Hockey Night in…..Symphony Hall?

hockeymusic.gifLooking out at the snow and ice on a twenty-degree day, a story from yesterday’s Toronto Globe & Mail to warm the cockles o’my ice-skating heart: news of a Hockey Symphony…

Wednesday night, trail-blazing Montreal maestro Kent Nagano will lift his baton to conduct what is perhaps the world’s first symphonic ode to hockey. Meant to transport Montrealers back to the glory days of the Canadiens and the Montreal Forum, the Hockey Legends concert features an original score, Les Glorieux, punctuated by organ music, a jarring period buzz or two and some spoken-word performances by none other than hockey stars Alex Kovalev, Saku Koivu, Guy Lafleur and Henri (Pocket Rocket) Richard. Nagano commissioned Quebec composer François Dompierre and writer Georges-Hébert Germain to create the piece, which will be performed by the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal at Places des Arts concert hall….

Now, there have been a fair amount of baseball-themed symphonic pieces (including Robert Russell Bennett’s “Dodger Symphony,” with a cameo at the premiere by Red Barber himself), but this is the first I’ve heard of an ode to hockey in the concert hall. California native Nagano explained that it all came about as part of his ongoing effort to Get To Know His New Country:

Nagano began to immerse himself in hockey culture shortly after arriving to head the OSM in September, 2006, studying televised games and reading the biographies of legendary National Hockey League greats. But the conductor didn’t really get Canada’s hockey addiction until he attended his first live game: “It was so exciting to be in a jam-packed arena,” Nagano recalls. “I was impressed by the ferocity of the crowd’s emotions. There was such a personal investment and identification with the players. And the mood can change very, very quickly.”

Seems Nagano’s idea hit a responsive chord with the home-town crowd…Not only did they sell all 3,000 seats to the concert; the demand was so great that they also opened up the dress rehearsal to the public. The rest of the program? First Period: Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben ( A Hero’s Life) Second Period: Erik Satie’s Sports et divertissements ( Sports and Entertainment). Third Period: Dompierre’s Les Glorieux. No word on whether the Zamboni came out between pieces at the Place des Arts….

PS. Maybe there’s not a lot of symphonic music devoted to hockey, but there’s an entire site (Canadian, natch) devoted to music for hockey games….

Meanwhile, back in Cleveland

Maybe this is why the Tribe lost: What’s up with that ridiculous mascot? That’s what the Christian Science Monitor wanted to know last week.

So when you watch the Cleveland Indians on television this week, watch your kids as well. Ask yourself what the image of Chief Wahoo teaches them about Native Americans. And ask yourself if you can live with the answer.

The hometown paper has even been forced to take notice:

Leaders in Cleveland’s American Indian community are excited that the city’s baseball team has returned to the playoffs, but they are loath to see someone else making a comeback:

Chief Wahoo, the Indians’ grinning, red-faced mascot.

The once-fading emblem is suddenly everywhere, they say, clearing a path for other Wild West stereotypes…..

If, as the pundits say, the Indians will be back in the postseason next year, will they be willing to bring Chief Wahoo along again?

Red Dress’n’ Red Sox

Red Dress: Belongs to Julia Fischer, soloist last night in an absolutely transcendent performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, with Yuri Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic at the Ken Cen. She managed to be noble, elegant, energetic, engaged, even playful…and at all times serenely musical.

In my Concert Preview for her performance I quoted liberally from the review in the IonArts blog from Fischer’s performance with Temirkanov and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in May of 2006. It all pretty much applies to what what we heard at the Kennedy Center, too…

What Julia Fischer chose to play with the BSO was no less a work than the Beethoven concerto: not a razzle-dazzle piece, the flash of which is to blind the audience and stun them into happy submission, but a work that demands foremost a thinking player’s approach, lest it fail to take off. Technical perfection and bravura playing can still produce a dud (as Anne Sofie Mutter has been happy to prove with two recordings) – conception and a sense of the complete work at every instant are more important. With her ability to place emotional peaks into refined playing, with her nicely developing tone – never shy, not too big – Ms. Fischer gave this concerto both: the nobility and excitement it needs without veering either into aloof coldness on one side or showy gypsy fiddling on the other. And while the “Beethoven Concerto against Violin” can take any number of approaches, it is especially allergic to the latter.

