Summerfest continues to enrich classical music fans


summerfestFor 25 years, Summerfest has been enriching the lives of Kansas City’s classical music fans with performances by Kansas City’s best chamber musicians and guest artists from around the world. The four-week extravaganza begins with a Chamber Music Concert July 11th at White Recital Hall and culminates with a program July 25th that will feature the original 13-musician version of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, and a performance of Walton’s Façade. Following the July 25th concert, which will also be held at White Recital Hall, a there will be an Anniversary Reception at Pierson Auditorium. “The idea behind the Gala was, let’s just pull out the stops and do some of the big stuff,” said clarinetist Jane Carl, one of the series’ artistic advisors. “And the idea behind the other three weeks was, let’s do things that we really loved and want to do again.” The five musicians who founded series, flutist Lamar Hunt Jr, harpist Deborah Wells-Clark, bassoonist Nancy Lutes, harpsichordist Rebecca Bell, and Violinist Mary Grant, never envisioned that Summerfest would last as long as it has. Instead, the idea originated as a way for the musicians to remain in Kansas City for the Summer. We were looking to stay here in the summers,” said Mary Grant “and we realized that there was no other classical music in the summer. The symphony has a break, the opera has a break and the Friends of Chamber Music has a break, so we thought, oh, there’s certainly room for a summer music group here.” Still, the event has come a long way since its humble beginnings, adopting more and more serious works over the years.  “It’s true we got more ambitious, in programming bigger, more significant, ‘heavier’ works in the past 10 years,” said Alexander East, KC Symphony cellist and a Summerfest artistic advisor. “And I think our audience has responded well to that.

Chicago, a Remarkable Flutist, and New Music

One of the great honors for an orchestral musician is to be able to stand before his or her colleagues and play a solo work for their instrument. Even more special is to have a commissioned work specifically dedicated to that musician. On March 7th, 2014, I was privileged to hear one of the world-premiere performances of Pour Sortir au Jour (Going Forth by Day), a flute concerto written for the magnificent Mathieu Dufour, the principal flutist of the Chicago Symphony. The concerto, by Frenchman Guillaume Connesson, makes extraordinary demands upon the soloist and could only be pulled off by very few other flutists – and I’m speaking as someone who has enjoyed playing the flute a great deal over the years. According to one review published the day after the performance, there were a number of distinguished flutists in the audience for the Thursday March 6th premiere.

According to the program notes, Going Forth by Day draws its musical inspiration from The Egyptian Book of the Dead. This means that the composer attempts to put forth (or compose) musical material that reflects the thematic material found in the book. The title, The Book of the Dead, was actually the invention of a German Egyptologist, Karl Richard Lepsius, who published a selection of some of the texts in 1842. The actual name for these ancient texts (1240 BC) is The Coming (or Going) Forth By Day. Egyptian religion was based on polytheism or the worship of many deities, as many as 2000, which represented characteristics of a specific earthly force. Most interestingly the ancient Egyptians stressed an afterlife and they spent a lot of time and energy preparing for their journey to the next world.

Going Forth by Day was essentially a navigation map or guide for the deceased to utilize to arrive at the Underworld, the goal of the afterlife. It presumed that there would be various trials and tribulations that the deceased would encounter before reaching the Underworld. Hence the books were comprised of spells, charms, passwords, numbers, and magical formulas for use by the deceased in the afterlife. The text was initially carved on the deceased person’s sarcophagus, but was later written on papyrus now known as scrolls and buried inside the sarcophagus with the deceased. There were often pictures showing the tests to which the deceased would be subjected. The most important test was the ultimate weighing of the heart against Truth. The heart of the deceased was weighed against a feather, and if the heart was not weighed down with sin (if it was lighter than the feather) then the deceased was allowed to continue on.

