Monday, November 30, 2009

Some Forever-Irretrievable Event

Sometimes I think about what it would have been like to be at some forever irretrievable event such as the first performance of Figaro or Tristan. But never mind: I WAS at the dance premiere of Agon. And at some rehearsals, too. Stravinsky watched with delight, whispered a lot to Balanchine, and when a viola slide in the Double pas de quatre was too refined for him, he walked to the railing of the pit and indicated what he wanted with a single word to Leon Barzin, the conductor: “Ormandy!”

Michael Steinberg

"The Nutcracker" In Dallas

While we were in Dallas, Joshua and I (and everyone else) attended Saturday night’s performance of “The Nutcracker” at the new Winspear Opera House. The performance was a presentation of Texas Ballet Theater.

I was not sure what to make of Winspear Opera House. My instinct told me that it was a bad building, unattractive, unimaginative and unappealing—and, moreover, proto-1970’s in feel and outlook. However, the structure may require time for visitors to learn fully to appreciate.

We experienced the building at night. Winspear Opera House may require a daytime visit in order for the exterior to reveal its secrets.

At night, I acquired no sense that Winspear Opera House fitted into or enhanced its surroundings. Indeed, Winspear Opera House was completely overshadowed by the beauty and clean lines of nearby Meyerson Symphony Center, America’s finest concert hall and one of I.M. Pei’s key masterpieces. Compared to Meyerson, Winspear is an eyesore.

The exterior of Winspear Opera House is unusual. The architects used a structure-within-a-structure concept, creating a cylindrical multi-level core building (in which is housed the theater) encased within a giant glass box with a protruding roof. The result: Winspear Opera House looks exactly like a ruby version of New York’s Guggenheim Museum set within the framework of the new Copenhagen Opera House. Instead of stealing from one building, the architects have stolen from two. I am dumbfounded that the many architectural analyses of the building that have appeared in print since Winspear Opera House opened in October have not pointed this out.

The interior of the theater is a traditional horseshoe-shaped opera house. It is intimate, and elegant, and marked by very steep upper levels. The theater is said to have exceptional acoustics.

I would not be able to vouch for the acoustical properties of Winspear Opera House because the “Nutcracker” performance we attended used recorded music.

Texas Ballet Theater, resident ballet company of Fort Worth’s Bass Hall and Dallas’s Winspear Opera House, veers on the cusp of insolvency. One of its many cost-cutting measures has been to abandon the use of an orchestra, an action that instantly renders the company provincial.

Texas Ballet Theater is an offshoot of Fort Worth Ballet. The company has been fully professional only since 1985. Texas Ballet Theater has been the flagship company of Dallas-Fort Worth since the demise of Dallas Ballet, a company of international standing, in the 1990’s.

Whether Texas Ballet Theater can survive is an open question. The company is in financial peril as well as embroiled in controversy with the I.R.S. over “loans” made to its current director.

I did not think much of Texas Ballet Theater’s “Nutcracker”. The production, by Ben Stevenson, was a recreation of Stevenson’s production from the 1980’s for Houston Ballet, a production the Houston company still maintains in its active repertory. I find it remarkable that both Texas companies present identical productions of the Christmas classic.

The stage designs, by Desmond Heeley, were monumental—but monumental without beauty. Stevenson’s choreography lacked interest and individuality. The stage was crammed with dancers, including at least 100 student performers, but the staging never once came to life. It was more P.T. Barnum than E.T.A. Hoffmann.

It is impossible to judge the quality of a company by a “Nutcracker”. Given multiple castings, and dancer ennui about doing the same thing every night for a month, year in and year out, “The Nutcracker” seldom showcases a company at its best.

Nonetheless, I saw no evidence that Texas Ballet Theater was a distinguished company.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Singet Dem Herrn Ein Neues Lied

Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied,
denn er tut Wunder.
Er sieget mit seiner Rechten
und mit seinem heiligen Arm.

Remember God's Bounty

Remember God's bounty in the year. String the pearls of His favor. Hide the dark parts, except so far as they are breaking out in light! Give this one day to thanks, to joy, to gratitude!

Henry Ward Beecher

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Frauenkirche Munich

Munich's Frauenkirche, which we visited on July 31 of this year, as seen from the tower of Peterskirche.

