Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Question Of Collective Guilt

Joshua and I have been discussing, in gruesome detail, the question of German collective guilt for the crimes and horrors of World War II. Every time I travel to Germany, these unpleasant issues reassert themselves, and I have been pondering these matters for the last two weeks and more.

Of course, I do not approach individual Germans and inquire "And what did YOUR ancestors do during the war? Man the ovens? Manufacture Zyklon B?"

Nevertheless, it is always in the back of my mind, the entire time I am in Germany, that evil and unspeakable events occurred in the country not much more than sixty years ago, and that these events occurred during the adult lifetimes of my own grandparents, a time reference I can easily relate to.

At what point in time are the sins of the fathers expiated on behalf of younger generations? That is the question I always ask myself, and of course I do not know the answer to that question. However, my instinct tells me that the issue of collective guilt for the German populace continues to this day, and that this issue should and will go forward for many, many years to come.

Naturally, Germans, of any age, do not want to face this issue. Germans born after the war, certainly, by and large refuse to accept any responsibility for the events that preceded their births. Germans born during the war, or Germans born before the war but too young to have participated in the war's prosecution, are prone to treat the war years as a closed matter, as a moot subject unworthy of further discussion.

But this is not a moot subject, and it may never be a moot subject. And Germans have done themselves no favors in the manner in which they have addressed--or failed to address--the war years. Several examples of this were on conspicuous display in Hamburg.

The public transportation network in and around Hamburg is as fine as any in the world. Nonetheless, the former concentration camp right outside Hamburg--Neuengamme--is not easily accessible via public transport. In fact, it is very difficult to travel to Neuengamme without renting an automobile, as Neuengamme is not part of Hamburg's excellent train network but is only served by very infrequent bus service. The Neuengamme Concentration Camp's hours of operation--hours in which it is open to the public--are constrained and, further, these hours of operation conflict with the hours of bus service to Neuengamme, which do not substantially overlap each other. It seems as if the Hamburg authorities have deliberately made it difficult for interested persons to visit Neuengamme. From my research, most visitors to Neuengamme are Americans, and American visitors clearly learn about Neuengamme from American sources, not from German sources in Hamburg, where little published information is made available, either in English or in German. There are scant references to Neuengamme in literature distributed by the Hamburg Tourist Authority.

Even in the center of Hamburg, however, it is near-impossible for visitors or residents to encounter remnants of the city's former Jewish population without actively seeking out the handful of small plaques and markers that are mostly confined to the former Jewish area of the city.

Virtually the entire Jewish population of Hamburg was slaughtered during the war. Much of Hamburg's former Jewish population lived in a beautiful part of the city known as Rothenbaum, near the University. However, there are very few public reminders of this fact in this area of Hamburg. Only in the 1980's was a plaque finally erected on the plaza on which Jewish citizens were required to gather for their forced departures to the extermination camps. That plaque employs an absurd, if not offensive, euphemism: it states that it was at this particular point that the Jewish citizens "departed" the city of Hamburg. If one was not already aware of what happened to these poor persons after they "departed", one might be forgiven for thinking that the Jewish citizens of Hamburg had merely gone on a group holiday or something, never to return, instead of forcibly crammed into cattle cars and sent to their deaths in gas chambers.

Of course, the Hamburg authorities of today may only be accused of neglecting or minimizing this important component of the city's past. Truly villainous were the Nazi-era authorities in Hamburg, who were among the most vicious and inhuman in all of Germany in their treatment of the city's Jewish population.

Kristallnacht was an event that caused greater havoc in Hamburg than in any other German city. More homes and businesses and houses of worship were destroyed in Hamburg during Kristallnacht than anywhere else in Germany. In Hamburg, the entire adult male Jewish population was arrested the following day and sent to Sachsenhausen. While there were some arrests in other German cities, in no other city was the entire adult male Jewish population arrested and shipped off to concentration camps. The scale and efficiency of Hamburg's Kristallnacht operations have always been attributed to the superior organization and rampant anti-Semitism of Hamburg's city administration and city police force.

These attributes of efficiency and anti-Semitism, hand-in-hand, surfaced once again in Hamburg's elimination of its Jewish population early in the war. Hamburg began shipping its Jewish population to the death camps as early as 1941--far earlier than any other German city--and most Jewish citizens of Hamburg were gone by mid-1942. ALL Hamburg Jewish citizens, except for a few hundred protected ones, were gone by early 1943. By contrast, Berlin did not even start eliminating its Jewish population until 1943.

Hamburg's inhuman treatment of its Jewish citizens did not begin with Kristallnacht, however. It began much earlier, as soon as the National Socialists seized power.

From 1933 the city of Hamburg frequently seized Jewish property simply because the city coveted it. In the early 1930's, a new and beautiful and modern Temple was constructed in the Rothenbaum area of Hamburg. However, long before 1938's Kristallnacht, authorities in Hamburg had requisitioned the Temple and turned it over to Nord Deutschland Rundfunk (NDR), the Hamburg radio network (long Germany's largest and most prestigious and most influential and wealthiest radio network). The NDR continues to occupy the building to this very day. Many of the numerous orchestral recordings that the NDR Orchestra of Hamburg has made, over the last half-century and more, have been made in this former Temple. A small plaque notes the structure's former use; there is, however, no other public indication that this building was formerly used as a house of worship by Hamburg's former Jewish citizens.

Another structure the Hamburg authorities seized was Budge Palais, the palatial home of a Hamburg Jewish family prominent in business, Henry and Emma Budge. Mr. and Mrs. Budge were Americans who moved to Hamburg to look after their German business interests. They were among Hamburg's most prominent philanthropists, financing numerous cultural and social projects for the public good. After their deaths, they left their Hamburg home to the U.S. government, but the Hamburg authorities seized the property in 1938. Briefly requisitioned by British occupying forces immediately after the war, Budge Palais was returned to the city of Hamburg by the British in 1951 and continues to be owned by the city of Hamburg. Today it is a music school, and its most famous room--the hall of mirrors--has been moved from the Budge Palais and installed in Hamburg's Museum Of Arts And Crafts. At the museum, there is no mention that this magnificent room was requisitioned by the Hamburg authorities in the 1930's from a Jewish family.

The American artist Wolf Kahn is the grandson of the late Mr. and Mrs. Budge. In 1939, when he was eleven years old, his family succeeded in evacuating him to Great Britain, from where he made his way to the U.S. in 1940. He never returned to Germany until 2001, 62 years after he left the country. While his maternal grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Budge, were already deceased by the time he got out of Germany, his paternal grandmother perished at Theresienstadt.