Cutting a dashing figure in a very red dress as she did, it was not enough to detract from the sternly delicate, searing Largo, where she made the otherwise middle-of-the run, broad rendition of the work sound very special; nuances well placed called attention to the music, not her. Grace and purity abounded. Under Temirkanov’s caring hands – here was something he visibly cherished doing – the BSO performed this and the cadenza-linked last movement splendidly, even with delicacy when called upon to do so. The ripping finale topped it all off in great style. This was an example of 45 minutes of music-making as it should be – and the audience sensed it…

Fischer has yet to record the Beethoven concerto, but you get a glimpse of her in action in a YouTube video of a live television broadcast of the Brahms Violin Concerto from the Schleswig-Holstein Festival with the North German Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas:

Red Sox: You’re going to have to bear with me for the next few days, while the Sawx are in the Series. But, especially given tonight’s pasting of the Rockies, there’s an on-point article in today’s Boston Globe (which is invariably an entertaining read in times like these) about the sudden Loss of Angst in the Nation:

Jim Lonborg, the star pitcher of the 1967 Impossible Dream team, was on the phone yesterday. He’s a dentist on the South Shore now, just about the nicest guy who ever played professional sports. Asked if anyone ever complains to him about his team not winning the heart-breaking seventh game of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, he replied without hesitation: “No, never.”

“You know that old cliché,” he added, “it’s all about the journey, and that was something that was always special about any Red Sox season – what it took to get there, the different cast of characters involved.”

Nobody, especially not Lonborg, is disputing that this team is great. Pedroia and Papelbon are riotous to watch. Lowell and Varitek are two of the more thoughtful players in the game, Ortiz and Ramirez two of the most exciting.

But here’s the problem with the 2007 edition of the Boston Red Sox: There is no narrative arc. They started the season as playoff favorites. They finished the season as playoff favorites. There will be a whole lot of stunned people if they don’t win.

They don’t, in short, have a story. Maybe that’s how the Yankees do it, or the Dallas Cowboys, or the old Montreal Canadiens, but it’s not generally how we do things on Yawkey Way – at least not in 1967 or 1975 or 1986 or 2004.

Thought-provoking stuff for us grizzled vets for whom those years will always have special, and bittersweet, meaning. Interesting to note that this article was one of the most e-mailed of the day. Not that I’m complaining or anything….

PS – discovered a great website of long-time Sox fans:, including a comprehensive list of all-time uniform numbers. Strange but true: Certified oddballs Jimmy Piersall and Bill “Spaceman” Lee wore the same No. 37 uni for the Sox. One of my favorite of the many great lefty’s quotes: “You have two hemispheres in your brain – a left and a right side. The left side controls the right side of your body and right controls the left half. It’s a fact. Therefore, left-handers are the only people in their right minds.

Before Game 7 : Quote of the day from John Smoltz

….in the latest issue of ESPN The Magazine…”from a pitcher with more wins [15] and more strikeouts [194] than any other pitcher in playoff history.”

“I love to watch guys in the moment. I loove to see what they’re capable of doing.” Because I believe that when you get squeezed, what comes out of you is what’s inside.”Link

Pretty good line, John. I’ll keep it in mind when the Sox and Tribe do battle in what’s shaping up to be a pretty epic contest.

Cleveland Rocks!

Disclaimer: This is posted by a card-carrying member of Red Sox Nation, now smarting over a 3-1 deficit in the ALCS…

Monday was a good night for Cleveland at the Jake and at the Ken Cen, where yours truly got the chance to see the fabled Cleveland Orchestra up close and personal. Not that they’ve been strangers here…their press dept. helpfully pointed out that the orchestra has played 57 times in DC, including 43 times in the Kennedy Center’s 36-year history.

