Friday, January 30, 2009


My middle brother celebrated his birthday on Tuesday. He is now 31 years old.

There was a birthday celebration for him on Tuesday night at my parents’ house. My mother gave everyone a nice dinner—steak and potatoes, with all the trimmings—and my brother’s birthday cake was a Black Forest Cake, pursuant to his request.

Josh and I were the only family members not present at the birthday celebration, but we talked on the phone that night to everyone, including and especially my brother, and we confirmed that he had received our birthday gifts: a DVD of the film, “Downfall”; a DVD of the film, “Stalingrad”; and a travel book about Scotland, a country my brother keenly wants to explore in some depth.

My niece is doing fine. She is now seven weeks and four days old, and growing, and starting to respond to sounds. Except when she is sleeping, there is someone available to hold her around the clock, and she is receiving mountains of attention. Her parents send us new photos of her every week.

My older brother and his family recently bought a house, and settlement is scheduled for the third week of February. Until then, they will remain at my parents’ house.

My nephew does not want to move into his new house. He wants to remain at my parents’ house, which he now thinks of as his own home. Of course, that will change as soon as he moves into his new house, but he was genuinely quite concerned when he learned that my parents’ dog would not be joining him at his new home. Even when it was explained to him that he would nonetheless see the dog every couple of days, he did not like the idea of living without the dog.

Of course, I don’t like the idea of living without the dog, either.

It’s been cold in Minnesota, and everyone has been staying in most of the time. I don’t think Josh and I have been missing out on much back home. The biggest events of the month of January were my brother’s visit to Boston over the January holiday weekend, his birthday earlier this week, and my older brother’s purchase of a house.

Nonetheless, I am extremely homesick, and I think Josh and I will have to go home soon. Our earliest opportunity will be in March, when we may try to go home on one of the weekends coinciding with Josh’s Spring Break.

I want to see my niece again, and before she grows much more!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bucerius Kunst Forum

The photograph above shows the Hamburg branch of the old Reichsbank, Germany’s Central Bank from 1876 to 1948. Hamburg’s branch of the Reichsbank was constructed in the midst of World War I—the structure was begun in 1914 and completed in 1917—and is situated next to the Rathaus.

The Reichsbank building is no longer used for banking purposes (although “Reichsbank” remains chiseled onto its façade). Instead, it houses a private foundation, The Ebelin And Gerd Bucerius ZEIT Foundation, which is Germany’s largest philanthropic foundation as measured by assets (at least three billion Euros are controlled by the Bucerius ZEIT Foundation, and perhaps far, far more).

Dr. Gerd Bucerius (1906-1995) made his name as a man of politics and of the press. Bucerius was a member of the German Bundestag from 1949 to 1962, but he is most widely remembered as co-founder and publisher of the Hamburg weekly news magazine, DIE ZEIT, Germany’s version of TIME magazine. DIE ZEIT was founded in 1946 and rapidly attained a permanent place among Europe’s preeminent liberal publications. DIE ZEIT remains one of Europe’s most respected news magazines.

The ZEIT Foundation involves itself in a plethora of eleemosynary activity—among other things, it sponsors and funds Germany’s only private law school, which Dr. Bucerius personally established—and one of the Foundation’s many subsidiaries is The Bucerius Kunst Forum.

The Bucerius Kunst Forum, founded in 2002 and occupant of a portion of the old Reichsbank building, has no permanent collection. Instead, the Forum hosts international-level art exhibitions, which typically run for three-month periods and feature in-depth examinations of individual artists or epochs. The Forum presents three such exhibitions each year, and its exhibitions are single-venue exhibitions, not shared exhibitions. The exhibitions are funded lavishly by the Foundation—it thinks nothing of importing as many as 200 different artworks, from the finest museums throughout the world, for one of its sponsored exhibitions.

For instance, on two occasions over the last three years, The Bucerius Kunst Forum has imported, from the United States alone, over 200 paintings from American’s foremost museums and collections, displaying the paintings in Hamburg as part of special exhibitions covering various genres of American painting, an ongoing, long-term project of the Forum. (Apparently at least one member of the Bucerius family had a great appreciation for American painting, whether it was Dr. Bucerius, his wife, or one or more of their children.)

While we were in Hamburg, The Bucerius Kunst Forum was presenting “Cleopatra And The Caesars”, an exhibition of sculptures from the ancient world and paintings from the 16th to the 19th Centuries, all inspired by Cleopatra. The sculptures were mostly from Rome’s many museums, including the Capitoline and the Vatican, and included one of the most famous of all sculptures from Classical Antiquity, The Esquiline Venus (“Venus Esquilina”), which I had always assumed would never be allowed to leave Rome. The paintings were from museums and collections all over Europe, but—to the best of my recollection—there were no paintings from U.S. collections in the Cleopatra exhibition.

The Bucerius Kunst Forum utilizes the first two floors of the old Reichsbank building for its exhibitions, and the main floor—the old “Cash Exchange Room” of the Hamburg Reichsbank, occupying an entire floor of the building and looking like a series of stock-exchange trading posts—is a marvelous space in which to display art.

“Cleopatra And The Caesars” was the work of Bernard Andreae, the noted Austrian art historian and antiquities expert.

We spent over four hours at "Cleopatra And the Caesars" . We were utterly fascinated by the exhibition, and this was so even though much of the art was not very good (vast quantities of paintings were 19th-Century academic paintings from Britain, France and Germany, and very few were of first quality). We loved the exhibition spaces, we loved the imaginative and first-class arrangements of the artworks, and we loved the detailed analyses provided by the audio guide (the most scholarly audio guide any of us had ever encountered).

From our visit to The Bucerius Kunst Forum, we had reason to believe that “Cleopatra And The Caesars” must have been a very popular exhibition with Hamburgers. We visited the exhibition on a Monday and, even on a Monday, we had to wait in line for half an hour before being admitted to the exhibition. When we departed, the line was four times as long as when we had arrived.

The Bucerius Kunst Forum had an excellent café. We ate lunch at the cafe after our exhibition visit, and we had a delightful—even memorable—meal. It was of top-restaurant quality, and featured numerous homemade soups taken from old Hamburg recipes, as well as excellent entrees, also derived from old Hamburg cookbooks. It was one of the best meals we had in Hamburg.

Hamburg Borse

Hamburg’s Borse, one of the most beautiful buildings in Hamburg, was built in the middle of the 19th Century, planned and erected after the previous Borse was destroyed in The Great Fire Of 1842. The Borse is Hamburg’s finest architectural example of Late Classicism.

The photo below shows Hamburg’s Borse as it appeared in 1900, before buildings were erected on the opposite side of the street, buildings that today make it impossible to obtain a prime view of the Borse’s front façade.

Sharing a rear courtyard with Hamburg’s Rathaus, the Hamburg Borse is presently home to Hamburg’s Chamber Of Commerce. The Hamburg Stock Exchange no longer occupies the structure, having moved to modern quarters outside the city center several years ago.

There has been a stock exchange in Hamburg since 1558, making The Hamburg Stock Exchange Germany’s oldest. Until World War II, The Hamburg Stock Exchange was Germany’s largest and most important stock exchange. The post-war emergence of Frankfurt as Germany’s financial center resulted in The Hamburg Stock Exchange losing its centuries-long status as Central Europe’s most prestigious stock exchange.

The interiors of Hamburg’s Borse are very impressive. The primary decorative feature is the use of arcades throughout the building, as may be seen in this photo of one of the central staircases.

Trading used to occur in two beautiful, multi-story halls, halls that look more suitable for grand entertaining than for business transactions. Indeed, today the halls are used exclusively for prominent social functions, offering some of the most elegant venues in the city to Hamburg’s elite.

The Hamburg Borse is not open to the public, but Borse security personnel allowed us to explore the interiors anyway. We asked, very nicely, to view the interiors, and security personnel issued us visitor passes. One of the guards winked and said to me, “We’ll just pretend you are here to inquire about employment”, and he gave passes to my mother, my brother, and Josh and me. We must not have looked dangerous, because security personnel did not even require us to proceed through the metal detectors.

Between the rear of the Rathaus and the rear of the Borse is the Rathaus Central Courtyard (“Innenhof Des Rathauses”), wherein is Hamburg’s Hygieia Fountain (“Hygieia-Brunnen”), a fountain with a statue of Hygieia, Goddess Of Health, surrounded by bronze figures circling the base of the fountain.

