Sony has issued Artur Schnabel's complete RCA Victor recordings in a two CD set. Click here to read my review.
Friday, May 19, 2017
Tuesday, May 9, 2017
In 1935, Artur Rodzinski led the Cleveland Orchestra and singers in a staged production of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, a work which earned the composer a rebuke in his native Russia and which was condemned as “pornophony” by the New York Sun. Rodzinski’s performances were the American premiere of the opera, putting Cleveland and its orchestra on the cultural map – and marked not just the highlight of the 1934-1935 season, but of Rodzinski’s ten years in Cleveland. By the time Rodzinski’s tenure with the orchestra ended in 1943, the Cleveland Orchestra was firmly in place as one of the America’s Big Five orchestras – along with the Philadelphia Orchestra (considered by Rachmaninoff to be the world’s finest), the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, and Chicago Symphony.
Staging an opera - any opera - was a bold move on Rodzinski’s part. Severance Hall, undisputedly one of the world’s most beautiful concert halls, is also rather small. Its seating capacity is about 2,000 – against 2,804 at Carnegie Hall and 2,738 at David Geffen Hall. The stage extensions needed for an opera cut into the available seating. Fewer seats means fewer tickets sold, which means less money for what is inevitably an expensive production.
It has been said that art thrives on limitation. This has certainly proved true in Cleveland. In 2014, Franz Welser-Most led the orchestra and singers in a creatively staged production of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen – the highlight of that season, which was so popular that it will be repeated next season. I am confident that the staged performances of Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande will be remembered as the primary event of the 2016-2017 season – the “point” that Rachmaninoff spoke of in music, from which everything builds up and recedes.
Pelléas and Mélisande is not an easy opera to love. It lacks the spectacle of Wagner’s Ring, the high-note arias of Verdi, the lasciviousness of Richard Strauss’ Salome, the bubbly delight of many of Mozart’s operas. It doesn’t even have a memorable “tune”. Instead, the action is largely subjective, the characters are internalized, the music largely relies on texture, sonority, and subtle patterns.
The staging for this production, by Yuval Sharon, was outstanding and challenging. The centerpiece, elevated above the main stage, was a large glass structure which made use of lighting effects, fog, CGI projections, electrochromic glass, along with performers to bring the visual aspects of the work to life. The singers were dressed in simple costumes and remained largely still, while the physical performers in the glass structure largely delineated the stage action – both physical and sub-textual. It was highly effective, but there were drawbacks. Between the orchestra, the singers, the glass box, and the supertitles, there were times when the action was hard to follow. I found it most effective to keep my eyes on the booth, while glancing at the supertitles, and ignoring the orchestra (after all, I see them quite often). I would even go so far as to say that the singers’ costumes were not necessary. In all, it was a remarkable performance where staging, singing, orchestral playing, and overall convention merged into a compelling whole.
I mentioned above that art thrives on limitations. That’s why I am perplexed that the powers-that-be at the orchestra have decided against staging Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde at Severance next season. Tristan could be staged inexpensively, with the use of lights and projections to help set the mood, at far less cost than Vixen and Pelléas were.
Tuesday, April 4, 2017
20 years ago, as I was about to cross the threshold of 30 years, I was in a fretful mood. My hair was falling out, defying my desperate attempts to mask the loss. My career was going nowhere. I had no steady relationship. Then, one day as I drove home from my retail job, I began to think of friends who had died before they reached 30, and told myself “Drake, quit crabbing – you’re luckier than they are.”
And so, I carried on, recently turning 50 - a rather momentous occasion in a person’s life. Again, I thought of those who had not made it as far as I: my maternal grandfather, an alcoholic with one kidney who died at 47; of President Kennedy, murdered in his limousine as he rode beside his wife; his brother Robert, who died in a similar fashion. So, I consider myself lucky to have reached 50, and felt it was cause for celebration beyond the usual birthday cake. For Dan’s 40th birthday, we travelled to London. This time, I decided to do something neither of us had done before: we went on a cruise. Narrowing our search to a rather modest cruise, we landed on a California Coastal Cruise from Princess Cruises. This had the added advantage of being able to show Dan a bit of California, where he’d never been before.
