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Mussorgsky/Rimsky-Korsakov, Night on Bald Mountain; Mozart, Concerto No. 20 in D minor for Piano and Orchestra; Stravinsky, Petrouchka (1947)
The Kansas City Symphony is playing better this year than they have anytime I can remember. The brass section, in particular, has a gorgeous sound, good ensemble, and plain old-fashioned accuracy that in previous years had often been lacking. The strings, too, have a solid ensemble and nice sound.
The Symphony, auditioning music directors this year, has played under a string of guest conductors. One might be tempted to credit the improved sound and ensemble to the guest-conductor factor (sometimes it doesn't hurt to shake things up!). But the orchestra has consistently played well this year, both under guest conductors and under Maestro McGlaughlin. Whatever the reason for their improvement, now is a good time to get out and hear them!
The Symphony's performance of Stravinsky's Petrouchka is a fine example of their improved playing. Petrouchka offers exposed and often very difficult solos to nearly every section of the orchestra. The Symphony carried off all these difficulties with aplomb. The brass section, in particular, gave a spectacular performance, both in the virtuostic solos (note especially principal trumpet Gary Schutza) and in solid ensemble playing. An enthusiastic audience Saturday evening rewarded the orchestra's efforts with a standing ovation-another unusual event at the Symphony. (The Symphony's audience, often on the older and musically conservative side, tends to greet such "modern" works rather coolly.)
The orchestra's audience Saturday, however, was noticeably younger, and also noticeably larger, than usual. Most of the credit for this must go to jazz legend Chick Corea, appearing in an unaccustomed role as soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto in D Minor. Corea breathed a different and more relaxed atmosphere into the hall, from the moment of his entrance, in shirtsleeves and toting a well-worn copy of the concerto (which he lodged in the tray of the piano and didn't consult once all evening long--perhaps he simply didn't want to leave it backstage), to his encore, a version of Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me," in which inadvertent foot-stomping suddenly and cleverly became part of the music.
Corea's reading of the concerto was nothing if not idiosyncratic. The instant he was settled at the piano he began noodling around as though trying out the instrument. Gradually the noodlings became more and more involved, finally leading (on an evidently pre-arranged signal) right into the beginning of the concerto. This little prelude made quite a striking effect, although it is without any basis in historical practice, as far as I know.
Corea treated the orchestra much as he would have treated his jazz band, often making eye contact with the various orchestra musicians and obviously enjoying the musical interplay with them. Corea even played along in the orchestral tuttis (here following a well-known historical practice).
Corea's interpretation of the concerto was certainly controversial. Mozart's piano concertos can, to a certain degree, be regarded as sketches. Some areas are fully specified by the composer, and many others are left to the discretion of the performer. The discretionary areas, ranging from the large (cadenzas) to the small (ornamentation), were to be filled in by the performer according to his or her musical training, sense of style, and general musicianship. Corea certainly filled in these areas--there's no controversy there. But Corea filled in these areas according to his own musical training, sense of style, and general musicianship. Therein lies the controversy, for Corea's jazz-inspired harmonies, melodies, and rhythms bear little resemblance to those that would have been played by a contemporary of Mozart, or those generally played by classically trained soloists today.
Leaving aside, for a moment, this clash between Mozart's style and Corea's--which some listeners may find appalling, and others invigorating--these discretionary areas were clearly the highlight of Corea's performance. Here his originality, style, and wit were seen in abundance. In the written-out sections, Corea's performance was most often competent, but it occasionally lacked clarity and direction, and there were more than one or two rough edges. Perhaps a trade-off is to be made between Corea's spontaneity and immediate response to the situation and the more finely chiseled, but far less spontaneous, performance most often heard from soloists.
Whatever the qualms of the musicologists, the audience Saturday clearly cast its vote for personality and spontaneity, rewarding Corea's performance with a standing ovation and demanding an encore. Perhaps the Symphony, with many empty seats at most of its Classical Series concerts, needs to court controversy a little more often.
Kansas City Symphony upcoming performances:
February 13-14-15, guest conductor Samuel Wong and Nexus, percussion ensemble
March 14, A Night on Broadway
March 20-21-22, guest conductor Klauspeter Seibel and Gustav Rivinius, cello
March 29, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, with the Paul Mesner Puppets
Symphony Box Office: 471-0400
Brent Hugh is a pianist and composer. You can hear him online at http://cctr.umkc.edu/userx/bhugh/recital.html
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