Sunday, February 10, 2008


Joshua and I had a nice weekend.

Saturday was our big day, as we attended a basketball game Saturday afternoon and a recital Saturday night.

Josh and I took my Dad to the Minnesota/Iowa game Saturday afternoon, and it was good to see the Gophers win one at home after three consecutive home losses, all of which we attended. We were starting to think that we were jinxing the Golden Gophers with our presence in Williams Arena.

Saturday night, Josh and I took my Mom and Dad to Saint Paul to hear a recital by Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk.

The recital was sort of disappointing. I have never been very impressed with Joshua Bell, and this is probably because he is a throwback to the early-20th-Century style of violin playing: his style of play is very romantic and, to my taste, a bit schmaltzy. He also “emotes” to an extreme degree, making all sorts of facial gestures and facial contortions to demonstrate to audience members that he is “feeling” the music. I find these facial gestures and contortions off-putting, if not irritating, especially since the emotions he is telegraphing to the audience are not necessarily duplicated in his playing, which often is simply not very interesting.

The program was an odd one. The recital began with Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata. Violinists must love to play this piece, but it is not a very gratifying piece of music for audiences.

Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 1 ended the first half of the recital, and it was in this work that Bell’s overtly-romantic approach most negated the composer. There was too little bite in the playing, too little sarcasm, too little point, too little fire, too little resignation, to make the work come alive. In fact, in Bell’s hands the sonata did not even sound like Prokofiev—it sounded like a strange melding of Cesar Franck and Serge Rachmaninoff.

The second half of the recital began with Dvorak’s Four Romantic Pieces For Violin And Piano, and this was probably the most successful item on the program, because it was best suited to Bell’s style of playing. These are charming pieces, but not necessarily great pieces, and I thought that Bell was OK—but he would have been even more successful had he demonstrated some “toughness” in his playing to go along with the all-purpose “dreaminess” he has patented and which he is so fond of displaying at every opportunity.

The concert ended with Saint-Saens Sonata No. 1 For Violin And Piano. This is a brilliant piece, and Bell played it very, very well. However, there was no Gallic flavor to the performance, and for this shortcoming much of the blame must be shared with the pianist, Jeremy Denk, whose part is equally important in this work. Denk’s playing in the Saint-Saens was Germanic, lacking grace, lightness, elegance and flair, and it sounded out of place.

Denk is an odd pianist. He is really not much of a virtuoso, at least not in the sense of a Kissin or a Pletnev, and he is really not much of a “serious” pianist, either, although that is how he cultivates his public image. Neither fish nor fowl, he has, understandably, had trouble building a career, especially outside the United States, and he will probably end up teaching at a university.

A little more than three months ago, we had all attended a recital by Jonathan Biss, another American pianist who lacks the highest degree of virtuosity and who also is not destined to become a “serious” pianist.

Since the emergence of Stephen Kovacevich and Murray Perahia in the early 1970’s, no American pianist of note has appeared on the international scene. Why is America not producing pianists of the highest quality? Joshua attempted to answer this question on his blog on October 28. I have no thoughts on the matter.

My father does have thoughts on the matter. Simply put, he says that American music instructors, for whatever reason, are able to identify students with talent but are unable to identify which talented students possess great reserves of intellect and personality, the two qualities without which no pianist can sustain a major long-term career.

Today, my parents’ dog demonstrated great reserves of intellect and personality. All afternoon and evening, he had four adult human beings waiting on him hand and foot, constantly playing with him and giving him lots of attention and affection—and a nonstop assortment of treats. He played us all like the great virtuoso he is. We were mere tools in his paws.

He’s good!

Alas, next weekend, the dog will be without us, because we are going to New York to spend the long weekend with my older brother and his family. The dog will be staying with a friend from church during our absence, and we will miss him very much while we are gone. However, he will be very well cared for by a very generous and gracious lady who loves him very much. Since she lives alone, she values his companionship a few times a year—and he is a very, very good companion.

It works out well for both of them.


