A French rarity, a world premiere and a little-heard symphony by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky make for an intriguing program for the Kansas City Symphony.
Michael Stern will conduct Jonathan Leshnoff’s World War I-inspired Symphony No. 3, a work commissioned by the Kansas City Symphony; the “Ode to Justice,” which Alberic Magnard wrote to protest the prosecution and imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus; and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3, known as Polish.
Magnard’s music, not heard nearly often enough in concert, is a late 19th century melange of influences. While often sounding like other French composers of his time, such as Jules Massenet, there is a distinct German quality to Magnard’s music that earned him the title of the French Bruckner. At times he even anticipates the music of Gustav Mahler.
Stern calls Magnard’s “Ode to Justice” “an act of conscience.”
“It was inspired by the famous Emile Zola ‘J’Accuse’ episode, when Zola called out the anti-Semitism of the French, and Magnard also took a stand against that,” Stern said. “It’s about the courage of the artist standing up to proclaim justice in the face of injustice.”
In addition to his cultural act of bravery, Magnard performed an act of physical courage that cost him his life. In 1914, as German troops invaded northern France, Magnard stood his ground and would not let them trespass on his property. He was killed by the Germans and became a French national hero.
In a way, “Ode to Justice” sets the stage for the Symphony No. 3 by Leshnoff.
“Magnard dies defending his home from German attack at the beginning of the war, and then you have Jonathan’s piece, where the text comes from a soldier who was also caught up in World War I,” Stern said. “That is an explicit connection I put together.”
The connection between Leshnoff’s third and Tchaikovsky’s third is a bit more tenuous, but even here Stern sees a connection.
“One could possibly make the slightly facetious point that here was a well-known composer, Tchaikovsky, with a rather less well-known piece because everybody knows symphonies four, five and six much more than they know number three,” Stern said.
“And similarly, we know Jonathan from other performances of his works we have given, but here’s a piece that is not known at all. So, you know the composer, but you don’t know the music you’re going to hear. Maybe that’s the connection?”
It is somewhat puzzling why Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3 is not better known. It’s likable and very melodic, and the finale is based on a polonaise, hence the nickname Polish. However, a tribute to Poland was not Tchaikovsky’s intent. In czarist Russia, the polonaise was a musical symbol for the Romanov dynasty, so, in fact, the symphony was written as a tribute to Russian imperialism.
Tchaikovsky wrote his third symphony in 1875, well before the eruption of World War I. Blithely unaware that the Romanovs would soon vanish forever, Tchaikovsky could write joyful music to celebrate their conquests and glory. Quite a contrast to Leshnoff’s tormented vision of war.
“In terms of spirituality and intent, the Tchaikovsky and the Leshnoff could not be more different,” Stern said. “But why is that a bad thing? You listen to one piece, and then you switch gears and you listen to a happy piece that’s completely different. Why the hell not?”
KC Baroque Consortium
It has been thrilling to drive by Westport Presbyterian Church and see the restoration of its exterior from a fire that almost destroyed the church in December 2011. On Friday you can check out the church’s interior and enjoy wonderful music at a brown bag concert featuring the Kansas City Baroque Consortium.
Cellist Trilla Ray-Carter and her merry band of musicians will perform works by Henry Purcell, Georg Philipp Telemann, Giuseppe Colombi and George Frideric Handel. Perfect programming for a spring afternoon. And you’re invited to bring your lunch, too.
▪ 12:10 p.m. Friday. Westport Presbyterian Church, 201 Westport Road. Free. For more information about Westport Presbyterian Church, visit WestportPresbyterian.org.
You can reach Patrick Neas at email@example.com.