Sunday, April 24, 2016

Lisiecki and Wit at Severance Hall

This weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts at Severance featured guest conductor Antoni Wit and pianist Jan Lisiecki.

The concert began with Wagner’s Polonia Overture, one of the composer’s earliest works.  This was the first time the work was being played by the orchestra, which is saying something for a work by a major composer and an orchestra that’s been performing masterworks for 98 years.  Indeed, I’d never heard the piece.  After the initial bars, it was easy to understand why the overture is rarely performed.  It trades in bombast what it lacks in thematic material or development.  After a good night’s sleep, I was unable to recall one “tune”, which has never been the case with any other Wagner work I’ve heard over the last 35 years.  The performance was mainly characterized by loudness.  More on that later.

After a brief break while the Hamburg Steinway was rolled onto the platform, Jan Lisiecki took to the stage for a performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto in F minor.  Lisiecki is a Canadian pianist of Polish parentage.  Just 21, he has already secured a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon and is a veteran performer.  One takes for granted that the pianist’s technique was more than up to the task of this finger twisting concerto.  But this performance has a special quality that went beyond that.  Lisiecki brought to the Concerto a metric freedom, sense of rubato, and coloristic sense that reminded me of the pianists of the Golden Age – particularly Benno Moiseiwitsch.  Each episode of the concerto was beautifully characterized, while the work’s overall structure cohered. 

Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony occupied the second half of the concert.  The Eroica is one of the most often performed works in the repertoire.  The orchestra could no doubt play it in its sleep.  But the opening was rough: the orchestra was not together in the first of two E-flat major chords that start the work.  In short order, the orchestra was together again, and the movement proceeded at a quick pace.  Zachary Lewis, in his Plain Dealer review of Thursday evening’s concert, complained about the “ponderous” tempo Wit chose for the Funeral March.  Either Lewis is wed to the HiPster school of interpretation, or Wit chose a brisker pace between Thursday’s concert and Saturday’s – as the tempo I heard was dead center normal for Beethoven interpretation – similar to Szell’s tempo in his famous Cleveland recording.  But the performance was problematic nevertheless.  Wit didn’t seem to be interested in such matters as balance, dynamics (aside from the Chopin Concerto, there was little sense of pianissimo and often the music was just plain loud) or tonal beauty.  This was the first, and I hope only, time I’ve heard the Cleveland Orchestra making anything less than a beautiful sound.   It has been a truism over the last dozen years that the Cleveland Orchestra often plays at its best with a guest conductor.  Not this time.         

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Eulogy for my Father

Titus Henry Drake, Jr

August 2, 1929 - April 6, 2016

My father’s father, Titus Henry Drake (from whom my dad & I got our formal names) was part of an established American family that traced their lineage on this continent to 1640 – when Francis Drake moved from the family seat in Colchester, England to New England – when this land was still a British possession.  My father’s mother’s name was Helen Harvey.  Until recently, I didn’t know much about her family except that her father was a state senator in the Michigan legislature. 

Titus Senior married Helen Harvey and my dad was born on August 2, 1929, in Three Rivers, Michigan.  From an early age, my father was referred to as “Junior” by my dad, and “Ty” by everyone else.  Ten weeks after his birth, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began.  In early 1932, my father’s brother, Jim, was born.

This is the earliest photo I have of my father - he’s standing in the middle in the light colored suit.  Note how skinny he was.  There’s a story behind that.  When my father and uncle were very young, their parents bitterly divorced.  In those days, the mother was automatically granted custody, so they went to live with my grandmother - where my father was forced to answer to the name "David".  I will confess to you, I never knew my grandmother very well - because after spending time with her during my youth, I decided to keep my distance.  She was a troubled woman who married five times.  I learned decades later that her mother died when giving birth to my grandmother and her father blamed her for her mother’s death – and she never grew up experiencing parental love.  She was unable to take adequate care of my father and uncle, and the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression.  The kids lived on onion sandwiches and were malnourished to the extent that they had sores on their skin.  And my grandmother and her new husband would beat them with an electric cord for the slightest infraction.  Eventually, their situation became so dire that my father secretly wrote and mailed a letter to my grandfather, begging for help.  My grandfather showed the letter to the judge, the court intervened, and my dad and uncle were sent to live with my grandfather and his second wife, Florence Cylka.  Flo was of Polish heritage, loved to cook and really knew how to do it.  My dad & Jim filled out from good nutrition and from working on my grandfather’s farm.  My dad applied himself in school - especially in mathematics and sports.  He graduated from Constantine High School, President of the class of 1947.

