Review | Kansas City Symphony with guest pianist Jonathan Biss

Is it my imagination or is the Kansas City Symphony getting better and better as the opening of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts approaches? The orchestra and guest pianist Jonathan Biss dished out romantic fervor and American innovation in large servings at their concert Friday night at the Lyric Theatre.

The program opened with Richard Wagner’s Overture to Rienzi — the composer’s first hit opera, initially performed in 1842. The work’s sober beginning featured a bell-tone solo trumpet and very resonant lower strings. As the work progressed, the swirling passages in the upper strings were accurate and impressive.

The performance was well conceived and exciting despite a few momentary slips in intonation. Music director Michael Stern and the ensemble provided a great deal of musical contrast — martial rhythms followed by gently articulated strings, all of it capped off with a rousing finale.

Stern has a keen appreciation for contemporary American composers, and his programming choices of new music with the Kansas City Symphony are consistently strong. Stern previously selected and performed new works for the Symphony and the IRIS Orchestra in Tennessee by Adam Schoenberg, a 30-year old Massachusetts native.

Schoenberg was back Friday with his American Symphony, commissioned by the Kansas City Symphony. The work received its world premiere at Friday’s concert. Stern brought the composer onstage to give a brief description of the work. Schoenberg identified a significant influence of American composer Aaron Copland, particularly his Third Symphony.

The composer was quick to point out that his American Symphony is not exactly a patriotic work.

“I began the work three years ago,” Schoenberg explained, “when our country was in a time of great need.”

The composition opened in very tonal fashion, with more than a hint of Latin flavor with pulsing and syncopated brass and percussion. The trumpet lines were unusually high and challenging. The second movement was very atmospheric, with vibratoless sustained strings, percussion carefully selected for its tonal color, and muted and unmuted brass. Stern directed with great sensitivity, adding shape and momentum to the music.

The central movement employed changing meters and unpredictable rhythms. Some of the melodies were riff-like and contained a hint of humor. Schoenberg described the fourth movement as a “prayer,” but it needed a bit more fervor. It began with a shimmering dissonant fabric with sensuous melodies played by oboist J. Scott Janusch and clarinetist Raymond Santos.

The finale was eclectic, electric and very enjoyable. The rhythms and dynamic levels intensified throughout the movement until it reached a dizzying peak at the end.

Schoenberg demonstrated a distinctive and exciting compositional voice. His American Symphony is bold and brilliant, and deserves to be a staple among orchestras in the U.S. and abroad.

After the intermission, 30-year old pianist Jonathan Biss joined Stern and company for Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. Biss maintained a very busy schedule in the first two months of 2011, with solo recitals, chamber and orchestral performances in the U.S., Canada and Germany. Nevertheless, he showed no lack of energy and passion in a tempestuous performance.

The orchestra played with striking zeal in the stormy opening section. Biss played with extraordinary tone, displaying both sensitivity and nuance. Technically difficult passages were dispatched with such finesse they seemed simple. Biss and the orchestra emphasized the emotion and sheer lyricism of the music in the soulful second movement. The finale began without pause and demonstrated explosive energy.

The program will be repeated Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Lyric Theatre and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at the Lied Center in Lawrence.