Monday, October 31, 2011

A Night For Kids . . . And Cookies

A Great Weekend

On late Friday afternoon, my mother drove downtown to join my father, my middle brother, and Joshua and me for an evening out.

We had dinner at a nice restaurant, and afterward we attended Theater In The Round’s production of “The Reluctant Debutante”, a 1955 play by William Douglas-Home.

None of us had seen “The Reluctant Debutante”, and I had never before seen a Douglas-Home play. Douglas-Home plays have fallen by the wayside, other than very infrequent revivals of “Lloyd George Knew My Father”, and I was curious to see the work of a playwright whose plays held the London stage throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

“The Reluctant Debutante” presents the story of a family introducing its daughter to London society, trying to guide her through the thicket of social etiquette and propriety while attempting to identify prospective matches for her. Because of a misunderstanding, an unsuitable prospect is allowed to enter the picture, and the play traces the course of the daughter’s fascination and the parents’ dissatisfaction with the unlikely young suitor.

The comedy is a gentle one—it never veers into the territory of satire or truly sharp social observation—and, this being a 1950s drawing-room comedy, everything ends happily. I would characterize “The Reluctant Debutante” as the quintessential pre-John Osborne play.

Alas, the play is not very good. It is too long (almost three hours), very slow-moving, and not particularly imaginative. Perhaps the play’s most serious deficiency is that the dialogue does not sparkle. If the dialogue does not sparkle, why revive a tedious 1950s comedy of manners?

If “The Reluctant Debutante” represents the playwright at his best, Douglas-Home was little more than a bargain-basement Terence Rattigan—and Rattigan plays no longer hold the stage. Absent an extraordinary cast and an extraordinary production, “The Reluctant Debutante” is probably better off left on the shelf. I do not understand what Theater In The Round saw in the material, and I do not understand why Theater In The Round thought this particular play might appeal to audiences in 2011.

The production was not one of Theater In The Round’s finer efforts. I thought the debutante was miscast (as well as too old for the part) and I thought the mother was both miscast and misdirected. I found it impossible to accept debutante and mother as of the same bloodline—both actresses seemed to belong to separate solar systems—and it appeared that the father had even less in common with the two female members of his family. “Did these people just meet?” was a question I asked myself all evening.

The staging was obvious and “punched up”—the actors strained for laughs, and tried far too hard to create the illusion that something amusing was going on—and I suspect that the current “Reluctant Debutante” is one of those productions in which the stage director threw in the towel in the final week of rehearsals and told his cast to do whatever was necessary to enliven the proceedings. The final result was anything but a unified ensemble.

Ticket sales for “The Reluctant Debutante” have been poor, and word-of-mouth for the production has been poorer still. I suspect Theater In The Round made a mistake in selecting this play for its 2011-2012 season.

“The Reluctant Debutante” is the second consecutive Theater In The Round presentation in which demand for tickets has proven disappointing. The company’s previous production, “Bus Stop”, also did not generate robust ticket sales—and I have been told that “The Reluctant Debutante” is faring less well at the box office even than “Bus Stop”. It may be time for Theater In The Round to give 1950s plays a prolonged rest. (Theater In The Round is underwritten, and therefore not imperiled by box-office shortfalls.)

Anna Massey, who died four months ago, made her first professional stage appearance in the original 1955 London production of “The Reluctant Debutante”. The role made Massey a star (at least in Britain), and she was to repeat the role in the 1956 Broadway production.

MGM produced a film version of the play in 1958. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, the film starred Sandra Dee, who portrayed the debutante. I do not believe the film (which I have not seen) is considered to be one of the high points of the Minnelli canon.

Before the theater performance, we ate dinner at a restaurant not far from the theater. We enjoyed a very pleasing meal.

We all ordered the same soup: parsnip-green apple soup with crème fraiche and caviar.

For main course, my mother ordered grilled shrimp on roasted sweet potato, leek and speck, with a truffle broth.

My father and Josh ordered Angus filet, bleu cheese mashed potatoes, sun-dried tomatoes and Scotch bonnet peppers.

My brother ordered short ribs, mirepoix and pommes frites.

I ordered pan-seared wild duck breast, Belgian waffle and pomegranate, with sweet onion-coffee liqueur marmalade.

For dessert, we all ordered coconut cake and lemon sorbet, with rum caramel sauce.

The food was excellent.

Saturday was a big day for us because all the men in my family went to the Minnesota-Iowa game. It was my nephew’s first football game, and he was excited beyond words—indeed, he had been excited about the game for over a week, talking about it incessantly and asking thousands of questions. Happily, the weather on Saturday was beautiful—warm and sunny—and we did not have to bundle him up as if for a trip to the Arctic Circle.

My mother prepared a lunch for us to eat at 11:30 a.m. on the dot—homemade chicken noodle soup and tuna salad sandwiches—and we left for the game at 12:00 Noon on the dot. We took two cars to the game in the event my nephew wanted or needed to leave early.

The game started at 2:30 p.m., exactly in the middle of my nephew’s normal naptime, but my nephew’s excitement easily carried him through the afternoon. He loved the stadium and he loved the crowds and he loved the band and he loved the fans standing and cheering—and, since the game was televised, he thought his mother, grandmother and sister were somehow able to watch HIM on television at home.

The rules of football are too complicated for a six-year-old to follow, and the game itself was not of particular interest to my nephew. It was the sense of participating in a major sporting event, not the action on the field, that excited him.

In fact, he became bored by the game during the second quarter. By halftime, his interest in the athletic contest had completely waned. He stayed to observe the halftime show, which he very much enjoyed, but after the halftime festivities his father and grandfather took him home.

