Sunday, March 01, 2009

Kansas City Symphony: Alison Balsom and Richard Strauss

Before I get accused of just being a local booster, full of misguided but well intentioned rah rah, read what a couple of other people said about the weekend's Kansas City Symphony concerts. The program featured trumpet solo Alison Balsom performing the Haydn and Tomasi Trumpet Concerti, the "Manfred Overture" by Schumann and Richard Strauss' paean to himself, "Ein Heldenleben", all led my Music Director Michael Stern.

"Just got back from the symphony concert. Absolutely transcendent - and I don't say (or type) that easily. I tried to imagine past KC orchestras playing that work, and my mind had to travel all the way back to 1979 or 1980. It's been a long time coming, but I think the symphony is back at last." ~ Paul, The Musical Mailman

"....the orchestra soared in a fiery and gripping performance of Richard Strauss' tone poem "Ein Heldenleben" ("A Hero's Life.") Stern displayed an ability to lend clarity and shape to a work that can be sprawling in the hands of other conductors." ~ KC Star Critic Timothy McDonald.

So indeed the concert was quite good, and further indicative of the growth of the orchestra. Almost amazingly, the brass were sharp, focused, powerful without being over bearing, and free of missed notes and weak intonation. The winds were their usual fine selves and the strings sounded larger than their numbers would lead you to believe. Representatives from several orchestra's volunteer organizations were in attendance on Saturday including Boston, Montreal, and Chicago. I hope they return home singing the praises of our local band.

Really the only near miss of the evening was the Schumann Manfred Overture, which sounded tentative and unfocused. Surely not a bad performance, but in comparison with the rest of the program, a weak sister.

Alison Balsom looks to be a college sorority sister, petite and complete with long blond hair. But Miss Balsom, who won 'Young British Classical Performer' at the 2006 Classical BRIT Awards, and was also awarded the 'Classic FM Listeners' Choice Award' at the Classic FM/Grammophone awards, is an accomplished, mature trumpeter and consummate musician. Her tone was bright, clear and ringing, only a couple tiny audible slips in the stratosphere indicated she was really only human. From the Parisian jazz tinged Tomasi, to the more traditional fanfares of the Haydn, Balsom demonstrated her command of the instrument. Her slow movements, especially the sweet almost bluesy Nocturne of the Tomasi, were silken, almost violin like in tone; the brilliant cadenzas a fine example of solid musicianship, combining awesome technique with musical warmth and feeling. Her encore, the wonderful "Libertango" by Astor Piazzolla (what did artists do for encores before discovering Piazzolla?), was superb and brassy.. as it should be.

"Ein Heldenleben", dismissed by some as shameless self-promotion since Strauss depicted himself (and liberally quoted his more famous-to-date works) as the hero and his wife as his faithful companion, is truly one of his most interesting tone poems, and certainly less embarrassing than "Symphonia Domestica". Realistically it is more proper to think that Strauss' self-portrayal was more tongue-in-cheek and amusing parody than pretentious self promotion. As I alluded to in the beginning paragraphs, this was a superb performance. More than once I had to stop and remember I was on home turf, listening to the Kansas City Symhony, not the Chicago or Berlin Philharmonic. The brass were 99% spot on (name a live performance 100% perfect in the brass), the extensive solos from Concertmistress Kanako Ito totally world class and the whole performance brisk but not rushed or frenetic. The opening concert of Music Director Michael Stern's era with the orchestra began with a fine "Don Juan", a couple years later an equally fine "Don Quixote" with Yo Yo Ma, and now an excellent "Heldenleben", this series really does show, as Paul indicated, how far our hometown orchestra has traveled in a few short years.

1 comment:

Dan in West Michigan said...

My wife and I enjoyed hearing Ms. Balsom this Spring in Grand Rapids. The amazing thing was, the small hall (St. Cecilia Auditorium) was less than half full! She was accompanied on piano.
(I am listening to her EMI Haydn and Hummel CD as I write this.)
-Dan in Holland Mighigan