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.


  1. Joshua, kudos on your first week in your brand-new job!

    You know, by coincidence to your post on von Karajan, I watched a DVD performance of Il Trovatore with Domingo and Kaibavanska last night, and the conductor was none other than Herbert von Karajan, conducting the Vienna Staatoper in the late 1970s, of which the production, the maestro also directed and designed.

    Long story short, the man creeps me out. Plus, the tempos he chose for this particular Trovatore were excruciatingly slow, tortoise-slow. Seriously, what was he on at this time in his career when this performance was filmed? I'd really like to know.

    Anyway, hope you're having a ravishing weekend with Andrew!


  2. Hey, Chanteuse! Thanks for your comment!

    What a coincidence that you, too, have been listening to Karajan in a Verdi opera!

    I don't know anything about that "Trovatore" performance, but apparently Karajan was a very strange man and apparently he got stranger and stranger as he aged.

    I am sorry you are not enjoying his "Trovatore" performance. That is not an opera I know--but I DO know that a bad performance of any opera can be excrutiating! No doubt you have something else on your listening schedule for the weekend, too, that will give you more pleasure.

    I'm sort of getting into both "Ballo" and "Pagliacci" and I am looking forward to hearing them in the theater.

    However, the opera here in the Twin Cities is nowhere near as good as what you have in Chicago. Minnesota Opera is only a small company. It offers five productions a year, and generally only five or six performances of each production. It is pretty small potatoes compared to Lyric Opera Of Chicago.

    Last year, we only went to three of the five offerings. This year, I think we may only go to two of the five offerings: "Ballo" and "Italiana".

    We are going to hear "Ballo" because Andrew says I will like that opera very much. We are going to hear "Italiana" because Vivica Genaux is appearing, and she is the only big-name singer on the company's roster this season. We probably will skip the other three presentations.

    I hope your weekend is off to a good start!

    Andrew says "Hello"!


  3. "Excruciating", not "excrutiating".

    You spelled it right, and I could not even follow your lead!

  4. Ha ha, well you know, our eyes get the better of us once in a while.

    Yes, the operas at Lyric this season are very exciting. I'm most looking forward to next Saturday's Traviata opening night gala with Elizabeth Futral and the following week with Angela Gheorghiu in Boheme.

    Later in the season, Doctor Atomic, Die Frau..., Eugene Onegin, Il Barbiere, among others, are on the menu, as well. Can hardly wait!

    Right now, I'm listening to the CD commentaries that the Lyric produces at the start of every season, they are insightful guides to the operas Lyric are offering this season.

    Hey, Andrew.

    Talk to you later...


  5. P.S.

    There's nothing on the horizon, this weekend, for me... just spending it on the front porch, with my laptop on my lap and gulping down a bottle of coke and rows of Oreos... you know, healthy foods.


  6. Oreos are one of the five major food groups!

    Enjoy your front porch, and the commentaries, and everything else!

  7. I'm sorry, my dear, I mean to write, "Staatsoper". Forgive the misspell.


  8. Chanteuse:

    Your misspelling has sent my system into a state of severe and irreversible shock! I am so imperiled that Andrew has dialed 911 and we are currently awaiting arrival of an ambulance.

    I may require the most advanced treatments, followed by an extended recuperative period!


  9. (Forgive this delayed reaction:)

    I'm so sorry that a single "S" missing from a word has sent you to the E.R. Please forgive!!!!

    P.S. I'm choked with laughter!