Saturday, June 30, 2012

"I Wallow In Words"

I am joined with eleven others in reporting the debates in Parliament for a morning newspaper. Night after night, I record predictions that never come to pass, professions that are never fulfilled, explanations that are only meant to mystify. I wallow in words.

Charles Dickens


Thursday, June 28, 2012

German Soldiers Captured During The Spring Offensive

German soldiers, happy to be alive, captured after the failure of The Spring Offensive in late April 1918.

Bavarian Reserve Infantry October 1918

The Bavarian Reserve Infantry, Munich, October 1918.

German Supreme Command had informed the Kaiser on September 29, 1918, that the military situation on The Western Front had become hopeless and that the war ultimately would be lost.

Authorities in Bavaria—and all over Germany—immediately began preparing for revolution. Indeed, upon failure of The Spring Offensive in late April 1918, civilian officials had initiated preparations for containing a populace on the brink of open revolt.

At the time, it was believed that the war would continue into the summer of 1919, giving authorities sufficient time to prepare measures designed to quell rebellion.

The war was to end suddenly and abruptly in November 1918.

Revolution in Bavaria—and throughout Germany—was instantaneous. In fact, revolution in Bavaria occurred a full four days before The Armistice even was to take effect.

"Misery And Destruction Follow Anarchy"

This 1918 Bavarian poster attempts to head off revolution even before the war is over.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


On Friday evening, Joshua and I and my middle brother went to Saint Paul to attend a performance of Neil Simon’s “Laughter On The 23rd Floor” at Park Square Theatre.

Originally produced in 1993, “Laughter On The 23rd Floor” is Simon’s play about his experiences as a comedy writer for early television. Many, perhaps most, of the characters are based upon persons Simon knew while working in the early days of the medium.

We had not seen a previous staging of the play, and we had not seen the television adaptation that first aired in 2001. We came to the material with fresh eyes and fresh ears.

“Laughter On The 23rd Floor” is not so much a play as a series of jokes and one-liners. The characters announce themselves within thirty seconds of their introductions—they are immediately-discernible “types” with no subtleties to reveal and no dramatic developments to withstand—and then proceed to carry out the one-dimensional functions Simon has assigned to them. The plot is identical to the old television series, “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, except that the coterie of writers is much larger than the Buddy-and-Sally duo from the TV series (and no home life is shown).

As drama, the play is dreadful, and yet it may be endured without pain, just as four consecutive episodes of some mildly diverting television comedy can help occupy a couple of hours of idle time.

The Park Square Theatre production was not bad, although we were not under the impression we were witnessing something distinguished or memorable. The acting ensemble was better than the lukewarm local reviews had led us to expect.

My brother and Josh and I caught three Neil Simon plays this season: “Brighton Beach Memoirs”, “Lost In Yonkers” and “Laughter On The 23rd Floor”. I cannot recall ever seeing so many Simon plays within such a short period of time.

A new production of Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” will open next month at The Guthrie. We will not go. We have exceeded our allotment of Simon plays for the present.

On Sunday afternoon, Josh and I took my parents to The Museum Of Russian Art to see two exhibitions. One exhibition was devoted to photography from the final four decades of the Soviet Period, and the other was devoted to paintings from the final four decades of the Soviet Period.

Neither exhibition was significant, and no major works of art were on display, yet we enjoyed a pleasant two hours. The paintings on view never veered far from Socialist Realism—even those from the very end of the Soviet Period were dully conformist—but the purpose of the exhibition was to present “establishment” art typical of the time and place, unthreatening to the Soviet State, and not art reflecting modernist tendencies unsanctioned by authorities.

Monday, June 25, 2012

“It Was To Pompadour That He Talked, And It Was To Pompadour That He Listened”

Francois Boucher (1703-1770)
Portrait Of Marquise de Pompadour
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Oil On Canvas
80 3/8 Inches By 62 13/16 Inches

Sunday, June 24, 2012


Sevres Porcelain Factory
Pot-pourri Vase
The Royal Collection, London

Soft-paste porcelain, bleu lapis and green ground, overlaid with œil-de-perdrix and gilding
22 1/16 Inches By 15 1/8 Inches By 7 3/4 Inches


Only twelve pot-pourri vases were produced by the Sevres Porcelain Factory—given their construction, the vases tended to collapse in the kiln—yet they were so prized and protected that ten of the twelve vases survive today.

France retains only one Sevres pot-pourri vase, which resides in the Louvre. The remaining nine are in Britain and the United States.

The most beautiful of the pot-pourri vases is the one now in The Royal Collection. The depth of its two primary colors is what lends it a unique beauty. Oddly, it is the only such vase whose artists are unknown (the painted scene is inspired by David Teniers The Younger).

Madame de Pompadour was the first owner of this particular pot-pourri vase. It was acquired for The Royal Collection by George IV, a great connoisseur of French decorative art. The vase now resides in The Green Room of Buckingham Palace, where it is the most striking object in a room filled with priceless works of art.

Friday, June 22, 2012

A Dazzling Space

The Eugene McDermott Concert Hall at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Differences In Productivity And Competitiveness

At root, the current crisis is the result of imbalances in the global economy, which in turn reflect differences in productivity and competitiveness.

To tackle Europe's problem therefore means tackling the competitiveness question. This can only be done in a number of ways: by a long and brutal process of austerity that reduces the cost base of the weaker nations; by Germany and the richer nations of the North eroding their competitive advantage by tolerating a higher rate of inflation than the nations of the South; by a permanent process of fiscal transfers that will probably exceed the assistance provided to the Länder of the old East Germany; or by countries seeking to generate an instant competitive boost through departure from the Euro.

As it stands at a crossroads, Europe has to choose one of these four routes, something it appears incapable or unwilling to do.

Sooner or later, a country like Greece will decide it cannot take the strain any longer and conclude there will be first-mover advantage in being the first country to leave the Euro, just as there was for the first country—Britain—to leave the gold standard.

Even The Guardian gets it.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Friday, June 15, 2012

Thursday, June 14, 2012

On This Day In History, June 14 . . .

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born (1811) and Benedict Arnold died (1801).

Margaret Bourke-White was born (1904) and Mary Cassatt died (1926).

Burl Ives was born (1909) and Peggy Ashcroft died (1991).

Rudolf Kempe was born (1910) and Carlo Maria Giulini died (2005).

Che Guevara was born (1928) and Kurt Waldheim died (2007).

Cy Coleman was born (1929) and Alan Jay Lerner died (1986).

Jerzy Kosinski was born (1933) and Jorge Luis Borges died (1986).

Steffi Graf was born (1969) and Dale Whittington died (2003).

Lang Lang was born (1982) and pianism died.

Monday, June 11, 2012


Winston Churchill visiting the ruins of Coventry Cathedral on September 28, 1941.

Coventry Cathedral had been destroyed when the Germans bombed Coventry in a massive overnight air raid in November 1940.

The code name for the German raid on Coventry: Moonlight Sonata.

War Reparations, Seven Decades After The Fact

Last evening, checking sitemeter, I noticed an extraordinary number of visitors to my weblog from India. Tracing their incoming paths, I was able to ascertain that the readers in question were coming to me from The Economic Times Of India website—where, to my alarm, I learned that I had been identified as a World War II expert.

I am no such thing. I disclaim any attributions of expertise on the subject of World War II.

This morning, checking sitemeter, I noticed an even more extraordinary number of visitors to my weblog from Greece. Tracing their incoming paths, I was able to ascertain that the readers in question were coming to me from a Greek newspaper website—where, to my dismay, I learned that my 2011 post about the 1931 German banking crisis had been cited as evidence that the European Union needed to abandon its current austerity program.

Whoever authored this morning’s Greek newspaper article has drawn wrong conclusions from the 1931 German banking crisis. The 1931 German banking crisis has no applicability—and no parallels—to the current European Crisis.

Today’s European Crisis is rooted in institutionalized budget deficits. It is an old-fashioned, Latin-American-style debt crisis, pure and simple. (It is also, in part, a demographic crisis.) Debt crises are solved by paying down debt, by writing off debt, or by inflating as deliberate policy. Debt crises are never solved by acquiring more debt.

The 1931 German banking crisis was an old-fashioned trade-and-currency crisis rooted in the foreign policies of other nations: a nation running large budget and trade surpluses was forced to send those surpluses overseas for years at a time as part of war reparations. The crisis might have been averted by halting the payment of war reparations (which Britain and France were unwilling to forego) and by allowing Germany to invest its domestic wealth-production internally (which is precisely what happened as soon as Hitler was installed as Chancellor).

I find it amusing that other European nations now want Germany, once again, to send its large budget and trade surpluses overseas.

It is a long-delayed war-reparations strategy of sorts.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

The Highest-Paid Artist Of His Time

Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891)
The Sergeant’s Portrait
Kunsthalle, Hamburg

Oil On Canvas
28 11/16 Inches By 24 3/8 Inches


“All of us will be forgotten, but Meissonier will be remembered.”—Eugène Delacroix

Meissonier may have had Delacroix in his corner, but it has not helped Meissonier’s long-term reputation that Napoleon III, Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm were among his most ardent admirers.

Meissonier is being rediscovered today, slowly but surely, after being written out of art history books early in the Twentieth Century.

The artist’s small but exquisite canvases—he left behind a handful of large-scale history paintings, too—show a command of draftsmanship, a subtle and sure mastery of color, and a remarkable attention to detail that is never permitted to overwhelm a composition.

