Sunday, August 13, 2017

18th and Vine

There was an editorial in the Kansas City Star on August 12, 2017 about the poor turnout at the Jazz and Heritage Festival over Memorial Day weekend here in KC this year.
http://www.kansascity.com/opinion/editorials/article166839917.html

The festival took place in the historic 18th & Vine district of KC. Kansas City has a rich history of jazz. I read somewhere that KC was one of the "cradles of Jazz." One of the most iconic and influential jazz musicians of all time, Charlie Parker, was born in KC and created bebop here before moving on to New York. Many years ago, my friend Joe, a jazz bassist, and I made a trek to his grave site here in KC. Count Basie played here in KC too. Jazz is part of this great city's fabric.
I have written about my love pf jazz in this blog many times...most recently telling about the first time I heard Miles Davis...who also played in KC....
Kansas City has been plagued and paralyzed by the scourge of racism throughout it's history, as have many cities. Several attempts have been made, and are still underway, to redevelop and return this "cradle of jazz history' to its former glory. I frequently run through and around the 18th and Vine area and have never felt unsafe. Some people assert that many in the white community view this area of KC as unsafe and dangerous. That may be true, sadly. But I don't feel that way. And I don't think the Jazz Festival failed to live up to expectations because of race or geography. I think it failed because of Jazz.

If anyone can relate to loving a fading or dying form of music in our popular culture, its a classical music aficionado such as myself. Classical music has been at the bottom of the heap longer than I have been alive in terms of sales and market share. That's one of the reasons I started writing this journal...to fight back...to try and open peoples ears and hearts to the vast beauty and exhilaration classical music offers.  But believe it or not, jazz recently surpassed classical as the least popular music-genre:
https://news.jazzline.com/news/jazz-least-popular-music-genre/

The failure of this year's Jazz and Heritage Festival in the 18th and Vine District is based on this sad fact in my opinion. People just don't know or care enough about jazz enough to turn out in the numbers necessary to generate a profit for such an event. If Garth Brooks, Jay-Z, Adele, Drake, or Beyonce were performing at the Gem Theater in the Jazz District, I believe they would sell-out. People from all over the KC-metro area would go there without batting an eye.

The District is pinning its hopes on a dying art. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole and hundreds more are not known or appreciated by today's America in enough of a meaningful way to support a major music festival. Chick Corea, one of this year's headliners, is an amazing pianist. His album "Now He Sings, Now He Sobs" (1968) is a true masterpiece.I just texted both of my kids and asked them if they had ever heard of Chick Corea....and no surprise, neither of them had. But when I asked them if Drake was going to be performing at 18th and Vine if they would be afraid to go there, they said "hell no."

The Kansas City Airport has pictures of Kansas City Jazz history throughout the terminal. Black and white photos. Old. These are days gone by. And for most Americans (not me) this is a musical form gone by too. That's the problem.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

KC VITAs 2017 Summer Series



I had the great privilege of meeting Jackson Thomas, Director and Founder of KC VITAs, last year for an interview in advance of their Summer Series performances. So here we are a year later, and KC VITAs is still going strong under Jackson's leadership. I checked in with him this week to see what he's been up to and to find out more about the 2017 Summer Series performances next weekend.
________________________________________________________________________________

 I can’t believe it’s been a year since we’ve talked! Where does the time go?  But I am so happy that it’s just about time for the next KC VITAs Summer Series performances. What have you been up to during the past year when we spoke?

Thanks so much for speaking with me again, Tim! We’ve been incredibly busy trying to reach more people and become more present in the community. This past year, we held a December Gala event where we featured small ensemble and solo works by a couple of regional and international composers. We also have improved our submission process to streamline how composers can submit their works to us, as well as reach more composers. Since then, we have been going full steam on making this the best Summer Series yet!

Tell me about this year’s KC VITAs program.

We received 150 blind submissions of art song, small ensemble, and choral works by composers from all around the world. Ten were picked from that, five of which are world premieres and five are regional premieres. These compositions make up our most diverse program to date by far. We have two performances this year, one on Aug. 4th at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church at 7:00, and another on Aug. 6th at Country Club Christian Church at 3:00. We are continuing to follow our mission and offer these concerts for free!

Did this program come together easily or were there any challenges of note?

Because of the sheer amount of submissions we received, it was an even greater puzzle to finalize this year’s program. Each composition must be considered (sometimes several times) which, as you can imagine is incredibly time consuming. Then, when trying to pick from such high quality pieces and figure out the best way to make them work together, the final decisions are very hard to make. There could have been several programs made from the compositions that made it to the final round.

 If I’m not mistaken, all of the music is original, correct?

We do have a couple compositions this year that are based on preexisting music. One is based on chant, while the other is based on a hymn. The ending product, however, is incredibly original as the compositions have deconstructed and revitalized the original material into something totally new.

Will any of the composers be attending this year’s performances?

As many of the composers live quite a large distance away from Kansas City (several of whom live across the pond) the amount of composers able to attend this year is still unknown. We will be taping this year’s performances, though, and have been skyping in with composers to collaborate on bringing their piece to life.

How many new singers do you have this year? How many are returning from last year?

29 total, 18 are returning from previous years. Many of the returning members have been with us since the beginning.

What is the thought or reason for having two different venues for each performance? Why not have both at the same place?