To reduce the risk of missing our cruise due to airport weather, we flew to San Francisco a day early – in fact, I turned 50 while airborne. Our flight (United, which offers the only non-stop from Cleveland to SFO) arrived right on time. Taking BART from the airport to the Embarcadero, I was reminded of how friendly San Franciscans are – everyone seemed to be smiling.
I’ve wanted to visit the Hyatt Regency since seeing it in 1979’s Time After Time. Our check in there was not scheduled until 4pm, but when I showed up at 11am to drop off our bags, we received our room key at no extra charge. Then, after glancing at my driver’s license, the clerk wished me a happy birthday, excused himself for a moment, and returned with a $25 gift card for their café. Our 16th floor room was gorgeous, with a firm king sized bed, large TV, and balcony with a view of the bay.
But the last thing I would want to do in San Francisco is vegetate in a hotel room. Despite the rain, Dan & I did quite a bit of sightseeing – although our walk was less ambitious than a tour I’d mapped out on Google. Still, I was able to show Dan several familiar sights, including the infamous “double dumb ass on you” intersection from Star Trek IV and Macondray Lane – the inspiration for Barbary Lane from Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series. Dan was amazed by the steep hills, and by the time we returned to the Hyatt, our legs were shaking. As afternoon approached evening, we took the excellent public transportation to The Castro, where we would later meet up with my brother and his girlfriend. The Castro is known as San Francisco’s main LGBT neighborhood – although like in many cities, the community has spread out over recent decades. But even if gays don’t live in the Castro, this is where they go to play and meetup with friends.
Dan & I browsed around the area until my brother showed up to take us on a whirlwind tour of the city and dinner at Hot Spud – which specializes in baked potatoes, followed by dessert at Powder Shaved Snow. There are few in my family who I feel so relaxed and comfortable with as my brother, and it was a pleasure seeing him again.
The next morning, we had a leisurely walk through the Embarcadero to our ship, waiting in Pier 27. The boarding process was handled efficiently and soon enough we were checked into our stateroom and sailing under the Golden Gate bridge.
Courtesy of cruisedeckplans.com
Cruising is quite different than depicted on The Love Boat, which featured an all-American, mostly Caucasian cast. As the British Captain, Ronald Wilson, noted during departure festivities, both crew and passengers were exceptionally diverse, originating from 48 and 33 countries, respectively. Captain Wilson pointedly commented that the crew works together in “perfect peace and harmony” – something the outside world could learn from. They certainly seemed to enjoy each other’s company as well as the passengers – I never saw so much as a cross glance between them. Although my gaydar is no longer as finely tuned as in previous years, I suspect about 40% of the male crewmembers (at least those who interact with the public) are gay – something never seen on The Love Boat. Then there’s the ship – in our case, the Grand Princess. The Pacific Princess of TV fame was a tinker toy compared to the giant we sailed on, which is 951 feet long, has 17 decks, displaces 109,000 tons, and can hold a whopping 3,100 passengers and 1,100 crew. Thanks to our Costco membership, we snaged a great price on a balcony stateroom (Lido 230) and a shipboard credit of $140. The cruising experience was like being in an enclosed city, where there are people waiting on your every need – along with those trying to sell you things you don’t need. The food was unlimited, with a large buffet and several specialty restaurants. One night, we dined at the Crown Grill where I enjoyed a perfectly prepared rib-eye steak. We had two “at-sea” days during which there was plenty to do – dancing, musicals, films (we saw Moonlight and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), spa services (I received my first ever pedicure), and contests – we won a bottle of champagne at an astronomical trivia challenge.
On Monday we dropped anchor at Santa Barbara. Since there’s no large pier there, we took a tender ship from the Grand Princess to shore. From there, we boarded a bus to Solvang, a town founded by Danish immigrants in 1911 and built in the style of their native land. Frankly, the town was not especially interesting although there were a few nice art galleries and an antique store that was very impressive - and of course the Æbleskivers were delicious.
