Stranded in Ann Arbor? What to do: Go to a bar and give a concert

Cleveland Orchestra in Ann Arbor

So, your concert in Symphony Hall in Chicago gets canceled by a blizzard and you’re stranded in Ann Arbor, Michigan, without a gig. What’s a Cleveland Orchestra member to do?

Zachary Lewis, the Plain Dealer’s Cleveland Orchestra critic, reports in today’s paper about Wednesday evening’s cultural offering by several of the orchestra’s members. Joshua Smith, William Preucil, Frank Rosenwein, and others showed up at Silvio’s pizza and gave an impromptu concert as part of Ann Arbor’s ongoing “Classical Revolution” series (a branch of which takes place in Cleveland). Some of the performers used borrowed instruments, because their own were already on the way to New York for the orchestra’s Carnegie Hall concerts later this week. Franz Welser-Möst showed up to listen, and—most unusually—French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who is touring as soloist with the orchestra, arrived and played a Brahms work on what Mr. Lewis charitably describes as a “modest upright.” Yee-haw!

The more music the better! Yay to these hardworking musicians for bringing Cleveland’s best to Ann Arbor on a snowy night.

Judge Sutula to Don Rosenberg: PD didn’t retaliate

Donald Rosenberg
Donald Rosenberg
Franz Welser-Möst
Franz Welser-Möst

In one of the more bizarre twists of the lawsuit by Plain Dealer critic Donald Rosenberg against the newspaper and the Musical Arts Association, reported here, Common Pleas Judge John D. Sutula ruled that

reporter Don Rosenberg’s assertion that the newspaper had retaliated against him for filing a suit against the Cleveland Orchestra and the Plain Dealer should not go before a jury because there were “no material facts to dispute.”

He said that that Rosenberg’s attorney had not shown that there was any adverse effect by the editorial instruction that Rosenberg was not to use the words “Cleveland Orchestra” in his writings for the newspaper. The newspaper’s attorney, David Posner, said, “He was told ‘the reason you can’t refer to the Cleveland Orchestra is that you sued the Cleveland Orchestra.'”

The PD reported that on Monday, August 2, that the newspaper had rested its case in its defense. The newspaper’s editors all testified that Rosenberg’s age (remember that his suit is partially one of age discrimination) never came up in discussions of his reassignment. All were in agreement that the reassignment was a journalistic matter, not one of musical expertise, due to the widely held perception that Rosenberg held a personal vendetta against Cleveland Orchestra Music Director Franz Welser-Möst.

On Tuesday it is expected that the attorneys for Rosenberg, the Plain Dealer and the Musical Arts Association will make closing arguments before the case is turned over to the jury.

Rosenberg’s lawyers rest their case; defense begins

In the ongoing saga of Cleveland Plain Dealer music critic Donald Rosenberg’s discrimination lawsuit against the paper and the Cleveland Orchestra, during this week the plaintiff’s lawyers rested their case, and the defense began its case. The Plain Dealer reported on Rosenberg’s testimony. Among other tidbits, Rosenberg testified that he thought that Music Director Franz Welser-Möst would eventually have to be replaced. Also:

Rosenberg also agreed, again under questioning by [David] Posner [the Musical Arts Association attorney], that others — including newspaper readers, members of the orchestra and others in the community — had complained about what was perceived as a pervasive negative tenor to his reviews of Welser-Most.

When questioned by his own attorney, however, he testified that he believed [Plain Dealer Editor Susan] Goldberg had responded only to pressures from the Musical Arts Association — not other factors — when she reassigned him.

On Thursday this week the Orchestra began its defense, with expert testimony from a journalism faculty from University of California, Berkeley, specializing in ethics who found that Rosenberg’s reviews had taken a mindset of bias, from being too close to the orchestra that Rosenberg loved.

There was also testimony by Orchestra Executive Director Gary Hanson about the unflattering article that Rosenberg had written about Weser-Möst in 2004, quoting from an interview the conductor had given to a German language magazine without asking the conductor for comment. The orchestra’s expert stated that Rosenberg was at fault for not seeking comment.

The trial continues next week, with the newspaper presenting its defense. The jury is expected to get the case toward the end of next week.

Updates on the Rosenberg/Cleveland Orchestra lawsuit

Last week was a busy week in the courtroom for the age discrimination lawsuit by Plain Dealer critic Donald Rosenberg against the Plain Dealer and the Cleveland Orchestra.  Susan Goldberg testified that her decision to reassign Rosenberg was not a “knee-jerk reaction”, but was carefully considered over fourteen months. In response to questions about an alleged personal vendetta on the part of Rosenberg against Franz Welser-Möst, Goldberg replied:

“Mr. Sindell, this is not a music problem, this is a journalism problem,” said Goldberg, who acknowledged that she did not have classical music training. “And I’m well qualified to make that decision, as are other editors in my office.”

Goldberg was asked by Sindell: “Why do you think my client had a personal vendetta against Franz Welser-Most?”

Goldberg answered that Rosenberg “had become just too wrapped up in the orchestra and did not have the professional distance that we ask everyone to have — whether covering baseball or architecture.”

She also told the jury that Rosenberg had begun approaching concerts conducted by Welser-Most with a closed mind.

“It would be like a restaurant reviewer deciding the steak is tough before he even goes to the restaurant,” Goldberg said. “He puts Welser-Most into a hole before a note is even played.”

An article published on the Plain Dealer web site on July 23, summarizes what has gone on, including the testimony by former Washington Post music critic Tim Page about Rosenberg’s national reputation as a music critic.  The article also contains the rather sensational allegation of “reporter shopping” on the part of Cleveland Orchestra officials to get the Plain Dealer to send reporter Zachary Lewis (who was eventually assigned to review the Orchestra concerts after Rosenberg was deposed) to a news conference announcing coming season programs, instead of Rosenberg.  Susan Goldberg characterizes the practice as “icky” and “sleazy” but “not uncommon.”

It appears that the trial will be winding down in the next week or so.

Franz Welser-Möst testifies by video in Rosenberg lawsuit trial

In its ongoing coverage of the lawsuit by Plain Dealer critic Donald Rosenberg against the PD and the Cleveland Orchestra, the paper reports that current Music Director Franz Welser-Möst testified by means of a video deposition taken in 2009, to the effect that he was angered by Rosenberg’s alleged mis-characterization in a 2004 PD article of an interview that Franz gave to a Swiss magazine, in which the conductor referred to Cleveland’s “blue haired ladies” and to Cleveland as an “inflated farmer’s village.”  In his deposition, Welser-Möst says that he intended the latter comment in a complimentary way, and that Rosenberg took his comments out of context, mistranslating them out of German to English, publishing a very unflattering article about Welser-Möst without asking the conductor to comment on his statements.

Rosenberg’s attorney Steven Sindell has apparently not yet called any witnesses or introduced any direct evidence to support the claim of Rosenberg’s lawsuit, that he was discriminated against on the basis of age.

Rosenberg/Cleveland Orchestra/Plain Dealer case goes to trial

The Cleveland Plain Dealer blog today has details of the opening day of Plain Dealer music critic Donald Rosenberg’s lawsuit against the Plain Dealer and the Musical Arts Association, the parent organization of the Cleveland Orchestra.  In the suit Rosenberg alleges a number of supposed misdeeds on the part of his employer, including age discrimination, and that the officials of the Orchestra pressured the Plain Dealer management into removing him from his long time assignment of reviewing Cleveland Orchestra concerts because he reviewed concerts conducted by music director Franz Welser-Möst in a highly unflattering matter.

The summary in today’s blog post rehashes what has been stated before, but sets things up for some potentially juicy testimony during the jury trial.  Stay tuned.

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.

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.

Cleveland Orchestra’s “Marriage of Figaro”

For the first time in over thirty years the Cleveland Orchestra performed from the orchestra pit in Severance Hall to accompany a staged operatic performance, Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, in a production largely imported from the Zurich Opera, of which Franz is the Music Director.  (Coincidentally enough, in the past week or so EMI has released a DVD of the companion Zurich production, starring sexy Erwin Schrott as Figaro, but with several of the same cast as in Cleveland.) The performance last night was brilliant in almost every way. (You can download the program notes here.)   I’ve never been very convinced by the orchestra’s concert opera performances (three of the Wagner “Ring” operas under Dohnanyi, most recently “Rosenkavalier” and “Rusalka” under Welser-Möst), because the orchestra always overwhelms the voices–the balances just are not right. But with the orchestra in the pit, it was much more in balance, and the sound was very good.  Franz really seemed to be in his element–everything was together and clear, even from my perch close to the top of the balcony. Who could imagine a more perfect pit orchestra for Mozart than the Cleveland Orchestra? Their playing was beyond reproach.  The singers were all really good–not a dud in the bunch, but particularly Martina Janková and Malin Hartelius, who sang Susanna and the Countess, respectively, were the best.  I’m not sure that either one would make as strong an impression in a house as big as the Met, but in Severance Hall there was no problem in hearing them. The cast seemed all quite young, except for the more mature Diana Montague, who sang Marcellina, but she has lovely voice (and was well in control of it.)  The Countess’s aria “Dove sono” was exquisite–and not a noise in the audience. The men were all uniformly excellent.  The young Swiss baritone Ruben Drole sang Figaro, and Michael Volle was Count Almaviva.  American mezzo Isabel Leonard was a convincing Cherubino.  The smaller roles were all strong. “Marriage of Figaro” depends greatly on its ensemble singing, and this group acted and sang together very convincingly.   As you know, I am not a fan of standing ovations, but this one was spontaneous and deserved.

It was a “concept” staging (restaged from the original Zurich production for Severance Hall by Timo Schlüssel), but not obnoxious.  The costumes were updated to 1920’s-ish (formal evening dress for the Count and Countess, smart suits and business suits for the next lower class–Bartolo and Marcellina, and house dresses and workers clothes for Figaro and Susanna.  The chorus was outfitted in maids uniforms and what looked like Iowa farmers from the 20s (mostly bib overalls–what’s up with that?)  Mostly black and white, except for the earth tones of the chorus.  They did not try to cover up the stage shell, although there were panels that covered the upstage organ pipes.  There were abstract geometrical objects as set pieces for Acts 1-3, and the set for Act 4 was a stylized merry-go-round (with carousel horses)  which people hid behind.  There’s a lot of hiding in plain sight in this opera, and it worked quite well.  The lighting was not full stage lighting, but was not just concert lighting–there were shades of different colors and it changed for the different parts of the opera.  The staging was imaginative, a bit racy,  (use your imagination for Susanna’s line early in Act 1 “Ding, ding, DONG DONG” in which she is holding a prop bed leg…) but didn’t force a concept down your throat.  The only thing that I didn’t get was that the Count seemed to be an amateur magician, so every once in a while he did some sort of magic trick.  I suspect that there may have been some sort of symbolism, but I didn’t get it.  Even though it was a quite simple staging, it was thoroughly professional, well-executed.  The Severance Hall pit is not large, and it seemed to be quite filled, so I don’t think we’re going to be seeing Elektra or Salome with the orchestra in the pit, but the Mozart worked very well.  For the recitatives, they used a fortepiano to accompany (with Enrico Cacciari playing), rather than a harpsichord.  The fortepiano is preferable.

The house was full, with only a few isolated single empty seats.

It was a long evening–started at 7:00 and the final curtain call ended at almost exactly 11:00.  There was just one intermission, between acts 2 and 3, with short breaks between Acts 1 & 2 and Acts 3 & 4.  I was there for the opening night performance, which included a pre-curtain champagne reception for the audience, complete with young women in Spanish costume posed in various spots of the lobby, looking alluring.  Had I forgotten and for a production of “Carmen”?  Especially given the sylized production, it was incongruous.

There are further performances on March 25, 27, and 29.  It’s my understanding that they are mostly sold out, but it’s worth a try to get tickets.  I think you won’t be disappointed.  This was a triumph.

On a more sobering note, when I arrived at home (at 11:30) and checked my email, I discovered a message from Gary Hanson, the orchestra’s Executive Director, detailing the very dispiriting steps that the orchestra is taking to reduce costs in light of the current extended economic downturn and a substantial loss in the orchestra’s endowment.  Staff are being asked to take pay cuts; when union negotiations for a new musicians’ contract begin, the management will seek concessions; overtime will be eliminated, as will musical works calling for extra performers.  Some tour performances for which a loss would be projected will be eliminated.  It was a sobering assessment, but as always the emphasis is on the continued musical excellence of the orchestra.

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.”