Thursday, February 07, 2013

KCS Adam Schoenberg premiere, Martinu and Schumann too

Adam Schoenberg, born in 1980, is an Oberlin and Julliard graduate and a member of the “Atlanta School” of composers which include Jennifer Higdon, Oswaldo Golijov, and Christopher Theofanidis among others. For his first effort as Composer in Residence, Schoenberg collaborated with Kansas City's world renowned Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art to create a 21st century recasting of Mussorgsky's “Pictures At An Exhibition”. Schoenberg paid several visits to the museum picking works from the collection to enshrine in sound. The result is a large work for orchestra titled “Picture Studies” given its world premiere performances the weekend of February 1-3. Michael Stern conducted the Kansas City Symphony in the concert that also included the Martinu “Frescoes of Piero della Francesca” and the Schumann Cello Concerto.

Schoenberg's protagonist, in contrast to Mussorgsky's more confident and hurried patron, seems to wander in with his/her head to the sky, trying to take in all the sights and stimulus of an art museum. Instead of viewing one artist's work, the visitor sees a wide variety of works including sculpture, paintings and photographs from artists such as Kandisky, Miró, van Gogh, Bloch, Francis Blake and Rothko.

Two sections were to most effective and original. “Kandinsky” (Rose with Gray 1924) was all angular, busy, tense, vibrant and in your face. As in the painting, the incongruous motifs were cut and pasted, superimposed and even buried in the rich, percussive texture. The all too short “Calder”s World” (untitled sculpture 1936) is a mini masterpiece; as static, balanced, edgy and timeless as the Calder sculpture. Winds and brass paid homage to the metal and wood of the piece while the undulating, almost breathless strings took us to the primal world of time. As in Ives' “Unanswered Question” they seemed to emerge from the background as if they had been there all along then fade to whence they came. A breathtaking example of tone painting at its finest.

The van Gogh “Olive Orchard” was Debussy's impressionism as seen through a Copland lens. The movement grew organically to a full climax but chose not to capture the bold strokes and knotty, twisted texture of the olives. Instead we hear more quiet and lyrical music that is “Colorful, full of love” according to the composer's notes. “Three Pierrots” (Albert Bloch “Die Drei Pierrots nr. 2” 1911) with its mallet infused, jaunty rhythms evoked Petroushka and the comedic, slightly clumsy dance depicted in Bloch's painting. The last two movements, both inspired by photographs (one of a vast ocean then other of pigeons in flight) took the work into an extended, ecstatic climax. Any listener familiar with Higdon's “Blue Cathedral” or Theofanidis' “Rainbow Body” would recognize this section.

From the myriad of social media comments and the prolonged ovation given to the performers and composer, Picture Studies' easy going, approachable and colorful style resonated with the audience.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a great fan of the Martinu “Frescoes of Piero della Francesca” composed in 1955. A brilliant piece of programming since the work was also inspired by a composer's viewing of visual art, in this case the magnificent “History of the True Cross” by the Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca in Arezzo, Italy. One of Martinu's most imaginative works, it is a little less motoric and neo-classical than many of his works and much more impressionistic and lyrical.

Unlike Picture Studies, these three frescoes are not so much programmatically depicted but provide musical accompaniment to their viewing. Martinu captures the grand scale, the muted colors, the angularity and the mysticism behind the frescoes. Stern and his forces were technically fine in this somewhat cool performance. I wished for a fuller string section in the climatic string cadenza in the second movement but Christine Grossman's fanfare like viola solo leading into the climax was wonderfully executed. Martinu was frequently inspired by jazz and thus the last, battle inspired movement brought more of the rhythms associated with the composer. Stern and company relished this more animated section, perfectly resolving the martial tones into the lush and serene final chords.

Armenian born Narek Hakhnazaryan, 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition Gold Medalist and student of Mstislav Rostropovich was a stellar soloist for the hyper-romantic and melodic Schumann Cello Concerto op 129. Stern in collaboration with Hakhnazaryan chose brisk tempi for the concerto's three connected movements while still allowing the cello to sing through the torrent of melodies; too slow tempi risks the work turning into a hyperglycemic mess. Hakhnazaryan's tone was dark and rich through out, yet fleet of bow in the cadenzas and the lively concluding rondo. The unusual duo between the cello solo and the principal orchestra cello in the lyrical intermezzo-like second movement was particularly well done.

The Schumann is hardly the most flashy concerto in the repertoire but certainly showcases the instrument's lyrical abilities. Needing fine control of tempo and tone to produce an excellent performance, both Stern and Hakhnazaryan came through, bringing out the organic flow of the work from its breathless opening to its dramatic conclusion.

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