Ten weeks ago, Mr. Kahn gave a public speech about growing up as a Jewish child in 1930's Germany. In his speech, he said something that was entirely consistent with my own observations of Germans: "When I see Germans, for example in Europe, when they become a group, they always behave badly. It seems to me that Germans in a group become dangerous. Alone, they're wonderful."

This "dangerous" group aspect of Germanness is reflected, I believe, in the prevailing--and very troubling--current attitude among much of the German populace: that those of the Jewish faith were not victims of the madness of the thirties and forties; instead, EVERYONE was a victim of the insanity of that time.

This shift in outlook has several pernicious consequences: it places the perpetrators of horrendous crimes on the same moral plane as the innocent victims; it negates the need to identify the perpetrators of evil acts and to record their moral turpitude for future generations; it renders unnecessary an analysis of the causes of evil--if everyone was a victim of the "atmospherics" of the time, the sources of evil may easily be assigned to abstract configurations, and not to concrete acts and not to individual persons; and, finally, the question of moral responsibility becomes meaningless, since everyone is a victim and no one is an active, voluntary agent of evil.

The clearest indicia of this new attitude among Germans is a bewildering proliferation of monuments, all of recent origin, generically dedicated to the "victims" of National Socialism. There are dozens of these monuments in central Hamburg--one encounters such monuments practically every block or so--and they are all more or less the same: a vaguely modern sculpture, constructed of a cheap material, of a recumbent woman figure with a weary look on her face, at the base of which is an engraved dedication, "To The Victims Of National Socialism: Never Again". The sheer number of these monuments dilutes their significance, or so it would seem to me--they are far more numerous than newspaper kiosks--but these monuments lend themselves to the unmistakeable suggestion that every citizen of Hamburg was a victim of National Socialism, which is probably the very thought that the city fathers wanted these ubiquitous monuments to convey.

However, if all persons in Hamburg were victims of National Socialism, then no persons in Hamburg can harbor any guilt, can they? And that avoidance of guilt is what these silly, even coarse, monuments are fundamentally all about.

The city fathers of Hamburg would be far nobler if they were to remove all of these ridiculous monuments from the city's streets and replace them with two sober monuments marking two horrifying events that occurred in Hamburg during the war's final days.

In late April 1945, the remaining inmates of the Neuengamme concentration camp were evacuated, on orders from Hamburg's mayor, to the nearby town of Lubeck. British forces were approaching Hamburg, and the Hamburg authorities did not want the British forces to see the horrors of what had happened at Neuengamme.

Once in Lubeck, the inmates, by design, were placed on civilian ships anchored in the middle of Lubeck Bay. The Germans knew that the ships were sitting ducks, and that they would be attacked and sunk by British aircraft or Russian submarines, and the Germans believed that this was the quickest and the most efficient way of disposing of the Neuengamme inmates--with the important added benefit that there would be no troublesome evidence left behind.

And, on May 2, 1945, the ships were indeed sunk in Lubeck Bay. The war was already over--Hitler was already dead; the Russians already occupied all of Berlin; fighting had ceased; all of Germany was already occupied except for pockets of Bavaria and pockets of North Germany; the only item that remained was for the Axis to sign the formal surrender--but the authorities in Hamburg were still busy slaughtering innocent persons.

Most of the Neuengamme inmates died on board the vessels, as there was no way for them to escape--the bottoms of the lifeboats on both ships had been bored and, in any case, the majority of the inmates had been locked into holds below deck, where they had spent the previous several days without food and water.

A few inmates did succeed in jumping off the ships and somehow making it to land, floating on remnants of the sinking ships. These inmates were gunned down by the S.S. as they came ashore.

No one knows precisely how many Neuengamme inmates died in Lubeck Bay. On the larger of the two ships, it is believed that between 7,500 persons and 10,000 persons perished. On the smaller of the two ships, it is believed that between 2,500 and 3,000 persons perished. Whatever the number, this was the greatest maritime disaster in world history. It is also the least-known great maritime disaster, in Germany or elsewhere. It is even little-known in Hamburg.

Hamburg, a maritime city, with a maritime history, should erect a monument in remembrance of those who perished in this tragic and cruel maritime event, schemed and carried out by Hamburg city fathers. Those who perished WERE genuine and legitimate victims of National Socialism and they should be remembered.

The second monument should be erected at a Hamburg high school, still in use, in which another horrifying event occurred in late April 1945.

Twenty-two children, between the ages of four and twelve--all of whom had been the subjects of medical experimentation--were hanged in the gymnasium of this high school in north Hamburg, along with two French doctors and two Dutch nurses who had looked after them, as well as 24 Russian prisoners of war who had shared their ward and played with them.

All fifty persons were executed because they either had been the subjects of medical experiments, or knew about them. Hamburg authorities performed these executions in the very last days of the war so that these deeds would never be known.

Only in 1988 did these unspeakable murders become widely known, and then only because new British war archives had been opened, archives that contained evidence of what had happened in that Hamburg high school in April 1945.

The men, women and children hung in that Hamburg high school--TRUE victims of National Socialism--are entitled to our remembrance, and should be suitably honored by the city of Hamburg.

May God have pity on their poor souls.

Music In Hamburg

We heard quite a lot of music in Hamburg, largely because we knew it would please my parents greatly. We heard the equivalent of eleven concerts in thirteen days--quite a lot of listening--and the performances, save one, were all at a very high level (if seldom inspired). Hamburg is a very musical city, and we appreciated the opportunity to enjoy so many performances in such a concentrated period of time.

Our lone opera excursion was a performance of "La Boheme" at the Hamburg Staatsoper. The Staatsoper is a serious house, of course, but at present it is not experiencing a glorious era such as it has enjoyed at various times in its past.

In the 1890's, the Hamburg Staatsoper was Gustav Mahler's house--the house at which he achieved his exalted reputation before leaving to direct the Wiener Staatsoper--and in the early 20th Century Otto Klemperer was one of its chief conductors. From 1959 to 1973, this was the house that Rolf Liebermann transformed into one of the world's great opera venues. Today, the house is headed by Australian conductor Simone Young, and the house does not rank as highly as the German houses in Munich or Berlin or Dresden.

The Hamburg Staatsoper is the only long-established house in Germany that did not begin as a court opera. The company was founded by local burgers, and Telemann and Handel were an integral part of the company in its early years.

The previous building was destroyed during World War II's air raids. The current house, a blend of utilitarian design and materials and a few attempts at grandeur, opened in 1955. The auditorium is not bad; the exterior is merely functional.

As it turned out, the "La Boheme" we heard was a new production; we did not know this at the time we booked our tickets online.

