Saturday, November 22, 2008

Recital as séance: Pianist seeks new paths for old music

By Paul Horsley

Konstantin Lifschitz, the Ukrainian-born pianist, is one of those restless musical spirits who sails uncharted waters seeking ever-elusive truths behind musical masterpieces. There was a mystical, almost séance-like atmosphere to his Friends of Chamber Music recital on Friday, the 31-year-old pianist’s only appearance in the United States this season.

Expectations were high for this program of Beethoven, Bach and Frescobaldi: As a teenager, Lifschitz caused a minor sensation with a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which was nominated for a Grammy, and a more recent recording of Bach’s Musical Offering is similarly spectacular. So it was with some surprise that I left the Folly Theater after this 2 ½-hour recital with mixed emotions — awe and fascination mingling with bafflement and frustration.

Lifschitz uses the music of the masters for his own deeply personal explorations. But there is sometimes a fine line between freshness and self-indulgence, between revealing new truths about Beethoven and stretching a phrase so wantonly that it ceases to be musical. At his best, Lifschitz can shed fresh light on music that you thought you were familiar with, making it sound strangely foreign. That’s not always a comfortable feeling — it’s like getting outside of your musical “comfort zone” — but in a world of interpretive sameness it’s something we could all use more of. I liked his puckish approach to Beethoven’s E-flat major Sonata (Op. 31, No. 3), which was architectural in design with nutty gargoyles accenting the structure. Lifschitz is attuned to Beethoven’s obsessive nature, but he sometimes exaggerates quirks and repetitions in a way that makes you despair for one single un-gussied phrase. The sweet little descending motif that permeates the first movement (DEE—da-dum), for instance, was less like a melody than a “special effect.”

He took these eccentricities to maddening extremes in the loopy first sonata of Beethoven’s Op. 31 (in G major), putting us into an impressionistic trance for nearly 40 minutes. You had to admire his relentless poise through this ethereal romp, even in the slow movement where the energy slowly drained into over-pedaled oblivion. The finale was barely this side of coherent, more like Boulez than Beethoven. Fortunately the D-minor Sonata (The Tempest) was saner and more grounded, even though one could have taken a coffee break during the fermata pauses in the opening theme.

The recital opened with three toccatas by Frescobaldi, a rarity on a piano recital and quite a novelty except that they were so inward that they bordered on preciousness. It closed with the two Ricercars from the Musical Offering, played with far more pedal and tempo-stretching than on the pianist’s own recorded versions, again suggesting that Lifschitz views a recital as a special event unrelated to any recording he might have made (and there’s nothing wrong with that). Notable among the encores were Bartok’s Rumanian Folk Dances and the Gigue from Bach’s G-major French Suite.

To reach Paul Horsley, send email to

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ailey endlessly rocking: Company commissions bold choreographic mini-drama from one of its own dancers

By Paul Horsley

There’s a part of each of us that wants to believe in the legend of the happy American family. Hope Boykin wants to believe in it, but she seems to know its perils. Family is the subject of the choreographer and Ailey dancer’s remarkable Go in Grace, a new work that formed the heart of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company’s program on Friday at the Midland Theatre. Featuring the gospel vocal sextet Sweet Honey in the Rock — who were onstage throughout, moving about and interacting with the dancers like some funky Greek chorus — it was like nothing I’d ever seen.

Every two years the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater brings to Kansas City several programs of classic Ailey choreography and newly commissioned works. These commissions often spark bold works that Kansas Citians get to see here before they go to their “official” world premiere in New York. (The Ailey company is celebrating its 50th anniversary this season, as the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey who present them locally celebrates its 25th year. On Thursday the residence had opened with a program of excerpts from Ailey classics.)

Boykin’s piece is like a mini-musical, with gospel-tinged songs composed by the singers of Sweet Honey, who perform them live as they interact with the dancers onstage in an unusually organic fashion. They provide rhythm, harmony and melody using only their voices (and occasional commentary, like “Hmm, I don’t know about that” or “Keep your legs closed tight”), which leaves them free to serve as what Boykin calls the Community. They’re like a group of “church ladies” who support and encourage good behavior. Boykin’s costumes and Al Crawford’s lighting design help delineate singers from dancers, with the former dressed in cooler green hues and the latter in “hotter” orange hues.

Boykin’s drama centers on a nuclear family of four, and she shrewdly introduces us first to Father and Mother (Amos J. Machanic, Jr. and Renee Robinson), whose over-the-top love for each other finds expression in a pas de deux of passionate jitterbug energy. Along come Brother (Matthew Rushing) and Little Girl (Rosalyn Deshauteurs), and the rest of the drama shows the struggle between family love and the temptations of the world, represented by two hoodie-sporting “Boyz” (Boykin’s term) from the street. A series of vignettes follows that will be familiar to any parent: Little Girl dances on Father’s feet, then as she grows older she is tempted to dress provocatively but warned against its dangers; meanwhile Brother is wooed to join the Boyz (Antonio Douthit and Kirven J. Boyd), whose flailing, near-hip-hop movements contrast sharply to the family’s more balletic tone.

The drama comes to a climax when Father becomes so overcome with the struggle to keep the family together that he engages in a passionate sort of dance of death — explosive, sorrow-tinged, Ailey-inspired. Brother returns to the fold, remorseful: Rushing dances his own moving lament. (“Say ‘Yes’ to the Spirit of Jesus, Brother, Say ‘Yes,’” sing the ladies.) Little Girl realizes that innocence lost is no picnic. She’s on her own now, but not entirely: The Community is there to guide, and it concludes with the title song, “Go in Grace."

Go in Grace is a remarkable piece, and on Friday it touched a nerve in the audience, which gave it an energetic standing ovation. At times it felt a bit episodic, perhaps, even disjointed: I would have preferred to hear whole songs rather than a sequence of what felt like bits of songs. Moreover, it felt odd to me that the Community focused its whole energy on Little Girl’s struggle while letting Brother take to the streets virtually without comment. Nevertheless I believe this could become a repertoire standard — as long as Sweet Honey in the Rock is around to perform it.

