Sunday, October 31, 2010


For the last month or more, Joshua and I have kept in our player four discs, listening to them when we have had down time.

Haydn’s Symphonies Nos. 97-99, performed by the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, on the Sony label

Puccini’s “Tosca”, performed by Montserrat Caballe, Jose Carreras, Ingwar Wixell and the Chorus And Orchestra Of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, under Colin Davis, on the Philips label

Orchestral music of Witold Lutoslawski, performed by the BBC Philharmonic under Yan Pascal Tortelier, on the Chandos label

We found the Haydn disc to be the ideal ear-preparing prelude to Puccini’s gorgeous and sumptuous orchestral palette in “Tosca”, and we found the Lutoslawski disc to be the perfect ear-cleansing hydration after emerging from an immersion in Puccinian excess.


George Szell was a magnificent Haydn conductor, and the Haydn disc—part of the discontinued Sony Masterworks Heritage series—is one of the most distinguished Haydn releases in the active or inactive catalog.

Numbers 97 and 99 were recorded in 1957; Number 98 was recorded in 1969. The sound for all three symphonies is superb, and there is very little difference in recording quality between the 1957 and 1969 readings. The sound is rich and full, with plenty of body and presence and plenty of detail. Happily, the elimination of tape hiss has been achieved without bleaching the sound picture, which is not always the case with remastered releases. So excellent is the sound quality that one might mistake the recordings as originating in the late 1970’s, at the end of the analog era, and not one and two decades earlier.

According to the accompanying booklet notes, Szell performed only twelve Haydn symphonies during his 24 years in Cleveland (although the twelve in question were programmed more than once and often taken on tour). This greatly surprised me, as Szell was always renowned as a Haydn conductor and I had always assumed—wrongly—that Szell had maintained a vast Haydn repertory. Contrary to my erroneous expectation, Szell during his Cleveland tenure had recycled the same twelve symphonies over and over (most of the twelve coming from Haydn’s final period of symphonic writing), offering two or three per season in order that repeats occur infrequently. Since most Haydn symphonies in Szell’s repertory were recorded for posterity, today’s listeners may enjoy virtually all of Szell’s thoughts on Haydn.

Szell’s Haydn is simultaneously energetic and elegant, and I do not believe that this rare combination is true for any other Haydn conductor except Fritz Reiner (who recorded—to superb effect—three Haydn symphonies with his incomparable ensemble in Chicago).

Szell’s shaping of phrases is exceedingly specific and exceedingly precise, and this sets Szell apart from other notable Haydn conductors such as Eugen Jochum and Colin Davis, neither of whom can match Szell for meticulous command of detail.

Despite the use of larger forces than would be used today for Haydn, Szell obtains incredible transparency from his musicians. Everything “sounds”. Everything may be heard, everything is in perfect balance. I cannot imagine today’s orchestras obtaining similar results unless a new Haydn conductor were to emerge.

If one may quibble about the performances, one might note that there is not much warmth in Szell’s Haydn and that other conductors have explored the opportunities for humor to greater effect.


Puccini’s “Tosca” is a masterful score, and I am always surprised when musicians or music-lovers criticize it (which they have done, repeatedly, since the work was unveiled in 1900). The melodramatic subject matter may, perhaps, be faulted, but the score itself is an undoubted masterpiece.

Puccini’s writing is very sophisticated. Puccini composed his operas much like a writer of absolute music, always with a long-term harmonic plan in mind and always with the sound of a full orchestra in his ear.

Unlike Verdi, Puccini did not first compose the vocal line to a text, and afterward address issues of harmony and orchestration. For Puccini, vocal line, harmony and orchestration were from the outset inherent parts of his compositional process. The result was a richness of musical fabric that Verdi and earlier Italian composers could never have contemplated let alone achieved.

Puccini’s command of orchestral writing was total—and, as a result, the conductor becomes the most important component of a Puccini performance.

Consequently, the treasured Philips “Tosca” set, recorded in 1976, owes its exalted status, above all, to the work of Colin Davis.

Is this “Tosca” Davis’s finest opera recording? I think it is. It is superior to any of Davis’s Mozart or Berlioz or Britten opera recordings—and, oddly, it is the only fully successful studio recording Davis ever made of an Italian opera.

Davis’s pacing of the drama is supreme. Choosing spacious, even stately, tempos, Davis rivets the listener’s attention from the dramatic opening chords. Davis knows how to propel the drama forward, increase tension, and build and control climaxes—and he knows how to capture the great moments of release that occur in each of the three acts. Victor De Sabata and Herbert Von Karajan were no better at creating and controlling drama in their own acclaimed recordings of “Tosca” than Davis is here.

Davis is helped by spectacular sound engineering. The Philips sound is luxurious and opulent, lending radiance to the orchestra, yet orchestral detail is always on display. From a pure sound perspective, this is one of the finest opera recordings ever made.

This “Tosca” is also invaluable because it catches Jose Carreras in his prime in a congenial role. Indeed, it may be Carreras’s finest complete opera recording.

His voice is caught at its absolute peak, and what a voice it was! The sound was glorious, the timbre unique, the production smooth as silk, the legato effortless, the command of Italianate style and phrasing sure.

Montserrat Caballe is also caught in superb form. Gifted with a voice of ravishing beauty, Caballe pours out a rich stream of heavenly sound that resembles liquefied amber poured from a sacred vessel. This “Tosca” may be Caballe’s finest complete opera recording, too.

Ingvar Wixell did not possess a voice of the same quality as Carreras and Caballe. In fact, Wixell’s voice was grainy, almost rough, and his voice lacked Italianate quality. He compensates for lack of vocal splendor by offering a detailed dramatic performance of great power and some subtlety—indeed, as pure drama, his performance is probably superior to and more admirable than the performances offered by his better-endowed co-stars—and ultimately succeeds in establishing himself as an interesting, multi-dimensional man of evil and not simply a stock villain.

In sum, this set is profoundly enjoyable. (It also is the first recording of an Italian opera that Josh has whole-heartedly loved. He listened to this “Tosca” over and over and over.)

Is this “Tosca” the finest recording of the opera ever made?

I think it very well may be.


We chose to listen to music of Witold Lutoslawski because Josh wanted to begin to get to know this modern composer greatly admired by me but completely unknown to Josh.

We specifically selected the Chandos disc because the disc contains the Concerto For Orchestra (composed between 1950 and 1954) and Musique Funebre (composed between 1954 and 1958), two compositions I believe are excellent, even ideal, introductions to Lutoslawski’s sound world.