The physical production was slightly odd, but not bizarre. Apparently the previous production of "La Boheme" in the house WAS bizarre. It was an Olivier Tambosis production, from 2000, and it was pulled from the repertory after only 28 performances. Tambosis is the party responsible for the Metropolitan Opera's unsuccessful physical production of Janacek's "Jenufa", a production that originated in Hamburg and is now shared with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, and the Met. In fact, this production of "Jenufa" reopens in Hamburg tomorrow night, with Eva Marton as the Kostelnicka, before it reopens again in New York early next year.

The new Hamburg "La Boheme" was directed by Guy Joosten and conducted by Jean-Yves Ossonce. I had never previously heard Ossonce, and the only disc of his I have is Magnard's first two symphonies on the Hyperion label. Ossonce makes his U.S. debut in San Francisco next year. His conducting was light and fleet, with pointed rhythms, and it had momentum. However, Thomas Beecham and Herbert Von Karajan may rest in peace, knowing that they remain unchallenged in this score.

The orchestra was not especially good, and neither was the chorus. Both were at precisely the same level as the orchestra and chorus of the San Francisco Opera: serviceable but in no way distinguished.

The singers were all new to me. The Mimi was Alexia Voulgaridou, a Greek soprano, whose critical notices in the part were very positive. I found her to be unremarkable. The Rudolfo was John Matz, an American tenor, who received blistering notices. I found him to be unremarkable, too, but I did not find him to be deserving of so much critical invective.

The audience was a good one.

We heard three orchestral concerts in the Musikhalle, Hamburg's primary concert hall. The Musikhalle is a beautiful, neo-Renaissance structure that opened in 1906 and, miraculously, escaped any damage in World War II. It is amazing how many Hamburg buildings of importance survived the war, given how much of the city was destroyed during the 1943 firestorm. The Hamburg Rathaus survived the war unscathed, too, as did such early 20th-Century architectural masterpieces as Chile-Haus and DAG-Haus.

The first orchestral concert we attended in the Musikhalle featured the NDR Orchestra of Hamburg, conducted by Christoph Von Dohnanyi, the orchestra's current chief conductor. On the program were Bartok's Two Portraits, Opus 5, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 and Beethoven's Symphony No. 3. Emanuel Ax was the soloist.

How can Dohnanyi, having been at the helm of the Cleveland Orchestra for almost twenty years, stand to conduct this mediocre ensemble? Does he need money to pay alimony to Anja Silja, his former wife? To me, it is incomprehensible how he can tolerate working with an orchestra of such middling quality.

The playing was clean--just--and the performances bland. Dohnanyi is one of those conductors who simply play the notes as written; he does not perceive his job as extending to "interpretation". During his Cleveland years, Dohnanyi would exhort the orchestra to avoid sentimentality and emotion, which may be why I have always found his performances to be unmoving and, ultimately, dull. The NDR concert we heard was definitely unmoving and dull. Emanuel Ax was, as always, competent--and uninteresting.

The second concert we attended at the Musikhalle was by the Orchestre Des Champs Elysees conducted by Philippe Herreweghe. The orchestra performed Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3 and Schumann's Symphony No. 3, and the performances were spirited. The orchestra being an original-instrument ensemble, everything "sounded" and I enjoyed the performances immensely, although greater drama and "innigkeit" may be found in both scores than Herreweghe allowed himself to uncover.

Our third concert at the Musikhalle was by the Oslo Philharmonic conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste. The orchestra performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21, with Boris Berezowsky as soloist, and Mahler's Symphony No. 5. The Oslo Philharmonic is a fine orchestra, if not a great one, and I was tremendously impressed by Saraste's musicianship. Saraste has developed into a real conductor and a real musician--his Mozart exhibited great intelligence and great style and a perfect balance between the music's purity of form and the music's need for expression--and it should be interesting to see what he does with this orchestra over the next few years. Saraste's Mahler was slightly understated but convincing. There were a few inevitable flubs in the Mahler from the brass ensemble, but these lapses did not destroy the performance. In the Mozart, Berezowsky was obviously playing Mozart's notes, but the musical style was pure Saint-Saens.

The first church concert we attended was at the greatest Baroque building in all of Hamburg, the Barockkirche Niendorfer Marktplatz, an octagonal church commissioned by Danish King Christian VII when the area immediately outside Hamburg's ancient city walls was a part of Denmark. The church is of the greatest possible beauty, inside and out, with unusual and noble and striking proportions. The interior is lighted by windows on all eight sides, and a balcony encircles the entire interior. It is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. The concert was an all-Telemann affair, involving a chamber orchestra and soloists performing various concertos and vocal works by this Hamburg native. Telemann was no Bach, but we enjoyed the concert very much, in large part because the venue was so magnificent. I believe that we were the only non-natives present at this particular concert.

The second church concert we attended also involved music by a Hamburg native, Johannes Brahms. We attended a performance of his German Requiem at Hamburg's largest church, Saint Michaelis, another great Baroque building. Saint Michaelis has been rebuilt twice: first, after a disastrous 1906 fire and, second, after its wartime destruction. Saint Michaelis has a very famous choir, and its orchestra is fully professional, largely drawn from members of the Hamburg Staatsoper orchestra and the NDR Orchestra. The performance was a magnificent one--the choir was supurb, and the performance was sincere, unaffected, dignified and spiritual. Brahms' Requiem was written with the acoustics of this particular church in mind, and the church was a perfect venue in which to hear the work. The soprano soloist was Ruth Ziesak, a gifted singer known everywhere for her concert and opera performances.

The third church concert we heard was the dud: a performance of Durufle's Requiem in Saint Gertrud, a beautiful neo-Gothic church from the 1880's. The performance style would have been perfect for one of Bruckner's masses, but it was too heavy, too Teutonic, too massive and too uninflected for Durufle's 1947 masterwork. We were thankful that the work only lasts 35 minutes.

The two organ recitals we attended were at Saint Petri, a 14th-Century church undamaged during the war, and at Saint Jacobi, a church completed in the 16th Century that WAS bombed, heavily, during the war, but whose interior was largely saved by the Hamburg fire squadrons. Saint Jacobi has North Germany's most famous organ, one of the largest and most renowned organs in the world. Johann Sebastian Bach played the Saint Jacobi organ on his sole trip to Hamburg, and the organ has been carefully tended for over 300 years.

Our two Sunday morning church services also featured musical works incorporated into the services. We returned to Saint Michaelis for one Sunday morning service, and we heard Bach's Cantata BWV 56 performed as part of the service. On the second Sunday, we proceeded to Saint Stephan, a large church built after the war, to worship and to hear a performance of Mozart's "Coronation" Mass, performed by full chorus, orchestra and vocal soloists. We were amazed how very fine these church performances were (aside from that unidiomatic Durufle) and we were somewhat puzzled to discover that only Hamburg's Lutheran churches offer full-scale mass settings as part of their services--Hamburg's Catholic churches apparently do not devote the same lavish attention to music.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A Wonderful And Stimulating Trip

Early this evening Joshua and I returned home from our trip to Germany. We had a wonderful and stimulating trip, and all the way home, across the entire Atlantic Ocean, Josh and I profusely thanked my father for inviting us to accompany him and my mother on the journey.

