Whenever he would ask for something “big”, the orchestra would give it to him, which always seemed to surprise him greatly—and entice him to ask for it again. It was obvious that Petrenko had never worked with an orchestra of Boston’s quality—he had to resort to asking for “big” over and over just to maintain momentum, since he was otherwise unsuccessful in maintaining tension in the musical argument—and it was equally obvious that the musicians of the Boston Symphony could have eaten Petrenko for lunch had they so chosen.
It was a very frustrating performance—as well as a very loud one.
Only the very best of Boston’s guest conductors are able to get the orchestra to observe a wide range of dynamics. Seiji Ozawa was long a proponent of the slogan, “loud is good”, and James Levine has always adhered to a strict policy of “the louder, the better”. Over time, the rule in Boston has become: the worse the conductor, the louder the orchestra (and the more sustained the applause).
I hope Boston chooses its next Music Director more carefully than its last four choices, none of which has worked out. It has been sixty years since Charles Munch was chosen to succeed Serge Koussevitzky, and Boston has made one flub after another in the intervening decades. (I count William Steinberg as a flub because it was widely known at the time Boston offered him the post that Steinberg was ill.)
Not only was I unsure what to make of the performance, I was also unsure what to make of Petrenko.
Petrenko’s management, IMG, has been breaking him in very, very gently with American orchestras. This is wise: he’s probably not yet ready for big-time engagements.
In 2006, Petrenko debuted with the Indianapolis Symphony and the Milwaukee Symphony.
Last season, Petrenko conducted the orchestras in Baltimore, Cincinnati, Dallas and Saint Louis for the first time.
This season, Petrenko is slated to debut with the orchestras in Atlanta, Los Angeles and San Francisco (in addition to the just-occurred short-notice debut in Boston).
Next season, Petrenko will get his first crack at a really good orchestra. In 2011, he is scheduled to conduct a world-class orchestra for the first time when he debuts with the Philadelphia Orchestra. (He is also scheduled to appear with the Minnesota Orchestra next season).
As of today, Petrenko is not ready to conduct an orchestra of the caliber of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Even his far more experienced compatriot, Vladimir Jurowski, conducted himself out of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Music Directorship earlier this year when Jurowski failed to impress the Philadelphia Orchestra’s musicians in his third series of engagements with that fabled orchestra—and Jurowski is much more seasoned than Petrenko.
Aside from Philadelphia, no engagements have been extended to Petrenko from any of the other world-class orchestras. Amsterdam, Berlin, Chicago, Cleveland, Dresden, Leipzig and Vienna have been sitting on their hands (and their contracts), no doubt closely watching Petrenko’s development—and waiting.
My instinct tells me that Petrenko may be the real thing in a few years’ time.
I emphasize, however, that I would need to hear him in Central European repertory in order to make a considered assessment. There is always the danger that Petrenko could turn out to be yet one more among countless Russian conductors (Gergiev, Pletnev, Rostropovich, Spivakov) effective in Russian music but in nothing else.
Petrenko has undeniable “star quality”, and that is his biggest selling point at present. His star quality alone makes him about 100 times more appealing than our current crop of American turkeys. Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, New York, Saint Louis and Seattle—saddled with Robert Spano, Marin Alsop, Leonard Slatkin, Alan Gilbert, David Robertson and Gerard Schwarz, none of whom possesses an ounce of star quality—should be keeping a close watch on Petrenko’s development.
Vasily Petrenko is not to be confused with the vastly-talented Kirill Petrenko, who is no relation to Vasily. Kirill Petrenko, only four years older than Vasily, very definitely is the real thing, and has already made major debuts with, among others, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra.
After the concert, we returned home. We did not go out again for the rest of the day.
Since none of us had eaten lunch, we prepared egg salad sandwiches and radishes and celery and carrot sticks to tide us over until dinnertime.
Then we spent the rest of the afternoon talking—and preparing food.
My mother decided that she wanted to be in charge of dinner, so we allowed her to take command, helping her whenever she requested assistance.
She decided that she wanted to make a French dinner and, after ascertaining that we had on hand the necessary ingredients, she went to work. Her menu was vichyssoise, her personal version of salade nicoise, coq au vin and green beans Julienne, and strawberry-almond-chocolate tarts.
We had a lot of fun getting dinner ready, all the time hearing about what was new with my nephew and niece.
My nephew will soon be four years old, which seems impossible, and my niece will celebrate her first birthday in another two months, which also seems impossible. I miss them both very much.
My nephew counts things now. In fact, I understand he counts everything, from the number of eggs in a carton to the number of cookies on a plate to the number of cars passing on the street.
He knows the letters of his name and he can pick them out of magazines and books. He knows the days of the week. He knows the route to church, and he knows the route to his grandparents’ house, and he knows the routes to the food stores my sister-in-law favors.
