Monday, June 5, 2017

1830



This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In just about every way, this album changed everything in popular music. It was the first "concept album." It was the first psychedelic album. It showed that rock music could be "serious." The Beatles gave up touring, and the craziness that followed them on the road, and locked themselves in a studio and began experimenting with sounds and new ideas. A masterpiece emerged. It didn't sound like the Beatles....it didn't sound like anything else up to that time....it was music from a different planet. And 50 years later, it still sounds that way.
One hundred and thirty-seven years earlier, in 1830, a similar event occurred. A French composer named Hector Berlioz wrote a piece of music that changed everything too. Only this time, the stakes were much different...even higher. Whereas the Beatles were measured against their previous music, which was certainly wonderful (Rubber Soul, Revolver) and all other rock music made before 1967, Berlioz was composing in a world that had just been seismically transformed by a certain Ludwig Van Beethoven. Just as the Rolling Stones or the Beach Boys were left open mouthed and spellbound trying to figure out how they could possibly top Sgt. Pepper, every composer after Beethoven had his endless musical shadow with which to contend. A great quote from Johannes Brahms to this end: "You have no idea how it is for the likes of us to feel the tread of a giant like him behind us." Brahms waited many years before he published his first symphony (1876). But young Hector leaped into the post-Beethoven abyss and composed a work that sounds every bit as timeless and fresh today as it did in 1830; the Symphonie Fantastique. It was the first "programmatic" work ever published...essentially a concept album as was Sgt. Pepper. The five movements of SF tell an incredible story of love, opium induced obsession, wild fantasy, madness, and death.
Tom Service said it so well in his article in the Guardian from August 19, 2014:
 "Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, a piece that lays legitimate claim to adjectives such as “revolutionary”, “radical” and “unprecedented” perhaps as much as, or even more than any other piece in this series so far. This jaw-dropping work was made by a 26-year-old composer who had already become a famous, indeed notorious, figure in Parisian musical life. But Hector Berlioz also happened to be one of the most brilliant writers on music; and in his letters he reveals the genesis of this diabolically and passionately inspired work." 
And Leonard Bernstein described the SF this way in 1969:
"The Symphonie Fantastique is ‘the first psychedelic symphony in history, the first musical description ever made of a trip, written one hundred thirty odd years before the Beatles’. Berlioz’s programme notes for the symphony confirm this, as he describes the opening of the fourth movement as the representation of the following episode:
Convinced that his love is spurned, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts.
There is an interesting article entitled "How Beethoven Ruined Classical Music" by Dylan Evans published June 12, 2005 in the Telegraph that makes the case that Beethoven did just that....he created music that did not leave the door open for those who followed him. It was almost like...."OK, so now what? What the hell do you expect us to do now Beethoven? How can we possibly top that?" Berlioz is the one who answered that question in 1830. The Symphonie Fantastique still sounds fresh in 2017. A mere 2 1/2 years separate Beethoven's death and the SF's premiere. Two tectonic forces grinding against each other like continents. And because of Berlioz, the void between Beethoven and all others was bridged so that everyone else could follow the master. Pardon me here but I can't help myself: "It was 187 years ago today, Hector Berlioz taught the band to play." 
I listened to Sgt Pepper and Symphonie Fantastique this week...back-to-back. I recommend it.


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Milestones, Time, Ethan, Elgar, Run Rabbit Run