It was probably all for the best that he left the game early. The drive home was swift, avoiding game-end traffic, and he was able to eat his dinner at the normal hour, which is very important to him. (Throughout the game, he expressed great concern about missing his dinner, even though we told him over and over that his dinner would be waiting for him the very minute he got home.)

My middle brother and Josh and I stayed for the entire game. Minnesota was putting up a fight—the game was tied, 7-7, at halftime—but it looked as if Minnesota was starting to lose steam late in the third quarter.

My father, my older brother and my nephew arrived home just as the fourth quarter was beginning. Only seconds after they walked in the door of my parents’ house, Iowa scored a touchdown to take a 21-10 lead, and it appeared—both to them arriving at home and to us remaining at the stadium—that the game was over.

Minnesota, however, assembled its grit, scored twice late in the game, and won, 22-21. It was an amazing—and gutsy—fourth quarter for the Golden Gophers, and it was certainly the game of the year for Minnesota fans. This was the second year in a row in which a very weak Minnesota team had knocked off a heavily-favored Iowa team, and Josh and I were pleased that we had chosen this particular game as our only game of the season. It was a great game, and one with a happy ending.

As far as we know, no Iowa fans were charged with public lewdness on Saturday, although we shall have to keep our eyes on the news—after all, it was two days after the Minnesota-Iowa game a couple of years ago when local newspapers first reported that Iowa fans had been arrested and charged with lewd conduct during the game (the Iowa fans charged with lewd acts had pleaded guilty, were fined, and were sentenced to probation).

Sunday was an even bigger day in my family than Saturday, because Sunday was my nephew’s sixth birthday. It is very hard for me to believe that he is already six years old. It is equally hard for me to believe that he has not always been part of our lives.

At Sunday School, his classmates and teachers sang “Happy Birthday” to him and celebrated his birthday with cupcakes and fruit juices.

When we returned home from church, we had apple pancakes and apple sausage for breakfast—and an apple-walnut coffee cake. The food theme was apple pursuant to my nephew’s request.

While my nephew and niece were taking their naps, my mother made my nephew’s birthday cake. She made a carrot cake, because a carrot cake is what he said he wanted.

When the kids woke from their naps, we made Halloween cookies. Everyone worked on the project, including the kids, because we were making cookies for two households for trick-or-treating on Halloween night.

We made pumpkin-nut cookies, and sugar cookies in the shapes of pumpkins and ghosts.

After the cookies were baked and cooled, we had to decorate and package the cookies, the most fun part of the project. While the rest of us decorated and packaged cookies, my mother decorated my nephew’s birthday cake.

On Sunday night, we had my nephew’s birthday dinner. He picked the menu. We had thick-cut pork chops and stuffing, mashed potatoes, butternut squash, lima beans, corn and applesauce.

An hour after dinner, we ate birthday cake and homemade ice cream, and presented my nephew with his birthday gifts. He was happy as a lark, and so was everyone else.

It was a great weekend.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Floyd Of Rosedale To Remain In Twin Cities

The honored and esteemed Floyd Of Rosedale will remain resident of Minneapolis for another year.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Lausanne 1915

Leonide Massine and designers Natalia Gontcharova, Mikhail Larionov and Leon Bakst surround Igor Stravinsky at Bellerive, Serge Diaghilev’s rented estate near Lausanne, in July 1915.

The front lines were barely 100 miles away from this summer idyll, and July 1915 was the same month in which Germany launched its “Triple Offensive” and introduced the flamethrower into battle.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Eiji Oue Did It Better

After work on Friday, Joshua and I and my middle brother went over to my older brother’s house in order to have dinner and to play with the kids.

For dinner, we ate breaded thin-cut pork cutlets—often referred to as “tenderloin” in Minnesota and other parts of the Upper Midwest—served with stuffing, peas, corn, carrots and biscuits. For dessert, we ate banana pudding. Friday’s dinner is one of the favorite dinners of my nephew and niece.

Until the kids’ bedtimes, we played games with them, including an animal board game that makes all of us laugh.

My parents attended a Minnesota Orchestra subscription concert on Friday evening. They heard Robert Spano lead the orchestra—without distinction—in music of Falla, Piazzolla and Copland.

According to my parents, the Copland—the Symphony No. 3—was on the verge of collapse in all four movements, with Spano totally unable to maintain tension or momentum. “Believe it or not, Eiji Oue did it better” was my father’s final verdict—and my father’s remarks were not intended as any sort of compliment to Oue, whom my father loathed. The Minnesota Orchestra needs to do something about its weak roster of guest conductors; the guest roster, grim by any measure, is the most critical issue currently facing the orchestra.

The soloist was violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. My parents said that Salerno-Sonnenberg is not aging well. She apparently looked awful—unattractive, overweight and outright dumpy, with a face (and complexion) that would frighten small children. Salerno-Sonnenberg is now fifty years old, and my parents said she looked as if she were sixty-five years old, perhaps seventy.

Josh and I never contemplated attending the concert. I would have to be paid to sit through Spano, and I would have to be paid to sit through Salerno-Sonnenberg—and I would have to be paid double to sit through Spano and Salerno-Sonnenberg sharing the same concert platform.

Minnesota hosted Nebraska on Saturday, but my father and my brothers skipped the game. They were wise to do so: the game was over early in the second quarter.

Many persons holding Minnesota season tickets are not attending games this year. In fact, game-by-game, they must be selling their tickets online to out-of-town fans from visiting teams. On Saturday, more than two-thirds of the persons in the stadium were Nebraska fans clad in Nebraska colors and Cornhusker regalia.

Minnesota may now have the most hapless major-college football program in the country. Things are so bad, the watchword in Minnesota in recent weeks has become: “Remind me again why we fired Glen Mason”.

