Saturday, February 28, 2009

Cleopatra And The Caesars

Aside from numerous sculptures from Classical Antiquity, "Cleopatra And The Caesars" also presented paintings, drawings, coins and objects d'art associated with Cleopatra and created over the course of the last two thousand years.

Michelangelo’s legendary drawing of Cleopatra was on display, as was a 19th-Century recreation of the equally-legendary Portland Vase (which looked exactly like the original at The British Museum).

The penultimate room of the exhibition displayed film posters from movies about Cleopatra. The posters were from all over the world, dating from the early silent-screen era to the Joseph Mankiewicz film from 1963.

The final room had been turned into a screening room in which excerpts from Cleopatra films were shown. Most were silent films from France, Italy, Germany and Russia.

The paintings ranged from the 16th to the 19th centuries, but 19th-Century academic paintings from Britain, France and Germany constituted the bulk of the paintings on display.

As a general rule, I dislike 19th-Century academic painting and, true to form, I disliked the paintings in the "Cleopatra And The Caesars" exhibition. Sizable numbers of the paintings on display were little more than kitsch.

Three of the paintings carried some degree of fame, and had never before been displayed in the same exhibition, let alone the same exhibition room. All three were giant history paintings from an era that had witnessed a renewed fascination with Cleopatra, the result of contemporaneous and exciting excavation finds in Egypt and Italy. These three grand-scale late-19th-Century re-imaginings of Cleopatra were painted by Jean Andre Rixens, Alexandre Cabanel and Hans Makart.

Jean Andre Rixens (1846-1924), a little-known French academic painter, is today remembered solely for his 1874 painting, “The Death Of Cleopatra”. The painting was loaned by Musee Des Augustins in Toulouse. The painting’s measurements are six feet eight inches by nine feet eight inches.

Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889) is far better-known than Rixens, as Cabanel was an influential teacher and one of the most popular artists of his day. His paintings are held (but not necessarily on view) by major museums throughout the world.

“Cleopatra Testing Poisons On Condemned Prisoners” (also known, inaccurately, by the title “Cleopatra Testing Poisons On Her Lovers”) was painted in 1887. It is one of Cabanel’s most celebrated paintings, but it is seldom seen by art lovers, as it is owned by Koninklijk Museum Voor Schoene Kunsten in Antwerp. Its measurements are five feet six inches by nine feet eight inches.

I generally do not object to Cabanel’s work, and I actually enjoyed seeing his Cleopatra painting. It was one of the finest paintings in the exhibition, and revealed fully Cabanel’s excellent draftsmanship and skillful use of color.

Hans Makart (1840-1884) is a major name in Central Europe, but Makart is largely unknown to American art-lovers. An Austrian painter so famous during his lifetime that he became de facto court painter for the Habsburgs, Makart was a great influence on the generation of Austrian artists that followed him, including and especially Gustav Klimt.

Makart was an excellent portrait painter, an interior designer of great renown, and is credited with introducing a striking and original use of color to Central European painting (his primary influence on Klimt). He was also a very learned man, one of the great art history experts of the time.

Makart’s “The Death Of Cleopatra” was painted in 1875. It is owned by Die Museumslandschaft Hessen in Kassel. Its measurements are six feet four inches by eight feet six inches.

Impressive in scale, Makart’s Cleopatra painting is typical of his work in the field of history painting, but it does not display Makart’s talent in the best light. Makart was a major portrait painter—I’ve seen dozens of superb Makart portraits in Vienna—but in his painting of Cleopatra I see nothing but the overstuffed interiors typical of the middle-class Viennese home of 1875. The painting is too closely-tied to the tastes of its audience and too closely-tied to the tastes of its time, and reminds me of the excesses of Pre-Raphaelite painting from Britain, an art movement I have always abhored.

I doubt I shall see any of these paintings again, as they are seldom loaned, as they are held by out-of-the-way museums, and as I do not anticipate spending much time in Toulouse, Antwerp or Kassel in coming decades.

In that sense, a visit to "Cleopatra And The Caesars" was rewarding.

My brother detested the art on display at the "Cleopatra And The Caesars" exhibition, but he found the audio guide totally fascinating (it was the best—and most scholarly—audio guide any of us had ever encountered). Josh did not like the exhibition at all (but at least he liked the excellent lunch in the museum café).

My father took a pass on the exhibition, so the rest of us attended on one of the days my father had business engagements.

My mother, however, was utterly captivated by the exhibition, even though she disliked much of the art on display. She is very knowledgeable about 19th-Century academic art, and she enjoyed the rare opportunity to examine so many notable specimens of the genre gathered in one place. She also enjoyed seeing so many sculptures from antiquity never loaned to U.S. collections. She said that many of the portrait busts—and they were all undamaged—were among the finest to be seen anywhere.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Esquiline Venus

Of the most celebrated statues from Classical Antiquity, the one I least appreciate is The Esquiline Venus (“Venus Esquilina”).

The Esquiline Venus was uncovered during a construction project in 1874 on Rome’s Esquiline Hill (from which the statue, of course, derives its name). The Esquiline Hill had been an imperial park since at least the time of Augustus, and the statue has long been believed to represent the Roman goddess Venus. Since it was uncovered, The Esquiline Venus has belonged to Rome’s Capitoline Museums, where it has been on permanent display for 135 years.

The Esquiline Venus was loaned to The Bucerius Kunst Forum for its "Cleopatra And The Caesars" exhibition, where it was the centerpiece of the many artworks on display. I thought The Esquiline Venus was very unimposing.

The statue, of marble, is not quite life-size. The arms are believed to have been lost when the former imperial park fell into centuries of neglect, a period during which most statues in the park fell from their pedestals.

The Esquiline Venus was created circa 50 A.D. It is one of two surviving marble copies of a bronze original, now lost, from circa 50 B.C. The original bronze sculpture was in the style of and indeed may have been the work of Pasiteles, a master Greek sculptor working in Rome at the time of Julius Caesar. Scholars assert that the original bronze statue must have been a sculpture of surpassing beauty, originality and influence. The other surviving marble copy of the bronze original is on display in the Louvre.

The Paris copy is much finer than Rome’s Esquiline Venus, although only a segment of it survives. It is more elegant and has greater beauty of line than The Esquiline Venus, and is much more elastic, much more natural and much more vivid than its counterpart in Rome.

Of The Esquiline Venus, Kenneth Clark wrote:

Not that the Esquiline girl represents an evolved notion of feminine beauty. She is short and square, with high pelvis and small breasts far apart, a stocky little peasant as might be found still in any Mediterranean village. Her elegant sisters from the metropolis would smile at her thick ankles and thicker waist. But she is solidly desirable, compact, proportionate . . .

I did not find beauty in The Esquiline Venus from any angle. I saw it as a clumsy piece of sculpture, barely capturing whatever Greek genius lay in the original.

The reason The Esquiline Venus was included in the "Cleopatra And The Caesars" exhibition was because the guest curator, Austrian art critic and antiquities expert Bernard Andreae, is of the opinion that The Esquiline Venus is in fact a statue of Cleopatra, and one intended for public display.

Andreae’s claim is not generally accepted among art historians. The evidence for his claim is flimsy and the arguments unconvincing. The exhibition catalog contained an essay setting forth Andreae’s argument in favor of his assertion, as well as a counter-essay by another antiquities expert reaching a contrary conclusion. The Bryn Mawr Classical Review contains a précis of the arguments for those who wish to pursue the matter without purchasing the very expensive exhibition catalog (available only in German). Neither scholar bothered to address one overriding concern: that Cleopatra was intensely hated by the Romans and by the Roman imperial family. A statue of Cleopatra, of all persons, was most unlikely to grace a walkway of an imperial park in Rome.

The Esquiline Venus was accompanied by numerous other sculptures from the period, most of which were portrait busts.

Perhaps the most important of these was a bust of Julius Caesar, circa 25 B.C., on loan from The Vatican Museums. It is believed to be an accurate likeness of Caesar—in fact, the most accurate likeness of all portrait busts of Caesar that have survived.

The bust captures his severity, his aloofness, and his intelligence. His calculating nature is revealed, as is his famed "Julius Caesar sneer".

The bust remains in perfect condition.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Southern Portugal By Chain Gang

My parents have decided to take a guided tour of Southern Portugal.

All winter, they’ve been talking about going somewhere for a short trip—someplace warm—and they found a guided tour that appealed to them, and they booked the trip.

They will leave in late March and return shortly before Easter.

The guided tour they selected is a little unusual—it spends four days and four nights in Estoril, three days and three nights in The Algarve, and one day and one night in Lisbon—but it appealed to them for several reasons.

First, they wanted a short trip, and the length of the guided tour—eight days and eight nights—was exactly what they wanted, although they will spend one extra day and one extra night in Lisbon at the conclusion of the guided tour.

Second, they wanted to take a trip that required no planning and no preparation, and a guided tour relieved them of any planning-and-preparation requirements.

Third, they wanted to go somewhere sunny and warm, and Southern Portugal should be sunny and warm in late March and early April.

Fourth, they wanted a slow-paced vacation, without a lot of moving around, and the guided tour of Southern Portugal is built around two different resort towns, both of great natural beauty and both offering a wide variety of daytime excursions to nearby places of interest.

Fifth, they wanted to go somewhere completely new to them, and Portugal will be uncharted territory for them.

Sixth, since no one could accompany them, they did not want to take a trip that would appeal to anybody else in the family, and I can safely say that the particular guided tour they booked has absolutely no appeal to any of us. My brothers and I are teasing my parents mercilessly about the trip—it is filled with cooking classes, Portuguese language lessons, visits to wineries, a marzipan demonstration, a Portuguese tile demonstration, a fishnet mending demonstration, a visit to a cork factory, an evening of Fado music and such, with everything proceeding precisely according to the tour operator’s daily schedule—and we have taken to calling it “Southern Portugal By Chain Gang”.

To be truthful, I think my parents will have a marvelous time. From Estoril, they will have a chance to explore some of Portugal’s most important sites. The Algarve is supposed to be an area of the most extravagant beauty. They will spend one day in Lisbon being escorted around to all the highlights, and a second day in Lisbon on their own visiting a museum or two. It should be a wonderful trip for them.

There are no nonstop flights between Minneapolis and Lisbon, but my parents will have only one stop on each leg of their journey. Outbound, my parents will fly Continental all the way, Minneapolis to Newark, and Newark to Lisbon. Returning, my parents will fly the Portuguese national carrier from Lisbon to Paris, and Northwest from Paris to Minneapolis. The outbound journey will take eleven hours and fifty-five minutes, but the return journey will take fourteen hours and fifteen minutes. The difference is all in the headwinds, because layover time is exactly the same in both directions: two hours and fifteen minutes.

I suspect they’ll have a most enjoyable visit to Portugal.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Mildred Harnack: Resisting Fantasy

I recently completed reading “Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack And The Red Orchestra”, Shareen Blair Brysac’s book (published in 2000) about Mildred Harnack, the only American woman executed in Germany during World War II.

Harnack was the woman whose life Lillian Hellman “borrowed” for the “Julia” episode in “Pentimento” (although certain details of the story of “Julia” were borrowed from the life of Muriel Gardiner as well).

That the tale of “Julia” was entirely fictional was established before Hellman died, but Hellman was distinctly unmoved at being revealed as a fraud, largely because she was deeply involved at the time in a defamation and slander suit against Mary McCarthy, who had proclaimed, on national television, that every single word Hellman had ever written had been a lie, including the words “and” and “the”. Before the suit could proceed to trial, Hellman died, and the suit was dismissed. (As a matter of law, one cannot slander or defame the dead.)

It was fitting that Hellman, at the end of a long and sordid life, was publicly revealed to be the fraud she was, and that she spent the final four years of her life consumed by McCarthy’s remarks, expending a considerable portion of her waning energies in an unsuccessful attempt at vindication. Such a deplorable figure richly deserved such an unhappy and ungracious end.

Before “Pentimento” was published, the story of Mildred Harnack (1902-1943) was known only to a few. Aside from family members and a small coterie of aging Leftists who had heard details, spurious and otherwise, about Harnack during the 1930’s and 1940‘s, the name Mildred Harnack meant absolutely nothing to American scholars or to the American public.

The publication of “Pentimento” in 1973, and the ensuing revelation that “Julia” was a fraud, spurred renewed interest in the story of Harnack. “Resisting Hitler” was one of the results.

Harnack was a Wisconsin girl, Milwaukee-born and –bred, who in 1926 married Arvid Harnack, a German student studying in the U.S. on a German-American exchange program. When Arvid’s U.S. studies concluded in 1929, he returned to Germany, and Mildred accompanied him to his native land.

For the next fourteen years, Arvid worked in the German Civil Service in Berlin while Mildred picked up odd jobs whenever and wherever she could, mostly in the fields of teaching and translation. Their lives were completely unremarkable—except for the fact that, as a sideline, both Harnacks spied for the Soviet Union.

Arvid had been recruited by the Soviets as an NKVD agent in 1935. Shortly thereafter, Arvid and Mildred became founding members of what the Gestapo called “The Red Orchestra”, a group of Germans working for the overthrow of the German regime. They did so by passing vital military information to the Soviets.

The Harnacks and other members of The Red Orchestra were in personal contact with Soviet agents in Berlin throughout the 1930’s. After the war started, they were in wireless contact with Soviet agents from 1940 through the first half of 1942, when Germany at last figured out how to decode The Red Orchestra’s radio messages.

The Gestapo immediately pounced. Arvid and Mildred were arrested, imprisoned and tried for espionage and treason. Both were found guilty. Arvid was sentenced to death—and shortly thereafter executed—but Mildred was sentenced only to six years’ imprisonment.

When Hitler learned of Mildred’s lenient sentence, he ordered a new trial. At her second trial, Mildred was sentenced to death, and soon thereafter beheaded.

Spies are treated harshly in wartime, and in Germany’s battle-to-the-death against Russia, spies were treated especially harshly.

At the war’s conclusion, the United States conducted an investigation into Germany’s execution of Harnack. The purpose of that investigation was to determine whether German lawyers and judges, or anyone working in Germany’s wartime court system, had committed war crimes in condemning and executing an American citizen. After a brief investigation, the U.S. government closed the case, having concluded that Harnack did indeed engage in espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union and that her conviction and execution for espionage and treason had been fully justified under German law.

Such truisms need to be stated, because “Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack And The Red Orchestra” is a very foolish book about a very foolish woman. It attempts, unsuccessfully, to turn Harnack into some sort of intellectual humanist heroine, working on behalf of all humanity in pursuit of a noble cause before she was senselessly and viciously silenced.

The hagiographic treatment of Harnack in “Resisting Hitler” is precisely the kind of nonsense one might expect from a family memoir, but not in a serious publication.

In life, Harnack was a very limited woman. Of average looks, intelligence and industry, with no gift for friendship and no gift for emotional generosity, Harnack was a dour, unfeeling and unsubtle Wisconsin hausfrau, prone to rigidity in her habits and thoughts, without remarkable or redeeming qualities. Indeed, even Harnack’s sisters thought she lacked a well-rounded, integrated personality, and cared only about herself.

In “Resisting Hitler”, the effort is made to transform Harnack into some kind of heroine for the ages. The effort is absurd.

