Sept 17, 2022: The Magic of the “Missa”

Maestro Michael Palmer, Orchestra and Chorus Accepting Standing Ovation after the “Missa Solemnis,” Aug 27 at the Globe News Center, Amarillo

An August 27 sold-out audience at the Globe News Center witnessed artistic magic on the stage, as Amarillo became, for about two hours, the cultural epicenter for the planet! A perfect combination of musicians: choristers, vocal soloists, and instrumentalists under the baton of Maestro Michael Palmer performed the Missa Solemnis. Called by Beethoven his greatest work, it is also his least performed Magnum Opus.

In fact, the next date and place for performance was August 31, a half of a world away at the world-renown Berliner Festspiele with the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner. That puts Amarillo on the top rung of the world’s cultural ladder.

The saga of the Amarillo performance is an epic worth telling. The original inspiration for performance of the Missa came to David Palmer, Artistic Director of Chamber Music Amarillo, as a morning epiphany in 2018 as he’d been thinking about appropriate ways to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday.

When he called his nationally-recognized conductor father, Michael Palmer to ask him to conduct the piece, David recounts that there was a protracted silence at the other end of the line. Finally, Michael asked his son, “Do you have any idea of what you’re asking of your community?”

David did understand the challenge, but he knew that Amarillo had both the musical resources as well as the public will to mount this logistically-challenging work. It is not only very expensive, requiring generous patrons, but the complex score demands a long-term commitment from accomplished musicians.

But the best-laid plans of mice and men…..! Covid corrupted all of our lives’ timetables for two years, causing two resets for the performance. The entire time that the show was in limbo, performers continued practicing, which ultimately paid off. Maybe the third time is the charm?

The work is extremely vocally challenging. Beethoven is notorious for alleged antipathy towards singers, making nearly impossible demands of both soloists and chorus. This complexity requires months, which stretched into years, of preparations. The fact that singers must hold forth for eighty minutes puts this work on a par with grand opera. By comparison, the 9th is a walk in the park.

And, in additional contrast to the 9th, where soloists and chorus are discreet and separate, the Missa is very interactive, demanding a high degree of precision and sensitivity between the two groups.

As noted, Beethoven called the Missa his best work. Though he used the text of the ordinary mass, each section in Beethoven’s composition broke the bonds of traditional limitation, vaulting into new realms of expression. But, the Viennese Church hierarchy forbade the performance of the mass in concert, so the premier took place in St. Petersburg. The entire work did get a hearing in Vienna until nearly two decades after Beethoven’s death!

It’s a shame that Vienna had to wait so long to hear what one of their own created. Beethoven enfolds the listener with his kaleidoscopic musical vision of the awesome majesty of the Almighty. At times he bludgeons the audience with Sturm und Drang, while in other parts he beguiles with sublime supplication and reverence. In this work he tasks himself with composing a tonal epic worthy of the infinite and omnipotent, which he demands that all embrace. There is no compromise in Beethoven!

Dr. Nathaniel Fryml, chorus master and assistant conductor noted that ultimately there were 105 singers, including the four soloists. Sources for the chorus included the Amarillo Master Chorale, the West Texas A&M Chorale, Wayland Baptist University, the Amarillo College Choir, the First Baptist Church Sanctuary Choir, and outstanding singers from both the Amarillo and Canyon school districts.

Soloists for the Missa Solemnis taking an ovation

The soloists must be both astute and confident. Entrances are often solo, but the parts then meld, either in ensemble with other soloists or with the chorus. The four soloists: Mela Sarajane Dailey, soprano; Ellen Graham, mezzo-soprano; Eric Barry, tenor; Clayton Brainerd, bass-whether alone or in tandem, set a new standard for excellence. Listen to recordings done by internationally known orchestras and particularly the male parts are muted. Not so in Amarillo as both home town favorite Eric Barry and Clayton Brainerd held forth at times with what amounted to an assertive ferocity.

An analysis of just one of the sections, the Gloria, illustrates the complexity of the entire work. In this section, Beethoven is off and running from the starting downbeat, with the orchestra and each choral part having their sequential say. The thunder subsides at 1:41, only to return a few musical seconds later at 1:48 with Laudamus te. When the chorus sings Glorificamus te, it explodes like a musical cluster bomb, with each part having their song heard. All this is the first four minutes!

The chorus gets a break, as the soloists in turn give thanks in Gratia agimus tibi.

The respite is brief, as the chorus charges in at 4:48 with Dominus Deus, which continues for five lines at the end of the section, with the soloists making a vocal appearance at Jesu Christie. There ensues some serious interplay twixt orchestra, soloists and chorus in this section, some of which is quite assertive.

