Sunday, January 10, 2016

Beethoven at Severance

Saturday night’s Cleveland Orchestra concert at Severance Hall, an all-Beethoven program led by Franz Welser-Möst, was an exercise in profundity, frustration, and exaltation.  When it comes to selling classical music concert tickets, you can’t go wrong with Beethoven.  I didn't see one empty seat in the house, which augers well for the future.

The String Quarter in A minor, Op. 132, is one of my favorite of Beethoven’s works.  It was composed in 1825 following an extended illness during which Beethoven nearly died.  I vividly recall the first time I heard it: I was 17, riffling through the many records in my grandmother’s basement, and came across on old, scratchy, mono LP of the piece played by the Budapest String Quartet.  I placed the LP on the turntable, lowered the stylus, and was riveted by the work from beginning to end.  After the record was over, I sat speechless, for at least 15 minutes.  It is a challenging and emotionally draining piece.

Saturday night was the first time I’d heard it performed by a full string section – in an arrangement by Welser-Möst himself, which tastefully augmented the cello parts with the double-bass.  (Welser-Most previously led the orchestra in an arrangement of Beethoven’s Grand Fugue for strings in summer 2013.)  Paradoxically, by performing the work with full strings, the subtleties of Beethoven’s writing were made even more apparent: the work’s stark opening, the constant push and pull of the tempo, and the many unexpected turns the music takes.  There are certain passages – particularly in the miraculous slow movement – where Beethoven avoids the tendency of many composers to simply copy & paste a passage from one phrase to another – moving it into a different key, and instead takes the music in another, unanticipated and unanticipatable direction.  This is the work of a man who has stared into the face of death and lived to tell the tale.  A moving experience, and the audience was blessedly quiet.  

Following intermission, pianist Yefim Bronfman took to the stage for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor.  Now I must confess, this is my least favorite of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos (unless one includes the rarely played arrangement of his Violin Concerto for piano and orchestra, in which case the C minor is the 2nd least favorite).  Beethoven, on hearing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C minor, is claimed to have said “We shall never have an idea to compare with that!”  Eventually, Beethoven did put comparable ideas to paper, but they’re not in this Concerto.  The work is, aside from the minor key, essentially in the style of his first two Piano Concertos – lacking the subtlety of the G major Concerto and the grandeur of the so-called Emperor Concerto – the last two concertos.  This is not to say it’s a bad work, but the themes are standard (although the opening movement’s main theme is a bit defiant for 1804), they are developed in rather ordinary ways, and the work tests neither a performer’s musicality nor technique.  Bronfman’s rendition, then, was a very ordinary performance of a highly overplayed work: Nothing offensive, and nothing particularly noteworthy – the pianist’s dynamics never varied much from mezzo-forte and tempos were the dead center norm.  The orchestra under Welser-Möst provided a detailed, sympathetic accompaniment, only marred by constant coughing from an audience which had been so silent during the Quartet.

The final work was the Fantasia for piano, vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra, Op. 80 – popularly known as the Choral Fantasy.  This work was originally written as a crowd pleasing capstone for a monster concert Beethoven arranged in 1808.  As the title indicates, the work puts in everything but the kitchen sink.  It starts with an extended piano solo which is said to have been similar to the improvisations with which the young Beethoven thrilled audiences during his early career – when he was more known as a pianist than a composer.  From there, a theme which anticipates the “Ode to Joy” theme is heard and developed by piano and orchestra – after which vocal soloists and then choir enter and bring the piece to a rousing conclusion.  Hearing this performance, I was reminded of something Laurence Olivier said: “Never show an audience your top, because then you have nowhere else to go.”  Welser-Möst skillfully held orchestra and chorus in check until a few bars before the final “und Kraft” at the end – which knocked the audience’s proverbial socks off.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Cleveland Orchestra - not an anomalous blip.

I don’t especially care to give Norman Lebrecht publicity.  Given his penchant for self-promotion he seems to garner enough for himself.  I know quite a few musicians who hold him in low regard, but either find it useful to cultivate him as a promoter, or fear retributions from him – and thus tolerate his antics.  For those who don’t depend on his favor, he’s something of a laughingstock.  Despite seeing factual errors on his site nearly as often as I view it, more often than not I decline to leave a comment there - or to mention it here.  Lebrecht often presents opinions as facts, cherry-picks actual facts and places them out of context, and uses sensationalistic and vulgar headlines as click-baitHe also posts information from other sources without attribution.  His posts run the gamut from the Chicken Little “sky is falling” variety – foretelling the imminent demise of Classical music, to stories of musicians as abuse victims from airlines and bureaucrats, to stories of musicians as perverts and pedophiles.  One seldom encounters in his posting any actual discussion of music.  Indeed, reading Lebrecht’s “journalism” has left me with the impression he doesn’t know much about music.  But this tidbit from Lebrecht’s recent posting on the “Makers and Breakers of 2015” made my blood boil.  

