Saturday, April 30, 2011

Kansas City Symphony: US Premiere Dorman "Frozen in Time"

Appropriate fare for a concert close to Earth Day, the Kansas City Symphony, under the direction of Music Director Michael Stern, performed 3 works dramatizing the creation of our terrestrial orb. Franz Joseph Haydn's "The Representation of Chaos" from his oratorio "The Creation" opened the program. Darius Milhaud's jazz drenched "La Création du Monde" (The Creation of the World) followed. The first half ended in spectacular fashion with the US premiere of Avner Dorman's "Frozen in Time" Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra, which the composer describes as "an imaginary snapshot of the Earth's geological developments from prehistoric times to the present day. Austrian percussionist Martin Grubinger was soloist. Earthy and elemental in its own right, Dvorák's lively Symphony # 8 comprised the concluding half.

Haydn's "Representation of Chaos" was a most innovative piece for its time. In an era where musical compositions were held to strict form and harmonic relationships, Haydn's diffuse overture seems to have themes, phrases and harmonies shifting to and fro as if in a primordial soup. Structurally, however,it is a fairly tight sonata form. Haydn invokes his "chaos" by avoiding cadences as much as possible and allowing ends of phrases to fade into the texture, foreshadowing Tristan and Isolde many years later. Stern led the reduced orchestra in a leisurely, appropriately meandering performance. Some iffy string intonation at the beginning marred the performance somewhat as the small orchestra left many parts exposed.

French composer Darius Milhaud, like many European composers in the 20's (Stravinsky comes to mind of course), became influenced by jazz. While many copied the almost orchestral bands such as Paul Whiteman, Milhaud's influence was in the small clubs of Harlem, where few white people ventured. When called upon to write a ballet in 1923, Milhaud used this inspiration for "La Création Du Monde", a setting of African creation stories. The small 18 member ensemble (two flutes, oboe, two clarinets, alto saxophone, bassoon, horn, two trumpets, trombone, timpani, percussion, piano, 2 violins, cello and bass) dug into the jazzy score with often appropriately raucous relish, yet frequently relaxed to allow us to savor the colorful details and lovely melodic lines.

Paraphrasing the slogan for Jiffy Pop popcorn from the 1960's, Avner Dorman's "Frozen In Time" Concerto for Percussion and orchestra is as much fun to watch as it is to hear.

An amalgam of earth music ranging from ancient African to jazz and rock, "Frozen In Time" has an elaborately staged but never pretentious program. The first movement "Indoafrica" is based on Indian classical rhythmic cycles and scales. The huge battery of drums transports the music to rhythmic Africa while the marimba and mallets represent the more melodic Indian tradition. "Eurasia", a slower central movement, is laced with elements of European and Central Asian traditions. The ghost of Mozart appears as does the Italian Siciliana and some frosty Nordic chords and sounds. The orchestra strings predominate, underpinning the metallic percussion. Haunting and delicate in contrast to the more frenetic outer movements, "Eurasia" would be satisfying as a stand alone piece. "The Americas", with everything from Cuban dance to Broadway swing, brings the whole work to a most rousing conclusion. Snippets of the "Indoafrican" and "Eurasian" music weave in to remind us we are but one Earth.

The huge orchestra has plenty to do and is surely an integral part of the work, but the show is all the solo's. Martin Grubinger, who premiered the piece and has played all over the world now, is simply indescribable. Lean as an athlete and full of enthusiastic energy, he is fully in command of the work and the percussion. I do hope he records the piece sometime, but only if video is provided. His encore, (my lousy hearing did not let me catch what he was playing, but it seemed to be an Austrian hymn or lullaby of some sort), was the epitome of subtlety. Played on the marimba, often on the threshold of audibility, it left the audience breathless. Both Grubinger and the work received a rapturous ovation that most composers and performers only dream about. Sadly, the composer was not able to be at the performance but he can be assured that Kansas City certainly has many Avner Dorman fans after last night.

Sometimes, after such an overwhelming experience, the final work on the program can seem like an after thought or a fluffy dessert at best. In this case Stern and the orchestra gave a rousing and exquisitely detailed performance of Dvorák's masterpiece. From the delicate opening bars of the introduction through the dancing conclusion of the finale's coda (the various tempo shifts cleanly shaped and accented without jarring, Stern and the orchestra superbly negotiated the score's sweep and flow. Wonderful solos from the always fine KCS winds contributed to this fine and well received performance.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


After a combined total of around 10 years, I am retiring tonight. It was sort of forced on me; progress often makes people and things redundant. I love that word "redundant", more graceful than "useless" or "unwanted", but still ringing with finality. I don't think my "employer" even really noticed until I mentioned it yesterday when I agreed to work on Wed rather than Friday.

