Sunday, May 21, 2006

Unfinished Work

The Kansas City Symphony and Maestro Stern tackled the heady theme of war and peace and the brotherhood of man (unashamedly non-pc here) in a stimulating and unusual program featuring a rarely heard Vaughn Williams piece “Dona Nobis Pacem”, the immortal Schubert Unfinished and a new work “Forgotten Chants and Refrains: Symphony No. 1” by Jonathan Leshnoff.

Many theories abound as to why Schubert left his Symphony # 7 (also known as the 8th) unfinished. My favorite theory was devised by cartoonist Michael Willhoite. The cartoon depicted Schubert at his desk writing. Behind him was a young fellow clad only in a bikini. “Oh come on Franz…”, The young hustler whined, “You can finish your symphony later!” For Schubert, a noted libertine, it may have been truer than we want to imagine. Whatever the reason, the two surviving movements are a sublime creation in themselves. Some even suggest Schubert recognized that and stopped there.

In one of the Symphony’s best performances, the Unfinished was well played and communicated. Stern took the Allegro Moderato just a little too moderato but otherwise the performance stood up well to any I have heard live or recorded. As usual the winds were superb and finally I hear the horns improving their intonation and ability to nail the softer more intimate passages. The Andante was lush but with an easy flow and intensity. Indeed some of the most “human music” ever written as Stern mentioned in his opening remarks.

The War and Peace and Brotherhood theme was lead off by the Leshnoff Symphony. In his spoken remarks, Leshnoff stated he combined his life experiences ("being a composer is a way of life")with sounds that have profoundly influenced his experiences (bells, Gregorian Chant)to create in his words "a musical journey to a world of peace and understanding". These motives reveal similarities in religious and musical traditions that might on the surface seem disparate and even contradictory. The piece is in 5 unbroken movements.

I wanted to like this piece with its colorful orchestration and tonal harmonic frame but I found myself wondering where it was going, and thinking too much of film music and Alan Hovhaness. The deep bell tone, a snippet of a Gregorian chant played by two trombones, a clarinet figure and arpeggios on the piano kept returning not really emerging logically but just returning here and there. I caught the idea that they were the solid ground of the various religious traditions depicted. However, I felt they began to be too predictable and that the piece had lost its way. Wonderfully performed, I understand the piece has been recorded by Stern and his IRIS Orchestra in Memphis. Perhaps a further hearing will unravel the piece for me. As I said I wanted to like it and I do feel it is worth further explorations. I just can’t help but feel the piece is a bit too earnest and that the shadow of Hovhaness loomed too close by.

Ralph Vaughn Williams combined the poetry of Walt Whitman with some biblical passages and an excerpt from an anti-war speech made in the House of Commons to create one of his greatest and most visionary choral works, “Dona Nobis Pacem”. The work was intended as a warning against the increasing possibility of war which was sweeping across Europe in the mid 1930’s. The work opens and closes with a plea for peace, sung by the soprano soloist. Soprano Alexandra Deshorties with her huge voice demanded rather than plead for peace, but her intonation and diction were superb. Just a little more finesse and humility would have more closely fit the demeanor of the work. Baritone Daniel Teadt sang his part with a grand, solid voice and firm conviction. Whitman’s poetry (including the famous “Dirge for Two Veterans” detail both the savagery of war and the empathy for those living in the midst of conflict and indeed all humanity.

The Symphony Chorus often was obscured by the brash orchestration of the piece but the texts were provided giving the audience the opportunity to experience the full meaning of the various texts and how they fit together. Thoughtfully the house lights were kept up on Saturday, according to my neighbor, that was not the case on Friday.

Kudos to the orchestra for another great concert and for the rare opportunity to hear Dona Nobis Pacem live.

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