Friday, May 31, 2013

Am I The Only One To Have Noticed?

Am I the only one to have noticed that Dawn Upshaw, in recent years, has turned into Shelley Winters?

The Shelley Winters of “The Poseidon Adventure”?

In fairness, I should note that one of my colleagues vehemently disagrees with me.

He saw Upshaw last evening, and he insists that Upshaw is now a dead ringer, not for Shelley Winters, but for Ma Barker.

Perhaps, in my defense, I may be allowed to point out that Shelley Winters once played Ma Barker?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Whether By Design Or Happenstance

Max Liebermann (1847-1935)
Amsterdam Orphans In The Garden
Hamburg Kunsthalle

Oil On Canvas
46 5/8 Inches By 38 5/16 Inches


Liebermann, largely unknown outside Central Europe, was a very great painter. The artist mastered landscape painting, genre scenes and—late in life—portraiture.

Some like to classify Liebermann as an Impressionist, which I believe is an inaccurate characterization. Others like to classify Liebermann as an Early Modernist, another categorization I believe to be inaccurate.

Above all, Liebermann was, I submit, a Realist painter. His work is rooted in 19th-Century German Realist Painting—yet he was clearly influenced by various French schools of the second half of the 19th Century.

Liebermann was also a Wilhelmine painter through and through. Although he despised Wilhelmine politics and considered himself an Internationalist and a Cosmopolite, Liebermann—perhaps unknowingly—captured The Wilhelmine Era to perfection. Whether by design or by happenstance, Liebermann is unmistakably one of the three or four most quintessential Wilhelmine artists.

The irony is that, while The Wilhelmine Era was ongoing, Liebermann was viewed as much too revolutionary, far too French, and entirely out-of-step with the period. Today an opposite view prevails: Liebermann is considered too conservative, too German, and too-closely-tied to the conventions of his time.

During much of his life, Liebermann’s work was appreciated exclusively by connoisseurs. It was only once Alfred Lichtwark, perhaps the greatest art historian of the day, became in the 1890s an ardent advocate of Liebermann’s work that the artist’s reputation grew by leaps and bounds, in Germany and elsewhere.

From the early 1870s until the onset of World War I, Liebermann spent every summer in the Netherlands, working out-of-doors, all day, every day, no matter the weather.

One of Liebermann’s favorite subjects was the wards of the municipal orphanage in Amsterdam, housed in the former Saint Lucy’s Convent (and now home to The Amsterdam Museum).

For over twenty years, from 1876 onward, Liebermann painted dozens and dozens of canvases at the orphanage. “Amsterdam Orphans In The Garden”, from 1885, is one of the most renowned of Liebermann’s Dutch orphan paintings.

“Amsterdam Orphans In The Garden” is a riveting and ravishing work. A reproduction scarcely begins to do justice to the artist’s subtle-but-brilliant color scheme or his complete mastery of natural light.

We must have devoted half an hour, perhaps more, to a study of the painting while we were in Hamburg in 2006. At the time, the painting was hung in a large gallery devoted to nothing but Liebermann paintings—and “Amsterdam Orphans In The Garden” had been placed alongside Liebermann’s most famous work, “The Net-Menders”.

Magnificent as is “The Net-Menders”, I thought “Amsterdam Orphans In The Garden” to be the finer artwork.

1957: Karajan And Szell In Salzburg

Herbert Von Karajan and George Szell in Salzburg in 1957.

1957 was Karajan’s first year at the helm of the Salzburg Festival, and Karajan had coaxed from the festival’s organizers an enormous increase in the festival’s budget.

Five new opera productions were staged that year: Beethoven’s “Fidelio” conducted by Karajan; Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” conducted by Karl Böhm; Strauss’s “Elektra” conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos; Verdi’s “Falstaff” conducted by Karajan; and Rolf Liebermann’s “The School For Wives” conducted by Szell.

The Liebermann was a European premiere. The opera, incomprehensibly, had received its first performance in Louisville, Kentucky, two years earlier. (The opera was revised, and considerably lengthened, for its European premiere.)

Liebermann’s music was very much in fashion in the 1950s. The composer’s work was played everywhere, most likely because Liebermann’s music simply recycled and reordered the accepted clichés of the day . . . and because Liebermann was a master of the art of self-promotion.

Liebermann’s music is startlingly unoriginal and wholly derivative; he was the John Adams of his time. Performances of Liebermann’s music were completely to cease more than a quarter century before the composer’s death. Today Liebermann is remembered, to the extent he is remembered at all, as an opera impresario.

It would seem that Szell got the short end of the stick in 1957, having been assigned the least interesting work on that year’s festival program (although a legendary cast of singers might have made Szell’s work somewhat less dreary).

