Monday, January 18, 2010

Five Performances

On Thursday night, Joshua and I went to Symphony Hall to hear Colin Davis conduct the Boston Symphony in music of Mozart and Elgar.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 (“Prague”) opened the program. Davis offered a large-scale and stately performance of the work, but there was very little drama in Davis’s interpretation. The “Prague” was Mozart’s most overtly-dramatic symphony until his final three masterpieces in the form, but Davis offered more sturdiness than drama.

The attraction of the concert was the second half of the program: Elgar’s Violin Concerto played by Nikolaj Znaider.

Znaider is a great, great artist. I can offer no higher tribute.

Znaider has a very individual sound, a sound that is his and his alone. His sound is as unique as a human voice and, like a human voice, cannot adequately be described and must be heard.

Znaider’s sound has great purity and focus, and in this respect he reminds me of a Jascha Heifetz. He eschews overt lush sound such as that produced by an Itzhak Perlman or a Pinchas Zukerman, and he does not seek to display the excessive brightness of a Zino Francescatti or a Midori. His sound has warmth and color, but not as much warmth as a David Oistrakh and not as much color as an Anne-Sophie Mutter. His sound is dark, but he does not cultivate the extreme darkness of a Maxim Vengerov.

In his phrasing, Znaider displays great specificity, great intelligence and great personality. He does nothing “odd” or different for the sake of being different, yet his playing is unlike anyone else’s. He has a thousand shadings and a thousand touches at his disposal, and he can seize one’s attention from his very first entrance and hold it for the duration of a performance. At age 34, he is already a master violinist and a master musician.

I did not think that the Elgar was necessarily Znaider’s concerto, because I thought Znaider missed some of the grand rhetoric inherent in the work. An artist who errs on the side of understatement, Znaider nonetheless offered an absolutely mesmerizing account of the concerto, tragic when required, dramatic when called for, and fully convincing in the concerto’s many whispered personal utterances. The concerto was all of a piece in Znaider’s hands, and had a distinct English sensibility as well. One can ask for nothing more.

On Thursday night, we witnessed greatness.

I wish my parents had been in the hall.

The conductor and orchestra contributed very little to the performance, but I suspect that Davis and the Boston musicians were fearful of interfering with the genius of the man with whom they shared the stage.

Josh fell in love with the Elgar Violin Concerto Thursday night.

Thursday night was Josh’s third encounter with the work. We had heard the Minnesota Orchestra perform the concerto a couple of years ago (conductor: Neville Marriner; soloist: Jorja Fleezanis). Eighteen months ago, we had listened to Zukerman’s second recording of the concerto (with Leonard Slatkin and the Saint Louis Symphony). Those unsatisfying experiences had not prepared Josh for Thursday night, when he was gripped by the concerto for the first time. The Elgar concerto is, perhaps, one of those works whose greatness may be revealed only by a great performance—and Josh changed his opinion of the piece after Thursday night.

We were happy we had decided to make use of our tickets.

On Friday, we drove down to New York for the weekend, still talking about the Elgar during our drive. We both regretted that we did not have a disc of the Elgar with us in Boston so that we could listen to it again as we made our way down 95.

We arrived in Manhattan in the middle of the afternoon. After check-in, we stayed in our hotel until late afternoon. We were not in any hurry to get out and about and walk the streets; instead, we enjoyed the views of Central Park.

At 5:30 p.m., we left our hotel and walked to Times Square.

We ate dinner at the Times Square Ruby Tuesday—and we chose a chain restaurant only because we knew that the food at Ruby Tuesday would be reliable and dependable and meet a certain standard. I have suffered more poor dinners in New York than in any other city except London, and neither Josh nor I wanted to hazard a bad dinner. We were, after all, hungry, having skipped lunch.

We ordered crab cake with steamed broccoli and white cheddar mashed potatoes, and we were entirely pleased with our food. We even had dessert: Italian cream cake.

From Ruby Tuesday, we walked to the Walter Kerr Theatre, where we had tickets for the Friday evening performance of Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 musical, “A Little Night Music”. Neither of us had seen a staging of “A Little Night Music”.

There is one fatal flaw in the original material that is disguised to those, like Josh and me, familiar with the show only through its original cast recording: Hugh Wheeler’s book.

