Saturday, May 30, 2009

Not Up To Much

Joshua and I have not been up to much.

Last weekend, we were in Oklahoma for Josh’s brother’s high school graduation. It was a beautiful ceremony, and it was encouraging to see so many fresh-faced young men and women marking the end of their high school days. Josh and I were very pleased that we were able to make it to the graduation.

Josh’s parents hosted a graduation party after the ceremony, and all of Josh’s aunts and uncles attended, including a couple of which I had not previously met. There was a big cookout in the back yard, followed by cake and homemade ice cream.

We spent much of the weekend discussing our upcoming trip. We already know how we will spend our week in Austria, but we devoted significant attention to discussing how we might spend our four days in Munich. We did not make any firm decisions, but we know we will easily be able to visit the essential attractions of Munich in the allotted time.

Josh’s time is now his own for the rest of the summer. Since Josh and I will be away during July and the first half of August, Josh is presently trying to decide what to do with his time during the month of June.

Josh has not come up with anything yet. However, we have made weekend plans for the last weekend of June. For only the second time since our 2006 graduations, Josh and I will return to Washington for a weekend.

The genesis of the weekend is a visit to Washington by the Royal Ballet.

When my father read that the Royal Ballet will be appearing in Washington this summer, he asked my mother whether she wanted to travel to Washington to see one or two of the performances. Since my parents will not take a trip this summer, my father thought that a short summer visit to Washington might appeal to my mother.

My mother was delighted at the prospect of seeing the Royal Ballet. After a little research, she was even more delighted when she learned that in June there will be two plays in Washington she and my father want to see. The icing on the cake for my mother was her discovery that there will be six important art exhibitions on display in Washington in late June: two at the Corcoran; two at the National Gallery; one at the Renwick; and one at the Smithsonian Museum Of American Art.

All of this was more than enough to make a trip to Washington worthwhile, and my parents booked the trip—and asked Josh and me whether we wanted to join them.

Josh and I looked at the various offerings, and we immediately said “Yes”.

We should be able to fit everything we want to see and do in Washington into two full days and nights.

It should be a good way to wrap up the month of June—and a good way to spend our final weekend before returning home for the summer.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ballets Russes

On Saturday night, Joshua and I went downtown to attend a performance of Boston Ballet.

In a way, the evening was a celebration for us, as it marked the end of Josh’s first year in law school.

The Boston Ballet program was a centennial tribute to Ballets Russes, founded 100 years ago by Sergei Diaghilev.

George Balanchine’s 1929 Expressionist masterpiece, “The Prodigal Son”, constituted the first part of the program. Although Balanchine choreographed for Ballets Russes only in the company’s very final years, he was the greatest of all choreographers who created dances for the company. Accordingly, it was fitting that “The Prodigal Son” be on the program—it probably is the single greatest ballet ever commissioned by Diaghilev and brought to life by Ballets Russes.

The second part of the program was devoted to two ballets created for Vaslav Nijinsky, who danced in their first productions: Mikhail Fokine’s 1911 “Spectre De La Rose” and Nijinsky’s own 1912 “Afternoon Of A Faun”.

By design, Josh and I skipped the third part of the program, which featured a performance of “The Rite Of Spring” to brand-new choreography by Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo.

It would be inconceivable to omit music of Igor Stravinsky from a Ballets Russes tribute program, since Stravinsky was the greatest composer who wrote music for Ballets Russes. In the process, Stravinsky redefined what ballet music could and should be.

Nevertheless, Balanchine always said that “The Rite Of Spring” cannot and should not be danced—and, late in life, Stravinsky himself said much the same thing. I happen to agree.

The new Boston “Rite Of Spring” received blistering notices in the local and national press, so I suspect Josh and I did not miss out on much.

“The Prodigal Son” was the main feature for us. Josh had never seen “The Prodigal Son”, and I had very much wanted Josh to see Balanchine’s first great masterpiece. “The Prodigal Son” is perhaps the most overtly-dramatic work Balanchine was to create. If Balanchine had died immediately after completing the ballet at age 25, his name would nonetheless be remembered forever.

Josh was bowled over by “The Prodigal Son”. It was not at all what Josh had expected. Josh had previously experienced only plotless, Neo-Classical Balanchine ballets, and he had had no idea that Balanchine was also a master at creating story ballets. The drama and power of “The Prodigal Son” took Josh completely by surprise.

Almost every minute of “The Prodigal Son” is unforgettable; its images have become icons. The startling, angry, violent leaps at the beginning of the ballet, when the son demonstrates his restlessness and his bristling at his father’s authority, seize the audience’s attention immediately. The final leap takes the son over the fence of his father’s home and onto his journey in search of manhood.

The scene with The Goons is always unsettling. For me, it is the most disturbing part of the ballet. I gasped the first time I saw The Goons raise one end of the long table on which The Prodigal Son stands, causing him to slide to the floor.

