Performing Arts

The Classical Beat: KC Symphony concertmaster steps into solo spotlight to play Bartok concerto

The Kansas City Symphony’s concertmaster, Noah Geller, will perform as a soloist Jan. 13-15.
The Kansas City Symphony’s concertmaster, Noah Geller, will perform as a soloist Jan. 13-15.

It’s always a delight when the Kansas City Symphony’s concertmaster, Noah Geller, performs as soloist with the orchestra.

Geller will step into the spotlight for Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2, and the Symphony, under guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru, will also perform works by Zoltán Kodály and Antonín Dvorák Jan. 13-15 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

The concert will be a reunion of sorts for Geller and Măcelaru, conductor-in-residence for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Both musicians worked together when Geller was assistant concertmaster for the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“I know Noah quite well, and I can’t wait to work with him again,” Măcelaru said. “He’s a wonderful violinist and a great musician and a nice person.”

The Romanian-born conductor is also quite comfortable with the repertoire of works by three of Central Europe’s most important composers.

“Having been born and living in that part of the world for the first years of my life, I associate Bartok’s music very closely with daily life back there,” Măcelaru said.

The concert will begin with Kodály’s Concerto for Orchestra. Composed on commission from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra between 1939 and 1940, the concerto harkens back to the music of the Baroque while incorporating Hungarian folk themes.

“It’s a fascinating piece,” Măcelaru said. “Kodály was interested with the idea of looking back at musical styles and forms that were developed in the Baroque and pre-Classical eras. His Concerto for Orchestra isn’t for a solo instrument, but all instruments playing together. The folk references are more hidden than in Bartók’s music. But it’s fascinating to compare them back-to-back.”

Bartók wrote his second violin concerto for Zoltán Székely, violinist with the legendary Budapest Quartet. He wanted to write a theme and variations for Székely, but the violinist insisted on a traditional three-movement concerto. Bartók devised a compromise.

“Bartók made it into three movements, but it is actually a set of variations from beginning to end,” Măcelaru said. “I know most people associate Bartok with jagged rhythms and funky harmonies, whereas this concerto is quite lyrical and beautiful. I think audiences will be surprised at its lyricism and beauty of sound.”

Geller agrees that those who find Bartók’s modernism daunting will be pleasantly surprised by the violin concerto.

“I really think it’s one of his greatest works,” Geller said. “The opening is unlike any other piece of music I’ve ever heard. It starts out with this very bravado opening. And it’s tuneful. You’ll say, ‘Oh, this is my favorite music.’ But then it goes absolutely insane until the orchestra finally comes in. It’s so varied.”

Dvorak wrote nine symphonies, but it seems only the final four ever get performed. And that’s a shame. Kudos to the Kansas City Symphony for performing Dvorak’s Symphony No. 5, a gorgeous work sure to delight any fan of the “New World Symphony.”

“I think Dvorak suffers a bit from his own talent in the fact that the sixth, seventh, eighth and certainly ninth symphonies have become such staples of his music that by the time you play those symphonies, it’s about time to start repeating them again,” Măcelaru said. “The Fifth Symphony doesn’t really make it on the docket, unfortunately.”

Written in the pastoral key of F major, Symphony No. 5 is filled with Dvorak’s profound love of nature. The first movement sounds like spring awakening, while the scherzo recalls Dvorak’s Breughel-esque Slavonic Dances. The finale ends the work with some of Dvorak’s most powerful music.

8 p.m. Jan. 13 and 14 and 2 p.m. Jan. 15. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $8-$78. 816-471-0400 or kcsymphony.org.

You can reach Patrick Neas at patrickneas@kcartsbeat.com and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat.

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