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.

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

 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.