Sunday, November 23, 2008

Two Concerts

Joshua and I attended two concerts this week.

On Wednesday night, on Joshua’s birthday, we attended a performance of the Dresden Staatskapelle, which appeared in Boston as part of its current American tour.

The Dresden Staatskapelle is my favorite European orchestra. It has a sound of the most extraordinary beauty and refinement, and its music-making personifies “Old World” traditions of warmth, understatement and urbaneness. Many knowledgeable persons consider the Dresden Staatskapelle to be Europe’s very finest orchestra. I have always preferred Dresden to Amsterdam, Berlin or Vienna (although the Viennese can be extraordinary when they want to be—which is not all that frequent).

I have never heard the Staatskapelle play in its own hall in Dresden, but prior to Wednesday night I had heard the orchestra play on tour on five previous occasions. I had heard the orchestra perform in Vienna, Munich, Paris, London and New York, and four of those five earlier concerts were red-letter events in my life (the New York concert was the sole disappointment).

The sound of the Dresden players is unique.

The strings carry a dark coloration, perhaps the darkest coloration among major orchestras anywhere. This specific coloration has been handed down through generations of Dresden players—it is inherently in the ears and minds of the Dresden musicians—and it may be heard on the orchestra’s recordings going back as far as the 1930’s. This highly-individual sound has never been successfully reproduced elsewhere. It may be heard in Dresden, and nowhere else.

One key to the Dresden sound is the prominence of the violas and cellos, which form the foundation of the orchestra’s string sound.

In U.S. orchestras, the sound is generally built from the first violins down through the rest of the string section. In the case of the Berlin Philharmonic, the sound is built from the basses up. In the case of the Vienna Philharmonic, the sound is built around Vienna’s golden-toned cellos.

Building Dresden’s string sound from the warmth and deep overtones of the viola and cello sections tempers any potential stridency or wiriness or glassiness from the violin section and obviates any heaviness that can result from bass-heavy orchestras such as Berlin (especially under conductors unversed in knowing how to handle that orchestra’s remarkable bass section).

Another key to the Dresden sound is that the string section produces a firm, rich sound without using the amount of vibrato common in American orchestras and in many European orchestras. Of the world’s great orchestras, Dresden uses the least amount of string vibrato, and this apparently has always been so. While other orchestras obtain a firm, rich string sound through the application of string pressure and the use of vibrato, Dresden obtains the same, if not more, firmness and richness with less string pressure and less vibrato. The result is a clean, transparent sound that never descends into thickness or gooiness, two hazards of orchestras in which string players are encouraged to lean on their strings. Indeed, the incredible transparency of the Dresden string sound, coupled with its incredible darkness, is one of the world’s most miraculous sounds, a sound that every lover of orchestras should experience at least once.

Another key to the Dresden sound is the lightness and subtlety of the orchestra’s attacks. The current international style of playing calls for orchestras to make sharp, pointed attacks. Anything less than sharp and pointed is deemed to be a demonstration of inferior ensemble. Dresden attacks demonstrate great unanimity of ensemble, to be sure, but Dresden attacks are soft, gently-articulated attacks. Such attacks always startle the listener in the early minutes of a Dresden concert, since listeners seldom hear anything so miraculous from other orchestras.

The woodwinds of the Dresden Staatskapelle also carry a dark coloration. This is especially true of the orchestra’s clarinets and oboes. The Dresden woodwind players maintain their dark colorations despite the fact that they, too, use far less vibrato than their American counterparts. That vibrato is shunned does not signify that the Dresden woodwinds lack richness of sound or insufficient color. To the contrary, Dresden has one of the world’s finest arrays of woodwinds, offering playing of great individuality and character, to which the players add bewitching timbres. No American orchestra currently maintains as fine a collection of woodwind players as Dresden.

The Dresden brass sound was surely created with the music of Anton Bruckner in mind. The Dresden brass lacks the bite and brightness cultivated among American brass players. Instead, the Dresden brass players offer a more rounded, warmer sound, a sound that almost glows with mellowness, richness and depth.

This is a glorious orchestra, with a glorious sound, and it was the sound itself that offered the chief pleasure Wednesday night.

The orchestra was not on peak form Wednesday night—grueling foreign tours surely extract a heavy toll on players—but the inherent sound of the orchestra was on display at all times even if the performance was not one for the ages.

There were two works on the program: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Brahms’s Symphony No. 4.

The Beethoven was completely unremarkable.

The soloist, Rudolf Buchbinder, has a heavy keyboard touch, too heavy for my taste, and he is a serious pianist more than an inspired one. I have heard Buchbinder in performance many times, in recital and in concert, always in Central European repertoire, and I have never found him to be an especially interesting artist. His playing—and especially his phrasing—has always struck me as foursquare.

The conductor, Fabio Luisi, was a disappointment. Luisi is not a classicist, and he brought no insight whatsoever to Beethoven’s first great concerto (misnumbered, since Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was actually written after the concerto labeled as No. 2). Luisi brought no style, no command of structure, and no sense of energy to the Beethoven. He supported Buchbinder, capably, but he gave Buchbinder absolutely nothing to play off or play against.

The Dresden wind players made the concerto worthwhile. It was a privilege to hear the Dresden winds play off each other in Beethoven’s wind passages, injecting a touch of life into the performance.

The Brahms was much better, which came as no surprise, since Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 has long been one of the orchestra’s prime touring pieces. For the last thirty years, the Dresden Staatskapelle has played the Brahms Fourth on tour more often than any other composition. The work shows off the blended, mellow Dresden sound to splendid effect, which may be why the orchestra uses the work as its calling card. (The kindly couple sitting next to Josh and me told us that, on its previous visit to Boston, in 2005, the Staatskapelle had also programmed the Brahms Fourth.)

Wednesday’s performance was perfectly acceptable—any music-lover would be immensely pleased to hear such a natural, instinctive performance from an American orchestra—but it was not a great performance. The sound of the orchestra again offered the chief pleasure.

Luisi is a competent Brahms conductor, but he is hardly a special one, let alone a great one. The music of Brahms was more natural to him than the music of Beethoven, but Luisi’s Brahms is not worthy to be set alongside the Brahms of Wilhelm Furtwangler, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer or Herbert Von Karajan. Indeed, I am not sure that Luisi’s Brahms measures up even to present-day conductors of Brahms such as Herbert Blomstedt, Christoph Dohnanyi, Bernard Haitink, or Kurt Masur, none of whom has ever revealed himself to be an especially notable or imaginative Brahms conductor.

The first movement was the low point of the Brahms.

Luisi mishandled the great climax of the first movement: Brahms’s grand restatement, in the coda, of the first main theme, with its powerful, organ-like sonority, achieved through immediate thematic restatement and resplendent orchestration, intended to mimic the echo effects produced by great organs in Gothic Cathedrals (Brahms had been studying, yet again, Bach scores at the time he composed this symphony). In Luisi’s hands, this powerful moment emerged as limp.

Luisi also mishandled the most magical moment of the first movement: the beginning of the recapitulation, when the strings steal in, almost imperceptibly, playing only the final four bars of the eight-bar main theme in triple pianissimo. This is one of the most inspired moments in all of Brahms, and it generally gives me chills—but this moment came and went on Wednesday night with no attendant frisson.

The Andante lacked focus, and meandered. The Scherzo always comes off, and it did on Wednesday night.

The Passacaglia was the finest moment for both conductor and players, and provided a fitting summation for the great work. The musicians built the tension and drama inherent in Brahms’s series of 30 variations (plus extended coda) in subtle but exquisite fashion, achieving a satisfying, even tragic, culmination before the music drew to its unsettling conclusion. For the first time all night, Luisi got the climax of the fourth movement right.

How much of this was due to the conductor and how much was due to the musicians I cannot say, having heard the Dresdeners offer an even finer account of the Passacaglia in the past. Nonetheless, the great Passacaglia, by itself, made the evening worthwhile.

After the conclusion of the Brahms, the orchestra added a substantial bonus: Weber’s greatest overture, “Oberon”, in which the orchestra offered its most splendid, joyous playing of the evening.

Until Wednesday night, Josh had never heard the Dresden Staatskapelle. Josh immediately appreciated the quality of the orchestra’s sound. Josh said that he preferred the sound of the Dresden Staatskapelle to the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic.

Josh also appreciated the orchestra’s great subtlety. Of American orchestras, only the Cleveland Orchestra can play with the subtlety of the Dresden musicians.

Last night, on my birthday, we attended a performance of the Boston Symphony.

The only reason we had purchased tickets for the concert was to hear the finest of this year’s Boston Symphony guest conductors, Gennady Rozhdestvensky. However, on Friday, we learned that Rozhdestvensky had cancelled this week’s Boston appearances, and that the basis of his cancellation was the fact that he was offended by the orchestra’s promotional materials.

According to the Boston Globe, Rozhdestvensky rehearsed the orchestra without incident for the first three rehearsals of the week. However, on Wednesday, Rozhdestvensky apparently became incensed when he observed two of the orchestra’s marketing tools.

First, Rozhdestvensky saw a poster advertising this week’s concerts, a poster that featured a photograph only of the guest soloist, cellist Lynn Harrell, and not the guest conductor. The poster also featured Harrell’s name in large print at the top of the poster and Rozhdestvensky’s name in small print at the bottom of the poster.

Second, Rozhdestvensky came across a copy of the Boston Symphony’s season brochure, which gave great prominence to other conductors, including little-known and entirely marginal figures, but which made a single, inconspicuous reference to Rozhdestvensky, the most distinguished of all guests on this year’s roster.

Apparently this latter was the last straw, and Rozhdestvensky walked out.

This may all seem rather minor, if not rather silly, but I can see Rozhdestvensky’s point: he is an international conductor of the greatest stature, with a long and distinguished career, and the Boston Symphony’s marketing materials gave him all the attention and prominence of an unknown novice. I can’t fault Rozhdestvensky. He surely felt insulted—and he was insulted.

The Boston Globe’s story about Rozhdestvensky’s walkout was accorded front-page treatment here. The newspaper’s story about Rozhdestvensky’s departure also attracted an amazing number of reader comments, the bulk of which were anti-Rozhdestvensky.

