You may have needed a shoehorn to fit another instrumentalist on the stage of Helzberg Hall Friday night. Performing ensembles are thinking big in this inaugural season of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, and the Kansas City Symphony rose to the challenge by providing a compelling reading of Gustav Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 2 in C Minor.
The composition calls for enormous forces. Besides the string sections, the score calls for about 17 wind players, 22 or so brass, large chorus and — well, you get the idea. The opening and final movement are each as long or longer than many classical-era symphonies. The entire symphony, about an hour and 20 minutes long, was performed without intermission.
The composition is called the “Resurrection” Symphony after the text by Klopstock employed in the final movement. The performance featured soprano Jessica Rivera, mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor and the Kansas City Symphony Chorus under the direction of Charles Bruffy.
There was a time when I winced at the thought of our hometown orchestra playing Mahler. In the right hands, Mahler can be brilliant and sublime. With poor playing and a conductor with no sense of musical shape and architecture, the evening can be long and unsatisfying. Far too many Mahler performances in the past fell into the latter category.
Years of steady improvement by an increasingly talented ensemble and the vision and direction of conductor Michael Stern have dramatically changed that scenario.
From the outset, the cellos and string basses played with carefully stylized and effective phrasing. As the orchestral texture thickened and the ensemble built a thrilling crescendo, it quickly became apparent that this would not simply be an epic work — it would be an epic performance.
Throughout the opening movement, Stern lavished careful attention to instrumental balance, allowing solo flute and violin lines to project through the orchestral texture. In particular, the brass instruments were nicely contained and paced, helping them to drive the thunderous crescendo in the middle of the movement.
Stern paused for an extended period of time before the second movement, waiting for the audience noise and rustling to die down. The movement began with one lovely legato tune after another. Although an occasional intonation slip was audible and string pizzicatos were not always together, Stern and company captured the music’s beauty, drama and impressive instrumental colors.
The waltz-like central movement began gracefully and increasingly became infused with energy. The fourth movement, “Urlicht” (“Primal light”) featured mezzo-soprano O’Connor. She displayed a beautiful and impressive voice, rich in tone and darkly colored. In addition, she sang with a keen awareness of the volume and vocal weight necessary to balance her sinuous melodic lines with the orchestra.
The finale, over 30 minutes in length, was a wild musical ride, opening with a long orchestral exposition that was simply thrilling.
The Symphony Chorus proved exceptionally patient, waiting more than halfway through the work’s final movement before making its entrance. It was certainly worth the audience’s wait — their rich and subdued a cappella opening was breathtaking, and their diction crisp and clear.
Soprano Jessica Rivera’s light, clear soprano voice floated effortlessly over the chorus. O’Connor also sang passionately and convincingly in the finale. The stirring final moments earned the audience’s adulation — a sustained ovation lasting nearly five minutes.
The acoustics of Helzberg Hall certainly aided the performers achieve acoustical balance and brilliance. Fine acoustics, however, cannot produce such a forceful and gripping performance; they only underscore the fine work of the musicians.
It was a night to remember in a season of highly memorable events.