The Goddess Of Health was chosen for tribute because a terrible cholera epidemic struck Hamburg in 1892. The epidemic killed almost 10,000 persons before it was conquered by the modernization of public water supplies.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Balanchine Weekend

I am very glad we went to New York for the weekend. Joshua and I had a great time, an even better time than we had expected.

Our hotel contributed significantly to the beauty of our weekend. We stayed near the United Nations, a very quiet and very safe area, and our hotel was of a very high standard. It even had a sizable swimming pool, on the 27th floor, and an indoor tennis court, on the 39th floor.

Our room was on the 30th floor and featured floor-to-ceiling windows, offering stunning views of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. We loved it.

We also loved the fact that our hotel was stunningly inexpensive. Josh and I shall have to make a point of staying there again before New York hotel rates return to stratospheric norms.

We didn’t have much time to enjoy the magnificence of the views once we checked in on Friday afternoon because we had tickets that night to New York City Ballet.

We walked all the way from our hotel over and up to Lincoln Center. On the way, we stopped at my favorite New York deli and picked up a corned beef sandwich, which was gargantuan and which we shared as we walked the rest of the way to the theater.

The reason we wanted to attend Friday evening’s performance of New York City Ballet was to see “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet”, one of George Balanchine’s very greatest ballets. It is danced to Schoenberg’s marvelously-inventive orchestration of Brahms’s Piano Quartet In G Minor, Opus 25, one of my favorite compositions.

Josh already knew the music, because we had listened to the work on disc a couple of years ago (we had listened to the dazzling Baltimore/Comissiona recording, the finest of all recorded versions of the work). However, until Friday night, Josh had never seen Balanchine’s ballet to Schoenberg’s score—but he had heard all about it from me, since “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” is my favorite Balanchine ballet.

Josh never appreciated Balanchine until February of last year, when he saw “Serenade” for the first time, but since that evening he has become interested in Balanchine. Josh was totally captivated by last year’s “Serenade”—and who cannot be captivated by “Serenade”?—and he did not object to the rest of last year’s program, either (“Mozartiana” and “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2” had also been on the bill that evening). After seeing “Serenade”, Josh has always been eager to explore more Balanchine.

Josh liked “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” very much. It is one of Balanchine’s largest-scaled and most complex works, with an amazing variety of mood and expression displayed throughout the work. At its conclusion, Balanchine practically blows the lid off the roof with a sizzling Hungarian finale.

Robert Craft has claimed credit for introducing Balanchine to Schoenberg’s arrangement of the Brahms, and Craft very well may be telling the truth. Craft conducted the work with several orchestras during the mid-1960’s, the period during which Craft was a frequent guest conductor of major American ensembles, and he even recorded the piece with the Chicago Symphony in 1964, two years before Balanchine’s “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” received its premiere.

“Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” was the first abstract ballet Balanchine created for The New York State Theater, his and New York City Ballet’s new home at Lincoln Center and the only theater, anywhere, designed specifically to meet the needs of classical ballet. Consequently, “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” was the first abstract ballet to take advantage of the full resources of the new theater, including the giant stage and extended wing space, both on a much larger scale than City Center, the former home of New York City Ballet.

“Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” is on the grandest possible scale, spreading its large ensemble throughout the entire breadth and depth of The New York State Theater stage. The ballet is masterly in its use and definition of stage space.

The ballet has one of the greatest of all Balanchine “Allegro Movements” and one of the greatest of all Balanchine “Adagio Movements” (to borrow terminology from Arlene Croce, terminology neither accurate nor adequate, but terminology everyone instinctively understands). Its finale is one of Balanchine’s finest and most-loved creations.

The ballet has nine principal roles, all of supreme difficulty. It is one of the most difficult of all Balanchine ballets to cast, rehearse and perform, which is why the ballet is so seldom staged by other companies. Indeed, “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” is not presented frequently even by New York City Ballet, as its casting and rehearsal requirements are extremely demanding, taxing the strengths even of the world’s single greatest ballet company.

The first cast of “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” included Melissa Hayden, Suzanne Farrell, Allegra Kent, Patricia McBride and Edward Villella, legendary dancers all. I wish I could have seen the ballet’s first run of performances, even though some persons recall the first run of performances as having been seriously under-rehearsed.

My parents first encountered “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” sometime in the 1970’s, and my parents saw Suzanne Farrell and Patricia McBride dance the roles Balanchine created for them. My parents say that performances of “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” in the 1970’s were unquestionably under-rehearsed.

I am not sure that I would call Friday night’s performance under-rehearsed. The performance was not sheer perfection—some of the ensemble work was sloppy, and some of the dancers assigned principal roles performed the steps quite nicely but did not bring much individuality or color to their roles—but “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” is a notoriously difficult work to bring off, one of those works that is so great that it is almost beyond the capabilities of human beings. A perfect performance of the ballet will never occur.

Myself, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of Friday night’s “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet”. In fact, I could have watched the ballet, happily, three times in a row.

“Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” was placed last on Friday night’s program, consistent with New York City Ballet’s practice of placing a major Balanchine masterpiece at the end of most NYCB programs. It was preceded by a Lynne Taylor-Corbett ballet, “Chiaroscuro”, set to music by Geminiani; “Papillons”, a Peter Martins work set to Schumann’s piano composition of the same name; and “Concerto DSCH”, an Alexei Ratmansky ballet danced to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

It was a very good program, and Josh and I enjoyed the evening immensely.

“Chiaroscuro”, from 1994, is merely a pleasant piece, without any individuality, but I was happy to make its acquaintance. “Papillons”, also from 1994, was pretty feeble, all in all, one of those faceless Peter Martins creations that are instantly forgettable. However, “Papillons” was worthwhile because its performance gave Josh his first opportunity to see Darci Kistler. Even though Kistler is approaching the end of her career and is no longer in her prime, Josh will be able to say, in future years, that he saw, in person, one of the greatest of all Balanchine dancers and one of the last Balanchine dancers trained by the master himself.

“Concerto DSCH” was on another, altogether higher level than “Chiaroscuro” or “Papillons”. It is a fascinating ballet, packed with incident, and I would like to see it again as soon as possible. Despite the surface lightness and gaiety of the score (one of my least favorite Shostakovich compositions), the ballet has serious, even grim, undertones, clearly alluding to the demented Stalin era of the 1930’s. “Concerto DSCH” received its premiere only eight months ago.

Ratmansky may be a great choreographer. In February 2007, Josh and I saw Ratmansky’s “Russian Seasons” at New York City Ballet. “Russian Seasons” was my first exposure to Ratmansky’s work, and my reaction to “Russian Seasons” in 2007 was precisely the same as my reaction to “Concerto DSCH” on Friday night: I wanted instantly to see the ballet again.

I think Josh is starting to fall in love with New York City Ballet. This was our third visit to The New York State Theater to see the company, and Josh says that each visit gets better. He’s already looking forward to next month, when we will attend another New York City Ballet performance over the February holiday weekend.

Josh contends that some of the New York City Ballet dancers have names that HAVE to be stage names. Josh was particularly taken with the names Sebastien Marcovici, Giovanni Villalobos, Max Van Der Sterre and Adrian Danchig-Waring, all of which, Josh insists, are made-up names. Josh says that none of those dancers could possibly have been christened with such names at birth, and that they are stage names, probably created because the real names of the dancers are too unremarkable. Josh says that the dancers in question must have real names along the lines of Bob Smith, Joe Brown, Bill Johnson and Mike Jones, names too blandly American to suggest the excitement and glamour of the stage.

After the performance, we took a cab back to our hotel.

We decided to eat dinner in our room. We checked out the hotel’s main restaurant, but we did not like its décor, a little too bold and a little too modernist and a little too garish for our tastes. We also did not like the fact that the main restaurant’s dining tables were too close together.

We also checked out the hotel’s informal restaurant, but we did not like the informal restaurant, either. It appeared to be little more than a bar and grill, designed to accommodate persons who want some light food to accompany their first priority, drinking.

Once we found out that room service for dinner would be available until midnight, we decided that the view from our room would be the perfect backdrop for a late dinner, and we went upstairs and ordered a full dinner from room service.

Our decision was the right one. The night views from our room were spectacular, and we could eat and talk in peace, without having to listen to other diners and without being interrupted by servers. It was a lovely dinner in a lovely setting.

We did the same thing Saturday morning. The view from our room was so stunning that we elected to eat breakfast in our room rather than in the dining room.

