I am very glad we went to New York for the weekend. Joshua and I had a great time, an even better time than we had expected.
Our hotel contributed significantly to the beauty of our weekend. We stayed near the United Nations, a very quiet and very safe area, and our hotel was of a very high standard. It even had a sizable swimming pool, on the 27th floor, and an indoor tennis court, on the 39th floor.
Our room was on the 30th floor and featured floor-to-ceiling windows, offering stunning views of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. We loved it.
We also loved the fact that our hotel was stunningly inexpensive. Josh and I shall have to make a point of staying there again before New York hotel rates return to stratospheric norms.
We didn’t have much time to enjoy the magnificence of the views once we checked in on Friday afternoon because we had tickets that night to New York City Ballet.
We walked all the way from our hotel over and up to Lincoln Center. On the way, we stopped at my favorite New York deli and picked up a corned beef sandwich, which was gargantuan and which we shared as we walked the rest of the way to the theater.
The reason we wanted to attend Friday evening’s performance of New York City Ballet was to see “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet”, one of George Balanchine’s very greatest ballets. It is danced to Schoenberg’s marvelously-inventive orchestration of Brahms’s Piano Quartet In G Minor, Opus 25, one of my favorite compositions.
Josh already knew the music, because we had listened to the work on disc a couple of years ago (we had listened to the dazzling Baltimore/Comissiona recording, the finest of all recorded versions of the work). However, until Friday night, Josh had never seen Balanchine’s ballet to Schoenberg’s score—but he had heard all about it from me, since “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” is my favorite Balanchine ballet.
Josh never appreciated Balanchine until February of last year, when he saw “Serenade” for the first time, but since that evening he has become interested in Balanchine. Josh was totally captivated by last year’s “Serenade”—and who cannot be captivated by “Serenade”?—and he did not object to the rest of last year’s program, either (“Mozartiana” and “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2” had also been on the bill that evening). After seeing “Serenade”, Josh has always been eager to explore more Balanchine.
Josh liked “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” very much. It is one of Balanchine’s largest-scaled and most complex works, with an amazing variety of mood and expression displayed throughout the work. At its conclusion, Balanchine practically blows the lid off the roof with a sizzling Hungarian finale.
Robert Craft has claimed credit for introducing Balanchine to Schoenberg’s arrangement of the Brahms, and Craft very well may be telling the truth. Craft conducted the work with several orchestras during the mid-1960’s, the period during which Craft was a frequent guest conductor of major American ensembles, and he even recorded the piece with the Chicago Symphony in 1964, two years before Balanchine’s “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” received its premiere.
“Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” was the first abstract ballet Balanchine created for The New York State Theater, his and New York City Ballet’s new home at Lincoln Center and the only theater, anywhere, designed specifically to meet the needs of classical ballet. Consequently, “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” was the first abstract ballet to take advantage of the full resources of the new theater, including the giant stage and extended wing space, both on a much larger scale than City Center, the former home of New York City Ballet.
“Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” is on the grandest possible scale, spreading its large ensemble throughout the entire breadth and depth of The New York State Theater stage. The ballet is masterly in its use and definition of stage space.
The ballet has one of the greatest of all Balanchine “Allegro Movements” and one of the greatest of all Balanchine “Adagio Movements” (to borrow terminology from Arlene Croce, terminology neither accurate nor adequate, but terminology everyone instinctively understands). Its finale is one of Balanchine’s finest and most-loved creations.
The ballet has nine principal roles, all of supreme difficulty. It is one of the most difficult of all Balanchine ballets to cast, rehearse and perform, which is why the ballet is so seldom staged by other companies. Indeed, “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” is not presented frequently even by New York City Ballet, as its casting and rehearsal requirements are extremely demanding, taxing the strengths even of the world’s single greatest ballet company.
The first cast of “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” included Melissa Hayden, Suzanne Farrell, Allegra Kent, Patricia McBride and Edward Villella, legendary dancers all. I wish I could have seen the ballet’s first run of performances, even though some persons recall the first run of performances as having been seriously under-rehearsed.
My parents first encountered “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” sometime in the 1970’s, and my parents saw Suzanne Farrell and Patricia McBride dance the roles Balanchine created for them. My parents say that performances of “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” in the 1970’s were unquestionably under-rehearsed.