Before we embarked two weeks ago, I knew that Josh and I would have a wonderful time, and I knew that my father would have a wonderful time. However, I was concerned that my mother would not find the trip to be sufficiently rewarding, and I was worried that my brother would not have enough fun on the trip. My concerns and worries were groundless, as it turned out--my mother and my brother had the time of their lives.

We all stayed at the same hotel, the Levantehaus, a magnificent and beautiful first-class hotel right in the heart of Hamburg, in the midst of the luxury shopping district and near the Alster. Josh and my brother and I had informed my Dad, before the trip, that we three would be perfectly content to stay in basic, tourist accommodations and that we three would house ourselves, at our own expense, in a modest hotel not too far from my parents' hotel. My Dad would have none of that, and he booked us into the Levantehaus along with my mother and himself. I am glad he did. The hotel was charming and luxurious and situated perfectly for our explorations of the city.

Josh and my brother and I like to swim, and the Levantehaus had a beautiful pool, complete with a Romanesque ceiling. We swam every day. On alternate days, we would swim early in the morning, before meeting my parents for breakfast. On the other days, we would swim late in the afternoon, after returning to the hotel from our daily explorations of the city, and after our swim we would meet my parents for dinner.

Our daily schedule was pretty consistent. At 8:30 a.m. each morning, Josh and my brother and I would meet my parents for breakfast at the hotel restaurant (an exceptional restaurant, as it turns out--one of the very best restaurants in Hamburg). By 9:30 a.m., we would be on our way to begin that particular day's activities. By 4:30 p.m., at which time it was completely dark, my parents were generally ready to call it a day and to return to the hotel and to relax until dinner and whatever else was planned for that evening.

Josh and my brother and I extended our day beyond that of my parents, and we extended it at both ends. We would rise at 6:00 a.m. and for our early morning fun we would swim one day and go on a lengthy walk the next. My brother likes to rise early and to take an early morning walk when he is on vacation--he has always done this, and I have always gone with him--and we made sure that early-morning walks were a part of his vacation. One morning we walked all of the streets between the Jungfernsteig and the Hauptbahnhof; another morning we walked the Saint Georg district; another morning we walked to the Dammtor Bahnhof; another morning we explored the canals and bridges of the Altstadt; another morning we walked all the way to the Bismarck Denkmal; and on two mornings we walked to The River Elbe, taking a different route each time. On one Sunday morning we went to the Hamburg Fish Market, which opens at 7:00 a.m. and closes at 9:30 a.m. My parents did not want to go to the Fish Market, so Josh and my brother and I went alone to observe this weekly Hamburg ritual, and we walked around the historic market and we ate fish and sausage for our breakfast.

In the late afternoons, after escorting my parents back to the hotel, Josh and my brother and I would swim on alternate days and go back out into the city for a couple of hours of additional exploration on the other days. We would explore stores and indoor shopping atriums, mostly, but on one late afternoon we headed for the Reeperbahn and we walked around this notorious area for a couple of hours. We explored Saint Joseph's church and we went to the Panoptikum, Hamburg's wax museum, which was not worth a visit, and we watched all of the activity on the streets. These late-afternoon excursions allowed us to extend our explorations of the city while my parents relaxed before dinner.

My mother enjoyed the trip very much because she was able to explore the fine arts that Hamburg offered, and to do so in the company of three young men whose company she loves. We went to the Hamburg Kunsthalle four times, and it was worth every minute we devoted to it. We went to the Arts And Crafts Museum only once, which was undergoing renovation and which was, consequently, somewhat of a mess. We went to the Bucerius Kunst Forum once. We also went to Jenisch-Haus and Barlach-Haus to view the fine arts on display in those buildings, and Jenisch-Haus, in particular, was a genuinely magnificent place to visit.

We visited fifteen churches, which my mother loved, and we also attended several music performances: one performance at the Hamburg Staatsoper, three orchestral performances at the historic Musikhalle, three choral-and-orchestral concerts in Hamburg churches, and two organ recitals in Hamburg churches (these church concerts were in addition to the church services we attended which also featured full orchestras and choruses). My mother had a splendid time, and she treasured every minute of the trip.

My brother also had a splendid trip. He loved exploring the churches, too, and he enjoyed the art museums as well. However, we explored several attractions that we thought would be of especial interest to him. We toured the Russian submarine at the Hamburg harbor, we toured the 19th-Century clipper ship at the Hamburg harbor, and we toured the 20th-Century cargo ship at the Hamburg harbor. We explored a large number of sites connected to the period of National Socialism, including the two flak towers and the bunker museum and the sites in the area of Hamburg that formerly constituted the Jewish Quarter. We spent two entire days at the Hamburg Museum Of History, a magnificent museum superior even to the Carnavalet in Paris. The Hamburg Museum Of History is one of the finest museums I have ever visited and our time there was exceptionally well-spent. We also visited the attractions in the Speicherstadt--we visited the German Customs Museum and the Speicherstadt Museum, both of which were excellent, and we walked around this historic area until there was little new ground remaining for us to explore. My brother had an excellent time in Hamburg, and he was sorry to see our trip come to an end.

We were able to find things to do on more than half of our evenings in Hamburg, which was good--I had worried that it would be difficult for us to find enough to do at night. We spent one night at the opera, three nights at the Musikhalle, three nights in church concerts, one night at the Hamburg Kunsthalle, one night at one of Hamburg's two English theaters (we attended a performance of "Noises Off", which all of us except Josh had already seen) and one night we attended a performance of "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof" in German (which everyone seemed to enjoy). The remaining nights we simply went out to have a nice dinner.

The food in Hamburg was excellent. We ate lots of seafood from the Baltic Sea, of course, and we also had our share of German food. On three nights we dined in Portuguese restaurants, as Hamburg has the finest Portuguese restaurants in Europe (outside of Portugal), part of Hamburg's status as an international port city.

The bakeries in Hamburg, like everywhere else in Germany, were irresistible. Josh and my brother and I seemed unable to pass a confectionary shop without stepping inside and picking up something. My father told us that the Hamburg bakers were having their greatest business boom ever, what with Josh and my brother and I in town. (Of course, my father did not observe our visits to confectioner shops on early mornings or on late afternoons, when we three were out and about, walking by ourselves.)

