Friday, April 25, 2008

Two Concerts . . . And An Awful Trek

Tomorrow night my father must make an unexpected trip to Taipei. Apparently there is trouble in the Taipei office—it sounds like someone’s going to get fired—and he and two colleagues must make a hastily-scheduled trip to the Far East.

The departure from MSP is late tomorrow night, and the flight will take 19 hours and 35 minutes, if the flights are on schedule, which will put my father and his colleagues into Taipei at 6:00 a.m. local time Monday morning.

It sounds like an awful trek, and at least I am pleased that my father and his colleagues will travel first class. Perhaps they will be able to get some rest in the first-class cabin during the trans-Pacific portion of the journey.

Tomorrow, Joshua and I will go over to my parents’ house to help my Mom get my Dad’s things ready for the trip, and we will help take him to the airport tomorrow night. He hopes to be able to arrive back home next Saturday, if everything goes as planned.

While my father is away, Josh and I will stay with my mother so she has some company as well as some help caring for the dog.

The dog is a high maintenance dog—he thrives on lots of attention from as many people as possible. Josh and I will be on hand to lend assistance, checking his homework and making sure he gets to soccer practice on time, as well as to his bassoon lessons, which are going remarkably well. (However, his bassoon reeds are costing my parents a fortune, because he goes through them at a frightening pace! Couldn’t he have picked a brass instrument?)

Tonight my mother came into town and we all ate an early dinner downtown and afterward attended a Minnesota Orchestra concert. It was a nice way to prepare my father for Taipei (a city he loathes) and to give him a send-off of sorts.

Neville Marriner was the conductor, and the program consisted of Elgar’s Violin Concerto and Brahms’s Fourth Symphony.

The Elgar did not work because the soloist, concertmistress Jorja Fleezanis, lacked the personality and virtuosity necessary for its grand rhetorical gestures. She also lacked the emotional depth necessary to convey fully its heart-breaking sadness. I love the Elgar Violin Concerto, but its demands require both a great virtuoso and a great musician. Fleezanis, capable as she is, is neither. Her performance was woefully reminiscent of a faculty recital. It was a major mistake for the orchestra to assign such a complicated, demanding work to her—she possessed not a single one of the work’s varied requirements.

Fleezanis is married to Michael Steinberg, former program annotator for the Boston Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony. Fleezanis and Steinberg used to live in Edina, but now they live in downtown Minneapolis.

It was good to hear the Brahms Fourth Symphony, even with Marriner on the podium. Marriner is not much of a Brahms conductor—he tends toward the swift and the light in Brahms—but the work is such perfection, one of the great masterpieces of the form, that the music cannot help but hold the listener’s attention, no matter the quality of the performance or the quality of the interpretation.

Brahms’s Fourth is one of my father’s very favorite pieces of music (and one of mine, too), and it was somehow fitting that he could hear a live performance of the work the evening before embarking on a long and painful business trip.

On Wednesday night, Josh and I and my parents went to Saint Paul to hear baritone Bryn Terfel in recital. Malcolm Martineau was the pianist.

Terfel has a voice of the greatest beauty and richness and power. He probably has the finest baritone instrument before the public today.

I’m not convinced that the quality of Terfel’s artistry matches the quality of his voice, but he nonetheless is an important artist.

The program was a peculiar one. It was filled with English songs, none of which were of high quality.

The first half of the recital was devoted to four songs by John Ireland, one song by Peter Warlock, three songs by Frederick Keel, two songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and four songs by Roger Quilter. These numbers all veered far too close to “ditty” territory, and hearing fourteen of them in a row was a real chore. I cannot imagine who or what convinced Terfel that these numbers were worthy of export beyond the British Isles, especially in large quantity.

The second half of the recital consisted of one Handel aria, one Mozart concert aria, four Schubert lieder, three Faure chansons, and six more British songs, in this case traditional Celtic songs (which genuinely were ditties, and pretty awful ones at that).

Perhaps Terfel felt that he had to “sell” the British songs to an American audience, because he hammed it up no end in the British numbers. He was so over-the-top—alternately cooing and roaring, rolling his r’s to a ridiculous degree, making faces—that I wanted to run up on stage and slap him.

The Handel, Mozart, Schubert and Faure, in contrast, were completely under-characterized. Terfel was too strait-laced in these items, as if he feared bringing too much musicianship or too much personality to genuine masterworks.

It was a bizarre recital, all in all. Nothing really worked. Terfel clearly needs to work with a coach to fine-tune his recital repertory, to work on his presentation, and to amend his platform manner, but I suspect that Terfel is not prone to take advice or direction from anyone anymore.

Josh and my parents hated the recital even more than I did. While Terfel was cooing and roaring, Josh and I my parents were groaning. While Terfel was rolling his r’s, Josh and my parents were rolling their eyes. While Terfel was making faces, Josh and my parents were making faces, too: grimaces.

