Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Vaslav Nijinsky, 1911

Vaslav Nijinsky, captured in Monte Carlo in 1911 by Igor Stravinsky.

Last night, we saw Joffrey Ballet’s reconstruction of the original version of the 1913 Stravinsky/Nijinsky ballet, “The Rite Of Spring”.

Monday, February 25, 2013

An Outtake From “Stroszek”

An outtake from Werner Herzog’s rather peculiar 1977 film, “Stroszek”.

Although “Stroszek” is a German-language film intended for the Central European market, much of “Stroszek” is set—and was actually filmed—in Wisconsin.

“Stroszek” was not a box-office success, as may be discerned merely by sitting through the thing. All through “Stroszek”, I asked myself, over and over, “How could a major artist have gone so wrong?”

Herzog’s portrait of late-1970s America is practically unrecognizable to Americans; the film has “Post-War Germany” written all over it.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Unlucky In Minneapolis

Last night, my parents, my sister-in-law, and Joshua and I went downtown to catch the Guthrie’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” in what was the final performance of the Guthrie run.

We had deliberately attended one of the final performances, and we had done so for two reasons.

First, the production had received mixed-to-negative notices—by Twin Cities standards—when it had opened, and we had wanted to give the production time to settle. (In Minnesota, the ironclad rule is that anything and everything is entitled to a good review; this regrettable practice forces readers to read between the lines in order to pick up any worthwhile information—the same situation Russians faced back in the days of Pravda.)

Second, the actor engaged to portray James Tyrone, Sr., had withdrawn from the production halfway through the run, and been replaced by another actor thrown into the production “cold”.

The production was not distinguished. The play calls for four great actors, and there was no great actor on the Guthrie stage last night. In fact, none of the actors was up to the demands of his or her role.

I thought the production was misdirected. Joe Dowling, Artistic Director of The Guthrie, had directed the production himself—and, in my estimation, Dowling made two critical errors.

First, Dowling trimmed the drama from four hours to three, a trimming achieved by cutting text and having characters speak in overlapping dialogue, much in the manner of a Howard Hawks screwball comedy. This trivialized much of O’Neill’s writing.

Second, Dowling failed to realize that all four members of the Tyrone family are highly sympathetic, which is what makes the play great, and not just another family drama. In the Guthrie production, the family members battled, overtly and psychologically, but they were never sympathetic. They were wounded, unpleasant and at times unnecessarily rancorous, but they were never allowed to reveal their admirable qualities—and this was the root cause of the production’s failure. “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is a deeply humane play that should make an audience weep, and not a story of gratuitous nastiness that leaves an audience unmoved. Simply put, Dowling did not understand the play, and directed it as contemporary Irish drama (which is Dowling’s métier).

The physical production was grossly overproduced, and not at all attractive. The entire Tyrone house was put onstage, and it proved intrusive to the drama. Once again, I accuse The Guthrie of a “show the money” policy—The Guthrie apparently believes that if productions look expensive (if not lavish), the public will be satisfied and the company’s work done.

The Guthrie had never before staged “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”, inexplicable given the play’s stature.

Five years ago, Josh and I had attended a production of the play at Theatre In The Round. That production, too, had been haunted with cast problems—the actor portraying James Tyrone, Sr., had become ill, and the production had been forced to shut down for a week—and Theatre In The Round’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” was never able to recover from the setback.

I suppose it would be fair to say that the play has been unlucky in Minneapolis.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Béla Bartók, 1940

Béla Bartók in October 1940, aboard the USS Excalibur, en route to America.

Bartok was to have exactly five years on free soil. In late September 1945, the composer succumbed to leukemia.

It is said that only ten persons attended Bartók’s funeral, a contention I find hard to accept, given how many notable musicians based in the U.S.—Lili Krauss, Serge Koussevitzky, Fritz Reiner, György Sándor and Joseph Szigeti, among countless others—had befriended Bartók.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Hans Pfitzner, 1910

Hans Pfitzner in 1910, six years before he completed “Palestrina”, one of the most beautiful and profound operas ever written.

Bruno Walter conducted the first performance of “Palestrina” in 1917. Forty-five years later, on the day before his death, Walter wrote a letter recalling the circumstances of that mid-war premiere (in Munich)—and predicting immortality for the work.

Despite its overwhelming beauties, “Palestrina” is not often performed, in large part because of its massive production requirements. A very large cast of major voices is called for, the orchestral writing is dense and complex, and the necessary choral preparation eats up weeks of rehearsal time.

For decades, music-lovers have been known to cross oceans in order to attend a performance of “Palestrina”.


A very odd man, Pfitzner taught many notable musicians, among them composers Ture Rangström (whose neglected symphonies I rather like) and Carl Orff and conductors Otto Klemperer and Charles Munch.


Pfitzner is too progressive—and not simply the way Korngold can be taken to be. He is also too conservative, if that means to be influenced by someone like Schoenberg. All this has audible consequences: we cannot find the brokenness of today in his work at first glance, any more than we can we find the unbroken of yesterday. We find both; that is, we find none. All attempts at classification fail.

