Thursday, January 29, 2015

Kansas City Symphony: Old and New

The Kansas City Symphony concerts for the weekend of January 16-18 likely attracted two different types of listeners; those who never tire of hearing the standard repertoire again and again and, quite oppositely, those looking to hear new works fresh from the composer's pen. A new concerto by composer, conductor, pianist, jazz and pop artist Andre Previn just premiered last November was sandwiched in between two giants of the orchestra repertoire, the Mozart Symphony no. 35 “Haffner” and Brahms' Symphony No. 1. Michael Stern, music director conducted, with Jaime Laredo, Violin and Sharon Robinson, Cello as solos in the Previn.

The Cincinnati Symphony plus a consortium of orchestras, including the Kansas City Symphony, commissioned Previn to write the Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra for Laredo and Robinson. Orchestras in Austin, Detroit, Los Angeles, Canada and Europe are scheduled to perform the work over the next few months.

The Double Concerto, clocking a compact 20 minutes is certainly bright, colorful (yet fairly conventionally scored) with little, if any, qualities that would offend the most conservative of listeners. Yet immediately afterward it was difficult, if not impossible, to really remember anything about the work.

The first movement “Quasi Allegretto” immediately introduces the violin and cello echoing the Brahms Double Concerto. There the comparison ends. Glowing, busy and certainly virtuosic, the movement lacks organization and seems to move from one episode and mood to another. Laredo and Robinson, long time collaborators and spouses, dig in to the busy music, keeping their lines and glowing tones above all the fray.

Part bluesy nocturne, part-heart-on sleeve romantic fantasy, the second movement marked “slow” has more emotional gravitas and, due to the slower tempo, seems to be more organized. Chains of lovely melodies abound, major key statements and swelling dynamics morph into minor key angst... yet again the movement leaves little lasting impression. The final movement, “Presto” is a fun, skittish romp ending in big honking C major chords for all assembled. The prestige and orchestras behind this work will ensure that many will hear it but to me the Double Concerto is “gone in 60 seconds”... here one second, gone the next.

Mozart's “Haffner” Symphony No. 35 in D, K.385 opened the program. Stern and the symphony reminded the audience that the work began as a serenade (not to be confused with the Serenade also known as “Haffner” in the same key, K.250) with a sprightly and spirited performance. Mozart asked that the first movement be “played with fire” and the last “as fast as possible; Stern and his forces certainly obeyed Mozart's command. Stern's graceful but not fussy “Andante” 2nd movement contrasted nicely with the energetic 1st, 3rd and 4th movements. Mozart added flutes and clarinets to the symphony's orchestration giving it a more mellow yet full texture. This touch benefited the always excellent KCS woodwinds, allowing them to contribute to an appropriately propulsive opener.

When I was introduced to the Brahms Symphony No. 1 in c op 68. my classical music mentor Herbert Glass told me that the work needs to start off “like a force of nature” or else it is a failure. Dr. Glass was a geologist by profession so he knew much about forces of nature, of course. And he is right and so was Stern and the KCS in their performance. Right from the start this was a powerful and forward performance. Not a glacier force but one like a flowing river, relentless but with control.

I am known to readers and friends as not a big fan of Brahms. Perhaps I have been exposed to too much glacier-like performances. Brahms had to be big, heavy, bulky and sometimes sweet, like a good German dinner. Stern has always gotten Johannes up from the table and out for a brisk jog in the woods, all to great benefit. Trust me, there is still great majesty and throughout, the final pages of the first movement, the opening of the finale, and the climatic pages of the “allegretto” 3rd movement, are just a few. Stern also is keen to note the change in mood and temperature the middle two movements bring to the work. He does not allow them to wallow but provides just enough contrast and release of tension to make the final movement even more persuasive.

Special mention must be made to the excellent brass performances in this work. Not all that long ago, the anticipation of a prolonged horn or trumpet solo caused great anxiety among the regulars in the hall. Not now. The horns, introducing the alphorn inspired theme, emerged glowing and golden from the low strings and tympani, followed by the dulcet flute. A minor bobble of the trumpet and trombone chorale there after marred little, the whole episode was breathtaking. The chorale theme, an homage to Beethoven, demonstrated the excellent sound of Helzberg Hall, one could hear the darker husk of the violas, bringing out a texture not often captured on a recording. Stern milked the drama from the movement's final pages, not a headlong dash but an unleashing of the once bottled up force of nature.

No comments: