Tuesday, October 26, 2010

RIP: Paul the Psychic Octopus

Small in stature, kind of slinky and slimy in a way, but a hero to all, Paul the Oracle Octopus died today in his underwater home at Sea Life Aquarium in Oberhausen, Germany. He was born in Weymouth, England but spent his life in Germany. He was around 2 1/2 years old.

Paul rocketed to fame with his uncanny predictions of the outcome of sporting events, most notably the outcome of eight World Cup matches this year. Paul's prognostications were made by choosing a mussel from one of two transparent boxes on which the flags of the two opposing teams was painted. There was something like a 1 in 256 chance that he would get all eight predictions right. Paul made some enemies in his adopted homeland when he predicted Germany's demise in the games. But the little cephalopod was a hero in Spain for predicting their eventual win over The Netherlands.

In a World Cup that was roundly seen as rather boring and full of annoying officiating and noisy crowds, Paul stood, or should we say swam, out as a truly amazing spectacle.

RIP Paul.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Kansas City Symphony: Roberto Minczuk, a tour of Italy

A tour of Italy was the fare for the second concert of the new season of the Kansas City Symphony this weekend. Brazilian Roberto Minczuk, currently the Music Director of the Calgary Philharmonic and conductor of the acclaimed set of Villa Lobos "Bachianas Brasileiras" on BIS, was guest conductor.

The concert opened with a spirited, well paced performance of Verdi's 1855 Overture to "I Vespri Siciliani". As with the closing, less appreciated "Feste Romane", it was great programming to use one of Verdi's more traditional in form yet lesser known curtain raisers.

Continuing with lesser known Verdi, the Kansas City Symphony Chorus, sounding better than ever frankly, joined the orchestra in the "Quattro Pezzi Sacri", the "Ave Maria", "Stabat Mater" "Laudi alla Vergine Maria" and the last piece he wrote "Te Deum". The unaccompanied pieces "Ave Maria" and the "Laudi alla Vergine Maria" (for women only) were exquisitely sung with feeling and fine diction. The orchestral accompaniment tended to drown out the chorus, as usual, but Minczuk kept the balance as good as it gets in the horrible vocal acoustic of the hall. My only quibble would be that the performance was too resolutely reverent and solemn, making the over 40 minutes of the of four works tedious. The final "Te Deum" could have used more operatic drama, but certainly was well sung and played technically.

The second half featured two turn-of-the-century Italian masters, Ferruccio Busoni and Ottorino Respighi.

Busoni's music for Turandot is almost as colorfully oriental tinged as that of the more famous Puccini. Minczuk chose selections from the 1905 suite as a tempting taste of this neglected composer. Plenty of fine winds and percussion work in these sometimes chamber like vignettes. Those familiar with his fiendishly complex piano music and huge piano concerto ending with a huge choral finale, may find these colorful, fun miniatures surprising but satisfying.

Musical snobs love to disparage Respighi as solely a showman, a skilled orchestrator who used every instrument but the kitchen sink to thrill audiences with sound and color but little substance. I won't argue that point again; there is no mistaking that Respighi's music is challenging to the orchestra and splendid ear candy.

The final part of the Roman Trilogy "Feste Romane" from 1926 is the longest and most demanding of the trilogy, and thus is less often heard than "Pines" or even the softer, more impressionistic "Fountains".

Minczuk whipped the orchestra into a blood driven frenzy in the opening Circuses, the winds howling, the lions snarling, the martyrs praying while meeting their violent deaths in front of a bloodthirsty crowd. The Lyric's lack of a decent organ was the only let down, but the off stage, antiphonal herald trumpets were used to great effect.

The "Jubliee" was well paced, the trod of the pilgrims relentless but never dragging or plodding as in some performances. Principal horn Alberto Suarez was perfect in the demanding horn solos in the "L'Ottabrata", as was the rustic mandolin serenade.

The raucous, episodic "Epiphany" held together perfectly, highlighted by Roger Oyster's sloppy-drunk (those who know the music realize that is a actually a compliment) trombone solo.

A fine program, colorful, with works not always heard on the concert stage. Next up, looking forward to Berlioz's masterpiece Harold in Italy.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

It Gets Better

PURPLE represents Spirit on the Rainbow flag and that’s exactly what I wish for all GLBTQ people, especially young people, who feel bullied and are subjected to violence and bigotry. It gets better. Reach out and you will meet people who will love you and respect you for who you are.

