Friday, December 16, 2016

Great Chords: Taras Bulba

I was very fortunate as a child to have access to formal musical training as a violinist. The program I studied in was called the University of Texas String Project in Austin, Texas (I'm happy to say this program is still going strong forty-four years later!). Along with violin lessons, I also had classes in music literature and music theory. The part of music theory class I enjoyed the most was chord analysis...there are many ways to play or "voice," for example, a C major chord. Expanding on that, there are multiple groupings of notes that can be hard to determine just what they "add up to." I wish I was more proficient at diagnosing chords, so I supplement my lack of knowledge by asking Dr. Reynold Simpson, associate professor of music theory at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, for help.
As I have stated in other "Great Chords" entries in this blog, when I listen to music, I am always on the lookout for cool chords....chords that stand out or have a particularly bold impact on me. Even just one chord has the power to shape or elevate a piece of music. This week, I re-listened to one of my all-time favorite pieces of music; Taras Bulba by Leos Janacek. This is an orchestral suite in three movements based on the novel by Nikolai Gogol. I have the score for this piece so I followed it as I listened. The chord I want to mention occurs in the third to last measure of the piece, following a large build and crescendo.(This awesome work also includes an organ which reappears for this finale.)

Here is what Dr. Simpson says about this chord: "You might think of this as a poly-chord, almost like Strauss' Elecktra Chord, except this combines an F-sharp dominant with an E-flat minor. The B-flat and G-flat of the E-flat minor chord are the same as the F-sharp and A-sharp in the F-sharp dominant, but the E-flat has a strong clash with the E-natural of the F-sharp dominant. The contrast of the chord is almost as odd as its placement in the harmonic progression as it inserts itself between the A-flat dominant and the D-flat tonic. Interesting sound."
If you have a piano, play an E and an E-flat at the same time. This will give you a simple idea of how this chord sounds.

American conductor Kenneth Woods wrote a great essay called "Janacek's blood-stained hands" published on August 10, 2010. Mr. Woods had just conducted a workshop in North Wales about Taras Bulba. His insights are fascinating. To quote Mr. Woods, "In Janacek, again and again we find chords and melodies that in other hands would simply be memorable-in his they become iconic and awe-inspiring."
And from this same essay, Mr. Woods lists several quotes from Janacek himself, including this:

"For me, the chord is a being full of life; a flower of blood in musical art."

Here is Taras Bulba performed by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Karl Ancerl (1961). In my opinion, this is the finest recording of this work, ever.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Artist's Profile: Matt Palmer, Guitarist

One of the things I like about most music streaming services are the suggestions that pop up for you based on previous music you have listened to. Or in the case of YouTube, videos you have watched. Awhile back, a video of a guitarist named Matt Palmer showed up as a suggestion for me. He was playing the Bach Chaconne, one of the great pieces of music in the violin repertoire which has been transcribed and performed by many guitarists. So I clicked it and was instantly impressed by the performance. Mr. Palmer plays with great emotion and passion, and is clearly a virtuoso on the guitar. I watched the Chaconne several times, and then explored other performances he has on YouTube. Many people commented that he is a well known and respected guitarist. I had not heard of him, but of course, being curious by nature when it comes to understanding what makes artists tick, I decided to try and contact Mr. Palmer to see if he would grant me an interview. I was very happy he returned my e-mail and agreed to talk. I called him on a Saturday morning after he went to his son's soccer game.

TH You answered my interview request yourself….I was expecting a manger perhaps. Do you have an agent?

MP No, I just do it myself.

TH Cool. Where do you live?

MP I live just outside of DC, on the Maryland side…a place called Bowie.

TH Have you ever been to KC before?

MP Yes, I played there about 3 years ago…with the Kansas City Guitar Society and Doug Niedt.

TH A good friend of mine, John Svoboda, studied with Doug Niedt.

MP I know that name...I’ve heard of his work.

TH What brought me to you was a video that popped up on my YouTube suggestion list….your performance of the Bach Chaconne. That blew me away. Did you hear classical music or guitar music in your home as a youngster?

MP No I didn’t. It was all later. My first exposure to classical guitar….do you remember those subscription deals for CD’s where you could get 5 CDs a month or something like that? My mom had one of those…

TH Yes…Columbia House club.

MP Yeah...that’s what it was. And so she was on that and occasionally she’d get me something. It was kind of hit and miss if I would listen to it or not. She got me this classical guitar CD...a Christopher Parkening two disc set from that. It’s true…I’ve said it before…I put it in my closet and didn’t listen to it…didn’t even open it. I was in high school at this point…16-17 years old, and at that point I was all in on electric guitar and heavy metal, hard rock. I was in a band playing bars, having a great time with it. I’d say I was a very serious guitarist at the time. I played all the time. If I went to a party in high school, I’d show up with my guitar. Everyone knew me from that. But maybe two years later, I’d gone through a phase where I was listening to new music…it wasn’t new at the time, but new for me…some Al Di Meola…that thing where he played with Paco de Lucia…Friday Night in San Francisco.  When I heard that, I was hearing nylon strings, and it sparked my interest a bit. But then I recalled the CD my mom had given me and I got it out and listened to it and it was a “eureka” moment. Hearing Asturias and Recuerdos de la Alhambra…these staples in the classical guitar repertoire that can easily draw in an audience …that’s what drew me in...Asturias and Alhambra and other tremolo pieces. At the time, I didn’t read music or anything. This was before you could look up tabs on the internet, so I just did it the old fashioned way and transcribed them by ear.

TH When I first heard these pieces…with the tremolo technique, it sounds like two people playing rather than one. How were you able to pick that out?

MP Well, at first I thought it was two people (laughs) but I read the liner notes and found out it was a technique. The way I originally did it was wrong. The tremolo is a sequence…its thumb, ring, middle, index…thumb playing the bass notes and the three fingers playing the melodic tremolo line. I mistakenly thought he was playing thumb and pinky together…thumb and pinky together and then ring, middle, index after that.  So I learned it all by ear…I didn’t have a teacher...and I grew my nails out about an inch long. I auditioned for college with Recuerdos and Asturias and the BWV 1001 Fugue for violin by Bach. All by ear.

TH You did not know how to read music at all?

MP I was not able to read music, but I could read tablature of course, but classical guitar in tabs at the time was basically unheard of.

TH Did you still keep your feet in the electric guitar world at that time?

MP There was a period when I first started doing this...I was approaching twenty, probably nineteen… when I started doing this. I was out of high school. I wasn’t going to college…I had no plans on going to college and I was still in a band playing shows. I was moonlighting as an aspiring classical guitarist just working out the fundamentals of finger-style guitar and learning these great tunes that I had fallen in love with as soon as I heard them. Not very long after that I learned that you could study guitar in college or at a university. I learned through my brother that Bill Yelverton at Middle Tennessee State University was holding auditions for guitarists in his studio. The audition went OK. I don’t recall him being particularly impressed…and I don’t blame him. He’s listening to a guy with one-inch long nails and no real training.

TH You weren’t the next Segovia at that point? (laughs)

MP I was not (laughing), but I did get a small scholarship that I was very happy to have received.

TH I’m struck by how late you really got your start with classical guitar. There are eight year-olds who can read music and have had more formal training that you had at twenty.

MP I think it was late. For instance, by the time I was good enough to do well in competitions, I didn’t want to do it anymore. (laughs) I was past that competitive phase. By the time I got good enough I just wanted to make music. When I started my Doctorate I was almost thirty years old. A lot of other guys were a few years younger than me.

TH How old are you now if you don’t mind me asking?

MP I’m thirty-eight.

