Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Two Orchestral Concerts

On Friday evening, Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in concert.

Rossen Milanov, former Resident Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra (Milanov’s official title in Philadelphia was “Associate Conductor”), was on the podium.

The concert began with a Shostakovich arrangement for winds and timpani of two keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. Identified in the program booklet as “Pastorale And Capriccio”, the composition is more widely known by the title assigned by its publisher, “Two Pieces From Scarlatti”. One of countless miniatures Shostakovich wrote in the late 1920s, “Two Pieces From Scarlatti” is pleasing and ear-beguiling. It provided a good concert-opener.

The concert continued with Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement for string orchestra of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 (Barshai’s arrangement is known as the “Chamber Symphony For String Orchestra, Opus 110a”).

I am diffident about Shostakovich quartets. They are deeply personal utterances, a private self-portrait of a disillusioned and conflicted man, a veritable diary of the collected grievances of an occupant of a totalitarian state. Some musicologists insist that the quartets are the essence of Shostakovich, which very well may be the case—yet, by the standards of Beethoven and Bartok, the music of the Shostakovich quartets is not of high quality. Whatever the underlying narrative, the themes are third-rate, the way the themes are worked out is third-rate, and ideals of unity, internal logic and coherency are thrown out the window. In the sprawling, five-movement Eighth Quartet, the unfolding of the musical ideas is particularly weak: the over-familiar D-S-C-H theme is worked to death while the composer introduces countless quotations from earlier compositions. The appeal of the composition has always eluded me.

I have never heard the Chamber Symphony come off in live performance—I have heard even Mariss Jansons came to grief in the piece—and I was not taken by Friday’s performance, either. The only way to make the quartet work is by turning it into a vast and hypersensitive study in irony, with the music played in quotation marks. Barshai, to judge by his recordings, knew how to do this; no one else using the string-orchestra arrangement has been able to produce a satisfying performance of the work.

Music of Prokofiev was next on the program: Overture On Hebrew Themes, a piece fun to play and fun to hear. The audience gave the Prokofiev the warmest and most genuine applause of the night.

The concert should have concluded with yet another Russian work, but Late German Romanticism was offered instead: Korngold’s Violin Concerto. I have no idea who conceived the notion that Korngold might make a suitable companion for Shostakovich and Prokofiev—but the idea was not a good one.

I enjoy the Korngold Violin Concerto, although I readily acknowledge that the piece’s primary recommendation is that it is of brief duration. The Korngold is among the shortest concertos in the active repertory.

The concerto begins well, hitting its stride three minutes into the first movement, when the composer has the violin soar above an unexpected and extended and complicated and amazing harmonic progression that gives the listener chills for a full thirty seconds. Alas, the concerto is, for all practical purposes, over at that point, because nothing else interesting is to occur for the remainder of the work. The composer did not know, after a spectacular start, how to extend—or how to wind down—a sonata-form first movement, the composer did not know how to write a penetrating slow movement, and the composer did not know how to write an imaginative and original Rondo Finale.

The final movement of Korngold’s Violin Concerto might provide the subject of an interesting doctoral dissertation. In writing the Rondo Finale, Korngold was obviously following the models of the violin concertos of Beethoven and Brahms—yet Korngold’s main theme was second-rate, and his development of that theme even more second-rate. Korngold’s Rondo Finale is a splendid example of ersatz music: music no one would ever confuse with the real thing. Significantly, the final movement demonstrates that the composer had not developed as an artist during the previous quarter century: the materials are worked out no better than the materials in the comparable movement of the composer’s “Much Ado About Nothing” Suite, written more than twenty-five years earlier.

The Korngold Violin Concerto was largely ignored the first four decades after its premiere. In the late 1980s, however, violinists everywhere began taking up the piece; the Korngold Violin Concerto began appearing on concert programs with greater and greater frequency. Today, numerous first-rank violinists maintain the work in their repertories. In my estimation, their attentions would be better devoted to the Lars-Erik Larsson Violin Concerto, roughly contemporaneous with the Korngold but a much finer work.

The Saint Paul performance was not successful. A full orchestra is needed for the Korngold Violin Concerto to make an impact; a chamber orchestra performance is inherently destined to sound under-nourished and anemic (the elaborate—and undeniably beautiful—orchestration provides one of the few reasons to hear the piece).

The soloist was the SPCO concertmaster. Probably from necessity, he gave a very linear and one-dimensional performance of the violin part (the SPCO concertmaster lacks personality and a unique sound). At the conclusion of the concerto, the woman next to me turned to her husband and wryly noted, “He should stick to Vivaldi . . . or Stravinsky, if he wants to do something more recent”—a statement I was prepared fully to affirm.

On our way home from a very disappointing concert, Josh asked me: “Remind me again: Why did we earmark this concert?”

“Because the orchestra had originally scheduled an interesting piece by Schnittke” was my response.

I have no idea what happened to the Schnittke. Somewhere along the line, the Schnittke disappeared, to be replaced by the Prokofiev.


