“Everything in moderation” is a maxim that I generally try to apply to my own life as often as possible. There are exceptions that I allow for, such as chocolate-covered pretzels, sports, and Oxycontin, but for the most part I find that moderation is indeed a functionally useful life tool. Sometimes, though, life presents a grand opportunity to tell moderation to go fuck itself and bask in the warming glow of too much of a good thing. Last weekend Sandy and I embarked on a two-city musical odyssey between Missouri’s two major cities that was a study in contrasts in a lot of ways except one: there was a shitload of good music to be heard.
Friday night, in Kansas City, was our first concert of the season, and it featured two of the most popular works of all-time along with one that probably ought to be. The evening opened with Samuel Barber’s Symphony in One Movement, or Symphony no. 1, or Symphony op. 9 or whatever you care to call it. I have no idea why this piece is not more well-regarded, especially since it’s written by a composer who has several other popular works upon which to rest his reputation. At any rate, it’s readily apparent from the first three seconds of the piece that it was written in American in that ’30’s/’40’s period that so many other famous works were composed, and that got me wondering about America and FDR and Copland and the New Deal and shit like that – the works written in this period have an indelible sound that for some reason feels hyper-connected to their time and place. They’re tense, they’re passionate, they’re emotional, they’re beautiful, and they just SOUND American in a unifying way (it’s not like Copland, Barber, Schuman, Harris, etc. were the same dude). Anyway, this piece is awesome and let’s restart the WPA. The performance itself had a couple shaky moments, particularly in the “scherzo,” but overall it was tremendously satisfying, particularly the Andante tranquillo “third movement” with the sublime oboe solo (the oboist wasn’t entirely sublime in this case, but she came back strong later). God dammit I love Barber.
Pianist Jorge Federico Osorio next joined the band for a performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, a piece that holds a spot in my heart in a not entirely good way, through no fault of its own. Years ago, when I was in college, Libor Pesek guest conducted the Cincinnati Symphony in a performance of Smetana’s complete Ma Vlast in which the Grieg Concerto with the great Louis Lortie was inserted after the Moldau and the final four tone poems were performed after intermission. Music Hall is a cavernous place, big enough to house most residents of the city during the impending zombie apocalypse, and it was probably 2/3 full for the beginning of the program, and it was damn near at capacity for the Grieg. After intermission? I could have counted the people in that place on my fingers, my toes, and my penis if my penis had 350 or so separate appendages of its own. Since then, I’ve secretly resented the Grieg for overshadowing one of my favorite pieces in the world. Does this make me a borderline insane idiot who should have let it go ten years ago or not even been upset in the first place? Sure it does.
Back to Friday night. I gotta be honest, piano concerti generally don’t do anything for me. For example, I heard Jonathan Biss, who I think is great, do the Schumann concerto, which I think can be great, with the Pittsburgh Symphony, who I love in a way that makes them uncomfortable, in Benaroya Hall, which is a beautiful place, and I was bored to tears. This performance of the Grieg, which can be great, with an orchestra I generally find pleasing and a soloist whose work I am mildly familiar with, was the same way. It’s not you, it’s me, I tell it, but it just looks at me with those eyes and now I feel more like an asshole than I did just now. Osorio was good, I’m sure, and the orchestra was good, I’m sure, and Michael Stern was flexible and controlled balances well, I’m sure, but I’m not positive, because I was thinking about the trip we were taking the following day and Giants baseball. My favorite part of this whole thing: Osorio played Granados’ Spanish Dance as an encore, and it was superb. SOLO PIANO IS COOL, I swear.
After intermission came the Symphony no. 4 by Johannes Brahms, which you may have heard. It was a fine performance of a vigorous reading by Maestro Stern – the scherzo in particular has never sounded better to my ears. Clarinetist Raymond Santos, who is coming dangerously close to toppling the percussion section as my favorite element of our local band, sounded like a trillion God damn dollars during the second movement, not coincidentally my favorite things Brahms ever wrote. The horn section, led by David Sullivan, was on fire in the first two movements, and the brief duet between the first two horns in the second movement was bad ass. It was terrific in every meaningful way except one…
We were sitting pretty high up, several rows higher than where our “regular” seats are because we had to switch evenings, so the ceiling wasn’t all that high above our heads. I mention this for one simple reason: the sound on the tuttis throughout the evening, and especially in the Brahms, felt squeezed and congested. Things were never really let loose in a way that made you say “oh shit,” and the climaxes were underwrought because of it. I’m desperately keeping my fingers crossed that this will not be the case when the ceiling is bit further away from our respective heads, because with music like Carmina Burana, Mahler 6, and Schubert 9 still to come, the “oh shit” factor becomes exponentially more important. The Kauffman is still beautiful, the band still sounds great, and the music is still the greatest stuff mankind has ever managed to come up with in his time here, but “oh shit” is huge, and I want it back.
Stay tuned for part 2, in which I drink horrible coffee in Columbia, MO but salvage the stop with beans, rice, and a T-shirt, and we journey into the city at the root of our inferiority complex for food, comedy, additional food, alcohol, food, and the greatest live music experience the world has to offer.