Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Play And A Recital

On Friday evening, my parents, my middle brother, and Joshua and I went to Theater In The Round, where we caught a performance of Tennessee Williams’s “Summer And Smoke”.

The production was flawless. I cannot imagine a finer production of the play. “Summer And Smoke” may have been the best production I have ever seen at Theater In The Round.

The symbolism in “Summer And Smoke” is too obvious, the reversals of fortunes of the two lead characters too pat, and the subsidiary characters more archetypes than flesh-and-blood creatures. There is also much overwriting in the play.

The play nonetheless works—if not seen too often—and we enjoyed the performance very much. The production played it straight, and did not attempt to impose a “fresh” interpretative reading onto the play.

Last season had not been a distinguished one for Theater In The Round. My recollection is that everything we saw at Theater In The Round last season was disappointing in one way or another.

It was a welcome sight Friday night, witnessing a first-class production at Theater In The Round.


On Sunday afternoon, at a violin/piano recital Josh and I attended with my parents, we overheard an unpleasant and unattractive matronly woman sharply upbraid a young man and young woman who had been discussing the very same production of “Summer And Smoke” that we had attended on Friday evening, and which the young man and young woman apparently had attended the previous night.

The young man and young woman, talking about how much they had enjoyed the production, were interrupted by the unpleasant and unattractive matronly woman, clearly a stranger to them.

The unpleasant and unattractive matronly woman proceeded curtly to inform the young man and young woman that they did not have a right to comment positively about Theater In The Round’s production of “Summer And Smoke” unless they had seen Laila Robins, Amanda Plummer, Rosamund Pike and Blythe Danner appear in the role of Alma. “Then, and only then, are you qualified to have an opinion on the production you saw—which was NOT very good, take it from me, someone who HAS seen worthwhile productions of the play—several, in fact.” During her edict, the unpleasant and unattractive matronly woman mispronounced both the first and last names of Laila Robins as well as the first name of Miss Pike, which the unpleasant and unattractive matronly woman somehow turned into “Rosamundo”.

The young man and young woman did not have an opportunity to address the unpleasant and unattractive matronly woman—whose last name is the same as a city in Ohio, and whose family fortune was earned in retailing and dry goods, and who tries to throw her weight around the Twin Cities whenever possible—because my father came to the rescue of the young man and young woman.

My father, without more, simply leaned forward in his seat—very briefly and very subtly—so that the unpleasant and unattractive matronly woman could see him. As soon as she noticed my father, the unpleasant and unattractive matronly woman, seeing that she was outranked, immediately turned away—and shortly thereafter she rose and left the building, taking her paid companion with her.

I hope she was not ill.

The recital missed by the unpleasant and unattractive matronly woman was a good one. The violinist was Baiba Skride, and the pianist was Lauma Skride, sister of the violinist.

The program was excellent.

The first half: Schubert’s Sonata In D Major, D. 384; Bartok’s Rhapsody No. 2; and Five Hungarian Dances by Brahms in the Joachim arrangement.

The second half: Szymanowski’s Mythes; and Ravel’s Tzigane.

The recital was uncommonly satisfying because the violinist played very simply; she was NOT trying to impress, NOT trying to dazzle, NOT trying to demonstrate virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake, NOT trying to overdo things, NOT trying to put on a Barnum And Bailey show. The result was that she offered one of the finest violin recitals I have ever heard, with playing that was concentrated yet relaxed, brilliant yet congenial, pointed yet understated.

Skride’s playing is somewhat reticent, attractively so, which appears to match her personality. She is not a super-virtuoso as was Maxim Vengerov prior to his injury, and she is not an intellect-based violinist as is the current German crew, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Christian Tetzlaff and Frank Peter Zimmermann. Skride does not do the big gesture, in which Joshua Bell is prone to indulge, and she does not go in for hokey physical dramatics, the province of more second-rate violinists than I could name, starting with Nikolaj Znaider.

Skride’s playing, nonetheless, is quite affecting, much more affecting than the playing of Julia Fischer or Arabella Steinbacher, two Skride Central European peers I predict Skride will outlast. Everything Skride played on Sunday afternoon was at a very high level of musicianship, understanding and accomplishment.

We had heard Skride once before. Four years ago, we had heard her play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra.

That performance had been faceless and unmemorable. In hindsight, I wonder whether the problem had been a mismatch of artists: Skride is a very subtle musician, whereas her conductor that night, Osmo Vanksa, is a very unsubtle musician.

Sunday afternoon’s performance was on a much higher level than Skride’s 2008 Mendelssohn performance.

That said, I do not wish to over-praise. Skride was probably wise to have avoided sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, probably not quite up her alley at present. The Ravel, measured and careful, operated at the outer capacity of her technique; at a quicker tempo, it surely would have veered out of control. And matters were helped for me by the fact that, the Bartok aside, I am particularly fond of every single work that Skride programmed.

Since 2008, Skride has changed instruments. Skride now plays a Stradivarius, on loan from Gidon Kremer.

Monday, October 29, 2012

“Good Clothes Open All Doors”

Debatable as is that proposition, the obverse is unquestionably true: bad clothes slam them shut again.

The ridiculous costuming devised for the male dancer in William Forsythe’s “Herman Schmerman Pas de Deux”, danced last week by New York City Ballet in Minneapolis, made it hard for us to stifle giggles.

Whatever one was to call the male dancer’s outfit, it looked like nothing so much as a cheerleader’s skirt.

George Balanchine was always extremely particular about how his dancers were dressed and presented. During the Balanchine era, NYCB was the finest-dressed ballet company on the planet.

I don’t think Balanchine would have allowed this costume to make it onto the stage.

No Progress, No Journey, No Destination, No Arrival

On Wednesday evening, my parents, my sister-in-law, and Joshua and I went downtown to attend a performance of New York City Ballet, visiting Minneapolis for the first time since 1984.

In 2011, for domestic touring purposes, New York City Ballet created New York City Ballet Moves, an endeavor by which the company sends out to cities large and small a less-than-whole contingent of dancers and musicians, all for the purpose of familiarizing persons outside New York with NYCB’s incomparable repertory and dancers. Major, large-scale works from the gigantic NYCB repertory cannot be accommodated by New York City Ballet Moves, but important smaller-scale works that are amenable to touring are part of the package—and NYCB sends a representative repertory as well as a representative sampling of dancers to NYCB Moves venues (among “name” dancers appearing in Minneapolis were Robert Fairchild, Sterling Hyltin, Maria Kowroski and Tiler Peck).

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia” was the first work on the NYCB program.

Created in 2001 for NYCB, and set to piano music of György Ligeti, “Polyphonia” is considered by many to be Wheeldon’s finest ballet. The ballet has traveled around the world in the eleven years since its premiere, been danced by countless companies, and is now viewed as the quintessential “abstract” Wheeldon ballet.

Whether there is anything original in “Polyphonia” is another matter. Set for eight dancers, “Polyphonia” is for all practical purposes a George Balanchine leotard ballet, drawing its inspiration from Balanchine’s spare late-1950s/early-1960s works set to thorny Stravinsky scores written after Arnold Schoenberg’s death. (Stravinsky abandoned Neo-Classicism and adopted Second Viennese School practices once Schoenberg was gone from the scene, and Alban Berg and Anton Webern safely in their graves.)

I enjoyed “Polyphonia” immensely—I enjoyed it more than any other work on Wednesday night’s program—but “Polyphonia” cannot be discussed without throwing out the word “derivative” left and right. There was nothing about “Polyphonia” that was NOT derivative, from its music to its costuming to its lighting to its construction to its steps.

