Sunday, March 17, 2019

Haydn, Deutsch, and Tchaikovsky with Welser-Möst and Jacobs

Saturday night’s Cleveland Orchestra concert was a mix of the familiar, the largely unfamiliar, and the brand new.  It provided food for thought, debate, and enlightenment. 

Frank Joseph Haydn composed 104 Symphonies.  I am hardly alone among enthusiasts of Classical Music in only being familiar with about 20 – mostly from Haydn’s later period.  This concert began with the Symphony No. 34 in C minor,  the first time it was presented in the Cleveland Orchestra’s 101-year history – thus a largely unfamiliar work by a well-known composer.  The symphony features a structural innovation that was later employed in Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata: the opening movement is a somber adagio, rather than the usual allegro.  One can only wonder how the audience of Haydn’s day reacted when hearing this opening.  The following movements  an Allegro, a Menuet, and Presto – created a sense of rising tension that kept the 21st Century audience’s attention from beginning to end.  Franz Welser-Möst’s interpretation was a model of precision, transparency, and taste.   

The totally unfamiliar work was Bernd Richard Deutsch’s Okeanos – a concerto for organ and orchestra being given its American premiere.  By a concerto for organ and orchestra, I mean just about every instrument available – including strings, four flutes, three clarinets, three bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, celeste, harp, a full range of percussion (snare dump, bongos, rute, temple blocks, woodblock, claves, wind machine, triangle, wind chimes, bell tree, crotales, bells, crash cymbals, 12 plate bells, gong, Chinese opera gong, nipple gong, tam-tam, xylophone, anvil, vibraphone, glockenspiel), and of course the organ.  Everything but the veritable kitchen sink.  During the pre-concert talk, the composer spoke of how he was inspired by the Adriatic Sea – and the work's four movements  Water, Air, Earth, and Fire – all refer to elements of nature.  Whatever the programmatic implications, the work’s multiple layers of tonality and orchestration – almost waves in themselves, held the audience’s attention.  Interestingly, the composer stated that while the work was not “tonal”, in the melodic sense, there was often a reference tone.  The question of tonality vs. atonality got me to thinking whether this was the appropriate term for whether music uses a traditional melodic/harmonic scheme.  Any sound one hears, from a bird’s song, to an orchestra, to fingernails on a chalkboard is, by definition, a “tone” – thus all music is tonal.  When one is referring to “atonal” music, one generally means music that does not adhere to a traditional (in Western Music) triadic melodic/harmonic scheme – i.e., based on major and minor thirds.  During the 19th Century, that triadic scheme became increasingly chromatic – most notably in Wagner’s music.  Scriabin expanded that scheme using fourths – altering triadic music to quartal.  Schoenberg, whose early works expanded on Wagner’s chromaticism, eventually shattered the triadic paradigm altogether.  But his music was still tonal, as it consisted of tones.  And so does the music of Elliot Carter, Pierre Boulez, and Deutsch.    

As for the performance, soloist Paul Jacobs was every bit as brilliant as he was during his appearance here in 2017.  The work’s many technical hurdles, including complex footwork, lightning-fast registration changes, finger-twisting passages, glissandi, and dynamic shifts were handled with an unshowy aplomb that belied their difficulties.  Welser-Möst and the orchestra delivered a collaboration that made one feel as if they’d known the concerto all their lives.  One familiar with concerts in Cleveland may take the technical polish of our orchestra for granted, but it’s wise to remember it’s the result of constant dedication and hard work.  In the words of Lebron James, “nothing is given, everything is earned.”

Following intermission was a dive into the familiar: Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.  But here, there was something unfamiliar: Welser-Möst’s interpretation which has already earned criticism from one critic.  Here one of Tchaikovsky’s most well-known works was scrubbed free of the sickly sentimentality to which the Russian composer is all too often subjected.  The noble melody of the andante, which has the distinction of sounding bereaved despite being in a major key, was imparted with a dignity which belies the reputation Tchaikovsky had during the late-2oth Century as a “weak”, “feminine” composer.  (Of course, the conflation of weak and feminine in Tchaikovsky is simply a combination of misogyny and homophobia that one would expect from music scholars who are, as a rule, conservative and unimaginative.)  One interesting note: a few days before the concert, the orchestra published a video of the Tchaikovsky’s rehearsal.  I was struck by the manner in which Welser-Möst’s conducting in rehearsal matches that in performance.  He apparently feels no need to put on a choreographic display for the audience’s entertainment.  The sincerity, both in Welser-Möst’s interpretation and his manner of presenting it, was appreciated by the audience and this listener.   