In November 2006, over the course of three visits to the Kunsthalle, we must have spent an hour, even more, with “The Sergeant’s Portrait”. It overwhelmed everything else in the room, including Franz Von Lenbach’s famous (and excellent) portrait of Franz Liszt, hung immediately adjacent to “The Sergeant’s Portrait”.

The finest Meissonier in America, a painting of a vanquished Napoleon immediately after Waterloo, is in The Walters Museum in Baltimore. That particular Meissonier was on display in March 2009 when Joshua and I visited The Walters, but it was hung near the ceiling in a salon-style room and, for practical purposes, could not be viewed (as was the finest Lenbach in America, a portrait of Otto Von Bismarck, hung near the ceiling in the very same Walters gallery).

In person, “The Sergeant’s Portrait” is riveting. My mother says that extreme subtlety of coloration is what first attracts the viewer’s notice, after which the viewer focuses on the persons depicted and, finally, the drama being played out. It is only after a few minutes of study that the viewer begins to marvel at the proliferation of detail captured in the painting and starts to realize that the canvas is the work of a great master, comparable to the work of the great masters from the Dutch Golden Age.

A Survivor From Brentwood

According to Randol Schoenberg, grandson of the composer, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has yet to perform the Schoenberg Violin Concerto.

In fact, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has not performed ANY Schoenberg composition on the orchestra’s subscription series for the past eleven seasons, a rather dumbfounding state of affairs.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Three Plays

While Joshua’s sister was visiting, we took her to three local theater productions.


Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Compleat Female Stage Beauty”, at Minneapolis Theatre Garage, was the first production we attended. “Compleat Female Stage Beauty” was a presentation of Walking Shadow Theatre Company.

Hatcher, who lives in Minneapolis, wrote his English Restoration comedy for a Pittsburgh theater troupe in 1999. The play remained little-known until it was adapted into a film in 2004. Since release of the film, “Compleat Female Stage Beauty” seems to have popped up all over the place. There are often two or three or even four productions playing concurrently at American repertory theater companies coast to coast. I have never seen the screen version, known simply as “Stage Beauty”.

The plotline is clever. In 1661, with Oliver Cromwell dead for three years, theater begins to make a comeback in London after a decade of Puritanism. However, the conventions of the time require that only male actors portray female characters in licensed theaters.

With “Merry Monarch” Charles II installed on the throne, a further loosening of public morals is encouraged—and the Sovereign becomes convinced to allow females to portray female characters onstage, a concept heretofore alien to British theatrical tradition.

This action drastically affects the career of London’s leading actor specializing in female roles, who finds it impossible to accept the new convention—and who finds it equally impossible to make the transition to male roles in convincing fashion.

The actor’s journey from actor playing women to actor playing men is the fulcrum of the tale. The actor’s romantic relationship with Lord Buckingham is explored, as is the actor’s growing relationship with the young actress that takes his place as London’s leading Desdemona. Several historical figures appear in the play, most prominently Charles II and Samuel Pepys.

This all sounds like a marvelous basis for a sophisticated comedy, but the play is better in theory than in practice. Low comedy is emphasized, and the speeches are nowhere near witty enough or stylish enough. The playwright must be applauded for his plot outline—but he should have turned over the actual writing to someone else.

I did not think that the Walking Shadow production, much-acclaimed in the local press, was strong. The cast was weak, and the director did nothing to shape the material.

Everyone onstage was working very, very hard—and it was obvious that everyone onstage was working very, very hard. There was plenty of effort to be seen, yet very little command.

What was most intriguing about the production was the music—there were three musicians playing period music on period instruments—and the physical production, very imaginative for such a small and uncomfortable performing space. (Minneapolis Theatre Garage is precisely what its name implies.)

For the local production of “Compleat Female Stage Beauty”, Hatcher had revised his original text. I have not read the published play, so I have no idea how the revision differs from the original.


The second production we attended was Beth Henley’s “Crimes Of The Heart” at Bloomington Civic Theatre.

Henley’s is a name that has disappeared from view. After a short burst of notoriety for “Crimes Of The Heart” and “The Miss Firecracker Contest” in the early 1980s, Henley fell from theatrical radar screens. None of her subsequent plays has attracted any notice, whether in New York or elsewhere.

“Crimes Of The Heart” is the story of three eccentric Southern sisters, all ding-a-lings, one of whom has shot her husband, one of whom is a failed singer who has suffered a mental breakdown, and one of whom is an unattractive wallflower with an unhealthy tendency to spend the day talking about reproductive organs.

The sisters are intended to be colorful, even endearing, and the audience is invited to enjoy the sisters’ efforts to accommodate themselves to their peculiar family history (their mother had hanged herself, along with the family cat) and to come to terms with their odd set of relatives.

In reality, the sisters are too strange, and too off-putting, to be taken seriously, and the drama rings no more true than a bad comedy skit that fails to hit its mark.

