Sunday, November 18, 2018

Kabeláč, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich under Hrůša at Severance

During the early 1940s, George Szell was one of many musicians displaced by the war in Europe and living in the United States.  Arturo Toscanini, by then a living legend and head of the NBC Symphony, invited Szell to guess conduct his orchestra in 1941.  Szell led two concerts, one of which can be heard here.  The rehearsals for those concerts were fraught, as Toscanini did not approve of Szell’s rehearsal technique and let Szell know in explosive terms.  But the quality of the NBC performance under Szell speaks for itself.  Contrast that with Szell’s own behavior two decades later.  By then, Toscanini was dead, Szell was music director of the Cleveland Orchestra and had raised their standards to the point that Cleveland was considered to have the best orchestra in the United States – perhaps even the world.  Leopold Stokowski, as much a living legend as Toscanini had been and a polar opposite to Szell musically, visited for a series of guest concerts.  Szell was present at the first rehearsal as the mercurial conductor began altering balances and encouraged the strings to bow freely.  The orchestra manager, sitting next to Szell, feared Szell may explode much as Toscanini had done in 1941.  Instead, as Stokowski began conducting a Cleveland Orchestra that suddenly sounded like the pre-1936 Philadelphia Orchestra, Szell looked toward the manager and smiled.  In Szell’s smile was the implication that “his” orchestra could turn on a dime and serve the musical needs of any conductor. 

Last night’s concert, under guest conductor Jakub Hrůša and dedicated to 20th Century music, proved the Cleveland Orchestra can still turn on a dime when needed.    Whether the results were to the advantage of the music depended on the composition and listener’s taste. 

The first work, by Czech composer Miloslav Kabeláč, was entirely new to me and new to the orchestra.  Mystery of Time is essentially a mood piece, beginning quietly and slowly and building in volume and speed until a raucous conclusion.  Parts of the work reminded me of Howard Shore’s score to Silence of the Lambs which was, of course, composed decades later – so Shore may have been influenced by this piece.

The Hamburg Steinway was then brought on stage for Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, featuring soloist Emanuel Ax – a genial and welcome presence here.  I’ve only heard this work once before, in a less than convincing recording under Robert Craft’s direction with soloist Philippe Entremont.   Hrůša and Ax brought a more unified conception to the work – which can sound disjointed in the wrong hands – which sacrificed nothing in terms of spontaneity and wit.  The performance was warmly received and Ax gifted the audience with an encore: Chopin’s Waltz in A minor, poetically played.

The second half of the program was dedicated to Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony – a work which the orchestra has played since it was “hot off the press.”  The story of this work’s composition is so well known it hardly needs repeating, but here it is:  Shostakovich’s previous works, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and The Limpid Stream, were met with official disapproval, which in 1930s Russia carried significant threat.  He set aside his Fourth Symphony, then in rehearsals, and began composing on the Fifth, which was touted in the state-controlled press as “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism".  The work’s premiere was triumphant and restored Shostakovich’s reputation among Soviet power-brokers.  It is a work of the most profound suffering, with every appearance of major key relief a trap-door into more heartbreak, until the finale where there appears to be a sense of victory – at least on the surface.  It wasn’t until decades later that it was revealed that the symphony’s “triumphant” coda was intentionally hollow – a depiction of a man being told he’s never had it so good while being savagely beaten.  The work’s conclusion is thus, in many ways, similar to the protagonist’s “love” for Big Brother at the end of George Orwell’s 1984 – after being brainwashed into believing that love is hate, and vice versa.

Hrůša’s interpretation was one that emphasized the work’s extremes.  I’ve never heard the Cleveland Orchestra play so quietly or loudly: softly enough that they were barely audible even on the main floor; loudly enough that some players were pushed beyond their normal tonal capacity.  While this served to bring out certain elements of the piece, in particular the jingoism of the second movement, there were a number of wrong notes from woodwinds and brass, as well as faulty balances.  On the other hand, there were elements of the scoring that I’d never heard before, in particular during the climax of the work’s searing Largo.  Further, Hrůša emphasized the dissonance in some of the part-writing that other conductors, in particular Stokowski and Bernstein, glossed over.  This was not a heartfelt Shostakovich Fifth, of the sort led by Stanisław Skrowaczewski in 2015, but a raw performance which uncovered the brutality of Stalin’s Russia.  It was one of many legitimate approaches to this complicated work, which held the audience’s attention and roused them at the end.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Debussy, Pintscher, and Ravel at Severance

Last week, Matthias Pintscher served as guest conductor at Severance.  This week, Pintscher was present in spirit if not in body as one of the featured composers.  More on that in a moment.  This week’s guest conductor was Alain Altinoglu, the featured soloist the orchestra’s principle flautist, Joshua Smith.  The hall was nearly sold out, no doubt mostly due to the popularity of the program’s final work, Ravel’s Bolero.

