Sunday, January 21, 2007

Kansas City Symphony Beethoven Sibelius and Ives

PDQ Bach forever ruined Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for me. Used in one of the comic genius' parodies "New Horizons in Music Appreciation". The first movement of the symphony is performed with a "play by play" commentary. "They're off!" as the opening motto is sounded. The violins' held note after one entrance of the theme and a bobble from the horn elicit commentary on whether the instrumentalists involved will be traded. "What!?? He thinks it's an oboe concerto!!!" follows the short oboe cadenza. I just can't help my self, it takes all my will power not to shout the phrases out, as if it were a "Rocky Horror Picture Show" screening.

Thankfully I have some self control as the Beethoven 5th was performed as the second half of the Kansas City Symphony concerts this weekend, Michael Stern conducting.

The first movement was played with a strong sense of forward motion; the brisk tempo never seemed rushed. Stern mined the incredible tension and release that Beethoven wrote into this monumental movement. No matter how often it is heard, there is no doubt that it is one of the singular achievements in western music.

The slow movement again never dragged but was a nice contrast to the other three movements, something that can not always be said about many performances. The demonic scherzo was powerful and driving. I missed a bit of mystery in the transition from the third movement to the finale, which made the triumphal theme of the last movement a bit tepid. Some blatty horns did not help. The final chords were perfectly together and brought the performance to a solid and satisfying conclusion. As usual the woodwinds were excellent, the strings only problem being a lack of numbers. What a few extra strings would do for the sound.

The first half comprised the Ives "Three Places in New England" and the Sibelius Violin Concerto. One a hit, the other the evening's disappointment.

Maestro Stern loves Ives and has long been a champion of his music. From this stellar performance, we can only hope for more; the 3rd Symphony perhaps?

The many ethereal and mystic passages of “The Saint-Gaudens in Boston Commons,” and the “Housatonic at Stockbridge” were both clear yet subtly shrouded. All the lines and elements could be discerned yet were blended into the cloud of sound Ives intended. “Putnam’s Camp” was perfectly noisy with a remarkable controlled rowdiness. The orchestra was well up to the demands of the piece. A surprisingly great performance that had many in the audience reassessing their opinion of Ives.

Hungarian violinist Barnabas Kelemen was the soloist in the Sibelius Violin Concerto. He is certainly technically gifted and a very visceral performer. Sadly, he showed little understanding of this most romantic and passionate of concertos. His tone was a too muscular and tended to emphasize the wrong notes in a phrase with accents that were not there in the score. The slow movement came off best. The finale was ok, but Keleman completely blew off the strange yet wonderful passage in harmonics, burying it in the orchestral texture. Tempi were spot on but intonation was questionable in several passages. The orchestra seemed a little overwhelmed by it all. The audience for the most part loved him, he certainly caught the ladies' attention and was posing with gaggles of young female fans for photographs at intermission. A pretty face does not a virtuoso make.

The audience called him back for an encore, the opening movement of Bach's Sonata #1 for violin solo. Played with lots of showmanship and lukewarm musical passion.

The Kansas City Symphony continues to improve with every performance. Even the Sibelius was good, I just love the piece so much that I think I am a bit over critical. Even on a cold evening with heavy snow falling, the hall was packed. Friday was sold out, clear testimony to where the orchestra is and where it is going.

Next week: 2 separate concerts featuring Yo-Yo Ma. That would never had occurred a few years ago.

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