Sunday, May 31, 2015

Kansas City Symphony records Saint-Saëns

In addition to being uniformly excellent, the Kansas City Symphony can also be called “gutsy”. New releases from former recording giants New York, Berlin, London, Philadelphia and Chicago are often newsworthy events due to their relative rarity. Yet here is our local band releasing its 6th professional recording with a 7th in the future. How things have changed.

The Kansas City Symphony is also gutsy in its choice of works to record. Often, regional orchestras record works that perhaps they have premiered, have a local connection or are not exactly standard repertoire. The Kansas City recordings have featured works by Britten, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Prokofiev and Bartok, to name a few, that are standard repertoire or have “definitive” recordings. This disc from Reference Recordings is a blend of the familiar and rare: an all Saint-Saëns disc featuring the less known “La Muse et le Poete”, op 132 for Violin, Cello and Orchestra combined with the popular and very frequently recorded Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for Violin and Orchestra op. 28 and the Symphony # 3 “Organ” op 78. Concertmaster Noah Geller handles the violin solos, Principal Mark Gibbs cello on “La Muse” with with local organist and Organ Conservator Jan Kraybill in the Symphony. Music Director Michael Stern was on the podium.

The Organ Symphony may be the top billing on the cover, but the warmest, most vivid sonics and top rank, stellar performances belong to the other two works.

The rare gem on the disc is "La Muse et le Poète", for solo violin, solo cello and orchestra. A late work from 1910, “La Muse...” reflects the influence of Debussy, Ravel and their contemporaries with its denser harmonies, lush orchestration and rhapsodic form. Despite the programmatic title, the work is more of a spirited conversation than a dramatic encounter, though the violin seems to be the “Muse” inspiring the more reflective cello “Poète”. Both soloists are treated to many virtuoso passages, which Geller and Gibbs negotiated with poise and flair. The violin and cello are closely miked, with every nuance of phrase and tone exposed, but they are also well integrated into the orchestral fabric. Since Gibbs and Geller work together frequently as section Principals, they instinctively converse and play off each other, essential (but not always heard in performances I sampled) in keeping the work focused. This charming and passionate performance stands up nicely to the competition, notably a Joshua Bell/Steven Isserlis recording and an all French affair on Erato coupled with the Third Violin Concerto and First Cello concerto.

The “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” is a much earlier (1863) and more popular work, written in a Spanish influenced style for the virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate. There is plenty of competition for this always entertaining chestnut, but on first hearing this performance stands well with the rest. Geller's tone was always precise and clear. The dramatic introduction was pleading and romantic, a perfect foil for the more animated rondo to follow. His rubato in the familiar rondo theme was just right, the many double stops perfectly executed (and clearly captured), and one has to hear the violin's spine-tingling downward run from the cold, clear stratosphere to the sensuously warm and expressive rondo theme. Stern and the orchestra are not to be forgotten, albeit Saint-Saëns' writing favors the soloists, always providing sympathetic and enthusiastic orchestra accompaniment.

The well known Symphony # 3 “Organ” completes the disc's program. The orchestra chose this work to inaugurate The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts' 102 rank Casavant organ in June 2012, with Paul Jacobs on the organ, and this performance was quite similar. The Kauffman Center's Casavant is well tuned for symphonic performances, thus it was integrated into the whole orchestral fabric, not drowning out everything within hearing distance. Stern lead a stately performance, with a quite slow second movement that might not find favor with all but certainly accentuated the lushness of the movement. The organ's grand entrance in the final movement was powerful but not earth shattering; again it was more integrated to the texture. Rarely in a recording have the duo pianists' contributions been so perfectly embedded in the sonic texture, yet clear and bell like. Another “must listen” spot. Stern kept the symphony's final moments under control as well, not letting the tympani muddy everything with a frenzy of uncoordinated sound and fury. A cool-ish performance that never really took off and frankly would have benefited from a more white hot approach. Far from a poor performance, it just pales in comparison to a lot of the competition, mostly the never duplicated Munch/Boston Symphony on RCA.