Mason, former Minnesota coach who had achieved a winning record and seven bowl appearances in ten seasons leading the Golden Gophers, was fired in 2006 because the university athletic department had wanted to move the football program to “the next level”. Well, “the next level” has arrived—but it is not the level the university athletic department had envisioned back in 2006.

In retrospect, Mason’s tenure looks better and better with each passing year. Sadly, it may take years for the program to get back to the level of accomplishment it regularly displayed under Mason.

No one regretted missing the thumping Nebraska handed Minnesota.

In any case, we had more important things to do on Saturday. My nephew will celebrate his sixth birthday on Sunday, October 30, and we had birthday gifts to buy.

My middle brother and Josh and I decided to brave the crowds at The Mall Of America, as the toy selection there is indeed phenomenal, better than anyplace else we might have visited.

We checked out toys at The Mall Of America for more than five hours, looking for unusual and intriguing items. We did not arrive back home until almost 4:00 p.m.—but, once home, we had with us what we believed to be ideal birthday gifts for a six-year-old boy.

We had an activity planned for Saturday night: a performance by Scottish Ballet at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. My parents, my sister-in-law, and Josh and I attended the performance; everyone else spent the evening at my older brother’s house.

We bought tickets primarily because we were curious to see Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet, “Song Of The Earth”, danced to Mahler. None of us had seen the ballet—not even my sister-in-law, long resident in London and raised on MacMillan ballets, had seen “Song Of The Earth”—and we were mildly eager to see this seldom-staged ballet first presented in 1965 (in Stuttgart).

Only one American company has ever presented the ballet. In 1988, Houston Ballet mounted “Song Of The Earth”; last month, that company offered the ballet a second time.

After one viewing, “Song Of The Earth” struck me as typical MacMillan: strikingly uninventive choreography attempting to express what MacMillan believed to be deep and profound thoughts, in this case about life and death.

Of course, there is nothing in the least deep or profound about “Song Of The Earth” unless one has the mind of a high school sophomore. The ballet is entirely predictable as it unfolds, without a single surprise in store, and borrows heavily from Antony Tudor’s “Dark Elegies” (also danced to Mahler). As exercise in pure choreography, “Song Of The Earth” is spectacular failure; as onstage demonstration of Weltschmerz, the ballet is spectacular kitsch. It is easy to understand why American companies, Houston excepted, have never touched the work.

I thought the choreographer made a grave mistake in including a Messenger Of Death onstage. The presence of the Messenger Of Death transformed a painfully obvious ballet into an insufferably obvious one. That the Messenger Of Death wore a facemask not entirely dissimilar to the facemask worn in “Phantom Of The Opera” made it hard to stifle giggles.

It is possible the work might have been better-served in a better performance—but I remain skeptical that the work warrants revival. A long-forgotten ballet by Frederick Ashton should have been offered in place of the MacMillan.

Scottish Ballet is not a good company. Thirty-six dancers were listed in the program booklet, and not one of the dancers onstage would have made it through the first round of auditions for a corps position at New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre.

The company has no business making international tours. I hope Scottish Ballet’s overseers have the good sense to keep the company restricted to native territory in future. Whoever made the bone-headed decision to send this troupe overseas should be immediately discharged.

Preceding the MacMillan was a ballet by Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo. Elo has been resident choreographer of Boston Ballet since 2005, yet Josh and I never saw any of Elo’s works during the three years we were in Boston. The one time we attended a Boston Ballet program on which an Elo work was included, we departed before the final work of the evening, which was the Elo. (The Finnish choreographer’s work on that particular program had been a new “Rite Of Spring”, uniformly and vociferously panned by Boston and New York critics—and the extremely dismissive notices had caused Josh and me not to want to waste our time on the ballet.)

I remember nothing about Elo’s ballet danced by Scottish Ballet on Saturday night except that dancers were continually running around the stage, to no discernible purpose. I saw nothing in the work that made me want to see the ballet a second time. Danced to music of Reich and Mozart, the ballet’s title was “Kings 2 Ends”. The work was so empty, I did not even bother to read the program notes to learn the rationale for the ballet’s title—the first time in my life such a thing has occurred.

On our way home, we all asked ourselves a question that arises after almost every Minneapolis dance event: “Why do we keep going to these dance things, when they always prove to be so disappointing?”

“Hope springs eternal” was more or less the consensus answer—but, after witnessing Scottish Ballet’s unfortunate local appearance, we are somewhat soured on dance at present.

While driving home, we decided to write off next month’s Minneapolis appearance by The Royal Winnipeg Ballet (I do not think any of us could make it through yet another Alice In Wonderland ballet). We nonetheless decided to stick with our plans to attend next month’s Minneapolis appearance by Merce Cunningham Dance Company (part of the Cunningham farewell tour, after which the group will permanently disband). What we truly crave, however, is a stiff dose of Balanchine to wipe away the aftertaste of the MacMillan.

On Sunday, we did nothing other than attend service. We stayed home all day and played with the kids.

It was the best day of the weekend.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

“The Best Color Is The One That Looks Good On You”

Coco Chanel’s maxim has apparently been banned in London.

This 2007 photograph presents Britain’s hideously overdressed Royal Ballet, the worst-costumed dance company on the planet.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


Revolution in Hamburg in November 1918.

Immediately following The Sailors' Revolt, revolutionary movements broke out in most large German cities. The movements were not to be quelled until 1919.

The gathering in the photograph occurred in the very center of Hamburg.

The handsome Greek Revival structure in the background now houses a Burger King franchise.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

An Email Message From The Past

I sent the following email message to a former history professor of mine on October 19, 2008, exactly three years ago.

He sent me back my original message tonight, noting my prescience.


The current contraction is different from the contraction of the 1930s, at least in terms of the attitude of the populace.

