The Kansas City Symphony has taken enormous strides, aided in a large part by the nearly perfect acoustic environment of Helzberg Hall. The ability to hear and respond to one another has proved invaluable to the development of the ensemble.
Friday’s concert was no exception, with guest conductor Carlos Kalmar leading a well-balanced ensemble in myriad exciting contrasts, joined by Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin.
Kalmar, music director of the Oregon Symphony, is recognized for his innovative programming. He adjusted the original concept, presenting the works back-to-front, with Antonín Dvorák’s Symphony No. 7 opening the performance, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 after intermission and Piotr Tchaikovsky’s “Capriccio Italien” as the vivacious finale.
Kalmar used exacting gestures, crooking a finger to mold a release, pointing sharply to indicate a cue or reaching out over the podium with a sweep that seemed to nearly topple him into the front line of cellos. He was less animated during the concerto, deferring to Sudbin and the classicism of the early Beethoven work, providing a supportive backdrop punctuated with sforzandi chords.
The Dvorák, with its mysterious undercurrent and dramatic statements, was an exploration in contrasts. Dynamics and articulations were offered in the extreme, though subtle asides didn’t fully coalesce and fortissimo sections sounded unbalanced. Nevertheless, fantastic performances from soloists and sections — the woodwinds were consistently exemplary — created a stimulating event.
Sudbin offered a refined performance, if a bit showy at the ends of phrases. He fluctuated between polite and bold, the marcato articulation punching out the theme over effortless runs and energized trills. He emphasized some of that Beethovenian humor with wry chords in the first movement and the launch of the jocular tune in the last.
“Capriccio Italien,” a sort of musical postcard, displayed colorful pageantry with danceable rhythms, broad melodies and changing tempos, and the thrilling skill of the players. The trumpets’ fanfare shone like gold in the opening salvo. The woodwind duets combined perfectly. The crash of cymbals and the rattling tambourine were accurate and commanding.
Unfortunately, nearly perfect acoustics have a drawback. Every sound carries in the hall: every dropped program, every whisper, especially every cough.
Throughout the performance, inopportune coughing from the audience obscured tender moments, dissipating the effect the artists strove to achieve. Stray hacking sabotaged the last statement of Sudbin’s solo, disrupting the final trill and causing him to cast an irritated look over his shoulder.