Thursday, May 31, 2012

Speaking Of Fifth-Tier Pianists . . .

As long as I am on the topic of fifth-tier pianists, I submit a query: why would a professional pianist, albeit a fifth-tier pianist, publish on his website a photograph such as the one below? The photograph positively screams, “I am not a serious artist.”

The man in the photograph, an Israeli, is known, if he is known at all, not for his musical talent but for the men who have passed through his life.

For four or five years, the man was associated with oddball Danish/Israeli violinist Nikolaj Znaider, ten years his junior, until that association was abruptly terminated in 2003 or thereabouts.

More recently, the man has been associated with oddball New York architect Charles Renfro, who at least is more or less the pianist’s age.

The question remains: what goes through a person’s mind—a 47-year-old person’s mind, I might stress—when he decides to publish such a foolish photograph of himself? (And there are many, many more such foolish photographs on this man's website.)

One cannot imagine Maurizio Pollini doing such a thing.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Mozart Conductor

On Saturday night, Joshua and I took Josh’s sister to Saint Paul for a concert by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Conductor Hans Graf led the ensemble in a program centered upon the music of Mozart.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 was the Mozart work on the first half of the program. Guest soloist was pianist Jeffrey Kahane.

I have never understood why Kahane has been able to sustain a career, minor though it is. As a pianist, he has nothing to offer beyond garden-variety keyboard skills and journeyman musicianship. I am amazed he gets engagements.

On Saturday night, Kahane’s Mozart was terminally dull. I don’t know how Graf, an accomplished Mozart conductor, managed to get through the performance without grimacing.

Kahane brought no style and no personality to the Mozart, and he brought no depth of musicianship. Kahane simply played the notes—and not especially cleanly—while countless opportunities for rhythmic and harmonic exploration passed him by. Kahane’s performance was no better than a student performance.

Exactly one week earlier, we had heard Yevgeny Sudbin play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 with the Minnesota Orchestra. Sudbin’s Mozart had been unsuccessful, too, but at least Sudbin’s performance had been the work of an artist in possession of a sparkling technique and a genuine keyboard touch. Moreover, Sudbin had displayed, in fleeting moments, a mind willing to seek out the content of one of Mozart’s most miraculous works. Where Sudbin had been frustrating and unsatisfactory, Kahane was . . . a blank, an artist with nothing to bring to the table.

After intermission, the orchestra played Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. Within minutes, memories of the lackluster Kahane were banished.

The performance was excellent, admirable in every way. It was one of the finest performances of a Mozart symphony I have ever heard.

Graf did nothing unusual. He did not adopt odd tempi or ever-changing tempi. He did not play around with inner voices. He did not endeavor to layer Romantic expression onto a Classical work. He did not attempt to import fury and bite from the original-instrument movement.

And yet the performance was bracing, even startling. The entire performance, I kept asking myself, in wonder, “Why is this performance so good?”

The answer, I believe, lies in one simple fact: Graf is a Mozart conductor. Graf has been conducting Mozart his entire life, and he understands Mozart’s Classical poise and he understands the ever-shifting emotional undercurrents that flow beneath Mozart’s immaculate surface.

Graf may be the finest living Mozart conductor, the Josef Krips or Karl Böhm of our age. I can think of no other living person that conducts Mozart at so high a level. I would earnestly like to hear Graf in the Mozart operas.

I last heard Graf more than five years ago, when he led the Houston Symphony in its home hall. I heard a program (Dukas-Debussy-Dvorak) probably not ideal for Graf, and I was unsure what to make of him that evening.

I am still unsure what to make of Graf, but he clearly is an exceptional Mozart conductor.

Graf will end his tenure in Houston at the conclusion of the 2012-2013 season. Graf’s years in Houston have not attracted much attention outside the state of Texas. It is possible that Graf has never received his due in the United States.

Graf is one of three Austrians currently in charge of major American orchestras. As a Classicist, Graf is superior to the other two, Pittsburgh’s Manfred Honeck and Cleveland’s Franz Welser-Möst. Whether Graf’s strengths are as strong in Romantic repertory or colorful nationalistic repertory or 20th-Century repertory, I do not know.

Saturday night’s concert began with a performance of Edgar Varèse’s “Octandre”, a seven-minute neo-Stravinsky work for eight instruments written in 1923.

The second half of the concert began with a performance of Varèse’s four-minute composition for solo flute, “Density 21.5”, written in 1936.

Lip service to what once passed for modernism was paid.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

“Not So Much A Dwelling Place As A Battlefield”

The front exterior of Carlyle’s House, Chelsea, London.

Thomas Carlyle lived in the house from 1834 until his death in 1881.

In 1853, Carlyle added a light-filled study on the fourth floor. It was in this room that he wrote his massive six-volume biography of Frederick The Great and pondered the great questions of the day.

The study is the most interesting and most beautiful room in the house. It was intended to provide Carlyle with a quiet, peaceful, isolated space in which to contemplate and write.

The study was soundproofed insofar as possible, since Carlyle intensely disliked the strolling organ grinders that plagued the streets of London during the 19th Century. The soundproofing was not entirely successful.

Much has been written about Carlyle’s life. His marriage has attracted particular scrutiny.

