Tonight Sandy and I took a trip downtown to attend a Kansas City Symphony performance featuring Mahler Symphony no. 1, which is enough to draw me out into bitter arctic winds. Michael Stern, son of some violinist named Isaac and principal conductor of the orchestra, was apparently “pleased to be back in town.” I’m not sure why with the weather being what it was, but to each his own.
The concert began with the Nielsen Helios Overture, which is a fantastic piece. In general. Not necessarily tonight. As a horn player, I appreciate the general terror associated with playing this, and octave slurs are no piece of cake for any horn player at any time, but the section as a whole had more clams than either some reference to soup or a much dirtier reference to a house of ill repute. It didn’t destroy the performance, but it didn’t feel like the sun was really all that committed to getting out that day. What did destroy the performance was the sloppiness of most of it. Entrances were askew, the trumpets and trombones were behind, and the strings in the fugato were not together. I guess this performance as it relates to the brilliance of the sun fits in rather snugly with the sub-freezing temperatures and snow.
Phase 2 of the program was the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto no. 2 with a young soloist by the name of Kuok-Wai Lio. I didn’t know this piece going in (I dig the 1st concerto), and came away feeling like Mendelssohn should look into pursuing this composition thing full-time if he hasn’t already. Mr. Lio was pretty good all told, although it never felt like he really got delicate in the 2nd movement when the music was clearly treading down that path. The sloppiness of the orchestra continued here, and if it’s bad in Nielsen, it’s worse in Mendelssohn, who begs for clarity and crispness more than most, IMO. It was a decent performance, and the soloist will presumably be heard from again, but I was fairly underwhelmed with everyone not named Felix associated with this.
After intermission, Mahler. I confess to being pretty impressed with the large majority of the performance, even if I disagree with many interpretive aspects. The first movement began pretty well, with good balance on the A, but the woodwind calls and the descending half note line were both…you guessed it…sloppy. The offstage trumpet fanfares were cleaner, but they were not nearly distant enough…they could just as well have played on stage into the stand and gotten the same sound, which is bad as far as I can tell. The “Ging heut morgen ubers feld” unfolded pretty nicely, although it felt rushed by the end of the exposition (both times), which doesn’t bode well for the end of the movement. The movement’s climax was pretty stellar, and I thought my head was going to explode from the cymbals and bass drum…more from them later. As I suspected, the end of the movement was frenzied, but not quite in the best possible way. They made it, though, and 27 people clapped for a second, so folks took to it.
The 2nd movement was easily the fastest I’ve ever heard it. I didn’t time it, but I would be surprised if it took much more than 6 1/2 minutes. That kind of tempo works well in the Scherzo, but the Trio needs a little time to breathe, IMO, and it didn’t here. There wasn’t nearly as much insanity as I would like on the trills preceding the last note of the Scherzo statements, which was a drag, but the ensemble finally started to pick up in this movement, and the ending was very crisp.
The 3rd movement was problematic tempo-wise. Maestro started it off VERRRRRRRY slow, and I was getting pretty interested to see how this would go throughout. Of course, that tempo didn’t last, and it got noticeably quicker as time passed. That didn’t stop him from trying again after the B section (which was very nicely balanced and clear), with the exact same results. The tempo it actually ended up being was fine, but it would have been interesting as hell to hear just what might have been. The bass solo was very good, IMO…which is to say not so good that it doesn’t sound strained in a good way.
The 4th movement was absolutely spectacular. The percussion were as good a section as I’ve heard in this movement…extremely tight and distinctive. Terrific excitement in the opening section, and an awfully good transition into the first slower section. I thought this section was very good. Often times, it can be affected way too much, but Stern just let the music happen naturally to its betterment. The second big/loud section was pretty good all told, although there were again some prominent flubs in the horns on the D major half note theme that eventually carries the piece home. The second slower section was not quite as well manicured as the first, but still very good, and better than countless recordings I’ve heard over time…still great balance, and warmth in the string sound despite pretty nippy acoustics in general. The viola “announcement” to begin wrapping it up was very engaging, and the music leading up to the final apotheosis (to use the word apotheosis) was handled expertly.
And then the expertness went flying out the window. The final tempo was rather brisk at the beginning, but I figured with the “Pesante” coming up it would be fine. Except there was no “Pesante.” There wasn’t anything. There was just a guns blazing, balls to the wall, Steve McQueen style race to the finsh line, which no one won. It was better than the Sinopolis and Dudamels of the world who ride the tempo all over the place like fucking Zorro, but still…it felt like you had overcome all these great obstacles and climbed to the highest of peaks only to throw a pie in someone’s face and make balloon animals for the children. Furthermore, it leaves you little room for a stringendo in the last 20 bars or so, which we can all support. There was an attempt at one, but it didn’t really pan out. A terribly disappointing end to an otherwise VERY stellar reading of the movement, and a pretty strong reading of the entire symphony. Special Gold Star to principal horn Albert Suarez, though…that guy is officially on my “you, sir or madam, are a bad ass” list.
Two other quick notes: the Lyric Theater, while surely possessing Old World charm that I don’t know about, feels like sitting in a 7th grade science class…probably the worst seating I’ve ever sat in, not just in the history of concerts, but in the history of seating. They’re moving to a new hall in a few years, maybe even deservedly, but in the meantime, I guess I don’t have to wonder what it’s like to hear a Mahler symphony in the basement of a Pizza Hut anymore. Also, if you happen to be in Kansas City and like Italian food, check out Garrozzo’s. Tremendous food, dim lights, good wine, family pictures on the wall, bizarre location in the middle of a nowhere 5 blocks…it has it all.
I’ll wait until next season to give them another crack…Alban Gerhardt playing the Dvorak Cello Concerto along with Kodaly (Dances of Galanta) and Rachmaninov (Symphonic Dances) will force open the wallet. Until then, believe me…I was at a concert.