Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Andre Watts In Liszt

On Tuesday night, my parents and Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear pianist Andre Watts in recital at the Ordway Center. Watts’s Twin Cities appearance, sponsored by The Schubert Club, was devoted to the music of Franz Liszt. The program Watts offered local audiences was identical to the all-Liszt program he has been playing throughout the country since the beginning of the year.

Watts is a natural pianist, with a beautiful and refined technique. His hands and arms are “placed” naturally and gracefully at all times; his upper body remains erect and relaxed while he is at the keyboard; his finger work is superb. Watts was clearly the beneficiary of excellent basic instruction when he was a child. It was a pleasure to observe him in action, because one may no longer assume that pianists possess classic technique, as we observed only a few nights ago when we saw and heard Jeremy Denk come to grief in the music of Beethoven in the very same hall.

While Watts is a commanding pianist, I am not confident that Watts is a commanding musician. He is a fine but perhaps not considerable interpreter of mainstream piano literature. In a career nearing the half-century mark, Watts has never asserted unique authority in the music of any particular composer or period (although he has devoted much time and attention to Schubert and Liszt in the last two decades). Watts plays a broad range of repertory, and he plays it well—but he plays none of it memorably.

The music of Liszt is not important to me. I very seldom listen to Liszt, although I happen to like and admire the tone poems for orchestra—remaining fully aware that they are, by and large, problematic works. I even enjoy the tone poem, Festklänge (a work Robert Craft has singled out as one of the worst compositions ever penned by a major composer), although I realize that the piece is free of content.

The piano music of Liszt is another matter. On the whole, I am indifferent, although some of the late pieces are, admittedly, fascinating. The merits and demerits of Liszt’s piano compositions have been debated endlessly for well over a century, and I am familiar with all the arguments—and I remain largely uninterested in the arguments, and largely uninterested in the music.

One fact I have always found odd: Pierre Boulez, of all persons, performed a great deal of Liszt in his early years as a conductor. In the early 1970s, Boulez even devoted an entire season at the New York Philharmonic to an exploration of Liszt (Boulez has since dropped Liszt from his repertory).

Contrary to my expectations, I enjoyed Watts’s recital. Watts tended to overplay, and he did a bit of showboating, but I enjoyed the recital because I enjoyed the music.

Watts began with the familiar Concert Etude No. 3 (“Un Suspiro”), a warm-up both for the pianist and for the audience. Watts continued with an excerpt from Années de pèlerinage, troisième année, the beautiful Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este.

The Sonata In B Minor concluded the first half of the program. Watts held my full attention in this much-performed work, something I did not anticipate—and which I held in high regard.

The second half of the recital was even better. Watts began with five late pieces, all gems—Bagatelle Ohne Tonart; Nuages Gris; En Rêve; La Lugubre Gondola II (which American composer John Adams has arranged for orchestra); and Schlaflos! Frage Und Antwort—and concluded with three show-stoppers: the Etude No. 2 from Six Grand Etudes After Paganini; the Transcendental Etude No. 10; and the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13. All were handsomely if not quite brilliantly played, and I can imagine only half a dozen living pianists that might be superior in this repertory (starting with Pollini and Kissin).

I was not bored for one minute all night, either with Liszt or with Watts.

That renders the concert a great success in my eyes.

(My parents and Josh, however, were less impressed than I. Perhaps I experienced an odd night on which I was somehow susceptible to succumbing to Liszt.)

In the days before the concert, we had been prepared for a cancellation. Watts has cancelled several recitals this year on short notice, including one recital only a week or two prior to his appearance in Saint Paul. On Tuesday afternoon, my mother confirmed that the recital would proceed as scheduled—and my father confirmed that Watts, indeed, was in town.

Without such confirmations, we would not have left home.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Good . . . And The Bad And The Ugly

The University Of Minnesota Marching Band (“The Pride Of Minnesota”) in its fixed pre-game presentation, a complicated set of maneuvers based on variations of the letter “M” that has been performed for what must be generations. No matter how many times I see it, it always gives me chills. It may be the best block-formation routine ever created, and is 100 times more sophisticated than the silly spelling routine for which the Ohio State Marching Band is renowned.

The faintly ridiculous if not borderline grotesque Jeremy Denk, mooning for the audience at a recent New York recital.

Dink Thenk

Last night, after a full day of playing with the kids (and the dog) as well as having a go at the mountains of food left over from Thanksgiving, my parents and Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear a concert by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. It was the first Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concert of the season for all of us.

It was the music that drew us to Ordway Center, not the guest artists. British conductor Douglas Boyd, a very minor talent who has worked with the SPCO on and off for years, was on the podium. Pianist Jeremy Denk, an even more insignificant figure, was guest soloist.

The concert featured one modern work: Australian composer Brett Dean’s Pastoral Symphony, a one-movement quarter-hour work for chamber orchestra. Written in 2000 and premiered in 2001, the Pastoral Symphony incorporates taped sounds: birdsong “dramatically contrasted with industrial and mechanical sounds of environmental degradation”, i.e., the sounds of chainsaws chopping down trees.

