Monday, March 19, 2012

Nixon had to go to China

The most awaited Lyric Opera of Kansas City production in years brought John Adams' once bound for neglect but now classic "Nixon in China" to the new stage at the Kauffman Theatre this week. Importing a production (and most if not all the production staff) from Vancouver (Vancouver Opera's Geral Director James Wright started his opera career at the Lyric) the technology rich production was frankly a musical and visual thrill from first note to last; 3 hours flew by. I regret not taking advantage of seeing it a second time.

Adams' music pulsed, swung, rocked and gently rolled under the masterful hand of Lyric Opera Music Director Ward Holmquist, who had a hand as vocal coach and assistant conductor in the world premiere in 1987. Alice Goodman's libretto is a masterpiece of symbolism and oblique references combined with just as many in-your-face moments. The sets were a show unto themselves, with projections of "The Spirit of 76" banking over a cloudy Peking and swooping over the stage to land on the runway. As Pat Nixon visited a pig farm, a health center, a school and park, videos were projected onto the placard signs the entourage was carrying. A visual of the Forbidden City reflecting the White House as Mao and Nixon was the talk of intermission, some thought it was showing the Communists were superior and the White House was upside down and inferior. Sigh....

James Maddalena, who created this role in the world premiere and has done it at least a hundred times, is perfect as Nixon, a visionary yet deeply flawed leader. Maria Kanyova who has performed Pat Nixon in Canadian Opera productions, was in fine voice and so perfectly projected the overwhelmed Pat as she struggled to figure out this strange land. Richard Paul Fink was a great Kissinger, a somewhat thankless role  since he is portrayed as somewhat of a farce and a buffoon, symbolizing all that is evil on the capitalist side.

Absolutely beyond reproach was Audrey Luna as Chiang Ch'ing aka Madame Mao. She was the epitome of steely evil, bringing the house down with her vocally incredible coloratura aria "I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung." The whole second act, with the surreal ballet "Red Detachment of Women" morphing into a metaphor of the Cultural Revolution, was superbly staged and danced. Luna, and the rest of the principals were also fine in the  generally quiet, reflective 3rd act, punctuated by the screamingly surreal dancing of the Maos and Nixons (the music Adams later used for his popular concert piece "The Chairman Dances"). "Let's show these mother fuckers how to dance!" screams Madame Mao as she gyrates and fox trots with Mao as young revolutionaries.

My utter frustration was with many who saw these performances and totally missed the whole idea. A grumpy neighbor of mine who is an opera buff literally spit invective at it, saying an opera that uses microphones for the orchestra and singers is not opera but Broadway at its worst. Some one else I know cautioned all who considered going that they were going to lose time they could never regain by watching this trashy crap. She also whined that the vaunted acoustics of the Kauffman Theatre were a joke.." I could not hear a thing".. BS. I hear that a lot from people, who expect more than what any concert hall can provide. They seem to think they should be able to hear the stage hand's change jingle in his pocket from the farthest seat in the balcony over a full orchestra and cast. Adams' score is thick, the orchestra and voices amplified to gain a modern, steely, television effect and Goodman's libretto often poetic and metaphorical. NO ONE could understand every word. I, with a bum ear, heard it all quite clear thank you.

Nixon in China works when you let the music and the visuals wash over you and realize that the whole historical  event was played out by some brave but inherently commonplace and flawed figures; an ambitious President focused on his image, an aging almost senile revolutionary leader, a cruel, power hungry woman taking advantage of her position, despised by all, a naive First Lady, along for the ride and a pragmatic Zhou  En-lai who is tired as well, and fearing for his country's future.

It deserves its place as a modern classic.

Monday, March 12, 2012

2012 Kansas City Auto Show: "Eco-Performance" rules

The advertising theme for this year's Greater Kansas City International Auto Show was so apropos: Signs of Spring, a baseball, a Robin, and the Car Show. 

Another theme this year was Eco/Electric. Several new hybrids and even all electric cars were on display. As usual, Greg and I wandered around the show on a wet and cool Sunday, running into some friends and taking it all in. Some highlights, you can click on the picture for a larger image:

Ford got the first display as you came in the door, as it always does. The new 2013 Focus looks snarky and slick. It has to take on the popular Hyundai and KIA models in this class.

Big mouth grilles are all the rage this year.

There is a hybrid Ford in your future. The C-Max line will be all hybrid in 2013

The 2013 Escape gets a major redo; less boxy and sporting the new Ford face

I remember when pick up trucks had no chrome at all, it was usually an option. So were bumpers. 2012 Ford.

For FOMOCO's luxury brand Lincoln, not a Town Car in sight.

The MKS for 2013 will get a softer grille instead of the snarly one it has now.

Wondering over to the Cadillac section, I bemoaned the loss of the tail fin. But look!!!! They are still here in spirit:

The new XTS is soon to debut. Looked fabulous in dark blue and tan.

