Friday, November 30, 2012

Eva And The Generalissimo

Eva Peron and Generalissimo Franco in Madrid in June 1947.

Madrid was the first stop on Peron’s 1947 tour of Europe. Peron was granted the reception of a Head Of State, which raised more than a few eyebrows, even in Franco’s Spain.

It was only decades after the fact that it became widely known that the purpose of Peron’s 1947 trip to Europe had been to facilitate the movement of Nazi funds and ex-Nazi officials from Europe to Argentina.

Although this information became public only in recent years, the U.S. Department Of State and the U.S. Department Of Justice were fully aware at the time precisely what was going on. Because there were more critical matters to address in the immediate post-war period, the U.S. chose not to make an issue of the links established between European underground networks—and such networks were, in truth, scarcely concealed—and the corrupt Argentine government of Juan Peron.

When Peron became President of Argentina in 1945, Argentina was the second-wealthiest nation on earth.

By 1951, Argentina’s public and private reserves had been squandered or confiscated, and the nation had entered a full-scale economic crisis from which it has never recovered.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

On Virtue And Liberty

While the people are virtuous, they cannot be subdued; but once they lose their virtue, they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.

Samuel Adams

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cologne Carnival Parade 1936

A float in the Cologne Carnival Parade of 1936 celebrates German Jewish persons losing their rights under The Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

“A Man Is The Sum Total Of His Acts”

An outtake from Louis Malle’s “Lacombe, Lucien” (1974).

“Lacombe, Lucien” is, I believe, Malle’s masterpiece—as well as the most complex (and most disturbing) of the many, many films made in France on the subject of the occupation.

Throwaway Virtuosity

Two weeks ago last night, we heard the Chicago Symphony in Orchestra Hall in Chicago. The conductor was Charles Dutoit; on the program was music of Britten, Walton and Beethoven.

Britten’s Variations And Fugue On A Theme Of Purcell (“The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra”) opened the concert. The performance was excellent, splendid in every way. I never expect to hear a finer performance of the work.

It was a rare thing, hearing an orchestra play with such perfection of balance—perfection of balance is the first quality that immediately strikes listeners accustomed to hearing second-tier ensembles—and the Chicago Symphony’s balance was phenomenal. No European orchestra is capable of playing with such utter perfection of balance, except perhaps the Vienna Philharmonic under the right conductor in the right repertory; in the U.S., only the Cleveland Orchestra displays such acute and brilliant attention to matters of balance.

The Walton Violin Concerto followed. Soloist was Gil Shaham.

Shaham, an admirable artist, gave a very reticent account of the Walton. I do not think Shaham has internalized the Walton Violin Concerto; the performance had no unique character, no fervor, no flavor. It would not surprise me if Shaham had added the Walton to his repertory only in recent years—and it would not surprise me if Shaham were to admit under cross-examination that he does not love this particular concerto (which he has no obligation to do).

The Walton Violin Concerto is a very great work, but one not easy to master. Very few violinists have proven totally compelling in the work—starting, oddly, with Ida Haendel, whose 1978 recording captures a reading of purest inspiration—and many front-rank violinists have never bothered to add the work to their repertories.

Anne-Sophie Mutter is working on the Walton for the first time right now—Mutter began working on the concerto seriously in February, and she says that she loves it—and it will be interesting to hear what Mutter makes of the piece (although Mutter has yet to schedule it). It was Haendel, whom Mutter worships, who convinced Mutter to look at the Walton.

Unlike most great violin concertos, the first movement of the Walton Violin Concerto is not a major sonata-form movement carrying the weight of the work. The first movement of the Walton is a scene-setter, contrasting two lyrical themes. Marked sognando (“dreamy”), the first movement is attractive and atmospheric, but it is the least interesting and least satisfying and least dramatic movement of the concerto.

Weight is introduced in the magnificent second-movement Scherzo, one of Walton’s finest creations. A blend of Neapolitan dance and canzonetta, the Scherzo is fiendishly difficult, exceedingly dramatic and emotionally gripping from beginning to end.

