Sunday, November 26, 2017

My Black Friday

My attitude toward Black Friday was changed forever when I got an email from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts announcing that on the morning after Thanksgiving they would be opening their doors at 6 a.m., knocking 20 percent of the price of everything in their gift shop, and offering free admission to their current show, Eyewitness Views: Making History in Eighteenth-Century Europe. I had neither read nor heard anything to convince me it would be worthwhile parting with $20 for the opportunity to see a succession of street scenes by Canaletto, Guardi, and other painters of similar ilk—paintings that appear in many shows with other themes, and also hang in numerous provincial museums throughout Europe. But minus the entry fee, that same show would serve as a delightful destination on a crisp Friday morning, following a day spent amid the hubbub of a large family gathering.

Though the doors opened at 6, Hilary and I were confident that a 7 a.m. arrival time would work out fine. Light was just coming to the city as we drove through downtown Minneapolis, crossed the newly redesigned Nicollet Mall (but where are all the trees they've been talking so much about?) and down Third Avenue to the museum.

Through the naked trees in Washburn Fair Oaks Park, the marble facade of the McKim, Mead, and White structure seemed to glow amid the shadows, and it reminded me of the painting by Sargent, Luxembourg Gardens at Twilight, 1879, that has hung inside for decades.

The lobby was relatively quiet, and as we passed by the reception desk a woman handed us two tickets to the show upstairs. A long table had been set up at the top of the stairs with pots of coffee and cookies wrapped in plastic. The chairs nearby were mostly occupied.

Postponing that minor treat, we made our way up a second flight of the stairs and down the hall to the relevant gallery, where an attendant handed each of us a small device on a lanyard and a set of headphones with which to listen to it. I soon turned it off. I'd rather read the signs. Much of the time I'd rather read nothing at all. (I miss a lot.)

The paintings were large. More than half, I would guess, depicted events in Venice, but there was a large rendering of the flooding of the Piazza Novana in Rome, an eye-witness view of Vesuvius erupting, and a canvas depicting a hot air balloon in transit over the rooftops of Paris. There were several paintings of urban fires at night, one or two Papal processions, a grand opera event (or was that merely a coronation in an opera house?) and several versions of the annual Marriage to the Sea festival on the Grand Canal in Venice.

The effect in most cases was primarily social. By looking closely at the crowd, you got a sense of the fellow-feeling, the vanity, the artistry, the glamour, and the pretensions from which such events draw their energy. In one Polish scene a few cows were grazing in a field across the road from the magnificent palace. And the huge painting of Charles III of Spain departing from Naples offered an impressive look at the bay itself. You know what they used to say in the days before the bucket list: "See Naples and die."

I think the art of the rococo is somewhat underappreciated. There is a true lyric quality to the drawing of figures that puts Lorrain (for example) to shame, and the blue, cloud-filled skies are often marvelous. I have long been meaning to read Roberto Calasso's book-length essay, Tiepolo Pink. (Pulling it off the shelf just now, I see by the bookmark that I once got to page 48, though I'd have to start over if I picked it up again.)

But I was starting to think about a cookie and a nice cup of coffee.

Back in the upper lobby, we snagged a table and enjoyed watching other early birds pass by. It wasn't Venice, but there was plenty of variety and color just the same.  Then we went into the gift shop, where I spotted a book called The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair. 

I'd like to know the different between puce and pharlap, for example. I guess it's just a matter of knowing the words, and recognizing the difference.

Armed with such information, Black Friday might one day thrive side-by-side with Puce Friday, Chartreuse Friday, and Mauve Friday. The possibilities are, well, almost endless.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Mozart Weekend

It's not often you get to hear two Mozart operas "live" in a single weekend. When one of them is the seldom performed opera seria  Idomeneo, and the Saint Paul Chanber Orchestra happens to be performing Mozart's 41st symphony on the same weekend, you've got a genuine, if fortuitous, Mozart festival on your hands.

Reading Alfred Einstein's A Short History of Music during my college days, I was surprised that he devoted so much of the book  to opera. Over the years I've warmed to the genre. Well, opera isn't a genre, better to call it a universe.  Monteverdi's operas don't sound much like Mozart's, and Wagner's don't much resemble those of his close contemporary Verdi, much less the operas of Britten or Berg.