I have always thought that one of Terfel’s problems is that he is not particularly intelligent. God gave him perhaps the best baritone voice of the last hundred years, but at the same time God short-changed him noticeably in the intelligence department.

Every time I listen to Terfel, on record or off, I always feel like I am listening to a voice without a brain behind it. Terfel possesses a certain general level of musicianship, to be sure, but there is nothing individual or penetrating about his work. Behind the beautiful voice, there is . . .vacancy.

Every time I hear Terfel, I say to myself, “This is the voice Hans Hotter should have been granted.”


  1. Andrew:

    According to the March 2004 issue of the "Amphisbaena Whisperer" the principal oboist of the Volksoper in Kehl, Germany, Wolf Wunderhund, if I remember correctly, had the same problem with his ready-made oboe reeds. They were terribly expensive, and he was going through them, chewing up maybe twenty - thirty a day! The only advantange he had over your situtation was the fact that he could simply drive the four kilometers over the Rhine river to buy new ones.

    The article said that owing to a physical "handicap" - the same handicap which, presumably, prevented him from making his own reeds - Wunderhund was unable to drive a car, a predicament which turned out to be delightful for him because he could always just walk the distance. This he did daily, you see, always accompanied by the Volksoper director, Meister, who followed him all the way a short distance behind. Wunderhund didn't mind this trek to Strasbourg; in fact, he absolutely rellished it! The walk was in fact the most important thing he looked forward to in his entire life, even more than practicing or performing in the opera pit. You see, Andrew, the walk allowed him to be alble to mark his most precious, precious territory.

    The article also mentioned that the music supply store in Strasbourg owned an American outlet in, of all places, downtown Minneapolis - right next to Symphony Hall! Can you believe it! That means that you don't have to order those expensive high-quality reeds all the way from France.

    When I retrieved that copy of the Ampohisbaena Whisperer and read about the American outlet I started to cry.

    Is there any precious territory between your parents' house and Symphony Hall?


  2. Dane:

    Despite its editorial policy—it always seems unable to decide in which direction it wants to go—I have been a long-time subscriber to the “Amphisbaena Whisperer”. In fact, I drop everything and read it cover to cover the very minute it arrives.

    I have never visited the Kehl-Strausbourg area. A few years back, I was planning a trip to the area to hear Hans Pfitzner’s rarely-performed opera, “Der Arme Heinrich”. However, as you no doubt recall, a widely-reported gong catastrophe—involving Mr. Wunderhund—closed the Kehl house for several months, and I was forced to cancel my trip.

    I had planned to take Rex with me—his ancestors, after all, are from the Alsace-Lorraine—but we elected to stay home that summer, not wanting to hazard the disruptions of yet another potential percussion accident.

    Is Mr. Wunderhund still playing in the orchestra of the Kehl Volksoper? I seem to recall reading somewhere that he was forced into early retirement, a result of his extreme sensitivity—and even odder reaction—to high pitches.

    It is too early to tell, I believe, whether Rex has the talent to follow in Mr. Wunderhund’s many footsteps—and we certainly don’t want to lead Rex down a path in which he will misbehave or get hopelessly lost.

    This is why we don’t take him with us to Orchestra Hall. He gets carried away among crowds, and he has difficulty sitting still for long periods of time. Even more troubling, he yawns, loudly and often, and at the most inappropriate and inopportune times.

    Because of these considerations, we simply have not allowed him to make his mark yet in Orchestra Hall.


  3. Andrew:

    Believe it or not, I had an inkling that Malcolm Martineau was to accompany Mr. Terfel in his Minnesota recital.

    That is all.

    Taipei is a beautiful place.

    We almost went there. We went to Japan and Singapore instead.

    Enjoy your weekend, spoiling the dog with love and affection.


  4. J.R.:

    I have never been to Taipei. In fact, I have never been to Asia.

    My father has been to Taipei many times, and my mother accompanied him to Taipei once, many years ago. They both hate the place.

    One of my best friends from law school is from Taipei. He came to the U.S. to go to college, and he never returned to Taipei. He met his wife here, who is also from Taipei, and she never returned to Taipei, either. Both of them hate Taipei for some reason, but I cannot tell you why.

    Enjoy your weekend.


  5. I guess, it only looks good on postcards and books and such.

    Nevertheless, I hope your Dad enjoys his stay.


  6. Thank you, J.R., for your kind wishes.

    All I know about Taipei is that it is supposed to be sort of grim, with not much for Westerners to do.

    I am told that Seoul is much the same.

  7. The best thing about Singapore was that it was spotless, at least when we were there in 2000.

    I have an itch to go to China.

    But with the Summer Olympics to be held there, I guess, we'll just have to wait until next time.

