Kansas City Symphony Opens Classical Series with Themes of Struggle and Triumph

Ah, opening day. The fanfare, the National Anthem, that first pitch…it’s the opening concert of the Kansas City Symphony’s 2019/2020 Classical Series. The orchestra has already been hard at work for the last month in its various capacities, but this cornerstone series kick starts a season of celebrations and milestones, with an impressive roster of guest artists and new (or at least newish) works.

First up, music director Michael Stern celebrates his 15thseason with the orchestra, his tenure complementing and encouraging the growth and sustainability of the organization. For this concert, he brought together a collection of pieces that connected broad themes and extramusical subtleties.

The center of the program was the world premiere of Daniel Kellogg’s “The Golden Spike,” commissioned by the Kansas City Symphony. Stern built the program around the themes this piece inspired: struggle, triumph, loss and protest. He enlisted the symphonic poems of Jean Sibelius’ “Finlandia” and Bedřich Smetana’s “Blaník” to anchor it. Pianist Martin Helmchen joined the orchestra for Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor.

As tradition, the opening concert began with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the orchestra playing and the audience singing, and it is uplifting to hear rough, earnest voices raised in unison in Helzberg Hall.

Pausing for some late seaters, Stern then led the orchestra straight away into Sibelius’ “Finlandia.” Sibelius, 34 years old in 1899, wrote the work’s first version in protest of censorship of the Finnish press and to promote Finnish freedoms. Over the years the iconic hymn has taken on national-anthem-like associations. I first heard it cast as “ A Song of Peace” from our old United Methodist hymnal, and there is not a hearing of this work for me that doesn’t conjure that small, full-hearted congregation, despite the decades passed.

The orchestra gave it a firm, warm reading, with impressive presence from the low voices, especially Joe LeFevre on tuba. The brass busted in triumphantly, the strings sweeping right alongside into the hymn centerpiece, each version lovingly addressed. The timpani thundered into the final broad statement.

The concerto continued this theme of struggle and triumph. In context with these other programmatic choices and Schumann’s history, it’s difficult to not read a full narrative into the structure. Helmchen performed with an appealing grace, fluently spinning the cascading figures. The orchestra and he leaped into the work more strenuously than necessary, but the tempo evened out (after a bit of meandering), with some lovely connections between piano and oboe and clarinet, as well as a stunning cadenza.

In the program notes, I appreciated seeing the work listed as by “R. Schumann” to distinguish it from a different Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor. That was Clara, his wife, whose concerto predated his. Her career and influence as an international celebrity soloist helped elevate his reputation and her advocacy after his death assured his legacy. (Despite her impact on the music we often hear in the concert hall, her own 200th anniversary on September 13, 2019 passed with little acknowledgment in Kansas City.)

The second movement opened up wonderfully, with a sensitive transition into the final movement. What a rush! I would have liked a bit more breadth for Schumann’s statements, but still an energetic and luxurious performance.

For “The Golden Spike,” Kellogg explored the power, glory, and pain of rampant, unhindered progress, bringing out these elements in the race for a transcontinental railway, which was completed in 1869. He made generous use of the Mahler hammer, wielded by percussionist Daniel Morris. Each time it landed felt like a slap across the face.

For the first movement, “Black Powder and Hell on Wheels,” he created an agitated tumult, with sliding trombones, clashing brass, aggressive winds and unsettling strings. Again, the tuba seemed to command the ensemble. “Promontory” set a different soundworld, starting from spare strings and building into an organ-like texture. I especially enjoyed a ringing effect he created with flute, percussion, piano, and cello, like those ever fluctuating winds we have on the prairie. The violins achieved a wonderfully fragile pianissimo moment, marred, unfortunately, by coughing in the audience.  Lastly, “Manifest Destiny,” signaled the triumph of the completed task, with forceful rhythms conveying the message of success, sweeps in the strings and a virtuosic timpani part, along with that thunderous hammer.

While the piece didn’t contain an overtly succinct melodic theme, like those Romantic-era works that preceded it, there were subliminal connections with Smetana’s “Blaník,” moments when pulse mattered most of all and the overarching ache of hard fought achievement.

Smetana, like Sibelius, was struggling with oppressive forces and trying to contribute to a national voice. This work comes from his later life, after he had gone deaf. Like Schumann, he died in an asylum. Despite that fate, the work rings with a sense of inevitable victory.

This concert, the vision that set it in place and the result, suggests good things in store for the season.

Fun fact: Sibelius and Smetana, as well as Clara Schumann, have appeared on circulating currency as cultural icons of their respective nations (Robert Schumann has graced some commemorative coins).

Reviewed Friday October 4, 2019 in Helzberg Hall. Repeat performances Saturday October 5 at 8 PM and Sunday October 6 at 2 PM. For more information visit www.kcsymphony.org.

About The Author: Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She’s written for KCUR, “KC Studio,” “The Kansas City Star,” “The Pitch” and “KCMetropolis.” Libby maintains the culture blog “Proust Eats A Sandwich” and writes poetry and children’s books. Along with degrees in trombone performance, she was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University.

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