Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

If the only prayer you said in your whole life was “thank you”, that would suffice.

Meister Eckhart

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Quiz Time

Two season passes to the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2013-2014 subscription season will be awarded to the first person correctly to identify the American cellist in the above photograph, shown guzzling booze in public.

I have never encountered a more flattering photograph of this particular artiste, what with her hair concealing her face, abetted by the indoor use of sunglasses. Never before has she looked even one-half as presentable.

Might I suggest, as a courtesy to audiences, that she adopt similar blandishments for all future concert and recital appearances?


On Friday evening, my parents and Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear a Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concert at the Ordway.

The guest soloist/guest conductor was Håkan Hardenberger, who was the attraction for us. Josh had played trumpet in grade school, junior high and high school, and he had wanted to hear Hardenberger.

Hardenberger played the Haydn Trumpet Concerto in the first half of the program. Hardenberger played to a reasonably high standard, but he is no longer in his prime—and Hardenberger has never been an interesting musician. It was a capable performance we heard, not a brilliant one.

In the second half of the program, Hardenberger played Heinz Karl Gruber’s 3 MOB Stücke, a “fusion” piece borrowing ideas from jazz and popular music. The work was composed in 1968 for seven interchangeable instruments and percussion, and revised in 1977. In 1999, at Hardenberger’s request, the composer created a version for trumpet and chamber orchestra. It was the 1999 version we heard.

I am not a Gruber admirer, and 3 MOB Stücke strikes me as a very weak piece, a European’s idea of “hot” music. I cannot understand what appeal Hardenberger finds in the score.

The concert began with Bach’s Orchestral Suite No 3 and ended with Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 (“Drumroll”). Hardenberger is not much of a conductor, and the performances were little more than run-throughs. The concert was, more or less, a waste of our time.

For us, it was the first SPCO concert of the season. We had contemplated an earlier SPCO concert in October—Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, Ives’s Three Places In New England and Schubert’s Symphony No. 5—but we had decided to take a pass, largely because we had heard that week’s guest soloist/guest conductor, Christian Zacharias, a few times too many the last few seasons.

There are only three SPCO concerts of interest to us the rest of the season.

The first, in January, will feature Hans Graf leading the orchestra in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14. If that week’s concerts were to be held at the Ordway, we most definitely would go—but that week’s concerts will be held in area churches, with their poor acoustics.

The second, in May, will feature Thomas Zehetmair leading a performance of Britten’s opera, “The Turn Of The Screw”.

The third, in June, will feature Roberto Abbado, the finest of the SPCO’s regular guest conductors, leading the orchestra in a program of Haydn, Barber and Schubert.

If Milwaukee were within reasonable driving distance of the Twin Cities, we would have skipped last weekend’s SPCO concerts and instead attended one of last weekend’s Milwaukee Symphony concerts, with Graf leading the Milwaukee orchestra in Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 and Schubert’s Mass No. 6. Graf is a splendid conductor of Mozart and Schubert, and I suspect that last weekend’s Milwaukee concerts, with the rarely-performed Schubert mass, were worth going out of one’s way to hear.

The SPCO needs to engage a Music Director. If an elder statesman is the objective, the SPCO could do worse than Graf, whose tenure in Houston concluded at the end of last season.


The tenor on the boat that we chartered,
Belching “The Bartered Bride”.
Ah, how we laughed!
Ah, how we cried!

On Sunday afternoon, my parents and Josh and I went to Ted Mann Concert Hall to attend the final performance of the University Of Minnesota Opera Theatre’s production of Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride”.

Even for a student performance, the presentation was not at a high level. The production was rudimentary, the musical performance disappointing.

The opera was heavily cut, which turned out to be a blessing.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Anti-Mutter

While anyone might be forgiven for thinking this photograph depicts Shirley Stoler, in fact it is a photograph of American cellist Alisa Weilerstein.

Weilerstein is twenty years younger than Anne-Sophie Mutter—yet Weilerstein looks old enough to be Mutter’s mother.