Tuesday, we docked at Long Beach. We skipped the Shore Excursion since we were docked next to the Queen Mary. I’d previously been there when I was 13 and remember being awed by the ship’s size, luxury, and Art Deco style. Sadly, the grand old lady has markedly deteriorated since then. Many of the exhibits have been closed, paint is peeling everywhere, the deck boards are cracked, rust abounds – there was even a discarded water bottle floating above the ship’s massive propeller. It was depressing to see, and matters were not improved by a bus trip to a poorly planned shopping center.
The following day, we docked in San Diego, next to the Star Princess and near the naval base where my father was stationed in the 1950s. Time constraints did not allow us to visit the base, but we did enjoy a bus tour around San Diego, including La Jolla and the Old Town.
Our last excursion, on Thursday, was in Ensenada, Mexico. Again, there was another ship nearby, in this case the Carnival Inspiration – which was about the least inspired ship I’ve seen. We opted to see La Bufadora, and although the tide was low we were sprayed. We were also amused by the aggressive flea market vendors, who would shout their wares, offering “ten dollar, for you eight, no SIX!”
As we arrived back on our ship, our moods reflected the fact that our vacation would soon be over. Our last full day moved at a relaxed pace, featuring a cooking demonstration and tour of the main galley.
The only thing that marred the cruise was about 30 hours of rough seas on the way home. Neither of us slept well the final two nights of our cruise, and a number of passengers were seasick. Of course, there’s nothing the crew can do about the weather, and while the ride was rough, I pointed out to Dan that the shifts and swells we experienced were not that noteworthy on a ship that’s almost 1,000 feet long.
Here’s a video of highlights from our trip.
Sunday, March 19, 2017
The 2017-2018 concert season will be the Cleveland Orchestra’s 100th. Significant anniversaries such as this are an occasion to look backward, as well as forward.
It appears that those who make the decisions that shape the orchestra’s future have looked back, but only so far- only to 1946, to be precise. They seem to forget that ours was a distinguished ensemble before George Szell took over in 1946 and molded the orchestra in his own image. True, the Cleveland Orchestra went through a difficult period during the war – a reduced number of players, a music director, the young Erich Leinsdorf, who was in the Army and periodically absent, and few recordings due to wartime restrictions on materials. But nearly every American orchestra had to deal with similar restrictions, to say nothing of what European orchestras went through. Szell stated he wanted to combine the best aspects of America’s and Europe’s great orchestras in Cleveland – and he did. But Szell was also a musical conservative who, with a few exceptions, avoided modern music. Instead, he sought out younger conductors to bring the latest works the Cleveland – including Pierre Boulez, whose relationship with the orchestra spanned five decades until his death in 2016.
If the orchestra’s management wants inspiration for how to enhance Cleveland’s already formidable standing and secure a stronger future, it should look further back – past Boulez, past Szell. It was Artur Rodziński, not Szell, who first turned the Cleveland Orchestra into one of America’s Big Five ensembles (along with the Philadelphia Orchestra (which Rachmaninoff thought was the world’s finest), the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, and the Boston Symphony. He did this not by merely getting the orchestra to play with impeccable technique and refinement (as his recordings, which should be reissued in their entirety, attest) but by demanding as much of the audience as the orchestra. Rodziński tenure in Cleveland was known for innovative, challenging programming – including the American premiere of Shostakovich’s controversial opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. It was also Rodziński who first advocated for a casual dress code at Severance, writing in 1936 “Let the music lover come in any garb. Let them come in their working clothes, their overalls if they like, and they will be most highly welcome. Severance Hall is not just for the rich.”
Much of Rodziński’s challenge was conveniently forgotten as Szell repaired the neglect of the war years, restored the orchestra to what Rodziński had built – and eventually took them to an even higher level. It’s hardly a surprise then, that many of the orchestra’s pre-Szell recordings have never been reissued on compact disc (except a few issued on the orchestra’s private label). Most are worthy, including Nikolai Sokoloff’s recording of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony which, although cut, is the first ever of that work, with some gorgeous string playing.
