Sunday, January 24, 2010

Kansas City Symphony: Shaham Plays Barber and Prokofiev

The good size audience at the KC Symphony concert on Saturday got their money's worth with a full concert featuring works written in the 1920s and 1930's. Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite opened, followed by the sumptous Barber Violin Concerto. The second half featured works from the Soviet era of Russia, Prokofiev's Violin Concerto # 2 and the Shostakovich Symphony # 1. Gil Shaham was soloist for the two concerti, Music Director Michael Stern was on the podium.

Shaham demonstrated his consummate art in these two showy yet just as often lyrical concerti. Shaham has technique a-plenty, but used to communicate not merely to demonstrate. The Barber's long, lyrical 2nd movement was particularly satisfying, both Stern and Shaham taking care to explore the differences between the more substantive 1st and 2nd movements while not making the short finale seem out of place. While some performances blow through this movement, Stern and Shaham slowed a bit from usual and milked the sharper dissonances and rhythmic complexities to form a satisfying conclusion.

The Prokofiev 2nd, while written about the same time as the Barber, is a bit of a different animal. Shaham and Stern carefully articulated the angles and curves of this restless concerto. Especially effective was the dreamily slow second movement, Shaham floated his firm tone gracefully and nostalgically over the simple "walking" accompaniment of the orchestra. Gone from both concerti were the orchestra's tentativeness and lack of ensemble that plagued the Pulcinella.

Yes, sadly, the opening Pulcinella was a disappointment. After a bumptious start, the ensemble never seemed to jell and the important Concertante string quintet lacked presence. I missed all the sharp, dry rhythms and wit of the piece; the whole thing seemed slack. The audience chuckled appreciatively at trombone Roger Oyster who stole the show with his (a bit too) raucous solo in the "Vivo' movement.

Totally successful was a powerful and taught performance of Shostakovich's Symphony # 1, one of the most impressive "#1's" in all music. Shostakovich abandoned the solidly classic style of this symphony with the propagandistic 2nd and 3rd and the wild, rambling 4th, but recalled his successful 1st in his masterpiece 5th Symphony of 1936. Stern realized the connection and did not play the 1st as a youthful, neo-classical romp but a solidly mature, darkly tinged masterpiece, full of gravitas yet emphasizing the mocking irony that marks the best of Shostakovich.

The concert marked the announcement of the upcoming season's fare. Some highlights:

Sibelius Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn, Verdi Quattro Pezzi Sacri, Berlioz Harold in Italy, Martinu Symphony # 4 (yay!), Penderecki Viola Concerto with Roberto Diaz, Jonathan Biss in Brahms 1st Piano Concerto, Stephan Jackiw in Bruch's Scottish Fantasy and new works by Jonathan Leshnoff, Adam Schoenberg, Osvaldo Golijov and Avner Dorman.

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