A friend of mine from Vienna was in Oslo on business this past week, and he happened to attend a concert of the Oslo Philharmonic. The conductor and soloist were the infamous Weilersteins, brother Joshua and sister Alisa, one of the more bizarre brother-and-sister acts to have entered the field of show business over the last hundred years.

My Viennese friend said the concert was the worst concert he had ever attended (my friend is my age, comes from a musical family, and has been attending concerts and recitals since he was fifteen years old). He said the Weilersteins came across like bumpkins at a fancy-dress ball. He said they were personifications of the stepsisters in the ballet, “Cinderella”: ugly, clumsy, crass, low-class—and perpetually clueless, and perpetually on-the-make. The Weilersteins were, he said, I Trashisti Puri.

I have had the misfortune of hearing cellist Weilerstein, both in concert and in recital.

After hearing Weilerstein play the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic under Yuri Temirkanov in April 2011 in Boston, I wrote:

Weilerstein was inaudible much of the afternoon. The Concerto is a series of personal utterances for the soloist, tempered with isolated public outbursts, and only the outbursts involve full orchestra. Issues of audibility should not arise in this work.

Yet Weilerstein was barely audible when unaccompanied, even in the lengthy third-movement cadenza. She disappeared completely in passages involving full orchestra. I wonder whether Weilerstein plays an inferior instrument.

Weilerstein must have an Actors’ Equity card. She performed a series of moon faces for the audience while she performed. She also engaged in unnecessary and ostentatious playacting gestures when applying bow to strings.

The disparity between the largeness of Weilerstein’s onstage dramatics and the smallness of her sound was disconcerting.

After hearing Weilerstein in recital (Beethoven, Barber, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff) in January 2013 in Saint Paul, I wrote:

Weilerstein is a capable instrumentalist, but she is not an interesting musician. Her playing is bland; it lacks personality and individuality and character and depth. Everything she plays sounds much the same—and, to my ears, remarkably insincere.

Weilerstein is thirty years old. Her musicianship is that of someone ten years younger, which signifies that Weilerstein is developing far too slowly . . . or has no business embarking upon a solo career. Weilerstein appears to be—and very much acts like—the prototypical American airhead, with very little between the ears.

Throughout the recital, Weilerstein emoted shamelessly.

Her facial muscles received the workout of a lifetime; it was exhausting—and ultimately demoralizing—to watch Weilerstein go through her prepared facial maneuvers. Her eyebrows, alone, embarked on a Marine Corps-like lifting regimen demanding unprecedented strength and endurance.

Weilerstein threw her head—and mountains of hair—back and forth and side-to-side all night, like some madwoman in a 1930s Warner Brothers prison movie; her ostentatious, ultra-dramatic bow movements, clearly rehearsed, were straight from 19th-Century “She Can’t Pay The Rent” melodrama.

I hadn’t seen such hokey onstage dramatics since . . . the last time I saw Weilerstein.

The above photograph of Weilerstein, incomprehensibly, is an official publicity photograph—a publicity photograph gone horribly awry. If I were the artist, not only would I not have cleared the photograph, I would have sued.

How can anyone do other than laugh at the photo? The upturned face to hide the double chin; the fake dreamy gaze on the subject’s face; the subject’s pig-like eyes; the revolting makeup scheme intended to give the illusion that the subject has a facial structure; the ridiculous (and supremely unflattering) hair; the gown that looks totally preposterous on such a blob-like body: the photograph is instant camp.

Doesn’t this woman have any idea how grotesque she looks? Doesn’t she have friends who can help her get her presentation in order?

To begin repairs, as a first measure, I would suggest that it’s time to lay off the Cocoa Puffs.

Friday, November 22, 2013



Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Of The Violin

For most of the last 130 years, the Russian School of violinists has dominated world stages.