We did not want to have to bother to leave the hotel for breakfast, because our plan for Saturday morning was to make use of the hotel pool. It is not often that one can swim on the 27th floor of a building while looking out over Manhattan on all sides, and we wanted to take advantage of the luxury.

It is good that we went ahead with our Saturday morning plan. As soon as we arrived on the 27th floor, we observed a notice, informing hotel guests that the pool would be closed for two weeks of maintenance, beginning on Sunday. Because Saturday was our only chance to use the pool, we took full advantage of the situation. We spent the entire morning in and around the pool.

We left the hotel shortly after 12:00 Noon and walked over to the theater district, because we had matinee tickets for “Equus” at the Broadhurst Theatre. Josh and I had last seen a production at the Broadhurst in May 2006, when we had attended a performance of “The History Boys” at the Broadhurst Theatre. From the program booklet, we learned that the musical, “Cabaret”, which we had seen the previous weekend in Boston, had had its original Broadway run at the Broadhurst.

“Equus”, presenting the story of a deeply-troubled boy and the well-meaning but unfulfilled psychiatrist who attempts to help him, is a very interesting play. It holds the stage, and “plays” very well.

However, if one closely analyzes the text, “Equus” ultimately lacks depth. It is, primarily, a play about homosexuality, and the play deals with the issue with a veiled and gloved delicacy.

The play is probably best enjoyed as a mystery, with the audience following along on the heels of the psychiatrist as he attempts to get to the bottom of what troubles this disturbed boy, who has recently blinded six horses.

During the course of the play, the audience learns more about the psychiatrist than it does about the boy, which is, of course, the playwright’s intent. The fundamental question, never resolved, is whether the psychiatrist’s ultra-rational, well-ordered life is superior to the boy’s life of passion, unbridled emotion and misshapen spirituality.

Some of the writing is quite good—and some of the writing is not. The roles of the boy’s parents, for instance, are very poorly-written. Both are clichéd figures; their lines derive from placards. The role of the magistrate, who assigns the psychiatrist the boy’s case, is also poorly-written; her lines—sheer “Stiff Upper Lip, Let’s Get Through The Blitz” nonsense—are straight from old World War II movies.

If the performance had been strong, I suspect that none of this would have mattered. However, the performance in the current Broadway production was not strong enough to make the audience forget about the weaknesses in the script.

For starters, it was a mistake to cast Richard Griffiths in the role of the psychiatrist. Griffiths is a character actor, not a leading man, and the role of the psychiatrist calls out for an actor larger-than-life. Among current stage actors, this is a role for a Ralph Fiennes or a Derek Jacobi or a Liam Neeson, each of whom might be riveting in the part.

Griffiths, on the other hand, has nothing to bring to the part other than his vast bulk, a fleshy and unpleasant face, and a tendency to underplay everything to an acute degree.

I certainly prefer understatement to overstatement, but Griffiths carried understatement to an extreme, practically getting lost in the part. He might have disappeared onstage completely were it not for his excessive size and his labored breathing, neither of which could be ignored. (I very well might be wrong, but Griffiths appears to have gained another fifty pounds since “The History Boys”.)

Daniel Radcliffe is not bad as the boy, but everything he offers is well-schooled and on the surface. He nowise suggested the fright and fear—and danger—that lurk beneath his character’s exterior.

The supporting cast members appeared to have needed directorial guidance to bring their parts to life, and they appeared not to have received it. The supporting actors were obviously highly-skilled, but their performances were stuck on a summer-stock level, which must have been as frustrating for them as it was for the audience.

I fault the director for these shortcomings. I have seen this director’s work a few times in London, and I have always departed the theater very unimpressed.

The current Broadway production of “Equus” originated in London and was based upon the original production of “Equus” (introduced to London audiences in 1973 and New York audiences in 1974).

The original “Equus” production was one of the most celebrated pieces of work by its director, the late John Dexter. In fact, Dexter may have been more responsible for the work’s initial success than the playwright, because it was Dexter, and not playwright Peter Shaffer, who was solely responsible for the original staging, the stage directions of which were not included when the script was first presented to Dexter.

It was Dexter who chose to stage the original production on a black and virtually blank stage, it was Dexter who decided that stage lighting was to be the sole visual component of the original production, it was Dexter who decided that the blinding of the horses needed to be enacted onstage, and it was Dexter who determined that the horses needed to be portrayed onstage—but by actors, and actors wearing elaborate face masks.

All of these conventions have been observed in the current Broadway production, and I believe that observance of these conventions has been a mistake. I think “Equus” deserves a totally new look and would benefit from a completely fresh approach. The current production practically reeks of something old and borrowed. The material needs to be re-imagined, and it cannot be re-imagined when tied so closely to the constraints of the original production, no matter how striking the original production may have been.

I believe it is time for “Equus” to be staged on a brilliantly-lit stage, a stage with some color and sunlight (much of the action, after all, takes place outdoors). I believe it is time to dispense with the reenactment of the blinding of the horses—indeed, I believe it is time to dispense with the horses altogether.

In short, a recycled Dexter production does no one any good. It does not serve the playwright, it does not serve the original director, it does not serve the present-day director, it does not serve the cast members, and it does not serve the audience. Whoever decided that a remounting of the Dexter production of “Equus” was in order has made a grievous strategic and artistic error (and the current New York production has proven to be a grievous financial error, as well).

After “Equus”, Josh and I took the subway down to Little Italy in order to have dinner at an Italian restaurant. Josh had never visited Little Italy before, so we spent an hour walking around this small area before we selected a restaurant.

After dinner, we took the subway up to Lincoln Center, because we had tickets for Saturday night’s New York Philharmonic concert. It was Josh’s first visit to Avery Fisher Hall.

The concert was a good one because the program was a good one. The concert began with Haydn’s Symphony No. 89, very seldom played, and the first half of the concert continued with four arias from Haydn operas, operas which are never staged in the U.S. (and very seldom staged in Europe, either). After intermission, the orchestra played Brahms’s Serenade No. 1.

We enjoyed the concert. It provided us with an opportunity to hear some rare Haydn, it provided us with an opportunity to hear baritone Thomas Quasthoff, it provided us with an opportunity to hear Brahms’s sunniest composition for orchestra, and it provided us with an opportunity to see and hear Riccardo Muti in action. We could not have asked for anything more.

The New York Philharmonic does not have a beautiful sound. The orchestra’s sound is generic, and sometimes strident. Further, the orchestra does not always play together. Like the Vienna Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic seems to play together only when it wants to—and, happily, the orchestra seemed to want to play together for Muti.

Muti’s Haydn wasn’t bad. It was suitably objective, if not genuinely stylish, and the orchestra’s playing was mostly clean. However, one does not look to the New York Philharmonic or to Muti for the last word in Haydn performance.

The same holds true for the music of Brahms. The New York Philharmonic is not a Brahms orchestra—if for no other reason than it lacks the beauty and depth of sound the music of Brahms demands—and Muti is not a Brahms conductor.

Muti’s Brahms is not natural. Everything in a Muti Brahms performance is always ever-so-slightly off-kilter, from the sound to the phrasing to the tempo selection.

A few years ago, I heard Muti and his old La Scala orchestra perform this same Brahms piece in Paris, and the Paris performance sounded exactly like his reading with the New York Philharmonic: unidiomatic, emotionally chilly, a touch clumsy, and entirely unconvincing. Both performances were fully professional, even admirable in their own ways, and yet everything about both performances was completely wrong-headed. Hearing Muti conduct Brahms is like hearing a native Russian speaker offer, in English, a purely phonetic reading of “The Wasteland”. Moments of fascination mingle with moments of irritation, disgust, and horror.

After the New York Philharmonic concert, we took a cab back to our hotel. Rightly or wrongly, I am reluctant to ride the New York subway at night.

We ate breakfast in our room again Sunday morning, because we wanted to spend one last hour simply taking in the glorious views.

After breakfast, we cleaned up, put our stuff in the car, checked out of our hotel and started a long walk.

Our destination was The Frick Collection. We arrived as the Collection was opening for the day, and we spent three hours ambling through the rooms. Like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which we had visited the previous weekend, The Frick Collection displays its artwork irrespective of nationality, school or period.

Of course, the quality of artwork at The Frick is much higher than at the Gardner Museum—Mrs. Gardner had often complained that other art buyers, especially Henry Clay Frick, were outbidding her in the art markets of the time—and we enjoyed making a leisurely visit through its rooms.

