The Kansas City Symphony began their final season in the Lyric Theater this Friday with a splashy concert featuring a new composition, a world-renowned guest artist, and some popular 20th century masterpieces. By the way, this is the final season for the Symphony in the Lyric Theater, which will no longer be used for symphonic concerts, opera performances, or the Ludovico technique. The brand new Kauffman Center will open in 2011, with much fanfare. Also, this will be the final season in the Lyric Theater.
What better way to celebrate something that hasn’t happened yet than with a co-commissioned work from noted (?) composer Jonathan Leshnoff? Stop thinking of other answers. Starburst was introduced to us by its composer, decked out in all black, including a delightfully beatnik newsboy hat. He looked as if he stepped out of a gay prison re-enactment of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation video is what I’m trying to say. The work itself was unobtrusive if not memorable: lots of rhythmic energy, impressive use of the wide array of orchestral colors, and tonally accessible to audiences scared of the 20th century (more on this later…).
The night’s main event was the Violin Concerto of Jean Sibelius performed by international violin superstar Hilary Hahn. I’ve been a fan of Hilary Hahn for some time, enjoying many broadcast recordings in a pretty wide variety of repertoire. This was my first opportunity to see her live, and it was in a performance of a piece that almost assuredly no one remembers was number one on my list of the ten best concertos of all-time. Needless to say, I had my eye on this concert for months.
And unfortunately, as Charles Dickens said, Great Expectations [are a bitch]. The performance was a bit lifeless to my ears. Hahn is an absolute machine at the violin, with effortless technique and the transcendent sound that the very best violinists possess. But there was a coldness that I did not expect. Go back to your historic recordings and listen to Henryk Szeryng. I get the same vibe: as technically gifted a performer as has ever existed, with a sonorous tone that is genuinely beautiful, but ultimately leaves you wanting something more. The Sibelius concerto runs the complete gamut of human emotion, from loneliness to tenderness, intimacy to bravado, relief to punishing intensity. This performance did not take me on the full journey.
The orchestral accompaniment was dicey in a lot of areas, and some of them were crucial spots. The clarinets at the beginning of the second movement, were badly disjointed and it set the stage for a rather uneven movement. Likewise, the trombones, who I know are excited to play together like every other trombone section on the face of the Earth, completely buried everything in their path at the end of the finale, and it devalued much of the work’s ultimate climactic moment. Hahn’s (and Maestro Michael Stern’s) interpretation was straightforward and uncompromising; there were several moments when I was hoping to stay a bit longer but the performance moved on like a cruise ship that was leaving (and the last thing I can afford at this point is to be stuck in Bermuda without my travelers cheques!).
After intermission, Maestro Stern introduced the second half of the concert with a speech about 20th century music, how it forms a huge part of the core repertoire, and how we need not be afraid of it. The concert then proceeded with an accessible set of waltzes and a piece of music so popular that it generated a Facebook thread of 30 comments about the 1996 North Hardin High School Marching Trojans (Radcliff represent!) within hours of the final curtain call. I assume music didn’t change much after 1911, but I’ll do some looking and report further at a later time.
The performance of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales was solid, although it exposed a great downgrade in personnel that had me feeling a bit sad. Former principal oboist Mingjia Liu, who was a total bad ass, ended up winning a position with the San Francisco Opera. Those are difficult shoes to fill (it reminds me of the time I was third in line at the gangbang and realized the two dudes in front of me were John Holmes and Ron Jeremy. I’m not trying to say that Nina Hartley told me to “hurry the fuck up, I don’t have all day” and I replied “I already came,” but that is literally the exact conversation that took place). I’m not going to cast any judgments yet, but just know that I was sad and needed to be held (sort of like after the gangbang).
The evening concluded with Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, one of those orchestral showpieces that audiences that are genuinely scared of the 20th century love because it sounds like it was not written in the 20th century. Stern led the orchestra in a very good performance, highlighted by a wonderfully energized Infernal Dance. There was a bit of a letdown during the Berceuse (which is normally not the case for me…I love the Berceuse most of all), but the Finale packed plenty of punch. Best of all, Stern ended the piece like it’s marked in the score, moving directly into the final chord of the chorale and not taking a 45-minute lunch break to grab a slice of pizza and a beer like damn near everyone else seems to. I was not scared at all, until I went home and listened to A Survivor From Warsaw on loop.