Sunday, December 21, 2014

Bela Bartok in Kansas City

Earlier this year, I happened to stumble on an article about Maurice Ravel's visit to the United States in 1928, which included a stop in my hometown of Kansas City. (KC has a reputation of being a "cow town" rather than a center of music and culture). I wrote about Ravel's visit and began to see that KC was in fact a vibrant center of music in the 1920's, and other luminaries of classical music also performed here. Last month I shared that Sergei Rachmaninoff played 6 concerts in KC in the 1920's and 30's, as well as nearby Lawrence, Topeka, Columbia, Rolla, and Hutchinson. A big reason we were able to lure such great composers to KC was the Pro-Musica Society. This was an organization founded in 1920 to "promote the exchange of musical ideas between Europe and America". Kansas City had a Chapter led by Mrs. George Forsee. I searched the internet repeatedly to learn more about Bartok's visit, as well as the Pro-Muisca Society, and the best reference I could find was a citation for a master's thesis by a woman named Sarah Lucas. As luck would have it, Ms. Lucas had been a graduate student at the University of Missouri in 2012, and her thesis was in the collection at the library there. On a recent trip to St. Louis, I stopped in Columbia and went to the University library and printed a copy of:

Bela Bartok and the Pro-Musica Society
A Chronicle of Piano Recitals in Eleven American Cities During his 1927-1928 Tour
by Sarah M. Lucas

This is a fascinating and detailed research paper that includes programs and reviews of Bartok's performances, as well as other historical and anecdotal references.
On January 23rd, Bartok arrived by train at Union Station in Kansas City. (Ms. Lucas cites a letter from Bartok to his son Peter where he clarifies that Kansas City is in Missouri, not Kansas. Ahh....our glorious state line issue). The recital was in the Ballroom of the Muehlebach Hotel, the same place Ravel gave his recital.  Here is the program:
The Program is hard to read, so I will share it here as well:

Bartok Suite, Op. 14
Kodaly Epitaphe (from Op. 11)
Kodaly Allegro molto (from Op. 3)
Bartok Sonata (1926)
Bartok Burlesque no 2, Dirge, Bear Dance, Evening in the country, Allegro barbaro.

Reviews seem to have been mixed. One reviewer wrote "Bartok's music demands especially attuned ear and mind too, to be at all intelligible. Therefore it either impresses as something akin to a revelation or else as a scarcely articulate experiment, often monotonous and agonizing, and the public's reactions range from warm admiration to violent antagonism". [Vaiani, Kansas City Journal January 24, 1928].

Bartok departed Union Station at 11:40 pm that same day, on his way to St. Paul, MN. He was here less than a day. Bartok died of leukemia in New York City on September 26, 1945. My two favorite works of his are his Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste. Here is a link to the Concerto for Orchestra, performed by The Chicago Symphony conducted by Fritz Reiner. This was recorded in 1955 and remains, in my opinion, the best interpretation of all.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Sergei Rachmaninoff in Kansas City (and other nearby places that may shock you).

When I wrote about Maurice Ravel's visit to Kansas City earlier this Fall, I became curious if any other "famous" composers or musicians had also come here during the first part of the 20th Century. So I did some research and discovered that Kansas City was in fact a destination for several other "big time" classical music luminaries. Sergei Rachmaninoff was one of them. Born April 1, 1873 in Novograd, Russia,  Rachmaninoff was a gifted pianist, composer, and conductor. He certainly qualifies as "Big Time" in my book. He toured extensively and made many recordings during his career. The first piece of music by Rachmaninoff that I remember hearing as a kid was the "Vocalise" which he wrote in 1915....still one of my all-time favorite pieces. He composed 3 symphonies, 4 piano concertos, and many other works that have become absolute treasures, including the "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" from 1934. So how and why did he come to Kansas City? Rachmaninoff was what I would call a "road warrior"during his lifetime. He emigrated to the United States in 1917 with his wife and two daughters following the Russian Revolution which had taken away his estate and all of his possessions. He had to tour to support his family. So from that point until his death in 1943, he did little composing and a lot of touring....a lot.
According to Sergei Rachmaninoff, A Performance Diary compiled by Scott Davie and presented by the Rachmaninoff Society, he performed in Kansas City 6 times during his career. (This amazing document lists every performance he ever gave and in some cases, the program that was performed). His first visit to KC was March 19, 1920. The list does not indicate what theater or hall he played, nor the program. So I went to the KC Public library and searched through the newspaper archives. I found the review of the performance in the KC Times from March 20, 1920. The recital was at the Shubert known as the Folly Theater. He played a program of Liszt (Dance of the Gnomes), Chopin Etudes (not listed), Chopin's B minor sonata, and Tchaikovsky's "Troika". It was not necessarily a glowing review however. Here are some interesting quotes from the reviewer, who was not named:
"His recital at the Shubert offers new sensations to music lovers", "Rachmaninoff begins where those of another caliber leave off" and "He has the detachment of creative genius". But my favorite quote was "An intellectual pianist, Rachmaninoff scorns display but dares to think". 
Here are the dates of Rachmaninoff's recitals in KC:

March 19, 1920
January 25, 1922
February 12, 1924
November 19, 1925
December 5, 1933
November 15, 1938.

(I hope to return to the library at some point to look for reviews of his other 5 KC recitals).

