Monday, June 11, 2018

The Flint Hills tell their own story.


Cheryl and I went to the Symphony in the Flint Hills yesterday, out in the middle of the Flint Hills in southern Kansas. It is a special place. If you have not been there, I suggest you place it on your bucket list. I have traveled throughout the plains of Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Texas, Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana pretty extensively. I see the beauty of these grasslands that others see as "nothing". The Symphony in the Flint Hills organization started a tradition in 2006....an event celebrating this special land with symphonic music. The Kansas City Symphony, playing everything from Smetana, to Copland to John Williams to Paul Simon sounded marvelous. Out here in the wide open land, classical music brings everyone together for a sunset performance that celebrates the Flint Hills. Special guest Aoife O'Donovan joined the Symphony. She has a great voice and her music was incredible. Her first song was Magic Hour, and it has been stuck in my head all weekend. Her rendition of Paul Simon's song American Tune was also spellbinding, as was the orchestral accompaniment composed by Colin Jacobsen.
Other works of note on the program were two movie themes (The Cowboys and The Patriot) by the incomparable John Williams, who seems to know how the music of America should and has always sounded. Similarly, what would an event such as this be without some Aaron Copland right? For this performance we were treated to the first and second movements of The Red Pony. (Rodeo would also have fit in perfectly.)
But I was not completely at ease today. This celebration of the Flint Hills centered on the settlers who came to this land...who worked hard to make a living here. Visitors could take a wagon ride just like the pioneers did, walk the prairie, and watch a cattle drive. Some mention was made of how the farmers...or sod-busters... ruined the land by plowing under the native grasses...which is true. (I suggest you read The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Eagan.) The iconic music of Copland and Williams expresses the toughness, the "can do" spirit and eternal optimism embodied by the frontier settlers. But that did not sit well with me today. Please understand, I LOVE their music...it is history I am wrestling with. No mention was made today of the "others" ...the Native Peoples who lived here and explored the Flint Hills long before the white man made it his manifest destiny.
The music of Max Richter, composed for the 2017 film Hostiles, better expresses how I felt.


This film shows the West in 1892...the "Indians" had all but been subdued by this time. The music for this film is nothing like Copland or Williams. It tells a different story...sadness, exhaustion, numbness.
Francisco Coronado traveled though the grasslands of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas in 1541. He didn't find gold or the city of Cibola. Later, Stephen Long, explorer and surveyor for the US Army, (Long's Peak in Colorado was named for him) labeled the grasslands the "Great Desert", unfit for settlement or cultivation. But they came none-the-less, hunted the buffalo to near extinction, forced the Indians onto reservations and plowed under hundreds of millions of acres of grasslands. This is not a happy story, and Max Richter's score captures a sense of this struggle.
I stared out at the land all afternoon and evening. I thought about the history of this place and I felt a mixture of joy and sadness. I was enjoying a wonderful day with my wife, listening to great music, looking at incredible views....but the true history of the grasslands was not discussed today, and that didn't sit well with me.
The other constant on this day was the wind. It blew non-stop as it usually does out here.The huge sound system did a great job keeping the music above the roar of the wind. But still, the wind found it's way into the microphones and it too was projected in the mix through the speakers. This was OK with me....the wind somehow seemed to lift my spirits The voices of the past are in the wind. The voices of the past are also echoed in the grass. Maybe that sounds corny, but so be it. I felt the same way visiting Little Big Horn in Montana...the wind and the grass tell the true story.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Franck, Mozart in order, Wedding ring, A traffic stop


My favorite music at the moment are the three Chorals (for organ) by Cesar Franck: Choral 1 in E major, Choral 2 in B minor, and Choral 3 in A minor.. He started writing these in late 1889. During this period, in July 1890, he was injured in a traffic accident in Paris that left him with a head injury from which he did not fully recover. He died on November 9, 1890 of pleurisy. But he managed to complete the Chorals. These three pieces are really a musical odyssey...a journey... that encompass just about every sound an organ can make. I am not an organ expert by any means, but having grown up attending a church with a big organ and a great organist (Charles Barnett at the First United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas) my love of the organ and it's repertoire go back to my childhood. In modern terms, the Chorals are like a huge, theatrical rock show. They are both big and small...soft and loud, and everything in between. Franck may have invented the power chords that Pete Townshend or Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page applied to the electric guitar seventy years later. If you listen to all three in succession, you will be breathless and limp upon their conclusion. And Franck had an epic beard as well.


