Thursday, August 23, 2007

"London Assurance"

A week from tonight, at this very time, we will all be en route to London. In fact, around this very hour, we should be having dinner over Newfoundland.

I am trying to get some projects completed at work before our trip, and I will not be writing again until after our return from London. I will not have time, before we go, to complete the three “assignments” Joshua mentioned in his blog.

All of us are exceedingly excited about our trip. My brother cannot wait, as he loves London above all other cities. My parents cannot wait, as they look forward to fifteen days exploring London’s history and art and architecture in an organized and leisurely fashion, something they have not been able to do since before my oldest brother was born. Joshua cannot wait, as this will be only his second trip to London and as he wants to experience more than London’s essential tourist attractions, which is all he witnessed on his previous trip.

I, of course, cannot wait, either. Like my brother, I love London above all other cities. I also want my parents to experience an enriching, stimulating vacation—and one free from worries and any potential hassles, since my brother and Josh and I will be there to look out for them. I also cannot wait for Josh to learn to love London as I do.

For us, one week from tonight, our summer will be over. When we return, the college football season will be under way, and Josh will be at his new job, and we will all start to plan for the autumn holidays.

Where does the time go?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Perils Of Biography

Joshua and I have been reading three books, all biographies, sharing them back and forth between us. One is on Maximilien Robespierre, one is on George III, and one is on Andrew W. Mellon.

“Mellon: An American Life”, by David Cannadine, was commissioned by Paul Mellon, Andrew’s only son. Cannadine is a British biographer who was granted full access to the Mellon archives.

This biography took Cannadine twelve years to research, and his painstaking research is on limitless display in this long volume. I have never read a biography so filled with minutiae of all kinds, ranging from personal correspondence to the most mundane business figures and business memoranda to litigation transcripts to long lists of artworks owned. Cannadine has done his research well, and he was clearly determined to place the fruits of his research conspicuously before the reader.

Amid all this proliferation of detail, however, Mellon the man does not so much get lost as fail to make an actual appearance—although some reviewers have speculated, unkindly, that there was no human being there in the first place.

This is ungenerous. Only a very skilled and talented man could have founded and managed such vast enterprises as Mellon Bank, Alcoa and Gulf Oil, and served as Secretary Of The Treasury for the longest such tenure in our nation’s history, and amassed the finest personal art collection ever assembled in the Western Hemisphere (an art collection that was to serve as the core for The National Gallery Of Art in Washington, an institution founded and funded by Mellon).

Why cannot Cannadine capture Mellon the man? Part of the problem, I think, is that Cannadine relied too much upon the recollections of Paul, whose views of his more famous father were ambivalent at best. Paul clearly harbored grievances against his father, and those grievances are given full reign in this biography.

Another problem is that Cannadine is no fan of the rough-and-tumble world of American business and politics, at least as those endeavors were practiced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet another problem is that Cannadine has an intense dislike of American foreign and economic policies of the 1920’s (a dislike common among the British, who view that decade, correctly, as the decade of the emergence of American supremacy at the expense of Britain, a former great power forever decimated by the costs of The Great War). Still another problem for Cannadine is that he is inexpert in the fields of economics and tax and trade policies, on which subjects he espouses bizarre opinions that appear to have been learned at the knee of Ernest Bevin. Goodness!

If Cannadine were more knowledgeable about economics and American politics and American history, he may not have found it so necessary to turn Mellon—a rather marginal figure in American history, all in all—into some sort of emblem of American ills in the first third of the 20th Century. His attempt to do so is the chief failing in his book.

I wonder what Paul Mellon would have thought about this book, had he lived to see its completion and publication. I suspect that he might actually have been pleased.

“Mellon: An American Life” appears to have been “written to order”. It strikes me as a blatant effort to contrast an inhuman, relentless, driven father with a refined, noble, philanthropic son.

Further, it was a mistake, I believe, for an Englishman to have been handed this particular biographic assignment (Paul Mellon was one of America’s—and the world’s—greatest Anglophiles). This is so for two reasons.

The first reason is Cannadine’s fatally superficial understanding of American politics and history, a superficiality that quickly becomes irritating and renders all of Mellon’s genuine accomplishments immaterial.

