Friday, December 29, 2006

The Holidays Are Passing Too Quickly

We are having a wonderful holiday together. I think that this year may be our best Christmas ever.

On Saturday, the first day we were all together for the entire day, no one left the house. We just talked all day, and ate, and played with my nephew, and played with the dog.

On Sunday, Christmas Eve, we went to church in the morning, and then we went to a gathering of my mother's relatives. We had both lunch and dinner at the gathering, which lasted all day. We left in time to attend Christmas Eve service at our church, dropping my sister-in-law and my nephew at home on our way to the church. By this time, my nephew had already had a full day, and he needed to go to bed for the night.

We stayed home on Christmas Day. We opened our gifts early in the morning, after which we had a grand Christmas breakfast, a great tradition in my family. For the remainder of the day, we just played with my nephew and helped him play with his Christmas gifts. We had a light lunch of a special Christmas chowder my mother always makes for Christmas lunch, and for dinner we had a special Christmas goose, accompanied by all sorts of special Scandinavian Christmas fare. It was a wonderful day.

On Tuesday, and again on Wednesday, my brothers and Josh and I went to play basketball after breakfast. When we were done playing basketball, we went swimming. We returned to the house in time for lunch, and we all remained home for the remainder of the day.

On Thursday morning, everyone in the family--including my nephew--went to the Minneapolis Institute Of Art to see a special exhibition, "A Passion For Paintings: Old Masters From The Wadsworth Atheneum". This traveling exhibition from Hartford featured 61 paintings from the 15th to the 18th centuries. Although the Minneapolis Institute Of Art has free admission, we had to pay $8.00 for each admission ticket to the temporary exhibition.

Hartford is supposed to have one of America's very finest collections of paintings from the Italian Baroque, but I found this exhibition to be very disappointing, as did everyone else in the family. With one or two or three exceptions, all of the paintings on view were not paintings of the first rank. In fact, the paintings were of the second and third and fourth and fifth ranks.

Of course, everyone in Minneapolis is visiting this exhibition in order to see the Caravaggio, but the Caravaggio on display is not one of the late, great Caravaggio canvases. The Hartford Caravaggio is from 1594-1595, about five years before Caravaggio began his series of late, great, utterly original and utterly amazing works. The Hartford Caravaggio does not even look like it was painted by the same artist who created "The Death Of The Virgin" or "The Flagellation Of Christ".

I thought that the best painting on display was Jusepe De Ribera's "The Sense Of Taste", a painting of a simple man eating his dinner. It was a very good De Ribera, but it was hardly "The Club-Footed Boy".

Some of the paintings were truly poor, and should not have been included in a traveling exhibition. The Hartford Claude Lorrain was perhaps the least impressive Claude Lorrain I have ever seen, and the reason for including it in a traveling exhibition had to be because there are so few paintings by Claude Lorrain in American collections. Minneapolis, however, has the finest Claude Lorrain in North America, and the Hartford Claude Lorrain pales by comparison.

Joshua does not like the Minneapolis Claude Lorrain. The first time Josh and I visited the Minneapolis Institute Of Art, I made a special point of showing him our Claude Lorrain. His response was "It looks like something from a furniture store showroom--I've seen a million just like it". Need I add that Josh did not like the Hartford Claude Lorrain, either?

I have mixed views on the subject whether museums should allow important items from their permanent collections to travel.

Old canvases risk damage each time they are moved. Consequently, old canvases, by and large, should remain in one place--at least that is my general opinion.

Further, museums that send their most important items elsewhere are depriving their local patrons of the opportunity to enjoy the works.

On the other hand, art lovers elsewhere can be enriched by being granted the opportunity to view works that otherwise could not be viewed unless they themselves incurred the time and expense of travel.

Consequently, both sides of this issue allow for valid arguments.

However, I am very troubled by collections that, for monetary purposes, allow their artworks to be viewed elsewhere. In those instances, the originating institutions, for a fee, lend their works to other institutions. These transactions are primarily commercial transactions, and not cultural transactions, and these types of transactions should not be lauded.

And that is what is involved in the current exhibition from Hartford: Minneapolis paid a large sum of money to Hartford in order to "rent" 61 paintings for a few weeks. That does not sit well with me.

I realize this happens quite frequently now. The Metropolitan Museum Of Art, for a fee, recently "rented out" a large number of French paintings to other museums. The Boston Museum Of Fine Arts, for a fee, now routinely "rents out" a number of key paintings to a venue in Las Vegas. The Louvre, for an $18 million fee, has "rented out" several works to the High Museum in Atlanta in an ongoing project. Next year, Queen Elizabeth, that poverty-stricken figure, will be "renting out" several works to the Virginia Museum Of Fine Arts in Richmond.

In these money-driven transactions, I cannot help but lose respect both for the lending institutions and for the receiving institutions.

Whatever is going through anyone's mind when the High Museum, which has no permanent collection to speak of, gives $18 million to the Louvre? Why not use that money to ACQUIRE a permanent collection, which citizens of Georgia can then enjoy in perpetuity?

The entire art world has become nothing so much as a bunch of money-grubbing scoundrels and, unfortunately, I contributed to this deplorable practice on Thursday by giving $8.00 in order to view 61 unremarkable paintings.

My parents, and Joshua, and my brothers, and my sister-in-law all agree with me on this particular point (my nephew has, thus far, remained silent on the issue). We enjoyed the family outing, naturally, but none of us believed that these commercial transactions should be allowed to continue, despite the fact that we ourselves contributed to these transactions by paying $56.00, in total, in order for us to view the "rented" paintings.

Alas, I fear that art museums have become primarily businesses. Earlier this year, here in Minneapolis, the Institute Of Art opened a new wing. It was named the "Target Wing", after the chain of discount stores, which donated a large sum of money for "naming rights". Joshua was appalled when he and I visited the museum for the first time, and he learned of this fact. Now, every time we go to the museum, Joshua always jokes, as we are leaving the building, "Next time, I want to make sure that we visit the 'K Mart Wing' and the 'WalMart Wing', too."

The matter of naming buildings after public corporations is not exclusively a U.S. phenomenon, of course. At London's National Gallery Of Art, the new building is called the "Sainsbury Wing", after the British supermarket chain.

Still, I am distressed when individuals or corporations give money, and then want to have their names plastered all over the place. Genuine eleemosynary work is not accompanied by free advertising. This is a subject on which my mother and her family, obviously, hold the strongest possible views.

In any case, we returned home after our visit to the Institute Of Art, and we stayed home for the rest of the day.

On Friday morning, my brothers and Josh and I will go play basketball again, and then go swimming again. On Friday night, we all have a party to attend.

On Saturday morning, my brothers and Josh and I will go play basketball and swim yet again. On Saturday night, we all have another party to attend.

On Sunday, after church, our family will be hosting some (but not all) of my mother's relatives for lunch and dinner. Later, on Sunday night, which is New Year's Eve, we will just stay home--and even turn in long before midnight, I suspect.

On Monday, New Year's Day, the last full day we will all be together, I think we will all just stay home and enjoy our last day together.

The holidays are passing too quickly! They will be over before we know it!

All of us are thinking of gathering next in New York, at my older brother's place, during the long holiday weekend in February. We will make a firm decision about a February New York visit before our holiday is over.

"Jenufa" and "Eugene Onegin" and "Simon Boccanegra" are playing at the Metropolitan Opera that weekend, and these are three of my very, very favorite operas. I would like to hear them all again, despite the fact that the Metropolitan Opera's physical productions for all three of these works are unspeakably inept.

My parents would like to hear them again, too, and Josh would like to hear all three of these works for the first time. This will give us an added incentive to go to New York that weekend.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Supremely Happy

My brother from Denver did make it home on Friday night.

His flight was delayed, considerably--his flight had still not departed Denver at the time it was scheduled to arrive in Minneapolis--but his flight finally landed at MSP at 7:30 p.m.

My parents did not wait at the airport--they took my other brother and his family home, and Josh and I remained at the airport, waiting for the flight from Denver--because there was no point in having everybody, including my nephew, hang around in the madhouse crowds at the airport.

Josh and I got my brother home at 8:45 p.m., too late to play with my nephew, who had already long since been put to bed (his bedtime is 8:30 p.m. East Coast time). My mother had kept our dinner warm for us, and it was good to be ensconced for the holiday.

We had a wonderful Saturday, and a wonderful Christmas Eve, and a wonderful Christmas, and a wonderful Boxing Day. It is so good to have everyone home.

My nephew seems enormous! He has grown so much since Labor Day! He is having a great time, what with so many people competing to make a fuss over him.

The dog is also in bliss, having a full household of people to play with.

Everyone is supremely happy.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Keeping Our Fingers Crossed

We are in a frenzy, of course, about whether my brother in Denver will be able to make it to Minneapolis this afternoon.

He is going to go to the Denver airport in hopes that his flight proceeds, as scheduled.

The Denver airport is supposed to open at 12:00 Noon today, and the airport website, as well as the Northwest website, lists his flight as one of the flights that will proceed this afternoon.

We are keeping our fingers crossed.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Holidays Begin Tomorrow

Our holidays begin tomorrow afternoon, after work.

By 7:00 p.m. tomorrow night, we will have everyone safely here at home, and we will all be settled in for a wonderful Christmas and New Year.

We have one large family gathering to attend, on Sunday, December 24, and a couple of evening parties to attend between Christmas and New Year's, but otherwise we will just be relaxing at home and enjoying each other's company.

It will be a wonderful holiday.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Deficiencies In Hearing And Judgment: A Kirshnit Follow-Up

The December 5 "New York Sun" article about America's orchestras attracted a great deal of negative comment from "Sun" readers, as may be seen on the "Sun" website. No one defended the author, Fred Kirshnit, and readers noted many of the same points I addressed.

The extracts below, taken from reader comments on the "Sun" website, are verbatim, except that I have corrected spelling errors.

Forgive me when I long for Cleveland, Chicago or Philadelphia when the San Francisco Symphony's sound cannot fill up Carnegie Hall or there are several cracks in the horn after the Adagietto in the Mahler Symphony No. 5.

Despite being able to secure Martin Chailfour as its concertmaster--formerly the assistant concertmaster in Cleveland--Los Angeles still has an undistinctive string sound, often a rough edge and an overwhelming brassy sound that might otherwise work in Chicago or Philadelphia.

On and off again in terms of being a commanding conductor, Welser-Most has had many successes and the Cleveland sounds fabulous still. Clearly, Cleveland selected wisely over Eschenbach, as Welser-Most was apparently courted by Philadelphia as well. However, Philadelphia will recover from its current problems when Eschenbach leaves and will be as great as ever again.

I found this article completely unnecessary and frankly a bit off-base. If the point is to tell readers that the other orchestras have caught up to New York, Boston, etc. . .Most serious listeners have known that for years, so we don't need one of the worst commentators on the subject telling us this.

This article is not particularly insightful, and mentioning the long-ago departure of Mariss Jansons from Pittsburgh as though it were a recent event doesn't inspire confidence in the author's work.

And with Kent Nagano now in charge in Montreal for only three months, it's hard to imagine that the possibility of him leaving for Chicago is anything but uninformed speculation.

Los Angeles presents interesting programming and a lively sound, but has nowhere near the depth of Cleveland (string sound, ensemble) in the standard repertoire.

By admitting at the outset that he has given more credence to ensembles who come to him in New York, Kirshnit immediately identifies his ignorance--not all great American orchestras visit New York. And even when they do, these orchestras have a different sound from what they do in their own halls. A real critic would go hear the orchestras on their own turf.

Franz Welser-Most may never be the critics' favorite but he is a musicians' musician and has kept the fabled Cleveland precision while adding some warmth and flexibility to the mix.

One response to the article came from a conductor, whose name the "Sun" withheld.

If your ears are this bad that you think Los Angeles sounds that good--you're crazy. I've conducted Los Angeles and they have nothing on Cleveland. Also--you're so off base with Vienna State Opera liking Ozawa it's not even funny. It is not very responsible reporting to make a mistake that is well known amongst all professional musicians in the world. Mr. Ozawa had a falling out with Vienna while performing some Mozart operas last year. I hate to tell you what everyone else already knows but they hate him now.

Reading the sheaves of comments on the "Sun" website, I thought it was interesting that so many persons stepped forward to point out one bleedingly obvious fact: that the West Coast orchestras are simply not very good.

I have never understood why so many New York-based journalists praise the orchestras on the West Coast, and hold them up as torch-bearers for the American orchestra. The West Coast orchestras are noted for their poor ensemble, poor quality of sound and poor musicianship (as well as for the amazing ignorance of their audiences). Musicians everywhere know this. And this is somehow considered to be the standard to which other orchestras should aspire?

For anyone to claim that the West Coast orchestras are "leading the way" demonstrates nothing more than profound deficiencies in hearing and judgment.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Our Quotient Of Christmas Music Has Been Satisfied

Joshua and I have now had our quotient of Christmas music for the year, and both of us are now ready to move on to other things. In the last three weeks or so, we have listened to a disc of contemporary American choral music for Christmas, a disc of carols arranged for brass, "Amahl And The Night Visitors", the complete "The Nutcracker" and "The Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Christmas Album". This has been quite enough for us for one Christmas season.

Happily, when we will all be together for the holidays, no one will want to listen to music. My brothers will want to keep ESPN on the television round-the-clock, and my parents will be so intently focused on their grandson that listening to music will be the last thing on their minds.

Josh and I put two discs into the disc player tonight to occupy us for the next three nights, before we decamp and move over to my parents' house. Josh picked the discs, and he chose two discs of American music, one of which is American music for brass ensemble. Josh, a former trumpet player, loves music for brass ensemble, and so do I.

One disc is titled "An American Tapestry", on the Dorian label, and it features the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Litton. The disc includes William Schuman's "New England Triptych", Charles Tomlinson Griffes' "The White Peacock", Charles Ives' "Three Places In New England", Hovhaness' Symphony No. 2 and Piston's "The Incredible Flutist" Suite.

The Dallas Symphony is one of America's very finest orchestras, but few persons in the U.S. seem to know this fact because the orchestra very seldom appears in New York City. It plays in the finest concert hall in America, bar none, and few persons seem to know this fact, either. The management of the orchestra does not seem to find it vital to publicize the orchestra or the hall beyond the confines of the city. Wise or not, this is a conscious decision on the part of the Board Of Directors, which believes that it is more important for the orchestra to appear in Europe on a routine basis than for the orchestra to appear in New York with any frequency. Consequently, Dallas is that rare U.S. orchestral phenomenon, better known to European audiences than to audiences on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.

The most powerful and influential person on the Dallas Symphony Board Of Directors is a man of the most extraordinary erudition, but also a man of firm opinions that not everyone else shares. Consequently, Dallas maintains more of an arm's-length relationship with America's New York-based musical establishment than most other American orchestras, which is all to the good in many respects--but this does not help the orchestra in gaining its rightful due within that same musical establishment. How many readers of "The New York Times" are aware that the Dallas orchestra is vastly superior to the orchestras in Atlanta, Los Angeles or San Francisco, all of which are routinely extolled in that newspaper's pages? Not too many, I fear.

This disc features exceptional playing and exceptional recording technology. It is a great disc. The performance of the "New England Triptych" is the best I have ever heard, and I think I have heard them all (and I think I own them all). It is the only recording that makes this piece truly sound like a genuinely great piece of music. The other works on the disc are just as finely played, although not all of these pieces are great pieces, to be sure. I have never cared for the Piston and, after hearing this performance, I still do not. The Griffes is too short a composition to make much of an impression--it is only half as long as Debussy's "Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun", with which it bears some similarity--and the Ives , like most of Ives, is too full of ideas and too lacking in skill and craftsmanship to realize those ideas ("genius without talent", as the saying goes). The Hovhaness is a very, very fine performance, perhaps as fine as the classic Reiner version. I have never cared for Hovhaness' music, but I can understand why some people respond to this particular symphony, as it has a certain beauty about it. This happens to be the second Hovhaness symphony that Josh and I have listened to in the last few weeks, and we have liked them both. Goodness!

It will be interesting to see who the Dallas Symphony selects to replace Andrew Litton. Many informed persons believe that Claus Peter Flor is the perfect conductor for the position, and Flor has given many supurb, even memorable, performances with the orchestra over the last several years. However, knowledgeable insiders say that Flor is being passed over. Whether Dallas selects Flor or someone else, it is time for Flor to lead an American orchestra that needs an injection of musianship. Among orchestras currently looking, Flor would seem to be ideal for Detroit, after years and years and years under the facile Neeme Jarvi, or Washington, in need of someone with a penetrating musical mind and a command of the Central European repertory after an unfortunate decade under Leonard Slatkin.

The other disc is titled "From The Steeples And The Mountains". It is on the Hyperion label and offers performances by the London Gabrieli Brass Ensemble under Christopher Larkin. Music of Ives, Ruggles, Harris, Cowell, Thomson, Barber, Carter and Glass is on the disc.

The music is quite interesting. The finest piece is probably Barber's "Mutations From Bach"; none of the other pieces is on quite so high a level. However, all of the compositions offer something worthwhile and intriguing to listen to, and this is all any listener requires.

The Philip Glass piece is entirely atypical of Glass. It is a brass sextet, completed in 1964, before Glass began pursuing the practice of minimalism. The piece is obviously written by someone very familiar with the music of Copland--and, for a young American composer in 1964, how could that be otherwise?--and no one today would ever be able to guess that it was a composition by Glass. The brass sextet no longer appears on Glass's official work list, but it was published in Great Britain in the 1960's, which accounts for its current availability. It would be a great "stump the panel" composition!

Last-Minute Shopping

I rode home with my father this evening after work. On the ride home, he asked me if I knew what I was going to get my mother for Christmas, as a replacement for the Caspar David Friedrich book.

I told my Dad that I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to get my Mom, and I told him what I had been thinking of getting as a replacement gift. He told me that he thought my idea was a good one, and he asked me when I was going to go get it.

I told him that Joshua and I were going to go look for what I wanted tonight, and my Dad said that he and my Mom were going to go shopping tonight, too, to get my replacement Christmas gift. He asked me if Josh and I wanted to go with them, and I told my Dad that I would ask Josh when he got home from work. My Dad said to let him know as soon as possible, because he and my Mom were going to eat dinner out tonight during the course of their shopping, and that he and my Mom would wait to hear from us before leaving the house.

When Josh got home from work, I asked him about joining my parents tonight for dinner and shopping, and he said "Sure", so I called my father and Josh and I went over to my parents' house and, from there, we all went shopping.

We decided to shop for an hour first, and then have dinner, so Josh and I split from my parents after we arrived at the mall, and he and I went our way and my Mom and my Dad went their way. Josh and I found what we wanted, and we were back at the agreed-upon meeting place at the arranged time to meet up with my parents again.

My parents were a few minutes late but, when we saw them walking towards us, we could observe that they, too, had a package, just as we did. Happily, it only took a little over an hour for all of us to find replacement gifts for the Friedrich book. That was not too bad for a last-minute effort!

We all went out to dinner together, and then we came home.

Josh and I only have four more work days before the holiday.

Christmas will soon be here!

Identical Gifts

The weekend is over. My parents' entire house is spotless from top to bottom, the Christmas decorations are in place, and my mother's Christmas baking is completed (at least for now--she will do more baking on Thursday, and she will do more baking throughout the holidays once my brothers arrive on Friday).

There is no more work to be done until Thursday. On Thursday, after work, Joshua and I will get our things together and go over to my parents' house and remain there until January 2. On Thursday night, Josh and I will give everything at my parents' house a quick vacuuming, which will be quite easy--most of the house is now sealed off from the dog, and he can only shed hair in the kitchen, in the downstairs family room, in my parents' upstairs bedroom, and in the stairwells and hallways. And the dog does not mind not having the run of the house, either, because my parents generally use only those three rooms anyway, unless they are having guests over or unless their sons are home.

Tonight we placed the Christmas gifts under the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree is in the living room, and the living room HAS to be sealed off from the dog--otherwise, he will rip the wrapping paper from the gifts and then chew on anything that happens to look interesting to him.

Of course, there are gifts for him, too, under the tree: toys and bones and snacks and such that he will enjoy. He will open his own gifts on Christmas morning, just like every other member of the family. We will place the gifts before him--one at a time, of course--and he will tear the paper off with his teeth and with his paws and he will have a wonderful time. We do not put any ribbons on his gifts, so that they are easy for him to open.