My father’s assessment, offered once the curtain fell: “Tough choice: I can’t decide whether it was more watered-down Agon or watered-down Episodes. I suppose I must declare the matter a draw.”

However one apportions its source material between “Agon” and “Episodes”, “Polyphonia” received a splendid performance from NYCB dancers. NYCB is a company that can dance rings around any other company, and its virtuosity was in full flower Wednesday night.

After “Polyphonia” came the only Balanchine work of the night, “Duo Concertant”, which Josh and I had seen for the first time in January 2011. One of the lasting legacies of NYCB’s 1972 Stravinsky Festival, held one year after the composer’s death, “Duo Concertant” is a two-dancer ballet in which the dancers—famously—spend almost as much time listening to Duo Concertant, a composition for violin and piano written in 1931 and premiered in 1932, as dancing to it.

After the Balanchine, the rest of the evening was downhill—and precipitously so.

The low point was William Forsythe’s “Herman Schmerman Pas de Deux”, set to electronic music by Thom Willems, a Dutch composer (born 1955) whose music is an unthreatening, pastel version of the music of Louis Andriessen, Willems’s primary composition teacher.

In 1992, Forsythe created a five-dancer ballet for NYCB titled “Herman Schmerman”. The following year, Forsythe added a pas de deux to “Herman Schmerman”—and, in 1999, he withdrew the ballet entirely except for its belated add-on, the pas de deux, now widely-performed as a standalone work in its own right.

When he withdrew the ballet, Forsythe should have withdrawn the pas de deux as well—it looks as if it had been created for the Grand Ole Opry, and was intended to be part of some ancient Minnie Pearl cornball comedy skit—although the Minneapolis audience appeared to be fascinated by the piece, primarily because the male dancer, for reasons unknown, was costumed in a shiny gold cheerleader’s skirt.

Peter Martins’s “Zakouski” was next. Zakouski is the Russian word for hors d'oeuvres, and “Zakouski” is a pas de deux set to four short pieces of Russian music, one each by Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky.

In many ways, “Zakouski” was sort of cute. It was sort of entertaining, and sort of charming, and even sort of Russian (although I could have done with less thigh-slapping). “Zakouski” was also, however, completely synthetic—and Las Vegas through and through. It must have been the sort of thing performed in upscale nightclubs in the 1940s.

Last on Wednesday evening’s program was Martins’s “Hallelujah Junction”, set to music of John Adams.

Like all Martins ballets, “Hallelujah Junction” was empty. The ballet’s saving grace, if there was one, was that it was energetic—and an eager display of energy is always preferable to a vacuum. The energy of “Hallelujah Junction” probably accounts for its current semi-popularity, although no sane person could possibly believe that “Hallelujah Junction” will be danced fifty years from now.

Martins created “Hallelujah Junction” in 2001 for the Royal Danish Ballet; the ballet was first presented by NYCB the following year. A black-and-white leotard ballet, it calls for eleven dancers, all of whom get a vigorous workout during its many gyrations.

One of the problems with “Hallelujah Junction” is its weak score. Adams is a composer of “designer music”, music created to provide a pleasant but vapid background. There is nothing challenging in Adams’s music, nothing penetrating, nothing that stops the listener’s heartbeat, nothing that engages the listener’s brain, nothing that requires the listener’s full attention.

Adams’s music is, fundamentally, trivial—as Pierre Boulez has been thoughtful enough to point out over and over—and very much representative of our peculiar times. There is much spinning of wheels, and much exertion of energy—but no progress, no journey, no destination, no arrival. It’s facile, depth-free stuff, having more to do with popular entertainment than high art.

Fifty years from now, people will find it difficult to believe that Adams was once viewed, in some quarters, as an important composer. Just as we marvel today that Morton Gould was taken seriously as a composer in the 1940s and 1950s, persons two and three generations from now will ask themselves, “How could our grandparents have not seen through such piles of piffle?”


Disappointing as was the NYCB Minneapolis program—and it was, most assuredly, disappointing—and unrewarding as was the company’s first visit to the Twin Cities in 28 years, we would not have missed NYCB for any reason. NYCB was the main event of the Twin Cities 2012-2013 dance season.

The Joffrey Ballet has yet to come, and we may attend performances by one or two modern dance troupes—but the Twin Cities dance season is, basically, over, at least for us. (The ballet company from Lausanne, Switzerland, has cancelled—for financial reasons—its scheduled visit to Minneapolis.)

Josh and I certainly regret having had to miss—owing to my having come down with influenza—three NYCB programs we had planned to catch in New York earlier this month.

We missed six Balanchine/Stravinsky ballets: “Momentum pro Gesualdo”; “Movements For Piano And Orchestra”; “Stravinsky Violin Concerto”; “Apollo”; “Agon”; and “Rubies”.

We also missed Balanchine’s “Symphony In C” and Wheeldon’s new ballet, “Carillons”, as well as a seldom-revived Jerome Robbins work, “Moves”.

That was to be our primary bout of ballet-going for the year.

And we had to miss out.

NYCB’s Minneapolis visit was not a satisfactory substitute for what we had planned to see in New York.


Minneapolis is said to have the best modern-dance audience in the country outside New York.

Whether or not such reputation comports with truth, the claim is one of the platitudes of our day.

Minneapolis, on the other hand, does not have a serious ballet audience—and it certainly does not have a Balanchine audience. On Wednesday evening, “Duo Concertant” earned the most muted applause of the night, while the Forsythe and Martins ballets, nothing more than goop, received the most enthusiastic and sustained applause.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune did not even bother to review NYCB’s Minneapolis performances. The Saint Paul Pioneer-Press did publish a review—and the review was laughable, dismissing the Balanchine ballet in half a sentence (“feel[ing] of excessive formalism”, “didn’t feel as sharply focused”) while heaping praise on the Forsythe and Martins mud puddles.

If the Twin Cities were home to a major regional ballet company nurtured on Balanchine repertory, such embarrassments might be avoided.

However, in the Great Plains states, only Kansas City and Tulsa have managed to sustain major ballet companies for any reasonable period of time.

Elsewhere on The Great Plains, ballet companies have died out, or never taken root.

One would think that Chicago, Minneapolis and Saint Louis, three cities with sufficient populations and sufficient wealth, would be able easily to sustain Balanchine companies—but none of the three cities has ever proven itself hospitable to classical ballet.

What do Kansas City and Tulsa have that Chicago, Minneapolis and Saint Louis lack?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

USS Bunker Hill

On May 11, 1945, aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill was hit by two Japanese Kamikaze planes striking thirty seconds apart.

346 Americans died as a result of the Kamikaze attacks, 43 went missing and 264 were injured.

Miraculously, the carrier remained afloat, but was no longer of use for the remainder of the war.

This photograph, one of the most famous and most dramatic taken during the war in the Pacific, has always amazed me. What kind of person would give thought to taking photographs amidst carnage while hundreds of men were in peril and in need of immediate assistance?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Between “Chart Of Anatomy” And “The Eccentricities Of A Nightingale”

“Summer And Smoke”, tonight at Theater In The Round.

“Summer And Smoke” is one of my favorite Tennessee Williams plays, although it may be coldly and dispassionately criticized without end.

I am also unaccountably fond of “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” and “Sweet Bird Of Youth”, neither of which stands up to intense examination.

Williams wrote but one genuine masterpiece, “A Streetcar Named Desire”—and “Streetcar” will surely render the playwright immortal. It is, I believe, the finest play ever written by an American, finer even than “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”, as well as THE great post-war play, in any language.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Peters Versus Universal

Richly Contemplative

On Friday evening, my parents and Joshua and I went to The Cathedral Of Saint Paul to hear VocalEssence perform music of Mendelssohn and Bruckner.

