…so anyhow, the great Trentini comes to town with his dramatic new opera Tsaaritza, hearts aflame in the time of the Tsars, and Nelson and Jeanette, who used to be lovers but who’ve been apart for lo these many years, have now been cast in the leading romantic roles. Comes the big I’ve-always-loved-you-but-now-we-must-part duet at the end; they look into each other’s eyes…bingo!!! Trouble is that John Barrymore, who has been Jeanette’s Papa Bear all these years, is in the audience this night, and when he observes this obvious exchange of pheromones on the stage of the opera house he happens – oh, by the way – to own, he smells a very live rat. And so he packs his trusty pistol and goes off to pay Nelson a call. Fade to Jeanette, some 40 years later, still wrapped in memories of Maytime. (That’s the name of the movie, by the way — not yet, alas, on DVD.) Oh, I almost forgot. The music for this splendid drama is none other than the last ten-or-so minutes of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, that stirring peroration in which the dour little theme that’s been tugging pathetically at our sleeve for the previous 40 minutes finally gets some air into its lungs and makes its presence known in full brass.
I suppose it’s possible to deliver a creditable performance of the Tchaikovsky Fifth without Maytime on your mind, although it’s as valid a point of reference as any. MTT’s performance at Disney on Monday night, with his own San Francisco Symphony, was the full choreographic treatment, genuflections ‘n’ all. Basically this was, as expected, a performance by Michael Tilson Thomas of an MTT performance. The orchestra, at the end of an extended West Coast tour, sounded just okay, a minor rough spot here and there. (I must mind my manners with the SF Symphony. I cut my teeth on this orchestra. My first exercises as a critic were my weekly tirades on KPFA in the ‘50s. That orchestra, of course, is gone, and so are my teeth.). There was more of the same at the start, pure show-off music for brass band by Himself titled Street Song; in between came the last of Prokofiev’s five Piano Concertos, not unattractive but a curious package of mismatched parts with Garrick Ohlsson as the conquering hero.
A line from Schubert governed my decision concerning tonight’s Brahms First:
“Dort, wo du nicht bist, dort ist das Glück.”
On Sunday there was ELIJAH, that way station between Messiah and Pinafore. How brightly shines its pious light and please, O Lord, may I never hear it again?! Eric Owens was terrific in the title role; Mary Wilson – beautifully named for the job she had to do – was the most angelic of angels – and that kid, Jeffrey something, did all he could considering that somebody had stolen his microphone. (Is there some law against allowing children actually being heard on large stages? I remember they make a rather nice sound.)
There was no text printed in the program book, and none offered as super-titles; if we have become spoiled by that latter amenity, so be it, but Elijah unwinds as a fairly long and complicated narrative, more so than Messiah, which nobody would dare deny an audience. A Master Chorale minion, when complained to, came back with the message that “management wanted the audience to enjoy the total experience, “or some such baloney. The least that should have happened under such circumstances should have been to leave the houselights sufficiently lit for us to follow the excellent but extensive essay in the program – not a narrative but at least a guide. I have been angered before at vocal programs in Disney offered with the lights dim or actually off. It’s an insult to singers and listeners; this was one more instance. We can decide our own total experience by sitting with our eyes shut.
ARCHIVALIUM: A couple of weeks ago I made the observation, in deepest friendship, that my esteemed colleague Mark Swed was ”full of old shoes”in his judgment of a certain Beethoven performance – that being about the gentlest comeback that occurred to me at the time. Little did I realize the storm those words would unleash, climaxing with a demand from a distinguished member of the critical press – a former colleague, no less – demanding that I supply him (and by extension, I suppose, my other seven readers) with information as to the brand of shoe!
Now I have no intention of committing so blatant a breach of journalistic probity but I can, in good faith I sincerely believe, reveal the source of the remark, in the hope of (ahem!) enriching the vernacular. When I was, let’s say, six, my parents were wont to hire occasional housemaids from the crop that constantly poured into Boston on the Yarmouth boats; a lively, lusty crop they were. Evelyn was one, and it was she who would often tease me, in our flat on Columbia Street Brookline, with a “Laddie, you’re full of old shoes.”It’s not the sort of thing you forget.
One more thing about Evelyn: she sang. She had a song about “A little rosewood casket,” which I loved. I learned to pick it out on the piano (Kranich & Bach, baby grand). My mother rushed me into the clutches of an elderly family friend, Miss Amolski, who gave me finger exercises but killed any possible love of music. Miss Amolski had another pupil, Robert Rhines. “Why can’t you play as fast as Robert Rhines?” she would cackle. Robert Rhines ended up heading an expedition into the wilds of Scotland, in search of the Loch Ness Monster.
So much for old shoes.