In the book, Harnack is portrayed as a great, striking beauty—but in life, she was anything but, as the many accompanying photographs in the book reveal. The photographs show Harnack to be the plainest of Plain Janes, with the face and bearing of a scullery maid, straight out of central casting.

In the book, Harnack is presented as a fearsome intellectual, fully capable of translating towering masterpieces, from English into German and from German into English, at the most exalted levels—but in reality, Harnack translated only two English-language books into German (the insufferably lowbrow “Lust For Life” and “Drums Along The Mohawk”) and only one German-language book into English (the even more insufferable “Mein Kampf”). That latter project, understandably, receives scant attention from Brysac, as it does not fit comfortably into the story line she has crafted for her heroine.

In the book, Harnack is characterized, relentlessly, as “noble”, “humane” and “courageous”—but in reality, Harnack was more patsy than noble, more dangerous than humane, and more stupid than courageous. She was little more than a silly, misguided, half-educated, easily-manipulated fool, yet one more victim of the insane ideologies of the 1930’s.

Arvid, too, is presented as something he was not: in real life a lower-middle-class, low-level bureaucrat of no intellectual distinction and a man with a most unpleasant and authoritative—even overbearing—personality, he is presented in “Resisting Hitler” as one of Germany’s very finest men, a member of one of Germany’s leading families, a positive exemplar of that nation’s long intellectual tradition. All such claims are rubbish.

It remains a matter of dispute how much damage The Red Orchestra caused to German military fortunes during the crucial early years of the war against Russia. Some German historians insist, to this day, that The Red Orchestra was responsible for the disaster at Stalingrad, a claim hard to swallow, given that The Red Orchestra was shut down in late-summer 1942.

Nonetheless, it is undisputed that The Red Orchestra passed to the Soviets vital information about Luftwaffe operations on The Eastern Front, Germany’s invasion and attack plans on various Russian fronts, arms production in occupied zones, Germany’s fuel position, the locations of German military headquarters, the extent of German losses of personnel and material, and Germany’s success in breaking Russian codes, all of which proved invaluable to the Russian military. Persons who pass on such information to an enemy in wartime must be prepared to bear the consequences of their actions, and are entitled to little sympathy from any quarter.

Such realities, however, are not permitted to intrude upon Brysac’s fantasies. Brysac is far more interested in working within the realm of fairy tale, creating a saccharine whopper about an all-American beauty caught behind enemy lines during wartime and wantonly murdered for her many good deeds.

Such an approach exhibits all the political sophistication of a third grader. Indeed, were “Resisting Hitler” not so long and tedious, I would have guessed that third graders were the intended readership of the book.

The book must be read in large part as fairy tale, because so much of the Harnack story will never be known. No witnesses remained at war’s end to tell the full story of Harnack’s activities from the late 1930’s until her 1943 death.

I question whether many of the “facts” presented in the book are accurate, especially the “facts” addressing events in Germany, virtually none of which are verifiable. Time after time, the book presents “facts” that do not ring true and for which no sources are offered. There are so many questionable “facts” in the narrative that I did not believe a single word I read in the portion of the book addressing Harnack’s German years.

Some enterprising scholar needs to fact-check virtually every sentence in the portion of the book that covers the German period and issue a corrective, noting what is fact and what is mere supposition. Until such occurs, “Resisting Hitler” must be classified as fiction.

Alas, there was a great story here for a talented author and writer, but Brysac was not the person to present it.

An amazing, even glittering, cast of characters was associated, at least loosely, with The Red Orchestra. The Bonhoeffers, the Dohnanyis, members of The White Rose, Helmut Roloff and many others worked behind the scenes to thwart the German war effort and undermine the National Socialists. A competent author and writer might have weaved their many stories together into a spell-bounding narrative, full of incident, intrigue and drama, but such was beyond Brysac’s skill set.

Brysac lacks even the most rudimentary writing skills. Presenting herself as “producer, writer and director of documentary films”, Brysac has no talent for the printed page. Her prose is clumsy and inartful. She is utterly incapable of crafting a pleasurable paragraph.

More significantly, Brysac lacks storytelling skills. Even the most gripping portions of the Harnack story, sure-fire in anyone else’s hands, stubbornly fail to come to life.

Much of the blame must be directed at Brysac’s lack of skill in knowing how to organize a book. The organizing principle in “Resisting Hitler” appears to be personal interviews with persons who knew Harnack or who knew of Harnack, transcribed one by one, start to finish, and then assembled into a daisy chain. I cannot imagine a more inept way to tell a story.

Beginning her book with a melodramatic reenactment of Harnack’s execution, Brysac soon retreats to the Harnack childhood home in Milwaukee and tries to develop the story from there, more or less chronologically. However, Brysac cannot even put together a simple chronological story competently.

All sorts of non-germane characters from Harnack’s Milwaukee days make extended and irrelevant appearances early in the book, leading the reader to believe they will achieve significance later in the story. As things turn out, such characters have no significance whatsoever, and never reappear. They simply pad an overlong, boring and meaningless account of Harnack’s childhood years, and should have been omitted from the story.

Harnack’s time at the University Of Wisconsin at Madison receives pages and pages of the very dullest writing, populated with characters of no importance to the story. I presume this section of the book was included so as to demonstrate Harnack’s “great social awakening”, but the people described are dishwater-mundane and dullards to the core, the most boring and provincial group of Wisconsin yokels imaginable.

Once the author moves her story to the Germany of the 1930’s, one expects the story to improve considerably. It does not.

The German associates of Arvid and Mildred in the 1930’s, a much livelier crew than those dreadful Wisconsin bumpkins, with much more impact on the Harnacks’ burgeoning careers as spies, make brief appearances and then sink without a trace. Many of these persons have themselves been the subjects of riveting books elsewhere, but in Brysac’s telling they are just as grim and just as gruesome as that unfortunate group of nitwits back in Madison.

In Brysac’s hands, everything is hopeless.

The book is a jumbled mess, desperate for the intervention of a skilled editor. I cannot remember the last time I read such a completely botched writing job.

How did this project go so wrong?

The answer is an easy one: (1) it had the wrong author; and (2) it had the wrong publisher (Oxford University Press no longer edits its publications to a high standard).

Oddly, the name Mildred Harnack carries greater resonance today in the German-speaking countries of Central Europe than it does in the United States (even though the State Of Wisconsin has set aside one school day each year as “Mildred Harnack Day”, a rather alarming choice, all in all, for observance and remembrance in an educational setting).

“Resisting Hitler” was translated into German and published in Central Europe three years after the English-language edition appeared (the book has never been translated into Russian, French, Italian or Spanish, and is unlikely ever to be translated into those languages).

Central Europe’s interest in Harnack is the result of the former East Germany’s canonization of the Harnacks after the war. Under Soviet domination and control, East Germany seized upon the Harnacks as martyrs to the Soviet cause and elevated them to iconic status. An Arvid and Mildred postage stamp was issued in East Germany, and a school in East Berlin was named after Mildred. The school carries her name to this day.

In the former West Germany, the Harnacks never enjoyed a good name, and this is still true today. They are remembered, when they are remembered at all, as common spies and traitors, and nothing more.

In Austria, the Harnacks are known to historians and scholars of the period, but not to the general public.

When I studied in Vienna, one of my professors—a professor of German literature—was reading the English-language edition of “Resisting Hitler”, and I asked him to tell me what was the Austrian view of Harnack. “She was a terrible translator—on the level of a translator of romance novels—and that’s the only thing she’s remembered for here” was his response. He was dismayed that anyone, more than half a century after her death, would attempt to assign scholarly or intellectual pretensions to Harnack or to her work.

