Heartfelt: Kansas City Symphony and Joyce DiDonato bring it home

Joyce DiDonato and Michael Stern, with the Kansas City Symphony, acknowledge applause from the enthusiastic audience. Photo: Eric Williams

Neither snow or chill or wild card playoff games could keep these musicians from their appointed concerts. 

It was a big weekend in Kansas City, especially in Helzberg Hall, where a cozy crowd of friends, family and fans enjoyed the effervescent joys of mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato with the Kansas City Symphony. 

This was an emotional concert, not only in the artistic content, which skewed toward love, longing, and loss, but in the fact that 2024 marks the last few months of Michael Stern’s tenure with the organization as music director. 

He’s invited many of his favorite musician friends to perform with the orchestra this season and hometown hero DiDonato—Stern called the international opera star “the Pride of Prairie Village”—was at the top of that list. 

Originally billed as a “journey home,” it was an eclectic and heartfelt concert, with both new and familiar works, Western and Eastern influences, grand statements and delicate passages. 

The first piece of the program was “Transplanted Seeds,” by Chen Yi and Zhou Long. Both Chen and Zhou, who are spouses, are world-renowned, award-winning composers, and have been professors at UMKC Conservatory for 25 years. They were in the audience and Chen came on stage to share about the piece.

The piece received its first performance this summer with the National Repertory Orchestra, commissioned and conducted by Stern. Though this concert series marked its second airing, it will undoubtedly make its way into the modern canon, with an engaging mix of melody, challenge and triumph. 

The work was about their immigrant experience, coming from China to the United States. The opening of the piece was based on a traditional Cantonese tune, sensitively presented by concertmaster Jun Iwasaki on violin. (This concert heavily featured Iwasaki, who makes his soloist debut with the orchestra later this month.) The melody included microtonal glissandi which brought to mind the soulful timbre of the erhu, a traditional Chinese string instrument. 

There was also a gorgeous string quartet section, intricately crafted and beautifully rendered by Iwasaki, principal second violinist Tamamo Someya Gibbs, principal cellist Mark Gibbs, and principal violist MingYu Hsu. Flute had some delightful lines, as well, along with an interesting vocal percussion effect that insinuated falling rain. 

The piece also recalled the chaos and confusion of immigration, with turmoil in the winds, heavy percussion and more dissonances, including particularly acidic and effective tremolo. Brass joined in and carried the piece to the end, the melody altered and transformed, the glissando appearing in the trombones. They introduced a more Western-style choral in the final portion, suggesting their permanence as American citizens, and the work ended on a magnificent final chord. 

DiDonato was the next feature. Her portion of the program, ending the first half and opening the second, was a thoughtful collection from disparate sources. 

Joyce DiDonato performing Gustav Mahler’s “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” with the Kansas City Symphony. Photo: Eric Williams

Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question” was a piece DiDonato performed for her 2022 project, “Eden,” a collaboration with the Baroque ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro. Her performances always have some theater to them and here DiDonato did not disappoint, with simple staging and thoughtful lighting making a revelatory entrance. With darkened stage and spotlight on the podium, Stern began the work, the fragile, elongated chords in the strings giving a celestial aura. 

DiDonato started off stage, then progressed into the hall and down the choir steps onto the stage, pausing each time she sang the ethereal wordless five-note phrase (Ives originally wrote it for solo trumpet). As she sang, a blue-green light shone down to her, piercing the shadows, glowing in strength, then fading in keeping with the melodic arc. 

Here, but throughout, DiDonato demonstrated her wonderfully honed ability to sustain a gentle note in such a way that it seems to bend time itself. 

Stern held the rapt audience at the end, allowing the final string tones to melt into the silence of the hall, pausing only slightly before beginning Gustav Mahler’s “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” (Songs of a Wayfarer). These are a beautiful set of semi-autobiographical songs. DiDonato glimmered like a beacon in her off-shoulder amethyst gown set against the orchestra’s ocean of concert black.

DiDonato, an inspiring interpreter of Mahler, savored the language, delivering an empathetic interpretation of love and loss, acceptance and understanding. The orchestra was beautifully responsive in their performance, pensive and delicate when called for, particularly the work’s final statement, and ferocious during “Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer.” 

The second half began with an announcement by Stern that the next piece was being recorded for an album project with composer Joel [Jo-el] Thompson, who was in the audience and joined Stern on stage to talk about the genesis of the piece. (DiDonato now wearing a royal blue gown.)  “The Places We Leave” uses text by former U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith and, like the Mahler, reflected on the changing nature of relationships—and how relationships can change us—as observed from beyond a heartbreak. It was a breathtaking, nuanced and thoughtful piece.

Unfortunately, as Stern brought the piece to a close, an audience member’s cell phone rang, marring Thompson’s crafted atmosphere and jarring the reverie of the performance. The look exchanged between DiDonato and Stern was severe, and heart wrenching. Ever professional, they took their bows to tremendous applause and hugs all around, but every expression on the members of the orchestra I could see looked disappointed. 

DiDonato’s performance of Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (I am lost to the world) was a soothing balm, rising above the chaos of life, beyond the hurt of the world: “Ich leb’allein in meinem HImmel / In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied!” (I live alone in my heaven / In my love, in my song!). 

As she bowed and waved to the audience, Stern stood off to one side, clearly emotional from this exquisite performance with his friend, very likely the last time they will perform together with this orchestra, on this stage. 

But it wasn’t the very last time. DiDonato and orchestra offered an encore with Richard Strauss’ “Morgen,” which also featured Iwasaki. The inclusion of this particular piece was to inspire hope, DiDonato said, which is our greatest tool in uncertain times, and the performance inspired a peaceful feeling in the hall. 

Though it seemed somewhat shoehorned in following the deep-feeling works in the rest of the program, Johann Strauss, Jr.’s overture to “Die Fledermaus” was the closer, a little party-like celebration to welcome in the new year. The orchestra played from strength to strength throughout the whole concert, so there was no fault there, just the feeling that the concert could have worked without the piece at all. 

On the other hand, it allowed DiDonato to make a second costume change, appearing back on stage in a floor-length gown in Chiefs’ red for an encore set. 

Joyce DiDonato performing beloved traditional songs as encore with the Kansas City Symphony. Photo: Eric Williams

She and Stern joked from the stage, Stern asking, “What do you want to do?” and DiDonato responding: “Surprise them!” 

The surprise was the traditional ballad “Danny Boy,” harkening DiDonato’s Irish roots as a young Joyce Flaherty in Kansas, audience members sighing as they recognized the melody. The tune, presented in an arrangement by Chris Haxell, brought us back to the mindset of love and hope, even within loss or in anticipation that all good things—bringing to mind again Stern’s emotional response—must come to an end. 

The final encore and send-them-home song was another traditional piece, the beloved river ballad “Shenandoah,” with DiDonato singing longingly of the “wide Missouri.” This piece was arranged by James D. Norman for DiDonato and the Kansas City Symphony, which they recorded in May 2020. It was a gorgeous performance, capping an incredible concert. 

Wild applause during the bows indicated the audiences’ appreciation, but it was Stern’s deep regard for his friend and orchestra colleagues that made this a particularly touching ovation. 

Reviewed Sunday, Jan. 14, 2024. Kansas City Symphony presented Joyce DiDonato at Helzberg Hall Jan. 12-13, 2024. For more information visit kcsymphony.org

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

  1. Charles Reitz says:

    This review captures the finest nuances of this concert superbly. What a memory it evokes, and it expresses our great respect for the artistry of the composers, instrumentalists, conductor, and soloist Joyce DiDonato!

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