The scene with The Siren is the heart and soul of the ballet. The steps Balanchine created for The Siren are among his most original and imaginative. When The Siren is done humiliating The Prodigal Son, there is nothing of him left—and nothing left for him to do but to crawl home.

I love the closing scene, perhaps the most powerful emotional moment in all of Balanchine: The Prodigal Son’s sisters see him approach the family home, and call their father, who comes forward and wraps The Prodigal Son in his cloak and takes him back into the home.

I was overwhelmed the first time I saw “The Prodigal Son”, and Josh was overwhelmed Saturday night. The ballet gave Josh an entirely new perspective on Balanchine.

The beauty of “The Prodigal Son” almost always comes across, even in a mediocre performance. Boston Ballet did well by the work, I thought, even though The Siren was not very threatening and The Prodigal Son not quite up to the full requirements of the role.

“Spectre De La Rose” and “Afternoon Of A Faun” do not have much dance interest, at least compared to the Balanchine masterpiece, and they seemed pretty thin after “The Prodigal Son”. I understand why these two ballets created sensations a century ago—the lead role in each ballet is tailored for a star who, through personal magnetism, can carry each ballet—but these ballets are curiosities now, no longer viable without overwhelming stage presences in the leads.

In general, I thought the performances were unobjectionable. The dancers had been meticulously rehearsed and had mastered the steps, although they hardly offered the last word in technique, style and characterization.

Given that Boston Ballet had completed a two-week run of the full-length “The Sleeping Beauty” only two weeks earlier (which Josh and I had missed owing to Josh’s study schedule), and given that the company had simultaneously been preparing a brand-new “Rite Of Spring”, it was a marvel that the dancing was as fine as it was on Saturday night.

It was a rewarding evening.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Gonzaga Of Mantua

In 2002, my middle brother and I took a guided tour of the Ducal Palace in Mantua.

At the time, a guided tour was the only way to gain access to the Palace (the public may now visit seven rooms without taking a guided tour) and my brother and I bought tickets, not quite knowing what was in store for us.

We knew that the tour was to be conducted in Italian, but we had hoped that the tour guide would offer a little information in English, especially since most of the visitors that particular day were American (including a church group from Austin, Texas, that made up more than half that day’s tour participants).

The guide, alas, spoke no English, so we were treated to a stream of rapid-fire Italian as we were stewarded through room after room after room of the enormous Palace.

There are more than 500 rooms in the Ducal Palace, and my brother and I had assumed—incorrectly—that the tour would last 45 minutes or an hour and would include only a handful of the most celebrated public rooms.

In fact, the tour went on forever—it was two hours and twenty-five minutes before the tour concluded—and the number of rooms visited, I would estimate, was fifty, perhaps sixty, perhaps more.

Moreover, I believe the tour that day was cut short by the guide. After ninety minutes or so, the church group from Austin began waving wristwatches, following that up by asking the guide to speed things up, and finally insisting upon finding its own way out of the complex (which is not allowed).

The church group was hungry, or so its leaders tried to explain to the guide, and the guide in exasperation escorted everyone back to the entrance of the Palace and said “Ciao”.

My brother and I were hungry, too—the tour had started at 12:00 Noon and we had not had lunch—but we had found the Palace to be absolutely fascinating. We have long wondered how much of the regular tour of the Palace we missed because of the Texans.

Despite its amazing importance to the history of Italy, the Ducal Palace at Mantua is not heavily visited, just as the city of Mantua itself is generally bypassed by visitors to Italy.

The small number of visitors to the Palace is probably all for the best, because the Palace is crumbling. The Italian government does not have sufficient funds to maintain the Palace properly, let alone restore it to its original glory.

Original furnishings were long ago sold off, as was the finest art collection ever assembled up to the 17th Century. All that remains of the original glory of the Mantuan Court is the stately procession of Palace rooms, mostly empty now, and the famed frescoes that once were the envy of every court in Europe.

Run-down and musty, the Palace was nonetheless an essential stop for my brother and me. Three centuries of great architects had created the grand, stately spaces through which 800 nobles and courtiers formerly passed, living and working in this magnificent assemblage of interiors erected over the course of more than 300 years.

The exteriors of the Palace were not as imposing. The Ducal Palace is a massive sequence of buildings that flows from the very center of Mantua to the very outskirts of the city. The exteriors were built in a hodgepodge of Medieval, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles, reflecting rapid changes in architectural design over three centuries. There is nothing unified about the Palace exteriors. Further, the exteriors are neither beautiful nor unique.

I remember our visit to the Ducal Palace well, and my memories were the only thing that kept me going while reading Kate Simon’s “A Renaissance Tapestry: The Gonzaga Of Mantua”, a history of Mantua, the Mantuan Court and the Gonzaga dynasty.

