Sunday, May 22, 2011

Kahane Returns to the CSO

Conductor Jeffrey Kahane made a return to the Colorado Symphony Orchestra last night as guest conductor on a program of American works, starting with Copland's Appalachian Spring. The instant he dropped the downbeat, I remembered how much I missed him as a conductor. The enthusiasm he projects, along with his technical excellence in conducting, make him light years above the series of guests that have conducted over the last year. The Copland was entertaining as always, but somehow he always inspires the orchestra to reach new emotional heights on their performances.

The program included two works by living composers, a rarity for any large orchestra, and particularly rare for the CSO. I suspect Kahane's presence inspired this edgy program. Following the Copland was a world premiere, a Piano Concerto by Kenji Bunch, performed by his wife, Monica Ohuchi. In my opinion, this was the highlight of the evening, a surprising accomplishment considering they were followed by Bela Fleck.

For the first 20 seconds of Bunch's Concerto, I was worried that this was going to be another piece of forgettable minimalism that would keep me looking at my watch, but when the piano finally entered - in the wrong key, a half step above the base set by the orchestra - it suddenly became very interesting. Some might criticize the fact that stylistically the piece was all over the map, showing influences from minimalism, poly-tonality, jazz, impressionism, film scores, and Latin music, but personally I enjoyed the unpredictable nature of these contrasting styles.

If there were any criticism, it is that the piece is often over-orchestrated (a common problem when young composers suddenly get to write for 100 people), to the point that the piece was not a Concerto for Piano as labelled, but a Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. For large sections, the piano was almost inaudible and was more of an orchestral color. Still I enjoyed the piece, particularly the Latin-tinged third movement, and Ohuchi's playing was incredibly beautiful throughout, but especially in the second movement. In fact I knew from her first entrance, one, simple, repeated note, that she was a wonderfully sensitive performer.

After intermission, the second contemporary work was a Triple Concerto by Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain, and Edgar Meyer, who co-composed the piece, on which they played banjo, tabla, and bass respectively. I had no idea what to expect on this; Fleck and his group the Flecktones are world-renowned performers with a huge cult following, but in a style uniquely their own. It was hard to imagine how that would blend with a traditional orchestra, not to mention the odd concept of a triple concerto for three such disparate instruments.

Nonetheless, it was an amazing piece of music. Fleck began by stating the first theme on unaccompanied banjo, and played it so perfectly he made it look easy, even though it was a crazy difficult theme. The first movement was structured around this brief theme, and featured the three instruments in a nice balance, especially the bass, which was played quite lyrically. There was also a bluegrass-tinged theme, which worked quite well with the orchestra. Unlike the piano concerto, this was clearly a feature for the soloists and not the orchestra as a whole.

The most memorable section of the piece was an extended cadenza in the second movement by the tabla. Zakir Hussain showed an incredible mastery of the instrument, playing with both rhythmic precision and emotional depth. One of the reasons I enjoy Kahane's conducting so much is his incredible joy for music. During the tabla solo, Kahane was as attentive as any audience member and all smiles throughout. He was clearly having a great time. The whole piece was quite good; Fleck is an amazing musician (he is currently performer-in-residence at Berklee).

The night ended on a strange note, Gershwin's American in Paris, which might have functioned better as an overture rather than a closer, but still it was a great performance by a conductor who really understands the jazzy influence Gershwin had on the orchestra. The concert ran a little on the long side, but it was well worth it. It was a very full house, and I'm always happy to see that!