Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tomorrow We Embark

Early tomorrow afternoon, my mother will take Joshua and me to the airport, and Joshua and I shall embark upon the European portion of our summer vacation.

We shall meet up with Josh’s family in Chicago, and travel together from O’Hare to Franz Josef Strauss.

We shall visit Munich, Lake Chiemsee, Salzburg, Melk, Vienna, Graz, Klagenfurt, Zell Am See, Kitzbuhel and Innsbruck.

We shall be back on the afternoon of Monday, August 10.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"Summer" Music And "Serious" Music

Ever since Joshua and I have been home, we have been listening to six discs of music.

We put the discs into the player in the kitchen—a giant room that functions as kitchen, informal dining room and family room at my parents’ house—so that we could listen to music in the room most often in use.

The six discs were divided into two programs.

One program we called the “summer” program because the discs featured music we believed was especially suitable for midsummer listening.

The other program we called the “serious” program because the discs featured music filled with spirituality, even profundity.

The “summer” program was over-weighted: four of the six discs were devoted to “summer” music.

The “summer” program was designed, more or less, to please my mother. The “serious” program was designed, more or less, to please my father.

We all enjoyed both listening programs immensely.


The four “summer” discs were:

“Baroque Trumpet Concertos”, performed by Sergei Nakariakov and The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra under Hugh Wolff, on the Teldec label

Rossini’s Stabat Mater, performed by Patrizia Pace, Gloria Scalchi, Antonino Siragusa, Carlo Colombara and The Hungarian State Opera Chorus And Orchestra under Pier Giorgio Morandi, on the Naxos label

The String Quartets of Debussy and Ravel, performed by the Galimir String Quartet, on the Vanguard label

Orchestral Music of Ginastera, performed by Magdalena Barrera and The City Of Granada Orchestra under Joseph Pons, on the Harmonia Mundi label


Sergei Nakariakov was such a prodigy of the trumpet that Teldec, a major label at the time, signed Nakariakov to an exclusive recording contract before his fifteenth birthday.

Nakariakov was only eighteen years old when he recorded his third disc for Teldec, “Baroque Trumpet Concertos”, a disc made in 1995 here in the Twin Cities and released the following year. “Baroque Trumpet Concertos” remains Nakariakov’s only recording made in the United States.

Two Telemann concertos are on the disc, as are single concertos by Vivaldi, Marcello and Neruda. The disc also includes an arrangement of the Agnus Dei from Bach’s Mass In B Minor. All but the Neruda concerto and one of the Telemann concertos are arrangements of concertante works for other instruments.

On the recording, Nakariakov plays a regular B-flat trumpet, a piccolo trumpet, and a flugelhorn. The sweetness of his sound on all three instruments has to be heard to be believed.

The playing is phenomenal. Trumpet playing of such genius comes along only once a generation, if that.

Hugh Wolff, former Music Director of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, was a great admirer of Nakariakov, and worked with him throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia. It was because Wolff greatly admired Nakariakov that this particular recording was made in Saint Paul.

We all loved this recording, but none of us loved the recording more than Josh, a former trumpet player himself. Josh insisted that the virtuosity displayed by Nakariakov on this disc put the playing of Maurice Andre and Wynton Marsalis completely in the shade.

I am in no position to disagree.

Good as Nakariakov was in 1995, I am told that he is even better now.

I have never heard Nakariakov. A rare spine condition limits the number of appearances he makes each year. He lives in Paris, and crosses the Atlantic Ocean at irregular intervals. I am told that he is not in good health at present.

His absence from our concert halls is a major loss for American music-lovers.


The Boston Symphony will perform Rossini’s Stabat Mater next season under Rafael Frubeck De Burgos, and I look forward to hearing one of the performances. Indeed, one reason we have been listening to this Rossini work is to allow Josh to become familiar with the music.

Josh finds Rossini’s Stabat Mater to be exceedingly beautiful.

(Next season, I would also like to attend a performance of Rossini’s early opera seria, “Tancredi”, to be presented by Opera Boston. However, in October 2006, Josh and I attended a Minnesota Opera performance of “La Donna Del Lago”, a later Rossini opera seria, and Josh hated the thing. I have been trying, without success, to generate some enthusiasm in Josh on the subject of attending one of the Boston “Tancredi” performances. Thus far, Josh has consented to our taking a recording of “Tancredi” to Boston, but he has not yet consented to listen to it—and he has certainly not consented to attend a “Tancredi” performance. I believe he is trying to buy time: “Let’s not rush things. For all we know, the Boston Opera House may burn down before the season starts.”)

The Stabat Mater is my personal favorite of all Rossini works. I much prefer it to any and all Rossini works for the stage, and I much prefer it to the Petite Messe Solennelle. I think that the quality of Rossini’s melodic invention in the Stabat Mater is higher than in any other Rossini composition.

It is difficult to judge the quality of this Budapest performance because of sound engineering issues. This is one of countless Naxos recordings in which sound quality is deficient.

The recording is muddy. It lacks clarity, transparency, richness, and a wide dynamic range.

Many Naxos recordings require a boost in volume in order to give the recordings necessary presence. Boosting the volume did not work for this particular disc, nor did adjusting the treble and bass. Even with ceaseless fiddling of the controls, I could do nothing with this disc to improve the sound image.

The Hungarian State Opera is one of the finest opera houses in the world, on a par with Munich, Vienna and Zurich, and it is a pity that deficiencies in sound engineering make this particular performance sound undistinguished. Performances of Italian repertory in Budapest are generally at the very highest level, and I suspect that this performance was much finer than the recording reveals.


