On Friday night, Joshua and I joined my parents for a Minnesota Orchestra subscription concert. The orchestra played music of Britten, Sibelius and Debussy. Music Director Osmo Vanska was on the podium; guest soloist was Midori.
“Four Sea Interludes” from “Peter Grimes” opened the program. The Minnesota Orchestra was on good form in the Britten, although Vanska—as always—was prone to overstatement if not fierceness. Subtlety is not Vanska’s strong suit. The man invariably delivers high-octane-grade fuel, even when high-octane power is neither needed nor desirable.
In the Britten, the orchestra’s playing was more well-drilled than atmospheric, yet I suspect I heard about as fine a performance of the “Sea Interludes” as one is ever likely to hear. Truly great orchestras find Britten’s music unremarkable, unimaginative and unrewarding—and, as a result, are unable to deliver Britten compositions with much style or conviction. Over the years, “Four Sea Interludes” has become something of a concert potboiler, one of those pieces beloved by provincial ensembles, capable of fully realizing the music, yet ignored by the very finest orchestras.
Figures as diverse as Virgil Thomson, Igor Stravinsky, Herbert Von Karajan and Pierre Boulez sniffed at the score of “Peter Grimes”, and it is easy to understand why they thought so little of the opera: Britten’s musical ideas are paper-thin, and not worked out as skillfully—or as seamlessly—as his writing would later become in “Billy Budd” and “The Turn Of The Screw”.
The storm music that comprises the final “Sea Interlude” is emblematic of the weakness of Britten’s score: the four note/five note motif is bizarrely unimaginative, and Britten does absolutely nothing to develop this most insipid of themes. The composer offers repetition, re-orchestration and ever-rising volume, and little more, to keep the storm music going. As conclusion to an orchestral piece, the storm music is undeniably loud, but it has little else to recommend it. The storm music is closer—dangerously so—to bad 1940s film music than most Britten advocates would ever be willing to admit.
The Sibelius Violin Concerto followed the Britten. It proved to be the most satisfying performance of the evening, and credit for the success of the performance must be given to violinist Midori.
Over the last fifteen years, Midori has developed into a great artist. She is one of the finest musicians before the public today, with a very personal sound and a very personal way of making music. Twenty years ago, music-lovers would not necessarily have predicted that Midori would make the successful transition from youthful virtuoso to profound artist. For the first ten years of her public career, Midori was a faceless virtuoso whose music-making lacked character, personality and deep insight. Something happened to Midori in the second half of the 1990s, however, and her performances have become increasingly interesting over the last decade-and-a-half. Her appearances now are virtual red-letter events.
Midori has a unique gift: she can project calmness and anxiety at the same time. I know of no other violinist, past or present, with this remarkable gift.
Midori produces a sound of great sweetness, perhaps the sweetest sound among the many excellent violin virtuosos that bless the present age. Her phrasing is very precise—controlled, detailed, elegant—and she is capable of creating genuine radiance in performance.
Midori’s phrasing in the first movement of the Sibelius was sublime. She did nothing unusual, nothing bizarre, but the way she caught and shaped each phrase utterly commanded the listener’s attention. In the two first-movement cadenzas, her playing was inspired. In fact, the first-movement cadenzas were the high points of her performance.
Tempi in the second and third movements were slower than the norm (the third movement was the slowest I had ever heard, live or on disc), yet Midori never allowed concentration to lapse or tension to dissipate. The leisurely third-movement tempo did, however, remove some of the excitement inherent in the concerto’s final movement.
After intermission, the orchestra played Debussy.
Two orchestrations of piano works were played first: Andre Caplet’s orchestration of “Clair De Lune” and Bernardino Molinari’s orchestration of “L’Isle Joyeuse”. Myself, I wished the orchestra had programmed Leopold Stokowski’s marvelous orchestration of “La Cathedrale Engloutie” instead.
“La Mer” concluded the program. Vanska’s was a big-boned, primary-colors “La Mer”—and successful on those terms. His was not a French-tinged reading nor a performance of subtle shades and tints. “La Mer” as Russian-style orchestral showpiece was what Vanska delivered, and the audience appeared to be perfectly happy with such conception of the work.
Before the concert, we ate dinner at an American restaurant only a couple of blocks from Orchestra Hall. We were disappointed in the food, but it must be acknowledged that the restaurant was phenomenally busy early Friday evening. The kitchen staff may have been strained by the crowd of early diners.
We ordered wild mushroom croquettes as a starter course.
For main course, my mother ordered salmon, asparagus and a cheese-apple salad.
My father and I ordered chicken roulade (chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese, spinach and sun-dried tomatoes, all wrapped in pastry) and garlic mashed potatoes.
Josh ordered Cajun-broiled walleye, Rosemary potato terrine, and carrots and green beans.
We skipped dessert. Service at the restaurant was unreliable, and we feared we might be late to the concert if we proceeded with dessert.
On Saturday, we did outdoor work until early afternoon. Saturday was probably our final day of outdoor work at my parents’ house until next Spring.
