The Houston Symphony program notes billed last Friday night's Woodlands concert as An American Celebration. In honor of Leonard Bernstein's 80th and George Gershwin's 102nd birthday anniversaries, there were free cupcakes for everyone in the Woodlands Plaza. A nice little public-relations touch. But after the sun went down and everyone seemed to cool off, including the short-sleeved musicians, guest conductor David Lockington and the symphony gave the audience a taste of something genuine.
The concert included a medley of well-known pieces by Bernstein, Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Duke Ellington. Most of the instrumentals were as familiar as they were famous, and by now, some of the pieces have probably been too highly commercialized by the same entertainment venues that taught us to recognize them: Hollywood movies, the Broadway stage, and maybe a few smoky nightclubs now and then.
Bernstein's "Overture to Candide" from the comic operetta was a perfect start -- Voltaire's 18th-century satire scored to music -- about a naive young man who wanders around the world, convinced that things always happen for a reason. Smug in his assurance that God makes the good and the bad, he soon learns that man has pretty much botched up the planet on his own. The overture contains some playful string melodies, reminding us of the of the hero's disillusionment. Always a popular choice with orchestras, the overture contains hidden technical complexities. This symphony's performance was superb.
Although the New York Philharmonic first performed Gershwin's "An American in Paris" on December 13, 1928, at Carnegie Hall, it's hard to imagine the upbeat opening without seeing Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron fall in love and dance their way through the French streets. The symphony began its version with the familiar fast staccato of violins evoking the streets of Paris, Gershwin's inspiration for this composition. Those violins are soon mocked by horns and then by tubas, and the orchestra is enhanced by sounds of taxi horns, all scattered in pitch. (The latter were Gershwin's personal touch; he reportedly brought four taxi horns home from Paris to inject the piece with the feel of real streets.)
This first section was very fine until it settled into the slower blues progression. I'm accustomed to the James Levine/Chicago Symphony CD; by comparison, this live version's slower, middle movements seemed to drag, until the opening melody was reprised.
"An American in Paris" was a satisfying finale, but not nearly as satisfying as Gershwin's "Piano Concerto in F Major," which came right before the intermission. Oddly, this dissonant, less-familiar piece hearkens back to the rich, sad strains of "Rhapsody in Blue." According to Lockington, in 1924, after "Rhapsody" became a smash hit, the New York Philharmonic Society commissioned Gershwin to compose a concerto. After he signed the contract, he went in search of a theory book. He wasn't sure what a concerto was.
"Concerto in F," composed of three differently paced, jazz-infused movements, featured 22-year-old Orli Shaham on the piano. (Some audience members had likely heard her before on A Prairie Home Companion.) During the opening Allegro, Shaham warmed to the lively, discordant jazz rhythms. In fact, she got so warmed up, she looked hot. Her bodily gyrations got loose and steamy, and if I squinted my eyes so as to shut out everyone else but her, she looked like a classic lounge act, undulating her back while her fingers beautifully manipulated the composer's trills. She even rocked to the orchestra between piano solos.
At the end of the first movement, Shaham and Lockington graciously acknowledged the audience's wild clapping despite the disruption in the flow between movements. I was as guilty as the rest, practically shouting "bravo" before I realized Lockington still had his arms in the air, poised to start the second movement. Oh, well. Houston and Woodlands audiences don't get out much for classical concerts, so we ought to be forgiven for applause between movements.
The second movement of "Concerto in F" -- Adagio-Andante con moto -- was my favorite. It included a number of solo melodies -- by Shaham, first violinist Uri Pianka, and the exquisitely plangent horn section so reminiscent of the horns in some of the slower, melancholy strains of "Rhapsody." Lockington barely paused at this movement's end, slipping quickly, before the gladclappers could shatter the second of silence, into the fast-paced concluding Allegro agitato. Shaham, Lockington, and the orchestra were solidly in sync by this time, giving a splendidly robust buildup to the breathtaking finale.
During the third movement, Shaham was energized -- and it was here that she stole the show, smashing those upper-octave, quintessentially Gershwin chords, and cranking up that familiar repetitive discord, nerve-rackingly distinct against the shouting of the full orchestra. At the same time, these chords seemed drowned by the orchestra.
When this piece was over and ovations finished, everyone, including the orchestra, was sufficiently revved up for Ellington's big-band experimentation from the ballet The River. Originally composed in 1970 for the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, the two featured selections innovatively combine jazz and symphonic music. The symphony's performance of "Lake" was as placid as "Giggling Rapids" was soulful. Midway through the latter, Lockington seemed to rock a little more than usual on his conductor's platform, taking us just for a minute away from that huge outdoor amphitheater into a livelier, more intimate, toe-tapping realm where we could imagine leaning elbows on white tablecloths and sipping a dry, double martini.
Selections from Copland's film score for The Red Pony were a nice touch. Everyone knows the Steinbeck story of the young California boy presented with a horse. In "The Gift," the violins sing almost mournfully. In "The Happy Ending," the score's finale, the orchestra was solid. What we actually heard Friday was part of a concert suite commissioned by the Houston Symphony, under conductor Efrem Kurtz. According to the program notes, not many people heard the original movie score Copland was asked to write in 1948, for Lewis Milestone's film starring Myrna Loy and Robert Mitchum.
Lockington obviously enjoyed himself in this debut with the symphony. Coming to us as music director of the New Mexico Symphony and the Long Island Philharmonic, it seemed unusual and refreshing to see the Great Britain native so emotionally connected to this particular repertoire. He introduced each composer with lovable tributes and historical tidbits.
Lockington told of Gershwin, before his music became more widely known, approaching his great Russian-born contemporary, Igor Stravinsky, to ask for formal music instruction. At the time, Gershwin was doing some work for Sam Goldwyn in Hollywood. Stravinsky responded by asking him how much money he had made the previous year. When Gershwin told him, Stravinsky replied, "Perhaps I should be studying under you." At another point, Gershwin made a similar request of Arnold Schoenberg, his tennis partner at the time. Schoenberg supposedly replied, "Why do you want to be a second-rate Schoenberg when you're already a first-rate Gershwin?"
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That we can still hear stories like that, even third-hand, is fortunate. None of the symphony's featured composers was terribly far removed from our own era. There were a lot of folks walking around the Pavillion last Friday who still remember when "An American in Paris" was released in 1951. And it will be a long while before generations forget the virile Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic.
It's easy to feel distant at a concert of European masters; you're so culturally removed in both space and time. The Woodlands concert brought home the ingeniousness of American musical innovation -- a unique orchestral blend of modern and classical musical idioms. And we're that much luckier that these hybrid forms, particularly those influenced by jazz, translate so well to the stage and screen, where they remain immortalized for the masses who'll never set foot inside a Carnegie or Jones Hall.
The Houston Symphony will perform Beethoven's "Piano Concerto No. 2" and Dvorak's "Symphony No. 9," From the New World at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 11, at Jones Hall.
This performance features Conductor Christoph Eschenbach in the dual role of pianist and conductor in his last opening night with the Houston Symphony. For more information, call 224-7575.