Sunday, March 27, 2011

Kansas City Symphony: Elgar and Ravel

Larry Rachleff, Music Director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic and Director of Orchestras at Rice University in Houston, made one of his regular appearances with the Kansas City Symphony this past weekend. Rachleff, quite in demand as a guest conductor and teacher, always brings a fresh and interesting program and a certain sense of energy. This concert consisted of 4 fairly standard and familiar works, the Overture to Benvenuto Cellini by Berlioz, the colorful Piano Concerto in G by Ravel, Barber's Adagio for Strings and concluding with the popular "Enigma" Variations by Elgar. Argentinian Ingrid Fliter was the soloist in the Ravel.

Berlioz's Massive opera about the free spirited Italian sculptor is rarely performed or recorded, but the overture remains one of his more popular pieces. Unfortunately, this performance seemed a bit flat and lacking drama despite some fine ensemble playing and well paced tempo. The grand coda, Popes and pomp and all, seemed forced rather than grandly conclusive.

All came together much better in the sometimes delicate, often jazzy and frequently lushly beautiful Ravel. Fliter, a pianist not familiar to me, easily handled the extremes of the score; sweetly lyrical, technically brilliant and jazzy when called upon. The delicate, flowing central Adagio was most effective. Fliter's refined technique and Rachleff's nuanced accompaniment allowed us to hear each note of the many long lines and florid runs, revealing that Ravel would often place a few staccato notes in between long legato phases, something not always noted in less graceful performances. A disappointment was the grand bluesy outburst in the first movement that just wasn't perfectly cataclysmic and laced with flutter tonguing brass as in the best performances of this work. Special note to the fine clarinets and trombones who often had some of the more jazzy elements and to Kenneth Lawrence for his achingly beautiful English horn solo in the adagio.

The second half opened with the strings in the well known Barber Adagio for Strings arranged from his String Quartet op 11. If any work from a US composer has become a cultural icon, this one is it. Premiered by Toscanini, championed by Stokowski. praised by Sibelius and soon to become the music that told a nation that Roosevelt had died, the Barber Adagio is certainly an institution. Rachleff and the KC Strings gave a fine and heartfelt performance of this emotional piece, marred only by some questionable intonation in the high tessatura of the climax.

Rachleff apparently loves the popular Elgar Variations as he mentioned in his short talk and by noting that it is one of the most frequently performed pieces in the classical repertoire. Rachleff guided the orchestra through the characteristic variations portraying the pugnacious Dan the Bulldog, the stuttering Dorabella, the moody R.P.A. and the loyal and noble "Nimrod". Easily the best performance of the night, the orchestra seemed to relish Elgar's enigmatic work and, along with the committed direction of Rachleff, provided a more than satisfying conclusion to the evening.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Kansas City Symphony: Latin American Extravaganza??

Billed by the marketing department as a "Latin American Extravaganza", the weekend's Kansas City Symphony concerts were really more "la música sobre de América Latina" than "la música Latino Américana". Yes, there were some wild dances and throbbing drums, but the selections were far from a rum laced fiesta and with A veddy British Vaughan Williams piece in the middle to boot.

Music Director Michael Stern was on the podium leading the orchestra in "Sidereus" a new orchestral work by Osvaldo Golijov, the Viola Concerto by Krzysztof Penderecki (pat me on the back, I actually spelled his name correctly without looking it up), the "The Wasps, Aristophanic Suite" by Ralph Vaughan Williams and 4 Dances from Estancia by Alberto Ginastera. Roberto Diaz was the soloist in the Penderecki.

Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov burst on the music scene a few years ago with his world music influenced and visceral compositions "La Pasión Según San Marco" (The Passion according to St Mark") and the opera "Ainadamar" about the life and death of poet Federico Garcia Lorca. Although I initially was taken with the power and rhythm of "La Pasión", deeply inspired by Latin American singing and worship, its overall sameness, relentless percussion orchestra and wailing vocals wore thin over time. "Ainadamar" simply failed to make a strong impression as well.

Sidereus is the first strictly orchestral work of Golijov's that I have heard. The work was commissioned by 35 orchestras in the US as a tribute to the career of renowned orchestra manager Henry Fogel and premiered in Memphis in 2010. The title is drawn from Galileo's book "Sidereus Nuncius" (Starry Messenger)written by the astronomer after first observing the moon through his telescope and discovering the moons of Jupiter.

The 10 minute work is scored for a very conventional orchestra with only tympani for percussion. A rising motive usually in horns and brass, described in the notes as being "inspired by the moon over Patagonia" is paired with arpeggio phrases from winds and strings. Frankly the work is pleasant, certainly well crafted and reminiscent of movie music in many respects, and more than a bit disappointing in its lack of vision and architecture, despite the fine performance by the symphony.