VocalEssence used to be known as The Plymouth Music Series. The Plymouth Music Series was founded at Plymouth Congregational Church in 1969, and retained its original designation until nine or ten years ago, when it changed its name to VocalEssence. Philip Brunelle has been in charge of Plymouth Music Series/VocalEssence since inception.

Outside the Twin Cities, the organization is known for two notable opera recordings: a recording of Benjamin Britten’s “Paul Bunyan” for Virgin Classics, released in 1988; and a recording of Aaron Copland’s “The Tender Land” for the same label, released in 1990. Both recordings remain in print.

It has been years and years since we attended a VocalEssence event. In recent years, the organization has more or less fallen by the wayside, having largely abandoned classical music in favor of multiculturalism. The ensemble has become so irrelevant, I cannot recall the last time I heard anyone so much as mention a VocalEssence performance. I suspect the organization has seen much of its original audience walk away—and I predict that VocalEssence will not be around in another ten or twenty years.

It was the Bruckner Mass No. 2 and guest conductor Helmuth Rilling that attracted us to Friday night’s performance.

Like Haydn’s final mass, the “Harmoniemesse”, Bruckner’s second mass omits strings; it is scored for winds and brass only. Using an eight-part mixed chorus (necessary for the two-part canon utilizing eight-part counterpoint in the Sanctus) and dispensing with soloists, the Mass No. 2 is the shortest and most concentrated of the three Bruckner masses, lasting just under forty minutes in most performances.

The Mass No. 2 is also the most-performed of the Bruckner masses, heard with some frequency all over the world in both concert hall and cathedral. Many Bruckner scholars, the late Robert Simpson among them, have declared the Second to be the most profound and most sublime of Bruckner’s masses, what with its “slow, flowing counterpoint” and “long suspensions and clear harmony”. Myself, I have always admired the Second—it is a glorious work—yet I like the Third at least as much.

The Bruckner Mass No. 2 is familiar to music-lovers from the famous Eugen Jochum recording. Nonetheless, there have been another dozen studio recordings of the work issued by major labels using major artists. Noted conductors who have made commercial studio recordings of the work include Daniel Barenboim, Matthew Best, Marcus Creed, Wolfgang Gönnenwein, Simon Halsey, Philippe Herreweghe, Stephen Layton, Roger Norrington, Valeri Polyansky, Heinz Rögner, Zubin Mehta—and Rilling himself (who recorded the work twice, in 1966 and again in 1996).

In addition, there are countless “live” versions of Bruckner’s Mass No. 2 taken from performances in Europe, Japan and the U.S., including a version made in Saint Paul in 1970 as well as versions under Herbert Von Karajan (Salzburg 1975) and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (Saarbrucken 2002).

We enjoyed the performance immensely. The chorus was competent, and the orchestra was competent. Cathedral reverberation in no way detracted from the performance, although I would have preferred the clarity of concert-hall sound. It was a warm, richly-contemplative work we heard, performed in an apt and atmospheric venue. (Although the first performance of the Mass No. 2 had occurred out-of-doors, the composer knew that future performances would occur in liturgical settings.)

Prior to the Mass, VocalEssence offered four Bruckner motets and two Mendelssohn motets. They were as gravely beautiful as the music of the Mass itself.

It was a rewarding night in Saint Paul, the most enjoyable concert we have attended in some time.

We last heard Rilling four years ago, when he conducted the Minnesota Orchestra and Minnesota Chorale in choral music of Brahms. Rilling is fundamentally unimaginative, but he is fundamentally good—and good is sufficient in a live performance (whereas good, without more, does not count for much in recordings).

I wonder whether Friday evening was our last occasion to hear Rilling. He is now 79 years old, and looks to be frail. How many more times does he plan to cross the ocean, and how many more Twin Cities engagements does he plan to accept in future?

In April, VocalEssence will for the first time revive its 1988 production of “Paul Bunyan”, still remembered with affection in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. My parents did not attend any of the 1988 “Paul Bunyan” performances, so my parents have no recollections to call forth—but I have talked to others who caught one or more of those 1988 performances, and they recall “Paul Bunyan” as the most important project in the history of Plymouth Music Series/VocalEssence.

We may have to catch one of the “Paul Bunyan” performances.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

“The Well-Digger’s Daughter”

Five weeks ago today, we saw the French film, “The Well-Digger’s Daughter”.

“The Well-Digger’s Daughter” initiated a short-term burst of movie-going for us.

We are not regular filmgoers.

“Little White Lies”

Four weeks ago today, we saw the French film, “Little White Lies”.

“The War Of The Buttons”

An outtake from the French film, “The War Of The Buttons”, which we saw today.

On three of the last six Sundays, we have seen a French film at Edina Cinema.

My mother likes French cinema, but it is not often we see three films—of any nationality—in short succession.

"I Have Told You These Things . . ."


Saturday, October 20, 2012

Quiz Time

The first reader correctly to identify the athlete in this photograph, participating (with his wife and daughter) in the torch run leading up to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, will receive two free tickets to all Minnesota Orchestra subscription concerts between now and Thanksgiving.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Rosanne Barr And Jerry Sandusky

As always, things come full circle.

Two Concerts

Over Columbus Day Weekend, while Joshua’s sister was visiting us, we took her to two concerts.

On Saturday night of the holiday weekend, we took her to a concert by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

The following afternoon, we took her to a recital by pianist Simone Dinnerstein.


Back in May, when Josh’s sister had visited us, we had taken her to a Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concert. She had enjoyed that concert very much. Saturday night, October 6, was for her a welcome second visit to the Ordway Center.

Josh and I took my parents to the October 6 concert, too. There are no further SPCO programs of appeal to us between now and the New Year—and, what with the current Minnesota Orchestra lockout and the SPCO on the verge of being locked out, it may be a long while before we have occasion to attend another Minnesota Orchestra or SPCO concert.

Thomas Dausgaard was conductor for the October 6 SPCO program.

I had never before seen or heard Dausgaard in action, but my parents had. In 2004, Dausgaard had conducted the Minnesota Orchestra—without distinction—in Mahler’s Fourth, among other works. My parents had attended one of those 2004 performances. Dausgaard had been so unimpressive in his debut week with the Minnesota Orchestra in 2004, he has never been asked to return.

Things come full circle. Eight years after Dausgaard’s first round of appearances with American ensembles, IMG, Dausgaard’s management firm, is once again trying to develop an American career for Dausgaard. Dausgaard has a handful of engagements in the U.S. this season, none in prestigious venues, and IMG managed to inflict him on SPCO.

IMG is wasting its time trying to promote Dausgaard in the United States. Unduly flashy and utterly lacking gravitas, Dausgaard is—to be blunt—not a conductor worth hearing. I predict he will never have an American career, and will continue to get most of his work in Scandinavia and Britain.

The SPCO concert began with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. In Dausgaard’s hands, Siegfried Idyll sounded like Wiren’s early Serenade, all high spirits and ebullience—and entirely vapid.

The concert concluded with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. In Dausgaard’s hands, Beethoven’s Seventh sounded like Bizet’s youthful Symphony In C, all bubbly surface and fizz—and entirely vapid.

Dausgaard’s was toy-soldier music-making. There was no content in Wagner and no content in Beethoven beyond the notes on the printed page. Dausgaard’s was music-making without expression, without melos, without philosophical weight—not exactly what is called for in Siegfried Idyll and Beethoven’s Seventh. Dausgaard appeared to be play-acting all night while engaged in a wide assortment of ridiculous podium theatrics—and the performances sounded exactly like performances under a play-acting conductor engaged in ridiculous podium theatrics.