After graduating from high school, Dad entered Michigan State University and centered his studies on Civil Engineering and Architecture.  While there, he met Joanne Dewey and they married, resulting in a son, Robert.  Around that time, my father enlisted in the Navy and became a draftsman 2nd class.  He was stationed at the San Diego Naval Base.  The United States was involved in the Korean War at the time, but the Navy was impressed with my dad’s organizational skills and he remained in San Diego.  My dad, who loved ships all his life, was disappointed but applied himself to his duties.  By the time he was discharged he had been awarded the National Defense Service Medal.  It’s a testament to my father’s modesty that he never told me any of this.  Instead, he was fond of regaling me with stories going to the beach and bar hopping with his buddies.  One time, he and his best buddy got quite drunk.  On the way back to base, as my dad was dozing in the passenger seat, his buddy passed out behind the wheel.  The subsequent crash awakened my father from his slumber, and when he pulled himself out of the car, he thought he stepped into a puddle - his shoes were soaked through with his own blood and his knees bore the scars from that incident from the rest of his life.  It was during this period that my Uncle Jim snapped pictures at the beach where my father was a volunteer lifeguard.

By the time my dad had been discharged from the Navy and returned to Michigan, things were not working out between he and Joanne, and they divorced.  On November 22, 1956, Dad - now living in Cleveland - married my mother, Verna Pritchard Stevens, resulting in my sisters Verna (“Pixie”), Sarah, and me.  By that time, his brother Jim had moved out to Los Angeles and was working as a Hollywood extra

My father was badly shaken up when his brother died in 1976.  My Uncle Jim shot himself – an accidental death brought about by cleaning his gun while inebriated.  When my parents came home from Uncle Jim’s funeral, my father was a changed man. 

Whatever the merits of my father and my mother as individuals, the truth is that they were not well suited for each other – and at the deepest level, whatever their love for each other, they never truly understood each other.  When my father was in my parents’ basement, building ship models, playing trumpet, or lifting weights,he was giving expression to his creative and physical energies - rather than venting his frustration as my mother often said.  And there were times my father, a stoic, was relatively uncommunicative.  But the sounds of my parents’ arguments still ring in my ears, and their marriage formally ended in 1980.

I’m not going to belabor the particulars of my parents’ divorce.  Those of us in the family have discussed it in private and have our various opinions, although we all agree my mother’s situation was tragic almost from birth.  But let me make it plain that my father’s marriage to Hiede has proven itself through time - it has been a happy, enduring, and productive partnership.  Truly, the third time is the charm.  Hiede took excellent care of my father, in health and sickness.  She knew when to give him focus, and when to give him his own space.  What I think most people don’t grasp about my father is that he was a tremendously creative person (as are all the Drake men I’ve known), and creative people sometimes need their own space.  That creativity lives on in their son, Sean - born in 1982.  

One thing I will always admire about my father is his adaptability.  When he was laid off from his job in 1983 - after working with that company for many years - he didn’t pout, he didn’t sulk.  He got involved in a new industry called cellular communications and traveled the country putting up cell towers.  Twenty years later, at an age when most of us would be long retired, he designed an ecologically sensitive, carbon neutral house in Hawaii.  From the time he graduated college, my father’s work emphasized the principles of structural integrity, clean lines, and holistic layout – whether he was designing a corporate headquarters, a home, or a highway exit.  His standards were very high, he refused to compromise on safety, and he once told me how an argument between he and a bean-counter nearly descended into fisticuffs.  Dad was working on his final masterpiece, the renovation of his own home in Half Moon Bay, when his health began to decline in 2010 – first due to a heart attack, then from an aortic valve replacement from which he never fully recovered.  The project remained unfinished when he died.  

Dad was a conservative and a traditionalist.  But he was flexible enough to accept his gay son’s partner with open arms.  In fact, he was nicer in his first meeting with Daniel than he was with his two future sons-in-law when he met them!  He also had a temper in his younger years which we learned not to cross.  But age mellowed him.  My father, like his brother, enjoyed the occasional tipple.  But there were two differences: my father knew his limits, Jim did not; and when Jim drank, he could become bitter and nasty, my father simply became more convivial.  One of my fondest memories of my dad was when I surprised him for his 80th birthday in 2009.  While Hiede was out of town working, we grilled hamburgers, mixed some very potent drinks, and swapped stories which, frankly, are not repeatable here.  There was a lot of laughter that night.

