Kansas City Symphony balanced two challenging modern-era works on Friday, Carlos Chávez’ “Sinfonía india” and John Corigliano’s contemporary percussion concerto “Conjurer,” featuring soloist Martin Grubinger, with Beethoven’s established and loved Symphony No. 5. Michael Stern conducted the orchestra in Helzberg Hall.
Grubinger performed with athletic virtuosity of precision, dynamic control and vigorous showmanship, either smiling with glee or crouched — serious and keen-eyed — as though stalking prey.
The work was divided into three sections, performed contiguously, scored for a variety of instruments within percussion families: Wood, Metal and Skin. Each movement began with a solo cadenza, strings entering in contrast and support.
Corigliano’s opening remarks did a disservice to the presentation. By discussing his hesitancy in composing a percussion concerto (with a perception that percussion lacked melodic potential and sustainability), he lowered the audience’s expectations by alerting them to these issues. The cadenza featuring talking drum was not intriguingly melodic and seemed out of place, despite Grubinger’s skill.
The work contained interesting timbre combinations, though, with lines traveling through unpitched woodblocks into pitched xylophone and a luminous melody melding vibraphone and glockenspiel tones. The tom tom and timpani work (rigged tuning pedals allowed for drastic pitch changes) had a deliberate, martial attitude, with strings and brass adding portentous textural contrasts.
It was a smart choice to include brass in the final movement, as the strings were inaudible under the increasingly exciting finale of fortissimo runs.
Grubinger’s encore was his own composition “Planet Rudiment,” a solo on snare drum. Featuring dynamic rolls and a high-speed display of accented patterns, it was full of clever visual stick tricks: behind the back, off the neck, tossing, twirling. Grubinger remarked before he began, “it’s pure sport. Nothing to do with music, but it’s real fun.”
The program opened with “Sinfonía india.” Chávez used influences from three native Mexican cultures, featuring mixed meters, indigenous melodies and an array of percussion.
It began with good initial energy from the strings, while the winds exhibited ease during the second portion’s theme. However, the work sounded insecure as it progressed, with moments of discord in the challenging meter changes, and did not reach the fortissimo climax.
It took most of the first movement of Beethoven’s symphony for the ensemble to regain its composure. The cello and viola theme in the second movement came off beautifully tender, the basses led the counterpoint with intensity, and the symphony ended with energy and confidence.