25 April 2011

Titian and MacMillan in Minneapolis

Friday before last two long bus rides took me from the St Paul abode of my fabulous Twin Cities host, Jack Curtis Dubowsky, to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, one of those capacious museums that varies the aesthetic overload by offering a different style or period every few galleries.

There were some enticing special exhibits, including the 38 alabaster mourners, each a bit over a foot high, except for one shorter altar boy, that normally form part of the tombs of the first Valois dukes of Burgundy, Philip the Bold and his son John the Fearless, but which were temporarily parading down the middle of a long medieval gallery accompanied by period-appropriate music. They are astonishingly varied and lifelike; so much so that you could almost take them for granted: yes, that is what they should look like, and so that is how they look.

I spent about an hour in the other special exhibit, Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting. As with the Burgundian mourners and most other special exhibits everywhere, photography was not allowed inside the exhibit, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that this exhibit was small but intense. The centerpiece was two great canvases by Titian, Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, part of an instantly celebrated suite he painted for King Philip II of Spain, based on stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. There were six large canvases altogether; one of the others, the Rape of Europa, was very familiar to me from Boston days, since it was always one of my favorite pictures in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Underlying the sumptuous beauty of these pictures is a tragic view of human life; each represents an innocent victim of the angry and lustful whims of the gods. The troubled and shadowed face of Callisto, as her fellows, at the virgin huntress Diana’s order, rip off her robes to reveal the pregnancy resulting from Zeus’s rape, is especially striking.

There were a couple of extremely loud docents but eventually I managed enough semi-quiet time in front of these rich pictures. It’s always a problem for me deciding when to stop looking at something like this: you could look at them forever, yet I may well never see them again, so how much is enough?

Towards closing time I went to the Information Desk and asked if I could walk from the MIA to Orchestra Hall. The kindly gray-haired woman there told me that I could, but she said it in doubtful and slightly surprised tones, and added, “But it’s nearly a mile!” I told her that was OK with me. “Well, you do have a jacket, don’t you? It’s windy out there!” she added in motherly tones. I assured her I had one (though I’d have brought a heavier coat if I’d known we’d get actual snow) and she told me which street to take in what direction and what landmarks to look for.

I managed to walk my mile and find Orchestra Hall without much trouble. It’s attractive enough outside, but inside the hall is honestly and to my surprise even less attractive than Davies Symphony Hall. There are giant whitish cubes of various sizes jutting out at different arbitrary angles all over the stage area. I did take some photos after the concert but I guess I shouldn’t post them since an usher rushed over to tell me photography was not permitted inside the auditorium. I apologized and said I thought that was just when the orchestra was on stage. “No,” she said, “the guy who designed this place owns the patent and the copyright and everything and he’s very strict about it and we can’t even change the horrible 1970s orange seatcovers without his permission.” (He apparently has withheld that permission, since there was a sea of 1970s burnt orange seating.) So I apologized again and added, “But it’s so ugly.” “I know,” she replied.

The sound was really good, though, rich and precise, no doubt in part due to the acoustical effects of the hideously jutting cubes. The orchestra seems to have embraced the protuberances, using a cube as its logo. The ticket they sent me in the mail was bordered with ornate and old-fashioned looking scrollwork, so I was expecting something older than the 1970s.

As noted, we were asked to leave our guns elsewhere. I was kind of startled by these signs. Jack explained to me that it’s legal to carry concealed weapons in Minnesota, but venues can forbid them – but if they’re concealed, how do you know if people are complying or not?

Music Director Osmo Vanska conducted the performance I went to. The opener was Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody in A Major, Opus 11, No. 1, a brief but kaleidoscopic whirl inflected by the folk music of Romania and its near eastern neighbors as brought through the area by the people who ended up being called gypsies. This was followed by the main draw of the concert for me, the world premiere of James MacMillan’s Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra, The Mysteries of Light. Jean-Yves Thibaudet, wearing a jacket with oddly different shades of black angled together, was the virtuosic soloist.

