Friday, September 30, 2011

Cleveland Orchestra: Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony

Stravinsky: Concerto in D (for string orchestra)
Gabrieli: Missa Brevis (transcribed for brass)
Stravinsky: Mass (for chorus and orchestra) (With the Cleveland Orchestra Chamber Chours)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36
One encore, unannounced
Franz Welser-Most, conductor.

I started the day at 3:00 AM Pacific Time in a Sacramento, California suburb to make my way back East. Under most other circumstances I would have at least waited until mid-morning, but today was special: Opening night for The Cleveland Orchestra's 11-12 Severance Hall season, and a 6 AM flight was the only way to be sure I'd be back in time to attend.

I noticed a headache around Denver, and the chicken sandwich lunch in First didn't do anything to help...and my Advil stash in my bag had been previously depleted. I got home with enough time to fit in a 90 minute nap and plenty of Advil before heading to the hall.

At the conclusion of the published program, Mr. Welser-Most announced from the podium--I believe the first time I've heard him speak live--"It's good to be back and it's good to have you back"--and that as certainly the feeling. Blossom is great, but there's something magical about being back in the hall. The Cleveland Orchestra is tuned for Severance Hall and Severance Hall is tuned for the Cleveland Orchestra.

The first half of the program was interesting in structure: The strings are my favorite family of instrument and Stravinsky's Concerto left the stage bare save for the strings. The sound was a bit dull around the edges but the give and play, tug and pull between individual instruments and the showcase of each section in the pieces expressive conclusion made it enjoyable.

The movements from Gabrieli's Missa Brevis and Stravinsky's Mass were alternated, that is, the Kyrie from Missa Brevis was played followed by the Kyrie from the Mass, and so forth continuing through the flow of the Latin mass. These two pieces proved that one shouldn't judge a score by it's cover: I hadn't expected to enjoy a brass transcription (Gabrieli), and I was looking forward to for chorus and orchestra (Stravinsky). I was wrong. The four-piece brass arrangement of Missa Brevis was delightful and well balanced, pulling me in note my note. On the other hand, the Cleveland Orchestra Chamber Chorus sounded phenomenal, but I don't think the orchestration added anything positive, and that aspect didn't agree with my ears.

Before hearing the pieces I thought it was a bit odd that the two compositions would be intertwined, but in hearing it played it provided a interesting and immediate comparison between the two pieces, and also kept either piece from becoming boring, as I suspect either piece played alone may have a tendency to do.

Closing out the program, Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony was definitely the highlight of the evening. It was great to just close my eyes and let the notes carry me away. The piece felt readily familiar, and in checking my notes, its because I last heard it performed only 5 months ago. Once again, I loved the extended pizzicato in the third movement, and Mr. Rosenwein's solo oboe was a highlight of the performance.

The unannounced encore was perfectly enjoyable but a dangerously mellow for this road-wearied traveler who had yet to drive home.


Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lincoln in Oroville

So I'll spare the details of the project, but it went rather smoothly... as our first project with this particular client, I was really worried but everything came together, nicely. After we were finished, the City Manager and Police Chief suggested that we visit the hatchery.

As Oroville Dam interrupted the normal flow of salmon swimming upstream to spawn, fish ladders and a hatchery were built to allow the fish to get upstream, and it is an impressive sight. The City Manager was kind enough to drive us out to the hatchery and show us around and (a) there are a ton of salmon in the river. (b) salmon are huge, and (c) it is amazing to watch them jump the ladder.

(A picture of me in front of one of the ladder viewing windows is here)

After picking up my laptop and making sure there were no loose ends for me to tie before I left, I spent the afternoon playing tourist around the city. For a city of only 15,000 (serving a population of 60,000 in unincorporated areas), it seems like there is actually a lot to do -- and certainly a lot of history -- in Oroville. The feel of "downtown" is more "back east" than anything I can recall in California, and generally oozes character. I suspect this stems from the city's development during the 1840s Gold Rush.

As my first post from this trip mentioned, there is of course the Oroville Dam. Related to that are the two Bidwell Bar Bridges [Wikipedia]. The current bridge [today's photo] isn't really anything special; it was built in 1967 to replace the original bridge which would have been below the lake formed by the dam. That bridge, the Original Bidwell Bar Bridge, was deconstructed, preserved, and rebuilt, today carrying foot traffic in the Lake Oroville State Recreation Area [today's Photo, Photo, and Photo] and a National Historical Civil Engineering Landmark [photo], it's amazing to think of the bridge's history.

For one, it was the first suspension bridge in California (and West of the Mississippi, generally), second, the iron came from Troy, New York -- Starbucks Iron Works, to be precise -- around Cape Horn. In the 1850s. Pre-Internet, Pre-Telephone, The dawn of the era of the telegraph, and the sunset of the era of the pony express. The transcontinental railroad is still a decade off. Yet the bridge survives.

