Monday, July 14, 2014

Lorin Maazel: 1930 - 2014

Lorin Maazel, principle conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1972-1982, died on Sunday, July 13th, at the age of 84. 

Sadly, I never saw Maazel conduct in person.  He was scheduled to conduct in Cleveland several years ago, but he cancelled.  I saw him on television numerous times and took note of his unshowy, natural baton technique.  Not for him the marionette on strings approach of Furtwangler or orgasmic histrionics of Bernstein.  Maazel was a born conductor, and probably the most prominent example of a prodigy conductor in history.  He was also, according to those who heard him, a damned fine violinist – and was fluent in at least six languages.  The man was off the charts brilliant.

I also have many of his recordings – most with the Cleveland Orchestra.  It cannot have been easy for Maazel to take over the orchestra, which had been without a regular conductor for two years after George Szell’s death in 1970.  His selection, made by the board without consulting the orchestra, was controversial.  
Maazel maintained the technical quality of the orchestra (first raised to top five in America status by Artur Rodzinski, then elevated to top five in the world by Szell), while broadening its sound and diversifying its repertoire.  With a few exceptions like the Barber Piano Concerto and selected works by Dutilleux, Szell left most newer music to guest conductors like Pierre Boulez – while he concentrated on the core 18th and 19th Century Austro-Germanic repertoire.   Thus, when Maazel started programming showpieces like Respighi’s Pines of Rome and championed Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the more conservative types in Cleveland’s music scene brought their knives out.  One critic even took to referring to Maazel as “childe Lorin” – a snide reference to his prodigy years.  The truth is, Maazel was magnificent in these works, and his recordings of them - along with his Shostakovich 5th Symphony, Tchaikovsky 4th and Romeo & Juliet, and Scriabin Poem of Ecstasy - remain well-nigh definitive.  But there were other instances where he seemed to be going through the motions, such as the 1970s Beethoven Symphony cycle and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.  Further, some interpretations were downright wayward, including Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  Everything was, of course, fabulously played.  While it may be fashionable to give all credit to the Cleveland Orchestra, it’s also worth pointing out I heard numerous fluffed brass notes and splattery entrances under Maazel’s successor, Christoph von Dohnányi.  As an NBC Symphony player once remarked about Toscanini, “He spoke with the stick, and you just couldn't miss with that stick”.  The same could have been said of Maazel.  The New York Philharmonic and Pittsburgh Symphony seldom played for anyone else as well as they played for Maazel.    Most conductors bust their behinds to memorize scores and arrive at an interpretation.  Not so for Maazel.  In a way, it could be said that Maazel’s incredible facility – the ease with which he memorized scores, his perfect rhythmic sense, his unerring ear for balance – came at a cost.  Without the struggle inherent in the work of most musicians, his music making sometimes lacked the last sense of depth in the music that most required it.  But when he was “on”, it was an astonishing experience.

I am including here reviews which I wrote for three of Maazel’s Telarc CDs.  They provide an interesting glimpse of his Cleveland years.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

LeBron's return - icing on the cake

It was inevitable, I suppose, that I would comment on what’s been hyped as the Cleveland news story of the century (which, I remind all, is only 14 years old): LeBron James is returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

I am neither elated nor particularly surprised by his return. The story of LeBron’s departure, self-discovery, and return to the home of his birth is neither revelatory nor especially unique. Even as he made the announcement four years ago that caused Cavaliers fans to set his jersey alight, I thought "he'll be back". I know of countless people who left Northeast Ohio, only to return when they realized much of the rest of the country is too expensive, too congested, and populated with people less friendly than we.

I’m one of those boomerangs. I left the Cleveland area, fresh out of high school, for New England. For nine years, I studied, struggled, sowed my wild oats, loved, had my heart broken, enjoyed a brief taste of success, experienced failure, and generally learned those facts of life which weren’t taught in school. Family obligations brought about my return to Cleveland, and when I came back, I had an air of condescension along with a new assertiveness that bordered on abrasiveness – the result of living nine years in greater Boston. The place, like any place, rubs off on you.

 A year before I returned to Cleveland, I visited to bury my mother. Even through my grief I could discern the beginning stages of the rebirth of downtown Cleveland. That rebirth continued in starts and stops over two decades, and in the four years before “the Chosen One” announced his return, became a juggernaut. That’s why I object to the notion, perpetrated by the national media, that LeBron James' return is single handedly "rescuing" Cleveland's economy. Rescuing it from what? Cleveland’s decades long resurgence has continued whatever the performance of the local sports teams - and that recovery would have continued even if James' hadn't made his very welcome announcement. The national media's tendency to focus on one man merely betrays their ignorance of anything that happens in flyover country. There's more to America than the I-95 corridor on one side and California on the other, and in the final analysis, James’ return is icing on the cake.