Was there anything any of us disliked about Hamburg? No, I cannot say that there was. The days were short--Hamburg enjoys almost two fewer daylight hours in the winter months than Minneapolis--but we were not visiting Germany in order to experience good weather and lots of sunshine. Our trip was stimulating, and enriching, and joyful, and we all enjoyed each other's company immensely. There was nothing more we could have asked for to make our journey more rewarding.

Having now visited Hamburg, I am surprised that Hamburg is not featured more prominently on the typical tourist circuit. It is a city of great physical beauty, with many excellent buildings, ancient and new, with many excellent museums, with an active performing arts scene, and an extensive and noble history dating back over a thousand years. It is a city of lakes and rivers and parks and canals and bridges and spires. It is a city with a modern airport and with an excellent train system and with state-of-the-art public transportation. The city is certainly the equal of Amsterdam, and the city is vastly superior to Zurich or Brussels or Dublin or Edinburgh.

It is also a very unique city. Hamburg was always a merchants' city, and an independent merchants' city at that. Hamburg was never part of a princely kingdom; the city never had royal rule and, consequently, it is one of only a few European cities without a royal past.

Hamburg is, in many ways, not a German city at all. It is an international city that happens to have a mostly German-speaking populace. Because of its historic status as a free port, Hamburg never considered itself part of Germany, despite its incorporation into a united Germany in the 19th Century. Only in the 1930's did Hitler's government, forcibly, require Hamburg to become more like the rest of the German Reich.

Hamburg's Danish connections and its English connections are almost as important components of the city's heritage as its German connections. The area immediately outside the city's ancient walls was a part of Denmark until 1768 and this Danish influence is apparent in the city's food and in the city's architecture, much of which may be classified as "Danish Baroque". Hamburg has maintained important trade ties with Britain since the 15th Century, and the city has an unmistakable English flavor (as well as a large English population). It is the most British of continental cities, and it is the only continental city where the custom of English afternoon tea has taken root.

Hamburg is also a very wealthy city. It is the wealthiest city in the entire European Union, a fact which surprised me greatly, as I would have guessed that Munich and Milan were the wealthiest cities in Europe, based upon the ostentatious wealth one observes in both of those cities. The wealth of Hamburg is most apparent in the quiet but unequivocal confidence of its citizens, a trait I have always observed in my hometown of Minneapolis, too.

Do Josh and I want to go back to Hamburg? Well, we have now seen almost everything in the city itself, so a return trip to Hamburg is not on the cards for us anytime soon. However, there is a multitude of interesting towns and small cities surrounding Hamburg, and one day we would like to return to Northern Germany to visit some of those historic places.

For now, Josh and I are happy to be home again, and so are my parents. I missed my parents' dog terribly the entire time we were gone, and I was so happy to see him tonight that I was jumping up and down with excitement, just as he was.

I already miss my brother, and I was sad to have to say "good-bye" to him at the Minneapolis airport this afternoon, as he caught the final leg of his homebound journey on to Denver. However, it was glorious to be able to room with him for two weeks, and to spend so much time in his company, and he will be back home in Minneapolis in another three weeks and two days for the Christmas holidays, so it will not be long before I get to see him again. Christmas will also bring a visit from my other brother and his family, and I cannot wait until I get to see them again. I have not seen them since Labor Day, and it has been too long--I ache to see them again, despite the fact that I talk to my brother and his wife on the telephone almost every day. Christmas cannot come soon enough.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Tomorrow Cannot Come Soon Enough

Tomorrow we go to Germany, and Joshua and I are very excited, as are my brother and my mother and father.

We will have a wonderful trip, I am sure, and the only thing I regret is that we will not be able to spend Thanksgiving with my other brother and his family. We will be thinking about them the entire time, however, and looking forward to a long holiday visit with them over the Christmas and New Year holidays, when the entire family will be together for almost two weeks in Minnesota. I cannot wait.

There will be three family events to note while we are in Germany, and we will mark them in passing, but we will not engage in any major celebrations: my parents' wedding anniversary, Josh's birthday and my birthday. Since the entire trip will be one great celebration, it seems unnecessary to make a special fuss about anything else. We probably will just make an effort to enjoy very nice dinners on those three evenings.

Josh and my brother and I will room together throughout the trip, and it will almost be like old times--I have traveled to Europe with both of my brothers many times before, and we always enjoyed the most splendid times together. Now Josh will get to enjoy traveling in Europe with one brother and me, and he will quickly learn that we are deeply serious in our explorations of foreign lands as we pal around, walking and looking and studying (and eating). We will be running ourselves ragged from early morning until late at night, and I cannot wait. I know Josh will have a ball.

My brother and I will have a ball, too, and so will our parents. It will be a great family vacation. Tomorrow afternoon, when Josh and I and my parents head to the airport to meet up with my brother, cannot come soon enough.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Martinu, Thomson And Others

While preparing for our journey this past weekend, Joshua and I listened to six discs, and we will keep them on the disc player until we leave for Germany on Thursday.

Five Centuries Of The Spanish Guitar, performed by Andres Segovia, on the MCA label

Beethoven Violin Sonatas, performed by Henryk Szeryng and Ingrid Haebler, on the Philips label

Mendelssohn Organ Sonatas, performed by Stephen Tharp, on the Naxos label

String Sextets by Dvorak and Martinu, performed by the Academy Of St. Martin-In-The-Fields Chamber Ensemble, on the Chandos label

Film Music by Virgil Thomson, performed by the New London Orchestra under Ronald Corp, on the Hyperion label

"Love Songs", a song recital performed by Arleen Auger and Dalton Baldwin, on the Delos label

I have always loved Spanish guitar music, and the Segovia disc makes perfect late-night listening. The Beethoven disc features the "Spring" and "Kreutzer" sonatas, as well as the very early Opus 12, Number 2.

The Mendelssohn disc, one of those typical Naxos discs music lovers pick up and sample, out of sheer curiosity, because Naxos discs are so cheap, was a very pleasant surprise. These six sonatas, all very late works of Mendelssohn, are new to my ears but they strike me as masterpieces of the organ-sonata repertory. I like them more each time I hear them. The organist is unknown to me; the recording was taped at a church in Chicago.

The performances on the Dvorak/Martinu disc strike me as a trifle bland, but these works are a joy to listen to. Why is Martinu so seldom performed in the U.S.? I have liked every composition by Martinu, in every form, that I have ever heard.

Music of Virgil Thomson never seems to attract any performances in the U.S., either, and that is a shame. His music is very well-crafted, and very approachable, and it often has a deceptively-simple surface that belies its sophistication. This disc includes the suite from "The Plow That Broke The Plains" and both suites of music from "Louisiana Story". It also includes a composition new to me, "Fugues And Cantilenas" from the documentary "Power Among Men", that is a marvelous piece of music. It makes me want to see the film.