As for Lebrecht’s statement that the Cleveland Orchestra is America’s finest, I’ll accept that with good graces as a proud local.  Some will disagree, and that’s alright.  What makes one great orchestra stand above another is largely a matter of opinion.  The basics are a given: An orchestra must play the right notes, must plan in tune, and must play together.  The Chicago Symphony is known for its great brass section (or at least the loudest), the Philadelphia Orchestra is known for its lush string sound, the Berlin Philharmonic for its depth of sonority, the Vienna Philharmonic for transparency.  The Cleveland Orchestra, at its best, has all these.  Not that the orchestra always plays at its best.  There was a period, roughly from 1990 until about a decade ago, when standards seemed to be slipping.  I’m not basing this on any critic’s opinion, because I’ve learned they often have their own agendas – but what I’ve heard with my own ears: a number a splattery entrances, fluffed notes (particularly in the brass), and balances that were off.  But in recent years the orchestra has been back on form in repertoire ranging from Mozart to Scriabin.  I would also say that Franz Welser-Möst, about whom I had a great many reservations in 2002, has really grown into the job.  (Nor would I say that the Cleveland Orchestra’s rise to greatness was the sole result of George Szell’s tenure, as they were already a Top Four orchestra under Artur Rodzinski.  But it’s true that standards fell in the three years preceding Szell’s tenure, when orchestras world-wide lost players during World War II, and Cleveland had a part-time and inexperienced Music Director.  But I’ll save further discussion on that subject for another post.)

But look at Lebrecht’s qualifier for his praise of Cleveland.  “Severe social blight”.  Excuse me?  Is Lebrecht stuck in 1978, when Cleveland went into default?  Does Lebrecht still imagine the Cuyahoga River catching fire?  Is the Hough neighborhood in flames like it was in the 1960s?  Cleveland has come a long way since the bad old days of 30 years ago, and this is especially so in University Circle – which has been extensively redeveloped.  I’m aware that Lebrecht paid Cleveland a visit earlier this year, but I wonder how much of Cleveland he saw beyond Severance Hall and Hopkins airport.  So, I will assume he didn’t see the revived areas downtown, or Playhouse Square, Ohio City, or Gordon Square.  Or, that he’d never experienced the bad old days in Cleveland, so he had no reference point to see how far we’ve come.

Then there’s this – which Americans will grasp but Europeans may not: the majority of people who attend Cleveland Orchestra concerts at Severance Hall do not live within the City of Cleveland.  They live in the surrounding suburbs.  I cite this obvious fact because an earlier post from Lebrecht crowed about what a miracle it was that a city of less than 400,000 could support such an orchestra – as if Cleveland was Smallville, Kansas!  This is an example of how Lebrecht carefully selects facts and presents them out of context, distorting the truth.  In fact, Cuyahoga County alone has nearly 1.3 million residents – and many who come to the orchestra’s concerts come from beyond the county line.  This is even more the case for those who go to summer concerts at Blossom Music Center which is way down in Cuyahoga Falls. 

True, Cleveland’s not perfect, and neither is the region.  There are gross disparities of income, as is the case everywhere in the US.  There are neighborhoods which suffer from neglect, which can be found in nearly any major city, in and outside the US.  That the Cleveland Police Department is an embarrassment is known internationally.  The Lakefront is poorly utilized.  These and more are issues which need to be addressed – to paraphrase President Kennedy: they are human made problems which can be solved by humans.

But what’s interesting to me is that the orchestra has  mostly thrived even during our region’s darkest eras.  Could it be because the Cleveland Orchestra, along with other cultural institutions and the Cleveland Metroparks are some of the few things in our region which have never let the people down?  Think about it.  Have the Cleveland Indians, Cavaliers, or Browns consistently brought as much fulfillment to so many as the aforementioned institutions?  Residents of Cuyahoga County have long recognized this and generously subsidized these institutions, by supporting property tax levies, and – just this year – renewing a small tax on cigarettes and alcohol which goes a long way toward supporting the orchestra. 

The success of the Cleveland Orchestra is not some anomalous blip in an urban ghetto, as Norman Lebrecht would have you believe.  It’s the result of the people who’ve supported it – both in the orchestra and out.  Both those who live within Cleveland’s borders and those who live beyond.

I’d also point out that Norman Lebrecht’s home base, London, is far from perfect.  I saw my share of panhandlers during our recent trip there, one harassing a women so aggressively that I had to intervene.  This took place a posh area near Piccadilly Circus.  Sometimes blight occurs where one least expects it.   And London’s main orchestra pales in comparison with Cleveland’s.  