Speaking of surviving, another stop on my tour was the Mother Orange Tree, the oldest living orange tree in Northern California -- planted in 1856, transplanted in 1862 and 1964 -- and still producing fruit, though, with it's location at park district headquarters, I don't think anyone would have appreciated me picking one [photo].

Downtown Oroville has an interesting array of museums, including Bolt's Tool Museum which (from the outside) houses a shocking history of thousands of tools from construction to farming. Unfortunately the museum was long closed for the day by the time I got aimed that direction.

And since I have a super early flight tomorrow morning, I think I'll leave it there. You can see more pictures from this trip in the Flickr photo set here.


Monday, September 26, 2011

In California (Again): Odd Goals Accomplished

So I'm in Northern(ish) California* for work, the project is in Oroville, about half way between Sacramento and Chico... I tagged on a vacation day (that is, today) mainly to unwind but also to do a little bit of exploring.

Last night when I landed at SMF, Sacramento's very retro-feeling airport, I had a pounding headache and really just wasn't feeling well at all -- while my inital temptation is to blame it on what I not-so-affectionately refer to as my "allergic reaction to California"** It could have just as easily been the hyperactive child and loud and obnoxious mother kicking my set and screaming/cheering loudly throughout the flight from Houston to Sacramento*** -- I made it to the hotel about 9:45 PT (that's 11:45 PM Eastern)... and crashed hard on the bed. Before I even checked in, though, I knew I had made a good hotel choice: There's an In-N-Out Burger in the same parking lot. (happy sigh) -- I had wondered if I'd be able to find one on this trip, since In-N-Out is a relative newcomer to NorCal.

This morning I took a leisurely start to the day and a dry run to the project location to make sure I could find it tomorrow; then kind of bumbled around until I found the Oroville Dam, the tallest dam in the United States. Browsing the visitor center -- and (re)learning a little bit about the California State Water Project -- one of several utterly massive projects to get water from water-rich Northern California to Central and  Southern California... I've been on the far end of the project -- most water in Southern California, where I grew up, is imported either from Northern California or the Colorado River, but never near the source.
View from the hiking trail of Lake Oroville, the Oroville Dam, and the road up to the visitors center. Not a cloud in the sky.

I did a bit of hiking around the dam area and it was amazingly peaceful... utterly silent except for the sound of your own breathing and the occasional call from a nearby bird, or perhaps the crunch of a dried leaf underfoot. It was nice to get away--and especially on a beautiful day, but I realize that I am a city mouse; the the silence was peaceful and disconcerting at the same time. I realized that I am a city mouse: the noise of an active city puts me at ease; silence makes me nervous.

While hiking back up hill to the visitors center, I was reminded of how out of practice I am on the subject as my legs started complaining...loudly. More loudly, however, was the rustling that came from the underbrush. I stopped. More rustling. Suddenly, a handful of yards in front of me, I see a dear. I hold my breath.


I stare at it. It stares at me. I'm not sure what I should do. I know that Deer are (a) absolutely beautiful (b) not carnivores and (c) because of the lack of antlers, I think this one is female. But I also don't know what a deer will do if it feels threatened. And I don't particularly want to find out today. We continue staring at each other. I'm thinking... OK, my legs are killing me, running probably isn't an option... I wonder if I can climb that tree fast enough, or at all.. We continue staring at each other. She eventually takes a tentative step forward. I stand still. Another tentative step forward. I take a slow step forward. Another tentative step, still staring at each other. She clears the trail and is well camouflaged by a tree. I slowly walk by, holding to the absolute outside edge of the trail. We don't break eye contact. I pass and several, and eventually we stop staring at each other but it was an odd encounter.

I make it back up to my car and after stopping a few points along the way (and driving across the dam for no reason whatsoever) I head back for civilization. But what civilization? Fry's Electronics, of course.

Fry's is like Radio Shack was 20 years ago (i.e. before they became virtually worthless) blown up to a Costco-sized facility. Add to that the fact that each store has a distinct theme, a slightly different culture, and a different variety of stuff. I've had been to every Fry's in the state of California while I lived here****....except the Sacramento store. That dangling chad has now been decisively removed. And I do believe that it is one of the cleaner/organized stores I've been in. Restocking some eccentric consumables for back home, I make it out at just under $50.

Feeling generally accomplished for the day, I aimed my way back to the hotel after making some deposits at my bank (Bank Of America seems to have branches everywhere I am except Ohio)^, and point my GPS back in the direction of the hotel. I decide to stop for lunch along the way, and find an In-N-Out just up the road.

But wait... there's a Hampton Inn in the same parking lot as this In-N-Out, too. A sigh across the street catches my attention while I'm waiting in the drive thru: I consult my itinerary. It turns out this is the hotel I'm staying at the night before my flight home^^. I swear I didn't know before I booked either of them.

Oh yes, it seems, the travel gods have smiled upon me for this trip. Excuse me while I walk over to order dinner.