I have had a lot on my mind recently. I have not had as much time to write as I would like to. Lots going on. My youngest son, Ethan, graduated from high school this week...Tuesday night. The ceremony was held at the Community of Christ Auditorium in Independence, MO. It's a beautiful place that I know well. Everyone was here. My mom, her sister, my wife's parents, and my oldest son Jack. We took lots of pictures. We celebrated. 526 students walked across the stage to receive their diplomas. The huge Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, one of the 75 largest organs in the world....6334 pipes in total...brought the evening to life with Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance.
Earlier in the day, I almost crashed my car. I had to pick up Ethan's dress pants from the cleaners. It was hot and sunny. The sun felt good as I walked in and out of the dry-cleaners. I turned on Sirius XM for the trip home. A piece of music I had not heard began to play. I was instantly in its grip...and I soon found myself sobbing uncontrollably as I drove down 3rd street. It all came out....
Eighteen years ago, I was on the stage at the same Community of Christ Auditorium. Ethan was only a few days old then. He was in the NICU of Children's Mercy Hospital having been born with severe kidney issues...only one kidney worked and not even at full strength. We would go there to hold him....to pray for him...hoping he could come home soon. I had a concert with the Independence Symphony that week. We were playing Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. I debated playing at all, but I wanted to honor my commitment to my fellow musicians. Maybe it would be good for me. Such a beautiful piece too.
One of those moments I will never forget...playing the intermezzo...thinking about my newborn son...feeling my own helplessness. I was so scared. The organ playing in this great auditorium in accompaniment to the orchestra lifted me up. I could feel its power pulsating in, around and through me.
And 18 years later, that same organ came to life and greeted my son walking down the isle in his cap and gown. A profound moment. I was suddenly in the past and the future at that same moment. It was overwhelming. And The Year of Our Lord by Sufjan Stevens, the piece that slayed me earlier in the day, touched that same nerve somehow. This beautiful composition awakened me to the feelings that accompany seeing your child become a young man right before your very eyes. The past...the future...my hopes and fears from the past. My joy.
I pulled off the road until I could get my shit together and dry my eyes. Today is Thursday and I still can't get through this piece without balling.
Music is powerful. It can come out of nowhere and lay you down.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

Reflections from the Kansas City Symphony 5.7.17 Britten's War Requiem


If you are expecting me to write a "critical" review of the Kansas City Symphony's performance today at Helzberg Hall...the performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem (1961)... forget about it. You came to the wrong place. I am not a reviewer, which I have stated before. I am an unapologetic "homer." This is my hometown Symphony, good or bad, and I will never say anything critical about it. I knew I had to share it in my blog so everyone can hear how incredible this work is, as are the musicians and conductor who brought it to life today. There was nothing to be critical of anyway.
I did my homework. I have the famous 1963 recording with Britten himself conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, the Highgate School Choir, the Bach Choir, and the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus. The soloists were Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano), THE Peter Pears (tenor) and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone). This is the gold standard. I pulled it out and listened to it Wednesday evening. Mind bending. Even the KCS program listed this as the recording of choice. I was not expecting today's performance to be the equal of this recording, but in fact it was.
Since I am not a professional music critic, I can pretty much say anything I want in this space. So let me riff a bit.
139 singers in the adult chorus. 37 girls in the youth choir. I decided not to try and count how many musicians were on stage...but let me assure you that every inch of space on the stage was occupied. There was a full orchestra, a chamber orchestra, and an organ, played by Jan Kraybill.
The soloists were Christine Brewer (soprano), Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor) and Stephen Powell (baritone). All three were spot on and powerful.
Britten. Pacifist. Wrote this to condemn all war, not any one war in particular. This is a legit requiem in form and structure, but does not have a religious message. Uses the once forbidden C-F# interval to great effect. I could see Maestro Stern signing as he conduced...he was in the moment for sure.
With so many elements to coordinate and integrate into a performance, the atmosphere from my seat seemed very relaxed and certain. It all came together quite elegantly. One would think it to be a struggle to keep everyone together, bit I didn't sense any struggle at all.
The tympanist of the "chamber" orchestra gets my vote for best multi-tasker; he played a bass drum, gong, and cymbal with different mallets all in succession in one passage.Nice.
Charles Bruffy, the Chorus Director, made a comment at the post-concert Q&A, which was awesome by-the-way, that I also made note of. He said the hardest parts for the chorus were the soft parts. And that's exactly what I noted were the most powerful moments of the performance...when the entire chorus was singing softly in unison. The loud, forte sections were wonderful, but I felt the soft sections carried the day.
The performance was well balanced. Phrasing was well executed. Balance was perfect. Entrances were clean and sharp. The overall tone of the vast ensemble was rich and warm. Helzberg Hall can do no wrong. Except, as Maestro Stern noted afterward, its only flaw is not having a belfry for bells.
Come on KC, what's with all the coughing and cell phones...at a symphony concert??? If you are that tuberculin, stay home....there, I said it. And, as my friend Susie Yang pointed out, if you don't know how to turn your phone off, then perhaps you should not have one.
But the best part of the performance came at the very end. 1.5 hours of magic boil down to the final "Amen". And here we had the C-F# chord for the "A" followed by the soothing grace of an F major power-chord from heaven for the "men". Sublime.
And a big shout out to my Mom, Elnora Welker. We share season tickets to the symphony. I can't think of anything better than spending a beautiful Spring afternoon with her, enjoying a pre-concert Chardonnay at Helzberg Hall. Cheers to you Mom.



Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A couple of great 208's.

Somehow I have failed for many years to see an obvious connection between two of my favorite, and very well known, pieces of music. 208.
J.S. Bach (1685-1750) wrote his "Hunting Cantata" in 1713. Part of this large work is a very tasty lick we now know as "Sheep May Safely Graze." Bach's works were cataloged in 1950 by Wolfgang Schmieder and are known as BWV-Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalogue). The Hunting Cantata is BWV 208.
I'm sure most all of you have heard this beautiful piece of music:



Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) was a prolific Italian composer. Among his supreme accomplishments was the composition of 555 keyboard sonatas. These works were cataloged by Ralph Kirkpatrick in 1953. He used the letter K to designate these works. I have not listened to all 555, but I am in love with K. 208 in A major. It has been recorded many times and transcribed for other instruments. Here is a keyboard version:


And here is a guitar version of the Scarlatti K. 208 that is wonderful. I think I love the guitar version the most.

Two great 208's.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Classics in Television: Curb Your Enthusiasm (Larry David) uses Strauss to great effect.


Larry David was the co-creator of the hit TV show Seinfeld.back in the early '90's. In 2000 he created and starred in another very hilarious show called Curb Your Enthusiasm which aired on HBO. It's a somewhat self-autobiographical program where Larry stars and plays himself as a comedy writer who finds every possible way to screw everything up, offend everybody, and say all the wrong things.
One of the best episodes aired in 2002 where Larry is leading a group of investors to open a restaurant in Los Angeles. He hires a chef who has peculiar outbursts. To make matters worse, the kitchen in the restaurant is out in the open. All of this plays out with Johann Strauss II's famous Overture to Die Fledermaus which premiered in 1874.
The music really has nothing to do with the action per se, but it really fits well if you ask me. Enjoy, But be warned, this is extremely funny, but has a few bad words in it.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Kansas City Symphony 3.26.17: Me, my son, and Sibelius


Kansas City Symphony Concert, March 26, 2017. I came for the Sibelius. Despite the fact that Michael Stern had assembled a wonderful program of music for this week's concert, there was one and only one piece I really wanted to hear....the Sibelius Second Symphony. 1. Carl Nielsen's Overture to Maskarade (1904-06) was a treat. I had not heard it before. 2. Einojuhani Rautavaara's Fantasia for Violin and Orchestra (2015) performed by guest soloist Anne Akiko Meyers....FABULOUS! This piece has an enormous musical arch...so emotional. It's still echoing in my head long after it ended. 3. Ravel's Tzigane for Violin and Orchestra (1924), also performed by Ms. Meyers, who once again played flawlessly and passionately. As she finished the piece, there was a sizable amount of bow hair dangling about, a casualty of the ferocity of the piece and her playing. She was just wonderful.
In 1980, I joined the Omaha Area Youth Orchestra. (in case you don't know, I play the violin.) On the program for our Winter concert was the 4th movement of the Symphony no. 2 of Jean Sibelius. At the time, I had not heard this work, and my only real listening experience of Sibelius was his famous work, Finlandia. After our first rehearsal, I was hooked. This was a piece that stood out from just about anything else I had heard. And not coincidentally, it was my Dad's favorite piece by Sibelius. In fact, it was one of his all-time favorite pieces. The night we performed it will be one that I never forget. My Mom and Dad were both in the audience. I was so happy that they were going to be able to share this great moment with me. We played so well and I experienced an out-of-body experience that I will always remember.
There are many false summits in much of Sibelius' works. His phrasing and voicing are unlike any other. You think you know where you are going, and when you have arrived, but then he shifts gears and takes you to another level...there is still a higher summit. He pulls you in and won't let you go until he is ready. The Second Symphony is masterful at this. At the crescendo of the Finale, the timpani are pounding out a D and G over and over. The violins then lead the charge into the final stretch with their D major, ascending tremolo passage....and then the trumpets enter and soar with their D-E-F#-G phrase. This is magic. We have arrived.
I steal a glance at my son Ethan sitting next to me. He's not a classical music nut like me, at least not yet anyway. And this is his first symphony concert in Helzberg Hall. I look at Maestro Stern...we are sitting in the choir loft and I have a perfect view of him...and he is singing....singing....The tempo is perfect. Every section is on fire, playing with passion and inspiration. The balance is perfect. Such an amazing orchestra. This is so intense.
I feel this huge smile come across my face....it feels silly, but I can't help it. Then I feel my throat tighten and a lump forms. And then of course the tears well up. I am, at that moment, a 15 year old boy once again playing this miraculous piece for my parents, looking at my own son who is about to go away to college, and missing my dad who passed away 11 years ago this month...there's a lot of shit going on here right?  It's all too much.
I am 52 years old, and I am in experiencing pure joy. Sibelius.
"My second symphony is a confession of the soul."

Monday, March 20, 2017

Joy Spring, Bach and Brown, Trumpets



Today is the first day of Spring. I first discovered jazz in the Spring... many years ago. This season always reminds me of my discovery and exploration of what was then a very new and exciting form of music for me. I was fully immersed in classical music at that time, but I had very recently discovered the Beatles and started down the path of rock music discovery. Jazz was right on it's heals. I played the violin in my high school orchestra. Our Music Director was a wonderful, charismatic man named Dr. Stephen Lawrence. Dr. Lawrence saw something in me that led him to believe that when the bass player for the jazz band graduated, I could step in and become the new bass player. Huh? Why me? I don't know ANYTHING about jazz. I don't play the bass. Dr. Lawrence said, "You play the violin right? Well, the bass is just like the violin...four strings, except upside down, and lower."
So my journey as a jazz bassist began in earnest. Along the way, I went to a record store (yes, VINYL 33 1/3 records) and picked out 2 records quite randomly. But as if by a miracle, both were quintessential jazz records that I still love to this day.
This all happened in early Spring of that year...1982. The records were "That Bop Thing" by Howard McGhee (1948)  and "Joy Spring" (1954) by Clifford Brown. Both were trumpet players.
"Joy Spring" will forever capture the feelings I had during that exciting time of my life. This song still feels like Spring to me.


Last year, I read an interesting essay called "Clifford Brown: The Bach of Jazz." This was published the The Art of Music Lounge: An Online Journal of Jazz and Classical Music by Lynn Rene Bayley.

https://artmusiclounge.wordpress.com/2016/03/17/clifford-brown-the-bach-of-jazz/

I will admit, I did not sense "Bach" when listening to Clifford Brown. But I could tell he was something special. But this essay really got me thinking.

Howard McGhee's record also means a great deal to me. This song also feels like Spring.