Quite a different mood is struck when the topic is sin, in Qui tollis pecata mundi. The tone becomes reverential and supplicatory, themes which dominate in the final three sections of the Missa. However, Beethoven still has points to make, which he does with emphasis in Qui sedes ad dextram Patris.

The last of the Gloria is a glorious profusion of Glorias, alliterative pun intended. Some are enunciated in triads, a possible nod to the Trinity, while others are protracted into Handelian runs. And, the Gloria ends not with the Amen, but with more Glorias, just for emphasis.

Conductor Michael Palmer directed this massive work with understated precision. He had obviously imparted his musical vision to both the instrumentalists, and to the chorus master, Dr. Nathaniel Fryml, as well as the soloists, because all musicians were on the same page. His experience as assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony and Robert Shaw Chorale was much in evidence.

Amarillo is always honored when Maestro Palmer raises his baton here on the High Plains, and hopefully the future will see his frequent return to the concert stage.

This concert was definitely worth the five year wait! Attendees certainly recognized the significance as a once-in-a-lifetime event on the stage at the Globe News Center, as viewed from the geographic range of the audience’s origins. Eager listeners came from all over the tri-state area, as well as from far out-of-state.

No one left disappointed: a stunned elation at the conclusion gave way to a protracted ovation, not only for the performance, but to all who made it possible.

So, Happy Belated Birthday, Ludwig! The quality performance of your best work and its reception here on the Comancheria doubtless made your shade smile.

And, we smile along with you, as we proudly say:

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!

July 11, 2022: The Symphony and “the Falcon”

The Falcon in scrim shadow: the Reveal for Conductor of the Amarillo Symphony – Globe News Center, July 9, 2022

The title almost sounds like a sequel to a Dashiell Hammett novel and a Bogart movie, but in the case of Amarillo Symphony’s search for a new conductor, it states the denouement of the real drama.

The climax of this plot, or the “Reveal,” took place at the Globe News Center July 9, 2022.

Booth, along with Larry Lang, Executive Director of the Symphony, Terry White, President of the Symphony Board, and Suzanne Wheeler of Mariner Wealth Associates, corporate sponsor of the event, came on stage in front of a drawn curtain and facing some two hundred RSVP’d guests.

Larry Lang welcomed everyone, and noted that there was a group on the other side of the curtain, which members of the audience could hear, but not see. He then introduced Booth, who gave details of the selection process. Terry White then offered the board’s perspective while Suzanne Wheeler spoke of the valued association of her firm with Symphony.

Jeff Booth first distilled the selection process, which, thanks to Covid, took two years and five months. noting that initially the committee received over three hundred applications from around the world! As mentioned consistently in this blog, this cultural capital of the Comancheria has a global reputation.

The committee’s task sounded very much like real work! It first pared the stack of applicants down to fifty, then whittled the number down to a more manageable ten. These were Zoomed, and from this group, three finalists emerged. Each finalist had two tryout concerts, with audience and musician’s input secured after each. Booth emphasized the importance that this data harvesting played in the process.

The final choice was as big a secret as the Manhattan Project, or a Hispanic grandmother’s Mole recipe. The few that knew kept zipped lips and let everyone else speculate. And speculate is what everyone did! All three candidates were world-class, and no one had an opinion that they’d take to the bank.

To ensure secrecy, those few privy to the choice decided on a code name of “Falcon” for the selection, to use when talking about their decision. Smacks of cloak-and-dagger and 007.

Larry Lang then said it was time to meet our new director, the “Falcon.” He said that we might hear reaction from those sitting on the other side of the curtain, as the new conductor showed himself to those behind the curtain.

Try hoots and hollers, with loud clapping and stomping of feet. Then the curtain went up, while on a scrim where the enhanced and magnified profile of the choice was backlit.

The scrim was lifted, and, drum roll, there was George Jackson in the flesh. The audience then joined in the celebrating and there were smiles all around.

A Beatific Appearing George Jackson

In his few comments he noted that many of his colleagues talked about their symphony orchestras in the possessive. He said he would never say that. Then pointing to the audience, he said, “This is your symphony orchestra! This is Amarillo’s symphony orchestra!”

He then conducted an ensemble in playing the first and fourth movements of Dvorak’s Serenade for Winds.

So, a big Amarillo welcome to George Jackson as he hops the pond to make beautiful music of all sorts on the High Plains of Texas. His reputation as a fearless conductor promises a great collaboration.

As he raises our aesthetic bar, we’ll have to work together to teach him to say “ya’ll” and understand American football!

Again, welcome to Amarillo, George! You’ll make it easier than ever to commit to:

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!