In the 1930s, the attitude of Americans was to seek work, and lots of it. Work was viewed as the ultimate solution to their own—and the nation’s—problems.

Today the attitude of too many Americans is to seek handouts, and lots of them. Handouts are viewed as the ultimate solution to their own—and the nation’s—problems.

I wonder whether such persons have any idea that they are held in contempt, even loathing, by much of the American populace.

To be honest, I don’t think such persons have a clue.

Among the uneducated, the unsophisticated and the unsuccessful, statism is now viewed as a viable solution to most problems, real or imagined. This attitude is destined to be a short-term phenomenon, clearly, but observing this temporary attitude is surely troubling to most Americans, who must be terrified every time they open a newspaper or switch on a news program or read a magazine.

We live in an era in which most persons who express opinions in public are obtuse. They seem never to have taken an elementary logic course, or a basic philosophy course, or a beginner’s economics course, or a fundamental history course.

They appear to live in perpetual states of seventh-grade infantilism, words and conduct guided by situational ethics, ignorance, blather and cant.

Is our body politic in a state of decay?

My father says that the short-term answer to that question is “Yes”, and that we as a nation have several years of ugly deterioration ahead. However, he is quick to add that the managerial class will be the one segment of the population to emerge unscathed from the coming maelstrom, and that it will be those in the bottom half of the socio-economic stratum that will take it on the chin, over and over, relentlessly, for the next several years, because this group is going to find itself in a near-permanent state of unemployment.

Cleopatra's Needle

The ancient Egyptian obelisk in London known as Cleopatra’s Needle.

Cleopatra’s Needle is situated in The Victoria Embankment Gardens near the banks of The Thames.

The obelisk has nothing whatsoever to do with Cleopatra. It was already 1000 years old during Cleopatra’s lifetime.

It seems as if every time we visit London we stroll through The Victoria Embankment Gardens and take another gander at Cleopatra’s Needle. Most recently, we did so in 2007, we did so in 2008, and we did so again this year.

The London obelisk’s twin is in New York’s Central Park. Both obelisks were gifted by the Egyptian government to London and New York in the 19th Century.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Offer And Acceptance

We stayed home this past weekend. Other than a brief house-hunting expedition on Saturday and attendance at service on Sunday, we remained in all weekend.

My mother has been busy devising ways to use the pumpkin pulp that had resulted from the previous weekend’s pumpkin project. On Friday night, she made pumpkin bread (with raisins and walnuts), one of my mother’s specialties. On Saturday afternoon, she made pumpkin cookies. Late Sunday afternoon, she made pumpkin soup. If we parcel things out properly, we shall have pumpkin pulp on hand through Thanksgiving—and, if we run out, we shall go buy more pumpkins.

On Saturday morning, everyone in the family went to examine a house Joshua and I were considering for a purchase. Josh and I had been looking at houses since Labor Day, and we had settled upon a house that we think is right for us. We wanted all family members to see the house in order to collect their opinions.

The exterior of the house is completed, but the interior has not been finished. Interior walls are in place, but the interior is otherwise a shell.

No one had any objections to the house other than my nephew and niece, who both thought the barren interiors very odd.

We discussed the matter for the remainder of the weekend—and we consulted about such matters as price and offer terms. At the conclusion of the weekend, our decision was to offer twenty-one per cent less than the asking price and await a response from the builder.

On Monday morning, Josh and I submitted a written offer and tendered earnest money.

Our offer was accepted within three hours.


In the final days of World War II, there was widespread public looting in many cities of The Reich, as civilians attempted to obtain and stockpile whatever foodstuffs and consumer goods they could find.

The photograph above depicts looting in Vienna in April 1945.

The photograph below depicts looting in Munich in April 1945.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Munich 1945

This aerial photograph of Munich was taken on June 19, 1945, six weeks after cessation of hostilities.

At the very top of the photograph may be seen Frauenkirche, although the photograph cuts off the towers.

At the right is Neues Rathaus, immediately below which is Peterskirche, with only the base of its spire intact.

The open area at the bottom of the photograph is, of course, Viktualienmarkt.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Vienna 1945

The Danube Canal in central Vienna immediately after The Fall Of Vienna.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Shakespeare Day

We had a very good three-day holiday weekend.

On Friday night, my parents and Joshua and I ate out—we had a quick, simple meal at Edina Grill, where we ordered meat loaf, mashed potatoes and green beans—after which we did some serious food shopping.

For three hours, we visited food stores and specialty stores, and we stocked up on practically everything, including special October items such as pumpkins, ciders and Indian corn. When we got home, it took us almost an hour to store all the food we had picked up.

On Saturday morning, everyone came over early in order to eat breakfast at my parents’ house. I had alerted everyone that I was going to make waffles on Saturday morning, and apparently no one wanted to miss out.

We ate shredded wheat, bananas and cream, and tomato-onion-green pepper omelets before getting the waffles underway. I made waffles with walnuts, and we ate the waffles with fresh ground sausage. No one had cause to be hungry when breakfast was over.

We spent most of Saturday doing yard work and other outdoor tasks. My nephew and niece spent much of the day outside with us, observing and supervising our activities. It was a beautiful autumn day, and we enjoyed ourselves immensely.

For lunch, my mother made Norwegian fish chowder, a type of chowder made with assorted fishes and vegetables, all cooked in a cream base seasoned with several spices. My mother had not made this particular chowder for quite some time—Saturday was the first encounter with the chowder for Josh and my sister-in-law as well as my nephew and niece—and everyone loved it. The chowder is filling but not heavy, with subtle and refined flavors that belie its undoubted origin in ancient Norwegian peasant food (probably emanating from Bergen, where—owing to the town’s membership in the Hanseatic League—non-native spices would have been available).

