Whether drunk, as some critics have unkindly suggested, or ecstatic (the two surely not mutually exclusive), Beethoven achieves supremely distinctive effects in his Symphony no. 7 in A major, most of all in the last movement, that which Wagner breathlessly called “the apotheosis of the dance”. Tonight under the baton of Michael Stern, who has been the lead conductor of the Kansas City Symphony since 2005, a lively spirit was the order of the day. I liked the verve, the drive of the dotted rhythms, and indeed the dance spirit which did indeed attain its apotheosis in the whirlwind finale; I felt, however, much more could have been made of the contrasts. Volatility is such a Beethovenian hallmark, and many of those contrasts have a sort of abruptness – even a violence to them, which has to be ever so carefully observed in micro-details of dynamics, pitch and timbre. This was not quite achieved. And let us not forget variety of mood either. This was sunny-skies Beethoven. The Allegretto was pleasant and kept pace, but did lack a certain sobriety and gravitas

George Li © Simon Fowler
George Li
© Simon Fowler

The connections between music and dance were also palpable in Michael Kurth’s symphonic-style A Thousand Words. This is music meant to fill the gap that language leaves in the face of powerful experiences. In three of the four movements, Kurth seeks to depict very particular natural scenes, and as such, the movements are a very personal response to beauty – whether on the Atlantic Ocean, by the basal cliffs at Reynisfjara, the Sloss Furnaces of Alabama, or just the glory of the night skies. Kurth was present tonight to hear the Kansas City Symphony’s rendition, and I suspect he would have been pleased. Renowned for its acoustic, the Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center certainly showed off the power of percussion in Kurth’s work: they were strikingly dominant throughout.

And between congas, shakers, salsa bells, cabasa, hi-hat and all the more conventional percussive instruments, harnessing the sheer variety of their timbres is clearly his particular joy – the wellspring of his creative energies. The strings seemed somewhat faded at times, however, and indeed sometimes also I felt more ‘body’ was required from the woodwinds (for instance in the eerie openings of the second movement Beneath: My Sinister Groove Machine). I very much liked the colours of the opening movement, entitled Above: Radiance, which began with a very leisurely ‘rising’ in pitch and volume, and was an effective depiction of the rising of the sun to an intense pitch of brightness and brilliance. The fourth movement, entitled Beyond: We will Puncture the Canopy of Night had plenty of rhythmic drive, joyous energy and a true carnival – dance-like –  spirit.

Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor is a warhorse of the repertoire, for sure, and George Li’s playing was convincing and crisp, an ecstasy of fast runs and energetic chords. Dexterity was the word that came to mind most of all in respect of his playing. The cadenza in the first movement was particularly fine – a moment which made you think you were hearing it again for the first time (not easy to achieve in Grieg). He suddenly became ruminative, brought the melody right down to nothing, before raising the temperature and indulging in all those passionate chords. There was also a highlight in the piano/cello duo in the third movement; the cello line was beautifully brought out in accompaniment – again, a touch of newness is always of especial value in a very familiar work. I’m never quite sure of the necessity of performing an encore after a concerto (it seems as if we have no need of second dessert); still his playing of Liszt’s La campanella was spectacular, a gem of virtuosity and the audience loved every moment of it.

***11