Category Archives: Music

Katherine Blanner on Ed Sheeran

Katherine Blanner writes the Books to Read column for The Tern.

Katherine Blanner writes the Books to Read column for The Tern.

Red-headed British pop culture sensation Ed Sheeran is captivating the hearts of society through his two albums X and +. Sheeran began his music career with various EPs and self-composed tracks released on the Internet. The song “A Team” led to his popular debut. It is the combination of immense guitar talent, high vocal range, poetic lyrics, and overall adorableness that have skyrocketed Sheeran to the tops of the charts.

Each one of his songs has a unique beat deriving from a lovingly played acoustic guitar. It is his passion for the audible experience that contributes to the overall pleasantry of his musical opus, distinctly setting him apart from other artists. He composes his music as though the melody and rhythm have been inscribed upon his soul, weighing upon his heart until it has been conveyed in a ballad sung by his vocally rich pipes.

In addition to acoustic excellence, his poetic only elevates his harmonious quality. It is known that love in mankind’s greatest struggle, toyed by each human within his or her heart, as it distinctly leads to mortal happiness. Sheeran has, as conveyed through his lyrics, exceptional knowledge of such. He has loved, struggled, and reflected immensely. This can be reasonably inferred from nearly all of his songs, particularly “Tenerife Sea,” which appears on X: “We are surrounded by all of these lies/ And people who talk too much/ You got the kind of look in your eyes/ As if no one knows anything but us/ Should this be the last thing I see/ I want you to know it’s enough for me/ ‘Cause all that you are is all that I’ll ever need/ I’m so in love, so in love…” In this, Sheeran captures the universal human desire to love perfectly despite mortal imperfection. His words are more than mere “feelings” atop fluff, but rather a painful acknowledgement of broken hearts, triumph, and the deliberate willing of the good of another. Perhaps it is not that modern music has to be a reflection of society—indifferent, skewed, and ignorant of matters of the heart—but rather embracing of the blessings and skirmishes of life and love, as Ed Sheeran has conveyed through his music.

His brilliance is perfectly accompanied by his overall preciousness. A full-faced, stocky, tattooed, scruffy ginger is not precisely what has been previously noted as “hot.” However, the combination of his melodic sentimentality and cuddly appearance has made him outwardly charming.

It is the permutation of unparalleled aptitude, romanticism, and charm that has plummeted Ed Sheeran to the popular culture spotlight, redefining the way his audience considers the world.

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“Dracula” seduces Kansas City

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Courtesy of the Kansas City Ballet

Kansas City – Don’t worry about the title of this review, there are no vampires afoot in Kansas City to my knowledge. Rather, the Kansas City Ballet has released a different sort of vampire onto the theatregoing public. Their new production of Dracula, which opened to a nearly sold-out theatre at the Kauffman Center, was seducing and sumptuous to the fullest degree. From the fantastic modern score to the dancing to the special effects that are possible in such a new and decked out theatre as the Muriel Kauffman Theatre, Dracula is a sight to be seen. Now, I should make note that I am not typically one to go to ballet. My preference generally is opera, theatre, choral and orchestral concerts, and smaller recitals. However, the chance to see what sounded like a stunning production wasn’t one that I was going to miss.

Dracula the ballet is quite similar to Dracula the novel. Generally it is very faithful to the original book. I know the story of Dracula more from the historical context of Vlad Draculea, aka Vlad III of Walachia, a fairly bloody king of part of modern Romania who spent much of his reign fighting off the Ottoman Turks. It is often thought that Vlad Draculea was the original inspiration for the Dracula of fiction. The KC Ballet’s production does a fantastic job showing the differences culturally between the far more old-fashioned Dracula and the far more modern Jonathan Harker in one moment in Act I when Harker first meets the vampire. Dracula offers him a deep bow of welcome, which Harker returns with a handshake.

I found the occasional use of the voice to be perfectly fitting for where it was used. There may have been a few too many screams here and there, though at times with such a subject as this one can never truly know if the screams are coming from on stage or beyond. Anthony Krutzkamp excelled as Dracula, showing the gracefulness that would naturally come with such an elevated age. The two dancers who played Mina and Lucy, Molly Wagner and Laura Hunt respectively excelled at their roles, showing their prowess and flexibility with each moment that they were on stage. Ryan Jolicoeur-Nye (Harker) did a fantastic job in Act I in his dance with Krutzkamp (Dracula). I was left astounded at how well they were able to move together, how fluidly they could let their bodies work in unison as Dracula steadily drove Harker to insanity.

