The Kansas City Symphony’s opening program of the season was a mix of longing and fervor. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato’s Friday performance was well-received by a Helzberg Hall audience of her hometown supporters.
This season, in commemoration of the beginning of World War I in 1914, artistic director Michael Stern has programmed works that would have been heard in the concert halls of the time. To start this patriotic and historic overview, Stern signaled a drum roll and the orchestra played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the audience standing and singing in accord to lyrics written almost exactly 200 years ago by Francis Scott Key in September 1814.
The first portion of the concert looked not only to the past, but to the east as well, with an inexplicable sense of yearning enhanced by exotic effects. Charles Tomlinson Griffes’ “Bacchanale” offered a treasury of images, with masterful colorations, the lines wafting and murmuring, then cascading into resounding fortes.
Hues of honey and saffron penetrated DiDonato’s rendition of Maurice Ravel’s “Shéhérazade.” She was captivating, lingering on the ends of phrases, her operatic prowess evident in her control and emotive portrayal of the mesmerizing lyrics. The second movement was enhanced by Michael Gordon’s pensive flute.
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It was a fragile piece, evocative and challenging, with shimmering tremolo, subtle ensemble swells and undulating tones.
That fragility translated into timidity at times, causing messy entrances and intonation issues as the orchestra strove to balance down to DiDonato’s pianissimos. The audience proved hazardous, too, with many an ill-timed cough ruining a carefully accentuated, resonating chord.
DiDonato also performed Richard Strauss’ song “Morgen,” similarly wistful, though more meditative and subdued and entirely beautiful. Concertmaster Noah Geller played the simple thematic line with a discreet sweetness.
In keeping with the season’s theme, she chose an encore of “Danny Boy.” The duskiness of her voice embraced the piece, though the theatrical arrangement did not connect with the overall atmosphere of the program.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 completed the concert, and there was a fury in the orchestra. The vibrant work was evergreen with surprises, from the eruptions in the brass in the first movement to the playful, pointed traveling line and jovial end of the third movement. Warm tones from clarinets, low strings and bassoons leveled the forcefulness.
The final movement displayed stately, ceremonial figures of heralding brass and frenzied movement under an unhurried theme, leading to a coda of ecstatic pomp.