We’d  like to have the opportunity to reach as many people in the city as possible. By offering locations downtown and one further south, we are hoping to provide a place convenient to reach from anywhere in the area. We also want to bring our music to the many wonderful venues that Kansas City has to offer. Although they each present their challenges, we are able to discover new things about each piece whenever we sing in a new space.

 Where did you have the recording session I saw posted on the Facebook Page?

We took a huge step for our organization this year and recorded all of our music beforehand. This way, we are able to provide composers with a much higher quality recording in addition to the live recording from our concerts. We were lucky enough to record at Swarthout Recital Hall on the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence, KS and had a great experience!

 Tell us a bit about what was recorded and when it will be available?


We recorded our entire program and our CD will be available for purchase at both of our concerts! It’s been a busy few weeks, to say the least!Thanks so much for your help in promoting our concerts and organization as a whole! Just a reminder, KC VITAs is a 501(c)(3) organization and all donations made in support of our organization are tax-deductible and help to continue our mission to promote the continued creation and performance of contemporary-classical vocal music. We will be working on becoming even more present during the year in the time to come with many exciting ideas in the works!

Excellent. Thank you Jackson! I am really looking forward to the concert. And thank you for your commitment to bringing great music to our community!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Miles, Kronos and Monk


On a rainy Spring afternoon in 1984, I had a life altering musical experience. I was a music major in my first year of college at Indiana State University. I know I've explained in this journal many times that I am a violinist, but I should also remind you that I also play the bass and the guitar. During my Junior year of high school, I started playing the acoustic bass in the jazz band which coincided with my exploration of the jazz repertoire. During college, I continued to play jazz while pursuing my classical violin studies. Most of my playing consisted of small jazz ensembles at school and outside gigs with local musicians at coffee shops etc.
Anyway, music students have to listen (or "get to" listen to I should say) music as part of the curriculum, and the University maintained a listening lab with a pretty extensive library of albums (yes, vinyl albums). Students would go the the lab, show their student ID and check out a record to take to one of the listening stations that were lined up in a room with small desks with partitions. Each station had a set of headphones. You get the picture......
So on this Spring day, I was looking through the jazz collection and saw this record (See above). Wow....so cool. I mean...WAY cool, this dude with the trumpet and shades. I will confess that in hindsight, I am embarrassed that I had no idea who this dude was. I had only really started listening to jazz the year before during my Senior year of high school. During my Junior year, I only played the sheet music that the band director chose for the jazz band, and what little jazz I heard at that time was big band jazz. I had not yet been exposed to bebop or any other jazz. And still at the time, 99% of my music listening was devoted to classical music.
So I take this record with the cool trumpet player on the cover and go to the listening stall at the end of the row which happens to be the one I like the most, and I cue up this album. For some reason, I am the only student in the listening lab at that moment.
I lower the arm and the stylus makes contact with the vinyl.
From the silence, a pop as the stylus finds the groove. Then I hear a piano playing A and G, followed by a saxophone playing a G, and then Miles on trumpet hitting a high D...muted and very close to the microphone. I had never heard anything like it. Sublime. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I listened to this track over and over. It took me to a place I had never been before. I stared at the cover and wondered who this musical wizard was.


Miles didn't write Round Midnight....Thelonious Monk did in 1938. Many artists have recorded it. I think Miles' 1957 recording is the best. The Miles Davis Quintet consisted of Red Garland on piano, Philly Joe Jones on drums, Paul Chambers on bass and John Coltrane on tenor saxophone.
From that moment forward, I listened to every Miles Davis record I could get a hold of. A new world had been opened up to me and I enjoyed exploring it.
The following year, the Kronos Quartet came to the University to give a concert. Kronos is a string quartet that is best known for playing new and contemporary classical music. They were somewhat avant garde at the time and there was a big buzz surrounding their appearance on campus. I went to the concert and really enjoyed it. But it was their final number that stood out....Round Midnight.
I have written fairly often in this journal about the fusion of musical styles and genres...the crossing of musical lines and such. This recording by Kronos certainly falls into that discussion. A truly classical ensemble playing a jazz standard. I think it works very well. The voices of violins, viola and cello offer a wonderful tone and flavor to this tried and true melody.


P.S. As good as the Miles Davis album Round Midnight is, I did come to believe that the BEST Miles Davis album is in fact Kind of Blue from (1959). Check that out too.