The comments I thought were the funniest—largely because they displayed unbounded ignorance—appear below.

“Send the old goat home.”

“What an egomaniac. Do your job, you pinko.”

“Most of us could care less if Rozhdestvensky conducts the BSO for four concerts or not.”

“The future of the BSO is not with the over-70 crowd—it’s with young audiences who want to hear wonderful music. They will NOT pay, however, for a self-centered, entitled, high-strung, easily-bruised ego standing in front of an orchestra. Mr. Rozhdestvensky’s time is over.”

“It is Mr. Rozhdestvensky’s great loss that he will not be conducting what is arguably the best symphony [orchestra] in the Western Hemisphere.”

“Of the nearly 300 million people in this country, I bet there are less than 50 who could actually tell a difference between this arrogant buffoon conducting the orchestra and his replacement doing so. Please tell this pompous nutcase that he should feel honored to lead the team of fine musicians at the BSO and to have his name, even in small print, associated with them.”

Well, it cannot be said that Boston has a sophisticated musical audience!

Indeed, a few of the persons sharing their wisdom suffered under the misapprehension that Lynn Harrell is a woman—and such fact, to them, explained why Harrell and not Rozhdestvensky received the lavish photo promotion.

Josh and I had a lot of fun wading through the extraordinary number of idiotic comments on the Boston Globe’s website.

Once we learned of Rozhdestvensky’s departure, Josh and I contemplated not going to the concert, but we decided to go after all, largely because we had already spent money on the tickets.

It was the prospect of hearing Rozhdestvensky that had prompted Josh and me to buy tickets in the first place. Rozhdestvensky is probably the greatest Russian conductor who ever lived—Yevgeny Mravinsky is his only competition—and Rozhdestvensky is just about unparalleled among today’s Tchaikovsky conductors. Rozhdestvensky also happens to be a very fine Elgar conductor, having conducted Elgar in the Soviet Union long before he began making appearances in the West.

There were three works on the scheduled program: Edmund Rubbra’s orchestration of Brahms’s Variations On A Theme Of Handel, Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony.

The replacement conductor was Canadian Julian Kuerti, son of pianist Anton Kuerti. He made no substitutions in the program. He conducted the scheduled works.

The concert was about what one would have expected under the circumstances: the musicians got through the program without incident, but also without anything interesting happening. The performance was certainly not an outrage, but it was also certainly not worth attending.

Rubbra’s orchestration of Brahms’s early piano composition is clumsy and does not “sound”. I can understand why this piece is very seldom programmed.

Harrell carried the Elgar all by himself, offering an “objective” interpretation little different from the somewhat bland interpretation he provided on his old Decca recording.

The Tchaikovsky did not come off at all, but I did not expect it to. Even though Rozhdestvensky himself had been in charge of three of the four rehearsals, it was most unlikely that another conductor would be able to step in and complete Rozhdestvensky’s work. In any case, the Manfred Symphony is a very difficult work to bring off. Only old masters such as Rozhdestvensky generally have success with the score. The musicians held Kuerti together during the symphony’s hour-long duration—the playing would have been no better, and no worse, had there been no one on the podium—but this surely must have been the most boring performance of the Manfred Symphony ever offered.

As Josh likes to say, “you pay your money and you take your chances”. Well, we had paid our money, so we took our chances—and the concert turned out to be a complete waste of our time.

These things happen.

The Boston Symphony continues to have very serious attendance problems, a situation I mentioned in October. This week, the orchestra announced yet another in an ongoing series of ticket initiatives: all seats, for the remainder of the season, will cost only $20.00 for anyone under the age of forty. Josh and I would take advantage of this bargain if the orchestra’s programs were more interesting and the guest conductors of better quality.

As things stand now, the Boston Symphony is not an orchestra worth going out of one’s way to hear. The orchestra is no better—but no worse—than the Minnesota Orchestra or the Dallas Symphony. Like those ensembles, it is a fine regional orchestra, but nothing more.

The Boston Symphony has long reminded me of the five London orchestras, all of which are more or less capable but none of which is anything special and none of which remotely offers anything to write home about.

Josh and I will be going home soon. We will be spending Thanksgiving in Minneapolis, and we are very much looking forward to it.

Josh has no classes on Wednesday, and I only have to work half a day on Wednesday, but we discovered, several weeks ago, that it would be much easier (and much cheaper) for us to fly home early Thanksgiving morning rather than on Wednesday afternoon or Wednesday evening. Consequently, we will spend Wednesday afternoon and evening getting our things ready.

On Thanksgiving morning, we will rise at 3:00 a.m. in order to catch the first nonstop flight of the day from Logan to MSP. That will get us home in time for my mother’s grand Thanksgiving breakfast. My middle brother will meet our flight at the airport and take us home.

We shall have a lot to celebrate on Thanksgiving Day. We shall celebrate, on a belated basis, Josh’s birthday, my birthday, and my parents’ wedding anniversary (which falls on the day before Thanksgiving this year). I think we all have agreed to forego cakes to mark these occasions, given that we will have four different kinds of homemade pies from which to choose for dessert on Thanksgiving night: pumpkin, pumpkin-custard, Dutch apple, and sour cream-raisin. What with all the Thanksgiving desserts, it seems silly to throw cake into the proceedings, too.

