Monday, June 27, 2011

Art of the Car 2011

The annual Art of the Car Concours was held this weekend on the grounds of the Kansas City Art Institute. Celebrating the style and power of the automobile as a work of art, 180 cars graced the lawn on a hot, but cloudy Sunday. Rain threatened but thankfully held off allowing nearly 5,000 people to enjoy some wonderful, rare and beautiful machines.

We were greeted by the toothy grin of Dunbar the Buick's Great Great Uncle, a 1941 Super Convertible.

Greg relaxed and watched the crowd mingle. In center is a 1932 Cord 812 Beverly sedan.

A close up of the futuristic Cord, one of the most influential designs from the 30's. Front wheel drive too.

A massive and rare 1928 Cunningham V5. Picture does not do justice to the size of this classic. Cunningham was a hand built car from an old line carriage company in Rochester, NY. Ceasing production in 1931, they built hand made wooden hearse bodies for a few more years. V5 did not mean a V shaped 5 cylinder engine, but was a series name.

A jaunty 1920 Kissel Gold Bug Speedster. Amelia Earhart owned one.

A relic from the steam age. 1910 Stanley Model 62.

A one off show car by Nash from 1956. The Palm Beach was pure Nash underneath but sported a Pinninfarina body. If only... (sorry no back half of car, there was a crowd around it)

1953 saw the debut of 3 limited production super-luxo tourers from almighty GM as well as the similar Packard Caribbean. This one of them, a Buick Skylark. Greg noted the similarity in the side sculpture on today's Buicks, probably not a co-incidence.

The big, distinctive grille work of the Skylark

The luxurious hand made leather interior of the Skylark

A lucky survivor, 1974 Buick Le Sabre Luxus Convertible. Convertibles were on their way out by 1974, Buick built its last big convertible in 1975. One of 3,827 built, all original with 8,000 miles.

A big honking toothy 1948 Buick Super Convertible

A Chrysler Town and Country convertible from 1946. Lots of real wood work on this handsome machine.

A classy Mercedes 250 SEC from 1966

1947 Bentley, I always preferred the more rakish Bentley grille over the upright Rolls.

The air cooled Franklin 4 door sedan from 1926. Amelia Earhart had one of these too. She was a car nut.

Cadillac style from 1941 Fleetwood 60 Special

A rare visitor from Great Britain, a swoopy 1948 Diamler Green Goddess.

Stylish art deco steering wheel of a top of the line Studebaker President. 1938

Yep A Doozie! 1929 LeBaron bodied J

Even a Duesenburg engine is a work of art

Packards were out in force, a 1948 Packard Custom Eight.

Ask The Man Who Owns One 1934 Packard 1105 Super Eight 7 passenger sedan

The 7 passenger sedan was a loooooong piece of work!

Another Packard Convertible a 1932 902 Eight Coupe Roadster.

Minty fresh Packard 903 Deluxe Eight Convertible.

The imposing visage of a 1932 Packard 903 Deluxe Eight Sport Phaeton.

The interior of the Deluxe Eight oozed luxury and hand crafted style.

A Ford Flathead V8, but where is it at??.... the rear of a very rare (9 built) 1936 Stout Scarab. Art Deco in looks but way ahead of its time inside; almost a minivan in concept with a center folding table and swiveling chairs. This one came from North Carolina.

NASCAR inspired Ford Torino Talladega, built for speed on the super speedways of the day.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Season Finale Concert Bruch and Tchaikovsky

So yesterday I mused about the final performances of the Kansas City Symphony at the venerable Lyric Theatre. (Season Finale) As advertised, the orchestra treated the audience to a champagne celebration on the steps of the old girl, toasting her years of service. Before and after that, we were treated to a fine swan song of a concert befitting a grand theatre. Michael Stern, Music Director, led the orchestra in three crowd pleasing works, The Hebrides Overture by Mendelssohn, the Bruch Scottish Fantasy with violinist Stefan Jackiw as solo and concluded with the grand and dramatic Tchaikovsky 4th Symphony.

By now you know that the triumvirate of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms are not on the top of my list of composers that I would take with me on the proverbial desert island. Mendelssohn's Overture (also known as "Fingal's Cave") received a fine but somewhat subdued performance from the orchestra. The winds as usual were in fine form, contributing to an agitated opening section, depicting the wild Hebredean seas. Stern kept the overture at a fair pace, but I did not feel the epic flow and grandeur that Mendelssohn saw in the rugged cave. Maybe the somewhat fussy and square Mendelssohn just couldn't put it into music. The strings were in good form as were the brass and spotless horns.

