You might be forgiven for thinking that Kevin John Edusei was born to be a conductor. Certainly, when he came on stage at the Helzberg Hall, as guest conductor tonight for the Kansas City Symphony, one couldn’t quite imagine a more “conductorly” presence: preternaturally long arms, and large hands that finessed every detail of sound he wanted. He has one of those lucky physicalities, where you might have thought a baton was superlative; he seemed to encompass the orchestra effortlessly. He has been described as a conductor with a sense of architecture, and I would wholly agree. There was something architectural about his style of leading, something designed to bring order out of the potential chaos, to keep even the storm forces of Wagner’s overture to The Flying Dutchman in check, when needed, and so also for the other works on tonight’s program. 

Kevin John Edusei
© Marco Borggreve

Maria Ioudenitch, tonight’s soloist, is a local. The daughter of Uzbek and Russian pianists, her minor ‘rebellion’ at age three, apparently, was to choose violin over piano. It was a choice well-made, it would seem. In her playing tonight, Ioudenitch was the personification of concentrated intensity. She is a decisive, focused and powerful player, and this worked well for her choice of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. There was nothing spare about her playing, nothing self-indulgent; even the lyrical passages retained a kind of blistering intensity, a tautness. The strength in each of her movements lay most of all in the passages of attack and fury and speed, where her intensity was given full rein. The last movement's perpetuum mobile, in particular, was striking: neat fingerwork, feathery lightness alternating with aggressive power, and all at a dazzling speed, triumphing with that abruptly sudden ending. 

Alexander Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid) was not a work I was familiar with. This is unsurprising in some ways, because it was only pieced together from fragments in the 1980s, and is still not played very often. It is once a tone poem or fantasy about the poignant Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, and a highly personal way of working through his own lost love (the young Alma Schindler, who would marry Gustav Mahler instead). The Symphony gave it a fitting rendition. The dramatic centerpiece of the rendition was the second movement, when the mood swings and orchestral colors came alive at a new level. 

The changes of mood, from the zesty music of the Mer-king’s ball, to the vulnerable, soul-searching moments, which often featured a solo violin, were well marked. The abrupt transition between sound worlds, mirrored the transition that one of the mermaids, smitten with human love, is about to make from one form of being to another. We get a glimpse of a musical Faustian bargain, as she gives up her tongue (the life that she has) for legs (the life that she wants). I think the orchestra captured the abrupt changes here just right, and it came across as narratively evocative. A powerful work and I will look forward to hearing it again another time.