Sunday, February 06, 2011

KC Symphony: Khachaturian, Mozart and Smetana

"Some 'classical warhorse' pieces are popular", explained my classical music mentor Herb, "simply because they are damn fine pieces of music." I put Smetana's wonderful tone poem "The Moldau" or more properly known in Czech as "Vltava" in this august category. What is not to love about this perfect 10 minute travelogue? Visually descriptive without being boringly obvious, colorful, brimming with memorable melody (indeed the opening main theme was played on the tour bus when our group arrived in Prague in the 90's) and perfectly proportioned.

Unfortunately, being a warhorse often means some pretty rough and ready performances, such as the Moscow State Symphony concert I heard a few years ago, where the Vltava swept all the castles, nymphs and peasants along in a torrent. Music Director Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony kept the Vltava in her banks while still evoking the majesty of the river and the life along its shores. Under Stern's direction, the farmers danced spritely, the mermaids cavorted sensuously in the mists and the great VyŇ°ehrad Castle loomed commandingly over the city. A most fine and enjoyable performance of this fabulous chestnut.

While "Vltava" boldly closed the concert, the opening work, Messiaen's 1991 "Un Sourire: Homage to Mozart", began the program in a more delicate and subtle mode. Written in 1991 for the 200th anniversary of Mozart's death, "Un Sourire" has all the static mystery and antique modal harmony that characterizes much of Messiaen's oeuvre. The short work physically resembled Mozart not in the least, but impressionistically captured Mozart's brilliance, elegant simplicity and transcendent beauty. A highlight was the orchestra's fine mallet percussion which provided drier, rhythmic contrast to the more slow moving winds and strings in this episodic work.

If someone did not "get" the Messiaen piece, it should have been made quite clear from the following performance of Mozart's Symphony # 38 "Prague". For his loyal and appreciative fans in the Bohemian capital, Mozart wrote one of his more sublime and festive symphonies. Stern and the orchestra captured this elegance for the most part with a well paced, incisive performance. Only some string intonation gaffs and a somewhat lax opening slow introduction to the first movement marred this masterpiece of contrapuntal writing; Stern brought out each of the melodies that flowed from Mozart's pen like the mighty Vltava.

The long central slow movement (this is a 3 movement symphony, somewhat rare in late Mozart) was full of charm and elegance under Stern's direction, the strings much better in tune with delicate winds in attendance. The short finale brought the homage to Prague to a spirited but somewhat abrupt end.

Khachaturian's bravura Violin Concerto of 1941 certainly pleased Papa Stalin (he gave it a coveted Stalin Prize soon after) with its bombardment of folk like melodies, swirling dances and fireworks. It takes a steady hand and firm control from both soloist and conductor to keep the thing from spiraling into banality. Latvian violinist Baiba Skride and Stern did quite well in that regard, taking the work and its technical demands seriously. That certainly did not diminish the fun as Skride was always in perfect tone, taking each daunting passage in stride while keeping focus on the work's forward movement. Skride and Stern milked the lovely and long central Andante for all its melodic potential and brought it all together in a fiery finale that brought the audience to its feet.

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