It will be good to be home again, even if only for four days. We are eager to see how everyone is doing. We are eager to see how my older brother and his family are settling into Minneapolis. We are all exceedingly anxious about the baby’s arrival (it is expected in another eight-to-ten days, but it could come at any time). We want to see how the dog is doing, and we want to see how he is responding to his arthritis palliatives.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, we have some business matters to attend to, and Josh and I will have to decide how we will apportion our Christmas holidays between Oklahoma and Minnesota, and make plans (and flight arrangements) accordingly. Otherwise, we plan to kick back and enjoy lots of good food and enjoy everyone’s company.

The holiday weekend will be over before we know it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Zitronjette, The Hummel And Klaus Stortebeker

Throughout the center of the city of Hamburg, lifelike statues of human beings proliferate—often placed right in the middle of sidewalks. Such statues are everywhere.

Some of these statues commemorate historic persons, some statues commemorate fictional characters, and some statues commemorate archetypes.

The statues are generally not crafted from marble or stone. The statues are occasionally made from bronze, but more often they are made from lightweight metals and even plastics. Many of these statues look cheap and out of place in such a handsome city.

Three of the statues were of some interest to us.

One is the statue of Zitronenjette.

This bronze statue very near Saint-Michaelis-Kirche depicts a small woman holding a basket on her right arm while offering spectators a lemon with her left hand. The statue was erected in 1986.

This is Zitronenjette (“Lemon Jettie”), one of Hamburg’s genuine and unique and original characters. Henriette Johanne Marie Muller (1841-1916) sold lemons during the day at Hamburg Harbor and in the evening she walked from one inn to another, shouting “Zitroon, Zitroon”. Lemons were not widely available in Hamburg at the time.

Zitronenjette was attacked on the streets several times, and became insane. In 1894 she was consigned to a hospital and during her final days she was looked after in a nursing home at public expense.

In 1900, the first play about her life was staged, while she was still living, and a popular operetta followed in 1920, after her death. The operetta is still staged in Hamburg, and the role of Lemon Jettie in the operetta is customarily played by a male actor.

Persons passing the monument generally touch Zitronenjette’s finger for luck. As a result, that particular finger now has a brassy shine.

The Hummel Statue, only a few blocks from Zitronenjette, commemorates the water carriers of Hamburg, a fixture of the city before Hamburg established a city water utility.

The Hummel Statue was erected in 1938 and pays tribute to a genuine original Hamburg character known as The Hummel.

The Hummel was a water carrier, and the specific Hummel honored by The Hummel Statue was Johann Wilhelm Bentz (1787-1854), the last of Hamburg’s water carriers. Bentz is portrayed walking the streets of Hamburg with two water buckets over his shoulders.

Today, in addition to the 1938 original, there are many statues throughout Hamburg’s city center paying tribute to The Hummel. In fact, there are now over 100 different Hummel statues in Hamburg, created by many different artists, of men carrying buckets of water.

Klaus Stortebeker is a part mythical, part historic figure associated with the history of the city of Hamburg.

This bronze statue, erected in 1982, portrays the famous pirate Klaus Stortebeker (1370-1401) near Hamburg Harbor. The statue shows Stortebeker, hands tied, looking towards the Speicherstadt, the canal-laden warehouse district of Hamburg, where he was executed in 1401.

The name “Stortebeker” is only a nickname, meaning “Down The Hatch” in Old German, and refers to Stortebeker’s supposed ability to empty a four-liter mug of beer in one gulp. Like most of the pirates of his day, Stortebeker used to hide on Helgoland, an island North of Germany. Helgoland pirates captured merchant vessels for their livelihood, and caused great damage to Hamburg’s commerce.

In 1401, a Hamburg fleet captured Stortebeker and 72 of his men, and they were brought to Hamburg and tried. All were found guilty and sentenced to death by beheading. Their heads were tarred on one of the Speicherstadt’s streets before they were taken to their place of execution near the site of this statue.

According to legend, Stortebeker saved several of his men by walking along his lined-up crew after being decapitated. The men he passed were allegedly reprieved.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Four More Hamburg Churches

Between the two of us, Joshua and I have already written about eleven important and historic churches we visited in the center of Hamburg.

There are four additional historic churches of importance in the center of the city, and we visited those churches, too.

Most prominent of them was Saint-Marien-Kirche, also known both as the Domkirche and the Mariendom. Saint-Marien-Kirche is the seat of The Bishop Of Hamburg of The Roman Catholic Diocese Of Hamburg.

The city of Hamburg did not permit Roman Catholic worship within city precincts from the time of The Reformation until 1842. One effect of The Reformation in Northern Germany was the dissolution of The Bishopric Of Hamburg and the closure of all Roman Catholic houses of worship in the city. For three centuries, Hamburg’s Catholics had to worship outside city walls. During this period, Catholicism in Hamburg was under the jurisdiction of The Bishop Of Bremen.