Monday, June 5, 2017

1830



This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In just about every way, this album changed everything in popular music. It was the first "concept album." It was the first psychedelic album. It showed that rock music could be "serious." The Beatles gave up touring, and the craziness that followed them on the road, and locked themselves in a studio and began experimenting with sounds and new ideas. A masterpiece emerged. It didn't sound like the Beatles....it didn't sound like anything else up to that time....it was music from a different planet. And 50 years later, it still sounds that way.
One hundred and thirty-seven years earlier, in 1830, a similar event occurred. A French composer named Hector Berlioz wrote a piece of music that changed everything too. Only this time, the stakes were much different...even higher. Whereas the Beatles were measured against their previous music, which was certainly wonderful (Rubber Soul, Revolver) and all other rock music made before 1967, Berlioz was composing in a world that had just been seismically transformed by a certain Ludwig Van Beethoven. Just as the Rolling Stones or the Beach Boys were left open mouthed and spellbound trying to figure out how they could possibly top Sgt. Pepper, every composer after Beethoven had his endless musical shadow with which to contend. A great quote from Johannes Brahms to this end: "You have no idea how it is for the likes of us to feel the tread of a giant like him behind us." Brahms waited many years before he published his first symphony (1876). But young Hector leaped into the post-Beethoven abyss and composed a work that sounds every bit as timeless and fresh today as it did in 1830; the Symphonie Fantastique. It was the first "programmatic" work ever published...essentially a concept album as was Sgt. Pepper. The five movements of SF tell an incredible story of love, opium induced obsession, wild fantasy, madness, and death.
Tom Service said it so well in his article in the Guardian from August 19, 2014:
 "Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, a piece that lays legitimate claim to adjectives such as “revolutionary”, “radical” and “unprecedented” perhaps as much as, or even more than any other piece in this series so far. This jaw-dropping work was made by a 26-year-old composer who had already become a famous, indeed notorious, figure in Parisian musical life. But Hector Berlioz also happened to be one of the most brilliant writers on music; and in his letters he reveals the genesis of this diabolically and passionately inspired work." 
And Leonard Bernstein described the SF this way in 1969:
"The Symphonie Fantastique is ‘the first psychedelic symphony in history, the first musical description ever made of a trip, written one hundred thirty odd years before the Beatles’. Berlioz’s programme notes for the symphony confirm this, as he describes the opening of the fourth movement as the representation of the following episode:
Convinced that his love is spurned, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts.
There is an interesting article entitled "How Beethoven Ruined Classical Music" by Dylan Evans published June 12, 2005 in the Telegraph that makes the case that Beethoven did just that....he created music that did not leave the door open for those who followed him. It was almost like...."OK, so now what? What the hell do you expect us to do now Beethoven? How can we possibly top that?" Berlioz is the one who answered that question in 1830. The Symphonie Fantastique still sounds fresh in 2017. A mere 2 1/2 years separate Beethoven's death and the SF's premiere. Two tectonic forces grinding against each other like continents. And because of Berlioz, the void between Beethoven and all others was bridged so that everyone else could follow the master. Pardon me here but I can't help myself: "It was 187 years ago today, Hector Berlioz taught the band to play." 
I listened to Sgt Pepper and Symphonie Fantastique this week...back-to-back. I recommend it.


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Milestones, Time, Ethan, Elgar, Run Rabbit Run



I have had a lot on my mind recently. I have not had as much time to write as I would like to. Lots going on. My youngest son, Ethan, graduated from high school this week...Tuesday night. The ceremony was held at the Community of Christ Auditorium in Independence, MO. It's a beautiful place that I know well. Everyone was here. My mom, her sister, my wife's parents, and my oldest son Jack. We took lots of pictures. We celebrated. 526 students walked across the stage to receive their diplomas. The huge Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, one of the 75 largest organs in the world....6334 pipes in total...brought the evening to life with Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance.
Earlier in the day, I almost crashed my car. I had to pick up Ethan's dress pants from the cleaners. It was hot and sunny. The sun felt good as I walked in and out of the dry-cleaners. I turned on Sirius XM for the trip home. A piece of music I had not heard began to play. I was instantly in its grip...and I soon found myself sobbing uncontrollably as I drove down 3rd street. It all came out....
Eighteen years ago, I was on the stage at the same Community of Christ Auditorium. Ethan was only a few days old then. He was in the NICU of Children's Mercy Hospital having been born with severe kidney issues...only one kidney worked and not even at full strength. We would go there to hold him....to pray for him...hoping he could come home soon. I had a concert with the Independence Symphony that week. We were playing Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. I debated playing at all, but I wanted to honor my commitment to my fellow musicians. Maybe it would be good for me. Such a beautiful piece too.
One of those moments I will never forget...playing the intermezzo...thinking about my newborn son...feeling my own helplessness. I was so scared. The organ playing in this great auditorium in accompaniment to the orchestra lifted me up. I could feel its power pulsating in, around and through me.
And 18 years later, that same organ came to life and greeted my son walking down the isle in his cap and gown. A profound moment. I was suddenly in the past and the future at that same moment. It was overwhelming. And The Year of Our Lord by Sufjan Stevens, the piece that slayed me earlier in the day, touched that same nerve somehow. This beautiful composition awakened me to the feelings that accompany seeing your child become a young man right before your very eyes. The past...the future...my hopes and fears from the past. My joy.
I pulled off the road until I could get my shit together and dry my eyes. Today is Thursday and I still can't get through this piece without balling.
Music is powerful. It can come out of nowhere and lay you down.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