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Beethoven & Mendelssohn with Blomstedt at Severance

Herbert Blomstedt returned to Severance Hall to conduct the Cleveland Orchestra this weekend.  Everything that was missing from the previous weekend’s concerts under Harry Bicket (which I did not bother to review), was gloriously present.  The program neatly paired two works focused on nature: Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony.

Beethoven in the country. 

The scores for both Symphonies were present on the conductor’s podium.  But Blomstedt, now a sprightly 91, never opened either of them and conducted both works from memory and without baton.  The opening movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral featured brisk tempi that never sounded rushed, with each passage growing organically into the next – a portrait of a Beethoven who was eager to return to his beloved countryside.  The scene by the brook was a beautiful study in subtle dynamics and transparent texturing, with the woodwind birdcalls were beautifully proportioned rather than garishly highlighted.  The gathering of country folk featured a dance that was colorful in its rusticity, contrasted by a storm that never sacrificed balance in favor of volume.  The symphony concluded with a Shepherd’s Song that was more than beautifully conveyed – it was heartfelt.  On a personal note, after a difficult few days, my soul felt refreshed and cleansed.    

The program for Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony is less explicit and more implied than Beethoven’s.  After the work’s Andante introduction, Blomstedt launched into the agitated movement proper, emphasizing the work’s conflict.  The second movement, which is reminiscent of a Scottish folk dance, moved along lithely with various sections tossing the primary theme back and forth - which Blomstedt made sure never got lost in the action.  Despite being labeled as an Adagio, the symphony really has no slow movement - with plucking strings ensuring a sense of motion.  This proceeded directly into the sturm & drang of the finale which, apologies to Otto Klemperer, featured a coda that was just fine as written. 

Friday, February 22, 2019

Leonard Pennario - Complete RCA Album Collection

Sony Classical has recently reissued pianist Leonard Pennario's complete recordings for RCA Red Seal.  Click here to read my review. 

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Haydn and Busoni with Gilbert and Ohlsson at Severance

Last night’s concert at Severance Hall was, for me at least, the concert of the season thus far.  It featured both the familiar and the exotic, with a guest conductor and pianist who’ve validated their credentials at Severance time and again.  Daniel was working, so I brought my co-worker Michael for his first visit to Severance Hall.

The familiar began when guest conductor Alan Gilbert took to the stage to lead Haydn’s Symphony No. 100 in G major.  Working with a reduced string section, Gilbert kept the music moving and the textures lithe, particularly in the work’s second movement: an allegretto which some conductors tend to drag.  Never rushing, Gilbert left room for moments of whimsy and demonstrations of Haydn’s earthy humor.   

The title page of Busoni’s Concerto

Thirty years ago, while living in Boston, I heard Garrick Ohlsson play Busoni’s monumental Piano Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra under Cristoph von Dohnányi at that city’s Symphony Hall.  To say that my 21-year-old self was astonished by both composition and performance would be stating the bare minimum.  Naturally, I bought Ohlsson’s recording of the work, made around the same time with the same collaborators at Masonic Auditorium for the Telarc label – and it has been my go-to recording of the piece (there aren’t that many) ever since.

When comparing performances 30 years apart (and not having a recording of the earlier event) one is relying on a memory of a memory.  Now 51, I’ve come to accept my memory is not as reliable as it once was.  So I will contrast last night’s performance with the recording, which I listened to again a few weeks ago.  The overall conception is similar, with no drastic changes in overall tempo.  The differences mainly lay in the greater discipline with which the pianist employed rhetorical devices.  At the same time, Ohlsson played with greater freedom, a broader tonal palette, and more use of inner voices in the work’s quieter moments – with no loss of virtuosity in the Concerto’s more extroverted sections.  Ohlsson, a big bear of a man who looks younger than his 70 years, is one of the most natural of pianists active today and a pleasure to watch as well as hear.  He always seems entirely at ease at the keyboard, even while hurling octaves, chords, and keyboard leaps in every direction.  The only hint of strain was when he momentarily pulled out a handkerchief to deal with some perspiration.  Ohlsson, unlike many of his colleagues, is content to play the piano (he used the Hamburg Steinway) and not the audience.  (What a pity this concert wasn’t given the video treatment Lang Lang’s recent appearance here received.)  Gilbert kept the work’s sprawling orchestration under magnificent control while still pushing things to the limits – particularly in the mad tarantella of the fourth movement, which was a textbook accelerando.   This was a performance to refresh the memory and re-astonish at the same time  and pianist, conductor, and chorus director Lisa Wong (yes, the work includes a chorus), were brought out for numerous curtain calls.   

A well-deserved ovation

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Cleveland Orchestra's 100th Anniversary on blu-ray

I did not attend the Cleveland Orchestra's 100th Anniversary concert.  But I bought the blu-ray and have reviewed it for Amazon.  Full review here.  

Lang Lang, pulling faces

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Pollini plays Chopin, Opp. 55-58

My latest review, of Maurizio Pollini's recording of Chopin's Nocturnes Op. 55, Mazurkas Op. 56, Berceuse Op. 57, and Sonata Op, 58, has been published.  Sadly, this is the weakest Pollini recording I've ever heard.  Full review here.  

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

A December Caribbean Cruise

Dan and I enjoyed our previous cruise along California’s coast, during which we learned that the destination and journey were equally interesting.  For this year’s cruise, December seemed like the ideal month to escape the stresses of life and the Cleveland winter and head for warmer climes.   Not wanting to be away too long, we chose a five-night Caribbean cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas, with stops in Key West and Havana, Cuba. 

After a half-century long economic boycott, which utterly failed to advance America’s strategic interest and was ended by the Obama Administration, Cuba is once again a legal and increasingly popular destination for American tourists.  As Havana’s port cannot accommodate today’s gigantic mega-ships, Majesty of the Seas was our means of entry.  Majesty is among the oldest of Royal Caribbean’s active fleet of over two dozen ships, and among the smallest.  As I’d read negative reviews of this ship on Cruise Critic and other sites, I did not have high expectations.  But I was pleasantly surprised by several aspects of life on an older, smaller ship.  First, the crew to passenger ratio allows for more personalized service.  The ship’s tour we took on our second day made clear that even small ships require constant care and meticulous planning.  Our room attendant, Herman from Nicaragua, made sure our small cabin (7546, with an ocean view) was kept clean and orderly.

At dinner each night, we had the same waiter and assistant, Cany from India and Shandy from the Philippines, in the Starlight dining room.  The food there was never less than very good and at times excellent, if a bit mainstream.  Each course was delivered with optimal timing – we were neither left waiting nor feeling rushed.  The Windjammer buffet was about what one would expect of a mid-level buffet restaurant.  We only used it for quick breakfasts and our initial meal after boarding.  Again, the attentiveness of the service will win over all but the most jaded.  There are a few more options for the hungry: Sorrento’s offers nearly round the clock pizza of middling quality; Compass Deli has Continental breakfast, lunch sandwiches (including about the best egg-salad sandwich I’ve ever eaten) and light desserts; and Johnny Rockets – a 1950s style burger joint which costs extra.  I would not recommend the latter.  
In the end, I thought of Majesty as akin to an old pair of leather shoes: a bit scuffed, maybe resoled a few times, but familiar, and comfortable to walk in for miles. 

Dan and our transportation

Most cruises schedule LGBT+ mixers and this was no exception.  But the location, the rather loud Schooner bar, was not suited and an enterprising cruiser (we never found out who) posted a “friends of Dorothy” mixer in the Viking bar, where we made some interesting new friends.  This was an opportunity to meet people of similar interests, without resorting to a chartered gay cruise, which tends to be ridiculously expensive, decadent, and would not appeal to Dan or me. 

After a full day of cruising Tuesday, we docked in Key West early Wednesday morning.  The only previous time I’d been in Key West was 1979 – when I was 12 years old.  I visited with my father, his mother, and my sister.  Over the years I’d heard and read much about Key West, but never got around to visiting.   Dan and I disembarked from Majesty at 8:30, made a quick trip to CVS to pick up a few supplies, and then headed to the Little White House.  Our tour guide, Bill, was knowledgeable as he showed us around the house.  It was charming to see how modestly earlier Presidents vacationed as opposed to current times.  The tour included a documentary video about President Truman’s numerous visits here – I was surprised to learn he’d returned to Key West as late as 1969.  (Less welcome was the large amount of Trump oriented items in the museum gift shop.  Anyone who claims Truman would be a Republican or would have supported the likes of Donald Trump has no grasp of history or of Truman’s political views.  The 33rd President was so far to the left economically that he would align closely with Bernie Sanders.  He was for nationalized health care (aka Single-Payer), called for a broad-based Civil Rights bill, desegregated the military, and favored a top tax rate of 90%.  He almost lost the election of 1948 for the above positions.  He was also strongly against Russian expansionism and would be aghast at the way many Republicans are now catering to Vladimir Putin and his oligarchs.)   
At the Little White House

By the time our tour had completed, stores were beginning to open and we stopped for a quick snack at Glazed Donuts & Red Buoy Coffee.  Then we walked the length of Duval Street and saw some interesting, as well as disturbing sights. 

