You are currently viewing Afterthoughts: Classical blends with jazz for riveting, rousing Rhapsody in Blue and more

Afterthoughts: Classical blends with jazz for riveting, rousing Rhapsody in Blue and more

It was 100 years ago this month when a slim, well-dressed 25-year-old man walked on stage at New York City’s Aeolian Hall, sat at the piano, and altered the course of American music.

George Gershwin’s new work opened with a bluesy clarinet snaking through the air − a lilting glissando stretching 2-1/2 octaves – a sound nobody had heard before. But any confusion quickly gave way to exhilaration.

Rhapsody in Blue still excites today, judging from last weekend’s two full-house performances by The Florida Orchestra and guest pianist Aldo López-Gavilán. In a program Music Director Michael Francis calls the “centerpiece of the season,’’ the mostly American bill included works by Gershwin, Wynton Marsalis, Mason Bates and Leonard Bernstein − the only holdout being Russian-born Igor Stravinsky.

The Hough Family Foundation Masterworks program gave us three works never before played by the orchestra, including Marsalis’ Herald, Holler & Hallelujah, a fleeting fanfare for brass, woodwinds and percussion full of sonic peaks and valleys of varying dynamics, shades and tempos. On Sunday at the Mahaffey Theater, the musicians – sans strings − whet their chops with tricky riffs and tight harmonies that proved a classical ensemble can deliver some serious swing.

The full orchestra tested itself next in Bates’ ambitious 27-minute Alternative Energy, an electro-acoustic mashup that felt like a musical conversation between Prokofiev and Pink Floyd. TFO audiences know Bates from previous performances of his Cello Concerto and Mothership, and this piece exposed the composer’s penchant for controlled chaos: an “energy symphony’’ that takes us from the 19th-century Midwest to present day Chicago to a futuristic nuclear plant in China to an Icelandic rainforest, where the last vestige of humanity resides. Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer connected the four movements by playing a folksy idée fixe theme on his fiddle.

“It’s all about green energy and the nature of energy, about where we are and where we’ll be in the future,’’ Francis said in an interview. “It’s a wonderful potpourri in the way it unites popular and classical language.’’

TFO Resident Conductor Chelsea Gallo sat on stage controlling the zany electronics from a laptop, and although a faulty sound monitor forced Francis to redo the second movement, it’s doubtful anyone would have noticed the glitch if he hadn’t stopped the proceedings.

A highlight of the evening − and there were many − was Principal Clarinet Natalie Hoe in Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto, another first for the orchestra. Hoe took center stage in a piece written in 1945 for Woody Herman’s big band, which ever since has tested classical soloists.

“It’s a slight challenge for classically trained orchestral musicians to get into the real groove of jazz and swing rhythms, as it’s not innate for us,’’ she said earlier. “In classical music, we’re held to a much more rigid pulse. In order to freely improvise, swing and play jazz, you have to have incredible inner pulse to be able to play around it.’’

The piece opens with nervous, ostinato fragments rather than singing lines, and a bluesy middle movement in F minor/F major could be mistaken for a page from Bernstein’s On the Town (also on this program). The finale, a theme with short variations, wraps up with clarinet and brass playing in a simpatico chorus that trails off in a soft close.

“It was fun learning the concerto,’’ Hoe said. “I listened to different recordings of varying tempi and style and ultimately settled on a style that felt like me.’’

Hoe stayed on stage for one of the orchestra’s “mystery pieces” − music that isn’t announced beforehand − and she rollicked through Gershwin’s Walking the Dog, used in the 1937 film Shall We Dance. After she finished, her fiancé, TFO Principal Horn David Smith, appeared on stage with their Australian shepherd, Cora.

The orchestra followed with a rousing performance of the Three Dance Episodes from Bernstein’s On the Town, the story of three sailors on a one-day shore leave in New York, and their fast-paced exploits to find a trio of available women. The verve and brassy edge of Dance of the Great LoverPas de Deux, and Times Square Ballet primed the musicians for the marquee coda, Rhapsody in Blue.

Hoe opened the work with the iconic wail on the clarinet, echoed by a rank of trumpets and trombones with mutes in their bells. Francis promised this would be a version unlike any we’ve heard before, and he wasn’t kidding. López-Gavilán turned the piano inside out and upside down with improvisations that would have made Gershwin blush. His technique was both immaculate and riveting, drilling his fingers into every inch of the keyboard and keeping a bluesy lilt to his pace that seemed to inspire the orchestra to follow suit.

Francis also had an extra bounce in his presence at the podium, maybe because he just inked a five-year contract extension that keeps him as music director through at least the 2029-30 season. This is his third contract renewal, so he must be doing something right.

Kurt Loft is a freelance journalist, member of the Music Critics Association of North America and former music critic for The Tampa Tribune.


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