Monday, July 28, 2014

Nature versus Music at Blossom

Saturday evening, Dan & I made the journey to Blossom Music Center to hear a mixed concert with the Cleveland Orchestra, their featured soloist Stephen Hough, along with the Kent/Blossom Chamber Orchestra.  It was a memorable concert.

I will confess that, even though Blossom is one of the premiere outdoor locations for concerts, I am not overly fond of the outdoor concert concept – particularly as it pertains to Classical music.  Weather was a distraction at a Blossom concert we attended last year.  This year, the main reason I went was to hear Stephen Hough – one of my favorite living pianists.  This was the fifth time I’ve heard him in person and the third time at Blossom.  I wish the orchestra would bring him to Severance Hall more often.  Before the concert began, I briefly observed Hough consulting with the piano technician about the pedals of the piano – who made several adjustments while Hough tried out various passages.

The concert began earlier than usual, at 7pm, with a performance by the Kent/Blossom orchestra, primarily made of music students.  Led by Brett Mitchell, the performances of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin were on a high level – only some uncertain string intonation revealed that a student orchestra was playing.  The Siegfried Idyll possessed a remarkable sense of stillness, with expansive phrasing and a slower than usual tempo.  Le tombeau de Couperin bathed the listener in piquant harmonies and the emergence and submergence of orchestral textures. As with many pieces, Ravel wrote both piano and orchestral versions of this memorial to Couperin.  I’ve long held the piano versions of many of Ravel’s piano works in high esteem, but I prefer the orchestral in this piece.

After a brief intermission, the Cleveland Orchestra was onstage to begin the concert with Beethoven’s Overture to Fidelio, in a taut performance led by John Storgårds.  This was the fourth overture Beethoven wrote for his only opera, which was initially called Leonore and had a difficult performance history.  While observing the strings play several intricate passages, it occurred to me that the composer probably worked these sections out on the piano before he orchestrated the piece.  They would sit well under the hand if played on the piano.

There was a bit of musical chairs while the orchestra shifted to accommodate the piano.  Then, Hough strode onstage and began the most memorable part of the concert.  The orchestra began the very brief tutti for Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.1 in E-flat major, followed by Hough’s crisply pedaled rendition of the work's bravura opening passage.  About two minutes into the piece, as Hough was playing a poetic transitional passage, I saw what I thought was a flashbulb to my left.  As I was about to turn my head to glare down the photographer, I heard a tremendous BLAM! – realizing it wasn’t a flashbulb, but a lightning strike just outside the pavilion.  Audience and orchestra were startled, and even Hough reflexively ducked.  A lesser performer might have started over, but Hough never took his hands off the keyboard.  Instead, he preceded to a high trill and held it while the audience calmed down.  The performance then continued while low rumbling thunder served as reminder that, at the end of the day, Mother Nature does what she does.  The Liszt is not an easy concerto to perform.  It seems all too many pianists either turn it into a display for technical trickery, while others drain the life out of it to make it sound “musical” – and then there are those (who shall remain nameless) who can’t play the piece but insist on doing so anyway.  Hough has the chops to dispatch the work’s technical hurdles – wide octave leaps, repeated notes, staccato jumps – while giving poetry to the concerto’s nocturne-like sections.  The discreet pedaling (in a concerto where many pianists bluff through difficult sections by holding the sustaining pedal down) demonstrated why Hough worked with the technician before the concert.  It was thrilling from beginning to end, and the audience rightly rewarded soloist and orchestra with a standing ovation.  This was a performance that gave life to the maxim “the show must go on” and indeed it did as we were favored with an encore.  I’ve long held Hough in high esteem as a pianist and musician, but Saturday night he demonstrated his grace under pressure and nerves of steel.  (Hough has also recorded this concerto, which I heartily recommend.)  

Following intermission, the Kent/Blossom orchestra joined the Cleveland Orchestra for a joint performance of Sibelius’ Second Symphony.  Here’s where I will confess that I am not a huge Sibelius fan – not that I dislike his music, but it simply does not particularly stir me.  Nevertheless, the work’s massive orchestral textures benefited from the “super-sized” orchestra.  While students sat side-by-side with the orchestra’s tenured players, one had a sense of great traditions being passed on.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Liberty versus Anarchy in our community

I’d like to take a moment to address the series of incidents which took place several days ago at the Sacred Heart of Jesus festival.

First, a bit of history: My parents moved to South Euclid in 1971.  I went to Anderson elementary school, then Memorial and Brush.  After graduating, I moved to Massachusetts - returning nine years later and living in various parts of the Cleveland area.  I moved back to South Euclid in 2008.  The convenience of South Euclid for me, in terms of being close to my job and an easy drive to our area’s cultural and entertainment hub, is an attraction that’s very enticing.

