Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Kansas City Symphony:Recording Preview Concert

In addition to being uniformly excellent, the Kansas City Symphony can also be called “gutsy”. A new recording from the New York Philharmonic seems to be a world wide event due to its rarity, and we here little or nothing out of former recording giants Cleveland, Philadelphia and Chicago. So here is our local band awaiting the release of its 5th recording, is in the process of recording its 6th and has the 7th in the planning stages. How things have changed.

The Kansas City Symphony is also gutsy in its choice of works to record. Often, regional orchestras record works that perhaps they have premiered, have a local connection or are not exactly standard repertoire. The Kansas City recordings have featured works by Britten, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Prokofiev and Bartok, to name a few, that are standard repertoire or have “definitive” recordings. The current project, again being recorded by Reference Recordings, is a blend of the familiar and rare: an all Saint-Saëns disc with the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for Violin and Orchestra op. 28 , the less known “La Muse et le Poete”, op 132 for Violin, Cello and Orchestra and the popular Symphony # 3 “Organ” op 78. Concertmaster Noah Geller is the violin solo, Principal Mark Gibbs is on cello and Jan Kraybill handles the Cassavant organ. Michael Stern was on the podium.

"La Muse et le Poète," for solo violin, solo cello and orchestra orchestra is undoubtedly the least known of the three works. A Late work, La Muse shows the influence of Debussy, Ravel and the younger French school, with its denser harmonies, lush orchestration and rhapsodic form. The two soloists are rarely heard together, the work is more of a spirited conversation than any deep, dramatic encounter. Both violin and cello are treated to many virtuoso passages, which both Geller and Gibbs negotiated with poise and flair. This recording has some competition, notably with Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis that seems to be out of print, but on first hearing, this well recorded and passionate performance should stand up nicely.

The Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso is a much earlier work (1863 ), written in Spanish mode for the virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate. Plenty of competition for this short but always entertaining chestnut, but on first hearing this performance stands well with the rest. Geller's tone was always precise and clear, his rubato in the famous rondo theme was just right, the many double stops perfectly executed and always sympathetic orchestra accompaniment. The dramatic introduction was pleading and romantic, a perfect foil for the more animated rondo.

The well known Symphony # 3 “Organ” will complete the disc and thus was the finale for the evening's program. The orchestra chose this work to inaugurate the organ back in June of 2012 and this performance, with Jan Kraybill at the organ instead of Paul Jacobs, was quite similar. Impressive then as now was how well the organ was integrated into the whole orchestral fabric. The whole performance was stately with a quite slow second movement that might not find favor with all but certainly accentuated the lushness of the movement. The organ's grand entrance in the final movement was grand but not earth shattering; again it was more integrated to the texture. Stern kept the final moments under control as well, not letting the tympani blows turn into a frenzy of uncoordinated sound and fury. A cool-ish performance, some might want it more white hot, but this one concentrated on the music not the showmanship.

Another star of the evening was the array of microphones arranged for the recording. Not only did they threaten to send Maestro Stern and the soloists flying off the stage, the raising of the microphone stand to capture the organ got a hearty ovation itself.

Look for a new Reference Recordings Kansas City Symphony release soon: Prokofiev “Love for Three Oranges”, Hindemith “Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber” and the Bartok Suite from the Miraculous Mandarin.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Kansas City Symphony Finale: Mozart and Strauss

Two grand symphonic statements by Mozart and Richard Strauss comprised the final program of the 2012-2013 subscription season of the Kansas City Symphony. Mozart's late masterpiece the Symphony # 40 in g K 550 and Strauss' last symphonic poem, a monument to his beloved Alps, the Eine Alpensinfonie op 64 of 1915. Michael Stern was on the podium.

Mozart's Symphony # 40 in g K 550 was completed on July 25, 1788 in that remarkable summer which also produced the 39th in June and the monumental 41st in August. Although fairly short and, with the exception of the revised version with the added clarinets, very conventionally scored, Mozart was looking on to Beethoven and Schubert, not to the past. With this symphony and its brothers, he was creating the standard for symphonic works that would stand for a century.

Stern was not in anyway trying to recreate the symphony as Mozart may have heard it. This was Mozart in the mode of Bruno Walter or George Szell, big, bold and symphonic.

The deservedly popular and familiar first movement was nervous and charged, brimming with restless energy. The weight and heft of Beethoven was present in the The second movement, somewhat on the brisk side, still sang and flowed with just the right sigh of regret.The minuet danced, to be sure, but there was more than a touch of the more complex and substantial scherzo feeling in the performance. The finale was taken at a fair clip, charged with anguished intensity, which fit in with the generally quick tempi of the other movements.

The orchestra was well blended and responsive throughout. Stern led with great clarity and focus, free of sentimentality and fussiness. The usually fine winds were also in great form as were the pair of horns, especially clear and blended in the trio of the Minuet. Not the most subtle and elegant Mozart I have heard, and rightly so, this is Mozart at his most dramatic and almost romantic. A vital and valid performance.

Strauss' ultimate symphonic poem is not a symphony in the formal sense nor is it a piece brimming with long, developed melodies and motifs. An Alpine Symphony is tone painting and musical story telling at its epitome. For this sprawling work to be a satisfying musical experience, it simply can not sound like a series of vignettes and unrelated episodes or just a  great deal of noise from a huge  orchestra. It is a journey through a day above all, albeit a rugged, colorful and exciting adventurous day; from a slow, misty morning, through the sunrise, the climb, the mountain top, storm and descent to a quiet night.

