Leon Fleischer at Strathmore: Happy Birthday

Leon Fleischer turned 80 on Wednesday (according to Wikipedia) and part of his celebration was conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore last night, and playing a Mozart piano concerto (No. 12, Kirchel 325).  A very enjoyable concert, and it was good to see Fleischer, whose piano career was set back by a 30+ year paralysis in his right hand, playing so comfortably.

Our synagogue’s long time cantor developed a throat problem and could not sing any more, but he did not let it destroy him: he went back to school and is now a rabbi.  Fleischer is another example of someone who, when he no longer could play, became a conductor and remained a teacher.

A good lesson here.

It was also our first venture to Strathmore, understanding that we are probably the last people not to have gone there for something.  I thought that concert hall was quite nice, although I was surprised that a place with such good acoustics had so few soft surfaces.  My wife did point out one problem.  If you sit in the first row of a balcony (and there are many, as there are three upper tiers, two of which crawl the sides) and are female, you need to be concerned about how you sit, as the protective half-walls are slatted, rather than solid.

Our seats were really odd:  we were in the first row of the first balcony (called the promenade, I believe), but we were all the way to the side, and so far forward that the orchestra and the audience, were both to our left.  This gave us a unique view of the conductor (like he was conducting us), terrific piano acoustics (as there was nothing but air separating the piano, which had had its lid totally removed, and us), a great view of the tympanist, but a little lack of balance when the entire orchestra was playing, and particularly when the trumpets, which were right under us, were playing (which luckily was not very often).  We were sitting over the brass section for the most part, and if we had binoculars could have read their music.

Recent Events and Takes (14 cents)

1.  Having been to such a good Saturday lecture on Turkey a month or so ago, we were very disappointed in the slapdash quality of the lecture on the Bosphorus last night.  We left at intermission.

2.  I stopped by the current exhibit, “Blue”, at the Textile Museum, and must say I was disappointed with it as well.  I am not sure that three pairs of Levi’s hanging behind glass on a wall to show how little they have changed since 1849 is that revelatory.  It is nice to know that there are fabrics of various types, old and  new, which have heavy doses of blue in them, but didn’t I already know that?  And if blue is their only common denominator, does that make for an exhibition?  I did enjoy looking at the few old South American and Egyptian fabrics, but that had nothing to do with blue; I would have enjoyed them if they were red and yellow only.  And, although there were references to the various types of dyes used, I couldn’t decide if there was too little or too much information.  I did not think, in any event, that it was “just right”.  Next to the Egyptian fragment (I believe it was), there was a little note that referenced the blue dye obtained from the murex snail.  I was interested in this, as this was the dye apparently used in the temple and still today used for some tallits.  It has always been very rare, and very expensive.  I am told today that the murex snails are being farmed, to make sure that murex-colored tallits will remain available.  I thought that this was a use of the murex dye that would be interesting to all, and I was sorry that there was no reference or example.

3.  On the other hand, the Tuesday concert at the Church of the Epiphany was most enjoyable.  It was a concert by the Friday Morning Music Club Orchestra.  I did not know what to expect.  I have paid little attention to the Friday Morning Music Club, although they too have regular downtown noontime concerts (you can guess which day), which I understand to be mainly chamber music.  So I was quite surprised walking into the church and counting between 60 and 70 musicians in the orchestra.  Led by Pablo Saelzer, they played two “Hungarian” pieces with mystery and romance (Brahms’ Hungarian Dances 1, 3 and 10; and Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta) very well.  And in the middle, with an excellent horn solo by Amy Smith, they perfomred Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro Op. 70 for Horn and Orchestra, a piece with which I was not familiar.  Saelzer, the orchestra’s regular conductor is Chilean; Smith was a horn major at Indiana University and has a masters in performance from the University of Georgia.

4.  I have to congratulate the Nationals for winning 5 of their last 6.  After winning their first three games, they had a disastrous drop to 6-16.  They are now up to 11-17, only 1 1/2 games in last place in the division.

5.  Finally, five persnickety people had dinner at Clyde’s in Friendship Heights on Sunday (and that was just at my table), and all appeared quite satisfied with their food.

Grigory Sokolov

I wrote a note about pianist Grigory Sokolov some months ago. I had heard a recording on WETA and loved it.