The Vanguard recording of the Debussy and Ravel String Quartets performed by the Galimir String Quartet is considered in some quarters to be supreme. Apparently not everyone cherishes this recording, however, because the disc has been out of print for years.

This recording was made in 1982, and is not to be confused with the earlier Galimir recording of Ravel’s Quartet, recorded in 1934 under the supervision of the composer and universally acknowledged to be a classic.

The original Galimir String Quartet was a family affair: Felix Galimir and his three sisters constituted the quartet’s membership.

National Socialism drove the Galimirs from Austria, and the Galimir String Quartet was reformed in the United States. Its membership changed constantly from the 1940’s through the 1980’s, with Felix Galimir the only constant. The quartet’s performances were known for being extremely variable in quality, especially in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, when the quartet’s membership was in a veritable constant state of flux.

The performances on the Vanguard disc are very fine. They strike me as very mellow and very relaxed.

However, the performances lack the elegance and refinement of the Italian Quartet, the freshness of the Tokyo Quartet in its early years, the energy and concentration of the Juilliard Quartet, the utter unanimity of thought and utterance of the Hagen Quartet, and the tonal refinement of the Guarneri Quartet.

No one could possibly be unhappy with these readings—yet they are hardly the last word in Debussy or Ravel performance.


The Ginastera disc contains four works: “Estancia” Suite; Concerto For Harp And Orchestra; Overture To “The Creole Faust”; and Variaciones Concertantes.

The suite of four dances from the 1941 ballet “Estancia”—commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein—used to be Ginastera’s most popular composition. Orchestras programmed “Estancia” with some frequency from the late 1940’s through the first half of the 1960’s. The work was also a staple of radio stations during those years.

“Estancia”, a work now horribly dated, does not represent Ginastera well. The score lacks melodic distinction, and the rhythms, while relentless, are too basic and too unsophisticated to hold the listener’s interest for long. The composer always claimed that his study of the music of Stravinsky enabled him to compose “Estancia”, but the composer was mistaken—in making such a claim, Ginastera confused his use of lots of percussion with genuine rhythmic complexity and sophistication. “Estancia” is as uninteresting a piece as Ginastera ever wrote. Its former popularity was due to the nationalistic Argentine “color” the score was thought to possess, an appeal that has long since vanished. If it were a better piece, it might have survived, and surface now and again on “Pops” programs.

Ginastera’s Harp Concerto is another matter. It is a timeless masterpiece—and surely the composer’s masterpiece. It is probably the finest concerto ever written for the instrument, a favorite of harpists everywhere.

After a nine-year gestation period, the Concerto was completed in 1965 and premiered that year in Philadelphia by Nicanor Zabaleta and Eugene Ormandy. The composer went on to revise the work for another nine years, and the Harp Concerto was finally published in 1974. Only in the last twenty years or so has the Harp Concerto gained currency in concert halls around the world (and received numerous recordings).

The writing has great intellectual vigor—much of the writing is serial—and yet this is a work with the deepest Latin sensibility and sensuousness. Gorgeously orchestrated, the Harp Concerto is, first note to last, totally beguiling to the ear and the mind.

Ginastera was operating at the highest level of inspiration when he wrote this particular composition. There is nothing else from his workbench even half so good. The Harp Concerto is of astonishing originality, beholden to no previous composition, whether by Ginastera or anyone else. It is sui generis.

So far as I know, Ginastera is not on record as stating that he believed his Harp Concerto to be his finest work. Nonetheless, it the only one of his compositions that he worked on over such a prolonged period of time. That fact alone surely signifies something important about the composer’s thoughts.

The Overture To “The Creole Faust” was written in 1943.

“The Creole Faust” is an 1866 epic poem about an Argentine cowboy attending a performance of Gounod’s opera in Buenos Aires. It is the earliest known example of what has come to be called “Gaucho Literature”. Ginastera’s Overture To “The Creole Faust” blends bits of Gounod’s music into a tapestry composed mainly of Argentine folk music.

It is not an appealing piece.

Variaciones Concertantes, from 1953, is the only Ginastera work that has attracted a devoted following among prominent conductors. Igor Markevitch conducted the Buenos Aires premiere, and Antal Dorati gave the first U.S. performance only weeks later here in Minneapolis. Over the last half-century, countless other conductors who have mastered the Central European repertory have taken up the work, Franz Welser-Most being the most recent. It is now Ginastera’s most-performed work.

Written for chamber orchestra, Variaciones Concertantes is a set of eleven variations on an original theme, each variation highlighting one instrument from the orchestra. The work is tightly-argued—which accounts for the fact that it has attracted so many fine conductors—and highly-expressive at the same time. After the Harp Concerto, it very well may be Ginastera’s most important work.

The Harmonia Mundi performances are good ones, but I have heard superior recorded performances of the “Estancia” Suite (Eduardo Mata on Dorian), the Harp Concerto (Nancy Allen and Enrique Batiz on ASV) and Variaciones Concertantes (Julius Rudel on MusicMasters).

Pons does not bring much specificity to his work. Moreover, the orchestral playing is somewhat tentative, and the orchestra lacks a sophisticated sound.

Nonetheless, this Harmonia Mundi disc is light years better than David Robertson’s contemporaneous (and loathsome) recording of two of these same works on the Naïve label.


The two “serious” discs were:

Schubert’s “Die Schone Mullerin”, performed by Wolfgang Holzmair and Jorg Demus, on the Preiser label

Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9, performed by the Minnesota Orchestra under Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, on the Reference Recordings label


The Preiser recording of “Schone Mullerin” is the earlier of Wolfgang Holzmair’s two recordings of the great song cycle. It was recorded in 1983, at the outset of Holzmair’s international career. The singer had the considerable advantage of working with the great Jorg Demus for this recording, only Holzmair’s second recording for any label.