It's interesting that all of these were recitals. "Why didn't he play his piano concertos with the Kansas City Symphony? may ask. I don't know all of the reasons, but I do know that his first five visits had to be recitals because KC did not have a symphony until November 28, 1933 when the KC Philharmonic was born. His 1938 visit is listed as a recital too...I don't know why he would not have performed with the KC Philharmonic on this date.
On the other side of the state, in St. Louis, Rachmaninoff made 27 concert appearances, 14 with the St. Louis Symphony, 1 with the Boston Symphony and 12 in recital.
Here are the St. Louis dates:

March 4, 1919 w/ Boston Symphony at the Odeon
January 13, 1920 recital
February 13, 1920 w/St. Louis Symphony
February 14, 1920 w/St. Louis Symphony
January 31, 1921 recital
November 10, 1921 recital
January 27, 1922 recital
December 13, 1922 recital
March 16, 1923 w/St. Louis Symphony
March 18, 1923 w/St. Louis Symphony
February 6, 1924 recital
January 27, 1925 recital
November 20, 1925 recital
March 12, 1930 recital
March 10, 1933 w/St. Louis Symphony
March 11, 1933 w/St. Louis Symphony
January 15, 1934 recital
December 14, 1934 w/St. Louis Symphony
December 15, 1934 w/St. Louis Symphony
November 15, 1935 w/St. Louis Symphony
November 16, 1935 w/St. Louis Symphony
November 27, 1936 w/St. Louis Symphony
November 28, 1936 w/St. Louis Symphony
November 14, 1937 recital
November 4, 1938 w/St. Louis Symphony
November 5, 1938 w/St. Louis Symphony
December 9, 1941 recital

So one of the premier pianists and composers of all time spent quite a bit of time in KC and St. Louis. But I was simply amazed at some of Rachmaninoff's other tour stops: 

Hutchinson, KS  March 17, 1920
Rolla, MO January 9, 1922
Topeka, KS  January 23, 1922, January 29, 1925
Wichita, KS January 30, 1933, January 15, 1940
Columbia, MO November 13, 1935
Lawrence, KS February 15, 1937
St. Joseph, MO January 20, 1922
Hastings, NE February 9, 1940

Who would'a thunk it?!? It seems Rachmaninoff played just about everywhere! What a treat it must have been to see him perform. Not only was Kansas City at the forefront of the Jazz and Blues scene during the 1920's, it was also home to a vibrant classical music scene as well . And there were others who came here too. But that's for another post!

Rachmaninoff died in Beverly Hills, CA on March 29, 1943. Here are links to a couple of his best known works.

His "Vocalise" sung by Anna Moffo

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Artist's Profile: A conversation with Dweezil Zappa

My friend Mike Brown is a BIG Frank Zappa fan. He has a huge collection of Zappa's music and actually saw him in concert back in the 80's. (Frank passed away from prostate cancer in 1993). I had of course heard of Frank Zappa, but freely admit that I knew very little about his music. What I did know was that he was a very prolific composer over the course of his 30+ year career, he was an amazing guitarist, his music did not sound like anybody elses, and his kids had very unusual names like Moon Unit and Dweezil. (Frank's other children are named Ahmet and Diva).
Anyway, in June of 2010, Mike asked me if I wanted to go see the Zappa Plays Zappa show down at Grinders in the Crossroads District here in KC? "Huh? What is ZPZ" I remember thinking. As I soon learned, Frank's son Dweezil is an accomplished guitarist in his own right. In 2006, Dweezil formed a band to perform and tour his father's music. So off I went with Mike on a sweltering June night to hear something new, and I was completely impressed and won over by what I heard. Dweezil is a guitar virtuoso. I am an aficionado of fine guitar playing in any genre...Segovia to Wes Montgomery to Django to Pat Metheny to Roy Clark to Van Halen to Pete Townshend....and so on. I love the instrument and the personalities of the "guitar world". Dweezil has a guitar technique and facility that puts him in the highest order of guitar heroes. Simply amazing. And his band is equally talented. They played a 2+ hour set of music I knew very little about, but became very interested in learning more about after the show was over. I began reading about Frank Zappa, listening to his music, and watching performances and interviews on YouTube. I learned that he was heavily influenced by classical music, especially Stravinsky, Ravel and Varese. There is great video of his first band, called the Mothers of Invention, playing an excerpt from Stravinsky's Petrushka, and another video of him conducting a large ensemble playing Ravel's Bolero. I found these fascinating. He composed many works that were classical in form and style, albeit his own unique style, as well as music that spanned the boundaries of classical-rock-blues-jazz-fusion and the avant garde. Frank Zappa's music was not "mainstream". Dweezil is dedicated to bringing his father's music to new generations of listeners. To quote him from an interview a few years ago, "Frank's music is very contemporary. If we are trying to attract a newer audience, which I am definitely determined to do, I want younger people to be interested in it and exposed to it". He also said "I want to stamp Frank's imperial mustache on the glabrous dome of the music industry". 
As I read this, it hit me that I was trying to do the same thing with classical music. (not the mustache part...the attracting newer audiences part) One of the reasons I started this blog was to help others discover the joy and enrichment of classical music. Dweezil and I are both on missions to enlighten and educate. 
Mike and I went to see Dweezil and the ZPZ tour again in 2013, and once again enjoyed a tremendous show. I'd kicked around the idea of trying to talk to Dweezil for this blog, and finally reached out to him through his website, and was eventually contacted by his publicist and given the opportunity to have a phone interview. Here is how that conversation went:

TH) Thank you very much for agreeing to talk to me. I really appreciate it. Was classical music something you heard as a child growing up?

DZ) I listened to whatever my dad was either working on in the studio or listening to when he was relaxing at home, so there was a varied amount of music; his own work, when he was writing any of his music, generally speaking, he considered it all to be classical music, and he was using a rock band to be the orchestra when he wasn't actually working with a real orchestra. Most of his compositions were constructed that way because as a kid he wanted to be a composer. He went to the library and taught himself everything about music by reading about it. Around the house I also heard different kinds of folk music from different countries. But yes, there was classical music. I remember the modern compositions…. one time he asked if I wanted to listen to something with him…it was a piece by Stockhausen. We listened to it and I didn't get it…I was probably 10 or 11, and it didn't really sound very melodic.
TH) Very atonal probably?

DZ) Yeah, and he said “do you like this?” and I said “not really” and he said “me neither”. But he got very into 12-tone music towards the end of his composing, and he was very interested in what he called note densities and chord densities. He was writing a book on all of that but he never completed it. But a lot of the note density and experiments he was doing with that became most of his synclavier music.