Reflections from the Kansas City Symphony 5.7.17 Britten's War Requiem


If you are expecting me to write a "critical" review of the Kansas City Symphony's performance today at Helzberg Hall...the performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem (1961)... forget about it. You came to the wrong place. I am not a reviewer, which I have stated before. I am an unapologetic "homer." This is my hometown Symphony, good or bad, and I will never say anything critical about it. I knew I had to share it in my blog so everyone can hear how incredible this work is, as are the musicians and conductor who brought it to life today. There was nothing to be critical of anyway.
I did my homework. I have the famous 1963 recording with Britten himself conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, the Highgate School Choir, the Bach Choir, and the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus. The soloists were Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano), THE Peter Pears (tenor) and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone). This is the gold standard. I pulled it out and listened to it Wednesday evening. Mind bending. Even the KCS program listed this as the recording of choice. I was not expecting today's performance to be the equal of this recording, but in fact it was.
Since I am not a professional music critic, I can pretty much say anything I want in this space. So let me riff a bit.
139 singers in the adult chorus. 37 girls in the youth choir. I decided not to try and count how many musicians were on stage...but let me assure you that every inch of space on the stage was occupied. There was a full orchestra, a chamber orchestra, and an organ, played by Jan Kraybill.
The soloists were Christine Brewer (soprano), Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor) and Stephen Powell (baritone). All three were spot on and powerful.
Britten. Pacifist. Wrote this to condemn all war, not any one war in particular. This is a legit requiem in form and structure, but does not have a religious message. Uses the once forbidden C-F# interval to great effect. I could see Maestro Stern signing as he conduced...he was in the moment for sure.
With so many elements to coordinate and integrate into a performance, the atmosphere from my seat seemed very relaxed and certain. It all came together quite elegantly. One would think it to be a struggle to keep everyone together, bit I didn't sense any struggle at all.
The tympanist of the "chamber" orchestra gets my vote for best multi-tasker; he played a bass drum, gong, and cymbal with different mallets all in succession in one passage.Nice.
Charles Bruffy, the Chorus Director, made a comment at the post-concert Q&A, which was awesome by-the-way, that I also made note of. He said the hardest parts for the chorus were the soft parts. And that's exactly what I noted were the most powerful moments of the performance...when the entire chorus was singing softly in unison. The loud, forte sections were wonderful, but I felt the soft sections carried the day.
The performance was well balanced. Phrasing was well executed. Balance was perfect. Entrances were clean and sharp. The overall tone of the vast ensemble was rich and warm. Helzberg Hall can do no wrong. Except, as Maestro Stern noted afterward, its only flaw is not having a belfry for bells.
Come on KC, what's with all the coughing and cell phones...at a symphony concert??? If you are that tuberculin, stay home....there, I said it. And, as my friend Susie Yang pointed out, if you don't know how to turn your phone off, then perhaps you should not have one.
But the best part of the performance came at the very end. 1.5 hours of magic boil down to the final "Amen". And here we had the C-F# chord for the "A" followed by the soothing grace of an F major power-chord from heaven for the "men". Sublime.
And a big shout out to my Mom, Elnora Welker. We share season tickets to the symphony. I can't think of anything better than spending a beautiful Spring afternoon with her, enjoying a pre-concert Chardonnay at Helzberg Hall. Cheers to you Mom.



Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A couple of great 208's.

Somehow I have failed for many years to see an obvious connection between two of my favorite, and very well known, pieces of music. 208.
J.S. Bach (1685-1750) wrote his "Hunting Cantata" in 1713. Part of this large work is a very tasty lick we now know as "Sheep May Safely Graze." Bach's works were cataloged in 1950 by Wolfgang Schmieder and are known as BWV-Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalogue). The Hunting Cantata is BWV 208.
I'm sure most all of you have heard this beautiful piece of music:



Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) was a prolific Italian composer. Among his supreme accomplishments was the composition of 555 keyboard sonatas. These works were cataloged by Ralph Kirkpatrick in 1953. He used the letter K to designate these works. I have not listened to all 555, but I am in love with K. 208 in A major. It has been recorded many times and transcribed for other instruments. Here is a keyboard version:


And here is a guitar version of the Scarlatti K. 208 that is wonderful. I think I love the guitar version the most.

Two great 208's.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Classics in Television: Curb Your Enthusiasm (Larry David) uses Strauss to great effect.


Larry David was the co-creator of the hit TV show Seinfeld.back in the early '90's. In 2000 he created and starred in another very hilarious show called Curb Your Enthusiasm which aired on HBO. It's a somewhat self-autobiographical program where Larry stars and plays himself as a comedy writer who finds every possible way to screw everything up, offend everybody, and say all the wrong things.
One of the best episodes aired in 2002 where Larry is leading a group of investors to open a restaurant in Los Angeles. He hires a chef who has peculiar outbursts. To make matters worse, the kitchen in the restaurant is out in the open. All of this plays out with Johann Strauss II's famous Overture to Die Fledermaus which premiered in 1874.
The music really has nothing to do with the action per se, but it really fits well if you ask me. Enjoy, But be warned, this is extremely funny, but has a few bad words in it.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Kansas City Symphony 3.26.17: Me, my son, and Sibelius


