Sunday, July 31, 2011

Summerfest KC: Finale

The last day of July, another 100 degree day, brings the SummerFest concert series to a close. Three short contrasting works comprised the first half, the Muzio Clementi Trio in D op 31 # 2 for Piano, Violin and Cello, "Three Character Pieces" for viola and bassoon by Tunsian born Iraqi-American Karim Al-Zand and "Petroushskates" by Joan Tower. The last half consisted of a grand finale of sorts, using many of the Summerfest instrumentalists in a single work, the Brahms Serenade # 1 op 11 in the original chamber version.

Fitting Clementi's title of "father of the piano", his trio was dominated by the piano with the strings as accompaniment, almost a piano concerto with a tiny orchestra. Charming, bubbly and full of skittering melodies, the piece was a delightful and audience pleasing opener. Pianist Dan Velicer chose to emulate a period pianoforte with his crisp and somewhat brittle tone, perfect for the piece. The string parts were a bit thankless, but Mary Grant, violin and Susie Yang, Cello made the best of it, contributing to a finely wrought performance.

I was prepared to not like the Al-Zand work, written in 2006 apparently for two friends, since I could not imagine a more unappealing paring of viola and bassoon. I didn't hate it, but it just didn't quite always work. The composer describes the work as "short vignettes mostly light-hearted and cheerful". The first vignette fared best with the two instruments, similar in tone and range, weaving a wandering melodic line between them. It went nowhere, but that was part of the point. The second piece "Moderate Groove" was more like "Moderate Dyspepsia". The bassoon's burping leaps from belch to squeek accompanied by groans and moans from the viola just left me queasy. The brisk last piece "Buoyant, lively" skittered along merrily to a comic end, eliciting twitters (non-electronic) from the audience.

Joan Tower's music has often left me feeling it is more contrived than genuine, relying on catchy titles or programs to disguise some rather ordinary music. "Petroushskates" fit that bill nicely. A realization of Stravinsky's harlequin tale on ice skates scored for violin, cello, flute, clarinet and piano, the piece vaguely takes the chords from the Shrovetide Fair scene and creates a manic perpetuum mobile of sliding chords and phrases. Probably fun to play but, as was my only attempt at ice skating, more of an ordeal than a pleasure to hear.

The origins of Brahms' Serenade #1 are shrouded in a bit of mystery and musicological controversy. Some say it began as an octet, then a nonet, or for small orchestra before emerging in the orchestral version most known today. It may have began as a 5 or maybe 4 movement work before Brahms added a second scherzo to make it a 6 movement symphonic serenade; we don't know for sure since Brahms apparently discarded the original chamber manuscripts. Several arrangements and reconstructions exist; this afternoon's was a 6 movement version for 10 players (basically the nonet with a second violin: violins, viola, cello, bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn). Regardless of all the details, the end really justifies the means, for the music is delightful in this reduced scoring, lightening the texture and bringing out (as reduced scorings do) the inner voices and harmonies. When the playing is as precise and enthusiastic as this performance, it is doubly satisfying.

Especially noteworthy was the outstanding horn of Kelly Cornell, which never overwhelmed but took every advantage of Brahms' prominent use of the insrument for both melodic and harmonic effect. The ensemble was usually spot on and well rehearsed yet flowing and flexible. The tempi were a bit on the quick side, not a bad thing at all with Brahms in my opinion. The central adagio worked well in the quicker mode (it is an Adagio non troppo after all) but the two interlocked Minuetti could have been more graceful. The short second scherzo and following Rondo didn't outlast their welcome in a rather long piece and brought the work to a fitting and joyous close.

Yes, I actually said something nice about Brahms. I have made a habit of telling prominent music figures here in KC and elsewhere that I do not care for Brahms. In return I usually receive looks of pity and bewilderment. I tend to like my Brahms in the more obscure forms, such as the wonderful Alto Rhapsody and the Schoenberg arrangement of the Piano Quartet, so this chamber-ized Serenade worked just fine for me.

