A Prelude to War

The KC Symphony notes the World War I centennial in its 2014-15 season.

   There had been wars before, and there were wars after. But nothing quite approximates the cataclysmic events of World War I, a period of tremendous political and economic upheaval that was also a global game-changer for music.

   Even in the two decades before the war, it's almost as though the great composers of the day knew what was coming. And it's their music that the Kansas City Symphony is revisiting in accordance with the World War I centennial.

   "The artistic landscape not only reflected the change that World War I was part of, it actually presaged it," says the symphony's conductor, Michael Stern. "So the whole point of our season is less about World War I than it is the ramp-up to World War I and how the world was already falling apart."

   French impressionism is duly represented as five of the Kansas City Symphony's first seven concerts include music by Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel or both.

   On the opening weekend Sept. 12-14, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato returns to her native Kansas City to sing Ravel’s three-song cycle "Shéhérazade." The season will also include Ravel's "La valse," "Rapsodie espagnole," "Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2" and Debussy's "Clair de lune," "La mer" and the gorgeous "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.”

   The Jan. 9-11 program includes the era’s groundbreaking sensation, Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," a piece that elicited a riotous reaction from the audience at its 1913 premiere in Paris. Books and scholarly articles have been written on how this masterpiece anticipated the horrors of World War I.

   "The really extraordinary thing about that piece is that it absolutely doesn't submit to any kind of old form. So music doesn't unfold in any kind of developmental way," Stern says. “For a piece to be able to hold together, that sort of blew apart what music writing had been.”

   Gustav Mahler is not neglected either this season as the orchestra performs his Fifth Symphony, which was composed at the turn of the 20th century. Mahler symphonies are not exercises in brevity, but they are sonic marvels that pack an emotional wallop.

   What Stern finds incredible about the 20-year span between 1895 and 1915 is the density of great composers.

   "You can talk about Brahms and Wagner and Mendelssohn," he says, "but in our modern world, never has there been such a concentration of genius as there was when you had Mahler, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Debussy, Ravel, de Falla, Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Holst, all of these people from completely different cultures writing completely different music. And you could go on any given night in Paris, Rome or London, and listen to contemporary music, and it would be all of those names, and it would be all different, and all of it reflective of that moment in history. I find that pretty amazing."