Thursday, September 27, 2007

More Plans

This has been my second week at my new job. I am finding the job to be very rewarding. The work is stimulating and the people at the office are top-drawer. It is a first-class law firm in every way, filled with first-class attorneys and first-class people. I like it very much.

Tomorrow night, Andrew and I are going to attend a performance of David Mamet’s play, “Speed The Plow”, at the Jungle Theater. Neither of us has seen this play, and we don’t quite know what to expect. All we know is that it is a three-character play lasting ninety minutes.

I have never seen a David Mamet play. Andrew has seen a couple of Mamet’s plays, but they were early Mamet, and probably not typical of mature Mamet. We are both sort of curious to see what we will think of “Speed The Plow”.

On Saturday, I think we will go over to Andrew’s parents’ house and do some yard work and watch college football games. We will be able to switch back and forth between the two activities as we like, depending upon our interest level in individual games as they unfold. One game or another will be on continuously between 11:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m.

I love autumn Saturdays, and so does Andrew. We both love to do yard work in the fall, and we both love to watch college football. On top of that, we will be very well fed, and we will get to rumpus with the dog. It will be a great day.

On Sunday afternoon, we will all go to Saint Paul to attend a performance of Verdi’s “Un Ballo In Maschera”. This Minnesota Opera presentation received mixed notices in the local newspapers. However, musician friends of ours have informed us that the presentation, musically and theatrically, is far worse than a mixed result. Apparently Minnesota Opera’s “Ballo” is more or less a disaster on all counts. If we did not already have tickets, we very well might plan to skip it.

Andrew and I are currently reading four books about Russian history. We are reading “Dances In Deep Shadows: The Clandestine War In Russia 1917-1920” by Michael Occleshaw; “Moscow 1941: A City And Its People At War” by Rodric Braithwaite; “Stalin’s Guerrillas: Soviet Partisans In World War II” by Kenneth Slepyan; and “Krushchev’s Cold War: The Inside Story Of An American Adversary” by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali. A year ago last summer, Andrew and I spent the entire summer reading from Russian history, and we both decided to return to this subject after a year’s respite.

To provide us with some variety, we are also reading “Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed The World” by Paul Cartledge; “Panorama Of The Enlightenment” by Dorinda Outram; and “An Illustrated History Of The First World War” by John Keegan. The latter two volumes are dangerously close to coffee table books. The Keegan is mostly a rehash of his earlier books on the subject, all of which we have already read, but the photographs, maps and illustrations are marvelous and make for a beautiful and artful publication.

None of these books is a masterpiece, but these books are providing us with a rewarding reading program, since we can switch volumes as our interest in each waxes and wanes.

On Monday morning, very, very early, Andrew must travel to Louisville on business. He will remain in Louisville until late Wednesday afternoon, when he will fly back to Minneapolis.

Consequently, on Saturday morning, Andrew and I are going to decamp and move over to his parents’ house, where we will remain for a week.

We will both stay there Saturday and Sunday evenings.

Andrew will have to rise at 3:30 a.m. Monday morning and leave for the airport at 4:30 a.m. He will drive our car to the airport, and I am going to remain at Andrew’s parents’ house on Monday and Tuesday evenings and ride to work on those days with Andrew’s father.

Andrew will not return to Minneapolis until late Wednesday night, so he and I are going to stay at his parents’ house that night, too. Since we will all fly to New York on Friday afternoon, Andrew and I decided that we might as well stay at his parents’ house on Thursday night, too.

This will keep things simple and avoid a week of nonstop back-and-forth maneuvering between our apartment and Andrew’s parents’ house. In addition, I will have lots of company while Andrew is gone and I will get the world’s best food for six days and six nights! Can’t beat that!

Monday, September 24, 2007


We had the dog with us yesterday after church because Andrew’s parents were spending the day with his mother’s relatives and we did not want the dog to have to stay home by himself all day.

It was fun having him again, because he is very amusing and very affectionate. He is also very good company (if you can stand having him up in your face all the time).

When we were away, we all missed him a great deal. He’s an integral part of the family and it was painful to be separated from him.

When we picked him up a week ago Saturday, he was so excited to see everybody that he barked uncontrollably and jumped in circles (and lost control of his bladder). We were excited, too, and we had to spend half an hour settling him down before we could take him home in the car.

Andrew and I did lots of cooking yesterday, but we managed to find time to take the dog to the park and run with him and play games with him. He had a fun day.

Last night Andrew’s parents joined us for dinner and helped us eat some of the mountains of food we had prepared. The dog helped us eat some of the food, too.

We seem to have a lot of things coming up in the next three weeks. Next weekend Andrew and I plan to see David Mamet’s play, “Speed The Plow”, at Jungle Theater. We also plan to attend a performance of “Un Ballo In Maschera” at Minnesota Opera.

The following weekend, a three-day weekend because of Columbus Day, we will be in New York visiting Andrew’s older brother and family. While in New York, we plan to catch a performance of the Mascagni/Leoncavallo double bill at New York City Opera.

As soon as we return to Minneapolis, we will see The Royal Shakespeare Company’s performances of “King Lear” and “The Seagull” at the Guthrie Theater, which is hosting the RSC. Tickets to the RSC performances in Minneapolis have been sold out for months, and we are eagerly looking forward to the performances.

I can’t believe it is almost October.

Even though it seems that July was just last week, we are already in the midst of making holiday plans. Andrew’s brothers are talking about coming home for a full week at Thanksgiving instead of coming home only for a long weekend. They are thinking of making a week of Thanksgiving this year because Andrew and I will be gone for part of the Christmas holidays (Andrew and I plan to spend part of the Christmas holidays in Oklahoma with my family).

When I look at the calendar for the rest of the year, I cannot believe that it is almost full. We have something scheduled for practically every weekend between now and January.

I get exhausted just looking at it.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Settling Back In

Yesterday, to mark my first week at my new job, Andrew planned a special day.

We drove into downtown Minneapolis yesterday morning instead of taking the bus, because Andrew told me we would be doing something downtown after work.

The first part of Andrew’s celebration was to take me to lunch—but he had something special planned for lunchtime, as it turned out, which took me completely by surprise.

He took me to Orchestra Hall to hear the second half of the Minnesota Orchestra’s opening week of subscription concerts. The concert actually began at 11:00 a.m., but Andrew timed it so that we deliberately missed the first half of the concert and arrived at intermission.

The second half of the concert featured a performance of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets”, and Andrew knows how much I like the music of Holst (a throwback to all those years of playing Holst pieces in high school and junior high school bands).

I was thrilled to be able to hear “The Planets”, which I had never heard before, and I was thrilled to be able to hear “The Planets” in the middle of the day, at lunchtime. It is perfect “daytime” music, and I was so startled by Andrew’s midday surprise that it was all I could do to keep from smiling like a fool the whole time.

After “The Planets” we grabbed a quick sandwich and returned to our offices.

We both left our offices at 5:00 p.m. and Andrew took me to Ruth’s Chris for a magnificent early dinner (we both love steak, and we had had none in London). It was the first time Andrew and I had been to Ruth’s Chris since I moved to Minneapolis.

After dinner, Andrew took me to Theater In The Round to see a performance of Ronald Harwood’s play, “The Dresser”.

I had never seen “The Dresser” before. I also had never seen the film.

The play was a lot of fun, actually, and it is a good play in a very old-fashioned way. The success of the play rests with the actor playing Norman, and the actor playing Norman at Theater In The Round was convincingly nebbish. The play worked.

Andrew had seen a production of “The Dresser” before. Andrew and his brother had seen a West End production of “The Dresser” in 2005, directed by Peter Hall, starring Nicholas Lyndhurst and Julian Glover. Andrew said that that 2005 London production had amazed him, mostly because Peter Hall and Nicholas Lyndhurst had found all sorts of subversive undercurrents in the text that made the play much, much richer than the screen version.

I don’t think the Minneapolis production was rife with richness, but I thought the play and production were highly enjoyable. I am glad we went. It was a beautiful way to end my first week at my new job.

This weekend we are not going to do anything. We have to catch up on mail and laundry and other things, and I think we are just going to stay home.

Since we returned from London, we have been listening to two Italian operas: Verdi’s “Un Ballo In Maschera” and Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci”. We have been listening to these two works because we will go hear “Un Ballo In Maschera” at Minnesota Opera a week from Sunday and because we may attend a performance of “I Pagliacci” the following weekend, when we will be in New York for Columbus Day weekend.

I am unfamiliar with both works, and I like to familiarize myself with the music in advance of a live opera performance. Thus far, I really like the Verdi opera, which has surprised me, because I am normally not much of a Verdi fan. I have NEVER attended a stage performance of a Verdi opera in my life, so next Sunday will be my first exposure to Verdi in the theater. Andrew says that “Un Ballo In Maschera” is an excellent first Verdi opera to attend.

The score to “I Pagliacci” is nowhere near as good as the Verdi. After three listens, the score strikes me as weak and uninteresting, but I am going to give the work a few more serious listens over the next several days.