The three-movement Concerto For Orchestra is probably Lutoslawski’s most-frequently-performed work, no doubt because it is one of his most accessible compositions. Based upon scraps of Polish folk tunes, the Concerto For Orchestra is largely tonal (but also largely dissonant) and very traditional in its structure (Introduction; Capriccio and Aria; Passacaglia, Toccata and Chorale). However, the Concerto For Orchestra is also very atypical Lutoslawski in that it was the composer’s final composition written in a conservative tonal idiom before embracing, first, the twelve-tone system (to which Lutoslawski afterward adhered only in part) and, later, aleatoric methods (which the composer was to abandon after fifteen years of on-and-off use).

The one-movement (with four distinct sections) Musique Funebre, written immediately after the Concerto For Orchestra and dedicated to the memory of Bela Bartok, was Lutoslawski’s first work written using twelve-tone techniques—and, more importantly, was Lutoslawski’s first masterpiece. Musique Funebre, written for strings alone, bears many resemblances to Bartok’s Music For Strings, Percussion And Celesta—although the composer always insisted that Bartok was his inspiration but not his model—and its grave, solemn beauty contains the seeds of everything Lutoslawski’s music was to become over the next thirty-five years: extraordinarily imaginative, highly original, exceedingly virtuosic and deeply spiritual.

[The Chandos disc also includes the composer’s one-movement Mi-Parti (“composed of two equal but unlike parts”), Lutoslawski’s final composition incorporating aleatoric devices, devices the composer first used in 1960 and 1961 in Jeux Venitiens and devices the composer was to abandon after Mi-Parti (Mi-Parti was composed in 1975 and 1976). Josh and I did not listen seriously to Mi-Parti, giving up after a couple of tries both because I have never been able to understand or respond to Mi-Parti and because Josh positively detested the piece.]

The Concerto For Orchestra, followed by Musique Funebre, provides a fine listening sequence and a fine listening experience, the first piece featuring lots of surface activity and the second piece providing lots of genuine emotion. As I had suspected, Josh appreciated the Musique Funebre much more than the Concerto For Orchestra, a work that—despite its accessibility and despite its current popularity—is not particularly engaging and not especially rewarding and not at all memorable.

The performances on the Chandos disc are pleasing—although there are, unquestionably, superior versions of these same scores elsewhere on disc. The performances are well-drilled and well-played, although I suspect a lot of multi-takes were required in order to obtain clean performances (two full days of studio work were involved in the making of this recording, a recording that features only sixty minutes of music already prepared and presented in concert and on tour prior to the orchestra going into the recording studio).

Certainly a lot of multi-miking and a lot of manipulation in the control room was involved in the preparation of this recording, both because there is no natural perspective to be heard and because no orchestra sounds as impossibly bright as the Manchester-based BBC Philharmonic (a provincial ensemble, and nothing more) sounds on this Chandos disc.

The recording was made in 1993 and released in 1996.

Lutoslawki’s music is still in the process of being digested and assimilated by musicians and music-lovers everywhere, and I suspect that his place in the repertory will grow significantly over the next fifty years.

Indeed, it would not surprise me if the music of Lutoslawksi were to displace the music of Shostakovich from our concert halls over the next one and two generations. Surely the fourth and final symphony of Lutoslawski, by itself, is worth more than Shostakovich’s entire symphonic output.

And did not Shostakovich himself—who did not live to encounter the final eighteen years of incomparable masterpieces that Lutoslawski was to write after Shostakovich’s death—foretell this?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Haydn Season

Not necessarily by design, Joshua and I seem to be experiencing a Franz Joseph Haydn celebration.

For the last month or more, we have been listening to, among other things, a disc of Haydn’s Symphonies Nos. 97, 98 and 99.

An hour ago, we decided to attend tomorrow afternoon’s concert by The Handel And Haydn Society, which will perform Haydn’s Symphonies Nos. 83 (“Hen”) and 94 (“Surprise”).

In two weeks, when my parents will come for a visit, we shall hear the Boston Symphony play Haydn’s Symphonies Nos. 80 and 95.

Haydn is inexhaustible—and it is not often that one has the opportunity to hear so many Haydn symphonies within a short period of time.

Friday, October 29, 2010

“I Dream With Open Eyes, And My Eyes See”

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1800-1882)
Portrait Of Heinrich Heine
Hamburg Kunsthalle

Oil On Paper On Canvas
17 3/8 Inches By 13 5/8 Inches


Moritz Oppenheim’s famous portrait of Heinrich Heine was painted in 1831, the year Heine was forced to leave Germany for France, where he lived in exile for the rest of his life.

If to the Germans Heine remained an outsider, to the French he remained a German. Never entirely comfortable in Paris living a life of banishment, Heine ached for his homeland.

Denk ich an Deutschland in der Nacht,
Dann bin ich um den Schlaf gebracht,
Ich kann nicht mehr die Augen schliessen,
Und meine heissen Traenen fliessen.

When I think of Germany by night,
My dreams turn into fright,
My eyes can no longer sleep,
As I break down and passionately weep.

Heinrich Heine (1797-1856)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Opera Boston's "Fidelio"

I never miss a chance to hear Beethoven’s “Fidelio”.

“Fidelio”, for me, is always a welcome experience. I never need to prepare myself, mentally or emotionally, to hear “Fidelio”—and the same cannot be said of most Italian operas or the stage works of Wagner and Strauss. No matter my mood and no matter my frame of mind, “Fidelio” always captures my attention, instantly and fully. “Fidelio” is one of two only operas I could enjoy if forcibly wakened at 3:30 a.m. and required to listen to an opera from beginning to end (the other is Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”).

I have never heard a satisfactory live account of the score and I have never witnessed a compelling stage production of the work, yet an announcement of “Fidelio” will always get me into the theater or concert hall.

On Sunday afternoon, Joshua and I attended Opera Boston's "Fidelio”, and we were pleased we made the effort. Josh knew “Fidelio” from the excellent Otto Klemperer recording, but Sunday afternoon was his first opportunity to experience the work in person.

We did not expect much. Exactly two years ago, we had attended a gruesome Opera Boston performance of Weber’s “Der Freischutz”, and the presentation—musical and dramatic—had been so inept that we believed that the company had intentionally set out to destroy the great work. Exactly one year ago, we had suffered through a grim Opera Boston performance of Rossini’s “Tancredi”, worth sitting through only because of the presence of Ewa Podles.

Sunday’s “Fidelio”, in no way distinguished, was nonetheless nowhere near as bad as our two previous experiences with Opera Boston.

For starters, the physical production was not atrocious. The physical production certainly was not good, but it was—mostly—a serious attempt to create a stage-worthy framework for the enactment of Beethoven’s musical drama. The stage design and stage direction were at the level of a college production, no more, yet Sunday’s “Fidelio” was light years better than the insufferable “Freischutz” and “Tancredi” we had endured from Opera Boston in the past.