I recommend this production of Dracula to anyone who has the chance to see it. The ballet runs at the Kauffman Center this weekend (22 – 23 Feb) and next Thursday through Sunday (27 Feb – 2 Mar). See this link for more details.

The Priests bless Kansas City with their presence

Kansas City – When I typically think of three Irish priests going up on stage to sing, the image of the-prieststhe “Father Ted” episode “A Song for Europe” comes to mind, with Frs Ted, Jack, and Dougal singing “My Lovely Horse” to an unreceptive audience.

The Priests are not that sort of trio, though they do have their own fair share of comedy to boot with their magnificent voices. Fr David Delargy joined brothers Frs Martin and Eugene O’Hagan, two childhood friends and classmates of his, in forming this unique trio. Unlike the equally famous Irish Tenors, this trio appeared to be quite genuine and charming in their performance. They were joined tonight by soprano Sylvia Stoner, who sang 4 songs, 2 in each half of the concert, that added a local touch to the concert. Along with the vocalists were a set of fine instrumentalists, as christened by the trio the Midland Ensemble, so named for tonight’s venue, the Midland Theatre on Main Street in Downtown. The director of music was Gregg Mangaifico, who also was the pianist. The rest of the ensemble consisted of viola Kent Brauninger, violins Susid Goldenbrrg and Will Haapaniemi, keyboardist Kelly Ker Hackleman, with cellist Susie Yang.

The Priests began with a series of Latin hymns, “Laudamus Te”, Schubert’s lovely “Ave Maria”, an arrangement of the “Benedictus”, and César Franck’s “Panis Angelicus”. Following Stoner’s first set, the Piestw returned to perform a series of hymns and thought provoking songs from such trying times as the Spanish Civil War, to an awesome storm witnessed by a Swedish composer, which led to his penning of “How Great Thou Art”, the first part’s closing number.

I especially enjoyed how these pieces were able to introduce the trio and set the stage for the rest of the performance, which from there on out became, especially by the second half somewhat less in the strain of Christian mysticism and more in the line of good Christmas cheer.

The second half was filled with carols, great and small alike. For me the highlight of this part was their singing of that divine Austrian carol “Silent Night”. This is one carol that would certainly remain even if someday, Heaven forbid, Christianity were to disappear.

The concert concluded with an encore of the happy, originating in Ireland, seasonal favourite “12 Days of Christmas”, which included some fun and amusing audience participation. The concert was a benefit for the Kansas City Irish Centre in partnership with KCPT.

If you have an opportunity to see the Priests in concert, I would take that chance. They finish their North American Tour at the Holland Centre in Omaha on Saturday 7th December at 8.00 CST.

The Canadian Brass comes to Kansas City

Kansas City – I will admit that I am one of those who had heard the Canadian Brass before, mostly on NPR and the BBC, but I had never actually Imageproperly heard of this fantastic quintet until tonight. The Canadian Brass are a world renowned brass quintet founded and based in, you guessed it, Canada. They have performed all across the planet both live in person and through the transmissional wonders of television and radio. Their membership includes five of the finest brass players in the world, with Americans Christopher Coletti, Caleb Hudson (Trumpets), Eric Reed (French Horn), Greek Achilles Liarmakopoulos (Trombone) and American-Canadian Chuck Dallenbach (Tuba) who was a co-founder of the original group in 1970.

