Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tourism in Familiar Places - Home For the Holidays Part 2

So I won't bore everyone with the standard details from my trip home for the holidays: For the most part the only people who would actually be interested in such things were there.

The abridged version: I alternated between my Mom's place in the town I grew up in -- Temecula, California -- and my dad's place in Long Beach, spending little more than 24 hours in either place at a time. I'm not sure if I would do it again -- doing the 80 mile / 90 minute each way drive 4 times in as many days was a bit tiring, but borrowing my dad's BMW certainly made it tolerable. And struck up the urge to replace the car I've had for the past 11 years.

Temecula a city that at once is a suburb of Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego -- and has ballooned from a population of 29,099 when my family relocated there in 1989 to 105,029 today. My perception growing up was a largely upper-middle class population; my most recent visit gave me a middle-middle class vibe. Long Beach, on the other hand is a decidedly urban suburb of the City of Los Angeles -- albeit a suburb with a population of some 492,000, making it California's 6th largest city.

Temecula, in addition to being home to 100,000 commuters is home to California's lesser known Wine Country. Although I strongly prefer wine to beer**, perhaps the fact that I moved to Cleveland shortly after my 21st birthday explains why aside from a few errands*** I've never imbibed on local spirits. I was determined to change this on my trip. My mom and I started the day with a lackluster lunch at Bally Vineyard & Winery, including the least attentive service I've seen in years along with the most disappointing Riesling I can remember drinking -- tasting more like stale grape juice than wine.

Wine Country, Temecula, CA
(excuse the fact that by this point I had decided to forgo shaving for 3 or 4 days...)

As it turns out there are more than 20 wineries in the Temecula valley. At one point I had the delusion that we would try, if not all, most of them throughout the course of the day. Apparently more out of practice with wine tasting than I thought we made it to a total of three wineries. On the third winery, Bella Vista, I wound up tasting 6 and bringing 4 bottles home with me. Most of these will be served at the I-still-haven't-figured-out-if-it's-a-party.

With a complete dearth of live performing arts based on a combination of the region and the season we wound up seeing Tangled--mildly amusing--and How Do You Know, which though a bit long struck a bit close to home.

On my way in to Temecula I stopped by my old high school, closed for winter break I was contemplating roaming the campus to see if there were still any staff I remembered and to see how the place that influenced so much of who I've become has changed in the 8 years since I've been gone. Maybe some future visit.

On my way out of town for the last time -- sparked by a comment my mom made, I stopped by the elementary school that I attended from 2nd to 5th grade (a side effect of the city's rapid expansion, the oldest school I attended had been open a year when I first arrived). In front of the school was--and still is, nearly 20 years later--a wall with the hand prints of the students and staff on Day 1. I found mine.

My handprint20 years agoMy hand 20 years later

In Between, of course, no visit to Southern California is complete without one--or more--visits to In-N-Out Burger. I was in California 6 days, two days were not In-N-Out able (one for reasons I'll spare, the other because In-N-Out is closed on Christmas Day) during the remaining four days I partook five times. And I could have done it more. The below images were taken (a) while #17 in the drive-thru line waiting for Christmas eve dinner driving from my Dad's to my Mom's and (b) My mom's point of view during our first dinner on this visit.
A different In-N-Out drive-thru. This is my phone's new wallpaper.Me at In-N-Out from my Mom's POV

In Long Beach, the visit consisted largely of catching up and hanging out with the dogs -- a Dalmatian, a Jack Russell terrier, and a Pekinese. I've been told that dogs bring out my "child like side" and that I always seem more relaxed when our office manager brings in her Golden Retriever. I could probably spend weeks on a couch petting and being licked.**** Away from the house we wound up seeing Black Swan and The King's Speech. I hadn't heard of either: Black Swan wasn't at all what I expected based on the description I was given; The King's Speech was quite intriguing and well done.

Dogs at my Dad's Place

On the way home, of course, there was the Passenger In 3B; after getting home and sleeping off the jet lag I found out that my paternal grandfather passed away in his sleep. It wasn't expected, nor was it completely unexpected...and I'm really not sure how to take it. I feel like I should be more...something...anything...about his passing. Hmmm. I think I got my pragmatism from him.


*- I forgot what this footnote was going to be.
**- As in: I drink wine. I do not drink beer. Unless I'm really trying to be sociable; even then I have to suppress a pretty violent gag reflex. (Rieslings and Gewurztraminers are my weakness, though a sparkling red will get me every time.)
***- From the days when I was on the board of a independent film festival
****-Double entendre not necessarially intended, and slightly disturbing, but this is the phrasing is the best I can come up with.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Passenger In 3B

Having made it home this morning, I promise I'll get the next part of "Home for the Holidays" up in the next day or so...But...

After 22 years of flying I finally got a truly crazy passenger as a seatmate. Briefly.

I was booked in the First Class cabin for Continental's red eye SFO-CLE. I keep promising myself that I'll never do a red eye flight again, but it seems more often than not they offer the best timing to get back to Cleveland from the west coast. Such was the case tonight, and I wanted nothing more than to sleep.

Boarding opened and I quickly found my way to my seat with a view of the world -- 3A -- and started to settle in for the 4 hour 15 minute flight. Oddly, I happen to overhear the captain telling the flight attendants "If you have any problems with passengers, let me know and I'll deal with it." I didn't really think anything of it at that moment.

I noticed the gentleman who took 3F seemed a bit odd, but I initially wrote it off as just a nervous flyer. He didn't really settle in when a couple holding boarding passes for 3E and 3F showed up and pointed out that he was in the wrong seat. At that point from his behavior it was clear he wasn't completely lucid, and he muddled his way to 3B.

Ok. Nervous flyer. I've seen this before, he'll settle in and we'll be done. Our flight attendant comes by and asks if we want anything to drink. "Orange Juice, please" is my request. My seatmate is obviously displeased by this selection and orders "two glasses of champagne for us" and tells me I need to relax. The first of many times that phrase will be uttered over the short time we will spend together. The flight attendant responds that they don't carry champagne, and the seatmate settles for white wine.

I had no intention of drinking on this flight.

While the Flight Attendant is away Mr. 3B grabs the cuff of my right arm. "Beautiful color" he says. "Thank you" I respond. "I love the color of your shirt" comes a few seconds later. "Thank you". "You need to relax. I'm not sure if I would do it myself but that's an interesting color for your shirt." "Relax" This general series of exchanges persists throughout our stay together. I don't like being touched, and even absent touching this is just making me really uncomfortable, especially if I'm going to sleep on this flight.

Trying to redirect the conversation I try asking him about his travels. He's not very responsive but what little I can glean is that he came to visit relatives for the holidays and it was a "huge mistake"--his words. Even that sentence ended with him commenting on my shirt color.

The flight attendant appears with two cups of wine and the orange juice I requested. Mr. 3B starts to get a bit agitated. I think the easy exit is to oblige him with a toast and a sip. "To time with family" doesn't go over well. And again he tells me I need to "just relax" (hint: telling me to relax usually has the opposite effect). He reaches across the foot-wide no man's land of the first class armrest and puts his hand on my leg--far too close to my pelvis, even for close friends and relatives. I shift away.

At some point I notice that his movements are very loose and "swishy" -- the signs I associate with someone being under the influence of something. Oh. This is starting to explain a lot.

I plug my headphones in (thanking whatever Deities came to mind that this aircraft was one of many in Continental's fleet equipped with DirecTV) hoping that that would give him the clue. He tries to put one of the earbuds in my ear. We are no so far past my tolerance I'm running various scenarios through my head.

3B unpacks the complimentary headphones for his seats and puts them in his ears but doesn't plug them in to anything and continues trying to talk to me through the earbuds--talking about my shirt ("Is that custom?", "Beautiful Color") and telling me to "relax, dude". He drops his phone. It's out of my reach but I point it out. He seems confused and doesn't think that he has a phone. Ok.

I wait a few minutes, weighing pros and cons. I'm not going to be comfortable awake on this flight. I'm not going to be able to let my guard down enought to sleep on the flight and I can get a room in San Francisco for the night if need be. I grabbed my jacket and carry on bag and swim upstream -- against the flow of still-boarding passengers and make my way to the galley.

"I'm sorry to bother you but it seems the passenger in 3B might be drunk, high, or both" slips from between my lips. Before any response comes: "I need to move, he needs to move, or I need to get off this flight." I'm fully prepared to head up the Jetway and deal with rebooking on something tomorrow. I would have taken an Economy seat if need be.
"Oh, he's not with you?" the first flight attendant enquires.
"No, and I don't think I've ever seen a passenger so...out of it." my response. I fill in the details like the generally odd behavior and the inappropriate touching.
a second flight attendant chimes in "Let's get him off then". A beat. "Seriously, if he seems drunk, we can't let him fly. I'll get the captain."
The captain comes out and I do a brief rehash of my concerns. After observing, the captain decides that he's not going to be comfortable with that passenger on his flight.
I'm asked to wait in the galley.
The gate agent comes down.
3B will not be travelling via Cleveland tonight. I am staying on board.

On one hand I feel kind of bad for the guy, but he really didn't seem to be in any shape to fly (talking to the 3E and 3F couple--who, it turns out, were also glad to see him go, as we were waiting to get off the plane my guess is that he was originally booked on a flight to Newark that was supposed to leave 3 hours earlier but had been canceled. If that hypothesis is correct, I can guess where he spent the 3 hours.

The crew handled the situation quite swiftly and remarkably professionally, and I was able to sleep comfortably. Waking up, as I always seem to do, just in time to watch the signature city lights of Chicago pass below, fading into the Great Lakes then giving way to Grand Rapids, Detroit, and finally home. Cleveland.

Happy New Year!


* Trivia: as air pressure decreases the effects of alcohol and other intoxicants are more pronounced...if you're drunk and unpleasant on the ground you're going to be really drunk and unpleasant in the air.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Home for the Holidays - Part 1

So I made it in to California yesterday. I've confirmed that I'm allergic to the state -- my case of it yesterday was aggravated by an incessantly screaming child on my flight from San Francisco to Santa Ana, and most embarrassingly lead to me -- for the first time in 22 years and some 170,000 miles of flying -- reaching for the air sickness bag, and then proceeding to shamefully hand such bag to a flight attendant. But not just any flight attendant, a flight attendant who actually resembled the idealized image of the attractive female flight attendant found in so many films.

Ugh. Not that I would ever hit on a service industry employee while they were working (striking me a both uncouth and the makings of an awkward and uncomfortable flight for both of us) but still an impression I'd like to leave anyone with (I was actually hoping to just discreetly drop it in the galley trash without anyone noticing but she was blocking my way).

