Monday, April 30, 2012

Wishing For Something Unforgettable

On Friday evening, my parents and Joshua and I went to Orchestra Hall to hear the Minnesota Orchestra play the complete “Daphnis et Chloé” by Maurice Ravel. The conductor of the performance was Mark Wigglesworth.

The Minnesota Orchestra was the first American orchestra to record the complete score of “Daphnis et Chloé”, doing so on December 4, 1954, under Antal Dorati. (Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony were to make their legendary recording of the complete score the following year.) Twenty years later, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski led the Minnesota Orchestra in a famous recording of both suites from the score.

Recording history notwithstanding, it would not be accurate to suggest that the Minnesota Orchestra is a distinguished Ravel orchestra with a distinguished Ravel tradition. The Minnesota Orchestra plays French music like most other American orchestras: with great energy and directness, and with some brio, but with few genuine Gallic qualities.

Nonetheless, performances of the complete “Daphnis et Chloé” are uncommon, in Minneapolis and elsewhere, and we did not want to miss out.

Friday evening’s performance was very fine, if a little short on ecstasy and aching beauty (which is how I want to hear “Daphnis et Chloé”). There was also too little shimmer of sound.

I fear I would be carping if I were to compare Wigglesworth’s work in the score to that of Jean Martinon, Pierre Monteux and Munch. Much of the score came across in Wigglesworth’s hands; it was probably unreasonable to have wished for something unforgettable.

Wigglesworth is a frequent visitor to Minneapolis—he has appeared here in eleven of the past seventeen seasons—and I am told that the musicians of the orchestra like and respect him, and that management finds him congenial and efficient, all qualities sought in a prospective music director. I hope Wigglesworth will not prove to be Osmo Vanska’s successor (my money is on Andrew Litton, although I do not want him, either).

The first half of the program was devoted to the American premiere of the Oboe Concerto of British composer Michael Berkeley, son of composer Lennox Berkeley. The soloist was the Minnesota Orchestra’s principal oboist, who is to retire at the conclusion of the current season after forty-one years of service.

Berkeley’s Oboe Concerto is one of those pastoral affairs the British used to produce by the truckload. In three movements and scored for strings alone, the Oboe Concerto is in a conservative, tonal idiom—and might easily be mistaken for a work by William Alwyn. The central movement is a Scherzo, surrounded by two slow movements, the last of which is a maudlin elegy for Benjamin Britten, who had died the year before the concerto was written. The score might serve as ideal background music for a British television documentary about veterinarians in The Midlands, with baby lambs dying at the end.

Berkeley was only 29 years old when he wrote his Oboe Concerto; it was his first significant composition, and not typical of his later output.

Berkeley’s music is never heard in the United States. Friday evening was the first time I had ever heard a Berkeley work performed here. If Berkeley is known at all in the U.S., it is for his laughable oratorio, “Or Shall We Die?”, a notorious work that—mercifully—sank into oblivion immediately after its much-publicized premiere in the early 1980s.

Why was the Berkeley Oboe Concerto programmed in Minneapolis? Probably because its demands on the oboist and orchestra were minimal, and because it required minimal rehearsal time.

Saturday, April 28, 2012


Wolfgang Holzmair, surely the most accomplished of today's song recitalists.

On A Gander

I never heard Elisabeth Schwarzkopf or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in recital, but persons who attended Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau recitals have told me that both artists maintained restrained stage presences, communicating with their voices and their eyes.

(My parents missed Schwarzkopf, but they once heard Fischer-Dieskau in recital; my parents say they did not catch the great singer on a good night.)

The issue of stage deportment in recital is an important one, because faulty stage presentation can undercut—and sometimes even destroy—the songs presented.

German baritone Matthias Goerne presented a recital in Saint Paul on Wednesday night, and my parents and Joshua and I attended the recital.

Goerne paced about the stage of The Ordway all evening, like a singer trying to hit his marks on the opera stage. When not on a gander around the stage, Goerne buried his head in his scores or glared at his pianist, Leif Ove Andsnes, for minutes at a time. Goerne, a student of Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau, apparently did not learn much about stage deportment from the two most respected recitalists of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Goerne, an estimable singer, basically lost me because of his onstage antics. It is my suspicion that Goerne was trying to “heighten” the recital experience by providing visual cues for the expressions of torment in the songs on the program. Alas, Goerne would have been far better off to allow his voice and eyes, alone, to represent the expressions of torment in the songs (and Goerne indeed has very expressive eyes)—and to leave “acting” during vocal recitals to the British.

Goerne further lost me by using scores. Recitalists must always memorize their song selections—this is one of the ironclad rules of the recital platform—because the covenant between singer and audience is that the songs on offer have been internalized by the singer to such an extent that the songs are part of the singer’s being. If a singer has not memorized particular songs, the songs should not appear on programs; if a singer has memorization problems, he should not embark upon a career as recitalist.

Goerne possesses a beautiful and distinctive voice, but he is undeniably somewhat of an oddball—The Wall Street Journal reports that Goerne, when dining out, sends food back to the kitchen without first tasting it—and it was Goerne’s oddball behavior that provided the essence of his Wednesday night recital. It proved impossible to get beyond the loopy manner in which Goerne presented both himself and the music.