*- They call it Northern California. If I'm not paying attention, I'll call it Northern California, but it's -really- "North central California" at best... there's still a whole lot of California to go before you hit Oregon, as I learned several years ago when I drove the coast.
**- Virtually every time I fly to the state: Massive, unrelenting, headache and upset stomach/nausea being the two most notable symptoms
***- It took all of my restraint to avoid slapping both of them upside the head; I had considered a stern-faced "Are you going to control your child or do I have to?" over the seat back but since the mother was just as obnoxious, I figured it wouldn't get anywhere.
**** - It appears that a new store, in Oxnard, opened after I moved to Cleveland. I shall have to make another trip to Southern California to complete the list.
^ - But they have withdrawal-only ATMs all over the state. It's just depositing that can be a pain.
^^ -  I'm scheduled to depart at 6 AM Thursday morning, to try to make it back to Cleveland in time for the first concert of the Cleveland Orchestra's Severance season. I wanted to be as close to the airport as possible. I am not a morning person.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

CIM@Severance: Torke, Britten and Mussorgsky

Torke: Bright Blue Music
Britten: Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 15 (Natalie Lin, violin)
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (arr. Ravel)
The Cleveland Institute of Music Orchestra
Carl Topilow, Conductor

The Cleveland Orchestra returns to its Severance Hall home in a little over a week, but music returned to the hall in the form of CIM Orchestra concert tonight. Like the vast majority of CIM's other concerts and recitals, tonight's was free. Before the concert I picked Rachel up and we dined at The Jolly Scholar in the Severance-adjacent Thwing Center. The service is nothing special but the prices are reasonable and it's Severance-convenient.

The concert opened with Michael Torke's Bright Blue Music from 1985. An amazingly expressive piece that evoked all of the feelings associated with Bright and none of those associated  with Blue, it was without a doubt may favorite from the evening, and in its persistently happy and light mood, instantly earned a spot among my favorite pieces of orchestral music. This is certainly one that I hope finds its way to InstantEncore; if it does not I shall have to find a comparable version on iTunes.

Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto was in the middle of tonight's program sequentially but felt out of place and just a bit beyond depressing and quite solitary. While Ms. Lin played with impressive clarity and I have no faults, neither Rachel nor I particularly liked the piece -- and speaking for myself, it ended not a moment too soon. While the overall tone was one of depression, there were interesting dialogues between the soloist and the harp and a rather animated, nearly explosive segment near the midpoint buoyed my hopes for a less pessimistic ending, however that was not to come.

Last on the program but most familiar, Ravel's orchestration of Mussgorsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Probably the classical piece that I've heard most often in live performance, I love the thematic device -- the viewer strolling through a set of pictures at an exhibition -- and the evolution that the Promenade undergoes as the viewer--and the promenade are shaped by the experience of viewing the preceding pieces. It helps that the Promenade's bold opening statement is extremely catchy and very hummable. Each ensemble brings their own impressions to a work, and this is particularly clear with Pictures; likewise, each time I hear the pictures I notice different features.

Tonight I noticed echos between the sections in the Promenade that I don't believe I've caught before. The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks (Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells) was particularly loveley, the energy of a hectic marketplace was crystal clear with The Marketplace at Limoges, and the dead languages were more aggressive than I'm used to (but I rather liked it) with Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua.

At last week's concert -- the first of the CIM year -- I had some rather strong concerns about balance, tonight I think the were largely resolved. That is not to say, of course, that there is not room for improvement -- though that room is preciously small. In Pictures, the brass is certainly not supposed to be pushed into the background, but tonight, they were pushing it a bit too far forward (blaring, to borrow Rachel's word)

All in all though, a very enjoyable concert and a nice way to spend the evening.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

Cleveland Play House: The Life of Galileo

(through October 9, the Allen Theater at PlayhouseSquare)

It's interesting that the Cleveland Play House is opening a new act in its vast history -- moving from the long time home at 8500 Euclid to PlayhouseSquare -- to waters more or less unknown, with a dramatization of the Life of Galileo Galilei, persecuted for challenging the church and common wisdom about the planets. Galileo is credited with improvements to the compass -- and it seems an improved compass is exactly what the Play House is gaining with their new facilities.

The evening started at a commercial photographer friend's studio for their Fine Art Show (gallery hours continue Saturday -- and 20% of the proceeds go to Kick-IT, a national charity... Some really awesome work) before we migrated further downtown. Parking was easy, though the walk to the theaters has changed; popping into the Allen lobby we quickly located the ticket desk, though it didn't seem to be operating at peak efficiency.

Walking into the theater as the first audience for the first show in the new Allen I had a good idea of the physical space but wasn't really sure what to expect from the experience. To say that the experience is a vast improvement from 8500 is an understatement of astronomical proportions. Even from the audience, each of 8500's spaces felt worn and rickety; it wasn't abnormal to hear odd bumps, clacks and bangs throughout a performance. These were nowhere to be heard in the Allen. The seats are actually padded.

