Improvisation brings new colors to 'Rhapsody in Blue' Music: Pianist Marcus Roberts takes fascinating musical detours within Gershwin's work.

May 19, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The word "improvisation" derives from the Latin improvisus ("unforeseen") and ex improviso ("without preparation") and musically denotes the art of a completely spontaneous performance.

In Western music -- practically up to the advent of recorded sound -- improvisation was all but indistinguishable from the craft of composition. Long before they became famous as "composers," musicians as various as J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Saint-Saens and Bruckner first made their names as extraordinary improvisers. Chopin, it is said, never played anything the same way twice.

In Western music -- except for jazz -- improvisation has fallen into disfavor. But anyone who ever heard Arthur Rubinstein brazen his way out of a major memory slip knows how valuable such an ability can be to a performer.

This came to mind Sunday afternoon when pianist Marcus Roberts performed two of Gershwin's pieces for piano and orchestra ("Rhapsody in Blue" and " 'I Got Rhythm' Variations") in Meyerhoff Hall with the Baltimore Symphony and conductor Daniel Hege. Although "classically" trained, Roberts is primarily a jazz pianist and composer. He is, therefore, a musician to whom improvisation is not only a living, but also an essential art.

The results in the "Rhapsody in Blue" were fascinating. This is the first symphonic piece to use the blues idiom, "making," as one of Gershwin's contemporaries remarked, "an honest woman out of jazz." While Roberts played many of Gershwin's notes, his improvisations on the composer's melodies and harmonies made the listener a time traveler, taking him forward in time to Louis Armstrong, Duke Eliington, Thelonious Monk and Errol Garner.

But Roberts also took listeners on a tour of Gershwin's classical antecedents: echoes of Beethoven, Rachmaninov, Debussy and Ravel were to be heard in his improvisations. The performance approached being a lesson, albeit a delightful one, in music history.

If Roberts' performance of the variations on "I Got Rhythm" (from the song of that name in the composer's Broadway show, "Girl Crazy") was less successful, that is because this is a less familiar work in which improvisation prevents listeners from concentrating on Gershwin's own brilliant variations on this ingeniously intricate, yet disarmingly simple song.

Hege and the orchestra gave the pianist fine accompaniments, as well as giving the audience vibrant accounts of Gershwin's "Cuban Overture" and "An American in Paris."

BSO announces schedule

The BSO has announced its annual Summer MusicFest schedule. Pinchas Zukerman, in his second season as Summer MusicFest's artistic director, has made the festival more genuinely festival-like with an increased emphasis on chamber music. He has included such masterpieces as Mozart's "Divertimento" in E-flat (the greatest work ever composed for violin-viola-cello trio); Schubert's "Trout Quintet," the most popular piece of chamber music ever written; and Beethoven's dramatic String Quartet in F Minor, the appropriately nicknamed "Serioso."

There will also be several new faces in Summer MusicFest: Leon Fleisher, performing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12; the brilliant 15-year-old Helen Huang, performing Beethoven's Concerto No. 1; Cecile Licad, making a much anticipated return to active concertizing; soprano Arianna Zukerman, singing Schubert and Mozart; and the young violinist Anne Estelle Medouze, a violin student of Zukerman's, playing Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto.

The dates and programs:

June 18 -- "A Night in Old Vienna," featuring Strauss Polkas and Waltzes, with Daniel Hege, conductor, and Linda Mabbs, soprano.

June 20 -- All-Mozart program, with Zukerman (conductor, violin and viola), Fleisher (piano), Arianna Zukerman (soprano), Ariel Shamai (violin) and Gary Hoffman (cello).

June 24 -- All-Schubert program, with Zukerman, Arianna Zukerman, Licad (piano), Shamai (violin), Hoffman and Robert Barney (double bass).

June 26 -- All-Beethoven program, with Zukerman and Huang (piano).

July 1 -- All-Tchaikovsky program, with Zukerman and Medouze (violin).

All concerts begin at 7: 30 p.m. at Meyerhoff Hall and are followed by conversation with the artists and dancing outside the hall.

Further information, series subscriptions (priced from $40.50- $185) and single tickets ($22-$37) can be obtained from the Meyerhoff box office by phone (410-783-8000) or on line (www.baltimoresymphony.org).

Pub Date: 5/19/98

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