The program—which was not the program originally announced when tickets had gone on sale last year—was as odd as Goerne’s presentation: a constant back-and-forth switching between songs of Mahler and Shostakovich. Goerne sang six random excerpts from Mahler’s Das Knaben Wunderhorn, two random excerpts from Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder and two random excerpts from Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, all interspersed with six random excerpts from Shostakovich’s Suite On Verses From Michelangelo Buonarroti—all performed out of sequence. It was as if Goerne had assembled his recital program by playing a Mahler/Shostakovich compact disc in shuffle mode—and, having loved the bizarre results, had wanted to replicate the experience in performance.

There were two insurmountable problems with such a boneheaded concept: the songs of Shostakovich are so inferior to the songs of Mahler that the Shostakovich songs simply evaporated when sung, isolated, amongst Mahler songs; and Mahler’s Rückert songs are so superior to the Kindertotenlieder songs, which in turn are so superior to the Wunderhorn songs, that Mahler songs MUST be sung by order of date of composition if they are to have any effect.

Wednesday evening was, in consequence, a grotesque evening in the recital hall, the kind of evening that looks gruesome on paper and proves to be even worse in execution. I am surprised that Andsnes, who did not look happy, went along with such a deviant program.

I believe that vocal recitals are becoming a lost art. Other than Wolfgang Holzmair and Angelika Kirschlager (both Austrian), is there a competent recitalist today?

Current audiences are faced with a conundrum: they want to hear today’s leading singers—but they do not necessarily want to experience evenings “organized and presented by an uneducated airhead with behavioral problems and pseudo-intellectual pretensions”, which is how my father described Goerne.

There was a sizable crowd in Saint Paul on Wednesday evening, and the audience was entirely attentive and well-behaved—if justifiably muted in its response.

Ourselves, we might have been better off returning this particular dish to the kitchen, untasted.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Sorrows Of The King

Henri Matisse (1869-1954)
The Sorrows Of The King
Pompidou Centre, Paris

Gouache On Paper On Canvas
115 Inches By 152 Inches

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Anton Bruckner In 1894

A Beautiful Occasion

Herbert Von Karajan owned Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8, the composer’s final complete symphony. The Bruckner Eighth may have been the single work from the orchestral literature in which Karajan most majestically demonstrated his incomparable gifts.

Karajan conducted the Eighth from early in his career until the very end of his life. He spent more than sixty years studying the score, and more than fifty-two years performing it in concert. Karajan gave more performances of the Eighth—sixty-three in all—than any other Bruckner symphony. (There were 53 Karajan performances of the Seventh, 38 of the Ninth, 32 of the Fifth and 19 of the Fourth; Karajan recorded but never performed in concert the First, Second, Third and Sixth.)

Karajan recorded the Eighth three times—and a tape survives of a fourth, incomplete wartime recording. All are transcendent readings. In fact, they are the four finest readings of the Bruckner Eighth ever captured on tape.

The wartime recording, from June 28, 1944 (the second and third movements, in mono) and September 29, 1944 (the fourth movement, in stereo), has been legendary for decades. Like Furtwängler’s equally-legendary wartime recording of Bruckner’s Ninth (from October 7, 1944), Karajan’s wartime Bruckner Eighth is filled with the deepest spirituality and the starkest, most abject despair. Karajan’s and Furtwängler’s 1944 Bruckner performances provide unforgettable experiences—they are terrifying musical portraits of a world and civilization on the very brink of collapse.

Unlike Furtwängler, who never returned to the Bruckner Ninth after his great wartime performances, Karajan continued to perform the Bruckner Eighth for the rest of his life (Karajan’s final performance of the Eighth was in Carnegie Hall five months before his death).

Recording-wise, Karajan’s 1957 Berlin Philharmonic recording for EMI, issued in 1958, was an improvement over the famed 1944 wartime recording. The 1975 Berlin Philharmonic recording for Deutsche Grammophon, issued in 1976, was an improvement over the EMI recording. The 1988 Vienna Philharmonic recording for Deutsche Grammophon, issued that same year, was the finest and most profound of all. Karajan’s 1988 performance of the great Adagio is one of the greatest half-hours ever captured by microphones. Karajan's Adagio is so incandescent, so supremely musical and of such utter nobility that it renders the entire recorded output of Leonard Bernstein largely irrelevant.

It was impossible for me not to be reminded of Karajan’s unique authority in the Bruckner Eighth on Friday evening, when my parents and Joshua and I attended a Minnesota Orchestra performance of the Bruckner Eighth conducted by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, former Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra.

Skrowaczewski is considered by many to be the leading Bruckner conductor of the day. However, Skrowaczewski’s Bruckner has never moved me.

I find Skrowaczewski’s Bruckner to be rough-hewn. Skrowaczewski dispenses with the many luxuries of sound for which Karajan was renowned—exploration of color, depth and texture as well as intricate layering and voicing of instruments—and instead seeks an unadorned presentation of the musical argument. Even my father, a great fan of Skrowaczewski’s Bruckner, acknowledges that it is hard not to wish for “the sheer glamour of sound” that Karajan brought to Bruckner’s music.

I also find Skrowaczewski’s Bruckner to be untheatrical. The spellbinding drama and grand rhetoric Karajan found in Bruckner are nowhere present in Skrowaczewski’s Bruckner performances. Skrowaczewski’s Bruckner, in comparison to Karajan’s, is earnest but plain.

In short, I found Friday evening’s performance to be of limited pleasure, tending toward the dry and dull, and rather a trial to endure. I also found the playing of the Minnesota Orchestra to be unimpressive, although I would be the first to admit that the Minnesota Orchestra is not a Bruckner orchestra.