In many respects, the relationship was entirely successful. However, there were significant tensions within the marriage not addressed and resolved for the duration of the union. Neither Carlyle nor his wife was a figure particularly easy to like.

Samuel Butler wrote: “It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four.”

Angles In America

“Angels In America” is a second-rate play written by a second-rate playwright who happens to be gay, and because he has written a play about being gay, and about AIDS, no one—and I mean no one—is going to call “Angels In America” the overwrought, coarse, posturing, formulaic mess that it is.

Lee Siegel, writing in The New Republic in 2003


I, for one, would be happy to call both play and playwright second-rate—except neither play nor playwright rises to that level.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Coast Scene With The Rape Of Europa

Claude Gellée (“Claude Lorrain”) (1604/1605-1682)
Coast Scene With The Rape Of Europa
The Royal Collection, London

Oil On Canvas
53 13/16 Inches By 40 5/8 Inches


This painting is the artist’s fifth and final—and finest—version of the subject.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sibelius, Again

The Sibelius onslaught in the Twin Cities continues.

Osmo Vanska will conclude his ninth season as Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra next month, and his constant programming of the music of Jean Sibelius has not yet been halted.

I had assumed that Vanska would begin to de-emphasize Sibelius after two or three seasons here, but such has never happened. Sibelius remains the cornerstone of Vanska’s Minneapolis repertory.

Vanska is a fine Sibelius conductor, but he is not a great one—and it becomes tiresome to read, week after week, of Vanska’s greatness in the music of his countryman, a perpetual theme of local newspaper writers.

Vanska is too fierce and too interventionist in Sibelius, just as he is too fierce and too interventionist in everything. Vanska heightens emotion to extreme, he over-emphasizes detail, and he loses the long line. Vanska’s Sibelius is Sibelius on steroids.

I have missed six of Vanska’s nine seasons in Minneapolis, having lived three of those seasons in Washington and three of those seasons in Boston. However, my poor parents have had to endure all nine Vanska seasons—and I think they have had their fill, for now, of Vanska in Sibelius.

I thought Vanska would have moved on to other 20th-Century Finnish composers by now, composers such as Einar Englund, Joonas Kokkonen, Einojuhani Rautavaara and Aulis Sallinen, all of whom would, I believe, go over well here. However, Vanska has ignored those fine composers entirely, choosing to program instead the vastly inferior Kalevi Aho, whose work Vanska has championed in Minneapolis. At least we are being spared the energizer bunny, Magnus Lindberg, whose music has a very frantic surface but is content-free.

Last evening, Joshua and I took Josh’s sister to Orchestra Hall to hear Vanska lead the Minnesota Orchestra. The centerpiece of the program was, of course, Sibelius. Last night, it was the Symphony No. 1.

The Sibelius First is a fully-mature symphony, even though the composer was to evolve significantly over the following two decades. It is a grand, noble work, with beautiful themes worked out with great mastery.

Last night’s performance unquestionably was at a very high level, but Vanska refused to allow the music to speak for itself. He played with dynamics to excess, sought out inner voices to emphasize, and altered tempi in ways that made no sense. A single pulse must be maintained within each movement, no matter the rubato, yet Vanska was all over the place in the first and fourth movements. Because of the conductor’s minute-by-minute approach to the score, the symphony lost its cumulative power. The performance was nothing more than a succession of surface effects—many of which were undeniably powerful while they were occurring.

The first half of last night’s program was devoted to Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 (“Classical”) and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24.

The Prokofiev was played straight, and was unobjectionable. The orchestra’s ensemble was not as clean as it should have been in the first and fourth movements. I suspect the Prokofiev had been shortchanged in rehearsal.

I disliked the Mozart.

The guest soloist was Yevgeny Sudbin, a Russian pianist who shares a record label with Vanska—and who, consequently, appears in Minneapolis too often.

Almost a year ago, Josh and I heard Sudbin play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Minnesota Orchestra. I did not know what to make of Sudbin after that concert.

Having heard Sudbin in Mozart last night, I still do not know what to make of him. Sudbin is, without doubt, a capable instrumentalist, but he has demonstrated nothing special—and no personality whatsoever—the two times I have heard him. I doubt that the music of Beethoven and Mozart shows Sudbin to best advantage. He probably should be playing flashy Russian repertory at present.

Josh’s sister enjoyed the concert.

That was very important to us, as we had had no wish to provide her with activities she would not enjoy.

Blowhard, Bumpkin, Slut, Wimp

The blowhard, the bumpkin, the slut and the wimp: birdbrains all, characters in Donald Margulies’s “Time Stands Still”, as played at The Guthrie Theater.

Margulies is also a birdbrain, so at least he was writing about what he knows.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

“Time May Stand Still . . . But Not The Audience”

Two weeks ago today, Joshua and I and our former landlady—who is now my middle brother’s landlady (but not for much longer, since my middle brother recently signed a contract to purchase the house next door)—had a daylong theater outing. We attended a Saturday matinee performance at The Guthrie Theater and a Saturday evening performance at Park Square Theatre.

“Time Stands Still” by Donald Margulies was the Guthrie offering we attended.

