Monday, June 09, 2008

Season Finale Kansas City Symphony: Beethoven and Berlioz

Another season has passed into history for the Kansas City Symphony. A stellar line-up of renowned soloists graced the Lyric Theatre stage: Garrick Ohlsson (who started the season), Yuja Wang, Colin Currie banging the daylights out of Rouse's "der gerettete Alberich", Joshua Bell, Concertmistress Kaniko Ito's suave Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (easily the equal of any of the other violin soloists in the last few seasons), Jane Eaglen, Jeremy Denk and Jonathon Biss concluding this past weekend.

This programming this season leaned a bit towards the Romantic standards; more Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Wagner and Tchaikovsky, but presented some contemporary works including Higdon's Blue Cathedral, Lou Harrison's Pipa Concerto, The aforementioned Rouse, and Zhou Long. Big crowd pleasers included "Pictures at an Exhibition", "The Planets", Verdi Requiem and Beethoven's 7th Symphony. Lesser heard works included Tchaikovsky's 1st Symphony, Dvorak Violin Concerto and Janacek's "Taras Bulba".

Concerts appeared to be well attended and the annual Celebration at the Station on Memorial Day drew a crowd of I would say at least 30,000 likely more.

The season finale was a fitting cap on the season, Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto with Jonathon Biss as solo and Berlioz's captivating Symphonie Fantastique.

Biss and Stern turned in a muscular albeit somewhat stately performance of the Concerto. However forceful and powerful the first movement and the finale were, the central Largo was tender and sentimental without being cloying and lethargic. Biss certainly showed his technical skills by tossing off the cadenzas with ease, his deep, commanding tone plus the exquisite clarity and graceful phrasing the long trilling melodies of the Largo. One thing annoyed me, as in so many of the younger performers, some of his mannerisms (holding his hands above the piano as if he was ready to hit it and the exaggerated sweep of his hands away from the keyboard at the end of a passage) got in the way of the music. As Dimitri Mitropoulos was supposed to have said to a young Leonard Bernstein (supposedly, I may have it all wrong) "Before you try to impress the ladies in the balcony, be sure the horns come in on time". Too much trying to impress by gesture and not letting the music speak for itself.

The Symphonie Fantastique received a splendid performance, certainly not rushed but neither a leisurely one either. Certainly a sensitive and exciting performance, but not a particularly manic one, which is fine by me. The two last movements, the famous "March to the Scaffold" and the "Witches' Sabbath", received dramatic and forceful performances with many nice touches such as the screaming clarinets and the powerful tubas in the Sabbath and the incisive forward motion of the March. The oboe/English horn exchange in the "Country Scene" was well done, the off stage oboe a nice touch. I missed the somewhat off color, sinister bells heard in Munch's classic Boston recording, but at least they were not bright chimes as I have heard before.

A fitting end for a great season of music here in the great flyover of the Midwest. Not many orchestras can boast of a positive budget balance, increased attendance, new recordings released and over 30,000 people at a concert. We seem to be doing something right here!

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