Wolfgang Rihm


We have been listening to Pfitzner’s Violin Concerto and Rihm’s Time Chant (and Busoni’s Violin Concerto, too), all great concertante works for violin and orchestra.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Emil Gilels, 1940

Emil Gilels in his practice studio/library in 1940.

My father has always contended that the finest piano recital he ever heard was a Gilels recital in 1978, when the pianist was sixty-two years old (and looking far older; the pianist was to die seven years later). My father insists that the recital was magical from beginning to end.

My father says that Daniil Trifonov’s recital at the beginning of this month was at the same wondrous level as the 1978 Gilels recital.

According to my father, Gilels offered warmth and wisdom, while Trifonov offered freshness, spontaneity and the dashing brilliance of youth.

My father says both recitals are never to be forgotten.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Two Recitals

There occurred the weekend before last the concert of the year in the Twin Cities.

On Sunday afternoon, February 3, pianist Daniil Trifonov appeared in recital at the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center in Saint Paul, and my parents and Joshua and I attended the recital. Tickets were the most sought-after in years; the hall could have been sold to capacity several times over.

Trifonov, only twenty-one years old, is probably already the world’s finest pianist. He has a touch and technique superior to those even of Yevgeny Kissin and Maurizio Pollini—which says much about his brilliance. Trifonov is the first genuine successor to Vladimir Horowitz; in terms of technique and keyboard artistry, Trifonov more or less renders every other living pianist irrelevant. He is the Jascha Heifetz of his age.

Trifonov’s musicianship is that of a man in his thirties, and he appears to have faultless taste, very remarkable for one so young. If he continues to develop, he will take keyboard performance to places it has never been before, and become THE musician of his time, irrespective of category. He is a genius.

Trifonov’s program was centered on Liszt’s B Minor Sonata in the first half and Chopin’s Opus 28 Preludes in the second half. He blew the lid off the roof in both works.

Whether through instinct or learning, Trifonov knows how to realize a work’s “essential connective tissue”, to borrow the terminology of a famous piano pedagogue. Only a handful of living conductors, let alone instrumentalists, possesses this rare gift—and, until Trifonov, not a single living pianist enjoyed benefit of the gift. One must go back decades, to Emil Gilels, to identify a pianist who understood so deeply a composition’s materials and construction—and knew in performance how to realize such materials and construction in so fresh and spontaneous a manner.

Trifonov also has soul in his arsenal, as well as drama—and Trifonov’s sense of drama is not contrived. Not since Sviatoslav Richter has there been a pianist with such natural and convincing command of drama.

I was not the only one floored by Trifonov. My former piano teacher was floored (“the greatest pianist I’ve heard, the finest recital I’ve heard”) and my father was floored (“the most important concert in the Twin Cities since Tennstedt’s Bruckner Eighth in 1988”).

There were four encores—there would have been more if the audience had had its way—and the encores, too, were dazzling. Most jaw-dropping was a keyboard arrangement of the “Infernal Dance” from Stravinsky’s “Firebird”, dispatched with thrilling virtuosity—and dismaying ease.

The recital began with a performance of Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 2. The performance was at a level worthy of Horowitz (Horowitz’s mastery of Scriabin was, I believe, Horowitz’s finest achievement).

We probably shall never again hear Trifonov in the Twin Cities. Trifonov’s Twin Cities appearance was booked well over a year ago; since that time, Trifonov’s fees have mounted to astronomical levels, and his fees are now beyond what Twin Cities presenters can meet.

I hope to be able to hear him in future—many times.


One week ago tonight, tenor James Valenti appeared in recital at the Ordway Center in Saint Paul, and my parents and Josh and I attended the recital.

Valenti is an opera singer, not a recitalist, and he did not attempt Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, which I thought very wise. Instead, Valenti had enough sense to stick with what he knows, and provided a program mixing arias with lightweight songs by composers well-versed in stage music.

Valenti has a major instrument, but he is not yet a finished artist. He was a fine Werther last season in Minnesota Opera’s presentation of the Massenet masterwork, but he was nonetheless a touch awkward onstage and made little of the “Werther” text.

The singer was not in good voice last week. It was one of those nights in which it took the singer’s voice a very long time to warm up—and such things happen, and listeners are generally understanding.

The first half of the program consisted of three arias from French repertory—the principal tenor arias from “Manon”, “Carmen” and “Werther” (the last a substitute for the announced “L’Africaine”)—mixed with songs by Hahn, Duparc and Tosti. The second half of the program was devoted to two arias from Italian repertory—the principal tenor arias from “Luisa Miller” and “L’Arlesiana”—mixed with songs by Bellini, Verdi, Puccini and Tosti.

As a general rule, the arias fared better than the songs. The singer’s voice opened up in the second half of the recital and, for the first time all night, he began to enjoy himself—which, in turn, allowed listeners to relax and to enjoy the singer.

It was not a night to be recorded in concert-hall annals, but I have heard worse—and much of the audience appeared to appreciate the performance more than I, to judge from the enthusiastic applause and standing ovations.

The pianist was Danielle Orlando, Principal Opera Coach at The Curtis Institute Of Music.

Paris: 26 August 1944

Paris was liberated on August 26, 1944, one day after German occupiers, by agreement, withdrew from the city.

