I stood up!

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet

Those of you who read this blog regularly know that VFB has a thing about Cleveland audiences giving too many standing ovations. Tonight I made an exception for the thrilling performance by the French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and the Cleveland Orchestra in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with guest conductor, the ever energetic Vladimir Ashkenazy. Not in recent memory have the orchestra, conductor and soloist been so “in sync.” (There were a few slips here and there, but it just didn’t matter.) The house was full, and there were cheers, whistles, you name it, at the end of the concerto.

Ashkenazy also conducted his own concoction of music from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and his own transcription of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. There was a second extended ovation at the end of the concert. After multiple curtain calls, the conductor led the concertmaster off the stage signaling the end.

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BTW, if you don’t know Bavouzet’s complete recording of Debussy’s piano music on Chandos, I recommend it to you.

Measha sings Wagner

Just back from Saturday night’s all-Wagner Cleveland Orchestra concert, which was conducted by Franz Welser-Möst. They seemed to be having an “off” night, especially in the first half, which had the Overture to Rienzi, the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, and the preludes to Acts 1 and 3 from Lohengrin. There were fluffed notes in the brass, some intonation problems and just general disarray.

Luckily, after intermission, things picked up, with Measha Brueggergosman as the soloist in the Wesendonck Lieder. (Fashion note: her gown was a silvery, reflective flowing number, as if she had been wrapped in loose aluminum foil. She looked fab-u-lous and was doing her trademark barefoot thing. I still want to know if she was barefoot when she sang at the opening ceremonies for the Vancouver Olympics. Can any Canadians report?) Although these songs are often (mostly?) sung by sopranos, the tessitura is quite low, and they showed off Measha’s rich mid- and low register. Franz brought the orchestra down for some thrilling pianissimo playing.

The concert finished with nifty performances of the prelude to Die Meistersinger, and “The Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walküre very cleanly played. (How often do you hear all those sixteenth notes in the violins articulated in unison.)

The weekend’s concerts were audio-recorded for a future CD release. I hope the first half was better on one of the preceding evenings.
The orchestra’s next major project is the stage performances of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, with cast imported from Franz’s outpost in Zurich.  I’ll miss it, so no report from VFB.

Weekend upcoming

Measha Brueggergosman
Measha Brueggergosman
Tom Trenney
Tom Trenney

A busy concert weekend upcoming for VFB:  Attending Tom Trenney’s master class with CIM organ students on Saturday morning, Cleveland Orchestra Wagner concert on Saturday night with the fabulous Measha Brueggergosman, fresh from her appearance at the opening ceremonies at the Vancouver Olympics. (I traded my usual Friday night tix for Saturday, because I can’t cope with the Fridays@7 extravaganza tonight.)  Then Tom Trenney’s organ recital at First Baptist Church on Sunday afternoon.

Cleveland Orchestra’s Fridays@7: A Hit

I have to admit (in the most gudging way) that the Cleveland Orchestra’s Fridays@7 concerts appear to be a success, at least by observable standards.  I attended the second of this season’s series on November 20.  Virtually every seat was full and there was a sense of excitement that is normally missing with the usual gray-hair crowd that populates the regular Friday night concerts.  The average age of the audience member was considerably younger, and they were well behaved and attentive.

The scheme of the Fridays@7 concerts is that there is an early start time (7:00 PM),  a straight-through, without intermission concert by the Cleveland Orchestra for about 75 minutes, followed by a party in the main lobby with cash bar and informal “world” music and lots of schmoozing.

British conductor Jonathan Nott was the guest conductor this weekend. The opening set included Dvorak’s Cello Concerto with former Clevelander Alisa Weilerstein as the soloist. She gave a lovely performance.  The second work on the program was Richard Strauss’s tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra, known most notoriously as the main theme from Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, a fact which did not escape one of my fellow concert goers sitting near me; during the opening bars, in full voice he said, “That’s 2001!”  There is, of course, another thirty minutes.  I was reminded how many of the amazing orchestral techniques that Strauss used in Zarathustra that he later recycled in other works.  (I think especially of the long passages for low strings that later play such a role in Salome.)  The work has thrilling climaxes but ends inconclusively.

