Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Magnificent Minnesota Orchestra – A World Class Ensemble

My mind has been on the Minnesota Orchestra lately. It all started with the third collection of Mercury Living Presence recordings, issued four or five months ago.  A number of those featured 1950s recordings of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, as it was then called, under the baton of Antal Dorati. I listened to these in wonder. I remember how good the sound was, but I hadn’t remembered how very excellent an orchestra Dorati was leading. In listening to the Beethoven “Eroica” Symphony and the Brahms second I was constantly amazed at the virtuosity and beauty  of tone the orchestra provided.

Beethoven Vanska

Flash forward four music directors (Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Sir Neville Marriner, Edo de Waart, and Eije Oue) to the present. I had the opportunity to download the Beethoven symphonies with Osmo Vanska, the current music director, conducting. Once again, I was undeniably impressed. I can’t understand why the Minnesota Orchestra is not spoken of in the same sentence with the Boston Symphony or the New York Philharmonic. In these Beethoven symphonies it plays just as well. The woodwinds are lovely and virtuosic, the horns are as good a section as I’ve heard anywhere; their playing in the famous trio to the third movement of the “Eroica,” as good as any I have ever heard. The string passages that skitter around in various movements are difficult but tossed aside like child’s play in Minnesota. There are Beethoven cycles as good as this, but there is none better. Surely if I have a yen to hear the “Pastoral” Symphony, it will now be Vanska and and the Minnesota Orchestra to whom I turn. Note: on disc the symphonies are Hybrid SACD.

Heldenleben Oue

As coincidence would have it, just as I finished the Beethoven cycle I had occasion to download a 16 bit/44.1 kHz FLAC file from HDtracks of the Reference Recordings release of Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben with the Minnesota Orchestra and its former music director, Eije Oue (also available on Reference Recordings HDCD RR-83). And in this, too, the orchestra covered itself in glory. Lush, detailed, exciting, and heroic are all words that come to mind to describe this performance. The download also included a suite of interludes from the opera Die Frau Ohne Schatten, which is awesome, dramatic, and romantic music we should hear more often! BIS did a good job at recording the Beethoven, but Reference Recordings does even better with the Strauss, as well as the many other recordings Oue made during his Minnesota tenure. Overall, my listening adventure from Dorati to Vanska and in between proved one thing to me, the Minnesota Orchestra is a national treasure. East coast snobs should listen to it more often and admit that it has earned its place in the “top five.”


“Mr. Robot” – Must watch TV

I saw the first episode of Mr. Robot (USA) last night and was pretty blown away by it. But then I’ve always had a little rabble rousing in my DNA. One of my best friends when i was in Jr. High School in Chapel Hill was against the establishment and wanted to hire an airplane to drop anti government fliers over the UNC Campus. I sort of like the idea. The hero of Mr. Robot is Elliot (Rami Malek) a young man hired by E Corporation to protect its server systems. Only Elliot by night is a cyber vigilante who hacks accounts, ferrets out evil, and confronts the perpetrators with their own files.

Mr. Robot 2

Anti Corporation Elliot is recruited by anti corporation Mr. Robot (Christian Slater, in a role ideally suited to him) who has elaborate plans to do a karate chop to  E Corp and others by de-funding all corporate entities. Elliot is supposed to defend E Corp but in the essential voice  overs that run in his brain, we find out he really calls it Evil Corp. Some of the language against corporations is tough (one might even think Michael Moore was hired as a consultant),  and the pacing is brisk. Through all is Rami Malek, who mesmerizes. You won’t be able to take your eyes off him just like you won’t be able to drop Mr. Robot once you’ve started viewing. You’ve been warned.

“Poldark” – Must See Summer Entertainment from PBS

Poldark is a remake of an earlier BBC series, and both are based on a series of novels by Winston Graham. Ross Poldark fights in the American Revolution, body on the English side but heart on the American, and gets severely wounded and left for dead. Two years later, very much alive but with a scar to prove his nearness to the grave, he returns home to Cornwall to find that his father has died, his inheritance is next to nothing, and his girl, thinking him dead, is about to marry another man. He sets out to reinvent himself and once again become a recognized leader in his community.


The actor playing Poldark must hold the screen whenever he appears and smouldering Irish actor Aidan Turner fills the bill, reminding us that in spite of the popularity of Magic Mike, hirsute  men can still reign as sex symbols. Like the old Bond saying, women will want to be with Poldark, men will want to be him.  Turner’s Poldark has swagger and then some. The other characters are ideally cast and the magnificent, craggy Cornwall coast also plays a great part in the visual impact that this series has. The photography is stunning and the period details feel entirely real; the costumes look lived in. PBS is airing the show on Masterpiece at 9 p. m. on Sundays. One episode has gone down – use “on demand” for that and set your DVR for the rest.


FX – “The Strain” Will Terrify You

I can’t believe that a sci-fi/horror film geek like myself missed the whole first season of this remarkable, and oh so very scary show. Gosh, it was created by Guillermo del Toro, one of my favorite horror directors who directed The Devil’s Backbone, one of the greatest ghost story movies ever made and Pan’s Labyrinth, one of the greatest fantasy film stories

The Strain 1

ever made. And it stars Corey Stoll, who was so brilliant in the first season of House of Cards. No cost has been spared to created great, sometimes gruesome special effects. Del Toro himself tautly directs the first episode.

The story starts when an airplane arrives on the New York tarmac with all but four passengers dead. A virus is feared and that’s right, but it turns out to be a disease that was totally unexpected. There are vampires of a special sort loose and the infected passengers begin to infect other people and on and on it goes. Stoll plays a CDC inspector who finds out the truth and through circumstance draws a small band of people in to help him. One of these is an elderly professor who has had experience with this plague during World War II when he was a Jewish prisoner of war. It is The Master, pictured below, who has started everything rolling and it is The Master who was on that plane. Prepare for a few jolts in this

The strain 2

adult series (watch it when your kids are safely in bed asleep).  Prominent characters bite the dust, characters are forced to do things they find unpalatable, and it’s often all about survival. Season two premieres Joly 12 at 10 p. m. on FX . But don’t go in unarmed, you have time now to binge on Season 1. Hulu (Called Hulu Plus until earlier this week. Now the Plus has been dropped)  has all 13 episodes which makes its modest monthly fee seem quite low. While you’re there you can also binge on the first three seasons of Spiral, the gritty French crime procedural. That makes Hulu pennies an episode, and they have a lot more, too, including a huge collection of Criterion films and some very old TV shows in great shape.

Note: The first photo above is the original promotion art forf season 1 but it was withdrawn. I can’t imagine why. One of the ways the vampires can infect a person is to splatter these tiny “worms” that can enter the body through the nose, ear, or yes, the eye.


For Summer – Happy Haydn, Merry Mozart

When we think of Mozart or Haydn, we’re likely to initially focus on one of their more serious works, perhaps the Requiem for Mozart and The Creation for Haydn. But both composers wrote a lot of music that’s simply fun to play and fun to listen to and this charming CD from Hyperion presents three such offerings. From Mozart it’s the concerto for bassoon and the concerto for oboe, written earlier in the composer’s career. For Haydn, it’s the Sinfonia Concertante in B Flat for violin, cello, oboe, bassoon, and orchestra, written during the composer’s later career, on one of his trips to London arranged by the impresario Johann Peter Salomon.

Haydn-Sinfonia Concertante Arcangelo

These are all wonderful works to hear when you need something happy. Highlights include the free and joyous spirit of the last movement of Mozart’s oboe concerto (later arranged for flute, by the way), the opening of the bassoon concerto with brilliant horns riding the wave of the orchestra, and the last movement of Haydn’s piece in which we find almost all of the master’s tricks of the trade – the hesitant, teasing opening, sudden modulations into another key, and a rude interruption form the full orchestra. It wasn’t just Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 that had the surprises, it was just about all of them! The period instrument performances by the chamber orchestra Arcangelo, conducted by Jonathan Cohen,  fully realize the grace and humor of this music and all of the soloists are brilliant. The recorded sound is intimate yet fairly reverberant in a warming way. This was my first experience with Arcangelo and I surely hope it will not be my last. Bravo for bringing a hearty smile to summer!