I am not sure that I would call Friday night’s performance under-rehearsed. The performance was not sheer perfection—some of the ensemble work was sloppy, and some of the dancers assigned principal roles performed the steps quite nicely but did not bring much individuality or color to their roles—but “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” is a notoriously difficult work to bring off, one of those works that is so great that it is almost beyond the capabilities of human beings. A perfect performance of the ballet will never occur.
Myself, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of Friday night’s “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet”. In fact, I could have watched the ballet, happily, three times in a row.
“Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” was placed last on Friday night’s program, consistent with New York City Ballet’s practice of placing a major Balanchine masterpiece at the end of most NYCB programs. It was preceded by a Lynne Taylor-Corbett ballet, “Chiaroscuro”, set to music by Geminiani; “Papillons”, a Peter Martins work set to Schumann’s piano composition of the same name; and “Concerto DSCH”, an Alexei Ratmansky ballet danced to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2.
It was a very good program, and Josh and I enjoyed the evening immensely.
“Chiaroscuro”, from 1994, is merely a pleasant piece, without any individuality, but I was happy to make its acquaintance. “Papillons”, also from 1994, was pretty feeble, all in all, one of those faceless Peter Martins creations that are instantly forgettable. However, “Papillons” was worthwhile because its performance gave Josh his first opportunity to see Darci Kistler. Even though Kistler is approaching the end of her career and is no longer in her prime, Josh will be able to say, in future years, that he saw, in person, one of the greatest of all Balanchine dancers and one of the last Balanchine dancers trained by the master himself.
“Concerto DSCH” was on another, altogether higher level than “Chiaroscuro” or “Papillons”. It is a fascinating ballet, packed with incident, and I would like to see it again as soon as possible. Despite the surface lightness and gaiety of the score (one of my least favorite Shostakovich compositions), the ballet has serious, even grim, undertones, clearly alluding to the demented Stalin era of the 1930’s. “Concerto DSCH” received its premiere only eight months ago.
Ratmansky may be a great choreographer. In February 2007, Josh and I saw Ratmansky’s “Russian Seasons” at New York City Ballet. “Russian Seasons” was my first exposure to Ratmansky’s work, and my reaction to “Russian Seasons” in 2007 was precisely the same as my reaction to “Concerto DSCH” on Friday night: I wanted instantly to see the ballet again.
I think Josh is starting to fall in love with New York City Ballet. This was our third visit to The New York State Theater to see the company, and Josh says that each visit gets better. He’s already looking forward to next month, when we will attend another New York City Ballet performance over the February holiday weekend.
Josh contends that some of the New York City Ballet dancers have names that HAVE to be stage names. Josh was particularly taken with the names Sebastien Marcovici, Giovanni Villalobos, Max Van Der Sterre and Adrian Danchig-Waring, all of which, Josh insists, are made-up names. Josh says that none of those dancers could possibly have been christened with such names at birth, and that they are stage names, probably created because the real names of the dancers are too unremarkable. Josh says that the dancers in question must have real names along the lines of Bob Smith, Joe Brown, Bill Johnson and Mike Jones, names too blandly American to suggest the excitement and glamour of the stage.
After the performance, we took a cab back to our hotel.
We decided to eat dinner in our room. We checked out the hotel’s main restaurant, but we did not like its décor, a little too bold and a little too modernist and a little too garish for our tastes. We also did not like the fact that the main restaurant’s dining tables were too close together.
We also checked out the hotel’s informal restaurant, but we did not like the informal restaurant, either. It appeared to be little more than a bar and grill, designed to accommodate persons who want some light food to accompany their first priority, drinking.
Once we found out that room service for dinner would be available until midnight, we decided that the view from our room would be the perfect backdrop for a late dinner, and we went upstairs and ordered a full dinner from room service.
Our decision was the right one. The night views from our room were spectacular, and we could eat and talk in peace, without having to listen to other diners and without being interrupted by servers. It was a lovely dinner in a lovely setting.
We did the same thing Saturday morning. The view from our room was so stunning that we elected to eat breakfast in our room rather than in the dining room.
We did not want to have to bother to leave the hotel for breakfast, because our plan for Saturday morning was to make use of the hotel pool. It is not often that one can swim on the 27th floor of a building while looking out over Manhattan on all sides, and we wanted to take advantage of the luxury.
