Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Kansas City Symphony Finale: Mozart and Strauss

Two grand symphonic statements by Mozart and Richard Strauss comprised the final program of the 2012-2013 subscription season of the Kansas City Symphony. Mozart's late masterpiece the Symphony # 40 in g K 550 and Strauss' last symphonic poem, a monument to his beloved Alps, the Eine Alpensinfonie op 64 of 1915. Michael Stern was on the podium.

Mozart's Symphony # 40 in g K 550 was completed on July 25, 1788 in that remarkable summer which also produced the 39th in June and the monumental 41st in August. Although fairly short and, with the exception of the revised version with the added clarinets, very conventionally scored, Mozart was looking on to Beethoven and Schubert, not to the past. With this symphony and its brothers, he was creating the standard for symphonic works that would stand for a century.

Stern was not in anyway trying to recreate the symphony as Mozart may have heard it. This was Mozart in the mode of Bruno Walter or George Szell, big, bold and symphonic.

The deservedly popular and familiar first movement was nervous and charged, brimming with restless energy. The weight and heft of Beethoven was present in the The second movement, somewhat on the brisk side, still sang and flowed with just the right sigh of regret.The minuet danced, to be sure, but there was more than a touch of the more complex and substantial scherzo feeling in the performance. The finale was taken at a fair clip, charged with anguished intensity, which fit in with the generally quick tempi of the other movements.

The orchestra was well blended and responsive throughout. Stern led with great clarity and focus, free of sentimentality and fussiness. The usually fine winds were also in great form as were the pair of horns, especially clear and blended in the trio of the Minuet. Not the most subtle and elegant Mozart I have heard, and rightly so, this is Mozart at his most dramatic and almost romantic. A vital and valid performance.

Strauss' ultimate symphonic poem is not a symphony in the formal sense nor is it a piece brimming with long, developed melodies and motifs. An Alpine Symphony is tone painting and musical story telling at its epitome. For this sprawling work to be a satisfying musical experience, it simply can not sound like a series of vignettes and unrelated episodes or just a  great deal of noise from a huge  orchestra. It is a journey through a day above all, albeit a rugged, colorful and exciting adventurous day; from a slow, misty morning, through the sunrise, the climb, the mountain top, storm and descent to a quiet night.

The atmospheric opening (marred a touch by some iffy brass intonation) set forth an exciting and well paced performance that never bogged down. The brass certainly redeemed their minor foible with a commanding, burnished sound even when heard en masse with the Wagner tubas, extra tubas and trombones. The large off stage brass contingent was well co-ordinated and just distant enough to make its affect and yet be totally audible. The winds were at their best, even the rarely heard or seen heckelphone. The organ, when called upon, blended well and provided the deep, resonate foundation that is required.

Now and then we heard some strained entrances and the brass and winds overwhelmed the strings occasionally. But the percussion fueled storm raged, the sun glinted in high woodwinds and trumpets from the icy summit and he sun set with poignancy, fading quietly and hauntingly into the night.

Maybe 4-5 seasons ago, the orchestra would not have been able to handle such a monumental work. Of course, most of the orchestra would not have fit on the old lyric stage, there would have been a feeble electronic organ and the sound muddled. Then also, the level of playing has risen annually as to where one has to remember we are in Kansas City and not say New York or Chicago.

A most glorious way to end a fine season of music with one of the nation's finest orchestras.

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