It’s the time of year when many hang twinkle lights in tree branches and post candles in windows – confronting the lengthening nights by mimicking the starry skies. The Kansas City Symphony, conducted by Bramwell Tovey, presented a musical version of this tradition by programming works that celebrated celestial bodies, performed in Helzberg Hall on Friday.
Tovey, music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, led the ensemble with captivating style, direct, energized gestures and an ability to control and sustain the intention of the line even as its final reverberations faded.
His charming demeanor was displayed when he indicated the start of the concert with a wink to the opening voices for an alluring interpretation of Claude Debussy’s piano work “Clair de lune,” arranged for orchestra by Leopold Stokowski. The work captured the glistening sheen of moonlight that both reveals and disguises with a timbral palette gilded by vibraphone, celeste, harp and flute.
Pianist Orion Weiss joined Tovey and the orchestra for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, which fit nicely in the program though not inspired by any heavenly body.
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Weiss played with a generous, youthful energy, symbiotic with the orchestra. His technical skill offered deliberate, clean full keyboard runs and paid particular attention to the ornaments. While the first and third movements highlighted Mozart’s seemingly effortless ability to write pleasurable, engaging melodies, the Adagio was a passionate foil, Weiss presenting an unhurried statement that allowed for a gradual unfolding of the theme.
The showpiece of the concert was Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” which has remained popular since its 1918 premiere, confirmed again in this thrilling performance.
The seven movements took characteristics from their mythological counterparts. The work required a large, virtuosic orchestra: expanded percussion and wind sections replete with extensive solo voices, as well as pipe organ and wordless chorus (from the women of the Kansas City Symphony Chorus, conducted by Charles Bruffy).
From the ominous, incisive ostinato of “Mars” to the ethereal fading voices in “Neptune,” the ensemble committed to the full emotive spectrum of the tone poem. Holst wrote surreptitiously atmospheric passages, with solo moments brought tastefully forward and motivic chunks sent traveling around the ensemble. Tovey kept early crescendos from overwhelming, making the eventual fortissimos knee-buckling.
But it was the middle movement, “Jupiter,” that wowed, especially the central section, a sumptuous, yet bittersweet tune. The audience applauded midwork, acknowledged by Tovey with a sly wink.