Nonetheless, small bands of French collaborators and German soldiers remained behind—and caused more than a little havoc on the day the Allies entered the city.

This photograph, taken at Place de la Concorde, depicts Parisians running for cover as a sniper opens fire during one of many celebrations throughout the city.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Quiz Time

The first person correctly to identify the Paris building in the above photograph will win his or her choice of free concert tickets for tomorrow night.

Option Number One: The Minnesota Orchestra, Hannu Lintu, conductor, Alban Gerhardt, cello. Program: Dvorak Carnival Overture, Elgar Cello Concerto, Prokofiev Symphony No. 5.

Option Number Two: The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, John Storgårds, conductor, Christian Tetzlaff, violin. Program: Sibelius Valse Triste, Schumann Violin Concerto, Corigliano Symphony No. 2.

The winner, in making his or her selection, might wish to note that Tetzlaff is one of the three of four finest violinists in the world today, while Gerhardt would not even have a career were Heinrich Schiff still in his prime.

The winner might also wish to note that most observers, comparing the two Finnish conductors, would rate Storgårds above Lintu, although such comparison is of piffling consequence, much like arguing whether Kansas or Nebraska has the higher mountain range.

Each program, in its way, is attractive. Joshua and I had penciled both concerts into our calendars—this was to be the weekend of The Battle Of The Finns—but we have decided not to attend either concert owing to our outrage over Monaco’s new policy on Guillemets.

Instead, we shall devote our weekend to teaching something useful, such as algebra, to my parents’ dog.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Paris: 1942

A snowstorm in Paris in 1942, two years into the German Occupation.

Palais Garnier, serene and immutable, remains stunning in the winter snow.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Bloomington Civic Theatre’s “Cabaret”

Bloomington Civic Theatre’s “Cabaret” featured an elaborate physical production that more than did justice to the material. We were near-startled by the resources that had been lavished upon the production.

Had an identical physical production been mounted in a commercial theater subject to union rules, the physical production would have eaten up about 1.5 to 2.0 million dollars—and, therefore, been economically unviable.

Monday, February 11, 2013

“If In Your Emotion You Begin To Sway . . .”

On Friday evening, my parents, my middle brother, and Joshua and I went to Bloomington to see Bloomington Civic Theatre’s production of the Kander and Ebb musical, “Cabaret”.

A production of “Cabaret” will almost always get me in the door of a theater; “Cabaret” is one of the most durable and most pleasurable of musicals.

My middle brother and Josh and I last saw a production of “Cabaret” exactly four years ago, when we caught a production by New Repertory Theater Company of Watertown, Massachusetts, during one of my brother’s visits to Boston.

That Watertown production had been an acceptable one, but the Bloomington Civic Theatre production was finer. Bloomington Civic Theatre produces musicals to a very high standard—the company’s presentations of musicals are of professional quality—and the Bloomington “Cabaret” was fully in keeping with that standard. Great care—and money—had been lavished on the stage design, costume design and lighting design, all of which were admirable. A full orchestra was in use; the large cast was a good one.

Bloomington used the original 1966 version of the musical, less acidic and less abrasive and less cynical than the revised versions that have come about since the 1972 Bob Fosse film. The original “Cabaret” is seldom produced now, having been overtaken by the revised versions, and we were pleased to have a chance to see the 1966 original (and at last to see the now-generally-omitted “Telephone Song”).

Lehman Engel, one of the great authorities on The American Musical, categorized “Cabaret” as a “near-great” musical in his seminal book on the art form. Engel believed that 1943’s “Oklahoma” initiated the age of great musicals and that 1964’s “Fiddler On The Roof” concluded the age. That remarkable era, according to Engel, lasted only twenty-one years, and produced only fifteen or so “great” musicals. (Engel, now deceased, clearly had not been a Sondheim fan.)

In his book, Engel devoted special attention to “Cabaret”. “Cabaret” was the only musical that Engel placed in a special “near-great” category—Engel admired “Cabaret” enormously, and believed it was the one show for which he had to explain why it had been omitted from his list of “great” musicals—but, not having Engel’s book at hand to refresh my memory, I do not recall Engel’s specific (and quite reasonable) arguments for denying “greatness” to “Cabaret”.

“Cabaret”, in my view, is a faultless show. Each musical number is superb, the book has held up beautifully, and the show “plays” at a perfect pace. There are very few musicals of which such may be said.

Further, “Cabaret” has a timeless quality that assures its longevity. There is nothing that reeks of 1966 in the “Cabaret” score, lyrics or book, nothing that ties the work to the period of its creation. In that regard, “Cabaret” is a very rare work, atypical of musicals from the late 1960s.

Before the performance, we ate dinner at the restaurant of Sofitel, which we very much appreciated for its elegance and atmosphere. We ordered Provencale fish soup and Chilean sea bass, both recommended to us, and a dessert that was part apple gelée and part apple crisp. The food was excellent—better than anything we had in Paris.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Salle Pleyel

Salle Pleyel, the primary concert hall in central Paris, named after the piano manufacturer.

During my previous visits to Paris, Salle Pleyel had been closed for extensive renovation. It was only last month that I was able to see anything other than the exterior of Salle Pleyel.