He knows how to call 911.
He rides his tricycle through an obstacle course my brother has created for him in the family room. My brother changes the obstacle course every night.
He knows my sister-in-law’s routine down to the minutest detail, and he always questions any departure from routine—and is always ready to tell her when it’s time to have lunch or time to prepare dinner or time for a story or time to check the mail or time for my brother to come home from work.
He’s fascinated by picture books featuring animals. He will sit and examine the books and turn the pages and reiterate the stories once he has memorized them (after having the stories read to him half a dozen times, he has the stories down cold, page by page, and almost word for word).
He’s a whiz at picture puzzles, and puzzle games.
He’ll spend a little time with crayons and coloring books, but coloring does not hold his attention for more than a few minutes.
He continues to love to play with his building blocks—and he always builds upward, not outward. Vertical building fascinates him; horizontal building does not.
He has a couple of compact discs he listens to. My sister-in-law created them for him, and she always shuffles the numbers so that the sequence is different each time he listens.
The discs are a composite of popular songs and instrumental music suitable for children.
Barbra Streisand’s rendition of “Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf?” is on one of the discs, and he absolutely loves the song. He likes to hear it over and over.
“The Big Time”, a snappy song from the Broadway musical, “The Will Rogers Follies”, sung by adults and children alike, is another one of his favorites—and a very unlikely one, I would think.
The final movements of Mozart’s Flute Concerto No. 2 and Horn Concerto No. 4 are on the disc so that he can identify different instruments, as are the first movements of Handel’s Organ Concerto No. 4 and Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto. All of these pieces are immediately appealing to young and old alike.
My nephew finds my niece to be more interesting now that she is somewhat active. They often play alongside each other.
My niece can crawl now, and make lots of noises, and observe what’s going on. She sits on the floor beside my nephew when he’s creating things with his building blocks and watches the proceedings—and even hands him a block now and again.
She has her own assortment of toys. Her favorite is a Ferris Wheel-like toy that rolls on the floor and plays music while it spins. She and my nephew roll the toy back and forth across the kitchen floor for ten minutes at a time.
She’s eating a greater variety of foods now, and she has become less fussy about what she eats compared to only a few weeks ago.
Like her older brother, she likes to go to her grandparents’ house, where she is assured of receiving an abundance of attention. Saturdays and Sundays are family days at her grandparents’ house; she sees her grandparents and her uncle all day Saturday and all day Sunday. On Wednesdays, she sees her grandmother during the day, and the rest of the family in the evening, when everyone gathers for Wednesday night dinner. On these occasions, she is always on someone’s lap, being played with and talked to and fussed over—and she loves it.
I cannot wait until Christmas, which will be the next time we shall be home (Josh and I will spend Thanksgiving with his family this year—but in Dallas, not in Oklahoma).
On Saturday, we had two items on our schedule—a late afternoon theater performance and an evening ballet performance—so we decided to stay home until 2:30 p.m., when we had to head downtown.
We had a long and leisurely breakfast that also served as our lunch. We ate cereal, and a bowl of berries, and ham-and-cheese omelets. I made kuchen, which everyone on the planet would make if they knew how easy it was to prepare the real thing.
Otherwise, we simply talked and monitored the college scoreboard online until it was time to leave.
We had tickets for the 4:00 p.m. performance at Speakeasy Stage Company, a theater company new to all of us. On the bill was “The Savannah Disputation”, a comedy that had premiered earlier this year in New York.
The performance was excellent, which surprised us greatly. Our previous experiences with Boston theater companies had not been positive, but the presentation of “The Savannah Disputation” was at a very high level. We wished we had taken my brother last weekend to see “The Savannah Disputation” instead of “Mister Roberts” and “Kiss Me, Kate”.
The play itself was not strong—it involved a Pentecostal missionary arguing with two devout Roman Catholics (and their parish priest) about religion and salvation—but it had a lot of laugh lines and was largely amusing (and pleasingly short). The playwright, Evan Smith, quite clearly learned his craft from television situation comedies. All afternoon, it seemed as if we were watching the live taping of a 100-minute television episode, with the laugh-lines built in at 30-second intervals.
Because the play was short, we had time to eat a decent dinner before the ballet performance.
Alas, we choose the wrong restaurant.
We went to Jacob Wirth, a Boston restaurant dating back to the 1890’s that serves German food. None of us had visited this Boston institution, and we had long wanted to give Jacob Wirth a try.
Jacob Wirth was deeply disappointing. Most of the items on the menu were not German. Most of the items were American, including—of all things—a lot of Tex-Mex foods.
Because nothing on the menu was appealing, we skipped salad, we skipped soup and we skipped appetizer.