Acoustically, the house is just live enough to avoid that disturbing anechoic chamber feeling of a completely dead space. Changes in scenery on, above, and under the stage were virtually silent (in the second half the orchestra pit cover is slightly lowered during the act. It took me a while before (a) I noticed it was moving and (b) I convinced myself it was actually lower and not an optical illusion). The only complaint I have is that lighting in the house during the show, namely aisle and step lighting, seems much brighter than necessary, and the glare is a bit distracting... I hope it will be dimmed in the future.

We were seated in the two seats in Box L on house left side -- as far left as one can get in the new Allen house. I was a bit concerned about sight lines, but was curious about how it would work out... and even these seats offered a good view of the vast majority of the stage [and I rather like the elevation of these seats, mid way between the orchestra floor and the balcony]

The play itself was an interesting look at Galileo's life and a handful of his closest followers and the challenges and persecution from the church...but the narrative leaves a few holes (I didn't get, for example, that Galileo's telescope improved on those commercially available previously, rather than copied, or that he spent the remainder of his life on house arrest). Digital projection is used -- with admirable restraint -- throughout to paint a variety of backdrops, time and place markers. Some of Galileo's theories and drawings are likewise illustrated, providing a captivating and flowing line of information that would be otherwise difficult, if not impossible to convey. At one point flaming caricatures of politicians make an appearance but otherwise it's very restrained.

Though this was the first preview performance (official opening comes Wednesday), the show was well and convincingly acted by a talented company that supported a suspension of disbelief, with just a few stumbled and quickly recovered lines. Though furnishings seemed to be of the general period, clothing and props were distinctly modern--leading to a discussion with Rachel during intermission about the history of "iron"ing clothes, and my total preoccupation during a scene with a walker-toting Cardinal trying to figure out when Rubber and welding came in to common use.

A handful of times, though, we leave the comfort of Galileo's life to brief song and dance numbers that are entertaining but still a little rough around the edges (I had trouble the speech intelligibility during these, however I had no issues understading dialogue during the balance of the show).

It seems that a bright star will be over the Play House's new home.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

CIM: CIM Orchestra (Franck, Bartok, Plog, Prokofiev)

Franck: The Accursed Huntsman (Le Chasseur Maudit)
Bartok: Viola Concerto (Jamie Sachay, viola)
Plog: Weiter (2007)
Prokofiev: Lt. Kije Suite, Op. 60
Carl Topilow, Conductor
Kulas Hall at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Perhaps the last sign that summer is over is the return of students to music-making work at CIM: Though the first day of classes was just over two weeks ago, the CIM Orchestra for the 11-12 school year offered their first concert tonight. For those just joining me, CIM offers a broad program of concerts and recitals throughout the school year -- most free. I suspect that as an educational institution CIM is free to take a bit more liberties with programming than organizations primarily driven by ticket sales or attendance. This freedom provides exposure for composers and works that may not necessarily be the well known.

Before tonight's concert Rachel and I parked in the new lot behind CIM [note: If you've attended CIM concerts in the past, the parking lot you're used to no longer exists... the new lot is further down Hazel] grabbed a quick bite at the Denny's All Nighter (former Silver Spartan) -- the menu is a bit sparse, but the food is generally decent -- then walked over to the Museum of Art for me to take care of some business, before walking back to CIM for the concert.

And... I felt that the ensemble is still in the process of gelling -- not at all surprising given how early in the year we are. Generally, I felt the balance was a bit off, and at various points (primarily in the first two pieces) I sensed that the orchestra wasn't fully committed to the notes they were playing, instead tentatively letting them hang in the air. I can't help but remember what my mother screamed at me while I was learning to drive, occasionally afraid to commit: Indecision will get you killed. While tentative playing won't get anyone killed (unless, perhaps, the composer is in attendance), it keep a piece from truly shining.

For the music, I only recognized two of the four composers on the program, and none of the pieces, so it was nice to get an evening of new music. Opening the program, Cesar Franck's The Accursed Huntsman was the only piece to receive a program note, and the program note was helpful in understanding the intent of the piece, though it mention that the third section is the tempo slows as deep in the woods the count is cursed by a terrible voice. I didn't this sensation from the music.

For Bartok's Viola Concerto,  Ms. Sachay was a pleasure to listen to (it seems that the viola is so rarely a subject for concertos), but Rachel and I both felt something was slightly off between her and the orchestra. That did not prevent the piece from being enjoyable; indeed, I found that I derived the most enjoyment from this piece's 2nd movement (adagio religioso) by simply closing my eyes and allowing the notes to play on my ears. The gentleman to my right was snoring rather loudly, however.

At intermission, a concert first came for me came while we watched two UCPD* officers carry an apparently unconscious attendee to a wheelchair and depart the hall. I hope that individual is alright.

