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.




Sunday, July 30, 2017

Severance and Blossom: One Weekend, Two Concerts

This weekend, I was able to attend two concerts with The Cleveland Orchestra: one at Severance Hall, one at Blossom Music Center – with two superb young French pianists and two highly contrasting conductors.

Friday’s concert was at Severance Hall, as part of their Summers@Severance series – one hour concerts with no intermission which begin at 7:00 pm. 

Bertrand Chamayou was featured in Scriabin’s rarely played Piano Concerto.  Although I’ve heard the recording of this work by Vladimir Ashkenazy, this was the first time I’d attended a live performance.  Seeing the pianist play, as well as hearing the work, was most enlightening as to why this concerto is so seldom performed.  The work has as many notes per square inch as any of Rachmaninoff’s Concertos, it must be a beast to perform – yet it has little of the “sizzle” one hears in Rachmaninoff’s or even Chopin’s concertos.  Chamayou’s performance was startling in its soulful poetry and in its balance – two qualities which are too often seen as opposing virtues.  The orchestra under Susanna Mälkki provided an accompaniment which was superb in every way.  By the way, Chamayou used the Hamburg Steinway – and seldom has it sounded better.

After a brief pause where the piano was removed from the stage and the orchestra reseated, Mälkki returned for Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony.  This is a problematic work: the lovely themes are barely supported by an orchestration that’s not top flight and structure that’s not always certain.  Mälkki stuck to the original orchestration, but balanced the orchestra’s sections so that it sounded clearer than usual – Severance’s acoustics were a help, at least from my vantage point two-thirds of the way back on the main floor.  She also chose just the right tempo for each movement.  As for conducting style, Mälkki was a model of economy and precision.

Saturday evening, Daniel and I made the journey to Blossom.  We left rather early as it has been our usual custom to stop at the Burger King on State Road for a quick snack – the food at Blossom is grossly overpriced ($14 for a hamburger, $5 for a small bottled water).   We were blessed with seats in section 24, just left of center with an excellent view of the orchestra – both visually and sonically.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C minor, K. 491, is easily his most advanced work in that form.  Although composed in 1786, it’s truly a 19th Century work – and a precursor of Beethoven’s later concertos.  The outer movements are highly chromatic – in fact, the opening movement’s primary theme uses all twelve notes of the chromatic scale.  The outer movements are almost unrelentingly turbulent, while the central movement is one of Mozart’s most tranquil.

I’d never heard of David Fray before this concert, but he delivered a performance which was large scaled, dynamic and passionate – yet balanced and tasteful.   He chose the right tempo for each movement, in particular the central Larghetto which didn’t drag.  Mozart did not leave a cadenza for this concerto, and the cadenza Fray used was unfamiliar to me.  It may well have been by Fray himself, as it fit well with his conception of the piece.  The orchestra under guest conductor Vasily Petrenko furnished an appropriately large-scaled accompaniment.

Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, which followed intermission, was another matter.  The Second Symphony is among my five favorite works in that genre (the others are Mozart’s 41st, Beethoven’s 7th, Schubert’s 9th, and Brahms’ 4th).  Of all these favorites, the Rachmaninoff needs a firm hand and balanced mind to bring the work off – a conductor who can both follow the score and see beyond it.

So it distressed me to hear a performance from Petrenko in which tempos were all over the place – the conductor yielded to smell the daisies at every opportunity – and sluggish overall.  Petrenkos tendency to purchase effects and the expense of the whole resulted in a symphony which was robbed of overall continuity.  The balances between sections were also not of the quality one usually hears from the Cleveland Orchestra – although solo contributions by Peter Otto on violin and Daniel McKelway on Clarinet were technically superlative and appropriately soulful.   Petrenko’s rather balletic and grandiose podium manner was in marked contrast to Mälkki’s. 

Friday, July 28, 2017

Ania Dorfmann, charm and poetry

Sony has reissued pianist Ania Dorfmann's complete recordings for RCA Victor.  Many of these recordings are receiving their first release since the 78RPM era, and a few have never been issued before in any form.  Click here to read my review.


Friday, June 23, 2017

John Browning – A Cosmopolitan American Pianist

Sony has reissued their complete RCA and Columbia recordings by pianist John Browning.  A good number of these recordings are being issued for the first time on CD, and some for the first time in any format.  Click here to read my full review.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Fleeing the Tonal Center, at Severance

Concertgoers were treated to an unusual and challenging program at Severance this past weekend, in which well-known music commingled with the lesser known, and with the all but unknown.

