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.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Great Chords: Liszt's Sonata in B minor

"It is impossible to convey the nature of this musical monster in words. Never have I heard a more impudent or brazen concatenation of utterly disparate elements, such savage ravings, so bloody an assault on all that is musical...Anybody who has heard this thing and liked it is beyond hope." - Eduard Hanslick

The "musical monster" Eduard Hanslick is referring to is the Sonata in B minor by Franz Liszt. (Hanslick was a well known German music critic 1825-1904). The Sonata in B minor was published in 1854 and was the only sonata that Liszt ever wrote. Much has been written about this epic work. I came to it very late in my musical exploration...just within the past year or so. To me it is a symphony within a sonata. It is huge in scope and ambition, soaring and boundless, but also at times delicate, measured and contemplative. After listening to it, it leaves you exhausted...but in a good way! I can't imagine what one must go through performing it. 
My "Great Chords" installment is about specific moments in a piece of music that stand out musically...that really grab my ear. In the Sonata in B minor, this moment occurs at bar 307.  Look above at the music at the top of this page. The last 2 notes...or chords...occur about eleven minutes into the piece following a very quiet and beautiful Recitativo phrase marked as ritenuto ed appassionato. They are them if you have a piano nearby. I know what the notes are...but I was not sure what the chord was called, so I reached out to my friend Dr. Reynold Simpson, Associate Professor of Music at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Dr. Simpson offers this analysis of the chord in question:

"Liszt really pushed to the edge. Functionally this example is pretty straightforward. In the key of B minor the progression is a minor I chord (F minor), a major VI on the lower sixth degree of the key (D flat major), then a D-flat augmented triad (with the A natural) sounds as the dominant substitution as it has two leading tones (F to G-flat and A to B-flat) and this leads to G-flat, which is the Neapolitan of the key (lowered second). The odd thing is that this Neapolitan chord in not just a major chord, but a major seventh chord with the seventh in the bass. The major seventh, with the inversion, the dynamics, and the lower thick voicing is what is producing the harsh sound."

Another fascinating thing about this sonata is the very first measure. This giant work kicks off with two notes..a simple G in the bass register. I can't think of any other work that begins this way. If you are not ready for it, you can actually miss it altogether because it is so quiet and staccato. It seems to me as though he could have started with the second measure...that would have made more sense to the listener...but that is the genius of Liszt.

Another interesting point about this piece; it was the first piano work to be published showing a low B, which is the very last note of the piece, and the only time in the entire work that it appears. Prior to this time, the lowest note written for a piano was C (Chopin and Schumann never wrote a note lower than C).
Its fascinates me that what today are considered great compositions were not always received well when they were first published. Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major is a great example of this. How could it not be immediately recognized as perhaps the greatest of all violin concertos? Well, for some reason it was not, and it took decades for it to begin to be recognized as a great work. Such is the case with the Liszt sonata. The quote above is scathing to say the least. Critics can be merciless. And wrong.

I would encourage you to listen to this sonata. Here is a link to YouTube that has the score to follow. You will see the incredible genius of Liszt as you watch and listen. I think Andre Laplante's performance is excellent as well.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Classics in Commercials: Bach and a Triangle Solo

Here is a funny TV commercial that cracked me up. A chamber orchestra begins playing Bach's Brandenburg Concerto number 3. A few bars into the performance, a percussionist playing a triangle surges forward to take a solo...a long solo.....

Of course, Bach did not score the Brandenburg Concertos to include a triangle. But it sure is funny to imagine that he had. Well done GEICO.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Artist's Profile: Imant Raminsh

I remember the moment in 2011 when I heard a piece of music that changed my life. I was surfing through YouTube looking for Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus. This was a period of time when I was exploring scared music, which I have always loved, but admittedly knew less about than other classical music. I saw a video for Ave Verum Corpus and clicked it. A few moments into the video, it was clear this was not Mozart. But who? I read the description and learned that this was Ave Verum Corpus by Imant Raminsh. Who is Imant Raminsh? Before I tried to figure that out, I watched and listened to the absolutely gorgeous, spellbinding work, performed by the University of Utah Singers. I literally sat there frozen by what I had experienced. So I listened to it again....and again....and again. Today, in 2017 as I write this, I still come back to this work frequently. The recording itself is very bright and clear. The performance is exceptional. The voices blend together so beautifully. The human voice is the finest instrument of all...and choral singing of this quality knows no equal.  Anyway, I read all I could about Imant Raminsh and became a big fan of his music. He is a composer, musician, teacher, and conductor from Canada. I decided to see if I could contact him and talk to him about his music. He was very gracious to me and agreed to answer my questions via email and let me share his answers it in this blog. 