Mozart. A few years ago I listened to Mozart's symphonies 1-41 in sequential order. It was an "ear opening" exercise. I am sure I had not heard at least half of his symphonies up to that point. Most of time, 21, 25, 39-41 are the ones that are played. So I heard them all and felt good about myself! I decided to do it again this year, and last month I listened to 1-41 on order again...it took me about two weeks. This time, the collective, symphonic Mozart lodged itself in my brain. I went much deeper than I had in 2012. I wanted more....so last week I decided to listen to them in descending order. I'm on 26 now. I will report back on what I learn when I get to number 1.

Wedding Ring. Several years ago, I think it was in 2011, I broke the ring finger on my left had...I was trying to catch a football that my son Jack threw to me. I did not open my hands enough and the ball hit square on the tip of my finger and bent it back, breaking it. It swelling up immediatelyand made it impossible for me to remove my wedding ring...it was trapped... and my finger began to turn black. The doctor had to cut it off...the ring, not my finger! The swelling went down and my finger healed. But my wedding ring was toast. A few weeks later, after my finger had healed, I wanted to get a new ring. In was early June, and I was at a conference for work in Orlando. Cheryl and I had agreed that we would get a new wedding ring for me in July when we had our anniversary. I was in the Orlando airport killing time and I saw some rings at a kiosk in the atrium. They were value priced at $19 and one ring caught my eye:
Seven years later, I am still wearing this ring. I love its musical notation.It "fits" me.

Traffic stop. I was recently driving home from Texas (I was coming home from a work trip). It was late at night and it I had already been a long drive. I was tired and my back was bothering me. I did my best to stretch my back and legs while I was driving to try and get comfortable. I was also trying to stay awake. So I'm somewhere....nowhere...in the middle of Oklahoma and I see flashing lights in my rear-view mirror. I was pretty shocked by this. I had the cruise control set exactly to the speed limit, so I was sure I had not been speeding. My heart was beating faster now. The officer approached from the passenger side. I rolled down the window and was greeted with a blinding light from his flashlight. "Good evening sir....do you know why I pulled you over?" I said "good evening", and "no I don't." "I've been following you and noticed you have been drifting into the other lane several times." I told him I was tired and that my back hurt...I was trying to stretch it to get comfortable. "Where are you headed?" he asked. I told him I was on the way home from work in Texas. He peered around in the car with his light and asked for my license and insurance card and went back to his car to check me out. I have never been pulled over on the highway in my life. I was not speeding, impaired or running from the law. I was very nervous even though I knew I had not done anything wrong. And I'm all alone in the middle of nowhere on an Oklahoma state highway...not one car had passed since I had pulled over. The mind can do funny things when you are tired and nervous. After a few minutes, he came back to my car and handed me my license and insurance card. "Here you go sir. I am not going to give you a ticket or anything. I just want you to make it home safely. Please be careful." I was so relieved of course...and I thanked him with relief and appreciation. We went our separate ways and I began to reflect on what had happened. This man was sent to me to keep me safe. I was probably on the verge of falling asleep at the wheel. This traffic stop woke me up. He was a guardian angel. I have no doubt about it. 
So here we have a white man, pulled over by a black police officer. I have black friends who have told me stories about being pulled over by white police officers for no apparent reason other than being black..and hassled and harassed. They live with this fear. I have no such fear of the police. And after this, I began to wonder what would my traffic stop have been like had I been black and the officer white...late at night on a remote Oklahoma road? The officer who pulled me over was kind, and professional. He did not ask me to get out of the car to take a sobriety test, or subject me to any inquiry beyond his first questions. Would this have been the case if a black person veering into the other lane was pulled over by a white officer? I wish I could answer this "yes" with confidence...but I can't.
 I also wish I had had the presence of mind to ask the officer for his name so I could share it with you. He really was an angel sent to keep me safe.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Tonal organization, Great Chords and I'm back.