The program opened with Altinoglu’s own suite from Debussy’s opera Pelléas and Mélisande.  The orchestra has some familiarity with this, one of the composer’s least played works, having performed the complete opera two seasons ago.  They also recorded excerpts in the 1940s under then music director Erich Leinsdorf.  Some have complained that Pelléas and Mélisande lacks a hummable tune, which is valid as far as it goes – it eschews many of the features some opera lovers thrive on: epic spectacle, stratospheric arias, elaborate plot twists.  But the composer’s stream of consciousness creation has benefits for those who are willing to listen on a more elevated level.   The suite – partly based on incidental music the Debussy had to write at the last moment to cover for stage changes – was convincingly presented by Altinoglu.  The transparent, shimmering textures alone were a delight, along with the most delicate tone painting.

Pintscher’s “Transir”, a de-facto flute concerto, was even more challenging.  While there are those who did – and some still do – regard Stravinsky’s music as avant-garde, the Russian composer used the orchestra in a rather conventional manner.  Not so with “Transir”.  Numerous instruments were altered to some extent, including the use of paper clips in the strings to create a unique sonority.  Further, each string player often had an individual line to play, which would challenge any ensemble.  To say nothing of flautist Joshua Smith’s task, who’s technique included “multiphonics” (creating multiple notes at once), tapping on the instrument, “jet-whistle”, flutter-tongue, and breath effects.  Everything that could be perceived as unusual for both soloist and orchestra.  I simply had no idea a flute could be made to sound this way – yet it remained musical.  Altinoglu proved an excellent collaborator, with the orchestra demonstrating its mettle in a highly detailed, but mostly quiet accompaniment.  Smith was rightly awarded with a standing ovation.   

The program’s second half was dedicated to Ravel.  The Spanish Rhapsody featured sensitive use of dynamics yet seemed somewhat sectionalized.  Pavane for a Dead Princess was beautifully paced and somewhat muted – a grief observed rather than experienced.  What can one say about Bolero that hasn’t been said before?  It’s probably the best example of an orchestral crescendo this side of Rossini.  Altinoglu established a sensible pace, kept the balances in check, and let the soloists do their thing.  The individuality of various solos, in particular a flirtatiously sexy saxophone solo from Steven Banks enhanced, but never distracted from, the musical line and inevitability.

My enjoyment of Bolero was dampened by a woman in front of me humming along with the main tine, and several audience members trotting out their cell phones to tape parts of the proceedings – in defiance of Severance’s strict policy against doing so.  The head usher tried to intercede several times but eventually gave up.  Poor man.  

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Rachmaninoff and Bartok with Gerstein and Pintscher

It’s hard to believe that Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto didn’t meet with immediate success when he brought it to the United States during his 1909-1910 tour.  Critical response was mixed and audiences generally preferred to hear his Second Concerto.  The work wasn’t performed with the Cleveland Orchestra until 19 years later by Vladimir Horowitz during his first American tour.  Rachmaninoff himself played it at Severance in 1932.  Both pianists collaborated with Nikolai Sokoloff – the Cleveland Orchestra’s first music director and a friend of the composer’s.   