Stefan Jackiw (the unpronounceable looking name is Jack-eev I am told) has all the potential to be one of the finest violinists of his generation. At 26, he has made quite a name for himself with very mature, sensitive yet powerful performances. I have heard him in a wonderful Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto performance with the Russian National Orchestra and in a solo recital. Jackiw and Stern offered the popular Bruch piece (at almost 30 minutes truly a violin concerto and more than just a trifle "fantasy") in a somewhat relaxed performance. Jackiw's tone was always spot on and clear, even in the highest registers, which Bruch used to great effect in this truly Scottish tinged work. His double stop melodic lines could have easily come from a Scotsman's viol or pipes as he sang his long and winding tunes. If the slower movements were a bit leisurely, the certainly allowed Stern, the orchestra and soloist to milk every turn and intimate detail of this complex and full score.

Jackiw was magnificent in the second movement's earthy, bagpipe drone influenced, main melody with special shout out to principal flute Michael Gordon for his incredible duet with Jackiw in this movement, matching the soaring skittering violin in every note. The Andante sostenuto 3rd movement was sweetly singing but again a bit reticent. The popular dancing finale seemed to light a fire under all concerned, with Jackiw's constant double stops pristine and clear, with just the right amount of grit. Certainly the capacity audience appreciated the sensitive and detailed performance.

Used to be I would cringe whenever I knew the KCS horns were all exposed and important. The incredibly powerful opening horn figure of the Tchaikovsky 4th is one such place, but demonstrating the transformation from small town orchestra to regional powerhouse, the horns were solid, bright, commanding, powerful but not overbearing. I knew we were in for something special. Seemingly igniting as if this were the last time they would ever play period, the orchestra nailed every passage, followed Stern's brisk but never rushed tempo, relishing every surging, drama filled passage of this hyper-romantic work. Yet, as in the wistful waltz like center section of the first movement, the orchestra could hold back and produce some contrasting delicate sounds as well.

Fine wind work as usual, commanding yet well integrated brass, judiciously used but spectacular percussion (the wonderful 3 cymbal pair crash) and crisp and together strings abounded. In particular the pizzicato strings were magnificent in the swift and vibrant Scherzo. The festive and busy finale brought the work, the 2010-2011 season and the career of the Lyric to a grand conclusion.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Season Finale

Saturday AM I, as I have many times, opened my drop leaf desk, reached into the far right cubby hole and got the tickets for the weekend's Kansas City Symphony concert. Emblazoned on this set was "Season Finale: Tchaikovsky's 4th", obviously signaling the end of the road for this season. But more than that, this concert is the last in the venerable, lovely, frustrating, historic, acoustically nightmarish Lyric Theatre. Many are rejoicing, awaiting the new Moshe Safdie/Yasuhisa Toyota built Kauffman Arts Center. Some old timers want to cling to the past.

Befitting a befuddled Pisces, I have mixed emotions. The Lyric is a monument to 1920's Roman influenced architecture, and was modeled after the Temple of Vesta in Rome. Built as a Shrine Temple, it has been a movie theatre, live theatre, TV studio, opera house, ballet theatre and concert hall, frequently all at once. One can only imagine the great artists who have performed on its cramped stage. As I mentioned in a past post about the last performances of the Lyric Opera, (Retirement) many patrons seem to relish the intimacy and small venue atmosphere of the Lyric while others just thought it crowded. The wonderful detail in the ceiling of the hall, the huge columns, marble and big heavy doors lent an air of solid craftsmanship.

One just had to experience a performance in the old girl to realize her major shortcomings. The stage is small and cramped, limiting what opera can do. When the chorus joined the orchestra on stage, everyone was squished together virtually sitting on top of each other. With only one theatre shared by the symphony, opera and ballet, the various groups had to often rehearse in different locations and then spend crunch time getting used to the theatre.

For us patrons, the orchestra level had more spacious seats but offered muddy, dull and often simply dead acoustics, especially if you were trapped under the balcony. From many seats you could not see past the first couple rows of the orchestra; the winds, brass and percussion could be cardboard cutouts with speakers blaring recordings for all we know. The balcony had better sound and better views, but the seats were cramped with no legroom. I think European low cost airline Ryanair was inspired by the Lyric.

Tonight I and my friend Gerry (who replaced Barbara after she moved away) will occupy Right Center Balcony Row G seats 7 and 8 for the last time. Gerry is one that is thrilled about the move as he hated the cramped seats. He liked the orchestra section, but I was a butt and refused to move. Next season is Grand Tier row AAA # 117 and 118. The ticket office fellow gleefully told me that even though the seats for the next better section were gone, these were actually closer to the stage than my old seats, and had lots of leg room. That should make Gerry happy.

I saw lots of fine productions and concerts at the old Lyric, but I guess it is time now to move on. The new center is the talk of the concert world; according to those who have tested the waters, it is superb. The orchestra's Helzberg Hall will have a fabulous 4 manual, 102 rank Casavant organ installed early next year, the opera theatre has seat back screens for translations and scene descriptions. Great things are coming.

