pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
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
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.