Saturday, October 10, 2009

Kansas City Symphony: Dvorak, Kodaly and Rachmaninoff

The fare for this weekend's Kansas City Symphony concerts, Music Director Michael Stern conducting, has a decidedly Eastern European bent; 3 masterpieces from Hungary, the Czech Republic and Russia.

Kodaly's Dances of Galánta, inspired by his youthful exposure to and his life long study of Hungarian folk traditions, is a colorful, energetic yet sophisticated romp through some delicious folk melodies and rhythms. Well thought out, inventive and always energetic, Galánta makes a perfect curtain raiser.

The Symphony's ensemble, intonation and precision were spot on and a pleasure to hear. Entrances were tight, and the piece was propelled forward with graceful enthusiasm. The many solos (including Clarinet Raymond Santos' warm, soulful contribution and horn Alberto Suarez's impeccable performance) blended into the colorful fabric of this most enjoyable work. I am sure it is a challenge to play and bring off, but Stern and the Orchestra made easy work of it (or at least made it seem easy work) with this exciting, bouncy performance.

The Dvorak B minor Cello Concerto is the crown jewel of cello concerti and one of the jewels of the whole concerto repertoire. Soaring melodies, dramatic cadenzas, a Slavic tinged, soulful slow movement and a propulsive, thoroughly satisfying finale contribute to the sheer perfection of this magnum opus.

Sadly, Cellist Alban Gerhardt turned in a rather bland, thin toned and hardly soaring performance. Others I talked to disagreed and the audience seemed to enjoy it, but to me Gerhardt's performance just seemed to be a competent run through. High register passages were especially thin, somewhat strident and suspect in intonation. The passion ran cold in this performance; some wonderful contributions from the orchestra (Raymond Santos again in the lovely clarinet figures in the slow movement) and well paced, never rushed tempi could not prod Gerhardt to a more intense, maybe even nostalgic performance. Maybe this is how Dvorak is performed these days, but I will always turn to the warm, soulful and thrilling Piatigorsky/Munch BSO performance.

Rachmaninoff's valedictory orchestral work, the marvelous "Symphonic Dances", comprised the second half of the program. The new arrangement of the orchestra (Stern re-arranged the seating of the ensemble to help alleviate the rather flat sound of the hall) contributed to the clear, bright and detailed sound. The basses provided a more solid foundation and the inner strings were clear. The usual fine winds and strings were combined with solid and never overwhelming brass (not a major bobble was noted all evening, thank you folks) and precise and colorful percussion. Going on a different night than usual necessitated a change in seat, sadly placing me further right and thus obscuring the important contributions of the piano and harp in the Rachmaninoff. Stern pulled one of the more focused and energetic performances from the orchestra, relishing in the many tempo changes, snappy rhythms and colorfully scored passages.

I admit to being a Symphonic Dances snob, I adore the piece and find it the one Rachmaninoff piece I turn to most often. Thus I waited throughout the performance for the one moment that, for this warped mind, makes or breaks the performance. I insist that the conductor follow the directions in the score and the "LV" (let vibrate) notation for final stroke of the gong. It should reverberate for a few seconds after the orchestra stops and allowed to fade, not just be a loud cymbal crash. Oh please, do it right.... and it was, thank you maestro. I went home happy, the perfect moment satisfying me, the energetic Galánta still resonating and the bland Dvorak not an issue anymore.

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