Monday, July 9, 2018

Beethoven and Mussorgsky at Blossom

The Cleveland Orchestra’s summer opener at Blossom, marking 50 years in that venue, began with noticeable changes, a look into the past, a glimpse of the future.  The Blossom shed which previously sold Cleveland Orchestra merchandise, including numerous CDs, now sells food.  CD sales have been moved over to a concession (there were only two titles), along with apparel and spirits.  Blossom’s informal, festive atmosphere was symbolized by a cardboard cutout of Beethoven, along with an ideastream announcer dressed up as Mussorgsky.

“I said, they are playing your music tonight!”

Entry into the shell revealed two large video screens – more on these later.  Just before the concert, executive director André Gremillet made a brief tribute to several retired players who were in the audience, along with Emilio Llinás – still in the orchestra – who performed at Blossom’s opening concert.  He also delivered well wishes from Franz Welser-Most, who was unable to conduct this weekend due to a bacterial infection in his right hand. His substitute was Jahja Ling, well known to Cleveland Orchestra audiences. 

Beethoven’s Triple Concerto is generally not considered one of his greatest works.  Writing a concerto that features three divergent instruments – violin, cello, piano – more or less equally, is a considerable challenge.  Further, Beethoven seems to have written it for a teenaged piano pupil – as the piano part is not particularly challenging.  On the other hand, the work requires a top rate cellist to carry it off, and Mark Kosower, principle cello of our Cleveland Orchestra, certainly fit the bill.  Stephen Rose admirably filled the violin part with Joelle Jones on piano.  Although I would have welcomed a bit more assertiveness in the piano part, the essentially chamber music approach to the work resulted in a unanimity of conception that revealed the work’s structure admirably.  Ling kept matters moving along tidily.

Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition is far from the only version of this piece, but it launched the work as a repertoire staple – and it remains the most popular version, far outstripping Mussorgsky’s rather clumsy original.  Ling held the piece together masterfully, avoided cheap sonic effects, with each part in balance – building to the inevitable climax at The Great Gate of Kiev.  Special commendations go to Steven Banks for his alto-saxophone solo in The Old Castle, and Michael Sachs on trumpet as Schmuÿle, along with the entire brass section during the menacing Catacombs.   

As mentioned earlier, there were two large screens presented in collaboration with ideastream, which presented a more detailed view of the proceedings – closeups of players and the conductor.  This was a double-edged sword: Certainly, we saw aspects of the performance one would not see from a seat on the main floor; on the other hand, the cutting between sections was not always handled well, with close-ups occasionally out of time with the music, so we would get a shot of a soloist just at the end of the solo.  But it was an interesting enhancement which, if further refined, could yield real benefits. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The saga of the MS St. Louis is relevant today

MS. St. Louis in Havana

Most Americans with knowledge of our nation’s history know of the MS St. Louis, the passenger ship that in 1939 carried over 900 Jewish refugees seeking asylum in the New World.  First the ship travelled to Cuba, where only 29 were permitted entry.  Then they were refused entry in the United States.  Then Canada.  Captain Gustav Schröder, a German of principle, considered extreme measures to find safe-haven for his passengers, including running the ship aground so his passengers could escape.  But eventually he returned to Europe.  288 passengers were granted asylum in Great Britain, 244 in France, 214 in Belgium, and 181 in the Netherlands.   The Nazis eventually invaded France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.  254 of the St. Louis passengers died in the Holocaust.  The saga of the St. Louis has gone down in history as one of the black marks for the governments of Cuba, the U. S. and Canada.   Franklin Roosevelt and other leaders were in a position to help, and they did not.  In 2012, the American State Department publicly apologized for their refusal to accept the St. Louis refugees, and the Canadian government is poised to do the same.