It's been awhile since I have written anything. Been busy...training for the Boston Marathon, working...etc..etc...But I have not been taking a break from listening to music. If anything, I have probably been listening to more music than usual. But the hectic pace of life has taken a toll on my writing...or so I told myself. But on one of the many dark and cold evenings by myself out on the road running I came to realize that my lack of writing isn't due to a lack of time. That's just an excuse. Rather, it's a lack of confidence and commitment.Over thinking. Second-guessing. Laziness. Creative fatigue.
I started writing this blog in February of 2014...over four years ago now. Writing is a great passion of mine...especially writing about classical music. But I reached a point early this year when I started to wonder if what I am doing here really matters. Ideas for topics to write about seemed harder to come by. I started to question whether I wanted to continue writing.
I strayed from the central tenant I established for myself on day one...this is for ME. Who is my audience? I am. I drifted away from this realization. I certainly want you and others to read what I write. But I have to write for ME so that YOU will connect to what I have to share. I strayed away from this understanding and I developed a creative paralysis...wondering what to write and for whom?
All of this hit me the other day while I was listening to a piece of music I first heard sometime in the 1970's and have always loved...the Serenade for Strings in C Major by Tchaikovsky. It was at the beginning of the third movement marked Larghetto elegiaco that I had a moment of clarity that restored my sense of purpose. It is a simple phrase...four voices. Just quarter notes and eighth notes. Simple...elegant. Perfect. It was composed in 1880 along with another famous work, the 1812 Overture. PIT said in a letter, "I have written two long works very rapidly: A Festival Overture for the Exhibition, and a Serenade in four movements for string orchestra. The overture will be very noisy. I wrote it without much warmth of enthusiasm; therefore it has no great artistic value. The Serenade, on the contrary, I wrote from an inward impulse; I felt it, and venture to hope that this work is not without artistic qualities."
The entire Serenade is great...all four movements. But the third movement stands out to me as the most special. The opening chord is voiced as such; D (basses and cellos) G (violas) B (violas) E (first violins). From there the upper strings ascend and the lower strings descend. What's going on here, musically speaking?  To get the answer, I asked my friend and musical theory expert, Dr. Reynold Simpson from the School of Music at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He took a look at the score and and issued this analysis of the introduction of the third movement: "The short answer is that the chord is a ii7 chord in the third inversion (the seventh of the chord is in the bass.) But the passage is a bit deceptive because there's not a cadence to the tonic (D major) until the end of the 5th phrase. So the ear tries to hear it as a minor v7of A minor, then later as the minor iv of B minor. It is only after the fifth cadence that the strong cadence to D major clears up the tonal organization of this movement's opening."
Thank you Dr. Simpson.
It is a beautiful phrase, and despite the theoretical complexity, to the ear, it is simple and beautiful.
So I am back, and ready to write and share my thoughts with you because I am reminded that I am really talking to myself.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Date Night at the KC Symphony 3.24.18


