Sunday, October 23, 2016

Wang and Hrůša at Severance

The Cleveland Orchestra performed a varied program with guest conductor Jakub Hrůša and pianist Yuja Wang this weekend. 

The concert began with Bohuslav Martinů’s Parables, a triptych with which I was unfamiliar. The programmatic work was presented with a mix of orchestral color and a picturesque quality that befitted the 1958 piece. One would never guess the Orchestra was presenting the work for the first time given the technical finish and ease with this they performed the piece.  

After a brief break during which the stage extension with the Hamburg Steinway piano and supplementary percussion was raised, Yuja Wang strode on stage to begin the Bartók Piano Concerto No. 1. I am only passingly familiar with this, the least popular of Bartók’s three piano concertos. While I cannot provide a detailed analysis, I can relate that Wang’s interpretation and delivery were more convincing than Vladimir Ashkenazy’s recording. For one thing, Wang was able to play with an appropriately percussive sound without lapsing into an unpleasant and unmusical sonority. It’s rare when a work such as this brings the audience to its feet, but Wang and the orchestra pulled it off. The audience, from which nary a cough was heard, was rewarded with two encores: Arrangements of Mozart’s Turkish March and Gluck’s Melodie from Orfeo ed Euridice.

Wang has come under criticism in some circles both for her musicianship and the haute couture she wears during her performances. I can report that last night she wore a dazzling yet tasteful black sequined dress. As for the other criticism, I have heard nothing from Wang – either last night or in her recordings – to support the snide remarks made by some critics and on some Internet chat boards. After decades observing and participating in the Classical scene, I can dismiss them as the typical mix of jealousy and pedantry that are part of the cause of the decline in Classical audiences.  (The criticism of Lang Lang, however, is justified owing the musical hash he makes of nearly everything he plays.) 

Wang has appeared in Zsolt Bognár’s interview series, Living the Classical Life, and I am delighted to present the interview below: 

The Brahms Fourth is one of my five “desert island” Symphonies. (The other four, in no particular order, are Mozart’s “Jupiter”, Beethoven’s Seventh, Schubert’s “Great” C major, and Rachmaninoff’s Second.) In terms of musical architecture, Brahms’ E minor Symphony is probably the most perfect work in that genre of the post-Beethoven era. The opening movement’s themes and motifs are developed in a totally organic manner; it is one of the rare symphonic opening movements without an introduction (Brahms composed and discarded one early on). Leonard Bernstein analyzed the many wonders of this movement far better than I could. The finale’s passacaglia is an homage to Bach but delivered in a Brahmsian manner. 

Sadly, Hrůša chose a rather lethargic tempo for the opening Allegro non troppo, and from there gave in to the urge to slow down and brood over individual passages. The second movement, a moderate Andante, was paced appropriately but suffered from limp phrasing and a lack of dynamic contrast. The Scherzo came off best, with the triangle passages a bit more prominently heard than usual – or perhaps it was the acoustics of Severance Hall’s row W, where we sat. The finale, like the opening movement, is best heard in a fairly straight line – it’s essentially a headlong slow-motion descent into Hell. Hrůša started off well, but midway started alternating between the accelerator and the brake so the sense of inevitability was disrupted. In the end, Brahms’ greatest symphony, which reconciles the Classic and Romantic traditions, was gently ruined by Hrůša’s essentially immature conception.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Trump and accusations of rigging

By now, you’ve heard it in the media repeated ad infinitum, ad absurdum: Hillary/the Media/the Democrats are rigging the 2016 election.  It’s a common enough election year mantra.  I remember a conversation with my father, about ten years ago, in which he stated that Truman’s 1948 upset victory over Dewey was rigged.  He went on the say it was accomplished by fraudulent voting in Chicago and Texas - and it was then that I first realized my dad, approaching 80 at the time, was mentally losing it.  It was not the 1948 election, but the 1960 election, conspiracy buffs claim, that was rigged by Richard Daley’s machine in Chicago and Lyndon Johnson in Texas – all greased with money by Joe Kennedy.  These allegations have never been proven.

