Sunday, January 30, 2011

Kansas City Symphony: Rum and Vodka

Audience favorite Giancarlo Guerrero joined the Kansas City Symphony in one of his signature Latin themed programs this weekend. A roaming guest conductor when he first appeared here, Guerrero is now the highly successful Music Director of the Nashville Symphony. His programs are always exciting, colorful, well thought out and his energy infectious; this one combining Spanish favored works by Giménez, Sierra and Ravel with the Shostakovich Cello Concerto # 2.

Jerónimo Giménez, a name hitherto unfamiliar to me, will be familiar to devotees of Spanish Zarzuela. Giménez (1854-1923) was a prolific composer, churning out several Zarauela a year. The Interlude from "La Boda de Luis Alanzo"(the marriage of Luis Alanzo) is a brief 6 minute romp full of rhythm, fanfare, folk melodies and hijinks.

I was first introduced to the music of Roberto Sierra through a recording of his 3 previous Sinfonias on Albany records. Although the performances seemed fine, I came away somewhat unimpressed and found the music mostly unmemorable. I was most favorable towards the Sinfonia # 1 from 2004, a more substantial and dramatic work than the other two; number 3 (subtitled "La Salsa") reminding me too much of "El Salon Mexico" or Gershwin's "Cuban Overture". The latest, Sinfonia # 4 (premiered by Guerrero and his Nashville Symphony in 2009), is certainly festooned, chock-full and even loaded with Latin percussion and color, but is a very tense, dramatic and intricately designed work.

In 4 shortish movements totaling 25 some minutes, Sierra uses the Latin elements, pulsing percussion, talking bongos, shimmering mallets, to advance his dramatic argument. Quite effective was languid 3rd movement, "Tiempo de Bolero", evoking the slow, sultry dance form in a complex, contrapuntal style, keeping the dramatic tension of the work flowing. The brilliant "Muy Rapido" finale, was colorful and reminiscent of the first movement bringing the Sinfonia to a satisfying and powerful conclusion.

In among all the Spanish and Latin American flavored works comes the Shostakovich Cello Concerto #2 with Alisa Weilerstein the soloist. Reservations about this being a most odd, about-face selection disappeared when you realized the spareness and coolness of this most austere work was like a stiff, icy shot of Stoli in between rounds of sweet Cuba libres or complex Piña Coladas. The work carried on the power and drama of the Sinfonia # 4 in a subtle, raw manner; a most welcome contrast to the other works that wore their emotion on their sleeves. Guerrero led a well paced and generally finely balanced performance of this strange work. The orchestra is more frequently used as a chamber ensemble than as a large force with prominence to the extensive percussion, which in this performance had a tendency to be too commanding at times, but handled the death rattle ending with dry finesse.

Weilerstein captured the often wide ranging expressions of the demanding cello solo; brittle and acerbic when called up yet dramatic and warm when the lyrical side of work broke through the gloom. Other performances I have heard have done a better job of integrating these bi polar extremes of mood, but this performance held together quite nicely and was the perfect foil to the more gregarious works on the program.

Serving as the bottom slice of bread this Latin-Russian sandwich was Ravel's homage to Spain, the impressionistic Rhapsodie Espagnole. Appropriately dreamy and veiled in the opening "Prelude de la Nuit" and following "Malagueña" and "Habanera" dances, the Rapsodie ended in a vibrant, colorful "Feria", closing the concert much in the way it began.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

It Snowed II

Some Snow Pictures from 1/20/11

From the Palace roof top:

About 9AM and not much traffic on Main St:

Our Snowy 'hood:

And for those thinking KC got some snow, here is Maria snowboarding in Sun Valley, ID:

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Kansas City Symphony: Martinu, Grosse Fuge and Andre Watts

A performance of one of Martinu's 6 symphonies is always a welcome occasion. For me they are among the greatest 20th century examples of their form, along with the cycles of Sibelius and Shostakovich, and much more satisfying than the symphonies of Nielsen or Prokofiev. When the performance was as fine as last night's Kansas City Symphony performance, it is an even more delectable treat. Michael Stern, Music Director was on the podium in a program featuring the Martinu Symphony # 4, Beethoven's most fascinating and bizarre work, the Grosse Fuge, Op133 in a string orchestra arrangement by Felix Weingartner and the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto # 2 with piano legend Andre Watts as solo.

Two things that will kill a performance of a Martinu Symphony, an inattention to detail and slack rhythm, were not present at all in this fine performance. Stern milked the cinematic elements of the piece, let all the color and brilliant orchestration shine through and kept up a brisk but tenable pace. I heard more than one patron state that they absolutely enjoyed the work and had never heard a piece by Martinu before. Mission accomplished, Maestro.

The Beethoven Grosse Fuge is an acquired taste like scotch or pickled herring with sour cream. Since those delicacies are some of my favorites, it would then lead one to the conclusion that I enjoy the Grosse Fuge as well. The piece works best in its original string quartet version but the Weingartner arrangement for strings with basses doubling the cello is heard occasionally in concert. An overall well done performance, but the even more introspective central section of this sprawling, insanely incredible work lacked the necessary focus to negotiate the many changes of tempo, mood and thematic entrances. The Kansas City Symphony strings were at their best in the wild and wooly dramatic sections of this most grand and untamed fugue. As Stravinsky stated: [The Grosse Fuge] "is an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever."

