The Kansas City Symphony’s concert Friday night at Helzberg Hall was no typical night on the town. In addition to premiering its third newly commissioned work this season, the orchestra featured two outstanding Grammy Award-winning soloists in great romantic concertos by Brahms and Saint-Saëns.
To celebrate the opening season of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the orchestra presented world premieres of three works celebrating Kansas City, the “City of Fountains.” The ensemble’s opening weekend featured Fountains of KC by Chen Yi, UMKC distinguished professor of composition; Daniel Kellogg’s Water Music premiered at the end of March.
Friday’s concert opened with Muse of the Missouri (referring to the fountain by Eighth and Main) by Stephen Hartke. Although he was born in New Jersey and currently teaches at the University of Southern California, Hartke is familiar with the region — he served as a Laureate Composer at the University of Missouri from 2008-2011.
The work alternated consonant passages with some fairly dissonant ones. The opening was highly tonal with very effective waves of dynamics that evoked the flow of a river.
In subsequent moments, the work featured some fascinating and evocative orchestral colors. Violinist Sunho Kim was one of a number of soloists featured in brief passages. Kent Brauninger served as an instrumental switch-hitter in this concert: while he is an orchestral violist, he played a very effective banjo for this composition.
A flashback of years past made me ponder how this piece would have sounded in the Lyric Theatre. There is no question whatsoever that the acoustics of Helzberg Hall helped the ensemble present a successful premiere of an engaging new work.
American violinist Joshua Bell took the stage to perform Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77. The orchestra played a well-blended and resonant opening, marred by occasionally faulty string intonation. Bell's entrance was dramatic, but disappointing due to imprecision in some of the rapid passages.
The quality of the performance improved almost immediately, however. When Bell began playing Brahms’ lyrical melodies, the result was delightful. He employed a warm and expressive tone and impressive musicality. The orchestra responded as a highly capable partner, responding beautifully to Bell’s dramatic presence.
Stern was exceptional in balancing soloist and ensemble: even when Bell played with gossamer-thin tone, he could still be heard above the orchestra.
After a fervent slow central movement, the finale served as a technical showstopper. Bell dispatched the rapid passages convincingly.
Following the intermission, Stern returned to an empty stage and introduced organist Paul Jacobs, who performed a transcription of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D on the new Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant organ. Jacobs exploited a variety of tonal colors in the brief work.
The evening concluded with Saint-Saëns’ massive Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78, better known as the “Organ Symphony.”
The ensemble performed with passion and fervor throughout the work, but at times it didn’t feel in sync. This was evident in the rapid opening passages and near the end, when the low brass pushed the tempo and Stern seemed to be struggling to keep everything together.
Nevertheless, the few moments of rhythmic struggle should not overshadow the edgy, passionate and exciting performance that Jacobs and the orchestra produced — a true sonic spectacular.