Sunday, September 25, 2011

Kansas City Symphony: Music Revolutionized

Admittedly I faced the opening night of the Kansas City Symphony's new season with a bit of trepidation. Going to the new Kauffman Center was a bold change of routine. How do we get to the new  parking garage? Where are our seats? How do we get to them? What door do we use?  Where are the restrooms? The place is so big; will it be a daunting task or a walk in the park? My Symphony partner Gerry and I decided to get there an hour early so we would not get lost in the shufflle.

Turns out it is quite easy. Parking was a snap and is just a few steps to an elevator and then an escalator to get from the garage to the spacious Brandmeyer Great Hall. We had time to explore, enjoy a beverage and see all the assembled humanity. Finding our entrance and seats was easy and not intimidating at all. When we found our entrance we were so pleased to see the same usher that had greeted us for the last few seasons at the Lyric, a serendipitous touch of "home" in the new surroundings. He was as thrilled to be in the new setting as we were.

Our seats in the Grand Tier row AAA (I mean what could be better than Triple-A?) although smack in the middle of a long row, had an amazing high view and were so much more comfortable than the old Lyric Theatre's Balcony Row G  we had occupied for so long.

As for the sound... perfectly balanced, never tricky or harsh. When Maestro Stern, Frank Byrne and Shirley Helzberg spoke without microphones at the beginning of the evening it was as if we were in a room 1/8th the size. The orchestra percussion, which in the Lyric could easily overpower the orchestra, was blended yet totally audible. The pounding bass drum in "The Pines" would have driven me to the street in the Lyric, but in Helzberg Hall it was a powerful texture and presence just as it should be. Every detail is captured; the ppp pizzicati in the Emperor, the harmonics of the piano and harp (with my compromised hearing for me to hear high pitched harmonics is a miracle) and even the middle voices (viola, clarinets, bassoons, etc) were clear instead of a muddy stew. Is it auspicious that we sat in the same row as the renowned acoutician Yashuhisa Toyota, who was here to witness the opening weekend of his creation?  I mean, he has to know where all the good spots are. Unfortunately he was swept up in the sea of people as we left and I could not ask.

And among all this was a concert.

Music Director Michael Stern conducted a program that was tailor made for the inauguration of a new hall and season:  "Fireworks" by Igor Stravinsky, Piano Concerto # 5 "Emperor" by Beethoven with Emanuel Ax as solo, a new commission by Chen Yi  "Fountains of KC" and the "Pines of Rome" by Respighi. We all stood and sang the National Anthem as a start to the festive evening.

Fireworks, as befitting its name, was perfectly festive, incendiary and ephemeral. An early work from 1908, its sparkling orchestration so impressed Serge Diaghilev that he commissioned Stravinsky to compose a ballet for him, the ever popular Firebird. A short and almost fanfare like opener, Fireworks immediately demonstrated to the packed hall that we were now in a new world.

For a grand hall and edifice... a grand and powerful concerto. Of all the sometimes superfluous names given to compositions, "Titan", "Jupiter", "Great", Beethoven's Piano Concerto # 5 truly deserves the moniker "Emperor" no matter how it gained it. Ax and Stern assuredly gave it a most imperial performance; full of fastidious detail (the acoustics helped to illuminate even the most delicate of passages, showing the Emperor was also a kind and subtle monarch) yet demonstrating the potent sonority and energy that makes this a most thrilling and virtuosic concerto. Stern and the hall (both taking advantage of each other) highlighted the often blurred woodwind and brass allowing each note and figure to sound as it should. The subtle contrabass and cello pizzicati were breathtaking as they supported Ax's often delicate lines. The orchestra could quietly support and alternatively boldly declaim as necessary. This somewhat cool and detailed performance was no less valid than a more splashy performance, Ax's command of his gifts was displayed in his restraint and obvious reverence for this masterpiece.

Befitting a new hall and season we were treated to a new work as well. University of Missouri Kansas City professor and renowned composer Chen Yi brought us the first of several works commissioned to celebrate the Kauffman Center and Kansas City's fame as a "City of Fountains" (Kansas City has more public fountains than any other city in the world except for Rome), the imaginative "Fountains of KC". The "KC" can be interpreted as Kansas City or Kauffman Center, whichever you prefer.

This is a piece that deserves to be called "splashy". Evoking fountains, water and liquid in all its forms, "Fountains" is a major addition to Chen Yi's impressive catalogue. (One has to hear her "Si Ji" (Four Seasons) whenever it is recorded or played in your area, a most impressive piece). Spurting water, flowing streams, liquid tempests and palpable excitement permeate the piece. Despite being bi-tonal and even microtonal, Chen Yi's vibrant and imaginative orchestration brings the tone clusters and dissonances to life much as Schoenberg does in his 12 tone works. In her most informative notes, Professor Chen reveals that the style of  Chinese music that inspired "Fountains" is from Xi'an, a Sister City to Kansas City, a most thoughtful touch.

How to demonstrate what a new hall can do? Play Respighi's brash and brassy "Pines of Rome". For all who wish to detract this work, you have to admit it is a showpiece and thus has its place from time to time. Showing off has been a human trait since the cave man days... so who is to argue? Delicate melodies (Principal Clarinet Raymond Santos was beyond superb as was Kristina Goettler's oboe and Kenneth Lawrence's English horn solos), commanding brass, pounding percussion (as noted above wonderfully integrated into the whole texture) and evocative moods... what is not to like? Never descending into total Hollywood (the piece is halfway there as it is) Stern let the sound and power take us away, blowing us all literally away in a tide of sound and color.

Stern and the orchestra gave us a festive recessional, the "Racoczy March" from the Damnation of Faust (please Maestro.. do this piece sometime....) by Berlioz, as we descended the grand staircases for a champagne toast to this most magnificent hall which has revolutionized music in Kansas City forever.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

St Louis Symphony: Three Stravinsky Masterpieces

With the gala grand opening of the new Kauffman Center for the Arts in full swing, September 16th, 2011 was probably the most important day for classical music in this town since some early settler took his or her fiddle and eked out a Schubert tune or maybe a bit of Bach. So what did I do to celebrate? I left town.

I was not invited nor had the mega bucks to attend so Dunbar the faithful Buick and I headed across the state to hear the more affordable (even with the price of gas) opening performance of the St Louis Symphony. In a concert that New Yorker Magazine critic Alex Ross called a "humdinger", Music Director David Robertson led the orchestra and chorus in three Stravinsky masterpieces, "Petrushka", "Les Noces" and "Le Sacre de Printemps". Stravinsky's arrangement of the "Star Spangled Banner" opened the eve, Robertson invited the audience to sing along.

Of course I went for "Les Noces", a vocal/choral tour-de-force ballet-cantata for 4 solo voices (a fine line up of Dominique Labelle, Kelly O'Connor, Thomas Cooley and Richard Paul Fink), 4 pianos and percussion. It took me a long time to warm up to and appreciate this unique work. Written in the early 1920s and premiered in June 1923, Les Noces  (The Wedding) is an earthy, vibrant and ultimately rewarding evocation of a Russian peasant wedding. It has to be a royal bitch to sing for all involved with its declamatory chant, high tessitura, and fast, complex rthythms. The relentless chiming of the dry, high pianos and frequent use of metallic percussion makes for a dramatic, driving texture and makes balancing the ensemble critical.

Last night's performance was nothing short of unforgettable. The 4 soloists were incredible, special note to Dominique Labelle who negotiated the soprano's (Bride) throat killing lines with ease and musicality. It can easily descend into shouting and screaming. O'Connor and Labelle were magnificent in the almost tear jerking mother and bride duet. Cooley and Thomas both could conjure a deep Russian sound but a couple times got swallowed up in the sound in some of the more thick scored passages with the whole ensemble and chorus. Their duet in "The Bridegroom's House", evoking God and the Saints to bless the union, was also a highlight. Cooley's final serenade to the Bride, an exhortation of earthly lust, assumption of primacy in the marriage and tender feelings for his bride was one of those goose bump raising moments in music.