Again great thanks to the musicians, Summerfest staff and St Mary's for the venue and the fabulous reception afterwards.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Summerfest KC: Transformations

A bit of a different format for my review of the 3rd Kansas City Summerfest concert on Sunday at the wonderful St Mary's Episcopal Church venue. While the opening Haydn Quartet Op #9, one of his earliest yet one that set the stage for the many quartet masterpieces to come, was well played, charming and a perfect opener and the Lowell Liebermann Fantasy on a Fugue by Bach was clever, witty, interesting and equally as well played, two works in this evening's concert and their composers merit a more in depth review.

Carlos Chavez was one of the most influential Mexican composers for a generation. Born in 1899, his six symphonies, colorful ballets and stints as director and or founder of many Mexican musical institutions made an indelible impression in his native land and abroad. But as the most interesting and intelligent program notes by Andrew Granade point out, even those who influence and become masters feel the need to pay homage to their teachers and mentors. Thus Chavez took two works by Debussy and two by Spanish master Manuel de Falla and transformed them into his Trio for Flute, Viola and Harp.

Debussy's popular "Snow is Dancing" comprises the first movement of the trio. The expansion from the piano only original turns the gentle snowflakes into a darker, more menacing and wind whipped snow shower. More than just sound and color, with Chavez's expanded palate the work took on a more profound tone; more of a tone poem than piano prelude. The haunting bell like sounds in the piece were inspired by Indonesian gamelan music and in Chavez's arrangement, the harp is most effective in emulating the soft, snow shrouded bells.

In the second movement, a transformation of "Asturiana" a song for voice and piano from the Siete canciones populaires espanolas by de Falla, the harp takes on not only the piano part but strums in imitation of a guitar. The viola and flute, in their lowest breathiest registers sing the melismatic and haunting melody so effectively and colorfully one does not even miss the voice singing of inconsolable loss that makes even the pine tree weep. The short agitated "Polo" again from the Siete canciones populaires espanolas, became a dramatic, rough and edgy scherzo in between the more lyrical "Asturiana" and the final "Golliwog's Cakewalk" movements.

The Cakewalk, familiar to many, also expands from a short piano prelude to a compact almost symphonic statement. Assigning the viola the Wagner quote from Tristan and Isolde gives the out of nowhere quotation even more pungency and absurdity. The harp and flute giggle haughtily at the off-the-wall, quotation. The ensemble had a nice, jazzy feel for the work and certainly communicated the fun they had in presenting Chavez's loving tribute to his mentors.

I never cease to be amazed at the music of Bohuslav Martinů. From many influences, Czech songs, French impressionism, jazz, music of the classical and baroque eras, Martinů nonetheless possessed a most distinctive voice. The characteristics of infectious rhythm, bright and often brittle sonority combine with jaunty folk like melodies, jazzy riffs and an unfailing ear for orchestration gracing every work of his I have ever heard, so what is not to love? Besides, the music looks like is as much fun to play as it is to hear.

Thus a fitting ending for the evening was one of his last works, the Musique de Chambre #1 from 1959, imaginatively scored for violin, viola, cello, clarinet, harp and piano. Out of the depths of an ambiguous introduction come the Gypsy/Romani melodies and figures over harp and piano ostinati. You would be correct in even tasting a bit of the blues here and here, as Martinů turns this brief opening movement into a nostalgic travelogue.

The slow second movement could have been from the pen of Ravel or Debussy with its misty meditative mood and chiaroscuro harmonies. Prominent Harp and viola lent a melancholy atmosphere to this most beguiling movement. The finale would have you to believe it is more of the same with its contemplative opening, but the ghosts are dispelled and the motoric rhythms and dance return, propelling the work to a dancing conclusion.