Dausgaard looked decades older than his published photographs. I was taken aback when he first walked onstage—in fact, my first thought was that a replacement conductor had been engaged for the evening, with no advance notice provided to the assembled concertgoers.

Between the Wagner and Beethoven was a performance of Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto, the last—and finest, and most original—of the composer’s three attempts at large-scale concerto form.

Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto features spare instrumentation: strings, two bassoons, two horns and snare drum. Little is lost in a performance of chamber-orchestra scale.

Soloist for the SPCO performance was Alexander Fiterstein, member of The University Of Minnesota faculty. (The Principal Clarinetist of the SPCO, who normally would have assumed soloist honors, had recently retired from the SPCO after almost four decades of service.) The performance, the only satisfactory performance of the night, was highly enjoyable. Fiterstein is a fine instrumentalist.

Had I not come down with influenza less than 24 hours after the SPCO concert, forcing cancellation of a business trip to New York, Josh and I had an opportunity to hear Nielsen’s other two concertos only a few days after the SPCO performance of the Clarinet Concerto. It is not often that one has a chance to hear all three Nielsen concertos, in succession, within a short period of time.

Between Wednesday and Saturday of last week, the New York Philharmonic presented performances of the Violin Concerto and Flute Concerto—and Josh and I were in possession of an indecent number of complimentary tickets covering all four performances.

Had we gone ahead with the trip to New York, we probably would not have used the free tickets. Alan Gilbert was the scheduled conductor, and—to be blunt once again—Gilbert is not a conductor worth hearing. Further, owing to moral concerns related to the scheduled violinist, the reprehensible Nikolaj Znaider, we almost certainly would have skipped the concert. Had we attended one of the performances, it would have been solely in order to take discreet photographs of Znaider and post them on our weblogs in order to poke fun at him—and such is not a noble (or suitable) reason for spending time in a concert hall.

In any case, Nielsen’s music is rewarding only within limits. Nielsen lacked the genius of his exact Scandinavian contemporary, Sibelius, and Nielsen’s music is decidedly weak and uninteresting when placed alongside that of contemporary composers from Central Europe, France and Russia.

Not a single conductor of the first rank has ever taken up the Nielsen symphonies (although Herbert Von Karajan, late in life, did record—but not perform in the concert hall—the Fourth). Nielsen symphonies have always been the province of second-, third- and fourth-tier conductors.

Only one violinist of the first rank, Maxim Vengerov, has ever taken up the Violin Concerto. Vengerov was able to make absolutely nothing of the piece (as his atrocious, out-of-print Teldec recording with an out-of-sorts Chicago Symphony under an out-of-his-depth Daniel Barenboim amply demonstrated)—and Vengerov very quickly dropped the work from his repertory. The Violin Concerto has been recorded, creditably, only once: by Cho-Liang Lin, whose Sony recording remains in the catalog 22 years to the week after its initial release. It is the only recording ever made of the Nielsen Violin Concerto that has enjoyed universal acclaim and a long shelf life.

Unlike the Nielsen Violin Concerto, where a lone recording holds sway, there are numerous excellent recordings of the two Nielsen wind concertos, especially the Clarinet Concerto, which has been very fortunate on disc.


For me, the template of a bad piano recital has, for years, been Barenboim.

Several years ago, I heard Barenboim play Bach’s Goldberg Variations in recital.

I was appalled by what I heard that afternoon: a technique long gone; no understanding of counterpoint; a too-Romantic and fantasia-like presentation of a great masterpiece of variation writing; and the display of a studied and affected indifference to his numerous keyboard deficiencies as well as the requirements of Bach’s music.

I remember that afternoon well. The Goldberg Variations had been the only work on the program. At the conclusion of the work, there had been very little applause—perhaps sixty seconds of unenthusiastic, minimally-polite handclapping that had been so brief and uncommitted, it did not even allow Barenboim an opportunity to return to the stage after he had first walked into the wings at the conclusion of the performance. The very second Barenboim was off the stage, the applause instantly died—as if cut off by prearranged signal.

That afternoon, Barenboim had treated his audience with contempt—and the audience had responded in kind.

Since that disastrous American series of performances of the Goldberg Variations, Barenboim has never again attempted to undertake a recital tour of the U.S., probably a wise move on Barenboim’s part.

I was reminded of Barenboim and his flop with the Goldberg Variations on the Sunday before last, when Josh and I took Josh’s sister and my mother to the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center at Macalester College in order to hear Dinnerstein in recital.

Dinnerstein’s recital was so poor, there is very little for me to say. The afternoon was a total shambles, a complete waste of our time. In that sense, Dinnerstein may have trumped Barenboim, something I never expected to happen.

During impossibly-bad performances, the listener is in turmoil. The listener first becomes irritated at himself for having wasted time in attending the recital in the first place. The listener next becomes aggravated at the performer for not giving the audience anything worth listening to. The listener last becomes disgusted—once again at himself, for not having the temerity to stand up and walk out.

Dinnerstein’s recital was one of those occasions on which the irritation-aggravation-disgust barometer captured a reading that was off the charts. I literally felt ill the entire time Dinnerstein was playing—she was THAT painful to endure.

After the recital, we ran into my former piano teacher, one of the most respected piano pedagogues in the Upper Midwest. When we first saw her, her eyebrows were arched up to the ceiling of the atrium of the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center, and she appeared as if she were in desperate need of a nosegay in order to counteract some exceedingly noxious fumes.

“I hope you had the good sense not to applaud!” were her first words to me, sharply uttered. “There was nothing worth applauding this afternoon.”

I assured my former piano teacher that I had not applauded, and that Josh and his sister had not applauded, either—but that my mother HAD applauded, not from conviction, but as a simple matter of good taste.

The teacher turned to my mother, and asked, “Where’s Asher? Did he have enough sense to skip this shipwreck?”

We told my former teacher that my father’s ticket had been taken by Josh’s sister, and that my father had been more than happy to give up his seat.

“Well, the only reason people are here this afternoon, is because they had to buy a full subscription in order to get tickets to Trifonov,” was my piano teacher’s animated response. My piano teacher was referring to pianist Daniil Trifonov, a Russian sensation scheduled to make his Twin Cities recital debut next February in the same hall—and Trifonov is an artist everyone wants to hear.

(Trifonov will play the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 tomorrow night in a one-off performance with a provincial orchestra in Paris. His conductor, incomprehensibly: Znaider, even more ridiculous as a conductor than as a violinist. Things come full circle.)

We informed my piano teacher that the only reason WE had had tickets for Dinnerstein was because we, too, had wanted to hear Trifonov—and that we had been well aware that buying a full subscription was the only way for us to assure hearing Trifonov.

“If Trifonov shows up under the influence, or on crutches, or suffering from malaria, he still has to be better than this dreadful woman,” my former teacher continued, referring to Dinnerstein. “No technique. No touch. No sound quality. No musicianship. No personality. No style. No depth. No brains. No understanding. She has NOTHING. Absolutely NOTHING!”

None of us was in disagreement. We, too, had been aware, throughout the recital, that we were enduring something grim.

We had heard Dinnerstein once before. Exactly one year ago, we had heard her play the Ravel Piano Concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra. At the time, I wrote that I had no idea whether Dinnerstein was a worthwhile artist, since the Ravel concerto reveals virtually nothing about a pianist.

I now have an answer to the question I raised last year—and I will never go hear Dinnerstein again (not that I expect her career to be a lasting one).

Dinnerstein’s Saint Paul program: Bach’s Partita No. 1, BWV 825; Bach’s Partita No. 2, BWV 826; Schumann’s Kinderszenen; Brahms’s Intermezzo, Opus 118, No. 2; a variation piece by a contemporary composer, Daniel Felsenfeld; and a Chopin Nocturne. The recital was not performed in the order in which I have listed the compositions.

