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Picture Studies


Special to The Star

Cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan swept into town this week and joined the Kansas City Symphony in a thrilling performance at Helzberg Hall Friday night.

Born in Armenia and mentored by the legendary Mstislav Rostropovich, Hakhnazaryan garnered a great deal of attention in the classical world in recent years. He won the gold medal in the 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition and subsequently appeared with some of the premier orchestras in the world.

For his Kansas City debut, Hakhnazaryan performed the Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 129 by Robert Schumann. Composed in 1850, the work is a creation from a particularly happy and productive period in Schumann’s life.

After a brief orchestral opening, the soloist entered with a melancholy opening theme, played with expressive warmth and a rich tone. In the lower register he achieved a luxuriant resonance while the upper range displayed a true singing tone. Occasionally, however, he played so softly he could barely be heard.

Hakhnazaryan demonstrated romantic sensitivity through rhythmic flexibility and the ability to stretch a phrase. The orchestra proved an eager partner, playing with expression and tenderness. The soloist performed the slow second movement with consummate expressiveness, and the result was simply glorious.

In the finale, Hakhnazaryan had a few intonation slips in the rapid passages, but the conclusion was absolutely gripping. As an encore, the soloist played “Chongury,” a brief work by Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze.

The concert opened with The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca, a work written in 1955 by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů and based on artworks by the early Renaissance painter. While the work features a lush orchestration and moments of great lyric beauty there are a number of dry patches in the work as well, particularly in the slow central movement.

The orchestra exhibited some synchronization problems in the percussion at the beginning of the third movement. The remainder of the work was nicely performed, though not particularly gratifying.

The concert concluded with the world premiere of Picture Studies by the Symphony’s composer-in-residence for the season, Adam Schoenberg. Co-commissioned by the orchestra and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the music is based on works from the museum’s collection.

Schoenberg’s work is a gem, employing a broad palette of orchestral colors and musical forms. Even within individual movements, the music is kaleidoscopic, with ever-changing colors and textures.

Whether the sensuous melody of the “Olive Orchard,” the jaunty whimsicality of “The Three Pierrots” or the explosive rhythmic brutality of “Kandinsky,” Picture Studies captured a remarkable variety of moods.

Stern and the orchestra played with passion, igniting the work with a spark that will be long remembered in Kansas City.


PICTURING MUSIC: Symphony presents ‘painterly’ works by a range of composers

The most successful of the three concerts I heard was that of February 1st through the 3rd, which included the latest piece by the Symphony’s current composer in residence ADAM SCHOENBERG. Taking Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition as a partial inspiration, Schoenberg’s Picture Studies is an engaging and beautifully scored musical depiction of several masterworks from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; it is certainly among the strongest of the several works Adam has written for Michael and the Symphony. To prepare our ears for it the orchestra played not the Mussorgsky (thank God) but a gem of a musical triptych by the Czech-born 20th-century master Bohuslav Martinů, whose music I can never seem to get enough of. Les fresques de Piero della Francesca, a late work from the 1950s, was inspired by the visionary frescoes of 15th century painter Piero that the composer observed in the Basilica di San Francesco in Arezzo, Tuscany. The music is chiefly tonal but at times magically dissonant, with sweeping melodies and an always-deft handling of orchestral textures; it depicts scenes of sumptuous decadence (the Queen of Sheba) and noble conquest (Constantine). The players were in fine form here, as they seemed to relish in the gratifying textures of a little heard masterpiece.

The soloist for the evening was Armenian cellist NAREK HAKHNAZARYAN, who in 2011 won the 15th International Tchaikovsky Competition. He played Schumann’s Cello Concerto with a big, luscious tone, giving its familiar strains not just intensity but also a well-nuanced and loving touch. If his vibrato was a bit wide for my taste, and if his hyperactive sense of rhythmic freedom sometimes obscured a clear “line,” his agility and self-assurance suggested a solid future for this serious-minded young man.

The Symphony pulled out the stops for Adam’s Picture Studies, with a full-color booklet containing photos of the nine artworks depicted, accompanied by illuminating commentary on each by the composer and by one of the Nelson’s specialist curators. A ghostly theme in the piano (alluding vaguely to the Mussorgsky) invites us into the museum, where we are treated to playfully overlapping textures of whimsy (Bloch’s The Three Pierrots, No. 2) and a series of ostinatos to represent each of the four mysterious figures of Kurt Baasch’s photograph Repetition. Van Gogh’s tranquil Olive Orchard inspires rocking gestures, first in the winds and expanding to a grand romantic moment. Kandinsky’s Rose with Gray juxtaposes raucous dissonance with equally headstrong diatonicism. Calder’s Untitled, 1936 inspires a piece as timeless and ethereal as the original sculpture, while Miró’s Women at Sunrise is treated with rhythmic fun. After an interlude, the set ends with tender delicacy (Hiroshi Sugimoto’s North Pacific Ocean, Oregon) followed by extroverted flight inspired by Francis Blake’s photograph Pigeons in Flight. By the end the listener had gained not just a sense for Adam’s growing compositional skill but also a new appreciation for several world treasures that are located right here under our noses. Picture Studies stands as a model of how arts groups can work together to achieve greatness, and it is without doubt one of the Symphony’s (and the Museum’s) smartest recent ventures.