Over Columbus Day Weekend, while Joshua’s sister was visiting us, we took her to two concerts.
On Saturday night of the holiday weekend, we took her to a concert by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.
The following afternoon, we took her to a recital by pianist Simone Dinnerstein.
Back in May, when Josh’s sister had visited us, we had taken her to a Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concert. She had enjoyed that concert very much. Saturday night, October 6, was for her a welcome second visit to the Ordway Center.
Josh and I took my parents to the October 6 concert, too. There are no further SPCO programs of appeal to us between now and the New Year—and, what with the current Minnesota Orchestra lockout and the SPCO on the verge of being locked out, it may be a long while before we have occasion to attend another Minnesota Orchestra or SPCO concert.
Thomas Dausgaard was conductor for the October 6 SPCO program.
I had never before seen or heard Dausgaard in action, but my parents had. In 2004, Dausgaard had conducted the Minnesota Orchestra—without distinction—in Mahler’s Fourth, among other works. My parents had attended one of those 2004 performances. Dausgaard had been so unimpressive in his debut week with the Minnesota Orchestra in 2004, he has never been asked to return.
Things come full circle. Eight years after Dausgaard’s first round of appearances with American ensembles, IMG, Dausgaard’s management firm, is once again trying to develop an American career for Dausgaard. Dausgaard has a handful of engagements in the U.S. this season, none in prestigious venues, and IMG managed to inflict him on SPCO.
IMG is wasting its time trying to promote Dausgaard in the United States. Unduly flashy and utterly lacking gravitas, Dausgaard is—to be blunt—not a conductor worth hearing. I predict he will never have an American career, and will continue to get most of his work in Scandinavia and Britain.
The SPCO concert began with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. In Dausgaard’s hands, Siegfried Idyll sounded like Wiren’s early Serenade, all high spirits and ebullience—and entirely vapid.
The concert concluded with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. In Dausgaard’s hands, Beethoven’s Seventh sounded like Bizet’s youthful Symphony In C, all bubbly surface and fizz—and entirely vapid.
Dausgaard’s was toy-soldier music-making. There was no content in Wagner and no content in Beethoven beyond the notes on the printed page. Dausgaard’s was music-making without expression, without melos, without philosophical weight—not exactly what is called for in Siegfried Idyll and Beethoven’s Seventh. Dausgaard appeared to be play-acting all night while engaged in a wide assortment of ridiculous podium theatrics—and the performances sounded exactly like performances under a play-acting conductor engaged in ridiculous podium theatrics.
Dausgaard looked decades older than his published photographs. I was taken aback when he first walked onstage—in fact, my first thought was that a replacement conductor had been engaged for the evening, with no advance notice provided to the assembled concertgoers.
Between the Wagner and Beethoven was a performance of Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto, the last—and finest, and most original—of the composer’s three attempts at large-scale concerto form.
Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto features spare instrumentation: strings, two bassoons, two horns and snare drum. Little is lost in a performance of chamber-orchestra scale.
Soloist for the SPCO performance was Alexander Fiterstein, member of The University Of Minnesota faculty. (The Principal Clarinetist of the SPCO, who normally would have assumed soloist honors, had recently retired from the SPCO after almost four decades of service.) The performance, the only satisfactory performance of the night, was highly enjoyable. Fiterstein is a fine instrumentalist.
Had I not come down with influenza less than 24 hours after the SPCO concert, forcing cancellation of a business trip to New York, Josh and I had an opportunity to hear Nielsen’s other two concertos only a few days after the SPCO performance of the Clarinet Concerto. It is not often that one has a chance to hear all three Nielsen concertos, in succession, within a short period of time.
Between Wednesday and Saturday of last week, the New York Philharmonic presented performances of the Violin Concerto and Flute Concerto—and Josh and I were in possession of an indecent number of complimentary tickets covering all four performances.
Had we gone ahead with the trip to New York, we probably would not have used the free tickets. Alan Gilbert was the scheduled conductor, and—to be blunt once again—Gilbert is not a conductor worth hearing. Further, owing to moral concerns related to the scheduled violinist, the reprehensible Nikolaj Znaider, we almost certainly would have skipped the concert. Had we attended one of the performances, it would have been solely in order to take discreet photographs of Znaider and post them on our weblogs in order to poke fun at him—and such is not a noble (or suitable) reason for spending time in a concert hall.