The Schumann, Brahms and Chopin were gruesome. A competent pianist would have been embarrassed.

The Bach was un-intellectual Bach—and, I suspect, deliberately so. Throughout both partitas, the Bach sounded like something filtered through the mind of someone who responds most deeply to pop music—and who responds ONLY to pop music. The Bach should have been saved for a nightclub in Brooklyn.

The Felsenfeld was unmistakably pop music, just as it was unmistakably Brooklyn music—and, once again, should have been saved for a nightclub in Brooklyn, limned with Brooklynites (and only Brooklynites).

Felsenfeld’s composition was camp—although I doubt the composer is intelligent enough to realize that his composition was camp. I suspect the composer moves in circles restricted to persons that themselves are camp, all working in camp jobs in camp fields, all living camp lives, all thinking camp thoughts.

And, now that I reflect upon Dinnerstein’s recital from a distance of almost two weeks, I can see clearly that Dinnerstein’s recital, too, was camp, and that Dinnerstein herself was camp. The way the recital program was arranged was camp, Dinnerstein’s music-making was camp, and Dinnerstein’s stage presentation and persona were camp.

It was a bizarre afternoon.

Someone associated with the Minnesota Orchestra has told me of significant difficulties with Dinnerstein in conjunction with her Minnesota Orchestra appearance a year ago.

Apparently Dinnerstein is frightfully down-market. She curses like a sailor 24 hours a day, was inoculated against manners and social graces at birth, has the personality and demeanor of a fishwife, demonstrates the most appalling—if not gross—personal habits, and is “an all-around, low-class, no-class, white-trash shrew”, to use the precise description of someone who had to deal with Dinnerstein on a frequent personal basis last year.

Perhaps Dinnerstein has a future in sitcom?

Things come full circle.


On the very same afternoon of Dinnerstein’s recital, the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin was playing at a venue only a couple of miles away from the venue of Dinnerstein’s recital.

We had contemplated, as late as 12:00 Noon that day, chucking our Dinnerstein tickets, and attending the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin concert instead. The program of the Berlin musicians: quartets by Mozart, Lutoslawski and Beethoven.

I am told, by reliable persons, that the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin concert was superb.

We made a very bad decision in sticking with the Dinnerstein recital. However, we had been reluctant to subject Josh’s sister to music of Lutoslawski and late Beethoven, which we feared she would not enjoy on first encounter.

At root, we had been afraid we might turn Josh’s sister against quartet performance for life.

As things turned out, we instead turned her against piano recitals for life.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

“Tolerance Becomes A Crime When Applied To Evil”

5 October 1943: Actor Paul Lukas escorts Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mann around Warner Brothers Studio.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

On Fellow German Émigrés

Wherever these cheerless guests went they were unwanted, were not allowed to work, hardly to breathe. They were required to have papers which they didn't have or which were not good enough. Their passports had expired and were not renewed. So these refugees found it difficult to prove their identity. Very few thrived on their sufferings. Suffering will fortify the strong but weaken the weak. It is easier to do without principles than without bread and butter; and when it's a question of throwing some ballast overboard then morality goes first. Many went to seed. Their bad qualities that had been overlaid by prosperity came to the surface and their good qualities turned sour. Most became egomaniacs, lost their judgment and balance, no longer distinguished between what was permissible and what impermissible. Misery, in their own eyes, justified caprice and lack of restraint. They became self-pitying and quarrelsome. They became like fruit that had been picked too soon: not ripe but ugly and sour. Indeed, exile made us small and dejected. Yet it also hardened us and made us great, gave a wider horizon, greater elasticity. It taught us to pinpoint the essential. People who were shoved from New York to Moscow, from Stockholm to Cape Town, had to think deeper than those who, until then, had been sitting in their Berlin offices all their lives. Many hopes were set on these refugees both inside and outside Germany. The faith persisted that these exiles were chosen to cast out the barbarians who had seized their homeland.

Lion Feuchtwanger


Bertolt Brecht and Lion Feuchtwanger in Hollywood in 1947.

“Tales From Hollywood” At The Guthrie

From a scenic perspective, “Tales From Hollywood” provided a dazzling display of theatrical design, a most sophisticated—and pleasing—examination of color, light, geometry and space.


The two-character play is an invention of the 1970s, a response to a high-inflation period that rendered most Broadway plays unprofitable because of mounting costs.

Producing organizations found that significant reductions were the only way to stay afloat—and that dispensing with actors was one ironclad way to control expenditures. The two-character play thrived on Broadway throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, and remains alive today, at least in the U.S.

Without giving the matter much thought, I cannot think of a single two-character play that is fully-satisfying or durable. All two-character plays that come to mind are one-dimensional, commercial vehicles whose roots all-too-clearly may be found in television.

Friday before last, Joshua and I took Josh’s sister, visiting us over Columbus Day Weekend, and my middle brother to Saint Paul to see Park Square Theatre’s production of John Logan’s two-character play, “Red”.

“Red” presents the story of painter Mark Rothko working in the late 1950s on murals for The Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building. The only characters onstage are Rothko and his assistant, a young man who wants to become a painter in his own right.

For ninety uninterrupted minutes, Rothko and his assistant work on the murals while discussing the subject of art—as well as Rothko himself.

Rothko was a difficult man who never came to grips with his demons (unless one views suicide as a satisfactory resolution to such matters). Rothko was opinionated, stubborn, coarse, insecure—and mildly violent. He was also passionate about art, a genuine student of the subject, and unafraid to set out on his own course, all admirable qualities.

All this, and more, was portrayed onstage in “Red”. Within its built-in limitations, “Red” succeeded as a modest entertainment. The play was engaging. The role of Rothko was well-written. Numerous conflicts arose between Rothko and his assistant, and they provided the bases for thought-provoking arguments about the nature and purpose of art (as well as the intersection of art and commerce).

At the same time, there was an odor of Art Appreciation 101 emanating from the play’s text. The play’s discussions of art were middlebrow; the audience was treated more to name-dropping than penetrating analysis, and there was not the slightest trace of originality in the play’s dialogue, construction or themes. “Red” was a PBS script that had made a wrong turn, and somehow found its way to the legitimate stage.

Logan is a successful screenwriter of commercial films. “Red” was not Logan’s first play, but it was the first Logan play that generated any enthusiasm among critics and audiences. (“Red” won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play.)

We did not object to “Red”. The play held our attention. It demonstrated some skill and some thought. It was, however, nothing more than another two-character play, with all the constrictions imposed by the genre.

The Park Square Theatre production was quite good. Both actors acquitted themselves with distinction, and the director had found the proper “tone” of the play, which may not have been easy to do.

I would characterize the production as a success.

The play itself, I predict, will disappear.

[Two days after we attended a performance of “Red”, one of Rothko’s Seagram murals on display at Tate Modern in London was defaced by a visitor.]


Christopher Hampton is better known for his translations and adaptations than for his own plays, none of which has managed to maintain a place in the repertory in North America or Britain.

Hampton cites “Tales From Hollywood”, currently in repertory at The Guthrie Theater, as his favorite among all his plays.

A week ago Saturday, Josh and I took Josh’s sister and my sister-in-law to the matinee performance of “Tales From Hollywood”.

For me, this was the most keenly-anticipated production of the year, not only from The Guthrie but from any theater company in town.