We departed at 2:00 p.m., because we had tickets for the 3:00 p.m. matinee at City Center, where Miami City Ballet was presenting a guest engagement.

The program was all-Balanchine, which for us was the attraction.

“Square Dance”, “Rubies” and “Symphony In C” were on the program, key Balanchine masterpieces all, and none of which Josh had seen.

Oddly, Josh and I had attended a performance by Miami City Ballet once before. In November 2006, Miami City Ballet had visited Minneapolis and had presented the full-length Minkus/Petipa “Don Quixote”, which Josh and I had hated.

Miami City Ballet, however, is a Balanchine company, and not a company for 19th-Century classics, and I have never held against the company that awful “Don Quixote” from 2006.

Miami City Ballet is a major company. Its roster of full-time dancers numbers 46, which makes it slightly larger than Boston Ballet (with a current roster of 42 dancers).

Miami City Ballet dances more Balanchine than any other company in the world other than New York City Ballet—and it shows. The Miami dancers are masters of the Balanchine idiom, credit for which must go to the company’s director, Edward Villella, the greatest male Balanchine dancer of his generation.

Not only did Villella dance in the first performances of “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet”, he also danced in the first performances of “Rubies”, a ballet created especially for Villella and Patricia McBride (and which Josh and I will see again in a few weeks, because Boston Ballet will soon mount the complete “Jewels”, of which “Rubies” is the middle episode).

Miami City Ballet may be America’s finest dance company outside New York. I was astonished how fine was the dancing on Sunday afternoon. It was unfailingly crisp, confident, polished, and virtuosic. The dancers had all the speed and control Balanchine requires. They almost reveled in their enjoyment of the difficult steps—their enthusiasm positively bounded across the footlights. This is a much finer company than the other two regional ballet companies Josh and I have seen in the last three months, San Francisco Ballet and Boston Ballet.

Alas, the company may not be around much longer. The company is under financial duress. It is almost out of money, having depleted its reserves and emergency fund, and may have to cease operations very, very soon. The company’s demise would be a great loss to American ballet.

The financial distress was on display during the New York engagement, because the company performed without an orchestra, which shocked us greatly. Apparently it was the company itself that had to bear the cost of the orchestra for its New York appearances, and not City Center, and the company did not have the money to engage an orchestra for six very important New York performances (Miami City Ballet was making its New York debut with these performances).

I am surprised—and disappointed—that City Center itself did not kick in the relatively modest sums of money required to engage a pickup orchestra so that the dancers could have performed to live music. The dancers must have been heartbroken that they had to perform to taped music in what surely was the most important and exciting engagement of their professional lives.

In adverse economic times, ballet companies are generally the first to fold. This is so because ballet companies are very expensive to maintain, as a full-time roster of dancers must be kept on the permanent payroll even though performances may be infrequent and relatively few in number.

Unlike professional orchestras, ballet companies cannot be expected to offer weekly performances—and they certainly cannot be expected to offer weekly performances offering a new program each week. Even giant ballet companies like New York City Ballet, with over 100 dancers under contract, perform only a few weeks each year. Ballet companies are in rehearsal most of the year, out of sight and out of mind. They are like icebergs: only a small portion of their critical mass is visible.

I certainly hope Miami City Ballet survives. However, I am not confident about the company’s prospects. Given the sad histories of so many performing arts institutions in South Florida that have come and gone over the years, Miami City Ballet may not be able to surmount the current economic climate. For whatever reason, Miami’s giant metropolitan area does not have a long and distinguished tradition of generous private support for the performing arts.

The Miami City Ballet closed Sunday’s performance with a spectacular performance of “Symphony In C”, canned music and all. It was a performance worthy of New York City Ballet. The company lighted up the theater, and the New York audience was ecstatic.

How ironic it would be if Edward Villella, having made it back to New York, with his own Balanchine company in tow, dancing in peak form, appearing—and triumphing—in the very theater in which Villella himself first made his reputation as a Balanchine dancer, were now to see his company fold.

After Sunday’s ballet performance, Josh and I walked back to our hotel, retrieved the car, and drove straight back to Boston.

We did not eat until we got home, and we were hungry, because we had had nothing to eat since breakfast.

However, we did not have to do much to have a decent meal. On Thursday night, Josh and I had prepared our Sunday night dinner in advance: an Amish pot roast, Amish potatoes and an Amish vegetable casserole (made with fresh green beans, fresh white corn, sweet onion and stewed tomatoes). We simply put those in the oven to warm and, in thirty minutes, we were ready to sit down to a good dinner.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Taking Advantage

Joshua has been on break since his exam period ended a week ago yesterday. Josh’s classes start up again on Monday.

Josh and I have been trying to take advantage of his break by doing a few interesting things.

Last weekend, my brother visited us from late Friday afternoon until very early Wednesday morning. We enjoyed his visit very much, and he enjoyed his long weekend in Boston very much. Josh and I took him to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the USS Constitution, the New England Aquarium and the Peabody Essex Museum of Salem. We also took him to the theater three times. All of our excursions were as new for Josh and me as they were for my brother. We had a great time.

Josh wrote about last weekend, in detail, on his blog.

Early tomorrow afternoon, Josh and I will drive down to New York for the weekend. We elected to make the New York trip once we learned how extraordinarily inexpensive truly excellent New York hotels have recently become on weekends. We decided we should take advantage of the situation while we may, and we booked two nights at a hotel we normally would not even contemplate visiting because of the outrageous cost, and we booked at rates two-thirds below what they were one year ago.

The hospitality industry must be hurting, and hurting badly.

Our weekend will be built around George Balanchine. We will see Balanchine danced by New York City Ballet, and we will see Balanchine danced by Miami City Ballet. We will also hear the New York Philharmonic under Muti and attend a performance of “Equus” as it nears the end of its Broadway run.

Broadway, too, must be hurting in the current economic climate. A raft of long-running shows has closed since Christmas.

“Equus” may provide a prototypical example of declining ticket sales on Broadway at present. From what I have read, box-office receipts for “Equus” have declined, weekly, from the very beginning of the run, despite strong advance sales, good notices, a good cast and the presence of a popular film actor making his American stage debut. “Equus”, in only a very limited engagement, was expected to sell out its run, or come very close to doing so. By the third week of the engagement, “Equus” sales had declined from 100% capacity to 78% capacity, at which point the deterioration REALLY set in, coincident with the deterioration in the financial markets. Current figures for “Equus”: the show is selling at 50% capacity.

For many, things are going to get worse before they get better—and not just on Broadway.

Josh took advantage of his time off this week to read “Equus”. Once done with “Equus”, he embarked on “David Copperfield”, which he is enjoying enormously.

I have always believed that “David Copperfield” was Dickens’s richest novel, and Josh is forming that same opinion.

"This Will End In Tears"

This will end in tears. The hysteria is not merely embarrassing to witness, it is itself contributory to the scale of the disaster that is coming. What we are experiencing, in the deepening days of a global depression, is the desperate suspension of disbelief.

It is frightening to think there is a real possibility that the entire world economy could go into complete meltdown and famine kill millions. Yet Western—and British—commentators are cocooned in a warm comfort zone of infatuation with America's answer to Neil Kinnock.

It is questionable whether the present political system can survive the coming crisis. Whatever the solution, teenage swooning sentimentality over a celebrity cult has no part in it. The most powerful nation on earth is confronting its worst economic crisis under the leadership of its most extreme Leftist politician, who has virtually no experience of federal politics. That is not an opportunity but a catastrophe.

These are frank, even ungracious, words: they have the one merit that, unlike almost everything else written today about [the new American leader], they will not require to be eaten in the future.

London Telegraph
20 January 2009

"The Worst Are Full Of Passionate Intensity"

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
The Second Coming (1919)

The Second Coming Of "The Jeffersons"

Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration, on January 20, 1981, a Tuesday, attracted a Nielsen rating of 37.4, still the record Nielsen rating for a presidential inauguration.

This week’s inauguration, also on a Tuesday, attracted a Nielsen rating of 25.5.

Tuesday’s Nielsen rating not only was starkly lower than the Nielsen rating for Reagan’s first inauguration, it was also dramatically lower than the Nielsen ratings for either of Richard Nixon’s inaugurations.

Tuesday’s Nielsen rating of 25.5 was precisely in line with the figure for Clinton’s first inauguration, when Nielsen recorded a rating of 24.5.

The raw numbers are more telling still.