MP After MTSU I went to Boone, North Carolina to study at Appalachian State University. And I got my doctorate from the University of Arizona. Professionally, in the last 3-4 years, my performance career has taken off in a more substantial way. With other guitarists, this may have happened some years earlier.

TH You mentioned hearing the Christopher Parkening CD was a watershed moment. What was your first real memorable musical moment?

MP I had a few. I was exposed to guitar in general. My dad was a guitarist. He played a 12-string guitar, harmonica and sang…more of a folk-style. So I always did enjoy hearing that as a kid. He died when I was young, just before I started to play. Right around the time I was ten or eleven years old was when Appetite for Destruction (Guns N’ Roses) came out. My older brothers and I were immediate fans and we had to have a guitar that Christmas. Fortunately we got one and we shared it.

TH What kind was it? Was it a Les Paul like Slash played?

MP (laughs) No…much cheaper. I think it was an Applause. We loved it. We didn’t know the difference at the time. We were just happy to have had it. Eventually we all had to have our own. Pretty soon after that I did hear Randy Rhoads...Ozzy Osbourne’s Tribute Album. For years, Randy Rhoads was my favorite guitarist. I learned that entire Tribute Album and played it from beginning to end right along with them…barely hanging on with him. He was a great player…very inspiring. Who knows, maybe that very early seed of classical guitar was planted by him because I did play that song he wrote called Dee. I did play that but I just kind of hacked my way through it…it was a little classical tune he wrote.

TH He’s an example of a musician who found his way to classical music. Ozzy has said if Randy was still alive, he might very well be a classical guitarist now.

MP I think very likely. I think he did have plans to hang it up (rock) and study classical guitar at a conservatory. Early on I really sucked (laughs). My brothers were sure to tell me that too. They were a little older and caught on a little faster. I remember just trying to play some songs but nothing seemed to be clicking. I was frustrated over some silly song I was trying to play...hard rock song…it was just basic power chords in open position. I couldn’t even do that. I remember sitting on the couch one day watching TV…I must have been eleven or twelve at the time…and I was thinking about this song that I couldn’t play, but I really wanted to play it and I just started working my fingers playing air guitar. And within a moment I realized I had it. And I’ve always thought of that as one of the biggest breakthroughs I’ve ever had on the guitar…playing air guitar.

TH A breakthrough because of air guitar!

MP Yeah…and honestly from there I never really felt completely frustrated over anything after that. There’ve always been challenges. At the time I had a grim outlook about my future on the guitar, but after that moment…never. I could always do what I tried to do after that.

TH I know in the violin repertoire, there may not be anything more difficult than the Bach Chaconne. Is the same thing true for this piece on the guitar?

MP I think the Chaconne, and violin repertoire in general, fits my playing style really well. I definitely acknowledge it’s a difficult piece, and I enjoy playing it. The main difficulty for me is that it is very emotionally draining. During a performance I am putting everything I have into every note that goes by, and I get to the end and I really feel it. You have to take a deep breath and let your mind rest a bit.

TH It’s exhausting as a listener too. It is a transformative piece. I remember a great video of Itzhak Perlman playing it. When it’s over, he is covered in sweat and he is completely spent. It’s such an emotional piece.

TH What other classical guitarists would you say have been influential for you?

MP My original influence was Parkening, who was a student of Segovia. And there’s a Brazilian guitarist, Fabio Zanon, whom I had a CD of playing the complete works of Villa-Lobos that was very important to me.  Julian Bream is another special player…always emotional and entertaining…never a dull moment when you listen to him. Some other players over the years who have inspired me would be Lorenzo Micheli, and Matteo Mela, whom I just had the privilege of hosting here at my guitar festival over the weekend. They play a duo now, but as soloists, they were some of the first guitarists I heard play. Another player would be Aniello Desiderio.  And then of course my main teachers, Bill Yelverton, Doug James and Tom Patterson, who each gave me the exact guidance I needed during their time.  All the guys I’ve mentioned I think also introduced me to the concept of “being your own artist.” Find what you do well and focus on that and go all in. You develop a vision for every piece you are going to play and you go all in, despite what anyone else might say. My Chaconne for instance may be a good example. I think from chord one, you know you’re hearing something different.

TH I was impressed with your technique and speed.

MP That comes from the seeds of playing thrash metal. I always tell my students, to play fast you have to be able to think fast. And growing up, I always heard things really fast.

TH Now that you are successful and spend your time making a living as a musician, do you still enjoy listening to music?

MP I do enjoy listening to music. Not a lot of classical guitar these days. If I listen to classical guitar, I feel like I’m almost doing research.  I also record too…I engineer all my own’s one of my hobbies. I’ve always been a do-it-yourself kind of guy.  So I find myself listening to sound quality…

TH You’re analyzing it…

MP Yeah, it’s hard to separate from that when I listen to guitar. Often I find myself just looking for songs I might want to play myself. I may listen to more piano music than I do guitar. I listen to a lot more Tom Waits than I do anything else. I am captivated by his music. It’s very emotional and poetic.

TH I love his tune “You’re Innocent When You Dream.”

MP I have probably 25 Tom Waits albums. I can say I really like a lot of artists, but I am a Tom Waits fan.

TH Do you still listen to Guns N’ Roses, or Zeppelin?

MP I don’t. I still have a pretty decent collection…some friends were in town recently and we pulled out some of those albums. It’s surprising how much you remember of that when you haven’t listened to it in twenty years…you still know all the lyrics and I could probably pick up the electric guitar and still play it, but I don’t revisit that stuff very often.

TH When was the last time you played your electric guitar?

MP I still have my electric guitar. I did go a period of about ten years without touching one at all. I made a deal with myself that I have already broken, that I would pick it up once or twice a week and practice on it. There is something about that left hand…when you play an electric guitar… that ease of motion that I think you get away from on a classical guitar because it’s a more difficult instrument to play physically. I found practicing on an electric guitar can really free up my left hand on the classical. I just don’t have the time to devote myself to that.

TH I am happy to hear you still like to listen to music. I’ve talked with many musicians who tell me the last thing they want to do is listen to music because that’s what they do all day long. I think that’s kind of sad. So if you had to go to a desert island and could only take the work of three composers, who would they be?

MP I’d bring late Beethoven String Quartets. I would bring solo piano works of Scriabin. And the Shostakovich String Quartets too.  And Tom Waits. 

TH Do you transcribe music?

MP Yes…in fact I transcribed a few pieces by Scriabin. One of the Canons I did of his is on YouTube. But a lot of the great stuff by Scriabin wouldn’t really fit the guitar. The harmonies are so extended and they require quite a few notes or multiple voices.  There have been arrangers and transcribers who have captured the essence of a lot of the great composer’s works, and that’s at the heart of making a great transcription…to capture that essence. But the essence of some of the composers I like isn’t often in harmony. Some of those harmonies are impossible to play on the guitar unfortunately. And some of the counterpoint too. But I have some pretty good Tom Waits arrangements that I’ve done as well.

TH There’s a French guitarist who has done some amazing transcriptions…Roland Dyens. He has a wonderful version of Tchaikovsky’s piece “June” from the Seasons.

MP I have that actually…I have the score. I hope to learn it at some point. It’s a really beautiful piece. That type of piece fits well on the guitar…melody and accompaniment; that’s what the guitar does the best. And romantic style harmonic languages fit really well on the instrument.

TH With your schedule these days, do you still have much time to practice.

MP As a student, I would practice 5-6 hours a day…without fail for 20 years.

TH No wonder you turned out as good as you are!

MP These days, since finishing my doctorate and teaching a lot, it’s a little different. But I take every opportunity I’ve got…even the middle of the night when the kids are in bed I can find a couple of hours. My key to maintaining a decent practice schedule is to sleep less (laughing).

TH Do you work out or do anything special to keep injuries away?

MP I’ve been pretty fortunate not to have anything major happen.  I occasionally get a little concerned with soreness or a tingle here or there. I always have to make sure I am positioned correctly on the instrument. And I gauge the amount of practice time I’m getting. And never jump into a new piece too fast before training my fingers what to do. That’s when you expose yourself to injury…making a big shift or quick move without being mentally and physically prepared. And I try to stretch before I start playing…and making sure my hands are warm before I get started.

TH Do you enjoy playing with an orchestra…i.e. the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez?

MP I think I might be better as a soloist, but I do enjoy playing with an orchestra. I’ve played the Rodrigo three times. And the Brouwer Elegacio Concerto. Here’s a great story. I was playing the Brouwer at Milligan College in Tennessee, and there is a big thunderstorm outside. We make it to the first cadenza…everything is really going great….I’m really enjoying playing with the orchestra, but right after the cadenza, the power goes out. Its pitch black except for a light off stage. Complete darkness for everyone else. So the orchestra does not come in on their entrance, so the maestro announces to the audience, “it’s obvious that Matt can play his part in the dark, but the orchestra cannot.” He knew I had a solo repertoire I could play, so I ended up playing about 45 minutes in the dark…solo…for the audience. It ended up better that way. I was getting a standing ovation after every piece! It’s a great story. Everyone who was there will always remember that much more than a regular concert.

TH They will remember that forever! Did the power come back on?

MP It did. We started right where we left off…..but the highlight was the power going out.

TH Here are some non-musical questions for you. Are you a coffee drinker?

MP I’m drinking coffee right now!

TH Do you like good coffee…I mean not Folgers etc…

MP I like really good coffee. I’m not super picky about it as long as it’s decent. I’m drinking some Chock Full O’ Nuts right now. You get this huge can at Costco…

TH Do you grind your own beans?

MP I like to do that too. I think I could get into roasting my own beans. I just played a concert in Michigan over the summer where a guy I met who definitely was a coffee aficionado roasted his own beans. I could totally get into that.

TH Do you drink beer?

MP I do drink beer…not as much as I did in high school. I am more of a craft beer drinker now.

TH And I see you are sponsored by a guitar string company? Do you want to put a plug in for them?

MP Yeah…I am sponsored by D’Addario.

TH What gauge or type do you play?

MP Right now I’m playing their Dynacore basses. And two of the carbon trebles and my high e string is a titanium treble. A mixed set.

TH Have you played Carnegie Hall?

MP Yes, three years ago as part of the D’Addario concert series. I took that gig on four days’ notice. I was down in my basement fixing a wall in my recording studio and the next day I was on a plane to New York. (laughs)

TH What an amazing honor to be playing at Carnegie Hall I would say.

MP It was great and the people there were so supportive. It was such an honor for me that D’Addario invited me there to play.

TH How were the acoustics?

MP It was a really clean and pure sound. Not too much reverb coming back or sound bouncing around. And I’d do it again…on even a day’s notice!

TH Thank you so much for your time. It’s been a real treat to speak with you.

MP Absolutely I’m happy to have talked to you!


Matt Palmer's website is:

Here is his performance of the Chaconne by J.S. Bach: 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Ferruccio Busoni plays.....Sedalia?

I like a good mystery once in awhile. As you may remember, I play the violin in the Heritage Philharmonic. Last week at rehearsal, our conductor, Jim Murray, told me that one of our trumpet players, Danny Lane, had something exciting to share with me that I might want to write about. It was a postcard advertising a concert by Ferruccio Busoni in Sedalia, Missouri on Friday, March 10th....but no year is given. But in very faint writing on the back of the postcard, someone wrote 1911 and 1916.

Now, I will be honest that other than having heard his name, I knew little, if anything, about Busoni. So I looked him up and learned that he lived from 1866-1924. He was one of the greatest pianists of his time. He knew Liszt, Brahms, and Rubinstein. He was also a prolific composer, arranger, transcriber, conductor and teacher. He toured extensively, and found his way to Sedalia, Missouri. But when?
I live only about an hour from Sedalia, and on my my home from a work trip to St. Louis this weekend, I stopped at the library in Sedalia hoping to learn more about his visit. I googled the calendars for the years 1911, and 1916, and March 10 was a Friday in both of those years. Someone had already figured that out and that's why it was written on the card. So when I got to the library, I asked the librarian for the 1911 and 1916 Sedalia Democrat-Sentinel newspapers. They are on microfiche, and she disappeared for a few minutes to locate them. She returned with 2 boxes and we sat down to load them onto the reader. We started with 1911. In a few minutes I saw this:

So I knew it was 1911, and as I flipped through the pages, I arrived at this:
Another promotion, this time with his picture and full name: Ferruccio Benvenuto Michel Angelo Dante Busoni.
And then a bit later I found the review of his performance, published Sunday, March 12, 1911:


The Great Busoni at Sedalia Theater Friday Night


     One of the greatest triumphs that the Ladies' Musical club has ever achieved was the giving to Sedalia music lovers the opportunity of hearing the world renowned pianist Ferruccio Busoni, Friday night. And right well did the Sedalia public support the ladies in their effort, for never was there in the new theater a more representative assembly, and Mr. Busoni said he had rarely played to a more appreciative, attentive or beautiful audience.
     Sedalia society was out in force, and the ladies in the audience and boxes never presented a handsomer appearance. The surrounding towns sent large delegations-Warrensburg, Columbia, Boonville, Tipton, Cole Camp, Damonte, and Fayette were represented.
     The heads of the musical departments of the various colleges were all here, showing their appreciation of the rare opportunity of hearing so great an artist.
     Of Busoni too much cannot be said in his praise. The critics have united in pronouncing him the greatest pianist now living, and it would be fulsome to try to add to what has already been written of the wonderful genius of this wizard of the piano forte.
     He first played the great masterful Waldstren sonata (the reviewer meant Beethoven's Sonata no. 21 in C major, "Waldstein.") filled with soul melodies, then showed his mighty skill, technique and mastery of the piano in the Brahms-Paganini variations, and followed this with the tender, beautiful C minor Chopin Nocturne and the great Polonaise by the same master. His last group was made up of the beautiful Campanella, the Erl King and Rigoletto-all transcriptions by Liszt, and in these he had opportunity for showing every requirement which goes to make up the great pianist, and in each and every one he was all that could be desired.
     His audience sat spellbound and the only regret expressed was that Mr. Busoni did not respond to the enthusiastic encore which the audience demanded after every number. But this was owing to the fact that that for several days he had been very ill and at 4 o'clock in the afternoon he feared he would not be able to fill his engagement that night, and at the close of his program was so prostrated that he was physically unable to play again, and expressed regret that he could not do so for an audience which was so sympathetic and appreciative.
     Mr. Busoni has a reputation of being one of the most generous of the great artists with regard to giving encores and it was only because he was ill and unable to do so that he did not respond to the enthusiasm of the audience Friday night. 
     From every point of view the Busoni concert was a grand success, and the Ladies' Musical club is again to be congratulated upon another musical and artistic triumph.


I've done some more research and found out that Busoni played in Kansas City in 1915. I don't have the review yet, but I will try and find it soon. But I found found this advertisement in The Piano Trade Magazine, Volume 12 (1915):

The caption below this reads "This is an advertisement put out by the Carl Hoffman Music Company sometime ago when Busoni played the Chickering in concert in Kansas City." Looks like Carl Hoffman was at 1120 Walnut Street. The postcard above for the Sedalia recital also mentions that Busoni was playing on a Chickering piano there as well. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Rimsky-Korsakov in America, Scheherazade, the Sea, and West Virginia

Lots to weave together here in this entry. Here we go. I was a violinist in the Omaha Area Youth Orchestra in 1982. Our Music Director, David Hagy, had set the upcoming season's music on the stand before our first rehearsal. The morning of our first rehearsal, I took my seat (3rd chair, First Violins) and opened the folder to see what pieces we were playing.