On Sunday afternoon, my parents and Josh and I attended a rare Sunday matinee concert by the Minnesota Orchestra. Courtney Lewis, the orchestra’s Resident Conductor, lead the performance (Lewis’s official title is “Associate Conductor”).

Elgar’s Concert Overture, In The South (“Alassio”), began the concert.

In The South is a miraculous work, beautifully-constructed, with the widest possible range of expression—yet it is a very difficult piece to bring off, probably because it is not easy to make the various sections cohere. On disc, only Leonard Slatkin—of all persons—has managed to produce a fully-satisfactory reading.

Sunday’s Minnesota Orchestra performance was not so much a genuine performance as a rehearsed run-through. Lewis was clueless what to do with the piece, and the musicians, by themselves, were unable to create a performance without a distinguished Elgar conductor at the helm.

Schumann’s Piano Concerto followed the Elgar. The soloist was Argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter.

I am saturated by the Schumann Piano Concerto; I no longer respond to the piece.

During the last three concert seasons alone, Josh and I heard the Boston Symphony program the Schumann concerto twice: Maurizio Pollini/James Levine (a performance my parents, visiting us in Boston, had also heard); and Nelson Freire/Kurt Masur. Neither Boston performance was distinguished.

Moreover, eighteen months ago, Josh and I spent many hours listening to the fresh and intriguing Maria Joao Pires/Claudio Abbado recording of the concerto.

The result: we have had too much exposure to the work in recent years—and the Schumann Piano Concerto, a troubled if not ill-conceived work, probably does not warrant such extensive listening in the first place.

On Sunday afternoon, the musicians did not capture my full attention in the work, and I had not expected them to be able to do so. The performance merely passed by, the music going in one ear and out the other. I can state, with accuracy, that Fliter did nothing bizarre—my ears would have perked up considerably had she done so.

After intermission came Walton’s Symphony No. 1. Opportunities to hear the Walton First in the U.S. are rare, and we did not want to miss out. The Walton First is one of my favorite 20th-Century symphonies.

Going into the performance, we did not expect much—and Lewis did not deliver much. We heard precisely the sort of performance one might expect to hear from a Resident Conductor.

Lewis fatally misjudged the final movement. The climax came six minutes in, just as Walton drops the six-note fanfare theme that provides the basic material for the first half of the movement. Once the fanfare theme was tabled, Lewis was unable to maintain tension for the remaining eight or nine minutes of the symphony. The conclusion of the symphony was a dud.

The first three movements were seriously under-characterized. Anyone hearing the Walton First for the first time would have found the symphony incomparably bland. Lewis was never once in complete control of musicians or score.

The whole performance, to be frank, was not worth hearing—but I suspect that last week was Lewis’s first series of public performances of a very long and very complex and very great symphony. Allowances had to be made.

That said, the performance should have been presented in Bozeman, Montana. Lewis is not ready to be inflicted upon subscription audiences in the Twin Cities.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Julie Harris In "The Lark"

Julie Harris as Joan Of Arc in the 1955 Broadway production of Jean Anouilh’s “The Lark”.

Harris’s Joan Of Arc was considered to be one of the actress’s finest portrayals.

“The Lark”, coming after Harris’s award-winning appearances in “The Member Of The Wedding” and “I Am A Camera”, sealed Harris’s reputation as America’s leading stage actress.


Only four plays by French playwright Jean Anouilh (1910-1987) maintain any currency in the English-speaking world.

Two are what I would classify as intellectual/philosophical drawing-room comedies: “Ring Round The Moon” and “Waltz Of The Toreadors”. Two others, “The Lark” and “Becket”, may be classified as history plays, although any historical content, like the historical content in Shakespeare’s history plays, is mere skeleton upon which to erect themes and arguments—and should never be accepted as factual presentation of history.

Minneapolis’s Theater In The Round recently opened a production of Anouilh’s “The Lark”, the playwright’s 1952 play about Joan Of Arc, and Joshua and I and my parents attended Saturday night’s performance.

Our decision to see “The Lark” was made more or less at the last minute. We had decided, several days earlier, to keep Saturday night open for “The Lark”—but to attend only if we found ourselves, late Saturday afternoon, in the right frame of mind to sit through a production we had been informed was very poor.

We did find ourselves in the right frame of mind late Saturday afternoon—it was the play itself we wanted to experience, not the production—and we went downtown Saturday night prepared to ignore the performance and to listen to the text.

Our stratagem was successful. We had a rewarding experience.

“The Lark” is a major work, exploring numerous matters that compel thought and reflection. Truth, morality, integrity, religion, government, politics, power: all are put under Anouilh’s microscope, and examined with cold, clinical detachment. Indeed, I am surprised that the play has not been widely staged in the U.S. the last three years, as it raises countless issues pertinent to the America of today. Anouilh, a vehement critic of Charles de Gaulle (even when de Gaulle was out of power), might as well have been directing his scorn to the current American executive, so withering is Anouilh’s treatment of hapless bread-and-circus governments courting popularity from the very basest segments of society.