Last night featured returning guests: pianist Kirill Gerstein and conductor Matthias Pintscher.  Gerstein most definitely has the chops for Rachmaninoff’s Third – considered by some by some as the most challenging in the standard repertoire.  (Although some pianists have told me they consider the Brahms Second Concerto more difficult on account of its awkwardness, Busoni’s massive concerto – not part of the standard repertoire – must take the cake as it’s grueling 75 minutes long.)  There was no sense of strain even during the work’s most thorny passages. But Gerstein imbued the work with a sense of musical virtuosity very much in the spirit of the composer’s own rendition – as preserved via his 1939 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.  This is not to say that Gerstein wasn’t his own man, interpretively.  For example, Gerstein played the work complete – without the disfiguring cuts the composer began to favor in his later years.  Also, the pianist played the heavier, more chordal of the first movement’s two printed cadenzas – a decision with which I disagree, although the passion and conviction with which it was played were unmistakable.  Further, the approach was a bit more imaginative when it came to variations of tempo and the use of inner voices – particularly during the first movement.  This was a performance who prefer Rachmaninoff without the treacly goo which has been imposed on it by sundry performers – a Rachmaninoff with its dignity intact.

Gerstein was rewarded with an extensive ovation, and returned the warmth with a brief encore: Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair. 

As with neighbors and neighborhoods, it only takes one inconsiderate audience member to impair the experience at a symphonic concert.  Last night’s example was provided by a clod who spoke at full voice during the concerto’s rather quiet opening – then dropping an object during another quiet moment later.

Following intermission, Pintscher returned to the stage to conduct the orchestra in Bartok’s complete ballet score, The Wooden Prince – a work with which I’m only passingly familiar.  Here is an example of how Pintscher’s background as a composer enhanced the performance.  A sense of unity permeated a work which could easily devolve into a series of dance sections.  Pintscher skillfully led the orchestra through the work’s myriad challenges and there was characterful playing during the English Horn and Trumpet solos.  First Associate Concertmaster Peter Otto rose to the occasion with his solo during the Princess’s Waltz.  All earned the warm ovation the followed. 

While main floor was at near capacity for the Concerto (including a piano student in front of me who was silently replicating the work’s passages), many left during intermission.  Bartok still has the reputation of being a “difficult” composer to hear among some.  While it’s sad there are those members who are unwilling to challenge themselves, the bottom line is that at least their tickets were fully paid for.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Cleveland Orchestra - cleaning house

William Preucil and Massimo La Rosa have been dismissed from the Cleveland Orchestra following an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment.  A long time coming, particularly for Preucil, whose behavior has been documented in the media for the past eleven years.  The link below contains the investigation's findings. 

Norman Lebrecht dribbled that "Preucil’s sacking creates huge issues for the orchestra. Reputedly the highest paid concertmaster in the US, he is a violinist of the highest calibre and a massive figure of authority in the orchestra. He will not easily be replaced."  This is sheer nonsense, and proves that either Lebrecht hasn't heard Preucil recently, or that he has no ears, or both.  Preucil's playing, once a hallmark of technique and musicianship, has been increasingly shoddy over the last few years.  In particular, I recall a solo violin part in an adaptation of Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 132 that was so poorly delivered members of the audience looked at each other in shock.  As for a replacement, First Associate Concertmaster Peter Otto is the logical choice.  He's an exemplary violinist and well liked by both the orchestra, members of the public, and - if I'm not mistaken - Franz Welser-Most. 

Perhaps now that Preucil is gone, the string of nepotistic hires that took place, including a member of his own family, can be reassessed.   

Unlike some, I have always been willing to stand up and speak truth to power.  Over the past few months, I have declined to write orchestra reviews despite attending several concerts.  With this matter resolved, I will be returning to reviewing concerts next month.  As stated elsewhere, my reviews are based on my opinion and no one else's.  Nor do I solicit or accept tickets or other gratuities for my reviews.  

Friday, October 5, 2018

Emanuel Ax - Complete RCA Recordings

Sony has reissued the complete RCA recordings of pianist Emanuel Ax, covering a period from 1975-1987.  Click here to read my review.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

A few thoughts on Rebel Without A Cause

Dan & I went to see TCM/Fathom Events’ presentation Rebel Without a Cause on Sunday.  I’ve seen it several times, starting in 1990, this was Dan’s first.

Rebel Without A Cause has become somewhat legendary over the decades, partly owing to the premature deaths of its three lead actors – particularly James Dean.  It tells the story of disaffected youths in Southern California during the mid-1950s, a time that was idealized by some as a golden age.  But the societal issues which would come to fruition during the 1960s are seen gestating here.  The MPAA ratings board didn’t exist in 1955, but Rebel has retroactively been given an PG-13 rating – which speaks to some of the issues it raises. 