Finer still is the Rondo that concludes the concerto. The Rondo contrasts march-like episodes with moments of deepest lyricism and regret—and the Rondo finds Walton at his most inspired. The composer proceeds through a bewildering array of emotions, forever increasing tension and excitement, until a final release of energy dazzles and overwhelms the listener.

In a great performance of the Walton, the listener’s blood begins to boil early in the second movement—and grows hotter by the minute until the concerto reaches its thrilling and passionate conclusion.

The Chicago performance was unable to reach such heights. What we heard was something very neutral.

No one onstage gave evidence of profound love for the work. No one onstage gave evidence even of wholehearted belief.

It was a professional, objective and guarded performance we heard, not a memorable or distinguished one. I doubt the Walton Violin Concerto is Dutoit’s piece or the Chicago Symphony’s piece, any more than it is Shaham’s piece.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 concluded the program.

I have never thought of Dutoit as a Beethoven conductor, but the performance of the Beethoven could hardly have been bettered—unless Colin Davis, the living master of Beethoven’s Seventh, had been on the podium. Dutoit’s performance was sprightly and fleet, in the current fashion, but I never felt that genuine gravitas or depth was lacking. Dutoit’s was a performance on an entirely different plane than the performance of the Beethoven Seventh we had experienced exactly five weeks earlier, when we had suffered through Thomas Dausgaard’s toy-soldier account of the same symphony with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Dutoit has the gift of keeping things fresh, no matter how often he has performed a work. How Dutoit manages this is beyond me—but I have had occasion in the past to remark upon Dutoit’s possession of this unusual gift, a gift that Dutoit alone of today’s leading conductors exhibits in abundance.

One would think that the musicians of the Chicago Symphony, too, would be sick unto death of playing the Beethoven Seventh—yet the performance demonstrated not merely professionalism but great dedication and commitment as well. I was in awe, the entire time, how spectacular was the playing, how vital and energetic was the music-making, with ardency and ebullience to spare.

To my ears, the Chicago Symphony has never sounded better. Intonation, balancing, voicing, phrasing, layering and texturing and quality of sound, rhythmic vitality and crispness: everything was to die for.

The Chicago strings displayed the perfect blend of heft and transparency, a characteristic only a handful of orchestras in the world can claim. Absent were the glassiness and wiriness that mark some American string sections; absent also were the impenetrable thickness and opaqueness that mark others.

Given how high were the orchestra’s exacting technical standards, to mention that the level of bar-by-bar execution approached perfection—attacks, releases, uniformity of sound throughout the full dynamic range: all displayed throwaway virtuosity—becomes mere afterthought.

The Chicago Symphony of today sounds better and plays better than it did during the Daniel Barenboim years (not that the Barenboim era was a high point in the orchestra’s history—I always thought the Chicago musicians under Barenboim sounded as if they were operating under constraints). My father says that the orchestra sounds at least as fine as it did under Georg Solti—and perhaps better.

This is a great, great orchestra. Chicago provides a template of how an orchestra is supposed to sound. I wonder whether Chicago is now better even than Cleveland.

We are due to hear Chicago again in March. We are already looking forward to it (and wondering whether Pierre Boulez will cancel; it may be Josh’s last chance to hear Boulez).

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Clearing TCF Bank

Clearing TCF Bank Stadium the day before a game.

Cold does not bother me, but today’s wind-chill temperature was 15 degrees Fahrenheit—and we could not help but notice the cold, standing outside for almost four hours. On days like today, I begin to miss the MetroDome.

I am glad my father skipped today’s game, and stayed home and watched it on television.

In another hour or two, snow flurries are supposed to start up again.

It is Winter in Minnesota.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

In Thanks

For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food, for love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Susana Walton

Susana Walton.

Because she was magnificent, too.

William Walton

The magnificent William Walton, in 1939, the year of his incomparable and thrilling Violin Concerto.

Virtually everything the man wrote is a masterpiece. Along with Igor Stravinsky, he was the most painstaking perfectionist of 20th-Century composers.

“Throughout his life, Walton held no posts, had no pupils, gave no lectures and wrote no essays.”—Michael Kennedy

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The 1934 Minneapolis Truckers’ Strike

During the deadly 1934 Minneapolis Truckers’ Strike, members of the Teamsters Union attacked Minneapolis Police with lead pipes and other weapons.

