Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Osmo Vanska

The rumor among persons serving on various charitable boards here in the Twin Cities is that Osmo Vanska, Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra, is being courted by the Philadelphia Orchestra to succeed Christoph Eschenbach.

Vanska recently made a Philadelphia Orchestra guest appearance, his second with that ensemble, and he was very well-received by the members of the orchestra, the orchestra’s administrative personnel, and the musical public in Philadelphia.

I do not know what to make of the rumor, although it would not surprise me if the rumor’s foundations were nothing more than the Philadelphia Orchestra Board Of Trustees putting out very tentative and very subtle feelers to Vanska to see whether he had any interest in discussing the position. I would be astonished, however, if anything other than an initial feeling-out has occurred.

The Philadelphia Orchestra is a “hot” orchestra—by comparison, the Cleveland Orchestra is a “cool” orchestra—and hot orchestras generally fare well under hot conductors. Vanska is a cool conductor and a cool musician (although his podium manner, highly demonstrative, is anything but cool) and I do not believe that Vanska would be a good long-term match for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Philadelphia would do better to wait for Simon Rattle to become available. Simon Rattle is not a good match in Berlin, and his work with the fabled Berlin Philharmonic has not been impressive. Rattle’s departure from Berlin, voluntary or involuntary, is inevitable.

One thing going for Vanska is that he is a very good guest conductor. With a couple of rehearsals, he can make an orchestra do pretty much what he wants it to do, at least in scores he has performed dozens of times.

The problems with Vanska are threefold: (1) he does not wear well, at least for many longtime concertgoers (as Minneapolis is now discovering); (2) he is at his best in Scandinavian music, and has nothing special to offer in non-Scandinavian repertory; and (3) Vanksa knows how to get an orchestra of 100 musicians to play accurately and to play together, but he does not know how to create a special orchestral sound.

The Minnesota Orchestra has never had a special sound—among U.S. orchestras, only the orchestras in Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia (and, to a lesser extent, Baltimore) have special sounds—and the Minnesota Orchestra of today has a generic sound even after more than four years of working with Vanska. This is because Vanska, although a professional conductor for over a quarter-century, has spent very little time working with top-tier ensembles, and Vanska has no idea how to create or how to perpetuate a special orchestral sound.

Vanska is not good in music of the Classical Period, and he is not good in Central European repertory of any period other than music of Dvorak, which he conducts with great brio if not much charm.

Vanska is better in Russian music, but the only Russian composer whose music he plays at a notably high level is Rachmaninoff.

Vanska has no feel for French, British or American music. His performances of modernist music are clean but uninteresting. I have never heard Vanska conduct Baroque repertory, but I suspect that music of the Baroque is not quite up his alley.

Even in music from Scandinavia, Vanska is competent more than he is memorable—and he is never inspired. His Sibelius is not as good as many people think it to be. His Sibelius performances always elicit the widest possible range of opinions, from extremely positive to extremely negative. For me, Vanska’s Sibelius lacks mystery, and genuine drama, and, where required, soul. Even in his native repertory, Vanska is a fine second-rate conductor, but nothing more.

Vanska shares his limited skill set with his other Finnish conductor contemporaries, all of whom were students of legendary instructor Jorma Panula and none of whom will ever enter the pantheon: Mikko Franck, Sakari Oramo, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jukka-Pekka Saraste. None of these conductors has remotely lived up to his early promise (although the most talented of the bunch, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, may be excused because he has suffered from personal problems that have seriously hampered his career).

Even the most high-profile of these Finnish conductors, Esa-Pekka Salonen, has never proven himself to be much of an orchestra builder or much of an interpreter of music from any school or period. (Salonen’s Sibelius, for example, is far, far worse than Vanska’s Sibelius—and light years inferior to Saraste’s Sibelius. Salonen would do well to drop Sibelius from his repertoire entirely, as those unfortunate enough to have had to sit through his gruesome Sibelius cycle in London a month ago can attest.) In fact, Salonen should give up conducting entirely and return to composition full-time, since it is in composition where Salonen’s greatest talent lies.

Vanska does a little composing on the side, too, but Vanska is clearly a conductor who also composes, and not a composer who also conducts.

Is Vanska ready to leave Minneapolis? Not as far as anyone here can tell. Vanska has been treated with kid gloves by the orchestra’s management. Musicians in the orchestra continue to fawn over him. Ticket sales are excellent (although there are, as always, lots of no-shows, because many subscribers—including my parents—choose not to use their tickets every single week).

Myself, I doubt that Vanska is ready to move on from Minneapolis anytime soon. Although it would be difficult for any conductor to turn down the Philadelphia Orchestra, I find it hard to believe that the Philadelphia Orchestra would ever offer Vanska its conductorship. The administration of the Philadelphia Orchestra must know Vanska’s limitations as well as anyone, and Vanska’s limitations make him a most unsuitable candidate to take over in Philadelphia.

However, I would not be sorry to see Vanska leave Minnesota. He has energized the orchestra after three consecutive listless tenures (Neville Marriner, Edo De Waart, Eiji Oue) and that has been a good thing. However, I doubt there is much more, given his skill set, that Vanska can do here. It is probably better for him to leave too early rather than too late.

Now if only we could entice Ivan Fischer to Minneapolis . . .

Fischer could make this orchestra special!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Thanksgiving Is Over

Our Thanksgiving week was wonderful, but it is over now. My brothers and my older brother’s family returned home last night, and things seem eerily quiet now that they are gone.

