To the Top of Europe VI: Outside

A little lower than the main observation deck you can go out onto the mountain itself. Some folks ski, some go for hikes on the glacier, others go on dogsled. And others, like me, spend a lot of time sucking in as much fresh air as possible. Not just because it smells like a nice winter day in Minnesota, but because the air is so thin up there you feel light headed and very sleepy.

Minnesota Part III: Minneapolis in a Day

When I was in Minnesota last weekend, the 35W Bridge was still standing. I even drove across it last Friday. On Sunday when I took the picture above, if I had pointed my camera in the opposite direction I would have been able to take a picture of it. What a difference a moment can make in the visual, functional, and emotional life of a city and its inhabitants. It is kind of hard to write the final installment of my Minnesota Series without mentioning this terrible event. There are those times when events become defining moments. No doubt the collapse of the bridge will be a defining moment for many Minnesotans. L’Etoile du Nord will still shine, but many Minnesotans will begin to frame memories as having happened “before” or “after”. The following blog post describes the last Sunday before, my last day in Minnesota before…

I began my final morning in Minnesota by having breakfast with two high school friends. Although a little bleary eyed, we had a great time dissecting everything that happened the previous night at our 20-year reunion. After breakfast we all checked out of the hotel and I had about five hours to kill before I needed to be at the airport. Luckily for me there are many pleasant ways to spend a beautiful summer day in Minneapolis. My biggest problem was trying to limit myself.

Not having been in Minneapolis for about three years, I had some new architecture to check up on. I took a quick swing through the warehouse district which has been developing for years but is now starting to really feel like a full-time neighborhood. One of the new anchors on the east end of the district is the new Guthrie Theater building. Perched right on the Mississippi River and designed by Jean Nouvel, the deep blue building nicely complements its 19th century industrial neighbors on both sides of the river. After the failed festival shopping centers of the 1980s along the north side of the river (Riverplace and St. Anthony Main) it is nice to see this kind of draw down on the river. I think the new Guthrie serves a similar function (and has some of the same design edge) as Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern in London. In addition to the bike and walking paths that run in front of the theater along the river, there is a brand new park right next door that strikes the right balance of greenspace and hardscape. At the center of Gold Medal Park (after the flour brand of the same name) is a giant grassy mound that has a spiral path edged in steel that winds up to the top where one gets a view of the neighborhood and the river. The park is already a pleasant place to be, I can only imagine how nice it will be when the trees mature.

Although I would have liked to have taken a more extensive tour downtown to see what was new, I didn’t really have the time. But I did manage to take a drive by the new Pelli-designed Minneapolis Public Library. From what I could see it is a great building. Since I had another destination in mind I skipped a visit the Walker Art Center. Having seen the new Herzog & de Meuron addition three years ago I decided not to make a repeat visit. This decision also meant I missed out on the best free date in town, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and the best ice cream in the entire Midwest at Sebastian Joe’s. Having happily gorged myself at Dairy Queen earlier in the weekend, I didn’t feel too deprived—although DQ and Sebastian Joes have nothing in common other than being purveyors of cool, creamy, sweet treats.

My main destination was the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Living in DC and having access to the National Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn, the Corcoran, the Phillips, the Kreeger, and a host of other art venues, I have a lot of options for viewing fine art. Even against that background I still find the MIA to be one of the most satisfying art museums in the country. Not only does it have a fine collection, but the museum space itself is a pleasure. I was particularly interested to see A Mirror of Nature: Nordic Landscape Painting, 1840-1910. It was fascinating to see these works that would otherwise not be seen in North America or, in many cases, even in Europe outside of Scandinavia. There were some real gems including the Munch painting that heads up my 8/1 posting below. It was also great to see some of my old favorites in the permanent collection that I have seen off and on for the last 30 years.

It was reluctantly that I headed off to MSP to get my flight back to Washington. But even that experience was pleasant. Once you get through security MSP has a lot to offer in the way of food and shopping (Yes, I went to the Dairy Queen again). I was one of the lucky ones whose Northwest Flight did not get cancelled.

After this quick, recent trip to Minnesota, it was awfully strange to see it suddenly the center of media attention. Minnesota is a prosperous state. Minneapolis is a prosperous city. And Minnesotans do the right thing. We understand—or at least used to—the benefits of responsibility and of delayed gratification (all those Lutherans and Catholics). Our industries have been historically and notably philanthropic and our outlook is relentlessly pragmatic. So why on earth did that bridge fall into the river? What priorities have so captured the hearts and minds of the state that something like that can happen? Which tax cuts could have fixed that bridge?

Minnesota Part II: The Reunion

High School was not a fun time for me. Not because I didn’t like school, I love to learn and I love to be social. But the constant threat of ridicule kept me from having much fun while I slogged my way through Elk River Senior High. Being gay in high school in semi-suburban Minnesota in 1987 made me a bit of a target for some of my less enlightened classmates.