And they are still as good as advertised: In his excellent NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music my old friend Ted Libbey writes: “The Cleveland Orchestra is very nearly in a league of its own, a crack ensemble with an esprit de corps matched by only a handful of orchestras in the world. Its recordings are the discographic gold standard. ” Hard to argue with that assessment, on disc or in person. Monday night the orchestra had plenty of virtuosity on display, to go with usual crack ensemble playing and spot-on intonation. And, unusually, pride of place to the viola section, who were seated opposite the first violins, with the cellos and second violins filling in the middle around conductor Franz Welser-Most.

On the program: Mozart’s Symphony No. 28. Not a symphony you hear all that much, but with some absolutely propulsive outer movements with some feverish fiddling. You want a “discographic gold standard?” The October ’65 recording made by George Szell and the Clevelanders (reissued on CD in 2006) is still amazing. Clarity, balance, and speed – with no sacrifice in precision. When critics talk about Szell’s ability with Mozart as “chamber music for symphony orchestra,” they’re talking about recordings like this.

But the Mozart was merely a warm-up for what came next: The Guide to Strange Places by John Adams. I’ve blogged about Adams before and doubtless will again, and while I didn’t love everything about the piece (at 24 mins I think it’s about five minutes too long), it’s pretty damn cool, with cascading blocks of sound moving through, over, and around the orchestra. Or, in the words of the New York Times: “a jarringly turbulent piece, channeling its energy into shifts of clashing colors, both visual and emotive.” And a visual treat to watch the internal ballet of the stand-sharers in the violin section turning the pages for their stand partners as carefully-
and quickly- as they would for any virtuoso pianist.

But what really grabbed me was not so much a “Strange Place” but a location thoroughly familiar to us hardy Harpers Ferry residents. Adams’ inventive scoring includes a Doppler-effect freight-train rumbling through the brass and percussion sections….a sound I hear routinely as long freighters go rumbling into the night through the Harpers Ferry Gap.

Adams absolutely nailed the sound. Despite the fact that nearly everything Adams has written is available on CD, you can only hear this snippet of the Guide on Adam’s extremely well-done website.

Strange but true footnote: This piece represents a connection between the Pulitzer Prize- winning composer and the 2nd president of the US beside the fact that both were born in Massachusetts: The “Guide to Strange Places” was commissioned and first performed by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic at the Concertgebouw. And before he succeeded George Washington, the “other” John Adams was the first US ambassador to the Netherlands, where his efforts at diplomacy are seen as so significant that he recently merited a three-part series on Radio Netherlands called Adams in Amsterdam. And then I found out there’s a John Adams Institute in Amsterdam…an independent, nonprofit foundation dedicated to furthering a longstanding tradition: cultural exchange between the USA and the Netherlands. Founded in 1987, the John Adams Institute continues to expose the best and brightest American writers and thinkers to audiences in The Netherlands.

Back to the concert…the Clevelanders closed out with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony (No. 6) that was everything as advertised. Ted Libbey again:

It is still fashionable for critics to dismiss Tchaikovsky as one of two things: a superficial manipulator or a self-absorbed boderline hysteric wallowing in his own emotions. He was neither…He managed to create worlds of feeling in his symphonies. Tchaikovsky biographer David Brown calls the Pathetique “The most truly original symphony to be composed in the 70 years since Beethoven’s 9th.”

As the first truly tragic symphony, concerned with loss, isolation, and despair, it projects a negative image of Beethoven’s triumphant aspiration, in place of spiritual transcendence, it seeks annihilation. This marks a fundamental turning point in the history of the symphony. Psychologically, the Pathetique symphony marks the beginning of modernism.
The Clevelanders did not disappoint. And the Kennedy Center audience behaved…no applause at the end of the third movement, to my surprise.

Lots of applause at the end, and no encore either. Now they’re off to Carnegie Hall and the Musikverein. And I’ll have more on Adams in a bit.

Postscript: The Washington Post review of this concert can be found here. Don’t know how the reviewer got the impression was a U.S. Premiere, however, since DC’s own National Symphony Orchestra played it on their East Coast Tour three years ago.