At least 4 times a year since around 1998 (minus my 4 years in St Louis and elsewhere) I volunteered at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City's "Ingram Room", an opulent, private lounge for the most generous of patrons. They could sip a glass of wine from fine gold rimmed, crystal glasses, indulge on hors d'oeuvres or sweets on elegant green and gold plates and chat amiably in the frankly small, over stuffed room.

For the most part, the high and mighty of KC society were a pleasant lot. The truly rich were usually the nicest, the younger working rich (bankers, lawyers, etc) were often the most pretentious and nasty. One lady, whose hubby is with a firm that sponsors some of the productions, is a nasty, royal, trashy pain in the ass. Hope to never see her again. I no longer do business with their business either and that makes me feel better.

It was fun watching the upper crust flit, flirt, munch and sip. Sort of like watching a display in a zoo; species Richius Americanius genus Kansasian Citianius. "Hello!!! how are you, so good to see you!" Yeah, right, I know they hate each other actually. More fun was herding them out at the start or at intermission so we could get on with the real work, enjoying the treats the caterer brought.

For my first few years, Donna was the coordinator. We called her "Angel Bitch". She was the nicest, kindest lady you could know, but her Ingram Room was done her way. Wine bottles were always in a bottle coaster, "labels forward" her demand. We were quiet during the opera, everything in its place. I missed the AB days, they were the best.

One performance found me in my usual place behind the bar when I noticed a couple of ants crawling on the counter. I reported it to AB but she did not want to believe me until she saw the little creatures scurrying around. DISASTER! I soon saw they were coming from a live orchid on the counter. So it was removed and the ants dispatched post haste. Unfortunately, the person who designed the room (in the style of Marie Antoinette's boudoir) was there and was not amused at the removal of the orchid. It was not until Donna showed him the plant crawling with the little critters that he believed it, but still blamed us for ruining the evening. I knew not who this person was, but now I do... nothing has changed.

One of the many people who passed through the Ingram Room was describing one of the hors d'oeuvre selections to a be-furred and glittering patron: "Crudités with a spicy penis..spicy penis....uh uh oh dear a pee sauce...." she stuttered totally embarrassed and tongue twisted. The gracious patron just said "dear, let's just refer to it as 'the sauce'." She was trying to say spicy peanut sauce, but it just was not to be. We laughed until it hurt.

You get to know people's habits when you serve them regularly and they, no matter their station in life, appreciate it. I endeared myself to many by remembering their drink of choice (we usually just had wine, soft drinks and coffee so it was not a big deal) and having it at the ready for their asking. Joan loved a bit of white wine with a splash of sprite on ice for a frosty spritzer at intermission. Evan, the Opera General Manager,usually asked for a Sprite at intermission. When I would hand him one with out asking, he was usually amazed. "I guess they know me here" he mentioned to a fellow patron when presented with the fait accompli. Another patron always wants red wine, so I have one ready for him. Mrs. Ingram always wants decaf coffee at intermission, half a cup please. Jim will always be the first to taste the evening's fare and pronounce his verdict.

Sometimes, I would sneak in and see the opera but often it was more fun just hanging around at intermission, eating the goodies and gossiping. I learned a lot that way, got to hear all the drama of mounting a professional opera and even got to meet some of the cast and composer Jake Heggie to boot. I so wanted to ask him about his life with Johanna Harris, but I thought not to pry.

This week marks the last opera in the old faithful Lyric Theatre. The new Kauffman Theatre at the Kauffman Center (God do those folks have $$$) will replace the venerable structure. There will be a patron lounge, but it will not be "ours". The Center will staff it and cater. The lovely items of the Ingram room were recently sold to benefit the Opera Circle. I got a gold washed brass basket in which we placed napkins or silverware for the desserts. I had washed, served out of, put away or handled in some fashion just about every item in the place so it was fitting that I take one home.

I am sure the Opera's new home will be a whole new experience, with better seats, acoustics and even monitors in the seat backs for the translations. But as much as the Lyric has become redundant, I will miss the more intimate feeling of a small family, sometimes a crazy, bickering one, producing art for the community to enjoy. In gaining a big, modern, state-of-the-art theatre, we lose a bit of a connection.