I cut my teeth on Don Giovanni, Otello, Carmen, and a few other classics. Then bel canto. Puccini and the verists came later, and opera seria last of all. Nowadays I thoroughly enjoy those early, static works based on mythological themes,  and I seek out opportunities to watch not only Handel's Italian operas and the few Gluck works that are still being performed, but whatever obscure opera from that era happens to be in town. Our own local troupe, Consortium Carrissimi, recently did Il Tirinto, an obscure opera by Bernardo Pasquini.  It was a knock-out. 

Mozart's Idomeneo is one of the last of that breed, and historians tell us that he broke the mold in the process of composing it, removing repetitive sections and shortening arias to heighten the dramatic effect. The result is a robust piece of musical theater, sui generis.

Yet the plot is nothing special.  Indomedeo, returning to Crete from the Trojan War, averts a storm at sea by vowing to sacrifice the first person he sees after landing safely to the sea god Neptune. Who should he meet up with on the beach but his son, Idamante. Idamante already has trouble on his hands—he's fallen in love with Ilia, one of the captives brought home to Crete from Troy, to the dismay of Electra, who's been doting on him for quite a while. While Idomedeo dithers, reluctant to specify whom he's going to have to sacrifice, a plague scours the island.

These awkward situations produce a succession of arias, noble and plaintive by turns, which is what we came to hear. Though the soloists were students, they were advanced vocal students, and they sounded fine to me. As did the orchestra. The choral interludes offered a welcome change of pace. I can hardly think of a better way to spend three hours.

I saw a woman across the aisle with a legal pad in her lap, and I couldn't resist asking her what she was up to. Critiquing the performance?  Turns out it was Lara Bolton,  a voice coach associated with the production (and also the Minnesota Opera, Source Song Festival, etc.).

"Which cast member are you related to?" she asked me.

"Nobody," I replied. "We just came to see the performance."

She wasn't shocked, but she was surprised. "Really? I wish more people would come out for these events."

The audience was indeed sparse. And the event had been featured in the Star-Tribune!  

 The Marriage of Figaro was a different story. Though the tickets were more expensive by a power of ten, the place was packed.  Of course, the opera is one of the most popular in the repertoire. Unlike the slightly staid and formal Idomeneo, Figaro is full of hijinks, intrigue, exuberance, and mistaken identities, often silly, occasionally tender or sinister, but also crossing over the line freely into farce.

To my mind, everything in this production worked, from the sets and staging to the individual characterizations and the on-stage logistics. There is so much going on that the challenge lies in preserving the humanity and good sense of the characters. The Count Almaviva that we saw was a conniving rake—there's no escaping that side of his character—but his lecherous instincts were less vicious than in some productions. By the same token, Cherubino's adolescent libidinousness was not so jazzed up as it sometimes is, and this, too, is a good thing. He reminded us that love is a good and natural and almost innocent thing, whatever dishonorable and devious paths it might eventually take.

In contrast, the recent production of Figaro at the Met was hypercharged to the point of feverish excess, and the revolving stage only added to the dismal effect. I saw it twice—once a simulcast at a cineplex in Brooklin Center and later on public television; both times I left at intermission. It was as if everyone had grown bored with the music, or forgotten what it was about.

The Minnesota Opera's production had just the right tone,  The revolving facades worked. The lighting of the candles worked. The countesses arias were sublime, and the trios and quartets, during which every character is saying something different, were electrifying. The only criticism I would have is that the supertitles were too brief and rudimentary to give a nuanced sense of what was being said.

I found the machinations of the last act incomprehensible, and quit trying to figure out who was trying to seduce or impersonate whom in the shadows of the Count's garden. All's well that ends well. Time to settle back and enjoy the music.

I hope I'm not giving away too much of the plot.    

Thursday, November 16, 2017

November - National Poetry Month

National poetry month? I know what you're going to say. Fake news!

In fact, I'm simply making a modest proposal that poetry month be shifted from April, when there's already a good deal of poetry in the air, to November, when we could actually use a few blasts of it from the printed page.

New books of poetry appear in significant numbers at this time of year, their authors (and publishers) hoping for sales from shoppers looking for something light and relatively inexpensive to get for Aunt Tillie, who is never going to make her way through the new biography of U.S. Grant, though she might enjoy the new Sharon Chmielarz collection, little eternities.  