On Friday night, as planned, we attended a performance of Brian Friel’s “The Home Place” at the Guthrie Theater. It is a very fine play, and it received a very fine production. It was one of the best things I have ever seen at the Guthrie.

We skipped Saturday night’s Minnesota basketball game at Williams Arena. We assumed—correctly—that the Golden Gophers would blow out Central Michigan, and we decided to stay home and play with my nephew, especially since it was his final night home. I am glad we did.

Joshua and I had my parents over for dinner tonight. Even though my brothers and I took everyone out for a very nice lunch yesterday in celebration of my parents’ wedding anniversary, Josh and I had my parents over tonight, the night of their actual anniversary. We prepared an Amish pot roast and baked macaroni-and-cheese, as well as homemade stewed tomatoes, green beans and corn. We ate homemade chocolate-caramel-nut-coconut bars for dessert. It was a nice, quiet evening for everybody. Even the dog napped most of the night—he must have needed some rest, given all the time he spent playing with my nephew the last two weeks.

Josh and I have nothing on the schedule for the rest of the week. This will be a busy week at work for both of us, and we are looking forward to a couple of quiet evenings at home. This is especially so since Josh and I will be going away this coming weekend.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Two Birthday Celebrations, Thanksgiving, And An Anniversary, All In One Week

Monday night, my nephew helped Josh open his birthday presents and he helped Josh blow out his birthday candles. My nephew had a couple of his own presents to open, too, so that he would not feel left out. My nephew, for the second time in just a few days, loved eating birthday cake and ice cream. He sat on Josh’s lap during the gift-opening and during the cake-and-ice-cream consumption, and he had a ball (and so did Josh).

Tonight, my nephew helped me open my birthday presents and he helped me blow out my birthday candles. Again, my nephew had a couple of his own presents to open, too. After the gifts were open, he had cake and ice cream again. Tonight, he sat on my lap during the gift-opening and during the cake-and-ice-cream consumption. He loved every minute of it, and so did I.

I am afraid that, from now on, my nephew may start expecting to celebrate a birthday every couple of nights! He has decided that birthdays are lots of fun!

I did not waste any time blowing out the candles tonight, because there were so many candles on the cake that they constituted a serious fire hazard. I cannot believe that I will be twenty-seven years old tomorrow.

Tomorrow we will stay home all day.

In the morning, we will have a grand breakfast: all kinds of fruit (grapefruit, berries, melons), Eggs Benedict, a special French Toast made from real French Bread soaked and cooked in spices and covered with a special caramel butter, a special Norwegian coffee cake my mother started making tonight (it somewhat resembles the Swedish version of Stollen) and a special German coffee cake I started making tonight (it somewhat resembles traditional German Kuchen), along with homemade pumpkin bread and homemade banana bread.

For lunch tomorrow, we will have a special Dutch Chowder my mother always makes for Thanksgiving lunch and Christmas lunch. It takes eight hours to prepare, but it must be prepared the day before and allowed to chill for twenty-four hours before it is heated and served.

We will have our Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow night, probably around 6:00 p.m., because that time will suit my nephew.

We will have roast stuffed turkey, of course, and we will also have baked ham and roast stuffed chickens. In addition to herb stuffing cooked in the birds, we will also have oyster stuffing baked separately.

We will have mashed potatoes, and whipped sweet potatoes, and candied sweet potatoes, and all sorts of cranberries: cranberry/orange relish, a cranberry salad made with Jell-O and cream cheese and nuts and other fruits, and a cranberry sauce made with little else but whole fresh cranberries and natural sweeteners. We will have all sorts of vegetables: parsnips, Brussels Sprouts, corn pudding, escalloped green-and-red cabbage.

For dessert, we will have pumpkin pie, Dutch apple pie and sour-cream raisin pie. The latter is to die for, and is one of my mother’s greatest masterpieces. She took a recipe from her own mother, handed down through heaven only knows how many generations, and improved upon it for twenty consecutive years until it became the great prize-winner it is today. In fact, my mother baked several sour-cream raisin pies today, and she gave them to various friends this afternoon. My mother is famous for her sour-cream raisin pies.

I don’t think anyone will starve tomorrow.

On Friday, Josh and I must work, but on Friday night my mother, my sister-in-law, my middle brother and Josh and I will attend a performance of Brian Friel’s “The Home Place” at the Guthrie Theater. My father and my older brother will stay home with my nephew. “The Home Place” is receiving its American premiere at the Guthrie and people who have already attended the production have recommended it heartily. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Guthrie Theater production of “The Home Place” is the most important theatrical event, and the finest theatrical event, of the current season anywhere in the U.S.

On Saturday morning, my brothers and Josh and I will probably go out and play basketball and swim. We will probably watch college football games Saturday afternoon. For Saturday night, we are talking about going to the Minnesota/Central Michigan basketball game at Williams Arena. If we go, it will be our first game under new coach Tubby Smith. We will take our Dad with us if we go. I think we will wait until the last minute before deciding whether to go—it will depend, I believe, on whether the late Saturday afternoon football games are worth watching to their conclusions.

On Sunday, after church, my brothers and I will take my parents (and everyone else, too) to lunch at a very, very nice restaurant. My parents will celebrate their wedding anniversary on Monday, and this is one way my brothers and I plan to help them mark this great occasion.

After lunch, we will have to go home and everyone will have to start making preparations to go to the airport in the late afternoon.

Thanksgiving week will be over before we know it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Joshua Noted By The British Library

The British Library, the British equivalent of The Library Of Congress, has posted on its website a quote from, along with a link to, Joshua's blog. The quote from Joshua's blog addresses our visit to The British Library in September.

Thank you, Calvin, for passing this information along. Joshua's parents will be pleased.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Rossini Comedy

Last night, my mother, my sister-in-law and Joshua and I went to Minnesota Opera’s presentation of Rossini’s “L’Italiana In Algeri”. My father stayed home, preferring to spend the evening with my older brother and my nephew.

One thing I like about Minnesota Opera is that the company offers its performances in The Ordway Center in Saint Paul. The Ordway Center, a multi-use facility shared by Minnesota Opera, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and The Schubert Club, has an auditorium that is an ideal size for opera performance. The auditorium seats only 1900 persons, much smaller than both opera houses in New York and the opera houses in Chicago and San Francisco. In fact, it is even smaller than the Opera House of The Kennedy Center in Washington, an auditorium that has always struck me, purely from a size perspective, as an ideal venue for opera.

Voices do not have to strain to be heard in The Ordway Center, and the acoustics are quite fine throughout the house. As a result, Minnesota Opera does not have to restrict its engagements to singers with giant voices.

Last night’s performance was the third of five performances of “Italiana”.

The reason we did not want to miss “Italiana” was because Vivica Genaux was appearing as Isabella. Minnesota Opera is a small regional opera company, with a modest annual budget, and the company seldom engages major singers who command high fees. Vivica Genaux is the only “name” singer on the boards at Minnesota Opera this season. (Last season, the sole “name” singer was Ewa Podles.)

The role of Isabella is Genaux’s signature role, and since 1993 it has served as her calling card as she has made her way onto the world’s stages everywhere. Genaux has sung with Minnesota Opera before, including a very fine “Cenerentola” a few years ago, but this season is her first Minnesota Opera Isabella.

She was enchanting, or so we thought. The coloratura of Isabella must be engraved into Genaux’s vocal cords by now, because her singing was effortless and clean, and totally even throughout her registers (which cannot be taken for granted in this repertory). There was no cheating and no smudging of the most difficult runs, and yet Genaux’s intonation remained pure all evening. It was a great realization of the musical requirements of the part.

Genaux has a small, focused voice, and she had no trouble filling the auditorium of The Ordway Center. However, her career in the largest venues has never been as prominent as it should be, and this is because her voice is not of a size to set giant theaters ringing.

As an actress, Genaux was captivating. She commanded the stage easily, and reacted well with her fellow cast members. She did not overpower the rest of the ensemble, but SHE was the figure on stage that was magnetic. SHE was the singer the audience found to be irresistible. SHE was the reason for this presentation.

Nothing else about the production was particularly good.

Besides Genaux, the only cast member who made a favorable impression was Wojtek Gierlach, a Polish bass portraying Mustafa. Gierlach has a solid but unremarkable voice, but his characterization was quite successful, and surprisingly wide-ranging. He was convincing in his despotic moments, in his buffoonish moments and in his serious moments, when he almost became a genuine human being. I would not object to seeing and hearing Gierlach again.

The physical production was borrowed from Santa Fe. A unit set (opening from a giant storybook) represented, with small adjustments, all the different scenic requirements. I thought the production looked cheap, and both unattractive and ineffective.

The production was updated to the 1930’s, evidenced mostly in the costuming and in the use of a bi-plane to whisk Isabella back to Europe at opera’s end (raising the question how her companions managed to leave Algiers, too).

The stage direction was brand new, and not based upon the stage direction of the Santa Fe production. It was very bad. Much of it was borrowed from the silent cinema—for instance, the cast was required to do slow, jerky movements, sometimes to the accompaniment of strobe lights—and this did not enhance the story unfolding onstage. The same director was responsible for last season’s equally-inept Minnesota Opera production of “The Tales Of Hoffman”. The company should stop engaging her.

The conductor, Robert Wood, was shockingly bad. A year ago, he was named Conductor-In-Chief of Minnesota Opera, and last season we heard him slog his way through a different Rossini opera, “La Donna Del Lago”. My parents also heard him conduct a “Marriage Of Figaro” last season that Josh and I skipped. My father says that Wood’s Mozart was an abomination, the most unmusical conducting he had ever encountered. After what I heard last night, I hope never to hear him again. Wood had no idea how to conduct Rossini, and he had no idea how to coordinate the playing in the pit with the singing on the stage. Much of the evening was spent on the verge of a total breakdown of ensemble between stage and pit. I think Wood is in the wrong line of work (and so, I am told, do the members of the orchestra).

Genaux provided enough pleasure, however, to make the performance worthwhile. She is a star in every sense of the term, at least when playing Isabella, and I felt privileged to witness a performance at such a high level of accomplishment. I would go hear her again in anything else by Rossini in an instant.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Veterans' Day Weekend

We had a lot of fun this weekend.

My mother was well-rested going into the weekend because she had had so much help getting the house and food ready for everyone.

My father was well-rested, too—he said his trip to Zurich had not been tiring, and that he had enjoyed the opportunity to see a little of the city, and to attend a performance of “Konigskinder” at the Zurich Opera—and he had had a relaxing and restful flight back to Minneapolis. He was happy and content, sitting in the kitchen, with the dog at his side, when Joshua and my brother and I entered the house Friday night. He was very pleased to see us.