When we were placing the gifts under the tree tonight, I recognized the gift my mother got for me because of the size and shape of the package. The package contained an oddly-shaped book--a large art book, obviously--of exactly the same dimensions as the large art book I got for her.

I did not say anything, but a few moments later my mother noticed a gift of similar size and shape under the tree, and she picked it up and she saw that it was for her, from me. She looked at me and I could tell, instantly, that she realized what I had just realized.

Very quietly, she asked me "Do you want me to send it back?"

I told her "No, of course not", and I told her that I would be the one to send HER gift back and that I would get her something else.

What was the identical gift? Werner Hofmann's "Caspar David Friedrich", the 2001 volume on Friedrich and his work by the former director of the Hamburg Kunsthalle, a monograph which includes almost 200 reproductions of Friedrich's paintings and drawings, 150 in full color. Both of us had ordered it online for each other, as it turns out.

After I told my mother that I would return my copy and get her something else, she said "Then I'm going to get you something else, too. We'll make this one the family copy." And she removed the wrapping paper of her gift to me, and all four of us sat down in the living room, and looked through the book, and examined the full-color plates, noting the many Friedrich paintings we had seen in Hamburg.

While we were in Hamburg, we had visited the Kunsthalle four times, and on three of those visits we had viewed the special Caspar David Friedrich exhibition.

The exhibition was a magnificent one, one of the best exhibitions I have ever seen, and the only unpleasant aspect of the exhibition was that it was absolutely mobbed with exhibition viewers. The first time we visited the exhibition, we were dumbfounded how crowded it was. On our second visit, it was almost as crowded as our first visit. Finally, for our third visit, we decided that we would visit the exhibition on a very, very late Thursday afternoon--Thursday is the Kunsthalle's late night--and hope to view the exhibition in a less crowded environment, after the day crowds had thinned out but before the night crowds arrived. This strategem worked, and worked well, because on our third visit we were able to see these magnificent works without a lot of jostling and without the press of innumerable bodies.

Friedrich is the greatest German painter after Albrecht Durer and Adam Elsheimer. His paintings are stunning--they are both realistic and yet idealized, highly detailed and yet highly abstract, tributes to the glories (and dangers) of nature but also very spiritual and very religious in nature. His use of color is extraordinarily subtle, and the way he captures light is highly original and endlessly fascinating. He was a master at evoking moods in his landscapes as well as in his marine paintings and in his interiors. There is an obsessive quality about his paintings, the same obsessive quality that is apparent in the paintings of Durer and Elsheimer, too. It is too bad that there are only a handful of his paintings in the U.S.

All five of us had enjoyed the Friedrich exhibition immensely--it, alone, had made a transatlantic trip worthwhile--and I suppose it was only natural that both my mother and I would seek out books about Friedrich as prospective gifts (even though we HAD bought the catalog to the Hamburg exhibition while we were there).

The Hamburg Kunsthalle is a great museum. Not only did we view the special exhibition about Friedrich, but we also viewed the museum's permanent collection. The North German medieval altarpieces were quite amazing, unique in all the world, and the museum's holdings of German art from roughly 1800 to 1930 were near-spectacular and near-comprehensive. There were innumerable German painters of the very highest quality, virtually unknown here in the U.S., throughout the romantic and realist and impressionist and early modern periods. They put American artists in those comparable periods to shame. It is regrettable that so little of this work is known or available here in the United States. Americans tend to forget what a highly-developed culture Germany had prior to World War I, and that this culture extended beyond science and music and literature and theater and philosophy to the visual arts. German painting, from 1800 to World War I, lies on an altogether higher plane than British or American painting from the same period.

We visited the Kunsthalle's permanent collection on each of our four visits to the museum. Unlike the Friedrich special exhibition, the Kunsthalle's permanent collection was sparsely visited while we were there. Many times, we were the only visitors in a particular room.

The Kunsthalle occupies three different buildings. The Kunsthalle's 1869 building and its 1919 building were magnificent structures, inside and out. The third Kunsthalle building, the 1997 building, looks like bad Mies Van Der Rohe, thirty years or more out of date by the time of its design. Still, the entire complex is a wonderful place in which to get lost for hours at a time.

We ate lunch there during three of our visits to the Kunsthalle, and we ate dinner there on one visit. The Kunsthalle has a large cafe looking out upon the Alster lake, and it also has a restaurant grandly situated in one of the elegant columned halls of the original building. We ate at the cafe twice and at the restaurant twice, and we loved them both.

However, truly, nothing compares to my mother's cooking, and she has outdone herself in preparation for the next two weeks. On Friday afternoon, after work, Josh and my mother will head for the airport from home in one car, and my father and I will head for the airport from downtown Minneapolis in another car, and we will pick up my brothers and my sister-in-law and my nephew and bring them home. We will have a very, very special dinner Friday night, and get our holidays under way. I cannot wait.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Nutcracker

Speaking of "The Nutcracker", it was, quite naturally, the first ballet Joshua attended and the first ballet I attended. However, we have never attended a performance of "The Nutcracker" together.

Joshua first attended "The Nutcracker" at age seven when his grandmother took him to a performance by The Tulsa Ballet. He attended a performance again, a couple of years later, when his parents took him to see a performance by The Kansas City Ballet.

I first saw "The Nutcracker" when I was ten years old. That year my parents had taken my brothers and me to New York for the week between Christmas and New Year's, and we attended a "Nutcracker" performance at The New York State Theater. That, of course, was the Balanchine production, performed by The New York City Ballet. I loved it.

The only other performance of "The Nutcracker" that I have attended was one offered by The Joffrey Ballet, inferior in every way to The New York City Ballet production.

The Twin Cities are not a dance center, and the productions of "The Nutcracker" on view here are by small, local companies, all of which offer only a single weekend of performances. The largest company here, Metropolitan Ballet, is not offering a "Nutcracker" at all this year. We will not be attending any of the local "Nutcracker" performances.

The only ballet performance Joshua and I have attended together was about five weeks ago--the Sunday night before our trip to Germany--when my parents took us with them to see a performance of "Don Quixote" by Miami City Ballet.

Josh and I both hated that "Don Quixote" performance with a passion. The Minkus score is painful to listen to, and that ballet is so hopelessly old-fashioned that it probably should be dropped from the repertory. I cannot imagine what it is about that ballet that makes companies want to keep it alive. If companies insist on a "Don Quixote", they should try the Balanchine version, with its Nabokov score--it cannot be any worse than the traditional 19th-Century version, which positively creaks.

The Miami City Ballet production of "Don Quixote" was borrowed from American Ballet Theater, and the production looked its age (it premiered in 1978). It was an entirely witless night in the theater.

The only good thing about that evening was that Josh got to see Northrop Auditorium on the campus of the University Of Minnesota. Northrop Auditorium, a virtual barn of a building, was the former home of the Minnesota Orchestra. My parents met at Northrop Auditorium.

Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and attend New York City Ballet performances from the 1950's, 1960's and 1970's. Some of Balanchine's ballets are almost unbelievably good, and audiences who experienced them under Balanchine's personal coaching were very lucky. The Balanchine currently danced by New York City Ballet is obviously an unfocused, diluted version of the real thing, which no longer exists.

However, Balanchine, danced elsewhere, is even worse. In 2003, I saw The Paris Opera Ballet perform a centennial program in tribute to Balanchine, and the performances floundered. "Symphony In C", which Balanchine choreographed for The Paris Opera Ballet in 1947, was nonetheless completely alien to the dancers. The tempos were much slower than at NYCB, and yet the dancers could not keep up. The virtuoso variations in the second movement were omitted entirely. It was a peculiar performance, and gained only a smattering of applause from the Parisian audience. "The Prodigal Son", placed next on the program, also suffered from little cuts here and there. However, the dancers seemed to enjoy it more, as it provided them with opportunities to "act". It was, however, fundamentally a provincial performance, and at the second interval I departed, not waiting to see how "The Four Temperaments" would be butchered.

I don't think there is anything on the ballet horizon for the rest of the Twin Cities season that Josh and I want to see. If we see any ballet in the next year, it will have to be in New York during a visit at my brother's, or in London, where we shall take our next major trip--and our first trip together by ourselves.

Friday, December 15, 2006


Joshua and I are, once again, spending the weekend at my parents' house, helping my parents prepare for the Christmas holidays. We have assigned ourselves the cleaning duties, freeing my Mom to do the Christmas baking, which she loves to do, and letting my Dad assist her.

Everyone is getting excited about the coming holidays, including my parents' dog. He can sense our excitement, and he knows that my brothers are coming soon. He knows this because we have told him that they are coming--and he understands this--and he also knows that a major cleaning regimen, covering everything in the house, is a prelude to a visit.

We are having lots of fun while we work, nibbling on stuff and listening to music and enjoying the Christmas tree and putting up other Christmas decorations and entertaining the dog.

We have six discs on the disc player to get us through the weekend. We have chosen music we know my parents enjoy, and all of the music is either festive or gravely beautiful.

Music of Vivaldi, performed by the Italiano Concerto under Rinaldo Alessandrini, on the Naive label

Haydn Symphonies, performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin, on the RCA label

Schubert's Quintet In C, performed by the Brandis Quartet and cellist Wen-Sinn Yang, on the Nimbus label

Piano Music of Brahms, performed by Richard Goode, on the Nonesuch label

Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker", the complete ballet, a two-disc set, performed by the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa, on the Deutsche Grammophon label

The Vivaldi disc contains the Gloria, RV 589, the Concerto For Strings, RV 128, the Magnificat, RV 611, and the Concerto For Two Trumpets, RV 781. It is a wonderful disc, pairing two choral works with two concertante works. The varied nature of the musical forces involved in each composition prevents the onset of musical fatigue, a danger in any all-Vivaldi disc. The performances have lots of energy, and we are enjoying this disc very much.

The Haydn symphonies are late Haydn, from the "London" set: numbers 95, 97 and 101. I enjoy big-band Haydn, and I hope that Haydn's music is never relegated to the exclusive province of original-instrument ensembles. The performances are pretty good, which I found to be slightly surprising, since I have never been much of a Leonard Slatkin fan. Based on these performances, it is clear that Slatkin should have programmed more Haydn during his unsuccessful Washington years.

Schubert's Quintet In C, one of his very greatest late masterpieces, is one of my favorite pieces of music. Joshua loves this quintet, too, and it is one of the first pieces of music we listened to together. The Brandis performance is very mellow, very "European", and the musicians make no effort to "sell" the music, a mistake many American musicians make when performing Schubert.

The Richard Goode Brahms disc is somewhat of a disaster. The disc contains the Eight Pieces, Opus 76, the Seven Pieces, Opus 116, and the Four Pieces, Opus 119. This is some of the greatest piano music ever written. The latter two sets, especially, are distillations of everything Brahms had mastered in a lifetime of writing music. However, one would never know this from Goode's performances. Goode's Brahms is lumpen, heavy and foursquare, his tone unvaried, the subtle moods evoked by Brahms hardened into granite. There are also numerous slips of the fingers, which should have been rectified. This disc should never have been issued.

The complete "Nutcracker" discs are filled out with five short excerpts from Tchaikovsky's "The Sleeping Beauty". These are very nice performances, all in all, and who can resist this music at Christmas time? Much of Ozawa's conducting is elegant, and he highlights some of the unusual orchestration in the characteristic dances, and there is a balletic feel to his work. On the other hand, Ozawa's conducting is not very dramatic--and this IS a score for the theater--and a lack of flexibility creeps into his conducting now and again, creating a brittle effect. However, I may be carping, as this is probably one of Ozawa's better discs with the Boston Symphony. It provides enjoyable listening, and that is all that we want from it.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

This Very Special Day

Today my beautiful older brother turns 32.

I wish we could all be with him to help him celebrate his birthday, but we will not see him for another ten days. However, our thoughts will be with him all day today.

When he returns home from work tonight, he will find that he has not been forgotten.

Joshua and I sent my brother a birthday card and we also had a birthday gift delivered directly to his home. Both arrived late last week, and my brother's wife set them aside, hiding them in the closet of the baby's room.

My other brother also sent a birthday card and he also had a birthday gift delivered directly to my older brother's home. These items also have arrived and they await him tonight, when they will emerge from the same closet.

On Sunday, after we trimmed my parents' Christmas tree, my mother baked a cake for my brother's birthday. She baked one of his two favorite kinds of cake.

On Sunday night, we packed the cake, very, very carefully, into a special cake container, and we prepared a special package containing the cake, my parents' birthday card and my parents' birthday gift. My mother took the package to Federal Express yesterday morning, and these items should arrive at my brother's home while he is at work today.

All of these things will be waiting for him when he arrives home from work tonight.

Joshua and I, and my brother, and my mother and father, all sent special birthday greetings to my older brother at his work email address, and these birthday messages will be waiting for him when he arrives at work this morning.

Tonight, all of us will telephone him and wish him the best on this very special day.

Still, all of us wish we could be there in person.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Tomorrow We Will Trim The Tree

Josh and I had a very busy day.

We rose very early and bundled up and took the dog to the park and ran with him and played games with him that he loves.

Then we returned to my parents' house, and we cleaned up and we prepared breakfast for my Dad and for ourselves.

A short while later we prepared breakfast for my Mom, and then Josh and I left the house and we did my mother's food shopping for her, leaving my Mom and Dad home to read the newspapers. Josh and I love to do food shopping, probably because both of us love to eat.

After we picked up everything my mother needed--at three different food stores!--we returned home and put the food away.

Then all of us went out together to get the Christmas tree. My mother picked it out.

We returned home with the tree, and erected it. Then Josh and I wrapped and packaged his family's Christmas presents, and we took the package to the post office and mailed the package to Oklahoma.

We returned home again, and we picked up my parents and we took them Christmas shopping. My mother had already done much of the Christmas shopping last week, while my father was at work, but there were a few gifts still to select, and Josh and my father and I helped her. We ate lunch out--a very, very late lunch--and then we returned home.

The first thing we did was to wrap all of the Christmas presents, to get that out of the way. Then we stored the Christmas presents, and Josh and I did laundry for my mother while she prepared dinner for everyone. She prepared a beautiful prime rib.

During dinner, we discussed our plans for next weekend, the final weekend before my brothers return home for Christmas. Josh and I made my mother promise that she would allow Josh and me to clean the entire house next weekend while she did the Christmas baking. My parents have a very large house, and my mother maintains very high housekeeping standards, and we told her that we were not going to allow her to devote her energies and worries to housecleaning for the next two weeks. The house is perfectly clean, in any case, but every holiday my mother always wants to clean EVERYTHING anew, and we told her that we would see to it that EVERYTHING was cleaned anew next weekend and that we would see to it that EVERYTHING sparkled to the highest degree.

We talked to Josh's Mom and Dad tonight, and Josh and I suggested to his parents that he and I fly down to Oklahoma for a short visit either over the January three-day holiday weekend or over the February three-day holiday weekend. Josh and I have not seen his parents since June, when we both drove, in separate cars, from Washington, D.C., to Oklahoma. We made that trip in order to leave Josh's car in Oklahoma so that his younger brother could from that point forward use it as HIS car. We only stayed in Oklahoma for two nights, and from there we drove to Minnesota in my car.

Josh's father had a different proposal: he suggested that we travel to Oklahoma for the second weekend in March, when the Big Twelve Conference will hold its Mens' Basketball Tournament in Oklahoma City. He said that he would be able to get four tickets, in prime seating, for all four days of tournament sessions--for himself and for Josh and for Josh's younger brother and for me--and that we should come to Oklahoma for the tournament and spend six days there, Wednesday through Monday. Well, that was an offer we couldn't refuse! We accepted!

Afterward we cleaned up the kitchen for my mother, during which we talked to my parents and made further holiday plans. When everything was finished for the night, Josh and I walked the dog and then everyone prepared to turn in.

Tomorrow we will trim the tree.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Boring, Overexposed, Unimaginative

This evening at dinner, my mother and my father asked Josh and me to look at the remainder of the Minnesota Orchestra's season schedule and the remainder of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's season schedule, and to let them know which concerts interested us and, further, to let them know if we wanted to attend any of those concerts with them.

Joshua and I told my mother and father that we had already looked at both orchestra's concert schedules, and that there were only two concerts that we knew, as of today, that we definitely wanted to attend. Both of those concerts are Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concerts: a concert featuring Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 2, Ligeti's Ramifications, and a Haydn symphony; and a concert featuring Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1 and Mahler's Das Lied Von Der Erde in its seldom-performed arrangement for chamber forces.

My parents asked us why no Minnesota Orchestra concerts appealed to us, and we told them that most of the Minnesota Orchestra concert programs this season seemed to us to be stale (or, in a couple of instances, perverse)--either we did not want to hear the programs, or we did not want to hear the conductors, or both.

And the programs, and the conductors, ARE stale--just about the most boring, overexposed, unimaginative musical programs and conductors any orchestra has ever offered, at any time, at any place.

Aside from the children's concerts and the young persons' concerts and the Broadway concerts and the Doc Severinson concerts and the holiday concerts and "The Lord Of The Rings" concerts and the endless "pops" concerts on which the orchestra, in total, spends about half of its time, this season's Minnesota Orchestra repertory is frighteningly over-familiar and the guest conductors definitely uninspiring.

The entire 2006-2007 Minnesota Orchestra repertory, for the annual subscription concerts, appears below.

Music For Brass [Vanska]

Piano Concerto In D Minor [De Waart]
Toccata And Fugue In D Minor (Arranged By Skrowaczewski) [Skrowaczewski]

Symphony No. 1 [Wigglesworth]
Symphony No. 49 [Norrington]

Sinfonia Concertante For Violin, Viola And Orchestra [Wigglesworth]
Wind Serenade (The season brochure does not specify which one) [Vanska]

Symphony No. 1 [Vanska]
Symphony No. 3 [Vanska]
Symphony No. 4 [Vanska]
Symphony No. 5 [Vanska]
Symphony No. 6 [Vanska]
Triple Concerto [Litton]

Invitation To The Dance [Vanska]

Symphony No. 9 [Wigglesworth]

Symphonie Fantastique [De Waart]
Queen Mab Scherzo From "Romeo And Juliet" [Vanska]
"Beatrice And Benedict" Overture [De Waart]

Concerto For Violin And Piano [Vanska]

Symphony No. 3 [Skrowaczewski]

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 [Vanska]

"Rienzi" Overture [Vanska]
Good Friday Music From "Parsifal" [Vanska]

Symphony No. 0 [Vanska]

German Requiem [Norrington]
Piano Concerto No. 1 [Skrowaczewski]
Piano Concerto No. 2 [Vanska]
Hungarian Dances (Selections) [Vanska]

Violin Concerto [Kreizberg]
1812 Overture [Vanska]
"Nutcracker" Suite [Vanska]
"Swan Lake" Suite [Vanska]

"Peer Gynt"--The Complete Incidental Music [Vanska]

Symphony No. 6 [Kreizberg]
Symphony No. 7 [Mischa Santoro]
Carnival Overture [Kreizberg]

Symphony In D Minor [Vanska]

Symphony No. 2 [Vanska]
Symphony No. 6 [Conlon]

Symphony No. 2 [Vanska]
Symphony No. 4 [Vanska]
Symphony No. 5 [Vanska]
Violin Concerto [Vanska]
Nightride And Sunrise [Vanska]
In Memoriam [Vanska]

Fosboy Tower Washington Memorial March [Vanska]

Symphony No. 3 [Mischa Santoro]
The Unanswered Question [Vanska]

The Rite Of Spring [Vanska]
"Pulcinella" Suite [Vanska]

Piano Concerto No. 3 [Vanska]

Music For Strings, Percussion And Celesta [Vanska]
Piano Concerto No. 3 [Vanska]

Memorial To Lidice [Vanska]

Violin Concerto [De Waart]
"Threepenny Opera" Suite [De Waart]

Clarinet Concerto [Mischa Santoro]

Symphony No. 8 [Litton]
Symphony No. 9 [Vanska]

Cello Concerto [Vanska]

Symphony No. 1 [Vanska]

Oiseaux Exotiques [De Waart]

Symphonic Dances From "West Side Story" [De Waart]

Commedia [De Waart]

Symphony No. 3 [Vanska]

My Father Knew Charles Ives [Vanska]

Symphony No. 9 For Trombone And Orchestra [Vanska]

Here! . . .Beyond? [Vanska]

Cello Concerto [Vanska]

Newly Drawn Sky [Vanska]

For me, problem number one with this programming is the guest conductors. I have heard De Waart, Kreizberg, Litton, Norrington and Wigglesworth many times, and not one of them has overly impressed me. In fact, I loathe Roger Norrington's work, and Edo De Waart is not far behind Norrington in my lack of esteem for his work. I would be willing to give Kreizberg and Litton and Wigglesworth another listen if their programs appealed to me, but their individual Minnesota Orchestra programs are awfully stale (and Litton's appearance, in any case, has already occurred).

