Monday, October 24, 2011

Eiji Oue Did It Better

After work on Friday, Joshua and I and my middle brother went over to my older brother’s house in order to have dinner and to play with the kids.

For dinner, we ate breaded thin-cut pork cutlets—often referred to as “tenderloin” in Minnesota and other parts of the Upper Midwest—served with stuffing, peas, corn, carrots and biscuits. For dessert, we ate banana pudding. Friday’s dinner is one of the favorite dinners of my nephew and niece.

Until the kids’ bedtimes, we played games with them, including an animal board game that makes all of us laugh.

My parents attended a Minnesota Orchestra subscription concert on Friday evening. They heard Robert Spano lead the orchestra—without distinction—in music of Falla, Piazzolla and Copland.

According to my parents, the Copland—the Symphony No. 3—was on the verge of collapse in all four movements, with Spano totally unable to maintain tension or momentum. “Believe it or not, Eiji Oue did it better” was my father’s final verdict—and my father’s remarks were not intended as any sort of compliment to Oue, whom my father loathed. The Minnesota Orchestra needs to do something about its weak roster of guest conductors; the guest roster, grim by any measure, is the most critical issue currently facing the orchestra.

The soloist was violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. My parents said that Salerno-Sonnenberg is not aging well. She apparently looked awful—unattractive, overweight and outright dumpy, with a face (and complexion) that would frighten small children. Salerno-Sonnenberg is now fifty years old, and my parents said she looked as if she were sixty-five years old, perhaps seventy.

Josh and I never contemplated attending the concert. I would have to be paid to sit through Spano, and I would have to be paid to sit through Salerno-Sonnenberg—and I would have to be paid double to sit through Spano and Salerno-Sonnenberg sharing the same concert platform.

Minnesota hosted Nebraska on Saturday, but my father and my brothers skipped the game. They were wise to do so: the game was over early in the second quarter.

Many persons holding Minnesota season tickets are not attending games this year. In fact, game-by-game, they must be selling their tickets online to out-of-town fans from visiting teams. On Saturday, more than two-thirds of the persons in the stadium were Nebraska fans clad in Nebraska colors and Cornhusker regalia.

Minnesota may now have the most hapless major-college football program in the country. Things are so bad, the watchword in Minnesota in recent weeks has become: “Remind me again why we fired Glen Mason”.

Mason, former Minnesota coach who had achieved a winning record and seven bowl appearances in ten seasons leading the Golden Gophers, was fired in 2006 because the university athletic department had wanted to move the football program to “the next level”. Well, “the next level” has arrived—but it is not the level the university athletic department had envisioned back in 2006.

In retrospect, Mason’s tenure looks better and better with each passing year. Sadly, it may take years for the program to get back to the level of accomplishment it regularly displayed under Mason.

No one regretted missing the thumping Nebraska handed Minnesota.

In any case, we had more important things to do on Saturday. My nephew will celebrate his sixth birthday on Sunday, October 30, and we had birthday gifts to buy.

My middle brother and Josh and I decided to brave the crowds at The Mall Of America, as the toy selection there is indeed phenomenal, better than anyplace else we might have visited.

We checked out toys at The Mall Of America for more than five hours, looking for unusual and intriguing items. We did not arrive back home until almost 4:00 p.m.—but, once home, we had with us what we believed to be ideal birthday gifts for a six-year-old boy.

We had an activity planned for Saturday night: a performance by Scottish Ballet at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. My parents, my sister-in-law, and Josh and I attended the performance; everyone else spent the evening at my older brother’s house.

We bought tickets primarily because we were curious to see Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet, “Song Of The Earth”, danced to Mahler. None of us had seen the ballet—not even my sister-in-law, long resident in London and raised on MacMillan ballets, had seen “Song Of The Earth”—and we were mildly eager to see this seldom-staged ballet first presented in 1965 (in Stuttgart).

Only one American company has ever presented the ballet. In 1988, Houston Ballet mounted “Song Of The Earth”; last month, that company offered the ballet a second time.

After one viewing, “Song Of The Earth” struck me as typical MacMillan: strikingly uninventive choreography attempting to express what MacMillan believed to be deep and profound thoughts, in this case about life and death.

Of course, there is nothing in the least deep or profound about “Song Of The Earth” unless one has the mind of a high school sophomore. The ballet is entirely predictable as it unfolds, without a single surprise in store, and borrows heavily from Antony Tudor’s “Dark Elegies” (also danced to Mahler). As exercise in pure choreography, “Song Of The Earth” is spectacular failure; as onstage demonstration of Weltschmerz, the ballet is spectacular kitsch. It is easy to understand why American companies, Houston excepted, have never touched the work.