I have never felt unsafe walking my dog or otherwise going about my business in South Euclid. My neighbors are polite and friendly.  But it's appalling to learn of the sort of behavior reported at the festival taking place in our city.  Two years ago, a resident was murdered in front of her home, and the perpetrators’ presence in the city may have been connected to the festival.  Last year, there were multiple incidents of violence at the festival.  And this year, the incidents involved more people, covered many blocks, and there were even reports of shots fired.  Even though the majority of the perpetrators were from outside South Euclid, it's alarming to learn these events are on the rise a short walk from where I live.  The pastor at Sacred Heart of Jesus church, Father Ireland, has been seen in several interviews complaining that the activity of these youths threatens attendance at the festival.  He seems less concerned about the danger to the community as a whole.  I’m certain that Father Ireland wants what’s best for the community.  But, as President Kennedy said “Sincerity is always subject to proof” and the efforts of this church, thus far, have fallen short.  I’ve read that the church provided only 12 security personnel at this year’s festival – and it’s unlikely that all 12 were on duty at any given time.  If Sacred Heart of Jesus church is unable or unwilling to provide adequate private security for their festival, then permits for future festivals should be denied.  There is now a pattern of neglect on the church’s part and they should not be accorded more lenient treatment simply because they’re a church.  If this festival had taken place at a mosque and there had been similar incidents, it would have been shut down long ago. 

I supported Issue 65, South Euclid's safety forces levy – and I shudder to think what might have happened if there had been fewer officers available over the weekend.  But I do not want our cops put in harm's way when it's avoidable, and I want to live in a community where citizens have a reasonable assurance of safety.  I also demand, as a citizen, that our police department be permitted to post information without censorship by city officials.  It disgusts me that the South Euclid Police Department, for whatever reason, deleted their post about the events Saturday night.  

Above is a screen grab of a post made by a South Euclid police officer which appeared on the department's facebook page, then was deleted.  Thankfully, a citizen saved this picture before the post was yanked.

As I mentioned earlier, I moved back to South Euclid six years ago.  For the first time since I moved here, I am questioning the wisdom of that decision and seriously considering leaving - and I know I’m not alone in that regard.  South Euclid cannot afford to lose more taxpaying, law-abiding citizens.

New and upgraded shopping centers, pocket parks, and neighborhood rebranding are all very well and good – and I have supported these efforts.  But we also need to focus on basic issues like safe neighborhoods and crime prevention.  There is a growing feeling that South Euclid is no longer a safe place to live – at least in certain areas.  The events over the weekend demonstrate that this is more than an issue of mere perception.   I don’t blame anyone in South Euclid’s government for what happened.  But how we respond is key.  We have to face these issues head on and combat them.  Chief Neitert must not be selective about which laws he enforces.  He needs to start applying the broken windows theory.  When we tolerate activities such as allowing dogs to roam unleashed, people texting while driving, speeding on residential streets, "music" blasting from car stereos at all hours of the night, aimless loitering - it leads to a general impression of disorder in the community.  There is a fine line between Liberty and Anarchy, and we must not allow South Euclid to cross that line. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Lorin Maazel: 1930 - 2014

Lorin Maazel, principle conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1972-1982, died on Sunday, July 13th, at the age of 84. 

Sadly, I never saw Maazel conduct in person.  He was scheduled to conduct in Cleveland several years ago, but he cancelled.  I saw him on television numerous times and took note of his unshowy, natural baton technique.  Not for him the marionette on strings approach of Furtwangler or orgasmic histrionics of Bernstein.  Maazel was a born conductor, and probably the most prominent example of a prodigy conductor in history.  He was also, according to those who heard him, a damned fine violinist – and was fluent in at least six languages.  The man was off the charts brilliant.

