Thursday, March 28, 2013

How Poems Really Work


As you read this, packets of light are blasting through the various plastic coatings in your cheaters, racing across the gap between your eyeglass lenses and your eyes, and diving through your cornea. Their swim through the aqueous humor is a quick one—no time to dry off before dodging the iris and smashing into the lens, which flings them in all directions, through the vitreous humor and on to the retina, where scattered sensations are funneled to the optic nerve. The mighty second cranial nerve swaddles its payload in tiny bundles and rapidly shoots them through the optic canal, past the optic chiasm, and tosses them off at the visual cortex, to be unswaddled, unpacked, and interpreted in the occipital lobe of the brain, probably somewhere near Brodmann area 17.

But that’s just how they get in.

This starts a riot of charges that storm about the brain, touching memories, ricocheting off lost images, evoking feelings, quickening the heart, putting a lump in our throat, and sometimes even bathing the area where the packets of light first entered in tears, as if to salve the intrusion: words become light; light becomes love; love becomes tears.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Burch's: Round Two

Went to Burch's tonight with an old friend. We agreed that the food was great. Wonderful seat at the window, right on Hennepin--bumped into an old pal. Agreed that the Ahi Tuna, Brussels Sprouts, and Rainbow Trout were delicious. Service exceptional.

Tip 1: If coming from downtown, turn a block early to find parking.

Tip 2: In addition to bar seating there are two large tables--European seating--just off the bar. That's a great place to find a seat.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Ward 6: Great New Spot

My buddy Snag is always on to the latest hot spots. He came through again with Ward 6, a small, but attractive eatery at 858 Payne Avenue in St. Paul. Everything we tried was fantastic. The hand-cut fries were the best I've had. The appetizers were uniformly delicious. And the "Fatty Melt" was a big win. Great spot. Great bar. Oh, and reasonably priced too.

Monday, March 25, 2013

When He Comes to Dinner

When He Comes to Dinner
We're never ready for him to come to dinner.
He appears unannounced or on short notice,
An imposing figure,
Trim, in an evening coat with a black bow tie.
The day and evening meal were planned.
The family would have taken their plates
To separate rooms or maybe dined together.
But nothing formal, ceremonial.
The image of his figure at the stoop,
Presumptuously stepping forward to admit himself,
Stops and changes everything.
Then it's all about him.
Will the chicken be good enough?
Or should we eat Italian?
What about the crystal, the china?
His presence changes where we eat,
What we eat, and how everything unfolds.
The smallest thing--
Even a request to pass the butter--
Is shaded by his presence.
Sometimes he sits at the table, ramrod stiff,
Cufflinks shining.
But even if he gets up and sits in a far corner,
Everyone spends their time pretending not to look at him.
He may leave.
He may not.
He may be joined by his friend.
But whatever the case, he always ruins the evening.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Movie "Barbara": A World of Ethical Choices

The Edina Cinema delivers again with the film "Barbara," a complicated moral story set in 1980 East Germany. East German tales, like those set in Nazi Germany, offer particularly rich material. Every turn presents a wrenching dilemma: you versus others; comfort versus moral compromise; protective reserve versus honest expression. The 2006 film "Das Leben der Anderen" ("The Lives of Others"), a poignant film that depicted the notion of actions speaking louder than words, showed the moral complexity of this pre-unification world. "Barbara," a German production subtitled in English, is an equally strong film.

The devastatingly depressing world of 1980 East Germany is accurately captured: suspicion, spying, despair, dysfunction. Electrical outlets that don't work. And life's challenges are enormous--one cannot accomplish any real good without in some way being complicit with the fascist authorities. Some moral compromise is a necessity for anyone attempting to do something positive.

The main character, Barbara, portrayed by the comely Nina Hoss, is a doctor, formerly of Berlin, relegated to a practice in a hopeless rural hospital. The one bright spot at the hospital is the earnest Dr. Andre Reiser, played by Ronald Zehrfeld. The Stasi have tasked Reiser with befriending Barbara and developing helpful information about her activities. But Reiser is an incompetent spy and no match for Barbara's discipline and control.

Barbara's self-control is exceptional. For instance, she always arrives to work exactly on time, pausing to sit at a bench so as not to be a minute early. Her self-control is highlighted in a scene where she is playing her newly-tuned piano--the only notable furnishing in her dismal state-supplied apartment. Dr. Reiser had noticed the piano and sent a piano tuner to tune it. He also provides her with some sheet music: Chopin nocturnes. Barbara starts playing the great G Minor nocturne, Op. 15, No. 3. There is an incredible moment in this piece when the slow melody pauses ever so briefly and then breaks into a series of hymn-like chords. It is a special musical moment, one of great release. But Barbara plays right up to the point and stops, not breaking into the beautiful chords--a fitting example of her incredible self-control.

Hoss is quite attractive and it seems that half the film is spent on close ups--maybe more so than any film I recall. But this works because this is a tale about the mind and Barbara's inner life.

Barbara's choices present a complicated matrix: physical desire, freedom, and self on one side, versus duty and self-sacrifice and real love on the other. Important decisions and moral compromises occur at every turn.

Like many movies set in eras of repressive regimes, the filmmaker posits that humans have an innate desire to perform acts of goodness and kindness--and that this desire is so strong that we extend these acts even to the undeserving.

Shortly before his death, William F. Buckley, Jr. is reputed to have said that "Das Leben der Anderen" was the best film he had ever seen. "Barbara," he would no doubt agree, is of the same stature.

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Great Treasure: The Minneapolis Institute of Art

I always take the Minneapolis Institute of Art for granted. My visits have sometimes been five years apart--which is a grand mistake because the MIA never disappoints.

I visited this Sunday with a friend who is interested in Chinese and Japanese art. We spent most of our time admiring the wondrous selection of calligraphy, prints, and Chinese bronzes. We also listened to an informative presentation on Chinese bronzes, something that added to our enjoyment of that part of the exhibit.

From the giant jade sculpture depicting a poetry contest, to the furnished Japanese and Chinese rooms, there is interest at every turn. Price on Sunday: free. A good cafe. A beautiful building. What more could we ask for? Well, maybe less March cold.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Battle of the Quartet Movies: "Quartet" vs. "A Late Quartet"

I've recently seen both "Quartet" movies: Dustin Hoffman's "Quartet," a movie about aging musicians who enjoy their twilight years at Beecham House, a lush English mansion; and Yaron Zilberman's "A Late Quartet," a study of the personal conflicts within a string quartet that has played together for more than twenty years. Both are enjoyable movies. Both sport stunning casts. "Quartet" offers Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, and Michael Gambon, while "A Last Quartet" features Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, and Catherine Keener. Music lovers will enjoy both movies, but "Quartet" is a clear winner.

"Quartet" is set in the English countryside at a mansion where retired musicians live in grand surroundings. The basic plot is: "Let's put on a show to save Beecham House." This is nicely mixed with a love story. Musical snippets are gently folded into the picture at every turn and the grounds of the estate, Hedsor House in Buckinghamshire, offer shots worthy of a Merchant Ivory production. The heavenly music is made by declining, often ailing musicians. Fingers knotted. Breath gone. Memories untrue.

What makes the story is the resurrection of the failed love between Smith's character, aging diva Jean Horton, and her ex-husband Reggie, played by Tom Courtenay. All was fine at Beecham House until  Horton leaves her city flat for the musical retirement community--where Reggie resides. Horton and Reggie had divorced under difficult circumstances, Horton's infidelity, and Reggie is still pained by the memory of what happened. Slowly, they become friends again.

Much of the plot concerns the attempts of Reggie and his friends and former performing colleagues Cissy (early dementia) and Wilf (mild stroke) to rope Jean into performing a quartet for the Gala concert that Beecham House performs on Verdi's birthday. Eventually Jean is roped in and the movie ends with a romantic surprise just as the four take the stage to perform Bella figlia dell'amore, the grand quartet from the last act of Verdi's Rigoletto. The movie ends with an aerial shot of the English estate, as we listen to the glorious Verdi quartet.

"Quartet," in addition to being funny and romantic, touches gently on the important human themes of aging, forgiveness, and the importance of human connections. In addition, it hit my sensitive maudlin spot, so it gets extra points.

"A Late Quartet" is a movie, by contrast, that is far less optimistic. Two of the quartet are married, but torn apart by an affair. Their very young daughter, also a musician, has a fling with the first violinist. Walken, the quartet's patriarch, develops Parkinsons's disease and is increasingly unable to play. The movie ends with the quartet attempting to perform Beethovens' opus 131 quartet, a giant seven-movement affair in homage to the quartet's twenty-fifth anniversary. Walken gives up his chair to a hand-picked successor. There's a fair amount of psychodrama, not a lot of fun, and at times the acting seemed a bit contrived--especially the daughter's scenes with the much older first violinist. To me, a good movie, but mostly just becuase I enjoy movies about classical music.