The second is Cannadine’s unwillingness to portray Mellon’s wife as the true piece of work she was known to be, during her lifetime, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Andrew Mellon’s wife—Paul Mellon’s mother—was British, and the disastrous marriage that ensued between these two incompatible souls may be blamed largely upon Mellon’s British wife: a notorious liar, notoriously unfaithful to her husband, notoriously spendthrift with his money (as was her equally notorious family), and notorious in her endless efforts to embarrass him and make his life as difficult as possible. Cannadine tries to turn Mellon’s British wife into a sympathetic figure—was this another requirement of Paul Mellon, who may have wanted to see his mother portrayed in a favorable light before he died?—but Cannadine utterly fails in this effort. Mrs. Mellon cannot help but be revealed as the harridan she was, no matter how hard Cannadine tries to scrub her clean and sponge her off.

An American biographer of Mellon would not have made two such fateful errors.

A significant after-effect of a biography like Cannadine’s is that it inhibits any other biographer from taking another look at the subject for at least another generation. What major publisher will finance a second Mellon biography to correct the deficiencies in this one? This unlikely volume, sadly, will serve as the authoritative guide to Mellon for the next twenty or thirty years. Mellon, and the American reader, deserve better.

Until then, scholars of the period may benefit from the wealth of factual detail presented in this book, but they must look elsewhere if they want to compile an objective and full-dimensional portrait of Mellon the man and Mellon the legacy.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Mozart-Rossini-Bartok-Kodaly And Choral Music

Joshua and I have kept the following six discs in our player for the last week and more, and these discs have, by and large, provided us with a very rewarding listening experience.

Mozart Harmoniemusik, performed by The Amadeus Ensemble under Julius Rudel, on the Musical Heritage Society label

Rossini’s complete opera, “L’Italiana In Algeri”, performed by Darina Takova, Jennifer Larmore, Laura Polverelli, Raul Gimenez, John Del Carlo, Allessandro Corbelli, Carlos Chausson, the Choeur De Grand Theatre De Geneve and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra under Jesus Lopez-Cobos, on the Teldec label

Music for String Orchestra by Bela Bartok, performed by the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra under Adam Fischer, on the Nimbus label

Orchestral Music of Zoltan Kodaly, performed by the Montreal Symphony under Charles Dutoit, on the Decca label

A disc of choral music, “Appear And Inspire”, performed by The Robert Shaw Festival Singers under Robert Shaw, on the Telarc label

The disc of Mozart Harmoniemusik provides very agreeable listening. It includes the Harmoniemusik from “Abduction From The Seraglio” and “The Magic Flute”, two of Mozart’s most enchanting operas, arranged for woodwinds and string bass.

Josh always loves listening to music performed by winds or brass, because he spent so many years playing in high school and junior high school bands, and he loves this disc. The tunes are captivating, and hearing this familiar music in woodwind arrangements is totally delightful.

Johann Nepomuk Wendt made the arrangements from “Abduction From The Seraglio”, and Wendt’s arrangements are vastly superior to the work of Joseph Heidenreich, who provided “The Magic Flute” arrangements. Although the same instrumentation is used in both sets of Harmoniemusik, Wendt’s set has greater piquancy and sustains the listener’s interest much more than Heidenreich’s, whose arrangements seem bland by comparison—even though “The Magic Flute”, of the two operas, has by far the greater music.

The performances are OK, but I can imagine performances with greater tonal luster and character and wit.

Josh and I chose to listen to “L’Italiana In Algeri” because The Minnesota Opera will present the opera this Fall, and Josh and I plan to attend a performance. Vivica Genaux will sing Isabella in the Minnesota production, and we are eager to see and hear the presentation. We heard Genaux in recital in Saint Paul in June, and we thought that she was a very fine singer.

As a general rule, I am not particularly interested in Rossini operas. He was a musician of genius, and a composer of genius, but his operas do not hold my attention. For me, there are too many longueurs in Rossini’s works for the stage, and the dramatic conventions of the Italian stage of the time were corrupt and they are unconvincing for a modern audience. Whenever I listen to a Rossini opera on disc, or whenever I attend a Rossini opera in the theater, I am always thankful when the work at long last reaches its conclusion.

Many music-lovers find Rossini comedies to be captivating, but Rossini comedies have always left me impatient and uninvolved and uninterested. Antonio Pappano says that the only Rossini comedy worth reviving is “The Barber Of Seville”, and that the other Rossini comedies should remain in a drawer. I do not share this view, because I think that “La Cenerentola” and “Le Comte Ory” (and “Il Viaggio A Reims”, which shares much of its music with “Le Comte Ory”) are superior, musically, to “The Barber Of Seville”.