A splendid example of Art Deco architecture and design, Salle Pleyel opened in 1927. A 1928 fire required the auditorium to be reconstructed. The reconstruction was done on the cheap, with the result that the auditorium lost not only its beauty but also its acoustics.

The auditorium was to remain notorious for the next 74 years, known worldwide for its disadvantageous seating layout and atrocious acoustical properties. It was only in 2002 that Salle Pleyel was closed for wholesale renovation, one purpose of which was to create at long last a concert hall worthy of Paris.

The current auditorium, completed in 2006, is entirely new and entirely modern, and bears no resemblance to the original auditorium or its 1928 replacement. The rest of the building has been restored to its original Art Deco elegance.

After only two visits, Salle Pleyel has become one of my favorite concert halls.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Intimacy And Exquisiteness, Atmosphere And Presentation

Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704-1788)
Portrait Of The President Of Rieux
Musée Cognacq-Jay, Paris

Pastel On Paper Mounted On Canvas
46 3/8 Inches By 36 Inches


Maurice Quentin de La Tour carried the difficult and capricious pastel medium to a point of sheer technical brilliance not reached before or since. His mastery of pastels led not only to imitation but to fears that he would provoke a distaste for oil paint.

Masterpieces From The Norton Simon Museum, a publication of the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena


In this magnificent portrait, first shown at the Salon of 1742, the artist presented Suzanne-Marie-Henriette de Boulainvilliers (1696-1776) dressed for a ball. The subject was forty-five years of age at the time of the portrait.

“Portrait Of The President Of Rieux” is one of the most significant pastel portraits created by the greatest of all pastellist artists—and among the largest in size. It is among the half-dozen largest portraits by the artist, and among the half-dozen finest portraits by the artist.

Because the portrait was owned by the subject and her descendants from 1741 until 1920, when it was sold to the founders of Musée Cognacq-Jay in the portrait’s one-and-only sale transaction, the portrait remains in its original wood frame, very rare for an artwork almost 300 years old.


Hundreds of art websites on the worldwide web—including Bridgeman!—attribute “Portrait Of The President Of Rieux” to Georges de La Tour instead of Maurice Quentin de La Tour. Such misattribution is as unfathomable as an inability to distinguish Gustave Charpentier from Marc-Antoine Charpentier.


“Portrait Of The President Of Rieux” is one of the key masterworks on display at Musée Cognacq-Jay, a museum devoted primarily to 18th-Century French art and housed in an 18th-Century hôtel particulier. At the museum, “Portrait Of The President Of Rieux” hangs in a third-floor salon directly opposite another portrait by the same artist.

I love Musée Cognacq-Jay for its intimacy and its exquisiteness. The museum owns twenty or thirty artworks worth seeing over and over and over, supplemented by another 200 or so artworks not of great importance. One visits Musée Cognacq-Jay for atmosphere and “presentation” as much as for art.

Musée Cognacq-Jay owns Rembrandt’s earliest top-tier masterpiece, “Balaam’s Ass”, painted in 1626.

The Rembrandt was not on display last month. It was off-view for cleaning and restoration.

55 Years Ago

Paris, 30 July 1958: Greta Garbo, in a very rare color photograph from the period, caught by an unknown photographer during one of the reclusive actress’s famous strolls.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Seventy Years Ago

A Metro station on Avenue des Champs-Élysées, 1943.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Père et Fils

A gathering of a family crime syndicate?

No. Neeme and Paavo, Järvi père and Järvi fils.

A second son, Kristjan, has also joined the family business.

All the Järvi conductors are highly controversial. None has been able to attain a top-tier career, with top-tier appointments and top-tier guest appearances and top-tier fees—although Paavo very definitely competes in the second tier, and about ten years ago was on the verge of moving into the first tier, an advancement that was not to occur.

Neeme’s most significant position was with the Detroit Symphony, where he was what may be described as “a local success”. Otherwise, Neeme toiled away for decades in Gothenburg, Glasgow and Newark, waiting for the phone to ring.

Paavo has held two significant positions, first with the Cincinnati Symphony and now with Orchestre de Paris. When he assumed the Cincinnati post, Paavo was the man many believed would take the orchestra to a new level. Such was not to happen. Cincinnati remained mired in the middle rung of major American orchestras, and Paavo left sooner than expected.

I doubt that Paavo’s Paris tenure will be a long one. I cannot foresee Paavo finding happiness or success in Paris, working with an orchestra notorious for its prickliness. No conductor since Daniel Barenboim has hung around Orchestre de Paris for long.

In any case, musicians from major orchestras, as a general rule, have given Paavo negative assessments in internal surveys. One outcome of those surveys is that Paavo no longer is in demand by the world’s top ensembles, and has to work mainly with less prestigious orchestras.

The results of such internal surveys get around, as Antonio Pappano was quick to learn ten years ago. Pappano, trying to develop an American career, was uniformly panned by American orchestra musicians after a round of appearances in Cleveland, Boston and elsewhere. The result: Pappano’s American career died in one season, probably a record of some sort.

