Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Classics in the Movies: Smoke (1995)

I have a hard time managing "time". Especially when I have more free time than I am accustomed to. I do much better when I am in a hurry and I have to move quickly from thing to thing to get it all done. Give me 6 free hours, and I start to think of all the things I could do, and I end up stressing out trying to fit them all in instead of enjoying the time in the first place. That happened to me again today (Sunday) when my wife had to spend the day officiating at a swim meet, and my son Ethan had to work. We had a busy Saturday working around the house, so I didn't have too much on my "honey-do" list for Sunday. But as Sunday unfolded, I became edgy and it got worse as the day went on. I just could not slow down and enjoy the day like I wanted to.
Towards the end of my day, as I scolded myself for letting a beautiful day go by without truly being in the moment and loving the gift of free time I had been given, I was suddenly blessed with a moment of clarity. I was standing at the counter in the kitchen having a cup of coffee, browsing through my playlist on Spotify and I glanced at some piano music of Shostakovich. At that moment I remembered a wonderful scene in a movie called Smoke from 1995 starring William Hurt and Harvey Keitel that uses this music. Keitel owns a small neighborhood tobacco shop in Brooklyn, and the lives of the neighbors who come in and out of the shop provide the stories for the movie. Hurt is a struggling writer who recently lost his wife. Keitel is an amateur photographer who takes a photo outside of this shop every day at the same exact time in the same exact spot...and has done so for 4000 consecutive days. This scene is brilliant for several reasons. Keitel's explanation of why his project is meaningful to him is very touching. As Hurst flips from page to page of the photo albums in rapid succession, Keitel tells him to slowdown...take time...really look at the pictures. The musical backdrop to this scene is the Prelude and Fugue in C major by Dimitri Shostakovich (1952). Have a look. (This clip from YouTube is in English but it does have Spanish subtitles).
The message of "slow down" is what I needed to hear on Sunday. Look at the things around you...really see them. Live each moment fully. The use of Shostakovitch is brilliant here.
Paul: "Slow down huh??
Auggie: "That's what I recommend."
Paul is rewarded with his patience in this scene too. Beautiful.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Reflections from the April 10th Kansas City Symphony Performance

May 15, 1934, From Charles Martin (Martin worked at a bindery that did some work for Charles Ives).
Dear Mr. Ives,
The writer mentioned to Mr. George Gershwin that we were doing some work for you, and he said he was very much interested in your compositions and would like to meet you. Mr. Gershwin lives at 134 E. 72nd Street, and his private telephone number is Butterfield 8-7797. The writer feels sure that he would be very glad if you would get in touch with him.
Yours very truly,
Charles Martin

In response, Charles Ives wrote these comments in free hand on the letter;
"Mr. Martin came in later in the year I think when we were at 164 (meaning 164 E. 74th Street, his home address) and said that he was sorry that I didn't call Gershwin...as G (Gershwin) said my music has been a help to him - had known it from several years back. Bill Verplank told me, shortly after I left the office, that Geo Gershwin telephoned. Bill answered for me-said Gershwin said he had gotten more out of my music than any other, especially new chords and new rhythms and that he wants to ask about more copies etc...and that it had been a great help to him."