In this concert presented by the Harriman-Jewell Series at the beautiful Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts’ Helzberg Hall, the Canadian Brass played with humour and demonstrated with flourish their fantastic musical abilities.
The quintet began with four pieces which depict the history and evolution of brass orchestration within Western classical music. These were English Renaissance composers Anthony Holborne’s (c. 1545-1602) Muy Linda, and John Dowland’s (1563-1626) Come Sweet Love, followed by early German Baroque composer Samuel Scheidt’s (1587-1654) Galliard Battaglia. These were played with charm and period enthusiasm, which as someone who has performed solely Early Music for the past few years, I throughly enjoyed.
This was followed by a set of selections from the Canadian Brass’ album Carnaval, which were taken from musical sketches for piano by Robert Schumann and arranged by the quintet’s own Coletti. These were a whirlwind characteristic of the carnival celebrations of Venice, with all the fun and excitement of that last day before the 40 days of purple-clad sorrow leading up to the Passion.
Courtesy of CanadianBrass.com
Following this jolly jaunt in the visions of Schumann, the quintet was joined by horn player Eric Reed’s father, the magnificent Douglas Reed, on the Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant Organ, which going along with the national theme of the night was built proudly in Québec City. Douglas Reed’s performance on the organ was stunning, and reminiscent of Midnight Mass when the church organ sings out for joy at Christ’s Birth. He joined the quintet for four pieces, Farué’s Cantique, and the traditional carols Jolly Old St. NickGood King Wenceslas, and Jingle Bells. My only complaint of the entire concert came at this point, as I found it a challenge to hear the quintet over the bellowing awesomeness of the organ. Here Herbert Spencer’s declaration of “survival of the fittest” rang loud and true with the organic domination over the brass below.
Following intermission, the Canadian Brass took the floor once again with a Killer Tango introduced to the ensemble by their Greek trombonist Liarmakopoulos. It was filled with the spices and flavour of an Argentine summer’s evening, the sweet scent of that magnificent South American flavouring oozing like sumptuous wine from the performance. This tango was followed by a performance of Coletti’s piece Bach’s Bells, an arrangement of a Bach cantata and Carol of the Bells, which I simply found confusing.
For the next three pieces, the Canadian Brass was joined by the William Jewell College Concert Choir, led by Dr. Anthony J. Maglione in performing three songs Angel and the TrumpeterSweet Songs of Christmas, and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. I enjoyed hearing the choir and the brass work together, as the dynamics of the voice and brass instrument seem to share some qualities, especially the ability for projection.
Following the departure of the William Jewell Concert Choir, the quintet honoured that other great holiday of December (and November this year), Hanukkah, by performing a jazzy set of Dreydel Variations. The Klezmer clarinet impersonation and strong high C’s of Coletti stole this part of the concert with drama worth of an operatic divo.
Finally, the highlight of the evening came with the quintet’s performance of a Suite from Georges Bizet’s “Carmen”. Not only did they play the music from that greatest of Bizet masterpieces, but they did it with such showmanship and flair that it left the audience standing on their feet in uproarious approval. I especially loved the change of the male lead from the Spanish soldier Don José to the Canadian soldier Don Jos eh.
Needless to say, tonight’s concert by the Canadian Brass was one to remember for its musicality, its showmanship, and its humour. I was expecting a small chamber orchestra of very serious, circle sitting brass players. What I heard was far from that, it was a group of five friends who were playing fantastically beautiful music, and having a good time whilst doing it.

“Rush”: Ron Howard’s F1 Masterpiece

Kansas City – This afternoon, I went to see Ron Howard’s new film Rush with my parents at the AMC Ward Parkway 14 Cinema. I’ve been a lover of Formula 1 for three seasons now, since I was introduced to it by my Dad during the 2010 Belgian Grand Prix from Spa. Like the speed of this 2 hour film, my own F1 team support has changed quite a bit over the past few years, from initially supporting Renault F1 in 2010, to McLaren-Mercedes in 2011 and 2012, and now to Lotus-Renault in 2013. Of course, with the annual team shakeups, we’ll have to see where I end up come March, perhaps supporting the lads at Ferrari, perhaps staying with the Brits at either Lotus or McLaren.

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Anyhow, back to Rush. I really enjoyed this film from its start. To begin with, Howard is a master of painting his films with an extensive lavish palette of colour, from the blues and greens of that rainy 1 August 1976 at the Nürnburgring, home of the German Grand Prix, to an almost period ’70s look to the film from the more personal, more emotional scenes of the film. Being someone who is familiar with F1, I found the film quite rewarding in its ability to show another side to the sport that I’m not used to, from the top teams taking longer than 2.5 seconds for pit stops, to the pistons in the engine rising and lowering, to the roar of the engines starting at the waxing of each race, to the lack of Red Bull at the front of the starting grid, as is almost a given in the Age of Vettel.

The acting, with Chris Hemsworth as 1976 Champion James Hunt of Great Britain, and Daniel Brühl as his chief rival, 1975, 1977, and 1984 Champion Niki Lauda of Austria was also brilliant and quite believable. I personally was drawn more to Lauda than Hunt, as I, like the Vienna native, am a perfectionist in many respects, as my friends and family can relay. Hunt’s playboy lifestyle was in many ways his undoing, but also his way of coping with the stress of driving in a sport, which at the time took the lives of at least 2 drivers per season, a fact which has thankfully wained since the turn of the Millennium with further safety improvements on the cars.