July 9, 2022: The Amarillo Symphony in an American Celebration


Stilian Kirov Conductor and William Hagan Soloist after Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, June 24, 2022

On June 24, Stilian Kirov, candidate for conductor and artistic director of the Amarillo Symphony, led a program celebrating American composers and America. Kirov and the symphony were joined by talented William Hagan as a featured violin soloist.

The symphony performed two works by American composers: William Grant Still and Samuel Barber. The program concluded with the most famous work written about America, Symphony No.9 by Antonin Dvorak.

The works of William Grant Still are enjoying a long-overdo Renaissance. A prodigious composer of over two hundred works, he holds a number of firsts: the first black composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra; the first black to conduct a major symphony orchestra; the first black composer to have an opera performed by a major company and the first to have an opera performed on television.

His creativity is all the more phenomenal when viewed in the racist context of Jim Crow America. Now the work of this American musical icon is enjoying a recrudescence in symphonies and classical musical platforms across the country. Perhaps that says something about who we were and what we’re becoming.

The short selection, Mother and Child, is an orchestration of one section of his Suite for Violin an Piano. The first half is a tender and engaging sequence of tetrads, with the second half changing tune and tone, and becoming more playful.

The orchestra and Kirov were in total sync during this work. Should Amarillo be so fortunate to have Stilian selected as the artistic director, audiences can expect to hear more of Still’s work.

Samuel Barber wrote his Violin Concerto as a commission for soap magnate Samuel Fels, specifically to feature Fels’ violinist nephew Iso Briselli. Briselli had issues with Barber’s first two movements, but went ballistic on the third movement, denouncing it as too difficult and demanding changes. Barber refused to alter his composition, and refunded half of his commission.

The protestations of Briselli notwithstanding, Barber’s work has, since its premier in 1930 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, become permanently ensconced in the concert violinist’s repertoire.

And, the stars aligned for the Amarillo Symphony and its audience as Kirov secured the services of William Hagan as soloist. A native of Salt Lake City, Hagan brought his own Stradivarius as well as a “Devil’s Violinist” ethos to make this work bedazzle with musical pyrotechnics. Some claim to see smoke coming from the Strad, which would not have been a good thing. The thunderous standing ovation for the soloist and orchestra definitely was.

The final work on the program was Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” by Antonin Dvorak. Though written by a Czech about America, Americans have, from the beginning, embraced this work as their own, and The New World Symphony has been a treasured icon in symphnic Americana, played in high schools and halls of the philharmonic orchestras.

Though most of the work was composed while Dvorak was in New York directing the newly-founded National Conservatory of Music, tiny Spillville, Iowa claims part of the credit. Dvorak spent the summer of 1893 in this community of Bohemian immigrants. There he did some composing, but is remembered, anecdotally, for carrying around a bucket of beer, a common practice in that place. Perhaps that has something to do with the name of the town.

Kirov orchestrated just the right dynamic build up to the Finale, whose stunning opening reminds one of Beethoven’s Fifth, or Jaws. The brass, particularly the French horns, can overplay the melody line, but that wasn’t the case in this movement. And the fortes were frequently broken by softer interludes, to build to a powerful, resounding conclusion. There’s an Argh! in the final phrase that has always inspired Americans to claim this piece as their own.

This review goes to publish just prior to the “Big Reveal” of the symphony’s new conductor. If it is Stilian Kirov, the citizens of Amarillo will enjoy a new world of musical enrichment.

Though the arts season has officially come to a close, there’s still a lot to offer in the arts until the Missa Solemnis in late August.

For these reasons, we assert, just as confidently,

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!

June 24, 2022: Interview with Stilian Kirov

Stilian Kirov

Everything about Stilian Kirov, candidate for conductor and artistic director of the Amarillo Symphony, is world-class! An interview held in the offices of the Amarillo Symphony revealed why he is a finalist for this position.

Bulganian-born, Kirov noted that he grew up in a musical environment where he started playing the piano and, at an early age, decided to make music his career. He attended what is known in the US as a magnet school for the arts, and then enrolled at the Bulgarian Academy for Music in Sofia.

Along the way he began to play oboe, which allowed him to participate in orchestra. It was orchestra that awakened his interest in conducting. Fortunately, the acting conductor facilitated that interest, allowing Stilian to conduct both orchestral and choral works. He praised the generosity of his Bulgarian instructors, saying he was lucky to have them in his life.

At age 19 he went to Paris to study at the Ecole Normal de Music, which had a good choral conducting program. From there he hopped the pond to study at Julliard under Maestro James DuPreist.

