Friday, November 17, 2017

Paul Badura-Skoda plays Schubert

I've been stuck at home recovering from hernia surgery (about which I will write later), which has given me time to catch up on listening to new acquisitions to my CD collection.  Here's my latest review, of Sony's reissue of Paul Badura-Skoda's Schubert cycle. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Ashkenazy and Ax at Severance

This weekend saw the return of two artists with whom I’m separately familiar.  In December of 1990, I saw Vladimir Ashkenazy in recital in Boston.  Around the same time, I saw Emanuel Ax in recital.  But this weekend marked the first time I’d seen them perform together, and my first time seeing Ashkenazy as conductor.  In addition to their joint performance in Cleveland this weekend, both will be featured in separate interviews on Zsolt Bognár's Living the Classical Life, which were taped earlier this week. 

Dan and I like to get to Severance Hall early so we can settle into our seats well before the starting time.  A few members of the orchestra were already on stage, including Ashkenazy himself, who was animatedly conversing with one of the violists.  It must have been an amusing conversation as both were smiling and laughing.  Ashkenazy’s combination of rock solid musical credentials, willingness to work hard, yet always maintaining a pleasant and warm demeanor is no doubt part of the reasons he’s not only one of the most successful musicians in Classical music, but one of the most highly regarded, personally.  The conductor returned backstage as the hall began to fill, the lights dimmed, and the orchestra tuned.

Ashkenazy strode on stage with a brisk yet easy gait that belied his 80 years, and the program began with Edward Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, Op. 20 – a work with which I am largely unfamiliar.  From the first notes, Ashkenazy’s unobtrusive mastery in conducting was apparent.  He carefully balanced each section of the orchestra (the string section was reduced) so that each strand of music was transparent.  In particular, the long lined melody of the central Larghetto movement unfolded beautifully.

As part of the orchestra’s 100th anniversary season, management has decided to occasionally use decades-old program notes in their books.  This weekend’s book featured notes about Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto by George H. L. Smith from 1941 – with a disclaimer that these notes represented standard musical opinion back in the day.  Audiences who heard Sergei Rachmaninoff perform this concerto (the first time it was presented at Severance) read these very notes.  Reading them I was astonished how much musical opinion in the United States has advanced.  The notes claim, among other things, that Beethoven’s first two piano concertos are devoid of original ideas and are merely Beethoven’s recreations of the a musical form perfected by Mozart.  This is simply tosh.  The terseness of Beethoven’s musical ideas, his orchestration, the way the rhythmic motif dominates the entire opening movement are entirely Beethovenian – and the virtuosity of his piano writing goes beyond anything Mozart ever dreamed of.   

Emanuel Ax was soloist in the concerto, and he brought the virtuosic spirit of the young Beethoven to the work, but also a sense of scale that was appropriate to the period.  Witnessing Ax’s rendition of the first movement cadenza, it was easy to imagine how Viennese audiences were set on their ears by the young Beethoven’s playing.  Yet the performance wasn’t all about Ax, and the spirit of communicativeness and sense of joy in making music with the conductor and orchestra were ever present.  One can tell that Ashkenazy and Ax genuinely enjoy performing together. 

Ax gifted the audience with an encore, Schubert's A-flat major Impromptu D. 935, No. 2, in a feathery performance, sans repeats.

Following intermission, the audience was treated to an ideal rendition of Elgar’s Enigma Variations.  Despite the work’s relative popularity, this is the first time I’d heard it in concert.  From the first bars, it was apparent that Ashkenazy was determined to avoid the pitfalls heard in too many European recordings of this work, which tend to sound soggy and foggy.  As with the Serenade, each section was transparently balanced.   As is well known, each Variation on Elgar’s original theme is based upon someone in his life, from his wife, to his best friend, to a neighbor’s bulldog.  In the score, each variation is headed with a name or set of initials, which has allowed researchers to determine which Variation belongs to whom – except in the case of the 13th variation, which is headed by “***”, and probably was written in memory of an early amour.  The recipient of each Variation is beautifully characterized.  But what’s most interesting to me is that the most moving variation is reserved not for Elgar’s early love or even his wife, but for his best friend.  The “Nimrod” Variation, which is often used for funerals and other state events in Britain, has become as well known on its own as the 18th Variation of Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody.  It occurred to me that the Variation is more than a portrait of a friend, but a meditation on Platonic friendship, which is a kind of love in and of itself.  Last night’s rendition marked only second time in my life that I’ve been moved to tears by a concert.

Emotional connection.  That’s what music making is all about.  