  1. Your father's analysis of the situation described, Andrew, is absolutely correct. This, together with his prophecy concerning the music of Allan Pettersson, convinces me of your father's uncommon and formidable eridition. How fortunate, indeed, are you to have grown up under his roof!

    I agree with you on Mr. Bell. He's a crashing bore. I believe his teacher, Joseph Gingold, was quite aware of this young man's difficiencies as a soloist in the world market.


  2. Hey, Dane.

    How are you?

    No, I had no idea that Joseph Gingold believed Joshua Bell to be unready for a public career before Bell was sent out into the world.

    Bell, I think, is a little bit weird. Did not he end his studies before the age of 20? Did not he move out of the family home at the age of 16, and begin living on his own, right there in his hometown of Bloomington? Something strange was going on, it always appeared to me. I remember reading somewhere about money conflicts between Bell and his mother, among other things.

    One thing that worries me about Bell is that his repertory is so very small. He plays the same handful of pieces over and over and over, whether in his appearances with orchestras or in his recitals, and this has been true for years. He should be expanding his repertory at his time of life, not resting upon the same handful of works.

    Bell made a mistake in abandoning Decca in favor of Sony. Decca was doing good work for him, I believe, and yet Bell was unhappy with Decca’s marketing efforts, which always seemed to me to be first-class.

    His Sony career has been a bust. I never bothered to buy his Gershwin or Bernstein discs, which struck me as pure commercial efforts, blatant attempts to popularize him. I DID, to my regret, buy the Nicholas Maw disc. I listened to that disc at least a dozen times, trying to figure out whether there was something there I was missing, before deciding that Maw’s Violin Concerto was simply a turkey of a piece. (After the Maw recording was made, by the way, Bell never played the work again.)

    You know, there are many, many American musicians with huge careers here that do not enjoy major international careers. It’s a veritable laundry list of major American figures. Among violinists alone, it includes Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn, Itzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham and Pinchas Zukerman. Many American music-lovers have no idea that so many of our most popular and beloved musicians have careers that are almost exclusively American.

    Bell appears here in the Twin Cities quite often, and he is very popular here. He is an “Associate Artist” of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and he leads the orchestra for two or three weeks each year. The orchestra likes having him here, because he sells tickets. However, the players are not impressed with his conducting skills, which are rudimentary, if even that. I have never bothered to go hear him lead the orchestra—I simply do not find him to be all that interesting.

    By the way, on Saturday night, Bell only played two brief encores, despite the fact that the program was such a short one. Before the recital, I had assumed, incorrectly, that the program was deliberately brief in order to allow time for numerous encores.

    My Dad is a very special guy. He’s one in a million. When they made him, they threw away the mold. My mother, and my brothers and I, are very, very lucky.

    All the best to you.


  3. I'm glad you couldn't make sense Maw's violin concerto. I never even bothered to buy it because I could never figure out this composer's symphony --- the behemoth recorded by Rattle a number of years before. I must have listened to THAT about a dozen times before concluding that there was something wrong with me. After all, Rattle and EMI promoted the dickens out of the release, proclaming it to be an earth-shattering, modern masterpiece. Guess what? I never heard of that work EVER being programed anywhere in Europe or the U.S.. I may be mistaken, but I don't think Rattle ever conducted it again, in Berlin or elsewhere.


    P.S, forgive that "eridition" (erUdition).

  4. Dane, I know the Maw work you are talking about: “Odysseus”, or something like that?

    I have never heard it, in concert or on disc. I never bothered to buy the discs, and neither did my father. Often a two-disc set will make me pause and wonder whether I genuinely want to spend such a significant amount of time getting to know such a lengthy work. Because of that, I took a pass on that two-disc Maw work, and I am glad I did.

    The Maw Violin Concerto is really, really bad. The themes are dreary, and go nowhere—they meander and meander and meander, and never reach a destination. Maw did not develop his material at all well, and all four movements sound exactly alike: four long andante-sounding movements (even the so-called scherzo sounds like an andante movement) that all fail to reach a climax or some kind of culmination, with a thick, gray orchestration that palls after about the first fifteen bars. It is 48 minutes of agony.