And then I promptly forgot about him.

Until yesterday, where the Arts section of the NYT had an interesting article called “When Fame Can’t Cross the Atlantic”, talking about some of the reasons that, in spite of the total opening of cultural movement to and from the former Iron Curtain countries, some artists have not made it in the United States. Sokolov performs concerts across Europe, where he is recognized as the extraordinary pianist that he is. But has not performed in the US, and there are apparently no plans for him to. A number of reasons are given, none of them quite good enough. To complicate matters, he has not made any recordings since 1995. I suggest you find him on youtube, as well as Sviatislav Richter, and the compare the two.

How Do You Decide What to Wear? (1 cent)

I feel a great sense of accomplishment, as yesterday I wore the same clothes to (a) go to synagogue, (b) visit with friends at the home of their mother, (c) have lunch at an Italian restaurant, (d) read a book, and (e) go to a Mardi Gras (I know the date is off) party at the Eastport Democratic Club in Annapolis, where Little Red and the Renegades were playing.  It can be done.

More details?  This is a scholar in residence weekend at Adas Israel, and we went to hear Professor Rachel Elior of Hebrew University speak (Edie went back to hear her this morning, but I needed my morning coffee).  She was very interesting, speaking about the Levites (the tribe of Jacob dedicated to taking care of the Temple and ritual objects), stressing that Aaron the High Priest (brother of Moses) was not the first in his line, but that his lineage could be traced back to his great grandfather, and then forward to the destruction of the Temple.  She talked about how the then current high priest would determine which of his sons would inherit the position, with the remainder of the sons joining the remaining Levites in their job of taking care of ritual objects and ensuring that ritual was followed.  They were not permitted to work, they had no land in a society which was agricultural, and they were expected to study and teach (everyone, at least all the males, was literate) and to be supported by the community.

Our friends Harriet and Vance are in from Michigan to help their mother, our friend Charlotte, who has been battling severe pain from her arthritic condition, begin to prepare her townhouse in Burke for sale.  Difficult all around.  But we spent the afternoon with them, including a mediocre at best lunch at an Italian restaurant in Burke where we have been several times before with Charlotte and at least once with Harriet.  Is it called Bella Vista?  Perhaps.  It has a view of the local Walmart.

Then, after a return to the District and a brief rest, we regenerated, picked up our friend Ellen, and drove to Annapolis where the Eastport Democratic Club (of the Maritime Republic of Eastport) was having their annual Mardi Gras festival with Little Red and the Renegades (“They call me Little Red, but my real name is Tom”) were playing, this time with support from members of another local band, The Grandads.  Everyone was, as they say, in fine fiddle.

The only problem:  We got home well after midnight (and at 2 o’clock a.m., we were under instructions to spring forward an hour, which we did).

Extra, Extra, Read All About It!! Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez Plays to Empty House

I had never been to a Thursday noon concert at the National City Christian Church. Until today.

Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez gave a wonderful (!) 30 minute concert. I was one of 17 in attendance. Too bad.

I of course had never heard of the soloist. He looks like a very nice guy. With a hint of a Spanish accent (I think he is from Mexico originally), he introduced each piece, giving exactly the right amount of information. And he played them flawlessly. And they were not easy pieces.

Bach’s Chaconne in D minor as arranged by Busoni. The light touch of Bach and the very heavy, romantic pounding of Busoni. Hernandez-Valdez said that there have been continuing arguments over whether it is more one, or more the other. Clearly it is both, and while you might not think that the two so-different styles would complement each other, they seem to.

Then it was Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu (known to you unsophisticates as “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”, which (I did not know) was found in a drawer after Chopin’s death (and about 15 years after it was written), never performed or published for another three decades.

Finally, the final movement of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7, one of my favorites. Hernandez-Valdez introduced it by saying that, with all of its speed and tonalities, it is a “wild ride” for pianist and audience alike. How right he is, and how well he rode.

I am not sure how old he is, but his resume is quite impressive, as his performance, and it makes you realize how hard it is for high quality musicians to make a financial go of concertizing (at least I assume that he would rather be Vladimir Ashkenazy; maybe not). Hernandez-Valdez directs music at Westmoreland United Congregational Church at Westmoreland Circle, he is an Adjunct Professor of Piano at Shenandoah University, and is on the faculty of the Washington Conservatory of Music.