The Minnesota Orchestra had last programmed the Bruckner Eighth in October 2005—and those most recent performances, too, had been under Skrowaczewski (a pirate recording of one of the 2005 performances is available in Japan). The previous Minnesota Orchestra performances of the Bruckner Eighth had been in 1988, when Klaus Tennstedt conducted the score in a series of sensational performances still remembered in the Twin Cities. My father says that Friday night’s Skrowaczewski performance was not much different from the 2005 Skrowaczewski rendition—and not nearly as searching as Tennstedt’s 1988 performance, which my father recalls as “thrilling, albeit more than a bit peculiar”.

I last heard the Bruckner Eighth two years ago, when Josh and I traveled from Boston to Cleveland to hear Franz Welser-Möst lead the Cleveland Orchestra in the great work. Welser-Möst had used Bruckner’s original 1887 score, an unheard-of concept until recent years. On Friday night, Skrowaczewski used his personal amalgamation of the 1939 Haas and 1955 Nowak editions.

My father insists that Friday evening’s performance was entirely commendable, worthy of the highest appreciation. On the podium was one of the most dedicated and respected musicians of the day, leading a performance of one of the greatest works in the symphonic repertory—a work he has studied and cherished for decades—with an orchestra he has conducted for over fifty years. After the performance, my father noted, “Had this performance been offered in a city that loves Bruckner, such as Berlin or Vienna, the audience would have applauded for thirty minutes.”

Friday night’s Minneapolis audience did not applaud for thirty minutes—but it did applaud for almost ten minutes, certainly not a crime in a city without a Bruckner audience.

Friday night’s concert attracted a capacity crowd, which I found gratifying—although the size of the audience had more to do with respect and admiration for Skrowaczewski than love for the music of Bruckner.

Skrowaczewski will soon be 89 years old. Last weekend’s concerts will likely be among his last in Minneapolis—and there had been a concerted effort among local music-lovers to provide Skrowaczewski with a sizable audience for a concert of music by a composer Skrowaczewski has championed for over half a century.

There was another reason for such a large crowd on Friday night.

At the conclusion of the concert, The Bruckner Society Of America presented a medal to Skrowaczewski in honor of Skrowaczewski’s long service to the music of the great Austrian master. Many persons had come to the hall, no doubt, out of loyalty: they wanted to be present for a ceremony of special importance to Skrowaczewski, and to show their support for a man who has given much to the musical life of the Twin Cities.

The ceremony was dignified, and also stirring. The audience interrupted the presentation several times with warm and sustained applause.

It was, I thought, a beautiful occasion.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Bruckner At Walhalla

Adolf Hitler admires a newly-installed bust of Anton Bruckner at Walhalla, near Regensburg, in 1937.

Oddly, Bruckner’s bust was the only one added at Walhalla, an 1842 shrine to distinguished figures from 2,000 years of Germanic history, during The Period Of National Socialism.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Pursed Lips And Distant Eyes

Franz Welser-Möst, the music director [sic] of the Cleveland Orchestra for ten seasons already and who serves in that position at least until 2018, is a hard man to warm to. It's partly his stage demeanor, by which, after all, an audience makes its first judgment. With pursed lips and distant eyes, Welser-Möst didn't exactly look like he wanted to be in Segerstrom Concert Hall on Tuesday night. Never mind, he had work to do.

But as a conductor, he's a cool customer as well. Those pursed lips come through in the music making, elegant though it can be. In leading his vaunted orchestra through a fresh program of works by Mendelssohn, Saariaho and Shostakovich, he seemed to be holding himself at one remove and conserving his resources. But then that, too, is self expression [sic] of a kind.

It is frightening to read what passes for music criticism in English-speaking countries. The above bit of nonsense, from the website of The Orange County Register, would never pass muster in Paris or Berlin.

The foolishness quoted above was signed (and therefore presumably was written) by one Timothy Mangan.

At least The Orange County Register does not run Mangan’s articles in its print editions—or so is my understanding. And, in its defense, the newspaper made Mangan shut down his weblog some time ago, a charitable act on behalf of the newspaper's readers and advertisers as well as Mangan himself.

Nonetheless, one must ask: why would a publication keep someone like Mangan on its staff? And allow such idiocy to appear on its website?

Southern California deserves Gustavo Dudamel.

And Mangan missed out on his true calling: covering Liberace.

"Madama Butterfly" At Minnesota Opera

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Minnesota Opera's "Madama Butterfly"

On Saturday night, my parents, my sister-in-law, and Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to attend Minnesota Opera’s production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”, the final presentation of Minnesota Opera’s 2011-2012 season.

I dislike the music of “Madama Butterfly”. It is one of two mature Puccini operas I dislike—“Turandot” is the other—and I dislike the score because I find much of it sickly-sweet and unduly obvious. “Madama Butterfly” lacks the freshness and inspiration of “La Boheme” and “Tosca”, two Puccini works that preceded it, and it lacks the sophistication and subtlety of “La Fanciulla Del West” and “Il Trittico”, two Puccini works that were to follow.

Mine is a minority view. Persons with more than a little authority—Virgil Thomson and Herbert Von Karajan among them—have identified “Madama Butterfly” as Puccini’s finest achievement. Many others have defended, eloquently, Puccini’s tale of East-meets-West without proclaiming it Puccini’s outright masterpiece.

I find “Madama Butterfly” to have a weak musical argument, a weak musical argument further watered down by an undue emphasis on orchestral color and unconvincing (and discomfiting) orientalism. The score is fundamentally all about “atmosphere”—and only a great orchestra and a great Puccini conductor can bring the atmosphere of the score fully to life.