Problem number two for me is Osmo Vanska's heavy reliance on Beethoven and Sibelius for his own concerts. I like the music of Beethoven and Sibelius very much, to be sure, but this season's emphasis on Beethoven and Sibelius is far too heavy. Furthermore, Vanksa has already conducted these works in Minneapolis (and he has already recorded the Beethoven in Minneapolis). How many times is he going to drag out these same works? He is already repeating himself endlessly, and this is only his fourth season at the helm of our orchestra. I suspect that his repertory must be very small, or that he knows that his non-Scandinavian repertory is not up to international standard.

Problem number three for me is the arrangment of the works on this season's programs. The programs are clumsy and inartful. What is the point of programming Bach and Messiaen side-by-side? There is no interesting connection between these two composers, waiting to be discovered--it is just a case of serving spare ribs with chocolate ice cream. It would be far better to "place" Messiaen for the listener by preceding Messiaen with French music from which his own music evolved. Tchaikovsky does not belong sandwiched between two pieces of Dvorak; this serves neither composer. A Weill-Bolcom-Bernstein program is an inherently bad idea--it does not look good on paper and it will not prove to be satisfying in the concert hall (and I think listeners are more than willing to give the "West Side Story" dances a prolonged and well-deserved rest; in any case, this piece belongs in "pops" concerts and there is far too much Arthur Fiedler repertory on this season's programs already). Leonard Bernstein and William Bolcom are NOT outgrowths of Kurt Weill, and arguing so in program notes will not make it so.

Problem number four for me is that this season's repertory is extremely unbalanced. There is very little Haydn or Mozart. There is very little Schubert or Mendelssohn or Schumann. There is no Richard Strauss. There is no Hindemith. There is no music of the Second Viennese School. There is no Debussy or Ravel or Poulenc or Dutilleux. There is no Elgar or Vaughan Williams or Walton or Britten or Tippett. There is no music from Spain and no music from Italy. There is no Szymanowski or Lutoslawski or Penderecki or Panufnik. There is no Elliott Carter and no George Gershwin. Why is there not at least one symphony by either Hanson or Harris or Menin or Piston or Creston or Schuman or Rorem or Rochberg? And, among modern Finnish composers, why are we not hearing Kokkonen and Sallinen and Rautavaara and Lindberg, all of whom are superior to Aho?

I pointed out all of this to my Dad, and I told him that the remaining program that most appealed to me was Skrowaczewski's, the program with Schumann's Third Symphony and Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1. However, we just heard the Schumann Symphony No. 3 in Hamburg, and I have already heard Rudolf Buchbinder, the scheduled soloist, perform the Brahms concerto, to strikingly dull effect. Consequently, even this program will have only modest enticement for me.

My father told me that I was difficult to please, and I told him that he was probably right. However, I pointed out to him that he already knew almost every single piece of music on this year's programs, including even the obscure ones like Bolcom's Commedia (premiered and recorded by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, a performance he has on an old LP) and MacMillan's Cello Concerto (which he and I have listened to together on compact disc), and that the only pieces new to him would be the Kernis and the Vanska and, perhaps, the Dorati. I told my Dad that he, of all people, should be disappointed about the unimaginative programming of this year's concerts.

My father's response was "You just don't like Vanska, do you?" and I told my Dad that I had yet to hear anything from Vanska that made me believe he was anything special. However, just to please him, I agreed to go to one of Vanska's Beethoven/Sibelius concerts if Josh wanted to go.

The final result: my Mom and Dad will come with Josh and me to the Schoenberg/Mahler concert in Saint Paul; and Josh and I will go with my Mom and Dad to the Beethoven Symphony No. 4/Sibelius Symphony No. 5 concert in Minneapolis.

I will deeply regret having to miss that Weill-Bolcom-Bernstein affair.

Bach-Mozart-Beethoven-Berlioz-Faure-Durufle And Elisabeth Schwarzkopf

Joshua and I are spending this weekend with my parents, helping them get the house--and everything else--ready for Christmas. We are doing this so that my parents do not run themselves ragged, getting everything prepared for the arrivals of my two brothers and my older brother's family.

We have selected six discs to listen to this weekend, while we work, and we have selected music that we know my parents will enjoy.

Bach Organ Music, performed by Wolfgang Rubsam, on the Philips label

Mozart Violin Sonatas, performed by Isaac Stern and Yefim Bronfman, on the Sony label

Beethoven Harmoniemusik from "Fidelio", performed by The Amadeus Ensemble under Julius Rudel, on the Musical Heritage Society label

Berlioz's Harold In Italy and Overtures to "Rob Roy" and "Le Corsaire", performed by Pinchas Zukerman and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under Charles Dutoit, on the Decca label

The Faure Requiem and the Durufle Requiem, performed by Judith Blegen and James Morris and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Robert Shaw, on the Telarc label

The Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Christmas Album, in which Miss Schwarzkopf is assisted by Julian Bream and the Philharmonia Orchestra under Charles Mackerras, on the EMI label

This particular organ disc is one of my very favorite recordings of Bach organ works. It was recorded in 1977 on the organ of the Roman Catholic Parish Church of Frauenfeld, Switzerland. At the time, Rubsam was a Philips artist and he was in the midst of recording a great deal of Bach for that label. The disc includes the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565; the Prelude and Fugue in G, BWV 550; the Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 549; the Prelude and Fugue in C, BWV 545; the Fantasia in G, BWV 572; the Prelude and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 535; the Prelude, Toccata and Fugue, BWV 538 ("Dorian"); and the Pastorale in F, BWV 590. This is 63 minutes of music to die for, and Joshua is overwhelmed. I think we will have to play this disc over and over and over.

Rubsam now records Bach for the Naxos label, but I have never bothered to buy any of his Naxos discs, as I am content with his Philips recordings.

Rubsam must be a very strange man. In addition to his work as a professor and as an organist, he is also a licensed and active barber, with barber shops both in Germany and in Indiana, and he has a website that features numerous photographs of his barber work. From viewing the results on his website, I can only conclude that his objective is to make all of his clients look like Heinrich Himmler. I was appalled.

We selected the Mozart disc because we all enjoyed Anne-Sophie Mutter's Mozart recital a few weeks ago. Stern, too, was a great Mozartean, but his Mozart is entirely different from Miss Mutter's. Stern did not have Miss Mutter's extraordinary beauty of tone, nor the endless colors and shadings she can summon. He compensates, however, with phrasing of great specificity. Stern's Mozart is more linear than Miss Mutter's, and his Mozart is at least as good as hers, if not better (Miss Mutter has paid public tribute to the excellence of Stern's Mozart).

This particular disc, recorded in 1993, contains three sonatas, K. 296, K. 454 and K. 526. It was not recorded while Stern was in his prime, of course, but it is still pretty good. Bronfman is OK.

I was too young to have heard Isaac Stern in person, but my Dad says that Stern was extremely variable. My Dad says that he and my mother heard Stern many times but that they only heard him "on form" once, in a 1972 recital that included a Mozart sonata. According to my father, that particular Mozart performance was sublime.

The Harmoniemusik from "Fidelio" is sort of fun, although it is a little jarring when the arrangements cut short numbers before their conclusions in the full score. The arrangements, for woodwinds and string bass, are by Wenzel Sedlak.

The Berlioz disc is pretty unremarkable, at least to me. I love the music, naturally, but the performances are nothing to get excited about. I have never been especially impressed by Charles Dutoit, probably because he suffers in comparison with another, better master of the same repertory in which he specializes, Charles Munch.

In the early 1980's, Charles Dutoit was Principal Guest Conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, but he did not remain long in that post. He still returns to conduct the orchestra on occasion, most recently last season.

We selected the Faure/Durufle disc to help us eliminate memories of the poor Durufle performance we heard in Hamburg. This disc features a good, capable performance of both works. It is a disc anyone would be happy to hear on occasion. The performances are not, however, special--they are workmanlike performances, clear and simply stated, but not eloquent. A better baritone than James Morris should have been engaged for the recording.

The Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Christmas Album is, of course, one of the classics of the grammophone. Is it not the lodestar of all Christmas recital albums?

This is the famous recording which begins and ends with "Silent Night". On the song's second appearance, Miss Schwarzkopf sings a duet with herself.

The album has been in print, nonstop, for almost fifty years, and it easy to see why it has been so enduring. The arrangements are fairly simple and very effective, Miss Schwarzkopf sings simply and cleanly (and this is one of her albums in which no one can accuse her of excessive artifice) and the organization of the material creates a very charming listening experience. My favorite track is Humperdinck's "Weihnachten", a song of incomparable beauty.

This album was conductor Charles Mackerras's first foray into the recording studio. It also features one of the earliest recorded appearances by Julian Bream.

Joshua hates it!

Luxurious Reading Experiences

This week Joshua and I completed our last round of books, and we have settled upon two new books that should keep us occupied until the Christmas holidays arrive. Both new books were inspired by our trip last month to Germany.

One book is Thomas Hodgskin's classic two-volume "Travels In The North Of Germany", published in 1820, an examination of virtually all aspects of North German society in the immediate post-Napoleonic era. The other book is Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks".

We are enjoying both books immensely. Both are fascinating and luxurious reading experiences.

The "Buddenbrooks" English translation we are reading is the old H.T. Lowe-Porter, not the more recent John E. Woods.

Josh and I read several reviews comparing the two translations, and we settled upon the Lowe-Porter. In a nutshell, one scholar summarized the Lowe-Porter as "too stuffy" and the Woods as "too snappy", and we elected "stuffy" over "snappy"--especially since a different reviewer noted that Woods's lower-class characters spoke a language that seemed to derive more from the Ozarks of the 20th Century than from the Lubeck of the 19th Century.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Fred Kirshnit

Yesterday, December 5, 2006, a bizarre article appeared in The New York Sun. The title of the article was "New York Drops Off The List Of The Big Five Orchestras". The author of the article was Fred Kirshnit.