The haunting, almost funereal Viola Concerto by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki from 1983 would seem to have little, if any, connection to Latin America. But lo it does as it is the result of a commission from Venezuela for the 200th anniversary of the birth of liberator Simon Bolivar. The 20 minute concerto in one movement is typical of Penderecki's move towards a more tonal post-Romantic style. Although craggy at times, the work is primarily elegiac and dark in tone, serving the viola's tenor tone quite well. A dark and powerful opening soliloquy leads to the body of the work which juxtaposes a series of contrasting tempi episodes and virtuoso cadenzas for the viola. The coda is an almost nostalgic recap of the opening soliloquy. Diaz was in full command of his rich instrument (a monumental 1595 Amati Viola once owned by William Primrose) and communicated the deep pathos and committed passion of a liberator which lie beneath the surface of this moving work. Stern and the orchestra maneuvered through the often thick texture with commanding ease, never diminishing the soloist.

If Diaz played the violin he would be an internationally celebrated name. His contributions to music as the former principal viola in Phildelphia and Washington DC, member of the Minnesota and Boston SO and the current President and CEO of the Curtis Institute of Music, should earn him the acclaim this incredible artist deserves.

The Vaughan Williams "Wasps" suite is a sizable piece based on incidental music he wrotein 1909 for Aristophanes' play "The Wasps". About the only thing "Aristophanic" about the piece is the buzzing motif from the overture and the clever March of the Utensils, part of the absurd trial of the dog in the play. The music is always fun, if not really top drawer Vaughan Williams. The fine winds of the symphony were on display in this brisk and lively performance. Rumor has it that the symphony is going to record this music for an upcoming release on Reference Recordings, echoing the success of the recent Britten recording that won a Grammy Award.

Alberto Ginastera's suite from the ballet "Estancia", an early work from this most fascinating composer, concluded this concert. Ginastera's 1943 work was based on scenes from life on an Argentine ranch (an "estancia") and was the most overtly "Latin" music of the evening. Especially memorable was the atmospheric and tender "Wheat Dance" featuring sweetly glowing and tender solos from the flute, harp and woodwinds. The concluding "Final Dance: Malambo" was a fiesta of drums, braying horns and repetitive foot stomping rhythm. A most fitting conclusion to a satisfying concert, but hardly a "Latin American Extravaganza".

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Mardi Gras 2011

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Friday, March 04, 2011

2011 Kansas City Auto Show

2011 Greater Kansas City Auto Show. Click on the pics for full size.

We went early PM so the crowds were thin:

From Drop Box
Greg was checking out the latest in pickup trucks. He remembers farm trucks when the front bumpers were optional. I didn't capture his expression from the sticker shock.

2011 Lincoln MKS. I hate the grille, I would replace it with one from an 80's Lincoln. Back then their classic style grille exuded timelessness and elegance. This damn thing snarls.

When Lincolns were boats: 1948 Continental

My God! King Ranch Power Stroke Turbo Diesel. Too macho for me.

Remember when Hyundai cars were cheap econoboxes? 2011 Equus, $60K Plus.

The New MB Gullwing SLS AMG $224K

I think the original looks best. MB 300SL Gullwing from 1955. Worth more than the new one.

I let them display my new Jaguar XJ.

I had to ask.. does one need to insert a coin in the slot and then push the button to get the car to start? 2011 Mini Cooper.

The Pinninfarina name still evokes magic images of sleek, Italian style. Maserati GranTurismo.

From Drop Box
More practical (and about $100,000 cheaper) Italian style, the 2011 Fiat 500 to be sold by Chrysler this summer. Can this little machine resurrect a name that means "trash" to many? Looks fun and well put together, a smaller Mini and cheaper too. But so many love Scion; I find them kind of throwaway cars myself. I'd buy one of these.

On the Chrysler side, consensus seems to be that the new Chrysler 200 is nice but dull. The front of the Dodge Charger is far from that. Car has tremendous presence.

Used to be if you wanted a Cadillac Station Wagon you had to own a funeral home or have one built for you. The New CTS Sport Wagon is classy and full of gadgets. You press a button on the door and it pops open....slick. Not a fin or the name DeVille in sight either.

Dunbar's young cousin, 2011 Buick Regal. I'd buy one. The new smaller Verano is nice too. Great recreation of the iconic 1950's tooth grille.

New electric Chevrolet Volt. The demonstrator fellow had driven one and said he loved it. Quiet, powerful and practical. Still hard to get, expensive and the Republicans hate it so the future is questionable in dumb ass America.

The only thing wrong with a Kia Forte Koup is the silly name. A slick, well equipped little 2 dr for less than $23 K with all options.

We were about done and turning around to head out for a Mexican dinner for Greg's b-day. We passed the Subaru display and not a lesbian in sight.... sorry.. couldn't resist.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

It’s Time to Play ‘Sheen, Beck, or Qaddafi?’

It’s Time to Play ‘Sheen, Beck, or Qaddafi?’

This is harder than you think. In my opinion, Qaddafi (one of the myriad of spellings of his name) comes out better than expected and Sheen is just plain fucking nuts.