Saturday, January 28, 2012

“Looking For Any Kind Of Work”

August Sander’s “Unemployed Man”, a photograph taken on a Cologne street corner in 1928.

“Unemployed Man” is one of the most renowned Sander photographs. It captures the subject’s utter hopelessness as well as his essential dignity. From the photograph, the viewer can see that the man appears to be gentle, kind and civilized—and yet the viewer wonders whether the man has acquired such a saintly aura simply because he is a creature beaten down, drained not only of a present but of a future.

Such sight was common in Germany in the 1920s. It was to become more common still after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, an event that affected Germany far more profoundly than the United States. Banks and governments everywhere cut off credit to Germany shortly after the Crash, a move that resulted in chaos and despair on the widest possible scale throughout Germany. The ultimate impact of the credit revocation became apparent little more than three years after the Crash: a totalitarian government was installed in Germany.

Twenty-four years after Sander took his famous photograph in Cologne, Henri Cartier-Bresson snapped one of his most famous photographs in Hamburg.

“Hamburg, Germany: 1952-1953” was one of many scenes Cartier-Bresson captured in December 1952 and January 1953 at or near the main harbor of Hamburg, then and now North Europe’s largest and most important port.

The Cartier-Bresson photograph is even more complicated than the Sander, largely because the viewer is presented with substantial contradictory evidence about the intelligence and character of the subject. There are numerous indications that the young man in the photograph possesses great intelligence, yet there are numerous indications that the young man in the photograph is not intelligent in the least—and, moreover, is a ruffian. This tension is what makes the photograph so powerful.

No matter how deeply one studies the photograph, one cannot decide what sort of person is the young man.

“Looking For Any Kind Of Work” is the signage around the young man’s neck.

Friday, January 27, 2012

More “Menschen Des 20. Jahrhunderts”

August Sander’s “The Road Workers”, from 1924.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Probably Our Only Basketball Game Of The Season

On Sunday afternoon, all the men in my family—including my nephew—went to Williams Arena to see the Golden Gophers play Northwestern. Minnesota won the game, 75-52.

It was my nephew’s first basketball game, and he was very excited. The Northwestern game was the only conference game of the season in which the starting time—3:00 p.m.—was appropriate for a six-year old. All other home conference games this season are night games.

We have not been attending Golden Gopher games this season; there have simply been too many other things on our schedules.

We would not have attended the Northwestern game, either, except it was the only game of the season suitable for my nephew. When we had asked him whether he wanted to go to a basketball game, he quite naturally had answered, “Yes”—so we obtained tickets to the lone afternoon game on the schedule. It may turn out to be the only game of the season for all of us.

My nephew enjoyed the game. It was the venue and the atmosphere and the noise and the band and the excitement of the large crowd that most appealed to him. The athletic contest itself was of much less interest to him; the rules and finer points of basketball are too arcane for a six-year-old.

We left the game midway through the second half. My nephew, who had missed out on his afternoon nap, was growing tired, and he had seen enough of the game. By 4:30 p.m., he was ready to go home and have his dinner—which he was able to eat at the normal hour.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

“Menschen Des 20. Jahrhunderts”

The photograph above is iconic in Germany, and well-known in the United States.

The photograph was taken by German photographer August Sander (1876-1964) in the summer of 1914 in the Westerwald, and was part of Sander’s “People Of The 20th Century” project, a project Sanders began in 1911 and continued well into the 1920s.

In Germany, the photograph is known simply as “Young Men”. In the U.S., the photograph is often titled “Three Young Farmers On Their Way To A Dance” or some variant thereof.

I do not understand why the photograph has become iconic. It is, by and large, a pretty unremarkable photograph.

The photograph caught my eye when I saw a high-quality print for the first time at Hamburg’s Museum Of Arts And Crafts in 2006. It is one of few photographs from a large display of German photographs we viewed that I remember vividly more than five years later. Nonetheless, I have not a clue why the photograph somehow became embedded into my brain.

The photograph may be seen as representing the end of an era—everything was to change in August 1914—and yet the photograph has absolutely nothing to do with the forces of history or social change or the coming cataclysm. It depicts three not particularly interesting and not particularly intelligent and not particularly characterful and not particularly appealing young men posed stiffly for the camera on a rural pathway while attired in their Sunday best. To read more into the photograph, including any sweeping historical themes, is not justified.

