Monday, February 29, 2016

2016 Ohio Democratic Primary Endorsements

The time has come to cast our votes in Ohio's primary election.  I hope you do take the time to vote, whether you agree with our endorsements or not.

Democratic Primary
For President: Hillary Clinton

For the first time in 24 years, I did not campaign for any candidate during the primary season.  It was not that I disliked either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, but that I was so enthusiastic about both it became difficult to choose.  This primary cycle has allowed me to learn more about both candidates, and after a great deal of research I have cooled on Sanders.

Both Clinton and Sanders have their advocates, many of Sander’s  more enthusiastic supporters have crossed the line in statements (which I will not repeat here) about Clinton’s gender, honesty, and marriage - while Clinton’s supporters comments about Sanders have centered around his ability to get the changes he advocates enacted.  Sanders and his supporters have criticized Clinton for being a closet moderate, too friendly with corporate interests, and for changing her positions on issues.  Some of those criticisms may have merit.  But a slavish loyalty to an unwavering position on any issue reminds me of George W. Bush’s conviction of the merits of his Middle East policies, and Herbert Hoover’s unwillingness to take the actions necessary to alleviate the Great Depression.  Indeed, Sanders’ charges of flip-flopping remind me of Hoover’s labeling Franklin D. Roosevelt a “chameleon on plaid” for changing positions (often 180º) on how to turn the economy around.  (Claire Booth Luce derisively compared FDR’s trademark gesture with those of Hitler and Churchill: Hitler had the Nazi salute, Churchill had the V for Victory sign, and FDR: finger to the wind.  But it’s worth remembering that Hitler led Germany to ruin, and the war in Europe had scarcely ended when Churchill was tossed from office.)  Altering positions on issues goes beyond politically expedient flexibility.  And it’s not as if Sanders hasn’t switched on some issues – in particular gun control, where, despite his denials, he altered his position to a degree that might have made FDR blush.  Examining Senator Clinton’s evolving viewpoints it becomes obvious that they have evolved in the right direction.  I’d rather have a President who can adapt with the times than one who is stuck in the groove – an apt criticism against Republicans like Hoover and Democrats like Jimmy Carter alike.  We must bluntly face the truth that no matter who is elected President, Republicans will likely control the House of Representatives for the rest of this decade, largely thanks to Gerrymandering by Republican governors and state legislatures.  Democrats will be lucky if they gain control of the Senate.  Judging by Senator Sanders’ statements and his history in the Senate, House of Representatives, and Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he has difficulty working with those on either side of the aisle who don’t agree 100% with him, and is unwilling to seek consensus or compromise.  Nor does he appear to recognize reality beyond the bubble of the clique of sycophants with which he surrounds himself or his own state of Vermont– a lovely state which is so far removed from much of the rest of the nation it could almost be part of Canada.  Secretary Clinton is more likely to be able to reach across the aisle and make the deals with Republicans which can propel the nation forward in a realistic manner, and build on the achievements of President Obama – which she has been quick to acknowledge, and which Sanders has pooh-poohed at every turn.  Senator Sanders seems more interested in throwing out much of what President Obama has accomplished and starting all over – a textbook case of two steps forward, a dozen steps back.

I have no doubt that the drive which compels Hillary Clinton to run goes beyond personal ego or the desire to see a woman elected to the Presidency - and instead centers on the good of the country.  During her years as First Lady of Arkansas, then of the United States, then as Senator, she has labored as a workhorse – not as a show horse, or as the darling of the left.  I can’t say it any better than Bill Clinton does here:

Therefore, we enthusiastically endorse Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic Presidential Nomination.

For United States Senate: P. G. Sittenfeld
Sittenfeld is a Cincinnati City Council member who has received broad support not just from his own party, but among Republicans and independents as well – so much support that he won more votes during his 2013 reelection than any other Council member.  Much of that support is based on a track record of success in stabilizing foreclosures, re-purposing neighborhood schools as after-hours “Town Square” schools, and bringing wireless internet to Cincinnati’s poorest communities – just as FDR brought electricity to the Tennessee Valley.  All these accomplishments are in the spirit of the New Deal coalition that helped establish the middle class, but which also look toward the future.

Our endorsement of Sittenfeld is a long-shot.  As a former Congressman and Governor, Ted Strickland has the money and endorsements of many “established” Democratic groups.  But his record as Governor left much to be desired, however many of his problems in that office stemmed from the corruption of his predecessor’s Administration or the collapse of the national economy under George W. Bush.  Also, Strickland seems too willing to take the course of least resistance, whether it comes to opposing gun control until he supported it, or refusing to debate his primary opponent.  Strickland’s popularity in Ohio is marginal, and if he were elected, would be unlikely to serve more than two terms due to his age – he’s 74.  We feel that Ohio’s Democratic party needs fresh blood, and Sittenfeld brings both the vigor and the necessary experience to defeat Senator Portman in the general election and to make an effective Senator who will serve the Buckeye State well – and for the long term.  

