The esteemed Emanuel Ax joined the Kansas City Symphony, conducted by Michael Stern, for a concert of summertime energy in Helzberg Hall on Friday.
Claude Debussy’s “Jeux, Poème dansé” was a scenic display of ephemeral colors, like a garden set to music, a garden partially returned to the wild, with hidden paths and swells of shadow. Though originally written as a ballet, the music for “Jeux” (Games) stands independent of the plot, which involved a coy and somewhat amorous game of tennis in the twilight.
The orchestra navigated the work’s subtle complexities, each twist in sonority and texture like a variant bloom, the winds’ twining lines like a tangle of vines and the brass in bright, showy splashes, while the strings set the dusky tone of filtered sunbeams.
The concert moved from the ambiguity of Debussy to the structured classicism of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for Ax’s performance of two piano concerti, No. 19 and No. 16, in an impressive display. The two works were a compatible pair, one performed in the first half and one in the second, with clear tunes and a touch of the unexpected.
Mozart, of course, often wrote to impress. The affable, soft-spoken Ax, though not a flamboyant performer, projected those qualities which keep Mozart fresh: fleet technique in near constant motion, a playful response to the orchestra, and sprightly melodies. It’s easy to see why he’s one the greatest living interpreters of Mozart. At times, the action was so smooth the grace notes seemed to bend.
Stern set a brisk pace, and though individuals responded nimbly, the orchestra as a unit was a little too loud and a little too heavy, pulling away from the soloist’s line.
Combining individual voices into a cohesive unit was no issue in Richard Strauss’ “Till Eulenspiegel’s lustige Streiche,” (Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks), with episodes based on stories of the legendary prankster.
Till’s motifs swept though the ensemble, as horns, clarinets, bassoons, violin all had a chance to personate the character. The easily flowing folk tunes interrupted with offset rhythms and discomforting harmonies quickly rising to a hell-raising chaos. The bass drum sent a shockwave through the hall. Horn calls peaked the enormous tutti crescendos, and Till approached his somber end with an insolent whistle from clarinet.
It was a bold performance, the urgency requiring a virtuosic ensemble, and the succinct, well-honed conclusion was met with rambunctious applause.
Additional performances 8 p.m. June 3 and 2 p.m. June 4. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $28-$80. 816-471-0400 or www.kcsymphony.org.