So did the music and performers reflect this mighty struggle in the afterlife? Mostly yes. The flute solo part was played magnificently by Mr. Dufour and the journey of the deceased (in this case represented by the flute solo part) proceeds from the funeral procession to the separation of the soul from its body to a wickedly difficult dance-like passage for the soloist representing the expectation of judgment and then to the haunting moments of judgment and on to the final dance where the deceased’s soul is justified. However, not everything was coherent from perspective of musical compositional. The flute soloist is challenged and the use of orchestral colors by the composer is varied and interesting, but thematically the composition just did not hang together well.  There was a lack of continuity to the whole work. Flute players all over the world will indeed want to play this piece but, if they cannot pull it off as Mr. Dufour did, it will be somewhat bland and disjointed.

Mr. Dufour’s breath control is amazing and served him well throughout the performance. His ability to spin out the thematic material in a seamless manner was the major triumph of this performance and this particular piece of music. There was form and there were beautiful and well-used orchestral sounds and colors but there just wasn’t enough substance to the thematic material. Hence, the work was slightly too long and, at times, not engaging. Dufour’s flute playing was engaging and he played the roles of charmer and spiritual traveler marvelously. If indeed the Underworld is the goal of this spiritual journey, then the flute-playing of Mr. Dufour is what brought the listener there.

Great Performances – Check These Guys Out!

In the last two weeks, the Kansas City community has had an opportunity to witness two wonderful performances. One by Alex Smith, the cerebral quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs, and the other by Noah Geller, the cool and calm concertmaster of the Kansas City Symphony. Mr. Smith and Mr. Geller are both 29 years old (by my calculations) and came to Kansas City after professional stints in San Francisco and Philadelphia, respectively. Mr. Geller was announced as the new concertmaster of the Kansas City Symphony on March 5, 2012, and this is his second season with the orchestra. Mr. Smith came to the Kansas City Chiefs in a trade for a second round draft choice from the San Francisco 49ers on February 27, 2013. He has just completed his first season with the Kansas City Chiefs leading them to a spot in the playoffs.

On January 4th the Kansas City Chiefs, with Alex Smith at the helm, built a 38-10 lead only to see it evaporate into a 45-44 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.  Based on his wonderful performance that day, the sports pundits are now wondering how much money it will take to keep Alex in Kansas City for that long-term contract. As someone who witnessed the game first hand in about the 12th row, mid-field of the lower bowl, I can say I have never seen a quarterback make so many variety of plays with his passing arm, his excellent decision-making, and his timely running. This quarterback has great “escapability”, meaning he knows how to avoid dire trouble and continue to put the team into position to score points. He puts pressure on the defense because he can do so much. His quarterback rating was “120” and if someone had told me that the Chiefs’ quarterback would have a 120 quarterback rating in a playoff game and lose the game, I would have wanted to check their mental health status! It was a masterful performance as part of a team – utilizing all the members of the team. Mr. Smith is a very alert player who is aware of all of his options most of the time. He was under some intense pressure from the Colts defense and, for the most part, he made great play after great play. Sadly the team, as a whole, appeared to lose focus halfway through the third quarter and the Colts were just too good offensively to shut down completely for the entire game. The momentum of the game shifted quickly and suddenly the Chiefs lost their intensity and the game got away from them. Still, Alex Smith had the team in position to win but his last pass, though caught by Dwayne Bowe, was a few inches out of bounds.

On January 10th, Noah Geller performed the Beethoven Violin concerto as a featured soloist with the Kansas City Symphony. As a regular symphony attendee, one gets used to the very high and polished levels of the featured soloists. Sometimes these performances are dispassionate and almost routine. Mostly these are performers have agents and travel the world displaying their virtuosity and musicality. Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts was packed, and there was an air of anticipation for Mr. Geller’s performance.  Did he ever deliver! What a talent this young man possesses. The brochure summarizing the program mentioned Mr. Geller’s musical prowess, and this was no overstatement. It was nuanced and thoughtful, forceful when it needed to be so, and downright playful. There was clear enjoyment by the musicians supporting one of their own and a conductor willing to follow the carefully chosen tempos. Mr. Geller’s playing was lucid and measured – but also exciting. The Beethoven Violin concerto is a long piece (at least 40 minutes in length) but the musical architecture provided by the orchestra under the direction of Michael Stern made it seem as if this team was playing together in a seamless manner. There was an eruption of spontaneous applause and my wife, Rita, who had begun the evening a little fatigued, was brought back to life by this performance. Bravo!