Standard practice is to place the best known piece of music at the end, a measure calculated to keep butts in seats until the end of the concert.  This practice was reversed.  The opening work was Beethoven’s Piano  Concerto in G major – my own favorite of the Beethoven Concertos.  The soloist was Murray Perahia, whose recorded cycle of Beethoven concertos with Bernard Haitink is as close to a reference set as can be attained in such oft-recorded works.  His rendition with the Cleveland Orchestra on Saturday night was on the same exalted level, although many details differed from the recorded version – evidence that Perahia’s conception of the music continues to evolve and that final, definitive versions of such variegated works are impossible.  The opening chords to the work were especially rapt and concentrated – despite a bit of noise caused by a late arriving audience member.  One of the shifts in Perahia’s interpretation is that he now emphasizes the rhythmic underpinnings of the first movement over the right-hand filigree, so that the structure of the work emerges with more clarity than before.  This may be disappointing to those who prefer the “sizzle” of rapid runs and double-trills, but it fit the generally broader conception of the piece which reached its zenith during the expansively played cadenza (Beethoven’s own, with a bit of octave doubling that reminded me of Busoni’s version).  The audience was moved enough to offer a bit of spontaneous, in-between-movement applause. The rapt slow movement was truly a dialogue which led seamlessly to the balletic finale.  Franz Welser-Möst and the orchestra provided a simpatico and symphonic accompaniment.  

I noted that a portion of the audience which left the hall at intermission did not return afterwards.  The loss was theirs, for the remainder of the concert was a demonstration of just what this orchestra is capable of.  One of Welser-Möst’s underappreciated talents is for bringing cohesiveness to music which is not often easily followed – bringing order to seeming chaos.  I witnessed it several years ago when he led the orchestra in a riveting performance of Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy.  Such was the case in the even more challenging Transfigured Night of Arnold Schoenberg.   Welser-Möst kept the tempo moving and the balances transparent, and listening to this work – a purely musical retelling of infidelity and forgiveness – I was struck by a metaphor for the tonal center in music.  The tonal center, or the home key, is like a piece of salt-water taffy.  In Beethoven’s G major Concerto it’s stretched only slightly.   In the Schoenberg it was stretched to the absolute limit without being broken.  But in the final work of the program, Edgard Varèse’s Amériques, the tonal center was obliterated within the first few measures.  The work depicts the chaos of life in New York circa 1920, from the vantage point of someone who grew up in a small town in France.  But to portray this chaos, it took perfect control and balance, which were provided by Welser-Möst and the orchestra, augmented with so many extra players that the stage seemed crammed with performers and equipment.  Though what remained of the audience was likely shattered by the cacophony, they recalled the conductor to the stage several times and cheered when he singled out individual sections for recognition. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

My Review of Schnabel's RCA Victor Recordings

Sony has issued Artur Schnabel's complete RCA Victor recordings in a two CD set.  Click here to read my review. 


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Pelléas and Mélisande at Severance

In 1935, Artur Rodzinski led the Cleveland Orchestra and singers in a staged production of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, a work which earned the composer a rebuke in his native Russia and which was condemned as “pornophony” by the New York Sun.  Rodzinski’s performances were the American premiere of the opera, putting Cleveland and its orchestra on the cultural map – and marked not just the highlight of the 1934-1935 season, but of Rodzinski’s ten years in Cleveland.  By the time Rodzinski’s tenure with the orchestra ended in 1943, the Cleveland Orchestra was firmly in place as one of the America’s Big Five orchestras – along with the Philadelphia Orchestra (considered by Rachmaninoff to be the world’s finest), the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, and Chicago Symphony. 

Staging an opera - any opera - was a bold move on Rodzinski’s part.  Severance Hall, undisputedly one of the world’s most beautiful concert halls, is also rather small.  Its seating capacity is about 2,000 – against 2,804 at Carnegie Hall and 2,738 at David Geffen Hall.  The stage extensions needed for an opera cut into the available seating.  Fewer seats means fewer tickets sold, which means less money for what is inevitably an expensive production. 

It has been said that art thrives on limitation.  This has certainly proved true in Cleveland.  In 2014, Franz Welser-Most led the orchestra and singers in a creatively staged production of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen – the highlight of that season, which was so popular that it will be repeated next season.  I am confident that the staged performances of Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande will be remembered as the primary event of the 2016-2017 season – the “point” that Rachmaninoff spoke of in music, from which everything builds up and recedes. 

Pelléas and Mélisande is not an easy opera to love.  It lacks the spectacle of Wagner’s Ring, the high-note arias of Verdi, the lasciviousness of Richard Strauss’ Salome, the bubbly delight of many of Mozart’s operas.  It doesn’t even have a memorable “tune”.  Instead, the action is largely subjective, the characters are internalized, the music largely relies on texture, sonority, and subtle patterns. 


