Continuing the theme of works written around and in response to World War I, the Kansas City Symphony led by Music Director Michael Stern gave the local audience the somewhat rare opportunity to experience the Nielsen Symphony # 4 “Inextinguishable”, written in 1916 at the height of the war. Nielsen is a tough nut to crack and his music gives up its secrets, power and genius reluctantly. I should know. I have tried and tried to appreciate and understand, even enjoy, the music of a composer many classical music cognoscenti rank in high esteem.
Taken at face value, the symphony can become a series of disjointed episodes that have little organic flow. What the “Inextinguishable” needs, it appears, is a committed, forceful and almost reckless (ready to skitter off the road any second) performance that makes this symphony more than just a somewhat conservative, yet quirky, early 20th century work. The conductor has to keep all the horsepower in control, throttling back at times to allow the orchestral engine to accelerate to full speed. Stern and the Kansas City Symphony did just that. And made a believer out of me after all.
A good example is the first measures of the symphony. The white hot outburst from the full orchestra and the all-important tympani seamlessly decelerates to a calmer, almost wistful section that in abruptly interrupted by an agitated episode... the world is starting to crumble. Every section of the orchestra marched in lock step to Stern's urgent vision of the work. The always admirable winds of the orchestra were in full bloom, especially the clarinets in the above mentioned slow theme. The tympani was well integrated (a real problem in some performances, it is not really a tympani concerto), the brass solid and the strings lush. The violas' “machine gun” figures were well done and again integrated into the whole, not just some poorly placed interruption. The very end of the movement glowed with Straussian grandeur, never overwrought, but powerful and rich.
Moving on with out pause, the winds are again prominent in the quietly energetic second movement. Stern brings out Nielsen's humanity in this more relaxed episode, yet never lets the tension completely down... the world is still at battle. Finely balanced in ensemble and perfectly animated in tempo, Stern integrated this movement in the whole scheme of the symphony, making it more than just a charming scherzo.
The searing third section follows without pause. Intense with finely tuned release and tension, the deeply moving section flows via a shimmering bridge passage (with lovely oboe solo from Principal Kristina Fulton ) to the climactic finale.
Stern let the forces loose in what has to be the most insanely dramatic eight minutes in the orchestral literature, and maybe the most thrilling eight minutes of the KCS season. Stern flicked through the many gear changes in the movement, never losing momentum. Note must be made of the thrilling horn passages, that soared over it all with precise and clear intonation, brushing aside the days when Kansas City Symphony horn solos made one cringe. Stern brought back the wistful “inextinguishable” theme from the first movement in full glory. The dueling tympani were fine but the extra tympani on the right just seemed to be a little timid, lessening the thunderous impact of the passages. Some of the audience just seemed to not get it (or were shell shocked) and the response was muted in comparison to the easier to handle opening half. But hey.. took me years to see what this incredible work had to offer.
Opening the concert was Richard Strauss' 1888 “Don Juan” op.20. In 1880's Weimar this bold and ardent tone poem dazzled the audiences as easily as it does still today. From the soaring opening (one of the most exciting in all orchestral literature) through the tender love music and on to the climatic fall from power and his death, Stern brought “Don Juan” to vivid life. As in the Nielsen, the winds, especially the horns were well balanced and colorful. The strings, however, could use some strength to be more lush as befits a Strauss tone poem, but one could not quibble over their commitment and frequent beauty. The final stab of the trumpet, signaling Don Juan's demise brought the work to a powerful close. A fine and certainly challenging curtain raiser in every (positive) sense of the word.
Pianist Steven Lin joined the orchestra for the Mozart Piano Concerto # 20 in D minor K466. Lin, winner of many awards and recipient of excellent reviews world wide, was clearly an audience favorite here as well, receiving a most sincere and prolonged ovation. The opening movement of the concerto is one of Mozart's most dramatic solidly in the dark of D minor. One hears the foreshadowing of Beethoven in this big boned, lengthy concerto and Stern and Lin took pains to keep that in the forefront.
The Romanze second movement was lyrical and “romantic” without being fussy. The more agitated central section contrasted well with the more graceful sections that surround it. Stern kept the orchestral balance in line and in sync with the soloist. The rippling, energetic finale spun forth in a controlled torrent, Lin enjoying every soaring phrase and dazzling run. Throughout the performance Lin was technically brilliant and sparkling, but just did not mine the underlying drama and tragedy and even elegance and grace that marks fine Mozart 20 performance. With time and maturity, Lin will be an even better Mozart interpreter, with his commanding technique combined with a deeper more dramatic vision, he will be one to turn to.
For me this was a expertly performed, intelligent and challenging program; each work having an underpinning of tragedy and conflict intertwined with “inextinguishable” human spirit and redemption.