A Review of the Kansas City Symphony

I believe most musicians and lovers of classical music can recall the moment when they first fell in love with classical music. My moment was a record that featured two musical works both by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) one of the featured composers at a performance of the Kansas City Symphony on Friday evening March 30, 2012. This concert was the 10th in the classical series for the 2011-2012 inaugural season at the Kaufmann Center for the Performing Arts.

I had purchased a recording of the “Concerto for Flute and Harp” (featuring the famed flutist Julius Baker) by Mozart because I was studying the flute and simply loved (and still do) this piece of music. On the flip side of the record was the Symphony No. 41, called the “Jupiter,” by Mozart and I listened to that piece until the record wore out. What I learned about was form and symmetry and really perfection in music (especially the last movement of the symphony). Mozart composed an amazing amount of music for the very short time he lived. Commentary has been made that often his scores were free from multiple corrections (or markings) as he seemed to write out of divine inspiration and his music still speaks to us over 200 years after the fact. When Mozart wrote this music he was at the height of his compositional powers but quickly approaching the end of his life, financially broke with a sickly spouse and enduring the recent death of a daughter, aged six months. I have a new granddaughter, named Claire Ann, and I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose a child so very young, but obviously this was a more common place occurrence in that day and age but no less painful.

So why is the Symphony no. 41 nicknamed the “Jupiter?” Well Mozart did not name it that, but most probably Johann Peter Salomon did. Salomon was an oboist and violinist who was not only a composer but a well-known music promoter at the time of Mozart and Haydn. In the last two minutes (remember that noteworthy last movement) of the “Jupiter,” Mozart composes a five-part fugato (think fugue-like with musical voices entering at different times), which at that point in the history of music had never been done. J.S. Bach had only done a three-part fugato. Since it would be very difficult for an individual to process five melodies simultaneously, Salomon thought surely only a great god such as “Jupiter” could hear this majestic music, hence the nickname. Salomon has the wrong God of course, but the inspiration for the music is clearly of Divine origin. As for the performance by the orchestra it was excellent. The strings played as one and were convincing in their shaping of the musical phrases and dynamics and the winds sounded sweet and sublime. Being a wind player (but now only a winded player!) I enjoyed their precision the most (sorry sometimes I am unashamedly biased). The brass and tympani provided the appropriate punctuation without being annoying or in the way. Well done.

The opening piece of the concert, “Water Music,” was a world premiere composed by Daniel Kellogg, born in 1976. I have often considered that the history of classical music ended with the death of Dimitri Shostakovich in 1975 but continue to be proven wrong when hearing new and challenging pieces of music. Yes some of the new music is bad but then so was some of Shostakovich’s as well. I also judge new music based on my wife, Rita’s reaction to it. She does not pretend to be knowledgeable about classical music but is very open to listening and learning about it. We both liked the piece and I thought it conveyed what it set out to do musically, describing three different fountains in the City of Fountains. What I liked about the piece is that the music sounded challenging to play but was not unrealistic to play. So often new music disregards what the instruments can really do effectively and convincingly. This was not the case. Also I think composers of new music are compared to past composers and styles of music because the listener is trying to fit it in with a template of what they already know. However certain combinations of instruments do produce pleasing sonorities and they are still worth exploration. The blocks of orchestral sound were very reminiscent of Jean Sibelius, the late romantic Finnish composer. The Kansas City Symphony played with great concentration and dedication in conveying the composer’s intentions and the brass shown marvelously particularly the principal trumpet, Gary Schutza.

So what is left to say is that it is so easy to take for granted musical talent especially pianists. There are so many gifted performers on this instrument and the featured soloist, Yefim Bronfman, on the Bela Bartok Piano Concerto No. 2 is one of those. Bartok is indeed one of his specialties. It is often said that if you want to catch the best part of an NBA basketball game just watch the fourth quarter because that is when the players really begin to play some great and intense basketball. Well if Mr. Bronfman had had that attitude of saving his best for last, he would have perished on the stage because the Bartok Piano Concerto No. 2 starts with an unbelievable display of virtuosity from the pianist. Game on! I was not familiar with the work but was pleased to hear it. Bela Bartok is known for his use of folk songs within the context of his musical scores and he also writes these fabulous movements of music that he called “night music.” I wonder if he could sense the coming conflict of World War II in his music because there is a very dark seriousness to the music with very few playful moments. The orchestra seemed a bit distracted from the earlier world premiere but they refocused (thanks to conductor Michael Stern) and the last movement of the Bartok was the most pleasing to listen to as a dialogue between soloist and orchestra. Once again I will point out the work of principal trumpet Gary Schutza as ear-catching. Bravo!

Please take the time out of your busy schedules to support the arts in Kansas City. It is so much better than reality TV!  If you or someone you know may need counseling, please contact Lamar Hunt Jr. or see his website at http://lamarhuntjrcounseling.com/.