Friday, June 23, 2017

John Browning – A Cosmopolitan American Pianist

Sony has reissued their complete RCA and Columbia recordings by pianist John Browning.  A good number of these recordings are being issued for the first time on CD, and some for the first time in any format.  Click here to read my full review.


Sunday, May 28, 2017

Fleeing the Tonal Center, at Severance

Concertgoers were treated to an unusual and challenging program at Severance this past weekend, in which well-known music commingled with the lesser known, and with the all but unknown.

Standard practice is to place the best known piece of music at the end, a measure calculated to keep butts in seats until the end of the concert.  This practice was reversed.  The opening work was Beethoven’s Piano  Concerto in G major – my own favorite of the Beethoven Concertos.  The soloist was Murray Perahia, whose recorded cycle of Beethoven concertos with Bernard Haitink is as close to a reference set as can be attained in such oft-recorded works.  His rendition with the Cleveland Orchestra on Saturday night was on the same exalted level, although many details differed from the recorded version – evidence that Perahia’s conception of the music continues to evolve and that final, definitive versions of such variegated works are impossible.  The opening chords to the work were especially rapt and concentrated – despite a bit of noise caused by a late arriving audience member.  One of the shifts in Perahia’s interpretation is that he now emphasizes the rhythmic underpinnings of the first movement over the right-hand filigree, so that the structure of the work emerges with more clarity than before.  This may be disappointing to those who prefer the “sizzle” of rapid runs and double-trills, but it fit the generally broader conception of the piece which reached its zenith during the expansively played cadenza (Beethoven’s own, with a bit of octave doubling that reminded me of Busoni’s version).  The audience was moved enough to offer a bit of spontaneous, in-between-movement applause. The rapt slow movement was truly a dialogue which led seamlessly to the balletic finale.  Franz Welser-Möst and the orchestra provided a simpatico and symphonic accompaniment.  

I noted that a portion of the audience which left the hall at intermission did not return afterwards.  The loss was theirs, for the remainder of the concert was a demonstration of just what this orchestra is capable of.  One of Welser-Möst’s underappreciated talents is for bringing cohesiveness to music which is not often easily followed – bringing order to seeming chaos.  I witnessed it several years ago when he led the orchestra in a riveting performance of Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy.  Such was the case in the even more challenging Transfigured Night of Arnold Schoenberg.   Welser-Möst kept the tempo moving and the balances transparent, and listening to this work – a purely musical retelling of infidelity and forgiveness – I was struck by a metaphor for the tonal center in music.  The tonal center, or the home key, is like a piece of salt-water taffy.  In Beethoven’s G major Concerto it’s stretched only slightly.   In the Schoenberg it was stretched to the absolute limit without being broken.  But in the final work of the program, Edgard Varèse’s Amériques, the tonal center was obliterated within the first few measures.  The work depicts the chaos of life in New York circa 1920, from the vantage point of someone who grew up in a small town in France.  But to portray this chaos, it took perfect control and balance, which were provided by Welser-Möst and the orchestra, augmented with so many extra players that the stage seemed crammed with performers and equipment.  Though what remained of the audience was likely shattered by the cacophony, they recalled the conductor to the stage several times and cheered when he singled out individual sections for recognition. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

My Review of Schnabel's RCA Victor Recordings

Sony has issued Artur Schnabel's complete RCA Victor recordings in a two CD set.  Click here to read my review. 


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Pelléas and Mélisande at Severance

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

Cruising at 50


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

Thoughts on the Cleveland Orchestra’s 100th anniversary season

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.


Bon appétit.