Sunday, September 28, 2008

Kansas City Symphony: Joyce DiDonato and More

My classical music mentor, Herb Glass, loved Chausson's "Poème de l'amour et de la mer", believing it was the epitome of French vocal music. Thus in one of our Sunday afternoon listen and learn sessions, the piece was the focus of my private musical education.

Myself being all of 20 and Herb being around 60, I hung on every word that this man spoke, regaling me with stories of hearing Rachmaninoff play, Toscanini conduct and Kreisler fiddle. As the LP spun Chausson's most popular work I began to wonder if Herb had not failed me. I simply was not "into", using the vernacular of the time, this piece at all. I began to mimic the now forgotten soprano's singing...Laaaaa LAAAAA la LAAAAAAA YAAAAAAAAA le AAAAAAAH!, dramatically clutching my hands to my heart, looking sadly skyward and declaring the piece boring as hell. The sound of a needle being ripped from an LP still reverberates nearly 30 years later as I was summarily dismissed and declared a fool. Herb did not speak to me for several weeks.

Last evening, Kansas City native and now world renowned soprano Joyce DiDonato and the Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern conducting, gave me the opportunity to encounter the work again. Luckily my maturity kept me from howling. Beautifully played, well paced and sung with great passion and incredible diction, the piece still sinks into an accent grave world. Even as lush and powerful voice as DiDonato's still had problems emerging from the dense orchestration and turgid phrasing of the work. Little else to fault in the performance of this flawed work.

DiDonato returned in the second half to perform an unprogrammed encore, a charming, witty and well neigh perfect "Uno voce poco fa" from the Barber of Seville. In a jaunty red dress and clearly enjoying singing for her hometown crowd, DiDonato brought the concert to a halt, receiving a prolonged and sincere ovation.

Continuing the theme of love, Stern turned to a piece inspired by the greatest of all love stories, Romeo and Juliet. Not the familiar Tchaikovsky or even the Prokofiev, but the incidental music for the play written by American David Diamond in 1947. A dramatic overture in the spiky American mode was followed by a somewhat limp and passionless "Balcony Scene". The patronly relationship between "Romeo and Friar Lawrence" was represented perfectly by the Symphony's masculinely tenor violas. "Juliet and Her Nurse" was all breezy and chatty. The "Death of Romeo and Juliet" was deeply moving and tragic, never maudlin. A well done performance of a neglected score.

The concert was opened and closed by two Spanish tinged masterpieces. Ravel's "Alborada del Gracioso" and Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnole". The fine Ravel featured a suitably languid bassoon solo in the middle section, that lacked a bit of hazy atmosphere from the strings. The closing Rimsky-Korsakov was brilliantly played, showing the talent of the new principal clarinet and the always wonderful winds and percussion of the orchestra.

A fine start to the new season of the Kansas City Symphony.

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