Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Birthday Weekend

This past week was a very nice one, as it was devoted to celebrating my father’s birthday.

On Thursday evening, Joshua and I took my mother and father out to dinner, and after dinner we took them to the Guthrie Theater to attend a performance of the musical “1776”. My parents had seen a performance of “1776” once before—they had attended a road company production of the musical in Chicago in the 1970’s—but neither Joshua nor I had seen the show before.

None of us particularly cared for the show, or for the performance. Among other things, the book of “1776” is extremely irritating. It is, in part, a very serious presentation of the issues and personalities that lead up to the creation of The Declaration Of Independence. It is also, in part, a series of vaudeville skits, with historical characters assigned all sorts of ridiculous dialogue intended to “humanize” these iconic figures. The result is that it often transformed these historic personages into idiots and nitwits and dolts and fools.

We sort of enjoyed the first thirty minutes of the show, which contained most of the good musical numbers. After the first half hour or so, however, all of us seemed to lose interest in the proceedings, and we were happy when the show at last wound to its conclusion. I doubt that any of us would ever want to see this show again.

I am not confident that “1776” is worthy of revival. The audience seemed to be unsettled throughout the performance, unsure how to react to the show and to the performance. Energy—the energy of the performers, and the energy of the audience members—seemed to dissipate as the show went on and on.

Our birthday plans for my father for Friday and Saturday were altered at the last minute. Our original intention was for Joshua and me to have my parents over to our apartment for dinner Friday night, and to take them to a Minnesota Orchestra concert on Saturday night.

However, on Friday morning, my mother called me at work and she told me that what my father really wanted to do for the weekend was to go to the lake. My mother asked me whether this presented a problem for Josh and me, and she also wanted to know whether Josh and I wanted to go to the lake, too.

I told my mother that it probably would not make much difference for Josh and me, except that Josh and I had already picked up all of the food for our special Friday night birthday dinner for my father.

My mother’s response: “Save it for tomorrow night, and we’ll have the special birthday dinner up at the lake”.

So I called Josh at home, because he had not departed for work yet, and I asked him what he wanted to do. Josh said that he wanted to go to the lake, so I called my mother back and I told her that Josh and I would be joining her and my father.

My mother told me to get our gear together as soon as we arrived home from work, and the food, too, and the birthday presents, and afterward to come over to my parents’ house for a light dinner, after which we would all head up to the lake.

And that’s what Josh and I did.

Consequently, on Friday, my father’s actual birthday, we did not actually celebrate the event, at least officially. Instead, we ate a quick dinner my mother had prepared for us (Swiss steak, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn, and even a few cupcakes my mother had baked, just so that my father would get at least a taste of cake on his actual birthday), and then my father called my brothers to tell them what was up with us and to let them wish him a quick “Happy Birthday”. Then we gathered everything, including our gear, and the food, and the birthday presents, and the dog, and we set out on our way, heading north.

On Saturday, during the day, we really did not do much. Josh and I went swimming, and we all walked through the woods with the dog, but otherwise we just sat on the lawn or sat on the deck and read and talked and played with the dog.

On Saturday night, Josh and I made my father the special birthday dinner we had planned to give him the previous evening.

We first baked a special birthday cake, made with fresh pineapple and fresh coconut, that is fairly complicated to make.

When the cake was done, we also prepared some of my father’s favorite foods, such as stuffed pork chops, and a special potato dish made with cream and cheddar cheese, and lima beans, and glazed carrots, and a tomato-cucumber salad, and a special apple salad. It was a lovely birthday dinner.

After dinner, my father opened his birthday gifts, and he talked on the telephone, at length, to my brothers.

For his birthday, my father received mostly books. My older brother got him a book, my middle brother got him a book, my sister-in-law got him a book, and my nephew got him a book. I, as part-time keeper of my father’s library, had been called upon to serve as gift advisor, so as to avoid duplication, and so as to suggest recently-published books of special interest to my father.

Gifts of books were ideal for my brothers and my older brother’s family to present to my father, because books may be easily ordered online and easily shipped anywhere. For practical reasons, it made more sense for our family members living out-of-town to give my father books for his birthday than for my mother and Joshua and me.

My mother and Joshua and I had decided to give my father something other than books.

My mother gave my father an antique desk lamp, from the 1870’s, for my father’s den. It is an old, pre-electric, lawyer’s lamp, made mostly from brass. My mother found it in an antique shop, and purchased it, and polished it, and afterward she took it to an electrician, who wired it for electricity. It is a very, very beautiful lamp, and it will go perfectly in my father’s den. He likes it very, very much.

Joshua and I got my father compact discs. We selected discs of recent vintage that we knew he did not already have.

Specifically, we each gave my father a disc recorded by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Paavo Jarvi on the Telarc label: Josh gave my father the new Elgar/Britten disc and I gave my father the new Bartok/Lutoslawski disc. My father has not been keeping up on the Telarc discs recorded by Cincinnati/Jarvi, and he had mentioned this to us, a few weeks ago, and he had said that he needed to make amends. Josh and I decided to help him in this endeavor.

It was a lovely day, and a lovely evening, and a lovely celebration, and I think that my father had a wonderful birthday.

Today, we did not do much. We just enjoyed the peace and quiet, and played with the dog, and ate more birthday cake, until it was time for us to come back to the Twin Cities. We headed for home very late in the afternoon.

This coming week will be a very nice one, as well, because it will be devoted to celebrating my mother’s birthday.

On Wednesday night, Joshua and I will take my parents out to dinner and afterward to the Guthrie Theater to attend a performance of “Private Lives”. On Thursday night, my mother’s actual birthday, we will have my parents over to our apartment for dinner. On Friday afternoon, my parents will fly to Denver, for a visit with my middle brother. My mother—and my father, too, of course—will love it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A New Round Of Books

Last evening Joshua and I went out to dinner after work, and then we went shopping for my father’s birthday gifts. It did not take us long to select our gifts, because we already knew, more or less, what we would get for my father. We think he will absolutely love the colorful stuffed toy animals we picked out for him!

It was very nice, going out to dinner on a Monday night. We had a very nice time.

Joshua and I have started reading a new round of books, of no particular theme.

We are reading “The Franco-Prussian War” by Geoffrey Wawro, which my father read a few weeks ago. It is the best of the books we are reading, by far, and it is a genuine scholarly analysis of this little-studied conflict, full of new insights and new information.

The Franco-Prussian War’s outcome was not a certain victory for the Germans, as is commonly believed today. The War could easily have gone either way, as Wawro makes clear.

One thing I have learned from the book—to my surprise—is that French weapons technology of the time was superior to German weapons technology. I would never have guessed that.

Another thing I have learned from the book is that a dramatic difference in education levels, in large part, determined the outcome of the war. Over 70% of the French population was illiterate in 1870. The German population, by contrast, was the most highly-educated, not only in Europe, but worldwide. This vast difference in education levels was reflected in the performance of the armies and officers from both sides of the conflict.

Josh and I are also reading “Twelve Days: The Story Of The 1956 Hungarian Revolution” by Victor Sebestyen, a British journalist who, along with his family, escaped Hungary in the Revolution’s aftermath. Sebestyen was only six months old at the time he and his family fled Hungary, but he clearly views himself as an Hungarian Brit.

Sebestyen’s book is fairly interesting, but it is not on the same exalted level as Wawro’s book. It is a journalist’s book, with all of the strengths and all of the weaknesses that that term implies.

Sebestyen sometimes gets his facts wrong, and he is brutally and unjustifiably hard on the U.S. for not intervening in the conflict. The Hungarian Revolution occurred at the same time as the Suez Crisis, an event of far greater significance, and the world’s diplomats and statesmen, understandably, had to devote their primary focus to the Suez Crisis, not to Hungary.

Khrushchev knew this, of course, and he took advantage of the situation to reassert Soviet authority in Hungary. The rest of the world stood by, helpless, in the face of the U.S.S.R.’s brutal and bloody termination of the revolution.

However, there was no way that President Eisenhower was going to provoke a world war over the situation in Hungary, even if the Suez Crisis had not been underway. I cannot believe that Sebestyen does not understand this.

Josh and I are also reading “Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains Of The 1930’s” by Donald Worster. Recently re-published, this award-winning publication of a quarter century ago does not deserve its acclaim, in my opinion. Worster’s writing is very dry—it lacks vividness, and historical sweep, and richness—and he simply cannot meld the presentation of detail into the larger picture, something all successful historians must learn to master. The book strikes me as something based upon a mediocre television documentary.

I am also reading “Kristallnacht: Prelude To Destruction” by Martin Gilbert, a book Josh read a few weeks ago. It is not necessarily a scholarly book, but it is a very fine one.

It is based, in large part, upon interviews Gilbert conducted with survivors of Kristallnacht. Because the interviews were conducted only a few years ago, all of the persons interviewed had been children at the time of the event, and their memories may not be reliable or accurate. Further, the stories these witnesses tell do not necessarily reveal the kinds of detail that an adult’s memory might provide, nor do the stories place these experiences within the context of the overall series of events.

The book is nevertheless very moving, and very difficult to put down.

Germany’s Jewish population was never large. In 1933, Germany had 500,000 Jewish residents. By 1938’s Kristallnacht, 150,000 German Jewish residents had already left Germany. In the next nine months prior to the outbreak of war, another 120,000 German Jewish persons succeeded in getting out of Germany. Of the millions of Jewish persons murdered by the Germans during World War II, only 200,000 were actually German.

