The Pitch Monthly Nov 2017

The Pitch is the alternative newspaper in KC, published monthly. I’ve got a piece (pg 42) on the Kansas City Symphony’s Classics Uncorked “Future Favorites” – all 21st century music. Get it.

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KC Studio Nov/Dec 2017

Another dynamite issue of KC Studio is out.  I wrote about newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble’s 25th anniversary celebration and The Wires Alternative Strings Duo.


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KCUR Central Standard: Women Composers

I joined KCUR’s Central Standard program with host Gina Kaufmann and composer Ingrid Stölzel in conversation about the Kansas City Symphony’s lack of women composer programming within the broader topic of the gender gap in classical music. Listen to the conversation at 25:00 (or listen to the whole thing and learn about modern American farm life).

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Review for LOKC Eugene Onegin

I reviewed Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s Eugene Onegin for The Kansas City Star.

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Is The Kansas City Star’s Clickbait Headline Real Journalism?

Of all the disrespectful, small minded…

I won’t even link to community engagement editor Derek Donovan’s “opinion piece,” so here’s a screen shot of this appalling tweet.


Original headline, which did not make Twitter and is vastly preferred, though still wrong:  “Trump owns the national anthem if the protestors let him.”

Short answer: uh, no? Not at all. Never, nada, nyet.

Is this what The Star’s arts coverage looks like, now? Geesh.

The article has nothing to do, really, with The Kansas City Symphony’s performance, other than it is scheduled for Monday’s game. There is no story here, other than to question what it is about America that we can’t handle someone’s *extremely* *American* peaceful protest without 1) acknowledging the need to heal a culture of systematic racism and 2) wondering who, really, is playing “the game we Americans should all abstain from.”

Sounds high-minded, but baby, it ain’t.

This isn’t a game, but, hey, deal me in.

Yes, The Star is reducing its already insufficient arts coverage, again, and headlines like that will negatively sway the general reader from the wonderful, life-changing work the Kansas City Symphony is attempting, without offering rebuttal. So thanks for that, Donovan.

Maybe you think this doesn’t matter, but kids I tell you it does, especially in a community which touts its vibrant arts culture as an economic driver. The Star produces seemingly endless sports coverage from multiple perspectives, with pre-, post- and off season discussions, real time updates, and all manner of speculative “reportage,”  but it seems the arts only get covered in the current climate if there’s a sports angle. Tim Finn’s interview with Melissa Etheridge talked about performing the anthem for the Chiefs, Bill Brownlee gave KCSymphony (with Melissa Etheridge) its only review yet this season, with The Star deciding to skip the KCSymphony’s season opener and subsequent presentations. The Pitch ran a story comparing the excitement of a Chiefs game with the thrill of a live symphony.

But now this.

I don’t know the politics of The Kansas City Symphony, its leadership, its members, or its individual patrons. I hazard to guess that the son of social change advocate Isaac Stern is not a huge fan of the current administration’s policies, but I do not know that. I’m not saying he is or is not, as we have never discussed anything but music, but I’m also not going to throw anyone under the clickbait bus to insinuate one way or another an entire organization’s political identity.

I mean, what is this?



What game? Who is playing? This needs a copy editor.

If anything, this willingness by The Kansas City Star to besmirch The Kansas City Symphony is an endorsement of Trumpism–in that misguided, misleading, disrespectful tweets are in keeping with the Trump brand.

The Kansas City Symphony is committed to uniting people with music, not dividing. Their mission is to offer high quality music to as many people, in as many places, as their budget and time will allow. They are active in the community, they offer free concerts throughout their season and reduced tickets for students, and, while conservative in their programming, KCSymphony is a socially aware and healthy organization which, in their mission statement, values courtesy (not something the current administration exhibits). Did I say KCS could do better? Yes. We can all always do better.

Play, or do not play, the anthem. Stand, or do not stand. Heck, now players can’t even kneel in prayer before the anthem without getting booed by one group or another. It is not unAmerican to peacefully protest a culture of racism via the platform you are provided. Nor is it disrespectful to veterans, nor to this hodgepodge of a song, nor to the garishly colored flag.

You know what is disrespectful to the flag? All the gimcrack-garbage Made In China “Stars and Stripes” decorative knick-knacks you find in every store between March and July. Or underwear with a flag decoration. Sweet Betsy Ross, people. That ain’t right.

You know what would be respectful? To take the flag and wrap it protectively around those who suffer, to help where help is needed, to build trust through selfless acts, to praise the good work of those doing it, and lend a generous hand to those with whom one disagrees.