The program opened with Maurice Béjart’s Firebird from 1970, a politicized version of the 1910 original with a new story line: Nine dourly clad dancers in bowling-pin formation (minus one) are united to action against an enemy by a crimson-clad firebird (the remarkable, personable Clifton Brown, instead of the feather-clad ballerina of the original). He inspires the others, and at the end of his vigorous dance of death he’s replaced by another red-clad revolutionary angel. Removed from its original context of the radical 1960s, today Béjart’s vision almost looks like a love story.

George Faison’s appealing Suite Otis (1971) to songs of Otis Redding provided an uplifting if vaguely melancholic conclusion to the evening. Faison has tapped keenly into these songs’ emotional content, especially in the battle-of-the-sexes of “Can’t Turn You Loose,” the heavy-hearted pairing of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and the bittersweet comedy of “My Lover’s Prayer,” the latter like an entire, complex history of a relationship in miniature.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs again at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 15 and at 2 p.m. Sunday, November 16, at the Midland Theatre, 13th and Main.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Great Caesar’s ghost: Lyric Opera struggles heroically with its first-ever Baroque opera

By Paul Horsley

Handel operas are a bit like Shakespeare plays: The stilted conventions governing their language make for hard work, not just for performers but for modern audiences. Yet the power of their drama and poetry keeps us coming back.

It is possible, of course, to create a breathless dramatic experience from a Handel opera, and the Lyric Opera’s current production of Julius Caesar makes a valiant effort. Running three hours despite rather liberal cuts, it features several leading Baroque-specialist singers (including two countertenors, or “guys who sing high”), a mad, glittering array of new costumes designed by Mary Traylor and a starkly architectural set formerly used at the New York City Opera.

But something felt off-kilter to me when I saw the production on Wednesday. Mark Streshinsky’s stage direction takes a laissez-faire approach, which throws much of the weight onto Handel’s music. As the 1724 opera contains some of the composer’s finest music, it can withstand such a burden under the right circumstances. But this production lacked high finish: Despite some fine efforts from the orchestra pit under Ward Holmquist’s musical direction, it needed more polish in the ensemble between singers and orchestra, and more forethought onstage into motivations and movements. And frankly it was a mixed affair vocally, good on the whole but seldom outstanding.

Leading the cast was Christine Brandes, whom Lyric audiences admired in the role of the Governess in The Turn of the Screw in 2005. She is a sure-footed Baroque singer, with penetrating vocal control and the ability to draw your eyes to her slightest movements. After establishing her vocal dominance in “Non disperar, chi sa?” she showed her stylistic expertise in arias like the ravishing Act 2 “Se pietà di me non senti,” embellishing the repeated da capo section with taste, virtuosity and even playfulness. She made the Act 2 love scene convincing when Caesar could not.

Likewise Gloria Parker as Cornelia — despite a public announcement that she was “partially incapacitated” but would perform anyway — sang her numerous lament arias with pathos and stylishness. Her duet with Sextus, “Son nata a logrimar,” achieved a musical and dramatic intimacy that rivaled that between Caesar and Cornelia.

David Walker’s Caesar was a more complex affair, sung with stylistic command but not always what I’d call vocal mastery. Looking more frat boy than emperor, he sang with a smallish voice that struggled to produce a consistently flowing melodic line. He was in fine form in the famous “Se in fiorito ameno prato,” which featured violin soloist Kanako Ito in the orchestra pit, who sometimes delivered the imitative phrases more musically than he did.

Christine Abraham as Sextus completely captivated me with her Act 1 “Cara speme, questo core,” delivered with beauty of phrasing and command, both of which characterized her performance through the evening. But I felt she overplayed the awkward-boy movements throughout, and her ungainly costumes were more pageboy than royalty.

José Lemos played Ptolemy as a wanton, oversexed adolescent, perhaps appropriate considering that the historical figure is thought to have been in his early teens. His diminutive frame lent credence to the bizarre portrayal, though only in Act 3 did he wear something regal enough to support Ptolemy’s status. Despite a lack of agility in rapid passages, his countertenor has a silky, melodious upper range, which he used to great effect at the beginning of Act 3.

The stage direction barely provided enough to keep the eye busy during the longish arias, which is one of the reasons we spent so much time pondering individual vocal qualities. But there were ample directing gaffes, too, like the slow-mo battle scene in silhouette. And Cleopatra’s attendants (the “Muses of Parnassus”), who sometimes echoed her gestures in unison with her, made me think of those over-the-top TV commercials for Calvin Klein’s “Obsession.”

Two performances of Julius Caesar remain, on Friday, November 14 and Sunday, November 16. Call 816-471-7344 or go to

To reach Paul Horsley, send email to

Thursday, October 30, 2008


We are excited to preview The Independent Insider, a fun new step in the development of Kansas City's Weekly Journal of Society.We are pleased to offer you an interactive, up-to-date expression of Our Town, its people, its events and its arts. But this is just a taste of what's yet to come!In the coming weeks we will unveil an entirely new website, rich with the content and information you have come to expect from The Independent. But it isn't our printed version just placed online. No, this will have content you've never seen before on our pages, chock full of interesting tidbits, photos and of course those famous "I Wonders". We will have expanded coverage of all the Performing Arts in Kansas City, including reviews by our resident critic, Paul Horsley and Ann Slegman. Neighborhood pages to keep you up to date on what is happening in your neck of the woods, and two amazing calendars. One specifically for The Performing Arts, and the other for all the fun parties we cover. Each week you will find casual photos of people you know - or want to know - gracing our home page. These photos will change all the time! Every week when you come back, it will be a refreshing new look at Our Town. We are so excited by the planning and thought that have gone into this new endeavor, and can hardly wait to bring it to you! We are sure you will be pleased when it goes live on November 20th. Meanwhile, enjoy this small taste of what the future holds. If you would like to be notified via email when we post online information, sign up by emailing . Marie will make sure you are included in our weekly email blast about what to expect that week in both the printed magazine and the online publication! Don't miss a single tidbit of news.

