Monday, February 19, 2007

Kansas City Symphony: Banging and Clanging!

Kansas City Symphony music director Michael Stern and Nexus virtually own the Ellen Taafe Zwillich Rituals For Percussion and Orchestra, having commissioned and premiered the work with the IRIS Chamber Orchestra in 2003. A recording on Naxos followed and was received with great enthusiasm. The piece is (paraphrasing the composer) an exploration and celebration of the use of percussion in various musical traditions. The tolling of bells, the sounding of gongs, the dance of congas,the beat of marching drums and the primitive rattles and gourds all find their place in the tapestry of sound. The work is a visceral delight, and is even more "fun" live than it is on recording.

The opening movement "Invocations" explores the world of gamelan and the pageantry of bells, gongs, and cymbals. From tolling opening chords of gongs and orchestra the movement works slowly to a great wall of sound from the combined forces. The second movement "Ambulation" celebrates the world of dancing drums, combined with some "walking" figures from the bass and some Ives like marching tunes here and there. The quiet (er) "Remembrances" exploits the more lyrical power of percussion. The final movement, "Contests" is exactly that, a furious, thrilling battle between the 5 percussionists. The orchestra plays the role of the audience, commenting on the combat with shouts both thrilling and alarming, bringing the work to a satisfyingly clangorous close.

Rituals is one of the most successful integrations of percussion solo(s) and orchestra I have encountered. The other being Panufnik's Concertino for Timpani, Percussion and Strings. The KC performance was authoritative and exciting visually and aurally. The intermission reaction from the patrons was one of "wow".

I made up for one of my life deficiencies by finally hearing the Stravinsky "Rite of Spring" live. That is what happens when you live in the sticks for so long. I must own about 5-6 recordings of the damn thing, probably had more than that in long gone LPs and tapes, and heard many more once or twice, so I am hardly unfamiliar with the piece. But again, like the Zwillich, it is a visual thrill to see all the brass and winds filling the stage.

The performance was excellent. The brass, sometimes a weak point of the orchestra, was commanding and virtually flawless, the winds (especially the opening bassoon) excellent as usual. The timpani and percussion was gloriously ominous and driving when called upon. The strings were a bit outnumbered by the winds but executed their often more softer and mysterious role quite well. A published review of the Friday performance was quite negative, so either they heard an other orchestra or things improved rapidly by Sunday. I know the work forward and backwards (and yes I have studied classical music history and theory, listened to it since I was a kid so I do know a bit of what I am talking about) and found this a most satisfying performance.

The opening work was a graceful and exciting performance of Haydn's Symphony no 103 in Eb "Drumroll" thus setting the stage for the percussive festival to follow. This continued the successful series of Haydn symphonies of late, including Raymond Leppard's guest performance of the Oxford #93 last season and the recent Cello Concerto in C with Yo-Yo Ma last month. Graceful, never too heavy and with a wonderful solo from Concertmistress Kanako Ito in the Andante, the performance was a delight.

No comments: