Friday, March 01, 2013

Kansas City Symphony Strauss, Glinka and Tchaikovsky

What timing. A winter storm, quirkily named “Q” by some weather pundits, played a major and unwanted role in this weekend's Kansas City Symphony concert. “Q” wiped out several rehearsals, forced a program change and played havoc with the soloist, the always wonderful Christine Brewer. Brewer crossed the state from her home near St Louis to perform her signature piece, Richard Strauss' “Four Last Songs”. The concert opened with Glinka's “Ruslan and Ludmilla” overture (a substitute for a piece by Christopher Rouse that was dropped) and concluded with the Tchaikovsky Symphony # 2 “Little Russian”. Michael Stern, Music Director was on the podium.

What can one say about the Glinka overture? Every professional orchestra member knows this rollicking showpiece by heart thus it was ready made as a substitute. A fine, brisk and pleasing performance. Possibly the audience appreciated it more than the proposed Rouse, but we'll never know.

As mentioned Christine Brewer basically owns the Strauss Four Last Songs. Her strong, soaring yet subtly shaded and nuanced voice is tailor made for music like this. Written in 1948 by the 84 year old Strauss these unashamedly Romantic and poetic songs take us on a journey from youthful memories to acceptance of our ultimate mortality.

Even under the less than desirable circumstances, Christine was nothing less than musical, communicative and gorgeous. Her emotions ran the gamut from the nostalgic "Frühling", to the world weary “September” and finally the questioning resignation of "Im Abendrot". The orchestra was a willing and sympathetic partner, with beautifully wrought solos from the horns and violin.

Sadly the charming and witty Tchaikovsky Symphony # 2 “Little Russian” of 1872 is not all that common in the concert halls compared to the great final trio of 4, 5 and 6. Inspired by and infused with Ukrainian folk melodies (hence the title “Little Russian”, a term referring to modern day Ukraine used in Tsarist Russia), the rhythmic and charming work maybe structurally weak and short on development, but melodically holds its own compared to the later symphonies.

The symphony was the product of Tchaikovsky's early exploration of Russian nationalism. Only the 3rd movement Scherzo does not directly quote a folk tune directly yet continues the folk-like character of the other three movements. Its premiere was a great public and critical success. However, Tchaikovsky was not satisfied and made extensive cuts and revisions most notably in the opening movement and the finale. It is the revised version, which many critics and scholars feel is equally as flawed as the original, that is almost exclusively heard today.

Stern and the orchestra dismissed all the academic chatter and gave us a poised and remarkably polished performance, delighting with clear, prominent winds and crisp brass and strings. A few intonation slips and scraggly entrances here and there reminding us that the program was under rehearsed In the Alberto Suarez's opening horn solos was spot on and eloquent as were all the exposed horn passages in the work.

Stern has a tendency towards brisk tempi and this does not hurt in this most extroverted work. The weak first movement comes off well through the well chosen tempo and spotlighting the often mournful nature of the themes. The Andante Marziale is well paced, giving a subtle contrast to the first movement tempo. The Scherzo pulsed along nicely and the somewhat overblown finale did not descend into a cartoonish romp as it can under less steady hands. The strange (yet always fun) gong stroke can seem a “whoops... sorry” moment rather than a part of the works climactic drive. This one was well done and tastefully integrated into the structure. An energetic, tuneful and balletic performance of this problematic yet colorful score.

“Q” may have messed up some plans and played havoc with voices and repertoire but the consummate pros of the Kansas City Symphony came through with an interesting and thrilling program.

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