Monday, February 16, 2009

Kansas City Symphony: Curiosities from Beethoven and Mendelssohn

As bright and eager undergrads in an upper level English Literature class, we strove constantly to impress our learned professor with our knowledge. Thus some of the more serious students dove into the world of literature and dug up obscure works by their favorite authors. One student had managed to track down and read a copy of a long forgotten work by his favorite author, barely concealing his glee at finding the treasure. But, upon finishing it, he dolefully reported to the class that the work (time has diminished my memory of all the details) was nothing like the masterpieces of his idol and was actually quite boring and not worth the trouble he took to find it.

"Ah, yes, Mr. Jones,", our white haired, elegant professor replied, "but the effort was not totally in vain. You have satisfied your curiosity and you have discovered that some works are buried in obscurity for damn good reasons."

Thus one can be forgiven thinking Mendelssohn wrote only 3 full orchestral symphonies, numbers 3 (Scottish), 4 (Italian) and 5 (Reformation). One never hears numbers 1 and 2, both being buried at least partially in obscurity. After hearing #2 the "Lobgesang" performed by the Kansas City Symphony and Chorus this weekend, I recalled the above quoted words of my long forgotten professor, as the experience was much the same for me. Nicholas Mc Gegan was guest conductor, Dominique LaBelle, Mary Wilson and Tom Cooley were vocal soloists.

Written for an auspicious occasion, the 600th anniversary of Gutenberg's invention of movable type, the sprawling work takes its texts from Luther's Old Testament translations, combining them with typical mid 1800's grand and solemn chorales and hymns. Sung in an English translation, the words were easier to follow but highlighted some of the lame and flowery texts. The chorus sang with fervor and good diction, the soloists top notch, the orchestra keeping everything in balance and Mc Gegan kept the work moving. A good performance, I am sure, but as with the novel my old classmate found, my curiosity has been satisfied and I can see why this work is not at the top of the list of Mendelssohn's oeuvre.

The first half was great fun, but a bit disappointing in its incompleteness. But of course a full performance of Beethoven's early version of his opera "Fidelio", still titled "Leonore" would have been an evening in itself. Thus, the chorus, soloists and orchestra gave us some juicy tidbits to amuse: The Leonore Overture # 1, Duet: "Um in der Ehe froh zu leben" the chorus "O welche Lust" and the Recitative and Duet "Ich kann mich noch nicht fassen". Well sung, well played, these tantalizing excerpts show "Leonore" is, unlike "Lobgesang", more than a curiosity.

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