There were compensations: Szell was assigned the lion’s share of the festival’s orchestral concerts, three with the Berlin Philharmonic and one with the Vienna Philharmonic.

1957 was the first year in which orchestral concerts became a prime component of the Salzburg Festival, and 1957 was the first year in which the Berlin Philharmonic—or any visiting orchestra—participated in the festival.

The festival has presented orchestral concerts and visiting orchestras ever since.

The Liebermann notwithstanding, Szell got his reward.


Rolf Liebermann was a nephew of the great German painter, Max Liebermann.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Prague: 21 August 1968

Peaceful resisters in Prague attempt to contain a Soviet tank on August 21, 1968. Soviet forces had invaded Czechoslovakia the previous night in an attempt to quell the Prague Spring.

In response to international outrage, the Soviet Union announced that its invasion of Czechoslovakia had been nothing more than an act of “fraternal assistance”.

200,000 Soviet troops participated in the invasion.

300,000 Czechs took advantage of the temporary breakdown in civilian authority to flee to the West.

Austria, in an act of humanitarian kindness, opened its borders, just as it had done in 1956 at the time of the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

1968: Rostropovich, Shostakovich And Richter

Mstislav Rostropovich, Dmitri Shostakovich and Sviatoslav Richter in 1968.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

We Should Have Been At The Kimbell

On Sunday afternoon, Joshua and I heard the Dallas Symphony in a program devoted to music of Wagner. The conductor was the orchestra’s Music Director, Jaap van Zweden.

Act I of “Die Walküre" was the primary work on the program.

Zweden was lost in “Die Walküre". Wagnerian melos was not to be heard under Zweden’s baton. The conductor had no grasp of the drama depicted in one of Wagner’s greatest spans of music; the conductor was unable to unleash the emotions that surge through Wagner’s score.

The ebb and flow Wagner built into his music, a never-ending cycle of tension and release, had been ironed out by Zweden. Everything was too swift, everything was too light, everything was too objective, everything was too uninflected, everything was too vaporous. Zweden might as well have been conducting a “number” opera, given his inability to build a head of steam and command a long time span.

I wondered whether Zweden’s swift tempi constituted a concession to an inadequate cast of singers.

The Siegmund was Clifton Forbis, possessor of a dry, grainy voice that sounded years past its prime. (It is my understanding that Forbis is in the process of giving up the stage.)

The Sieglinde was Heidi Melton, who did not for one second capture Sieglinde’s radiance. Melton has no individuality at all: Melton’s voice lacks distinctive qualities, Melton’s artistry is all-purpose. Wagnerians would be unable to pick out Melton’s Sieglinde from a police audio lineup.

The Hundig was Eric Owens. Owens had the only first-class voice onstage. Owens’s voice is incredibly rich, with amazing depth and resonance, and it is a voice of great beauty and of unique timbre. Owens is destined to achieve stardom.

Owens is not a Wagner singer. Owens’s voice is an “open”, “American” voice, with an open, American sound, ideal for American music—and no other. Owens was at sea in trying to shape Wagner’s phrases—and his German seemed to have been picked up in Appalachia.

Owens had been scheduled to sing Adams’s “The Wound Dresser” with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra this season. It was an appearance Josh and I had looked forward to. We hope the SPCO will reschedule “The Wound Dresser” with Owens in the next season or two.

Three Wagner orchestral works were played prior to Act I of “Die Walküre”.

The concert began with the Prelude to “Lohengrin”.

Zweden chose a very quick tempo, but—fatally—he could not find a pulse, and the players were unable to help Zweden find a pulse. The result was a disastrous performance, false entries everywhere, uncomfortable looks on faces all over the stage. Balancing was an issue: the brass was too prominent, the strings under-nourished and colorless and faceless.

I was dumbfounded. The “Lohengrin” Prelude is nothing more than an extended crescendo-decrescendo. Any conductor should be able to lead the work capably—and yet Zweden had offered a performance that would have been unacceptable in a provincial outpost.

The Prelude to Act III of “Lohengrin” followed. Zweden played it as orchestral showpiece, in the manner of Arthur Fiedler.

Next came the Prelude to “Die Meistersinger”. Zweden’s tempi were too fast, and he did not catch the work’s exultation and grandeur—or even the necessary dignity and nobility.

The counterpoint of “Meistersinger” neither registered nor “spoke” as it must—“Meistersinger” is nothing but a glorious display of counterpoint writing—and balancing issues clearly were the root cause of the counterpoint deficiencies. Instrumental lines that should have been heard were inaudible, subsidiary lines that should have remained subsidiary often became overpowering. Counterpoint not telling in Zweden’s hands, the “Meistersinger” Prelude came across much like a French potpourri overture by Hérold—the very thing that would have appalled the composer of “Meistersinger”.

I last heard the Dallas Symphony in February 2008. The orchestra was in much better shape in 2008 than it is today.

On Sunday, balancing was off all afternoon. I did not hear a proper balance once.

The string section was unable to produce the glow Wagner’s music demands. It has been a long time since I heard such featureless, bland, anemic string playing.

The winds did not register as they must, weaving in and out of the musical line, taking charge one moment, disappearing into the orchestral fabric the next.

The brass playing was very disappointing. The section did not produce a uniform, integrated sound.

All afternoon, the musicians played as if they were bored by the music, and unconvinced by Zweden’s interpretations.

Perhaps the Dallas musicians were suffering from exhaustion at the end of a long concert season that had included a grueling tour of Europe.

Perhaps substitute musicians contributed to the haphazard nature of the orchestra’s work. Numerous substitute musicians were on the Dallas concert platform on Sunday, including two brass principals (trumpet, horn) that are members of orchestras elsewhere (Chicago, Baltimore).

Whatever the causes of the shortcomings, what we heard on Sunday was basically unforgivable, coming as it did from what is supposed to be a major ensemble.

If Sunday’s Wagner concert is representative of Zweden’s work in Dallas, the Dallas Symphony has a major problem on its hands.

Josh and I should have devoted Sunday afternoon to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Bird’s-Eye View Of Meyerson Symphony Center

I. M. Pei’s Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas.

Meyerson, which opened in 1989, is probably North America’s finest concert hall. Its interior is glorious, and its auditorium is renowned worldwide for its remarkable acoustics.

Taking advantage of the fact that we were in Dallas, Joshua and I went to Meyerson on Sunday afternoon to hear the Dallas Symphony in Act I of Wagner’s “Die Walküre".

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Nicholas At Age 18

Nicholas in 1886, when he was Tsarevich.

Nicholas became Nicholas II eight years later, at age 26, upon the death of his father, Alexander III, who succumbed to kidney failure at age 49.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

“He Wanted The Kingdom Of God On Earth”

An outtake from Philip Kaufman’s 1988 film, “The Unbearable Lightness Of Being”.

The scenes depicting the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia were filmed in Lyon.

“The Unbearable Lightness Of Being” is one of the greatest of all American films—yet its sensibility is purely Eastern European. This dichotomy has always fascinated me.

The film is the only one from Kaufman’s work list that is even remotely interesting. Everything else Kaufman directed was commercial hackwork, yet “The Unbearable Lightness Of Being” is a masterpiece of cinema. This, too, has always fascinated me.

Is there another American film so multi-layered and so multi-textured? And so subtle?

The first time I saw “The Unbearable Lightness Of Being”, I was floored. I had not believed American cinema was capable of producing something like “The Unbearable Lightness Of Being”.

The film was clearly influenced by the French New Wave, but “The Unbearable Lightness Of Being” is much better than anything produced by the filmmakers of the New Wave group. It has largeness of scope, grandeur of vision, generosity of spirit, and technical perfection—qualities far beyond the skill-set of French New Wave directors.

The film was a bomb at the box office worldwide. I would have thought the film to have appeal simply because of its surface love story, yet audiences everywhere stayed away. Perhaps the three-hour length was the problem, or perhaps the overwhelming sadness and melancholy that permeate the film were off-putting.

I have not read the Milan Kundera novel. My mother HAS read the novel, in two translations, French and English, and she says it may be THE great novel of the late 20th Century.

Kundera disliked the film version immensely, despite having had roles as consultant and contributing writer during production. Kundera was so unhappy with the film that he barred all future adaptations of his work.

The first time I saw the film, I almost cried when Tomáš and Tereza died at the end. It was the one and only time in my life when I came close to crying at the movies.

I realized, of course, that their deaths were to be viewed, at least in part, as releases. The deaths occurred only once Tomáš and Tereza had found contentment and happiness after years of turmoil, and only after they had provided for—or buried—everyone important to them.

I realized, too, that the spirits of Tomáš and Tereza were expected to live on in Sabina—and, perhaps, provide Sabina at long last with the grounding she had always lacked.

Nonetheless, I had been unprepared for their deaths. Tomáš and Tereza, beatific looks on their faces, homeward bound after a daylong outing featuring a beautiful celebration, were driving through bucolic countryside during gentle rain showers one minute—and gone the next.

I was shaken.

I had not seen it coming.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Seventy Years Ago Today

On 13 May 1943, the Afrika Korps, along with all other Axis forces in North Africa, surrendered to the Allies.

