Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Splendid Weekend

Joshua and I traveled to Washington for a long Presidents’ Day Weekend.

We chose Washington as our destination because, in one trip, we could catch the Mariinsky Ballet at the end of its Washington run of performances and the Bolshoi Ballet at the beginning of its Washington run of performances. The opportunity to see the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi back-to-back was irresistible to us—and it was irresistible to my parents, too, who joined us for the weekend—and there was the added incentive of a Washington appearance by Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra.

We flew into Dulles on Friday night, choosing Dulles over Ronald Reagan because my parents could not get the flights they wanted into Ronald Reagan.

Our flight from Boston arrived twenty-five minutes before my parents’ flight from Minneapolis, and Josh and I were waiting for my parents in the arrivals area.

Because we had had to use Dulles, we had reserved a car for the weekend. This worked out beautifully for us, because Washington was still suffering from the after-effects of a once-in-a-decade snowstorm. A car made it much easier for us to get around town.

We spent Friday night at a resort and conference center in Chantilly, near Dulles, not wanting to make our way into downtown Washington until Saturday morning. This, too, worked out well for us, as we were able to check into our hotel not long after arriving at Dulles, enjoy an excellent dinner at a nearby restaurant (Copper Canyon Grill, where we had an exceptional dinner; Copper Canyon Grill is a recent East Coast offshoot of one of Oklahoma City’s finest restaurants), and settle in for the night.

On Saturday morning, after a leisurely breakfast at our Chantilly hotel, we made our way into Washington and checked into our Washington hotel.

Washington was in dreadful shape—there was snow everywhere, and many streets and sidewalks had not yet been properly cleared—and we were immediately gratified that we had a car at our disposal.

After an hour settling into our hotel, we spent much of Saturday afternoon at the Corcoran Gallery.

The traveling exhibition on view was “Turner To Cezanne: Masterpieces From The Davies Collection, National Museum Wales”, a gathering of fifty-some paintings and drawings from a collection assembled in the early 20th Century by Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, granddaughters of a Welsh industrialist.

Josh’s parents had attended the exhibition in September, while “Turner To Cezanne” had been on display at the Oklahoma City Museum Of Art, and they had enjoyed the exhibition very much.

We, too, liked the exhibition. Most of the artworks were from the Barbizon Period as well as the periods of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, and most had never been shown in the United States. There was only one outright first-tier masterpiece in the exhibition, Renoir’s “La Parisienne”, but the exhibition was well worth a look.

After “Turner To Cezanne”, we viewed part of the Corcoran’s European collection. The Corcoran’s European collection is spotty, in need of much work, but we enjoyed our stroll through the galleries.

The Corcoran Gallery Of Art needs to decide what kind of institution it wants to be. The Corcoran holds an admirable and fairly comprehensive collection of American painting, much of which is seldom on display. The Corcoran owns numerous fine European artworks, but the European collection is not comprehensive and major works are often off-view. The Corcoran also has an extensive collection of contemporary art of extremely variable quality.

It would seem apparent that the Corcoran should emphasize its strengths—its American and European collections—and minimize its attempts to become a “cutting edge” institution, which have never been successful. As it stands now, the Corcoran is neither fish nor fowl, unable to compete with The National Gallery Of Art’s collection of Old Master Paintings, unable to compete with The Phillips Collection’s strengths in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, unable to compete with The Smithsonian Museum Of American Art’s vast collection of American art, and unable to compete with the Hirshorn Museum in the realm of pure modernism. The Corcoran, at present, is floundering, an institution in search of a clear mission. While it flays, it has become a purveyor of small temporary exhibitions such as “Turner To Cezanne”, the type of exhibition The National Gallery would never touch.

I readily acknowledge, however, that any American art institution—in Washington or elsewhere—must find it impossible to compete against The National Gallery and its near-limitless resources.

After our visit to the Corcoran, we returned to our hotel to get ourselves ready for the evening.

First on our evening agenda was an early dinner. We went to Ruth’s Chris, which my father especially likes. We ordered filet, potatoes Lyonnaise and asparagus with Hollandaise sauce. Our dessert was apple crumb tart.

After dinner, we went to the Kennedy Center Opera House to see the Mariinsky Ballet’s presentation of “The Sleeping Beauty”.

The current Mariinsky production of “The Sleeping Beauty” is based upon Konstantin Sergeyev’s 1952 staging, which since its unveiling has proven very, very popular in Russia—but never particularly respected in the West.