A 1929 photograph of Munich's Rathaus and Frauenkirche.

The interior of Frauenkirche in ruins in 1944.

Corpus Domini procession through the streets of a ruined Munich in 1945.

The last two photographs were taken by a young Munich-based divinity student then known as Joseph Ratzinger. In 1944 and 1945, while preparing for the priesthood, Ratzinger had been assigned defense duties in Munich, manning anti-aircraft batteries during Allied bombing raids.

Friday, November 20, 2009


On Thursday night, Joshua and I went to Symphony Hall to hear Bernard Haitink conduct the Boston Symphony.

We attended the Thursday night concert, and not the Saturday night concert, because Thursday was Josh’s birthday. Josh turned 26 on Thursday, and we wanted to do something special to mark the occasion.

Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 was on the program. Having heard Brahms’s Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 on Sunday, we were able to experience the rare occurrence, for us, of hearing three of the four Brahms symphonies within a very short period of time.

Haitink is a good but not a great Brahms conductor. He does not offer any special insight into the symphonies, and he does not place a unique stamp on his Brahms performances. Haitink’s Brahms is measured and thoughtful, not inspired or profound.

Thursday night’s performance of the Brahms First was, most of all, solid. Nothing inept, nothing untoward, nothing weird happened. The listener was in good hands. Yet nothing magical happened, either.

Josh and I last heard the Boston Symphony perform Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 in the late summer of 2007, when we heard James Levine lead the orchestra in the work at The Royal Albert Hall in London.

Levine’s performance had been uneventful, even dull. It was as undistinguished and tedious a Brahms First as anyone is ever likely to hear. The orchestra’s sound that night was unpleasant and impossibly thick, like a flow of soured molasses. The orchestra’s sound no doubt had not been flattered by the inadequate acoustics of The Royal Albert Hall—and yet the Vienna Philharmonic and the Leipzig Gewandhaus had managed to sound marvelous in the very same hall on the preceding evenings.

Haitink obtained more momentum in the music than Levine, and he made an effort to shape the music into a coherent whole while rendering the wide range of expression called for by the composer. Nonetheless, I was—for the umpteenth time—unmoved by Haitink in Brahms. I long ago concluded that Haitink has more respect than passion for the great Hamburg master.

The orchestra sounded better under Haitink than under Levine, less gruff and less blowsy and less pasty—yet no reasonable person could possibly claim that the Boston Symphony has a beautiful or sophisticated sound. The sound lacks transparency, and subtlety, and color, and bloom. The orchestra is utterly incapable of a sustained, fully-supported pianissimo. The current sound is richer and the beneficiary of better blending than in the Ozawa years, but the sound quality of the Boston Symphony remains rough, very definitely on the level of a regional ensemble.

The first half of the concert, devoted to music of Debussy and Ibert, was much more successful than the Brahms.

The concert began with a performance of Debussy’s “Nocturnes”.

Haitink gave a remarkable performance of one of Debussy’s very finest orchestral works. All of Haitink’s imagination was at work in the Debussy. Unlike the Brahms, Haitink was fully engaged, and fully in command.

Given what he had to work with, Haitink obtained a broad range of colors, timbres, and layers of sound from the orchestra. He shaped and overlapped musical phrases like a master of the Debussy idiom (which he is). His conducting was unhurried, even leisurely, and yet he maintained musical tension and thrust in one of the most difficult pieces in the repertory to bring off.

I had never before heard a successful live performance of the “Nocturnes”, and I was thrilled. I suspect it will be years before I hear another.

The performance was marred in “Sirenes” by intonation woes by The Women Of The Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

After the Debussy, James Galway joined the orchestra for a performance of Ibert’s Flute Concerto, one of that composer’s most delightful and appealing works.

The Ibert is the kind of thing that Galway can toss off in his sleep—and he usually does—but on Thursday night the soloist for once appeared to be interested in the music, and not operating under remote control. Reading from a score (and wearing a very bold jacket cut from drapes discarded by the old Helmsley Palace), Galway gave a fine performance.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Shake, Rattle And Roll

This afternoon, Joshua and I went to Symphony Hall to hear the Berlin Philharmonic.

Ticket prices are getting out of hand. The best seats in the house for today’s concert commanded a price of $148.00 per seat, far too much for an orchestral concert.

Our tickets cost $98.00 apiece, or $196.00 in total, to which was added a $5.50-per-ticket handling fee. I think $207.00 was the most I have ever shelled out to hear a concert.

Was the Berlin Philharmonic worth such a ridiculous sum?

If we were poor, the answer to that question would be a decided “No”. However, we would not have missed the Berlin Philharmonic for the world—although I am not entirely certain we would have sprung for $148.00 seats if they had been our only option.

Symphony Hall was almost full this afternoon, which surprised me. The Berlin Philharmonic Press Office, at the start of this year’s Berlin Philharmonic tour of the U.S., had announced that ticket sales for the current tour were “sluggish”, no doubt the result of worldwide economic conditions. Since ticket sales in Boston, based upon the size of today’s crowd, were robust, perhaps sales at other venues have been disappointing. In addition to Boston, other stops on the orchestra’s 2009 U.S. tour are New York, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. (I have heard, anecdotally, that sales in Ann Arbor have been poor.)

Wonderful though it is, today’s Berlin Philharmonic is not the Berlin Philharmonic of yore. It is no longer the fine-tuned, miraculous, glamorous ensemble it had been under Herbert Von Karajan and Claudio Abbado. The orchestra maintains a glorious sound—although the sound is not as glorious as it used to be—but in all other respects the orchestra is a pale reflection of its former self.

The current Cleveland Orchestra can play the current Berlin Philharmonic under the table, as countless European critics were quick to point out in late summer 2008, when the two orchestras played, back-to-back, at The Salzburg Festival.

Many other orchestras besides the exalted Cleveland ensemble are today capable of trumping Berlin in one category or another.

The current New York Philharmonic plays with more precision than the current Berlin Philharmonic. The current Vienna Philharmonic displays a more beautiful and more refined sound than the current Berlin Philharmonic. The current Dresden Staatskapelle and the current Leipzig Gewandhaus offer more penetrating and more idiomatic interpretations of Central European repertory than the current Berlin Philharmonic. On a good night, the current Philadelphia Orchestra commands far more color and brilliance than the current Berlin Philharmonic.

Despite all this, the Berlin Philharmonic remains special, and this is because the orchestra retains a very special sound. That special sound is the chief attraction that lures listeners to the orchestra’s concerts.

The orchestra’s sound is, above all, a meaty one. It has an intangible body and mass that the listener can practically grasp. The remarkable colors and textures of the Karajan years are gone, and the magical transparency and luminosity of the Abbado years are no longer in evidence—and yet the sound remains unique, seemingly emerging from the earth’s core, with a depth and penetration no other orchestra can match.

The sound of the Berlin Philharmonic is built upon its lower strings. The remarkable bass section, for decades the finest in the world, possesses a sound of unparalleled richness and presence. The cello section tempers the darkness of the bass sound with a mellow glow. This luxurious cushion of sound emanating from the lower strings, the foundation of the orchestra’s distinction, provides the support upon which everything else rests.

The sheer beauty of the sound was the only pleasure to be had this afternoon. The orchestra is otherwise not in good shape.

When Abbado retired in 2002, almost one-third of the orchestra’s membership retired with him, including several principal players. The orchestra has yet to recover from that mass exodus of personnel.

Things have been made worse by the fact that the orchestra has not been able to locate the right conductor to succeed Abbado.

The current Berlin Philharmonic conductor, Simon Rattle, is a high-profile figure, but Rattle has never been anything more than a compromise appointment. His chief qualification for the post was that he was not Daniel Barenboim, the other conductor lobbying to become Abbado’s successor—and a figure many Berlin Philharmonic players intensely disliked. (Riccardo Muti would have been the natural and most logical choice to follow Abbado, but the orchestra did not wish to appoint a second consecutive Italian conductor.)

Without the right conductor at the helm, the Berlin Philharmonic has been enduring a frustrating decade, and that frustration was immediately apparent this afternoon.

Of most significance, the orchestra did not play together.

Attacks were rough, releases not unanimous. The orchestra’s phrasing was not in unison. Startling numbers of outright flubs marked the afternoon: missed notes, early entrances, laissez-faire articulation, smudged passagework, less-than-pure intonation. It was all rather dumbfounding.

