Conductor con brio

Peter Jaffe brings humor, showmanship to his symphony audition

Peter Jaffe leads the show.

Peter Jaffe leads the show.

Photo by Melanie MacTavish


North State Symphony: Arrive, Sunday, May 10, Laxson Auditorium.

If showmanship were the main criterion for selecting a new music director for the North State Symphony, Peter Jaffe would be a shoo-in for the position.

A big man—he’s well over 6 feet tall—with a big personality, Jaffe was the last of the four finalists in what the symphony is calling its “Season of Discovery,” during which each was asked to audition by selecting and then conducting one of the season’s four programs.

Like the other candidates, Jaffe chose proven crowd-pleasers—in this case, a short symphonic version of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, and Maurice Ravel’s orchestrated version of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

The “Arrive” program was performed Saturday evening in Redding and Sunday afternoon in Chico’s Laxson Auditorium, both times preceded by a talk.

In Jaffe’s case, however, the Chico preview was as much performance as talk, and very funny at that. In the style of the great Danish comedian-pianist Victor Borge, Jaffe infused his “lecture” with humorous piano illustrations and pointedly refused to take himself too seriously, despite his extensive experience (20 years as music director of the Stockton Symphony, for example).

That spirit carried over into the Laxson concert, which opened with the Gershwin piece, arranged by the composer’s friend and assistant, Robert Russell Bennett, in 1942. It manages the remarkable feat of weaving the melodies of 10 popular tunes from Porgy and Bess into a single overture-like musical tapestry.

With songs like “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So,’” the piece is at once familiar and fresh, and the orchestra did a grand job of capturing Bennett’s lush instrumentation. The piece’s blues-infused rhythms at times had Jaffe looking like he was about to break into dance.

This was followed by Beethoven, featuring Chico’s own Natalya Shkoda on piano. In introducing her, Jaffe admiringly noted her “international renown” and “world-class” piano chops, saying that Chico State was blessed to have her on its staff. After which she proceeded to demonstrate the truth of his words with a performance of this dense, complex piece, with its dazzling fingerwork, that earned her (and the orchestra) a standing ovation.

Following intermission, the symphony returned to play the Mussorgsky piece, but not before Jaffe offered a humorous music lesson. Noting that the composition was based on actual pictures (by Mussorgsky’s friend Viktor Hartmann, who recently had died) in an actual exhibition, he had the orchestra play two of its short selections. The first was from “The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks in Their Shells,” the second “The Market at Limoges,” which in fact portrayed two women having a hair-pulling, cat-scratching fight, he said.

In both cases, he acted out the “pictures,” in the former flapping his arms like wings, in the latter pretending to be the fighting women. The audience roared with laughter.

Written for solo piano, Pictures at an Exhibition has subsequently been orchestrated by many famous composers, chief among them Ravel, whose version is the most popular.

The 10 “pictures” in the suite are linked by an alternating five- and six-beat “Promenade” meant to suggest someone walking from picture to picture. Many conductors like to enhance the flow of the music by softening the transitions between “Promenade” and pictures, but Jaffe seemed to prefer to keep them separate, to give each picture its own distinct space.

Pictures famously ends with “The Great Gate of Kiev,” in which Mussorgsky and Ravel give musical shape to Hartmann’s sketch of a monumental city gateway by filling the air with the sounds of pealing bells and brass marches. Hartmann’s sketch was the winning design for a gate to commemorate Tsar Alexander II’s narrow escape from the first of many assassination attempts in 1866, but it was never built. But the music based on Hartmann’s design, one of the great endings in classical music, lives on.

For the second time that evening, the audience rose to give the symphony, and Peter Jaffe, a standing ovation.