Kansas City Symphony Concert, March 26, 2017. I came for the Sibelius. Despite the fact that Michael Stern had assembled a wonderful program of music for this week's concert, there was one and only one piece I really wanted to hear....the Sibelius Second Symphony. 1. Carl Nielsen's Overture to Maskarade (1904-06) was a treat. I had not heard it before. 2. Einojuhani Rautavaara's Fantasia for Violin and Orchestra (2015) performed by guest soloist Anne Akiko Meyers....FABULOUS! This piece has an enormous musical arch...so emotional. It's still echoing in my head long after it ended. 3. Ravel's Tzigane for Violin and Orchestra (1924), also performed by Ms. Meyers, who once again played flawlessly and passionately. As she finished the piece, there was a sizable amount of bow hair dangling about, a casualty of the ferocity of the piece and her playing. She was just wonderful.
In 1980, I joined the Omaha Area Youth Orchestra. (in case you don't know, I play the violin.) On the program for our Winter concert was the 4th movement of the Symphony no. 2 of Jean Sibelius. At the time, I had not heard this work, and my only real listening experience of Sibelius was his famous work, Finlandia. After our first rehearsal, I was hooked. This was a piece that stood out from just about anything else I had heard. And not coincidentally, it was my Dad's favorite piece by Sibelius. In fact, it was one of his all-time favorite pieces. The night we performed it will be one that I never forget. My Mom and Dad were both in the audience. I was so happy that they were going to be able to share this great moment with me. We played so well and I experienced an out-of-body experience that I will always remember.
There are many false summits in much of Sibelius' works. His phrasing and voicing are unlike any other. You think you know where you are going, and when you have arrived, but then he shifts gears and takes you to another level...there is still a higher summit. He pulls you in and won't let you go until he is ready. The Second Symphony is masterful at this. At the crescendo of the Finale, the timpani are pounding out a D and G over and over. The violins then lead the charge into the final stretch with their D major, ascending tremolo passage....and then the trumpets enter and soar with their D-E-F#-G phrase. This is magic. We have arrived.
I steal a glance at my son Ethan sitting next to me. He's not a classical music nut like me, at least not yet anyway. And this is his first symphony concert in Helzberg Hall. I look at Maestro Stern...we are sitting in the choir loft and I have a perfect view of him...and he is singing....singing....The tempo is perfect. Every section is on fire, playing with passion and inspiration. The balance is perfect. Such an amazing orchestra. This is so intense.
I feel this huge smile come across my face....it feels silly, but I can't help it. Then I feel my throat tighten and a lump forms. And then of course the tears well up. I am, at that moment, a 15 year old boy once again playing this miraculous piece for my parents, looking at my own son who is about to go away to college, and missing my dad who passed away 11 years ago this month...there's a lot of shit going on here right?  It's all too much.
I am 52 years old, and I am in experiencing pure joy. Sibelius.
"My second symphony is a confession of the soul."

Monday, March 20, 2017

Joy Spring, Bach and Brown, Trumpets



Today is the first day of Spring. I first discovered jazz in the Spring... many years ago. This season always reminds me of my discovery and exploration of what was then a very new and exciting form of music for me. I was fully immersed in classical music at that time, but I had very recently discovered the Beatles and started down the path of rock music discovery. Jazz was right on it's heals. I played the violin in my high school orchestra. Our Music Director was a wonderful, charismatic man named Dr. Stephen Lawrence. Dr. Lawrence saw something in me that led him to believe that when the bass player for the jazz band graduated, I could step in and become the new bass player. Huh? Why me? I don't know ANYTHING about jazz. I don't play the bass. Dr. Lawrence said, "You play the violin right? Well, the bass is just like the violin...four strings, except upside down, and lower."
So my journey as a jazz bassist began in earnest. Along the way, I went to a record store (yes, VINYL 33 1/3 records) and picked out 2 records quite randomly. But as if by a miracle, both were quintessential jazz records that I still love to this day.
This all happened in early Spring of that year...1982. The records were "That Bop Thing" by Howard McGhee (1948)  and "Joy Spring" (1954) by Clifford Brown. Both were trumpet players.
"Joy Spring" will forever capture the feelings I had during that exciting time of my life. This song still feels like Spring to me.


Last year, I read an interesting essay called "Clifford Brown: The Bach of Jazz." This was published the The Art of Music Lounge: An Online Journal of Jazz and Classical Music by Lynn Rene Bayley.

https://artmusiclounge.wordpress.com/2016/03/17/clifford-brown-the-bach-of-jazz/

I will admit, I did not sense "Bach" when listening to Clifford Brown. But I could tell he was something special. But this essay really got me thinking.

Howard McGhee's record also means a great deal to me. This song also feels like Spring.



Sunday, March 5, 2017

A Trio of Trios

I "discovered" three new works that I thought you should know about. They are all piano trios. A piano trio is a composition for piano, violin, and cello. I think an apt comparison in contemporary music would be the "power trio" from the rock world...guitar, bass and drums. The Police, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Rush, and Cream are good examples of power trios. Most bands going back to the beginning of rock 'n roll were 4 or more pieces with a vocalist. The power trio offered a much more sparse sound. The voices of the instruments and the vocals were more defined and clear. This resulted in greater clarity and power of sound. The same is true for a trio in the classical genre. Piano, violin and cello together create a unique structure and balance of sound. Harmony, rhythm, phrasing and melody share a huge space for development and ideas.

The first piano trio I stumbled across was Cesar Franck's Piano Trio in F sharp minor, composed in 1840 when he was 18 years old. This was one of his first published works. He wrote 4 such trios but this one stands out to me as the most exceptional. My first "love" for a Franck composition was his very famous Symphony in D minor (1888). I first heard this as a young child...probably 6 or 7 years old. It was one of the first records my dad gave me to listen to on my little record player. It had a pretty big scratch in it, which is probably why he gave it to me, but I didn't care. This huge orchestral piece became Franck's most recognizable and famous work. His piano trios are much lesser known. It took me 52 years to find them. I hope you take to it like I did.


Soon after I discovered the Franck Piano Trio, I stumbled upon the Piano Trio in C minor by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Yes, the same Rimsky-Korsakov who gave us Scheherazade, Flight of the Bumblebee and The Russian Easter Overture. RK wrote his trio in 1897, but was not happy with it. He didn't think it was very good. He did not publish it and it remained unheard for more than 30 years after his death in 1908. His son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg, finally brought it to light, completed it and published it. As with Cesar Franck, we have an opportunity to hear a composer known best for his orchestral works write for a very intimate ensemble, and the result is stunning. I don't understand why RK didn't think this was worthy of being heard. He obviously did not recognize how great it was. Here is the stunning third movement of the Piano Trio in C minor. When I first heard it, I could not believe it was RK...it does not sound anything like him. The opening 12 bars of this movement are incredible.


