Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Movement Afoot

It looks like my father will remain in Taipei until a week from tomorrow, unless something changes. We have been keeping in close contact with him by email ever since his flight arrived in Taipei late Sunday afternoon Minneapolis time, and he has told us that he thinks he must remain in Taipei until next Wednesday.

This means that Joshua and I will remain with my mother longer than we had planned.

My brother from Denver has decided to join us this weekend. He will fly in Thursday night, and fly back to Denver first thing Monday morning. This will give him a nice, long weekend at home. We very much look forward to seeing him.

I just hope my mother feeds us!

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.”

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Much-Needed Weekend

Joshua and I did not do much this weekend, but we had a very relaxing and restful couple of days, which both of us very much needed.

On Friday night, Josh and I stayed in town after work and met my parents for an early dinner, after which we all walked over to Orchestra Hall to hear the Minnesota Orchestra play Rossini, Mendelssohn, Mozart and Hindemith under Music Director Osmo Vanska (or Aksnav Omso, as Josh calls him).

The orchestra’s playing was pretty rough in the first half of the program. The Overture to “The Barber Of Seville” sounded as if it had received no rehearsal whatsoever, and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto that followed sounded as if it had received one quick run-through with soloist Baiba Skride, a young Latvian violinist who received her music education in Germany. The first half of the program was a total loss, showing no one—orchestra musicians, conductor, soloist—on good form.

The second half of the program was much, much better. “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” sounded as if it had been very carefully rehearsed—the playing was marvelous, the balance near-perfect, attacks and releases unanimous. The “Mathis Der Maler” Symphony that concluded the program obviously had received the lion’s share of rehearsal time, because the playing was confident and bold in a work that receives few performances in the U.S.

The “Mathis Der Maler” is what drew Josh and me to the concert, and we were pleased to hear this magnificent work. It received an excellent reading, marred only by some opaqueness in the string ensemble and muddy orchestral textures at climaxes. Vanska downplayed the spirituality inherent in the work, but his conducting of “Mathis Der Maler” suggested to me that he should program more Hindemith in Minneapolis. A logical next step would be for him to program Hindemith’s Symphony In E Flat, a marvelous modernist masterpiece without the spiritual dimension of “Mathis”. I think the Symphony In E Flat would be right up Vanksa’s alley.

On Saturday, Josh and I ran errands all morning. In the afternoon, we went over to my parents’ house to do yard work. The dog was happy to see us—he had a great afternoon, romping around the yard, keeping a close eye on everything that was going on. We stayed for dinner, and my mother fed us homemade vegetable cream soup, followed by a seafood soufflĂ©, followed by chicken breasts and pasta in a cream sauce, accompanied by steamed carrots and broccoli. For dessert, we had fresh raspberries.

Josh and I did not do much of anything today. After church, we picked up my parents’ dog and brought him home with us, because my parents had to attend a function at my mother’s relatives. We took the dog to the park this afternoon, and ran him around and played games with him for almost three hours. He loved it.

Tonight we gave my parents dinner when they stopped by to retrieve the dog. We gave the dog his Sunday night baked chicken, naturally, but the rest of us had a tomato-cucumber salad, steamed salmon and seasoned rice, corn and lima beans, and an apple-cranberry salad.

It will be back to work tomorrow for another long week.

At least on Wednesday night Josh and I will have a break, because we will go to Saint Paul to hear Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel in recital. Josh has never heard Terfel, and it may be my last time to hear him, because Terfel has been significantly cutting back his engagements.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Drained (In More Ways Than One)

The taxes are done.

What a draining exercise!

Joshua and I worked on our taxes most of the weekend, and the process positively exhausted us.

The nation needs to abandon the graduated income tax (or what for practical purposes may be deemed the investment tax, because it is from capital investment that the bulk of federal tax revenues derive) and institute a flat consumption tax akin to a nationwide sales tax. Such a system would reward, not penalize, saving and would encourage, not discourage, capital investment.

Joshua and I did go downtown on Saturday to attend a performance of “Rabbit Hole” at Jungle Theater. We were pleased we took a break from taxes, but we were not pleased by the play itself. David Lindsay-Abaire’s play, addressing the effects of the death of a child on a married couple, was little more than daytime drama, filled with clichĂ©s that surely were stale generations ago. The Jungle Theater production did the play no favors.

The only items we have on our schedule are this coming weekend, when Josh and I will accompany my parents to a Minnesota Orchestra concert of music by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Hindemith, and early next week, when we will accompany my parents to a recital by Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel.

The only reason Josh and I will attend a Minnesota Orchestra concert this coming weekend is to hear the seldom-programmed “Mathis Der Maler” Symphony, one of my very favorite pieces of music.

