Saturday, February 28, 2015

Some things I didn't know about Gustav Mahler

First off, I wish I could share with you that Gustav Mahler had visited Kansas City, just as Strauss, Prokofiev, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Bartok, and Respighi had. But alas, I cannot. But I did look into this possibility and discovered that even though Mahler did not come to KC, he did in fact tour the United States 3 times with the New York Philharmonic. I have been reading excerpts from a great book called Gustav Mahler and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra Tour America, by Mary H. Wagner. She gives a detailed account of Mahler's time as the Director of that fine orchestra from 1909 until his death in 1911.They embarked on three tours during the years 1910 and 1911 that took them to New Haven, Providence, Springfield, MA, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Utica, NY, Syracuse, and Washington D.C. Here is the headline from the Buffalo Evening News, December 8, 1910:

The reviews of the performances were generally very good, according to Ms. Wagner's research. have been there to see one of those concerts would have been incredible.

Last summer I had a great conversation with Tom Sudholt, Program Director of the Radio Arts Foundation in St. Louis. (you can see the full interview with Tom in my blog posted 10/19/14). I remarked that I loved that the classical repertoire is so vast, and there was so much to discover. Tom agreed. Well, very recently, a HUGE example of that came to light. Mahler is of course known for his symphonies, and his songs. But I remember thinking how cool it would have been if he had written chamber music, concertos, solo instrumental works, or string quartets.....right? Well, he DID write one quartet...the Piano Quartet in A minor. I Googled this question one evening, and Wiki brought forth a citation for it. It says it was written during Mahler's first year at the Vienna Conservatory when he was 15 or 16 years old. I am sure many of you may already know this....but I am not ashamed to admit that I HAD NO IDEA about it. Please do yourself a favor and listen to it....I think it is marvelous.

I learned later that Martin Scorsese used this piece in his 2010 movie, Shutter Island. Here is the has some graphic images......

Lastly, I learned that on this death bed in 1911, his has word was "Mozart".

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Conversation with Susie Yang, Cellist

This Saturday, February 21, 2015, KC area residents will have an opportunity to see and hear a very gifted cellist, Susie Yang, perform with the Heritage Philharmonic. Ms. Yang has been the Associate Principal Cellist of the Kansas City Symphony since 2010. She will be performing the Variations on a Rococo Theme by Tchaikovsky. Here is the complete program for the concert:

Music of Russia

Saturday, February 21, 2015 at 7:30 PM

Blue Springs High School 
2000 NW Ashton Drive
Blue Springs, MO 64015

Borodin     Symphony No. 2
Liadov     Eight Russian Folk Songs
Tchaikovsky     Variations on a Rococo Theme 
Susie Yang, cello soloist

I recently had a conversation with Ms.Yang to learn more about her and and talk about classical music.

TH: What is your first memory of hearing a cello?

SY: I was 2 or 3…my mom played the cello and my older sister played the violin. I started playing cello when I was 5.

TH: So hearing both cello and violin, how did you choose between the two?

SY: It’s not any kind of inspiring story (laughing)…it was chosen for me. My sister really wanted to play the violin…she was very passionate about it at a young age. I was shyer and quieter and my parents thought playing might open me up, and since my mom is a cellist, they gave me a cello.

TH: Where did you grow up?

SY: The Northwest suburbs of Chicago, where my parents still live…in Schaumburg.

TH: My dad was passionate his entire life about classical music, and I read that your father has the same passion?

SY: Yes. Since we were little, we heard classical music at home…especially his favorites like the Schubert Trout Quintet. He has a collection of so many amazing classical records with soloists such as Jascha Heifetz and Pierre Fournier and also recordings of great orchestral music with Leonard Bernstein and George Szell conducting. 

TH: How did you end up here in Kansas City?

SY: After college, I auditioned for the New World Symphony in Miami and I ended up there. Alex East (Assistant Principal Cello with the KC Symphony) came to teach some lessons and I played for him. That led to a short term, 6-month opening with the KC Symphony in 2009. I auditioned for the permanent position and I didn't get the job, so I moved away to San Diego where my sister lives (she is Associate Concertmaster of the San Diego Symphony). 6-months later I came back to audition in KC again and I won the Associate Principal Cello job. So I came back!

TH: Tell us about the cello you play.

SY: I play an instrument from Chicago. It’s from the William Harris Lee & Company shop. It’s a Peter Staszel cello made in 1994. It’s very modern.

TH: How many hours a day do you practice?

SY: It varies. Anywhere from 2-4 hours in general…or more…..

TH: Do you play every day? 

SY: Yes, pretty much every day. I do try to take some time off during the summer.

TH: Do you play any instruments other than the cello?

SY: No, just the cello…it’s hard enough (laughing).

TH: Tell me a little about the Tchaikovsky Variations on a Rococo Theme that you will be performing with the Heritage Philharmonic this Saturday night.