Resuming the program, Anthony Plog's Weiter (German for "forward" or "further") was described by Mr. Topilow as 5 minutes of perpetual motion, and that it was. The structure of the piece was interesting in that it seemed each group of instruments had their moment to shine before returning to a supporting role while the next took (figurative) center stage. With a title implying progress (and the composer's note read by Mr. Topilow referencing spectators screaming the title at football matches)  I was a bit surprised in that the mood and sound of the piece remained fairly steady and even keeled until a fairly explosive ending.

Concluding the program and my unqualified favorite from the evening, Prokofiev's Lt. Kije Suite, selections from a score composed my Mr. Prokofiev for a film in which a fictional lieutenant -- along with a life story -- is created to avoid having to correct a mistaken Tsar. The five pieces in the suite (The Birth of Kije--Romance--Kieje's Wedding--Troika--The Burial of Kije) follow the milestones in the life of the Lieutenant. All of the movements were enjoyable, but something felt very familiar about the Troika (reading the Wikipedia article for the piece, it seems  that it is a popular "winter" advertising piece--which explains why I was thinking of snow). I thought The Burial of Kije would be depressing, but aside from a few deathly trumpet calls and horn blasts even this movement is fairly upbeat, and I found myself humming the theme most of the way to Rachel's apartment. (Of note, CIM played the version using a tenor saxophone, very well played by Alyssa Hoffert, not the alternate baritone voice version. I rather liked the tenor sax version)

*(non-Clevelanders: this is the University Circle Police Department, providing special police services for the University Circle area of Cleveland, independent of the Cleveland Police Department)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Cleveland Play House: Open [Play] House

Cleveland Play House logo on the
Allen Theater Doors (more pics)
While it hasn't quite culminated -- the Play House's administrative offices won't make the move until October, and the new stages won't open until some time in the not-to-distant future -- the Cleveland Play House hit the climax of the massive move from the 8500 Euclid Complex to the Hip new Allen at PlayhouseSquare

Though the festivities kicked off at 4:30 both Rachel and I have "real jobs"* so, even with me sneaking out of the office a bit early we didn't make it downtown until a bit after 5:30... Walking through the Euclid Avenue doors there was an excited din; the largely untouched promenade gives way to the beautiful rotunda.

Carpeted but otherwise untouched the rotunda marked one of my favorite spaces in the PlayhouseSquare complex, but the removal of the back Hanna's back wall gives the space a much less siloesque and much more open feeling than before. While the acoustics in the center of the rotunda are still a bit funky, the carpeting has done wonders.

Passing through the rotunda the carpet continues into the new lobby with two glass-enclosed event spaces flanking the entrances to the house. Before you get there though a dimly lit lobby (the ceiling above is the underside of the Allen's original balcony which has been mothballed for the time being). Tonight a jazzy ensemble was assembled in the corner providing light music for the several-hundred deep crowd and it certainly had that relaxed lounge feeling. Hip furniture rounds that out, though the furniture did seem a bit sparse.

Entering the theater, the transformation from a 2,500-seat combination bowling alley and drab shoebox is striking to 500-seat modern theater is striking. While we weren't allowed to take the seats for a test drive, by their looks alone they should be infinitely more inviting than 8500's fabric-covered wood. Also of note, cup holders throughout the auditorium located on the seat backs. It is unclear if iced beverages will be permitted (one hopes not), but food is will not be open -- lest you be the one stuck next to someone crunching on potato chips while the drama unfolds.

I am withholding judgement on the efficacy of the metal scrim on the side walls: It looks cool, but as lit for the open house it was much harder to perceive the details of the original walls that I expected. Making our way back stage, the view from midstage into the house really emphasises the intimacy of space. Comparatively speaking, I think the view from high school's 299-seat Performing Arts Center main stage (built 1998) was less intimate-- but intimate does not equate to crowded.

The back stage area in general and the wings in particular are immense -- the proscenium opening has been narrowed to the great advantage of anyone working back stage. Further back stage you find the Roe Green Room, a playful combination of the theatrical staple -- the Green Room -- and the benefactor who has been dubbed by The Plain Dealer as "Fairy Godmother to the Arts", Ms. Roe Green. Along the same corridor you find an assortment of dressing rooms; these don't seem to have been touched by the renovation.

And there the tour ends--returning to the lobby, the din has, if anything increased, and the tour line is nearly out the doors. One of these days I hope to sneak into the booth, onto the catwalks and/or into the dimmer room -- the parts of the theater that most intrigue me but never seem to be included in tours.

"I seem to be kind of lost--I don't know where I am" I overheard one patron speaking to no one in particular while wandering the lobby with Rachel -- "This is where the back wall used to be" someone answered. "Wait? This all used to be inside the theater." the surprised answer.

I doubt anyone who has been in the Old Allen would recognize the New Allen if brought into the theater blindfolded. And that only means good things.

The inaugural show for CPH's new home, The Life of Galileo begins previews this Friday and runs through October 9th at the Allen Theater, Playhouse Square (Euclid Avenue between East 14th and East 17th Streets).

*-No, an advertising-free blog doesn't generate enough revenue for me to just kick back. It's actually a rather expensive hobby.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Cleveland Orchestra: Beethoven's Ninth

Oliverio: Dynasty (Double Timpani Concerto), Paul Yancich and Mark Yancich, timpani.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 ("Choral") in D minor, Op. 125, Janice Chandler-Eteme, soprano; Kelley O'Connor, mezzo-soprano; Sean Panikkar, tenor; Ryan McKinny, bass-baritone; The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, Roberet Porco, director.
Jahja Ling, conductor.

I have to admit I don't have anything to wear was a thought running through my mind as I prepared for tonight's post-labor day season closing concert: White and khaki being more or less out but black seeming overly formal. Based on tonight's rainy weather I wasn't sure what to expect for attendance. The pavilion was packed -- sold out, actually -- and more than a few brave souls could be seen packing the lower section of the lawn.

The Cleveland Orchestra certainly ended their Blossom season on a high note, a concert mixing the new and unknown with a relatively old staple.Though the program consisted only of two pieces it was full of different emotions and textures.

The concert opened with the new: James Oliverio's Dynasty a concerto for double timpani commissioned by and played by Paul Yancich, of The Cleveland Orchestra, and his brother Mark Yancich, of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The timpani is usually a single instrument relegated to a place at the back of the orchestra, and perhaps best known for eponymous rolls. It's unusual to see the timpani at the front of the orchestra, even more so for there to be two of them, but that's what tonight's concert offered, and part of--but not the only reason--this was my favorite from the concert.

The first movement had cinematic feelings and the energy and general feeling that its name (Impetuous) would imply; though I initially felt timpani were overpowering the orchestra, a good balance was quickly settled into. The second movement, Naivete, started with and hinted at an exotic sound throughout and I couldn't help but to envision a snake charmer (aptly played by an alto flute) and the snake responding to the calls, before turning beautiful and colorful with the help of the two harps flanking the timpanis. The third movement Interlude provided an opportunity for the two timpanists to explore the oft-overlooked range of their instruments without the distraction of orchestral accompaniment.

The fourth movement, Ancestors Within was the one part of the concerto I didn't really get into; it felt like a minor tension was built but never released. Finally Destiny carried the cinematic feelings of the first movement with a wonderfully melodic and dramatic movement, feeling, at times, reminiscent of a newscast theme. Improvised solo cadenzas from each Mr. Yancich felt distinctly like the drum solo you may expect from a rock concert, before the orchestra returned for an explosive ending with an exclamation point.

By contrast the Beethoven felt more staid and burnished as a whole; I never really got into the first or third movements, while I really enjoyed the second (molto vivace) movement with its iconic sound [if you have a Windows XP computer you can find a recording of this movement in the "Sample Music" folder under My Documents -> My Music, though it offered nowhere near the power or enticement of a live orchestra, let alone The Cleveland Orchestra], meanwhile Mr. Paul Yancich, after his workout at the front of that stage earlier, returns with his instrument, to the back of the stage for this piece. Finally, the symphony, the concert, and this Blossom season, was drawn to a close with the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and four soloists singing the Ode to Joy in the fourth movement (Presto--allegro assi--presto). While I didn't find the soloists to be particularly notable, both the Orchestra and Chorus sounded fantastic: I think it may mark my favorite appearance of the Chorus to date.


Friday, September 9, 2011

My Adventures with the Rate Desk

My first trip to California went off uneventfully -- except for the little incident in Beverly Hills where I was mistaken for a star (you'll have to ask me in person, since I can't publicly post anything less vague) -- but my second trip has been postponed. I can't say that I'm complaining; I could use a little decompression time. Plus I think this way I'll actually be able to make it to the Cleveland Play House's Open House at the Allen on Monday evening -- perhaps, if I can get off my rear end, I might actually make it to one of the first performances in their new space. [Please remind me. Frequently. Wave faux tickets under my nose if you must.]

But in changing my plans I had to call both Hilton and Continental: For Hilton it was a simple case of one of my hotel reservations (this trip has three*) being a bit curmudgeonly and not wanting to be changed online. Simple: Call the HHonors Diamond Desk, give them the new dates, presto changeo, that reservation is fixed.

For Continental, it was a bit more trying, but perhaps a bit of background is helpful: Airlines have classes of service (namely "First" and "Economy") and fare classes. Within each fare class there's a fare basis. Confused? So is everyone else, including a lot of people who work in the airline industry. Fare classes are frequently referred to as fare buckets. Each fare bucket is identified by a single letter -- for example A, B, C, F, Y. Still with me?