Margulies, on the adjunct faculty at Yale, has been writing plays since the early 1980s, yet “Time Stands Still” was the first Margulies play I have seen.

I suspect it will be the last.

Set in Brooklyn, “Time Stands Still” is a story about three journalists, two of whom have been injured—one physically, one mentally—while covering events in Iraq.

The two injured journalists are in an unsuccessful and unsatisfying—and perhaps even abusive—relationship. The female, flagrantly unfaithful to her mate until physically disfigured in Iraq (her disfigurement, facial and otherwise, presumably put an abrupt end to her caterwauling infidelities), has an unattractive personality: she is irritating, abrasive, not very bright, and needy and insecure. The male, too, is needy and insecure—as well as emasculated—and has a deep-seated streak of servility. Theirs is an ugly, unhealthy relationship. By psychiatric standards, the two surely are co-dependents.

The third journalist is an editor. A blowhard, he arrives to visit the two injured journalists—and brings with him his new girlfriend, a young, naïve bumpkin many years his junior. The role of the bumpkin is supposed to represent a “real” person with “real” emotions. She is an outsider in the self-referential, narcissistic world of the Brooklynites, with their mindless and tedious recitations of dogma and cant.

The play’s action depicts the unraveling and raveling of the diseased co-dependency between the two injured journalists, the maturation of the peculiar relationship between the blowhard editor and the bumpkin, and the eruption of conflicts between each couple and between the two pairs of couples.

The play never gets off the ground. From the opening curtain, it is seen that the characters are not intelligent or thoughtful persons, possess no admirable qualities, and have nothing interesting or worthwhile to say on any subject—all of which becomes patently clear to the audience even before it has had a chance to settle into its seats.

Five minutes into the play, the audience begins to tune out the proceedings and bury its head in the program booklet. Ten minutes into the play, the audience stops reacting to laugh lines. Fifteen minutes into the play, the audience starts conversing among itself. Twenty minutes into the play, the audience begins to leave the theater. I have never seen a production in which walkouts occur so early in the first act or in which such a substantial portion of the audience departs permanently at intermission.

Walkouts have plagued the current Guthrie production of “Time Stands Still”. At the performance my parents attended, almost half the audience failed to return after intermission. My father’s characterization of the walkouts at the performance he and my mother attended: “Time may stand still . . . but not the audience.”

If “Time Stands Still” is representative of his efforts, Margulies is not a good playwright.

Margulies’s work in “Time Stands Still” is that of the television scriptwriter. His dialogue is a sequence of clichés; his thoughts—if they may be called thoughts—are those of a high school sophomore.

Margulies’s characters lack specificity and individuality. They are archetypes, not real persons. As archetypes, they partake of every known device from the realm of daytime drama. In fact, they do everything but recite, prior to a confessional utterance, “Sit down, Marion.”

The conflicts Margulies creates are one-dimensional and obvious, another attribute direct from soap opera. His conflicts derive from the arched-eyebrow school of domestic drama, and might as well come with their own organ accompaniments.

I suspect Margulies wants audiences to sympathize with his characters and their situations, but the characters are so cardboard—and so unattractive—and the situations so mundane that it is impossible to take either characters or situations seriously.

The characters in “Time Stands Still” are irresponsible, unpleasant, unthinking, unintelligent, half-educated and supremely self-obsessed. They are so off-putting, it becomes difficult not to wish them ill.

“Better off they had all died in Iraq” was a comment I heard from a departing audience member at intermission.

“Better off they not propagate” was my response.

Margulies would have been wiser not to have celebrated this crew of dim-witted Brooklynites but to have skewered it. A change of only twenty-five or thirty lines, coupled with new line readings, might have turned the play into redeemable comedy.

Margulies is not a man of intellect or ideas, although I suspect he aspires to such. He has no themes to offer, nothing original or memorable to say. His play suggests he has never read a serious book, or taken a course in philosophy, economics or political science, or had a meaningful conversation with anyone in possession of a first-class mind. The content of the typical Sunday Supplement would surely be over Margulies’s head.

And yet, I fear, Margulies probably believes his play involves a serious examination of the role of journalism in an age of instant electronic news dissemination. His characters “debate” the ethics and implications of their journalistic endeavors endlessly. The discussions are chilling in their lack of sophistication.

Happily, no one need worry about encountering Margulies’s plays with any frequency. Margulies cannot write stage dialogue—and, consequently, he will never have a hit.

There is no rhythm, no “snap”, no shape to Margulies’s dialogue. Margulies’s patter is abjectly “unplayable”.

This shortcoming explains the fact that Margulies’s name remains unknown even to the most assiduous playgoer. Margulies has been sitting at his typewriter for more than thirty years, devotedly pecking away, yet no one has heard of him because he lacks an essential skill in his chosen field of work: the ability to create and fashion competent stage dialogue, the sine qua non for a play’s—and a playwright’s—success.

I have not a clue why The Guthrie chose to present “Time Stands Still”—unless The Guthrie had wanted to offer to its subscribers a living demonstration how bad contemporary American playwriting has become. Even gruesome, totally unwatchable television dramas on the “Lifetime” channel are more penetrating and stylish than “Time Stands Still”.