Dad believed in productivity, in doing something with your talents.  I hope all who knew and loved him will remember and take heed from that.  So while we mourn his passing, we should also celebrate all he was, and live life to the fullest.  Ty Drake lives on in the work he did, and the memories and love he leaves.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Monday, March 7, 2016

Stephen Hough plays Dvořák at Severance

Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Concerto is not well known.  Pianists invariably refer to it as “ungrateful” or “unpianistic”.  In other words, it’s difficult to play but not impressive – the opposite of Liszt’s concertos which require athleticism, are not terribly difficult, yet very impressive.  I was passingly familiar with the Dvořák Concerto by way of Rudolf Firkušný’s old mono recording of the concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell.  But that recording, and most performances, used a version substantially rewritten by Vilém Kurz.  Not only is the writing, particularly for the left hand, nearly impossible to play, there are potential pitfalls which challenge the memory – entrances occur at odd places and inconsistently: a pianist begins one passage on the first beat, but when the passage returns, begins the repetition on the second beat, etc.  The piece is a monster to learn and rehearse, which may explain why so few perform it.

Stephen Hough, one of today’s most enterprising pianists, brought the original version (with some very slight emendations) to Severance Hall this past weekend.  Not only is he blessed with great technical gifts and innate musicality, but he has a characteristic sorely lacking in all too many classical musicians: curiosity.  Hough also has the ability to communicate his ideas in a way the average music lover can understand.  (For example, in a discussion of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Hough described Paganini’s 24th Caprice as being like “a beautiful, crisp, white, shirt; you can put anything with it: jeans, a tie, evening clothes” – a description which made it easy for the listener to understand why Rachmaninoff, and so many other composers, chose this theme for variations.)

Hough brought to the Dvořák Concerto impeccable technique, sophisticated pedaling (we sat in row K and had an unobstructed view of the pedals) and an unfailing sense of proportionality.  Further, there was a sense of directionality throughout the piece, no small achievement in a work which can all too easily be splintered into unconnected fragments.  Hough played with virtuosity, but never for its own sake – and I never had the impression that Hough was a “soloist”, but truly a collaborative artist.  In short, Hough put his heart and soul into the piece.  As a result, the Concerto’s true self emerged: a work of potent emotions, great themes, and solid construction – particularly in the finale where Dvořák combines the two themes in a Bachian manner.  I would ordinarily express the hope that more pianists take up the Dvořák, but I sense future performances of this piece will be measured against the one I heard Saturday, and will fare poorly in comparison.  The Cleveland Orchestra under Alan Gilbert provided an accompaniment which was hand-in-glove, and the performers were rewarded with a standing ovation.

Hough, noting that Sunday would be Mother’s Day in the UK, offered an encore: his own arrangement of Dvořák’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me”, in a beautifully shaded and pastel colored performance, with lovely pedal effects and tones seeming to float from the piano.

Monday, February 29, 2016

2016 Ohio Democratic Primary Endorsements

The time has come to cast our votes in Ohio's primary election.  I hope you do take the time to vote, whether you agree with our endorsements or not.

Democratic Primary
For President: Hillary Clinton

For the first time in 24 years, I did not campaign for any candidate during the primary season.  It was not that I disliked either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, but that I was so enthusiastic about both it became difficult to choose.  This primary cycle has allowed me to learn more about both candidates, and after a great deal of research I have cooled on Sanders.