Come Back

Come Back. A mother and daughter's journey through hell and back,
by Claire Fontaine & Mia Fontaine

A true story about what it is really like to be a runaway teen who can't outrun her demons, and
the frantically determined mother's love that drags her back from the edge. Mia gives us a backstage pass to see her drug-induced travels and the subsequent boot camps that save her tortured life. Claire is a self-doubting, frightened uber-mother whose triumph is not a certain thing--until Mia decides she will Come Back.
An absolutely riveting glimpse into a anguished teenage mind, and the underworld of adolescent fugitives.

Joanna Glaze
Mom, Community Volunteer, Book Blogger

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

This Ain't Over... and it Should be in the Tank!

Historically speaking…..John McCain should not be in this race. He is being outspent 3 to 1. Barack Obama is an attractive, young, celebrity, and an amazingly gifted speaker. McCain is an old retread. He is not inspiring from the stump, and the president of his party is toxic. Astonishingly, the Pew Research Center reported Sunday that McCain is “finally receiving as much national media attention as his Democratic rival but it’s 60% negative.”

So why are the polls tightening when Obama-Biden should be walking away with it?

Perhaps “Joe-the-Plumber” hit a national nerve. It seems his “redistribute the wealth” language has the whole country talking. According to the most recent polls, men and women over 65 are turning to McCain-Palin, as are the independent voters.

Hang on. It’s going to be a wild ride. Keep your eye on for the latest amalgam of the polls. If you can, vote today. The lines will be extraordinarily long next week.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Saturday, October 25, 2008

El Macho de la Mancha: Friends of Chamber Music brings Abraham, Savall for Don Quixote tribute

By Paul Horsley

On the face of it, it seems like a pretty straightforward task: seek out the many musical sources mentioned throughout Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, find them in contemporary sources, arrange them in a style-conscious manner and perform them in concert. Yet it took more than 400 years after the publication of the epic novel for someone to do just that.

On Friday at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, early-music polymath and gambist Jordi Savall brought a dozen or so musicians and actor F. Murray Abraham to present what is surely one of the most ingenious programs ever to grace a local stage. This concert version of Savall’s award-winning CD (on the Alia Vox Spain label) was the season-opener for the Friends of Chamber Music’s Early Music Series, and the huge church was packed to the rafters.
Don Quijote de la Mancha: Romances y Músicas was constructed by locating ballads and songs from the Quixote text, many of which are preserved in songbooks from the period, and presenting them either straight or in existing polyphonic settings. In cases where only text exists, Savall and his collaborators have located period tunes that closely match the poetry’s mood and scan.

Of course there was plenty of guesswork in creating this program, but it’s hard to imagine anyone today who is better-informed than Savall as to the repertoire and performance practice of early Spain.

To “set up” the songs, Abraham recited lead-in passages from the Cervantes text, in the witty, poignant, richly textured voice that made him so effective in Amadeus and other films. I was sitting pretty far back, and found myself wishing his microphone had been set a bit louder.

Accompanying the singers of La Capella Reial de Catalunya was Savall’s chamber orchestra Hespèrion XXI, a variegated array of gambas, guitar, double harp, winds, organ and percussion. Cervantes’ text sometimes specifies which instruments are playing, permitting another level of authenticity.

There is much sadness in Cervantes’ mad knight, and accordingly much of the music here — too much, perhaps, considering the violence and raucousness of the tale unfolding — seemed baleful and droopy. But the male vocal ensemble was fine, and moody songs like the Francisco Salinas’ “Media noche era por filo” were gorgeously gauged. The instrumentalists were top-drawer, with Arianna Savall sometimes singing while accompanying herself on harp.

After all that, the ending was pretty jarring. Cervantes’ Quixote spends his last years in a great melancholy, and dies cured of his sanity but broken in spirit. Savall’s two-disc CD of Quixote includes more music than we were served, and it ends appropriately with the knight’s sadness and death. On Friday we got a zippy Chaconne as a finale instead, an oddly upbeat ending for a program striving to convey the spirit of Cervantes’ classic.
To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to

Friday, October 24, 2008

Two Weeks out -The Race Tightens --Why?

The $4 a gallon gas made us crazy. Hmmm and it’s $2.33 today. Then Wall Street blew up and real people lost hard earned money. ” Yet the government still needed over $800 billion of our money. Examples of corporate greed, waste and fraud seem unending. Finger pointing is rampant. No one is accepting responsibility. No apologies are being issued. The devil is clothed in cash. The taxpayers said “enough”. What does our future hold?

So which candidate is best equipped to handle these prickly issues? Avoid mainstream TV, paid advertising, printed Op-Ed pages and talk radio. It’s nothing but opinion, hyperbole and BS. Think for yourself. Do your own research. Search for the truth. Reflect. Don’t just react. Think. Check and re-check the facts. Focus on It’s an amalgam of all polling data. It will give you the average of all the polls.

Hunker down. It’s going to be a wild ride. We need the truth. Search for the truth. Pray for the truth.

October 21, 2008

Annie Presley
Political Blogster
The McKellar Group

The opinions of all Independent Insider blogsters do not necessarily reflect the views of the publishers, staff and advertisers of The Independent or the Independent Insider. They are solely the views of the individual contributors.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

KC Chorale offers tough expressionist rarity on season-opening concert

By Paul Horsley

Sunday’s weather seemed way too beautiful for indulging in 1930s European angst, but I wouldn’t have missed the Kansas City Chorale’s performance of a rare work by Ernst Krenek for all the Chiefs drubbings in the world. Come to think of it, a brisk fall day is the perfect time to think about life’s brevity: Outside Redemptorist Catholic Church, brown leaves were being blown about by a vaguely-too-chilled wind that seemed to forebode winter. But not even all of that could have prepared us for the grisly impact of Krenek’s marvelously titled Kantate von der Vergänglichkeit des Irdsichen, whose English translation sounds just as extravagant: Cantata on the Transitoriness of Earthly Things.