SY: It is one of Tchaikovsky’s more elegant and lighter pieces. If you know his symphonies, they are very romantic and very stormy…quite emotional. With this piece, he was trying to write in the style of one of his greatest inspirations…Mozart. So you can hear some of Mozart’s style. It’s lighter. It’s very well orchestrated for the cello. There aren’t many balance issues because it is pretty sparse and he uses great interactions with other instruments in the orchestral accompaniment.

TH: Tell me some of the differences between performing as a soloist and playing in an ensemble.

SY: As a soloist you have more liberty to do what you want in some ways. You are listening to the ensemble and working with the conductor, but you are still the soloist. You also have the freedom to play your own fingerings, bowings, and phrases. You can be free to express your own personality! In an ensemble, such as an orchestra, you have to blend your sound with your stand partner and your section. It is really important to listen to each other, while playing with the conductor and creating a good ensemble sound. There are perks to both. Some people don’t enjoy playing as a soloist. It’s definitely scary…you are OUT there on your own. But I enjoy it. I started doing it at a young age too which makes me more comfortable with it.

TH: You mentioned on your KC Symphony website profile that Jacqueline Du Pre was a big influence on you. Are there other cellists you also admire or enjoy listening to?

SY: For me it is Rostropovich and Yo-Yo Ma. Rostropovich is a master of the cello, in my opinion. The different colors he is able to bring out and the amazing bow control he has are just a few of his traits I admire as a cellist. I love Yo-Yo not only for his great cello playing, but for his interactions with the audience and the different audiences he is able to attract. He is experimental and adventurous. He opens up the classical musician to many other aspects of playing. But with Du Pre, I won a competition when I was 11 and I was playing Elgar (Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor) which was “her piece”. So my parents bought me a VHS of her very famous Elgar Concerto. I watched it all the time. She was the one who led me to start loving the cello.

TH: What are the physical challenges of playing the cello professionally? Any health issues?

SY: I have not had many physical problems so far in my career. There was a time last year when I had to take a couple of weeks off from work because I had a lot of muscle tension in my neck and in between my shoulder blades, which can be quite common. So, I get massage therapy every once in a while. Several of my colleagues in the orchestra get acupuncture, which is also supposed to be very helpful. I definitely notice a difference in my physical capabilities from my younger years. I was able to practice for 4 hours without a break. If I do that now, I would injure myself! I have to take breaks and warm up properly to avoid the risk of causing tension or injuries. I also love doing yoga to maintain flexibility, good posture and good breathing skills.

TH: We both know that most people in our culture don’t listen to classical music.

SY: I think that many people have not been exposed to a great live concert experience. Also, I think that people who think classical music is stuffy, also assume that the musicians are unapproachable. They might think that we are snobby and spend all of our time in a practice room. I believe in making classical music accessible to all kinds of people and I know that the Kansas City Symphony really believes in that too. We have created great concerts like the free Happy Hour chamber music concerts, where musicians create the programs and talk to the audiences about the pieces before playing them. We also have the new series called Classics Uncorked, where the concert is much shorter, the tickets cheaper, and you get a free drink and an opportunity to talk to the musicians out in the lobby. I have made great connections with audience members and I love to talk to them about music, but also let them know that I am more than just a cellist. I do "normal" things, like cooking or discovering good eats around KC.

TH: I also see a lot of young people in the audience these days.

SY: I think that the symphony is definitely getting more popular with younger crowds. The free and cheaper concerts are getting them exposed to the symphony and then they HAVE to come to a classics after that--I hope so, anyway. I noticed that there were a lot of young people in the audiences in Miami with the New World Symphony as well.

TH: I think the KC Symphony is doing a great job with community outreach. Seeing you play the National Anthem at the World Series was awesome!

SY: I agree! We are doing really exciting things and we are getting noticed. (That Royals game was one of the best days of my life!) Our administration is so great too. They really respect and admire the musicians and what we do, which creates a great atmosphere to work together.

TH: What composers (other than Bach) do you enjoy listening to?

SY: Beethoven is one of my other favorite composers. Of course, I love all of his music! But, for me, his quartets are my absolute favorite. That music has touched my emotions in ways I could never imagine! Brahms also has great chamber pieces. As you can tell, I love chamber music--listening to it and playing it. Two other composers worth mentioning for me personally, are Prokofiev and Stravinsky.

TH: I know I speak for all of the musicians in the Heritage Philharmonic when I say that we are so excited that you are joining us for this concert on Saturday night.

SY: Thank you! I am very excited to perform with the Heritage Philharmonic and I hope the audience enjoys the performance of this great piece.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Richard Strauss in Kansas City

"Tonight the most Discussed Music Writer Will Go Through His "Forest of Sharps and Flats" in the Convention Hall" 

"Composer Desires a Walk Here, Choosing Swope Park"

"He had just come from St. Louis where he encountered a rather keen disappointment, although he smiled when he told why he had not been permitted to conduct the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in some of his own works. 'The board of directors, he said, decided against it'. He smiled again, as if there was no accounting for the things that happen. 'But tell me how would the people of Kansas City receive Till Eulenspiegel'?"