Friday, October 20, 2017

Rudolf Serkin's complete Columbia recordings

Sony has reissued Rudolf Serkin's complete recordings for Columbia, at 75 CDs quite a substantial box.  I listened to every one of them while writing my review, which can be accessed by clicking here.  

Sunday, October 1, 2017

A study in contrasts: Beethoven and Stravinsky at Severance

In a previous post I complained that the Cleveland Orchestra’s programming this season was reminiscent of a trip to Applebee’s.  One may argue whether or not the food is actually tasty, but one cannot claim that it’s adventurous.  The irony in my comment is that I plan on attending more Cleveland  Orchestra concerts this season than ever before.  Perhaps there is something to be said for the tried and the true. 

Last week, the season began with a revival of 2014’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen, which the orchestra will also be bringing to Europe later this month.  It was a highly imaginative staging of a challenging and relatively lesser known opera – and it was a delight to see it again. 

This week, the orchestra presented a program of two highly contrasting works: Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132 and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

I vividly recall the first time I heard Beethoven’s Op. 132.  It began, like a few other musical stories, in my grandmother’s basement.  I found a box of old, mostly Classical records – including 78rpm records and early LPs.  One of those was a Columbia Masterworks mono LP of the Budapest String Quartet playing this very piece.  As I’d already heard the more popular symphonies, concertos, and piano sonatas (in particular the “Appassionata”, about which I was obsessed), I had certain expectations – which were promptly defied.  If, in the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven shouts to the audience, in the A minor Quartet, we hear his most secret and intimate thoughts.  One of Beethoven’s last works, the Quartet was composed in the aftermath of a serious illness during which Beethoven expected to die.  But he recovered and lived for another year and a half.  The work begins with a brief introduction which borders on the atonal before settling into the key of A minor – but not for long, as the exposition features many abrupt starts, stops, and modulations.  The heart of the work is the central movement, titled "Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to a Diety".  There is something about this movement in which Beethoven leaves the physical world behind and enters the metaphysical.  I’m left wondering if the composer had a near-death experience.  The final movement is one almost unrelenting despair until Beethoven modulates to A major and ends the work on a hopeful note.  Franz Welser-Möst’s arrangement for string orchestra essentially recreated the work in larger form, with the discreet addition of double-basses occasionally reinforcing the cello line - one octave lower.   Even with the larger orchestra, the work’s intimacy emerged intact.  The performance was exemplary with the exception for a violin solo at the end of the brief fourth movement – which notably broke the mood of the piece. 

Following the intermission was Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  If there were any musings about the irony of performing the Rite of Spring at the beginning of Autumn, they were quickly cast aside.  There is often the temptation in this piece to go the “sonic spectacular” route and let the brass and percussion drown out the other instruments.  Not this time.  Welser-Möst, which used the 1947 version of the score, brought forth many lines, particularly in the strings, which are often inaudible.  The opening Introduction and Augers of Spring had a sensual quality, as if one was awakening refreshed and stretching after a long nap – the woodwind playing was especially notable here.  Welser-Möst guided the orchestra with a sense of inevitability through the Spring Rounds to the Dance of the Earth – never allowing sheer speed to replace propulsive drive.  The mystery of the opening minutes of The Sacrifice was shattered by Glorification of the Chosen One, with the Sacrificial Dance unleashing the orchestra’s full savagery.   Often noted for its refinement, our hometown band can get plenty loud when required – but it was balanced loudness, without the distorted amplification that Dan & I were subjected to at Ricky Martin’s Las Vegas concert a few weeks ago.  The audience leapt to its feet in a sustained and enthusiastic ovation, cheering as individual sections were singled out.    

The audience was graced with an encore: the Good Friday music from Wagner’s Parsifal. I hope there will be more encores during the Cleveland Orchestra’s centennial season.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Cleveland Music - at the Happy Dog

I happened upon this wonderful two-LP album at Half Price Books.  Click here to read my review.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

65 hours in Las Vegas

Dan & I recently returned from a quick visit to Las Vegas.  For both of us, it was our first time there. 

I have long believed, and continue to do so, that the key to success in any trip lies in adequate preparation.  Planning ahead and researching the options of any particular place allows the traveler the freedom to enjoy the unexpected pleasantries and be prepared for the unexpected pitfalls.  Once Dan & I had made the decision to visit Las Vegas, I got to work researching hotels, airlines, restaurants, and other things to do – of which there are a bewildering series of options. 