It was composed in Vienna in 1932, shortly before the Nazis seized power, and thus its images of war, terror, greed and pestilence seem apt. Ironically, its texts are drawn from 17th-century poets writing about Europe’s horrendous Thirty Years’ War — which as if to bring the impact full-circle can be read today as if they’ve been ripped from the news. (“Thundering guns have devoured all that sweat and toil and diligence have made. … Fresh-spilled blood runs unceasingly through fort and town.”) Under Charles Bruffy’s courageous direction, the Chorale sang it like there was no tomorrow, in its season-opening concert. We can only hope that their record company, Chandos, gets wind of this performance and puts it on disc.

Krenek’s musical language is ferocious, dense, with a chilly elegance: It stitches together Schoenbergian dissonance, Mahlerian post-Romanticism and almost Bach-like “chorales.” A lavishly daring soprano tries to inject sanity (Rebecca Lloyd at her operatic best, with Robert Pherigo on piano), yet the chorus continues to wheedle and sob, growing strident then mournful. The final moment of near-hope is a radiant, sustained apotheosis, like the resigned end to a bloody victory.

The program had begun with Mendelssohn’s Lieder im Freien zu singen (Songs to Sing in the Open Air), a set of six a cappella songs on outdoorsy topics. Sunny and vigorous, they were the perfect foil to Krenek’s tortured cantata — so radically different, in fact, that the juxtaposition seemed almost diabolical. Bruffy and the Chorale delivered them with hearty good taste, and their spare textures were not overwhelmed by Redemptorist’s active acoustics.

Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes were not so fortunate. This quaint set of “love-songs-set-as-waltzes” could not have felt more out of place than in this enormous, over-decorated wedding cake of a church. Though the smaller, tender moments were poignant, the more vigorous numbers were blurred almost beyond recognition by the church's reverberation. Sometimes a venue unwittingly becomes a part of an artistic experience, positively or negatively. These waltzes are more suited to someone’s living room.

We were fast approaching the two-hour mark when the Chorale began the last piece, The Passing of the Year, by contemporary British composer Jonathan Dove. It seemed prolix, especially coming at the end of such a stuffed-full afternoon. It juxtaposes churning minimalist rhythms — nicely scored for piano yet sounding a tad too derivative (and how about that Stravinsky rip-off in "Ah, Sun-flower"?) — with atmospheric soundscapes that showed sensitivity to the poetry by William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Tennyson and others. Dove creates ingenious devices and he executes them with workmanlike skill, like the interlarding of the line “Lord, have mercy on us” within Thomas Nashe's "Adieu! farewell, earth's bliss!” But he consistently overworks his material, repeating lines of text for no apparent rhetorical or musical reason. Pity poor Emily Dickinson’s tiny “Answer July,” whose pithy wit was obliterated by belabored repetitions that very nearly drove me up Redemptorist’s lavishly outfitted walls.

The concert, which the Chorale calls “One Piano, Four Hands, 24 Voices,” is repeated at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, October 21 at Church of the Nativity, 3800 W. 119th St., Leawood. For tickets call 816-235-6222 or go to

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to

Saturday, October 18, 2008


We are excited to preview The Independent Insider, a fun new step in the development of Kansas City's Weekly Journal of Society.We are pleased to offer you an interactive, up-to-date expression of Our Town, its people, its events and its arts. But this is just a taste of what's yet to come!In the coming weeks we will unveil an entirely new website, rich with the content and information you have come to expect from The Independent. But it isn't our printed version just placed online. No, this will have content you've never seen before on our pages, chock full of interesting tidbits, photos and of course those famous "I Wonders". We will have expanded coverage of all the Performing Arts in Kansas City, including reviews by our resident critic, Paul Horsley. Neighborhood pages to keep you up to date on what is happening in your neck of the woods, and two amazing calendars. One specifically for The Performing Arts, and the other for all the fun parties we cover. We are so excited by the planning and thought that have gone into this new endeavor, and can hardly wait to bring it to you! We are sure you will be pleased when it goes live later this Fall.Meanwhile, enjoy this small taste of what the future holds.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Eight-voice Octarium choir continues upward trajectory

By Paul Horsley

Octarium, the eight-voice a cappella choir founded locally in 2001, gets better every time I hear it. The ensemble’s concert Friday at Visitation Church showed off the meticulous blend and fresh, youthful sonority that the group has become known for. They sang the repertoire from their new self-produced recording, Essentials, which is available at Octarium, whose name means “eight as one,” was founded under the direction of Krista Lang Blackwood, a choral conductor and former Kansas City Chorale singer, who prepares the ensemble but allows it to sing sans directeur in concert.

While larger groups that perform at Visitation sometimes sound muddy, on Friday the church’s almost-too-lush acoustic was flattering to Octarium’s fragile balances and exposed textures. Maurice Durufle’s Ubi Caritas sounded ravishingly beautiful, and except for the faint whisper of the church’s air units it was extraordinary how audible and warm the super-pianissimos sounded — not blanched-out, but with real fiber and substance. Equally impressive was the male fortissimos of the Rachmaninoff Vespers excerpt, which was muscular without sounding forced. William Byrd’s “Sanctus-Benedictus” from the Mass for Four Voices was captivating for the continuity of the successive entrances — so impressive, in fact, that I found myself wishing they’d just go ahead and sing the whole mass. (In fact overall the concert felt a bit too excerpt-y.) They also excelled in light-hearted works like Josquin dez Prez’s El Grillo and Orazio Vecchi’s Fa Una Canzona, which were suave and convincing while avoiding cutesiness. Antonio Lotti’s “Sanctus” from the Simple Mass was clean and direct. Stanford’s The Blue Bird featured a delicious solo by soprano Ashley Elizabeth Winters, with a voice as sparkling-clear as a chilly mountain stream.

