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Michael Stern Stirs a Tempest

available at Amazon
Sullivan / Sibelius, Incidental Music for The Tempest, Kansas City Symphony, M. Stern

(released on July 8, 2008)
Reference Recordings RR-115 | 68'40"
In the carousel of guest conductors at the podium of the National Symphony Orchestra this season, this week's contestant may not appear to rank high on the list, but think again. Michael Stern has done yeoman's work as a guest conductor, earning part-time positions over the years with the Orchestre National de Lille, the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the Orchestre National de Lyon. Since 2005, Stern has been music director of the Kansas City Symphony, where he has garnered plaudits from critics, not least for his recordings with that ensemble. (Stern is also the son of legendary violinist Isaac Stern, although he does not trade on his family connections.) Michael Stern's earnest musicianship is noteworthy in a world of superstar conductors, and he is known for speaking warmly and admirably, as someone with impeccable East Coast credentials (studies at Harvard and the Curtis Institute, where his mentor was Max Rudolf), about the potential of a small-name orchestra (founded only in 1982) in what some might call "flyover territory" (as a Midwestern expatriate myself, I do not approve of the term).

The programming idea of Stern's debut disc with the Kansas City Symphony is ingenious, pairing two rather different sets of incidental music for Shakespeare's play The Tempest. True, Arthur Sullivan's set of seven movements, composed when he was only 19 years old, would not have been my first choice for the odd rarity slot, not with choices like John Weldon's music for the Dryden/D'Avenant adaptation (once attributed to Purcell) or Matthew Locke's for the Shadwell version or even Tchaikovsky's overture. Sullivan excelled as a melodist, and these little introductions to various scenes of the play are amiable and varied, but a great work it is not.

Direct comparison of the still-teenage Sullivan's attempt with the masterful suites of incidental music by Sibelius (some of this music was played by the NSO in 2005), then in his 60s and a veteran orchestrator, is just not fair. Stern shows a clear and sensitive hand in both works, with the alternately restrained and ebullient Sibelius showing exceptional promise for the Finnish composer's second symphony, on this week's schedule with the NSO. The Kansas City players acquit themselves nobly, with the only quibble being the lengthy reverb of the recording venue, the Community of Christ Auditorium in Independence, Mo. The acoustic, which rings in the silence after attacks or held chords, is cavernous, creating an effect on the CD that sounds almost canned.

See Michael Stern in action for yourself, beginning this evening and continuing through Saturday evening, at the helm of the National Symphony Orchestra tonight (7 pm), tomorrow afternoon (1:30 pm), and Saturday evening (8 pm). He will conduct two 20th-century symphonies, Barber's first and Sibelius's second, neither heard often enough, and Emanuel Ax will join for Beethoven's second piano concerto.


before cinema said...


Evan Tucker said...

I dearly love Sibelius 2, as all music lovers should. But if it isn't heard often enough, what then do we say about Sibelius 3 or 6?

Charles T. Downey said...

Agreed, but we'll take any Sibelius we can get. Looking back over the last few years, we have heard Sibelius 1, 4, 5, and 7 in concert -- and that's between Washington and Munich, and 1 and 7 more than once, but still not what I would call frequently. No 3, no 6, and also no 2.

Eric Williams said...

Listen to the Kansas City Symphony's latest CD with Stern...Britten's Orchestra (Reference Recordings RR120), released in November 09. The cavernous acoustic of Community of Christ Auditorium is put to exceptional use in Sinfonia da Requiem and Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes.

Charles T. Downey said...

I have been listening to it, and the acoustic is much better managed. Review forthcoming.