I have a strong preference for non-stop flying – even if it involves reasonably increased expense.  Imagine my delight when I learned Frontier Airlines offers modestly priced non-stop flights to Las Vegas.  Initially, I had some trepidation about trying, for me, an untested airline.  Well, I can report that Dan & I were delighted with every aspect of our Frontier experience.  Just be prepared, as Frontier is a no-frills airline that gets you there, but perks are extra.  We minimized costs by packing the necessities for our brief trip in one bag, which we checked.  We also allowed ourselves one personal item – a backpack that fit easily underneath a seat and did not incur extra cost.   The day before our flight I checked in, found that Frontier’s website is user friendly and easy to navigate, selected our seats (at modest additional cost), and even printed out boarding passes.  Frontier’s counter at Hopkins Airport is next to Spirit’s, another budget carrier with a very different track record.  While our check in with Frontier was stress free, there was a line of angry customers at the Spirit counter, whose flight had been cancelled.  We also noted numerous Spirit cancellations in Vegas.

The contrast between Frontier and United, which we flew for our return trip, was stark.  Originally founded in 1994, Frontier has the feel of a young, dynamic, growing company.  They understand where the travel market is going and have adjusted accordingly.  The aircraft we took, an Airbus 321, was just delivered six months ago and although the seats did not recline and Wi-Fi was not offered, we enjoyed the flight and I was able to listen to pre-loaded music on my Kindle.  By contrast, United is an oversized dinosaur which can barely move under its own weight, with planes that appear to have seen better days.  And with United having withdrawn from Cleveland, their lack of non-stop flights to the places I want to go is quickly making them irrelevant.  Our stop in Chicago reminded me of why I loathe O’Hare airport.

Based on the location, amenities, and the intersection of price and value, we chose to stay at the Aria hotel.  Completed in 2009, the Aria is truly a 21st Century hotel.  Lights, television, air conditioning, and even draperies are controlled by a dedicated, in-room iPad.  We chose a Strip View room, on what is billed as the 53rd Floor (actually the 43rd, as there are no 40-49th floors listed owing to Chinese superstition), and enjoyed the night sights without being bothered by the night sounds. 

The view from our room - day and night.

There were too many restaurants at the Aria for more than a small sampling.  Naturally, we tried the buffet, which has quite a selection for breakfast.  We also breakfasted at the Aria Café which was good, but not extraordinary and hardly worth the price.  Julian Serrano’s Tapas restaurant, on the other hand, took us into another world of bold, unusual and unexpected flavors. 

While out walking the Strip, we also visited our first In-N-Out burger, and were both left wondering what all the fuss is about.  Certainly In-N-Out is superior to McDonald’s, Five Guys, and Wendy’s but it’s simply not All That.  The fries were mediocre and easily bested by Rally’s/Checker’s.  The milkshakes, however, were quite good.

Las Vegas has experienced explosive growth over the past few decades.  Comparing photos from then to now reminds of me of James Earl Jones’ line in Field of Dreams about America being “erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again.”  What were once two lane roads had to be expanded to the point that pedestrians were in danger.  So the city built a series of elevated street crossings.  Further, the crossings include 10 foot barriers with Plexiglas on top to prevent suicide jumps – a reasonable precaution in a city where many lose their life’s savings at casinos. Neither Dan nor I gamble.  But we did walk through several casinos and noted the blank, beaten look on the faces of many there – some who appeared to arrive early in the morning and remain late at night.  Walking the Strip, we saw the quiet desperation on the faces of many, while scantily clad foreign young women were ready to literally handcuff male passersby and coerce them into getting their photograph taken for a fee.  What must it be like for a young person to come to this country in search of freedom, only to find herself locked into a life of virtual or actual prostitution and exploitation?    

Spending our entire trip within a few blocks’ radius would have driven us bonkers.  So Dan & I took a day trip to Hoover Dam.  Over 80 years old, it remains an engineering marvel. The size and scale of the dam and support structures is overwhelming.  And despite recent criticism about the environmental impact, Hoover Dam has literally made large scale human occupation of the area possible – not just by water management but by providing electric power to Nevada, Arizona, and parts of Southern California.  It’s no exaggeration to say that without Hoover Dam, Las Vegas would still be a sleepy town with one gas station and a few small casinos; a desert stop on the way elsewhere, not a destination.

The catalyst for our trip was Ricky Martin’s concert at the Park Theatre.  But it turned out to be the low point.  We were expecting at least a semblance of artistic performance.  Instead we were subjected to a display of self-glorification, narcissism, and pure ego compounded by auditory assault.  The totally calculated, phony performance began, of course, with Livin’ la Vida Loca, preceded by an old video clip of Martin lounging in his underwear in a sleazy hotel room, along with a flash of bare buttocks which sent the audience, largely female and gay male, into a frenzy.   Epileptic inducing lighting effects and overwhelming amplification – out of proportion to the venue’s size – only served to beat the audience into submission as they experienced the musical equivalent of rape.  Appropriately, one of the songs started with the sound of an air-raid siren.  As a nod to Vegas, the audience was “treated” to a terrible rendition of Luck Be a Lady Tonight – which would have had Frank Sinatra (who was capable of being a perceptive, sensitive musician when he chose) spinning in his grave.  Many in the audience, who appeared uninterested in the music, occupied themselves by screaming, shrieking (including one insufferable tart behind me) or mentally masturbating to Martin’s gyrations or those of his dancers.  Equally amusing but also annoying was Martin’s attempt to curry favor with the women in the audience by feigning interest in female stage performers – along with the occasional bone thrown to the many gay males there as when he felt the abs of a male dancer.  All the above was a transparent attempt to distract from the lack of new songs, musical substance, or actual vocal technique.  Martin’s voice, which was never great but once acceptable, has coarsened to the extent that he would be eliminated in the first round of The Voice or any equivalent talent show.   The streak of dishonesty which ran through the production was hardly surprising given how long it took Martin to come out of the closet.  Lest the reader believe the above merely constitutes the ramblings of a disgruntled classical music aficionado, there were numerous others who left before the concert was over – including my Puerto Rican husband. 

Dan & I had to recover from the Ricky Martin fiasco.  There are a number of gay clubs in Las Vegas, from the sleazy to the snobby, but we chose to head to the low-key, friendly Bastille – which has the look and vibe of Cheers.  It was a quietly pleasant way to pass our last night in Vegas. 

Despite the brevity of our visit, we were happy to return home.  There truly is no place like it.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Blossom and baseball

Daniel and I had an eventful weekend which included a Cleveland Orchestra concert at Blossom on Saturday and a Cleveland Indians game on Sunday. Baseball and classical music have little in common, but this weekend was an exception: the baseball game was essentially over by the end of the second inning; and we could have left Blossom at intermission and been none the poorer. As major league baseball is amply covered by the mass media, I’ll skip that and concentrate on the concert. 

Violinist Augustin Hadelich joined guest conductor Cristian Macelaru and the orchestra for the opening work on the program, Dvořák’s Violin Concerto. I’d never heard Hadelich before, either in concert or in recordings. He has a lovely, sweet tone, and moreover, one which projects to the back rows without becoming harsh – hardly an easy accomplishment at Blossom. Further, Hadelich has an absolutely secure technique that was put to the service of the music – he overcame each obstacle with ease and nailed each treacherously high note spot-on. Tempos were well chosen, rubati were expressive but never obtrusive, and the work's lyricism was meltingly conveyed. Macelaru and the orchestra provided a fine accompaniment. 

 A few thoughts about Dvořák’s Violin Concerto: it’s exceptionally well written for the instrument. It’s one thing to be able to create compelling musical thought – as Beethoven did in his violin concerto. It’s another thing to be able to translate that thought into musical notation which is suited for the chosen instrument – an area where Beethoven fell short but where Dvořák succeeds. Dvořák was an apt violinist himself, so the quality of the instrumental writing is no surprise. But what’s most interesting is that, despite his own skills, Dvořák sought out the advice of Joseph Joachim – the finest violinist of his day – who suggested revisions to the solo part and the orchestration, which Dvořák adopted. 

 The performance was warmly received and Hadelich gifted the audience with an encore that brought the shell down: Paganini’s 24th caprice, a cornucopia of violinistic virtuosity. 

Holst’s The Planets, so popular it could almost be considered Crossover, followed intermission. To be honest, the chance to hear The Planets in concert was my main reason for buying tickets. But the performance was disappointing on many levels. In all the years of attending Cleveland Orchestra concerts – at Blossom, at Severance, and on the road – I’ve never heard more fluffs from the brass section (temperature may have been a factor as the evening was rather cool). The work’s fortissimo sections were not merely loud but noisy – with all that implies. Balances between sections were off throughout. The contrasts one hears in this works’ best renditions was lacking – never once did I hear the orchestra play a true pianissimo. This spoiled two movements: The Winged Messenger of Mercury was curiously heavy footed; and Neptune’s choral ending, which is supposed to be subtle enough that the audience isn’t sure if the work is over, ended with a sudden cutoff and lacked all mystery. I know the orchestra is capable of better than this, so primary blame rests with Macelaru. He should not be invited to return.