Saturday, May 22, 2010

Kansas City Symphony: Higdon and Hindemith

If you believed the big media build up, this weekend's Kansas City Symphony concert was all about:

1) The local premiere of recent Pulitzer winner Jennifer Higdon's "The Singing Rooms" for violin, chorus and orchestra.

2) Ravel's Bolero.

Me? I came for the Hindemith Nobilissma Visione Suite.

Debussy's "Prélude à L'Après-midi d'un Faune" (that is fun to type) opened the concert. Michael Stern conducted with Jennifer Koh violin and the Kansas City Symphony Chorus in the Higdon.

As the Higdon work unfolded, I drifted in thought to the 1936 article in the Soviet newspaper "Pravda" that condemned Shostakovich's opera "Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District" as a "Muddle Instead of Music". They could have been talking about "The Singing Rooms".

Based on poems by Higdon's Curtis Institute colleague Jeanne Minahan Mc Ginn, the composer described the piece as a "house where the violin sings, the chorus sings and the orchestra sings." But, as in a house inhabited by too many people, there was just too much going on and too many family members fighting each other for attention. The percussion banged, clanged and clinked with every sound imaginable, a full orchestra and chorus filled the stage to overflowing taking turns overpowering each other. Plus the incredible virtuosity of Jennifer Koh had to fit in now and then. Thus this massive piece, about 30 minutes duration, went nowhere slowly.

Higdon goes on to state that "every room has its own sound world". Could have fooled me. The sections "Three Windows: Two Versions of the Day", "Things aren't always", "The Interpretation of Dreams", "Confession", "History Lesson". "A Word With God" and a reprise of the "Three Windows" poem, all sounded quite the same. Each section could be characterized as featuring similar declamatory choral lines, lots of percussive effects and Koh sawing away at the violin. Higdon obviously lavished great attention on the choice of texts, but then buried them in the mix as the chorus was mostly unintelligible. A tender dialog between the cor anglais and the violin about 3/4 through the piece was a rare highlight as was a rhythmic battle between clapping percussion and the violin.

Thus I lay the blame for my dislike and the lukewarm reception of the piece mostly on the over ambition of the composer. The piss-poor Lyric Theatre acoustics, thick orchestration and some sloppy diction from the huge chorus certainly contributed to the blurring of the text and program. Frankly, I think the piece could work as a chamber piece for small chorus, ensemble and violin, allowing the listener to appreciate and follow the meticulously crafted program. Just a suggestion, Ms. Higdon.

The highlight for me was a coolly elegant and noble performance of one of Hindemith's masterpieces "Nobilissma Visione", a balletic retelling of the story of St Francis. Using 1/3 as many performers, Hindemith set the scenes of the conversion of St Francis from worldly playboy to the pious, humble saint more realistically and vividly than anything Higdon attempted in her much more ambitious work. Stern and the orchestra fully understood and communicated the restrained, rarefied joy and humility of St Francis as represented by Hindemith. The rich full strings and the excellent work of the violas (Hindemith was prejudiced you know), subtle brass and always excellent winds contributed to this most fine performance of a piece that is simply not heard enough. Stern has an affinity for Hindemith ( a fine "Symphonic Metamorphoses" brought the house down in his inaugural concert several seasons ago) and thus I ask him to please do the masterful Symphony in Eb some day.

The Debussy was a fine performance with a standout solo by flutist Michael Gordon and Stern's detailed attention to the many ebbs and flows of the piece.

And Bolero? As one expected, this brisk performance was a crowd pleaser. Spoiled only for me by a horn flub in the cleverly scored section for flutes, celesta and horn. Percussionist Christopher Mc Laurin received a well deserved accolade for his rock steady snare drum.

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