She has tail fins too.

The new ATS sedan, based on the Cruze/Verano chassis looked like a fine small Cadillac. Will it finally shake the "small Caddy curse?"

Mitsubishi is marketing an electric car, the "i". Strange name, but cute little car. Actually kind of roomy inside. 

Nearby Subaru had a sporty new BRZ to be built in limited quantities. It was not making a big buzz here.

Surprise of the show for me was the redone VW Beetle. Longer, sleeker and more masculine than the old one.

Interior had some classic styling cues, but was still modern and functional. No more flower vase.

I kind of like Buicks, always have... including my 1990 Century named Dunbar. The new Verano has some of the softest, yet supportive seats in the business.

The Chevy Cruze based Verano has all the current Buick styling touches, but a different rear.

Although I think Century would have been a better name, the Regal GS is the sport sedan in the line up.

The 2013 Encore is a player in the smaller luxury SUV market.

Chevrolet has introduced the new redesigned Malibu. With all 4 cylinder power and lots of Camaro cues to boot.

Camaro tail lights mark the Malibu from behind.

The small Sonic is an improvement over past Chevy subcompacts. Roomy and versatile hatch and sedan versions are available.

The Repubs have done a number on the Volt, buy one and you are hate the troops, a liberal commie or something like that. Pricey yes, but the car of the future here today. I'd buy one if I had the cash.

From the Dodge Boys comes the Yellow Jacket, a Super Bee for the new century. Limited editions, the Charger model will get a Super Bee model but was not shown at the show.



Want a big, brawny, powerful sedan? The Dodge Charger is your thing:

The imposing front of a Dodge Durango, redone for 2012

This looks nothing like my 1974 Dart Swinger. The new Dart should be a fine competitor.

Rear has the styling cues from big bro Charger. Alfa Romeo blood runs through the Dart's veins.

Just what one needs to go to the mall. 2012 Range Rover.

Rich Man's toy:

Even richer man's toy:

Richest Man's Toy.

For the poor, a Tomato Worm Green Hyundai Accent. As an aside, Hyundai cars have the most pitiful horns on the planet. My plumber called them "Faggy-ass horns".

Hudson Motor Company merged with Nash in the 50's to create American Motors. AMC bought Jeep and then Chrysler bought the remains of AMC to get Jeep. Through all that, the old Hudson name "Jet" reappears on a Jeep Liberty model. Only geeks like me care, or even notice. (see my new shoes in the reflection?)

Not a big Toyota fan here, although I owned one once. I can not see out the back of this thing. 2012 Prius

See the resemblance between the following vehicles?

(Seagrave Fire Engine, 1950's)

(2012 Toyota Prius V)

I do :)

That is all for this year. Though I saw lots of new vehicles I would be proud to own, my 22 year old Buick, Dunbar, is quite safe. He gets me from point to point and is paid for.. lots said about that.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Debut of Opus 3875

The organ is not called the king of instruments for nothing. A fine organ can fill a great hall with glorious sound, make a church congregation sing, make mourners cry and at the same time can whisper softly and twitter with the birds. As an organist friend of mine once said while touring a group around the installation of a fine, vintage 1918 Austin organ, “an organ is really a living, breathing organism, full of life and needing care and feeding, just like a human.”

It then goes without saying that any concert hall worth its salt has to have a fine concert pipe organ. Many do not, notably cross state rival St Louis and Carnegie Hall in New York (it has a famous Rogers Electric organ). The Lyric Theatre, the KC Symphony’s old home, had a simple old electric organ of dubious quality.

So a fine new hall, such as Helzberg Hall, had to have a fine pipe organ. And who better to build it than Casavant Frères of Quebec, probably the finest organ builders around today. Somewhat unique in concert halls today, the organ was built along with the hall and not as a later, compromised addition.

On March 10 and 11, renowned organist James Davis Christie, organist for the Boston Symphony and chair and professor of organ at Oberlin Conservatory, dedicated the Casavant Organ, opus 3875 in a solo recital.

Christie told the audience he thought op. 3875 was the best Casavant he has ever played, “and I have played many”, he remarked. Celebrating the organ’s French heritage, his program was heavy on the French repertoire (annoyingly ignoring Messiaen, Tournemire and Widor) but included works ranging from 1644 to the present day.

The organ is magnificent and is a joy to see with its funky wood covered, angled pipes. I just seemed to notice a lack of earth shattering power and an overall mellowness that is probably best for a concert hall organ, but will not overwhelm you like the best of the cathedral organs. Op. 3875 is a fleet lady, with clear and precise action, allowing the organist to trill and throw off scales like a piano. She could handle the smoothest of legato, as demonstrated by Christie’s own “Élégie” (2006, the most recent work on the program) and the lightest of skittering trills as in Italian Giuseppe Gherardeschi’s (1759-1815) amusing Rondo.

