Saturday, April 21, 2007

Kansas City Chamber Orchestra: Strauss and Beethoven

I admit I have rarely heard a performance of the Kansas City Chamber Orchestra; the last time was probably before I left KC in 2001. The Orchestra, founded and conducted by Bruce Sorrell, is celebrating its 20th season and features some fine local and regional players. "Chamber Symphony" to me elicits thoughts of all baroque or early classical fare. Indeed, several of their concerts this season were of that sort. But with the promise of two masterpieces, the Richard Strauss Oboe Concerto and the "Apotheosis of the Dance" Beethoven Symphony No. Seven as main courses, this concert held more interest.

It was fascinating to hear Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony with a reduced orchestra of about 30 players including 17 (if the program is right) strings. With the reduced forces comes transparency; thus one can hear the wonderful inner voices, the wind and brass punctuations and the subtle timpani strokes. Even a simple chord progression can be satisfyingly powerful when you easily hear how it fits into the architecture of the piece. I may have missed a bit more powerful first movement, and a few retrained climaxes here and there but the quiet, measured tread of the opening of the second movement Allegretto was perfectly presented. A rhythmically perfect Presto 3rd movement lead to the joyous dance of the Finale, building to the resounding climax marred only by the bobbles of the horns. What is it with brass in Kansas City???

The Strauss Oboe Concerto is a product of Strauss' last years, 1945. Suggested by noted American Oboist John De Lancie, who was the principal oboe of the Philadelphia Orchestra for years, the work is standard repertoire for oboists around the world. One expecting the huge forces and soaring drama of the tone poems will find this pastorale, charming work alien. But those who know the more introspective parts of the Strauss tone poems and operas will hear the arching melody of the "Don Juan" love theme and the more bucolic parts of "Don Quixote" or "An Alpine Symphony".

With KC Symphony Oboist Barbara Bishop as solo, this was a respectful and frequently moving performance of this marvelous work. Only some breath control issues made some of the oboe solo phrases a bit precarious and chopped, and the orchestra and solo seemed out of sync at the beginning. The lush slow movement was marvelous and the finale was spot on. The audience, many of whom I am sure had not heard this work, were quite appreciative.

The opening two works were less successful; the first movement of the Saint Saens Piano Concerto and Mozart's Overture to The Marriage of Figaro. 14 year old Christina Yuen banged and plowed her way through the admittedly tough and heavy Concerto movement. With time and maturity will come the realization of subtlety, nuance and balance with the orchestra. Her technique is there for sure. Not a good choice for a "chamber" orchestra.

The overture was a welcome change of pace from the Saint Saens. Good tempo, great playing but nothing really special; it did however, set the scene for the more successful remainder of the concert.

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