The Kansas City Symphony Sparkles!

Something new, something old, something borrowed, and something forgotten. The Kansas City Symphony performed its 12th concert in the Masterworks Series of the 2011-2012 Season on Friday May 18, 2012 at the Kaufmann Center for the Performing Arts.  It was a delightful surprise! Music by Johann Christian Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, Joseph Martin Kraus, and Franz Joseph Haydn comprised a program of music all composed between 1770 and 1830.

It became clear that the program was built around not only contrasting periods of music but also contrasting moods as well. Music can convey strong emotions and the first half of the program was marked by two contrasting yet deeply emotional pieces of music. The “something forgotten” was the Sinfonia in G minor, op. 6, No. 6 by Johann Christian Bach (J.C. Bach). Basketball teams play “small ball” where they rely on shorter players to compete with another team, and this first selection set the tone for “small orchestra” throughout the evening. (I guess you could say doing quite a lot with very little.) This means that the orchestra utilized smaller string sections and very limited presence of winds and brass – all consistent with the scoring of the music. No piece featured trombones or the tuba as part of the orchestral force.

J.C. Bach was the 11th son of J. S. Bach and his very famous father was 50 years of age when he was born. While he did take composition lessons from his father, he developed the “Style Galant” that served as a bridge between the Baroque musical period and the Classical period. In essence, J.C. Bach’s music was unique but short lived, and thus somewhat forgotten. He became known as the “London Bach” or the “English Bach” and was even referred to as “John Bach” due to writing and premiering three operas in London. His music emphasizes melody with accompaniment as opposed to the contrapuntal complexity of his father’s music.

The Sinfonia in G minor allowed the Kansas City Symphony musicians to demonstrate the subtleties and clarity of the Helzberg Concert Hall in the Kaufmann Center. This is music that must be performed with clarity and precision and the musicians responded with a thoughtful performance. Often in Baroque music, musicians are allowed to embellish specific musical passages within certain constraints of good taste. In “Style Galant” the embellishments are written out specifically by the composer but there still must be agreement as to their execution. Under Bernard Labade’s able direction, the dialogue of the melody as well as the “Storm and Stress” of the music was easily discernible.

The something old (but new to this listener) was the Piano Concerto in G minor by Felix Mendelssohn performed magnificently by Arnaldo Cohen, a Brazilian-born pianist. Brazil is known in the sports world for its fabulous soccer players, and Mr. Cohen was every bit as adroit and clever as his counterparts in the sports world. Once again Helzberg Hall allowed the pianist to play with great clarity and the utmost subtlety. After reading the concert notes, one finds a very unique and perhaps neglected major piano concerto (I almost want to say piano symphony!). At the time of its composition, this piece became the most frequently heard piano concerto of its era; however, it was soon eclipsed by Beethoven’s piano concertos and the piano music of a whole host of other composers including Chopin.

The concerto has a couple of unique features including the lack of a pause between the three movements and a significant reduction of the orchestral exposition (i.e. introduction) in lieu of an immediate introduction of the solo piano part. Mendelssohn also utilizes a theme from the first movement in the last movement. The composer in essence borrows the music from himself. So what of the orchestra accompaniment? Special mention should be made of the violists and cellists who played the opening of the 2nd movement beautifully. They were able to convey the full warmth and acoustic possibilities of Helzberg Hall. Also Mr. Cohen’s contrast of staccato phrasing vs. legato phrasing (short vs. long) was not only remarkable but again crystal clear. The orchestra continues to respond with more attention to the details of the music because these can be heard and savored by the listener. You can’t pick this subtlety up by listening to a CD, and this is why this orchestra and concert hall are such a great experience!

In the second half of the program there was a sudden shift to music that was more exuberant as a contrast to the more introspective and melancholic parts of the first half. This is because the first half of the program featured music all in a “minor” key (G minor) while the second half featured music in “major” keys. Suddenly what was dark, soft, and introverted became clear, open, and extroverted. The something new was the Symphony in F major, VB 130 by Joseph Martin Kraus. He has been referred to as the “Swedish Mozart” and he was even the same age (36) as Mozart when he passed. The most striking thing about the performance of this work by the Kansas City Symphony was the passion conductor Bernard Labadie clearly had for this work. The final “Presto” movement was played at a breakneck speed but held together nicely. The entire string section is to be commended for the execution of this work, and I offer my thanks to the conductor for introducing Kansas City audiences to an unknown but clearly gifted composer.

The final piece of the evening was the Symphony No. 101 in D major, “The Clock”, by Franz Joseph Haydn. Once again, a subtle theme was woven into the program for this concert in that Haydn spent a lot of time in England (as did J.C. Bach).  In the spring of 1794, there was a strong demand among the nobility, gentry, and wealthy society for tickets to hear Haydn’s music. The mechanical “tick-tock” in the second movement of the symphony is why the piece is known as “The Clock,” and this was of great interest to the English audiences at the time of the premiere. Much like the finale of the Symphony No. 41 by W.A. Mozart performed earlier this season, the finale of “The Clock” symphony is considered the greatest final movement Haydn ever wrote. The orchestra sparkled as did Helzberg Hall, and the standing ovation for the orchestra and conductor was well-deserved.  This was truly an engaging and imaginative program. Once again, the strings proved to be the backbone of the orchestra, but special mention should be made of the flute obbligato played by Michael Gordon. Bravo!

One cannot say enough about experiencing the Kansas City Symphony at the Kaufmann Center for the Performing Arts. This city is so fortunate to have both of these treasures. There is a matching gift program between now and the end of the orchestra’s fiscal year on June 30th. Please consider a gift for this fine organization.

“We should get in the habit of reading inspirational books, looking at inspirational pictures, hearing inspirational music, and associating with inspirational friends.” – Alfred Montapert