With the advent of Anne-Sophie Mutter, Frank Peter Zimmermann and Christian Tetzlaff, all mature artists by the early 1990s, the Russians were dethroned: German violinists had seized the mantle, and have continued to rule the realm for the last quarter century. (Maxim Vengerov, a Russian, the only genuine competition for Mutter, Zimmermann and Tetzlaff, has never returned to full-time concertizing since his 2007 sabbatical—he claimed he was suffering from burnout—during which he sustained a freak career-threatening injury.)

Mutter, Zimmermann and Tetzlaff are unique: all three are blazing virtuoso players; and all three are among the most gifted musicians of our time, irrespective of category. The three German violinists render most other living violinists irrelevant.

Tetzlaff may be the most intellectual of the three—in both a good and a bad sense.

Tetzlaff is not prone to the flights of inspiration that often characterize Mutter and Zimmermann performances. Tetzlaff is a very deliberate, calculating musician—nothing he does is unintentional—and his performances are planned to the nth degree. When Tetzlaff performances are found wanting, the charges invariably are lack of spontaneity and lack of passion. Such criticisms most often arise in Tetzlaff’s concerto appearances in standard repertory. Even in the Beethoven concerto, the most intellectual of mainstream violin concertos, Tetzlaff is often lambasted (Tetzlaff has received extremely negative notices for his performances of the Beethoven the last few years).

For a world-renowned violinist, Tetzlaff also lacks a unique sound. To most ears, Tetzlaff’s sound is generic, and lacking in color and richness—which I ascribe to Tetzlaff’s use of a modern violin costing a mere $30,000. Tetzlaff is the only international-level violin player before the public today that does not play an instrument made by the great 17th-Century and 18th-Century violinmakers—and, in that regard, I believe Tetzlaff is making a mistake (Tetzlaff claims historic instruments are counterproductive in contemporary repertory, which he plays often and well).

I have always likened Tetzlaff to a great lieder singer, a singer renowned not for the voice itself but for the use the singer can make of the voice. To my ears, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf had a more-or-less unremarkable white voice—yet Schwarzkopf had in her arsenal the most sophisticated shadings, the most profound command of text and musical line, and such a deep understanding of the 19th-Century and Early-20th-Century lied, that the quality of the voice itself became largely immaterial. Tetzlaff, I believe, is a comparable figure: he is the Elisabeth Schwarzkopf of the violin.

Last evening, my parents and Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear Tetzlaff in recital, a presentation of the Schubert Club. Tetzlaff’s pianist was Lars Vogt.

Josh and I last heard Tetzlaff in concert in March 2012 playing the Szymanowski Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Minnesota Orchestra. (We had used my parents’ tickets that night, as my parents were vacationing in France.) Josh and I last heard Tetzlaff in recital in January 2009 in Boston, with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes.

Tetzlaff was on stunning form last night; in fact, I thought he was on fire. I have never heard Tetzlaff to better effect—it was one of those rare nights in which an artist’s concentration was TOTAL and ABSOLUTE. Tetzlaff was so fine, last night’s concert was probably the concert of the season in the Twin Cities, much like last season’s Daniil Trifonov recital was the Twin Cities concert of the season for 2012-2013.

Tetzlaff programmed three violin-and-piano sonatas: Mozart’s final violin sonata, No. 32, K. 454; Bartók’s Violin Sonata No. 1; and Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 7. Tetzlaff was magnificent in each one.

Tetzlaff also played five excerpts from a György Kurtág composition for solo violin, “From Signs, Games And Messages”, written between 1989 and 2004, one of countless Kurtág pieces bearing that same title. (There are Kurtág compositions for piano, piano duo, solo viola, solo bass and string trio, all bearing the title, “From Signs, Games And Messages”.)

That the Bartók was exceptional came as no surprise: Tetzlaff has been the world’s finest Bartók violinist since Tetzlaff was in his early twenties. Tetzlaff understands the angularity of Bartók’s writing, as well as the barbarity—and the lyricism.

I had not expected the Beethoven to be so fine. Tetzlaff was a touch detached, even a touch fierce, but his ultra-detailed articulation—the widest variety of attacks, the most precise-yet-fluid separation of notes (incredible to hear, near-impossible to bring off)—carried the performance. Normally I would find such a performance cold and clinical, but last night the masterly articulation formed the foundation of a rewarding interpretation.

