Thursday, December 25, 2008

Versatile Virtuoso

Pianist Stephen Hough Explores the Unusual
by Mark Satola


STEPHEN HOUGH is an artist who possesses, in the best sense, a restless mind. A quick look at the wide range of his repertoire more than suggests an interest in music from all eras and genres: from sonatas and concertos by the early 19th-century composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel to arrangements of popular tunes by Richard Rodgers, with stops in between for readings of works by Xaver Scharwenka, Federico Mompou, Emil von Sauer, and an endless cast of forgotten but charming composers of character and genre pieces -- the amount of music Hough has in his fingers is nothing short of astounding. Yet it seems that his encyclopedic repertoire happened more or less organically.

“I don't have a plan when I choose what music to learn and play,” he says. “I tend to go by instinct. I like to find things that are surprising, but I also like to come to the standard repertoire and find a new freshness in the music.”

New freshness is just what can be expected when Hough joins the Cleveland Orchestra this weekend, with guest conductor Iván Fischer, to take on one of the shaggiest of concert-hall warhorses, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor by Sergei Rachmaninov, the one whose finale was transformed into the schmaltz-laden 1940s jukebox hit “Full Moon and Empty Arms.”

April (and a couple of weeks into May, as well) is shaking out as a sort of Rachmaninov month for Hough. In addition to his performances in Severance Hall, he's playing various combinations of the dour Russian's four concertos in Sarasota, Florida, Santa Ana, California (from where he spoke with this writer by telephone), and Dallas, where he'll play all four concertos with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Litton over a period of three weeks.

Hough is known for his explorations of unusual corners of the piano solo and concerto repertoire, and his recordings of so much obscure but worthy music. That eclecticism is exemplified in one of his latest releases, Stephen Hough's New Piano Album, a follow-up on Hyperion to two well-received discs on Virgin of small encore and salon pieces of unexpected charm, by such erstwhile household names as Cecile Chaminade, Moritz Moszkowski, Ignacy Paderewski and Leopold Godowsky.

“I like things that have a melodic or harmonic attractiveness that I can latch onto,” he says when asked how he chooses his pianistic souvenirs oubliée, “or something that has a real rhythmic interest. If it has all three, that's great. The key is to be un-self-conscious about it, to find something new and fresh.

“It can veer into self-consciousness, though,” he notes. “I do dislike it when I can sense someone is doing it just for the sake of being different.”

Lest it be thought, however, that Hough is merely a purveyor of lightweight trifles, one must not forget that he is a musical heavyweight (as well as something of a polymath, with composition and writing as adjuncts to his keyboard virtuosity). A native of Manchester who came from a not particularly musical family, Hough came to international attention in 1983 when he won first prize in the Naumburg International Piano Competition. More recently, he was the recipient of a 2001 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.

As a writer, Hough has penned some lively prose, providing detailed but highly entertaining notes for many of his recordings, as well as appreciations of such piano virtuosi as Vlado Perlemuter, Shura Cherkassky and Joseph Villa. Perhaps the most entertaining of his longer essays is his “Berceuse for Bechstein,” a wistful eclogue for a piano that was possessed of great beauty of tone and supple responsiveness, but which was supplanted by the growing hegemony of the brilliant and steely Steinway pianos that began their ascendancy in the second half of the 19th century. The dove-voiced Bechstein lasted a few decades into the 20th century, but the prevalence of Steinways, favored by such clangorous artists as Horowitz, and the replacement of home music making by television, sounded the knell.

“It was so much more appealing than Aunt Maud's arthritic fingers struggling with Chaminade's Automne, or Uncle Harry's repeated attempts to find The Lost Chord," Hough writes with, one imagines, a sad smile. “So the pianos went to the antique shops, Maud and Harry went to the nursing home, and suddenly a chapter of European life was finished.”

As a composer, Hough is known best as an arranger and a writer of works in smaller forms -- his Richard Rodgers arrangements are particularly ingenious -- but there are larger pieces on the horizon. “I'm hoping to release a viola sonata I wrote when I was at Juilliard in 1981 and '82,” he says. “I'd been put off composing by another student, who was very critical of what I'd written. Then [American composer] John Corigliano heard my arrangement of ‘My Favorite Things’ and encouraged me to continue.” As for a career as pianist-composer in the Rachmaninov mold, however, Hough says, “I'm not going to be a composer; I just enjoy the creative process.”

He is, however, co-initiating the creation of some new music. “I have two concertos being written for me, one by George Tsontakis -- the Dallas Symphony commissioned that -- and a concerto by James MacMillan, commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra.” He acknowledges his responsibility as a creative artist in helping to bring these new works to life. “It's quite a daunting task to do a piece you haven't seen,” he says. “I can't imagine what it will be like being presented with a piece that has never been heard before.”

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, April 14, 2004.

Against the Current

Henri Dutilleux is Still On a Quest for Perfect Expression
by Mark Satola

THE 88-YEAR-OLD FRENCH COMPOSER Henri Dutilleux will not be in attendance this weekend when Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Cleveland Orchestra in a program that includes Dutilleux's exquisite Symphony No. 2, “Le Double.” His absence is not due to any sort of retirement on the part of the octogenarian artist, but rather because he is “overbusy,” as his secretary put it, with, among other things, work on a piece commissioned by Seiji Ozawa and the Festival Saito Kinen of Matsumoto in Japan. Written for and dedicated to soprano Renée Fleming, it will be performed at the 2006 festival, in time for Dutilleux's 90th birthday.

The presence of Dutilleux's music in Severance Hall is always a welcome occurrence, one that has happened from time to time over the last 40 years, most prominently in 1965, when George Szell conducted the Cleveland Orchestra in the world premiere of Dutilleux's Métaboles, which was commissioned by the Musical Arts Association. It's not surprising that Szell, who frankly was not well-disposed toward contemporary music, was nevertheless a champion of Dutilleux, whose works are imbued with an all-too-rare combination of profound imagination and breathtaking technique; the legendarily conservative conductor knew the real thing when he saw it, his distaste for the Second Viennese School notwithstanding.

The Symphony No. 2 was written for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and was first played there in 1959, with the BSO led by Charles Münch. Its sound-world must have appeared quite advanced to American audiences of the day, though Dutilleux indicated that there were those who considered its tonal liberality something of a heresy in the postwar years when twelve-tone, or serial, procedures ruled the musical earth.

“ ‘Le Double,' composed between 1955 and 1959, in a fully ‘serial' period, went against the current,” Dutilleux said in a recent e-mail interview (in French, translated by Francoise-Pierre Costes), “and was considered something of a provocation.

“But that was not my intention, for, if the language is still very often tonal or modal, you can also find, when analyzing it, borrowings from dodecaphonic techniques.”

Dutilleux's second symphony takes its name from its concerto grosso-like arrangement of forces, in which a 12-instrument ensemble occupies a place in front of the larger orchestra. Any similarity to baroque practice, however, disappears from the first sinuous notes of the clarinet, a questioning theme that functions almost as an unvarying motto throughout the first movement, and which returns at the symphony's quiet conclusion, an extended “unanswered question” that nevertheless perfectly resolves the complex turbulence that has preceded it.

Dutilleux acknowledges that the symphony was not his most characteristic expression of form. “If, after some time has elapsed, I were to criticize myself,” he said, “I should say that the [symphony's] sonorous substance, its instrumental language seem more interesting, more attractive than the form of the work, which still refers strictly to the three or four movements of the traditional symphony.”

The composer's quest for perfect expression through organic perfection has continued apace over the years. After the milestone of developmental organization achieved in Métaboles, Dutilleux went on to create a small but impressive catalogue of works, each marked by highly concentrated technique and unbridled imaginative flight. He indicated, however, that there was still much that he hoped to achieve.