Sergeyev dispensed with mime in his staging, preferring to move the action forward with dance and dance alone. There is nothing inherently wrong with such a choice, but Sergeyev was not a natural storyteller, at least based upon his production of “The Sleeping Beauty”. The story does not progress naturally and logically in Sergeyev’s hands.

For instance, The Lilac Fairy’s emendation of Carabosse’s curse in the extended Prologue does not register in the Sergeyev staging. This serious shortcoming renders the conclusion of the Prologue confusing, even senseless.

In Act I, the appearance of the spindle and Aurora’s pricking of her finger are entirely misstaged—and one of the princes is gratuitously slain at the conclusion of Act I, a jarring bit of stage business with no support either in the music or in the original scenario.

The heavily-cut and rearranged Act II is a mess from start to finish—among many peculiarities, Carabosse makes an unnecessary appearance and is killed—and a viewer unfamiliar with the story would have absolutely no idea what was going on between Prince Desire and The Lilac Fairy during the events leading up to the Panorama. I would write off Sergeyev’s Act II entirely, except it is my understanding that the Mariinsky uses a more complete version of Act II in Saint Petersburg, with a different, more elaborate series of stage settings.

Much else besides awkward storytelling is wrong with the Sergeyev “Sleeping Beauty”: the stage design is abundantly unattractive; the costume design is worse than unattractive; the lighting design is dismal.

Things were made worse by the undistinguished playing of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and the conductor’s clumsy handling of the score—Alexei Repnikov chose impossibly slow tempi (no doubt to accommodate dancer preference) and offered an undramatic and unmoving reading of Tchaikovsky’s incomparable masterpiece.

And yet the evening was magnificent.

The standard of dancing was very, very high—the Mariinsky corps remains one of the glories of the age—and the principals were all able to fulfill the technical and dramatic requirements of their roles. It was a great night in the theater.

“The Sleeping Beauty” must be impossible to stage. I have never seen a production worthy of the ballet, and I never expect to.

Most versions of “The Sleeping Beauty” are pared down. The Sergeyev production uses neither the complete score nor the complete scenario, yet the Sergeyev staging is less pared-down than some other stagings I have seen: the evening, with intermissions, came in at over two hours and forty-five minutes.

Nonetheless, we were not bored for a minute, despite the many shortcomings of the production. The Mariinsky dancers bring a unique conviction, style and purity to 19th-Century repertory that no other company can match.

On Sunday morning, we ate a late breakfast at our hotel.

After breakfast, we went to The Phillips Collection, which we had not visited in almost four years.

We walked through a temporary exhibition devoted to Georgia O’Keefe, an artist I have never admired. None of us found the exhibition to be particularly interesting.

Afterward we visited the permanent collection, spending serious time, as always, before Renoir’s “Luncheon Of The Boating Party”, a painting that never fails to impress.

From The Phillips Collection we drove to The National Cathedral and walked around for an hour.

From The National Cathedral we drove to Arlington and enjoyed an early dinner at a barbecue place Josh and I used to haunt. The restaurant, truly, is not much more than a hole-in-the-wall, but Josh and I always liked its North Carolina pulled-pork sandwiches—and North Carolina pulled-pork sandwiches were what we ordered, served with cole slaw and baked beans.

After dinner, we remained in Arlington in order to attend a performance of Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife” at Arlington’s Signature Theatre.

“I Am My Own Wife” is a play about a real person, Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf (born Lothar Berfelde), an East German cross-dresser who unaccountably survived two notorious regimes, the Nazis and the Communists. During the course of the play, the audience learns, to its discomfort, that the reason Mahlsdorf managed to survive the repression of the East German state was because she had served as an informant for the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police.

“I Am My Own Wife” is an intriguing play, raising many uncomfortable issues (which the play does not attempt to resolve). One actor is called upon to portray all the characters, more than forty in all. For a production to be successful, a tour de force performance is required. The actor in the Signature Theatre performance made a game attempt, but a finer performance was needed to bring the material fully to life. Signature Theatre’s presentation was at the level of a college drama department production.

On Monday, after breakfast at our hotel, we visited The Holocaust Museum. Josh and I had visited The Holocaust Museum in December 2007, but my parents had never visited the museum until Monday morning.

My parents were gravely disappointed in The Holocaust Museum, which I might have predicted. The building is poorly designed and the displays are poorly designed and poorly chosen. Never have I experienced a history museum or history displays more inept. The Holocaust exhibition on permanent display at The Imperial War Museum in London puts the Washington museum to shame.