This is one of the finest “Schone Mullerin” readings ever captured on disc. It is very much a young man’s “Schone Mullerin”, as might be expected, but it is a completely successful performance, brimming with freshness and élan. Indeed, I prefer this performance to Holzmair’s remake for Philips.

Holzmair is a very great singer. Some knowledgeable persons insist that he is the greatest singer alive. Whether or not such be the case, Holzmair certainly is the most intelligent active singer. His handling of the German lied, from Mozart through Wolf and beyond, is on a level all his own, matched by no other active singer.

I have been lucky enough to catch Holzmair five times in recital. All five evenings provided unforgettable experiences.

This disc is not particularly well-known in the Western Hemisphere because the Vienna-based Preiser label does not enjoy wide distribution in the United States. Someone besides me must like this disc, however, because this disc has remained in print for over a quarter-century. That fact is phenomenal, given how many recordings of “Schone Mullerin” have been issued over the years—the total now exceeds one hundred—and have come and gone.

“Die Schone Mullerin” is one of my very favorite pieces of music. I could listen to it endlessly. It is one of the most profound works in the Western canon.

My father loves “Schone Mullerin”, naturally, and so does my mother.

It was not until the fourth listen that Josh began to like “Schone Mullerin”. From that point forward, he liked it more each time we played the disc.

“Schone Mullerin” is one of those works that offers greater and greater rewards with each new encounter.

Every couple of years, I return to this work. Each time, I am bowled over anew by Schubert’s writing. Each time, I find a thousand new fascinating details in the score, and a thousand new nuances in the blending of text and music.

It is a work of incomparable genius.


Stanislaw Skrowaczewski’s 1996 Minnesota Orchestra recording (released in 1997) of Bruckner’s last symphony is very highly acclaimed.

The playing of the Minnesota Orchestra is on a very high level. The recorded sound is exceptional. The conductor is universally acknowledged to be one of today’s very finest Bruckner conductors.

And yet this recording does nothing for me. The performance did nothing for me when the disc was first issued, the performance did nothing for me when I again devoted time to this disc five summers ago, and the performance did nothing for me during my third encounter over the last two weeks.

I am clueless why this reading is considered to be “special”.

I shall allow my father’s thoughts to serve as “counsel for the defense” on the question of the merits of this particular recording.

My father says that Skrowaczewski took a fresh look at the score in preparation for the 1996 Minnesota Orchestra performances and recording, and that Skrowaczewski decided to emphasize the score’s boldness and vitality instead of treating the score as Bruckner’s nostalgic farewell to the world. There is a bracing, even lacerating, quality that Skrowaczewski chose to bring to the work, a corrective of sorts to the standard, death-infused interpretation of Bruckner’s final composition more often heard.

My father is a far greater Brucknerian than I.

Nonetheless, I remain mystified by the appeal of this recording.

On the question of the greatness of this recording, my mother is firmly in my camp: she, too, does not understand the attraction of this performance.

As for Josh, he dislikes Bruckner (except for the Eighth Symphony, and the finale of the Fifth).

The Bruckner Ninth left Josh utterly cold.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

An Exhibition And A Play

Yesterday was a very long day, but it was also a very beautiful one.

Joshua and I rose very early and took the dog to the park for his run.

When we returned home, we cleaned up and went over to my older brother’s house, where we planned to do his yard work. We took the dog with us, as my mother had errands to run yesterday morning.

We arrived at 7:45 a.m., and ate breakfast with my niece and nephew. They were very happy to see us.

All morning, we mowed the grass and trimmed the edges and watered and trimmed shrubbery.

My mother joined us for lunch, and we stayed until it was naptime for my niece and nephew.

We returned home—leaving the dog at my brother’s house, where he would have plenty of company, since my mother and Josh and I had plans for the afternoon and evening—and cleaned up once again.

We departed in the middle of the afternoon, heading downtown.

Our first stop was The Minneapolis Institute Of Arts.

There are seventeen temporary exhibitions currently on display at the Institute, but the exhibition we wanted to view was “Sin And Salvation: William Holman Hunt And The Pre-Raphaelite Vision”.

My mother and Josh and I all detest Pre-Raphaelite painting, but a couple of Hunt’s most significant works were on display at the exhibition. We had decided that this was as good a time as any to see these works, especially since the works are seldom displayed at their home institutions and are even more infrequently loaned.

Even though The Minneapolis Institute Of Arts has free admission, “Hunt And The Pre-Raphaelite Vision” was a ticketed exhibition, and we had to pay $8.00 a ticket for the privilege of attending. At least the cost was less than one-third what Josh and I had to pay last month to attend “Titian, Tintoretto And Veronese” at the Boston Museum Of Fine Arts.

It was a good-sized exhibition—there were paintings by other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, too—and the presentation was well-organized and scholarly, but the artworks themselves were loathsome. The exhibition only reinforced for us how bad Pre-Raphaelite painting truly is. Even the dreariest example of French Academic Painting from the same period is far superior to anything the Pre-Raphaelites wrought.

Hunt’s most famous paintings, “The Lady Of Shalott” and the second of three versions of “The Light Of The World”, were included in the exhibition. Both paintings are kitsch.

After the exhibition, we met my father and my middle brother at Minneapolis’s finest seafood restaurant, where we had an early dinner. We had not visited the restaurant in a year, and we had an excellent, excellent meal. Josh especially likes the restaurant. The restaurant bowled him over during his only previous visit—and it bowled him over a second time last night.