Ironically, Brysac’s book claims, unconvincingly if not absurdly, that Harnack spent her final days translating Goethe in her prison cell as she awaited her execution. Brysac also claims, even more absurdly, that Harnack’s final words, prior to her execution, were, “And I loved Germany so much”.

Harnack loved Germany so much that, in wartime, she spied for its mortal enemy.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Two Days In New York

Our two days in New York passed by in a flash.

We stayed in Newark.

There was a method behind our madness.

My parents flew into Newark International, and their incoming flight was scheduled to arrive a few minutes before 6:00 p.m. Friday night. Consequently, we were fearful of scheduling anything for Friday night, owing to the possibility of flight delays or the likelihood of ground delays getting into Manhattan on a Friday evening.

As a result, we decided it would be more efficient for all of us simply to book a hotel in Newark, and right at the airport.

The advantage for my parents was that they could get off the plane, take the hotel’s shuttle straight to the hotel, check in and be settled into their room only minutes after landing in Newark.

The advantage for Josh and me, driving down from Boston, was that we could give a wide berth to Manhattan (avoiding the logjam of New York traffic), drive straight to the hotel, park the car and check in.

Our plan was for all of us to arrive at the hotel at roughly the same time, and our plan worked to perfection.

The airport hotel was fine. It was a Marriott, recently refurbished, and we were all happy with the hotel and happy with our rooms.

My father had planned to take us to dinner Friday night at one of the hotel’s restaurants, JW Steakhouse, the Marriott Corporation’s internal line of upscale steakhouses exclusively sited in select Marriott properties, but Josh and I convinced my parents to try something else.

A couple of weeks ago, Josh and I had dined at a Ruby Tuesday with friends, and we had tried some new Ruby Tuesday menu offerings that night and had liked them. Josh and I convinced my parents that they would be perfectly happy eating at a Ruby Tuesday, and at one-quarter the price of a JW Steakhouse.

At Ruby Tuesday, we all ordered the same things: a bowl of clam chowder for a soup, a crab cake for an appetizer, and lobster-spinach ravioli for an entrée. We skipped salad and dessert.

The food was excellent, and my parents were entirely happy with their meal. The clam chowder was cream-based, like New England Clam Chowder, but much better than the New England variety. The crab cake was lump crab, not ground crab, and of very high quality. The lobster-spinach ravioli was amazingly good. I don’t think anyone would have been happier had we dined at the hotel’s JW Steakhouse—except for Bill Marriott, of course.

Other than leaving the hotel for dinner, we did nothing on Friday night. We stayed in and talked and caught up on things.

One of the advantages of staying at a Marriott is that the breakfasts are exceptional. We ate breakfast at the hotel Saturday morning, and the substantial breakfast took care of us for lunch, too.

We did not leave for Manhattan until 11:00 a.m., which nonetheless gave us plenty of time to get to the Metropolitan Opera House for the 1:00 p.m. matinee.

The “Eugene Onegin” performance was not good.

Much of the blame must be placed upon the conductor, Jiri Belohlavek, who offered a low-energy account of the score. He appeared to be bored by the music, and bored by the singers. He merely went through the motions of leading a performance. There was no passion, no soul and no commitment to his “Onegin”, and no style and no brilliance, either. He probably should drop the work from his repertory.

The Tatiana was Karita Mattila. It must be said that Mattila is far too old for this part. She looks like the middle-aged woman she is and her voice sounds like the voice of a middle-aged woman. It was a mistake for the Metropolitan Opera to engage her for the part of a young girl who, even at opera’s end, is still only in her early twenties.

Mattila is a very enthusiastic stage performer, but she overacts horribly. Much of her performance on Saturday was laughable—all afternoon she offered, nonstop, the kind of ridiculous posturing normally seen only in Pola Negri films. Worst of all were Mattila’s preposterous body contortions in her parting scene with Onegin—they had to be seen to be believed.

Mattila must spend her off-hours studying classics from the silent screen, because every Mattila performance I have ever attended has been marred, to greater or lesser degree, by her opulent array of silent-screen gestures and poses. I honestly believe she must create and practice her ridiculous assortment of gestures and poses before a mirror, like some schoolgirl.

Thomas Hampson sang Onegin, and I think it is time for Hampson to drop this role. Hampson is getting a little long-in-the-tooth, too, and his voice no longer has the ease of production or the richness and color required for Onegin (which his voice still possessed as recently as 2002). Hampson is an intelligent and admirable artist, but I do not think that the role of Onegin displays him to advantage any longer.

Hampson, alas, also attended the “posturing” school of acting. Watching Hampson and Mattila go at it together on Saturday afternoon was not a pretty sight.

The last time I saw Hampson and Mattila on the same stage was in 2005, when the two engaged in a ludicrous posturing match on the stage of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. At the time, the singers were portraying Renato and Amelia in Verdi’s “Un Ballo In Maschera”.

That “Un Ballo In Maschera” had been a new production, with an extensive rehearsal period, but the director, Mario Martone, guiding a naturalistic production, clearly had been unable to do anything about ratcheting down Hampson’s and Mattila’s amateur theatrics (but Martone nevertheless had evoked a genuine performance from the generally-wooden Marcelo Alvarez). I still remember, fondly, four years after the fact, the hokey series of stage confrontations between Hampson and Mattila, and I still laugh when I think of what may only be described as a bull-and-matador game Hampson and Mattila enacted during the closing moments of Act II.

My middle brother and I had attended the fifth of six Covent Garden performances of that new “Ballo” in 2005. The production had been universally laughed at in London, roundly panned and immediately written off by London critics. The production proved to be a serious disappointment at the box office as well.

When my brother and I returned to the U.S., we learned from the idiotic Anthony Tommasini, writing in The New York Times, that:

Opera buffs all over London have been abuzz about the company's new production of Verdi's “Ballo in Maschera”. Having caught the final performance in the run on Saturday night, I can understand why.

There was no one in London—least of all opera buffs—“abuzz” about that 2005 Royal Opera House “Ballo”. Despite an all-star cast, the run of only six performances did not even generate healthy ticket revenues. My brother and I bought tickets to the performance we attended at 3:00 p.m. on the day of the performance, and we had our choice of seats at the ticket window. Indeed, the cashier at The Royal Opera House who served us said that sales for the new Covent Garden “Ballo” had been extremely disappointing, having practically collapsed once the first round of reviews appeared in print.

I write about that 2005 London “Ballo” because there is something about Karita Mattila that gets under some peoples’ skins, and one of the London critics nailed what it is about Mattila that ultimately makes her so unconvincing onstage. Anna Picard, in London’s The Independent, wrote:

Though Mattila's expression of anguished ecstasy verges on self-parody, there is a compelling candour to her singing. I remain unconvinced that hers is a Verdian voice — too Nordic, too oxygenated, too heroic — but she moves it magnificently. And if in "Morrò, ma prima in grazia" she appears to be more interested in persuading her audience that she is desperate to see her son again before she dies than she is in persuading her husband, so be it. With Mattila emoting for two, Hampson is free to do what he does best: the self-contained smoulder.

Mattila’s amateur dramatics make my skin crawl—and her emoting REALLY gets under Josh’s skin.

After Saturday’s “Eugene Onegin”, Josh declared that he had seen and heard enough of Mattila, and that he had no wish ever again to attend another performance in which she appeared.

I have no problem with that.

We caught Mattila’s February 2007 “Jenufa”, her February 2008 “Manon Lescaut”, her October 2008 “Salome” and her February 2009 “Eugene Onegin”, all at the Metropolitan. None of those performances was particularly effective, and all of those performances were way over the top in one way or another.

We have never deliberately sought out Mattila in performance. Mattila has simply been on the roster in operas we wanted to hear during periods in which we happened to be in New York. I would never go out of my way to hear Mattila, but it seems to have been difficult to avoid her over the past decade, as I have seen and heard her in the theater and in the concert hall in New York, London, Paris, Vienna and Saint Paul.

