Sunday, February 14, 2010

Kansas City Symphony: Sibelius and Petrouchka

I am sure substituting at the last minute for a symphony concert can be a daunting task for even the most seasoned of conductors. But on second thought, perhaps for an assistant conductor of a major orchestra it is second nature, always in the wings, prepared to step in. Filling in for Pietari Inkinen, the Finnish born young Music Director of the New Zealand Symphony, was the equally youthful Andrew Grams, formerly an Assistant Conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra under Welser-Möst. Grams led the Kansas City Symphony in an impressive Petrouchka, one of the most exciting and polished performances of the season.

The first half of the program, two masterpieces from Jan Sibelius, "Finlandia" and the Violin Concerto in d, could have benefited from the Finnish sensibilities of Inkinen. Grams' Finlandia was powerful, but a bit choppy and not always together. Disappointingly the incredible center section, so familiar as a hymn tune and the "Finlandia Hymni", the de-facto Finnish national anthem, just didn't sing. Grams whipped the orchestra into a rousing conclusion, much more together and balanced than the beginning.

Just as I had not heard of Grams, I was equally unfamiliar with Karen Gomyo, the soloist for the Sibelius Violin Concerto. Japanese born, but raised in Canada, Gomyo is certainly a talent to explore. She was pretty much in total control of this subtly difficult concerto, only a few ragged upper register runs marred an excellent, passionate performance, clearly better than the Barnabas Keleman performance of a couple seasons ago (and we get to hear Hilary Hahn do the concerto next season). Grams occasionally let the large orchestra obscure the violin, such as in that odd chromatic-oriental passage in the finale. Overall Gomyo's tone and performance from her 1714 Stradivarius was as silkily shimmering black-cherry as her fabulous gown, easily the best of the season!

But the evening belonged to Stravinsky's popular Petrouchka. Using the 1947 version of the complete ballet, the orchestra relished the colorful orchestration and shifting meters. As usual the winds, so important in Stravinsky, were excellent, the contrabassoon even getting a few laughs for its flatulent contributions. The brass were equally fine and well controlled, the trumpets perfectly "brassy" and brash as Stravinsky wanted. The strings were in perfect tune and sounding larger than their number. Everything clicked, from finely judged tempi (the Sibelius selections were on the leisurely side), sharp entrances, deft but important contributions from the piano and percussion, organic flow and fine balance.

Grams' and Gomyo's debuts here were quite auspicious; I look forward to following both these young artists.

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