In Simon’s book, it is the Palace itself that is the most colorful presence, far more colorful than any of the rulers and courtiers that populated and governed what was once one of Europe’s most powerful and most important and most fascinating kingdoms.

“A Renaissance Tapestry” is an inept book. The research is inept, the writing is inept, the organization is inept. Even the photographs are inept. I suspect the only reason the book was published was because Simon was a popular travel writer in the 1960’s and 1970’s and, by the 1980’s, had developed a loyal readership. As a result, Simon was able to convince a reputable publishing house to bring out her first (and, to be thankful, only) history book.

Incomprehensibly, “A Renaissance Tapestry” was a bestseller when first published in 1988. The book was reviewed widely and respectfully—it was even reviewed TWICE by The New York Times (inanely on both occasions)—and treated as a major publishing event.

As history, the book is bunk. Neither an historian nor an expert on Italy, Simon uses secondary sources, some good, some not so good, to present the saga of the Gonzaga family. Most of her material is rehashed from old sources, and her rehashing is not very accurate, not very lively, and not very imaginative. Simon simply had no insight for or penetrating views about the subject she had selected.

Further, Simon’s book is inartfully, even clumsily, arranged. While reading 309 pages, I was never able to ascertain the organizing principle at work. The author flitted from subject to subject in no logical fashion, incoherently blending bits of biography with bits of history with bits of personal “interpretation”. The whole affair was a mess—and there was a grievous lack of citation for the more risible claims Simon made throughout the book.

Simon’s papers reside at Hunter College, and those papers hold the first two drafts of her Gonzaga volume. As the final draft was definitely not a case of the third time being the charm, I would be curious to see the first two drafts. They must be among the most comical pages ever written.

The Gonzaga family seized power in Mantua in 1328—they overthrew the previous ruling family in a bold, even reckless, act of subterfuge, an act of subterfuge that, against all odds, succeeded beyond the family’s wildest dreams—and governed Mantua for almost 400 years, scheming and conniving to hold power and expand the family’s influence into other Italian kingdoms, primarily Venice, Ferrara and Milan.

Because Mantua was situated midway between Venice and Milan, two powerful states in a perpetual state of conflict, Mantua was a valuable partner for Venice and Milan to court. In general, the Gonzaga family played off those two powerful rivals very skillfully, always allying with one or the other—and always demanding (and receiving) a hefty fee. The result was that riches from Venice or Milan continuously poured into the coffers of Mantua, riches that the Gonzaga family used to erect palaces, buy gold and jewels, acquire an art collection of staggering quality, and engage the best poets, writers, artists and composers of the day to create tributes to itself.

The Gonzaga family also used the ever-flowing sums from Venice and Milan to buy influence. Influence was sought and acquired in Rome—there was generally a Gonzaga Cardinal in place at the Vatican to bend the Pope’s ear—and in most other Italian kingdoms, as well as in France, Bavaria and Spain. Because of its desire for influence throughout Europe, the Gonzaga dynasty maintained the largest and most skillful group of diplomats in Europe, an ambassadorial retinue that was the envy of the British and French sovereigns.

Many rulers from the Gonzaga clan were extravagant spendthrifts, and several times over the centuries the Mantuan court was on the verge of financial collapse. Neighboring kingdoms were always on the lookout for an opportunity, and the demise of the Gonzaga clan was predicted (and sought) many times. Nevertheless, the Gonzaga family always managed to hold on to power, finding necessary sources of funds through marriages, unexpected political alliances, luck—or, if need be, theft.

When Gonzaga rule in Mantua ended in 1707, it did so not because of the family’s collapse but because there was no heir to carry on the line. Without an heir to continue the Gonzaga hold on power, Mantua ceded to the Hapsburgs of Austria. Excepting Napoleon’s brief occupation of Italy, Mantua was to remain under Hapsburg control until the unification of Italy in the 19th Century.

Just like the Gonzaga dynasty, the city of Mantua has long departed from the world stage. Today’s Mantua remains the capital of Lombardy, an Italian province, but it is of interest to outsiders solely for the legacies of the Gonzaga’s. The buildings they left behind and the art they once owned are the only surviving testaments to Gonzaga glory from days gone by.

Art from the Gonzaga collection is now everywhere. Gonzaga paintings form the basis of the collections of the Hermitage, the Louvre, and the most important galleries in Britain and the United States.

The dispersal of the Gonzaga painting collection began almost a century before the Gonzaga line ended. The Gonzaga collection had been rumored to be for sale for decades, but in the 1620’s a sale of a significant portion of the collection finally occurred, when agents for Charles I purchased 700 Gonzaga masterpieces and shipped the paintings to London (the ship carrying the artworks to Britain almost sank en route during a storm, and dozens of major masterworks were irreparably damaged when mercury in the ship's hold spilled onto numerous canvases).