Lastly, I want to share the Piano Trio in C minor of Dimitri Shostakovich (1923). Unlike Franck and Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich was well known for his works for solo instruments and small ensembles, as well as his symphonic works. But his genius shines in the smaller setting of a trio. He was only 17 years old when he wrote this...a student at the Leningrad Conservatory....such a young age to be able to express such rich musical ideas. I found a citation in a Los Angeles Philharmonic program that said "there are plenty of hints in this piece of the late Shostakovich we all know, hints that did not please all of his instructors. One of Shostakovich's professors in the conservatory expressed his displeasure with the young composer's "obsession with the Grotesque," a comment which Shostakovich apparently took with some satisfaction." This work, despite coming from such a young person, is very complex and dynamic. It is beautiful, haunting, unnerving, and breathtaking.



Friday, February 24, 2017

Beethoven as SEEN at the KC Symphony

"A lot is going on at once allowing you to direct your attention where best you see fit in a given moment. It's like life that way." - Colin Fleming, referring to Beethoven's 8th Symphony


The program for the Kansas City Symphony last weekend (I was there Sunday Feb 16th) included Beethoven's Eighth Symphony. As is always the case at a KC Symphony concert, the sound was incredible. No surprise there. But what stood out for me was the visual nature of Beethoven's music. Just as our eye follows a basketball or tennis ball in said sporting events, one can also "follow the ball" of a Beethoven Symphony.  Unlike the previous piece on the program, a wonderful, ethereal work by young composer David Hertzberg called "for none shall gaze upon the Father and live" which requires utter silence to begin (made difficult due to Amber Alerts blowing up every one's phones and the multitude of chronic tuberculosis sufferers in attendance) the 8th blasts off without warning. Maestro Stern hopped up on the podium for the Beethoven and immediately "served" the ball to the strings...the opening fifteen note phrase. Then, with confident ground strokes and and pinpoint volleys, he guided the ball from section to section as musical themes and phrases developed and were passed around the stage. Maestro Stern really seemed to be having fun. He did not use a score and he moved all around the podium to get as close as he could to the musicians, who also seemed to be having a blast playing this amazing symphony.  In doing so, it helped the listener...or viewer I should say... see where the music "was." It really was fascinating. Another great reason classical music should be experienced in a concert hall whenever possible...especially in Kansas City!

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Artist's Profile: Guitar Great Paul Gilbert talks about Classical Music


I confess that as of a few months ago, I had never heard of Paul Gilbert. One of his videos popped up on my YouTube suggestions list and so clicked it. It was a short clip of him playing Bach on an electric guitar at a guitar clinic here in Kansas City a few years ago. I was impressed and explored more of his work, which goes back 25 years now with several pretty big time rock bands, Racer X and Mr. Big. As I have written many times, I love the intersection of musical worlds...in this case classical and rock. As I immersed myself in his interviews, tutorials and performances, it was obvious that Paul Gilbert is first, exceptionally talented, and second, a very humble, well adjusted artist...the kind of person you'd love to sit down with and have a cup of coffee and just talk about music. I was not able to coordinate a call with him, but he agreed to answer my questions via e-mail. Here you go.

1)      Did you hear classical music growing up?

PG: Yeah. My parents had a lot classical albums and listened to classical radio stations. They also had almost all the Beatles records, and lots of Rolling Stones. My dad listened to blues, a lot as well. And my mom played Carole King records quite a bit.

      2)      If so, do you remember what piece of music or composers you first connected with?

PG: At first, I didn’t like classical music at all. I immediately connected to the Beatles, and I would endlessly play air guitar along with the “Help” and “Hard Day’s Night” albums. But my younger sister started taking ballet lessons, and one day she was dancing at home to Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” and it just hit me, that this was a great melody. I got my guitar and started figuring out how to play the main parts on guitar. That opened the door.

        3)    What is it about classical music that “grabs” you the most? 

PG: I like different things about different pieces. When I first started paying attention to Bach keyboard inventions, it was just exciting to hear so many 16th notes! And they were played so cleanly. The music had an athletic appeal, but at the same time the melodic patterns were beautiful and interesting. It’s a challenge on any instrument to be able to crank out two minutes of accurate 16th notes, and learning Bach keyboard music is such a good place to work on this kind of thing.
After my initial fascination with faster playing, I also discovered pieces like Shostakovich's 5th Symphony. The first time I heard that was on my car radio. I had to pull the car over! It was some of the scariest, most dramatic, and most beautiful music I had ever heard. I wish I could play that one on guitar, but a big orchestra is really better suited to the task.

        4)      I have enjoyed seeing the videos of you on YouTube playing music of Bach, Haydn, and other classical composers on the electric guitar….very cool. This may seem like a silly question, but why are you playing classical music on electric guitar? (lol)

PG: Some of my motivation is like climbing a mountain… “Because it’s there.” I like to challenge myself to see if I can do it. And I always learn so much. The problem is that I can never remember the pieces. It’s just too much to mentally retain. Like many rock guitarists, my sight reading skills are horrible, so I have to rely on memory.

        5)      When you play Bach or Haydn, for example, is it well received?