Prior to our New York trip, we all had had a lengthy discussion whether to attend “Eugene Onegin” or “La Rondine” at the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday.

None of us wanted to hear two operas on the same day, so a matinee “Onegin” followed by an evening “Rondine” was never on the cards.

Ultimately, “Onegin” was chosen over “Rondine”, and this was because “Onegin” is a much richer and much more beautiful work than “Rondine”.

We probably made the right decision, but the “Eugene Onegin” performance was not one for the ages by any means. The performance has put me off the opera for a while, I believe.

After the opera, we had almost four hours to kill before Saturday night’s performance by New York City Ballet at The New York State Theater.

We remained in the Lincoln Center area, occupying our time by having a coffee, visiting Barnes And Noble, and having dinner at an Italian restaurant.

The New York City Ballet program was a very audience-friendly one. It featured three George Balanchine ballets: “Swan Lake”; “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”; and “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue”. A fourth ballet was also on the program, a setting of Prokofiev’s “Romeo And Juliet” balcony scene, choreographed by Sean Lavery, assistant to Peter Martins and a former dancer with the company.

Balanchine’s recension of “Swan Lake” is based upon Lev Ivanov’s choreography from Act II, supplemented by Balanchine’s own choreography danced to music from Act IV as well as music from Tchaikovsky’s opera, “Undine”. Balanchine’s “Swan Lake” is a 35-minute distillation of the evening-length work, using only the lakeside scenes, and it is very effective.

“The Steadfast Tin Soldier” is a pas de deux based upon the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, danced to music of Bizet (“Jeux d’Enfants”). It is a slight, charming work.

“Slaughter On Tenth Avenue” is the slightly-altered and –enlarged finale to the 1936 Rodgers and Hart musical, “On Your Toes”. The musical padding is by Hershy Kay. The ballet is a popular program-closer, but I have always thought that it goes on too long.

Except for the Lavery, we had seen these ballets many, many times, but all were new for Josh. We enjoyed the program immensely—and, at the end of the evening, Josh announced that he was ready to give “The Four Temperaments” another try! (Josh has seen Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments” twice, and did not like it on either occasion.)

We rose early Sunday morning, because we wanted to be finished with breakfast and checked out of our hotel by 9:15 a.m.

On our morning agenda was a visit to The Newark Museum, which none of us had ever visited.

We arrived as the museum opened for the day, and we spent two hours viewing the American Art Galleries—seventeen rooms displaying 300 American paintings, sculptures and decorative arts, from the Colonial Period to the present. The artworks and the displays were very fine, and well worth a visit.

We ate a light lunch at the museum café before we headed back to Lincoln Center, where we had tickets for the matinee performance of “South Pacific” at The Vivian Beaumont Theater.

“South Pacific” has been running for almost a year, and the show continues to sell out. I’m not sure why, because we thought it was a very long and very painful afternoon.

The book is gruesome—between musical numbers, we sat, comatose, waiting, even praying, for the next song to arrive as soon as possible—and the overriding theme of the show is insufferably preachy.

I suspect that the production has deteriorated since the show opened, because the performances were ossified. “South Pacific” received glowing notices from the New York press on opening night, but it must be impossible for actors to keep their performances fresh over a long run, because I thought that the performances of the lead actors were deadly.

I have seen the film version of “South Pacific” and, bad as that movie is, it is far superior to the current Broadway revival. This revival has put me off “South Pacific” for life. I never want to see the show again.

As soon as “South Pacific” ended, we left for Newark, where we had to drop my parents at the airport.

It’s too bad that Josh has class today, because we all might have enjoyed a third day in New York. Two days did not seem to be enough. It seemed that my parents flew in, and immediately had to fly out again. Nevertheless, I think they enjoyed their weekend. They got to see a few things, even though we made no effort to run ourselves ragged for 48 hours, and I believe they found their weekend to be rewarding.

Staying in Newark actually worked out well. The daily drive into Manhattan was not bad on Saturday or Sunday, and we had as good a time as we would have had by staying in Manhattan, with the added benefit that staying at the airport was very efficient for my parents.

This weekend was the final weekend at my parents’ house for my older brother and his family. They are scheduled to settle on their new house this week, and they plan to move into their new home over the coming weekend, more or less.

Their furniture and household effects remain in storage, and they will not make arrangement to have their household effects delivered until settlement has been effectuated (in case settlement falls through for some reason).

As soon as settlement has occurred, they will instantly buy a few items of furniture they have already selected and which may be delivered the very next day. This will enable them to move into their new house without delay, and without having to wait for their things in storage to be delivered.

My parents and my brother will be of great assistance to them, not only next weekend but over the six months or so it will take them to arrange their new home to their liking.

It will be a big adjustment for them, going from a New York-size apartment to a full-size family house.

They are going to furnish their new house very slowly. Once the new furniture and the New York furniture is in place, they will take their time supplementing that furniture with spare furniture from my parents’ house and furniture from my grandmother’s house, which has been unused since 2001.

Ultimately, my brother wants the furniture Josh and I now have in our living room in Boston. He wants the furniture for his new den. He likes our desk-computer unit, he likes our bookcases, and he likes our sofa and end tables and lamps—he says they will all be perfect for the room he has selected to make into a home office.

If he still wants those things in two years, they are his.

Josh and I will get to see the new house before long, because we have decided to go home for a long weekend in March. We picked the first of two weekends coinciding with Josh’s Spring Break. We shall be in Minneapolis from Friday night until Monday night of that weekend, and I very much look forward to it.

My niece is doing very well. She is now two months old. She smiles now, and looks at things and people, and responds to sounds very acutely. She’s a little charmer, and I can’t wait to see her again.

Her brother is happy as a lark, what with parents, grandparents, an uncle and a dog to keep him entertained. He runs around the house and yard all day, at speeds of up to one-hundred miles an hour, with one or more people and animals trying to keep up with him as he goes. He’s quite a little guy.

I fear that my parents’ dog will not know what to do once my brother and his family move into their new home. For the last three months, he has had my nephew as his constant playmate, and extra people in the house to monitor, and a baby to keep watch over. He’s going to lose all that in the next few days.

My mother says he will be fine. She says that he gets so tuckered out, trying to keep up with my nephew, that he now takes his own long afternoon nap while my nephew takes his afternoon nap. Further, there will be so much back-and-forth between my parents and my brother’s family that the dog will probably not experience a significant change in routine. Instead, he will simply have a second household over which to assert authority and in which to insist that everything be arranged to his satisfaction and pleasure.

Routine is the watchword for Josh and me for the next five weeks. We hope to catch a performance of Boston Ballet’s upcoming production of Balanchine’s full-length “Jewels” early next month, but otherwise we have nothing on our schedules until we go home.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

"Eugene Onegin" And "Pulcinella"

For almost the last month, Joshua and I have been listening to Russian music on the odd occasion we have had some free time on our hands.

The central work in our listening has been Tchaikovsky’s opera, “Eugene Onegin”, which we shall hear at the Metropolitan Opera this coming weekend. We have been listening to “Eugene Onegin” so that Josh may become acquainted with the score prior to this weekend’s Metropolitan Opera performance.

To provide relief from “Eugene Onegin”, we have also been listening to a disc of music by Stravinsky. Josh does not like the music of Stravinsky, but he agreed to devote some time to Stravinsky if I chose a disc with “accessible” music. I chose a disc that contained the complete ballet, “Pulcinella”. By the third listen, Josh loved “Pulcinella”.