Where I wished for more power was in the major French work the Sonata # 1 in D for Organ by Alexandre Guilmant. Christie played two movements of the work, the finale and the “Pastorale”. The simple and charming Pastorale came off best, benefiting from the aforementioned mellow qualities of the organ and an incredible Voix Humaine stop. The finale needed some more depth and clarity in the lowest registers. Same with the famous Bach Toccata and Fugue in d, which seemed a bit rushed and just lacking that wall shaking, buzzing power in the lower notes.

Still a magnificent achievement and likely one of the top 5 concert hall organs in the country. The mellowness and restrained power qualities that detracted a bit from the solo recital are ideal for an organ with orchestra. In June, we get to hear op. 3875 in the famous Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony.

Out of the box, Op 3875 is really quite an impressive work. A world of organists and organ music awaits this grand lady.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Christoph von Dohnányi Visits the KC Symphony

There are maestros and then there are maestros. If I was speaking those words you would hear the subtle accent on the second maestro. Christoph von Dohnányi is undeniably a member of that upper rank.

German born Dohnányi has enjoyed a stellar career with orchestras and opera companies all over Europe and the US. He is mostly remembered here for his long and productive tenure with the Cleveland Orchestra in the 80s and 90’s. There he mentored several young conductors including current New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert and one Michael Stern, Music Director of the Kansas City Symphony.

Stern was in the audience for the Sunday performance to hear his old boss lead his orchestra in a thoughtfully conceived program of three works that contrasted humor and hijinks with somber reality. Opening the program was Alfred Schnittke’s absurdist tour-de-force (K)ein Sommernachtstraum (Not a Summer Night’s Dream), followed by Richard Strauss’ comic/tragic “Till Eulenspiegel”. The second half consisted of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony # 6 “Pathétique”.

The full house Sunday audience caught and appreciated the humor of Schnittke’s 10 minute homage to Shakespeare’s cast of impish characters. Written in 1985 just before a near fatal stroke, (K)ein Sommernachtstraum comes from his polystylistic period (where basically anything was fair game) before his declining health turned his music bleak and gray, making late Shostakovich sound like a Strauss polka.

The work begins with a solo starting deep in the 2nd violins (Schnittke puckishly specifies the musician occupying the back desk of the 2nd violins, technically the farthest one from the Concertmaster’s position). Accompanied by piano, the melody is so simple and sweet that one could be forgiven in thinking that Mozart had been substituted without warning. Quickly taken up by flute and harpsichord, the melody is subjected to gradual layering of dissonances and transformations: a demented carnival ride waltz, a banal and amateurish Ivesian march, shattering climaxes and hints of Schubert and Romantic excesses slide in and out before the sweet melody returns to the flute and violin in glorious C major… with just a hint of tolling, ominous bells.

Dohnányi was in firm control, yet let the mayhem progress with wit and style. I heard many chuckles and noted frequent smiles from the audience. One fellow behind me exclaimed “I really liked that!”  For even more bizarre Schnittke, find a recording of the Symphony # 1. I have never been able to get through it.

Dohnányi’s Till Eulenspiegel was a fine performance with vivid color, enabled by fine playing from all the symphony sections, especially the essential brass and winds, but maybe a bit too controlled. With amazing clarity and ability to coax all the virtuosity out of the orchestra, Dohnányi and his forces brought out motifs and colors that I have not heard in live performances before. Perhaps in emphasizing clarity he underplayed some of the chaotic, skittering rhythms. The final funeral march and execution was certainly dramatic enough, with powerful horns and solid strings. I wished for a bit more scream from the shrill and Eb Clarinet as Till was strung up on the gallows as it was swallowed a bit by the large forces. This is an episodic work and Dohnányi verily mocked the stuffy academics, spun a lustily brash love scene as Till flirted with all the girls and wrung the drama and terror from the aforementioned march to the scaffold. I adore Dohnányi’s Cleveland recording with Decca, so maybe I have that perfect performance imprinted in my head. With just some minor quibbles, this one was really pretty close.

The second half Pathétique was one of many outstanding moments; a fine paced, brassy march, an elegant Allegro con gracia, and a deeply passionate finale. The opening movement began with an almost perfectly inaudible bassoon solo by associate principal bassoon Miles Maner (exactly what Tchaikovsky wanted, it is famously marked pppppp). Brass intonation was a bit problematic here and in the rest of the symphony as well. Although finely played, the first movement just did not seem to take off. Again, as in the Strauss, it seemed to be Dohnányi’s penchant to control and bring out detail. However, as the work progressed through its 4 movements, I saw that Dohnányi correctly judged the subtitle of the work to mean “passionate” not “pitiful” or hysterical”. This was a journey of many paths, some taken, some abandoned, some more important than others. The hushed ending was thus not a let down but a solemn and inevitable letting go. Noisier, more dramatic and faster performances abound of this masterpiece, but few are as cogent and ultimately satisfying as this mature and expressive performance.