Tonight’s program by the Kansas City Symphony at the Kauffman Center launched with a regular old favourite, prodding us out of the sluggishness of winter into uncomplicated musical enjoyment: Rossini’s William Tell overture. Sitting high up in the gods, four rows from the back of the theatre, I was reminded how a wonderful acoustic transforms one’s experience of sound and how justly the Helzberg Hall has earned its reputation for the technical expertise of its acoustical engineering team, led by Yasuhisa Toyota. The clarity of the cello voices at the start was projected with stunning intimacy. I might as well have been adjacent to the players or hearing it from my own living room. Stormy passages, taken at full throttle speed, were suitably gusty and blowsy. I found the balance in the pastoral “Ranz des Vaches” slightly off, in the sense that the accompaniment to the horn and flute was a touch too prominent for my taste. The finale, however, that exciting three minutes of music, was a fine gallop: rhythms tightly controlled, crescendos amply built up. David Lockington, who replaced Edo de Waart as visiting conductor tonight owing to the latter’s illness, seemed well up to the task of keeping the cavalry horses of the orchestra in check.

Alessio Bax © Marco Borggreve
Alessio Bax
© Marco Borggreve

Some pianists are as exciting to watch as they are to listen to. Liszt, of course, must have been the prototype: the Lisztomania of throngs of female fans wasn’t surely just about the music being played. In our own day, one thinks immediately of someone like Mitsuko Uchida pouring her soul out over the instrument. It seems, in such cases, as if the performance spills over from an intensely communicative personality, and it adds to the experience to watch their every gesture and expression. It is not necessarily a weakness when this quality is absent, but it does invite a different sort of audience experience. To close one’s eyes and just to listen, in the case of less flamboyantly expressive performers, is not to miss out. 

I felt that way with Alessio Bax’s performance of Barber’s Piano Concerto this evening. I found I got more from his interpretation when I just listened. The technical demands of the work he met with apparent ease. There were very convincing moments of fusion between piano and orchestra – for instance when the instruments surged to join the soloist at the opening of the first movement, and at several other points throughout, either when the piano was entering in, or ending its part. The sourness and strange passions of the first movement felt, as they should feel, sour and strange and gnawingly incomplete. It was in the second movement’s Canzone that the shortfall in communication was most felt. There were surely more emotional possibilities to be drawn out, more tonal colours to be explored. There was nothing egregious, but it failed to move. The third movement Allegro was a more straightforward affair and plenty exciting.

Mendelssohn, in full flush of fashionable Victorian Scotophilia, visited in 1829, and promptly fell in love with the country's moulds and mists and moody ambience. Tales of monarchy and murder at Holyrood Palace only confirmed him in his romantic sensibilities. The Symphony no. 3 "Scottish" was the retrospective result, completed in 1842, that is to say thirteen years after his memorable visit. The work was flanked by a rhythmic energetic first and fourth movement. Indeed, rhythmic energy seemed an overall feature of tonight’s performance: there is great auditory pleasure in a tight, well-controlled rhythm reining in the wild horses of sound. The slow movement Adagio did not quite reach a pitch of unforgettable lyricism, but the Scherzo was deftly rendered and boasted some very delicately articulated pianissimo passages. Once again, a near reminder that the hall’s acoustic means that not a whisper of sound is lost in translation. A pleasure in itself.

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