“Tales From Hollywood” presents the story of German émigrés living and working in Hollywood after fleeing a Europe about to self-destruct because of its inability to challenge an abject totalitarian monster. Ödön von Horváth, Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Mann, Thomas Mann and Lion Feuchtwanger are only some of the characters in the play, all shown trying to adapt to life in the movie industry while simultaneously trying to adapt to civilian life in a new and alien land.

This is a great premise for a tantalizing play—but Hampton failed to deliver the goods.

“Tales From Hollywood” premiered in Los Angeles at The Mark Taper Forum in 1982, received bad reviews, and has been little-seen since in the U.S. (The play has never received a Broadway production.)

“Tales From Hollywood” received its London premiere at The National Theatre in 1983, received middling notices, and failed to go on to a commercial run. (The play was revived in London once, in 2001, in a limited run at Donmar Warehouse.)

If name-dropping was one of the main weaknesses of “Red”, it became a fatal avalanche in “Tales From Hollywood”. No major cultural figure from Central Europe of the 1930s went unmentioned—and few major Hollywood figures of the era were left out, either. The play was little more than an exercise in checking names off lists for two hours and forty-five minutes, a good thing as preparation for an appearance on “Jeopardy” but not a good thing for drama.

I would like to make clear that I was not once bored—unlike much of the audience, which clearly was bored to tears—but my absence of boredom was due solely to the fact that I have long been fascinated by every single character portrayed onstage. If I had had no interest in the era, the issues discussed, and the personalities presented, I would have found “Tales From Hollywood” to be the totally incompetent play that it is, near-impossible to endure.

Act I takes place in the years 1938 to 1941, and shows the German émigrés settling into Hollywood. Act II represents the years 1942 to 1950, and shows how dissatisfied and unfulfilled they remain in a land they have never grown to understand and embrace. The end of the play attempts to draw parallels between Hitler’s Germany and incipient McCarthyism—and this final part of the play is by far the weakest and clumsiest.

What went wrong in the playwright’s handling of such failsafe material, seemingly surefire in the hands of even the weakest dramatist?

The first problem is that the dialogue in “Tales From Hollywood” is not good. The dialogue does not flow, it has no rhythm or shape—and of eloquence or poetry there is none.

The second problem is that the playwright did not like or respect his characters. All except Brecht are written as whining fools—and Brecht, given the best lines, is the least attractive figure of the piece, at least in Hampton’s telling. The characters are not written as compelling, admirable figures, which they were in real life. Instead, they are portrayed as feeble, bitter losers, with a gripe always on their lips and a settling of old scores always on their minds. This is especially true of the female characters, all depicted as horrific to greater or lesser degree.

The third problem is that the playwright never decided, conclusively, what kind of play he was writing. For ten minutes at a time, the play becomes—in turn—narrative chronicle, history play, tragedy, comedy and biting social commentary. It never once settles on a sustained tone—and it is the absence of any sustained tone that prevents the audience from submitting to the play.

The fourth problem is that the playwright did not shape the play into a satisfying whole. An aimless, meandering series of random scenes, “Tales From Hollywood” reminded me of an unsuccessful adaptation for the stage of a collection of short stories—a collection that should have remained on the printed page.

“Tales From Hollywood” may be impossible to stage, a veritable director’s nightmare. How can a director find the essence of such a jumbled and incoherent script, and devise a stylish and uniform means of presentation?

The Guthrie director, Ethan McSweeney, brought nothing to the material. The intellectual parts of the play did not come off, the emotional parts of the play did not come off, the funny parts of the play did not come off. Pacing was labored, and the few set pieces of writing, designed to provide climaxes, fell flat.

McSweeney failed to find any tone for the play, some kind of key signature by which all the parts might have come together and “sounded”. The failure of the production was, largely, McSweeney’s failure. I have never seen a more lackluster piece of direction in a major theater—and I am surprised McSweeney was not replaced during the rehearsal period.

The cast was unimpressive, and prone to overacting. The actor assigned the part of Thomas Mann played Mann as a one-dimensional, pompous bore. The actor portraying Brecht was too firmly of the belief that he was the life of the party. The actor in the role of Horvath brought such eager, single-note cynicism to his role, he might as well have been appearing as the jaundiced narrator in the musical, “Grand Hotel”. (In real life, Horvath died in 1938. Horvath’s inclusion in the play was, I thought, a major miscalculation.)

Amid this pile of wreckage, one thing stood out: the stage design.

And the stage designs, costume designs and lighting designs for “Tales From Hollywood” were magnificent. I have seldom seen anything as fine on any stage. “Tales From Hollywood” may have been the single best-designed production I have ever experienced, in the U.S. or Europe, in any theater or opera house.

I may write about the exquisite design of the show in coming days.

Monday, October 15, 2012

1942: Stalingrad

German soldiers at Stalingrad in 1942.

This very rare color photograph from Stalingrad was taken on October 15, 1942, exactly seventy years ago today. It is unlikely that any of the soldiers in the photograph were alive three months later.

When German forces at Stalingrad finally surrendered on February 2, 1943, Germany’s ultimate defeat was a foregone conclusion.

1942: Dalnee Natranovo

A farmer dries hay in the hamlet of Dalnee Natranovo (now known as Petrovo Dalnee) in the summer of 1942.

Dalnee Natranovo is near Kaluga, which is approximately 100 miles southwest of Moscow.

The German Army controlled Dalnee Natranovo in the summer of 1942. Indeed, this rare color photograph, evincing no evidence whatsoever of wartime and occupation, was taken by a German soldier passing through the hamlet.

1942: Minneapolis

On April 3, 1942, at a United States Post Office in Minneapolis, a horse buys U.S. Defense Bonds.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Historic Trading Floor Of The Minneapolis Grain Exchange

The historic trading floor of The Minneapolis Grain Exchange, no longer in use.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Final Verdict

I am pleased we attended this year’s Shaw Festival, primarily because my parents had such a wonderful time.

The Shaw Festival provided a perfect short vacation for my parents: no stressful planning, no complicated execution, no extended travel, leisurely days, stimulating theater performances—and an interesting historic attraction and one of the most beautiful natural wonders on earth nearby.

Of greatest importance, after almost four decades of talk, my parents at last attended one of the Canadian summer theater festivals, something my parents had wanted to do ever since they got married. My parents need never again wonder what they have been missing.

However, I doubt any of us will want to return to The Shaw Festival anytime soon.

Other than the standard of stage design, much higher in North America than Britain, the quality of what we experienced at Niagara-On-The-Lake was significantly lower than top-quality theater in London. Performances were uneven, and never once reached the level of what may be seen on a regular basis on the London stage if one selects with care, judgment and experience.

If ever we decide to take another theater excursion, London shall have to rank above The Shaw Festival.

While we were in Niagara-On-The-Lake, we learned that The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has been raiding Shaw Festival actors the last few years, offering Shaw actors more money to appear in Stratford. This stratagem has had an effect on the quality of Shaw Festival performance—or so we were told—and Shaw Festival officials have shown increasing concern about the situation.

My recommended solution to the problem: The Shaw Festival should stop using Canadian actors exclusively, and should inaugurate casting offices in London and New York.

Niagara-On-The-Lake is a town that exists for tourism—and everything was expensive. Theater tickets cost more or less twice what they should have—they were much, much closer to New York prices than Minneapolis prices—and restaurant fares were outrageous. We had to shell out $100 per person for dinner each night, and $50 per person each day for lunch—without ordering wine.

A trip of comparable length to London, including airfare, would have cost us less.

Nevertheless, for my parents’ sake, I am glad we went.

Perhaps next year we can look at the summer opera festivals in Des Moines, Saint Louis and Santa Fe.

A Giving Artist

On Wednesday evening, my parents and Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear soprano Karita Mattila in recital.