The above photograph is one of the great Erwin Rommel photographs from the North Africa campaign. The photograph dates from 1942.

Also on this day: The War Of The Bavarian Succession—known in Austria as “The Plum War”—ended in 1779.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Another Nautical Show

The three sailors, on 24-hour shore leave in New York, in Bloomington Civic Theatre’s “On The Town”.

Two Musicals

As a general rule, we tend to avoid musicals, but the current season has proven an exception to practice: we have attended an unusually large number of musicals this season.

We caught two musical productions this weekend.


On Friday evening, my parents, my middle brother, and Joshua and I went to Saint Paul, where we saw The National Touring Company production of the 2011 Broadway revival of the 1934 Cole Porter musical, “Anything Goes”.

The National Touring Company production of “Anything Goes” opened in Cleveland in early October and will close in Orange County, California, in late September. It features the actual sets and costumes used on Broadway, unusual for a touring production, and it features a sizable orchestra, also unusual for a touring production.

We enjoyed the presentation immensely. “Anything Goes” has several excellent numbers, and they were put across capably by a company not yet showing signs of road weariness.

The 2011 Broadway revival was based upon the 1987 Broadway revival mounted for Patti LuPone. Songs from other Porter musicals had been interpolated into the 1987 production, and they remain in the current production. Such a practice is not out-of-place in the case of Porter songs: Porter songs are “numbers”, not character studies, and all Porter musicals of the 1930s and 1940s carry the same basic tinctura (not necessarily true of the composer’s 1950s shows). No issues of “integrity” arise when Porter songs are shuffled in and out of his pre-1950s musicals.

Rachel York—who, to the best of my recollection, I had not seen before—portrayed Reno Sweeney. York was just good enough, no more, to carry the show.

Persons that saw the 1987 Broadway revival of “Anything Goes” have remarked that the 2011 revival is much inferior, almost wan in comparison.

The song-and-dance numbers are so good, however, that “Anything Goes” warrants periodic revival, even in a production that proves to be less than exceptional.

What we saw in Saint Paul was in no way memorable, but it was exceedingly pleasurable.


This afternoon, Josh and I took my mother and my sister-in-law to Bloomington to see Bloomington Civic Theatre’s production of the 1944 Leonard Bernstein-Betty Comden-Adolph Green musical, “On The Town”.

I am not an admirer of “On The Town”. I do not think the material is good, and the score leaves me completely cold.

To the extent it survives at all, “On The Town” survives solely on the community-theater circuit. The show is no longer taken up by major theaters.

After its first Broadway run (December 1944 to February 1946), “On The Town” was never again to be successful in New York. Over the years, there have been two costly attempts to revive the show on Broadway, one in 1971 and another in 1998, and both attempts were commercial and critical failures.

A single West End production was attempted, in 1963; it, too, closed virtually overnight.

There are two major problems with “On The Town”: the three male leads are insufficiently differentiated, which prevents an audience from connecting with them (the three female leads, much more carefully written, are a different matter); and the score is remarkably weak, derivative and unoriginal to an alarming degree. One wonders why even community theaters bother with “On The Town” these days.

The Bloomington production was not good. The 24-piece orchestra was superb, by far the most pleasing aspect of the production. Of the cast, stage design, stage direction and choreography, I can offer nothing positive.

For the current season, Bloomington Civic Theatre batted .500 in its presentations of musicals—and, probably for the first time ever, we attended all four musical productions.

The season opened with a lame production of “42nd Street”, a production in which the actress playing ingénue Peggy Sawyer looked old enough to be the mother of the actor portraying wizened theater director Julian Marsh.

The season continued with an exceptional and costly production of “Sunday In The Park With George”, a production worthy of the highest praise.

A magnificent and costly “Cabaret” followed, a production I would have been happy to sit through half a dozen times.

The season-ending “On The Town” was a listless, low-budget affair that invoked memories of the inept “42nd Street” that had opened the season.

In the 2012-2013 season, Bloomington Civic Theatre’s budget—said to be by far the largest civic-theater budget in the country—clearly had been directed to the Sondheim and Kander-and-Ebb shows.

The four musicals announced for next season: “Singin' in the Rain”; “Les Misérables”; “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”; and “Gypsy”.

I suspect we shall skip them all.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Aboard The “S.S. American”

A scene from The National Touring Company production of the 2011 Broadway revival of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes”, which we caught last night in Saint Paul.

Friday, May 10, 2013

In Ripken’s Footsteps?

