Fantastic finish

This past weekend, the Kansas City Symphony concluded its 2017-18 season with brio and panache, commemorating Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday one last time in Helzberg Hall.

Last Friday night, Helzberg Hall was nearly full for the conclusion of the 2017-18 season celebrating the life and music of Leonard Bernstein under the baton of internationally acclaimed director Michael Stern concluding his thirteenth season with the Kansas City Symphony. Stern’s artistic intelligence, energy and ability to connect with the public never ceases to amaze and captivate. Returning guest pianist, Ran Dank, was the soloist for the first part of the concert in the Bernstein. Dank is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards and is currently enjoying a well-deserved successful international career.

The first part of the concert opened with Leonard Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety (Symphony No. 2, 1949) based on W. H. Auden’s Pulitzer winning poem. Albeit a complex composition for both musicians and the audience, it certainly deserves to be played more often – I must admit that I had never heard it before. It is not your typical symphony or concerto in three or four movements, but rather a hybrid between both, alternating between serious and more jazzy parts. As Stern rightly noted in his opening remarks, Bernstein’s jazz never feels like an ersatz jazz in this symphony, but really becomes authentically part of the fabric and language of the work.

Divided in two parts with three subsections in each of them, Age of Anxiety follows the philosophical and musical journey of four protagonists reflecting on an industrialized world at war. The orchestra opened with the Prologue, a short, improvisational, beautiful and intimate clarinet duet, which led to fourteen variations (The Seven Ages, The Seven Stages) in which the piano plays a quasi-soloist role, growing more and more virtuosic with Prokofiev-like passages. Dank’s elegant and effortless playing was stunning throughout. His palette of colors and understanding of the music was evident in his ability to alternate quickly between highly contrasting sections.  

The second part of Age of Anxiety opened with The Dirge using a contrasting and slow twelve-tone melody at the piano. The orchestra’s large Romantic gestures throughout this movement offered an interesting balance between tonal and atonal sections. The jazzy movement, The Masque, was perhaps my favorite part of the score – it was certainly the most fun and cheerful. The pianist, accompanied by a highly developed percussion section, really made this movement swing with all sorts of syncopated rhythms. The piece ended with The Epilogue featuring a reminiscent return of the opening melody at the piano and a vibrant orchestra symbolizing a renewed faith. Bernstein’s composition was wonderfully received by the public who gave a standing ovation to both the orchestra and the pianist. Concluding the first part of the concert, Dank offered a gorgeous virtuosic arrangement by Earl Wild, “Embraceable You” by George Gershwin.

The second part of the program featured Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique (1830), a five-part orchestral composition. Considered a masterwork for almost two centuries now, this symphony, with a strong programmatic content provided by Berlioz, follows a series of hallucinatory experiences by a musician infatuated with his beloved. This partly autobiographic composition reflects Berlioz passion and despair for Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress. However, Berlioz’s attempt to attract his beloved’s attention failed.

The orchestra opened with Reveries-Passions, in which the string sections are full of passion and tumultuous longing before finally introducing the public to the idée fixe, symbolizing the beloved. The idée fixe is a sort leitmotiv which recurs throughout the work in different forms. Stern conducted this movement with excitement, fire and passion. The crescendo and diminuendo effects were stunning in the conclusion. The second movement, Ball, has always been one of my favorites and I thought the orchestra made the waltz swirling with grace in this movement. In the third movement, Scene in the Country, the dialogue between the English horn and the offstage oboe (placed in the public), was particularly gorgeous. The fourth movement, March to the Scaffold, was very effective as Stern had an innate ability to build tension and suspense as the protagonist marched to his death. Even the death blow and the head rolling are musically depicted… In Witches’ Sabbath, the final movement starts with tremolos’ and pizzicatos’ dismal effects before reintroducing the idée fixe as a sarcastic dancing tune on the clarinet. The piece ended with the famous Dies Irae and resonating bells in an ever-increasing climactic crescendo, all without ever losing the fragile balance between instruments. Stern’s orchestra received an immediate standing ovation from the public. Personally, I had not heard such an exciting version of the piece in a long time.

The Kansas City Symphony concluded its season with this brilliant and well-crafted program, showing once again that they can tackle anything with the highest artistic excellence. The audience saw that every musician matters in the whole, as Stern personally acknowledged the men and women who will be retiring from the orchestra after this season.

Kansas City Symphony
Season Finale Fantastique with Bernstein
Friday, June 22-24, 2018 (Reviewed on June 22)
Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts
300 W 12th St, Kansas City MO
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Cover photo: Pianist Ran Dank