I have blogged before concerning my reservations about how Cleveland and Cuyahoga County have given away the store to recruit/retain professional athletic franchises. Despite my happiness at LeBron James’ return, I continue to hold those opinions. Sports teams are only one aspect of downtown development. First Energy Stadium has a capacity of 71,516. Last season, the Browns played 16 games, about half of which were played at home. Assuming the stadium is filled to capacity, that’s about 572,000 visitors over the course of a year. That’s the equivalent of 2,200 employees working in Cleveland five days a week – a figure which is easily accomplished if Cleveland’s civic leaders put their minds to it. As I've said elsewhere, Cleveland needs to do a better job of recruiting businesses, in which people come downtown for work every day. George Voinovich really blew it when he wouldn't play ball with Peter Lewis, who wanted to build Progressive's headquarters downtown - and there are other examples. It's all very nice that Progressive’s east side employees can enjoy an easy commute to Mayfield Village, not so nice for those on the west side. That is but one of many examples. But enough griping about the past. We can file that under “lessons learned”.

 On behalf of the boomerang club: Welcome home, LeBron.  At least his return is a distraction from that annoying Johnny Manziel.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Health and the Presidency

The bulk of this post was written before Karl Rove made several idiotic comments relating to Hillary Clinton's health.

Today would have been the 97th birthday of John F. Kennedy. Even if JFK had not been stolen from us, he would almost certainly not have lived to our era. He suffered from a genetic defect (probably Autoimmune polyendocrine syndrome type II – also known as Schmidt’s syndrome) which decimated his immune system and adrenal glands (Addison’s disease), and caused a plethora of other maladies – leaving him subject to every bug that came along, and chronically deprived of energy. Kennedy was also born with one leg shorter than the other – the root cause of his back pain, which was exacerbated by a football injury, a war injury, medications he took for his Addison’s disease, and two steel rods which were inserted in 1954 to shore up his spine. He was given Last Rites three times during the course of his short life. The host of medications necessary to keep him functional - including Cortizone (both oral and injected), Lomotil, Peregoric, Phenobarbital, Testosterone, Trasentine, Tuinal, and various amphetamines – would keep your local pharmacist in business. Needless to say, very little of this information was shared with the American people during Kennedy’s lifetime. Just as most Americans of FDR’s time thought the 32nd President had mostly recovered from polio and merely walked with a limp, JFK’s contemporaries thought he was in fine health, save for back pain he suffered as the result of war injuries.

I share this information to make two points:

1). Historically, a President’s physical health has had almost no impact on job performance. Consider our leaders who faced serious illness while in office: Grover Cleveland (cancer), Franklin Roosevelt (paralysis, heart failure), Eisenhower (heart attack, stroke, ileitis), and Kennedy. Now consider those who were physically healthy: Herbert Hoover, Jerry Ford, George W. Bush

2). Whatever the defects in JFK’s character, and they were considerable, he was still a great and heroic man. It would have been the easiest thing for JFK to live the life of a charming invalid; coasting on his father’s success and money, and taking a meaningless desk job. No one would have questioned if this sick young man chose to languish in quiet insignificance. Instead, Kennedy pursued what Theodore Roosevelt (another sick young man who willed himself into action) called “the vigorous life”. During World War II, Kennedy pulled strings to get into the Navy despite physical issues that disqualified him, and became a genuine hero when his ship was sunk by a Japanese destroyer. As President, he projected an image of youth and vigor that was in contrast to his sad medical reality. President Kennedy inspired a generation to national service, fought for civil rights, skillfully negotiated a peaceful settlement to the Cuban Missile Crisis, encouraged the arts & culture, and set man on a course for the moon. Can anyone imagine what would have become of the United States, the world, if Richard Nixon - a physically healthy but mentally and emotionally unstable man – had been elected in 1960?

Our nation is better off for having had JFK’s leadership – and worse off because he left us far too soon.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A 32 Hour Ohio Trip

Viewing the Presidential Planes gallery from the entry to SAM26000. I could definitely get used to this view.

Just before 7:00 AM Sunday, Dan & I bundled into the Element for a quick trip to Dayton. (Mason was boarded in a home provided by FlipFlop dogs, a wonderful service which I heartily recommend to dog owners.)