Each bucket represents a specific type of fare in a specific class of service, with a specific fare basis. The fare basis, is in turn linked to the fare rules spells out in excruciating detail** the rules associated with the fare. And on every flight each bucket is allocated a certain number of physical seats.

The only real consistency are the so-called Full Fares, F for First and Y for EconomY -- I was once told that that''s because Economy is at the back of the plane... get it? -- everything else depends on the airline. These offer the most flexibility, the fewest restrictions, and are typically the priciest tickets on the plane.

For example, on Continental in Economy fares are roughly (in descending order of cost and flexibility, and ascending order of rules and regulations) Y-B-M-E-U-Q-V-W-S-T-L-K-G***.

So on a 200-passenger aircraft, our cheapest fare bucket, "G" may be allocated a maximum of 4 seats; our mid-way "W" may be allocated a maximum of 100 seats, while the pricier "Y", "B", and "M" may have access to all 200 seats: This explains why you may have paid $600 for your ticket but the guy next to you only paid $150. He or she got to the cheap fare bucket first.

Most airlines will -- because it's required by federal law and just makes good business sense for comparison shopping -- quote, price, and book an itinerary in the lowest available fare unless otherwise requested by the customer.

In my case, when traveling for work I virtually always book in Full Fare Y economy, because it offers the most flexibility (completely refundable, completely changeable, free checked bags, and highest priority for reaccommodation in the event of travel disruption). Continental makes this very easy to do when booking a flight on but it's impossible when changing a flight on, for some reason

So I get the flight numbers, price it as a new itinerary on and then call. I speak with someone virtually instantaneously... give her the info, and when she prices it it's $450 higher. Same flights, same bucket -- Y -- and fare basis -- YUA -- Huh? She doesn't understand either so she transfers me to the helpdesk.

After 10 minutes on hold I repeat everything to the new agent, and she sees the fare I priced. She pulls the flights in to my reservation and initially everything looks good, until she goes to reissue the ticket. She has to reprice before she can reissue and when she reprices it grabs some unknown inventory and the price drops $600.

She can't see the the fare basis without issuing the ticket, which we both agree is bad. I've found that the fare dropping on a change is a huge red flag, waving with blinking neon, that the fare basis has been changed to something other than Y... which is bad, because you loose all of the Y benefits. She tries a variety of options without success or explanation for the drop. We're both concerned.

"It looks like I'm going to have to call the Rate Desk to figure this out" she says. Based on my recent track record, I'm not surprised.

The rate desk is one of those things crusty little corners of aviation history largely ignored by passengers, travel agents, and airline employees alike. The Rate Desk, among a family of other desks --such as the Agency Desk and the Group Desk -- hearken back to the days before technology and a literal desk provided the service.

While I haven't been able to locate any photos, I have this vision of someone sitting at a desk with one of those green brimmed-accountant's hats and an old-fashioned banker's light. I doubt that's the case.

The short version is the Rate Desk does what their name says -- they rate (as in set the price for) an itinerary. In the old days, from what I understand from a ex-travel agent friend who was in the business at the dawn of the computer era, the Rate Desk would be consulted if a published fare couldn't be located or if an unusual itinerary was required.

The functions of the Rate Desk have largely been automated, but there are still times when a human touch is required: A bit of research, a bit of black magic, . And based on how well insulated these humans are from the outside world. I have to assume that they're darn smart humans****. My agent has a chat with the rate desk, the rate desk figures out how to make everything work they way it should with my changes, and we're set.

But this is the fourth time this year I've had to have the Rate Desk intervene to fix a reservation. Should it be this hard? I want to give you (or in this case, you to keep) my money, in exchange I want to keep a nice flexible ticket. It doesn't sound that hard, does it?

Sigh. A


*- The first is a HHonors "free" (points) night at hotel #1 for a day of vacation; the second is two more nights at the same hotel, which is near my client, and paid for by my company. The third is a single night at a hotel near the airport because I have an early-morning flight
**- Everything from refundability and changes to the applicability of Tour Conductor discounts. Most important though are Advance Purchase and Minimum Stay restrictions.
***- Useless trivia: For a long time on Delta (perhaps this is still the case) the four cheapest fare buckets were [in order] S-L-U and T. Coincidence or inside joke?
****-The Continental agent I was on the phone with had to spend 30 minutes waiting for the Rate Desk to answer

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Blossom Festival Orchestra: Bugs Bunny at the Symphony

(The full program can be found at the end of this post)
I'm once again in  the midst of a whirlwind travel schedule -- most of last week was spent at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, tomorrow I'm flying to a project in Southern California and there for a jam-packed few days, getting back just in time to drive to a project at Ohio State in Columbus...and then flying back to a different project in Northern California...and I might have a quick visit to Houston, and well... I'll let you know what time zone I land in when September is over.

Way back at the beginning of the summer, though, September was wide open. When Rachel saw Bugs Bunny on the schedule for Labor Day weekend, she was interested and  we marked our respective calendars.