My dad met me at the airport "Ready for some In-N-Out?" he queried, knowing my weakness for the food of legend. "Not quite yet -- I'm really not feeling well" "Are you sure? You look fine." he asked -- I can't imagine how I looked anything resembling fine. It's a feeling I've become quite used to -- something about arriving in California, the state I was born and raised in, just doesn't sit well with me. But this trip seemed to hit with unusual severity.

After attempting to be politely social with my dad and his wife for a couple hours I painfully crawled into bed and slept well. Waking up this morning my dad was already off to work but I visited with the family dogs for a little while and just generally kicked back. I love dogs and people have said that I seem far more relaxed when our office manager brings her Golden Retriever* in to the office but not having a yard and traveling as much as I do I don't think it would be fair to it at this point in my life.

Since both my Mom and Dad were working today I had thought about just generally exploring on my own and perhaps hitting the beach. The weather here, however, is arguably worse than what I left behind in Cleveland. Doing the beach lost its luster.

So instead... I met my dad for lunch -- at In-N-Out Burger. It was heavenly. Every time I come back to California I'm afraid that In-N-Out won't be everything I remember it to be. I'm never disappointed; it is the one thing I miss about the state. Though I also realized on this trip I miss both of my parents more than I'd generally admit. Anyway, after lunch I got a quick tour of his office and started heading South.

Californians really can't drive in the rain.

An hour and a half later I made it to my hometown, Temecula, and I took a quick swing by my high school just to see if any of the instructors I knew might still be around. It was deserted for the holiday. But it's all for the best -- my Mom had just gotten home from work and I headed to her home.

After catching up for a little while we caught the film How Do You Know -- the closest I will come to a performing arts event on this trip and depressingly reminiscent of my dating life in too many ways, but it, at least, has a happy ending even if it is a bit on the long side. After the movie we did dinner -- at In-N-Out Burger.

The sad thing is as tired as I am I could do In-N-Out again. I really do want to eat something else while I'm here but it's so hard to say no to something so good.

And this may have been the most boring post I've ever written but I'm spending uneventful time with family and sleeping. Though I wish there was a show to see, those two activities are keeping me quite content for the moment.

Merry Christmas!

*- I grew up with a Golden, they have amazing personalities (caninealities?).

Monday, December 20, 2010

In Photos: A Technology Guy Plays With Drywall (& Technology)

I'm on my way to Southern California tomorrow for a quick-ish holiday family visit... before I leave though, I can proudly check a major item off of my to-do list.

But first...

Front Door at Christmas

Since I'm not sure how many posts will come between now and Christmas, before I forget let me wish everyone, not otherwise offended, a Merry Christmas... This is my front door with a live wreath from St. Ignace, MI courtesy of my grandparents and newly-installed handrail lighting in "blue-green" mode (it's capable of about 250 colors)

When I moved in, I had a perfectly nice house, but working in technology -- specifically audio visual integration/automation technology, I had some "upgrades" to install throughout the home -- security, whole house audio/video, lighting, and automation. Living in a vertical townhome, the easiest way to do this was to drop the ceiling in the garage and cut quite a few holes in walls on the upper levels.

It seems I've misplaced all of the real early photos -- the ones showing various bundles with somewhere around 150 wires but here are two early in-progress photos:

Click for largerBundle of  A/V cables

My boss -- someone with many miles of drywall under his belt from his own home improvement project -- was nice enough to help patch and blend the drywall in the living spaces of my home but left the garage as a learning lesson for me. I was nervous. I've seen some bad drywall in my time. The actual drywall went up during last spring, budding and taping was a process that I procrastinated on for far too long.

I'm hosting an event (might be a party, might not, the details are still a bit too be determined) in mid-January and between that inspiration and having 3 weeks of vacation to use before the year is up to motivate me to finish things. I have to say that I'm generally quite satisfied.

Garage Finished - Long Shot West

All of the drywall on the underside of the sofit was installed and finished by yours truly... I wish the areas around the conduit were a bit cleaner, but all-in-all I'm quite happy with the results. You really can't see any of the seams!

Since drywall doesn't really photograph that well -- it is ultimately flat and white -- I figured I'd throw in some photos of the reason I dropped the ceiling:

Garage Equipment East HalfGarage Equipment West Half

Go ahead and click the pic for a larger version and a description of what everything is.

Later this year or early next year, I'll put together a post on the AV Equipment Room


Friday, December 17, 2010

Apollo's Fire: Handel's Messiah

Handel: The Messiah
Meredith Hall, soprano; Amanda Crider, mezzo-soprano; Ross Hauck, tenor; Jeffrey Strauss, baritone.
At First Baptist Church, Shaker Heights.

"Every saint has a past; every sinner has a future" Ludo, Topeaka (quoting Oscar Wilde)

On one hand I feel that I should approach the performance in a vacuum, but to do that is to deny the realities of life: Namely how any one experience moves us will invariably affect later experiences. On the short drive from my house to First Baptist Church for tonight's amazing performance of Handel's Messiah Ludo's Topeka popped up on my play list. And the wonderfully simple lyric quoted above finally made sense to me. During the performance, it seemed an apt parallel for my relationship with Apollo's Fire.

Going in I had some reservations: After 3 Messiahs in a row last year I was tempted to sit it out this year. My past Apollo's fire have been mixed (though trending better) and Handel's Messiah in its full and unabridged form weighs in at a hefty three hours...hardly a performance one wants to get stuck in. On the flip side, though I've had this ticket for weeks, after yesterday's stunningly poor performance by a different orchestra I would take just about anything to cleanse my palette.