We are listening to the Maria Callas recording of “Un Ballo In Maschera”. I have never listened seriously to Maria Callas before, so this is my first genuine attempt to appreciate her artistry. Andrew has not listened exhaustively to Callas, either, because he seldom listens to recordings of Italian opera.

However, Andrew says that this is his favorite Callas recording of a complete opera. He says that the role of Amelia, and not Riccardo, is the central figure in the drama, and that Callas turns the character of Amelia into a full-blooded, full-dimensional person.

Andrew says that the turning point in the drama is Amelia’s aria early in Act II, and that Callas understands this better than any other soprano that has recorded the part. Andrew cannot listen to this set of discs without stopping and replaying that aria six or seven times before proceeding to the rest of Act II. He says that Callas breaks his heart in that aria.

Andrew points out to me things of interest while we listen. He is absolutely fixated, for instance, on Callas’s entrance late in Act I. He says that the character of Amelia is only given a few conversational utterances at first, and that Callas takes over the proceedings with those very first lines, declaiming them with the most profound imagination and insight and musicality. Andrew says that it was hearing Callas sing those few lines that first revealed to him the genius of Callas. He says that he has never been able to get those lines out of his mind after first hearing them.

Andrew says that his love for this recording is a minority view. Apparently the Callas recording of “Un Ballo In Maschera” is not supposed to be one of the greatest Callas recordings and apparently this recording is not supposed to be among the very finest recordings of “Un Ballo In Maschera”. Callas made this recording before singing the role of Amelia onstage, and she only sang the part five times in her entire career. Amelia was not one of her signature roles. Further, in this recording the score is cut, and the conducting has been criticized for an absence of imagination and drama.

Nevertheless, this recording is pretty pleasing to me, and the sound is good, even though it was recorded in mono. I’m growing to like this recording more and more, and I’m growing to like this opera more and more.

The “I Pagliacci” recording we are listening to is the Karajan recording. Unlike the “Un Ballo In Maschera” recording, this recording of “I Pagliacci” is supposed to be the finest version of the opera ever recorded. This is so, not because of the singing, but because of the conducting, which is considered to be a marvel. Andrew says that Karajan does amazing things with the score and with the orchestra, finding all sorts of details that other conductors pass over, and that Karajan uses those details to shape and enrich and propel the drama. The sound in this recording is superb, which is almost unbelievable, given that this was recorded in 1965. It is one of the finest-sounding recordings I have ever heard.

Herbert Von Karajan was virtually one of the house conductors at La Scala from the late 1940’s through the late 1960’s. This recording was made with the forces of La Scala, and it was made in conjunction with a series of stage performances. However, Karajan did not conduct the La Scala series of “I Pagliacci” performances in the theater. He conducted only the recording.

Before this recording was made, Karajan had never conducted the score of “I Pagliacci”. The recording sessions were his first ever experiences with the opera. In fact, Karajan conducted only one performance of “I Pagliacci” in his entire career. Three years later, on June 11, 1968, Karajan conducted a single performance of “I Pagliacci” at La Scala.

One odd and interesting fact about Herbert Von Karajan is that he made many famous recordings of works that, in his entire career, he never once performed in the concert hall. He made two very famous recordings of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherezade”, a work he conducted only in the recording studio, and never in the concert hall. He made two very famous recordings of Holst’s “The Planets”, another work he conducted only in the recording studio, and never in the concert hall. There are numerous examples of other pieces he only touched in the recording studio.

Andrew’s father met Herbert Von Karajan a few times, and twice he had dinner with him (but not just the two of them—they were two of a party of six or eight). Andrew’s father says that Herbert Von Karajan was a genius of the highest rank—and that Karajan knew he was a genius, and never let anyone forget it. However, Andrew’s father also says that Herbert Von Karajan was one of the most insecure persons he ever met, and that one of the causes of his insecurity was surely the fact that Karajan was extremely short. Andrew’s father says that Karajan’s very short stature must have grated upon him his entire life.

Karajan was also a horribly mean man. He would say truly terrible things about people with whom he actively worked, whether those persons were agents, recording company executives, singers, directors, designers, instrumentalists or others. No one was immune from his evil tongue. Of those with whom he did not actively work, Karajan was even more vicious.

And yet, according to Andrew’s father, Karajan could also be a fountain of wisdom when it came to the nuts and bolts of conducting. There was nothing about the field of conducting, in theory or in practice, Karajan did not know. There was nothing about other conductors he did not know. There was nothing about the scores that fascinated him he did not know.