It’s worth pointing out that, of the billion or so votes cast in the United States since 2000, there have only been 31 proven cases of fraudulent votes – a statistically insignificant number.  Voter suppression, on the other hand, is very real, and likely had a role in George W. Bush’s victory in Florida that year.   While those allegations also remain unproven, there’s far more evidence for tomfoolery in Florida in 2000 than anywhere in 1960.

In fact, it is nearly impossible to rig a national election in the United States, because, simply put, there is no such thing as a national election here.  True, there are Presidential elections – but those are 50 state elections (territories like the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, of course, don’t have a vote in Presidential elections – although they do in party primaries) which happen to have Electors for Presidents on the ballot.  It is certainly possible to rig a state election – and it’s entirely possible that Jeb Bush helped rig Florida for his brother in 2000.  But if Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida vote for Hillary Clinton on November 8, it’s not evidence of rigging – as the electoral boards in all three states are controlled by Republicans.  On the other hand, if those states vote for Trump in the face of polls which indicate a lead for Clinton, further investigation is warranted.

Monday, October 10, 2016

2016 Election Endorsements

Early voting in Ohio begins tomorrow.  No matter which candidates one supports, I encourage all who are eligible to vote to make their voice heard.  Here are our endorsements.  


For President - Hillary Rodham Clinton

Hillary Clinton earned the nomination of the Democratic Party after a grueling primary battle with Bernie Sanders.  The Vermont Senator, who is not a party member but caucuses with the Democrats, has endorsed Clinton and strenuously advocated for her election.  Others have touted Clinton’s lengthy and distinguished resume of public service, dating back to 1970 when she investigated illegal segregation in private schools in the South (for which a number of Southerners have never forgiven her).  Although Clinton’s CV bears repeating – First Lady of Arkansas, First Lady of the United States, Senator, Secretary of State – it’s also worth remembering that a list of previous employment is not a guarantee of excellence.  George H. W. Bush was probably the most experienced person in history to enter the office of the Presidency, but he was a fair-to-middling President.

Clinton has come under criticism for changing her positions on issues.  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.  It’s worth remembering that Hoover labeled Franklin D. Roosevelt a “chameleon on plaid” for changing positions (often 180º) on how to turn the economy around.  Altering positions on issues goes beyond politically expedient flexibility.  Examining Senator Clinton’s evolving viewpoints it becomes obvious that she has 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, and the next president will likely nominate at least two Supreme Court Justices.  Contrary to those who deride her as “$hillary” and a corporate candidate, Clinton’s record over the past four plus decades shows her consistently fighting for the downtrodden: minorities seeking education in the South, education improvement in Arkansas, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, aid for 9/11 rescue workers.  Like any politician, Clinton has made her share of mistakes.  The worst of these was her vote to authorize use of force in Iraq – a vote which she has acknowledged as a mistake.  The difference between her and Donald Trump can be centered on their response to this issue: Trump also favored the war in Iraq.  But while Clinton has owned up to her mistake, Trump has laughably denied he was ever for the Iraq war, even though there are recordings of him doing endorsing it. 

Trump’s campaign has revealed his own personal history of corruption, tax evasion, attempted bribery of government officials, kowtowing to dictators, racism, religious bigotry, womanizing on a scale that makes Bill Clinton look like a rank amateur, and most disturbingly, allegations of rape of an underage girl.  That his supporters are willing to ignore these very real concerns is a sad commentary on the racism and xenophobia in the hearts of many Americans.  Hillary Clinton has come under attack for her comments that many of Trump’s supporters are a “basket of deplorables”.  But, like Senator Barack Obama’s comment about certain voters “clinging to guns and religion”, it was a hard truth that should not have been walked back. 