For Prosecuting Attorney, Cuyahoga County: No endorsement
The incumbent, Timothy McGinty has poorly served the people of Cuyahoga County, in particular the African American community.  There’s no indication his challenger, Michael O’Malley, would do any better.   Whichever candidate wins should be made aware that a low vote count is an indication that the Prosecutor will need to prove himself to the voters of Cuyahoga County, that the citizens are watching, and hopefully that better alternatives will appear in the next election cycle.

Issue 23, Cuyahoga County Health & Human Services Renewal: FOR the levy.  This is not a tax increase, but the renewal of an existing property tax which generates money for such things as pre-kindergarten, drug counseling, home healthcare for senior citizens, and for MetroHealth’s level-one trauma center and LifeFlight.  We recommend its passage.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Berwald & Dvořák with Blomstedt at Severance

Herbert Blomstedt returned to Severance Hall this past weekend to conduct a compact program of Berwald and Dvořák.

At 88, Blomstedt is a remarkably spry gentleman. In appearance, he reminds me of Michael Gough, the British actor best known for playing Alfred the butler in the Tim Burton Batman movies.

The program began with Berwald’s Symphony No. 3 (“Sinfonie singulière”), which was unfamiliar to me.  I heard it on the radio decades ago, but didn’t remember one bar of it.  The work was never performed during Berwald’s lifetime, and has seldom been heard since his death.  Despite Blomstedt’s advocacy, it was easy to understand the reasons for the work’s rarity: The piece lacks the dramatic “through-line” that the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, and the later symphonies of Mozart possess.  Rather, Berwald’s construction seems to consist of a collection of unmemorable themes thrown together and developed rather clumsily - if skillfully orchestrated.  The central movement is a case in point: It begins with an Adagio, then a rather crude tympani strike announces a faster section, then the Adagio theme returns. While a three movement symphony with a central movement that combines the characteristics of a slow movement with a scherzo is unusual, it’s hardly unique.  Rachmaninoff did the same with his 3rd Symphony, and with greater finesse. The bulk of the finale consists of a vigorous presentation of a C minor theme, which then switches to major in a manner that is far from convincing so that there is no sense of triumph.

Dvořák's Symphony No. 7 was markedly more successful. There are those who consider the 7th to be the greatest of Dvořák's symphonies, although the 9th (aka, the “New World”) retains its popularity.  While the 9th is identified with America, the 7th is firmly in the Central European tradition and parts seem as if it could have sprung from Brahms’ pen.  Blomstedt chose sensible tempos, balanced each section beautifully, and paid particular attention to dynamics, which vividly characterized each episode without disrupting the whole.  The audience was brought to its feet after the finale, and Blomstedt was kind enough to single out players and sections for their own share of applause.  As the program was a bit short, the audience was rewarded with an appropriate encore: Dvořák's Slavonic Dance in G minor, in a rollicking performance.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Mitsuko Uchida at Severance, and a note on the Supreme Court

Daniel and I had an enjoyable Saturday evening.  We celebrated both Daniel’s birthday and an early Valentine’s day (our 11th) by dining at Severance Hall.  This was our first dinner there (I met some friends there for lunch years ago), but it won’t be our last.  Severance Restaurant is now catered by Marigold, and the menu is small but well chosen.  Portions are well judged, so that Dan enjoyed his Duck confit and I my pasta with sausage without feeling overly bloated.  The service is understatedly pleasant, a contrast to the overly familiar wait-staff at some restaurants who feel the need to ask us how our meal is every thirty seconds.  We also noticed, with some amusement, that we were the youngest couple in the room – which is not only unusual since I’m pushing 50, but in noted contrast to the audience, which boasted a great number of young people.

The all-Mozart program featured Mitsuko Uchida in the Piano Concertos No. 17 in G major, K. 453, and No. 25 in C major, K. 503 - which were being recorded as part of a continuing series for Decca.  A note in the program reminded audience members to silence their cell phones, but the large volume of coughing from the audience will probably result in Decca needing to use rehearsals for source material. The Concertos book-ended Symphony No. 34 in C major, K. 338 led by concertmaster William Preucil. 

This was our fourth time hearing Uchida with the orchestra, and it occurred to me, I’ve heard her in person about as much as any pianist.  During previous occasions with Uchida, we sat either toward the far end of the main hall, or in the balcony – with excellent results, sonically.  This time, we were in row E, just left of center.  This proved to be less optimal than expected:  Uchida sat with her back to the audience so she could direct the orchestra; as the lid was removed from the piano, her playing was not projected toward the audience.  She was audible in solo passages, but was all but lost when the orchestra played above mezzo forte.    Despite any balance problems, it was clear that the tempi were well chosen, and Uchida’s playing communicated both the joy in the music and her own sense of joy in sharing it with the audience.  She strikes me as a generous musician, both in the way she let orchestra members shine in certain passages (particularly the winds), and later singling them out for acknowledgment by the audience.  Incidentally, Uchida favored Toscanini’s style for seating the strings: 1st violins at stage left, 2nd violins on the right, cellos and violas on inside left and right, respectively.  This resulted in some interesting stereophonic effects during 1st and 2nd violin dialogs.