Wheeler’s book is dreadful: inept, coarse, and completely in the wrong tone for a musical with such an elegant score. I am astonished that the book passed muster with the original director, Harold Prince—and I am astonished that the Wheeler book had not been discarded for this revival, and a new book commissioned. It is inevitable that the gruesome Wheeler book will be thrown out in a decade or two—why wait to delay the inevitable? The book should be shelved now.

The book aside, “A Little Night Music” holds up well, although there is little evidence of this in the current Broadway production.

Jonathan Tunick’s beautiful 1973 orchestrations have been discarded for this revival, replaced with a “minimalist” arrangement played by eight musicians. The arrangements are not good, and render the score more small-scale—and colorless—than it should be. I assume this maneuver was a result of cost-cutting, one of many indications on view that this particular revival was “on the cheap”.

The stage design was a shamelessly low-budget affair, costing next to nothing to create and requiring what must be the smallest number of stagehands in the history of musical theater to manage.

The costume design was no better—black costumes in Act I, white costumes in Act II, a silly construct—and the costumes (and materials) looked as cheap and listless as everything else in the production.

If tickets had cost $20.00 per seat, none of this would have mattered. However, “A Little Night Music” is commanding top Broadway prices, and the public is paying through the nose for an approximation of the score and a physical production that is bush league. At the conclusion of the performance, I felt as if we were entitled to ask for an 80% refund.

Aside from Angela Lansbury, who portrayed Madame Armfeldt, the Broadway revival is totally miscast and performed at a level that does not even arise to summer stock.

Catherine Zeta-Jones was very much a down-market Desiree, brassy, vulgar and lewd, an aging showgirl straight from a Las Vegas revue. She should have portrayed the maid.

The Fredrik was a London import that came with the production. He, like the production, should have remained on the other side of the pond.

The Charlotte and Carl-Magnus offered civic-theater performances, and the Henrik and Anne offered performances that did not even arise to that low standard. None of the cast members could sing.

The current “A Little Night Music” is, truly, about as bad as it gets.

Throughout the show, Josh and I heard people around us grumbling, constantly, about the feebleness of the whole enterprise.

Why did not this disastrous revival close after opening night? Bloomington Civic Theater produces musicals to a higher standard (and apparently employs far higher budgets, too).

The answer, of course, is the presence of Lansbury and Zeta-Jones. Without those two names on the marquee, this revival would have sold approximately three tickets.

Lansbury is a legend, a stage actress of consummate skill, and it was a privilege to be in her presence. Zeta-Jones is a Hollywood figure, not particularly talented and not particularly appealing, and it was painful to watch her go through the motions of portraying a character onstage.

Friends of my parents saw the original Broadway production of “A Little Night Music” only a couple of weeks after it opened, presumably when the original cast’s performances were still fresh. To this day, they contend that it was one of the best things they have ever seen, and they also insist that Glynis Johns was heartbreaking as Desiree.

My parents saw The National Touring Company production of “A Little Night Music” in Chicago in November 1974, exactly one month before my older brother was born. The National Touring Company production featured the same cast (Jean Simmons was the Desiree) that was to open the show in London in 1975. My parents recall that the production fell flat as a pancake, lacking all magic. They recall Margaret Hamilton, the Madame Armfeldt, flubbing her lines so badly in “Liaisons” that she settled for humming two-thirds of the number. They also recall Jean Simmons able to make absolutely nothing of “Send In The Clowns”.

The natural realm of “A Little Night Music” is no longer the commercial theater—it is the opera house. The show requires a full orchestra and trained voices to make an impact, a requirement demonstrated time and again Friday night, when not a single one of the musical numbers “worked”. Over the coming decades, “A Little Night Music” will live on in opera houses and nowhere else, and this is as it should be—the show, at root, is a variant of operetta, and should be performed only by forces familiar with the requirements of the form.

On Saturday morning, we ate breakfast at one of the restaurants in our hotel. The food was excellent, exceptionally well-presented yet also absurdly overpriced. A glass of orange juice (albeit fresh-squeezed) cost $9.00

We ordered four-cheese omelets followed by banana-macadamia nut pancakes with whipped-banana brown-sugar butter. We were very happy with our meal—and, at the price, we should have been. Once taxes and gratuities were added, we had to shell out $175.00.

After breakfast, we took the subway up to the Guggenheim Museum. Josh had never visited the Guggenheim, and he wanted to see the building more than the collection.

We spent a couple of hours at the Guggenheim, exploring the portions of the building that were open (the Guggenheim is between major exhibitions at present, and portions of the building are closed).

In addition to enjoying the building itself, we viewed two small exhibitions, both taken from the museum’s permanent collection: a display of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings from the Thannhauser Collection; and a display entitled “Expressionist Paintings Before World War I”. We enjoyed both exhibitions very much.

After the Guggenheim, we took the subway back to Midtown, because we had matinee tickets to Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter”, a production of Roundabout Theatre Company currently in previews at American Airlines Theatre (the official opening is scheduled for Thursday night).

“Present Laughter” is a diverting and moderately amusing play, and we enjoyed the afternoon.

Victor Garber played the lead. Garber is a fine actor, but he lacks the “star quality” demanded of a play about a matinee idol (and he is also too old for the part by twenty years). Harriet Harris, an actress we had last seen in “The Glass Menagerie” at The Guthrie Theater, was in the cast, as was Nancy E. Carroll, a Boston-based actress we have seen in two Boston productions, “The Year Of Magical Thinking” and “The Savannah Disputation”.

This was by no means a stylish or unified production of “Present Laughter”, and the production level was that of regional theater, yet the material registered. It was not a waste of our time.

After the matinee, we walked down to Macy’s Herald Square in order to kill time until the evening performance. Josh had never visited Macy’s, and he wanted to experience the store. We walked around for ninety minutes before heading back to the theater district.

We ate dinner at an Italian restaurant that claimed to specialize in Venetian cuisine. We probably ordered the wrong entree—we both ordered chicken breasts and baby vegetables, which may be ordered at any American restaurant—but at least our soup was genuinely Italian: soup made with cannellini beans and homemade pasta. Our food was perfectly acceptable.

After dinner, we walked to the Cort Theatre to attend a preview performance of Arthur Miller’s “A View From The Bridge” in its revised, two-act version from 1956 (the official opening is scheduled for next Sunday).

A labored melodrama, “A View From The Bridge” is one of the least subtle plays ever written. The play is one of Miller’s many thinly-veiled attacks on McCarthyism, already out-of-date by 1955, the year in which the original one-act version was first performed. The lines assigned to the various characters derive from placards. There is a musty, 1930’s sensibility to the work, as if Miller had never been able to recover from the early years of The Great Depression. Many persons have contended that Miller wrote the same play over and over for fifty years, and there is some merit in that assertion: Josh had never seen a production of “A View From The Bridge” before Saturday night and yet, at play’s end, he announced that he had already seen this play a hundred times.

I did not know what to make of the New York production, which was heavy, blatant and staggeringly obvious. The material is so bad, however, that the quality of a particular production probably becomes an irrelevant consideration. No director and no cast could possibly bring such agitprop to life. I doubt that anyone alive accepts “A View From The Bridge” as genuine drama. Revivals of the play are surely mounted as historic artifacts.

Why did we buy tickets for “A View From The Bridge”? We elected to see “A View From The Bridge” for the very same reason we had elected to see “A Little Night Music” and “Present Laughter”: those were the only three productions on Broadway that held the slightest interest for us.

Broadway is dead. I cannot believe that Broadway now offers nothing more than a proliferation of musicals, most of which I cannot imagine sitting through. I simply cannot comprehend the attraction of “Jersey Boys”, or “In The Heights”, or “Bye, Bye, Birdie”, or “Finian’s Rainbow”, or “West Side Story”, or “Hair”, or “The Lion King”, or “Billy Elliott”, or “Mamma Mia!”, or “Mary Poppins”, or “Wicked”. Broadway has become Las Vegas.

On Sunday morning, we ate breakfast in the same hotel restaurant as Saturday morning, as we had liked the food so much. We ordered bacon and eggs, followed by Belgian waffles with fresh berries and Devonshire cream.

After breakfast, we walked down to the Morgan Library And Museum, which Josh had never visited. We arrived as it opened for the day, and we spent a couple of hours viewing the current exhibitions and touring the restored rotunda, library, librarian’s office and J.P. Morgan’s study, all designed by Charles McKim in the early 20th Century. The McKim interiors were the highlight of our visit—the grand rooms, considered to be one of the architect’s greatest legacies, were magnificent.