Today, persons from Guatemala, Mexico, and other Central American nations are seeking refuge.  Contrary to what Donald Trump has said, these are not “thugs” seeking to “infest” our nation.  They are families who have suffered under conditions every bit as horrific as those Jews faced in the Germany of 1939.  This is no exaggeration on my part.  Although in most cases, the terror comes not from the respective governments but from drug cartels, the suffering they face is comparable – from harassment to murder.  Families are being torn apart, both in their own countries and once they arrive here. 

Franklin Roosevelt was hardly to blame for the conditions in Nazi Germany in 1939 (and his Germany First policy, instituted at considerable political sacrifice after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, undoubtedly saved the lives of many Jews).  But U. S. drug policy, going back to the 1980s, has had a hand in creating the dismal conditions in Central America.  We helped create the situation at our Southern border – and we bear some responsibility.  And it is up to us to help relieve the suffering – both of the refugees and those who remain in their home countries.  Whether these people are “legal” are not is as beside the point as whether the Jews on the St. Louis exceeded the “quota” for Jewish refugees from Europe.  These people deserve asylum, not separation from their children – and the children, of course, are blameless.  

When the history of our era is written, this will be remembered as one the most shameful abuses of human rights in our nation's history - along side the Trail of Tears, Jim Crow segregation, and the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII.  Those in government who do not oppose the Trump administration’s policies will bear as much responsibility as will Trump.  Those who are silent will be complicit.  

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies at Severance

The word “cycle” can be problematic when referring to musical performances.  It sounds so routine – like a dishwasher cycle.  But cycle suggests a completion, a circle, a revolution.  And the word “revolution” suits Beethoven like no other composer.  His “Eroica” Symphony has been described by Franz Welser-Most as one of three Promethean works that changed the course of music – the others being Wagner’s Tristan  & Isolde and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which were also performed this season.  And while Beethoven’s Symphonies are performed often, and usually in a routine manner, playing all nine of them in consecutive concerts is still rather rare – the last such event in Cleveland took place in the 1990s. 

Beethoven’s nine symphonies are among the most varied written by any composer.  Consider that Haydn wrote 104 symphonies that, while beautiful, did not significantly change or expand the form.  Truth be told, most of them possess a certain “sameness” and I find myself mentally placing minuets from one symphony with finales from another on my internal jukebox.  Mozart’s 41 symphonies are a bit more varied, but mostly the same length and similar in form and orchestration.  That is not the case with Beethoven.  Each symphony has something new: The “wrong key” used for the introduction of the First; the unprecedented length of the Third; the unrelenting drive of the opening movement of the Fifth – not to mention the joining of the third and fourth movements via a bridge passage, an innovation that has been frequently imitated since; breaking the four movement tradition by writing five movements for the Sixth – to say nothing of the programmatic indications; the “Ode to Joy” Chorus that caps off the Ninth.  It’s no exaggeration to say that Beethoven’s nine symphonies are one of the great achievements of Western civilization – worth cherishing and protecting.   

For this group of performances, Welser-Most cannily balanced the symphonies in programs which emphasized their contrasts: 1 & 3, 4 & 7, 8 & 5, 6 & 2 – with the 9th paired with the Grosse Fuge, Op. 133.  Then there were the performances.   Needless to say, the orchestra was well-nigh immaculate technically, leaving me to consider how lucky that I, who developed a taste for Classical music without prompting from my parents and entirely by choice, am to live in an area with one of the world’s unquestionably finest orchestras – in a city that happens to have a low cost of living, which makes it possible for me to attend fairly frequently.  There are at least three complete recorded Beethoven symphony sets from our orchestra: Szell, Maazel, and Dohnányi.  There are also recordings of individual symphonies, including a fine First Symphony from Rodziński.  Szell’s is considered something of a gold standard.  Maazel’s is almost a non-starter.  Dohnányi’s is a comfortable, responsible, and very well recorded run through.  Though the Cleveland Orchestra’s polish is a given, it takes a conductor to make the music to the next level. 