All four of us ordered Wiener schnitzel. We had considered Sauerbraten and we had considered German sausages, but we abandoned those prospective items once we saw plates of those foods delivered to nearby tables. We decided to be safe, and stick with Wiener schnitzel, which is hard to ruin.
The food was minimally acceptable, nothing more. I can make better Wiener schnitzel than what we were served at Jacob Wirth.
For lack of enthusiasm, we skipped dessert.
Jacob Wirth is not worth visiting.
Our evening activity was a performance of “Giselle”, performed by Boston Ballet.
Boston Ballet offered a high-quality presentation of “Giselle”. It was clear that the performance had been very carefully prepared, well-cast down to the smallest role. It is not often that one encounters a meticulously-rehearsed and meticulously-cast “Giselle”, and we were grateful for the opportunity to experience a high-quality performance of the classic.
To me, “Giselle” is the least interesting of all full-length ballets in the central repertory. It has less of sheer dance interest than all other standard full-length works. “Giselle” lacks the sheer appeal of “Coppelia”, “Swan Lake”, “The Sleeping Beauty” or “Romeo And Juliet”. Any and all of the full-length Bournonville ballets are vastly superior to “Giselle”. All Balanchine and most Ashton full-length ballets are superior to “Giselle”. I sometimes wonder how this fragile work has managed to maintain such a tenacious hold upon the active repertory.
This was our second “Giselle” in eighteen months. I have now had enough of “Giselle” for the present. Unless Galina Ulanova comes back to life, I do not want to see the ballet again for a very long time.
Saturday night’s performance featured the opening-night Giselle and Albrecht, although Saturday night’s Myrtha was not the opening-night Myrtha. All three principals were quite convincing, dancing roles not easy to bring off.
The stage of the Boston Opera House is smaller than the stage of The Wang Center, which had served as the home of Boston Ballet until the current season. “Giselle” looked cramped on the stage of the Opera House. I cannot imagine how “Swan Lake” might be fitted onto the same stage.
The orchestra, with forty-some players, was alert and offered clean, precise playing.
It was a successful performance.
When we arrived home, all of us were hungry for dessert. We all wanted a REAL dessert, not something makeshift, but we had trouble settling upon what to prepare—and what to prepare that would not take all night.
Black Forest Cake being out of the question, we settled upon peach cobbler. While my mother prepared the pastry, Josh and I prepared the peach filling.
We ate the peach cobbler with ice cream.
It hit the spot.
On Sunday morning, we hung around the apartment until 11:00 a.m.
We ate cereal, and melons, and bananas, after which I prepared apple-walnut pancakes and sausages. My father likes apple-walnut pancakes, and it was a pleasure to prepare them for him.
At 11:00 a.m., we headed for the Museum Of Fine Arts, where we spent a couple of hours viewing the collection of European Painting. The Museum Of Fine Arts has a good—but not great—collection of European Painting, and we enjoyed walking through the rooms.
Because of the museum’s peculiar ticket policy, Josh and I were able to reuse our tickets from the previous Sunday, when we had taken my brother to view the museum’s antiquities collections. The Museum Of Fine Arts allows visitors to make a second visit to the museum within ten days of the first visit if the ticket has been preserved. Quite intentionally, Josh and I had preserved our tickets from the previous Sunday—and we were able to save $34.00.
At 2:00 p.m., we headed for Symphony Hall for a 3:00 p.m. concert by The Handel And Haydn Society, Boston’s period-instrument orchestra. The orchestra was to play music by Vivaldi (with a little Handel thrown in). Andreas Scholl was guest soloist.
I am not an aficionado of the countertenor voice, but Scholl is as fine a countertenor as any active singer in the voice category. Scholl’s voice flows freely and does not sound artificial or manufactured—and such cannot be said of all countertenors before the public today.
It was a fine concert, and we enjoyed it immensely, although two hours of Baroque music is more than I generally prefer at a single sitting (unless Bach is the composer).
The conductor was Corsican Jean-Christophe Spinosi. I had never heard Spinosi, and I thought he was quite good.
Except for two arias from Handel operas, the entire concert was devoted to music of Vivaldi.
Happily, the best piece was saved for last: the Stabat Mater, my favorite of all Vivaldi works. I think the Stabat Mater is the most beautiful and most sustained piece of music Vivaldi ever wrote. The Stabat Mater is so beautiful that it is almost worthy of Bach.
Scholl was more than competent in the Stabat Mater, but I much prefer a mezzo-soprano in the piece. A fine mezzo-soprano can offer a depth of sound simply beyond any countertenor I have heard, including Scholl.
Sunday was our first visit to The Handel And Haydn Society. Josh and I had talked about attending one of the group’s events last season, but we never made it to any of last season’s concerts.