We arrived at the National Museum of the United States Air Force around 10:00 AM, giving us some time to look around before boarding a bus to another section of Wright-Patterson Air Force base.

The World War II hangar displays planes and other artifacts from the war. Not just American planes, including the Bockscar, which dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, but German and Japanese planes are included as well.
Plane nomenclature was not politically correct in the 1940s.

After about an hour, we headed out to view the Presidential Plane and Research & Development hangars. Billed as the Presidential Airlift, the former contains several prominent planes used by Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.

The Sacred Cow was a modified Douglas C-54 Skymaster which carried FDR to the Yalta conference in 1945. (The aircraft which took him to Casablanca in 1943 was a modified Boeing 314 flying boat, but the Secret Service was leery of that model’s poor safety record and mandated a better plane for further Presidential flights.) The entry way to the Sacred Cow was short and I banged my head as I entered it. That was not something FDR would have had to deal with as there is an elevator that lifted him, in his wheelchair, from ground level to the flight level. As I walked through the fuselage, I was struck by how modest the interior was. The CEO of even a mid-size company would have more luxurious accommodations today.
The entryway to the Sacred Cow. Watch your head.

FDR's accommodations on the Sacred Cow were very modest by today's standards.

As the presidency grew, the Sacred Cow was outgrown and Harry Truman commissioned a C-118 Liftmaster, which he christened the Independence and outfitted with a color scheme which presaged today’s Air Force One. The plane had better accommodations, including a multi-line intercom.

The Presidential plane continued to grow as Eisenhower commissioned a Lockheed C121 Constellation, named the Columbine III by his wife Mamie, after the official state flower of Colorado. I suspect Mamie Eisenhower had a hand in decorating the interior of the plans as well, outfitted with chintz sofas and drab colors – no style at all. (I didn't bother taking a picture.) 

SAM26000, a modified Boeing 707, is arguably the most famous of the Presidential Planes. Jacqueline Kennedy recommended the designer who came up with details including the font on the exterior (based on the font used on the Declaration of Independence), along with the exterior and interior color scheme – both of which have been carried over into the present day Air Force One. First used in 1962, SAM26000 was seared into our national memory in archival films of President and Mrs. Kennedy exiting the plane to a cheering Dallas crowd On November 22, 1963 - with his coffin being carried onto the plane a scant three hours later. Members of President Kennedy’s staff had to remove four of the seats and saw away part of the bulkhead to accommodate his coffin.

I found the R&D hangar to be less interesting. Most of the aircraft were one-offs which never got put into actual production – and probably shouldn’t have made it past the drawing board. Viewing some of the bizarre looking planes, I could only muse at the huge tax expenditures for the military-industrial complex. It served as a reminder that while the United States spends more on the military than the next ten nations combined, we still can’t provide full health care for those who serve – to say nothing of countless uninsured civilians.

From the museum, Dan & I went to a concert with the Dayton Philharmonic, led by Neal Gittelman, at the Masonic Temple - a beautiful building containing a lovely hall with fine acoustics. The music included Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro overture, the Piano Concerto in C minor, K. 491 - with my friend Zsolt Bognár as soloist - and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

In my opinion, the C minor is the greatest of all Mozart’s piano concertos. It’s highly innovative, with an opening theme which covers all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. The central Larghetto is one of the few slow movements in a Mozart piano concerto which doesn’t need embellishment. The finale, a theme and variations, is among the darkest movements Mozart ever wrote, and the minor key ending is a rarity in a piano concerto. The whole work carries an emotional resonance that most of the other piano concertos, beautiful and finely written as they are, lack. Zsolt played the cadenza by Hummel, which Rubinstein also used – although the elder pianist trimmed a few bars toward the end. Zsolt’s performance was very fine, exquisitely scaled and balanced, with just the right amount of dramatic tension and pointed phrasing. The Dayton Philharmonic is a fine regional orchestra, with a surprisingly strong string section.

If there’s any piece of classical music one can refer to as overplayed, it’s Beethoven’s 5th. Not merely is the 5th overplayed in terms of frequency, but often it’s over-interpreted. For example, there is a phrase in the third movement where Beethoven indicates a ritardando toward the end. In too many performances led by too many conductors (who shall remain nameless), the pulse starts to slow early on in the phrase, well before the spot in the score where the composer placed the ritardando indication. In effect, the conductor is telegraphing Beethoven’s punches! I was relieved to hear that Maestro Gittleman interpreted the work as indicated, as did Toscanini before him. The work on the whole was briskly paced, with a riveting finale.
Zsolt signing copies of his CD after the concert.

