Sunday, April 24, 2016

Lisiecki and Wit at Severance Hall

This weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts at Severance featured guest conductor Antoni Wit and pianist Jan Lisiecki.

The concert began with Wagner’s Polonia Overture, one of the composer’s earliest works.  This was the first time the work was being played by the orchestra, which is saying something for a work by a major composer and an orchestra that’s been performing masterworks for 98 years.  Indeed, I’d never heard the piece.  After the initial bars, it was easy to understand why the overture is rarely performed.  It trades in bombast what it lacks in thematic material or development.  After a good night’s sleep, I was unable to recall one “tune”, which has never been the case with any other Wagner work I’ve heard over the last 35 years.  The performance was mainly characterized by loudness.  More on that later.

After a brief break while the Hamburg Steinway was rolled onto the platform, Jan Lisiecki took to the stage for a performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto in F minor.  Lisiecki is a Canadian pianist of Polish parentage.  Just 21, he has already secured a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon and is a veteran performer.  One takes for granted that the pianist’s technique was more than up to the task of this finger twisting concerto.  But this performance has a special quality that went beyond that.  Lisiecki brought to the Concerto a metric freedom, sense of rubato, and coloristic sense that reminded me of the pianists of the Golden Age – particularly Benno Moiseiwitsch.  Each episode of the concerto was beautifully characterized, while the work’s overall structure cohered. 

Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony occupied the second half of the concert.  The Eroica is one of the most often performed works in the repertoire.  The orchestra could no doubt play it in its sleep.  But the opening was rough: the orchestra was not together in the first of two E-flat major chords that start the work.  In short order, the orchestra was together again, and the movement proceeded at a quick pace.  Zachary Lewis, in his Plain Dealer review of Thursday evening’s concert, complained about the “ponderous” tempo Wit chose for the Funeral March.  Either Lewis is wed to the HiPster school of interpretation, or Wit chose a brisker pace between Thursday’s concert and Saturday’s – as the tempo I heard was dead center normal for Beethoven interpretation – similar to Szell’s tempo in his famous Cleveland recording.  But the performance was problematic nevertheless.  Wit didn’t seem to be interested in such matters as balance, dynamics (aside from the Chopin Concerto, there was little sense of pianissimo and often the music was just plain loud) or tonal beauty.  This was the first, and I hope only, time I’ve heard the Cleveland Orchestra making anything less than a beautiful sound.   It has been a truism over the last dozen years that the Cleveland Orchestra often plays at its best with a guest conductor.  Not this time.         

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Eulogy for my Father

Titus Henry Drake, Jr

August 2, 1929 - April 6, 2016

My father’s father, Titus Henry Drake (from whom my dad & I got our formal names) was part of an established American family that traced their lineage on this continent to 1640 – when Francis Drake moved from the family seat in Colchester, England to New England – when this land was still a British possession.  My father’s mother’s name was Helen Harvey.  Until recently, I didn’t know much about her family except that her father was a state senator in the Michigan legislature. 

Titus Senior married Helen Harvey and my dad was born on August 2, 1929, in Three Rivers, Michigan.  From an early age, my father was referred to as “Junior” by my dad, and “Ty” by everyone else.  Ten weeks after his birth, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began.  In early 1932, my father’s brother, Jim, was born.

This is the earliest photo I have of my father - he’s standing in the middle in the light colored suit.  Note how skinny he was.  There’s a story behind that.  When my father and uncle were very young, their parents bitterly divorced.  In those days, the mother was automatically granted custody, so they went to live with my grandmother - where my father was forced to answer to the name "David".  I will confess to you, I never knew my grandmother very well - because after spending time with her during my youth, I decided to keep my distance.  She was a troubled woman who married five times.  I learned decades later that her mother died when giving birth to my grandmother and her father blamed her for her mother’s death – and she never grew up experiencing parental love.  She was unable to take adequate care of my father and uncle, and the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression.  The kids lived on onion sandwiches and were malnourished to the extent that they had sores on their skin.  And my grandmother and her new husband would beat them with an electric cord for the slightest infraction.  Eventually, their situation became so dire that my father secretly wrote and mailed a letter to my grandfather, begging for help.  My grandfather showed the letter to the judge, the court intervened, and my dad and uncle were sent to live with my grandfather and his second wife, Florence Cylka.  Flo was of Polish heritage, loved to cook and really knew how to do it.  My dad & Jim filled out from good nutrition and from working on my grandfather’s farm.  My dad applied himself in school - especially in mathematics and sports.  He graduated from Constantine High School, President of the class of 1947.

After graduating from high school, Dad entered Michigan State University and centered his studies on Civil Engineering and Architecture.  While there, he met Joanne Dewey and they married, resulting in a son, Robert.  Around that time, my father enlisted in the Navy and became a draftsman 2nd class.  He was stationed at the San Diego Naval Base.  The United States was involved in the Korean War at the time, but the Navy was impressed with my dad’s organizational skills and he remained in San Diego.  My dad, who loved ships all his life, was disappointed but applied himself to his duties.  By the time he was discharged he had been awarded the National Defense Service Medal.  It’s a testament to my father’s modesty that he never told me any of this.  Instead, he was fond of regaling me with stories going to the beach and bar hopping with his buddies.  One time, he and his best buddy got quite drunk.  On the way back to base, as my dad was dozing in the passenger seat, his buddy passed out behind the wheel.  The subsequent crash awakened my father from his slumber, and when he pulled himself out of the car, he thought he stepped into a puddle - his shoes were soaked through with his own blood and his knees bore the scars from that incident from the rest of his life.  It was during this period that my Uncle Jim snapped pictures at the beach where my father was a volunteer lifeguard.

By the time my dad had been discharged from the Navy and returned to Michigan, things were not working out between he and Joanne, and they divorced.  On November 22, 1956, Dad - now living in Cleveland - married my mother, Verna Pritchard Stevens, resulting in my sisters Verna (“Pixie”), Sarah, and me.  By that time, his brother Jim had moved out to Los Angeles and was working as a Hollywood extra

My father was badly shaken up when his brother died in 1976.  My Uncle Jim shot himself – an accidental death brought about by cleaning his gun while inebriated.  When my parents came home from Uncle Jim’s funeral, my father was a changed man. 

Whatever the merits of my father and my mother as individuals, the truth is that they were not well suited for each other – and at the deepest level, whatever their love for each other, they never truly understood each other.  When my father was in my parents’ basement, building ship models, playing trumpet, or lifting weights,he was giving expression to his creative and physical energies - rather than venting his frustration as my mother often said.  And there were times my father, a stoic, was relatively uncommunicative.  But the sounds of my parents’ arguments still ring in my ears, and their marriage formally ended in 1980.

I’m not going to belabor the particulars of my parents’ divorce.  Those of us in the family have discussed it in private and have our various opinions, although we all agree my mother’s situation was tragic almost from birth.  But let me make it plain that my father’s marriage to Hiede has proven itself through time - it has been a happy, enduring, and productive partnership.  Truly, the third time is the charm.  Hiede took excellent care of my father, in health and sickness.  She knew when to give him focus, and when to give him his own space.  What I think most people don’t grasp about my father is that he was a tremendously creative person (as are all the Drake men I’ve known), and creative people sometimes need their own space.  That creativity lives on in their son, Sean - born in 1982.  

One thing I will always admire about my father is his adaptability.  When he was laid off from his job in 1983 - after working with that company for many years - he didn’t pout, he didn’t sulk.  He got involved in a new industry called cellular communications and traveled the country putting up cell towers.  Twenty years later, at an age when most of us would be long retired, he designed an ecologically sensitive, carbon neutral house in Hawaii.  From the time he graduated college, my father’s work emphasized the principles of structural integrity, clean lines, and holistic layout – whether he was designing a corporate headquarters, a home, or a highway exit.  His standards were very high, he refused to compromise on safety, and he once told me how an argument between he and a bean-counter nearly descended into fisticuffs.  Dad was working on his final masterpiece, the renovation of his own home in Half Moon Bay, when his health began to decline in 2010 – first due to a heart attack, then from an aortic valve replacement from which he never fully recovered.  The project remained unfinished when he died.  

Dad was a conservative and a traditionalist.  But he was flexible enough to accept his gay son’s partner with open arms.  In fact, he was nicer in his first meeting with Daniel than he was with his two future sons-in-law when he met them!  He also had a temper in his younger years which we learned not to cross.  But age mellowed him.  My father, like his brother, enjoyed the occasional tipple.  But there were two differences: my father knew his limits, Jim did not; and when Jim drank, he could become bitter and nasty, my father simply became more convivial.  One of my fondest memories of my dad was when I surprised him for his 80th birthday in 2009.  While Hiede was out of town working, we grilled hamburgers, mixed some very potent drinks, and swapped stories which, frankly, are not repeatable here.  There was a lot of laughter that night.

Dad believed in productivity, in doing something with your talents.  I hope all who knew and loved him will remember and take heed from that.  So while we mourn his passing, we should also celebrate all he was, and live life to the fullest.  Ty Drake lives on in the work he did, and the memories and love he leaves.

Monday, April 4, 2016