Some concerts have a more effective overarching design plan than others, which encourage one to reflect on the links between otherwise very distinct works. Tonight, the connective tissue of the evening lay in exploring music’s relationship to the nation, a good moment, in confusing times, to take stock. The opening of the season called for the traditional playing of the national anthem: its stirring simplicities, in which the audience whole-heartedly joined, invited comparison with later works in the program.

Martin Helmchen
© Giorgia Bertazzi

By far the most interesting contrast lay in the world premiere of Daniel Kellogg’s substantial work, entitled The Golden Spike, commissioned for the Kansas City Symphony. It is always a privilege to hear the first utterance of a work, particularly when the composer is present to point us towards his intentions. If this is a work of patriotism, it is a patriotism fitting for our own complicated days, a patriotism that does not conceal the ills that the nation has brought about, nor the stories (of working minorities, for instance) which are not part of the established narrative thread. The golden spike of the title is a reference to an actual spike, planted ceremoniously in 1869 to mark the completion of the transcontinental railroad, linking East to West, sea to shining sea.

The first movement, “Black Powder and Hell on Wheels” evokes the grittiness of the expanding frontier, the relentless energy of the two railroad companies, uniting the country by their efforts. The soundscape was savagely raw; the hammer used violently. The dissonant intensity burned fiercely through the piece and was very arresting.

The second movement, “Promontory”, evokes the western wilderness, which was crossed and tamed by the railroad, and the people who came in its wake. Crucial here to Kellogg’s intent was to evoke what was loss by all this ostensible “progress” – the traditions of native cultures, and the great herds of bison that traversed the plains. The music here was haunting, in all its lonely strangeness, with singing, pining strings, and searing longing. We were far from crowd-pleasing “Stars and Stripes” motifs here. A luminous awakening brought the movement to its end, but the healing consonance felt subtle and understated, rather than overly-sentimental.

The third movement, “Manifest Destiny”, evokes the celebrations of 1869, when a telegram was transmitted from Coast to Coast – the famous message reading “Dot, dot, dot, done”. The music here was plenty loud and brash, full of bells and cannons, this massive momentum of sound and timbre cut across occasionally by the motif of loss. The timpani player was swinging so enthusiastically from one to another, his shirt lapped over – always touching to see the signs of the sheer physicality of musical commitment.

In short, this was a highly successful first performance of a very interesting work, a suitably complex act of patriotism for the 21st century. Sibelius’ Finlandia, Op.26, represented simpler times, when it was enough to call the nation to awake from its slumbers and overcome evil for all to be well. It had movement and energy, although the hymn-like section was rather sedate and plain, prosaic even, not particularly tender or refined. Smetana's Blaník from Má vlast also reflected the simplicities of its era: tonight it was played quite pleasingly.

Martin Helmchen brought to us Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor. His was a fluent, polished rendition which brought dexterous passagework and the dialogue between piano and orchestra into high relief. Indeed, his was not an ego-driven solo part, but a genuine partnership, which was lovely to hear and see. Sometimes, when not in dialogue, the orchestra felt lacking in spirit, as if they went back to “business as usual”, and sometimes Helmchen’s dramatic chord entries lacked something of fire. But this was nonetheless a seamless and fine performance.