The Mozart was the surprise of the evening. I have never thought of Tetzlaff as a Mozart player, yet his Mozart last night was fully convincing. Tetzlaff’s Mozart was abstract Mozart a la Thomas Beecham, not gemütlich Mozart a la Bruno Walter and not dramatic Mozart a la Otto Klemperer—and Tetzlaff’s Mozart succeeded beautifully as abstract Mozart.

We’ve had more than a little live exposure to K. 454 in recent years. Julia Fischer programmed K.454 in Saint Paul in February 2012. Josh and I heard Pinchas Zukerman play K. 454 in Boston in November 2010. Mutter concluded a Saint Paul all-Mozart recital in November 2006 with K. 454.

Mutter reigns supreme in Mozart. Zukerman can be very fine in Mozart if caught on a good day (Zukerman had been in exceptional form in Boston—but not in the Mozart). Fischer’s Mozart was a work-in-progress.

In the Mozart, Tetzlaff had little to concede to Mutter other than the absence of a ravishing sound—for which he compensated with quicker-than-usual tempi and a sense of urgency.

I have never been an admirer of Vogt, a wayward pianist and a wayward musician, but last night Vogt’s work was exemplary, perhaps because Vogt was working with a soloist not likely to indulge in tempo fluctuation and manipulation of phrase length. Vogt, working with Tetzlaff, was more satisfactory than Andsnes (who I believe was having an off-night in Boston)—which suggests to me that Vogt should work with disciplined musicians on a more frequent basis.


It is always thrilling to catch an artist on a great night.

Tetzlaff has never disappointed me, but last night he operated on a higher plane than during my previous encounters with his work.

One never knows, entering a hall, what to expect. One can catch Bernard Haitink on a dull night, over and over, to the point of asking, in exasperation, “Whatever accounts for this man’s exalted reputation?”—only to encounter him on a great night, and suddenly comprehend, “Ah, now I see what everyone is talking about!” and be prepared to forgive him anything.

My parents heard Isaac Stern a dozen times, and caught Stern only once on a good night—but what a great night it was! Stern played sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven and Prokofiev, and blew the lid off the roof. For encores, Stern played entire movements of Mozart and Prokofiev sonatas until Stern said he couldn’t go on anymore because his fingers were giving out. After the passing of four decades, my parents still talk about that magical Stern recital.

And yet on every other occasion in which my parents heard Stern, they found him to be deeply disappointing.


Saint Paul’s Pioneer Press needs to employ a new stringer.

In his review of the Tetzlaff recital, Rob Hubbard, the Pioneer Press stringer, merely recycled Alan Artner’s Chicago Tribune review of Tetzlaff’s Sunday afternoon recital in Chicago. Reworking Artner took more than a little gall, since Tetzlaff’s Chicago program had been different than Tetzlaff’s Twin Cities program.

There was a full house last night at the Ordway.

In contrast, the Sunday afternoon audience in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, according to Artner, had been a small one.


For us, last night’s recital was the first Schubert Club event of the season.

We had intentionally skipped pianist Jonathan Biss’s Schubert Club recital that had opened the season.

On paper, Biss’s program had been immensely appealing: Brahms’s Klavierstücke, Opus 119; Janáček’s “In The Mists”; Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata, perhaps my favorite Beethoven sonata; and Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze.

Alas, we had heard Biss before, and we knew not only that Biss was not worth hearing but that Biss was not worth even leaving the house for. Biss, neither a virtuoso nor a “serious” pianist, has literally nothing to offer. We heard Biss play Beethoven and Janáček, abysmally, in Saint Paul in October 2007. I fear Biss, on that occasion, frightened us away from his performances for life; I cringe in contemplation of ever hearing Biss again. (My former piano teacher, who attended Biss’s recent Twin Cities recital, has assured us that Biss was no better last month than in 2007, and that we were wise to have stayed at home.)