It is good that we went ahead with our Saturday morning plan. As soon as we arrived on the 27th floor, we observed a notice, informing hotel guests that the pool would be closed for two weeks of maintenance, beginning on Sunday. Because Saturday was our only chance to use the pool, we took full advantage of the situation. We spent the entire morning in and around the pool.
We left the hotel shortly after 12:00 Noon and walked over to the theater district, because we had matinee tickets for “Equus” at the Broadhurst Theatre. Josh and I had last seen a production at the Broadhurst in May 2006, when we had attended a performance of “The History Boys” at the Broadhurst Theatre. From the program booklet, we learned that the musical, “Cabaret”, which we had seen the previous weekend in Boston, had had its original Broadway run at the Broadhurst.
“Equus”, presenting the story of a deeply-troubled boy and the well-meaning but unfulfilled psychiatrist who attempts to help him, is a very interesting play. It holds the stage, and “plays” very well.
However, if one closely analyzes the text, “Equus” ultimately lacks depth. It is, primarily, a play about homosexuality, and the play deals with the issue with a veiled and gloved delicacy.
The play is probably best enjoyed as a mystery, with the audience following along on the heels of the psychiatrist as he attempts to get to the bottom of what troubles this disturbed boy, who has recently blinded six horses.
During the course of the play, the audience learns more about the psychiatrist than it does about the boy, which is, of course, the playwright’s intent. The fundamental question, never resolved, is whether the psychiatrist’s ultra-rational, well-ordered life is superior to the boy’s life of passion, unbridled emotion and misshapen spirituality.
Some of the writing is quite good—and some of the writing is not. The roles of the boy’s parents, for instance, are very poorly-written. Both are clichéd figures; their lines derive from placards. The role of the magistrate, who assigns the psychiatrist the boy’s case, is also poorly-written; her lines—sheer “Stiff Upper Lip, Let’s Get Through The Blitz” nonsense—are straight from old World War II movies.
If the performance had been strong, I suspect that none of this would have mattered. However, the performance in the current Broadway production was not strong enough to make the audience forget about the weaknesses in the script.
For starters, it was a mistake to cast Richard Griffiths in the role of the psychiatrist. Griffiths is a character actor, not a leading man, and the role of the psychiatrist calls out for an actor larger-than-life. Among current stage actors, this is a role for a Ralph Fiennes or a Derek Jacobi or a Liam Neeson, each of whom might be riveting in the part.
Griffiths, on the other hand, has nothing to bring to the part other than his vast bulk, a fleshy and unpleasant face, and a tendency to underplay everything to an acute degree.
I certainly prefer understatement to overstatement, but Griffiths carried understatement to an extreme, practically getting lost in the part. He might have disappeared onstage completely were it not for his excessive size and his labored breathing, neither of which could be ignored. (I very well might be wrong, but Griffiths appears to have gained another fifty pounds since “The History Boys”.)
Daniel Radcliffe is not bad as the boy, but everything he offers is well-schooled and on the surface. He nowise suggested the fright and fear—and danger—that lurk beneath his character’s exterior.
The supporting cast members appeared to have needed directorial guidance to bring their parts to life, and they appeared not to have received it. The supporting actors were obviously highly-skilled, but their performances were stuck on a summer-stock level, which must have been as frustrating for them as it was for the audience.
I fault the director for these shortcomings. I have seen this director’s work a few times in London, and I have always departed the theater very unimpressed.
The current Broadway production of “Equus” originated in London and was based upon the original production of “Equus” (introduced to London audiences in 1973 and New York audiences in 1974).
The original “Equus” production was one of the most celebrated pieces of work by its director, the late John Dexter. In fact, Dexter may have been more responsible for the work’s initial success than the playwright, because it was Dexter, and not playwright Peter Shaffer, who was solely responsible for the original staging, the stage directions of which were not included when the script was first presented to Dexter.
It was Dexter who chose to stage the original production on a black and virtually blank stage, it was Dexter who decided that stage lighting was to be the sole visual component of the original production, it was Dexter who decided that the blinding of the horses needed to be enacted onstage, and it was Dexter who determined that the horses needed to be portrayed onstage—but by actors, and actors wearing elaborate face masks.
All of these conventions have been observed in the current Broadway production, and I believe that observance of these conventions has been a mistake. I think “Equus” deserves a totally new look and would benefit from a completely fresh approach. The current production practically reeks of something old and borrowed. The material needs to be re-imagined, and it cannot be re-imagined when tied so closely to the constraints of the original production, no matter how striking the original production may have been.
I believe it is time for “Equus” to be staged on a brilliantly-lit stage, a stage with some color and sunlight (much of the action, after all, takes place outdoors). I believe it is time to dispense with the reenactment of the blinding of the horses—indeed, I believe it is time to dispense with the horses altogether.
In short, a recycled Dexter production does no one any good. It does not serve the playwright, it does not serve the original director, it does not serve the present-day director, it does not serve the cast members, and it does not serve the audience. Whoever decided that a remounting of the Dexter production of “Equus” was in order has made a grievous strategic and artistic error (and the current New York production has proven to be a grievous financial error, as well).
After “Equus”, Josh and I took the subway down to Little Italy in order to have dinner at an Italian restaurant. Josh had never visited Little Italy before, so we spent an hour walking around this small area before we selected a restaurant.
After dinner, we took the subway up to Lincoln Center, because we had tickets for Saturday night’s New York Philharmonic concert. It was Josh’s first visit to Avery Fisher Hall.
The concert was a good one because the program was a good one. The concert began with Haydn’s Symphony No. 89, very seldom played, and the first half of the concert continued with four arias from Haydn operas, operas which are never staged in the U.S. (and very seldom staged in Europe, either). After intermission, the orchestra played Brahms’s Serenade No. 1.
We enjoyed the concert. It provided us with an opportunity to hear some rare Haydn, it provided us with an opportunity to hear baritone Thomas Quasthoff, it provided us with an opportunity to hear Brahms’s sunniest composition for orchestra, and it provided us with an opportunity to see and hear Riccardo Muti in action. We could not have asked for anything more.
The New York Philharmonic does not have a beautiful sound. The orchestra’s sound is generic, and sometimes strident. Further, the orchestra does not always play together. Like the Vienna Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic seems to play together only when it wants to—and, happily, the orchestra seemed to want to play together for Muti.
Muti’s Haydn wasn’t bad. It was suitably objective, if not genuinely stylish, and the orchestra’s playing was mostly clean. However, one does not look to the New York Philharmonic or to Muti for the last word in Haydn performance.
The same holds true for the music of Brahms. The New York Philharmonic is not a Brahms orchestra—if for no other reason than it lacks the beauty and depth of sound the music of Brahms demands—and Muti is not a Brahms conductor.
Muti’s Brahms is not natural. Everything in a Muti Brahms performance is always ever-so-slightly off-kilter, from the sound to the phrasing to the tempo selection.
A few years ago, I heard Muti and his old La Scala orchestra perform this same Brahms piece in Paris, and the Paris performance sounded exactly like his reading with the New York Philharmonic: unidiomatic, emotionally chilly, a touch clumsy, and entirely unconvincing. Both performances were fully professional, even admirable in their own ways, and yet everything about both performances was completely wrong-headed. Hearing Muti conduct Brahms is like hearing a native Russian speaker offer, in English, a purely phonetic reading of “The Wasteland”. Moments of fascination mingle with moments of irritation, disgust, and horror.
After the New York Philharmonic concert, we took a cab back to our hotel. Rightly or wrongly, I am reluctant to ride the New York subway at night.
We ate breakfast in our room again Sunday morning, because we wanted to spend one last hour simply taking in the glorious views.
After breakfast, we cleaned up, put our stuff in the car, checked out of our hotel and started a long walk.
Our destination was The Frick Collection. We arrived as the Collection was opening for the day, and we spent three hours ambling through the rooms. Like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which we had visited the previous weekend, The Frick Collection displays its artwork irrespective of nationality, school or period.
Of course, the quality of artwork at The Frick is much higher than at the Gardner Museum—Mrs. Gardner had often complained that other art buyers, especially Henry Clay Frick, were outbidding her in the art markets of the time—and we enjoyed making a leisurely visit through its rooms.
We departed at 2:00 p.m., because we had tickets for the 3:00 p.m. matinee at City Center, where Miami City Ballet was presenting a guest engagement.
The program was all-Balanchine, which for us was the attraction.
