Classical Music & Dance

Music, film and visual art converge at Tivoli through Phil Grabsky’s lens

Phil Grabsky
Phil Grabsky submitted photo

When filmmaker Phil Grabsky makes a documentary, you can be sure it won’t be dry, dull and tedious.

Whether telling the story of the Dalai Lama or an 8-year-old boy living in post-Taliban Afghanistan, Grabsky knows how to make films that are as vital, gripping and entertaining as anything coming out of Hollywood.

Grabsky’s favorite topics, however, are art, music and creativity.

His “In Search of” films about Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn and his “Exhibition on Screen” series, which takes audiences to blockbuster museum exhibitions around the world, have been praised by critics and have developed a loyal following.

Grabsky is coming to Kansas City to introduce his most recent classical music films, “In Search of Chopin” and “Concerto: A Beethoven Journey” as well as “Exhibition on Film: Van Gogh” this Saturday and Sunday at the Tivoli Cinemas in Westport. The Tivoli also will screen other Grabsky films throughout the weekend.

Both “In Search of” films and Exhibitions on Screen have been big hits for the Tivoli, Kansas City’s local art cinema. Tivoli owner Jerry Harrington said that Grabsky’s recent film about the big Impressionist exhibit in London, Paris and Philadelphia drew 100 people for an 11 a.m. screening.

“It’s on the big screen, not a little TV,” Harrington said. “And they’re good. You learn stuff without being bored. He did a film about Rembrandt, and he had a contemporary artist show how Rembrandt got certain effects by doing it himself on a portrait he was working on. It’s really interesting. They’re big shows that you’ll never get to see, unless you go to New York or London or some world capital.”

The “In Search of” films about classical composers have been just as popular, he said.

“His films are historical and biographical and he gets great musicians, like Sir Roger Norrington, to talk about the composers and why they’re important. They play the music and explain the things that make Mozart and Beethoven different. It’s not structured like a PBS documentary. It’s a little less academic. There’s humor and drama. He interviews a lot of people and goes to visit the places where these people lived and worked,” Harrington said.

Grabsky said it takes him about three years to complete one of his “In Search of” films. After his exhausting work on the Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn films, Grabsky was in no rush to make another one. But then he was invited to Warsaw, Poland, to film a concert honoring Chopin.

“They played all his orchestral music in one concert,” Grabsky said. “He only wrote six works that included an orchestra, so it was about a two-and-a-half-hour concert.”

Grabsky saw the trip as an opportunity to explore his own roots.

“My grandfather left Poland early in the 20th century and had gone to New York, where my father was born,” Grabsky said. “My father was a bit vague on the details, but he gave me about eight addresses. Warsaw was flattened by the Germans and the Russians, but I hired a driver and went to one of the addresses where for some reason an old-style apartment block had survived. That was where my grandfather was born. It was amazing to find it. It was actually quite moving.”

Grabsky was so enthralled by his Warsaw experience, both of his personal history and that of Chopin, he knew he had to make a film about the composer.

“What I was learning about Chopin’s story was so fascinating,” Grabsky said. “So, I took on another three-year project. This time with great, great musicians like Leif Ove Andsnes, Ronald Brautigam and Daniel Barenboim. And I’m absolutely delighted that I made it because, in a way, the journey from Haydn to Chopin through Mozart and Beethoven is the story of classical music, its journey from Baroque to Romantic.”

Although Grabsky had already made a documentary about Beethoven, he was inspired to make another film about the composer after reading a line in Gramophone magazine four years ago.

“It said, ‘Leif Ove Andsnes has decided to spend four years dedicated to the five Beethoven piano concerti in something he’s calling ‘The Beethoven Journey,’ ” Grabsky said. “I’ve interviewed Leif Ove for three of the ‘In Search of’ films. He is fantastically articulate, human, engaging, funny and obviously one of the top three or four pianists in the world, which I don’t say lightly. So I approached him about making a documentary about his project, and he said, ‘Yes, by all means I’ll work with you,’ and he gave me exclusive access to the concerts. So I’ve been on a journey with him, filming a new biography of Beethoven told through the chronology of his five piano concerti.”

Although Grabsky and his crew are unable to lavish three years of attention on his Exhibition on Screen films, he said they still devote copious time to research and checking facts. He and his crew bring the same high level of perfectionism to the art exhibit films.

“And they’re not commissioned by television, which is good because then you don’t have editors asking for Lady Gaga to comment,” Grabsky said. “We are making them for who we all are, really. We are intelligent and we’re curious, and actually we often don’t know very much because we haven’t had the opportunity to learn. It doesn’t mean that we’re ignorant, it just means that there’s a wide, wonderful world and we haven’t had a chance to learn about Goya or Bosch or Rembrandt or Matisse.”

Grabsky will introduce “In Search of Chopin” at 3:30 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Oct. 25, “Concerto: A Beethoven Journey” at 1 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. Oct. 25, and “Exhibition on Film: Van Gogh” at 7 p.m. Saturday. After the films, he will conduct a question-and-answer session. There will be screenings of other Grabsky films Friday, Saturday and Oct. 25. $10. 3-Show Flex Passes are available for $25. Tivoli Cinemas in Westport, 4050 Pennsylvania. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit Tickets also will be available at the door.

Kansas City Symphony: Festa Italiana

When one thinks of opera, great soloists like Enrico Caruso and Joyce DiDonato come to mind. But some of the most memorable music in opera has been written for choruses. The Kansas City Symphony and Chorus conducted by Michael Stern are presenting a program comprised mostly of opera choruses Friday, Saturday and Oct. 25 at Helzberg Hall.

Festa Italiana will feature tender, heart-breaking and rousing choruses from beloved operas by Giacomo Puccini, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Pietro Mascagni and Giuseppe Verdi.

Charles Bruffy, the director of the Kansas City Symphony Chorus, has been prepping his singers for their operatic program.

“I think everybody will be humming the melodies,” Bruffy said. “Many of us remember the old cartoons that use opera tunes, and we’re singing all of the old cartoon songs, except for ‘No More Rice Krispies.’ This program is perfect in every way for opera buffs, appreciators of choral music and followers of the Kansas City Symphony. After the concert, you’ll definitely be in the mood for a big bowl of spaghetti with red sauce.”

8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Oct. 25. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $23-$76. 816-471-0400 or

Musica Sacra

Musica Sacra Chorus and Orchestra is celebrating its 25th anniversary this season, and Timothy McDonald, the group’s founder and conductor, has chosen an appropriately festive piece to kick off the season, Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria in D. Also on the program is the Miserere in C Minor by Johann Adolph Hasse.

McDonald is a longtime champion of Hasse, who was much more popular in his own time than in ours. Born in 1699, Hasse straddles the baroque and classical eras. His lyrical style drew praise from his contemporaries, but he was soon forgotten after his death. McDonald and others have done much to revive his distinctive music, which can take its place with that of other great composers of the mid-18th century.

The Gloria in D is Vivaldi at his brightest and best. Only discovered in the late 1920s, it has become one of Vivaldi’s most performed sacred works. It exemplifies the joyful qualities that have made Vivaldi one of the most popular baroque composers.

7 p.m. Sunday. Arrupe Hall Auditorium, Rockhurst University, 1100 Rockhurst Road (54th and Troost). $12-$22. Tickets available at the door, or call 816-235-6222.

You can reach Patrick Neas at