Cleveland Orchestra Rachmaninoff / Janacek spectacular

This weekend the Cleveland Orchestra performed what should be considered a highlight concert of this season. Franz Welser-Möst conducted Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (“Rach 3″) and after intermission Leos Janacek’s “Glagolitic Mass” in a new, recently reconstructed early version which is considerably different from the later version usually heard.  The magnificent Ceveland Orchestra Chorus was joined by soloists Measha Brueggergosman, soprano; Nancy Maultsby, mezzo-soprano; Stuart Skelton, tenor; and Raymond Aceto, bass.  The concert opened with Debussy’s “Sirènes” from “Nocturnes.”

Leif Ove Andsnes played the hell out of the Rachmaninoff concerto. I normally think of him as an elegant and refined player; in this case  his elegance was matched by the ferocious virtuosity required for this concerto, which was equalled by Franz Welser-Möst and the orchestra. There were poetic moments, but this was showpiece time.  The standing ovation (which for a change was richly deserved) was spontaneous at the end of this performance.

The star of the Janacek was the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, whose diction in the church slavonic text was impeccable. Their declarations in the Credo movement would make anyone believe.  The soprano soloist has all the best solo bits,  and Measha Brueggergosman was in heroic voice.  She was most impressive in the beginning of the “Sanctus” movement.  She was standing so close to the conductor that at times I was afraid the Franz would clobber her. The rest of the soloists have much less to do.   Stuart Skelton made a brave attempt at the impossible tessitura of the tenor solos; he was, unfortunately, completely covered at times by the chorus and heavy orchestration.  Poor Nancy Maultsby had to sit through the whole affair to sing about four phrases of music.

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.

Zachary Lewis makes his Cleveland Orchestra debut

After last week’s turmoil over Don Rosenberg’s dismissal by the Plain Dealer as the regular critic of Cleveland Orchestra concerts, it doesn’t take too much of a leap to imagine that one of the most uncomfortable seats in the house last Thursday was that occupied by Zachary Lewis, newly-minted successor to Rosenberg.  His inaugural review is here.  In some ways he was in a no-win situation: if he gave the performance a glowing review, Rosenberg’s supporters would say he was just a pawn of the supposed Orchestra/Plain Dealer coven; if he gave a negative review, there would be those who would say that he had to do so, so as to show he wasn’t part of the alleged conspiracy.  In fact, although the overall tone of the review is positive, there were enough zingers to catch one’s attention.  (“Two prominent gaffes by different instruments may keep Thursday’s Bruckner from making the final DVD. But even without those, it was not always clear why this should be a performance to immortalize.”)  Exactly.

I attended the performance on Friday evening.  By far the more interesting performance was that of the new “Duet” by George Benjamin, with super-pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard as the soloist.  Friday was the U.S. deuxième (the premiere having been on Thursday).  The sounds and structures were enchanting, especially the hushed tango-like rhythms in the harp and low strings, and the single notes of the piano against the chamber orchestra texture.

The Bruckner 7th Symphony was deliberate to the max.  I detected several intonation problems during it’s hour-long course, in the collection of Wagner tubas, and later in the winds.  There are several magnificently thrilling climaxes, but I have come to the conclusion that Bruckner’s musical structures (and perhaps Franz Welser-Möst’s interpretation) are too vast for me to comprehend over such long time spans.  There was no subtlety.  Bruckner’s 8th Symphony comes up later in the season. Maybe next time I’ll get the point….

New York Times weighs in on the Rosenberg/Cleveland Orchestra fracas

The New York Times on Thursday, September 25th, published an article by Daniel J. Wakin on the front page of its arts section about the Plain Dealer’s dismissal of Donald Rosenberg as the critic of the Cleveland Orchestra performances. Not much new ground is covered; there are quotes from Rosenberg himself, from Plain Dealer editor Sarah Goldberg (who declines to comment on an “internal personnel matter”), from Franz Wesler-Möst (“If the same person writes after six years that the orchestra plays beautifully and what I do is bad, somehow it misses logic.”) and from Gary Hanson, who reiterates most of what he said in the comment he left on this blog.

The Orchestra’s first concert of the season was last night.  So far, no review on the PD web site.  I’m going tonight.

Feature article about Franz Welser-Möst

Zachary Lewis, successor to recently deposed Plain Dealer music critic Donald Rossenberg, has a feature article about Franz Welser-Möst in today’s paper.  You can see it here.  There is no hint of the recent controversy.  It is very even-handed, with quotes from present and former orchestra members, Cleveland Orchestra management (including Gary Hanson), as well as impresarios elsewhere, and discussions with Franz himself.  The article details some of the criticisms of Franz’s work (“blankness”, “lack of interpretation”) and some of the orchestra’s financial and artistic challenges (e.g. subscriptions and ticket sales are flat to declining in Cleveland; meanwhile revenues and demand from the orchestra’s tours are up.)  The piece seems to set a level and neutral playing field for what Lewis’s future critical working relationship to the orchestra will be.

The orchestra season begins tonight at Severance Hall, with the U.S. premiere of George Benjamin’s Duet for piano and orchestra (with Super-Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard as the soloist) and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, which is being filmed for release on DVD as the third in the orchestra’s series of DVDs of Bruckner symphonies.  Virtual Farm Boy is attending the Friday evening performance–under duress: I do not have the Bruckner gene, and I find his symphonies really tedious.  But I try to give things I don’t like multiple opportunites to win my favor  (It’s happened with Wagner.)  Maybe this will be the time for Bruckner.

Don Rosenberg gets his

I was reading one of my favorite blogs, Opera Chic, the other night, when I came across this post quoting Tim Smith, the music critic of the Baltimore Sun, that Cleveland Plain Dealer music critic Donald Rosenberg has been removed from reviewing concerts by the Cleveland Orchestra. The first paragraph of Smith’s post sums it up:

Don Rosenberg, music critic at the Cleveland Plain Dealer for 16 years, was told yesterday by the paper’s editor that he will no longer be covering the famed Cleveland Orchestra. He has been given the option of reviewing other musical events in town, as well as dance. Another writer at the paper, Zack Lewis, was told he will now be orchestra’s reviewer. First, the full disclosure: I’ve known Don and Zach for years; both are members of the Music Critics Association of North America and its board of directors; Don is the immediate past president of that organization; I’m the current president. Now, the full, unbridled response to this news: It stinks.

(The whole post can be found here.)

I have long complained about Don Rosenberg’s seeming personal vendetta against Franz Welser-Möst; almost never has he had anything good to say about FWM’s performances, and when he does, it’s always couched in backhanded terms (“one of the best things he’s [FWM] done.”)  Far more common are the mean-spirited comments.  Rosenberg’s reviews have become a joke, especially when they are so out of sync with reviews that the orchestra receives when it performs elsewhere.  Are Rosenberg’s ears so finely tuned that he hears things others don’t?  (Sometimes I would read his review just to see how harsh it would be.)

I don’t happen to believe that Franz Welser-Möst is in the pantheon of great conductors.  (Mark the performance of the Berg “Chamber Concerto” a couple of seasons ago that totally broke down in performance.)  But when he’s “on”, the performances can be remarkable.  I do think that it is odd that the Plain Dealer has replaced Rosenberg, however, since it totally smacks of interference on the part of the orchestra in the newspaper’s journalistic integrity.  (There are close ties between the Orchestra’s board and the Plain Dealer management.)  There is precious little arts coverage in the PD anymore–I rarely read the paper in its printed form.  I’ll read some stories online, but mostly I ignore it altogether.  The paper’s website cleveland.com is a disorganized disaster as well.  (Why can’t newspapers have a look at some of their competitor’s sites to get a clue?)

One of operachic’s commentors (from Cleveland) got the salient bit:

Plenty of us in Cleveland have been tired of Rosenberg for a long time. His reviews are highly formulaic, and I’ve become increasingly convinced that he writes them at intermission.

I think nearly everyone would agree that FWM does not walk on water, but from what I hear the orchestra really is happy working with him. And personally I think he’s done some things really well. (He’s also conducted some of the most Wrong-headed Mahler I’ve ever heard, but that’s another story.)

Finally, I’d note that there’s a sad larger context around this. First, the Plain Dealer is not a venerable newspaper. It’s a thin, dying small-town rag that hasn’t done any significant journalism in decades. Its arts reporting exists only to build audiences for struggling institutions in a struggling town. The truth is that the Orchestra fills halls everywhere but on its home turf. They desperately need to build a new audience if they are to remain the “Cleveland” orchestra at all. The PD has simply knuckled under to that reality. (Of course, the orchestra could help by improving their marketing and diversifying their programming.) It’s not a pretty story, and it certainly doesn’t speak to journalistic integrity. On the other hand, Rosenberg’s “criticism” doesn’t either.

Cultural weekend number 2: Beethoven and Tan Dun

For the second weekend in a row I had two fulfilling cultural experiences. Friday night, January 12th, I took my friend Robert to hear the Cleveland Orchestra perform Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Now, performances of Beethoven’s 9th are not all that rare; but the orchestra pulled out all the stops for a top-drawer performance, which was recorded live for eventual CD release. (Why don’t they put it on the iTunes store and be done with it, like New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra?) It is my understanding that they don’t yet have a record label signed to release it.

The soloists were outstanding, especially the German bass René Pape, who is arguable the best bass in the world. (Two weeks ago he sang Sarastro at the Met in The Magic Flute.) The soprano was the up-and-coming Canadian Measha Brueggergosman, the tenor was also a Met veteran, Frank Lopardo, and the mezzo was American Kelly O’Connor (who, along with Dawn Upshaw is one of Osvaldo Golijov’s muses). Franz Welser-Möst conducted. In this blog I often complain about the excess of standing ovations at Severance Hall, but in this case it was deserved. The whole thing was thrilling. The first half of the concert was devoted to the orchestra’s first performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” Symphony from 1944. Bernstein’s Jewish heritage was reflected, as was a generally dark spirit of wartime America. Mezzo Kelly O’Connor sang the vocal solo that is the last movement, with text from the biblical Lamentations of Jeremiah. The orchestra takes the program to Miami next week for their Florida residency.

On Saturday afternoon I went to another of the Metropolitan Opera HD video broadcasts up at the Regal Cinemas at Severance Center in Cleveland Heights. This week’s opera could not have been more different from last week’s Bellini. This was the world premiere broadcast of the Chinese composer Tan Dun’s The First Emperor, commissioned by the Met a decade ago and first performed the end of December 2006. It has not gotten very good reviews in the press, so I was both anticipatory and skeptical. But seeing and hearing the performance, I was blown away by the colossal achievement that Tan has made in combining the Western operatic tradition with the Chinese musical tradition. The First Emperor is a work of power and beauty. It is true that the opera could stand some trimming (the pace of parts of it seemed glacial) and the concept of Placido Domingo, the great Spanish tenor, playing Chinese and singing in heavily Spanish-accented English was bizarre, but the orchestral and vocal colors, including a star of the Peking Opera, and American operatic stars Michelle DeYoung, Paul Groves, and Elizabeth Futral, were unparalleled in American operatic history. Tan’s orchestral writing was the most imaginative. Some of the vocal writing moved into generic long-lined romantically-inspired lyricism. But the thing was well considered, and very clearly a hit with the audience. The production and costumes were gorgeous. The Met spared no expense for this production, and it showed. I was able to capture at home from the Met’s internet stream the audio portion of the broadcast, and I have subsequently listened to the whole thing again today, and my opinion only rises about its worth. (For you copyright hawks out there: no, I recorded it for my own personal use, and, no, I am not going to put it out for others to have.)

The director of the video (top-notch characteristics were described after last week’s performance) was Brian Large, who has made a long career of directing opera for televised performance. It captured the essence of this complex new work. I believe that PBS will eventually broadcast The First Emperor. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Hooray to the Met for commissioning it and giving a worthy production.

Franz sighting

Yesterday morning I needed to stop at the Giant Eagle at the top of Cedar Hill for a few things for a food contribution I was making to a reception after church. It was about 9:15, and the store was almost deserted, except for a crew of workers taking inventory, and the usual check-out people. So you can imagine my surprise to witness Cleveland Orchestra Music Director Franz Welser-Möst pushing around a grocery cart. There is always a kind of dissonance in seeing someone famous out of their usual context. And I guess I think that people like Franz must have minions to do the grocery shopping for them. (Somehow I can’t even imagine Christoph von Dohnanyi or Lorin Maazel in the grocery store.)

Franz was looking good, although he has let his hair grow out, and I think I preferred it shorter.

Messiaen's Turangalila, version 2005

This was quite a memorable weekend of music in Cleveland. (At the same time the Cleveland Indians were losing their chance for the 2005 playoffs.)

Last night (Saturday, October 1), I went to the Cleveland Orchestra concert, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst. The first part of the program was Stravinksy’s very late Requiem Canticle with a chamber choir from the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus. This piece was written during Stravinksy’s “serial phase” in which he swiped some of the concepts of his arch-aesthetic-enemy Arnold Schoenberg and his 2nd Viennese School buddies Berg and Webern. Requiem Canticles is unmistakably Stravinsky, but second-rate Stravinsky, as if he had run out of things to say. I’m assuming that the Cleveland performance was creditable; but it’s not a piece I’m going to run out and buy a recording of, or have a longing to hear again.

The second part of the program was Messiaen’s Turangalila-Symphonie (calling it the second “half” would be incorrect–the Stravinsky lasted less than 15 minutes; the Messiaen, 75). The soloists were the same as a couple of years ago: Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano, and Cynthia Millar, ondes-Martenot (that strange electronic keyboard instrument so favored by Messiaen).

This was an absolutely thrilling performance of Turangalila, especially Aimard’s playing, which was alternately tender and caressing and steely. He played from memory (a feat in itself), and was in constant visual communication with Welser-M??st. Aimard is a genius. Several prominent local musicians were gathered in the Severance Hall balcony after the performance exclaiming in unison about Aimard. Franz’s interpretation has matured since the last Cleveland Orchestra performances of this ten movement behemoth. The whole affair seemed less like it was going to run away without him than it had the last time.

At the end there was an ovation–spontaneous, with people on their feet shouting–not one of those timid affairs that are so common these days at Severance Hall where people would give a standing ovation to a slab of beef being drug across the stage. This was a performance worthy of its standing ovation, and multiple curtain calls for the conductor and soloists.

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