With winter descending on the region, the Kansas City Symphony’s offering of evocative Spanish fare was excellent relief.
Along with guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto and Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, the concert allowed the listener exciting insulation from the holiday weekend’s stress.
Two early 20th century works by contemporaneous, virtuoso Spanish pianists, Isaac Albéniz and Manuel de Falla, gave different, yet recognizable impressions of their country.
A suite from Albéniz’s “Iberia” featured works honoring Kansas City’s sister city, Seville. Although it originally was written for piano, Enrique Arbós’ arrangement created gorgeous combinations of timbre. The first, “Evocacíon,” offered emotional contrast from tranquil to assertive, if played perhaps too relaxed. “Fête-dieu à Seville” had a great English horn solo and lovely underlying textures. “Triana” had a wonderful forte section and energy, though messy pizzicato.
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Pianist Alessio Bax performed with the ensemble for Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” with a controlled, internalized presence. His effortless grace notes ornamented well-shaped melodies, his accents were precise and his runs had a harp-like quality. He drove the dynamic growth into the third movement. In the fortes, though, the soloist was all but lost, a consistent ensemble misfortune.
His demeanor changed for his encore, a flashy, robust, heavily decorated arrangement of Johannes Brahm’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 5.”
Prieto and ensemble gave an incredible rendition of Prokofiev’s symphony from its beguiling opening theme to the stunning climaxes in each movement. The work is jovial and celebratory, but also partially deranged and terrifying. They gave an intuitive performance of both delicacy (though the piece was not without its pitfalls) and force, well deserving of its standing ovation.
There are many praises. The ensemble displayed impressive dynamic contrasts, but also maintained hearty extended fortissimos with insistent strings and the low voices, led by the well-utilized tuba, imbuing depth. Soloists, especially clarinet, gave authoritative readings, and the piece finishing with broad, biting lines, the mechanistic tag and tutti chords of complete exuberance.
At the risk of diluting the powerful culmination of the symphony, Prieto led an encore, a vigorous, unannounced Spanish work rounding out the program, a fun finish with sudden cut-offs (when one audience member clapped pre-emptively, another shouted, “Not yet!” to much amusement) and theatrical percussion of tutti castanets and a paella pan banged with a wooden spoon. It was unnecessary, but nevertheless presented with such effusive good humor one couldn’t help but leave the hall smiling.