The work is as deadly earnest and dreadfully clichéd as the composer’s program notes suggest. Quiet birdsong begins the piece, after which volume mounts until what is supposed to be a climax is reached—this is where the chain saws come in—after which the piece ends in what is, I believe, supposed to be an elegy. Any competent composer could write a devastating parody of the piece without altering a single gesture.

In comparison to the sheer silliness and utter ineptitude of Dean’s Pastoral Symphony, George Antheil’s feeble Ballet Mecanique and Einojuhani Rautavaara’s even-more-feeble Cantus Arcticus—two unsuccessful compositions that bear some surface programmatic similarities to Dean’s effort—become incomparable masterpieces.

Dean, a violist as well as composer, writes well for violin and viola—at least from a technical standpoint. Practitioners of those instruments relate that Dean knows how to write idiomatically and gratefully for solo violin and solo viola. Violinists Midori and Frank Peter Zimmermann, among others, have taken up various Dean compositions for violin.

Dean’s orchestral music, however, is another matter. Dean’s orchestral music is unimaginative and unoriginal. It lacks ideas, it lacks profile, it lacks personality, it lacks character. In fact, Dean does not even write competently for orchestra: his orchestral music does not “sound”. In all of these respects, Dean strikes me as Australia’s answer to American composer Stephen Hartke, whose bland, faceless music shares the same attributes.

Indeed, Dean’s Pastoral Symphony has numerous—and eerie—parallels with Hartke’s 1988 composition, Pacific Rim: both works strive so hard to be trendy, using every popular device of the moment, that both were incongruously—and gruesomely—outdated even before final drafts were sent to copyists.

Dean is not very talented. His composition ideas are thin—if they can be called ideas—and he does not know how to work them out. Dean’s music does not develop, it does not attain climaxes, it does not resolve, it does not cohere. It’s thin, tonal stuff, without rhythmic interest, without complexity, without strong organizing principles, and might as well have been written in 1890 for all the interest in modernism it displays. (Dean does, however, know how to write a satisfactory chromatic harmonic progression, about the only thing he does well.)

Simon Rattle is the single conductor of note who has taken up Dean’s music—Dean for years played in the viola section of Rattle’s Berlin Philharmonic—and Rattle’s advocacy is not particularly meaningful, since Rattle has never shown himself to be a good judge of contemporary composition. No other high-profile conductor has ever touched Dean’s work-list.

Boyd and the SPCO gave a clean performance of the Pastoral Symphony, cleaner than the Swedish Chamber Orchestra performance recorded for the BIS label and issued a few years back. However, the SPCO musicians revealed no surprises and no unexpected depths in the score.

Programming Dean’s Pastoral Symphony was a waste of the orchestra’s and the audience’s time. In a concert otherwise devoted to music of Beethoven and Brahms, the orchestra should have programmed a fifteen-minute piece by Luciano Berio instead of Dean. Berio’s music can stand up to Beethoven and Brahms; Dean’s music cannot.

The Serenade No. 2 of Brahms opened the program. It was the highlight of the evening.

Scored for violas, cellos, double basses, two flutes (with one flautist doubling as piccolo in the final movement), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and two horns, the Serenade No. 2 has a dark, solemn coloration, seemingly not in keeping with the serenade form. Brilliance is not allowed. High strings are omitted from the instrumentation, as are high brass and percussion.

And yet the work is charming, ear-beguiling and radiant, surely standards by which a serenade may be judged. Brahms enlarged and deepened the serenades of Mozart, but he did not abandon the requirement that serenades, above all, be pleasurable.

Two years ago, Orrin Howard captured the essence of this early five-movement work of Brahms in program notes for the Los Angeles Philharmonic:

The lilt, the warmth, the gracious melodies, and the enlivening cross rhythms [are what] give distinction to a work that ESSENTIALLY fits the definition of a serenade.

A solemn and extended sonata-form Allegro begins the serenade; a brilliant and extended Rondo concludes it. At its center lies a profound and extended Adagio, framed by a brief Scherzo and a brief Minuet. The Adagio has the gravity and simplicity of Bach, and is the heart of the Serenade No. 2.

Boyd and the SPCO offered a plain, surface performance of Serenade No. 2, missing opportunities to revel in luxuriousness of sound and ignoring undercurrents of melancholy that permeate the work.

Nevertheless, I am always happy to hear the Brahms Serenade No. 2—the work is not often programmed—and I was happy to hear it last night.

Oddly, the Minnesota Orchestra will play the Brahms Serenade No. 2 in the third week of January, less than two months from now. I doubt that the Serenade No. 2 has ever previously been programmed by both local ensembles in the same season.