Fanfare for Brass and Percussion - Erb
Academic Festival Overture - Brahms
Adagio for Strings - Barber
Suite for Chamber Orchestra - Stravinsky
Star Wars Medley - Williams
Scheherazade - Rimsky-Korsakov

As I looked through the music, I'm sure my jaw hit the floor. There were so many notes to play! Fast notes, high notes.....endlessly mashed up on every page. It was going to be a long season I thought...learning to play all of these notes. I wondered if Mr. Hagy has lost his mind??? These were hard pieces...and the mother-ship was Scheherazade. It was like a book on the stand. Sure, we were a pretty good youth orchestra, but surely this piece was too big for us to play. I went home feeling pretty overwhelmed.

Rimsky-Korsakov composed Scheherazade in 1888. It is a symphonic suite based on the Tale of One Thousand and One Nights, or The Arabian Nights. It is one of the most well known classical works of all time. And it's one of the best. Throughout history, composers, songwriters, painters, and writers have sought to capture the natural world in their works. Scheherazade is a wonderful example of art capturing the sound, feeling, and sensation of the ocean. The opening statement of the work is a short chord passage of brass and woodwinds, followed by that iconic solo violin which then leads to the rolling cello and bass line that brings the sea to life musically. Layered on top are such delicious chords in the brass. It really is amazing, and I think it's one of the best musical representations of the sea ever written. How did he do this?

In 1862, a young Rimsky-Korsakov served as a midshipman in the Russian Navy aboard the vessel "Almaz". He entered the Naval College in 1856, where his interest in music was allowed to flourish. But upon graduation in 1862, he was forced to put music on hold. His ship sailed on November 2, 1862 on a voyage that would last almost three years. As I learned in a biography of Rimsky-Korsakof by M. Montague-Nathan (1917), "As may well be imagined, the long foreign cruise contributed very little to Rimsky-Korsakof's musical development, though as has been conjectured by more than one writer, the wonderful tonal pictures of the sea, painted by him in such works as "Sadko" and "Scheherazade," were undoubtedly inspired by impressions gained afloat."

I worked very hard to learn all of the notes for our 1982 concert. Each rehearsal was unrelenting. We practiced small segments over and over. Month after month went by without any sense of the "whole." It was pretty frustrating and as we came close to our Spring tour, it seemed like we were in for a disaster! We had raised enough money to take a tour to the East Coast...Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and New York City, and then home for our triumphant final concert at the Orpheum Theater in Omaha. I was excited about the trip, but terrified about playing Scheherazade.

In October 1863, the Almaz docked in New York Harbor. During his time in America, Rimsky-Kosakov saw two operas; "Faust"(Gounod) and "Robert" (Meyerbeer). He also went to see Niagara Falls. Perhaps of greater historical importance though, the Russian Fleet was playing a role in the Civil War that was raging all around him. Here is a wonderful article by C. Douglas Kroll that was published in 2013 in Russia Beyond the Headlines:

Back to 1982...the Omaha Area Youth Orchestra embarked on it's tour in June. Our first stop was at Drake University in Des Moines, IA on June 9th to be exact. This was our first performance and we were all very nervous. We had not played the entire concert straight through to this point. I still had no idea how and if we could do it! Maestro Hagy was very wise though, and he had prepared us much more than any of us knew. From the downbeat of the Brahms, we were off and running, and we survived even the Scheherazade. I'm not going to lie, it was a bumpy ride. There were plenty of mistakes and missed turns. But we made it through and it gave us confidence that we cold pull this off. The next night in Indianapolis, we performed at Butler University. This performance was much better than the previous night. Scheherazade was still shaky, but it was beginning to take shape.
We left Indy the next day and drove to Morgantown, West Virginia for a performance at Fairmont State College. Compared to Drake and Butler, Fairmont seemed far less sophisticated. Our performance was in a least that's the way I remember it all these years later. By this point, we were all pretty tired, and the thought of getting psyched up to play in a mostly empty cafeteria did not seem like much fun. But we set up and prepared to play. When it was time for the concert, a strange thing happened. People began to fill up the seats. It seemed like the entire town had come. It was standing room only. I remember the audience was almost close enough for me to touch with my bow...they were right on top of us. And they were ALIVE and EXCITED. Coal miners, bankers, farmers, professors, their was quite an eclectic audience. And from that point on, when Maestro Hagy gave the downbeat, we were a different orchestra. I came alive as a musician that evening. I wasn't over-thinking. I was just playing...trusting myself and my stand partner...the entire orchestra for that matter really came to life. And something truly magical happened in the Scheherazade. Not only did we hit the right notes, we brought the sea to life....we made music. I will always remember stealing a glance to my right to see an older gentleman sitting right across from me towards the end of the piece when we return to the glorious "sea theme"... it's a triumphant moment and we were blowing the roof off the place...and he had a look on his face that was priceless...his mouth had dropped open and his eyes were as wide as saucers. I think my face looked the same way. The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I could feel tears forming in my eyes. It was a powerful experience that has never left me. That's the power of music.
We played well the rest of the tour, and our final concert back home in Omaha at the Orpheum was also a huge success. I will never forget this concert tour nor the experiences...both high and low...of bringing such an epic work as Scheherazade to life.

And of course after his service in the Russian Navy was completed, Rimsky-Korsakov returned to music and became a famous composer. The article above indicates the Flight of the Bumblebee was also born as a result of his experience at sea.

Here is a great recording of Scheherazade. Thee are many to choose from, but this is as solid as they come.

And here is a fun recording of a jazzy version of Scheherazade courtesy of guitar virtuoso, Frank Vignola. I saw him play this at the Folly Theater a few years ago and it was awesome!

Friday, September 30, 2016

Classics in Commercials: Mahler for Gucci in a sucky commercial.

A new commercial for Gucci Guilty (a cologne) features Gustav Mahler's Adagietto (from his Fifth Symphony) as the musical backdrop. Actor Jared Leto is the star of the ad. (Loved him in Dallas Buyer's Club). But this commercial really sucks if you ask me. I don't know what's going on and it's "style" or attempt at "style" falls flat. It is stylish shit.
That being said, Mahler's Adagietto is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, and even if it is part of a horrible ad, at least Mahler's music is given an appearance in mainstream media.
Mahler wrote the Adagietto for his wife Alma....a love song of symphonic magnitude. Maybe I'm Amazed by Paul McCartney, Layla by Eric Clapton and Something by George Harrison are beautiful love songs. But as great as they are, they are dwarfed by what Mahler composed for Alma.
The Adagietto is part of Mahler's Fifth Symphony...the fourth movement. It was composed in 1901-1902 and premiered in 1904.
I did some digging to see if there was any real world connection between Mahler and Gucci. They were contemporaries.Gucci lived from 1881-1953. Mahler lived from 1860-1911. I can't find any reports that they actually met or that Gucci heard any of Mahler's music, though I think there is a chance he did. Both men visited London, but not at the same time. Mahler was there in 1892, and Gucci lived there from 1898-1905. Gucci moved back to Florence, Italy to start his company in 1905. Mahler visited Rome in 1907 and conducted the Adagietto in a concert there. It is possible Gucci could have taken a train to Rome for that performance.....

Here is the commercial:

It's better if you only listen to the sound.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Artist's Profile: Dickran Atamian, aka Jack Price, or vice versa.


There was a time in my life when I studied the piano. It was a only for a short period of time, and this may be the only photograph ever taken of me playing.