Please wear purple on October 20th.

Friday, October 15, 2010

American Heartland Theatre: "The Love List"

It is the start of the new season at Kansas City's best theatre venue, The American Heartland Theatre. As usual the play was funny, Mark the bartender made some great scotches to have before, during the show and at intermission and the local restaurant Streetcar Named Desire made us fine pork tenderloins. Greg and I are creatures of habit if nothing else.

For its opening show this season, AHT chose the KC premiere of "The Love List" by Norm Foster. Veterans Scott Cordes and Sean Grennan star along with newcomer Shanara Gabrielle and her wardrobe of incredible shoes.

The play is short on plot, as usual for a comic romp, and a little slow to get started. I was thinking "this will be a leave during intermission evening" but as the show progressed and the gags rolled on, it became a light and amusing entertainment.

Needing a 50th birthday present for Bill, his long divorced, terminally boring number-cruncher of a friend (Grennan), Leon (Cordes) buys him a "love list" from an unseen gypsy. This seemingly harmless list of ten qualities that define the perfect woman soon turns mysterious when Leon leaves and the gorgeous dream woman named Justine appears (Gabrielle).

We all soon figure out what is going on. As Leon puts it in the shows best line "a tear in the cosmic pie crust" makes their perfect woman come to life, endowed with the 10 traits they ascribe on the "Love List". The fun begins when they start changing the list, and Justine instantly reflects the new personality. Here is where the play takes off as Gabrielle is amazing working through the lightning quick mood and costume changes.

It all kind of ends with everyone getting basically what they deserve and learning to be careful what you wish for.

Deep, emotional, riveting, topical theatre? Nah, for that read the paper. To escape the trauma of the end days of the US empire, see a play like this... and have a drink or two.

"The Love List" now through October 24th.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fantasy Shopper

According to my Pisces birth sign, I am prone to fantasy and dreaming. I fit that to a "T", frankly. I spend hours on the internet in my fantasy world. I plan trips to exotic locales, first class or chartered jet of course, buy Park Lane apartments in London (the one I want is a cool $5million, right at Speaker's Corner), rack up thousands of dollars at Louis Vuitton and order a Maserati or two.

A more down to earth fantasy involves using the ubiquitous "Build Your Own" features in auto web sites to create the best car I can find for $20,000. My dream 20K chariot would have most options, automatic (I can drive a stick, but in the day of efficient automatics, who needs to?) and a sunroof. A coupe or sporty hatch is best, a nicely tuned sedan is ok.

But in doing so I have found that, true to form, the US automakers are behind again. Only one is competitive at all, that being Ford with the new Fiesta and the revamped Focus. Chrysler is not even in the game.

Chevrolet has the feisty new Cruze, but it is priced too high and does not have a coupe or hatch yet. To get one well optioned and with a spare tire (yes, spare optional) is a shade over $20K. Cruze, the largest of my fantasy buy, also relies on a small turbocharged 4 which worries me about reliability and complexity.

Ford's sweet looking Focus coupe is just over $20 with what I want on it, but is also bigger than the others, except for the Cruze. The Fiesta, an European design built in Mexico, is more my price and style. No coupe, but a sleek hatch is snarky and certainly practical.

Although I am not one who automatically thinks Asian cars are better built than any US, in this case I have to defer to a choice to which I keep going back, the Kia Forte Koup. Hate the silly name, but for less than $19K a nice size, sleek coupe in red with leather and sunroof, or the bigger engined slightly better equipped Koup SX with a powerful 2.4 liter 4 for $90 over 20K.

Sorry GM, my fantasy leans to Kia for now with the Fiesta running a close 2nd. However, I think Dunbar the Buick, however sedanish and old tech he may be, is safe for now.

Unless someone wants to give me a nice Christmas present.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Kansas City Symphony: Hilary Hahn Sibelius and The Firebird

As the evenings cool and the leaves turn, the dearth of culture begins to subside and the patrons trek back downtown. Thus this weekend marked the beginning of the 29th season of the Kansas City Symphony. Michael Stern, Music Director was on the podium leading a strong program of popular and colorful works and a Kansas City premiere.

