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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Concert Review: The Golden Age of Jazz

The Albany Symphony Orchestra plays at Spring For Music.
by Ellen Fishbein
Albany Symphony Orchestra music director David Alan Miller.
The third annual Carnegie Hall Spring For Music festival continued Tuesday night with the Albany Symphony Orchestra playing a program of modern music by American composers under the baton of David Alan Miller. The program was broadcast live on WQXR, 105.9 FM.)

Mr. Miller opened the concert with a few words about the evening's selections: works by John Harbison, George Gershwin, and Morton Gould. "These composers," he said, "not only loved jazz, but were also immersed and completely versatile in the idiom of their time." Therefore, the orchestra, in the spirit of its chosen composers, would see "no reason to separate the symphonic from the popular."

The orchestra opened with the Suite drawn from Mr. Harbison's 1999 opera The Great Gatsby.  This is a 25-minute condensation of the score, eschewing the Overture and arias to retell the story fluidly. Mr. Harbison's music creates a a frantic but enticing 1920s decadence. Most intriguing are the melodic patterns that sound authentic to the 1920s but are in fact the composer's own invention.

There was room for improvement in the ASO's performance. The most playful, lilting moments shone, but some of the subtler rhythmic patterns could have been expressed more fully. Still, the piece created an exciting, buoyant atmosphere.

When Kevin Cole stepped onto the stage to join the orchestra in performing George Gershwin's Second Rhapsody, his love for Gershwin and his perfect tempi proved infectious. Mr. Cole has been considered today's definitive interpreter of Gershwin, and he deserves those accolades; Gershwin's complex patterns, more mature than those of Rhapsody in Blue, seemed to make Mr. Cole's fingers move in spite of themselves.
Watch the Albany Symphony Orchestra perform the Great Gatsby Suite by John Harbison.

Working with such a gifted and good-natured pianist clearly inspired the Albany musicians. Their playing was much more natural--sublime, even--alongside Mr. Cole's. The pianist's endearing shyness (he nearly ran off the stage when the thunderous applause struck) did not prevent the audience from demanding an encore. After a few bashful bows, Mr. Cole impressively condensed ten Gershwin melodies into a seven-minute medley. Some audience members were still dancing when the house lights came on for the intermission.

The final selection, Symphony No. 3 by Morton Gould, took a little patience to appreciate but was worth it. After a nuanced, delicately treated first movement, the orchestra played the second movement with revelatory insight. Contrasting figures seemed to come alive. Here, even more than in the previous selections, Mr. Miller's sharp, modern podium style bore fruit. Played by a less experienced ensemble, the third movement would have collapsed on itself. Here, with a mix of precise timing (and just a touch of musical caution) the Albany Symphony Orchestra made it fun, lighthearted, and a little sardonic--as per the composer's instructions.

Best of all was the final movement of the Gould. In the past, the symphony has been performed using a different fourth movement: a somber, slow one that Gould created later upon a friend's advice. For this performance, Mr. Miller chose to use the original finale, which had lain unperformed for 50 years. This finale was more than worth waiting for. Its depth and beauty surpassed all that had been heard that evening and brought the performance into a new emotional space. The conductor was correct in his initial comments about Gould's Symphony No. 3: it is a "monumental, fascinating" piece that has been "strangely and sadly neglected." The orchestra should congratulate itself as a group for being today's ambassador for this splendid music.

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