Sunday, February 28, 2016

Hy-Vee goes Classical for Valentine's Day

I spend a lot of my time grocery shopping, at least it seems that way. The store I most often shop at is Hy-Vee, a company based in West Des Moines. Iowa. They have supermarkets all throughout the Midwest, and one about 2 miles from my house. I was very impressed by two recent commercials they aired this month, both of which used classical music in them, Antonio Vivaldi specifically. Very nice to see...and hear!

Check them out:

This commercial uses Vivaldi's Concerto for Guitar in C major.

This commercial uses music from Vivaldi's most famous work, the Four Seasons. This commercial features the "Allegro non molto: from Winter.

Well done Hy-Vee, and your advertising agency too.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Kansas City Symphony- My Reflections of the February 6th Concert

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it takes for a human being to be a virtuoso performer. I had seen two, Midori, violinist, and pianist Jeremy Denk, at the first two concerts of 2016 with the Kansas City Symphony. Both were amazing. They played all of the notes of very difficult pieces. Their technique was obvious. And both meshed perfectly with the orchestra to create a very satisfying musical experience...they used their virtuosity to make music WITH a large ensemble rather than on top of it. Mr. Denk played Beethoven's 5th Piano Concerto, the "Emperor Concerto". On April 25, 1841, it was performed at the Paris Conservatoire with Franz Liszt as the soloist and Hector Berlioz conducting. Did Liszt create music WITH the orchestra that day? Or did he go crazy and dominate the performance as the mega-virtuoso he was and leave the orchestra in the dust?....I wonder.
The third program of 2016 for the Kansas City Symphony featured violinist Vadim Gluzman. I will get to him in a moment.

The first piece of the evening was John Adams' The Chairman Dances-Foxtrot for Orchestra (1985). This comes from his opera Nixon in China. Wow. A breathtaking, 12-minute trot it was. Some observations: red, blue and yellow mallets, xylophone, wood block, kick drum, brushes on snare drum, high-hat, piano, soaring violins, low strings playing rhythm guitar. syncopation, glamour, pulse, hemiola, harmonics, glissando, lush life, staccato in the brass, pizzicato, fade out. Awesome.

Next up was Beethoven's Symphony no. 4. (1806). Maestro Stern did not use a score. Applause between movements (keep it coming KC). Stern looked back and smiled at the audience in a good-humored attempt to discourage or chastise us. The musical lines and phrases were so could actually see them move from one section of the orchestra to the other. Inter-connectedness. Energy. CLARINET!

Vadim Gluzman was here tonight to play the Brahms Violin Concerto in D major (1878). This concerto, like Tchaikovsky's, did not meet with initial critical acclaim. It was very hard to play. It was unconventional for the time. Brahms' close friend, Joseph Joachim, played it first at the premiere in Leipzig. Joachim did not play it by memory...he used sheet music. Interesting to note that the first piece played at the premiere that night in 1879, before Brahms' concerto, was Beethoven's Violin Concerto, also in D major. Brahms remarked of the program "it was a lot of D major, and not much else on the program". Funny.....Perhaps this was not a good move programatically....or perhaps it was genius.......
Both concertos are certainly regarded now as masterpieces and are widely recorded and performed.
Vadim Gluzman came on stage fired up. He paced about and turned frequently to watch the orchestra as they played the opening statement. When it was time for his entrance, he unleashed a tone so sweet and warm that my mom and I looked at each other to see if what we were hearing was actually real. It was.
Gluzman, Stern and the orchestra made music. Entrances. Phrases. Space. Dynamics. Intonation. Gluzman moving about,  facing the audience...Gluzman turned towards the orchestra with his back to the audience... Gluzman facing the first violins. Gluzman standing inches from Stern, like Joe Perry and Steven Tyler sharing the mic. (yes, that's an Aerosmith reference). Huge applause after the first movement. And why not? The first movement is like a concerto unto itself. And that OBOE! The one that violinist Pablo de Sarasate made the famous remark about "not wanting to stand on the rostrum, violin in hand, listening to the oboe playing to only tune in the adagio." Third movement. Famous melody. Double stops galore. Timpani. Big finish. Thunderous applause. Standing ovation. Encore: Gluck: Dance of the Blessed Spirits. More ovation. Stern-Gluzman hug. WOW.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Kansas City Symphony- My reflections of the January 30th Concert

The first three Kansas City Symphony concerts of 2016 feature amazing solo artists and an impressive breadth of orchestral repertoire. I wrote about the first concert of the year a few weeks ago in this blog... Midori was the guest violinist.