We completed our outdoor work by the time the kids woke from their afternoon naps, at which point we all had a snack of poached apricots and gingerbread men warm from the oven.

After our snack, it was time for the main attraction of our day: preparing pumpkins.

First thing, we carved out four pumpkins, trying not to make too much of a mess in my mother’s kitchen. When we were done, my mother immediately began to cook the pumpkin pulp with spices in order to preserve the pulp, while the rest of us began to create Jack-O’-Lanterns from the pumpkin carcasses. For the sake of my nephew and niece, we tried to make the Jack-O’-Lanterns as interesting and as elaborate as possible while still maintaining structural integrity (after all, we do not want the pumpkin carcasses to collapse until Halloween has come and gone). Two Jack-O’-Lanterns were to remain at my parents’ house and two Jack-O’-Lanterns were to go home with my nephew and niece. The intended result: my nephew and niece will have personal Jack-O’-Lanterns at their grandparents’ house as well as at their own home.

We tried to make two Jack-O’-Lanterns look like males for my nephew, and we tried to make two Jack-O’-Lanterns look like females for my niece, but I doubt that anyone outside the family, seeing the results, would have a clue that we had tried to make such a differentiation. Nevertheless, we all had a ball with the pumpkins; there had been a purpose to our activity.

We had a major dinner Saturday night: homemade tomato-cream soup; grilled thick-cut pork chops, stuffing, escalloped cheddar potatoes, steamed lima beans, steamed parsnips, steamed white corn, red cabbage baked in cream and butter, and homemade applesauce; and blackberry cobbler with ice cream.

On Sunday morning, after church, we all had breakfast at my parents’ house: bacon, scrambled eggs, and fried potatoes. We were saving pancakes for Monday, a holiday—and, because we had afternoon plans, we had wanted a breakfast that involved very little preparation time.

After breakfast, my brothers took the kids (and the dog) over to my older brother’s house, while my parents, my sister-in-law, and Josh and I headed downtown to catch the 1:00 p.m. matinee at The Guthrie.

“Much Ado About Nothing” was on the bill. Directed by Artistic Director Joe Dowling, The Guthrie’s “Much Ado” was mostly a traditional production, with two wrinkles: the setting was updated to the 1920s; and the ages of the primary characters were greatly advanced. In this “Much Ado”, Beatrice and Benedick were in their late sixties while Hero and Claudio were in late middle age.

If Dowling believed that “Much Ado” would gain new perspective by advancing the ages of the main characters, he was mistaken. No new insights into one of Shakespeare’s best comedies were revealed. There had been no real purpose in making the two pairs of lovers much older than Shakespeare intended, any more than there had been a real purpose in updating the play’s setting to the 1920s (other than as a gift to the production’s design team).

The actor portraying Benedick had been imported from London, and the actress playing Beatrice had been imported from Dublin. Both were perfectly fine, but neither was in any way remarkable.

No one else in the production was remarkable, either. The Guthrie “Much Ado” was very much a standard Guthrie presentation: everything on a high level, nothing genuinely distinguished.

The physical production was lavish (and costly), but it was neither appealing nor elegant. In fact, I thought the physical production was outright unattractive, perhaps one of the least attractive Guthrie productions I have ever encountered.

Dowling has been Artistic Director of The Guthrie since 1995—he came to Minneapolis from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, where his guidance of that famed company had been greatly acclaimed—and I have concluded, after sixteen years, that Dowling is a better administrator than stage director. The Guthrie has a reputation for being phenomenally well-administered under Dowling, but Dowling’s own productions have not, in my experience, been particularly stylish or penetrating.

I cannot name a single Dowling production I have attended that has been memorable. I cannot recall a single Dowling production that has caused me to rethink or reassess a play. There has not been a single Dowling production I have wished to see a second time.

Dowling is nearing retirement age. In my view, The Guthrie should allow Dowling to remain Artistic Director as long as he wants, but the number of productions Dowling personally directs should be sharply curtailed.

After the matinee performance, we returned to Edina. On our way to my older brother’s house, we picked up an early dinner—we stopped at Boston Market for the second time in a week and bought chickens, stuffing, mashed potatoes and vegetables—and, once at my brother’s house, we were all able to sit down to a decent meal without expending any effort.

As soon as we finished eating, my parents, my sister-in-law, and Josh and I said “Good night” to everyone, and got in the car and headed back to downtown Minneapolis. We had another Shakespeare play to see, “Hamlet” at Jungle Theater, and there was a 7:30 p.m. curtain.

Knowing we would have a rest day before and a rest day after, we had deliberately set aside the middle day of a three-day weekend to see the two current Shakespeare productions in town, both lengthy and both requiring the viewer’s full attention. By design, we had chosen to see comedy in the afternoon and tragedy in the evening. It was, as we called it, “A Shakespeare Day”.

The Jungle Theater “Hamlet” was odd. Set in the present, the Jungle production was a high-technology “Hamlet”, with cell phones, laptops, iPads, video cameras, large-screen televisions and other assorted technological devices always present onstage—and always in use.

Elsinore Castle had its own security center, where security personnel monitored movements throughout the castle on video screens. The theater performance of the visiting theatrical troupe was replicated in real time via giant digital images on digital screens. Ophelia used a microphone for one of her monologues. Hamlet’s soliloquy was supported by a PowerPoint presentation.

Some of the reliance upon technology was clever, but most of it was not. It was possible for me to enjoy the performance only by ignoring the nonstop barrage of technological gadgets and by pretending that I was seeing a bare-stage “Hamlet”.

The production was not a disaster. The play, more or less, came across—and this was so despite the fact that the production was totally bereft of ideas (technological gizmos are not the same things as ideas). I had never before seen a production of “Hamlet” in which the director exhibited not a single thought about the play’s meaning. I did not think such a thing was possible—until Sunday.

