Sunday, January 24, 2010

Earl Wild 1915-2010

Earl Wild, one of America’s pre-eminent pianists. died on January 23, at the age of 94.

Wild died at his home in Palm Springs, California. For many years, he had been a resident of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1942, he gave a performance of Rhapsody in Blue with the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Toscanini that remains legendary. During World War II, he played a recital in the White House for Franklin Roosevelt, and accompanied Mrs. Roosevelt in many of her speaking tours, playing the Star Spangled Banner prior to her speeches.

Wild, who gave his first radio recital in 1927 at the age of 12, was a trailblazer. He was the first pianist to give a recital in television, in 1939. In 1997, he gave the first piano recital to be live-streamed over the Internet. Over the course of his long career, Wild played nearly everywhere. He remained active until his final recitals and recordings in 2005.

That same spirit of adventure applied to his repertoire. Wild’s extensive discography (among many other labels, he recorded for RCA, Columbia/Sony, and founded Ivory Classics) contains remarkably little “beaten path” music. He was the champion of piano transcriptions in the late-20th Century. He not only played them but he prepared many of his own. (His arrangements of Gershwin’s songs are considered the ne plus ultra of Gershwin song transcriptions.) He also did a great deal of composing, including his Piano Sonata (2000), which featured a finale dedicated to Ricky Martin. When he did play standard repertoire, he was successful. His version of Chopin’s complete Nocturnes was released in 1997, and New York Times critic Harold Schonberg was unequivocal, calling them “the best version of the Nocturnes ever recorded."

Wild’s playing was known for its technical command (noteworthy even in a field crowded by super technicians like Hofmann, Horowitz, and Bolet), tonal beauty, and the pianist’s relaxed, unruffled approach. Wild was often referred to as a Grand Romantic pianist, but in truth he stayed pretty close to the score and was more Classical in his approach.

Wild refused to compromise his principles for the sake of easy success. He was openly gay in a business which has not been known for its progressiveness. (Michael Rolland Davis, his companion since 1972, survives him.) He refused to endorse Steinway pianos, despite the virtual chokehold that company has long had over the piano industry, and Steinway punished him for it. For decades, Wild was Baldwin’s most noteworthy classical artist. When the quality of Baldwin’s pianos began to decline, he switched to Kawai. Perhaps for these reasons, Wild’s career never reached the stratospheric height that was warranted by his talent and hard work. His was not a household name like Van Cliburn. Wild was appreciated primarily among connoisseurs. Yet he career was more enduring than Cliburn’s.

Enough talk. It’s the music that counts:

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Cleveland Orchestra in Crisis - Part 3

The dispute between the Cleveland Orchestra’s management and players has been tentatively settled. But bad feelings remain and will likely continue for some time.

Media coverage tended to favor management, especially in the beginning. The Plain Dealer’s coverage of this matter was piss poor. I have nothing against Zachary Lewis, but his reporting of the orchestra has so far been a retread of the Musical Arts Associations press releases – and when it comes to his criticism, he writes with kid gloves. It’s not the kind of writing we had from Donald Rosenberg, whose removal from covering the orchestra under pressure from the MAA resulted in a publicized lawsuit.

The players were likely caught off-guard by several statements -- some of which were inflammatory, misleading, and downright false -- from manager Gary Hanson. Chief among these was Hanson’s contention that orchestra players had only a 20 hour workweek. Apparently, Hanson doesn’t realize that players actually have to practice their instruments, and thinks that a rehearsal represents the first time the musicians have actually seen the score (Hanson has obviously never bothered to learn that musicians frequently borrow their music parts in advance so they can be ready at rehearsal). Hanson also mislead the press and public into believing that the players had made no previous sacrifices – when in fact they were the first to accept pay freezes and benefit cuts, dating back over five years.

Of course, Hanson and the MAA have a well oiled public relations machine. It took some time for the player’s to get their PR legs, but eventually they responded to Hanson’s points effectively by creating their own blog. I can understand why it took the players time to access the media. Has there ever been a case of on orchestra’s management issuing a PR broadside against their own players of the kind than Hanson and his posse did? Not in my memory.

Sadly, several commentators at bought into Hanson’s statements. Then again, many of the commentators were disposed to be antipathetic to the orchestra players anyway, because: they’re anti-union (Cleveland, like every other major orchestra in the US is unionized); they’re jealous of the pay/prestige related to being in one of the world’s greatest orchestras; they have little use for the arts; they’re bitter people with little to do but gripe and complain.

In any case, it appears that the strike is over. Let’s make music!

Friday, January 15, 2010

I can't believe it took me so long to review this...

Horowitz In Concert 1967, 1968
Horowitz in Concert 1967-1968
Hank Drake (Cleveland, OH United States) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)      

In 1989, a few months before his death, this "new" Horowitz recording was released with the Maestro's permission. The items on this CD were recorded in concert in 1967-1968 and had never been issued before, and all were new to the Horowitz discography.

The hallmarks of Horowitz's Scarlatti can be heard in the two Sonatas heard here: perfect transference of Scarlatti's sound world onto the modern piano; infinite grades of detachment and color; careful use of the sustaining pedal; flawless judgment of dynamics--from soft-softer-softest on the lower end, yet never pushing the piano too far into the forte range.

Horowitz always seemed at home with Haydn's diverse pianistic textures and musical humor. The pianist plays the opening movement of the C-major Sonata at a much broader tempo than usual, phrasing it as if it were an opera aria. The second movement, one of Haydn's wittiest rondos, runs at a brisk tempo, with the sudden key-shifts and off-beat accents handled with Horowitz's usual aplomb.

Horowitz was not congenial to late Beethoven, and felt that the piano works after Op. 81a were not meant for public performance--certainly not for today's mammoth concert halls. The pianist made an exception with the Sonata in A Major, Op. 101, performing it occasionally: in the 1930s, in 1967, 1980, and during his disastrous 1983 tour. This is pianistically one of the finest Op. 101s ever committed to disc (but his concert performances from 1980 were even more polished). For once, Beethoven's murky late piano writing is clear. The first movement sounds almost Wagnerian in its pathos. The dotted rhythms in the march are Schumannesque, the accents nearly brutal--no other performance on this work so clearly demonstrates Beethoven's influence on Schumann. The fugue is played with unprecedented clarity, despite a few quite inconsequential wrong notes--no pianist gets through this fugue unscathed.

Apparently, Horowitz only played Liszt's Scherzo and March once, at the concert recorded here. As was customary with some of Liszt's less serious efforts, the pianist made a few alterations to the score, reducing redundant passages, expanding others, and composing a more effective ending--all of which unquestionably improve the piece. Horowitz commits the crime of making this bombastic, vulgar piece sound better than it is, and his brilliant, demonic performance proves my music teachers old witticism on Horowitz: "The worse the piece, the better he plays it."

The Mendelssohn Etude is a remarkable display of Horowitz's rapid and even fingerwork, with a coda by the pianist which makes a much more effective ending than Mendelssohn's original. What a pity he never recorded the same composer's Spinning Song.

The sound is remarkably consistent despite varying recording locales, and it eminently acceptable.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Cleveland Orchestra in Crisis - Part 2

I'd like to follow up on my recent post on the Cleveland Orchestra.

It has come to my attention that the orchestra's players, have in fact been making concessions over the last several years, including: a pay freeze in 2004-2005; four consecutive years with raises that were lower than comparably placed orchestras; a two year freeze on the Musical Arts Association's (the managing arm of The Cleveland Orchestra) contributions to the pension fund; a 50% reduction in payments for broadcasts; increased employee contributions to the health insurance plan; freezes in seniority pay, overtime pay, and travel reimbursement.

In addition, several posts within the orchestra itself remain vacant, an apparent cost cutting measure.

If you worked for a private company that contributed to your pension, such as with matching funds, and this benefit was withdrawn, how would that affect you? If your salary was frozen for a year, then your raises below the average for your industry, how would you feel? If you had to pay more for your health insurance, would you still want to work for that company? Would your loyalty to that company, once touted as the best of its kind in the United States, be tested by superior offers from other companies?

In my last post, I stated that sacrifice should be shared. But it is increasingly obvious that the sacrifices have been shouldered by the orchestra's players for several years.

Music director Franz Welser-Most and executive Gary Hanson have also taken pay cuts. But Welser-Most has a second gig as director of the Vienna State Opera and guest conducts all over the world. He can afford the cut in pay he has taken and much more. And given the uneven nature of his conducting, it's legitimate to question whether he's worth even his reduced salary.

As for Hanson, he's the second highest paid orchestra executive in America, and makes far more than even the President of the United States. Yet his tenure has been marked by increased strife with the orchestra and declining finances. Even with the cut he's taken, Hanson is still drawing a very high salary -- which he's declined to disclose publicly. Is he worth the pay he receives?

Now, the orchestra's every day staff, those who do everything from run the box office to clean the bathrooms, have taken a pay cut. And many of these people were not particularly well paid by anyone's measure.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Cleveland Orchestra in crisis

Even such an eminent institution as The Cleveland Orchestra has been affected by the combination of deep recession and waning interest in Classical music.

In the wake of those circumstances, management and conductor Franz Welser-Most have taken reductions in salary of between 10 and 20%. Visiting artists, such as piano soloists, have also taken reductions in pay. Management has asked the players' union to accept a 5% pay cut for the rest of this season, with a restoration of pay in late-2010, and a 2 1/2% pay raise the following year. The players' union has terminated the month-to-month contract they've been under since September, and proposed an eight month contract with a pay freeze.