PG: At guitar clinics, it’s fine. The audience is there to listen and learn, and not looking to “rock out” like at a concert. I’m actually doing a long medley of songs from my whole career on my current tour, and I play a couple classical sections in there. I think they work really well, but they are short, so the audience doesn’t get upset that they are not rocking out. At a rock show, I don’t think I’ve ever played a complete classical piece. Oh wait, I did attempt a Bach Cello Suite during my unaccompanied solo years ago in Japan. I got nervous about halfway through and screwed it up, but I’m glad to at least have tried it.

We also used to play ELP’s version of Aaron Copeland’s “Hoedown” with 
           Mr. Big. That had rock drums and worked really well.

        6)      I have talked to many professional musicians who have told me they don’t listen to music for enjoyment anymore…they want to get away from music since it’s what they do for a living. Do you still find time to listen to music for enjoyment? If so, is some of it classical music?

PG: I don’t listen to music as much as I used to. I have significant hearing loss, so I mainly like to listen to music when there’s not much background noise. Also, even though music is more portable now “in theory” because you can fit a zillion mp3s into a small device. There is something about music on computers that I don’t like. Maybe it’s just iTunes. I hate iTunes so much. I’ve been so frustrated just trying to do the simplest things with iTunes, that I finally decided, I will NEVER use it again for anything. It’s not easy to remove it from your computer. But I researched and got rid of it. I want it gone. Seriously, that @#$Q#$%$% program has traumatized me. Whew, sorry. I’ve got to calm myself down. But I think a lot of the reason I don’t listen to music is because of the interface on computers. I bought a turntable the other day, and LOVED the experience of it. I had sold most of my vinyl collection years ago, but I still had a few that I couldn’t part with… including J.C. Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in A. That one I played with all guitars on my “Flying Dog” album. I re-titled it “Gilberto Concerto,” and one of the sections in the middle was the inspiration for part of the Racer X instrumental “Scarified.”
Soon after I got my new turntable, I wanted to get some more records. So I went to a local record shop and bought an armful of records. As I was driving away from the store, I got the weirdest feeling. I realized, “I just paid money for music.” How odd! I’m used to ripping it from YouTube videos, and then listening to it with The Amazing Slow Downer, so I can figure out sections that I’m interested in. But that’s not listening for enjoyment. For that, I know it’s a cliché, but I prefer vinyl.

          7)      I heard Steve Vai say that he had all of Gustav Mahler’s music on his playlist. He worked with Frank Zappa of course, who was very much into classical music. Along with Vai, do other musicians you work with or whom you are friends with, also listen to classical music?

PG: Well, my wife studied classical piano since she was three years old. Once in a while she’ll tackle some Rachmaninoff. Billy Sheehan, who plays bass in Mr. Big, likes a lot of classical stuff, and has worked out pieces before. We were driving in his car the other day, and he had a classical radio station on. Yngwie Malmsteen is the rock guitarist who is probably most associated with playing with a classical style. I love a lot of his early stuff. It’s both face-melting and beautiful.

          8)      In your travels and touring, do you feel today’s younger generations are open to the idea of classical music?
PG: Sure! Everybody gets excited about those 16th notes. When you’re first learning to play an instrument, technique is something that everyone wants, and classical music is a great place to develop it.

          9)      I recently interviewed Matt Palmer, a well-known classical guitarist. As a youngster, he started out as a metal “shredder” a la Randy Rhoads, but heard a Christopher Parkening CD as a teenager and was transformed by the sounds he heard. He switched to classical guitar, went to college to study and now has PhD in classical guitar, as well as a career. How about you? …do you play classical guitar, or do you want to? You obviously have the chops to play whatever you want!

PG: When I play classical music, I’m really still using a rock “grip” on the guitar and the sort of vibrato that you hear from blues and rs. A big part of playing rock guitar is controlling the potential noise that can happen when you use a loud, overdriven guitar sound. When I play one note, I’m working hard to control the other five strings, so they don’t ring, or feedback, or create other noises. I use very specific techniques to do this, and it requires that I hold the guitar and shape my hands very differently than what you see in traditional classical guitar. These rock techniques are so important for how I play that it hard to make the jump into playing traditional classical guitar. Even if all those noises are a non-issue, I still have the fear that the guitar could start howling and making noise. So if someone puts a classical guitar in my hands, I’m still going to play it like a rock guitar. That really doesn’t do justice to the instrument, and because the strings are made of different material my usual vibrato and bending don’t work very well. Mostly, it feels like all my superpowers are gone! So I tend to stick to electric.

          10)  Have you been to a symphony concert recently?

PG: No, not for a long time. With my hearing loss, I don’t go and see live music as much as I used to. I did see a classical pianist years ago that I really enjoyed. The ad for the show was something like, “His playing will make you cry in three notes.” And of course… he did.

          11)   If you were stranded on a desert island (but could still listen to music) what 3 classical composers’ music would you want to have with you? And why?

PG: Well, Bach is the obvious one. Bach isn’t necessarily my favorite composer to listen to now, but as a musical resource, it’s just such good stuff. If I some need melodic or rhythmic patterns to work on, I can always find some good ideas by figuring out a Bach piece. For listening, I might bring Scarlatti. His keyboard music isn’t as “heavy” as Bach’s music can be. If I wanted to put something on while cooking and eating dinner, Scarlatti could be good. And there are some ferocious licks in there too. Finally, I’d pick Silvius Weiss. He played and composed for the lute, and to my ear is similar to Bach, but still has his own flavor. Also, the lute is similar to guitar, but as an acoustic instrument, I prefer that way the lute resonates.

