Monday, April 02, 2012

KC Symphony: Bronfman, Bartok, Kellogg and Mozart

Pianism of the first degree is always on display when Yefim Bronfman comes to town. This concert was no exception as this titan of the piano tackled one of the most complex concerti in all of piano literature, the Bartok Concerto # 2. Michael Stern led the Kansas City Symphony in this work as well as the world premiere of Daniel Kellogg's “Water Music” and the Mozart Symphony # 41.

Written in 1930-1931, the second explores Bartok's fascination with the piano as percussion instrument while celebrating the folk music of his native Hungary. While some may think the first movement (where the piano is mostly accompanied by winds and percussion) is simply a raucous, pounding romp, Stern and Bronfman made sure we heard not just the rhythms of a wild folk dance but also the occasional lyrical Hungarian folk voices hidden beneath all the violent action. The all important orchestral brass and winds were at their best, only a couple of times getting close to overwhelming the piano with their accumulated power.

Bronfman and all were perfectly in sync and quite affecting in the haunted, oriental tinged slow movement, bringing out the lyrical and melodic interplay in this somewhat rhapsodic movement. Lesser focused performances let the music wander, but Stern and Bronfman kept this movement flowing yet in control.

The last movement is another driving, surging folk dance. As in the similarly percussive first movement, Bronfman never slipped into relentless pounding but dazzled with his almost effortless command of this jagged, cluster filled dance. The main reason this performance worked so well overall was due to the pianist and the symphony emphasizing, but not dawdling over, the more lyrical and relaxed passages in the outer movements, giving the work an ebb and flow that many lack.

The concert began with the world premiere performances of Daniel Kellogg's “Water Music” the second of three works commissioned by the Symphony to celebrate the opening of the Kauffman Center and the fountains of Kansas City.

Kellogg took his inspiration from three of our fountains and crafted a colorful three movement work for large orchestra.; The JC Nichols Fountain is portrayed in “Battling Torrents”, the downtown “Muse of the Missouri” inspired the quieter, slow central movement and the finale “Cascades” captures the Henry Bloch fountain at Union Station. For the uninitiated, Kansas City supposedly has more fountains than anywhere else but Rome.

The audience seemed to enjoy the work, as did my concert compatriot Gerry, who usually hates anything written past 1900. I tended to a different view. Although colorfully orchestrated, “Water Music” was thin on melodic ideas and structure, relying on the color to hold it all together. The sea creatures, bears and horses in “Battling Torrents” romp and play for sure, but in a generic 20-21st century accessible music form that could have depicted any action.

“The Muse of the Missouri” is described by the composer as “a contemplation of the passage of water through the passage of time”. I guess the slow, undulating music did just that. But as that activity can be a bit tedious, so went this slightly over long movement.

“Cascades” was frankly similar to the first movement, but best captured its fountain in music. The vibrant movement danced and played almost stopping (as the fountain does) and then erupting in watery dance.

The orchestra did a fine job with this likely difficult and unfamiliar music; the lavish percussion and augmented winds were outstanding as usual. But Respighi did it all so much better and memorably (with a different set of fountains of course) as did Chen Yi in her “Fountains of KC” that began the season.

The early Classical era orchestra of the Mozart “Jupiter” looked almost forlorn and overwhelmed by the stage after the big orchestras of the Kellogg and Bartok. But genius as he was, Mozart used these more limited forces to create one of the truly great icons of music. Stern and the small orchestra presented an elegant yet never fussy reading of this grand symphony. This was “old school” Mozart, symphonic and powerful when needed yet sweetly refined when called for. A perfect foil for the more clangorous music that comprised the first half.

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