My mind contemplated that history in the aftermath of the orchestra’s announcement of its 100th season. I was invited to the official announcement and mixer at Severance, which took place this past St. Patrick’s Day. The mixer was a typical meet & greet where orchestra members schmoozed with donors and patrons – who were overwhelmingly white and elderly. Then we took our seats in the auditorium for the congratulatory announcements and videos.
Most of what was said by the board members was eminently forgettable – and I wouldn’t remember a word of it if not for the video linked above. But Welser-Möst spoke with eloquence of his goals with the orchestra, what he has learned in Cleveland, his desire to avoid musical populism, and the wider importance of music in society. He also referenced three seminal works in musical history: Beethoven’s Third Symphony, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – all works, he said, which would be performed in the upcoming season. Welser-Möst’s comments were thought provoking and hopeful. But what counts is what happens when the rubber meets the road. My heart sank later that evening as I looked over the season’s programs: Mostly meat and potatoes, the tried and the true. A Beethoven Symphony cycle, plus the “Emperor” Concerto – which is played nearly every season; Mitsuko Uchida playing Mozart – again; some Brahms (including the First Symphony with Christoph von Dohnányi which, given the elder conductor’s health, seems unlikely); some Bruckner & Mahler, some Ravel.
In terms of opera, there will be a reprise of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen, a charming work inventively staged in 2014 that I look forward to seeing again. But I cannot fathom why Tristan and Isolde will only being given a concert performance, i.e., no staging. The opera can be staged very inexpensively and still hold the audience’s interest. But a concert performance of a four hour opera, even Tristan, is frankly, not inspiring.
Worse, next season will have very little in the way of newer music: four 21st Century works, only one of which is by an American composer – Stephen Paulus, who passed away in 2014. In essence, the next season will be Classical music’s equivalent of a trip to Applebee’s. The audience will be eating, or rather hearing, what they’ve heard before – ad infinitum.
Sunday, March 5, 2017
We are living in a new Golden Age of television. Anyone with an internet connection can watch nearly anything he wants, when he wants to. Premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime led the way, Netflix and Amazon are offering increasingly provocative shows – in particular Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle which is about the most disturbing television I’ve ever watched. Facing stronger competition, network TV programming, which was painfully homogenized and bland even 15 years ago, is competing by becoming more daring and embracing higher production values. Compare even the most spectacular programming of the 1990s, such as the Star Trek franchise, with a typical program today. There’s no doubt that today’s shows give screenwriters greater freedom and put the money on the screen to bring their vision to life. It’s small wonder that film actors are increasingly moving to television.
Nowhere is this more evident than in television’s treatment of LGBT characters. Until the late 1990s, when LGBT people appeared at all, they were stereotypes of one stripe or another: the effeminate queen, the nobly suffering person with AIDS, the bull-dyke, the tragi-comic transgender. There was another seen from time to time: the young person – almost invariably male – discovering that he’s “different” and beginning to come out. For me, the most memorable example was ABC’s Consenting Adult, which stared Martin Sheen and Marlo Thomas as the parents of a young man, Jeff, played by Barry Tubb. Based on a 1975 novel, the film aired in February 1985, about a month before I turned 18. My mother and I watched together, and afterward I came out to her (I had already come out to my comparatively liberal grandmother a few months prior). Doubtless there were numerous young men and women who came out to their parents or friends as a result of this and similar films. Much of Consenting Adult was from the parents’ point of view, which was clever as it prepared many real-life parents for the emotional turmoil which could arise if a child came out – and let’s not kid ourselves, in those early terrifying years of AIDS, learning your son was gay was on the same level emotionally as learning your son had cancer – as Sheen’s character says in one scene. In its way, the film was groundbreaking – particularly one scene in which Jeff tells his mother what it’s like for him to desire another man. But, as was often the case, Consenting Adult was talky, slow moving, and obviously filmed on a shoestring budget – even by the standards of 80s TV.
