Review: Symphony marks centennial with superbly mature sound

The Kansas University Symphony Orchestra celebrated 100 years of fine music making with a rousing gala concert Tuesday night.

Led by maestro Nicholas Uljanov, the ensemble demonstrated a level of musicality befitting the special occasion. From the double reeds to the double bass, the musicians played with a shared sense of style and dynamic direction.

And the audience, which nearly filled the 2,000-seat Lied Center, was clearly impressed.

The evening began with Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich's Festive Overture, opus 96, a fanfare piece that is innately enthusiastic. After a regal opening in the brass section, the furious-yet-fluid main theme was capably coaxed out of the first clarinetist's fingers. Melodic scales and runs shimmered as other instruments joined the fray, eventually building to the theme's triumphant return in the brass. An ending accelerando served as a fitting punctuation to the extroverted Shostakovich standard.

Pianist Stanislav Ioudenitch joined the orchestra on stage to conclude the program's first half. The gifted Ioudenitch, gold medal winner at the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and a Park University professor, breathed elegant life into Camille Saint-Saens' Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in G Minor, opus 22.

Ioudenitch calls to mind a jazz scat musician at times. It is great fun to watch him mouth rhythmic syllables as he explores the development of a musical idea or section. But for all his solo virtuosity, Ioudenitch also was mindful of his orchestra and conductor Tuesday night. He never overwhelmed the ensemble; rather, he floated just above the surface of the group's warm, supporting sound.

Highlights of the Saint-Saens concerto included the first movement's attention-grabbing piano introduction followed by a series of mournful oboe calls. The second movement, a bright scherzo with verve, showed great interplay between the ensemble and soloist, and the concluding presto movement put Ioudenitch's talent for passionate precision on display.

The concert's second half featured one piece, Tchaikovsky's memorable Symphony No. 6 in B minor, opus 74. This symphony, also known as "Pathetique," is a lush and melancholy composition, filled with mini-hurdles for musicians. The opening movement, for example, begins with an exposed bassoon solo in a challenging low register, and the cello section must play the silky theme of the allegro second movement as one instrument. The orchestra was ready to meet the challenge, however, and Uljanov led the way with his commanding yet pliable baton.

Any criticisms of the concert were small, as the ensemble truly played beyond the notes on the page. At times the high brass section flirted with the edge of exuberance but always managed to rein itself in. And the low strings, despite occasional intonation issues, found one another by listening. All sections of the orchestra -- special kudos to the rock-steady horns -- should be praised for their work.

With bravo performances such as this, the KU Symphony Orchestra is poised for another 100 years of musical growth and success.


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