Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How Modern Banking Works

A banker wakes up one morning, and notices it’s the 5th day of the 5th month. And it occurs to him that he lives on the 5th floor of a building at 555 Fifth Avenue.

He checks his e-mail, and has five messages waiting for him. He sees the headline on the newspaper: 5 MEN RESCUED AT SEA. He turns on the Weather Channel, and the announcer advises “Sunny, fair, high of 55 degrees.”

Now the banker is getting strangely elated. He hails a taxi and sees the license number: 555.

When he gets to work, his secretary has five messages waiting for him. That’s the final signal! He calls up his bookmaker and asks “What’s the name of the 5th horse in the 5th race at Pimlico?” The answer is Five Aces. That does it. He tells the bookie “Put $5,000 on Five Aces to win.”

Five hours later, the bookie calls back and tells the banker, “Your horse came in 5th. You lose.”

The banker slams the phone down and shouts, “That son of a bitch Obama!”

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Two concerts in one weekend

I had the privilege of attending two magnificent concerts over the weekend.


First was Saturday night at Severance Hall, with Mitsuko Uchida playing two Mozart Piano Concertos. (The tickets were a gift from my next door neighbor, who just moved out, as a thank you for our watching their dogs while they were selling their house.) 


I first heard Uchida’s playing in 1992, in a recording of Debussy’s Etudes, which I hadn’t heard before. But this was the first time I’d seen her live. Uchida is known for wearing some striking outfits, and Saturday was no exception: She wore silvery flowing pants, with a transparent electric blue number on top of a kind of tube-top that looked like it was made of the kind of padding used underneath carpets. That’s the only way I can think to describe it, but her outfit was lovely. 


So was her playing. Uchida recorded a complete set of Mozart Concertos not too long ago (no small feat, since there are 27 of them) with the English Chamber Orchestra under Jeffrey Tate. Now she’s redoing at least some of them with the Cleveland Orchestra, and conducting them herself from the keyboard. Concertos K. 488 and K. 491, my two favorites, were released on the Decca/London label about a year ago. Frankly, I thought those performances were over interpreted.


That was not a problem Saturday evening. The Concerto K. 466 in D minor was taut and hotter than usual. Uchida played Beethoven’s cadenzas, of course. The Concerto K. 595 in B-flat major was given a more standard performance – or maybe it’s simply a more standard work than the D minor. K. 595 is also less interesting pianistically – it’s really rather simple, and as a whole it did not captivate me as did the earlier concerto.


Between the concertos there was a diversion: The Divertimento, K. 186, written when Mozart was 16 years old. Its three movements were given in an authentic Divertimento style, with most of the players standing up – as would have been the case as this was written as house party music. The rhythms of the outer movements had an engaging bounce, while the central movement had a lovely songful quality.


Sunday, Danny and I trekked to Oberlin to hear Spencer Myer give a piano recital. I’ve known Spencer since about 1999, when I worked at Graves Piano and his church was purchasing an instrument. I was impressed by his playing then and am even more so now. There are many fine pianists who hold the audience at a distance, as well as those who coast on personality but don’t have much to offer in terms of technique and/or musicianship. Spencer’s not only a fine pianist and musician, but also an engaging personality who frequently chats with his audience about the music he’s playing. For the first time in a long while at a piano recital, some of the pieces on his program were unfamiliar to me: Leoš JanáčeksPiano Sonata 1. X. 1905, and Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations. He spoke briefly about both works, even confessing that he initially “hated” the Copland. Spencer also played Schubert’s Impromptus, D. 899. The G-flat major, my favorite of the bunch, included some beautiful voicing where he articulated the left hand part over the melody.


Before the concert, Danny and I walked around the town square area, and I marveled at the quiet, tranquil evening. I could easily see us living in Oberlin.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Reflections on Space: 1999

Recently, I spotted a DVD set of the complete Space: 1999 series at my local library and borrowed it.

I was very into this series when I was a kid. It aired locally on WUAB Channel 43 when I was 8-10 years old. Indeed, I liked it better than Star Trek – mostly on the basis of Space: 1999’s superior visual effects and set design.
After its initial syndicated run, it seemed to disappear, and I didn’t see it again until the 1990s, when I spotted a marked down Laserdisc at a local mall. I bought it and was appalled at how bad the scripts were, how glacially paced the action was (and this was in the second season, which is generally faster than the first) and how poor the acting was – despite a rather prestigious cast. But, since the set at the library had many stories I hadn’t seen since Gerald Ford was President, I decided to give it another try.

For the uninitiated, Space: 1999 starts off in the year 1999 (astute viewers will immediately take notice that 1999 has come and gone, so the series now takes place in the past). The action is centered on Moonbase Alpha, which is located at the bottom of crater Plato on our moon. On September 13, 1999 (Friday the 13th, of course) a massive nuclear explosion on the far side of the moon sends the moon hurtling out of Earth’s orbit and on a journey into the great unknown.