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Myth of Colorblind Canines

Daniel and I have one of those electronic picture frames, to which one can upload photos for display.  Recently, I was selecting photos for the frame and found a photo of our dog Mason with me, dating to Christmas 2010.  Mason has changed a bit since then: his snout is starting to turn white and there are flecks of white hair around his eyes.  But he’s still our rambunctious, hyper-affectionate canine companion. 
But a few moments of free-association brought my thoughts to a subject I’ve long meant to raise on this blog: the common misconception that dogs are completely colorblind.  You’ve doubtless heard this statement many times, as have I: "Dogs can only see in black & white".  Whenever popular entertainment shows the world as seen through a dog’s eyes, that world is invariably shown as black & white – I vividly recall an episode of The Simpsons which made this error. 
While dogs cannot see the range of colors humans can, they do have some color perception.  More precisely, the type of color impairment dogs have is Dichromacy – commonly known as Red-Green Color Blindness.   (Also, while nearsighted by human standards, dogs have a superior perception of motion and better night vision than humans.)  There’s a wonderful site called DogVision which allows users to upload their own photos and adjust them for canine vision.  I’ve done this with the two photos below, and also included the full color versions below for comparison.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

June 1919

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, putting into motion the internment of Americans of Japanese descent - one of the grossest human rights violations in U. S. history.  It was an egregiously out of character action for the man who was the only world leader to speak out against Kristallnacht in 1938, and who exhorted Americans to be “particularly vigilant against racial discrimination in any of its ugly forms”.
I will not spend time detailing the humiliation the Japanese-American community was put through, or the degrading conditions they endured.  The fact that, four decades later, President Reagan apologized for the policy, and reparations were paid to the survivors, speaks volumes of history’s verdict.  Today, few but lonely bigots and Internet trolls dare to defend such a ludicrous policy – which did nothing to protect “national security”.  At one point, Roosevelt tried to rationalize the policy to J. Edgar Hoover (who opposed internment) by arguing that separating Japanese-Americans from the rest of the population was for their own protection against what today are called “hate crimes”.  Fear of espionage and sabotage were foremost in Roosevelt’s mind, and he was hardly alone - either in his concerns or his prejudice against the Japanese - regardless of whether they were born in the United States or elsewhere.  Even Eleanor Roosevelt - who was skeptical of her husband's policy - openly referred to the Japanese as "Japs", although she never called Germans "Krauts" or Italians "Dagos."  Indeed, while some German-Americans and Italian-Americans were under increased scrutiny during the war, their treatment does not compare to that of Japanese-Americans.
Franklin Roosevelt was a very private man.  He seldom revealed his innermost thoughts to anyone – even his family.  But one event, seldom mentioned by historians, may provide some context for Roosevelt’s actions.
In 1919, Roosevelt was a junior member of Woodrow Wilson’s Cabinet: Assistant Secretary of the Navy.  On the evening of June 2, Franklin and his wife Eleanor were walking home from a dinner party (this was two years before FDR lost the use of his legs).  As they turned onto "R" street, they observed a large explosion directly across from their townhouse.  Franklin broke into a sprint toward their home, where he spotted a severed limb on the doorstep.  Seeing that the windows had been shattered, he burst through the front doors and up the stairs to his son James’ room.  He immediately spotted his eleven year old son, dazed but unharmed looking out the window - shattered glass on the floor.  Franklin grabbed his son into an embrace so tight, James later recalled “I thought my ribs would crack.”  It was the only time Franklin’s family saw him in a state of near panic. 
It was revealed the bomb was an attempt by anarchists to assassinate Attorney General Mitchell Palmer – who lived in the home where the bomb exploded, as part of a coordinated series of attacks across the country.  The severed limb on FDR's doorstep belonged to Carlo Valdinoci, one of the anarchists – killed when the bomb exploded prematurely.  The events of that evening would haunt Franklin Roosevelt for the rest of his life – which is saying something for a man who survived a February 1933 assassination attempt with remarkable stoicism.   
Recently, Donald Trump praised Roosevelt’s policy of Japanese internment and cited it as a model for his plan in dealing with Muslims.  With the many ridiculous statements Trump has made in recent months, it’s astonishing to me that he remains the leader in the GOP Presidential race.  But his bluster and wealth allow him to stand out, even in the current field of buffoons and loons presented as part of the GOP’s race to the intellectual bottom.
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  We will not make our nation safer by stooping to our enemy’s level.  Indeed, Trump's own words play right into ISIL's blood-soaked hands. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Two Dozen Roses

My parents were married on November 22, 1956. 

On their seventh anniversary, my father left work early to celebrate the day with my mother.  On his way home, he stopped at a florist and purchased a dozen roses.  After leaving the florist, he switched on the radio of his 1963 Ford Galaxie and shortly thereafter heard a news flash from Dallas announcing that President Kennedy had been shot and seriously wounded.  He hit the gas pedal and raced home.  Though my parents were Republicans, my mother nevertheless met my father with a tearful embrace as Walter Cronkite announced that the President had died.  My parents and my sisters sat in front of the television for much of that weekend – never leaving the house.  The flowers my father bought had been left in the passenger seat  where they withered and died over the course of the weekend.       

A thousand miles away, a dozen blood drenched roses lay on the floor of a Lincoln Continental – forgotten in the chaos of the moment.

In later years, my parents would observe their anniversary one day early, as November 22 would forever more be remembered as a day of mourning.  

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Dangers of Weak Government

One week ago, the world was shocked by the news of terrorist attacks in Paris.  Relatively few took notice of similar attacks in Syria, Iraq, and Beirut.  Such attacks have become, sadly de-riguer in the Middle East.  But we Americans respond more readily to attacks in Europe because, frankly, they are seen as more “like us.”

Most knew, even before it was officially announced, that Islamic extremists were behind the attacks in Paris.  As the details about the terrorists began to emerge, it became clear that most had become radicalized while residents of the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, Belgium – France’s next door neighbor.  More about Belgium in a moment.

Here in America, there is constant talk of reducing the size of Local, State, and especially Federal governments – most of it coming from self-acknowledged members of the “tea party”.  Much of this is presented under the guise of efficiency and getting the most bang out of every taxpayer dollar – certainly laudable goals.  But what the tea-partiers really want is weak government, because of their 18th Century view that the best government is that which governs least – a view which, at best, must be taken with many grains of salt.  Franklin Roosevelt turned the idea on its head when he pointed out that the conservative mantra really meant “that government is best which is most indifferent to mankind”.  The tea party views government of all kinds as part of the “beast.”  Hence their phrase “starve the beast.”

Contrary to popular belief, the march toward deregulation did not begin with President Reagan, but with President Carter, who signed legislation deregulating theairline industry.  How has that worked out for airlines and airports in the United States?  One need only travel through London’sHeathrow and fly on British Airways and then compare Chicago’s O’Hare airportand service on any domestic carrier for an answer.  The deregulation of the financial sector – in particular the repeal of Glass-Steagall, constituted the primary cause of theMortgage Meltdown of 2007 and Great Recession that followed. 

But the biggest danger of weak government is not that the trains might not run on time, or even terrorism.  It is the inevitable backlash when weak government fails.  History is replete with examples of how weak, ineffective government led to disaster, and, ultimately, tyranny.  

In the 1920s, Germany’s Weimar government was so ineffective it couldn’t control the value of its currency, resulting in hyper-inflation.  I vividly recall how my piano teacher recounted how his teacher, Artur Schnabel, would only accept cash-payment after performances in Germany during this period.  If he’d accepted a check, he would have had to wait until the banks were open the next day to cash it – by which point the value his payment would be halved.  So, Schnabel took the cash and spent most of it immediately.  It was the economic situation in Germany, which made America’s Great Depression look like a country picnic, that led to the German public giving the Nazi party a ruling majority in 1933. 

More recently, following the Soviet Union’s collapse in late 1991, a power vacuum left Boris Yeltsin’s Russian government unable to enforce its own laws - resulting in a combination of oligarchs holding the real power, and a massive crime wave ranging from financial fraud, to drug trafficking, to child pornography.  And, of course, the government was unable to deal with food shortages or even provide most basic services.  Small wonder, then, that Vladimir Putin has been able to hold onto power since 1999 by promising “a dictatorship of the law”, which was seen as a balm to many Russians whose new freedoms merely constituted a lack of law & order.  While Putin is no Hitler, it’s also clear that he’s an oppressive tyrant, easily willing to “eliminate” pesky journalists and others who question his power.

Which brings us back to Molenbeek.  Reports indicate that the Belgian government knew that Molenbeek was becoming a hotbed of Islamic radicalism, but was unwilling or unable to do anything about it.  Whether by design, neglect, or intention, weak government was a contributing factor in the attacks in Paris.  While the primary cause was Islamic extremism, we should bear last week’s events in mind when we hear politicians and protesters propose the neutering of the government which is charged with, among other things, protecting us.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

My review of Horowitz in Chicago

Deutsche Grammophon has released a recording of Vladimir Horowitz's October, 1986 recital in Chicago. This was his final appearance in that city, and took place one week after I met him in
Boston. Click here to read my review.