Kansas City, MO
January 16, 2016
Bernstein Fancy Free
Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major
Stravinsky Petrouchka (1947 revision)
I've always said, any time you go to a concert that includes a grand piano, a snare drum played with brushes, and a wood block, you are in for a good time. The Kansas City Symphony had these, and more, in their concert at Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts Saturday night. Fresh off watching the KC Chiefs lose to New England in the NFL Playoffs, and seeing no cars ahead of us as we arrived at the valet drop-off in front of the KCPA when we arrived, (trust me, it's worth the extra money) I wondered if attendance would be low for this performance...so many people have been on the Chiefs bandwagon as they won 11 games in a row and seemed destined to make the Super Bowl. The Patriots squashed that, and even I was feeling a bit bummed as we pulled up. A cold class of Chardonnay and people watching before the concert started helped bring me back to a happier place. By the time we were seated, the Hall looked much fuller than I expected. The people of KC were determined to get their classical music nourishment on this evening.
Frank Byrne, the Symphony's Executive Director, was his usual dapper self as he greeted the audience...I expected he would offer some sort of condolences for Chiefs fans...but he did not. Instead he thanked the audience for their support and reminded us not to take pictures or record the performance and to silence our devices...which I did. I did take a picture before the performance, which I assume is allowed.
After Concertmaster Noah Geller led the tuning, Maestro Stern came to the podium and we were off!
The house lights dimmed...and dimmed...and the stage lights dimmed.....it got very dark, more like a jazz lounge or blues bar. I wondered if the lighting guy had made a mistake??? And then the unmistakable voice of Billie Holiday filled the Hall. Was this the KC Symphony's way of easing the pain of a Chiefs' loss?...using her soulful medicine to comfort us? Nope....it turns out it was part of the score for Leonard Bernstein's ballet, Fancy Free. (I had no idea it began like this....another great example of how much I still have to learn about classical music.) The song is Big Stuff, words and music both by Bernstein. Interesting factoid; LB wrote the song with Billie Holiday in mind to record it, but at the time of Fancy Free's premiere on April 18, 1944, his sister, Shirley Bernstein, was the singer who first recorded it. Bernstein was still fairly unknown at this time, and according to Carol J Oja, he "lacked the cultural and fiscal capital to hire anyone as famous as Holiday." Luckily for LB, this quickly changed and 7 months later, on November 8, 1944, Billie recorded it with the Toots Camarata Orchestra. (what a great name!).
So we have 20 bars of Billie singing and then BAM, Stern moves the baton, the stage lights brighten, and the KC Symphony springs to life, and we are transported to 1940's NYC...bustling with energy and life. If you have seen the movie On the Town, you know exactly how this looks and feels. Bernstein as a composer has fun....rhythm, syncopation, percussion, wood blocks, brushes, rapid interplay between orchestral voices, constant tempo variations, romance, soul, homages to the past, excitement about this moment, and anticipation about what lay ahead....these are all words/things/ideas that I think about while listening to his music. Do you hear some Copland...or Gershwin in his music? Me thinks so....as well as Ellington, Basie, Stravinsky, Joplin, and yes...even Mahler...but that's just me.
Maestro Stern certainly seemed to be having fun. He danced, swayed, and shuffled like Gene Kelly. Very impressive. I know this is not an easy piece to play, but the musicians sure made it look like it was. They played so well....every desk of every section. But as perfect as it was technically on this evening, it was not stuffy or cautious. There was energy and life here. I hate it when an orchestra plays perfectly and gets all the notes right, but fails to create music. Not the case here. The KCS uses its prowess to take the audience to a place where you feel like things might come unglued at any moment...this is where music comes alive. (If you were lucky enough to be at the performance of Ravel's Bolero last Fall, you know exactly what I mean.) Which brings me to the next piece of the evening.
Midori is a violinist who has been taking the stage of the world's major orchestras for the past 34 years. Tonight she was here to play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major. This is my favorite violin concerto of all. I stated the other day to a friend that I recognize that the Beethoven Violin Concerto, also in D major, is probably the greatest of all the violin concertos....but while that is true in my opinion, I think PIT's is my favorite. Side note...I love how the program gives suggestions of recordings of each piece on the program for the audience to listen to. For the Tchaikovsky, they suggest Jascha Heifitz's recording from 1957 with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. No doubt, this is the standard, but it's not my favorite. Check out the 1969 recording of Pinchas Zukerman with the NY Philharmonic conducted by....yep, Leonard Bernstein. The performance is brilliant because it seems like it is on the brink of coming off the rails...but it doesn't. It's pretty damn electrifying.
Midori is electrifying too. She takes center stage like she owns it and cradles her violin like Gollum clutching his Precious.....it becomes a part of her and she sways, dances, leans, extends and squeezes it into submission. If she missed a note, I didn't hear it. At one point she stepped forward on her right leg with her shoulders back and her violin raised up in a pose very reminiscent of Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) offering up a power chord to the gods. Midori leans in towards the audience, almost handing us each note with care so we will be sure to love every one of them. Then she would pull it back so we would not be burned by the next phrase of her super-human shredding that followed.
Maestro Stern seemed to be loving every note of it as well. As he is constantly monitoring tempos, cues, balance, phrasing and coordination between soloist and ensemble, he seemed to be willing to let the performance creep to that edge where energy and emotion almost catch fire.....to the point where the whole thing comes completely off the rails. But of course he knew just when to assert his control of these forces so we all knew it would not explode and the excitement we were feeling was going to last until the very last note. Breathtaking I should say. Side-note, many in the audience applauded after the first movement concluded. For those of you that are put off by this, I say suck it. Get a grip. Back in the day, it was common for applause to break out throughout a performance. And the first movement of the Tchaikovsky is pretty much a concerto unto itself!
After many ovations, Midori played the Sarabande from J.S. Bach's Partita no. 2. It was a big departure from the Tchaikovsky but showed more of her tasteful and textured virtuosity. She knows how to make music.
After coffee and a cookie at the intermission, we were treated to Stravinsky's Petrouchka, first performed in 1911. Stravinsky revised the score in 1947, which was the version performed tonight. (It's interesting that both Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky wrote music that was hated at first, but later grew to be appreciated and revered. Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto was panned and dismissed as brutal and ugly. And while Petrouchka was well received, only 2 years later, in 1913, his ballet Rite of Spring caused riots!)
Petrouchka gave the orchestra a wonderful opportunity to display it's technical skill...which it did, absolutely. The principal players all had the chance to "step up to the mic" in this work. And all demonstrated powerful and graceful playing. The balance was spot on...and I know we have this wonderful Hall that is world class, BUT....it sounds even better with the kind of musicians we have in in KC...world class. Seriously, I've seen Chicago, LA, Boston, NY, London, Philadelphia, Vienna, Berlin, and Concertgebouw. Please make no mistake people, the musicians we have here in the KCS are that good if not better! And even more importantly, they make MUSIC. Maestro Stern can move like Jagger and he has the ability to find the sweet spot between control and precision and chaos. That's the place where music is made and we saw it tonight.