Saturday, January 21, 2012

More Brahms, No Stare, No Caesar

Last evening’s Minnesota Orchestra concert, part of the orchestra’s two-week, four-program Brahms project, was very fine. One of two Brahms programs offered to local concertgoers this week, last night’s program featured music not often played by professional ensembles.

The concert began with five Hungarian Dances, taken from the set of twenty-one. The orchestra did not play any of the three dances orchestrated by Brahms or any of the five dances orchestrated by Dvorak. Instead, it offered five lesser-played dances orchestrated by other hands: numbers 4, 8, 11, 14 and 5. The performances were perfectly acceptable if hardly the last word in Hungarian fire and dazzle.

Two choral works completed the first half of the program: the great Nänie and the even greater Schicksalslied, in both of which the Minnesota Orchestra was joined by the Minnesota Chorale.

These two choral works are very seldom encountered in concert halls, yet the Minnesota Orchestra had offered both works as recently as May 2008, when the orchestra had performed Nänie and Schicksalslied under Helmuth Rilling. Although Joshua and I had attended one of those May 2008 performances, we were happy to hear Nänie and Schicksalslied again.

Music Director Osmo Vanska turned the conducting duties in the two choral works over to the Director of the Minnesota Chorale. Vanska’s presence on the podium was not missed. Vanska is not a particularly penetrating or insightful Brahms conductor, and I doubt that his readings of Nänie and Schicksalslied would have been superior to the ones we heard. Both works are primarily contemplative—and it was with painstaking contemplation that both works were performed last night.

After intermission, the orchestra played the Serenade No. 2, another work very seldom programmed. Oddly, we had heard the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra play the Brahms Serenade No. 2 in November. I doubt whether both local ensembles have ever previously offered this rare work in the same season (the Brahms Serenade No. 1 also appears on the schedules of both local orchestras this season).

Last night’s performance of the Serenade No. 2, alone, made the concert worthwhile. The players were on excellent form, and Vanska conducted the score “straight”. It was as fine a performance of the Serenade No. 2 as I am ever likely to hear in the United States—and much finer than the entirely capable performance we had heard in Saint Paul two months ago. The Minnesota Orchestra winds were livelier and more expressive than their Saint Paul counterparts, and that probably accounted for the difference.

I am pleased we caught two of the four Minnesota Orchestra Brahms programs. The program we caught last week was excellent, and the program we caught last night was excellent. It was, for us, a case of two evenings well-spent.

Before the concert, we ate dinner at a fine seafood restaurant. For soup, we ordered lobster bisque. For salad, we ordered spinach salad with roasted mushrooms and hot bacon. For main course, my mother ordered California white bass, my father ordered Nova Scotia swordfish, and Josh and I ordered Canadian walleye. We thought the food was good.


We had planned to attend a concert by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra this evening—but, after learning a few days ago that scheduled conductor Asher Fisch had cancelled, we cancelled, too.

Soprano Christine Brewer is this week’s SPCO guest soloist, engaged to sing Beethoven’s “Ah, Perfido!” and Wagner’s “Wesendonck Lieder”. This is ideal repertory for Brewer, but the conductor engaged as a last-minute replacement, Ward Stare, is both novice and nonentity, always destined to be best-known for his role as the former boyfriend of soprano Renee Fleming (who is two or three decades older than Stare). With Stare on the podium, it would have been impossible for us to take the concert seriously—and we decided to stay home.

Brewer received good notices for the Friday night performance.

Stare did not.

In its coverage, the Pioneer-Press pointedly failed to identify—or even mention—the conductor, devoting its entire review to Brewer, and Brewer alone. In fact, the Pioneer-Press did not even note that there were two orchestral works on the program in addition to the two vocal works. A reader unaware that the concert was devoted to four compositions would have been justified in concluding that only two scores had been performed, and that Brewer had conducted the orchestra herself.

The Pioneer-Press, in ignoring the presence of Stare, may have committed an act of kindness.

The Star-Tribune DID mention Stare—and the Star-Tribune had little good to say about him, remarking that the level of ensemble Stare obtained was poor and wryly noting that Stare was utterly lost in the two orchestral works on the program, Mozart’s Symphony No. 17 and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.

I am pleased we did not venture out into a cold night.


The Acting Company is currently in residence at The Guthrie Theater, offering a production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in the smallest of The Guthrie’s three venues. This is the fourth consecutive year in which The Acting Company has settled into The Guthrie for a three-week run.

Josh and I had contemplated attending a performance of “Julius Caesar” next weekend, but we have been warned off by knowledgeable Twin Cities theatergoers. The production is apparently a disaster—and has aroused much negative comment as well as outright ill will.

We have been told by persons in a position to know that there is NO TALENT WHATSOEVER to be seen in the current Acting Company. The cast members onstage in “Julius Caesar” are said to be so profoundly lacking in basic stage skills that audience jaws literally drop at every performance. The onstage proceedings are so bad, they are said to be as cruel to members of the audience as they are to the fools and dumbos that inhabit the stage—and “fools and dumbos” was the precise pejorative phrase used to describe the “Julius Caesar” cast members by the most sophisticated theater professional I have ever had the pleasure of knowing on a personal basis (and a person widely admired for whole-hearted generosity).

The production itself is apparently no better than the untalented assemblage of players. According to the accounts I have received, a severely-trimmed, dumbed-down-beyond-belief “Julius Caesar” is what The Acting Company is currently presenting at The Guthrie. The managing partner of my firm, a gentleman of extravagant intellectual accomplishment, referred to the “Julius Caesar” production as “less learned than the worst soap commercial ever seen on network television”—and he referred to the “Julius Caesar” director as “a man of undoubted if not immeasurable stupidity”.

Whatever the cause, The Acting Company’s “Julius Caesar” has been accorded the status of a major mistake, unworthy of occupying the smallest stage of The Guthrie and unworthy of The Guthrie imprimatur.

In a rightful world, there would be repercussions.

And there may have been repercussions already.

Something clearly is going on at The Guthrie. The official in charge of programming for the small Guthrie venue quietly stepped down in recent days, with no advance warning and without explanation. The official’s departure became effective on the very day it was announced. No one is saying anything for public dissemination, but it appears that the official was relieved of his duties—without notice and without recourse.

I wonder what role The Acting Company production of “Julius Caesar” played in the official’s departure—and I wonder whether The Acting Company has played its last in the Twin Cities. If the “Julius Caesar” production is as bad as everyone claims, The Guthrie must wash its hands of The Acting Company without delay.

(I also wonder what Josh’s sister will make of the “Julius Caesar” production when she sees it next month at Vanderbilt. The production will soon be inflicted upon a plethora of cities, large and small, coast-to-coast, and Josh’s sister will be one of the individual victims.)

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