Are there any pianists worth hearing today that are not Russian? Stephen Kovacevich is, for practical purposes, retired, as is Ivan Moravec. Krystian Zimerman has become weird (although we heard Zimerman give a decent account of Lutoslawski’s Piano Concerto in Paris in January) and Martha Argerich has always BEEN weird. Murray Perahia has lost it in live performance, at least according to persons whose opinions I respect. Maurizio Pollini is only semi-active. Everyone else, at best, is second-rate.

Besides Evgeny Kissin and Trifonov, who may be counted upon to keep the flame alive?

There is, I believe, no one.

We do not live in an age of pianism.


Yesterday was Josh’s birthday. He turned 30.

We celebrated the event on Sunday evening.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Name The Artist

The correct answer is not the expected one.

This is one of my favorite paintings at The Walker Art Center, which has a very, very weak permanent collection, totally at variance with the museum’s somewhat puzzling high reputation.

When Philippe de Montebello retired from the Metropolitan Museum Of Art in 2008, he gave a noted farewell interview in which he harshly criticized American art museums for focusing on extraneous pursuits at the expense of building collections.

Although Montebello did not mention any institutions by name, everyone understood that Montebello was referring to The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the High Museum Of Art in Atlanta, both of which feature constant barrages of highly-publicized and highly-promoted peripheral activities—while lacking permanent collections worth viewing.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Minnesota Opera’s “Arabella”

For its presentation of Richard Strauss’s “Arabella”, Minnesota Opera had borrowed the 2012 Santa Fe Opera production.

The physical production—using a curvilinear unit set that swiveled—was cheap, unattractive and unstylish. Stage design and costume design were by Tobias Hoheisel.

The staging was provincial. The stage director, Tim Albery, demonstrated a pronounced fondness for broad, low comedy. His direction, fundamentally, was crude.

Albery did not possess a firm grasp of the material. The subtleties of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s brilliant scenario flew thousands of miles over Albery’s head.

Regional Opera At Its Worst, Once Again

Walter Legge, writing at a time during which conventional wisdom believed that Richard Strauss went through a bad period between 1916, the year in which the final version of “Ariadne Auf Naxos” was premiered, and 1942, the year in which the wondrous “Capriccio” was unveiled, asserted that “Arabella”, from 1933, was a failure. “Arabella”, Legge argued, was nothing more than “a weak mixture of ‘Rosencavalier’ and water” and did not merit attention.

To this day, many persons share Legge’s assessment of “Arabella”—even those who have come to appreciate the beauties of Strauss’s other operas of the 1920s and 1930s. “Arabella” indeed does have much in common with “Der Rosencavalier”, particularly the class distinctions that are key elements in the plots of both works as well as the Viennese settings, firmly grounded in past (but vastly different) epochs.

Yet “Arabella” is, I believe, uniquely rewarding, featuring as it does a charming, operetta-like plot set to profound music—to which is added a fraught undertow of economic concern, the overwhelming issue of the years during which Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote the libretto and Strauss the music. Is there any other opera that so vividly presents the waning financial fortunes of a family during perilous times?

I have always liked “Arabella”—in fact, I prefer it to “Der Rosencavalier”—and I believe my fondness has much to do with the opera’s title character, a most complex and winning young woman. Arabella is intelligent, well-bred, charming, spirited, emotionally generous—and irritating when she wants to be. She is loyal to her family, gracious to all (except when someone affronts her), prepared to deal with realities and make sacrifices—and yet she always maintains her essential dignity and inherent goodness (as well as a stiff backbone). Arabella is one of opera’s most enchanting characters.

“Arabella” needs only two things to come alive in performance: a great Arabella; and a decent Strauss orchestra.

Last night, Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to attend Minnesota Opera’s current production of “Arabella” (my parents and my sister-in-law had attended opening night).