His subsequent globe-trotting professional engagements match his world-class education. He has conducted orchestras all over the world, from Belo Horizonte in Brazil where he conducted Mahler to Xi’an in China, where he directed an all Mozart program. He said that the Chinese musicians and orchestra had an extraordinary work ethic, rehearsing four to five hours daily in the week leading up to the performance.

He will certainly bring a window on a wider world to the Panhandle!

If everything else about Stilian is world-class, the concert with the Amarillo Symphony is All-American, either from the nationality of the composers, Still and Barber, or from the subject matter of the composition: Dvorak.

William Grant Still was the first Afro-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony played by a leading orchestra and the first to have an opera performed by a leading opera company. His Mother and Child is the orchestrated second movement of his 1943 Suite for Violin and Piano.

Barber’s Violin Concerto is famous, or, as some assert, infamous for its third movement. The source of major contention between the composer and the assigned performer, the latter asserting that it was too difficult and out of musical character with the first two movements. Barber didn’t relent, and the audience will hear the virtuosic movement as originally composed.

Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” remains one of the most popular symphonic works. Largely composed in NYC, Dvorak drew on American influences such as the legends of the First People and Black spirituals, and quite possibly polished the work during the summer of 1893, which he spent in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa.

When pressed about the responsibilities of being a conductor and artistic director, his trenchant responses were revealing. He quickly responded to a question, perhaps awkwardly asked, about the chief role of the conductor, saying, “There is no chief in this role!” He further explained by a modified athletic analogy: the conductor, prior to performance, is like a coach, but is just another team member at performance.” He also noted, “You have to give musicians freedom to fully express their musicality.”

The image of the conductor as an authoritarian boss is not something SK believes in, but rather someone being in the service of music. “You have to acknowledge when and where you’re needed, and when you’re not needed.”

He summed up his responsibilities by noting that this symphony is the community’s cultural hub. A major responsibility of the artistic director is to learn what the community wants and needs, and, through meaningful relationships create relevant programming. The fund-raising aspect of the job should then come naturally.

Stilian Kirov obviously has raised listening to a high art form!

The candidate has worked with some of the world’s leading conducting luminaries. When asked about some of the most memorable associations, he recounted three examples, which illustrated in his mind, the transformative power of music.

Kurt Masur, longtime conductor at the Leipzig Gewanthaus Orchestra as well as music director of the New York Philharmonic, taught a master class in conducting at Julliard. He had a constant shaking of his hands caused by terminal Parkinson’s. But, when coming to a beautiful Pianissimo section, his hands suddenly stopped shaking.

Another story concerns Bernard Haitink, conductor at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam before locating with the Chicago Symphony. Kirov relates that once, visiting the conductor’s home, he started talking about the music of Brahms and the aura of his energy filled the room!

Finally, he related how his teacher at Julliard, James DuPreist, though a paraplegic from polio and wheelchair-bound, achieved national and world acclaim as a conductor. The candidate related that he constantly radiated a world of positivity through his music.

Such is the transformative and elevating power of music, which Stilian Kirov not only actualizes but hopes to communicate.

When asked what he would like to say to the people of Amarillo, he didn’t hesitate.

“I feel very fortunate to be back and make beautiful music in this wonderful place. Amarillo is special and has a high appreciation for the arts. I offer a big “Thank you!” for allowing me the privilege celebrating wonderful music with you.”

He’s impressed with the way that not only the orchestra, but also the community has changed in the last few years. He feels that the Amarillo Symphony has great potential to grow with the quality of musicians, as well the quality staff under the leadership of Larry Lang.

Stilian Kirov’s world-class vision will definitely encourage and facilitate that growth, which will most certainly

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!

May 28, 2022: Interview with Conner Covington

Conner Covington at Amarillo Symphony’s Lunch and Listen, May 27, 2022

A recent interview with Conner Covington, candidate for Artistic Director and Conductor of the Amarillo Symphony was, in a word, “refreshing!” His wide-ranging comments elaborated his own life’s story and musical odyssey, as well as his philosophies of musical programming and the role of the conductor. Finally, he set everything within the context of his desire to come to Amarillo and his vision for the symphony.

Even though this interview focused on him, he rarely used the personal pronoun. Never did the sometimes demonic artistic ego appear. Rather, he brought himself to the subject, usually after reframing the question from the perspective of the conductor. That quality, in itself, proved most refreshing.

He did not come from a musical family, and didn’t begin playing violin until the fifth grade. Conner revealed that he didn’t become serious about studying music until age 16. At that point, rather presciently and in order to make up for lost time, he relocated from Eastern Tennessee to Houston where family made it possible to attend the Houston High School for the Visual and Performing Arts.

