Monday, July 28, 2014

Nature versus Music at Blossom

Saturday evening, Dan & I made the journey to Blossom Music Center to hear a mixed concert with the Cleveland Orchestra, their featured soloist Stephen Hough, along with the Kent/Blossom Chamber Orchestra.  It was a memorable concert.

I will confess that, even though Blossom is one of the premiere outdoor locations for concerts, I am not overly fond of the outdoor concert concept – particularly as it pertains to Classical music.  Weather was a distraction at a Blossom concert we attended last year.  This year, the main reason I went was to hear Stephen Hough – one of my favorite living pianists.  This was the fifth time I’ve heard him in person and the third time at Blossom.  I wish the orchestra would bring him to Severance Hall more often.  Before the concert began, I briefly observed Hough consulting with the piano technician about the pedals of the piano – who made several adjustments while Hough tried out various passages.

The concert began earlier than usual, at 7pm, with a performance by the Kent/Blossom orchestra, primarily made of music students.  Led by Brett Mitchell, the performances of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin were on a high level – only some uncertain string intonation revealed that a student orchestra was playing.  The Siegfried Idyll possessed a remarkable sense of stillness, with expansive phrasing and a slower than usual tempo.  Le tombeau de Couperin bathed the listener in piquant harmonies and the emergence and submergence of orchestral textures. As with many pieces, Ravel wrote both piano and orchestral versions of this memorial to Couperin.  I’ve long held the piano versions of many of Ravel’s piano works in high esteem, but I prefer the orchestral in this piece.

After a brief intermission, the Cleveland Orchestra was onstage to begin the concert with Beethoven’s Overture to Fidelio, in a taut performance led by John Storgårds.  This was the fourth overture Beethoven wrote for his only opera, which was initially called Leonore and had a difficult performance history.  While observing the strings play several intricate passages, it occurred to me that the composer probably worked these sections out on the piano before he orchestrated the piece.  They would sit well under the hand if played on the piano.

There was a bit of musical chairs while the orchestra shifted to accommodate the piano.  Then, Hough strode onstage and began the most memorable part of the concert.  The orchestra began the very brief tutti for Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.1 in E-flat major, followed by Hough’s crisply pedaled rendition of the work's bravura opening passage.  About two minutes into the piece, as Hough was playing a poetic transitional passage, I saw what I thought was a flashbulb to my left.  As I was about to turn my head to glare down the photographer, I heard a tremendous BLAM! – realizing it wasn’t a flashbulb, but a lightning strike just outside the pavilion.  Audience and orchestra were startled, and even Hough reflexively ducked.  A lesser performer might have started over, but Hough never took his hands off the keyboard.  Instead, he preceded to a high trill and held it while the audience calmed down.  The performance then continued while low rumbling thunder served as reminder that, at the end of the day, Mother Nature does what she does.  The Liszt is not an easy concerto to perform.  It seems all too many pianists either turn it into a display for technical trickery, while others drain the life out of it to make it sound “musical” – and then there are those (who shall remain nameless) who can’t play the piece but insist on doing so anyway.  Hough has the chops to dispatch the work’s technical hurdles – wide octave leaps, repeated notes, staccato jumps – while giving poetry to the concerto’s nocturne-like sections.  The discreet pedaling (in a concerto where many pianists bluff through difficult sections by holding the sustaining pedal down) demonstrated why Hough worked with the technician before the concert.  It was thrilling from beginning to end, and the audience rightly rewarded soloist and orchestra with a standing ovation.  This was a performance that gave life to the maxim “the show must go on” and indeed it did as we were favored with an encore.  I’ve long held Hough in high esteem as a pianist and musician, but Saturday night he demonstrated his grace under pressure and nerves of steel.  (Hough has also recorded this concerto, which I heartily recommend.)  

Following intermission, the Kent/Blossom orchestra joined the Cleveland Orchestra for a joint performance of Sibelius’ Second Symphony.  Here’s where I will confess that I am not a huge Sibelius fan – not that I dislike his music, but it simply does not particularly stir me.  Nevertheless, the work’s massive orchestral textures benefited from the “super-sized” orchestra.  While students sat side-by-side with the orchestra’s tenured players, one had a sense of great traditions being passed on.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Lorin Maazel: 1930 - 2014

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

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

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


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






Sunday, July 13, 2014

LeBron's return - icing on the cake

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 27, 2014

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Health and the Presidency

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



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

I share this information to make two points:

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

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

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

Saturday, April 12, 2014

20th Century Presidents and LGBT rights.

There was a minor kerfuffle in the media a few days ago when Luci Baines Johnson and Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, daughters of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, told Katie Couric that their father would support same-sex marriage rights if he were alive today.  It’s important to remember that LBJ's daughters were stating contextually that if their father was alive today he would favor gay rights – in other words, they believe he would have evolved with the times.  How, some asked, could his daughters speak on his behalf when he’s been dead for 40 years?  Johnson was the President who used his considerable powers of persuasion – including invoking the memory of his slain predecessor, arm twisting, intimidating, and even threatening Congresspeople -  to get the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed.  Johnson also knew he was potentially jeopardizing the Democratic Party’s decades long position as America’s majority party, and commented to an aide “we’ve just lost the South for a generation” after he signed the bill.  LBJ was hardly free of prejudice himself, but as he himself stated, racism was a “crippling legacy” that would hamper America’s greatness in the long term.  Johnson’s work for Civil Rights was an admirable stand on principle which has unfortunately been overshadowed by his decisions in Vietnam. 

All Presidents - indeed, all human beings - are products of their generation. Likewise, those who lead people are often willing to overlook inconvenient facts in order to achieve their overarching goals.  This is as true with the issue of sexual orientation as elsewhere.  Benjamin Franklin alluded to rumors about Baron von Steuben’s private life being the cause of his fleeing Germany, but that didn’t stop General George Washington from hiring von Steuben to train the Continental Army into a fighting force that could defeat the British.  And nobody raised a ruckus when Steuben was accompanied by a young man who was generally assumed to be his lover.

Let’s review the actions of our modern Presidents with regard to the issue of homosexuality – and engage in informed speculation as to how they would approach the LGBT issues today.


Back to LBJ: Walter Jenkins was a top aide to him from 1939 until 1964.  Just weeks before the 1964 election, Jenkins – who was married – was arrested for public sexual conduct with another man in a Washingon, DC, YMCA men’s room.  As the press got wind of the incident, they dug deeper and learned it wasn’t the first time Jenkins had been busted on such a charge.  It seems highly unlikely Johnson – who maintained close ties with J. Edgar Hoover (another closeted homosexual) –  was not aware of the earlier arrest.  Yet he later stated  "I couldn't have been more shocked about Walter Jenkins if I'd heard that Lady Bird had tried to kill the Pope." As the story went public, Johnson was forced to accept Jenkins’s resignation.  But after he left the Presidency, Jenkins was a welcome guest in the Johnson house for the rest of his life.


This campaign button is an example of how desperate the Republicans were in 1964.

All Presidents - indeed, all human beings - are products of their generation. Likewise, those who lead people are often willing to overlook inconvenient facts in order to achieve their overarching goals.  This is as true with the issue of sexual orientation as elsewhere.  Benjamin Franklin alluded to rumors about Baron von Steuben’s private life being the cause of his fleeing Germany, but that didn’t stop General George Washington from hiring von Steuben to train the Continental Army into a fighting force that could defeat the British.  And nobody raised a ruckus when Steuben was accompanied by a young man who was generally assumed to be his lover.

Let’s review the actions of our modern Presidents with regard to the issue of homosexuality – and engage in informed speculation as to how they would approach the LGBT issues today.

Back to LBJ: Walter Jenkins was a top aide to him from 1939 until 1964.  Just weeks before the 1964 election, Jenkins – who was married – was arrested for public sexual conduct with another man in a Washingon, DC, YMCA men’s room.  As the press got wind of the incident, they dug deeper and learned it wasn’t the first time Jenkins had been busted on such a charge.  It seems highly unlikely Johnson – who maintained close ties with J. Edgar Hoover (another closeted homosexual) –  was not aware of the earlier arrest.  Yet he later stated  "I couldn't have been more shocked about Walter Jenkins if I'd heard that Lady Bird had tried to kill the Pope." As the story went public, Johnson was forced to accept Jenkins’s resignation.  But after he left the Presidency, Jenkins was a welcome guest in the Johnson house for the rest of his life.

Similarly, Franklin Roosevelt tried to suppress knowledge of an incident in which his assistant Secretary of State, Sumner Welles, made a pass at an African-American male porter while on route to Speaker of the House William Bankhead’s funeral in 1940. The story simmered until 1943 when Welles rival in the State Department, William Bullitt, passed the information to a Republican Senator – forcing FDR to let Welles go. When FDR learned that Bullitt was the source of the leak, he fired him and told Bullitt he should "go to Hell" for trying destroy an able man who made an error in judgment.


Sumner Welles with FDR.

The same can be said, based on contextual evidence, for Truman (who knew about J. Edgar Hoover's relationship with Clyde Tolson and didn't care), Ike (who had several lesbian assistants during WWII), and JFK (whose best friend, Lem Billings, was gay).

Jerry Ford endorsed same sex marriage rights shortly before he died, hardly surprising since a gay man, Oliver Sipple, saved President Ford from an assassination attempt in 1975. And we know Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are for gay rights, despite having grown up in the old South.

Even the elder George Bush has shown more comfort with LGBTs recently, attending a same-sex wedding.

That leaves Nixon, Reagan, and the young Bush as the odd men out.  It’s not hard to infer that LBJ’s daughters are right: Those with an open mind are increasingly supporting marriage equality and LGBT rights in general.  There’s no logical reason to suspect their father would have been an exception.