The current Morgan exhibitions we did not find to be particularly interesting. One exhibition was devoted to Jane Austen, another was devoted to the history of the Morgan buildings, and a third was devoted to Near Eastern cylinder seals.

After the Morgan, we walked all the way up to Lincoln Center. We had tickets for the 3:00 p.m. matinee at New York City Ballet, a performance of Peter Martins’s version of the full-length “Romeo And Juliet”.

We had never seen the Martins’s “Romeo And Juliet”—it had premiered in Spring 2007—and we were keen to see what Martins had made of Prokofiev’s masterpiece.

I hated the thing. I thought it was atrocious.

Martins’s is a very pared-down version of “Romeo And Juliet”, starting with the title, which has become “Romeo + Juliet” in City Ballet lexicon. Martins dispensed with a good portion of the score, too, reducing Prokofiev’s carefully-conceived three-act structure to two, with the intermission placed at the conclusion of Act II, Scene I.

The stage designs, abstract and not handsome, as well as the costume designs were disastrous, featuring garish colors and geometric patterns seemingly inspired by early productions of Stravinsky’s “Jeu De Cartes”.

There was a great deal of activity onstage—indeed, there was activity galore—but the story got lost amid all the frenetic movement. Some of the choreography worked quite well as a series of set pieces, but as drama this production was inert, a true non-starter.

“Romeo And Juliet”, despite its great score, may be an impossible ballet to bring off: no one has ever done it.

In the ballet world, there has long been a joke about the three versions of “Romeo And Juliet” that have managed to hold the stage for some reasonable period of time.

QUESTION: Which “Romeo And Juliet” version is best? The Ashton? The Cranko? The MacMillan?

ANSWER: Whichever version I am not currently sitting through.

Each of the three well-known versions of “Romeo And Juliet” has its problems, but each of those versions has something to recommend it, too. Martins’s version has absolutely nothing in its favor. It is a case of no merits and all demerits.

We could not help but notice that City Ballet’s 2010 repertory season is heavily weighted toward full-length ballets, something I have never seen before at NYCB. “Swan Lake”, “The Sleeping Beauty”, “Romeo And Juliet”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Jewels” are all part of the 2010 season. Is this unprecedented focus on full-length ballets a concession to the current economic environment?

After the “Romeo And Juliet” performance, we walked back to our hotel, retrieved the car, and drove back to Boston.

We arrived home, famished, a few minutes past 10:00 p.m.

We had eaten nothing since breakfast and, Monday being a holiday, we stayed up late and prepared a full dinner: an elaborate garden salad, baked steak (using my mother’s recipe), French-fried potatoes, steamed lima beans, steamed white corn and Waldorf salad.

Despite the late hour, it was worth the trouble.

Update Of 24 January 2010: My mother has just informed me that Jean Simmons, the Desiree in that long-ago "A Little Night Music" my parents attended in Chicago, has died.


  1. Wow! What a week you've had! :o) I'm jealous you got to hear the violin & cello concerts, though it seems the Broadway offerings dampened the trip a bit. :o( But getting to see Angela Landsbury live is way cool nonetheless!

    The Lyric Opera here is doing A Little Night Music next month, I think. Think I'll go since I haven't seen it live. For the moment, though, I'm still raving about Elina Garanca as Carmen in the Met HD broadcast (will catch the rebroadcast of Der Rosenkavalier next week, then our SD Opera season begins with La Boheme). Thought her an ice queen before, but she was so hot in every way imaginable (though the voice was still rather cold and detached in the most dramatic scenes of the last two acts) she melted the whole sold out theater. :o)

    Anyhow! Hope the week is going well in Boston (I'm afraid we've just sent another winter storm your way... Sorry!). Thanks a bunch for letting us in on your days!

    Smorgy :o)

  2. Hey, Smorg.

    I read somewhere recently about that upcoming San Diego production of "A Little Night Music". It is supposed to feature a very good cast of singers. I hope you enjoy it.

    I have never been to a Met HD presentation, and I have never heard Garanca (to the best of my recollection).

    Do you think Stephanie Blythe might be convincing in "The Grand Duchess Of Gerolstein"?