Monday, November 28, 2016

Zweden and Trifonov at Severance

This weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts featured guest conductor Jaap van Zweden and pianist Daniil Trifonov.  Given how the hall was nearly sold out and the parking garage was filled an hour before the concert began, it's no exaggeration to state that this was the hottest ticket in town.

The concert began with Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia de Requiem.  The work was commissioned by the Japanese Government in 1940, in celebration of the 2600th anniversary of the founding of their empire.  Ultimately, the Japanese rejected the work (although Britten was still paid) on the grounds that the titles of the movements – Lacrymosa, Dies Irae, Requiem aeternam – were too Christian in character for Japan.    Given that the Japanese Empire was already engaging in atrocities against Manchuria, including cannibalism, the use of chemical weapons, and the wholesale slaughter of civilians, it’s probably for the best that Britten’s work was premiered in Carnegie Hall.

Last weekend was only the second time the Cleveland Orchestra had programmed the piece – the first was in 1976.  The movements are bound together, although it’s easy enough to determine where one ends and the other begins as there are no cross movement thematic references.  Despite many interesting passages – particularly in the Dies Irae – the piece lacks the dramatic line that carries the listener from beginning to end.

Mozart’s A Major Piano Concerto, K. 488 followed, with pianist Daniil Trifonov.  The work is one of Mozart’s most popular in that form.  Trifonov has a Cleveland connection, having lived here while studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music with Sergei Babayan.  On that basis alone, I’d love to be able to give the performance a rave review.  But I can’t honestly do that.   The opening movement, a lyrically cheerful Allegro, was devoid of inflection, rubato, and color.  It was as drab and as plain as could be.  Further, there were several right-hand passages that were blurred and tentative sounding – this was also an issue in the Finale.  The slow movement, an Adagio in F-sharp Minor (the only time Mozart used that as a home key) was taken at a tempo that could almost have been a Larghetto or even a Lento – so that the movement took the character of a funeral dirge in 6/8 time.  As with most slow movements of his piano concertos, Mozart did not fully write out the piano part, expecting pianists to improvise their own filler passages.  Trifonov played only the inscribed notes, except for a brief flourish nine bars before the end – which I realized was copied from Horowitz’s version.  The Finale, an Allegro assai, was reasonably brisk but – as with the rest of the concerto – played at a disappointingly small scale.  This was Rococo, porcelain doll Mozart - a cautious conservatory rendition, designed to offend as few as possible – but fated to fade in memory after a brief time.  The audience, however, leapt to its feet as of Trifonov had just slaughtered the piano in the Rachmaninoff Third – including a woman two seats away from me who talked with her husband through much of the Britten.  I can only surmise that the audience was packed with Trifonov’s fans who were apt to suspend judgement for “their boy” – certainly there were many unfamiliar faces that night.  Zweden kept the orchestra in time with the pianist. 

The second half of the concert was devoted to Beethoven’s ubiquitous Fifth Symphony.  Probably the most well-known orchestral work in the repertoire, Beethoven’s Fifth has one characteristic in common with Britten’s Sinfonia de Requiem: the joining of movements – although in Beethoven’s case only the Third and Fourth Movements are joined – to the best of my knowledge the first time that had ever been done in a Symphony by a major composer.  Zweden, whose tempos were well judged (although the Finale was a bit overly fast), paid careful attention to balances, observed all the repeats, made striking use of dynamics, and brought the work to a thrilling conclusion.

The concert was nearly sold out.  Perhaps that was a factor in the constant coughing we heard – particularly throughout the Mozart – the worst such cacophony of audience eruptions I’ve heard at Severance.  

Monday, November 21, 2016

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Reflections on Election 2016

It’s part of human nature.  You lose, or your team loses, or your candidate loses, or your party loses – followed by a period of (self) recrimination.

No doubt, the pending Electoral confirmation of Donald Trump is a harbinger of Presidential stupidity not seen since the days of George W. Bush, and malfeasance in office that could exceed that of Richard Nixon.  But the country survived eight years of Bush, five and a half years of Nixon, and it will survive four years (possibly less) of Trump. 

It is not the end of the world as we know it, but it’s going to be a rough ride.

However this is painted by the blogosphere and the media, 2016 was not a rout of the Democratic Party.  Democrats gained at least six seats (four remain undecided) in the House of Representatives, and two in the Senate.  And Hillary Clinton, as you may have heard, earned the highest number of votes, despite narrowly losing the Electoral College.

But there are anomalies in the Presidential race which demand further scrutiny.   In 2009, Barack Obama rammed an auto-industry bailout package through Congress which saved Michigan’s economy – not just for the Big Three automakers but for the vendors who serve them, everything from auto parts to food for their cafeterias to toilet paper.  If blue collar Michiganders indeed voted for Trump it would be the most striking example of political ingratitude since voters sat home and allowed Republicans to take over Congress in 1946.  But given the Putin government’s repeated attempts to hack into our nation’s computers – both public and private – and the obvious collusion between the Russians and Wikileaks, a sudden spasm of ingratitude from Michiganders seems less likely.  Will our government investigate this, and if merited call the Russians out on their behavior? Unlikely.  That would jeopardize world stability – which Putin knows we are loathe to do.    