The Guthrie gave “Time Stands Still” a better production than the material warranted. The physical production was superb, the cast excellent. The director, Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling, is a skilled hand at contemporary plays, but Dowling was able to find no shape or rhythm in Margulies’s script.

The Guthrie box office suffered with its production of “Time Stands Still”.

Critic’s notices were not positive. It was the play itself, and not the production, that had received mixed notices from the local press—and everyone in the Twin Cities knows that mixed notices from the local press are the same thing as bad notices. Nothing gets a bad review in area newspapers unless it happens (or originates) out-of-town.

Word-of-mouth for “Time Stands Still” was even worse than the unenthusiastic press response. Word-of-mouth was extremely negative—and word-of-mouth is very important in the Twin Cities, since even the most dedicated theatergoer cannot possibly see every production in town and must rely upon first-hand reports in determining which productions should be seen and which productions may safely be ignored.

“Time Stands Still” was ignored in Minneapolis.

I predict The Guthrie will never again present a Margulies play.


“Doubt: A Parable” by John Patrick Shanley was the Park Square Theatre offering we attended.

Josh and I had seen “Doubt” on Broadway in June 2006, shortly before the original Broadway production had closed. We had seen the replacement Broadway cast, which had featured Eileen Atkins in the lead.

I do not much care for “Doubt”. “Doubt” is schematic and commercial—it was written so as to take advantage of then-current headlines—and the play has no genuine depth.

Two weeks ago, however, “Doubt”—following immediately, as it did, upon the heels of the inept “Time Stands Still”—came across as one of the great masterpieces of the English-speaking stage.

The plot is spare. In 1964, a Roman Catholic nun, who serves as Principal of a Roman Catholic school in the Bronx, fears that a priest at the school has become involved with a male student. She confronts the priest, who denies the charge, and she informs the student’s mother, who—oddly—seems untroubled and unconcerned about the allegation. All of this is seen through the eyes of a young nun, who is torn between belief and disbelief regarding the veracity of the charges. Throughout the play, the action and conduct of the Principal, the priest and the student’s mother are susceptible to many shifting interpretations and judgments, all of which remain unresolved at play’s end.

In a good performance, “Doubt” can work—and I thought the Park Square Theatre performance was perfectly acceptable.

The actress portraying the Principal carried the play. She was nastier than necessary, and certainly one-dimensional compared to the great Eileen Atkins, but her energy and resolve kept the proceedings alive and moving forward.

On Broadway, Eileen Atkins had been magnificent in the part of the Principal. Atkins had brought to the role countless qualities: fevered spirituality, high moral principle, iron-willed determination, Irish shrewdness (and twinkling Irish eyes), and a deceptively-placid exterior paired with a sharp “look” that could wound at twenty paces. To these qualities, Atkins had added a Miss Marple-like sense of fun and adventure: the entire performance, she had seemed to be on the verge of exclaiming enthusiastically, “Let’s get to the bottom of this mystery!”

These many qualities had made Atkins’s portrayal overwhelming and unforgettable; it was one of the finest, most multi-layered performances I have ever seen on any stage. (I have been told that Atkins was vastly superior to the actress that had originated the role on Broadway—and who had won a Tony Award for her work.)

If no Eileen Atkins, the Park Square Theatre actress was, at the least, commanding. In fact, she overpowered everyone else on stage. One knew immediately that this woman would get her own way, by hook or by crook, in anything to which she set her mind.

The actor portraying the priest was the weak link in the cast. His weakness tended to unbalance the play.

The actor was, however, highly sympathetic, which helped to maintain tension. Since the actress portraying the Principal was not sympathetic in the least, a battle for the audience’s sympathy between these two figures ensued. Should the virtuous but obnoxious battle-axe be awarded the audience’s sympathy, or the depraved and vile man who seems so kind and gentle on the surface? This battle for sympathy became the key ingredient if not the driving force of the production. A battle for sympathy was probably not what the playwright had in mind when he wrote “Doubt”, but at least it helped make the Park Square Theatre production engaging.

We enjoyed the performance, which appeared to rivet the Park Square Theatre audience—but I would not want to see “Doubt” again anytime soon.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Choreographers

Jerome Robbins, Antony Tudor, Ruthanna Boris, George Balanchine and Todd Bolender in 1951.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Elements Of Style

On Saturday night, Joshua and I attended a performance of Kansas City Ballet at the new Kauffman Center For The Performing Arts in downtown Kansas City.

Kansas City Ballet is a fine regional ballet company. It employs 25 dancers, and performs a full season in its new home, which it shares with Lyric Opera Of Kansas City.

It was American dancer and choreographer Todd Bolender that put Kansas City Ballet on the map. During the period Bolender headed the company (1981-1995, when it was known as The State Ballet Of Missouri), Kansas City Ballet transformed itself from a minor civic enterprise into a full-fledged Balanchine company, offering faultless and deeply-considered stagings of Balanchine classics. My father traveled to Kansas City on business many times in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and he attended several performances of the company during its peak period. My father has always contended that The State Ballet Of Missouri was America’s great unknown dance troupe while Bolender was in charge, rivaling if not exceeding other regional Balanchine companies such as Miami City Ballet.

Bolender’s successor was William Whitener, a much lesser figure than Bolender. Whitener, from the Canadian dance world, dropped the company’s Balanchine emphasis—and, within a couple of years, the company more or less fell off the dance world’s radar screen. The company’s work today is of interest primarily to persons in Kansas City and environs; it receives little or no national attention. Whitener, seventeen years after Bolender’s retirement, remains Artistic Director of the company.

I found the quality of the company’s dancing—in a very unchallenging program—to be a notch below that of the other regional ballet companies whose performances I have attended the last five years: Boston Ballet, Houston Ballet, Miami City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Texas Ballet Theater. Nonetheless, the standard was high, high enough to warrant attending any and all of the company’s performances. If I were a resident of Kansas City, I would buy a full-season subscription each year.

Saturday’s program opened with George Balanchine’s 1934 “Serenade” (which Josh and I had last seen in February 2008 at New York City Ballet). “Serenade”, the first ballet Balanchine created in the United States, was the only Balanchine ballet on the bill for Kansas City Ballet’s entire 2011-2012 season.

“Serenade” was beautifully (if somewhat carefully) danced; tempos were slower than at New York City Ballet, and one never had the sense that virtuoso dancers were about to break out of the work’s constraints and offer something individual and unique, as can happen on occasion at New York City Ballet. Nevertheless, “Serenade” was a pleasure to see in the Kansas City performance; The Paris Opera Ballet cannot dance “Serenade” half as well.

The performance continued with Jerome Robbins’s 1953 “Afternoon Of A Faun” (which Josh and I had last seen danced by Boston Ballet one year ago). “Afternoon Of A Faun” is a narcissistic pas de deux of little inherent dance interest. I have always disliked the piece.

Peter Martins’s 1987 “Les Gentilhommes” was next on the program. It was the only work of the night I had not previously encountered.

As a general rule, I dislike Martins’s choreography. Martins knows how to construct dances as well as anyone, but his work, more often than not, is not good. His choreography is synthetic, an artificial amalgamation of the work of other, better choreographers, primarily Balanchine.

Martins’s work as a choreographer reminds me of conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler, Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter in their composer modes. All three conductors, on occasion, wrote music—expert, professional music, crafted to a high standard—but all three lacked the sheer creativity and originality to write music worth hearing. They ended up recycling the music of Anton Bruckner—just as Martins has built a career recycling the ballets of Balanchine.

“Les Gentilhommes”, recycled Balanchine or no, was an unexpected pleasure to experience. Created for nine male dancers, “Les Gentilhommes” is danced to excerpts from two Handel Concerti Grossi from the Opus 6 set.

The ballet requires all nine dancers to demonstrate a comprehensive mastery of Balanchine style. The steps are sometimes suggestive of Renaissance dances and sometimes suggestive of Baroque dances—but the purpose of the ballet, fundamentally, is to teach young male dancers how to dance the ballets of Balanchine. Virtually every element of the Balanchine syllabus for the male dancer is covered in “Les Gentilhommes”—and Martins knows that syllabus better than anyone alive. “Les Gentilhommes” is fun for the dancers, and fun for the audience. It is one of a handful of Martins ballets I have actually enjoyed.

Over the last twenty-five years, “Les Gentilhommes” has become part of the curriculum for advanced male students in the nation’s pre-eminent ballet academies. The ballet’s shorthand name, I am given to understand, is “E. B. White”. The fact that the ballet’s costuming is white makes the joke wittier still.

The Kansas City Ballet performance of “Les Gentilhommes” was not good. The company’s male contingent was simply not strong enough to carry the ballet. “Les Gentilhommes” requires a level of virtuosity and a polished elegance that the Kansas City dancers were unable to muster.

The final work on the program was Bolender’s “Souvenirs”, one of the great American “character” ballets. “Souvenirs”, set in the era of the silent screen and involving numerous characters vacationing at a seaside hotel, is danced to Samuel Barber’s charming score and features superb stage and costume design by Rouben Ter-Arutunian.

“Souvenirs” was created for New York City Ballet in 1955, but New York City Ballet has not presented the work for decades. The ballet is kept alive today by America’s regional companies.

I think “Souvenirs” is a great entertainment, as appealing as “Cakewalk” or “Fall River Legend” or “Rodeo”, other American “character” ballets that have maintained a stronger hold on the repertory than “Souvenirs”. I am surprised the ballet is not produced more often.

The Kansas City “Souvenirs” was excellent. In fact, it received the best performance of the evening. The dancing was excellent, the characterization was excellent, the staging was excellent. Everything was pointed, and underplayed; nothing was too broad. The great wit of the piece came across.


Josh and I disliked the Kauffman Center For The Performing Arts, which opened last September. It is nothing more and nothing less than a giant eyesore, an eyesore that in no way fits into or complements its surroundings.

On the outside, the Kauffman Center looks like a very bad airport terminal—a very bad airport terminal plopped down smack in the middle of an ugly American city. (And Kansas City is an ugly city indeed; it is the ugliest city I have ever visited.)

On the inside, the grand promenade that dominates the full length of the interior also looks like an airport terminal.