The program opened with the aforementioned local premiere of a KCS co-commissioned piece "Starburst" by Jonathan Leshnoff. Leshnoff has won considerable critical acclaim and recognition for his recent Symphony (performed by the KCS a couple of seasons ago) and a recording of his Violin Concerto. Stern has formed a successful collaborative venture with Leshnoff, and recently recorded the Symphony with the IRIS Orchestra.

While I enjoyed the Symphony and was impressed by the Violin Concerto, "Starburst", at 7 minutes or so, is a work of lesser stature and impact. That is not to say it is great fun; the simple, repetitive motives and rapid, colorful development of them are easy on the ear and likely a challenge to play. "Starburst" may find a home as an opening work for orchestras with adventurous natures.

We have heard the Sibelius Violin Concerto three times now in the last 6 seasons with the performances getting better each time. The Barnabas Keleman/Stern in 2007 and Karen Gomyo/Andrew Grams last season each had their issues with Gomyo's the better of the two. But for now, I can not imagine another soloist that can top Hilary Hahn in this work, especially after her acclaimed recording with Salonen/Swedish Radio on DG.

Hahn simply owned this most strange, hardly "showy", but fabulous concerto from first note to last. The opening was misty and tentative, the solo violin entering shyly, slowly building in intensity and emotion. Hahn's tone was creamy but clear, projecting with clarity (mostly) through Sibelius' often thick scoring. Neither Hahn's shimmering virtuosity nor Stern's powerful orchestra got in the way of the brooding, almost desolate musical landscape.

The lovely Adagio was suitably romantic but never overblown, with enough subtle drama and tension to keep the movement flowing.

Keeping the intensity flowing, the energetic last movement came not as a jarring surprise as it does in some performances, but as an inevitable release of energy from the tension of the other two movement. Hahn brisked over the rapid passages that tie lesser artist's fingers into knots. My favorite little spot, the odd passage of dare I say gypsy-like harmonics from the solo, came of well, not buried in the orchestral fabric.

Stern and the orchestra stayed in the background when needed, (their barely perceptible "vamp" at the beginning of the finale was perfect, more a texture than sound) and yet blazed with Sibelian glory when needed (the first movement outburst at the end of the exposition is a prime example). The audience and I showed our enthusiastic appreciation for an incredible performance from an artist at the peak of her powers.

For the last half of the concert, Stern and the orchestra turned to two colorful dance inspired classics, Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales and the Suite from Stravinsky's Firebird.

Ravel may have wanted to write a "chain of of waltzes in the style of Schubert" but he succeeded in making them unmistakably French. Stern and Co were perfectly elegant and sophisticated in these charming dances, drawing them out of the gloomy mist of the opening (brilliantly hushed in this performance) into the light of a Parisian salon.

The 1919 Suite from the Firebird brought the concert to a colorful close. The Introduction and Dance of the Firebird and the Round Dances of the Princesses were suitably exotic and laced with excellent solo work from the winds. The Infernal Dance of Kashchei burst force with shattering power, awakening all who might have been lulled into the dreamy world of the opening sections. Stern and the orchestra gave their all as they moved through the sweet Berceuse and on to the grandly celebratory finale.

The orchestra was sounding quite good technically (it did as well in the productions of Carmen the week before) despite some new players and the still unsettled question of a new Concertmaster. The last season in the venerable Lyric Theatre off to a fine start.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Absolut Not

It must be the shorter days and cooler evenings that have got me back to thinking about blogging. Having the opera and symphony to write about has helped as well. It is a good exercise for the mind, and certainly more productive than listening to the drivel that is on TV or radio these days. So look for some semi-regular updates.

One thing you may be hearing about is a new battle I am undertaking. No, not the eradication of stupidity, I have given up on that and will let the loons drive the final nails into the coffin of the US Empire. This is a more personal battle.

Life is killing me. A few years ago, I was confirmed as one of the growing number of people with fat-ass disease, aka diabetes. I have never seen a disease where its victims are villified as much as diabetics. It is automatically assumed that you are an ice cream glorping, sugar-charged, snack-attacking fattie if you have type 2 diabetes. Only the type 1 (usually childhood onset) diabetics are the real victims that need to be supported. Type 2s.. lose weight and buck up.

Do we segregate cancer victims? No. Heart disease caused by diet and lack of exercise? No.

Anyway, I now poke my finger religiously, record my blood glucose levels, watch what I eat, swim regularly, take my growing pile of medication like a good boy and it just keeps climbing. Diabetes runs in the family (grandfather on mom side, uncle and cousins on dad's, sister... who knows who else) so I was rather doomed from the beginning.

