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Oregon Symphony reviews: immigrant songs

Fall concerts include a world premiere theatrical commission and 20th century works by immigrant American composers

An orchestra handles like a steamship, where a jazz band (even a big one) handles like a motorboat, and genre-crossing tends to breed monsters as much as angels. What kind of hybrid might the Oregon Symphony Orchestra produce in performing George Gershwin’s jazz-meets-classical  Rhapsody in Blue alongside Arnold Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto and a newly commissioned play-with-orchestra last November?

As it turned out, soloist Kirill Gerstein’s clever two-concerto gambit smoothly navigated the tricky course, chiefly by virtue of his own witty and informed virtuosity (he actually began his career as a jazz pianist). Throughout Rhapsody in Blue, he made a point of emphasizing the most avant-garde, “outside” sounding notes, as if to say “speaking of atonality, you ever notice how edgy this note is?” I’d heard my share of the Rhapsody already this year, but Gerstein’s performance made it fresh for me. Any decent concert pianist can finger their way through the tricky bits, and any hack can hammer out those iconically familiar themes, but it takes a special artist to improvise something completely new in the middle of a revered classic. Gerstein’s choice to solo in an especially outré and swinging way, stretching surreal blues licks all around a steady left hand groove, sounded quite legitimately like the sort of thing I’d expect to hear in one of the old-fashioned jazz clubs that Portland keeps closing. It’s the sort of musical witticism and daring that makes veteran jazz audiences chuckle knowingly over their martinis. I’m not sure how well it went over with the symphony crowd, but I loved it.

Gerstein, Kalmar and the orchestra delivered dynamite Gershwin and Schoenberg. Photo: Leah Nash.

My only real complaint is the usual one: Rhapsody in Blue, again? Gershwin composed his perfectly lovely (and considerably more classical) Concerto in F the following year, and I’d rather have heard that one for the first time than Rhapsody in Blue for the hundredth. To be perfectly frank, at this point Ellington’s version is about all we really need.

Where Gerstein brought out Gershwin’s modernity, he brought out what jazziness he could find latent in the Schoenberg. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what he was doing to make it sound so much more immediate and clubby than, say, Pierre Boulez’s excellent recording with Mitsuko Uchida (or his earlier one with Daniel Barenboim). I dunno, maybe just putting these two on the same program was enough to prime my ear for the connections. Conductor Carlos Kalmar certainly reinforced the relationship in the audience’s mind, joking about Gershwin and Schoenberg’s famous tennis partnership in 1930s Hollywood and reminding us of Gershwin’s early connections to the European avant-garde.

Kalmar also joked, when explaining the unorthodox program order, that we should not leave the premises “after the Schoenberg, nor before the Schoenberg, nor during the Schoenberg.” It’s a pretty audacious move putting Big Bad Schoenberg on any program, and although the OSO and their audience are pretty open minded, the Godfather of Horror Music ranks pretty high on the list of Forbidden Composers. The presence of Gershwin—and the stirring, heartfelt performance of the Prokofiev concert opener—smoothed all that over, recontextualized the music as different sides of a story about American immigrants, and made it all considerably more palatable. Hell, I like Schoenberg a lot and this was probably my favorite live performance of his music to date.

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