Thursday, February 09, 2012

Kansas City Symphony: Audiophile Recording

A group of about 400 invited subscribers and friends of the Kansas City Symphony gathered at Helzberg Hall Wednesday for a most interesting and enlightening experience, a preview concert of a new recording of the Symphony by Reference Recordings. Gone forever, it seems, are the days when the major orchestras of the US and Europe churned out new recordings by the dozens every month on the great labels of the era… Columbia, Deutsche Gramophon, Decca… conducted by the giants of the time. Filling that gap are smaller labels like Reference Recordings who produce a smaller number of fine recordings each year.  Lucky for us here, Reference has forged a bond with our local band and has released two well received recordings, including a Grammy winner.

I have to give all involved great credit for daring to record major standard repertoire pieces that often have some very heady competition. No unknown or unrecorded composers or works on this latest disc containing three 20th century orchestral showpieces, Prokofiev’s “Love for Three Oranges” Suite, Bartok’s “Miraculous Mandarin” Suite and Hindemith’s “Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber.”

This was no mere run though to test the microphones (although that really was the main purpose). We were treated to a true, focused concert with some of the best playing I have ever heard from the KCS, and we have heard a lot; crisp, exciting, lyrical, brisk but not excessive tempi and visceral. The Prokofiev crackled with wit and snap, the often violent and complex score of the Bartok was breathtaking, clear and detailed without being fussy. Those paying attention may have noted the organ pedals at the beginning, the first time many have heard the mighty new Casavant organ. Michael Stern’s very first concert as Music Director included the Hindemith Metamorphosis and wowed the audience then. This one was even better with fabulous wind solos, chiming and clean percussion, and dancing rhythms.

On hand were Reference Recordings’ wizards of sound, “Professor” Keith Johnson, the finest recording engineer around and producer David Frost, the best of his profession as well. This team, as Maestro Stern noted, has won about as many Grammy Awards as there were people in the hall. With the orchestra focused and enthused, the already fine sound of Helzberg Hall and the RR team.. can you say “instant audiophile classic”? Sure you can.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Kansas City Symphony Mahler 2

They say no one likes a show-off, but can we make an exception for the Kansas City Symphony? When you have a fine new venue such as Helzberg Hall you just have to show everyone what it can do. A work tailor made for showing what a hall and ensemble can do was the sole work on this weekend’s program, Mahler’s grand Symphony # 2 “Resurrection”. Michael Stern led the combined forces of the Symphony and Chorus with Kelly O’Connor and Jessica Rivera as soloists.

Much like the previous Symphony #1, the “Resurrection” was slow to evolve into its final form. The first movement started as a tone poem titled Totenfeier (Funeral Rites), written in 1888. The middle movements, 2 and 3, date from 1893. The problem was finding the right text for his proposed choral final movement. Conductor Hans von Bulow’s funeral in 1894 provided the inspiration and the text, Friedrich Klopstock's “Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection)”, a setting of which was performed at the funeral. After composing the finale, Mahler went back and inserted a short song “Urlicht” just before the finale, sort of a transition from the worldly to the heavenly.  Also like the first, Mahler toyed with programmatic subtitles and descriptions of the movements, up until the work’s premiere. They were later abandoned, letting the music speak for itself.

From the very first gruff flourish of the lower strings I sensed that this might be a slightly cool “Resurrection”. Stern and the orchestra just seemed to lack the n’th degree of drama that marks the very best of performances of this monster of a symphonic movement. As the movement progressed, great details abounded; crisp, precise percussion, well executed wind solos and careful focus on dynamics, the latter most essential. The forces found their moxie in the grand build up and exhausted collapse that occurs after the development and by the end of the movement the inherent drama was emerging.

Stern wisely followed Mahler’s instructions to observe an at least 5 minute gap between the first and second movements, something that is not often done today and missing on a recording unless you do it your self. It allows one to digest the sprawling first movement and illustrates the contrast of the more delicate and less episodic movements to come.

Those who follow my musical scribbling realize I often march to a slightly off beat drummer. Thus I am one who feels the three inner movements are more interesting and even fulfilling than the more stormy and grandiose first and last movements. They are among Mahler’s most sublime and intricately scored symphonic statements.I can’t decide if the second movement or third is my favorite… or maybe “Urlicht”.

The second, “Andante moderato, in the style of a Ländler”, is a delicate, flowing and subtle statement. If taken too slow and square, it degenerates into a vulgar waltz, or at worst, a static, lilt challenged (thank you for that phrase Maestro) mess. But under Stern’s capable leadership, this incredible movement flowed with a perfect tempo and just the right amount of rubato. The work’s scherzo “In ruhig fließender Bewegung” (With quietly flowing movement) was appropriately ghostly, tinged with irony and even humor. The KCS trumpets were magnificent in the strange, off kilter waltz episode about half way through the movement. The clear acoustics and Stern’s attention to detail allowed us to hear all the strings and harps that are also moving behind the brass. The powerful final “death cry” brought this demonic section to a screeching halt, just as Mahler wanted.