I'll start at the end. The climactic, epic, final movement of Respighi's, The Pines of Rome. The drums started pounding out their marching cadence. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something move. I looked to my right and saw a trombone....no, two trombones...and two musicians with music stands. They were taking their position next to Cheryl and me by our seats in the upper balcony. "You'd better sit back" whispered one of them. And soon enough they we blasting along with the entire orchestra on the stage, the giant organ in Helzberg Hall,  additional trumpets in the balcony across from us, and more horns behind the stage. My friend Stuart had come to the Friday evening performance. He had never heard the Pines of Rome. He described feeling goosebumps and tears welling up by this music. I know exactly how he feels. I think everyone in Helzberg Hall had goosebumps and tears of joy in their eyes this weekend.
Composer Chris Rogerson was on hand this evening for the world premier of his new work, It Became Dark. He and Maestro Stern spoke to the audience before playing it...describing it as "an emotional journey as night falls and sleep beckons." This work was full of energy, floating sounds, melodies, and quietness. I was stunned by its brilliance. Really an incredible work. And if that was not enough, knowing that Yo-Yo Ma was going to be a part of this concert, he took it upon himself to write a piece for cello and orchestra for an encore after Mr. Ma played the Haydn Cello Concerto no. 2. How often does that happen?!? Perfect timing and another beautiful composition.
So yes, Yo-Yo Ma was performing with the Kansas City Symphony this weekend. I feel like he has been around forever...as long as I can remember. And he pretty much has. He played for President Kennedy when he was only seven years old and has not looked back. Interestingly enough, on tonight's program, Mr. Ma and the orchestra also played Leonard Bernstein's Three Meditations for Cello and Orchestra. It was Leonard Bernstein who introduced Yo-Yo Ma and his sister that evening in 1962 for his performance for President Kennedy. "Now here's a cultural image for you to ponder. as you listen. A seven-year-old Chinese cellist playing old French music for his new American compatriots." He's done it all, and he's still doing it! I am lucky to have seen him before. His smile, his grace, his enthusiasm..and that TONE...my oh my. The Haydn Concerto was a blast...it was so full of life and energy...FUN! Mr. Ma looked to be having a great time, eagerly exchanging glances and smiles with his fellow musicians and Maestro Stern. The ensemble for a Haydn Concerto is much smaller than what is used for the Pines of Rome of course. The sound was bright and balanced while Mr. Ma danced in, out, over and through their accompaniment. But as wonderful as the Haydn Concerto was, Bernstein's Three Meditations was simply stunning. For me, it stood out as perhaps the highlight of the evening. The cello seemed to be asking questions...crying out....riding a rhythmic wave of longing. And the Second Meditation...wow....it was beautiful. 
What happened next was even more incredible. After the last note of the piece sounded and was slowly dying out, Ma segued into the Bach Cello Suite no 1 in G. I don't think anyone knew he was going to do this. If there ever was an encore you'd want to hear a cellist play....this would be IT. And if there is a cellist alive today you'd want to hear play it, it would be Yo-Yo Ma. And there he was....surrounded by what the KC Symphony's Executive Director, Mr. Frank Byrne, described as the "Elite 80" (basketball reference)...80 of his best friends on stage...surrounded by all of us in the audience sitting in sheer stunned delight...he's leaning WAY back in his chair, eyes closed, playing music he's played hundreds if not thousands of times, but with an energy and tenderness of his first time. Patiently he lets it build and then he launches into that famous, ascending climb to the high G that sends you to the stratosphere. When it was over I think we were all exhausted and limp. It looked like Maestro Stern wiped tears from his eyes too.

And THEN we had the Pines of Rome!
There may not be a bigger or better "Showstopper" in all of classical music. It's impossible not to love it. Gorgeous melodies, instruments on and off stage, chirping birds and a huge ending. Principal Trumpet (Julian Kaplan) was awesome from off stage in the second movement with his solo. Principal clarinet Raymond Santos likewise was remarkable, as too were all of the principal woodwinds. And while I'm at it, the strings, brass and percussion were all amazing.
This orchestra...OUR orchestra, continues to demonstrate what I have been saying for several years now; they are WORLD class. Period. What an amazing concert experience this was, and the season still has much more to come!

