Friday, January 30, 2015

Django Reinhardt in Kansas City

Jazz attracted me because in it I found a formal perfection and instrumental precision that I admire in classical music, but which popular music doesn't have." - Django Reinhardt

You should be aware at this point that I have a true fascination and appreciation for the guitar....and guitarists. Segovia, Presti, Boyd, Metheny, Montgomery, Svoboda, Zappa, Vai....and so on. Yes, I am a violinist, and that will always be my first love, but I did teach myself to play guitar when I was 15 and have enjoyed the instrument ever since. Of all the guitarists in history, perhaps none have a story as compelling and interesting as Django Reinhardt. I learned about him many years ago, and routinely listen to his recordings. He was born in Belgium in 1910, and moved to France where he lived his entire life. I am not going to throw his biography at can read all about him on Wikipedia, but there are a couple things I will point out: he was severely burned in a fire when he was 18 and lost the use of his 4th and 5th fingers on his left hand, as well as being burned over half his body and losing the use of his right leg. Told he would never play the guitar again, he refused to believe this and taught himself to play with just two fingers and his thumb. When you hear him play, it's almost impossible to believe anyone could be shredding a guitar and comping chords like he does with only 2 fingers. I can't play that many notes with all four fingers and thumb!
Django later teamed up with violinist Stephane Grapelli and formed the Hot Club of France and created a form of jazz that spread all over the world.
Django appreciated classical music, and was very aware and connected to other French artists and composers. He wrote a tune called Nuages, just as Debussy had in 1899. He also wrote a tune called Bolero....yep, just like Ravel had in 1928. He also recorded Debussy's Reverie in 1950.
In his book "Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend", author Michael Dregni talks about Django's appreciation of Debussy and Ravel. "After Bach, Debussy and Ravel were Django's favorite composers; they were near contemporaries of Django and also thoroughly modernistique". Stephane Grapelli went to a concert with Django in Paris where they heard music of Berlioz. "He liked great things and I believe he experienced them in a way they should be experienced. To see his expression in the glorious church of St. Eustache in Paris, hearing for the first time the Berlioz Requiem, was to see a person in ecstasy".
Django stayed in Paris during the Nazi occupation of France. As a "gypsy", he was lucky to survive the war as many of France's gypsies were sent to concentration camps and killed. He did try to escape on more than one occasion but was unsuccessful. Luckily, there were some Nazis who enjoyed his music and protected him despite the Nazi party's official condemnation of jazz.
After the war, Django teamed up with Duke Ellington for his one and only tour of the United States in 1946. And as you can tell from the title of this entry, he played here in KC!
I had found a citation that referred to a tour stop here in November 1946. I went to the KC Public Library and looked through the KC Star and Times from November 1946 and found a promotional ad for Duke Ellington at Municipal Hall on November 17. But Django was not mentioned. Then I found the review! BUT, again, there was no mention at all of Django. Huh? Weird. So I kept looking and found nothing else. And I knew from a previous citation that Duke and Django gave their last performances on November 23 and 24 at Carnegie Hall in New York. There were no other dates they could have come back to KC.
I left the library thoroughly perplexed. I called Chuck Haddix at the Miller Nichols Library at UMKC for help. He remembered hearing that Django had played at the Pla Mor Ballroom at the corner of Linwood and Main around that time. ????? Pla Mor???? I had never heard of that place.

So that lead me on another fact finding learn about the Pla Mor Ballroom...but I will save that for a different time. Chuck said that because of segregation, artists would sometimes perform 2 shows in a city; one at a hall that allowed African Americans, and one at a hall that did not. I kept researching and eventually found a great site called "Gypsy Jazz UK" that confirmed there were two Duke Ellington shows in KC: November 17 at Municipal Auditorium, and November 18th at the Pla Mor. Django only played the show at the Pla Mor. Here is a picture of him at that concert:
So one of the greatest guitarists of All Time came to KC and performed with the legendary Duke Ellington.

I have written about my fascination with the intersection of musical styles and forces in music and culture. Just as Gershwin could combine jazz and classical, so too could Django. And he only had 2 fingers that worked on his left hand!

Here are a few links to some of the great music of Django.

Django playing Debussy's "Reverie"

Debussy's "Nuages"

Django's composition, "Nuages" I LOVE THIS TUNE!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Sergei Prokofiev in Kansas City

On this day, January 22, in 1965, I was born! On this day in 1926, Sergei Prokofiev performed in Kansas City.
As I continue to look back at famous composers who actually came to Kansas City, none perhaps are as "big" as Sergei Prokofiev. I first heard "Peter and the Wolf" as a young child, and was thoroughly hooked by the wonderful story and even more wonderful melodies. Right around that same time in my life, my dad, who had already started taking me to record stores (see the very first entry of this blog) took me to a concert in Chicago. I was six years-old. It featured the Suite to Prokofiev's ballet, "Romeo and Juliet". I had no idea what to expect,....and WHAM ...the first 15 or 16 measures are so loud and scared me to death. But then the familiar melody kicks in and the rest of the suite is exceptional. Fast forward about 10 years to May of 1981. My dad and I went to see the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. They played Prokofiev's First Symphony in D major...his "Classical" symphony. To this day, I remember this as one of the greatest performances I have ever seen. The second movement of this piece is so light and exquisite...and they absolutely soared. Philadelphia was always known for it's lush string section, and they showed me why.
While researching the travels of notable composers in the early 20th Century, I learned early on that Prokofiev emigrated to the US in 1918 and spent a great deal of time living and composing here. I later found a citation in a book that referenced his performance in Kansas City. It was vague and did not indicate what year he was here or any other details. I eventually found a book that listed his KC appearance as January 22, 1926. (my birthday!) So I went to the KC Public Library and pulled the microfiche of the KC Times and Star for January 1926. I spent an hour looking for the review, but to no avail. I was really bummed. So later I sent an e-mail to the Prokofiev archives at Columbia University in NYC. The curator of the performing arts collection (Jennifer Lee) responded within 24 hours. She had found the program and 2 newspaper clippings from his KC recital. It had been January 22, 1926. But for some reason I had not been able to find the review in the paper.
So here is what she found: (you will probably have to zoom in)
The interview on the right gives more detail about the logistics of the event. This recital was in the ballroom of the Kansas City Club at 918 Baltimore. Prokofiev's wife, Lina Llubera, a soprano, sang.
My grandparents were members of this club back in the day, and I can remember going there for special dinners on a few occasions. I had no idea that Prokofiev himself had ever been there.
Prokofiev toured the US again in 1930 but did not stop in Kansas City. He moved back to the Soviet Union in 1936. He died in 1953.

Here is a link to the second movement of his First Symphony:

And here is the "March" from his Opera "The Love for Three Oranges"op.33. As you can see above, Prokofiev played this at his KC recital. It's a very familiar melody.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Date night at the Kansas City Symphony

I made it clear when I started writing this blog that I am not a critic....I am not going to write reviews. That still stands. But I am going to share some thoughts and reflections about my experiences as they relate to classical music. If it comes across as a "review" be it. But it's not my intention. (And frankly, one of the reasons I would be a terrible critic is I love the music too much to be objective, and every review would be a good one).
So Cheryl and I went to see the Kansas City Symphony last evening at Helzberg Hall. My mom has season tickets, and she is very generous to share them with me. In addition to awesome seats, we also have valet parking, which is totally worth the additional cost. We rolled up to the Hall at 6:30 pm, dropped the car off, and walked across Broadway to Los Tules for some great food and a cold cerveza. (location location location). It's nice to get the car parked, walk to dinner and only be a few hundred feet away from the Hall so we don't have to worry about being late. We made it back to the Hall and in our seats with plenty of time to spare.
The program this evening started with Mozart's Symphony no 35, the "Haffner" (The Haffner's were a family in Salzburg: Sigmund Haffner Sr. was mayor of Salzburg. His son, Sigmund Jr. commissioned this work of Mozart). This symphony is loaded with great melodies...Cheryl was familiar with some of them. Next was a newly commissioned work by Andre Previn; the Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra. This work featured cellist Sharon Robinson and violinist Jamie Laredo. Lastly, After intermission, we heard the first symphony of Johannes Brahms. Back to this in a bit.
Throughout the evening, I made notes of my thoughts and observations.
Number one. The KC Symphony is truly a world-class ensemble and organization. We tend to use sports franchises to distinguish or denote "major league" status for a city. I would make the case that the better gauge of "major league" status for a city is it's symphony orchestra. I have seen just about every major orchestra of the world (yes, I am bragging here): Berlin, Vienna, Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, the Gawandhaus of Leipzig, Munich, Dresden, Orchestre de Paris, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Boston, St. Louis, and Chicago....I can honestly and emphatically say that the Kansas City Symphony belongs on this is THAT good. First-class. World-class. Big League. The musicianship is first rate, at every position. Maestro Stern has a clear and focused vision...long term...strategic....musically sophisticated....warm and reassuring, yet edgy enough to challenge you and push you into new musical territories. And he seems like a very nice guy. His rapport with the audience is relaxed, friendly and engaging. He comes across as very down to earth and accessible. Before the concert, he and the Executive Director of the Symphony, Frank Byrne, came to the stage to speak to the audience. They had a wonderful interplay between each other, and the audience. It was humorous, and very real. They thanked the audience for their support of the symphony...and it felt so genuine. Mr. Stern made a great comment about how those of us in the hall this evening know what a great thing we have with this organization and in this city.....and we need to share it with those who have not yet discovered what a treasure it truly is.
A great symphony orchestra does indeed transcend the walls of the hall. It becomes embedded in the community. It teaches, inspires, uplifts, cheers, consoles, unties, and most importantly, it makes you feel like it is YOURS....OURS. It is part of what makes Kansas City GREAT....just like our BBQ, the Royals and the Chiefs, the Nelson, the Plaza, the Speedway, the Jazz and Negro Leagues Baseball museums, and any other component of our community that means something special to you. Seeing all of the musicians and Mr. Stern wearing Royals jerseys and playing the National Anthem this past October at the World Series was amazing, and illustrates just what I am trying to say.
Back to seems clear to me that the musicians and Mr. Stern have a true connection. The vibe I get is one of respect and admiration...both ways. There seems to be sincere appreciation there.
So back to last night. It looked like a full house to me. And the audience LOOKS like you Kansas City. It's not the stereo-typical classical music crowd.....old and stuffy. (sorry to offend anyone who is old and stuffy). The audience is very diverse in age...I feel like I saw just as many "young people" <30, as I did >60. It was really cool. Jeans and suits. Argyle and leather. It's all there.
So back to the music. I have written before about Helzberg Hall. The acoustics are WORLD-CLASS. The Mozart came instantly to life and filled the hall with such beauty as I can't even describe. Perhaps the biggest revelation I had this evening came while I was looking around at the audience during the Mozart. Here is a group of 1600 people who came together to listen to music that was composed 235 years ago! Astonishing really. And it sounded so alive. It sounded so fresh. It sounded contemporary. That is the true gift of this music...this classical music that so few people really listen to in their daily lives. It is timeless. The Brahms First is perhaps my favorite of his four symphonies. In the program, several of the musicians are featured in a short 4 question interview. David Gamble, a french horn player, was asked if he has a favorite composition he likes to play or listen to. He answered "any of the four Brahms symphonies. Playing or listening, they always put me in a great mood". I couldn't say it any better. And the performance this evening of the First was breathtaking! I think I had a smile on my face all the way home.
This is YOUR Symphony Orchestra KC. It makes us all World-Class. It's playing in one of the greatest concert halls in the world. And it's right your city. Don't miss it.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Ottorino Respighi in Kansas City

One of the first records I ever listened to was Respighi's The Pines of Rome. As I've said before, when I was six or seven years-old, my dad gave me some records to get me started on my classical journey. I remember a red record, with a black and white picture of a man with a big mustache and a stick in his hand. TOSCANINI......

