Sunday, June 24, 2012

Kansas City Symphony Season Finale: Pärt, Hovhaness & "The Ninth"

Undoubtedly Beethoven's evergreen Symphony # 9 in D minor is a fitting choice to conclude a festive season of Kansas City Symphony concerts. Symphonic music in Kansas City has enjoyed a veritable seismic shift with the new hall and excellent musicianship from the orchestra and chorus, much as the music world experienced in 1824 when Beethoven himself premiered his new work. The unprecedented inclusion of soloists and chorus, the monumental length and a scherzo fully removed from its minuet forebears paved the way for symphonies by Berlioz, Bruckner, Saint-Saëns (the Organ Symphony heard just last week), Mahler and beyond that little resembled those of Haydn or Mozart.

At about an hour, the Beethoven 9th is not quite long enough for a full evening but long enough that a traditional opening half of an overture and a concerto would be a bit too much. Thus choosing the accompanying works can be as challenging as the music itself. I admit that when I first heard that Maestro Stern had selected the Hovhaness Symphony # 2 (Mysterious Mountain) I blurted out a quite positive reaction that can not be published here due to some “adult” language. Let's just say “Brilliant” was part of the phrase.

The Hovhaness work, written in 1955 for Leopold Stokowski, serves as a perfect prelude to the affirming Beethoven not because of any reference to “mountains”, the whole concept of the unscaleable, monumental or even mountain-top expression of joy. Hovhaness, in several interviews, admitted the title was given to the work after its completion at the suggestion of Stokowski, thus there is really little overtly “mountain” about it. Why it works, and why it worked so effectively in last night's concert, is that its meditative beauty and sweetness is a musical expression of the joy of serenity, something that is lacking in our time and an essential foil to the more overtly visceral joy of Beethoven's symphony.

The addition of Pärt's “Fratres” as the first work on the program served as a sort of bookend to the whole evening. A simple, chant-like call to prayer and meditation on brotherhood emerges from an elemental, deep drone and primitive wood and skin percussion, the very primal spark that leads humankind to the mighty acclamation of “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” that sends the 9th to its victorious close.

Both Fratres and Mysterious Mountain seem easy and repetitive at first hearing, but neither work is a walk in the park for an orchestra. Taken too fast, they lose their serenity, too slow they become sheer boredom. If the conductor or orchestra loses concentration, they are a sticky goo.

Fratres received the most leisurely performance of the evening, Stern and the orchestra made the most of the undulating strings' slowly shifting progression, punctuated by the dry and brittle percussion. The simple, elegant work belies the complex, almost mathematical relationships between the chords and their progression, the first spark of science and logic that really can go hand in hand along with brotherhood and human spirituality.

Stern's “Mysterious Mountain” bordered on the fast side but his attention to detail and to color won the day. The quick tempo and attention to rhythm served the exciting double fugue center section well (listen to Hovhaness' Prelude and Quadruple Fugue for an equally fascinating exploration of the fugal form). The important brass, harp and celesta parts added their unique timbre and color to the string dominated piece. Stern's compelling performance and his straight from the heart short talk before the work served to inspire and enlighten the audience, many of whom I would imagine were hearing Hovhaness for the first time. For this long time Hovhaness fan (I admit to my guilty pleasure), the sight of the audience standing to applaud the work and the performance was worth the whole evening.

Almost, if not totally, deaf by the time it was premiered, Beethoven's Symphony # 9 really is one of humankind's greatest achievements. Schiller's poem "Ode an die Freude" is far from the deepest, most profound writing. Yet Beethoven, in his genius, wrapped it around some of the most sublime and memorable music ever penned and thus created what has to be humankind's national anthem.

Stern and his forces brought out the anger and fire in the often mysterious and stormy first movement, establishing from the start that this was going to be muscular, exciting Beethoven and not stonily monumental, which is fine by me.

Beethoven's fiery scherzo forever kicked the proper and polite minuet to the curb with its pounding tympani and jagged rhythms. And how many of us children of the 60's remember this was the closing theme of the Huntley-Brinkley nightly news? Stern again took the movement at a fair, but not rushed clip. The famous tympani blows were crisp, powerful, clean and well integrated; sometimes they can sound like an unwanted intrusion when too aggressively played. The strings dug into the dancing, angular rhythms with gusto and clarity.

Stern's quick tempi could have been tempered a bit for the flowing and sublime slow movement. But the crystal clear acoustics and Stern's trademark attention to detail brought out all the wonderful inner voices of this prayerful movement.

The orchestra launched headlong into the finale, storming the heavens with the best of them. The soloists, Erin Wall, Soprano; Sasha Cooke, Mezzo; Thomas Cooley, Tenor and Robert Pomakov Baritone were generally superb in the thankless and taxing solo parts. Pomakov seemed to run out of air in the opening O Freunde, nicht diese Töne... and Cooley was overwhelmed by the choir at the end of the Janissary music section, but otherwise they tackled the formidable parts with ease and superb musicianship. The large chorus threatened a couple of times to overwhelm all but were always clear, disciplined, in tune and precise, a real joy to hear. The massed “Seid umschlungen...” was breathtaking. Stern resisted the tendency to drive the concluding orchestral tutti home in a frenetic rush yet made an emphatic and dramatic statement nonetheless.