From The Holocaust Museum, we walked to the Freer Gallery Of Art. We spent three very happy hours at the Freer, leisurely going through the entire building, with my mother always available to point out interesting details the rest of us might have overlooked. As a general rule, I am not particularly interested in Asian art, but I found our time at the Freer to be captivating—and a return visit to The Peacock Room is always rewarding.

Once we had seen everything at the Freer, we returned to our hotel to relax for a couple of hours before getting ready for the evening.

We ate dinner at a Trattoria. We ordered four different antipasti, which we shared: fried eggplant; sautéed mushrooms and potatoes with herbs; pasta stuffed with ricotta, Parmigiano and spinach, in a tomato sauce; and pasta stuffed with ground meat, in a tomato-cream sauce. We ordered four entrees, which we also shared: veal in a white wine sauce; veal with spinach and mozzarella in a cream sauce; veal with fresh tomato basil; and veal with peppers in a tomato sauce. We were very happy with our food.

After dinner, we proceeded to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall for a concert by the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Monday night’s concert was the first stop on the orchestra’s 2010 tour of North America.

The orchestra had an off night, not uncommon for musical ensembles embarking upon lengthy foreign tours. First stops often prove hazardous.

There were only two works on the program—Sibelius’s Violin Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2—yet nothing jelled in either work.

Mariss Jansons is a fine Sibelius conductor, but nothing happened in Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. I suspect the fault lies with soloist Janine Jansen, who brought no special insight to the work and who gave what must be termed a “superficial” reading. Her tempi were very free, constantly changing, and such free tempi no doubt prevented Jansons from tying the first movement together. The second and third movements were not as perilous, yet I thought Jansons looked frustrated throughout the entire concerto performance, as if he were wondering why the orchestra had not engaged a more apt soloist. The musicians in the orchestra played beautifully, but without commitment or passion. I cannot imagine a more indifferent performance of the Sibelius.

I do not like the Rachmaninoff Second Symphony—it has always struck me as a series of big gestures that do not cohere into a pleasing whole—and I did not like the Concertgebouw performance. Jansons was unable to maintain tension in the never-ending first and fourth movements, which made the somewhat more attractive second and third movements seem like pleasant but irrelevant interludes in an otherwise interminable work. Jansons has the measure of this symphony, because he has recorded it, beautifully, with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic for EMI, but his leadership Monday night was not particularly focused or enthused.

The ensemble of the Concertgebouw is no longer as tight as it was under Riccardo Chailly. There has been significant deterioration in the orchestra over the last five years, most notable in the violin section, which has developed a distinct wiry tone, and the winds, which were not very suave or very giving on Monday night. The Concertgebouw musicians always played like crackerjacks for Chailly. Under Jansons, the orchestra is clearly going for a more molded approach to music-making—and this approach appears not to be bearing fruit.

“Every time I hear this orchestra, it is less impressive than the previous time” was my father’s comment both at intermission and at the conclusion of the concert. Of course, according to my mother, my father has been offering that same opinion about the Concertgebouw for more than thirty years. (My father often heard the orchestra at its peak in the 1970’s under Bernard Haitink, before deterioration set in in the early 1980’s coincident with Haitink’s marital troubles.)

On Tuesday morning, after breakfast at our hotel, we traveled to The National Gallery Of Art, where we spent the day.

First thing, we viewed the Chester Dale exhibition, recently opened, devoted to artworks donated to The National Gallery by one of its most important benefactors. The National Gallery’s holdings in the periods of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Early Modernism would be far less important without the Dale gifts. Until we walked through the exhibition rooms, I had not realized how many important paintings were gifts of Dale: the list was endless.

All of The National Gallery’s important early Picasso realist paintings may be traced to Dale, including the great “Family Of Saltimbanques” and “The Tragedy”. Two of its very finest and most popular Renoir paintings, “A Girl With A Watering Can” and “Girl With A Hoop”, were Dale paintings. Key paintings by Manet, Degas, Monet, Cassatt, Morisot, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Modigliani, Braque: all may be traced to Dale. The exhibition was exhausting.

After we completed the Dale exhibition, we spent a couple of hours in the sculpture galleries, which we enjoyed immensely.

Our final trek was through the Italian Renaissance and Italian Baroque rooms, which we examined very closely (we deliberately skipped the fifteen or so Early Italian Renaissance rooms, in which the visitor can easily get bogged down).

After our visit to The National Gallery, we spent ninety minutes in The Air And Space Museum.

