With the performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, the Kansas City Symphony and director Michael Stern have completed a monumental goal: a nearly complete cycle of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies. This is the first time, as far as I could ascertain, they’ve had the capacity, ability and chutzpah to tackle this particular work, the longest in the classical repertoire that presents exclusive demands on every instrument.
The performance of Symphony No. 3 in Helzberg Hall was nothing less than thrilling. Mahler is endlessly imaginative and the work charms and commands. The performance requires exceptional solo work from every principal, but its success hinges on the ensemble’s cohesion of dynamic and color to fulfill all the nuances Mahler inscribed in the score.
The piece called for many reinforcements to bolster the standard ensemble, augmenting both volume and tonal palette, including mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, the women of the Kansas City Symphony Chorus and members of the Allegro Choirs of Kansas City. Celeste Golden Boyer, second associate concertmaster for the Saint Louis Symphony, served as guest concertmaster, giving her solo moments a whimsical tone.
From the opening horn fanfare, we knew this would be a stunner. The first movement, long enough to serve as a standalone symphony, was joyous and assertive. The extensive trombone solo was performed with the measured gravitas by principal Roger Oyster. There were weird inconsistencies in the middle of the movement and some disappointing misses, but when the orchestra hit the final cadence, the audience’s awe was palpable, though it manifested as stunned intact of breath, rather than applause.
I just loved the winds in the second movement, though to be fair they sounded fantastic throughout the performance; the principals performed with sublime chamber music sensibilities. The percussion was also exemplary (timpani! bass drum! cymbals!), but then again, each section gave commendable performances during the course of the evening.
Principal trumpet Julian Kaplan snuck back stage to play the extensive post horn solo. I couldn’t spot him, so I suspected he was hidden behind the organ pipe screen, his tone floating ethereally through the hall. The energies of the scherzando shifted organically, from dark to light, punctuated by tremendous descents.
Mahler creates an otherworldly effect in the fourth movement, the low strings wonderfully pianissimo. This orchestra sometimes has problems playing soft enough, but not this evening.
O’Connor, who has performed as a Mahler soloist with the orchestra before, entered with a clear, contemplative approach and a lovely, rich tone, and turned almost ferocious in her fifth movement interjections.
The combined choirs joined on the fifth movement, “What the Angels Tell Me,” with purity and brightness. Though it was more a matter of practicality than theater, I appreciated the way they brought up the lights on the choir, shining off the screens of the organ loft. Situating the chimes up by the chorus was a smart move, too. The shift emphasized, along with the shiny timbre of glockenspiel and piccolo, the change of character, and sense of gracious encouragement.
The instrumentalists had already been performing for an hour by the time they started the final movement, and though there were some signs of fatigue, it didn’t feel as though it had been long at all. Mahler’s brash invention and sublime coloring, performed with conviction, maintained a fascinating trajectory.
As the strings lovingly rendered their parts I found myself imagining a starry night. The winds entered like shooting stars, quick and magic flashes of light; the horns were ablaze as comets. It’s not what Mahler had in mind, but if the symphony really can contain the whole universe, that surely means the heavens, too.
This work is, by any measure, heroic and a notable achievement by Stern and the ensemble in a successful and stimulating performance. If they started another round of the cycle for the next decade, I wouldn’t complain.
The performance ended with as full and resonant a sound as I’ve experienced from this ensemble. Helzberg Hall was designed for moments like this. Regrettably, audience enthusiasm ruined this particular moment’s nuance, a few members jumping in while the final chord was still ringing, Stern and the orchestra still at the ready.
It’s disheartening. For years, people complained of the acoustics in Lyric Theatre, specifically in regard to performing works by Mahler, and now here we are in a space designed specifically to this purpose and, such is our eagerness, we’re not letting the hall or the orchestra fulfill this promise.
Last month, after particularly bold bouts of applause during a concert, I wrote that expectations for classical music and for audiences were changing. That remains true. But what is also true is that if we can’t be sensitive recipients, what does it matter if our musicians flub a note here or there? I like to hope that Kansas City could develop a world-class orchestra, but we need to respond accordingly.
Reviewed Friday, May 17, 2019, with repeat performances Saturday 8 p.m. and Sunday 2 p.m.at Helzberg Hall. For more information visit www.kcsymphony.org.