TH) He spoke in an interview I watched on YouTube about the tone colors and voicings of chords that were possible with an orchestra and the harmonic languages an orchestra could create…it was more rich and dense than what a 4-piece rock band could do. Do you have an interest in classical music today…do you have time to listen to it?

DZ) Over the years I have listened to a lot of it….I appreciate Bach and Mozart especially…that stuff is fun to listen to and cool. How they figured it out is amazing...and then for someone to actually be able to play it…even more amazing. The stuff I tend to like is because of my father’s music. Growing up I would hear my dad’s music, and I didn’t really hear any other stuff on the radio, but by the time I did when I was 12 or 13, I thought..."where’s the rest of it?”. There weren’t enough instruments or information in pop music. I thought “there’s got to be stuff missing here”. And so the things I tend to like need to surprise me with texture and rhythm because that’s what I was used to in my dad’s music and that’s what I have grown to appreciate. There are also film composers and film scores that I have enjoyed as well for some of those things…textures and rhythms. I like the stuff that John Williams has done over the years, and I listen to it off and on…it’s the background of my formative years.

TH) Have you been doing any composing?

DZ) I haven’t had time to do too much writing of my own for quite some time because ZPZ takes up so much time to keep the material learned. I’m hopefully going to make a record of my own later this year. I am planning to write an orchestral piece as well. I started it awhile back but I haven’t finished it.

TH) Do you play the keyboards as well as the guitar?

DZ) I do not. It’s a funny thing about how I decided to write this piece. I am not good with the actual notation so what I do is take a MIDI project and I will type in 5 minutes worth of the same note and the same rhythm and then I will start moving it around and make shapes with it. So when I hear things I like, I can create arpeggios and/or melodies and I can build around it. I can also target particular places on a time grid where I want something to happen so I can have an overview of the piece and start filling in the blanks that way. So instead of having a blank piece of music, I am throwing the notes on the page like throwing paint on the paper, and then you start seeing what you can make out of it. The piece I’m writing is based on that plan of attack.

TH) Are you scoring it for a small chamber ensemble or a larger symphonic group?

DZ) I am not exactly sure how it will end up, but I intend to play it with the band and an orchestra. We are already trying to do something next year where we play with smaller ensembles…there is a wind ensemble in Norway that is very good and they have done some arrangements of my dad’s stuff so we’d like to do some shows with them. Beyond just a wind ensemble, I’d like to also have strings and percussion. We already have a show planned in Denver in April next year with between 8-10 extra players from the Denver Symphony.

TH) I’d love to hear your own music this way.

DZ) There is one thing I did on a record that came out in 2006 and it has a short orchestral bit. It was my first foray into using a computer to create some of those kinds of sounds. It doesn’t have the human feel I would like (I am not the world’s greatest programmer of MIDI) but I put it on the record anyway. It’s a tune you might be able to find….most of my work is not available yet on iTunes, but you can find it on YouTube. It’s called “Rhythmatist”. The intro to it is called “Preludumus Maximus”. That’s the piece that has a classical “feel”. I’ve done other things that are classical related. I made a record called “Confessions of a Deprived Youth” and there’s a song called “Earth”…the intro on that is all guitar but it’s like a Mozart sounding kind of thing. It’s only been with the band I made for Zappa Plays Zappa that I’ve gotten into more ensemble playing. Most of the stuff I did before that was guitar oriented.

TH) Do you ever play a classical guitar?

DZ) Only marginally. I’m not very good with the finger picking. I’ve been trying to learn a little bit of that and incorporate it. Most recently I’ve gotten into learning how to play the oud. The only nylon stringed instruments I have are an oud and I have this other thing called a glissentar which is basically a guitar that is made to be like an oud. It’s a fretless nylon stringed instrument where the top E through low A are doubled, unison strings, and the low E is a single string. It’s a really fascinating instrument.

TH) You talked once about your dad’s music being “from the future”, and how contemporary it is. I totally agree with you. I hope that you can continue to find your own voice as a composer.

DZ) The record I’m making this November has taken an unexpected turn. I think I’m going to actually make a record that’s mostly vocal tunes in order to have an opportunity at a broader audience. And then I’m also going to make an instrumental record that goes basically into outer space! I didn’t want to combine the two because it would become, as many journalists like to say…"unfocused” (laughing). I think I will learn some things along the way and figure out what I want to do. I’ve done all kinds of things over the years that I never had a chance to actually release. I had forgotten that I transcribed and played two pieces by the Bulgarian Women’s Choir for guitar. It’s a “guitar orchestra” version of these two pieces. I had totally forgotten about doing it and I heard a tape of it the other day and thought “oh my God”. It was pretty cool. It might appear as a transition between some things. I’m definitely interested in blending some multicultural sounds. For example, that instrument I was telling you about...the glissentar…it has the sound of an oud…that ancient thousand year-old instrument. But a thousand years ago they didn’t have Fuzz Tone! (a guitar effect).

TH) or Wah Wah pedals!!

DZ) Yeah. Combining a nylon-stringed, weird instrument with some Fuzz Tone is where the weird experiment will begin.

TH) Are any of the musicians in your band classically trained?

DZ) The keyboardist took some classical lessons as a kid. And our bass player studied composition in college, so he is quite knowledgeable about orchestral music. He’s the one who goes through all of the scores we have at the house…anything in Frank’s hand or anything done by a copyist…he goes through it to make sure it’s all correct.

TH) Did I hear you say once that you didn’t read music?

DZ) I’m not very good at it. I can sit down and do it, but it takes me so much longer to learn something that way then it does for me to just listen to it and play it.

TH) That is phenomenal! I don’t see how you can learn some of the incredibly fast guitar passages in your dad’s music that way.  For example, I watched a video of you playing a fast passage from “Inca Roads”…. it’s too fast to hear!