I also loved Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for the film. Of his past film work, I especially enjoy the soundtrack to King Arthur (2004). His style of composition seems strewn with heavy percussion, and sweeping Mahleresque melodies and thick, rebounding harmonies. As a musician in my own right, his music represents a modern style of cinematic composition that I aspire to for my own films.

Now, as with any film dealing with the life of James Hunt, or the history of F1 in the 1960s and ’70s, there’s going to be a lot of sex. I noticed there were a few comments regarding the extent that Hunt’s sex life is described in the film, as the commentator was rather unhappy with these scenes in particular. Here’s what I have to say: it’s a natural fact of life, and for someone my age it’s something to look forward to in the near future. Yes, I’m not a fan of the extent to which Hunt “slept around” with around 5,000 women, but at the same time I find it not healthy to demonise something which is a necessity. It’s like demonising sleep because we should be getting more done in line with that fine Protestant work ethic. There was a great sketch in A Bit of Fry and Laurie about a father complaining to his son’s headmaster for sex ed being taught at the son’s school, the father believing that his son “just sort of appeared one day.”

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Lauda in practice at the 1976 German Grand Prix at the Nürnburgring.

Rush is a fantastic film about one of the greatest sports of all time. Both as a F1 fan, and as a filmmaker, I adored watching this film. It wasn’t your typical sport film, following the underdog who goes through some sort of trouble, and begins to rise in stance to a great athlete. I’m sorry, but haven’t we had enough of these Southern USA set civil rights era sport films yet? This film was not even in the same league as those, it has different aims, different goals. There’s no real cause being supported, no character who is rising up from great intolerance. But after being bombarded by so many of those films, I’m glad for a fun, champagne soaked, break. Rush gives the American audience that opportunity to go to a sport film, and especially if you’re not familiar with F1, a chance to not know the plot before the film starts.

Hopefully some of those who are finding F1 for the first time will tune in in a few hours at 01.00 Eastern for the Japanese Grand Prix live from Suzuka. The Niki Lauda of the 2010s, Sebastian Vettel, is on the verge of winning his 4th Formula 1 championship crown. Whether it be in Japan, India, Abu Dhabi, Texas, or Brazil, history soon could very well be made, just as it was in that fantastic rivalry between the Austrian and the playboy from the UK.

American Classical Music

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Courtesy of WGBY television.

Kansas City – I can’t think of a better way of spending my last night at my parents’ house before returning to my townhouse tomorrow at Rockhurst than watching the Boston Pops’ 75th Anniversary concert at Tanglewood on PBS. So far, they’ve played Copland and Bernstein, two of this country’s greatest composers. Right now, they’re playing a suite from Bernstein’s On the Town.

George Gershwin, my favourite American composer.The odd thing is that when it comes to American classical music, I tend to think more of the various orchestras about the country, the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Boston Pops, and of course our fantastic Kansas City Symphony, just to name a few, than the composers who called this country home, or at least their birthplace. Quite honestly, there isn’t a single American composer in my top five list. That elite group consists of an Austrian, a few Frenchmen, and an Italian: Gustav Mahler (Austria), Giuseppe Verdi (Italy), Gabriel Fauré, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and Claude Deubssy (France). Even in the top ten, the Americans probably would only come in the bottom of those: W. A. Mozart (Austria), Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Wagner (Germany), Sergei Rachmanioff (Russia), and George Gershwin (USA). Below Gershwin however do come a number of American composers; numbers 11-13 being Leonard Bernstein, John Williams, and Philip Glass.

So, why exactly then, being a classical music lover who has lived the majority of my nearly 21 years in the States, do I, along with many others, tend to prefer European composers over our home-grown cast of colourful characters? I think it could very well go back to the fact that this country, along with the rest of the Americas, were once colonies of Europe, and therefore surely not on par with Europe’s high culture! Also, the American Revolution certainly didn’t help win the hearts of my fellow monarchist music lovers back in Europe. There is a general disdain for all things American in regards to high culture. Just look at the luxury status of a Mercedes or my favourite, a Jaguar, compared to their price tag equals from Cadillac, Chrysler, and Lincoln among others. Another area that this can be seen is in Formula One, my favourite of all motor sports, which features a largely European cast of drivers (go Lotus!)