Even more dumbfounding was that the orchestra’s imperfections were on display in the music of Brahms, whose music has always been second-nature to this ensemble and whose scores pose no technical challenges for international-level players.

However could the Berlin Philharmonic—with its luxurious rehearsal schedules—fail to cover itself with glory in the symphonies of Brahms? And on an international tour, no less, for which extra rehearsals had been set aside? And after multiple presentations of the very same programs in Berlin?

The fault must be placed squarely at the feet of Rattle, whose conducting of the Third and Fourth Symphonies was atrocious.

Rattle does not know what to do in the music of Brahms, so—at random—he constantly changed tempo, played with inner voices, emphasized passing incident, highlighted counterpoint to excess, and located all sorts of Shostakovich-like climaxes that are not in the scores.

The result: transitions were a mess, forward momentum non-existent, orchestral balances haphazard, dynamics brutally over-emphasized. The performances were vulgar.

Symphony No. 3 was played first. The concert concluded with Symphony No. 4. Between the two Brahms symphonies, the orchestra played Schoenberg’s Opus 34, Music To Accompany A Motion Picture Scene.

I was unable to decide which was worse: the performance of the Third Symphony or the performance of the Fourth. Both were crude performances, grossly overplayed, breathtaking in their complete lack of understanding of Brahms’s writing.

Ultimately it did not matter which performance was worse, because the audience in both cases was treated to Brahms filtered through the mind of an airhead—and a very weird airhead at that—from Liverpool.

Josh and I had invited my parents to Boston this weekend specifically to hear the Berlin Philharmonic, but my parents—for various reasons having nothing to do with the Berlin Philharmonic or Rattle—had declined our invitation.

They were wise to stay home.

It was a dispiriting afternoon.

Josh and I will hear more Brahms before the week is out. On Thursday night, to mark Josh’s birthday, we shall hear the Boston Symphony play Brahms’s First under Bernard Haitink.

If nothing else, we know in advance we shall not be presented with more Brahms as faux-Shostakovich.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Theatinerkirche Munich

We visited Theatinerkirche on July 31 of this year.

In the photograph above, from 1936, Theatinerkirche may be seen in relation to other important buildings in central Munich.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Bitterness, Whimsy And Blarney

A couple of years ago, our landlady back in Minneapolis, a former drama teacher at the boys’ school I attended and one of the most assiduous theater-goers I have ever encountered, declared that she had “had it up to here” with Irish plays and that she would henceforth be observing a five-year moratorium with regard to the work of contemporary Irish playwrights.

Her frustration, I believe, was the result of the sameness of current Irish plays and Irish playwrights. Small-scale domestic dramas, concocted with a mixture of bitterness, whimsy and blarney, have been the typical Irish export the last several years. These Irish explorations of the mundane have been lauded as profound analyses of the human condition in some quarters and dismissed as insufferable claptrap in others.

I thought of our landlady last night during Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s presentation of Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer”. Had she attended the play, our former landlady would, I believe, have walked out long before intermission.

“The Seafarer” takes place on Christmas Eve in a shabby house on the outskirts of Dublin. Two down-on-their-luck brothers, both in their fifties (and one recently blinded), occupy the premises. For the holiday, they are joined by three other men, all misfits in one way or another (and all blinded to the world around them in one way or another). The five men proceed to spend Christmas Eve and early Christmas morning together, talking, squabbling—and drinking.

That, in a nutshell, is the play.

Some of the dialogue is funny and some of the dialogue is sad, but much of the dialogue is simply boring, infused with all sorts of emotion-tugging touches that strike jarring chords. The audience is invited to view these seedy proceedings as a microcosm of the world at large, seeing itself in the drunken gyrations of five not particularly amusing, not particularly bright and not particularly admirable men trying to come to terms with their personal shortcomings and the past mistakes of their lives. At play’s end, the audience is asked to accord these men a measure of dignity, sympathy and respect.

This is not easy to do because, throughout the play, the author has ladled onto his tale layer upon layer of jejune spirituality and ersatz pleas for redemption and forgiveness. Such ladling, with the heaviest of spatulas, is all very conniving and all very unconvincing—and, ultimately, very off-putting. In order to accept the premise of the play, the viewer is required to check his brain at the door. Such a requirement is never a formula for success in the realm of genuine drama.