Once freedom of religion in Hamburg was again granted midway through the 19th Century, the Roman Catholic Church set in motion plans for a new main church in the center of the city. The result was Saint-Marien-Kirche, the first Roman Catholic place of worship to be built in Hamburg in more than five centuries.

The Neo-Romanesque church was completed in 1893. The building is marked by two great spires, with a front façade that mimics the façade of The Cathedral Of Bremen, the church that held authority over Catholicism in Hamburg at the time Saint-Marien-Kirche was planned and erected.

The Roman Catholic Diocese Of Hamburg was re-established in 1995, and in that year Saint-Marien-Kirche was designated as a Cathedral Church, seat of The Bishop Of Hamburg, Silesia-Holstein And Mecklenburg. As a result, the church may now be referred to as the Domkirche or the Mariendom.

The interior is Neo-Byzantine, entirely reminiscent of the contemporaneous Neo-Byzantine Westminster Cathedral in London.

Within the last decade, the church has been entirely refurbished, and looks brand-new inside and out.

The nearby Dreieinigkeitkirche (“Holy Trinity Church”) was constructed in the Baroque style from 1743 to 1747. It occupies a site on which used to be located The Chapel Of Saint George’s Hospital, upgraded to a parish church in 1627. It is from that ancient hospital that this particular neighborhood of Hamburg, one of the city’s most fashionable, acquired its name: Saint George.

Only the 65-meter church spire survived the damage caused by World War II. The remainder of the church was rebuilt pursuant to a new design and erected between 1954 and 1957.

Not far from Hamburg’s Laeiszhalle is Gnadenkirch (“Church Of Mercy”), a beautiful Neo-Romanesque ecclesiastical structure set in the middle of a network of road junctions, designed to be admired on all sides and from all approaches.

A church of remarkable beauty and architectural distinction, the Gnadenkirche was erected in 1906 and 1907. The church features a high central steeple, topped by a diamond-shaped roof, which is surrounded by smaller steeples. The building is a splendid example of Reform Architecture, a school of design that dominated Protestant religious architecture around the year 1900.

The interior of the church was designed in a manner similar to a theater—everything is focused on the altar and the pulpit.

In 2004, The Lutheran Diocese Of Hamburg turned the church over to The Russian Orthodox Church. The Lutheran church no longer had a sizeable congregation in the immediate area—after World War I, this area of Hamburg saw commercial and government properties replace residential properties—and did not want to continue to spend significant sums of money maintaining the great church structure.

Not wanting to abandon or demolish such a prominent and beautiful building, The Lutheran Diocese gave the building to Hamburg’s large Russian émigré community (there are 12,000 recent Russian immigrants in Central Hamburg alone).

Saint-Joseph-Kirche is a Roman Catholic Church situated smack in the middle of the red-light district of Hamburg.

The church looks out of place. Any church would look out of place in a red-light district, but a heavily-decorated Roman Catholic Church especially looks out of place in Protestant Hamburg.

The church was built on land outside the city’s old boundaries, where there was freedom of worship. The ground on which the church is situated was for centuries administered by the Danish crown, and Denmark long granted the privilege of free worship in Hamburg’s outlying districts. In fact, the Danish crown specifically granted this particular parcel of land to the Roman Catholic Church in order to build the church.

The facade of the brick building is decorated with Baroque sandstone ornaments and a portal with the figures of Joseph and Jesus Christ. On top of the gable there is a cross with angels on either side.

The church was designed by Melchior Tatz, a noted Austrian ecclesiastical architect, and constructed between 1718 and 1723.

During World War II, the church was heavily damaged. Only the front façade remained standing. Between 1953 and 1955, the church was rebuilt in the Baroque style, although only the street façade remained faithful to the actual original design. Everything else, including the interior, is entirely new, although consistent with Baroque style.

Today the church serves Hamburg’s Polish community.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


For the last couple of weeks, Joshua and I have been listening to four discs of music that have given us some degree of pleasure, and provided us with a largely rewarding listening experience.

Bach Organ Music, performed by Daniel Chorzempa, on the Philips label

Haydn’s Symphonies Nos. 100 and 103, performed by The Orchestra Of Saint Luke’s under Charles Mackerras, on the Telarc label

Brahms’s Sonatas For Cello And Piano, performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, on the RCA label

Orchestral music of Copland, performed by the Baltimore Symphony under David Zinman, on the Argo label

Josh’s favorite composer is Bach, and we brought several Bach discs to Boston. We brought the Daniel Chorzempa disc because it contains so many of Bach’s very greatest compositions for organ: BWV 532, 543, 552, 565 and 582.

Four of the five works on this disc come from Chorzempa’s very first Philips recording, made in 1970 on the organ of Grote Kerk in Breda in The Netherlands. The fifth work on the disc, BWV 552, the great “Saint Anne” Prelude And Fugue, one of Bach’s most magnificent creations, comes from a 1982 Philips issue, recorded on the organ of Bovenkerk in Kampen in The Netherlands.

These are fine performances, beautifully recorded. The disc is magnificent because the music is magnificent.

Chorzempa is a scholarly musician more than he is a performing artist, and his interpretations tend more toward the correct than the sublime. Nevertheless, his work gives much pleasure.

This particular disc is from the Philips Concert Classics line issued during the 1990’s. That series was long ago discontinued, and Chorzempa’s Bach performances are available now only in a multi-disc set.

Chorzempa is mostly unknown today, but he was a major recording artist in the 1970’s and 1980’s. He still continues to teach and play. His most recent series of recitals, a couple of weeks ago, was in Spain.

Chorzempa was born and raised in Minneapolis. He is the son of émigrés from Austria, who fled Central Europe in the 1930’s. He studied at the University Of Minnesota for many years, and he has varied interests—he obtained advanced degrees in music, architecture and history while studying at the University Of Minnesota.

Since his mid-20’s, Chorzempa has lived in Europe, spending most of his time in Germany and Austria. His visits to the U.S. are now infrequent. I would like to hear him in person one day.

The disc of Haydn symphonies, issued in 1991, is one of three Haydn symphony discs Charles Mackerras recorded for Telarc with The Orchestra Of Saint Luke’s before the project was discontinued.

It is easy to understand why this project was short-lived. These performances are not very good.

First, the orchestra is not very good. Although the musicians are fully professional, The Orchestra Of Saint Luke’s is not an orchestra that plays together fulltime under an array of top-flight conductors. It remains, resolutely, a pickup ensemble, and the tip-off, as always, is the generic nature of the sound and the stiff, impersonal phrasing. The musicians strive for correctness, nothing more, and this is because they have never had the time and opportunity to proceed beyond correctness.

Second, the conductor is not very good. Unlike Thomas Beecham or George Szell or Colin Davis, Mackerras has never been a satisfactory Haydn conductor. His Haydn is neat and brisk, but devoid of the imagination and wit and personality necessary to bring Haydn’s music fully to life.

There is a large assortment of failures in Mackerras’s Haydn. For a start, the introductions account for nothing. There is no sense of anticipation or event in Mackerras’s introductions—his introductions are simple warm-ups, nothing more. First and last movements never reach any genuine climax or culmination or resolution—instead, the movements merely end. Slow movements lack expression and emotion and gravitas. The Allegretto of the “Military” Symphony and the Andante of the “Drumroll” Symphony, in Mackerras’s hands, are mere contrasting episodes rather than the emotional cores of the respective works. The Menuets are bizarrely fast, laughably so, played so quickly that no one—conductor or musicians—even makes the attempt to phrase.

Finally, there is no grandeur in these performances. These are among Haydn’s last and very greatest symphonies, each containing a world of drama and imagination, but one would never know it from these performances.

Never have I heard such boring Haydn readings. I’m not surprised my father allowed Josh and me to borrow this disc.

The RCA disc of Brahms’s Sonatas For Cello And Piano, from 1984, was the earlier of the two versions of these works Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax recorded (the Sony remake appeared less than a decade later). These performances are note-perfect, serious and devoted to a fault, but totally lacking penetration and personality. Fundamentally, the music-making is dull as dust. The sound engineering is excellent, capturing a natural acoustic and a good balance between cello and piano.

The Copland disc is a lot of fun, and contains one great performance. We brought several Copland discs to Boston because Josh wanted to hear more Copland, and we both enjoyed this disc immensely.

The first work on the disc is the complete score to the Agnes DeMille ballet, “Rodeo”, and this performance is the one disappointment on the disc. The Baltimore Symphony plays the score beautifully, but the reading lacks the pizzazz Leonard Bernstein brought to “Four Dance Episodes”, the standard concert extracts from the complete score.

David Zinman’s tempi are a little slower than is customary in “Rodeo”, and he uses this to his advantage by highlighting many subtleties of scoring that other conductors pass over. This is the most sophisticated and detailed orchestral presentation and execution of the score on disc, by far—in fact, it puts the efforts of Bernstein, Eduardo Mata, Leonard Slatkin and Michael Tilson Thomas to shame. It comes at a price, however, because the energy level is low and the rhythms do not “snap” as they do in Bernstein’s hands.

The “Danzon Cubano” and “El Salon Mexico” that follow are one-idea pieces, fun but insubstantial. Both pieces may be accused of being exercises in orchestration. The performances here are very well-played. Once again, Zinman emphasizes interesting orchestral detail.

The great performance on this disc is the final work, the complete score to the Eugene Loring ballet, “Billy The Kid”. “Billy The Kid” is a great score, far finer and far richer than “Rodeo”. It may be finer even than “Appalachian Spring”.

The complete score contains almost twice as much music as the suite Copland fashioned for concert performance, and not a bar of the music is filler. This is a masterly score, musically and dramatically, and it has a far wider range of emotion than the standard suite.

Zinman does something in this score that no other conductor has managed to do: reveal it as a coherent, integrated musical composition rather than a loose sequence of cowboy tunes. He accomplishes this by playing up atmosphere and characterization, which makes the numerous transitions between episodes appear to be seamless.

Zinman’s is an amazingly sophisticated performance. Once again, his tempi are more leisurely than those of other conductors, but this allows him to invest the music with more drama and expression. For instance, the elegiac tone of the beginning and ending of the ballet is unusually powerful and deeply affecting. Zinman has more fun with the cowboy tunes than other conductors, but the serious episodes carry a potency and weight and concentration I never before thought to be contained in the score. For the first time, I thought Billy’s capture and death to be gripping and emotionally true. In other hands, including Bernstein’s, the music for Billy’s capture and death is not convincing—the music almost passes by as an afterthought as the listener waits for the next cowboy tune to emerge. Here, Billy’s capture and death are the heart of the score.

The playing of the Baltimore Symphony is superb. The musicians, unmistakably, were convinced by Zinman of the seriousness of this music. Their playing carries a commitment and fervor not often associated with Copland’s populist scores, too well-known and too often played to command musicians’s full attention and respect. Baltimore’s first-desk personnel offer the kind of imaginative work formerly associated with Boston and Philadelphia first-desk players under Charles Munch and Eugene Ormandy.

This disc is a fine tribute to the excellent state of the Baltimore Symphony during Zinman’s tenure with the orchestra. It is one of the orchestra’s, and one of Zinman’s, finest discs.

I am surprised this recording is not better known.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

William Eddins

The Internet is the greatest tool ever invented for public and profligate display of idiocy.

Tribute must be paid to a particularly notable piece of idiocy I encountered last week, notable because of its extravagant ignorance and conspicuous foolishness.

The idiocy in question was authored by William Eddins, a Minneapolis-based musician who has been trying, without much success, to create a minor conducting career over the last couple of decades. This weekend, for instance, Eddins finds himself in Portland, Oregon, doing a one-off “talk and demonstrate” educational outreach appearance with a local ensemble, the kind of thing a talented and serious musician would never consider doing unless money for the household were in very short supply indeed.

My parents met Eddins a few years ago at some function or other in the Twin Cities. At that gathering, Eddins tried first to corner my father, who allowed Eddins to talk to him for three or four minutes until my father could not stand it any longer and managed to escape. Shortly afterward, Eddins tried to corner my mother, who immediately dismissed Eddins with one of her subtle but skillful maneuvers for extracting herself from unwanted social exchanges. In neither case did Eddins even have a clue that he had been cut.

Last week on, Eddins wrote an astonishing entry about funding for The National Endowment For The Arts. The piece contained not a single word of truth, but it offered spectacular confirmation to the world that Eddins is indeed an idiot of the very highest order.

The content of what Eddins wrote was disorganized and largely incoherent, but the thrust of his muddle was that the budget for The National Endowment For The Arts took a “nose dive” during the Reagan Administration, a nosedive that was especially painful—or so Eddins claims—after the generous decade of the 1970’s, a decade which Eddins believes, inaccurately, to have represented some sort of glorious period, a golden age, for government-sponsored arts funding. Eddins suggests that The National Endowment For The Arts has yet to recover from The Reagan Era.

Eddins does not think or write clearly, so instead of trying further to clarify his presentation, I reproduce his key paragraph. All errors are his, not mine. It would be pointless to attempt to correct them all.

Think back to the 1970s if you dare. Disco, Oil at some ridiculous price, Blaxploitation movies, La Choy makes Chinese food … taste American! And, of course, the NEA. Grants to artists, interest in local Arts organizations, Arts funding through government councils, etc. Then Reagan, Helms, and the rest of them got into office with the “Just look at those stupid, silly Artists making their Godless Art! Why are we wasting money on them? Those poor Rich people are suffering so much that they need a tax cut” ideology and…. voilá!….. Arts funding in this country took a nose dive. Ironically, in trying to “wrest Art from it’s elitist ideals” the Reagan revolution firmly ensconced the artist into the back pocket of the rich and famous. It’s the rich, after all, who have disposable income. The average Joe (non-plumber) no longer had a stake in the Artist’s life because none of their tax dollars went in that direction. So a vicious cycle was born.

None of what Eddins writes is true.

While The National Endowment For The Arts has often been a source of ridicule by politicians over the years, what Eddins has written about its budget is sheerest fantasy on his part. Eddins has espoused—publicly, boldly, foolishly—utter nonsense.

The entire Appropriations History of the NEA, from the agency’s inception through Fiscal Year 2008, may be viewed here. Had Eddins bothered to google “National Endowment For The Arts” and “budget”, he would have found the referenced comprehensive tabulation to be the first search result.

The Appropriations History of The National Endowment For The Arts disproves Eddins’s many misstatements.

There are four particularly telling facts contained in the government data.

First, NEA funding was far more substantial and generous in the decade of the 1980’s than it had been in the decade of the 1970’s.

Second, there were only two reductions in the budget of the NEA during the Reagan Presidency.

The first reduction was in Fiscal Year 1982, Reagan’s first budget, when Reagan imposed budget cuts of 10 to 15 per cent across the board upon all Federal agencies. The NEA suffered a budget cut that fiscal year in line with other government agencies.

The second reduction was in Fiscal Year 1986, when the NEA appropriation was reduced by $5 million, or less than three per cent, from the 1985 appropriation. The NEA budget increased annually during the other six fiscal years of Reagan’s terms of office.