TH  I first learned about you when I “stumbled” on a video of Ave Verum Corpus on YouTube…your Ave Verum Corpus…performed by the University of Utah Singers. I was absolutely blown away and transfixed by it. It remains one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard, which is why I have sought you out to talk to. I appreciate your willingness to answer my questions.
Where did your Ave Verum Corpus come from...meaning tell me about when it was composed, your inspiration for it etc….

IR  In 1972/73, I took a trip around the world that included trekking into Everest Base Camp and some small climbs in that area, exploring Sarawak (north Borneo) and crisscrossing Australia where I had lots of relatives. It was while I was in Adelaide staying with my aunt and uncle that the urge came upon me to write a short motet. In the botanical gardens that were close to where I was staying there was an immense Araucaria tree at the base of which I would often sit and contemplate. It was there that the Ave Verum Corpus came to be written in a couple of days. The choice of text was out of homage to Mozart and there are a couple of hidden references to Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus in mine.

TH  Where did you grow up?

IR  I was born in Latvia in 1943 but our family fled westward in July 1944 with the approach of Russian tanks, and we spent the end of the war years and the first post-war years as refugees and later, transit camps in Germany. We came to Canada in the Summer of 1948 and settled in northern Ontario where my father was employed as a forester and my mother supplemented the family income by teaching piano (she had finished a piano performance course at the Riga Conservatory before the war.) Later, I moved to Toronto to pursue violin studies at the Royal Conservatory while finishing high school.

TH   Did you hear classical music in your home during childhood?

IR  Yes, of course. All of my siblings (3 sisters one younger brother) took piano lessons. I also took  up violin. We did have a record player.

TH  Are there any composers who you would list as your primary influences or favorites?

 IR  Initially the Romantics, later the Classicists, and Baroque masters. Even later, some of the   Moderns such as Bartok and Kodaly and Poulenc. I hate to be more specific because I respond to 
 the works rather than the composers. I remember being completely stunned the first time I listened   all the way through Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

 TH  One of my standard questions for musicians and composers is: do you actually listen to much   music in your free time? I find that many say they don’t because they play music for a living and   therefore want to get away from it when they are not working, which I think is sad, What about you?

 IR Who has free time? Mostly I listen when I am driving but hardly ever at home. My composition takes place away from any instruments and my wife says you would never know there was a musician living here considering how quiet the house normally is.

TH   What instruments do you play?

 IR  My primary instrument has always been violin and I was for many years one of the principle violinists in the Okanagan Symphony (British Columbia), but I play viola as well and my piano skills are generally good enough for accompanying students.

TH  Where do you live?

 IR  My wife Becky and I and our golden retriever Jaspor live in Coldstream B.C. (adjacent to Vernon, B.C.) in the Okanagan Valley. The north Okanagan is a transition zone between the dry, arid bunchgrass-Sonoran desert to the south and the interior Montana Douglas Fir/hemlock/cedar rain forest to the north and east.

TH   I write a lot about classical music in our culture. I’m not sure about Canada, but here in the US, it has a very small audience. Are you optimistic about the future of classical music?

 IR Classical music requires time and effort to listen to-also an extended attention span and ability to focus. Audiences will always be smaller than for big pop events, but they will always be there.

TH  If you had to name your top 5 composers, who would they be?

 IR This list will always change from day to day, but J.S. Bach, will always be there.

 TH    This may seem like a stupid question, but as amazing as you are, why haven’t more people heard of you?....and I mean this in the nicest possible way because you are an amazing composer!!!

 IR  I don’t know why more people haven’t heard of me. Maybe it’s enough that you have. How many do I need?

 TH   Are you a baseball fan?

 IR  Not particularly. My sports are hiking, cross country skiing, canoeing, and such.

 TH   Do you like coffee?

 IR  Yes!!! Dark roast-maybe Sumatra-black if its good coffee-often with cream, but no fancy other flavors. Coffee is one of the food groups (also chocolate).

 TH Thank you so much for your time and help with this. If you are ever in the Kansas City area, please give me a call and we can meet for coffee.

Here is Ave Verun Corpus by Imant Raminsh, performed by the University of Utah Singers.