Juanjo Mena will be succeeding one of my favorite conductors, Gianandrea Noseda, as the Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic beginning with the 2011-2012 season. His was a name I had seen on the internets, but his was not a conductor whose work I had seen or heard. Judging by the exciting performance he led with the Kansas City Symphony this past weekend (and by the fact that he will be conducting the orchestra affiliated with a broadcasting organization based out of a town called Media City UK), it is likely I will hear from him again.
Sandy and I started our evening at a restaurant in the City Market area called The Farmhouse, whose claim to culinary fame is that they use only local farmers to provide their ingredients. That is a noble endeavor, and much appreciated, but it doesn’t really matter if the food sucks. But it doesn’t. Oh my dear Lord it doesn’t. Sandy had a carbonara pasta with homemade tagliatelle pasta, and I had a 365-day aged hanger steak with salsa verde and blue cheese butter, and they were both unreal. It was probably the best meal I’ve eaten in my three years in Kansas City, and I will be going back there as soon as is reasonable.
After splitting a phenomenal piece of carrot cake, we headed for the Lyric Theater, home to the Kansas City Symphony for a mere two more weekends of concerts. Here in KC, the gods of reasonable weather have taken a vacation, and the void has been filled by Martha and the Vandellas. The Lyric, for all its charm, is not exactly Energy Star compliant, and the lack of good air conditioning led to the gentlemen of the orchestra removing their coats, which is always tremendously entertaining since you get to see which dudes are cutting fashion corners and wearing short sleeves. Nevertheless, I was excited for an evening of great music, featuring two of my favorite works: the Beethoven 3rd piano concerto and Schumann’s Symphony no. 4.
The concert began with Grieg’s Lyric Suite. Grieg is one of those composers who I never seem to listen to, and yet every time I hear his music I am reminded of how stupid that is (two other examples for me are Poulenc and Rimsky-Korsakov). The Lyric Suite is a charming and approachable collection with some really inspiring moments. The opening Shepherd Boy, as beautiful as anything Grieg ever wrote, was nicely conceived, although the execution was not always precise, and there were a few sketchy intonation spots, but considering the oppressive heat, a little slack is probably in order. The dynamic contrast, which is probably the most important element of the movement, was terrific, though, and the strings really dug in to the many color notes and had several cadences that inspire one of those contented sighs like you’ll get when your head hits the pillow at the end of a long day. The Norwegian March moved at a wonderfully relaxed tempo, with the horns impressively blaring out their fanfares. Mena’s pacing was equally adept in the Nocturne, and the shape of the long melody was expertly crafted. The final movement, the March of the Dwarfs, was hit-or-miss: the central, lyrical section again suffered from some questionable intonation, but it more than compensated for by the terribly exciting A section, which moved at breakneck speed, as dwarves apparently do. As a bonus, I think most of the audience was startled by the final chord. I, for one, noticed the kid next to me jump in his seat. If they ever perform Mahler 6, I’m going to bring a Flip Camera, because it’ll probably look like the Paranormal Activity trailer.
Pianist Markus Groh joined the orchestra for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3. Groh has pretty outstanding romance-novel-cover-boy hair, but his appearance belied a mature and refined approach to the concerto that was as fine as any I’ve heard. Our seats were such that the balance between the piano and orchestra was compromised, but it was an interesting exercise in focusing on the details of the solo part. Groh’s technique was exceptional in the opening movement, with some very crisp ornamentation throughout. The cadenza was particularly noteworthy, with firm control of the many manipulations of the tempo and great dynamic contrast. The highlight of the performance, for me, was the achingly gorgeous beginning of the second movement, which Groh played with a sensitivity that I have never heard bettered. The music flowed naturally, which is not always easy; soloist and orchestra both generated an effortless and smooth momentum that carried through the entire movement. The orchestral support was great, the strings in particular delivering with tremendous passion. The finale suffered from the balance issues of our seat location most of all, but it was also the best opportunity to hear just how much of a bad ass Groh is. His execution was ruthless and exacting, with intense rhythmic force and precision, but he also displayed a gentle lyricism in the middle section that was remarkable in its contrast to the focused fury of the main theme. Put simply, it was a fucking clinic, and he deserved every millisecond of the long standing ovation he received.
After the intermission, Mena led the orchestra in a performance of Schumann’s Symphony no. 4. This has long been one of my favorite works; I remember the first time I heard it vividly. I was driving to Best Buy because I found out that they had released Major League (the greatest sports movie ever made, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise) on DVD that day. I got in the sweet ’93 Chevy Cavalier and flipped on the classical station, which was broadcasting an Indianapolis Symphony concert. I managed to catch it literally seconds after the Schumann started (it was still in the slow introduction) and I was completely transfixed. I got to Best Buy by the end of the second movement, and I just sat in the parking lot listening to the symphony. I had the windows down, the music up, and I was really digging what I heard…I let out an audible “oooooooooh” during the chorale that bridges the scherzo and the finale (which I occasionally still do) and was totally amped by the end. By the time the piece was over, Best Buy was closed, but I didn’t care. I had bought a Schumann symphony set a month or two earlier because it was the Mahler retuschen, and I was (and still am) a Mahler whore, but I hadn’t had a chance to listen to anything other than the First Symphony. I listened to the 4th two more times that night, and I’ve never stopped listening to it since. It is easily my favorite Schumann piece, and might be my favorite symphony by anyone if you ask me at an odd time (like immediately after hearing it).
Maestro Mena led a spirited and committed performance. The introduction was gorgeously played and the transition into the movement proper was perfect. There was tremendous energy throughout, and the precision of the orchestra was masterful, especially coming off the fermatas in the middle of the movement. The Romanze was musically very tender. There were again some intonation problems, especially between the solo cello and solo oboe, but the phrasing of both was superb. Associate concertmaster Gregory Sandomirsky played the flowing triplet solo with a relaxed and comfortable line and rich tone. The scherzo was dicey, with the orchestra unable to keep pace with Mena’s aggressive tempo. The chorale that leads into the finale, though, was amazing. The brass crushed it, but the hero was timpanist Tim Jepson. It’s amazing what perfectly placed timpani strokes can do; a split second off and the impact of the arrival is dulled. Jepson was right on the mark every time, and the result was magnificent. The transition into the finale was a bit ragged, but the movement itself was electrifying. Mena again went for the lightning-quick tempo, but this time the orchestra was up to the task. The rhythms were crisp, the momentum unrelenting, and the energy Red-Bull-laced-with-black-tar-heroin intense. I was actually concerned there wouldn’t be any room for an increase in tempo for the coda, but holy shit was there. The last 30 seconds flew by like Paul Revere ringing bells to warn the British that they weren’t gonna take our arms, and though I resisted the urge to yell out excited obscenities, I immediately leapt to my feet, as did most everyone else around me in the hall. In spite of some problems, it was a thrilling performance, and one that I won’t soon forget.