Despite the fact that our nation’s population has more than doubled over the last 28 years, Reagan’s 1981 inauguration, in absolute numbers, attracted more viewers than Tuesday’s inauguration.

This is extraordinary.

Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inauguration attracted more than 41,800,000 viewers. Tuesday’s inauguration—in a nation with more than twice the population—attracted just under 37,800,000 viewers, four million fewer viewers than twenty-eight years ago.

There is a lesson here.

Despite the news media’s abiding love for this new comedy series, Nielsen surveys suggest that the public does not share the news media’s fascination with the new program and that the reborn “The Jeffersons” will not have a long or successful run.

Of course, the series wasn't any good the first time around, either. . .

Friday, January 16, 2009


Since we returned from the holidays, Joshua and I have been listening to four discs on the odd occasion, discs specifically selected—by me—to get Josh through his exam period.

There was a rationale for each one of my selections, but I am not confident that I chose well. The Vivaldi was selected because of its objectivity. The Beethoven was selected for its nobility but also for its lack of extreme passion and intensity—for Beethoven, at least. The Brahms was selected for its grave, dignified beauty. The Lehar was selected for its beguiling tunes and bittersweet charm.

The listening program was not a great one, but at least I do not think I caused Josh any damage!

The four discs appear below.

Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, performed by Simon Standage and The English Concert under Trevor Pinnock, on the Vanguard label

Beethoven’s “Leonore Prohaska” and Overture And Complete Incidental Music To “The Consecration Of The House”, performed by Sylvia McNair, Bryn Terfel, Karoline Eichhorn, Bruno Ganz, the Berlin Radio Chorus and the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado, on the Deutsche Grammophon label

Brahms’s Clarinet Trio and Clarinet Quintet, performed by Jozsef Balogh, Jeno Jando, Csaba Onczay and the Danubius Quartet, on the Naxos label

Lehar’s operetta, “The Land Of Smiles”, performed by Nancy Gustafson, Naomi Itami, Jerry Hadley, Lynton Atkinson, the London Voices and the English Chamber Orchestra under Richard Bonynge, on the Telarc label

This particular recording of The Four Seasons was the earlier of two recordings made by these same forces. Originally recorded by CRD in 1976, it was issued in the United States on the Vanguard label and lasted in the active domestic catalog for several years. I believe the recording remains in print only in Great Britain, now packaged with other Vivaldi material as part of a multi-disc set on the CRD label.

Standage, The English Concert and Pinnock re-recorded The Four Seasons in 1982 for the Archiv label, a recording still in print in the U.S. and the U.K. The latter recording has been one of Archiv’s biggest commercial successes over the last quarter century.

The 1976 performance is very good. Tempos are brisk, the playing is clean, the musicians bring lots of freshness and lots of energy to the material, and Standage’s fiddling is almost dazzling.

Nonetheless, Standage lacks the very last ounce of virtuosity, which must be taken for granted in The Four Seasons if the music is to offer the highest degree of pleasure. Further, his tone is not particularly sweet, and it offers too little color and too little light and shade in the middle movements of each concerto. There is nothing Italianate about his performance, and little understanding of arioso.

In essence, these performances are clean, tidy and correct—and very, very English, too tied to the notes on the printed page. They lack deep imagination, deep musicality and the necessary Latin sense of pleasure and song.

This recording has been superseded by more recent original-instrument recordings, including several by the newest generation of original-instrument ensembles from Italy.

Nonetheless, this disc gave Josh and me much pleasure. Vivaldi’s tunes are sprightly and infectious, and this music has great freshness if listened to only at rare intervals.

The Beethoven recording contains two sets of incidental music written for long-forgotten plays.

“Leonore Prohaska” was written in 1815 for a play of the same title. Beethoven wrote only four numbers of incidental music for the play: an unaccompanied Men’s Chorus; a Romance for soprano and harp; a Melodrama for female reciter and flute (the instrument was originally the glass harmonica); and a Funeral March for full orchestra, adapted from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 12.

“Leonore Prohaska” is very seldom performed today, largely because of the demands it places upon programming. Engaging a men’s chorus, a soprano, a reciter and a full orchestra for a fifteen-minute composition is very expensive, and not often practical (especially since the orchestra itself is only called upon to play for some four-to-five minutes).

It is a beautiful composition, ideally suited for disc, and the Abbado performance is very fine. I do not like Sylvia McNair—her voice has the breathiness of a pop singer—but she did not spoil my enjoyment of the music. This brief score should be much better-known.

Beethoven’s music for “The Consecration Of The House”, from 1822, is an entirely different matter, a work on a grand scale, encompassing a wide range of emotion, with much of the drama associated with Beethoven’s greatest absolute music. The score is comprised of the popular Overture and ten additional numbers, some quite extended; and calls for soprano, baritone, male reciter, full chorus and full orchestra. In the Abbado recording, the performance lasts 51 minutes.

Beethoven adapted much of his “Consecration Of The House” score from incidental music he had composed a decade earlier for “The Ruins Of Athens”. In fact, both play and score for “The Consecration Of The House” were revisions of that earlier work, substantially altered and retitled for its Vienna premier.

I think this is a major score, and I am surprised it is not more widely-known. As a stand-alone composition, it succeeds, and succeeds fully—even the final number, for baritone, chorus and orchestra, provides a fitting culmination for the work.

Aside from its famous Overture, “The Consecration Of The House” is very seldom programmed and, once again, this may be due to the expense of hiring two vocalists, a reciter, and full chorus and orchestra for a little-known work. Despite the expense, enterprising orchestras should substitute this work, on occasion, for one of their many performances of Beethoven symphonies. It would be an assured success with audiences.

The Abbado performance, to my ears, is faultless. The Berlin Philharmonic plays beautifully, projecting a noble, dark, translucent, even glamorous sound, ideal for Beethoven. The chorus is good, and so is Terfel. Bruno Ganz handles the recitation duties in “Consecration”, adding a touch of star quality to the proceedings, and McNair’s contributions are limited to only a few minutes.

This is an excellent disc, and should be far more widely-known. It is Abbado’s finest Beethoven disc with the Berlin Philharmonic, and one of those discs practically all listeners would enjoy if they knew it.

The sound quality is slightly disappointing. Recorded in live performance at the Philharmonie, the sound lacks the presence, richness and definition of a studio recording.

Brahms’s Trio For Piano, Clarinet And Cello and his Clarinet Quintet were both written in 1891, two of four late-Brahms works he wrote for clarinetist Richard Muhlfeld, principal clarinetist of the Meiningen Orchestra. Both works immediately entered the active chamber music repertory, and have been staples of clarinetists and concert presenters ever since.

The Hungarian performances on Naxos are entirely unobjectionable. They are serious, capable, even admirable performances.

However, I did not find the performances to be particularly interesting, let alone engrossing. The performances are more dutiful than deeply-considered, too objective, even indifferent, to display the unique, incomparable genius of late Brahms. These are nothing more than “basic” performances, recorded to fill a catalog gap for a “basic” record label.

I have a great fondness for Viennese operetta. The bittersweet melancholy inherent in the Viennese variety of the genre is primarily what appeals to me, I believe. Many of these works I find to be irresistible.

The stage works of Franz Lehar and Emmerich Kalman (the greatest of all masters of the Viennese stage, and the most exalted rulers of its special musical idiom—although both were Hungarian) have a musical sophistication lacking in the operettas of other Central European composers. The command of harmony, rhythm, dance forms and orchestration demonstrated by Lehar and Kalman, allied to their inexhaustible flow of near-unforgettable melody and their deep understanding of the requirements of the stage, places their theater works in the realm of high art, worthy of comparison to the very greatest works of the lyric stage.

Lehar’s “The Land Of Smiles”, which reached its final form in 1929, is probably not the ideal place to start an exploration of the world of Viennese operetta, but it was Josh’s introduction to the genre via the Telarc recording.

I chose this recording primarily because it was a single-disc version of the opera, and in English.

The Telarc recording contains only 79 minutes of music, and is painfully akin to a highlights disc. The principal numbers are represented, but there are numerous omissions—and not just cut verses and reprises. The classic EMI recording with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf contains more music, but it is not complete, either. Only the CPO recording, with 154 minutes of music, contains the complete score. The CPO recording presents, uncut, all of Lehar’s numbers, including the ballet music, the Chinese marches and processional music, and the extended finales for all three acts.

“The Land Of Smiles” is a charming, even enchanting, score, and is surely one of Lehar’s two or three finest efforts. The music is much more sophisticated than Lehar’s most popular work, “The Merry Widow”, his first great success, but a work crude in its musical construction compared to the many works that would follow one and two decades later.