Me? I lose a job and the intangible benefits that went with it. Think they will present me with a gold watch?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

St Louis Symphony Mahler 2

It seems I am falling into a pattern. Every year or so I gas up the old Buick and head east on I70 to the other side of the state to my old haunt St Louis, MO to partake of a special concert by the usually excellent St Louis Symphony. A couple seasons ago it was a wonderful Britten War Requiem with Music Director David Robertson and my favorite Diva (and Facebook friend) Christine Brewer. Next was an increasingly rare appearance by the great Maestro Stanislaw Skrowaczweski and his specialty the Bruckner 8th. So, in keeping with tradition, I headed to St Louis for a special concert of Mahler's grand Symphony # 2 with the St Louis SO, Christine Brewer, soprano, Kelley O'Connor, Mezzo and the St Louis Symphony Chorus all under the direction of Music Director David Robertson. Samuel Barber's "Prayers of Kierkegaard" opened the show.

Barber's "Prayers of Kierkegaard" for Chorus, Soprano and Orchestra (based on the writings of Soren Kierkegaard) received a grand and emotional performance. The opening prayer, beautifully pure and sung with perfectly Gregorian piety by the men of the chorus, was followed by the reverent and passionate "Lord Jesus Christ who suffered all life long featuring Brewer's commanding but clear and sincere soprano voice. The final two prayers increased in drama and thickened in choral and fanfare laced orchestral texture concluding with the final prayer, a richly thick chorale "Father in Heaven, hold not our sins up against us".

But the evening was really all about the Mahler and overall it was a satisfying and frequently eloquent performance. Frankly the two vocal movements came off best of all, aided by the masterful soloists and the magnificent chorus. Robertson and the orchestra certainly did no harm to Mahler and his incredible score; in fact the performance was full of finely tuned details, moderate and appropriate tempi and fine orchestral work. But to my ears, the first two movements lacked the passion, swagger and flow that would have made this a perfect live Mahler 2.

Take the fabulous second movement "Andante Moderato" for example; finely played, lush strings, a perfectly delicate performance of the pizzicato string/flute/piccolo episode, fine pace... but no flow. The best performances will have the landler rhythm almost like that of boats rowing, a strong accent and push, a glide and then another accent as the oars hit the water for the next stroke. Robertson was just too foursquare. The damn street noise of sirens careening down Grand Ave didn't help, but what can one do?

The first movement began with a thrilling flourish; the basses digging into the opening motives with vigor and a tinge of foreboding. As the movement progressed, one sensed one was listening to a fine performance, but with the same bit of slackness as I described for the Andante. Again, far far far from a poor performance, maybe I just have Bernstein's white hot performances burned into my Mahler senses.

The incredible scherzo, "In ruhig fließender Bewegung" (with quiet, flowing movement) is one of my favorite Mahler movements. Robertson and the orchestra began to stir in this movement, with more elasticity and drama and a better sense of Mahler's flowing, folk derived rhythms. Sadly, the movement was marred by a too harsh and sharp rute that sounded more like solid sticks than the brush-like reeds which contribute more of a texture than a sound.

Kelley O'Connor's "Urlicht" was beyond description, and almost seemed to bring the work to life. I have never, ever been so moved by the opening "O Röschen rot" that just seemed to ignite out of the dark rudeness of the Scherzo. O'Connor's mezzo was dark, but clear; I hope she records the part with a major orchestra someday. A purely magic movement. Ok, I thought about not mentioning the off-the-mark brass in the chorale just after O Röschen rot, but jarring it was and blemished this otherwise incredible movement.

Yet as if inspired by this delicate moment, the orchestra came to life in a thrilling, powerful and dynamic finale. The augmented brass never was harsh or overwhelming, the percussion perfectly integrated into the texture and the woodwinds and strings always bright and precise.

The chorus' hushed entrance "Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n" was just heavenly. This well trained and professional group could whisper and yet a moment later bring the old beams of Powell Hall down around us. Brewer (her soprano slowly rising from the hushed chorus was mesmerizing) and O'Connor soared majestically above it all as required, just as comfortable being part of the vocal texture as they were as soloists. Blemishing this otherwise fine movement were the offstage brass which were off tempo and off tune, not well coordinated at all.

The concert was done in memory of longtime chorus member and chorus manager Richard Ashburner, who died all too suddenly and young this past March. There was hardly a dry eye in the chorus or among the soloists and several in the audience as well during the long and well deserved applause.

I know I sound a bit picky, but as my friend and fellow concert goer Steven said, we have a right to be critcal, since as devoted fans of Mahler, we know the music probably as well as any chorus or orchestra member. It was a fine and sometimes glorious Mahler 2, worth the cross state trip for the fine choral and solo performances in the last two movements.