There was no Strauss orchestra in the pit—there was a pickup ensemble that did not know how to approximate a lustrous Strauss sound. Minnesota Opera does not often present Strauss operas, and the contracted pit players were, stylistically, at sea. It was a rough—and loud—account of the glorious score we heard, blustery and insensitive, the sort of account to be encountered only in places that are music backwaters.

The conductor was Michael Christie, in his second year as Music Director of Minnesota Opera. I become less impressed with Christie with each encounter. He is a routinier—and a routinier without a first-class orchestra at his disposal. Who wants to hear a routinier leading a pickup group? In any event, Christie has no feel for Strauss; a Strauss conductor should have been engaged for the occasion.

The Arabella was a youngish American soprano whose career is centered in Germany. Two years ago she had been a musically bland, musically unsatisfying Fiordiligi in Minnesota Opera’s “Cosi Fan Tutte”. This season, her Arabella was less bland—the singer certainly tried to create a compelling musical characterization—but the final result was nothing more than a game try. At root, the singer does not have the glamorous voice for the part—and an Arabella without a glamorous voice is an Arabella no one wants to hear. (My father referred to her as “a hand-me-down version of Pamela Coburn”—and dedicated operagoers will know, instantly and precisely, what my father meant.)

The Mandryka was terrible. Simply put, the singer lacked the voice for major roles. He should have been replaced during the rehearsal period.

The performance belonged to the secondary couple, Zdenka and Matteo. (All operettas have a secondary couple; Hofmannsthal observed acutely every convention of the operetta stage while fashioning his “Arabella” scenario.) Elizabeth Futral, a superb actress with a less-than-superb voice, who had been the Musetta in last season’s Lyric Opera Of Chicago “La Boheme”, sang Zdenka. Brian Jagde, a young tenor in possession of the finest voice of the night (but not the finest artistry), sang Matteo.

The character parts, of which there are many in “Arabella”, were well-taken. I thought Arabella’s (and Zdenka’s) mother and father were particularly fine. (The Count Waldner had appeared in last season’s Chicago “Boheme”, too—as Benoit/Alcindoro.)

The physical production was from Santa Fe Opera, which had first presented this production in 2012. It was, above all, a budget-conscious production, with a semi-circular unit set that was neither attractive nor pleasing (but easy to ship; the production clearly had been designed with one overriding objective: to achieve lots of rentals). The costuming, too, was unattractive. The stage and costume design were of indeterminate period, and suggested at least six different decades, perhaps more, from the 1860s to the 1920s.

Since the plot of the opera and the plot’s conventions are firmly rooted in 1860, and reflect the uncertainties, economic and political, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire twelve years into the shaky early reign of Franz Josef (the opera is set one year after the disastrous Second Italian War Of Independence and six years before the even more disastrous Austro-Prussian War), for a production not to be tied to 1860 makes no sense.

The stage direction was busy—and shockingly unstylish. The director must have believed that large doses of hokum and vulgarity were necessary in order for the opera to come across to a contemporary American audience.

On that issue, the director was wrong. A well-presented “Arabella” will grip any audience anywhere.

Persons in Minnesota, however, did not get the chance to see that for themselves . . .

Whoever is making artistic decisions at Minnesota Opera is making disastrous choices over and over. Casting, selection of imported productions, engagement of stage directors: all reflect someone in possession of no judgment and no taste.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"The Butterfly Lovers"

Shanghai Ballet in "The Butterfly Lovers".

Watered-Down Petipa

During China’s Cultural Revolution, ballet was the only Western art form permitted to flourish, a circumstance connected to China’s status as a client state of the U.S.S.R.

As many as 200 Russian teachers of dance lived and worked in China throughout The Cultural Revolution, all for the purpose of reproducing the Russian dance industry in China.

The effort did not work: hoards of agitprop ballets were the only results, all of which disappeared as soon as The Cultural Revolution collapsed of its own weight. However, a regimen of Russian training had been put into place that allowed China to develop dancers to a high standard—and to establish new ballet companies beginning as early as the late 1970s, a period during which China was just beginning to open to the West.