As soon as my father had arrived home Friday afternoon, my mother had fed him some beef barley soup, which she had made just for him. It is one of my father’s favorites. Then, at 6:00 p.m., my mother had fed him again, giving him some fresh broiled salmon, seasoned rice and broccoli.

We had a late dinner Friday night—it was after 9:00 p.m. by the time we sat down to eat. My mother had stuffed and roasted chickens because roast chicken is my middle brother’s favorite main course for dinner. She also had made homemade noodles for him, because homemade noodles are among my brother’s very favorite foods. He always gets homemade noodles on his first night home. We also had mashed potatoes, and peas, corn and carrots, and homemade cranberry-orange relish. For dessert, we had apples baked in pastry, with homemade cinnamon sauce. My father enjoyed his third meal in just a few hours after returning home.

The dog received his fair share, too.

After dinner, we remained in the kitchen, catching up with my father and my brother, until almost midnight.

Except for my mother, we all rose very early Saturday morning. I had to get up early because the dog demanded it, so Josh got up, too. My brother likes to get up early on his first morning home because he likes to participate, at least once, in the dog’s early-morning excursions to the park. We actually had a good time playing with dog at 5:45 a.m., even though it was cold and dark, primarily because the dog loved having three people to play and romp around with. He was full of spunk, and in bliss, what with three of us to join him in his early-morning fun. We played all the standard games with him he loves to play before we returned to the house.

When we got home, we found that my father was up, so all four of us sat in the kitchen for a couple of hours, eating cereal and fruit and drinking coffee and watching SportsCenter, until my mother came downstairs.

When my mother came down, we decided to skip having a real breakfast because we wanted to wait until my older brother and his family arrived, and have a real breakfast once everyone was present.

So we sat in the kitchen talking for another hour before we all went upstairs to get cleaned up. Afterward, we headed for the airport.

My brother’s family’s plane was on time, and we all got home just before 1:00 p.m., at which point we had a very late breakfast for lunch.

My nephew has recently started eating scrambled eggs, and he likes scrambled eggs very much. He can’t eat bacon yet, but he can eat small amounts of very mild ground sausage, which he also likes very much.

Consequently, we ate scrambled eggs and ground sausage for lunch, along with potatoes, biscuits and all kinds of fruit. We topped everything off with a fresh homemade orange bundt coffee cake.

When we were done eating, we just stayed in the kitchen for the rest of the afternoon, watching the football games. My nephew had to take his afternoon nap right after lunch, but when he woke from his nap we played with him until dinnertime.

My nephew struts around my mother’s kitchen like he owns the place. He likes having lots of attention, and he keeps his eyes on everyone while he walks around, the dog at his side, strewing his toys all over the kitchen floor. He is completely at home in my parents’ house. He views it as his second home.

When he is bored playing with his toys, he likes to sit on my father’s lap or on my mother’s lap and be rocked and talked to for fifteen minutes at a time, after which he is ready to go back to his toys (and the dog).

The college football games gave my middle brother much pleasure on Saturday, because Iowa State, his alma mater, which is having a terrible season, won for the second week in a row. The games also gave my father pleasure, because Iowa won for the third week in a row, and for the fourth time in five weeks.

Iowa’s victory came at the expense of hapless Minnesota, which lost its tenth game of the season. This is only the second time in the history of the Minnesota program that Minnesota has lost ten games in a single season. Next week, Minnesota will close out its season at home against Wisconsin, and my father and my brothers and Josh and I have tickets for the game. It will be nice if the Golden Gophers can pull off a huge upset, but that prospect is very unlikely. The Minnesota football program is a complete shambles right now, with no improvement in sight. Next Saturday afternoon may prove to be a long afternoon for all of us.

The Saturday football games gave Josh much pleasure, too, since Oklahoma pounded Baylor and since Ohio State was upset by Illinois. Oklahoma will now move up in the B.C.S. standings. If Oklahoma wins out, the Sooners will likely be in the national championship game.

We ate dinner at 5:30 p.m. so that we would observe the dinner hour at my nephew’s regular time. Because of this, and because of our late lunch, we deliberately had a very, very light dinner on Saturday night: homemade tomato-cream soup, and toasted cheese sandwiches. This is one of my nephew’s favorite meals, which is why my mother chose it.

By 7:30 p.m., it was my nephew’s regular bedtime, and we were sorry to see him have to go to bed. He was fully ready for bed, however, because it had been a very big day for him, and he was tired.

His parents—and my parents, too—put him to bed, and he went right to sleep.

Saturday night, we watched a movie on DVD: Fred Zinnemann’s “The Nun’s Story”, one of the finest movies of the 1950’s, in which Audrey Hepburn gives what is probably her finest screen performance.

“The Nun’s Story” is a very durable movie. Even though financed by a Hollywood studio, it is not a typical Hollywood film. If anything, it has always reminded me of a Robert Bresson film.

“The Nun’s Story” is a restrained, understated treatment of the story of Gabrielle Van Der Mal (Sister Luke), a young Belgian woman who decided in the late 1920’s to become a nun in the Roman Catholic Church in order to be of service in the Belgian Congo. Stationed instead in a Belgium mental asylum (punishment by her order for her perceived lack of humility), Sister Luke was, years later, finally granted her wish to go the Congo—where, to her disappointment, she was assigned to a hospital not for natives but for Europeans. She remained in the Congo until called home once Belgium was occupied by the Germans in the early stages of World War II.