“I did not cultivate the field of the human voice enough, in spite of my Correspondances, which I recently wrote for the Berlin Philharmonic and [American soprano] Dawn Upshaw,” he said. “In the same way, I hope I'll have enough time -- and enough strength! -- to write some new preludes for piano, and, if possible, a second string quartet.”

But there are limits, he suggested, to what can be accomplished. “I cannot have the ambition to imitate my great colleague Elliott Carter who, at his age [96 on December 11, 2004], dared to take on the adventure of the opera and won his bet!"

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, November 24, 2004.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ghosts of a City Past: More Cleveland Stories About Buildings and Food

by Mark Satola

I WANT TO RIDE PAST the Euclid Avenue mansions, stopping at the most fantastic of them to marvel at their outlandish fancy. I want spend a week in a suite at the old Hollenden Hotel on Superior Avenue. I want to see Hanlon's New Fantasm, Max Fehrman in Uncle Isaac, Imre Kiraley's Barnum Circus production, “The Destruction of Rome,” and Inside Track at the Star Theatre. I want to hear Art Tatum play stride piano down on East 105th Street and have ice cream in the arabesque dining room of Boukair's.

Well, wouldn't you?

If, of a dreary winter Friday night in Cleveland, when your cultural choices are a mass-market movie, another losing sporting event, an overpriced “fine dining” experience, or this town's favorite default funfest, pounding them back at one of the taverns that are legion in the region -- if the thought creeps up the back of your neck, as the cold wind rushes in off the inaccessible lakefront, that Cleveland was a more interesting city half a century ago and more, you're not far wrong.

Nowhere is this point more plainly or poignantly made than in Cleveland Then and Now (Thunder Bay Press, $17.95) by John J. Grabowski and Diane Ewart Grabowski, who are, respectively, a professor of applied history at Case Western Reserve University and director of research at the Western Reserve Historical Society, and a freelance researcher, writer and editor. Working mostly with photographer Simon Clay (three of the “now” photographs were taken by Richard Palmer), the Grabowskis place, side-by-side, historical photographs of Cleveland and modern images taken from roughly the same vantage point.

More often than not, old Cleveland easily beats new Cleveland. To compare, for instance, Samuel Andrews' 100-room Victorian Gothic castle (locally derided as “Andrews's Folly” for its sheer unmanageability as a home) with the building now occupying the property, the brick cube housing WEWS-TV, is hardly fair on aesthetic or commercial grounds.
But seeing the turrets and bays and spires of Andrews's elegant pile does make you wonder why our civic forebears saw so little value in so unique and irreplaceable an edifice that in 1923 they would demolish it straightaway.

Rummaging around in the past is more than an exercise in rueful nostalgia for those Clevelanders interested in researching their family history. Vicki Blum Vigil, who has previously written about northeast Ohioans' final resting places, explores the catacombs of data available to amateur and professional genealogists, in Finding Your Family History in Northeast Ohio (Gray & Company, $17.95). Vigil peppers her detailed guide to area archives, libraries and civil record depositories with hundreds of entertaining and informative anecdotes from area ancestor-hunters, as well as articles about famous families of northeast Ohio. Her knowledge of the ins and outs of unearthing information about long-departed forebears makes this a particularly valuable resource, and her friendly style fosters an easy readability.

Recent observations that Clevelanders have achieved a measure of renown in the girth sweepstakes might or might not be entirely on the mark, but it cannot be denied that residents of our city are more than a little fond of eating. When not eating, they like to reminisce about legendary meals enjoyed in long-gone dining rooms. That's why Gail Ghetia Bellamy's Cleveland Food Memories (Gray & Company, $17.95) will probably enjoy the same sort of success as last year's volumes about Higbee's old Silver Grille restaurant.

Bellamy has done a wonderful job assembling photographs sure to throw readers' nostalgia glands into overdrive: The Penguin frozen custard drive-in in Fairview Park, the exotic Superior Avenue entrance to the Kon-Tiki restaurant, the predecessor to Bearden's in Rocky River, a drive-in called Jackson's Steak Sandwiches, the old Theatrical on Short Vincent, with its curving glass block front, and Chef Hector Restaurant, a sinister-looking doorway into what appears to be an abandoned warehouse, but which led to the basement dining room of Hector Boiardi, who became famous when his name was respelled phonetically on cans of Beef-a-roni.

Bellamy's accompanying text is liberally seasoned with reminiscences by Clevelanders of their favorite restaurant, bakery (it's Hough, natch) or corner store. There will be future editions of this book, it's safe to predict, and for those, Bellamy might want to consider adding a little more historical data to her text: addresses, dates and other factoids are not always in evidence, and photo captions are sometimes less than informative. Chances are, however, that you'll be too busy reminiscing about choking down a phosphorous-colored Big Ghoulardi shake at Manners to notice.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, December 17, 2003.

Preview: A Rare Look Behind the Scenes of "The Night of the Hunter"

by Mark Satola

TOWARD THE END of production, the cast and crew of the remarkable 1955 film The Night of the Hunter gathered for a group portrait. Director Charles Laughton stands at the center of the crowd of actors and technicians, an expression of pure happiness lighting up his large, fleshy visage (“I have a face like the behind of an elephant,” he is reported to once have said). His colleagues are no less beatific in their demeanor. Even Robert Mitchum, already a certified bad boy in Hollywood, looks like a gleeful kid, grinning as he stands next to the venerable Lillian Gish, who seems to be whooping with laughter.

Years later, Laughton recalled the days spent working on his only directorial feature as the happiest experience of his life. The Night of the Hunter certainly is the product of one of the happiest confluences of perfect circumstances to occur in Hollywood, which all too often is the capital city of compromised intentions.

The felicity that surrounded the movie shimmered into view again in July 1974, when a youngish fellow named Robert Gitt, then technical officer at the American Film Institute, visited Laughton’s widow, Elsa Lanchester, to retrieve still photos, letters and other objets de production relating to The Night of the Hunter, and carry them back to Washington, D.C., where they would become part of AFI’s collection, then housed on the top floor of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Gitt had been enthralled with Laughton’s strange and frightening fairy tale since his late teens, when he first saw it on television in his hometown of Baltimore.

“I was quite taken with it from the start,” Gitt says of the first time he saw Hunter. “My parents were both fans of Lillian Gish from her silent film days, and when they saw a TV Guide listing that The Night of the Hunter was going to be shown on local TV, they were very interested in seeing it. It turned out to be a very gripping and very exciting movie with an unusual technique. I’ve liked it ever since.”

While at Lanchester’s home, Gitt was amazed to learn that she was also in possession of the film’s actual rushes — “eighteen cardboard boxes, filled with many metal cans of film,” he recalls — and that she was eager to donate them to the AFI film school in Los Angeles, where they might be studied by young filmmakers.

The product of one of the most unusual on-set procedures ever, the rushes of The Night of the Hunter proved to be a unique treasure. In bringing to the screen Davis Grubb’s lyrical novel about two children pursued by a psychopathic preacher (Mitchum) in search of hidden money, Laughton sought to create a working environment in which cast and crew could inhabit Grubb’s dreamlike world. Toward that end, Laughton sought to minimize the mechanics of filmmaking: he rarely called “cut,” and between takes kept the cameras rolling. This meant, of course, that he was caught on sound film, shaping his cast’s performances and guiding the film to the place he always saw it going.