His love for conducting was nurtured at the University of Houston by his orchestra conductor, whom Conner followed to the University of Texas at Arlington on the promise of more opportunities with the baton. Never discount the influence of one special teacher.

Conner also revealed his admiration for the iconic Frenchman Pierre Monteux, whole philosophy regarding conducting would subsequently inform the directors of many leading American symphonies.

Monteux maintained that the conductor was the servant of the music whose primary responsibility lay in keeping the orchestra together to carry out the composer’s instructions. “To that end, conductors must articulate their own vision of the composer’s intentions, then have the ability to convince the orchestra you have validity,” is how Covington explained his own concept.

Wen asked what he thought was the most important personal quality for a conductor, he gave an immediate and surprising answer. “Emotional intelligence!” He gave the example of Yannick Nezet Sequin, conductor of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and with whom Conner has worked in Philadelphia, as one who can just walk into a room and take the pulse of the musicians. In other words, this is the ability to intuitively know what is needed to actualize the potential of each musician and thus the entire orchestra.

His own musical preferences focus on the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as the classical period, especially Mozart and Haydn. But, his tastes have evolved to include Debussy and Ravel, as well as American Jazz and Blues.

The watchword governing his program selections is “Variety!” The choices for each Amarillo concert certainly underscore that principle. Composers from the first concert included Quinn Mason, Mozart and Brahms. Those in the second were Anna Clyne, Rachmaninoff, Rossini and Richard Strauss.

The choices also reveal another of Covington’s principles: the desire to expose audiences to new music. The performances of Quinn Mason, a young Texan, and Anna Clyne, a British composer, attest to that commitment.

When asked what, besides the job, prompted him to relocate to Amarillo, Conner quickly responded with two reasons. He said that the word of symphonic music is really a small community, and that the Amarillo Symphony has the reputation not only for innovation, but also for commissioning new works. That last quality is very rare in orchestras from communities the size of Amarillo.

The second reason is the tradition of music education in Texas, that he feels, is the strongest in the nation. It appears that someone realizes we’re know for more than producing football players here in the Lone Star State! That’s refreshing!

Questioned about his plans for community outreach and involvement, he emphasized increased collaboration, which he called a ‘Win-Win!’ with the various artistic and educational institutions, to expose the public to the joys of classical music. Part of his mission is to change the stigma around classical music, and by erasing elitist labels, make all feel welcome at symphony.

Finally, when asked what message he had for the people of Amarillo, he answered, not in terms of touting himself, but the symphony. “This community is very lucky to have an orchestra of this quality, which is rare in this country. Whomever is chosen as orchestra director has the responsibility to spread the word of this quality.”

Again, refreshing!

Conner, if you are chosen to press the “Refresh” tab for the Amarillo Symphony, you’ll make it easier than ever to say:

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!

May 6, 2022: But is it Art? ALT Takes a Deep Dive

Cast of “Art” taking a bow-Amarillo Little Theatre Adventure Space, April 10, 2022

Amarillo Little Theatre’s Adventure Space recently staged Yasmina Reza’s Art. Translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, the play has garnered a huge range of international awards.

The success of the play stems initially from two interrogative antipodes: What is art? What is friendship? The ensuing tension spawns a brouhaha which reveals major heretofore unfaced issues between the longtime friends.

The fulcrum of the play pivots on Serge’s (played by Brandon Graves) purchase of a work of art, which is nothing but a white canvas allegedly embellished with additional white pigment and diagonal striations for the exorbitant sum of 200K Francs. Serge seeks approval from his good friend Marc (Omar Nevarez), but receives only rejection and scorn for his choice. Marc is appalled that his friend would commit a double crime of egregious irrationality: call the white rectangle a work of art; spend a small fortune in its acquisition.

The disagreement in taste and priorities quickly escalates into the realm of betrayal. Marc is outraged that Serge has made such an impulsive commitment, without, it follows, consulting him. Serge, seeking validation from Marc, recoils from his attacks, wounded and hurt. Control issues are at play, big time.

But there is another issue, perennial and recurrent, that comes to the fore and runs on a parallel track with the dynamics of personality. It is the question of what is art and is Serge’s purchase even art, much less great art.

This issue isn’t plot conjuring on Yazmina Reza’s part. The work of the Polish-Ukrainian Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich launched this debate with his White on White Suprematist series in post-revolutionary Russia.

This gauntlet would later be picked up by Robert Ryman, whose white rectangle was famously featured on 60 Minutes, But is it Art? by Morley Safer. This episode became one of the most watched in program history.

