Sunday, September 25, 2011

Kansas City Symphony: Music Revolutionized

Admittedly I faced the opening night of the Kansas City Symphony's new season with a bit of trepidation. Going to the new Kauffman Center was a bold change of routine. How do we get to the new  parking garage? Where are our seats? How do we get to them? What door do we use?  Where are the restrooms? The place is so big; will it be a daunting task or a walk in the park? My Symphony partner Gerry and I decided to get there an hour early so we would not get lost in the shufflle.

Turns out it is quite easy. Parking was a snap and is just a few steps to an elevator and then an escalator to get from the garage to the spacious Brandmeyer Great Hall. We had time to explore, enjoy a beverage and see all the assembled humanity. Finding our entrance and seats was easy and not intimidating at all. When we found our entrance we were so pleased to see the same usher that had greeted us for the last few seasons at the Lyric, a serendipitous touch of "home" in the new surroundings. He was as thrilled to be in the new setting as we were.

Our seats in the Grand Tier row AAA (I mean what could be better than Triple-A?) although smack in the middle of a long row, had an amazing high view and were so much more comfortable than the old Lyric Theatre's Balcony Row G  we had occupied for so long.

As for the sound... perfectly balanced, never tricky or harsh. When Maestro Stern, Frank Byrne and Shirley Helzberg spoke without microphones at the beginning of the evening it was as if we were in a room 1/8th the size. The orchestra percussion, which in the Lyric could easily overpower the orchestra, was blended yet totally audible. The pounding bass drum in "The Pines" would have driven me to the street in the Lyric, but in Helzberg Hall it was a powerful texture and presence just as it should be. Every detail is captured; the ppp pizzicati in the Emperor, the harmonics of the piano and harp (with my compromised hearing for me to hear high pitched harmonics is a miracle) and even the middle voices (viola, clarinets, bassoons, etc) were clear instead of a muddy stew. Is it auspicious that we sat in the same row as the renowned acoutician Yashuhisa Toyota, who was here to witness the opening weekend of his creation?  I mean, he has to know where all the good spots are. Unfortunately he was swept up in the sea of people as we left and I could not ask.

And among all this was a concert.

Music Director Michael Stern conducted a program that was tailor made for the inauguration of a new hall and season:  "Fireworks" by Igor Stravinsky, Piano Concerto # 5 "Emperor" by Beethoven with Emanuel Ax as solo, a new commission by Chen Yi  "Fountains of KC" and the "Pines of Rome" by Respighi. We all stood and sang the National Anthem as a start to the festive evening.

Fireworks, as befitting its name, was perfectly festive, incendiary and ephemeral. An early work from 1908, its sparkling orchestration so impressed Serge Diaghilev that he commissioned Stravinsky to compose a ballet for him, the ever popular Firebird. A short and almost fanfare like opener, Fireworks immediately demonstrated to the packed hall that we were now in a new world.

For a grand hall and edifice... a grand and powerful concerto. Of all the sometimes superfluous names given to compositions, "Titan", "Jupiter", "Great", Beethoven's Piano Concerto # 5 truly deserves the moniker "Emperor" no matter how it gained it. Ax and Stern assuredly gave it a most imperial performance; full of fastidious detail (the acoustics helped to illuminate even the most delicate of passages, showing the Emperor was also a kind and subtle monarch) yet demonstrating the potent sonority and energy that makes this a most thrilling and virtuosic concerto. Stern and the hall (both taking advantage of each other) highlighted the often blurred woodwind and brass allowing each note and figure to sound as it should. The subtle contrabass and cello pizzicati were breathtaking as they supported Ax's often delicate lines. The orchestra could quietly support and alternatively boldly declaim as necessary. This somewhat cool and detailed performance was no less valid than a more splashy performance, Ax's command of his gifts was displayed in his restraint and obvious reverence for this masterpiece.

Befitting a new hall and season we were treated to a new work as well. University of Missouri Kansas City professor and renowned composer Chen Yi brought us the first of several works commissioned to celebrate the Kauffman Center and Kansas City's fame as a "City of Fountains" (Kansas City has more public fountains than any other city in the world except for Rome), the imaginative "Fountains of KC". The "KC" can be interpreted as Kansas City or Kauffman Center, whichever you prefer.

This is a piece that deserves to be called "splashy". Evoking fountains, water and liquid in all its forms, "Fountains" is a major addition to Chen Yi's impressive catalogue. (One has to hear her "Si Ji" (Four Seasons) whenever it is recorded or played in your area, a most impressive piece). Spurting water, flowing streams, liquid tempests and palpable excitement permeate the piece. Despite being bi-tonal and even microtonal, Chen Yi's vibrant and imaginative orchestration brings the tone clusters and dissonances to life much as Schoenberg does in his 12 tone works. In her most informative notes, Professor Chen reveals that the style of  Chinese music that inspired "Fountains" is from Xi'an, a Sister City to Kansas City, a most thoughtful touch.

How to demonstrate what a new hall can do? Play Respighi's brash and brassy "Pines of Rome". For all who wish to detract this work, you have to admit it is a showpiece and thus has its place from time to time. Showing off has been a human trait since the cave man days... so who is to argue? Delicate melodies (Principal Clarinet Raymond Santos was beyond superb as was Kristina Goettler's oboe and Kenneth Lawrence's English horn solos), commanding brass, pounding percussion (as noted above wonderfully integrated into the whole texture) and evocative moods... what is not to like? Never descending into total Hollywood (the piece is halfway there as it is) Stern let the sound and power take us away, blowing us all literally away in a tide of sound and color.

Stern and the orchestra gave us a festive recessional, the "Racoczy March" from the Damnation of Faust (please Maestro.. do this piece sometime....) by Berlioz, as we descended the grand staircases for a champagne toast to this most magnificent hall which has revolutionized music in Kansas City forever.

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