Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 in Review

To put it mildly, 2017 was a challenging year.

Nationally, the most noteworthy event has been the inauguration and continual dysfunction of Donald J. Trump as President.  I will not waste space recounting every one of Trump’s lies, outrageous tweets, bad appointments, and bad decisions.  Trump is not worth my time, other than to say that by mid-February, my first thought upon awakening was commonly “What stupid thing did Trump do overnight?”  I’ve since found the best way for me to cope with the stress of a dangerously demented President is to adapt an air of detached bemusement – and occasionally fire off brazen tweets which, surprisingly, have not gotten me blocked. 

I have had more than enough to deal with otherwise.

I slammed into my 50s with an almost simultaneous diagnosis of high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and an inguinal hernia.  Surprisingly, dealing with the hernia was considerably less complicated than the apnea: I was diagnosed, surgery was scheduled, performed, and I recovered.  Sleep apnea was first suspected by my doctor in February.  It was not until June that I was able to undertake a sleep study, another month to get the results, then a dental consultation in October, fitting for an oral appliance in November, which I finally received in December.   And American politicians have the gall to warn about the dangers of universal healthcare by trotting out waiting times in the UK and Canada!  Of course, none of these politicians have ever had to deal with private health insurers or providers.

Prepped for the sleep study

2017 marked nine years since Dan & I bought our home in South Euclid.  On the home front, we only undertook one project this year – a new fence.  2018 will bring a small expansion – a small mud room leading to the back door.   There was a time, mostly 2009-2011, when I worried moving here was a mistake.  But 2017 saw continued evidence of a renaissance in our city.  The newly rebuilt shopping center and Mayfield and Green Road opened to 100% capacity and brisk business – so much so that the parking lot had to be expanded.  This is on top of Oakwood Commons and the newly renovated Cedar Center North - both of which are well filled and busy. 

2017 is also the year South Euclid city council began work on a new, comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance.  City Council, for the most part, have courageously stood up to the bullying tactics being carried out by the local Catholic Church – including an outrageous web posting I previously blogged about.  I am hopeful the ordinance will be passed in early 2018.

2017 was not all gloom & doom, nor hell-fire and brimstone.  Dan & I enjoyed our first ever cruise in March, and had a brief but eventful visit to LasVegas in September.  We have tentatively signed on for another cruise in 2018.

And there will be other events on which to report.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

An Open Letter to South Euclid City Council

The following is a slightly modified version of an email I sent to South Euclid's City Council:

Last night, while perusing Facebook, I was confronted by one of the most offensive, distorted political screeds I’ve ever seen

As someone with whom I’ve spoken before, I know you’re too intelligent to fall for this nonsense.   

The article (which, of course, shows no specific author) claims that Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people and their advocates are bullying people of faith into accepting LGBT people.  Excuse me?  Is there an epidemic of LGBT people beating up on Catholics, on Protestants, Jews, Muslims, or members of any faith?  Was Matthew Shepherd killed because of his faith?  The article goes on to claim that members of the LGBT community and those who advocate for equality are in favor of a “demonic gender ideology” that stems from a “deadly impulse” and “ideological colonialism.” 

Then there’s the image at the top of their page.   It was obviously included to inflame rather than to illuminate.  Does this look like anyone you know in South Euclid?  It shouldn’t, because the picture itself was taken in New York City.  For someone to use a photo from a New York event (where people tend to go over the top) as an example of life here in South Euclid is profoundly dishonest.  If you want to see a typical South Euclid couple, I invite you to look at the most recent issue of South Euclid magazine (image attached).  Standing next to Councilman Marty Gelfand are my husband Daniel and myself. My husband is originally from Puerto Rico and works as a medical technologist at a South Euclid facility.  I grew up in South Euclid and Lyndhurst, graduated from Brush High School in 1985, and have worked at Progressive Insurance for the past 13 years.  Both Daniel and I are productive, taxpaying residents of South Euclid.  I am pointing out these facts, which you probably already know, for the following reason:

At the October 9th Council meeting, a contingent of people spoke against passage of Ordinance 12-17.  The Sun Messenger reporter gave a cursory rundown of the event.  I attended both the Council and Committee of the Whole meetings.  I carefully noted where these people stated they were from and with which group they were associated.  Nearly every person who spoke against the Ordinance was either tied to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church or to the Lyceum school, which is located on the church’s property.  Many of the speakers were not South Euclid residents/taxpayers – from as far away as North Royalton, Newberry Township, and Concord.  In other words, this was a carefully coordinated flash-mob intended to sway council into believing that they represent the majority.  I doubt a true South Euclid majority, or even a majority of religious people would agree with them.  Indeed, I spoke with several Catholic members of my family, and they were appalled to learn of this group’s action. 

I spoke briefly at the council meeting, abandoning my prepared remarks and speaking from the heart.  As the time for commenting at council meetings is limited, I’d like to address a few of the other comments point by point (my responses are underlined):

Someone at the Committee of the Whole meeting brought up the case concerning the cake baking facility currently before the Supreme Court – in which the bakery is being sued for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple’s wedding.   If the Court rules in favor of the couple, then the law will already be on the books in South Euclid and can be enforced.  If the court rules in favor of the bakery, then that portion of the law will simply not apply.  However, if the Ordinance is not passed and the Court rules in favor of the couple, then Council will have to go back to the drawing board and address that in a future Ordinance.

Luke Macik stated that religious organizations need to be free to hire/reject applicants based on religious principles.   Ordinance 12-17 has an exemption for religious organizations.

Mark Langley stated that the Ordinance is unnecessary because there is no evidence of anti-LGBT discrimination in South Euclid.  Do we need to wait until someone is killed by a drunk driver to outlaw driving while intoxicated?

Jeanette Flood of Lakewood stated the Ordinance was telling businesses who they could hire.  The Ordinance does not tell people who they can hire.  It merely states that employers cannot discriminate based on certain criteria, as does the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which has been upheld numerous times by the United States Supreme Court.

Molly Monaco stated she was fearful that perverts would use the Ordinance as cover to enter public bathrooms/changing rooms and prey on children.  No one in South Euclid’s LGBT community wants children to be placed in danger.  But let’s be realistic.  Child endangerment is against the law and will remain so if the Ordinance is passed.  Other communities have passed similar Ordinances with no increase in the type of incidents Ms. Monaco imagines.  It is well known that those who prey on children are most often members or friends of the child’s family.  Does Ms. Monaco, or any of the others who raised this issue, really believe that Transgender people have gone to the trouble and expense of hormones, multiple surgeries, dealing with the bureaucracy to have their identity forms updated, not to mention the emotional trauma of telling their families – all for the thrill of using another restroom?  All to prey on children?  That’s a hurtful insult to my Transgender friends.  

Michael Rodriguez of Newberry Township stated the law is not necessary as Ohio is an Employee at Will state in which someone can be hired or fired at any time.  While Ohio is an Employee at Will state, if a fired or non-hired Employee can prove in a court of law that they were discriminated against due to their race, religion, or several other criteria, they are entitled to recompense.  South Euclid should add Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity to that criteria.

Christy Raynor of Lyndhurst stated that if the Ordinance is passed people would move out of South Euclid, as people have already moved to West Geauga.  Here is where I put my cards on the table.  Ms. Raynor is correct that certain people have left South Euclid for West Geauga – as well as Lake County.  We all know why these people moved: Because over the past three decades South Euclid has become more diverse and there are those who are uncomfortable with ethnic, religious, and other forms of diversity.  Frankly, if these are the types of people who panic when an African-American or other minority family moves next door, then South Euclid is better off without those who’ve abandoned our community.  Good riddance.

Martin Joyce of North Royalton stated that Catholic Christians have certain religious tenets they must follow and that passage of the Ordinance will prevent them from honoring those tenets.  Throughout history, religion has been used to justify the most egregious behavior, from slavery, to sexual exploitation, to genocide.  Even today, there are “honor killings” in which a family member can be killed for trying to make their own religious choice, for refusing to be sold into marriage, or for being gay.  In several nations, being gay is a “death penalty” offense – including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Nigeria.  Freedom of religion does not give one the right to break the just laws of this country or this community – and there are already adequate exemptions in the Ordinance.

The article to which I have linked, as well as other articles that can be found online, including one from a group called “C-Fam” that compared LGBT people to NAZI’s, are examples of how low some people will stoop to prevent another group of people from obtaining their just rights. 

I hope you will see through the smokescreen this group is trying to create, and support Ordinance 12-17.

Respectfully Yours,

Hank Drake

This is not a South Euclid gay couple

This is. 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Star Trek The Motion Picture - reconsidered

I vividly recall the first time I saw Star Trek The Motion Picture.  I was twelve years old and had been anticipating the movie literally for years – ever since I’d heard that a new Trek television series was in the making and saw the first set construction photos and conceptual drawings in Starlog magazine. But somehow, I’d never learned the premiere date.

In December of 1979, my parents were separated and my father had visitation rights that weekend.  (My parents’ divorce was an ordeal for the entire family, particularly me as I changed schools four times in one year – but that’s a story for another day.)  After picking me up, he asked where I wanted to go for dinner, and I chose Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips.  After we ordered, I saw a newspaper laying on a table and immediately looked through the movie listings.  Star Trek was advertised as being shown at the Richmond Theater (long since closed).  I begged my father to take us there and he, wanting eventual custody of me, was more than willing to indulge me.  I wolfed down my Fish & Chips and we headed to the theater.  The movie had already started and we arrived during the wormhole sequence – one of the most dazzling parts of the film, both visually and kinetically.  The auditorium was well filled and we sat near the back.  Several things about that first viewing remain most vivid: the hypnotizing visual effects of the Cloud sequence, the goosebumps I felt when Kirk intoned with astonishment, “Voyager Six!”, and my father complaining that “this film is so slow moving” during the V’ger flyover.  Incidentally, after the film, we waited in the theater to watch the beginning – which was and remains my favorite part: The Klingon sequence, Scotty showing Kirk around the Enterprise, and the ship’s launch seemed much more finished and better paced than the later sequences. 

I saw TMP (as it’s now abbreviated) a few more times during the initial theatrical run, usually dragging along a family member.  My mother didn’t like it at all – she was particularly offended by McCoy’s “capture God” remark – in retrospect I don’t think she understood what the notion behind the line, that “we all create God in our own image” - a line cut from the theatrical version.  More on that later.  And after my father remarried and moved his new wife, her kids and me to California, my stepbrother and I went to see TMP (double billed with Forbidden Planet) at the spectacular Laurel Theatre in San Carlos.  My stepbrother kept imitating Shatner’s over-delivered “Will you…please…sit down” line before falling asleep during, of course, the V’ger flyover.

Most of my new school mates echoed my father’s complaint.  One remarked that “They only fired one laser during the whole movie.”  (Of course, it was a photon torpedo which was actually fired, but I understood his meaning.)  Honestly, I don’t even remember that kid’s name, although I do remember that he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the lamp.  But he touched on one of the film’s weakest points: a lack of action – coupled with a lethargic pace and characters who mostly react to events and situations.  It’s only toward the end of the film, when Spock takes matters into his own hands and goes on a joyride spacewalk through V’ger’s innards, and later when Kirk bluffs the Ilia probe by ordering the bridge cleared, that we see the characters being their usual proactive selves.  Appropriately, Spock’s “V’ger is a child, I suggest we treat it as such” and Kirk’s outwitting the I’lia probe were plot points devised by Nimoy and Shatner to lead toward the film’s climax. 

