The Kansas City Symphony’s evocative program Friday night in Helzberg Hall culminated in a commanding and triumphant performance of impeccable, high-powered pianism from guest soloist Joyce Yang. She approached Sergei Rachmaninoff’s challenging Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra with an assured technical skill that balanced the passionate melodies.
Associate conductor Aram Demirjian, who has been with the Symphony for three years leading family and pops concerts, made his classical series debut with boundless energy. He directed with a confident and expressive style, though the ensemble’s response did not match some of his more fulsome gestures.
Two impressionistic pieces opened the first portion, utilizing the incredible individual voices on the Symphony’s roster. Maurice Ravel’s “Rapsodie Espagnole” and Claude Debussy’s “La Mer” conjured attitudes and atmosphere, creating timeless pieces inspired by memory and place.
Both composers are known for their imaginative orchestrations, and throughout the performance the timbral combinations were well balanced, matching tones for a wealth of brilliant colors.
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Ravel’s work drew from the tunes his mother had sung along with Spanish dance rhythms. The orchestra gave a clear-voiced, careful reading, from the mysterious, beckoning beginning to a clamorous end. The extensive back line of percussion brought the rhythms to the forefront with precision, especially tambourine.
A love for the sea influenced Debussy’s “La Mer.” The descriptive movement titles extended this connection, offering a variety of images playful, majestic and calm, with moments insinuating the effect of flickering light, rain droplets pattering the water’s surface or the tension of a sudden squall.
Again the variety of color captured the attention, whether from the lush cello soli, a delicate combination of flute and harp or the incandescent English horn. Shimmering tremolo and muted trumpet added a sheen. The fragile end of the second movement and the abrupt flourishes at the outset of the third further emphasized the changeable nature of the sea.
Yang gave a joyful performance on the Rachmaninoff in her second appearance with the orchestra. She exhibited total command of the work, approaching it with tenderness and tenacity. Her skill was evident throughout as rich, velvet-lined melodies were supplanted by decisive runs rocketing from one end of the keyboard to the other.
Demirjian and the orchestra were attentive, creating a texture to support and respond to the piano line. The only balance issue affected the mid-range during a forceful tutti moment. Solo voices engaged beautifully in this powerful performance.