The Brahms should have been played last on the SPCO program, but the SPCO placed the Brahms before intermission, offering Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 as the concluding work of the evening.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.1 is a very easy piece to play—it is easy for the orchestra, easy for the conductor, easy for the pianist—but it is also one of the most appealing of Beethoven’s early works. The Concerto No. 1, buoyantly infectious, brims with energy and high spirits and good humor. One need simply play the notes on the printed page, and the full effect of the work comes across. It was not until his Concerto No. 3 that Beethoven wrote a piano concerto in which the notes themselves are merely the starting point.

Alas, few of the attractions of the Piano Concerto No. 1 registered last night because the pianist was inadequate.

No one claims Denk to be a virtuoso—he does not possess even a satisfactory technique—but his playing last night was shockingly poor. Any competent pianist can toss off the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 while sleeping, but Denk was operating at the outer reaches of his technical capacity in the most rudimentary passagework. Even simple scales were not delivered cleanly and evenly.

The first movement of the concerto was singularly lacking in drama, weight and forward propulsion. There was a choppy, start-and-stop quality to Denk’s playing, and no interplay with conductor and orchestra. Denk had trouble finding and keeping a basic pulse, and demonstrated a pronounced tendency to rush things whenever a moderately demanding passage approached.

Denk made absolutely nothing of the slow movement. It was interminable in his hands—shapeless, wandering, expressionless—and lacked tension and lyricism.

The final movement had no rhythmic bite, no sense of momentum, no suggestion of having reached a resolution at its conclusion.

One of Denk’s technical problems is that he places his bench too far from his keyboard. This unsuitable placement affects his shoulders, upper arms and lower arms, none of which are relaxed enough to produce a pleasing sound from his instrument and none of which are in the proper placement for producing power without strain. I could not help but notice that Denk frequently turned his upper body from side to side whenever he had to address the far ends of his keyboard—a pedagogical issue that should have been addressed before he was ten years old—and I could not help but notice that Denk had to stretch and contort his entire body (Denk has very short legs) in order to reach his instrument’s pedals. The latter absurdity produced several delicious moments of comedy during Denk’s performance—moments that were, according to my father, well worth the price of admission.

I had not seen Denk since February 2008, when I had heard him in joint recital with Joshua Bell in the same hall in Saint Paul. Denk, not a handsome man, has put on weight in the last forty-five months, and is starting to develop an alarming if not frightening facial resemblance to James Levine.

On our way back to Edina after the concert, my father said, “Well, I suppose we’ll have to put on the Kempff/Van Kempen the very minute we get home to get this disaster out of our minds. Otherwise, we’ll be prone to nightmares.” My father was referring to the celebrated early-1950s Wilhelm Kempff/Paul Van Kempen/Berlin Philharmonic mono recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, perhaps my father’s favorite recorded account of the work.

When we arrived home, however, we did not bother to cleanse our minds and souls with Kempff/Van Kempen—it was getting late, and the dog wanted some attention, and we were ready to eat more Thanksgiving food (cold turkey and cold Brussels sprouts) before turning in.

Today is the final game of the season for the Golden Gophers. Minnesota will host Illinois this afternoon, and the game will be played in the Twin Cities.

My brothers will attend the game, but my father has decided to skip the game and to stay home and to play with his grandchildren.

In my father’s place, my sister-in-law will attend her very first American college football game. She has no interest in sports, and she knows next-to-nothing about American college football, but she decided on Friday that she would like to go to one college football game to see what all the excitement was about. My brothers will take good care of her.

I predict she will enjoy the pre-game ceremonies and festivities, and the halftime show.

After all, The University Of Minnesota Marching Band (“The Pride Of Minnesota”), marching since 1892 and performing block-formation halftime shows since 1910, is very, very good.

I doubt, however, that my sister-in-law will be impressed with blocking and tackling, passing and punting, or first downs and field goals.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Eager To Keep Going

We sat down to eat Thanksgiving Dinner at 5:30 p.m.

My mother (with help from numerous hands) had prepared:
  • A honey-glazed baked ham
  • A giant-sized roast turkey with herb stuffing
  • Two large-sized roast chickens with herb stuffing
  • Oyster-herb stuffing, baked separately
  • Homemade butter noodles
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Candied sweet potatoes
  • Whipped sweet potatoes, with pineapple
  • Fresh green beans, with almonds
  • Shoepeg white corn
  • Fresh baby carrots
  • Fresh parsnips
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Red cabbage baked in cream and butter
  • Fresh cranberries in light syrup
  • Cranberry-orange relish
  • Cranberry-tangerine-cream cheese-nut salad
  • Homemade dinner rolls
  • A relish tray of Amish pickles
  • Pumpkin pie
  • Pumpkin-custard pie
  • Pecan pie
  • Cranberry-walnut pie
  • Sour cream-raisin-brandy pie
The Amish pickles were the only items not made in my mother’s kitchen. My mother orders Amish pickles year-round through the mail, liking always to keep some on hand.