Nonetheless, all of these works are of limited interest to me, and my lack of interest has only been exacerbated by the fact that I have never managed to attend a good Rossini performance anywhere. Each Rossini performance I have ever attended was fraught with problems, whether in the singing, the orchestral playing, the conducting or the staging (or some combination of all of the above).

From a purely musical standpoint, I admire Rossini’s late opera seria more than his comedies, because Rossini uses an expanded orchestra and a more “Germanic” orchestration in his late opera seria and because he uses more extended musical forms in his late opera seria. However, from a purely dramatic standpoint, his opera seria, early or late, are not, in general, convincing or satisfying.

From both a musical and a dramatic view, Rossini’s operas—comedies and opera seria—are very, very difficult to perform well. Each work requires virtuoso singing and virtuoso playing and virtuoso conducting and virtuoso staging in order to work, and such singing and playing and conducting and staging seldom go hand-in-hand.

The Teldec “Italiana” set is enjoyable, and performed at a high level. Jennifer Larmore is the star of the set, and her singing is clean and lively and full of fun. Larmore is a good exponent of Rossini style. The coloratura poses no problems for her, and yet the coloratura is never allowed to slip into mere instrumental note-spinning. Instead, for Larmore, the coloratura serves a comedic and dramatic purpose. It is obvious that Larmore was having a grand time during the “Italiana” recording sessions. Her work here is the only reason to listen to this set of discs.

Any performance of “L’Italiana In Algeri” stands or falls with its Isabella and its conductor. It is Jesus Lopez-Cobos, a conductor I generally admire, who lets this set down. The recording features clean and lively playing, but it lacks drama and point and excitement and momentum. Further, the orchestra never glistens as it should in a Rossini comedy. The recording is akin to a concert performance—it is like a sequence of discrete, unrelated numbers that do not cohere into a fully-satisfying whole. There is no whiff of the theater in this performance, and no sense that a dramatic event is under way.

And for “Italiana” to sustain the listener’s interest, the opera must move. It must go somewhere. There must be a point to the flurry of notes as they pass by. And Lopez-Cobos does not succeed in turning this recording into a dramatically-convincing listening experience.

Conductors in competing sets of “Italiana” do no better, with one exception: Claudio Abbado managed to bring this opera fully to life on disc in his famed Deutsche Grammophon recording with Agnes Baltsa. Abbado succeeded in capturing the giddiness and mounting excitement of Rossini’s opera, as well as its moments of repose, and he managed to combine these two elements into a successful dramatic entity. The listener’s attention never wanes in an Abbado performance of a Rossini comedy, and yet Abbado’s Rossini is more expressive, with a wider emotional range, than the Rossini of his peers. Abbado, alone of today’s conductors, seems to hold the key to success in a Rossini score.

For the most part, Josh did not like “L’Italiana In Algeri”. Aside from Larmore and a few of the funnier bits, he found the opera to be boring. However, he was happy to become familiar with the score in order to make our upcoming visit to a live performance more meaningful. We earnestly hope that “L’Italiana In Algeri” will succeed in its Minnesota Opera staging.

“L’Italiana In Algeri” will be the second Rossini opera Josh and I will have heard at The Minnesota Opera. Last season, we attended a performance of Rossini’s opera seria, “La Donna Del Lago”, and we sort of enjoyed it, but primarily because of the presence of Ewa Podles, who was indeed very imposing. I attended another Rossini performance within the last year, when I attended a performance of “La Cenerentola” in Houston. This is more Rossini than I would normally wish to hear within such a short period of time.

The Bartok disc contains the Divertimento For String Orchestra and the Music For Strings, Percussion And Celesta. These are good, solid performances, but not the last word in finesse—and not the last word in Bartok performance, either, for that matter. The performance of the Divertimento is better than the performance of its more famous coupling. There is a touch of opaqueness in the recorded sound that inhibits listening pleasure.

The Zoltan Kodaly disc includes his four most popular orchestral works: the “Hary Janos” Suite, the Dances Of Galanta, the Dances of Marosszek and Variations On A Hungarian Folksong (”The Peacock”).

I have always believed that Kodaly was a major composer, and I have never heard a composition by Kodaly that was not first-rate. This includes his orchestral works, and his choral works, and his works for solo instruments and small ensembles. The music of Kodaly is not played much in the U.S., and it should be. His music is colorful, and bold, and virtuosic, and expressive.