I had only one question, and that had to do with the acoustics, at least where I was sitting (second row, keyboard side)….sounds seemed to blend into each other quite heavily.  I could not tell if that was the church (as I had never been there before), or whether there was a little too much damper.

I saw the schedule for Thursday concerts through June – no other solo piano.  A lot of organ music, and the organ looks beautiful.

Netanel Draiblate and Victor Goldberg

You might hear more of them and from them in years to come. Both are young Israeli musicians, who played at a WPAS benefit, at the home of Frank and Ahuva Dye last night. Both are clearly top notch, although I enjoyed Goldberg’s piano more than Draiblate’s violin, which I thought a little thin at times (the audience, however, did not agree with me and I think may have found the violinist to be the more appealing of the two). Goldberg played two solo pieces, both showy and difficulty. Scriabin’s Sonata #5 (called by Sviatislav Richter the most difficult piano piece ever written) and Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Opus 24.

It was also interesting to hear a little about the in-school work done by WPAS.

Good salads, bad fish, no coffee and loud music (2 cents)

I was concerned that we were going to be the oldest at the Teapacks concert last night by far.  We may have been the oldest, but clearly not by far.  In fact, the audience although not extremely large, ranged from toddlers to us.  I would guess that the median age was probably mid to late 30s.  Our table neighbor suggested that the Teapacks were very popular in Israel 10 – 15 years ago, and that a lot of the audience were their fans then.

I don’t understand why the music needs to be so loud.  When playing the same music on a CD, no one would reach this decibel level.  The problem is that it drowns out much of the subtlety of the music, and certainly makes the words (irrespective of language) hard to understand.  In fact, Kobi Oz, the Teapacks lead, announced that one song would be in Gibberish, “so it doesn’t make any difference if you don’t know the language”.  It might of been Gibberish, but it could just as easily been the English or the Hebrew.

The words, which Oz writes, are very clever (of course, I take that on faith, since there is so much I couldn’t follow).  And much but not all of it expresses strong social positions.  In addition to “He’s Gonna Push the Button” (see the Youtube clip below several posts), there is a song trying to determine what is more important, peace or food.  The song is “Salaam, Salami”.  There is another song about the capitalists taking over the world, with a great line that reads something like “Go ahead and sue us, our lawyers work like snails”.  And there is a pounding song that attacks the audience directly:  “You’re so dumb, you’re stupid, stupid, stupid, and all we do is make money off of you.”  The audience loves it.

There was quite a bit of dancing.  Or maybe not.  Because the dancing seems to be bouncing.  You stand in front of the band, you do whatever you want with your hands (you can just let them hang, you can wave them back and forth, you can do anything) and you bounce like you are on a pogo stick.  You can do it with a partner, with your friends, by yourself.  You don’t even need to know if you are dancing with anyone.  Perhaps this is the way it is at all rock concerts now?

The members of the six man band (guitars of various types, drums and a keyboard/accordianist) look like you would expect them to, more or less.  Tall, thin, motley dressed, never been to a hair salon.  But Kobi Oz, who is the lead, and who sings ALL of the songs (it was a 90 minute set) is a small bundle of energy.  Small = maybe 5’2″  Bundle = compact, non- angular  Energy = rapid, kinetic, frantic, uncontrolled, awkward, graceful movement, without even a hint of slowing down.

The venue (State Theatre in Falls Church, right on Route 29) is quite nice.  I was told that they often have up to 700 people for a concert and, for the reggae and a few other concerts, they remove the tables and can fit in 1000.  (I assume that none of them is the fire marshal.)  They have a rather complete menu and friendly servers (“No, no, you’re not the oldest person we’ve ever had here, are you kidding?”), and the ceasar salad and the guacamole were first class, but watch out for the frozen, one-size-fits all salmon, which was dry and tough and not possible to really eat.  And their coffee brewer was broken, or so they said.

I’d go back to the State Theater, but would be a fish out of water at most events, so probably won’t.  But some upcoming programs seem interesting.  Anyone want to go with me to see Girl in a Coma?