Mutual fans invariably compare Space: 1999 with the first Star Trek series – even though the two have very little in common. Trek is primarily a plot-driven character drama which happens to be set in outer space – and is optimistic in tone. Space: 1999 is very pessimistic - to the extent that Moonbase Alpha owes its existence to mankind’s growing difficulties dealing with nuclear waste, and the characters don’t have much to do except respond to situations.

The science of Space: 1999 is a mix of the realistic and laughable. Certainly the design of Moonbase Alpha itself is eminently logical (despite the 1970s design of the furniture and uniforms): placing it at the bottom of a crater means it’s likely close to any remaining ice; the base appears to have been constructed of interconnecting modules, which is how a real base would be built; the landing pads for the Eagles are appropriately far from the center of the base – which provides safety in the event of a crash or from contamination; the whole base is connected by a pneumatic Travel Tube subway system that's rather like a futurized version of London's Underground

Much of the science doesn’t hold up under any rationalization. An explosion on the far side of the moon would send the moon crashing into the Earth, not out of orbit. (Not to mention that nuclear waste doesn’t explode, it emits radiation.) The moon encounters a new planet nearly every episode, but given the great distance between solar systems, that’s not possible with sublight travel. Fans will point out that Moonbase Alpha encountered a Black Hole in an early episode, but that doesn’t account for a new alien of the week. Fans will also counter that Trek had its fair share of bad science, and that is true as far as the Transporter is concerned. Warp drive, however, has been theorized.

As with Trek, the cast and characters are multi-ethnic and multi national. Commander John Koenig (note that unlike Trek, which uses Naval ranks, Commander outranks Captain here), portrayed by Martin Landau, is an unusually hotheaded leader. Minor crises send him into an eye-popping, nearly psychotic rage, to the extent that one wonders how such a person could be appointed into a leadership position. If you thought Shatner overacted, wait till you see Landau. (Both actors, incidentally, wear toupees.) Barbara Bain (Koenig’s then-wife in real life) is the cool Dr. Helena Russell. Barry Morse portrayed Victor Bergman, the 60-ish science officer and father figure. Alan Carter, played by Nick Tate, is the can-do Australian pilot.

Space: 1999’s two seasons were radically different from each other. Season one was cerebral, somber, and talky. There was little chemistry between the two main characters, despite the fact that the actors playing them were married in real life. Season Two represented an attempt by the new producer, Fred Freiberger, to make the show more popular with American audiences: Barry Morse’s Victor Bergman, arguably the most balanced, likeable character from the first season, was unceremoniously dumped and Maya, a sexy alien shape-shifter was introduced as the new science officer; Maya had a prolonged flirtation with second-in-command Tony Verdeshi (also a new character), who spent his off-hours brewing beer, which was invariably undrinkable; The romance between Koenig (whose wife was killed in World War III) and Helena Russell (whose husband died in space) is emphasized; Episodes now end with a laugh, as in the original Star Trek; The score, which was broadly symphonic in the first season, was replaced with a jazzy pop-synth score in season two; Pacing was tightened, but there were scenes which still dragged and seemed padded.

Some of the visual effects hold up well, particularly establishing shots of the base and other planets, and flying shots of the Eagles. Many of the alien makeups and costumes look downright silly. Watching the DVDs, I noticed wires suspending the Eagles during takeoff and landing sequences. In fairness to the producers, they were probably not visible on 1970s broadcast television. But high definition TV is very unforgiving.

Despite their differences, Space: 1999 owes a lot to Trek. Even their computer voices are similar, although 1999’s computer sounds like she needs Prozac. At least two episodes are blatant rip-offs of Trek stories: Guardian of Piri is based on This Side of Paradise, with a dash of The Naked Time thrown in; The Rules of Luton is lifted wholesale from Arena. In both cases, the Trek version is superior in content and execution. Trek and 1999 also share a flaw made in the name of dramatic license: The Captain/Commander is always on the Away Team – but in a real life scenario the leader would never be allowed to be put under such risk. (On occasion, this puts Victor Bergman in command, where he is easily more capable and professional than Koenig.)
As it turns out, later Trek incarnations owe a bit to Space: 1999 as well. The Next Generation episode The Child (itself adapted from a script for the aborted Phase II series) is obviously influenced by Space: 1999’s Alpha Child. Patrick Stewart as the warmly cerebral Captain Jean-Luc Picard is eerily similar to Victor Bergman, right down to their artificial hearts; and Dr. Beverly Crusher is obviously based on Helena Russell - her cool manner masking feelings for her Captain/Commander.

For all its weaknesses, the primary feeling I encountered while watching Space: 1999 was one of regret: humans have not even returned to the moon since the series was filmed, much less built a moon base. Humanity seems more mired in mediocrity than ever.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Kreisleriana - OOPS!

An analysis of the differences between Vladimir Horowitz's 1969 recording of Schumann's Kreisleriana on the original Columbia Masterworks LP, and the 1993 Sony Classical reissue. Alternate takes were used in several sections.

The first few seconds of the video was clipped off.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Wilderness in suburbia

This past weekend, I spotted a vulture (or buzzard) devouring a squirrel in my neighbor's front yard.  Even in suburbia, there are wild moments.

