Sunday, June 01, 2008

Kansas City Symphony: Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn

It is a rare privilege for an assistant conductor to be given the responsibility for a regular season subscription concert. Assistants, adhering to tradition, are usually relegated the grunt work of community and pops concerts and rehearsals.

Thus, Kansas City Symphony Music Director Michael Stern showed his confidence in his assistant, Damon Gupton, and gave him full rein over this weekend's concerts.

The program was an interesting choice of solidly 19th century pieces that are far from obscure, yet not exactly performed ad nauseam: Mendelssohn's "Hebrides Overture: Fingal's Cave", the Dvorak Violin Concerto with Augustin Hadelich as solo and Tchaikovsky's graceful Symphony # 1 "Winter Dreams".

The Hebrides Overture is of course the most often performed of the trio and received a warm but somewhat mellow performance that didn't quite capture the wild, churning awesomeness of the storied sea cave of the Scottish coastline. Certainly, the orchestra sounded great with solid brass and the usual suave wind contributions. But is it just me, or has the strings' tone become a little coarse as the season has progressed? At least it seemed that way in the Overture.

Dvorak's Violin Concerto is a wonderful work, from the dramatic opening chords and first movement, through the elegant and nostalgic Adagio and on to the folk tinged "furiant" finale. Far from unfamiliar, it is still less of a repertoire staple as is the Mendelssohn, Brahms or Tchaikovsky. Hadelich, 2006 International Violin Competition Gold Medal winner, showed his prodigious technique and command of lyrical, almost vocal phrasing in this long-melodied work. The opening taught and well argued, the connecting adagio spacious but never slack, Hadelich securely executed all the winding, trilling filigree. The concluding Allegro giocoso was just perfect, both orchestra and soloist dancing all the way to the end.

My only quibble, Hadlich's tone, although perfectly pitched, seemed to be a bit tentative and lacking in projection. Hardly the violin's fault as it is nothing less than a 1683 Strad on loan to Hadlich as part of the competition prize. Probably more contributory would be the notoriously dry (lousy actually) Lyric Theatre acoustics, although I have not noticed this with other violin soloists.

Tchaikovsky's sunny First Symphony inhabits the sound world of the ballets in contrast to the more sternly dramatic and better known trio of final symphonies numbers 4 through 6. Gupton and the orchestra nailed this performance, with stirring brass (where did they come from??? or should I say "finally"), pointed and frosty winds and lush strings. A brisk tempo led to a swiftly unfolding winter dream and helped mitigate the symphony’s longueurs. At the same time he brought out the hushed melancholy of the Adagio with style and grace. In this case the smaller string section of the symphony (as opposed to the larger ensembles that have recorded the work) helped to bring forth the inner details and harmonies, so often obscured in a glaze of strings. Gupton drove forth but never forced the sprawling finale, demonstrating that the "Winter Dreams" stands head and shoulders above its sisters the 2nd and 3rd, and points the way to the final symphonic masterpieces yet to come.

Ask my concert companion, Barbara, and she will tell you that I am pretty particular about giving a performance a standing ovation; many times I have been among the few still seated. This one, however, deserved it without hesitation.

Sadly, Maestro Damon has decided to move on, off to New York to pursue his dream of combining acting and music. When us minor league teams produce a winner, the big time boys come calling and want to make them a star; as is also the case with our superb Principal clarinet, Michael Wayne who was wooed to the big time of the Boston Symphony. We’ll be the poorer for their departure, but grateful for their contributions to the renaissance of the Kansas City Symphony.

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