BSO, Thibaudet play Gershwin with zestful authenticity

November 14, 2009|By Tim Smith | tim.smith@baltsun.com

A big trend in classical music over the past several decades is historical authenticity, the attempt to re-create how works sounded when they were new. This usually involves repertoire from distant centuries, but pieces from relatively recent times can come in for the authentic treatment, too. A case in point is the latest Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program, devoted entirely to George Gershwin.

This presentation, conducted by Marin Alsop and showcasing the superb French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, does raise an interesting question about the whole historic reclamation business.

It's one thing to re-create the original scoring for Gershwin's celebrated "Rhapsody in Blue." But what about reviving an orchestration of the Concerto in F that Gershwin didn't prepare or approve, but was written by the same guy who did that first version of the "Rhapsody"? Where's an ethicist when you really need one?

The story of the "Rhapsody" is well-known. Gershwin had only a few weeks to create something for the "Experiment in Modern Music" concert in 1924 given by Paul Whiteman's band in New York, so the composer gladly accepted the help of Whiteman's arranger, Ferde Grofé.

The result was a lean, very colorful, orchestration - lots of woodwinds and brass, banjo, bass, an extra piano, percussion and about 10 violins. Grofé subsequently prepared a symphonic orchestration, with all the usual strings, which is how we most often encounter the "Rhapsody."

In 1925, when Gershwin was commissioned to write a piano concerto, he did the orchestration himself, and he did so with flair, fashioning a rich tonal fabric to support the solo instrument. Three years later, Whiteman asked Grofé to prepare a jazz orchestra version of the Concerto in F, with more or less the same instrumental configuration of that first "Rhapsody." Gershwin reportedly took offense. His original concept, understandably, is the one that has lasted.

Alsop recorded Grofé's long-forgotten 1928 arrangement almost 20 years ago, and she has returned to it now, with enthusiastic support from Thibaudet. Hearing this version of the concerto on the same evening as the "Rhapsody" in its original guise makes for a fascinating experience.

On Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, it was easy to accept both pieces as "authentic," at least in the sense of capturing a 1920s jazz flavor. The "Rhapsody" always seems more real in the first version, anyway, especially when it reaches the big, lyrical theme, which can sound too syrupy in the lusher orchestration.

And the keyboard solo can come across as even more spontaneous than usual when heard against the jazz orchestra, which was the case Thursday as Thibaudet charged into the "Rhapsody" with an almost giddy, even reckless energy. Some notes disappeared in the blur when the pianist hit warp-speed, but the playing was otherwise as precise as it was fresh and instinctive.

Alsop offered tight support, but did not always get as much snap out of the ensemble as the pianist was producing. Steven Barta delivered the famous sliding clarinet solo with panache.

Thibaudet proved just as impressive in the concerto, full of bravura and idiomatic style, and enjoyed a supple collaboration with Alsop and a vivid complement of players. Andrew Balio shaped the trumpet solo in the Adagio warmly.

The effect of the Grofé orchestration was striking, especially the slightly dissonant rumbles in the opening of the first movement, and the sensual spice of saxophones.

It can be argued that the Grofé arrangement undercuts the point of the concerto, one of Gershwin's most important demonstrations of how the symphonic idiom could be fused with jazz to create modern classical music. Without the full orchestral sound he crafted, it's a different piece. Still a great one, and a fun alternative to hear.

Issues of authenticity don't arise with the composer's "I Got Rhythm" Variations. There is only one version (as far as I know), and it's all Gershwin. It's a slight work, more about the art of arranging than thematic development, but it's entertaining. Thibaudet, Alsop and company gave it a sparkling workout.

The BSO rounded the evening off with the overtures to two great Gershwin musicals, "Girl Crazy" and "Of Thee I Sing." Alsop had both flowing brightly - and sounding thoroughly authentic.

If you go
The BSO performs at 8 tonight at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; and 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $25 to $90. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.

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