Of course the renowned sonics of Reference Recordings, created by Recording Engineer Keith O. Johnson and produced by David Frost are of demonstration quality and surely the organ in the Symphony can cause some leases to be broken or at least a few knocks on the ceiling when the volume is unleashed. (thankfully none here yet at least). Best not to think of this recording as a “sonic extravaganza” (anyone remember the LP of the Virgil Fox/Ormandy/Philadelphia “Organ Symphony” recording with a cover like an 1890's circus poster?) but an example of how state-of-the-art recording technology can realistically capture the sound, texture and deft coordination of expansive orchestral forces combined with solo instruments of vastly varying sound quality and volume.

Saturday, May 09, 2015


Continuing the theme of works written around and in response to World War I, the Kansas City Symphony led by Music Director Michael Stern gave the local audience the somewhat rare opportunity to experience the Nielsen Symphony # 4 “Inextinguishable”, written in 1916 at the height of the war. Nielsen is a tough nut to crack and his music gives up its secrets, power and genius reluctantly. I should know. I have tried and tried to appreciate and understand, even enjoy, the music of a composer many classical music cognoscenti rank in high esteem.

Taken at face value, the symphony can become a series of disjointed episodes that have little organic flow. What the “Inextinguishable” needs, it appears, is a committed, forceful and almost reckless (ready to skitter off the road any second) performance that makes this symphony more than just a somewhat conservative, yet quirky, early 20th century work. The conductor has to keep all the horsepower in control, throttling back at times to allow the orchestral engine to accelerate to full speed. Stern and the Kansas City Symphony did just that. And made a believer out of me after all.

A good example is the first measures of the symphony. The white hot outburst from the full orchestra and the all-important tympani seamlessly decelerates to a calmer, almost wistful section that in abruptly interrupted by an agitated episode... the world is starting to crumble. Every section of the orchestra marched in lock step to Stern's urgent vision of the work. The always admirable winds of the orchestra were in full bloom, especially the clarinets in the above mentioned slow theme. The tympani was well integrated (a real problem in some performances, it is not really a tympani concerto), the brass solid and the strings lush. The violas' “machine gun” figures were well done and again integrated into the whole, not just some poorly placed interruption. The very end of the movement glowed with Straussian grandeur, never overwrought, but powerful and rich.

Moving on with out pause, the winds are again prominent in the quietly energetic second movement. Stern brings out Nielsen's humanity in this more relaxed episode, yet never lets the tension completely down... the world is still at battle. Finely balanced in ensemble and perfectly animated in tempo, Stern integrated this movement in the whole scheme of the symphony, making it more than just a charming scherzo.

The searing third section follows without pause. Intense with finely tuned release and tension, the deeply moving section flows via a shimmering bridge passage (with lovely oboe solo from Principal Kristina Fulton ) to the climactic finale.

Stern let the forces loose in what has to be the most insanely dramatic eight minutes in the orchestral literature, and maybe the most thrilling eight minutes of the KCS season. Stern flicked through the many gear changes in the movement, never losing momentum. Note must be made of the thrilling horn passages, that soared over it all with precise and clear intonation, brushing aside the days when Kansas City Symphony horn solos made one cringe. Stern brought back the wistful “inextinguishable” theme from the first movement in full glory. The dueling tympani were fine but the extra tympani on the right just seemed to be a little timid, lessening the thunderous impact of the passages. Some of the audience just seemed to not get it (or were shell shocked) and the response was muted in comparison to the easier to handle opening half. But hey.. took me years to see what this incredible work had to offer.

Opening the concert was Richard Strauss' 1888 “Don Juan” op.20. In 1880's Weimar this bold and ardent tone poem dazzled the audiences as easily as it does still today. From the soaring opening (one of the most exciting in all orchestral literature) through the tender love music and on to the climatic fall from power and his death, Stern brought “Don Juan” to vivid life. As in the Nielsen, the winds, especially the horns were well balanced and colorful. The strings, however, could use some strength to be more lush as befits a Strauss tone poem, but one could not quibble over their commitment and frequent beauty. The final stab of the trumpet, signaling Don Juan's demise brought the work to a powerful close. A fine and certainly challenging curtain raiser in every (positive) sense of the word.

