Kansas City Symphony performs with music director-elect Matthias Pintscher

Conductor Matthias Pintscher conducts the Kansas City Symphony. Photo: Eric T. Williams/Kansas City Symphony

Controlled chaos offers us so many good things: wildflower gardens, fermentation, childhood, abstract painting and an impressive performance from the Kansas City Symphony and conductor Matthias Pintscher. Each of the works at Saturday’s performance burst with exuberance, carefully crafted to seem at wild abandon.

It’s been just barely a year since Pintscher first ascended the podium with the Kansas City Symphony. When he came back this past weekend, it was as music director-elect, poised to lead the group in the 2024/2025 season. 

The organization touted the synergy between Pintscher and the orchestra in the months since they made the announcement, and a larger-than-typical crowd filled Helzberg Hall, eager to see and hear this new partnership. Pintscher, for his part, strode on stage with every confidence and a huge grin, bowing to the audience’s enthusiastic reception.

While many changes will undoubtedly be incremental, one of the more obvious adjustments was the reshaping of the orchestra, with string sections swapped around, violins next to each other, basses behind violas and cellos in front of brass. 

Another change, in August, is the orchestra’ upcoming European tour—the organization’s first—and if they play as they did Saturday night, they’ll represent Kansas City’s prowess as a performing arts town splendidly. 

They opened with Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” (which they’ll also perform in Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw), the energy overflowing from stage to seats. Though the opening snaps surprised some in the audience, who giggled, the piece was a testament to Pintscher’s confidence in the score and ensemble, from the delicate moments (lovely lines from saxophone, horn, principal strings, and flute for instance) to Pintscher’s ecstatic expression during the rock concert vibes of the “Cool” fugue. The ending tones, unsettled, lingered in the hall, the audience holding its collective breath until the suspension gave way to riotous applause. 

Violinist Philippe Quint instigated the new Violin Concerto by award winning, Belize-born British composer Errollyn Wallen, and performed its U.S. premiere with KC Symphony, who co-commissioned the work. Both Quint and Pintscher thrive in new music situations, and Wallen’s work was well fit to this program of color and collage, with a variety of quick-shifting musical content.

The opening was all misty atmosphere and mystery, Quint cutting through with broad strokes that found echoes and ricochets in the brass. While much of the work featured particular moments—an unexpected color here, a dissonance there, a sizzling rhythmic snippet—Wallen created lush landing spots that offered a romantic sweep. The delicate lullaby in the second movement, just Quint and harpist Katie Ventura, was pulled from Quint’s childhood memories and a poignant remembrance of Jewish traditions within the lilting phrases. The third movement had dance-like figures, prominent percussion and wallops of brass. 

Quint is a giving performer, and his determined grin expressed the excitement of challenge with the piece. He traded grins with Pintscher, who approached the piece with directness and even control. 

A woman in a black and green dress bows with audience members and orchestra members applaud.
Conductor Matthias Pintscher and violinist Philippe Quint applaud composer Errollyn Wallen. Photo: Eric T. Williams/Kansas City Symphony

Pintscher’s control extended to the audience, who attempted to clap after the first movement. He aborted the smattering with just a finger held up, then pre-empted any attempts between movements in the Ives with a cut-off gesture ending in a fist.  

Charles Ives, of course, is our Lord of Chaos, his work an amalgam of Americana. This was the oldest work on the program, early 20th century, but stays as freshly avant garde and unexpected as it did over a hundred years ago. The orchestra will take Ives’ “Three Places in New England” on the road in August as well, to Amsterdam and Germany. 

His work, too, starts with a sort of misty morning scene, interrupted and transformed as it unfolds, glimpses of familiar tunes in altered states. Pintscher met the crash of the Ives’ overwrought opening of the second movement with a little hop. The movement captures a festive day in a small town, in which enthusiasm is more available than skill, and Ives even manages to get the carefully trained orchestra to emulate a small band marching to two different beats. It’s a joyous release of a piece and the orchestra imbued it with all the enthusiasms of their country forebearers.

Although one wouldn’t instantly think “American” when hearing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, it was written in Long Island, New York, and premiered in Philadelphia in 1941. Lush and sweeping, the piece also featured layered dance rhythms and incessant energy. It was polished and triumphant, a pure celebration. 

This was a long concert, with over two hours of music, but the orchestra stayed energized and engaging throughout. A few hearty audience members and a far chunk of the orchestra members enjoyed more music from a KCS string quartet at a bar around the corner from the orchestra’s offices on 17th street, where they played a short, fun set including an arrangement of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and romp on Texas swing, part of the organization’s goal to share music in a variety of settings, not just the concert hall.

Current music director Michael Stern was present in the audience for the concert, with Pintscher offering a shout out and praise from the stage, another factor in the positive transition. This grand start sets a high bar for this new relationship, but it has every indication of being a strength to strength opportunity. 

Reviewed March 23, 2024. 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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