I was at a concert: Four guys you may have heard of…

Richard Strauss

Mix equal parts John Wayne, Dirty Harry, Ninja, Mike Tyson before prison, John Bonham's drumming on "Whole Lotta Love", and Pirate. Add orchestra.

Last week’s concerts with the Kansas City Symphony were led by their associate conductor, Steven Jarvi, whose picture on the group’s website makes him look like he’s 16 years old. Jarvi might be older than that. He is unequivocally more musically sophisticated than that.

Jarvi, as far as I can tell, doesn’t appear to bear anything other than a fortunate surname in common with Neeme, Paavo, Kristjian, and however many other Jarvis are out there (think of them as the Wayans Brothers of orchestral conducting). Ironically, though, his conducting style reminded me a bit of his non-brother Paavo: maybe a little sweepy on occasion for me, but always clear, concise, and controlled. I have no problem saying that my expectations were not very high…not because of Mr. Jarvi particularly, but because of pretty much every other young conductor I’ve observed in the last few years. It was a meaty program of some of the finest music Austria ever had to offer, and a true test of a conductor’s mettle.

My reservations melted quickly. Jarvi led the orchestra through a spirited rendition of Schubert’s Rosamunde Overture, with a particularly noteworthy introduction in which the chords sounded as well-balanced as I have ever heard them. The tempi were consistent and well-managed throughout; this piece can run away just a little bit if you’re not careful. It was marvelously played as well, and I issue my usual tip of the cap to oboist Mingjia Liu, who killed it again.

Jarvi introduced the next piece, the Adagio from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 10, with a brief talk about the work’s emotional content, including Mahler’s tenuous relationship with his wife, Alma. He discussed her affair with the architect Walter Gropius, and its effect on Mahler and this music, as is the normal custom in a Romantic tale of the artist persecuted. I am a big fan of giving the audience some background information on the music. Anything to help the experience become richer is a plus in my book. But if you do, make sure to at least make the picture as big as possible. Yes, Alma was unfaithful. But we should probably at least mention at some point that Gustav was a dick who was emotionally distant and incredibly demanding and moody. You’d cheat on him, too…I don’t care how nice that theme from the first movement of the Sixth Symphony is.

At any rate, the performance itself was absolutely fantastic. Jarvi seemed to have perfectly grasped the structure of the movement, and the interpretation reflected it. The climax was not overstated, but shattering in its power. Both broad themes that are introduced at the beginning of the work were expertly handled as they meandered throughout the textures. In short, it was a coherent performance, one that made the piece feel like it makes sense, which I don’t always get after hearing it. The ending of the movement was gorgeous, with some amazing soft playing from the strings that had me doing that thing where you turn your head so your ear is facing the sound directly. Mahler’s Tenth is not an easy ride, or an easy sell to an audience, but this was a tremendous experience, and the applause was about as vigorous as one can expect for such an emotionally draining piece.

After intermission the orchestra was joined by pianist Simone Dinnerstein for a performance of the Mozart Piano Concerto no. 21. The 21st is the most famous of Mozart’s piano concerti, thanks to Elvira Madigan, but it sounded as fresh as ever. Dinnerstein kicked ass…I was amazed at the evenness of tone throughout some of the incredibly fast passages. The second movement was played with tremendous sensitivity and grace, in essence the exact opposite of a tightrope walker getting shot by her lover after a picnic, but whatever. It was a very impressive display by Dinnerstein, who I must know more of.

The evening closed with a bang in the form of the Suite from Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss. The programmatic synthesis between Mahler at arguably his most intimate and peacefully resigned and Strauss at his most “God it feels good to be the coolest composer in the world” was palpable. I just started reading Michael Kennedy’s biography on the composer, and he seems poised to make a pretty compelling for Strauss as the greatest composer of the 20th century. Rosenkavalier is a pretty good argument in his favor, that’s for sure.

The performance itself was terrific…it felt like the orchestra released the hounds. Perhaps it was due in part to it being the final weekend of concerts for Concertmistress Kanako Ito, perhaps it was Jarvi’s inspired conducting, most likely it was the fact that Strauss’ music invites you to have a great fucking time. Whatever it was, they reveled in it. It was the highlight of the entire season, in my opinion. It brought back all those cheesy things you learned in school about how music should be fun. Jarvi was in complete command of the various tempi, and the main waltz was built up to beautifully. I’m happy to argue back and forth with myself about who is better between Mahler and Strauss, but I’m glad I don’t have to actually choose. Strauss is bad ass, man. Bad ass.

I was genuinely impressed with Jarvi’s approach, which reminded me a little bit of my man Otmar Suitner, in that he didn’t feel it necessary to make Romantic music more romantic and more Romantic than it is. Schubert, Mahler, Mozart, and Strauss don’t need our help in the drama department. The pieces were treated with respect, never over-the-top, and the intensity of the performances all evening long were a testament to the truly unique gifts of the composers, but also a testament to Maestro Jarvi’s willingness to simply let the music be. It was a terrific night of music and music-making.

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