We last heard Mattila in recital—in the same venue, Ordway Center—in 2007.

Within the last five years, we had also seen and heard Mattila four times at the Metropolitan Opera, appearing in “Jenufa”, “Manon Lescaut”, “Salome” and “Eugene Onegin”. In fact, Josh has never attended a performance at the Metropolitan Opera in which Mattila was not the featured soprano; one of the jokes in my family is that Josh refers to the Metropolitan Opera as The Karita Mattila Opera Company.

(Things may change tomorrow night: Josh and I have tickets for the Metropolitan Opera’s “Otello”, a Mattila-free performance. However, I have come down with what appears to be a case of influenza, and we may not be able to make the trip to New York.)

Prior to 2007, I had seen and heard Mattila in performance at the Wiener Staatsoper, the Paris Opera and The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, singing Wagner, R. Strauss and Verdi.

Mattila has a voice of significant size. On her good notes, she is prone to “let ‘er rip”, blowing the listener back in his seat. Otherwise, Mattila has a white voice, with little color and no distinctive timbre. I do not find her voice inherently attractive—and her voice has turned increasingly acidic in recent years, with the result that Mattila is obtaining fewer and fewer important engagements with each passing year. Further, like any aging soprano, Mattila is having trouble controlling her voice. Pitch has become a problem for her—on any held note, Mattila is like a racecar driver who keeps circling the track until locating the right exit—and the voice does not flow as easily or as smoothly as it did ten years ago. One may now hear gearshifts as Mattila changes registers.

Mattila’s voice does not take to the microphone; the few recordings she has made, almost all from the first decade of her career, are not memorable exemplars of the singer’s art.

In the theater, Mattila can be effective. She is a tall, striking woman, and she generally dominates the stage, no matter who else is onstage with her. She is an eager, enthusiastic stage performer, full of pep and vim—but nowise a subtle, sophisticated actress.

On the recital platform, Mattila presents an imposing figure—but as soon as she opens her mouth, she presents nothing more than earnest, well-studied interpretations. One hears nothing original or unique. Everything is generalized. One song sounds very much like another. The detailed, finely-etched interpretations of a Schwarzkopf or a Seefried are from a different solar system than the one Mattila inhabits.

Given all that, we enjoyed Wednesday’s recital. As generic, all-purpose singing, it was very nice. Given the state of Mattila’s voice, it was very nice.

Indeed, we enjoyed Mattila’s 2012 recital more than her 2007 recital, probably because the 2012 program was a better one and because Mattila has, in the last five years, learned to relax on the recital platform. (Mattila appeared to have been uncomfortable, even tense, in 2007.)

The first half of the program was devoted to Berg’s “Seven Early Songs”, four Brahms lieder, and three Finnish songs. The second half of the program consisted of three Debussy chansons (from the Baudelaire set) and four Strauss lieder.

I enjoyed everything, including the Debussy (which did not sound remotely French). Even the Finnish songs had a certain charm.

I wish Mattila had saved the Berg for last. The Berg received the finest interpretation of the evening, and Mattila should have performed the Berg as a continuation of the German lied handed down from Brahms and Strauss—and with her voice fully warmed-up.

I understand, however, why Mattila reserved the Strauss for last. In the Strauss, Mattila let loose, singing with passion and abandon. It was the first passion and abandon of the evening—everything earlier had been somewhat buttoned-up—and the audience responded warmly to Mattila the giving artist. Mattila is, undeniably, a giving artist, which is why audiences everywhere respond to her.

Nonetheless, Mattila sang the Strauss like Wagner, which is not exactly what the Strauss required.

And Wagner is what Mattila—a natural Wagner singer—should have been singing.

The pianist was Martin Katz. Katz had also served as Mattila’s accompanist in 2007. On Wednesday, he was, as always, excellent.

Mattila needs to reconsider her makeup practice. Mattila wears enough makeup for twenty women, and Mattila’s makeup is badly-applied to boot.

Might I suggest that Mattila concede the makeup sweepstakes to Nikolaj Znaider, graciously declare him to be the all-time champ, and cut back in future?

Sunday, October 07, 2012

The Royal George Theatre

The third theater in use at The Shaw Festival is The Royal George Theatre, an old vaudeville house seating 328 persons.

It was at The Royal George Theatre that we attended performances of “French Without Tears”, “Misalliance” and “Come Back, Little Sheba”.

The auditorium of The Royal George Theatre is very fine, in stark contrast to its unimposing façade.

The Shaw Festival also uses a fourth theater, the Studio Theatre, which we did not visit. The Studio Theatre is the venue for experimental/contemporary work—and its lone 2012 presentation had closed for the season the week before we arrived in Niagara-On-The-Lake.

The Shaw Festival—Final Day

On our final day of theatergoing at The Shaw Festival, George Bernard Shaw’s “Misalliance” was the matinee play we attended.

“Misalliance”, an examination of marriage, is one of my favorite Shaw plays. Set at a country estate on a single afternoon in 1909, the play is both serious and amusing as it presents the tale of eight different marriage proposals, all extended within the frame of a few hours, involving only nine characters.

A play with an inherently-preposterous plot foundation, “Misalliance” is in fact one of Shaw’s most satisfying works. The dialogue is often inspired, the range of personality types wide, the situations ever-shifting, complicated—yet convincing. “Misalliance” has a great Act I conclusion—a biplane crashes through the conservatory roof, depositing into the assemblage a Polish pilot and a colorful Polish aviatrix—and a great Act II conclusion, when an unsettled male character flies off with the enchanting aviatrix, an act signifying freedom and release.

The Shaw Festival production of “Misalliance” was not good.

Simply put, the cast was not up to the play’s demands—which had also been true of our first night’s “French Without Tears”—and one had to ask, throughout the play, why such-and-such actor had been cast in such-and-such role.

Further, the setting had been changed from 1909 to 1962, which rendered much of the plot and dialogue senseless. Breaking free of the conventions of The Victorian Age was not an issue that carried much relevance in 1962—nor were biplanes particularly prevalent in the 1960s (or conservatories, for that matter).

Oddly, “Misalliance” was the one Shaw Festival production in which the stage design was not at the very highest level. The costumes were wrong, the settings were wrong, the lighting was wrong. Everything had been misjudged.

“Misalliance” was, fundamentally, one of those productions in which nothing came together—an occurrence that sometimes happens in theater. It is one of the hazards of the stage.


Our final evening performance was William Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba”, a marital tale of suffering and grievance.

As a general rule, I am uninterested in “kitchen sink” drama—which, happily, long ago died out, at least in North America. Kitchen sink drama thrived, in cinema and theater, for a decade and a half after the conclusion of World War II, after which it mercifully passed from view (in the U.S., if not in Britain, where it continues to hold on).

Moreover, I am not keen on Inge plays. Inge plays have many failings, among which is that they are insufferably maudlin—and “Come Back, Little Sheba” is nothing if not maudlin.

In a good production, the play can nonetheless be made to work—and the Shaw Festival production was a very fine production indeed. The actor and actress portraying the unhappy, unfulfilled, middle-aged married couple gave excellent performances, performances fully worthy of Broadway or London’s National Theatre. The actor and actress were so fine, they alone made the performance worthwhile. I was riveted to the onstage proceedings every minute—and, to judge by how quiet was the crowd, so was the rest of the audience.

“Come Back, Little Sheba” is discomfiting. It is discomfiting both because the two lead characters are so profoundly unhappy—and because the audience is invited to feel sorry for them.

It is the latter quality, alas, that constitutes a severe strike against the playwright. There is no nobility or redemption to be gained merely by inviting an audience to feel sorry for two unhappy human beings. Such is the natural realm of daytime drama, a field with limited objectives.