What tonight's audience got was -- in the words of the gentleman sitting next to me -- "awesome". It hardly felt anywhere near the three hours it actually was, with only the last two verses beginning to challenge my attention span.. Though all four soloists were amazing, Amanda Crider was particularly enthralling. In the past I've been critical of Apollo's Fire as an organization that takes itself too seriously; that feeling was nonexistent tonight: It seemed that the group took a humble, respectful approach to the piece and it worked well. The orchestra, soloists, and chorus all had a wonderfully cohesive sound and maintained relative parity throughout with only a few moments where it seemed that the chorus could have been a bit louder.

Being at First Baptist, this was my first experience with Apollo's Fire at a venue other than St. Paul's and generally it was quite a positive change: Easier parking, more comfortable seating [though a even a padded church pew for the better part of 3 hours is pushing my back's limits] and acoustics that beautifully captured and reverberated the singer's voices.

In fact, I have only two complaints from the evening: The heating system kicked in a few times during the performance and loudly announced its presence with a sound that made me crave microwave popcorn, and at several points the performance stopped for rather lengthy tuning sessions which broke the flow... though I suppose I'd rather be comfortably warm and listen to an in-tune orchestra than the alternative.

The net result was the finest Messiah I can remember hearing. Though the Hallelujah and A Child Is Born choruses are, of course, the hallmarks of the piece there were few sections of this work that weren't enjoyable to listen to.

Two more options to hear this: Saturday, December 18th,, 8pm at First Baptist Church on Fairmount Boulevard in Shaker Heights or 5pm Sunday at St. Christopher Catholic Church, Rocky River.


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.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Cleveland Orchestra: Christmas Concerts

(The full program is at the end of this post)

I honestly wasn't sure about the Christmas Concerts; I had this fear that being "popular music" and seasonal that they'd be rote and threadbare. That fear was quickly pushed aside with one of the finer performances I can recall of the full Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and a perfectly passioned performance by the Orchestra*. The concert opened with the most beautiful version of O Come, Emmanuel I can recall having heard and pretty much maintained that standard throughout.

While there were "standards" that you hear everywhere -- including yet another appearance of White Christmas, which I enjoyed slightly more this time around but if I don't hear it again this year or next I really won't be disappointed -- the majority of the program was fresh with a blend of well known and lesser known works, and the pacing was on the nice and quick side with the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah seeming to edge close to the speed limit. I liked it.

Even with a slight headache and sharing the box 3 with some fidgety children** I can't point to a single piece that I didn't enjoy at least a bit, and conversely it's difficult to choose a favorite. In strong contention, though, was The Wexford Carol with Cleveland baritone Brian Keith Johnson and orchestra member Mary Kay Fink playing Isish whistle -- it was completely new to my ear. Another strong contender was Spirit of the Season from Polar Express, which paired nicely with the Suite from Polar Express in the Hollywood Movie Magic concert on Wednesday: The strings don't soar quite as high, but the voices were wonderful.

A suite of arrangements by Leroy Anderson independently nicely highlighted three major major sections of the orchestra and the chorus independently. Opening Part Two, Strauss's Overture to Die Fledermaus stood out as the only piece that's not overtly "Christmassy" and seemed to be the longest on the program -- but was nevertheless enjoyable.

Lastly but certainly not least and worthy of mention was the wonderful 'Twas the Night Before Christmas narrated by Reuben and Dorothy Silver: I didn't know that an orchestral version of the poem existed and it was certainly a pleasant insertion on the program.

So for the full program (and the program repeats, with some variations on the 12th (matinee), 17th, 18th (matinee and evening), and 19th (matinee and evening)...

Part One
Traditional: O Come, Emmanuel (arr. Parker)^
Traditional: Ding, Dong! Merrily on High (arr .Mager)
Traditional: In dulci jubilo (arr. Anderson) [Orchestra Brass only]
Traditional: O Little Town of Bethlehem (arr. Anderson) [Orchestra Strings only]
Traditional: Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming [Chorus A Capella]
Traditional: Patapan (arr. Anderson) [Orchestra Woodwinds only]
Traditional: The Wexford Caroll (arr. Wilberg)^^
Traditional: Sussex Carol (arr. Bradford)^
Adam: O Holy Night (arr. Wilson)^^^
Traditional: O Come All Ye Faithful (arr. Willcocks)
Handel: Hallelujah chorus from Messiah.

Part Two
Strauss: Overture to Die Fledermaus^^^^
Silvestri & Ballard: Spirit of the Season^
Bass: 'Twas The Night Before Christmas^^^^^
Traditional: The Twelve Days of Christmas^
Anderson: Sleigh Ride^
Berlin: White Christmas (arr. Bass)^
One Encore.
Robert Porcco, conductor.

^- The Cleveland Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
^^ - Orchestra; Chorus; Brian Keath Johnson, baritone; Mary Kay Fink, Irish whistle
^^^- Orchestra; Chorus; Lyle Steelman and Michael Miller, fuegelhorns
^^^^- The Cleveland Orchestra only.
^^^^^- The Cleveland Orchestra; Reuben and Dorothy Silver, narrators.