DZ) You have things you can use to slow things down. But as a kid, I wanted to learn all those really fast things from Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads. And before there was any technology to slow it down in real time I would just have to press “rewind” a million times, learning one or two notes at a time. So I’ve grown accustomed to picking things out in small pieces. It’s a challenge no matter what. One of the pieces we did in ZPZ recently was one of my favorite classical pieces of my dad’s called “Strictly Genteel”. We played that a couple of tours back. The crazy thing about learning music like that is it might take me a month to get something down that was never meant to be played on guitar. There was a passage for piccolo flute and I learned to play it on guitar and created a sound that was in the right register and it took me several months just to get this one thing down. We’re talking about 3 seconds of music or less. Then you have the other hours put in for learning the rest of the hard parts. The crazy thing is I spend all that time learning to play it on tour, but the moment I don’t play it for even one week, it disappears!

TH) I remember the days of trying to learn songs from a cassette player….rewinding over and over, and you could never get the tape to the exact spot each time.

DZ) It was even worse if you were trying to do it from a record!

TH) Are you coming back to KC on your next tour?

DZ) I’m hoping to get a Midwest run next year on the tour that starts in April.  The date will be on my website soon. We may be looking for opportunities to play with some smaller ensembles…maybe you could connect us with some musicians! We are planning to tackle one of Frank’s most poly-rhythmic pieces called “Sinister Footwear”.

TH) My buddy Mike Brown and I will be waiting for you! Thank you for your time and good luck on your projects and upcoming tour.

DZ) You bet. Thank you too.

Here is a link to Dweezil's website:

A video of Dweezil "shredding" a guitar solo:

ZPZ with Steve Vai joining them on a Zappa classic

Dweezil's Album "Go With What You Know". "Preludumus Maximus" starts at 13:15 into the video :

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A conversation with Tom Sudholt, Program Director of the Radio Arts Foundation

I wrote a post earlier this year that featured an interview with Patrick Neas, long time Program Director of KXTR Radio in Kansas City, the wonderful classical music station that met its demise in 2010. Our friends to the east in St. Louis endured a very similar situation with their long time classical music station, Classic 99 FM, which left the airwaves on July 6, 2010. But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the Radio Arts Foundation was born, and classical music has returned to the airwaves. Here is their story, taken from their website:

Radio Arts Foundation-Saint Louis was created by people who believe true art and culture must never perish from the airwaves of St. Louis. Champions who responded to the outcry when our community lost its beloved classical station. Through our radio broadcast and this web site, we intend to build a home for the entire fine arts and performing arts community of St. Louis. Tune in to hear Beethoven. Log on to learn about the local arts scene. Listen. Read. Debate. Relish. We are the Sound of Art.
For over 60 years the sounds of classical music wafted through the airwaves of St. Louis, courtesy of Classic 99 FM. But on July 6th, 2010 as the last notes of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 lingered and disappeared, classical music was effectively silenced and listeners throughout the St. Louis area lost a beloved friend.
RAF-STL is different. Not only do we plan to “bring back Bach,” we’re also devoted to being a community-owned, community-driven asset. With the launch of our new station RAF-STL will become a community asset with an unmatched devotion to growing the arts and cultural community in the St. Louis area by providing:
• Broadcasts of live performances, both in-studio and remotely, from the world’s greatest musicians, including remote broadcasts from Centene Corporation’s acoustical auditorium furnished with a Steinway grand piano
• In-depth, in-studio and remote interviews with performers, conductors and music personalities from around the globe who are charting the path and course of the classical music today
• Diverse, community-driven programming that includes a wide variety of music genres such as orchestral, chamber, jazz, blues, opera, and symphonic music

I was fortunate to meet Tom Sudholt, Program Director for RAF, and have a great conversation with him about RAF and all things classical music.


TH: When did classical music go on the air in St. Louis?

TS: Classic 99 KFUO FM began life as just KFUO FM in 1947. We were one of the earliest, if not the earliest, FM radio stations west of the Mississippi. It was owned and operated by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, whose world HQ was in Kirkwood, Missouri. Their other radio station, KFUO AM, had started way back in 1924. And of course when FM came into being, it was a combination classical music and religious programming, with of course, a definably Lutheran slant to it which meant lots and lots of Johann Sebastian Bach! But certainly other composers as well.  And it became the outlet for classical music in the St. Louis area throughout its history. In the early 1980’s…I believe 1983…it switched from being a listener supported radio station to a commercial, classical radio station. It was then that the moniker “Classic 99” was created for it. We were at 99.1 on the FM dial. And we decided to go commercial with it. We did classical music 24/7. We were an affiliate for the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. When that was not going on we used recorded opera and broadcast that in the same time slot on Saturday afternoons. It lasted 62 years. It fell victim to shifts of power and priorities. A lot of people within the Lutheran Synod ruling hierarchy wanted to focus more exclusively on the propagation of the good news of Jesus Christ, and they felt that broadcasting classical music all the time was a waste of resources. Those particular individuals got into power and they started to look for a way that they could divest themselves of the 99.1 FM frequency and the business of doing classical music. It was kind of a long, drawn out tug-of-war. It really lasted I guess about 4 years or so. And finally it was sold to a group that is known as Joy FM, and it is a contemporary Christian rock station. And they got the frequency…they bought the frequency with a major, major contribution from Albert Pujols, then of the St. Louis Cardinals. And that was it. Classic 99 closed down on July 6 of 2010. And the voice for the arts…and the main media post for classical music for the St. Louis area effectively ended on that day. And there were a number of very prominent individuals in St. Louis who are very, very involved in supporting the arts in this city. They were already members of an advisory board for Classic 99 and with the demise of the radio station, the group, principally headed by Noemi Neidorff, in concert with the program director of Classic 99, Jim Connett, hatched a plan to create a successor radio station for Classic 99, and unlike its predecessor, it would be a not-for-profit organization. A 24/7 outlet for classical music, not only on regular FM broadcasting, but also on HD radio and via streaming on the internet.

TH: I listen to you all frequently via the internet.

TS: None of this would have happened without Noemi and Michael Neidorff.  Michael Neidorff is the Chief Executive Officer of the Centene Corporation.  The Neidorff’s have always been one of the major, if not the major supporters of the arts in this city. And it is because of them, and the hard work of Jim Connett, General Manager, that this station exists. We started operations on April 8 of 2013 and so we've been on the air a little bit over a year. We are also in the process of getting a Development Director. Our broadcasting in terms of traditional FM…we are only operating with a 250 watt transmitter right now. And it’s amazing…it astonishing how far the signal goes for just being a 250 “watter”. Obviously, for the time being, we have to settle with that, which is also why we espouse our broadcasting on HD radio and certainly on the internet. But down the road we will increase power...absolutely. But we wanted a state-of-the-art facility that incorporated the best aspects of what made Classic 99 so distinct. Furthermore we wanted to focus on the fact that we are truly a St. Louis station. The money that is contributed to us is used here in St. Louis…expressly for this purpose of being the mouthpiece for the arts, and being the propagator of classical music on the air.

TH: So you are the Program Director…and everything I hear played on the air is chosen by you?

TS: It is…but it’s kind of like conducting an orchestra. I don’t program everything for people. I’m kind of like the conductor in that I convince them to program and do things a certain way. And generally because they are very capable professionals, they follow the lead and program along those lines. I do most of the major inputting to our music files in terms of the material… terms of the recordings that we use. We had only a rather vestigial data base of digitized music from Classic 99. So yours truly, as Program Director, has been pretty much inputting most of the selections that you hear on the air.

TH: What is the source of your are not spinning turntables?

TS: We are digital. We do not use compressed audio. All of our selections are wave audio. We do stress fidelity. If it is a classic recording of something, I always make sure that I use the latest and or best re-mastering. So if you are hearing a classic Reiner recording, or Klemperer recording, it’s the latest re-mastering. Unless they botched it!

TH: Or unless they didn't re-master it. There’s some stuff out there that hasn't been touched.

TS: Right…lots of stuff. But I always want to have represented in our data bases as many approaches to a particular masterpiece as humanly possible, so long as it has something to say. Boredom for me is a mortal sin.

TH: Kiss of death…

TS: The kiss of death. If it doesn't have blood in the notes of some sort…it may not be my own personal preference, but at least it has something to say. You may take issue with the recording of a masterwork by Leopold Stokowski, but you can never say Leopold Stokowski is boring.

TH: Same for film or art….I understand that it may be a great work, but that doesn't necessarily mean I like it.

TS: Great performances…you do not need a PhD in music to instinctively know when you are hearing a great performance. Because ultimately music exists on a gut, visceral level…and our emotions.

TH: Obviously, you get it. I think I get it. But the world in general doesn't seem too as much. Why do so many people NOT get it? Why is this (classical music listenership) such a small cross section of our culture?

TS: Since the days of the 78 rpm, the average time for a popular song has been about 3 minutes. And with the advent of popular music, even though the technology has changed, the length of the music really hasn’t. I mean, if you run into a pop song that’s 6-7 minutes….that’s a relative rarity. You have people who increasingly are glued to visual media, but at the same time, they’re not conditioned to hear longer pieces. Their attention span goes down, and so does their patience. Everything has to be done in quick bite sized…

TH: Sound bites!

TS: Yes, musical sound bites are what musical conditioning has occurred. Even in substantive content, say news for example, 10 second sound bites. If you talk longer than 10 seconds, and you’re being videotaped for a newscast, you’re going to end up on the cutting room floor. Ten seconds is all you get. This militates against the appreciation of longer form classical music. And also having a society that I think is visually stimulated…blockbusters, CGI, and all that stuff.

TH: We expect immediate gratification too.

TS: The thought of filing into the seats of a concert hall and watching musicians perform a piece does not appeal. Now, I personally find that hard to believe because I don’t think there is anything more exciting than filing into a concert seat and watching a symphony orchestra do what it does.

TH: You are preaching to the choir!

TS: To me it’s totally amazing…100+ musicians, each one of them soloistic caliber, but they all fuse together to form a single musical entity with a range and a dynamism that even the very best recording could not hope to approach….much less capture the electricity. But, you know what? Folks that grow up getting their music freeze dried in 4 minute bites….(shakes head….) There’s always been a so called populist element that goes along with the democratic traditions in the United States of America, and I think that sometimes there is with that a suspicion of anything that requires a certain amount of exertion on the part of one’s critical and or mental…or emotional capacities.

TH: If you are getting it right, it’s pushing on your emotional buttons.

TS: Most people want to hear a nice little sob story on American Idle about how this lovely little singer defied the odds and made it big……that’s not a journey to the abyss like say the Mahler 6th Symphony….with the hammer strokes of fate. Classical music can be demanding. It doesn't always have to be. One of the things that I've done throughout my career, and I bring the same approach here…Jim Connett and I are both in agreement here….is recognizing that the music lives. Sure, the composers are dead…we know that…but their music isn't. Their music’s alive. So when you’re announcing it on the radio, and you’re talking about it, make sure you don’t sound as dead as the composers are….because the music lives. And that’s part of the problem I have with a lot of the classical music radio industry…this pomposity, and this “we know what’s better for you” attitude…

TH: Snobbery….

TS: Yes…and lack of joy. You are not going to help classical music survive in this culture if you have that attitude.

TH: There is so much to learn and discover in the classical repertoire. It’s so vast.  I will never know it all and I like that!

TS: I like that too. I’ll never know it all either…and you know what? It’s going to be a sad day if I ever did learn it all! And even the stuff you know…your perception may change. That’s why they are masterpieces.

TS: I know it’s not PC to admit this…our conductor here in St. Louis, David Robinson, loves this guy…but I have a lot of trouble with Olivier Messiaen. I’m trying to tune into the Messiaen wavelength…and I will continue to try. When I was young, I didn't care for Brahms and I didn't care for Sibelius.

TH: Wow!