Now the added nightmare that my love of and frequent indulgence in "adult beverages" is taking its toll. Yep. Tried to deny it, joked about it.. but it has come to bite me in the ass, well, liver actually.

One thing about being a diabetic, you get used to shedding blood. Every 3 months, the same surly phlebotomist takes vials of my blood for the lab techs to study. For the most part I do not hear anything. This last time was different.

My June test showed elevated liver enzymes. The Dr cautioned me and sent me on my way. But the new numbers must have been really bad. They called me and said, in essence, that I am either a roaring alcoholic or have hepatitis. I need to come in on Monday and get a work up for Hepatitis and some more specific liver tests. "How high?", I asked. "Way higher than June", came the HIPPA-inspired non answer. "Meanwhile, severely limit alcohol consumption immediately. Have you knowingly been exposed to Hepatitis?" "Yes sir, no sir," came my annoyed reply.

So since about 8PM on Tuesday 10/5/10, I have been without my beloved vodka or scotch. Doing so and not going berserk means I am not an AA destined alcoholic, I hope. You see I enjoy my vodka, scotch and other brews and essences because I like them. I can taste the difference between Popov and Stoli, or Absolut and Grey Goose. Each scotch has a story to tell. A fine Flor de Cana rum from Nicaragua, smooth as a brandy, is a work of liquid art. I want one. But I can live with out it and won't resort to shoplifting a bottle of hooch from the local Shell station to satisfy a need.

I am not an alcoholic am I? Hope not... I hate meetings. What is next??? My coffee likely. If that is the case, there is no hope.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Kansas City Lyric Opera: Carmen

A couple of seasons ago, The Kansas City Lyric Opera managed to do what many thought impossible or at least difficult; that is to make Georges Bizet's magnum opus "Carmen" boring and laughable. Thus a new production to start this season, the last in the lovely but sadly inadequate Lyric Theatre, was met with some trepidation on my part.

For some reason, maybe it was a long, hot summer bereft of culture, Carmen was the hot ticket for its run this past week. Most nights were sold out and the start of the show was held to allow the last minute patrons to buy their tickets and find their seat.

So what did they get?

A fine Carmen for sure, but not the "best I have ever seen", "ready for the Met", hype I heard. Standing head and shoulders above all was the brilliant Carmen of Sandra Piques Eddy, a fine as acted and sung Carmen as one could ask. Her voice was alternately sweet or sultry, seductive or venomous as required. Piques Eddy vividly portrayed all of Carmen's incarnations, from a simple cigarette girl, to a gipsy on to the arrogant trophy girl of a toreador and finally victim of her own seductive powers. Her voice was dark and steamy as a Seville night but clear and with impressive French diction. It was a thrill watching her act and literally become Carmen on the stage.

Tenor Dinyar Vania portrayed hapless Don Jose, who gives up everything, including his honor, mother, the love of a sweet girl and his life for the seductive Carmen. Although Vania was in fine voice and played Don Jose with a touch of "dumb jock" swagger, he was a good but not fabulous Don Jose. He was best in the last acts as his desperation for Carmen takes all sanity from him, propelling him deeper in to his own hell.

Alyson Cambridge was a saintly, yet somewhat too small voiced Micaela. For some reason, maybe she was just too saintly and shy, her part never jelled and you never felt she really had any love or connection at all with Don Jose. Her famous and well sung Act III aria "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante" seemed to come as a surprise to even her. Marcello Guzzo's Escamillo was ok, but lacked real presence or the proper arrogance of a celebrated toreador. David Lawrence Michael was more impressive as Zuniga, the lieutenant of the guards.

The sets were fine, but again all the hype I heard escaped me. This was a dark Carmen in lighting, set detail and costume. Some cost cutting was quite evident; the same sets depicting the square in Seville was used for the third act set in a "wild and deserted place". More attention to detail could have made the setting more effective. The tavern scene (with a fabulously sung Quintet) and the parade in the fourth act, were also lacking in numbers and brilliance.

Thus, far from the tragic mess of the Carmen of 2006, this well attended production redeemed itself for sure. Happily, many patrons got to see and hear, in the form of Sandra Piques Eddy one of the best acted and sung Carmens this town has ever seen.

She is certainly "best I have ever seen" and "ready for the Met".