“Fidelio” is a genre opera of a short-lived type: the French “rescue” drama of the late-18th Century/early-19th Century, a genre whose origins lie in The French Revolution. In the French “rescue” drama, the theme is release from tyranny. Such works became fashionable all over Europe from approximately 1790 until 1815, after which the genre died coincident with the fall of Napoleon and the onset of The Congress Of Vienna. “Fidelio” is the sole example of the French “rescue” drama that has remained in the opera repertory.

“Fidelio” is not a pure example of French “rescue” drama: the early scenes derive from German singspiel, charming and rustic, and the closing scene is grand philosophical statement, a trial run for the concluding movement of the composer’s Ninth Symphony. In theory, such a mixture should not work—yet “Fidelio” has held the stage for 200 years. It remains one of the most powerful and noble of all works for the lyric stage.

The work’s power and nobility came across on Sunday, even though the director of Opera Boston’s “Fidelio” made a few boneheaded and juvenile misjudgments that undercut the drama of the great work as well as established that he did not genuinely believe in or trust the material.

First, the dialogue was presented in English translation while the musical numbers were sung to the original German text, an inherently-ridiculous practice that should never be attempted unless the intended audience is a group of high school students.

Second, characters were always given something to do during their arias, an absurd peculiarity of current American opera production that always proves distracting both for singer and audience. In Beethoven’s arias, the drama is in the music; the assignment of “stage business” cheapens the music and cheapens the drama.

Third, the director set Beethoven’s drama of political tyranny during the time of The Spanish Inquisition, an event known for religious, not political, persecution. The director further muddied the waters by introducing an explicit and absurd anti-Cleric subtext nowhere supported in the libretto or score. Anyone encountering “Fidelio” for the first time would have been justified in believing that the central theme of the work was the depraved behavior of The Roman Catholic Church, alarmingly base and in need of regeneration, and not freedom from the rule of despots.

Fourth, the director introduced gratuitous elements into the staging, some merely silly and some positively offensive. Some characters, Cleric and non-Cleric alike, were required to engage in onstage sexual behavior. Other characters, Cleric without exception, were shown as keen on torture, perversion and debauchery. The director, apparently a lapsed Roman Catholic, showed himself as bearing a massive grudge against the Church. I am not Roman Catholic and, consequently, I was able to laugh off much of the staging; a devout Roman Catholic probably would not have enjoyed the same luxury.

The cast members looked uncomfortable all afternoon, required, as they were, to run around onstage in undergarments (or less); to pretend that they were torturing shackled victims with hot pokers applied to sensitive body parts; and to engage in Monty Pythonesque impersonations of Church officials. Under the circumstances, it was no wonder that there was not a genuine performance to be seen onstage.

Vocally, this was an unimpressive “Fidelio”, offering singers of “local” caliber giving performances of “local” standard. As a purely provincial presentation, surely the standard by which Opera Boston must be judged, this “Fidelio” employed a satisfactory Rocco and Pizarro, a weak Marzelline, Jacquino and Florestan.

The Leonore was Christine Goerke, a singer some persons might categorize as “mid-major”.

I was unimpressed with Goerke, although she certainly displayed the finest voice of the afternoon. Goerke lacked necessary power and thrust (and polish) in the Abscheulicher, which did not come off at all—it came off as a number that had to be got through, not one of the supreme highlights of the score. Elsewhere, Goerke was capable but uninteresting, demonstrating a voice of some size but a voice that lacks color, luster, gleam and a distinctive timbre.

Goerke’s contribution to the finale was perhaps her finest moment, where her voice rode the ensemble well, but I do not think that Leonore is Goerke’s role. Goerke is not a natural Hochdramatische—and only a Hochdramatische can soar in the Abscheulicher—and Goerke is not a creature of the stage. Goerke is probably shown to better advantage in concert work in less heavy repertory.

The orchestra, chorus and conductor did not provide adequate support. All had made a giant mess of “Der Freischutz” two years ago, and all had been utterly lost in the subtleties of “Tancredi” one year ago, not having a clue how to bring Rossini opera seria to life.

Somehow, I had expected these same forces to be much more polished and much more confident in “Fidelio”—after all, the score of “Fidelio” is much easier to perform than the score of “Der Freischutz”, and much more familiar to American musicians than the score of “Tancredi”—but, if anything, they were worse. The level of orchestral performance was that of a pickup ensemble granted two rehearsals. The level of choral performance was that of a pickup group granted four rehearsals. Such a rehearsal schedule is not sufficient for what was represented and sold to the public as a professional performance of “Fidelio”

The company urgently needs to engage a competent Music Director. Musically, Sunday’s “Fidelio” was limp and drab. Conductor Gil Rose provided an uninspiring, even lifeless, account of the score, offering a reading devoid of energy, concentration, character and drama. Rose was unable even to maintain basic coordination between pit and stage, let alone explore and reveal the power and beauty of Beethoven’s score.

Rose is a very unimpressive musician. I have now heard him hack his way through three masterful scores. It’s time for him to be replaced.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Varlaam Monastery

Varlaam Monastery, which we visited on the afternoon of March 17.

Stopped By Stronger Forces

The consequences of nationalist and racialist ferocity are no strangers to us in the 1990s. We have witnessed them in the Near and Far East, in Africa, in India and, most painfully to many of us, in the former Yugoslavia. Whether those who suffer are Jews, or Kurds, blacks or whites, Arabs, Muslims, Orthodox, Protestant or Catholic Christians, we know that there is no end to intolerance, and yet in practice there is an end, though it is rarely either honorable or lasting. It comes, not when the people involved become politically wiser, spiritually purer or emotionally calmer and more enlightened, but simply when they find themselves stopped by stronger forces, or they run out of steam.

Gitta Sereny, writing in 1995

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Romanov Children In 1910

The Romanov children, posed in formal Court dress, in happier times.

The Last Tsar

I recently completed reading Edvard Radzinsky’s “The Last Tsar: The Life And Death Of Nicholas II”.

“The Last Tsar” was published in the U.S. in 1992 and, insofar as I can ascertain, the book remains in print.

I cannot imagine why, because “The Last Tsar” is a very outdated—and very bad—book.

The book is outdated because Radzinsky suggests that Alexei and Anastasia survived the 1918 massacre of the Romanov family, and Radzinsky offers eyewitness testimony—second- and third-hand eyewitness testimony—in support of this possibility. The world now knows, through discovery of the Romanov grave and DNA tests that followed, that all members of the Romanov family indeed perished on the night of July 17, 1918.

Much of Radzinsky’s book, accordingly, needs to be rewritten—and this is so even though few reasonable persons believed or accepted, in 1992 (or earlier), that Alexei and Anastasia had somehow met a fate different from that of other family members.

