Kansas City Symphony Explores the Cosmos

Kansas City Symphony

The Kansas City Symphony performed work that explores the celestial realm, enhanced by prismatic lighting.
(Eric Williams/The Kansas City Symphony)

Everyone looks at the night sky differently: some glance, some marvel, some study, some ponder, some wish. 

Exploring the celestial realm, the Kansas City Symphony featured work by Caroline Shaw, Missy Mazzoli, and Gustav Holst, demonstrated that symphonic music is just as varied in imagination, with prismatic lighting enhancing the musical performance.

Guest conductor Teddy Abrams led the orchestra in Helzberg Hall on Saturday night with enthusiastic determination; at times, it seemed as though he was leaning into the orchestra in an effort to yank the music out. Abrams, currently music director with Louisville Orchestra, is also a composer and often presents music by American composers, with Louisville Orchestra programming an annual Festival of American Music.

It wasn’t too long ago that you’d have a hard time finding work by two women in a KCS season, let alone work by two women in one program. While music by women and other underrepresented groups is no longer anomalous, it will continue to take deliberate consideration to build the name recognition and familiarity that hundreds of years of tradition have afforded others in the genre.  

Abrams called Shaw and Mazzoli two of the “greatest living composers” and they certainly represent a cadre of artists who are prolific and inventive, shaping 21st century classical music. Their work presented an interesting contrast, with Shaw’s a charming and clever piece and Mazzoli’s more introspective and esoteric.

Shaw’s “The Observatory” was written for performance at the Hollywood Bowl and inspired by the nearby Griffith Observatory, in the Hollywood Hills. Who knows how many stars were visible on the night of the premiere, given Los Angeles’ light pollution and air quality. But visible or not, the stars are there. 

She captured the sense of vastness with loud broad chords, the ensemble rumbling as though a giant walked about. There was mystery in the work, repetitive rhythmic figures that gave sections a floating quality, while other figures seemed to take shape and then scatter, just as constellations shift in their journey across the sky. Shaw quoted familiar snippets of classical repertoire as though switching lenses on a vintage viewfinder, each coming into focus for a moment.

Mazzoli’s Violin Concerto (“Procession”) was conceived following the dark days of the pandemic, when it rolled on for months of uncertainty and loss, written as we emerged from that situation, and premiered in 2022. The work was inspired by ancient healing spells and rituals, dating back to the era of the Black Death. 

It was commissioned for violinist Jennifer Koh, soloist for this performance. Cast as “chief healer,” Koh presented a stoic, centered presence, someone to look to and trust through the challenging moments. 

Violinist Jennifer Koh is soloist for Missy Mazzoli’s Violin Concert (Procession) with the Kansas City Symphony.

Mazzoli set an otherworldly tone, using wandering glissandi, muted timbres, tremolo, brittle harmonics, and rising and falling figures. Each of the five connected movements had its own feeling and flair, like the wailing quality of “Procession,” the jumping, skipping motives in “St. Vitus” (named for the patron saint of dancing), or the bargaining quality of “Bone to Bone, Blood to Blood,” switching between hopefulness and fear, which also featured principal bassoon Ann Bilderback. 

Koh had a complex leadership role, the music more mood than melody. At times, Koh seemed possessed, exorcizing bad humors in a frenzy. At others, she was serene, deliberate. The work concluded with a big gasp in the orchestra, Koh with the few last notes and a gruff double stop, breaking the spell. 

Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” is a fan favorite. (Interestingly, he was 42 when the work premiered, the same age as Mazzoli when her concerto premiered). The work gives many members and sections the chance to shine, making it a musicians’ favorite, too. The list of admirable performances in this concert would go on and on, with exemplary work from euphonium Will Sutton, percussionists David Yoon on glockenspiel and Josh Jones on snare and tambourine, flute, bassoon, and brass sections, harp and celeste. 

Abrams was particularly hands on, making every effort to attend to each nuance of the music. While that approach is helpful in an unfamiliar work, with this work it seemed a bit forced. 

Holst’s work is such a byword of orchestral imagination: evocative, melodic, multilayered. The middle section of “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” always seems inevitable, as though its essence had existed long before Holst wrote it down; “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” holds that steadying presence, embracing the march of time; the subtleties in “Neptune, the Mystic” like dragonfly wings, glistening and fragile, with delicate strings and off stage voices from the women of the Kansas City Symphony Chorus. 

With this program, the Kansas City Symphony demonstrated its versatility and prowess, extremely capable and primed for growth.

Reviewed Saturday, March 25. For more information visit www.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."

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