After dinner, we went to The Guthrie Theater to see J. B. Priestley’s “When We Are Married”, a three-act drawing room comedy from 1938.

The production was superb—it was as good as anything I have ever seen at The Guthrie—but the play was awful. I cannot believe that such a mechanical piece of rot was thought worthy of revival.

What accounts for the modest renewed interest in the work of J. B. Priestley? His plays were completely forgotten for decades, with justification, until revivals of “An Inspector Calls” suddenly began popping up all over the place in the 1990’s.

I have seen more than one production of “An Inspector Calls”, a very, very bad play, and “When We Are Married” is just as impossibly inept as “An Inspector Calls”.

Priestley’s plays do not warrant their current exposure.

The production itself, however, was extraordinary. The very large cast was top-notch, down to the smallest role, and the physical production was impeccable. One would never encounter a production of such quality anywhere else in the United States. The Guthrie stands alone.

I am told that The Guthrie production of “When We Are Married” cost mountains and mountains of money.

The money should have been spent on something worthwhile.

Monday, July 13, 2009


We all returned from the lake early last evening.

We were able to enjoy eight full days at the lake this year—eight serene, peaceful days. We were surrounded by woods and water, and graced with fresh Northern breezes. It was very invigorating and very rejuvenating.

Joshua and I had not been up to the lake for exactly a year.

Last year, after we returned from our annual week at the lake, Josh and I had only three weeks to wrap things up at our old jobs and to move out of our old apartment. Once those tasks were completed, we were off to Britain for eighteen days. After we returned from Britain, we had only a couple of days at home before we had to set out for Boston. Consequently, the week of July 4 was our final visit to the lake last year.

This year, everyone in my family has been making use of the lake house since late May, spending alternate weekends at the lake. For everyone else, last week was just like another weekend at the lake, more or less (albeit a very long one), but for Josh and me last week was exceedingly welcome, even necessary. We were able to drop our guards completely and relax, fully, for the first time in a year.

And, more important, for the first time Josh and I were able to bond with my niece.

The first time we saw her, at Christmas, she was only three weeks old, and Josh and I were home only for four days. Given her infancy, and given our short time at home, there was no genuine opportunity for us to bond with her at Christmas.

The second time we saw her, in March, my niece was fourteen weeks old, and able to distinguish between different persons, but Josh and I were home only for three days, and those three days were not enough time for us to bond with her.

She had forgotten about us since March, I believe, but after a full week together she now knows who we are, and she can now sense that we are a permanent and integral part of her family. After a couple of days together, she reacted no differently to Josh and me than to my middle brother, whom she sees several times a week. She allowed Josh and me to hold her and feed her and play with her as freely and as often as we wanted.

She is now seven months old, and her mother says that she now knows us well enough that she will never again forget who we are, even if we don’t see her between the middle of August and Christmas (which is very likely).

Of course, we shall be seeing a great deal more of her over the next five weeks, so I hope my sister-in-law is correct: that my niece will know us so well by mid-August that she will easily remember who we are after the passage of several months.

She is a beautiful little girl. She has very bright and very alive eyes. She has a sweet disposition. She is very good-natured. She has a gentle smile that makes me weak-kneed.

She sits up now, generally on someone’s lap, and watches whatever is going on. Most of the time, she watches her brother, who is always in motion, playing with his toys or playing with the dog or running around or jumping up and down or chattering up a storm.

My nephew provides his sister with much of her entertainment, just as he provides us with much of our entertainment.

Of course, he loves spending time at the lake. He can play outside all day, doing lots of different things, with lots of people to play with.

Out on the lawn, in the shade of several large trees at one side of the house, he particularly likes to play a game of one-on-one kickball with his Granddad. This is one of his favorite activities at the lake—and he always wins the game of kickball, even though no one can quite figure out what his rules are.

He also has a small John Deere scooter (it looks exactly like a miniature John Deere tractor) he rides around the yard. He likes it when everyone watches him make his revolutions on the grass.

In the early evening, he played croquet with us, but he never bothered to use a mallet. He moved his ball by kicking it, or simply picking it up and taking it wherever it was supposed to go. He thought everyone else was very inefficient, using mallets.

When he was done sending his own ball through the wickets, he helped his grandmother finish her game—by picking up her ball and taking it wherever it was supposed to go.

Needless to say, my nephew and my mother placed first and second in every croquet game all week!

The weather was good enough all week for us to remain outdoors for the entire day. We had our breakfast in the kitchen, but afterwards we were outside all day and seldom went back into the house. The weather never turned cold, so even our lunch and dinner meals were taken on the deck overlooking the lake.

My niece eats foods now—very bland, pureed foods—and it was fun to feed her.

She likes fruit—pureed applesauce, pureed pears, pureed peaches, pureed apricots, pureed plums, pureed cranberries, pureed strawberries, pureed blueberries, all but the strawberries and blueberries poached and cooled before pureeing—and she likes a couple of vegetables, such as pureed cooked peas and pureed cooked butter beans. She will eat pureed cooked carrots, too, but only if a touch of maple flavoring is added.

She likes riced mashed potatoes, and riced candied sweet potatoes.

She likes my mother’s homemade chicken broth, and homemade beef broth, and she likes my mother’s homemade cream-tomato soup.

She likes baby apple juice, and baby orange juice, and baby apple-cranberry juice, and baby raspberry-cranberry juice.

She also likes strawberry jello, and vanilla pudding, and homemade ice cream. We had homemade ice cream every night while we were at the lake, and she ate a small bowl of the homemade ice cream each night.

She eats more and more different foods each week, and she very definitely enjoys eating, but her bottle will remain one of her most important sources of nourishment for a few months more.