The staging for this production, by Yuval Sharon, was outstanding and challenging.  The centerpiece, elevated above the main stage, was a large glass structure which made use of lighting effects, fog, CGI projections, electrochromic glass, along with performers to bring the visual aspects of the work to life.  The singers were dressed in simple costumes and remained largely still, while the physical performers in the glass structure largely delineated the stage action – both physical and sub-textual.  It was highly effective, but there were drawbacks.  Between the orchestra, the singers, the glass box, and the supertitles, there were times when the action was hard to follow.  I found it most effective to keep my eyes on the booth, while glancing at the supertitles, and ignoring the orchestra (after all, I see them quite often).  I would even go so far as to say that the singers’ costumes were not necessary. In all, it was a remarkable performance where staging, singing, orchestral playing, and overall convention merged into a compelling whole.

I mentioned above that art thrives on limitations.  That’s why I am perplexed that the powers-that-be at the orchestra have decided against staging Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde at Severance next season.  Tristan could be staged inexpensively, with the use of lights and projections to help set the mood, at far less cost than Vixen and Pelléas were.


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Cruising at 50


20 years ago, as I was about to cross the threshold of 30 years, I was in a fretful mood.  My hair was falling out, defying my desperate attempts to mask the loss.  My career was going nowhere.  I had no steady relationship.  Then, one day as I drove home from my retail job, I began to think of friends who had died before they reached 30, and told myself “Drake, quit crabbing – you’re luckier than they are.”

And so, I carried on, recently turning 50 - a rather momentous occasion in a person’s life.  Again, I thought of those who had not made it as far as I: my maternal grandfather, an alcoholic with one kidney who died at 47; of President Kennedy, murdered in his limousine as he rode beside his wife; his brother Robert, who died in a similar fashion.  So, I consider myself lucky to have reached 50, and felt it was cause for celebration beyond the usual birthday cake.  For Dan’s 40th birthday, we travelled to London.  This time, I decided to do something neither of us had done before: we went on a cruise.  Narrowing our search to a rather modest cruise, we landed on a California Coastal Cruise from Princess Cruises.  This had the added advantage of being able to show Dan a bit of California, where he’d never been before.

To reduce the risk of missing our cruise due to airport weather, we flew to San Francisco a day early – in fact, I turned 50 while airborne.  Our flight (United, which offers the only non-stop from Cleveland to SFO) arrived right on time.  Taking BART from the airport to the Embarcadero, I was reminded of how friendly San Franciscans are – everyone seemed to be smiling. 

I’ve wanted to visit the Hyatt Regency since seeing it in 1979’s Time After Time.  Our check in there was not scheduled until 4pm, but when I showed up at 11am to drop off our bags, we received our room key at no extra charge.  Then, after glancing at my driver’s license, the clerk wished me a happy birthday, excused himself for a moment, and returned with a $25 gift card for their café.  Our 16th floor room was gorgeous, with a firm king sized bed, large TV, and balcony with a view of the bay. 


But the last thing I would want to do in San Francisco is vegetate in a hotel room.  Despite the rain, Dan & I did quite a bit of sightseeing – although our walk was less ambitious than a tour I’d mapped out on Google.  Still, I was able to show Dan several familiar sights, including the infamous “double dumb ass on you” intersection from Star Trek IV and Macondray Lane – the inspiration for Barbary Lane from Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series.  Dan was amazed by the steep hills, and by the time we returned to the Hyatt, our legs were shaking.  As afternoon approached evening, we took the excellent public transportation to The Castro, where we would later meet up with my brother and his girlfriend.  The Castro is known as San Francisco’s main LGBT neighborhood – although like in many cities, the community has spread out over recent decades.  But even if gays don’t live in the Castro, this is where they go to play and meetup with friends.  


Dan & I browsed around the area until my brother showed up to take us on a whirlwind tour of the city and dinner at Hot Spud – which specializes in baked potatoes, followed by dessert at Powder Shaved Snow.  There are few in my family who I feel so relaxed and comfortable with as my brother, and it was a pleasure seeing him again.

The next morning, we had a leisurely walk through the Embarcadero to our ship, waiting in Pier 27.  The boarding process was handled efficiently and soon enough we were checked into our stateroom and sailing under the Golden Gate bridge.

Courtesy of cruisedeckplans.com

 Cruising is quite different than depicted on The Love Boat, which featured an all-American, mostly Caucasian cast.  As the British Captain, Ronald Wilson, noted during departure festivities, both crew and passengers were exceptionally diverse, originating from 48 and 33 countries, respectively.  Captain Wilson pointedly commented that the crew works together in “perfect peace and harmony” – something the outside world could learn from.  They certainly seemed to enjoy each other’s company as well as the passengers – I never saw so much as a cross glance between them.  Although my gaydar is no longer as finely tuned as in previous years, I suspect about 40% of the male crewmembers (at least those who interact with the public) are gay – something never seen on The Love Boat.  Then there’s the ship – in our case, the Grand Princess.  The Pacific Princess of TV fame was a tinker toy compared to the giant we sailed on, which is 951 feet long, has 17 decks, displaces 109,000 tons, and can hold a whopping 3,100 passengers and 1,100 crew.  Thanks to our Costco membership, we snaged a great price on a balcony stateroom (Lido 230) and a shipboard credit of $140.  The cruising experience was like being in an enclosed city, where there are people waiting on your every need – along with those trying to sell you things you don’t need.  The food was unlimited, with a large buffet and several specialty restaurants.  One night, we dined at the Crown Grill where I enjoyed a perfectly prepared rib-eye steak.  We had two “at-sea” days during which there was plenty to do – dancing, musicals, films (we saw Moonlight and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), spa services (I received my first ever pedicure), and contests – we won a bottle of champagne at an astronomical trivia challenge.

On Monday we dropped anchor at Santa Barbara.  Since there’s no large pier there, we took a tender ship from the Grand Princess to shore.  From there, we boarded a bus to Solvang, a town founded by Danish immigrants in 1911 and built in the style of their native land.  Frankly, the town was not especially interesting although there were a few nice art galleries and an antique store that was very impressive - and of course the Æbleskivers were delicious. 



Tuesday, we docked at Long Beach.  We skipped the Shore Excursion since we were docked next to the Queen Mary.  I’d previously been there when I was 13 and remember being awed by the ship’s size, luxury, and Art Deco style.  Sadly, the grand old lady has markedly deteriorated since then.  Many of the exhibits have been closed, paint is peeling everywhere, the deck boards are cracked, rust abounds – there was even a discarded water bottle floating above the ship’s massive propeller.  It was depressing to see, and matters were not improved by a bus trip to a poorly planned shopping center.





The following day, we docked in San Diego, next to the Star Princess and near the naval base where my father was stationed in the 1950s.  Time constraints did not allow us to visit the base, but we did enjoy a bus tour around San Diego, including La Jolla and the Old Town.


Our last excursion, on Thursday, was in Ensenada, Mexico.  Again, there was another ship nearby, in this case the Carnival Inspiration – which was about the least inspired ship I’ve seen.  We opted to see La Bufadora, and although the tide was low we were sprayed.  We were also amused by the aggressive flea market vendors, who would shout their wares, offering “ten dollar, for you eight, no SIX!”  


As we arrived back on our ship, our moods reflected the fact that our vacation would soon be over.  Our last full day moved at a relaxed pace, featuring a cooking demonstration and tour of the main galley.


The only thing that marred the cruise was about 30 hours of rough seas on the way home.  Neither of us slept well the final two nights of our cruise, and a number of passengers were seasick.  Of course, there’s nothing the crew can do about the weather, and while the ride was rough, I pointed out to Dan that the shifts and swells we experienced were not that noteworthy on a ship that’s almost 1,000 feet long.


Here’s a video of highlights from our trip.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Thoughts on the Cleveland Orchestra’s 100th anniversary season

The 2017-2018 concert season will be the Cleveland Orchestra’s 100th.  Significant anniversaries such as this are an occasion to look backward, as well as forward.  

It appears that those who make the decisions that shape the orchestra’s future have looked back, but only so far- only to 1946, to be precise.  They seem to forget that ours was a distinguished ensemble before George Szell took over in 1946 and molded the orchestra in his own image.  True, the Cleveland Orchestra went through a difficult period during the war – a reduced number of players, a music director, the young Erich Leinsdorf, who was in the Army and periodically absent, and few recordings due to wartime restrictions on materials.  But nearly every American orchestra had to deal with similar restrictions, to say nothing of what European orchestras went through. Szell stated he wanted to combine the best aspects of America’s and Europe’s great orchestras in Cleveland – and he did.  But Szell was also a musical conservative who, with a few exceptions, avoided modern music.  Instead, he sought out younger conductors to bring the latest works the Cleveland – including Pierre Boulez, whose relationship with the orchestra spanned five decades until his death in 2016.  

