To witness an orchestral concert in Kansas City is kind of a special event these days, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is their two-year-old, world-class concert space Helzberg Hall. The architecture of the Kauffman Center which houses the new hall is stunning, and dominates the city skyline, rising powerfully out of the earth with bold vertical lines arcing upwards. For many of Kansas City’s residents, the hall has already become a landmark, and it has succeeded in making symphonic concerts popular social events.

Kansas City Symphony © Chris Lee
Kansas City Symphony
© Chris Lee

A great hall needs a great orchestra, and the Kansas City Symphony does not fail to deliver. When the Chicago Symphony embarked on their first European tour in 1971, they surprised the world with the revelation that some of the greatest playing on the globe was happening in America’s Midwest. The KC Symphony is one of these great orchestras, with a young, athletic base of musicians, many of whom have recently been grabbed up by orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera.

Tonight’s concert of Chopin and Berlioz was led by the German–Japanese conductor Jun Märkl. Up first was Stravinsky’s arrangement of Chopin’s Nocturne in A flat Major, Op. 32 no. 1. This was an unusual arrangement – Beethoven almost certainly wrote his piano music with orchestral sounds in mind, whereas Chopin’s music is more pianistic. Nevertheless, Stravinsky drew from the score many interesting colors, writing virtuosically for the orchestra, often placing Chopin’s delicate ornamentation into solo voices. The constant ebb and flow of Chopin’s rubato couldn’t be fully realized in earnest, however, due to the relative inflexibility of an orchestra as compared to one performer.

Tonight’s piano soloist for Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in F minor, Ran Dank, was a stand-in after the scheduled soloist became ill. Conductor Jun Märkl was a careful, sensitive accompanist, no doubt from his years of opera conducing, and worked with a nuanced fluidity which inspired the warmest of sounds from the orchestra. His beat was well ahead of the sound, in the European fashion – a style which can disorient many American orchestras, but the Kansas City Symphony adapted wonderfully. Dank played with a calm serenity and control through Chopin’s landscape of hyper-ornamented music, built from relatively simple melodic strands out of which constantly blossom delicate embellishments. Visual communication was very effective between Dank, Märkl and concertmaster Noah Geller, their connection forming a kind of triangular sight line which fueled the orchestra’s confidence.

The second half of the concert featured the extravagant and eccentric Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz. The story of the shocking première of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is told and retold to the point of mythification, though this tone poem of Hector Berlioz, this wild fantasy, written all the way back in 1830, must have also sounded so incredibly new and outlandish to the ears of the day. Beethoven had died a mere three years before, and this music can scarcely be compared to that master’s. This was program music, but more than that, it was wild fantasy unleashed, a kind of unfettered emotional outburst which wouldn’t meet its match until Tchaikovsky. Fraught with impassioned love and bizarre hallucinations, this score also contains some of the most difficult solos and ensemble playing in the repertoire.

Märkl and the Kansas City Symphony did well to embody that surge of emotions that Berlioz tried to display. The waltz movement settled into a brisk and almost breathless tempo, though sadly the famed harp duet was too soft to be heard. The musicians played with absolute athleticism, and a sound ranging from vibrant and sinewy to deep and rich, with some stunning solos from the E flat clarinet, English horn and the entire bassoon section.

The raw talent of the orchestra was laid bare, and the audience loved all of it, offering a long, warm round of applause. It is encouraging to know that wherever art is supported, it will thrive. Kansas City has built this institution out of pure love for music, and its success is well deserved.

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