Sunday, November 30, 2008

Kansas City Symphony: Juanjo Mena

Three things were evident about last evening's Kansas City Symphony concert:

1) Despite the heavy mix of rain and snow that was falling and a holiday weekend, the KCS could still draw a quite respectable crowd.
2) The Kansas City Symphony players appreciated and were quite inspired by the guest conductor Juanjo Mena (he is sometimes listed as Juan José Mena).
3) Mena felt the same way.

I figured this would a concert that I would miss since I am always at my sister's on Thanksgiving. But this year, I was tired of her whining and came back a day early. It was certainly worth the effort.

South African pianist Anton Nel joined the program in the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto # 2. Opening the concert was the Arriega Overture to "Los esclavos felices". The second half was a feast of Spanish (or at least Spanish inspired) favorites, Bizet's Carmen Suite #1 and the two Suites from de Falla's "El Sombrero de tres picos" ballet. Not an earth-shattering concert of monumental proportions, but a delight to the ear and a welcome diversion for the weekend.

I had originally thought Mena was an unknown figure to me, but upon reading the program notes, I remembered he is the conductor on the wonderful Jesus Guridi Sinfonia pirenaica ("Pyrenees Symphony") on Naxos. I had heard of Anton Nel but not heard him play even on recording.

The Rachmaninoff received a cool, not excessively romantic, but successful performance. Nel nowhere had the command or power of a Bronfman or Hamelin, but his formidable technique was on full display. Mena's well chosen yet fluid when needed tempi and the orchestra's warm, vibrant well balanced accompaniment were also key to this wonderful performance. Nel gave the audience a brief encore, the powerful Etude for the Left Hand alone by Scriabin (op 9 #2, I believe).

The Russians stood in contrast to what was a Spanish dominated concert. The opening work,
Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga's (1806-1826) "Overture to Los esclavos felices" was a work befitting a youth called the "Spanish Mozart". Tragically, he died early as well, a few days shy of his 20th birthday, likely of tuberculosis. The overture possesses a mature Mozartean grace and elegance combined with the rhythmic fluidity of Spanish music that made for a charming opening.

The second half was devoted to the popular Bizet and de Falla suites. The orchestra played with a confident a snap and sparkle that showed they were truly enjoying the music making. Mena, not a showman at all, but still an active and entertaining conductor, pulled some rhythmically solid and tonally lush music from the orchestra.

The Carmen was brisk, lyrical, sensuous and ultimately dramatic as the heroine of the opera. The Symphony's wonderful English Horn, Kenneth Lawrence, gave me chills in the famous languorous solo in the "Miller's Dance"of the de Falla suite. The concluding "Final Dance"of the second suite literally had the audience swaying along.

Not an excessively demanding concert (such as a Bruckner or Mahler Symphony or the Berlioz Te deum) but one that sparkled and thoroughly entertained the audience. The orchestra and Mena expressed their mutual admiration to each other in a prolonged ovation.

Note to the KCS people who might read this... bring back Mena next season!


kaneohe1972 said...

While this concert might not seem "excessively demanding" it was quite difficult in terms of the interpretive and musical demands Mena made on the orchestra. It is an illusion that familiar music is not as challenging. There was a great deal of nuance in Mena's interpretations that did not happen without a great deal of effort on the part of the musicians.

Don said...

I would certainly agree, kaneohe. The "Three Cornered Hat" Suites in particular were really quite well done, idiomatic with excellent details.

All in all, one of the better KCS concerts I have heard.