In his book, Martin is ruthless in his criticism of the U.S.’s failure to admit German Jewish citizens in the late 1930’s. He contrasts U.S. actions unfavorably with those of Britain, which opened its doors fairly widely in the months immediately before the war. It is hard to refute his criticism of U.S. immigration policy in the late 1930’s (although in the early 1930’s, the two nations’ respective immigration policies had been reversed).

Tonight, Joshua found an online review of “Kristallnacht” that contained an astounding and hysterical remark in its “comment” section. Reading it, both of us were doubled up, laughing uncontrollably for over an hour.

A woman in Waterloo, Ontario, Janelle Martin, had reviewed the book on a book-review website, Her review was entirely unremarkable.

Then, in response to a reader comment, she stated, “Arnold Schoenberg [in] 1899 wrote a work entitled ‘Verklarte Nacht’ about the events of that night but I don’t believe it was an opera.”

No, Janelle, it was indeed not an opera—at least you got that part right—but you might want to check those dates again, and perhaps have another peak at your German/English dictionary. Arnold Schoenberg indeed WAS ahead of time, I readily admit--but not quite in the way you propose!

While we were laughing like maniacs, Josh and I sent my father an email with a link to Janelle’s review, and we sat back, waiting for his response.

We got a phone call back almost immediately, and my father was laughing hysterically, laughing so hard that he could barely speak. Josh and I could hear my mother laughing in the background, too, and we could hear the dog barking, excitedly, in sympathy with my parents’ laughter and excitement.

Finally, when he was able to gather himself and talk clearly, my father told us “Thank you for the early birthday present!”

And thank you, Janelle. You made our and my father’s evening a very special one.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Death-Defying Adventures

According to my older brother, my blog has become “more and more boring” and I need to “spark things up considerably” before the end of August, when I shall cease blogging and turn things over to Joshua for a while, in order “to end things on a high note”.

I would, accordingly, describe the many death-defying adventures Joshua and I experienced this weekend--but we did not have any. Our weekend was pretty uneventful.

On Friday night, Josh and I ran errands and did food shopping and laundry and housecleaning and such, to get all of that out of the way.

On Saturday, we went over to my parents’ house and we mowed the lawn and we washed the cars (my parents’ cars and our car, too) and we did a few other small things around the house and yard. It was fun, because we were fed well and we were able to play with the dog and we had plenty of time to kick back and talk with my parents.

On Saturday night, my mother made us Italian food for dinner: an Italian salad, and vegetable lasagna, and Veal Parmigiana, and Italian vegetables. We had Italian Ice for dessert. It was very, very nice.

After dinner, we watched, on DVD, the film “The Garden Of The Finzi-Continis”, which Josh had never seen. My parents first saw the film on its initial commercial release, when they were dating, and it is one of their favorite films (and one of mine, too). Josh liked it enormously, which I knew he would.

The dog, however, seemed not to care for the film. He did an awful lot of yawning, and he made no attempt whatsoever to conceal it—loud, conspicuous, blatant yawning, in blithe disregard of all sense of manners and propriety, as if the normal rules of social etiquette did not apply to him—and then he went to sleep. We were shocked and dismayed at his frightful lack of social graces, and we considered getting up and leaving!

We decided to forgive him, however, because it appears that he dislikes foreign-language films—it must be having to read the subtitles that he objects to.

We were prompted to watch “The Garden Of The Finzi-Continis” by an online friend of mine, who had watched the film the previous weekend, and who had written about it on his blog. That inspired us to rent the DVD and watch the film, too, creating, in the process, a special “Italian Night” for all of us. Thank you, Opera Chanteuse! Because of you, we all enjoyed a very special Saturday night!

And my mother wants me to pass on to you, Opera Chanteuse, that she loves your blog. It was my mother’s idea, after reading your foreign-film entry last week, to rent the DVD of “The Garden Of The Finzi-Continis”.

Today, after church, my parents spent the day with my mother’s relatives. Josh and I, after church, went over to my parents’ house to retrieve the dog and we brought him back to our apartment so that he would not have to spend the entire day alone, by himself. We gave him a nice lunch, and then we went out to play basketball and swim. We took him with us, and he had a nice time. When we were done playing basketball and swimming, we took him to his favorite park and ran with him and played fetch ball. He had a wonderful afternoon.

Then we went home and prepared dinner. My parents joined us for dinner, but we did not prepare anything significant because my parents had had a major lunch with my mother’s relatives earlier in the day. It being Sunday night, the dog got his chicken, of course, but the rest of us ate chicken breasts baked in cream, and green beans, and parsnips, and fresh tomatoes, and nothing more. Josh and I were such poor hosts that we did not even offer my parents any dessert. My parents were so offended that they considered getting up and leaving! (In truth, no one wanted dessert.)

After dinner, my parents asked Josh and me about subscriptions, and whether we wanted to get any for the coming season. My parents subscribe to the Minnesota Orchestra, and to the Minnesota Opera, and to the Guthrie Theater, and to the Schubert Club. They do not subscribe, however, to the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra or to the Metropolitan Ballet. Sometimes they subscribe to The University Of Minnesota Performing Arts Series, and sometimes they do not.

Josh and I really are not interested in subscribing to anything. We certainly have no interest in full subscriptions--full subscriptions almost control one’s life, and quickly become nothing so much as a burden—and we genuinely have no interest in short subscriptions, either, for that matter. Josh and I prefer to go to an individual event if it appeals to us, but we do not want to sign up for the entire Guthrie season, or the full Schubert Club season, or the complete Minnesota Orchestra or Minnesota Opera seasons, or the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra or Metropolitan Ballet seasons, either.

My parents understand this, but there was one item my father asked us about that gave us pause: he wanted to know whether Josh and I wanted to get season tickets to The University Of Minnesota Mens’ Basketball Team.

My father would enjoy going to the games, but he would only enjoy going if Josh and I were to go with him. He would not be interested in going to the games by himself, and he would never pressure my mother to go to the games with him (my mother simply has no interest in going more than once a year, if that).

Deciding whether to get season tickets was a difficult matter for Josh and me.

Both of us love college basketball. Both of us are excited about Tubby Smith now heading the program, as both of us respect and admire Tubby Smith enormously. Both of us like the old, decrepit field house, which is a marvelous venue for college basketball. Both of us would genuinely enjoy having the opportunity to see all the other Big Ten teams come to town and play in Williams Arena.

The other side of the coin is that we truly do not want to see eighteen or so home games (the home schedule has not yet been announced) within a relatively short period of time—that is simply too many games to attend. During the workweek, the games are scheduled on different nights of the week, with different tip-off times (anytime between 6:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.). On weekends, games are sometimes scheduled on Saturday afternoons (anytime between 12:00 Noon and 5:00 p.m.), sometimes on Saturday evenings (anytime between 6:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.), and sometimes on Sunday afternoons (anytime between 12:00 Noon and 4:00 p.m.). If we were to get season tickets, our lives would be governed by the basketball schedule for fifteen consecutive weeks. Josh and I would be required to plan each and every week around the games.

And that is just too much for us. It would become tiresome before the season was even half over.

And we explained this to my Dad, and he understood. We told him that we could pick out a few individual games to attend once the season was under way. We also told him that we would be able to watch most of the games on television anyway, and that this would be almost as much fun as attending the games in person, with the added benefits of not having to drive to Bloomington and back, and not leaving my mother alone and without company, and being able to relax and eat and play with the dog during the games.

I think that my father appreciates the situation, and he knows that he will enjoy watching the games on television, and he also knows that he will not have to watch the games by himself--Josh and I will be there with him, watching alongside him (since Josh and I have no television, we have to go to my parents’ house if we want to see the games). I think he is fine with that.

This coming week will be a very special one, because we will all help my father celebrate his birthday. On Thursday night, Josh and I will take my Mom and Dad out to dinner and afterward we will take them to see “1776” at the Guthrie Theater. On Friday night, my father’s actual birthday, Josh and I will have my parents over for dinner (and we will even give them dessert!). On Saturday night, Josh and I will take my parents to a “Sommerfest” concert of the Minnesota Orchestra. On the program will be one of my father’s favorite compositions, Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, played by his favorite young cellist, Daniel Muller-Schott. It will be a wonderful way for my father to celebrate his birthday over a few days, and he will enjoy everything very much. The only thing that could make things better would be for my brothers to join us, but they will be with us in our thoughts, and we will be with them in theirs.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Joseph Volpe's "The Toughest Show On Earth"

One of my Christmas gifts, from my sister-in-law, was Joseph Volpe’s account of his tenure as General Manager of The Metropolitan Opera, “The Toughest Show On Earth”.

The only review of “The Toughest Show On Earth” I recall reading was in “The Economist”, which dismissed the book, and dismissed Volpe, and dismissed Volpe’s tenure at the Met, and dismissed the Met itself, all in a few paragraphs.

I finally completed reading the book this week, after beginning it several weeks ago, and I must say that “The Economist” got it right.

“The Toughest Show On Earth” is not a pleasurable book to read, because it is so poorly written and so poorly organized, and because Volpe’s story is not an especially interesting one. While reading it, I kept putting the book down, for weeks at a time, because it did not provide a very rewarding reading experience.

“The Toughest Show On Earth” contains no information that has not already been printed, countless times, elsewhere--in magazines, newspapers, and other books covering the field—and one completes the book, asking the same question with which one begins the book: why was Joseph Volpe ever placed in charge of The Metropolitan Opera in the first place?

The short answer is “Because Volpe was the only person at the Met who could deal with the labor unions”.

And, to some extent, Volpe’s elevation made sense. At the time of his appointment, the Met had endured an endless series of crippling labor disputes going back to the Rudolf Bing era. Strikes translate into a loss of revenue, and a loss of prestige, and bad publicity, and strikes irritate subscribers, who may decide to discontinue subscribing. The history of The Metropolitan Opera, from 1960 to 1985, was a story of adverse labor relations more than anything else—including art—and it was with relief that the Met’s Board Of Directors had identified, at long last, a man who could deal with the unions. And the Met has a LOT of unions to make happy, from the members of the orchestra to the members of the chorus to the members of the ballet to the stagehands to the costume personnel to the other guilds.

However, that one has skills suitable for dealing with labor unions does not signify that one has skills suitable for running a large artistic enterprise—and Volpe does not make a successful case, in his book, that he was a suitable person to run the Met.

But he tries. He notes, accurately, that he kept the Met in satisfactory financial condition. He notes, accurately, that he kept the Met, as an institution, on its feet, up and running, for over a decade and a half.

However, whenever Volpe turns to artistic matters, he is on much less solid ground. From an artistic viewpoint, his tenure was not a distinguished one, and his descriptions of the artistic “triumphs” of his tenure—the singers he engaged, the new operas he introduced into the Met repertory—have a hollow ring to them. Not even Volpe is convinced that his time at the Met was anything more than a “managerial interlude”, an administration known more for its competence than for its accomplishments.

One thing that Volpe makes clear in his book—as if anyone needed to be reminded—was that he was never afraid to make decisions. One would think that this would go without saying, but Volpe does a lot of such saying anyway. The reader is given a veritable laundry list of decisions Volpe made, culminating in several chapters that recount his dismissal of Kathleen Battle, which he must view as the high point of his days at the Met, given how much space he devotes to this oft-told story.

Reading about his “decisiveness” quickly becomes tiresome—but, once in a while, Volpe will throw out an interesting nugget. He writes, for example, about the Met’s decision, in the late 1980’s, to replace Eva Marton with Hildegard Behrens in Wagner’s Ring—and the accompanying reluctance of anyone on the Met staff to inform Miss Marton that she had been replaced (this incident occurred before Volpe was named General Manager). For months and months, management at the Met knew that Miss Marton had been dropped from the role of Brunnhilde, but no one would tell her--until the news could no longer be withheld from her, at which point Volpe was handed the thankless task of telling Miss Marton that, despite a signed contract, she was to be replaced. Volpe rightly notes that this situation was intolerable, for all parties involved, and--citing Rodolf Bing--he states that news of such magnitude must always be presented directly to the artist by the head of the house. He absolves Miss Marton for leaving the Met in disgust over the issue, and he rightfully faults James Levine and Bruce Crawford for being so boneless that they could not pass along such important news to such an important artist themselves.

I found the most telling part of the book to be Volpe’s discussion of the Metropolitan Opera productions newly-mounted during his tenure, almost all of which were unhappy ones, and his discussion of the stage directors who created them—and who disappointed him, over and over and over (at least in his telling of the story). Volpe goes through the entire list of stage directors who “let him down”—Jonathan Miller, Giancarlo Del Monaco, Elijah Moshinsky, Graham Vick, Piero Faggioni—and he accuses them all of deliberately undercutting him, if not worse, as if these directors were trying to produce lousy productions, on purpose, solely to make Volpe look bad. Volpe’s discussion of these directors reveals a streak of paranoia on his part. Does he truly believe that these high-profile directors could possibly advance their own careers, worldwide, by intentionally producing well-publicized failures at the Met?

The selection of stage directors, and Volpe’s interactions and interference with them, is probably the chief failing of Volpe’s tenure at the Met. In all his years at the Met, Volpe was never able to match the right director with the right project, with a lone exception: Jonathan Miller in “Pelleas And Melisande”.

Volpe clearly views stage directors as inherently villainous, and the grand, overriding villain of the book is John Dexter, the great British director who had severed his association with the Met a decade before Volpe’s ascension to the General Manager’s job (and who died around the time Volpe was finally granted the “General Manager” title). Nevertheless, Volpe does not allow these inconvenient details to stop him from spewing venom at Dexter at every opportunity, even though Dexter had absolutely nothing to do with Volpe’s reign at the Met. (Dexter WAS the original director of the Metropolitan Opera’s two most distinguished productions, “Billy Budd” and “Dialogues Of The Carmelites”, still the best productions in the Met’s repertory after more than three decades of hard use, but both were created over a decade before Volpe rose to the top job at the Met.)

With reference to musical matters, Volpe, oddly, has very little to say. He writes at some length about singers’ personalities—Miss Battle always provides a handy whipping post—and he describes himself as a psychiatrist-cum-father-figure to these childlike figures who happened to possess freak larynxes but who otherwise were in dire need of guidance and discipline and adult supervision, all of which Volpe was happy to provide. How ever did these mindless creatures known as singers manage to get through life before Volpe became General Manager?

When it comes to describing individual singers’ unique qualities, however, Volpe does not have much to say. Aside from noting that the honorable Felicity Lott and Anne Sofie Von Otter had voices, alas, that did not “sound” in the Met’s vast auditorium, Volpe is much happier describing Luciano Pavarotti’s array of pasta pans than describing the special qualities that defined Kiri Te Kanawa’s Countess (whether Mozart’s or Richard Strauss’s).

On the matter of James Levine, Volpe is, uncharacteristically, cagey. He takes several swipes at Levine—he writes of Levine’s indecisiveness, and his vaporous personality, and his occasional cluelessness—but he never touches upon the quality of Levine’s musicianship or musical leadership, or the lack thereof. Volpe makes it quite plain that he did not like Levine as a person, but he assiduously avoids commenting upon Levine as a musician. (Volpe does, however, make it clear to the reader that he had let Levine know, unmistakably, that Volpe was Levine’s boss, and not the other way around.)

Volpe chooses several peculiar topics to address at length, leaving other far more critical matters out of the story completely. For instance, Volpe devotes pages and pages to his fight with American Express over that company’s unwillingness to remit to the Met a portion of its hefty processing fees. That space would have been better devoted to a discussion of why Volpe did not hire theater professionals to raise the level of the company’s theatrical presentations. Similarly, Volpe wastes space describing silly and irrelevant matters, such as a ridiculous and extraneous late-night episode involving a drunken Giancarlo Del Monaco—an episode for which Volpe heroically saved the day, naturally—when this space should have been saved for an explanation why so many prominent European singers avoided the Met during his long tenure.

The entire time I was reading “The Toughest Show On Earth”, the book reminded me of nothing so much as a particular type of trade publication: the Hollywood memoir. Very much like that genre, the book is one part self-aggrandizing fiction, and one part hatchet job, used to settle old scores. It is jarring to see such a publication appear under the Alfred A Knopf imprint.

It is a very disagreeable book by a very disagreeable man.

Will Volpe’s stewardship of the Met be remembered? No, there is little chance of that, because nothing of artistic importance happened at the Met the entire time he was in charge. The story of the Met during the Volpe era is that its prestige fell further and further behind that of its European peers, and that its place now ranks below such houses as Zurich and the Staatsoper Unter Den Linden, two houses that, fifteen years ago, offered the Met no artistic competition whatsoever. Hapless leadership generally does not produce a legacy.

However, Volpe is in no position to tell that part of the story, and opera lovers in New York, no doubt, are in no mood to hear it anyway.

On with the show.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Intriguing News From The World Of Music

Alan Gilbert has been named Lorin Maazel's successor at the New York Philharmonic, and Riccardo Chailly has (again) been identified as the chief candidate to assume the post of Music Director of the Chicago Symphony.

Today’s news from the world of music is quite intriguing, creating a lot of comment everywhere, including here in the office, where a lot of persons regularly attend Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concerts, and follow the orchestral world very closely, and serve on various boards.

The amazing thing is how tepid was the New York Philharmonic announcement. Could a more lukewarm endorsement of the orchestra’s chosen new conductor possibly have been conceived?

Acknowledging that Gilbert is “a risk”, announcing that he will conduct the orchestra for “only” twelve weeks a year, describing him as “a good musician”, and pointing out that one of his qualifications for the New York Philharmonic post was the fact that he became “acquainted” with the Boston Symphony while attending BSO concerts during his college days in Boston (along with many thousands of other students), constitutes the most feeble and unenthusiastic announcement of a major appointment I have ever seen.

If I were Alan Gilbert, I would sue.

At least the announcement was free of puffery—but did it not tend to go a little too far in the opposite direction?

The announcement tacitly acknowledged that the Philharmonic knew that it could not get anyone good, and that the orchestra was well aware that everyone else—from music critics to subscribers to casual concert-goers to the music-loving public—already knew that the Philharmonic could not get anyone good, and that there was no point in trying to dress up the announcement by pretending that the best person for the job had been hired, and that the orchestra, having been publicly turned down by every conductor of note, had simply settled upon someone who was willing to accept the job in order to end the search.

What an overwhelming display of graciousness on the part of the New York Philharmonic!