Three Paris Concerts

We heard three orchestra concerts on three successive evenings in Paris.

The first concert was by Orchestre National d'Île de France, playing under its Music Director, Enrique Mazzola, at Salle Pleyel.

Orchestre National d'Île de France is a full-time orchestra that serves not only Paris but the entire Île de France, frequently playing in suburban and exurban locales. The orchestra is of fairly recent provenance, founded in 1974, and has had one Music Director of note, Yoel Levi, who surely found the job a challenge.

Orchestre National d'Île de France is not a good orchestra. It is by far the least of Paris’s four full-time concert orchestras. Ensemble is not tight, the orchestra’s sound quality is thin and wispy, and the orchestra lacks deep musical instincts. From the appearances of the musicians onstage, three-quarters of the orchestra’s membership is comprised of musicians at the very ends of their professional careers while one-quarter is comprised of musicians at the very beginnings of theirs.

The primary work on the first half of the program was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1; the sole work on the second half of the program was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3 (“Polish”).

The Beethoven sounded as if it had not been rehearsed; the Tchaikovsky was a sloppy, loud, vulgar performance, the kind of thing one seldom hears in the U.S., even from provincial ensembles. I found Mazzola, a Spaniard who studied in Italy, laughable in the Tchaikovsky, so over-the-top was his interpretation.

The pianist in the Beethoven was Cédric Tiberghien, a French pianist highly regarded in France, but never able to establish a U.S. career.

Tiberghien was, I believe, having an off night. There were lots of slipped notes, and Tiberghien appeared unable to relax, most likely because he was working with a poor conductor. Mazzola did what he wanted in the Allegro, changing tempi constantly, which threw Tiberghien off. Mazzola conducted the Largo like a dirge, which made the lengthiest middle movement among all Beethoven concertos go on forever and ever. Even the jaunty Rondo was a mess—the conductor displayed a tendency to speed up at the ends of phrases, with the result that the players became in sync neither with themselves nor the soloist. (Mazzola’s Tchaikovsky also displayed the same tendency to speed up at the ends of phrases, a practice that single-handedly destroyed the Alla tedesca as well as the Scherzo and Finale.)

Two short works were placed at the beginning of the concert.

Panufnik’s “Katyn Epitaph”, from 1967, was first. Little more than an eight-minute crescendo, “Katyn Epitaph” received the one convincing performance of the night—and I suspect “Katyn Epitaph” ate up a significant portion of the available rehearsal time.

A world premiere was next: Svitlana Azarova’s “Mover Of The Earth, Stopper Of The Sun”, billed as an overture. I had never previously heard a note of Azarova’s music—in fact, I had never even heard of Azarova until we had booked our tickets for the concert.

“Mover Of The Earth, Stopper Of The Sun” was written in a very conservative idiom; it was the musical equivalent of an Alex Katz painting. The composition demonstrated a genuine mastery of orchestration—there was some real color to be heard—but the musical materials and the composer’s manipulation of those musical materials, on one hearing, did not strike me as fundamentally imaginative.

I have no idea whether the composition was a representative work of the composer.


The following evening we heard Orchestre National de France at Le Théâtre du Châtelet.

Le Théâtre du Châtelet is not the normal venue for Orchestre National de France concerts—Théâtre des Champs-Élysées is the orchestra’s permanent home—but Théâtre des Champs-Élysées had been booked for the evening, forcing Orchestre National de France to play elsewhere.

Despite its poor acoustics, Le Théâtre du Châtelet is much-used for orchestra concerts—for Paris orchestras as well as visiting orchestras. (In 2003, I had heard Riccardo Muti lead the orchestra of La Scala at Le Théâtre du Châtelet.)

At the time we booked our tickets, Colin Davis had been announced as conductor for the January 24 Orchestre National de France concert. Nonetheless, we had not expected Davis to appear, knowing that Davis has been canceling most of his scheduled concerts for the last year, often at short notice.

As we had anticipated, a few days prior to the concert, it was announced that Davis would not be appearing, and that Neeme Järvi would be on the podium instead. The scheduled program—Mozart and Sibelius—was unchanged.

I have never been a Järvi admirer. Järvi is famed for his glibness, skating over the surface of an enormous repertory. Järvi’s secret, I believe, is that he chooses faster-than-necessary tempi in order to keep things moving at all costs—a practice that, for him, has proven successful (within obvious limits).

The concert began with a performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 (“Haffner”). Järvi is not a Mozart conductor, and I had expected nothing from him in the “Haffner”.

Järvi surprised me greatly, offering the finest performance of the evening. Järvi’s Mozart was abstract Mozart, like Beecham’s—and, in the right hands, abstract Mozart can work beautifully. I was in rapture the entire performance, marveling at its freshness and ebullience of spirit, the most distinguishing characteristics of this “Haffner” interpretation. Järvi’s may have been the finest “Haffner” I have ever heard.

Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 followed, with Arabella Steinbacher—wearing a ridiculous dress in a shade of purple I hope never again to encounter—as soloist.

I had heard Steinbacher once before, exactly two years ago, playing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 with the Boston Symphony (under Dohnanyi).