*- Style gurus: I know the preference is for The Cleveland Orchestra (note the capital T) but when omitting Cleveland, should it be the Orchestra or The Orchestra? I have come close to loosing sleep on that question. I occasionally revel in minute detail.
** - Whose parents were quick to react without prompting, unlike the couple in Box 4 that I could hear carrying on a full-fledged conversation 3 boxes over. My death stare didn't work; it was the first time I've considered grabbing an usher during the concert.

Playhouse Square: Billy Elliot the Musical

Before the performance, two footnotes to my discussion of box offices: I decided to give today's matinee of Billy Elliot a whirl, and chose to buy my ticket at the depressing PlayhouseSquare Box Office. When I arrived and there was one person in line in front of me. Five minutes later, there was still one person in line in front of me. She turned around and grumbled, "Slowest service in Cleveland" in my direction buy to no one in particular. Also, curiously, the $7 "restoration" fee that appears online is absent, but an otherwise undisclosed $2 surcharge shows up on the credit card receipt. I give up.

Ticket eventually in hand, the State Theatre lobby is beautifully decorated for the season, and in a corner by one of the stairs was a cellist playing beautifully... It was pleasantly surreal to stand on the opposite side of the lobby listening to him play and watching the hustle and bustle of people before the house opened. As I made my way to my seat the thing I always hope will happen happened: An attractive (and, I learned, ambitious) woman roughly my age took the seat next to me--alone. We struck up conversation and actually chatted most of the pre-show, all of intermission, and on the way out after the show. But, sadly, for the second time this week right before I was going to ask for her number or invite her out for a drink she mentioned her boyfriend.*

Now for the show since I know only about 2 of you actually care about my dating life. I will say that I had high expectations based on some of the buzz.

Leaving the theater I had two very different reactions: Technically I thought it was great; probably the most coherent audio mix I've heard in the State, beautiful lighting, versatile scenery. Wonderful dancing.

As far as the plot and casting were concerned, I didn't get it. With the premise that this is a show about Billy "struggling to fulfill his dream" the pacing seemed slow, and much too much time was spent on the miner's strike and very little time on Billy's development. Yeah, he's a great dancer, and his dad thinks he's going to boxing lessons when he's really taking ballet lessons, but (either through lack of character development in the script or just the particular actor playing Billy today) he didn't come off as having a passion for it -- he actually came off as being rather disinterested -- let alone "dreaming" of pursing dancing. With the story not really seeming to move anywhere, there were moments during the first act where I nearly fell asleep. The second act was marginally better, with the curtain call being, the best part of the show. Casting wise, the physical differences between Billy's father (Rich Herbert), Billy's grandmother (Patti Perkins) and Billy (at today's performance, Lex Ishimoto) were so jarring as to foreclose any suspension of disbelief.

Musically, it all sounded good, but only Solidarity inspired feelings of like, and a Billy-with-Billy's-Older-Self dance with beautiful music and literally soaring action that doesn't seem to appear in the list of musical numbers.

(From seat N 209 - Nearly dead center of the house, about 3 rows in front of the balcony rail...exactly my preference for plays and musicals)
* - Actually, earlier this week substitute "husband". A product of the online dating world, I still have never actually asked a woman for her number "in real life" -- but I'm getting frighteningly close. Does anyone know a rule of thumb for the finger semaphores that women pull off with rings? That would probably be helpful.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cleveland Orchestra: Holywood Movie Magic

(The program for this evening's concert can be found at the end of this post)

"Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but inside it's so delightful..." is an exceedingly apt description of the evening: Normally the drive from my place to Severance Hall is 5-10 minutes (15 on a really bad day). I figured I'd leave a bit early from my normal a bit early "just in case". 50 -- yes, five zero -- minutes of bumper-to-bumper traffic later I'm pulling into the Severance Hall garage, and I found my way to my seat about 10 minutes prior to the 8pm concert start time.

It was eerie. There were only two other people on the entire box level; maybe 10 people on the main floor and no one that I could see in the Dress Circle [though from the boxes not much ofthe dress circle is visible]. I don't think I've ever seen the hall that empty that close to a start. The program was delayed by 15 minutes, and patrons did filter in -- but it was still the emptiest house I can remember, no doubt the severe weather deterring attendance, particularly families (I know I nearly gave up!). The assembled audience was treated to a great show by the Cleveland Orchestra and choruses.

If you had the misfortune of reading my treatise on box offices, you'll recall my reference to Disney's good show/bad show paradigm. Though the front of house was sparsely staffed, a phenomenal example of good show unrelated to the music: During intermission, Orchestra literally opened the bars and treated the audience to complimentary beverages as a "thank you" for making the trek. I can't remember a venue ever doing that in the past.

Ok, on to the music: Generally the orchestra sparkled, and the choruses were delightful (though there were a few cases where the chorus seemed to get lost under the orchestra). Though this wasn't "serious" music like this past weekend's wondrous Mahler, the Orchestra played with no less passion and, from reading facial expressions, seemed to be enjoying themselves through most of it.

I felt that the second half of the program was a bit more familiar, while the first half was a variety of music that, for the most part, I can't recall having heard before. In the first half, I loved The Holly and The Ivy, which was a delicious reminder of many of the traditional Christmas sounds. The Skaters Waltz from The Bishop's Wife and The Nativity from Jesus of Nazareth weren't really my thing and actually had a bit of a hard time holding my attention.

