The Kansas City Symphony Says Goodbyes to Noah Geller, One of the Three Soloists in the Season’s Opening Performance
Kansas City Symphony opens its 2018-2019 season fusing dance inspiration and musical eloquence with festive flourish, but it’s a season marked by significant changes ahead for the organization.
Along with Aaron Jay Kernis’ “New Era Dance” and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances,” the opening concert features three soloists — violinist Noah Geller, cellist Mark Gibbs and pianist Sean Chen — on Ludwig van Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano in C major, op. 56.
“The Beethoven Triple is a kind of celebratory piece. It’s used a lot when a great violinist, cellist and pianist come together and want to do something as one,” said Michael Stern, music director of the Kansas City Symphony.
“It was on my bucket list,” said Gibbs, principal cellist for the Kansas City Symphony, who celebrates his 20th season with the orchestra.
“It’s a great work of Middle Beethoven,” said Geller. “It’s really compelling . . . You’ll leave singing it, whistling it on your way out.”
“It’s exciting,” agreed Chen, an award-winning concert pianist who moved to Kansas City when his wife joined the orchestra. He’s performed with some of the orchestral musicians for chamber works, including Geller. Obviously, Geller and Gibbs have performed together frequently, but this is Gibbs’ and Chen’s first time working together.
“He’s a great addition to the community, and it’s really great to showcase someone who is local and so fabulous,” said Geller.
At a June post-rehearsal meeting with the three soloists in Kauffman Center’s Brandmeyer Hall, they punctuated the conversation by singing snippets of melody while demonstrating a point about the music, offering commentary on baseball rosters and engaging in (apparently ongoing) debates about restaurant preferences; clearly, they are friends as well as colleagues.
Similarly, the three soloists in the Triple Concerto navigate as friends. “It doesn’t work, I don’t think, if people try to outdo each other,” said Gibbs.
Weaving the three performers, accompanied by the orchestra, Beethoven balances intimate moments with symphonic forces, explained Chen.
The first movement is buoyant, the opening sequence humming along into the cello’s statement. Beethoven writes prominently for the cello, and high on the instrument, so that its timbre shines throughout the piece.
“It’s ingenious,” said Gibbs.
There’s bite in the piece, too, with an extended coda making for a high-velocity ending to the first movement, an out-and-out joy ride for the soloists. A somber and lyrical Largo unfolds between the cello and violin, while the Rondo alla polacca rounds out the work with twinkling figures and swift attitude shifts.
It’s bombastic and a crowd-pleaser, but even so, the Kansas City Symphony hasn’t performed this piece in nearly 20 years, estimated Stern. “It’s a neglected piece,” confirmed Gibbs. The work gets a bad rap. Though Beethoven wrote extensively for his own performing career, this piece was written for someone else, and only ever performed once in Beethoven’s lifetime.
Though Beethoven’s 250th anniversary is just around the bend, with worldwide celebrations throughout 2020, his works are a staple of any season. (KCS also performs Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 this October.)
“Beethoven is central to who we are as musicians and why we do what we do,” said Stern. “Beethoven is the only composer that I really feel comfortable doing one-composer programs with, because there is so much variety in his music, in the different periods, in the different approaches he uses . . . and the emotional range is enormous.”
The Beethoven Concerto fits well within the context of the program, linked by the works’ jubilant qualities and dance-like figures. “I just think this is one of the nicest sort of curtain raisers for the season that we’ve done in a long time,” said Stern.
“The Rachmaninoff is a bread-and-butter piece, of course, but it always sounds fresh,” he said.
Along with repertoire favorites, the season also includes a fair amount of contemporary works, starting with the Kernis, “one of the most colorful pieces written in the last 20 years or so,” said Stern.
“New Era Dance” seems a fitting start to a season that includes some substantial changes.
This season, with more than half of the works from the 20th and 21st centuries, nearly 30 percent of the classical series boasts work by American composers, a significant uptick from previous seasons.
Having such hearty representation is a positive indication of the prevalence and quality of American music. “I think it’s our responsibility to do as much of it as we can,” Stern said.
American works are also featured in the KCS’ other series, including the first Happy Hour concert of the season Sept. 11. “Piano Pizzazz” features Chen on works by Emma Lou Diemer and Jennifer Higdon, as well as Johannes Brahms.
It’s all part of a busy week for the musicians, since Geller also presents an Inside the Music Series masterclass Sept. 13.
Unfortunately, the start of the season is also a last hurrah.
“This will be an emotional week for me,” said Geller, “because this is my last time to play with the orchestra before I leave for my new job in Seattle.” He has served as concertmaster with KCS since 2012. Geller begins his duties with Seattle Symphony the following week, though he is officially on a leave of absence with KCS for the 2018-2019 season.
This season also marks the end of an era. Last May, the organization announced that executive director Frank Byrne plans to retire in August 2019. He has successfully steered the Kansas City Symphony through impressive growth during the past 16 years. With two years as general manager before that, his leadership has made KCS a financially enviable organization.
“Frank sweats the details on both sides of the equation, with great stewardship of the budget and administration and the long-range planning, but he’s also a musician, he thinks like a musician and he reveres the artwork. Even the hardheaded business decisions are always filtered through what is good for the organization, and that is really a gift,” said Stern.
In the announcement, Byrne said, “There is no orchestra in America with greater potential or spirit than the Kansas City Symphony.”
It’s this spirit, this striving, this thirst and energy, that opens the season.
Kansas City Symphony presents “Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and Symphonic Dances” at 8 p.m. Sept. 14 and 15, and 2 p.m. Sept. 16, at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. For more information and tickets, visit www.kcsymphony.org.