Picky note: the rute or bundle of reeds Mahler calls for in this movement was just right; a part of the texture and not a jarring slap. I listen for this and have dismissed performances of this fascinating movement if the rute wakes me from my reverie.  Also, am I the only one who can channel Luciano Berio’s “Sinfonia” while hearing this movement? Those who can, know what I am talking about… those who can’t need not bother.

The short “Urlicht” movement was, in my most humble opinion, the most sublime example of the vocal art I have ever heard in Kansas City. As when I heard her perform the same part in St Louis last season, Mezzo Kelly O’Connor’s cognac colored voice just materialized from the ghostly gong stroke that closes the scherzo. Major kudos go to the KCS brass who did not muck up the serenely reverent chorale after this glorious moment, as its cross state rivals did. Maybe I am a man of few words, or more likely of simple thought, but for me “Urlicht” is the true emotional high of the work; an epiphany of understanding and hope. Every time I hear it, I am reduced to a blubbering fool. Consider it done again.

O red rose!
Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!
How I would rather be in heaven….

In my warped world, Mahler could have ended the whole thing there. But we’d miss the excitement of the stunning finale, with the huge chorus alternately whispering and shouting, instruments parading on and off the stage, (practically an entire orchestra is placed off-stage), and a percussionist mounting a ladder to sound the dark, metallic chimes at a couple of climactic moments. I was concerned that such a large chorus would not be able to negotiate the more quiet and introspective passages, but they did with clear diction and subtle power, although the opening “Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n” at its best a hushed, expectant whisper, was a bit too forceful. Soprano Jessica Rivera soared over the massed choral voices in her brief but essential part. Sadly, the new Cassavant Organ is not ready and we had to settle for the feeble electronic organ for the subterranean pedal points at the end.

The fine acoustics, spacious stage and choral loft certainly helped, but I am sure Stern, the orchestra and chorus would have provided us with just as fine and committed a performance anywhere they performed.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Europa Galante Chamber Orchestra: Vivaldi Pyrotechnics

Sometimes, the best laid plans... I had looked forward to seeing my conducting hero Stanislaw Skrowaczewski  perform the Schubert 9th in St Louis. At 88, he can't be conducting much longer. I thought the same when I saw him do the Bruckner 8th in St Louis in 2009, so hope I am wrong. But, horrid wet and stormy weather and threat of overnight and AM fog kept me at home.

Plan B, my neighbor had an extra ticket to the performance of The Europa Galante Chamber Orchestra, Fabio Biondi leading, with guest Mezzo Soprano Vivica Genaux. I was not all that thrilled at first, as Baroque music, Vivaldi and florid singing are not among my top choices. I hope I got a seat where I could sneak out early if needed.

I ended up staying for a most remarkable and exciting show.

Biondi and his small band have made a name for themselves by dusting off the works of Vivaldi and his contemporaries with exciting and visceral programs. No slow, scratchy, out of tune, bland and pedantic "authentic" performance here. The orchestra is usually two or three to a part with harpsichord, theorbo, and violine on continuo. The orchestra is usually two or three to a part with harpsichord, theorbo, and violine on continuo and they tune their instruments to the standard of the time. Whether you call them historically informed or authentic, their sound and vitality is heads above some other groups I have heard which seem to sap all the life out of the works.

Alaskan born mezzo Vivica Genaux is in demand for her vivid portrayals of baroque opera roles, her incredible technique and her equal ability with bel canto roles. She has a vibrant and engaging stage presence, may be a bit over-the-top drama at times but one can tell she loves the music and loves performing it even more.

The intelligently arranged program juxtaposed string works by Vivaldi, Locatelli and Nardini with arias from Vivaldi's operas including "Tito Manilo", "Farnace" and "Catone in Utica".

Genaux probably sang more notes in the evening than did the all the members of the chorus singing the Mahler Second down the street. Her runs and leaps were breathtaking and always clear. She verily oozed the drama and passion in the arias, many of them likely written for castrati. Most notable: the poignant "E prigonerio e re" (I am both prisoner and king) from "Semiramide" and "Alma oppressa" from "La fida ninfa". In her final aria "Agitata da due venti" ("I am tossed by two winds") from "Adelade" , Genaux's torrent of runs and trills literally blew across the audience like stormy winds.

The band's instrumental selections were equally fine. Vivaldi's Concerto for 2 Violins in A minor was so admired by Bach that it is one he transcribed for keyboard. Biondi and the leader of the second violins Andrea Rognoni were equally fine solos for this vibrant work. The Locatelli Concerto Grosso Op.7 # 6 "The Weeping of Arianna" with its sobbing phrases and long Largo sections, was particularly compelling and totally unknown to me. Simply fine examples of baroque writing and performance.

So, although I was tinged with regret over not travelling to St Louis for the Schubert, I was rewarded with a new (to me) discovery in the Europa Galante Orchestra... one that I will be exploring in the future.