Sunday, January 09, 2011

Kansas City Symphony: Dukas, Strauss and Prokofiev

It is likely that for some last night's Kansas City Symphony program was a bit of a revelation. Surely some in the audience had never heard Dukas' charming "Scherzo: L'apprenti sorcier" without a frenetic mouse and marching mops or realized that Richard Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra" was actually 30 minutes long, not just the opening minute or two fanfare. Music Director Michael Stern (who we hear will be with us for an additional 5 years) conducted with Van Cliburn Award winner Haochen Zhang soloist in the Prokofiev 3rd Piano Concerto.

Dukas' 1897 masterpiece is a textbook study in the art of the symphonic scherzo, vividly retelling the story of the sorcerer and his apprentice who over hears some of the wizard's spells and uses them himself with comic results. This was a spritely performance, light and fleet of winds and brass with well accented percussion. The all important bassoons were light and comical, as they should be. The subterranean contrabassoon rumbled the house to the delight of the audience. More than a Mickey Mouse piece, this is a superb (and all so enjoyable) composition given a fine performance.

Van Cliburn Competition winner Haochen Zhang is often mentioned in the same breath along with his fellow compatriots Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. His considerable talents were aptly showcased in Prokofiev's popular and bravura Piano Concerto # 3 from 1921. Zhang captured the steely brilliance of this showpiece without banging and minimal histrionics as you-know-who (mentioned above... rhymes with bang) would do. Every note was clear and ringing, and there were lot of them. Stern and the orchestra provided and equally impressive accompaniment, following the twists and turns of this complex score with care and precision without being mechanical. Zhang and Stern also took pains to milk the frequent lyrical passages to their fullest, providing some relief from the relentless torrent of sound. Zhang's Chopin encore demonstrated he could make the piano sweetly sing.

Strauss' "Zarathustra" received a fine performance marred by a somewhat rushed opening and an anemic (alas electric) organ that just didn't provide enough grandeur. The following "Von den Hinternweltern" section warmly glowed, the grand reappearance of the three note fanfare theme in "Der Genesende" shook the house with the pause (remember when this was the LP side break??) just the right length for dramatic effect and the guest Concertmistress (damn I did not write her name down) was wonderful in the waltz tinged "Tanzlied". The high winds were spot on in the delicate closing moments, but the horns bobbled some of the more climactic moments. Not a bad performance, just short of drama and of the needed power that a larger ensemble would bring.

Next week, a concert I have been looking forward to hearing: Martinu's wonderful 4th Symphony.

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