Monday, February 26, 2018

Sunday afternoon at the Kansas City Symphony


I missed the previous concert of the Kansas City Symphony I was scheduled to attend last month when they played the Mahler 7th Symphony....I had the flu! So I was eager to get back to Helzberg Hall yesterday to hear the KCS under the direction of guest conductor, David Zinman. The program for this concert was the Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront by Leonard Bernstein, Sergei Prokofiev's Violin Concerto no.2 in G minor, and Robert Schumann's Symphony no.2.
First of all, the sun returned to Kansas City today. After a week of terrible weather, the sun emerged, the sky was blue and it warmed up to the 50's this afternoon. So my spirits were already high when my mom and I drove to the concert. We arrived early and had a nice glass of wine while we talked and watched others arrive..it's always fun to people watch.
I was anticipating the Schumann most of all. I keep a CD box set of his 4 symphonies in my car at all times....my favorite is this one:
I have probably listened to all four symphonies at least 10 times over the past year. The second is my favorite, and I was looking forward to this piece the most.
But first, we were treated to On the Waterfront. This season, the KCS is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein's birth. I, of course, made the mistake of thinking we were going to hear On the Town...a piece he wrote in 1943 for Jerome Robbins' ballet Fancy Free, which led to the Hollywood musical On the Town in 1949. Oooops....but no worries. On the Town is a wonderful work that stands on it's own as a symphonic work. The french horn of Alberto Suarez is the first sound we hear...and the seventeenth note...a deliciously jazzy B-natural, sets the tone for this uniquely American sound. The orchestration calls for double timpani...reminds me of the Doobie Brothers (they used two drummers) and a saxophone. The result is a very rich texture of mood and light. The trumpets were particularly brilliant as Bernstein always gives them lots of room in the mix. And then the drums pound in from a distant pianissimo to a thunderous boom. It reminds me of the beginning of the Arma, caedes, vindictae, furores from Vivaldi's Juditha Triumphans. Maybe that's a stretch,,,but so be it! it was very cool.
Prokofiev wrote his second violin concerto in 1935. I confess, I did not know this work. And as a violinist, it pains me to admit it! The soloist this weekend was Stephen Waarts. He is a very tall, thin young man, with a great tussle of hair. Did I mention he is young? My son Jack is only three months younger than Mr. Waarts which is very humbling. His list of accomplishments is very impressive and his tone and technique on stage today was wonderful. Maestro Zinman and Mr. Waarts formed a unique contrast...Zinman is in his early 80's, so there was 60 years of time separating them. But they were clearly connected and on the same wavelength for the Prokofiev. And I sensed that the orchestra was perfectly dialed in to this musical dialogue. Waarts, Zinman, and the orchestra all seemed to be throwing glances and subtle smiles to each other throughout. And I know why....this is a fantastic concerto...simply wonderful. As I write this, I can't get it out pf my head. Especially the second movement (Andante assai) Let me tell you this. If you know his Classical Symphony from 1918...and everybody probably does...the second movement (Larghetto) employs the same technique of a pulsating opening followed by a soaring melodic line. Fascinating. So I came for the Schumann, but I went home with Prokofiev in my head! The orchestra and soloist were in balance, Waarts' tone was superb, and the individual sections of the orchestra played brilliantly. One more note about Prokofiev...dont forget that he gave a recital in Kansas City in 1926! I wrote about that here:
http://timhazlett.blogspot.com/2015/01/sergei-prokofiev-in-kansas-city.html?m=0
That's not to say the Schumann was not impressive, because it surely was. Maestro Zinman has had a fantastic career and is a preeminent conductor and teacher. I agree with Maestro Stern...I can't believe this is his first appearance in Kansas City. And for a man in his eighties, he looks to be in excellent health. And impressively, he did not use a score for the Schumann, and he was right on track with each cue and "knit-one, pearl-two" needed to connect all of the phrases that jump from section to section. The third movement (adagio espressivo) is my favorite music of anything by Schumann. It is so gutwrentchingly beautiful and passionate. Longing, yearning, resolution, resignation...I hear all of this. The basses have a tremendous presence is this work...a very powerful, ascending-chromatic passage in the third movement from these six gentlemen was a highlight for sure.
Every section had a chance to shine today...and they all did so brilliantly. Flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, brass, percussion and strings....yep, top notch musicianship from the KCS.
And as you may know, I am fascinated by connections. Leonard Bernstein did an interview in 1953 about the Schumann Symphony no. 2. Of course they never met, but this is a great way to hear how Bernstein feels about one of the greatest composers of all time.

