The Kansas City Symphony presented a robust program of nationalistic flavor in Helzberg Hall on Friday night, conducted by music director Michael Stern. Virtuosic performances ranged through the ensemble, along with a passionate presence from guest soloist Joshua Bell.
Adam Schoenberg’s “American Symphony” was commissioned by the Kansas City Symphony and premiered by the ensemble in 2011. This revised version retained Schoenberg’s vision of a renewed sense of hope for America, while harkening to the great works of mid-century American music from Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber.
The five-movement work matched atmospheric effects with celebratory fanfares and employed churning, exciting rhythmic figures.
Bell’s performance of Édouard Lalo’s “Spanish Symphony” was fervently demonstrative, captivating the audience. He was attuned to the orchestra, with excellent balance throughout and an assured command even at the extremes of technique and dynamic.
His changes in timbre matched the diverse moods within the movements, from a gritty darkness in tone to jovial expression, lyrical line to biting pizzicato.
The work featured Spanish-derived themes and rhythms and the inherent flair of the music’s style. The orchestra matched Bell’s nimble performance with a confidence of its own.
While the work was clearly a showpiece for the violin, the ensemble brought purpose, whether accompanying or responding, with startling pizzicato work from the strings, gentle lyricism, energetic rhythmic patterns and rich chordal work from the brass and low voices.
These capabilities were showcased in the concert’s final work, Béla Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra.” This piece offered challenging passages for every section, exploring soloistic abilities as well as ensemble complexities, using quotes and paraphrases from primarily Hungarian sources.
Each of the five movements had distinctive moments, with sudden, arresting shifts in character and energy. Beginning with mysterious murmurings from the strings, fluttering flute asides and an ominous bass-line, the quick succession of motifs created excitement.
Intricate pairings were well matched, introduced by the snare line and an impressive bassoon soli, and followed by a rich, refined brass chorale.
A beautifully tortured line and intense chords were punctuated by piercing tones from piccolo and muted brass, harsh pizzicato and resolute down-bows for an agonized effect. Dramatic trombone glissandi interrupted a lilting melody, beginning an enthusiastically chaotic moment underscored by oom-pah tuba.
A majestic horn call began the finale of whirling speed, pushing forward even when the dense texture threatened to bog down, ending with a grandiose flourish.