The boxes traveled between the east and west coasts for the next 20 years. At one point, while they were at the AFI school in Los Angeles, Gitt was “horrified” to learn that, so far from studying the footage, “students were starting to cut them up and use them as leader.” Eventually, both the rushes and Gitt came to rest at the UCLA Film and Television Archive (where Gitt is currently preservation officer), and he began the arduous task of bringing the 80,000 feet of takes into sensible form. About five hours of the original safety stock was copied onto new acetate, and then distilled to about two-and-a-half hours.

The resulting document, “Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter,” presents the crafting of the scenes in the order in which they would ultimately appear in the film, creating a sort of meta-film that exists behind Laughton’s finished product.

The Night of the Hunter was the most unusual and experimental film made in Hollywood in the 1950s,” Gitt says. “Laughton and [the movie’s screenwriter James] Agee are known to have screened a number of silent films at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in preparation for this project. You can see the influence of D.W. Griffith in some of the countryside scenes. They must have also screened The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the work of F. W. Murnau; the influence of German expressionism is so strong here.”

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, October 15, 2003.

The Parent Trap:James Lileks' Satiric Jab at Vintage Child-Rearing Lore

by Mark Satola

IT IS AN IMPOLITE and inadvisable thing to make sport of the ignorance of our forebears, unless that ignorance is so spectacular that you just can’t help but point, laugh and make rude but funny remarks.

James Lileks has made himself into a cottage industry of ridicule as the Daedalus of a sprawling, labyrinthine humor Web site (www.lileks.com) and the author of two humor books previous to the new one now under consideration.

His initial outing, The Gallery of Regrettable Food, was an achingly funny reconsideration of the plainly unappetizing vittles that someone thought Americans might like to eat, as culled from the pages of cookbooks and food brochures from the golden age of Commie-hunting. Can I ever thank him enough for “pressed shank braised with smoker’s phlegm?” (“It may take a few tries to get Uncle Hank to hack up enough Lucky sauce, so be patient.”)

His next up at the plate, Interior Desecrations, might have been subtitled “Swing and a Miss.” This time Lileks took on execrable 1970s interior design, but the nightmares in avocado and harvest gold were a little too easy to target; and some of the Naugahyde fantasies he attempted to skewer were interesting enough to resist his barbs.

With Mommy Knows Worst, however, Lileks is back in form. He works best when his source material is so outre as to defy belief, and the advertisements for potty chairs, laxatives, hair-raisingly unsafe car seats and diapers for ten-year-olds who wet the bed certainly fit the bill, as do the bizarre sermons that tout the benefits of sunbathing for newborns, the imperative to boil diapers, the role of the irrelevant dad, and why you probably shouldn’t dose baby with narcotic cough syrup.

Lileks’ technique is to discern the often inadvertent subtexts of the ads and articles he presents, and to riff on them at length. A photo accompanying an anonymous women’s magazine article called “How Good a Family Man is Your Husband?” shows a 1950s fellow in shirtsleeves, slacks and a smallish fedora sitting on the ground, grilling a steak over an open fire while his perma-perfect wife looks on with what seems to be pleasure and admiration.

“Look at this poor bastard,” Lileks writes. “[...]The hat is an afterthought, jammed on his head as some sort of brain-dampening device — good Lord, you can see it in his dead eyes, his slack and soon-to-drool mouth. He’s probably barely able to put two words together, but somewhere in the back of his brain a thought stirs and struggles to be heard: I used to fish, once. I had a life of my own.

“But then she stares extra hard and smiles, and his head is full of that sound you hear when you tune the radio to the place where there ain’t no station....”

It’s a technique that works beautifully in a variety of contexts. The ad for “Babytron, The chair that science built” depicts a modernistic high chair that conspicuously lacks a seat belt. “Too bad science wasn’t around when the kid did a header out of this thing,” Lileks drily notes. “Yes, the patented Babytron technology permits children to slide down the modern, scientific way and clip their chins on the sheet-metal tray the scientific, modern way....”

If it seems a little too easy to find the products and pitches risible (the Doo-Tee Nursery Seat, Zymenol laxative, cans of Kingan’s Reliable ox tongue “packed in agar agar jelly”), Mommy Knows Worst has the advantage of James Lileks’ well-honed comic voice, the skeptical cut-up with the wide, slangy vocabulary that always hits just the right note (“Remember: severed ruminant tongue. Kids ask for it by name.”).

As in Lilek’s previous volumes, the book’s retro, “googie” design goes a long way toward putting his wisenheimer point across. It would have been nice to see art director Kay Schuckhart credited on the title page, rather than down at the bottom of the copyright information.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, October 26, 2005.

Overture, Curtain, Lights: The Cleveland Orchestra Tackles Carl Stalling's Challenging Cartoon Scores

by Mark Satola

“THERE NEVER WERE scheduled recording sessions for the cartoons,” says conductor George Daugherty. “There might be 35 minutes left after recording music for one of the movies in production. The call would go out, and they all would come running across the Warner Brothers lot with music flying.”

You wish that somehow, back in the 1940s and '50s, Warners had made a documentary feature, shot some 8mm home movie footage, taken some snapshots, kept any kind of record of the sight of cartoon director Chuck Jones and music director Carl Stalling in full flight as they raced toward a soundstage to record some of the trickiest music this side of Igor Stravinsky in his most acidulously spiky mode.

The musicians that awaited their hectic arrival were some of the best in southern California. “They were the Warner Brothers studio orchestra by day,” says Daugherty, “and the Los Angeles Philharmonic by night.” Still, the scores that Stalling plunked on the music stands challenged the bejeezus out of them, as you can hear in a rare rehearsal clip on the now-deleted CD "The Carl Stalling Project."

Stalling counts out the downbeat by snapping his fingers, and the orchestra launches into a crazy cue that races headlong into a melodic wall at the top of the phrase. But it's not right; the players lose their concentration in the last rush of notes and the result is musical mud. Finally, though, they hit it right, and the take is complete.

“This wasn't just cartoon music, these were seven-minute jewels of composition,” Daugherty says. “They would lay one of these things down in about an hour.”

George Daugherty brings this supremely difficult music to the Blossom Music Center this Sunday night as he leads the Cleveland Orchestra in “Bugs Bunny on Broadway,” a project he developed 15 years ago to celebrate the relatively unsung genius of Carl Stalling, whose recombinant way with classics, pop songs and his own fearsome composition made him one of the grandfathers of the modern technique of sampling.

Along with Stalling's scores (as well as those of his protégé and successor, Milt Franklyn), the actual cartoons themselves will be shown on a large screen, with the musical soundtrack digitally sliced away (Mel Blanc's luminous voice tracks thankfully left intact) so that the crack musicians of the Cleveland Orchestra can try their hands at playing to the breakneck action.

“What the audience sees is really a scoring session,” says Daugherty, though in truth, no scoring session ever went like this, with only a single chance to make it work; the actual soundstage recordings proceeded phrase by phrase. “You absolutely have to be accurate to within one-thirtieth of a second,” Daugherty says of the real-time situation onstage. “I really have to drive the orchestra. I feel guilty, but Bugs stops for no man, no musician, no nothing! That is the challenge.”

Since 1990, Daugherty has taken his celebration of the Wascally Wabbit around the world, and yes, even to Broadway, where it consistently sold out houses during an extended run at the Gershwin Theatre. But Bugs Bunny on Broadway is only part of his 25-year career as a West Coast conductor; he's been involved in a number of other projects that mingle music and other formats.

One of his projects with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra involved the premiere of a new concerto to celebrate the Chinese New Year and San Francisco's venerable Chinese traditions, with narration by author Amy Tan. His 2000 debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra, meantime, found him presenting Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, with Shakespeare's text included in the performance. And he's guest-conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the legendary Hollywood Bowl.

“I always smile when I see myself described as a cartoon aficionado,” he says, laughing. “I was in my early 30s when I became re-interested in cartoons. I'd liked cartoons like any normal kid, and as a musical kid, I really appreciated the music. But the first ten years of my career were my ‘normal' period.”

The first part of Sunday night's concert begins normally enough, with overtures by Richard Wagner and Franz von Suppé, and Strauss's Tales from the Vienna Woods waltzes, but in Act II, things go delightfully astray, with 1959's "Baton Bunny" (guest conducted by Bugs himself), "High Note" (1960), "Zoom and Bored" (1957), "Duck Amuck" (1953), "The Rabbit of Seville" (1950), "A Corny Concerto" (1943), "Long-Haired Hare" (1949), and the one everyone will be waiting for, "What's Opera, Doc?," starring Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny in a cross-dressing travesty of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen.

This version of "What's Opera, Doc?" fills in an omission left open at the cartoon's original theatrical release. “Not many people know that the voice of Elmer Fudd was not Mel Blanc, but Arthur Q. Bryant, for which he never received screen credit,” says Daugherty. “There's a place in 'What's Opera, Doc?' where Elmer is on top of a mountain, calling out ‘Lightning! Thunder! Rain! Smog!' Well, Jones thought Bryant's voice was too high on the word ‘smog,' so he re-recorded it with Blanc.

“For this project, we had the original session recordings for the cartoon, and we restored Bryant's voice to the last word, so I suppose what we have here is like an ‘original instruments' version.”

In the years since the golden age of animation, the art underwent a decline from which it never really recovered, despite the best efforts of digital animators and writers. Daugherty believes that's due to a difference in the way the Warner Brothers crew worked.

“One of the things they did that they don't do today is that everything was plotted meticulously in advance,” he says. “Chuck Jones and Carl Stalling or Milt Franklyn and the sound effects guy sat down and figured out how it was all going to work. They really meticulously planned the sound design, 40 years before the term ‘sound design' was invented.”

It helped that Stalling was in essence a great composer who just happened to be working in an unusual medium. “His own scoring was absolutely magnificent,” Daugherty says. “He was the first of the neo-classical-postmodern composers.”

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, July 28, 2004.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Beginning of an Era

From quite a while ago:

JUST CALL HIM FRANZ

At the end of his first season as the Cleveland Orchestra's music director, Franz Welser-Moest is still climbing musical mountains.
by Mark Satola

Franz Welser-Möst is a little bemused by people who are surprised that he walks to work. "I enjoy a lot of walking," says the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, relaxing at the end of his first full season in his new post.

"Sometimes I walk from Shaker Square to Severance Hall. It's about 40 minutes. But this is a city where everybody seems to drive. People ask me how can I do that." In truth, it's difficult to imagine this slender young Austrian clambering into an SUV and barreling down the precipice from the Heights. American car culture, with its near-militaristic obsession with four-wheeled equalizers, seems quite far from Welser-Möst's world.

"In Europe, I do a lot of hiking in the mountains," he says. "I couldn't live without mountains."

Over the years, Welser-Möst has had to contend with many a mountain, figurative as well as literal. His first encounter with international fame, a six-year tenure as music director of the London Philharmonic, placed an Everest of disapprobation in his path. Dubbed "Frankly Worse Than Most" by the cruel wags that are all too legion in Albion, the then-29 year old Welser-Möst fought against balky orchestra players and a press that seemed more interested in being insulted that an Austrian of his tender age should be in charge of the band that Thomas Beecham forged in 1932, than in assessing the quality of his performances.

Welser-Möst, it must be admitted, did not help matters, sacking high-ranking players and a well-liked choral director soon after his arrival. The problem was partly one of management style: Austrian autocracy versus British self-governance.

His subsequent flight from London was not universally cheered by the musical establishment there -- he turned down offers to take over the London Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra upon leaving the Philharmonic -- but it was a full four years before he set foot in London again.

During that time, the young conductor earned the directorship of the Zurich Opera, a position he held from 1996 to 2002. It was there, and in concerts conducted in Vienna and Berlin, that Welser-Möst redefined his artistic identity, finding in the crucible of opera the refining fires that had tempered so many of the legendary conductors of the last century, including the Cleveland Orchestra's musical director from 1946 to 1970, George Szell, himself a thoroughgoing autocrat of titanic proportions. (Old-timers may recall that the players nicknamed Szell "Dr. Cyclops," after the 1940s horror film villain played by the clinically sinister Albert Dekker.)

Opera, it seems, was good for Welser-Möst. The European press voiced consistently high praise for his performances in the opera house and the concert hall, with special hosannas for his readings of Beethoven's mighty Missa Solemnis (Vienna, November 2002), Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Die tote Stadt (Zurich, April 2003) and Franz Schmidt's The Book of Seven Seals, a vast oratorio that has become his signature piece, in performances from London to Cleveland.

He guest conducted in Cleveland quite a few times during this period, and it was no secret that a lot of Cleveland Orchestra players liked working under him. His clear baton ("best hands in the business," one player commented) was especially valued, as was his collaborative leadership style, a lesson perhaps learned in the stormy London days.

When Christoph von Dohnányi announced his retirement from the music directorship of the Cleveland Orchestra, effective at the end of the 2001-2002 season, he himself put the Musical Arts Association's search committee on the trail of Welser-Möst. The young conductor was selected as Dohnányi's successor a full three years before the actual passing of the baton, an unusual period of transition that allowed for a nearly seamless transfer of power. One need only look to the fairly rough time that Simon Rattle has had in Berlin, succeeding the esteemed Claudio Abbado with precious little prep time.

Even with three get-acquainted seasons, Welser-Möst's first year at Severance was not exactly an uninterrupted cakewalk, as orchestra and conductor sought to forge a style exemplary of their collective personalities. And then there was the issue of the local press -- while Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra were acclaimed on tour, local performances came in for an unusual amount of criticism from Cleveland's only daily newspaper.

Given the highs and lows of Welser-Möst's last decade and a half as one of the world's leading conductors, hiking up Cedar Hill at the end of a work day must seem easy as pie.

DESPITE THE HEAVY damage from American and British bombers, much of Welser-Most's hometown of Linz has survived, including the historic church of St. Florian, where Bruckner was organist and choral director for decades. The picturesque grotto railway, constructed in 1898 and Europe's steepest mountain railway track, also survived the war; it continues to this day its 16-minute ascent of the garden-terraced Pöstlingberg, the high hill overlooking the city.

Welser-Möst's talent manifested itself early. He studied primarily at Munich's Hochschule für Musik, and at age 19 became a finalist in the Herbert von Karajan conducting competition, an honor that led to his appointment as principal conductor of the Austrian Youth Orchestra. Following director's posts in the hinterlands of Winterthur and Norrköping, Welser-Möst made his first appearance as a guest conductor with the London Philharmonic in 1986, following that by taking the Phil on a European tour. His American debut, in 1990, was with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

After the tumultuous years of the 1990s, Welser-Möst seems to have matured in remarkable ways, not only as an artist, but also as a citizen of the world. His commitment to helping others was acknowledged in 1995 when the Western Law Center for Disability Rights in Los Angeles honored him for his support of the Hartheim Institute, a home for the disabled in Linz. This spring, Case Western Reserve University chimed in with an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.

In Cleveland, Welser-Möst has made himself an active participant in the life of the community. "Right when I came, we took care to form really close links with the Cleveland Institute of Music, as well as Oberlin," he says. "It's not only that musicians from the orchestra teach at these places, when the music director shows up, it creates a relationship.