MacMillan is, of all odd combinations, a Scottish Catholic, and as with Messiaen, his music is often inspired by his religion: in this case, the Five Luminous Mysteries of the rosary that Pope John Paul II added to the traditional Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious Mysteries. Knowing this adds another dimension to the piece, and might provide an emotional guide to the various movements, but you could also just enjoy the piece as a dazzler without knowing any more about it than what you were hearing. The five movements are played without pause, though each is distinctive enough so that it’s easy to tell where you are. The concerto lasts almost half an hour, with music ranging from the rippling to the ritualistic. The pianist plays throughout, except for the fourth movement.

The audience seemed quite enthusiastic. MacMillan came up to take a bow. He was seated several rows behind me so during the intermission I got up the nerve to ask him to sign my program. He was very amiable and gracious. He speaks softly with a fairly heavy Scottish accent, so I had a bit of trouble hearing him in the noisy hall. I told him I had enjoyed the piece and was glad to hear his music live, since I’d heard quite a bit of it, but only on CD. I mentioned that I was in town to hear Wuthering Heights at the Opera. “That’s Bernard Herrmann, isn’t it?” he said. “I’d like to hear that.” Herrmann is kind of a cult composer, it seems.

After the intermission we had Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Opus 13. I was pretty tired by then and simply luxuriated in the sound, which was sort of like being adrift on a sea of caramel. I have the feeling I’ve heard this Symphony very recently at the San Francisco Symphony, but I’m feeling lazy about looking it up and since what sounded familiar was not so much the music itself as the story of the symphony’s unsuccessful St Petersburg premiere and eventual rediscovery I might have read about it in connection with a different piece. The applause seemed extremely enthusiastic, but afterwards as I waited for my taxi (having decided that a lengthy bus ride with transfers late at night while the snow was falling thickly in a city I didn’t know was something I didn’t need to do) I heard one woman say to another, “Well, I just don’t know about Rachmaninoff. He’s always so loud.”

Eventually my taxi driver showed up and he not only did not appear to know how to get to St Paul, he seemed unable to work his own GPS. If it hadn’t been snowing great wet flakes I probably would have gotten out and searched for another taxi, but I was already far enough from Orchestra Hall so that I decided to hope for the best. Soon enough he figured out what he was doing and I returned to St Paul.


Lisa Hirsch said...

The hall in Minneapolis was one of the acoustical success stories of the 1970s, a welcome one after the disaster of Philharmonic Hall (Avery Fisher) in NYC. I remember when it opened, the cheers for the sound quality. I'm sorry to hear that it's so ugly.

I vaguely think SFS played the Rach 2nd symphony but I could be wrong.

pjwv said...

Acoustically it was outstanding, though of course I'm judging from only one experience. As for the visuals . . . I wonder how it came across in the 1970s. Maybe it looked bold instead of dated? I just didn't like the weird cubes. It was like some sort of berserk marshmallow explosion, except that makes it sound more fun than it is.

I could just check my own site and see what Rachmaninoff piece I'm thinking of, but, you know, it's springtime. Which means I'm tired and fighting allergies. And I was more interested in the MacMillan piece, which I loved.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I found photos of the interior via Google search. I see what you mean about marshmellows!

It's too bad about the color scheme, of all things that could be changed.

pjwv said...

I certainly hope these were officially approved images, given the usher's valiant defense of copyright. Who knows, in the Wild West that is the Intertubes.

I actually didn't mind the color scheme all that much -- it was only when she pointed it out that I noticed it was a dated color (but maybe it's so dated that it's about to make a comeback).

Lisa Hirsch said...

Unfortunately, it probably IS back, or about to come back. I've been waiting three years for 1970s fashions to go out of style again. It might be longer for 70s color schemes.

pjwv said...

I haven't seen a lot of avocado green and harvest gold, so maybe there's hope.

Joseph said...

Orchestra Hall is particularly renowned for its acoustics, designed by Cyril Harris, with each design feature carefully planned to enhance the warmth and richness of sound in the space.

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Patrick J. Vaz said...

No doubt that is true, but I wish some of the features were more attractive.