So, the debate has validity and relevance. But this tension over aesthetics reveals entrenched perspectives as to what constitutes friendship and its boundaries. Serge and Marc agree to the arbitration of a third friend Yvan, (played by Harrison Blount)who, as a waffling placater, only makes matters worse as he takes friendly fire from each side.

A sequence of burned bridges lead all three to declare a cease-fire, and symbolically pass around a bowl of olives.

The play is a veritable smorgasbord of the vicissitudes of human interaction. Marc and Serge, successful in the world and rooted in their convictions, need validation from each other and feel threatened by the others divergent perceptions. And fragile, about-to-be-married Yvan reveals he is a victim of depression, and just wants everyone to get along as he wallows in a self-induced pathos.

All three actors create a credible developmental arc. The dialogue is quick-paced, but, following the expert direction of Alan Shankles, the principals give one another space, and no lines were stepped on.

The set was minimalist, and certainly did not detract from the dynamics between the characters.

And Art, typical of great works of art, raises more questions than answers, leaving the audience to resolve the limits of toleration in friendship, and, just as important to some, what constitutes art.

Such celebrations of ambiguity characterize the quality theatre we enjoy here in Amarillo. Which is why we unambiguously state:

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!

April 16, 2022: Dr. Sarah Rushing and a WTAMU Spiriocast Premier!


Dr. Sarah Rushing: Spiriocast Piano Premier. WTAMU School of Music, March 9, 2022

When was a faculty piano recital more than just a typical faculty piano recital? That would be when Dr. Sarah Rushing of the WTAMU School of Music on March 9 premiered the first Steinway Spiriocast performance to multiple colleges in a national field test for this new technology.

Spriocasting syncs a performer’s keyboard and pedals to an unlimited number of similarly-wired pianos. Not only does the computer program deliver a matching sound, with artist’s inflections and dynamics, but also portrays streaming video of the performer as an empty keyboard, perhaps halfway around the world, mimics their faraway touch. In addition, the program allows recording, playback and editing on the accompanying ipad.

The first Spiriocast occurred on Oct. 25, 2021 when Kris Bowers performed from a piano in California for Steinway dealerships around the world. Dr. Rushing gave the first performance targeting a collegiate audience, her Steinway doppelgangers echoing her artistry simultaneously at Odessa College, Wayland University and Weatherford College.

Her program, a combination of 19th and 20th century composers, showcased the Steinway’s versatility and capacity, certainly meeting the criteria for this experiment. The audience in the other three schools enjoyed the virtual video, but with the exact audio, replete with the resonance and nuances that streaming cannot convey.

Two of Dr. Rushing’s choices deserve mention. She opened with Many Thousand Gone, a work by a woman called the “Dean of Black Women Composers,” Undine Smith Moore. This short piece is intense, and can be termed either turbulent or triumphant depending on the listener. Regardless, this work which inaugurated this seminal performance is short, lyrical and highly evocative.

Jean Sibelius published his six impromptus for piano in 1893, about the same time as he composed his Karelia Suite. The Opus 5 no. 5 is a scintillating sequence of keyboard-running arpeggios, interspersed with abbreviated thematic intervals. This beautifully expressive piece was a delight to hear, whether in Canyon, Weatherford, Odessa or Plainview.

It was easy to get carried away by the quality of the performance and overlook its significance. Even as colleges and universities around the world incorporate this new technology, WTAMU will have bragging rights as the first to explore its possibilities.

Many thanks to Dr. Sarah Rushing for her performance, and Dr. Robert Hansen, Dean of the School of Music, for the leadership and vision that first recognized the potential of Spiriocasting. The world of piano performance may never be the same!

All of which only adds to the conviction that the quality of the arts here on the High Plains of the Llano Estacado is incomparable and for which we proudly say..

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!

April 1, 2022-Amarillo Symphony: Mason; Mozart; Brahms; and…….”Slava Ukraini!”

This last weekend, the Amarillo Symphony posted several milestones. The first was the appearance of the second of the finalists for the position of conductor, Conner Covington. The second was the introduction of Larry Lang as the new Executive Director. The third was that the Amarillo Symphony joined leading symphonies and national choruses around the world in opening their concerts, in addition to their own national anthems, the anthem of Ukraine.

This hauntingly beautiful and majestic national anthem adorns an equally powerful script. “Ukraine is not yet dead, nor its glory and freedom,” a relevant affirmation of sovereignty for the present crisis.

Go to YouTube Music and scroll through the various performances of this amazing anthem, of which, the chorus and orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera is notably spine tingling.

After the traditional performance of the Star Spangled Banner, the orchestra, with the exception of the cellos remained standing. Conner Covington then announced that the orchestra, signalling support for Ukraine, would perform their national anthem.