Of course, her brother eats practically everything now (except for cauliflower and a couple of other vegetables—but, oddly, he very much likes lentils; he is also very particular about seafood, which in any case is not often served to him). He has become a veritable food machine.

He eats a big breakfast, a good lunch, a nice snack after his nap, a big dinner, and another snack before bedtime. He gets a hearty array of fruits and vegetables each day, but he has developed a special fondness for all things beef. He eats more chicken than any other meat, and more white pork than beef, but two or three times a week he wants to know if steak is for dinner. “Give that boy a steak!” is always my father’s response when my nephew asks if steak is for dinner (and he had steak for dinner three times last week, grilled outdoors).

Every afternoon last week, after his nap, he wanted to eat watermelon. For some reason, he has developed a special fondness for watermelon this summer. We had plenty of watermelons with us, and we accommodated him by cutting open a fresh watermelon each afternoon when he woke from his nap.

The minute he gets up every morning, he is ready to eat his breakfast. He wants cereal immediately, followed by some kind of fruit in cream (bananas, strawberries, peaches). After his cereal and fruit, he plays with his toys in the kitchen while his “real breakfast” is prepared, which on weekdays most often consists of scrambled eggs, bacon, some kind of breakfast potato, toast, orange juice and cranberry juice. On Saturday mornings, he is accustomed to ham-and-cheese omelets. On Sunday mornings, he is accustomed to pancakes and sausages.

Because he and my niece rise early (they generally wake up between 6:45 and 7:00 a.m.), my middle brother and Josh and I would be the first ones up each morning, ready to take care of them and ready to prepare their breakfasts. We had them to ourselves for the first hour or so of each day, and we cherished that time.

The week flew by in a flash—and, at the end of the week, Josh and I were rested and renewed.

We had four laptops with us, all set up on the deck, so that everyone could keep up with whatever endeavors they desired from the outside world. In past years, we had taken a single laptop to the lake, but this year we went hog-wild, going all-out on the technology front.

My brothers kept close tabs on markets, mostly, and my sister-in-law kept in close contact with her parents, who will visit Minneapolis next month. It will be the first time her parents will see their new granddaughter.

My parents kept up with the news online, while the dog perused the most recent scientific journals on the subject of cloning (a subject about which he is particularly unsettled).

It was a great week.

It’s good to be home.

The next five weeks will be glorious.

Josh and I, staying with my parents, are mirroring the summer of 2006, when we spent the month of July and part of the month of August living at my parents’ house while we were in the process of locating and preparing an apartment of our own.

I hope my parents can stand having us around again.

Rental arrangements are currently being negotiated—but at least Josh and I will not be required to sign a short-term lease.

To help us out, the dog went downtown this morning to consult with his attorney. The dog hopes to be able to include Josh and me as “incidentals” pursuant to the terms of his own lease.

He has yet to receive an opinion from his attorney—but he is already complaining about the anticipated bill.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Source Of Wonder

The plentiful harvest of Elliott Carter’s recent output has been a source of wonder for those composers of my generation who were deeply affected in our formative years by the successive appearances—four years apart—of his three masterpieces of the 1960’s (Double Concerto, Piano Concerto, Concerto For Orchestra). That these phenomenally detailed yet immediately dramatic scores were the result of the painstaking development of a richly multi-leveled musical language—but one based on the simplest of building blocks—was evident to anyone who took the trouble to trace the evolution of that language from the Piano Sonata (1946) through the Cello Sonata (1948), the first two String Quartets (1951, 1959) and the Variations For Orchestra (1955).

Oliver Knussen (1999)

Thursday, July 09, 2009

When The Stimulus Does Not Stimulate . . .

For persons who have studied economics, it is rather appalling to see the recent revival of interest in John Maynard Keynes, a ridiculous figure whose life work was totally—even universally—discredited more than two generations ago.

Between the mid-1960’s and the late-1970’s, Keynes’s theories were completely repudiated and his reputation left in tatters. The amazing thing was that it took over thirty years for economics scholars fully to assess and finally to dismiss Keynes’s work.

For practical purposes, the jig was already up when Richard Nixon uttered his immortal line, “We are all Keynesians now”. More than anything, Nixon’s clueless dictum signaled that Keynesian economic theories were already on their deathbeds, even if Nixon himself was too obtuse to realize it.

Whoever might have believed, as recent as five years ago, that persons who should know better might one day consider Keynesian policies a sensible course for this nation to pursue?

Of course, persons who now are calling for Keynesian policies are ideologues, and idiots, but that does not make reading Keynesian hogwash any less jarring.

It is ironic—but somehow fitting—that lower classes do all the suffering when Keynesian policies are implemented. As my father gleefully says, “If the lower classes want Keynesian policies, then by all means let’s give them Keynesian policies!”

Of course, everyone knows how Keynesian policies work out in the end: the lower classes lose their jobs, and credit, and homes, and everything else. We have, after all, been through this before.

The Austrian School Of Economics had Keynes’s number from day one—and was always quick to point out that the suffering under an application of Keynesian theories was destined to fall exclusively upon the lower classes.

From the early 1930’s, The Austrian School began issuing missives from Vienna, citing innumerable and fundamental fallacies in Keynes’s work and predicting the inevitable and disastrous results of Keynesian policies. The Austrian School was an insufferable thorn in Keynes’s side.

Alas, by the time of the Anschluss in 1938, The Austrian School had been dispersed, a victim first of anti-Semitism in the Europe of the 1930’s and later a victim of Hitler’s takeover of Austria.