In the second half, the 1994 version of the Suite from Miracle on 34th Street compared favorably to the 1947 overture (heard in the first half); Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and I'm Dreaming Of Home were both beautiful - the former with the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, the latter with the Youth Chorus. The two selections from Home Alone stood in clear contrast with each other, my preference being ever so slightly for the energy of Holiday Flight.

And thus we arrive at the Suite from The Polar Express. A piece that's been in rotation on my iPod since well before I moved to Cleveland, let alone heard my first true orchestral concert. I love the varied texture, soring strings and uplifting voices in the piece and it was near ecstasy live... sharing the room with the graceful power of musicians and choristers. I was so intently focused, in fact, on the violins directly in front of me, that I noticed I had started to develop a bit of tunnel vision. The urge to air conduct, something I do frequently while walking or driving, was just barely repressed--a good thing since I've been roasted for it before.

The staple White Christmas ended the official concert but didn't really do it for me -- perhaps I was still up from the Suite from The Polar Express, perhaps having heard that song 25 times this week, or perhaps after spending 10 times longer than usual in my car the last thing I'm dreaming of is a White Christmas.

All in all, as usual, worth the drive but I couldn't justify a standing ovation. I was in the minority on that point.


Part One
Traditional: The Holy and the Ivy (arr. Arnold)
Herman: We Need A Little Christmas from Mame (1974)
Mockridge: Overture to Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Rozsa: Suite from Ben Hur and King of Kings (1961)
Friedhofer: Skater's Waltz from The Bishop's Wife (1947)
Jarre: The Nativity from Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
Waxman: Suite from A Christmas Carol (1938)
Tiomkin: Suite from It's A Wonderful Life (1946)
Part Two
Broughton: Suite from Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
Blane/Martin: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944, arr. Bass)
Elfman: Orchestra Suite: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Rombi: I'm Dreaming of Home from Joyeux Noel (2005, Lyrics Barth/Lewis)
Williams: Home Alone (1990, Holiday Flight and Somewhere in My Memory)
Berlin: White Christmas from Holiday Inn (1942, arr. Bass)
Encore: Music from A Christmas Story

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Cleveland Young Arts Professionals Network: Gray's Auctioneers Preivew

One of my tweets from earlier this week was a random thought that popped into my head: "Sometimes I'm surrounded by so many visionaries I feel blind"* -- I had that feeling tonight.

The Cleveland Young Arts Professionals Network (CYAPN) is a grass-roots organization to bring like minded individuals together. When I first learned of CYAPN, I was intrigued but thought that as a YP but not a YAP it may not be for me... I was wrong. Tonight's event was the first since "signing up" over the summer and it was a great evening.

Starting with Gray's Auctioneers it was my first venture into a "live auction" location and the atmosphere was fantastically laid back. Tonight was a preview for an auction on Thursday featuring a large number of rugs -- as proprietor Deba Gray encouraged "touch everything but the staff". It was fun to browse, the conversation was good. Just a nice way to spend an evening with a small group with similar interests in Cleveland's vibrant arts & culture scene.

By the way if you are -- or know -- an artist, you should consider submitting your works to the Cleveland Art & Design Auction. A juried auction, not all submissions will be accepted, but Ms. Gray's goal is is to expose Cleveland artists to the world market -- via a first-annual live, phone, Internet auction. Her goal is to prove that artists don't need to leave Cleveland, as well as to "pimp out" their work to others. Though a commission will be taken, the majority of the profit will go to the artist. or 10717 Detroit Ave, Cleveland 44102. Official deadline is 12/15 but I understand its been extended.

Following the preview a small group assembled in a member's beautiful nearby home for great snacks and even more conversation. If interested in future events check out the network's Facebook page.

*- I'm sure I probably owe someone an attribution--I haven't the faintest idea whom.

A Tale of Three Box Offices

"Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name/and they're always glad you came." - Gary Portnoy, Theme For Cheers (Everybody Knows Your Name)


"You're an office park without any trees/Corporate and cold, gushing for gold" -- Ludo, Love Me Dead.

When I started this post several weeks -- and even more drafts ago -- I had thought about obscuring the names of organizations to avoid offending and perhaps couching it as a broader assessment of box offices in general. But I'm afraid if I do that my thesis will be lost in the noise.

So if you read no further: The thing I, as a patron, am most fearful of with the Cleveland Play House's impending move to PlayhouseSquare is that the Play House will eliminate their own box office staff chasing the siren's call of reduced operating costs by outsourcing to PlayhouseSquare. If they make that mistake, I, for one can guarantee that both my attendance and engagement will drop following the move.

The box office is a patron's first -- and in some cases only -- meaningful contact with, and therefore, first impression of a performing arts organization. Before the curtain rises or the first note is struck, the box office is part of the experience that a patron is choosing to partake in. Unlike buying toilet paper or any other commodity, the patron of a performing arts program is purchasing an experience, an escape from reality--beginning at the box office, ending with the curtain call and encompassing everything in between.

This is a core tenant of the Disney^ theme park culture--Disney doesn't have employees, their cast members who are on stage. Things that aren't up to par are considered bad show, and bad show is to be avoided at nearly any cost. Everyone from the custodian sweeping the entry plaza to the Duty Manager running the park is expected to contribute to the guest's experience.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Before discussing those two organizations, any discussion on box offices is incomplete without mentioning the Cleveland Orchestra's Severance Hall box office. If you want a fantastic example of how to run a box office, look no further than University Circle's portion of Euclid Avenue. Policies that are fair (the ticket price at the start of an order is the ticket price at the end of the order) and a staff that is as individually unique and personable as they are unfailingly professional.