I'm not trying to suggest that poetry is invariably sweet, frivolous, and inconsequential. More often people complain that poetry is unnecessarily difficult and bewildering. I would argue that whatever else it is, poetry is of the essence of life. It is never theoretical, never political, always actual. Description becomes speech, thought becomes drama. The unstated punch-line of every poem is something on the order of "Well I'll be darned!" or "Who would have thought it?"

There are times, however, when the latent drama of poetry is difficult to summons. The words lie flat, the rhythm eludes us, we're wondering what the "point" is. November is also a time of poetry readings, as authors set up events to promote their new works.

Hilary and I attended several last week. On Monday Michael Dennis Browne read at Magers & Quinn from Chimes, his new collection of shorter poems. "I am a happy man tonight," he said, and it was easy to see why. His children were there, including his son, who flew in from California as a surprise. There were old friends like Louis Jenkins and Norita Dittberner-Jax, and new collaborators like composer David Evan Thomas and Nodin Press publisher Norton Stillman.

Michael told us stories about his father and mother—stories you won't find in the book. The poems in the collection are drawn from every phase in his career, and Michael was clearly relishing the return journey, though he also read one more recent bitter-sweet poem in which he imagines his family sitting around the fire at the cabin once he's gone.

A few days later we stopped in at Common Good Books to hear a trio of poets: Joyce Sutphen, Tim Nolan, and Sharon Chmielarz, read from their books. Their styles could not have been more different. Joyce has a twinkly eye and a slow, soft delivery, Tim used the blunt comedic approach to good effect, and Sharon reminded me of my senior high English teacher, Mrs. Deutsch, a tall and stern but kindly woman whose insights into literature went far beyond anything we could comprehend.

Poems about cats, envelopes of time, shit, a yellow tea cup, an uncooperative alarm clock.  A good mix. We ran into Mike Hazard and his wife, Tressa, on the street before the reading and had a pleasant chat. (Mike took the photo of Joyce Sutphen you see below.)

I get the impression that most of the people who attend these events know the artists on stage as friends, teachers, fellow-travelers, but that's not a bad thing. Rather, it's a community get-together, made more interesting by the fact that the specific attendees who show up differ from event to event. To me, the important thing is to hear the words given a face and a voice, embodied in a delivery. New Critics be damned, the tone of the accompanying banter also adds to the effect.

When we got home from the event, I took Mike's book, The World Is Not Altogether Bad, and read a few poems to Hilary while she chopped some onions for the frozen pizza. 

We spent a few days at a cabin on the south shore of Lake Superior recently, and while we were there I was reminded that decades ago I wrote a poem about the nearby village of Port Wing. When we got home I scoured the basement "archives" and found it before long, in the midst of other scraps of juvenilia. I was inspired by the discovery to assemble a collection of my own work—thirty poems in forty years. I formatted the ones that seemed half-decent into a little book that will be available on Amazon soon. (Oh, goody!) The rest I dumped into the trash.

The last line of the port wing poem always bothered me, and it still does. Wrong rhythm, wrong effect. If you can think of an alternative please let me know soon, before I go ahead and approve the proof.

Here it is:

Port Wing

A stark white church near a wet highway.
The wooden floor of a grocery.
Whitefish wrapped in butcher-paper.
A squat, fieldstone bungalow.

Acres of pasture, dotted with homes.
A pine belt. Tourist cabins—For Sale.
Reeds, a bridge, a cluster of glamourless
Boats; a fisherman, reeling in.

At Port Wing, a red berry or a
Flock of cedar waxwings in a tree
Takes on a quality of madness...
endless waves against the levee.  

Friday, November 3, 2017

Minneapolis: Top Ten World City?

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal ranked Minneapolis among the top ten travel destinations in the world. Amazing. We were planning a trip to the Greek islands, but decided to stay home and save the money.

Readers in the Twin Cities immediately made light of a Top Ten list that included not only Minneapolis but also Kuelap, Peru, and the Faroe Islands, which have no trees and specialize in whale blubber. But we ought to keep in mind that people in Kuelap are saying the same thing in reverse: "So what if we appear in a list that also includes ... Minneapolis? Where is that, anyway?" 

The article focuses on Minneapolis's trendy food scene, of which I have no knowledge. I used to work in the warehouse district on the north loop, where many new restaurants have sprung up amid the condo conversions and new construction, but in those days fine dining options were limited to Cuzzy's and Archie's Bunker.

