Jazz in the hall
Symphony opens season with dazzling Rhapsody in Blue
The highlight of the North State Symphony’s 2012-13 season-opening concert at Laxson Auditorium Sunday (Sept. 23), its performance of George Gershwin’s path-breaking 1924 work, Rhapsody in Blue, was also the shortest of the three selections on the Experience the Beat program. The piece is less than 20 minutes long, but it seems much larger, thanks to its thematic richness and complexity. Gershwin himself spoke of it as “a musical kaleidoscope of America,” and that it is.
The guest soloist was pianist Spencer Myer, and he was splendid. A graduate of The Juilliard School, he has played with many prestigious orchestras around the world. His Chico appearance was made possible by a grant from Joseph and Judy Chiapella.
Before the performance, Myer joined symphony conductor Kyle Wylie Pickett for his customary pre-concert talk in the Rowland-Taylor Recital Hall. Pickett noted that Rhapsody was the first piece to bring jazz into the symphony hall, and Myer talked about how important it is for a pianist to find the right balance between the harshness of percussion and the soft touch that fosters a more lyrical, flowing sound. He found that balance beautifully Sunday afternoon.
The orchestra responded in kind. From my spot in the balcony, there seemed to be a marvelous communication taking place among Myer, Pickett and the orchestra. Together they made a tune that easily could have suffered from audience over-familiarity into something fresh and delightful—for which they were rewarded with a standing ovation.
For an encore, Myer performed reworkings of two Gershwin songs, “The Man I Love” and “I Got Rhythm,” from Earl Wild’s Seven Virtuoso …tudes on Popular Songs. These were indeed virtuoso pieces, dazzling displays of technique under whose blanket of sound Gershwin’s familiar melodies could be heard, as if longing to burst forth. The audience loved it.
The concert’s opening work was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No. 2, which is anything but jazzy, though it’s certainly a lively work, and strains of American folk music can be heard in places. A collection of short pieces—marches, several waltzes, a polka—it made for a fun, uptempo opening performance.
That was followed by the Gershwin. Then, after intermission, the orchestra performed Antonín Dvorák’s popular Symphony No. 9: From the New World. It was written in 1893, while Dvorák and his family were living in New York. He once said that he’d employed African-American spirituals in the work, but he later denied having done so. Either way, Americans have taken it to heart as an emblematic work.
Perhaps its most popular movement is the Second, the “Largo,” a lyrical piece that has components of the orchestra (winds, strings) repeating the dominant themes of the symphony in lovely and languorous ways. It’s difficult to play because it is so slow for so long, and any discordance is jarring. I would like to say the orchestra handled it perfectly, but it didn’t. There were several instances when it sounded rough or off, unfortunately.
But that was a minor blemish in what was otherwise a nearly flawless performance overall, and one that utterly thrilled with the Rhapsody.
The rest of the NSS season includes a Vienna-themed production Nov. 10 featuring the overture to Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier Suite and Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, “his dramatic, haunting musical autobiography,” as the program describes it, featuring NSS Concertmaster Terrie Baune as soloist.
The Feb. 24, 2013, performance will feature Honegger’s Symphony No. 4, Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, Mvt. 1, and Mozart’s great final Symphony No. 41, the “Jupiter.”
The season will end with a bang on May 11, 2013, when the NSS will join with the Chico State University Singers and the Shasta College Chorale, along with four vocal soloists, to present Beethoven’s monumental Symphony No. 9.