Monday, November 07, 2011


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.




    When screenwriter Woody Allen and composer Michel Lagrand announced in 2006 that they had begun to collaborate on a new musical comedy based upon T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” one major New York music critic famously praised the proposal on his blog, calling T.S. Eliot’s poem the “greatest expression of joy ever penned by an American expatriate.” Though the project was soon jettisoned, Allen began instead to adopt Russian storyteller Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Hoc” (“The Nose”) into a modernist political satire entitled “The Ephemeral Run of Mr. Khui.” The musical numbers were retrofitted to Legrand’s 1964 French operetta “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” in a patchwork similar to the earlier Allen success “Everyone says, ‘I love You’.” Well, last month the new film was previewed at Mr. Ed’s Cinema in Huntsville, Ohio, during the annual Tallulah Bankhead festival.

    The Story unfolds in three Acts, each headed by a line or subtitle from The Waste Land. In Act One, “April is the Cruelest Month,” former cannabis trafficker President Mohamed Potifar wakes up one morning in the spring of an election year to discover his “. . . ” missing. Seriously. “It,” however, very soon turns up in “human” form as Mr. Potifar’s Democratic rival for re-election, a man to whom all the mainstream media refer as “Mr. Khui,” opining with thundering, coast-to-coast authority that the new comer is the President’s long-lost identical twin brother – a plot element consistent, more or less, with Gogol but differing monumentally from the short story in Director Larry Sinclair’s discomforting idea fixe:

    Though every character in the movie except the President purports to believe the New York Times’ description of Mr. Khui’s physical appearance, the unbilled actor playing him spends every screen minute tightly covered from head to hips in the most grotesque costume. The character reminds this viewer of the teen standing on one familiar street corner in town pitching his employer’s restaurant, waving and dancing while dressed as a giant yellow banana. To be blunt, however, the “banana” appearing as Mr. Khui in this flick is a most “overripe” banana, let’s just say. Anyway, the swaying dark horse quickly gains a huge popular following from all the disenchanted Democrats; he wipes up the California primary, becoming then a serious threat to the incumbent.

    Act Two, “The Fire Sermon,” the least unfunny of the three Acts, is set just before the convention and gives us the great debate between the two Democratic contenders. Mad reporters fielding questions hysterically fall over themselves in memory-challenged confusion, repeatedly unable it seems to tell the difference between the two talking heads. Indefatigable American supporters of the President then launch smear campaigns against Mr. Khui, claiming nobody knows anything about him, while the British Press, led by “The Guardian,” accuse him of being an “ostentatiously stripped-away Jewish Manchurian.”

    In Act Three, “Shantih shantih shantih,” a group of mad women, among them the first lady, charges Mr. Khui with sexual battery, claiming all such incidents took place at a time when the six of them just happened to be sleeping together in the back seat of a Lincoln Continental while going through a car wash. Potifar’s wife sings, “You know I has a Boyfriend,” set to the music of “I’ll Wait for You.” Two days before the election the President awakes in bed to find Mr. Khui, now tremendously and (we presume) unrecognizably detumescent, happily re-ensconced “there in my waist land.” Close up then of the first lady, seen frowning with contempt. “Cut to black.” Hooey!

  2. Perhaps I am wrong, but I believe I may have seen an early stage version of this musical, back when Alex Ross was calling it “the greatest expression of patriotism ever penned by an American goy”. I believe my encounter occurred at the Tallulah Bankhead Theater in Ville De Hunt, Ohio, site of the well-attended—and unforgettable—“Tribute To Mr. Ed: A Weeklong Celebration” in June 2008, sponsored by Waste Management.

    My recollection is that the very horse-like main character’s name was Mr. Ed Hussein-Obongo, and that Act I was devoted to portraying Mr. Ed’s many personal encounters with young black males in limousines and public saunas in and around the Chicago area. Many of the young black males in question sang in the choir of the church Mr. Ed attended. Most were to die in mysterious circumstances; virtually all such deaths were ruled suicides. In this early production, Act I was titled “Horsing Around”.

    Act II, if my memory serves, was a very public wrestling match between the even more horse-like Mrs. Ed and her husband’s main rival, Yralih Notnilc (who, by the way, bore a startling resemblance to Osmo Vanska). The wrestling match was intricately choreographed—by Merce Cunningham—and the thrilling conclusion involved a genuine coup de theatre: Mrs. Ed, brilliantly lighted, unveiled her terrifying buck teeth, which sent Yralih Notnilc screaming and running for cover as the curtain fell. I believe Act II was called “Horses Of A Different Color” in this early production.

    In this early version of the show, I thought Act III was the letdown. I remember the Lincoln Continental in the car wash, but I believe the Lincoln Continental was populated by the ghosts of the dead choir boys—and it was they who sang, in a rather foreboding manner, “I Will Wait For You” directly to Mr. Ed. It was as the Lincoln Continental emerged from the car wash that a rather nasty-looking Mrs. Ed shoved her husband into the back seat of the vehicle, got in beside him, and began chomping down on a triple-bacon-cheeseburger as the curtain fell. I distinctly recall that Act III was titled “The Way Of All Horse Flesh” in this Waste Management-sponsored production.

    As to the reviews of this 2008 version of the show (and the show was definitely nowhere near ready for prime time), even the yokel local reviewers noted that all the change in the world could not salvage this hopeless pile of horse dung.

  3. Of course, you are right about the 2008 stage version. Production insiders working with Mr. Allen have complained notoriously regarding the protracted makeover the basic story underwent over the next three years.

    Reports have suggested that the script survived no less than eleven wholesale alterations, the last nine of them coming at the insistence of the new director, Larry Sinclair (replacing Allen himself), who wanted to remove any allusion to black choir boys and who also wanted to more heavily emphasize Allen’s central metaphor, which the original director/writer had shifted from “horse” to "banana" - and even “partially pealed banana” - after reading Gogol during the first makeover in 2009.

    Merce Cunningham, it appears, had been involved in the movie project as early as 2009. The choreographer, hired for the film by Sinclair, was inspired to import into the show a dance pantomime, which happens in the film in Act II, just before the debate between Potifar and Mr. Khui. In the dream sequence the President finds himself, well, beside “himself,” wrestling with the political issues.

    (The dance sequence had replaced the wrestling match in the stage version, which Cunningham had also choreographed.)

    Cunningham had originally created the dance for John Adams’s opera “Bobbitt,” but Producer Peter Sellers then cut the scene, called at that time “Priapus Prances,” from the opera.

    Sinclair, who was very passionate about retaining the sequence for the film, ran into a seeming inviolate obstacle, however, because Adams had prohibited any part of his opera score – even from “Priapus Prances” – from being used in “Khui,” despite the fact that Cunningham’s choreography had been fashioned meticulously to Adams’s music. Thank God that a solution was found when Sinclair substituted for the Adams the Scherzo from Bruckner’s Symphony Nr. 9 (played through twice), as, lo and behold, the Bruckner fit the scene perfectly.

    I’ve never heard of Aksnav Omso though.

  4. Cunningham will release a book next month discussing his role in the gestation of the new film, the title of which has been changed to "Hooey" for the general release on December 1. Apparently, the book is the choreographer's last grab at the golden ring of fame, especially now in the wake of the demise of his dance company.

    The title of the book is:

    "From 'Houyhnhnm' to 'Hooey': My Four Years in Hell: a Memoir by Merce Cunningham"

  5. I am curious: have you ever seen Cunningham's work?

    If you search google images of Merce Cunningham, you will be guaranteed to have one of two reactions: either vomit or laugh yourself silly.

    Not that the online photos of John Cage are any better . . .

  6. I've never seen any of Cunningham's work live. I am only familiar with excerpts of his choreography available on I am disposed to respond to these examples according to the first option you have provided.

    I also only tonight have noticed that Mr. Cunningham has been dead for more than two years. That marks the upcoming biography, "From 'Houyhnhnm' to 'Hooey': My Four Years of Hell" a ghost-written memoir in the truest sense possible.

  7. I am interested to know what it is about the photos of Merce Cunningham (and apparently those of John Cage as well) that makes you respond either by derisory laughter or by vomiting.

  8. Please go to your computer, and in the address bar please type in "" and hit enter.

    In the google space bar, please type in "Merce Cunningham" and hit enter.

    When the next screen appears, please click on "images" and scroll through the first three or four pages of images for Merce Cunningham.

    You will be falling on the floor within seconds, I assure you.

    Then, if still have the stomach, you may want to repeat the exercise for "John Cage".

  9. Drew, thanks for replying, but you haven't answered my question. I already know very well what Merce Cunningham and John Cage looked like (and at different ages too). I've been familiar with them for quite a while, and I have googled their images. My question was, what is it about their visages that leads you to feel the responses you described. Why do you think them either ridiculous or repulsive? Or do I mistake your meaning? I ask this because my responses are so different that I am quite bewildered by yours. As I said, I'm interested to know. Thanks!

  10. There's another point you made in your comments on Cunningham that puzzles me, so I thought I'd try asking you about it.

    I saw the Cunningham Company in Seattle about two weeks before you saw it in Minneapolis. The program was: "Duets," "Rainforest," and "Split Sides."

    You wrote:
    "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."

    Your response to their bodies puzzles me because Cunningham dancers are perhaps the best trained modern dancers in the world---& especially this last group trained by Merce himself. One needs only to look at what they do onstage to realize that they lack nothing. Cunningham technique uses many balletic moves, the dancers are gorgeously turned out, and they achieve supreme feats in movements of the entire body.

    In my experience, my estimation of dancers' "muscle tone" has zero predictive value as to their abilities. I've seen great dancers with little muscle tone and vice versa. The Cunningham dancers are obviously physically very strong.

    Yvonne Rainer and Mark Morris are modern choreographers who like to use non-dance bodies and untrained dancers. But Cunningham was the opposite of them in these respects.

    Among the Cunningham dancers, Rashaun Mitchell, Dylan Crossman and many others have classic "dance bodies." So does Silas Riener, who is among the very best. I thought the men & women beautiful, but that obviously is a natter of opinion.

    As the choreography---& as to the exhibition---my views are so entirely opposite yours that I don't start off in that direction except to say that I think that you closed your minds to the experience of profound and very great choreography and dancing.

  11. As I wrote, I have a limited appreciation for modern dance.

    I happen to like Paul Taylor’s work, I happen to like David Parsons’s work, and I happen to like Lar Lubovitch’s work, but I stated—quite clearly—that I have a limited appreciation for modern dance, and that I derived limited enjoyment from Cunningham.

    I also stated, quite clearly, that I have no idea whether the three Cunningham works I viewed the weekend before last were in any way representative of his output.

    Further, I noted—firmly and pointedly—that it was difficult for me to get beyond the prevailing weirdness of Cunningham the man and Cunningham the artist (a weirdness patently obvious to everyone—except, apparently, to you, if comment number nine above may serve as guide).

    Much of Balanchine, I believe, is profound. Some of Ashton, I believe, is profound. In contrast, in my limited exposure to modern dance, I have never observed that same profundity in the work of any modern-dance choreographer—and nothing on the Cunningham program the weekend before last in Minneapolis was in the least profound. “Agon”, without more, surely renders Cunningham’s entire output irrelevant.

    Moreover, everything I saw in Cunningham the weekend before last was rooted in the New York downtown counterculture and ethos of the late 1940s, and might as well have been created in 1948 or 1949—and this is so despite the fact that the works offered in Minneapolis were created in 1958, 1968 and 1998. To me, it looked as if Cunningham had spent the last sixty years of his life stuck in some bizarre, unpleasant, unhealthy, immediate-post-war time warp.

    The same was true, of course, of John Cage, as Pierre Boulez—for years—has been all too happy to point out to whomever might listen. Cage and Cunningham no doubt fed off each other, both rejecting High Modernism in favor of what probably can only be classified as Low Modernism. Low Modernism, I submit, is no more attractive, and no more lasting, than Low Comedy—and Low Modernism shares with Low Comedy a dangerous affinity to Camp. (And, when discussing Cunningham and Cage, whether their lives or their art, the issue of Camp can never be far from the surface.)

    You are aware, I assume, that Cunningham’s work has always been highly controversial, even within the modern dance field? And you are aware, I assume, that the quality of Cunningham’s dancers has long been a matter of concern, particularly in the last twenty years, when Cunningham dancers regularly absconded to other, younger, better-financed and more stable companies? The dancers of James Sewell Ballet, a very, very minor local company, put the Cunningham dancers I witnessed to shame (as the Sewell dancers themselves would be delighted to tell you).

    Have you VIEWED the Cunningham/Rauschenberg exhibition at The Walker Art Center? If not, how can you possibly take issue with the few words I wrote about that entirely unremarkable exhibition?

  12. Thank you for answering. Liking Balanchine speaks well for any person who does so.

    My comment on the Walker's Rauschenberg was, like your comment, just a few words to the side. Your remarks interested when I thought about this fact: that much of what we see in retrospective exhibitions was made with unstable materials and/or never intended for public exhibition---esp. because modern museum exhibition is a rather recent invention. Such objects nonetheless can be fascinating and revelatory.

    You did a very good job of getting at the core issue here. I don't particularly like the terms "High Modernism" and "Low Modernism", but they serve the purpose here. I think a great deal of what you call "Low Modernism" is brilliant and beneficial and beautiful. Also, I think the philosophical movements related to (or expressed by) them have been beneficial additions to the sum of human understanding, not destructive. The heart of it our different philosophical, social & political points of view. If you want to know my political views, just think of the approximate opposite of yours.

    But here at the end I want to go back to the original question. You still haven't said why you find Cunningham & Cage's visages so repulsive that they affect, or ratify, your judgment of their art. You made a diversion by saying that everyone agrees with you---thereby dismissing me as the oddball. In my world, no one I know thinks that Cage and Cunningham, though eccentric, were so weird---in a strong & negative sense of the word---as to deserve derision or contempt. I still precisely what it is about their persons that appalls you.

  13. I disagree with nothing you write until your final paragraph.

    I dislike the terms "High Modernism" and "Low Modernism", too.

    I used those terms only for want of something better.