Karajan could be a very thoughtful man on those occasions he wanted to be. He also could be incredibly self-indulgent, expecting others to sit and bask in his presence as he held court, speaking about non-musical matters. He liked to talk about yachts and airplanes and skiing and technology—subjects about which his audience generally had no interest—when his listeners would have much preferred hearing him talk about music.

Karajan had conflicting views of Americans. On one level he appeared to loathe Americans and on another level he appeared to have the highest respect and admiration for Americans. This view, I am told, is and was quite common among Germans who lived through World War II.

I wish I could have observed Karajan in performance. I also wish I could have observed Callas in performance. They are only two of many artists, now gone, that I wish I could have had the opportunity of experiencing. At least recordings give listeners some idea of these artists’ work.

On Sunday night, Andrew and I may have Andrew’s parents over for dinner. Andrew is in the mood for some serious cooking, and he says that he has a powerful taste for a special homemade chicken noodle vegetable soup, and for a special pork loin, and for some special stuffing, and for some homemade stewed tomatoes, and for cheddar potatoes, and for lima beans, and for glazed carrots, and for homemade bread. He also says he has a bizarre hungering for a homemade spice cake. I think we may have some fun in the kitchen on Sunday afternoon!

On Sunday after church, Andrew’s parents must spend the day with Andrew’s mother’s relatives, but they will be free on Sunday evening, and I think we will want to share all this food with them, and probably send some of it home with them after dinner.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Proms

I did not want to write about the four Proms concerts we attended.

I am still reluctant to write about music. Andrew is too busy, trying to catch up at work this week, to write about our Proms concerts. That is why I asked Andrew’s father to write about the Proms concerts we attended.

Those concerts were important to me. For the first time in my life I heard a great performance, and I heard it at the Proms.

I now know what a great performance is. Until I attended the Leipzig concert, I was not sure what a great performance was, and I was not sure I would ever hear one, and I was not sure I would recognize a great performance if I DID hear one. Now I know the answers to all those questions.

A great performance is a wonderful thing to witness and experience. It was thrilling. It gave me chills. I was elated for two full days after the performance.

What ended my elation? Hearing James Levine conduct Brahms two nights later. That brought me down to earth.

Proms Concerts

I have a guest writer for this post.

With reference to the four Proms concerts we attended in London, I convinced Andrew’s father to write a description of what we heard. He agreed to do so, on condition that I never repeat my request.

The Royal Albert Hall is so large and so cavernous that the listener, entering the Hall, cannot help but be skeptical that the Hall will prove satisfactory for an orchestral concert.

And the acoustics of the Hall are not good. In some parts of the Hall, such as the stalls, the acoustics are very poor, perhaps fatally so. In other parts of the Hall, such as the loggia and second tier, the sound is much better, but reverberation time in the Hall is problematic no matter the seat location. Reverberation time is too long, and reverberation time is different in different parts of the Hall. One can never be certain that listeners in different parts of the Hall are hearing the same thing. In truth, the Hall should not be used for orchestral concerts.

Nonetheless, as happens in any hall, suitable or unsuitable, the ear quickly adjusts. The four orchestras we heard in The Royal Albert Hall sounded much the same as they do in other concert venues, lacking mostly “presence”, which suggests that I should not make too much of the Hall’s deficient acoustics.

The two American orchestras we heard did not make a good showing, but neither did the Vienna Philharmonic. Only the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra managed to cover itself with glory, and that glory was not unqualified.

The Vienna and Leipzig orchestras both played on weeknights, but—other than day tickets—all tickets to their Proms appearances had sold out long in advance of their concerts. The San Francisco and Boston orchestras both played on weekend nights, but their concerts did not sell out. The American orchestras played to nothing approaching full houses, and much of the audience in attendance on both nights concentrated not on listening to the music but on spreading tubercular material.


The San Francisco Symphony’s performance of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony simply had to be written off. The playing was rough—a good youth ensemble would surely have offered a more accurate presentation of this score—and the orchestra never mustered the full array of sound required by Mahler, from fully-supported pianissimos to fortissimos filling the hall with splendor. The orchestra provided one of the least satisfactory Mahler performances I have ever heard. I have no idea what Michael Tilson Thomas was trying to do in this score, and I have little doubt that Michael Tilson Thomas had no idea what he was trying to do, either. By any standard, this was a provincial performance by a provincial ensemble and it should never have left the confines of Davies Hall.


The Vienna Philharmonic can play Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 in its sleep. Awake and under Daniel Barenboim’s guidance, however, the Vienna Philharmonic had trouble negotiating its way through either work. I note this despite the fact that some members of the orchestra appeared to be slumbering through much of the performance.

It was clear that the members of the Vienna Philharmonic did not like Barenboim and had no interest in playing their best for him. There were some entrances so ragged that they had to have been deliberate, and others so shockingly late that they had clearly been mapped out in advance, created to raise Barenboim’s hackles.

The Vienna Philharmonic does this sort of thing whenever it dislikes a conductor, or has any kind of grievance against him. This behavior is very disrespectful toward its audience.

Years ago, I swore that I would never again attend a concert of the Vienna Philharmonic on tour. In the early 1990’s, I heard the orchestra intentionally undercut Claudio Abbado in a performance of the Bruckner Fourth on the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. After that tour concluded, Abbado swore never again to tour with the orchestra, and he has kept his vow.

I have been unable to keep mine, however, because the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic is so beautiful that I cannot resist the opportunity to hear the orchestra in person, no matter how slovenly the playing may be.

And the playing under Barenboim was pretty slovenly when it wanted to be, and pretty impressive when it wanted to be, although the latter was in rare evidence. The members of the orchestra roused themselves to provide a satisfactory finale to the Bruckner after marking time through the first three movements. It was a case of too little, too late. The Schubert did not work, and it did not work because Barenboim was too interventionist. He should have simply let the players play.

The Vienna Philharmonic on tour bears little resemblance to the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein. When touring, many of the finest players remain in Vienna. Tour programs do not replicate programs the orchestra has played in Vienna. Tour conductors are seldom the same conductors who appear with the orchestra in its famed subscription concerts.

On tour, the Vienna Philharmonic plays for money. It selects high-profile conductors who may or may not have any association with the orchestra in Vienna (Barenboim does not) and tours the world for several weeks each year, always playing typical Viennese fare. The orchestra plays far more concerts on tour than it plays concerts in Vienna, and it does so because these tours are highly profitable for members of the orchestra.

The Vienna Philharmonic’s Proms appearance delivered what the orchestra generally delivers on tour: lots of sweet sound amid sloppy ensemble and disinterested music-making. The concert was pleasurable and irritating in equal measure.


The Boston Symphony concert was too long. There were two extended works on the program, either of which would have provided a satisfactory centerpiece in its own right: Bartok’s Concerto For Orchestra and Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. Preceding these two works was a ten-minute work by Elliott Carter, Three Illusions For Orchestra.

The Proms audience became restless during the concert, and not solely because of the concert’s length. James Levine has never been an effective conductor of Bartok or Brahms, and neither work showed him or the orchestra to advantage. The orchestra did not play at a high level of ensemble, and the interpretations were heavy and dull, unimaginative and undramatic, lacking personality and tension. I have never heard less compelling renditions of either work.

The sound of the orchestra was not pleasing, but I hesitate to blame the orchestra, because I no longer know how this orchestra sounds, having not heard the BSO in its own hall since 1997 and having not heard the BSO in Carnegie Hall since 2001.

It was obvious that Levine was going for a richer string sound than Seiji Ozawa, but I hesitate to judge the quality of that string sound from a single hearing in The Royal Albert Hall. It was clear, however, that the string ensemble overwhelmed the woodwinds and brass, which did not succeed in penetrating the massive wall of sound provided by the strings. This is consistent with the sound of Levine’s other orchestra, the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, which is similarly string-dominated. This sound picture proved fatal in music of Bartok and Brahms. (There being empty seats, we changed our seats at intermission, but the orchestra’s sound did not improve.)

By any measure, the Boston Symphony is no longer an impressive orchestra. In terms of sheer technical achievement, the Boston Symphony of today plays at a lower level than the current Minnesota Orchestra. If someone had told me, 25 years ago, that such a state of affairs would ever occur, I would have laughed.

The decline of the Boston Symphony from greatness to mediocrity is the most significant event in the world of music over the last thirty years. Longtime concertgoers in Boston—indeed, longtime concertgoers everywhere—seethe at the loss of such a great orchestra.

When the Meiningen Orchestra deteriorated and fell from prominence in the late 19th Century, the Berlin Philharmonic rose simultaneously to take its place. No American orchestra has risen to take the place of the Boston Symphony. If a replacement materializes in coming years, which is unlikely, it will occur in Dallas, under Jaap Van Zweden.


I have never believed that the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra matched the excellence of the Berlin Philharmonic or the Dresden Staatskapelle, both of which have unique sound qualities and a unique way of making music that Leipzig has never been able to duplicate.

Riccardo Chailly may be on his way to changing that.

From a single Proms hearing, it was clear that the Gewandhaus has been invigorated, almost beyond belief, compared to the Kurt Masur and Herbert Blomstedt years. Under Masur and Blomstedt, the orchestra had a very cultured but slightly anemic sound and a very reticent way of playing. The strings were always the orchestra’s glory, famed for lightness of articulation and homogenous sound. The woodwinds were always variable, with unpredictable intonation, and the brass generally reluctant to make its presence known.