TS: Wow…my same reaction. Now, they’re damn close to being my favorite composers. Because you know, another thing that makes classical music so wonderful….so deep…so wide…is that people like Beethoven, people like Brahms and Sibelius…there’s absolutely no bullshit in the music. Brahms…not a trace of it.  There isn’t anything about Brahms nor Sibelius nor Beethoven that’s false. It’s always 100 percent for real. And that’s why I like their music, and that’s why it’s great music. And guess what…you don’t have to know a lot about classical music to tune into that.

TH: I totally agree, and I am trying to help people understand that. Just listen to it!

TS: I have been in the classical music radio business in one form or another for 27 years, and during that period I have constantly heard about the impending demise of classical music in this country. And what do you know, it’s almost 30 years later and they’re still talking about it. It’s an awfully lively corpse! It’s just keeps kicking and kicking and kicking…..

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A conversation with Emily Granger, Harpist

The Heritage Philharmonic is celebrating it's 70th Anniversary this season. Our upcoming concert is devoted to the music of France, and features harpist Emily Granger. Here are the details:

Join us for the first concert of the season!

  Music of France

Saturday, October 18, 2014, 7:30 pm

Tri-City Ministries

4500 Little Blue Parkway

Independence, MO 64057 

Gounod     Ballet Music from Faust

Ravel     Pavane for a Dead Princess

Debussy     Danses sacrée et profane

Saint-Saëns     Morceau de Concert

Bizet     L’Arlésienne Suite No. 2

Emily Granger, harp soloist

Emily grew up in the KC area, and began studying the harp when she was 12 years old. She is returning to KC as a performer for the first time since she graduated from Park Hill South High School. Emily currently lives in Chicago and is a member of the Chicago Harp Quartet. She is a graduate of the prestigious Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. I was very happy to be able to speak with her recently and learn more about her career, as well as the challenges and joys of being a professional harpist:

TH: Did you start out playing the harp?

EG:  Actually, I started out studying piano...that was my first instrument. I gave a “go” at jazz piano, but that was definitely not my calling. But I do play a little piano. In fact, I just got keyboard for my apartment so I can keep working on my skills.

TH Where are you from?

EG: I’m from Parkville, MO.  I graduated from Park Hill South after three years. I did my first year of undergrad work at the University of Michigan. And then I transferred to Indiana. IU has one of the most respected harp studios in the country.

TH: How long have you been playing the harp?

EG: Since I was 12….so 13 years.

TH: How did you get started playing the harp?

EG:  I somehow got it stuck in my head that it’s what I wanted to play. I had a Celtic music CD from my cousin that I remember listening to in the living room with my mom, and asking her about the instruments. And there was a lot of harp on it, as there is in a lot of Celtic music…and it just got ingrained in my brain that I wanted to do that. I had never seen a harp before in my entire life. I had no idea what a harp looked like or what was involved in playing the harp. And so for a year, I begged my parents to let me take harp lessons. And I told all of the teachers at school that I was going to play the harp in orchestra next year. And they all just kinda laughed at me...”OK, yeah, sure you’re gonna play the harp…right.”  I must have been very persistent because after a year my parents found a harp teacher in the area…in Lenexa, KS…and that was my first time ever seeing a harp, at my first harp lesson. And the rest is history!

TH: Did your teacher provide you with a harp?

EG: Yes, she rented me a little Celtic harp.

TH: Are there different sizes of harps?

EG: Yes there are many different sizes of harps, especially when it comes to lever harps…Celtic or Irish harps…those vary in size greatly. What I play on now is a concert grand pedal harp. They are very standard…47 strings, and it has 7 pedals that change the pitch of the strings. This is what most concert harpists play.

TH: How is it tuned?

EG: The harp is tuned to C-flat major. Each string is a note….C-D-E-F-G-A -B …etc…and the pedals have three notches that change the note from flat-natural-sharp. So for example, the C-string can be C-flat, or C-natural or C-sharp, depending on where the pedal is.

TH: Wow, so not only do you have all 10 fingers and thumbs going on 47 strings, you have both feet as well in action on 7 pedals?

EG: Yes, except we don’t use our pinky!

TH: No pinky?

EG: No pinky, correct (laughing).

TH: So it’s a lot more complicated than just fingers on strings…I don’t think most people realize how difficult an instrument it really is to play. The pedals actually perform a very important function.

EG: Very important. You can be playing all the right strings, but if your pedals are in the wrong place you end up playing wrong notes.

TH: When I think about pedals, I also think about how busy an organist is with both hands and both feet going at the same time.

EG: Exactly!

TH: When did you realize you wanted to be a professional harpist?

EG: I think I knew in high school that’s what I wanted to do. I spent a couple of summers in Michigan at the Interlochen Arts Camp, and that was where I first realized there were other kids my age who were just as passionate about their instruments…and that there were harpists that were better than me! (laughing)!

TH: Tell about the logistics of being a harpist. How do you get the harp to your gigs?

EG: I stick it in my car and I drive. I have to have a big car and it has a lot of miles because I’ve driven all over the country with it, harp in tow.

TH: What about harp maintenance…is it sensitive to humidity and temperature?

EG: Yes, but lucky for me being in Chicago, I live a mile away from the world’s largest harp manufacturer, Lyon and Healy. That’s where my harp is from so if anything goes wrong, I can just zip over there and drop it off and they’ll take care of it for me. I get my harp regulated by a harp regulator twice a year. There are 2000 moving parts inside of the harp that can get just slightly off and cause a buzz, or will cause the intonation to go out… for example the F-natural could be in tune, but the F-sharp  could be out of tune…just one particular string. So they go though and make sure every string is perfectly in tune.

TH: So do you have to tune the harp yourself…or do they do it for you when you take it in?

EG: I tune the harp myself every single day.

TH: That seems like it would be a time consuming job?

EG: (laughs) It is. People may notice in rehearsal or at a concert in between pieces, I may be tweaking a couple of things because it fluctuates.

TH: How important are posture and ergonomics?