(That's my sister, Ellen, in the background). This was 1976. I was eleven years old and I was not very good. I had already been studying the violin at the University of Texas String Project for four years and I knew how to read music. I didn't think the piano would be as hard as it turned out to be! My parents arranged for me to take piano lessons. My teacher was a young man named Dickran Atamian who was then a student at the University of Texas. Mr. Atamian had just won the prestigious Walter M. Naumburg Piano competition in New York City and was about to embark on a career as a world famous concert pianist. I was with him for a few months before he went off to conquer the classical music world.
Fast forward forty years. I am still a violinist, but alas, my piano studies did not continue for very long. The other day I was listening to a recording of Chopin Ballades performed by Abbey Simon.

I was reading the liner notes on the back (remember liner notes???) Mr. Simon won the Walter M. Naumburg competition in 1940....Naumburg....Naumburg...that meant something to me...but what was it???? Later that same day, I kid you not, while looking through some old photographs, I found the picture above of me playing the piano. Naumburg....piano....piano lessons....Dickran Atamian! It all came together. I had studied with a world renowned pianist, ever so briefly, but none-the-less, a big brush with greatness that had escaped my memory.
So I did some research about Dickran Atamian. He was only 19 when he won the Naumburg Prize. He did indeed have a wonderful career...performances with all the great orchestras in the world, critically acclaimed recordings, including a groundbreaking recording of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring transcribed by Sam Raphling. Recitals at Carnegie Hall. You name it. I wanted to re-connect with him after all these years to see if he even remembered me. And to see if he still loved classical music.
I did some research and learned that Dickran Atamian is alive and well, and that he also goes by the name Jack Price. Huh? What's up with that? Well, that is part of an amazing story. A story of one man with two careers and two identities. Jack Price of Price Rubin & Partners Artist Management and Mr Dickran Atamian, world renowned concert pianist. Mr. Price very graciously responded to my e-mail, and he said he did remember me. More importantly, this very busy man gave me an hour of his time to catch up on old times and share some of his thoughts and reflections about a wide range of topics.

Tim Hazlett        The other day, I was listening to an album of Chopin Ballades performed by Abbey Simon. While reading the liner notes, I saw that he won the Naumburg Prize in 1940. That instantly reminded me of you.

Jack Price           Yeah, he won the Naumburg too. (1940) As a matter of fact, he was on the jury when I won. (1975)

TH         Wow, cool. So who are you?? (laughing)

JP           I have a lot of names….that’s an interesting story. I’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately…so your piece may get some steam because of all the different ones I’m doing. I have a publicist called the NALA, it’s in LA actually, and they promote all of our stuff, and they started out with my story. In March they did a story on my ten years in retirement as a pianist, and 32 years in management. I did it for 22 years without anyone knowing…they didn’t know I was Jack Price.

TH          That schizophrenic story on your website was amazing.

JP            I left Columbia Artists and all the big guys...Harold Shaw, Bill Judd and ICM…the four biggest at that time and probably ever. The only other manager you could have had would have been Sol Hurok, and Shaw at ICM was an outgrowth of Hurok because Hurok left in like ’72. The Hurok agency divided between Shaw Attractions and International Creative Management (ICM). So that would have been the only other management that I hadn’t been with. So I decided they’re not doing it right…they don’t know what they’re doing with a bunch of people who are not branded, so I decided to manage myself. And that’s when things really worked. The year I won the Naumburg (1975) everybody was “Oh yeah you’re going to be with Shelly Gold and these people”…but they don’t do the work…unless you’ve got millions of dollars to hand them. If you’re going to give them five million dollars, they’ll work for you. Anybody will work for you if you pay them five million dollars.

TH           I was doing some research awhile back and saw several ads for Sol Hurok’s company, and he in fact managed Isaac Stern…one of the all-time great violinists….and now his son is conductor of the KC Symphony.

JP            Michael Stern used to live in Ann Arbor when I was artist in residence at the University of Michigan from ’91 to ’96. I taught there, not as a faculty member, but as an artist in residence. It was a special position…it was so special that after I left they discontinued the program. They’d had enough of artists and artistic mentalities like mine, who are very demanding and opinionated and who don’t really relinquish their opinions…they stick to them. But I’m not really like most artists. I have a more entrepreneurial nature than they do. And I’m much more organized and much more realistic, and I’m less of a dreamer.

TH           You made a great point about how very few people ever remember the names of artists who win major prizes like the Naumburg.

JP            They remembered mine because in those days; A) the Naumburg meant something and B) there weren’t nearly as many competitions as have proliferated over the last 30 years. Now there’s one in every corner. Every medium…dance and music…there are too many of them, and there are too many winners, so nobody knows their names. Nobody cares. All they care about are their pool chemicals and lawn chemicals. They care more about what chemical they’re going to put on their lawn than whether Yo-Yo Ma is playing with the symphony this weekend. Nobody cares. Even with a big name like him, despite that fact that calls obviously come in for him, he still has to do a fair amount of selling. Whereas someone of his stature in another field wouldn’t have to do anything.

TH           I was not sure what to call you...Jack Price or Dickran Atamian?

JP            You can use the names now interchangeably because everybody knows my identity now. (Dickran Atamian and Jack Price) Six years ago we let the cat out of the bag about who Jack Price really was. But I didn’t let the cat out in ’06 because I wasn’t ready to let people know that Dickran Atamian was Jack Price. But it turned out that we got way better results with the management when people knew that I was Atamian because they know Atamian. So the branding of Atamian helped the branding of this new Jack Price character which, of course, I got from a real Jack Price which you probably read about on the website.

TH           I did, yes…it is fascinating.

JP            Jack’s the one who gave me the persona and the business. He gave me the name to use as a business and he gave me the name for DBA as Jack Price. I didn’t get the dividend. I didn’t get the company. He retired and of course he kept all his money. And he did not finance me. But I built it from nothing. He just gave me the name.

TH           And all because you both liked to eat steak!

JP            Yeah right…he heard me play the Khachaturian Concerto in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. It’s a pretty good orchestra and it was a big success. And he comes out of the audience…this big guy…telling jokes all night. And he took me out to dinner and the next thing you know he’s asking “what’s Columbia Artists doing for you?” and I go “well, they get me big dates. I’m with Leontyne Price’s manager”, which you know, Leontyne was a big name at that time. And Leontyne Price was with Nellie Walter, who was the Vice President of Columbia Artists Management Inc., who was my manager. So, I got dates, you know, through Price and name association. Not enough to live on….I really didn’t make a living until about 1994, from playing the piano. It took many years from the time you are talking (1975). It took about nineteen years to really start get going.

TH           Did you continue teaching through that period? Was that part of your income?

JP            No. I was lucky to play dates and have sponsors…fairly well known sponsors that had a lot of money that paid my rent. I had one guy who didn’t even tell me his identity who paid my rent in New York for a while. I had another sponsor…this is in the days when you studied with me…his name was Dr. Boyd who was a gynecologist in Augusta, GA who sponsored the Boyd Competition. I won the first prize in ’73 with the Brahms second concerto and then he sponsored me to other competitions. It was his airfare that got me to New York when I won the Naumburg. I paid him back after I won. If it wasn’t for Boyd sponsoring me in these formative years, I would have probably never have gone to the Naumburg. Sponsors are very important to artists. If they don’t have them it’s difficult.

TH           After a career as a concert pianist and a recording artist and now in your career as an artist management company entrepreneur…do you still enjoy listening to music?