I'm on a first name basis with most of the individuals, and they know me. It's nice to see a familiar face week in and week out to exchange greetings and news of the day. If you spend any amount of time near the box office it's something you notice: Patrons greeting their "favorites" by name, offering birthday wishes or condolences; will-call tickets ready in some cases before the patron has fully approached the window. It's personal service that you have to see to believe still exists in 2010. Patrons are names and not numbers (though, frighteningly, I do know my patron number is off the top of my head).

When I'm on the fence between an Orchestra concert and anything else in Cleveland, 9 times out of 10 I'll default to Severance. Of course, great music is important is the service behind that. Would you continue to patronize a restaurant that has fantastic food but lousy waitstaff? The Cleveland Orchestra has mastered a perfect blend of both.

The Cleveland Play House's box office at 8500 Euclid isn't far behind... I'm not there that as often as I am their Eastward neighbor, but still the box office has a wonderful personality and I feel like I'm dealing person-to-person rather than person-to-robot-at-keyboard. The atmosphere is light and entertaining. The people obviously enjoy theatre and know about the programs they're selling tickets for. While I find the "order charge" that sneaks in at the last minute a bit irksome it's small enough not to cause me any bother.

At least one of the box-officers(?) knows me, others don't but regardless I'm treated with respect, humor, and it's the perfect way to get me into the right mood to enjoy a performance.

When I'm on the fence between the Cleveland Play House and anything except the Orchestra there's a pretty good chance I'll wind up at the Play House.

This leaves us with...
Corporate and cold, like an office park without any trees.
When I first started writing this post I was at a loss for an accurate description for the abysmal atmosphere of the PlayhouseSquare box office. Then I had to stop by CHPD's public service window to pick up a copy of a police report. I actually enjoyed that transaction more than any at PlayhouseSquare's box office.

The zest for add-on fees online has dissuaded me from attending more than one performance; just not wanting to deal with dispassionate people who could just as comfortably be selling gasoline and cigarettes behind the thick Plexiglas windows has turned me off from still more.

This box office demonstrates repeatedly that to them I am so obviously not a person, but at least 3 patron numbers--19049 the most common--I've taken to just giving that number rather than the blood-boiling routine of spelling my last name phonetically (Kilo-India-November-Golf-Hyphen,no,Hyphen-the-dash-Yeah-That-One-Charlie-Lima-India-Bravo-Yankee) six times to someone to whom I no doubt sound as muffled as they sound to me.

Online, I'm perpetually disappointed by the website's sense of "Best Available"* (usually the extreme end of one of the first 5 rows in the house--frequently with a vew obstructed by sound equipment) and not just irritated, but insulted, by the fees snuck in at the last minute ($7/per ticket "preservation" and $3.50 shipping and handling on a single will-call ticket).

The response may not be reational I wouldn't mind paying $140 for a ticket, but the prospect of having $10 snuck on to a $130 ticket at the last second has offended me to the point that I've abandoned a transaction at that point more times that I can count. The breakdown of fees is as galling as fees themselves: For example, $3.50 "shipping and handling" for something that will not be shipped and receives no more handling than if I had bought my ticket at the window. That fee, alone, has caused me to abandon more prospective ticket purchases at Playhouse Square than every other performing arts venue in the country combined.

The net result is that there are events I'm interested in that just aren't worth the hassle. I skipped Blue Man group because my level of interest didn't overcome my distate for PlayhouseSquare's box office (not PlayhouseSquare, just the box office). I haven't seen Billy Elliot yet--and may not see it--not because I lack interest, or because ticket prices are unreasonable, or any other excuse the pops up on a survey, but I just don't feel like dealing with their box office--either online or in person. Maybe I'll see it Friday, maybe I'll see it some other time -- it has good buzz.

So, if you're still reading thanks... if you have an differing view I'd love to hear from you. I hope that the Cleveland Play House realizes what an asset they have and doesn't misplace like an unused prop it during the move. Perhaps PlayhouseSquare can improve their box office -- every other PHSQ employee I've encountered have been passionate and enthusiastic.

And whatever you do don't get me wrong... I'm proud to live in a city with all three of these organizations.

^ - Disclosure: A step-relative works in management for Disney Parks & Resorts.
* - Particularly since the Cleveland Orchestra rolled out their new website with "select your own seating" powered by the Tessitura platform; it makes both PHSQ and CPH's Paciolan-powered look like something from the 80s.
**- Ok, so PlayhouseSquare sets the ultimate ticket price, PlayhouseSquare loads event data to the ticketing system, PlayhouseSquare sells the ticket to the customer. I really don't understand why these fees aren't or can't be included in the face value. I can point to airline fare advertising regulations, but this is seeming more than a bit rantish as it stands--though their policy of not refunding these exorbitant fees in the event of an event cancellation is one more reason why I don't generally buy too far in advance.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Cleveland Orchestra: Mahler's First Symphony

Nicolai: Overture to the Merry Wives of Windsor
Nielsen: Clarinet Concerto, Op. 57 (Franklin Cohen, Clarinet)
Mahler: Symphony No. 1
Pinchas Steinberg, conductor.

Yes. I did return to Severance Hall this evening for another Cleveland Orchestra concert. Yes. It was well worth it.

