Matthew Halls, visiting with the Kansas City Symphony, is a compelling conductor to watch, with an energy that is palpable and an attention to detail that is very constant, fine, and communicated – personally, it would seem – to the various sections of the orchestra, sometimes even to individuals. There’s also a warmth in his interpretations, and touches of quirky idiosyncrasy which brought out nicely the playful elements of the first work on tonight’s programme, Haydn’s Symphony no. 102 in B flat major. The symphony was well articulated, and conveyed a brisk energy and an elegance throughout. In the second movement, the flautist moved to the front of the orchestra, but if this was meant to emphasise the prominence of the flute’s voice in the movement, it didn’t quite come across as effectively as it might have done, as it was not so readily distinguishable.

Matthew Halls
© Jon Christopher Meyers | Oregon Bach Festival

Halls introduced James MacMillan’s Sinfonietta (1991) to the audience as a work which was “many things at once and yet extremely simple”. It came, he added from the wellsprings of the Scottish composer’s spirituality, and was cosmic in scope – both in its transcendent dimension (the elements of a love song to his wife), and the Hades-like darkness which shudders through the work’s central section. It’s useful to get an insight into a conductor’s relationship with a composer, perhaps more particularly a living one, and clearly Macmillan had been a formative influence. Hall’s clear feeling for the music – and his intellectual grasp of the cosmic catholicity of the work – surely explain the notable success of tonight’s performance. The opening was hauntingly restrained and mysterious. Then there was a sharp turn – the cockcrow of evil, if you will. I noticed my companion (a first-time concert goer) start back in raw shock – precisely the kind of effect the turn was meant to elicit. It’s always instructive – enlightening even – to give people their first symphonic experience, to witness a fresh reaction, unmediated by expectation or convention. In music, as in life, one never quite knows what is coming next, an appropriate reflection in a jittery moment in world history. This was music, menacingly, eerily played, enough to give one goosebumps. Later, sweetness re-emerged in the shape of violin and piano voices, who tapered down into an effective end – final taps, hardly notes, on the piano, and after that a long stillness. That was appropriate after a sort of philosophical musical reflection on the dual and juxtaposed forces of good and evil.

Beethoven’s Mass in C  major loses out in popular opinion for not being ‘the other one’, the Missa solemnis, which is a pity, for it is a striking work in its own right. Written in 1807 at the behest of the less than gracious Prince Esterházy, who dismissed it as “insuportablement ridicule et détestable” (no need to translate that obvious insult), it has lived down aristocratic prejudices and is a lovely work. It was a fine sight to see and hear the 160-strong Kansas City Symphony Chorus backlit by the iridescent silver backdrop of the Helzberg Hall, going ‘all in’ during this performance. Articulation was crisp, the communication of emotion sincere, and the mastery of contrasting dynamics convincing. At full volume, I found them particularly invigorating: there is always a need to harness vigorous – even violent – energies for Beethoven, and there was nothing half-hearted about their commitment tonight. I especially liked the sudden attack of the initial Gloria. The ensemble of soloists – Karina Gauvin, Krisztina Szabó, Nicholas Phan and Tyler Duncan – were in good voice, although the axis of energy certainly lay with the chorus.