Charles continued to purchase Gonzaga paintings for three years. When Charles grew short of funds, the Gonzaga family had to look for other buyers, often using noted dealers in Venice. On one occasion, more than 1000 paintings were transported by a train of horses and mules from Mantua to Venice, where the paintings were offered for private sale.

Charles I was not to enjoy his new art collection for long, as he was to lose his head in 1649. One of the results of his execution was the dispersal of the collection for the second time in a generation. After Charles's death, most of his collection was put up for sale by Cromwell, and the bulk of the collection was sold to continental buyers.

One type of art could not be moved from Mantua and sold: the frescoes that adorned various parts of the Palace. Numerous artists from the Early Italian Renaissance and High Italian Renaissance contributed to the frescoes, but the most celebrated frescoes in Mantua are those by Andrea Mantegna, who devoted more than four decades of his life to creating art for the Gonzaga family. Mantegna’s most important legacy is his series of frescoes for Mantua, the greatness of which may still be glimpsed through centuries of damage and decay.

There is an important need for an authoritative account of the Gonzaga era, but Simon does not provide it. Hers is very much an amateur’s book, and a dismal one at that. Fatally, it lacks the two qualities that often make an amateur’s work readable: good prose and an intense passion for the subject.

If Simon were alive, I would want to ask her what made her choose to write about Mantua and the Gonzaga dynasty in the first place. There is no passion in her work, no inkling that she found a good story here, no suggestion of an abiding love for Italy or art or the Renaissance. Her book struck me as the expanded updating of a decades-old term paper, supplemented with the experience of a single late-in-life visit to Mantua.

There was one striking thing about “A Renaissance Tapestry” that none of the reviewers mentioned: the book was the work of more than one hand.

Ninety-nine per cent of the writing was slop, but a dozen times in the volume the writing suddenly became elegant and cogent, even sparkling, for three or four paragraphs at a stretch. Such paragraphs clearly were the work of another writer, and generally involved summations and transitions.

This other, vastly-superior writer was undoubtedly responsible, too, for the entire closing chapter, a truly elegant and concise wrap-up of all that had come before, as well as the last half of the penultimate chapter, where the writing suddenly switched from dogged to gleaming at the blink of an eye. Who was this uncredited writer? I suspect it was an academic to whom the publisher had farmed out the manuscript in order to obtain a hasty clean-up prior to publication.

The publisher should have requested even more drastic measures from the uncredited book doctor—the entire manuscript should have been rewritten, and afterward turned over to a team of fact-checkers in order to correct the misstatements of fact, which were legion.

Whenever Simon stepped outside of Italy and addressed historic events and personages elsewhere, she was totally lost. Her discussions of people and politics in Austria, Britain, France, Germany the Netherlands, Spain and Turkey were laughable, displaying an astonishing if not unforgivable lack of knowledge and understanding about European history and culture.

Given the remarkable cast of characters she was given, Simon should have been able to make her book about the Gonzaga family one of the most riveting reading experiences of the last fifty years. That the book is so lame is testament to the fact that Simon was so profoundly untalented, both as a writer and as a thinker.

To cite merely a handful of the persons who lived in the Ducal Palace at Mantua and worked for the Gonzaga’s is almost too much for a modern-day person to contemplate: Giulio Romano, Peter Paul Rubens, Claudio Monteverdi, Baldassare Castiglione.

During our tour of the Ducal Palace, my brother and I heard the guide drop these and other names in rapid succession. Clearly, room-by-room, she was talking about long-ago events, involving the most famous of names, which had occurred in the various corridors, staterooms, salons, ballrooms and private apartments through which we were passing.

Names were the only things we could pick out in the flow of Italian, but the richness of the names added a layer of excitement to our visit. We knew we were being offered one remarkable story after another, with remarkable characters, recalling remarkable events—and yet we could understand none of it. It was very frustrating.

Simon’s book is most remarkable for how little she makes of this extraordinary cast of characters participating in extraordinary events during extraordinary times.

That, too, was very frustrating.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"Maybe Some Other Time"

Joshua and I have been dutifully attending to business.

Josh will wrap up his first-year exams this week. I have been busy at work. In the evenings and on weekends, I have been doing some serious reading while Josh has been buried in his casebooks.

After this week, Josh will be free until late August.

Because Josh has nothing on his schedule for the month of June, we issued some invitations, thinking the month of June would be an ideal time for us to host visitors.

No one took us up on our offers.

Josh’s sister and brother wanted to know what there is to see and do in Boston, and we gave them a rundown of the city’s highlights, after which their response was “Maybe some other time.”

I asked my middle brother whether he wanted to come visit in June, and his response was “I think I’d rather wait and come visit this autumn”. At least in my brother’s case, he is adhering to past practice—his typical habit was to visit me once each semester while I was in law school, and he came to Boston to visit us only four months ago.