The 1946 reference above is hardly random.  Americans, after enduring the Great Depression and World War II, were enjoying a strong economy, plentiful jobs, the reuniting of loved ones, and the beginning of families – a normalcy not seen since the 1920s.  The demand for new housing was such that there was a shortage as suburban development proceeded at a breakneck pace.  But the American people have a short memory – relatively minor issues like inflation were irritants and a series of strikes caused a backlash among conservative voters who began to fear a middle-class that had it “too easy” and was becoming too “uppity”.    As for the middle class, many were too busy enjoying the “easy life” which, for them, meant a regular job, food on the table, a decent home, a car – along with saving a little for the future.  President Truman’s program, called the Fair Deal, was intended to build on the gains made under the New Deal.  But Truman’s actions on their behalf were not enough to drive middle class voters to defend their gains, leading to the low turnout elections of 1946. 

Does any of the above sound familiar?  In 2008, the economy was in tailspin.  Only quick action by Presidents Bush (in a rare moment of poise and competence) and Obama prevented a second Great Depression.  In 2008 the United States was mired in two wars: Afghanistan and the misbegotten war in Iraq.  Obama began to immediately move upon taking office on getting the economy moving again, reducing unemployment, pulling our troops out of harm’s way, and locating and killing Osama Bin Laden.  He also began work on reforming Health Care, a task which has confronted Presidents since Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House.  The Affordable Care Act, while far from perfect, has resulted in 20 million Americans obtaining Health Insurance.  But the lobbyists for Health Care Insurers, along with the NRA, are two formidable forces in American politics, and they – along with Dick Armey’s AstroTurf Tea Party – were able to collectively throw the House and Senate to the Republicans – along with enough Governorships to Gerrymander House districts. 

After the 1946 elections, Harry Truman was worse than a lame duck – politically he was considered a dead duck and was widely expected not to seek reelection.  But persevered through 1946’s election losses and gained reelection in 1948 by focusing on issues that mattered to ordinary Americans and by ceaselessly pointing out how the “good for nothing” 80th Congress was working against their interests.  In the process, he also helped return the Democrats to majorities in the House and Senate.

Today’s Democrats, too, will recover from the 2016 election and regain the White House - if they learn Truman’s lesson.  The Democrats must return to their roots as a people’s party, which means, at a minimum, that there must be a house cleaning in which corporate types like Debbie Wasserman Schultz no longer have influence beyond her own Congressional District.  Further, the party should pursue Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy which was the blueprint for President Obama’s victory in 2008.  Big money donations, as this year has shown, are not enough to win election.  Neither are strategic firewalls.  In every district of every state, Democrats should declare rhetorical war on the 115th Congress, which stands poised to become the most anti-people Congress since the 80th.   Democracy is like a rubber band: whenever a politician or party pulls too far to one side – as the Republicans are now likely to do – the people snap it back.  Finally, Democrats must seek and nominate someone who will motivate supporters – no matter that person’s gender, ethnicity, or religion.  As much as I like Hillary Clinton, she was not someone who inspired the deepest level of motivation or loyalty among ordinary Americans – particularly independents.  She has served her country well since the 1970s, but it’s now time for her to retire.   The same is true for Ohio Democrats.  The Governor's race is in 2018.  It's time to move past relics like Ted Strickland and find a younger candidate with solid credentials who will appeal to voters.  

We have work to do.   

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

2016 Election Fallout

Those who voted for Trump, those who voted for useless 3rd party candidates, and those who sat home will deserve exactly what they get. The rest of us will be victims of their folly.

Americans are going to be in for a painful awakening. Just as with B
rexit in the UK, when the American people grasp the implications of what they have wrought there are going to be clamors for a do-over. But there are no do-overs in the US. We're going to be stuck with The Donald, and his equally odious running mate, for the next four years.

My father was born and raised in Michigan. And though he was a lifelong Republican, two weeks before he died he told me he would never vote for Donald Trump if he was the GOP nominee.
It was President Obama's auto-bailout package, passed by a Democratic Congress, that saved America's Big Three auto manufacturers and not just their jobs, but those of their vendors as well.
As the son of a Michigander, I say that there is a special place in Hell for Michigan auto industry workers who voted for Donald Trump.
I would end this by saying "Go Buckeyes", but Ohio sucks pretty badly too.

I haven't felt so ashamed to be an Ohioan since 2004, when the anti-marriage equality amendment was passed.

Ohio was once known as an abolitionist state that sent a huge portion of its men into battle to preserve the Union, which was the stomping ground for two young brothers who dared to fly, which proudly elected John Glenn and Howard Metzenbaum to the Senate.

But that Ohio is dead. Cleveland and Columbus are the last holdouts.