To maintain public order, the Minnesota governor was forced to call in The National Guard. When that proved insufficient, the Minnesota governor ended up imposing martial law.

The governor’s actions during the Truckers’ Strike were atypical—the governor in question was a Leftist loon. He attempted to place under state ownership Minnesota’s electric and gas utilities, iron mines, gas and oil fields, grain elevators and meat-packing plants.

Happily, a non-partisan state legislature acted sanely, and prevented the governor from destroying the state’s economy.

Not long after, the governor died in office of cancer—but not before one of his most powerful opponents was gunned down in his front yard in the presence of his wife and daughter. The crime has never officially been solved. (It was and is believed that the governor, who had extensive, lifelong ties to organized crime, ordered the hit.)

Minnesota has a sordid history of labor troubles going back to the 19th Century. In fact, Minnesota may be the worst state in the nation when measured by number of ugly labor conflicts.

Oddly, given that Minnesota’s is now primarily a white-collar economy, the sewage of labor troubles continues to this day.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Christoph König

German conductor Christoph König, whom we heard conduct the Milwaukee Symphony one week ago today.

It is said that König is under consideration as Hans Graf’s replacement in Houston (Graf will step down at the conclusion of the current season). My instinct tells me that Houston will not select König.

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra is in desperate need of a conductor. The SPCO made a grievous error in eliminating the position of Music Director eight years ago. The inevitable result is that the ensemble’s playing has become faceless and bland, uninteresting and unmusical.

König would be an ideal choice for Saint Paul—as would Graf, for that matter—but the organization is currently in a financial crisis and may not survive.

In its 53-year history, the SPCO has had six Music Directors: Leopold Sipe; Dennis Russell Davies; Pinchas Zukerman; Christopher Hogwood; Hugh Wolff; and Andreas Delfs.

Only Wolff was an unqualified success—and the only SPCO Music Director to leave of his own volition. The other five were told that their contracts were not to be renewed.

Sipe was a purely local figure.

Davies, a rather odd man, put the SPCO on the map, but he has never been able to develop an important, high-profile career. His post-Saint Paul days have been consigned to working the lower rungs of the provincial European orchestra circuit.

Zukerman, Hogwood and Delfs were out-and-out artistic disasters; their unsuccessful Saint Paul tenures ended—permanently—their American conducting careers. (Zukerman, it should be noted, was good at the box office if not on the podium.)

Someone like König could make the SPCO relevant—and interesting—once again.

If the SPCO remains alive . . .

The SPCO’s most lasting legacy may turn out to be the Teldec recordings made during the Wolff years. The extensive, wide-ranging Wolff/SPCO Teldec discography is a very distinguished one. Most, perhaps all, of the Wolff/SPCO Teldec issues are out-of-print now—but their quality assures that they will be reissued in future.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Jolts Of Electricity

Early Friday morning, we drove up to Milwaukee from Chicago in order to hear the Friday morning concert of the Milwaukee Symphony.

The program was an attractive one—music of Weber, Lutoslawski, Schubert and Liszt—and the conductor, Christoph König, alone made our drive to Milwaukee worthwhile.

The Dresden-born König, in the very early stages of an international career, is already the real thing. For König, drawing music from an orchestra is as easy and natural as stretching and contracting a rubber band.

König repeatedly hit just the right tempo, just the right equilibrium between tension and relaxation, just the right allocation of lyricism and drama, just the right shape of a phrase, just the right proportion in balancing content with form.

König is a wonder. He already makes American conductors like Marin Alsop, Alan Gilbert, David Robertson and Robert Spano look woefully inept if not preposterous—and vacuous beyond words.

König is not forthcoming about his age, but I would estimate him to be 38 years old. My estimate is based upon the length of his professional resume, going back to the 1990s, as well as the fact that he studied with Sergiu Celibidache (who died sixteen years ago).

König made his American debut in 2010, and has received sensational reviews everywhere—except in Los Angeles, where it is official policy to give good reviews to bad conductors and bad reviews to good conductors.