Minnesota Opera did well by the score, all in all. The orchestra played well, and Michael Christie (who next season will become Music Director of Minnesota Opera) conducted the score capably. This was about as fine a musical presentation of “Madama Butterfly” as one might hope to hear in an American regional house.

The production, the company’s own, had been unveiled in 2004. (Over the last eight seasons, it has been rented by several other companies in North America.) The late Colin Graham directed the original production; one of his assistants was on hand to direct the current revival. The production is a spare one, using shifting Japanese screens as its primary visual device, but it has color and beauty and simplicity in its favor. It is one of the most stage-worthy “Madama Butterfly” productions I have ever seen—it presents the drama cleanly and without affectation, yet includes plenty of freedom for different artists to shape the drama to their own individual strengths.

Minnesota Opera has double-cast this season’s “Madama Butterfly”, offering four performances with a first cast and four performances with a second cast. We saw and heard the first cast—and it should not be assumed that the first cast of this “Madama Butterfly” production is better than the second cast, as persons affiliated with the company have made clear to Minnesota Opera patrons. Indeed, the second cast may be superior to the first, as some insiders have asserted.

The Cio-Cio-San on Saturday night was American soprano Kelly Kaduce, a native of Minnesota. (Kaduce also sang Cio-Cio-San when the production was new eight years ago.)

Kaduce is a convincing stage actress. Her physical portrayal of the young Japanese girl was very fine.

Kaduce, however, does not possess a major voice. There is nowhere near enough color and weight in her voice to create a compelling musical portrait of Cio-Cio-San. The result is that the audience witnessed a physical portrayal of high finish and much accomplishment—and a vocal portrayal that was bleached, wan and tepid. Kaduce, however hardworking and dedicated an artist she may be, simply does not possess the vocal chords necessary to get her in the door of an international-level house; hers is destined always to be a regional career.

Kaduce was at a disadvantage all night because the Pinkerton, Mexican tenor Arturo Chacon-Cruz, DOES possess a major voice. Chacon-Cruz is not yet a polished artist; he is rough around the edges in his vocalism, and an actor of little subtlety. However, his instrument is first-class, possessing a distinctive timbre, a distinctive ring and loads of color.

Chacon-Cruz already has an important European career. Over the last five years, he has appeared in numerous second-tier European opera houses such as those in Cologne, Hamburg, Lyon, Naples, Stockholm and Venice—and recently he has been moving up to first-tier houses, singing major roles in theaters such as Staatsoper Unter Den Linden and Teatro Alla Scala. If Chacon-Cruz continues to polish his voice and musicianship and stagecraft—and if he does not blow out his voice early—he will become an important fixture at international-level houses for the next fifteen or twenty years.

The smaller roles were beautifully sung and beautifully portrayed. Mika Shigematsu was an excellent Suzuki and Levi Hernandez an even better Sharpless.


Minnesota Opera had an excellent 2011-2012 season. We caught four of the five presentations—Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte”, Massenet’s “Werther”, Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” as well as “Madama Butterfly”—and all four were performed to a standard that would reflect credit upon any regional company in North America.

We skipped the fifth presentation, the world premiere of “Silent Night” by composer Kevin Puts, an opera that recently won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize For Music. I doubt we missed much. Persons whose opinions I respect thought that the non-threatening, anti-Modernist score of “Silent Night” was pure musical twaddle and should have been laughed off the stage. (The award of a Pulitzer Prize is meaningless these days, since Pulitzer Prizes have been declining assets for decades and now serve primarily as certifications of mediocrity or acknowledgements of longevity.)

From a repertory standpoint, the 2012-2013 season for Minnesota Opera does not look as promising. I dislike Verdi’s “Nabucco”, I dislike Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” and I dislike “Turandot”, all three of which have been announced. A world premiere adapted from John Patrick Shanley’s play, “Doubt”, has also been announced, as has Ambroise Thomas’s “Hamlet”. We may attend “Hamlet”, but I wish the company had announced Thomas’s “Mignon” instead. “Mignon”, a much finer work than the composer’s “Hamlet”, is a work sorely in need of revival.

And why three Italian operas, yet no German works? I think that is a blunder.


Other than presentations of Minnesota Opera, opera performances in the Twin Cities are limited in number.

For years, University Of Minnesota Opera Theatre has been the other primary opera resource in the Twin Cities. Opera Theatre mounts two full-scale productions each academic year; the productions are generally of very, very high quality.

We missed Opera Theatre’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” last autumn because of my grandmother’s illness, and we shall skip Opera Theatre’s upcoming world premiere of an opera by a University Of Minnesota professor, a production scheduled to open tomorrow night and run through the weekend.

I do not know what is in the works for Opera Theatre for next academic year—Opera Theatre’s productions for 2012-2013 have not been announced as far as I know.

For the last few years, the Minnesota Orchestra has entered the opera arena, presenting one opera in concert each season during the summer months. This summer, the Minnesota Orchestra will present a concert performance of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” under Andrew Litton.

We probably shall skip the Minnesota Orchestra “Rigoletto”. As a general rule, we do not attend concerts during summer months. Further, it seems pointless for the orchestra to present such a well-known work as “Rigoletto” in concert.

Next season, a new local enterprise will enter the operatic fray: Minnesota Concert Opera. Minnesota Concert Opera will offer performances in the new Cowles Center For Dance And The Performing Arts in downtown Minneapolis.

Minnesota Concert Opera has announced three operas for its premiere season: Bellini’s “I Puritani”, Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” and Handel’s “Giulio Cesare”.