“The Land Of Smiles”, a mainstay of the operetta repertory in Central Europe, has never been a great success in English-speaking countries, and its lack of popularity is puzzling. Its story is no more ridiculous than the plot of “The Merry Widow” and, like most operettas, it observes the typical conventions of the genre: a romantic lead couple and a subsidiary comedy couple, both concerned with thwarted love of one variety or another while placed in exotic locales and contrived circumstances. “The Land Of Smiles” even contains one of Lehar’s most famous songs, “Dein Ist Mein Ganzes Herz”, whose tune literally everyone in the world recognizes although most may not be able to place it.

The Telarc recording truly does not make a good case for the merits of the work.

First, the recording uses an English translation, and it is a pretty gruesome one.

Second, the numbers are so cut and trimmed that the mangling strips the work of all musical and dramatic development, coherence and richness.

Third, this is hardly an echt-Viennese reading of the score. The musicians—singers, chorus, orchestra, conductor—are all American, Australian or British, and they do not have a drop of Viennese sensibility in their blood. As a result, much of the score sounds like American show music of the 1920’s, lavishly harmonized and orchestrated.

The end result is a pleasant sequence of beguiling tunes, blandly sung and blandly played. It does not amount to much—and it hardly begins to reveal the genius of one of Lehar’s greatest works.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A Tense Time

These have been a tense couple of weeks.

Joshua’s exam period ends in two more days, after which he will have a ten-day break before the second term begins.

I have been very quiet and very supportive during this period, and I have tried to stay out of the way.

Among other things, I have been doing lots of reading, and lots of cooking so that Josh can eat anything he wants, at anytime, day or night.

I have also been playing around on the computer. For instance, over the past couple of days, I have added categories (tags) to some of my old blog posts so that they may be accessed by subject matter. This task, more than anything else, has made me realize how profoundly boring I am!

My brother arrives late Friday afternoon, and Josh and I look forward to his visit very much. We’ll have all day Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday to have some fun with him. Josh and I need some fun, and my brother’s visit is just what the doctor ordered. My brother is very good company, and we will give him a splendid short vacation, sort of a payback for all the help he provided when we set up our apartment. There will be no painting for him to do on this visit!

The following weekend, Josh and I will go away for a couple of days, primarily because we need to get out of Boston.

Neither one of us can stand the place. It depresses us beyond words.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Hamburg Rathaus

Completed in 1897, the vastly-impressive Neo-Renaissance Hamburg Rathaus, dominating the city center, is the prime symbol of Hamburg’s wealth and autonomy. The City Hall is the seat of Hamburg’s Senate, Hamburg’s Parliament and The Municipal Government Of The Free And Hanseatic City Of Hamburg.

The present Rathaus is the sixth erected on the spot. The longest-lasting Rathaus was erected in 1290 and stood for 552 years, finally succumbing to The Great Fire Of 1842. After its destruction, it took the Hamburg government over 40 years to agree on proposed designs for the current Rathaus.

The Rathaus’s elaborate and ornate 111-meter façade is dominated by a huge 112-meter clock tower. The sandstone exterior is decorated with 20 bronze statues of German Emperors, as well as other sculpture and artwork. Construction of the building required eleven years. Due to the weight of the building, 4,000 oak columns were driven into the ground before construction commenced, a necessity to support the massive weight of the building.

The interior contains 647 different rooms of different styles—Renaissance, Baroque, Classical—and many are of the utmost magnificence. The Burgersaal, the Kaisersaal and the Turmsaal are considered to be the most opulent. The fantastic Grosse Festsaal, with its bronze and marble décor, is still used for official celebrations. This grand banquet hall is 46 meters long, 18 meters wide and 15 meters high. The room is illuminated by three chandeliers, each weighing 1500 kilos and each requiring 278 bulbs. Five enormous paintings depicting the history of Hamburg from 800 to 1900 line the walls. Coats of arms from the 62 cities of the ancient Hanseatic League further adorn the walls.

Much of the interior is open to the public via a one-hour guided tour. The sheer opulence of the interior is astonishing.

To most citizens of Hamburg, this large building is the symbolic heart of the city. As a city-state—an independent city and simultaneously one of the 16 Federal States of modern Germany—Hamburg has both a city council and a state government, both of which have their administrative headquarters in the Rathaus. The building dictates political decorum in the city. To this day, the Mayor Of Hamburg never greets visiting VIP’s at the foot of the central staircase, but always awaits them at the very top, whether the visitor is the Chancellor Of Germany or the Queen Of England.

Above the main entrance door is the inscription, in Latin, “May the descendants seek to uphold the freedom won by our forefathers”.

The Rathaus was entirely restored from 1987 to 1997.

My mother, my brother, and Josh and I took an English-language tour of the interior of the Rathaus. It was pretty disappointing, because the tour guide rushed us through the interiors like the place was on fire. We had no time to absorb or enjoy what we were seeing. Our visit was akin to getting a fleeting glimpse of the Sistine Chapel while running the 400-yard dash. Alas, there is no way to explore the Rathaus interiors other than through official guided tours.

The front exterior of the Rathaus lies on Rathausmarkt, which may be seen in this view from the spire of nearby Saint-Petri-Kirche.

The market square, laid out after the 1842 fire, has been the center of the city since the current Rathaus opened. Its inspiration was Piazza San Marco in Venice.

On one side of Rathausmarkt is the Binnenalster, one of the Alster Lakes situated in the very center of Hamburg, on the other side of which are the picturesque Alster Arcades (“Alsterarkaden”). This 1930 postcard shows the Rathaus from the Alster Arcades.

Two gold-plated masts form the centerpiece of the square. There is a modern Heinrich Heine memorial in the square as well as the Ehrenmal, a memorial dedicated to soldiers who lost their lives in World War I. The Ehrenmal, a stele of the greatest simplicity and dignity, is at the very edge of the water.

The rear exterior of the Rathaus is connected, in part, to Hamburg’s Stock Exchange (“Borse”).

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

"Play And Make Good Cheer, For Christmas Comes But Once A Year"

The Christmas holidays were too short this year. Eight days were not enough for us.

It seemed as if our four days in Oklahoma were spent in a revolving door—we left as soon as we arrived, or so it seemed to us.

The household was filled with exactly the same family members as last year: Josh’s family, as well as his aunt and uncle from Dallas. On Christmas Day, we were joined by additional aunts and uncles, which made for a full household.

Josh’s family is doing very well.

Josh’s sister loves college, and she loves Vanderbilt. She likes the campus, she likes her professors, she likes her fellow students. She even likes Vanderbilt’s raised basketball court, which visiting teams detest with a vengeance. She wants to visit Josh and me in Boston soon.

Josh’s brother is doing very well. Now that football season has come to an end, he has more free time on his hands (he decided not to play basketball his senior year, much to his father’s regret). He is using that free time to do some reading until track and field season starts. He chose Southern Methodist University over other schools because he liked the SMU campus, because he liked the SMU environment, and because he likes Dallas. He is thinking about a career as a veterinarian.

Josh’s mother is lost with her only daughter away at school. She says she still does not know how to cope, and that it has been good that her work has kept her so busy the last few months that she has not had time to mope.

Josh’s father is fine, but I worry what he will do next year when his youngest heads off to college, leaving yet another gap in the household. It is very hard for a parent to see the offspring leave home, one by one, leaving an empty household behind.

Josh’s aunts and uncles believe that Josh and I are exceedingly boring, as the following Christmas conversation, repeated over and over, demonstrates.

Question: What do you guys do all day?

Answer: Well, Josh goes to class and I go to work. At night, Josh studies and I read.

Question: Doesn’t that get old?

Answer: Well, we gotta do what we gotta do.

Question: How can you stand it?

Answer: Well, we know it will all be over in three years.

Question: I hear you guys live in a really tiny apartment?

Answer: Yes, it is pretty small.

Question: But I hear you guys put up a Christmas tree?

Answer: Yes, we did, but we barely have room for it.

Question: That’s what I hear. How can you stand it?

Answer: We know it will only be temporary.

Question: How much is your rent?

Answer: Way too much.

Question: It must be awful to have to pay a fortune to live in a place you can’t stand. How do you do it?

Answer: Well, we fixed it up as much as could so we could stand the place. We get by. It will do for three years—it will HAVE to.

Question: Is there anything to do in Boston?