The Gewandhaus of Chailly has a more robust sound. The strings retain their meticulous phrasing, but the string sound is richer and warmer. The woodwinds are more confident, and more willing to allow themselves to be heard and to dominate when called for in the score. The brass ensemble has been completely transformed and now plays with great brilliance when required. The entire orchestra plays with a muscularity and freedom it never had before, and yet the old-world transparency, blend and refinement have somehow been retained.

This is a mighty impressive orchestra, and it is an orchestra with a mighty impressive sound.

Its sheer musicality is its greatest asset. The musicality of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra puts our U.S. orchestras--the fabled Cleveland Orchestra aside--to utter shame.

If Chailly remains in Leipzig long enough, Leipzig will replace Berlin in Germany’s orchestral pecking order, joining Dresden at Germany’s orchestral summit. Some European musicians believe that this in fact has already occurred.

Everything is not yet perfect with the orchestra. The clarinet players are not as fine as their flute, oboe and bassoon counterparts. The trumpets, horns and trombones do not have the spine-tingling virtuosity (or power) of the Chicago Symphony brass section. The timpani player made sure that his timpani strokes were seen but not heard (such timidity is common among percussionists in German orchestras).

All that aside, this orchestra is unmistakably going places, and the players unmistakably know it, and so did the Proms audience. This was the only Proms concert we attended in which the audience response was whole-hearted gratitude and admiration from beginning to end. The prolonged audience cheers were fully deserved.

The Beethoven in the first half of the program was not particularly impressive. Chailly began the “Coriolan” Overture at too high a degree of tension, at too high an emotional temperature, and the overture had nowhere to go. The Beethoven Violin Concerto that followed was under-characterized and almost diffident. The announced soloist, Sergey Khachatryan, had been replaced by Viviane Hagner, and she did not grab the concerto and make it her own, which made it difficult for Chailly to develop tension and interplay between soloist and orchestra. The Concerto offered some beautiful playing and little else.

The Brahms Fourth that followed, however, was sublime. It was the finest Brahms Fourth I have ever heard, and I have heard some pretty impressive conductors in this work, including Herbert Von Karajan. Chailly had to concede nothing to Karajan in this work.

Chailly’s conducting maintained a suitable level of tension throughout and yet it was never inflated. The work was dramatic where required, but the drama evolved organically from the music—it was never lacquered on with a brush. It was a deeply emotional performance, and the emotions evoked were sincere.

The culmination of the first movement was shattering, intellectually and emotionally, but it was in no way overdone. The andante was noble and deeply felt, but it was attractively understated, too. The scherzo was not overplayed. Chailly built tension in the passacaglia slowly, almost imperceptively, and he timed the climax perfectly before the symphony wound down to its quiet and unsettled conclusion.

The Brahms Fourth is not an easy work to conduct, and I have heard innumerable acclaimed conductors come to grief in this difficult score. Chailly’s Brahms Fourth was an unforgettable experience. It was, quite simply, a great performance.

If anything, even greater was the unexpected and generous encore, Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture”, another very difficult piece to bring off. It received the finest performance I have ever encountered, on record or off. The audience response was volcanic.

My New Job

Yesterday I started my new job. I already know I will like it.

My new job is in downtown Minneapolis, and my building is not far from Andrew’s building.

My assigned hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

At my old job, I worked in a nearby suburb. I always drove our car to work because there was no other efficient way for me to get to work. Now I can travel to downtown Minneapolis reasonably well via public transportation.

To get to the nearest bus that will take me downtown, I have to walk about a mile-and-a-half, which is a nice walk when the weather is good. Whether I will want to make this walk in rain or brutal cold is another matter.

Andrew has always taken the bus downtown to work because he had no choice. We only have one car, and Andrew always had to walk to and from the bus stop each day because I needed our car to get to my old job. On days involving pouring rain, Andrew would try to catch a ride with his father. On days in which the cold was at its worst, however, Andrew would simply bundle up and he would make the walk back and forth between the bus stop and our apartment twice, once very early in the morning and once in the evening.

At his firm, Andrew has always worked from 7:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. or 6:00 p.m., but this week he decided to change his hours. Andrew has been working from 8:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. this week and he changed his hours so that he and I could go to work together and come home together.

I sort of like taking the bus to and from work each day, and so does Andrew. I also like the fact that we get to ride the bus together. Andrew has always used this time to read the national news magazines. Now I do the same.

This schedule gets me to work half an hour early, and keeps me at work an hour beyond the official end of my day.

Depending on the day and my mood, I can remain at work until 6:00 p.m. and collect overtime, leave the office at 5:00 p.m. and do something downtown until 6:00 p.m., go home by myself on the bus at 5:00 p.m. or catch a ride home with Andrew’s father at 5:00 p.m.

I have lots of flexibility, and I can make a different decision each day, and I can make a decision at the very last minute each day. I like that.

In addition, since I am no longer driving our car to a nearby suburb each day, Andrew and I now have the option of driving our car to the bus stop on rainy days or on days of severe cold. This is good, because bitter cold bothers me much more than it bothers Andrew.

Andrew and I also now have the option of driving our car all the way into downtown, an option we can use on evenings in which we plan to do something downtown after work.

We are going to do that very thing this Friday, for instance, because Andrew says he has something special planned for me for Friday to celebrate the end of my first week at my new job. He will not tell me, however, what that something is, which I think is incredibly mean of him! All I know is that he taking me somewhere for lunch on Friday, and that we are going to do something downtown Friday night after work.

The people at my law firm are very professional and very polite, and I like the atmosphere at the office a lot. Everyone there is first-class in every way.

My boss has told me that I may work as much overtime as I want, which is good. I welcome the money, and I can tailor my schedule to Andrew’s if I want to, including going to work on those Saturdays on which Andrew must go to the office. I think everything will work out very well at the new job in every possible way.

Now if only I could find out what Andrew has planned for me for Friday! I called Andrew’s mother and asked her if she knew, and she said she had no idea—and she was telling me the truth.

I may have to torture him to discover what he has in mind!

Sunday, September 16, 2007


We have returned.

We had a wonderful time. It was the best trip I ever experienced.

London is an amazing city. London is so large and there is so much to see and do in London that it is simply overwhelming.

I think we were wise to focus on only one portion of the city’s geography. Doing so eliminated wasteful travel time and allowed us to focus on and savor the heart of Westminster and surrounding environs.

We visited everything we planned to visit. Nothing disappointed us. The churches and palaces and museums and landmarks we had selected were as fascinating as I had hoped, and I would go back to everything in an instant except for Tate Britain, which I have now seen in its entirety.

I’m glad I visited Tate Britain. Like Andrew and his brother, I think its collection of British art is more interesting from an historic perspective than from an artistic perspective. Much of the art on display I intensely disliked, and I would not want to spend more time at Tate Britain anytime soon. There are many magnificent paintings in the collection, a good portion of which are by American artists who worked in Britain. There are also innumerable paintings that are not of museum quality. I can also say, having now seen the world’s largest collection of Turner paintings, that I am not eager to rush out and see more.

Before our trip, I had been a little worried that Andrew and his brother, having already seen almost everything on our list, would become bored. I was fearful that Andrew and his brother were willing to return to so many attractions only because I had never seen them before or because their parents had not seen them for many years.

I need not have worried. The attractions we visited were of such abiding interest that serious travelers may visit them over and over, with no fear of boredom or fatigue.

I came closest to visitor fatigue at Tate Britain. Andrew’s mother came closest to visitor fatigue at The Wellington Barracks Guards Museum (as Andrew had predicted). Andrew’s father came closest to visitor fatigue while walking around Covent Garden and Seven Dials and Neal’s Yard (“once you’ve seen a couple of these shops, you’ve seen them all”). Andrew’s brother came closest to visitor fatigue at The National Army Museum (he had simply seen everything there too many times). Andrew came closest to visitor fatigue at Westminster Abbey (he already knew every single niche and stone and monument and grave by heart, having been there so many times—yet he gave us a better tour of the Abbey than the verger did).

Some attractions were more interesting even than I had anticipated. The churches we visited were marvelous. They were fascinating for their architecture and their art and their histories. I am glad I read about them before our trip. That made my visits to the churches more meaningful and more enjoyable.

The British Library was also more impressive than I had expected. I never thought that I would find examining illuminated manuscripts from The Middle Ages to be so rewarding. The workmanship and artistry on display in some of the ancient illuminated manuscripts were staggering.

Our evenings were not as rewarding as our days.

The four nights we spent at the theater were not fulfilling. None of the plays we attended was particularly good, and none of the performances was mesmerizing. According to Andrew and his brother, this was the luck of the draw, and they were overdue, or so they said, for some duds. In 2005, they had gone to the theater ten times in eighteen nights, and everything they saw that year had been excellent. In 2004, they had gone to the theater eight times in eighteen nights, and everything they saw that year had been excellent. In 2003, they had gone to the theater seven times in seventeen nights, and everything they saw that year had been unremarkable if not poor. They were due for an unremarkable year, they said, and they got it handed to them this year. I saw nothing that made me think that London theater was any better than anything we have in the U.S. Perhaps I will change my mind after our next trip to London.

We made a mistake in attending four orchestral concerts in six evenings. We were at the mercy of Proms scheduling, and tried to take advantage of that, but four concerts in six nights was too much for all of us. The fact that all four concerts featured late-Romantic German repertory—Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler—did not help matters. We would have welcomed more varied programs, I think. I am glad I had the opportunity to witness Riccardo Chailly in action, because he is a star in every sense of the word. He had the audience in his hands from his first step onto the concert stage. Compared to him, Michael Tilson Thomas and Daniel Barenboim and James Levine were trolls and troglodytes, with all the charisma and glamour of plumbers. In person, all three were far more unattractive than their photographs suggest. I gasped when I first saw each one. They were frightening, especially Levine. That man should not be permitted to go out in public.

I could not help but compare our trip to London with last year’s trip to Hamburg. Hamburg was a beautiful city, and I’m glad that I went to Hamburg, but London has at least fifty times as much to see and do as Hamburg. We pretty much saw everything there was to see in Hamburg in thirteen days. We did not even scratch the surface of London in fifteen days. It would take a full year, maybe two, to see everything London has to offer.

The residents of London, however, do not compare favorably with the residents of Hamburg. Londoners do not appear to be as healthy or as well-dressed or as prosperous as the citizenry of Hamburg. Compared to Hamburgers, Londoners are often ill-behaved and boorish, and appear to be positively poverty-stricken.

London also has an enormous population of what the British themselves refer to as their “slatternly” class, and this slatternly class was on prominent display practically everywhere we went. We do not have anything comparable in the U.S., at least on the same vast scale.

Everything in London was outrageously expensive. For Americans, London must be the most expensive city in the world right now. Everything costs roughly two-and-a-half times what it costs in the U.S.

Some admissions we paid were scandalous. For the five of us, it cost us $175 to visit The Buckingham Palace State Rooms. I had no idea that Queen Elizabeth was living so close to the poverty line! Maybe we should organize a benefit.

It cost us another $150 to visit The Queen’s Gallery and The Royal Mews. Queen Elizabeth did quite well by us, all in all, especially since we also acquired this year’s edition of the guide to The Buckingham Palace State Rooms as well as the catalog for the special exhibition of Italian painting at The Queen’s Gallery (setting us back another $100 between the two of them).

It cost us $125 to visit The Cabinet War Rooms And Churchill Museum. It cost us $110 to get into Westminster Abbey and, once inside, we had to pay another $55 to take a verger tour. It cost us $80 to get into Apsley House and The Wellington Arch. Even Banqueting House, which is visited only because of its one remarkable room, cost us $50.

The art and military museums, at least, were free, except for the Courtauld. Whether the museums in London will continue to be free much longer is an unresolved question, as many officials in the British government believe that admission charges should be re-instituted.

London is not a city to visit if cost is an issue.

I did not think that the food in London was particularly good. In general, food in U.S. restaurants is much better, I think, than food in London restaurants. However, I was not impressed with the food in Hamburg, either, although everyone else seemed to have no problem with the Hamburg food. Perhaps I have become spoiled by the cooking of Andrew and his mother.

What was the single most magical experience I enjoyed in London? It was strolling Pall Mall, which I believe must be the most fascinating street in the world.

What was the least magical? It was exploring the performing-arts buildings of The South Bank Centre. All of the buildings were minor architectural disasters, compiled of cheap materials and anachronistically dated before their constructions were even completed. These buildings are so bad that they actually ruin the otherwise beautiful view from the other side of The Thames.

Andrew and his brother were perfect guides. They know London so well that they did not even need to consult street maps or subway maps as they made their way around town.

Andrew’s parents had a wonderful time. They enjoyed seeing so many wonderful things that their sons had seen so many times. It was fun for us to watch them have such a good time. They both said that this had been their most enjoyable vacation in over thirty years.

London was so stimulating that, now that I am home, Minneapolis seems drab and dull in comparison. My only consolation is that practically all other cities in the world seem drab and dull, too, in comparison to London.

I want to go back as soon as possible.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Only Five More Days In London

Hi, Mom! Hi, Dad! Hi, Shelby! Hi, Jason!

We sent you a postcard on Monday. The Royal Mail said you would get it yesterday or tomorrow.

We got something for you (no, not the crown jewels).

Back on Saturday. Talk to you then.