"That's an investment in the future," he says. "We have a duty for the entire business, to take care of the entire tradition. If we invest in people now, we won't just be keeping even, we'll be ahead. That's the future."

Welser-Möst's interests go beyond cultivation of conservatory students, to bringing music to a wide range of kids of all ages. "I think Sting's comment about music for kids is apt," he says. "It's scientifically proven that children who are exposed to classical music have a higher percentage of learning capacity. It trains the brain, and they discover new ways of thinking, which leads to more success in other areas."

His own early years as an artist taught him the importance of working with the next generation. He was particularly fortunate to work with two of the most important, if widely disparate, conductors of the 20th century, Herbert von Karajan and Sergiu Celibidache.
"I knew Karajan during the last 10 years of his life," he says, "and got to watch a lot of his rehearsals. He was a genius in organizing everything, and was highly disciplined. And at the same time, he was absolutely obsessed with beauty."

Like Karajan, Welser-Möst is hugely successful as an opera conductor, though opera is just a part of his repertoire. "Karajan was very much an opera man," he notes. "I once asked him why singers liked working with him so much. He told me that it was because he gave them the freedom to do exactly what he wanted them to do."

As a public figure, Celibidache was about as different from Karajan as it was possible to be. Where Karajan was very much an international sophisticate, piloting his own jet, embracing every new technological development in recording and obsessively committing performances to CD and video, Celibidache was a somewhat reclusive man who shunned the recording studio, believing that only in live performance could the real essence of a composer's vision be achieved. His concerts acquired an aura of legend, all the more so because they were transitory experiences (though lately EMI has released airchecks from broadcast concerts conducted by Celibidache).

"From 1980 to 1984 I was in Munich," Welser-Möst says, "and I went to a lot of his rehearsals. Celibidache had an analytic sense for all the pieces he conducted, and a thorough knowledge of how you work with an orchestra. He was just a brilliant man."

It seems that Welser-Möst's own artistic identity is imbued with the best elements of both his idols. His performances in Severance Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as recordings with such bands as the Salzburg Camerata Academica, the Bavarian Radio Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra and his semi-nemeses, the London Philharmonic, reveal a conductor who is fully alert to every detail of the score, sometimes at the expense of edge-of-the-seat excitement, but always with beauty, balance and, in the case of the Cleveland Orchestra, a blossoming new sound that is different from anything they've done before. The orchestra's recent performance of Sibelius's Symphony No. 4 in A minor, for instance, was awash in deep tone colors that seemed to subdue the gilded walls of Severance Hall.

"That was a very dark concert," says Scott Haigh. And yet the orchestra was never actually instructed to underscore the symphony's ominous sound world. "Welser-Möst gives you a very clear idea of what passages mean to him, but he says almost nothing about intonation." The fact that the players were all on the same timbral page testifies to the level of intuitive communication that already exists between conductor and players.

Welser-Möst sees his mission in Cleveland as varifold. He's curtailed his appearances in Europe, the better to focus on his work here, and has thrown himself into the life of the city, to an extent that previous music directors did not. He conducted the 2003 Martin Luther King concert at Severance Hall, participated fully in the hall's "Day of Music," and conducted the orchestra's annual July 4th concert on Public Square. All of these are duties that were previously left to resident and assistant conductors.

Musically, he is explicitly committed to the Cleveland Orchestra, and management has responded with an unprecedented extension of his contract, through 2012, a move that pleased many, horrified a few, and generally surprised all, including Welser-Möst himself. There had been talk of his being offered the directorship of the Vienna Opera in 2007, but as he put it, "I'd never had an offer, so why should I think about it?"

For now, Welser-Möst is right where he wants to be. "My role is to maintain the integrity of the orchestra," he says. "Everyone has noticed that the sound of the orchestra has changed a lot just in the first season. They always played perfectly, but now they're all breathing."

"I feel we can learn a lot," says Lisa Boyko. "Some things Franz would like to do musically, we're not used to doing. We didn't get it exactly right. It needs to gel a little more. But I think it's going to be totally amazing, unlike anything we have done in the past."

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, July 2, 2003.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Crypt Sleeper

From the vault:

One Last Death Ride: Bellamy's Latest Horror Show Makes It Five Of A Kind
by Mark Satola

TO LOOK AT John Stark Bellamy, you wouldn't think that this friendly-faced guy in a sportcoat and tie was the Keeper of the Cleveland Crypt, as author of five volumes of what he likes to call “Cleveland dismalia.” But then, many a dark, roiling inner life is concealed behind a mild façade.

“I had the good fortune to grow up two blocks from Lake View Cemetery,” Bellamy says, as if about to tell you he liked to build model airplanes as a kid. “I learned quickly how you could sneak in there at night. On the lower part of the Mayfield wall, someone had actually put up a kind of metal handhold that you could reach up and grab and pull yourself up by.

“I spent a great deal of time at night in Lakeview, in the most perfervid years of my adolescence,” he says. “I'd just walk around, look at tombstones -- no flashlight, of course. A couple of times I slept inside mausoleums.”

Come again?

“They were open,” he says with a smile. “Of course now you couldn't do that, what with crime and security concerns.”

While you may not be able to experience a night bedding down on cold marble at Motel 666 anymore, it's still possible to peer inside the vault of Cleveland's dark past with the help of Bellamy's latest volume of mayhem and disaster, Death Ride at Euclid Beach (Gray and Company, $13.95). Like its predecessors (They Died Crawling, The Maniac in the Bushes, The Corpse in the Cellar and The Killer in the Attic), Death Ride chronicles a wide variety of heinous crimes, heart-rending accidents and manmade disasters, culled from over a century of old Cleveland newspaper records and related documents.

It very well may also be the last of its species. As Death Ride hits the stores, Bellamy is packing it in and packing it up, leaving the grim streets of Cleveland for a retirement of sorts in the green hills of Vermont. Death Ride at Euclid Beach marks the crestline of the tide of blood and tears he has lovingly chronicled for over a decade.

His five books, however, will not be his only legacy. “I now have a calendar of Cleveland dismalia from 1800 to about 1984, about 1,200 pages in electronic almanac form,” he says. “So if you wanted to know the 20 worst things that happened in Cleveland on, say, your birthday, it could be accessed with a keystroke.

“When I leave town, I'm going to bequeath it to the citizens of Cleveland as my final gesture, probably on the Internet, the way I did my electronic book on hangings.”

Bellamy's teenage angst (“I was a fairly morbid, introverted adolescent, no doubt about that”) might have led, as it does in so many cases, to the dead end of attenuated, pot-bellied Goth bachelorhood, but he was fortunate to be infused with literary DNA from both sides of his family tree: his mother was a reporter for Hearst's Wisconsin News; while on his father's side, he was preceded by three generations of print men -- his father, Peter, was longtime drama critic for the Plain Dealer, his grandfather was an editor-in-chief of the PD, and his great-grandfather had penned the fin-de-siècle dystopian satire Looking Backward.

“My grandfather came out here in 1907 to work on the Plain Dealer,” Bellamy says. “I just discovered his first bylined story the other day -- a story in the Cleveland Sunday Magazine from August 1907, about what was then a famous Ohio murder. It made me feel as though I were part of an apostolic succession.”

While Bellamy has written about horrors of every stripe, he remains fondest of those involving the gentle art of murder. “In most murders, there are very strong, very unusual personalities involved,” he says. “One of the reasons I've disliked the whole Torso Murder saga in Cleveland is because it lacks that personality quotient. Most of the victims were nonentities -- prostitutes, low-level criminals, vagrants -- whose disappearance we would not have noticed if someone hadn't stumbled over the body parts.