Answer: Yes, quite a bit, but we don’t have much time to do things, and we always have to schedule things around Josh’s study load.

Question: Have you been to a Celtics game?

Answer: No, not yet.

Question: Patriots?

Answer: No, not yet.

Question: Red Sox?

Answer: No, not yet.

Question: Boy, you really HAVEN’T done anything, have you?

Answer: Not really.

Question: But you’ve been to the Boston Pops, I hear?

Answer: Well, we’ve been to the Boston Symphony, which uses many of the same musicians as the Boston Pops.

Question: Who is the conductor?

Answer: James Levine.

Question: Oh, God! The fat guy who used to be on PBS? The one with the big hair and big glasses?

Answer: Yes, that James Levine.

Question: Do you LIKE James Levine?

Answer: No, I do not like James Levine at all.

Question: Me, neither. Then why do you go to the Boston Symphony?

Answer: Well, to hear the music—and we have only gone to hear one James Levine concert. Otherwise, we wait and catch guest conductors we want to hear.

Question: Isn’t there something you can do for fun?

Answer: Well, we get by. And that’s pretty much all we were hoping for. In fact, things are going better than I expected.

Question: How so?

Answer: Well, we’ve got our apartment arranged just the way we like it, and we are happy there now. It is home to us now—at least for three years. It will do. It’s peaceful. It’s quiet. It’s our refuge from school and work. It suits our needs for a brief interval.

Question: I hear you don’t have a television?

Answer: No, we do not.

Question: I could not live without a television. How do you do it?

Answer: For now, it would only be a distraction, and we’re probably better off NOT having a television.

Question: Where do you get your news?

Answer: I read the papers at work, and Josh reads the papers at school. And we can read more papers online at night if we want to.

Question: Well, there’s nothing on television worth watching, so you’re not missing out on anything. However, I could not live without a television. How do you guys do it?

Answer: Well, if we break down and get one, it will be because of sports. That’s the one thing we both miss. However, the danger is that we would spend every Saturday watching games all day, the entire afternoon and into the evening, and that is the very thing we are intent on avoiding.

Question: I couldn’t live without ESPN during the hoops season. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays: I’m parked in front of the tube, for both games, all night. Don't you miss not being able to watch the games?

Answer: That’s precisely the danger for us if we had a television.

Question: Then how can you follow the Sooners?

Answer: We always read the game synopses online.

Question: And they’re having such a great season, too! Still unbeaten, and ranked number four. Will you be able to see the national title game in football?

Answer: No. That arrives during Josh’s exams. Nothing we can do about it.

Question: A shame. Do you think the Sooners will win?

Answer: They’re the underdog, I believe. I hate Florida, but my instinct tells me that Florida will win.

Question: You’re killing me! Don’t say that! Are you serious?

Answer: I hope Stoops manages to pull it off—but his game plans did not work the last couple of bowl games. Like last year.

Question: Wasn’t that awful?

Answer: So I hope Oklahoma wins, but the offenses are even and Florida has a better defense, and I think that favors Florida.

Question: But you will not go watch the game somewhere? Just that one night?

Answer: We can’t. That night is probably the single most important study night for Josh during his entire exam period.

Question: How long is the exam period?

Answer: Ten days.

Question: Sounds awful. It sounds like you guys live priestly existences. How can you stand it?

Answer: We gotta do what we gotta do.

Question: Boring. Boring. Boring. I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes. How do you do it?

Answer: We gotta do what we gotta do.

Our four days in Minnesota were primarily all about the baby. Josh and I were completely captivated by her, and for those four days we were always granted first claim to hold her and rock her and feed her.

I fear that the baby, too, believes that Josh and I are boring. No matter what we talked to her about, she yawned over and over and over. Apparently she found nothing we said to her to be stimulating in the least.

I don’t know when we shall see her again, because I do not think we will be able to go home for Easter this year. We may not be able to see her again until sometime this summer, and that pains me very much. She will be six months old by early summer, and we will have missed out on six very precious months.

It is sad even to think about it.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Hamburg Fischmarkt

Early one Sunday morning, my brother and Josh and I visited Hamburg’s Fish Market (“Fischmarkt”). It is located directly on The River Elbe, about one mile from Landungsbrucken.

A genuine institution in Hamburg, the Fish Market has taken place every Sunday morning since 1703. It is one of Hamburg’s most beloved institutions.

For over 300 years, it has opened every Sunday very, very early—the market opens at 5:00 a.m. in summer months, at 7:00 a.m. in winter months—and has closed very, very early, always shutting its doors at 9:30 a.m. in order to allow everyone at the market to make it to 10:00 a.m. Sunday Service (still the main service time for all Hamburg churches, Protestant and Catholic).

Nowadays, market-goers may purchase much more than just fish at the Fish Market. Wares of virtually every type are on offer. Fruits, vegetables, cheeses, flowers, souvenirs, bric-a-brac, exotic plants and even livestock are among the items sold by the cheery and fairly aggressive stallholders.

The market is, naturally, a great place for a fish breakfast. All-night partygoers and early risers mingle, side by side, to mark the ends of or the beginnings of their respective days. Everyone is in a carefree mood, and the noise level can become deafening.

There is live music in the hall, which adds to the uproar. Live bands perform what passes for jazz in Germany, as well as country and western music (which was very, very popular in Germany in 2006).

The whole affair was just a bit too rambunctious for the three of us, especially on an early Sunday morning. The place was noisy, crowded, and full of drunks, and we did not stay long. We made a complete swing through the building, buying some fish and sausage to eat as we walked. On our round, we took a quick look at the different vendors, and quickly departed.

The Fish Auction Hall, 100 years old, is a handsome Beaux Arts structure. It was fully restored within the last decade.

In summer months, the Fish Market expands into adjoining streets, and becomes a virtual street fair.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Back To The Grind

Joshua is studying, and I am being quiet and boring, making as little noise as possible and, in odd moments of conversation, uttering mostly forgettable pleasantries in order to avoid starting any interesting conversations that will take Josh away from his books.

We took down our Christmas tree today, and otherwise Josh has studied and I have done some serious cooking for the week ahead and taken care of some household tasks.

After his exam period, Josh will have a ten-day break before classes for the second term begin. My brother will take advantage of Josh’s break, as well as the January holiday weekend, by visiting us from Friday night, January 16, through early Wednesday morning, January 21. I am busy trying to come up with interesting things for us to do in Boston during that period, and I am not having great success.

Since Boston College now plays in the ACC conference, I had hoped there might be a Boston College home game during my brother’s visit. There is not—Boston College is on the road that weekend. I checked the Harvard schedule, too, thinking that Harvard might be a viable alternative to Boston College, but Harvard does not play any games that weekend, home or away. I did not bother to check the schedules of Northeastern or Boston University or any of the other colleges in Boston, because I know my brother has no interest in those programs. Further, none of us has the slightest interest in professional sports, so I did not even trouble myself with looking into the schedules of the Celtics or the Bruins.

All afternoon and evening, I have been sending my brother stuff to look at concerning possible things to do that weekend. I think his interest has been piqued by two things thus far: the New England Aquarium; and the Salem Essex Museum. He is also looking through some things I sent him about historic walks through various parts of the city.

My brother is not interested in attending concerts, but he will go to the theater if someone else initiates the outing. Josh and I have not yet been to the theater in Boston, but I sent my brother some information about performances here during the time of his visit by what appear to be professional companies. I think I got back a modicum of interest on his part for “The Year Of Magical Thinking”, “The Corn Is Green” and the musical “Cabaret”, but I also think I got back a polite “no thank you” for Chekhov’s “The Seagull”.

We will be certain to give him an enjoyable weekend, no matter what we come up with for a program, and we will be certain to keep him comfortable and well-fed.

We’ll take very good care of him.

Alter Elbtunnel

Beneath Landungsbrucken is the famous duo tunnel under The River Elbe, one of the great engineering marvels of the early 20th Century.

Built from 1907 to 1911, The Old Elbe Tunnel (”Alter Elbtunnel”) links the Hamburg district of Saint Pauli with the island of Steinwerder on the opposite bank of The River Elbe. After almost a century of use, the tunnel still serves its original purpose.

Each twin tunnel is 426 meters long, 4.70 meters wide, 4.50 meters high and runs just 6 meters below the bottom of the riverbed. Built for automobile traffic, cyclists and pedestrians, the tunnel may only be reached by lift or by staircase.

