Freddy Kempf’s Gershwin with the NZSO – poet-pianist with a brilliant orchestra


GERSHWIN – Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra / BERNSTEIN – Prelude, Fugue and Riffs

GERSHWIN – I Got Rhythm Variations / An American in Paris / SHOSTAKOVICH – Tahiti Trot

GERSHWIN  – Rhapsody in Blue (orch. Grofe)

Freddy Kempf (piano)

Matthew Coorey (conductor)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday, 7th December, 2012

A splendid program, expertly delivered, with the qualification that, to my mind pianist Freddy Kempf’s playing was notable more for poetry and introspection than glint and incisiveness, particularly in the “Rhapsody in Blue”. There were places where I wanted the piano to assert itself to a greater, somewhat brasher extent, particularly as the orchestra, under the energetic direction of Australian conductor Matthew Coorey, was “playing-out” in the best American style.

As with the players’ response a couple of months ago to Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s direction of Bernstein’s West Side Story Dances, here was a kind of untramelled spirit unleashed which took to the music with a will and realized much of its essential energetic joie de vivre. This came across most consistently throughout a vividly-projected rendition of An American in Paris – I wanted the motor horns at the beginning to “honk” more stridently, though it became obvious as the performance unfolded that the conductor was purposely “terracing” the score’s more overtly vulgar aspects to telling overall effect.

It seemed to me that any orchestra that could whole-heartedly “swing” certain music along in such a way that the NZSO players could and did on this occasion (as happened also with the Bernstein work I’ve mentioned) would be capable of bringing those same energetic, colourful and expressive qualities to any music it cared to play. Under Matthew Coory’s direction, the music’s story of the homesick traveller struggling to regain his emotional equilibrium in a foreign land, and eventually making the connections he needed, was here, by turns, excitingly and touchingly recounted, enabling the work to “tell” as the masterpiece it is.

Of course the brass has to carry much of the music’s character via plenty of on-the-spot ensemble work and virtuoso individual playing – and the solos delivered by people such as trumpeter Michael Kirgan delivered spadefuls of brilliance and feeling (even the one or two mis-hit notes had plenty of style and élan!). Not to be completely overshadowed, both winds and strings contributed soulful solo and concerted passages, balancing the blues with the brashness of some of the energies, though horns, saxophone and even the tuba also had episodes whose sounds tugged at the heartstrings.

What was caught seemed to me to be the “rhythm of the times”, putting me in mind of memories of watching some of those 1930s American films with their amazing song-and-dance sequences. Obviously this spirit had world-wide repercussions, as evidenced by Shostakovich’s contribution to the evening’s entertainment, via his Tahiti Trot, which was nothing less than a thinly disguised orchestral setting of Vincent Youman’s Broadway hit Tea for Two, completed by the composer in 1928.

Where Shostakovich’s work delighted with the wit and delicacy of its setting, Leonard Bernstein’s raunchy Prelude Fugue and Riffs from over twenty years later pinned the ears back with its percussion-driven brass declamations at the outset, irruptions alternating with echoes, and its in-your-face burleske-like gestures. It was all by way of preparing for a jazzy fugue whose peregrinations seemed to follow its own rules of expression, before returning to the all-out burlesque posturing and an ensuing “riff” whose manic energy threatened to sweep away the whole ensemble. It was the solo clarinet which finally called a halt with a single note. Again, I felt awed at the energies released by these normally straight-laced, classically-disciplined musicians, all of whom were suddenly demonstrated impressive “crossover”-like skills, and producing performances that to my ears sounded and felt creditably idiomatic.

A few further words about the concertante Gershwin items – the most interesting, by dint of being the least familiar, was the Second Rhapsody, first played in 1931, seven years after the original Rhapsody in Blue was first performed. Originally written as part of a film score, Gershwin set out to portray the bustling, concrete-jungle character of a big city (specifically New York), with a particular emphasis on the city’s upward-thrusting building activities, leading to the film-sequence being dubbed originally “Rhapsody of Rivets”. Gershwin’s later expansion of the score as a concert-piece retained the original music’s energy and rhythmic drive, but added and developed a contrasting lyrical character in places. The result was a work which its composer described as “in many respects….the best thing I’ve ever written”.

Freddy Kempf’s performance again delivered the more soulful moments of the score with plenty of heart-on-sleeve feeling, and he seemed here more into the “swing” of the energetic moments – also, his concertante approach seemed to me to suit this more sophisticated work better than with the first Rhapsody’s more “blue-and-white” character. While not as richly-endowed with memorable themes, this later work has a much more “interactive” spirit between soloist and orchestra, more like the later Concerto in F, the tension of the exchanges towards the end here magnificently terraced. I particularly enjoyed the chromatic, Messiaen-like orchestral lurches leading up to the final “all-together” payoff.

The I Got Rhythm Variations, perhaps the most lighthearted of the three, made a sparkling mid-concert makeweight, Kempf’s deft touch and whirlwind tempi for his solos reminiscent of Gershwin’s own, very unsentimental playing-style preserved on a few recordings. Again the orchestral playing under Matthew Coorey’s direction sounded right inside the music, by turns pushing, coaxing and simply letting it out there. How wonderful to have an orchestra in Wellington which can “swing it” just as whole-heartedly as it can deftly turn a Haydn or Mozart phrase, or rattle the rafters with a Brucknerian or Wagnerian climax. Well done, pianist, players and conductor, for giving us such a great concert.

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