Interpretation is ultimately about choices – and performers of all stripes, from actors to pianists to conductors, know that every interpretive decision must be weighed in relation to all the other decisions: Do I lean into this passage for emphasis, and risk structural continuity?  Do I play this andante more slowly to demonstrate my profundity, or step up the pace and risk being called shallow?

I didn’t agree with every choice Welser-Most made over these last several days, but I never felt that his interpretive choices were based on what others had previously done, but based on his own study of the score.  That alone puts him ahead of about half of his colleagues, who are satisfied to present yet another routine performance of a well-known masterwork   Tempos in general were on the brisk side, rubato was subtle, with balance between each section carefully measured.  Each symphony featured at least one moment where I heard something new in these works – some of which I’ve listened to for over 30 years.  In sum, I found Welser-Most’s interpretations deeply-felt, sometimes arresting, never arbitrary – individual, but not eccentric for the sake of being “different”.   It’s clear to me that Welser-Most feels that there are extra-musical implications to much of Beethoven’s output – that he recognizes that Beethoven, unlike Haydn and Mozart, was a well-read man, dedicated to knowledge outside music, and unafraid to express his opinions, whether personal or political.  Through that prism, Beethoven’s symphonies are more than just “great music.”  They are relevant in today’s world.

The Eroica was startling in conception and execution.  Welser-Most favored a headlong tempo in the opening movement that emphasized the relative modernity of the work: the theme that starts to establish itself, then veers off in another direction; the jabbing syncopations; the distant keys – a far cry from the suave, majestic Karajan.  And the performance was the better for challenging listeners’ preconceptions of how the music ought to go. (Welser-Most also eschewed the repeat.)  Throughout the Eroica, I was reminded how shocked the initial audience must have been at the work’s gigantism and modernity.

Welser-Most’s approach to tempo didn’t always work.  His uber-rapid tempo for the opening movement of the Fifth Symphony, along with cutting rests short, drained the piece of much of its dramatic power.  Matters weren’t helped when a lone yahoo yelled “Bravo” after the movement’s conclusion – prompting murmured laughter from the audience.  An inevitable issue with concerts that feature ”popular” classics is that they attract those who don’t know the rules of concert etiquette.  Such an example was not the only time the concert experience was disturbed by careless behavior.  Cell phones were unusually present, from a serial texter several rows in front of me, to a ring between movements of Beethoven’s Eighth.  But the “Bravo” incident took me out of the music and I wasn’t fully present again until midway through the Fifth’s second movement.  Welser-Most was particularly attentive to Beethoven’s markings in the third movement, where he placed the ritardando just before the theme exactly where Beethoven marked it – not before as too many conductors carelessly do.  The Scherzo segued seamlessly to the Finale, which went at a great clip while never losing control. 

Well deserved applause for the Fifth Symphony

A confession: Over the years, the Seventh Symphony has established itself as my favorite of Beethoven’s – maybe my favorite over all.  It was this orchestra’s rendition of the Seventh that encapsulated all that I admire about Beethoven, as well as Welser-Most’s approach.  Then there was the clarity: for the first time, I was able to clearly hear those little subtle strands which are in the score, but too often buried under what Szell derisively called a “lump of sound” by other orchestras.   The second movement, which Leonard Bernstein derided for its "Johnny One-Note" theme, was reminiscent of a restrained funeral march.  Welser-Most's treatment of the Scherzo's Trio was a true Assai meno presto (i.e., "somewhat less fast") instead of the drunken quasi-adagio that too many conductors turn it into.  The finale was delivered at a whiplash tempo that would have left other orchestras in disarray.  Not so in Cleveland, where the increasing volume and constant accelerando were delivered with a virtuosic aplomb which reminded this listener that control and exuberance are not opposing ideals. For once, I was glad to hear the repeat.