On Wednesday, February 23, 1921, Richard Strauss made a stop in Kansas City on his tour of the United States, and gave a concert at Convention Hall with soprano Claire Dux. Strauss played the piano for the entire concert, which consisted of 16 of his songs. I get such a charge out of the fact that one of the greatest composers in history visited our city. I found a "coming soon" write up in the KC Star, (the quotes above are taken from that) and a review of the performance in the KC Post. The orchestral works of Strauss are very well known, including Till Eulenspiegel, An Alpine Symphony, Death and Transfiguration, Metamorphosen, and Also Sprach Zarathustra. But he is also well known for writing many operas and songs. 
Here is the review as it appeared in the Kansas City Post the next day.

Famous Pianist and Young Continental Singer Stir Thousands by Exquisite Renditions at Convention Hall.
By Frances Davis

A tall man with long arms, sensitive hands and shoulders that drooped a trifle, stepped onto the concert stage in Convention Hall Wednesday night.
The man was Dr. Richard Strauss, modern master of musical compositions, beloved friend of the iconoclastic Nietsche, accused of being the bitter enemy of the dramatic and ethical Wagner, the creator of exquisite music in all forms and cadences. His hair is white, but his eyes hold a magnetic message.
Those in the audience were not absorbed in the personality of Richard Strauss, gratified themselves with an inspection of Claire Dux, the young, continental singer selected to voice words for the beautiful nuances of the composer's songs.
It was all done very quietly. Mme. Dux, a fair haired young woman with a voice like the mellow stir of summer winds in leafy reaches, was gowned in a pale lavender tinted satin dress.
Nothing in her appearance suggested the Blase.
She appeared to sing to please and even her mannerisms, which were many, bore the mark of sincerity of feeling.
The concert was unusual in many respects.
No great demonstration occurred when Dr. Strauss appeared. The only flutter came after the singing of three songs in the fourth group. Miss Dux forgot the fourth song (there were four songs in each of the four groups) and grew most humanly red at the omission, which apparently amused the scholarly Dr. Strauss. He smiled.
At any rate, the austerity of the occasion was broken and Miss Dux came back and sang the songs she had omitted, "Freundliche Vision". This ended the group which, it had been planned, would be ended with "Standchen". But what mattered that? The audience showed no desire to leave, and Miss Dux returned to sing that serenade again, making five songs in the group.
Approximately 5,500 persons attended the concert. The young singer received sincere tribute. Applause called her back five times after the conclusion of the second group.She also was obliged to repeat the exquisite, lulling melody of "Wiegenlied", a lullaby, for the second time.
The music of this was played by the composer with scarcely an appearance of touching the piano. He has none of the heralded "technique"of the music schools, that begs the piano student to hold the finger up from the second joint and strike a direct movement.
His hands slide over the keys, striking with but little distance. The piano he used was a Knabe. The songs carolled forth in sheer rhythmic resonance, with no hint of pyrotechnics.
An aged musician sitting down in front shook his head devoutly at the close of the lullaby. "That's singing," he said, "and music".
The Strauss songs were all on the general theme of devotion. One was a barcarole, the English version by Alice Mattuiath, swaying with the rythm of the usual boat song music, a trifle more adequately voiced, a bit more delicately balanced, a hint of the ineffable in the midst of "yearning to rise, there, where the stars in the heavens are thronging," as the English version reads.
Miss Dux has a voice that carries along the singing quality of the Strauss music. Emotionally, her renditions were alive. She sang almost dramatically on occasions. One of the most perfectly balanced evidence of her control of staccato tone was in the final song, the serenade, and again "Mein Auge"-My Vision, English words by John Bernoff - and "Longing Hearts".
The songs played  by Dr. Strauss offer musical variety. He plays with tone as a boy plays with grains of sand in a sieve in Ich Schwebe. (I soar). The "angels through the ether winging" go sailing up, up the treble cleff, to the last note on the keyboard.
It was difficult to divide oneself between the dramatic tonal emanitions of Miss Dux and the singing, arpeggio arrangements of Dr. Strauss. Lightly as a breath, he shaded into pianissimo tones and gracefully as the piling of waves on a beach, he sent forth accentuations for the heavier demands, never outdistancing the voice of the young woman singer.
There was plenty of space to spare in the hall and those who hoped against hope to hear something more from Dr. Strauss than as an accompanist, were disappointed, but the concert was one of the most successful of may seasons, according to many opinions expressed.
When a young woman sings 16 love songs, repeating two of them, written to more or less difficult music, and when the composer who wrote them accompanies her, there is bound to be music. That's what it was.

Convention Hall was built in 1899. It burned down in 1900, but was rebuilt in 90 days. It was at the corner of 13th and Central. The Hall was torn down in 1936 when Municipal Auditorium was opened. Distant Kansas City memories......