    I listened to the work so many times because I had assumed, wrongly, that one needed to get the “themes” into one’s blood before the work would hold together and start to make sense. After twelve listens, I realized that it was the themes and their developments that were deficient, not me.

    For what it’s worth, I had my Dad listen to the disc. He listened to it twice, and he said that it was as inept a work as he had ever encountered.

    The booklet notes were hysterical, just about the funniest booklet notes I have ever read. The booklet notes, which—like the music—went on forever, made all sorts of preposterous claims, including the assertion that the Maw Violin Concerto was as important a contribution to the genre as the Brahms Violin Concerto!

    The author of the notes, understandably, was a friend of Maw’s.

  5. Andrew, your description of the violin concerto recalls my exact impression of "Odysseus." (I had actually forgotten the title, and I no longer own the cd's: I remembered how I had tossed the acursed discs into a conveniently posited dumpster). "Meander," "thick and gray" are equally appropriate. Originally I thought the title was supposed to reflect Maw's conscious intentions in that work; but since the concerto is written in the same "style," I wonder if EMI big wigs chose to title the work after finally hearing the monstrosity.
    In any case, I was not as smart as you and your father. Sometimes my zeal to hear something new gets the better of me.

    Oh well; listen, Andrew, once again, I wish happy times for you this weekend. Come back safe and sound.


  6. Dane, I'm not smart in the least. I devoted twelve hours of my life to the Maw Violin Concerto, twelve hours of my life I will never get back!

  7. That Maw CD stinks. I bought it when it was new, listened to it twice and gave it away. A dog.

  8. Okay, Andrew, I'm dumber than you: I lost 18 hours of my life.


  9. Dane, perhaps it is time to initiate class-action legal proceedings against Nicholas Maw, requiring him to reimburse class members who wasted countless hours listening to his worthless music!

    May I point out that Maw, as a resident of the U.S., is amenable to suit here?

  10. Excellent idea, Andrew, excellent. But is there a legal precedent? I'm no lawyer, but other than the notorious 1978 case, PEOPLE OF EARTH VS. THE PORTSMITH SINFONIA, do we really have a chance of winning?


  11. Excellent idea, Andrew, excellent. But is there a legal precedent? I'm no lawyer, but apart from the notorious 1978 case, PEOPLE OF EARTH VS THE PORTSMOUTH SINFONIA, can we really win this thing?


  12. Andrew, you write so very well about music. Your writing is so precise and you always go right to the heart of the matter. I am always floored when I read you, which is why I keep coming back.

    I got that Maw CD from Columbia House when it was new. I think I listened to it three times, then halfway through a fourth.

    I gave it to a colleague at the hospital. I didn't think there was anything there. He didn't think so, either.

    The only other Maw piece I know is Life Studies, a work for strings written three decades ago. I have a CD of Life Studies. It has been recorded twice. I have the first recording (ASMF/Marriner). It is too long but OK, not anywhere near as bad as that violin concerto.

    Have you heard Sophie's Choice, the opera? It seems to have attracted a wide range of opinion, praised to the skies by some and thrown under the bus by others.

    Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think a Maw piece has ever been played here in Cleveland. If it was, it made no impression on me and I instantly forgot it.


  13. Andrew, I just went back and read your original post.

    Interesting that the comments here evolved into a discussion of Maw, who is not even mentioned in your original post.

  14. Dane:

    I don't know whether we might win, but we might be able to extract a settlement!


  15. Robert:

    I have not heard "Sophie's Choice".

    Maw does not strike me as a natural composer for the theater.

    I do not believe that Covent Garden has revived the work since its premiere.

    I believe that Maw trimmed and revised the score for its American premiere in Washington.

    I do not know whether the American reviews were good or bad. I was not sufficiently interested to bother to look them up.