In any case, Nielsen’s music is rewarding only within limits. Nielsen lacked the genius of his exact Scandinavian contemporary, Sibelius, and Nielsen’s music is decidedly weak and uninteresting when placed alongside that of contemporary composers from Central Europe, France and Russia.
Not a single conductor of the first rank has ever taken up the Nielsen symphonies (although Herbert Von Karajan, late in life, did record—but not perform in the concert hall—the Fourth). Nielsen symphonies have always been the province of second-, third- and fourth-tier conductors.
Only one violinist of the first rank, Maxim Vengerov, has ever taken up the Violin Concerto. Vengerov was able to make absolutely nothing of the piece (as his atrocious, out-of-print Teldec recording with an out-of-sorts Chicago Symphony under an out-of-his-depth Daniel Barenboim amply demonstrated)—and Vengerov very quickly dropped the work from his repertory. The Violin Concerto has been recorded, creditably, only once: by Cho-Liang Lin, whose Sony recording remains in the catalog 22 years to the week after its initial release. It is the only recording ever made of the Nielsen Violin Concerto that has enjoyed universal acclaim and a long shelf life.
Unlike the Nielsen Violin Concerto, where a lone recording holds sway, there are numerous excellent recordings of the two Nielsen wind concertos, especially the Clarinet Concerto, which has been very fortunate on disc.
For me, the template of a bad piano recital has, for years, been Barenboim.
Several years ago, I heard Barenboim play Bach’s Goldberg Variations in recital.
I was appalled by what I heard that afternoon: a technique long gone; no understanding of counterpoint; a too-Romantic and fantasia-like presentation of a great masterpiece of variation writing; and the display of a studied and affected indifference to his numerous keyboard deficiencies as well as the requirements of Bach’s music.
I remember that afternoon well. The Goldberg Variations had been the only work on the program. At the conclusion of the work, there had been very little applause—perhaps sixty seconds of unenthusiastic, minimally-polite handclapping that had been so brief and uncommitted, it did not even allow Barenboim an opportunity to return to the stage after he had first walked into the wings at the conclusion of the performance. The very second Barenboim was off the stage, the applause instantly died—as if cut off by prearranged signal.
That afternoon, Barenboim had treated his audience with contempt—and the audience had responded in kind.
Since that disastrous American series of performances of the Goldberg Variations, Barenboim has never again attempted to undertake a recital tour of the U.S., probably a wise move on Barenboim’s part.
I was reminded of Barenboim and his flop with the Goldberg Variations on the Sunday before last, when Josh and I took Josh’s sister and my mother to the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center at Macalester College in order to hear Dinnerstein in recital.
Dinnerstein’s recital was so poor, there is very little for me to say. The afternoon was a total shambles, a complete waste of our time. In that sense, Dinnerstein may have trumped Barenboim, something I never expected to happen.
During impossibly-bad performances, the listener is in turmoil. The listener first becomes irritated at himself for having wasted time in attending the recital in the first place. The listener next becomes aggravated at the performer for not giving the audience anything worth listening to. The listener last becomes disgusted—once again at himself, for not having the temerity to stand up and walk out.
Dinnerstein’s recital was one of those occasions on which the irritation-aggravation-disgust barometer captured a reading that was off the charts. I literally felt ill the entire time Dinnerstein was playing—she was THAT painful to endure.
After the recital, we ran into my former piano teacher, one of the most respected piano pedagogues in the Upper Midwest. When we first saw her, her eyebrows were arched up to the ceiling of the atrium of the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center, and she appeared as if she were in desperate need of a nosegay in order to counteract some exceedingly noxious fumes.
“I hope you had the good sense not to applaud!” were her first words to me, sharply uttered. “There was nothing worth applauding this afternoon.”
I assured my former piano teacher that I had not applauded, and that Josh and his sister had not applauded, either—but that my mother HAD applauded, not from conviction, but as a simple matter of good taste.
The teacher turned to my mother, and asked, “Where’s Asher? Did he have enough sense to skip this shipwreck?”
We told my former teacher that my father’s ticket had been taken by Josh’s sister, and that my father had been more than happy to give up his seat.