The Kauffman Center, funded solely by private contribution, cost over $400 million. It looks more like a $100 million building. In fact, the whole complex looks cheap and tacky (which I think is also true of the new Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis). Kansas City did not get its money’s worth, any more than Minneapolis did.

The architect for the Kauffman Center was Moshe Safdie, whose work I have never admired. Safdie’s designs for the front half of the building were stolen from Eero Saarinen; Safdie’s designs for the back half of the building were stolen from Frank Lloyd Wright. The mixture is not pleasing. Isn’t there a design version of E. B. White that architects may consult?

The Kauffman Center For The Performing Arts received virtually no national press attention when it opened, in sharp contrast to the mountains of national press coverage devoted to the openings of Minneapolis’s new Guthrie Theater in 2006 and Dallas’s new Winspear Opera House in 2009.

Two months after the Kauffman Center opened, The New York Times finally sent a stringer to catch a couple of performances at the facility. The stringer, in an idiotic article that should never have been published, used the occasion to lobby for government involvement—and funding—for such arts centers. His argument: government knows best. (The stringer apparently missed large swathes of the 20th Century.)

Safdie was also architect for the new Crystal Bridges Museum Of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, which opened only eight weeks after the Kauffman Center. Crystal Bridges, apparently not the architectural disaster Safdie inflicted upon Kansas City, DID receive overwhelming national press coverage at its opening. It is odd that the Safdie project for Bentonville was deemed newsworthy, while the Safdie project for Kansas City was not.

In any case, 2011 was clearly a good year for Safdie in the lower Plains states!

The opera house at the Kauffman Center is named The Muriel Kauffman Theater in honor of one of America’s great philanthropists, the late Muriel Kauffman. Mrs. Kauffman was a noble and remarkable woman. Everyone who ever met Mrs. Kauffman, including my mother, lavishes praise upon her memory. Mrs. Kauffman died ten years before she should have been summoned home—and several years before planning for the center got underway. Mrs. Kauffman’s daughter, an influential figure in her own right, was instrumental in seeing that the Kansas City performing arts center came to fruition—and succeeded in having the opera house named for her mother.

The Muriel Kauffman Theater is a small, European-style opera house, with multiple levels of terraces and balconies. It seats 1800 persons. It is an ideal theater once the house lights go down and the audience’s focus is on the stage. Until then, one is confronted with an unattractive if not gaudy theater interior.

The Kauffman Center also houses a 1600-seat concert hall, which we did not visit.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Irene Worth

The great Irene Worth as Grandma Kurnitz in the film, “Lost In Yonkers”.

Miss Worth, alone, made the film watchable.

Many theater experts considered Miss Worth in her prime to be the finest stage actress in the English-speaking world—although the snide Kenneth Tynan once described Miss Worth as “grandiose, heartfelt, marvelously-controlled, clear as crystal—and totally unmoving”, an assessment shared by few others.

There has long been a widespread misconception that Miss Worth was British. This misconception was rooted in Miss Worth’s faultless British stage accent and her decades of work at Britain’s National Theater and The Royal Shakespeare Company.

In fact, Miss Worth hailed from Nebraska.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Manufactured Products

I am not a fan of Neil Simon plays.

The popular appeal of Simon’s “pure” comedies, such as “The Odd Couple” and “The Sunshine Boys”, is totally beyond my comprehension. I find the Simon comedies to be unfunny, unamusing, uninteresting and unappealing. They are nothing more than old-fashioned Borscht-Belt comedy skits stretched into full-length plays.

Simon’s “serious” plays I can tolerate, but without much enthusiasm. (I have never seen a staging of “Broadway Bound”.) They are manufactured products, lacking three-dimensional characters and genuine drama.

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” is, I believe, Simon’s finest piece of work. It is the only Simon play that has been produced widely around the world—and the only Simon play likely to be staged fifty years from now. There is something undeniably touching about the story of two struggling multi-generational Jewish families forced to share a Depression-era household in late-1930s Brooklyn while war clouds gather in Europe and begin to impact American lives.

“Biloxi Blues” is well-crafted, but its subject matter is so well-trodden—a boy goes off to the army during World War II and is forced to become a man—that a performance of the play is difficult to endure: the story had already been told in a thousand movies and a thousand television programs before Simon got to the material.

“Lost In Yonkers” is not as strong as “Brighton Beach Memoirs” or “Biloxi Blues”—but at its center is a gripping conflict between mother and daughter, a gripping conflict that sets “Lost In Yonkers” apart from any other Simon work.

That said, there is much that is wrong with “Lost In Yonkers”.

The character of the married daughter with respiratory problems is barren—and hokey. The character should have been omitted from the play, or the character should have remained offstage, unseen; references to her existence would have sufficed.

The character of the son who has entered into a life of crime, and who is forced to hide in his mother’s apartment, was inserted into the play solely to provide laughs—a function identical to that of the two English girls in “The Odd Couple”. In both plays, the laughs induced by these extraneous characters have nothing to do with the play’s dramaturgy; all could be excised without affecting the thrust of the onstage proceedings. (Simon has admitted in a filmed interview that the two English girls in “The Odd Couple” were a desperate mechanism to keep the play afloat.)

