Framed by the two knotty works (by Ligeti and Scriabin), with lots of lush Ravel in the middle, this was an exciting and thoroughly well-chosen Kansas City Symphony program with lots of stand-out features. Matthias Pintscher was guest conductor, and I admired what he brought to tonight’s performance: keen musical intelligence, palpable verve and energy, as well as an impeccable command of timing which extended to carefully observed silences both within and between movements. Silence can be a genuine musical statement, a positive space not just an absence of sound, and in his conducting, it felt like a powerful adjunct to what he wanted to communicate. 

Matthias Pintscher
© Franck Ferville

Pintscher compared Gyorgy Ligeti’s San Francisco Polyphony to a crazy Hieronymus Bosch world, and the comparison was well-founded. It’s a piece about polyphony and perhaps also about rampant individualism and what that might sound like in music: everyone has their own line. That’s right; there’s a lot going on, and there’s not much in the way of hierarchy. The strangeness of Ligeti's sound world makes demands of a listener: you are never allowed to get comfortable over the 13 minutes. No concord is going to emerge from pandemonium and entropy. I liked the haunting wind playing, the eerie pianissimos and the quivering harmonics on the strings. It was plentiful, exciting and, in its way, disturbing. You’d never want to live in a Bosch painting. 

George Li, on brilliant form, carried off Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major from the very first whip-crack of sound. I especially loved the two outer movements, notable for their marvellous staccato passages and discreet glissandos and trills, (he hopped about the keyboard with the litheness and grace of a fleet marsupial). Rhythmically, the orchestra and Li were in dynamic relationship throughout, and had a really lovely partnership of sound and rhythm.

The Rapsodie espagnole, which invokes Ravel’s Basque heritage, gave us a nice array of his orchestral colours: from gusts of strings sounds, and jazzy rhythms, to bitter-sweet lyricism and full-force volume. But the Scriabin Poem of Ecstasy was still more interesting. The author Henry Miller describes this deeply personal (even mystical) work (Scriabin was attracted to Theosophy in the early years of the 20th century) as a “bath of ice, cocaine and rainbows”. I’m not sure I could comment on that particular juxtaposition of experiences, but it is a strangely powerful musical poem, and altogether thought-provoking. Its whole tone instability takes the ground from under your feet, at every turn, that is until a final, unexpected C major chord ends the work. We are now purged; our spirts have arisen to consciousness; we are permitted tonal apotheosis at the last. Pintscher was excellent at creating the dreamlike sonic landscape, teasing out the lyricism, and at relishing the big-sounding discomforts, and I got the sense, especially during the epic ending, that he was enjoying every moment.