Sunday, September 10, 2006

Season Opener: Kansas City Symphony

The 25 anniversary season of the Kansas City Symphony, born from the ashes of the failed Kansas City Philharmonic, has begun in fine fashion with a festive opening weekend highlighting how far the orchestra has advanced under the direction of Michael Stern.

I am blessed to have Maestro Stern (I always call him Maestro) as a neighbor so I received a call on Wednesday from him. He and his wife Shelly were still in New York waiting impatiently for their now overdue baby.

"It will be announced that I will not conduct the opening concerts" he said after I asked about he and Shelly.

"Yes, I know"


"The Symphony put out an email and I am on the list...(Maestro does not realize that nothing escapes me....) David Robertson is conducting. How did you manage that?!"

"I called and he said ok"

The power of connections!

Anyway, the Symphony sounded wonderful; especially the confident winds both spiky when needed and also able to sing. Oh what 10 more players would do to fill out the slightly thin but highly polished string section. More of a reflection on the Symphony's budget than anything else. With soaring ticket sales, maybe we can accomplish that.

I was thrilled to hear David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony, who has lit a fire under that ensemble, promising to bring it back to the glory days of Leonard Slatkin. He, like Stern, is an energetic conductor and excellent communicator. Robertson is a little less animated than Stern but both get the needed results.

Wagner’s Overture to "Die Meistersinger" substituted for the KC premiere of Chen Yi's "Si Ji"(Four Seasons). That work will be performed later. I was unfortunately seated under the Lyric Theatre's balcony, thus the orchestra sounded a bit brass and wind heavy. The cellos sawed away but I could barely hear them. It was a solid and energetic performance, worthy of a season opener.

Taking advantage of the necessary reduction in players on stage, I and my friend raced upstairs and scoped out some balcony seats. The acoustics being so much better.

I was thrilled that the Symphony programmed Dvorak’s exquisite and rarely performed (or recorded for that matter) Symphonic Variations. A great piece to demonstrate the solo and ensemble playing of the Symphony winds. Tuneful, rhythmic and a bit schizophrenic, the piece must be difficult to conduct, thus contributing to its neglect. Robertson highlighted the ensemble playing, kept everything moving and negotiated the ending fugue with panache. They were rewarded with a standing ovation. My friend Michael who loves the Dvorak Symphonies but never heard the Symphonic Variations was totally won over.

I had heard of but never actually heard (even in recording) the Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker. His resume is impressive and I am ashamed to not have known more about him. However, I will be following him more closely after his ravishing and accomplished traversal of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto # 1.

The wonderful sound of the new Steinway helped Parker to communicate a fresh and never overwrought performance. As I like my pianism, it was not flashy and fast but full of depth but with a great sense of forward motion. Unlike the flashier performances, there was no let down after the famous dramatic beginning. Each note and section of the movement was full of passion and forward momentum.

The central Andantino Semplice was also not a boring afterthought to the towering first movement. It was played as prayer interrupted by the central trio celebrating life and lyricism. Amazing.

Parker and Robertson took off in the finale, again dispelling the notion that it pales in comparison to the first movement. Putting caution to the wind, the performance was athletic including the final chords from the piano, which resonated and shook the piano, bringing the piece to a glorious close.

The performers were treated to another ovation and the audience was treated to a lighthearted but technically amazing solo performance of "Scenes from An Italian Restaurant" by Billy Joel. A sinful bon bon after a fabulous meal.

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