“I'm interested in quirky people with quirky motivations, the kind of woman who kills her husband because she's embarrassed by the slurping noise he makes when he eats soup at dinner parties. To me that's a motivation found in a person who's not run-of-the-mill, who's not operating by the same impulses and restraints that the rest of us are."

Photo by Mark Satola
Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, April 7, 2004.

Potemkin Village Threnody

From the archives, 2004:

Tearing Down Walls: James Conlon Champions Music Silenced By The Nazis

by Mark Satola

VIKTOR ULLMANN's final musical testament was a piano sonata that was much more than a piano sonata. Incarcerated in the Nazi “show city” of Theresienstadt (Terezin) along with nearly 60,000 other Jews, many of whom were artists, composers and performers, Ullmann was a leading participant in the cultural life that spontaneously appeared within the confines of the walled city, first in secret, then later with full approval of the Nazis, who found that the vision of so many Jews happily making music provided a perfect PR cover for their Final Solution.

Shortly before his deportation to Auschwitz, Ullmann (1898-1944) composed his seventh piano sonata, leaving behind a manuscript nearly indecipherable from many revisions, but also, tantalizingly, replete with cues for instrumentation -- incontrovertible proof that the sonata (which is entirely performable as a keyboard work) is really a sketch for a symphony.

Thanks to the labors of German musicologist Bernhard Wulff, that symphony has been brought to life as Ullmann's Symphony No. 2 in D Major (Wulff performed the same feat for Ullmann's similarly cued fifth piano sonata, presenting it as the Symphony No. 1, “On My Youth”), and is the centerpiece of concerts being given by the Cleveland Orchestra this weekend under the baton of guest conductor James Conlon, who has been a tireless champion of music by composers who had been silenced by the Third Reich.

“There's a saying in Germany, that these composers were murdered twice,” Conlon says, “once in reality, and a second time in postwar Europe's musical world.”

Indeed, the decades following World War II were dominated by composers who followed the musical ethos of Anton von Webern, the disciple of Schoenberg who essentialized to aphoristic miniature the serial methodology of his mentor. Composers such as Alexander von Zemlinsky, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Ernst Krenek and Franz Schreker, with their commitment to tonality, were ignored or forgotten; while such composers as Ullmann, Hans Krasa, Pavel Haas and Erwin Schulhoff perished while prisoners of the Nazi regime.

Conlon, who has spent the last 20 years in Europe, piloting such institutions as the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Cologne Philharmonic and the Paris Opera, has been at the forefront of the 30-year drive to return these composers to the concert halls.

“My interest was an outgrowth of my years in Germany,” he says. “I developed an interest which became a passion for the music of Zemlinsky about a decade ago, and made a recording or two of his music.”

Zemlinsky was one of the composers whose music was forbidden -- entartete Musik -- by Joseph Goebbels, who oversaw cultural matters in the Third Reich. Grounds for such proscription in the 1930s included “decadence” (read: modernistic tendencies) and a Jewish background. “A lot of the music contains a world of feelings about the time -- what the Germans call the Zeitgeist -- which can only be appreciated by hearing the music itself,” Conlon says.

“I think 2004 is the year to try to get as many American orchestras to get at least one piece [by “entartete” composers] on their programs,” he notes. “I have a sense of mission about this.”

Conlon's American mission will be facilitated by his return to the United States. He'll continue his 25-year relationship with the Cincinnati May Festival, and in 2005 takes over the directorship of the Ravinia Festival, but beyond that, his plans are refreshingly open.

“For me the exciting part is that it's the first time in 20 years that I'll be free to do what I want,” he says. “I'll be able to pick and choose.”

He returns to a culture that is markedly different from the one prevalent in Europe. “Classical music has a different function in our civilization,” he says. “It makes actual demands on the listener, to think more, feel more. It's a very important difference that needs to be fostered in our culture.

“It's all fine to be fast and new,” he continues, “but classical music brings out another part of our souls, our brains, that is not addressed by the speed of television and the Internet. Our culture needs profundity, modes of thought brought out by classical music. It's necessary for civilization.”

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, April 21, 2004

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Time Stands Still

An archival venture into photography, from 2004

The Accidental Modernist : Eadweard Muybridge And The Revolutionary Art Of Moving Pictures

by Mark Satola

PHOTOGRAPHY AS AN ART may have been kissed in its cradle by the fairy of inferiority complexes, but the earliest practitioners of the new science were too busy rocketing forward with technical developments to concern themselves with the issue of whether images of the real world, realized in light-sensitive chemicals, were not superior to the brush-and-palette blandishments of painters. The sunlit world beckoned, and they rushed out to meet it, dragging their cumbersome gear and noxious chemicals with them.

Some of that excitement has been recreated in the exhibit "Time Stands Still: Muybridge and the Instantaneous Photography Movement," which opened last weekend at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Nearly 200 rare photographic works, highlighted by Muybridge's groundbreaking motion studies, are on view in the museum's hushed exhibition galleries through May 16.

By the time Eadweard Muybridge landed on the scene in the American West as a landscape photographer of no small vision, photography had already become commonplace, if still something of a novelty. Born in England in 1830, Muybridge had undergone a few interesting personal transformations (including a name change from the less fanciful Edward Muggeridge) before discovering that he had a knack for the infant science and art of photography. He settled in San Francisco and opened a studio there.

Muybridge's beautifully composed landscapes drew the attention of Leland Stanford, former governor of California, U.S. senator and president of the Central Pacific Railroad. The powerful plutocrat had something less than artistic in mind for the photographer, however. As owner of a stable of racehorses in Palo Alto, California, Stanford was interested in studying the gait of his equine properties as they coursed across the turf. The human eye's inability to see just what legs were where at which fleeting moment, Stanford reasoned, would be compensated for by the camera's quick and clinical shutter.

Muybridge set to work devising a system of tripwires and cameras to snap images of a horse as it galloped across the field of view. The resulting sequence of photographs was a success: the true positioning of the horse's legs was revealed -- all four legs off the ground only when curled under the beast's mighty trunk; but more importantly, Muybridge had hit upon a technique, however crude initially, that would through refinement and invention lead to motion pictures. Photography was, as it were, off to the races.

"Time Stands Still" places Muybridge in the historical context of what was called “instantaneous photography,” a phrase that sounds like an oxymoron in our supremely impatient age, when the immediate gratification of point-and-digitize cameras bought off the shelf at Wal-Mart makes waiting an hour for old-fashioned prints seem positively Paleolithic. In the 19th century, taking pictures was a much slower process: photographers had to prepare their own film (usually a glass plate treated on the spot with a wet-collodion formulation), expose it for long minutes and then develop it in the portable darkroom the photographer had to drag along with him, before the chemicals on the plate dried.

The method was not conducive to capturing life as it swept by the eye, and since life would not slow down for them, pioneers of photography worked feverishly to bring their procedures up to life's speed, devising new recipes for faster chemical media and applying them to such notoriously uncooperative moving subjects as ocean waves, street scenes, animals and fidgety children. In “Time Stands Still,” the now-quaint vignettes of these photographers, by themselves unremarkable beyond their historical interest, nevertheless prepare us nicely for the impact of Muybridge's horses, dogs and naked musclemen as they go through their paces before the camera, highlighted before a white-on-black grid that serves to remind us that the first order of business was to study how things moved.

