Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Kansas City Symphony: Dvorak, Mendelssohn and Rachmaninoff

Opening nights for a concert or subscription often serve to set the tone for the rest of the season. Themes to be explored, focus composers, emphasis on a certain era are introduced to the crowds, providing a taste of evenings yet to come. The opening weekend concerts of the 2013-2014 Kansas City Symphony was a prime example. The program, much like the season to come, focused on standard repertoire favorites, popular guest soloists and a chance to hear orchestral showpieces in the new sound of Helzberg Hall. Music Director Michael Stern was in town to conduct three vibrant works in the romantic tradition, the Dvorak Scherzo capriccioso op 66, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with Stefan Jackiw and to conclude, the Symphonic Dances op45.

After the opening sing along of the Star Spangled Banner (an opening weekend tradition started by Maestro Stern a couple of seasons ago) Stern took a moment to recognize the accomplishments of Conductor Emeritus Russell Patterson who died last week at 85. If it were not for Patterson and his supporters, Kansas City would not have the internationally recognized symphony or opera company it has now. In tribute, Stern and the orchestra performed the majestic and solemn “Nimrod” from Elgar's “Enigma Variations”.

Written between the 6th and 7th symphonies, the Scherzo capriccioso has been, since its premiere in 1883, one of Dvorak's most continuously popular works. Sunny and good natured, yet with a just a hint of wistful nostalgia in the waltzing second theme, this substantial scherzo, lovingly and robustly performed by Stern and his forces, made for a most radiant and satisfying opener. The orchestra was in fine form, Stern took his usual brisk but not rushed tempo, keeping the folksy dance rhythms taught yet supple. The harp (Deborah Wells Clark), English horn (Kenneth Lawrence) and massed horns added special moments in their important solos.

Stefan Jackiw is no stranger to Kansas City, having performed solo concerts with the Harriman-Jewel series and performing the Bruch Scottish Fantasy in his last appearance with the Kansas City Symphony.

Jackiw brought a level of youthful energy and musical intelligence to the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. His technical brilliance, shimmering, lithe tone combined with the able contribution of the orchestra created a most memorable performance of this immensely popular work. Jackiw is a thoughtful soloist, technically able as noted, but not flamboyant or mannered. Never did the opening of the first movement or the whole of the second movement become flowery and sticky. The hushed return of the Andante's famous flowing theme was magically transparent and almost other worldly. Cadenzas were rapid fire and showy without being vulgar or out of place. Stern's well paced tempi and trademark attention combined with Jackiw's flexible, musical tone reminded us this concerto, abundant of melody and song, was also often tinged with a bit of underlying drama and tension. Nowhere was this more evident in the brisk, dancing and brilliant finale, the opening moments a shade darker than expected soon erupting in propulsive energy taking the work to a exuberant but again never vulgar end. As fine a performance of this chestnut as one could ever want.

The last half of the concert comprised a single work, Sergei Rachmaninoff''s valedictory orchestral work,"Symphonic Dances" op 45 of 1940. Stern and company gave a focused and energetic performance, relishing the many tempo changes, snappy rhythms and colorfully scored passages of Rachmaninoff's valedictory work. Helzberg Hall's livelier, clearer sound, allowed the more delicate details emerge, the important glittering harp passages, the deep, thick piano chords and subtle wind passages. Bravo to the uncredited alto saxophone solo, well done and nicely integrated into the orchestral fabric. Only wish was for a stronger string section to really dig into the many animated, machine like passages in the final movement, especially in the break-neck coda.

I admit to being a Symphonic Dances snob, and find it the one Rachmaninoff piece I turn to most often. Thus I waited throughout the performance for the one moment that, for this warped mind, makes or breaks the performance. For the performance to not be ruined forever, the conductor should follow the composer's "LV" (let vibrate) notation for final stroke of the gong. It should reverberate for a few seconds after the orchestra stops and allowed to fade, not just be a loud cymbal crash. Stern took the “Goldilocks” approach and let the gong ring “just right”, letting it fade into silence after its commanding entrance.