Sunday, March 20, 2011

Kansas City Symphony: Latin American Extravaganza??

Billed by the marketing department as a "Latin American Extravaganza", the weekend's Kansas City Symphony concerts were really more "la música sobre de América Latina" than "la música Latino Américana". Yes, there were some wild dances and throbbing drums, but the selections were far from a rum laced fiesta and with A veddy British Vaughan Williams piece in the middle to boot.

Music Director Michael Stern was on the podium leading the orchestra in "Sidereus" a new orchestral work by Osvaldo Golijov, the Viola Concerto by Krzysztof Penderecki (pat me on the back, I actually spelled his name correctly without looking it up), the "The Wasps, Aristophanic Suite" by Ralph Vaughan Williams and 4 Dances from Estancia by Alberto Ginastera. Roberto Diaz was the soloist in the Penderecki.

Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov burst on the music scene a few years ago with his world music influenced and visceral compositions "La Pasión Según San Marco" (The Passion according to St Mark") and the opera "Ainadamar" about the life and death of poet Federico Garcia Lorca. Although I initially was taken with the power and rhythm of "La Pasión", deeply inspired by Latin American singing and worship, its overall sameness, relentless percussion orchestra and wailing vocals wore thin over time. "Ainadamar" simply failed to make a strong impression as well.

Sidereus is the first strictly orchestral work of Golijov's that I have heard. The work was commissioned by 35 orchestras in the US as a tribute to the career of renowned orchestra manager Henry Fogel and premiered in Memphis in 2010. The title is drawn from Galileo's book "Sidereus Nuncius" (Starry Messenger)written by the astronomer after first observing the moon through his telescope and discovering the moons of Jupiter.

The 10 minute work is scored for a very conventional orchestra with only tympani for percussion. A rising motive usually in horns and brass, described in the notes as being "inspired by the moon over Patagonia" is paired with arpeggio phrases from winds and strings. Frankly the work is pleasant, certainly well crafted and reminiscent of movie music in many respects, and more than a bit disappointing in its lack of vision and architecture, despite the fine performance by the symphony.

The haunting, almost funereal Viola Concerto by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki from 1983 would seem to have little, if any, connection to Latin America. But lo it does as it is the result of a commission from Venezuela for the 200th anniversary of the birth of liberator Simon Bolivar. The 20 minute concerto in one movement is typical of Penderecki's move towards a more tonal post-Romantic style. Although craggy at times, the work is primarily elegiac and dark in tone, serving the viola's tenor tone quite well. A dark and powerful opening soliloquy leads to the body of the work which juxtaposes a series of contrasting tempi episodes and virtuoso cadenzas for the viola. The coda is an almost nostalgic recap of the opening soliloquy. Diaz was in full command of his rich instrument (a monumental 1595 Amati Viola once owned by William Primrose) and communicated the deep pathos and committed passion of a liberator which lie beneath the surface of this moving work. Stern and the orchestra maneuvered through the often thick texture with commanding ease, never diminishing the soloist.

If Diaz played the violin he would be an internationally celebrated name. His contributions to music as the former principal viola in Phildelphia and Washington DC, member of the Minnesota and Boston SO and the current President and CEO of the Curtis Institute of Music, should earn him the acclaim this incredible artist deserves.

The Vaughan Williams "Wasps" suite is a sizable piece based on incidental music he wrotein 1909 for Aristophanes' play "The Wasps". About the only thing "Aristophanic" about the piece is the buzzing motif from the overture and the clever March of the Utensils, part of the absurd trial of the dog in the play. The music is always fun, if not really top drawer Vaughan Williams. The fine winds of the symphony were on display in this brisk and lively performance. Rumor has it that the symphony is going to record this music for an upcoming release on Reference Recordings, echoing the success of the recent Britten recording that won a Grammy Award.

Alberto Ginastera's suite from the ballet "Estancia", an early work from this most fascinating composer, concluded this concert. Ginastera's 1943 work was based on scenes from life on an Argentine ranch (an "estancia") and was the most overtly "Latin" music of the evening. Especially memorable was the atmospheric and tender "Wheat Dance" featuring sweetly glowing and tender solos from the flute, harp and woodwinds. The concluding "Final Dance: Malambo" was a fiesta of drums, braying horns and repetitive foot stomping rhythm. A most fitting conclusion to a satisfying concert, but hardly a "Latin American Extravaganza".

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