Sunday, June 06, 2010

Kansas City Symphony: Russian Fireworks

The Kansas City Symphony ended its season with a more conventional program than those of late. Three Russian/Soviet favorites were on tap: for an overture, the witty Colas Bruegnon Overture by Kabalevsky, the ever popular Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1, and the Prokofiev Symphony # 5. Music Director Michael Stern was on the podium, with Vladimir Feltsman piano in the Tchaikovsky.

Of all of Kabalevsky's many works only a few such as the Colas Bruegnon Overture, the Comedians Suite and occasionally one of the concerti are heard today, in contrast to the popularity of his contemporaries Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Of the three, Kabalevsky was certainly the more conventional and managed to stay out of trouble with the authorities. Although he was on Zhdanov's famous list, he escaped with nothing more than a warning.

Colas, a 3 act opera about a year in the life of an irrepressible French wood carver and the characters in his village, is a witty and vigorous piece, a perfect festive opener. Stern and the orchestra gave it a sparkling and enjoyable performance, marred only by some over aggressive brass in spots.

Feltsman certainly has an affinity with the Tchaikovsky, as any Russian pianist should, thus his formidable technique and his love for the music was on full display. Unfortunately, his technique and enthusiasm made Feltsman a bit of a pounder in this performance, something the music needs in some spots (the opening of course) but less of in the middle movement and the more lyrical second theme of the sprawling first movement. The big movement seemed to bog a bit as it went along spinning out theme after theme, but Feltsman and the orchestra whipped up a stunning ending that left the orchestra and audience breathless. They received one of the longest and most enthusiastic mid-work rounds of applause I ever encountered. Feltsman, bemused at first, won the audience over with his encouraging gestures. Stern made sure the audience knew there was more to come.

The sweet second movement was appropriately languid and almost impressionistic in the simple A section and lovingly dance like in the middle. This was the most successful movement as Feltsman demonstrated that his technique and power could also gently rock and sing.The brisk, frolicking finale benefited from Feltsman's power and drive, so much so the orchestra struggled some to keep up. The usually fine KC Symphony winds added some wonderful color throughout, but the strings were feeling a bit underpowered and disengaged, especially as the work progressed. Still the large and appreciative audience gave all a hearty accolade.

The mighty Prokofiev 5th received a brisk, damn the torpedos performance bringing out the underlying tension of this powerful work written in the waining days of WW II. The winds had a field day with Prokofiev's shrieking and motoric writing. Stern milked the brooding and turbulent 3rd movement most effectively, allowing the finale to propel the work to a blaze of fireworks at the conclusion. My only disappointment there was the way too understated, manic "clockwork" passage just before the final cadences. I was told that the orchestra was particularly uncomfortable due to some awful humidity that seemed not to succumb to the theatre air conditioning. Thus they played the Prokofiev without jackets. Perhaps the heat and humidity contributed to a performance that seemed relentlessly rushed in spots and dotted with some rough entrances and ensemble. Nonetheless, it was basically a convincing and powerful performance of this symphonic masterpiece and a fitting end to the season.

I look forward to my usual balcony Row G 7 seat next year for the Martinu 4th, Berlioz Harold in Italy, the US premiere of Avner Dorman's "Frozen In Time" Percussion Concerto (which I got to hear a preview performance courtesy of this most charming and friendly composer, the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn, Jonathan Biss in Brahms and Stefan Jackiw in Bruch, among other great pieces. And foremost, the last full season in the lovely but uncomfortable and acoustically lousy Lyric Theatre.

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