Everyone ate only a tablespoon of everything. Nevertheless, when it came time for dessert, everyone had already had enough to eat. As a consequence, everyone ate one tiny sliver of pie, and called it a day.

Leftovers (including leftover Dutch Chowder, which we had for lunch) will carry us through the rest of the weekend.

When we eat Thanksgiving leftovers, we reheat nothing. We eat everything cold. As a general rule, cooked food tastes better chilled than reheated, and is not as prone to dry out.

The kids enjoyed their Thanksgiving Dinner.

The dog enjoyed his Thanksgiving Dinner.

And we enjoyed ours, too.

(Of course, the dog was cheated out of turkey, as dogs cannot be fed turkey. He was, nonetheless, quite happy with his chicken and ham—and he was the only one in the household eager to keep going when it came time for dessert.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Emmy Göring On Trial

Emmy Göring at her 1948 de-Nazification proceeding.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fast And Furious

On Friday evening, Joshua and I and my middle brother remained downtown after work and attended a performance of Doug Wright’s play, “I Am My Own Wife”, at Jungle Theater.

For Josh and me, it was our second encounter with this one-actor play about an East German transvestite who survived both the Nazi and Communist regimes—but at a price: by serving as an informant for the Stasi, East Germany’s notorious secret police. Josh and I had attended a performance of “I Am My Own Wife” in February 2010 at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia.

The Signature Theatre production had not been good. The actor in the Arlington production had proven himself inadequate to the assignment; he was simply unable to carry the show (although we saw the same actor portray a more than creditable Frank in “Educating Rita” thirteen months later in Boston). In Arlington, the entire production had reeked of a small-college drama project.

The Jungle Theater production of “I Am My Own Wife” has received much acclaim, and has set the Twin Cities theater community abuzz (not always a good sign). Because word-of-mouth has been so positive, Josh and I decided to see the play again—and my brother decided he wanted to see the play, too.

Although the same actor and same director had been involved in an earlier Jungle Theater presentation of “I Am My Own Wife”, both have claimed in recent press interviews that the “new” Jungle Theater production is not a revival of that earlier production but a fresh examination of the same material.

Whether revival or new production, the current “I Am My Own Wife” at Jungle Theater is very fine, and vastly superior to the Signature Theatre production we attended twenty-one months ago. The actor onstage at Jungle Theater was seamless in moving from character to character (he is called upon to portray almost forty different characters). As a result, the pace of the show was much quicker at Jungle Theater than at Signature Theatre. The stage design, lighting design and sound design were much better in Minneapolis, too; all conspired to assist the single actor in portraying numerous roles and in holding the audience’s attention for two hours.

The same actor had portrayed Claudius in Jungle Theater’s recent production of “Hamlet”, which Josh and I had seen last month. An undistinguished if not unsatisfactory Claudius, the actor was a joy to watch in “I Am My Own Wife”.

Before the performance, we ate dinner at a nondescript Chinese restaurant. We ordered egg rolls and General Tso’s Chicken.

On Saturday, Joshua’s birthday, Josh and I stayed in, doing work around the house.

My grandmother has been fussing of late at the care facility, and my mother has been spending a good portion of recent days at her mother’s side. On Saturday, both my mother and my father spent most of the day with my grandmother at the care facility.

My older brother’s family stayed home Saturday, too, as did my middle brother. It was a day for everyone to stay home and catch up on household chores.

My parents came home from the care facility at 5:00 p.m.—and, as soon as I saw my mother’s face, I knew it was impossible to contemplate attending that evening’s performance of Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” at University Opera Theatre, for which we had tickets.

“Let’s 86 the opera and go out to dinner” were my first words to my parents.

My father slowly shook his head and, after a pause, said, “I think your mother wants to stay in.”

So we stayed in Saturday night, and had a very quiet evening. I made a light supper of salmon-sour cream-onion omelets, and an hour after the omelets I made crepes, which we ate with strawberry jam.

Sunday had been set aside for birthday celebrations: Josh’s (who turned 28 on Saturday) and mine (I shall be 31 on Tuesday).

After Sunday service, everyone in the family went to Edina Grill to eat pumpkin pancakes with praline butter and whipped cream.

We spent the rest of the day at home.

Josh picked the menu for Sunday night’s birthday celebration. We had a garden salad, followed by baked steak, baked potatoes, steamed broccoli and corn. My mother made a white birthday cake with raspberry filling between layers, and we ate the cake with homemade ice cream.

In another three weeks, we have more birthday celebrations in store: the birthdays of my niece (who shall turn three) and my older brother (who shall turn 37).

Next weekend: Thanksgiving, with my parents’ 38th wedding anniversary two days later.

Celebrations are coming fast and furious.

Riefenstahl On Trial

Leni Riefenstahl in 1948, at one of her de-Nazification proceedings (there were to be four).

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Winifred On Trial

Winifred Wagner in 1947, at one of her de-Nazification proceedings (there were to be two).

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Georgiana, Lady Greville

George Romney (1734-1802)
Georgiana, Lady Greville
Courtauld Institute Of Art, London

Oil On Canvas
30 1/2 Inches By 25 3/8 Inches

Monday, November 14, 2011

Veterans Day Weekend

We very much enjoyed our three-day Veterans Day Weekend.

On Thursday night, my middle brother and Joshua and I went to Bloomington to see Bloomington Civic Theater’s production of the Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields-Neil Simon musical, “Sweet Charity”. None of us had seen a staging of “Sweet Charity”, and none of us had seen the film version.

“Sweet Charity” is very much a second-rate musical. The score has a couple of familiar and pleasant numbers, but Coleman was more manufacturer of music than genuine composer for the stage. His music has the surface appeal—and the character and depth—of television jingles.

Simon’s book for “Sweet Charity” is poor. The dialogue is both glib and protracted—not a happy combination—and the characters are not allowed to register as three-dimensional human beings. Simon’s book is also insufferably 1960s.

Bloomington Civic Theater’s production was not especially strong—the stage design was not as fine as the company frequently offers and the choreography was, I thought, entirely lame—but the show held together because the young woman playing the lead was very fine. She sang well, she danced well, and she displayed a very beguiling stage personality. Had it not been for her, we probably would have departed at intermission.

Unaccountably, the Star-Tribune had singled out this young actress as the chief weakness of the production, claiming that her portrayal was not well-rounded and that she lacked the necessary vulnerability to bring the character to life. Whatever may have happened on opening night, the presence of this same young actress was the only thing that made the performance endurable on Thursday night.

Before the performance, we ate dinner at a barbecue place in Bloomington. We ordered pulled-pork sandwiches with baked beans and coleslaw.

On Friday morning, my brothers and Josh and I took my niece and nephew to Saint Paul to visit the Science Museum Of Minnesota.

The main interest—for us and the kids—was the dinosaurs. The Science Museum Of Minnesota is renowned for its dinosaur collection.

The museum owns one of only four Triceratops in the world, and its Triceratops is the largest and most complete anywhere.

The museum owns an Allosaurus and a Camptosaurus, the latter the largest ever discovered. The two are displayed together, in combat.

The museum also owns a Stegosaurus and a Diplodocus. The Diplodocus is 82 feet long, and was actually discovered in Minnesota. I believe it is the largest dinosaur skeleton on display anywhere.

My niece and nephew were awed by the dinosaurs, as children generally are. We spent an hour and a quarter walking around the skeletons and examining other dinosaur parts and fossils, at which point the kids had seen enough and were ready to leave.

On Friday afternoon, Josh and I checked the progress on our house. We do not believe the house will be ready for settlement this coming Friday—and this will create no problems for us.

My mother made a special dinner on Friday night. Her supplier had located for her a large and beautiful fresh carp, so she built a dinner around baked carp. We started with homemade tomato-cream soup, and continued with an elaborate garden salad. Next came individual cheese soufflés, for which I was responsible. The main course was baked carp, redskin potatoes, fresh green beans and a white grape salad. Dessert was custard-rhubarb pie.

The dinner was excellent—and the kids liked the carp (but, as a precaution, my mother had had boiled chicken standing by).

Minnesota hosted Wisconsin on Saturday, and on Friday Josh and I decided to accompany my father and my brothers to the game. Minnesota had played well the previous two weeks, and we had hoped that a rejuvenated Golden Gopher squad might create some problems for the mighty Badgers, especially since the game was in Minneapolis.

Our decision was not a wise one. Wisconsin showed up ready to play ball, and the game was effectively over at the end of the first quarter, with Wisconsin leading, 14-0. Minnesota had zero first downs and three yards of offense in the first quarter; Wisconsin had nine first downs and 198 yards of offense in the first quarter. The latter figures, and not the first-quarter score, told the story of the game.

We remained for the entire debacle—we were too embarrassed to go home early, since my mother had warned us that we had signed ourselves up for a grievously disappointing afternoon—yet at least we were able to witness Minnesota’s special teams score twice in the second half (while Wisconsin was playing its reserves).

Our disappointment in the game was tempered by the splendid Norwegian peasant dinner my mother had waiting for us when we returned home: homemade beef barley soup; tomato-onion salad; and minced Norwegian fish, riced potatoes and sour mixed vegetables (including beets) soaked for twenty-four hours in a special Norwegian brine before being quick-fried with bacon. I would not want to eat the sour mixed vegetables often, but I can handle them once every five years, which is about how often my mother prepares them. For dessert, we had slices of buttercream Dobish Torte, which my mother had picked up at a bakery.

My mother, my sister-in-law and the kids had eaten their dinner at the normal hour. They had enjoyed the very same dinner foods—except they had eaten NORMAL mixed vegetables (and with no beets).

On Sunday, we stayed in all day after service.

We had a big post-service breakfast: Eggs Benedict, followed by buttermilk pancakes and sausages, followed by cranberry-orange muffins.

When the kids woke from their naps, we helped my nephew play with his BluTrack for a couple of hours. BluTrack was one of my nephew’s birthday gifts, and BluTrack has become one of his favorite toys.

He has learned that he can create all sorts of twists and contortions with the track, and that the cars will nonetheless continue to glide on the pathways. He will set up BluTrack in a particular configuration and run the cars a few times, after which he will devise a new configuration. The process repeats itself endlessly.

My niece watches with interest while her brother plays with and rearranges BluTrack. Even the dog finds himself fascinated with the cars gliding on BluTrack—although we have to restrain the dog from acting upon his natural inclination to pounce on the cars when they glide by him and to grab them with his teeth and run across the room.

It is easy to understand why BluTrack has become so popular with young children. BluTrack encourages creativity and use of imagination while providing an hour or more of pleasure and fun at a time.

We had a good Sunday night dinner: pumpkin-poppy seed soup; pasta and Cayenne shrimp in a Cayenne cream sauce; and chicken quarters baked with an apple-cranberry glaze, succotash, glazed carrots and an apple-cranberry salad. We had cherry crisp for dessert.

At church on Sunday morning, we learned that we were wise to have skipped this weekend’s Minneapolis performances of Royal Winnipeg Ballet. The company had brought its full-length Alice In Wonderland ballet to the Twin Cities—the ballet was titled “Wonderland”—and we were told by persons that had attended the production on Saturday night that “Wonderland” had been God-awful.

We have decided to skip the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s ten-day Bach Brandenburg marathon currently in progress all around the Twin Cities. For some reason, the prospect of sitting through five Brandenburg Concertos in a single evening (the SPCO is omitting Brandenburg Concerto No. 2) does not appeal to us at present. Further, Josh and I have some interest in attending four consecutive weeks of SPCO subscription programs beginning in another two weeks, and we do not want our musical appetites to become satiated before the stimulating late November/early December programs commence.

We are contemplating attending University Opera Theatre’s production of “Cosi Fan Tutte” at the University Of Minnesota next weekend, but we will not make a firm decision until the weekend draws near. We attended Minnesota Opera’s production of “Cosi Fan Tutte” only six weeks ago—and there are reasons in favor of, and reasons against, attending a second production of the opera in such close succession to the first.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


The mesmerizing Arthur Nikisch (1855-1922), the greatest figure of the podium that ever lived.

Orchestral musicians throughout Europe were willing to die for Nikisch.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Monday, November 07, 2011


On Friday night, Joshua and I joined my parents for a Minnesota Orchestra subscription concert. The orchestra played music of Britten, Sibelius and Debussy. Music Director Osmo Vanska was on the podium; guest soloist was Midori.

“Four Sea Interludes” from “Peter Grimes” opened the program. The Minnesota Orchestra was on good form in the Britten, although Vanska—as always—was prone to overstatement if not fierceness. Subtlety is not Vanska’s strong suit. The man invariably delivers high-octane-grade fuel, even when high-octane power is neither needed nor desirable.

In the Britten, the orchestra’s playing was more well-drilled than atmospheric, yet I suspect I heard about as fine a performance of the “Sea Interludes” as one is ever likely to hear. Truly great orchestras find Britten’s music unremarkable, unimaginative and unrewarding—and, as a result, are unable to deliver Britten compositions with much style or conviction. Over the years, “Four Sea Interludes” has become something of a concert potboiler, one of those pieces beloved by provincial ensembles, capable of fully realizing the music, yet ignored by the very finest orchestras.

Figures as diverse as Virgil Thomson, Igor Stravinsky, Herbert Von Karajan and Pierre Boulez sniffed at the score of “Peter Grimes”, and it is easy to understand why they thought so little of the opera: Britten’s musical ideas are paper-thin, and not worked out as skillfully—or as seamlessly—as his writing would later become in “Billy Budd” and “The Turn Of The Screw”.

The storm music that comprises the final “Sea Interlude” is emblematic of the weakness of Britten’s score: the four note/five note motif is bizarrely unimaginative, and Britten does absolutely nothing to develop this most insipid of themes. The composer offers repetition, re-orchestration and ever-rising volume, and little more, to keep the storm music going. As conclusion to an orchestral piece, the storm music is undeniably loud, but it has little else to recommend it. The storm music is closer—dangerously so—to bad 1940s film music than most Britten advocates would ever be willing to admit.

The Sibelius Violin Concerto followed the Britten. It proved to be the most satisfying performance of the evening, and credit for the success of the performance must be given to violinist Midori.

Over the last fifteen years, Midori has developed into a great artist. She is one of the finest musicians before the public today, with a very personal sound and a very personal way of making music. Twenty years ago, music-lovers would not necessarily have predicted that Midori would make the successful transition from youthful virtuoso to profound artist. For the first ten years of her public career, Midori was a faceless virtuoso whose music-making lacked character, personality and deep insight. Something happened to Midori in the second half of the 1990s, however, and her performances have become increasingly interesting over the last decade-and-a-half. Her appearances now are virtual red-letter events.