Steinbacher had been unimpressive in Mozart in 2011, and Steinbacher remained unimpressive in Mozart in 2013. I do not know where Steinbacher’s strengths lie—but they clearly do not lie in the music of Mozart. Steinbacher comes across as bland and uninteresting in the music of Mozart, aimlessly pecking away at the notes.

Steinbacher produces a beautiful but unvarying sound; her music-making lacks tension and personality and rhythmic life. Like Julia Fisher, with whom she shares a teacher, Steinbacher seems to be going for an all-purpose “radiance” in her performances. Radiance is a one-note device (and a device unable to sustain any performance for long), and I believe Steinbacher needs to add a touch of Anne-Sophie Mutter-like steel to her arsenal.

In the Mozart concerto, Järvi tried to stay out of the way—when he probably should have inserted himself into the proceedings and seized control. It appeared to me that Järvi deliberately tried to keep the orchestral contribution low-key in order not to upstage Steinbacher. Giving the spotlight to the soloist is not always the best course of action for a conductor—and, at this point in his career, Järvi no longer need worry that a soloist might attempt to undercut him behind the scenes, and cause him loss of engagements, if he took command of a performance.

The second half of the program was devoted to Sibelius’s Symphony No. 3.

Davis does a masterful Sibelius Third—Davis is far and away the best living exponent of this symphony—and it would have been a rare privilege to hear Davis lead a work he conquered more than forty years ago.

Järvi is not a Sibelius conductor at Davis’s level. Järvi’s propensity to skate over the surface comes to the fore in music of Sibelius—Järvi’s Sibelius, above all, sounds “colorful”—and the Paris performance of the Sibelius Third was lightweight, without mystery or soul or grandeur. It did not cohere as a complex, fascinating and profound work, which the Sibelius Third very definitely proves to be under Davis’s guidance.

What we heard from Järvi was conducting more appropriate for Sibelius’s incidental music from the 1890s (music light and pleasant, but nothing much beyond that): tunes were brought to the fore, beauties of orchestration were highlighted, the music was paced so as to bounce along agreeably. Amid this outpouring of bucolic delights, symphonic argument became lost; the music was drained of content and drama. Järvi’s performance was, in essence, facile—always the standard knock against Järvi.

At the conclusion of the performance, I observed widespread smiles among members of the audience. The Sibelius Third is not supposed to cause an outbreak of smiles.

I last heard Orchestre National de France in 2004 (under Daniel Harding, in music of Berg and Mahler). That long-ago night had not been a happy one. The orchestra’s basic intonation had been shockingly poor, the level of ensemble dismaying. I honestly wondered, throughout the performance, whether the musicians were deliberately insulting Harding, a conductor widely disliked (the musicians studiously avoided looking at Harding all night, and Harding appeared to grow more despondent by the minute).

The orchestra clearly has improved since that unfortunate concert nine years ago. Parisians like to claim that Daniele Gatti, Music Director since 2008, has performed miracles with the orchestra—but I believe such assertions may be carrying things too far. Orchestre National de France in its current state remains nothing more than a typical French ensemble.

The French idea of an orchestra remains different from—and alien to—the Central European or American idea of an orchestra: a body of musicians that plays as one. French orchestras, for better or worse, have always been 100 musicians, playing as 100 musicians. The result: French orchestras are of comparable quality to French armies; both institutions are preternaturally incapable of performing their functions at a high level.

At the conclusion of the scheduled program, the orchestra and Järvi performed an encore: Sibelius’s “Andante Festivo”.

That there was an encore at a standard subscription concert surprised us. After the concert, I asked an elderly man sitting near us whether the orchestra typically played encores.

His answer: “Never”.


The following evening, we were back at Salle Pleyel, hearing the Orchestre de Paris under Paavo Järvi, the orchestra’s current Music Director.

The Orchestre de Paris is once again Paris’s finest orchestra, the traditional place it has occupied in the pecking order.

In 2003 and 2004, that honor had gone to the orchestra of the Paris Opera, a tribute to the work of James Conlon, Principal Conductor of the Paris Opera from 1995 to 2004. In 2003, I heard the finest Strauss “Salome” I ever expect to hear from Conlon and the orchestra of the Paris Opera—the orchestra had been magnificent—and I had experienced that “Salome” only one night after hearing an unimpressive and nondescript Orchestre de Paris in a subscription concert at Théâtre Mogador, at the time the orchestra’s temporary home while Salle Pleyel underwent renovation.

The Orchestre de Paris has an excellent array of winds. The wind playing is the shining glory of the orchestra, and is much finer than anything we are accustomed to hear in the Twin Cities, where the winds of the Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra are not top-of-the-line.

The brass section of the Orchestre de Paris is competent—the Orchestre de Paris is probably the only Paris orchestra of which such may be said at present—but the level of sheer virtuosity does not approach that of brass sections of American orchestras.

The orchestra’s strings are the weak link. The strings of the Orchestre de Paris produce a featureless, un-beautiful sound. If a listener seeks richness, depth and coloration from a string section, the listener will find the Orchestre de Paris strings disappointing. If a listener seeks transparency, translucency and delicacy from a string section, the listener will find the Orchestre de Paris strings disappointing.