My Sunday So Far

I did go to the lecture of Bayreuth, but it turned out not to be first on my list. After a short stint at the gym, and a short read through the Sunday Washington Post, I saw that today was the final day of the four day book sale sponsored by the AAFSW (Association of American Foreign Service Women, or something to that effect) at the State Department and that it was, therefore, half price day.

I usually enjoy this sale, because you can never tell what will turn up, since the books are primarily donated by State Department or foreign service families. It’s only problem (and it is a problem for AAFSW I am sure) is that the Foggy Bottom State Department is so ringed by security that access is difficult (i.e., several steps) and parking nearly impossible. But I assume they will remain there because the four day sale really last a week and four days, with the eligible purchasers during the first week State Department employees only.

You would think that they would take the cream of the crop, and perhaps they do, but I did find some bargains. Three picture books. The first is a book on the painting that is done for the labels of Mouton Rothschild wines (the book itself sells for about $40) signed by Baroness Rothschild and inscribed (warmly) to Colin Powell. chmoutonr204-w.jpgThe second is a coffee table book about the Churchills written and signed by Mary Soames, who is the daughter of Winston and Clementine. The third is a beautiful book, where photographer Michael Collopy follows Mother Theresa around. Collopy signed the book. There are no signed copies of the Collopy book or the Rothschild book listed. I also bought a nice signed copy of Tom Clancy’s Shadow Warriors and Augusten Burroughs’ memoir, Dry, also signed. Seventeen books in all.

When I went to the library for the lecture, I did not know what to expect. I was going to be surprised if there was a crowd.

I asked at the front desk where I should go, and I was told to take the elevator to the first basement level, and make two left turns until I found Room A10. I had never been on that level before. Talk about halls and rooms without personality. Room A10 would hold maybe 50 people at most. It has white cinder block walls and no windows. It had folding chairs set up, a movie screen in front and a small table serving as a lectern. There were fewer than 20 in attendance.richardw.jpg

The presentation was sponsored by the Washington Wagner Society, known as WagnerOpedia. The group was a mixed group, but all white, and none under, say, 50. I was a little ill-at-ease in this group, because of the anti-Semitism of Wagner, I was concerned that these Wagnerites might also reflect similar feelings at their meetings. If they do, they didn’t today.

In fact (in the “news of the weird” category), the chair of WagnerOpedia is (a) a woman, (b) Jewish and (c) hard of hearing. Go figure. In fact, she is someone I have seen from time to time at my synagogue.

Dr. Sven Friedrich, who directs a number of institutions at Bayreuth devoted to Richard Wagner and to Franz Liszt, was a rather formal presenter. His English was quite good, but he did not believe it was. And so, he told us that he was going to read a paper, rather than speaking from notes. He also told us that, although the advertised topic was “Bayreuth: Past, Present and Future”, he was going to give a lecture on Cosimo Wagner, Richard’s wife. He apologized, but said that this was a lecture that he had written out and had had translated into English. He then said that his reading would take approximately one hour and fifteen minutes. Whew!

It was actually quite interesting. He touched on how Cosimo, married to another, decided that Richard, also married to another, was the guy for her, and how she pursued the relationship until it blossomed into separations from their spouses, having children together, moving in with each other and finally marrying. After Wagner died, Cosimo took it on herself to continue and expand the fledging festival that her husband had started, and how successful she was. How she made sure that her son Siegfried would take over the festival after she retired (which she did shortly after the turn of the century, although she lived another twenty years or so, until she was well into her nineties), how she helped arrange his marriage to Winifred, and how her daughter sued her for failing to treat her children equivalently with regard to the festival, how the suit became very public, and how mother and daughter never spoke again. The question of anti-Semitism came up, but in a rather matter of fact manner. Wagner was anti-Semitic, as was Cosimo. But their overall approach to life was apparently quite different. Cosimo was an aristocrat in her manner and leanings, and Wagner was much more a man of the people, so that the festival became much more of a upscale society event that Richard ever dreamed it would be, or should be.

I did not stay for the questions and answers, nor far the pay your own supper which was to follow at a nearby restaurant.

Whether Friedrich expected more people, I don’t know. He gave no sign. He is on a U.S. tour, giving this lecture in about a half dozen cities. He was in New York yesterday; Washington was his second stop. On his way to Chicago tomorrow.