Someone that appreciates the photograph more than I, New York-based cultural writer David Propson, has written the following of the photograph:

Yet through Sander's camera we also see more. His famous "Young Farmers On The Way To A Dance", their cravats carefully tied and canes in hand, look far more like dandies than men of the earth. There is comedy in the affected seriousness of these youths, whose frames don't quite fit their pretensions. Sander's idiom may have been the individual portrait, but his theme was man in relation to his society.

I remain unconvinced. I do not see Propson’s proposed theme in the photograph.

And yet the photograph continues to stick in my mind.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Berlin’s Deutsches Opernhaus In 1935

Berlin’s Deutsches Opernhaus in 1935.

The theater opened on November 7, 1912, and was in use only for thirty-one years. The Deutsches Opernhaus was destroyed by Allied bombs on November 23, 1943.

The Deutsches Opernhaus was not rebuilt after the war.

Its company was to become today’s Deutsche Oper Berlin.

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.)

In The Ardennes Forest

22 December 1944: German soldiers in The Ardennes Forest during The Battle Of The Bulge.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Monday, January 16, 2012

Johannes Brahms And Joseph Joachim

Johannes Brahms (age 22) and Joseph Joachim (age 24) in 1855.

It was twenty-three years after this photograph that Brahms was to write his Violin Concerto for Joachim.

Osmo Vanska And James Ehnes In Brahms

Saturday night’s Minnesota Orchestra concert was very fine. Given that we do not live in an age of Brahms conductors and given that only the orchestras in Berlin, Cleveland, Dresden, Leipzig and Vienna can, on occasion, display themselves as genuine Brahms ensembles, the concert was a success.

Vanska, an interventionist conductor, played too freely with tempi and dynamics, as is his wont, and was prone to exaggeration in passages that speak for themselves, such as the Andante of the Third Symphony, which only need be played simply and eloquently in order to come off. There is a fine line between Classicism and Romanticism in Brahms, and it was Classicism that suffered in Vanska’s hands.

The performances, nonetheless, were serious ones—and often satisfying. Vanska knows how to maintain tension, perhaps his greatest gift, and he knows how to secure a high standard of execution from his ensemble.

The Third Symphony, the most difficult Brahms symphony to bring off, was wholly successful, quirks and all. I was riveted by the performance, even when Vanska pushed the level of expression to extreme or adopted an uncalled-for new tempo or unduly emphasized inner voices or drew triple fortissimo from the orchestra when single fortissimo would have done. No doubt Fritz Reiner, had he been in Orchestra Hall, would have been scathingly dismissive of Vanska’s interpretation—yet, as a one-off performance, it worked perfectly well.

The first movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto was a joy, probably because the players were fully engaged (not often true in standard concerto literature). There were some slips in ensemble, and the orchestra’s sound quality became strident at climaxes, but Vanska and the orchestra offered a successful reading of the first movement. Indeed, Vanska and the orchestra carried the first movement, not the soloist.

Ehnes does not possess an individual sound, and he did not display much personality. He offered a dry, academic performance of what I believe to be the greatest of all violin concertos.

Ehnes never once turned the concerto into a profound personal statement. He did not soar in the first movement, as the soloist must, and he brought too small an array of expressive devices to all three movements. This shortcoming became critical in the third-movement Rondo, the dullest I have ever heard, in concert or on disc.

I last heard the Brahms Violin Concerto in the hands of Vadim Repin. Repin operated on an entirely different—and higher—level than Ehnes. Repin shaded and colored his tone all evening, phrased with great freedom and specificity, and offered the widest possible range of expression, all without violating the core Classicism at the root of Brahms—and Repin did so without satisfactory orchestral support and without a sympathetic conductor. Repin had been vital, and urgent, and commanding; Ehnes was none of those things.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms in 1853, at age twenty.

This week the Minnesota Orchestra embarked on a two-week Brahms project during which the orchestra will present four different all-Brahms programs. The orchestra offers two Brahms programs this week, and will offer two Brahms programs next week.

Tomorrow night my parents and Joshua and I will hear one of this week’s programs. We will hear Music Director Osmo Vanska lead the orchestra in the Haydn Variations, the Violin Concerto (James Ehnes will be guest soloist) and the Symphony No. 3.