The cycle was capped off by the Ninth.  Signs advised the work was being recorded for future CD release, which is interesting considering that Welser-Most and the orchestra have already recorded the Ninth.  But within a few bars of the opening, I understood why a new recording is underway: Welser-Most’s interpretation of the music has ripened considerably.  The opening movement was suitably epic without the trudging tempo favored by too many conductors.  Instead, Welser-Most seemed to heed a word Beethoven had scribbled on the manuscript: “Desperation.”  The Scherzo brilliantly held the audience’s attention, including a gaggle of school children who weren’t always exemplars of proper concert behavior.  The Adagio never sacrificed clarity for the sake of the meltingly lovely melody, and the fanfare before the coda was surprising, for once.  In the Finale, Welser-Most kept matters moving along and prevented the movement from sounding episodic, which is a rare accomplishment – as the movement is the most episodic Beethoven wrote.  But everything emerged with continuity.  The chorus sang spectacularly, with particular attention paid to the dynamics – I wonder if Welser-Most deliberately had the chorus sing the words “ganzen Welt” (“entire World”) with added emphasis, as if to say “this music is for everyone, even in those parts of the world where political and religious leaders have rendered Beethoven’s message unwelcome”.   The soloists were exemplary as well, in particular the beautifully projected yet liquid toned rendition by bass-baritone Dashon Burton.  It was a triumphant capstone to a memorable week. 
The orchestras of Beethoven’s time were often insecure technically and questionably tuned.  

The works were new for the players, who often played from hastily printed manuscripts, and for the audience, which was used to less challenging works.  Often in the past week, I found myself ruminating on how Beethoven would react to hearing our Cleveland Orchestra play those works – if we could have zapped them back to 19th Century Vienna.  I like to think he would have been pleased.  

A note about the program book: The orchestra created a rather thick booklet for the entire series.  The highlights were superb essays on each symphony by Welser-Most himself, along with thought provoking quotations by figures ranging from Confucius to Cesar Chavez to Malala Yousafzai.  The message was clear: Beethoven’s music and the Cleveland Orchestra’s mission are about more than just music.  They are part of a mission to allow people to commune and celebrate our common humanity.  I can’t help but thinking that Beethoven would be pleased with both the quality of performances and underlying substance of The Prometheus Project.  Which makes me doubly glad the orchestra will be taking Beethoven’s Symphonies to Vienna and Tokyo.

Friday, April 13, 2018

South Euclid’s anti-discrimination ordinance – a long time coming

Monday night, South Euclid’s city council unanimously passed Ordinance 12-17, outlawing discrimination in a broad sector of categories including sexual orientation and gender identity.  The law replaces South Euclid’s previous anti-discrimination ordinances, which were scattered, piecemeal, and inconsistent.  As indicated by the last two digits of the ordinance, it had been under consideration since 2017 – June to be precise.  Passage of this ordinance makes South Euclid the 20th of Ohio’s 938 municipalities to have a law that specifically protects our city’s LGBT persons.  I have never been prouder to be a South Euclid resident than I was when this ordinance was passed.  For a city council and mayor who have taken brick-bats from the extreme right and extreme left, I can only say: Bravo and well done.

The ordinance has been described in the media as controversial.  It was only controversial based on the shouting of a few people, many of whom are not residents of South Euclid, and nearly every one of whom is a member of South Euclid’s Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic church or the Lyceum school – which is located on church grounds.  At four separate council meetings, I saw the same people rise in opposition to the bill, often raising arbitrary points about bathroom usage by transgender people and the hypothetical bakery.   I saw these opponents for what they were: a well-organized flash mob orchestrated by Sacred Heart, Lyceum, and Cleveland Right to Life (which separated from National Right to Life due to the Cleveland group’s extremism).    

Addressing the December 11, 2017 council meeting.