Thus, all assembled were treated to a journey from the primal awakening of Fratres through the meditation on mountains and ascension to the life-affirming “Seid umschlungen Millionen! Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!” A thought provoking program, well executed.

The Muse willing, see you next season.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Kansas City Symphony: Saint-Saëns and Brahms

A full program and a festival atmosphere was at hand this weekend with the Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern Music Director and conductor. After much preparation and a couple of solo work outs, the newly installed Casavant op 3875 pipe organ was ready for its debut with the orchestra. Paul Jacobs, probably the country's premier organist (had to chuckle when I heard a lady down the row from me wonder if Jacobs is as good as E. Power Biggs was... at least she did not say Virgil Fox), had the honor of introducing the organ to the subscription series in the juicy and deservedly popular Saint-Saëns Symphony # 3 “Organ”. Also on hand was super-star violinist Joshua Bell as soloist in the Brahms Violin Concerto in D. Beginning the extensive program was the world premiere of Stephen Hartke's “Muse of the Missouri”.

Hartke's “Muse of the Missouri”so named after the fountain on Main between 8th and 9th Streets, was the third and final installment of works commissioned to commemorate the opening season of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. All three, Chen Yi's “Fountains of KC” and Daniel Kellogg's “Water Music” took their inspiration from the many fountains that grace Kansas City. Of the three compositions, Hartke's was for me the least successful. As with Respighi's famous fountains, the work seeks to musically depict not only the fountain but the surrounding landscape. Although complete with flowing passages evoking the relentless flow of the fountain and the Missouri River, a jazzy interlude and metropolitan hustle and bustle, “The Muse of the Missouri” was even more generically contemporary than Kellogg's piece. Hartke's use of a banjo could have been almost stereotypically “down home country” and thus condescending, but he used to instrument deftly and coloristically to great effect, much as Mahler did with the guitar and mandolin in the 7th symphony.

Yes, it is time for me to say something nice about Brahms. For a performance of Brahms to be enjoyable, the musicians should take the old granny out of her rocker and give her a nice romp through the park. Stern and soloist Joshua Bell did just that in the Violin Concerto in D op. 77 which filled out the first half of this weekend's program.

What can kill a performance of this huge work is a too long and lazy first movement that makes the other two seem like trifling encores. Bell's perfect intonation and incredible technique combined with Stern's swift (but really not rushed) tempi and attention to the contrasting lyrical and rhythmic episodes really moved the work along allowing the music to sing and flow effortlessly. The imposing first-movement cadenza, in this case composed by Bell, was to my ears a bit jarring and too over-the-top, no matter how technically brilliant it was. This was, for sure, gutsy and visceral Brahms, full of exquisitely executed double-stops, and glorious gypsy dance rhythms in the finale well contrasted with a full but never overwrought central slow movement. The latter mentioned movement opened with a beautifully limpid oboe solo setting the stage for Bell's freely expressive performance. As heard in the intermission chatter, some patrons felt Bell “sawed” his way through the Brahms and was “rough and too fast”. For traditionalists, perhaps that is so. But to my ears, Bell brought the old gal to life. Bell's encore, a set of variations on “Yankee Doodle” were simply super-human. The crystal clear sul ponticello passages were simply indescribable.

And then a second half that was a blockbuster in and of itself.

To fully appreciate not only its power but also its subtlety, the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony must be heard by a fine pipe organ in a grand hall. Recordings, as many celebrated and “demonstration quality” (we used to call them “lease busters”) as there are, do not capture the essence of Saint-Saëns' sound palate. Instead of a recording's impenetrable sonic wall, in a concert hall one can hear the subtle tension of the organ chords in the 2nd part, not just underpinning the orchestra but how they actually are an integral and never overwhelming part of the fabric. At the same time, a listener can fully experience how the organ and orchestra chords meld and progress into the same movement's stately chorale. Same with the grand final movement, the organ is not just a jarring intruder, but again an integrated part of the whole grand scheme.

I also find it amusing that recordings of this work almost always feature a star performer in what is not all that flashy a part. Of the four movements, or sections actually, the organ appears in only two. So as to make amends and for us to fully experience Mr. Jacob's artistry, the second half began with a solo performance of the Elgar Pomp and Circumstance Military March # 1 in D, known to graduates everywhere. Jacob gave the Casavant a fine workout in most rousing and pleasing performance of this chestnut.

Sadly, many performances drag the first section to almost a stand still, but Stern chose a stately yet gently propulsive tempo that let us luxuriate in the strings radiance just long enough. The scherzo section requires some rhythmic crispness from the strings and winds to make its proper effect and Stern and the symphony did just that. When the organ appears in the slow 2nd section, Casavant Frères opus 3875 is roundly voluptuous and sweet but never sticky. In the final section, she wakes up the audience with her glorious, commanding voice. The vast forces combined in a finely paced movement thankfully devoid of the tendency to rush the final chords and tympani cadenza in a frenzy of un-coordinated sound and fury. A fitting introduction of this magnificent organ into the symphony's subscription programs. Now, Maestro, give us a redo of the Berlioz “Te Deum” with a real organ.