The main purpose of The Old Elbe Tunnel was to provide Hamburg’s port workers and shipyard workers with better and faster access to their workplaces on the Elbe island of Steinwerder. The River Elbe bridges, which had been put into service in 1889, lay in the East, too far away from the city to be viable alternatives. Hence, the dockworkers had long since had to be ferried to and from their work in an assortment of river barges.

However, the transport capacity of these conventional ferry services was not able to cope with the incessantly-rising passenger traffic between Hamburg and Steinwerder Island. Therefore, in 1902, Hamburg authorities decided to build an underground passage below The River Elbe. The decision was made in favor of a tunnel because its total cost of 11 million marks was far less than the cost of building a high, river-spanning bridge, which would have required an investment of 25 million marks.

The tunnel was constructed by the shield-tunneling method. Construction was done under hydraulic pressure and, like the construction of the towers of Brooklyn Bridge, diver’s disease was a major problem, killing three workers and causing 74 severe and more than 600 light cases among the 4,400 workers. There were, in addition, two other casualties caused by accidents during construction.

After the completion of The Old Elbe Tunnel, an underground rail line, completed in 1912, brought workers from all districts of Hamburg to Landungsbrucken station. From Landungsbrucken, the trek by foot through the tunnel to the Steinwerder work sites was only one kilometer long. The tunnel has its own entrance building near Landungsbrucken station, part of the Landungsbrucken complex of buildings lining The River Elbe.

When The Old Elbe Tunnel opened in 1911, it was a technological sensation. At a depth of 24 meters beneath the surface, two tubes five meters in diameter connected central Hamburg with the docks and shipyards on the South side of The River Elbe. This meant a substantial improvement in commute time for tens of thousands of workers in one of the busiest harbors in the world.

Four huge lifts on either side of the tunnel carry pedestrians and motor vehicles 24 meters to the bottom. The original lifts are still in operation.

On one descent and on both ascents, we took the elevators. However, on our second descent, we took the very narrow and very winding stairwell that hugs the outer wall, which afforded excellent (but rather frightening) views of the elevator system.

The tunnel is decorated with ornaments and tiles of glazed terra cotta. The ceramic ornaments display items related to The River Elbe and other maritime motifs. Most are fish or crabs or mussels or seals, but a few show unusual items like waste and rats.

Due to increasing amounts of traffic, other bridges and tunnels have been built since 1911 to cross The River Elbe, and these more recent avenues of transportation now accommodate most of the cross-river traffic. The Old Elbe Tunnel today serves primarily as a tourist attraction.

From Steinwerder Island, visitors may obtain an unmatched view of Hamburg and the distant reaches of the port.

It was a dark, dreary, cold, rainy, windy day when my mother, my brother, and Josh and I traversed the tunnel and emerged on Steinwerder Island and took in the views of Hamburg across the river. The views were sensational. The dark, almost menacing, Baltic sky contributed mightily to the beauty of the Hamburg skyline, lending a measure of drama to an already-sublime panorama. It was one of the greatest views I have ever experienced. We remained out in the cold and wind and rain for over half an hour, marveling at the vast riverscape and cityscape laid out before our eyes, before we made our return journey back through the tunnel.

On our first walk through the tunnel, we encountered a single cyclist On our second walk through the tunnel, we encountered two persons on foot, one walking in each direction. We encountered no other persons or vehicles on our traversals.

Saturday, January 03, 2009


The impressive Landungsbrucken (“Landing Bridges”), among Hamburg’s most popular picture-postcard motifs, are the most tourist-frequented portions of Hamburg Harbor. The photo below is from a 1930 postcard of Landungsbrucken.

Built from 1906 to 1910, the 420-meter-long Landungsbrucken building features two towers of differing heights, as well as a number of bridge-shaped passageways and copper domes. Several piers lead out to floating pontoons in the middle of The River Elbe. These were once used as mooring points for the steamers that frequented the city, and later by HAPAG liners, but they are now used primarily by sightseeing boats. Large ships now dock elsewhere in Hamburg Harbor.

Hamburg’s famed pier runs parallel to The River Elbe along a 700-meter stretch. It was initially erected in 1839 but has since seen many renovations due to fire and war. Today, restaurants, souvenir shops and kiosks line the pier.

The photo below shows Landungsbrucken from The River Elbe.

The larger tower at Landungsbrucken indicates the water level as well as the time, and its ship’s bell tolls every half hour.

Landungsbrucken and its surroundings were heavily damaged during the war, and rebuilt from 1953 to 1955.

A complete modernization of Landungsbrucken was undertaken in 1999.

Bismarck Denkmal

Joshua is studying for his exams, so I shall make use of the enforced “quiet time” to write about some of the attractions we visited in Hamburg in 2006. Josh and I want to complete writing about our Hamburg experiences while our memories are still fresh.

Hamburg’s largest and highest monument is the Bismarck Denkmal, depicting former Chancellor Of The German Reich, Count Otto Von Bismarck (1815-1898), the force behind the unification of Germany and the man known as the “Iron Chancellor”. The Bismarck Denkmal is the most well-known image of Bismarck in Germany.

At a total height of 111 feet, the monument is located in the Alter Elbpark, a park situated near The River Elbe, and seems to keep a guarding eye over nearby Landungsbrucken and Hamburg Harbor. Due to its location atop the highest hill in the center of Hamburg, erected on a former bastion of ancient city walls, the Bismarck Denkmal is visible from afar within central Hamburg environs.

The stylized statue of Bismarck, leaning on a mighty sword and clad in a Medieval suit of armor, looking to the West, in the direction of the North Sea, was created by sculptor Hugo Lederer and architect Emil Schaudt and erected between 1903 and 1906. The statue was intended to call to mind Roland, the famous warrior of The Middle Ages, and to suggest the German Reich’s protection of Hamburg’s international trade. The figure is approximately 50 feet tall, and rests on a base of similar height.

Two eagles perch at Bismarck’s feet. The plinth features bas-reliefs of various Germanic tribes—athletic male figures, visible on the staircase that forms the base of the statue.

The monument is constructed of 100 massive blocks of granite, imported from the Black Forest, and weighs 625 tons.

The interior of the monument is no longer open. There is a painting gallery inside, with frescoes that can only be called “Prussian”, and sun wheels, and swastikas. Militaristic quotes by Bismarck adorn the walls (“not by speeches and majority resolutions are the large questions of the time decided, but by iron and blood”).

There are also extensive catacombs under the statue. These were expanded in 1939 and 1940—a 95-meter by 37-meter underground room was created, with two entrances—and used as an air raid shelter during the war years, for the use of ship passengers, harbor visitors and nearby residents. The catacombs offered protection for 650 persons.

My brother and Josh and I searched for and located one of the entrances to the air raid shelter. It was situated at the bottom of the hill on which the monuments rests, at the point nearest the Hamburg Harbor, and had been sealed with cement and skillfully concealed through landscaping, trees and shrubbery. Casual passersby would never know the entrance had existed—only a thorough inspection of the base of the hill revealed the shelter entrance.

At the time of its planning, the Bismarck monument was widely welcomed by Hamburg’s middle and upper classes, but fiercely opposed by Hamburg’s working classes, since the latter regarded Bismarck as a symbol of Wilhelmine imperialism. Today no one pays any attention to the Bismarck Denkmal in the least. Contemporary Hamburgers may view the monument as an acute embarrassment. We observed no one other than ourselves ascend the hill to observe the monument up close, even though the view from the hill was a prime spot to look out over Hamburg.

The monument is very much of its time and place. Today’s American visitor must find the monument undeniably imposing, and even quite fascinating, but also somewhat repugnant.

The Bismarck Denkmal reached a peak of popularity in Hamburg during the period of National Socialism, when Bismarck’s instrumental role in unifying Germany in the 19th Century became a rallying point for German nationalism of the 1930’s. The memorial became the site of an annual wreath-laying ("Kranzniederlegung") ceremony during that decade. The photo below reveals the monument during a Kranzniederlegung ceremony.

The statue may soon be closed off from public viewing—it has a 9-centimeter list.

Before we traveled to Hamburg, we researched the city extensively through books and the internet, and came across a particularly amusing description of the Bismarck Denkmal from an American who claims to have lived in Germany for the past twenty years. On this person’s website, alongside a photograph of the Bismarck Denkmal, he wrote that the monument is a memorial to Hamburg’s industrial workers, as personified by an inscription at its base to one Josef Leberer!

We laughed ourselves silly.