Reynaldo Hahn

When God created Venezuela, he made such magnificent flowers, birds, fruits, trees, gold, diamonds and so on that the angel Gabriel asked the Lord if He wasn’t giving the country too much. “Have patience,” replied the Creator. “I haven’t created the Venezuelans yet.”

Composer Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947), born in Caracas but resident of Paris from the age of three, was prone to offer this joke whenever he was asked about the country of his birth. Hahn’s family fled Venezuela in the late 1870s to avoid political turmoil, settled in Paris, and never returned to South America.

A modest revival of Hahn’s music began three decades ago, sparked by the worldwide publication in 1983 of EMI’s recording of Hahn’s 1923 operetta, “Ciboulette”. The Hahn revival has not yet abated.

In many ways, Hahn’s life was very sad.

Hahn lost his looks by his mid-30s—the photograph above was taken in 1898, when Hahn was only 24—and, as a result, he became a less attractive artifact for Paris’s salons, where he had first gained notice as a young man.

Further, the loss of his looks impacted Hahn’s search for romantic companionship. After his two-year relationship with Marcel Proust ended (a relationship already over by the time of the 1898 photograph), Hahn entered a protracted series of short-term relationships with persons who provided little or no intellectual stimulation. Such unsatisfying relationships clearly took a toll: by his early 40s, Hahn looked like an old man.

Hahn disliked most music composed after the 19th Century—yet he was acutely aware that the future belonged to Debussy and Stravinsky. Even when his own stage works achieved a moderate level of popular success in 1920s Paris, Hahn was depressed. He knew that his own music was not the best music of his time, and was only of ephemeral interest and appeal.

Hahn’s popular—and commercial—success was over by the early 1930s. Both composer and music were largely ignored by the French music establishment for the rest of Hahn’s life.

In 1940, Hahn was forced to flee Paris with the onset of the German occupation (Hahn was one-half Jewish). Already 66 years old, Hahn never expected to be able to return to The City Of Light.

The year after Paris’s liberation, Hahn—unexpectedly—was named head of the Paris Opera, the most important music post in France. Hahn’s appointment came about in large part because he was in no way tainted by whispers of collaboration, something that could not be said of most who had remained in Paris during the occupation and continued to participate in the city’s musical life. The Paris Opera appointment, the capstone of Hahn’s career, was short-lived: already in failing health, Hahn died less than two years later.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

In Recital: Jordan Baker

Last night my parents and Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear mezzo soprano Susan Graham in recital.

It is difficult for me to pinpoint why the recital was so unsatisfying, but it proved to be a totally disappointing evening.

Graham is now in her fifties. Her voice has lost much of its luster, which was certainly part of the problem last evening. Graham always had a rich yet not particularly distinctive voice, but the former richness is no longer much in evidence. There was a parched quality to her vocal production last night, as if her vocal chords were in need of oiling. Further, Graham displayed a tendency to flatten.

None of this would have made any difference if Graham were a great interpreter, but Graham has always been a generalized singer, unknown for any particular deep insight. Graham is a capable but bland artist, uninteresting in a peculiarly American way, like the woman golfer in “The Great Gatsby” (whom Graham portrayed in the Harbison opera based upon Fitzgerald's novel). A large and robust woman, Graham missed her true calling: she should have been a high jumper.

On paper, last night’s program was ravishing; in execution, it was dull.

Music of Purcell began the evening. “The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation”, perhaps my favorite Purcell composition, did not strike me as deeply-felt.

The “La mort d’Ophélie” that followed suffered from the same deficiency. Graham has been heralded in some quarters as a notable Berlioz singer, but I have never heard anything to be acclaimed in Graham’s work in Berlioz. Graham’s Berlioz singing is monochrome.

Six Goethe Wilhelm Meister songs completed the first half of the program, one each by Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Duparc and Wolf. At the conclusion of the group, I had no idea why this particular singer had selected these six particular songs—other than as a program concept.

Six Poulenc songs came after intermission. I have never understood why Graham has been deemed an accomplished singer of French repertory, as her work in the French song literature has always struck me as unstylish and lacking in personality, penetration and imagination. Nothing last night caused me to change my view.

