Tuesday, April 09, 2013

KC Symphony: The Bells, Poulenc and Ecstasy

A capacity crowd in both audience and performers filled Helzberg Hall as the Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern, Music Director, Conducting, the Kansas City Symphony Chorus under Charles Bruffy, 3 vocal soloists and organist Caroline Robinson presented a concert of three emotionally powerful works.

Although famous even to the most casual of listener for his piano works, Sergei Rachmaninoff was also well versed in the traditions of Russian choral music, especially that of the Russian Orthodox Church. It should come as no surprise that one of his many masterpieces and one of his personal favorite pieces is the massive choral symphony “The Bells”, based on Edgar Allen Poe's poem of the same name. Sadly audiences do not get to hear it all that often since, in addition to chorus plus soprano, tenor, and baritone soloists, the work calls for a huge orchestra with expanded winds and brass, a whole battalion percussion (bells of course), six horns, two harps, organ, piano and celeste. Certainly the stage at the old Lyric Theatre would have sagged under the weight of the massed humanity and equipment.

Cast in four movements similar to an orchestral symphony, “The Bells” chronicles life's journey and the ever present relationship with bells from youthful romance and marriage, through decline and mortality and finally death itself.

“The Silver Sleigh Bells” was perfectly bright and youthful with Stern evoking the movement's kinship to Mahler especially to “Das Lied von der Erde”. The “Golden Wedding Bells” was highlighted by Jessica Rivera's passionate soprano and the chorus' deft accompaniment. “The Loud Alarum Bells” was full of fury, fright and fire from the chorus and orchestra, quite too much from the chorus actually. “The Mournful Iron Bells” brought the cycle to a conflicted close. Death is no longer panic and fear but a resigned and calm passage. English Horn Kenneth Lawrence was his usual fine self in the extensive solos in this movement.

The three soloists Matthew Plenk, Tenor, Weston Hurt, Baritone and previously mentioned Jessica Rivera were all in fine voice, but Hurt seemed to be a bit uncomfortable with his part. The huge orchestra moved deftly when called upon and roared mightily as well; the brass especially burnished and powerful.

The massive chorus, viscerally stunning as it was, frequently overwhelmed all before it and its sheer size rendered it more of a sound and texture than an important vocal component. It was amusing to listen to the intermission conversations/arguments among some patrons as to whether they were singing in Russian, English or even German.

Poulenc's Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani (1938) surprised his followers, accustomed as they were to his saucy chamber music and classically inspired concertante works. Shaken by the death of a friend, he turned to his first religious works (Four Motets for a time of Penitence, Mass in G) and the more profound and darker Concerto for Organ.

From the colossal opening chords, evoking both Bach and the great French organ tradition, through the more hymnal episodes and on to the dramatic final measures, young organist Caroline Robinson was in command of the mighty Casavant. She took full advantage of the organ's finely detailed reeds and flutes and never let the organ's overall timbre become brittle and harsh in the fortissimo passages. Stern kept the precise and fluid strings of the orchestra well balanced with the organ and Timothy Jepson's timpani provided firm support to the bass line, as they were called upon by the composer to do. Cast in one long movement subdivided into seven sections, the work can appear episodic and bogged down in the slower passages if the forces are not careful. Stern, the orchestra and Robinson did not succumb to all that and gave the audience a powerful, lyrical and intense performance of this most popular of organ concerti.

The ambitious program closed with the Scriabin “Poem of Ecstasy”, a 20 minute, one movement tone poem often referred to as his Symphony # 4. Written between 1905 and 1908 when the composer was drifting further away from the influence of Wagner, Chopin and Liszt, “Poem” is scored for a large orchestra with organ, 2 harps, and augmented winds and brass. Scriabin, in notes for the premiere performance penned a typically mystic program for the piece invoking the “Cosmos”, the “Joy Of Liberated Action” and “an Orgy of Love.”

A successful performance of this thickly scored, diffusely rhythmic music must not come off as a great wall of hyperactive sound. The conductor has to gently but firmly control the ebb and flow of the music taking us to one high point, backing off a bit to reflect and then plunge head on unto the next. This Stern did to great affect. Stern's performance unfolded with a sense of urgency and forward pulse, aided by fine trumpet and violin solos, impressive percussion, winds and solid strings and brass. (The horns were impressive all evening.) Caroline Robinson was back on the organ providing a solid foundation for the final pages and the shattering final chord. It has been confirmed that this mighty chord did not break any windows, albeit the capacity was certainly there.

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