A Disappointing End to a Marvelous Season

The Kansas City Symphony closed its inaugural season at the Kaufmann Center for the Performing Arts (June 23-25) with three varied works, Fratres (which means “brothers”), by Arvo Part, Symphony no. 2 by Alan Hovanhess (Mysterious Mountain), and the monumental Symphony no. 9 by Ludwig van Beethoven. Once again the organization is to be commended for programming that is challenging and educational for the audience. The first half of the concert featured the works by Part (pronounced “pert”) and Hovhaness.  These are works where the texture of the orchestral sound is more prominent than in music dominated by melodic development. This is music that is attempting to capture a mood and a philosophy of life. The orchestra acquitted itself quite well under the direction of Michael Stern, and the balance among the various sections of the orchestra was clear and precise. Kudos to the percussionist in the Part.

The second half of the concert featured Symphony no. 9 by Beethoven. It is a composition that is so stirring that it would be difficult to imagine it ending without a standing ovation from most audiences and there was no exception in this case. However, Beethoven’s music is complex, rich, and full of contradictions – particularly in tempo. There is, in fact, a wide range of effective tempos at which Beethoven’s music may be performed, but in this case, it was not convincing. The performance of the first movement sounded like an initial “read-through” by orchestra and conductor, and the magnificent architecture (richness) of the music was lost. Beethoven was a complex person with many internal emotional struggles, and his music is a reflection of his interior psychological and spiritual state. There was no drama or sense of tension and release in this performance.

The second movement was played with some sense of style and direction but, again, the overall structure and sense of drama were missing. It also became apparent in this movement that the orchestra, conductor, and concert hall were fighting one another. The wind section sounded forced, the tympani was much too intrusive, and the French horns reverberated off the kettles of the tympani – creating even clamor.  (The position of the horns needs to be reconsidered in the future, they were in the way far too often.)  The third movement, perhaps one of the most sublime movements in all of the symphonic literature, was just not moving. In fact, my wife summed it up nicely when she turned to me and said, “the orchestra is not blending very well, as it usually does.” The fourth movement, a unique creation in musical history at the time it was written (it involved chorus and vocal soloists), was exciting but again disjointed and sometimes out of sync. The “Turkish March” was delightful, and the piccolo playing by Diane Schick was excellent. In the end, the orchestra and conductor got a standing ovation but they still have much to learn when it comes to the monuments of musical composition, especially Beethoven.