Thursday, January 31, 2008

Slightly Under The Weather

Joshua and I have been very, very busy at work this week. It has been a long week for both of us, a week made longer by the fact that both of us have been suffering from a mild version of a flu bug of some kind. We very much look forward to the weekend, and the opportunity to catch some rest.

The only thing we have scheduled for the weekend is Sunday afternoon’s basketball game between Minnesota and Wisconsin at Williams Arena. Josh and I and my Dad have tickets for that game, which has a scheduled tip-off of 1:00 p.m.

Minnesota/Wisconsin is a rivalry game, and the match-up should be a good one. The Big Ten has three top-ten teams this year—Indiana, Michigan State and Wisconsin—and Minnesota already has lost close games at home to Indiana and Michigan State. This will be the last chance for the Golden Gophers to upset a top-ten team at home this year.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Handel-Beethoven-Mendelssohn-Bruckner-Ligeti, With Recycled Gershwin

For the last couple of weeks and more, Joshua and I have kept the following six discs in our disc player. They have provided us with lots of pleasure and stimulation when we have been at home.

Handel’s “Ode For Saint Cecilia’s Day”, performed by Jill Gomez, Robert Tear, the Choir Of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and the English Chamber Orchestra under Philip Ledger, on the ASV label

Beethoven Piano Sonatas, performed by Emil Gilels, on the Deutsche Grammophon label

Mendelssohn String Quartets, performed by the Aurora Quartet, on the Naxos label

Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5, performed by the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph Dohnanyi, on the Decca label

Music of Gyorgy Ligeti, performed by Marie Luise Neunecker, Jacques Zoon, Heinz Holliger, the ASKO Ensemble and the Schoenberg Ensemble under Reinbert De Leeuw, on the Teldec label

The Original Broadway Cast Recording of “Crazy For You”, on the Angel label

Many Handel scholars view “Ode For Saint Cecilia’s Day”—written not long after “Israel In Egypt”, perhaps Handel’s single greatest work—as prime Handel. I have never understood why the work is held in such high regard. Handel’s melodic invention in this 45-minute setting of John Dryden is uninspired, at least in comparison to “Israel In Egypt” and “Solomon”, and the work’s lack of overt drama, inherent in the text, precludes Handel from using his talents as a story-teller. “Ode For Saint Cecilia’s Day” has always been practically my least favorite Handel work, and I wanted to listen to it again to see what I had been missing during my previous exposures to the work.

After another half-dozen listens, I still dislike this work. To me, it remains uninspiring, and often dull. “Ode For Saint Cecilia’s Day” is one of those Handel works that listeners must wish that Bach had written instead. Bach was a far greater composer than Handel, and far more skilled at setting a contemplative text, such as the Dryden, to music. Bach would have invested the score with greater richness and depth, and a wider range of expression, and more variety of musical form than Handel manages.

Somewhere I read that Handel was recovering from a serious illness while writing the Dryden Ode. This would account for its lack of genuine Handelian inspiration. However, perhaps only a great performance can fully reveal the merits of the work.

The Ledger recording is certainly not a great performance. The performance does not move. Ledger does not do much with Handel’s rhythms. The performance is too dry, too inexpressive, too academic. During the entire 45 minutes of the work’s duration, I kept waiting for something to happen to give the performance some semblance of life, and it never occurred. This is a very disappointing disc.

The Choir Of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, performs at its customary high standard. The playing of the English Chamber Orchestra is clean and neat. Gomez and Tear do not make much of an impression, positively or negatively, although I admire their work on other discs and have never questioned their artistry.

Ledger is the artist who lets this recording down. Ledger was an effective conductor of shorter choral pieces, such as anthems, motets, and chorales. In larger-scale works, however, I believe he must have lacked the skills necessary to keep a larger-scale work moving, in focus, and directed toward its final conclusion. Neither individual, minute-by-minute detail is interesting in his work here nor is there any indication that Ledger has the sweep of the work within his grasp. The listener has no sense that Ledger is in command of the work’s overall structure or its individual components. This recording is a loss all the way around.

Joshua hated “Ode For Saint Cecilia’s Day”. He thought it was one of the least interesting pieces of music he had ever encountered.

Josh, however, adored the Beethoven disc. The particular Beethoven disc we chose is one of my favorite Emil Gilels discs, taken from his Deutsche Grammophon Beethoven cycle, almost complete at the time of his death in 1985. The disc we chose contains the Sonatas Nos. 21, 23 and 26, the “Waldstein”, the “Appassionata” and the “Les Adieux” Sonatas, respectively.

I love middle-period Beethoven, and I especially love middle-period Beethoven piano sonatas. The “Waldstein” and “Les Adieux” are two of my favorite Beethoven piano sonatas, along with the “Tempest”.

This disc contains the finest “Waldstein” I have ever heard, along with one of the two or three finest “Les Adieux” performances I have ever encountered. The “Appassionata” is not quite on the same exalted level, but it is still pretty fine.

Gilels was a great Beethoven pianist, at least for those who respond to “objective” Beethoven, as opposed to those seeking a more individual, “personalized” approach. I have always preferred Gilels in Beethoven to Sviatoslav Richter. Gilels is saner, not so prone to extreme flights of fancy, and more strictly observant of classical proportion and classical restraint when playing Beethoven than was his great compatriot.

Gilels is also warmer than many other “objective” Beethoven pianists, such as Maurizio Pollini and Murray Perahia, and technically superior to such great Beethoven interpreters from the past as Wilhelm Kempff and Wilhelm Backhaus, both of whom, in the final analysis, lacked Gilels’ stunning bravura. I admire Kempff and Backhaus in Beethoven enormously, but I also often sense in Kempff or Backhaus performances that their efforts were hampered by the fact that their virtuosity did not always suffice to realize fully their musical visions.

With Gilels, this is not a consideration. One never worries that he will smudge his runs, or be unable to handle rapid passagework, or lack the keyboard power and control necessary to perform Beethoven’s most dramatic and rhetorical pages and to summon from the instrument the sound he desires.

Gilels is well nigh a perfect Beethoven pianist, with just the right ingredients of virtuosity and intellect to bring these works fully to life. I wish I could have heard him in person.