From Jan 29-31, the great pianist, Jeremy Denk, was the guest artist. I went with my wife to the Saturday evening performance. We dropped the car with the valet and ran across the street to Los Tules for a margarita and chips/guacamole. As my wife said, "there's nothing like a little tequila in your system to make the world OK." She's correct on that point, but the same can be said of a KC Symphony concert. The program this night featured Mr. Denk performing Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 5, known as the Emperor Concerto.  I loved that the program started with this work. One of the challenges of programming a concert is getting the order of the music right.  Beethoven, Sibelius and Scriabin were on the program, and I suppose you could make a case for any order....but starting with Beethoven was perfect. Jeremy Denk is an pianist who plays with exceptional range. I watched some of his videos on YouTube before the concert and quickly saw why he is so highly regarded as a pianist. More on that in a moment. The "Emperor" (1809) is a work that most of us have heard in some part or another. It is majestic and beautiful, and the orchestral accompaniment is itself an impressive work which makes collaboration and balance between soloist and orchestra all the more important. Maestro Stern made sure the balance was perfect. Gidon Kremer, violinist and conductor, wrote "A concerto should be a conversation and in no way a competition between a soloist and an orchestra that is controlled by the conductor-a genuine demonstration of concertare." Denk and Stern were in constant communication, exchanging looks and glances. The interplay between them was fun to watch and it was clear they were both enjoying the performance. A standing ovation was well deserved, and we were then treated to an encore; Bach's Goldberg Variation #14. Back to what I said above about Denk's range as a performer. The care, love, and passion with which he played this encore was magical. Bach wrote incredible notes on the page, and Denk brought it to life...these few minutes of the encore were perhaps the best of an evening full of wonderful minutes.

After intermission, the piece I was looking forward to the most was up...the Sibelius Symphony no. 7.(1924).  Last year during my interview with composer John Luther Adams, he told me that he was currently listening to the 7th....and we both agreed that there was something so moving about it, but it was hard to express in words what that was. I have a great box set (at least I think it's great) of all seven Sibelius' Symphonies conducted by Sir Collin Davis-Boston Symphony. I have listened to it 2-3 times this year, and while I love them all, the 6th and 7th keep me coming back the most. Tonight, Stern and Co. delivered a fine performance, and the experience of seeing it live reinforced that this may be my favorite Sibelius symphony. One movement....twisting and turning tonality...chromatic cliff diving...intentional ambiguity....22 minutes that leave your heart racing. Forgive me if I don't delve into all of the great musicianship of the orchestra during this usual it is top notch....but I will say that the flutes and brass were particularly outstanding and these parts seem like the catalysts for this Sibelius symphony. Whereas the second and fifth symphonies deliver a huge climactic "happy ending", not so with the 7th (or the 6th). The happy ending is there, but it takes a more subtle and diffuse route.

Lastly, Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy (1908) finished us off for the evening. It looked like all hands were on deck for this large work....there was barely any room left on the stage. We went from Beethoven and a modest-sized orchestra, to Sibelius, which had even more musicians involved, to Scriabin and a monster ensemble. I was already pretty much exhausted when the finale arrived and a percussionist climbed a ladder at the back of the stage to clang a giant, hanging chime. (If you attend a concert and see a ladder on the stage, you can probably safely assume something cool is going to rock your world). Scriabin, Stern, and the musicians rocked everyone's world tonight and it was great. I don't think Scriabin is all that well known or appreciated amongst casual, classical fans...I may be wrong....but this is a powerful work and when heard live is truly breathtaking.