“Well, the only reason people are here this afternoon, is because they had to buy a full subscription in order to get tickets to Trifonov,” was my piano teacher’s animated response. My piano teacher was referring to pianist Daniil Trifonov, a Russian sensation scheduled to make his Twin Cities recital debut next February in the same hall—and Trifonov is an artist everyone wants to hear.
(Trifonov will play the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 tomorrow night in a one-off performance with a provincial orchestra in Paris. His conductor, incomprehensibly: Znaider, even more ridiculous as a conductor than as a violinist. Things come full circle.)
We informed my piano teacher that the only reason WE had had tickets for Dinnerstein was because we, too, had wanted to hear Trifonov—and that we had been well aware that buying a full subscription was the only way for us to assure hearing Trifonov.
“If Trifonov shows up under the influence, or on crutches, or suffering from malaria, he still has to be better than this dreadful woman,” my former teacher continued, referring to Dinnerstein. “No technique. No touch. No sound quality. No musicianship. No personality. No style. No depth. No brains. No understanding. She has NOTHING. Absolutely NOTHING!”
None of us was in disagreement. We, too, had been aware, throughout the recital, that we were enduring something grim.
We had heard Dinnerstein once before. Exactly one year ago, we had heard her play the Ravel Piano Concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra. At the time, I wrote that I had no idea whether Dinnerstein was a worthwhile artist, since the Ravel concerto reveals virtually nothing about a pianist.
I now have an answer to the question I raised last year—and I will never go hear Dinnerstein again (not that I expect her career to be a lasting one).
Dinnerstein’s Saint Paul program: Bach’s Partita No. 1, BWV 825; Bach’s Partita No. 2, BWV 826; Schumann’s Kinderszenen; Brahms’s Intermezzo, Opus 118, No. 2; a variation piece by a contemporary composer, Daniel Felsenfeld; and a Chopin Nocturne. The recital was not performed in the order in which I have listed the compositions.
The Schumann, Brahms and Chopin were gruesome. A competent pianist would have been embarrassed.
The Bach was un-intellectual Bach—and, I suspect, deliberately so. Throughout both partitas, the Bach sounded like something filtered through the mind of someone who responds most deeply to pop music—and who responds ONLY to pop music. The Bach should have been saved for a nightclub in Brooklyn.
The Felsenfeld was unmistakably pop music, just as it was unmistakably Brooklyn music—and, once again, should have been saved for a nightclub in Brooklyn, limned with Brooklynites (and only Brooklynites).
Felsenfeld’s composition was camp—although I doubt the composer is intelligent enough to realize that his composition was camp. I suspect the composer moves in circles restricted to persons that themselves are camp, all working in camp jobs in camp fields, all living camp lives, all thinking camp thoughts.
And, now that I reflect upon Dinnerstein’s recital from a distance of almost two weeks, I can see clearly that Dinnerstein’s recital, too, was camp, and that Dinnerstein herself was camp. The way the recital program was arranged was camp, Dinnerstein’s music-making was camp, and Dinnerstein’s stage presentation and persona were camp.
It was a bizarre afternoon.
Someone associated with the Minnesota Orchestra has told me of significant difficulties with Dinnerstein in conjunction with her Minnesota Orchestra appearance a year ago.
Apparently Dinnerstein is frightfully down-market. She curses like a sailor 24 hours a day, was inoculated against manners and social graces at birth, has the personality and demeanor of a fishwife, demonstrates the most appalling—if not gross—personal habits, and is “an all-around, low-class, no-class, white-trash shrew”, to use the precise description of someone who had to deal with Dinnerstein on a frequent personal basis last year.
Perhaps Dinnerstein has a future in sitcom?
Things come full circle.
On the very same afternoon of Dinnerstein’s recital, the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin was playing at a venue only a couple of miles away from the venue of Dinnerstein’s recital.
We had contemplated, as late as 12:00 Noon that day, chucking our Dinnerstein tickets, and attending the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin concert instead. The program of the Berlin musicians: quartets by Mozart, Lutoslawski and Beethoven.
I am told, by reliable persons, that the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin concert was superb.
We made a very bad decision in sticking with the Dinnerstein recital. However, we had been reluctant to subject Josh’s sister to music of Lutoslawski and late Beethoven, which we feared she would not enjoy on first encounter.
At root, we had been afraid we might turn Josh’s sister against quartet performance for life.
As things turned out, we instead turned her against piano recitals for life.