I don't particularly care for Miss Auger's disc, which almost makes me feel bad. She was such a wonderful singer--perhaps the greatest singer America ever produced--and I very much want to like this disc, but I find that I do not respond to most of the songs on this recital album, many of which strike me as mere ditties. There is one Schubert song, one Schumann, one Mahler, one Richard Strauss, and they are joined by a number of very unremarkable efforts by the likes of Charles Gounod, Roger Quilter, Aaron Copland, Benjamin Britten--and Noel Coward! There is even a number from Lerner and Loewe's "Camelot": "Before I Gaze At You Again", which actually DOES work as an art song, at least in Miss Auger's handling of it. All in all, however, this recital amounts to very little, and the order of the songs on the album strikes me as random if not bizarre. Shuffling the order of the songs does not improve things, either. To use Josh's summation, this recital is "pretty humdrum".

I never heard Miss Auger, as she died in the summer of 1993, when I was only twelve years old. Music lovers were doubly stricken that year, as both Arleen Auger and Lucia Popp died within a couple of months of each other. There are numerous parallels between the two sopranos: both were the same age; both died of brain cancer at the same time; both were intellectuals; both were married to intellectuals; and both had their first important engagements in the same role in the same opera in the same theater (The Queen Of The Night in "The Magic Flute" at the Wiener Staatsoper). Why were these two great singers called home so early, when they both had so much more to give? Were they not the two finest and most enchanting singers alive at the time of their passing?

My parents heard Miss Auger in the theater on one occasion: singing Marzelline in "Fidelio" at the Metropolitan Opera in the late 1970's. My parents heard Miss Popp in the theater on one occasion: singing Marzelline in "Fidelio" at the Wiener Staatsoper in the late 1970's.

My parents heard Miss Auger in recital on two occasions. The first time they heard her, she performed several Schubert songs and several Wolf songs. The second time they heard her, she performed several Mozart songs and several French songs (Mahler was on the printed program, but Miss Auger announced from the concert platform that she would sing Mozart songs instead of the Mahler group). During one of her encores at the second recital, Miss Auger "threw" her voice, ventriloquist-style, which startled and amazed the audience (and the audience erupted in cheers after that encore). I wish I could have attended that recital, but I was only seven or eight years old at the time.

Miss Auger made so many, many great recordings that she can easily be forgiven the unworthy material too much on offer on "Love Songs".

Friday, November 10, 2006

Thirteen Days Of Sightseeing

My father's business meetings in Hamburg will last only three days, so he will be joining the rest of us for ten of our thirteen days of sightseeing.

On the three days we will be without my father, Josh and my brother and my mother and I will visit attractions in Hamburg that my Dad has already seen or does not necessarily wish to see. We determined--just this evening, after a series of telephone calls and email messages and instant messages--how the four of us will spend our time while my father is working. My mother will be perfectly content spending three days without my father, as she will be escorted around the city by Josh and my brother and me. We will take very good care of her and she will be in bliss, in the full-time company of three young men she loves and adores. Of course, we will see my father on the evenings of the three days he will be working, and we will all have dinner together on those nights.

On the first of those days, we will visit Hamburg's Rathaus and take the guided tour in English. The tour only lasts an hour or so, as not all 590 rooms are included as part of the tour! Then we will proceed to the Bucerius Kunst Forum and view the "Cleopatra" exhibition, which my father does not want to see. The exhibition opened a few days ago, and my father has already talked to colleagues in Hamburg who attended the exhibition. They have informed him that the exhibition is not particularly impressive and, consequently, he has decided to skip this particular outing. The rest of us, however, have decided to proceed, as planned, and to visit the "Cleopatra" exhibition. After the exhibition, we will explore the immediate center of Hamburg, examining the architecture of buildings old and new, crossing canals via the many old bridges and taking a boat ride on the two Alster lakes.

On the second of those days, we will visit the Johannes Brahms Museum and examine a few notable buildings in the area surrounding the museum. Then we will proceed to the harbor area on The River Elbe and take a harbor cruise, after which we will go UNDER The River Elbe and cross to the other side via the 1911 tunnel. Any remaining time will be devoted to strolling around the harbor area.

On the final day without my Dad, we will devote the entire day to Hamburg's five main churches, called "central" churches by the Bishopric of Hamburg. All five are fairly close together, in the central part of the city, and my father has visited all of them on previous trips to Hamburg. All of the churches have long histories, going back 600 or 700 or 800 years, except for the "new" church, Saint Michaelis, which merely predates the American Revolution by a few decades.

My Dad will nonetheless see three of the five central churches again on this trip, as we will attend religious services at three of the central churches on weekends.

I believe that everything will work out perfectly for everyone. My father will not miss out on anything, my Mother will be in the best of hands, and Josh and my brother and I will have a wonderful time exploring a city completely new to us.

Die Katze Auf Dem Heissen Blechdach

Our Thanksgiving trip to Germany begins in less than a week, and Joshua and I are getting increasingly excited, as are my parents and my middle brother.

Josh and I are already getting our things ready, and right now we are trying to decide what books to take with us to read on the airplane.

My middle brother will fly from Denver to Minneapolis, and join us at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul airport for the remainder of the journey. All five of us will fly nonstop from MSP to Amsterdam on Northwest, and from there on to Hamburg via Lufthansa. On the main leg of the trip, Josh and my brother and I will sit together, and my parents will sit together a few rows away from us.

We have added some new items to our Hamburg itinerary. We will visit the Hamburg Bunker Museum, a World War II bomb shelter now open as a museum. We will also view the exteriors of the two giant Hamburg flak towers erected during World War II. One flak tower has been turned into an apartment building, and the other is in disuse. Neither, of course, is open to the public for interior viewings.

We will also visit the Johannes Brahms Museum. Brahms was a native of Hamburg, and North German Protestant rectitude is one important component to be heard in all of his music, as is the color of the dark but dramatic Baltic sky.

We are trying to decide whether we would enjoy attending a performance of "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof" in German, performed by one of the two large state-supported theaters in Hamburg. Josh and I think it might be interesting to see "Die Katze Auf Dem Heissen Blechdach", and my mother is moderately intrigued by the idea, but my Dad and my brother are not keen on the idea at all. Personally, I would like to hear Big Daddy (who remains "Big Daddy" in the German translation) offer his "odor of mendacity" speech in German, but no one else in the family seems to be quite as enthused as I am about this particular point.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Mutter In Mozart

I cannot think of any other violinist--living, at least--who could pull off an all-Mozart recital other than Anne-Sophie Mutter. And pull it off she did last night, splendidly, before a capacity audience in Saint Paul.

It was gratifying to see the Twin Cities musical audience turn out for a concert of five Mozart sonatas for piano and violin. Personally, I did not think that this concert would sell out, but sell out it did, quickly and easily. It reaffirms my belief that the Twin Cities has an exceptionally musical audience, exceeded in the U.S. only by the audience in Chicago and equalled in the U.S. only by the audience in Cleveland. For comparison, this same program, with the same artists, only played to sixty per cent capacity not long ago at London's Barbican Hall.

Miss Mutter is a great Mozartean, and she was in excellent form last evening. She kept five, six or seven emotions going, simultaneously, while always observing the requirements of classical form. Her intonation was pure, her fingerwork immaculate, and she could command any color she wished from her instrument. She shaped phrases knowingly and lovingly, and her sense of rhythm was keenly alive, delicate and pointed and spontaneous. Is there a more subtle violinist alive?

Lambert Orkis was a competent accompanist, and he did not detract from Miss Mutter's Mozart, but he is no Mozartean himself. I kept wishing that Wilhelm Kempff could have been summoned from heaven to provide a more worthy and inspired musical partner for Miss Mutter.

Last night's audience was exceptionally quiet and attentive and appreciative, and after the concert Miss Mutter did something very rare, especially for her: she entered the lobby after the concert, and greeted and thanked concertgoers.

My parents and I had met Miss Mutter before, but last evening was Joshua's first encounter with her. We introduced Josh to her, and he was--naturally--awestruck by her great beauty and exceptional intelligence and extraordinary charm.

I truly hope that last night's concert will not be the last time we get to hear Miss Mutter. She has announced her retirement from the concert stage, and she has accepted no more engagements after 2008. It is to be hoped that she reconsiders this decision, or that she emerges once again after a year or two of rest.

The musical world needs her to commission and to play new works from Penderecki and Maxwell Davies and Lindberg and Shchedrin and Carter and Kurtag. If she seeks new and intriguing repertory, why does she not take up the magnificent, neglected American violin concertos of William Schumann and Walter Piston and Roy Harris and William Bergsma and George Rochberg and Robert Starer?

The first time I heard Miss Mutter was in the 1990's, when I heard her play the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra. It was the best Brahms playing I have ever heard, and her performance that night was finer than either of her commercial recordings of the work--despite the presence of the dour and unimaginative Edo De Waart at the helm of the orchestra. In fact, Miss Mutter's performance was so fine that I talked my Dad into letting me go hear the repeat performance the following night, and somehow my Dad scrounged up a ticket for me and drove me downtown to hear the program a second time, going to his office to work while I was at the concert.

I heard Miss Mutter on two subsequent occasions prior to last evening: in an all-Beethoven recital and in a recital of 20th-Century repertory. On both occasions, she was faultless and inspired. In terms of technique or musicianship, no living violinist is her equal.

My parents have heard Miss Mutter play many more times than I have. They first heard her in 1985, and in 1985 they were not particularly impressed--her technique, obviously, was fabulous, but her musical insight was only "garden variety", or so my father says. They next heard her play in 1988 and, according to my father, in the intervening three years she had become a genuine and profound musician, the only genuine heir to Heifetz. Miss Mutter began that 1988 recital with Beethoven's "Spring" Sonata, and my father says that he was dumbstruck halfway through the first movement. At age 25, she demonstrated, he said, that she was already a finer Beethoven musician than Henryk Szeryng or Arthur Grumiaux, two violinists he thought he would never live to hear surpassed in Mozart or Beethoven. My parents next heard Miss Mutter play the three Brahms sonatas in a 1991 recital, and my father says that Miss Mutter's 1991 Brahms, if anything, exceeded her 1988 Beethoven, miraculous as that had been. Between 1991 and last evening, my parents have heard Miss Mutter play another half-dozen times.

How can such a great artist think of exiting the concert platform at the peak of her musicianship? I suspect that Miss Mutter's absence will only be a temporary one.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Rameau-Haydn-Schumann-Brahms-Walton And Symphonies For Wind Ensemble

This week Joshua and I are listening to six discs, and these varied discs are providing us with a splendid musical experience.

Rameau's Les Grands Motets, performed by Les Arts Florrisants under William Christie, on the Erato label

Haydn piano sonatas, performed by Gilbert Kalish, on the Nonesuch label

Schumann songs, performed by Nathalie Stutzmann and Inger Sodergren, on the RCA label

The Brahms Sonatas For Viola and Piano, performed by Lars Anders Tomter and Leif Ove Andsnes, on the Virgin label

Walton's Symphony No. 1 and his 1937 and 1953 coronation marches, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Andre Previn, on the Telarc label

Symphonies For Wind Ensemble by Gould, Giannini and Hovhaness, performed by the Eastman Wind Ensemble under Frederick Fennell, on the Mercury Living Presence label

The Rameau Motets are of unearthly beauty, and Josh loves listening to them as much as I do. I picked up this disc three or four years ago, and was immediately captivated by these works.

Kalish's Haydn is the best I have ever heard, much more insightful than pianists with bigger names. Stutzmann is a wonderful singer, always interesting and always individual and always careful about text and musical phrasing, and it is disappointing that she seldom appears in the U.S. The Tomter/Andsnes viola version of the Brahms Opus 120 is the finest, I think, since the very old mono recording by William Primrose and Rudolf Firkusny.

Walton always stirs me, and I have always loved this particular disc. Josh likes it, too. Walton is very much out of fashion right now, even in Britain, but his manipulation of musical materials is masterly and he has an individual voice and his range of expression is wide, so it is inevitable that his time will come. Is he not the most underrated of 20th Century masters right now?

The wind ensemble disc is fun. The Morton Gould work is forgettable, but the Vittorio Giannini symphony is a splendid work, enjoyable to play and enjoyable to hear. Josh played it in high school (he played the trumpet) and it is easy to understand why this composition remains so popular with wind ensembles everywhere. The Hovhaness Symphony No. 4 is the only Alan Hovhaness composition I have ever heard that I actually like--he expertly exploits the wind ensemble (and lots of percussion) to create a short, diverting, stimulating and satisfying work. I didn't know that the too-prolific Hovhaness had it in him!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

A First Birthday

My nephew just celebrated his first birthday--well, his parents celebrated his birthday, as he was too little to realize the significance of the occasion himself--and it is almost startling to me to realize that he has not always been an integral part of my life, for years and years and years. For me and for everyone else in the family, it almost seems as if he has been with us forever, an indication of how important he has become to all of us.

He already has his own character and his own personality, and I can see in him traits from both his mother and his father, as well as traits from my mother and my father. He is, however, uniquely himself, individual and treasurable and one-of-a-kind.