I think we may go hear the Minnesota Orchestra again the following weekend, when Neville Marriner, a former Music Director of the orchestra, will return to conduct music of Elgar and Brahms. Marriner is not one of my favorite conductors—he is too “English”—but this will probably be one of our last chances to see and hear Marriner in person, given his advanced age, and Josh has never attended a concert conducted by Marriner. We look forward to it.

Sunday, April 13, 2008



Frantically working on our taxes.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

In Good Hands

On Friday evening, Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear a concert by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. It was the first SPCO concert this season for us.

The guest soloist was Dawn Upshaw, and her presence made the concert worthwhile. She sang a group of songs from Schoenberg’s Brettl-Lieder in the first half of the concert, and Berio’s Folksongs in the second half. I thought she was marvelous.

Miss Upshaw has suffered from well-publicized health problems the last few years, but her health issues appear not to have affected her voice. Her voice sounded no different on Friday night than the last several times I heard her. This is gratifying, because she is an important artist, and a master of several important modernist vocal scores.

She looked awful. She has aged fifteen years since I last saw her, which was shortly before she began a series of gruesome cancer treatments, and her illness has unmistakably taken a great toll on her health, as would be expected. I hope and pray for her full recovery.

I have always liked Dawn Upshaw, although she is hardly my favorite singer. Her voice is very pure, and she is an intelligent and very serious musician. She is very charming onstage and quite likeable, but she also tends to lather an all-purpose “sincerity” onto everything she sings. In a solo recital, this regrettable tendency quickly becomes tiresome if not irritating. In concert, this shortcoming is not as pronounced, since she has to share the stage and the program and the music-making with other artists.

Schoenberg’s Brettl-Lieder were cleanly sung, but I did not think that the Brettl-Lieder showed Upshaw to particular advantage. Her treatment of the songs was bland, lacking wit and bite and the undercurrent of Viennese melancholy that permeates several of the songs. I also was not impressed with her German, which was nowhere near as fine as her French or English (Miss Upshaw is one of the finest singers of English I have ever encountered).

Berio’s Folksongs, which concluded the evening, found Miss Upshaw in much more congenial territory, and she offered as fine a performance of this intriguing and fun song cycle I ever expect to hear. When the work came to an end, I wanted to shout out “Do it again!”

The orchestra also performed Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, one of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s signature pieces, Hindemith’s Chamber Music No. 1, and a short work by Revueltas. The conductor was Reinbert De Leeuw, the excellent Dutch conductor of modernist repertory who appears very seldom in the U.S.—and, when he does, it seems that he appears only in Saint Paul and nowhere else.

I have not encountered De Leeuw for a while. He, too, has aged considerably, looking much older than I remember him from just a few years back.

No doubt De Leeuw could have conducted all the works on Friday night’s program in his sleep, so completely has he mastered so many 20th-Century scores. There was, nevertheless, nothing rote or routine about his music-making, and the orchestra played to a very high standard. It was a most enjoyable concert.

On Saturday, Josh and I went over to my parents’ house and helped them with a few things around the house and yard. My mother fed us well, of course, and we had a lot of fun, both because the dog was always in the midst of things, demanding constant attention and affection, and demanding to be included in our activities, and because my father helped us and talked to us while we worked. My father is great company. He is also the world’s greatest conversationalist, in possession of a mind of the most startling originality and clarity, and it is always a privilege to listen to whatever he has to say on any subject.

We talked about politics, of course, as well as Boston, and law school, and my brothers’ plans to return home. We also talked about books, and what we have been reading.

On Saturday night, we did not watch the semi-final games of the NCAA tournament. No one wanted to—which was good, as things turned out, because neither game was even remotely close. Instead, we played scrabble and talked, and talked to my brothers on the phone, and played with the dog, and made homemade ice cream, which we ate with blackberry cobbler.

Today, after church, Josh and I took my parents out to lunch. After lunch, we visited my grandmother at the care facility and afterward we returned to my parents’ house, where Josh and I stayed for an early dinner.

On Tuesday, I must travel to Milwaukee on business. I will return Friday afternoon.

While I am gone, Josh will stay with my parents. He’ll have good company, and good food, and lots of dog love while I am gone. He’ll be in good hands (and paws).

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Tough Week

This has been a tough week, and I am glad it is almost over. I look forward to the weekend.

Tomorrow night, Joshua and I will go to Saint Paul to hear a concert by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. This will be the first SPCO concert for us this season. The orchestra will play Stravinsky, Hindemith, Schoenberg, Revueltas and Berio. The conductor will be Reinbert De Leeuw, an excellent conductor of modernist repertory. The guest soloist will be Dawn Upshaw.

Josh and I have nothing else on the schedule for the weekend. I think we will spend Saturday helping my parents get some things done around the house and yard. Even though we have not paid much attention to this year’s NCAA tournament, we will probably watch Saturday night’s semi-final games while we are over with my parents.

At the half-times, I think Josh and I will take my parents’ dog outside and help him work on his free throws.