Pianist Steven Lin joined the orchestra for the Mozart Piano Concerto # 20 in D minor K466. Lin, winner of many awards and recipient of excellent reviews world wide, was clearly an audience favorite here as well, receiving a most sincere and prolonged ovation. The opening movement of the concerto is one of Mozart's most dramatic solidly in the dark of D minor. One hears the foreshadowing of Beethoven in this big boned, lengthy concerto and Stern and Lin took pains to keep that in the forefront.

The Romanze second movement was lyrical and “romantic” without being fussy. The more agitated central section contrasted well with the more graceful sections that surround it. Stern kept the orchestral balance in line and in sync with the soloist. The rippling, energetic finale spun forth in a controlled torrent, Lin enjoying every soaring phrase and dazzling run. Throughout the performance Lin was technically brilliant and sparkling, but just did not mine the underlying drama and tragedy and even elegance and grace that marks fine Mozart 20 performance. With time and maturity, Lin will be an even better Mozart interpreter, with his commanding technique combined with a deeper more dramatic vision, he will be one to turn to.

For me this was a expertly performed, intelligent and challenging program; each work having an underpinning of tragedy and conflict intertwined with “inextinguishable” human spirit and redemption.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Bucket List II: A Mad King and other Englishmen sing

Before he tried to save the Orkney Islands from mining destruction, became "Master of the Queen's Musick" and infamous for a nasty break up with his partner, Peter Maxwell Davies was a true bad boy and maverick. Nothing demonstrated that reputation better than the "Eight Songs for a Mad King", for baritone and six instruments. Eight Songs is one of those pieces more talked about than performed due to the daunting task of finding a singer that can (or is willing) to sing/perform the insane (pun intended) role of the Mad King George III. Lucky for us the newEar Contemporary Music Ensemble felt up to the task and found a singer willing to learn the part.

Saturday April 25th concert featured the Eight Songs paired with a sampling of works by contemporary English Composers. "A Purcell Garland" a collaborative effort of Colin Matthews, George Benjamin and Oliver Knussen on three Fantasias by Henry Purcell and Johnathan Harvey's Sting Trio opened the program.

The three Fantasias that compose "A Purcell Garland" are a look back at England's first great composer through Contemporary eyes and techniques. In the more modern voice, the bass instruments (piano and cello) have a melodic component that would not be assigned to them in Purcell's time, thus deepening the texture and emphasizing the inherent drama and pathos of these short pieces. Even using modern instruments (Violin, Viola, Cello, Clarinet and Piano/Celeste), the harmonic language and spare use of vibrato recalls the sounds of a 17th century ensemble.

Matthew's arrangement of "Fantasia 13" is the most expansive since the original breaks off after about 30 bars. The composed section, an agitated fantasy, references and comments on Purcell's original, before returning to the somber mood of the opening. Benjamin's "7th Fantasia" is more straightforward, more of an orchestration in contemporary sound than an arrangement. In this performance, pianist Robert Pherigo used a harpsichord rather than a celeste to good effect. Knussen's re-working of the familiar "Fantasia upon One Note" expands the theme with the constantly sounding C fading in and out of the texture. In this performance, newEar included the optional part for viola, adding depth of sound and texture to the piece. These three inventive and colorful exercises affectionately looked back to the heritage of Purcell and his importance as the foundation of English music tradition, providing an appropriate and informative opening to the program.