Even on my tiny phonograph, back in 1971, the music came to life and grabbed my attention. I listened over and over.....
I was born in Kansas City, MO in 1965. Forty years before my birth, KC was a hot spot for music. The jazz scene flourished here in the 1920's. Benny Moten and his Orchestra were tearing up the jazz world. Charlie Parker was born here in 1920 and would soon define bebop. But classical composers and performers like Maurice Ravel, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Bela Bartok visited our fair city in the 1920's too, bringing their music and new ideas with them. Ottorino Respighi, whom I "discovered" 44 years later, performed in Kansas City on February 7, 1927 with his wife Elsa.
They performed at the Ivanhoe Auditorium. (I had never heard of this hall) It was located at 2301 East Linwood. It was actually part of the Ivanhoe Masonic Temple and was demolished in 1999.
Here is the review that appeared in the newspaper the next day:

From the Kansas City Times, Tuesday, February 8, 1927.

Ottorino Respighi’s First Kansas City Visit Has Its Climax in Ivanhoe Auditorium

Not every visit made by a genius has the hearty response given that of Ottorino Respighi last night at his concert with his wife, Elsa Respighi, and the Little Symphony. If its capacity to appreciate the numerous qualities of greatness in the man is any measuring rod, the audience must have been of unusual caliber. The concert was in Ivanhoe Auditorium under the sponsorship of the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra Association, and was had largely through the devoted work of N. DeRubertis, conductor of the orchestra, and Powell Weaver, friend and pupil of the Italian composer.
The program seemed diverse on paper, but actually formed a rather homogeneous whole. It afforded brief glimpses into several fields in which the Italian excels as a composer of songs, as an arranger of songs, as a transcriber for orchestra, as a conductor, and as an accompanist.
All the compositions and all the arrangements showed an intellectual finesse and honest freedom of thought and execution that unfortunately are none too often associated with modern music. The five songs in the first group, “Notte”, “Stornellatrice”, “Nevicata”, “Noel Ancien”, and “Pioggia”, probably differ slightly in individual merit (the next to the last seemed least interesting, although it was repeated), but it is doubtful whether any other modern composer could find in his works five to match them in melodic and harmonic freshness, or quality of “inevitability” that all good music has. They are “absolute” in the sense that they invite no comparison, but form each its entity.
The old dances for lute are most freely transcribed in that Respighi has boldly made use of any effect, modern or otherwise, that seemed fitting to him. One of the trumpets wore a hat, the harp played harmonica, and in the first pages of the ballata, the strings played mandolin style. But the tunes were unashamed of their modern clothes because, perhaps, they realized they were improved thereby and were not triggered out for a catch-penny show. The aria was as lovely music as anyone could hope to write-a gorgeous, full throated song for the orchestra and one it sang from the heart.
Mme. Respighi’s last group was a set of arrangements, one from a Bolognese song about the girl who wished to marry the boy she loved in spite of his gambling propensities, another about the wise men, another a tarantella from Sicily, and so on. The set was provided some extraordinary accomplishments by the composer; he took away none of the earthy taste and added no “arty” atmosphere. “Il Tramonto”, a setting of Shelley’s “At Sunset” for string orchestra, proved interesting in spite of its length and the absence of the brass and woodwinds, which sections Respighi knows wonderfully well how to use. The visitor’s ability as a conductor was to be seen better at rehearsal than at the performance. His care for detail, broad knowledge, and generous spirit made the rehearsals a pleasure for the men of the orchestra, who gave him “all they had”. Mme. Respighi was considerably hampered by a very bad cold, which, however, did not cloud the unusual sympathy she has with her husband’s musical thought.
Mr. Weaver appeared once-conducting an orchestra for the first time in Kansas City in an early work of his own called “Music to an Imaginary Ballet”. Mr. Weaver chose the title before everyone else began using it-the ideas contained in the work are equally original and expressed with a neatness and facility that is excellent preparation for the newer work he is completing. It has a sturdy rhythmic backbone (a characteristic of his teacher’s work as well), and seemed last night to indicate the possession of a sure and facile dramatic sense. He was warmly applauded.
Mr. DeRubertis chose for himself a modest role, and played it with good taste and tact. He conducted the weaving rhythms of Debussy’s “Scotch March” and the brittle cleverness of Wolf-Ferrari’s “Dance of the Cammorrists”, both with imagination and with abandon. Between them he supported his distinguished colleague by returning to his old instrument, the double bass. And it must have been a considerable sacrifice of cuticle too, for finger tips grow soft after seasons of disuse.
The orchestra seemed inspired by the occasion. It has not played better this season.