The characters of the two young brothers placed into their grandmother’s care are under-written. There is nothing special or unique—or interesting—about these boys, in sharp contrast to the boys in “Brighton Beach Memoirs”, where the roles of both brothers are extremely well-written, and carry the play.

Perhaps most fatally, “Lost In Yonkers” contains too many dead spots. Minutes at a time, the play comes to a halt, without anything of interest occurring onstage; viewers become impatient, waiting for the playwright to propel the story forward.

As if to make up for these deficiencies, Simon has created perhaps his single finest character—and surely his only memorable female character—in the grandmother of “Lost In Yonkers”. A woman who has suffered a life of grief and hardship, the grandmother is rigid, forbidding, formidable—and yet she always tries to do the right thing, without ever seeking credit for herself, and she occasionally allows herself to show a sly and impish sense of humor. My favorite moment in the entire play is when the grandmother, wickedly, informs her two grandsons that the mattress on which they have been sleeping is where she stashes her money.

The character of the childlike, unmarried adult daughter is problematic throughout the play. One moment the audience is led to believe that she is borderline mentally retarded; the next moment, the audience is provided evidence that she is in full command of herself and her surroundings, capable of thoughtful, independent action. I do not believe that Simon fully came to terms with this character.

This shortcoming becomes most apparent during the great confrontation scene between mother and daughter near the end of the play. The confrontation erupts out of nowhere, and addresses issues never raised by the characters elsewhere in the play. The confrontation is both powerful and utterly unconvincing. It all-too-obviously was created to give the play a climax—and might as well have been inserted from another play by another dramatist, so false and incongruous is its effect. (The confrontation scene between the two adult sisters in “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is similarly contrived.)

For the play to work in performance, “Lost In Yonkers” must have compelling actors to portray the mother and daughter. If these two roles are well-cast and well-directed, the play will come across, despite its dead spots and other deficiencies. All other considerations become irrelevant.

On Friday night, my middle brother and Joshua and I attended a performance of “Lost In Yonkers” at Theater In The Round. The production held our attentions—which, in my eyes, made the production a success.

The actress portraying the grandmother was no Irene Worth, but she made it clear all evening why the other persons onstage were terrified of her, and afraid to challenge her in any meaningful way. She ruled the stage, as the character must.

The actress portraying the daughter was charming and daffy, and brought to life what must be a very difficult if not impossible part to play.

The other cast members were accomplished—and the actor portraying the son who had entered into a life of crime underplayed the part, for which I was grateful.

If I had one gripe about the Theater In The Round production, it was that the two actors cast as the young boys did not convince me for one second that they were brothers. They were all-too-clearly products of different families, sharing not a single trait or characteristic.

Simon is no longer the towering commercial figure of the Broadway stage. His eminence lasted for thirty years—from roughly 1960 until 1990—but he has not enjoyed a hit since “Lost In Yonkers”, which premiered in 1991. Productions of new Simon plays and revivals of old Simon plays, alike, have fared poorly at the New York box office the last twenty years. Over time, Simon’s work has become the near-exclusive province of regional theater and community theater. It is difficult today to comprehend the vast success his plays enjoyed in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

I have a theory why Simon plays have fallen from view.

Simon plays are, fundamentally, a recreation of early television. Every device in a Simon play is borrowed from the faded comedies and artificial dramas that defined the first decade of American network television. Simon plays possessed great appeal for audiences whose notions of entertainment had been derived from 1950s television—the plays, after all, were mere iterations of formulas and conventions already cherished by such audiences. The result was that Simon plays, for a period, acquired unprecedented levels of audience appreciation and acceptance.

Once such audiences began to disappear, Simon plays began to disappear, too. Their architecture is too obvious, their characters too one-note, their situations too formula-laden, their dialogue too filled with New Yorkese, their laugh lines too-little-disguised.

I do not think Simon plays will ever return to favor.

And I do not think they will be missed.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Ailey In Taylor's "Arden Court"

The Ailey Company

On Wednesday night, my parents, my sister-in-law, and Joshua and I attended a performance of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Paul Taylor’s “Arden Court” opened the performance, and it was the presence of “Arden Court” on the program that had enticed us into the theater.

“Arden Court”, from 1981, has a big reputation—and that reputation is probably warranted. A movement-for-movement’s-sake work, “Arden Court” is fresh, breezy and almost sleight-of-hand, marked by a peculiarly-American sophistication and elegance: open, offhand and guileless. The work is also typified by its indifferent and throwaway virtuosity, yet another peculiarly-American characteristic. I can understand the work’s enormous popularity and appeal, both in North America and Europe.

The Ailey staging was by Taylor himself, so presumably it was authoritative.

For music, Taylor used excerpts from the eight symphonies of British composer William Boyce, whose career fell precisely between the Baroque and Classical Periods. Boyce’s music is watered-down and refashioned (but elaborately-orchestrated) music borrowed from The Italian Baroque, pleasant but vacuous, as is virtually all music from The Galant—which is why, I believe, Taylor specifically chose such supremely unimaginative music. The music is objective, and featureless, unlikely to arouse emotion in the listener and unlikely to interfere with the listener’s thoughts; it provides an apt soundboard for dances not intended to be anything more than fun and energetic.

“Arden Court” needs to be re-designed and re-costumed. The designs look as if they had been borrowed from the designs for Glen Tetley’s “Voluntaries”—and modified with scissors.

The second work on the Ailey program was “Minus 16” by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin. “Minus 16” was created for Netherlands Dance Theater II in 1999 and, according to the program booklet, had been “adapted” for the Ailey company by the choreographer.

It would not be inaccurate to describe “Minus 16” as exceedingly eclectic. “Minus 16” includes a little bit of everything: a little Kurt Jooss, a little Martha Graham, a little Joyce Trisler, a little Lar Lubovitch, a little Paul Taylor, a little Pina Bausch—and more than a little Pilobolus. What “Minus 16” did not include was anything original—or good.

The score, too, was eclectic—it featured popular music from all over the world, all of it mindless. America was represented by Dean Martin.

The program concluded with Ailey’s own “Revelations”, which generally closes Ailey programs.

“Revelations” includes very little of pure dance interest—yet, as a theater work, it succeeds on its own terms. It is well-designed and well-constructed, and goes on not a moment too long (Ailey cut the work in half in the years immediately following its 1960 premiere). “Revelations” is, however, anything but an immortal masterpiece; its appeal is founded more upon sociology than art.

It is regrettable that Ailey is remembered today largely for “Revelations” and little else. The commercial success of “Revelations” has come to define the artist—and to overshadow his other work, much of which is far more complex. I suspect the Ailey company would have retired “Revelations” long ago were it not for the fact that “Revelations”, by a mile, is the company’s biggest box-office draw.

Ailey was a wonderful choreographer. His work had a remarkably wide range. “Revelations” does not represent him at his best.

Ailey’s finest works are seldom—if ever—seen. “The River”, to Duke Ellington’s score, should be in the permanent repertory of every American ballet company. The ballets Ailey created for Harkness Ballet are in desperate need of revival and revaluation. Ailey’s dances for Barber’s “Antony And Cleopatra”, which opened the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1966, should be seen after decades of neglect. Ailey’s entire European oeuvre needs to be remounted and reassessed.

The man’s scope far exceeded “Revelations”.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Mendelssohn And MacMillan

Orchestral performances of Early Romantic music are in danger of becoming lost.

Aside from the Cleveland Orchestra and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, orchestras everywhere have lost the ability to play Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann at a high level. Performances of Early Romantic music are either overblown, more apt for the music of Mahler, or tepid and finicky, progeny of an original-instrument movement that more often than not has tended to drain expression from music performance.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that there are only a handful of conductors alive that can offer stylish and satisfying performances of Early Romantic repertory—and two of the finest, Claudio Abbado and Kurt Masur, are not long for this world.

Last weekend, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra embarked on a three-week project devoted to music of Mendelssohn, and Joshua and I attended Saturday night’s performance.

The concert began with a performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 1 and ended with a performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 (“Reformation”). Between the symphonies was offered a performance of James MacMillan’s “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel”, a percussion concerto in all but name. Roberto Abbado was the evening’s conductor (Abbado will lead all three weeks of the SPCO’s Mendelssohn project).

Mendelssohn’s First Symphony is not interesting, and not often performed. Mendelssohn, fifteen years old at the time he composed the Symphony No. 1, was still grappling with sonata form—the work is formally coherent, but in an academic manner, without imagination and originality—and the work must be accepted as a “study” symphony, unrepresentative of the symphonies the composer would go on to write. Even the themes are undistinguished, something rare in a Mendelssohn composition.

The Fifth Symphony, written six years later, reveals a mature composer. Formal perfection has been allayed with content—there is expression and personality aplenty—and the composer reveals himself to be a commanding symphonist, the most commanding symphonist since Beethoven. Mendelssohn was to remain the preeminent post-Beethoven symphonist until the advent of Brahms.

I did not find the SPCO Mendelssohn performances to be pleasing. The musicians did not seem captivated by Mendelssohn—not unexpected in the First Symphony, but an alarming state of affairs in the Fifth Symphony—and they offered objective, dispassionate, remote playing that I found lifeless and dull. Abbado is a competent conductor of Mendelssohn, but he obviously had been unable to elicit compelling Mendelssohn performances from the Saint Paul musicians.

The musicians revealed themselves to be much more comfortable—and much more committed—in the MacMillan piece.

The last quarter century has witnessed the emergence of a plethora of percussion concertos, most hollow and uninteresting. MacMillan may have written the best of the bunch. “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” is probably the most-frequently-performed composition written in the last twenty years.

The appeal of “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” is immediately apparent: it offers ample display of virtuosity for a percussion soloist within a coherent if not beautiful musical framework. MacMillan based his composition on 15th-Century French plainchant, and the work possesses a fevered, spiritual quality that sets it apart from other percussion-based vehicles currently in vogue.

The SPCO musicians gave a blistering performance of “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel”, coming alive for the first and only time all night.

If the music of Mendelssohn was largely beyond them, the music of MacMillan was not.

Nijinsky And Ravel

Vaslav Nijinsky and Maurice Ravel at the piano in 1912. The two are playing from the score of “Daphnis et Chloé”, which premiered that year in Paris.