Sunday, February 11, 2007

Kansas City Symphony: Brahms and Gershwin

Quite a contrast, the breezy, jazz shaded Gershwin Concerto for Piano in F and the heavy, formal Brahms Symphony # 4. Weber's Overture to "Euryanthe" was the opener. Guest conductor Jun Markl conducted with Van Cliburn Competition medalist Joyce Yang featured in the Gershwin.

I think the Gershwin is one of the jewels of the piano repertoire with its perfect melding of jazz and classical elements. Due to Gershwin's inexperience in the forms, his "classical" works (American in Paris, Porgy and Bess, Second Rhapsody, and the Concerto for example) tend to be a bit clumsy in form and execution, veering towards the episodic rather than organic. Yet the perfectly memorable melodies and infectious rhythms win out, making these pieces some of the best ever conceived in America.

This performance, while good, just never ignited. A bit stiff and deliberate in the first movement and marred by a tentative and struggling trumpet solo that opened the second movement. Yang had the shading and the rhythm down well, but had more than a couple audible clinkers. A spirited and jazzy finale somewhat made up for the less flexible. It was good to hear this piece live again after many years. I am so imprinted on the Wild/Fiedler version (the first CD I ever bought to go with my brand new CD player many moons ago) that others pale in comparison.

Sometimes grandma needs to be prodded out of her easy chair and taken for a romp in the park. Same applies to Brahms. Markl was fully at home with Brahms and showed his prowess by taking the Symphony # 4 on a swift and dramatic ride. Not slap-dash and rushed but containing briskly appropriate tempi, full attention to every orchestral detail, a great sense of the organic flow of the themes and episodes (especially the passacaglia) and still accentuating the sense of deep contemplation. Never a work that will inspire foot tapping and finger snapping, the symphony works well when it does not over stay its welcome. Enjoyable, technically excellent and inspiring, something I do not always feel when I hear Brahms.

Jun Markl, a native of Munich, is Principal Conductor and Music director of the Leipzig Radio Orchestra and Orchestra National de Lyon in France and has appeared with orchestras in Helsinki, Birmingham (UK), Vienna, Berlin, Chicago, Dallas, Metropolitan Opera (Il Trovatore). He studied with Celibidache and Ozawa; impressive credentials indeed.

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