Third, the budget of the NEA during Reagan’s final six fiscal years was higher than it is today, over twenty years later. This is so in real dollars, not in inflation-adjusted dollars (in the latter case, the disparity is even more pronounced).

Fourth, there HAVE been cuts in the NEA budget since the agency was established—substantial cuts, indeed—but such cuts came long after Reagan left Washington and returned to California. Those cuts came, not under Reagan, not under Bush I and not under Bush II. Those cuts came under Clinton, when the NEA experienced a drastic decline in its appropriation. Under Clinton, the appropriation for the NEA was cut almost in half, declining in six of eight fiscal years for which Clinton was responsible for the federal budget.

In sum, literally nothing Eddins has written about the NEA and NEA Appropriations History contains a syllable of truth.

Alas, Eddins’s childlike, uninformed and unsophisticated views on matters economic and political are not restricted to the domestic realm. They are international in scope.

After demonstrating his vast ignorance on the subject of American arts funding, Eddins goes on to allege that decreases in arts funding are spreading, American-style, to Europe, Canada—and even Australia, of all places.

The latter nation, Eddins assures the reader, is hobbled by a “vicious, short-sighted, conservative” government, a government “which has lost its collective mind”.

The people of Australia would be startled to learn this dismaying news, having narrowly elected, one year ago, a left-of-center government.

Of course, Australians would be equally startled to learn that they were living in what Eddins describes as a “bastion of Liberalism”. Reading such a description of their country, Australians would all have a hearty laugh—and this is so whether Eddins intended to refer to Liberalism or liberalism (not that he would know the difference between the two).

Of course, in the world of Eddins, things are no better in Canada, which is also burdened by a “vicious, short-sighted, conservative” government.

One can only ask: is any nation immune?

According to Eddins, things are so bad up north that it was he who had to break the news to professional musicians in Edmonton that orchestras in the U.S. receive virtually no government funding. Eddins’s earth-shattering revelation caused “looks of shock” on the faces of Edmonton musicians, or so Eddins claims.

Such an incredulous assertion signifies one of three things: (1) that orchestra musicians in Edmonton are too lazy to keep up with their profession by reading arts newspapers, music periodicals and music trade journals; (2) that orchestra musicians in Edmonton are mentally retarded; or (3) that Eddins inherently lacks credibility.

The correct answer, as a general rule, is the most logical one.

Of course, public displays of idiocy are generally accompanied by further indicia of imbecility, all guaranteed to provide great entertainment value if nothing else.

Eddins does not disappoint.

Eddins’s profile on informs the reader that “Bill has many non-musical hobbies”. Those “hobbies” include “cooking, eating, discussing food and planning dinner parties”.

What versatility!

Of course, none of this comes as a shock—only the very dullest reader could be surprised to learn about this fascination with food after glancing at the accompanying photos of a very, very well-nourished Eddins.

Eddins’s agent, naturally, is drawn into the picture, and the fun continues. His agent is an “innovative leader in the music business” and “works over nationally known soloists, conductors, ensembles and institutions”.

Well, that last bit certainly explains why his agent only has four clients!

There are no other conductors, alas, on Eddins’s agent’s roster—not even Christoph “Eschenback”, to use the Eddins spelling of the German conductor’s last name on InsideTheArts—but this surely may be explained away by the fact that Eddins’s agent, according to the agent’s own website, runs four or five other businesses in addition to his thriving arts management practice.

The agent’s comprehensive client list is comprised of two brass ensembles (in both of which the agent himself is a player), one utterly unknown pianist, and Eddins.

This all must be very efficient. The agent, no doubt, need devote only a few hours each year to his arts management business, with all necessary paperwork contained within a single manila folder.

I could go on and on, given the excellent fodder Eddins has provided—this is a case in which the material virtually writes itself—but my point has been sufficiently made.

The genuine question for which I would like an answer is: what is it about America that propels its citizens to engage in public demonstrations of profound, flagrant and basest idiocy?

Low intelligence and lack of education play a role, of course, but low intelligence and lack of education are capable of explaining, only in part, the contemptible ravings of someone like Eddins, who quite clearly believes in the lunatic fantasies to which he gives public utterance. That his fantasies are connected to his field of work simply makes his fantasies more troubling still.

I wish a good explanation were at hand.

Josh’s answer is a simple, pithy one: “IQ is determined at birth”.

A colleague at work who read Eddins’s article made references to “brains” and “rubber ducks”, but his full remarks are unprintable.

My father said that the article offered conclusive proof of the validity of Justice Holmes’s admonition regarding society’s legitimate interest in preventing generation upon generation of imbeciles.

My mother only had two words to say: “Oh, dear”.

Oh, dear, indeed.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


"A democracy tends to ignore, even deny, threats to its existence because it loathes doing what is necessary to counter them. What we end up with in what is conventionally called Western Society is a topsy-turvy situation in which those seeking to destroy democracy appear to be fighting for legitimate aims, while its defenders are pictured as repressive reactionaries. Identification of democracy’s internal and external adversaries with the forces of progress, legitimacy, even peace, discredits and paralyzes the efforts of people who are only trying to preserve their institutions."

Jean-Francois Revel, How Democracies Perish (1983)