Cultural events of 2011 exposed meaning, motivation

It’s yet another depressing sign of the times when the juvenile digital blurt of a teenager gets more public attention than a finely made poem or a sonorous piano concerto.

But we get the culture we deserve, I suppose, one that favors instant gratification and sound-bite attention spans.

Art rarely lives in sound bites or tweets (and I’m saying this as an active citizen of the Twitterverse). Rather, for many of us, art is most effective when it takes the time to expose some meaning about our lives and our times magically, insistently and when we least expect it.

By that measure my most memorable cultural experience this year took place in the dark of a Plaza movie theater, during a live HD broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The work: “Satyagraha,” by Philip Glass. For three acts over four hours one Saturday afternoon in November, Glass’ music and the visually arresting tale of Mahatma Gandhi’s early experience in speaking truth to power in South Africa were as transporting and convincing as any piece of art can hope to be.

Unfolding as it did against the backdrop of the Occupy movement, “Satyagraha,” even on a big screen far removed from New York, resonated with a relevance it might not have had when the Met last produced it in 2008. And with its haunting Sanskrit libretto (most of it untranslated), its monumental puppetry, terrific stagecraft and terse choreography, and Glass’ wash-over-you, anything-but-minimalistic score, the opera felt like a complete package, virtually unmatched in my book this year.

What else happened of note in 2011? Ah, let me put on my thinking cap.

• Oh, yes, you might have heard that we now have a new performing arts center in Kansas City. The Kauffman Center. It is quite the place, and it, too, carried considerable meaning for our community. As the new home of our largest performing arts presenters, it has added an incalcuble dimension to the cutlural life of our city. All those words have been said by me and most everyone else in recent months, so no need to belabor the point again.

The Kauffman so far has been the site of numerous artistic successes (some, not all, mentioned below) and promises to enrich our lives for decades to come. Don’t miss it.

• A Pulitzer Prize came to Kansas City this year, delivered to Zhou Long, a composer on the faculty of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music. This is no small thing.

Zhou won the award for his opera, “Madame White Snake” (with a libretto by Cerise Lim Jacobs), which got its premiere in Boston in 2010 and a production this year in the composer’s native land, China. But he had already built a reputation as one of a coterie of prominent Chinese-born composers making an impression on American and global audiences and critics by fusing Eastern and Western traditions.

That coterie, of course, includes his wife, Chen Yi, who this fall premiered a dazzling, percussive tone poem, “Fountains of KC,” with the Kansas City Symphony. All this attention comes at a time when the conservatory is engaged in serious discussion and study about moving from UMKC’s Volker campus to downtown, somewhere in the vicinity of the Kauffman Center. This makes much sense and bodes well for both the conservatory and the city. Let’s hope the money part of the equation — many millions, that is — comes together efficiently and enthusiastically.

One more note about the conservatory composers: Zhou, Chen and colleagues Paul Rudy, James Mobberley and Narong Prangcharoen will make their collective debuts in March at a noted New York jazz and art-music club, Le Poisson Rouge. Among other pieces, students and faculty will perform excerpts from Zhou’s “Madame White Snake,” which prompts the urgent question: When do we get to hear it here?

• Saxophonist Joe Lovano, one of the most prominent and influential of contemporary jazz players, came to town twice this year, in part to feature music from “Bird Songs,” a gorgeously crafted CD that pays tribute to Charlie Parker and his disciples.

Lovano is uncompromising and his current quintet usually employs two drummers, which may or may not have caused traditionalists to complain about what they heard in April at a lightly attented concert at the Folly Theater. When Lovano came back this fall, he played on the Gem Theater’s series and brought along the extremely alluring and popular bassist Esperanza Spalding. She may or may not represent the future of jazz, but she added a quiet, though ebullient, spirit to the mix as Lovano worked his vigorous and towering horns. Both concerts, in my opinion, were first-rate and inspiring.

All of this says something about the state of jazz in one of jazz’s most important hometowns. The club scene is in flux and too often, it seems, local audiences lose interest when musicians point toward the future rather than the past. I would like to think that enough Kansas Citians would turn out if and when local presenters had the courage to book adventurous players— say, the pianist Vijay Iyer or the incomparable avant-gardist Henry Threadgill.

It’s encouraging to see a growing contingent of young players in this town tearing up the small stages when they get a chance to play. It will be dispiriting if too many of those players decide, as Charlie Parker and many others did before them, that their fortunes lie elsewhere.


A dozen even ts I’m glad I didn’t miss in 2011

: U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan read her chiseled, compact and vividly precise work last January in the Midwest Poets Series at Rockhurst University.  The young Latvian violinist Baba Skride performed nothing but magic in Aram Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto in early February with Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony. Resistance is futile, as the saying goes, in the presence of a talent like mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who delivered lovely and delicious French and Italian songs in a Harriman-Jewell recital in February at the Folly Theater. ...

It was raw and energetic and a little sloppy, but when local musicians including Cody Wyoming, Mark Lowrey, Rich Wheeler, Chris Meck and more paid tribute to the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street,” in Feburary at Crosstown Station, it was also a barrel of fun. ... Young guitar phenom Julian Lage was a sparkling revelation with his band in February at the Blue Room (and I’ve got video to prove it: see his extraordinary, 10-minute duet, “Ode to Elvin,” with bassist Jorge Roeder at my YouTube channel,


) ....

Don’t know what it was about February, but another vivid and electric highlight occurred late that month at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church when the Bach Aria Soloists turned to tango, featuring music of composer Astor Piazzolla and visiting South American musicians Héctor del Curto and Gustavo Casenave. ...

It gets a little dangerous when saxophonist Mark Southerland and bassist Jeff Harshbarger go traveling together in the sonic wilderness, and when joined by visiting cellist Helen Gillet of New Orleans last March at Grunauer, their Snuff Jazz session was explosive, expressive, introspective and gloriously sympatico all at once. ...

Esteemed saxophonist and composer Benny Golson entertained a packed house at the Blue Room in April with music and vivid tales of a very long life in jazz. .... Gillian Welch has a break-your-heart voice and for one September evening at Liberty Hall in Lawrence she and guitar-partner David Rawlings did exactly that as they worked through her Americana songbook and more

In October, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City inaugurated its new home, the Muriel Kauffman Theatre, with a resounding production of Giacmo Puccini’s “Turandot.”  It was nothing short of thrilling to watch and listen as one of the great European outfits, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the impressive Fabio Luisi, put Helzberg Hall to the test — joined no less by the vivacious Eroica Trio in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. 

The young Uzbeki pianist Behzod Abduraimov, still a student at Park University, shone a dazzling light on Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini,” turning an already brilliant evening with the Kansas City Symphony (featuring music by Sergei Prokofiev, Béla Bartok and Paul Hindemith) into an astounding, athletic affair.