Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Influence Of The Master

Whatever one may think about his work, Jerome Robbins always had the good sense not to imitate George Balanchine.

In more than five decades as a choreographer, Robbins never created a single neo-Balanchine work, not even during the period in which the two choreographers worked together at New York City Ballet. Everything in a Robbins ballet, from the forces used to the subject matter to the décor to the music, was designed to prohibit comparison to the work of the great master—and this was so even though Robbins stuck largely to the same classic ballet vocabulary used by Balanchine himself.

I was reminded how un-Balanchine-like was Robbins’s oeuvre last weekend, when I saw Robbins’s “In The Night” for the first time.

Danced to Chopin, “In The Night” is a short ballet for three couples. The ballet explores the emotional moods and tensions of three relationships, all of which appear to be fundamentally unhappy and fraught with grievances. The ballet is from Robbins’s “Chopin Period”, coming immediately on the heels of “Dances At A Gathering”.

For me, the defining characteristic of “In The Night” was that there was not the slightest hint of Balanchine in the work. “In The Night” may be viewed as reheated leftover from “Dances At A Gathering” or as oddball repertory item meandering onto NYCB turf from the Joffrey slum—but, however “In The Night” is viewed, it owes utterly nothing to Balanchine.

Premiered in 1970 at the New York State Theater, “In The Night” was unveiled exactly one week before the first public performance of “Who Cares?”, Balanchine’s only Gershwin ballet. It is hard to imagine two more dissimilar ballets created at the same time for the same company—just as it is hard today to contemplate two great figures working, amicably, with the same company in the same theater at the same time for the same audience, both producing major works in nonstop succession year after year. That the two choreographers worked independent of each other, with little or no cross-reference between fiefdoms, is remarkable.

Houston Ballet, on tour, appeared in the Twin Cities last weekend, dancing “In The Night” among other works, and my sister-in-law and Joshua and I attended Saturday night’s performance.

Despite the fact that no Balanchine ballets were on the Houston Ballet program, it was impossible to ignore Balanchine last weekend: none of the ballets programmed would have seen the light of day without the influence of the master choreographer.

Balanchine created the company (and working conditions) that allowed Robbins to create Robbins ballets; Balanchine’s own ballets were the inspirations for the other two works on Saturday night’s Houston Ballet program.

The Saturday program began with Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo’s “ONE/end/ONE”, yet another Elo ballet with a stupid title (in October, we had suffered through a Scottish Ballet performance of Elo’s “Kings 2 Ends”). Houston Ballet commissioned “ONE/end/ONE” last year; it was the first Elo ballet created for the Houston company.

“ONE/end/ONE” is an abstract ballet, intended purely to explicate the music, the function of so many Balanchine works. It is highly-structured, like Balanchine, and uses classic vocabulary—to which is added non-classic and unconventional movement and gesture. The ballet was created for eight dancers, four male and four female, and even featured classic tutus that might have been designed by Madame Karinska on a bad day.

Elo’s choreography is “busy” if not relentless. Something is always going on onstage—yet nothing ever happens. Elo creates activity for activity’s sake; everything is very much on the surface, nothing attracts either the eye or the mind. Elo should be working not with ballet dancers but with gymnasts, synchronized swimmers and ice skaters. He is Europe’s answer to Gerald Arpino, creator of mindless ballets forgotten even before the final curtain comes down.

Elo’s dances have only a coincidental connection to music. The score for “ONE/end/ONE” was Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4—and there was no inherent connection between Mozart’s music and Elo’s choreography. Elo’s steps would have worked just as well, if not better, performed to George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony, the one piece of music I thought ideal for what we saw onstage Saturday night.

Elo must like setting his ballets to Mozart violin concertos. The “Kings 2 Ends” we saw five months ago was danced, in part, to Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 1—and the steps in “Kings 2 Ends” had been just as unconnected to the music as the steps in “ONE/end/ONE”.

The Robbins was the second work on Saturday’s program. “In The Night” is not a strong work, but it was clearly created by a competent choreographer—and instantly revealed the preceding Elo ballet as hackwork. Robbins’s ballet was musical, and thoughtful, and well-constructed, and suggested meanings on many levels, none of which could be claimed for Elo’s work.

The Robbins work was not well-danced, and yet it created a greater impression than the Elo. I suspect that “In The Night” requires six exceptional dancers to make an impact—the ballet was created for six dancers of formidable talents (Kay Mazzo, Violette Verdy, Patricia McBride, Anthony Blum, Peter Martins and Francisco Moncion)—and the six Houston dancers simply did not possess enough personality or depth to bring such a fragile ballet to life.

Saturday’s program concluded with a second abstract neo-Balanchine work, the oddly-named “Rush”, created by Christopher Wheeldon in 2003 for San Francisco Ballet on commission from the Edinburgh Festival. “Rush” observes strict Balanchine hierarchy—two principals, four soloists and ten corps members comprise the cast—and was much more tightly constructed than the Elo ballet, offering as much symmetry and order and architecture as Balanchine’s masterful “Symphony In C”.

“Rush” was danced to Bohuslav Martinů’s Sinfonietta La Jolla, a pleasant but forgettable score for piano and chamber orchestra written and premiered in 1950 for a chamber ensemble in La Jolla, California.

The ballet, on first encounter, was a marvel. The first and last movements are characterized by energy and a bewildering array of eye-catching event and incident, much of it ambiguous in tone. The centerpiece of the ballet is an extended pas de deux that is considered to be one of the highlights of Wheeldon’s work list, a pas de deux that moves from darkness to light to darkness again. The ballet, on first viewing, is fully satisfying, and slightly unsettling.

“Rush” was beautifully designed and lighted, which added greatly to the appeal of the work.

I was captivated by “Rush”, and I instantly wanted to see the ballet a second time, as did my sister-in-law, who very much likes Wheeldon’s work.

However, in the past I have been fascinated by Wheeldon ballets on first viewing, only to find them not durable on second or third viewings. There is a law-of-diminishing-returns quality to Wheeldon’s work that becomes apparent upon reaquaintence and repetition, a law I have observed also to apply to the ballets of Alexei Ratmansky, the other leading choreographer of the day.

In this respect, Wheeldon and Ratmansky are the opposite of Balanchine, whose works reveal greater beauties and greater rewards with each viewing. No matter how many principles Wheeldon and Ratmansky learned from the work of the master, and no matter how much they pattern their own efforts after Balanchine, it is the Balanchine-like qualities of their work that stand out, not the Wheeldon or Ratmansky qualities.

Robbins was probably wise never to allow his own work to parallel, in any fashion, the work of Balanchine. Robbins’s works are inferior to Balanchine’s, but Robbins’s works will live or die on their own merits, and not because they are recycled Balanchine.

Houston Ballet is a fine company. The dancers were excellent in the Elo and the Wheeldon; they were less impressive in the Robbins (an elusive work, probably difficult to coach and stage). It was apparent, minutes into the performance, that Houston Ballet is a much finer company than Boston Ballet, which Josh and I had the opportunity to observe many times in Boston. The Houston corps standard was much higher than the Boston corps standard, and the soloist standard was higher as well.