Traces of Octarium’s earlier bad habits were still apparent, like the tendency to allow hyper-expressiveness turn into preciousness and sluggishness. Randall Thompson’s Alleluia, a pretty straightforward piece all in all, grew so willowy that I lost a sense that it was going anywhere. Bruckner’s Os Justi seemed to yearn for a fatter choral sound, and its surprisingly tricky attacks caused mild messiness. Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus felt weighted-down. And the “Shenandoah” arrangement sung as an encore was in dire need of some pep. (It’s a melancholy song, but for heaven’s sake it ain’t high tragedy.) Most disappointing for me was Monteverdi’s flashy madrigal Ecco mormorar l’onde, which needed more fire in the belly — more flamboyance, for instance, in the delivery of its jolting, jubilant chord shifts.

But this was a fine concert anyway, capped by one of the most beautifully gauged renderings of Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei you’re likely to hear. It’s an a cappella choral arrangement, by Barber himself, of the famous Adagio for Strings, and once you’ve heard it sung like this you might never go back to the over-performed string version.

The choir repeats the concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, October 18, at Corpus Christi Church, 6001 Bob Billings in Lawrence.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to

Friday, October 10, 2008

'Rodeo' forms centerpiece of KC Ballet's rewarding season opener

By Paul Horsley

If you still doubt that ballet is drama, as opposed to pretty poses in the service of abstract concepts, look no further than the Kansas City Ballet’s performances that began Thursday, October 9 at the Lyric Theatre. The program featured three capital works by American choreographers bent on showing that ballet can tell narratives while maintaining an abstract core. Thursday’s premiere was an auspicious kick-start for the company’s 2008-2009 season, even if opening-night gaffes were apparent — an errant spotlight here, dropped insect antennae there, fuzzy ensemble-work in the corps and a scary moment or two in the orchestra pit.

The big draw, perhaps, was Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, a staple of the company’s repertoire. Take one of Aaron Copland’s best scores and put it with dance by one of the most influential figures of the 20th century and you have an irresistible American classic. The restaging by legendary dancer Paul Sutherland, who worked with De Mille and other choreographic giants, was lovingly meticulous. Deeanna Doyle burst with poised energy as the Cowgirl, who sheds her awkward ranch-hand ways to become the belle of the hoe-down. She delved a flighty comedic vein at the outset, where she couldn’t seem to control her “horse,” and gradually she expanded her bag of tricks to woo the graceful Champion Roper.

Kansas City Ballet newcomer Michael Eaton was her match as the Roper, confident but not swashbuckling, brimming with leonine energy. His famous tap dance scene in the Ranch House scene — the first use of tap in a ballet, historians tell us — was delightfully top-of-the-line. He is an impressive new addition to the company, one of five new members this season, four of whom are men.

The winsome little moments between Doyle and Roper showed a natural ease and chemistry, as did those between real-life married couple Juan Pablo Trujillo (Head Wrangler) and Stefani Schrimpf (the über-feminine Ranch Owner’s Daughter). Oliver Smith’s scenic design is looking dated, as are the costumes (though the Ballet’s men looked pretty hot in their tight-fitting cowpoke digs) but the company dancers were in good form throughout, bringing off the opening scene’s little country plies with understated care.

The other hit was The Naughty Boy, the Kansas City Ballet’s first performance of a work by the young, much-talked-about American choreographer Trey McIntyre. Set to Mozart’s G-major Violin Concerto, which was played live in the pit, it is a breathless tale of Cupid and his methods, told in a jam-packed style that is like ballet in fast motion. Something’s happening every second: It almost wears out the eyes. Perhaps because the work of Jerome Robbins had opened the evening, I couldn’t help seeing similarities in the way McIntyre elevates vernacular movement to balletic refinement, so that distinctions almost, but not quite, blur. Sexy and delicious to watch, it has a sort of continually merry undercurrent.

Kimberly Cowen was a madcap Cupid, playful but generous in her ministrations to the four love-couples. She gave the role an innocence, even when it appeared she was suggesting amorous positions to the lovers. Costume designers Kirsty Munn and Liza Prince dressed her in a pumpkin-and-brown plaid cheerleader’s outfit, complete with pumpkin-colored coon’s-skin cap. (I know: Huh?) Lead couple Breanne Starke and Luke Luzicka worked like devils in the spectacular pas-de-deux-with-interference, in which Cowen sometimes intervenes to show them, perhaps, the true nature of love and romance.

Starting the evening with Robbins’ The Concert, also a Ballet reprise, was a nice touch: It’s a piece that ostensibly pokes fun of classical music but is in fact a powerful parody of ballet itself. Angelina Sansone stood out in her roles as groupie and hat lady, and Logan Pachciarz as a hip-swiveling loco was choice. The women’s sextet, a classical romp with one girl who’s never quite right, delivered its nutty humor. But on the whole, The Concert didn’t strike me as being as deeply funny this time around. It wasn’t, perhaps, the fault of the dancers: Some of Robbins’ humor just doesn’t wear well, at least not to me. And visually I was offended by the ugly sight of a wheel-stand beneath the piano, which together with the Lyric’s unsightly, scuffed stage eroded the sense of faux-refinement necessary to set up Robbins’ fragile humor.

The Ballet’s fall performances continue through Sunday, October 12. For tickets call 816-931-2232 or go to

To reach Paul Horsley, send email to

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Still Undecided? Probably Not.

Are you bored with this presidential campaign? And still undecided??

Fed up? Sick of these folks? Worn out with it?

If you can’t stand to hear another peep from the candidates, the talking heads, the loud mouths…..but you think you’re still undecided… don’t worry, you’re not. You have decided, but you just don’t know it. When you go into the voting booth, your hand will go to the button that your mind has determined is the right choice for you.

So quit worrying. Right now. Be happy. Tune it out. Think positive thoughts. No need to grind your teeth anymore. Your subconscious mind has made a decision and it just hasn’t told your brain yet. Seriously.

Pay no further attention to the blatherers on TV, the radio, the internet and the newspaper. They are talking to the folks who are dithering with the decision. If you find all of this horribly annoying, then you’ve made up your mind and you just don’t know it.

REJOICE. It’s almost over! Go vote. Your subconscious will guide your hand.