Kimi Räiikkönen and Romain Grosjean, the 2013 Lotus F1 drivers

Kimi Räiikkönen and Romain Grosjean, the 2013 Lotus F1 drivers. Courtesy of grandprix247.com

"Satyagraha", my favourite Philip Glass opera

“Satyagraha”, my favourite Philip Glass opera. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

In this country we truly do have a great classical music tradition, with its own uniquely American flavour. I’d argue Broadway holds a similar place in American classical music that Gilbert and Sullivan holds in Britain. We don’t necessarily need to have grand operas of the same flavour as those that came out of Italy, France, Germany, Austria, and Russia. Our opera has a different flavour, a more, at least presently, popular flavour. Our opera buffa could be said to be Broadway, whilst our opera seria could be said to be works like those of John Adams, Philip Glass, and of course Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Bernstein’s West Side Story. Just like how in many a Verdi opera you can hear an all-too Italian flavour, for example the brass scales during the “Gran nuova! Gran nuova!” chorus in Rigoletto have always sounded quite Italian to my ears, so too West Side Story and most, if not all, of Gershwin’s major work has a distinctly American tone and texture to it. At the same time, because we are a nation of exiles, refugees, and immigrants, our composers have the flair and ability to write in the styles of many far distant lands, like Philip Glass in his Gandhi opera Satyagraha.

Tonight on PBS’ Great Performances, this testament to the power and uniqueness of American classical music stands firm, as both high art and popular art pieces are being performed side by side. When I started writing this entry, music that premiered on Broadway filled my parents’ living room, now it has been succeeded by the quietude of a Haydn Piano Concerto.

Until next time, tá!

My Redemption Song

Kansas City – One of my favourite songs on the Chieftains’ 40th Anniversary album Wide World Over is the Redemption Song by Ziggy Marley. It’s a song that has stuck with me since the so named Kings of Irish Music released it 11 years ago, as has the concept that music can redeem. My personal redemption song isn’t your average 4 minute 30 second piece, nor is it something written in the past 50 years. It’s Mahler’s Symphony No. 8.

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I first heard Mahler’s music on NPR’s Weekend Edition early one Saturday morning sometime in about 2009 or 2010. The San Francisco Symphony was making a series of recordings of all of the great Austrian composer’s symphonies. They played excerpts from his Symphony No. 6 on the air, but I avoided Mahler for years, despite my liking what I had heard on the air, because I was told that his music was “quite depressing.” It wasn’t until Summer 2011 that I bought my first Mahler album, the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein recording of the Symphony No. 1 and the Adagio from Symphony No. 10. I bought it specifically to take out into the fields on my iPod so I could have something to listen to whilst painting fences in the pastures. From then on, any chance I got to listen to some Mahler, I took it, attending every Mahler concert performed by the Kansas City Symphony since. It is a blessing of sorts to be living in Kansas City right now, because the KCS’ conductor Michael Stern is certainly one of this country’s great living Mahlerians.

Mahler’s 8th, demotically known as the Symphony of a Thousand is just that, a symphonic work in which my favourite of the Germanophonic composers pulls out all the stops and lets his very heart and soul sing. It begins with the Veni Creator Spiritus, a prayer commonly chanted around Pentecost in the Roman Catholic Church, my sort of spiritual lifelong home.

However, the real redemption comes in the second part (Movements 3 and 4). It is here that Mahler’s music takes on the story of the Redemption of Dr Faust. Contrary to M. Gonoud’s famous grand opera about the aforementioned doctor, in Mahler’s version, it could be said Faust is redeemed rather than falling back into sin. Whenever I listen to Mahler’s 8th, I always come out on the other end feeling empowered and eased, like I do when leaving the confessional or after spending time in the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. It’s a calming sort of thing, which is rather odd considering the symphony ends with a very loud and quite triumphant sound. This is one piece that, if I ever were to get into conducting, I’d love to conduct. And yet, it takes quite a bit more to conduct than your average piece of music.

So, on days when you’re not feeling quite up to your normal, when you’re stuck in that bunker on the bottom nine, why not find a good recording of Mahler’s 8th, or really any of his works (except perhaps the 6th, which is rather sad), and have a listen. It’s as close as you’ll ever get to hearing a man’s soul cry out in joy and peace.

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My personal favourite version is the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas recording. It’s on iTunes.