Before the Poulenc, Graham sang “Lady Macbeth” by Joseph Horovitz, a British composer born in Austria (and a composer best-known for his theme music for “Rumpole Of The Bailey”). I am clueless why the song appealed to Graham.

The program concluded with popular French and American fare.

The audience responded warmly to Graham all evening, as if it were hearing something notable. However, the audience was being subjected to the work of a manqué artist. A manqué artist will do when the real thing is unavailable, but there was no doubt in my mind that the woman onstage last night, possessor of a fine instrument in her prime, was never anything more than a garden-variety musician incapable of delving deeply into any material.

Malcolm Martineau was the accompanist.

In Recital

Thomas Eakins (1844-1916)
The Pathetic Song
Corcoran Gallery Of Art, Washington

Oil On Canvas
45 Inches By 32 3/16 Inches


Another time after a concert, Prokofiev told a famous singer, who had just performed a few of his songs, that she did not understand anything about his music and had better stop singing it. He said it in the presence of a large group of startled onlookers and in such a boorish way that he brought the poor lady to tears. “You see,” he continued reprimanding her, “all of you women take refuge in tears instead of listening to what one has to say and learning how to correct your faults.”

Nicolas Nabokov, writing in 1951

Friday, January 06, 2012

Contemporaries II

Suzanne Farrell during a stage performance of George Balanchine’s “Vienna Waltzes” in 1977, the year of the ballet’s creation.

Farrell gave her final performance in 1989, choosing “Vienna Waltzes” as her farewell vehicle.

Farrell was Balanchine’s last muse.

Cynthia Gregory in a studio photograph as Raymonda in 1975. American Ballet Theatre mounted a full-length production of Marius Petipa’s “Raymonda” for Gregory that year.

Rudolf Nureyev, who staged ABT’s 1975 “Raymonda”, called Gregory “America’s prima ballerina assoluta”.

Gregory gave her final performance in 1992.

My parents insist that neither ballerina, since retirement, has been superseded by succeeding generations of ballerinas, whether from America or elsewhere. As my father wryly notes, no one in his right mind will be talking about Darcey Bussell, Sylvie Guillem or Kyra Nichols thirty years from now.

Farrell and Gregory were the last of a long line of great ballerinas dating back to the 19th Century, technically superior to all that came before and after, with stage presence and glamour in abundance. Images of Farrell and Gregory performances are burned upon the memories of those who were fortunate enough to have caught them in their primes.

Farrell and Gregory were, quite simply, the apex, unmatched in their greatness, making both their contemporaries and their successors—whether from Britain, Denmark, France or Russia—look inept and plodding (and often faintly ridiculous) in comparison.

Thursday, January 05, 2012


According to my maternal grandmother, by age thirty, one acquires responsibility for one’s own face.

Suzanne Farrell (born 16 August 1945) has not aged well. In fact, she looks awful.

When I was in law school in Washington, a friend and I attended a performance of The Suzanne Farrell Ballet at the Kennedy Center Opera House. During an intermission, someone sitting next to us pointed out that a particularly frumpy-looking woman nearby was Farrell herself.

We were dumbfounded. We would never have guessed, in a million years, that the woman in question was the very same woman as the glorious ballerina seen in countless classic photographs from three decades earlier.

The woman we observed that night was a woman who did not know how to present herself offstage. She did not know how to dress, how to arrange her hair to advantage, how to apply makeup, or how to carry herself.

With her hardened facial muscles, she looked, that night, as if she were a battered woman ready to head off to WalMart to stock up on shotgun ammunition.

In contrast, Cynthia Gregory (born 8 July 1946) looks absolutely smashing today, if recent photographs may be used as guides.

Gregory understands the value of simplicity and understatement.

Her hair is elegant, her makeup is elegant, her attire is elegant—and yet everything is very minimal, and very natural.

She remains an extraordinarily beautiful woman.

Above all, she knows how to carry herself.

Her innate beauty and classic elegance remind me, a million times over, of my mother, who is more beautiful today than ever.

I never had the chance to see Farrell or Gregory onstage—but my parents, who saw both dancers many times, insist that both ballerinas were great and wondrous artists, if entirely different.

Gregory’s face reveals that she has enjoyed a happy and rich post-dancing life.

Farrell’s face reveals something else.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Eva Braun Does Al Jolson

Eva Braun offers her immortal Al Jolson impersonation in 1937.