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.