Maestro Michael Stern, since taking the helm of the Kansas City Symphony just four years ago, has taken his gifted colleagues on an artistic voyage of increasingly impressive reach. Significantly, Stern’s aura has also attracted new audiences and donors.
On Sunday evening, a full house packed the Lied Center to judge the results of Stern’s inspired labors for itself. Given the robust applause and the rapt attention paid to even the most fragile of passages, the crowd’s “thumbs up” verdict was clear.
Stern’s program for the Lied was drawn straight from the heart of the Romantic period. Whether Mendels-sohn or Mahler, or the lesser-known Danish composer Carl Nielsen, it was a crowd-pleasing menu rich in lyrical allusions to nature, the deepest passions of the soul and 19th-century European folk ways.
The program was also an opportunity to show off the orchestra’s gorgeous string section. At once warm and precise, the strings’ hand-in-glove phrasings, whether taking flight with the sun or bubbling with bucolic abandon, synched perfectly with Stern’s sure and ebullient baton.
For Lawrencians, a special treat came with the appearance of 18-year-old piano virtuoso Kuok-Wai Lio. Currently a student of concert piano legend Gary Graffman, the native of Macau, China, already owns a dazzling list of prestige appearances and prizes, including top honors at Kansas University’s First International Institute for Young Musicians International Piano Competition at age 15.
Taking the measure of Mendelssohn’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor” (1837), Lio gave full play to the work’s dualistic Classical and Romantic tendencies, juxtaposing exacting runs and poignant reveries with uncommon virtuosity and musical depth. It was a triumph eliciting hugs from maestro Stern and lusty cheers from the house. In a word — spectacular!
The program’s second half was devoted to Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 1 in D major” (1893), a colorful, hour-long soundscape of epic proportions. In Mahler, we hear the foundations of classical music shifting from the Romanticism of Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner to the “dissonance” of modernists Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.
We also hear Mahler’s huge demands on an orchestra’s skill and stamina, challenges more than met by Stern and his colleagues. In expressing everything from the loftiest of philosophic struggles to bird calls, the KCO held all in its thrall with luminous Mahlerian waves that still oscillate.
Also featured was the evening’s opener, Carl Nielsen’s “Helios Overture,” a sun-splashed impression of Apollo’s daily, daylight journey across the heavens.
— Chuck Berg is a Kansas University professor of theater and film.