Happily, things in Chicago operate pursuant to a far different set of rules.

As reported today by John Von Rhein, America’s most knowledgeable and finest writer about orchestral matters, nationwide, the Chicago Symphony wants Riccardo Chailly--and the Chicago Symphony wants Riccardo Chailly very, very badly--and the orchestra is willing to do practically anything to get him, including waiting, for years, if necessary, for Chailly to become available.

This is consistent with what I have been told, by knowledgeable persons, for the last year. The sticking point will be: can Chailly be cajoled to come to America to work? Since Chailly flatly turned down the orchestras in Boston and Philadelphia in the late 1990’s, surely no one is getting his or her hopes up that the world’s finest conductor can be enticed to Chicago.

That said, my instinct tells me that Riccardo will accept the Chicago post. My father says the same thing, with one caveat: that Riccardo will accept the job, unless someone on the Chicago Symphony administrative staff gets up Riccardo’s nose during contract negotiations.

At least Chicago takes its orchestra seriously—and lets everyone know it.

The President of the Chicago Symphony stated, on the record, that Chicago had never entertained any fears whatsoever that New York would be able to grab a conductor that Chicago wanted.

Turns out she was right.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Two Birthdays To Celebrate

Joshua and I have been looking forward to a restful week and, this week, it has finally arrived.

We will play basketball tomorrow night, but otherwise we will stay home this week, catching up on things.

Next week will be somewhat busier for us—we will have my father’s birthday to celebrate, and we will help him celebrate by taking him and my mother to see “1776” at the Guthrie Theater, and we will further help him celebrate by taking him and my mother to hear Daniel Muller-Schott and the Minnesota Orchestra play the Dvorak Cello Concerto at Symphony Hall.

The following week is my mother’s birthday, and we will help her celebrate by taking her and my father to see “Private Lives” at the Guthrie Theater. The weekend after my mother’s birthday, my parents will fly to Denver to spend four days with my brother, and Joshua and I will have the dog to care for during that time.

Josh and I will enjoy this quiet interlude very much.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Americana, In Observance Of The Fourth

For the last month and more, Joshua and I have kept six discs in our disc player. We have been extremely busy, and not at home much, and we have not had many opportunities to listen to music over the last four, five or six weeks. Consequently, these discs have spent an unusually long time in our player. In fact, it seems like they have been in our player forever.

The discs all feature American music, in tribute to the Independence Day holiday, and we are still listening to these discs of American music even though July 4 has long since come and gone.

A disc of Americana, performed by the Eastman Rochester Orchestra under Howard Hanson, on the Mercury Living Presence label

“American Orchestral Music”, a two-disc set of orchestral compositions by Hanson, MacDowell, Rorem, Schuller, Schuman and Thomson, performed by various orchestras and conductors, on the Vox label

Piano Music of Samuel Barber, performed by John Browning, on the MusicMasters label

“American Anthem—From Ragtime To Art Song”, a disc of American songs, performed by Nathan Gunn and Kevin Murphy, on the EMI label

The Original Broadway Cast recording of “1776”, on the Sony Broadway label

The Mercury Living Presence disc includes performances of Douglas Moore’s “The Pageant Of P. T. Barnum”, John Alden Carpenter’s “Adventures In A Perambulator”, Burrill Phillips’ “Selections From McGuffey’s Reader” and Bernard Rogers’ “Once Upon A Time—Five Fairy Tales”.

This disc of Americana is disappointing. I had hoped that these orchestral compositions, all associated with children, might be tuneful, witty, descriptive, charming, and fun—“light” music in the best sense—but they are none of those things. All four works are colorless, uninteresting musical compositions, assembled from unremarkable diatonic material, capably but dully orchestrated. Josh and I have listened to this disc several times, waiting, in vain, for an interesting rhythmic event, for a pleasing melodic fragment, for a musical phrase wittily expressed, for a chromatic harmonic sequence. It is easy to understand why this music is never programmed—was it EVER programmed?—and why it has disappeared from view. The performances are good, and the recording is excellent, especially given its 1950’s vintage.

The Vox two-disc set, as a whole, is quite intriguing. It includes Edward MacDowell’s Suite No. 2 (“Indian”), Virgil Thomson’s “Louisiana Story” Suite, Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 6, Ned Rorem’s Symphony No. 3, Gunther Schuller’s Symphony 1965 and William Schuman’s Symphony No. 7.

The MacDowell, Thomson and Hanson works are performed by the Westphalian Symphony Orchestra under Siegfried Landau. The Rorem and Schuman symphonies are performed by the Utah Symphony Orchestra under Maurice Abravanel. The Schuller symphony is performed by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Donald Johanos (who died around the time we put these discs into our player).

The MacDowell and Thomson orchestral suites are attractive, even if in a faded sort of way. Josh and I had listened to the same Thomson work just a few months ago, in the superb performance on the Hyperion label, and Ronald Corp on the Hyperion disc emphasized the “white-key” harmonies of Thomson’s music much more than Siegfried Landau does on the Vox disc. Landau makes Thomson’s music sound more German-American than French-American, which robs the music of much of its individuality and interest. However, the performance is surprisingly pleasant, even if Landau seems to be searching for (and occasionally finding!) echoes of Max Steiner in the score.

For years, I have tried—very, very hard—to like the symphonies of William Schuman. I have devoted hours and hours getting to know the Symphony No. 3, and the Symphony No. 7, and the Symphony No. 8, and the Symphony No. 10, and the Symphony For Strings. There is a certain symphonic cohesion and strength in Schuman’s Symphony No. 3, but the rest of Schuman’s symphonic output leaves me unmoved, and unimpressed, and ultimately uninterested. Schuman had a capable command of musical materials and their manipulation, but his music lacks personality and character and individuality and expression—and, worst of all, commitment and passion. I believe that Schuman wrote music because it was something he COULD do—but it was not something he HAD to do. The performance of the Schuman Symphony No. 7 on the Vox disc is about as good a reading as it will ever receive—I think the performance is marvelous, beautifully played and beautifully conducted and beautifully recorded—and yet it remains a lifeless and dull work, despite the best possible advocacy.

The Schuller symphony is a tough nut to crack. It is a dissonant, serial score, typical of Schuller’s music from the mid-1960’s. I have listened to this disc many, many times, and it is still difficult for me to grasp what Schuller is trying to say and what Schuller is trying to express in this piece. His musical gestures strike me as a series of artificial and clumsy poses, assumed to impress a panel of academic adjudicators, and the musical language is needlessly complex. I have no dislike of serial music, and I love much of Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone work, and I love just about everything I have ever heard from the pen of Anton Webern, but Schuller’s twelve-tone music has always left me cold. I have no idea, in the case of this particular recording, whether the fault lies with the performers or with the composer. Perhaps Solti and Chicago could have brought this score to life, or perhaps Dohnanyi and Cleveland, too, but Johanos and Dallas seem to be straining to get as many notes as possible right, and nothing more. It is almost painful to listen to this score in this performance. Joshua hates it.

It is the Rorem and Hanson symphonies that make this set of discs truly worthwhile and distinctive. Both are exceptionally fine symphonies, if very conservative in idiom, and both should have entered the repertory by now. Audiences would enjoy hearing these works, I believe, and musicians surely would enjoy playing them.

The Rorem Third Symphony is his final published work in the genre. Written in 1958, near the end of his long stay in Paris, it is an unusual symphony. It is in five movements, it is beautifully and delicately orchestrated, and it is very “French” in tone: lucid, objective, understated, urbane, elegant and piquant. It is a very unique work, full of beauty, free of rhetoric, and it is the finest Rorem composition I have ever heard. Why does this man waste time writing songs, a field in which he has no skill (despite the efforts of many American writers to declare him America’s finest songwriter), when he is capable of writing orchestral works as fine as this? The Vox performance seems to me to be a very fine one, and it makes me want to run out and buy the much newer Naxos recording of this work as soon as possible.

The Hanson Sixth Symphony is also exceptionally fine. Written ten years after the Rorem, it, too, is an unusual symphony. It is in six movements--a contrasting sequence of andante movements and allegro movements, one after another--and it strikes me as the symphony in which Hanson finally broke free of the influence of Jean Sibelius. This symphony is not a typical Hanson symphony—inflated, Neo-Romantic, Neo-Nordic, full of Neo-Sibelian utterances. Instead, it is a very personal and distinctly American work, which seems to catch Hanson in an autumnal, Neo-Classical vein near the end of his composing life. The Vox performance seems to me to be just about perfect: cool and precise, with an avoidance of romanticism or excessive sentiment. Some time ago, I listened to this same composition in the Delos set of complete Hanson symphonies, with the Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz, and I recall being completely indifferent to this work while listening to the Delos discs. The Vox performance is much finer, and much better recorded, than the Delos performance. This symphony has fully attracted my notice. Why is this marvelous score never played? I think that the Sixth must be Hanson’s finest symphony.

The sound on these Vox discs is extremely fine. The original source material obviously was good, and Vox has done wonders cleaning up and expanding the 1960’s and 1970’s sound. These are virtually audiophile recordings in their compact disc incarnations, and I am surprised that this set never attracted much notice. It is an invaluable collection of American music, in what are, for all practical purposes, historical performances.

The disc of Barber piano music is not particularly rewarding.

Barber was an excellent composer, a master of form and content, and one of the finest composers America has ever produced. His music is sophisticated, learned, earnest and true. However, Barber lacked an individual voice—his music could have been written by anyone in possession of a similar level of talent—and this is the reason why Barber’s music is so seldom heard outside English-speaking countries. Barber was the Karl Goldmark of the 20th Century--a composer of the utmost skill, a composer of many excellent pieces in many different forms, and yet a composer devoid of a unique and instantly-identifiable voice, that certain “something” that tells the listener, in the first two bars, “Oh, yes, this is by composer such-and-such”.

John Browning was always considered to be the “definitive” Barber pianist, and this particular disc is considered to be one of the essential Barber recordings. However, this disc is not very good.

The best work on the disc, and surely the most famous, is the Piano Sonata. Some commentators still regard this work as the finest American piano sonata, which it very well may be. Nonetheless, it is not a very good work.

The influence of Prokofiev on the Piano Sonata is far too intrusive—although Browning downplays the Prokofiev influence much more than Vladimir Horowitz did in his famous recording of the work—and the melodic material is far too mundane. If the melodic invention matched the sonata’s mastery of form, this sonata would be heard constantly all over the world. As it is, this sonata is only pulled out of the trunk for an occasional airing by American pianists. Is it any wonder that Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels gave it a pass (along with newer generations of Russian pianists like Mikhail Pletnev and Evgeny Kissin)?

The Piano Sonata is coupled with Barber’s well-known Nocturne, and the Ballad, and the fanciful “Excursions”, and the Interlude No. 1 (“Adagio For Jeanne”). None of this music makes much of an impression. Even second-tier piano music by Karol Szymanowski is about one hundred times better than this thin stuff.

What a waste of our time!

The Nathan Gunn recital disc is destined to be a collector’s item, of sorts, in coming decades--but for all the wrong reasons. Issued almost a decade ago, “American Anthem” was Gunn’s debut recital disc. Understandably, no more recital discs have followed.

The song selection is a good one, although it is a little too predictable. Songs by Samuel Barber, William Bolcom, Aaron Copland, Lee Hoiby, Charles Ives and Ned Rorem all make an appearance, alongside a couple of traditional songs and a couple of standards.

Gunn misses the wit of the three Bolcom songs, without which these songs are not worth performing. The Ives songs are overstated and over-emphatic, the Rorem songs are under-characterized and wispy, and the Copland songs pass by without a trace of personality or expression.

The Barber songs, however, come to life, and Gunn offers a simple but effective rendering of “Sure On This Shining Night”, one of the very finest Barber songs. However, any American baritone seems to be able to make a success of “Sure On This Shining Night”, a song that practically sings itself.

What makes this disc unique--and surely makes it a mark for satire in coming years--is the selection of songs by Gene Scheer, surely the most inept songs ever written.

Are these songs for real?

That is the question Josh and I asked ourselves the first time we listened to the Scheer songs on this disc.

I have not heard such maladroit songwriting in my life. Scheer’s music does not display any musical training—if he received any, he should immediately ask for his money back—and it also does not display any musical talent. However, Scheer is hardly alone among American composers in that regard.

What make these songs surefire objects of derision are the lyrics, which send the listener howling for replacement lyrics by the likes of Stephen Sondheim and Cole Porter . . .or Oscar Hammerstein . . .or Irving Berlin . . .or, for that matter, Julia Ward Howe! Those writers, at least, believed in what they were writing, or knew how to mask any lack of conviction with craft, something I cannot say for Scheer.

I cannot, for a minute, believe that Scheer’s lyrics are honest representations of any human being’s thoughts and emotions. Scheer’s words seem to come from the world of radio jingles, as served up by locally-owned, low-budget radio stations. His lyrics are manufactured and trite: a series of plastic, unimaginative, jingoistic clichés strung together, clichés so stale and so counterfeit that I can only marvel that anyone would have the face to use them.

They are unbelievably hokey. I have not heard such hokum since my childhood days, when I participated in my elementary school’s Thanksgiving pageant, in which we second graders, portraying Pilgrims, were assigned lines--enabling us to communicate with the native “Indians”--that were dementedly corny.

The song that ends the disc is the real vomiter. It is named “American Anthem” and it is hard to believe that this song is not one giant put-on. The first time Josh and I played this disc, we looked at each other in utter disbelief while this song played. We thought that the song must be a total send-up of patriotic songs.

Alas, it is not. Josh and I played the song straight through, eleven consecutive times, in mounting amazement, as Gunn uttered its senseless, incoherent sentiments, set to a cheap, fake-noble musical line. How did Gunn possibly manage to sing such babbling foolishness without breaking out into guffaws and horse snorts?

“American Anthem” is surely the worst patriotic song ever written, at any time, at any place. It gave me an instant appreciation for the “Horst-Wessel-Lied”, an appreciation I had hoped never to acquire.

What kind of person could possibly respond to this song?

It is instant camp.

Gunn is an odd singer. He is not as talented as his immediate American baritone predecessors, Richard Stilwell and Thomas Hampson, both of whom were and are far more musical and far more intelligent and specific in their musical phrasing and treatment of text than Gunn. Unlike his two illustrious predecessors, Gunn has never enjoyed the major international career—a career filled with prestigious engagements, at the world’s most prestigious venues, singing major roles, and appearing in new productions, and working with the world’s very finest conductors and directors--that Stilwell enjoyed and Hampson still enjoys.

Gunn’s career has been almost exclusively a U.S. one. Even his calling-card role, the title role in “Billy Budd”, has only been seen and heard by American audiences (he will sing the role in concert next season at the Barbican, but he has never been engaged to sing the role at Covent Garden or at the Coliseum--or anywhere on the continent, where “Billy Budd” is Britten’s most popular opera and is now staged everywhere). Further, it is time for Gunn to drop this role, as he is getting a little long-in-the-tooth to play an innocent and guileless young boy.

In a career lasting a decade and a half, Gunn’s European engagements have been few and far between, and those at major venues may be literally counted on the fingers of one hand: Gunn sang the small role of the Harlequin in “Ariadne Auf Naxos” at Covent Garden a few years ago, and Prince Andrei in “War And Peace” at Opera Bastille two or three seasons ago, and he has appeared a couple of times at Glyndebourne, and he is currently singing in Aix-En-Provence’s summer festival. Those have been his only engagements at major European theaters.

In person, Gunn has a winning manner, and this helps him carry the day in live performance. In fact, his winning manner, and not his voice, has been the key to his career.

On a recording, however, sound is the only means a singer has to communicate, and Gunn is a vacant singer and a vacant musician. He has a pleasing but bland voice, and he does not know what to do with it, and he does not know what to do with the music so as to bring it to life. He is an insipid, flavorless, limited musician. He is “simply not a first-rate talent”, to borrow the words of a major conductor who once auditioned him.

Every time Josh and I have listened to “American Anthem”, I have kept asking myself, song after song after song, “I wonder whether Simon Keenlyside might be able to make this song work” or “I wonder whether Matthias Goerne might be able to make this song work” or “I wonder whether Bryn Terfel might be able to make this song work” or “I wonder whether Thomas Hampson might be able to make this song work”. Listeners never ask themselves such questions, when listening to a disc, unless the performances of song after song after song are total duds.

We chose the cast recording of “1776” because the Guthrie Theater is presenting the musical this summer, and we are considering attending one of the performances.

This is sort of an interesting disc, because “1776” is not especially typical Broadway musical fare. The story of the creation of the Declaration Of Independence is something one does not necessarily expect to see treated in musical-comedy fashion.

The score has three or four good, extended numbers, involving almost the entire cast, working in ensembles of shifting sizes, and these numbers advance the plot and display some skill in writing for the stage. They are the best portions of the score by far.

The solo numbers, however, are pretty faceless, and do not display much melodic gift nor much musical imagination. These waltzes, marches, gavottes and ballads pass by without making much of an impression upon the listener.

“!776” was composer Sherman Adams’ only Broadway score—he was a successful writer of pop songs—and he was a skillful but hardly inspired composer for the stage, writing unmemorable, all-purpose tunes that lack individuality and character. The orchestrations have a nice period feel.

At least on disc, some of the songs simply do not work, although they very well may work in the theater. The song about fallen soldiers, and the song about slavery, and the final impassioned outcry from John Adams, “Is Anybody There?”, all seem synthetic to me, hitting false note after false note after false note, until they positively made my blood curdle.

The cast album does not exactly make Josh and me eager to see the Guthrie Theater staging of this show.

A Visit From Josh's Family

Joshua and I had a wonderful visit with his family this weekend. Prior to the visit, we had had one fear: that Josh’s sister would not enjoy her visit to Minneapolis. As things turned out, however, Josh’s sister enjoyed her visit very, very much.

Josh’s family was waiting for us, in our apartment, when Josh and I arrived home from work on Thursday evening.

Despite the small size of our apartment, there was enough room—just!—for Josh’s family to be comfortable.

We gave everyone a nice dinner—baked steak and French-fried potatoes, and peas, and a corn soufflé, preceded by a very elaborate garden salad, and followed by a carrot cake Josh and I had baked and iced on Wednesday night—and we all spent the rest of the evening catching up and deciding what everyone wanted to see and do for the remainder of the weekend.

