It’s a rare treat when concertgoers see as prestigious a guest conductor as Christoph von Dohnányi direct the Kansas City Symphony. As technically competent as the orchestra sounded, what sold the performance at Friday night’s concert at Helzberg Hall was the unbridled passion displayed by conductor and instrumentalists.
Dohnányi is an iconic conductor of opera and concert repertory — grandson of composer and conductor Ernst von Dohnányi and assistant at the Frankfurt Opera to another conducting legend, Sir Georg Solti. Dohnányi’s 18-year term as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra was the stuff of dreams, and he remains one of the most sought-after conductors on the international circuit.
The evening opened with (K)ein Sommernachtstraum (“Not A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) by Alfred Schnittke. The work paired a faux-classical style with modern sensibilities. It opened with solo instruments scattered around the stage. The sound was well blended, although the harpsichord was slightly behind the beat.
The theme, rather insipid by nature, was treated to a variety of settings. Freely acerbic passages were sprinkled among more consonant ones. At its darkest, imbued with dissonant harmonies, it seemed like a nightmarish version of “It’s a Small World.” The tongue-in-cheek composition was too long, though.
Richard Strauss’ comical tone poem Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks featured a broad orchestral palette, including shimmering strings, muted brass and virtuosic solo violin lines deftly played by assistant concertmaster Sunho Kim.
While the orchestra did not display the technical brilliance found in recent concerts, it played with confidence and passion. In addition to Kim, the work included a number of noteworthy soloists, including horn player Alberto Suarez and clarinetist Raymond Santos.
The evening concluded with Tchaikovsky’s massive Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, nicknamed the “Pathetique” for its emotional nature.
Dohnányi and the orchestra responded best to this work, playing the lyrical themes with dark, rich tone colors and stretching tempos with romantic fervor. The orchestra was well balanced, particularly the dramatic brass passages, but the evening featured more string intonation problems than recent concerts.
The finale was the most effective movement, with melodies that were at times rapturous and at others filled with angst and despair.