The symphony delivered Shche ne Vmerla Ukrainas with a dignity and solemnity worthy of the songs message. The back third of the audience immediately stood, while the balance remained seated. Perhaps these attendees never watched the Olympics.

Regardless, the Amarillo Symphony now takes its place with the major arts organizations of the planet in support of the government and people of Ukraine in their struggle. No longer isolated in the Panhandle of Texas, the Symphony proudly takes its place as a world-class organization producing a world-class musical message! Slava Ukraini!

Col. Larry Lang, Rtd. USAF, was also introduced as the new Executive Director of the symphony. This native Texan brings a stellar set of credentials to the position, including commander of Air Force bands around Washington. In conversation he conveys an effortless urbanity reminiscent of Gen. James “Spider” Marks, a frequent CNN commentator.

Welcome to Amarillo Larry! You’ll find the Panhandle a different universe, but you’ll come to appreciate and wonder at the incredible arts scene that characterizes this unlikely place. The symphony and community are lucky to have you!

Conner Covington, conductor, with Quinn Mason, composer, March 25, 2022

Quinn Mason is a young Dallas-based composer and, according to his web page, “likes to make waves wherever he goes.” Only in his twenties, his works have been performed by many symphonies both here and abroad.

A Joyous Trilogy, composed in 2019 and revised in 2021, garnered for the composer a first place finish at the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of New York 2020/21 Emerging Composer Competition.

Quinn notes on his website that his motivation in this work was “to put any listener in a good mood!” The first movement, a complex piece entitled Running, has bounce and vivre, punctuated by brass fanfares. Reflection, the second movement, is somber as opposed to sad, overcast by a languorous trombone solo. The pulse quickens in Renewal, accelerating to a musical blossoming of variegated colors and textures.

What a privilege to listen to the creative mind of this outstanding young composer, and to have him present! Hopefully he will continue to provide orchestral works for symphonies around the world for many years!

Ashley Marie Robillard in Mozart’s Exsultate, Jubilate

From contemporary to classical, another young man’s work that sets the spirit soaring, Mozart’s Exsultate, Jubilate, was written by Wolfgang when only sixteen. The soloist for this concert was a remarkable young female vocalist, Ashley Marie Robillard. Youth was definitely on parade for much of this program.

The work is a lyric’s playground, the analog of a confectioner’s multi-tiered wedding cake. The fourth movement, Alleleuia, especially showcases the soloist’s virtuosity and Ms. Robillard was certainly equal to the challenge.

This is the 125th anniversary of the death of Johannes Brahms, and, in a departure from the youth on the program, the Second Symphony in D was written when Brahms was forty-four! The fourth movement, Allegro con spirito, is a rousing call to action, which begins with an assertive theme and gradually, over nine minutes amplifies into a thunderous conclusion. A standing ovation becomes imperative, and that’s exactly what Conner Covington and the Amarillo Symphony received.

The audience will not soon forget this program, because of its uniqueness and variety. That bodes well for the conductor candidate, who definitely scored a 10!

Again, for Larry Lang: thank you for your service, and we hope you’ll discover serendipitously why we say, Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!

And, after this performance, we also say Slava Ukraini!

March 16, 2022: Chamber Music Trifecta, Part I

Standing ovation for Annie Chalex Boyle, violin, Doug Storey, clarinet and Daniel Del Pino, piano

Call it an embarrassment of riches! Three exceptional chamber music concerts: two by Chamber Music Amarillo and one by the renowned Harrington String Quartet, in as many weeks, is a phenomenon of which few fine arts centers in the country can boast. But in this cultural and aesthetic matter, the High Plains owns bragging rights.

It was the writer’s intention to combine all three reviews. That quickly became impossible for reasons that the reader will soon understand.

On February 12, Chamber Music Amarillo, David Palmer Artistic Director, sponsored a Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano at the Amarillo Botanical Gardens. Artists were Annie Chalex Boyle, violin, Doug Storey, clarinet and Daniel Del Pino, piano.

These artists performed Premiere Rhapsodie by Debussy, Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano by Milhaud, Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano by Schoenfeld, and Sonata for Violin and Piano by Franck.

Debussy, as faculty at the Paris Conservatory, was “requested” to compose music for clarinet juries, Premiere Rhapsodie being one of the pieces. There is no record of students’ reactions to the “privilege” of performing original compositions by one of the world’s preeminent composers in a Pass/Fail exam.

The work impressed as a passionate tone poem, with the first two minutes devoted to virtuosic runs, transitioning to playful arpeggiation.