EG: Very important.  I suffered from tendinitis at a very young age and there was actually at a point in my career when I worried for a little while that I was going to have to quit. …it was just so bad. I was seeing a physical therapist twice a week, an acupuncturist once a week and going to see a message therapist once a week.  This went on for many years…it would flare up and down. I ended up having a cortisone injection in my wrist. And I met with a hand surgeon because they could not figure out what was causing me so much pain. But thankfully the cortisone injection has really helped. So I am very conscious about my body when I am playing…and even when I’m not playing. I am doing the right stretches, taking frequent breaks. The biggest key for posture and pain management is relaxing…..being able to know how to relax those tiny little muscles in your hands, your wrists, your forearms, your shoulders…..I am constantly thinking to myself “relax”. I still go and see a message therapist about once a month to work on my back and shoulders. I also go to the gym and work on strengthening.

TH: What do you sit on when you play?

EG: I have a really nice, cushy piano bench.

TH: A friend of mine is a guitarist, and he has to maintain the fingernails on his right hand in a special way because he uses them to pluck the strings. Do harpists pluck the string with their fingernails?

EG: I use the fleshy part of my fingertips, not the nails. So I keep them nice and short.

TH: Are there any particular harpists who have been influential in your development?

EG: Definitely. My teacher Susann McDonald at Indiana University is one of the most well-known harpists in the world. She’s literally taught everyone. She taught at the Julliard School for many years and has students in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra, National Symphony, and Detroit Symphony. Getting to study with her was just incredible. She changed my life and my playing. And it’s been incredible to stay in touch with her over the past couple of years since I’ve been out of school. My harp quartet played a big concert this past summer. Lyon and Healy, the harp manufacturer I told you about, had their 150th birthday festival this summer. They invited the biggest names …the biggest harp soloists in the world… to come and perform. And they invited my harp quartet to come perform as well. It was a huge honor to be invited to perform at this festival. Miss McDonald was there….she came to hear us play. It was really incredible…to show her what I am doing after school. Another big influence in my life has been Sarah Bullen, the Principal Harpist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I studied with her at Roosevelt University. I earned my Master’s degree there with her. She is an in incredible woman….she is such a powerful force when it comes to playing the harp. She’s just got it figured out. She was in the New York Philharmonic for many years before she won the job with the CSO and has played with the best conductors and musicians in the world.   Spending so many years playing in the best orchestras in the world… being surrounded by that sound…she has this incredible sense of style and character. She’s able to hear so many details that can take you from sounding mediocre to perfection. In our lessons, I would often play an excerpt for her. She would yell at me (nicely!) to get up and let her play it. I was always blown away by her power and sensitivity. I’ve been so lucky to have such unbelievable women mentors.

TH: I developed this blog to celebrate classical music. Do you listen to it? I know you play it of course, but tell me about your musical tastes.

EG: Being a harpist, we play a more obscure repertoire…solo, chamber etc…and also symphonic works that include the harp. Recently I have been on a quest to start listening to all of the great repertoire that does not include the harp.  (laughing) I’ve been listening to a lot of Beethoven lately….his chamber works and symphonies. And Brahms and Schumann…Schubert…Haydn symphonies too. I love the piano and I enjoy listening to great pianists, Glenn Gould probably being my favorite. I really love listening to the solo piano works of Chopin and Rachmaninoff, two of my favorite composers. I actually have a cat named after Rachmaninoff!

TH: Do you listen to other types of music too? What’s on your playlist these days?

EG: Oh yes. My favorite band is Little Dragon. I am actually going to go see them in Denver right after my last performance in Kansas City. I try to go to a lot of live concerts in Chicago. Recently I’ve seen James Vincent McMorrow, St. Vincent, Jessie Ware, and Sigur Ros.

TH: I am concerned and interested in the acceptance and appreciation of classical music in our society today. What do think about classical music in our world these days?

EG: I am not concerned.  Maybe I should be but I’m not because I think that young musicians like myself and my colleagues that I went to school with are doing interesting things that are speaking to people in a new way. I don’t think this world would exist without classical music, or without music in general. I’m not worried. Classical music is going in a new direction.  I hope that what I have to say through the harp will reach people and get them thinking…or feeling something they haven’t felt before.

TH: I am happy to hear your optimism. My friend Patrick says that classical music is “hip”.

EG: It is…definitely. In Chicago we have concerts in Millennium Park. 11,000 people showed up for a free concert ….of Opera. People recognize greatness...and the best artists… and they want to hear it.

TH: We are so excited to have you come to KC for the concert with the Heritage Philharmonic. How did this come about?

EG: Jim Murray and I met when I was a freshman in high school. I competed in the concerto competition… I played one movement of the Handel Concerto ...the slow movement, and I was one of the winners. So I performed that concerto with the Northland Symphony. Jim was conducting.  We reconnected a couple of years ago and have stayed in touch. He asked me earlier this year if I would be interested in coming back to perform and I said “absolutely!” My passion is performing. There is nothing better for then getting up on stage with an orchestra …its really special.

TH: And you still have family here?

EG: I do.

TH: It will be wonderful for them to come and hear you play!

EG: Absolutely. I have not performed in KC since I was in high school. I am very excited.

TH: I can’t wait. Thank you so much for your time.

EG: I also wanted to say I'm playing 2 solo recitals while I am in the area, one in Clay Center, KS and another at KU.

TH: That's awesome. Have a wonderful time! And thank you for speaking with me.

EG: You are most welcome.

Here is a link to Emily's website:

Friday, September 26, 2014

Maurice Ravel in Kansas City

Maurice Ravel is one of my favorite composers. Kansas City is one of my favorite cities. (I was born here). But little did I realize that 37 years prior to my birth, Maurice Ravel came to KC on his 1928 tour of the United States and gave a lecture and performance at the Muehlebach Hotel Ballroom. Ravel was a fan of jazz music, a topic he discussed in many of his lectures. He became friends with George Gershwin, and according to some sources, delivered a great one liner when Gershwin told Ravel he would like to study with him. "Why do you want to become a second-rate Ravel when you are already a first-rate Gershwin?"