    I could just imagine the hordes of tourists flocking to Beijing.

  8. I would like to visit China some day, and Japan, and Thailand.

    It's just so doggone far!

  9. Andrew:

    I haven't heard any news about Herr Wunderhund. Yes, that gong affair was ghastly, wasn't it? A letter to the editor of the "Amphisbaena Whisperer" in about 2006, if I recall, related another, albeit minor, accident in Kehl. The Volksoper Orchestra occasionally performs concerts on the stage in a rather miserable shell. During the coda of the adagio of the Bruckner 6th Symphony, Herr Wunderhund was playing a most exquisite solo when he dropped his instrument too quickly. The bell of his oboe struck his subomphalosian "sensitive" area, and he was layed protrate. The letter said that he recovered in time to perform in the Volksoper production of Heinrich Paliashvili's "Collared is Bowser," one of Herr Wunderhund's favorite operas.(Alas, this German-Georgian composer is never heard in the U.S.) I imagine that Rex does not have to worry, owing to the cosiderable dimentions of the bassoon.

    I also look forward to each issue of the "Amphisbaena Whisperer." The choice of this particular name was telling. You are right of course that the amphisbaena takes its name from the mythical serpent with two heads on each end of its body. But are you familiar with the curious worm-lizard found copiously in the Dominican Republic, well known to any herpetologist working in the West Indies? More to the anatomic and therefore metaphoric point, this creature has a mouth that is indistiguishable from its anus.



  10. Of course, I mean "considerable" "dimensions."


  11. And that's "laid", not "layed." I'm having a bad day. Or maybe I'm suffering from symptoms of prostrate cancer.


  12. Was "Der Arme Heinrich" composed about the same time as Franz Schmidt's "Fredigundis"? I heard the latter in Vienna some time back. It's wonderful. It's a crime that works like this, together with Schmidt's "Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln" are not programmed in the States.


  13. Pfitzner’s “Der Arme Heinrich” premiered in 1894, shortly after it was written. Schmidt’s “Fredigundis” premiered in 1922, shortly after it was written.

    Thank heaven for google!

    I am largely unfamiliar with Schmidt’s work. I know a few works, and a few works only, all from recordings: the Fourth Symphony (Mehta and Welser-Most), the Second Symphony (Neeme Jarvi) and Variations On A Hussar’s Song (Welser-Most). I have never heard “The Book Of Seven Seals”.

    When you heard “Fredigundis”, it was in concert in Vienna in 1979. That 1979 concert presentation under Maerzendorfer was the sole performance of the work in the last several decades.

    Again, thank heaven for google!

    I am diffident about Schmidt’s music, largely because of my own ignorance, no doubt.

    I believe, however, that Pfitzner was a genius, and I am entirely serious when I say this. Every Pfitzner work I have heard was, I thought, profound.

  14. The year 1979 is about right. The performance was not staged; the orchestra was the Vienna Symphony, not the Philharmonic, but I may be mistaken about this. This was almost 30 years ago!

    Franz Pfitzner: I am familiar with "Palestrina" (fantastic), the Violin Concerto Nr. 2, which I am fortunate to have heard live in 1984 with Dohnanyi and Edith Peinemann. Gorgeous! The slow movement of the Concerto is something to behold. There is actually little written for the soloist in this movement. When Peinemann was asked what she did with herself during that movement, she said, "I listen."

    I cannot remember this composer being programmed in any U.S. concert house since 1984. But I could be wrong.



  15. Hans, not Franz. I give up! For all its worth, I also believe HANS Pfitzner was a genius.

    I highly recommend, by the way, the EMI recording of "The Book of the Seven Seals" with Welser-Moest.


  16. That particular Schmidt recording is a two-disc set, and those two-disc sets often scare me!

    They require twice the time, twice the money and twice the devotion to get to know an unknown work--and commensurate rewards are not always there at the end of the project.

  17. I understand, Andrew. I have been burnt myself after many such blind plunges: Maw's "Odyssee" and Khachaturian's "Gayne," so hideously played by the "Moscow Radio Orchestra-Symphony" (!) and so badly edited that I couldn't listen more than once, come immediately to mind.

    I would feel awful if you bought something on my recommendation, and it turned out that you hated it.

    If your local classical music radio station carries air-checks from the annual Wiener Festspiel, you might hear the Schmidt sometimes. Vienna probably is still the best source.

    That said . . . Herr Wunderhund would have bought it!


  18. I might borrow the Schmidt from the library sometime. I am sure the local library can obtain a copy through inter-library loan if it does not have its own copy.

    I remember reading about "The Book Of The Seven Seals" when the EMI recording was first released. For some reason, the work did not sound like it would appeal to me.

    Sometime I will definitely give the work a serious listen.