Houston Ballet is a company of international standard, one of the top dozen or so companies in the world—and it was good to have the opportunity to see Houston Ballet in the Twin Cities, where we have no large-scale resident dance company.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Hilton Kramer On Joyce Carol Oates

It is a mercy, in a way, that she is so inept, for were she technically more adroit and even minimally readable, she would be more of a menace.

Hilton Kramer (1928-2012)

Opéra de Nice

Monday, March 26, 2012


Yesterday my parents enjoyed a beautiful and rewarding day in Nice. It was a perfect final day in France for them.

According to my parents, Nice is an extravagantly beautiful city, far exceeding any expectations they had.

First thing yesterday morning, tour participants were given a guided walking tour of the central part of Nice. They were guided through the streets of the ancient old town as well as escorted through key portions of the city built in the 18th and 19th Centuries. It was during the latter period that Nice’s numerous plazas were created. The spacious plazas lend the city a special Mediterranean beauty.

After the guided walking tour, the tour group embarked on a scenic boat ride that explored Nice’s harbor and the coastal portions of the city.

My parents said that the boat ride was lovely.

Leaving the harbor, the tour group was transported to the Matisse Museum, located in one of Nice’s suburbs. Henri Matisse lived in Nice for much of the last thirty-seven years of his life and gave the museum its founding collection shortly before his death as well as through testamentary gift. The Matisse family has continued to add to the museum’s collection ever since.

The tour group was provided a guided tour of the Matisse Museum, which my parents enjoyed. The building—a villa from the 17th-Century—was beautiful and the displays were beautiful. However, the collection itself is of relative unimportance compared to Matisse holdings in American museums, where the bulk of Matisse’s most important work resides. My parents said that the Matisse collection in Nice was a minor footnote compared to the Matisse collections held by such American institutions as the Baltimore Museum Of Art or The Barnes Foundation.

From the Matisse Museum, tour participants were transported back to the hotel, with the rest of the afternoon free.

As soon as the tour group was dropped back at the hotel, my parents immediately proceeded to Saint Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral, the most important Russian Orthodox Cathedral outside Russia.

Saint Nicholas was built during the period in which Russian nobility and members of The Imperial Russian Court spent significant portions of the year in Nice, a period that lasted from the mid-19th Century until The Russian Revolution. Tsar Nicholas II himself funded construction of the Cathedral, which opened in 1912.

The Cathedral opens at 2:30 p.m. on Saturdays, and my parents arrived a few minutes before opening. They walked around the exterior and then went inside for a short visit. My parents said that—to the best of their recollections—the interior of Saint Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Nice looked exactly like the interior of Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Paris, which had been erected fifty-one years before the Nice Cathedral was consecrated.

From Saint Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral my parents went to Nice’s primary art museum, Musée des Beaux-Arts, which houses and displays paintings and sculpture from the last five centuries. Musée des Beaux-Arts is housed in the former villa of a Russian princess, who had commissioned the building in 1878. The building is yet another indication of the important Russian community that in Tsarist times had spent much of the year in Nice.

Since the museum remains open until 6:00 p.m., my parents had sufficient time to examine the permanent collection of paintings and sculpture to their satisfaction. The collection, overwhelmingly French, is neither particularly large nor particularly notable, and is very heavy on the 19th Century, but my parents very much enjoyed their visit to Musée des Beaux-Arts.

From the museum my parents proceeded to a designated restaurant for what was described as a “farewell dinner” for the tour group.

The dinner was excellent, even festive. Practically everyone that participated in the tour was sorry to see the tour end and sorry to see fellow travelers head their separate ways.

My parents had a splendid time in Provence—it was a perfect ten-day getaway for them—and they would like to return to Avignon and Nice, as they barely scratched the surface of either city. My parents said that Nice, like Avignon, is probably worth ten days of exploration.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Antibes, Grasse, Nice

This morning the tour participants left Avignon and headed toward Nice, making two stops along the way.

After a drive lasting more than two hours, the group first arrived at Antibes, a coastal town on the French Riviera.

Tour participants were given two-and-one-half hours to explore the town of Antibes.

My parents simply walked around the old town, still fully enclosed by centuries-old ramparts, and enjoyed a nice lunch.

Antibes is home to a Picasso museum, one of many Picasso museums in Europe, which my parents might have visited had the Antibes Picasso museum not been closed for renovation. Antibes is also home to a noted naval museum, but the naval museum is in a distant part of town, and my parents chose not to venture beyond the old town.

My parents did not find Antibes to be particularly interesting or particularly beautiful. The old town, with its narrow streets, was unduly commercial and unpleasantly dirty, and there were few buildings of interest to be found.

Antibes was at its best from a distance, looking at one rampart of the old town from another.

From Antibes, the tour group was transported to nearby Grasse.

Grasse is the perfume capital of the world, and the tour group was taken directly to the Galimard Parfumerie, where a one-hour guided tour was conducted.

The guided tour was a first-class affair in every way, and my parents—unexpectedly—found themselves fascinated by the experience.

The tour began with a visit to the on-site museum, at which antique equipment for producing scents was on display. The tour continued with a visit to the modern factory, after which the tour group visited the laboratory, surely as complex as laboratories at DuPont. The process of extracting scents from flowers, plants, woods and other raw materials was explained in depth.

At the conclusion of the guided tour, there was a two-hour “workshop” with scent experts. During the workshop, tour participants were requested to find their favorite “essences” and create their own personal perfumes. At the conclusion of the workshop, participants were presented with tiny souvenir bottles of their own personal creations.

Tour participants learned that perfumes have “architectures”, just like music. A good perfume must possess a good top note, a good middle note, and a good base note (and, in perfume terminology, it is “base”, not “bass”), all chosen from one of 127 available notes—and all three chosen notes must coexist in the right proportions in order to achieve a rounded, harmonious result.

All of this was explained by an expert “Nose”—a person trained to possess the very highest olfactory skills—who assisted each tour participant in the perfume-creation process.

My parents, to their surprise, found the workshop to be very informative—and a lot of fun. The Galimard personnel were exceedingly knowledgeable, exceedingly professional, exceedingly French and exceedingly chic. The afternoon was, more or less, an unexpected delight, a once-in-a-lifetime experience for persons having no inherent interest in the subject of scent creation.

After the afternoon-long visit to the Galimard Parfumerie, the tour group was transported to Nice, where it will spend the next two nights.

The tour hotel is right in the center of Nice, in contrast to the tour hotel in Avignon, and my parents said the hotel is quite fashionable.

After settling in, my parents and three other couples walked around Nice for ninety minutes and located a restaurant for dinner.

My parents report that Nice is a gorgeous city.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Les Baux-de-Provence, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence

One of the reasons my parents took a guided tour of Provence rather than undertake their own independent trip to Provence is that they wanted to leave all arrangements to someone else.

They wanted to see the highlights of Provence without pouring over guidebooks and without having to research hotels and transport and such. Ten relaxing days in a new place is what they were looking for, with all responsibilities in someone else’s hands.