Both Clinton and Sanders have their advocates, many of Sander’s  more enthusiastic supporters have crossed the line in statements (which I will not repeat here) about Clinton’s gender, honesty, and marriage - while Clinton’s supporters comments about Sanders have centered around his ability to get the changes he advocates enacted.  Sanders and his supporters have criticized Clinton for being a closet moderate, too friendly with corporate interests, and for changing her positions on issues.  Some of those criticisms may have merit.  But a slavish loyalty to an unwavering position on any issue reminds me of George W. Bush’s conviction of the merits of his Middle East policies, and Herbert Hoover’s unwillingness to take the actions necessary to alleviate the Great Depression.  Indeed, Sanders’ charges of flip-flopping remind me of Hoover’s labeling Franklin D. Roosevelt a “chameleon on plaid” for changing positions (often 180º) on how to turn the economy around.  (Claire Booth Luce derisively compared FDR’s trademark gesture with those of Hitler and Churchill: Hitler had the Nazi salute, Churchill had the V for Victory sign, and FDR: finger to the wind.  But it’s worth remembering that Hitler led Germany to ruin, and the war in Europe had scarcely ended when Churchill was tossed from office.)  Altering positions on issues goes beyond politically expedient flexibility.  And it’s not as if Sanders hasn’t switched on some issues – in particular gun control, where, despite his denials, he altered his position to a degree that might have made FDR blush.  Examining Senator Clinton’s evolving viewpoints it becomes obvious that they have evolved in the right direction.  I’d rather have a President who can adapt with the times than one who is stuck in the groove – an apt criticism against Republicans like Hoover and Democrats like Jimmy Carter alike.  We must bluntly face the truth that no matter who is elected President, Republicans will likely control the House of Representatives for the rest of this decade, largely thanks to Gerrymandering by Republican governors and state legislatures.  Democrats will be lucky if they gain control of the Senate.  Judging by Senator Sanders’ statements and his history in the Senate, House of Representatives, and Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he has difficulty working with those on either side of the aisle who don’t agree 100% with him, and is unwilling to seek consensus or compromise.  Nor does he appear to recognize reality beyond the bubble of the clique of sycophants with which he surrounds himself or his own state of Vermont– a lovely state which is so far removed from much of the rest of the nation it could almost be part of Canada.  Secretary Clinton is more likely to be able to reach across the aisle and make the deals with Republicans which can propel the nation forward in a realistic manner, and build on the achievements of President Obama – which she has been quick to acknowledge, and which Sanders has pooh-poohed at every turn.  Senator Sanders seems more interested in throwing out much of what President Obama has accomplished and starting all over – a textbook case of two steps forward, a dozen steps back.

I have no doubt that the drive which compels Hillary Clinton to run goes beyond personal ego or the desire to see a woman elected to the Presidency - and instead centers on the good of the country.  During her years as First Lady of Arkansas, then of the United States, then as Senator, she has labored as a workhorse – not as a show horse, or as the darling of the left.  I can’t say it any better than Bill Clinton does here:

Therefore, we enthusiastically endorse Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic Presidential Nomination.

For United States Senate: P. G. Sittenfeld
Sittenfeld is a Cincinnati City Council member who has received broad support not just from his own party, but among Republicans and independents as well – so much support that he won more votes during his 2013 reelection than any other Council member.  Much of that support is based on a track record of success in stabilizing foreclosures, re-purposing neighborhood schools as after-hours “Town Square” schools, and bringing wireless internet to Cincinnati’s poorest communities – just as FDR brought electricity to the Tennessee Valley.  All these accomplishments are in the spirit of the New Deal coalition that helped establish the middle class, but which also look toward the future.

Our endorsement of Sittenfeld is a long-shot.  As a former Congressman and Governor, Ted Strickland has the money and endorsements of many “established” Democratic groups.  But his record as Governor left much to be desired, however many of his problems in that office stemmed from the corruption of his predecessor’s Administration or the collapse of the national economy under George W. Bush.  Also, Strickland seems too willing to take the course of least resistance, whether it comes to opposing gun control until he supported it, or refusing to debate his primary opponent.  Strickland’s popularity in Ohio is marginal, and if he were elected, would be unlikely to serve more than two terms due to his age – he’s 74.  We feel that Ohio’s Democratic party needs fresh blood, and Sittenfeld brings both the vigor and the necessary experience to defeat Senator Portman in the general election and to make an effective Senator who will serve the Buckeye State well – and for the long term.  

For Prosecuting Attorney, Cuyahoga County: No endorsement
The incumbent, Timothy McGinty has poorly served the people of Cuyahoga County, in particular the African American community.  There’s no indication his challenger, Michael O’Malley, would do any better.   Whichever candidate wins should be made aware that a low vote count is an indication that the Prosecutor will need to prove himself to the voters of Cuyahoga County, that the citizens are watching, and hopefully that better alternatives will appear in the next election cycle.

Issue 23, Cuyahoga County Health & Human Services Renewal: FOR the levy.  This is not a tax increase, but the renewal of an existing property tax which generates money for such things as pre-kindergarten, drug counseling, home healthcare for senior citizens, and for MetroHealth’s level-one trauma center and LifeFlight.  We recommend its passage.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Berwald & Dvořák with Blomstedt at Severance

Herbert Blomstedt returned to Severance Hall this past weekend to conduct a compact program of Berwald and Dvořák.

At 88, Blomstedt is a remarkably spry gentleman. In appearance, he reminds me of Michael Gough, the British actor best known for playing Alfred the butler in the Tim Burton Batman movies.