Shortly after Daniel and I arrived home, we heard the news that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had died.  I also heard of the appalling, but predictable, response from Senator Mitch McConnell and the buffoons and loons running for the Republican nomination for President, to the effect that President Obama should refrain from nominating another justice and wait for his successor to do so.  Historians have already pointed out the idiocy behind those remarks.  If Senate Republicans try to block President Obama's Supreme Court Nomination (he's already said he'll make one), it will unite Democrats behind whoever gets the nomination, and swing independents to the Democrats in BOTH the Presidential and Senate campaigns. So, go ahead, make our day.

Monday, February 8, 2016

A Double Concert Weekend

Truly, Daniel and I are lucky to live in an area that values fine culture.  This past weekend, we enjoyed two concerts in University Circle.

First was the Cleveland Orchestra’s program of French music, under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski, with pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.

We arrived at Severance Hall early enough to enjoy a pre-concert lecture by Eric Charnofsky, who provided useful insight into the evening’s program – particularly Delbavie’s La Source d’un Regard – composed within the past decade.  The work takes its inspirations from the overtones of individual notes, which I was able to recognize from my years as a piano tuner.  A sense of stillness pervades the piece, almost suspended animation, as the audience is left to contemplate the lingering tones. 

There was a brief pause as the orchestra’s chairs were rearranged and the American Steinway brought onstage for the next work, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major.  From the first note, it was clear that Bavouzet knew the work inside & out, was completely “in the zone” and communicated a sense of joy in performance that one hears all too seldom.  He even leaned to his left and encouraged orchestral players in certain passages.  It was a thrilling performance that could rank alongside the best recordings of the piece, and received a hearty ovation.   After the second curtain call, Bavouzet strode on stage with a score in his hands, made a brief comment about the late Pierre Boulez, and played two of his Notations as a tribute.

The second half was devoted to the three books of Debussy’s Images, presented out of sequence with Book II placed last so the concert could end with a bang.  Jurowski paid careful attention to coloristic details of each piece, but never allowed them to come at the expense of each work’s structure.  It has been said that, though French, Debussy’s Iberia is some of the greatest Spanish music ever written.  I concur.

Throughout the concert, Jurowski’s fastidious, detail oriented conducting left nothing to chance.  He’s clearly a master of baton technique, but never used it to show off for the audience.  Jurowski was also generous, following each work, in singling out members of the orchestra for special mention.  I would like to hear him in more varied repertoire to gain a more informed opinion, but if it’s on the level of what I witnessed Saturday night, the orchestra should consider engaging Jurowski more frequently.

As is often the case these days, it was pleasing to see a healthy percentage of young people at the concert.  Indeed, I saw more Millennials there than I did of my own generation.


Zsolt Bognár’s recital on Sunday was a welcome distraction for those of us who’ve no interest in being inundated with all things Super Bowl.  Judging by the near capacity crowd at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gartner Auditorium, Daniel & I were hardly alone in this respect.  Bognár’s recital was centered on musical journeys, and he took the audience on a welcome journey away from the mundane toward the extraordinary.  After walking onstage, Bognár advised the audience that he was battling laryngitis caught during a recent trip to the Philippines, and apologized in advance for any coughing he might do during the recital. 

As it happened, the first work, Schubert’s Impromptu in A-flat major, D. 935, No. 2, was the only work in which Bognár coughed during performance – and it didn’t even break the musical line.  Bognar’s determination reminded me of Arthur Rubinstein, who almost never cancelled concerts during his over 70 year career – and explained that once he began playing, any symptoms of illness would subside until the concert was over.   Schubert's three Klavierstücke (D. 946) have not attained the popularity of the two earlier sets of Impromptus.  Bognár gave the first work, in E-flat minor, a sense of urgency which contrasted well with the central section B major – at the same time, principle and subordinate lines were deftly balanced so the more challenging sections were more than a mere jumble of notes. The second piece, in E-flat major, was given a spacious interpretation; darker toned with disturbing bass accents during the A-flat minor trio. The Allegro of the third work was played with more brio than in his recording, with the central trio boldly contrasted.

Following intermission there was a selection of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, including Butterflies – my favorite – which was offered with an appropriately ethereal quality.

Then it was to Liszt, by way of Schubert-Liszt.  Bognár's treatment of 
Der Doppelgänger, a work that harkens toward Liszt's Il Penseroso, was a chilling amalgam of stillness and motion.

Dante Sonata is a work I've heard pounded and hacked through so much that I've almost come to dread it. Alternately, some have tried to make the work more profound than it is and have turned it into something terminally boring. Bognár brought gravitas, without pretense or portent, to the more lyrical sections, while bringing ample virtuosity to the more extroverted sections. Bognár, rare for today's pianists, seems highly attentive to tonal quality: his fortes, although loud enough to engulf Gartner Auditorium, were never harsh; his pianissimos were clearly audible. There was a sense of rise & fall to the phrasing that coincided to the structure of the piece, so it built to the climax rather than rushing forth.  The audience was brought to its feet and rewarded with two encores: Arvo Pärt’s Fur Alina, and Schumann’s Arabeske.