I have no idea when we shall first make our way to the Cowles Center to catch a Minnesota Concert Opera presentation. Repertory for the company’s first season is not much of an attraction for us.

Hans Pfitzner’s “Palestrina”, had it been announced, surely would get us in the door.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Graphic Design From The 1969-1970 Broadway Season

The original cast album for “Applause”, which opened on March 30, 1970. Graphic design for the original cast album was based upon graphic design for the show.

The original cast album for “Coco”, which opened on December 18, 1969. Graphic design for the original cast album was based upon graphic design for the show.

Graphic design for both shows was virtually identical—and not good in the least.

The first Broadway musical my father ever attended in New York was “Applause”, a musical adaptation of the film, “All About Eve”. My father saw the show in the summer of 1971, after Lauren Bacall had left the cast. The actress playing Margo Channing the night my father saw “Applause” was Anne Baxter, who had played Eve Harrington in the film. Forty-one years later, my father is still kicking himself for not seeing the original production of “Follies” instead of “Applause”.

“Applause” has never been revived. Despite the fact that the show was a hit in the early 1970s, it probably never will be revived.

“Coco” has never been revived, either. The show was a pure vehicle for Katharine Hepburn. Once Hepburn left the cast, the show closed—and is unlikely ever to be remounted.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Soot Black

Ballet Preljocaj in "Snow White".


Ballet Preljocaj, based in Aix-En-Provence, is in the midst of an eight-city world tour, with Minneapolis the fifth stop on that tour (the company has already visited Davis, California, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Chapel Hill, North Carolina; the company is soon to visit Ann Arbor, Michigan, Mexico City and London).

The company’s visit to the Twin Cities occurred last weekend, when the company presented its full-length “Snow White”, created for twenty-six dancers, at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. My parents, my sister-in-law, and Joshua and I attended Friday night’s performance.

Ballet Preljocaj’s “Snow White” is not a version for children, as the local presenter, the Northrop Dance Series, made abundantly clear in its brochures and advertisements. The Preljocaj “Snow White” is an adult version of the tale, much darker and much more wicked than the children’s version—and with a focus on sex.

I have never had much of an interest in probative analyses of fairy tales, analyses that attempt to discern deeper meanings lurking beneath the surface of ancient children’s fables. The once-fashionable work of Bruno Bettelheim, now largely discredited, has always left me cold.

In any case, Angelin Preljocaj, choreographer of Ballet Preljocaj, would not be a source of penetrating analysis in this particular field, at least based upon his work in “Snow White”. Preljocaj is interested in sex, and little else; his treatment of “Snow White” had sex as its driving force, sex as its only theme, sex as its only plot device, sex as the only character trait visible onstage. The work was a perfect example of vulgar, pretentious bad taste—which is the purest definition of “kitsch” I know.

Preljocaj possesses some modest skill as a choreographer. He knows how to present a story, he knows how to create passable ensemble dances, he knows how to fashion a creditable pas de deux. The problem, in “Snow White”, was that there were twenty minutes of satisfactory choreography in a work that lasted just under two hours (the work was performed without intermission). The rest was filler, with much posturing, and much melodrama. Sitting through “Snow White” was like sitting through a performance of some ancient creaky stage vehicle, such as Robert E. Sherwood’s “Abe Lincoln In Illinois”, in which the dialogue was mimed and not spoken.

Preljocaj understands ballet vocabulary—in the 1990s, he was asked to create a work for New York City Ballet—but his “Snow White” was a modern-dance work with a few nods to traditional ballet technique. Dancers were barefoot or clod in shoes; there was no en pointe work. The dancing was centered on the lower body, not the upper body.

Much of “Snow White” was old-fashioned pantomime—yet the pantomime was derived not from 19th-Century ballet pantomime a la Marius Petipa but from the pantomime of early silent-screen melodrama. No American choreographer would dare such a thing.

Why was this piece of claptrap, resembling nothing so much as an old episode of some particularly cheesy late-night music variety show from 1960s French television, inflicted on American viewers?

The answer, I suspect, lies in the elaborate stage designs for “Snow White”, created by some of France’s most-renowned designers. While the names of the designers were meaningless to me, followers of fashion would recognize in an instant names from France’s most-hallowed houses of couture.

And the stage designs, costume designs and lighting designs for “Snow White” were, indeed, elaborate and complex, as elaborate and complex as designs for the most complicated Broadway musical. What the designs were not, however, was “attractive”—the “Snow White” designs were bold in their lack of visual appeal; they were some of the ugliest stage designs I have ever seen.

Played throughout the show was a tape of music of Gustav Mahler (Ballet Preljocaj, even in its home theater, always dances to taped music). It was jarring to hear snippets from different Mahler works played out of context—just as it was jarring listening to music of Mahler while watching onstage shenanigans whose genuine origins resided in burlesque.

Curiosity alone had compelled us to go to “Snow White”. We had hoped there might be something worthwhile in a project that had sounded awful on paper—but the “Snow White” experience was just as dreadful in reality as it had seemed in theory.

In future, we should keep our curiosity in check. “Snow White” provided an enervating, even gruesome, evening.


On our drive home, my parents made a revelation: they had experienced an evening similar to “Snow White” thirty years ago.

In the words of my father:

When we were your age, we saw “The Idiot”, a full-length ballet based upon the Dostoyevsky novel. “The Idiot” had been devised by Valery Panov, who is no longer even remembered. “The Idiot”, I think, had been created for Berlin Opera Ballet.

“The Idiot”, too, had featured amazingly complicated stage designs, and a lengthy cut-and-paste score borrowed from thirty-some different pieces of Shostakovich. Like “Snow White”, tons of money had been thrown at “The Idiot”—and the thing was so impossibly inept, it simply rotted onstage. It had to be seen to be believed.

Some idiot made the decision to send “The Idiot” to America for a tour of American dance venues—and the thing was hooted off the stage here, as anyone might have predicted. It was so vividly bad, your mother and I still remember it, even though we saw it before you were born.

“The Idiot” got disastrous reviews and bombed at the box office. Afterward, we said to ourselves that we were, in a way, fortunate: no other European company would ever again send our way such a bad full-length story ballet. The ridicule heaped on “The Idiot” would be remembered by impresarios for years to come, and atrocious European story ballets would be kept strictly on home turf in future.

Well . . . you have just seen your “Idiot” . . . and your mother and I have now seen a second “Idiot”, which we had never expected to see.

Remember it well.

Unlike your mother and me, you may not have a second “Idiot” in your future.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Class Act

A class act throughout his career, the great man remains a class act more than ten years into his retirement.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Early Romanticism In Saint Paul

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

We heard the second program of a three-week project devoted to music of Franz Schubert. During the three-week series, each program has as its foundation a Schubert symphony complemented by a shorter Schubert work, to which has been added a contemporary score.

Last weekend, Schubert’s Ninth Symphony was the centerpiece of the program. One of the greatest symphonies ever written, the Schubert Ninth is not often performed in the U.S., probably because American orchestras can no longer play Schubert (the Cleveland Orchestra excepted).

Thomas Zehetmair had been engaged to lead all three weeks of the SPCO Schubert project, and it was a pleasure to hear Zehetmair lead the Schubert Ninth.

Because the performance involved chamber forces, Zehetmair was obliged to offer a “light” Schubert Ninth—and a “light” Schubert Ninth can be perfectly satisfactory.

I found the SPCO performance more than satisfactory. Tempos were swift, textures were light, rhythms were sprightly. There was a notable “fresh” quality to the performance, a performance characterized above all by energy and zest.

I loved the reading—and this was so even though I view the Schubert Ninth, at heart, as a melancholy work. I do not view the Schubert Ninth as deeply tragic, as exhibited in Furtwängler’s recorded performances, and I do not view the work as above all dramatic, as demonstrated in Toscanini’s recorded performances—but I do see the work as an exemplar of Viennese melancholy melded to Viennese charm, as best displayed in the legendary Decca recording of Josef Krips.

By Krips’s standards, Zehetmair’s performance was lacking in melancholy—and was short on charm, too. However, the SPCO performance was beautifully played, with very pure intonation, and enjoyed the musicians’ full concentration. To ask for more from a chamber ensemble would be unreasonable.

The concert opened with a performance of the Overture to Schubert’s 1822 opera, “Alfonso And Estrella”, an overture equally indebted to the curtain-raisers of Weber and Rossini. The work, in sonata form, is pleasant enough, but is not often played because its development is cursory and not particularly imaginative.

Between the two Schubert works was played a contemporary work, “Neharót Neharót”, by Israeli composer Betty Olivero (born 1954), a former composition student of Luciano Berio.

The Hebrew title may be translated as “Rivers, Rivers” and refers to rivers of tears and rivers of blood associated with wartime. Olivero wrote the work in 2006, while hostilities between Israel and Lebanon were being played out on global television; Olivero has recounted, in countless interviews, how she wrote the score while riveted to newscasts.

The composition is scored for solo viola, two string orchestras, accordian, percussion—and tape. The taped sounds are laments of grieving women from Kurdistan, Yemen and North Africa.

The score, nowise good, was not half so hokey as the circumstances of its origination might suggest—although the taped sounds of grieving women, which I found laughable, unquestionably should have been omitted (and the accordian replaced with an oboe or English horn).

Insofar as possible, I ignored the taped sounds and focused on the musical argument.

It was apparent, ninety seconds into the piece, that Olivero had rewritten Berio’s “Voci” (1984), with significant additional borrowings from Frank Martin’s “Polyptyque” (1974). Both composers, if alive today, surely would sue for plagiarism.

At least Olivero had the good sense to model her work upon two acknowledged masterpieces. Her composition, derivative and uninspired, somehow managed to hold together as a unified work, which is not nothing. The composer played off the solo viola against the two string orchestras beautifully. The Eastern Mediterranean contour to the melodies may have carried the tinge of 1950s travelogues, but the Eastern Mediterranean flavor was mostly inoffensive.

The viola soloist was Kim Kashkashian.

I think it was a mistake to have engaged Kashkashian for a fifteen-minute piece requiring little if any virtuosity. I have always liked Kashkashian, but any competent violist could have played the solo viola’s mournful, one-dimensional tunes with ease. It was an unnecessary expense for the SPCO to have brought Kashkashian all the way to Minnesota to play something the orchestra’s principal violist could have tossed off while napping.

Kashkashian has aged significantly since the last time I saw her in performance. I barely recognized her when she came onstage.

Once the current Schubert project has run its course, the SPCO immediately embarks upon a three-week project devoted to the symphonies of Mendelssohn. All concerts in the Mendelssohn series are scheduled to be conducted by Roberto Abbado.

Early Romanticism is being celebrated in Saint Paul this spring.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Classical Music’s Most Secretive Gay Couple

Palestinian-Israeli pianist Saleem Abboud Ashkar and Danish violinist Nikolaj Znaider (who holds both Danish and Israeli passports).