My father heard Gilels once. He said it was the finest piano recital he ever attended.

My father was never especially a Gilels fan—my father has always worshipped at the altar of Wilhelm Kempff—but my father was dumbstruck when he heard Gilels in person. The program was not a flashy one—it was difficult, but not a program laid out solely to demonstrate Gilels’ blinding virtuosity (which Gilels possessed in abundance)—and it was not even a familiar one. The first half of the program was made up of lesser-played works by Schubert and Schumann. The second half of the program consisted of Scriabin and Ravel.

My father says that Gilels’ Schubert and Schumann were subtle but magical, and that Gilels produced a sound that was both brilliant and extremely warm (using a New York, not a Hamburg Steinway, no less). My father says that he almost left the recital at intermission, because he did not want to lose the sense of wonder he had experienced hearing the Schubert and Schumann. He was torn between not wanting the special magic to end, and wanting to hear Gilels continue to play.

It was fortunate that my father returned for the second half of the recital, because apparently Gilels’ Scriabin and Ravel were to die for. The audience was so rapt, listening to Gilels play half a dozen Scriabin pieces, that it did not even applaud during or at the conclusion of the Scriabin set. The audience held its breath after the Scriabin works, so Gilels simply began playing Ravel’s “Pavane For A Dead Princess”. At the conclusion of Ravel’s “Pavane”, the audience still was too enraptured to applaud, so Gilels immediately launched into “Alborado Del Gracioso”. Gilels blew the lid off the roof during the performance—it was a performance of such frightening intensity and control that it quite literally stunned the audience.

It was not until thirty seconds after the conclusion of the latter Ravel composition that Gilels finally stood, and only then did the audience erupt in an astonishing ovation, finally releasing the pent-up admiration, if not awe, that had been building the previous forty minutes.

My father said that Gilels did not play any encores that night. At the recital’s conclusion, Gilels merely stood motionless in the center of the stage, accepting the audience’s applause in a restrained, almost stiff manner, acknowledging the overwhelming reception with very slight smiles and the slightest of nods to the audience. Finally, after fifteen minutes of barely moving a muscle while looking out upon the crowd, Gilels placed his hand against his heart to show that he was moved, and he left the stage. According to my father, it was unforgettable.

On the Deutsche Grammophon disc, the sound Gilels draws from the piano is very warm and very rich, but also astonishingly clear. My father says that this is just how Gilels sounded in person, and that Deutsche Grammophon somehow succeeded in capturing Gilels’ unique sound. This is remarkable not only because the piano is notoriously difficult to record in a truthful and pleasing perspective, but also because this recording was taped at sessions in Moscow.

I wish I knew the Deutsche Grammophon secret to recording the piano. No other label has ever been able to record the piano in a satisfactory manner, but Deutsche Grammophon has done wonders with the stable of great pianists who have graced its label over the last half century: Kempff, Gilels, Michelangeli, Pollini all have been recorded with the greatest of care, their sound captured fully and accurately. Other labels must mike their pianists too closely, or record them in unsatisfactory acoustics, or record them with the wrong microphones. On the basis of pure sound, Deutsche Grammophon piano recordings from the 1960’s and 1970’s have never been surpassed.

Naxos recordings are not known for their excellent sound quality. Naxos recordings are known because they are cheap.

That must be the reason why I picked up the Naxos disc of Mendelssohn String Quartets some time ago. Aside from its low cost, there can be no other reason why anyone would possibly want to acquire this disc.

The disc contains three quartets: an unnumbered Quartet In E Flat from Mendelssohn’s youth, Quartet No. 1 In E Flat and Quartet No. 4 In E Minor.

The unnumbered quartet was written when Mendelssohn was only 14 years old. By the time he composed this work, Mendelssohn had already completed his twelve string symphonies. However, the youthful assurance of those glorious works does not appear in this early quartet effort. This is one of the least interesting Mendelssohn works I have ever heard. It is skilled, pleasant, and little more.

The Quartet No. 1 in the same key, from six years later, is a much finer work. It demonstrates, however, that Mendelssohn had not yet quite mastered the string quartet medium. The level of expression is “Beethoven Light” (Mendelssohn had studied the Beethoven quartets extensively) and the music is impersonal. There is in the music the unmistakable impression that Mendelssohn was going through the motions, not genuinely connecting with his material.

All of these shortcomings are things of the past by the time Mendelssohn, eight years later, began writing his set of Opus 44 Quartets, of which Number 4 is part. The Quartet No. 4 is a masterpiece of the genre, a fitting successor to Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. It is as good a quartet as any ever written. Its form is masterful, its invention astonishing, its range of emotion wide, its command of the idiom complete

Mendelssohn’s string quartets are now securely in the active international repertory, but these works were virtually ignored for well over a century after they were written. Only in the early 1970’s did these quartets begin to be performed with some frequency, in large part owing to the advocacy of The Melos Quartet, whose recordings of these works are now generally credited with bringing these works back into the repertory. Today the Mendelssohn quartets are performed everywhere, and recorded by every quartet, and it is difficult for music lovers to comprehend that these remarkable scores had been lying dormant, sitting on dusty library shelves, for so many decades.

I think The Melos Quartet recordings of the Mendelssohn quartets are still the best means available for music lovers to learn to love these works. The Naxos recording, with the Aurora Quartet, most assuredly is not a preferred way to learn to appreciate these works. “Workmanlike” is the most generous description I can offer for these performances. They seem to emanate from a pickup ensemble, or from a part-time university group. The performances bear no relationship to performances offered by a master chamber ensemble that has worked together for years, plumbing the depths of the most profound works of the chamber literature.

The Aurora Quartet in question bears no relation to the current Aurora Quartet, a local quartet headquartered in the Twin Cities. The Aurora Quartet on the Naxos disc was a West Coast ensemble whose members came from the San Francisco Symphony. The old Aurora Quartet disbanded some time ago.

The Cleveland/Dohnanyi recording of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 is, I have always believed, the finest recording Dohnanyi made in Cleveland. It is taken from Dohnanyi’s almost-complete Bruckner cycle, lacking only recordings of Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2.