Key West is a popular LGBT destination, but many ways represents a crasser side of gay “culture” that does not appeal to me.   Dan and I strolled by T-shirt shops featuring clothing we’d never wear in public, and saw a rather pathetic old man in a bizarre S&M Christmas getup.  I’ve been out of the closet since I was 18, am unafraid to hold my husband’s hand in public, but have no desire to cater to the lowest common denominator – no matter the location. 

After a bit of shopping, it was time for lunch.  Our initial selection, Sloppy Joes, was overly crowded, so we found a nearby Mexican restaurant, Amigos, where we enjoyed lunch before heading back to the ship in anticipation of our cruise’s main event – 90 miles south.
On Duval Street

I was too excited to sleep much that night, and by 5:30am I was on deck as our ship quietly made her way into Havana Harbor.  There was very little traffic on the Malecon, save for a classic car which honked at us as the driver waved.  I waved back.  After snapping some pictures, I went to grab breakfast with Dan before we encountered numerous instances of “hurry up & wait”.  We made our way to the theatre, then waited at least a half-hour before we departed the ship.  The lines at Sierra Maestra terminal moved at a reasonable pace, the border agent stamped my passport, took my photo, and welcomed me to Cuba.  Dan and I changed our money for Cuban CUCs – the currency designated for tourists.  (To get a better rate, before leaving Cleveland, Dan had changed his money for Euros and I changed mine for Canadian dollars.)  Then it was more waiting until we boarded our tour bus and met our guide, Daily (pronounced DYE-lee).  She was very knowledgeable as she guided us to the Cristo de la Habana statue, La Cabaña fortress, Colon Cemetery, San Jose market (where the vendors can haggle like born capitalists), and the Plaza de la Revolución.  Although by now the official tour was complete, Daily offered to extend it, and those of us who opted to stay on were driven to La Moneda Cubana – one of the private restaurants that have sprung up in Cuba in recent years.  Meals there run about $20 per person, and Dan and I enjoyed about the best meal we’ve ever had at that price point.   To top things off, we were even treated to live music.  Truly an experience!

Entering Havana Harbor

Havana's statue of Christ - who looks like 
he's holding a cigar in one hand and a mojito in the other

The meal at La Monda Cubana - about to be consumed

Dan with our tour guide

My overall impression of Havana was that of a city which has definitely seen better days, but that’s on the mend (new construction and refurbishment of existing structures were happening all around).  The infrastructure was not as bad as we’d been told, and some of the roads are in better shape than their Ohio counterparts.  The most disappointing site was the constant presence of litter, and I saw several people – not tourists – tossing wrappers to the ground.  Nonetheless, the Cubans we encountered were nice to each other and to newcomers alike.  We plan to return.

Our time in Havana was originally scheduled to run from Thursday at 8:00am until Friday at 1:00pm.  Owing to weather conditions, that was not to be, and we left Thursday at 6:30pm.  So, Dan and I were unable to sample Havana’s nightlife or explore the city much beyond our scheduled tour.  On the other hand, there were those whose tours were cancelled.  The weather diversion turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the Majesty’s sister ship, Empress of the Seas, also diverted, undertook a rescue operation that saved the lives of two sailors who’d been lost for 20 days. 

After a windy Friday at sea, Dan and I disembarked Saturday morning.  As our flight wasn’t scheduled until 9:00 that evening, we had plenty of time to kill.  On the advice of our fellow gay travelers, we decided to check out Wilton Manors, known for its gay community.   What was intended as a diversion became some of the most enjoyable time of our trip.  Our first stop was Java Boys for some coffee and pastries.  Then we stopped at Georgie’s Alibi where we enjoyed drinks and a performance by some very talented drag performers.  Unlike some gay men, Dan and I are not hung up on ourselves and our masculinity is not threatened by the drag scene.  I don’t think I’d ever be happy in a place like Winton Manors.  Variety in all its forms – food, surroundings, leisure, people – has always been the spice in my life.  But it’s a lovely place to visit.

With some new friends

Our flight home was delayed, giving us extra time to conclude that Fort Lauderdale has about the worst airport this side of La Guardia.  Terminal restaurants are generic fast food.  There was one charging station which was out of order.  I’ll never complain about Hopkins again.