I was not able to attend the Saturday evening performance of the KC Symphony last weekend... my usual night...because I had made plans to go to my friend, guitarist John Svoboda's, house for an in-home performance by Truckstop Honeymoon. So I went to the Sunday afternoon performance instead. I bought a ticket in the choir loft, behind the stage. I really like sitting there as it offers such a unique perspective. I don't think the sound is bad there either, so it's a win if you ask me. The program was one that I had been looking forward to for quite awhile...Debussy, Gershwin, a world premiere by David Ludwig, and Ives. This concert was billed as a "World Tour from Gershwin to Debussy." My mom had been to the Saturday performance and raved about it. I also read Libby Hanssen's review of the Friday performance in the KC Star. (Please remember, I said in my very first entry of this journal that I am not a music critic, and I am not going to criticize the musicians or a critic for that matter.) She had good things to say about everything except the Ives.
Debussy is probably on my list of top five composers, and his "Iberia" is the second of three orchestral works from "Images". The orchestra created a wonderful wall of sound that washed over us. And inside this wall is the precise inner beat that keeps it all together. It was especially fun to watch Maestro Stern keep it all together.
The premiere of David Ludwig's Concerto for Orchestra was a treat. As Miles Davis said, classical music is "dead shit"....Well, Ludwig's concerto proves that classical music is still alive...fresh and new. His wife, Bella Hristova, wrestled this gator into submission and did so with amazing touch and soul. Her intonation was spot on and her sense or rhythm, a central element of the piece, was "right in the pocket", as our jazz friends would say. I thought is was a blast. And for you purists...I did not mind a bit that she had the music on a stand in front of her.
I started this entry with the letter above because I think the genius of this program was the Ives-Gershwin duality. Everyone knows Gershwin...and I think loves him....because, well, because he is Gershwin. As Ravel told him when Gershwin commented that he wanted to be like Ravel, "Why would you want to be a second rate Ravel when you are already a first rate Gershwin"..or something to that effect. Iconic. Fun. American. "An American in Paris" is always a treat. What an enduring staple of the repertoire it is. Three saxophones on stage pretty much guarantees a good time. Principal trumpet, Julian Kaplan, was sharp and precise. He is a clutch player that will be fixture, I predict, in the KCS for many years to come. And of course Noah Geller, concertmaster, played several solos beautifully. As for Stern, let me just say this...I was once on a flight from KCI to Atlanta. It was late in the day and we seemed to be the only airplane going anywhere. The pilot came on and said we were the only ones in line for take-off...here we go! He turned onto the runway and hit the gas without coming to a stop and we were immediately flying down the runway. Maestro Stern came out for the Gershwin, jumped up onto the podium and gave the downbeat in much the same way. Fun stuff.
So as recognizable and comfortable as Gershwin's music is, Ives' music lives in a different place. This was the piece, his Symphony no. 3, that I was looking forward to the most. And the piece I felt hit me the hardest on this particular afternoon. Hardcore classical music people recognize Ives' brilliance and importance as a uniquely important American composer, but I don't think most people feel that way. His music can be very challenging in terms of dissonance, form, tonality, meter and construction. I'll bet if you asked 100 composers to voice a C-major chord, Ives would find a way to do it unlike anyone else.You'd scratch your head thinking..."that kinda sounds like C-major...but why does it feel so different?". That's Ives. The first time I played "The Unanswered Question" (I am a violinist you may recall) I found I was fighting back tears. At that moment, the first reading of it, the opening chord...with strings playing a very high, soft G,..it's so delicate...so simple and beautiful. The first several bars are gorgeous. Then the trumpet enters and asks a question. I knew then and there that Ives was a composer I would appreciate and yet be challenged by, forever. And I felt like the KCS played it with energy, vigor and passion.
My Sunday was a treat. Wonderful music, incredible musicians, world class venue, and I will say the bar in the lobby makes a very good gin and tonic at intermission.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Reflections from Kansas City Symphony April 2, 2016