Johnathan Harvey (1939-2012) was a prolific composer of chamber, electronic and vocal works and an active teacher, but actually this was my introduction to his music. The "String Trio" from 2004 is terse and gritty a la Ferneyhough and ultimately a most satisfyingly challenging piece. The work begins with echoes of Bartok in its rustic, folk-like sound world and drumming sounds from the cello but soon evolves into Harvey's trademark spatialism as the three instruments, engage and disengage in a short motives and long, linear passages evolving eventually to a wild, skittish dance. Slower and more contemplative sections introduce a spiritual aspect, inspired by his liturgical drama based the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This spiritual and pastoral aspect provides a foundation to experience the work as a long melodic whole and not just a series of disconnected sounds and episodes. Not easy listening, frequent quiet passages in harmonics and delicate pizzicato requires concentration and possibly several "listens" (thankfully a fine performance is available on CD with Harvey's 4 String Quartets with the incomparable Arditti String Quartet) to reveal the argument of this intense essay. Sunho Kim, Violin, Nell French, Viola, and Larry Figg, Cello were technically brilliant, especially in the exposed, threadbare passages of harmonics and extreme pianissimo. The tight ensemble reveled in the innate lyricism of the work as well. As fine a performance of this thorny work as one could imagine, well done.

The "Eight Songs for a Mad King" (1969) put the then 35 year-old Peter Maxwell Davies on the map. Written for "The Pierrot Players" (a group he founded) and actor Roy Hart who was known for his immense vocal range and ability, "Eight Songs" pushes the performers to extremities of technique and emotion. Maxwell Davies’ librettist, Randolph Stow, created eight monologues that King George III, slowly descending into complete madness, shouts, sings, screams, whispers and growls to his beloved caged birds. The instruments (violin, cello, flute (d. piccolo), clarinet, piano (d. harpsichord) and percussion) representing his caged birds, often engage in solo dialog with the variously lucid King. Bass-Baritone Kenn Kumpf, singer, teacher and composer from Chicago, portrayed King George.

"Eight Songs" is as intense to experience as it must be to prepare and perform. The King not only sings to his birds (the first performance famously had each of the instruments in bird cages) but frequently addresses the audience as if they were members of the Court witnessing the sad, demented King's rants. Due to space limitations, there was no attempt at "staging" with this performance, but the intimacy of the space brought the King directly into our presence. While the King may be mad, and the vocal part more of a set of instructions rather than a musical score, the work is quite a logically laid out musical structure. Each of the songs is based on one of the eight tunes from a music box once owned by the King, interwoven with references to not only Handel but to musical forms and characteristics of King George's era.

Rarely performed, (newEar's Andrew Granade said they wanted to perform it because not only was it a Kansas City premiere but also because "it was fun"), this performance was spectacular in about every way. The instrumental balance was excellent, never overwhelming the singer yet always present and technically without fault. Kumpf was simply brilliant with his panoply of vocal sounds in every possible octave while maintaining quite understandable diction, essential for the audience to pick up on the irony and even wit of the libretto. In the climactic 7th song where the King grabs, strums and ultimately smashes her violin, Sunho Kim spent the rest of the piece in pitiful sulking, adding a touch of amusement to the otherwise tense piece. For the eighth song, "The Review, a Spanish March", the bass drum marched the now fully mad King off the stage and out the door as he "died howling.... howling..howling...." Totally brilliant.

The program notes were informative and intelligent with the full text of "Eight Songs" provided.

Mad Kings and Englishmen was easily one of the best performed and intelligently programmed concerts in recent newEar memory; a complete musical experience from nostalgically elegant court dances all the way to insane in-your-face theatre.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Back to Basics

I envisioned this blog as something in between. There is room, I thought, for someone to review and comment upon classical music concerts and the occasional recording from an informed listener's perspective. More than "I liked" or "I didn't like" but less than the technical reviews who excoriate a performance where the "second bassoon misses the quiet back beats that are essential to the architecture..." and so on.

But I noticed that in my recent writing, I was starting to lean towards the latter... and not being a trained musician, was failing miserably.

Thus I am going to head back to what I think I do best, comment on what I heard but from the informed listener's aspect. I know a lot about music, I know what I like. I can tell good from bad, committed from apathetic and when a performer or ensemble communicates their message. That is what made "Puggingham Palace" and now "Pictures on Silence" what it is... whatever that is. It made it fun for me, and being selfish, that is what I am going to do.

Back to basics, and if lean towards the extremes as I mentioned above... call me on it.