The Kansas City Symphony’s concert Friday at Helzberg Hall began with a blissful reverie and concluded in an astoundingly artful uproar. The challenging program invigorated a near-capacity audience of about 1,500.
After a rhapsodic reading of Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” opened the concert, pianist Yefim Bronfman performed Johannes Brahms’ Concerto No. 2 with the Symphony. A riveting rendition of Igor Stravinsky’s furious “The Rite of Spring” sent patrons into the night with quickened pulses.
As serene as “The Rite of Spring” is chaotic, Debussy’s beautiful composition opens with the gentle musings of a flute. In a superb demonstration of Helzberg Hall’s pristine acoustics, the sound of the flute floated above the Symphony like a sailboat skimming smoothly across a placid lake.
A notoriously muscular pianist, Bronfman flew through Brahms’ delicate work with impeccable coordination and sensitivity. Rather than acting as the proverbial bull in a china shop, Bronfman resembled a graceful tiger in a circus act, the big cat’s tame demeanor barely concealing its innate ferocity.
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Although the raised piano lid seemed to tremble perilously during the most strenuous passages of Concerto No. 2, Bronfmam demonstrated admirable restraint. Aside from a couple of moments of slight imprecision, the orchestra was correspondingly polished. The thunderous ovation that greeted the conclusion of Brahms’ lengthy composition compelled Bronfman to showcase his staggeringly proficient technique on a compact piece by Frédéric Chopin.
One of the landmark works of the 20th century, “The Rite of Spring” retains the ability to shock a century after its controversial premiere in Paris. Unsuspecting members of the audience exchanged uneasy glances during the composition’s most strident moments. Stravinsky’s work presaged the anarchic horror of World War I and the subsequent embrace of noise by classical composers and artists in popular music.
Music director Michael Stern conducted “The Rite of Spring” so demonstratively that he occasionally appeared to be practicing a frenetic form of martial arts. He maintained a deliberate pace during the meditative portions of Stravinsky’s work while embracing the chaos of its most tumultuous elements.
If “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” was the equivalent of a soothing cup of herbal tea, “The Rite of Spring” served as a bracing series of whiskey shots. Placed on either side of Bronfman’s hearty work during Brahms’ Concerto No 2, the vastly differing offerings provided a memorable evening of musical nourishment.