The young actor playing the title role did not embarrass himself. His name is Hugh Kennedy. In each act, there was a ten-minute stretch in which Kennedy was quite good. Alas, in each act, there was also a ten-minute stretch in which Kennedy was quite bad. All night, Kennedy veered between being captivating one moment and inept the next. It was very vexing. However, without Kennedy, the entire performance would have been unendurable.

The rest of the company was unimpressive. The ladies fared worst, with a truly dreadful Gertrud and an even worse Ophelia. Indeed, the young woman playing Ophelia was so bad, I felt sorry for her.

In hindsight, I am surprised I was able to make it through the evening. However, while the play was underway, my attention was mostly held. Bad production that it was, the Jungle “Hamlet” was not a waste of time.

We caught the closing performance of the six-week run. Although an hour of text had been trimmed, the performance nonetheless ran almost three-and-one-half hours.

Josh and I had last seen “Hamlet” in April 2006, over that year’s Easter Weekend. Josh had come to Minneapolis for the first time that weekend, and he and I had gone downtown that Saturday to see “Hamlet” at the old Guthrie. “Hamlet” had opened the old Guthrie in 1963, and “Hamlet” had closed the old Guthrie in 2006. I had wanted Josh to experience the old Guthrie before the building was demolished, and that 2006 “Hamlet” was Josh’s only opportunity. (The razing of the old Guthrie was a disgrace—it was probably the only occurrence in world history in which a state-of-the-art theater facility was deliberately destroyed after only 43 years of use. Once The Guthrie moved into its new complex, The Guthrie should have turned over its former theater to another of the repertory theater companies in the Twin Cities instead of calling in the wrecking-ball crew.)

My parents had last seen “Hamlet” six months ago, when they had attended a performance of “Hamlet” at Theater In The Round, which had presented a four-week run of the play in March and April. According to my parents, the Jungle production we attended Sunday night was superior to the Theater In The Round production they had attended in April, a prospect I find rather frightening.

My sister-in-law had last seen “Hamlet” in 2000, when she had seen the National Theatre production by Sam Mendes, a production featuring Simon Russell Beale as Hamlet. That 2000 production is recalled by some with fondness, but my sister-in-law insists that Beale was seriously miscast and seriously misdirected. She says that Beale virtually rewrote the character of Hamlet in order to get by in the notoriously difficult part, and that Beale’s conception of the part involved playing Hamlet not as prince but as down-market dip.

Our “Shakespeare Day” was fun, but I would not want to repeat the experience anytime soon. It was almost midnight by the time we arrived home, we were exhausted, and the productions and performances truly had not been fine enough to justify our significant expenditure of time and trouble.

Monday was a happier day for us. Everyone came over for breakfast. We ate Eggs Benedict followed by buttermilk pancakes.

After breakfast, we took the kids (and the dog) to the park. Otherwise, we did nothing but stay home and play with the kids (and the dog).

We had a lunch of grilled tuna steaks, homemade egg noodles and peas. We ate strawberries and cream and fresh scones in the middle of the afternoon. We had a dinner of pot roast, homemade stewed tomatoes, homemade macaroni-and-cheese, baked butternut squash and fresh green beans, followed by apples baked in pastry with cinnamon sauce.

We did not intend to starve on Columbus Day.

Jungle Theater's "Hamlet"

Jungle Theater's high-technology "Hamlet".

In the photograph, security personnel are seen monitoring movements in the halls of Elsinore Castle.

Photograph by Twin Cities theater photographer Michel Daniel.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Orchestra Hall On A Thursday Morning

On Thursday morning, Joshua and I sneaked out of our respective offices for an early and long lunch. We met at Orchestra Hall to hear the 11:00 a.m. concert by the Minnesota Orchestra.

Music Director Osmo Vanska was conductor, and pianist Simone Dinnerstein was soloist. On the program was music by Darius Milhaud, Maurice Ravel and Richard Strauss.

Milhaud’s “La Creation Du Monde” opened the concert. When he wrote this ballet score in 1922 and 1923, Milhaud thought he was writing jazz—but an American listener would never categorize “La Creation Du Monde” as jazz. It is 1920s French music through and through, insouciant and Neo-Classical, with a few jazz-like harmonies and rhythms weakly incorporated into the composition.

Before composing “La Creation Du Monde”, Milhaud had written an earlier ballet score, “Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit”, inspired by the popular music of Brazil. “Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit”, written in 1919, is much more successful in evoking the sounds of Brazil than is “La Creation Du Monde” in evoking the sounds of American jazz.

I have never believed “La Creation Du Monde” to be a successful composition. The basic materials are thin, the development cursory, the themes pedestrian. Passing incident is lacking. “La Creation Du Monde” does not work on any level and, to my ears, it lacks even an attractive surface sheen.

As a dance work for the theater, “La Creation Du Monde” disappeared instantly from the stage. To the extent it lives on, it lives on only in the concert hall—and performances in the U.S. are few and far between, probably because Americans do not perceive the piece as very jazz-like.

The Minnesota Orchestra performance was basically a throwaway performance. The performance had obviously been fully rehearsed, but there was nothing Vanska or the musicians could do to bring the piece to life.

The Piano Concerto of Ravel followed the Milhaud.

The orchestra played with tremendous accuracy and some brilliance in the Ravel, although the rhythms were a little stiff, especially in the outer movements. Blame for the rhythmic stiffness must be laid at the feet of Vanska—rhythmic stiffness is one of his most conspicuous and ever-present shortcomings.