Annie Presley
Political Blogster
The McKellar Group

The opinions of all Independent Insider blogsters do not necessarily reflect the views of the publishers, staff and advertisers of The Independent or the Independent Insider. They are solely the views of the individual contributors.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Perlman performs on Harriman-Jewell Series to sold-out Folly Theater

By Paul Horsley

When violinist Itzhak Perlman plays a sad, noble tune like the Gavotta theme from Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, the lyricism and warmth grabs you by the lapels. There’s something of heart-open, Old World violin tradition there — a nostalgia, perhaps, for what music was like before Sumi Jo and Yanni.

Saturday’s sold-out Harriman-Jewell Series recital had too few such moments for my taste. Perlman is a central virtuoso of the last 50 years and a wonderful humanitarian, but this was not one of his better nights. Moreover, it’s virtually the same recital he’s offered up the last half-dozen times I’ve heard him.

The menu rarely varies: Baroque sonata, Beethoven maybe, Brahms or Frank or something mildly edgy but not too, and finally a long series of bon-bons. Sprinkled, of course, with the exact same jokes and the age-old shtick where the violinist searches aimlessly for the score to the next piece.

There were rewarding moments. Perlman and his pianist, Rohan De Silva, were best in the Stravinsky suite, arranged from the composer’s Pulcinella. Its idiom suited both players just fine, and the sense of interplay was that of two old friends who know intimately each other’s strengths and foibles. In the slow passages, Perlman displayed his delicious long line, though in fortissimos the tone could turn chalky and brittle.

The program began with a LeClair Sonata in D major, sweet and familiar. Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor (Op. 30, No. 2) was next, where De Silva made clear that this was a piece for violin and piano. I’ve long admired his musicianship, but here he seemed rattled and in a hurry. The duo missed much of the inner turmoil here. In the Scherzo, for example, they chose virtual parody over elegant, muscular self-assertion.

The encores — old favorites all — included Kreisler’s beautiful Andantino in the Style of Martini, two delicious Tchaikovsky pieces (Humoresque and Chanson sans paroles) and Bazzini’s mindless Dance of the Goblins. Again the Perlman gifts were heard to best advantage in the lyrical works.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Friends of Chamber Music series turns iconoclastic with Brentano String Quartet season opener

By Paul Horsley

Is all great art, on some level, subversive? The Friends of Chamber Music season-opening concert by the Brentano String Quartet on Friday (October 3) made a pretty good case for the notion that upheaval, trauma and icon-toppling have always provided the raw material for art of all kinds. To underscore the point, scattered throughout the Folly Theater was an exhibition, Art of Unrest, of artworks dealing with war, protest, poverty, injustice, mental illness and bigotry.

The centerpiece of the concert was the first local performance of Chicago-based composer Lee Hyla’s Howl, an in-your-face composition from 1994 that features Allen Ginsberg on tape reading his famous epic poem to a harrowing string accompaniment. Hyla’s dense, complex string textures seemed intent on matching the strident ferocity of Ginsberg’s rant, and I must admit the music was at times relentlessly confrontational to both the ear and the mind.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” begins the poem, and goes on to paint one of the wittiest, angriest critiques of modern society. It’s more than half a century old, but you’d never know it. (“Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!”) Hyla has created an effective sonic backdrop that at times underscores Ginsberg’s voice, at times willfully contrasts.

The problem with this performance was that I could understand less than 25 percent of Ginsberg’s recitation, because the speaker volume had been set so that when the quartet played anything above a forte it almost completely obscured his voice. The composer no doubt intended the voice to be drowned part of the time, but on the Nonesuch recording of the piece (which uses a different, more distinct recording of Ginsberg) you can understand far more than I did on Friday. It weakened the piece’s impact to miss so much of this wonderful poem. (There was an “unofficial” printed text available in the foyer, but as the house was dark it was of no use.)

What was fascinating about this concert, however, was that the two pieces of “nice” music that framed the Hyla, by Haydn and Schumann, were actually just as unsettled and subversive. Friends’ founder Cynthia Siebert alluded to this in her comments from the stage, reminding us that great art sets out to “define something that has not been defined by anyone before.” And sure enough, when the Brentanos sat down to begin Haydn’s G-minor Quartet (Op. 20, No. 3), those crazily irregular opening phrases knocked your ears right off of dead-center. Gone were 18th-century images of powdered periwigs and princely entertainment: Suddenly you were reminded that Haydn was as much the revolutionary as Ginsberg or anyone else.

In the 16 years since they started, the Brentanos — violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Lee — have grown from youthful brilliance to maturity, continuing to deepen and polish their musical understanding to the n’th degree. On Friday they produced some of the most beautifully balanced, well-reasoned playing I’ve heard from them. Haydn’s slow movement was tender and exquisite, reaching a breathtaking height of expressiveness. Likewise Schumann’s unsettled ramblings, in the A-major Quartet (Op. 41, No. 3), were treated to a luxurious rendering that brought me to a new level of appreciation of the piece.

Of course when an achievement operates on such a level, it’s the little things that annoy, like Steinberg’s habit of swallowing the ends of phrases instead of playing them honestly to the last note, or the hairy off-beat accompanying chords in the first movement, which I felt needed sharper focus. Sometimes the Brentanos’ pursuit of subtlety and detail leads to something bordering on preciousness.

But this is a wonderful ensemble, and on Friday they were firing with “all four pistons,” so to speak. The shattering climax of Schumann's second movement, which builds from nothingness to unbelievable intensity, was a concert moment I will not soon forget.

To reach Paul Horsley, send email to

Sunday, September 28, 2008

New Theatre premiere lends operatic heft to autumnal love story

By Paul Horsley

Joe DiPietro’s new play The Last Romance is about things that anyone with a few years under the belt can relate to: love and loss, conflicting demands of spouse versus siblings, fear of old age, illness, death. Much of it reads like somebody’s life.

Moreover DiPietro wrote it specifically for the lead actors who introduced the play at the New Theatre beginning September 4, veterans Marion Ross and Paul Michael, a fact that gives the play an emotional core. To add to the sense of art-imitating-life, Ross and Michael are themselves a late-blooming love-couple in real life, and are the exact ages of their characters, 79 and 82 respectively.