Caution is in order; the case must not be overstated. “The Lark” is not pure Anouilh; it is a 1955 English-language “adaptation” of the original French text by Lillian Hellman.

Having not read Anouilh’s original French text, I have no idea what Hellman omitted and what Hellman changed—and Hellman very well may have contorted Anouilh to suit her own ends, something for which Hellman was notorious (most American observers in the 1950s believed that Hellman possessed an anti-McCarthy motive in “adapting” Anouilh).

When my mother was in college, she had studied Anouilh’s original French text—but, my mother says, too much time has passed to allow her to remember much about the original text, and to have noted accurately what was Anouilh’s and what was Hellman’s. (On Sunday, my mother located of her old copy of Anouilh’s original. My mother intends to reread it carefully this week, and to tell us how Hellman’s “adaptation” differed from Anouilh’s original.)

I can say, having heard Hellman’s text uttered by actors, that the Hellman version is prosaic—stilted and awkward in some places, too blandly American in others.

In other English-speaking countries, the Christopher Fry translation is the standard English-language version of the Anouilh play. The Fry has never gained currency in the United States, just as the Hellman has never gained currency outside the United States.

If I did not have to work for a living, and had endless free time on my hands, I would enjoy making a detailed comparison of Anouilh, Fry and Hellman. However, that not being the case, I am pleased that I have, at the very least, now encountered a fully-staged production of one version of the play. “The Lark” is an important and thought-provoking work, more spoken-of than performed or studied. It deserves its exalted reputation. In an excellent production, “The Lark” would prove overwhelming.

Theater In The Round did not do well by the material. The company had assembled a large and mostly-capable cast of fifteen players, but the production was more earnest than admirable—and, at its center, was a vacuum.

The young actress in the central role was not good. The young woman had recently relocated to the Twin Cities specifically because there are so many good acting jobs available in Minneapolis and Saint Paul—and, within months of her arrival, she had landed a plum role in a very important play.

The young woman’s amazing stroke of luck did not hold. Her Minneapolis debut was not a triumph.

In fact, her Joan Of Arc was a mistake—a mistake that should not have been inflicted upon a theater-going public, and a mistake that should not have been inflicted upon the young woman herself.

I have been told, rightly or wrongly, that the young actress was almost replaced numerous times during rehearsals, including as late as one week before the first preview performance.

I have also been told, rightly or wrongly, that area newspapers sent reviewers to “The Lark”—and that such reviewers decided it would be cruel to subject the production to public critical assessment.

Such decisions, if made, were probably the right ones. Productions as weak as Theater In The Round’s “The Lark” should, as a general rule, be permitted to pass unnoticed—and unrecorded in annals.

Moreover, any appearance of negative reviews might have killed an already-weak box office for “The Lark”. The production has been playing to very small audiences. Had local reviewers offered honest appraisals of the production, there might have been no audience members at all for what is an important and seldom-produced work.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Few persons who have ever sat for a portrait can have felt anything but inferior while the process was going on.

British Novelist Anthony Powell

Monday, February 20, 2012

Memo To Nikolaj Znaider

Please rethink the lipstick and rouge.

Hilary Hahn and Julia Fischer wear less makeup.

Europe’s Answer To Hilary Hahn

In recent days, Joshua and I attended three concerts.


On Wednesday evening, we (along with my parents) went to Saint Paul to hear Munich-born and –based violinist Julia Fischer in recital.

Fischer was, by and large, disappointing. Fischer is a serious musician and a fine instrumentalist, but she has not yet become interesting. Her playing exhibits little personality and character, and she has a limited color palette.

Fischer is only in her late twenties—yet, in their late twenties, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Maxim Vengerov and Nikolaj Znaider (to cite only three examples) were fully-formed artists, with commanding personalities and unique individual voices. My instinct tells me that Fischer will never acquire the one-of-a-kind, larger-than-life qualities necessary to place her in the front rank of violinists.

The program was not chosen to reveal Fischer at her best. Fischer is known for her restraint, purity of line, and concentration in music of repose and contemplation—making her, above all, a Bach player. However, Fischer offered Twin Cities audiences not Bach but music of Mozart, Schubert, Debussy and Saint-Saens—and Fischer had nothing specific to say about any of those composers.

I had looked forward to hearing Fischer in Mozart’s Sonata In B Flat Major, K. 454, but it became immediately apparent that Fischer is not a Mozart musician: she could not keep more than one emotion going at a time. Fischer gave an indifferent performance, causing me to question why she had elected to perform this particular work.

Josh and I had most recently heard K. 454 fifteen months ago, when Pinchas Zukerman and Yefim Bronfman had played the work at a Boston recital. More than five years ago, all of us had heard Mutter and Lambert Orkis play K. 454 in Saint Paul. Both Zukerman’s and Mutter’s renditions of Mozart’s finest sonata for violin and keyboard had been vastly superior to what Fischer offered.

