If one word could describe Kansas City’s year in classical music, it would have to be epic.
2015 will go down as a year of memorable performances by our own world-class local talent as well as some of the biggest names in classical music.
There were deeply moving commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, riveting piano recitals, visits from two of opera’s most acclaimed singers and, perhaps, America’s greatest orchestra.
And the year is capped off with an eye-popping new production of a holiday classic.
It’s easy to take for granted the wealth of classical music available in Kansas City, but this year, music lovers had many reasons to be especially grateful.
One of the biggest concerts of the year happened the first day of February. To celebrate its 50th anniversary season, the Harriman-Jewell Series presented Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez in a duo recital. The beloved hometown diva and the Peruvian tenor put on a smashing show.
One could tell that this was more than a recital for these two opera superstars. Florez was a longtime friend of the founder of the series, Richard Harriman, and DiDonato attended Harriman-Jewell concerts when she was growing up in Prairie Village. She often has talked about the importance of the series in her own musical life. DiDonato and Florez put on a concert of love and celebration that started the new year in the best way possible.
As the month closed, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City presented “Silent Night” with music by Kevin Puts and libretto by Mark Campbell. It was the Lyric’s contribution to the local World War I commemorations. The opera tells the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914, when German and British soldiers reached out to one another with soccer, Christmas carols and brotherhood.
The opera was a tour de force, with a score that was romantic and approachable and a production that utilized screen projections and a turntable stage to bring trench warfare vividly to life. It was an all-around stunning achievement by the Lyric.
But all was not smooth sailing for the Lyric in 2015. The company was roiled in controversy in April, when Ward Holmquist, the Lyric’s longtime artistic director and the person credited with turning the Lyric into one of America’s finest regional opera companies, was let go. The Lyric cited the need to improve “effectiveness and efficiency” as the reason, but many opera patrons and Holmquist’s many friends in the community were upset by the way the Lyric handled the situation.
It was an all-around excellent year for the Kansas City Symphony, however. The Symphony released another CD in June on the audiophile Reference Recordings label, and it was a doozy. The bone-rattling recording of Camille Saint-Saën’s Organ Symphony featuring organist Jan Kraybill garnered rave reviews from publications like Gramophone magazine. The album earned a Grammy nomination.
Under Stern, the Kansas City Symphony has become a finely tuned instrument capable of tackling any repertoire. Before Stern, when the music of Gustav Mahler appeared on the schedule, it was cause for trepidation. Now music lovers champ at the bit to hear the Kansas City Symphony perform one of Mahler’s symphonies, as when Stern and the Symphony performed Mahler’s fifth in February. It’s so easy for Mahler to fall apart when an orchestra isn’t up to snuff. The Kansas City Symphony’s performance, on the other hand, was all one could ask: moving, thrilling, downright ecstatic.
The large-scale music of Richard Strauss, which poses many of the same challenges as Mahler’s music, is another Stern specialty. In May, the Kansas City Symphony wrung every last drop of fin-de-siècle romanticism out of Strauss’ tone poem “Don Juan.”
On the same program, pianist Steven Lin was the soloist for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20. It was a finely etched reading that brought the audience to its feet.
Speaking of great pianists, in May, Behzod Abduraimov, winner of the London International Piano Competition and student at Park University’s International Center for Music, delivered a bravura performance at the Folly Theater. It’s the only piano recital I can recall when a standing ovation was given after the first piece on the program.
After walloping the audience with Ludwig Van Beethoven’s “Appassionata” sonata, Abduraimov delivered a one-two punch on the second half of the concert with Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Theme and Variations, Op. 19 No. 6 and Sergei Prokofiev’s percussive and mind-bogglingly difficult Piano Sonata No. 6. The audience left the Folly dazed and elated.
There were other local musicians who dazzled us this year, like the Bach Aria Soloists, comprised of violinist Elizabeth Suh Lane, guitarist Beau Bledsoe, harpsichordist Elisa Williams Bickers and soprano Sarah Tannehill Anderson.
Johann Sebastian Bach may be the group’s namesake, but its repertoire often ranges beyond the German baroque master. In February, for example, the group performed a work by Thai composer Narong Prangcharoen, “Dialogue.” The eclectic program included Anderson’s wondrous rendition of Heitor Villa Lobos’ Bachianas Brasilleiras No. 5.
The Bach Aria Soloists received some great news that will allow it to continue its exploration of Thai musical traditions. The group has been invited to the 12th Annual Thailand International Composition Festival in 2016. The group, with the assistance of a grant from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, will make its Asian debut performing Prangcharoen’s“Dialogue.”
The Friends of Chamber Music presented many choice concerts in 2015, but perhaps the most special was a program of Baroque chamber opera performed by the early music group Atalante. The group re-created the sort of concert (or, as they were called in the 17th century, academies) that one might have enjoyed in the home of a Roman aristocrat.
The combination of enchanting period instruments, beautiful costumes and ethereal music was captivating. It was the sort of program at which the Friends excel — rare, refined and absolutely magical.
In October, a fierce storm blew into Helzberg Hall when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made its first visit to Kansas City since 1967. Riccardo Muti, the orchestra’s music director, conducted a powerful program of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 that showed off the Chicago Symphony and Helzberg Hall acoustics.
After the concert, Muti spoke to the audience from the stage, sharing his delight in Kansas City and our new Performing Arts Center. He expressed his desire to bring the CSO to Kansas City on a regular basis. Something tells me the Harriman-Jewell Series just might take him up on that offer.
How appropriate to end this year of meaty performances with a visit to the Kingdom of the Sweets. The Kansas City Ballet’s much-anticipated, multimillion-dollar production of “The Nutcracker” made its debut, and it was well worth the wait.
Devon Carney’s imaginative yet traditional conception, enhanced by Alain Vaes’ fairy-tale sets and costumes by Holly Hynes, was satisfying on every level. This is a “Nutcracker” that promises to become a beloved Kansas City tradition. Carney’s “Nutcracker,” brimming with delights, was a fitting end to a year that sparkled with musical jewels.
You can reach Patrick Neas at email@example.com.