In the middle of the afternoon, we cleaned up and split into two groups. My brothers and my niece and nephew went over to my older brother’s house, where they were to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening. My parents, my sister-in-law, and Josh and I went downtown to The Walker Art Center, where we were to view an exhibition and attend a dance performance.
The exhibition was devoted to choreographer Merce Cunningham and artist Robert Rauschenberg. The exhibition included costumes, set designs, full-scale stage backdrops, videos and other artifacts from Rauschenberg’s years designing for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
Earlier this year, The Walker purchased over 2,000 items from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The institution intends to mount a significant number of Cunningham-related exhibitions between now and 2015. The just-opened Cunningham/Rauschenberg exhibition is the first such exhibition in the multi-year series; a second exhibition is due to open shortly.
In walking through the exhibition, I was immediately struck by how cheap and shoddy were the materials used for the actual stage sets and stage costumes. I doubt that Rauschenberg intended his work for Cunningham to be viewed at close range. Further, I doubt that Rauschenberg intended his work for Cunningham to be anything other than of temporal value. In fact, I do not believe for a minute that Rauschenberg, in designing for Cunningham, believed he was designing for posterity.
The dance performance, held at The Walker’s theater, was by Merce Cunningham Dance Company. This weekend’s four performances at The Walker signaled the final appearance by the company in Minneapolis. The company will permanently disband at year-end.
Cunningham’s troupe has been a regular visitor to the Twin Cities for over half a century, offering performances at a large number of local venues, everywhere from Northrop Auditorium to The Guthrie Theater to The Walker Art Center to parks and civic plazas. As a general rule, the company's many Minneapolis appearances have been sponsored either by The Walker or the University Of Minnesota, and Cunningham visits, roughly, have been at five- or six-year intervals.
My parents had attended company performances a couple of times over the years, but I had never seen Merce Cunningham Dance Company until Saturday night—and neither had my sister-in-law, and neither had Josh.
The works on the program were “Antic Meet” from 1958, “RainForest” from 1968, and “Pond Way” from 1998. The respective designers were Raushenberg, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein; the respective composers were John Cage, David Tudor and Brian Eno.
I have a limited appreciation for modern dance—for me, much of it is as strange as Kabuki—and I derived limited enjoyment from Saturday evening’s performance.
To begin, I was startled by the absence of beautiful bodies onstage. None of the thirteen dancers possessed what might be termed “dancer” bodies. The odd proportions of the dancers induced disbelief. The lack of muscle tone was particularly shocking.
Matters were not helped by the fact that the dancers, without exception, were singularly unattractive. I could not help but think, the entire performance, that the dancers onstage were rejects from Paul Taylor and David Parsons.
One of the dance works, “Antic Meet”, was a comedy, but the humor was exceedingly obvious and heavy-handed, as if the choreographer did not trust his audience to comprehend the jokes. I found the entire work eyeball-rolling.
The other two works often invoked animal behavior, some of which was mildly amusing but most of which was not. I have no idea whether the works represented typical Cunningham pieces.
At the conclusion of the performance, I asked three questions: (1) did Cunningham have any depth?; (2) did his work exhibit any development?; and (3) was Cunningham a genius or a weirdo? The consensus answer to the first question was that Cunningham had no depth at all, but that depth was never his objective. The consensus answer to the second question was along the same lines: development of craft was probably irrelevant, since the artist was nakedly anti-intellectual and worked purely from instinct. Answers to the third question were all over the place—Cunningham was certainly a weirdo, but different viewers find vastly different degrees of genius in his work.
Myself, I could not get beyond the Cunningham weirdness, either of the man or the work. The sheer weirdness of everything, including the weirdness of the odd-looking dancers, trumped all other considerations. I immediately understood—fully—why Cunningham, after sixty years of creating dance, was never able to develop a significant audience for his work.
Over much the same lifetime, George Balanchine’s audience grew and grew and grew. Indeed, Balanchine’s audience grew from absolutely nothing into the largest dance audience in the world: New York City Ballet performs—nightly—twenty-three weeks a year in a single theater in a single city for a single audience, a feat no other dance company anywhere has ever been able to achieve. By comparison, Cunningham found himself largely consigned to the modern-dance circuit, playing one-night stands in small venues across the country (most at colleges and universities) for decades.
Between the exhibition and the dance performance, we went to a nearby café to have a light dinner. We had two starter courses, seafood chowder and crab cake, and we had dessert, triple chocolate cream cake.
On Sunday, my parents had to attend an afternoon function, so after service Josh and I took the dog over to my older brother’s house, where my brothers and Josh and I worked in the yard all afternoon.
My parents were able to join us for dinner. We all sat down to a Sunday night dinner of pot roast, new potatoes, stewed tomatoes, green beans and corn pudding. We had Pepperidge Farm cookies for dessert.
Josh and I have tentatively scheduled settlement on our new house for Friday, November 18.
It will be interesting to see whether the builder can hold to that date.