The downside of such trips is that things must be endured that may not be of interest to all travelers.

My parents had to suffer through another unrewarding activity today—and they knew, signing up for the tour, that certain items on the itinerary did not sound appealing. That is the price they paid for participating in an organized excursion.

Late this morning, the tour group was transported to an olive estate, and given an exhaustive tour of the estate’s olive groves and the on-site olive-oil production facilities. For my parents, it was the low point of the tour thus far, even more boring than yesterday’s visit to The Lavender Museum. After today’s visit to the olive estate, my father said, “Today was my first high school field trip since 1964, when Pella High School sent its seniors to Des Moines to visit the State Capitol and meet the Governor. Des Moines was more fun.”

At least my parents found today’s first and last stops to be worthwhile.

The day began with a trip through scenic backcountry roads to the hilltop town of Les Baux-de-Provence, situated in the Alpilles Mountains. Les Baux-de-Provence is a much more rustic (and much smaller) version of the hilltop town of Gordes, which the tour group had visited the previous afternoon.

There is a ruined castle at the top of the small mountain on which the town of Les Baux-de-Provence is built. Otherwise, Les Baux-de-Provence is nothing more than a few dozen small buildings built on a series of rock outcroppings. The population of the town is fewer than 500 persons. The town exists to attract tourism—and 1.5 million tourists, overwhelmingly French, visit Les Baux-de-Provence each year.

The tour group spent only ninety minutes in Les Baux-de-Provence. That was more than ample time to walk the entire town.

The day ended with an afternoon visit to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Tour participants were first given a guided tour of the town’s famous Roman ruins, after which they were allowed ninety minutes to explore the town itself.

My parents said that the Roman ruins at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence were magnificent. They are supposed to be among the best-preserved Roman ruins anywhere.

The ruins, at the edge of the current town, were not discovered until 1921. Countless acres have already been uncovered, but archeologists believe they have discovered only a small fraction of the riches to be unearthed over the next century or two.

The ruins at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence are in excellent condition because the German invaders that captured the town in 260 A.D. never destroyed it. The Germans drove out the Roman population of the Roman town known as Glanum, and then moved on to other conquests, never bothering to vandalize the town.

Many of the Glanum ruins from The Roman Period are remarkable, such as a street of residences uncovered in recent years, damaged only by weather and the ravages of time.

My parents greatly enjoyed the tour of the Roman ruins, which they said was excellent, and they enjoyed their stroll in the town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

After today’s sightseeing, the tour group returned to Avignon for one final night.

Tomorrow the tour will move on to Nice.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Lubéron National Park, Gordes

For my parents, today began well and ended well—but the middle of the day was rather a dud.

This morning, tour participants were transported to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, a small town situated on an island in the middle of the Sorgue River.

L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is known for its many canals as well as for its many antique shops.

Participants were requested to focus on the town’s open-air market (with the expectation that they buy things)—but the town proved so lovely that virtually everyone in the tour group quickly departed the open-air market and strolled the streets and canals of the town. Flowers were in bloom, the day was sunny, and the bright colors decorating the town’s buildings gave the morning a joyful, even festive, air.

Despite the fact that there was absolutely nothing of historic interest in the town, my parents loved their visit to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

From L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, the tour group was transported into Lubéron National Park, a Provencal nature reserve set amidst three small mountain chains.

In the middle of the park, the tour group was deposited at The Lavender Museum, a museum devoted to lavender and its history, cultivation, harvest, distillation and production.

The Lavender Museum is a family-owned enterprise not all that dissimilar to such family enterprises in the United States. Like U.S. variants of this noxious lineage, The Lavender Museum was little more than a haphazard collection of junk.

Not only were tour participants forced to spend time at The Lavender Museum, tour participants were also required to endure a lengthy and near-unbearable guided tour by one of the museum’s owners—“just the sort of thing for people who like this sort of thing”, according to my father.

During the guided tour, the Lavender Museum guide pointed out, a hundred times, that the museum owns the largest collection of copper stills for lavender in the world. After the guide's 90th iteration of this fact, my father turned to my mother and said, in exasperation, “Well . . . I would certainly hope so.”

Sadly, the copper stills and copper colanders were by far the most interesting items on display at The Lavender Museum. Nothing else was of any interest whatsoever.

To make matters worse, the tour group was made to sit through not one but two insufferable videos. When the museum guide started the second video, my father turned to my mother and asked, “Don’t we get time off for good behavior?”

At the conclusion of the guided tour of the museum, tour participants were made to spend twenty-five minutes in the requisite gift shop. The men in the group were particularly irritated by this, and started openly cracking jokes, comparing The Lavender Museum to the world’s largest ball of twine or a temple devoted to linoleum.

After The Lavender Museum, the tour group was driven through more of Lubéron National Park, which was pleasant enough, and then deposited at the base of Gordes, an ancient hilltop town situated on the side and summit of a small mountain.

Gordes, according to my parents, made the day worthwhile.

The buildings of Gordes, set into hillside cliffs, are made of a uniform white stone that looks yellow from a distance. Italian poplar trees and carefully-conceived greenery break the monotony of the whiteness of the stone.

Narrow cobble streets wind through the town, taking visitors to the top, where rests an ancient castle, church and other buildings—and where visitors may enjoy marvelous views over the plain below.

According to my parents, Gordes was breathtakingly beautiful—which probably is why it is the most-visited small town in France.

My parents walked the winding narrow streets from the base to the top, stopping for a coffee and pastry along the way, and they retraced their steps on the way down, stopping for a cappuccino on the return portion of their stroll.

It was a beautiful way to spend an afternoon.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Arles And The Camargue Nature Reserve

The Avignon hotel at which my parents’ tour group is staying is a Best Western property, a fact that somewhat surprised my parents.

The hotel is perfectly satisfactory. Best Western properties in France are superior to Best Western properties in the U.S.

This morning the tour participants were transported to Arles.

Upon arrival, the first item on the itinerary was a lecture on the subject of Vincent Van Gogh, who had lived for a time in Arles. The lecture, prepared for a general audience and delivered by a so-called art expert, was not as gruesome as my parents had feared.

After the lecture, the tour group was given a guided walking tour of Arles.

Arles, a city of some importance in The Roman Period, is most notable for its Roman ruins. The Roman Amphitheater is considered the most notable structure in Arles, although the Roman Theater is probably of equal historic interest. Both facilities remain in use to this day.

The Roman Amphitheater, in amazing condition, is sizable—its capacity is 20,000 persons—but nowhere near as large as the amphitheaters in Rome, Verona and throughout the Middle East. The amphitheater is home to many events, including bullfights. It had previously been unknown to me that bullfights were legal in France.

The Roman Theater is now a venue for various outdoor theater and music events.

According to my parents, Arles was unremarkable except for its Roman ruins.

After a morning in Arles, the tour group was transported to Camargue and treated to what was billed as an authentic Arlésien lunch at a rustic farmhouse.