It's hard to believe that the audience attending the premiere of Mahler's First symphony on November 20, 1889 (Budapest) scrunched their noses and basically said "what the hell was that?". On April 2nd, 2016 at Helzberg Hall, the audience leapt to their feet with thunderous applause and showered Maestro Stern and the musicians of the Kansas City Symphony with a standing ovation at the conclusion of their performance of the Mahler First. In 1889, even Mahler's wife Alma admitted that she herself did not initially like the First Symphony. Mahler expressed this frustration to her in a letter saying that when he conducted the symphony, it "sent shivers down my spine. Damn it all, where do people keep their ears and their hearts if they can't hear that?" Well, we do hear it now Herr Mahler. And the breathtaking musicianship of the Kansas City Symphony under the baton of Michael Stern made it possible.
Among the records my dad gave me as a child to begin my classical music journey was, believe it or not, a scratched Mahler First. I was 5. It's my humble opinion that Mahler's First is his most "enjoyable" symphony, as well as his most accessible (the program notes made the same statement...I totally agree). If someone wants to listen to a Mahler symphony for the first time, I would suggest the First. It is certainly a formidable work. It's known as the "Titan" symphony. It's about an hour long. Thematically and sonically speaking, it is challenging, rich, and sophisticated. But it isn't twinged with the analysis-paralysis of life, love, loss and death to the degree that began to emerge in his second and subsequent symphonies. 2-9 are all brilliant for sure. And I can say for sure that the First is not my "favorite" Mahler symphony...that would be the Fifth for me. So back to April 2nd...it was easy to jump up after the symphony concluded and celebrate the brilliance of the work itself and the performance of the KCS. But you can't do that after the other Mahler symphonies.....they are so emotionally draining that it takes a bit of time to recuperate before your hands can move to a clap and for your legs to be able to support your body. Which is the beauty of the First....you can jump right up. It's the musical equivalent of a tequila that does not give you a hangover.
The symphony starts with deafening silence....unfortunately there were more than the usual number of coughing-hacking-TB sufferers in attendance tonight. Mr. Stern waited as long as he could to let this subside, which was longer than usual. But necessary. The strings begin with an almost sub-audible harmonic "A". It's hard to hear it at first. One feels it more. It creates an effect...dawn...the earth coming to life. Later, the clarinet sounds a perfect fourth (D-A) as the cuckoo bird singing to greet the sun. (cuckoos sing major thirds, but not Mahler's cuckoos). From here and through the end of the symphony we are treated to songs, dances, sounds of nature, yodeling, Viennese cafe life, a slow "funeral march", (Frere Jacques in minor key), and a brilliant, climactic crescendo at the end.
Mahler scored this work for a massive orchestra. Something like 100 musicians...much larger than the Mozart that preceded Mahler on this concert. I was very happy to see 8 double basses on stage...come on...its all about the bass, right? And, there is even a bass solo too (start of the third movement).  Two sets of timpani, tons of other assorted percussion, four trumpets, three trombones and eight french horns. It was a glorious sound. Mahler scored some of the trumpets to be off stage to great effect. He also asks the eight horns to raise their bells at one point, and for the horn players to stand for the finale so they can be heard above everyone else. Wow! We find ourselves in the key of F minor midway through the final movement. "How is this going to end?" we begin to wonder. Mahler of course has that figured out, and takes us triumphantly back to D major, ending the finale with 2 D's in octaves. (This always takes me right to the opening of the third movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in my head because that work ends ends it's opening statement with the same exact D octave punctuation. Brilliant).
The first piece of the concert was the Mozart Piano Concerto number 27 (1791). Benjamin Grosvenor was the soloist. He is only 23 years old and yet he has the touch and discipline of a much more seasoned pianist. Big observation: Helzberg Hall is made for Mozart. Period. I noticed this the first time I heard Mozart played here a few years ago. His music just seems to soar here. I think the acoustics of this hall are magnificent regardless of the composer being played but Mozart's ghost seems to live here somehow. Some observations: no clarinet. small orchestra (especially compared to Mahler), constant trading and sharing of musical phrases between each section which is VISIBLE, and fun to watch, tough riffs for the flutes and oboes in the third movement, especially doubling and repeating the piano's riff, and the piano on stage has a wonderful, full, rich tone. Every note was crisp and clear, at any dynamic. This may be as much in part due to Grosvenor's technique as the piano itself. And lastly, Grosvenor spent as much time looking at the orchestra as he did the piano or the conductor. He was clearly having fun and sharing the moment "in the moment" with his fellow musicians. I looked at my notes a few days after the concert and saw that I had written that the Mozart seemed more like a symphony with a piano rather than a piano backed by a symphony. I'll stand by that. He treated us to an encore of Frederico Mompou's The Fountain and the Clock. It is gorgeous. Have a listen.