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.

A Disappointing End to a Marvelous Season

The Kansas City Symphony closed its inaugural season at the Kaufmann Center for the Performing Arts (June 23-25) with three varied works, Fratres (which means “brothers”), by Arvo Part, Symphony no. 2 by Alan Hovanhess (Mysterious Mountain), and the monumental Symphony no. 9 by Ludwig van Beethoven. Once again the organization is to be commended for programming that is challenging and educational for the audience. The first half of the concert featured the works by Part (pronounced “pert”) and Hovhaness.  These are works where the texture of the orchestral sound is more prominent than in music dominated by melodic development. This is music that is attempting to capture a mood and a philosophy of life. The orchestra acquitted itself quite well under the direction of Michael Stern, and the balance among the various sections of the orchestra was clear and precise. Kudos to the percussionist in the Part.

The second half of the concert featured Symphony no. 9 by Beethoven. It is a composition that is so stirring that it would be difficult to imagine it ending without a standing ovation from most audiences and there was no exception in this case. However, Beethoven’s music is complex, rich, and full of contradictions – particularly in tempo. There is, in fact, a wide range of effective tempos at which Beethoven’s music may be performed, but in this case, it was not convincing. The performance of the first movement sounded like an initial “read-through” by orchestra and conductor, and the magnificent architecture (richness) of the music was lost. Beethoven was a complex person with many internal emotional struggles, and his music is a reflection of his interior psychological and spiritual state. There was no drama or sense of tension and release in this performance.

The second movement was played with some sense of style and direction but, again, the overall structure and sense of drama were missing. It also became apparent in this movement that the orchestra, conductor, and concert hall were fighting one another. The wind section sounded forced, the tympani was much too intrusive, and the French horns reverberated off the kettles of the tympani – creating even clamor.  (The position of the horns needs to be reconsidered in the future, they were in the way far too often.)  The third movement, perhaps one of the most sublime movements in all of the symphonic literature, was just not moving. In fact, my wife summed it up nicely when she turned to me and said, “the orchestra is not blending very well, as it usually does.” The fourth movement, a unique creation in musical history at the time it was written (it involved chorus and vocal soloists), was exciting but again disjointed and sometimes out of sync. The “Turkish March” was delightful, and the piccolo playing by Diane Schick was excellent. In the end, the orchestra and conductor got a standing ovation but they still have much to learn when it comes to the monuments of musical composition, especially Beethoven.

The Kansas City Symphony Sparkles!

Something new, something old, something borrowed, and something forgotten. The Kansas City Symphony performed its 12th concert in the Masterworks Series of the 2011-2012 Season on Friday May 18, 2012 at the Kaufmann Center for the Performing Arts.  It was a delightful surprise! Music by Johann Christian Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, Joseph Martin Kraus, and Franz Joseph Haydn comprised a program of music all composed between 1770 and 1830.

It became clear that the program was built around not only contrasting periods of music but also contrasting moods as well. Music can convey strong emotions and the first half of the program was marked by two contrasting yet deeply emotional pieces of music. The “something forgotten” was the Sinfonia in G minor, op. 6, No. 6 by Johann Christian Bach (J.C. Bach). Basketball teams play “small ball” where they rely on shorter players to compete with another team, and this first selection set the tone for “small orchestra” throughout the evening. (I guess you could say doing quite a lot with very little.) This means that the orchestra utilized smaller string sections and very limited presence of winds and brass – all consistent with the scoring of the music. No piece featured trombones or the tuba as part of the orchestral force.

J.C. Bach was the 11th son of J. S. Bach and his very famous father was 50 years of age when he was born. While he did take composition lessons from his father, he developed the “Style Galant” that served as a bridge between the Baroque musical period and the Classical period. In essence, J.C. Bach’s music was unique but short lived, and thus somewhat forgotten. He became known as the “London Bach” or the “English Bach” and was even referred to as “John Bach” due to writing and premiering three operas in London. His music emphasizes melody with accompaniment as opposed to the contrapuntal complexity of his father’s music.

The Sinfonia in G minor allowed the Kansas City Symphony musicians to demonstrate the subtleties and clarity of the Helzberg Concert Hall in the Kaufmann Center. This is music that must be performed with clarity and precision and the musicians responded with a thoughtful performance. Often in Baroque music, musicians are allowed to embellish specific musical passages within certain constraints of good taste. In “Style Galant” the embellishments are written out specifically by the composer but there still must be agreement as to their execution. Under Bernard Labade’s able direction, the dialogue of the melody as well as the “Storm and Stress” of the music was easily discernible.

The something old (but new to this listener) was the Piano Concerto in G minor by Felix Mendelssohn performed magnificently by Arnaldo Cohen, a Brazilian-born pianist. Brazil is known in the sports world for its fabulous soccer players, and Mr. Cohen was every bit as adroit and clever as his counterparts in the sports world. Once again Helzberg Hall allowed the pianist to play with great clarity and the utmost subtlety. After reading the concert notes, one finds a very unique and perhaps neglected major piano concerto (I almost want to say piano symphony!). At the time of its composition, this piece became the most frequently heard piano concerto of its era; however, it was soon eclipsed by Beethoven’s piano concertos and the piano music of a whole host of other composers including Chopin.

The concerto has a couple of unique features including the lack of a pause between the three movements and a significant reduction of the orchestral exposition (i.e. introduction) in lieu of an immediate introduction of the solo piano part. Mendelssohn also utilizes a theme from the first movement in the last movement. The composer in essence borrows the music from himself. So what of the orchestra accompaniment? Special mention should be made of the violists and cellists who played the opening of the 2nd movement beautifully. They were able to convey the full warmth and acoustic possibilities of Helzberg Hall. Also Mr. Cohen’s contrast of staccato phrasing vs. legato phrasing (short vs. long) was not only remarkable but again crystal clear. The orchestra continues to respond with more attention to the details of the music because these can be heard and savored by the listener. You can’t pick this subtlety up by listening to a CD, and this is why this orchestra and concert hall are such a great experience!

In the second half of the program there was a sudden shift to music that was more exuberant as a contrast to the more introspective and melancholic parts of the first half. This is because the first half of the program featured music all in a “minor” key (G minor) while the second half featured music in “major” keys. Suddenly what was dark, soft, and introverted became clear, open, and extroverted. The something new was the Symphony in F major, VB 130 by Joseph Martin Kraus. He has been referred to as the “Swedish Mozart” and he was even the same age (36) as Mozart when he passed. The most striking thing about the performance of this work by the Kansas City Symphony was the passion conductor Bernard Labadie clearly had for this work. The final “Presto” movement was played at a breakneck speed but held together nicely. The entire string section is to be commended for the execution of this work, and I offer my thanks to the conductor for introducing Kansas City audiences to an unknown but clearly gifted composer.

The final piece of the evening was the Symphony No. 101 in D major, “The Clock”, by Franz Joseph Haydn. Once again, a subtle theme was woven into the program for this concert in that Haydn spent a lot of time in England (as did J.C. Bach).  In the spring of 1794, there was a strong demand among the nobility, gentry, and wealthy society for tickets to hear Haydn’s music. The mechanical “tick-tock” in the second movement of the symphony is why the piece is known as “The Clock,” and this was of great interest to the English audiences at the time of the premiere. Much like the finale of the Symphony No. 41 by W.A. Mozart performed earlier this season, the finale of “The Clock” symphony is considered the greatest final movement Haydn ever wrote. The orchestra sparkled as did Helzberg Hall, and the standing ovation for the orchestra and conductor was well-deserved.  This was truly an engaging and imaginative program. Once again, the strings proved to be the backbone of the orchestra, but special mention should be made of the flute obbligato played by Michael Gordon. Bravo!

