Sunday, May 22, 2011

Kansas City Symphony: Brahms, Beethoven and Prokofiev

Ask any of my classical music loving friends and they will tell you Brahms is not high on my list of favorites. There is a notable exception to this and that is the first piece on this weekend's Kansas City Symphony concert, Music Director Michael Stern on the podium: the lovely and compact "Alto Rhapsody", opus 53 performed by Mezzo-Soprano Sasha Cooke as solo and the Kansas City Symphony Chorus. Beethoven's sunny Symphony # 1 and Prokofiev's dramatic cantata "Alexander Nevsky" completed the program.

Written as a wedding present for Robert and Clara Schumann's daughter Julie, this gentle and yet frequently passionate jewel is not frequently heard in concert, probably due to the requirement of a solo alto/contralto and a sizable male chorus. Pity, for it is one of Brahms' most heartfelt and ingenious works. One of my aforementioned problems with Brahms is my perception that his orchestration and sound is colorless and conventional. Although the Rhapsody uses a standard classical orchestra, the deft writing for the alto voice coupled with the subtle power of the male chorus combines to create a stunningly beautiful and powerful message. The chorus is used sparingly, but to say it is in the background negates its important contribution.

Unlike some singers with such a cognac colored voice, Cooke's is clarion clear and free of wobble. The first two verses (from Goethe's "Harzreise im Winter") were appropriately anguished and touched with poignancy. When the clouds lift and the mood and key changes ("If there is on your psalter Father of love, one note his ear can hear then refresh his heart!"), Cooke's voice lightened and soared, the mood fully warmed by the clear and superbly balanced chorus. A most lovely and sincere performance by an artist at the height of her voice, accompanied by a fully seasoned and capable chorus and orchestra.

Beethoven was still under the spell of Papa Haydn when he wrote his Symphony # 1 in the last years of the 18th century, yet one can hear themes, rhythms and motives that will come to full fruition in the Eroica and beyond. Stern and the orchestra were truly in full command of this charming work, bringing out the drama and tension where appropriate and yet milking all its grace and wit as well. Especially noteworthy was the fleet and limber "Menuetto, Allegro molto e vivace" 3rd movement, a full symphonic scherzo in all but name, with precise strings and gaily chattering winds. The finale was taken at a brisk but not inappropriate tempo. The opening slow introduction was colored with the right amount of drama, the skittering strings taking the work to a grand conclusion.

Editorial: But please, KCS audience, WHO (???) is behind all the clapping after each movement? You didn't used to do that, but suddenly it seems all the rage. You all aren't rubes, you know better!

Prokofiev, like his countryman Shostakovich did to a much greater extent, turned to film music to make a living. Prokofiev, however, took his some of his film work and reworked it into concert forms. The score to "Alexander Nevsky", a 1938 Sergei Eisenstein film of the same name, was thus soon reworked by the composer into a dramatic cantata for chorus, mezzo solo and orchestra.

The work in 7 sections culled from the longer film score demands a large orchestra and chorus. Happily, Stern and all the forces delivered a dramatic and convincing performance. The usual God-awful Lyric acoustics muddled the chorus when the orchestra was in full throttle, but for the most part the chorus and orchestra were well balanced. The chorus seemed to be well drilled in this rhythmically challenging music and thus were precise in their diction and clean in their entrances. They certainly could menacingly shout and snarl when called upon, which was quite often.

The opening "Russia under the Mongols" dripped with melancholy over the occupation of Mother Russia, while the chorus foreshadowed the coming battles with their menacing tone. The "Crusaders in Pskov" section mockingly used Latin to evoke the brutal invaders, the chorus and large orchestra oozing with barely contained outrage; leading directly to the boldly confident "Arise ye Russian People", filled with folk song and dance.

Many consider "The Battle on the Ice" section the epitome of battle music and one of the most effective uses of music in film. Stern and the vast forces dug into the music with a furious and cinematic performance. Here the big sound of the full orchestra sometimes shoved the chorus into the background, but the whole sound was perfectly overwhelming.

While "Battle on the Ice" may be the more famous, the following "The Field of the Dead" is in my opinion Prokofiev's supreme achievement. A dark lament of a girl seeking her lost lover, Sasha Cooke's dramatic, tender yet almost shell shocked performance was well neigh perfect. Again, as in the Brahms, Cooke was dark and creamy but never becoming clotted cream. Her lament was sincere and frankly, for me, the highlight of the work. The orchestra and chorus brought the work to a cacophonous, huzzah! conclusion with Alexander's triumphal "Entry into Pskov", bells, brass, percussion (it was fun to watch the percussionist mount the ladder to strike the huge tuned metal plate) and chorus to the fore.

As an aside, it is somewhat unnerving to realize that I have only two more concerts in my now comfortable (well as comfortable as one can be in the cramped balcony, maybe "familiar" is a better term) Right Center Balcony Row G seat 7 perch. The new Kauffman Center is about done, the orchestra was treated to its first rehearsal there (thus making the Beethoven 1st the first music for orchestra heard in the new hall) and from all the buzz is quite spectacular. Sad in a way to see the lovely and historic (oh what great musicians have performed there) become redundant, but KC has a glut of theatre and concert hall venues so I do not see a rosy future for the old girl.

Nevertheless, performances like these make the legacy of the Lyric all the more wonderful and important.

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