If I were head of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, I would appoint König Music Director tomorrow. If I were in charge of the Minnesota Orchestra, I would name König Principal Guest Conductor immediately.

The Milwaukee program began with the Overture to Weber’s “Der Freischütz”. Within the first few bars of the slow introduction, it was clear that the music was in the hands of a master. Everything unfolded very naturally, very gracefully, very fluidly—and yet there was present the precise amount of tension necessary to keep listeners on the edges of their seats. The great climaxes were thrilling, but never overdone. There was lyricism, and color, and drama in abundance. It was a great performance.

Lutoslawski’s folk song-inspired Concerto For Orchestra, from 1954, followed. Brilliant and accessible, the Concerto For Orchestra is the final composition Lutoslawski wrote in a conservative idiom. Over the succeeding four years, while exploring Modernist techniques, the composer found his unique personal voice; that unique personal voice was to emerge in the much more complex—and much more satisfying—Concerto Funebre, unveiled in 1958. Atypical as is the Concerto For Orchestra among the Lutoslawski oeuvre, the Concerto For Orchestra may now be Lutoslawski’s most-performed composition. Such is an odd state of affairs—as peculiar a situation were the uncharacteristic Wellington’s Victory to become Beethoven’s most-performed work.

The Lutoslawski was the one work on the program in which König revealed nothing special. He gave a by-the-notes reading; there was no indication that the Lutoslawski was a personal or meaningful piece for him. For the conductor, the Lutoslawski was a display piece, designed to showcase an orchestra’s virtuosity and brilliance—and nothing more than a display piece.

After intermission came Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 (“Unfinished”), in which König demonstrated for the second time that morning that he is a master of Early Romanticism.

Friday’s was the finest performance I have ever heard of the Schubert Unfinished.

In the U.S., orchestral musicians no longer know how to play Schubert (or the other Early Romantics). Performances are either exaggerated and artificial or indifferent and uncommitted. I attribute American musicians’ inability to play music of Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann to the rise of Mahler and, to a lesser extent, Bruckner. Orchestras that play too much Mahler and Bruckner lose the ability to play Early Romantic and Romantic music in a convincing and idiomatic fashion; everything becomes overstated, burdened with excessive rhetoric. Georg Solti discovered this while in Chicago—to his horror, the better the Chicago Symphony played Mahler and Bruckner, the worse it played the Early Romantics and Romantics—and Solti’s remedy, not entirely successful in his eyes, was to cut back significantly the number and frequency of Mahler and Bruckner performances.

König somehow got a fresh and penetrating performance of the Schubert Unfinished out of the Milwaukee musicians. The performance had lyricism, high drama, a touch of tragedy—and, above all, sincerity. Until Friday, I had thought that sincerity in the Schubert Unfinished was a thing of the past, having died with Bruno Walter.

The concert concluded with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. On paper, it seemed odd to follow the Schubert Unfinished with the colorful and once-popular Liszt piece, but in practice it worked perfectly fine. A flashy mixture of gypsy lament and wanton display of exuberance, the Hungarian Rhapsody in König’s hands sounded more interesting and appealing than it genuinely is. The Liszt was the one work on the program in which König engaged in bold exaggeration of color and tempo (as well as some podium theatrics)—and I did not object. If the Liszt is not made for exaggeration and the exhibition of flair, no piece is.

König is one of three young German conductors projected to take the world by storm over the next ten years. I hope we get to hear him in the Twin Cities as often as possible.

In Germany, König has been asked the question why Germany produces such excellent conductors while the U.S. does not. König’s answer was a diplomatic one: he attributed German success to the superiority and depth of German musical training.

Myself, I am not at all convinced that different musical training methods account for the difference (although, in my particular field, the German/American training differential is staggering, but weighted in our favor: American lawyers receive training 1000 times better than German lawyers, who, by American standards, are not considered even to be educated).

Germans have different national characteristics than Americans. Music and poetry run through their blood more deeply than ours—and, as a people, they respond more deeply to music and poetry than we do. Americans tend to prefer lightness and humor and grace, and often find typical German characteristics ponderous and inflexible.

