Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Royal Invitation

Look what HM got in the mail today. She is not sure if she is going, as she can't stand Camilla, would not be able to see anything and the date conflicts with her own 12th birthday celebrations. She is a good friend of the Bride, so she may end up in London for the weekend.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Shuttered but Not Forgotten

Rumored in the press for a while but buried among stories of aliens and socialists, was the news that the book seller Borders Books and Music was in trouble. Storm tossed by the economic downturn and the public's turn to online resources for books and music, the iconic stores were suffering huge losses. When they declared Chapter 11 Bankruptcy yesterday, it was inevitable that store closings were part of the plan. A list was published and I checked out the soon to be shuttered locations and found a few old favorites among the victims.

I admit, I do not shop much at real live book stores anymore, mostly because I am not that big of a book reader and because their classical music selections became a shell of what they used to carry. The last book I bought from Borders was also so dammed expensive, made all the worse by realizing that if I was a bit patient I could have saved over $10 to have it shipped to me from an online seller.

But about 10 years ago I (and it seemed many others as well) frequented the stores and kept them in good stead. When I lived in Jefferson City, a visit to the Borders in KC or St Louis was a breath of civilization, I could get things I never saw in Jefferson City's Wal-Mart dominated retail world. On business trips, they were a place I could go to be around people and not stuck in a drab, same old hotel room.

One of the stores slated to close is the one in Deerfield, IL at 49 S. Waukegan Rd. Located at a busy intersection in north suburban Chicago, this was one of my refuges. As I motored back to the drab little room I rented from a friend in Waukegan while living a short time in the area, I passed this store and usually took a few minutes to stop. I had little else to do. I would get a cup of coffee, wander around, get a magazine or a CD and just relax in the middle of my stressful commute. But time must have chipped away at the customer base and it is among the unlucky. I doubt even I could have kept it going.

Another old haunt is the one in east Wichita at 1715 Rock Rd. I frequented Wichita during my Beverly days even if my business took me elsewhere in south central Kansas. Wichita was a breath of urban air in among the small towns and wheat fields. Just down the street from this Borders was a fine Asian restaurant with some good Chinese and sushi to boot. After pigging out, I (and sometimes others traveling with me) would retire to the store for coffee, browsing and usually a purchase or two. If I were still frequenting Wichita (have not been there in years) like I used to, I would certainly miss this location and would be annoyed to have to go all the way out west of town for the remaining store. I guess that is where the business is now.

Sadly, the closest one to me will be the only one in the area to close. Located up north of the river at 8628 Boardwalk in among a big box, strip mall development, I sometimes popped in when suburban shopping at the near by Target, Kohls or the dreaded Wal-Mart was planned.

Barnes and Noble, Borders competitor (and like Walgreens and CVS, seem to locate opposite each other) seems to be weathering the storm a bit better. There is a B & N close to me, but I always preferred the more casual and friendlier Borders. They had better CD selection too. I really do not get to that store much either, and I can walk there on a good day.

Sadly I fear it may be inevitable that all Borders will eventually close. Bankruptcies like these seldom work out. As I mentioned, I am part of the problem, but when the stores fail to stock what I want (I know my book and CD tastes are not actually in the mainstream) I have to take my dollars elsewhere.

Thanks Borders locations mentioned above, you were a fine and well remembered part of my life. I wish it would have ended differently.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Out and About

I usually devote a whole entry to the American Heartland Theatre productions I see, but frankly I have been busy and thus have had insufficient time to sit down and review. A chance to see the Kansas City Chamber Orchestra followed this past Monday. So, with a few minutes of down time before the demands begin, I submit my combined review of these two shows.

American Heartland Theatre's "Maybe Baby it's You" succeeded due to two fine actors and some subtle and sometimes not so subtly witty dialog. This is a light hearted work, as usual no real plot except the exploration of male/female relationships from dating through an elderly divorced couple realizing there is still some affection there. Of course, anything with the amazing Jesslyn Kincaid is worth the effort to see. As usual she was in fine form as the woman (the characters have no names), especially her brilliant channeling of Medea, the blind date of an unfortunate fellow. Newcomer Chase Ashurst made a splash in his AHT debut as the man with his physical comedy and fluid changes of character. As usual, not an earth shattering, life changing, disturbing or controversial evening of theatre, just a fine time with some fine actors giving us a break from all the above. "Maybe Baby It's You" runs through this weekend.

