Monday, June 18, 2012

Kansas City Symphony: Saint-Saëns and Brahms

A full program and a festival atmosphere was at hand this weekend with the Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern Music Director and conductor. After much preparation and a couple of solo work outs, the newly installed Casavant op 3875 pipe organ was ready for its debut with the orchestra. Paul Jacobs, probably the country's premier organist (had to chuckle when I heard a lady down the row from me wonder if Jacobs is as good as E. Power Biggs was... at least she did not say Virgil Fox), had the honor of introducing the organ to the subscription series in the juicy and deservedly popular Saint-Saëns Symphony # 3 “Organ”. Also on hand was super-star violinist Joshua Bell as soloist in the Brahms Violin Concerto in D. Beginning the extensive program was the world premiere of Stephen Hartke's “Muse of the Missouri”.

Hartke's “Muse of the Missouri”so named after the fountain on Main between 8th and 9th Streets, was the third and final installment of works commissioned to commemorate the opening season of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. All three, Chen Yi's “Fountains of KC” and Daniel Kellogg's “Water Music” took their inspiration from the many fountains that grace Kansas City. Of the three compositions, Hartke's was for me the least successful. As with Respighi's famous fountains, the work seeks to musically depict not only the fountain but the surrounding landscape. Although complete with flowing passages evoking the relentless flow of the fountain and the Missouri River, a jazzy interlude and metropolitan hustle and bustle, “The Muse of the Missouri” was even more generically contemporary than Kellogg's piece. Hartke's use of a banjo could have been almost stereotypically “down home country” and thus condescending, but he used to instrument deftly and coloristically to great effect, much as Mahler did with the guitar and mandolin in the 7th symphony.

Yes, it is time for me to say something nice about Brahms. For a performance of Brahms to be enjoyable, the musicians should take the old granny out of her rocker and give her a nice romp through the park. Stern and soloist Joshua Bell did just that in the Violin Concerto in D op. 77 which filled out the first half of this weekend's program.

What can kill a performance of this huge work is a too long and lazy first movement that makes the other two seem like trifling encores. Bell's perfect intonation and incredible technique combined with Stern's swift (but really not rushed) tempi and attention to the contrasting lyrical and rhythmic episodes really moved the work along allowing the music to sing and flow effortlessly. The imposing first-movement cadenza, in this case composed by Bell, was to my ears a bit jarring and too over-the-top, no matter how technically brilliant it was. This was, for sure, gutsy and visceral Brahms, full of exquisitely executed double-stops, and glorious gypsy dance rhythms in the finale well contrasted with a full but never overwrought central slow movement. The latter mentioned movement opened with a beautifully limpid oboe solo setting the stage for Bell's freely expressive performance. As heard in the intermission chatter, some patrons felt Bell “sawed” his way through the Brahms and was “rough and too fast”. For traditionalists, perhaps that is so. But to my ears, Bell brought the old gal to life. Bell's encore, a set of variations on “Yankee Doodle” were simply super-human. The crystal clear sul ponticello passages were simply indescribable.

And then a second half that was a blockbuster in and of itself.

To fully appreciate not only its power but also its subtlety, the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony must be heard by a fine pipe organ in a grand hall. Recordings, as many celebrated and “demonstration quality” (we used to call them “lease busters”) as there are, do not capture the essence of Saint-Saëns' sound palate. Instead of a recording's impenetrable sonic wall, in a concert hall one can hear the subtle tension of the organ chords in the 2nd part, not just underpinning the orchestra but how they actually are an integral and never overwhelming part of the fabric. At the same time, a listener can fully experience how the organ and orchestra chords meld and progress into the same movement's stately chorale. Same with the grand final movement, the organ is not just a jarring intruder, but again an integrated part of the whole grand scheme.

I also find it amusing that recordings of this work almost always feature a star performer in what is not all that flashy a part. Of the four movements, or sections actually, the organ appears in only two. So as to make amends and for us to fully experience Mr. Jacob's artistry, the second half began with a solo performance of the Elgar Pomp and Circumstance Military March # 1 in D, known to graduates everywhere. Jacob gave the Casavant a fine workout in most rousing and pleasing performance of this chestnut.

Sadly, many performances drag the first section to almost a stand still, but Stern chose a stately yet gently propulsive tempo that let us luxuriate in the strings radiance just long enough. The scherzo section requires some rhythmic crispness from the strings and winds to make its proper effect and Stern and the symphony did just that. When the organ appears in the slow 2nd section, Casavant Frères opus 3875 is roundly voluptuous and sweet but never sticky. In the final section, she wakes up the audience with her glorious, commanding voice. The vast forces combined in a finely paced movement thankfully devoid of the tendency to rush the final chords and tympani cadenza in a frenzy of un-coordinated sound and fury. A fitting introduction of this magnificent organ into the symphony's subscription programs. Now, Maestro, give us a redo of the Berlioz “Te Deum” with a real organ.

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