Feeling generally supportive of live music and resolved to keep my musical imagination stimulated, I’ve made it a point recently to attend some high-quality performances. Below is a travelogue through four recent concert events.
Trombone Music in the 17th Century
Timothy Howe, JoDee Davis, Michael Davidson, Jason Hausback and guests
This multi-trombone-professor recital, held in a Methodist sanctuary near UMKC, featured faculty members from four universities. I’m very glad my entire family could hear this music.
The program featured a variety of 17C music with 1-4 trombones. In keeping with the performance practice of the period, the organ was used frequently. I don’t typically prefer organ sonorities, but I must say that the organ, played ably by Beth Elswick, was well-balanced and not over-heard in a concert of this nature. I could have done without most of the vocal work; some of it wasn’t even clearly audible, and one of the two voices was flaccid and sub-par. Particularly enjoyable repertoire included a quartet sonata by Daniel Speer, Gabrieli’s Canzona per Sonare No. 4, and Scheidt’s Drei Symphonien (for three trombones).
The performers who coordinated the event talked a bit too much. I’m pretty sure he teaches music history at his university, in addition to trombone. He was not an interesting speaker and simply gave too many boring details.
The overall performance level was not quite A+ but was a solid A. Hearing three or four trombones playing well together is always a treat. [Aside: for me, the trombone choir is now officially tied for first, with the clarinet choir, among homogeneous wind groups. In last place is the ear-splitting trumpet choir. Rising in order above massed trumpet ensembles are the flute, tuba/euphonium, saxophone, and horn choirs. The percussion ensemble is in a different league. Often very interesting, they tend to be far less homogeneous these days, and they can positively pummel the senses.]
Ensemble Series: Conservatory Wind Ensemble
UMKC Conservatory Wind Ensemble, Joseph Parisi, Conductor, with Allan Dean, trumpet and Grace Wallace, soprano
The Conservatory Wind Ensemble is the second UMKC wind band.¹ CWE conductor Joe Parisi is a very fine musical leader, manifesting both musical passion and strong technique. I suspect, based on particular gestures observed and overall control, that he is also a capable conducting pedagogue.
This was my first time hearing a UMKC wind concert on their campus. This ensemble performed at an appropriately high level, even considering its conservatory stature. I missed the first piece, a new work by Nancy Galbraith, due to a parking issue (likely to be a problem any time one goes to UMKC). Some of the repertoire I did hear was somewhat disappointing:
- I’m not a Ron Nelson fan, and I’m certainly not a fan of the soprano voice, whether with an ensemble or not, so I just politely endured my first live hearing of Aspen Jubilee (1988).
- Although I am fond of a lot of Frank Ticheli’s music, on hearing Angels in the Architecture (2009) live for the second time in 3.5 years, plus hearing a recording a time or two, I can say that I simply don’t like the piece very much. Only part of that is because it employs a soprano voice. The particular soprano was a UMKC student and had a large, heavy voice. I found the voice overbearing and uneven.
On the other hand, trumpet soloist Allan Dean played beautifully and effortlessly, and I enjoyed every style and piece he performed—from a Hunsberger arrangement of the Negro spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child to a Herbert Clarke showcase piece to a 17th-century tune with improvisations.
A serendipity: I was able to see a former student from Texas A&M-Kingsville perform as part of this ensemble. Flor is now in her second year of graduate studies and is doing well.
Rachmaninoff and Capriccio Espagnol
Kansas City Symphony
My son and I had attended a Classics Uncorked concert last spring, sitting in the “choir seats” of the impressive Helzberg Hall, enjoying a perfect view of the conductor. The music was fine, but it was too short a program, and too much time was taken with educative talkety-talk from the associate conductor. I realize some people need and want such things, but had I been made aware that it was an educational program, I probably would have chosen another.
At any rate, I had resolved to attend a future program by myself and chose this first-of-season program that featured Rachmaninoff’s inimitable third piano concerto, the ever-popular Capriccio Espagnole, and a relatively recent work by celebrated living composer Christopher Rouse. Not a single musical moment disappointed! Pianist Natasha Paremski was highly artistic, as anticipated, and the balance with the orchestra was very good. (I was glad her extremely high skirt slit was on the orchestra side, not the audience side. No one needed to be distracted visually from the sonic glory of the Rachmaninoff music!) Rouse’s piece, a poignant tribute to his wife, was both ear-stretching and moving. I thoroughly enjoyed the Rimsky-Korsakov rendition.
Also noteworthy was the extraordinary conducting of music director Michael Stern. He appeared both gesturally provocative and musically on point: he knew the music well. The only reason he might not enjoy a long tenure with the KC Symphony would be that some other, higher-profile orchestra would snatch him up. The present program involved a moderate amount of artful, hospitable communication from the podium, courtesy of Stern.
The ushers in my section twice made very poor decisions to allow latecomers in through a squeaky door during very quiet musical moments. One of them came to apologize to me later (since I had held my hand up to ask them to stop making noise). I accepted her effusive apology, but some of the music and an aspect of my experience had been compromised.
Pranks and Passions
Chamber ensembles formed from the Kansas City Symphony
A delight in every respect, this program was my favorite of the four. These works were performed by a string trio, a mixed quintet, and a string quartet. I love such lighter, more transparent textures.
The first piece, Evan Chambers’s six-minute Love Dogs for string trio, was jaunty and sparkly, showcasing strong rhythmic construction and folk elements from Albania and the U.S. The performers were evenly matched and obviously enjoyed the music. The Smetana Quartet No. 1 (“From My Life”) was evocative and was performed splendidly.
An unusually formed quintet of mixed strings and winds (violin, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and double bass) gave a spirited performance of a perennial full-orchestra favorite, Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. I know that piece fairly well, and I’ll attest that the reduction was very effective, covering all the essential parts and expressing the dramatic character of the work.
Recalling wistfully that the architecture of the performance space (Helzberg Hall) was cello-inspired, I wished for a little more cello sound in both the string trio and string quartet, but you can’t have everything. It was really quite the effervescent program. Speaking in terms of programming and concert production, I did have two critical thoughts:
- I wished the longest piece had been first or second, not last. (It’s rarely a good idea to have the longest piece at the end, when audience attention is likely not at its best.)
- The physical placement of the horn in the mixed quintet was not optimal. The bell was directed toward a wood panel (on stage left), with some odd acoustic results, including the obscuring of the chromatic resolution (minor 3rd to major 3rd) in the famed opening “Till” horn call. That problem could have been solved if this ensemble swapped sides with the string trio (on stage right).
The program length (about 70 minutes) was perfect for the audience of mixed education levels. I plan to attend more “Happy Hour” programs just like it. Thanks to Lead Bank for sponsoring this terrific early-evening music.
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This fall, I will be a performer in at least five concerts myself. A couple of these ensembles rise to a strong amateur level, but none of them will be in the same league as the four concerts captioned above. I do intend for my own performance level to be as high as I can make it, contributing to a good performance experience for all concerned.
¹ Typically, where both a Wind Ensemble and a Wind Symphony exist, the former would be expected to be the higher-level group. At UMKC, the premier UMKC wind band is the Wind Symphony, led by Steve Davis, Director of Bands and Wind Ensembles.