Despite the fact that her father was killed by the Germans, Sister Luke tried to obey the dictates of her Church, which instructed its personnel to remain neutral in the conflict and to offer shelter and assistance neither to the Germans nor to the Resistance. Unable to do so, Sister Luke decided to leave the cloister and return to the outside world.

Throughout the story, Sister Luke suffers a series of crises of faith. Her crises were not so much crises of belief as crises of confidence in the Church, with its strangulating hierarchy and stifling rules. The final scene—in which Sister Luke is returned her civilian clothes and dowry and leaves the convent, walking out onto a rain-drenched cobblestone street—is one of the most famous scenes in the history of film.

“The Nun’s Story” is deeply affecting. Zinnemann presents the story of Sister Luke very simply, without comment and without overt drama or flourish, and Zimmermann’s very clean, detailed, subtle style makes for a very powerful film.

Hollywood studios were reluctant to finance the film, fearful that the story was too obliquely critical of the Roman Catholic Church. Only after Audrey Hepburn let it be known that she wanted to play Sister Luke onscreen did a Hollywood studio agree to sponsor the film.

It was Warner Brothers that agreed to finance “The Nun’s Story”, mostly as a “prestige” project for Zinnemann and Hepburn. Warner Brothers devoted $3.5 million to the film (an enormous sum for the time), but the studio never expected to see a return on its investment.

“The Nun’s Story” was a surprise hit at the time of its 1959 release—in fact, it produced the largest box-office grosses in the history of Warner Brothers—and its residuals over the last half-century have been enormous. It is that rare phenomenon: an art film that was also a popular and commercial success.

I don’t think this film would work with anyone other than Audrey Hepburn in the title part. I cannot imagine any other actress succeeding in the role. The film’s success, I believe, is primarily her success.

Zinnemann extracted a great performance from Hepburn in this film. Hidden, as she is, in a nun’s habit, almost all of Hepburn’s acting is done with her eyes alone, and yet she exhibits an astonishing range of emotions, a much wider range than in any of her other films. For two-and-a-half hours, viewers can’t take their eyes off her.

Zinnemann always cast his films supremely well, and he surrounds Hepburn with a superb roster of players: Edith Evans, Mildred Dunnock, Beatrice Straight, Colleen Dewhurst, and a glowing Peggy Ashcroft, whose beatific face and gently spiritual presence almost succeed in stealing the Congo scenes from Hepburn and Peter Finch.

Zinnemann, who learned his craft in the documentary field, always preferred to shoot on location, and “The Nun’s Story” was filmed in Belgium and in The Congo. The interiors were filmed, not in Hollywood, but in Rome. This gives the film a genuine European feel and sensibility.

“The Nun’s Story” is almost a perfect film. If it has any faults, it is in its cinematography (Franz Planer), not quite elegant enough for such an elegant director, and in its musical score (Franz Waxman), a mite too standard and a mite too Hollywood for such an unusually subtle film. I suspect that Zinnemann had no choice but to accept the cinematographer and composer proffered by the studio—Planer was no doubt specifically requested by Audrey Hepburn (Planer had shot her first film, “Roman Holiday”, and would go on to shoot her subsequent two films, “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” and “The Children’s Hour”) and Waxman was surely imposed upon the project by Warner Brothers. (Indeed, Zinnemann’s autobiography mentions that he fought with Jack Warner over the score to “The Nun’s Story”, a score Zinnemann found to be too intrusive.)

We all enjoyed the film immensely. Joshua had never seen “The Nun’s Story” before—in fact, he had never even heard of it—and the rest of us had not seen the movie in a very long time. It was a lovely way to spend a Saturday evening.

On Sunday morning, Joshua and my middle brother and I rose very early again, in order to get the dog taken care of by 6:30 a.m. My nephew gets up at 7:30 a.m. Eastern time, and we wanted to get the dog exercised and return home and be ready to take care of my nephew by the time he woke. Early mornings were special for us, because early mornings were the only time during which we had my nephew exclusively to ourselves.

My brother is very protective of his nephew. It is beautiful to watch my brother take care of his nephew, gently holding him and feeding him and playing with him and caring for him. He will make a wonderful father some day.

When my nephew woke, we got him all fixed up, and we gave him his cereal and juice and banana slices. Then we played with him until my Dad came downstairs, at which point we turned my nephew over to my Dad’s care and went upstairs to get ready for the day.

When everyone was up and assembled, we had pancakes for breakfast. My nephew loves to eat pancakes, and he enjoyed them as much as anyone.

After breakfast, we all went to morning service. Fifteen minutes into service, my nephew fell asleep in his Dad’s arms, which was probably all for the best. Otherwise, it might have been difficult for him to sit still, and remain silent, for the full hour.

Back home, we had hot chicken salad sandwiches for lunch, another of my nephew’s favorite things to eat. Sunday was my nephew’s day, since we were going to help him celebrate his birthday this day, and all the food was specifically selected with him in mind.

After lunch, he took his nap, and my mother took advantage of this time to make his birthday cake. She made a simple white cake, but she decorated it with yellow flowers and green stems so that it looked very beautiful and very cheerful.

When he got up from his nap, my nephew was surprised to find that his birthday presents were waiting for him. He got all sorts of toys—building blocks, and puzzle toys, and small cars and trucks—and then his Dad brought out from the dining room, where it had been hidden, his main gift: a small scooter he could easily mount and glide around the house.

He loved it. He got on the scooter immediately and began propelling himself around the kitchen, smiling and laughing and carrying on with great excitement. The scooter made him forget all about his other new toys, at least temporarily.

