By Lee Hartman
Wed, Mar 11, 2015
On the first warm evening of 2015, the Kansas City Civic Orchestra performed a program that was in direct conflict with the day’s sunniness. Saturday’s concert, “Tragic Beauty,” was another packed house for Civic under the direction of Christopher Kelts.
Selections from Jean Sibelius’s Pelléas et Mélisande, an incidental suite from 1905 for Maeterlinck’s play, opened the concert. This unfamiliar work contains many of the Sibelius hallmarks: dark sonorities, waltzes, layered strings, preponderance of English horn, and fleeting moments of grandeur. It took a while for the pitch settle in “At the castle gate” but it was centered for “Mélisande,” which featured a ravishing solo by Anne Sneller on English horn. The movement presents Mélisande as hesitant with its frequently clipped phrase endings and structural pauses. “A spring in the park” contained many rhythmic and pitch inaccuracies across the ensemble and was the least successful of the seven movements performed, which was then followed by the strongest—the wind-dominated “Three blind sisters.” Sibelius’s strange placement of the noble “Entr’acte” as the penultimate movement makes more sense narratively than musically as it is followed by the reflective “The Death of Mélisande.” With muted strings and hushed serenity, the ensemble played with great sensitivity, though the timpani was over-balanced in Atonement Lutheran’s reverberant space.
Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte started with some tempo discrepancies; Kelts wanted to pull the ensemble back, whereas solo horn Matthew Haislip wanted to press forward. This issue was resolved on the famous melody’s repeat at the faster tempo. The ensemble could have played softer throughout and with more freedom as the piece came off more Elgar-like than Ravelian.
Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, “Tragic,” has to be the most optimistic “tragic” symphony ever written. While certainly not among the best symphonies ever composed (or even among Schubert’s best, which might be why it wasn’t premiered until nearly 20 years after his death) there were plenty of noteworthy moments in Civic’s performance. Aside from an out-of-tune opening chord in the first movement, the development section was very well played and the ending (in C major) was just exuberant enough. The principal winds shined in the lyrical second movement, but it was the third movement that was the highlight of the piece. More scherzo then menuetto, Kelts and the ensemble rightfully highlighted the jaunty hemiolas in the chromatically inflected melody. Again, not very tragic but delightful. The fourth movement was confidently performed, though could have used more dynamic contrast.
The Kansas City Civic Orchestra is worthy of its capacity audiences. Kelts picks interesting pieces from the repertoire (though they skew Euro-centric and Romantic) that challenge the group but are well within its grasp. His skilled wind section is particularly enviable. The ensemble’s next concert on May 2 features Richard Strauss’s deceptively difficult waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier and shouldn’t be missed.
Kansas City Civic Orchestra
Saturday, March 7, 2015
Atonement Lutheran Church
9948 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park, KS