On Friday morning, Josh’s family came over early to eat breakfast with us—breakfast is my specialty, and there was no point in Josh’s family having to eat breakfast at the hotel, since Josh and I can prepare an excellent breakfast ourselves, at no cost—and afterward we all headed to Saint Paul.

In Saint Paul, we visited the Minnesota State Capitol and the Cathedral Of Saint Paul. When we were done visiting those venues, we ate a packed lunch in a park in Saint Paul (Josh and I had prepared for everyone both chicken salad sandwiches, and tuna salad sandwiches, and we had prepared celery and carrot sticks and radishes to eat with the sandwiches, and we took apples and pears and homemade peanut butter cookies with us, too). After lunch, we drove to Minneapolis to visit The Minneapolis Institute Of Arts.

The reason we visited The Minneapolis Institute Of Arts was because it was the one attraction in the Twin Cities that Josh’s mother most wanted to visit. On Thursday night, while we were discussing what to see and do, Josh’s father told us, immediately, that Josh and I would be required to escort Josh’s family through The Minneapolis Institute Of Arts, because it would give Josh’s mother more pleasure than anything else in town.

Josh and I had been delighted to hear this news. We had not planned to take Josh’s family to visit any of the local art museums, because we had assumed—incorrectly, as it turned out—that the local art museums would not be high on Josh’s family’s list of things to visit.

We decided to visit the museum on Friday, the first day, because the museum would likely be less crowded on a weekday than on the weekend.

At the museum, we started in the antiquities section, and we examined the entire collection of antiquities. Josh and I thought that Josh’s brother and sister might enjoy the antiquities most of all, and they did, very much.

From the antiquities section, we took Josh’s family through the painting collection, and we pointed out what are generally considered to be the most important paintings in the collection. We ended our examination of paintings at the year 1900, because none of Josh’s family members had an interest in seeing modern works.

Our final area of examination was Asian art, a specialty of the museum. We went through much of the Asian section, and I think Josh’s brother and sister enjoyed the Asian collection very much, too.

When we left the museum, we headed toward the baseball stadium, and we had an early dinner en route—at a Pizza Hut!

As we knew in advance, Josh’s mother and sister have no interest in baseball, but Josh’s mother and sister seemed to enjoy the game, primarily because Josh and I talked to them the entire time the game was going on. We talked about our life in Minneapolis, and our work, and Josh’s plans, and our forthcoming trip, and I think that Josh’s mother and sister ended up having a fine time at the ballpark.

After the game, we returned to our apartment, because it was still early, and we ate ice cream and cookies, and talked until it was time for Josh’s family to return to the hotel.

On Saturday morning, Josh’s family came over for breakfast again. After breakfast, we drove into downtown Minneapolis and we showed Josh’s family the primary buildings and landmarks. We had saved this visit for a weekend day, on the premise that traffic would be light.

Not only did we drive around much of downtown Minneapolis, but we also parked the car and did some walking around downtown Minneapolis, too.

We ate a packed lunch again, and we ate outside for a second consecutive day. Josh and I had prepared, again, two kinds of sandwiches for everyone: roast beef and Swiss cheese and cucumber on onion rolls, and ham and Swiss cheese and radish on potato rolls. For lunch, we also took with us an Amish pepper salad, and small bags of potato chips, and oranges.

After lunch, we visited the Science Museum Of Minnesota, which we thought Josh’s brother and sister would enjoy. Only Josh’s brother enjoyed the museum; his sister did not like the museum at all, as it turned out. However, we only spent a couple of hours in the museum, in order that it not become intolerable for Josh’s sister.

When we left the museum, we drove to The Mall Of America, which Josh’s sister especially wanted to visit. We spent HOURS at The Mall Of America, walking around, and visiting stores, and visiting other attractions. Everyone seemed to enjoy it immensely, although not a single one of us was actually visiting the mall for the purpose of shopping.

We visited department stores, and bookstores, and sporting goods stores, and toy stores, and gift stores, and we had a ball.

After everyone had had his or her fill of the mall, we went home to our apartment, where we had dinner.

Josh’s family had informed us, the first night, that the Guthrie Theater “1776” was of no interest whatsoever as a Saturday evening entertainment. Josh’s family had wanted to take Josh and me out to dinner on Saturday night instead, but Josh and I had refused the dinner invitation. For the duration of this fifteen-day baseball road trip, Minneapolis is the sole stop in which Josh’s family will be able to avoid restaurant food, and Josh and I had decided, before his family arrived, that it would be senseless and poor form on our part for his family to eat at restaurants during the visit.

For dinner, Josh and I prepared poached salmon and Fettuccini Alfredo and steamed broccoli, accompanied by an apple salad. We ate pineapple sherbet for dessert, and we sat around, talking, until late in the evening.

On Sunday morning, Josh’s family came over for breakfast again. Joshua and I gave everyone a big breakfast on Sunday, because we prepared not only cereal and fruit and eggs and bacon and potatoes and toast, but pancakes and sausages, too. Josh’s brother is a big pancake-eater, because he was able to eat both Josh and me, big pancake eaters ourselves, under the table.

After breakfast, we visited the campus of the University Of Minnesota. Josh’s parents wanted to see the campus very much, and they enjoyed the walk around.

We returned to our apartment for a light lunch—Josh and I made a tomato-and-cucumber salad, and beef tips and peppers and rice—and after lunch we drove around Edina for a while, showing Josh’s family places he and I regularly visit, until it was time to go over to my parents’ house.

We spent the rest of the day, and evening, visiting with my parents. I think that Josh’s brother and sister did not mind spending a few hours at my parents’ house, because they could kick back, and rest, and relax, and spread out, and watch television in the downstairs family room.

Josh’s brother and sister were also amused by my parents’ dog—they were truly amazed at some of the fetch games he knows, and how well he understands human speech, and how well he can follow instructions, and how playful and affectionate he can be, especially given how enormous he is.

My mother prepared a large dinner for everyone. She prepared a shrimp-and-pasta-and-vegetable starter course, followed by stuffed roast chickens, and mashed potatoes, and green beans, and sweet corn, and carrots, and a tomato salad, and a special fresh fruit salad. For dessert, she made a blackberry cobbler, and Josh and I made homemade ice cream.

Josh’s family enjoyed watching our dog’s Sunday chicken ritual, in which the dog gets a cooked and de-boned chicken for dinner every Sunday evening. We cool the cooked chicken, almost to room temperature, before we de-bone it, and we cut the meat into very tiny pieces before serving it to him. We do this so that it takes him a while to eat it, and so that he does not simply wolf it down in a few gulps and then beg at table. Once he is done eating his chicken, he generally jumps up on the daybed in the kitchen, and lies down, and half-snoozes, and half-watches everyone else eat. He knows, at the end of dinner, that he is going to get a bowl of table food, so he is generally good about allowing everyone else to eat in peace.

Josh’s family also enjoyed watching our family’s ice cream-making ritual, in which the dog guards the electric ice cream maker the entire time the ice cream cylinder is turning. He plants himself next to the machine--always placed on a rug in the middle of the kitchen floor--and he does not budge until the machine stops. He knows what is in the machine. He knows that he will get his fair share, but he guards it like he is afraid that someone will try to steal the ice cream. When the ice cream is done, he starts barking, and he continues to bark until he is given a bowlful, as if he is afraid that we will somehow forget to give HIM ice cream, too (not that we would ever be permitted to forget).

During the whole weekend, but especially on Saturday night and on Sunday afternoon and Sunday night, Joshua and his father talked a great deal about future plans. They talked about law school, and graduate school, and the relative merits of each. Josh’s father is obviously in favor of law school, but I think that Josh’s father has come to accept, more or less, the fact that Josh is not yet sure whether he truly wants to make the practice of law his full-time career for the next forty years. I also believe that Josh’s father has come to accept the fact that Josh is only twenty-three years old, and that time is not necessarily of the essence in making such an important decision. Josh is very smart, and I believe that Josh will make the decision that is best for him when the time is right, and I think that Josh’s father now believes this, too.

I am exceedingly glad that Josh’s family came to Minneapolis for a visit. It was important for his family, I believe, to see where Josh lives, and works, and spends his free time. It was also important for his family to see that Josh is settled in, and that he is comfortable, and well cared for, and that he has plenty of stimulation in his life, and plenty of support, and that he is happy and content.

I think that finding out these things was the true purpose of Josh’s family’s baseball road trip. A few baseball parks and a few baseball games were only a sideshow to the main event: ascertaining that Josh was happy and fulfilled in his new home up North.

This morning Josh’s family departed for Milwaukee. Before his family left Minneapolis, Josh went over to the hotel and ate breakfast there with his family. Josh said that his family—even his sister—was ever so glad to have come.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

An Important Visit

Tomorrow afternoon, Joshua's family will arrive in town.

Josh's family will go to the hotel first, and clean up, and then come to our apartment.

Our landlady will let Josh's family in, and Josh's family will be here when Josh and I get home from work tomorrow night.

We will give Josh's family a wonderful dinner tomorrow night, and we will find out what his family wants to see and do in Minneapolis.

We are looking forward very much to this first visit by Josh's family to Minneapolis. We will show his family the best possible time, because we do not want this visit to be the last!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

No Tolerance For Poor Behavior

My uncle returned to Oregon yesterday. My parents took him to the airport late yesterday morning for his flight home.

His stay was a long one—one day short of two weeks—and I hope that he did not get on my parents’ nerves too much.