Today, gay characters are everywhere on TV. One could limit oneself to shows with gay characters and still have a full viewing card. Modern Family, How to Get Away with Murder, Riverdale, The Real O’Neals, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Mr. Robot, Sense8, Transparent, and many more have LGBT primary or supporting characters.
Last week, ABC aired When We Rise, an eight hour miniseries nominally based on Cleve Jones’ book of the same title. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, a brilliant writer, has masterfully woven a complex tapestry together, keeping the narrative flowing across the span of 45 years. Each character has an individual arc, but not at the sacrifice of narrative flow or historical accuracy - as just about every character is based on a real person. The performances are uniformly excellent, but a few stand out: Austin P. McKenzie and Guy Pearce, who portray Cleve Jones at different stages of his life. As much as an ensemble series can have a core character, it’s Cleve. We see him grow from teenager coming to terms with his sexuality, to liberated young gay man, to protégé activist, mentor, and elder statesman. Also noteworthy are Emily Skegs and Mary-Louis Parker as Roma Guy, Michael K. Williams as an older Ken Jones, who struggles against discrimination and his own addictions, and Rafael de la Fuente’s gentle, soft-spoken Ricardo. John Rubinstein only appears in one scene, but makes the most of his small role as Dr. Charles Socarides, a homophobic psychologist who learns his own son, Richard, is gay. (As a sidenote, Richard Socarides is played by his own younger brother, Charles.) The production is rich in symbolism, from the emergence of the rainbow flag as the banner of LGBT liberation, to Harvey Milk’s bullhorn. Neither the actors nor the producers try to sanitize gay history by presenting characters as nobly suffering victims or blandly heroic activists. Each of the primary characters is three dimensional and behaves in a manner consistent with the era. The lesbians are wary of the gay men. Many of the gay men are highly promiscuous. Several of the characters casually use drugs and one becomes an addict. The production shows it all (within the bounds of network television): love scenes, street cruising, bathhouses; these were the reality of gay male life in the 1970s. The closed minded and provincial will not respond positively to When We Rise. Nor, I suspect, will some of the more assimilationist in the gay community who are content to go to the Human Rights Campaign’s black tie parties. The ineffectual blandness of HRC comes under some welcome scrutiny here, as Cleve navigates the chasm between them and the more confrontational groups like ACT-UP – while keeping his own brand of activism intact.
This is also the first made for TV effort about LGBT people I've seen that has real production value - it's like watching a big budget film, with the exception of some brief attempts to shoehorn the cast with real historical figures using CGI which don’t quite come off. But for the most part, the viewer is transported into the characters’ lives and times.
ABC deserves credit for airing When We Rise, with a considerable and unapologetic publicity wind-up, and for granting the production the budget necessary to make it work. ABC seems to be a leader among the big-3 networks in featuring gay characters, a trend I hope continues regardless of the political direction the country takes. Despite today’s move toward streaming video, if When We Rise is issued on blu-ray I shall certainly support the production by buying a copy.
Tuesday, February 28, 2017
Vladimir Horowitz once said, “Good composers or bad composers, the best pianists were all composers.” To a great extent this is true (at least prior to today's era, when pianists are trained to win competitions, like racehorses wearing blinders): Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff – all were as famous as pianists in their day as composers. Even Horowitz dipped his toes into composing before fate compelled him to turn to performing as his bread & butter.
Whether Horowitz’s aphorism applies to conductors is open to debate. Several composers were, in their time, also known as conductors: Mahler, Rachmaninoff - who was offered music directorship of the Boston Symphony, and Boulez - who was so associated with Cleveland for much of his life. But the vast majority of conductors have never composed – at least professionally.
Matthias Pintscher was guess conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra for this past weekend’s concerts at Severance Hall. He began the concert with his own composition: Ex Nihilo, which roughly translates as Out of Nothing. The work primarily concentrated on texture and crescendo for its depiction of a transition from darkness to light. As a conductor, Pintscer has a clear beat, but uses his left hand more for theatrical gestures than for controlling details within the orchestra. Incidentally, he did not use a baton for his own piece but did for the remaining works.
Following a brief pause, during which the Hamburg Steinway was rolled into place, pianist Cédric Tiberghien mounted the stage for Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5, popularly known as the “Egyptian”. The source of the nick-name is that the work was mostly composed in Egypt, and that the second movement makes use of some exotic modes and scales that are associated with Middle-Eastern music. The concerto is primarily lyrical, although the finale has moments of virtuosity. Tiberghien offered a performance that was technically immaculate, musically poised, and beautifully colored – particularly in the central movement. The crisp and almost cool virtuosity of the finale brought the house down and the audience’s response was rewarded with an encore, Debussy’s The Submerged Cathedral – appropriately enough as the second half of the concert would feature another “water piece” by a French composer. Tiberghien’s weighting of chords and use of the pedal were exquisite.
Following intermission, Pintscher returned to lead the orchestra in Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2. The work is a bit more accessible than his fully atonal works, but often the tonal center is difficult to discern. Pintscher led the work with a clear sense of direction.
I’ve been familiar with Debussy’s La Mer for about a quarter century, but this concert marked the first time I’ve heard it live. Perhaps my expectations were too high, as I found myself curiously let down by aspects of the performance. Instead of seductive textures and transparent voicing, I heard a rendition which was garish and – pardon the pun – splashy. Further, Pintscher’s frequent tempo changes disrupted the work’s continuity, as heard in recordings by Maazel and Boulez, among modern versions. Nevertheless, the performance had its moments, including Peter Otto’s lovely violin solo in the first movement and beautiful work by the harpists - and the generally spectacular playing brought the audience to its feet.
Monday, February 20, 2017
At the risk of sounding sexist, this past Saturday’s Cleveland Orchestra concert at Severance Hall could have been referred to as Ladies’ night.
Chinese born conductor Xian Zhang substituted for Semyon Bychkov, who was ill with stomach flu. Zhang is a rarity in the classical world: a female conductor. The relative scarcity of female conductors is the only reason I point it out. Zhang was joined by the Labeque sisters, Katia and Marielle, for the concert’s opening work, Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos in E-flat major, K.365. (I remember back in the 1980s, The Music Box at Shaker Square, where I worked, did a brisk business in Labeque sisters CDs.) It’s generally believed that Mozart composed the work to perform with his sister, Nannerl, so it’s entirely appropriate that the work was performed by two siblings at Severance. Piano duos are probably among the most challenging collaborative performances: the pianists are usually separated by about twelve feet, can’t see each other’s hands, and must depend on the conductor and that thing called instinct to maintain coordination and continuity. This is in marked contrast to works for piano and strings, where the pianist can observe the bow movements to determine entry points and the like. The Labeque sisters were entirely in tune with each other and the conductor to deliver a sparkling performance, with a lovely sense of songful intimacy in the slow movement – coupled with feathery figurations from the strings. They were rewarded by a standing ovation, and returned the gesture with an encore, the finale from Phillip Glass’ Four Movements for two pianos.
Following intermission, Zhang mounted the rostrum for Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. The work, composed with some difficulty in 1885, is not often performed. Like Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the work has a programmatic nature, based on Byron’s poem of the same name. About an hour long, this is the longest of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and provided a chance for the orchestra to really show its stuff, not just collectively but individual players – in particular the percussion. The work also has a brief organ passage at the end – about two minutes of music which is the definition of an easy paycheck. As my view of Zhang had been blocked by the piano lid during the Mozart, this provided me an opportunity to view her in action. Her baton technique was of the no-nonsense school personified by Toscanini and Szell: her beat was clear, cues were properly given, and her left hand adeptly controlled dynamics and balance. This was reflected in a rendition which was coherent (this is not an easy piece to hold together), clear, and beautifully played. I look forward to hearing more from her.