I can not say enough about the St Louis Symphony Chorus who precisely and clearly whispered, shouted, chanted and chugged along, never just a backdrop but an integral part of the drama. The percussion and pianos were well in tune and together, dry as Stravinsky wanted. The final ringing chords were incredible, allowing the subtle harmonies and overtones present to bring the work to a satisfying close.

After listening to it again, maybe it was multiple attempts to like Stravinsky's English language, languid recording that delayed my admiration of this piece. His version never clicked and the English took away all the deep sonorous Russian soul. Ancerl's on Supraphon is the one to have.. or tune in to KWMU and listen to the live broadcast on Saturday.

It is hard to imagine masterworks like Petrushka and Le Sacre taking a back seat, but for me they were just icing on the cake. The demanding program made for an opera length evening as two intermissions were required to clear the whole orchestra from Petrushka, set up the pianos for Les Noces and then set up the huge forces for Le Sacre. It made for good sales at the concessions I am sure.

Sadly, the evening's disappointment was an under-rehearsed, slack Petrushka. Plagued with ensemble issues, iffy intonation, horn bobbles and a general lack of propulsion, it never quite jelled. The performance was video narrated with scenes and drawings from the original production, but were sometimes hard to see with the microphone wires in front and the general glare of the orchestra lighting.

I could point out all the disappointing moments but that is pedantic. Principal flute Mark Sparks' solo in the first Tableau could truly have brought a puppet to life with its sincere and deep expression and perfect phrasing. Peter Henderson handled the extensive piano part with grace and propulsive force, until Stravinsky just seems to forget about it in the 3rd and 4th tableaux. Not a total write off, but the piece never danced.

Maybe after the electrical Les Noces, Robertson and the whole orchestra got energized as Le Sacre received a most exciting and technically excellent reading. Scenes from the ballet and drawings from the original choreography were also projected on the screen. Right from the misty, primeval opening, Robertson and company dug into this complex and colorful score. The Dance of the Adolescents was appropriately clumsy and knock-kneed. The round dance was trance like and ritualistic, perfectly realized. The Sages emerged from the depths with frightening power and swaggering violence, you could see them knocking the children and animals out of the way of their sacred procession. The violent awaking of the earth was simply shattering, but the famous frosty chord before the awakening of the earth was a bit weak and not together.  The final Danse Sacrale was the epitome of controlled fury. Even conductor Robertson was propelled by the power of the music as he danced his way to a most satisfying and terrifying conclusion, which in some performances comes off more like an accident rather than an exhausted collapse.

I am sure the orchestra did an exhausted collapse as well after this demanding yet satisfying program. Kudos to all and to Maestro Robertson for the courage to do it!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Puggles Duchess Windsor, Dowager Empress, Queen of Pugs, Supreme Ruler of Alaska, Princess Royal of Baltimore Place, Grand Duchess of Missouri, Grand Duchess of Kansas City and St Louis, Duchess of Illinois, Duchess of Clinton, Duchess of Caddo Parish, Baroness Pugtona, Royal Order of the Greenie and Treat, Grand Order of the Scrunchie, Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kibble, Patroness of the Royal Pugharmonic Orchestra.

 April 30,1999-September 14th, 2011

Monday, September 12, 2011

Spiritual Journey: A Look Back

Looking through the "dashboard" of my blog I found this in the draft files, never having been published. I do not know why... maybe I just forgot or wanted to revise it. Anyhow, after reading it I felt it to be a pretty good summary of my thinking back in April 2010. Since then, I have reconciled somewhat with the United Methodist Church (my local one, not the evil Mother Church) and found particular meaning and enrichment in the stately, high church Eucharist of  St Mary's Episcopal. So much so that I am going to take some classes offered by St Mary's to learn more and perhaps join the church.

I did not want to waste this piece, looking back it was kind of a straight from the heart thing, so I am posting it today, a year and a half after it was penned. ~ Pato

So, inquiring minds want to know, where am I on this "spiritual journey" of mine?

De-railed, grounded, floundering, if you must ask.