Fischer was at her best in Schubert’s seldom-performed Rondo Brilliant In B Minor, which concluded the first half of the program. Fischer obviously liked the piece, and she played it as serious music (and not as an empty virtuoso showpiece, which is how Christian Tetzlaff and Leif Ove Andsnes had treated the work three years ago, when Josh and I heard Tetzlaff and Andsnes play the Schubert Rondo in Boston). Nonetheless, the Schubert Rondo is not a work around which to build a recital program.

The best music of the evening came immediately after intermission: Debussy’s Sonata In G Minor, one of Debussy’s most striking and most original compositions. Fischer held my attention in the Debussy—any competent violinist will hold the listener’s attention in the work—but the performance was unremarkable and unmemorable, the kind of performance regularly heard on Saturday mornings on Radio Luxembourg.

The Saint-Saens Sonata No. 1 In D Minor—pleasant and virtuosic—that concluded the program was unobjectionable, yet I am surprised that violinists would ever choose such an empty work to conclude a recital (Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk had done the same four years ago in the same hall).

Fischer is not, I believe, a master of French music—but her accompanist, Ukrainian pianist Milana Chernyavska, certainly was. Chernyavska, dutiful in the Mozart and Schubert, came alive in the Debussy and Saint-Saens, revealing herself to be a fine pianist in French repertory, where color and flair are at a premium.

We live in an age of great violinists. There are probably close to twenty active violinists on the world’s musical stages that, without any exaggeration, may be called great. (In comparison, one may count today’s great pianists on the fingers of one hand.) In fact, there are so many great violinists today that the second tier of artists is bound to get lost in the shuffle.

Fischer is destined, I suspect, always to be in that second tier.

Josh summed up the conundrum nicely after Fischer’s recital: “I don’t know what Mutter has—but, whatever Mutter has, Fischer certainly hasn’t got it.”

My father had a more acidic comment to make about Fischer after the recital: “Julia Fischer is Europe’s answer to Hilary Hahn.”

My mother’s rejoinder: “Wait! I thought she [Julia Fischer] WAS Hilary Hahn!”

My response: “You mean there’s a difference?”


On Friday evening, Josh and I (and my parents, who have the Minnesota Orchestra Friday night subscription) heard another violinist at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. That night, Russian-born Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman joined the Minnesota Orchestra for a performance of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2.

To the best of my recollection, I had never heard Gluzman before—but I very well may have forgotten, because Gluzman, too, is not a memorable musician. Gluzman offered a reading of Prokofiev’s finest concertante work that was very much rote and by-the-book, as if his interpretation, phrasings and bowings had been dictated to him by Dorothy DeLay (once Gluzman’s teacher).

In his defense, Gluzman may have been required simply to survive his Minnesota Orchestra engagement.

The orchestra devoted only two days of rehearsal to the program we heard, squeezing four full rehearsals into a single 48-hour period. Further, the orchestra was offering Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 (“Leningrad”) on the same program—and it was the Shostakovich that had received the bulk of the rehearsal time.

Under such circumstances, it was probably unreasonable to have expected Gluzman to deliver something memorable.

The Minnesota Orchestra, guided by guest conductor Andrew Litton, provided very fine playing in the Shostakovich. The musicians gave an excellent account of themselves.

Litton programmed lots of Shostakovich when he was Music Director of the Dallas Symphony, and he is widely regarded as a fine conductor of Shostakovich. However, as one who used to hear Yuri Temirkanov lead the music of Shostakovich with the Baltimore Symphony, I find Litton to be no more than competent in Shostakovich.

Friday night’s Minnesota Orchestra performance of the Leningrad Symphony was very much an American affair. The sound of the orchestra was far too bright, there was too little soul and too little irony in the music-making, and Litton varied his tempi too little as well as phrased with too little specificity. What we heard, in essence, was a very glib performance of what is supposed to be an epic if not tragic work.

I am not a fan of the Shostakovich Seventh. The musical materials are not inherently interesting, the composer stretched those musical materials to the breaking point, and the work has no structural integrity. However, the Leningrad Symphony CAN be made to work, as Temirkanov (if no one else) has demonstrated.

Temirkanov’s RCA recording with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic is a miracle. By constantly altering tempi, by inserting pauses, by frequent use of rubato and by demanding very specific phrasing from the musicians, Temirkanov somehow made the sprawling work cohere. Temirkanov’s was a work of alchemy, akin to what Furtwängler used to do in Bruckner symphonies.

None of Temirkanov’s magic got passed down to Litton. Litton was more or less in command of the Technicolor aspects of the score, but the stark grimness beneath the surface was never realized in a convincing fashion.

Opportunities to hear the Leningrad Symphony are not frequent. We were pleased that the Minnesota Orchestra gave the work a rare performance—and we were disappointed that the performance was fundamentally vapid.


On Saturday evening, Josh and I (by ourselves) returned to Saint Paul to hear the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra under guest conductor Ludovic Morlot.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 31 (“Paris”) began the concert, and it provided the highlight of the evening. The SPCO is a very good Mozart orchestra, and the musicians played the Paris Symphony beautifully.

The concert continued with Debussy’s Le Livre de Baudelaire in the orchestral version by John Adams. Soprano Dawn Upshaw was soloist.

