A program of purely Austro-German composers is somewhat inevitable in any given classical music season, but it also serves as a musical litmus test for the ensemble. Will the musicians bring urgency and vitality to familiar structures and palatable tunes? Fortunately, the Kansas City Symphony’s presentation Friday evening assuaged these concerns, with a melodious and enjoyable concert in Helzberg Hall.
Guest conductor Yoav Talmi led the orchestra with assurance, sans score for all three works, with forthright phrasing and adamant closing gestures. His international career has brought him to conduct in Kansas City only once before, for the Kansas City Philharmonic. (Guest conductor David Zinman was originally scheduled for this weekend.)
The concert began with the unmitigated dramatic opening of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Overture to “Coriolan,” the rugged opening chords cut with heavy silences. Here, the urgency was forefront, with responsive dynamics, sustained without over-blowing. The supporting voices energized the performance, whether a long organ-like tone in the winds or horns and timpani punctuating the top of a phrase. A return to the opening material made way for a gorgeous cello moment as they dissolved the melody, settling into pianissimo pizzicato.
They reduced forces for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony no. 33 in B flat major, but retained the same attentive energy. The looks of stern determination on the players were replaced by delighted engagement, as the melody moved delicately across the ensemble, the low strings instigated the crescendos. A brief fugal section was relaxed in the second movement, while the Menuetto contrasted with accented, excited lines. The final movement enjoyed a nimble lightness in the strings with the winds taking ownership of the chord movement, bright dynamic contrasts and a dramatic cut off.
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Though his large-scale orchestral works are familiar with contemporary audiences, Johannes Brahms was a hesitant symphonist, ever conscious of the formidable precedent set by Beethoven. His Serenade No. 1, written 18 years before his first symphony, started as a chamber work but was expanded to the orchestra. There were moments in keeping with these chamber origins, exemplified in the sensitivity of the duo clarinets with staccato bassoon.
The six-movement work incorporated a wealth of tuneful material, whether a jovial, open-air melody, hunting fanfare, or organic, twining theme of dappled shadows. Brahms distributed these melodies to every section, with an especially beautiful telling from the violas. Talmi demanded full voice as the work came to its exciting, succinct conclusion.