This season’s Handel And Haydn Society programs are more interesting to us than last season’s programs, and I believe Josh and I may try to attend one or two additional concerts.
My parents were especially pleased to hear The Handel And Haydn Society concert. There is no resident period-instrument ensemble in the Twin Cities, and touring period-instrument ensembles no longer appear in the Twin Cities as frequently as they did ten and twenty years ago. My parents found the concert to be a special treat.
We all heartily enjoyed the idiotic and cliché-ridden program notes in the program booklet, written by and for morons. Among other priceless gems, we learned that Handel and Vivaldi were part of the “global economy” of their time and that “each work on today’s program encapsulates a world of musical expression”.
We went home after the concert, and spent the rest of the evening preparing a big dinner.
We stuffed and roasted a chicken. We made an Amish cabbage salad. We made a tomato-cucumber-onion salad. We made my mother’s version of Waldorf salad. We prepared mashed potatoes. We steamed peas, white corn, and carrots. We made lemon pudding cake for dessert.
It was a lot of fun.
And it was a good dinner.
If our apartment were one iota tinier, one of the four of us would have had to spend the entire weekend in the car. However, there was just enough room for everyone to manage comfortably.
My father told Josh and me that our apartment is more colorful now than it was one year ago. Any additional color is the result solely of the additional books on our bookshelves. Nothing else has changed. The book spines must add color to our living room.
There is only a half-wall, and not a full wall, between our kitchen and our living room. When the kitchen lights are turned on, and when the two lamps and the two computers in the living room are turned on, our apartment gives the illusion of light, airy spaciousness.
Nonetheless, it is a very, very small space. With two of us in the kitchen and two of us in the living room, we could have conversations as if we were all jointly gathered around a table. In fact, we could have conversed in whispers back and forth, and not missed a single syllable.
I don’t think my parents minded the tight spaces for a long weekend, especially since we spent about half of our time outside the apartment. Further, when we were home, my parents were comfortable. They were able to rest and relax and enjoy themselves.
On Sunday evening, while we were cooking and eating, we discussed what to do on Monday.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday had been planned in advance, if for no other reason than Josh and I had had to acquire concert, ballet and theater tickets in order to assure seats.
Monday, on the other hand, had been left open.
We explored a few alternatives, and settled upon an excursion to Salem in order to visit the Salem Witch Museum and The House Of The Seven Gables, both of which would be entirely new to all of us.
We rose at 7:00 a.m. Monday morning so that we could have time for breakfast and time for my parents to pack their things before we headed up to Salem.
We had grapefruit, cereal, bacon and eggs, and fried potatoes for breakfast.
We set out at 9:30 a.m.
We visited the Salem Witch Museum first.
The museum is housed in a de-consecrated church. The museum is little more than a glorified audio-visual presentation that lasts half an hour. The presentation tells the story of the witchcraft trials, the suspected causes of the hysteria, and the means by which the trials were brought to an end (the Massachusetts Governor disbanded the Salem court, putting an instant stop to the madness, and turned the matter over to a new court which was to release those awaiting trial and pardon those awaiting execution).
The Salem Witch Museum was not worth visiting.
The House Of The Seven Gables, on the other hand, proved to be a genuine treat.
The mansion itself was far more interesting than we had anticipated, and the property included other attractions, too: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s house; an old counting house; colonial gardens; and a private waterfront looking out upon Salem Harbor. We enjoyed touring The House Of The Seven Gables and its attached properties very much.
After our visit to The House Of The Seven Gables, we spent a couple of hours exploring Salem’s waterfront district. The historic streets, with many notable 18th-Century buildings, were fascinating. In 1790, Salem was America’s sixth-largest city, and the wealthiest city in the United States (and perhaps the world). This was apparent from the many fine buildings that lined the ancient streets. The old part of Salem is a treasure trove of 18th-Century history and architecture, and we loved walking the old core of the town.
In the middle of the afternoon, we had a late lunch at a restaurant overlooking Salem Harbor. The views were marvelous, and the food was excellent. For a starter course, we ordered lobster risotto. For a main course, we ordered baked haddock. Out of sheer dumb luck, we had stumbled upon a first-class establishment, and were able to enjoy a splendid lunch while enjoying splendid views of the waterfront.
After lunch, we had to return to Boston and take my parents to the airport. My parents’ flight was to depart just before 6:00 p.m. and we wanted to get to the airport with plenty of time to spare.
It was a very good weekend. We all had a good time. We explored a few things we had never previously bothered to check out, we caught a few decent performances, and we did not run ourselves ragged.
We could not have asked for anything more.
Their weekend in Boston was my parents’ first travel opportunity since their trip to Portugal in April.
It was about time for them to go somewhere and enjoy something different, even if only for a few days.