Kansas City has excellence on the playing field (seen by hundreds of thousands on television) and in the concert call – but the musical talent is much more hidden from the public. For some, classical music is an acquired taste but if one can take a moment and compare these two young men, you will see that both Mr. Smith and Mr. Geller are at the top of their game and worth appreciating. A lot of folks follow football with a keen eye.  Perhaps now it is time to develop our ears as well, and listen to the wonderful music being played at the Kauffman Center.  My thanks to Mr. Smith and Mr. Geller for two very memorable performances.  Everything is up to date in Kansas City!

Lamar Hunt Jr

Lyric Opera’s Magic Flute: A Fitting Tribute to Russell Patterson

Recently, a mentor and a friend of mine, Mr. Russell Patterson, passed away at age 85. I had not seen Russell for many years, but will always be indebted to him for giving me an opportunity to perform as a flutist in the Kansas City Symphony, the Lyric Opera, and the Kansas City Ballet. Russell was one of the founders of the Kansas City Lyric Opera in 1958 and he retired from his position as artistic director at the conclusion of the opera company’s 40th season in the spring of 1998. He was a good-natured man with a passion for opera and, when he retired, he did not stand over his successors and micro-manage them. He allowed the current artistic director, Ward Holmquist, “to carry on with the company without his looking over our shoulders.” That is quite a tribute.

I do not attend many opera performances but, as I have gotten older, I enjoy the art form more and more.  I find myself drawn to listen to it on the radio when I can, and I even have a collection of about 10 operas on my iPod.  I was quite enthusiastic when my wife, Rita, and I went to a performance of The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on Wednesday, November 13th, 2013 in Brandmeyer Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri.  I believe that Russell Patterson would have been elated to see this production, from the sets designed by Jun Kaneko, the singing and playing of the musicians of the Kansas City Symphony, and to the work of so many others that make a production like this possible.  In fact, my main quibble is with none of this but with the opera itself.  The Magic Flute is a strange, albeit sometimes humorous, story with some Masonic underpinnings that my wife said took a leap of faith to follow coherently. In fact, at times, Mozart’s music is so sublime that it does not fit the frivolous nature of the overall plotline.  My opinion is that there are other Mozart operas that I enjoy more, but this performance – though a bit static at times – came alive with the sets, the well-sung arias, the ensemble pieces, and the precise and clear playing by the orchestra. Mozart demands clarity and precision, and the assembled forces delivered in a satisfying manner.

The role of Sarastro, sung with definition by Jeffrey Beruan (bass), sets the tone for the apparent gravity of the situation that the lead character Tamino (heartfully sung by Shawn Matley) finds himself in. Tamino professes his love for Pamina (sung beautifully by Lauren Snouffer) but there are some hurdles he must conquer to win her hand for life-long love. Sarastro mentions three virtues that Tamino must demonstrate:  silence, patience, and wisdom. His behavior under duress will reflect what kind of man he really is. The other main roles, one the Queen of the Night, performed in super-star fashion by Kathryn Lewek, and the other, Papageno, performed with great stage presence by Daniel Belcher, provide contrast to the virtues expected of Tamino. The Queen of the Night is all about revenge.  Papageno is mainly interested in his own creature comforts.

As I reflected on the virtues of silence, patience, and wisdom, I thought what a fitting tribute this production was for the memory of Russell Patterson. His patience and oversight for so many years of the Lyric Opera has led to a beautiful venue for some of classical music’s most profound offerings. His wisdom in presenting all of the operas in English prompted those in the opera business to develop ways where opera could be understood even if performed in its original language. Finally, this production was a tribute to Russell’s silence after he decided to turn over his “brain-child” to a new regime and to let them take it to new heights without getting in the way. I have not known many musicians who would say patience is their main virtue (and Russell would probably agree with that in his case!) but he stuck with an idea that continues to pay dividends to the Kansas City music community and to opera in the Midwest.  For that, we should all be grateful.