I thought Upshaw was unsatisfactory. If Le Livre de Baudelaire does not come across as magical, there is no point in performing the work—and Upshaw was anything but magical. Upshaw’s voice is now dry—whatever gleam was once there is now gone—and she did nothing to color the music or text. The performance was uninspired, even pedestrian. We might as well have been attending a faculty recital at Macalester College.

Upshaw returned after intermission to sing Ravel’s Five Greek Folk Songs. Upshaw was better in the Ravel than in the Debussy, perhaps because the Ravel songs are easier to sing. However, once again, it was impossible not to note the lack of opulence in the voice, and the restricted color choices available to the artist.

We last heard Upshaw four years ago, when she had appeared with the SPCO in music of Schoenberg and Berio. Upshaw’s vocal state has deteriorated significantly over the intervening four years. Whether or not her vocal decline is health-related, it is time for Upshaw to contemplate retiring from the concert stage. The basic instrument is going, and Upshaw is not the type of singer that can get by on “artistry” alone.

The concert concluded with Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite. A chamber-orchestra reduction of the Ravel is hardly the most advantageous way to hear one of Ravel’s most voluptuously-orchestrated works. As if to compensate for the lack of a full orchestra, Morlot emphasized clarity in the performance—and, as such, his reading was fully satisfactory.

Oddly, across town, the Minnesota Orchestra was also playing Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite the very same evening.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Page From The Luttrell Psalter

Unknown Scribes And Artists
The Luttrell Psalter: Harrowing
Completed No Later Than 1340
The British Library, London

Ink, Pigments, Silver And Gold On Vellum
14 3/8 Inches By 9 13/16 Inches


The Luttrell Psalter, an illuminated book of psalms and canticles, was created by anonymous scribes and artists in the early 14th Century. The depictions of rural life in the margins of The Luttrell Psalter represent one of the best records of life in Britain during The Middle Ages.

The Luttrell Psalter remained in private hands for 600 years. Finally put up for sale in 1929, The Luttrell Psalter fetched an astronomical—and record—price. American financier J.P. Morgan made an interest-free loan to The British Library in order that The Luttrell Psalter join other Medieval illuminated manuscripts in the Library’s public collection.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Williams Arena

Williams Arena, home of the University Of Minnesota Men’s Basketball Program.

Williams Arena opened in 1928, and is by far the oldest basketball arena in the Big Ten Conference. All other Big Ten schools except Northwestern play in modern, characterless facilities.

With its notorious raised floor and frightening decibel levels of crowd noise, Williams Arena is anathema to visiting teams. Most Big Ten teams claim that their annual games in Minneapolis are the least-attractive road games of the conference season.

Nonetheless, the Golden Gophers have not won a Big Ten Championship in Men’s Basketball since 1997. In that year, Minnesota easily won the Big Ten Title and made it all the way to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament. Minnesota’s 1997 conference championship and NCAA victories were to be wiped from the record books a few years later when it was discovered that Coach Clem Haskins’s program had been engaged in long-term and rampant academic cheating.

The Minnesota basketball program has yet to recover from the Haskins scandal—which is as things should be.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Romanov Family 1912

Three Acts And Three Hours Of Ennui

On Friday evening, Joshua and I and my middle brother attended a performance of “Dial M For Murder” at Jungle Theater.

None of us had seen the Alfred Hitchcock film, and none of us had seen a staging of the play before Friday night.

“You are in for a long evening” was my father’s warning—and, as always, he was right. The play proceeded at a glacial pace as the plot spun its supposed web. We were not ensnared. To the contrary, we were bored out of our minds the entire time we were in the theater.

“Dial M For Murder” was a 1952 product of British playwright Frederick Knott, who went on to author another once-popular thriller, “Wait Until Dark”. Knott, not a talented writer, wrote to formula—and the conventions of the formula were already long outdated before Knott began his writing endeavors.

The Jungle Theater production was not good. I can offer no praise to the production other than to note that the set design was apt and effective.

Oddly, the local press had lavished praise on the production. Jungle Theater generally receives notices more favorable than its work actually warrants, and I have always assumed that the positive coverage for Jungle Theater is due to the company’s assiduous if not aggressive courting of the press.

There was nothing worthy of praise in the Jungle Theater “Dial M For Murder”. The staging did not even arise to the level of a high-quality civic theater presentation. The cast was dreadful.

Before the performance, we went to a nearby restaurant that serves new American cuisine.

Once we were seated and presented with menus, we had an unhappy surprise: there was nothing on the menu that even remotely appealed to us. Appetizers, salads, soups, entrees, desserts: all were weird fusion foods that sounded positively frightening.

Before we had a chance to order, we saw dinner entrees delivered to another nearby table—and the food looked revolting. We had to restrain ourselves first from gawking, then from laughing.

When our server returned to our table to take our order, my brother, Josh and I looked at each other and squirmed.

After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, I stepped up to the plate and said, “Let me handle this one”.