So why, you may ask, did I go to my 20-year high school reunion this past Saturday? Well, I have never seen myself as a victim—not even back in high school—so those experiences have not haunted me in the intervening years. What residual anger I may have felt has been blunted by time and distance. Plus curiosity and the chance to see friends that I don’t get to see often made it too tempting to pass up.

Not surprisingly it turned out to be a mixed bag. Spending time with my old friends was the best part. We had a lot of fun and laughed a lot. Plus hanging out with a bunch of people my age made me less obsessive about time’s inevitable march to my 40th birthday. It was also fun seeing people who I hadn’t spoken to (or even thought about) in 20 years. It wasn’t like Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (also Class of 1987). There were no big surprises and no big show downs. Most of my former classmates were friendly and happy.

I was amazed by a few people who just couldn’t let go of the past. Even after 20 years they still couldn’t quite bring themselves to be friendly to anyone who wasn’t part of their clique. For the most part I managed to deal with their attitude by pandering to their over inflated sense of self-importance. I took a perverse pleasure in praising them just to see them struggle to be nice to me.

Equally amazing was how much the guys had let themselves go and how overweight most of the men have become. I wanted to take the microphone away from the emcee and give a lecture on heart health since many of them looked like they weren’t going to be alive for the next reunion. A few of the women had put on some pounds, but nothing like the men and they looked like they were at least taking care of themselves. It seems like the men of my class want to prove the statistics about obesity in America.

Perhaps the nadir of the evening was when Mr. Blehyl, one of our former teachers, was introduced as the special guest and invited to say a few words. Not only was he a homophobic bully of a teacher back in 1987, but in his remarks at the reunion he recognized many of the students with minds as small as his own. Just like high school, he favored those students who just happen to be the homophobic bullies who had made my daily life in school hell. I guess some things will never change.

Overall I had a good time. I am definitely going to keep in better touch with my friends, but I am not sure that I have much interest in checking out the next reunion. Then again curiosity might get the better of me. Ask me in ten years.

Coming soon Minnesota Part III: Minneapolis in a Day. The image above is Moonlight by Edvard Munch (1895)…more on that in the next installment.

Minnesota Part I: Dog Days of Summer

This weekend I headed back to Minnesota for my 20-year high school union. It was a whirlwind weekend with lots to do and little time to do it. After a stormy, delayed flight into MSP from DCA I made it to my Uncle’s and Aunt’s house in the MacalesterGroveland Neighborhood of St. Paul. The weather was cooler than DC but still more humid than I expected. Unlike DC, not everyone in Minnesota has AC. Which was fine by me. I have never quite gotten used to sleeping in air conditioning (a requirement in steamy DC) and I actually enjoyed having two fans to cool me and lull me to sleep instead.

After a great night’s sleep I actually managed to go for a run before breakfast. I figured if I was going to cheat on the South Beach with pancakes and syrup, I might as well burn some calories. I also knew that I was picking up 2 dozen donuts at Don’s Bakery in Elk River. Don’s donuts are the donuts of my childhood and I wasn’t going to let this rare opportunity to get some pass me by. I took the two large boxes back to my rental car, turned on the AC and ate two of them–a jelly Bismark and a Lady Finger–in about 30 seconds flat. About half an hour later I found myself at my childhood Dairy Queen ordering burgers and a chocolate-dipped cone.

Not even the diet-busting goodness of my midday binge could delude me into thinking that Elk River was worth the visit. Despite lots of new construction activity in town, the place has a dusty, abandoned look. No doubt the 10,000 people that have moved to town since I graduated in 1987 spend most of their time patronizing the strip malls outside of town. Families conviced they need a patch of suburban sprawl, will never know what it is like to grow up within blocks of schools, a library, shops, churches, parks, ice skating, the Dairy Queen, and even the spot where the Elk River flows into the Mississippi. Growing up I lived in a community that smart developers and New Urbanists desperately try to recreate. Despite recent developments, short-sighted market forces and bad decisions by the City have greatly diminished the financial and emotional investments that decades of residents put into make Elk River a real place rather than a sprawling mass of parking lots along the highway.

Without much to keep me in Elk River, I got in the car and headed “up north” to my brother’s place near the northwestern shore of Lake Mille Lacs. By the time I got there, the humidity was gone and the weather was like every childhood memory I have of summer in Minnesota. It was great to see him and his family and catch up with them. Having recently left the Elk River area, they were happy to see the balance of the 2 dozen donuts from Don’s. In additon to having several more of the donuts, the real treat for me was playing with their three dogs. (Abby is the sweetie I coerced into sitting still for the picture above.)

Coming Soon: Minnesota Part II: The Reunion

Favorite Performances of All Time

As some of you know from reading a previous blog, I keep track of every concert and opera that I go to in a spreadsheet. I have information going back to about 1989. My temptation in picking my favorite performances of all time was to go back to look at the spreadsheet to jog my memory. Then I thought that would be cheating. After all, if it doesn’t pop into my head it couldn’t have been that good right?

