Guest conductor Gemma New leads the Kansas City Symphony, with Jan Kraybill on organ. Credit: Eric Williams/Kansas City Symphony.
In a concert of fantasy and excitement, the Kansas City Symphony gave a fresh, lively performance, including a commanding world premiere with a rising violin star.
Guest conductor Gemma New led the ensemble with clarity and passion throughout Saturday’s performance in Helzberg Hall.
Maurice Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite” was an exquisite jewel of shimmering color and character and, though it’s a challenging piece, had a clean, easy feeling to it. The orchestra gave this performance sprightly energy, delicate and responsive to New’s full gestures.
The ensemble exhibited wonderful shape to the lines, with organic swells and evanescent releases: in one memorable moment, New seemed to be sculpting the fading sound into a ball of nothingness before it truly dissipated. The instrumentalists gave their lines excellent character, particularly the striking contrabassoon “Beast.” The magic was enhanced in the warmth of the sound, bird chirps, and beautiful color from celeste and winds.
Fantasy, too, shaped Chris Rogerson’s first violin concerto, commissioned by the Kansas City Symphony. (KCS premiered Rogerson’s “A Single Candle” in 2014 and “Of Simple Grace” in 2018 with cellist Yo-Yo Ma.)
Based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s exquisite novella, “The Little Prince,” the concerto was written for his friend Benjamin Beilman, fresh talent new to Kansas City audiences and a performer to remember.
Though Rogerson didn’t offer extensive program notes (requesting the listener find their own story in the narrative), he described the piece as “about innocence. It takes us from childlike naivete and descends into chaos.” The Saint-Exupéry story is much more about loneliness, love, and loss; how relationships change perspectives; how life is eventually tinged with a grief we carry with us the rest of our days.
“The thing that is important is the thing that is not seen…” says the little prince in the story, desperately trying to communicate something unknowable to the narrator.
Rogerson layers the work with underlying patterns, low tones, and soulful, wandering melody in the violin, lingering on harmonics. To me, these layers conjured the worries of childhood: fear and confusion, not understanding or being understood.
The second movement was full and even harsh, at moments. Rogerson went for bells up in the clarinet, a big focus during a brassy moment. Beilman’s cadenza-like section, with fierce double stops and interjections from the harp, captured these frustrations. The end, however, came so sweetly and gently, Beilman spinning out a silvered, everlasting tone.
But it was the third movement that impressed the most. Dense, dark, fraught with mystery, this was the chaos Rogerson promised, with low strings, muted trombone and creepy winds. The violin line was frenzied, punishing, full of tensions, finally showcasing Beilman’s virtuosic technical ability.
The work resonated with the audience, which gave an extended standing ovation. Beilman’s encore, something Bach-ish, was captivating. He let the final note linger in wonderful control of his instrument and audience.
For Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony no. 3, nicknamed “Organ” for its organic and impressive use of the instrument, the orchestra was joined by Kansas City’s own Grammy Award-nominated Jan Kraybill. An always impressive work, the orchestra and soloist recorded it in 2013.
From the questing opening, searching and reflective, to the “aha, found it!” release, the piece was triumph upon triumph. The symphony contains perhaps one of the loveliest melodies to exist in classical music, its lightness given such an uplifting, floating quality it brought to mind a vast skyfield, clouds in sunlight as far as the eye could see.
It was exhilarating, too: New brought the orchestra right up close to the edge of overwhelming, without losing control.
Kraybill is easily one of Kansas City’s–and the organ world’s–treasures. At times the use of organ was so subtle that it felt subconscious rather than heard, and then other times the effect is reversed: the crash of the chord so completely consuming that little else filtered through to comprehend.
It’s heartening to hear a performance like this: new material performed with the same confidence of familiar works, standard repertoire performed with thrilling enthusiasm, the concert experience renewed and vibrant.
Reviewed Saturday June 4, 2022. For more information about upcoming performances by the Kansas City Symphony visit kcsymphony.org.