“Square Dance”, “Rubies” and “Symphony In C” were on the program, key Balanchine masterpieces all, and none of which Josh had seen.
Oddly, Josh and I had attended a performance by Miami City Ballet once before. In November 2006, Miami City Ballet had visited Minneapolis and had presented the full-length Minkus/Petipa “Don Quixote”, which Josh and I had hated.
Miami City Ballet, however, is a Balanchine company, and not a company for 19th-Century classics, and I have never held against the company that awful “Don Quixote” from 2006.
Miami City Ballet is a major company. Its roster of full-time dancers numbers 46, which makes it slightly larger than Boston Ballet (with a current roster of 42 dancers).
Miami City Ballet dances more Balanchine than any other company in the world other than New York City Ballet—and it shows. The Miami dancers are masters of the Balanchine idiom, credit for which must go to the company’s director, Edward Villella, the greatest male Balanchine dancer of his generation.
Not only did Villella dance in the first performances of “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet”, he also danced in the first performances of “Rubies”, a ballet created especially for Villella and Patricia McBride (and which Josh and I will see again in a few weeks, because Boston Ballet will soon mount the complete “Jewels”, of which “Rubies” is the middle episode).
Miami City Ballet may be America’s finest dance company outside New York. I was astonished how fine was the dancing on Sunday afternoon. It was unfailingly crisp, confident, polished, and virtuosic. The dancers had all the speed and control Balanchine requires. They almost reveled in their enjoyment of the difficult steps—their enthusiasm positively bounded across the footlights. This is a much finer company than the other two regional ballet companies Josh and I have seen in the last three months, San Francisco Ballet and Boston Ballet.
Alas, the company may not be around much longer. The company is under financial duress. It is almost out of money, having depleted its reserves and emergency fund, and may have to cease operations very, very soon. The company’s demise would be a great loss to American ballet.
The financial distress was on display during the New York engagement, because the company performed without an orchestra, which shocked us greatly. Apparently it was the company itself that had to bear the cost of the orchestra for its New York appearances, and not City Center, and the company did not have the money to engage an orchestra for six very important New York performances (Miami City Ballet was making its New York debut with these performances).
I am surprised—and disappointed—that City Center itself did not kick in the relatively modest sums of money required to engage a pickup orchestra so that the dancers could have performed to live music. The dancers must have been heartbroken that they had to perform to taped music in what surely was the most important and exciting engagement of their professional lives.
In adverse economic times, ballet companies are generally the first to fold. This is so because ballet companies are very expensive to maintain, as a full-time roster of dancers must be kept on the permanent payroll even though performances may be infrequent and relatively few in number.
Unlike professional orchestras, ballet companies cannot be expected to offer weekly performances—and they certainly cannot be expected to offer weekly performances offering a new program each week. Even giant ballet companies like New York City Ballet, with over 100 dancers under contract, perform only a few weeks each year. Ballet companies are in rehearsal most of the year, out of sight and out of mind. They are like icebergs: only a small portion of their critical mass is visible.
I certainly hope Miami City Ballet survives. However, I am not confident about the company’s prospects. Given the sad histories of so many performing arts institutions in South Florida that have come and gone over the years, Miami City Ballet may not be able to surmount the current economic climate. For whatever reason, Miami’s giant metropolitan area does not have a long and distinguished tradition of generous private support for the performing arts.
The Miami City Ballet closed Sunday’s performance with a spectacular performance of “Symphony In C”, canned music and all. It was a performance worthy of New York City Ballet. The company lighted up the theater, and the New York audience was ecstatic.
How ironic it would be if Edward Villella, having made it back to New York, with his own Balanchine company in tow, dancing in peak form, appearing—and triumphing—in the very theater in which Villella himself first made his reputation as a Balanchine dancer, were now to see his company fold.
After Sunday’s ballet performance, Josh and I walked back to our hotel, retrieved the car, and drove straight back to Boston.
We did not eat until we got home, and we were hungry, because we had had nothing to eat since breakfast.
However, we did not have to do much to have a decent meal. On Thursday night, Josh and I had prepared our Sunday night dinner in advance: an Amish pot roast, Amish potatoes and an Amish vegetable casserole (made with fresh green beans, fresh white corn, sweet onion and stewed tomatoes). We simply put those in the oven to warm and, in thirty minutes, we were ready to sit down to a good dinner.