Darius Milhaud was a prolific composer who created over four hundred works, including ballets and sound tracks for movies and plays. A leading member of the influential Les Six, his career spanned three continents.

He composed Suite as the sound track for an amnesiac French soldier with WWI PTSD. The composer’s stint as embassy secretary in Brazil partially accounts for its eclecticism; witness inclusion of Brazilian dance rhythms, not to mention homage paid to American jazz, which he considered a seminal art form.

Expect the unexpected from Milhaud. In contrast with the first movement, which is infused with Terpsichore, the second is very deliberate, with violin and clarinet giving one another courteous space, like the soldier’s memory keeping itself at distance from the perceptions of reality.

If Milhaud’s Jewish identity influenced his Suite, it was subtle. Not so with Paul Schoenfeld, whose Trio resonates with melodies of the Shtetl. In face, the second movement, March, sounds like a slow slog through a bog accompanied by a Klezmer whine.

Dr. Doug Storey on clarinet not only embraced, but embellished the Hassidic sense of music as religious rapture, doing credit not only to Schoenfeld, but an entire Easter European culture.

Cesar Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano is too much of a good thing, like truffles and foie gras with Belgian chocolates washed down with a Grand Cru Cabernet. Originally written as a wedding gift for a friend, the turmoil of the work makes one question the composer’s nuptial concepts.

The Allegro, launches with ferocity, which persists, with a few lyrical lapses, until both instruments resolve into a steady state tempest. Towards the end the violin buzzes with a frantic passage like an East Texas mosquito storm on a muggy June night.

As boasted initially, such high culture in the heart of the Comancheria is the norm. So, as we digest the delights of Debussy, Milhaud, Schoenfeld and Franck, we assert with confidence, Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!

March 5, 2022: FASO Organ Concert: St. Andrews Episcopal

Clive Driskill-Smith Organ Recital

What is one to do on Super Bowl Sunday if they are indifferent to the teams as well as to the Hip-Hop halftime extravaganza? If they lived in Amarillo, Texas, they attended a world-class organ recital on the world-famous Aeolian-Skinner organ at St. Andrews Episcopal Church..

For the first time in two years, FASO (Friends of Aeolian-Skinner Opus 124), held a public concert. The organist was Clive Dirskell-Smith, one of the most renown young organists on the planet. Educated at Oxford and organist at Christ Church, Oxford from 2001-2018, he is currently organist and choirmaster at All Saints Episcopal in Ft. Worth.

His varied program actualized the capacity of this amazing instrument. Two of his pieces are noted here.

Herbert Howells (1892-1983) had a case of insomnia one night courtesy of a Zeppelin raid, which inspired his Rhapsody in C# Minor. This piece narrates every people under air attack, who endure, persevere, and ultimately claim victory.

The unmistakable low registers prevail in the tumultuous opening, calling to mind the engines of the airships and the explosions of their ordnance.

At approximately 2:45 the music turns eerily soft, perhaps the quiet after battle or the stillness of death.

At 4:30 the piece starts to build assertively, noting that the winds of war are blowing in the opposite direction. Then, at a certain point, the swell tempers, a caution against overconfidence.

But, at 7:30, the volume again starts to build with the piece ending in triumphant crescendo, the composer confident of victory even in the darkest days of WWI.

Howells’ work commands a powerful relevance in the present distress. As the sirens sound in Kyiv and Kharkiv, the brave and defiant Ukrainians know that their endurance will ensure that they will ultimately hear, as Howells’ work promises, the rhapsody of victory.

Georg Frederick Handel first performed his Concerto Grosso in F major, Op. 3 No. 5 in 1735 after he and his company relocated to Covent Garden. The father of the concerto, these pieces were composed partly for the purpose of luring audiences away from the rival venue. So, even the lofty ideals of artistic creation can serve a pragmatic impulse.

Driskill-Smith went full Handel on the Aeolian Skinner, the contrasts in the piece again showcasing the versatility of the instrument.

The opening Larghetto is slow and deliberate, while the Allegro, by contrast bounces with a recurrent theme. The Alla Siciliana is somber, almost morose, while the Presto is bright and alive.

The piece is a real roller coaster brought to its actualized fruition by the magnificence of the Opus 124.

On a personal note, Clive and I reminisced about a Christ Church cleric that I knew when I went to New College and that he worked with. Small world this.

There was a wine and cheese reception in the Fellowship Hall following the concert where all celebrated the world-class artistry, a not uncommon experience here on the High Plains, that we had just heard.

Clive Driskell-Smith Toasts Keeping Amarillo Artsy!

For this phenomenon we, along with Clive, proudly raise our glasses as we toast Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!!