After lunch, the tour group was driven through the Camargue Nature Reserve in the company of a so-called nature expert, who lectured incessantly throughout the afternoon on the local flora and fauna as well as the wild horses and wild bulls and wild buffaloes that roam the Camargue reserve. Within the nature reserve, the tour group made several stops: at a rice paddy; at a section of wetlands; at the habitat of a family of flamingos; and at a salt flat, where the group was given an interminable guided tour.

My parents, needless to say, were not riveted by the afternoon. In fact, my parents said they were praying for the nature expert’s microphone to break. At day’s end, my parents said they wished they had remained in Avignon, and visited churches and museums.

However, they had not wanted to miss out on Arles.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Early this morning, my parents and the other tour participants were transported to Avignon.

The journey took little over an hour.

En route, the tour guides warned tour participants about crime in Avignon, much of it directed against tourists. Avignon has suffered a crime wave against tourists going back to the late 1980s, and local authorities have proven themselves unable or unwilling to address the problem. Violent muggings of tourists in Avignon have become commonplace—and tour participants were advised to hide all valuables and to remain in groups.

Upon arrival, the tour group was given a guided walking tour of the walled portion of the ancient city.

My parents were enthralled. They described Avignon as “stunningly beautiful” and “itself worth crossing the ocean to see” and “the highlight of the trip thus far”—which means that my parents like Avignon very much.

The old Medieval ramparts of Avignon remain in place, one of the few cities in Europe of which this may be said. Twelve thousand persons currently reside within the Medieval ramparts of Avignon, signifying that old Avignon was a town of some size.

Of course, Avignon is all about its papal legacy—and, after the walking tour of the walled town had been completed, the tour group visited Avignon’s Papal Palace, seen here in a stock tourism photograph taken from the air, the only way to capture an image of the giant complex in its entirety.

The stock tourism photo not only presents the Papal Palace whole, it also shows how the Papal Palace completely dominates the town of Avignon.

(Avignon’s Cathedral, with a gilded statue atop its tower, may be seen immediately behind the Papal Palace. Part of The Bridge Of Avignon may be seen in the lower-left portion of the photograph.)

Avignon was seat of The Papacy between 1309 and 1377. Construction of the giant Papal Palace was begun in 1355 and completed less than twenty years later, an extraordinary achievement given 14th-Century technology.

The tour group was given a special guided tour of the palace supposedly unavailable to members of the general public.

Once again my parents were enthralled. The various churches and chapels inside the palace, the elaborate public passageways and stairwells, the lavish private apartments, the stately cloisters and courtyards: all were magnificent, brilliantly-designed and brilliantly-executed.

The Papal Palace was clearly intended to impress upon visitors the power and wealth of The Roman Catholic Church. Everything was on the grandest possible scale. Even the Pope’s private chapel, designed for the Pontiff’s exclusive personal use, was enormous.

The Papal Palace tour was ninety minutes in duration; at its conclusion, my parents believed they had barely scratched the surface—and vowed to return.

After the visit to the Papal Palace, the tour group was guided to a specialty cheese shop noted for “artisanal” cheeses. The tour group was allowed to sample any of hundreds of varieties of cheeses—and members of the tour group were expected to buy cheeses as well. Perhaps simply to demonstrate that they were good sports, my parents purchased four different cheeses for shipment to the U.S.

I doubt there will be a recurrence of what happened the last time my parents bought a unique food item in Europe.

I recall well the two boxes of marzipan my parents purchased three years ago in Southern Portugal under similar circumstances. Once the marzipan had been shipped home to Minneapolis, everyone took a bite—and called it a day (except for my nephew, who spit his marzipan out). Not even the dog would eat the marzipan.

Once tour participants were allowed to escape the cheese shop, they had the afternoon to themselves, free to explore Avignon on their own.

My parents had wanted to visit Musee Calvet, which is supposed to be an excellent art museum, but Musee Calvet is closed on Tuesdays. Consequently, my parents decided to devote their time to visiting Avignon’s Cathedral and Avignon’s famous bridge, after which they would spend any remaining time simply walking around the town.

Avignon’s Cathedral was in place almost two centuries before the Papal Palace was erected.

Almost overwhelmed by the mighty papal complex next door, Avignon’s Cathedral is an important structure in its own right.

The base of Avignon’s Cathedral is Romanesque, built in the 12th Century, and the interior remains largely Romanesque. However, the Cathedral’s exterior has been much-altered and much-expanded in succeeding centuries. The tower was not begun until the 15th Century and was not completed until the 19th Century. A gilded statue of the Virgin Mary lies atop the tower; it is the highest point in Avignon.

The interior is restrained, typical of Romanesque ecclesiastical architecture.

Numerous monuments are situated within the Cathedral, including at least two tombs of Popes who served during the years Avignon was seat of The Papacy.

Below the hilltop on which sits the Papal Palace and Avignon’s Cathedral lies The Rhone River. Immediately at the base of the Papal Palace and Avignon’s Cathedral is the famous Bridge Of Avignon.

The Bridge Of Avignon was constructed between 1171 and 1185. The original bridge was almost 3000 feet long, crossing an island and both channels of the Rhone, and was made of twenty-two arches. Over the intervening centuries, all but four of the arches have collapsed. One of the surviving arches supports a chapel devoted to Saint Benezet, the young man who planned and participated in the construction of the bridge.

The Bridge Of Avignon, whose pathway is only twelve feet wide, was a vital part of the Medieval transportation system not only within France but between Spain and Italy as well. For centuries, all overland travel between Spain and Italy involved a crossing of The Bridge Of Avignon.

Everyone who travels to Avignon walks the famous bridge jutting out into The Rhone—and my parents did, too.

Having explored Avignon’s Cathedral and Avignon’s famous bridge, my parents spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the town. They passed countless ancient churches and buildings of great interest. It was all too much for them to take in. My parents said it would take ten days to explore Avignon to satisfaction.

Early in the evening, my parents proceeded to a designated restaurant in the center of town, where tour members were to participate in a demonstration of authentic Provencal cooking by a renowned Provencal chef. According to my father, the cooking demonstration was “not unnecessarily painful”, which means that my parents survived the activity.

Quite naturally, at the end of the cooking demonstration, tour participants were treated to a Provencal dinner in the same restaurant. My parents said the food was quite good.

It was only after the Provencal dinner had concluded that tour members were finally transported to the hotel, located on the city’s outskirts (and across The Rhone River from Avignon), where the tour group will spend the next four nights.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Aix-En-Provence: Day Three

My parents are now in the custody of tour guides, and are beholden at all times to go wherever the guides lead.

My parents did a moderate amount of exploring the town of Aix-En-Provence on their own on Saturday and Sunday. Nevertheless, this morning, after breakfast at the hotel, my parents—and the rest of the tour group—were given a guided walking tour of the town.

My parents had already treaded many of the same streets on Saturday and Sunday, but they enjoyed this morning’s guided walking tour very much. The guides pointed out items of interest—historic and artistic—that my parents previously had not discovered.