Please, Kansas City music groups, program more Martinů. The KC Symphony did the 4th Symphony, but there are 5 others. The incredible "The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca" would be nice too. The Kansas City Chamber Orchestra would be a natural to do some of his chamber works and concerti and Summerfest programmers should note the rousing applause given this evening's performance.

Thanks so much to St Mary's Episcopal Church for a lovely venue and a bountiful reception and to Rev. Lauren Lyon for her special kindness this evening!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Summerfest KC: Scarlatti and Blackbirds

Giving us music lovers a welcome respite from the summer drought of classical music, a dedicated group of local and guest musicians mount the annual Summerfest Chamber Series in Kansas City. The series of 4 concerts is a casual affair for the most part, performed Saturday evenings at the UMKC White Recital Hall and Sunday afternoons at St Mary's Episcopal Church. I am a bit prejudiced since I attend services at St Mary's but the ambiance of the ancient brick church with the polished but well worn wood floors, creaky seats and the hint of incense in the air makes for a most pleasant listening environment.

True to their formula, Sunday's concert combined the new and old, familiar and rarely heard. The Sonata # 2 for Flute, Violin and continuo by Alessandro Scarlatti opened the concert. 20th century composer Jean Francaix took 5 of Alessandro's son Domenico's sonatas and orchestrated them for Flute, Violin, Viola, Cello and Harp. The first half concluded with Vivaldi's Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra. The second half consisted of a single work, the atmospheric and delightful "13 Ways" by American Thomas Albert, a setting of Wallace Stevens' "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird".

The Alessandro Scarlatti was a fitting opener, but suffered a bit from some iffy intonation and a too soft harpsichord. I don't like the harpsichord banging and chattering too loud (like two skeletons copulating on a tin roof in a thunderstorm according to Sir Thomas Beecham) but it should also be heard as at least part of the texture and harmony.

Francaix, via his skillful orchestration, took the more familiar Domenico's sonatas and made them into something new and fresh. Once could be excused if it seemed these were originally written in the early 20th century; characteristic they are of neo-classic Stravinsky or members of Les Six. As with Schoenberg and Webern's orchestrations of older works, Francaix's quintessentially sec French orchestration makes meaningful melody and motives out of what seem like common baroque ornaments. Giving melody and prominence to the cello, the liquid softness of the harp plus the mellow darkness of the viola adds some unexpected color as well. As one of my friends who attended the concert quipped, "I liked the redone Scarlatti better than the real Scarlatti." Scarlatti's sonatas are masterpieces on their own, but Francaix took them out of their shell and led them through a jaunty tour of France.

In the short and sweet Vivaldi (with an orchestra of a couple of strings and continuo), Soloist Joshua Hood reminded us that the bassoon is in all aspects a bass oboe with all that instrument's color and expressiveness.

Thomas Albert's 13 Ways (1997) is a most charming and approachable piece and was well received by the large audience. Each of the 13 sections is prefaced by some lines from Wallace's poem, read by various members of the ensemble (flute, clarinet, string trio, piano and percussion, with various doublings from the winds). Certainly atmospheric and quite descriptive of everything from the chattering and flocking of the ubiquitous birds, frosty mornings and languid evenings. The 5th look (..the blackbird whistling or just after) had the ensemble striking metal triangles and then dipping them in buckets of water for a most otherworldly effect, all while a piccolo chattered away. The faster or more dramatic sections used a breezy John Adams minimalist style while the 12th look (the river if flowing, the blackbird must be flying) had echoes of Bernard Hermann's imaginative film scores with its alto flute, bass marimba and slowly undulating strings.

The ensemble clearly had fun with the piece, which not only included the aforementioned water percussion and the narration but also involved the players moving occasionally around the room. Well played and presented, and compared well with the recording on Cedille records by the Eighth Blackbird ensemble, for whom the work was composed.

I missed the first concert last weekend but will be present at the next featuring a rarely heard trio for Flute, Viola and Harp by Carlos Chavez and the wonderful Musique de Chambre # 1 by Martinu.