During his eighteen seasons in Cleveland, Dohnanyi recorded practically everything that was suitable for his talents, as well as music not suitable for his talents. The general perception among musicians is that Cleveland was under-recorded during the Dohnanyi years, but this perception is not accurate. The perception is founded, not upon the factual record, but upon the negligible impact Dohnanyi’s recordings made upon the musical public.

For the Decca, Erato, Nonesuch and Telarc labels, Dohnanyi recorded all or most symphonies (and much other music) by Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak, Bruckner and Mahler. He recorded Mozart. He recorded the first two operas of Wagner’s “Ring”. He recorded Busoni and Richard Strauss. He recorded Schoenberg and Berg and Webern. He recorded Berlioz and Ravel, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, Janacek and Bartok and Martinu and Lutoslawski, and Edgard Varese and Charles Ives and John Adams. There was little he did not touch.

And yet the constant flow of Dohnanyi recordings from Cleveland made practically no impact upon the record-buying public, in the U.S. or in Europe. The best-selling Cleveland/Dohnanyi discs were the very first releases, the final three symphonies of Antonin Dvorak, recorded before Dohnanyi had even officially assumed his Cleveland position. Sales-wise, it was all down hill from there. After the first five years or so of releases, Cleveland/Dohnanyi recordings seldom lasted in the catalog, often withdrawn within a year of release.

Cleveland/Dohnanyi recordings simply could not be given away. Music lovers must have bought a few of the early Cleveland/Dohnanyi discs, and undoubtedly must have appreciated the magnificent level of playing of the orchestra and the state-of-the-art sound engineering. However, music lovers must also have been disappointed that the performances were so uninteresting, totally devoid of character and personality and drama. Music lovers stopped acquiring Cleveland/Dohnanyi discs very early in that partnership, and almost all of the Cleveland/Dohnanyi discs were withdrawn from the active catalog years and years ago.

The Bruckner Fifth recording, from 1991, is one of the few Cleveland/Dohnanyi recordings that brings the music fully to life. There is an electricity in this performance, from the opening measures, that is unprecedented in a Cleveland/Dohnanyi recording. Not only does Dohnanyi hold the listener’s interest, he actually heightens it as the performance progresses.

The final movement is the stunner. Dohnanyi builds excitement from the first bar. When he arrives at the great fugue, Dohnanyi is literally on fire, and so is the orchestra. Not only is this the best-played fugue on disc, it is also the most exciting and the most satisfying. From the fugue’s entrance, the performance generates an overwhelming momentum and intensity that leave scorch marks all the way to the symphony’s conclusion. The final five minutes of this recording are nothing so much as one giant frisson.

I have not heard every single recording of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 ever issued, and I do not plan to, but this recording is the finest of those I have heard by a wide margin.

I HAVE heard every single Cleveland/Dohnanyi recording issued, however, and this is the finest of those recordings by far. Better than any other disc, it represents the legacy of Dohnanyi’s work with that extraordinary orchestra, at its highest level of inspiration and accomplishment.

Josh loved the final movement of Bruckner’s Fifth, and he played it over and over. In fact, Josh decided that it was more interesting to dispense with the first three movements altogether, and to proceed directly to the symphony’s finale. I can understand that.

As a general rule, Josh hates Bruckner. Josh only likes one Bruckner work wholeheartedly, and that is Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8, which he knows from the legendary 1987 Herbert Von Karajan recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, one of the very, very greatest recordings ever made. That particular disc holds a very special place in our hearts for personal reasons. Other than that Bruckner disc, however, Josh can take or leave Bruckner. We chose to listen to the Symphony No. 5 solely in order to allow Josh to get to know another Bruckner work in a very fine recording.

The Decca recording uses the Leopold Novak 1951 edition of the score.

The Ligeti disc is Volume 4 of Teldec’s Ligeti retrospective, picked up from Sony after the composer, disgusted with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s performances and recordings of his works, served notice to Sony that he would stop approving further releases of his compositions on that label until Salonen was replaced by a better conductor. This effectively forced the Ligeti project to switch labels, since Sony was committed to the project with Salonen, and Salonen alone.

Teldec stepped into the breach, happily, and the project proceeded to completion under more satisfactory conductors, with a total of thirteen volumes eventually released, all totaled, between the two labels, representing virtually the entirety of Ligeti’s oeuvre.

This disc contains the Hamburg Concerto, the Ramifications For Twelve Solo Strings and the Double Concerto For Flute, Oboe And Orchestra. (The disc also includes the Ligeti Requiem, but Josh and I only listened to the three purely orchestral works on the disc, skipping the Requiem completely. I had heard this disc many times before, and the recording of the Requiem, taken from a live performance under different artists, offers a distinctly sub-par performance—and a very poorly recorded one to boot.)

This is one of the prime Ligeti discs in the catalog, containing magnificent recordings of three of Ligeti’s finest and most appealing works.

The Hamburg Concerto is Ligeti’s final masterpiece. Its full title is “Hamburg Concerto For Horn, Chamber Orchestra And Four Obbligato Natural Horns” and it was written for Marie Luise Neunecker, the extraordinary horn virtuoso who is a native of Hamburg, the same city in which Ligeti settled after his escape from behind the Iron Curtain. Written in 1998, the Hamburg Concerto was revised by the composer in 2002, and it is the revised version, with seven movements, that is heard on this recording.

The Hamburg Concerto is a beautiful, strange and bewitching work. Its seven vignettes, almost miniatures, are intriguing and novel, evoking a wide range of sounds and moods and emotions. Ligeti plays the solo horn off the instrumental ensemble and the four obbligato horns very imaginatively. In this recording, it is very easy for the listener to distinguish between the solo horn and the four obbligato horns, which signifies that the composer has done his work exceptionally well—and that the sound engineers have done their work exceptionally well, too.

I am in awe of Neunecker’s playing on this recording. She, too, plays a natural horn, without valves, which makes it almost impossible for the player to find the pitches called for in the score. Somehow Neunecker does so, establishing beyond any doubt that she is not a mere mortal like the rest of us. It is incomprehensible, perhaps shameful, that every major American orchestra has not engaged her to introduce this beautiful work to American audiences.