He expected my mother to wait on him hand and foot, which always irks me greatly. Whenever he would ask my mother for something while I was around, I would always answer him myself and I would always take care of whatever he needed myself. My Dad would always thank me immediately afterward, but my uncle would never say “thank you”. Apparently those two words have been stricken from my uncle’s vocabulary.

He never mentioned, at least in my presence, why his wife had not accompanied him to Minnesota. However, I believe that there must be trouble on the home front.

My sister-in-law, the psychiatrist, said that my uncle clearly needed a break from his domestic situation, and that he had chosen us as his escape vehicle. Myself, I hope that that particular vehicle’s restart mechanism has now been deactivated.

My sister-in-law did not say anything, but I could tell that she did not like my uncle. My sister-in-law adores my father, and practically basks in his presence, but last week she kept a safe distance from my father whenever my father was sitting alongside my uncle. This told me everything I needed to know.

My sister-in-law would sit at the opposite, far end of the table from my uncle during mealtimes, and she would place her lawn chair as far away as possible from him when we were all sitting on the lawn.

A couple of times, my uncle tried to treat my sister-in-law like a servant, too, and he was favored with one of my sister-in-law’s stony “surely you’re not addressing ME in that manner” British glares.

Once, my uncle made the mistake of calling my sister-in-law “Sister” while asking her to get him a glass of iced tea. Her icy response: “I’m not Catholic, and I’m not a server”. No one moved a muscle until my uncle rose and got his own glass of iced tea. My sister-in-law has no tolerance for poor behavior, from anyone, under any circumstances.

My brothers did not pay much attention to my uncle after the first evening they were home, talking to him around the dining table the night of their arrival. Their interest in him was fully satisfied that first night, and from that point forward they did not have much to say to him other than pleasantries.

The result was that my uncle would direct most of his conversations to Joshua and me, and he would ask Josh and me all sorts of questions, on all sorts of topics, that we were not interested in discussing with him. Happily, my Dad would always come to the rescue, jumping in and changing the subject, or directing the conversation elsewhere, or pointedly telling my uncle that he should not bother Josh and me with all sorts of questions.

Sometimes, nonetheless, my uncle persisted in asking Josh and me questions, despite my father’s efforts to quell him and his questions. I adopted my stock answers for such noisome social situations—“I have no idea” and “I have no opinion”—and Josh would just smile, but say nothing.

This continued until Friday, when my mother said to my uncle, very quietly, “Peter, you need to leave these boys alone. They would never discuss such things outside the family. They would not find it to be fitting.”

This is the kind of thing that my mother NEVER says to ANYONE. Coming from her, those seemingly innocuous words were tantamount to a declaration of war. With those few words, my mother—among many, many other things—had informed my uncle that she did not view him as family.

My mother’s words ended my uncle’s annoying questions, permanently, and my uncle minded his P’s and Q’s from that point forward for the remainder of his visit.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Our Week At The Lake

Our week at the lake was wonderful, but it ended far too soon. It seemed like we had barely arrived at the lake when it was already time for us to pack up and come back home.

My nephew had the time of his life, I think. This was the first time in his entire life that he had played outside, on the grass, for any appreciable period of time (exactly a year ago, when we were at the lake, he was only eight months old). He loved it—he absolutely loved it.

Except when taking his nap, my nephew stayed outside all day. He would walk around on the grass and kneel down and touch it, and he would sit down on the grass and rub his hands over the grass, and he would lie down on the grass and roll around in it.

My nephew loved being outside, playing among the grass and the trees--it was a whole new, beautiful world for him.

He would often sit on the grass, and look up at the treetops, and watch the leaves blow in the wind, and watch the light filter down through the leaves, and he would move his arms and legs up and down in excitement, and smile, and make noises, and try to talk to us. When a breeze was blowing, he would face the wind in order to feel the wind against his face, and he would move his arms and legs up and down in excitement again, and smile like I have never seen him smile before.

I do not think I have ever seen him happier.

For every minute of every day, someone was assigned to be with my nephew so that he would not fall into the lake and so that he would not go into the woods.

Every hour on the hour, from 7:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m., a new watcher was assigned to him, and that watcher was required to be at his side, nonstop, for the full hour. Even when my nephew was inside the house, taking his afternoon nap, someone would be on watch in the next room.

In order that my nephew exhibit no interest in the lake, my brothers and Joshua and I avoided all contact with the water while my nephew was outside—we only went swimming while my nephew was inside the house, taking his afternoon nap—and we never took him down to the lake’s edge, even once.

In order that my nephew exhibit no interest in the woods, my brothers and Josh and I avoided all contact with the woods while my nephew was outside—we only took the dog walking in the woods while my nephew was in the house, having his morning bath—and we never took him to the wood’s edge, even once,

My nephew was not deprived of anything, however, because he loved being outside, playing with his toys on the grass, and playing with the dog on the grass, and playing with us on the grass.

We played a lot of lawn games this year, more than usual, I think, and this was in order that we could be near him, and he near us. We played a great deal of badminton, and a great deal of volleyball, and a great deal of croquet, and we did so because we could stay on the lawn, and in the shade, near him.

If we had played a lot of basketball, he would not have been able to be near us, because the basketball hoop is in the driveway, on asphalt, and not in the shade.

It was especially nice playing badminton and croquet, because our parents and my sister-in-law could join us for those games (but not for volleyball, which my brothers play for keeps).

My nephew liked it when we played croquet, because he would get in the middle of everything, and move the balls around, and kick them with his feet, and smile and laugh. He thought he was fully participating in our activity—and he was.

Every one of us would sit on the grass and play with him, and help him play with his toys, and talk to him while we played. My nephew loves being talked to, even though I am sure he does not understand much of what we say to him.

He understands, however, what we say to him about food, and about his toys, and about the dog, and about naptime, and about going to bed for the night.

My nephew continues to view the dog as his playmate and, unless he is being held, he expects the dog to stay with him at all times—and the dog views himself as my nephew’s keeper, and the dog stays next to my nephew most of the time, and licks him, and plays with his toys, and licks and chews on the toys, too.

When the dog would find something more interesting or more urgent to do—like watching us place food on one of the deck tables, or watching and barking at canoes passing on the lake—he would leave my nephew’s side, and my nephew would say “awk”, his word for the dog. This meant that he wanted the dog to come back to him.

My nephew did not object to my uncle’s presence. He did not pay much attention to my uncle for the first two days, and he did not want my uncle to hold him for the first two days, but by the third day he allowed my uncle to hold him and to play with him freely. My uncle enjoyed that immensely. I think that holding and playing with my nephew was the very high point of my uncle’s visit.

My nephew still had to be given special foods, because the rest of us were eating a lot of foods—fresh vegetables, grilled chicken—that he could not have digested.

For breakfast, he ate his baby cereal, and he drank milk, and he drank his baby orange juice. We also gave him fresh, crushed, sweetened strawberries for breakfast several mornings, and he liked those. The rest of the mornings he would have a banana. I also made him a pancake every other morning, because he does not eat eggs yet. He liked eating a pancake, with butter and maple syrup on it. On two mornings, I gave him a tiny amount of sausage with his pancake—ground sausage, not link sausage—and he liked it very much. (It is too soon to give him bacon yet, because he might choke on a bit of bacon fat.)

For lunch, he ate homemade soup every day (my mother had made the soups, in advance, just for him). He got chicken noodle soup, and tomato-cream soup, and vegetable soup made from a beef broth (there was no meat in the soup) and vegetable soup made from a tomato base. On days on which he had tomato-cream soup for lunch, he also was given a small grilled-cheese sandwich. He would also eat applesauce, or jellied cranberry sauce, or Jell-O, with bits of fruit in it, with his lunch.

For dinner, he was served boiled chicken most nights, and either mashed potatoes or macaroni-and-cheese, and either peas or lima beans, and either cubed and steamed carrots or whipped squash. He would also get fried red apples, or applesauce, or my mother’s special version of apple salad most nights.

On two nights, he got a special cooked steak, especially and finely ground just for him, which my mother had ordered from a butcher. He loved that. On one night, he got a serving of pork tenderloin, very tender, and cut into tiny pieces just for him. He loved that, too.

For dessert, he generally eats puddings—tapioca and chocolate puddings are his favorites—but he also likes ice cream and he also likes cake.

When he gets up from his nap every afternoon, he still likes eating warm poached peaches, or warm poached apricots, or warm poached pears. He got a small gingerbread man every afternoon with his fruit, too, which my mother had made just for him.

As for the rest of us, we ate lunch and dinner every day outside, on the deck. We ate tons of fresh vegetables—tomatoes, radishes, green onions, leaf lettuce, green beans, sweet corn, new carrots and new potatoes—supplied to us by a local farmer. We ate tons of fresh fruit—strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, apples, peaches and plums—supplied to us by the same farmer. We ate lots and lots of grilled chicken, but we also ate grilled steak, and grilled pork chops, and grilled tuna, and grilled salmon, and grilled hamburgers, and grilled hot dogs.

Except for preparing one of her many different and magnificent potato salads, which she did twice, my mother did not have to do anything, food-wise, because my brothers and Josh and I took care of everything for lunch and dinner. We washed and prepared the vegetables in the kitchen, and then we took them outside onto the deck. Some of the vegetables, like sweet corn, we cooked on the grill. We did all the grilling ourselves—not even our Dad or our sister-in-law helped. After eating, we took care of cleanup, too. This freed my mother from having to worry about feeding and cleaning up after nine people twice a day.