Between 1933 and 1938, most economists from The Austrian School came straight to the U.S., but a few landed first in Britain, emigrating to the U.S. only after the war. This latter group was appalled at The British School Of Economics, totally in thrall at the time to the various insanities of Keynes. The Austrians could not tolerate for any length of time the lack of academic freedom in Oxford, Cambridge and the LSE, where Keynesian dogma was the only line of thought allowed. They were to seek greener pastures as soon as circumstances allowed.

Thank God these giants came to the U.S.

It is always amusing to read decades-old assessments of Keynes by The Austrian School. The Austrian School had fully demolished Keynes by the end of the 1930’s, before The Austrian School was even dispersed. However, it was not until the mid-1950’s that The Austrian School gained influence in the world of American academia and began the process of rendering Keynes moot to the world at large, first in colleges and universities and, over the following twenty years, in the worlds of business and politics.

The odious Richard Nixon was probably the last person on earth to grasp that Keynes’s theories were dead. Keynes had created nothing but one more insane ideology emanating from that insane decade of insane ideologies, the 1930’s—but an insane ideology that, unlike Fascism, did not die with the end of World War II. Keynesianism took somewhat longer to kill.

And now we witness the attempted resurrection of Keynes’s "evil and vulgar" doctrines.

It’s time to call in the Austrians.

Below are some delicious quotes from The Austrian School on Keynes.

The words are not so clumsy in the original German as they are in English.


A dictum of Lord Keynes: In the long run we are all dead. I do not question the truth of this statement; I even consider it as the only correct declaration of the neo-British Cambridge school.

For what many people have admiringly called Keynes's brilliance of style and mastery of language were, in fact, cheap rhetorical tricks.

Keynes did not teach us how to perform the miracle of turning a stone into bread, but the not-at-all miraculous procedure of eating the seed corn.

What he really did was to write an apology for the prevailing policies of governments.

The essence of Keynesianism is its complete failure to conceive the roles that saving and capital accumulation play in the improvement of economic conditions.

In old-fashioned language, Keynes proposed cheating the workers.

Keynes did not add any new idea to the body of inflationist fallacies, a thousand times refuted by economists. He merely knew how to cloak the plea for inflation and credit expansion in the sophisticated terminology of mathematical economics.

The fallacies implied in the Keynesian full-employment doctrine are, in new attire, essentially the same errors which [Adam] Smith and [Jean Baptiste] Say long since demolished.


This is all going to end very, very badly—but at least the current occupant of the White House, if nothing else, is busily paving the way for the next Ronald Reagan.

There is, as always, a silver lining.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Weekend In Washington

Last weekend, Joshua and I flew down to Washington to join my parents for a two-day getaway. It was only the second time Josh and I had been to Washington since our graduations three years ago.

The purpose of the trip was to give my mother a special weekend over the summer months, as my parents will not take a trip this summer.

We all flew into Ronald Reagan Airport, and we stayed in nearby Crystal City. This made things convenient for everyone. All weekend, we used the excellent Washington subway, still the best and most beautiful subway system anywhere.

On Friday night, we attended a performance of the Royal Ballet, which I have already addressed.

On Saturday, we devoted the entire day to examining American art at three Washington museums, all within walking distance of one another.

A friend joined us for a Saturday morning breakfast at Old Ebbitt Grill, an historic restaurant my father especially likes. After breakfast, we began our day at the nearby Corcoran Gallery. We visited two exhibitions of paintings from the Corcoran’s permanent collection, “American Paintings From The Collection” and “Nature As Nation: 19th-Century American Landscapes”.

From the Corcoran, we walked one block to The Renwick Gallery to view the new salon installation of American paintings.

From The Renwick, we walked to The Smithsonian Museum Of American Art to view the exhibition, “1934: A New Deal For Artists”, a collection of WPA art that turned out to be very similar to a WPA exhibition Josh and I had attended last summer at Minneapolis’s Weisman Art Museum.

The WPA exhibition was very small, and took us no time at all. We spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring The Smithsonian Museum Of American Art’s permanent collection.

None of the Saturday exhibitions was anything to write home about, but we had a very pleasing day. We had a lot of fun simply ambling, looking and discussing. My mother always had something interesting to say about the various artworks we viewed, even the most atrocious ones, and we were all absorbed, digesting what she had to say.

Several of the paintings in the WPA exhibition had originated in Minnesota, a fact we found interesting. Further, right next to the WPA exhibition was an installation of sculpture by Paul Manship, a 20th-Century sculptor from Saint Paul. We had not known about the Manship installation prior to our visit, as it is not even mentioned on the museum’s website. We walked through the installation and were happy to have seen it.

After an early dinner, we attended a performance of Noel Coward’s 1932 play, “Design For Living”, at nearby Shakespeare Theatre. The play managed—just—to hold our attention for three hours. The program notes included a claim by director Michael Kahn that the play was “profound”. The play was as profound as Kahn’s commencement address at American University in Spring 2006, a commencement address we all endured as part of Josh’s extended graduation ceremonies, spread over two full days. I haven’t a clue what Kahn said that day—but then I hadn’t a clue what he said five minutes after he finished speaking.

On Sunday, we ate breakfast at our hotel. After breakfast, we took the subway to The Smithsonian Air And Space Museum, where we killed a very pleasant hour while waiting for The National Gallery Of Art to open for the day.

We viewed two exhibitions at The National Gallery, both emanating from Spain: “Luis Melendez: Master Of The Spanish Still Life” and “The Art Of Power: Royal Armor And Portraits From Imperial Spain”. For the latter exhibition, we were present on opening day. Both exhibitions were of manageable size, and I am glad we had the opportunity to view them.

The Melendez exhibition will travel to Los Angeles later this year and to Boston next year, but the “Royal Armor And Portraits” exhibition was a National Gallery exclusive.