JP            Oh yeah. The music is all I enjoy. I do enjoy making deals…I’m a deal maker…I just took on a major partner, James Dietsch, who has as much the same story as I have had. We are about the only two in the entire business who ever went that route where we had major AA careers. His was at the Met, La Scala, and Covent Garden. He was a major baritone, and he played with all the major conductors. You can read about  him on the website. And then he turned into management full steam because of four or five strokes that he had. That didn’t happen to me…I just got sick and tired of the business in 2006. I just couldn’t quit cold turkey, but I could not stand walking in front of another audience. I loved playing, and I love the music, but I don’t like performing every other night, or whatever it was. And I don’t like traveling at all. After 9/11…five years later I quit. I knew 9/11 would have an effect on people’s daily life, but I didn’t know it would affect my entire life. It made my life miserable. I hate airports and I hate being searched…taking my belt and shoes off…I just said forget it. And you can say “Oh, you must not love the music very much…you must not love your art.” Well, that’s not true. I loved it. But I’m a person who’s not into hassles. I don’t know if you remember that from when I taught you…I was very young then…but I don’t like hassles and I don’t like to be inconvenienced. I know it’s a major flaw, and I admit it readily. So with those two problems you can see why I quit. I just don’t like it. That’s all I can say about it.

TH           I’m a big baseball fan….

JP            Yeah, me too.

TH           I thought so because you referenced Dave Kingman in one of your video segments.

JP            Dizzy Dean too…I talked about Dizzy. Paul Dean, his brother, rented from us…my father owned some apartments in Phoenix. Dizzy became a good friend and sponsored my third grade little league baseball team. He taught me a lot about pitching, playing second base, hitting and fielding. And about life.

TH           Baseball is a metaphor for life in many ways.

JP            It is!

TH           Who is your favorite team?

JP            My favorite team has always been St. Louis. My father played on their farm team…he played minor league ball, and so he met Dizzy of course. The Cardinals have just been part of my family. I loved what Whitey Herzog brought to them in the ‘80s. That personifies what I consider a great team. Teams now just buy the players they need to win the pennant. It’s just a money machine. It’s like Moneyball.

TH           So, unlike many professional athletes who go through withdraw when their playing careers end, you didn’t experience that when you stopped playing concerts?

JP            No, I didn’t have any withdrawal because I was so fed up. I made my last recording with Grzegorz Nowak and the Poznan Philharmonic…the Brahms First Piano Concerto which was phenomenal…it’s like my last will and testament. When I played the final note of that concerto, I knew it was the greatest thing I had done. I love my recordings, but that last one is very special and it’s my favorite piece in the world. It’s a phenomenal of the great orchestras…and the conductor is my favorite conductor. It’s my last installment if you will, and I’m just fine with it. I play occasionally at church, or I’ll fill in on the organ. I am now thinking about accompanying a singer for her lieder concerts…I’m not going to divulge her name or when it might be, but she has inspired me to come back a little bit to the piano, but only to accompany. We might do some Chopin, Schumann and Liszt songs, but that’s on a very low level from playing major concertos. I’m not letting anyone publicize it because I have the management to deal with and I have no intention of competing with my artists.

TH           Do you ever just sit down and practice…or play?

JP            No. not at all. I never practice. Not one second of any day. I don’t want to practice anymore, and it’s in the nervous system anyway. I’ll put it this way…if some guy comes up to me and says “I’ll give you ten million dollars seed money to build your career and go beyond where you had it” I would refuse it. That’s how much I hated it. (laughs)….That’s going to be the title of your article…Atamian Really Hates Concertizing. (laughs)

TH           I’m happy to hear that you still love music even though you hate concertizing! I know more than a few people who make a living in music who don’t really like it anymore.

JP            Here are a few other points about that. Number one; there are so many bad pianos on the road. Yeah, once in a while I’d get a great one, but even at Avery Fisher Hall in New York, the pianos are just in bad shape. Technicians have no idea…they couldn’t tune “Come to Jesus” in whole notes if they wanted to. They just don’t know what I know. And the only person who agrees with me is Alfred Brendel. He does his own “inside the piano” work. He does his own regulating…he regulates the action and the hammers before each concert and he’s up until four in the morning the night before a concert fixing the piano. I’m not going to do that…you couldn’t pay me enough to do that.

TH           I love Brendel.

JP            Here’s a great Brendel story. Alfred’s a great guy. I played Brahms Second for him once when I was studying with John Perry there at UT when you were there. It was the funniest thing….I wrote the word “fucker” over a chord because I never could get it. And Brendel said “what is this word “fucker”. A friend of mine who was accompanying me was laughing so hard he fell off the bench. Second; the travel used to be great. I loved it at first…the hotels and flying…they were great. But now I can’t stand airports anymore. It was always the prelude to playing the concert…you’d go “Ah yes, I’m on the way to conquer Kansas City” for example.  I played there a lot by-the-way. Incidentally, Kansas City was the last place I played before I won the Naumburg.
Then you’ve got the conductors. Need I say more? Conductors….I either love them or hate them. They’re not all going to be like Nowak or Mazel. They’re not all like that. Most are not at that level. And then there are the people that run the orchestras and series’. It just got so depressing. Like, getting off the plane and being greeted by some Executive Director that had no intention of ever attending the concert. They don’t even show up to their own concerts! You talk about apathy…you’ve got apathy written all over the heart of this industry. And the music is so great, right? You wonder “what the heck are they doing in it if they hate it!?!”
And lastly, my kids were young and I wanted to devote a lot of time to them. ’06 just seemed like a good year to retire.
I didn’t burn out on playing; I burned out on the atmosphere of extra-musical things. Anything that wasn’t musical turned me off. Chatter back stage, dingy dressing rooms….you go in the corner of a concert hall and what do you see? Nothing but dust and dirt. It was depressing just to even practice in the Hall before a concert. You are alone most of the time…in the hotel, in the Hall….you’re alone. That doesn’t mean I hate the music. I hate everything else.

TH           Do you still listen to classical music?

JP            Oh yeah. I play it in my car all the time. I listen to my artists; I listen to artists that I like. I listen to myself…I have a lot of archival recordings….500 or more archival recordings. My archives are going to be taken by the University of Tulsa’s Lorton Center. All my reviews, clippings, interviews, programs …along with all of my recordings…live and studio…will be put in a climate controlled room so that students…anybody worldwide…can come check them out if they want.

TH           How did you end up in Tulsa?

JP            My kids moved here with their mom when we divorced, and I followed. I wouldn’t think of not being near my children.

TH           Here’s a small world story. I remember as a kid back in Austin, about the same time period I was studying with you, my Dad would always take me to Sound Warehouse to look at records. One afternoon we went there for an in-store performance by a smoking hot classical guitarist named Liona Boyd. She was so kind..I got to meet her.

JP            Oh yes, Liona is with us. Oh man was she hot. She still is! Liona is great. We just signed her a few months ago. Interesting fact about her…she holds the distinction of appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson at least six times. There is no classical artist that can boast of that…nobody. She’s a very sweet person.

TH           Who are your top 3 composers?

JP            Brahms is first….by virtue of the First Piano Concerto. I would say it embodies everything I love about this art. It’s the most complete piece for me. What more can you say when it has everything? Second place would have to go to Schubert, who used to occupy the first position, but no longer does. And then third would have to be Mozart. I’d love to put Beethoven and Schumann there, but they don’t quite make it. So Schumann fourth and Beethoven fifth. And then Bach would have to be sixth. And beyond that would have to be Chopin, Liszt, and the rest of the crew…Tchaikovsky…I like Tchaikovsky a lot. I don’t like Rachmaninoff as much although people always loved the way I played it. But to me, neo-romanticism is just not as original. But anyway...there you go. Brahms is number one.

TH           Random question…which version of Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations do you prefer…the 1955 or 1981?