Trackback: WETA & The Globe, and the O’s

When I first wrote about the George/Globe/’GMS-gone-down-the-pubradio-block events I mused that “DC Radio was about to get a lot more interesting.” True that…the latest Washington ratings (for Winter 2007) had a Spanish-language station (“El Zol,” formerly the legendary alternative pioneer WHFS) at the top of the heap; we’ve got the corporate “greenternaltive” of the Globe, a brand-new Gospel station (see below), and the invariably-amusing Mr. K on board to breathe life into the stuck-in-the-blocks Washington Post Radio, which is still mired at number 20 in the DC ratings derby, below a country music station 40 miles outta town. (Oh, and now that baseball season’s here, I was shocked to discover the mighty (clear channel) signal of WBAL 1090 in Baltimore, which brought me the vivid exploits of Earl Weaver, Brooks Robinson, and Andy “Eyebrows” Etchebarren in my formative years in New England, is no longer the Voice of the O’s! that distinction now belongs to an FM station at 105.7 in Charm City with the call letters – get this – WHFS.) Whoa. Missed that one – but plenty of O’s fans didn’t.

So, how’s it all working out?

A) In their infinite wisdom the Baltimore Base Ball Franchise, in their effort to win the hearts and minds (back) from the “tweener” fans in the Balti-Wash-imoreington metro area who have defected to the Nationals, have effectively disappeared from the radio. They claim to have a “16-station network,” but good luck finding them: if you type in “Orioles Radio Network” into your search engine all you get are the bios of its play-by-play announcers on the official O’s site. God forbid you’d actually want to LISTEN to a game. (Or perhaps now that we’re in the era of all radio and TV broadcasts of games available via subscription from the supersite, the local broadcast information is either deemed to be superfluous – or being deliberately downplayed? Hmmm…)

B) WETA’s road has had a few bumps, most notably from former WGMS listeners with lots to say about the music selection, hosts, and the lack of any special programming, but nothing soothes like a major RATINGS bump: Public stations cannot report them officially, but according to the DCRTV blog from May 4:

WETA-FM (90.9) has seen a surge in its ratings since flipping from news and talk to classical music in January. The non-commercial outlet posted an overall (age 12+) 4.9 percent audience share during the winter period, way up from a 2.1 last fall. The station has seen higher ratings across the board, with almost a five-fold increase in middays and a doubling in afternoon drive. WETA attracts a 50/50 split among the genders, but now attracts more older listeners with classical music than it did with news and talk, with 66 percent age 55 or older. Before, about 50 percent were 55 or over.

WETA has abandoned the blogs and listener comments in favor of a “Classical Blog” of news and reviews, and added a few syndicated programs to its lineup: From the Top, distributed by my old place of business, and a year-round opera lineup, adding a combination of NPR’s World of Opera with a consortium of productions from WFMT in Chicago to its usual Saturday afternoon broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. DCRTV’s comment: Bonneville look like utter fools for throwing away a very profitable station like WGMS”…..

C) The Globe also seems to be finding its feet, getting decent-enough ratings for its initial “book,” but still struggling to find its voice. In his blog the other day (“
The Complete Radio Experience and a New Station in DC” – 4/22) the ever-astute and legendary programmer Lee Abrams (now at XM) noted the Globe has

“….the right idea, but they’re still saddled with radio baggage that weighs them down… The music is pretty cool. Covers a lot of genres but with the same psychographic type in mind. DJs are kinda ‘there’ and focus their raps on the music instead of trying to sell you on how cool they are… But the Globe just didn’t take it far enough… The music was too obvious which ultimately will lead to a disappointing experience. You just knew it was computer selected – it had that feel… I think it’s a case of slapping a format on instead of creating a mission plan. A trend in the past 20 years has been to launch a station with a condensed game plan. Music library, morning show, put up some billboards, and you’re done. The great stations were assembled with more of a complete plan – a mission”…..

“Mission,” eh? Interesting choice of words for a dyed-in-the-wool commercial programmer. PUBLIC radio programmers are spending a lot of time these days discussing the merits of “misson-based” programming, which is often as not has become a derogatory term.