I have to admit that I wasn't feeling that great today -- and the bleak Cleveland weather wasn't helping. As I was preparing to call it an early night, an anonymous benefactor called to offer their extra ticket for tonight's concert; you may recall that my only regret from last night's concert was not hearing Franklin Cohen's solo in Neilsen's Clarinet Concerto. A quick hop in the shower later and I found myself at Severance Hall. At the end of tonight's concert -- during the almost instantaneous and unanimous standing ovation -- the significantly older gentleman standing next to me leaned over and remarked "He looks like he's exhausted" "I'm exhausted and I wasn't even doing anything," was my response. "Mahler will do that to you -- I was getting chills!" was his apt declaration. I was getting chills. I was feeling euphoric. During the piece I was involuntarily smiling; I don't smile (yeah, it's a character flaw). I had just heard this orchestra play this work barely 24 hours ago and I was still completely blown away. Similar conversation could be heard in the energetic buzz of patrons leaving the hall--about the entire program.

I stand by everything I said last night but will add that I hadn't noticed Mr. Steinberg was conducting this amazing masterpiece from memory; and the wonderfully triumphant theme that builds to the end of the fourth movement is almost impossible to resist. (It's also worth noting that the piece was that much more coherent without the inter-movement applause that permeated the Friday performance)

And sandwiched between the two pieces from last night's program was Neilsen's Clarinet Concerto, with Franklin Cohen's amazingly beautiful solo. Since I first heard Mr. Cohen play in a chamber music concert for Heights Arts in November of last year, I've been a huge fan. He plays with such transparent joy and passion that it's impossible not to enjoy listening. I've heard him play in several other chamber music or small ensemble pieces but tonight's performance was the first I've heard him solo with a full orchestra. He did not disappoint. Mr. Cohen played with a beautiful sound that cut through the hall and resonated directly with the soul. Playing against and at times with the orchestra the energy was great and the breath control was amazing. Particularly amazing were some of the incredibly long solo runs -- playing continuously while the orchestra stood mute the notes could be clearly heard in every corner of the hall without the slightest hint of running out of air. The performance left me breathless--gasping for air.

If you missed this weekend's concerts, you missed an incredible program.


Friday, December 3, 2010

Cleveland Orchestra: Fridays@7: Heroic Mahler

Nicolai: Overture to the Merry Wives of Windsor
Mahler: Symphony No. 1
Pinchas Steinberg, conductor
Followed by music by New York Gypsy All-Stars in the Grand Foyer

(It's not often I mention something not at a concert, but as a fan of Mr. Cohen I'm a bit disappointed that his solo in Neilsen's Clarinet Concerto, Op. 57 was omitted from the Friday@7 program...This concert was good, nay, fantastic enough that I'm having a debate with my credit card about retuning for a second helping tomorrow evening. Anyone have an extra ticket you'd care to liberate?)

There's something special about being amongst the first to sneak into the Severance Hall's beautiful main hall before a concert... While there are still fairly few musicians on stage and even fewer bodies in the hall the notes of a lone violinist warming up drift out over the empty seats to be mixed with a harp tuning. The harp fades away and then the violinist is joined by a clarinet and oboe...other musicians and their instruments begin to fill the stage and the sounds form this deliciously uncomposed, unconducted sound. As the hall opens and patrons filter in, the din of happy conversation slowly overtakes the bouquet of sounds coming from the stage, but in that brief period it is meditative, it is but a small reminder of the immense work put into the concert, and it is one of those simple joys. It is a reminder that the music we are about to hear is crafted by a hundred human hands and cannot be replaced by machine and this performance will be like no other.

Both pieces on tonight's program were stunning. The overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor was perhaps my favorite overture thus far and started with an hauntingly sustained quiet note from the first violins and was spellbinding -- the program notes that it runs about 10 minutes in performance; I was emeried, time stood still, and it seemed to end only seconds after beginning.

Mahler's Symphony 1 was likewise stunning -- more than one musician was overheard to say that it may be the best the orchestra has ever played it and I have no basis to disagree -- the first two movements were so captivating as to buoy the soul; my heart was pounding and there were moments I was afraid to breathe for fear of missing a note of wonderment. In the first movement, with the programmatic notation slow, dragging, as if spoken by nature, I could hear the birds chirping and envision a slow walk by a meandering brook; the second movement, carrying the notation, With powerful movement but not too fast, held true to that notation but was notable for an eerie burst from an instrument (I want to say bassoon) that sounded like a child crying "Pappa" (I actually had to scan the stage to see if a child had broken free!).

The third movement gently returned the soul to the body fourth movement both began and and ended with a bit of a funeral march theme. I was a bit apathetic about the first half of the fourth movement abut by the second half -- ending with the horns belting impressively while standing was nearly too much to restrain myself from erupting in applause during the movement.

Mr. Steinberg was one of those wonderful conductors who's hands left no doubt -- even to a relative neophyte such as myself in the audience -- what was expected at any given moment in the concert, and the Cleveland Orchestra once again proved its caliber and responsiveness -- not unlike a luxury sports car -- to turn and respond on a dime.

Following the fantastic concert in the main hall, the audience was treated to New York Gypsy All-Stars in the grand foyer -- a find choice -- where conversation, dancing, and general merriment mixed across patrons of all ages; from barely a teen to well into the gray hairs. A democracy of music I bumped into quite a few familiar faces, and the music was not just toe tapping but entire-body-bouncing.

I don't know what else to say... it was an amazing concert, and one of the most amazing concerts I've yet attended from the Fridays@7 series.