No doubt about it, Michael Stern knows how to program a season opener.
The Kansas City Symphony will begin its 2014-15 season next weekend not only with a barnstorming symphony by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, but also with a soloist who is one of the greatest opera divas in the world, Kansas City’s Joyce DiDonato.
There are plenty of great singers out there, but only a handful whose charisma and artistry combine to place them in the rarefied pantheon of opera superstars. Renee Fleming and Cecilia Bartoli are among those blessed few, and so is DiDonato.
What is so endearing about DiDonato is, in spite of her superstar status and the adulation she receives around the world, she is completely devoid of diva arrogance and has a love for Kansas City.
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“I’m so looking forward to helping to open the Symphony season in Kansas City,” DiDonato said in an email interview. “It’s always a thrill when I get to perform in Kansas City, but to combine that with my debut of (Maurice) Ravel’s epic ‘Sheherazade’ is something truly wonderful for me.
“Ravel’s masterpiece takes us into a completely different sound world, and the texts evoke something quite mystical and exotic. What a privilege to explore this piece with Maestro Stern and my hometown Symphony.”
After working successfully together, Stern and DiDonato have developed quite a rapport, and it’s fair to say that Stern is pretty excited to once again work with her.
“She’s a dream,” he said. “Joyce is that rare singer for whom technique is something you take for granted. Of course it’s not effortless because that sort of discipline and mastery takes enormous effort and practice and skill, but she is so great at it that it’s completely transparent. It becomes completely beside the point.
“Her instrument, the voice, is so direct and personal and human, and she always sings the intent behind the music, the intent in the words and the phrase. Every note has meaning and resonance, and at the same time, because Joyce is Joyce, every note has clarity, too.”
In addition to the Ravel, DiDonato also will sing “Morgen” by Richard Strauss. Ravel and Strauss were writing in the early 20th century, in the World War I era. To mark the 100th anniversary of that epoch-changing conflict, Stern is focusing this season on music written from 1895-1913 as well as music that would have been heard in concert halls of the time.
“Ravel and Strauss fit in the context of the larger season, which is this overview of the incredibly turbulent and momentous times that led up to the explosion of World War I,” Stern said. “That period in history changed everything, and nothing that came after would ever be the same.”
Another important composer from the era is Charles Tomlinson Griffes. Stern will open the concert with the “Bacchanale” by Griffes, an American who died at the age of 35 in 1920.
“Griffes would have been an important genius in American music. He just died too young,” Stern said.
“He was absolutely the American Debussy. You hear the same gossamer-like sensibility in sound and phrasing that Debussy had. Some people would call it impressionistic, and it certainly has that Gallic flavor, but it’s absolutely American. The ‘Bacchanale’ is just pure fun and another example of what’s going on in the first decade of the 20th century.”
The second half of the program will feature the Symphony No. 5 by Tchaikovsky. He wrote the work in 1888, well before World War I, but it was a concert mainstay during the World War I era and has remained one of the composer’s most popular works.
“When you think about romantic fervor and the ferment and turmoil at the end of the 19th century, certainly Tchaikovsky comes to mind,” Stern said.
“It’s an audience favorite because it’s wonderful music. Tchaikovsky Five is one of those pieces that turn people on to music. If it’s something you have not experienced, then come and let the music touch you. You’ll be hooked for life.
“I hope we do that with more and more people, help them find that live music is something you cannot live without.”
The Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company will begin its 2014-15 season with a celebration of women Friday and Saturday at White Recital Hall.
“I wanted to do a concert that focused on women choreographers because you don’t see a lot of them at any one time in a concert,” said Mary Pat Henry, co-founder and artistic director of the company.
“There’s a very different sensibility when it’s a woman choreographer. Females are always very in tune to what the dancer is giving back to them, or the connection to the dancer, as opposed to, ‘Here’s my choreography, this is what you do.’
“There’s often a give-and-take that goes on with female choreographers. And I think that’s kind of unique, too.”
There are eight dances on the program by outstanding contemporary female choreographers, including Winifred Harris, DeeAnna Hiett and Jennifer Muller. There will, however, be two pieces by a male choreographer, Leni Wylliams, who founded the company with Henry in 1991.
Wylliams created “Quiet City” and “Come Sunday” for the women of the company, so they will be in keeping with the theme of the program.
Henry will also feature one of her own works, “Whispering Bench,” set to Appalachian music performed by a trio that includes cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
“It’s kind of a light-hearted, humorous piece,” Henry said. “It’s kind of a takeoff on the children’s game Telephone, where you start to whisper something, and by the time it gets to the end it’s very different.
“It’s about what happens when people gossip and that gossip gets passed around. By the time it gets to the end, it’s a very different story and mayhem occurs.”
Second Thursday recital series
As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing quite as delightful and restorative as a free lunchtime classical concert.
So it’s good news that Village Presbyterian Church will begin a free Second Thursday Recital Series this Thursday with a recital by the wonderful soprano Sarah Tannehill Anderson. The Second Thursday concerts will take place in the chapel.
Mark Ball, Village Presbyterian’s enterprising and creative music director, had the idea to start the series after the church acquired a 1917 Mason & Hamlin grand piano for its chapel.
“It fits the room perfectly and is one of the most beautiful instruments I’ve ever played,” Ball said.
You can hear Ball play this fine instrument when he accompanies Tannehill Anderson. Coming artists include Trilla Ray Carter in October, Beau Bledsoe in November and sopranos Judy Bliss and Kathy Joyce who will perform a Christmas program in December. The concerts are from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m. You can purchase lunch at the Village Cup, the church’s coffee shop, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Thursday at 12:15 p.m., Village Presbyterian Church, free.