I saw TMP several times on video as an adult, and got the widescreen theatrical version on Laserdisc when it was introduced.  Each version offered improved visual and audio quality.  But I would invariably watch the opening 45 minutes, and skip past much of the middle to get to the denouement.  My feelings for TMP remained mixed. 

On the positive side, this is the only Trek film that really made me feel like I was actually on a starship.  I spent hours thinking about the Enterprise – studying a cutaway poster showing where the Bridge, Captain’s quarters, Engineering, and the rest were located – and imagined myself walking her corridors.  My musings subconsciously revealed one of the film’s weaknesses: The Enterprise was the lead character in the film.  While I’ve always thought of the Enterprise as a vital part of Trek, it was never at the expense of the characters.  (It’s worth remembering that the most popular Trek film, 1986’s The Voyage Home, featured the crew using a stolen Klingon Bird of Prey “rust-bucket” and only briefly showed the new Enterprise at the end.)  I can understand why Leonard Nimoy, in particular, had a strong distaste for TMP – even though Spock’s character in the film undergoes an epiphany.

The Special Effects were, for the most part, spectacular.  Douglas Trumbull, who was recruited to rescue the effects work from a substandard firm brought on by Paramount’s numbers crunchers, obviously sweated the details.  The Enterprise has never looked better than she does in The Motion Picture – not even in subsequent Trek films.  The pearlescent paint scheme and use of complex patterns on the hull helped create a multidimensional look to the eight-foot model.  The lighting scheme for the Enterprise, which made use of reflections from dental mirrors, and the graceful way in which she moved, showed what was possible in model photography in the pre-CGI era.  And the use of tiny space-suited figures helps sell the size of the Enterprise, which in turn helps the viewer understand the immensity of V’ger.  True, there were occasional visible matte lines, particularly when the Enterprise or Klingon ships are shown in front of the V’ger Cloud – but they were not as noticeable on the relatively low contrast movie screen as they would be on television.  The intermixing patterns of the Cloud itself were mesmerizing (and, I later learned, created via multi-planed airbrushed artwork in a surprisingly simple method).  Much of the work is so dazzling that only on repeat viewing does one notice what’s missing – we never see the totality of V’ger itself.  What is visible of V’ger was created by John Dykstra, and stands as a triumph of the imagination.

Jerry Goldsmith’s score was justly nominated for an Oscar.  (The fact that the winner, Georges Delerue’s score for “A Little Romance” is now forgotten – as is the film – demonstrates that AMPAS is as tone deaf as it is predisposed against Science Fiction.)  With most of TMP’s sound effects work incomplete due to the tight post-production schedule, Goldsmith’s score literally carries several scenes.  Not only is Goldsmith’s score grand, it’s innovative, particularly the use of the Blaster Beam which, in a twist that could only happen in Hollywood, was created by Craig Huxley, who appeared in two Trek episodes as a child actor.  I still have the original LP, thoroughly scratched from the number of times I played it.  In nearly 40 years, I’ve only known one person to knowck TMP’s score: David Gerrold, who wrote The Trouble with Tribbles, called Goldsmith’s score “dreadful.”  This goes to show that there are indeed contemporary gay men who lack musical taste.

There’s been much fuss over TMP’s uniforms, which make use of muted colors - they admitedly look rather drab in the old standard definition transfers.  But the truth is most uniformed personnel don’t parade around in primary colors – most non-dress, duty uniforms are rather plain.  TMP’s utilitarian take on the uniforms is probably more realistic than those seen between The Wrath of Khan and First Contact.  The long and short sleeve variants of the shirt (or in naval parlance, blouse) are a nice updating of the series look – and the cast (with the exception of James Doohan) were still in good enough shape to pull the form fitting look off.  The only uniforms from TMP I didn’t like were the pajama-type one pieces.  They didn’t work in TMP and didn’t work in the first two seasons of The Next Generation.

But some things about TMP were just “off”.  Tonally, it didn’t feel “right”. 

The opening credits - stylized white text over a plain black background - were especially disappointing in light of the spectacular opening sequence from Superman one year prior.  Not a promising way to begin a film for which the tagline was “There is no comparison.”

The chemistry between the characters was mostly absent, save for a few moments during the last half hour.  There was an utter lack of humor – making an already serious film into a portentous one.  I’ve read that Shatner and Nimoy were both concerned about this, and asked director Robert Wise if they could improvise a few moments, which Wise could either use or not.  They were refused.  That was a big mistake on Wise’s part.

The ABC broadcast version

In 1983, ABC aired an expanded version of the film over two consecutive nights.  There were about 11 minutes of previously unseen footage, most of which, frankly was padding.  There was an embarrassing scene showing a horny Sulu being flustered by the sexually irresistible Deltan navigator, Ilia.  The V’ger flyover scenes, which were too long to begin with, were expanded with clunky dialog including “It could hold a crew of tens of thousands”, “Or a crew of a thousand ten miles tall.”  The most egregiously inept addition was an unfinished shot of Kirk in a spacesuit exiting the Enterprise airlock, clearly showing studio equipment and rafters where a matte painting should have been.  In addition, Shatner was wearing a different spacesuit than in later shots.  There were only a few added moments which were truly worthy – in particular a scene of Spock with a single tear running down his cheek, explaining he wept for V’ger as he would for a brother.  This version was released on VHS, and became a reference version for some fans – not me.

The Director’s Cut

After the release of the film, Robert Wise largely disavowed himself from Star Trek – complaining that in 40 years of making films, Trek was the only one where he didn’t have a sneak preview.  In the late 1990s, Wise was persuaded to re-watch the film, and became interested in putting together a properly completed version of the film.  Robert Wise’s director’s cut kept the best (mostly) of the footage from the 1983 TV version, ditched some needless exposition from the theatrical cut (“We’re out of it”, “The new screens held”), completed some visual sequences that weren’t ready in 1979, and made the sound mix a bit friendlier.  A number of the sequences were changed so subtly that the differences are only apparent with side-by-side comparison.  Some fans have criticized some of the sonic changes – particularly the removal of the robotic voice which endlessly and tiresomely intoned “malfunction” “Intruder Alert”, and “Emergency Alert – Negative Control at Helm” in the original cut – but I think these changes were to the good.  Truth is, professionals in a work environment do not need a computer telling them what’s wrong – they should be able to ascertain that on their own.  I do believe, however, that the use of sound effects from the original series and the crudely recreated red alert sound effect could have been done better. 