I asked a close friend from law school whether he wanted to visit—he went to Tufts as an undergrad and he knows the city of Boston very well—and his response was “Maybe some other time.”

I asked another friend from law school whether she wanted to visit and she, too, said “Maybe some other time. Wouldn’t it be better if you came to Los Angeles?”

Josh and I have come to the conclusion that we are exceedingly boring and that no one wants to risk suffering our bland hospitality.

Josh and I will travel to Oklahoma over Memorial Day Weekend to attend Josh’s brother’s high school graduation, but otherwise we have no plans until the beginning of July, when we will head for Minnesota for a six-week stay.

Over Memorial Day Weekend, everyone in my family is planning the first excursion of the year up to the lake.

I think the lake house will experience much heavier use this year than it has experienced in ten or even fifteen years, and this is because my brothers are back in the Twin Cities. This summer will be the first summer in the Twin Cities for my older brother since 1997 and the first summer in the Twin Cities for my middle brother since 2000. Now that they are back home—and now that my older brother has children—I think the tentative plan is to make use of the lake house every other weekend for the duration of the summer. It will be just like old times, since all of us spent most summer weekends at the lake when we were kids.

My parents are doing well, supremely happy that two of their sons and both of their grandchildren are now living nearby. Everyone goes to my parents’ house on weekends and one weeknight each week, so everyone gets to see a lot of each other.

My middle brother likes his new job very much, and he is happy to be back in Minnesota. He likes the people at work, he likes his apartment, he likes renewing friendships and acquaintances from school days, and he likes spending lots of time with his nephew and niece.

My older brother likes his new job, too, but he does not like the commute, even though his commute is not a long one by modern-day standards. However, he very much likes having his own house, as opposed to an apartment, and he now says he does not know how he managed to survive living in New York for so many years. He likes having a big house and a big yard, and now he says he feels “uncramped” for the first time in years.

My sister-in-law likes Minneapolis. She has always liked Minneapolis—in fact, she has always liked Minneapolis much more than New York. I think she will be very happy there (although I doubt she plans to spend much time outdoors in the winter and I shall be very, very surprised if she takes up ice-fishing).

My nephew and niece, of course, don’t care where they live, but they are very happy to have so many family members close at hand. For them, it means lots of attention from lots of people, and they thrive on that.

The dog, alas, has announced that he has become tired of Minnesota. He claims that he needs new vistas, new challenges, new opportunities, and he is making noises about relocating to Singapore, where he hopes to start an export-import business specializing in niche software. At present, he is in the process of getting his shots and paperwork in order in preparation for his move.

As for Josh and me, we look forward to spending at least part of the summer at home. It will give us an opportunity to enjoy some down time and some family time. Furthermore, it will give us some vital time with my niece, who probably has already forgotten who we are.

We don’t want THAT to go on too long.

Saturday, May 09, 2009


Hamburg is home to Johannes-Brahms-Museum, one of many museums throughout Europe devoted to the great composer.

Hamburg has a deeper claim to Brahms than any other city, and this is because Brahms was born and raised in the city of Hamburg.

It was in this house on Peterstrasse that Brahms was born in 1833. The Brahms family lived on the first floor, on the left side of the building. The photograph was taken in 1891, six years before Brahms’s death.

The house no longer stands—it was destroyed in the 1943 firestorm—but Peterstrasse was recreated in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and an attempt was made to restore Peterstrasse to its ancient pre-war form, which dated back to the Renaissance and Baroque Periods.

The Johannes-Brahms-Museum lies on Peterstrasse, but not on the actual site of the birth home. The museum, with an unmarked and nondescript entrance, is a few doors down from where the Brahms birth home formerly stood.

The museum is small, and seldom visited (or so we were informed by museum personnel). It occupies only a few rooms and has very constricted hours. In both regards, it very much reminded me of the Puccini museum in Puccini’s family home in Lucca.

The Johannes-Brahms-Museum displays a collection of keepsakes that illustrates the life and work of the composer. Letters, photographs, autographs, concert programs, books, periodicals, artworks and sheet music are on display.

The composer’s writing desk is housed in the museum, as is one of Brahms’s pianos.

The bust of Brahms in the photograph below was sculpted by Ilse Conrat and is on loan from Hamburg’s Kunsthalle. It is one of many busts of Brahms that Conrat created, including the famous bust that lies over Brahms’s grave in Vienna.

Brahms’s family was very poor, and did not spend much time in Brahms’s birth home. The Brahms family lived in a proliferation of different homes in Hamburg’s poorer neighborhoods, changing abodes every few months either because the family could not afford to pay its rent or because the family needed to relocate to ever-cheaper lodgings.

Brahms’s father held a wide variety of jobs—among other things, he played bass in the orchestra of the Hamburg Opera—but the family was never able to accumulate any money.

