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.


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.