I think that, given the limitations of the script, the Director’s Cut mostly delivers the best experience of all the commercially available versions.  The grandeur of the theatrical cut is still there, but some of the grandiosity has been removed.

But I would make some additional changes:

First, the Overture should be dropped.  Pre-film overtures were already a rarity in 1979 and merely padded an extra three minutes of screen time onto an overly long film.  For anyone who wants to hear the music, it’s on CD.

There are tiny moments which could still be cut, which would subtly improve the film’s pacing.  For example, there is a moment during the wormhole sequence where it appears Shatner is waiting to receive his cue so he can say his line, “Time to impact” and there’s another bit where the ship lurches and Nichelle Nichols looks like she’s about to slap Stephen Collins’ butt – unintentionally funny.  There’s also a flipped shot of Shatner swiveling in his chair that should be corrected. 

Plus, there are some overacted moments, mostly from Shatner, that could be cut – particularly his almost laughable “I need him” during the officer’s lounge scene with. 

I would also reinsert one tiny but important moment that has only appeared in the ABC TV version: Decker’s all-important response to McCoy’s line: “Jim, V'ger is saying its Creator is a machine!”  Decker’s reply: “Of course, we all create God in our own image.”   It’s easy to see why this line was cut: it puts Roddenberry’s essentially atheistic philosophy front and center – and Paramount would not have wanted one line to jeopardize the box office of their most expensive film to date.  My mother would most certainly have been offended – although she was hardly a Trek fan.  But many true-blue Trek fans are religious – and generally Christian. 

But now, it appears that the theatrical version of The Motion Picture will remain the best known.  Paramount has issued the theatrical cut on blu-ray, and this is the version that’s available for streaming.   The revised visuals for Robert Wise’s director’s cut were rendered in standard definition – so that on modern 1080p TVs they appear ill-defined. 

I wish Paramount would put the money forward to allow the new effects sequences to be re-rendered in high definition and put it on blu-ray.  But as time marches on, that prospect seems increasingly unlikely.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

DJT vs. FDR's corpse

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Copland, Paulus, & Tchaikovsky at Severance

Giancarlo Guerrero returned to Severance Hall this weekend for a concert which mixed the familiar and unfamiliar.  Dan was out of town visiting family, so I was a solo attendee.  Owing to my continuing recovery from surgery, I was tempted to pass my ticket on to a friend – despite some discomfort, I’m glad I went.

The concert began with a work that has become not only familiar, but maligned by some as “Pops concert” material: Aaron Copland’s El Salon Mexico.  Guerrero eschewed garish colors in favor of an approach that balanced the work’s bracing rhythms with Copland’s skillful orchestration – each of the repeated chords toward the end of the piece was played with precisely the same tonal value – with each section sounding perfectly balanced from my seat in Row W.  In my estimation, the performance was far superior to Copland’s own recording.

The Norton Memorial Organ.

The unfamiliar consisted of Stephen Paulus’ Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra.  This weekend marked the first time the work, composed in 2004, had been presented at Severance.  Despite clearly being a work of the post-modern era, the Concerto is somewhat traditionally structured and resolutely tonal.   It’s always a pleasure to hear Severance Hall’s Norton Memorial Organ – the restoration of which was one of the key factors in Severance’s extensive renovation at the turn of the century.  This was especially the case last night, as Paul Jacobs’ performance was a hallmark of musical virtuosity, where thrilling technical acumen never distracted from the musical argument.  His physical demeanor during the performance was modest – focusing the audience’s attention on the auditory splendor of the music.  Well, with one exception: an extended section for foot pedals only, where the audience craned their necks to view Jacobs’ footwork.  Not that Jacobs was showing off, merely that his hands were placed on the bench while his feet did the work.  Guerrero was a cordial and sympathetic collaborator.  The crowd leaped to its feet for a standing ovation, and Jacobs was brought back for an encore: the Prelude from the Violin Partita in E major, BWV 1006 – presumably in Jacobs’ own arrangement.  I hope Mr. Jacobs’ is invited to Severance again.  Oerhaps the orchestra can be persuaded to present the Poulenc Concerto?

Following intermission the audience was treated to Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony – one of that composer’s most frequently abused works.  It’s all too common for conductors to tear the work’s structure into shreds for the sake of dramatic effect.  A certain former Musical Director of the Cleveland Orchestra was particularly guilty in this regard.  Not so Guerrero.   Every moment of the Symphony, from the opening brass fanfare to the final crashing coda was placed in context.  The performance lacked the sentimentality which is too often poured all over Tchaikovsky interpretation like chocolate syrup.  This is not to say the performance was lacking in emotion: Frank Rosenwein’s melting oboe solo in the second movement was particularly striking.  The third movement was a delight, as the string pizzicatos which dominate the movement were perfectly balanced, with beautifully gauged crescendos and decrescendos, and never sounded garish – which is too often the case. 