Germans thrive on order and predictability and stability, as well as clear demarcations of authority. Americans more highly prize openness and candor and adaptability, and possess a deep and abiding natural distrust of authority (certainly not a trait exhibited by Germans).

I believe the difference between Germans and Americans may be summed up in one sentence: The German national poet is Goethe while the American national poet is Whitman. Within that statement is rooted a multitude of thorny and complex national differences.

No one can deny that Goethe is superior to Whitman, just as no one can deny that German conductors, as a class, are superior to American conductors. König, in my estimation, is destined to join the long lineage of great German conductors, a lineage that may be traced back to the mid-19th Century.

The Milwaukee Symphony is not a distinguished orchestra. It is a second-rate ensemble, more second-rate than I had expected. The string section is not good. The principal winds are weak. The brass section lacks finesse. The orchestra has an undernourished, unsophisticated sound.

The Milwaukee Symphony would rank at or near the bottom of America’s top twenty ensembles, probably vying with Seattle and Utah for last place. With respect to European orchestras, two comparisons are particularly apt: the Oslo Philharmonic, Scandinavia’s finest ensemble, which is slightly better than the Milwaukee Symphony; and the Orchestre de Paris, France’s finest ensemble, which is slightly worse.

Under a less fine conductor, the program we heard would, I fear, have been a bumpy one. Yet König kept the entire Milwaukee audience captivated and enthralled for two hours. His was an act of alchemy.

The audience realized it was hearing something special. One could feel the concentration—and jolts of electricity—in the hall.

After each of the four programmed works, the conductor’s reception was rapturous.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

“Salonen Robs Everything Of Poetry And Drama”

Esa-Pekka Salonen, whose performances are as untidy as his person.

Jorma Panula always believed that Jukka-Pekka Saraste was the most talented of his students, and always expressed disappointment that Salonen enjoyed the higher-profile career.

Of all his students, Panula liked Osmo Vanska the least. However, fifteen years into Vanska’s career, Panula conceded that Vanska, of all his students, had been the one who had developed the most and was best able to obtain excellent results from any orchestra—and was the only former student who had become his own man, and acquired individuality.

I am informed that Panula’s former students do not maintain diplomatic relations with each other.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Cipher

On Wednesday evening, we heard London’s Philharmonia Orchestra in concert at Orchestra Hall in Chicago.

I last heard the Philharmonia in 2005 in London. My parents last heard the Philharmonia in the early 1990s, during one of the Philharmonia’s North American tours at a time the late Giuseppe Sinopoli was at the helm of the orchestra. Joshua had never heard the Philharmonia until Wednesday night.

The Philharmonia is a fine orchestra, and—for a London orchestra—it has a very pleasing sound.

The strings produce a rich, dark sound, much more Germanic than typical British orchestras, which tend to produce string sounds intolerable to American and Central European ears. Whether the Philharmonia string sound is a lasting legacy of the years spent working under Herbert Von Karajan and Otto Klemperer I do not know—but the string sound is not thin, anemic and colorless, unlike the string sounds of the London Symphony, London Philharmonic and BBC Symphony, all of which are hard to listen to without wincing.

The woodwinds of the Philharmonia are excellent, much better than what we are accustomed to hear in the Twin Cities, where the woodwinds of the Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra are nothing more than garden-variety. That said, the woodwinds of the Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra have nothing to fear from the woodwinds of the Philharmonia.

The brass section of the Philharmonia played too loudly, which may have been a result of playing in an unfamiliar hall or playing under a poor conductor.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, current Music Director of the Philharmonia, was on the podium for Wednesday evening’s concert.

Salonen is a cipher. He is totally at sea in music from The Baroque, music from The Classical Period, Early Romanticism, full-blown Romanticism and Late Romanticism. Salonen’s reputation is that of a Modernist, yet he is equally at sea in music of Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok and Schoenberg—as well as Ligeti, which Ligeti himself publicly noted with the greatest of consternation. Salonen cannot conduct the music even of Sibelius, his countryman, at a high level.