When I got home, I listened to each of these works again and have been thinking a lot about them. To me, this says "great programming!" And its only February...plenty of great music to come this season at the Kansas City Symphony! Don't miss any of it!


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Artist's Profile: Llyr Williams, Pianist


One piece of music I have been obsessed with lately are the eight impromptus for piano by Franz Schubert. Composed in 1827-28, they sound remarkably contemporary to me. And they settle into my ear and don't go away,
A couple of weeks ago I was on a run in downtown KC and turned the corner of 12th and Central, right by the Folly Theater. I stopped to look at the upcoming concerts poster and Schubert caught my eye. Pianist Llyr Williams will be here this Friday evening playing an all Schubert program which will include the second set of impromptus! I have not heard these performed live, so it will be a real treat.
I contacted Mr.Williams via his management company (thanks Nicolas Papageorgiou) and he agreed to answer some questions via email. Also, here is a link to Patrick Neas' article in the KC Star that gives you more info about Mr. Williams. (Thanks Patrick!)

http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/performing-arts/article195435909.html

How old were you when you started playing the piano?
Seven.

 Did you hear classical music growing up in your home?
Yes, we had music on the radio or the gramophone all the time.

What piece of music do you remember being the first to really appeal to you or touch you?
I can’t remember exactly which piece, but I listened to a lot of opera at the beginning, Wagner/Verdi. The instrumental music came later.

Can you share what will be on the program for your appearance here in Kansas City?
It will be an all-Schubert programme including an early sonata, D.575, his Moments Musicaux and second set of Impromptus. Also featured will be some of his songs transcribed for piano by Liszt.

What other pianists, current or past, inspire you?
In Schubert, particularly Radu Lupu. For Liszt I’m very fond of Jorge Bolet, but I listen to many interpretations when first learning a piece.

 Aside from making a living as a classical pianist, do you play other styles of music? If so, what?
I’m afraid not.

I have talked to musicians who tell me that they don’t listen to classical music because it’s their job to play it, and when they aren’t practicing or playing a gig, they don’t like to listen to music. Do you enjoy listening to music when you aren’t working or practicing?
Yes, I listen to all types of classical music on a daily basis. Besides, I don’t really believe these musicians who tell you they don’t like to listen...

Speaking of practicing, how much time do you spend practicing each day on average?
On a normal day an average of 5-6 hours

When you are touring, I assume you play a piano that is provided for you. If that’s true, do you generally have good experiences with these pianos, or do they vary greatly from place to place in terms of quality? Or am I wrong and do you take your own piano with you from city to city while on tour?
Coping with pianos can be one of the hazards of the profession, but they tend to be more reliable now than when I was just starting out professionally

 I write this blog of mine because I love classical music, and I am concerned that it has such a small following in American culture….I want to help people learn about it and experience how amazing it is. Do you get a sense while traveling and playing that classical music is alive and well, or are you also concerned like me?
Yes, I do get concerned; the average of the audience in most places I go tends to be older than sixty. However, classical music has always been a bit of a minority interest, I suppose.

 I apologize, but I always ask this standard question: if you had to name your top three composers, who would they be?
My top three would vary from day to day; I have many, many favourites!

 Do you have a preference for playing solo recitals versus concertos with orchestral accompaniment or small ensemble works like a piano trio?
Most of my work currently involves solo recitals – the nice thing with those is that they give me more freedom and scope to express myself. But I do also enjoy concertos,  and chamber music as well.

Do you like coffee?
Yes!

Do you drink beer? If so, any favorites?
Beer is one thing that doesn’t interest me. You could put some in front of me and I wouldn’t drink it! Red wine appeals a lot more….

 Do you drink scotch or bourbon? Any favorites?
I prefer Bailey’s

What about barbecue...Kansas City is famous for its BBQ…any plans to try some while you are here?
I always enjoy trying out the local cuisine wherever I go, so I must have a go at Kansas City BBQ!

Lastly, you may be aware that the Kansas City Symphony is a top level orchestra here in the US and now plays in a world class Hall. Have you played here in KC before? If not, please come back and collaborate with the KC Symphony.
I have certainly heard of the Kansas City Symphony. If they invite me to play a concerto then I’d be delighted to come back!