The Minnesota Orchestra is not a “French” orchestra, and Vanska is not a “French” conductor, so there was very little French quality to the performance. In fact, the performance was as much Russian as French, always in search of color, boldness and the big gesture instead of fragrance, understatement and “chic”. That Ravel based much of the first movement of his Piano Concerto on Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka”—his was an act of grand larceny—only further emphasized the Russian quality of Thursday morning’s performance.

Dinnerstein’s playing was charming in the slow movement, and she held my full attention there. Such is an accomplishment, because the slow movement in the Ravel is notoriously difficult to bring off. Ravel worked on his Piano Concerto for three years (1929 to 1931) and it was the slow movement that caused him grief. Ravel wanted the slow movement to be effortless—and, after much toil, the composer succeeded in making it so, but often at the expense of ennui during performance.

In the outer movements, Dinnerstein had the notes down, but she did not do much with the movements compared to the leading exponents of this concerto past and present. In the first and third movements, Dinnerstein was proficient, not arresting.

I have no clue whether Dinnerstein is an important artist. I had never previously heard her, and the Ravel Piano Concerto—unless one is a Michelangeli—reveals very little about the pianist.

After intermission, the orchestra played Strauss’s “Ein Heldenleben”.

The performance was very, very fine; the level of ensemble was very, very high. The Minnesota Orchestra may now be America’s fourth-finest ensemble, trailing—in order—only Cleveland, Chicago and Philadelphia.

The Minnesota Orchestra of today is an exceptionally-fine orchestra. When playing for Vanska, the musicians play with tremendous focus, energy and commitment. There is a vibrancy in the music-making that is not present in Boston or New York.

The orchestra has not, however, acquired greatness. Its sound remains generic as does its music-making.

The orchestra’s strings lack color and weight as well as a uniform quality of sound throughout the dynamic range. When playing at high volume, the strings lack transparency and become strident and glassy. When playing softly, the strings produce a wispy sound.

The principal winds are not a distinguished group, lacking character and personality. They do not compare favorably to the principal winds in Cleveland, Chicago and Philadelphia.

The orchestra’s brass section is very strong—but it is often allowed to overwhelm the rest of the orchestra.

The generic nature of the orchestra’s music-making was exemplified by the “Heldenleben” performance: phrasing was generalized; musical episodes were broad, not pointed and precise. Of subtle characterization there was none. It was a bold but ultimately bland “Heldenleben” that Vanska and the musicians offered. The piece was played purely as showpiece for orchestra.

And yet the performance was enormously enjoyable. Any music-lover would be happy to hear such a performance—but would be aware, the entire performance, that Fritz Reiner and Rudolf Kempe found much more content in the score than Vanska uncovered.

There was a large and enthusiastic crowd in the hall Thursday morning. I would estimate that eighty per cent of the seats were filled (Orchestra Hall accommodates 2500 persons). Free coffee and donuts were available for concertgoers. There was almost a festive air about the occasion.

It was on Wednesday night that we first discussed attending Thursday morning’s concert. When Josh mentioned this fact Wednesday night on his Twitter account, the Minnesota Orchestra replied to him—twice.

We thought that was a nice touch.

My mother came downtown for Thursday morning’s concert, too. After the concert, Josh and I took her out for a quick lunch. We went to a modest place and ordered club sandwiches.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Schwarzkopf And Callas

Based upon no evidence whatsoever, I assume this photograph of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Maria Callas was taken in July 1957, when both singers were recording Puccini’s “Turandot” in Milan for EMI.

Schwarzkopf was 42 and Callas was 34 at the time of the “Turandot” sessions, and the singers in the photograph look, respectively, 42 and 34 years of age. Further, the two singers crossed paths relatively infrequently, as their careers took them all over the world in the 1950s, the peak decade for both artists. Schwarzkopf and Callas were seldom in the same city at the same time.

Schwarzkopf was a glamorous figure in her own right, but in this photograph she looks like a hausfrau when standing next to Callas—although it must be acknowledged that Callas, after her weight loss, became an expert in “posing” for the camera. If Callas was not “posed” for this photograph, I cannot imagine what she was doing.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Rehearsing “Cosi”

Singers Elisabeth Schumann, Eva Hadrabova, Jarmila Novotna, Charles Kullmann, Alfred Jerger and Karl Bissuti rehearsing Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” in Salzburg in 1936, with conductor Felix Weingartner at the piano.

For the 1936 Salzburg Festival production of “Cosi”, Schumann sang Despina, a role she had first performed more than two decades earlier in Hamburg. Schumann had learned the role of Despina while a young soprano with the Hamburg Opera—and Despina was the only “Cosi” role Schumann ever sang onstage.

There were not to be many more opera performances for Schumann after the conclusion of the 1936 Salzburg Festival: Schumann was to remain a member of the Wiener Staatsoper company only for one more full season (1936-1937) and for a portion of a second (1937-1938).

Shortly before the March 1938 Anschluss, Schumann left Europe and sought shelter in the United States, where she was to reside for the rest of her life (Schumann became an American citizen in 1944). Although Schumann appeared widely in recital in America from 1938 until shortly before her death, she was not again to appear on the opera stage.

In A Pinch

My grandmother was released from the hospital on Thursday.

By Wednesday, the swelling in her knee had largely abated and she was able to walk without pain. Tests administered at the hospital demonstrated that she had suffered no ligament or cartilage damage, and that there was no evidence of bone spurs.

The physician said my grandmother must have experienced a minor knee incident, nothing more, and that she would have been released from the hospital two days earlier were it not for her advanced age. Low-stress physical rehabilitation is the only medically-indicated course of treatment for my grandmother.

My mother spent every day last week with my grandmother, both at the hospital and back at the care facility. It was a wearying and depressing week for my mother.

