A Jazz Musician’s Review, The RPO Plays The Music Of Gershwin

Sound UNIon member Louis Archer has written a review of last week’s Gershwin concert at Cadogan Hall.  Read what he has to say from a jazz musician’s perspective:

CONDUCTOR – JOSÉ SEREBRIER
PIANO – SHELLY BERG
SHELLY BERG TRIO

The orchestra finishes tuning, silence, a fleeting pause. The sense of anticipation in Cadogan Hall is almost palpable.

It is this, aside from the delightful noise that tends to emanate from the general vicinity of the stage, that is the one thing I enjoy the most when seeing a performance of live music. Be it a trad jazz gig downstairs in a tiny and cramped bar space, or the RPO performing in their splendid resident concert hall, it is that blend of expectation and excitement found only in this particular variety of silence that keeps me coming back hungry for more.

Serebrier walks out on stage and the silence is broken with considerable applause, which he acknowledges with a deep bow. He turns and with a brief flurry of movement we’re off, the first passages of the Girl Crazy Overture already echoing in our ears.

From these very first brisk quaver string passages set with brief iterations of Gershwin’s pentatonic motif of fame (I Got Rhythm) in the horns, the sensation of raw anticipation at the veritable set of musical delights to come was communicated excellently. 

The orchestra coped seemingly effortlessly with the demanding changes of time and feel that the overture demands. We gracefully drifted through a relaxed, down tempo chorus of Embraceable You on to a more energetic I Got Rhythm, before eventually kicking back on a leisurely rendition of But Not For Me, the latter being complete with perfectly lush and lilting strings.                                                                     

From my perspective, that of a young jazz musician, one of the things that jumped right out at me was just how ‘incredibly tight’ the RPO is collectively. To say ‘incredibly tight’ is of course, to use jazz terminology, the nearest possible classical translation being ‘an all-round incredibly polished performance was given’.

The highlight of the evening for me was undoubtedly Gershwin’s ‘jazz concerto’, Rhapsody in Blue. This particular performance of the piece was rather unconventional in that it featured not only one soloist, renowned American pianist Shelly Berg, but three, the complete Shelly Berg Trio also comprising bassist Chuck Berghofer and drummer Ralph Salmins.                                                                                                                         

When we reached each of the solo piano interludes, Berg used Gershwin’s music as a launch pad for his own blend of inspired improvisation. Sometimes staying close to the written material playing entirely within classical conventions (though he, being a true virtuoso, went the entire evening without so much as a single page of sheet music), sometimes heading off into the unknown developing one or two Gershwinian ideas in a style that had more in common with jazz than classical.                                                     

Upon Berg’s completion of one of his improvisational journeys we would not always return to the orchestral texture and form of Rhapsody… straight away. Berghofer and Salmins would sometimes join their fellow trio member in playing together over a blues or jazz standard before dropping out leaving Berg and the orchestra to delve back into the Gershwin.       

It should be noted that these textural changes, from orchestral, to solo piano, to swinging jazz trio and back to orchestral, did not feel ungainly or awkward. On the contrary, each flowed from one into the next very naturally. This can be put down to a number of factors, the foremost being the virtuosity of Berg, the man who expertly led us along the somewhat precarious path that bridges the rift between the classical and jazz idioms. He is equally ‘at home’ in both territories, his head thrown back as if in ecstasy whilst improvising over a blues, and minutes later, bent low over the keys with a quiet intensity as he plucked the last notes from a cadenza-esque ascent through the full range of his instrument. The tasteful playing of the trio as a whole too is reason why this unconventional format worked so well; even in their most intense moments the group did not loose sight of the tone of the overarching classical framework from within which they were playing.          

Berg’s group featured again in a similar style interweaved within the orchestra’s blazing rendition of Variations On I Got Rhythm. The golden moment in this piece was Berghofer’s lyrical bass solo, over one of the trio’s particularly lively interpretations of Rhythm Changes, the group got quieter and quieter before dropping out entirely leaving Berghofer soloing alone. The bassist was unfazed and the silences in between the lines he was playing ramped up the intensity of his solo. To top it all off he concluded with a phrase that gradually slowed down and lead perfectly without pause into the orchestra’s entry to the slow valse triste of Variation II.

Serebrier’s masterful orchestration of the Three Preludes too, particularly the rich, dark, brooding textures of the central prelude, cannot go without mention. The sweet alto sax and smoky trumpet melodies set against the deep shifting strings sent shivers down the spines of all present. It is said that he had only a matter of days to complete the work in order to meet a tight recording deadline; with a sigh my mind hastens back to a morning last week when, upon sleeping through the alarm, I experienced extreme difficulty merely getting my person in a presentable state to my Applied Musicianship class on time! Well, we can’t all be José Serebriers can we?

My heavy sense of anticipation and excitement that I found in the silence in Cadogan Hall earlier, I now realise, arose from being faced with an as yet unknown musical experience, a rare occurrence. What was I to expect from the collaboration of a renowned jazz trio and the RPO? My imagination went wild and this ‘Experiment In “Not-So-Modern” Music’ did not disappoint. Now, having been given this (all too brief) taste of what can come of the relationship between these two groups, I cannot begin to express how much I and, judging by the audience’s reaction, the rest of the concert-going public would like to hear further creative partnerships between the RPO and jazz artists.  

Of course, if it hasn’t been made clear enough thus far, it goes without saying in all of this that RPO and their flawless performance were an integral element in pulling off the ambitious endeavor that was heard tonight. Despite the many, in my opinion, superficial differences between the two art forms, the orchestra enabled the two groups to come together in spectacular fashion this evening and expose the more powerful, deep running similarities the ‘opposing’ idioms share.

Louis Archer

About Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Acknowledged as one of the UK’s most prestigious orchestras, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) enjoys an international reputation for bringing audiences worldwide first-class performances and the highest possible standards of music-making across a diverse range of musical repertoire. This was the vision of the Orchestra’s flamboyant founder Sir Thomas Beecham, whose legacy is maintained today as the Orchestra thrives under the exceptional direction of its new Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, Maestro Charles Dutoit.
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