The concert was preceded by one of the finest pre-concert talks I’ve witnessed, “Fateful Encounters”, hosted by Meaghan Heinrich.  Her engaging presentation traced how Copland was able to capture the flavor of Mexican folk music, without blindly imitating it; how Paulus’s skillful orchestration melded the orchestra and organ; and the structural underpinnings of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.    Remarkably, she gave the entire presentation from memory.  I certainly hope to hear her again.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

My Hernia Experience

My doctor told me it was coming.  Back in February, as I prepared to cross the threshold of 50 years, my doctor performed my annual physical – which included the inevitable “turn your head and cough” test.  He mentioned that there was a weak spot and that I might develop a hernia within the next year.  I had already noticed that spending more than 30 minutes on the elliptical machine would lead to a bit of soreness that would generally pass after a day.  Then, around summer, the soreness began to linger for two days, then a week, then finally refused to subside.  So, last month, I scheduled an appointment with Doctor Carneval, a specialist who confirmed my suspicions, ordering a CAT scan to be sure: an inguinal hernia.  Surgery was required.  I was provided with a time and date for the procedure and instructions for preparation – no food for 12 hours before the procedure, no liquids for two hours before arrival. 

At 9:00AM Monday, November 13th, I arrived at Euclid Hospital for my first ever experience with surgery under general anesthesia.  Dan was kind enough to take the day off and acted as my chaperone.  Before I continue, I wish to point out that Euclid Hospital is a Cleveland Clinic facility and I was absolutely thrilled with their professionalism and commitment to quality from the first interaction to the last.  In fact, this has been the case with all of my interactions with Cleveland Clinic over the past year – which have been numerous.

After check-in, Dan & I headed to a pre-op room where I undressed and we chilled watching lame mid-morning TV while staff occasionally stopped by to get me ready – including one person who signed his name on my right hip to verify that the incision would be on the right side, a nurse who prepped my hand with the IV for the anesthetic, and finally the surgeon.  Prior to taking any action, each person asked me to verify my date of birth.  As a Quality Assurance Analyst whose motto is “Trust, but verify”, I appreciated this extra step.  One person asked about power of attorney and I advised that Daniel is my husband and has full authority to “pull my plug” if it comes to that.  Finally I was wheeled to the operating room, noting the cliché of seeing the overhead corridor lights rush by in cinema hospital scenes.  After I arrived in the room, which was painted in white, I noted that in the old days operating rooms were colored “easy-eye Green” because it was the photonegative of blood red, and thought to relieve surgeons’ eyes.  When I’m nervous, I tend to babble, and we chatted for another moment.  Then all was suddenly black and I was being told the operation was over and vaguely felt a breathing tube being removed from my throat.  I have no memory of going under.  None the “count back from 20” one sees in hospital TV shows.  One moment I was being prepped, the next, it was all over.

I was wheeled into recovery and I groggily asked the nurse what time it was.  2:00pm.  I felt no pain.  There was little sensation at all, and I found myself unable to scratch my nose – I could lift my hands only about an inch off the mattress.  The nurse advised me to breathe deeply to help flush the anesthesia out of my system – and I raised my eyes to look at the monitor and see if I was taking in as much air as she wanted.  I saw another nurse walk by with a Mr. Coffee style container and complain that someone burned the coffee.  My response, “What, Cleveland Clinic is too cheap to buy you a Keurig?” drew laughter from the nurses. 

I normally have a reliable internal clock, and it seemed like I spent about 20 minutes in recovery.  In fact, I was there for two hours.  Then I was wheeled into another post-op room where Dan was allowed to join me.  By now, it was dark outside and the ward was emptying out.    The check-out nurse provided me with two prescriptions: Hydrocodone, for the pain, and a laxative to counteract side-effects from the Hydrocodone.  Then she asked, “Are you in any pain?  Do you need a Percocet?”  I replied that a Percocet seemed like a good idea.  Then she said to me, winking, “you’re a pretty big guy, I’ll give you two.”   This was most helpful, as we soon discovered our local CVS was encountering a computer issue and was unable to fill my prescription for several hours. 

Dan drove me home slowly, being careful to avoid the numerous potholes on East 185th Street.  The rest of the evening was a Percocet haze, but I vaguely remember deciding to sleep on the recliner rather than in bed – which I continued to do peacefully for the next nine days.

Tuesday, the pain was excruciating, despite the Hydrocodone.  I found myself needing to take the maximum dose (one every six hours), which I generally avoid due to addiction problems in my family.  Still, there was intense soreness when sitting still, with a hot stabbing pain when I stood or sat.  I eventually learned to alleviate this by using my arms to push myself up from a chair or as a brace when sitting down.  Wednesday was a bit less intense, which left me able to move about a bit more and take a  much needed shower.  It was during this time that I also noticed some major bruising in the incision area.  The bruises seemed to migrate over the following week, with one appearing on my right love handle, several inches from the incision.  (During my follow up appointment on Tuesday the 21st, Doctor Carneval advised this was a normal occurrence.)

By Friday, I had a serious case of cabin fever and, with some difficulty, I got into my CR-V  for a short drive to the post office and CVS.  I was out of the house for no more than an hour but it was quite refreshing.  Over the weekend, I ramped up my activity: Saturday, Dan & I went to World Market and to see the Cleveland Orchestra – but I had to leave the concert at intermission as the swelling had made my dress trousers uncomfortably snug.  Sunday, we braved the crowds at Costco and went out for a late lunch.

On Monday, I returned to work – silently thanking Progressive for their casual dress code as I walked around with my shirt untucked.  The following day, I saw the doctor for the follow up where I was given a timeline to return to unrestricted activities.  As of this morning, I am no longer taking meds and mostly pain free.   

Friday, November 17, 2017

Paul Badura-Skoda plays Schubert

I've been stuck at home recovering from hernia surgery (about which I will write later), which has given me time to catch up on listening to new acquisitions to my CD collection.  Here's my latest review, of Sony's reissue of Paul Badura-Skoda's Schubert cycle. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Ashkenazy and Ax at Severance

This weekend saw the return of two artists with whom I’m separately familiar.  In December of 1990, I saw Vladimir Ashkenazy in recital in Boston.  Around the same time, I saw Emanuel Ax in recital.  But this weekend marked the first time I’d seen them perform together, and my first time seeing Ashkenazy as conductor.  In addition to their joint performance in Cleveland this weekend, both will be featured in separate interviews on Zsolt Bognár's Living the Classical Life, which were taped earlier this week. 