By January, Sacred Heart and Lyceum saw the handwriting on the wall and appeared to assent to passage if a religious exemption was added.  (The Lyceum school did not help their case when it became known in December that an email was sent to a city council person threatening to sue the city if the ordinance was passed.  Even some of those who had reservations about the ordinance thought it was heavy handed for a tax-exempt organization to threaten to sue over legislation put into place by a council elected by South Euclid taxpayers.)  The language in the proposed exemption was so broad that one could stretch the ordinance from South Euclid to the Vatican without technically breaking it.  Councilpersons Ruth Gray and Jason Russell were the first to point this out in January.  The exemption was discussed for almost the entirely of Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting before council decided to remove it from the legislation by a vote of 5-2.   

Following that vote, the ordinance’s opponents went ballistic.  Father Dave Ireland of Sacred Heart (the same Father Ireland who tried to smooth talk his way past the incidents at the Sacred Heart of Jesus festival in 2014) intoned that he’d been “a proud member of the community for the past 13 years, up until now".  The terms “pontificating” and “pompous” were created for men just like him.  The director of the Lyceum School, Luke Macik, who’d previously tried to couch his opposition in pseudo-intellectual claptrap (e.g., being LGBT is entirely subjective, as if belief in a religious doctrine and a supernatural creator who cannot be seen is anything other than subjective), stated that “marriage is sacred” and pronounced the proceedings “shameful” – forgetting that marriage, which the Supreme Court has already stated is a Constitutional right, had nothing to do with the ordinance.

As I pointed out in my remarks to the Council, Ordinance 12-17 already has a reasonable exemption for religious institutions and adheres to the exemptions provided for in the Ohio Revised Code.  I reminded Council and the audience that without compromise, Social Security would not have been signed into law.  Compromise helped our country to endure the Great Depression, obliterate Fascism, defeat Communism, and land a man on the Moon.  Many people of faith, including two members of Clergy who spoke, were in favor of the ordinance.  Indeed, numerous Catholics I spoke to were also in favor – indicating that the Catholic Church is not entirely undivided in this matter.  These people recognize that America was intended to be neutral in terms of religion, neither endorsing nor rejecting any particular religion, as evidenced in the First Amendment – and that our country does not need to be run by Taliban, either Christian or otherwise.  And we would be well to remember that religion, including Christianity, has been been used to justify some of the most egregious monstrosities in human history.  In many nations, religion is still a call to violence, not love.

I have no desire to prevent Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, or members of any other faith from practicing their religion.  Passage of Ordinance 12-17 does not mean religions are required to “approve” of LGBT people.  It merely means that prejudicial treatment against LGBT people in terms of housing, public accommodations, and employment, is against the law.

I don’t particularly care whether a religious representative approves of me.  What I demand as a taxpaying American is equality before the law, and Ordinance 12-17 moves our region closer to that ideal. 

Recently a film was released which dealt with a young man’s coming out: Love, Simon.  Even for contemporary teens with supportive families and communities, coming out can be traumatic.  The film brought back unpleasant memories of the isolation I felt as I began to realize that I was gay, and the lies I told as I tried to conceal it. The worry about being discovered as gay was much worse than coming out – which was relatively liberating.  As I heard the comments from those in opposition to the ordinance, including one comment from a Lyceum student, I thought “Thank God I went to Brush.”  Even though the Brush High School of 1985 didn’t have the Gay-Straight Alliance it has today, it was a relatively accepting place.  I can only imagine what a student attending the Lyceum school or a similar institution would encounter, even in today’s “woke” era.   

I am 51 years old.  Statistically, my life is more than half over.   My husband and I were together for over four years before we decided to travel to Vermont to get married – because we couldn’t marry in Ohio.  And it was another five years before that marriage was nationally recognized.  We both have good jobs at great companies that are both LGBT friendly.  Although Ordinance 12-17 applies to us, I don’t think of it as being for us.  It’s for the young person who knows he or she is “different” and is considering coming out – or for the person who has come out, and is looking for an apartment, a job, or shopping for a service from a local company.  Passing Ordinance 12-17 has been a long and emotionally difficult slog, but if this law helps one person, it has been worth it.  