Despite the informative nature of the guided walking tour, my parents say that any charm Aix-En-Provence possessed for them on Saturday and Sunday has worn thin. Aix-En-Provence is a remarkably dirty place. It is impossible to ignore the decrepit state of prime buildings—even key historic buildings—in the very center of town.

Participants in the guided tour were left to their own devices for lunch. My parents joined a couple from King Of Prussia, Pennsylvania, in dining at what turned out to be an exceptional restaurant. The food, according to my parents, was stupendous.

This afternoon, tour participants were transported to the countryside to visit vineyards and a winery. A guided tour of the winery was provided, as was a wine tasting. The entire purpose of this exercise was to get tour members to purchase cases of wine. My parents enjoyed the countryside scenery, but the winery tour was tedious, as might have been predicted. My parents had had to endure a similar vineyard-and-winery tour three years ago while touring Southern Portugal.

Once this afternoon’s excursion to the countryside was completed, tour participants were transported back to the hotel to spend the evening on their own.

For dinner, my parents and the couple from King Of Prussia went back to the same restaurant at which they had experienced an excellent lunch.

The food at dinner, according to my parents, was even better than the food at midday.

Tomorrow, the tour group moves on to Avignon for four nights.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Aix-En-Provence: Day Two

My parents spent a second leisurely day in Aix-En-Provence.

They were in no hurry to get up and get out and about this morning, wanting and choosing to get as much rest as possible the first night after their overnight flight.

It was the middle of the morning before my parents left the hotel and began a walk around the center of Aix-En-Provence.

Their first stop of the day was the Cathedral of Aix-En-Provence, Cathedrale Saint-Sauveur (“Holy Savior Cathedral”), seat of the local Bishop.

Erected between the 5th and the 15th Centuries, Cathedrale Saint-Sauveur is marked by its incomplete tower. Portions of the Cathedral are Merovingian, portions are Romanesque, portions are Gothic and portions are Early Renaissance. The Cathedral’s foundations rest on ancient Roman ruins of disputed origin.

The Cathedral is home to numerous artworks, the two most famous of which—a celebrated triptych and a noted tapestry—are on display only one hour each week (for reasons of preservation). Neither work is shown on Sunday.

My parents greatly enjoyed their visit to the Cathedral—and they were fascinated by the beautiful Cloisters and the exquisite Baptistery, purely Merovingian and of great historic importance (the interior of the renowned Baptistery appears below)

From Cathedrale Saint-Sauveur my parents walked to nearby Eglise de la Madeleine, a Baroque structure erected between 1691 and 1703. Eglise de la Madeleine is generally considered to be Aix-En-Provence’s most beautiful house of worship. Paul Cezanne was baptized at Eglise de la Madeleine.

Eglise de la Madeleine is currently closed for renovation; my parents were able to view only the exterior, itself in need of some attention.

After viewing the two churches, my parents walked around the town for a couple of hours, more or less aimlessly, with no particular agenda to cover, after which they had a light lunch at an outdoor café.

My parents report that Aix-En-Provence is exceedingly beautiful, with many interesting and distinguished buildings (most of Baroque origin).

However, the town’s inherent beauty is allowed to be spoiled by countless outdoor vendors, their tables spread everywhere, overloaded with low-quality merchandise. The vendors sell everything from cheap clothing to cheap footwear to cheap jewelry to cheap cosmetics to cheap house wares to cheap electronics. The vendors are mobbed by an avaricious French public on the lookout for bargains. According to my father, the entire center of Aix-En-Provence was one giant garage sale, with a poorly-dressed French public excitedly picking over goods as if celebrating some ancient pagan feast day.

After lunch, my parents took a taxi to Atelier Cezanne, the painting studio of the great artist. Persons who have visited Atelier Cezanne had informed my parents that Atelier Cezanne was not worth visiting and should be skipped—but my parents found it unthinkable to make a trip to the great artist’s hometown and not to visit the artist’s final studio, preserved exactly as it was at the time of Cezanne’s death in 1906.

Atelier Cezanne is open only a few hours each day. My parents timed their arrival for 3:00 p.m., which gave them an hour to view an introductory film and explore the premises on their own before the only English-language tour of the day commenced at 4:00 p.m.

Cezanne used Atelier Cezanne only for four years. Constructed especially for him and completed in 1902, Atelier Cezanne was the artist’s workplace from 6:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. each day, after which he would return to his home in the center of Aix-En-Provence.

The first floor contains several small rooms displaying mementoes and artifacts related to Cezanne’s life and work. The second floor, one giant room, was Cezanne’s workplace. Filled with light from a skylight and giant windows, the place was pure art studio, a haven for the creation of paintings large and small. My mother said there was a reverence about the space that could not be explained.

The importance of the studio was recognized as soon as Cezanne died. Although a succession of owners have controlled the property in the 106 years since the artist’s death, all owners purposely acquired the property for preservation purposes, treating the building as a shrine that must never be altered. Even the furniture and work utensils on display are those that were in the building at the time of Cezanne’s death—and numerous items that appear in the artist’s many famous still-life paintings may be observed in person.

My parents were very moved by Atelier Cezanne. Even though no Cezanne artworks were on display, the spirit of Cezanne hovered everywhere.

After their visit to Atelier Cezanne, my parents returned to the hotel—and began meeting other participants in the organized tour, most of whom appear to be retired. All tour participants were required to assemble in the early evening, and be transported to a Provencal restaurant outside of town for a “welcome dinner”.

My parents enjoyed the evening, and said the food was excellent.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

In The Dimensions Of Space

Eugene Ormandy, a great Sibelius conductor, never conducted the Third or Sixth symphonies of Sibelius, always claiming he did not understand them.

Ormandy’s stance has always puzzled me, because I have always believed that the Fourth Symphony was the hard nut to crack among Sibelius symphonies, with the enigmatic Seventh not far behind. That Ormandy, a fine conductor of the Fourth, was unable to comprehend the Third or Sixth has always been, to me, inexplicable.

The Sibelius Fourth is an introspective, riddle-filled work. For decades after its 1911 premiere, the work was perceived as “strange”, and was little-favored by the public (it was not to be recorded until 1932). Today the Fourth is regarded as one of the peaks of Sibelius’s output, perhaps because it is the most “modern” of the Sibelius symphonies, what with its ambiguity, compression, density of expression, chamber-music transparency, advanced harmonic idiom and mastery of counterpoint.

Some persons recognized instantly the revolutionary nature of the work. A Finnish critic, writing in the year of the symphony’s premiere, termed the Fourth “a declaration of war against superficiality and empty grandiloquence”; many musicologists believe that the work is entirely personal, a reflection of the composer’s unsettled state of mind after undergoing and surviving a risky operation in which a large cancerous tumor was removed from the composer’s throat.

Whatever Sibelius intended to say in the Fourth (and scholars continue to argue the matter more than a century after the work was first performed), the work is very difficult to bring off in performance.

The Sibelius Fourth probably does not work except in a great performance. In that regard, the Sibelius Fourth is no different than many other major works that only come alive in inspired performances. As examples, I offer both Elgar symphonies, roughly contemporaneous with the Sibelius Fourth, and many of the symphonies of Bruckner.