There is genuinely nothing Salonen can conduct with insight, style and authority—except his own music, which I rather like—and the result is that Salonen enjoys no reputation whatsoever among conducting colleagues of all generations, many of whom are quite open in their dismissal of Salonen, no matter how many rave reviews the idiotic Mark Swed has written for The Los Angeles Times.

Salonen does have one quality: energy. Salonen has shown that it is possible, in this day and age, to build a career on energy alone—although the only world-class orchestra that opens its doors to him on a semi-regular basis is Chicago.

On Wednesday night’s program: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2; and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

The quality of the concert, given the conductor, was about what I had anticipated.

The Beethoven was foursquare, too fierce, too rigid, too overplayed, too monochrome, too incessant. Rhythms were inflexible and not sprung, woodwind detail was not highlighted (yet the brass had a field day), phrasing was nonexistent, expression was within the narrowest of ranges. Salonen did not understand how to build the sonata-form first movement, the Scherzo lacked rusticity and charm, the Rondo finale was hard-driven, unyielding and unpleasant. Salonen’s Beethoven was Beethoven as jackhammer.

The Beethoven was characterized by troubling ensemble lapses. Attacks were not uniform, there were false entries, the strings lost unison in fast passages. The current Minnesota Orchestra plays at a higher level of basic proficiency and accuracy than the Philharmonia. The Philharmonia shortcomings, all quite elementary, must be very worrisome to Philharmonia musicians. The orchestra surely rehearsed to the nines prior to embarking on an important foreign tour; the deficiencies on display in Chicago were without reasonable excuse.

I enjoyed the Berlioz much more than the Beethoven. ANY orchestra and ANY conductor can bring off the Berlioz—and we heard a perfectly competent performance of Symphonie Fantastique, unremarkable but effective.

Adrenaline alone will carry the Berlioz—adrenaline, without more, is no help at all in the Beethoven—and adrenaline kept the Berlioz moving and superficially exciting. Salonen’s was not an imaginative or stylish or penetrating view of the work, but the work had its intended impact; it is, after all, pretty hard to kill Symphonie Fantastique.

I believe it is obvious that Salonen is the wrong conductor for the Philharmonia. Musicians and conductor simply do not strike sparks off each other. It was mechanical, indifferent, hard-pressed music-making we heard, music-making-by-rote, music-making in which volume was a substitute for intensity. The Philharmonia/Salonen partnership must be an unsatisfying—if not frustrating—relationship for both players and conductor. The partnership needs to end as soon as possible.

Given its distinguished history, the Philharmonia is entitled to musical leadership a heap sight better than what it has now. The Philharmonia needs to bring in someone such as Christian Thielemann without delay.

There was an amazing number of empty seats in the Chicago hall on Wednesday night.

We had assumed the hall would be full, or near-full, simply because the Philharmonia’s Chicago appearance was part of a guest-orchestra series sponsored by the Chicago Symphony.

It was nowhere near.

Outside Los Angeles, Salonen is not a box-office draw.

Even in Helsinki, Salonen concerts do not sell.

Salonen needs to move on to composing full-time, and retire his batons.

If a conductor cannot build a public following after more than thirty years on podiums everywhere, there is a reason to account for the public’s lack of interest.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

“Nice Is Different Than Good”

“Company” at Theater Latte Da.

“Sunday In The Park With George” at Bloomington Civic Theatre.

A Sondheim Weekend

Why would a theater company, utilizing a small performing space seating only 300 persons, choose to amplify both singers and orchestra in the presentation of a classic Broadway musical?

That was the question my parents and Joshua and I asked ourselves over and over Friday night before last while attending a performance of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” at the McKnight Theatre in Saint Paul.

Amplification seriously marred the show. The amplification was too loud, created balance problems between instrumentalists and singers, rendered lyrics unintelligible—and destroyed intimacy between audience and stage.

Intimacy should have been one of the prime attractions of this particular “Company” production, offered, as it was, in a venue of suitable size. During every single musical number in the show, audience members had to stiffen themselves in their seats while being blasted with wave after wave of high-volume artificial sound.