Brahms continued to return to Hamburg with some frequency until he was in his mid-forties, by which time his visits to his hometown became sporadic.

Oddly, there is no street in Hamburg named after Brahms.

At least the plaza in front of nearby Laeiszhalle, Hamburg’s primary concert hall, is now named after the city’s most famous native son. However, the plaza was not christened Brahmsplatz until 1997, the centenary of the composer’s death. Given the German love for music, I am surprised it took 100 years for Hamburg to name a street or plaza for such a seminal figure that arose from the city’s slums.

Thursday, May 07, 2009


For the last month or so, Joshua and I have kept four discs in our player, all selected primarily because the music is very life-affirming. By design, we continue to lean on the music of Bach, Brahms and Copland.

Bach organ music, performed by Michael Murray, on the Telarc label

Mozart’s “Coronation” Mass and Haydn’s Mass “In Time Of War”, performed by Sylvia McNair, Delores Ziegler, Hans-Peter Blochwitz, Andreas Schmidt, the RIAS Chamber Choir and the Berlin Philharmonic under James Levine, on the Deutsche Grammophon label

Brahms lieder, performed by Nathalie Stutzmann and Inger Sodergren, on the RCA label

Orchestral music of Copland, performed by the Saint Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin, on the EMI label

The disc of Bach organ music is titled “The Great Organ At Methuen” and was Murray’s first solo disc for Telarc. The disc, issued in 1980, was Telarc’s first disc of organ music and was one of the first—if not THE first—digital organ recordings.

Only five works are on the disc: Fantasia and Fugue In G Minor, BWV 542; Toccata In F Major, BWV 540; Passacaglia And Fugue In C Minor, BWV 582; and two Chorale Preludes. Typical of the early-digital age, the disc contains only 40 minutes of music—and yet has remained in the active catalog for almost thirty years.

Murray is a flashy player, and his Bach is not to all tastes. Nonetheless, the greatness of the Passacaglia And Fugue In C Minor fully comes across and, for most listeners, that is what matters most.

The brilliance, clarity, richness, depth and bass response of the recording must have been a revelation in 1980.

Joshua and I have not yet gone to Methuen to see and hear the Methuen organ, but we plan to do so before we leave Boston.

The recording of Mozart’s “Kronungsmesse”, KV 317, and Haydn’s “Missa In Tempore Belli” (“Paukenmesse”), Hob. XXII/9, was issued in 1992. It was made during live performances at the Philharmonie in Berlin and represents one of Levine’s final appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic and one of his final recordings with Deutsche Grammophon. Both orchestra and record label terminated their associations with Levine not long after the performances captured on this recording.

The recording is a complete dud. Despite excellent soloists, an excellent chorus and an excellent orchestra, these performances are frighteningly dull, resolutely refusing to come to life even for a single second.

The fault lies in the hands of the conductor. Simply put, Levine cannot conduct music from The Classical Period to save his life. This disc should never have been issued (and, understandably, departed the domestic and European catalogs almost as soon as it was released).

The disc of Brahms songs—issued in 1997—did not last long in the domestic catalog, either, and this is regrettable, because it is one of the finest discs of Brahms songs ever made.

French contralto Nathalie Stutzmann is a magnificent singer of the German lied—indeed, her work in German art song is generally superior to her work in French art song—and her Brahms disc is one of her very finest recordings. I am disappointed this disc is not better known.

Stutzmann’s smoky, luxurious timbre has always pleased me, and her timbre is ideal for the songs of Schumann and Brahms (but somewhat less so for Schubert, I think).

Stutzmann sings Brahms very naturally. There is no “over-interpretation” to be heard here, no artificial enunciation of German words, no coyness. Nonetheless, this is deeply-satisfying Brahms singing—it is as if Miss Stutzmann has known and loved and understood these songs since she was a child.

I suspect that some of the success of this disc is due to the fact that Miss Stutzmann was a student of Hans Hotter, who could sing Brahms as well as anyone.

Songs from Brahms’s entire career are represented on the disc, but it is the final offering that seals the greatness of this recording: Four Serious Songs, Opus 121, written in 1896 but not published until after Brahms’s death.

Miss Stutzmann’s performance of Brahms’s next-to-last composition—it was followed only by the Organ Preludes, Opus 122—is as fine a performance of Opus 121 as I have ever heard. It is as fine, in fact, as the celebrated, even legendary, recording of her teacher.

Every time Josh and I listened to this disc, we would play the Four Serious Songs a second and even a third time: the performance is THAT good.

As a songwriter, Brahms was the equal of Schubert, Schumann and Wolf, although he is not as widely-credited for his songwriting as those three composers. A disc devoted entirely to Brahms songs never becomes tiresome, which cannot be said of Wolf or Richard Strauss. Brahms’s emotional range was wide, his handling of texts very natural, his manipulation of the materials of music very subtle, his accompaniments apt and restrained but very imaginative.

