Sunday, January 30, 2011

Dohnanyi In Dvorak, Again

Last night, Joshua and I went to Symphony Hall to hear Christoph Dohnanyi lead the Boston Symphony in music of Ligeti, Mozart and Dvorak.

Dohnanyi obtains exceptional results with the Boston musicians. When Dohnanyi is on the podium, ensemble is tighter than the prevailing standard in Boston, balances are superior to those obtained by other conductors, and the orchestra’s sound demonstrates greater transparency than the Boston norm.

In fact, Dohnanyi achieves higher standards of execution and finesse with the Boston Symphony than the orchestra’s two most longstanding guest conductors, Colin Davis and Bernard Haitink, under both of whom the Boston Symphony can sound flabby.

Dohnanyi has been working with the Boston Symphony on a regular basis only in recent years.

Dohnanyi and the Boston musicians had an unpleasant experience many years ago. In the 1990s, during his first rehearsal with the orchestra, Dohnanyi spent the entire time tuning the ensemble to his exacting specifications—and the musicians bristled. The result: Dohnanyi was replaced by another guest conductor, and Dohnanyi was not to appear again with the Boston Symphony for many seasons.

Relations between Dohnanyi and the orchestra clearly have been mended over the intervening years. The orchestra now shines under Dohnanyi. Dohnanyi attains results in Boston that no other conductor achieves.

The principal work on last night’s program was Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7.

Dohnanyi is today’s finest Dvorak conductor, and this is so despite the fact that Dohnanyi’s Dvorak is more Germanic than Czech. Last season, Josh and I heard Dohnanyi lead the Boston Symphony in a truly excellent performance of Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony, and we did not want to miss hearing Dohnanyi lead the orchestra in yet another of Dvorak’s late symphonies.

Last night’s performance was very, very fine. Dohnanyi is an objective conductor, keener to reveal a work’s structure than to emphasize passing incident or emotion. For Dohnanyi, this approach works splendidly in the music of Dvorak (whereas it very definitely does not work in the music of Brahms, which in Dohnanyi’s hands is profoundly unimaginative). If I had one quibble with last night’s performance, it would be that the Scherzo lacked rusticity. The other three movements were, I thought, faultlessly done, even though no one would mistake the Boston Symphony for the Cleveland Orchestra (and the Boston Symphony’s emphatic and problematic brass section resists the ministrations even of Dohnanyi).

The concert began with a performance of Ligeti’s Double Concerto For Flute, Oboe And Orchestra, a composition whose first performance (by the Berlin Philharmonic) was conducted by Dohnanyi in 1972—five days after the tragic Munich Olympics concluded.

The two-movement Double Concerto is one of Ligeti’s most appealing works, mostly because its sound world is fanciful and “glittering” (the word the composer himself used in describing the composition). A proliferation of microscopic themes are juggled by the soloists, a full array of winds, and the lower strings. The result is an ear-beguiling series of ever-shifting, ever-captivating textures and thematic fragments. The Double Concerto—never performed by the Boston Symphony until this week—is an eerie, beautiful work.

Following the Ligeti, the orchestra offered a performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4. The soloist was Arabella Steinbacher, a German violinist making her Boston Symphony debut.

The Mozart obviously had been shortchanged during rehearsals; orchestral execution was not what one might have expected.

Since the Boston Symphony is not a Mozart orchestra, and since Dohnanyi is not a Mozart conductor, I did not enter the hall expecting much from the Mozart—and the musicians delivered about what I had expected.

It fell upon the soloist to attempt to carry the performance, and that probably was too much to ask. Steinbacher came alive in the Rondo, but otherwise the performance was a throwaway.

Steinbacher produced a beautiful sound. I would like to hear her with more congenial partners.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Ypres Tower, Rye

Ypres Tower, Rye, which we visited on August 4, 2008.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Street Market In Paris During The German Occupation

A Convoy, North Sea

John Lavery (1856-1941)
A Convoy, North Sea
Imperial War Museum, London

Oil On Canvas
68 3/4 Inches By 76 3/4 Inches


I encountered this fine painting when my brother and I explored, exhaustively, the World War I rooms at London’s Imperial War Museum in 2005. The painting was displayed, not in the many art galleries located on upper floors of The Imperial War Museum, but near the end of the sweep of galleries devoted to The Great War.

The World War I rooms are situated in the lowest level of the Imperial War Museum (the basement in all but name), and occupy approximately one-half of that enormous space. Cramped, poorly-designed, poorly-lighted and poorly-ventilated, the World War I galleries required almost a full day for my brother and me to view to our satisfaction.

We were riveted from first exhibition room to last, despite the fact that we had to exit the building every hour or so to breathe fresh air. Happily, there is an employee entrance/exit at the rear of the Imperial War Museum basement which my brother and I were able to use whenever the air became too stifling—and none of the IWM employees seemed to mind that my brother and I freely used that entrance/exit as our own once we had gained proper admittance to the museum through the visitor entrance. (We also took advantage of the private entrance/exit on another day, when we toured exhaustively the World War II rooms, also located in the IWM basement and also poorly-ventilated.)

