Gershwin Stands Out: American Music at Tanglewood’s Opening Night

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George Gershwin
George Gershwin

The Boston Symphony Orchestra
at Tanglewood,
July 3, 2015.
conducted by Jacques Lacombe
with Kirill Gerstein, piano and John Douglas Thompson, narrator.

Harbison – “Remembering Gatsby”
Gershwin – Concerto in F
Copland, “A Lincoln Portrait”; Duke Ellington, “Harlem”. J

George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto overshadowed works by three other American composers in the opening Boston Symphony concert at Tanglewood on Friday night (July 3). Those included John Harbison, whose “Remembering Gatsby” began the program with its oxymoronic mixture of modern symphonic angst and ‘20’s pop enthusiasm; Aaron Copland represented by “Lincoln Portrait,” whose evocative score forms the background to a series of political utterances the contemporary significance of which was underscored by the austere and effectively harsh delivery by John Douglas Thompson (replacing an indisposed Jessye Norman); and an overblown orchestral version of Duke Ellington’s tone poem “Harlem.”

I’ve always felt that the Concerto in F (as it is usually listed) does not get the recognition it deserves as Gershwin’s most extended abstract symphonic work. It is an assured work from beginning to end, with ingenious and effective orchestration and a structure that manages to balance the episodic nature of the jazz- and blues-based idiom with the integrative requirements of large-scale classical form. Unlike “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Concerto in F” was orchestrated by Gershwin himself and it was much admired by another brilliant orchestrator, the English composer William Walton. One expects the piano part to be brilliant and effective; in fact it encompasses a much wider range of moods and textures than the “Rhapsody” and develops the piano as a multi-faceted personality. One could metaphorize the character of the piano here as a kind of biographical study of a protagonist undergoing a full range of human experiences from longing, struggle, and tragedy, to ecstasy, and returning to a robust engagement with life; but such external references are unnecessary (as they are in any successful musical form) to a thorough immersion in the solo music of this work. Less expected is the full-throated symphonic nature of this concerto; the orchestra occupies front and center to a greater degree than in many a Mozart concerto and certainly more than most romantic war-horses. The trumpet virtually takes over the second movement in some of the most eloquent passages of the work; the development of its melodic material reaches greater emotional depths than its younger cousin, the solo trumpet theme from “American in Paris.” The rapid-fire interchanges between the toccata figures of the piano and orchestra are brilliantly conceived and very challenging to the orchestral musicians.

Gershwin achieves a truly satisfying synthesis of all of his stylistic sources: popular song, jazz, theater music, and abstract symphonism. Most impressive is his control over the large shape of his piece—the balance of the three movements is flawless, and the internal shape of the quite complex first movement works well, and must have been very tricky to achieve. One trait (I almost wrote “trick”) is to build up to a powerful chord and stop dead, producing an anxious silence that is then filled by a quiet meditation by the solo piano. The understanding of the basic dichotomy inherent in the concerto form matches Beethoven’s in the slow movement of his Fourth Piano Concerto. That all this was produced only one year after the Rhapsody indicates an astonishing growth of technique, ambition, and expressive depth, a result of Gershwin’s immersion in the study of harmony, counterpoint, form and orchestration undertaken right after receiving the commission for this work immediately following on the premier of the Rhapsody.

The Tanglewood performance certainly took this work seriously; in a program that might have been mistaken for that of a pops concert, the broad emotional scope of the solo part was fully inhabited by the wonderful pianist Kirill Gerstein whose dual training in classical and jazz repertory uniquely qualifies. His rhapsodic and improvisatory approach (including what appeared to be actual improvisation during the cadenzas) distinguished this from other fine performances. It also created a challenge for the excellent conductor, Jacques Lacombe, to follow the piano’s subtle fluctuations of tempo, one that was not always achieved with precise coordination. That along with an unrestrained orchestral rendition of the tutti passages with piano meant that in many places one saw the soloist working manfully at the keyboard without quite being able to hear the result. This created a kind of drama in itself, with the sensitive soloist being drowned out by the rambunctious crowd. Individually the orchestral soloists acquitted themselves well, especially the trumpet player; but there were a few places that reminded listeners that Gershwin’s rhythmic vocabulary incorporates the accents of non-classical idioms that cannot be indicated by notation alone, and that players need to feel intuitively. It is hard for me to imagine that the orchestra had enough time to work with the soloist to match his subtle, personal interpretation of this idiom.

I have to say that the rest of the program failed to provide comparable satisfactions. It is always good to hear Copland’s orchestral works; he never fails to deliver precisely calibrated sounds and emotions, and “Lincoln Portrait” is full of wonderful moments. The trick is to make individual moments link up to form a single trajectory in concert with the text, which was well-chosen by Copland; in the best performance, one should get goose-bumps from the Lincoln quotes, despite any intellectual reservations one might have about their patriotic sentiments. (My reservations involve Lincoln’s confidence in progress, in the ability of humans​ to evolve away from their more selfish impulses, and the capacity of the nation to properly value its ideal of democracy. John Douglas Thompson’s enunciation of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” sounded like an admonition to listeners who are still waiting 152 years later to put that goal into practice.) Whether it was the musicians’ own doubts about the text or the conditions of rehearsal and performance, the pièce d’occasion seemed to lack a sense of occasion, unless it was a reminder that only two weeks ago nine black people were murdered by a racist terrorist in a South Carolina church—not an occasion for the soaring optimism for which Copland strove.

A final word about Duke Ellington’s “Harlem.” This was a piece composed for the Ellington band, surely one of the most unique ensembles ever assembled. Although Ellington did write other works for orchestra, this was still intended for his own group; the arrangement and rearrangement was the work of Luther Henderson and John Mauceri. The idea, I guess, was to honor Ellington by giving his music a form that would allow it the “honor” of being included in big orchestral concerts such as this one. It turns out that it is a bad idea; the inflation of its gestures required by an ensemble four times the original size produced an awkward, grotesque work full of gestures that went way over the top, essentially a caricature of the original. Upon reviewing Ellington’s own recording of the work, two things are clear: first, the work itself is not one of his best, but second, its virtues rely on the individuality and energy of the players, which are lost in the massed forces of the arrangement. The best way to honor this musician is to recognize that his greatness lies in the unique collaborative fusion of personnel, performance, and composition that gives his music its individual stamp.

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