Sunday, March 5, 2017

When We Rise

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

Pintscher and Tiberghien at Severance

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

Ladies’ Night at Severance

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.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Spencer Myer plays Bolcom

The Steinway & Sons label has released a new recording of Spencer Myer performing Bolcom Rags.  Click here to read my review.





Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Chopin and Pollini in Winter

Following on the heels of their almost complete reissue of Maurizio Pollini's Deutsche Grammophon recordings, the label has issued a new recital of late works by Chopin.  Click here to read my review.





Tuesday, January 24, 2017

My Top-10 Rubinstein Recordings

It’s hard to believe that Arthur Rubinstein, one of the most prolific classical pianists on record, was born 130 years ago this month.  The continued availability of his recordings makes him a continuing presence in the lives of music lovers.  Rubinstein’s complete “authorized” recordings cover nearly 100 CDs – along with dozens of live and studio recordings that have been issued since his death in 1982.  To the best of my knowledge, only Vladimir Ashkenazy has made more piano recordings than Rubinstein.

I’m limiting this list to solo recordings.  But many of his chamber music and concerto recordings are essential to any classical recording collection.  For chamber music, I’d recommend his Beethoven and Brahms Violin Sonatas with Szeryng – the definition of suave urbanity, along with his late period recordings with the Guarneri Quartet.  Rubinstein recorded most of the active Concerto repertoire.  In general, his early stereo recordings with Krips and Wallenstein have stood the test of time – although I’d also want his early Beethoven G major with Beecham.

The recordings listed here are from RCA’s 1999 Rubinstein reissue, although there are newer issues with different couplings available. 

Bach-Busoni, Franck, Liszt, 1961-1970. The Bach-Busoni Chaconne, and Franck Chorale, Prelude, and Fugue are the high points of this disc.  Both were recorded in 1970 and represent late-Rubinstein at his best.  This Liszt Sonata from 1965 is a solid rendition, if missing the last bit of inspiration.  The Villa-Lobos O Polichinelo was a Rubinstein specialty and makes for a charming encore.

French Recital – 1945, 1961.  Ravel, Debussy, Fauré, Poulenc, Chabrier.  Rubinstein knew most of these composers personally, and was an early champion of Ravel’s Noble & Sentimental waltzes. 

Spanish Recital – 1947, 1955.  Before Alicia de Larrocha came along, Rubinstein was generally considered the preeminent interpreter of Spanish and South American Classical music.  He dropped many of the solo pieces from his repertoire after 1961, so we’re fortunate these mono recordings have been reissued. 

Chopin: Polonaises – 1950, 1951.  Simply put, the best Chopin Polonaises ever recorded, combining the passion and swagger of Rubinstein’s 1930s version with the polish of his 1960s version.  If one can listen past the monaural sound – which is actually pretty good, one need own no other version.

Chopin: Ballades & Scherzos, 1959, 1965.  Rubinstein recorded the Scherzos thrice and the Ballades once.  The 1949 Scherzos are slightly more virtuosic and forward moving, but the very fine Living Stereo sound in this 1959 version compensates.  The Ballades, also from 1959 are my favorite cycle although there are individual Ballades from other performers that I prefer. The Tarantelle, from 1965, makes a rollicking encore.

Chopin: Nocturnes, 1931 - 1937.  This, Rubinstein’s first of three Nocturne cycles, is on balance the best – with imaginative phrasing, better control of pianissimo, and more charisma than his later versions.  Also includes virtuosic renditions of the two Concertos with the London Symphony Orchestra under John Barbirolli.

Chopin: Waltzes, 1962 - 1964.  The Waltzes were recorded at RCA’s Italiana studio during a single glorious session in 1963, and are about the most straightforward renditions of these works you’ll hear.  The Impromptus and Bolero are a fine bonus.

Schumann: Fantasy Pieces, Op. 12; Carnaval, Op. 9 - 1961, 1962.  Rubinstein was not my favorite Schumann interpreter.  But these two poetic and virtuosic renditions make a persuasive case for the “sane” approach to Schumann interpretation.

Schubert: Sonata, D. 960, Wanderer Fantasy, Two Impromptus, D. 899 - 1961, 1965.  Rubinstein’s essentially optimistic view of Schubert’s last Sonata is the antithesis of the picky interpretation of Brendel and the deathly pathos of Richter.  But it works on its own terms.

Beethoven: Pathetique, Moonlight, Appassionata, and Les Adieux Sonatas – 1962, 1963.  With the exception of the Moonlight Sonata, Rubinstein recorded each of these Sonatas multiple times.  These 1962-1963 stereo recordings are the most successful of Rubinstein’s versions.


Rubinstein at Carnegie Hall, 1961.  The pianist was notoriously picky about issuing live recordings.   All ten of Rubinstein’s 1961 Carnegie Hall recitals (the fees for which he donated to charity) were recorded, but he only allowed the release of a few recordings – and was even said to have personally destroyed one of the tapes.  The prismatic colors of the Debussy works are beautifully captured, along with the quirky Prokofiev Visions-Fugitives, Szymanowski Mazurkas, and Villa-Lobos – and the Albeniz encore has to be heard to be believed.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

DG's (almost) complete Pollini box

Deutsche Grammophon has reissued the bulk of their recordings with pianist Maurizio Pollini.  Click here to find out what's missing and more in my review.