We all helped him play with his new toys until dinnertime. He had a ball, and so did we.

For my nephew’s birthday dinner, my mother prepared a very bland pork tenderloin, because my nephew loves pork tenderloin. She also made whipped sweet potatoes, and lima beans, and fried sweetened apples, because my nephew loves all those foods, too.

After dinner, we gave him his birthday cake. He was very excited. He was surprised to see two lighted candles on the cake, and I’m not sure he understood the significance of the lighted candles, but he was able to blow out the candles (with a little help from his Dad). Then it was time to eat cake and ice cream, and he had a wonderful time. He liked eating the colored icing most of all.

We played with him until it was his bedtime. I think he had a wonderful birthday celebration.

After he went to bed, it was back to the movies again for the rest of us.

On Sunday night, we watched another Fred Zinnemann movie on DVD, “The Sundowners”. “The Sundowners” went into production as soon as “The Nun’s Story” completed post-production. If anything, “The Sundowners” is an even better film than “The Nun’s Story”.

“The Sundowners” traces a year in the life of an itinerant Australian family of sheep drovers in the 1920’s. There is no plot to the film, and yet it is a beautiful, if not wondrous, creation.

The film traces the family’s annual migrancy, as it herds thousands of sheep hundreds of miles across the Australian Outback, stops at a large ranch to spend six weeks shearing wool for a wealthy landowner, and moves on to a new progression of itinerant work.

The success of the film, I believe, rests with the performances of Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr, beautifully paired for the second time in their careers (the first was John Huston’s 1957 film, “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison”). Mitchum and Kerr are entirely believable as a married couple, totally devoted to each other, although they must tolerate a constant tension between each other owing to the fact that Kerr wants to buy a farm and settle down while Mitchum wants to continue his life as a nomadic wanderer. Mitchum and Kerr play off each other exceedingly well, and the tension in their relationship carries the film.

I have always believed that Robert Mitchum’s work in “The Sundowners” was his finest screen performance. Mitchum’s portrayal of the migrant sheep drover is rakish and impish—and devilishly funny—but Mitchum is also entirely convincing as a devoted husband and father. It is a very complex performance, and yet there is an unaffected naturalness in everything Mitchum does in the film. Everything Mitchum does is offhand—with throwaway virtuosity, he never allows his “acting” to be seen. I credit Zinnemann for drawing this remarkable performance from Mitchum, just as Zinnemann drew Audrey Hepburn’s most remarkable performance from her in “The Nun’s Story”. Mitchum is nowhere near so multi-faceted in any of his other films.

Deborah Kerr is wonderful, too—Deborah Kerr was always wonderful—and she matches Mitchum step by step. In fact, Kerr offers the most marvelous moment in the entire film. Late in the movie, Mitchum loses the family savings on a horse race, the very savings Kerr had wanted to use to buy a farm and settle down. The disappointment on Kerr’s face is heartbreaking—and the shame on Mitchum’s face is heartbreaking, too—and Kerr saves the day by telling Mitchum that she is going to forget all about the lost money, forever, and never mention it, because she knows how impossible it would be for anyone to have to live with a martyr. This is a magical moment, and it perfectly resolves the situation. Kerr plays the scene beautifully (as does Mitchum). “The Sundowners” is one of Kerr’s finest performances, probably exceeded only by her performance in Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents”.

“The Sundowners” was shot entirely in Australia, and principal photography required almost a full year to complete. The film ran over budget, and an irate Jack Warner flew to Australia and, immediately upon his arrival, fired Fred Zinnemann on the spot and assumed directorial duties himself (a maneuver he was to repeat again a couple of years later during production of “The Longest Day”). However, someone, somehow, managed to talk some sense into Jack Warner, and Fred Zinnemann was quickly rehired to complete the filming. A classic was the result.

Like “The Nun’s Story”, “The Sundowners” is almost, but not quite, a perfect film. Two of the subsidiary characters are a little too colorful, encouraged to bring a little too much piquancy to their characters. Peter Ustinov comes off far too strongly as Robert Mitchum’s sidekick, and Glynis Johns is painfully “cute” as a hotel proprietor of questionable morals. Both overact shamelessly. I believe Zinnemann may have encouraged this regrettable tendency on their parts, fearful that too many situations in the movie might come across as drab to a general audience. Zinnemann was never to repeat this mistake again.

“The Sundowners” received a positive critical reception on its initial release, but it was not a great success at the box office. Warner Brothers had no confidence that a film set in Australia would appeal to an American audience, and the studio gave the film very little promotion. It took many years—decades, in fact—for the film to acquire its current exalted reputation.

We all enjoyed seeing this film. Joshua had never seen “The Sundowners” before, and he loved the movie. He said it was one of the best movies he had ever seen.

This morning, I took the dog to the park by myself, because no one else wanted to get up at such an early hour. Returning home, my reward was that I had my nephew to myself for half an hour. I got him fixed up and fed him his cereal and juice. Then I played with him until my Dad came downstairs.

After breakfast, my brothers and Josh and I went out to play basketball and swim. We returned in time for lunch, and spent the afternoon at home.

We had a very early dinner—we ate at 4:30 p.m.—so that my brother could eat before it was time for us to take him to the airport.

My brother and Josh and I left for the airport at 5:30 p.m.