Midori has a unique gift: she can project calmness and anxiety at the same time. I know of no other violinist, past or present, with this remarkable gift.

Midori produces a sound of great sweetness, perhaps the sweetest sound among the many excellent violin virtuosos that bless the present age. Her phrasing is very precise—controlled, detailed, elegant—and she is capable of creating genuine radiance in performance.

Midori’s phrasing in the first movement of the Sibelius was sublime. She did nothing unusual, nothing bizarre, but the way she caught and shaped each phrase utterly commanded the listener’s attention. In the two first-movement cadenzas, her playing was inspired. In fact, the first-movement cadenzas were the high points of her performance.

Tempi in the second and third movements were slower than the norm (the third movement was the slowest I had ever heard, live or on disc), yet Midori never allowed concentration to lapse or tension to dissipate. The leisurely third-movement tempo did, however, remove some of the excitement inherent in the concerto’s final movement.

After intermission, the orchestra played Debussy.

Two orchestrations of piano works were played first: Andre Caplet’s orchestration of “Clair De Lune” and Bernardino Molinari’s orchestration of “L’Isle Joyeuse”. Myself, I wished the orchestra had programmed Leopold Stokowski’s marvelous orchestration of “La Cathedrale Engloutie” instead.

“La Mer” concluded the program. Vanska’s was a big-boned, primary-colors “La Mer”—and successful on those terms. His was not a French-tinged reading nor a performance of subtle shades and tints. “La Mer” as Russian-style orchestral showpiece was what Vanska delivered, and the audience appeared to be perfectly happy with such conception of the work.

Before the concert, we ate dinner at an American restaurant only a couple of blocks from Orchestra Hall. We were disappointed in the food, but it must be acknowledged that the restaurant was phenomenally busy early Friday evening. The kitchen staff may have been strained by the crowd of early diners.

We ordered wild mushroom croquettes as a starter course.

For main course, my mother ordered salmon, asparagus and a cheese-apple salad.

My father and I ordered chicken roulade (chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese, spinach and sun-dried tomatoes, all wrapped in pastry) and garlic mashed potatoes.

Josh ordered Cajun-broiled walleye, Rosemary potato terrine, and carrots and green beans.

We skipped dessert. Service at the restaurant was unreliable, and we feared we might be late to the concert if we proceeded with dessert.

On Saturday, we did outdoor work until early afternoon. Saturday was probably our final day of outdoor work at my parents’ house until next Spring.

In the middle of the afternoon, we cleaned up and split into two groups. My brothers and my niece and nephew went over to my older brother’s house, where they were to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening. My parents, my sister-in-law, and Josh and I went downtown to The Walker Art Center, where we were to view an exhibition and attend a dance performance.

The exhibition was devoted to choreographer Merce Cunningham and artist Robert Rauschenberg. The exhibition included costumes, set designs, full-scale stage backdrops, videos and other artifacts from Rauschenberg’s years designing for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

Earlier this year, The Walker purchased over 2,000 items from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The institution intends to mount a significant number of Cunningham-related exhibitions between now and 2015. The just-opened Cunningham/Rauschenberg exhibition is the first such exhibition in the multi-year series; a second exhibition is due to open shortly.

In walking through the exhibition, I was immediately struck by how cheap and shoddy were the materials used for the actual stage sets and stage costumes. I doubt that Rauschenberg intended his work for Cunningham to be viewed at close range. Further, I doubt that Rauschenberg intended his work for Cunningham to be anything other than of temporal value. In fact, I do not believe for a minute that Rauschenberg, in designing for Cunningham, believed he was designing for posterity.

The dance performance, held at The Walker’s theater, was by Merce Cunningham Dance Company. This weekend’s four performances at The Walker signaled the final appearance by the company in Minneapolis. The company will permanently disband at year-end.

Cunningham’s troupe has been a regular visitor to the Twin Cities for over half a century, offering performances at a large number of local venues, everywhere from Northrop Auditorium to The Guthrie Theater to The Walker Art Center to parks and civic plazas. As a general rule, the company's many Minneapolis appearances have been sponsored either by The Walker or the University Of Minnesota, and Cunningham visits, roughly, have been at five- or six-year intervals.

My parents had attended company performances a couple of times over the years, but I had never seen Merce Cunningham Dance Company until Saturday night—and neither had my sister-in-law, and neither had Josh.

The works on the program were “Antic Meet” from 1958, “RainForest” from 1968, and “Pond Way” from 1998. The respective designers were Raushenberg, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein; the respective composers were John Cage, David Tudor and Brian Eno.

I have a limited appreciation for modern dance—for me, much of it is as strange as Kabuki—and I derived limited enjoyment from Saturday evening’s performance.