Rest in peace my friend. Bravo!

Orchestra Shines in Season Debut

The Kansas City Symphony opened its 2012-2013 classical series on September 28, 2012 with ten new musicians in the orchestra and one full season under its belt in Helzberg Hall at the sparkling Kaufmann Center for the Performing Arts.

In some ways, the most interesting piece of the evening was the first one, “Finding Rothko”, by Adam Schoenberg. The composer states that this particular composition was not an attempt to set to music what he saw at the Museum of Modern Art in February of 2006 but rather that “the artworks are simply a pretext, an inspiration.” The four Mark Rothko artistic works are entitled “Orange, Yellow, Red, and Wine”, and if colors are the titles of the various works of art, then the music certainly reflected the orchestral use of color in that sense.

It has been stated before, and bears repeating, that so often contemporary composers simply write orchestral parts for the various instruments without much thought as to how the sounds might blend or how the orchestra musicians can even effectively execute the musical passage. Since Mr. Schoenberg teaches orchestration at UCLA, it is gratifying to hear that he knows how to write skillfully for an orchestra. Musicians encountering new works of music often increase their overall concentration and  attention to detail and the Kansas City Symphony gave a very convincing performance of the work. There was conviction on both the part of the musicians and conductor Michael Stern, who premiered the work in 2006. This is a work I would like to hear again.  Often that is not the case with the newer music.

Violinist Vadim Gluzman gave a virtuoso account of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, but his playing style was somewhat intimidating to listen to. This was violin playing on steroids and the tempos often bordered on frantic. The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is a show stopper but this listener, while impressed by Mr. Guzman’s obvious virtuoso accomplishments (and his being a bit of a showman to boot!), was left with an empty feeling as to the music making that had just taken place. The tempos while exciting left one thinking whether this was a game of catch me (and follow me) if you can!

Musical Director Michael Stern spoke about this season being one where music meets the visual arts and the last piece on the program, Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky (orchestrated in 1923 by Maurice Ravel, the terrific French composer), was a fitting start to such a theme for the classical season. The piece, composed in 1874 as a solo piano work, was inspired by the untimely death of an artist friend of Mussorgsky’s, Victor Hartmann. A noted art critic at the time, Vladimir Stasov, organized an exhibition of Hartmann’s works and it was under the inspiration of this exhibition that Mussorgsky conceived his Pictures at an Exhibition.

Mussorgsky (1839-1881) is considered one of the two greatest composers from Russia in the late 19th century (the other being Tchaikovsky) and he was born into a wealthy, land owning family and was exposed to the music of the serfs (or peasants) his family oversaw.  Much of his music is a reflection of the Russian culture and folklore of the time. His life changed dramatically when the serfs were emancipated in 1861 and though he had begun moving toward a military career, he found himself in a civil service career until 1880 where he was finally dismissed because of his chronic alcoholism.

Mussorgsky had no formal musical training but he demonstrated an early aptitude for the piano and played orchestral scores from other composers to learn about musical harmony and form. His art songs, the opera Boris Godunov and Pictures at an Exhibition, lie at the center of his musical achievement. Philosophically, Mussorgsky believed that the form of the music should not shape the content but that the content (or compositional material) should dictate the form. Mussorgsky’s use of harmony (biting and irreverent at times) and overall style are quite original and unique and that is why his music is still relevant today.

For a start to the 2012-2013 season, the Kansas City Symphony gave a compelling and thoughtful performance of Pictures at an Exhibition. There were some very mild intonation problems and on several occasions, the transitions from one tempo to the next were not always secure. This should be something that improves over the course of the next few weeks as the orchestra begins to gel with its new members. There was an absolutely stunning E-flat saxophone solo in the Old Castle section of the piece, but no mention of the name of this individual could be found in the program. As last season ended the orchestra sounded somewhat fatigued and was forcing its sound in Helzberg Hall. As a start to this season the orchestra sounded fresh, on its toes, and the blending of the various orchestral forces was delightful, not overbearing or edgy. For the next two concerts the orchestra will return to music shaped more by the musical form, not just the content.