Josh and I dropped my brother at the airport and returned to our apartment. My brother will be back Friday night. Until then, Josh and I will stay home, and let my parents and my older brother’s family visit, undisturbed by us.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

All Will Be Back Home Very Soon

Joshua and I have had a very busy week, getting everything ready at my parents’ house.

For the last five nights, Josh and I have helped my mother clean the house and get the bedrooms ready. We have also been making a nightly late-hours run to a different food store, picking up different food items.

Everything is ready, and tonight we have something special planned.

Tonight, Joshua and I and my mother are going to go shopping. We are going shopping in order to buy birthday presents for my nephew.

My nephew officially turned two years old a few days ago, but we are planning to celebrate his birthday on Sunday, his second day home.

It will not make any difference to him that we will be celebrating his birthday a few days late. He does not even fully understand the significance of his birthday yet, so he will not even realize that we will be celebrating on a somewhat delayed basis.

What he will understand is that he will get presents, and birthday cake and ice cream, and have lots of fun.

We pretty much know what gifts we are going to get for him, so it should not take us too long tonight.

Tomorrow afternoon, my Dad returns. Tomorrow night my brother from Denver arrives. On Saturday, my older brother and his family arrive.

We are all getting excited.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

"Lady, Be Good" And "Orchids In The Moonlight"

For the last several evenings, as Joshua and I have been helping my mother prepare the house for a family visit, we have all been listening to a couple of discs of music from the 1920’s.

We chose these particular discs because we wanted something light and frothy to listen to. We also wanted music that did not require sustained listening and concentration. We wanted music with a sequence of short numbers, something we could tune in and tune out as we moved about the house.

One of the discs is the original score to “Lady, Be Good”, George Gershwin’s first Broadway hit. On the Nonesuch label, this disc is one in a series of Gershwin restorations produced and recorded by Nonesuch in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

“Lady, Be Good” was the first Gershwin musical with lyrics by his brother, Ira, and it was written especially for the brother-and-sister dance duo from Omaha, Fred and Adele Astaire. Of all the many Gershwin musicals that were to follow over the next decade, “Lady, Be Good” enjoyed the longest initial run. The first production ran for almost eighteen months, still the record for an original Gershwin show.

There were three hit musicals during the 1924-1925 Broadway season. In addition to “Lady, Be Good”, Friml’s “Rose Marie” and Romberg’s “The Student Prince” enjoyed critical and commercial success that season.

It was the Gershwin show, however, that typified The Jazz Age. Unlike the Friml or Romberg efforts, “Lady, Be Good” was not a pure watered-down version of European operetta. It was a sleek, sophisticated and saucy American show, entirely representative of its time and place, and it is now generally regarded as the first true musical of what became known as The Roaring Twenties.

Much of the original orchestration for the show has been lost. Of the eighteen numbers from the original 1924 production, original orchestrations remain for only six numbers. In the Nonesuch recording, the other twelve numbers feature recreated orchestrations, faithful to the style of the originals, by Tommy Krasker.

The best-known songs from the show are the title number and “Fascinating Rhythm”. The remaining songs are not as memorable, but “Lady, Be Good” nevertheless has an exquisite score.

A few of the songs are “novelty numbers”, written to showcase the unique capabilities of particular performers (one of the “Lady, Be Good” numbers was created for a long-forgotten ukulele star of the day), and these numbers do not come off on the Nonesuch recording. Likewise, some of the comedic numbers, written for subsidiary characters in order to advance the plot, are also unremarkable.

However, the entire score remains bright and invigorating, and it is surprising to me that this show is not better-known.

My parents attended a 1987 performance of “Lady, Be Good” at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. That 1987 revival used the original book. It also used the same original and recreated orchestrations heard in the Nonesuch recording. It was a staging that attempted to be faithful to the period, even to the point of keeping the novelty numbers. According to my parents, the show was beautifully designed, beautifully staged and beautifully performed.

My parents say that the 1987 Goodspeed “Lady, Be Good” was one of the finest afternoons they ever spent in any theater. To this day, they insist that the show was positively enchanting, light as air and fresh as paint. Many theatergoers who saw the Goodspeed production believed that the show should have transferred to Broadway, but this was not to happen—producers were unwilling to risk an investment in the show after the New York Times gave a lukewarm reception to the Goodspeed production.

Legendary producer Roger Stevens, then head of the Kennedy Center, attended a Goodspeed performance of “Lady, Be Good”. Stevens was so captivated by the Goodspeed production that he had the production imported, lock, stock and barrel, to Washington, where it enjoyed a successful run at the Eisenhower Theater. At the conclusion of the Eisenhower Theater engagement, however, the life of the production ended and “Lady, Be Good” more or less disappeared from view.

The Nonesuch recording is not particularly good—and certainly not as excellent as the listener wants it to be—but it is the only recording of the work available that is faithful to the original vision of the composer. As such, it is invaluable.

The recording offers a “straight” performance. The singers, pickup chorus, pickup orchestra and conductor Eric Stern, all assembled solely for the recording (and not beneficiaries of a run of stage performances), take no liberties with the score. They offer a clean presentation of the notes, but little more. The singers are short on personality and sparkle, and so is the conductor.

And yet, despite these shortcomings and a few casting blemishes (none of the performers assigned the novelty numbers is up to the task), Gershwin’s score still casts its spell. The title number is a case study in urbanity and savoir-faire, and “Fascinating Rhythm” is infectious in its carefree breeziness.