Base pay for musicians at the Cleveland Orchestra is $115,440. This is compared to $129,585 for Los Angeles, and $128,180 for Boston, both of which have a much higher cost of living. L. A. and Boston are also much larger cities with more potential to draw audiences. On top of the base pay, Cleveland’s players also receive benefits such as: 10 weeks annual paid vacation, 26 days paid sick leave, and a health insurance plan which calls for an employee contribution of only $12. Management points out this is for a 20 hour work week, which is like saying major league baseball players (who obviously make much more) only work 15 hours per week. Calling the players part time workers is incredibly disingenuous -- a great deal of time is spent practicing and maintaining instruments.

I realize that orchestra players utilize rare talents and skills, which cost time and money to develop. Tuition at music institutes is not cheap, and it takes years to pay back student loans. But I know people in specialized fields who’ve paid similarly for their education, and would kill to get benefits like the Orchestra's players enjoy. The concept of sacrifice in times of crisis is that it is shared. That was part of the reasoning behind rationing during World War II. And let’s face facts, The Cleveland Orchestra, whatever propaganda their marketing team spouts, is not the same institution it was in its heyday (roughly 1955-1990) and does not play on the same level as it did then -- but neither do most orchestras.

I’d also like to take a moment to comment on the orchestra’s blog. It is, in effect, a marketing tool by the orchestra's management. But what can be said for a blog that is not open to comments – even moderated ones? Communication is a two way street.

I’m reminded of a something George Szell said (and orchestra players in his time received only a fraction of the pay and benefits their counterparts get today, even accounting for inflation):

“Is the purpose of a symphony orchestra to make music? Or is the purpose of a symphony orchestra to guarantee to its members a comfortable and unchallengeably permanent job?”
-George Szell

My latest review

At Carnegie Hall: Private Collection - Haydn & Beethoven
Vladimir Horowitz at Carnegie Hall: Private Collection - Haydn & Beethoven

By Hank Drake (Cleveland, OH United States) - See all my reviews

Horowitz the Classicist

For this installment of recordings from Vladimir Horowitz's Private Collection, the fifth in the series that started in the 1990s, Sony/BMG is focusing on repertoire from the Classical era. Again, the recordings are taken from Carnegie Hall recitals the pianist had recorded at his own expense.

Horowitz first recorded Haydn's Sonata in E-flat (No. 52 or 62 depending on which listing you use) in 1932, the first recording of this work ever made. The performance remains a benchmark recording of this piece, played with feline grace and in perfect Classical style, and demonstrated Horowitz as a great Haydn interpreter - which was not always the case with his Mozart. In a second recording, from a 1951 Carnegie Hall concert, the Sonata is given a more overtly virtuoso treatment and is played on a larger dynamic scale. Some details in the score, such as the rests in the final movement, which were scrupulously observed in 1932, are ignored in 1951. This performance, from 1948, is midway between the two in terms of interpretation. Certain details of the opening Allegro, such as the handling of turns, are unique to this performance. The lovely Adagio is played at a flowing tempo (more of an Andante) but it works here. There are many hair raising moments in the final Presto, which features incredibly balanced rapid passagework played without pedal. The third movement rests are observed the first time the theme is played, but ignored again in the final repetition.

The performance of Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata is from 1945. The first movement is played in a straightforward manner, with none of the fussiness that mars his two studio recordings of this work, but the repeat in this movement is omitted here. The central Adagio, which serves as an introduction to the third movement, is offered with an unforced lyricism. The third played at a very fast tempo, quite different from either of his more spacious studio recordings. Horowitz carefully observes Beethoven's dynamic markings and there is a great deal of rhythmic verve throughout the movement. As was his usual practice, Horowitz has replaced Beethoven's octave glissandi with presto and staccato octaves (Rubinstein also did this), so this performance is not strictly by the book.

There is a remarkable lack of atmosphere in the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, from a 1947 concert. The coloring for which Horowitz was justly famous is sadly missing here, as is the poetry of his 1956 recording of the work. The allegretto goes at a jaunty clip, which is not what was intended and differs markedly from the pianist's three studio recordings. As in his 1946 and 1972 studio recordings, Horowitz ignores the sforandi at the top of ascending phrases in the third movement - which robs the finale of much of its turbulence. He observed them in his 1956 recording, which remains the high mark for Horowitz's performances of this work. While one doesn't want to appear ungrateful for the effort undertaken to issue this historical performance, I must question the wisdom of this Moonlight's release, as it does nothing to broaden our knowledge of Beethoven or Horowitz.

Jon Samuels has done his usual fine job of restoring these recordings from Horowitz's own copies - the only ones known to exist. Thankfully, there is no over filtering, and while there is a bit of surface noise at points, the disc remains eminently listenable.