Due to having guests in our midst, we ended up exchanging our normal Friday night tickets at the Lyric for some Sunday afternoon tickets in Yardley Hall, somewhere in Kansas. I had only attended one previous concert in Yardley, a Christmas performance by mens choir Cantus, which remains one of the most interesting and exciting performances I’ve ever been in attendance for. I must admit, though, that I was apprehensive about the acoustics in Yardley Hall for a full orchestra. Sadly, I had my Pyrrhic victory, and the thought of hearing another Mahler symphony in that hall would surely send me back to Epirus alone.
It was unfortunate, to be sure, because the program was chock full o’ nuts. This concert, more than any other, generated the most advance hype in the recesses of my own brain. It began with a solid performance of Le Tombeau de Couperin by Ravel in which I contemplated naming principal oboist Mingjia Liu my new God. Liu has quickly emerged as the singular rock star of the Kansas City Symphony for my money. If the percussion section is the Rolling Stones, and the low brass Zeppelin, than Liu is Bruce Springsteen, the frontman with charisma. From the triplet figurations that open the piece to the lyrical solo of the final Rigaudon, Liu dominated like Shaq in his prime (Liu is the better free throw shooter, though). The rest of the orchestra was up to the task. There were still a few spots that got a little sloppy, but it was the most cohesive performance of a work in that vein (which is to say Baroque, Classical, or neo-Classical) that the Symphony has performed this season, in my opinion. It was fresh, vibrant, and controlled. And it had the blue-collar appeal of Mingjia (Bruce!) Liu.
World-class soprano Heidi Grant Murphy then joined the orchestra for a performance of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. I remember the first time I heard this piece vividly. A friend and I, both in college and into Mahler, had spent the requisite cash to make the 6-hour pilgrimage from Lexington, KY to Cleveland to hear their charming little town orchestra in their adorable concert hall named for the money an employer gives you after they fire you (somehow that really seems to scream “Cleveland!” to me) perform Mahler’s Symphony no. 5. Christoph Eschenbach was the conductor, and though I didn’t really know who he was at the time, I was excited for the Mahler. I wish I remembered anything about it. What I do remember is that the program opened with Dawn Upshaw performing Knoxville, and I was in love (with the music, although I’m sure Dawn Upshaw is a lovely woman as well).
Fast forward 10 years or so. I hate to use the word ‘solid’ again, especially to describe two wildly different pieces, but it’s applicable. It was not a performance to remember, perhaps, but it was not a performance to dismiss, either. Ms. Murphy has a very light, polished sound, and there are many aspects of the work that seem to fit her voice like a glove (and vice versa). Take, for example, the section of text where James Agee is describing his family (“On the rough wet grass of the back yard…”); Ms. Murphy’s crystal clear sound resonated with simple beauty. There were occasional spots where that clarity was compromised by the orchestral texture (“A streetcar raising its iron moan…”), but on the whole the balance was acceptable. It felt to my ears like most of the balance problems from my seat may have been space-related. All in all, it was a worthy performance, and it did bring back fond memories of that evening near the burning Cuyahoga.
After an intermission bag of Rold Golds came the Symphony no. 4 of Gustav Mahler. This being an anniversary year for Mahler (the rare double whammy: 150th anniversary of his birth, followed by the 100th anniversary of his death in 2011), it is noted that he’s everywhere. My lone previous encounter with Maestro Stern and the Kansas City Symphony in Mahler was a performance of the First Symphony a couple years ago, which you could read about here if you wanted to, you know, read my review of the concert.
This performance of the Fourth stands alongside that First from a couple years ago as a deeply satisfying and engaging performance. The opening of the symphony is a troublesome spot for the conductor. I will let musicologist David Pickett explain in more detail, but suffice it to say, there are some instruments marked with a ritenuto, others without, and you can hear this done dozens of ways. Maestro Stern elected to have everyone observe the ritenuto marking, which, while not in the score, is the way Walter, Mengelberg, and Klemperer all handled it. Those guys all knew Mahler. The first two saw Mahler himself rehearse and perform the piece. That, as they say, is good enough for me. The primary tempo of the movement felt a little hurried to me, but it was consistent. Stern effortlessly handled the countless little episodes of the movement, and the mood swings were convincing (I know some people with convincing mood swings…) and smooth.
The second movement, with its devilish violin solos, was executed flawlessly. The violin solos, on concertmistress Kanako Ito’s re-tuned doppelganger, were wonderfully off-kilter. The orchestra’s playing was marvelous, especially the winds. Stern’s conception of the movement was appreciable. It sounded, to these ears, as playful but never far from danger, not unlike rafting down the Amazon or Facebook mobs. The wonderful modulation to D major near the end of the movement was sublime; the descending basses arrived right in sync with the incoming instruments in a way that Il Duce himself would have been pleased with, assuming he liked music as much as trains.
The third movement is the emotional core of the piece (a characteristic we could probably apply to any slow movement Mahler ever wrote). While shorter in minutes and seconds than some of Mahler’s other famous adagios, it is as musically expansive as anything he wrote, with dramatic shifts from heavenly highs to hellish lows (epic downward glissandi abound). Stern and the KCSO were simply terrific in this movement, capturing the wide range of expression with room to spare. The movement’s climax was stifled by the hall a little bit, but it still had the feeling of a sledgehammer of delight right to the face area. The ethereal resolution in strings and flutes concluded a very profound demonstration of music making.*
Ms. Murphy rejoined the orchestra to sing Das Himmlische leben, (“The Heavenly Life”) the symphony’s finale. If there were areas in the Barber where her voice was not ideally suited to the music’s execution, those areas were not present here. This movement, originally written to be sung by a boy soprano, requires the inhabitation of a child’s innocent spirit that is, frankly, elusive to 95% of singers who tackle the challenge. For my money, Ms. Murphy stands in the 5%. The crystalline quality of her voice lends itself beautifully to this music, and she never let it go overboard into what I would call Terra Diva. By the end, I began to tear up, and I am a gigantic fat person with a beard. It was a fitting and wonderful conclusion to a very fine performance of a true masterpiece.
*A special shout out to principal horn Alberto Suarez, who handled what this bad horn player knows is a veritable horn concerto in the first three movements like a champion.