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A candle, a borrowed theme, and a Russian rebel, K.C. Symphony finishes well

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Kansas City Symphony caps the season with Rogerson, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, no ying, but a great Yang


Friday, June 6, 2014, The Kansas City Symphony offered the subscription season finale in Helzberg Hall of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, in Kansas City, Missouri. It was an evening of introductions, thank-yous, substitutions, and even an encore.

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Included was a commissioned world premier, 11 minute piece, based on a quote by a philosophical, forever-12-year-old girl, by Chris Rogerson (b. 1988, represented by, who else, Young Concert Artists) Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1875-1943) played by last minute replacement, Joyce Yang, who owned it, and the possibly disrespectful Symphony 5 in d minor of Dmitri Shostakovich, which, despite any underlying defiance, is a showpiece for a fine orchestra in one of the world's finest rooms.

"Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness," wrote Anne Frank.

Inspired by this thought, Chris Rogerson composed eleven minutes of melancholy optimism, "A Single Candle." Beginning with the firm-bodied, almost unsounded cello in the violin range, Rogerson slipped the melodic function from one instrument or section to another, responding with sometimes ear-splitting cacophonous orchestra, he added extensive percussion, winds, brass, a harp, and even a celesta to fully explore this meme. The passing of melody from voice to voice could only represent the viral nature of human light; the jumbled responses must have portrayed the inexplicable darkness of the world into which this light must shine. A return to the original soft cello was a reminder of the original single candle, the individual optimist. An emotion-wrenching twelfth of an hour from a talent we will hear again. The sold-out crowd gave the orchestra and composer a standing ovation.

Early on, the scheduled piano soloist, Yuja Wang, was to have played the Rachmaninoff 4th Piano Concerto, but she requested a change to the Rachmaninoff, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which request was honored. Moving on, Ms Wang became unavailable for this weekend, due to illness (possibly skeletal stress from playing - best recovery wishes) leading to a call to Joyce Yang, a familiar figure on Kansas City and world stages; yes, she can come, no, you don't need to change the program.

Joyce Yang owned Rachmaninoff! She delivered notes at the right place at the right time; irrelevant! She gave the audience a guided tour of of a variation shop, carefully describing with her fingers on the keys, what a great composer and pianist can deliver from a single melody, when working with a remarkable orchestra led by a distinguished conductor in a uniquely reverberant space. The familiar piece leads down roads of great, spine-jarring jaggedness, through gently babbling brooks, and by woods of rapidly falling trees, all of which came to life through the animated playing of the forces on stage. After three curtain calls, Mr. Stern gestured to the piano seat for Ms Yang to play an encore; Gershwin's, "The Man I Love," followed, to great appreciation.

After the intermission, "Shostakovich 5" took center stage. A good piece to couple with Rogerson's augmented-orchestra premier, as Dimitri did quite a bit of adding, himself: celesta and piano, two harps, tam-tam, Eb Clarinet, and the normal, beefy, assortment of strings, brass, and winds. Oh, and there was a soft piccolo solo that was graceful and in tune; much to say in the history of piccolo-playing. The music moves from what could be a battlefield to idyllic bucolics, using march rhythms and folk tunes. It retains enough tonality to please the social overlords of the composer's era, and enough harmonic interest to belong credibly in the 20th Century. If you heard "Fiddler on the Roof," in the Shostakovich, share a message.

The heroic march-like triumphal fourth movement is thought by many to be written as an irony. The evil Soviet dictator was displeased with and earlier work (Lady Macbeth) leading to Shostakovich's being scolded in the Russian press. The jubilant finale is thought to say to the beloved leader, "If you require us to celebrate or be shot, here's a celebration."

Excellence is difficult to perceive when it is commonplace. Such a burden Kansas City audiences must bear; many around the world would gladly trade places. If you missed this program, you should have been here; really, you should have been here.