I thought the choreographer made a grave mistake in including a Messenger Of Death onstage. The presence of the Messenger Of Death transformed a painfully obvious ballet into an insufferably obvious one. That the Messenger Of Death wore a facemask not entirely dissimilar to the facemask worn in “Phantom Of The Opera” made it hard to stifle giggles.

It is possible the work might have been better-served in a better performance—but I remain skeptical that the work warrants revival. A long-forgotten ballet by Frederick Ashton should have been offered in place of the MacMillan.

Scottish Ballet is not a good company. Thirty-six dancers were listed in the program booklet, and not one of the dancers onstage would have made it through the first round of auditions for a corps position at New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre.

The company has no business making international tours. I hope Scottish Ballet’s overseers have the good sense to keep the company restricted to native territory in future. Whoever made the bone-headed decision to send this troupe overseas should be immediately discharged.

Preceding the MacMillan was a ballet by Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo. Elo has been resident choreographer of Boston Ballet since 2005, yet Josh and I never saw any of Elo’s works during the three years we were in Boston. The one time we attended a Boston Ballet program on which an Elo work was included, we departed before the final work of the evening, which was the Elo. (The Finnish choreographer’s work on that particular program had been a new “Rite Of Spring”, uniformly and vociferously panned by Boston and New York critics—and the extremely dismissive notices had caused Josh and me not to want to waste our time on the ballet.)

I remember nothing about Elo’s ballet danced by Scottish Ballet on Saturday night except that dancers were continually running around the stage, to no discernible purpose. I saw nothing in the work that made me want to see the ballet a second time. Danced to music of Reich and Mozart, the ballet’s title was “Kings 2 Ends”. The work was so empty, I did not even bother to read the program notes to learn the rationale for the ballet’s title—the first time in my life such a thing has occurred.

On our way home, we all asked ourselves a question that arises after almost every Minneapolis dance event: “Why do we keep going to these dance things, when they always prove to be so disappointing?”

“Hope springs eternal” was more or less the consensus answer—but, after witnessing Scottish Ballet’s unfortunate local appearance, we are somewhat soured on dance at present.

While driving home, we decided to write off next month’s Minneapolis appearance by The Royal Winnipeg Ballet (I do not think any of us could make it through yet another Alice In Wonderland ballet). We nonetheless decided to stick with our plans to attend next month’s Minneapolis appearance by Merce Cunningham Dance Company (part of the Cunningham farewell tour, after which the group will permanently disband). What we truly crave, however, is a stiff dose of Balanchine to wipe away the aftertaste of the MacMillan.

On Sunday, we did nothing other than attend service. We stayed home all day and played with the kids.

It was the best day of the weekend.


  1. I cannot stand Salerno-Sonnenberg. I've always ranked Salerno-Sonnenberg "way up there" with Eugene Fodor. Any musician who found it necessary to appear with Johnny Carson in order to broaden his or her career was always supect in my mind.

    Ironic that Salerno-Sonnenberg studied under Dorothy Delay. Delay was always questioning her students about where the middle of the phrase was. After hearing Salerno-Sonnenberg only once, I quickly concluded that she didn't know where the ENTIRE phrase was - and she certainly didn't know where the END of the phrase was.

  2. Fodor died in February. His was an early death connected to substance abuse.

    I never heard Fodor. His career was already over before I became interested in music.

    DeLay and Salerno-Sonnenberg clashed, famously. Indeed, on at least one occasion, DeLay threatened to have Salerno-Sonnenberg’s scholarship to Juilliard revoked. DeLay believed her student was unfocused, undisciplined and unmotivated.

    Salerno-Sonnenberg has never enjoyed a major career. Important conductors do not work with her, important venues do not engage her, important orchestras seldom offer her a place on their programs. She very much has a third-tier career. She must need money, or she would have thrown in the towel by now.

    My father pointed out that last week’s Minnesota Orchestra subscription concerts were, above all, cheap for the orchestra. Spano’s career has made no headway and, consequently, his fees remain low. Salerno-Sonnenberg’s career has made no headway and, consequently, her fees remain low. Last week was “Budget Week” at the Minnesota Orchestra.

    However, the orchestra paid a price at the box office. Ticket sales were very poor, despite special discounts and promotions. Last week is projected to be one of the three worst-selling weeks of the season.