Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Our Final Outing Before Christmas

This past weekend was totally devoted to Christmas-related activities and preparations, with one exception: on Sunday afternoon, Joshua and I took my mother downtown to view a small art exhibition and to attend a concert.

At the Minneapolis Institute Of Arts, we attended “Bonjour Japon: A Parisian Love Affair With Japanese Art”, an exhibition devoted to the influence of Japanese art on the art of France during the late 19th Century. Most of the important Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists were represented—the exhibition involved a case of rounding up the usual suspects—and most of the works on display were very minor. “Bonjour Japon” is the kind of exhibition that dedicated museum visitors have experienced a hundred times: yet another recycling of popular Impressionist/Post-Impressionist works under the pretext of a fresh perspective.

The current major exhibition at MIA is devoted to Japanese prints, and “Bonjour Japon” is one of two small pendent exhibitions to the main affair. We have not attended the major exhibition, and probably shall not.

In all, there were seventeen temporary exhibitions on display at MIA during our visit (with another two MIA exhibitions on view at other sites). The MIA has a tendency to saturate art lovers with small-scale exhibitions, and I am not confident that this is a wise practice.

From the museum we drove to Ted Mann Concert Hall to hear the Sunday matinee concert by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

The SPCO has had to vacate its regular home, The Ordway Center in Saint Paul, for most of the month of December due to popular Christmas programming at The Ordway (including a two-week run of the uninspired Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, “Cinderella”).

Mann, which opened in 1993, is a beautiful concert hall—it probably is my favorite concert hall in the Twin Cities—and I much prefer it to Ordway. However, Mann’s capacity is just over 1100 persons, while Ordway’s capacity is 1900 persons. The SPCO loses revenue every time it must book Mann. This surely must grate on SPCO officials, since a primary reason for building Ordway was to create a permanent home for the SPCO. Alas, since The Ordway opened in 1985, the SPCO has had to contend with an Ordway administration that tries to keep the hall booked with touring and self-produced musicals and dance events year-round, a practice that often deprives the SPCO of its home concert hall.

A resolution is in the works: groundbreaking for a second hall at The Ordway is scheduled for the very near future. The new hall is supposed to be in place by 2014, and will be devoted exclusively to concerts. The price tag for the new hall is $75 million, and most of the money has already been raised.

At the very same time that a second hall at The Ordway will be rising from the ground, the Minnesota Orchestra’s home, Orchestra Hall (which opened in 1974), will undergo an extensive two-year renovation costing $90 million. As is the case with the proposed new venue at The Ordway, most of the money for the renovation of Orchestra Hall has already been raised. Orchestra Hall is scheduled to close at the conclusion of the current subscription season and to reopen in 2014. (For the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 seasons, the Minnesota Orchestra will occupy a specially-created temporary concert hall at the new Convention Center).

The SPCO has an annual budget of $10 million. The organization announced last week that it would balance its budget during the current fiscal year.

The Minnesota Orchestra, however, announced last week that it would incur a deficit of $2.9 million during the current fiscal year (the Minnesota Orchestra has an annual budget of $30 million). Oddly, the orchestra announced an increase in ticket revenue over the preceding fiscal year, and blamed the deficit on a smaller-than-expected draw from its endowment (the Minnesota Orchestra has one of the six largest endowments among American orchestras). The numbers add up only if one takes into account the rolling-average method for determining the permitted draw from an endowment—and, I submit, it is irresponsible for a non-profit organization to use rolling-average accounting during periods of adverse market conditions. Doing so merely renders permanent the loss of value in the corpus of the trust—with the inevitable result that allotted annual draws two and three years into economic downturns are significantly reduced, precisely the situation the Minnesota Orchestra faces at present.

Sunday’s SPCO concert was pleasing. I am glad we attended.

Christian Zacharias was back on the podium (Josh and I had heard Zacharias lead the orchestra two weeks ago). On Sunday, Zacharias conducted two Haydn symphonies, supplemented with Stravinksy’s Danses Concertantes and Weber’s Konzertstück. It was a delightful program.

Zacharias is not a profound conductor of Haydn, but he is a satisfactory one. Zacharias’s Haydn is plain, not stylish, and Zacharias displayed more earnestness than imagination in shaping Haydn’s themes—yet Zacharias kept things moving and he never distorted tempi or musical line.

Symphony No. 42, from 1771, was played first. Scored for two oboes, two bassoons, two horns and strings, Symphony No. 42 bears many of the hallmarks of Haydn’s late style, including a false recapitulation in the first movement and a fully-developed Rondo in the fourth movement complete with unexpected starts and stops.

Symphony No.100 (“Military”), composed for Haydn’s second trip to London in 1794, was played last. On a much grander scale than its 1771 predecessor (although shorter in length), the “Military” adds two flutes, two clarinets, two trumpets and timpani, triangle, cymbals and bass drum to the Haydn orchestra heard in Symphony No. 42. The “Military” is one of Haydn’s greatest—and most popular—symphonies and has occupied a central place in the repertory since the day of its premiere.

We enjoyed the Haydn performances, although we remained fully aware that we were hearing nothing exceptional. The performances displayed little warmth and little wit. Nothing miraculous occurred. The slow movements tended to trudge. We do not live in an age of Haydn conductors.

Stravinsky’s Danses Concertantes was written in 1940—it was the first Stravinsky composition written, start to finish, after Stravinsky had emigrated to the United States—and came immediately after the composer’s Symphony In C. To my ears, Danses Concertantes is a weak piece; it has always struck me as a recycled version of the much finer Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, which premiered in 1938. Perhaps because of the international situation, the year 1940 was not a good one for Stravinsky; his writing that year was impersonal, dutiful and professional, as if achieved on automatic pilot (the Symphony In C is also a rote work).

The SPCO performance of Danses Concertantes was accomplished—but there is little that can be done with the piece aside from playing the notes.

Weber’s Konzertstück—in which Zacharias served as both conductor and pianist—was the highlight of the concert.

The Konzertstück was Weber’s final significant work for orchestra. Premiered in 1821 (one week after the premiere of “Der Freischütz”), the Konzertstück came long after the composer’s early symphonies and clarinet and piano concertos. I believe it is Weber’s finest piece of absolute music (although the composer apparently had a programmatic scheme in mind while writing the Konzertstück). The Konzertstück possesses a depth and an originality otherwise absent in Weber works for the concert hall (the composer’s works for the theater are another matter entirely).

A veritable piano concerto in one movement (in four distinct sections), the Konzertstück is the most concentrated and most overtly dramatic of Weber’s orchestral works. Perhaps of greater importance, the work coheres—which cannot genuinely be said of the composer’s symphonies and concertos. It is as finely wrought and as deeply expressive as anything Beethoven or Schubert wrote in 1821.

The Konzertstück was a mainstay of the orchestral repertory in Europe and America until the middle of the 20th Century, at which point the work began to fall from view. Its neglect in recent decades has not been deserved.

I thought Sunday’s performance was excellent, both from orchestra and pianist. In fact, I wished the musicians had ditched the Stravinsky and played the Weber twice.

We had a lovely afternoon in what was our final outing before Christmas. My mother enjoyed the exhibition and the concert, and Josh enjoyed the exhibition and the concert (and it was Josh’s first visit to Mann, which he very much appreciated).

On Thursday, Josh and I will fly to Oklahoma to spend Christmas with Josh’s family. We shall return on the 29th.

No comments:

Post a Comment