One for the books

Even in a town as energetically supportive and creatively diverse as Kansas City, last weekend was one for the books.

With a combination of imported and home-grown talent, the full spectrum of music making – excellent music making – played out in venues across town. I covered three shows and managed to hit another late night on Saturday. Shows I didn’t get to I heard about from friends and acquaintance and eagerly read reviews to find out what I missed.

I am just so proud to be a small part of this amazing scene.

Composer Showcase and Opera

First on the agenda was “Crossroads,” a preview performance by UMKC composers, students, alumni for their showcase at (le) Poisson Rouge this coming Friday. I covered it for The Kansas City Star (in print Tuesday, March 6) and was hard put to fit the breadth of compositional style and the quantity of excellent performances into the page space.

I was excited about this assignment because it was the Kansas City premiere of excerpts from Zhou Long’s opera “Madame White Snake.” It premiered with the Boston Opera in 2010 and in 2011 Zhou won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for the score.

It is sung in English. This is a pretty big deal in the opera world, which still gleans so much of its repertoire from German and Italian sources. And, though based on an ancient Chinese myth and using Chinese instruments in an otherwise Western orchestra, it still came off (even in excerpted and reduced form) as a powerful, grand opera. But it is at the same time a very modern opera,  with the full production featuring video images, minimalist sets and a vibrant, neon color scheme.

Another part of this concert that struck me was how vigorously it was marketed – and had a full crowd, even though a majority of the audience was still Conservatory faculty and students. They placed striking, full-page ads in The Pitch (which does not review or preview “classical” events, generally), herkansascity (a “women’s interest” magazine, published by The Pitch), and The Kansas City Star, along with spots on local radio and I’m sure other sources; press releases, email blasts, etc.

I’d be interested to see what sort of presence similar marketing will generate in New York, where the publications are numerous and advertising dollars stretched thinner.


And speaking of New York, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra sailed through the Folly Theater Saturday for the Jazz Series. They play most Monday nights at the Village Vanguard, less than a mile from LPR. I covered this concert for KCMetropolis . And as Bill Brownlee and I both noted, the prime of our local scene were in attendance. Bob Bowman and Kerry Strayer even got a shout out from the bandstand.

Experimental/Electronica/Singer/Cellist – Solo Show

Afterwards, we headed a mere mile away to The Brick, a local rockclub and eatery. Helen Gillet, a chanteuse from New Orleans (but originally from Belgium and who I’ve written about before), is an outstanding performer. I’ve seen her do various projects in association with Mark Southerland, but never alone.

She was incredible – incredibly beautiful voice without being “showy,” with folk tunes, French chansons, and some French-language pop songs (by way of Wallonia and Quebec). She accompanied herself on cello, playing it like a bass, like a guitar, and like, well, a cello. She manipulated both instruments with loops and beats using pedal and laptop, ending up with an organic sound. Meaning she made what she was doing look and sound easy, natural, and unaffected – quite a feat in itself, considering all that manipulation is akin to balancing plates on a stick on your chin while yodeling.

Modern Chamber Music

I also covered (in the same review for The Star) eighth blackbird, who performed at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. They are out of Chicago and hold various residencies, but are associated with UMKC as the 2012 Barr Laureate Ensemble, the first group for this position.

This is a young group, though they’ve been together since 1996 (with some variation on personnel). But they’ve gained much deserved acclaim, two Grammys, and commissioned and performed Steve Reich’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Double Sextet.” They are good and they are savvy.

In no way was I able to give full coverage to this concert – each piece was its own universe, markedly different from its neighbors, rather like those fantastic row houses along Copenhagen’s canals. And even though some of the audience left after intermission (reflection more, I think, of audience than performers), those who stayed were treated to Stephen Hartke’s “Meanwhile: Incidental music to imaginary puppet plays,” a theatrically-driven piece full of imaginative sonorities that explored spatial relationships.

They have a few more performances in Kansas City throughout the year and I intend to see every one.


It’s not often that I regret not attending the symphony. With my schedule it’s difficult to make the Kansas City Symphony’s concerts, but in the past I’ve been sort of a lot disappointed. Some of the players didn’t seem to take their positions seriously, as though they were “playing” orchestra. And it’s frustrating to feel as though we’re expected as a community to accept showy, yet lackluster, playing as a gift to our cultural heritage.

That being said, I’ve heard nothing but praise for the weekend’s performances. The orchestra was led by Christoph von Dohnányi, who conducted Cleveland for 18 years and was a mentor to Maestro Stern.

One symphony member told me that the orchestra had never listened to itself so well, and that it was a relief not to be “distracted” by the conducting, which had just enough gesture to convey the musical intention and was not intended to be its own show. An attendee, who has for many years held season tickets and rarely, if ever, missed a regular season performance, said it was the best concert they’d ever seen out of the orchestra.

Experimental/Jazz Big Band

And I was disappointed not to attend the People’s Liberation Big Band. I’m a fan, and Brad Cox always cooks up something. This month he had audience and band members use their smart phones to scan QR codes, which in turn played various samples through the phone speakers for an interesting wash of sound throughout the RecordBar.

So – a good weekend….yet it is only marginally shocking or amazing. Outstanding music making happens much of the time and you can’t hit them all, but I’m glad to have experienced a portion of it.

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