According to dance experts, China’s leading ballet company is The National Ballet Of China; the next-finest company is said to be Shanghai Ballet.

Last evening, my parents, my middle brother, and Joshua and I attended a performance of Shanghai Ballet at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis (my sister-in-law took a pass, which is why my middle brother, who can tolerate ballet, accompanied us).

Given China’s dance history, we were expecting Russian-style dancing . . . but we didn’t get it (and we were not disappointed on that account).

The Shanghai dancers did not display the strong, supple, heavily-arched backs of Russian dancers. The volatile, expressive, fluttery arms typical of Russian dancers were also not to be seen. The Chinese male dancers had not been groomed to demonstrate flashy athleticism and brute power, the primary attributes of Russian male dancers.

Instead, the Shanghai dancers looked little different than American dancers in their training: speed, clean lines and unaffected grace were what the dancers were going for—and by and large achieved. Based upon what we saw, it appears that American ballet training has now superseded Russian ballet training in China; there was no Russian-style exaggeration on view all night.

The choreography, however, was a different matter: EVERYTHING onstage was a rehash of Marius Petipa. The choreography was either geometric ensemble numbers a la the surviving fragments from “Paquita” or caractéristique dances a la Act III of “Swan Lake”—and nothing more. If a visitor had entered the theater blind, he would have been justified in assuming that he was watching a revival of some quaint 1901 ballet choreographed by one of Petipa’s less-talented assistants toward the end of the Petipa epoch, which had become stale and formulaic in its final years.

Alas, the ballet we were seeing had been created, not in 1901, but in 2001. It was disconcerting to watch such a work, recognizing in every step and in every device a direct steal from the Petipa playbook, with nothing freshened, nothing updated.

“The Butterfly Lovers” was the name of last night’s evening-length, four-act ballet. Based upon an ancient Chinese fable, “The Butterfly Lovers” is a Chinese version of the Romeo and Juliet tale—except the young lovers in “The Butterfly Lovers” are transformed into butterflies after their deaths.

“The Butterfly Lovers” was danced to a sickly-sweet Chinese score especially commissioned for the ballet. The stage décor was very old-fashioned—ancient photographs of original Petipa stagings must have provided the inspiration—and the costumes looked like discards from the original 1927 production of “The Red Poppy”.

The presentation was not offensive; on occasion, it even verged on being fun. However, “The Butterfly Lovers” is not the sort of thing designed to appeal to American dance audiences—it is designed to appeal to a Chinese “Nutcracker” audience.

And this probably accounts for the fact that “The Butterfly Lovers” is being toured nowhere near American dance centers; its presentation is deliberately being limited—by Columbia Artists Management, the American tour coordinator—to cities without sophisticated dance audiences.

We went because we were curious—and we had no trouble sitting through the thing.

However, it must be said that The Northrop Dance Series has been presenting a lot of sub-par stuff the last three seasons.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Shanghai Ballet

We are trying to decide, right now, whether to attend a performance of Shanghai Ballet tomorrow evening.

Shanghai Ballet is five weeks into a grueling seven-week tour of North America, and tomorrow night the troupe will be in Minneapolis.

Two full-length ballets have been brought to North America, but Minneapolis will see only “The Butterfly Lovers” (some cities are getting “La Sylphide”).

“The Butterfly Lovers” sounds like kitsch—but not Monstrous Kitsch, which is what Aix-En-Provence’s Ballet Preljocaj brought to Minneapolis two weeks ago.

There is a difference between kitsch and Monstrous Kitsch. We might be able to tolerate a little of the former; the latter is beyond our power to endure.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Luise Rainer

The radiant Luise Rainer in Hollywood in the 1930s.

Rainer still lives. In January, she will be 104 years old.

Minnesota 24 Penn State 10

A great win for the Golden Gophers!

The game itself was not particularly exciting—there was, for instance, no scoring in the second half, very odd for a Minnesota team that has shown more than a little prowess on offense this season.

