Marin Alsop, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Baltimore Symphony deliver uncommon versions of Gershwin
Personally, I’d love to see more attention paid to the way the works of Mahler, for example, were performed during, or closer to, his own day. That might have added an extra dimension last week, when Marin Alsop led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Fourth. But Alsop is taking quite an interesting spin on the authenticity approach with the BSO’s current program, devoted totally to Gershwin and showcasing the superb French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
As it turns out, this presentation raises vexing questions about the whole historic reclamation business. It’s one thing to return to the original scoring for Gershwin’s most celebrated instrumental piece, “Rhapsody in Blue.” But what about reviving an orchestration of the Concerto in F that Gershwin didn’t prepare or approve, but was written by the same guy who did that first version of the “Rhapsody”? Where’s an ethicist when you really need one?
The story of the “Rhapsody”
The result was a brilliantly lean, yet very colorful, orchestration — lots of woodwinds and brass, banjo, bass, an extra piano, percussion, and about 10 violins. Grofé subsequently prepared a symphonic orchestration of the “Rhapsody,” with all the usual strings, the version most often encountered.
In 1925, when Gershwin was commissioned to write a concerto, he felt comfortable enough to do the orchestration himself, and did so with flair, fashioning a full tonal fabric to support the solo piano. Three years later, Whiteman asked Grofé to prepare a jazz orchestra version of the Concerto in F, with more or less the same instrumental configuration of that first “Rhapsody.” Gershwin reportedly took offense.
Alsop recorded Grofé’s long-forgotten 1928 arrangement almost 20 years ago, and she has returned to it now, with enthusiastic support from Thibaudet. Hearing this version of the concerto on the same evening as the “Rhapsody” in its original guise makes for a fascinating experience.
On Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, it was easy to accept both pieces as “authentic,” at least in the sense of capturing a 1920s jazz flavor. (The program is repeated tonight and Sunday at Meyerhoff, Saturday at Strathmore.) The “Rhapsody” always seems more real in the first version, anyway, especially when it reaches the big, lyrical theme, which can sound too syrupy in the lusher orchestration.
And the keyboard solo can emerge with a more spontaneous quality when heard against the jazz orchestra, which was the case Thursday as Thibaudet charged into the “Rhapsody” with an almost giddy, even reckless energy. Some notes disappeared in the blur when the pianist hit warp-speed, but the playing was otherwise as precise as it was fresh and instinctive.
Alsop offered tight support, but did not always get as much snap out of the ensemble as the pianist was producing. Steven Barta delivered the famous sliding clarinet solo with panache. (Purists will note that there were more violins onstage than the Whiteman band used for the 1924 premiere, so this wasn't an exercise in total historic authenticty.)
Thibaudet proved equally impressive in the concerto, phrasing with an ease that reflected his own longtime embrace of jazz, and with a refined sense of lyricism for the work’s more tender side. The pianist enjoyed supple collaboration from Alsop and a vivid complement of players. Andrew Balio shaped the trumpet solo in the Adagio warmly.
The effect of the Grofé orchestration was striking, especially the slightly dissonant rumbles in the opening pages of the first movement (taking the place of the snare drum rolls Gershwin used in his orchestration), and the sensual spice of saxophones.
It can be argued that the Grofé arrangement undercuts the whole point of the concerto, which was one of Gershwin’s most important demonstrations of how the symphonic idiom could be fused with jazz. Without the full orchestra sound he conceived, it’s a very different piece. But, heck, it’s still a great one, and it’s fun hearing this alternative.
Issues of authenticity are not involved with the composer’s “I Got Rhythm” Variations. There is only one version (as far as I know), and it’s all Gershwin. It’s a slight work, but full of sparkling color. Thibaudet, Alsop and company gave it an effective performance.
The BSO rounded the evening off with the overtures to two great Gershwin musicals, “Girl Crazy” and “Of Thee I Sing.” Alsop had both of them flowing brightly — and sounding thoroughly authentic.
At the start of the evening, BSO president Paul Meecham saluted violinist Edward Patey and trumpeter Edward Hoffman for their decades of service to the orchestra. Both will retire at the end of the year.
PHOTO COURTESY OF BSO