Spano and Hamelin charge through Gershwin and Ravel Thursday night

George Gershwin: American revolutionary?

A last minute decision at the Seattle Symphony transformed this week’s subscription concert from ordinary to extraordinary. The program, which features competing halves, was initially arranged with the crowd favorites (Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue) falling first, while the lesser known pieces (Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements and Ravel’s Concerto for Left Hand) coming after intermission.

The Seattle Symphony’s audience has demonstrated a general distrust of music unknown to them. Last week’s concert is an example. As it was reported on this site by Mr. Campbell and by others I have spoken with since the concert, the orchestra level was only 60% – 70% full. Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony anchored a program of Debussy, Bloch, and a new piece by Aaron Jay Kernis. Only Dvorak’s Seventh comes close to being an immediately familiar piece.

For opening night of this week’s concert, Taper Auditorium was full. I wondered out loud to a few people before the concert if Gershwin and Copland would be enough to dispel any misgivings for Stravinsky and Ravel. “Never underestimate the pull of Rhapsody in Blue,” a long-time observer of the symphony wisely advised. Even if Gershwin could generate a robust audience, there was a risk that after the audience heard Rhapsody and Appalachian Spring there would be an exodus at intermission. This was a genuine risk. It happened last spring for Adams’ Harmonielehre.

Sometime this week the problem was solved. Whoever decided to reverse the concert halves should have received the same standing ovation given to Marc Andre Hamelin, Maestro Robert Spano, and the musicians of the Seattle Symphony. The decision ensured an electric evening of music making from beginning to end.

Instead of coming second, the evening opened with two complementary works: Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements and Ravel’s Concerto for Left Hand. Both emerged from the sights and sounds of war. Ravel wrote his concerto for Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm during World War I and Stravinsky’s symphony is often dubbed his “war symphony” because the composer cited as direct inspiration the sights and sounds of the World War II with harsh rhythms, swooping, rapid passages, and plenty of menacing brass. Accordingly, the first movement recalls Japan’s invasion of China and the final movement, goose-stepping Nazi’s. The second movement’s slinky, almost playful wind playing provides a pleasant, albeit brief respite from Stravinsky’s chaos on either end of the piece. I have heard both blistering and droopy recordings of the symphony. Spano charted a middle course that worked better than the extremes do on record. There was propulsion aplenty, but just as important, Spano knew exactly when to slow things down to highlight key moments and build drama. Intellectually romantic, the ending was conceived and executed better than anything I have heard on disk.

Unlike Ravel’s other piano concerto, which has a sardonic edge and is tinged with the influence of Jazz, the Concerto for Left Hand is all drama. Marc Andre Hamelin’s playing on Thursday evening was special– he was introspective, pungent, and even jaunty when he needed to be. It was a memorable performance that slides easily into my top ten for 2010.

Returning from the intermission was a smaller ensemble of 13 musicians who performed Copland’s suite from Appalachian Spring. The complete ballet was originally scored for a thirteen member chamber orchestra. Later, Copland arranged a suite for orchestra. An even later version of the suite combines the instrumentation of the original ballet with the structure of the suite. This is what Spano and the ensemble played Thursday. Copland’s wide-open melodies and wistful textures were conveyed with touching affect.

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue closed the evening. Rhapsody is one of those pieces everyone knows. Pop culture’s appropriation of the piece has unfortunately meant it shows up more often in conjunction with less serious programs. This fact denigrates Gershwin’s composing genius. Like Ravel, Copland, and even Stravinsky, Gershwin readily incorporated the world around him and the music of his day into his works. He gravitated to Alban Berg, studied composition in Europe with Nadia Boulanger, and had he lived longer might have been a revolutionary force in American music. Hamelin and Spano opted to showcase this side of Gershwin. There was ample swing in their rendition, but the score also rippled with intensity. The orchestra seemed to relish the piece with rugged attacks, intense phrasing, and perfectly rowdy solos by Christopher Sereque, David Gordon, and Ko-Ichiro Yamamoto.

Spano and the orchestra repeat this concert Saturday and Sunday. I don’t say this often, but catch a performance if you can. Your ears will thank you.

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