Ramifications For Twelve Solo Strings, from 1969, is one of the few Ligeti compositions that IS given an occasional airing in the United States. Josh and I heard the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra present a magnificent performance of this work a year ago, and we were captivated by the work and by the performance. We were pleased to hear this work again on disc.

In Ramifications, the twelve strings are divided into two groups of six, tuned a quarter-tone apart. This gives the music an appealing other-worldly flavor, and makes for fascinating listening. This performance is a satisfactory one, but it is not nearly as good as the excellent performance we heard Roberto Abbado lead in Saint Paul last year. Abbado’s performance was more virtuosic, and more concentrated, and more expressive, than Reinbert De Leeuw’s performance on the Teldec disc. Further, the string players of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra played rings around the string players on the Teldec disc, drawn from the ASKO Ensemble and the Schoenberg Ensemble.

The Double Concerto For Flute, Oboe And Orchestra, from 1972, also relies upon microtones. It is one of Ligeti’s most successful and most immediately-appealing works, probably because the different timbres of the oboe and flute add to the mysterious and original sound world Ligeti created. The Double Concerto is a magnificent piece, and Josh and I played it over and over and over. It has a freshness and a joyousness and an impishness and an emotional resonance that are entirely atypical of most works of the 1960’s avant garde (to which this work belongs, if not by date, then by attitude). I think Jacques Zoon and Heinz Holliger are just about perfect in this recording.

Enterprising American orchestras should program these three works as the opening half of an orchestra concert. They would make an unforgettable impact upon an audience. The work for a small body of strings would be a perfect concert opener. The concertante work for flute and oboe, richer and with a wider spectrum of orchestral sounds, would be a logical successor to the string work. The concertante work for horn, richer still, would be an ebullient way to conclude half of a concert devoted to Ligeti’s unique sound world. Would not these three works, by a prominent Hungarian modernist composer from the second half of the Twentieth Century, be an ideal complement to a performance of Bartok’s Concerto For Orchestra, an established masterpiece by a prominent Hungarian modernist composer from the first half of the Twentieth Century?

I have never seen the musical, “Crazy For You”, and neither has Josh. The reason Josh and I decided to listen to the original cast album for “Crazy For You” was because, in November, we had listened to the complete original Gershwin musical, “Lady, Be Good”, part of the Nonesuch Gershwin series using original orchestrations (and, where necessary, reconstructions faithful to the original style). We thought it would be fun, for contrast, to hear one of the modern musicals that have been assembled from different Gershwin scores, re-orchestrated and performed according to the current Broadway style.

“Crazy For You”, which opened on Broadway in 1992, was loosely based upon the original Gershwin musical, “Girl Crazy”. It uses only five numbers from “Girl Crazy”, however, adding to them numerous other Gershwin numbers borrowed from other Gershwin shows and films.

As a listening experience for those who have never seen the show, the cast album succeeds, I think. The performances have lots of energy, and the modern arrangements do not destroy the material, or alter it beyond recognition. The disc provides enjoyable listening, and listeners may more or less follow the development of the story without burying their heads in the booklet’s plot synopsis.

Since Gershwin’s day, the way in which his stage music is performed has changed. Ballads and love songs are sung much more slowly today than during the composer’s lifetime, and up-tempo numbers are performed much more quickly today than in the 1920’s or 1930’s. To some extent, this sentimentalizes the ballads, and robs them of the emotional toughness that is written into the material. This also alters the tone and effect of the up-tempo numbers, replacing snap and √©lan and breeziness with commotion and breathlessness.

Of course, orchestrations have changed significantly since Gershwin’s day, too. The original orchestrations for “Lady, Be Good” came directly from the world of European operetta, and had more in common with the realm of Franz Lehar than the realm of Frank Loesser. The modern orchestrations on the “Crazy For You” disc, in comparison, are pure 1990’s show biz, and not particularly imaginative even by that standard.

It is, however, practically impossible to destroy a Gershwin number, unless the number was no good to begin with (and Gershwin, like all songwriters, wrote his share of duds). I do not think that Gershwin was America’s greatest songwriter—I believe that Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers, at their best, were even finer than Gershwin—but good Gershwin numbers invariably “work”. Gershwin puts almost all other songwriters in the shade, even the King Of Tin Pan Alley, Irving Berlin, whose songs, in comparison to Gershwin’s, are unimaginative and foursquare, if not outright churchy.

My parents attended a performance of “Crazy For You” a year or so into its New York run, and they said it was an enjoyable if not especially distinguished or memorable show. I echo that sentiment in assessing the “Crazy For You” original cast recording: the disc is enjoyable, if not especially distinguished or memorable.

It provided us with a fun listening experience, but the “Crazy For You” disc does not make me want to run out and see the show.

It was, however, a nice, sparkling exclamation point to wind up our primary listening sequence of Handel-Beethoven-Mendelssohn-Bruckner-Ligeti.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

A Frigid Reception

Joshua and I are giving Paul a warm welcome to Minneapolis.

It is now midnight on Friday night, and it is ten degrees below zero.

Saturday’s high temperature is expected to be one degree below zero, with an anticipated low of thirteen degrees below zero.

Sunday’s high temperature is expected to be zero degrees Fahrenheit, with a low of eight degrees below zero.

On Monday, the high temperature is predicted to be four degrees.

We sure know how to give an out-of-town visitor a warm welcome.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Christoph Eschenbach

The rumor about Christoph Eschenbach taking over the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington is very, very intriguing.

Eschenbach is a very weird conductor, but the National Symphony is a very weird orchestra. After thirty years of Mstislav Rostropovich and Leonard Slatkin, the National Symphony needs to hire a conductor steeped in the Central European repertory and tradition. The National Symphony also needs a conductor capable of raising the standards of ensemble and musicianship. Eschenbach raised standards across the board in Houston, and I believe he might be able to do the same thing in Washington. A National Symphony/Eschenbach partnership just might work. I hope the rumor becomes fact.

One caution I have is that I doubt that Eschenbach and Michael Kaiser could get along. Both are strong-willed individuals, and I cannot see Eschenbach subjecting himself to Kaiser’s authority.