Two other nominees have received some attention, as fewer Americans identify with either Democrats or Republicans: Libertarian Gary Johnson, former Governor of New Mexico who has been out of office since 2003; and the Green Party’s Jill Stein, a physician, folk musician, and activist who has never held elected office and garnered .4% of the vote in 2012 and unsuccessfully ran for various offices in Massachusetts five times.  I sympathize with those who want an alternative to the two major parties. But let's take a look at history. The most successful 3rd party candidate in history was Teddy Roosevelt, who ran as part of the Progressive "Bull Moose" party and won 27.4% of the popular vote back in 1912 - coming in a distant second to Woodrow Wilson.  Roosevelt had previously served as President and enjoyed widespread popularity.  If a popular former President like Teddy Roosevelt can't mount a successful 3rd party run, it's delusional for anyone to think that someone who is unknown to much of the public can.  (By the way, the Progressive party’s 1912 platform called for a minimum wage, 8 hour workday, social insurance {i.e., Social Security}, farm relief, and increased rights for labor unions. It took Teddy's distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt - a Democrat - to put those ideas into action in the 1930s.)

Building a credible 3rd party is something that must be done from the ground up. That's one of the lessons of 1912. Also, don't drive a ship at full speed through iceberg infested waters - but I digress. 
Of the alternative candidates, Johnson has received unusually large support owing to Trump’s continued offensive statements and Johnson’s call for decriminalization for marijuana – the latter of which I happen to support. However, he has no experience in either national or foreign affairs, as his bafflement over Aleppo and other foreign policy matters painfully demonstrates.  Although I supported William Weld for governor of Massachusetts in 1990 (his opponent, John Silber, was downright fascistic), his presence on the Libertarian party ticket does not compensate Gary Johnson’s unsuitability for the Presidency.  Jill Stein, the Green party candidate, is a non-starter nominee of a non-starter party and is the kind of candidate who gives leftist politics a bad name. 

Therefore, on the basis of experience, policy positions, and the ability to remain steady in a crisis, we enthusiastically endorse Hillary Clinton for President.   

United States Senator – Ohio: No endorsement

Commentators have tried to paint Senator Rob Portman as a moderate Republican on account of his support for same sex marriage.  In fact, Portman only supported marriage equality after his own son came out as gay.  Otherwise, Portman’s record is undistinguishable from the most conservative Republicans.  His refusal to allow President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee - Merrick Garland - to even be voted upon, along with his continued opposition to background checks for gun purchasers demonstrate that he is unworthy to continue serving as Ohio’s Senator.

His opponent, Ted Strickland, is hardly any worthier.  For months, he was unable to come up with a credible explanation for his weak performance as Ohio’s governor – when the answer was right in front of him – the state was in the midst of an international economic crash.  He’s a “Johnny come lately” to sensible gun control.  As I predicted when I posted my primary endorsements, Democrats have selected the establishment’s weak candidate rather than the lesser known strong candidate.  It’s my hope that P. G. Sittenfeld, a young and promising public servant, will seek a Senate seat again.  For this cycle, we are not offering an endorsement.

United States Representative, 11th District – Marcia Fudge

Marcia Fudge stepped in at the last moment to chair this year’s Democratic Convention, replacing the controversial Debbie Wasserman Schultz.  That she did so with poise and grace, despite disruptive behavior from those in and out of the party, are testament to how Fudge has become a seasoned parliamentarian in the eight years since she replaced Stephanie Tubbs-Jones after the latter passed away.   Further, Fudge’s policy positions and votes are in concert with the vast majority of her constituents, so she is an accurate representation of her district.  We endorse Fudge’s reelection.


For State House, 8th District:  Kent Smith.  Smith, a Democrat in an overwhelmingly Republican house, has fought the good fight against Corporate Personhood, in favor of protecting Lake Erie, advancing Clean Energy, and challenging the Kasich Administrations fiscal stranglehold over municipalities.  Smith deserves to be reelected.

