The Kansas City Symphony’s first concert of 2014 began with bittersweet recollections from music director Michael Stern for R. Crosby Kemper, Jr., a founder of the orchestra, who died last week.
Prefacing a Beethoven-influenced program, Stern described Kemper, like Beethoven, as a Promethean figure and dedicated to him the weekend’s performances in Helzberg Hall, expressing the hope that he would be “very happy, from his subscription seat somewhere, to be here tonight.” The orchestra performed J.S. Bach’s “Air on the G-String” in somber, tender homage.
The three programmed pieces displayed the study of contrasts available in the orchestral pallet: timbre, character, and dynamics.
The symphony’s concertmaster Noah Geller took on a different role this performance as soloist in Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, op. 61. Geller showed a nimble comfort, with more expressive character than technical showmanship, making the effort look deceptively easy despite the virtuosic work.
The orchestra provided vivid contrasts in the thematic treatment; melodies — sweet, prayerful and lively — progressed quickly, resolving into robust versions. Geller played with a supple tone, shifting from delicate, responsorial passages to biting down-bows and darkly resonant double stops.
The performance garnered a standing ovation from the audience and a firm bear hug from Stern.
John Corigliano’s “Fantasia on an Ostinato” preceded the concerto. Originally written for solo piano, the work’s inspiration drew from the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7. The orchestral arrangement conveyed contrasts from stark to warm timbres, melodic quotations alternated with ambiguous figures.
Starting from a shrill first strike, softly articulated rhythms blended under violin harmonics, secondary pulses jumpstarting phrases that transformed with rapid dynamic changes as layered entrances created effects of coloration, such as the glimmering winds and vibraphone against muted brass or the intense string tremolo and aggressive dual timpani.
Symphony no. 7 completed the program. Although it is an exuberant piece replete with dramatic growth and dynamic shifts, the energy held steady without verging into wild abandon.
The long line of the introductory melody gained momentum from continuously ascending accompanying figures, though the woodwind transitions proved unconvincing. The second movement’s primary theme moved from section to section in increasingly lush renditions, peaking with a rhythmic flourish.
The third movement, which started frolicsome and enthusiastic, became too deliberate in the stately secondary section, losing some of the work’s propulsive quality. This was reclaimed by the violins at the start of the final movement, a fervent whirlwind of a finale.