His music is also highly original, a quality for which Kodaly receives no credit in the English-speaking world. (Among other things, Kodaly was one of the originators of the “Concerto For Orchestra” form as we understand it today, and he wrote one of the finest works in this genre he helped create.) Kodaly borrowed virtually nothing from his Central European forebears. Inspired by Hungarian folksong, he created his own compositional forms virtually from scratch.

According to those who knew him, Kodaly was an extremely spiritual man, but also entirely impractical, and completely out-of-step with the realities of his own time and place.

Kodaly continued to compose during the darkest days of Budapest’s history. In the latter stages of World War II, when Germany, dissatisfied with Admiral Horthy’s foot-dragging on the “Jewish question”, occupied Budapest and began liquidating its Jewish population, Kodaly wrote his great Missa Brevis (and actually premiered it in the cloak room of the Budapest Opera House while The Battle Of Budapest—which destroyed eighty per cent of Budapest and resulted in more than 40,000 civilian deaths—raged in the streets outside the Opera House).

Kodaly continued to compose during the Communist period, mostly undisturbed by party officials. Unsure of his political views, newly-installed Communist officials initially planned to execute him, but they quickly retracted Kodaly’s execution warrant, realizing that he was not only harmless but that he was malleable, as well, and of possible use to the new regime. As a result, party functionaries showered Kodaly with official honors and official positions, and they allowed him to work in peace until his death in 1967 at the age of 85.

Although Kodaly’s music has largely disappeared from North American concert halls, his music continues to be recorded with some frequency. The Montreal/Dutoit recording was released in 1996. It was one of the last of the Montreal/Dutoit recordings, issued shortly before Decca stunned the music world in 1997 by terminating the contracts of several prominent Decca artists, including Charles Dutoit. Those terminations were a harbinger of what was to become widespread in the classical music world just a few years later.

Personally, I was not surprised at the time Decca walked away from Montreal/Dutoit. By the time Decca ended its association with him, Dutoit had already recorded almost all of the repertory for which he was suited and he was already moving into repertory in which he had nothing special to offer. The Kodaly disc is a good example of a recording that need not have been made.

The recording quality is excellent—clear, brilliant, spacious—and the playing is clean if not quite distinguished. However, the performances lack spice, and grit, and bravura, and élan, and rhythmic abandon, qualities all of which are essential for performing Kodaly’s orchestral music. Instead of offering a ravishing Hungarian goulash spiced with paprika, Dutoit serves up Canadian mutton. Kodaly’s music does not come to life when performed in such a bland and faceless manner, and Dutoit’s Kodaly compares unfavorably with the recorded Kodaly performances by Eugene Ormandy and George Szell, both of whom were masters of this repertory. I can understand why this disc received no attention when it was issued and why it went out of print almost as soon as it was released.

The Robert Shaw disc is very special. It was recorded by participants in one of Shaw’s summer choral institutes in France, and it is amazing to hear what Shaw could achieve with a pickup group of singers in only a few weeks of work.

The singing is ravishing, and I am in awe at how well-blended the choral sound is. I am not sure that I have ever heard finer choral singing in my life, at least from a medium-sized group.

There are six works on the disc: Britten’s Hymn To Saint Cecilia; Debussy’s Three Chansons De Charles D’Orleans; Ravel’s Three Chansons; Poulenc’s Un Soir De Neige; Henk Badings’ Chansons Bretonnes; and Dominick Argento’s I Hate And I Love.

All of these works are incomparably well-written for chorus, except for the Argento, which does not display the same fluency and command of writing for massed voices as do the Britten, Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc and Badings compositions.

The Debussy and Ravel songs are sublime, and the Britten and Poulenc works are not too far behind that unmatchable standard. The Badings is a minor masterpiece, I believe, and I was very pleased to make this work’s acquaintance, as it was the sole work on this disc that was new to me.

The longest work on the disc is the Argento, a work commissioned by and written for The Dale Warland Singers, the Twin Cities-based group that was long the finest chorus in the Upper Midwest until it disbanded upon the retirement of Mr. Warland a few years ago. Argento is a Minneapolis-based composer, and I have met him several times, and he is a very nice man, but I have never responded to his music and I have always disliked I Hate And I Love, which strikes me as frivolous and lacking musical tension and genuine wit. I do not know what Robert Shaw found in this particular composition that made him want to spend time with it.

Shaw was a wonderful trainer of choruses, perhaps the best America ever produced. He could do wonders with massed voices.

As an interpreter, however, Shaw was nothing special. His performances always tended to be bland and under-characterized.