This distinctly unappealing couple is shown here in Bergen, Norway, in June 2010.

For the life of me, I do not understand, in this day and age, why these two go to extremes, attempting to hide the nature of their relationship.

Everyone in Denmark, France and Israel (where the two spend their free time) has known about them for years.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

A Massive And Irritating Flop

On Friday night, my middle brother and Joshua and I went to The Guthrie Theater to see The Guthrie’s presentation of Noel Coward’s 1925 comedy of manners, “Hay Fever”. Oddly, the current “Hay Fever” is The Guthrie’s very first production of the play, one of Coward’s most-oft-performed works.

The production was not good. I suspect that “Hay Fever” can be made to work only if an incomparable cast of actors has been assembled, a cast that can deliver every single line with stylish and effortless virtuosity. What we saw Friday night was a cast of actors not genuinely comfortable with Coward’s thin-as-paper material and unable to deliver Coward’s lines with the polished nonchalance the play demands.

“Hay Fever” is not a strong play, even by Coward standards. It concerns the Bliss family, Mr. and Mrs. Bliss and the Bliss son and the Bliss daughter, each of whom invites a weekend guest to the Bliss estate outside London without telling anyone else in the family. When the four guests arrive, the result is consternation throughout the household—on the part of the Bliss family as well as on the part of the guests. The guests are unable to accommodate themselves to the quirky behavior of the Bliss family, while the Bliss family is so supremely self-obsessed that it is unaware of the disconcerting effect it has on outsiders. The weekend guests, caught in an impossible situation, decide to leave early, sneaking out without the Bliss family even being aware that the guests are departing—at which point the play ends.

“Hay Fever” is supposed to represent an entertaining examination of high-society inter-war Britain, a frivolous social milieu with endless weekend house parties in the country, but the play is a one-note affair, lacking genuine wit, well-drawn characters and interesting situations.

At the center of the play is Mrs. Bliss, a retired actress apparently ready to return to the thespian boards any minute if the sweeping theatricality of her conduct in private life is any guide. Mrs. Bliss is supposed to be an irresistible role for an actress “of a certain age”, but the role is insufficiently written and may be impossible to play.

The Mrs. Bliss at The Guthrie was Harriet Harris, a skilled actress who has shown in her television work that she can shine in arch roles. Harris’s Mrs. Bliss, however, was not arch—Harris’s Mrs. Bliss was, instead, camp. Harris played Mrs. Bliss as Madame Arcati, the wrong Coward role in the wrong Coward play, and Harris did so probably because there is no genuine character beneath the veneer of Mrs. Bliss’s nonstop theatrics for Harris to latch onto.

It is likely that no one can play Mrs. Bliss to satisfaction. My parents saw Rosemary Harris come to grief in the role of Mrs. Bliss on Broadway in 1986—and if the great Rosemary Harris could not bring Mrs. Bliss to life, probably no one can. My parents say that Rosemary Harris walked around the stage for three acts positively exuding radiance at every turn—and otherwise totally lost, utterly unable to find any grounded center in the part.

Harriet Harris lacks the innate radiance of Rosemary Harris. The result was that the Mrs. Bliss of Harriet Harris was fundamentally unattractive if not grotesque. That Harriet Harris was poorly costumed, poorly made-up and poorly coiffed by The Guthrie merely reinforced the camp nature of her portrayal.

The other cast members were no better. Simon Jones, a fine actor, was able to do nothing with the role of the much-put-upon Mr. Bliss. Barbara Bryne overdid the daffiness of the part of the maid until she became insufferable (Bryne had played the very same part in the Rosemary Harris production my parents had seen on Broadway long ago). The other cast members were at sea, variously overplaying and underplaying their parts, never finding any consistent tone, never discovering any meat on their characters’ bones.

A British stage director had been imported from London to direct “Hay Fever”, and I am surprised that he allowed the Guthrie production to be so broadly played. A comedy of manners, to be successful, must be subtle and finely-etched. There was nothing subtle or finely-etched about the Guthrie production.

The Guthrie performed “Hay Fever” with a single intermission. The intermission came after Act I, which made for a very long second half—and which interfered, fatally, with the careful three-part symmetry of Coward’s structure. Perhaps the most skillful element of Coward’s play is its construction: each of the three acts begins in a flurry of expository activity and dialogue; each of the three acts ends in awkward silence.

The Guthrie had devoted buckets of money to the production. “Hay Fever” featured elaborate and expensive stage designs and costume designs, all faithful to the period. The designs, alas, were not attractive, and did not display the surface elegance the play requires.

“Hay Fever” was, all in all, intensely disappointing. Three “name” actors had been engaged, lavish resources had been devoted to the production, and two months of rehearsals and a month of performances had already been under the cast’s belt by the time we caught the production. Yet The Guthrie’s “Hay Fever” was, I thought, a massive and irritating flop.

My parents will see “Hay Fever” next week. It will be interesting to see what they think of the production.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

“From Hanover Square North, At The End Of A Tragic Day, The Voices Of The People Again Arose”

There's a personal experience behind [the third movement of The Second Orchestral Set], the story of which I will now try to tell.

We were living in an apartment at 27 West 11th Street. The morning paper on the breakfast table gave the news of the sinking of the “Lusitania”. I remember, going downtown to business, the people on the streets and on the elevated train had something in their faces that was not the usual something. Everybody who came into the office, whether they spoke about the disaster or not, showed a realization of seriously experiencing something. (That it meant war is what the faces said, if the tongues didn't.)