If the orchestra’s management wants inspiration for how to enhance Cleveland’s already formidable standing and secure a stronger future, it should look further back – past Boulez, past Szell.  It was Artur Rodziński, not Szell, who first turned the Cleveland Orchestra into one of America’s Big Five ensembles (along with the Philadelphia Orchestra (which Rachmaninoff thought was the world’s finest), the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, and the Boston Symphony.  He did this not by merely getting the orchestra to play with impeccable technique and refinement (as his recordings, which should be reissued in their entirety, attest) but by demanding as much of the audience as the orchestra.  Rodziński tenure in Cleveland was known for innovative, challenging programming – including the American premiere of Shostakovich’s controversial opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.   It was also Rodziński who first advocated for a casual dress code at Severance, writing in 1936 “Let the music lover come in any garb.  Let them come in their working clothes, their overalls if they like, and they will be most highly welcome.  Severance Hall is not just for the rich.”

Much of Rodziński’s challenge was conveniently forgotten as Szell repaired the neglect of the war years, restored the orchestra to what Rodziński had built – and eventually took them to an even higher level.  It’s hardly a surprise then, that many of the orchestra’s pre-Szell recordings have never been reissued on compact disc (except a few issued on the orchestra’s private label).  Most are worthy, including Nikolai Sokoloff’s recording of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony which, although cut, is the first ever of that work, with some gorgeous string playing.

My mind contemplated that history in the aftermath of the orchestra’s announcement of its 100th season.  I was invited to the official announcement and mixer at Severance, which took place this past St. Patrick’s Day.  The mixer was a typical meet & greet where orchestra members schmoozed with donors and patrons – who were overwhelmingly white and elderly.  Then we took our seats in the auditorium for the congratulatory announcements and videos. 

Most of what was said by the board members was eminently forgettable – and I wouldn’t remember a word of it if not for the video linked above.  But Welser-Möst spoke with eloquence of his goals with the orchestra, what he has learned in Cleveland, his desire to avoid musical populism, and the wider importance of music in society.  He also referenced three seminal works in musical history: Beethoven’s Third Symphony, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – all works, he said, which would be performed in the upcoming season.  Welser-Möst’s comments were thought provoking and hopeful. But what counts is what happens when the rubber meets the road.  My heart sank later that evening as I looked over the season’s programs: Mostly meat and potatoes, the tried and the true.  A Beethoven Symphony cycle, plus the “Emperor” Concerto – which is played nearly every season; Mitsuko Uchida playing Mozart – again; some Brahms (including the First Symphony with Christoph von Dohnányi which, given the elder conductor’s health, seems unlikely); some Bruckner & Mahler, some Ravel. 

In terms of opera, there will be a reprise of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen, a charming work inventively staged in 2014 that I look forward to seeing again.  But I cannot fathom why Tristan and Isolde will only being given a concert performance, i.e., no staging.  The opera can be staged very inexpensively and still hold the audience’s interest.  But a concert performance of a four hour opera, even Tristan, is frankly, not inspiring.

Worse, next season will have very little in the way of newer music: four 21st Century works, only one of which is by an American composer – Stephen Paulus, who passed away in 2014. In essence, the next season will be Classical music’s equivalent of a trip to Applebee’s. The audience will be eating, or rather hearing, what they’ve heard before – ad infinitum.


Bon appétit. 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

When We Rise

We are living in a new Golden Age of television.  Anyone with an internet connection can watch nearly anything he wants, when he wants to.  Premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime led the way, Netflix and Amazon are offering increasingly provocative shows – in particular Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle which is about the most disturbing television I’ve ever watched.  Facing stronger competition, network TV programming, which was painfully homogenized and bland even 15 years ago, is competing by becoming more daring and embracing higher production values.   Compare even the most spectacular programming of the 1990s, such as the Star Trek franchise, with a typical program today.  There’s no doubt that today’s shows give screenwriters greater freedom and put the money on the screen to bring their vision to life.  It’s small wonder that film actors are increasingly moving to television.

Nowhere is this more evident than in television’s treatment of LGBT characters.  Until the late 1990s, when LGBT people appeared at all, they were stereotypes of one stripe or another: the effeminate queen, the nobly suffering person with AIDS, the bull-dyke, the tragi-comic transgender.  There was another seen from time to time: the young person – almost invariably male – discovering that he’s “different” and beginning to come out.  For me, the most memorable example was ABC’s  Consenting Adult, which stared Martin Sheen and Marlo Thomas as the parents of a young man, Jeff, played by Barry Tubb.  Based on a 1975 novel, the film aired in February 1985, about a month before I turned 18.  My mother and I watched together, and afterward I came out to her (I had already come out to my comparatively liberal grandmother a few months prior).  Doubtless there were numerous young men and women who came out to their parents or friends as a result of this and similar films.  Much of Consenting Adult was from the parents’ point of view, which was clever as it prepared many real-life parents for the emotional turmoil which could arise if a child came out – and let’s not kid ourselves, in those early terrifying years of AIDS, learning your son was gay was on the same level emotionally as learning your son had cancer – as Sheen’s character says in one scene. In its way, the film was groundbreaking – particularly one scene in which Jeff tells his mother what it’s like for him to desire another man.  But, as was often the case, Consenting Adult was talky, slow moving, and obviously filmed on a shoestring budget – even by the standards of 80s TV.

Today, gay characters are everywhere on TV.  One could limit oneself to shows with gay characters and still have a full viewing card.  Modern Family, How to Get Away with Murder, Riverdale, The Real O’Neals, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Mr. Robot, Sense8, Transparent, and many more have LGBT primary or supporting characters.

Last week, ABC aired When We Rise, an eight hour miniseries nominally based on Cleve Jones’ book of the same title.  Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, a brilliant writer, has masterfully woven a complex tapestry together, keeping the narrative flowing across the span of 45 years.  Each character has an individual arc, but not at the sacrifice of narrative flow or historical accuracy - as just about every character is based on a real person. The performances are uniformly excellent, but a few stand out: Austin P. McKenzie and Guy Pearce, who portray Cleve Jones at different stages of his life. As much as an ensemble series can have a core character, it’s Cleve.  We see him grow from teenager coming to terms with his sexuality, to liberated young gay man, to protégé activist, mentor, and elder statesman.  Also noteworthy are Emily Skegs and Mary-Louis Parker as Roma Guy, Michael K. Williams as an older Ken Jones, who struggles against discrimination and his own addictions, and Rafael de la Fuente’s gentle, soft-spoken Ricardo.  John Rubinstein only appears in one scene, but makes the most of his small role as Dr. Charles Socarides, a homophobic psychologist who learns his own son, Richard, is gay.  (As a sidenote, Richard Socarides is played by his own younger brother, Charles.)   The production is rich in symbolism, from the emergence of the rainbow flag as the banner of LGBT liberation, to Harvey Milk’s bullhorn.  Neither the actors nor the producers try to sanitize gay history by presenting characters as nobly suffering victims or blandly heroic activists.  Each of the primary characters is three dimensional and behaves in a manner consistent with the era.  The lesbians are wary of the gay men.  Many of the gay men are highly promiscuous. Several of the characters casually use drugs and one becomes an addict.  The production shows it all (within the bounds of network television): love scenes, street cruising, bathhouses; these were the reality of gay male life in the 1970s.    The closed minded and provincial will not respond positively to When We Rise.  Nor, I suspect, will some of the more assimilationist in the gay community who are content to go to the Human Rights Campaign’s black tie parties.  The ineffectual blandness of HRC comes under some welcome scrutiny here, as Cleve navigates the chasm between them and the more confrontational groups like ACT-UP – while keeping his own brand of activism intact.  




This is also the first made for TV effort about LGBT people I've seen that has real production value - it's like watching a big budget film, with the exception of some brief attempts to shoehorn the cast with real historical figures using CGI which don’t quite come off.  But for the most part, the viewer is transported into the characters’ lives and times.


ABC deserves credit for airing When We Rise, with a considerable and unapologetic publicity wind-up, and for granting the production the budget necessary to make it work.  ABC seems to be a leader among the big-3 networks in featuring gay characters, a trend I hope continues regardless of the political direction the country takes.  Despite today’s move toward streaming video, if When We Rise is issued on blu-ray I shall certainly support the production by buying a copy.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Pintscher and Tiberghien at Severance

Vladimir Horowitz once said, “Good composers or bad composers, the best pianists were all composers.”  To a great extent this is true (at least prior to today's era, when pianists are trained to win competitions, like racehorses wearing blinders): Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff – all were as famous as pianists in their day as composers.  Even Horowitz dipped his toes into composing before fate compelled him to turn to performing as his bread & butter. 

Whether Horowitz’s aphorism applies to conductors is open to debate.  Several composers were, in their time, also known as conductors: Mahler, Rachmaninoff - who was offered music directorship of the Boston Symphony, and Boulez - who was so associated with Cleveland for much of his life.  But the vast majority of conductors have never composed – at least professionally.