And have you ever heard the anthem performed? If anything, The Kansas City Symphony will bring more respect to their rendition than the forgotten lyrics/useless melisma/can’t stay in key versions of most second tier pop stars.

It is not an endorsement of Trumpism to perform the anthem. It is within the full rights of any American to perform the anthem, as well as to abstain from the ritual when the situation calls for it. It is NOT within the purview of a journalist to use bias and triggering language to generate internet traffic and damage the public opinion of an organization.

Play on, Kansas City Symphony. Whatever your politics, it is still considered an honor to be asked to perform the National Anthem at a nationally televised event and members can participate or not as their ethics and conscience allow. Make our city and country proud of quality performance in an unkind atmosphere.

Stand (metaphorically, if you wish) for the arts.

Update Monday, Oct 2: I learned this was written in response to a Letter to the Editor from an upset Symphony patron. The letter (12A) and the op-ed (13A) both ran in print on Saturday, and it is far more clear that Donovan’s issue is not with KCS’ performance of the anthem, but the politics which instigated the letter-writer’s grievance. Since the letter is not mentioned in the op-ed online, there is no context for it and the various online headlines/tweets intentionally paint the orchestra in a bad light. The tone of the op-ed in print is much different than the tone generated by the oft-retweeted clickbait, and I continue to reject this. 

Posted in criticism, Kansas City Symphony, The Kansas City Star

New Dance Partners

The 4th New Dance Partners project at Johnson County Community College; four world premiere works commissioned by the Carlsen Center featuring the best local dance companies and four national-level choreographers. Artistic advisor Michael Uthoff, organized by Emily Berhmann, and funded with local support. This is a notes version response.

Störling Dance, performing Heather C. Gray’s “In perpetuum.” Music by Ezio Bosso. (Sidebar: why don’t choreographers credit the actual pieces they use? This always drives me crazy.)  Interesting ensemble structure, I loved how integrated Burke Brown’s lighting was, especially the opening feature of the red line. The pretty swirling (the perpetual?) of the silken maroon skirts, in keeping with the tone and flow of the music, didn’t enthrall me, but then again I don’t think Störling’s aesthetic is designed with my preferences in mind, which is ok, just different ideals. I loved the skirts. I want one. Finishing tableau was a vision, beautifully lit and strong end.

Wylliams/Henry Dance Company, performing “an artist?” by Jennifer Archibald. Music by Estas Tonne, Ben Frost, with voice of Marina Abramović. Takes guts to draw on Abramović’s body of work to set a piece, but Archibald nailed it. Strong, precise movement for the dancers, who seemed a perfect palette. Gestures were aggressive, absurdist without a hint of humor, which I loved. Vaguely threatening movements, lots of tensions. Captivating floorwork. Lighting made the whole work intimately sculptural. Well crafted: sequences and transitions wonderfully honed. No wasted movements and the piece was intriguing, surprising. The pumped in fog made a little cloud, added with a bell toll, the movement, and sometimes lack of movement, insinuated with the voice, but never pretentious or too obvious. This was my personal favorite.

Owen/Cox Dance Group, performing Kameron N. Saunders “Facade.” Saunders was the only choreographer I’ve seen before, I was looking forward to seeing this new piece, and he did not disappoint. The most theatrical, but not schticky. Dancers were masked, but the movement allowed for unique moments, solo and duo work, within that ambiguity. A movement from Schubert string quartet, credited (points!), and I loved how the phrasing was sometimes at odds with the pulse and attitude of the music. Loose torsos, rolling motion, seemed standard Saunders, and used well, a fluidity cut with sharp surprises. The ambiguity set up moments of fear and tortured phrases. Using a prop, like masks, can carry many associations, but Saunders balanced expectations exceptionally, and used spotlighting effectively, dramatic without being stagey.

Kansas City Ballet, performing Michael Neenan’s “The Uneven,” set to sections from Philip Glass’ Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, The Concerto Project Vol. IV. Neenan adhered to the iterative nature of the music with an extended, additive introduction. Beautiful, intuitive duets. Some witty, playground moments were clever, whimsical, if a bit out of place at times, while at others I can’t imagine a more perfect decision, as with the wavering fingers.  Smartly structured: layered phrases added depth, intrigue to the sequences, elegant transitions, woven together, especially a delicate bourrée that was unexpected every time. The costuming (the dancers in three sets of either navy, periwinkle and plum) helped us follow the structure, cohesively designed by Lisa Choules, who also did Owen/Cox’ attire with excellent effect.