Dan and I like to get to Severance Hall early so we can settle into our seats well before the starting time.  A few members of the orchestra were already on stage, including Ashkenazy himself, who was animatedly conversing with one of the violists.  It must have been an amusing conversation as both were smiling and laughing.  Ashkenazy’s combination of rock solid musical credentials, willingness to work hard, yet always maintaining a pleasant and warm demeanor is no doubt part of the reasons he’s not only one of the most successful musicians in Classical music, but one of the most highly regarded, personally.  The conductor returned backstage as the hall began to fill, the lights dimmed, and the orchestra tuned.

Ashkenazy strode on stage with a brisk yet easy gait that belied his 80 years, and the program began with Edward Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, Op. 20 – a work with which I am largely unfamiliar.  From the first notes, Ashkenazy’s unobtrusive mastery in conducting was apparent.  He carefully balanced each section of the orchestra (the string section was reduced) so that each strand of music was transparent.  In particular, the long lined melody of the central Larghetto movement unfolded beautifully.

As part of the orchestra’s 100th anniversary season, management has decided to occasionally use decades-old program notes in their books.  This weekend’s book featured notes about Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto by George H. L. Smith from 1941 – with a disclaimer that these notes represented standard musical opinion back in the day.  Audiences who heard Sergei Rachmaninoff perform this concerto (the first time it was presented at Severance) read these very notes.  Reading them I was astonished how much musical opinion in the United States has advanced.  The notes claim, among other things, that Beethoven’s first two piano concertos are devoid of original ideas and are merely Beethoven’s recreations of the a musical form perfected by Mozart.  This is simply tosh.  The terseness of Beethoven’s musical ideas, his orchestration, the way the rhythmic motif dominates the entire opening movement are entirely Beethovenian – and the virtuosity of his piano writing goes beyond anything Mozart ever dreamed of.   

Emanuel Ax was soloist in the concerto, and he brought the virtuosic spirit of the young Beethoven to the work, but also a sense of scale that was appropriate to the period.  Witnessing Ax’s rendition of the first movement cadenza, it was easy to imagine how Viennese audiences were set on their ears by the young Beethoven’s playing.  Yet the performance wasn’t all about Ax, and the spirit of communicativeness and sense of joy in making music with the conductor and orchestra were ever present.  One can tell that Ashkenazy and Ax genuinely enjoy performing together. 

Ax gifted the audience with an encore, Schubert's A-flat major Impromptu D. 935, No. 2, in a feathery performance, sans repeats.

Following intermission, the audience was treated to an ideal rendition of Elgar’s Enigma Variations.  Despite the work’s relative popularity, this is the first time I’d heard it in concert.  From the first bars, it was apparent that Ashkenazy was determined to avoid the pitfalls heard in too many European recordings of this work, which tend to sound soggy and foggy.  As with the Serenade, each section was transparently balanced.   As is well known, each Variation on Elgar’s original theme is based upon someone in his life, from his wife, to his best friend, to a neighbor’s bulldog.  In the score, each variation is headed with a name or set of initials, which has allowed researchers to determine which Variation belongs to whom – except in the case of the 13th variation, which is headed by “***”, and probably was written in memory of an early amour.  The recipient of each Variation is beautifully characterized.  But what’s most interesting to me is that the most moving variation is reserved not for Elgar’s early love or even his wife, but for his best friend.  The “Nimrod” Variation, which is often used for funerals and other state events in Britain, has become as well known on its own as the 18th Variation of Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody.  It occurred to me that the Variation is more than a portrait of a friend, but a meditation on Platonic friendship, which is a kind of love in and of itself.  Last night’s rendition marked only second time in my life that I’ve been moved to tears by a concert.

Emotional connection.  That’s what music making is all about.  

Friday, October 20, 2017

Rudolf Serkin's complete Columbia recordings

Sony has reissued Rudolf Serkin's complete recordings for Columbia, at 75 CDs quite a substantial box.  I listened to every one of them while writing my review, which can be accessed by clicking here.  

Sunday, October 1, 2017

A study in contrasts: Beethoven and Stravinsky at Severance

In a previous post I complained that the Cleveland Orchestra’s programming this season was reminiscent of a trip to Applebee’s.  One may argue whether or not the food is actually tasty, but one cannot claim that it’s adventurous.  The irony in my comment is that I plan on attending more Cleveland  Orchestra concerts this season than ever before.  Perhaps there is something to be said for the tried and the true. 

Last week, the season began with a revival of 2014’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen, which the orchestra will also be bringing to Europe later this month.  It was a highly imaginative staging of a challenging and relatively lesser known opera – and it was a delight to see it again. 

This week, the orchestra presented a program of two highly contrasting works: Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132 and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

I vividly recall the first time I heard Beethoven’s Op. 132.  It began, like a few other musical stories, in my grandmother’s basement.  I found a box of old, mostly Classical records – including 78rpm records and early LPs.  One of those was a Columbia Masterworks mono LP of the Budapest String Quartet playing this very piece.  As I’d already heard the more popular symphonies, concertos, and piano sonatas (in particular the “Appassionata”, about which I was obsessed), I had certain expectations – which were promptly defied.  If, in the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven shouts to the audience, in the A minor Quartet, we hear his most secret and intimate thoughts.  One of Beethoven’s last works, the Quartet was composed in the aftermath of a serious illness during which Beethoven expected to die.  But he recovered and lived for another year and a half.  The work begins with a brief introduction which borders on the atonal before settling into the key of A minor – but not for long, as the exposition features many abrupt starts, stops, and modulations.  The heart of the work is the central movement, titled "Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to a Diety".  There is something about this movement in which Beethoven leaves the physical world behind and enters the metaphysical.  I’m left wondering if the composer had a near-death experience.  The final movement is one almost unrelenting despair until Beethoven modulates to A major and ends the work on a hopeful note.  Franz Welser-Möst’s arrangement for string orchestra essentially recreated the work in larger form, with the discreet addition of double-basses occasionally reinforcing the cello line - one octave lower.   Even with the larger orchestra, the work’s intimacy emerged intact.  The performance was exemplary with the exception for a violin solo at the end of the brief fourth movement – which notably broke the mood of the piece. 

