Monday, March 30, 2009

Kansas City Symphony: Tavener (US Premiere) and Griffes Too

John Tavener has rarely been away from the center of the music world since his auspicious debut with the dramatic cantata "The Whale" recorded soon after its debut and released on the Beatles Apple Records label, making it interesting for both classical and rock fans. Even today his music seems to appeal to a less traditional classical audience. Immersed in the sounds, rhythms and mysticism of many of the world's religions, it is frequently beautiful, melismatic and trance like. Much has been written comparing him to "new age" composers, Arvo Part, Rautavaara, Kanchelli, Messiaen and other composers devoted spiritually/mystically inspired music.

One of his more recent pieces, the violin concerto "Lalishri", (for violin, string orchestra and a quartet separate from the main body of the orchestra) written for and played wonderfully by the Scottish-Italian violinist Nicola Benedetti, received its US premiere this weekend with the Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern conducting.

"Lalishri" is inspired by the 14th-century Hindu saint and poet, Lalla Yogishwari. According to the composer, the violin represents the song of Lalla as she discovered her true self and danced naked throughout Kashmir. Thankfully, no one got naked for this performance, but I would not be surprised if that happens some day. In 5 continuous movements (actually and introduction and 4 cycles, also inspired by the form of the Indian Raga) the piece moves from trance to dance to enlightenment and maybe beyond. Frequently beautiful, tonally centered but with free use of dissonance and modal elements and almost vocal in concept, "Lalishri" is aurally interesting but tends to be a bit static. The frequently contrasting sections seemed to be totally disjunct and just as often repetitious. Benedetti, Stern and the strings played the heck out of the piece, the solo well balanced with the sizeable string ensemble and each player deftly handling everything from long ostinati to devilish pizzicato and col legno passages.

Seemingly light years away from "Lalishri" was the closing work, Schumann's Second Symphony. But, looking closer, Schumann's Symphony is also a journey, as the mentally and physically ill and disillusioned composer poured his thoughts into this dramatic and moving work, a portrait of the triumph of human will over adversity. Stern led the orchestra in a brisk yet never rushed performance. The orchestra seemed to relish Schumann's more orthodox rhythms and moods.

Ah but the best for last, even though it opened the evening's concert. Charles Tomlinson Griffes should have been a household name among American composers. Born in 1884 he became enamored with French impressionism and the early works of Schoenberg. Unfortunately, he died young of influenza and pneumonia at 35 in 1920. His handful of works are finely crafted, colorful and, as Tavener, often inspired by Eastern stories and sounds. Thus Stern elected to open this concert of journey and spiritually inspired music with Griffes' best known work, "The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Kahn". Inspired by the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge known by many,

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Kubla Khan is much more than impressionism, Debussy style. It is an engaging study in musical color and story telling as secure as any tone poem by Strauss and as deeply psychological and expressionistic as Schoenberg's early works (think "Verklarte Nacht", or "Pelleas and Melisande"). Stern and the orchestra turned in a colorful, atmospheric and sensitive performance of this not often heard masterpiece. Combined, they succeeded in evoking a dreamy veil over the work albeit briefly and viscerally interrupted by flashes of reality from the large orchestra. Griffes' command of his subject, his sensitivity and ear for orchestral color makes the Tavener seem needlessly monochromatic and static, while attempting to create the same sound world. A sheer joy.

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