Jazz/classical works showcase music of Gershwin, Bernstein
By Ruth Bingham
Special to The Advertiser
By Ruth Bingham
There has always been music in America, but American music really came into its own in classical genres only in the 20th century. At Friday s concert, the Honolulu Symphony featured two of America's most emblematic composers: George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein.
Gershwin and Bernstein made a congenial pair: both walked the line between classical and popular idioms and both incorporated jazz, not just as a surface color, as so many did, but as an integral element permeating all aspects of their styles. Audiences sometimes confuse the two, but juxtaposed, as in Friday's concert, their differences became marked: Gershwin, one of the earliest to merge classical and jazz, rougher, more sectional, and Bernstein smoother, less self-conscious, more technically adept.
Friday's featured work was Gershwin's "Piano Concerto," composed in 1925, when Gershwin was only 27 years old, about the same age as the featured pianist, Ian Parker.
Originally from Canada and a graduate of Juilliard School of Music now living in New York, Parker sailed through the Concerto as if he had written it. Parker exhibited a strong affinity for jazz idioms and excelled in Gershwin s fast, light, syncopated passages. Particularly beautiful were his cadenzas and his interplay with the orchestra — his syncopated commentary against the orchestra's legato melody in the first movement, his handing off of his solo to the strings in the second movement, and the musical adrenaline ride of the third.
For Parker, an amiable, laid-back performer, the most challenging aspect of the concerto was surely Gershwin's inexpert scoring, which is more easily adjusted in recording studios than on stage. In virtually every fortissimo climax on Friday, the orchestra swallowed the piano whole, leaving no audible trace. If Parker was as good in the fortissimo passages as he was in the quiet ones, he holds much promise as a Gershwin interpreter.
Jazz and classical idioms are very different, yet both essential to understanding American music and American history. Over the course of the century, jazz slowly shed its controversy, a controversy that arose in racial conflict, yes, but revolved around jazz's visceral nature.
Compared to European classical music, jazz was emotionally raw, exposed, with no pretense of manners. Its physicality — its sounds and rhythms rooted in dance, in bodies living, loving, and dying — engendered no inconsiderable amount of Puritan discomfiture.
But it was jazz, and specifically that raw, emotional aspect of jazz, that audiences embraced and that helped erode racial conflict. Who plays these jazz/classical works, how and how well, has everything to do with the state of America.
The two Bernstein works, three dance episodes from "On the Town" and the suite from "On the Waterfront," featured the orchestra. "Waterfront" is not often heard, which is unfortunate, as it is an exciting, compact suite with a stunning middle section, echo-y and lonely, beautifully played by the strings. Composed for a film, much of it is mood music of the 1950s film noir style.
Colorfully written and full of solos, both works showcased numerous musicians. Of particular note on Friday were the percussion section in the third dance episode and throughout "Waterfront," Wade Butin (French horn) in solos on and off stage, and trombonist William Zehfuss and flutist Susan McGinn in "Waterfront."
Several musicians soloed not only in the Bernstein works, but also in the final blockbuster, Gershwin s ever-popular "American in Paris." Saxophonist Todd Yukumoto joined the orchestra for the evening, which had several in the audience trying to identify the unusual sound, and principal trumpeter Michael Zonshine contributed a number of lovely solos, especially the high, smoky keening in "American in Paris." Delightful solos included those by David Saltzman (tuba), James Moffitt (bass clarinet), Jason Sudduth (English horn), and concertmaster Ignace Jang (violin).
James Paul proved to be a genial conductor, unprepossessing and down-to-earth. He did not attempt grand reinterpretations, but presented good music, played faithfully and well.
Occasional sloppy entrances, phasing, and problems with balance intruded at times, but on the whole, Paul elicited solid ensemble and genuine engagement in the music. As a performer, Paul's focus was less on impressing the audience than on conducting the musicians.
At the end, he laid his lei across the scores, in honor of the music.
Correction: Honolulu Symphony Orchestra performer Wade Butin, who plays French horn, was misidentified in a previous version of this story.