John Lavery, a former student of Jules Bastien-Lepage, was a distinguished painter, renowned for his grasp of portraiture as well as for his plein air works. Lavery was named an Official War Artist by the British Government in 1917, and was assigned to The Royal Navy.

This particular painting, portraying an airship escorting and protecting a British convoy off the coast of Norway, serves, in part, as documentary: its depiction of the scene is accurate and detailed, allowing the viewer to witness the panorama almost as if he had been present on the airship.

The sensation of height is most successfully achieved. That particular accomplishment is, perhaps, the most admirable quality of Lavery’s painting.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Died On This Date

Domenico Ghirlandaio (1494)
Louis-Francois Roubiliac (1762)
Domenico Cimarosa (1801)
Francis Scott Key (1843)
Baron Georges Haussmann (1891)
Thomas Hardy (1928)
Count Galeazzo Ciano (1944)
Aureliano Pertile (1952)
Oscar Strauss (1954)
Elena Gerhardt (1961)
Alberto Giacometti (1966)
Max Lorenz (1975)
Barbara Pym (1980)
Josef Gingold (1995)
Klaus Tennstedt (1998)
Edmund Hillary (2008)

On the same day—January 11, 1944—that Mussolini had his son-in-law and former Italian Foreign Minister, Count Ciano, executed, the Allies initiated Operation Pointblank, a series of massive air attacks on the Luftwaffe and German aeronautic facilities. The result was that the Luftwaffe was not to be a factor on D-Day five months later.

The photograph above shows B-17 Flying Fortresses bombing Bremen through heavy cloud cover.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

"Take A Letter, Miss Galli-Curci"

Legendary soprano Amelita Galli-Curci (1882-1963), pictured at her typewriter, circa 1920.

The glass negative is cracked, and a visible fingerprint on the plate mars the view, yet this captivating photograph from the past nonetheless enchants the viewer.

A Most Eye-Popping Announcement

From a 7 January 2011 Press Release Issued By The University Of Iowa Athletic Department:

The Iowa basketball program will recognize former head basketball coach and player Sharm Scheuerman during the Indiana-Iowa basketball game on Sunday, Jan. 23. Scheuerman passed away last summer.

The Iowa Hawkeyes will wear an “SS” patch on their uniform top in his honor.


I am speechless—and not because of the basic and repeated plural/singular grammatical errors in this jaw-dropping press release.

I think I may want to tune in on January 23 solely in order to see the crowd reaction to the "SS" patches.

This has the potential to be bigger even than Matt Gatens’s upcoming one-woman show on Broadway.

May I assume that the Hawkeyes will wear recreations of the original SS Sports Patch, pictured below? The original SS Sports Patch, after all, featured Iowa’s school colors, black and gold, which makes it the most suitable choice for the Hawkeyes under the unfortunate circumstances.


And, in closing, a personal note to Sally Mason, President Of The University Of Iowa, as well as to the members of The Iowa Board Of Regents:

You need to fire The University Of Iowa Athletic Director, Gary Barta, and afterward conduct a thorough housecleaning of The University Of Iowa Athletic Department, which is clearly—and lavishly—populated by morons.

Sheer Unadulterated Provincialism

A couple of days ago, Joshua picked up—for $1.00—“The Penguin Guide To Compact Discs And Cassettes: 1989 Yearbook” at a second-hand bookshop in Cambridge.

My father has twenty or twenty-five or thirty of the Penguin Guides, and my father probably owns the very volume Josh bought.

The Penguin Guides are useful compilations of recorded music, but the reader must overlook—if not outright ignore—the absurd British bias the authors exhibit.

In the 1989 Yearbook, Penguin’s top recommendation for a recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is—amazingly—Richard Hickox’s recording with the Northern Sinfonia on the ASV label.

Hickox, now deceased, was nothing more than a provincial conductor of British repertory—and only British repertory. Hickox was not competent when he moved into Central European (or other) repertory.

The Newcastle/Gateshead-based Northern Sinfonia was and is nothing more than a provincial group. A comparable American ensemble would be the Phoenix Symphony.

Nevertheless, Penguin rates the Hickox recording of Beethoven’s Ninth superior to the efforts of, among others, Wilhelm Furtwangler, George Szell, Leopold Stokowski, Eugen Jochum and Leonard Bernstein.

According to Penguin:

In his pacing throughout the work, Hickox is unerring and conveys from first to last the tension of a genuine performance, in a way that his rivals among international stars do not manage.

Penguin fails to explain how Furtwangler was unable to convey “the tension of a genuine performance” in Furtwangler’s legendary—and live—1951 recording from Bayreuth, a performance discussed on the very same page as the Hickox.

Penguin’s top recommendation for a complete set of Beethoven symphonies is equally astonishing. The choice is Walter Weller and The City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on the Chandos label, whose Beethoven cycle is deemed superior to the Beethoven cycles of, among others, Claudio Abbado, Bernstein, Riccardo Muti and Georg Solti.

Weller, too, was nothing more than a provincial conductor, and the Birmingham orchestra did not in 1989 and does not today approach the quality of an international-level ensemble.

Nevertheless, Penguin praises “the warm, refined, Viennese quality in the playing and interpretation” and, further, claims that “the ensemble matches and even outshines that of such orchestras as the Vienna Philharmonic”. Penguin ends its assessment of the Weller recordings with a glowing endorsement:

Altogether an outstanding set, easily outshining the other recent Beethoven cycles from the international brigade.

It is not often that one encounters such sheer, unadulterated—even spectacular—provincialism.

The Penguin Beethoven assessments are camp.


As a people, the British do not understand and cannot “do” music, and there is simply no getting around that fact.

The same is true of art: as a people, the British do not understand and cannot “do” art. The British attitude toward art is a purely provincial one, similar to the British attitude toward music.

A prime example is Stanley Spencer. Non-British persons hoot over the paintings of Spencer, readily seen as examples of purest kitsch. There are only two Spencer paintings in public collections outside Britain; both paintings are in France, and neither painting is ever on display. Spencer’s work is simply not exportable.

However, for reasons non-British persons can never fathom, British persons respond to Spencer paintings. Spencer paintings are on display throughout the British Isles, and they are taken seriously by British art lovers—while persons of other internationality roll their eyes and mutter “Oh, dear” when encountering a Spencer painting.

I was reminded of the provincial British attitude toward art when I came across a dumbfounding assessment of the work of Paul Gauguin (subject of a current exhibition in London) posted on a British website this week. The author—who had no business writing about art (or anything else, for that matter)—found Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings to be inferior not only to Gauguin’s Breton paintings but to Gauguin’s religious paintings, of all things (the writer described Gauguin’s religious paintings as “premonitions of Stanley Spencer”):

The two Breton and Christian rooms see the painter at the height of his powers, both in vision and execution. Imagination is key.

Wow! To encounter ignorance and idiocy on such a striking level is rare indeed!

In case the reader had missed the writer’s earlier boneheaded and spectacularly wrong assessment of Gauguin’s development as an artist, the writer reiterated his fundamental lack of understanding of Gauguin in his closing paragraph:

As Tahitian woman follows Tahitian woman and muted colors fail to recapture the iridescence of the Breton images, I longed for [Gauguin] to return to France and recapture imagination . . . But the final rooms, dominated by the South Seas, come across as a murky waste.

Wow again! What a moron!

At least the reader is presented with a few hearty laughs!

And the reader, while acquiring a deeper understanding of the British incapacity to appreciate art, can enjoy the dangling modifier—of which there are others in the article, one of which was supremely laughable (“although a Gauguin skeptic, it was impossible not to be lured by the reviews”).

Camp is alive and well—if not positively thriving—in ever-provincial Britain.

Addendum of 11 January 2010:

My sister-in-law, born and reared in London and educated at Cambridge and a resident of the U.K. until age twenty-eight, tells me that my discussion of British attitudes toward art is too harsh.

First, she insists that I need to point out that Britain has always under-appreciated (and often misunderstood) the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and that this state of affairs is as true today as it was in 1875. This accounts for the fact that British museums have such conspicuously-weak collections of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism compared to museums in the United States, France, Germany and Russia and, further, explains why Britain has not produced any lasting scholarship in the fields of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. She tells me that it is totally unsurprising and totally unremarkable that British writers would misread and misinterpret the work of Paul Gauguin, even as late as 2011. The British have simply never grasped Impressionism and Post-Impressionism on the same level as the rest of the world.

Second, she insists that I need to point out that British art has always been outside the international mainstream going back to pre-Western art and, further, that most art-lovers in Britain realize that British art has always been insular. She insists that it is unfair to compare the art of Britain with the art of the Continent or the art of the United States, and that the British themselves realize, as a people, that they have no particular genius or flair for art.

Third, she insists that I note that many British art-lovers, too, realize that the paintings of Stanley Spencer are kitsch. She tells me that there are at least as many persons in Britain that sniff at Spencer’s work as there are persons that like his paintings. She also tells me that there are at least as many museum curators in Britain that want to remove Spencer paintings from museum walls as there are curators that want to keep Spencer paintings on display. In another fifty years, my sister-in-law insists, Spencer paintings currently hanging in Britain’s museums will be off-view and consigned permanently to storage.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Church In Trikala

A church in Trikala, whose name we did not even bother to note.

We encountered—but did not attempt to visit—this handsome structure in late morning on March 17.

Leignitzer Strasse

In Wilhelmine Germany, industrialization resulted in urbanization, as entire families left the countryside and moved to cities in search of work.

Living conditions for the industrial working class were often miserable.

Housing was dank, cramped and overcrowded, with entire families living in one narrow room without indoor plumbing.

One such quarter is depicted here: Berlin’s Leignitzer Strasse, in 1910.

Rent for this type of space would have consumed a substantial portion of the family income.

Saint Stephen's Monastery

Saint Stephen's Monastery, which we visited on the afternoon of March 17.