The first three Kansas City Symphony concerts of 2016 feature amazing solo artists and an impressive breadth of orchestral repertoire. I wrote about the first concert of the year a few weeks ago in this blog... Midori was the guest violinist.
From Jan 29-31, the great pianist, Jeremy Denk, was the guest artist. I went with my wife to the Saturday evening performance. We dropped the car with the valet and ran across the street to Los Tules for a margarita and chips/guacamole. As my wife said, "there's nothing like a little tequila in your system to make the world OK." She's correct on that point, but the same can be said of a KC Symphony concert. The program this night featured Mr. Denk performing Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 5, known as the Emperor Concerto. I loved that the program started with this work. One of the challenges of programming a concert is getting the order of the music right. Beethoven, Sibelius and Scriabin were on the program, and I suppose you could make a case for any order....but starting with Beethoven was perfect. Jeremy Denk is an pianist who plays with exceptional range. I watched some of his videos on YouTube before the concert and quickly saw why he is so highly regarded as a pianist. More on that in a moment. The "Emperor" (1809) is a work that most of us have heard in some part or another. It is majestic and beautiful, and the orchestral accompaniment is itself an impressive work which makes collaboration and balance between soloist and orchestra all the more important. Maestro Stern made sure the balance was perfect. Gidon Kremer, violinist and conductor, wrote "A concerto should be a conversation and in no way a competition between a soloist and an orchestra that is controlled by the conductor-a genuine demonstration of concertare." Denk and Stern were in constant communication, exchanging looks and glances. The interplay between them was fun to watch and it was clear they were both enjoying the performance. A standing ovation was well deserved, and we were then treated to an encore; Bach's Goldberg Variation #14. Back to what I said above about Denk's range as a performer. The care, love, and passion with which he played this encore was magical. Bach wrote incredible notes on the page, and Denk brought it to life...these few minutes of the encore were perhaps the best of an evening full of wonderful minutes.
After intermission, the piece I was looking forward to the most was up...the Sibelius Symphony no. 7.(1924). Last year during my interview with composer John Luther Adams, he told me that he was currently listening to the 7th....and we both agreed that there was something so moving about it, but it was hard to express in words what that was. I have a great box set (at least I think it's great) of all seven Sibelius' Symphonies conducted by Sir Collin Davis-Boston Symphony. I have listened to it 2-3 times this year, and while I love them all, the 6th and 7th keep me coming back the most. Tonight, Stern and Co. delivered a fine performance, and the experience of seeing it live reinforced that this may be my favorite Sibelius symphony. One movement....twisting and turning tonality...chromatic cliff diving...intentional ambiguity....22 minutes that leave your heart racing. Forgive me if I don't delve into all of the great musicianship of the orchestra during this concert...as usual it is top notch....but I will say that the flutes and brass were particularly outstanding and these parts seem like the catalysts for this Sibelius symphony. Whereas the second and fifth symphonies deliver a huge climactic "happy ending", not so with the 7th (or the 6th). The happy ending is there, but it takes a more subtle and diffuse route.
Lastly, Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy (1908) finished us off for the evening. It looked like all hands were on deck for this large work....there was barely any room left on the stage. We went from Beethoven and a modest-sized orchestra, to Sibelius, which had even more musicians involved, to Scriabin and a monster ensemble. I was already pretty much exhausted when the finale arrived and a percussionist climbed a ladder at the back of the stage to clang a giant, hanging chime. (If you attend a concert and see a ladder on the stage, you can probably safely assume something cool is going to rock your world). Scriabin, Stern, and the musicians rocked everyone's world tonight and it was great. I don't think Scriabin is all that well known or appreciated amongst casual, classical fans...I may be wrong....but this is a powerful work and when heard live is truly breathtaking.