It’s a tried and true formula to stuff the music of our time down the throats of reluctant concertgoers by sticking it in the middle of musical Wonder bread. A tag line like “come for the security of dudes like Liszt and Tschaikovsky, please for the love of God stay for this thing that you’ve never heard before!” might be snarkier than what’s warranted, but it would at least be straightforward and honest. It’s a pity, frankly, because it’s a tremendous joy to hear music written by human beings who remain among the breathing. We’re all set in our ways and we all have favorites and comfort zones and all that, but hearing something genuinely “new” to your ears is loads of fun, even if the work fails to move you. We bear the same responsibility as those patrons in Vienna whose job it was to distinguish between Beethoven and, say, Louis Spohr, and that SHOULD be one of the best parts about hearing live music.
The Kansas City Symphony employed the discomfort sandwich method on their concerts this past weekend in textbook fashion. The evening began with Franz Liszt’s masterpiece Les Preludes, his most famous orchestral work by far. It had been awhile since I’d listened to it, and that’s a damned shame because Liszt is a tremendously gifted writer. It’s stunning how similar the harmonic language and sense of scope Liszt’s music of this period has with that of his “friend” Richard Wagner’s (seriously, if you snuck a leitmotif or two in there, Les Preludes could hold a reasonably suitable place in the Ring cycle as some kind of extended entr’acte or something). The orchestra was in top form for the performance, especially the brass section who brought the hammer down on multiple occasions. Les Preludes seems like one of those pieces that professional musicians play enough times to develop a speck of complacency, and there were times when it felt a little limp energy-wise, but overall it was a satisfying performance of a piece that, somehow, has become underrated.
The cold cuts portion of the concert was filled by the Concerto for Orchestra no. 2 by American composer Steven Stucky. Composed for the LA Philharmonic’s first concert in Disney Hall, it certainly cements Stucky’s reputation as, at least to my unscientific Google searching and memory, the most popular symphonic composer in America today. I feel like his music appears regularly on programs across the nation, and it’s not hard to hear why. His music (that I’ve heard, including Saturday night) is very approachable and well-crafted, an effective gateway drug for the curious mind. The Concerto for Orchestra no. 2 is perhaps a bit derivative, but I would argue with relative vehemence that any orchestral music composed today is going to be, particularly when it is rooted firmly in tonality, as Stucky’s is. There are only so many combinations that exist in a finite system of pitches, and it’s not hard to believe that they’ve all been written at least once by now. In many respects the job of the successful symphonic composer in 2013, in my opinion, is to successfully amalgamate the various sounds that he or she chooses to “borrow” from in the most seamless way possible.
In this, Stucky’s work was superb. I heard bits of Varese and Sibelius and John Williams and Ravel and a hundred other composers, but the overall aesthetic was nothing short of rewarding. It was masterfully orchestrated, and the musicians were up to the task, many of them being pushed to the absolute limits of their instruments’ capabilities. The horn section in particular crushed it, demonstrating a staggering range from delicate to savage and providing the most notable spark to the bad ass conclusion to the piece. The percussion section was also on fire, which anyone who has ever read a KC Symphony review from me before will know is no surprise. Special crow-eating mention must also be made of the beautiful bass clarinet solo in the second movement, played with great tenderness and warmth by Tzu-Ying Huang.
The reception from the audience for Mr. Stucky, who was in attendance, was certainly rousing enough, though the incredibly brief bits of chatter I heard after were the usual “it wasn’t pretty enough” routine all too common after contemporary music. For whatever this dude’s opinion is worth, I thought it was a very nice work that is better than 90% of the orchestral music written in the last 20 or so years that I’m familiar with. Plus, this press photo makes him look a bit like a guy who has a Breaking Bad-esque turn in him, the sort of menacing sophistication and 5 o’clock am the next morning after too many glasses of scotch facial hair that would be perfect for a storyline in which he stalks, seduces, and ultimately disappears rival Jennifer Higdon (EDITORS LATE ADD and Nico Muhly!!!) from a scheduled appearance through limitless guile and wit. Oh shit, I just wrote an opera plot. Hands off everyone!
After intermission, pianist Alon Goldstein joined the orchestra for Pyotr Ilyich Tschaikovsky’s significantly less famous but significantly more interesting concerto for piano, the Concerto no. 2. I like Goldstein because he’s not especially flashy, and this performance was no exception. He was in complete control at all times, interweaving effortlessly with the significant musical force behind him, and handling the multiple cadenzas with restrained flair. The highlight of the work was the second movement, with its extended (and I mean really extended) solos for the principal violin and principal cello that become a duet between them that become a trio between them and the pianist. Concertmaster Noah Geller and cellist Mark Gibbs matched Mr. Goldstein musical stride for musical stride and the result was absolutely sublime. The entire movement was, to my ears, one of the high points of the orchestra in the 5+ years I’ve been here and going to concerts. The finale was equally great, helped along by the fact that it’s about as good a finale as Tschaikovsky ever wrote. Too often his finales end up bloated and overbearing, but this one is like injecting 5-hour Energy straight into your eyeballs, a controlled chaos that’s really fucking bouncy. Mr. Goldstein was rewarded with the customary standing ovation that unfortunately doesn’t mean anything anymore, though he probably deserved it in this case. He rewarded the audience with an encore that he did not announce (it turned out to be the second of the three Danzas Argentinas by Alberto Ginastera), a fittingly slightly off-kilter end to a slightly off-kilter but ultimately enjoyable program.