As you may know, nasty and saddening events at the last two churches I attended left me cold, bitter and wondering if it was all worth it. Back in March, I went back to the last church I attended and still hold membership therein. As I reported it left me cold, and I have been back once since then. I have not been motivated to return. I remember my grandmother Clark telling my parents that exposure to church was good for a kid, that is where they learn how to be proper ladies and gentlemen. (She hated my guts so I am sure this was a backhanded slap at me directed at my parents who were very lax in taking me to church while my sister practically lived at hers at the time. Ironically, the roles reversed as the years passed.) Now I see church as a place to learn bigotry, hate, distrust, political infighting, greed and power.

Writer John Shore sums it up so nicely in his essay "10 Ways Christians Fail at Being Christian."

Easter, the big holy day of Christianity was spent at a beautiful, glittery, sensuous (not in the dirty minded sense, but one that fills all the senses) ritualized service. Gold and incense, flags, banners, robes and fine new dresses were on display. Any sense of excitement?? Not much. I confess I was sitting waiting patiently for the service to end so we could all head to Amy's for Bloody Marys which she assured me were chilling as we sat. I guess the point of the old style ritualistic services like this one at Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral and those of Catholics is that if you repeat the same thing over and over, you soon will believe it.

About 3/4 through the 1 hour and 45 minute service, someone read all the prayers. We were to ask for blessings on everyone from the church high and mighty to the little old lady in the nursing home. The reader came to a point where she read the names of soldiers killed in the silly and pathetic wars Bush started and Obama has not the balls to finish.

Ok... where is god or God or Yahweh, or G-d or whatever in all this? Why do wars and killing persist and we glorify it; all in the name of whatever god or prophet we are hooked on at the time? Makes no sense. So again I was in the middle of a church service and thought again "what hooey....". I glanced at my watch to see how long it was before Bloody Mary time.

My friends Amy and Megan are on a similar journey, but instead of throwing in the towel, they seem to persist in finding a church to meet their needs and wants; one like we had and was dismantled. Of the two, Megan is closer to me in her thoughts. It was one of her blogs (you must read 10 Churches) in which she mused:

"Of course, I’ve tried to contemporize the story. I’ve studied it academically and come up with a logical answer: it’s all one giant metaphor. After a couple days of mourning, the disciples asked themselves, “What would Jesus do?” and headed out to spread the good news. His ideas were resurrected. His body, however, was not."

I think she is on to something. Christianity is absorbed, possessed and verily controlled by a desire to ensure its existence by perpetuating a myth. Thus the message is lost in a cloud of incense scented ritual or rigid dogma. Look what churches are debating: who to let in or kick out, who to ordain or not, money, sex, buildings, structure, scandal, politics, growth, oh yes.. and money again. Where is peace, love, love all, care for the poor... the things that the person that was Jesus obviously taught and very likely died for? If one reads the Bible with a critical mind, you'll find more contradictions, missing chapters, inaccuracies and implausible events than a 5th grader's attempt at a novel.

So why do I even bother, why am I even considering still being a church goer? For me, it has been a wonderful social outlet. I have met my dearest and most wonderful friends at churches I have attended for any length of time. I am not one of those folks who enters a room and immediately knows everyone or glad hands all he sees. I tend to keep my distance and people do the same to me. But for some reason in a church setting, I feel more comfortable and I feel a connection to the people there. "The fellowship of kindred minds" as the old hymn goes rings true. So I have this fear that if I abandon church all together, I will be left in the cold.

That is worse than being left in hell.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Must Hear Concerts # 1 Brahms-Schoenberg Piano Quartet

Just a short two weeks away (give or take a few days), the Kansas City Symphony will open its 2011-2012 season in its new home, The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. This astounding edifice will literally put Kansas City on the musical map. Some coastal snorts probably think it is just a new boondoggle built by us locals to keep some workers employed and to make our town look like we are in the big leagues. But not so the Kauffman (please DO NOT start calling it "The K" like the stadium), which is truly a top rank performing arts venue. The new season is chock full of favorites and crowd pleasers to ensure the capacity crowds (just try to get a decent ticket for some concerts) come back for more but also features some more interesting and rarely heard  pieces that I will not want to miss. This is the first of a couple two or three posts on what I think are some of this season's more off beat "must hear" works.