Here is the program from March 14, 1928:

Wednesday 14 March 1928, 8.15 o'clock

The Ballroom, Hotel Muehlebach
Kansas City

Lisa Roma (voice)
Maurice Ravel (piano)
Earl Risenberg (reader)




Histoires naturelles

Pavane pour une infante défunte

Cinq mélodies populaires grecques

Encore: La Vallée des cloches

[Order of items uncertain]

(Source: Kansas City Journal-Post, 15 March 1928)

(I found it interesting that the source of the program is a newspaper I had never heard of....the Kansas City Journal-Post. I looked it up in Wikipedia, and sure enough, this was a  KC newspaper dating back to 1854....almost 30 years before the KC Star was established. It folded in 1942).

As I read more about Ravel's visit to the US, I found a great website that is dedicated to the composer.
Here is the page that describes Rave'ls trip to KC:

Ravel in Kansas City

Flag of Kansas City
Ravel came to Kansas City for a recital on 14 March 1928, with the soprano Lisa Roma, at the Hotel Muehlebach ballroom, under the auspices of the local Pro Musica group. The event was eagerly anticipated and the venue was packed. It began with a reading of Ravel's prepared lecture on contemporary music, in which he paid tribute to the modern generation of French composers, as well as repeating his views on the "blues" as a vital force in American music.
The perforrmance of piano music and songs by Ravel attract the usual criticisms of the composer's limited abilities as a performer, as well as reservations about the suitability of his singer. None of this however diminished the sense of occasion and Ravel's personality, as expressed both in his music and in his physical presence, drew a warm response from local reviewers.

"What we heard was music that seems to have been written by one with the touch of Midas... It has color, rhythm, design and effect and its aesthetic sense is developed to the highest degree. At times it is even tantalizing, so subtle is Ravel and so delicious is his sense of the ridiculous." (Kansas City Journal-Post, 15 March 1928**).
"Little of the music ever had been heard by the audience before last night. It is pleasant to be able to say that a great deal of it, as was not the case with the gruff and thundering Bartok, left a positive impression, and at the time was a matter for enjoyment and not a test of endurance. Chiefly because, doubtless, modernist Ravel seems always less concerned with saying what he has to say in a different way, than with finding something sensible to say in the first place." (Kansas City Times, 15 March 1928, p.14**).

(** as quoted in Dunfee [1980] pp.105-108.)

(Another newspaper can see the Kansas City Times was also quoted here. Kansas City had 2 daily papers for almost 100 years...the Times in the morning and the Star in the afternoon. The times disappeared in 1990, and since then, KC has had only a morning paper).

Ravel wrote so much incredible music. You all surely know Bolero...his most famous composition. You may also not be aware that Ravel was the genius who orchestrated Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky.The Sheherazade as seen on the program above is one of two compositions by the same name written by Ravel, this one from 1903. .not to be confused with the more famous Scheherazade by Rimsky Korsakov. And then you can talk about Pavane pour une infante defunte, Rhapsodie espagnole, Daphis et Chloe, Introduction and Allegro.....and on and on......

Add Ravel to your playlist!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Playlist Suggestion - Ida Presti

She is one of my favorite classical guitarists. Ida Presti died in 1967, and though she was well known during her career, I don't believe she reached the status of other guitarists such as Segovia, Bream or Parkening. But her tone, phrasing and emotion make her one of my favorites. Here is a great tune called Carpice by Lagoya. It was recorded sometime in the 1950's....I don't have the date. I find myself listening to it over and over.......Enjoy!

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Seasons..... but not Vivaldi's.

I am pretty sure that most Americans are familiar with at least some of the melodies or phrases from Vivaldi's masterpiece, The Four Seasons. Composed in 1725, this set of four violin concertos is one of the most recognizable works in all of classical music. It has been transcribed for just about every instrument known to man, used in films, TV shows, commercials, and internet podcasts. It is a devastatingly brilliant work of art. SO what does this have to do with Tchaikovsky???
Well, thanks to Sirius XM satellite radio, Channel 74, I was introduced to another work called The Seasons by none other than one of my favorite composers, Peter Tchaikovsky. I caught a glimpse of the radio and saw The Seasons on the screen, but after a few moments I said, "hey...this isn't Vivaldi! What the.....? What I was hearing was a work for solo piano. And it was not remotely similar to Vivaldi's robust baroque style. Chalk it up to what I say all the time....there is so much music out there that I know little or nothing about. How wonderful it is to "discover" new music.
So I Googled The Seasons by Tchaikovsky. Here is an excerpt from Wikipedia:

The Seasons was commenced shortly after the premiere of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, and continued while he was completing his first ballet, Swan Lake.[2]
In 1875, Nikolay Matveyevich Bernard, the editor of the St. Petersburg music magazine Nouvellist, commissioned Tchaikovsky to write 12 short piano pieces, one for each month of the year. Bernard suggested a subtitle for each month's piece. Tchaikovsky accepted the commission and all of Bernard's subtitles, and in the December 1875 edition of the magazine, readers were promised a new Tchaikovsky piece each month throughout 1876. The January and February pieces were written in late 1875 and sent to Bernard in December, with a request for some feedback as to whether they were suitable, and if not, Tchaikovsky would rewrite February and ensure the remainder were in the style Bernard was after. March, April and May appear to have been composed separately; however the remaining seven pieces were all composed at the same time and written in the same copybook, and evidence suggests they were written between 22 April and 27 May. The orchestration of Swan Lake was finished by 22 April, leaving the composer free to focus on other music; and he left for abroad at the end of May. This seems to put the lie to Nikolay Kashkin's published version of events, which was that each month the composer would sit down to write a single piece, but only after being reminded to do so by his valet.[1]

This has become one of my favorite pieces. I have posted a link to a nice performance of The Seasons from YouTube Two legendary composers, working 150 years apart, using the same inspiration....the Seasons.