Nature in suburbia

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Vintage Rubinstein and Chopin, April 6, 2010
By Hank Drake (Cleveland, OH United States) - See all my reviews

Complete recorded editions of Classical music were almost unheard of in the 1930s. Artur Schnabel was making a complete version of Beethoven's 32 Sonatas, but many musicians didn't consider Chopin's music "worthy" of such attention (he was just a salon composer, after all). Arthur Rubinstein didn't believe any of that nonsense about Chopin. His respect for his compatriot informed both his interpretation of his music, and his decision to record the bulk of Chopin's piano music. This 5CD set contains Rubinstein's first cycle of Chopin's music, although it's far from complete. Rubinstein didn't get around to recording a set of Waltzes or Ballades until the LP era. It's pretty well known among his fans that he tried to record a set of Etudes in the late 1960s and quit after one session. Nor did he record any of Chopin's juvenilia such as the first Sonata. Caveats aside, these recordings deserve to be heard. There's a sense of adventure and discovery that is somewhat absent in Rubinstein's later recordings (not to mention those of certain note perfect automatons).
The Barcarolle, Op 60 was recorded at Rubinstein's second recording session, in 1928. This performance is closer in tempo and phrasing to the manner in which Rubinstein played the piece "live" than his later studio recordings. Indeed, there is an erotic impulse in this version which is largely missing from his 1957 and 1962 remakes.
Rubinstein made three complete versions of Chopin's Scherzos, with this first set dating from 1932. All three versions offer testament to the pianist's solid technique, innate virtuosity, and natural sense of musical architecture. Tempos are breathtakingly faster in these earlier performances than in the later ones. Considering the fact that editing was impossible during this era, and his considerable risk taking, Rubinstein's very few inconsequential mistakes are understandable.

As with the Scherzos, Rubinstein recorded three versions of the Mazurkas. This first version (from 1938-1939) is markedly freer, more compelling, and more poetic than his later remakes. It's my favorite among Rubinstein's three sets. The pianist's use of rubato is more pronounced, as is his greater emphasis on inner voices, which Rubinstein later banished from his playing. Rubinstein's 1936-1937 Nocturnes (again, the first of three sets) are also far different from his 1960s stereo version. In addition to the attributes found on the early Mazurkas, these performances are graced with more sensitive shades of pianissimo (Rubinstein's quiet passages became louder as time progressed, possibly due to hearing loss). As with his other two versions of these works, Rubinstein never allows sentiment (empathy) to be confused with sentimentality (schmaltz).
If the nocturnes lull you into a sense of repose, the Polonaises will get you fired up. It is interesting to compare this 1934-1935 cycle with the more renowned stereo version from 1964. While the later cycle emphasizes a rather dignified approach, the earlier version is more spontaneous. The brio, freedom, and swagger of this set simply have to be heard to be believed. True, Rubinstein, like a runaway train, comes dangerously close to running off the rails at times. But the musical rewards the pianist reaps are well worth the technical risks, and the more reflective Polonaises are played with simple, unforced poetry. Rubinstein's innate understanding of the structural underpinnings of Chopin's music comes through in the Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61, a notoriously difficult work to hold together. On balance, I feel the 1950s "middle-period" set most effectively balances virtuosity with gravitas.
Rubinstein made three official recordings of the E minor Concerto, and four of the F minor Concerto. (There is an additional, filmed performance of the F minor from 1975.) As was customary during the 78RPM era, the introductions of both concertos are shortened here. Rubinstein's tempos are faster than in later versions, with greater use of rubato and freer phrasing. There are some inconsequential mistakes here and there, both on the part of the pianist and the orchestra. Despite the occasional fluffs and dated sound, I prefer these very exciting versions to Rubinstein's later attempts. But I must frankly confess that I feel Rubinstein has been bettered by Krystian Zimerman (in his self-conducted version with the Polish Festival Orchestra) and Vasily Primakov in the Concertos. The London Symphony Orchestra under John Barbirolli provides a strong accompaniment to these often underrated works.

These recordings originate from 78RPM discs. They have been issued several times, including by RCA as part of their complete edition of Rubinstein's recordings. If you already have those, there's no point in getting this EMI set as RCA's remastering is superior. The remastering here is acceptable, and at budget price, it is very tempting for the newcomer. Despite the slight surface noise, and occasional "tubbiness" in the piano tone, Rubinstein's fresh performances come through loud & clear.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Forgotten Minority...

For nearly a century, one of the most well known drives in Cleveland has been through the Cultural Gardens.

There are over 25 separate gardens, representing British, Russians, Armenians, Slovaks, Italians, African-Americans, and many others.

There is even a new garden underway for Croatians.

But there is no garden for Native Americans. Indeed, Northeast Ohio, once home to the Osage, Kaw, Ponca and Omaha tribes, is now known as the home of the Cleveland Indians - a mediocre baseball team with a mascot that would offend any right thinking person.

What a sad commentary on Cleveland and on America as a whole.


Follow up: I've since been informed that, in fact, land has been set aside by the city for a Native American Garden. This was done just 4-6 years ago. The community is trying to raise the $250,000 to build the garden.