Matthias Pintscher was guess conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra for this past weekend’s concerts at Severance Hall.  He began the concert with his own composition: Ex Nihilo, which roughly translates as Out of Nothing.  The work primarily concentrated on texture and crescendo for its depiction of a transition from darkness to light.  As a conductor, Pintscer has a clear beat, but uses his left hand more for theatrical gestures than for controlling details within the orchestra.  Incidentally, he did not use a baton for his own piece but did for the remaining works.

Following a brief pause, during which the Hamburg Steinway was rolled into place, pianist Cédric Tiberghien mounted the stage for Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5, popularly known as the “Egyptian”.  The source of the nick-name is that the work was mostly composed in Egypt, and that the second movement makes use of some exotic modes and scales that are associated with Middle-Eastern music.  The concerto is primarily lyrical, although the finale has moments of virtuosity.  Tiberghien offered a performance that was technically immaculate, musically poised, and beautifully colored – particularly in the central movement.  The crisp and almost cool virtuosity of the finale brought the house down and the audience’s response was rewarded with an encore, Debussy’s The Submerged Cathedral – appropriately enough as the second half of the concert would feature another “water piece” by a French composer.  Tiberghien’s weighting of chords and use of the pedal were exquisite.

Following intermission, Pintscher returned to lead the orchestra in Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2.  The work is a bit more accessible than his fully atonal works, but often the tonal center is difficult to discern.  Pintscher led the work with a clear sense of direction.


I’ve been familiar with Debussy’s La Mer for about a quarter century, but this concert marked the first time I’ve heard it live.  Perhaps my expectations were too high, as I found myself curiously let down by aspects of the performance. Instead of seductive textures and transparent voicing, I heard a rendition which was garish and – pardon the pun – splashy.  Further, Pintscher’s frequent tempo changes disrupted the work’s continuity, as heard in recordings by Maazel and Boulez, among modern versions.  Nevertheless, the performance had its moments, including Peter Otto’s lovely violin solo in the first movement and beautiful work by the harpists -  and the generally spectacular playing brought the audience to its feet.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Ladies’ Night at Severance

At the risk of sounding sexist, this past Saturday’s Cleveland Orchestra concert at Severance Hall could have been referred to as Ladies’ night.

Chinese born conductor Xian Zhang substituted for Semyon Bychkov, who was ill with stomach flu. Zhang is a rarity in the classical world: a female conductor.  The relative scarcity of female conductors is the only reason I point it out.  Zhang was joined by the Labeque sisters, Katia and Marielle, for the concert’s opening work, Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos in E-flat major, K.365.  (I remember back in the 1980s, The Music Box at Shaker Square, where I worked, did a brisk business in Labeque sisters CDs.)  It’s generally believed that Mozart composed the work to perform with his sister, Nannerl, so it’s entirely appropriate that the work was performed by two siblings at Severance.  Piano duos are probably among the most challenging collaborative performances: the pianists are usually separated by about twelve feet, can’t see each other’s hands, and must depend on the conductor and that thing called instinct to maintain coordination and continuity.  This is in marked contrast to works for piano and strings, where the pianist can observe the bow movements to determine entry points and the like.  The Labeque sisters were entirely in tune with each other and the conductor to deliver a sparkling performance, with a lovely sense of songful intimacy in the slow movement – coupled with feathery figurations from the strings.  They were rewarded by a standing ovation, and returned the gesture with an encore, the finale from Phillip Glass’ Four Movements for two pianos.


Following intermission, Zhang mounted the rostrum for Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. The work, composed with some difficulty in 1885, is not often performed.  Like Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the work has a programmatic nature, based on Byron’s poem of the same name.  About an hour long, this is the longest of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and provided a chance for the orchestra to really show its stuff, not just collectively but individual players – in particular the percussion.  The work also has a brief organ passage at the end – about two minutes of music which is the definition of an easy paycheck. As my view of Zhang had been blocked by the piano lid during the Mozart, this provided me an opportunity to view her in action.  Her baton technique was of the no-nonsense school personified by Toscanini and Szell: her beat was clear, cues were properly given, and her left hand adeptly controlled dynamics and balance.  This was reflected in a rendition which was coherent (this is not an easy piece to hold together), clear, and beautifully played.  I look forward to hearing more from her.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Spencer Myer plays Bolcom

The Steinway & Sons label has released a new recording of Spencer Myer performing Bolcom Rags.  Click here to read my review.





Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Chopin and Pollini in Winter

Following on the heels of their almost complete reissue of Maurizio Pollini's Deutsche Grammophon recordings, the label has issued a new recital of late works by Chopin.  Click here to read my review.





Tuesday, January 24, 2017

My Top-10 Rubinstein Recordings

It’s hard to believe that Arthur Rubinstein, one of the most prolific classical pianists on record, was born 130 years ago this month.  The continued availability of his recordings makes him a continuing presence in the lives of music lovers.  Rubinstein’s complete “authorized” recordings cover nearly 100 CDs – along with dozens of live and studio recordings that have been issued since his death in 1982.  To the best of my knowledge, only Vladimir Ashkenazy has made more piano recordings than Rubinstein.

I’m limiting this list to solo recordings.  But many of his chamber music and concerto recordings are essential to any classical recording collection.  For chamber music, I’d recommend his Beethoven and Brahms Violin Sonatas with Szeryng – the definition of suave urbanity, along with his late period recordings with the Guarneri Quartet.  Rubinstein recorded most of the active Concerto repertoire.  In general, his early stereo recordings with Krips and Wallenstein have stood the test of time – although I’d also want his early Beethoven G major with Beecham.

The recordings listed here are from RCA’s 1999 Rubinstein reissue, although there are newer issues with different couplings available. 

Bach-Busoni, Franck, Liszt, 1961-1970. The Bach-Busoni Chaconne, and Franck Chorale, Prelude, and Fugue are the high points of this disc.  Both were recorded in 1970 and represent late-Rubinstein at his best.  This Liszt Sonata from 1965 is a solid rendition, if missing the last bit of inspiration.  The Villa-Lobos O Polichinelo was a Rubinstein specialty and makes for a charming encore.

French Recital – 1945, 1961.  Ravel, Debussy, Fauré, Poulenc, Chabrier.  Rubinstein knew most of these composers personally, and was an early champion of Ravel’s Noble & Sentimental waltzes. 

Spanish Recital – 1947, 1955.  Before Alicia de Larrocha came along, Rubinstein was generally considered the preeminent interpreter of Spanish and South American Classical music.  He dropped many of the solo pieces from his repertoire after 1961, so we’re fortunate these mono recordings have been reissued. 

Chopin: Polonaises – 1950, 1951.  Simply put, the best Chopin Polonaises ever recorded, combining the passion and swagger of Rubinstein’s 1930s version with the polish of his 1960s version.  If one can listen past the monaural sound – which is actually pretty good, one need own no other version.

Chopin: Ballades & Scherzos, 1959, 1965.  Rubinstein recorded the Scherzos thrice and the Ballades once.  The 1949 Scherzos are slightly more virtuosic and forward moving, but the very fine Living Stereo sound in this 1959 version compensates.  The Ballades, also from 1959 are my favorite cycle although there are individual Ballades from other performers that I prefer. The Tarantelle, from 1965, makes a rollicking encore.

Chopin: Nocturnes, 1931 - 1937.  This, Rubinstein’s first of three Nocturne cycles, is on balance the best – with imaginative phrasing, better control of pianissimo, and more charisma than his later versions.  Also includes virtuosic renditions of the two Concertos with the London Symphony Orchestra under John Barbirolli.

Chopin: Waltzes, 1962 - 1964.  The Waltzes were recorded at RCA’s Italiana studio during a single glorious session in 1963, and are about the most straightforward renditions of these works you’ll hear.  The Impromptus and Bolero are a fine bonus.

Schumann: Fantasy Pieces, Op. 12; Carnaval, Op. 9 - 1961, 1962.  Rubinstein was not my favorite Schumann interpreter.  But these two poetic and virtuosic renditions make a persuasive case for the “sane” approach to Schumann interpretation.

Schubert: Sonata, D. 960, Wanderer Fantasy, Two Impromptus, D. 899 - 1961, 1965.  Rubinstein’s essentially optimistic view of Schubert’s last Sonata is the antithesis of the picky interpretation of Brendel and the deathly pathos of Richter.  But it works on its own terms.

Beethoven: Pathetique, Moonlight, Appassionata, and Les Adieux Sonatas – 1962, 1963.  With the exception of the Moonlight Sonata, Rubinstein recorded each of these Sonatas multiple times.  These 1962-1963 stereo recordings are the most successful of Rubinstein’s versions.


Rubinstein at Carnegie Hall, 1961.  The pianist was notoriously picky about issuing live recordings.   All ten of Rubinstein’s 1961 Carnegie Hall recitals (the fees for which he donated to charity) were recorded, but he only allowed the release of a few recordings – and was even said to have personally destroyed one of the tapes.  The prismatic colors of the Debussy works are beautifully captured, along with the quirky Prokofiev Visions-Fugitives, Szymanowski Mazurkas, and Villa-Lobos – and the Albeniz encore has to be heard to be believed.