So here they are off the top of my head (with performance details added after peeking at my spreadsheet) in no particular order…

Le Sacre du Printemps – Igor Stravinsky
London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican – London
Riccardo Chailly, 23 March 2000

At age 30 I had never heard this piece before. I knew the lore behind the riotous premiere of the work but had never heard the piece. Well, I was blown away. The front row of the balcony at the Barbican put me pretty close to the LSO and it was stunning. Also heard Salonen and Cleveland do it at Severance Hall in 2004 to similar effect.

The Dream of Gerontius – Edward Elgar
Bavarian State Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Opera House – Munich
Zubin Mehta, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Dennis O’Neill, Rene Pape, 10 June 2002

This performance was so spot on it was amazing. Despite the German “t” at the end of words like “god” and “lord”, the chorus was muscular and beautiful all at the same time. The soloists were also wonderful, Rene Pape was filling in for Thomas Quasthoff–I was disappointed that TQ wasn’t going to be there until RP opened his mouth. What a voice. The brilliance of this performance was reinforced when I heard a sloppy, lackluster performance by the NSO here in DC later that same year.

Symphony No. 8 (Symphony of a Thousand) – Gustav Mahler
Minnesota Orchestra/Gothenberg Orchestra, Midsummer Festival – Bloomington, MN
Neeme Jarvi, June 1988

This performance got terrible reviews (“Heat Deals Death Blow to Mahler”) but it was incredible for me because I was in the mammoth chorus. It was held outside in a giant tent as part of the short lived Midsummer Festival. Too bad about the bad acoustics and heat, everything else was right – Jarvi, two orchestras, soloists and choruses from Sweden and Minnesota.

Symphony No. 11 (The Year 1905) – Dimitri Shostokovich
Minnesota Orchestra, Orchestra Hall – Minneapolis
Leonard Slatkin, 27 October 1990 (Hat tip to Spartacus for providing correct conductor)

One of many great nights at Orchestra Hall, but this night was special. The playing was wonderful and the place was packed. The audience was not only well behaved, but it was one of those nights where everything just feels electric–as if the entire audience was holding its breath.

Tannhauser – Richard Wagner
Metropolitan Opera, New York
Mark Elder, Deborah Voigt, Michelle De Young, Thomas Hampson, 26 November 2004
Two years earlier I went to Vienna to hear Deborah Voigt sing both soprano roles in Tannhasuer but she cancelled. Of course the Vienna performance was still good even without her, in fact it was only a shade or two less fabulous than this Met performance which was a sonic delight.

Macbeth – Giuseppe Verdi
Deutsche Staatsoper, Unter den Linden – Berlin
8 June 2002

I don’t remember who sang in this, I don’t remember who conducted…all I remember is that Lady Macbeth sang the s**t out of that role. Her voice was beautiful and powerful. The production was very abstract and she looked a bit like she was wearing one of Phyllis Diller’s feathery hats from the 60s but it was a great performance. There was a kind of runway/catwalk that followed the outer rim of the orchestra pit so Lady Macbeth was all that much closer to the audience.

War Requiem – Benjamin Britten
Minnesota Orchestra, Orchestra Hall – Minneapolis
Robert Shaw, 13 March 1998

Powerful, well-sung performance. Although I love Britten, I had a hard time warming up this work in recordings, but in person it all makes wonderful sense. The interplay of the various ensembles and texts is quite moving. One of the fun things about this performance came at the end when the choristers took their bows standing in the two aisles on the main floor. This made the usual “standing evacuation” that takes place at the front of the house during the applause impossible.

Symphony No. 2 – Gustav Mahler
Cleveland Orchestra, Severance Hall – Cleveland
Jaha Ling, 16 March 2002

I have heard this piece in concert about five times and this was definitely the best of them. One of the soloists was a little hard to hear but it didn’t diminish the power of the performance by the stunning Cleveland Orchestra in what has to be one of the most beautiful halls in America.

Holidays Symphony – Charles Ives
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Royal Albert Hall – London
Libor Pesek, 29 July 1992

This is another of those pieces that isn’t done justice on record. To hear this crazy work in person is a little mind blowing. At one point a second conductor rises from the orchestra to try and manage an orchestra within the orchestra that is playing something totally different like two separate marching bands bump coming down the same street destined for a head on collision. With Dvorak Symphony No. 9 (From the New World) and the Stars and Stripes Forever on the program, there was also a certain pride in being an American in London that night.

Rhapsody for Orchestra – Yuzo Toyama
Minnesota Orchestra, Orchestra Hall – Minneapolis
Eiji Oue, 13 May 1999

The controversial Oue at his best. Flashy, fast, and loud. This piece opened a concert and the response from the audience was so enthusiastic I seem to remember they actually repeated the piece. But to be truthful, I can’t remember if they really did repeat it or if it was just my imagination. I know I wanted them to repeat it, but I no longer remember what really happened.

Symphony No. 7 – Beethoven
Honolulu Symphony, Blaisdell Center – Honolulu
Eiji Oue, 1996 or 1997

I know Oue has his critics, and I am no fan, but this performance was truly engrossing. No doubt some would quarrel with his extremes of dynamics–especially the pianissimo–but score be damned, it was enjoyable.