For dessert, most nights, we made homemade ice cream. We ate the ice cream with peaches, or strawberries, or raspberries, or blackberries.

There are only three bedrooms in the lake house, and my parents occupied one, and my uncle another, and my older brother and his family another. This left my middle brother and Josh and me assigned to sleeping quarters in the living room, where we bunked with the dog—just like poor, unwanted, second-class relatives.

My brother and Josh and I had the best of it, however, because the living room is situated nearest the lake, and we were the beneficiaries of fresh breezes every night off the lake.

We also rose first every morning, and put the living room into place, and got cleaned up, before anyone else rose for the day.

The first one to wake up, after us, was always my nephew, and we always took care of him early in the morning.

We would get him fixed up first thing, and we would get him his breakfast, and feed him, and play with him until everyone else rose for the day.

When everyone else got up, we would prepare breakfast for everyone. We always made a full breakfast--cereal, fruit (berries or melons), eggs, potatoes, bacon or sausage, toast and English muffins, and sometimes pancakes, too. Not everyone ate every item on the breakfast menu, but these items were there for those who wanted them.

It was a wonderful and restful week, and everyone enjoyed the week immensely.

As for my mother, she had a wonderful week, because she was able to spend the entire week with her entire family—and especially her grandson, and my two brothers, and my sister-in-law, whom she does not get to see nearly as much as she would like. She loved having everyone around all day, with absolutely nothing on the schedule, and with absolutely nothing to distract anyone’s attention.

She played croquet with us, and she played badminton with us, but otherwise she held and played with her grandson, and visited with everyone all day and all evening.

She did not have to bother herself with any food preparation--except that she insisted on preparing her grandson’s lunch and dinner meals, as well as feeding him--and she did not have to bother herself with any housekeeping. For her, it was a restful, and relaxing, and fulfilling time.

As for my father, he got to visit with my brothers, and my sister-in-law, and my uncle, and he got to hold and play with his grandson, and that was all he wanted from the week.

As for my sister-in-law, she was awarded with an entire—and surely welcome--week in which she did not have to devote her energies to childcare all day, each and every day. My nephew got all the attention he needed, and more, from everyone else, and my sister-in-law took advantage of this by taking a long nap every afternoon.

As for my uncle, he seemed to enjoy the week very much. He enjoyed talking with everyone, and he enjoyed everyone’s company, and he enjoyed the food, and he enjoyed my nephew. He took naps most afternoons, too, and he got plenty of rest.

As for the dog, he loved our week at the lake, which I knew he would. He loved being outside all day, and he loved having lots of people giving him attention and affection and playing games with him, and he loved eating grilled meat twice a day. This week must be his very favorite week of the whole year.

As for my brothers and Josh and me, we had lots and lots of fun. We played with my nephew, and we played with the dog, and we swam, and we played lawn games, and we walked in the woods, and at night we even played basketball a few times. We sat talking for hours and hours and hours at a time, among ourselves, and with our parents and my sister-in-law and my uncle. It was a wonderful week for us. All of us enjoy having this annual week at the lake, totally free from the pressures of work and daily life, and we seem to cherish this week together more each passing year.

Late yesterday afternoon, we packed up and we returned home. On our way home, my brother and Joshua and I stopped and picked up dinner for everyone (except my nephew) at a Chinese restaurant. None of us is particularly keen on Chinese food, but we picked up lots and lots of different things--Hunan chicken, and General Tso’s chicken, and Hunan pork, and sweet-and-sour pork, and beef with peppers, and shrimp-fried rice, and egg rolls--and we took the food home. There was something everyone liked, at least a little, and it was a quick and convenient and painless way to deal with dinner.

This morning, after breakfast, we went to church, and my brothers were able to visit with everyone there. After church, we went home and we had a serious lunch—a baked ham, served with all the trimmings, and a cherry cobbler for dessert. In the middle of the afternoon, we took my brothers and my older brother’s family to the airport for their flights home.

I always hate going to the airport at the end of a visit, and I always hate having to say “Good-Bye” to my brothers and to my sister-in-law and to my nephew. My parents hate these farewells even more than I do.

Most years, we all get together over Labor Day weekend, but we will not do so this year because my parents and my middle brother and Josh and I will embark for our London trip the Thursday night before Labor Day.

Happily, my parents will next see my middle brother early next month, when they will spend a long weekend with him in Denver. My parents do not know, however, when they will next see my older brother and his family. My parents may go to New York in October—but, if not, they will not see my older brother and his family again until Thanksgiving.

Josh and I will next see my middle brother on Thursday afternoon, August 30, when we will gather at MSP for our flight to London. Josh and I will not see my older brother and his family until Thanksgiving, unless we go to New York in October, too.

However, Josh and I will soon have another visit to celebrate.

On Thursday night, Josh’s family will arrive in Minneapolis for a visit. Josh’s family will be with us until the following Monday morning.

The trip has been scheduled around the baseball home schedules of the Royals, the Twins, the Brewers, the White Sox, the Cubs and the Cardinals. All but the Cardinals have lengthy home stands in the middle of July, and Josh’s family has scheduled the trip in order to visit as many ballparks as possible and to see one game at each ballpark.

Josh’s Mom and Dad and brother and sister will leave their home in Oklahoma on Wednesday morning, and drive to Kansas City, where they will spend their first night of the trip (but there is no Royals home game that night). The next day, from Kansas City, Josh’s family will drive to Minneapolis. His family should arrive around 4:00 p.m. on Thursday.

We are busy compiling a list of things for Josh’s family members to see and do while they are with us.

There is one fly in the ointment: Josh’s sister is an involuntary participant in this family baseball road trip. Josh’s sister does not like baseball, and she does not want to go on this family trip. However, her parents have refused her request to remain at home by herself. They are requiring her to accompany them, against her will.

I hope it does not turn into a bad situation. Josh says that his father and his brother should make the trip by themselves, and leave Josh’s mother and sister at home. Josh says that his mother dislikes baseball, too, and that his mother is joining the trip solely because she wants to come to Minneapolis and see Josh and me, and see where Josh lives, and works, and that this means that his sister must come, too.

Tonight, Josh and I spoke to his sister on the telephone, and we asked her what she especially wanted to see and do in Minneapolis. Her answer: “Nothing”.

Josh and I will have to make a special effort to make sure that his sister’s visit to Minneapolis is as enjoyable as possible. We are racking our brains, trying to come up with things to do that she will enjoy.

We will, of course, drive Josh’s family around downtown Minneapolis and show his family the primary buildings and landmarks. We also think that Josh’s family will enjoy a visit to the Science Museum Of Minnesota, and a visit to the zoo, and a visit to Saint Paul to see the Minnesota State Capitol and the Cathedral Of Saint Paul, modeled after Saint Peter’s in Rome.

Josh’s family may have an interest in visiting the campus of The University Of Minnesota and his family may also have an interest in visiting the Minnesota History Center, but we will only suggest taking his family to those attractions if we have an excess of free time on our hands and if we cannot think of something more interesting and more compelling to visit.

We are not confident that Josh’s family will find a visit to Fort Snelling or a visit to the Mill City Museum to be rewarding. We are also not confident that his family will have an interest in visiting The Minneapolis Institute Of Arts or The Walker Art Center or The Weisman Art Museum or The Minnesota Museum Of American Art. We will only suggest taking his family members to one or more of those attractions if they exhibit an interest in them.

Josh and I are sort of unsettled, trying to decide what will be equally interesting and pleasing to his father and brother, and to his mother and sister.

On Friday night, we will take Josh’s family to a Twins game. On Saturday night, if it interests Josh’s family, we will take his family to the Guthrie Theater to see “1776”. We are trying to come up with something interesting and pleasing to do on Sunday night.

There is one other fly in the ointment: Josh’s parents insist upon staying at an hotel while they are in Minneapolis, despite our insistent lobbying. Josh and I told his parents that they should stay with my parents, but Josh’s parents will not hear of it, even after we told them that my parents will be offended if my parents are not allowed to host them. As an alternative, we told Josh’s parents that they should stay in our apartment, and that Josh and I will stay at my parents’ house. They will not hear of this, either.

Josh’s parents are bound and determined to stay at an hotel, and there is nothing Josh and I can say or do to make them change their minds. Josh and I even threatened to sing selections from “Oklahoma”, nonstop, the entire time his family is in Minneapolis if his parents persist in staying at an hotel. Josh’s Dad’s response: “Thanks for letting us know. We’ll bring earplugs.”

When Josh’s family members leave us, they will head to Milwaukee for two nights, where they will see a Brewers game. From Milwaukee, they will go to Chicago for four nights. In Chicago, they will see a Cubs game and a White Sox game. From Chicago, they will go to Saint Louis for two nights, but there will be no home Cardinals game during their stay in Saint Louis. For their final two nights on the road, they will be back in Kansas City, where they will see a Royals game before heading home.

It will be nice to see Josh’s family again. Josh and I have not seen his parents and his brother and sister since March, when we visited his family in Oklahoma. My parents have not seen Josh’s family since May 2006, when we were all in Washington for our respective graduations.

Josh and I will be the best possible hosts, and show them the best possible time.

Meanwhile, we will pick up the songbook to “Oklahoma” tomorrow night.