This world-premiere production, which runs through November 9, is sleekly packaged and designed, with bright, unfussy scenery by Beowulf Boritt, and capably directed by Richard Carrothers. It features canny performances by Ross and Michael, who hope to take the play to New York eventually. If its pacing is a tad sluggish, and if DiPietro’s humor tends toward the sitcom-ish, the play has a nice dramatic structure and some not-entirely-predictable surprises. (I attended Sunday afternoon, September 28.)

Ralph Bellini (Michael) is an aptly named former singer who lives with his clinging sister, Rose (Marie Lillo) in Hoboken. One day he strays from his walk routine and comes upon a dog park, where he grows enamored of an aging beauty (Ross, best known as a star of TV’s “Happy Days”) he spies walking her Chihuahua.

Thus begins a romance that strains credulity at the outset but grows more poignant as the actors kick their timing into gear. DiPietro’s language is plain and conversational: At times you wish for more poetry. Some of the humor is aimed unabashedly at seniors (not that there’s anything wrong with that): “My brother’s quite a catch,” Rose says to Carol. “He can still drive at night.”

But the performances carry the drama for the most part. Ross is lively and convincing in the way she moves from faux-indignation at Michael’s flirting to vulnerability. Lillo lays on the loud-and-brassy-Joisey-girl a bit thick, but when she reads the 20-year-old letter from her estranged husband, her misery seems real.

Opera itself is a sort of “character” in the play, partly through the presence of a figure called The Young Man who represents Ralph as an aspiring 20something singer. Sweet-voiced baritone Joshua Jeremiah makes brief entrances to sing snatches of operatic arias, including the piece Ralph sang at his Metropolitan Opera audition 60 years before,
E allor perchè” from I Pagliacci.

Opera plays a deeper role in the drama, too, representing an idealized world free of life’s ugliness in which only love matters. Opera’s larger-than-life quality is what Ralph and Carol yearn for. Opera is “big emotion, big people,” Ralph says. “That music makes them bigger than they are.” The problem with opera is that “all the lovers want to do is be in love,” he says later. “But it ain’t that simple. Something always gets in the way.” Indeed, the mystery surrounding Ralph’s failed opera career propels the drama forward in interesting enough ways that I found myself wishing DiPietro had made more of it, perhaps even (if you’ll pardon my musical bias) allowing the singer more stage time to sing more opera.

On the other hand I applaud the author for avoiding the too-obvious choice of making Ralph a tenor, which in my mind would have seemed out-of-kilter with his character’s grounded world-view. The tenor in opera tends to be the brash, hot-headed lover willing to sacrifice all for romance. The baritone is the trusted friend, the dad, the family man, the ordinary guy trying to make a living. That’s who Ralph is.

The Last Romance runs through November 9 at the New Theatre, 9229 Foster in Overland Park. For tickets call 913-649-7469 or go to

To reach Paul Horsley, send email to

Saturday, September 27, 2008

4th Annual Benefit - Comedy UMKC

The 4th Annual Comedy UMKC, to benefit student scholarships in the theatre department, is taking place on October 4th in the Helen F. Spencer Theatre. With a must-see performance of Tartuffe, by Moliere (directed by Theodore Swetz), a reception prior to the show, and a dessert served at intermission, it is sure to be a sardonic evening of hysterical hypocrisy! Not knowing our theater lore as we should, we researched and found out that Tartuffe is written in 1,926 12-syllable lines (alexandrines) of rhyming couplets. See, you simply must go to check out your own knowledge of alexandrines! Tickets are available at the central ticket office, 816-235-6222.

DiDonato scores new milestone in Kansas City Symphony opening concert

By Paul Horsley

Ernest Chausson’s Poem of Love and the Sea for mezzo-soprano is a dense, elusive mini-drama told through vivid images of youth, lilacs, birds, sunlight and crashing waves. It is set to a diaphanous orchestral score that is so gorgeous that I have sometimes wondered why it’s not performed more often. The Poem was the centerpiece of the Kansas City Symphony’s season-opening concert Friday at an overly warm Lyric Theatre, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the performance by Prairie Village native Joyce DiDonato was another significant milestone in a career that has seen a whole string of milestones.

One of the belles of the opera world, mezzo-soprano DiDonato has also made a strong stamp on the recital and concert stage, in music ranging from Bach to Berlioz, contemporary American composers to French and Spanish repertoire. This was her Kansas City Symphony debut, and it was also her first outing with Chausson’s daunting mezzo testing-ground.

While others might approach this piece as watery and impressionistic, DiDonato made it into something harrowingly tragic. I believe she is destined to become one of its most distinguished interpreters — joining a long line of great mezzos who have taken it into their rep. (In time she will memorize it, so that she doesn’t have to hold the score in front of her as she did Friday: This piece is so operatic in its conceit that you need both hands!) Her French is exquisite, though house lights in the theater would have helped those who wished to follow the printed translation. The Symphony under Michael Stern’s direction produced a delicious, butter-rich orchestral backdrop throughout, balanced and transparent enough that it rarely covered DiDonato’s beautifully projected tone.

On full display Friday was the mezzo’s plush, diamond-radiant voice, which could assume an Isolde-like dramatic quality but then turn bright, even childlike for phrases like “a beautiful child was on the shore.” Her lower register turned smoky for “How sad and savage the sound that announces the hour of farewell!” and blanched-out and vibrato-less for the word “oblivion.” In the crushingly sad final verses her whole countenance was suffused with heartbreak.

What, no encore? After the Chausson, it seemed something more upbeat would have been in order. We had to wait until after the intermission for the surprise: Having changed from the dark "sea-foam"-colored gown (get it?) she wore for the Poem of Love and the Sea into a flouncy crimson number with matching shoes and hair-bow, DiDonato started the second half with Rosina’s “Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville. This is not just a signature role for her: She sang it in the Metropolitan Opera’s first season of live movie-theater broadcasts, and many in the opera world consider her pretty much the Rosina today. The aria was the perfect foil for the Chausson, showing off her sparkling technique and engaging comedic abilities.

