Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Kansas City Symphony: Berg, Schubert and Ruggles

Two “greats” from different eras comprised the penultimate and highly anticipated program of the 2102-2013 Kansas City Symphony season. Michael Stern, Music Director, conducted. The first half featured the Violin Concerto by Alban Berg, Gil Shaham as solo. The last half was comprised of Schubert's last symphony, the glorious C major number 9.

As a bonus, Maestro Stern selected American composer Carl Ruggles’ brief yet haunting “Angels” for muted brass to open the evening. This strange, ephemeral work blended brilliantly with the mood and tone of the Berg. The brass intonation was a tad off in spots and the entrances were a bit ragged, but the over all effect was achieved. As the final note of “Angels” faded, the lights illuminated the whole orchestra and soloist Gil Shaham launched into the equally ephemeral opening passage of the Berg concerto, barely at audible level. A fine piece of programming.

If any work can convince a skeptic that the twelve-tone school of composers did not always write “ugly music” it would be the exquisite Alban Berg Violin Concerto from 1935. A touching and glowing instrumental requiem for Manon Gropius, daughter of Architect Walter Gropius and Mahler's widow Alma, the Violin Concerto has emerged as Alban Berg's most popular work. It was also his last completed work.

Berg carefully chose the notes of his tone row; which frequently teeters on the edge of tonality, placing the work between the Vienna of Beethoven and Johann Strauss and that of Schoenberg and beyond.
In that light, Stern correctly read the concerto as a requiem cast as a grandly unfolding waltz laced with Bach and folk song.

Berg conceived his Concerto in two movements, each then subdivided into two parts. The opening Andante presents the twelve-tone row on which the concerto is based, immediately establishing a tonal and contemplative mood. The more animated second half, marked Allegretto, serves as a scherzo with two trios and was described by the composer as a portrait of Manon Gropius. In this section, we hear music associated with the vivacious young actress including folk dances, waltzes, and even a section that is to be played “Wienerisch” or 'Viennese”. With the entrance of the folk song, the movement quickly becomes bitter and colder; death is approaching.

From this nostalgic and wistful movement, we plunge into the more dramatic and funereal second. The allegro first section, which the composer designated “Catastrophe,” serves as the concerto's dramatic cadenza, building to the work’s climax. After the shattering climax, the work relaxes in a mood of resignation. Berg quotes a Bach chorale “Es ist genug,” (It is Enough) from his cantata O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort ( Eternity, you thundering word), a cantata of farewell and acceptance of death.

The conclusion, marked “Deliverance,” develops the chorale theme into a rhapsodic “Requiem for Manon”. Themes from earlier sections are quoted, reflecting times past.

The performance was leisurely, thoroughly Romantic and lush, one that took time to explore and highlight the torrent of melodic cells, harmonic nuances and rhythmic vitality inherent in Berg's masterpiece. Shaham was a sympathetic soloist, completely absorbed in the concerto's message of life, death, and deliverance. His tone bit and snarled as required in the agitated passages and just as easily sweetly sang when called upon. The second movement's opening cadenza had an appropriately improvisatory feeling. In the quiet final moments, some of the most sublime music ever penned, both the orchestra and the violin were shimmering and luminous; a glimpse of transfiguration.

Schubert's music, whether instrumental or vocal, is the epitome of song. Thus any fine performance of his music simply must sing. Stern's performance of the “Great” was brisk, with the latent power on full display but under fine control. And yes, it sang... never losing sight of Schubert's long, lyrical lines. The horns were magnificent in their opening call to prayer answered by the solemn alleluia of the strings. The whole first movement progressed like a force of nature from this solemn opening to the ecstatic final measures. The andante second movement was beautifully shaped and again on the brisk side rising to a most terrifying but not hysterical climax. A well proportioned scherzo with a lyrical, waltzing trio and a gone-like-gangbusters stomp of a finale completed this colorful, energetic and stylish performance.

The whole concert, the iffy brass in “Angels” an exception, featured some of the most committed playing from all sections of the orchestra this season. And what can serve as a better finale than this? The grand and glorious Strauss “Ein Alpensinfonie” concludes the season June 7-9.

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