Kaiser is head of the Kennedy Center. Shortly after his arrival at the Kennedy Center, Kaiser insisted upon the Kennedy Center taking effective control over the National Symphony. The National Symphony’s finances are now subsumed under the Kennedy Center’s, and its artistic planning is now under Kennedy Center control. Kaiser’s authority is so extensive that he even influences the orchestra’s programming and the guest conductors that the orchestra engages.

Will Eschenbach subject himself to Kaiser’s meddling? That question, I suspect, will be the overriding issue in Eschenbach’s decision whether to take on the National Symphony.

Eschenbach was elbowed aside in Philadelphia and Paris and now has no orchestra to call his own. Eschenbach wants and needs his own orchestra, because he is not an especially effective guest conductor. He is a very individual artist and, for him to impose his personal musical vision upon a group of musicians, he needs to work with that ensemble on a long-term basis.

I always thought it was ironic that, several years ago, Christoph Eschenbach wanted the Cleveland Orchestra above all, and Franz Welser-Most wanted the Philadelphia Orchestra above all. Instead, Welser-Most got Cleveland and Eschenbach got Philadelphia.

For Eschenbach, things did not work out. Eschenbach simply and clearly was not suited for Philadelphia. While I was an undergrad and while I was in law school, I heard Eschenbach conduct Philadelphia several times, and there was unmistakably a tug of war going on between him and the musicians. There was no point in trying to salvage a partnership that was so doomed from the start. The Philadelphia Orchestra Board Of Trustees, and not Eschenbach and not the musicians, is the entity at fault for hiring a conductor so unsuited for the Philadelphia Orchestra in the first place.

With the right orchestra, Eschenbach can do interesting work. He might be just the candidate to shape the National Symphony into an admirable ensemble.

I hope Eschenbach takes the Washington job. He might revitalize the National Symphony, and bring back the musical public to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

The Heart Of The Big Ten Season

Tonight Joshua and I will take my Dad to see the Golden Gophers play the Indiana Hoosiers. We are looking forward to the game very much.

Both teams are having good seasons, and it should be an excellent game. Williams Arena, old and decrepit, is a wonderful venue for college basketball, one of the best in the nation.

When I was a kid, I always loved going to Williams Arena to see the Golden Gophers. For years, I went with my Dad and both of my brothers to the games. After my older brother went away to college, I went to the games with my Dad and my middle brother. After both of my brothers were in college, I went to the games with my Dad alone.

The first season my Dad and I went to the games by ourselves was the 1996-1997 season, the miraculous season that saw the Golden Gophers win the Big Ten Championship and make their only Final Four appearance in the modern era. That was a thrilling season for my Dad and me, and I shall never forget it. I was sixteen years old at the time, and I lived and breathed Minnesota basketball that season.

The Minnesota program has not enjoyed comparable success since that 1996-1997 season, and I hope that Tubby Smith restores the Gophers to the glory years that occurred, with some frequency, in the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s.

We have an additional reason to enjoy tonight’s game. The Indiana coach, Kelvin Sampson, coached the Oklahoma Sooners until two years ago. Sampson was the major coach of Josh’s growing-up years, and Josh looks forward to seeing Sampson again. It should be a fun night out for all of us.

This coming weekend, Josh and I will have a houseguest: one of my former law school classmates and roommates. Taking advantage of the three-day holiday weekend, Paul will be visiting Minnesota for the first time.

On Sunday afternoon, Josh and I will take Paul to Williams Arena to see the Golden Gophers host the Michigan State Spartans. That game, I believe, will prove to be the major event of our weekend.

Josh and I will take Paul around to see the highlights of the Twin Cities during his stay, but I am not sure how much serious exploration we will be able to do, and this is because of the extreme cold.

Paul arrives Friday night. We’ll take him out to dinner on Friday night.

On Saturday, Josh and I will take Paul into downtown Minneapolis and show him the main buildings, and let him decide what attractions he wants to visit that day. On Saturday night, we may go to the movies, since the current offerings at the Guthrie Theater—Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” and Tanya Barfield’s “Blue Door”, which opens tonight (the third theater is currently dark, undergoing rehearsals for Wendy Wasserstein’s final play, scheduled to open next month)—do not appeal to any of us.

On Sunday morning, we will go into downtown Saint Paul and show Paul the main buildings there. On Sunday afternoon, we will go to the Minnesota-Michigan State game, and on Sunday evening we will go over to my parents’ house for dinner. Paul has already met my parents, and he likes them very much, and he will be able to visit the family home in which I grew up.

On Monday, we may end up going to the Mall Of America, just to have something to do. Everyone who visits Minneapolis seems to want to go there, and it is worth exploring for an hour or two when the weather makes outside activity unattractive.

Josh and I will insure Paul has a good visit, no matter what we end up doing—and we have a comprehensive array of exotic and delectable Norwegian eel dishes planned for Paul to eat while he is with us!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

"Night Hawks" vs. "Mildred Pierce" and Minnesota vs. Northwestern

This has been a busy week for us.

On Monday, my parents returned from their brief trip to Washington, and Joshua and I had them over for dinner Monday night. We heard all about the art exhibitions they attended, and it was interesting to hear my parents’ reactions to the four exhibitions they viewed. Turner was the major event, of course, and my parents liked the Turner exhibition very much. They also liked the Spain exhibition, primarily for the Goya and Stuart paintings, but they believed that the presentation was “too minimalist”, lacking sufficient historical background information on the various subjects portrayed in the portraits to be meaningful to the general viewer. They were not particularly impressed with the Asher B. Durand exhibition—Durand simply was not a painter rewarding enough to sustain an art lover’s interest through 57 landscapes—and they were very disappointed with the Hopper exhibition.

Sometimes a major retrospective will, unintentionally, demonstrate how paltry was an artist’s imagination, as was most recently revealed, in spades, at the major Childe Hassam retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum Of Art in 2004. That exhibition pulled the rug from beneath whatever reputation Hassam’s works had managed to cling to over the years since the artist’s death, revealing him as a purveyor of kitsch.

Something similar is the result of the extensive Hopper exhibition at The National Gallery Of Art. Sameness quickly sets in, and viewers stop responding to Hopper paintings as works of art and instead begin drawing upon other associations—from films, magazines, works of literature and sociology, popular and otherwise—to make the paintings appear to be interesting. My mother, a great art lover (and a very knowledgeable one), pointed out that Hopper’s paintings looked, in person, exactly like photographs of the paintings, and that seeing them in person added nothing to the experience of seeing them in photographs.

