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Sparkling: pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

Fascinatin’ Rhythms

By B.A. Nilsson

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 11

Even at this (relatively) late date, George Gershwin’s music tends to keep concert company with so-called pops stuff, itself typically lightweight American fare. Which isn’t the worst thing in the world, but Gershwin’s struggle to get admitted into the “classical academy” is rooted in some canards deftly disproved by last week’s all- Gershwin program at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

He’s termed a tunesmith who, when confronted with opportunities for thematic development, just throws something new at us. But the same has been said of Schubert and Dvoøák, and, anyway it’s just not true, as his Concerto in F nicely demonstrated.

With Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the 88s, the technical requirements of the piece were brilliantly accounted for. The three-movement work, commissioned by the 1925 version of the New York Philharmonic immediately after the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue, is in classical form, with the seeds of most of its melodic ideas planted at the top of the first movement and, of course, a consistent harmonic language throughout.

If it’s less rollicking than its brother Rhapsody, it offers a more satisfying musical journey—if that’s what you’re listening for. Those who sneer at the piece certainly aren’t, and I’m suspecting it was also true of many in the high-capacity SPAC crowd. Lawn and amphitheater teemed with folks in a party going mood. Could there be a better soundtrack to such an evening than An American in Paris, the opening work?

This 1928 tone poem is famous for its energy, taxi horns and bluesy “homesick” theme, first recorded a year after its composition by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The intervening eight decades have rendered the piece timelessly American, and today’s Philadelphia Orchestra gave it a big, big, joyous sound. Conductor Charles Dutoit, in his penultimate appearance as SPAC’s music director, proved again how protean are his talents. Like Erich Leinsdorf, who regularly SPAC- conducted two decades ago, he makes an inspiringly convincing job of anything he programs, whatever the idiom.

Thibaudet’s performances bookended the break. His sparkling performance of Concerto in F was all that some of the within-earshot audience expected from him, so when he reappeared after intermission, there were murmurs—not even murmurs—of pleasant surprise. (In fact, this crowd made a point of narrating events and chatting among themselves with more vigor even than a mall-theater movie audience.)

Gershwin’s Variations on “I Got Rhythm” was his final concert work, a nine-minute piece that puts the familiar song through a few inventive but not too abstruse guises. Ironically, for a work where the composer deliberately set out to vary his material, it’s oddly unmoving. (There’s more going on, for example, in Fats Waller’s 3-minute 1935 recording). But Thibaudet, even reading from a score, was terrific, and his virtuosity alone was a thrill.

Lest we should be in danger of forgetting the orchestra’s contribution, they finished the program with Robert Russell Bennett’s arrangement of Gershwin tunes into Porgy and Bess, A Symphonic Picture. All the big tunes were there, from “Summertime” to “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” featuring varied solo and ensemble participation, like the bassoon in “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ ” to the brass in “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin.” And the fireworks in the orchestra were a worthy competition to the actual fireworks that followed the concert.

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