Leaving the office and going uptown about 6 o'clock, I took the Third Avenue "L" at the Hanover Square Station. As I came on the platform, there was quite a crowd waiting for the trains, which had been blocked lower down, and while waiting there, a hand-organ, or hurdy-gurdy, was playing on a street below. Some workmen sitting on the side of the tracks began to whistle the tune, and others began to sing or hum the refrain.

A workman with a shovel over his shoulder came on the platform and joined in the chorus, and the next man, a Wall Street banker with white spats and a cane, joined in it, and finally it seemed to me that everybody was singing this tune, and they didn't seem to be singing for fun, but as a natural outlet for what their feelings had been going through all day long.

There was a feeling of dignity all through this. The hand-organ man seemed to sense this and wheeled the organ nearer the platform and kept it up fortissimo (and the chorus sounded out as though every man in New York must be joining in it). Then the first train came and everybody crowded in, and the song eventually died out, but the effect on the crowd still showed.

Charles Ives

The tune, which Ives goes on to identify, was the 1868 hymn, “In The Sweet By-And-By”.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Odd Bedfellows

From left to right: Marja Molewijk, Steven Mackey, William Colvig (Lou Harrison’s boyfriend at the time), Henryk Górecki, Janis Susskind and Lou Harrison, taken 27 June 1993 at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, during the Holland Festival.

Odd bedfellows, indeed.

A psychiatrist might have a field day addressing the spatial preferences of the persons in the photograph.

My sister-in-law, a psychiatrist, says it is crystal clear that Górecki wanted absolutely nothing to do with the other persons present in the auditorium.

My sister-in-law also says she would guess, from the photograph, that Colvig and Harrison, with empty seats between them, must have fought like cats and dogs (and such was their reputation).


The morning after Harrison’s farcical demise at a Denny’s in Lafayette, Indiana, Donald Harris, Professor Of Composition And Theory at Ohio State University, sent the following email message to numerous recipients:

Last night, while traveling from Chicago to Columbus, Lou Harrison passed away. We had sent Adam Schweigert and Joe Panzner, two students in Composition and Theory, to Chicago with a University van to greet Lou and his traveling companion, Todd Burlingame, and drive them back to campus for the Festival. Lou does not like to fly and took the train, the California Zephyr, from near San Francisco to Chicago. The train arrived at about 5:15 PM. While en route to Indianapolis, their overnight destination, Adam, Joe, Lou and Todd decided to stop at a Denny's restaurant in Lafayette, Indiana, for some dinner. Lou stumbled and fell upon getting out of the vehicle and apparently suffered a heart attack. He had great difficulty breathing. Paramedics were called and they arrived within minutes. Lou was transported to the hospital but was unable to be revived.

He passed away around 9 or 9:30 PM. We are awaiting the coroner's report for final confirmation of the cause of death.

Lou Harrison will be cremated today; his remains shipped back to California. He was eighty-five years old.

Todd Burlingame, identified as a “traveling companion” in Harris’s email message, was Harrison’s boyfriend at the time of Harrison’s death.

Contrary to the statement in Harris’s email message, the Indiana coroner did not perform an autopsy on Harrison.

Harrison’s remains were cremated, near instantly, because his estate had insufficient funds to arrange for a proper burial.


Harrison was, of course, a very, very strange man.

The photograph below shows Harrison in 1939, when Harrison was 22 years old. One may see from the photograph that Harrison, as a young man, was already a social misfit—although one would be unable to guess from the photograph alone how truly bizarre Harrison would become only a few short years hence.

Any cursory reading of Harrison’s letters, published and unpublished (many are available online), puts his sanity—as well as his intelligence—into question. He was, all in all, a rather frightening creature.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

“It’s A Shame It Ended After An Hour And A Half” Or “Throw In A Gamelan And Call It Modernism”

Below is reproduced the funniest news story of the last decade.

I recall falling over with laughter the first time I read this news item almost nine years ago.

My reaction remains the same today.


Columbus, Ohio, June 6, 2003—85-year-old American composer Lou Harrison died after collapsing in a Denny's parking lot in Lafayette, Indiana, while on his way to Columbus, Ohio, to be honored at Ohio State University's Contemporary Music Festival 2003.

Joseph Panzner and Adam Schweigert, who serve as production assistants for this year's festival, were excited by the opportunity to meet the renowned composer.

Harrison was in Chicago when he received the invitation to the festival. Harrison usually traveled by train or car—he did not want to fly to Columbus. With this in mind, Panzner and Schweigert volunteered to drive Harrison to Columbus.

"We were looking forward to spending six hours in the car with him,” Panzner said. “It's a shame it ended after an hour and a half.”

"Thankfully, the Denny’s was only 12 blocks from a hospital. I'm glad I was there to help," Panzner added.

Schweigert said many who had crowded around Harrison as he lay dying in the Denny's dining room did not know who he was and what his life had added to American culture.

"It was really ironic," Schweigert said.


No, the irony is that anyone ever took Harrison seriously (and few did).

The man had rejected modernism, for crying out loud. He was a complete boob.

Even more ironic is that Harrison had been a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, yet Harrison had never bothered to learn the elements of harmony from the great master, surely one of the all-time crassest cases of opportunity wasted.

Death at Denny’s: can there be a more ignominious end for a more ignominious man?


And patrons of a Denny’s franchise in Lafayette, Indiana, had been expected to recognize this old fool?

Harrison could have died onstage at Carnegie Hall, and no one would have recognized him.

Houston Ballet In Christopher Wheeldon's "Rush"