This disc was pure pleasure.

Miss Stutzmann does not often perform in the U.S., and she is not as well-known here as she should be. She is a great singer, and a great artist, and I wish I could hear her often.

The Copland disc includes a performance of the complete ballet, “Appalachian Spring”, scored for full orchestra.

Within the last year, Josh and I have listened to the complete score with the original chamber instrumentation, and we have listened to the suite scored for full orchestra. With the Slatkin disc of the complete score for full orchestra, we have now heard three different versions of this quintessential masterpiece of American art music, and within a relatively short period of time.

Despite its widespread familiarity, “Appalachian Spring” is a stunning piece of music, Stravinsky-isms and all. Is there a greater example of American serious music?

Slatkin’s was the first modern recording of the complete ballet using the full-orchestra scoring, and it remains one of only two modern versions (the other is by Michael Tilson Thomas on RCA). Copland devised the full-orchestra version of the complete score in 1954 on the recommendation of Eugene Ormandy, and it is very successful (although seldom heard).

I think the Slatkin recording is flawless. The music-making is vibrant and full of energy, the playing is magnificent, and the recording is rich and clear. This disc is about as good as it gets, and is far superior to the more-well-known Tilson Thomas version. This is one of those discs practically all persons would enjoy if only they knew it.

There are three short couplings: an excerpt from a very early Copland ballet, “Grohg”; “Letter From Home”, a World War II miniature; and “John Henry”, a musical depiction of the mythic American figure. The latter two compositions were written in Copland’s purest “Americana” vein. The “Grohg” excerpt is an odd piece of German Expressionism, out of place on this disc, and represents a type of writing Copland was not to pursue.

This disc was issued in 1988, and is no longer in print. However, the individual performances remain available on various EMI reissues, coupled with other material.

This disc is one of the highlights of Slatkin’s work in Saint Louis.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


Near Esplanade is another of Hamburg’s most elegant thoroughfares, Colonnaden.

Originally built in 1876 and 1877 as a private road to link Jungfernstieg with Dammtorbahnhof (Hamburg’s second-largest city train station), Colonnaden quickly became Hamburg’s most elegant address. Colonnaden derives its name from its street-long row of arcaded columns—and quite a lengthy street it is, too.

Colonnaden is lined with splendid, historically-important Neo-Renaissance buildings, with richly-decorated facades, all arcaded. Nearly all of the buildings on the street were designed by renowned architects and, unlike Esplanade, almost all of the original buildings on Colonnaden remain in place.

Colonnaden is now a pedestrian street. Gracious apartment buildings sit atop expensive, sophisticated shops and fine dining establishments.

Colonnaden remains one of the most exclusive addresses in Hamburg proper.


Hamburg enjoys a proliferation of long, wide, elegant promenades in the city center, all originally created to combine high-quality edifices for upscale shopping and gracious, stately living.

The oldest of these fashionable promenades is Esplanade, created before The Great Fire Of 1842.

This elegant street was commissioned by the city and based upon Berlin’s most fashionable thoroughfare, Unter Den Linden (“Under the Lime Trees”). Its construction occurred between 1827 and 1830.

The postcard below, from 1830, presents Esplanade as it looked when it was brand-new.

Only one of the street’s original houses still stands. That house is mentioned as being the home of Hans Castorp’s grandfather in Thomas Mann’s novel, “The Magic Mountain”.

Since World War II, this entire area has become nothing more than a commercial zone. The street remains spacious, and a few elegant buildings from earlier eras survive, but most of the street is now given over to office buildings and hotels, a few of which are undistinguished 1960’s high-rises.

Ground levels of office buildings house shops, restaurants and cafes.

Hamburg’s largest casino is on Esplanade, making Esplanade a well-traveled, vibrant street at night.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

"Humble Boy"

Last weekend Joshua and I attended a performance of Charlotte Jones’s 2001 play, “Humble Boy”, at Boston’s Publick Theatre.

“Humble Boy” was commissioned by Britain’s National Theatre as a vehicle for Simon Russell Beale, who had played the title role in “Hamlet” at The National Theatre the previous year to great acclaim. “Humble Boy” was one in a series of plays The National Theatre commissioned from various playwrights to develop themes from “Hamlet” after the extraordinary success of its "Hamlet" staging for Beale.

In “Humble Boy”, playwright Jones creates a Hamlet figure that is indecisive and not particularly practical and not-at-all interesting: a middle-aged lecturer in astrophysics at Cambridge who loves to talk incessantly about the vagaries of science because he is awkward and incommunicative when discussing other topics.

