Thursday, December 16, 2010

Cleveland Orchestra: An Evening With Dave Brubeck (Celebrity Series)

(The program can be found at the end of the post)

For the first time ever, I contemplated leaving a concert mere measures into the first piece. For the first time at Severance, I don't think I would have been any worse off -- and arguably better off -- had I actually done so. I can not recall a Cleveland Orchestra concert more acoustically incoherent or as entirely unfulfilling. I actually feel the need to cleanse my musical palliate after that concert.

The biggest problem was acoustic: The electronic sound reinforcement was barely tolerable, and the staging only made matters worse. Both the saxophone (amplified) and drums were persistently too loud -- annoyingly so -- and I'm sure the Plexiglas drum shields that inexplicably appeared behind the drummer after the house opened but before the concert began. This seemed to have the affect (at least from my seat) of amplifying the drums while almost single-handedly obliterating the sound from the violas and cellos: Their arms were moving but I wasn't hearing anything. Whomever made that decision certainly didn't do the audience any favors.

In fact, though, I don't know how much blame can be put on the questionable use of a drum shield -- during the opening Cassandra, the saxophone and drums were so out of proportion with every other instrument on stage that the musicians might as well have been reading novels at their seats. Mr. Brubeck's piano stayed at a reasonable volume throughout the evening and twinkled when he was playing alone or with the orchestra -- but, like everything else, seemed to disappear whenever the drummer or saxophonist was playing. In addition there was an incessant rattling when Mr. Brubeck was playing solo: I'm not sure if it was an amplification issue or if someone left something loose in the piano.

At this point I should probably say that the reason I'm so opposed to electronic amplification in the orchestral environment is that it forces the listener's ear. When I'm listening to an un-amplified orchestra, my ear tends to wander: I may hone in the first violins for a little while before meandering over to the cellos, perhaps with a brief visit to the woodwinds. When the instruments are on relative parity this is easy. When a single instrument forced to the forefront as aggressively as the sax was tonight it's like an in-your-face salesperson who keeps you from seeing, or in this case hearing, anything else. For full disclosure, there are few instruments I dislike the sound of more than the saxophone.

Despite some initial misgivings, I really wanted to enjoy the program: Mr. Militello seemed rather jolly as the quartet took the stage before the concert. Even those few songs I did enjoy through the first measures (Blue Rondo a La Turk, Unsquare Dance, Take Five) devolved into overly-long sax and/or drum improvisational middle sections before returning to the main theme. There were a few places where I nearly fell asleep*. I guess live jazz still just isn't for me.

Take Five, though, was instantly recognizable -- perhaps the most iconic piece of jazz, and one that I wouldn't' have been able to tell you the name of 3 hours ago.

The Program (all by Dave Brubeck, except as noted):
Cassandra; Three to Get Ready; The Basie Band is Back In Town; Sleep Holy Infant from La Fiesta de la Posada; Unsquare Dance; In Your Own Sweet Way; Theme for June by Howard Brubeck; Take Five by Paul Desmond.
With Dave Brubeck, piano; Bobby Militello, saxophone and flute; Michael Moore, upright bass; Randy Jones, drums.

*- My "do-it-yourself" insomnia cure/red-eye flight preparation is a glass of red wine, the first class meat/cheese plate, an Excedrin PM and a few tracks of iPod Jazz. Usually I'm out within 10 minutes.

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