Sunday, August 13, 2017

18th and Vine

There was an editorial in the Kansas City Star on August 12, 2017 about the poor turnout at the Jazz and Heritage Festival over Memorial Day weekend here in KC this year.

The festival took place in the historic 18th & Vine district of KC. Kansas City has a rich history of jazz. I read somewhere that KC was one of the "cradles of Jazz." One of the most iconic and influential jazz musicians of all time, Charlie Parker, was born in KC and created bebop here before moving on to New York. Many years ago, my friend Joe, a jazz bassist, and I made a trek to his grave site here in KC. Count Basie played here in KC too. Jazz is part of this great city's fabric.
I have written about my love pf jazz in this blog many times...most recently telling about the first time I heard Miles Davis...who also played in KC....
Kansas City has been plagued and paralyzed by the scourge of racism throughout it's history, as have many cities. Several attempts have been made, and are still underway, to redevelop and return this "cradle of jazz history' to its former glory. I frequently run through and around the 18th and Vine area and have never felt unsafe. Some people assert that many in the white community view this area of KC as unsafe and dangerous. That may be true, sadly. But I don't feel that way. And I don't think the Jazz Festival failed to live up to expectations because of race or geography. I think it failed because of Jazz.

If anyone can relate to loving a fading or dying form of music in our popular culture, its a classical music aficionado such as myself. Classical music has been at the bottom of the heap longer than I have been alive in terms of sales and market share. That's one of the reasons I started writing this fight try and open peoples ears and hearts to the vast beauty and exhilaration classical music offers.  But believe it or not, jazz recently surpassed classical as the least popular music-genre:

The failure of this year's Jazz and Heritage Festival in the 18th and Vine District is based on this sad fact in my opinion. People just don't know or care enough about jazz enough to turn out in the numbers necessary to generate a profit for such an event. If Garth Brooks, Jay-Z, Adele, Drake, or Beyonce were performing at the Gem Theater in the Jazz District, I believe they would sell-out. People from all over the KC-metro area would go there without batting an eye.

The District is pinning its hopes on a dying art. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole and hundreds more are not known or appreciated by today's America in enough of a meaningful way to support a major music festival. Chick Corea, one of this year's headliners, is an amazing pianist. His album "Now He Sings, Now He Sobs" (1968) is a true masterpiece.I just texted both of my kids and asked them if they had ever heard of Chick Corea....and no surprise, neither of them had. But when I asked them if Drake was going to be performing at 18th and Vine if they would be afraid to go there, they said "hell no."

The Kansas City Airport has pictures of Kansas City Jazz history throughout the terminal. Black and white photos. Old. These are days gone by. And for most Americans (not me) this is a musical form gone by too. That's the problem.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

KC VITAs 2017 Summer Series

I had the great privilege of meeting Jackson Thomas, Director and Founder of KC VITAs, last year for an interview in advance of their Summer Series performances. So here we are a year later, and KC VITAs is still going strong under Jackson's leadership. I checked in with him this week to see what he's been up to and to find out more about the 2017 Summer Series performances next weekend.

 I can’t believe it’s been a year since we’ve talked! Where does the time go?  But I am so happy that it’s just about time for the next KC VITAs Summer Series performances. What have you been up to during the past year when we spoke?

Thanks so much for speaking with me again, Tim! We’ve been incredibly busy trying to reach more people and become more present in the community. This past year, we held a December Gala event where we featured small ensemble and solo works by a couple of regional and international composers. We also have improved our submission process to streamline how composers can submit their works to us, as well as reach more composers. Since then, we have been going full steam on making this the best Summer Series yet!

Tell me about this year’s KC VITAs program.

We received 150 blind submissions of art song, small ensemble, and choral works by composers from all around the world. Ten were picked from that, five of which are world premieres and five are regional premieres. These compositions make up our most diverse program to date by far. We have two performances this year, one on Aug. 4th at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church at 7:00, and another on Aug. 6th at Country Club Christian Church at 3:00. We are continuing to follow our mission and offer these concerts for free!

Did this program come together easily or were there any challenges of note?

Because of the sheer amount of submissions we received, it was an even greater puzzle to finalize this year’s program. Each composition must be considered (sometimes several times) which, as you can imagine is incredibly time consuming. Then, when trying to pick from such high quality pieces and figure out the best way to make them work together, the final decisions are very hard to make. There could have been several programs made from the compositions that made it to the final round.

 If I’m not mistaken, all of the music is original, correct?

We do have a couple compositions this year that are based on preexisting music. One is based on chant, while the other is based on a hymn. The ending product, however, is incredibly original as the compositions have deconstructed and revitalized the original material into something totally new.

Will any of the composers be attending this year’s performances?

As many of the composers live quite a large distance away from Kansas City (several of whom live across the pond) the amount of composers able to attend this year is still unknown. We will be taping this year’s performances, though, and have been skyping in with composers to collaborate on bringing their piece to life.

How many new singers do you have this year? How many are returning from last year?

29 total, 18 are returning from previous years. Many of the returning members have been with us since the beginning.

What is the thought or reason for having two different venues for each performance? Why not have both at the same place?

We’d  like to have the opportunity to reach as many people in the city as possible. By offering locations downtown and one further south, we are hoping to provide a place convenient to reach from anywhere in the area. We also want to bring our music to the many wonderful venues that Kansas City has to offer. Although they each present their challenges, we are able to discover new things about each piece whenever we sing in a new space.

 Where did you have the recording session I saw posted on the Facebook Page?

We took a huge step for our organization this year and recorded all of our music beforehand. This way, we are able to provide composers with a much higher quality recording in addition to the live recording from our concerts. We were lucky enough to record at Swarthout Recital Hall on the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence, KS and had a great experience!

 Tell us a bit about what was recorded and when it will be available?

We recorded our entire program and our CD will be available for purchase at both of our concerts! It’s been a busy few weeks, to say the least!Thanks so much for your help in promoting our concerts and organization as a whole! Just a reminder, KC VITAs is a 501(c)(3) organization and all donations made in support of our organization are tax-deductible and help to continue our mission to promote the continued creation and performance of contemporary-classical vocal music. We will be working on becoming even more present during the year in the time to come with many exciting ideas in the works!

Excellent. Thank you Jackson! I am really looking forward to the concert. And thank you for your commitment to bringing great music to our community!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Miles, Kronos and Monk

On a rainy Spring afternoon in 1984, I had a life altering musical experience. I was a music major in my first year of college at Indiana State University. I know I've explained in this journal many times that I am a violinist, but I should also remind you that I also play the bass and the guitar. During my Junior year of high school, I started playing the acoustic bass in the jazz band which coincided with my exploration of the jazz repertoire. During college, I continued to play jazz while pursuing my classical violin studies. Most of my playing consisted of small jazz ensembles at school and outside gigs with local musicians at coffee shops etc.
Anyway, music students have to listen (or "get to" listen to I should say) music as part of the curriculum, and the University maintained a listening lab with a pretty extensive library of albums (yes, vinyl albums). Students would go the the lab, show their student ID and check out a record to take to one of the listening stations that were lined up in a room with small desks with partitions. Each station had a set of headphones. You get the picture......
So on this Spring day, I was looking through the jazz collection and saw this record (See above). cool. I mean...WAY cool, this dude with the trumpet and shades. I will confess that in hindsight, I am embarrassed that I had no idea who this dude was. I had only really started listening to jazz the year before during my Senior year of high school. During my Junior year, I only played the sheet music that the band director chose for the jazz band, and what little jazz I heard at that time was big band jazz. I had not yet been exposed to bebop or any other jazz. And still at the time, 99% of my music listening was devoted to classical music.
So I take this record with the cool trumpet player on the cover and go to the listening stall at the end of the row which happens to be the one I like the most, and I cue up this album. For some reason, I am the only student in the listening lab at that moment.
I lower the arm and the stylus makes contact with the vinyl.
From the silence, a pop as the stylus finds the groove. Then I hear a piano playing A and G, followed by a saxophone playing a G, and then Miles on trumpet hitting a high D...muted and very close to the microphone. I had never heard anything like it. Sublime. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I listened to this track over and over. It took me to a place I had never been before. I stared at the cover and wondered who this musical wizard was.

Miles didn't write Round Midnight....Thelonious Monk did in 1938. Many artists have recorded it. I think Miles' 1957 recording is the best. The Miles Davis Quintet consisted of Red Garland on piano, Philly Joe Jones on drums, Paul Chambers on bass and John Coltrane on tenor saxophone.
From that moment forward, I listened to every Miles Davis record I could get a hold of. A new world had been opened up to me and I enjoyed exploring it.
The following year, the Kronos Quartet came to the University to give a concert. Kronos is a string quartet that is best known for playing new and contemporary classical music. They were somewhat avant garde at the time and there was a big buzz surrounding their appearance on campus. I went to the concert and really enjoyed it. But it was their final number that stood out....Round Midnight.
I have written fairly often in this journal about the fusion of musical styles and genres...the crossing of musical lines and such. This recording by Kronos certainly falls into that discussion. A truly classical ensemble playing a jazz standard. I think it works very well. The voices of violins, viola and cello offer a wonderful tone and flavor to this tried and true melody.

P.S. As good as the Miles Davis album Round Midnight is, I did come to believe that the BEST Miles Davis album is in fact Kind of Blue from (1959). Check that out too.

Monday, June 5, 2017


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 didn't sound like anything else up to that 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 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 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 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.