Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Future of Music in KC

Kansas City has not fared well with some recent city projects. The Sprint Center arena is great but has so far not attracted a permanent sports tenant. Concerts have drawn well, but a look at the calendar shows quite a few open dates. A dark and silent arena makes no money. The surrounding Power and Light District has opened to mixed reviews. Pricey yet bland restaurants, controversy over dress codes, parking and security have dulled the luster.

One big new project, however, seems to be a winner: the under construction Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Arising on a hill just to the south of downtown, it will forever change the skyline of the city and how we experience the performing arts. On Friday, I got to hear a short presentation by the CEO of the center and the famed acoustician, Yasu Toyota. The center is going to be an exciting building, putting KC well ahead of other cities in the field of performing arts.

As Music Director of the KC Symphony, Michael Stern, said, a world class hall demands a world class symphony orchestra. To demonstrate this, Stern led the orchestra in a program showcasing the orchestra's dramatic rise.

A fine and fun Polonaise from the "Christmas Eve Suite" by Rimsky-Koraskov started the evening off with a holiday tinged mood. The strings alone followed with Bach's Brandenburg # 3, a brisk and well turned performance, the strings were in fine form that night.

While many US orchestras have not made a recording in a long time, or release them through their own labels, the Kansas City Symphony is about to embark on its 3rd commercial recording since 2006. We got a taste of what is in store on the all Britten disc with a finely detailed and elegant performance of the Passacaglia and 4 Sea Interludes from "Peter Grimes".

For someone who loves almost every note of English music, it took me a while to warm up to Britten. It was these pieces, taken from Britten's monumental opera, that awoke the passion I now have for his music. Stern's Passacaglia was suitably dark, spare and mysterious, whipping up to a shattering gong and tympani fueled climax. Principal Viola Christine Grossman deserved her hearty ovation for the soulful opening solo.

The sea interludes were equally as well done, a misty, primal "Dawn", a bustling "Sunday Morning" with all the underlying drama and foreboding given equal thrift, a elementally tidal "Moonlight", the orchestra heaving, ebbing and flowing with the tides of the cold sea, leading to a climactic "Storm". It will take a lot to displace what is for me the definitive performances of these mini tone poems, the Steuart Bedford led LSO performances once on Collins now thankfully available on Naxos. From what I heard, these performances stand a good chance.

After a champagne and sweets intermission and the talk by Jane Chu, CEO of the Kauffman Center and Mr Toyota, the orchestra finished off the festive evening with some bon bons, the lovely "Noel" by George Whitefield Chadwick (let's do the whole "Symphonic Sketches" sometime) the popular "Troika" from Prokofiev's Lt Kije Suite and the overture to "Die Fledermaus" by Johann Strauss.

The Kauffman Center will have a suitable ensemble to compliment its grand architecture and vision. Although lovely and charming in its way, the old Lyric Theatre is an acoustic mess and uncomfortable to boot. With a dedicated music hall and hall for the Lyric Opera, we will finally have a decent home for two fine performing arts groups.

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