Faith, family, and the tongue-loosing power of drink: those are McPherson’s themes. I have seen this tired Irish recipe a hundred times, and never once have I found it fresh or appealing. Were not such conventions insufferably stale no later than 1900?

McPherson introduces a couple of twists in “The Seafarer”—there are absurdist elements in the plot (one of the Christmas visitors turns out to be Satan) and a wildly out-of-date and totally unexpected misogyny rears its head at frequent intervals—but the play, fundamentally, lacks freshness and originality.

Even the play’s poker game with the devil, with its alleged high stakes and on which the denouement hinges, is old, old hat by now. Had not McPherson seen or heard (or at least read the libretto of) “The Rake’s Progress” before writing his script?

There is not much to the play other than a few good lines, a few feeble laughs, and a couple of passable speeches. The first act is tedious, the resolution in the second act wan and unsatisfying (and the timing seriously misjudged). Why has this play become one of the most-performed plays in America over the last year?

The answer to that question, I believe, lies in its production requirements. The play calls for a very small cast and may be produced on the tightest of budgets (any stage designer operating on a shoestring can construct an onstage hovel). “The Seafarer” may be mounted at minimal expense by small theater companies all over the country and occupy the annual repertory slot reserved for “contemporary” drama, fulfilling two requirements of a repertory season in a single stroke.

There is no other rationale to account for the play’s current bout of popularity.

The Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Seafarer” was the second Boston-area production of the play within the last year. (Joshua and I did not attend last year’s production by SpeakEasy Stage Company.)

Mid-Atlantic accents aside, the Merrimack production was quite good. The quality of the acting was about as fine as one might expect at a small repertory theater company, and the stage design was at a high level. The weaknesses of the script, thankfully, were not magnified by inept stage presentation. That is the best thing I can say about our trip to Lowell (home of Merrimack Repertory Theatre).

“The Seafarer”—whose title is borrowed from the ancient Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name—has received mostly respectful reviews by American theater critics since the play’s American premiere two years ago (in a Broadway presentation directed by the playwright, based upon The National Theatre Of Britain production).

I cannot account for such notices. The play is a bunch of blarney.

Before the play, Josh and I ate dinner at a Greek restaurant in downtown Lowell. Our dinner sustained us throughout the two-and-a-half hours of “The Seafarer” (whose text should have been trimmed by forty per cent and whose intermission should have been abandoned).

We started with Avgolemono (soup made with chicken, rice, egg and lemon), followed that up with Horiatiki (a Greek salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions, olives and Feta cheese), and continued with stuffed grape leaves (beef, rice and seasonings in vine leaves, with an egg-lemon sauce). We ordered Mousaka for our main course. We finished up with Baklava for dessert.

The place was plebian, but the food was good.

Monday, November 02, 2009


My blog has been plagiarized several times by college students, and I learned of yet another incident of plagiarism today—in fact, a double incident.

A college student in a Rocky Mountain state recently “borrowed” my August 11, 2009, entry on Barry Strauss’s “The Trojan War: A New History” and submitted it as a term paper.

The student’s professor, knowing the term paper was not the product of the student’s own effort, conducted an online search in an attempt to locate the true source of the student’s paper. The professor’s search led him to my blog, and he submitted a comment, now deleted, asking me whether I wrote the blog entry in question and providing me with an email address to contact him.

In an email response to the professor, I assured him that I, and I alone, had written my blog entry on the Strauss book.

The professor’s response back to me included the following: “Then you should take a look at this:”.

I did so—and there, right before my eyes, was my blog entry on the Strauss book. It had been copied—word for word, start to finish—on the blog of some person claiming to be a Ph.D. candidate currently in the midst of writing his dissertation about Ancient Greece. The Ph.D. candidate’s blog entry copying mine was dated August 17, 2009, six days after my own blog entry. The post even bore the same title as mine.

Amazingly, the person who had copied my blog entry even copied my personal remarks, such as my references to my father as well as my references to our summer vacation.

I guess if one is going to plagiarize, one might as well go whole hog!

I sent an email back to the professor, informing him that the person at had plagiarized me, too.

“Yes, I know, and I thought you should know, too” was his response back to me.

The person blogging at does not accept comments.

I know, because I tried to submit one.

Update Of 15 November 2009: I noticed today that the offending weblog had been closed down for "violations of the website's terms of use".