Those tendencies, happily, are not present in this disc, probably because the works recorded are fairly short and somewhat self-effacing. All of the works on the disc are either reflective or very restrained in their emotions, and Shaw’s very understated approach works well with such music. High drama is not called for in these works, and Shaw’s expository style of conducting proves exemplary for this material.

I think this is one of the finest discs Robert Shaw ever recorded. Josh and I have listened to this disc over and over and over, with the greatest of pleasure and admiration.

I can fully understand why Shaw is so much missed.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

A Lot To Get Done

On Saturday afternoon, my parents and Joshua and I are going to catch the Guthrie Theater “Private Lives” that we were scheduled to attend the night of the bridge collapse. We all decided that Saturday afternoon would be an ideal time to see the show, so we will go to the 1:00 p.m. matinee.

We leave for London three weeks from today, and we are starting to get excited.

We have a lot to get done between now and then, and I think we are going to get started this weekend.

Joshua and I have some things to pick up for our trip, so I think he and I will do some shopping on Friday night.

On Saturday morning, we will do some yard work at my parents’ house while my parents are taking care of some personal business.

After the Guthrie matinee on Saturday, Josh and I will have dinner at my parents’ house and after dinner we will help my parents get some things ready for London.

On Sunday, after church, we all have a family function to attend with my mother’s relatives. After that is over, I think that Josh and I will go back with my parents to their house and help them with a few other small things that need some attention.

The summer is almost over, and I cannot believe how quickly it has passed. It seems like Memorial Day was only two or three weeks ago, and yet the college football season will be upon us before we know it.

Josh has made some major decisions with reference to his career plans, and he may write about those things when he is ready to do so.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Colossal Failure

My parents returned safely from Denver today.

My brother was an excellent host, as I knew he would be.

Most of the time during their visit, my parents simply visited with my brother in his condo. There is not much to do in Denver—it is “a frightful cow town”, according to my mother, and my brother readily agrees with her—and my parents long ago had seen pretty much everything worth seeing there.

My brother did take my parents out to dinner on Saturday night, and on Sunday afternoon he took them to see the new Libeskind building, which my parents had seen during its construction phase. Otherwise, however, they all stayed in all weekend. My mother did some cooking for my brother, and they all watched a couple of movies on DVD, and they talked about our upcoming London trip and other things, and the weekend passed too quickly.

My parents had been very curious to see the completed Libeskind building, because they had seen it so many times during its construction phase and because they had read the disastrous reviews of the building when it opened last October.

My father’s judgment: “The New York Times was kind”. He was referring to the New York Times architecture critic’s celebrated review of the Libeskind building, which declared the building to be a spectacular and colossal failure, inside and out.

My mother’s judgment: “It looks like a shopping mall. Maybe they can take advantage of that, and finally unload all of that Remington stuff.”

The new Denver building has veritably destroyed Libeskind’s reputation, as many have noted (some with glee). I don’t think that Libeskind’s reputation will ever recover from such a major disaster.

Paul Goldberger has written that one of the problems with the Denver building was that there was no person on the Denver Art Museum’s Board Of Trustees who was knowledgeable about art or architecture, and who could have pointed out some of the more glaring deficiencies in the design and demanded that certain changes be made. Goldberger, somewhat uncharitably, pointed out that a building so problematic could never be erected in a “first-tier” city, where talented board members are abundant.

The repercussions are not expected to end anytime soon. According to the art press, the Director of the Denver Art Museum is expected to get the ax very, very soon—and things at the museum are in such a dismal state, widely-known within the field, that Denver will not be able to attract anyone serious as a replacement.

Tonight my parents drove to our apartment straight from the airport. The dog was very glad to see them, and they were very glad to see him. The dog was jumping up and down in excitement as soon as he heard my father’s car, so Joshua and I took him outside to greet my parents as soon as they stepped from the car.

“Didn’t you feed this poor little thing?” my mother asked us, in jest, as the dog practically climbed all over her and my Dad.

Joshua and I gave my parents a nice dinner: barbecued chicken, and potato salad, and baked beans, and sweet corn, and cole slaw. We had orange cookies for dessert.

As soon as dinner was over, my parents went home. They wanted to get settled in, and unpack, and read their mail, and get the dog settled in, before bedtime.

Tomorrow night, Josh and I will play basketball, but the rest of the week should be uneventful. We loved having the dog with us, but we are also looking forward to a little peace and quiet. In a small apartment, he can be exhausting.

Monday, August 06, 2007

A Weekend At The Lake

Joshua and I took the dog up to the lake this weekend. We thought he would have a better time up there than if we stayed at home.

And I think he did have a good time. Josh and I played with him out in the yard, and we took him on walks, and we fed him grilled steak and grilled chicken. He seemed to be entirely happy and content.

Josh and I really did not do much this weekend. We did some reading, and we swam, and we tried to catch up on our sleep. To do so, we had to go to bed early each night, because we knew the dog would not allow us to sleep late—6:00 a.m. is about the latest the dog will allow us to sleep before he starts carrying on. When he is ready to start his day, we have to be ready, too. Trying to ignore him does not work—he stands on top of me, and licks me, and after a couple of minutes he starts barking, two feet from my ears. There is no way anyone can sleep through his commotion, and he knows it.

My parents are having a nice visit in Denver. Josh and I talked to my parents last night, and they are enjoying their visit very much. My brother is a perfect host, and he is taking excellent care of them.

Josh and I also talked to my brother in New York last night. My brother and his wife have houseguests: my sister-in-law’s parents arrived late Saturday afternoon from London. They will be in New York for the next three weeks. They are there to see their grandson, of course, and they are having the time of their lives, since they have not seen him in a year. My nephew has warmed to his British grandparents very quickly this visit, unlike last year, when it took him several days before he became accustomed to their presence. My sister-in-law said that my nephew has welcomed his maternal grandparents much more easily this year because he is a year older and because she and my brother kept telling my nephew that his other set of grandparents was coming for a visit. My nephew probably did not understand precisely who this other set of grandparents was, but at least he understood the concept that someone was arriving for a visit, and he was prepared for it. I hope that they all have a wonderful visit over the next three weeks.

Josh and I also talked to Josh’s family last night. Last week, Josh’s family arrived home safely—and exhausted—from the long baseball road trip. Josh’s family enjoyed the trip, all in all, but Josh’s Dad said that none of them would want to repeat such a trip any time soon—it was a long trip, and a lot of driving, and a lot of baseball games, and a lot of nights in hotels, and a lot of restaurant food, and he said that everyone was glad to be home. He said that everyone needed a vacation after such a long trip!

Nothing much will be going on with Josh and me this week. We will have the dog with us tonight, and tomorrow night my parents will return from Denver. Tomorrow night, Josh and I will have my parents over for dinner, after which they will take the dog home. There is nothing else on our schedule for the rest of the week.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Three Russian Ballet Scores

After our extended bout of listening to American music, Joshua and I decided to listen to something completely different, so we choose three full-length Russian ballet scores. We are enjoying them enormously.

Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”, performed by the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin, on the RCA label

Gliere’s “The Red Poppy”, performed by the Saint Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra under Andre Anichanov, on the Naxos label

Prokofiev’s “Cinderella”, performed by the Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnev, on the Deutsche Grammophon label

The Leonard Slatkin “Swan Lake” is the finest “Swan Lake” recording I have ever heard. It is a magnificent performance, completely captivating, beautifully played and beautifully conducted and beautifully recorded.

I have no idea whether this is the finest “Swan Lake” ever recorded---this is not a work I have bothered to listen to often, because it is so familiar and because there are innumerable recordings of the work available, far too many for me to try to audition them all—but I have never heard so capable and convincing a performance of the work.

Personally, I was stunned at the excellence of this recording, because it was so unexpected. Prior to listening to this recording, I had already heard Slatkin’s full-length “The Sleeping Beauty” on RCA, recorded around the same time as Slatkin’s “Swan Lake”, and Slatkin’s “The Sleeping Beauty” is a complete dud of a recording, probably the very dullest account of that score I have ever heard.

But the Slatkin “Swan Lake”, unlike his “The Sleeping Beauty”, comes fully to life, perhaps because its musical and dramatic requirements are far less demanding than those of its later and incomparably greater counterpart.

In fact, I believe that this “Swan Lake” is the finest of all Slatkin Saint Louis recordings (most of which are now out of print)—and I think that I have heard all of Slatkin’s Saint Louis commercial recordings.

Most of Slatkin’s Saint Louis recordings were recorded subsequent to a series of fully-rehearsed performances in the concert hall, and those recordings were, by and large, competent but dull. Slatkin is not a musician who, in a run of concerts, gets better and better with each repeat performance. In fact, the reverse is true—in a run of performances, Slatkin gets more and more boring with each repeat performance.

The Slatkin “Swan Lake” was not, I believe, recorded after a run of performances in the concert hall, and this works to the recording’s advantage. This performance was created in the recording studio, and the musicians did not have time to grow bored with Slatkin’s routine music-making. Further, the complete score of “Swan Lake” is seldom performed outside of the theater, so the musicians of the Saint Louis Symphony would have approached the full score with fresh ears and a complete lack of ennui. The liveliness of the results can be heard in the recording.

Oddly, most of Slatkin’s finer recordings were all recorded, not with his own orchestra in Saint Louis, but in London, with British orchestras—and I think I know the reason for this unexpected situation.

London orchestras sight-read very well, and are accustomed to working quickly, and there is often a seat-of-the-pants quality to London recordings—and these unfavorable working conditions, perversely, are very friendly to second-rate conductors. Because everyone—musicians and conductors—must work under the strict requirements of the clock, and under some stress, everyone must pay acute attention during a London recording session. There is a “live” quality to such work, which would not necessarily be present in a recording made at the conclusion of a run of fully-rehearsed performances under a less-than-inspiring conductor.

Slatkin is not a conductor I generally admire, but he has made several fine recordings with London orchestras, including at least one great recording: Edward Elgar’s concert overture, “In The South (Alassio)”, a work which receives its very finest recorded performance on disc in his hands. (Alas, its original coupling, Elgar’s Symphony No. 1, occasionally comes to life, but it is, on the whole, a very depressing performance.)

The Slatkin Saint Louis “Swan Lake” is similar to some of his London recordings: it is brimming with life, with some degree of electricity, and some degree of tension, and some degree of drama, and some degree of flair. It is the only one of his countless Saint Louis recordings that remains interesting from start to finish.

Further, the Saint Louis Symphony of the late 1980’s, when these discs were recorded, was a much finer ensemble than any of the London orchestras of the time, with a much richer string sound and with a much higher level of ensemble balance and accuracy. This recording reveals, more than any other Slatkin Saint Louis recording, how well Slatkin had drilled the orchestra into a major ensemble.

By the time Slatkin departed Saint Louis, in the mid-1990’s, the musicians of the orchestra had grown tired of him, and bored, and the musicians were growing increasingly frustrated, if not irritated, at Slatkin’s lack of depth in the Central European repertory (and they were complaining about this particular shortcoming openly; musician complaints had reached the pages of the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch). The late 1980’s were the high point of the Slatkin era in Saint Louis, and this recording captured the Saint Louis Symphony at perhaps its finest moment. I am surprised that this recording is so little-known, because it is a joy from start to finish. The recording quality is outstanding.

Until Josh and I listened to the Naxos disc of Reinhold Gliere’s complete score to “The Red Poppy”, I had only heard the suite derived from the full score. Neither of us was expecting much of anything from this set of discs, because Gliere’s reputation, in general, is pretty low and because this score’s reputation, in particular, is even lower. More than anything, Josh and I were simply curious to hear the full score of this ballet once or twice, and leave it at that.

Happily, we have been pleasantly surprised, because this score is a real find, and a real treasure. “The Red Poppy” is a masterful, Tchaikovskian full-length ballet score, the finest such score written by a Russian composer other than Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. It is light years better than comparable and better-known scores churned out by Minkus or Khachaturian or Shostakovich, none of which has the confidence and allure of “The Red Poppy”. It is regrettable that this marvelous score is so little known.

The story of the ballet has something to do with its absence from the world’s stages. Premiered in 1927, the ballet is from the period in which communism was still held to be a coherent and valid ideology, and it tells the story of Russian sailors helping to free the “coolies” of China from the shackles of class oppression as well as from assorted Western decadent influences. The plot of the ballet could have written by Comintern. The story is further discomfiting, for modern audiences, by its overt opium affiliations.

The Bolshoi Ballet brought “The Red Poppy” to the U.S. on one occasion, in the 1950’s, but that was the ballet’s only presentation in North American by a Russian troupe. The ballet was not well-received here on that single presentation, and it has never established a place in the repertory outside of Russia.

In Russia, the ballet was later renamed “The Red Flower” to remove the opium association, and it was later “modernized” to remove some of the more cartoonish characterizations of the Chinese “coolies”.

Because of the strength of its score, I think that this ballet could be made to work today, and work admirably, if it were to be staged in a style faithful to the original, and mounted as a period piece. Gliere’s story-telling instinct is strong, and his characteristic dances are quite colorful and enjoyable, and he knows how to build tension and drama through a series of set-pieces. His handling of the orchestra is masterful.