Following the intermission was Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  If there were any musings about the irony of performing the Rite of Spring at the beginning of Autumn, they were quickly cast aside.  There is often the temptation in this piece to go the “sonic spectacular” route and let the brass and percussion drown out the other instruments.  Not this time.  Welser-Möst, which used the 1947 version of the score, brought forth many lines, particularly in the strings, which are often inaudible.  The opening Introduction and Augers of Spring had a sensual quality, as if one was awakening refreshed and stretching after a long nap – the woodwind playing was especially notable here.  Welser-Möst guided the orchestra with a sense of inevitability through the Spring Rounds to the Dance of the Earth – never allowing sheer speed to replace propulsive drive.  The mystery of the opening minutes of The Sacrifice was shattered by Glorification of the Chosen One, with the Sacrificial Dance unleashing the orchestra’s full savagery.   Often noted for its refinement, our hometown band can get plenty loud when required – but it was balanced loudness, without the distorted amplification that Dan & I were subjected to at Ricky Martin’s Las Vegas concert a few weeks ago.  The audience leapt to its feet in a sustained and enthusiastic ovation, cheering as individual sections were singled out.    

The audience was graced with an encore: the Good Friday music from Wagner’s Parsifal. I hope there will be more encores during the Cleveland Orchestra’s centennial season.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Cleveland Music - at the Happy Dog

I happened upon this wonderful two-LP album at Half Price Books.  Click here to read my review.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

65 hours in Las Vegas

Dan & I recently returned from a quick visit to Las Vegas.  For both of us, it was our first time there. 

I have long believed, and continue to do so, that the key to success in any trip lies in adequate preparation.  Planning ahead and researching the options of any particular place allows the traveler the freedom to enjoy the unexpected pleasantries and be prepared for the unexpected pitfalls.  Once Dan & I had made the decision to visit Las Vegas, I got to work researching hotels, airlines, restaurants, and other things to do – of which there are a bewildering series of options. 

I have a strong preference for non-stop flying – even if it involves reasonably increased expense.  Imagine my delight when I learned Frontier Airlines offers modestly priced non-stop flights to Las Vegas.  Initially, I had some trepidation about trying, for me, an untested airline.  Well, I can report that Dan & I were delighted with every aspect of our Frontier experience.  Just be prepared, as Frontier is a no-frills airline that gets you there, but perks are extra.  We minimized costs by packing the necessities for our brief trip in one bag, which we checked.  We also allowed ourselves one personal item – a backpack that fit easily underneath a seat and did not incur extra cost.   The day before our flight I checked in, found that Frontier’s website is user friendly and easy to navigate, selected our seats (at modest additional cost), and even printed out boarding passes.  Frontier’s counter at Hopkins Airport is next to Spirit’s, another budget carrier with a very different track record.  While our check in with Frontier was stress free, there was a line of angry customers at the Spirit counter, whose flight had been cancelled.  We also noted numerous Spirit cancellations in Vegas.

The contrast between Frontier and United, which we flew for our return trip, was stark.  Originally founded in 1994, Frontier has the feel of a young, dynamic, growing company.  They understand where the travel market is going and have adjusted accordingly.  The aircraft we took, an Airbus 321, was just delivered six months ago and although the seats did not recline and Wi-Fi was not offered, we enjoyed the flight and I was able to listen to pre-loaded music on my Kindle.  By contrast, United is an oversized dinosaur which can barely move under its own weight, with planes that appear to have seen better days.  And with United having withdrawn from Cleveland, their lack of non-stop flights to the places I want to go is quickly making them irrelevant.  Our stop in Chicago reminded me of why I loathe O’Hare airport.

Based on the location, amenities, and the intersection of price and value, we chose to stay at the Aria hotel.  Completed in 2009, the Aria is truly a 21st Century hotel.  Lights, television, air conditioning, and even draperies are controlled by a dedicated, in-room iPad.  We chose a Strip View room, on what is billed as the 53rd Floor (actually the 43rd, as there are no 40-49th floors listed owing to Chinese superstition), and enjoyed the night sights without being bothered by the night sounds. 

The view from our room - day and night.

There were too many restaurants at the Aria for more than a small sampling.  Naturally, we tried the buffet, which has quite a selection for breakfast.  We also breakfasted at the Aria Café which was good, but not extraordinary and hardly worth the price.  Julian Serrano’s Tapas restaurant, on the other hand, took us into another world of bold, unusual and unexpected flavors. 

While out walking the Strip, we also visited our first In-N-Out burger, and were both left wondering what all the fuss is about.  Certainly In-N-Out is superior to McDonald’s, Five Guys, and Wendy’s but it’s simply not All That.  The fries were mediocre and easily bested by Rally’s/Checker’s.  The milkshakes, however, were quite good.

Las Vegas has experienced explosive growth over the past few decades.  Comparing photos from then to now reminds of me of James Earl Jones’ line in Field of Dreams about America being “erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again.”  What were once two lane roads had to be expanded to the point that pedestrians were in danger.  So the city built a series of elevated street crossings.  Further, the crossings include 10 foot barriers with Plexiglas on top to prevent suicide jumps – a reasonable precaution in a city where many lose their life’s savings at casinos. Neither Dan nor I gamble.  But we did walk through several casinos and noted the blank, beaten look on the faces of many there – some who appeared to arrive early in the morning and remain late at night.  Walking the Strip, we saw the quiet desperation on the faces of many, while scantily clad foreign young women were ready to literally handcuff male passersby and coerce them into getting their photograph taken for a fee.  What must it be like for a young person to come to this country in search of freedom, only to find herself locked into a life of virtual or actual prostitution and exploitation?    