They are having a champagne toast to say good bye to the old girl tonight (I hope they learned from the last time and do NOT pop the corks before the first half ends) and I will join all to cheer the Grande Dame's glorious past and reflect on her murky future.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Kansas City Symphony: Mena Conducts Grieg, Beethoven and Schumann

A sultry Saturday evening in KC extended its grip inside the venerable Lyric Theatre last night, the vintage AC units straining to cool the vast space. Perhaps the old building was groaning out a last protest towards its imminent demise as a performance space. Nevertheless, the show goes on and frequent guest Juanjo Mena was on hand to lead the Kansas City Symphony in a program of Grieg, Beethoven and Schumann. German pianist Markus Groh was the soloist in the Beethoven 3rd Piano Concerto.

Opening this program of music firmly rooted in the 19th century was the Lyric Suite op 54 by Grieg. One of Grieg's greatest accomplishments is that of his set of 66 Lyric Pieces for piano composed in 10 books from 1867 to 1901. Many of them such as Wedding Day At Troldhaugen, To Spring, March of the Trolls, and Butterfly are known to just about anyone who studied piano. Many of the little pieces have been arranged for orchestra but the set from op 54 (Shepherd Boy, Norwegian March, Nocturne and March of the Trolls) is most often performed and recorded.

A hint of shaky string intonation at the very beginning of the lyrical and passionate "Shepherd Boy" did not bode well, and indeed one could have asked for a bit more flexibility in phrasing and some harp to penetrate the string only texture. The "Norwegian March' came together well with some excellent as usual woodwind work (the recurring little clarinet figures for example), the brass were foreboding but never overwhelming. "Nocturne" could have used a bit more flow and grace but was redeemed again by fine winds. The final "March of the Trolls" must be great fun to play and the orchestra came to life with a perfect blend of macabre and bouncy enthusiasm.

In his 3rd Piano Concerto from 1800, Beethoven said Auf Wiedersehen to the more elegantly formal concerti of Haydn and Mozart and set about writing a most symphonic concerto. The opening orchestral tutti is a fully argued symphonic statement in and of itself, not merely a flourish filled opener. The piano is more fully integrated into the orchestral texture and is key to introducing new themes and setting a movement's tempo. This emphasis on symphonic argument and development renders this Beethoven's least "flashy" and, ultimately for me, most satisfying concerto. Groh and Mena and the orchestra seemed to agree with this assessment, milking all the subtle yet frequently palpable drama from the work. Groh's first movement cadenza was a perfect example of this, well integrated into the whole fabric, alternatively sweetly lyrical and boldly flashing.

The Largo, in all intents and purposes a nocturne worthy of Chopin, second movement begins with a simple prayer and ends with an elaborate song of praise. Groh's tone and rhythm was fluid and graceful, never slack, allowing the piano to sing its long, winding phrases. The orchestra mostly accompanies and comments in this movement and the forces well knew their role.

Groh launched into the fleet and spicy rondo with abandon, the orchestra following close behind, but getting overwhelmed in the brisk final measures. Groh tossed off the runs with grace and style, but unlike the unbeatable master Leon Fleisher, he didn't give the complex runs the subtle variations in tempo and emphasis that marks a superb performance.

Thankfully, someone got to the audience and there was no applause between movements as has been the custom as of late. Maybe they were too hot.

I rate Robert Schumann along with Brahms as one of those colorless, foursquare mid 19th century composers whose music just does not speak to me. I know many, many disagree with me, but it is what it is with me, dear readers. Thus a performance of Schumann's Symphony # 4 (not really his last, but as with many composers of his era, the numbering is AFU) was not my idea of a grand time on a hot summer night in a hot old theatre. Thankfully, Mena and the orchestra felt otherwise and delved into the score with relish. The first movement was perfectly dramatic, the brass forceful but never making the texture even more dense. The short Romanze was fine and Mena used just the right amount of tempo and dynamic change to relate the movement back to the introduction of the first movement, making them one grand gesture. Of course the whole symphony is played without much or any pause, making the whole thing one mega-sinfonia. A breezy and well articulated scherzo followed with some fine rhythmic string work from the strings. If the strings go slack, the whole shebang becomes even more turgid, and that certainly was not the case last night. Mena seemed to really relish the Viennese waltz segments of the scherzo's trio. The strings and brass were majestic in the grand transition from the scherzo to the finale, bringing the work to a fine conclusion.

Ok, maybe a better piece than I give it credit for (Schumann, especially his fabulous 2nd Symphony is a rung above Brahms in my book anyway) especially when an orchestra and conductor give a fine performance to an audience that by the end of the stifling evening seemed to want to just get on with it.

As for those who are bristling with my Schumann bashing, note that I actually have and sometimes actually listen to 4 Schumann Symphony sets in my collection, Szell/Cleveland, Bernstein/NYP, Dohnanyi/Cleveland and Chailly/Leipzig with Mahler's "Retuschen" that I actually find interesting, further infuriating the Schumann fans in the crowd.

Only one more concert series to go in the old Lyric Theatre in a couple weeks. Hopefully Helzberg Hall will have better HVAC than the old Lyric, or maybe as I said, the old girl is just shooing us out.