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.