The Kansas City Chamber Orchestra is celebrating its 25 season next year, bringing chamber music to more intimate settings around town. This concert, at the grand Old Mission United Methodist Church in Mission, KS, was a new and quite satisfying venue for me. The previous KCCS performances I heard were in the horrible space that is Visitation Catholic Church, ugly, too open and "live" a space for concerts in my opinion. At Old Mission, the small strings only ensemble sounded warmer and larger, with better balance between the basses and the rest of the orchestra. This was a more varied and more "romantic" program than past encounters which leaned mostly on the baroque repertoire.

A finely done Finzi "Eclogue"(we do need to hear more of the wonderful and intimate music of Finzi) with KCCS Conductor and founder Bruce Sorrell on the piano, a lively early Divertimento (K138) from Mozart and a couple of chestnuts the "An Irish Melody: Londonderry Air)" by Frank Bridge (a kind of diffuse arrangement that did not come off well, the evening's only disappointment) and the Nocturne movement arranged for strings from Borodin's 2nd String quartet (known to Broadway musical fans as "This is my Beloved" from "Kismet") comprised the first half. The second half was comprised of Dvorak's wonderful Serenade for Strings in E op.22. Normally heard in a bit larger ensemble, the spacious and warm sound of the church worked well, making the small ensemble seem larger. The candlelit sanctuary of the church contributed to a fine evening of romantic chamber music, fitting for Valentine's day.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

KC Symphony: Khachaturian, Mozart and Smetana

"Some 'classical warhorse' pieces are popular", explained my classical music mentor Herb, "simply because they are damn fine pieces of music." I put Smetana's wonderful tone poem "The Moldau" or more properly known in Czech as "Vltava" in this august category. What is not to love about this perfect 10 minute travelogue? Visually descriptive without being boringly obvious, colorful, brimming with memorable melody (indeed the opening main theme was played on the tour bus when our group arrived in Prague in the 90's) and perfectly proportioned.

Unfortunately, being a warhorse often means some pretty rough and ready performances, such as the Moscow State Symphony concert I heard a few years ago, where the Vltava swept all the castles, nymphs and peasants along in a torrent. Music Director Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony kept the Vltava in her banks while still evoking the majesty of the river and the life along its shores. Under Stern's direction, the farmers danced spritely, the mermaids cavorted sensuously in the mists and the great Vyšehrad Castle loomed commandingly over the city. A most fine and enjoyable performance of this fabulous chestnut.

While "Vltava" boldly closed the concert, the opening work, Messiaen's 1991 "Un Sourire: Homage to Mozart", began the program in a more delicate and subtle mode. Written in 1991 for the 200th anniversary of Mozart's death, "Un Sourire" has all the static mystery and antique modal harmony that characterizes much of Messiaen's oeuvre. The short work physically resembled Mozart not in the least, but impressionistically captured Mozart's brilliance, elegant simplicity and transcendent beauty. A highlight was the orchestra's fine mallet percussion which provided drier, rhythmic contrast to the more slow moving winds and strings in this episodic work.

If someone did not "get" the Messiaen piece, it should have been made quite clear from the following performance of Mozart's Symphony # 38 "Prague". For his loyal and appreciative fans in the Bohemian capital, Mozart wrote one of his more sublime and festive symphonies. Stern and the orchestra captured this elegance for the most part with a well paced, incisive performance. Only some string intonation gaffs and a somewhat lax opening slow introduction to the first movement marred this masterpiece of contrapuntal writing; Stern brought out each of the melodies that flowed from Mozart's pen like the mighty Vltava.

The long central slow movement (this is a 3 movement symphony, somewhat rare in late Mozart) was full of charm and elegance under Stern's direction, the strings much better in tune with delicate winds in attendance. The short finale brought the homage to Prague to a spirited but somewhat abrupt end.

Khachaturian's bravura Violin Concerto of 1941 certainly pleased Papa Stalin (he gave it a coveted Stalin Prize soon after) with its bombardment of folk like melodies, swirling dances and fireworks. It takes a steady hand and firm control from both soloist and conductor to keep the thing from spiraling into banality. Latvian violinist Baiba Skride and Stern did quite well in that regard, taking the work and its technical demands seriously. That certainly did not diminish the fun as Skride was always in perfect tone, taking each daunting passage in stride while keeping focus on the work's forward movement. Skride and Stern milked the lovely and long central Andante for all its melodic potential and brought it all together in a fiery finale that brought the audience to its feet.