The Journal made a point of excluding St. Paul from its litany of praises. That's stupid. Minneapolis and St. Paul are parts of a single conurbation consisting of a conglomeration of neighborhoods widely differing in atmosphere.

(Click map for a larger view)
In the interests of promoting world brotherhood, sisterhood, and general fellow-feeling,  I thought it might be useful to mention a few affordable neighborhood spots that Hilary and I visited this year, in case visitors from Madagascar and Dundee grow tired of the obligatory valet parking at the flashy new dining hotspots downtown and decide to venture out into the workaday parts of the city.

The focus here is on lunch, Happy Hour, easy parking, outdoor seating, and general ambiance. Food? Yes, the food tends to be good.


1) Draft Horse: The building is located in a vacant lot, and was formerly a stable for Grain Belt Brewery. It has a nice terrace, and you can often park right across the street. It sits next door to the Food Building, home to Red Table Meat Co. and Baker's Field Flour & Bread. Hence the charcuterie platter is pretty good, though I'm also a fan of the root vegetable salad. And the house-made chips.

Charcuterie board at Draft Horse
2) Café Alma: The word Yuppie comes to mind when you enter this lively café, which has lots of light and a long exposed brick wall. I can recall a whitefish tartine with fried egg that's no longer on the menu. I ought to try to lamb burger.

3) Hazel's: The perfect breakfast café, way up on 26th and Johnson, family-run Hazel's moved into the neighborhood after several decades way out in Alexandria.

4) Ginger Hop: A Thai place with an paneled, English-pub style bar on one side, a calm, spacious restaurant space on the other, and a more-than-decent Happy Hour.

5) Eli's: A triangular bar/cafe at the bend in East Hennepin Avenue with a black-and-white linoleum floor and an excellent menu.


6) Ward 6: It sits on a rise overlooking St. Paul, but looking out from the terrace you could easily be in Milwaukee or Detroit. It might be the best neighborhood place in the Cities, but it's a long ways from my neighborhood, and  I've only been there twice, so it's hard to say.

7) Delicata: A small but stylish service-counter place in a residential neighborhood between Como Park and the fairgrounds with distinctive pizzas and snacks.

8) St. Paul Grill: I revived my long-dormant hovering skills at the bar of this downtown institution and snagged a table for four during the MPR 50th Anniversary block party. The $14 martini knocked me for a loop, but the tremendous burger returned me to fine form for the Dessa concert going on outside.

9) Finnish Bistro: Lying in the heart of the St. Anthony Park neighborhood, it's the perfect place for a robust sandwich or some flaky pastry at a sidewalk table on a sunny Sunday morning. Ask anyone.

Sandcastle, on Lake Nokomis

11) Sand Castle: A picturesque café by the beach, featuring tacos, pulled pork sandwiches, and hot dogs garnished with tiny sweet/hot peppers. Enjoy your lunch while watching people trying to enjoy themselves on rented paddleboards out on the lake.

10) Soberfish: This Thai-sushi place on East Franklin has nice interior spaces, an interesting clientele, and a good Happy Hour—the ideal stop before a recital at nearby Ferguson Hall on the West Bank.

12) Fika: Herring and beets and gravlax and pickled onions and dill and all things Scandinavian, prepared with skill and presented with elán in the lobby of the American Swedish Institute.

13) It's Greek to Me: Here the outdoor garden patio is the thing, with gurgling fountains drowning out the traffic noise from Lyndale Avenue, just beyond the wrought iron grate.


14) Irving and Lake: A relaxing, unpretentious restaurant/bar in an increasingly hoity-toity part of town, it's a good place to enjoy a Happy Hour before attending a reading at nearby Magers & Quinn.

The lamb hash at Harriet Brasserie
15) Harriet Brasserie: Located in a former firehouse tucked on a side-street in the Upton neighborhood, this very small restaurant must rely on neighborhood walk-ins, since there's little on-street parking nearby. The lamb hash, with soft-poached egg, carrots, celery, sweet potatoes, corn, onions, mint dressing, and hollandaise sauce, is memorable. 

The wood-fired pizza at Sparks
 16) Sparks: Sequestered in the mysterious Bryn Mawr neighborhood, this mellow café devoted to wood oven cooking is on the way to nowhere, but the Happy Hour pizzas have an interesting cornmeal-tinged crust.