I looked at our server and said, very quietly, “I’m sorry, but I think we shall have to leave. There is nothing on the menu that appears to be edible unless one fancies some bizarre Peruvian/Cambodian/Tunisian/California nightmare—and it seems rather pointless for us to order food we cannot eat, as I’m sure you would agree. So the best thing for everybody is for us to leave as unobtrusively as possible, and for you to have a free table.”

The server’s jaw dropped—and we rose and left the restaurant.

Now pressed for time, we went to a nearby German brewery and ordered fish and chips, which we knew would be served promptly. The food was perfectly fine.

We made the “Dial M For Murder” curtain with time to spare—after which we suffered through three acts and three hours of ennui.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Tracie Bennett As Judy Garland

British actress Tracie Bennett as Judy Garland in Peter Quilter’s play, “End Of The Rainbow”, at The Guthrie Theater.

“End Of The Rainbow” At The Guthrie

Well . . .

As Joshua mentioned over a week ago, we did, as planned, attend “the Judy Garland play” this past weekend.

Not only did Josh and I go, but my parents went as well—as did my sister-in-law and my middle brother.

Of the adult members of my family, only my older brother had no interest in seeing a production that has generated much interest in the Twin Cities. In fact, my older brother made great fun of us and our “inexplicable” curiosity to see a play about a silly show-business figure—and he happily stayed home Saturday night to attend to my nephew and niece.

The text of the play was not good. It was of a standard well-known to viewers of low-quality, low-budget biographical movies made for television—and seemed to have been written by a committee of reporters on loan from Variety.

The show-biz bio is such an inherently-corrupt genre that it should have died out decades ago. For whatever reason, the genre has exhibited great endurance, probably because segments of the population are fascinated by the lives of celebrities. Nonetheless, the question must be asked: what is this sort of thing doing onstage at The Guthrie?

Normally I am immune to show-business proceedings as well as plays and musicals about show-business proceedings, but so many persons whose opinions I respect had offered acclaim to the actress portraying Judy Garland that I, too, had eagerly wanted to see the play.

The actress, Tracie Bennett, gave a brilliant portrayal. I would describe her performance as sensational. She somehow got under the skin of Judy Garland, and exposed both the demons that drove Garland to an early death and the gamine quality that made Garland a star. Often the dueling natures were on display at the same time.

During the play, Bennett was called upon to sing snippets from several songs Garland had made her own—and it was almost unbelievable how Judy Garland-like were Bennett’s renditions of such songs. Bennett is surely offering the performance of her career.

The play is set in London in late 1968, several months before Garland’s death. Garland is seen interacting with her agent (and soon-to-be final husband) as well as her accompanist, both of whom are trying to get Garland through a difficult London engagement. The dialogue is sometimes biting and cruel, and other times full of wit and laughter—yet the writing never goes anywhere and the characters remain cardboard Hollywood “types” borrowed from a thousand MGM backstage musicals. The play is more series of vignettes than fully-developed drama, a scattered gallery of glimpses into the backstage machinations that preceded Garland’s public performances at the end of Garland’s career. The play’s author has no insight to offer about events or personages, and he does not do a good job of shaping his material. The viewer learns nothing about Garland that has not been revealed in countless old magazine articles and mass-market biographies.

And yet . . .

As a vehicle for Bennett, “The End Of The Rainbow” was a pleasure to sit through. Without actually offering an impersonation of Garland, Bennett somehow made the audience believe that Bennett WAS Judy Garland for two-and-a-quarter hours. Bennett was, quite simply, a phenomenon.

After the production moves to Broadway next month, I predict that Bennett will be the recipient of incredible amounts of press coverage bordering on adulation—and I will be amazed if Bennett does not win this year’s Tony Award for Best Actress In A Play.


Judy Garland’s birthplace in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, a town otherwise known for producing hockey players.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

“An Academy For Secret Police”

A view of the front exterior of The British Library. The view shows the large (and frankly unattractive) piazza through which visitors must pass in order to enter the building.

The British Library was the work of architect Colin St. John Wilson. It is the only building for which the architect is known. Wilson worked on the project for three decades, although visitors might be forgiven for thinking that the architect had devoted no more than three weeks to the design.

The British Library is a very bad building, resembling nothing so much as a medium-security prison. It reeks of the 1960s (the building opened in 1997), has an uninviting if not chilling atmosphere, and is constructed of exceedingly cheap materials. In the United States, it is very unlikely that such a bad building would ever have been built—and, if erected, would certainly have been quickly demolished.

The British Library was the largest public building erected in the United Kingdom during the 20th Century. I find it astonishing that the design passed any sort of review process.

The British Library has been praised for its architecture in a few quarters, and criticized in many others (Prince Charles took a few well-deserved public whacks at the building). Neither the building nor the architect—Wilson is now deceased—have any reputation in America.