True drama must strive for more exalted aims than the soaps—and, even in a high-quality production such as that presented at The Shaw Festival, “Come Back, Little Sheba” was revealed as a work of little merit.

Fine as were the leading performances, I would much rather have been sitting through an obscure play by Eugene O’Neill.

Autumn Has Arrived, At Least In Minneapolis

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)
Brittany Landscape
National Gallery Of Art, Washington

Oil On Canvas
28 Inches By 35 1/4 Inches

Thursday, October 04, 2012


The reason why the continental European is, to the Englishman or American, so surprisingly ignorant of the Bible, is that the authorized English version is a great work of literary art, while the continental versions are comparatively artless.

George Bernard Shaw (Misalliance)

Fort George

Fort George, Niagara-On-The-Lake.

Fort George was the scene of several battles during The War Of 1812. It was once captured by American forces, and twice burned by American forces.

We spent a pleasant morning touring Fort George, which Joshua and I had also visited in 2009.

A Few Good Things

We all gathered at my parents’ house on Saturday in order to watch the Minnesota game.

Our plan was to watch the game together—and, if things got out of hand for the Golden Gophers, to go outside and do yard work.

Not long into the game, Minnesota fell behind, 24-0—and, before you know it, we were outside, attending to grass and shrubbery and such.

At least we got my parents’ lawn taken care of—and my mother provided us with an excellent lunch of pasta primavera and poached salmon as reward for our work (the dog got pasta and chicken, since he is not big on seafood, but will always go for a nice baked chicken breast).

We had a fun day, because we were playing with my niece and nephew (and the dog) as much as toiling with yard work.

Late in the afternoon, my older brother and his family went home, taking with them as overnight guest the dog. The rest of us got cleaned up and went over to Bloomington for a night out.

We had a light dinner at a Bloomington family-owned restaurant. We ordered dinner salads of strawberries, walnuts, cranberries, mixed greens, vinaigrette dressing, grilled chicken and feta cheese.

After eating, we attended the Bloomington Civic Theatre production of Aaron Sorkin’s courtroom drama, “A Few Good Men”.

None of us had seen a production of “A Few Good Men”, hard as that is to comprehend. None of us had seen the film version, either, which I understand is pretty gruesome.

We believed the production to be quite excellent—it was on a fully-professional level—and we thought the production reflected great credit on the company (in contrast to the insipid “42nd Street” we endured not long ago in Bloomington).

It has been only in the last couple of years that Bloomington Civic Theatre, long known for the quality of its musical productions, added a second theater for the presentation of dramas—and the decision to expand the theater’s mission seems to be working out splendidly. Now, more than ever, Bloomington Civic Theatre remains the most important civic theater in the country. (It is also, I believe, by far the most lavishly funded.)

Sorkin’s play itself is melodramatic and formulaic, an inherent hazard of the courtroom drama, a genre that surely needs to disappear. The entire time I was sitting through the play, I kept saying to myself, “This is precisely the sort of thing Lillian Hellman would be writing if she were alive today.” Happily, Hellman is long gone—but Sorkin, for reasons unknown, has elected to follow in her footsteps.

The popularity of “A Few Good Men” will wane in another decade or so. The play is all plot. There are no memorable characters, no penetrating thoughts, no original ideas in the play. Indeed, I am surprised the play has endured as long as it has (it first appeared in 1989).

After the performance, we went back to Edina, stopping at The Cheesecake Factory for a late dessert of banana cream cheesecake, which hit the spot.

This coming weekend, Columbus Day Weekend, Joshua and I will have a visitor: Josh’s sister, who will fly in from Chicago to spend Friday through Monday with us.

We have a few things planned to keep Josh’s sister amused: a performance of “Red”, a play about Mark Rothko, at Park Square Theatre; a performance of “Tales From Hollywood”, Christopher Hampton’s play about German intellectual émigrés escaping Nazi Germany for Hollywood, at The Guthrie Theater; a Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concert; and a recital by pianist Simone Dinnerstein.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Paris: 1941

Germans parade down the Champs-Élysées in captured French tanks to celebrate the first anniversary of the conquest of France.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

“Nabucco” At Minnesota Opera

Many years ago, Robert Craft wrote an eloquent essay on the subject of Giuseppe Verdi (the essay may be read in Craft’s second volume of collected essays). One of the essay’s many themes was that Verdi’s gift as a melodist developed significantly over the course of the composer’s long career.

The melodic gift, as a general rule, is given only to the young—and it disappears with age (Tchaikovsky always being the exception).

Verdi’s melodic gift, according to Craft, operated contrary to the norm: the composer was almost forty years old before the melodic gift appeared out of nowhere—and it was not until the composer had reached his late fifties that the gift ripened into full flowering.

The question of Verdi’s melodic gift, and its unusual course, unmistakably arises whenever the subject of “Nabucco”, Verdi’s third opera, is under discussion. Aside from its single famous chorus, featuring one of Verdi’s most inspired melodies, the score of “Nabucco” is formulaic and uninteresting—and of no melodic distinction whatsoever.

Early in his career, Verdi modeled his operas on the works of Donizetti (and not Bellini or Rossini). The first dozen or so Verdi operas—the startlingly-original “Macbeth” aside—are nothing more than crude expansions of Donizetti’s musical formulas. Verdi’s music has more energy and thrust than the Donizetti model, but the music materials—and the way the composer develops them—are basic if not trite. It is no surprise that the composers of Central Europe, busy digesting the miraculous music being produced in the 1840s by Mendelssohn and Schumann, viewed Verdi as a complete hack.

On Thursday evening, Joshua and I and my parents and my sister-in-law attended a performance of “Nabucco” by Minnesota Opera.

The musical presentation was clean, even excellent—orchestra and chorus were on great form—but the music of “Nabucco” is so deadly dull that there is no reason to attempt to keep the opera alive. The score of Weber’s “Der Freischütz”, written twenty years earlier, displays a thousand times more musical invention and imagination than “Nabucco”—as well as better melodies (and better choruses, too).

How can a listener endure an evening-length opera bereft of harmonic, rhythmic, melodic and orchestral interest? One listens intently, and hopes that the singers and conductor are able to produce an interesting moment now and again.

The singers in the Minnesota Opera “Nabucco” were about as good as one has a right to expect from a regional company—although the voice of the Abigaille lacked the size, color and weight necessary for what is an impossible role.

The conductor, Michael Christie, newly-installed as Music Director of Minnesota Opera, gave a focused, concentrated reading of the score. Without Christie in the pit, I think the performance would have been interminable. Christie actually convinced me that he had found some small degree of merit in “Nabucco”—quite an achievement when one stops to think about it.

Nonetheless, there are a hundred neglected operas with far greater claims for attention than “Nabucco”. Minnesota Opera should be chastised, harshly, for programming such a meritless work.

The physical production, a co-production with Washington Opera and The Opera Company Of Philadelphia, was interesting.

It attempted to recreate the aura of the opera’s 1842 premiere at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, using backdrops and scenery typical of the period. It even included onstage royal boxes for personages of importance, and made constant overt references to Austria’s then-dominance of Northern Italy. Such references, naturally, were designed to parallel the ancient story of oppression told in the opera itself—and quickly became heavy-handed and tiresome.

I would not call the production subtle or sophisticated—the opera itself being neither subtle nor sophisticated, it hardly cries out for a subtle and sophisticated production—but at least the production was colorful (if not exactly handsome). I have seen far worse productions, in the Twin Cities and elsewhere.

At the curtain calls, the chorus reprised “Va, pensiero”.

If “Nabucco” had been an important work of art, I would have been offended.