The final concert of the Kansas City Symphony’s season ended with a magnificent wall of sound, culminating with the triumphant strains from Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 filling Helzberg Hall on Friday night. Michael Stern conducted the ensemble with consistently broad gestural excitement.
It was a profound program, the works incorporating personal struggle and moral triumph.
The concert opened with the world premiere of Chris Rogerson’s “A Single Candle,” commissioned by the Symphony. Inspired by a line from the diary of teenage Holocaust victim Anne Frank, it strove to capture the imagery of a small, strong light in overwhelming darkness.
Rogerson created a challenging piece of subtle movement, soft entrances becoming prominent gradually, organically. Beginning with barely audible bass drum and harrowing cello harmonics, it grew to a metallic-tinged peak that erupted with a horn line, dissolving with the trumpets’ dissonant, sirenlike effect back to the opening material.
Pianist Joyce Yang stepped in as a last-minute replacement for Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” Her interpretation was decisive, assured, with forceful attacks driving to each phrase’s final note, ripping though passages while maintaining clarity. After three curtain calls, the audience demanded an encore, clearly enamored by Yang’s performance.
The orchestra matched her power with strong punches and wonderful color. Their second statement in the lyrical Variation 18, however, could have used a more sweeping presence, instead of relying on volume.
Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, perhaps one of the genre’s most powerful works, came as a reaction to political scrutiny during a terrifying display of Soviet power. Beginning with tension, turmoil and melancholic themes, it also harbored a fervid urgency and exquisite textures.
Despite a briefly unhitched accelerando in the final movement, the ensemble gave a forthright and emotive performance. Individual performances were impassioned and distinct, like the horn and flute exchange of the first movement and clarinet and oboe solos in the third, while section-wise the playing was integrally unified, such as the carefully carved outer violin texture or the blasting trombone motif. Mixed timbres melded perfectly, whether piano and basses, harp and horn or timpani and tuba.
Shostakovich wrote highlights for each section, but the horns especially maximized their standout moments.
The final movement piled climax on climax. The sound generated by the dominating strings seemed almost corporeal, accompanied by the unleashed brass’ visceral presence.
The concert launched high expectations for this increasingly capable ensemble, rounding out an overwhelmingly successful season.
The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.