Osmo Vanska, Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra, is on record as stating that he views the Sibelius Fourth as a “triumphant” work—although Vanska’s is distinctly a minority view among Sibelius scholars and conductors.

Last evening, Vanska began this weekend’s Minnesota Orchestra subscription concerts with a performance of the Sibelius Fourth.

I sensed no “triumph” in last night’s performance or interpretation. In fact, I sensed very little . . . other than a focus on an accumulation of details that did not cohere into a satisfying performance of the work.

I do not think that Vanska is a great Sibelius conductor. Among living Sibelius conductors, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, surely the finest Sibelius conductor of the day now that Paavo Berglund has passed, has a much surer and much deeper grasp of Sibelius’s music than Vanska. Lorin Maazel brings greater lucidity to the symphonies—but not the tone poems—than Vanska. Colin Davis finds a magisterial quality in the symphonies that completely evades Vanska.

Last night’s audience was restless during the performance of the Sibelius Fourth—hardly surprising, as the performance was an endless succession of surface effects. Vanska got nowhere near the core of the symphony.

After intermission, things improved considerably. Christian Tetzlaff was guest soloist in Szymanowski’s haunting Violin Concerto No. 1, a work that, after decades of neglect, has finally entered the repertory within the last twenty years.

The Szymanowski performance—from soloist, from musicians, from conductor—was magnificent. It was the finest performance I have heard this season in Orchestra Hall.

Tetzlaff is currently in residence in the Twin Cities. In addition to master classes and this weekend’s Minnesota Orchestra concerts, Tetzlaff will perform a solo recital next week and play with and conduct the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra next weekend.

Last night’s concert concluded with a performance of Kodaly’s dazzling Dances Of Galanta, surely Kodaly’s finest composition for full orchestra. The performance was virtuosic, exciting and completely successful—and yet it lacked the sheer sizzle, fire and Hungarian flavor of the incomparable 1962 Sony recording under Ormandy.


[The Sibelius Fourth] is such a flash of genius that there is probably no other equally-original, compact and well-functioning conception from that period. Such a condensed whole . . . and yet we are in the dimensions of space.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste


Update: 7:09 p.m. C.D.T. 17 March 2012

This post is not yet an hour old, but it now requires updating.

Very late this afternoon, Tetzlaff cancelled the rest of his Twin Cities appearances because of a family emergency. Talk in the Twin Cities is that the emergency involves one of Tetzlaff’s parents in Germany.

I am glad Joshua and I attended last night’s concert. Tetzlaff gave a very special performance. He is a great artist.

Josh and I had given some thought to attending tonight’s repeat performance. Tonight’s concert will go on without Tetzlaff, but the Szymanowksi will no longer be part of the program.

Josh and I had tickets for Tetzlaff’s solo recital scheduled for Monday night. We regret that the recital has been cancelled. We have heard Tetzlaff in recital before, and we had looked forward to hearing him again.


My parents arrived in Aix-En-Provence this morning.

From the Marseille airport, my parents were chauffeured to their hotel, situated ten minutes (by foot) from the center of Aix-En-Provence.

The hotel, a former Provencal mansion from the 18th-Century, is secluded, and has its own series of gardens suitable for strolling.

My parents settled into the hotel, which they found pleasing, and enjoyed a lunch. In the very early afternoon, my parents proceeded to the Mazarin quarter of Aix-En-Provence, where they visited two adjacent buildings.

The first was Eglise Saint-Jean de Malte, a Gothic church constructed in the 13th Century—and, I believe, the oldest house of worship in Aix-En-Provence (the church’s bell tower remains, by law, the tallest structure in the city).

Eglise Saint-Jean de Malte is larger than it appears from its severe Gothic exterior. The interior, in the style of a Gothic hall church (complete with Gothic ceiling), houses numerous paintings and pieces of statuary. The church’s most famous artwork is a significant painting by Eugene Delacroix. My parents report that the church’s interior was much, much brighter than they had expected. (After an examination of the church’s exterior, my parents had prepared themselves for a gloomy interior.)

Adjacent to Eglise Saint-Jean de Malte is Musee Granet, the most important art museum in Aix-En-Provence. Musee Granet is housed in what used to be the priory of Eglise Saint-Jean de Malte.

My parents report that the museum was deserted of visitors this afternoon, which greatly surprised them. Musee Granet had received worldwide attention in 2006 for its incomparable centenary exhibition devoted to Paul Cezanne, and my parents had somehow expected the museum to be packed with multitudes of visitors.

There were more guards than visitors this afternoon—and the guards appeared to be so disinterested in their work that, according to my father, the museum must be a training ground for professional art thieves.

For years, Musee Granet had a poor reputation. Its spaces were considered poorly-designed and poorly-utilized, its lighting inadequate, its displays not up to museum standard.

All that was supposed to have changed a few years ago, when the museum closed for a multi-year renovation. According to my parents, however, the revamped Musee Granet is still not a good museum insofar as presentation of art is concerned—which, of course, makes them wonder what the much-criticized pre-renovated museum was like.

Much of the painting collection is hung salon-style, and only the paintings hung at eye level are easily examined. According to my parents, at least half of the paintings on display, for all practical purposes, may not be viewed at all.

Sculptures in the attractive sculpture gallery are placed too closely together, forcing visitors to cram themselves between pieces (and run the risk of touching the artworks).

Since the museum’s renovation, most of its antiquities collection has been in storage—and apparently will not be seen until plans for a new museum devoted to antiquities come to fruition.

The Musee Granet painting collection spans the 14th Century to the early 20th Century. It is not a notable or even a particularly strong collection, but my parents say they were immensely pleased to have had the chance to stroll through the collection at a leisurely pace, free from the crush of other visitors. Provincial museums can have their charms.

Musee Granet owns only a handful of paintings by Cezanne. The museum director during Cezanne’s lifetime detested the work of Cezanne, and refused to add Cezanne artworks to the museum’s collection.

After my parents’ visit to Musee Granet was complete, they returned to the hotel, had an early dinner in the hotel dining room, and turned in early.

Friday, March 16, 2012


My parents departed for Provence early this afternoon.

The first leg of their journey took them from Minneapolis to Dulles. From Dulles, they fly to Frankfurt (the flight from Washington to Frankfurt should have departed a few minutes ago). The third and final flight segment will take them from Frankfurt to Marseille, where a car will be waiting to transport them to Aix-En-Provence.

Despite two changes of aircraft, the travel time between Minneapolis and Marseille is supposed to be only fourteen hours and thirty-five minutes. My parents are not scheduled to have extended layovers either at Dulles or at Frankfurt. They are scheduled to arrive in Marseille at 9:25 a.m. local time tomorrow.

The first two flight segments are on United; the final flight segment is on Lufthansa. My parents will not be flying on any aircraft manufactured by Airbus, a factor of some importance to them.