"Quartet" is the better bet.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Yeol eum Son Brings Great Joy to Minnesota at Winter's End

The Steinway at Macalester College's Mairs Concert Hall was only just recovering from the percussive thrashing it received in February at the hands of Daniil Trifonov when it was placed in the gentler but no less virtuosic hands of South Korean pianist Yeol eum Son. Trifonov’s recital, delivered a day before his Carnegie Hall debut, was a winning affair. All parts of the piano were tested: the legs, the casters, the strings. Yeol eum Son’s recital was equally pleasing, but so very different. And the Steinway is no doubt grateful for the gentler treatment it received this afternoon.
Son entered the hall wearing a black dress, replete with a flowing overlay of sheer fabric and feathers on the skirt. She was modest in demeanor and conservative in her motions when entering and exiting the stage and at the keyboard, where she played with a smooth and efficient style.
The program included five transcriptions, several of which were grand showpieces, as well as an Alkan étude and a Prokofiev sonata. The first piece was a Weber-Liszt transcription of the Overture from Der Freischutz. Son handled some difficult octave passages with great skill and impressed during the slower moments.
Two relatively slow Schubert-Godowsky transcriptions followed, the second being a transcription of Wiegenlied, with its unusual, haunting harmonies. What followed, the Rachmaninoff transcription of the Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was likely the most familiar music of the evening for most. While the Schubert-Godowsky transcriptions had generated no applause, the audience had to break out after Son’s stunning and brilliant conclusion of the Rachmaninoff transcription.
The first half of the program ended with a doozy: a Tausig transcription of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Man liebt nur einmal. Scales, long trills, explosions of rattling octaves, and glissandos—they were all in play during this showpiece.
The second half of the program began with a stunning performance of Charles-Valentin Alkan’s Étude Le Festin d’Esope (Aesop’s Feast). The Étude begins with a likable, humble theme that is quickly dressed up in twenty-five different variations, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. After the theme emerges, the first variation begins with some brutal key punching—suggesting that the composer may have written this showstopper with his tongue implanted in his cheek. Son sailed through Alkan’s dense and sometimes demonic passages with aplomb. And it was during this piece that she really shined. The piano’s legs were not shaking. The casters on the piano were not straining. The strings were not threatening to break. But the power and warmth of her playing during the loudest and fastest passages thrilled everyone.
The recital's program concluded with Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6 in A, op. 82. Son played with a score, which she placed inside the piano. Its presence in no way detracted from the quality of the performance. This is a huge, delicious, four-movement piece and every moment was right on target. Son seemed to particularly relish and excel during some of the piece’s more motoric moments. Her gentle power was always in evidence.
There were two encores, both unknown to me. The first sounded like Prokofiev and was a crowd pleaser. The second appeared to be a jazz song and was played in a somewhat improvisatory theme and variations style. Some of the riffs were virtuosic and made me think that there is probably no jazz pianist alive who could keep up with her. I’d pay money to see her in a dueling piano bar. If she were playing something she knew, nobody in the world could touch her.
Just as we prepare for baseball season, the Frederic Chopin Society hits its second-consecutive grand slam. Its next show looks promising too: the Box and Chung Duo, who, at 3:00 p.m. on May 5 at Macalester's Mairs Concert Hall, will play two-piano, four-hand, and solo piano works. I’ll be there!


Ten Recommended Classical Recordings: A Sampler for Those New to the Classical Scene

The following is a list of classical recordings that offer a variety of classical genres: opera, symphonies, keyboard, violin concerto, solo cello, piano concerto, and oratorio. Though it is mostly mainstream with respect to the represented composers, it reflects a variety of interesting sounds.

Because the list is intended for someone who is starting to explore classical music many of the recordings are now budget issues. If you have thoughts on the list or would like to pipe in with your own, please do!

1. Mozart: The Magic Flute; Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Staatskapelle Dresden, orchestra; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, choir; Moll, Schreier, Price, Serra, Melbye, Venuti; Philips Duo, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 1994.

2. Beethoven: Symphonies No. 5 and 7, Carlos Kleiber, Wiener Philharmoniker; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1975 and 1976, released on CD in 1996.

3. Bach: Keyboard Pieces, Toccata, BWV 911; Partita BWV 826; English Suite No. 2, BWV 807; Argerich; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1980, released on CD in 2000.

4. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D; Brahms: Violin Concerto in D; Jascha Heifetz; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA, recorded in 1957, released on SACD in 2005.

5. Panorama—Edvard Grieg, two discs of various piano and orchestral works; Deutsche Grammophon Panorama, recorded on various dates, released on CD in 2000.

6. Bach: Six Unaccompanied Suites for Cello; Yo-Yo Ma; Sony, recorded in 1983, released on CD in 1990.

7. Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos, Vol. I—Brendel; Sir Neville Mariner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Philips Duo, recorded in 1972-82, released on CD in 1994.

8. Handel: The Messiah; Sir Colin Davis, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Philips Duo, recorded in 1966, released on CD in 1994.

9. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Martha Argerich, Philips, recorded 1982 and 1980, released on CD in 1995.

10. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-4 (separate disc one); and Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 5-6 and Orchestral Suite No. 1 (separate disc two), Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; EMI, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 2004.