Devil in the Details: Peter Oundjian conducts the Kansas City Symphony, with violinist Nancy Zhou

Violinist Nancy Zhou

The vibe was celebratory during the Kansas City Symphony’s opening Classical Series concert of 2020 and it had nothing at all to do with the impending Chiefs game, though the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts was blasted with red light in support of the team.

This year, organizations all over the world are commemorating the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven, as well as the 100th birthday of violinist Isaac Stern, which KCS is also honoring throughout the season with special events and guest artists.

But it wasn’t these titans of the past that made this an exceptional concert. It was the living artists.

Guest conductor Peter Oundjian led the orchestra with a welcoming smile and precise gestures, seeming to make little, personal asides to the musicians and drawing out specific colors. Particular attention was paid to chord voicing, and overall the ensemble demonstrated a sense of close listening, remaining generally well balanced through the full dynamic spectrum.

An earworm of the most delightful kind infects Johannes Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme by Haydn.” Oundjian encouraged a warm, stately rendition, controlled but always with a sense of moving forward. They paused sufficiently between each variation to let the chords ring in the open, and you could almost hear Brahms chuckling to himself as he turned the theme around and about through the variations.

Violinist Nancy Zhou was the 2018 winner of the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition. She’s the first soloist in an impressive lineup joining the ensemble this year, honoring Stern’s legacy. This San Antonio, Texas native is developing an international career and her fiery, aggressive performance on Felix Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E minor captured the audience’s attention. There were a few lines right at the start of the piece that didn’t quite align, but Oundjian kept a close watch on both Zhou and the orchestra.

Zhou’s technical ability was incredible, and she didn’t lack for emotional depth, either. Her harmonics were sweet and plaintive, she could play the dickens out of some double stops, and she had a walnut tone quality, dark and chewy, especially in the lower register. The third movement married impressive playing with a sense of fun, and the ensemble, especially the winds, was right there with her.

Vivian Fung’s 2011 “Dust Devils” seemed like an outlier from this standard repertoire, but it would have been a punch in the gut to herald the centuries-old innovations of long dead composers without including a contemporary voice doing that work today.  Fung, a Canadian now living in California, regularly explores soundworlds beyond Western art music. Oundjian is also taking this work to the Baltimore and Toronto Symphony Orchestras later in the year.

While the other pieces relied on melody as their dominant element, “Dust Devils” went for visceral energy built from internal chaos. Fung isn’t creating harmonic puzzles, leading the audience on a twisted path to a tonic chord, but rather inviting the audience into a psychological moment.

The orchestra tackled the piece with a seriousness of intent. There’s purposeful cacophony, sliding into an ominous quiet with undercurrents of movement like ants in a colony below the ground. The brass busted in like a giant’s footsteps, as though to say “we can handle this,” but the disquiet was never fully resolved, only ceased.

Curiously, the work was given very little pubic attention in the run up to the concert, which was described as “Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn and more” when the only “and more” to add would have been her name, a mere one additional word (“…and Vivian Fung”). On social media, in the KCS podcast, and other marketing, Fung’s name was only mentioned a handful of times, and her work was hardly advertised or discussed beyond Fung’s own program notes, while each of the traditional pieces was analyzed and bolstered as work of unquestionable genius, with the same factoids that have glutted program notes for decades. Where was the expectation for curiosity and growth in the audience?

Whether it was a communication misstep or deliberate marketing strategy, if we seem ashamed to program contemporary work, can we in good conscious commend Beethoven’s “revolutionary” style while appearing to shield the audience from composers creating transformative work today?

It’s perhaps no wonder Fung wrote a piece that virtually transcribes anxiety.

Because, really, what more is there to say about Beethoven? The average orchestral season includes more works by Beethoven than living composers every year.

Nevertheless, if you are going to do it, do it well. Oundjian presented Beethoven’s Symphony no. 1 (written when Beethoven was 30 and an electrifying star pianist) with joyful, forward direction, driving the themes internally and keeping momentum between movements (no wayward applause this concert). The orchestra was attentive, leaning in, and giving us finessed sound quality, purity in well-balanced chords, and lively bounce throughout.

In fact, Oundjian had maintained that momentum the entire concert, contributing to an energetic performance that felt wholesome and holistic.

Reviewed Friday, January 17, 2020. Kansas City Symphony presents repeat performances Saturday 8 PM and Sunday 2 PM. kcsymphony.org

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

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