While Muybridge's work may have had initially a scientific basis, others who came after him, known as “chronophotographers,” were more imaginative in their work, sometimes flashing light stroboscopically on a moving subject to produce a multiple image on a single negative (as in the work of Etienne-Jules Marey), and leaving the studio to photograph nature in its unstill glory -- a photographic sequence of storks alighting in their chimney-top nest is particularly exciting. Eventually even Muybridge left the studio grid and took his cameras into the daylight, there to photograph birds, ostriches, deer, dogs, bison, elephants, tigers, baboons and naked people walking, running, jumping, lifting -- in short, being alive.

Muybridge and his fellow chronographers must have ached to be so close to pictures that actually moved. A 1972 reproduction of Muybridge's invention, the zoöpraxiscope -- which you can actually operate in one of the darkened rooms toward the end of the exhibit -- shows how near to movies these early photographers had come, though its image of a cantering horse is so brief as to hardly qualify as a vignette, let alone an actual scene.

A short film, however, running on a continuous loop in an adjacent gallery, gives you a better idea of how close the chronographers were to movies. Based on the sequences in Muybridge's magnum opus, The Attitudes of Animals in Motion , the 10-minute movie was created in 1968 by Canadian moviemaker John Straiton, who simply took the logical step of making the snapshot sequences into moving images, which he then cunningly edited to create the sense of a progressive (if not exactly narrative) arc, set to the coltish ballet music of the Second Empire. The quotidian never seemed so miraculous, as birds fly, animals walk about, and humans do the little things they might normally do in their daily life, albeit quite naked and sometimes with a hint of coy sexuality (a nude woman lolling provocatively in a chair and smoking; two nude woman dancing shyly together).

James Agee, who never met a hyperbole he didn't like, was for once not leaping over the top when he called the camera “the central instrument of our time.” That was in the 1930s, when pictures not only moved with realistic ease but also spoke, when an amateur photographer could load a Leica with 35-millimeter film and take quick snaps of life's fast-moving parade, and when Muybridge and his contemporaries seemed like antediluvian ancestors viewed dimly through the sepia-toned haze of time. Time Stands Still serves to clear the haze and demonstrate, in lively and (literally) moving sequence, the unbreakable connection with our photographic forebears whose work forms the basis of our depicted world.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, February 18, 2004.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Creature Feature

From the celluloid archive:

There Goes Tokyo : On Its 50th Anniversary, A Glimpse Of The Real Godzilla

by Mark Satola

IN 1954, 23 Japanese fishing boat crewmen were accidentally exposed to nuclear fallout when prevailing winds shifted and sent radioactive ash from the Bikini Atoll H-bomb blast 80 miles away onto their vessel like so much deadly snow. Aikichi Kuboyama died from radiation burns suffered in the accident, thus becoming the first fatality from a hydrogen bomb blast.

The similarity to the Bikini incident of the opening scenes of Godzilla could hardly have been lost on Japanese audiences attending initial screenings of the film in 1954. In director Ishiro Honda's first kaiju (“giant monster”) movie, a commercial fishing trawler is struck by a mysterious energy blast that sears the crewmen and sends the vessel to the bottom of the open sea.

American audiences saw no such thing when an edited version of Godzilla opened in theaters and drive-ins across the U. S. The Stateside distributors brought the movie more in line with what they apparently believed to be American tastes by introducing the character of Steve Martin (Raymond Burr), an American reporter caught up in Godzilla's destructive rampage through Tokyo, helpfully narrating the events for the presumably clueless audience. Along the way, they also removed the most obvious elements of Godzilla's anti-nuclear message.

The Cleveland Cinematheque will show a new 35mm print of the original version of Godzilla this weekend (Friday 9:20 p.m., Saturday 7 p.m., Sunday 4 p.m.) Where the version American audiences know best from television “Creature Feature” screenings is burdened with clumsy, poorly translated dubbing, this 50th-anniversary print features newly translated subtitles, and Raymond Burr's lumbering presence is, thankfully, nowhere in sight.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Godzilla in its original form is that it's a real movie. Toho Films spent more on Godzilla than had been spent on any Japanese movie up to that point, investing in set design and construction, first-rate photography (by Masao Tamai), notable scoring (Akira Ifukube), and a first-rate cast, headed by Takashi Shimura, best known as the leader of the Samurai in Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, and here cast as Professor Kyohei Yamane, Japan's leading paleontologist.

To direct Godzilla, Toho selected Ishiro Honda, a sometime collaborator with Kurosawa, who had been working as a director, assistant director, writer and occasional actor in the Japanese film industry since the early 1930s. Honda, who co-wrote the movie as well, crafted a balanced narrative arc for Godzilla, giving the audience a subtle crescendo from the initial mystery surrounding the disappearance of commercial ships and the havoc wrought, one terrifyingly stormy night, on remote Odo Island and its inhabitants, to the genuinely shocking climax of destruction and its pathos-laden aftermath.

The version deemed accessible to American viewers (and palatable to paranoid Cold War sensibilities) used only about an hour of Honda's footage, chopping it up and reordering scenes to accommodate the framing device of the American journalist waking up amid the rubble of the destroyed capital (in medias mess, as it were) and narrating the previous events through flashback. Along the way, the sharply condemnatory anti-nuclear message was either toned down or eliminated completely -- most tellingly in the final scene, after Godzilla's destruction by something called the “oxygen destroyer,” deployed underwater by its inventor, Dr. Serizawa (who sacrifices his own life in the process). In the original, Dr. Yamane, who has been torn between the impulse to study Godzilla and the recognition of the need to destroy the monster, admits that man's scientific folly has brought about the disaster: “If we continue testing H-bombs, another Godzilla will one day appear again, somewhere in the world.”

But for Western audiences, with their carefree “Kiss the Cook”-style barbecues out back by the bomb shelter, it was morning in America, as Raymond Burr's narration boldly proclaimed: “The menace was gone. So was a great man. But the whole world could wake up and live again.” Or at least pretend to.

Photos by Mark Satola
Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, August 25, 2004.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Boulez Birthday

Another archival item, from 2005.

L'ENFANT TERRIBLE AT 80: PIERRE BOULEZ REVISITS STRAVINSKY WITH THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA
by Mark Satola

THE INTERNATIONAL MUSIC WORLD celebrates the 80th birthday of composer and conductor Pierre Boulez (born on March 26, 1925, in Montbrison) by flying him to every imaginable musical venue on the globe and putting him to work. Not that he minds; Boulez, ever the “furious artisan” (to paraphrase René Char, whose verse Boulez set in Le Marteau sans maître), seems to thrive on a whirlwind of creative activity that keeps him far younger than chronology would otherwise suggest.

There are limits, however, and the in-demand conductor remains well aware of the relentless demands of his own composition. “I want to have a sabbatical,” he admits when asked about his upcoming plans, “because this year, to celebrate my 80th birthday, I did quite a lot of things. I want to be quiet and compose for a great deal of next year.”

But first there are the conducting engagements, including two weeks here leading the Cleveland Orchestra (marking also the 40th anniversary of his American conducting debut here in Cleveland) in concerts devoted almost entirely to the music of Igor Stravinsky, one of the two figures who, for Boulez, reign supreme over the geography of 20th-century music. The other is Arnold Schoenberg, founder of what has become retrospectively known as the Second Viennese School.

Boulez the composer has found himself, not unintentionally, in the role of synthesist for the two schools of musical thought that he describes as “opposites, antagonistic.” Where Stravinsky liberated the sometimes violent energies of rhythm, albeit within a tonal framework, Schoenberg unleashed the force of dissonance by dissolving the hierarchies of tonal dominance inherent in the 12 tones of the scale. Or, to put it more picturesquely, Stravinsky demonstrated the exhilaration of dancing to ever-changing rhythms, while Schoenberg showed us the power of bringing the fist down onto the piano.