In late afternoon, we returned to our hotel to get ready for the evening.

We had dinner at McCormick And Schmick’s. We ordered Maryland crab soup; an arugula salad with pears, roasted yellow beets, blue cheese and pecans; and Day Boat Cod, which our waiter recommended, informing us that the cod had been caught off the coast of Chatham, Massachusetts that very morning. The Day Boat Cod was served with potatoes crusted with spinach in a mustard cream sauce. We enjoyed our dinner, even if the current menu at McCormick And Schmick’s is striving very hard to be “trendy”.

After our dinner, we returned to the Kennedy Center Opera House for the Bolshoi Ballet’s “Spartacus”.

I had never seen “Spartacus”. Before the performance, I had no clue what to expect.

Yuri Grigorovich’s choreography is garbage, and the ballet itself could never survive a cool, critical assessment—and yet the silly thing somehow works, and works beautifully, at least in the kind of performance we witnessed Tuesday night.

Tuesday night’s performance was spectacular. The company obviously believed in the material—I am not sure whether that speaks well for the dancers or not—and gave a committed, even dazzling performance, full of pyrotechnics and bravura. I had ever seen anything like it.

The young dancer that portrayed Spartacus is soon to be a huge international star. His name is Ivan Vasiliev (no relation to the great Vladimir Vasiliev) and he had stage presence to burn, the magnetism of a Rudolf Nureyev, the speed and burst of a world-class athlete, and leaps that had to be seen to be believed.

My parents saw Mikhail Baryshnikov in his prime and, according to my parents, Baryshnikov’s famous leaps were nothing compared to what the young Vasiliev can do. Vasiliev’s leaps were astonishing: they were higher, faster, more controlled, and more awe-inspiring than any leaps I have ever seen.

Vasiliev may have been born to dance Spartacus. Muscular, compact, authoritative, with the coiled energy of an animal, he is considered to be the finest exponent of the role since the work’s unveiling four decades ago, quite an accomplishment as Vasiliev is so short: he is only 5’6”. Already the star of the Bolshoi, he is only 21 years old.

The success of “Spartacus” as a stage vehicle is due to its display of athleticism and virtuoso dancing. The ballet is packed with incident and even some degree of drama, and easily holds the viewer’s attention for almost three hours. Some of the stage pictures are quite striking, and there are at least four roles for dancers that provide opportunity for character development.

Aram Khachaturian’s score is not as poor as its reputation. All of the music is apt for the action, and some of the numbers are quite beautiful, especially the music for Phrygia. The score should probably be better known.

We enjoyed “Spartacus” very much, even though “Spartacus” is not the kind of thing one would want to see often.

The Bolshoi is in stunning shape—the level of dancing was spectacular, both from the women and from the men—and the company’s Washington engagement demonstrated that the dancers’ command of what passed for “modernism” in the Soviet Era is complete. I wish the company had brought a Classical program to the U.S., too, to demonstrate the company’s level of proficiency in Classical repertory.

On Wednesday morning, we ate an early breakfast at our hotel and checked out. We had two hours at our disposal before we had to head for Dulles, and we spent those hours at The Library Of Congress, which opens at 8:30 a.m.

We viewed the current exhibits in the Jefferson Building. One was devoted to George and Ira Gershwin. Another was a recreation of Thomas Jefferson’s library, which formed the core collection of the original Library Of Congress. Most impressive was The Library Of Congress bibles exhibit. On display were the Bible Of Mainz and one of the original copies of The Gutenberg Bible, accompanied by other materials addressing The Library Of Congress’s extensive historic bible collection. It was a pleasing way to kill two hours.

We arrived at Dulles with plenty of time to spare: after checking in and passing through security, we had two hours and thirty minutes on our hands before our flights were due to depart. We had a sandwich, and drank coffee, and talked until it was time for us to go our separate ways.

It was a splendid weekend. My parents, especially, had a wonderful time. They loved seeing the two Russian ballet companies, they appreciated the Concertgebouw concert, they enjoyed the museums—and they didn’t even mind our Sunday evening in Arlington, with the “I Am My Own Wife” performance preceded by a barbecue dinner at a greasy spoon.

“Do you think Greece can be any better than this?” was a question my father posed at the airport while we were sitting and drinking coffee. He was referring to our upcoming trip to Greece during Josh’s Spring Break.

I don’t know the answer to my father’s question—but it will be hard to spend four happier days than the days we spent this past weekend.

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