Orchestra Shines in Season Debut

The Kansas City Symphony opened its 2012-2013 classical series on September 28, 2012 with ten new musicians in the orchestra and one full season under its belt in Helzberg Hall at the sparkling Kaufmann Center for the Performing Arts.

In some ways, the most interesting piece of the evening was the first one, “Finding Rothko”, by Adam Schoenberg. The composer states that this particular composition was not an attempt to set to music what he saw at the Museum of Modern Art in February of 2006 but rather that “the artworks are simply a pretext, an inspiration.” The four Mark Rothko artistic works are entitled “Orange, Yellow, Red, and Wine”, and if colors are the titles of the various works of art, then the music certainly reflected the orchestral use of color in that sense.

It has been stated before, and bears repeating, that so often contemporary composers simply write orchestral parts for the various instruments without much thought as to how the sounds might blend or how the orchestra musicians can even effectively execute the musical passage. Since Mr. Schoenberg teaches orchestration at UCLA, it is gratifying to hear that he knows how to write skillfully for an orchestra. Musicians encountering new works of music often increase their overall concentration and  attention to detail and the Kansas City Symphony gave a very convincing performance of the work. There was conviction on both the part of the musicians and conductor Michael Stern, who premiered the work in 2006. This is a work I would like to hear again.  Often that is not the case with the newer music.

Violinist Vadim Gluzman gave a virtuoso account of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, but his playing style was somewhat intimidating to listen to. This was violin playing on steroids and the tempos often bordered on frantic. The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is a show stopper but this listener, while impressed by Mr. Guzman’s obvious virtuoso accomplishments (and his being a bit of a showman to boot!), was left with an empty feeling as to the music making that had just taken place. The tempos while exciting left one thinking whether this was a game of catch me (and follow me) if you can!

Musical Director Michael Stern spoke about this season being one where music meets the visual arts and the last piece on the program, Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky (orchestrated in 1923 by Maurice Ravel, the terrific French composer), was a fitting start to such a theme for the classical season. The piece, composed in 1874 as a solo piano work, was inspired by the untimely death of an artist friend of Mussorgsky’s, Victor Hartmann. A noted art critic at the time, Vladimir Stasov, organized an exhibition of Hartmann’s works and it was under the inspiration of this exhibition that Mussorgsky conceived his Pictures at an Exhibition.

Mussorgsky (1839-1881) is considered one of the two greatest composers from Russia in the late 19th century (the other being Tchaikovsky) and he was born into a wealthy, land owning family and was exposed to the music of the serfs (or peasants) his family oversaw.  Much of his music is a reflection of the Russian culture and folklore of the time. His life changed dramatically when the serfs were emancipated in 1861 and though he had begun moving toward a military career, he found himself in a civil service career until 1880 where he was finally dismissed because of his chronic alcoholism.

Mussorgsky had no formal musical training but he demonstrated an early aptitude for the piano and played orchestral scores from other composers to learn about musical harmony and form. His art songs, the opera Boris Godunov and Pictures at an Exhibition, lie at the center of his musical achievement. Philosophically, Mussorgsky believed that the form of the music should not shape the content but that the content (or compositional material) should dictate the form. Mussorgsky’s use of harmony (biting and irreverent at times) and overall style are quite original and unique and that is why his music is still relevant today.

For a start to the 2012-2013 season, the Kansas City Symphony gave a compelling and thoughtful performance of Pictures at an Exhibition. There were some very mild intonation problems and on several occasions, the transitions from one tempo to the next were not always secure. This should be something that improves over the course of the next few weeks as the orchestra begins to gel with its new members. There was an absolutely stunning E-flat saxophone solo in the Old Castle section of the piece, but no mention of the name of this individual could be found in the program. As last season ended the orchestra sounded somewhat fatigued and was forcing its sound in Helzberg Hall. As a start to this season the orchestra sounded fresh, on its toes, and the blending of the various orchestral forces was delightful, not overbearing or edgy. For the next two concerts the orchestra will return to music shaped more by the musical form, not just the content.