The rest of the program tried to stick with the concert’s themes of love, death, the sea, dancing, the romance of Spain, the heartache of France — well to be honest, the themes were all over the map. David Diamond’s music for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was deadly dull, thanks partly to the composer’s tendency toward prolix themes that feel like the musical equivalent of run-on sentences. At its best, his music contains the sweetness of Copland’s Americana vein but adds a mildly acerbic twist.

The Symphony sounded quite good, enriched with nine new players including principal viola, principal clarinet, associate principal clarinet, principal bass and bass trombone. There was flash in Ravel’s “Alborada del gracioso” and fine solos in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol. Plodding tempos bogged down the latter’s zest, but new principal clarinetist Raymond Santos tore through its splashy solos like a man with a purpose.

The concert is repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday, September 27 at the Lyric, 11th and Central, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, September 28 at the Carlsen Center, 12345 College Blvd. For tickets call 816-471-0400 or go to

To reach Paul Horsley, send email to

Thursday, September 18, 2008

History Will Be Made

Let’s review some basic history: George Washington was elected our first President in 1789. Eighty-one years later, in 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified giving African American MEN the right to vote. Fifty years later, in 1920, the 19th Amendment was passed, giving ALL WOMEN the right to vote. Need I mention the wars, battles and suffering that occurred so we can live in this free country?

Come January 2009, some 220 years later, an African American or a woman will stand on the capitol steps and swear to uphold one of the two highest offices in the land. Never before has there been any President or Vice President combination but 2 white males. EVER.

Regardless of color or gender, the US will make history on Tuesday, November 4, 2008. If you complain about our country and don’t vote, you are a disgrace to your ancestors who fought the battles that allow you to live in freedom.


By Annie Presley
Political Blogster
The McKellar Group

The opinions of all Independent Insider blogsters do not necessarily reflect the views of the publishers, staff and advertisers of The Independent or the Independent Insider. They are solely the views of the individual contributors.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Lyric Opera's Boheme boasts two strong leads and a set design that won't quit

By Paul Horsley
Photos: Doug Hamer / Lyric Opera

The Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s production of La Boheme, which opened September 13, has just enough goodies in it that I’d be loath not to recommend it. Hapless lovers Mimi (Alyson Cambridge) and Rodolfo (Michael Fabiano) sang stylishly and with conviction, music director Ward Holmquist conducted with a sense of where he wanted to go, and non-interventionist stage director Ellen Douglas Schlaefer kept movement to a judicious simmer.

Yet the thing that dwelled in my mind as I drove home from the Lyric Theatre was the look of the show, especially the scenic design that felt almost like a principal "character" of the show. The production, which opened the Lyric's 2008-2009 season, runs through September 21.

Veteran designer R. Keith Brumley has created a handsome new set for the show, and its warmth, style and psycho-visual impact sometimes kept the eyes and the mind busier than the ears. The Parisian hovel of Acts 1 and 4, for example, featured outer walls that angled toward us, giving a claustrophobic feel accentuated by the outward thrust of the window. It enhanced the acoustic resonance for the singers, and at the same time it made us feel a bit of the characters’ desperation. Even the "gay" street of Act 2 seemed intentionally garish, to suggest that beneath all the glitz — and the willfully too-lavish costumes by Martin Pakledinaz — lay poverty and suffering.

This basic scenic structure was ingeniously transformed, with the addition of a gate-house and a protrusion for the tavern, into the wintry outdoor scene of Act 3. Here lighting designer Barry Steele, in his Lyric debut, created a glowing, dull-grey sky that made you feel chilly just looking at it.

If this sounds like the rambling of a jaded opera critic who’s seen so many Bohemes that he’s looking for something new, then I stand accused. Let’s face it: The story of La Boheme is so familiar that even theatergoers who’ve never seen the opera have probably seen the cheesy populist spinoff, Rent. So yes, we are desperate for fresh ideas and new spins. And yes, even I am uneasy about the fact that I often found the stage design more arresting than the music here.

Fortunately the Lyric scored well with the two young leads: There was enough romantic tension between them that by Act 3 we really did care about their fate. Cambridge and Fabiano brought off this Act 3 tear-jerker beautifully, and largely with vocal finesse: Cambridge has a nicely rounded soprano that can turn a heart-rending phrase on a dime, and expands into lovely bloom at the top. She is also a woman of striking good looks. Fabiano’s medium-sized tenor is sunny, secure and easy on the ear, despite an oddly labored top. As for the Act 4 finale, this young cast must have been doing something right: People all around me were bawling.

The first two acts were more problematical, as they usually are. I’ve sometimes thought that an ideal setting for the first half of Boheme would be a middle school, for only there do people fall in love in 15 minutes and grow jealous and possessive by the end of math class. Still, I’m not sure the decision to emphasize Mimi’s manipulative, conniving nature helped matters much: It made the hasty "I love you’s" seem vaguely fabricated. I’m no expert on women, but it seems to me that a girl without guile can more easily fall for a pretty tenor than one who has been around the block.

The rest of the cast was workable, though some of the larger vocal ensembles seemed unsettled, especially when the chorus was involved. (As it was opening night, some of the singer-versus-orchestra ensemble was in the tidying-up phase.) I admired Daniel Belcher’s solid, almost sinister onstage presence, which brought out that the hotheaded Marcello might in fact not be a very nice person. Vocally he had a hard time projecting over the orchestra, and his poofy blondish hair and ungainly, loose-fitting outfits made him a dead-ringer for Philip Seymour Hoffman. Katrina Thurman was a surprisingly serious Musetta who didn’t go over the top with flirtiness at the Café Momus. Jonathan Stinson brought dignity if not vocal brilliance to Schaunard, and Matthew Trevino’s dark, growly bass made Colline seem almost cuddly.

The production continues September 15, 17, 19 and 21 at the Lyric Theatre, 11th and Central. Tickets are $20-$85, with discounts for students and seniors. Call 816-471-7344 or go to