Whenever a musical is amplified, in any space, there is an evitable “canned” quality to the presentation. Performers might as well be miming to a prerecorded version of the show, given that the sound arrives via a sound system of fixed placement and not directly and personally from the performer’s voice to the listener’s ear.

Had we known, in advance, that this particular production of “Company” was to be amplified, we would have skipped the production entirely. (The reviews in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Saint Paul Pioneer-Press had failed to mention that the show was amplified—and, as a result, we never for a moment had contemplated that amplification was a possibility until we arrived in the theater.)

In many ways, “Company”, from 1970, is a remarkable musical. The musical numbers represent Sondheim in his early prime, with an alarming number of first-rate songs (along with a handful of very undistinguished ones). George Furth’s book is superb. It is one of the finest of all books for a musical, and has held up beautifully after forty-two years.

Considered by some to be the first “concept” musical, “Company” remains a vital and intriguing work, especially if one dispenses with the original orchestrations, as outdated and jarring as hairdos from the period (the original “Company” orchestrations are generally discarded these days, as was the case in Saint Paul).

The Saint Paul production was a presentation of Theater Latte Da, a company whose work we tend to ignore. Theater Latte Da presents numerous musicals and—last weekend to the contrary—we generally avoid musicals.

The production was notable solely for its direction. The director was Peter Rothstein—and Rothstein’s work was exceptional. I have come to believe that Rothstein may be one of the finest directors working in town.

Rothstein’s “Company” was very cinematic, very fluid, very fast-moving. Characters flew on- and offstage all night, yet the production was always perfectly logical and perfectly lucid and perfectly coherent (given the pacing, one might have expected confusion on the part of the audience). Rothstein achieved this logic, lucidity and coherency with lighting, color, space and projections, redefining and reconfiguring the stage platform all night to suit the needs of a well-told story. I cannot recall the last time I saw a musical in which the direction was so clear and so confident and so controlled.

The cast members were nothing to write home about. Unless one is to adopt provincial standards, not one member of the cast gave a memorable or accomplished performance. In fact, the cast of the Saint Paul “Company” would have been laughed off the stage in New York. We were amazed, given what we witnessed, that both local newspapers had lavished praise on this particular cast.

Despite the amplification and the unimpressive actors, by and large we enjoyed the production—perhaps more than we should have, based upon the merits.

The production was a mixture of the very bad and very good. The choreography was lame. The stage design was minimal, and mostly abstract, and not at all handsome. The costume design was quite poor, by far the worst element of the show. Yet through a bold, colorful lighting design and the skillful use of projections, the director turned a bare-stage, essentially-unattractive physical production into a satisfying visual experience.

We have had occasion to admire Rothstein’s work before. Rothstein directed last season’s new Minnesota Opera production of Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte”. That “Cosi”, from a pure directorial standpoint, had been one of the finest opera productions I have ever seen, in Europe or North America (the musical presentation had not been at the same high level). Never before had I witnessed a “Cosi” production so natural, so graceful, so eloquent.

Rothstein does not always work wonders. In 2007, Rothstein had directed a Guthrie Theater production of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” that in no way had reflected credit upon The Guthrie.

“Company”, excellent as is its score and book, has never proven to be a commercial success.

And I think I know why.

The central character is a blank. There is no “center” to Bobby. Bobby exists in order for everyone else onstage to play off him and to play against him, but Bobby has no core. Bobby is an abstract construct, a mere foundation for Shavian argument; he is nowise a flesh-and-blood character. The audience knows no more about Bobby at the end of the musical than at the beginning—and this is so even though the entire musical has been nothing but an intensive examination of Bobby’s relationships, romantic and otherwise.

When, at the end of “Company”, Bobby sings “Being Alive”, perhaps the finest song of the score, one has no clue whether Bobby is being sincere or ironic. Arguments may be assembled, based upon evidence presented earlier in the musical, to establish that Bobby is a loner, or gay, or a kook, or a sociopath, or the victim of a multiple personality disorder—yet there is little evidence to suggest that Bobby is a sympathetic, well-rounded, warm and admirable human being.

In Bobby, Sondheim very well may have created a portrait of himself: inscrutable, undemonstrative, unfettered and ungrounded, a man with a sharp mind but an indifferent—and perhaps even callous—heart.