At the very least, the publishers, Doubleday (hardback) and Anchor (paperback), should long ago have commissioned a new Forward for current editions in order to reflect post-1992 developments. Keeping the original text in print, without explication or update, is irresponsible on the part of the book’s publishers.

The book is bad because Radzinsky does not know how to write history or handle the presentation of factual material. Narrative flow is nonexistent. Radzinsky flits from subject to subject, theme to theme, year to year, character sketch to character sketch, to the point that the reader begs for the intervention of a competent editor (Jacqueline Onassis was editor of “The Last Tsar”). The book is more a loose fantasia on Tsar Nicholas’s life than a conventional biography or scholarly study.

Radzinsky’s writing is tortuous. He is by nature long-winded, and his tendency toward flowery, convoluted descriptions and Dostoevskian “analyses” only serves to magnify the ineptitude of prose already heavy and ponderous. His is some of the worst history writing I have ever encountered. (I assume the English translation is faithful to the Russian original). At least one-third of the book could have been cut without loss of a single important fact or idea.

Almost half the book is devoted to the last year of the Tsar’s life, yet Radzinsky has nothing new to offer about the Tsar and his family in captivity. Everything has been covered elsewhere—and everything has been covered better elsewhere.

Radzinsky’s twist is that he offers interviews with persons such as “X, who had a cousin who heard from a friend who had an old school chum that died thirty years ago who knew a church member who long ago talked with the son of an acquaintance whose former girlfriend once lived across the street from an elderly couple that once saw a Romanov carriage pass on the street”. Such interviews are worthless if not laughable.

Radzinsky also quotes extensively from the Tsar’s personal diaries, some of which had remained locked away in Soviet archives prior to the era of Perestroika, during which access to Soviet archives was somewhat loosened. Nicholas’s diaries offer very little insight into Nicholas the man or Nicholas the ruler—they establish that Nicholas was a devoted and faithful family man, and little more—and none of the diary entries included in “The Last Tsar” elucidates personalities or events. In fact, the diary entries contribute absolutely nothing to Radzinsky’s book unless one is interested in luncheon menus.

Radzinsky is not a professional historian. Prior to “The Last Tsar”, Radzinsky was a playwright, but the commercial success of “The Last Tsar” in Russia caused Radzinsky to abandon playwriting and to take up full-time the more lucrative field of popular biography. Radzinsky has since graced the world with new biographies of Napoleon, Tsar Alexander II, Grigori Rasputin, Joseph Stalin and many other figures. Only a small portion of Radzinsky’s vast output has been translated into English, as his books have not, in general, been well-received outside Russia. “The Last Tsar” is, I believe, the only one of Radzinsky’s books that made much headway in the U.S.—and any headway the book made here was unrelated to merit (Doubleday had engaged in an expensive public relations campaign at the time the book was released).

A satisfactory biography of Nicholas II remains to be written.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Last Known Photograph Of Alexei And Olga

The last known photograph of Tsarevich Alexei and Grand Duchess Olga, taken in May 1918, two months before their murders.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Columbus Day Weekend

Joshua and I arrived in Manhattan just after 3:30 p.m. on Friday.

We called my parents when we were a few blocks from the hotel to let them know we were within shouting distance. They were, as a result, waiting for us in the lobby after Josh and I had grabbed our bags from the trunk, turned our car over to the valet, and walked through the front door of the hotel. My parents assisted us with check-in at the front desk, which involved our being handed room-cards and little else, and we all went upstairs, where we had adjoining rooms.

Despite urgings from Josh and me, my parents had not eaten lunch as soon as they had arrived at the hotel—sometimes my parents can be incorrigible and fail to follow instructions—and our first order of business was to decide how we were going to arrange our meals for the rest of the day, keeping in mind that we had to take into consideration an 8:00 p.m. New York City Ballet performance.

Josh and I were not hungry, because we had eaten sandwiches and fruit in the car during our drive down from Boston, but my parents had had nothing to eat since a light breakfast very early in the morning—and it was unfair to expect them to hold out until dinner, especially if we were to decide to eat dinner after the ballet performance.

In consequence, we went downstairs to the hotel’s restaurant at 4:00 p.m. so that my parents might eat a little something. We immediately learned that we were too late, because the restaurant closes each day at 3:00 p.m.

We next checked the hotel bar, but the menu was very limited and very unappealing.

The hotel also featured a burger restaurant, but the items on the menu were burgers, and only burgers, and my parents decided to give the burger restaurant a pass.

Lastly, we investigated the hotel’s French restaurant, which has always been very renowned, and we discovered that it recently had closed, a victim of the bad economy.

As a result, we were obliged to leave the hotel and walk to a nearby delicatessen, where my parents were able to obtain a belated and light lunch. My mother ordered a fruit salad and a turkey club sandwich, and my father ordered chicken noodle soup and a turkey club sandwich. Josh and I drank coffee.

After the food, we returned to our hotel and chatted for an hour while enjoying the views over New York.

At 6:00 p.m., we started to prepare ourselves for the ballet performance, and shortly after 7:00 p.m. we left the hotel and walked to the New York State Theater, only three long and eight short blocks away.


The program for Friday night’s performance at New York City Ballet was George Balanchine’s “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet”, Jerome Robbins’s “Glass Pieces”, and Balanchine’s “Stars And Stripes”.

Josh and I had attended a NYCB performance of “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” in January 2009—that night was Josh’s first exposure to the work—but my parents had not attended a performance of this great masterwork for many years. “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” is prone to disappear from the NYCB repertory for years at a time, as the ballet, with 55 dancers, absorbs hours and hours of rehearsal time, time that cannot always be found in NYCB’s grueling rehearsal schedules.

“Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” may be my single favorite Balanchine ballet. My parents love the ballet, too, as does Josh. It was Balanchine’s first abstract ballet for the new New York State Theater when the ballet was unveiled in 1966, and it is perhaps Balanchine’s grandest creation. The music used is Arnold Schoenberg’s 1937 arrangement for full orchestra of Johannes Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 1 In G Minor, Opus 25, completed in 1861.

Traditionally, “Brahms-Schoenberg” closes a NYCB program, but on Friday night it was the first work on the program. I assume that “Brahms-Schoenberg” was placed first on the program because it was the most demanding ballet of the night (both for the dancers and for the audience) as well as the longest. However, placing “Brahms-Schoenberg” first came at a price: anything that followed was destined to be anticlimactic.

The performance was not an especially distinguished one—the principals were variable, with none thoroughly encapsulating his or her role—but the greatness of the work was apparent every minute. Each viewing of “Brahms-Schoenberg” reveals a thousand new details, a thousand new images, a thousand new emotions. Balanchine’s invention was limitless, his mastery of imagery profound, his suggestion of emotion and drama subtle and true, his control of the stage supreme. If no other Balanchine work survived, “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet”, alone, would establish him as the greatest choreographer that ever lived.