“Neil Simon Meets Eudora Welty” is how Josh characterized “Crimes Of The Heart”, and Josh was not far wrong: one-half Catskill comedy and one-half Southern Gothic tale, the play borrows—without success—from two hopelessly dated sources. That the play won 1981’s Pulitzer Prize For Drama is incomprehensible today.

The Bloomington Civic Theatre production was inept. No one associated with the production presented evidence that he or she had a clue how to put the play across. I suspect cast and director must have given up on the material early in the rehearsal process.


The third production we caught was Agatha Christie’s “The Hollow” at Theater In The Round. “The Hollow” is Christie’s own adaptation of her novel of the same name, although the 1951 play differs significantly from the 1946 book—among other things, Christie eliminated the character of Hercule Poirot from the stage version.

“The Hollow” has never enjoyed a Broadway production. The original London production was a great success, but New York producers took a pass on the material, finding it much inferior to “And Then There Were None”, which had enjoyed a long New York run the previous decade.

“The Hollow” is typical Christie: a murder occurs at a weekend house party outside London, and the audience is invited to try to solve the crime before the author reveals the perpetrator and the motive behind the murder.

The play is exceedingly formulaic. It includes every known device from the Christie canon, including the unexpected arrival of a major film star—one of those trying circumstances everyone must face at one time or another.

The play is also exceedingly slow-moving. It is so slow-moving, in fact, that the viewer’s mind wanders throughout the exposition and far into the resolution.

The Theater In The Round production was earnest and sincere, but the play resolutely failed to come to life.

I doubt that “The Hollow” can successfully inhabit the modern stage.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Minneapolis 1943

Here’s a new name to add to the hall of fame, violinists’ division, 1943 supplement. It is Isaac Stern, and its bearer, on the occasion of his debut with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra last night, produced what can modestly be termed a sensation.

Stocky and assured, a full blown personality despite his youth, Stern performed the Mendelssohn Concerto as if he made it, owned it and had lived with it comfortably for years. He played it straight and he played it clean. There were no soulful flourishes, no obnoxious efforts at “personalized” tone, no waste motion.

What he offered was an exceptionally firm and lucid line which kept its shape in the fast figures and the slow. His tone had both fibre and singing quality. His pitch was infallible. He meshed with the orchestra at every point in a performance unique for its drive, pithiness and fluency. He refused to “smear” the andante’s melody but just let it soar—a style as free as it was exact.

Well, you can’t ask for much more than that from any violinist. Stern’s artistry impressed you all the more when you sensed that behind it was no prima donna personality, but a serious, unpretentious musician. This was amply confirmed in his performance, as encore, of the fugue from the Bach G Minor Sonata.

Dimitri Mitropoulos handled the work like a juggler with six balls in the air, never dropping any. The first and last movements had a keyed-up tension which was wholly devoid of strain, and the lovely slow movement was allowed to breathe and sing in the most unfettered way. And the partnership he established between orchestra and soloist was as close as that of Damon and Pythias.

His buoyant control of the orchestra, a marvelous combination of firmness and flexibility, was evident all evening, first in the Mozart “Magic Flute” Overture, which was brought to a nice boil in fast, muscular phrasing and with a style that was both impetuous and light . . .

And then the Schumann Fourth Symphony—prime example of 19th-Century Romanticism which makes you wish that Germany, somehow, could have been “frozen” as it was when its great music masters were its great men, not its militarists.

Can you find anywhere a more poignant and compact summary of Romantic style, so dewy-fresh and spontaneous and heartfelt, than in the two central movements of this symphony? I doubt it. You can have the two other movements, where Schumann tried to summon, not quite successfully, the hammer-blows of Beethoven.

And if I were banished to a desert isle, and could have only one of these movements, I’d take the third, with the droll, brisk angularity of its leading theme and the down-leaps of the violins, and that tremulous and beautiful trio. The performance of the whole work was exemplary, virile in the masculine movements, sensitive in the feminine.

The Morton Gould “Spirituals” for a string choir and orchestra was a highly burnished exhibit of contemporary Americana, and a grand finale. Gould’s scoring is striking and persuasive, and he has caught the feeling not only of spirituals but of American tempo and American sound. Highlights were the sly and clandestine mood of “A Little Bit Of Sin,” the tenderness and hushed quality of the “Sermon,” and the engine of rhythm generated in the “Jubilee.” This calls for a repetition at a twilight concert.

John K. Sherman, writing in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on December 18, 1943.


The Star-Tribune review was accompanied by this photograph of the violinist, taken at his Minneapolis hotel in the days immediately preceding his Minneapolis Symphony debut.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Kempff And Furtwängler

Wilhelm Kempff and Wilhelm Furtwängler at the piano.

The two often played four-handed together. They especially loved to play four-handed Schubert.

From their visages, my guess is that the photograph was taken circa 1947-1949.