From Gershwin Swagger to Sublime Swans

United StatesUnited States Gershwin, Tchaikovsky: Spencer Meyer (piano), Canton Symphony Orchestra / Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Performing Arts Hall, Canton, Ohio, 18.11.2018. (TW)

Spencer Meyer (c) Supatcha Rattanathumawat
Spencer Meyer (c) Supatcha Rattanathumawat

Gershwin – Overture to Of Thee I Sing; Piano Concerto in F
Tchaikovsky – Suite from Swan Lake

As stated in the press release for this Canton Symphony Orchestra evening of Gershwin and Tchaikovsky called Music of the People, ‘..the two composers… wrote music to touch the souls of the people of their respective countries.’

What could be more ‘of the people’ these days than national politics? Commenting on the evening’s opening — Gershwin’s overture to Of Thee I Sing — a grinning Gerhardt Zimmermann explained that he intentionally scheduled it on the heels of this country’s recent, highly contentious midterm elections.

Gershwin regarded Of Thee I Sing not so much as a traditional musical as a topical operetta. It was a grand lampooning of Depression-era political shenanigans, incompetency, and the democratic process itself. The absurd story centered on the presidential campaign, election, and comically troubled administration of a character named John P. Wintergreen.

Prior to this one, the majority of Broadway musical overtures were generally medleys of the show’s most memorable tunes. But for this musical — which was the first to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1932 — Gershwin composed an overture relatively more ‘classical’ in nature, a finely developed fantasia for orchestra. There are echoes of An American in Paris, as well as a foretaste of piquant moments from his 1935 masterpiece, Porgy and Bess. In embracing the overture’s audacious spirit, the CSO delivered a delightful romp, replete with crackling percussion accents and lavish orchestral harmonies.

Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F is an intricate orchestral pastiche brimming with multiple themes, infused with lush Romanticism and the pulsing swagger of jazz. As the soloist, pianist Spencer Meyer was commanding and vivacious from beginning to end. Especially during the adagio, in playful dialogue with the electrifying ensemble, he articulated all of Gershwin’s savoir faire with finesse. One of the most colorful sentences in that dialogue was the muted trumpet solo from Justin Kohan. His deliciously sensual, bent notes conjured a somewhat naughty image of drunken clubgoers wandering along empty streets after a late night. 

At several points during Tchaikovsky’s Suite from Swan Lake, I marveled yet again at how the CSO can keep doing what it does with such consistency of purpose and power. What exactly is the chemistry that makes this orchestra greater than the sum of its parts — so sumptuous and immersive? In assessing the role of the conductor, Charles Munch, music director of the Boston Symphony from 1949 to 1962, once noted, ‘The conductor must breathe life into the score. It is you and you alone who must expose it to the understanding, reveal the hidden jewel to the sun at the most flattering angles.’

Zimmermann’s commitment to this monument of ballet led him to expand the suite — traditionally between six and eight of the most popular scenes — with several additional excerpts, including the magnificent finale in its entirety. His unique arrangement augmented the sublime emotion of Tchaikovsky’s vision, and on the podium, Zimmermann had the look of a man mesmerized, smitten by sheer beauty.

A memorably crystalline, dreamlike moment came in ‘Dance of the Swans’ from Act II, wonderfully rendered by violinist Christian Zimmerman, harpist Nancy Peterson, and cellist Brian Klickman. But this was just one of many similarly astonishing passages. Through it all, an impassioned conductor and an equally smitten ensemble shed dazzling light on this most magical of Tchaikovsky gems.

Tom Wachunas 

Leave a Comment