“I had interests on both sides, and I thought, why wouldn't it be possible to have the richness of the rhythmical aspect of Stravinsky (and Bartók also), and the language aspect of the Viennese school,” he says. “Therefore, for me, it was not ‘I want to make a synthesis,' but ‘How can I join this invention and this invention?'”

This weekend's concerts at Severance Hall will feature Five Movements for Strings, Op. 5, by Anton von Webern, a quintet of pieces from Boulez's own Notations and the complete score of Stravinsky's breakthrough masterpiece, The Firebird. The weekend of May 5-7, he conducts an enormous all-Stravinsky program that includes the Eight Instrumental Miniatures , Four Russian Peasant Songs, the always-startling Les Noces and a concert performance of Stravinsky's “problem child” opera, The Nightingale. For the second weekend of concerts, the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and soprano Laura Claycomb are featured.

If you were to think that Boulez, at the outset of his ninth decade, is waxing valedictory as he revisits masterpieces that mean much to him, you would be wrong. It's business as usual, in the best sense, as he continues to communicate, through his thoughtful program-building, his very welcome ideas about music to his audience.

“Stravinsky's early period, which is extremely important, begins with The Firebird and continues with The Nightingale, because the first act of Nightingale was written before Firebird, and the second and third acts after The Rite of Spring,” he says, noting the half-decade gap in The Nightingale's composition. “Stravinsky himself was not pleased at the premiere in 1914 because of the gigantic stylistic difference between the acts, and he subsequently made a ballet out of the last two acts, as they are stylistically much more homogenous.

“But now with distance and what we know about the history of Stravinsky, it is not really... embarrassing, let's say, to have this kind of difference of style.”

Les Noces (The Wedding), on the other hand, stands out distinctly from Stravinsky's early style. “It was written in Stravinsky's period of seclusion in Switzerland during the First World War,” Boulez notes. “It's more folkloristic than The Rite of Spring, but at the same time, it is much more structurally complicated.”

Scored for chorus, soloists, four pianos and percussion, Les Noces narrates, in four tableaux, the events of a Russian peasant wedding, complete with weeping bride, teasing villagers and drunken revelry, presented in a Kandinsky-like language, modernistic and expressive. “If you read the reviews at the time of its premiere, they all take note of a kind of metronomic persistence,” Boulez says. “And you can see that all tempos from beginning to end are related to each other.”

Of greatest interest this weekend, however, is the performance of five selections from Boulez's piano suite, Notations, here rendered for orchestra. “The pieces were written in 1945, when I was 20,” he says. “Then later, when I looked at the score, I thought, ‘Oh yes, that's interesting, the ideas are there but they were not exploited properly.’”

Boulez's latter-day rethinking of the score is much more than dressing up the piano miniatures in instrumental clothes. “If you are setting these pieces for the orchestra, they have to be longer, developed and expanded. It's not just an orchestration, it's an expansion of the pieces in duration, expansion in their treatment and expansion in the use of the orchestra.”

At 80, Boulez remains energetic and engaged, and ever thoughtful. When asked, somewhat impertinently, what he knows now at 80 that he didn't know at 50, his response is immediate. “Oh, a lot,” he says without hesitation. “My experience as a conductor especially has taught me quite a lot. It taught me about how you perceive music, how far you can go as a composer with or against perceptions. It taught me a lot of practical things.

“When I was in the Conservatory, I was in the composition class of [Olivier] Messiaen, and there was very little interaction between the instrumental classes and the composition classes. I find this big gap is detrimental to instrumentalists because they are not involved from the beginning with what really happens in a piece of music, and to composers, who are not really aware of the real possibilities of instruments and how you can go further with them.”

This certainly is one of Boulez's most important legacies to young musicians who are working to keep new music vital and relevant. He will be delivering the keynote address at the commencement ceremony for the Cleveland Institute of Music's class of 2005 on May 7, and while the topic of his address is not yet known, it may well be that the rejoining of composers and the musicians who will play their music is top of the mind in this rare artist, who has spent his career synthesizing forces, that might otherwise remain in opposition, into new and creative harmonies.

Photo by Mark Satola

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, April 27, 2005.

Turangalila Redux

From the archives, October 2005.

Messiaenic Fervor: The Cleveland Orchestra’s Electrifying Turangalila
by Mark Satola

Ondes martenot soloist Cynthia Millar last week described Olivier Messiaen’s sprawling Turangalila-Symphonie as a “life-changing experience” when heard live. Whether or not the audiences at last weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts at Severance Hall had their lives changed may be a question best left for the exit poll, but the experience was certainly a transcendental one.

It would be difficult for it to be otherwise. Messiaen made that a foregone conclusion, with a work that is all about transcendence: in this case, the transcending of death through the power of love (inspired by the story of Tristan and Iseult). It’s also about transcending the traditional bounds of grinding dissonance and sweet consonance, with a resultant “super-tonality” that carries considerable appeal for all but the crankiest of reactionary listeners.

In the Turangalila-Symphonie, Messiaen has given us a score that is so vast and complex and yet so sonically appealing that to achieve its full effect only requires an orchestra with enough chops to play it well and a conductor who can confidently navigate its geography while maintaining a firm hand on its architecture.

It’s a score that’s right up Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Möst’s artistic alley. As his recent performances here and abroad of Mahler’s huge Symphony No. 3 have shown, Welser-Möst is a conductor well suited to such spacious cathedrals of music. Whether it’s one of the big symphonic events or a full-length opera, he pilots the scores with a sureness that communicates clearly with both audience and players. You always know where you are when Franz is on the podium.

Saturday night’s performance was a marvel, but is that a surprise? The Cleveland Orchestra played the work just a couple of years ago under Welser-Möst, with the same soloists (Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano, and Cynthia Millar, ondes martenot), and the players have had ample rehearsal time to internalize the notes and play them with real flair.

Clocking in at about an hour and 15 minutes, Turangalila is a long haul, but Messiaen’s sound-world is so lively and packed with fascinating detail that its length seems just right. Welser-Möst led a performance that fairly sizzled with intensity and drive, pointing up the rhythmic engine behind the symphony, and shaping its internal and external structures with an ear always attuned to what had gone before and what was coming next. The orchestra worked hard and gave the impression that they were unanimously committed to Messiaen’s exotic vision.

That said, there was a small problem, not with conductor or performers, but simply a technical one. Saturday night, where you sat determined if you were able to hear the all-important part for ondes martenot, an early electronic instrument invented in the 1930s that produces sine and sawtooth waves modulated by a variety of controls including a piano-like keyboard. Its eerie “vox humana” is an essential component of Messiaen’s score, but up in the dress circle, it was entirely inaudible, save for those rare moments where it played alone; and even then, its voice did not carry with strength.

The solution would have been, of course, to crank up the volume of the ondes martenot, but since the uniquely designed set of speakers is an integral part of the instrument’s sound, rather than just loudspeakers for the instrument’s onboard circuitry, that could hardly have been effected without some sort of “aftermarket” amplification. How that might be addressed is a matter for specialists, but for the moment it would have been nice to hear Millar’s artistry, given that she has played this score more than 90 times already, and can be safely considered the reigning expert on the part.

The inaudibility issue was not helped by the torrent of sound being hurled from the stage. The new acoustic shell has added a second or so of reverberation to the hall’s dry environment and enabled the tiniest of whispered musical details to find their perfect balance, but it has also boosted fortissimi, especially from the brass section. Messiaen’s frequent exuberant climaxes pretty much drowned out not only the ondes martenot but also the piano. Soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard was breathtakingly brilliant, when you could hear him. Too often, though, his performance was something to watch only.

Photo by Mark Satola

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, October 5th, 2005