The version of “Eugene Onegin” we have been enjoying is the Georg Solti recording on Decca. The cast members on the recording are Teresa Kubiak, Julia Hamari, Anna Reynolds, Stuart Burrows, Michel Senechal, Bernd Weikl and Nicolai Ghiaurov. The chorus is The John Alldis Choir and the orchestra is The Orchestra Of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

“Eugene Onegin” is a work that has been very unlucky on disc. Of modern recordings, the Solti is the only one worth hearing. Other modern sets are put out of court on account of their conductors.

Based solely upon evidence from his recordings, Solti was not a great Tchaikovsky conductor. Solti’s “Eugene Onegin”, however, is the exception to the rule. Solti’s is the best-conducted “Eugene Onegin” on disc, hands down, with no serious rival.

Solti knew exactly what he wanted to do in this score, and he knew exactly how to obtain the results he wanted. His is a performance of tremendous focus, concentration, energy, commitment and sweep. It has verve to burn.

Solti was that rare conductor who knew how to create and calibrate a performance in the recording studio, bringing the precisely-correct emotional temperature to each individual number of a score. Opera recordings are almost always made out of sequence, and sessions are often stretched over weeks, even months. Many conductors cannot offer their best work under such circumstances.

Such practices were not a handicap for Solti. Early in his career, Solti somehow learned how to work, and how to give his best, in the recording studio. The result: some of the finest recordings, opera and otherwise, in the history of the gramophone.

Solti’s “Eugene Onegin” is never aimless. It never meanders. Solti’s is very expressive music-making, but he never lathers emotion onto the score like a chef using a pastry knife.

Three years before this recording was made, Solti conducted a series of what were considered to be exceptional, even historic, “Eugene Onegin” performances at The Royal Opera House. Solti’s experience conducting the work in the theater in 1971 may be responsible for much of the success of this 1974 recording, because this is a very theatrical “Eugene Onegin” from a conducting point of view.

I do not believe Solti’s work is perfect here. The orchestra’s work is diamond-bright at all times to the point of brittleness, which is probably exacerbated by the clarity and brightness of the sound engineering. At times, Solti’s approach becomes tiring (as does the sound). I can imagine the score receiving gentler, more nuanced, treatment.

Everything about the performance holds together, however, which must be a great accomplishment, since so many other conductors fall apart in this score (James Levine and Semyon Bychkov conspicuously so). Someone else besides me must like this particular recording, because it has remained in the active catalog, continuously, at full price, for three-and-a-half decades.

The principal singers certainly cannot account for the set’s longevity and acclaim.

Teresa Kubiak offers a serviceable Tatiana, nothing more. Her performance is a cool one, her Tatiana more polite than interesting. Kubiak sounds too old for the part, and she lacks a distinctive and alluring timbre. More damaging still, Kubiak fails to break the listener’s heart in the letter scene—and yet the letter scene is nonetheless riveting, but only because of what Solti does with the orchestra—and she remains stubbornly unmoving in her farewell scene with Onegin.

Bernd Weikl’s Onegin is no better. His voice is very woolly in this recording, and not particularly pleasing to my ears, and he displays no dramatic involvement. The only special quality Weikl brings to Onegin is a great realization of his character’s stiffness, which Weikl embodies to a “T”, whether by design or not.

The Lensky of Stuart Burrows is much better characterized than the Tatiana of Kubiak or the Onegin of Weikl. Burrows shapes his music very intelligently, and he acts with his voice, both of which help to bring his character to life. The quality of the voice itself is the problem—Burrows has an inherently unattractive, grainy voice, a voice with absolutely no beauty of tone, color or luster.

I wish I knew the story behind the casting of Kubiak, Weikl and Burrows for this particular recording, because I am confident there must be a story behind the decision to cast these three singers in the principal roles. I cannot believe for a moment that any of the principal singers were Solti’s or Decca’s first choices for their roles.

When Covent Garden mounted its new “Eugene Onegin” in 1971, the principals were Ileana Cotrubas, Victor Braun and Robert Tear. The production was by Peter Hall, and the opera was given in English translation, a practice that—unaccountably—continued at Covent Garden for at least the first two revivals of the production. (My parents attended a “Eugene Onegin” performance at Covent Garden in 1976, the second revival of the Hall production, and in 1976 the opera was still being presented in English. Kiri Te Kanawa was the Tatiana that night, “glamorous but uncomfortable” according to my parents.)

Few would want to hear Braun and Tear in a “Eugene Onegin” recording, but Cotrubas was a sensation at Covent Garden as Tatiana, singing what many still contend to have been the definitive portrayal of Tatiana. Many knowledgeable persons consider Tatiana to have been Cotrubas’s single greatest role. Cotrubas’s voice was at its peak at the time of this recording, and she was then in demand at all the major international houses. Why, then, was Cotrubas not engaged for the Decca recording?

I wish I knew the answer to that question, because Cotrubas might have raised this recording to an altogether higher level. Further, it is a pity her Tatiana was never captured for posterity.

Ironically, it is the secondary cast members in this “Eugene Onegin” recording that carry the drama. They provide, without exception, the finest representations of their roles on disc.

Julia Hamari’s Olga is simply to die for—she has a young, fresh voice, of beautiful and distinctive timbre, and she positively inhabits her role as Tatiana’s extrovert, even flirtatious, sister. She steals every scene in which she takes part. Anna Reynolds sings a full-dimensional Madame Larina: authoritative and motherly, yet clueless and daffy in equal measure. Nicolai Ghiaurov has the perfect voice and gravitas for Prince Gremin. Michel Senechal’s brief star turn as Monsieur Triquet extended his opera career by another two decades—he became in demand to sing the role all over the world once this recording was issued. The success of the secondary roles in this recording goes a long way in making up for the lackluster work of the principals.

One thing I have always found intriguing about this particular recording is that, of all studio recordings of “Eugene Onegin”, this is the only one in which the choral scenes come off. And yet the Chorus Of The Royal Opera House was not used for this recording, presumably because the Chorus Of The Royal Opera House had been accustomed to performing “Eugene Onegin” only in English at the time this recording was made. Instead, a concert choir was engaged.

The John Alldis Choir does splendid work. The choral work is so strong—and so theatrical—that the listener would be forgiven for believing this chorus to have been singing the opera in Russian for years on end in the theater.

Josh loved “Eugene Onegin”, as I knew he would. It seems that everyone loves “Eugene Onegin”, whether they be persons who normally gravitate toward German opera or persons who generally favor Italian opera or, indeed, whether they be music-lovers who tend to avoid opera altogether. It is a timeless, universal work, of the most extravagant beauty, one of the most touching operas in the repertory.

It is odd that this opera took so long to catch on in the West.

The Metropolitan Opera first mounted “Eugene Onegin” in 1920—in Italian translation, of all things. The work did not prove to be popular with New York audiences. Seven New York performances, along with one Philadelphia performance, were offered in the 1919-1920 and 1920-1921 seasons, after which the work was dropped from the Met’s repertory. (Oddly, Tchaikovsky’s “Pique Dame” reached the Met’s stage before “Eugene Onegin”—“Pique Dame” was given its first Met production in 1910, a full decade before “Eugene Onegin”.)

The Met did not mount “Eugene Onegin” again until 1957, when it unveiled a new Peter Brook production, using an English translation (and four newly-composed musical interludes, suggested by the conductor, Dimitri Mitropoulos, and based upon musical themes of Tchaikovsky). The Brook production received seven New York performances in the 1957-1958 season (and the work was included in the company’s 1958 Spring Tour) and another five New York performances in the 1958-1959 season, after which it was shelved until 1964, when another eight New York performances were scheduled, again in English translation.