My parents’ trip is part of an organized tour. My parents have gone a day early, and will not join the organized tour until early Sunday evening. They will have two days to explore Aix-En-Provence on their own before the organized tour gets underway.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Milan 1943: La Scala After The August Air Raids

The auditorium of Teatro Alla Scala after the August 1943 air raids upon Milan.

La Scala received direct hits on August 13, 1943.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Olive Trees

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)
The Olive Orchard
National Gallery Of Art, Washington

Oil On Canvas
28 3/4 Inches By 36 1/4 Inches

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Chestnut Trees

Paul Cezanne (1839-1906)
Chestnut Trees At Jas de Bouffan
Minneapolis Institute Of Arts, Minneapolis

Oil On Canvas
28 Inches By 35 1/2 Inches

Monday, March 12, 2012


Claude Monet (1840-1926)
Willows Of Vétheuil
Corcoran Gallery Of Art, Washington

Oil On Canvas
26 1/4 Inches By 32 1/4 Inches

Milan 1954: Maria Callas In “Lucia di Lammermoor” At La Scala

Sunday, March 11, 2012

"Without A Single Interesting Syncopation"

Last night, my parents, my sister-in-law, and Joshua and I attended Minnesota Opera’s presentation of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”. Last night’s performance was the final performance of the Minnesota Opera run (there were five performances in all).

“Lucia di Lammermoor”, composed in 1835, achieved worldwide popularity within a year or two of its premiere in Naples. The opera held its popularity for twenty years, but—outside Italy and the United States—“Lucia” was to be driven from the stage by Verdi’s trio of popular operas unveiled in the early 1850s: “Il Trovatore”, “Rigoletto” and “La Traviata”. “Lucia” has never since been performed with any constancy outside Italy and North America.

Since the 1850s, “Lucia” has been treated as mere curiosity by the opera houses of Central Europe, Eastern Europe, Russia, Scandinavia and France. The opera is seldom revived in those countries, and seldom granted major stagings with major artists.

When Arturo Toscanini took La Scala to Berlin for a series of guest performances in 1929, one of the La Scala productions presented in Berlin was “Lucia”.

The Berlin reception was wicked. Audiences, critics, musicians: all laughed at the score. Conductors Wilhelm Furtwangler, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter all noted, publicly, that the score was not worth the time of major musicians. (A young Herbert Von Karajan also attended those performances, and held a different view.)

And yet “Lucia”, given little respect elsewhere, has remained unaccountably popular in North America for generations. It has been a mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera since the company was founded in 1883. “Lucia” has received three new productions at the Met within the last two decades alone, a mystifying state of affairs that, for many, proves the complete lack of seriousness governing activities at the Metropolitan Opera. “Lucia” is presented constantly by America’s regional companies large and small.

I have no idea what accounts for the popularity of the opera in the United States. “Lucia” is the most over-produced trifle in the history of opera presentation in America. It is the “La Favorita” of my native land. (Donizetti’s “La Favorita”, inexplicably, was granted 660 performances at the Paris Opera between 1840 and 1897—although “La Favorita”, to its credit, has a much richer score than “Lucia”.)

Other English-speaking countries have never devoted a fraction of the attention to “Lucia” that the U.S. has accorded the opera. The annals of Covent Garden reveal a tiny number of “Lucia” performances compared to the swollen “Lucia” figures of the Metropolitan Opera. (“Lucia” went unperformed at The Royal Opera House between 1925 and 1959; it was not revived even for Maria Callas.)

Only one major non-Italian conductor has touched the score of “Lucia”: Karajan—and Karajan touched the score only because of Callas (and Karajan was never again to conduct “Lucia” after his handful of legendary performances with Callas in 1955).

Eminent Italian conductors born in the 20th Century have largely ignored “Lucia”. Carlo Maria Giulini never conducted the score. Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Muti each gave a single series of performances of the opera while serving as Music Director of La Scala. “Lucia” never entered the repertory of Giuseppe Sinopoli. Riccardo Chailly and Daniele Gatti have never gone near the piece.

The roots of early Verdi lie in Donizetti’s dramas, yet “Lucia” is no more a satisfying score than Verdi’s early efforts. The melodies and harmonies of “Lucia” are insipid; there is not an ounce of rhythmic life in the music. One listens, stultified, for almost three hours, waiting in vain for some interesting music to appear.

Was it not Furtwangler who acidly described “Lucia” as “a genuine marvel—the only score I know that uses only I-IV-V chords”? And was it not Klemperer who referred to the score of “Lucia” as “the only extended piece of music written without a single interesting syncopation”?

I managed to get through last night’s performance (which, happily, was trimmed). I cannot say I actually enjoyed it—but I survived the evening.

The Minnesota Opera Lucia was American soprano Susanna Phillips, who is in the early stages of what many hope will be a major career. (Phillips is featured in the February 29 issue of Vogue.)

Phillips sang the role well if not brilliantly. She sang the coloratura cleanly, which is not nothing, and she offered a creditable portrayal of the role.

Phillips portrayed Lucia as a young woman, and not as grand tragedienne (all to the good in my book). What was missing was a command of the Italian tongue and an Italianate shaping of musical phrases—as well as individuality and stage presence.

There was no sacred flame seen to be burning within Phillips. All night, it was clear, amid all the stage trappings, that Phillips was nothing more than a nice young American woman from Huntsville, Alabama, going through the motions of singing and acting a difficult opera role. One wanted to take her out for coffee afterwards and compliment her on her fine effort—whereas a great Lucia would have sent the audience home deeply moved if not shaken.

The production did not assist Phillips in her work.

The current “Lucia” production was first unveiled by Minnesota Opera in 2001. Constructed in the Twin Cities, the physical production was originally a co-production of Minnesota Opera, New York City Opera, Opera Colorado, Pittsburgh Opera and Houston Grand Opera. After those five companies had presented the production, it was put up for rental, and used by countless other companies throughout North America (the production most recently appeared in Toronto last autumn, when it was part of Canadian Opera Company’s current season).

All told, the production has been seen in twenty-five different locales, if the information I have been given is accurate—which signifies that, over the past eleven years, twenty-five different cities have seen a conspicuously-lousy production of “Lucia di Lammermoor”.

The sets are ugly and cheap-looking (according to my parents, the sets were just as ugly and cheap-looking on the first go-around eleven years ago) and do not contribute to the drama.

Last night’s stage direction was eyeball-rolling, as bad as anything I have ever seen. It was hard to suppress giggles.

When this “Lucia” production first hit New York in early 2003, Peter G. Davis, writing in New York magazine, had the following to say:

This misconceived “Lucia”, a shared production with four other American companies that’s destined for a long life, shows today’s operatic consortium system at its very worst.

When Davis wrote those words nine years ago, I doubt that he had any idea how gruesomely long-lived this particular production would actually prove to be. It has now been seen everywhere, invariably to dismissive reviews—and yet the production, incomprehensibly, continues to live on.

