Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Tonal organization, Great Chords and I'm back.

It's been awhile since I have written anything. Been 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, 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 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 oh my. The Haydn Concerto was a 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 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'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 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:
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!)

How old were you when you started playing the piano?

 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?

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 keep the orchestra behind the 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?

Friday, January 5, 2018

L' Ascension

French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1922) wrote music that I can't listen too. Dissonant...confusing...abstract. Experts will say he is a genius, that this music that goes over my head is "beautiful art." I have tried to delve into much of it, only to be repulsed by it. I like to think I have a very open mind. But I kept trying and failing to embrace his work. Then I found L' Ascension for Organ  Turns out he wrote some music that I do like. I happened upon L'Ascension for Organ (1932-33) about a year ago. I keep coming back to it on a regular basis, never tiring of it. It moves me deeply. Messiaen IS a great composer.
This work has four movements. The first can best be described as "phrase...phrase...phrase...minor key, minor key, minor key, mysterious idea, mysterious idea.....then major powerchord. Repeat. It leaves me breathless.
If you want to really learn more than you can ever understand about any music, Google "whatever piece you are interested in, PDF and in this case...L'Ascension, PDF, Analysis." Somewhere out there, a student has written a dissertation about it that takes a deep dive into explaining everything about it musically. Robert Edwin Fort Jr. did so in 1956 for L' Ascension. 128 pages that analyze every aspect of this work, every chord, every phrase etc.....way more than I can understand or appreciate. But Mr. Fort and I are on the same page....we love this music.
Fort states, "Messiaen's music generally has a feeling of almost total monotony, but this is accompanied by much activity within the total feeling." He follows this up by stating, "Because of it's special place and purpose, L' Ascension is one of the least formidable of Messiaen's compositions. Although it is not the most typical of Messiaen's work, it provides the newcomer a pleasant approach that is colorful, figurative, evocative, easily accepted, and readily understood."  Amen. I agree.
First movement, lots of major powerchords a la Pete Townshend or Jimmy Page. Second movement, bat shit noodling all over the place. Third movement, transcendental chromaticism (May not be a word). Fourth movement, the best chord to end any piece in history. As Fort states, "The final chord comes as the culmination of the rising movement in melody and accompaniment. It results in a feeling of relaxed tension somewhat like the similar chord in measure no. 2. However, it is held for thirteen beats and is the final chord of the movement and the suite. The length of it coupled with the fact that there is no diminishing of volume (a crescendo is called for in the orchestration) soon imparts a somewhat active feeling to it. This is further enhanced by the inversion. The final effect then is one of incompletion of suspension which is obviously what the composer had in mind." It is very cool.
Here is a nice version of L' Ascension for Organ:

And here is the orchestrated version:

I like both, but the organ version is my favorite. Enjoy!

Friday, December 8, 2017

Rachmaninoff in a different light

I wrote an entry in 2014 about Sergei Rachmaninoff's recitals in Kansas City (he gave six recitals here between 1920 and 1938). Most people, including me, think of and "know" Rachmaninoff primarily for his piano works. That makes sense I think. His symphonies are great too. If you like choral music, you may be surprised to know that Rachmaninoff also wrote several choral works. In 1915, he wrote and premiered The All-Night Vigil, a work for a capella choir. This selection is called Praise the Lord:

The complete work is also very beautiful. And oh, those basses!

Funny story. When I was very little, I had a record called Sparky and the Magic Piano. Did you have this record?

I still have it....very scratched and my collection. Sparky is a little boy struggling to learn how to play the piano. He has a dream that his piano comes to life and talks to him, and let's him play any piece he wants. He ends up going on tour and amazing the world. But like all dreams, it comes to an abrupt end when suddenly, his piano stops playing for him. He is stranded on stage with a combative piano and faces humiliation. of the pieces he plays is the Prelude in C-sharp minor by Rachmaninoff. (funny side note....Rachmaninoff was known amongst his friends as "C-sharp" due to this composition's immense popularity.) When I heard Sparky announce he was going to play the Prelude in C-sharp minor by Rachmaninoff, I thought this was his first and last name....I had heard of Rock Hudson, and I assumed this was Rock Maninoff. I told my parents that Maninoff was my new favorite composer and they stared at me...."who?"  "Maninoff....Rock Maninoff." The look of their faces was priceless and I endured a fair amount of good-natured ribbing for many years afterwards.