One cannot say enough about experiencing the Kansas City Symphony at the Kaufmann Center for the Performing Arts. This city is so fortunate to have both of these treasures. There is a matching gift program between now and the end of the orchestra’s fiscal year on June 30th. Please consider a gift for this fine organization.

“We should get in the habit of reading inspirational books, looking at inspirational pictures, hearing inspirational music, and associating with inspirational friends.” – Alfred Montapert

Lyric Opera of Kansas City and The Barber of Seville

Last evening, my oldest daughter (and mother of three young children), Sarah Arkell, and I went to the Lyric Opera of Kansas City performance of “The Barber of Seville” by Gioachino Rossini. As I have aged, I have found enjoyment not only in my mostly grown children and wife, but also in opera. But when I mention those dreaded words in our household, “Let’s go to the opera,” my wife and children politely redirect the subject to another topic as if dad were not in his right mind. So I begin by saying thank you to Sarah for being willing to attend her first opera and take in what was a very enjoyable performance of a true mainstay of the opera repertoire.

Kansas City is very fortunate to possess a regional opera company that can have the first rate musicians of the Kansas City Symphony perform with very good singers. Those who are veterans of attending performances of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City at the old Lyric Theater have to be beside themselves with the stunning visuals and acoustics of the Muriel Kauffman Theater at the Kaufmann Center for the Performing Arts. Whenever I pay for entertainment I want to leave feeling satisfied and I was immensely. In fact the only thing I was not satisfied with was the 35 minute intermission – it was just too long. “The Barber of Seville” is a very “opera-friendly” piece of music with a plot driven by “silly confusion.” The four singers who carry the show were all excellent, and a fifth was superb as well. As I made mental notes about what to say, it struck me that it was so pleasant to hear two bass voices – those of Kevin Burdette and Authur Woodley – that were so refreshingly clear. Their voices were not scratchy or garbled, and their diction very good.

For those of you who think of opera as a “foreign language that I can’t understand,” take comfort in knowing that the Muriel Kauffman Theater is equipped with a personal “ribbon board” for each seat that gives the listener a timely translation of what is being said on stage. I would imagine there is a technical name but the only way I can describe it is using the sports term, ribbon board, like what you see around the fields at soccer games. You can only view your individual panel from your individual seat.  No one should be intimidated (nor use the language barrier as an excuse) to take in an opera for fear of not being able to understand it. The good news is that you can, and the interpretive system works well.

One thing that I found fascinating was a fact about the composer, Gioachino Rossini. He lived from 1792-1868 but retired from composing music in 1829 at the ripe old age of 38. He was an extremely popular composer who created 39 operas as well as sacred and chamber music. Rossini’s “Stabat Mater” is one of my favorite pieces. So why did Rossini retire so young when most of the well-known composers spend their entire lives composing music up until they die? Well, it seems that his life was a mixture of triumph in the theater and a life of seclusion.  Even though he was an excellent chef and gourmand, he also struggle with physical and mental illness. He returned to musical composition late in life and wrote a 14-volume set of music mostly for the solo piano, voice, and chamber music entitled “Sins of Old Age.” Another interesting feature of Rossini’s music is that he often borrowed or plagiarized from his own music due to the demands of deadlines for productions of his operas. His last opera was “William Tell”, which is well-known for the overture – but at four hours in length, it is rarely heard in modern times.

One of the most moving arias sung last night was about scandal and how it can ruin a person’s life. Scandal can begin as a whisper and end up as a powerful cannonball exploding into a person’s life, sometimes unjustly. Other themes explored in this light comedy were the love of money, lust, and envy. It seems to me that Rossini became much more deeply religious and introspective as his life unfolded, and that is something we can all take away from “The Barber of Seville”. He adjusted and redirected his life to the final end that awaits us all.

The Lyric Opera of Kansas City puts on four productions each year, and I would encourage everyone to consider a series subscription. (You are only asked to commit to four nights per year). Opera moves people, and those who fall in love with it are passionate about it. Next year’s lineup is once again “opera-friendly” and – who knows?  You may learn something new about music, history, and even yourself.