Wei Luo gives a powerful performance with Kansas City Symphony

18 February 2017

Kansas City Symphony relishes humor in Beethoven, passion of Prokofiev.

Special to The Star

The Kansas City Symphony provided a pleasant, uplifting concert Friday in Helzberg Hall, conducted by artistic director Michael Stern. The four pieces balanced play with passion and angst with amusement for a satisfying program.

Paul Hindemith’s attention grabbing “Ragtime,” originally for piano, was a novel piece with circusy clamor of trombone smears, woodwind runs and prominent xylophone, the syncopated treatment of the quote from Johann Sebastian Bach creating an off kilter effect.

In Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3, Wei Luo gave a powerful performance, playing right up to the edge of control (or at least seeming to) for an exciting rendition with rhythmic forces, defined grace notes and glorious runs. She and the orchestra exercised the work’s numerous contrasts in characters, from the lush and jovial in the Allegro (preceded by a fine statement in clarinet), the dramatic second movement with its dark driving force contrary to a mysterious internal segment, with well-integrated roles of soloist and ensemble, and the raucous final movement, Luo swiping the runs off the keyboard, basses slapping bows against strings, the themes saturated in rich tones, all leading to a breathtaking finale.

The audience was immediately roused to a standing ovation and Luo gave a thoughtful, though low-impact, encore on an arrangement of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise.”

David Hertzberg was on hand to preface his “for none shall gaze upon the Father and live,” written in 2015, the young composer describing his intent behind the work’s mystical soundworld. Beginning with a fragile effect of air blown through the brass and rasping of near-silent strings, the seismic pulse developed from long, layered, decaying tones. Wide intervallic leaps, a two-note theme, were revealed from this atmosphere, which relied on a series of swell-and-release moments to proceed with the push of its expanding crescendo. At the final strike, Stern suspended the cut off to allow the work’s visceral effect on the audience to dissipate.

Listening to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony no. 8 makes it easier to imagine the character of the man than the more grandiose of his works. Humor is humanizing. Here, his perfectly constructed musical strategy generated surprises and sustained excitement. The ensemble, too, seemed to have fun, tossing notes across the ensemble, exaggerating accents, trading dance-like statements and escaping all of a sudden into the galloping theme of the final movement. Beethoven certainly knew how to pace his jokes, playing with and circumventing expectations, extended into the prolonged cadence for a final chuckle.