JP            Probably the early version, but you’re not talking to a Gould fan, that’s for sure. Here’s what I think about Gould; is he putting us on? Or is that the way he really plays? That’s what I think when I think of Gould. I just really don’t get it. His recordings of the Well-Tempered Clavier (Bach)…I mean come on! It’s so distorted rhythmically. He can’t be hearing the harmonies that way because the harmonies would never dictate that kind of policy. I just don’t hear it that way. But you know, he’s different. But I think he’s different for different sake. I don’t think its honest playing. I really think he’s putting us on. But, having said that, he plays the piano in an exemplary way….his trills are like a McCulloch chainsaw. Who can play them that loud, and evenly, and consistently for that long? (laughs). The question is, do you really care or want to? But I don’t like his sound and or what he has to say. But he has the most even fingers I’ve probably ever heard in my life. He had an amazing technical prowess. But let me tell you who my favorite pianist is. Without a doubt it’s Emil Gilels. He’s my favorite pianist. His playing is unbelievable and he’s always been my favorite. Even with Bolet (Jorge Bolet) and Arrau (Claudio Arrau) being my teachers…they don’t come close. He takes chances like nobody. This guy was a maniac at the piano. Not only that, but beauty of sound, technical perfection when it was perfect…yes he missed notes when he really took a lot of chances…but I’d take his chances any day over Gould’s perfection. He had an unbelievable arsenal of fingers, but he just believed in music and he believed in pulling off musical ideas that seemed impossible. I admire that. I think that’s what it’s all about…taking chances. In my opinion, that’s what life is all about….taking chances.

TH           Was there a special moment in your childhood when you first connected to classical music?

JP            My first might not call it classical, but it was….I was at the Celebrity Theater in Phoenix. The promoter in Phoenix in my day was Buster Bonoff. Bonoff was the local impresario. He did not do a lot of classical, but he brought Liberace one night. I was very young, and opening for Liberace was Marni Nixon, the great soprano who sang all the songs in My Fair Lady…she was in the Sound of Music the movie. Marni is one of the greatest talents. At Oberlin, when I went there, she gave a whole recital of 20th century contemporary composers….off the wall contemporary composers, and her technique is just phenomenal. She’s one of the greats. Marni Nixon was my first inspiration and it was the antithesis of the Liberace experience. Liberace came off stage, my father took me back because he knew Bonoff, and I got introduced. And he said “Ah, you’re a pianist…Good Luck!” And he wrote me this stupid Liberace signature. But what impressed me was the dichotomy of style between this humble, fabulous Marni Nixon, and this overblown beast called Liberace. Liberace was not encouraging. He didn’t know what kind of a talent I was. He had no idea who was coming backstage, and I don’t think you treat people like that. I’ve made it a point since I met Liberace and Marni Nixon that first time to always treat a fan or a person coming backstage with dignity, with a humble thankfulness that they showed up to hear you play. That right there is something…that they came to hear you man! They could have done anything that night. Anything! I think that Liberace embodies the opposite of what I’d like to be remembered as….a grateful artist who liked the fact that people came to hear him and appreciated it. That part of the industry I simply miss the most…the audience and the orchestras. I loved the orchestras I played with. I may not have gotten along with the conductors all the time, but I’ll tell you, I don’t think there’s one orchestra I didn’t love. Because they’re the players man. They’re the ones doing the work.

TH           I’ll just put a plug in for Kansas City if you haven’t been here in a while.

JP            It’s a fantastic orchestra, yeah. Kansas City is a fabulous town. I played a recital at Rockhurst University very shortly after I won the Naumburg. I like Kansas City very much. I also gave a masterclass at the conservatory once. Do you remember Stevenson’s Apple Farm? That was my favorite restaurant. John Perry took me there for the first time in 1972 and I went back many times until it closed.

TH           Last big question…do you drink coffee?

JP            Yeah, I love coffee!

TH           Me too, so when you come to KC, we can get together at one of the many great coffee shops we have here. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. It was very enjoyable.

JP            My pleasure. I enjoyed it too.

Here is the link to the Price Rubin & Partners Artist Management website where you can read more about the history of this organization and see the many great artists on their roster:

And here is a link to Dickran Atamian's website:

Here is Mr. Atamian's recording the First Movement of Brahms" First Piano Concerto he referenced in our interview.

Here is a video of Mr. Atamian playing Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring:

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Classics in the Movies: Gallipoli (1981)

I went to see a movie in 1981 that has haunted me ever since. It was called Gallipoli, directed by a then "up and coming" director named Peter Weir. (Weir went on the direct many other popular films including  A Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, Dead Poets Society, Green Card, The Truman Show and Master and Commander. I lived in Omaha at the time, and I remember going to the Dundee Theater with my parents to see this movie that I had never heard of, and had no idea what or where Gallipoli was.
The reason I am writing about it here is Weir's use of classical music. Against a backdrop of the first world war, two young Australian men are coming of age (played by Mel Gibson and Mark Lee). Before becoming soldiers, they share a love of of my favorite things as well. The first part of the movie features some great running sequences.
The Gallipoli Campaign lasted from February 19, 1915 through January 9, 1916. The Gallipoli peninsula lies along the Dardanelles straits in what is now Turkey. The goal of the allies was to take Gallipoli and then capture Constantinople (Istanbul today). As with many battles in WWI, trench warfare ensued and both sides suffered horrendous casualties. The Allies ultimately failed to achieve their objective and the Ottoman forces celebrated what turned out to be their last major victory before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
The final scene of the movie is a breathtakingly beautiful and sad convergence of running, the futility of trench warfare, and the senseless loss of young lives, all played out to the Adagio in G minor by Tomaso Albinoni in the background. Take a look.

If you have not heard Albinoni's Adagio in G minor, please take time to do so. It is one of the most beautiful pieces in the classical repertoire:

Monday, July 25, 2016

Artist's Profile: Jackson Thomas, Founder, Executive and Artistic Director of KC VITAs

Just a few weeks ago, I wrote about seeing the Kansas City Symphony perform the 9th Symphony of Beethoven. Of the many things that stood out from that evening, it was the the 120 person strong chorus that really won me over. The human voice connects with emotions that instruments are not able to touch, which is one reason I have always loved choral music. A friend of mine who is a singer with a new local choral group reached out to me about KC VITAs (Thank you Gayle!), a choral group here in KC that came to life last year (2015). She connected me to the Founder, Executive and Artistic Director, Jackson Thomas, whom I sat down with recently to talk to. This amazing young man has created something very special here in Kansas City. They are preparing for their second set of concerts on August 5th and August 7th. Here is our conversation.

TH  Who is Jackson Thomas?  Tell me a little about yourself.

JT  What a loaded question! (laughs) I grew up in Carrollton, Missouri, which is an hour and a half from here...northeast… a little town between Marshall and Chillicothe. I went to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln (vocal performance major). I thought I wanted to be a professional opera singer, and that was the only thing I could do to be happy. While I was there I had roles in opera and musical theater, and then studied abroad in Berlin. I almost got a major in German because of that...I was two classes away but I wanted to make sure I took opera history! I moved back here after I finished…I have some family in the area. I took a year of preparation as I call it before Grad school. I realized half way through my junior year that choral music was where I was going. That was something that I just always went back to over and over and over and realized that if opera didn’t happen that I would be OK with that. I think lots of musicians go through similar things….you never know what it is. But I definitely know that I haven’t had more moving experiences than I have had being in front of an ensemble.

TH  How did you develop a love for singing?

JT  My family is incredibly musical. I don’t know of anybody in my immediate family who can’t sing. So they were always very supportive of that and wanted me to do it. I also played saxophone and was a drum major for several years. My teachers in school were a husband and wife team and they were really good about getting people where they needed to be. They saw talent in me and connected me with teachers. I started private vocal study at the University of Central Missouri with Dr. Roden. This groomed me for that next step of collegiate study.