Cal Ripken, Jr., had a twenty-year career in the major leagues—exceedingly long by baseball standards, and unprecedented for a Shortstop (Ripken moved to Third Base for his final few seasons)—and over two decades Ripken built up an astonishing fan base and an enormous reservoir of goodwill that will last him throughout his life.

No athlete since Ripken, in any sport, has been able to acquire and maintain such a gilt-edged reputation among the nation’s sports fans.

But if an athlete is to follow in Ripken’s footsteps, it will be Aaron Craft.

Craft has been on the national scene only three years, but he has already become the most respected and most fascinating college basketball player of my lifetime—and big box-office at Ohio State as well as on the road (the latter is unprecedented in recent decades). Fans all over the country now line up to have their photographs taken with Craft, a phenomenon unique in the history of college basketball.

Officials at Ohio State realized that Craft was a dream student/athlete as soon as Craft arrived on campus. The Ohio State Athletic Department immediately made Craft available to the press (a most unusual practice in the case of Freshman athletes) and Craft instantly became a fixture at Ohio State press events. Jim Delany, Commissioner of The Big Ten Conference, was quick to realize that in Craft The Big Ten had a major star on its hands—and Craft was soon to be seen, year-round, on The Big Ten Network.

Perhaps most interesting of all: at the nation’s premiere football school, a basketball player is now the premiere athlete. Craft is the biggest celebrity ever on the Ohio State campus. His every move is tweeted instantly by Ohio State students.

Craft is listed as 6’2”. Under normal circumstances, that height would be too short to play in the NBA. However, if Craft gets drafted—and he has given some intimation that he would like to play in the NBA—he would be capable of elevating and transforming the sport. Further, Craft’s presence in the league would go a long way in helping the NBA to clean up its less-than-spotless image.

Craft, a brilliant student, ultimately plans to become a physician.

He can solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than one minute (and has been filmed doing so).

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

The Greatest Season Ever?

Cal Ripken, Jr., in 1991.

In 1991, Ripken had what may have been the greatest season ever in the history of baseball. One must go back almost 100 years to find valid comparisons.

Ripken turned 31 years old that summer. He had already reinvented the shortstop position, transforming it from a pure defensive position into an offensive-and-defensive power position. The game of baseball has never been the same since.

Ripken had the greatest defensive season ever in 1991—the only genuine competition comes from Ripken himself and his 1990 season—and yet Ripken’s offensive statistics in 1991 were staggering, too. His season was so phenomenal that, at season’s end, Ripken was awarded Major League Baseball’s MVP, the second time in his career Ripken won the award (he had first been honored with MVP in 1983).

That anyone at age 31 can even PLAY shortstop (the most exposed position on the field) is remarkable. That someone at age 31 can play shortstop at so high a level is historic.

In addition to capturing the 1991 MVP, Ripken also won the 1991 Gold Glove Award, the 1991 Louisville Slugger Award and was named MVP of the 1991 All Star Game. Amazingly, Ripken also won the Home Run Derby that season. That such a long string of awards, offensive and defensive, was conferred—deservedly—on one player was unprecedented.

Things really do not get any better than Cal Ripken in 1991.

Yet, in 1995, things were to get better still . . .

Thursday, May 02, 2013

What To Do About Osmo Vänskä’s Threat And Failure Of Leadership

What to do about Osmo Vänskä’s threat and failure of leadership?

There is only one realistic answer.

Harvard Business School and Stanford Business School advise enterprises—as a cardinal rule—always to accept threatened resignations . . . with IMMEDIATE effect.

All other courses of action are destined to fail, and fail miserably, both short-term and long-term.

The course is now set. Going forward, as long as Vänskä remains in Minnesota, there will be nothing but trouble, into perpetuity.

Update of Sunday, May 5, 2013, at 5:36 p.m. C.D.T.:

Apparently Vänskä does not like this post.

And apparently he does not like the comments, either.

Vänskä is especially irate over this particular comment, of all things, which he forwarded to four persons, complaining vociferously.

One of the message recipients telephoned my father a few minutes ago, to let my father know of Vänskä’s concern.

Why Vänskä would single out that particular comment for objection is beyond me.

Might I suggest that in future Vänskä go easier on the vodka?

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Leningrad Under Siege, 1941

Leningrad under siege, 1941.

The photograph was taken at the intersection of Nevsky Prospect and Ligovsky Prospect.

The victims in the photograph had succumbed to German artillery shells, randomly launched from great distance into the city.

Had the photograph been taken one year later, starvation would have been the theme. At least 750,000 Leningraders succumbed to starvation during the siege—some have argued the mortality figure was twice that number—and Russia was as much at fault for the final death toll as Germany.

Well before the siege was underway, Stalin had refused to evacuate or provision the city.