Returning to his hometown in The Cotswolds to attend the funeral of his father, the Hamlet figure learns to his dismay that the Gertrude figure, his mother, has taken up with the Claudius figure, an odious neighbor—and that his mother had taken up with this odious neighbor long before the death of his father. Things are complicated further by the fact that the Hamlet figure, many years earlier, had enjoyed a romantic relationship with the odious neighbor’s daughter, the Ophelia figure in the play.

The play is intriguing and irritating in equal measure. Jones is not a significant playwright. She does not know how to mix comedy and pathos, she does not know how to propel a story forward, and she has to turn to coincidence and colorful subsidiary characters far too often simply to keep the play afloat. “Humble Boy” is a watered-down version of a Michael Frayn play taken from Frayn’s bottom drawer—and Frayn, the most impersonal of playwrights, is hardly a satisfactory model for a young playwright in the first place.

The most developed—and only interesting—character in “Humble Boy” is the mother, who is one part irresistible and one part monstrous. Totally irresponsible and completely fixated on her own wants and needs, the mother grandly manipulates all who come in contact with her, whether they be friends, neighbors, townspeople—or her son. She is a delicious but repellent figure.

“Humble Boy” was a major hit in London, transferring from The National Theatre to The West End after the original repertory run ended. One of the reasons for the commercial success of the original production was the appearance of Diana Rigg in the role of the mother. I never saw the original London production, but I am told by my sister-in-law that Rigg was absolutely riveting, turning her part into a star vehicle—but seriously unbalancing the play in the process.

There was no danger of imbalance in the Boston production, because all the actors were equally provincial (and equally unattractive, too). Josh and I spent the entire performance asking ourselves why the individual actors onstage had been cast in their roles. None brought much skill to his or her part.

The Boston production was feebly directed. The production was never able to find a tone, or succeed in melding the comedic bits with the serious bits. It was, for all practical purposes, an amateur production, and not a very good amateur production at that.

Based upon my viewing of the Boston presentation, the role of the Hamlet figure appears to be seriously under-written, as is the part of the Claudius figure. As a result, the most interesting element of the play remains the haughty connivances of the Gertrude figure, amusing to watch for a short while but ultimately an unsatisfactory basis for a complex and lasting play.

A better production than the Boston Publick Theatre production might cause me to change my mind about the merits of the play.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Holding Down The Fort

Joshua is preparing for his exams, which will begin next week, and I am holding down the fort, taking care of all household tasks and duties (of which there are not many, truth to tell).

Josh’s exam period will occupy an entire two-week span.

I am sure he will perform splendidly. Josh has been exceedingly diligent about his studies all year, and he need maintain focus and concentration only for two more weeks in order to survive the exam period in style.

The first year of law school is the hard part. The final two years are a cakewalk.

There has been no news on the home fronts. Nothing of note has happened in Minnesota or Oklahoma in recent weeks.

Josh and I will be in Oklahoma over Memorial Day weekend in order to attend the high school graduation of Josh’s brother. We will be in Oklahoma from Friday night until Monday afternoon of the holiday weekend.

Josh and I will be in Minnesota for six weeks this summer. We will spend the month of July and the first half of the month of August in Minnesota. We will interrupt our Minnesota sojourn to travel in Germany and Austria with Josh’s family for eleven days at the end of July and the beginning of August. The trip is a graduation gift for Josh’s brother, and we intend to enjoy lots of Alpine scenery on the trip. We are looking forward to Germany and Austria very much.

It is possible that Josh and I will receive visitors during the month of June. We have invited Josh’s brother and sister to Boston. They may take us up on our invitation, but they will not make their decisions until their school terms have ended. Neither has been to Boston, and neither is particularly enthused about the prospect of visiting Boston—yet they know, if they want to visit Boston free of charge, that they will only have a three-year window in which to do so.

Josh will be free from obligations from Friday, May 15, through the end of summer. He plans to spend the summer relaxing and catching up on his reading.

It is amazing—and gratifying—how quickly our first year in Boston has passed. It seems as if we have been here only a few weeks, and yet the calendar tells us that we have been in Boston for eight months.

I am relieved that we will be able to leave Boston for half of the summer. Although we will be away only for six weeks, it will seem to us as if our entire summer will be spent in more congenial surroundings, far away from this decaying and depressing and dying city. Boston is a frightful dump, and we want to spend as little time here as possible.

Despite its proliferation of educational institutions, Boston is purely a blue-collar town, a relic of a distant past. The citizenry possesses a blue-collar mentality and lives a blue-collar lifestyle. Boston is the very embodiment of a poor city, with hoards of uneducated and unsophisticated persons, and it is only going to get worse over the next fifty years. I’ve never seen anything like it in the United States. Boston is a third-world city, a Western Hemisphere version of Leeds or Liverpool.

It is all very unpleasant.

New England has become the new Appalachia—and it is only going to deteriorate further over coming decades.