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Kansas City Symphony: Reflections 1.14.18

The first time I ever heard the Symphony no.5 by Jean Sibelius was at a live performance in Chicago. Orchestra Hall. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Leonard Bernstein conducting. September 20, 1987. That was the last time I saw it performed live until this afternoon's performance of the Kansas City Symphony. I went with my mom, who was also with me 31 years ago in Chicago when we saw Leonard Bernstein. My dad was also there in 1987, and I remember the three of us exchanging a quick glance during the Finale that afternoon when the horns began their magnificent "swan song" as it was called by Sibelius himself. This glance confirmed that something special was happening. This was music at its best...transcending the moment and reaching deep within us. That happened again to us today, minus my dad, who passed away in 2006. But I know he was with us in spirit.
As usual, our concert experience started about an hour before the concert with a brisk walk across the street to Los Tules for some great food and THE best margarita in town. Period.
We settled into our seats behind the orchestra in the choir loft for the concert. I love this perspective. The first piece on the program was Esa-Pekka Salonen's LA Variations, a high intensity work that gives every section of the orchestra a chance to shine. This is a very dynamic, rhythmic and dense work that the musicians absolutely nailed. I saw one of the percussionists playing the marimba with a bass bow....kind of an homage to Jimmy Page using a violin bow on his Gibson Les Paul on the song Dazed and Confused. OR so it seemed. This work has so much energy and great vibe to it and I loved watching Maestro Stern tie it all together with his hands, baton, eyes, facial expressions and body language.
As the musicians and stagehands began to set up for the next piece, Maestro Stern grabbed a microphone and started talking to the audience...something he does so very well. He has a very natural and comfortable wit that is a real joy to experience. Its time to begin subscribing to next year's concert series...don't wait...act now!
Speaking of virtuosity, Noah Geller, principal violinist, and Christine Grossman, principal violist, both of the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra, were the soloists for Mozart's Sinfonia concertante in E-flat Major. Mozart in Helzberg Hall is amazing. This building was made for Mozart. Two soloists and a small back up band. Just stay in your lane and play mezzo-forte AT MOST and everything will be OK. If anyone goes beyond that, it won't work. And one could see Maestro Stern doing everything he could to keep the balance just right...to keep the orchestra behind the soloists...to keep the sound  bubble from elongating or popping. There is a great recording of Dave Brubeck and his quartet from 1953 playing For All We Know, a wonderful song made most famous by Nat King Cole. They play in time and in tune together. But by the final chorus Brubeck starts to break the bubble....he is soloing and pushing past the edge. This is where the music is. They don't tumble over the cliff, but they are close. This is Mozart too. If the notes are there, and the time is there...its wonderful because, well, its Mozart. But it may not be music. Today it was music because Geller and Grossman, Stern, and their colleagues stepped to the edge and stayed there, right where Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond did. Their technique is top shelf. Kansas City, we have world class musicians here!!! This was Mozart the way it needs to be played and heard. Bravo. And the encore further highlighted their technical and musical mastery. I could not hear their announcement, but I believe it was a theme and variation of a Handel theme.
And now back to Sibelius. I was here last year when KCS played his Symphony no. 2. This may be the most popular of all his symphonies. It was a brilliant performance that I shared with my youngest son Ethan. I wrote about it here too. I balled like a baby during the climactic finale. (I cry a lot when I hear music like this. I cried in Chicago in 1987 and I cried today.) I can't fathom that a human being can sit down at a piano and write this stuff. Time stops. My breath is pulled out of my body. And out come tears. I am not sad. I don't know why it happens or what it means. and at this point in my life, I don't care. But I crave it because it means I am at the edge.
The Kansas City Symphony is not a safe proposition. They make real music. They push you to the edge, every time. Any one of a hundred orchestras can play the notes on the page...can dress in concert black and look legit. Not here. This conductor and these musicians are not content doing that. They are here to harvest your emotions and your very soul. What's the point otherwise?