Monday, April 07, 2008

Kansas City Symphony, "Earth and Stars"

The Earth... Elements: rock, air water. The Earth... People: diverse, ancient, artistic. The Earth... a mere speck in the cosmos.

Thus was the heady and fascinating theme of this weekend's Kansas City Symphony program that I caught this Sunday. The ambitious program consisted of the rarely heard Suite Symphonique from "Les Elements" by French baroque composer Jean-Fery Rebel, Concerto for Pipa and Strings by Lou Harrison, "King Chou Doffs His Armour" for Pipa and Orchestra by Zhou Long and The Planets By Gustav Holst.

Rebel and his music was totally unfamiliar to me. This 25 min long suite, scored for double piccolos, flutes, oboes and bassoons with strings and continuo, is a suite of dances derived from the opening movement "Chaos", evoking air, water and earth in all its forms.

"Chaos" is extraordinary for its opening tone clusters (all the notes in a D minor scale) that would not be out of place in any 20th century composition. From that violent beginning, the suite unfolds, culminating in a delicious "Tamborins I and II" movement, a tour de force of acceleration as the small orchestra danced its way to a frenetic end. The "Air Ramage" movement charmed with its ribbons of sound from the strings and winds, streaming in the breeze. Most of the other dances were not really memorable and somewhat repetitive. A bit long and probably not really necessary as part of this concert, but certainly worth a dusting off now and then to show that there is more to the French baroque than Couperin and Lully.

Pipa virtuoso Wu Man owns the following two works and has almost singlehandedly brought the pipa (an ancient Chinese lute-like instrument) into the fore. Lou Harrison's charming Concerto for Pipa and Strings, is every bit a Lou Harrison creation. Composed in 1997 it consists of 2 large movements and a series of "bits and pieces" as a middle movement suite. One bit is a humorous dialog between the pipa, cello and double bass, played entirely by knocking on the wood of the instruments, another is a lyrical orchestra interlude. The audience enthusiastically responded to her obvious viruosity and the communicative power of this delicately flavored work.

Kansas City resident Zhou Long's "King Chu Doffs His Armour" is a much more powerful work, a spicy Szechuan dish to the delicate Mandarin Harrison. Scored for a full orchestra and pipa, it is based on a folk song tale of Xiang Yu, king of Chu and his defeat in battle. Again Wu Man's brilliant command of her instrument communicated the tale in vivid color and rhythm, demonstrating the ancient instrument's ability to hold its own against a modern orchestra.

The last half belonged to Holst's popular orchestral suite "The Planets". Excellent playing abounded from the winds and brass including the odd additions of bass oboe and bass flute, both of which could be heard through the vivid orchestral fabric. Mars was powerfully war-like, Saturn was ponderous and monumental, Mercury fleet and.. well...mercurial. We could have used a more vulgar organ glissando in Uranus and the concluding women's chorus in Neptune was simply too distant and muddy. Otherwise a well controlled and well played performance.

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