James Lee III’s Amer’ican (2021) is 13 minutes work of an ambitious depiction of pre-Columbian America which the Kansas City Symphony took as their starting point of the year’s programming in this their opening night performance. Taking his inspiration from indigenous tribes in the East and South, and also drawing on the Dvořákian tradition of the New World Symphony, Lee brings big feelings and narrative ideas to bear in this interesting symphonic poem. This is a fast-moving piece, packing a lot of orchestral material in, featuring a massive crisis moment (representing 1492), out of which a double bass followed by bassoons and oboes emerge in dirge-like fashion. I especially liked the flute solo representing humanity singing in primordial times, and the thundering end, with a rousing accelerando. I was trying to follow the extensive narrative he had elaborated for the music, and I’m not quite sure I pinpointed the digressive part depicting the carefree ancient ballgame Ulama. Yet it was intentional, ambitious music that worked well. 

Gil Shaham
© Eric Williams

What can one do with a 1699 Countess Polignac Stradivarius? A lot if you are as consummately skilled as Gil Shaham. That said, he brought freshness and enthusiasm as well as skill to Saint-Saëns' Violin Concerto no. 3 in B minorand that youthful freshness of spirit was really quite remarkable. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a warm stage presence as Shaham’s tonight, so wholly without ego; it was abundantly clear that he delighted in the music itself, and enjoyed a close rapport with Michael Stern and the orchestra. His solo playing was intimately part of the whole sonic landscape in all its symphonic richness. When he touched his heart at one point, this might have come across in another as theatrical, but with him, it seemed entirely genuine. I loved the deeply rich tones early on in the first movement, the easily integrated and effortless virtuoso passages, and the sweet high notes. I enjoyed the gentle duet in the second movement, dialoguing with the clarinet, and the definite assurance and dexterity of the last movement. This was an intimate, and refined interpretation of the score and a pleasure to hear. The Isolation Rag written for him by Scott Wheeler during the lockdown was a neat addendum as encore.

Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony
© Eric Williams

Aaron Copland’s Symphony no. 3 rounded out the programme, and under Stern's baton, the Symphony gave a satisfying performance, reminding me once again of how brilliantly clear the acoustic is in Helzberg Hall, how favourable to musical communication. The second movement was the heart of the work with its animated Scherzo, and bright, bold brassy tones. The contrasts that the strings drew between ethereal high notes and fierce bow-drawing in the third movement was striking. And the fourth movement, where Copland borrows from his own Fanfare for the Common Man, achieved the sense of euphoria that Copland wished for it. Stern is beginning his last season as musical director at the Symphony, a position that he will have held for 18 years, and must be proud of the knowledge that he has brought the orchestra on a long way.