TH  How old were you when you realized that you could sing?

JT  About 5th grade. I knew before then that I could at least match pitch, but it was 5th grade when I really began to sing.

TH  Was there any magical moment in your formative years where you realized that you loved music?

JT  What’s funny is I was waking up every day…I know this sounds cheesy…but I was always waking up with a song in my head. I didn’t think it was weird until I talked to other people and that didn’t happen. Early on I thought I wanted to be a teacher. I used to say, “I do not want to do opera…they can’t make me do it” until I went to my first opera at the Lyric and saw La boheme. I remember sitting in the audience and saying “that’s what I want to do”….(laughs).

TH  Did you study conducting in school?

JT  I did, and that was incredibly instrumental for me. Conducting was something that seemed to come very naturally to me and others said it was something I should consider doing. And it was in college that I started my first group.

TH  What brought you to KC after you graduated?

JT  I graduated in 2014. I have family in the area and I knew I wanted to move back here for a year before auditioning for Grad schools to study choral conducting. I started teaching and getting into several different choirs here and then I auditioned at seven universities all over the country for Grad school (that was insane!) I decided on KU, so I am now half way through that program working on a Master’s degree in choral conducting. I’m a full GTA (graduate teaching assistant) so I teach and last semester I conducted the Vocal Music Collegium, which is an early music ensemble. I also co-directed the KU Women’s Chorale and the Concert Choir. This year I will be the Director of the KU Men’s Glee Club, which has never happened to a Master’s student.

TH  Wow, that’s very cool.

JT  I am very excited about that for sure.

TH  How did KC VITAs start?

JT  During my first year back I knew I wanted to start a choir. A friend of mine and I were talking one night and I realized it was going to be harder than in Lincoln…there are so many choirs here already.

TH  Is Kansas City fertile ground for choirs? More than you realized perhaps?

JT  Oh yea….and I am still learning about groups that are here that I didn’t realize existed. Or that they have been around for so long. So some friends of mine that I sang with in AGO (American Guild of Organists. This is a national professional association serving the organ and choral music fields). agreed it seemed like Kansas City was missing something that focused on new music. I actually dabble in composing myself. I wouldn’t call myself something that I’m not, which is why I say I “dabble”.  But I was friends with a lot of composers at UNL and I realized that these new pieces they were writing were great, and nobody is performing them. So I knew I would have plenty of pieces to perform, and the three of us made a pact that we would work hard to make this happen. We just went with it and started asking people all around. We started in May of 2015. I put an ad out on Facebook for compositions too. And how big it got was an accident. I am pretty relentless...persistent (laughing) until they give me an answer. I had six people give me premieres of some sort, Four of them were world premieres. We ended up with 21 singers last year for our first performances. This year we have 28. Patrick Neas from the Kansas City Star wrote about us and I think that was a big reason we were so successful. We ended up having 400 people at our concert….and we only printed 200 programs! We got a standing ovation at the end. It was really exciting.

TH  What did this success tell you about the arts community in Kansas City?

JT  Not only are they supportive of music, but its filling a gap…there is a need. Afterwards we got together and realized that we need to make this more “real”. I was footing the bill for everything, and people aren’t going to donate to something that they don’t really know, so we looked into the 501(c) (3) which has been huge.

TH  What is your “title” for this organization?

JT  I am the Executive Director and Artistic Director….as well as the Founder. I also serve on the Board at this point.

TH  Tell me about the name…KC VITAs….where did that come from?

JT  KC stands for Kansas City….of course….VITAs stands for vibrating internal thyroarytenoids.

TH  What does that mean (laughing)..?

JT  That’s literally your vocal chords….the tissue that make up your vocal chords.

TH  That’s pretty creative…did you think of that?

JT  I did. I knew I didn’t want to be called some cheesy Italian name….I was really into vocal pedagogy at UNL…the science behind the voice, and I just thought that it fit in a few ways. It satisfied my nerdiness, but also VITA conveniently means “life” in a few languages… so new life…new music.

TH  How many scores did you receive from composers hoping to have their music performed?

JT  Last year, I put out a call for scores and received music from 15 people. This year, over 50 people submitted music….and that’s 50 different composers…some of them would send more than three compositions.

TH  That’s a lot to sort through!

JT  Indeed. And we are not just a chamber choir…not all of the submissions were choral works. Some were art songs. We are really a new vocal works organization, and our concerts are not going to have just choral works on them. They’ll have art songs too, and I will have other forms of vocal music as well.

TH  Art songs?

JT  Yes…it’s a fancy way to say just a song with voice and piano. Not an aria because it does not belong to a large work…just solo voice and piano.

TH  Will any of the composers be here for the concert?

JT  Several of them will be. We have composers from all over the country…Florida, South Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri. I would love to require all of them to be here (laughing)! So we have eight world premieres this year. What we really want to focus on is that we are giving young and rising composers a chance for their music to be performed and not charge them to do so. Other arts ensembles may also be willing to perform your works, but then you will get a bill!

TH  How often do you all rehearse?

JT  Once a week…Tuesday night for two hours…7-9 pm. I try to be very respectful of their time because I am very lucky to be in front of them. Last year we had five choral pieces, but this year we have nine.

TH  Where do you see VITAs going?

JT  Right now VITAs is a summer organization. I would love to see it go year round. I’d like to continue to have our showcase in the summer, but also do a Fall concert. Believe it or not, I have been given a lot of Christmas music! Out of that, I could make a great Christmas program.  And then in the Spring, perhaps do a large work.

TH  What are your interests outside of music?

JT  I make my own beer. Traveling and hiking are also huge interests of mine too. And if I had time, I also compose music. I also have 3 cats…Walter, Edith, and Bradley.

TH  OK, now the hard questions. I talk to a lot of musicians who tell me they don’t listen to much music. When they have free time, which is not often, they don’t want to listen to music….they want a break from it. Do you listen to music for enjoyment, outside of work?

JT  Oh my god, yes all the time.

TH  What’s on your playlist at the moment?

JT  I do a lot of exploring, but I’m into anything where I can hear a real voice. I really like Ben Rector. I listen to a lot of musical theater…probably way more than I want people to know about (laughing)..

TH  Do you have a favorite musical?

JT  My favorite musical is Cats. I played the lead role.

TH  Who is your favorite jazz singer of all time?

JT  That is a hard question.

TH  I always say Ella Fitzgerald.

JT  I was trying to be  more creative than that, but I was going to say Ella Fitzgerald (laughing)…

TH  I’m not surprised!

JT  I know it’s watered own, but I like Michael Buble a lot. If I could be a jazz singer, I think I would be happy. Nnenna Freelon is fantastic and I really enjoy her music too.

TH  What about classical music?

JT  Juan Diego Florez is my favorite tenor…hands down. I saw him in Berlin, and I think he’s awesome. I love Renee Fleming. Stephanie Blythe is wonderful. Deborah Voight…I really love her.

TH  What about classical composers?

JT  Rienberger….Joseph Rheinberger…wow. I think he’s totally underrated, especially in the choral world. His Mass for Double Chorus in E-Flat is…wow. Um…(thinking)..I know this sounds weird, but somebody I really like, at least in the sacred repertoire now, is Dan Forrest.  I am directing Requiem for the Living next year at St. Paul’s. I’m really moved by that. Moving backwards, Handel is my favorite composer.

TH  Will the upcoming KC VITAs concerts be recorded?

JT  Yes they will, and we will produce another CD from the live recordings.

TH  I can’t wait to hear it! I really appreciate you taking time to talk with me! Good luck on August 5th and 7th.

JT  You’re welcome! Thank you.

Here is a link to the KC VITAs website: