Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Play And A Recital

On Friday evening, my parents, my middle brother, and Joshua and I went to Theater In The Round, where we caught a performance of Tennessee Williams’s “Summer And Smoke”.

The production was flawless. I cannot imagine a finer production of the play. “Summer And Smoke” may have been the best production I have ever seen at Theater In The Round.

The symbolism in “Summer And Smoke” is too obvious, the reversals of fortunes of the two lead characters too pat, and the subsidiary characters more archetypes than flesh-and-blood creatures. There is also much overwriting in the play.

The play nonetheless works—if not seen too often—and we enjoyed the performance very much. The production played it straight, and did not attempt to impose a “fresh” interpretative reading onto the play.

Last season had not been a distinguished one for Theater In The Round. My recollection is that everything we saw at Theater In The Round last season was disappointing in one way or another.

It was a welcome sight Friday night, witnessing a first-class production at Theater In The Round.


On Sunday afternoon, at a violin/piano recital Josh and I attended with my parents, we overheard an unpleasant and unattractive matronly woman sharply upbraid a young man and young woman who had been discussing the very same production of “Summer And Smoke” that we had attended on Friday evening, and which the young man and young woman apparently had attended the previous night.

The young man and young woman, talking about how much they had enjoyed the production, were interrupted by the unpleasant and unattractive matronly woman, clearly a stranger to them.

The unpleasant and unattractive matronly woman proceeded curtly to inform the young man and young woman that they did not have a right to comment positively about Theater In The Round’s production of “Summer And Smoke” unless they had seen Laila Robins, Amanda Plummer, Rosamund Pike and Blythe Danner appear in the role of Alma. “Then, and only then, are you qualified to have an opinion on the production you saw—which was NOT very good, take it from me, someone who HAS seen worthwhile productions of the play—several, in fact.” During her edict, the unpleasant and unattractive matronly woman mispronounced both the first and last names of Laila Robins as well as the first name of Miss Pike, which the unpleasant and unattractive matronly woman somehow turned into “Rosamundo”.

The young man and young woman did not have an opportunity to address the unpleasant and unattractive matronly woman—whose last name is the same as a city in Ohio, and whose family fortune was earned in retailing and dry goods, and who tries to throw her weight around the Twin Cities whenever possible—because my father came to the rescue of the young man and young woman.

My father, without more, simply leaned forward in his seat—very briefly and very subtly—so that the unpleasant and unattractive matronly woman could see him. As soon as she noticed my father, the unpleasant and unattractive matronly woman, seeing that she was outranked, immediately turned away—and shortly thereafter she rose and left the building, taking her paid companion with her.

I hope she was not ill.

The recital missed by the unpleasant and unattractive matronly woman was a good one. The violinist was Baiba Skride, and the pianist was Lauma Skride, sister of the violinist.

The program was excellent.

The first half: Schubert’s Sonata In D Major, D. 384; Bartok’s Rhapsody No. 2; and Five Hungarian Dances by Brahms in the Joachim arrangement.

The second half: Szymanowski’s Mythes; and Ravel’s Tzigane.

The recital was uncommonly satisfying because the violinist played very simply; she was NOT trying to impress, NOT trying to dazzle, NOT trying to demonstrate virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake, NOT trying to overdo things, NOT trying to put on a Barnum And Bailey show. The result was that she offered one of the finest violin recitals I have ever heard, with playing that was concentrated yet relaxed, brilliant yet congenial, pointed yet understated.

Skride’s playing is somewhat reticent, attractively so, which appears to match her personality. She is not a super-virtuoso as was Maxim Vengerov prior to his injury, and she is not an intellect-based violinist as is the current German crew, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Christian Tetzlaff and Frank Peter Zimmermann. Skride does not do the big gesture, in which Joshua Bell is prone to indulge, and she does not go in for hokey physical dramatics, the province of more second-rate violinists than I could name, starting with Nikolaj Znaider.

Skride’s playing, nonetheless, is quite affecting, much more affecting than the playing of Julia Fischer or Arabella Steinbacher, two Skride Central European peers I predict Skride will outlast. Everything Skride played on Sunday afternoon was at a very high level of musicianship, understanding and accomplishment.

We had heard Skride once before. Four years ago, we had heard her play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra.

That performance had been faceless and unmemorable. In hindsight, I wonder whether the problem had been a mismatch of artists: Skride is a very subtle musician, whereas her conductor that night, Osmo Vanksa, is a very unsubtle musician.

Sunday afternoon’s performance was on a much higher level than Skride’s 2008 Mendelssohn performance.

That said, I do not wish to over-praise. Skride was probably wise to have avoided sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, probably not quite up her alley at present. The Ravel, measured and careful, operated at the outer capacity of her technique; at a quicker tempo, it surely would have veered out of control. And matters were helped for me by the fact that, the Bartok aside, I am particularly fond of every single work that Skride programmed.

Since 2008, Skride has changed instruments. Skride now plays a Stradivarius, on loan from Gidon Kremer.

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