Sunday, January 13, 2008

Kansas City Symphony: Alberich Saved, plus Janácek and Beethoven

This place is packed! Thus exclaimed my friend Barb as we tried to meet at intermission during Saturday's Kansas City Symphony concert. Indeed I had not seen such crowds at the Symphony since Yo Yo Ma last season. The draw? A triple bill of Janácek, Christopher Rouse and Beethoven. Colin Currie was featured solo in the Rouse "Der gerettete Alberich", Fantasy for Percussion and Orchestra. "Taras Bulba" by Janácek and Beethoven's 7th Symphony rounded out this energetic program. Music Director Michael Stern conducted.

"Taras Bulba" received a warm and detailed performance, highlighting Janácek's often transparent scoring of his large forces. Highlights were an especially elegant opening English horn solo and several excellent string and wind solos. All in all, Stern led with authority and imagination yet allowing the orchestra to faithfully convey the drama of the tale.

Percussion concerti can really sound much the same, especially if the concerto is written for a battery of unpitched percussion. Kalevi Aho's wonderful 11th Symphony, featuring a quartet of percussionists, blends the percussion into the whole fabric of the work as does Ellen Taafe Zwillich's "Rituals" which the KCS performed last year. Some percussion showcases such as Chen Yi's "Concerto For Percussion" solves the problem by using non traditional instruments and mallets to maintain interest and contrast. Christopher Rouse (who was in attendance this weekend) approached this problem by giving the percussion soloist a persona. Thus the inventive and dare I say "fun" Rouse Concerto-Fantasy "Alberich Saved" (sometimes translated "Alberich Unleashed") musically fantasizes on the great unanswered Wagnerian question: what happened to the malevolent dwarf Alberich after The Gotterdammerung?

"Der gerettete Alberich" begins as "The Ring" ends, literally with the final bars of "Gotterdammerung" and "redemption through love motif". Slowly the soloist (in this case the phenomenal Colin Currie, it was written for Evelyn Glennie) makes his way to the percussion battery splayed across the front of the stage in 3 stations. A few raspy scrapes of a guiro represents Alberich awakening from the apocalypse, emerging from the fading rumble of the thunder. As the orchestra enters, weaving other Alberich motives from "The Ring" through the sound fabric, Currie manages to energetically and dramatically (and certainly without needless kitch) portray the devastation and anguish of Alberich's now godless world. A static string and marimba interlude follows; a stunned and speechless Alberich surveys the ruined Valhalla. But Alberich shakes off the gloom, he is now alone god and revels in his domain. As Currie takes a seat at a drum set, Alberich transforms to a god-rock star, laying down as sexy, sophisticated and driving a drum beat as any Gene Krupa, Keith Moon, or any other rock drummer could imagine. Great fun and the orchestra and audience got deep into it!

But as we know, glory is fleeting and Alberich realizes his domain is a ruined one, a mere shadow of its past glory. He descends his mock throne and takes his frustration out on everything he sees. The orchestra and soloist along with the considerable orchestra percussion section create a great driving wall of sound as Alberich descends to his own Valhalla, a few raspy scrapes of his guiro voice fade away to dark and soundless void.

I doubt few contemporary pieces (Der gerettete Alberich was written in 1997) can instantly bring a Midwestern audience to its feet as did this stunning piece. Rouse, Currie, Stern and the orchestra enjoyed and deserved the long and enthusiastic ovation. "Der gerettete Alberich" has been recorded by Evelyn Glennie in an Ondine recording with Segerstam and the Helsinki Phiharmonic, a must hear for percussion fans.

Beethoven's 7th Symphony carried the energetic theme forward, ending the full evening with a taut and elegant performance of this masterpiece of rhythm and dance.

No comments: