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Gerstein and Graf Sparkle in Jazzy Classics

Jones Hall
01/15/2010 -  & Jan. 16, 17
Darius Milhaud: Le Bœuf sur le toit, Op. 58La Création du monde, Op. 81a
Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major
George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue

Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Houston Symphony Orchestra, Hans Graf (conductor)

K. Gerstein (© Marco Borggreve)

Hans Graf and Kirill Gerstein brought infectious, zesty energy to every item on this program. The perfume of 1920s jazz was ever-present, and the audience clearly delighted in the familiar and strange, from the piquant polytonal twists of the Milhaud scores to the unusual timbral combinations exploited by all three composers.

Milhaud was entranced by jazz and South American music, and especially by "those tunes played again and again…whose greatness lies in their sameness." Le bœuf sur le toit most directly integrates the harmonies, rhythms and structure of this newly discovered music into a work for the classical stage, its unabashed rotation and layering of various themes mimicking a nighttime walk past jazz clubs in Harlem or Rio. Graf achieved a wonderful overarching drive to the piece and nicely emphasized several harmonic and melodic surprises in inner voices. There could have been more trumpet presence in the first few statements of the "refrain", but by the end of the work, the brass rejoiced in resplendent, accurate pronouncements of the jaunty theme. The multiple challenging woodwind solos were played with tasteful and imaginative phrasing from all the principles. The strings, on the other hand, were slightly less unified in their direction. Graf seemed reluctant to look at and shape the lyrical melodies that pop up in the first violins, simply cuing the section in and then turning back to the orchestra as a whole. Fortunately, those moments are relatively brief, and before the energy had a chance to flag, the refrain returned and revitalized the performance.

When Kirill Gerstein, recently named the 2010 Gilmore Artist, took the stage for the Ravel concerto, expectations of stunning technical feats and daring interpretive choices ran high. After the crack of the whip, Gerstein delivered, his performance immediately oozing personality. He imbued every passage with importance, even phrasing the opening accompanimental filigree with subtle dynamic ebbs and flows. Voicing in chordal passages was immaculate, and the range of articulations and colors coaxed out of the piano was staggering. The endless melody of the second movement was impeccably sculpted, with an emphasis on its improvisatory nature. Gerstein's trills were mesmerizing, first in the opening movement's cadenza and then returning magically to close out the Adagio. The pianist favored brisk tempos, and Graf kept pace, although in the finale the fanfare-like second theme, introduced by the orchestra, was suddenly faster when the Gerstein took it over. The principles of the orchestra once again shone. The treacherously high bassoon and horn solos in the first movement were effortless, as were the stratospheric woodwind entries in the second movement. The entire orchestra was engaged throughout, and subtle details, such as the repartee between first and second violin near the end of the finale, were given their due.

The mood turned a bit darker for Milhaud's African-inspired ballet La création du monde. The piece has many pitfalls of balance and rhythmic coordination, but the smaller ensemble played with precision throughout. The palette of the score is impossibly rich in shades and hues, and Graf and his musicians had complete control over the many variations of timbral intensity. The opening string murmurings created a lush morass above which the solo saxophone floated with a sweet languor. The quirky rhythms of the ensuing fugue were spot-on. Clarinet and oboe soloists again shone, and the complex contrapuntal texture of the piece's climax flawlessly maintained rhythmic integrity and balance.

The concert closed with Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, in Ferde Grofé's deliciously gratuitous original orchestration. The surprises of the jazz-band version of the piece were great fun, from rollicking saxophones to the tangy sound of eight violins that introduce the "big theme." Gerstein clearly relishes this score, and brought his jazz piano training to bear, shifting naturally between swung and straight eighths at the perfect moments. He impressed with an enormous range of expressive nuances throughout, flamboyantly emphasizing syncopated passages and doling out full, rich tone in lyrical moments. Gerstein and Graf were so convincing throughout the concert that one hopes they both continue to explore and promote lesser-known but equally interesting works from this fascinating period in music history.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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