The city ahead of the Super Bowl final is in sprightly mood; the Kansas City Symphony tonight reflected this vivacity. In a place where the passion for sport run deeps, it was unsurprising that it was explicitly referenced, Michael Stern going so far as to recite a funny ditty about the San Francisco orchestra, laden with football allusions.

Emanuel Ax © Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Emanuel Ax
© Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

A sunny atmosphere and cheery irreverence characterized Louis Andriessen’s The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven for orchestra and ice cream vendor’s bell (1970). Composed as a satire of the bourgeois concertgoer and concert, it is a work that no doubt is making a serious point, but it didn’t seem too serious here. If Beethoven’s works have achieved a certain sacred stature in the canon, then it’s time, Andriessen seems to be saying, for full-on blasphemy. And so, quotations from the great works are decontextualised and juxtaposed with brassy, percussive pop effects. Stern conducted with a great deal of verve, I felt, and there were ripples of laughter from the audience as they recognized the classic favorites dancing naked to a disco beat, shorn of anything that made them particularly refined. Ode to Joy was electric, brazen and abrasive. Any shock factor Andriessen may have wanted to create in 1970 was dissolved in the good-humoured chuckling of the bourgeoisie themselves. It didn’t sting, obviously, but it was fun all the same.

Emanuel Ax gave a most polished rendition of Beethoven’s Concerto no 1 in C major. There was none of the bluster of youth and impetuosity, but instead, as one would expect, a consummate maturity and centredness, with tones and volumes finessed with the utmost sensitivity. One felt that one was listening to the fruit of a very long relationship with Beethoven’s work; there would be so many ways of saying what he said, but Ax had settled on one that was satisfying to the spirit of the work. All the dramatics were within each carefully placed note.

There was a particularly lovely connection between Stern and Ax; a friendship of decades seemed in evidence, not least in Stern’s appreciative and even amused look as Ax came to the end of an extensive and powerful first movement cadenza. The turn taking in the second movement between soloist and orchestral groupings presented some lovely occasions of dialogue, while there was enough fire in the belly in the third movement to bring the whole to a satisfying conclusion.

Lastly, there was Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which he had composed in 1943 at a time of personal and geopolitical crisis. There is little of sunshine in the work, except in the partly skittish fourth movement, "Intermezzo interrotto", with its debts to Lehár and Shostakovich, which came across as unexpected and reckless. The orchestra did a good job of creating a dark, anguished atmosphere. In particular, I appreciated the raw, stripped, flayed sounds of the third movement "Elegia"; there’s a kind of spare passion, where you seem to hearing unsheltered sound, with no softness or vibration to appease the senses. The endings of each movements were sharply delineated and strikingly crisp. In short, this intense work came together well tonight under Stern’s baton and left its brooding imprint on the audience.

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