The next revival of the Brook production did not occur until thirteen years later, when the Met—at last—performed “Eugene Onegin” in Russian. By the late 1970’s, the work was finally beginning to acquire an appreciative audience at the Met—probably the result of New York performances of “Eugene Onegin” by the Bolshoi on tour—and “Eugene Onegin” was offered in three consecutive seasons for the first time in Met history: 1977-1978 (seven performances); 1978-1979 (seven performances); and 1979-1980 (twelve performances in New York and numerous additional performances on tour). It was during this three-season period that “Eugene Onegin” at last became a staple of the Met repertory, never since long absent from the schedule.

By the mid-1980’s, “Eugene Onegin” was becoming popular not only in New York but all over the United States. The opera is now presented everywhere, in cities large and small, and most often in Russian. The work has become a cornerstone of the American repertory.

My family has a long, multi-generational history with the old Brook Metropolitan Opera production of “Eugene Onegin”.

My maternal grandparents attended a performance of the Brook staging in the production’s very first season, when the Metropolitan Opera presented the work during its annual tour appearance in Minneapolis. Since there was only one Minneapolis performance of “Onegin” that year, I can identify from the Met archives the date my grandparents attended that performance: May 16, 1958.

Mitropoulos—a former Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra (then known as the Minneapolis Symphony)—conducted that Minneapolis performance. My grandparents always adored Mitropoulos, dating back to his years with the local orchestra in the 1940’s, and I suspect that Mitropoulos was the draw for my grandparents. Lucine Amara sang Tatiana, George London sang Onegin and Richard Tucker sang Lensky at that performance.

My mother was not permitted to attend that “Eugene Onegin” performance in 1958, as my grandparents believed that she was not old enough to sit through an opera!

My parents first attended the Brook production on May 21, 1980, when the Metropolitan Opera presented “Eugene Onegin” for the second time in Minneapolis, twenty-two years (almost to the day) after its first presentation. My maternal grandmother was at that performance, too, as was another member of my family: ME! (Of course, I was not to be born for another six months, but nonetheless I very definitely was at that performance.)

The late Emil Tchakarov, who died very young, was the conductor for that 1980 Minneapolis “Eugene Onegin”. Kubiak sang Tatiana and Nicolai Gedda sang Lensky. Onegin was sung by a nonentity.

Five years later, on May 14, 1985, my parents attended the Brook production of “Eugene Onegin” once again, when the Brook production was toured for the third and final time to Minneapolis.

The 1985 performance apparently was atrocious. The late Thomas Fulton, who also died very young, was the unsatisfactory conductor. Tatiana was sung by a nonentity, an over-the-hill Braun sang Onegin, and a dry-voiced David Rendall sang Lensky. My parents recall booing after that performance—practically unheard-of in Minneapolis—and they say that the booing was fully deserved.

My only experience with the Brook production was in late 1992, when my parents and my brothers and I attended a performance of “Eugene Onegin” in New York between Christmas and the New Year. We attended the penultimate performance of the Brook production before it was permanently retired after 35 years of hard service. (We attended the December 28 performance; the New Year’s Eve performance three days later marked the production’s final appearance.)

The 1992 performance was not good, but it marked three generations of my family attending the same production of the same opera over a 34-year period. James Levine was the conductor in 1992. A nonentity sang Tatiana. Dwayne Croft sang Onegin. The late Jerry Hadley, who also died young, sang Lensky. More than anything, I recall how old the sets looked that night.

The current Metropolitan Opera production of “Eugene Onegin” was unveiled in 1997. It is a minimalist Robert Carsen production, played on a mostly bare stage.

My parents and I attended a performance of the Carsen production seven years ago this very month. The conductor in 2002 was Vladimir Jurowski. A nonentity sang Tatiana. Thomas Hampson sang Onegin, gloriously. Marcello Giordano sang Lensky. Other than the stupendous Hampson, the rest of the 2002 musical presentation was entirely unremarkable.

For this weekend’s performance, Hampson will once again sing Onegin. Karita Mattila is scheduled to portray Tatiana, and Piotr Beczala is down for Lensky. Jiri Belohlavek is the scheduled conductor.

Josh and I—and my parents—are very much looking forward to Saturday’s “Eugene Onegin”. It is one of the few operas I can sit through over and over. It will probably be our last chance to catch the current Metropolitan Opera production of “Eugene Onegin”, since I understand the production will be retired early, to be replaced with a new production scheduled to open in the next couple of seasons.

For the last several years, my parents have generally traveled to New York for the February holiday weekend, and this was because my older brother and his family used to live in New York. Now that my brother and his family are living in Minneapolis, I had assumed that such February visits to New York by my parents were over.

However, not long after Christmas, my parents asked Josh and me whether we wanted to join them for the February holiday weekend in New York, making it clear to us that they had no interest in traveling to New York that weekend unless we joined them.

Josh and I talked about it, and we decided that a holiday weekend in New York might be fun, especially if the holiday weekend featured a New York City Ballet program my mother might enjoy and something on the schedule at the Met we all might enjoy.

There was one fly in the ointment: Josh and I do not have a full holiday weekend at our disposal, and this is because Josh has classes on Presidents’ Day. As a result, our holiday weekend, lengthwise, will be a regular weekend, and so it will be for my parents as well. Josh and I will drive down to New York the middle of tomorrow afternoon, and drive back to Boston early Sunday evening. My parents are scheduled to arrive at Newark late tomorrow afternoon, and scheduled to fly out again early Sunday evening.

We have only three items on our New York agenda, all at Lincoln Center: “Eugene Onegin” at the Metropolitan Opera; a New York City Ballet performance at The New York State Theater; and “South Pacific” at The Vivian Beaumont Theater.

The “Pulcinella” recording Josh and I have been enjoying is the Pierre Boulez recording on the Erato label. The singers are Ann Murray, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Simon Estes, and the orchestra is Ensemble InterContemporain. The coupling is “Song Of The Nightingale”, again conducted by Boulez, with Orchestre National De France.

“Pulcinella” is one of Stravinsky’s most charming, even enchanting, works. Sergei Diaghilev himself was the inspiration behind this 1920 commedia dell’arte ballet, and he convinced Stravinsky to create his score based upon old music manuscripts of short-lived Italian Baroque composer, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (six decades later, the attribution of the manuscripts to Pergolesi was found to be spurious).

Stravinsky wrote his ballet score for soprano, tenor, bass-baritone and chamber orchestra (33 players are called for). “Pulcinella” very well may be Stravinsky’s single wittiest work. The composer took what he liked from the old manuscripts, taking a few bars here and a few bars there from dozens of ancient sources, then rearranging the selected snippets to his personal satisfaction by cutting, pasting, overlapping, fracturing and rewriting mercilessly, after which he filtered everything through his own unique harmonic and rhythmic genius. The end result is one of the most captivating ballet scores ever written.

The Boulez recording is very fine. The vocalists are excellent, among the best on record. The playing and conducting are perfectly adequate, although the Claudio Abbado recording on Deutsche Grammophon offers a superior group of instrumentalists as well as a performance of greater brilliance, elegance and refinement.

The disc coupling is not quite as good. The playing of Orchestre National De France in "Song Of The Nightingale" is capable and Boulez concentrates on obtaining a clean presentation of the notes, but no one would buy this particular disc for any reason other than the “Pulcinella” performance. There are several better performances of “Song Of The Nightingale” on disc, starting with the old Fritz Reiner.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

A List Seems To Be In Order

Since Joshua has been busy of late, compiling lists and posting them on his blog, I thought perhaps I should do a list of some sort, too.

My list is designed to provide packing assistance for persons who, against their wills, must travel to Russia on business on Friday, February 13, 2009.

The items on my suggested packing list should make their trips surpassingly memorable.

I wish the travelers Godspeed, safe journeys, and happy reading and happy listening.