I also have many of his recordings – most with the Cleveland Orchestra.  It cannot have been easy for Maazel to take over the orchestra, which had been without a regular conductor for two years after George Szell’s death in 1970.  His selection, made by the board without consulting the orchestra, was controversial.  
Maazel maintained the technical quality of the orchestra (first raised to top five in America status by Artur Rodzinski, then elevated to top five in the world by Szell), while broadening its sound and diversifying its repertoire.  With a few exceptions like the Barber Piano Concerto and selected works by Dutilleux, Szell left most newer music to guest conductors like Pierre Boulez – while he concentrated on the core 18th and 19th Century Austro-Germanic repertoire.   Thus, when Maazel started programming showpieces like Respighi’s Pines of Rome and championed Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the more conservative types in Cleveland’s music scene brought their knives out.  One critic even took to referring to Maazel as “childe Lorin” – a snide reference to his prodigy years.  The truth is, Maazel was magnificent in these works, and his recordings of them - along with his Shostakovich 5th Symphony, Tchaikovsky 4th and Romeo & Juliet, and Scriabin Poem of Ecstasy - remain well-nigh definitive.  But there were other instances where he seemed to be going through the motions, such as the 1970s Beethoven Symphony cycle and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.  Further, some interpretations were downright wayward, including Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  Everything was, of course, fabulously played.  While it may be fashionable to give all credit to the Cleveland Orchestra, it’s also worth pointing out I heard numerous fluffed brass notes and splattery entrances under Maazel’s successor, Christoph von Dohnányi.  As an NBC Symphony player once remarked about Toscanini, “He spoke with the stick, and you just couldn't miss with that stick”.  The same could have been said of Maazel.  The New York Philharmonic and Pittsburgh Symphony seldom played for anyone else as well as they played for Maazel.    Most conductors bust their behinds to memorize scores and arrive at an interpretation.  Not so for Maazel.  In a way, it could be said that Maazel’s incredible facility – the ease with which he memorized scores, his perfect rhythmic sense, his unerring ear for balance – came at a cost.  Without the struggle inherent in the work of most musicians, his music making sometimes lacked the last sense of depth in the music that most required it.  But when he was “on”, it was an astonishing experience.

I am including here reviews which I wrote for three of Maazel’s Telarc CDs.  They provide an interesting glimpse of his Cleveland years.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

LeBron's return - icing on the cake

It was inevitable, I suppose, that I would comment on what’s been hyped as the Cleveland news story of the century (which, I remind all, is only 14 years old): LeBron James is returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

I am neither elated nor particularly surprised by his return. The story of LeBron’s departure, self-discovery, and return to the home of his birth is neither revelatory nor especially unique. Even as he made the announcement four years ago that caused Cavaliers fans to set his jersey alight, I thought "he'll be back". I know of countless people who left Northeast Ohio, only to return when they realized much of the rest of the country is too expensive, too congested, and populated with people less friendly than we.

I’m one of those boomerangs. I left the Cleveland area, fresh out of high school, for New England. For nine years, I studied, struggled, sowed my wild oats, loved, had my heart broken, enjoyed a brief taste of success, experienced failure, and generally learned those facts of life which weren’t taught in school. Family obligations brought about my return to Cleveland, and when I came back, I had an air of condescension along with a new assertiveness that bordered on abrasiveness – the result of living nine years in greater Boston. The place, like any place, rubs off on you.

 A year before I returned to Cleveland, I visited to bury my mother. Even through my grief I could discern the beginning stages of the rebirth of downtown Cleveland. That rebirth continued in starts and stops over two decades, and in the four years before “the Chosen One” announced his return, became a juggernaut. That’s why I object to the notion, perpetrated by the national media, that LeBron James' return is single handedly "rescuing" Cleveland's economy. Rescuing it from what? Cleveland’s decades long resurgence has continued whatever the performance of the local sports teams - and that recovery would have continued even if James' hadn't made his very welcome announcement. The national media's tendency to focus on one man merely betrays their ignorance of anything that happens in flyover country. There's more to America than the I-95 corridor on one side and California on the other, and in the final analysis, James’ return is icing on the cake.

I have blogged before concerning my reservations about how Cleveland and Cuyahoga County have given away the store to recruit/retain professional athletic franchises. Despite my happiness at LeBron James’ return, I continue to hold those opinions. Sports teams are only one aspect of downtown development. First Energy Stadium has a capacity of 71,516. Last season, the Browns played 16 games, about half of which were played at home. Assuming the stadium is filled to capacity, that’s about 572,000 visitors over the course of a year. That’s the equivalent of 2,200 employees working in Cleveland five days a week – a figure which is easily accomplished if Cleveland’s civic leaders put their minds to it. As I've said elsewhere, Cleveland needs to do a better job of recruiting businesses, in which people come downtown for work every day.  George Voinovich really blew it when he wouldn't play ball with Peter Lewis, who wanted to build Progressive's headquarters downtown - and there are other examples. It's all very nice that Progressive’s east side employees can enjoy an easy commute to Mayfield Village, not so nice for those on the west side. That is but one of many examples. But enough griping about the past. We can file that under “lessons learned”.

 On behalf of the boomerang club: Welcome home, LeBron.  At least his return is a distraction from that annoying Johnny Manziel.