Music of Schumann, Lutoslawski and Beethoven was on the program. (When I had heard the Orchestre de Paris in 2003, music of Lutoslawski—the Concerto For Orchestra—had been on the program that night, too.)

Schumann’s “Genoveva” Overture started things off. Järvi gave a “by-the-notes” reading—Schumann is definitely not a Järvi strength—and the performance failed to ignite, lacking emotional weight and cumulative power.

Lutoslawski’s Piano Concerto followed the Schumann. Krystian Zimerman, who premiered the Lutoslawski in 1988 and for whom the work was written, was soloist.

Until we arrived in the concert hall, we had been unaware that the Lutoslawski was being performed in order to mark the 100th anniversary, to the day, of Lutoslawski’s birth: January 25, 1913.

The performance—from pianist, conductor, musicians—was excellent. It was the best thing we heard in Paris.

I have come to the conclusion that the Lutoslawski Piano Concerto must be the finest post-war piano concerto. No matter how many times one hears the work, one always hears countless new and fascinating things. In less than a quarter-century of existence, the Lutoslawski Piano Concerto has already been recorded at least six times, four times to stunning effect. Of modern works for orchestra, only Lutoslawski’s Symphony No. 3 can claim a comparable number of commercial recordings.

I agree with the prediction Shostakovich made near the end of his life: Shostakovich’s own music would not survive the test of time, but Lutoslawski’s music would. (In making his pronouncement, Shostakovich did not have the benefit of knowing the late flow of masterpieces yet to come from Lutoslawski’s pen.) Lutoslawski surely is the great post-Stravinsky composer, with the necessary nod to Carter and Dutilleux.

Zimerman, who no longer appears in the U.S., now looks old, even shopworn. His virtuosity was undiminished, although his countenance grows more dour each time I see him.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”) concluded the program.

The storm music was lively—in what otherwise was an abysmally tedious performance. The first, second and fifth movements were deadening beyond belief.

Järvi can be a profoundly boring conductor . . . and I was bored out of my mind by Järvi’s Beethoven.

The audience appeared to be bored, too. The applause after the Beethoven was less than half the applause at the conclusion of the Lutoslawski—and the audience present was a regular subscription audience, and not a specialist modern-music audience.

Järvi achieved something I did not think possible: he made me appreciate Osmo Vanska’s Beethoven.

Vanska’s Beethoven may be criticized relentlessly. Little more than an accumulation of details, Vanska’s Beethoven is fierce if not brutal, unsophisticated and one-dimensional, exaggerated and anti-intellectual, un-German and un-Classical, totally lacking in spirituality and heart—and wholly empty.

Yet, as a general rule, Vanska’s Beethoven is not boring.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Panufnik And Lutoslawski

Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991) and Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) in Warsaw in 1990. The occasion was Panufnik’s first visit to Poland since his 1954 defection to the West.

Panufnik and Lutoslawski had performed in Warsaw as a popular piano duo during the German Occupation; they had been restricted to working in cafes, since concert halls were closed for the duration of the German Occupation.

We heard compositions by both composers while we were in Paris.

I have always admired the Polish Modernists.

Monday, February 04, 2013


Noah, a French classmate and friend from my Vienna academic year.

I caught up with Noah, whom I had not seen in almost nine years, in Paris.

Noah is my age—he was born exactly 28 days before me—but he has never been able to find employment in his chosen field (Noah is a trained economist). Jobs have been hard to come by in France for years.

At one point, Noah thought he had lined up a job with an arm of the European Union, but the job never came through. At a later point, Noah received an employment offer from Crédit Agricole, only to have it formally withdrawn prior to his start date owing to the banking crisis in France.

At present, Noah works as a DJ—not exactly what he wants to do with his life.

Noah may come stay with us this summer, just to get out of Paris for a few weeks.

We have warned him that there is not much to do in Minneapolis.

However, Noah likes the idea of coming here, and seeing and experiencing the “real” America (by which Noah means something other than New York City).

I reminded Noah that I am extremely boring. His response was, “Yes. I already know that.”

Saturday, February 02, 2013


1943: Germans unearth one of the mass graves at Katyn.

The best current estimate is that 22,000 Polish soldiers in captivity were executed in Katyn Forest in 1940 by Russian forces.

Since the Poles were executed one by one, all with a bullet to the back of the head, it took weeks for the Russian occupiers to complete the killings. Prior to the executions, the Poles had been required to dig their own mass graves.

Stalin had never expected the graves to be discovered. The massacre had occurred only twelve miles from the Russian border, and Stalin had anticipated that Russia would be able permanently to control the territory in question—and thus be in position forever to conceal the horrific events of Katyn. The Soviet government was shocked when, in 1943, evidence of the massacre was released to the world—and began a long-term policy of issuing sharp denials.

For the next 47 years, Russia publicly contended that it had not been the perpetrator of The Katyn Massacre. It was only in 1990 that Russia at long last admitted its culpability.

British and American wartime documents released within the last two years establish that neither Churchill nor Roosevelt believed Stalin’s vehement denials that Russia had had any involvement in the slaughter.