While I was most thrilled with a chance for some live Martinu and the Grosse Fuge, I am sure most of the packed house was waiting for the Rachmaninoff and Andre Watts. Watts was a legend from his debut in the early 60's and championed by Leonard Bernstein, with whom Watts made many recordings. Most of these Columbia/CBS recordings have disappeared or have been abused, appearing in "100 Greatest Piano Hits" type of recordings, cheapening Watts' legacy. Now in his 60's, Watts is still a brilliant virtuoso and thus tossed off this demanding concerto like it was a piece of candy. Magisterial is the only way I could describe it. Stern and the orchestra provided stellar accompaniment and joined in the rapturous applause for this titan of the piano.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Winter Flower

To remind everyone that the world has not frozen over completely, here is a wintering hibiscus showing off in the Palace pool room.

Monday, January 10, 2011

It Snowed

It snowed, It snowed
It snowed last night
Everything is sparkling with diamond light

("It Snowed" ~ Meaghan Smith)

Outside of my Ipod, where I have a copy of this ditty in a Christmas music collection, I will not hear those words today around here. What I will hear is:

"look at this shit"
"That's it, I am moving to Florida"
"Can you believe this?"
"I am so sick of weather"

Ad nauseum....

Yes, Virginia, I can believe it; Snow in this part of the world is a fact of life, been doing it for a loooooooooooooong time. And, friends, we can't do much about it quickly, but we are making great strides in getting rid of this "shit". Keep feeding global warming, using petrochemicals, burning off forests and this "shit" will either disappear or take over the world, which ever you prefer. You will soon be sick from no weather at all.

As for Florida, the few times I have been there you can keep the place. And with a newly elected crook for a Governor, rampant Teabaggers and a population of rich aging people, the toxic political climate is not a fair exchange for a few rays of mosquito infested sun.

You know what? Just chill (pun intended). Make a snow man, throw some snow, get out and shovel a bit and work off the belly fat, use the scarf Aunt Mabel knitted for you, relish the fact that the decay of this crazy city is covered for a few moments in glimmering crystal. Then take your time getting where you need to be, or stay home and read, build a fire, relax, hoist a glass to the men and women who make a living removing snow, pay a neighbor kid a few bucks to shovel the drive, the possibilities are endless.

Why are we this way? I chalk it up to the fact that we are all just old and living in a dying empire, bombarded by negativity and frustration. As for me, I have already relished the sight of the world around me covered in fresh snow, the cold, crisp air with the snowflakes dancing around me. HM has enjoyed a snoot full as she snorted around in the stuff, remembering all over again that she likes it. I felt 10 years old again until a neighbor came out and moaned and whined.

Enjoy the winter wonderland while it lasts; you'll all be growling about the heat in a few months.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Kansas City Symphony: Dukas, Strauss and Prokofiev

It is likely that for some last night's Kansas City Symphony program was a bit of a revelation. Surely some in the audience had never heard Dukas' charming "Scherzo: L'apprenti sorcier" without a frenetic mouse and marching mops or realized that Richard Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra" was actually 30 minutes long, not just the opening minute or two fanfare. Music Director Michael Stern (who we hear will be with us for an additional 5 years) conducted with Van Cliburn Award winner Haochen Zhang soloist in the Prokofiev 3rd Piano Concerto.

Dukas' 1897 masterpiece is a textbook study in the art of the symphonic scherzo, vividly retelling the story of the sorcerer and his apprentice who over hears some of the wizard's spells and uses them himself with comic results. This was a spritely performance, light and fleet of winds and brass with well accented percussion. The all important bassoons were light and comical, as they should be. The subterranean contrabassoon rumbled the house to the delight of the audience. More than a Mickey Mouse piece, this is a superb (and all so enjoyable) composition given a fine performance.

Van Cliburn Competition winner Haochen Zhang is often mentioned in the same breath along with his fellow compatriots Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. His considerable talents were aptly showcased in Prokofiev's popular and bravura Piano Concerto # 3 from 1921. Zhang captured the steely brilliance of this showpiece without banging and minimal histrionics as you-know-who (mentioned above... rhymes with bang) would do. Every note was clear and ringing, and there were lot of them. Stern and the orchestra provided and equally impressive accompaniment, following the twists and turns of this complex score with care and precision without being mechanical. Zhang and Stern also took pains to milk the frequent lyrical passages to their fullest, providing some relief from the relentless torrent of sound. Zhang's Chopin encore demonstrated he could make the piano sweetly sing.

Strauss' "Zarathustra" received a fine performance marred by a somewhat rushed opening and an anemic (alas electric) organ that just didn't provide enough grandeur. The following "Von den Hinternweltern" section warmly glowed, the grand reappearance of the three note fanfare theme in "Der Genesende" shook the house with the pause (remember when this was the LP side break??) just the right length for dramatic effect and the guest Concertmistress (damn I did not write her name down) was wonderful in the waltz tinged "Tanzlied". The high winds were spot on in the delicate closing moments, but the horns bobbled some of the more climactic moments. Not a bad performance, just short of drama and of the needed power that a larger ensemble would bring.

Next week, a concert I have been looking forward to hearing: Martinu's wonderful 4th Symphony.