Kansas City Symphony Presents Exuberant Mahler and Kahane World Premiere

An orchestra behind two men, a father and son, hugging.

Composer Gabriel Kahane hugs his father, piano soloist Jeffrey Kahane, after the world premiere performance of the piano concerto “Heirloom,” with the Kansas City Symphony and conductor Michael Stern.

With a megawatt Mahler, a tuneful world premiere piano concerto, and a healthy dose of excitement, the Kansas City Symphony was back in Helzberg Hall for an exuberant opening concert of their classical series. 

Executive director Danny Beckley greeted the audience (though he neglected to introduce himself) before welcoming the orchestra members, who filed on stage to a standing ovation: not a bad start without having played a note. For many, it was the first time being with the symphony back in Helzberg Hall in 19 months. 

Music director Michael Stern conducted, one of the handful of concerts he will lead this season. The organization is currently in search of its next music director, and we’ll see a range of guest conductors as part of that process. 

But based on this performance, Stern has no intention of resting on his laurels, working as hard as anyone on stage. 

As is tradition, the orchestra started the concert with the National Anthem…a replay of their un-official start of the season a few weeks ago, when they performed for the Chiefs’ opening game at Arrowhead Stadium. Non-traditionally, the men eschewed tuxedos for this show, instead wearing black suits, shirts, and ties which (with the women in their standard concert black) gave the ensemble a more contemporary, sleeker look. While I’m not sure if this was a permanent shift in concert garb, it certainly gave the impression of an orchestra of now, not the past. 

Guest concertmaster Stephen Tavani, assistant concertmaster for the Cleveland Orchestra, joined for this weekend’s performances. 

They had a vibrant start with the short, taut Overture to “The Creatures of Prometheus,” the only full-length ballet that Ludwig van Beethoven ever wrote, nice pairings of flute and oboe and cello and bass. It was a nice touch to have period timpani, too, performed by Timothy Jepson. 

It’s especially exciting to hear new work on a season opening concert. 

“Heirloom,” a piano concerto by Gabriel Kahane for his father, pianist/conductor Jeffrey Kahane, was co-commissioned by the Kansas City Symphony, and received its world premiere at Friday’s performance. 

The piece, in three movements, is an homage to the intergenerational connections and musical influences that shape Kahane’s life: his parents’ love of folk music, his grandmother’s relationship with Germanic classical music, having escaped Germany in 1938, and his own daughter’s energy and innocence. Kahane’s gift for lyrical storytelling was evident in the movement titles: “Guitars in the Attic,” “My Grandmother Knew Alban Berg,” and “Vera’s Chicken-Powered Transit Machine.”

Kahane, who sees himself as primarily a songwriter, wrote a high energy, endlessly creative piece full of singable themes and prismatic tones. Anyone familiar with his song style would recognize his voice in the tunes laced throughout the work. The work careened from melody-driven to color-driven as Kahane rolled out idea after idea after idea, the ensemble members almost frenzied in keeping pace. 

Jeffrey Kahane, as featured soloist, seemed absolutely in control throughout the work, which ranged from simple, strong themes, to dueling melodies set in each hand, to reaching inside the piano to pluck the strings (I heard someone murmur “what is he doing?!”), to straight forward virtuosic all-around piano playing. (Kahane performed from an iPad, which also caused a rumble of commentary from those around me.) 

The third movement, with its happy, dancelike theme, sounded exactly like the music you might perform if, perhaps, your toddler granddaughter desired a personalized dance party, at ease and joyous, well in keeping with the general exuberance of the evening. 

The work felt more like a concerto for piano and orchestra, instead of a straight piano concerto, with plenty of moments that seemed more partnership than solo and accompaniment. Additionally, we still haven’t solved the acoustic issue in the hall, which covers the piano soloist whenever the group is playing with any sort of medium loud to loud dynamic. (This effect may change depending on where you are seated, but I’ve sat in various places around the hall and it’s a consistent issue.)

Kahane fashioned a number of engaging moments, including a section of bitonality, a fine trumpet solo (performed by Steven Franklin), and some innovative orchestration, combining voices like oboe, harp, and string harmonics for a fragile, almost brittle, section that sounded like spun glass, or a fluttering release, like an eclipse of moths dispersing. 

There were a few choices that didn’t fit as well, or seemed overused, like an abundance of the crack of the slapstick, bowed percussion and string harmonics, and the sometimes chaotic leaps from voice to voice. 

Nevertheless, “Heirloom” was a successful fusion of different musical styles and backgrounds, a captivating, contemporary work that sounded suited to our current century, the sort of work that both captures the sounds of today and pushes forward the evolution of orchestral music. 

And was this orchestra ever keen for Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.1? 

A great performance of a great work of classical music often reminds me of an acrobat walking a tightrope. While they are in total control at all times, the thrill of the performance comes from the audience not quite knowing if they’ll keep their balance. A skilled walker gets across the rope and the audience is impressed. The more adept walker sways and dances, jumps and turns, and the audience never takes their attention away for even a second.

Mahler’s symphony is the rope; the orchestra is the walker. This was a skilled performance, thrilling, energetic, and confident. But, right at the brink, it was a performance that was a bit more careful than it was precise: soft sections weren’t quite soft enough (such as the very prominent off-stage trumpets), and, with everyone eager, folks often got in each other’s way, without letting the most important voice at any given moment dominate (given this was Mahler, that most important voice shifted phrase by phrase). When the swoopy, schmalzy band music began, the notes were all there, but the only one dancing with abandon—really letting us know the party had arrived tenfold—was Maestro Stern. 

Now, when bombast was called for, the ensemble delivered, bells up. And that’s not to say there wasn’t nuance. The piece certainly gives soloists and most sections a chance to shine, and we had plenty of fine moments: the rippling clarinets, gorgeous oboe, welcoming flute, assertive viola, fine brass, wonderful bass and tuba, and a veritable cavalry from the horns.  

Particularly of note in this performance was how Stern was able to shape and maintain the end of each movement for both the Kahane and the Mahler, letting us all revel in the collective resonance of these moments. 

That’s something that can’t be captured in a recording, experienced through a virtual performance, or edited to the best take—being in this space all of us together, our breaths and heartbeats affecting the acoustics, and our attention fixed as one…that’s what has been missing from many of our lives these many months and here, those moments were fantastically presented.

Reviewed Friday, September 24, 2021. Repeat performances are Saturday, September 25 8 PM and Sunday, September 26 2 PM. 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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