Screen captures courtesy of


Jim Stark (Dean) is the new kid at Dawson High School.  He’s already had several run-ins with the law, including a drunk and disorderly booking at the film’s beginning – a scene where the audience also encounters Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo).   On his first day at his new school, Jim learns that Judy is his neighbor.  Things go awry that day during a field trip to Griffith Observatory, and he’s triggered into a knife fight with the school delinquents: Buzz (Corey Allen) and his gang, the Wheels.  Jim prevails in the knife fight and is challenged to a “chickie run” that night.  Buzz is killed in the ensuing race and Jim struggles with the moral dilemma over whether to go to the police and admit his role in the incident.  Jim’s parents, more interested in climbing socially than providing an example to follow, advise Jim to avoid getting involved.  Plato, whom Jim has befriended, is briefly captured by the Wheels, who learn Jim’s location and try to stop him from telling the police.  Plato steals a gun from his home, where his mother is away on vacation with only the family maid watching over him, and rushes away to warn Jim.  Jim and Judy take refuge in an abandoned mansion with Plato.  But when the Wheels track them down, Plato suffers a mental breakdown, shooting and wounding one of the Wheels, and runs away to hide in the nearby observatory.  Jim and Judy follow, where Jim comforts Plato and discreetly removes the ammunition from Plato’s gun.  Jim brings Plato outside, but Plato becomes frightened by the police, brandishing his gun.  The police, unaware Jim has removed the bullets, shoot and (it’s implied) kill Plato.
Jim & Judy

James Dean was, of course, a spectacularly talented young actor, and his death shortly before the film’s release was its primary box office draw.  But his training at the Actor’s Studio and his personal dynamism place him at odds with the older cast members.  This is particularly obvious in scenes with his parents, where Dean’s improvisation leaves the other actors fumbling around trying to keep up.  In other scenes, his acting runs the gamut from scenery chewing hysteria (“You’re tearing me APART!”) to the subtlety of his quiet dialog with Natalie Wood’s Judy.  His best acting in the film is in his scenes with Judy, Plato, and a rather homoerotic moment with Buzz – where the two share a cigarette (an indirect kiss?) and Buzz confesses that he likes Jim.  Rebel, along with Dean’s other two major roles, East of Eden and Giant, offers a fascinating glimpse into what might have been.  
Jim & Buzz. “You know what? I LIKE you. You know that?”

Through today’s eyes, it’s obvious that Sal Mineo’s character Plato is the school queer – and he’s made to suffer for it.  Not only is he harassed by his school peers, but the film’s writers drive the point of Plato’s “otherness” home by painting him as not merely experiencing an emotionally needy “crush” on Jim Stark, but as mentally unstable and possibly psychotic.  This is made clear from the film’s beginning when it’s stated that Plato’s being booked at the Juvenile Division for shooting several puppies, and by the way Plato tells his booking officer that “Nobody can help me.”  Plato also has issues stemming from an absent father, which certainly plays to the old Freudian theory on homosexuality.  For me, the treatment of the Plato character is severely dated – and yet there’s something about Sal Mineo’s portrayal that’s touching.  Seeing his torment, I wanted to wrap my arms around Plato and tell him that everything would be all right. 
Jim & Plato

Even more dated than Plato’s pathology is the film’s almost total lack of people of color.  True, Southern California was not as diverse in 1955 than today, but the fact that the film has only one minority speaking role (an African-American “mammy”-type maid at that) tells volumes about the mindset of the studios of the time.  On the other hand, this is still an issue in today’s entertainment, isn’t it?

The film was beautifully shot in CinemaScope and in color, presenting the rugged beauty of Southern California without undue glamour – and the various actors never looked better than in this film.  Leonard Rosenman’s score (Rosenman was James Dean’s roommate at the time), which flirts with atonality in parts, suits the films atmosphere to a “T” – far superior to the drivel he wrote for Star Trek IV. 

Today, Rebel Without a Cause has a 96% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  I beg to differ, and suspect the high rating is based more on nostalgia than quality.  Ultimately Rebel was worth watching in the theatre once, but the weakness of some of the material and uneven nature of the performances does not merit repeat viewing.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

A Tale of Two Vacations

September of 2018 was supposed to feature a family vacation cruise to celebrate my niece’s wedding.   The wedding took place, but owing to surgery last year and unanticipated follow-up expenses, we had to opt for a less costly option – which led to two trips in one. 

