Sunday, January 11, 2009

Kansas City Symphony, Jarvi's Debut

Kansas City Symphony Music Director Michael Stern was a bit occupied during last evening's concert. Awaiting the arrival of his second child (a girl, born last night), he, of course, was not on the podium but in New York at the hospital. Thus the Symphony's new Assistant Steven Jarvi (no relation I am told to Paavo and Neeme) took over a quite demanding concert: Haydn Symphony # 1, Brahms Violin Concerto with Midori as soloist, and the Sibelius 5th Symphony.

Jarvi is a well recognized conductor in his own right. Jarvi is currently a Conducting Fellow with Michael Tilson Thomas' New World Symphony in Miami Beach and also is an Associate Conductor for the New York City Opera at Lincoln Center. His teachers and mentors reads as a "who's who" in music today: James Levine, Stefan Asbury, Rafael Fr├╝hbeck de Burgos, Kurt Masur, Claudio Abbado and of course Tilson Thomas.

The early Haydn was a delightful curtain raiser, light and fleet but lingering enough to bring out the abundant melodies. The KCS has made a name for itself with its elegant and charming Haydn performances.

Born in 1971 and making her debut at 12, violinist Midori has been a stage presence for as long as most of us remember. However, by quirk, this was the first time I had heard her. Now approaching 40, she teaches and carries a demanding concert load.

It takes a special effort by the performers to keep Brahms from sinking into a sprawling, turgid mass. Well chosen tempi helped us to digest this heavy German meal (think lots of roast veal, potatoes, cabbage and sour cream) and Midori's incredible technique and creamy tone were to savor. The sprawling first movement... I am at a loss to go on...oh lets face it, everyone knows I don't care for Brahms but those who do found this a satisfying, elegant performance. Midori certainly demonstrated that she survived her "wonderkind" years and has matured into a graceful, impressive artist. The orchestra and Jarvi did a fine job of accompanying but sometimes overwhelmed the subtle lines from the violin. The wonderful (sic) acoustics of the Lyric Theatre at play again, most likely.

The second half was devoted to the powerful Sibelius Symphony # 5. Jarvi's last two movements were outstanding, fluid and finely detailed, bringing out the organic flow of this incredible music and delivering some finely precise and decisive final chords. The first movement was slower to gel, a little choppy and less organic. I wished for a more physically exciting acceleration into the coda, but to be fair, few conductors other than Ormandy and Colin Davis have ever been equaled in this passage. The Andante, quasi allegretto central movement featured some wonderful wind work, especially from the flutes and oboes. The KCS brass did an outstanding job, but they frequently overwhelmed some of the important string passages. I was most disappointed by the distant, hesitant timpani. This is a work with many passages (opening and coda to first movement, end of final movement for example) that demand commanding timpani that stands out, not a part of the orchestral fabric. These quibbles aside, a fine and satisfying performance of a demanding work.

Bravo Maestro Jarvi for an overall impressive debut. I see that next year we hear you again in a concert featuring Mahler (sadly and disappointingly only the Adagio to the Mahler 10), Mozart and R. Strauss.

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