The atmospheric opening (marred a touch by some iffy brass intonation) set forth an exciting and well paced performance that never bogged down. The brass certainly redeemed their minor foible with a commanding, burnished sound even when heard en masse with the Wagner tubas, extra tubas and trombones. The large off stage brass contingent was well co-ordinated and just distant enough to make its affect and yet be totally audible. The winds were at their best, even the rarely heard or seen heckelphone. The organ, when called upon, blended well and provided the deep, resonate foundation that is required.

Now and then we heard some strained entrances and the brass and winds overwhelmed the strings occasionally. But the percussion fueled storm raged, the sun glinted in high woodwinds and trumpets from the icy summit and he sun set with poignancy, fading quietly and hauntingly into the night.

Maybe 4-5 seasons ago, the orchestra would not have been able to handle such a monumental work. Of course, most of the orchestra would not have fit on the old lyric stage, there would have been a feeble electronic organ and the sound muddled. Then also, the level of playing has risen annually as to where one has to remember we are in Kansas City and not say New York or Chicago.

A most glorious way to end a fine season of music with one of the nation's finest orchestras.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Kansas City Symphony: Berg, Schubert and Ruggles

Two “greats” from different eras comprised the penultimate and highly anticipated program of the 2102-2013 Kansas City Symphony season. Michael Stern, Music Director, conducted. The first half featured the Violin Concerto by Alban Berg, Gil Shaham as solo. The last half was comprised of Schubert's last symphony, the glorious C major number 9.

As a bonus, Maestro Stern selected American composer Carl Ruggles’ brief yet haunting “Angels” for muted brass to open the evening. This strange, ephemeral work blended brilliantly with the mood and tone of the Berg. The brass intonation was a tad off in spots and the entrances were a bit ragged, but the over all effect was achieved. As the final note of “Angels” faded, the lights illuminated the whole orchestra and soloist Gil Shaham launched into the equally ephemeral opening passage of the Berg concerto, barely at audible level. A fine piece of programming.

If any work can convince a skeptic that the twelve-tone school of composers did not always write “ugly music” it would be the exquisite Alban Berg Violin Concerto from 1935. A touching and glowing instrumental requiem for Manon Gropius, daughter of Architect Walter Gropius and Mahler's widow Alma, the Violin Concerto has emerged as Alban Berg's most popular work. It was also his last completed work.

Berg carefully chose the notes of his tone row; which frequently teeters on the edge of tonality, placing the work between the Vienna of Beethoven and Johann Strauss and that of Schoenberg and beyond.
In that light, Stern correctly read the concerto as a requiem cast as a grandly unfolding waltz laced with Bach and folk song.

Berg conceived his Concerto in two movements, each then subdivided into two parts. The opening Andante presents the twelve-tone row on which the concerto is based, immediately establishing a tonal and contemplative mood. The more animated second half, marked Allegretto, serves as a scherzo with two trios and was described by the composer as a portrait of Manon Gropius. In this section, we hear music associated with the vivacious young actress including folk dances, waltzes, and even a section that is to be played “Wienerisch” or 'Viennese”. With the entrance of the folk song, the movement quickly becomes bitter and colder; death is approaching.

From this nostalgic and wistful movement, we plunge into the more dramatic and funereal second. The allegro first section, which the composer designated “Catastrophe,” serves as the concerto's dramatic cadenza, building to the work’s climax. After the shattering climax, the work relaxes in a mood of resignation. Berg quotes a Bach chorale “Es ist genug,” (It is Enough) from his cantata O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort ( Eternity, you thundering word), a cantata of farewell and acceptance of death.

The conclusion, marked “Deliverance,” develops the chorale theme into a rhapsodic “Requiem for Manon”. Themes from earlier sections are quoted, reflecting times past.

The performance was leisurely, thoroughly Romantic and lush, one that took time to explore and highlight the torrent of melodic cells, harmonic nuances and rhythmic vitality inherent in Berg's masterpiece. Shaham was a sympathetic soloist, completely absorbed in the concerto's message of life, death, and deliverance. His tone bit and snarled as required in the agitated passages and just as easily sweetly sang when called upon. The second movement's opening cadenza had an appropriately improvisatory feeling. In the quiet final moments, some of the most sublime music ever penned, both the orchestra and the violin were shimmering and luminous; a glimpse of transfiguration.

Schubert's music, whether instrumental or vocal, is the epitome of song. Thus any fine performance of his music simply must sing. Stern's performance of the “Great” was brisk, with the latent power on full display but under fine control. And yes, it sang... never losing sight of Schubert's long, lyrical lines. The horns were magnificent in their opening call to prayer answered by the solemn alleluia of the strings. The whole first movement progressed like a force of nature from this solemn opening to the ecstatic final measures. The andante second movement was beautifully shaped and again on the brisk side rising to a most terrifying but not hysterical climax. A well proportioned scherzo with a lyrical, waltzing trio and a gone-like-gangbusters stomp of a finale completed this colorful, energetic and stylish performance.

The whole concert, the iffy brass in “Angels” an exception, featured some of the most committed playing from all sections of the orchestra this season. And what can serve as a better finale than this? The grand and glorious Strauss “Ein Alpensinfonie” concludes the season June 7-9.