I am not a big fan of Brahms. Yes, it is true...and I know 99.9873% of those who read this are. But I just have never warmed to the big, heavy, foursquare, unadventurous, monotone works that Johannes produced. However, there are a couple that intrigue me mainly because they are the antithesis of the above. Someone must have been listening to me whine, since one was on last season's Kansas City Symphony calendar, the charming and delicate "Alto Rhapsody" for Alto, Men's Chorus and Orchestra. This January, frequent guest Asher Fisch will present Brahms' Piano Quartet op 25 as orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg (who thought Brahms was a progressive genius by being regressive... or something like that) along with a future off-beat must hear selection, the discarded "Blumine" movement from Mahler's Symphony # 1 in a concert that will probably not pack in the crowds like October's German Requiem (don't ask my opinion) will.

Brahms composed his first Piano Quartet in 1861. Compared to what Liszt, Wagner, Berlioz were doing (and even some of the late chamber works of Beethoven), it was positively old fashioned. Brahms did succeed in writing a grand piece, symphonic in scope and length but hampered by the restrictions of his ensemble.

Schoenberg argued that Brahms was progressive since he tended to make use of frequently limited and tightly controlled thematic material, much like Schoenberg's 12 tone system. However, in his orchestral works, Brahms was far from a colorful or delicate orchestrator and therein lies the tale. The constricted material needs some color and contrast to effectively show off how brilliant it really can be. Unlike the dour Johannes, Schoenberg could take a 3 or 4 note cell (his student Webern could too) and with his masterful orchestration and tight control over dynamics and texture make it seem like an unchained melody. Schoenberg liked the Op 25 Quartet, heard the symphony hiding within that Brahms could or would not hear (Brahms famously took a while to get up the nerve to actually write a full orchestral symphony) and set to work orchestrating it for full orchestra in 1937.

Schoenberg did not change a single note of the original score, but he sometimes radically altered Brahms' compositional style. Far from just adding splashy color, Schoenberg's orchestration illustrates Brahms' finely wrought melodies and motives and emphasizes the symphonic scope of Brahms' original work. Relying less on a typical Brahmsian string dominated texture, Schoenberg used brass (including some pretty raucous trombones and trumpets) to double the whole melodic line rather than simply introduce them to reinforce a climax . Winds are more prominent as well. Schoenberg's used the definitely non-Brahmsian xylophone in his recasting of the "Rondo alla Zingarese" fourth movement to great effect. Like seeing a cleaned fresco or a colorized film, new details emerge that not only changes the appearance but gives a fresh perspective to the art.

The work is in four movements, again another example of  its symphonic yearnings. The opening Allegro is a study in contrasting themes (5 of them) that benefit greatly from the expanded palate. The second movement is a gentle Intermezzo; Schoenberg uses extensive pizzicato in this movement to bring out some usually hidden rhythmic details. The slow movement's march section comes to full life with the full brass and percussion, giving it some gravitas that the quartet can never match. Using contrasting string techniques of Schoenberg's inventive use of strings and winds brings highlights the powerful forward motion mixed easily with quiet delicacy in the final pages of this movement, missing in the more monochrome original.  In the style of his Hungarian Dances, the finale dances and sings with bright percussion, braying brass, skittering winds and clashing cymbals, you almost want to shout "Huzzah!" at the end , caught up in the colorful, propulsive dance.

Those who love Brahms and the few of us that do not will love this arrangement. Like a jailer with a key, Schoenberg unlocked the gates, giving the imprisoned notes their freedom to dance and soar for a time.

Mahler "Blumine" from Symphony # 1
Mozart Concerto for Piano # 17 (Asher Fisch Conductor and Soloist)
Brahms-Schoenberg Piano Quintet # 1 op 25

January 13, 14 and 15 Helzberg Hall