The first time I ever heard the Symphony no.5 by Jean Sibelius was at a live performance in Chicago. Orchestra Hall. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Leonard Bernstein conducting. September 20, 1987. That was the last time I saw it performed live until this afternoon's performance of the Kansas City Symphony. I went with my mom, who was also with me 31 years ago in Chicago when we saw Leonard Bernstein. My dad was also there in 1987, and I remember the three of us exchanging a quick glance during the Finale that afternoon when the horns began their magnificent "swan song" as it was called by Sibelius himself. This glance confirmed that something special was happening. This was music at its best...transcending the moment and reaching deep within us. That happened again to us today, minus my dad, who passed away in 2006. But I know he was with us in spirit.
As usual, our concert experience started about an hour before the concert with a brisk walk across the street to Los Tules for some great food and THE best margarita in town. Period.
We settled into our seats behind the orchestra in the choir loft for the concert. I love this perspective. The first piece on the program was Esa-Pekka Salonen's LA Variations, a high intensity work that gives every section of the orchestra a chance to shine. This is a very dynamic, rhythmic and dense work that the musicians absolutely nailed. I saw one of the percussionists playing the marimba with a bass bow....kind of an homage to Jimmy Page using a violin bow on his Gibson Les Paul on the song Dazed and Confused. OR so it seemed. This work has so much energy and great vibe to it and I loved watching Maestro Stern tie it all together with his hands, baton, eyes, facial expressions and body language.
As the musicians and stagehands began to set up for the next piece, Maestro Stern grabbed a microphone and started talking to the audience...something he does so very well. He has a very natural and comfortable wit that is a real joy to experience. Its time to begin subscribing to next year's concert series...don't wait...act now!
Speaking of virtuosity, Noah Geller, principal violinist, and Christine Grossman, principal violist, both of the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra, were the soloists for Mozart's Sinfonia concertante in E-flat Major. Mozart in Helzberg Hall is amazing. This building was made for Mozart. Two soloists and a small back up band. Just stay in your lane and play mezzo-forte AT MOST and everything will be OK. If anyone goes beyond that, it won't work. And one could see Maestro Stern doing everything he could to keep the balance just right...to keep the orchestra behind the soloists...to keep the sound bubble from elongating or popping. There is a great recording of Dave Brubeck and his quartet from 1953 playing For All We Know, a wonderful song made most famous by Nat King Cole. They play in time and in tune together. But by the final chorus Brubeck starts to break the bubble....he is soloing and pushing past the edge. This is where the music is. They don't tumble over the cliff, but they are close. This is Mozart too. If the notes are there, and the time is there...its wonderful because, well, its Mozart. But it may not be music. Today it was music because Geller and Grossman, Stern, and their colleagues stepped to the edge and stayed there, right where Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond did. Their technique is top shelf. Kansas City, we have world class musicians here!!! This was Mozart the way it needs to be played and heard. Bravo. And the encore further highlighted their technical and musical mastery. I could not hear their announcement, but I believe it was a theme and variation of a Handel theme.
And now back to Sibelius. I was here last year when KCS played his Symphony no. 2. This may be the most popular of all his symphonies. It was a brilliant performance that I shared with my youngest son Ethan. I wrote about it here too. I balled like a baby during the climactic finale. (I cry a lot when I hear music like this. I cried in Chicago in 1987 and I cried today.) I can't fathom that a human being can sit down at a piano and write this stuff. Time stops. My breath is pulled out of my body. And out come tears. I am not sad. I don't know why it happens or what it means. and at this point in my life, I don't care. But I crave it because it means I am at the edge.
The Kansas City Symphony is not a safe proposition. They make real music. They push you to the edge, every time. Any one of a hundred orchestras can play the notes on the page...can dress in concert black and look legit. Not here. This conductor and these musicians are not content doing that. They are here to harvest your emotions and your very soul. What's the point otherwise?