Spending our entire trip within a few blocks’ radius would have driven us bonkers.  So Dan & I took a day trip to Hoover Dam.  Over 80 years old, it remains an engineering marvel. The size and scale of the dam and support structures is overwhelming.  And despite recent criticism about the environmental impact, Hoover Dam has literally made large scale human occupation of the area possible – not just by water management but by providing electric power to Nevada, Arizona, and parts of Southern California.  It’s no exaggeration to say that without Hoover Dam, Las Vegas would still be a sleepy town with one gas station and a few small casinos; a desert stop on the way elsewhere, not a destination.

The catalyst for our trip was Ricky Martin’s concert at the Park Theatre.  But it turned out to be the low point.  We were expecting at least a semblance of artistic performance.  Instead we were subjected to a display of self-glorification, narcissism, and pure ego compounded by auditory assault.  The totally calculated, phony performance began, of course, with Livin’ la Vida Loca, preceded by an old video clip of Martin lounging in his underwear in a sleazy hotel room, along with a flash of bare buttocks which sent the audience, largely female and gay male, into a frenzy.   Epileptic inducing lighting effects and overwhelming amplification – out of proportion to the venue’s size – only served to beat the audience into submission as they experienced the musical equivalent of rape.  Appropriately, one of the songs started with the sound of an air-raid siren.  As a nod to Vegas, the audience was “treated” to a terrible rendition of Luck Be a Lady Tonight – which would have had Frank Sinatra (who was capable of being a perceptive, sensitive musician when he chose) spinning in his grave.  Many in the audience, who appeared uninterested in the music, occupied themselves by screaming, shrieking (including one insufferable tart behind me) or mentally masturbating to Martin’s gyrations or those of his dancers.  Equally amusing but also annoying was Martin’s attempt to curry favor with the women in the audience by feigning interest in female stage performers – along with the occasional bone thrown to the many gay males there as when he felt the abs of a male dancer.  All the above was a transparent attempt to distract from the lack of new songs, musical substance, or actual vocal technique.  Martin’s voice, which was never great but once acceptable, has coarsened to the extent that he would be eliminated in the first round of The Voice or any equivalent talent show.   The streak of dishonesty which ran through the production was hardly surprising given how long it took Martin to come out of the closet.  Lest the reader believe the above merely constitutes the ramblings of a disgruntled classical music aficionado, there were numerous others who left before the concert was over – including my Puerto Rican husband. 

Dan & I had to recover from the Ricky Martin fiasco.  There are a number of gay clubs in Las Vegas, from the sleazy to the snobby, but we chose to head to the low-key, friendly Bastille – which has the look and vibe of Cheers.  It was a quietly pleasant way to pass our last night in Vegas. 

Despite the brevity of our visit, we were happy to return home.  There truly is no place like it.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Blossom and baseball

Daniel and I had an eventful weekend which included a Cleveland Orchestra concert at Blossom on Saturday and a Cleveland Indians game on Sunday. Baseball and classical music have little in common, but this weekend was an exception: the baseball game was essentially over by the end of the second inning; and we could have left Blossom at intermission and been none the poorer. As major league baseball is amply covered by the mass media, I’ll skip that and concentrate on the concert. 

Violinist Augustin Hadelich joined guest conductor Cristian Macelaru and the orchestra for the opening work on the program, Dvořák’s Violin Concerto. I’d never heard Hadelich before, either in concert or in recordings. He has a lovely, sweet tone, and moreover, one which projects to the back rows without becoming harsh – hardly an easy accomplishment at Blossom. Further, Hadelich has an absolutely secure technique that was put to the service of the music – he overcame each obstacle with ease and nailed each treacherously high note spot-on. Tempos were well chosen, rubati were expressive but never obtrusive, and the work's lyricism was meltingly conveyed. Macelaru and the orchestra provided a fine accompaniment. 

 A few thoughts about Dvořák’s Violin Concerto: it’s exceptionally well written for the instrument. It’s one thing to be able to create compelling musical thought – as Beethoven did in his violin concerto. It’s another thing to be able to translate that thought into musical notation which is suited for the chosen instrument – an area where Beethoven fell short but where Dvořák succeeds. Dvořák was an apt violinist himself, so the quality of the instrumental writing is no surprise. But what’s most interesting is that, despite his own skills, Dvořák sought out the advice of Joseph Joachim – the finest violinist of his day – who suggested revisions to the solo part and the orchestration, which Dvořák adopted. 

 The performance was warmly received and Hadelich gifted the audience with an encore that brought the shell down: Paganini’s 24th caprice, a cornucopia of violinistic virtuosity. 

Holst’s The Planets, so popular it could almost be considered Crossover, followed intermission. To be honest, the chance to hear The Planets in concert was my main reason for buying tickets. But the performance was disappointing on many levels. In all the years of attending Cleveland Orchestra concerts – at Blossom, at Severance, and on the road – I’ve never heard more fluffs from the brass section (temperature may have been a factor as the evening was rather cool). The work’s fortissimo sections were not merely loud but noisy – with all that implies. Balances between sections were off throughout. The contrasts one hears in this works’ best renditions was lacking – never once did I hear the orchestra play a true pianissimo. This spoiled two movements: The Winged Messenger of Mercury was curiously heavy footed; and Neptune’s choral ending, which is supposed to be subtle enough that the audience isn’t sure if the work is over, ended with a sudden cutoff and lacked all mystery. I know the orchestra is capable of better than this, so primary blame rests with Macelaru. He should not be invited to return.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Maryla Jonas Story

Sony Classical has just released their complete recordings by pianist Maryla Jonas.  Click here to read my review.