Suggested Reading


A Likely Story: One Summer With Lillian Hellman
by Rosemary Mahoney
Comprehensive Catalog Of The Houdini Historical Center
by The Appleton, Wisconsin, Parks Commission
Ernie: The Autobiography
by Ernest Borgnine
Know Your Power
by Nancy Pelosi
Macramé Celebrations: A Macramé Craft Guide
by Judy Palmer
Marie Dressler: The Unlikeliest Star
by Betty Lee
Mass Production Cooking: Institutional Recipes For 30 Or More
by Glen L. Davis II
sTORI Telling
by Tori Spelling
Things To Do In Dayton
by The Dayton, Ohio, Chamber Of Commerce
by Martha Stewart


by Arthur Hailey
Biography Of Kunta Kinte
by Alex Haley
Dear Miss Newell
by Hayley Mills
Drums Along The Mohawk
by Walter D. Edmond
Jonathan Livingston Seagull
by Richard Bach
Once Is Not Enough
by Jacqueline Susann
Once Is Twice Too Many
by Gore Vidal
Peyton Place: The Return
by Grace Metalious
Recollections Of A Life
by Alger Hiss
The Rest Is Noise
by Alex Ross

Suggested Listening

Audio Books

Recollections Of A Life
by Alger Hiss
read by Alex Ross
The Rest Is Noise
by Alex Ross
read by Alger Hiss
The Return Of Depression Economics (May 1999 Edition)
by Paul Krugman
read by Sammy Davis, Jr.
Sister Wendy In Conversation With Bill Moyers
by Bill Moyers
read by Wendy Beckett and Bill Moyers
Tony And Me: A Story Of Friendship
by Jack Klugman
read by Katie Couric, Oprah Winfrey and Norman Mailer
Why Me? The Sammy Davis, Jr., Story
by Sammy Davis, Jr.
read by Paul Krugman


Beethoven: Missa Solemnis
performed by the SWR Radio Symphony and Roger Norrington
Helmut Eder: Piano Concerto
performed by Melvin Tan and Roger Norrington
Mahler: Symphony No. 2
performed by the SWR Radio Symphony and Roger Norrington
Nicholas Maw: Violin Concerto
performed by Joshua Bell and Roger Norrington
Vangelis: Mythodea
performed by Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman and Vangelis
Let’s Get Together With Hayley Mills
performed by Hayley Mills


If travelers heed my packing suggestions, they will find their Russian travels to offer more laughs and more mirth than anyone ever thought possible in Putin's Russia.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A Master Lieder Singer For The Violin

On Saturday evening, Joshua and I attended a recital at The New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. In recital were violinist Christian Tetzlaff and pianist Leif Ove Andsnes.

The recital was quite good, and I am very pleased we attended.

The recital was oddly arranged. In order, Tetzlaff and Andsnes played Janacek, Brahms, Mozart and Schubert. A chronological presentation would have been more pleasing, I believe, than this peculiar arrangement. The Mozart was most seriously damaged by its placement on the program.

Janacek’s Violin Sonata is a work of great individuality—it is unlike any violin sonata in the standard repertory, and not simply because it concludes with an extensive Adagio—but a work that is not programmed often. I suspect it may be ungratifying for musicians to play and, further, it is possible that only Moravian musicians can do the work justice.

The Sonata begins with an improvisation for solo violin that serves as introduction to its sonata-form first movement, a sparse, even terse, treatment of sonata form, with undistinguished melodic material that nonetheless is packed with dramatic incident.

The middle movements are conventional—a tertiary nocturne (Balada) and a tertiary scherzo (Allegretto)—before the Adagio finale, which is asked to carry the emotional weight of the work.

The Violin Sonata is not one of Janacek’s finest pieces—he worked on it for over seven years, substantially revising the work twice, before it reached its published form—and the composer obviously had difficulty deciding what he wanted to do with the work.

For one thing, the Sonata is not “all of a piece”. Its four movements are not organically connected—they are more a loose confederation of movements than parts of a coherent whole.

Further, the Adagio, the second movement in Janacek’s original version of the score, does not provide an effective or satisfying conclusion to the work, and this is so even though the Adagio is nowhere near as conventional as the two unremarkable middle movements, which seem to belong to another score.

Only the first movement of the Violin Sonata is from the composer’s top drawer, and reveals fully the startling originality of which this composer could be capable.

Saturday night’s performance of the Janacek was satisfactory, but anyone familiar with Josef Suk and Rudolf Firkusny in this piece was bound to be disappointed. Not only was there no Moravian feel to the playing—the music might have been written by the Hungarian Bartok or the Romanian Enescu, for all the lack of specificity the musicians displayed—but Tetzlaff and Andsnes also seemed unsure where the dramatic and emotional high points of the score were located. Tetzlaff had a surer grasp of what he wanted to do than Andsnes, but there was very little evidence of one master musician inspiring and playing off another, which I found to be surprising given that these two fine musicians have played together for almost two decades and have been close personal friends since the early 1990’s.

All this was righted in the Brahms that followed. Tetzlaff and Andsnes played Brahms third and final (and finest) sonata for violin and piano and, in the best music of the evening, gave the best performance of the evening. Andsnes, especially, came fully alive in the Brahms, for the first and only time of the night, and he and Tetzlaff offered as fine an account of the sonata as I have ever heard in person.

(Suk and Firkusny liked to pair the Janacek sonata with this particular Brahms sonata, too.)

The Mozart after intermission was not on the same high level. Tetzlaff and Andsnes played Sonata No. 25, K. 377, from 1781, a three-movement sonata with an extended theme-and-variations Andante movement that is almost longer than the two outer movements combined.

Tetzlaff tried to do interesting things in the Mozart, offering phrasing of great specificity and exploring the coloristic possibilities of his instrument, but he was not matched in his endeavors by Andsnes, who seemed content to accompany, and only to accompany. In any case, I have never found Andsnes to be a satisfactory Mozart pianist, and he confirmed this once again on Saturday night.

Tetzlaff is an emotionally reticent player of Mozart. His two great contemporary violinist countrymen, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Frank Peter Zimmermann, are emotionally giving in Mozart, probably because the music of Mozart comes more naturally to them than it does to Tetzlaff. Mutter’s and Zimmermann’s Mozart can be sublime if they like an audience.

Unlike Mutter and Zimmermann, Tetzlaff is not emotionally generous in Mozart. He compensates by offering a thoughtful, even analytical, Mozart, which can be almost as pleasing in its own right. He held my full attention throughout the Mozart, even though he lacked the glamour of sound Mutter and Zimmermann bring to Mozart and even though he lacked a satisfactory Mozart pianist to inspire him.

The recital concluded with Schubert’s Rondo In B Minor, D. 895, from Schubert’s last year. Tetzlaff and Andsnes played it like a barnstorming virtuoso vehicle. There was absolutely nothing Viennese about their playing, but the piece can survive as pure virtuoso display, and it survived on Saturday night.

Tetzlaff and Andsnes played two brief encores, both by Sibelius: Danse Champetre, Opus 106, Number 5; and Danse Champetre, Opus 106, Number 2.

Tetzlaff has a small, focused sound. At times the piano overpowered him, and I do not know who or what was at fault: the violinist, the pianist or the hall acoustics (it was our first visit to Jordan Hall, and I have no personal experience of the auditorium’s acoustics).

Tetzlaff plays a modern instrument, and I wonder whether this accounts for the fact that the sheer quality of Tetzlaff’s sound is the least interesting among leading violinists of the day. Tetzlaff is a very intelligent musician, but his sound is a very generic one. He has always reminded me of a fine singer lacking a distinctive timbre, one who is forced to compensate by employing great specificity of phrasing and great mastery of textual utterance in order to make an impact.

In this regard, Tetzlaff is a master lieder singer for the violin—and I am always happy to hear him, at every opportunity.