It is for the display galleries that visitors make a trek to The British Library. The historic artifacts on view make The British Library an essential stop during any trip to London.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Page From The Sherborne Missal

John Whas, Main Scribe
John Siferwas, Primary Artist
The Sherborne Missal: Feast Of The Assumption Of The Virgin Mary
Completed No Later Than 1507
The British Library, London

21 3/4 Inches By 15 3/8 Inches
Ink, Pigments And Gold On Vellum


The largest and most-lavishly-decorated late Medieval service book to have survived The Reformation, The Sherborne Missal is one of the world’s great treasures. The Sherborne Missal was created between 1496 and 1507 by a host of scribes and artists working in or near Salisbury—and the names of the principal scribe and principal artist have been preserved, as they identified themselves in the book through text and art.

The Sherborne Missal is rendered in The International Gothic Style because The Renaissance was significantly late in arriving in Britain—and in no field was this as true as in the field of painting. Despite the fact that German painter Hans Holbein The Younger, a painter purely of The Renaissance, worked frequently in Britain in the early 16th Century, The Renaissance was to gain little ground in Britain until after the passing of Henry VIII in 1547. This explains why The Sherborne Missal was almost 200 years behind the artistic currents of the era in which it was created.

Despite its status as an anachronistic work, The Sherborne Missal remains a supreme work of art. It is one of the crown jewels of the rare-book collection on permanent display at The British Library.

We last saw The Sherborne Missal in September 2007.

It was Joshua’s first encounter with The Sherborne Missal.

Josh was overwhelmed.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Werther III

On Sunday afternoon, my parents, my sister-in-law, and Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to attend Minnesota Opera’s presentation of Massenet’s four-act opera, “Werther”.

As a general rule, Minnesota Opera (for reasons of cost) engages major singers only for one production each season—and “Werther” was this season’s Minnesota Opera presentation in which international-level singers had been engaged: American tenor James Valenti sang Werther; and Romanian mezzo soprano Roxana Constantinescu sang Charlotte. Both singers have appeared with Minnesota Opera in previous seasons.

Valenti is one of fewer than ten “bankable” tenors in opera today. He possesses a large, malleable voice, with more than a little color; his production is smooth and he has reliable, bell-like top notes that explain why he is much in demand these days. Valenti’s voice is suited to the Italian repertory—his voice has the tinctura and “ping” so often associated with the music of Verdi and Puccini—and most of his career thus far has been devoted to roles in Italian operas.

Despite appearances in most of the major European houses, Valenti remains in the early stages of an international career; he is not yet a fully-formed artist. He is stiff and unnatural onstage—and sometimes even lifeless. He has a tendency to sing more loudly than necessary, and he has not yet learned how to shade a performance or how to make a phrase uniquely his own.

The Minnesota Opera “Werther”, a new production, was mounted specifically for Valenti—and it was Valenti’s first “Werther” production in which he had enjoyed an extended rehearsal period. Prior to the run of performances in Saint Paul, Valenti had sung the role of Werther in concert and, covering the part at the Paris Opera, he had had to go on at short notice as a substitute for an indisposed Jonas Kaufmann.

I enjoyed Valenti’s performance immensely, but he is not yet a Werther for the ages. He has not internalized the role or the music; his mastery of the text was non-existent. What Twin Cities audiences got was an unsubtle, loudly-vocalized portrayal by a tenor with a first-class instrument, an artist that needs to perform the role twenty or forty more times before the role becomes his own. Five years from now, Valenti may very well be a Werther to die for (it is my understanding that Valenti intends to make the role a cornerstone of his repertory); at present, Valenti’s Werther is very much a work in progress.

Constantinescu was contracted by the Wiener Staatsoper at the very beginning of her career, a sure sign of the quality of her voice and artistry, and sang a wide variety of roles at the house for three seasons as a member of the resident ensemble. (Constantinescu continues to appear with the Wiener Staatsoper as a guest artist.) Her operatic roles to date have centered around Mozart, Rossini and the French repertory—although Constantinescu is considered, above all, to be a concert singer specializing in the music of Bach, an endeavor to which she devotes half her schedule.

Minnesota Opera’s “Werther” was Constantinescu’s first Charlotte. She was very fine—but she did absolutely nothing memorable. Everything was very generalized, as if Constantinescu had realized during the rehearsal period that Charlotte was not a congenial role for her and that she would sing the role cleanly and go through the stage blocking dutifully—and afterward drop the role permanently from her repertory.

Constantinescu possesses a fine voice, but the voice is not sufficiently unique at present to carry her to stardom. The voice would have to possess more color and more weight for Constantinescu to enjoy a high-profile career—and that, perhaps, may come with time. Constantinescu may be wise to devote so much of her current schedule to Bach concerts, in which color and weight are not as vitally important as in 19th-Century stage repertory.

The conductor of the Minnesota Opera “Werther” was Christoph Campestrini, an Austrian who had received his musical education at Juilliard. Given that Minnesota Opera uses what must be termed a “pick-up” ensemble in the pit, I thought Camprestrini was quite good—and I thought the results he obtained from the orchestra were quite good, too.

Musically, the Minnesota Opera “Werther” was as fine an offering as one may expect from a small regional company. Any opera-lover would be happy to encounter such a high-level musical performance anywhere. In ten years on the East Coast, I never managed to encounter anything as fine as Sunday’s “Werther” from the regional companies in Philadelphia, Washington or Boston.