After a relaxing evening and good night’s sleep, Dan & I headed to the Book Loft in Columbus. This is the kind of book store I’d have loved to work in, rather than the purgatorial chain store where I wasted four years of my professional life. The set of historic pre-Civil war buildings, with its 32 rooms of books and cubby holes, is the ideal place to browse away one’s day. After shopping there and leaving with an armful of literary booty, we strolled the German Village neighborhood. It’s ironic that, even as I have embarked upon more distant travel recently, there are nearby regions I have not explored. My parents used to regularly take the family to Columbus when I was a young child to visit my great aunt and her husband. But I can count the number of times I’ve been to Columbus as an adult on the fingers of one hand. It’s a lovely, ideally sized city, which I intend to visit more often. Indeed, from what I’ve seen were it not for my job and the Cleveland Orchestra, I could well envision myself living in Columbus.

We arrived home in South Euclid a few minutes before 3:00 pm, St. Patrick’s Day. A whirlwind trip!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Is 2014 the year for marriage equality in Ohio?

My spouse and I just filed our tax returns. Thanks to the 2013 Supreme Court ruling, for the first time, we were able to file our federal return as a married couple. Because of Ohio’s retrograde restrictions on same sex marriage, we had to file separately in Ohio - along with a special form advising why. Without delving into too much personal detail, the process was far more costly and time consuming than in the past. But it was worth the time and money involved, knowing that our 2010 Vermont marriage is recognized by the Federal government. It’s also worth the effort we’re putting into getting our end-of-life documents in order – something opposite sex married couples don’t necessarily need to do.

One group, FreedomOhio, has been collecting signatures to get the Freedom to Marry amendment on the ballot this year. FreedomOhio has received a great deal of pushback from state and national LGBT organizations, including Equality Ohio, the Human Rights Campaign, and even the American Civil Liberties Union. These groups contend that there are problems with the ballot language and the timing, and prefer to wait until 2016 to push their own amendment.

 As is often the case, there are valid arguments on both sides.

The verbiage of the proposed amendment IS poor. The religious exemption could be used in ways that are harmful to the LGBT community, particularly given the growing prevalence in religiously affiliated hospitals here. On the other hand, HRC and the other big money gay groups have lawyers on hand who could have hammered out the correct language before the petition drive began. Why didn’t they? That’s open to speculation, and I have my own opinion - which I will expand upon below.

 The argument that one can get married in another state and have it recognized Federally, or that 2016 is only two more years, gives little comfort to those with a dying loved one or otherwise going through a life changing event.

 I believe if Ohio voters had a chance to vote on the issue this year, 2004’s Issue 1 would be repealed and same sex marriage legalized – so long as the ballot issue received adequate support from the larger LGBT organizations. This isn’t based on some Pollyanna notion that all of Ohio has suddenly become enlightened, but on hard data from numerous polls. Indeed, as Ohio is a microcosm of the country as a whole, there are parts of the state that are shockingly backwards, as well as more progressive areas. But the tide has shifted in Ohio as it has in much of the country.

The last few years have seen tremendous progress for the LGBT community: Hate Crimes Legislation, two historic Supreme Court rulings, and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In all cases, it took the activists to get the ball rolling, often with HRC and the other high profile groups cautioning that it wasn’t time yet before finally being dragged into the party. When HRC’s Joe Solomonese was replaced by Chad Griffin, I had faint hopes that HRC would start to push more – but thus far that hasn’t been the case. They continue to take the “wait for the perfect time” approach, hunker down in their $16 million headquarters, and plan their next black-tie fundraiser. But there is seldom a perfect time in politics – and we oughtn’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. The optimal time could sneak up on us when we least expect it, even in Ohio. Like it or not, Ohio is a bellwether state. If SSM passes in Ohio (specifically by vote, rather than a judicial ruling), it would have a huge impact on the national marriage debate. The dominoes would start to fall very quickly. 

Essentially, there are two pieces of unfinished business remaining on the LGBT political agenda (as opposed to social issues, like bullying and teen suicide, where we still have a long way to go): nationwide marriage equality, and equal accommodations in employment, housing, credit, and the like. Once these political hurdles are jumped, there will be little reason for groups like HRC to exist. And I think they fear that even more than anti-gay discrimination.