On Friday night, we all gathered at my older brother’s house for dinner in order to wind up six very stressful days. My sister-in-law had prepared an excellent meal: chicken consommé; Caesar salad; grilled salmon with seasoned rice, steamed broccoli and grilled red and yellow peppers; and raspberry sherbet.

Since my mother was away from the house all day every day, the dog stayed with my older brother’s family last week. We did not want him to be without company and without companionship—dogs are pack animals—and we thought he would be happier spending the week with my sister-in-law and my niece and nephew rather than at home by himself. He is accustomed to spending time at my older brother’s house, and he had a good week.

On Saturday, my mother again spent the day with my grandmother at the care facility, and my father accompanied her.

My middle brother and Joshua and I decided to do something fun on Saturday morning: we took the kids to the aquarium.

As aquariums go, Sea Life Minnesota is pretty small potatoes, but it is probably exactly the right size for the attention spans of small children: one can see everything in ninety minutes or less.

My niece and nephew enjoyed seeing the sea creatures. They were most fascinated by the cownose stingrays, the green sea turtles, the colorful clownfish—and the sand tiger shark, which truly is frightening. It was a perfect morning out for them.

After our visit to the aquarium, we took the kids to lunch at Ruby Tuesday, where we ordered hamburgers—and, after lunch, we took the kids home for their naps.

We remained at my older brother’s house for the remainder of the day, helping my older brother with tasks around the house and yard—and NOT watching Minnesota get demolished at Michigan, 58-0.

On Saturday night, we again all ate dinner at my older brother’s house. We ate Italian white bean soup; chicken quarters baked in an apple-cranberry glaze, small new potatoes in butter, steamed green beans, steamed baby carrots, and a tangerine-black cherry-almond cream cheese salad; and butterscotch pudding.

After dinner, we brought the dog home for the first time since Monday morning. He appeared to be pleased to be back home.

On Sunday morning, we attended service for the first time in two weeks (on the previous Sunday morning, it was while we were preparing to leave for service that we had received the emergency telephone call from my grandmother’s care facility).

Our church has—once again—amended the start time for Sunday service. Just when we had become accustomed to the early 9:00 a.m. start, the church changed the start time for traditional service from 9:00 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.

We were always happy with the 11:00 a.m. start time, observed by our church for decades. An 11:00 a.m. start allowed us to eat a Sunday breakfast before service. With the change in service, we now eat a Sunday breakfast after service—with the result that the Sunday breakfast now serves as our Sunday lunch, too.

After our Sunday breakfast/lunch, my brothers and my niece and nephew (as well as the dog) went to my older brother’s house, while my parents, my sister-in-law and Josh and I went to Saint Paul to attend the Sunday matinee performance of Minnesota Opera’s new production of Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte”.

“Cosi Fan Tutte” is among my favorite operas—of Mozart’s works for the stage, only “The Magic Flute” has more sublime music—and I never miss a chance to attend a performance.

Minnesota Opera had opened its checkbook for its new “Cosi Fan Tutte”. The physical production was much more detailed and much more elaborate than most Minnesota Opera productions, signaling that the company intends to keep this production—its first “Cosi” in twenty years—in the repertory.

A very traditional production set in the time and place Mozart and Da Ponte specified, Minnesota Opera’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” was beautifully designed, offering a series of striking and colorful and handsome stage images. The costumes were of a standard seldom encountered at Minnesota Opera, and the lighting design was exceptional—the design team had clearly devoted hours and hours and hours to technical rehearsals and the complicated lighting plan.

The director of Minnesota Opera’s new “Cosi” was Peter Rothstein, the artistic director of one of Minneapolis’s many repertory theater companies. “Cosi” was one of Rothstein’s first forays into the realm of opera, and he chose to direct “Cosi” as a naturalistic and realistic theater piece. Nothing was exaggerated, nothing was overplayed, nothing was too obvious. Rothstein’s meticulous staging was the best-directed “Cosi” I have ever seen (“Cosi” being a new production, there was a longer-than-usual rehearsal period). Rothstein’s “Cosi” was as stage-worthy as anything to be seen on The Guthrie boards.

Musically, the presentation was not as notable.

The conductor, Christopher Franklin (a graduate of Saint Paul’s Macalester College who now lives and works in Italy), conducted the score as if it were Rossini. The great sadness and melancholy of Mozart’s score were not revealed in Franklin’s performance. Franklin’s was a very glib interpretation of what is, fundamentally, a very profound work. Franklin understood the comedy of “Cosi” well enough, but he was unable to realize the genuine tragedy that lies just beneath the surface. The best thing I can say about Franklin’s work is that he kept things moving.

In the past, Minnesota Opera has often used the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for its Mozart presentations. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra was not called upon to play in the pit for the new “Cosi”—and not engaging the SPCO may have been a mistake. The contract musicians used by Minnesota Opera played cleanly but without any real distinction. The notes were there, but not the music behind the notes. Of glorious interplay between pit and stage there was none.

Much the same was true of the cast members, all young and all exceedingly handsome. Their acting and stage deportment, faultless to a “T”, trumped their singing. From a purely vocal standpoint, the performances were of a standard to be encountered at a fine but not particularly topnotch music conservatory: good but not distinguished voices, well-drilled but not guided with great insight.

Next month, we may hear “Cosi Fan Tutte” again. University Opera Theatre of the University Of Minnesota will present four performances of “Cosi” the week before Thanksgiving, and I suspect we will try to catch one of those performances. I do not expect the vocal quality of the upcoming student presentation to be significantly inferior to what we heard on Sunday afternoon.

On our way back to Edina after the opera performance, we stopped at Boston Market to pick up a carryout dinner. We bought chickens, mashed potatoes, stuffing and several vegetables, and took the food to my older brother’s house, where we all were able to sit down to a decent Sunday night dinner without expending any effort.

Boston Market will always do in a pinch.