As soon as we had seen the two exhibitions, we took a cab to Lincoln Theatre, temporary home of Washington’s Arena Stage, for the matinee performance of “Looped”, a new play by Matthew Lombardo about Tallulah Bankhead. The play, set in 1965, as Bankhead neared the end of her life, was utter camp, rotten and vulgar. The afternoon was somewhat redeemed by the actress portraying Bankhead, Valerie Harper, who was funny and wicked. The production of “Looped” was sponsored by, but was not a presentation of, Arena Stage.

After the play, we went back to our hotel, retrieved our luggage, and headed back to the airport. We had ninety minutes to kill before our flights, and we sat and had coffee and sandwiches before Josh and I had to catch our plane to Boston and my parents had to catch their plane to Minneapolis.

It was a short weekend, but we were able to see everything we wanted, and we had a stimulating time.

My mother enjoyed the weekend very, very much.

The weekend served its purpose well.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

To Mark The Day

Winslow Homer (1836-1910)
Breezing Up (A Fair Wind)
National Gallery Of Art, Washington

Oil On Canvas
24 3/16 Inches By 38 3/16 Inches

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Royal Ballet

For those who are adherents of the Balanchine aesthetic of dance, performances of Britain’s Royal Ballet are bound to be disappointing.

To begin, and of greatest importance, technical standards at the Royal Ballet are not high. Royal Ballet dancers lack the speed, strength, musicality and sheer virtuosity of American dancers. What passes for dancing on the stage of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, would never fly at New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre.

Further, Royal Ballet dancers remain guilty of the numerous clichés thrown at them over the years, clichés suggesting that Royal Ballet dancers stress “personality” over technique. “Actors in tights”, “they dance with their eyebrows” and “what they lack in muscle tone, they compensate with makeup” are the most common dismissals directed at Royal Ballet dancers. There remains a kernel of truth in all of these clichés, since such unfortunate tendencies continue to plague the company.

Moreover, the Royal Ballet seldom offers much of pure dance interest. Instead of dance, the Royal Ballet offers what must be called pageant, or at least ATTEMPTED pageant (most Royal Ballet offerings do not succeed as pageant any more than they succeed as dance). As a general rule, Royal Ballet dancers and productions are inert, ossified—and hideously overdressed and overstuffed.

All of these tendencies at their worst were on display in the Royal Ballet’s presentation of Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon”, which Josh and I and my parents attended at the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington last Friday night.

MacMillan created his full-length “Manon” in 1974, while he was Director of the Royal Ballet. One of the lamest ballets ever created, “Manon” was the major legacy of the MacMillan era (1970-1977). More than any other MacMillan work, “Manon” marked the death knell of English Classicism and signaled the end of Frederick Ashton’s dominance over the once-great company.

“Manon” also heralded the beginning of the Royal Ballet’s gruesome decline, a decline that has continued, with a pause now and again to attempt to recapture the Ashton magic, for more than thirty-five years. The company has yet to recover from the disastrous MacMillan epoch.

By the end of the MacMillan era, the Royal Ballet was no longer able to dance the Classical repertory or the Ashton repertory with style and conviction. The company’s focus—and capabilities—had shifted toward mastering MacMillan’s own ballets, acutely bad 1970’s versions of German Expressionism in dance.

Things got worse under the directorship of the clueless Norman Morrice (1977-1986), whose background was in modern dance. At the time of the Morrice appointment, it was hoped that Morrice would be able to identify promising new choreographers and engage them for the company. Morrice’s eye for talent-spotting, however, was blind. He was never able to identify new talent—and, more alarmingly, was never able to acquire a satisfactory grasp of the Classical repertory. Mercifully, Morrice’s unhappy directorship was cut short, after which he completely disappeared from view. At the time of his death early last year, Morrice was a forgotten figure—and his tenure at the Royal Ballet had been largely forgotten, too.

Anthony Dowell, a former Royal Ballet dancer steeped in the ballets of Ashton, was appointed to succeed Morrice. Dowell’s assignment was to return the Royal Ballet to its Classical/Ashton roots, but Dowell’s long tenure (1986-2001) was only a measured success, if that. Renewed attention was paid to Ashton, but important new works and important new dancers did not materialize, and the company’s Classical repertory remained in listless shape. The Dowell era ended up being a caretaker regime that went on far too long.

An irrelevant Ross Stretton interlude (2001-2002) yielded little more than reams of malicious newspaper gossip.

Since 2002, the Royal Ballet has been in the hands of another caretaker, Monica Mason, also a former Royal Ballet dancer. Mason was handed the reins with the remit to preserve both the Ashton and the MacMillan repertories—a task impossible on its face, as a company may choose to master Classicism or Expressionism, but not both—and to raise standards in the Classical repertory.

The result, inevitably, is a company that is neither fish nor fowl, destined to offer weak performances of every corner of the repertory. The Ashton repertory suffers, the MacMillan repertory suffers, the Classical repertory suffers. This is the perfect formula for enshrining mediocrity into stone.

And the Royal Ballet last week was undoubtedly mediocre—if it even arose to that low standard. Other than the two principals we saw, Alina Cojocaru (from Romania) and Johan Kobborg (from Denmark), the company was in dreadful shape. I was dumbfounded at the shoddiness of the dancing on the stage.

“Manon” is considered to be a classic in London, but the ballet has always pretty much been sniffed at if not outright dismissed by American dance observers. Last week, the Washington Post reviewer called the ballet “garbage”, and she was not far wrong (although I would have substituted the word “kitsch” for “garbage”). MacMillan’s work is not held in high regard in the U.S., and this is because American audiences exposed to a steady stream of Balanchine cannot be expected take MacMillan’s work seriously.

MacMillan was not a creative, imaginative choreographer in the mold of a Balanchine. His steps have no interest, and no continuity. He was unable to fashion a sequence of phrases and movements into an integrated whole. MacMillan simply had no talent for choreography, as countless experts—among them Balanchine—have been quick to point out.

MacMillan was also not a musical choreographer. He was unable to CHOOSE music wisely—he did not choose good music, and he did not choose “danceable” music—and he was unable to USE music wisely. For MacMillan, music was mere background. He did not choreograph TO or AGAINST the music—instead, the interplay between music and dance was loose, even incidental. In a MacMillan ballet, there is no essential, unbreakable bond between the music and the dance as there is in the work of a great choreographer.

The music for “Manon” proves the point. The score for “Manon” is an ineffective hodgepodge of pieces by Jules Massenet, none borrowed from Massenet’s opera of the same name. The score neither sustains nor supports the story that unfolds on the stage. Further, as might be expected, the score lacks coherency. I cannot imagine a capable choreographer even agreeing to work with such piffle.

However, a bad musical score hardly proves fatal for “Manon” because the ballet itself is the problem. There is not a single moment of choreographic interest.

In fact, I’m not even sure that “Manon” is a ballet.

It is, mostly, a story told in “movement”. Its foundation is not Classical ballet, but the provincial British theatrical. Specifically, its genesis is the world of British pantomime, here transferred to the ballet stage. British pantomime is not now and has never been exportable, and the pantomine-based “Manon” truly should never have been permitted to leave the confines of the British Isles. The rest of the world is very much better off without it.

Why did the Royal Ballet drag this meretricious nonsense halfway around the world for display to a Washington audience?

I wish I knew the answer to that question, because “Manon” was a woeful artistic blunder. (It was a commercial blunder as well—performances in Washington, the only stop on the Royal Ballet’s 2009 U.S. tour, were sparsely attended, even with heavy papering of the Kennedy Center Opera House—and I understand that the Kennedy Center took an ugly financial bath on the engagement.)

Last week’s “Manon” was the second time I have seen the ballet. My middle brother and I saw the Royal Ballet perform “Manon” at Covent Garden in, I think, 2002 (but it may have been 2001 or 2003). I hope never to see the silly thing again.

Ironically, I enjoyed last week’s performance immensely, but this was solely because I focused all my attention on Miss Cojocaru, who gave what must be called a star’s performance.

And Miss Cojocaru is indeed a star. She has riveting stage presence. She can bring anything she dances fully to life. She even managed to give the impression that she believed passionately in the ballet, which had to be quite a trick, as the role of Manon is an inherently ungrateful one, and completely unworthy of Miss Cojocaru’s vast talents.

My parents were delighted to see the Royal Ballet again, but they were not delighted to see “Manon”. Alas, “Manon” was the only ballet on the Royal Ballet bill all last weekend, so we had no choice but to see “Manon” if we wanted to see the Royal Ballet. At least we had our pick of four different casts, and were able to obtain tickets for the finest of the four casts.

My parents had seen “Manon” before, too, in 1978 in Chicago, and all they remembered from that long-ago “Manon” performance was that the ballet itself had been a cipher, the score dreadful, and the physical production sumptuous. Having now seen the ballet a second time, my parents are sticking with their original assessment (although they certainly appreciated Miss Cojocaru).

Josh was diffident about “Manon”. He, too, thought Miss Cojocaru was the best thing about the performance, but he also enjoyed—and laughed at—the shameless mugging of the supporting cast, derived from the silent screen.

Josh was not the only member of the audience smirking and snickering at the silly goings-on onstage. There was more than a little giggling during the performance.

We found the Washington audience’s reaction to “Manon” to be very interesting.

Applause was polite but nowise enthusiastic, not even for Miss Cojocaru. Applause died out even before the large cast managed to take a full round of bows, which is very, very uncommon. The Kennedy Center Opera House emptied within three minutes of the house lights coming up. A fire alarm could not have cleared the house so quickly.

We overheard persons talking at intermission and after the performance, and most persons were comparing the Royal Ballet with the Bolshoi Ballet, which had appeared in Washington the previous week.

Of course, the Bolshoi Ballet continues to maintain very high technical standards while the Royal Ballet does not, and the chitchat we overheard was mostly shock and dismay about the current shabby state of the Royal Ballet. The company is in a veritable state of crisis.

I have always welcomed the chance to see the Royal Ballet. I’m glad I saw the Royal Ballet again, and I’m glad my parents saw the Royal Ballet again, and I’m glad Josh had his first opportunity to see the Royal Ballet.

However, the Royal Ballet’s Washington appearance was altogether embarrassing. The company is in dreadful shape.

I am going to write further about the Royal Ballet.

I am going to write about the Royal Ballet next week, while we are all up at the lake. I have an extensive history of following the Royal Ballet, my parents have an extensive history of following the Royal Ballet, and my sister-in-law has an extensive history of following the Royal Ballet (she, of course, grew up on the Royal Ballet), and I want to record my and their memories of past performances we have attended in different cities at different times.

I will also tell the story of the time my parents met Edris Stannus. (I resolutely refuse to call that foolish woman by the ridiculous public name she chose for herself. The woman was the daughter of an Irish glassmaker. She had no connection to the House Of Valois and she was not a descendant of the Capetian Dynasty.)


“To me, the stage is alive only when there are ideas on it. And there are no ideas in ballet.”—British Stage Director Peter Hall

A sentiment applicable to the ballets of Kenneth MacMillan, Mr. Hall, but surely not to the ballets of George Balanchine.