The official program for this weekend's symphony concerts featured music by two composers: George Gershwin and John Adams. Although their musical styles could not be more different, they both broke from the musical establishments of their time and carved out their own personal compositional approaches. Gershwin's music is more immediately appealing; Adams's more formal. But hearing them together on the same program made me realize how much they have in common.
Adams was represented by his whimsical "The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra" (composed for and then cut from "Nixon in China") and the local premiere of his brand-new "Saxophone Concerto", a joint commission from the SLSO; the Boston Symphony; the Sao Paulo Symphony; and David Robertson’s Other Orchestra, the Sydney Symphony (where it had its first performance in August). The former got an appropriately charming and even danceable treatment from Mr. Robertson and his forces.
I found the concerto a tough nut to crack from a musical structure standpoint, largely because Adams’s compositional style has now developed to the point where entire movements are constructed from brief motifs (I hesitate to call them themes) that are so closely related it’s often hard to tell them apart. The long first movement of the concerto, for example, unfolds from a short, snappy rising arpeggio for the solo sax. That sense of rapid upward movement remains even when, towards the end, the mood shifts to the kind of sultry nocturne that wouldn’t be out of place in a film noir. The second and final movement—based on a two-note descending figure often embellished with cascades of notes in the solo part—ups the ante with a hyperkinetic solo line that rises to a classic jazz wail just before the final notes.
Quoted in Paul Schiavo's program notes, Adams says that his "lifelong exposure to the great jazz saxophonists" inspired him to write the concerto. And, in fact, it’s easy to hear echoes of Charlie Parker and the other great sax men of the '50s and '60s in this music with its driving beat, call and response sections, and improvisatory feel. It sounds difficult as hell, but the brilliant playing of Timothy McAllister (for whom the work was written) was more than up to the challenge. He may have been dressed for the symphony but his stance—knees bent, head thrust forward in concentration—was that of the jazz soloist entirely wrapped up in the music.
My mental jury is still out on whether the concerto itself warrants repeated hearing, but I have no doubts about the excellence of Mr. McAllister’s performance. Ditto for the symphony under Maestro Robertson. Unlike Mr. McAllister, they haven’t been playing the music for several months now, which made the polish of their sound that much more impressive. A good thing, too, since this weekend’s performances of the concerto were being recorded by Nonesuch for a CD that will include the performance of Adams’s “City Noir” that the orchestra recorded back in February.
The concert opened with Gershwin's "Cuban Overture," a kind of musical postcard of a 1932 trip to Havana. Composers have been drawing on their travels for inspiration for centuries, of course. Mendelssohn's "Hebrides Overture," Tchaikovsky's "Capriccio Italien," Saint-Saëns's "Egyptian" piano concerto—the list goes on and on. Gershwin did them all one better, though. He brought back not only some Afro-Cuban tunes (including Ignacio Piñeiro's "Échale Salsita") but some traditional percussion instruments as well. The haul included a bongo, claves, gourd, and maracas—all of which are prominently featured in this sunny souvenir.
It has been over a decade since the symphony did this piece, but you’d hardly guess that from the high gloss of their performance. The Cuban instruments came through surprisingly well, given that they were embedded with the rest of the percussion section at the back instead of being placed downstage in front of the conductor (as Gershwin requests in the autograph copy of his score).
Closing the official program was Gershwin's 1925 "Concerto in F" with John Kimura Parker at the keyboard. The concerto isn't particularly complex from a purely structural point of view, but I still find it amazing to contemplate that it was written only a year after the far more rudimentary "Rhapsody in Blue." Gershwin's development as a serious composer took place with an almost supernatural rapidity, as though he somehow knew that his life on this planet would be tragically short (he died of a brain tumor just a few months short of his 40th birthday).
As it is, the "Concerto" is a beautifully crafted piece: lean, powerful, without a spare note. Reviewing the December 3, 1925, premiere of the concerto for the New York World, critic Samuel Chotzinoff noted that Gershwin's "shortcomings are nothing in the face of the one thing he alone of all those writing the music of today possesses. He actually expresses us. He is the present, with all its audacity, impertinence, its feverish delight in its motion, its lapses into rhythmically exotic melancholy." You can feel and hear that "jazz age" urgency in every note of this music.
Gershwin was a pretty formidable pianist, so the concerto bristles with technical challenges—none of which were an obstacle for Mr. Parker. Working without a score, he approached this music with an ideal combination of concentration and joy. I wasn’t sure I was going to be equally enthusiastic about Mr. Robertson’s interpretation—I was afraid that his tempo contrasts in the opening measure were going to kill the rhythmic drive—but I needn’t have worried. He made it all work, and brought out some interesting nuances in the process.
There was impressive solo work by members of the orchestra as well as by Mr. Parker. The famous muted blues trumpet solo in the second movement, for example, had all the mournful soul one could hope for in the hands of Karin Bliznik (singled out by Mr. Robertson for a bow during curtain calls), and its later echoes by Mark Sparks (flute) and Barbara Orland (oboe) were also quite effective.
Mr. Parker got spontaneous applause after the spectacular first movement and a “standing O" at the end. He responded with that Joplin piece I mentioned at the top of this review as an encore, describing the great ragtime composer as the "third icon of American music" alongside Gershwin and Adams. It was a romantic, rubato-filled reading that served as a nice contrast to the Gershwin and helped bring the evening back to its Afro-Latin beginnings.
Next on the regular calendar: British violinist Anthony Marwood is both soloist and conductor an all-Mozart program consisting of the “Symphony No. 1” and “Symphony No. 35 (“Haffner)” as well as the 2nd and 3rd violin concertos. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, October 11-13. For ticket information: stlsymphony.org.