Friday, April 6, 2018

On the Death of my Father

April 6, 2016; 5:38 pm, Pacific Time; Sequoia hospital; Redwood City, California.  That is the date, time, and place of my father’s death.  Two years ago.  I've already written about his life.  Now, I will share my experience of his death.  Humans have drawn a veil around death, masking it with platitudes like "so and so is in a better place now", or avoiding discussion of it altogether.  It has been depicted in fiction, seldom realistically.  I hope that by posting this, I can bring comfort, or at least knowledge, to those who are facing the death of a loved one, or even their own mortality.  

I first learned that my father had been taken ill around 9:00 am Eastern Time the previous day.  In a cruel stroke of irony, April 5 was my father’s and step-mother’s 36th wedding anniversary.  He’d collapsed late in the evening of April 4th.   When I arrived at the hospital from the airport, it was around 2:00 am local time on the 6th.  My oldest sister had been there for several hours.  In reality, everything that defined our father, all but the basest autonomic reflexes, was essentially gone.  His eyes were closed, the pupils unresponsive to light.  He needed a ventilator to help him breathe, obscuring his face, and there were tubes everywhere.  What was left of my father’s once magnificent body, now shriveled from 18 months of declining health, was kept going at my step-mother's  request so as many family members as possible could gather and gain closure by being with him in his final moments.

The attending staff at Sequoia checked regularly on my father’s status – making him as comfortable as possible.  He was shifted and his limbs moved on a regular basis.  When he began reflexively chewing on the respirator tube, cutting off his air flow, they inserted a hard plastic brace to keep his mouth open.  I noticed his thinning hair was askew, so I asked for a comb and fixed his hair – attending to it from time to time.

By mid-afternoon, all family members who were able to be there were gathered: my step-mother and her brother, my oldest sister, my brother and his girlfriend, myself.  Shortly after 4:00 pm we jointly gave our consent for Dad to be removed from the ventilator. We left the room while the nursing staff prepared my father for his last moments.  Then we returned to the room around 4:20, expecting Dad to last about 15 minutes - he hung on for over an hour.  With the breathing apparatus removed from my father’s face, he looked like himself again – even with the effects of age and ill-health, he retained his essential handsomeness.  My father looked like he was sleeping, breathing slower with each passing minute, slightly snoring when he  inhaled, sometimes exhaling with a soft sigh – as he did when sleeping.  My step-mother sat on my father’s right side, stroking his hair and holding his hand; my brother was opposite, caressing my father’s left bicep – once proudly muscular, now shrunken – with his left hand, while cradling his head in the other; my sister was at his left foot; I was at his right – my hand on his ankle where I could feel his fading pulse.  As my father’s breathing became shallower, my step-mother moved her right hand and began stroking his right cheek, while murmuring into his ear; I took my father’s right hand in my left hand.  As the end drew near, I was flooded with memories that seemed to go backward in time, until I reached one of my earliest memories which was vivid, tangible, undimmed by time:  my father would lay on the family room floor in front of the TV, and I would lay cuddled with him, my head on his chest, and listen to his powerful heartbeat.  Remembering that perfect moment, I placed my right hand gently on his chest.  A few seconds later, my father drew his last breath. 

Almost exactly 49 years prior to that day, my father observed my birth – the first time he’d seen one of his children being born – and saw me take my first breath.  It was a privilege to stand by my father’s side during his final moments – albeit a sad one.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky at Severance

An all-Russian program featuring conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and pianist Daniil Trifonov lured Daniel and I to Severance Hall Saturday night, and we were richly rewarded both in terms of the compositions and the performances.  At a time when Russia’s government is rightly distrusted, it’s worth remembering President Kennedy’s admonition that “no government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue”, and that Russia’s musical exports have richly benefited music lovers the world over.