To begin, I was startled by the absence of beautiful bodies onstage. None of the thirteen dancers possessed what might be termed “dancer” bodies. The odd proportions of the dancers induced disbelief. The lack of muscle tone was particularly shocking.

Matters were not helped by the fact that the dancers, without exception, were singularly unattractive. I could not help but think, the entire performance, that the dancers onstage were rejects from Paul Taylor and David Parsons.

One of the dance works, “Antic Meet”, was a comedy, but the humor was exceedingly obvious and heavy-handed, as if the choreographer did not trust his audience to comprehend the jokes. I found the entire work eyeball-rolling.

The other two works often invoked animal behavior, some of which was mildly amusing but most of which was not. I have no idea whether the works represented typical Cunningham pieces.

At the conclusion of the performance, I asked three questions: (1) did Cunningham have any depth?; (2) did his work exhibit any development?; and (3) was Cunningham a genius or a weirdo? The consensus answer to the first question was that Cunningham had no depth at all, but that depth was never his objective. The consensus answer to the second question was along the same lines: development of craft was probably irrelevant, since the artist was nakedly anti-intellectual and worked purely from instinct. Answers to the third question were all over the place—Cunningham was certainly a weirdo, but different viewers find vastly different degrees of genius in his work.

Myself, I could not get beyond the Cunningham weirdness, either of the man or the work. The sheer weirdness of everything, including the weirdness of the odd-looking dancers, trumped all other considerations. I immediately understood—fully—why Cunningham, after sixty years of creating dance, was never able to develop a significant audience for his work.

Over much the same lifetime, George Balanchine’s audience grew and grew and grew. Indeed, Balanchine’s audience grew from absolutely nothing into the largest dance audience in the world: New York City Ballet performs—nightly—twenty-three weeks a year in a single theater in a single city for a single audience, a feat no other dance company anywhere has ever been able to achieve. By comparison, Cunningham found himself largely consigned to the modern-dance circuit, playing one-night stands in small venues across the country (most at colleges and universities) for decades.

Between the exhibition and the dance performance, we went to a nearby café to have a light dinner. We had two starter courses, seafood chowder and crab cake, and we had dessert, triple chocolate cream cake.

On Sunday, my parents had to attend an afternoon function, so after service Josh and I took the dog over to my older brother’s house, where my brothers and Josh and I worked in the yard all afternoon.

My parents were able to join us for dinner. We all sat down to a Sunday night dinner of pot roast, new potatoes, stewed tomatoes, green beans and corn pudding. We had Pepperidge Farm cookies for dessert.

Josh and I have tentatively scheduled settlement on our new house for Friday, November 18.

It will be interesting to see whether the builder can hold to that date.

Friday, November 04, 2011

The Issue: Determining What Constitutes “Culture” For Purposes Of Public Funding

Well, I've seen Merce Cunningham dance (creepy), and I've seen [Minnesota Vikings Running Back] Adrian Peterson run, and what Peterson performs is a form of ballet.

Minneapolis Star-Tribune political columnist Jon Tevlin

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Encounter With Cunningham

Cunningham is a true artistic revolutionary. Since composing his first works in the 1940s, his innovations are many and radical. Perhaps most fundamentally, he has created a wholly new vocabulary of movement. Abandoning the established idioms of modern dance and ballet, he invents a lexicon of gestures that range from the most routine of urban-inspired activities to startlingly original, virtuosic sequences. He has introduced chance operations and made indeterminacy an important compositional device. He has crafted a dialogic relationship between dance, music, and visual decor where each is arrived at independently but performed simultaneously. He has “decentralized” performance space, dismantling the notion (derived from Renaissance perspective and the proscenium stage) that the actions of dancers radiate from a central point. In a Merce Cunningham work, the position of one dancer on the stage is no more important than that of another. Moreover, he has displaced the linear, plot-driven narrative of traditional dance with a dynamic, non-hierarchical field in which cause and effect no longer govern the performers’ movements. Since sequences are not rigidly thematized, they can easily sustain a myriad of interpretations, whose sheer variety celebrates the essential “singleness” of the moment in space and time.

John Rockwell (2005, in conversation at Stanford University)


On Saturday evening, Joshua and I will see—for the first and last time—the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

The company will offer a weekend of performances in Minneapolis as part of its farewell tour, after which the company will permanently disband.

Prior to the evening performance, we will visit The Walker Art Center in late afternoon and view the exhibition devoted to Cunningham. The exhibition includes full-scale stage settings for several Cunningham works, which The Walker recently acquired.

In preparation for Saturday’s performance, I have been doing some reading about Cunningham.

Alas, most of what I have read is sheer nonsense, entirely consistent with the cliché-ridden gibberish Rockwell uttered (as quoted above).

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Downtown Minneapolis 1858

Downtown Minneapolis 1908

What A Nation Values

If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that, too.

Somerset Maugham