Having not really spent time together for the better part of the week -- and anticipating a large crowd and the traffic attendant thereto we decided to picnic pre-concert.

Before the concert we stopped by the Sheetz on Steels Corners to grab sandwiches MTO (something about ordering using a touch screen eliminates the guilt associated with a BLT, hold the L and T, add Cheddar, Pepperoni, Olives, Pickles, and Mayo) and found a quiet corner of shaded grass just inside the Lot A gate to spread a blanket and chow down. We finished eating as the had-been trickle of concert goers turned into a full fledged stream of all ages: Some young, some old. Some empty handed, some toting a handful of foodstuffs, others looking as if they were prepared to survive for weeks.

Though a sweltering evening, with a bit of time left before the concert started we walked the Blossom grounds...stopping to watch a swarm of bees busily pollinating flowers, making our way around the top of the bowl watching children at play and a densely-packed lawn, rivaling if not surpassing the 4th of July programs. Settling into our seats in the pavilion, we noted that it was comparatively empty.

The program -- now in it's 20th year (though the program note mentions that George Daugherty made his Blossom conducting debut in 1070 [sic]) -- mixes a live orchestra with classic Warner Brothers cartoon clips to reinforce the classical music that was so prevalent in those. Overall, it's a nice concept: I didn't really slip into critical listening mode and spent most of the evening smiling, though I question the value of the clips (indicated with a * below) where the orchestra was not used, instead relying upon the original--recorded--soundtrack. There were also a few places where it seemed that the overall balance, particularly orchestra-to-sound-effects-and-dialogue felt a bit wonky.

I'm not sure what my favorite from the evening was: Wiley Coyote and the Roadrunner are always fun with Zoom and Bored; Baton Bunny, Rhapsody Rabbit, and What's Opera, Doc were fun for the musical gags and in jokes. Scooby Doo's Hall of the Mountain King and The History of Warner Bros. Cartoons in Four-and-One-Half Minutes, of course featured iconic music. Rachel enjoyed but had hoped to hear the full Join Up With Me, So Joyous and Free (from Robin Hood Daffy) and Hello My Baby (from  One Froggy Evening) that were excerpted as part of a medley.


The Full Program
The Dance  of the Comedians (Overture) from The battered Bride. Music by Bedrich Smetana
The Warner Bros. Fanfare. Music by Max Steiner
Merrily We Roll Along (The Merrie Melodies Theme). Music by Charles Tobias, Murray Mencher, and Eddie Cantor; Arr. Carl W Stalling.
Baton Bunny. Based on Franz von Suppe's Overture to Morning Noon and Night In Vienna.
*Excerpt from What's Up Doc?
Rhapsody Rabbit. Music by Carl W. Stalling. Milt Franklyn, piano solo.
*I Love to Singa Medley, including: I Love to Singa, Music by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg; Would you Like to Take a Walk from Naughty Neighbors, Music by Harry Warren; Tiptoe Through The Tulips from A Scent of the Matterhorn, music by Joe Burke; Hello My Baby from One Froggy Evening, Music by Ida Emerson and Joseph E. Howard; A Cup of Arsenic....from Bewitched Bunny, based on Gertrude Lawrence A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich, and You; Largo Al Factotum from Back Alley Oproar music by Carl Stalling after Gioacchino Rossini from The Barber of Seville;  Join up With Me, So Joyous and Free from Robin Hood Daffy, Music by Milt Franklyn; Square Dance (Skip To My Lou -- Turkey in the Straw), from Hillbilly Hare, music by Carl Stalling, based on American Flok Songs
Zoom and Bored, original score b y Carl W. Stalling and Milt Franklyn; based on The Dance of the Comedians from Bedrich Smetana's The Battered Bride.
*Home Tweet Home, Original Score by Milt Franklyn.
The Rabbit of Seville. Music by Gioacchino Rossini, Arr. Milt Franklyn, based on Overture to The Barber of Seville.
Overture to The Beautiful Galatea. Music by Franz von Suppe.
Tom and Jerry in the Hollywood Bowl. Music by Johann Strauss from the Overture to Die Fledermaus.
Scooby-Doo's Hall of the Mountain King. Music by Edvard Greig using Peer Gynt's In the Hall of the Mountain King.
Bedrock Ballet. Music by Jacques Offenbach: Can-Can from Orpheus in the Underworld.
A Corny Concerto. Music by Carl W. Stalling, Based on Johann Strauss's Tales of the Vienna Woods and The Blue Danube.
*Long-Hared Hare.
What's Opera, Doc?. Music b Milt Franklyn based on Richard Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, Die Walkure, Siegfried, Gotterdammerung, Rienzi and Tannhauser.
Merrie Melodies That's All Folks, Music arr. Carl W. Stalling.
The History of Warner Bros. Cartoons in Four-And-One-Half Minutes. Music by Gioacchino Rossini: William Tell Overture finale.