We might as well have departed after the halftime show.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Another Exquisite Still Life

Edouard Manet (1832-1883)
Flowers In A Crystal Vase
National Gallery Of Art, Washington

Oil On Canvas
12 7/8 Inches By 9 5/8 Inches

Sunday, November 03, 2013

“Morning’s At Seven”

On Friday evening, my parents, my middle brother, and Joshua and I went to Theatre In The Round to see its current production of Paul Osborn’s 1939 play, “Morning’s At Seven”. (The play’s title is borrowed from Robert Browning, and does not reflect a grammatical error.)

The play is a tale of four aging sisters, in their sixties and seventies, who live in a small town in the American Midwest. The year is 1938.

One sister is married and childless; she and her husband have a permanent live-in guest, her unmarried sister, who after decades of living under their roof is beginning to get on their nerves.

Another sister lives next door. She, too, is married, and is the only sister with offspring: she has a forty-year-old son who has proven himself reluctant to let loose his mother’s apron strings. The son has been engaged for a dozen years to a woman from the same town—and yet he has never brought her home to meet his family.

Another sister lives across town. She has “married up”, and her husband views her family members as “morons” and discourages her from visiting them (not that that stops her).

The play takes place over a single weekend. Two events set the plot into motion: the first sister announces that she wants to move into a new house and leave the existing house to her unmarried sister; and the son of the second sister announces that at last he is going to bring his intended home to meet the family, a move preliminary to their wedding, shortly to occur.

And, for the next two hours and forty-five minutes, the characters mull over and discuss these events, which are supposed to be dramatic as well as humorous.

“Morning’s At Seven” opened on Broadway in 1939 and—with an all-star cast—promptly bombed. In the pre-television era, during which New Yorkers attended the theater several nights a week, “Morning’s At Seven” closed after a one-month run.

The play was not to be revived until 1980, when it received a second Broadway production, again with an all-star cast—and became an unexpected hit, running for sixteen months and spawning national tours.

A third Broadway production was mounted in 2002, once again with an all-star cast. The 2002 Broadway production lasted only three months.

I am clueless why anyone would consider “Morning’s At Seven” worthy of revival. The play has no merit as drama, the play has no merit as comedy: it is jaw-droppingly earnest, and jaw-droppingly bad, as if Henrik Ibsen had supplied the comedy and George S. Kaufman the drama.

The Theatre In The Round production did the material no favors (other than provide work for area actors “of a certain age”). However, I am not convinced that any cast could bring such a feeble script to life—and, in any case, I believe the play to be pointless.


Osborn is remembered, to the extent he is remembered at all, for adapting existing material into screenplays. Osborn worked in Hollywood for decades.

Osborn lived to see the successful 1980 revival of his 1939 play.

I wonder what went through Osborn’s mind as he watched his failed play from four decades earlier transformed into a surprising commercial hit.

Osborn HAD to have known, in 1980, that his 1939 play was a piece of wood-rot.


Somewhat pressed for time, we ate a quick dinner at a pub only steps away from the theater. The pub has a very limited menu, and we had been advised to go for the walleye, served with Minnesota wild rice and asparagus.

The walleye was excellent. We were pleased.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Minnesota 42 Indiana 39

The Golden Gophers, playing on the road, prevail in a squeaker.

I think we’ll have to go to next week’s Penn State game.

An Exquisite Still Life

Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904)
Three Peaches On A Plate
National Gallery Of Art, Washington

Oil On Canvas
7 3/4 Inches By 10 1/8 Inches


This very small but exquisite still life always rivets the viewer’s attention. I cannot count the number of times I have seen art-lovers hovered, spellbound, around the canvas.

A photographic reproduction cannot begin to reveal the greatness of the painting. I believe it is the artist’s capturing of textures—wood, porcelain, peach fuzz—that grips the viewer’s attention. (Textures are much more amazing in the painting than any photograph can suggest.)

The first time I showed this painting to Joshua, he exclaimed, “That’s the best peach fuzz ever!”

And Josh was right.