Robbins’s “Glass Pieces” was created in 1983, and the ballet is instantly dated by its garish-colored spandex costumes. The ballet needs to be re-costumed (and the lighting re-designed, since the original lighting scheme draws undue attention to itself). Robbins drew upon three Philip Glass compositions for the ballet’s score, including an excerpt from the opera, “Akhnaten”, which was not to premiere until the following year.

“Glass Pieces” has become popular, and the ballet has been taken up by other companies. Some see it as a parable of the city of New York, with its boundless energy and vibrancy, and some see it as a study in loneliness, with its dancers seemingly lost and isolated amid the throngs of a great city. Stephen Sondheim covered this same territory in “Company” in the song, “Another Hundred People”, and Sondheim needed only three minutes to make the same point.

Balanchine’s “Stars And Stripes” is one of his most cherished ballets, deemed an instant classic when the ballet premiered in 1958. I have never been fond of “Stars And Stripes”, and it is possible that I am put off by Hershy Kay’s tin-eared re-orchestration and rearrangement of John Philip Sousa, which I believe to be profoundly unmusical. Kay stretches and elongates the original compositions, trying to create a foundation for dance; in the process, he destroys the essence of the source material.

Balanchine goes through the motions in “Stars And Stripes”—he certainly knew how to do this type of thing—but the ballet lacks richness and resonance, and this is because watered-down Sousa does not provide a suitable framework on which to set and sustain a ballet.

Balanchine is on record as citing “Stars And Stripes” as one of his favorite creations, but I believe that Balanchine was, at least on this one occasion, wrong. Adherents of the ballet, however, have the eloquent Arlene Croce in their corner.


The ballet performance did not end until 10:30 p.m., but we were not worried, dinner-wise, about the lateness of the hour, and this was because we had decided to eat dinner at a French bistro near our hotel, a bistro that remained open, with full kitchen and wait staff, until 2:00 a.m.

It worked out perfectly for us. We were able to amble back to the neighborhood of our hotel and enjoy a leisurely, even lovely, dinner, without once thinking of rushing.

My mother ordered a tomato-red onion-lemon salad, salmon with lemon and thyme served with pink beans, and a white chocolate soufflé with sorbet.

My father ordered a red beet-white cabbage-Gorgonzola cheese salad, black peppercorn steak served with French-fried potatoes, and an apple tart with vanilla ice cream.

Josh ordered French onion soup, baked chicken stuffed with wild mushrooms served with potatoes au gratin, and hot chocolate cake with raspberry sauce.

I ordered black crayfish ravioli with saffron bisque, braised rabbit served with polenta and pearl onions, and hazelnut crème brulee.

The food and service were superb. We all agreed that we had made the right dinner choice.

We had no need to hurry through our dinner both because my parents were operating on Central Time and because our earliest scheduled activity for Saturday was an 11:00 a.m. visit to an exhibition at the Museum Of Modern Art (for which my mother had already obtained timed tickets for us)—and the Museum Of Modern Art was only two blocks from our hotel.

We were, accordingly, not concerned that we did not turn in for the night until almost 1:00 a.m.


On Saturday morning, we were in no hurry to rise. Josh and I rose at 7:00 a.m., my parents an hour later.

We moseyed around, drinking coffee and cleaning up, until 9:30 a.m., when we finally left our rooms.

Our first stop was the hotel restaurant, where we had an excellent breakfast. My father and Josh and I ordered bacon and eggs; my mother ordered blueberry pancakes with Devonshire cream. The food was superb.


After breakfast, we walked the two blocks to the Museum Of Modern Art to see a special exhibition that had received an undue amount of press attention when it opened in July (the final day of the exhibition was yesterday; we got in just under the wire).

The exhibition was “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917”, an examination of the four-year period during which Matisse was reducing his color palette, reacting to criticism from Picasso and Picasso’s adherents that Matisse had become too commercial, trying to come to terms with cubism (which Matisse largely disliked and largely rejected), and working under the cloud of a France at war. The exhibition included more than 100 artworks: paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures.

We enjoyed the exhibition, but “Matisse: Radical Invention” hardly constituted the seminal exhibition that several art writers have claimed on behalf of the show. The years 1913-1917 were clearly not a great period for Matisse, and I suspect that the war had more to do with the artist’s lack of inspiration during this period than any of the other influences set forth by art specialists writing on behalf of or covering the exhibition, all of whom needed to brush up on the history of France during the war years. The scholarly pretensions of the exhibition were off-putting.


From the Museum Of Modern Art we walked to the theater district, where we had Saturday matinee tickets for Roundabout Theatre Company’s unsatisfying and unsubtle production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” at American Airlines Theatre.

Except for Edward Hibbert, who portrayed Mr. Praed, every actor in the company was miscast and misdirected. The confrontations between Mrs. Warren and her daughter, in particular, were overplayed and needlessly vulgarized. Accents, Mr. Hibbert’s aside, were all over the place. We might as well as been attending summer stock in the Poconos.

Shaw was being deliberately provocative in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”, and I am not confident that the play—clearly eye-jabbing for its time—holds up to close scrutiny. The play, fundamentally, is little more than a drawing-room comedy that becomes unduly argumentative, and the dialogue is not as sparkling as in some of Shaw’s other “argument” plays.

The play certainly has been overproduced in recent years, and I can think of two stronger Shaw plays—“Androcles And The Lion” and “Caesar And Cleopatra”—that merit the attention currently lavished upon “Mrs. Warren”.


After the matinee, we walked around the theater district for an hour, examining theater marquees and killing time, until we headed a few blocks north and had an early dinner at a Chilean restaurant that had been recommended to us by friends.

We started with avocado stuffed with chicken salad. For main course, my mother ordered a fish and shellfish stew, while my father, Josh and I ordered chicken stew. For dessert, my mother and I ordered chocolate soufflé, while my father and Josh ordered vanilla flan.

The food was not bad, but the servers were alcohol-pushers.

After dinner, we walked up to Lincoln Center, where we had tickets for the second New York City Ballet performance of the weekend.


Saturday night’s program at New York City Ballet presented three works of Balanchine—in order, “Chaconne”, “Concerto Barocco” and “Tarantella”—followed, again, by Robbins’s “Glass Pieces”.

“Chaconne” was first presented by New York City Ballet in 1976, but the ballet that entered NYCB’s repertory that year was based upon a 1963 production of Gluck’s “Orfeo Ed Euridice” at the Hamburg Staatsoper, where Balanchine had created dances for the Gluck opera at the invitation of Rolf Liebermann. In “Chaconne”, Balanchine utilized music both from the 1762 Vienna version of the opera as well as the 1774 Paris version.