  19. Andrew:

    I realized today that I could have made a rude, or at least uncouth, comment while elaborating upon that titular animal of the “Amphisbaena Whisperer.” Whatever the case, I was certainly insensitive, and I apologize.

    The Walton / Previn / Telarc disc finally arrived. I like it even more than the Rattle. I wonder how that one got by me?


  20. Dane:

    Well, I certainly hope you enjoy that disc--and I hope you got it cheap!

    Previn did some good work on disc during his very brief tenure with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

    He did a couple of fine Elgar discs for Philips, and a Tippett "Child Of Our Time" and Walton "Belshazzar's Feast" for some small independent label, and a few Telarc discs of quality.

    For instance, his Telarc Brahms Fourth with the RPO is not bad, nor is his Tchaikovsky Fifth.

    I think, however, that that particular Walton disc is the best of his Telarc RPO recordings.



  21. Because my mother likes French music, we have been listening to French music the last several days.

    One of the discs we have been listening to is Gounod's Saint Cecilia Mass, in the Pretre recording.

    That is the only recording of the work we have.

    Are you famiiiar with Igor Markevitch's recording of the work with the Czech Philharmonic on DGG? I have never heard it, and I am slightly curious.

    It is possible that it has never been issued on CD.

  22. Going back to Previn, my father says that he heard one absolutely great performance from Previn, a conductor he generally does not hold in the very highest admiration.

    It was with the RPO on its only U.S. tour with Previn in the late 1980's, and the work was the Elgar Symphony No. 1.

    My father says that the performance was a revelation, somewhat slow in tempo but seething with passion. He says that the audience was chilled.

    The Previn Philips recording of that same work, whether made just before or just after that American tour, is good, but apparently nowhere near as fine as that live performance my father heard. My father says that the performance was worthy of Barbirolli.

    I love the Elgar First, and my favorite recording of it is the Barbirolli on EMI, the recording from 1962 or 1963 with the Philharmonia Orchestra, not one of the Halle versions from the 1950's (which many others prefer). No other recorded Elgar First matches up, at least in my view.

  23. Andrew:

    I have both the Pretre and the Hartmann. I haven't heard the Markevitch. I had purchased the Hartmann first because the disc was filled-out with the Petite Symphonie, and I thought it was the better value. The Pretre, however, is definitely the better one. How I love this music.

    I also love the Elgar First. For a long time I preferred the E-flat, until I found the Barbirolli First that you mentioned. Boy, is this First Symphony conductor-dependent, isn't it! The Second Symphony seems more “self-rising,” able to survive even the least sensitive baton. I admired, but didn’t really LOVE the First until that Barbirolli.

    By the way, have you heard the Payne / Elgar Third? I know people who adore this score. While I think most of the thematic material is fine Elgar (the first movement exposition, for instance), the work doesn’t hold together for me; and I have to fight the tendency to fall asleep. It sounds like ghostly Elgar. Am I wrong?

    I still want to acquire your Father’s favorite Walton First, the RCA.

    Previn is an enigma to me. Some things he recorded with the London Symphony were great (I like the Shoshtakovitch Eighth), while others bored me. It seems the moment he took over the Pittsburgh Symphony his talent, fitful though it was, began to decline. Maybe that's why I ignored his Walton First, I don't know.

    Hope you enjoy the weekend with your brother and mom . . . and Josh . . . and Rex.


  24. Dane, I have heard Payne's attempt at "completing" the Elgar Third, and it is painful.

    I have the Naxos disc, under Paul Daniel, if I recall correctly. I have never heard the Colin Davis or Andrew Davis recordings.

    I have not heard the disc in over five years. As I recall, there are about three interesting minutes in the second movement, and about five interesting minutes in the fourth movement. The rest was a total mess, I thought.

    Elgar's sketches are nowhere near sufficient to allow someone to attempt to "realize" the work. They allow someone to write a "Fantasia On Elgar" using a few scribbled themes, and nothing more.

    The only reason the attempt to "complete" the score was ever made was because the copyright was about to expire, and the Elgar Estate believed that it was better to select a "known quantity" to "complete" the work rather than to allow any hack to attempt to do so once the sketches entered the public domain.

    The end result was disgraceful.

    I would have left well enough alone.


  25. Yes, it was the Naxos - the premier disc, I believe - that I owned. I've written "owned" because I'm afraid I tossed it long ago. You, Andrew, are the only person I know who felt the way I did. That's why I asked if I was wrong. After all, "Sr Colin recorded it!" After all, "the Chicago Symphony performed it!"

    (I heard the air-check of the CSO performance in the late 90's and at the end the audience exploded in cheers. I couldn't help but think about the Emperor's New Clothes.)


  26. No one I know has liked the Payne completion of the Elgar Third.

    Myself, I have been dumbounded whenever I have read British articles describing the piece in the most glowing terms.

    I think the completion is rot.