Gershwin’s neglected concerto given blazing performance by Barnatan in CSO debut

Fri May 26, 2017 at 3:09 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

In 1933 George Gershwin was the soloist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's first performance of his Concerto in F.
George Gershwin was the soloist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first performance of his Concerto in F in 1933.

Of all the tragic early deaths in music history, none seemed more devastating to a burgeoning American classical scene than that of George Gershwin. The composer died of a brain tumor at age 38 at the height of his fame; 80 years later, no other composer–with the possible exception of Leonard Bernstein–has managed to meld populist music forms and classical rigor with anything like Gershwin’s skill, audacity, and panache.

Yet for all the popularity of his songs, Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris, his two greatest works remained neglected long after his death. Only in the last decade has Porgy and Bess assumed something close to its rightful place on domestic stages as the Great American Opera it is.

So too Gershwin’s Concerto in F is not only the Great American Piano Concerto–92 years after its premiere it remains, qualitatively speaking, the only American piano concerto: as fresh, original and brilliant as if it had been written yesterday. And yet this wonderful work largely remains a stranger to concert halls today.

Gershwin was the soloist in the first CSO performance of his Concerto in F in 1933, repeating it three years later at Ravinia.  And Thursday night in his Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut, Inon Barnatan gave Gershwin’s neglected concerto the kind of committed, flamboyant and wholly idiomatic performance of which one  can believe the composer himself would have whole-heartedly approved.

Perhaps Barnatan’s initial solo statement was a bit heavy on rubato–trying to make the case too soon that this music is deeper than Rhapsody in Blue–when a more straightforward approach would have sufficed.

Inon Barnatan
Inon Barnatan

Yet after that the Israeli pianist didn’t put a finger wrong. He showed himself fully in synch with Gershwin’s deceptively tricky style, bringing the rhythmic snap and sassy exuberance to the insistent, jazz-inflected syncopations of the first movement’s urban bustle. In the Adagio Barnatan brought the right nocturnal musing, with a magical, nuanced touch in the cadenza. The brief finale begins full tilt and never lets up. Barnatan fairly attacked the repeated-note theme with nimble athleticism and bracing bravura, culminating in an aptly rousing coda.

The orchestra played with equal verve and style–not least Mark Ridenour’s bluesy trumpet solo in the slow movement–and it was fun to see the violins and violas play their pizzicato accompaniment guitar-style as Gershwin requested.

While the accompaniment under conductor Jesus López-Cobos was serviceable, one would have liked the explosive exuberance of Gershwin’s scoring to come across with stronger impact. Even more crucially, a tighter grip from the podium would not have been amiss–nor better rhythmic coordination with his soloist. In the first movement especially, some of the rapid-fire exchanges between pianist and orchestra were approximate at best.

Still a great, personality-plus performance by Barnatan and a fine CSO debut. Repeated ovations brought the pianist back out for an apt encore–a cool, limpid account of Gershwin’s Prelude No. 2.

Jesus Lopez-Cobos. Photo: Georges Braunschweig
Jesus Lopez-Cobos. Photo: Georges Braunschweig

It was good to have the distinguished López-Cobos back for his first CSO appearance in 31 years. Following Smetena’s Ma vlast last week, the evening closed with another Czech rarity, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6.

Dvořák was finally escaping the unhealthy Wagner influence of his early years when he wrote this work in 1880. Yet here he seems to exchange it for an equally unhelpful Brahms influence–the main theme of the closing movement sounds like a pallid stepbrother to the finale of his older colleague’s Second Symphony. Elsewhere the scoring is often heavy, with the lumbering development in the first movement showing little of the ingenuity or individuality of the three symphonic masterpieces to come.

Still, even second-tier Dvořák is better than most music one will hear. The work’s opening theme is one of those irresistible, lean-in creations that could have come from no one else. And the Scherzo offers one of his finest Furiants, slashing and insistent, bursting with Bohemian flavor.

López-Cobos, 77, led a sturdy performance Thursday, neither over-pleading the Sixth’s merits nor underselling it (though the pleasant but rather bland Adagio would have benefited from a little conductorial assist). The performance flowed with a natural,  unhurried quality, López-Cobos brought snappy vigor to the Scherzo and the final movement provided the requisite fiery payoff.

The evening began with music of the Spanish conductor’s homeland, Joaquin Turina’s Danzas fantasticas. This suite of three Spanish dances plumbs no great depths but it’s lively music, smartly scored and served as an engaging curtain-raiser.

López-Cobos led a richly upholstered performance, putting across the brilliance of the framing dances without going over the top. The central “Ensueño” (Dream) section benefited most from the conductor’s low-key style, rendered with a lilting, easy-going charm.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.; 312-294-3000.

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