Friday, February 01, 2013

L'Opéra Bastille

It is hard to believe that this eyesore, which opened only in 1989 and already is falling apart—literally—inside and out, was chosen over more than 700 other entrants in an open architectural contest.

Francois Mitterand chose the winning entry himself—proof positive that politicians never should be allowed near such matters.

In another twenty or thirty years, the building will have to be demolished and replaced with something else.

I doubt anyone will miss it.

Sweeping, Grand, Somber, Majestic, Brutal

Until last week, I had never attended a performance of Mussorgsky’s “Khovanshchina”.

I have never seen the Metropolitan Opera production, first presented in 1985 and revived last season after a long absence, and I have never seen the Wiener Staatsoper production, mounted for Claudio Abbado in 1989 but no longer in the Staatsoper repertory.

The New York production is generally considered to be quite good, yet the retired Vienna production enjoyed an even higher reputation, and was thought by many to be one of the most significant Staatsoper productions of the post-war period. Vienna’s “Khovanshchina” was not part of the Staatsoper’s 2001-2002 season; if it had been, I would have attended one or more of the “Khovanshchina” performances while studying in Vienna that academic year.

Last Tuesday, at the Paris Opera (at L'Opéra Bastille), we caught the first of seven scheduled performances of “Khovanshchina”—all but one of which had sold out not long after the booking period opened. The Paris “Khovanshchina” was the first revival of an acclaimed Andrei Serban production that had premiered in 2001 when James Conlon was Music Director at the house (and was not a new production, contrary to what we had believed back in the second week of December, when we had booked our trip).

“Khovanshchina” is a history opera—and a remarkably accurate one. It tells the story of the 1682 Moscow Uprising, a civil war in all but name, the outcome of which allowed Russia to begin its long period of Westernization (a process still incomplete).

“Khovanshchina” is sweeping, and grand, and somber, and majestic, and brutal. It is, I believe, a great opera, greater even than “Boris Godunov”.

The opera is not structured like Western drama; there is no conventional plot, there are no primary characters that dominate the action, there is no linearity to the proceedings. “Khovanshchina” is a series of near-random, pageant-like formal tableaux, most involving large crowds, that depict the various forces tearing the Russian nation and Russian people apart in the late 17th Century. One need not grasp all the particulars of each scene in order to appreciate the swelling power—and ultimate tragedy—of the work.

I find “Khovanshchina” gripping from beginning to end—for me, the four-hour performance passed in a flash—and others must cherish the opera, too, because “Khovanshchina” has become a major box-office draw in the West in the last thirty years.

Paris used Shostakovich’s 1959 arrangement and instrumentation of the score, which has now completely supplanted the earlier Rimsky-Korsakov version. In recent years, many companies using the Shostakovich have substituted Stravinsky’s 1913 arrangement and instrumentation of the final scene—Vienna always used the Stravinsky finale, and the Met used the Stravinsky finale for the first time last season—but Paris continues to use the “pure” Shostakovich edition.

Aside from one small role, the Paris Opera had engaged an all-Russian cast for this revival. I found every singer convincing if not exceptional; two, in particular, stood out: Larissa Diadkova as Marfa and Vladimir Galouzine as Prince Andrei, both of whom offered searing physical and vocal portrayals. I cannot recall the last time I saw performances so fine and so praiseworthy.

The conductor was Michail Jurowski, once a major name in Russia but now less well-known than his son, Vladimir, also a conductor.

I had never previously heard Jurowski. Jurowski’s career has not gained much traction in the West. He has held nothing but minor posts since leaving Russia; he seldom obtains prestige engagements (“Khovanshchina” was Jurowski’s Paris Opera debut).

I was diffident about Jurowski’s work in “Khovanshchina”. His tempi were much slower than Abbado’s in the live Abbado recording, and musical tension often dissipated—and there was no compensating increase in elemental power (which I believe is what Jurowski was going for). Jurowski was unable to provide the high orchestral finish, including the miraculous exploration of timbre and texture, that Abbado had brought to “Khovanshchina”—but Jurowski was contending with the players of the Paris Opera orchestra, whereas Abbado had had the musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic at his disposal.

I was impressed with the chorus of the Paris Opera—and “Khovanshchina” provides a genuine workout for chorus. According to the Paris Opera program booklet, there were 120 singers in the “Khovanshchina” chorus, all full-time choristers at the Paris Opera.

The physical production was a satisfactory one. The costuming was especially good: colorful, rich-looking—and easily differentiating for the viewer the various social milieus of the players in each scene. The stage design was moderately attractive, and provided large playing spaces—but it was all too obvious that the company had been unable or unwilling to devote to “Khovanshchina” the full resources the work deserves. The stage settings had clearly been devised and constructed with cost-control as the overriding principle.

I learned an interesting fact from the program booklet: the Paris Opera had first staged “Khovanshchina”—in the Rimsky-Korsakov version—in 1923 (the performances were sung in French), decades before any other company in the West took up the work. The conductor for that 1923 Paris Opera production: Serge Koussevitzky.

“Khovanshchina” At The Paris Opera

Stage direction: Andrei Serban (former head of The Guthrie). Stage design and costume design: Richard Hudson (best known for his work on the stage version of “The Lion King”).