The program began with Stravinsky’s Scenes de Ballet – a most unusual work that was commissioned for a mixed program at Ziegfeld Theater in 1944.  As with Beethoven, Stravinsky’s work was influenced by goings on in the world – not just musical happenings but world events as well.  The optimism of the piece, more harmonically friendly than most others from this composer, reflects the optimism that existed in the United States during that era.  While hardly Coplandesque, there is a distinctly American flavor to the suite of dance movements.  I doubt Stravinsky would be composing in the same manner if he saw the world as it is today.   Thomas brought clarity and an appropriate sense of dance to the performance. 

Of Prokofiev’s five Piano Concertos, the Second is both the longest and the most demanding: Four sprawling movements, harmonically pungent, truly knuckle-busting in terms of dexterity and stamina required.  The work has grown in popularity over the last few decades, although the contrarian composer seems to have had mixed feelings about it (he advised Horowitz to not bother learning the piece, saying “it has too many notes and I don’t like it myself”).  Like Prokofiev, Daniil Trifonov has gained a reputation as a musician who marches to the beat of his own drummer, and so it was with Saturday’s performance.  Trifonov’s conception of the Concerto was obviously deeply thought-out, and, while not lacking in virtuosity, put musical values first – nothing about this performance was ordinary.  The opening movement, an Andantino-Allegretto was taken at an unusually slow, brooding pace.  Yet I never had the impression that Trifonov was dragging the tempo, and the buildup of tension in the explosive cadenza was thrilling.  The Scherzo was especially Vivace with the parallel figurations executed perfectly.  While the Intermezzo was full of snarling menace, the Finale lunged along at a breakneck tempo.  Despite the speed, Trifonov was able to maintain clarity during the work’s many rapid-fire repeated notes, carefully weight chords, and inventively mixed inner-voices.  Thomas matched the soloist beat for beat, and the orchestra responded with playing that was not merely brilliant, but brilliantly pointed and balanced.  The audience was rewarded with an encore from Trifonov: a movement from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet.

“Don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like Tchaikovsky.” – Vladimir Horowitz

Only the most pedantic and provincial will consider Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony to be anything other than what it is: a bona-fide masterpiece.  Despite the tragic nature of the Pathétique (a mistranslation of Tchaikovsky’s intended “passionate”), there’s no evidence it was reflective of the state of Tchaikovsky’s life at the time of its composition.  He had just returned from a successful tour of the United States, and after years of sniggering from Russia’s intelligentisia about the quality of his compositions (not to mention his personal life), his works were becoming increasingly accepted.  Further, Tchaikovsky was assured that the Russian tradition of composing Romantic music within traditional Classical forms would continue via a young composer who’d greatly impressed him: Sergei Rachmaninoff.  So, while it was once widely believed that Tchaikovsky committed suicide (and one crackpot theory claimed that his suicide was “ordered” by a “court of honor”), the bulk of evidence now indicates that his death, by cholera, was a the result of a tragically reckless moment where the composer disregarded warnings to boil water as a precaution before drinking it.  But the power of the Pathétique Symphony is such that a good performance will leave one thinking that perhaps Tchaikovsky did intend to put himself through days of cholera induced agony before dying.  Thomas’ rendition certainly fit that bill, and I observed several in the audience openly weeping at the work’s conclusion.  In the preceding three movements, Thomas brought an expert sense of pace, phrasing, and balance to each moment and movement.  And, yes, there was a brief burst of applause after the third movement.  (I also noticed that Thomas took a sip of water before the final movement – was it intended as symbolism?)  As I perused the program book before the concert, I was pleased to see that Eric Sellen’s program notes rightly spanked the Putin regime’s oppressive anti-LGBT laws, noting that since they were enacted, new cases of HIV have skyrocketed. 

But for those who’ve read this blog and noted some of my political statements, please remember that I take President Kennedy’s words to heart, and that my criticism is levelled at the Putin regime and his puppets in the United States and elsewhere, not at the people of Russia.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Ravel at Severance with Pintscher and Thibaudet

Last night’s all-Ravel program at Severance Hall was further proof to me that not even the finest recordings reproduced on the most expensive sound systems can duplicate the experience of live music in concert.  Daniel and I entered Severance and found the stage was crammed with every instrument the orchestra had to offer, along with seating for the chorus – featured in the evening’s final work.

Ravel wrote a number of works for solo or duo piano, which he later orchestrated.  One such work is the Mother Goose ballet, which began as a suite of five works for piano duet.  (There are two orchestral versions: the complete ballet, and a suite of excerpts.)  Last night, the Cleveland Orchestra presented the 15-minute Suite, under the direction of guest conductor Matthias Pintscher.  (Pintscher also appeared with the orchestra last year, both as guest conductor and composer.)  The Suite was given a mostly tranquil performance, with the delicate harmonies insinuating themselves into the melody and the textures discreetly handled.  But I found myself longing for several sections from the complete ballet, particularly the Dance of the Spinning Wheel.

After the opening work, the Hamburg Steinway was rolled onto the stage for what turned out to be the night’s main event.  Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand was written in 1930 on a commission from Paul Wittgenstein, a German pianist who lost an arm in World War I about a hundred years ago.  (In one of history’s bizarre twists, Wittgenstein’s younger brother, Ludwig, was schoolmates with a young boy named Adolf Hitler.)  Of the various concertos Wittgenstein was able to commission from the composers of the era, including Prokofiev, Britten, and Richard Strauss, Wittgenstein seems to have liked the Ravel the least – and his recording of the work is rather weak.  As for the Concerto itself, it stands as proof of the adage “Art thrives on Limitations.”  The work ranges from a rather sinister opening featuring the contrabassoon, to the majestic fanfare, an almost orgiastic march, and a denouement which mixes elements of all of these.  In terms of structure, orchestration, and exploitation of the piano’s capabilities, the work is a masterpiece – even though certain types may sniff that it’s lacking the “profundity” of Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms.  Last night’s soloist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, has recorded this concerto with the Montreal Symphony under Charles Dutoit (who was originally scheduled as guest conductor but withdrew in the wake of accusations of sexual impropriety).  Truth be told, Thibaudet's is my favorite recording of this work.  This is the third time I’ve heard Thibaudet live – the previous two times were at Blossom in Liszt’s Totentanz and Grieg’s Piano Concerto.  As with his previous appearances here, there was a concentration in his demeanor, along with a whiplash quality he brought to the performance, which brought a clarity and focus to the performance which is rarely heard in this piece.  It wasn’t merely the technique that dazzled, but the way in which Thibaudet integrated pianistic effects - including glissandi, rapid staccato passage-work, leaps and arpeggios - which in the wrong hands can sound like extraneous note-spinning, into a convincing musical argument.  It was a performance to remember (hampered only by a very rude audience member using her smart-phone to video the first minute of the performance, until an usher scolded her).  Responding to rapturous applause, Thibaudet treated the audience to an encore, a two-handed piano piece which was unfamiliar to me, but sounded like a melding of Liszt’s Liebesträume No. 3 and Brahms’ Lullaby.

Following intermission, the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus joined Pintscher and the orchestra for the complete Daphnis & Chloé ballet score.  As with some other ballet scores, including Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Firebird, Daphnis & Chloé loses little with the absence of actual dancers.  Ravel’s gorgeous and inventive orchestration, which includes celeste, glockenspiel, and even a wind machine, was shown to full advantage here.   There is a mythic quality to this score which was brought to the fore, yet Pintscher never let the dance element of the work fall from his grasp.  The complicated wind playing of the Lever du jour was executed flawlessly and with aplomb, yet it was the careful balancing of the various orchestra sections along with the chorus that remains in the mind.  Ravel was a meticulous man, and I left the hall with the sense that he would have approved of the evening’s concert – which combined precision, sensuality, and passion.