Thank you,
Paul

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Here is Paul's website if you want to learn more about him:

Here is a video of him playing Bach on electric guitar:

 And as Paul referred to in Question 6 above, here is "Scarified." I'm not sure what's up with the orange spacesuits, but the you can clearly hear the classical influences of Johann Christian Bach. And like I told you above, he is a brilliant rock guitarist.


Saturday, January 21, 2017

Classics in Commercials: Bach meets David Ortiz

Baseball fans will probably love the new Turbo Tax commercial that features David Ortiz, also known as "Big Papi". Ortiz retired in 2016 season after a great career, mostly with the Boston Red Sox. He will likely be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. In this commercial, Ortiz has started a new career as a tennis instructor. As a hitter, he was famous for hitting home runs, after which he would drop his bat a admire his work. As a tennis instructor, he waits for the ball machine to fire the tennis ball over net, just as a pitcher would throw to the plate, He takes a huge two-handed baseball swing at the ball and knocks it out of the court, only to have it land hundreds of feet away somewhere in the tennis club causing destruction and chaos. Take a look.


Pretty hilarious I think. The music is Bach's "Air" from his Orchestral Suite no.3 in D major. It is one of the most recognizable and beautiful pieces of music ever written. I am usually always happy when classical music is used in commercials, films, TV programs, etc....But the producers of this commercial got it wrong if you ask me. I understand what they were attempting to do....Big Papi is at a snooty country club. They needed music to reflect this atmosphere, so they defaulted to classical, right? That's unfortunate. I have been saying all along in this blog that classical music need not be cast in that light. But even if you go along with it, THIS is not the piece to use. It does not fit that stereotype at all. The "Air" conveys...and this is my opinion of course...grace, understanding, peace, hope, redemption, and love. It is not stuffy and pretentious in any way, shape or form.
A swing and a miss for Initiative (Agency), and Wieden+Kennedy (Creative Agency).

Monday, January 2, 2017

Glenn Gould in Kansas City 1962


I have this beautiful album from CBS Masterworks, part of a four volume set released in the mid-1980's. Glenn Gould died in 1982. He had just completed recording the Bach Goldberg Variations for a second time. His first recording of these was released in 1956 and catapulted him to fame. So much has been written and debated about Gould as a pianist, performer and person. It is interesting to hear so many different opinions about him. Was Gould crazy? Or just eccentric? Or both? I love the quote from conductor George Szell about Gould: "that nut's a genius." Funny....but maybe more than just funny.
Gould detested touring and performing. He, like the Beatles, finally just stopped. He gave his last concert in 1964. But fortunately for those living in Kansas City, he did make one appearance here, on November 23, 1962. Here is the review in the Kansas City Star from 11/24/62.


GLENN GOULD PLAYS 
WITH RARE SKILLS
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Pianist Appears Here in Program of Byrd, Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, and Berg
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LIVES UP TO REPUTATION
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Intense Canadian Performs Before 2,400 Persons at Music Hall
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By Clyde Neibarger
(The Star Music Editor)

    As many critics have already commented, Glenn Gould is an extraordinary pianist. For an audience of about 2,400 last night at the Music Hall, the Canadian played, in turn, works of William Byrd, J.S.Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, and Alban Berg, and a Brahms encore number in a manner that already is marking him as a legendary keyboard figure.
    His intense concentration is a thing to behold, as well as to listen to. Gould caresses the keyboard, except for the fortissimo passages, as in the Beethoven Sonata in E major, Opus 109, one of the composer's less-played numbers.
    Members of the audience felt, evidently, that his choice of music represented the classical masters but in there lesser known works. One felt that the listeners would have accorded him bravos and a real ovation, had he played a number or two that they recognized and could identify without consulting the program.
    Gould has a beautiful tone, especially in the softer passages, of which there were many. With a score before him at all times, he was an artist of remarkable gifts. His manner was somewhat eccentric, compared with the formal platform manner of most concert performers.
    His program opened with a composition by the early Englishman, William Byrd (1543-1623) that sounded much like Bach, except that it had especially melodious passages. It was evident at once that Gould has modified his keyboard mannerisms since this this reviewer heard him in 1961 in Vancouver. Gould uses little pedal, which makes the effect cleancut. His left hand bounces off the keys in climatic episodes. 
    The Bach Partita was given some of his warmest intensity. One pedal foot was always forward, but he often had one foot or the other drawn backward as a part of the interpretive drive. As he played the faster passages, his body had a sidewise rocking motion.
    The Haydn sonata, written about 1789, is in pure classical style, and Gould succeeded in making the Steinway's sound resemble that of the harpsichord of Haydn's time.
    After intermission came Beethoven's sonata, then the one-movement Sonata, Opus 1, by Alan Berg, a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg. Berg's use of chords built on fourths was treated by him so that they were completely absorbed by the tonal structure.
    An enthusiastic round of applause brought the artist back for an extra number, in the classical-romantic vein, the Brahms Intermezzo No. 3, Opus 117.
    There had been times during the concert when people down front could hear Gould humming, and there were times when he seemed to be supplying words. He sat in a low chair, which made necessary arched wrists to level off with the keyboard from the lowered elbows.
    Gould has talked of plans to give all his time eventually to composing, where he believes he could get the best results. This reviewer urges him to keep on playing, and as time permits, compose, too.

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