The thrust of the article was to claim that America's five finest orchestras are now the Boston Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Pittsburgh Symphony, the latter three ensembles having replaced the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra, former members of this exalted group.

Kirshnit is a virtually unknown personage who for years posted concert and opera reviews on an obscure website,, before joining the Sun to supplement Jay Nordlinger. Anyone who wishes to sample the quality of Kirshnit's work will have hours of fun and millions of laughs leafing through years and years of Kirshnit's web reviews, which remain posted at These old reviews are some of the best sources of reliable hilarity in the entire online world, akin to the novels of E. F. Benson--always available when one needs a bit of light amusement.

When I first discovered the website, initially I thought that the whole thing was a big put-on. Kirshnit's reviews were, I thought, deliberate send-ups, mimicking the bad writing and perverse musical judgments too often on display in musical coverage in American newspapers and magazines.

After I read about a dozen or so of Kirshnit's pieces, however, I started to realize that this guy's writings were not tongue-in-cheek at all but that he took himself deadly seriously, just like the television character Ted Baxter or the vocal artist Florence Foster Jenkins, neither of whom had a clue that they were ridiculous figures, entitled to nothing but scorn.

As I learned in law school, anyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, but no one is entitled to his or her own set of facts. While Kirshnit's judgments in his Sun article are neither serious nor informed--they speak for themselves and will be taken seriously by no one--his many ridiculous misstatements of fact need to be corrected for the record.

I am going to italicize the biggest howlers, but I encourage everyone to read the full article, as it truly is priceless. Visits to the website are also a must for anyone who needs a laugh.

But music director Mr. Jansons recently announced his intention to move back to Europe permanently, taking over not one, but two of the world's finest ensembles, and leaving Heinz Hall forever.

Yes, Mr. Kirshnit, and thank you for that timely news bulletin. As everyone on the planet already knows--except for you, apparently--in June 2002, four and one-half years ago, Mariss Jansons announced his "intention" to leave his post with the Pittsburgh Symphony.

And, alas, I have even more news for you, Mr. Kirshnit. JANSONS IS ALREADY GONE! He has been gone for two and one-half years!

Now the powers that be have spent their money not on a new music director but rather on spin doctors. The new paradigm is for the orchestra to be led by Sir Andrew Davis, Yan Pascal Tortelier, and Marek Janowski. And, apparently, the twain shall never meet. The plan is for each conductor to instill his own ethnicity into the mix and for the public to swoon with delight at the innovation.

Mr. Kirshnit, you are to be commended on your excellent Jackie Collins imitation!

And once again, Mr. Kirshnit, you are to be thanked for that timely news announcement, which the rest of the world learned in September 2004. You will be happy to learn that "the plan" has now been in place in Pittsburgh for 18 months.

But wait, Mr. Kirshnit--I have even more updates for you! Andrew Davis announced, more than two months ago, that he will not continue as part of "the plan" and that he will cease to "instill his own ethnicity" in Pittsburgh when his contract expires in another 18 months. Are you withholding this news, waiting to break it in March 2009 or thereabouts?

Rumor has it that the very talented Kent Nagano will leave troubled Montreal and settle on Michigan Avenue.

"Rumors" about Kent Nagano taking over the Chicago Symphony may be floating about in other solar systems, but in OUR solar system there are no rumors involving Kent Nagano and the Chicago Symphony. Anyone who knows anything about the Chicago Symphony and its Board Of Directors and its management knows that Kent Nagano is not on Chicago's short list or on Chicago's long list or on ANY list concerning Chicago's search for a music director.

The "rumors" in Chicago involve Riccardo Chailly, Riccardo Muti and David Robertson. The members of the orchestra want Chailly, the Board Of Directors wants Muti and Deborah Card wants Robertson. The members of the orchestra are lobbying against Robertson, Chailly needs to be given a reason to leave Leipzig, and everyone would love to have a glamour figure like Muti at the helm of the orchestra but there is great concern that Muti would be hard to handle.

Austrian Franz Welser-Most had a terrible reputation when chosen to take over. Crucified by the British press--they quickly dubbed him "Frankly Worst Than Most"--he was hunted down in London as relentlessly as Bill Sykes. His tenure at the head of their Philharmonic was not just stormy but deeply unsatisfying for audiences at the Royal Festival Hall.

In Cleveland, performances have been uniformly poor, unpopular with both patrons and critics alike. For four years now, Maestro has brought his charges to Carnegie and my critical reaction has been somewhat subdued as I have been forced to concentrate on physically controlling my impulses to shudder on a regular basis.

Mr. Kirshnit, thank you for that 1990 update, as well as for the Norman Lebrecht imitation, which I genuinely enjoyed. Are you participating in a competition for a bad writing award?

Things have changed quite a bit in London since 1990, Mr. Kirshnit. Welser-Most was always popular with London audiences but fiercely opposed by some of the London critics at the very beginning of his tenure with the London Philharmonic. Welser-Most was only 27 years old at the time, and his youth was held against him.

By the end of his tenure with the London Philharmonic, in 1996, Welser-Most's London reviews were quite good (and often considerably better than that, especially in Bruckner--he began receiving superlative London notices in Bruckner from the age of 30 or so), and he and the London critics have long since made peace. Welser-Most's reception in London today is near-rapturous, which you would know if you kept abreast of the London musical scene.

The performances in Cleveland under Welser-Most have been uniformly excellent, at a higher standard than anywhere else in the world. This cannot be a surprise to anyone, as the Cleveland Orchestra is the finest orchestra in the world on a pure ensemble basis. Anyone selected at random from the telephone directory could conduct the Cleveland Orchestra, and the performance would be magnificent. This is because the members of the orchestra would ignore the conductor and play as a chamber group, acutely listening and responding to each other.

Welser-Most's reception in Cleveland has been extremely positive among audiences, patrons and the Board Of Directors. It is the critic of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Donald Rosenberg, who does not like Welser-Most. Other than Donald Rosenberg, Welser-Most's Cleveland reception has been a very fine one--so fine, in fact, that after his first year in Cleveland the orchestra's Board Of Directors asked Welser-Most if he would extend his five-year contract to a ten-year contract, which Welser-Most agreed to do.

In the late 1990's, Seiji Ozawa became the most infamous victim in Massachusetts since Sacco and Vanzetti. His troubles began with The Great Nutcracker War, when he took his orchestra to Asia in November and December 1996, leaving the city without a season of Christmas music performances. Then he dared to assert his leadership at the Tanglewood festival, replacing certain key personnel who were beloved by the press. The crushing blow came from New York critics, who wrote articles claiming the BSO had lost all professionalism and that its sound was devoid of proper intonation and balance. This avalanche of disrespect eventually led to Mr. Ozawa abandoning his lifelong artistic project and signing on with the Vienna State Opera, where, I am happy to report, everyone loves him.

Mr. Kirshnit, are you writing about Vienna, Austria, or Vienna, Saskatchewan? You clearly know nothing about the music scene in Austria.

Seiji Ozawa has been a well-publicized disaster in Vienna, held in such low repute by all parties that he has basically departed from the house, and is now merely a figurehead whose appearances are confined to the opera house's stationery.

Ioan Holender, the Intendent, does not like him, the critics do not like him, the public does not like him, and the members of the orchestra do not like him. Ozawa's conducting of his first big production in the house, Ernst Krenek's "Jonny Spielt Auf", was such a preeminent disaster--reported in frightful detail, worldwide--that he was basically written off by everyone concerned from that time forward. And that "Jonny Spielt Auf" was the absolute high point of his Vienna tenure!

The Wiener Staatsoper is now simply waiting for Welser-Most's contract in Cleveland to expire, because Welser-Most is Holender's choice to replace Ozawa. Welser-Most is also being aggressively lobbied for this post by the Austrian Ministry Of Culture, on orders of the Austrian government.

Ozawa now only appears in Vienna for a handful of performances each season--roughly eight performances a year, in a house that performs seven nights a week, ten months a year--and he has no involvement in the selection of repertory, artists, new productions or anything else pivotal in the administration of an opera house. He is music director in name only. Everyone in the world knows this, whether they live in Vienna or elsewhere--except, apparently, you. And you are "happy to report" that "everyone loves him" in Vienna? YOU DO NOT HAVE A CLUE WHAT YOU ARE WRITING ABOUT, MR. KIRSHNIT.

Your recitation of the facts about Ozawa's deteriorating situation in Boston is also totally mucked up. The facts in Boston are as follows.

Ozawa completely lost the confidence of the members of the Boston Symphony between 1980 and 1990. From 1973, when Ozawa assumed his position in Boston, until the very early 1980's, the members of the orchestra disliked him--from a musical standpoint--but nevertheless the musicians continued to play exceptionally well as an ensemble, assuming that Ozawa, a very limited musician, had such obvious shortcomings that the Board Of Directors would replace him in short order.

In 1980, Ozawa's contract was extended, to the dismay of the musicians, and Boston Symphony musicians began departing, moving on to other orchestras. Morale among the musicians got worse and worse throughout the 1980's as Ozawa's contract kept being extended , and departures of orchestral members continued, until by 1990 the orchestra was only a shell of its former self. It was during this same decade that much of Boston's traditional subscriber base abandoned the orchestra.

The management of the Boston Symphony did not handle the situation well. Boston has the largest endowment of all American orchestras, and long-term full-season subscribers who departed were to some extent replaced by new, mini-season subscribers. The orchestra, financially, was still doing quite well and the management, through some combination of inertia and bad judgment, allowed the situation to continue to deteriorate for another decade.

It was only when Mark Volpe became the orchestra's Executive Director, in 1996, that he was able to convince, quietly, important members of the Board Of Directors that it was time to ease Ozawa out the door.

Ozawa's departure from Boston had nothing to do with the 1996 tour to Asia or to staff changes at Tanglewood. The infamous 1998 Greg Sandow Wall Street Journal article, similarly, had nothing to do with Ozawa's ouster, which by that time was, in any case, already engineered. Publicly, Boston even came to Ozawa's rescue. Anyone can read, online, the furious denunciations of Greg Sandow issued by the Boston Symphony in response to his Journal article as well as the statements of support the BSO strong-armed out of several prominent musicians on Ozawa's behalf.

Boston's reviews, in any case, had been deteriorating for years, in New York and elsewhere, long before the appearance of the Sandow article. Andrew Porter's Ozawa reviews in The New Yorker, still widely available, address the shortcomings during the first fifteen or so Ozawa Boston years, after which point no one--the members of the orchestra, Boston's musical public, the record companies--any longer cared. Boston's fall from greatness had already happened. By 1990, it was a done deal.

Despite having been so good for so long, the Philadelphia Orchestra has quite recently lost its edge. After enjoying the heralded reigns of Stokowski, Ormandy, Muti and Sawallisch, all of whom preserved that patented "fabulous Philadelphians" sound, the players were extremely upset by management's decision, taken unilaterally and without consultation, to hire Christoph Eschenbach. That signature sound is now unraveling at the seams.

Mr. Kirshnit, Philadelphia lost its unique sound long ago, during the Muti years. Muti deliberately altered the "drenched" nature of the Philadelphia string sound, which he believed to be inappropriate for much of the orchestral repertory. That was one of his publicly-stated objectives when he was named Ormandy's successor and, whether people liked the change or not, Muti effectuated it, and he effectuated it fairly quickly. The Philadelphia sound, as altered by Muti in the early 1980's, has not substantially changed since that time. Sawallisch consciously sought a less brilliant sound than Muti, but the Philadelphia sound has been consistent since 1982 or 1983, through the remainder of the Muti years and through the Sawallisch years and through the now short-lived Eschenbach years.

The "unraveling at the seams" in "that signature sound" occurred almost a quarter century ago, Mr. Kirshnit, and not under Eschenbach. Eschenbach's problems in Philadelphia have had nothing to do with Philadelphia's sound--they have been caused by his wildly fluctuating tempos, which have not convinced the musicians, and the attendant decline in unanimity of ensemble that all those tempo changes create.

Eschenbach's fate in Philadelphia was determined during his first European tour with the orchestra, a tour that included concerts in Vienna and elsewhere in Central Europe. Influential patrons of the orchestra accompanied the orchestra on that tour, and when they read the orchestra's reviews--especially translated for them--from the German and Austrian newspapers, they were shocked. The reviews were brutal, just about the worst reviews any major American orchestra has ever received on a European tour. The critics announced that the Philadelphia Orchestra was no longer a "great" orchestra, no longer a "special" orchestra, no longer an orchestra worth going out of one's way to hear. The Philadelphia Orchestra's supporters did not much appreciate reading such harsh words about their orchestra. Eschenbach's fate in Philadelphia was sealed after that first European tour, a fact widely if quietly known in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Nobody in this part of the world seems to know how good this ensemble really is, but this, I believe, is strictly a matter of East Coast superciliousness. Esa-Pekka Salonen is a dynamic, exciting presence, and a first-rate composer to boot. His ability to prod his forces into extraordinary bursts of color while still keeping proper balance allows the left coast Phil to dance on winds positively fairy-blown. The strings are lush but nimble, the woodwinds precise and poetic, the brass warm and accurate, the percussion bright and crisp. All are allowed to let loose in a rather elastic manner. Perhaps Mr. Salonen's secret is a palpable confidence that allows his players to breathe freely while still under his strict control. Whatever the formula, he has applied it exceptionally well. For 20th century music, this is the band of choice.

Mr. Kirshnit, I love your Barbara Cartland imitation! I hope you win that bad-writing award, because you sure have worked hard to come out on top. That is one of the most inane paragraphs anyone has ever written!

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is a regional orchestra. It has a very unpleasant sound--it has always had a very unpleasant sound--and its level of ensemble "swims": the orchestra cannot play as a tight, cohesive ensemble.

The string sound of the Los Angeles Philharmonic is particularly unpleasant. It is a very thick, colorless, undifferentiated sound. It is not luminous, it is not translucent, it is incapable of delicacy, and it suffers from a total lack of refinement. It is, however, loud.

The woodwind section is the best section of the orchestra, but the Los Angeles Philharmonic winds offer no competition whatsoever to the wind sections of the Cleveland Orchestra or the Chicago Symphony or the Philadelphia Orchestra, all three of which feature wind ensembles at an entirely different--and much higher--level.

The brass section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic is merely bad. However, I would like to concede one point to you: the orchestra's percussion section, no doubt, truly is "crisp", as you state. But are not all percussion sections, because of the instruments they play, by their very natures, "crisp"?

Alas, none of the different sections of the Los Angeles Philharmonic blend well together. I can say this, having heard the orchestra on its home turf, Disney Hall. I have also heard the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform at the concert hall of the Kennedy Center in Washington and at Carnegie Hall in New York, and the orchestra sounded disgraceful in both of those venues, too. However, orchestras can be shaken out of tune by traveling, and orchestral musicians generally hear each other in new and different ways in foreign halls, so it is impossible to know how any orchestra truly sounds unless that orchestra has been heard in its home auditorium. I HAVE heard the Los Angeles Philharmonic play in its home auditorium, and I can state, uncategorically, that the orchestra sounds just as bad in Los Angeles as it does on the Eastern Seaboard.

However, all of the West Coast orchestras have horrible sound, and they have ALWAYS had horrible sound. The San Francisco Symphony has a horrible sound, too--not even Herbert Blomstedt could do much with the sound of that orchestra--and the Seattle Symphony has a TRULY horrible sound. I have always assumed, rightly or wrongly, that this must have something to do with the very, very best musicians always gravitating toward Cleveland, Chicago and Philadelphia, always the most prestigious jobs for American orchestral musicians since Boston's downfall.

So, Mr. Kirshnit, which are America's very finest orchestras?

I know of no informed, serious person who does not rank the Cleveland Orchestra number one. Cleveland is also the ONLY American orchestra that ALWAYS receives dazzling reviews in Europe.

I know of no informed, serious person who does not rank the Chicago Symphony Orchestra number two. The Philadelphia Orchestra traditionally offers Chicago its competition for the second spot, but the Philadelphia Orchestra is going through a bad period right now.

I know of no informed, serious person who does not rank the Philadelphia Orchestra number three. Despite its current difficulties, it remains a splendid ensemble, capable of playing any other American orchestra under the table, save Cleveland and Chicago.

After the top three spots, rankings become more difficult. The next grouping would have to be, in alphabetical order, Cincinnati, Dallas, Minnesota, New York and Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh is losing important musicians now, moving to other orchestras, a situation I am confident you are keeping up-to-date on, Mr. Kirshnit). The next grouping would have to be, again in alphabetical order, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Boston. After that grouping, the rest of America's orchestras are all pretty much lumped together in a muddle.

Truly, the concept of the traditional "big five" American orchestras should be replaced by the "big three", because that has been the reality of the orchestral situation in the United States more or less since the day I was born--in 1980.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Supply-And-Demand Equilibrium

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported yesterday that the Minnesota Orchestra, in its 2005-2006 season, played to 69 per cent capacity for the season. The previous season the figure was 66 per cent.

While these attendance figures are much better than they were during the Eiji Oue years--and has anyone figured out yet why Eiji Oue was hired by the Minnesota Orchestra in the first place?--they are still pretty depressing. Minneapolis-Saint Paul has a large enough population, and a sufficiently-educated population, to provide full houses for each concert if the orchestra is a good one--and the Minnesota Orchestra is a good one.

I have always believed, rightly or wrongly, that ticket prices for orchestral concerts are too high. I have always believed that the rule of thumb should be that the typical seat at an orchestral concert should cost the same as a full-price compact disc. If orchestral tickets cost substantially more than full-price compact discs, music lovers will often find it more sensible to invest their music dollars into something that will last for years and years rather than in a single evening of live musicmaking.

However, the Minnesota Orchestra seems to have its ticket prices well within reason. While the top ticket price is $82.00, the very cheapest seats can be purchased for $20.25, well within the budget of just about everyone (and consistent with my personal rule of thumb about orchestral tickets being priced along the lines of compact discs).

Further, the Minnesota Orchestra has two remarkable deals that make ticket prices for very good seats almost irresistible. Rush tickets are available for many concerts for only $20.00 ($10.00 for students with a valid student identification), and the orchestra is currently offering ANY SEAT IN THE HOUSE for $45.00 for its January-through-June 2007 concerts, a special limited-time offer.

So why is attendance so disappointing?

This is not a problem specific to the Twin Cities. Attendance at orchestral concerts in many cities throughout the U.S. is pretty dismal. In Washington, where I went to law school, attendance at the National Symphony Orchestra was exceptionally spotty, but that can be attributed to a depressing combination of a bad orchestra, a bad conductor and bad programming. In nearby Baltimore, where there WAS a good orchestra, a good (now former) conductor and better programming, attendance was also pretty sad.

In some cities, poor attendance clearly threatens the long-term viability of the orchestra. Atlanta's current concert hall only seats 1,700 persons, and yet the Atlanta Symphony only plays to 50 per cent capacity many nights. That is not a large enough audience to keep the orchestra going long-term. The Houston Symphony has seen a precipitous decline in attendance over the last five years and it may have to reduce, significantly and permanently, the size of its ensemble if it plans to balance its books on an ongoing basis.

Even cities where orchestras are playing at peak accomplishment have suffered attendance problems. Mariss Jansons told many European musicians that the reason he left the Pittsburgh Symphony was because he was heartbroken to see acres and acres of empty seats each evening--and Jansons/Pittsburgh was one of the very best artistic partnerships on the American orchestral scene in recent years. The same thing is happening in Cincinnati right now, where Paavo Jarvi has been an unqualified artistic success since he arrived--and where vast portions of the 3,500-seat hall, admittedly too large for a city of Cincinnati's size, are empty.

This is not solely an American problem. I have routinely observed poor attendance for orchestral concerts in another English-speaking country, Great Britain. At the Royal Festival Hall, currently under renovation, I have attended excellent concerts by the Philharmonia Orchestra, the London Phiharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic, under such excellent conductors as Daniele Gatti, Kurt Masur and Esa-Pekka Salonen, in which the hall was at most one-third occupied. At Saint John's, Smith Square, I have attended concerts by London's most popular chamber orchestras and original-instrument ensembles in which the members of the audience could be individually counted if one had the inclination to do so. I have never seen London's Barbican full, despite the fact that the London Symphony is currently the darling of London critics and concertgoers.

On the European continent, however, orchestral halls always seem to be full, no matter how poor the orchestra and no matter how poor the conductor. In Central Europe, with its rich orchestral tradition, this is understandable. But how does one account for a full house at the Theatre Des Champs Elysees in Paris featuring the Orchestre National De France under Daniel Harding?

Contrary to what many persons in the classical-music field think, I do not believe that declining attendance is a function of inadequate music education in the public school system. Music education has not been the victim of serious cutbacks in most of the U.S.--these cutbacks have centered mostly on the Eastern and Western seaboards, around the giant coastal cities, and not elsewhere.

Therein lies the fallacy of New York-based writers who bemoan the lack of music education in public school systems and who claim that cutbacks in music education are the cause of declining concert attendance. To them, one must say: get on a plane and travel to Indianapolis and Iowa City and Overland Park and Nashville and Houston and Clarkston, Michigan, so that you can see for yourselves that music education is alive and well and vital in most of the U.S.

In truth, music education is considered to be excellent in most of the U.S., and certainly as good as it was twenty or thirty or forty years ago. And yet lagging attendance seems to be a nationwide phenomenon (except for isolated pockets of excellence like Cleveland) and not restricted solely to the big coastal cities with their deplorable school systems.

So what forces are at work that are keeping our concert halls insufficiently full? The answer is a very simple one, and a very obvious one, but it does not provide a prescription for relief.

The answer involves shifting, irrevocable societal trends: Americans (and citizens of Britain) are working more hours than they worked twenty and thirty and forty years ago, and they do not have the time and the energy to set aside a block of hours to attend orchestral concerts in significant number. On the European continent, by contrast, persons are working fewer hours than they did twenty and thirty and forty years ago. Consequently, Continental Europeans have more energy and more time to devote to the pursuit of leisure activities, including orchestral concerts.

How can American orchestras battle these social forces? There may be no sure-fire solution, but there are some basic measures that orchestras can take to improve the situation.

Most American orchestras should eliminate weekday and weeknight concerts, as attendance is invariably better, everywhere, on Friday and Saturday nights. Most American orchestras should increase the number of Sunday afternoon concerts they offer. Most American orchestras should focus on offering concerts during holiday periods and on holiday weekends, when many potential concertgoers enjoy a larger block of free time. I fully realize that orchestral members like to have their holidays off, too, but orchestras must be realistic and tailor as many concerts as possible to periods in which the concertgoing public is likely to be free and available.

Toward this end, orchestras should schedule Monday morning or Monday Noon or Monday afternoon concerts on three-day weekends. Orchestras should perform concerts each afternoon between Christmas and New Year. Orchestras should perform concerts on Thanksgiving morning, and on the Friday afternoon after Thanksgiving, and on Easter Sunday, and on Valentine's Day (no matter what day of the week it falls on).

Adapting concert schedules to current American work patterns is the first step that orchestras can take to address attendance problems.

The second step involves taking that old Economics 101 textbook down from the shelf and reviewing one of the most basic laws of economics: adjust prices until the supply-and-demand equilibrium is reached.

Alas, this latter will never happen.

Handel-Haydn-Weber-Menotti And Christmas Music

Yesterday Joshua and I selected six discs of festive music to listen to for the next week or so, and we played them for my parents last night and today we brought the discs along with us to my parents' house to listen to while we make Christmas plans and get started on holiday preparations. Three of the discs, specifically, contain seasonal music.

Handel's Water Music, performed by the English Chamber Orchestra under George Malcolm, on the ASV label

Haydn's String Quartets Nos. 61-63, performed by the Eder Quartet, on the Teldec label

Weber's Overtures, performed by The Hanover Band under Roy Goodman, on the Nimbus label

Menotti's One-Act Opera, "Amahl And The Night Visitors", performed by The Orchestra And Chorus Of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, under David Syrus, on the Musical Heritage Society label

A disc of contemporary American choral music for Christmas entitled "A Season's Promise", performed by The New York Concert Singers under Judith Clurman, on the New World label

A disc of traditional Christmas music arranged for brass quintet entitled "Carols For Brass", performed by the Galliard Brass Ensemble, on the MusicMasters label

The Handel disc is a good, middle-of-the-road performance on modern instruments of this splendid music. The Haydn disc contains three of his most popular quartets--the ones subtitled "Fifths", "Emperor" and "Sunrise"--performed by one of the many excellent quartets from Hungary that has emerged in recent decades.

The disc of Weber overtures—“Der Freischutz", "Oberon", "Euryanthe", "Peter Schmoll", "Ruler Of The Spirits" and "Abu Hassan", along with Berlioz's orchestration of "Invitation To The Dance"—is the finest disc of Weber overtures I have ever heard, whether on modern or original instruments. Unlike many British musicians who focused their careers on original-instrument performance, Roy Goodman never seemed to get a lot of attention from the U.S. musical press. I have never heard Goodman in person, but I have always found his recorded performances to be much more interesting than those of Hogwood, Pinnock, Gardiner and Norrington. Who was the wag that deemed this group of British musicians "semi-conductors"? That term should not apply to Goodman.

Frankly, I do not know what to make of "Amahl And The Night Visitors". It would not be unfair to describe the music as cheap and meretricious, but it also would not be unfair to describe the music as effective and even, on occasion, charming. I do not think that this performance is necessarily a very good one. Soprano Lorna Haywood as the mother is quite good, but the other vocalists do not make a positive impression, and the chorus and orchestra seem to have their heads buried in their scores, sight-reading.

The disc of contemporary American choral music for Christmas is disappointing. The disc contains four works by Stephen Paulus, a Twin Cities composer who writes very well for chorus, and these are the best works on the disc. It also contains one work by another Twin Cities composer, Libby Larson, whose music I have never responded to. Morten Lauridsen's popular "O Magnum Mysterium" is on the disc, as is one work each by Virgil Thomson, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Ned Rorem, William Bolcom, Jennifer Higdon, and a handful of composers totally unknown to me (as well as to my Dad, who is very knowledgeable about even the most marginal composers, American and otherwise). Anyone coming to this disc without a background in contemporary American art music would have to conclude that the state of American art music was depressingly moribund. However, the performances on the disc are not good, and it is possible that a better chorus and a better conductor would reveal more beauties in the music. As it is, the chorus does not have a pleasing sound and the musicmaking seems undernourished, lacking in energy and conviction and focus.

Josh and I selected the disc of carols arranged for brass because Josh was a brass player. The arrangements are quite effective, and not too dressed-up, and the playing is quite good. This is a very fine disc, and we enjoy it very much.

Christmas Shopping Completed

Joshua and I have sort of settled back into our standard living routine since returning from Germany Wednesday night. We both went to work on Thursday and Friday, and both of us will return to work on Monday morning and continue to work through Friday, December 22. Both of us will be off during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day.

Unlike most Saturdays, Josh and I did not go over to my parents' house today. My parents had some catching up to do today after two weeks out of the country--they went to visit my grandmother this morning, and this afternoon they had a meeting at our church.

To help my parents out, Josh and I had them come over to eat breakfast with us this morning. We prepared bacon and scrambled eggs and fried potatoes for my Dad, and we prepared a fresh berry bowl and a fresh melon plate for my Mom. We had them bring their dog over and leave him with us for the day so that he would not be home alone.

After breakfast, my parents left to tend to their errands, and Josh and I cleaned house and did laundry and did our shopping and ran our other errands and went to the club to play basketball for 90 minutes or so. We took the dog with us everywhere we went, and he was very happy and very content.

Afterward, we prepared a nice dinner for my parents, who came back to our apartment late this afternoon after the meeting at church. Josh and I had stuffed and roasted a chicken--it seemed that we had eaten lots of seafood and lots of pork in Germany, but that we had eaten very little chicken, and both of us had a taste for chicken--and we prepared mashed potatoes and fresh green beans and fresh white corn and glazed fresh carrots as well as a cranberry-orange salad made from scratch. For dessert, we baked apples in pastry, and we ate the baked apples with ice cream and a hot cinnamon sauce. It was a nice dinner, and having my parents over in the morning and again in the evening saved my mother from having to worry about breakfast and dinner today.

Tonight we talked about the Christmas holidays--both of my brothers will come home on Friday, December 22, and they will remain with us until Tuesday morning, January 2--and we made some tentative plans.

Josh and I decided, for the duration of my brothers' Christmas visit, that he and I would stay over at my parents' house rather than come back to our apartment each night. This will make things easier for my mother, because Josh and I can take care of breakfast for everyone early each morning, leaving my mother with one less daily meal to worry about. We will also be able to do the kitchen cleanup every night for her, which will give her plenty of time to visit with everyone and plenty of time to hold her grandson without worrying about dinner dishes and such.

Josh and I also decided, for the next two weekends, that we would stay over at my parents' house so that we can help them get ready for Christmas. Josh and I can help my parents with the housecleaning and the laundry and the shopping and the Christmas baking and the Christmas decorating and a million other things. My mother and father always try to do too much, and Josh and I made them promise that they would let us do most of the work for them.

Josh and I will get a head start tomorrow, because we are going to go over to my parents' house after church and start pitching in.

Because we will be spending the next two weekends at my parents' house, Josh and I told my Mom and Dad that we should scratch our traditional Monday and Wednesday night dinners together between now and Christmas. My parents readily assented.

We discussed Christmas gifts--each of us give one gift, but one gift only, to each family member--and our parents asked us about gift ideas for my brothers. We gave them some gift suggestions and we let them know what NOT to get, since Josh and I have already decided what gifts we are going to get for everyone in the family. My parents were surprised that we had already selected (but not yet purchased) our gifts for everyone, and they were further surprised when we told them that we were going to make all of our gift purchases tonight, online, after they went home, at which point Josh and I would be totally finished with our Christmas shopping.

And, after my parents departed, that is precisely what Josh and I did. We went online and, in less than two hours, our Christmas shopping for 2006 was completed.

While we were online, Josh and I talked about getting a Christmas tree for our apartment, and we decided against it. Since there is no room for a full-sized tree, and since we will be staying at my parents' house the next two weekends and from December 22 through the New Year, it seemed unnecessary for us to get a tree.

This will be our first Christmas together, but we will not need a tree to make us happy.