Hopper was not a master of line or color or texture or composition, or movement or drama or emotion. He was a high-end magazine artist who tweaked the kinds of illustrations that filled American magazines of the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s. Hopper was better and more interesting than his fellow magazine artists, in part because of his studied remoteness and his deliberate lack of passion and life, but he was a magazine artist nonetheless. I wonder whether he will have any reputation at all fifty years from now.

Hopper’s reputation is currently in flux, with the art world evenly divided between detractors and admirers. Half of this world is brutally dismissive, and the other half makes extravagant claims on Hopper’s behalf.

When the Washington Hopper exhibition opened in Boston last Spring, two art critics writing for influential publications started from identical premises and reached vastly different conclusions.

In May 2007, The New Yorker wrote:

In fact, Hoppers in the flesh add remarkably small increments of pleasure and meaning to Hoppers in reproduction. The scale of the paintings is indifferent, in the way of graphic art. Their drawing is graceless, their colors acrid, and their brushstrokes numb. Anti-Baroque, they are the same thing when looked at up close and when seen from afar. I believe that Hopper painted with reproducibility on his mind, as a new function and fate of images in his time.

After that opening missile, the writer proceeded, unaccountably, to defend Hopper, without in any way explaining adequately why Hopper’s works were worthwhile. The analysis was gibberish. His final argument boiled down to a childlike “I like it, and therefore it is good”.

In May 2007, The New York Times wrote:

Hopper was an illustrator from first to last, a just-O.K. brush technician, limited in his themes. His main gift was for narrative paintings with graphic punch and quasi-Modernist additives: Manet touches, de Chirico props. And like any shrewd storyteller, he knew the value of suspense. Reveal just so much of a plot — no more. Mystery keeps an audience hanging on. Unfortunately, there’s not much suspense or mystery in this show, which travels to Washington and Chicago. Museums are risk-free zones these days, spooning up boilerplates of what audiences are expected to like. On the whole, “Edward Hopper” fills that bill too well . . .Technically, he is a Modernist, but without a drop of Modernism’s utopian rationality, confidence and breadth. He didn’t make a dystopian art, either, one that stakes out an alternative position, as Warhol would do. He went with anxiety and longing, and made them feel-good entertaining, like Hollywood films, which he both influenced and was influenced by.

Like The New Yorker writer, The New York Times writer was not able to explain adequately the reasoning behind his dismissal of Hopper, although he made a better attempt than his confrere. Comparing Hopper to Hollywood films, while accurate insofar as it goes, is a cop-out.

I think there is a much easier and much more accurate way to assess Hopper. He was not a genius. He was not a protean figure. He was an unremarkable pure painter. He was not a thinker. His range was remarkably limited. He was emotionally ungenerous. Unlike Rubens or Velazquez, he could not paint anything or everything. His human figures are lumps. His inspirations—and his compositions—derive from the field of magazine illustration, from the painted flats of stage design, and from film noir. His chosen subjects were insufferably petit bourgeois, and his work primarily appeals to the petit bourgeois, “which prefers the art of recognition to the art of surprise”, to paraphrase Henry James (himself an art connoisseur).

Hopper was the art world’s equivalent of pulp novelist James M. Cain. Both men based their careers, pre- and post-Depression, on tough-as-nails Depression-era squalor, presented as realism, without meat on the bones; beyond that, neither had anything else to offer. Serious people would never dream of elevating Cain into the pantheon, in which case there can be no rightful place in the pantheon for Hopper, either.

Hopper’s current popularity is, nevertheless, easily comprehended: everyone has seen it all before, and there is some entertainment value to be derived from seeing it all again. Nevertheless, is “Night Hawks” really superior to “Mildred Pierce”, whether the Cain original or the Curtiz-Crawford Warner Brothers version? I don’t think so.

Hopper’s art can be fully appreciated by the casual art viewer who is familiar with similar shtick from movies and magazines. Hopper is not challenging, or difficult, or multi-layered, or even particularly good. Above all, Hopper is, however, familiar, and it this familiarity that provides the basis for his popularity among the general public. Casual museum-goers who could never make it through exhibitions featuring 100 canvases by Titian or Rembrandt or Poussin can easily wade through 100 Hopper paintings. It’s not art, it’s pop art—and no better (and no worse) than Addams or Gorey or Sendak. The term “kitsch” is never far from the surface.

On Tuesday night, we all went to Saint Paul to hear Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman in recital. Sponsored by The Schubert Club, Brueggergosman was a replacement for the originally-scheduled singer, Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian.

The recital was very disappointing. Brueggergosman has a wonderful voice—it has richness, and lots of color; she has an imposing, contralto-like lower register and a clear, free, ringing top—but she is not much of an artist. Her musical phrasing is not individual, and she does not make much of texts. During the entire evening, I felt like I was attending a graduation recital offered by a very promising college senior who, if she is lucky, will find the right teacher in graduate school.

Brueggergosman’s voice is one of some size—she had no trouble filling the Ordway Center with lots of sound—but it is also unwieldy. Throughout the recital, I felt as if her voice was always on the verge of veering out of control. The singing was not quite clean enough, and not sufficiently dead-center of pitch, to allow the listener to sit back and concentrate on the music.

The program did not help matters. Brueggergosman offered the Twin Cities audience the same program she had offered other audiences during a Fall 2007 North American recital tour: a cabaret program of Britten, Rorem, Schoenberg, Poulenc, Satie and Bolcom. This is much the same repertory as appears on her Deutsche Grammophon debut disc, just issued.

The program did not contain any heavyweight material, and only an artist with wit and charm and flair and personality to burn could have pulled off such an unusual program. Brueggergosman does not possess such gifts. A generalized and appealing flow of sound was all she offered, and this was not enough for songs that required point and shape and characterization and sophistication to make their marks.

Everything sounded much the same, whether Schoenberg, Poulenc or Bolcom. When Schoenberg’s Brettl-Lieder sound no different than a group of Bolcom songs, both the artist and the audience are in serious trouble.