American theatergoers are so accustomed to revamped and modernized Gershwin—in which hit songs from several different Gershwin shows are borrowed, re-orchestrated to the nines, and set within a new book—that theatergoers no longer know how real Gershwin shows sounded. The Nonesuch series gives listeners the opportunity to hear how Gershwin scores sounded in their original incarnations, set within their original contexts.

Listeners of today, hearing the complete “Lady, Be Good” score, can hear how Gershwin’s score was sometimes full of new sounds and new rhythms that owed little to European forebears. At the same time, the complete score also demonstrates that Gershwin had not yet broken completely free from the prevailing European-based models of the day.

Despite the amazing freshness of much of the “Lady, Be Good” score, its roots in European operetta are never very far from the surface. This is most evident in the numbers for chorus, which are not much different from comparable numbers in “Rose Marie” and “The Student Prince”. The patter songs, too, derive from European models, and lack the interesting harmonic twists and melodic individuality that typify Gershwin’s best efforts.

Gershwin’s music that is most operetta-like has not survived. His choruses, patter songs, novelty numbers and comedy numbers have long since disappeared from view. The only way to hear this music today is to attend an authentic performance of a show, very rare anywhere, or to listen to the Nonesuch discs.

I hope that Nonesuch keeps these historic recreations permanently available (an unlikely prospect; “Pardon My English” has already been deleted from the Nonesuch catalog, and I suspect that “Strike Up The Band”, which requires two discs, will soon follow suit). These discs keep alive a part of our national heritage, and represent an essential link in the development of the American musical theater.

The second disc of music from the 1920’s we have been listening to is “Orchids In The Moonlight”, a disc of songs by Vincent Youmans on the Arabesque label. The performers are the husband-and-wife team of soprano Joan Morris and pianist William Bolcom, joined by tenor Robert White.

Youmans was an immensely talented songwriter, perhaps as gifted as his exact contemporary Richard Rodgers. However, Youmans had expended his musical talent by the time he was in his mid-thirties, a victim of bankruptcy, tuberculosis and alcoholism. He died at the age of forty-seven, having completed his final Broadway score more than fourteen years before his death. His only hit show was “No, No, Nanette”, from 1925, written when Youmans was only twenty-seven years old.

The twenty-one songs on the disc are delightful: charming, tuneful, witty, capricious, impertinent, a veritable signature-album of American urban sophistication of the Twenties. After listening to only a handful of these numbers, one is prepared to declare Youmans America’s greatest songwriter.

Youmans’s melodies are less foursquare than Irving Berlin’s and more memorable than Cole Porter’s. His rhythmic imagination is superior to Richard Rodgers’s. The bracing freshness of his songs rivals Gershwin’s.

Ultimately, however, Youmans’s songs lack the richness of Jerome Kern’s and the depth of feeling that Richard Rodgers was to bring to his music after the age of thirty. They also lack the sheer magic that Gershwin unveiled in his very finest songs. This accounts for the fact that only two Vincent Youmans songs have become standards: “Tea For Two” and “I Want To Be Happy”, both from “No, No, Nanette”.

Nevertheless, this disc is totally disarming, even though the performances truly are not all that impressive. Morris’s voice lacks richness and color and individuality, White is captured well past his prime, and Bolcom has never been anything more than a competent pianist.

The material carries the day, happily, as one forgets the shortcomings of the performances and simply enjoys these sparkling songs.

These songs are capable of inducing broad smiles and knowing laughs, if not outright giddiness. We enjoyed listening to these irresistible songs many times.

Does any song title better represent the American sensibility of the 1920’s than “Orchids In the Moonlight”?

Friday, November 02, 2007

Departures And Arrivals

Joshua and I moved over to my parents’ house tonight after work, and we will remain here until Monday night, November 12, Veterans’ Day.

Tonight we helped my Dad get his things ready for Zurich, and we had a special dinner. After a few phone calls yesterday, my mother succeeded in locating a fresh carp she was promised she would like, and we had baked carp for dinner, one of my mother’s many, many specialties. It was superb.

She served it with twice-baked potatoes and fresh green beans and fried red tomatoes and grilled red, green and yellow peppers. Before the main course, she served us one of her most complicated garden salads. It was a magnificent dinner. For dessert, she had made a raspberry-white chocolate torte. It was divine.

We will take my Dad to the airport early tomorrow afternoon. Afterward, we will come home and begin to get things ready for Thanksgiving.

Over the next week, Josh and I will help my mother get the house ready, and get lots of foodstuffs stored. We will have a lot of fun, and before we know it my Dad will be back and we will be joined by everyone else.

My Dad will get back next Friday, in the middle of the afternoon. My Mom will pick him up at the airport. That night, Josh and I will go to the airport and pick up my brother from Denver. Late the next morning, we will all go to the airport to pick up my older brother and his family.

We will all be together for the long Veterans’ Day weekend. At the end of that weekend, my middle brother will return to Denver and Josh and I will go back to our apartment. That will give my parents and my older brother and his family four days to spend together before my middle brother returns that Friday.

We are pretty much going to work on the house this weekend, all weekend, getting as much of it as possible ready.

On Sunday afternoon, we will go to Saint Paul to see a performance of “Agnes Of God”. Josh and I have seen the movie, but neither of us has seen a staged performance of the play.

My parents attended a performance of the original Broadway production of “Agnes Of God”, which starred Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Ashley and Amanda Plummer.

My parents say that they remember very little about that original production except for the fact that the stage, for most of the play, was enveloped in a thick cloud of cigarette smoke!