Sunday, January 25, 2009

Kansas City Symphony: Nielsen, Mendelssohn and Mahler

Audiences love Mahler, but twasn't always so. In the 1950's and early '60's many prominent musicians dismissed his music as "toilet paper". As it grudgingly gained acceptance in the '60s, only orchestras with a "Mahler tradition" (Vienna, Amsterdam, Chicago, New York) were deemed proficient to play the Symphonies. Mahler out of Dallas, Los Angeles or Moscow? Always 2nd or 3rd rate.

But now it is almost mandatory that every orchestra in the land do a Symphony or two each season and the audiences flock to it. Thus, we have a stunning Mahler 1st from the Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern conducting, played to a packed house this weekend. Nielsen's "Helios" Overture began the program with the Mendelssohn 2nd Piano Concerto, Kuok-Wai Lio, a Curtis Institute student, as solo. Kuok-Wai Lio appears as part of an ongoing program to bring Curtis' finest to Kansas City for performances.

Nielsen is not among those composers whose music I admire and listen to frequently. Lord knows I have tried, but the big works, the Symphonies and the Concerti just do not do it for me. Strange, as I have strong admiration for many of the Danish composers who followed this father of modern Danish music such as Holmboe, Nørgård, Bentzon and Langgaard. But the atmospheric, beautifully scored "Helios Overture" from 1903 (around the time of the 2nd Symphony) is one of my favorites. This wonderful, well paced performance featured some detailed and polished horn work, deft wind work and a finely controlled central fugato that slowly dissolved into the same nocturnal dark of the beginning. I am sure many who were not familiar with this wonderful 12 minute tone poem found it quite revelatory.

The lesser known of the two Mendelssohn piano concerti (I am making an assumption here, the 1st I have heard many times and seems to be recorded more frequently; this is the first time for the 2nd for me) received a polished, elegant and fleet performance. The deeply moving central adagio flowed with passion and yet with the classical restraint endemic in Mendelssohn's music. The fiery finale, reminiscent of those of the Violin Concerto and the "Italian" Symphony, demonstrated Kuok-Wai Lio's considerable talent.

The Mahler 1st was more than excellent, showing how far the Symphony has come in the last few years. The leisurely atmospheric and chattering opening of the first movement was well done with spot on intonation from the exposed strings, offstage trumpets and murmuring, skittering wind solos. Stern's pace and attention to detail of this section reminded me (positively) of the classic Bernstein/Concertgebouw recording, one of the best in my opinion. The transition into the"Wayfarer" main theme just flowed nicely, not jarring nor taking off like a rocket like in some performances, but like my dear old 88 Lincoln does, accelerates with grace, subtle power and momentum. Throughout this movement, Stern paid close attention to detail but never micromanaged the huge score, bringing out special moments but not lingering so long as to break the spell. The closing pages of the movement were well turned as well, not rushed and frantic but exuberant and full of life.

Mahler had originally titled the 2nd movement "In Full Sail" and thus successful performances bring out the sense of being carried along in strong, full wind, smoothly (mostly) gliding over the open sea. Stern's Scherzo was fluid, graceful and affirming.

The 3rd movement, a strange funeral march based on "Frère Jacques" got off to a fine start with a suitably droll solo from Principal Bass Jeffrey Kail. The "Jewish music, klezmer band influenced interlude was nicely integrated but still detached in mood and tempo from the rest of the movement. Not always an easy task to accomplish.

The finale is marked Stürmisch bewegt-Energisch (Stormily agitated, energetic) and indeed it was storming and energetic. Marred only by some poor intonation in the brass and one trumpet figure that came close to falling completely apart, the movement progressed to a grand and brassy conclusion, the trumpets redeeming themselves with their grand fanfares over the pounding timpani figures in the final pages.

I now look forward to a Mahler 4th next season and somewhat to a performance of the Adagio of the 10th, sadly not a complete performance.

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