I think that “The Red Poppy” is an important score, and I am glad that we chose to listen to this set of discs. Our curiosity about the score has turned to admiration.

Act I is the best act of the score. The Act I central Pas De Deux is magnificent—10,000 cymbal crashes and all—and “The Russian Sailors’ Dance” is a perfect exclamation point to end the ballet’s first act. Acts II and III are almost as good as Act I. Josh and I both enjoy listening to this ballet.

I believe that the Naxos disc is the only audio recording of the complete score ever made, or at least released in the West. The performance is a good one, and the recording quality is fine.

Prokofiev’s score for “Cinderella” is not as memorable as his score for “Romeo And Juliet”, but it is still a very fine effort. The individual numbers are not as developed as the individual numbers of “Romeo And Juliet”, and this prevents the score from achieving the symphonic cohesion of the “Romeo” score as well as building up the necessary head of steam to propel the story forward. In addition, the music of Act III is not as inspired as the music for the first two acts, and the ballet ends on a weak note, petering out early in Act III as it limps to its lame conclusion.

It nevertheless provides a fun listening experience, and this performance is an excellent one. In general, I have never been enthusiastic about Pletnev’s work as a conductor, but this disc represents him very well. In fact, it is the finest disc of Pletnev on the podium that I have heard.

This set of discs also includes “Summer Nights”, a suite take from Prokofiev’s comic opera, “Betrothal In A Monastery”, written at the same time as “Cinderella”. It is a pleasurable composition, but its melodic material is not especially memorable, which surely accounts for its rarity in the concert hall. The opera itself, however, is supposed to be one of Prokofiev’s very greatest masterpieces, according to scholars and to those fortunate enough to have heard one of its few presentations.

Joshua has loved listening to these ballet scores, and so have I. The line of great Russian ballet scores, from Tchaikovsky through Stravinsky, has died out now and will probably never be renewed. However, the eighty years between Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and Stravinsky’s “Agon” constituted a pretty good run.

A Pall Over The Evening

Last night, Joshua and I had my parents over for dinner in celebration of my mother’s birthday.

There was a pall over the evening, as there is a pall over all of Minneapolis right now, but Josh and I gave my parents the best evening possible.

Josh and I prepared some of my mother’s favorite foods: a very elaborate garden salad with all sorts of vegetables and pasta, a seafood soufflé, chicken breasts baked in an apple-cranberry glaze, riced potatoes, asparagus with Hollandaise sauce and a cranberry salad. For dessert, we made a very complicated lemon cake that took most of the evening to complete.

While Josh and I were working on the cake, my mother and father talked with us and they also talked on the telephone with my brothers, who offered my mother birthday greetings.

For her birthday, my mother was awarded with a houseful of flowers, all delivered yesterday morning: flowers from my father, flowers from each of my brothers, and flowers from Josh and me. It is too bad that my parents fly to Denver later today, because my mother will have too little time to enjoy all the flowers.

Selecting birthday presents for my mother is very, very difficult. It seems to get harder each successive year.

My father gave my mother a very beautiful and a very unique and a very stylish attaché case, which my mother can use for church meetings and for other functions she attends.

My older brother and my middle brother gave my mother art books. I had surreptitiously served as their detective, making sure that my mother did not already have the particular books my brothers selected.

My sister-in-law gave my mother a very beautiful and a very elegant evening sweater, which should come in handy during our visit to London.

My nephew gave my mother a very handsome brass picture frame containing a beautiful new photograph of him.

All of the out-of-town gifts had been shipped to Josh and me, for us to keep until my mother’s birthday.

Josh and I gave my mother an antique spice chest—the kind with all sorts of tiny drawers—that will go perfectly in her kitchen.

I think that my mother liked the gifts very much, and I think that she had the best possible birthday celebration, certainly the best possible one under the circumstances.

When we arrive home from work tonight, Josh and I will have the dog to care for until Tuesday night. We will take good care of him.

During that time, my middle brother will play host to my parents. I know he will take good care of them and serve as the perfect host. They will be in the best of hands.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Bridge Collapse

My mother and Joshua were driving toward downtown last evening when they heard on the radio about the bridge collapse. The radio had broadcast news of the tragedy only minutes after the collapse.

Joshua immediately called my father and me to let us know that he and my mother were safe. He called my father first, and me immediately afterward. Neither of us had even heard about the disaster until Josh called us and let us know what had happened.

My mother and Josh turned around and went home, and my father and I went home, too. No one was interested in dining out and attending a Noel Coward play after learning what had happened.