“Chaconne” is a work of great nobility, purity, simplicity and restraint. Those attributes are out-of-step with current times, however, and I do not believe that the present crop of NYCB dancers believes in or has confidence in the material. The cast merely went through the motions on Saturday night, and the work did not come off as it should. In fact, it made no impression at all. It was a very disappointing performance.

As a general rule, in a poorly-danced Balanchine performance, one may see through the performance to the ballet itself, and remain captivated despite any shortcomings of the proceedings onstage.

Such was not possible Saturday night, and I say this in part because Josh said that he saw “nothing at all” in “Chaconne”. This was very disappointing to him, since he had eagerly looked forward to the performance (having heard me praise the work).

Peter Martins danced in the 1976 premiere of “Chaconne”, and one would think that Martins, of all persons, would know how to convince a cast of dancers to submit to this great ballet’s spell.

My parents attended a 1976 performance of “Chaconne” at NYCB, and they remember it as one of the most beautiful performances of their lives. It was Suzanne Farrell, however, and not Peter Martins, who impressed them in “Chaconne”. They insist that “Chaconne” provided Farrell with one of her greatest roles. They also insist that “Chaconne” as danced today at NYCB bears little resemblance to the ballet as danced during Balanchine’s lifetime.

“Chaconne” is not unrecoverable. Farrell has staged “Chaconne”, with success, for other companies. It is regrettable that Farrell—persona non grata at New York City Ballet so long as Peter Martins is in charge—has not been called back to her alma mater to restage and renew this great work.

“Concerto Barroco”, from 1941, has always been one of Balanchine’s most popular ballets. Set to Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, Balanchine mimics Bach’s counterpoint by casting two principal female dancers to play off each other.

I must hear Bach differently than Balanchine, because “Concerto Barroco” has always grated on me. I have never believed that the ballet was a successful realization of the music. To me, the ballet is pert and slick, no more profound, yet no less pleasant, than Balanchine’s “Donizetti Variations”—and the latter most assuredly is nothing more than a mere entertainment, albeit an entirely delightful one.

“Tarantella” is a showy, witty pas de deux from 1964 set to Gottschalk’s Grand Tarentelle For Piano And Orchestra (as reconstructed and orchestrated by the ubiquitous Hershy Kay). It is one of Balanchine’s most effervescent, ebullient works, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

When we entered the theater, we did not know whether we would remain to see the final work on the program, “Glass Pieces”, for a second consecutive evening. After the second intermission, we talked, and decided, “Well, as long as we’re here . . .”

I enjoyed the Saturday evening performance of “Glass Pieces” more than the Friday evening performance, although it probably was no better danced.

After the NYCB performance, we returned to our hotel and turned in at a decent hour.


We rose early on Sunday morning—we rose at 6:45 a.m.—because we had a big day planned.

We were in the hotel restaurant by 8:00 a.m. for breakfast. It being a Sunday, we decided to go for pancakes, standard Sunday fare in my family. My mother ordered Belgian waffles with berries and Devonshire cream. My father ordered buttermilk pancakes with peaches and walnuts. Josh ordered chestnut pancakes with chestnuts and brown sugar. I ordered banana-macadamia nut pancakes with banana butter.

The food was excellent.


At 9:00 a.m., we retrieved our car and headed up to The Cloisters.

The last time my family had visited The Cloisters was, I believe, in 1994, when I was thirteen years old. Josh had never visited The Cloisters until Sunday.

Most visitors enjoy The Cloisters for the Medieval architecture and the Medieval gardens, but it was the Medieval artworks that most captivated me on Sunday (in contrast to 1994, when the Medieval artworks had interested me not at all).

On Sunday, I was most enthralled by the ivories and illuminated manuscripts, but it was a great pleasure to view the tapestries, stained glass, sculptures, icons and reliquaries, too—as well as the great altarpiece of Robert Campin (“The Master Of Flemalle”), something I could not appreciate sixteen years ago.

We spent three happy hours visiting the interior spaces and inspecting the artworks on display, all the while asking ourselves, “Why have we waited so long to come back?”

We stayed at The Cloisters until around 1:00 p.m., when we returned to midtown Manhattan and deposited our car back at the hotel.

From the hotel, we walked to the theater district, as we had tickets to matinee and evening performances.


At Theatre Row, we had tickets for a 3:00 p.m. performance of Michael Frayn’s early and obscure comedy, “Alphabetical Order”, at The Harold Clurman Theatre. “Alphabetical Order” was a presentation of The Keen Company.

Written in 1975, “Alphabetical Order” takes place in the disheveled research library of a failing newspaper in the British provinces. The personal and professional lives of the newspaper’s more-or-less hapless employees are in a perpetual state of near-crisis when the newspaper hires a young woman to put some order into the library’s operations. The young woman proves to be an organizational whiz, if maddeningly so, and a chain of events is set into place that alters the lives of the characters and the newspaper itself (and not all for the better).

“Alphabetical Order” is nowise a perfect play, but the work is very definitely worthy of revival—and I loved the production and I loved the performance. The period stage and costume design were apt, the direction caught precisely the necessary tone, and the cast was uniformly excellent and convincing (and, unlike Saturday’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”, even got the accents right).

“Alphabetical Order” was probably the best thing we saw all weekend. It was two hours of pure pleasure.


After “Alphabetical Order”, we had two hours in which to get an early dinner before our evening performance.

We chose a nearby Greek restaurant with a pre-theater menu, and we all selected the same things: Spanakopita, lamb chops served with oregano lemon potatoes, and baklava.

We were very pleased with our dinner.


On Sunday evening, we caught a performance of Arthur Kopit’s “Wings” at Second Stage Theatre. Because the weekend was a holiday weekend, there was a special 7:00 p.m. Sunday performance of “Wings”, and we took advantage of it. Otherwise, we would have had to skip one of the three plays we had some interest in attending this past weekend.

The performance of “Wings” we attended was a preview performance; the production is not scheduled to open for another two weeks.

One would not have known that the production was still in previews based upon Sunday evening’s performance. The performance was at a very high level.

“Wings”, written in 1978, tells the story of a female aviation pioneer who has become a stroke victim late in life. The play shows her battle to regain her faculties and independence and spirit, which she does in part, until her sudden death at play’s end.

The last ten minutes of the play are very beautiful. In a near-trance, the heroine recalls her early days in aviation, flying in the clouds far above the earth, until she has flown so high and so free that she has left the earth far, far behind her.

That moment, of course, represents the heroine’s death. The resolution is solemn, and quiet, and not everyone in the theater on Sunday evening understood that the heroine had died and that the play had concluded.

One row in front of us, at play’s end, a young man asked a woman sitting next to him, “What happened? Is the play over?”

“She died. And, yes, the play is over” was the woman’s answer.