And it is the indifferent and inscrutable nature of the central character that may account for the fact that such a brilliant musical has never been popular with the public.

At the conclusion of “Company”, the audience leaves the theater with profound respect for the craft demonstrated by Sondheim and Furth.

But the audience leaves the theater unmoved.


On Sunday afternoon, Joshua and I took my mother and my sister-in-law to Bloomington to see Bloomington Civic Theatre’s production of Sondheim’s “Sunday In The Park With George”.

Bloomington’s “Sunday” was everything Saint Paul’s “Company” was not: the show was beautifully designed, with gorgeous—and complicated—stage settings and meticulous period costumes; the original complete orchestrations were used, played by a full orchestra; a large—and handsome—cast was on hand; and amplification was not in use, despite the larger size of the Bloomington theater (which seats just under 500 persons).

We thought the production was superb; it was one of the finest productions we have ever experienced at Bloomington Civic Theatre. In fact, the Bloomington production of “Sunday” was better than a Shaw Festival production of “Sunday” Josh and I had seen in 2009.

The first act of “Sunday In The Park With George” is a near-perfect work of art. Opera companies should mount Act I of “Sunday In The Park With George” as an independent one-act opera, and pair it with Act I of Sondheim’s “Into The Woods”, also a near-perfect work of art that would work splendidly as a one-act opera.

Act II of “Sunday” is a major letdown, just as Act II of “Into The Woods” is an unsatisfying follow-up to Act I of that show. I know what Sondheim was getting at in Act II of “Sunday”, but Act II simply does not work. The book of Act II is unfocused and uninspired (plus there are long and tedious stretches of dialogue) and the musical numbers—a couple of which are quite good—seem to be dropped in as afterthought.

I have always wondered why Sondheim does not attempt to revise his creations. He surely knows that Acts II of “Sunday” and “Woods” would benefit from revision.

One Sondheim work particularly cries out for reworking: “Pacific Overtures”.

“Pacific Overtures”, infrequently staged, has the makings of a magnificent piece of theater. Its chief defects are that it changes tone two-thirds of the way through Act I, and changes tone a second time one-third of the way through Act II. In both cases, the changes of tone puzzle the audience.

“Pacific Overtures” would receive frequent performances in opera houses if Sondheim were to divide the show into three acts and add two or three new musical numbers.

The first act should focus solely on the American arrival in Japan, and end with “Welcome To Kanagawa”. The second act should be a strict look back at that cataclysmic event from the Japanese perspective, opening with “Someone In A Tree” and ending with “Please Hello”. The third act should be a sweeping rush forward from the 1850s to the present, and still end with the under-appreciated “Next”.

Sondheim would have to write a new number for the second act in order to give the act a satisfying shape, and he would have to write one or even two new numbers for the third act, but doing so would surely be a worthwhile exercise.

“Pacific Overtures” may be Sondheim’s single finest score. It has never had the exposure it deserves—and, in the commercial theater, it never shall have the exposure it deserves. The future of “Pacific Overtures” lies in the opera house, and the score and book need to be amended, tailored—and extended—for opera house performance.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

The Sudetenland Election

December 1938: Counting votes in the Sudetenland.

Hitler received an absurd 97.32% of the vote in the Sudetenland election of December 4, 1938, an election long viewed as the worldwide template for corrupt voting practices and procedures.

Two days ago, in the U.S. Presidential Election, OBarney Fife outperformed Hitler’s preposterous Sudetenland totals in the black precincts of Philadelphia.

The governing principles of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu live on.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Art Distills Sensation

Art distills sensation and embodies it with enhanced meaning in a memorable form—or else it is not art.

Jacques Barzun

From The Dutch Golden Age

Caspar Netscher (1639-1684)
The Lace-Maker
The Wallace Collection, London

Oil On Canvas
13 3/16 Inches By 10 13/16 Inches

Thursday, November 01, 2012

A Master

Günther Herbig, perhaps the most underrated conductor of our day.

Herbig does not appear with either of the Twin Cities ensembles.

It is our loss.