Between his birth and the end of May, I would get to see him at least one weekend a month, because every three or four weeks I would travel from Washington to New York to visit him and his parents. Because babies grow so fast, he would always be noticeably different each time I saw him; an interval of three or four weeks made a substantial difference in his development.

Now that I am back home in the Twin Cities, I have only seen my nephew twice: for a long visit over July 4th, when my brother and his family came home to visit for ten days; and for a short visit over Labor Day, when my brother and his family came home to visit for five days.

I love my nephew very much and I miss him very much, and I am exceedingly anxious for Christmas to arrive, because that will be the next time I will get to see him. I am almost of a mind to cancel the trip to Northern Germany so that I might get to see him over Thanksgiving.

I love to hold him, and I love to rock him, and I love to feed him his bottle, and I love to feed him his cereal, and I love to play with him, and I love to show him his toys, and I love to watch as he discovers new things, and I love to observe how excited he gets when he discovers that he can do new things.

Of course, everyone else in the family loves to do these things, too, and we all have to take turns, sharing these special privileges. My middle brother has proven himself to be an extraordinary uncle. I never thought of my middle brother as being tender and baby-friendly, necessarily, but I can see how much my brother loves to hold and to care for his nephew and to look out for him, and it allows me to observe the kind and sweet and gentle side of my brother's disposition.

My middle brother and Josh and I discussed, for weeks and weeks, what we were going to give our nephew for his birthday. Naturally, we knew, from the beginning, that we were going to give him toys of some kind, but we discussed among ourselves, daily, in great detail, what particular toys to get him. We pondered, and we analyzed, and we agonized, and we consulted with our parents, and we consulted with our brother and his wife, until we finally settled on what we thought would be perfect birthday presents for him. Between the three of us, we got him a big stuffed dog (because he is fascinated by our family dog, Rex) and a big fire truck he can climb into and zoom around in his living room and a set of large, colorful plastic balls he can kick around his living room.

His mother reports that he loves our gifts, and plays with them all the time (although it may be two or three more months before he is coordinated enough to make full use of the fire truck).

We are already in deep discussions about what toys to get him for Christmas! We will be on the lookout for interesting toys while we are in Germany.

A List Of "Firsts"

The first movie Joshua and I saw together was "Munich". We went to see "Munich" on the evening of the first day we met. We met each other that afternoon for coffee, both of us expecting to down our coffee and to bolt, later to report to our Dads that we had performed our duties, as requested. Instead, Josh and I talked for a couple of hours, after which we had a bite to eat and then went to the movies. Afterward, we ate dinner together.

The first art exhibition Josh and I attended together was a small Winslow Homer exhibition, mostly watercolors, at the National Gallery Of Art. We attended this exhibition the second day we met.

The first concert Josh and I attended together was a song recital by Jennifer Larmore and Antoine Palloc. That recital was in the Ordway Center in Saint Paul, and we went with my parents.

The first theater performance Josh and I attended together was "Light In The Piazza", which we saw in New York, again with my parents. The first theater performance we attended by ourselves was at Easter, when we attended a performance of "Hamlet", the final offering at the old Guthrie Theater before the company moved into its controversial new building.

The first opera performance we heard together was Rossini's "La Donna Del Lago", which we attended with my parents on a Sunday afternoon about a month ago. Ewa Podles sang Malcolm, and she was very impressive. Before we attended, I played for Josh the Ewa Podles album of Rossini arias on the Naxos label, which includes one track from "La Donna Del Lago". Last Sunday afternoon, we attended a performance of "The Tales Of Hoffman" with my parents. Both opera performances were by the Minnesota Opera.

Josh and I have never attended a ballet performance together, but a week from Sunday we will go with my parents to attend a performance of "Don Quixote" by the Miami City Ballet on the campus of the University Of Minnesota.

Josh and I do not ALWAYS go places with my parents. Last week, for instance, both he and I and my parents went to hear Mahler's Sixth--but on different nights. And my parents will be attending a couple of the special Beethoven Cycle concerts by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra with Roberto Abbado and Lars Vogt, but Josh and I will be skipping all of those concerts.

However, next Wednesday night, we WILL be going with my parents to hear a recital by Anne-Sophie Mutter--but Josh and I always spend Wednesday nights with my Mom and Dad, and we all four want to hear Miss Mutter, and it seems sort of silly for us to drive to Saint Paul in separate cars and to attend the recital in separate seats.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Effective, But Not Shattering

Late last week Joshua and I attended our first orchestral concert together.

Considering how much both of us like music, it is noteworthy that it took us almost nine months to rouse ourselves to attend an orchestral concert.

We heard the Minnesota Orchestra play Mahler's Symphony No. 6. The conductor was James Conlon, whom I have met. The only previous James Conlon performance I have attended, if I am not mistaken, was a performance of Richard Strauss's "Salome" at the Paris Opera in 2003.

As preparation for the concert, Josh and I listened to four different compact discs of Mahler's Sixth: the Karajan, the Boulez, the Yoel Levi and the 1970 Solti.

At the concert, the orchestra played to a high standard, and the performance was effective. It was not, however, special, and I believe that performances of the Mahler Sixth should be special, if not outright shattering. Neither of us was shattered.

Last week was only the second time I had heard Mahler's Sixth in concert. The first time I heard the Mahler Sixth was with the Dresden Staatskapelle under Giuseppe Sinopoli, perhaps a year or so before Sinopoli died. That was a very frustrating concert, because there was a start-and-stop quality about Sinopoli's conducting that evening. The orchestra's players became visibly frustrated with Sinopoli, and it was clear that they could not decide whether to follow Sinopoli or whether to ignore him. Sinopoli was apparently frustrated, too, because he did not return to the concert stage for any bows at the conclusion of that performance.

My parents attend Minnesota Orchestra concerts most weeks, but I am only prone to want to go when a particular program or a particular conductor genuinely appeals to me. The same applies to concerts by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, whose offerings very seldom appeal to me.

Many concertgoers in the Twin Cities are very approving of the Minnesota Orchestra's current conductor, Osmo Vanska, but I find myself diffident about his performances. Outside of the Scandinavian repertory, his specialty, I do not find him to be remarkable in any way. Perhaps I need to hear him more, but in the half-dozen Vanska concerts I have attended, in Minneapolis and in Washington, I have never been impressed.

A year or so ago, Vanska, in an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, announced that the Minnesota Orchestra was now the finest orchestra in the United States. I fully support our local orchestra, and I do not object to a bit of boosterism now and then, but has this man not heard the Cleveland Orchestra, or the Chicago Symphony, or the Philadelphia Orchestra?

If the Minnesota Orchestra were the equal of the Cleveland Orchestra, I would not only attend the orchestra's concerts weekly, I would attend them nightly.