After the main part of the concert, those who wished (which seemed to be a large portion of the audience) adjourned to the lobby for another session of music “curated” by percussionist Jamey Haddad.  It was very crowded at first, but the crowd thinned out after while to make a more comfortable setting.  Ms. Weilerstein joined the ensemble for works by Astor Piazzolla, Bill Evans and others.

The evening had the feel of great novelty.  It remains to be seen if the format can be sustained over time.  I have doubts without someone creating very imaginative secondary programming that will continue the novelty.  For now, however, the Cleveland Orchestra appears to have a hit.

Cleveland Orchestra’s “German Requiem”, plus a new work

This weekend Franz Welser-Möst is conducting the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus in Johannes Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) with soprano Nicole Cabell and baritone Russell Braun as soloists. Robert Porco prepared the wonderful Cleveland Orchestra Chorus.  Rarely have I heard this work performed with such clarity and directness, yet with the requisite boldness and tenderness.  Franz is an outstanding choral conductor–a trait not always found in orchestral conductors, even those with talent for opera. The chorus is not left “on their own” to figure out what to do. I have witnessed even such notable conductors as Pierre Boulez and Christoph von Dohnanyi leave the chorus behind in the dust.

With absolutely parochial interest, I note that the Norton Memorial Organ was used in this performance, played by Joela Jones, to give an added sonic “boost” to the bass, but also supporting the vocal lines.  It was mostly not audible, but it was “there,” and I’m glad they used the organ.

Russell Braun has a lovely voice, but he seemed a bit underpowered for this particular performance.  (Or perhaps Franz should have shut down the orchestra a bit more.)  In the single movement that the soprano soloist appears, one has gotten used to hearing light voices (think Kathleen Battle, Dawn Upshaw, or even the German Christine Schäfer). Nicole Cabell, although obviously a lyric soprano, has a darker, richer, more luscious voice.  It made a nice contrast with the “classic” texture of sound in the rest of the performance.

The concert opened with a Cleveland premiere of Chor (for orchestra), a 2003-04 work by German composer Jörg Widmann, who is beginning his two season tenure as the orchestra’s Young Composer Fellow. While it is impossible to judge a complex contemporary work on one hearing, what is not in question is the Cleveland Orchestra’s brilliant performance. The work is in a broad arc with a stupendous central climax marked with ear-splitting rolls on suspended cymbals, strings at extremely high pitch, and, I believe, multiple police whistles. (It was really too loud, and I felt forced to hold my ears.) The pace is slow, with many long notes overlapping one another.  An offstage solo trumpet (the orchestra’s amazing principal trumpet Michael Sachs) started the work with a dialogue with a bowed vibraphone and notes on an accordion (played by the ever-versatile Joela Jones).  The texture and amplitude gradually increase until the climax, then start to dissolve again, but with “speed bumps” along the way–huge interjections by the full orchestra interrupting the quiet flow of the music.  At several points there are quite tonal “chorale”-type passages of an almost of a Brahmsian nature, but always deconstructed, as if the aural equivalent of looking in a funhouse mirror.  The work makes extensive use of quarter-tone playing in all the parts, and the orchestra’s pitch and clarity were quite astonishing.  (After hearing Chor, I am tantalized by what the orchestra would make of Thomas Ades’s monumental and beautiful  Tevot, written for Berliner Philharmoniker.  The orchestra is performing Ades’s Violin Concerto later this season, and Franz has conducted more of his music in the past.  Come on Franz, let’s have Tevot!)

Virtual Farm Boy is constantly complaining about too many standing ovations at concerts in Cleveland, but this is a case where the ovation was richly deserved.  The orchestra is off for a few weeks on European tour and a residency in Vienna.  We’ll look forward to their return in mid-November.

