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Best Dozen 2008 Moments in Local Music and Dance

Competition was fierce this year for the best of 2008, for one simple reason: Kansas City’s culture remains on such an upward trajectory that it’s not out of line to say this might have been the city’s best-ever year for classical music and dance. I mean ever, as in, during Our Town’s 155-year history. Whoa, baby. So here are my choices for the concerts this year that made me feel alive again.

12. Octarium, the eight-voice a cappella group, gets better each year. Their concert this October at Visitation Church “showed off the meticulous blend and fresh, youthful sonority that the group has become known for,” as I wrote in these pages of the group led by artistic director Krista Lang Blackwood. Especially beautiful were movements from William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices and Samuel Barber’s spine-chilling Agnus Dei, a choral version of the famous Adagio for Strings.

11. One of the hot events of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s biannual visit in November was a new piece by company dancer Hope Boykin. Go in Grace was a tale of family and community, danced beautifully by Rosalyn DeshauteursMatthew RushingJ. Machanic, Jr. and Renee Robinson and featuring live vocal performance by the gospel ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, whose members formed part of the drama as they interacted with the dancers. It was unlike anything we’ve seen before.

10. Shortly after his glamorous wedding in his native Lima, Peru (which was attended by Our Town’s Richard Harriman and Beth Ingram), Metropolitan Opera tenor Juan Diego Flórezsang a Mother’s Day recital here at the Folly Theater, sponsored by the Harriman-Jewell Series. It was Flórez’ third appearance on the series — Harriman presented his U.S. recital debut here in 2002 — and this time around his voice was stronger, more focused and more expressive than ever.  

9. Four hundred years after the publication of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha,viola da gamba virtuoso and Baroque specialist Jordi Savall created a program of the musical sources mentioned throughout the epic novel. The result, performed in a stylistically informed manner and with actor F. Murray Abraham reading passages from the novel, was one of the hits of the Friends of Chamber Music’s season. Don Quijote de la Mancha: Romances y Músicasfeatured the singers of La Capella Reial de Catalunya and the chamber orchestra Hespèrion XXI. 

8. We expected the highlight of the Kansas City Ballet’s fall 2008 program would be Trey McIntyre’s The Naughty Boy, but in the end I was more taken with their performance of Agnes de Mille’s perennial Rodeo. Company veteran Deanna Doyle was a delight as the Cowgirl, and newcomer Michael Eaton tapped like a whiz as the Champion Roper. The natural ease with which the two interacted — and played foil to Juan Pablo Trujillo as Head Wrangler and Stefani Schrimpf as the Ranch Owner’s Daughter — showed just how far William Whitener has brought this company.

7. One of the great moments of the Kansas City Symphony’s recent history was the concert in March with Wagnerian soprano Jane Eaglen and guest conductor Asher Fisch. As Fisch drew, diaphanous, scintillating colors from the orchestra, Eaglen wowed an (unfortunately only half-full) Lyric Theatre with compelling renderings from Berg’s Wozzeck and Wagner’sGötterdämmerung. Pure gold.

6. This year saw several of our local groups draw national attention, including the Kansas City Chorale, which won a Grammy Award for its disc of a cappella music by Grechaninov. The Chorale and its director Charles Bruffy made a fine showing locally, too, at their October concert featuring a dazzlingly complex piece by Ernst Krenek called Cantata on the Transitoriness of Earthly Things.

5. The Kansas City Ballet also went national in 2008, at a fruitful run at New York’s prestigious Joyce Theater in March, as part of the celebrations surrounding the company’s 50th anniversary. The international press was out in droves for this weeklong gig, which included a new piece by Donald McKayle (Hey-Hay, Going to Kansas City), Whitener’s First Position and Twyla Tharp’sBrahms Paganini. Our Town’s ballet is “a sleek little company with a strong repertory and 26 excellent dancers,” as Deborah Jowitt wrote in the Village Voice. The Ballet then returned to Kansas City and presented a spectacular run of Ib Andersen’s full-length Romeo and Juliet,with Kimberly Cowen as the star-crossed young Juliet.

4. The Kansas City Symphony also scored big in September with its performances of Ernest Chausson’s Song of Love and the Sea, featuring Our Town’s world-famous mezzo-sopranoJoyce DiDonato and music director Michael Stern. This was a milestone for DiDonato, her first public performance of this famous mezzo proving-ground, and in her hands it was haunting and gorgeously tragic. Stern coaxed deliciously perfumed colors from the ever-improving Symphony.

3. Sometimes smaller groups make for classic moments. In February, the Culture House’s Störling Dance Theater presented a full-length program on the Underground Railroad calledUnderground. It was dynamite. Artistic director Mona Störling-Enna collaborated with co-choreographer Tobin James and composer Jay Pfeifer to produce one of the most moving theatrical experiences in memory. I waxed poetic in The Star, and I meant every word: “It is without doubt one of the most vivid, heartfelt and theatrically astute pieces of dance theater ever to grace a Kansas City stage,”

2. Just as moving was The Scales of Memory at the Lied Center in March 2008, a collaboration of Kansas City native Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and her Urban Bush Women and Senegalese choreographer Germaine Acogny and her Compagnie Jant-Bi. This powerful, vividly scored piece explored gender, history and commonalities between Africans and African Americans.

1. My choice for 2008’s top event is the Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s production of John Brown,whose world premiere in April was part of the company’s 50th anniversary celebration. More than a decade in the creation, this opera by Kirk Mechem on the life of the famous abolitionist — which featured a bold performance by James Maddalena in the title role — was “the sort of magical success that composers and musicians dream of,” as I wrote in The Star. “With unabashedly lush solo and choral writing, a shimmering orchestral backdrop and a raw-nerved story of continued relevance, this opera is a natural almost from start to finish. … It is an opera that I suspect will take on a life of its own … (it) could easily become an iconic American classic.”

 

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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