South Euclid

Issue 101, Property Tax Safety Levy: I supported issue 65, the initial safety levy, in 2013, and we support its replacement and increase.  South Euclid safety forces have done an excellent job in protecting our community from both fires and crime – with none of the embarrassing behavior that has marred Cleveland’s Safety Forces.  As overall tax revenues are still suffering from the real estate crash and the Great Recession, continuing and increasing the levy (which will only cost another $7.25 per month for every $100,000 of property value) is a no-brainer.

Issue 102, Corporate Personhood: The Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizen United case has led to the increasing monetization and commercialization of politics.  Case in point: a reality TV star is the Republican nominee.  Issue 102 is mainly symbolic, but it puts the citizens of South Euclid on record as opposing Corporate Personhood – and we support its passage.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Beethoven and Respighi at Severance

Saturday night’s concert with the Cleveland Orchestra led by Franz Welser-Möst offered an unusual program that will linger in the mind’s ear for a long  time to come.

Saturday night’s concert was preceded by a brief tribute to recently retired principle viola Robert Vernon, who offered his modest, soft spoken thanks.

The concert began with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F major, the shortest – and arguably, lightest – of his nine symphonies. Welser-Möst’s approach was a model of interpretative rectitude.  The performance was a model of structural clarity, well-gauged tempos, sensible phrasing, and the balance between sections one expects from the Clevelanders. 

I was a bit surprised that the Beethoven was immediately followed by the intermission.  This meant that all three works in Respighi’s Roman triptych (Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome, and Roman Festivals) were played back to back, adding to a second half that lasted well over an hour.  But far from being overlong, time flew during the second half of the program.

Respighi pulled out all the stops in his orchestration of these works – particularly Festivals which included organ and off-stage brass.  Since the dawn of stereo recording, Respighi’s Roman poems have often been used as “hi-fi” spectaculars.  Some recordings, notably Maazel’s recordings of Festivals and Pines with the Cleveland Orchestra, have succeeded better than most.   But hearing the works in concert brought to light the limitations of even the finest recordings: none can match the huge dynamic range of the orchestra – from the gossamer pianissimo string arpeggios at the beginning of Fountains (a passage which James Horner adapted in his score for Star Trek III) to the nearly deafening final pages of Festivals and Pines.  Even the finest playback equipment is subject to distortion in the louder sections.  But while Welser-Möst pushed the orchestra to the limits at the end of Festivals, the sound remained pure and balanced – every strand of orchestration was heard in proper proportion.  Throughout the triptych, Welser-Möst’s tempos were well judged – they were not merely suited for each individual portrait, but also within the context of the whole work - and his use of rubato was unerring.  Welser-Möst was particularly masterful in the coda of Festivals, where there is a tricky accelerando that most conductors are unable to convincingly execute.

Welser-Möst has been Cleveland’s musical director for nearly a decade and a half now.  If anyone had told me in 2002 that Welser-Möst would lead the orchestra in thrilling performances of Respighi’s most famous works, I wouldn’t have believed it.  His predecessor, Christoph von Dohnányi, would have turned his kapellmeister’s nose up at such stuff.  For those who have deigned to conduct the Respighi, the temptation has been to rattle through them as showpieces and nothing more.  Welser-Möst demonstrated that there was more to this music than mere bluster, while sacrificing nothing in visceral excitement.  For that, he deserves the audience’s thanks – and I believe Respighi, who conducted the Cleveland Orchestra in the 1920s, would have been appreciative as well.    

Friday, October 7, 2016

My review of Murray Perahia's new Deutsche Grammophon recording

Murray Perahia has jumped the Sony ship and is now recording exclusively for Deutsche Grammophon.  The first project is dedicated to J. S. Bach's French Suites.  Lovely performance and recording.  Click here to read my review.   

Saturday, October 1, 2016

My review of Emil Gilels' complete RCA & Columbia recordings

Sony has reissued their complete RCA and Columbia recordings of Emil Gilels.  This collection is a must for pianophiles.  Click here to read my review.