“How did she die?” was his next question.

“She presumably had another stroke” was the woman’s response.

“How were you able to figure that out?” was his next question.

“Her speech about leaving the bonds of earth behind, and floating among the clouds, was a metaphor for her death” was the woman’s reply.

At this point, the young man became sheepish, and he laughed, nervously, and said, “I guess I needed to hear gunshots and see blood to figure that out.”

“Wings” is a very poetic play, even though it is not dramatic in the least. I have read the play, and the play “reads” well—“Wings” was originally written as a radio play—but I did not know whether it would work in the theater.

After Sunday evening, I can now say that “Wings” does work in the theater, and I am pleased at last to have seen a staged presentation of what may probably be termed a minor modern classic.

My parents saw the original 1979 Broadway production of “Wings”, which starred the great Constance Cummings. That production marked Cummings’s final U.S. appearance, and my parents recall Cummings’s performance fondly. It was their only opportunity to see the great actress in person, and they say that Cummings had technique to burn and possessed the stage presence and stage command of an Olivier (with whom Cummings had worked), even when playing a mostly-immobile stroke victim.

I missed the career of Cummings, but I thought Sunday evening’s lead, Jan Maxwell, was very, very fine. I would like to see Maxwell again.

Because “Wings” had an early starting time and because the play lasts only ninety minutes, we were back at our hotel at a decent hour, with two hours to relax and talk before bedtime. Those two hours may have been the best two hours of the entire weekend.


Yesterday we rose at 7:00 a.m.

Our plan was to have breakfast, get our things together, check out of our hotel and be on our way to the Guggenheim Museum by 9:30 a.m.

We went with Eggs Benedict for yesterday morning’s breakfast, and it was the first disappointing breakfast we had had at the hotel. I suspect a different cook was in charge.

We were able to hit our 9:30 a.m. target, because we were in the car, heading north, at 9:30 a.m.


We found a public parking garage near the Guggenheim without much trouble, and we were inside the museum shortly after it had opened for the day.

There were five exhibitions we wanted to view—and we were able to see them all, because we remained in the museum until 3:30 p.m.

All five exhibitions were exceptionally worthwhile (by design, we skipped a sixth). In fact, yesterday was the most enjoyable visit to the Guggenheim I have ever experienced. Even my parents, who have visited the Guggenheim many, many times since the early 1970’s, said they had never witnessed so many Guggenheim exhibitions of such uncommon interest during a single visit.

What the Guggenheim presently has on display far outshines the over-promoted and unaccountably popular Mattisse exhibition we attended at the Museum Of Modern Art on Saturday morning. Since all current Guggenheim exhibitions are scheduled to remain on display until January 9 of next year, this year’s holiday visitors to New York City have a real treat in store for them at Fifth Avenue and 89th Street.

Four of the Guggenheim exhibitions were small.

“Vox Populi: Posters Of The Interwar Years” was exactly as described.

“Kandinsky At The Bauhaus, 1922-1933” was also precisely what one would expect from the exhibition title.

“Broken Forms: European Modernism From The Guggenheim Collection” was of greater interest to us than we had anticipated, since many of the works on display were by German artists (and not solely by “the usual suspects” from France, as is the case in most such exhibitions) and since most of the works were of very, very high quality.

The fourth small exhibition, devoted to art dealer Justin Thannhauser’s collection, presented to the Guggenheim at his death, contained several first-tier masterpieces.

The large exhibition was “Chaos And Classicism: Art In France, Italy And Germany, 1918-1935”, an exhibition devoted to art trends that had evolved in reaction to the horrors of World War I. Paintings, prints, photographs, films, sculptures, architectural models and fashions were among the items on view in the exhibition.

The period saw a return to a conservatism of sorts in the art world: it became acceptable once again to portray the human figure in recognizable form; a nod of the head to Classicism was no longer a mortal sin; the requirement that every new artwork be in some way avant-garde no longer applied; trends such as Cubism that had prevailed before The Great War were losing appeal (and influence). In short, tradition and tranquility had returned to the art world—but were soon to be corrupted by political forces.

Many of the artworks on display in “Chaos And Classicism” were not necessarily first-rate (in fact, many of the artworks were kitsch)—but, as a viewing experience, the exhibition succeeded admirably. It was fresh, thought-provoking, and filled with artworks virtually unknown in the U.S. The exhibition challenged pre-conceived notions about art of the period and pre-conceived notions about certain artists (such as Picasso, who is shown as always ready to bend to the latest fashion—but who also may have been cocking his snoot). The exhibition demonstrated that art, like any endeavor, may be perverted for political purposes—and that artists are as susceptible to such perversion as anyone else.

“Chaos And Classicism” provided an historical journey as much as an artistic one. Beginning with prints of grossly-deformed World War I soldiers, the exhibition went on to trace the rise of Fascist art in Italy, Germany and France (and if Aristide Maillol’s art from 1925 France was not Fascistic, no one’s was), ending with the art of Germany once Hitler had assumed power.

If much of this was too pat—Otto Dix at the beginning, Leni Riefenstahl at the end—and if a professional historian would have taken a jaundiced view of much that was on display (as well as grimaced at some of the conclusions viewers were invited to make), the exhibition was nonetheless riveting. If possible, I would go through it again in an instant.

When we had completed viewing the five exhibitions, we had time—just—to grab coffee and a sandwich at the Guggenheim snack bar.


From the Guggenheim, we retrieved our car and took my parents to Newark Airport.

Since we arrived at the airport more than two hours before my parents’ flight was scheduled to depart, Josh and I parked the car and escorted my parents into the airport. We sat and talked for an hour, and had another coffee. When it was time for my parents to proceed to check-in, Josh and I left the airport and headed for home.

It was a wonderful weekend, one of the best weekend trips we have ever made.

We would not have had half so much fun in Houston, our original destination, even though I regret not seeing the two German Impressionism exhibitions currently on view at the Houston Museum Of Fine Arts.

We will remember this weekend for a long time.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

En Route To Meteora II

Later on the morning of March 17, we proceeded from Lamia to Trikala, a small city of 60,000 persons situated only twenty miles from the mountaintop monasteries of Meteora, our main destination for the day.

Trikala, like Lamia, is an ancient city, with a history going back thousands of years. That history is most evident today in the ruins of an ancient fortress that rests on the city’s highest hill (the ruins of the fortress are closed off to the public by a series of formidable stone walls; apparently the ruins are dangerous).

Trikala, too, has the requisite archeological museum (which we did not attempt to visit). Otherwise, the city is very much a modern city, filled with hotels and restaurants (it is the nearest city of size to Meteora, and serves as a way-station for tourists visiting the Meteora monasteries).

We spent two hours in Trikala, walking around the center of town, examining the exteriors of a few churches, and finding a place for lunch.

The most notable building in Trikala is a 16th-Century mosque, which is supposed to be the most important mosque ever constructed in Greece.

The mosque was long ago de-consecrated and is now owned by the city of Trikala, which maintains the centuries-old structure to a high standard. The mosque now serves as a community center/arts center.

Turks occupied this particular area of Greece, on and off, for hundreds of years. Even after Greece had achieved independence, The Ottoman Empire invaded the area around Trikala very late in the 19th Century and occupied the city for almost a decade. Evidence of Ottoman occupation is visible in the architecture of the city’s residential properties.

There was one additional building in Trikala of interest to my family, and we made a special point of locating it.

This commercial property in Trikala’s central commercial district was owned by my older brother from 2001 until 2007, when he sold it to a London consortium that in turn sold it to an Eastern European property management firm.

Given what has happened in Greece since 2007, my brother is very pleased that he disposed of the property when he did.

All of us found greatly ironic the fact that my mother, my father, my middle brother and I have now seen the building in person. The only member of my immediate family that has NOT seen the building is my older brother, the building’s former owner.


On Sunday afternoon, Joshua and I went to Symphony Hall to hear The Handel And Haydn Society perform a Mozart program.

In the concert’s first half, the orchestra performed Serenade No. 13 (“Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”) and Violin Concerto No. 5. After intermission, the orchestra performed “Mitridate” Overture as well as a march from the same work (Mozart’s first opera seria, “Mitridate” was written for Milan during the composer’s fourteenth year), followed by Symphony No. 38 (“Prague”). The ensemble’s Music Director, Harry Christophers, conducted the program.

Christophers is no Mozart conductor. Christophers conducted Mozart in The Pre-Classical Style, perfectly suitable for the music of Johann Stamitz but fatally inadequate for the music of the great Salzburg master. To perform Mozart in the manner of Galant music, a practice Christophers shares with many other British musicians, is to trivialize the music as well as to rob it of its greatness.

Christophers’s Mozart was fluid and neat in concept, but there were no other merits in his work. His was the blandest Mozart imaginable; the genius and individuality of Mozart thoroughly escaped him. Christophers revealed not a single moment of inspiration in what turned out to be a frustrating, even interminable, afternoon. I do not believe I ever want to hear Christophers again.

The low point of the afternoon was the performance of Violin Concerto No. 5. The soloist, Rachel Podger, who produced the least pleasing and least sophisticated string sound to be encountered anywhere, was as lost in the music of Mozart as her conductor. The performance was as dispiriting a Mozart performance as I have ever heard—and I have heard some pretty bad Mozart in my time—and I never want to hear Podger again, either. In fact, Josh and I were so disappointed with what we heard in the first half of the concert that we contemplated departing at intermission.

We remained in the hall only because we wanted to hear the “Prague”. One of the glories of the Mozart work list, the “Prague” features the greatest symphonic movement Mozart had composed to that time (1786): a first movement with a grand Adagio introduction followed by a masterful sonata-form Allegro presenting six individual themes that Mozart sends through an astonishing course of harmonic manipulation even before the composer reaches the heart of the movement, the development, the most complex development Mozart had yet attempted (which itself culminates in a grand fugue).

Mozart’s genius accounted for nothing in Christophers’s hands. Christophers was as vapid in the “Prague” as he had been in the first half of the program. Hearing Christophers glide upon the surface of Mozart’s notes, a lay listener would have perceived no difference between a Stamitz symphony and one of Mozart’s very greatest efforts in the form.

The orchestra did not play well for Christophers, but I cannot say whether the poor quality of the playing on Sunday afternoon may be blamed on the conductor. I have only heard The Handel And Haydn Society on one previous occasion, playing Vivaldi and Handel under a guest conductor. While the playing was clean and energetic on that previous occasion, the music of Mozart is much more demanding than the music of Vivaldi and Handel—and much more in need of a competent conductor.

I can say, based upon my experience Sunday afternoon, that Christophers is no natural orchestra leader. His is a career that clearly will go nowhere in the orchestra world. It was a major error for the Boston ensemble to have engaged him as Music Director—and it will be interesting to see how long it will take The Handel And Haydn Society to rectify its mistake.

British conductors whose careers originated in Britain’s period-instrument movement have not fared well once they have tried to escape the parochial bounds of the British period-instrument guild. Several have attempted to create mainstream careers, some leading mainstream orchestras, and all have failed.

Patrons of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra witnessed the loathsome work Christopher Hogwood offered Twin Cities music-lovers during his short tenure in Minnesota. Hogwood’s dismal work in Saint Paul ended permanently his American career with mainstream ensembles.

John Eliot Gardiner laid a colossal egg with the NDR Orchestra Of Hamburg. His brief, unsuccessful tenure in Hamburg instantly ended his career as a conductor of mainstream orchestras everywhere.

Roger Norrington’s short-lived period with the New York-based Orchestra Of Saint Luke’s was praised neither by players nor press nor public. His unending—and inexplicable—tenure with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony has produced some of the most negative reviews any conductor has ever received. Indeed, Norrington’s work has been derided so often and so widely that he has become the subject of satire: several of his commercial recordings have become cult classics, virtual templates of “something that has to be heard to be believed” along the lines of infamous vocal recitals by Florence Foster Jenkins.

Trevor Pinnock and Roy Goodman—the latter by far the most talented of the lot, as well as the least known—have never been able to break into mainstream careers, probably because the poor results of predecessors Hogwood, Gardiner and Norrington had already scared away managements of mainstream orchestras by the time the careers of Pinnock and Goodman were ready to expand beyond the confines of the period-instrument enclave.

All of this must have been known to the Board of The Handel And Haydn Society at the time Christophers was offered its music directorship.

So why was Christophers hired?

My guess is that the organization was fearful of hiring a French or German or Italian musician schooled in period-instrument performance and decided to uphold its recent tradition of appointing British conductors.

HHS has a history—an undistinguished history—of preferring British conductors to continental musicians. Hogwood served as Music Director from 1986 until 2001, holding on in Boston long after he was ousted in Saint Paul. Grant Llewellyn, by no standard a major musician, was appointed Music Director from 2001 until 2006. Norrington served as Musical Advisor from 2006 until 2009, a time during which Norrington could not buy an engagement with a first-class ensemble.

The appointment of Christophers will, I predict, be a brief one—or else it will come back to bite the Board.

In any case, Josh and I will now have to reassess how many HHS concerts we want to attend this season. In August, we had earmarked several HHS concerts as of interest to us—there were more HHS programs that appealed to us than Boston Symphony programs—and we had at the time even briefly contemplated buying an HHS subscription before coming to our senses (we do not like our calendars to be governed by concert dates).

All of that will now have to be re-examined.