Violinist Philippe Quint will help the Kansas City Symphony celebrate the conclusion of its season with Samuel Barber’s violin concerto on June 16-18 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. On the same program, Michael Stern will conduct two other orchestral showpieces: “Phenomenon” by Narong Prangcharoen and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2.
Thai composer Prangcharoen, who studied composition under Chen Yi at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance, has made his mark as a composer. He has received numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and has had his works performed around the world.
“Phenomenon,” composed in 2004, was inspired by celestial phenomena like the aurora borealis, bolides (exploding meteors) and the Naga fireballs of Thailand.
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“It’s a great opener for the concert because it has so much energy,” Stern said. “When I look at the score, the first thing that jumps out at me is this incredible rhythmic drive, a rhythmic propulsion.”
Barber’s violin concerto is one of the great American concertos of the 20th century. Commissioned in 1939 by Philadelphia industrialist Samuel Simeon Fels for his ward, Iso Briselli, it was deemed unplayable by Briselli’s violin coach, Albert Meiff.
“The technical embellishments are very far from the requirements of a modern violinist,” Meiff wrote.
Barber declined to alter the concerto, much to the consternation of Briselli. Violinist Albert Spalding gave the work its first public performance in a concert in 1941 with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. It has since become a standard work of the violin concerto repertoire.
Stern’s father, Isaac Stern, made one of the great recordings of the concerto in 1964 with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein.
“One of the great things about this piece is how well it exploits the violin,” Stern said. “Barber was writing in the middle of the 20th century and was criticized for being too romantic. It is incredibly romantic music.”
According to Stern, it was this romanticism that caused Barber’s music to be considered passé during the modernist heyday of the mid-20th century.
“But the pendulum swings back,” he said. “Now it’s recognized as a staple of the American repertoire. It’s a beautiful piece.”
Although Quint is extremely versatile, the Russian-born violinist seems to have a special affinity for the romantic repertoire, as demonstrated by his very fine recordings of concerti by Nicolo Paganini and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, making him an ideal soloist for the Barber.
“He has complete command of the violin,” Stern said. “Philippe really sings. He makes a beautiful sound, which helps in this piece a lot because of those melodies. You need this kind of soaring romanticism. His style of playing and his sound is very well-suited to this piece.”
As if the Barber weren’t romantic enough, the concert will end with one of the most heart-tugging works of all: Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2. First performed in St. Petersburg in 1908 with the composer himself conducting, the work is drenched with lush orchestration and swooning melodies. Although it was written in the 20th century, Stern says the symphony “out-romanticized the Romantics.”
“It’s the poster child piece for passionate music,” he said.
At the end of a year in which the Symphony has performed such thrilling works as Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 and Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” Stern believes the Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2 is an appropriate way to bring the season to a close.
“We play music that we want people to get excited about, music that incites passion, so this is a great way to finish the season,” he said. “Plus, it’s such an over-the-top guilty indulgence, why not?”
8 p.m. June 16 and 17 and 2 p.m. June 18. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $28-$83. 816-471-0400 or kcsymphony.org.