There is something wrong with opera presentation in America. The designs for this “Lucia” production should never have been approved back in 2001. The original director should have been replaced in the very first week of rehearsals. If intelligent persons were running opera companies, this production would have been scrapped at any one of countless stages during the pre-production process—and, once unveiled, the production would never have been actively sought by other companies. That claptrap like this “Lucia” is presented the length and breadth of this country for well over a decade speaks volumes about the quality of personnel in charge of America’s opera companies.

The production’s original director, James Robinson, returned to the Twin Cities to direct the current “Lucia” revival, once again lending his personal imprimatur to the production.

Robinson is one of those weird figures no one can figure out. Robinson has no talent for stage direction, he is never engaged to direct legitimate theater or musical theater, he has no European career, he is ignored by America’s largest opera companies.

How does this man continue to get work?

According to his management firm, Robinson “is considered the most widely-performed director of opera in North America.”

Tellingly, that statement says far more about America’s opera companies than it does about Robinson.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Salzburg August 1922

In August 1922, the younger generation of German and Austrian composers gathered in Salzburg.

In the photograph taken to mark the gathering, Paul Hindemith is fifth from the left, Anton Webern third from the right and Egon Wellesz fourth from the right.


1923 Poster For The Bauhaus Exhibition In Weimar.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Odd Bedfellows

Sviatoslav Richter and Aaron Copland in Moscow in 1960.

The woman in the photograph is Nina Dorliak, for many decades Richter’s companion. Insofar as is known, Richter and Dorliak never married—and, it is believed, the relationship, undoubtedly deep, was purely platonic.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Imogen Cooper In Recital

On Sunday afternoon, my parents and Joshua and I went to Sundin Music Hall to hear pianist Imogen Cooper in recital. The recital was sponsored by Minneapolis’s Frederic Chopin Society.

Cooper is a serious and thoughtful pianist. Her performances are neat and lucid.

Cooper does not have the virtuosity of a Maurizio Pollini. She does not explore the coloristic possibilities of the instrument like an Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. She does not possess the intellectual gravitas of a Wilhelm Backhaus and she displays none of the personality and charm of an Arthur Rubenstein. Whatever poetry she offers is low-key, and whatever drama she commands is limited. Her musical imagination does not rival that of Sviatoslav Richter.

Cooper’s Minneapolis recital, nonetheless, was a pleasure, albeit more for the music than for the performance.

Cooper was shown to best advantage in the recital’s first half, when she played Haydn’s Sonata No. 52 In E-Flat Major, Hoboken XVI, and Beethoven’s Sonata No. 17 In D Minor (“Tempest”). These are two of my favorite piano sonatas; I believe I could listen to them daily.

Within the pianist’s limitations, these were fine performances: well-shaped, well-considered, well-executed—if a touch studied.

The Haydn was fresh and graceful—and probably the finest performance of the afternoon. Cooper showed herself to be a considerable Haydn pianist—and superior to her teacher, Alfred Brendel, whose Haydn recordings demonstrate that he never “got” Haydn. Cooper captured the precise emotional temperature of each Haydn movement without once violating the boundaries of Classicism. Tension never dissipated, momentum never flagged, wit was present where required. Cooper’s was one of the finest Haydn performances I have heard.

The Beethoven was almost as fine, except Cooper lost concentration—and momentum—in both outer movements. Cooper eschews rhetoric—some rhetoric is called for in the Beethoven—and the Beethovenian qualities of power and struggle are not within Cooper’s arsenal. A “Tempest” Sonata without rhetoric is, by definition, smaller in scale than need be; a “Tempest” Sonata free of power and struggle provides a constricted view of one of Beethoven’s most satisfying works. I was happy to hear Cooper’s Beethoven, but hers was a Beethoven very much bleached of elemental qualities.

Hearing Haydn’s final sonata immediately followed by one of Beethoven’s middle-period sonatas, I found it interesting to note that only seven or eight years separated the two compositions. (The Haydn was composed in 1794; the Beethoven was written in 1801/1802.) Beethoven packed twenty-five years of music evolution into those seven or eight years; the emotional range and power of the Beethoven were far more advanced than anything Haydn had attempted in his countless compositions for keyboard.

The second half of the recital was devoted to Romantic repertory, and was not as successful as the first half of the program.

Cooper first played the transcription for piano of the second movement of Brahms’s Sextet For Strings, Opus 18. Brahms made the transcription himself as a gift for Clara Schumann; the transcription was never published during the composer’s lifetime (although both the composer and Clara Schumann thought highly of the transcription).

I thought Cooper’s performance of the Brahms the low point of the afternoon. Her playing was too crystalline, and too objective, for a work in need of warmth and richness to make an effect.

Chopin’s second Nocturne from the Opus 27 set followed the Brahms; the Chopin was immediately followed by Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Opus 12.

The Schumann, lasting almost half an hour, was the most extended piece of the afternoon. It was also music requiring fertile imagination—and Cooper provided none. I thought Cooper’s performance of the Schumann was clinical, lacking intellectual penetration and emotional depth. By the fourth of the eight pieces, I had become restless, wishing to be rescued by Wilhelm Kempff. Cooper brought nothing to the Fantasiestücke other than neatness of execution.

Sundin Music Hall is a beautiful venue for solo recitals. No seats are far from the stage; the acoustics are as intimate as the hall itself. It is a wonderful space in which to hear serious music.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Minneapolis Symphony 1960

The Minneapolis Symphony in 1960, the first year in which Stanislaw Skrowaczewski served as Music Director of the orchestra.

Skrowaczewski replaced Antal Dorati, who had guided the Minneapolis Symphony the previous eleven seasons.

Skrowaczewski was to remain with the orchestra until 1979. Skrowaczewski continues to make his home in the Twin Cities, more than three decades after stepping down from the orchestra, and he generally continues to conduct the orchestra for one subscription week each season.

The Minneapolis Symphony changed its name to the Minnesota Orchestra in 1968.

Conventional local wisdom is that Skrowaczewski remained on the Minnesota Orchestra podium too long—and conventional wisdom in this case may very well be correct. Depending upon the person offering an opinion, the prevailing view is that Skrowaczewski should have departed voluntarily anywhere from five to ten years prior to his forced exit.

Skrowaczewski was succeeded by Neville Marriner, who experienced an unhappy tenure in Minneapolis. The dour and unimaginative Edo de Waart was next on the Minnesota podium, followed by the peppy and flashy Eiji Oue; neither conductor was to make a mark with the orchestra or the city.

The photograph depicts the orchestra onstage at Northrop Auditorium, home of the Minneapolis Symphony/Minnesota Orchestra from 1929 until purpose-built Orchestra Hall opened in 1974.

Northrop Auditorium is currently closed while undergoing a multi-year renovation.

Orchestra Hall will close at the end of the current Minnesota Orchestra season for its own $90 million renovation.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Berlin July 1945

A rare color photograph of Berlin from July 1945, the third month of the Allied occupation.

Friday, March 02, 2012

The Wittgenstein Family, Vienna, Summer 1917

From left to right: Kurt Wittgenstein, Paul Wittgenstein, Hermine Wittgenstein, Max Salzer, Leopoldine Wittgenstein, Helene Wittgenstein Salzer and Ludwig Wittgenstein.