A world premiere is always exciting, and a substantial one – Chris Rogerson’s Violin Concerto no. 1, “The Little Prince” (2022) clocks in at 25 minutes – particularly so. The composer, who was present for this Kansas City Symphony concert, was in the happy position of hearing the dedicatee, the exceptionally talented Benjamin Beilman, perform his work with an artistry and an emotional authenticity that movingly depicted a fraught journey of the soul. Perhaps the title of the work led us down too sentimental a path, at least in our cliched images of Saint-Exupery’s work of the little golden-haired boy cleaning out volcanos and tending a rose on his house-sized asteroid. The Concerto stood apart. 

Benjamin Beilman and the Kansas City Symphony
© Suzanne Frisse

Rogerson seeks to depict a journey from childhood innocence to its tragic loss, but in truth, from the ominous timpani start, we are already in a fallen world, an impression that the entry of the intense violin voice fully confirms. Beilman, with his endless long bow strokes, brought a lot of feeling to the first movement, and a sense of mature interiority. In the second movement, dissonance is yet more oppressive from the start, although the violin entry is marked by more traces of lyricism than we’ve yet heard, albeit one that sours quickly. It’s the kind of dissonance that doesn’t allow us to rest, a discomfiting world of sound without stable meaning. Beilman’s energy in the double stops was powerful and his playing throbbed with emotional expressiveness; likewise, in the third movement, where the violin voice was scrabbled, hurried, in flight. Orchestra and the violin as hunter and hunted was the image that suddenly came to my mind, confirmed by the crack of the whip which made me jump in my skin, such was the verisimilitude. 

I remember a friend once saying that Wagner’s music brought him to places he didn’t want to go. Rogerson’s concerto had that sort of effect on me, but maybe, I felt, that place is where we already are, on the existential edge. This was discomfiting, thought-provoking music, superbly played. 

Gemma New conducts the Kansas City Symphony
© Suzanne Frisse

When Rogerson had announced that his work journeyed from innocence to darkness, guest conductor Gemma New was there to remind us that this journey would be balanced out by the final work on today’s program, Saint-Saëns' “Organ” Symphonyand so it was. Certainly, this is a sonic world in which we are allowed – positively encouraged indeed – to experience the reassurance of stability and transcendence. The immense authority of the organ is carefully deployed in this work: there is such an amount of restraint. 348 measures pass in the first movement before it enters sotto voce, and 378 measures in the second movement, before its massive C-major chord. When it does join forces, there is no mistaking its voice or its underlying power, or its symbolic potential, and Jan Kraybill did the instrument and the work justice. 

New is a powerful conductor; her energy is hugely impressive and the finesse of her responses and her relationship with the different voices within the orchestra. There was a real two-way flow in evidence this evening, and in the first piece, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, very different in style, there was a sweet graciousness which was pleasing. Ravel’s nursery fantasies have finessed away the macabre Grimm brother tales, in favour of something entirely unthreatening and whimsical.