From purity to seduction, austerity to decadence, the Kansas City Symphony performed an all-encompassing concert on Friday night in Helzberg Hall. Music director Michael Stern conducted, exuberant in grand gesture.
This season’s concerts, in remembrance of World War I, have been designed around the era’s musical offerings. The selections exhibited the breadth of styles, influences and changing tastes, as well as the exceptional abilities of ensemble’s principal players.
Excerpted from Richard Strauss’ opera “Salome,” “Dance of the Seven Veils” is a disturbing, exotic work that melds elegance and obsession.
The wild, ferocious introduction calmed into sinuous solo lines by oboe and flute, the lovely melodies abruptly interrupted. A scurrying intensity in the strings and winds created an ominous push into the final deranged flurry.
Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade (After Plato’s ‘Symposium’)” was not from WWI era, but it provided balance to the program, the five movements each a different character with vastly different attitude, featuring a virtuosic solo violin. Bernstein wrote the work for Stern’s father, Isaac, and conducted the premiere in 1954.
Here, violinist Philippe Quint performed with passion and precision, the orchestra responding with excellent rapport. Although the solo line was lost in the texture during tutti moments, generally the energetic Quint presented a bold commitment to the material, from the song-like opening line, the tortured, angular cadenza or the freer, almost swinging motif of the final movement.
The ensemble tempered the emotional excess with Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 3. This taut piece served as antidote to the other dense and frenzied works, relying on structure and development.
Written with no narrative, it was nevertheless a joyous, exultant work that built its excitement carefully as the chorale-like theme traveled from section to section. The horn section, however, stood out with exceptional brilliance.
Maurice Ravel’s “La valse” was written post-World War I and expressed the breakdown and turbulence of the era, taking the dignified waltz and reconstructing it into a feverish whirl. Moments of perfect elegance created by the harp and strings were aggressively swept aside by percussive hits, followed with music box melodies demolished by a forceful accelerando. The orchestra demonstrated well-articulated runs despite the dizzying excitement, the crackling outbursts ripping through the final measures.
The ensemble finished off the demanding program with a hat tip to the San Francisco Giants (fulfilling a wager with the San Francisco Symphony), playing John Philip Sousa’s “The National Game,” Stern wearing a Giant’s jersey.