Things were not helped by this singer’s weakness with languages. Brueggergosman’s English, more or less decipherable, was much better than her French. Her French was much better than her German. I was thankful she did not attempt a fourth language.

All in all, it was a very disappointing evening. I would never go hear her again.

Last night, we all went to see Minnesota play Northwestern. Even my mother went with us to the game. It will be the only game this year for my mother, who is not a basketball fan. Nonetheless, she had a good time, and so did my father, and so did Josh and I. The Golden Gophers pounded the Wildcats, 82-63. It was a fun night out for all of us. The crowd was large and very enthusiastic. Tubby Smith has brought a lot of excitement back to the program.

On our way to the game, we stopped and had chili for dinner. On our way home, we stopped and had hot fudge sundaes. It was a wonderful weekday night out for all of us. We had a great time.

This weekend, I think we will all catch up on our rest.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Home

Joshua and I stayed home this weekend.

This was extraordinary, because Josh and I had not stayed home for a weekend since October. Since the beginning of November, we have spent all weekends at my parents’ house or in Washington or in Oklahoma. It was almost odd, spending two quiet days at home.

Things were not too quiet, however, because we had a guest: my parents’ dog. He demands lots of attention, and we gave it to him. We took him to the park a couple of times a day, and fed him, and played with him indoors and out, and gave him lots of affection. He was entirely happy to stay with us for a couple of days. He is at home here.

My parents return tomorrow, and I think we will have my parents over for dinner tomorrow night so that my mother will not have to worry about preparing dinner her first night home.

Josh and I are talking about taking my father to see Minnesota host Northwestern Wednesday night. It will be the first game this season for all of us, and our first game under new coach Tubby Smith. We will find out tomorrow night whether my father wants to go.

We already have tickets for the following week’s Indiana game, as well as the ensuing weekend’s contest with Michigan State. We also already have tickets for the Iowa game and the Wisconsin game, both scheduled for February.

The Golden Gophers scored a coup in hiring Tubby Smith. I predict at least one Big Ten Championship within coach’s first five years in Bloomington. It may come as early as his third season.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

From Russian History

Joshua and I have completed our recent round of books on Russian history. Josh and I read extensively from Russian history during the summer of 2006, and we returned to this subject late in 2007. All of the books we just completed reading were published in 2006 and all were 2006 Christmas gifts.

Michael Occleshaw’s “Dances In Deep Shadows: The Clandestine War In Russia, 1917-1920” is primarily an examination of the efforts of Britain’s intelligence service to influence events in Russia during the period in which the Revolution had taken firm hold in Russian cities but in which large swathes of the countryside remained in play among various factions. Occleshaw’s research is taken from recently-opened British archives, and the author does a fine job of presenting the fruits of his research. However, this is a specialist’s study, as well as largely a British study, and it is of minimal interest to anyone not keen on plowing through pages and pages of discussion of old foreign dispatches. Published as recently as June 2006, “The Clandestine War In Russia” is already out of print in the United States. A mere 360 pages, Occleshaw’s book is too long.

By contrast, Rodric Braithwaite’s “Moscow 1941: A City And Its People At War” is, at 416 pages, too short. “Moscow 1941” is one of many excellent books about the war on the Eastern Front that has appeared in recent years. Since the 1980’s, Western historians have devoted increasing attention to the war in the East, and this emphasis has been enhanced with the ongoing (but highly selective) release of Russian archives.

Braithwaite was Britain’s ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1988 to 1992. During his years in Moscow, he obviously developed a deep affection for the Russian people, whom he clearly admires.

Braithwaite argues that the Battle Of Moscow was the crucial showdown of the Eastern Front and the most important battle of the entire war, a claim that, on both counts, must certainly be dismissed. Although fought on the largest possible scale (seven million participants were involved in an area of operations the size of France), the Battle Of Moscow was the first crack in the armor of the Nazis and demonstrated, for the first time in the war, that the Germans were not invincible. As such, it had great symbolic importance, but the battle had no lasting strategic significance whatsoever. It was at Kursk and at Stalingrad that the Germans lost the war in the East, not in Moscow.

Braithwaite traces the outline of the battle, but his real concern is with the day-to-day fabric of life for Moscow’s citizens during this period. Relying upon old newspaper accounts, journals, diaries and interviews, Braithwaite tells us how Muscovites of all
social and political stripes engineered their way through this period and saved the city from German occupation (and certain destruction). It is a gripping story, well told, and this volume should have received far more attention and acclaim in the U.S. than it did (in the U.S., the book was largely ignored; in Britain, it was reviewed everywhere and became a bestseller).

Braithwaite is an interesting character, a type of man produced in great quantity in the United Kingdom but seldom produced in the United States.

His father was a conductor at Sadlers Wells, the forerunner of English National Opera. Braithwaite himself worked in military intelligence—he was stationed in Vienna—in the immediate aftermath of World War II. A member of the diplomatic service for over forty years, he had postings throughout Europe, Asia and North America. After retiring from the diplomatic corps, Braithwaite has served as Governor of English National Opera, Chairman of The Royal Academy Of Music, advisor to numerous corporations and not-for-profit enterprises, and has been a regular contributor to the Financial Times, The Guardian, The New Statesman and the Moscow Times. His advice and counsel have been sought by a bewildering array of entities: artistic, financial, political and charitable. Do we have anyone comparable in the U.S.?

Kenneth Slepyan’s “Stalin’s Guerrillas: Soviet Partisans In World War II” is an examination of The Soviet Partisan Movement, a people’s army of irregulars fighting behind enemy lines, engaging in raids, sabotage and intelligence, all on their own initiatives, unprompted and uncontrolled by the Stalinist regime. These insurgents were comprised of civilians (many of whom were women and ethnic minorities) and stranded Red Army officers, all determined to undermine the German war effort in occupied territories.

This tale of the Russian equivalent of the French Resistance should be bewitching reading, but this book is dull and dry, and reads like the doctoral thesis it was. Further, the book’s title is misleading, as the book’s focus is upon sociology, not history. Its examination of The Soviet Partisan Movement is presented strictly through a sociological lens. A more accurate title would have been “Women And Minorities Behind Enemy Lines And Their Path To Socialization: Journeying From Disaffection With The Soviet Regime To Collaboration With The Germans To Resistance”. This book is a dream come true for anyone looking for sociological cant, but it has no value as a presentation of history. It also offers incontrovertible proof that current standards in the world of American academia are depressingly low. Slepyan’s writing is so poor and his powers of analysis so feeble that he could not succeed in getting a header note published in the lowliest law journal at America’s worst law school. His book was a complete waste of our time.