A recent update on the Rosenberg/Cleveland Orchestra matter

The web site of the Cleveland Jewish News has a recent update about the goings on of music critic Donald Rosenberg’s lawsuit against the Cleveland Orchestra.  He has recently changed some of the details of his suit:  when the defendents tried to move the suit to federal court, Rosenberg dropped some of the charges against the Plain Dealer and its editor Susan Goldberg.  The charges of defamation against the orchestra remain unchanged.

There are some interesting comments from Sharona Hoffman, associate dean and law professor at Case Western Reserve University. (Full disclosure: I work for CWRU, and I have met Prof. Hoffman; however, I do not know her well.)  She points out how difficult it will be for Rosenberg to prove age discrimination, and defamation could be proven if someone publicizes lies about him.   “But he’s a public figure who puts himself out there as a critic. It’s much harder to prove that sort of thing if he’s in the public eye.”

The Rosenberg saga continues: lawsuit

I’ve been away on business for most of the last week, so haven’t been posting, or even keeping up much with the news, so I’m late to the game with the latest of the Donald Rosenberg/Cleveland Orchestra saga.  You will remember that Rosenberg was the Cleveland Plain Dealer music critic who covered the Cleveland Orchestra for years.  This Fall he was  reassigned by the PD editor Susan Goldberg to general arts reporting, and the plum orchestra assignment was awarded to Zachary Lewis, a former intern.  There has been general speculation that Rosenberg was reassigned because of his relentlessly negative writing about the performances of the orchestra’s music director, Franz Welser-Möst.

On December 11, both the Plain Dealer and Daniel Wakin in the  New York Times reported that Rosenberg has now filed a lawsuit against the management of the Cleveland Orchestra, the Musical Arts Association (the orchestra’s parent organization), and the Plain Dealer for defamation, as well as age discrimination.  He is asking at least $50,000 in punitive damages.  He claims that the orchestra has a vendetta against him because of his reviews.  It should be noted that Rosenberg is the author of the definitive history of the Cleveland Orchestra.

As one might expect, a lawyer for the orchestra made some comments in defense:

“It’s a funny grievance coming from a lifetime reporter, that the people that he writes about have an obligation to stay silent,” said Robert Duvin, a lawyer for the orchestra. “We don’t have the same platform, so what we have to do is write letters or have meetings. You guys get to publish every day, and bring the hammer down as often as you want to on anybody you want to.”

Mr. Duvin said he could not address the specifics of Mr. Rosenberg’s lawsuit. But assuming it were true that orchestra officials had urged his dismissal, he said, “So what?”

“I consider what he wrote to be the equivalent of urging the removal of the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra,” Mr. Duvin said. “There are many people who considered his relentless negative assessment, when contrasted with worldwide praise, to be personal, petty and vindictive.”

This seems, frankly, like quite a clever money grab on Rosenberg’s part: the $50K damages sought is a small enough amount that it will be cheaper for the PD and Orchestra to settle and shut him up, no matter how trivial the complaint, despite the fact that he would be unlikely to prevail in court.  It is an employer’s prerogative to reassign an employee to new tasks for any reason, or no reason at all.  In fact, in the current economic climate, one might speculate that a second music and arts critic at the Plain Dealer is lucky to still have any job.  Rosenberg claims that his right of free speech has been curtailed.  Not really–again, as an employee–especially as a critic–for the Plain Dealer, he is subject to whatever the editorial policies that the newspaper deems appropriate.   He may think that he will embarrass the Orchestra, but, in fact, he only diminishes his own stature by this trivial and petty action.

There is also a feature story in the December 2008  Gramophone magazine, the U.K. music journal about the Rosernberg matter.  (Sorry, it doesn’t seem to be available online.) The article has quite a balanced review of the events to date, and notes that the fact that the reviews by Zachary Lewis this season have also contained negative remarks, which leads one to believe that the PD editor did have other reasons for reassigning Rosenberg.  It is ironic that it is the same issue that includes an article listing the Cleveland Orchestra among the top 20 orchestras in the world.