The physical production was another matter.

Minnesota Opera’s “Werther” was set in the late 19th Century. Such a setting made nonsense of Goethe’s “Werther” as well as Massenet’s “Werther”, both of which are steeped in the Sturm und Drang movement of the 1770s, a movement that was to end no later than 1785.

A giant 1890s industrial landscape permanently occupied the full length and width of the rear of the Saint Paul stage, complete with two levels of wrought-iron railings that extended on both sides toward the front of the stage. In front of the industrial landscape was rolled out a series of small stage platforms, each destined to be dwarfed by the grim and gaunt industrial wasteland that overwhelmed everything else on stage.

What have the sorrows of young Werther to do with The Industrial Age? And what is the connection between the Sturm und Drang movement and industrialization? The answers to those questions are: “absolutely nothing”; and “there is none”.

The updating of the story was profoundly unthinking on the part of director and designer—and the result was jarring if not preposterous for informed members of the audience. Young men in the 1890s did not carry on as they had in the brief Sturm und Drang period of the 1770s; under such circumstances, for the director and designer to have updated the story made no sense. Further, it was foolish for the director and designer to have inserted an industrialization component into Goethe’s poetic tale. This grievous misstep suggested that both director and designer totally failed to comprehend the letter and spirit of a great and profound and timeless work of art.

New York-based Allen Moyer, perhaps best known for his Broadway work on “Grey Gardens”, was the “Werther” designer. Not only were Moyer’s “Werther” designs inapt, they were cheap-looking as well. We practically giggled each time a new stage platform appeared (but our giggles were short-lived, since the platforms were quickly devoured by the mammoth industrial vision that hulked over the stage).

New York-based Kevin Newbury was the “Werther” stage director. I think Newbury may be in the wrong line of work, because I cannot remember the last time I witnessed a stage presentation so feebly directed. What we observed onstage Sunday afternoon was hackwork pure and simple: high-school stage blocking coupled with silent-screen acting gestures.

Minnesota Opera engages Newbury over and over—he is scheduled to direct two Minnesota Opera productions next season, an alarming prospect—and I am told that his engagements by the company are the result of two factors: he is very easy to work with; and his fees are low.

Myself, I would prefer that the company select stage directors based upon other considerations . . . such as talent.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Werther II

Jules Massenet in 1892, the year of the premiere of “Werther”. Massenet was fifty years old at the time.

“Werther”, completed in 1887, was premiered in Vienna at the Court Opera because the Paris theater originally scheduled to present the first performance of the opera had burned down—and other Paris theaters had refused to perform the work because it was “too gloomy” for Parisian audiences.

Having commissioned a ballet from Massenet, the Vienna Court Opera learned that Massenet for five years had had in his portfolio a completed, not-yet-performed opera taken from Goethe—and offered to present the first performance.

Belgian tenor Ernest Van Dyck sang the title role in the Vienna “Werther” premiere.

The Vienna performances were a success, and led to the first Paris performances of the work the following year.

“Werther” is now Massenet’s most-performed opera, eclipsing in recent decades the once-popular “Manon”.

However, between the 1920s and the 1960s, the opera virtually disappeared from the repertory outside France. It was only in the late 1960s that opera houses outside France once again began presenting “Werther”—and, since the late 1970s, “Werther” has become a staple of opera houses everywhere, gaining in popularity decade-by-decade.

It is now unthinkable for any house to ignore the opera.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Stupid Germans In Düsseldorf

Extremely smart traders inside Wall Street investment banks devised deeply-unfair, diabolically-complicated bets, and then sent their sales forces out to scour the world for idiots willing to take the other sides of those bets.

During the boom years, wildly disproportionate numbers of those idiots were in Germany.

As a reporter for Bloomberg News in Frankfurt, Aaron Kirchfeld, put it to me, “You’d talk to a New York investment banker, and he’d say, ‘No one is going to buy this crap. No one . . . Oh, wait. The Landesbanks will.’ ”

When Morgan Stanley designed extremely complicated credit-default swaps all but certain to fail so that their own proprietary traders might bet against them, the main buyers were German.

When Goldman Sachs helped New York hedge-fund manager John Paulson design a bond to bet against—a bond that Paulson hoped would fail—the buyer on the other side was a German bank, IKB.

IKB, along with another famous fool at the Wall Street table, West Landesbank, is based in Düsseldorf—which is why, when you ask a smart Wall Street bond trader exactly who was buying all this garbage during the boom years, he will say, “Stupid Germans in Düsseldorf.”

Michael Lewis, writing about how American investment firms managed to shove much of the risk from default-prone, private-issue bonds and specially-created bond derivatives onto German financial institutions

Saturday, February 04, 2012


An 1893 poster advertising the first Paris performance of Jules Massenet’s “Werther” (the opera had premiered in Vienna the previous year).

My parents, my sister-in-law, and Joshua and I shall attend tomorrow afternoon’s matinee performance of Minnesota Opera’s new production of “Werther”.