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A wand-man called Fisch: Symphony, Eaglen sound terrific with guest conductor

Asher Fisch
The Kansas City Star

I'll tell you what March madness is: the fact that only half of the Lyric Theatre's 1,650 seats were filled at Saturday's Kansas City Symphony concert.

Anyone who missed this one is mad as a hatter.

One of the top Wagnerian sopranos of our time teamed with one of the great young Wagner conductors for a concert that made the Symphony sound as good as it ever has.

If this group isn't quite ready for the big leagues, it's pretty darn close.

So whether it was college basketball or cloudy skies that kept people away from the Lyric Theatre, somebody needs to get the message across that Michael Stern is not the only reason to go to the Symphony.

Guest conductor Asher Fisch led the group - swollen to 100 players or so - with sympathetic command that was apparent at every turn. The Symphony returned the favor by playing with uncommon ease and ebullience.

The program's themes of mourning and death looked a tad contrived on paper, and I wondered whether Haydn's "Trauersinfonie" really belonged on it. But Fisch's full-bodied approach made me a believer.

Phrases were well-sculpted but not overly precious, and climaxes were approached with assertiveness that never strained.

In the canonic Menuetto, I was taken with how closely the cellos and basses imitated the exact articulation of the violins. The finale was the embodiment of "sturm und drang." This was honest Haydn from someone who obviously loves it.

Dressed in a gown blazing with black and red, Eaglen took to the stage for three excerpts from Berg's "Wozzeck" - the lullaby, the Bible scene and the chilling finale.

Her rich, muscular but plush voice shimmered with color and took on the full range of Marie's wrenching emotions. The orchestra's diaphanous, chamber-like rendering of Berg's intricate textures was remarkable.

The Symphony sounded even better in the second half, which began with "Siegfried's Rhine Journey" and "Siegfried's Funeral March" from "Twilight of the Gods."

Fisch's focus on details of balance and flow made this huge orchestra sound utterly transparent. As the "Rhine Journey" was coming to an end, Eaglen walked slowly onstage for the opera's final "Immolation Scene," in which Brünnhilde goes up in smoke and seems happy to do so.

With good reason, Eaglen is one of the great Brünnhildes: Her voice contains everything you need for this vaunted character. It can turn from anguish to anger, passion to pensiveness, fear to bliss on a dime.

The top of the voice is perhaps a tad diminished, but there's something elemental about her lower and middle range.

And the warmth of her final embrace of Siegfried ("To clasp him to me, to be held fast in his arms, to be united with him by the power of love!") was something you could feel, palpably.

This was a great moment in this orchestra's history.