The program began with Berwald’s Symphony No. 3 (“Sinfonie singulière”), which was unfamiliar to me.  I heard it on the radio decades ago, but didn’t remember one bar of it.  The work was never performed during Berwald’s lifetime, and has seldom been heard since his death.  Despite Blomstedt’s advocacy, it was easy to understand the reasons for the work’s rarity: The piece lacks the dramatic “through-line” that the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, and the later symphonies of Mozart possess.  Rather, Berwald’s construction seems to consist of a collection of unmemorable themes thrown together and developed rather clumsily - if skillfully orchestrated.  The central movement is a case in point: It begins with an Adagio, then a rather crude tympani strike announces a faster section, then the Adagio theme returns. While a three movement symphony with a central movement that combines the characteristics of a slow movement with a scherzo is unusual, it’s hardly unique.  Rachmaninoff did the same with his 3rd Symphony, and with greater finesse. The bulk of the finale consists of a vigorous presentation of a C minor theme, which then switches to major in a manner that is far from convincing so that there is no sense of triumph.

Dvořák's Symphony No. 7 was markedly more successful. There are those who consider the 7th to be the greatest of Dvořák's symphonies, although the 9th (aka, the “New World”) retains its popularity.  While the 9th is identified with America, the 7th is firmly in the Central European tradition and parts seem as if it could have sprung from Brahms’ pen.  Blomstedt chose sensible tempos, balanced each section beautifully, and paid particular attention to dynamics, which vividly characterized each episode without disrupting the whole.  The audience was brought to its feet after the finale, and Blomstedt was kind enough to single out players and sections for their own share of applause.  As the program was a bit short, the audience was rewarded with an appropriate encore: Dvořák's Slavonic Dance in G minor, in a rollicking performance.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Mitsuko Uchida at Severance, and a note on the Supreme Court

Daniel and I had an enjoyable Saturday evening.  We celebrated both Daniel’s birthday and an early Valentine’s day (our 11th) by dining at Severance Hall.  This was our first dinner there (I met some friends there for lunch years ago), but it won’t be our last.  Severance Restaurant is now catered by Marigold, and the menu is small but well chosen.  Portions are well judged, so that Dan enjoyed his Duck confit and I my pasta with sausage without feeling overly bloated.  The service is understatedly pleasant, a contrast to the overly familiar wait-staff at some restaurants who feel the need to ask us how our meal is every thirty seconds.  We also noticed, with some amusement, that we were the youngest couple in the room – which is not only unusual since I’m pushing 50, but in noted contrast to the audience, which boasted a great number of young people.

The all-Mozart program featured Mitsuko Uchida in the Piano Concertos No. 17 in G major, K. 453, and No. 25 in C major, K. 503 - which were being recorded as part of a continuing series for Decca.  A note in the program reminded audience members to silence their cell phones, but the large volume of coughing from the audience will probably result in Decca needing to use rehearsals for source material. The Concertos book-ended Symphony No. 34 in C major, K. 338 led by concertmaster William Preucil. 

This was our fourth time hearing Uchida with the orchestra, and it occurred to me, I’ve heard her in person about as much as any pianist.  During previous occasions with Uchida, we sat either toward the far end of the main hall, or in the balcony – with excellent results, sonically.  This time, we were in row E, just left of center.  This proved to be less optimal than expected:  Uchida sat with her back to the audience so she could direct the orchestra; as the lid was removed from the piano, her playing was not projected toward the audience.  She was audible in solo passages, but was all but lost when the orchestra played above mezzo forte.    Despite any balance problems, it was clear that the tempi were well chosen, and Uchida’s playing communicated both the joy in the music and her own sense of joy in sharing it with the audience.  She strikes me as a generous musician, both in the way she let orchestra members shine in certain passages (particularly the winds), and later singling them out for acknowledgment by the audience.  Incidentally, Uchida favored Toscanini’s style for seating the strings: 1st violins at stage left, 2nd violins on the right, cellos and violas on inside left and right, respectively.  This resulted in some interesting stereophonic effects during 1st and 2nd violin dialogs.

Shortly after Daniel and I arrived home, we heard the news that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had died.  I also heard of the appalling, but predictable, response from Senator Mitch McConnell and the buffoons and loons running for the Republican nomination for President, to the effect that President Obama should refrain from nominating another justice and wait for his successor to do so.  Historians have already pointed out the idiocy behind those remarks.  If Senate Republicans try to block President Obama's Supreme Court Nomination (he's already said he'll make one), it will unite Democrats behind whoever gets the nomination, and swing independents to the Democrats in BOTH the Presidential and Senate campaigns. So, go ahead, make our day.