I would hope the dance groups can incorporate these new works into the remaining performances of their seasons, or even their repertoire for a later show, but tonight’s the last chance to see for awhile and the concert is recommended.



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BRAVA: a [fantasy] symphonic season

Our hometown Symphony opened their Classical Series with an all-Russian program: two Russian composers, Russian-born soloist, and an American piece based on extra-musical Russian associations.

This is also the fifth season in which a piece by a female composer has not been included in the Classical Series. Since moving to Helzberg Hall, the Classical Series has seen two pieces by women: Chen Yi in the 2011 inaugural season (a commission) and Jennifer Higdon’s Bird on Wire in 2013 (performed with guest artists eighth blackbird).  Other than a Mothers’ Day-themed “Women of Note(s)” concert on Classics Uncorked in 2014, which included two pieces by women (but three pieces by men inspired by women, thanks guys!) that’s the extent of pieces by female composers, as far as I can ascertain.

When I brought up the fact to a Symphony official, he was genuinely surprised. And, I’m pleased to share, a piece be a woman (Rachel Grimes) was included in the first Classics Uncorked program on Sept 26. Added late, but included nevertheless. (The other composers on the program, all men, have all been performed by the orchestra before.)

But more can be done. I don’t really hold with the defense that music is selected solely on artistic value and that attributes of race or gender or sexual orientation or religion are not to be considered, especially when other extra-musical attributes are, in fact, considered, such as era or nationality, as is the case with the all-Russian (or near enough) program this weekend.

My assumption is that all the works (there are only 43 works in the Classical series, a droplet in the wealth of fantastic music) will be excellent works, carefully selected with pride and of high quality. Ergo, any piece included can stand on its own as an exemplary exhibit of the art form.

If works are selected and organized based on themes (love, Spring, death, WWI) or nationality (French, British, Russian, Czech), time period, style, school or original purpose (operatic, dance, film), then why not consider aspects of religion, sexuality, gender and race/ethnicity when developing programs? And use those opportunities to raise awareness and make connections with the standards of the repertoire. The music may be unfamiliar (always an issue with the audience, I know…) but it will not be lacking.

In a perfect world, of course, gender would not be a qualifying (or disqualifying) factor. Spoiler alert: we do not live in a perfect world. We live in a world and practice an art form that for centuries discouraged (or downright forbade) women from composing. So there should perhaps be a bit more progress toward rectifying that.

Just for fun, I analyzed the current season and, based on criteria like nationality, style, context, and length, have a few suggestions. I allowed for the fact that half of the season celebrates Leonard Bernstein and did not replace those (but, hey ho, we will take into consideration that this year is Amy Beach’s 150th anniversary, unlike all other major American orchestras) and neither did I replace the guest artists’ pieces, which are not necessarily in the Symphony’s control.

Shall we begin?Substitute Symphony(2)So, out of 43 pieces over 14 concerts, we replaced 13 pieces in 11 concerts. That’s 30% of the season AND -bonus- we increased POC representation by 300%. And it’s all good music. Wow.

There are a growing number of resources for discovering music by women, including the Women Composers Database.

Now, I highly doubt the omission of female composers from the past few seasons was intentional. Works by women are sprinkled throughout the years. Women make up about 39% of the orchestra, 12 of the titled positions are held by women, won by blind audition, and 50% of the senior management team are women. In fact, KCS’s music director from 1999-2003 was conductor Anne Manson, now with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra.

But leaving the representation of women (and any minority group) to chance means that unintentionally they will be overlooked, given the limited opportunities for hundreds of years to an entire gender to produce works of art within the constraints of the modern symphony orchestra. Happenstance is not a good chance, if you’re waiting for a work from a historically underrepresented demographic to rise to acceptance in the public’s imagination (a place secured by the likes of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, for instance) without making an effort to put it there.

I’m not calling out KCS because they are doing a horrible job. It is an enviable organization: doing well financially, growing artistically, encouraged by civic leaders and making an effort to integrate themselves with the community. Their programming is no less inequitable than most organizations, the best of which have maybe two piece by female composers any given season. But this is the organization I’m most familiar with and the organization I hope would make the biggest strides and the biggest splash, influence the most people,  the community, and celebrate the biggest success with their programming. I don’t criticize to tear them down, but to demand better. We can all do better.

Posted in criticism, Kansas City Symphony, music