 The first trip was to Constantine, Michigan – the small town near the Indiana border where my father grew up.  I may have visited there as a very young child, but I have no clear memory of doing so.  Outside of travel, my grandfather spent his entire life there – his home, work, and burial plot are all within a 20-block area.  Sadly, I have no memory of my grandfather as he died at age 63 when I was only 15 months old – although my father told me that my grandfather used to bounce me on his knee.  For me, he exists only in family anecdotes, photos, and home movies.  I do have memories of his first wife, my grandmother, a troubled woman who died in 1995 and is also buried at the local cemetery.  While in Constantine, I stopped by the old Drake Casket Company (once owned by my grandfather and his brother), the Township Cemetery (where I spent 90 minutes searching for family graves) and the center of town.  In my father’s home movies, the Constantine of the 1950s was bustling, with of parades, stores, and people driving or walking everywhere – a  typical middle-American town.  Now, it’s a town forgotten – the stores along the main street are mostly empty, the former Drake Casket Company abandoned, the once immaculately kept houses in disrepair.  It took me 51 years to visit, but I doubt I’ll ever feel the need to go again.  My father almost never mentioned Constantine, but I now fully understand why he told me joining the Navy was one of the smartest decisions he ever made – it opened the door to a wider world filled with diverse people.  In any case, here are some photos:
Gravestone of my great great grandfather, J. Mark Harvey

Marker for my great grandparents, John and Jane W. (Titus) Drake 

Marker for my grandfather, Titus H Drake, and his second wife Florence (Cylka)

My grandmother, Helen Harvey Drake
My grandfather, circa 1960.

I went alone to Constantine, but Dan was with me on our trip to Ticonderoga, New York.  Although to a lesser extent, like Constantine, Ticonderoga is not as thriving as it once was.  The downtown area has a few antique stores, a retro-1950s diner (excellent, in my opinion) – but much else is pretty ordinary.  The two main draws are Fort Ticonderoga and the Star Trek Original Series set tour.  Those who’ve followed my blog will know which attraction brought me to Ticonderoga.     

The Star Trek Original Series set tour is a screen accurate recreation of the sets as they were configured on Stage 9 at Desilu studios during the show's original run. The current sets were built for the Star Trek New Voyages web series, which ran for 13 episodes. There are a few minor upgrades: a functional bridge viewscreen replaces the blue screen the actors would have seen, and HD displays for the biobeds (instead of levers and pulleys operated by a stage technician).  A few more tweaks are in the planning and I've heard they are even considering adding the Next Generation sets. Our tour guide, Paul, knew all the ins & outs of how the original series was made and how sets were redressed for multiple use. For example: Captain Kirk's quarters were redressed for Spock, the other crew members, and guest stars; The Briefing Room was redressed as the Recreation Room, Crew Mess, and a few other sets. One interesting tidbit: both the Bridge and Engineering are smaller than they appeared on TV because the original cinematographers used wide-angle lenses to add depth to the scene. (FYI: The sets are built from the original series blueprints and are the exact same dimensions.)  The back wall of Engineering (with the engines visible thru the grill) uses forced perspective. Because of the age of some of the elements, guests are advised not to touch the artifacts, but the set's owner, James Cawley, invited me to sit in the Captain's chair. Photos are permitted, but videos are not (due to Paramount's licensing restrictions).  Due to a recent high-volume attraction, the selection at the gift shop was rather thin, but we still purchased a few goodies including, of course, a Tribble.

Dan & I beam in.

Dr. Dan ready to help a patient.

Dan in the medical lab, checking the Captain for intergalactic STDs.

Our tour guide Paul, recreating a famous pose from the series.

A pensive moment on the Bridge

 The weather was cooperating, and as it was September 11th, it seemed appropriate for us to visit Fort Ticonderoga.  Originally Fort Carillon, the French fort was captured by the British in 1759, by American Revolutionaries in 1775, recaptured by the British in 1777, and finally abandoned to the British 1781.  By then, the fort was in ruins.  It went through several owners and was rebuilt during the 20th Century.  It’s a fascinating place to learn about our nation’s history and how those stationed here lived – whether French, British, or American.  The high point for us was a canon demonstration. 

Fort Ticonderoga