“Khrushchev’s Cold War: The Inside Story Of An American Adversary” is a joint project of Alesandr Fursenko, a Moscow professor about whom I know nothing, and Timothy Naftali, a Canadian native with a flamboyant and checkered career who has worked practically everywhere in the U.S., in a veritable roundtable of successive positions that have taken him hither, thither and yon—everywhere from far too many universities to mention to the 9/11 Commission to the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library (where he was appointed, not by the Board Of Trustees, but by the National Archives), always leaving a trail of critics in his wake.

Based, in part, on selective Soviet archives declassified in 2003, “Khrushchev’s Cold War” examines Soviet foreign policy from the Russian perspective during the Khrushchev years of the Cold War.

Although in no way a Khrushchev hagiography, the authors present Khrushchev as a far more appealing individual than the historical record warrants. According to the authors, Khrushchev was “misunderstood”, a figure benignly helping the Soviet Union in its “search for national identity”. Anyone familiar with the standard biographies of Khrushchev must easily dismiss such cantankerous, albeit trendy, foolishness.

An even more absurd claim is the assertion that Khrushchev, in ordering nuclear missiles to be placed in Cuba, had no desire for war and was simply trying to offset U.S. advantages in nuclear weaponry elsewhere. Further, according to the authors, Khrushchev hoped to use the presence of nuclear missiles situated only ninety miles off the U.S. mainland merely as a tool of intimidation in negotiating with an inexperienced John Kennedy.

Such astonishing claims are profoundly wrong-headed, and based upon a twisted and decadent view of realpolitic, foreign policy and balances of power during the Cold War. While Fursenko and Naftali may find Khrushchev to have been benign, the members of the Politburo during the Cuban Missile Crisis certainly did not—they forced Khrushchev from power not much more than a year after the Crisis (a previous attempt to remove him from power had failed), believing him to be both dangerous and inept. I have seldom come across a more bizarre book, filled with more bizarre claims. Other scholars in the field, working from the same archives, are destined to issue sharp and stinging corrective readings of the events in question. In the unlikely event that Putin’s Russia ever releases all archives from the Cold War period, Fursenko’s and Naftali’s assertions will be completely demolished.

The fundamental lesson the reader learns, unintentionally, in “Khrushchev’s Cold War”, is that the United States—and the world—was fortunate indeed to have had a seasoned old pro occupying the White House during the first eight years Khrushchev was in power. Dwight David Eisenhower, during his time in office, was smart enough to discount most of Khrushchev’s most belligerent threats, committed enough to continue Harry Truman’s policy of containment, stern enough to provide adult supervision to the British, French and Israelis when they most needed it (Suez), wise enough not to provoke the Soviets when he had no realistic means to influence events outside the immediate area of American interest (Hungary), and patient enough to apply gentle but continuous pressure on the Soviets, worldwide, for eight years. Eisenhower was the perfect president for this perilous period, and that is the overriding theme readers glean from this book, despite the strenuous, misguided efforts of the authors to portray Khrushchev as a simple man of peace.

“Thank God For Dwight David Eisenhower” is the unspoken mantra running through their book, but authors Fursenko and Naftali are too obtuse to realize it.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Exhibitions

My father’s Christmas gift to my mother is a trip to Washington, D.C.

My mother is keen to do some serious art viewing, and she has not had an opportunity to do so since September, when we spent hours and hours at Tate Britain, The National Gallery Of Art and The National Portrait Gallery at Trafalgar Square, The Courtauld Institute Of Art, The Queen’s Gallery and The Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace.

There are no major exhibitions on the schedule this winter at any of the Twin Cities art museums. My mother did not go to Zurich when my father traveled there on business in November, so she was not able to explore Zurich’s great art museums. The trip to Washington is intended to make up for the lack of anything notable on the art front in the Twin Cities and my mother having missed out on Zurich.

My parents leave Friday night. They have to go this weekend if they are to see the J.M.W. Turner exhibition at The National Gallery Of Art, because the exhibition’s final day is Sunday. The Edward Hopper exhibition continues for a couple more weeks at The National Gallery, as does the Spain exhibition, “Legacy: Spain And The United States In The Age Of Independence, 1763-1848”, at The National Portrait Gallery.

However, it is the Turner exhibition that my mother most wants to see. This is so even though we all spent four hours exploring the Clore Galleries at Tate Britain in September, viewing every single Turner watercolor and painting on display at the time. Because so many rare marine paintings, seldom shown, are on display in Washington, my mother very much wants to see the Turner exhibition.

Joshua and I and my middle brother gave my mother the exhibition catalogs for the Turner, Hopper and Spain exhibitions as Christmas gifts. (Josh and I had picked up all three catalogs during our visit to Washington in early December, when we attended all three exhibitions.) My mother has already had a chance to go through all three catalogs, at least briefly, and I believe she will enjoy these exhibitions very much.

My parents also plan to visit a special exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that Josh and I missed, “Kindred Spirits: Asher B. Durand And The American Landscape”. “Kindred Spirits” is a monographic exhibition of 57 Durand landscape paintings. The most famous painting on display is, naturally, “Kindred Spirits”, the celebrated 1849 painting sold by The New York Public Library to Alice Walton a couple of years back. Joshua mentioned “Kindred Spirits” and its controversial sale to Walton in one of his recent posts discussing the even more controversial Arthur Schlesinger, the American polemicist.

My parents will remain in Washington until Monday morning. While they are away, Joshua and I will have the dog in our care. We will keep him fed and exercised and entertained.

We got a preview entertaining the dog last night, because Joshua and I went over to my parents’ house for dinner. We watched the Oklahoma-West Virginia bowl game, which turned into a wake for Oklahoma fans. The game was so gruesome that we spent ninety per cent of our time playing with the dog and only ten percent of our time watching the Sooners implode.