The name of the reviewer is not given. 

I found the description of the Little Symphony interesting as well. Here is a link to the Kansas City Symphony's website that gives the history of symphony orchestras in KC, including a brief mention of the Little Symphony.

Here is a link to the September 22, 1922 Lawrence Journal-World that also gives some history of the Little Symphony.

And lastly, for your listening enjoyment, a link to Toscanini's recording pictured above, recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1953.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

CD Recommendation-Pletnev and Rachmaninov (and Chopin).

I recently wrote about Sergei Rachmaninov's numerous concert performances in Kansas City back in the 1920 and 30's. (I had not been aware that he had ever been in my hometown). I love his music and I discovered a CD in my collection called Homage a Rachmaninov performed by the Russian pianist, Mikhail Pletnev. This became my favorite CD of 2014. It was recorded in 1998 at Rachmaninov's summer home known as Villa Senar on the banks of Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. Rachmaninov loved Steinway pianos, and he had his own special Steinway delivered to Villa Senar where it still remains in his study. (This is the piano he used to compose his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini). Pletnev recorded this album on Rachmaninov's piano.
The first thing I noticed was how GREAT this recording sounded. I don't know how to mic a piano etc....but the tone and presence of this recording is warm and alive.You feel like you are in the room at Villa Senar listening to Rachmaninov himself playing.
The first piece on the CD are his Variations on a Theme of Corelli, which Rachmaninov himself performed frequently while on tour. The liner notes are full of stories and anecdotes about Rachmaninov, one of which describes how when playing the Corelli, he "regularly omitted individual sections whenever it became clear that the audience was not concentrating or when they began to cough unduly".
The CD also features Pletnev playing Beethoven's Sonata no. 26, Mendelssohn's Andante cantabile e Presto agitato and Rondo capriccioso op.14, Chopin's Grand Polonaise op. 22, and Rachmaninov's 4 Etudes-Tableaux. All of these are terrific, but the Chopin jumped out as my favorite.
My first memories of Chopin go back to the 1970's when my sister was a ballet dancer with the Austin Civic Ballet.  At that time, the music for dance class was provided by a pianist, and Chopin's music was a staple of this repertoire. Her dance classes and my violin lessons were frequently on the same evening, and I remember my lesson being over first, so I had to wait at the dance studio for her class to finish which assured that I would get a healthy does of Chopin each week. Ballades, Polonaises, Mazurkas, name it....they were all there. Fast forward several years to high school. My first real girlfriend...and a good friend to this day...was a pianist. She turned me on to Chopin's Preludes. This changed my musical life, much the same way as hearing the Mahler 5th or the Beatles for the first time. I defy anyone to listen to Pletnev's recording of the Grand Polonaise and not feel lifted off your chair. It soars.
And back to my blog entry about Rachmaninov touring so extensively. The author of the liner notes for this CD, Jurgen Otten, describes how the Wall Street collapse of 1929 affected  Rachmaninov's financial security, forcing him to tour constantly throughout the 1930's. "Often enough, Rachmaninov would travel across half a continent, only to find himself performing in half-empty, badly heated halls". I hope his performances in Lawrence, Rolla, Hutchinson, St. Joseph, Columbia, Topeka and KC were well heated.
Here is a clip of a documentary showing Pletnev playing some of the Corelli, filmed at Villa Senar. It's in Russian, but it is fascinating.