Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the Summer with the Symphony series presented its Gershwin and Bernstein program with Edwin Outwater conducting the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). Gershwin was represented by his two best-known symphonic compositions, “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris.” The soloist for the former was the Japanese jazz pianist Makoto Ozone.
The noun “rhapsody” can be traced all the way back to the Ancient Greek verb ῥαψῳδεῖν (rhapsōidein). The literal meaning is “to sew together;” and, in contextual usage, what are being sewn together are songs. The Ancient Greek rhapsodist exercised this technique in the performance of epic poetry; and, while he does not use the term explicitly, the technique can also be found in Aristotle’s “Rhetoric” as an analogy for the proper introduction to a speech. Today the word is associated primarily with a genre that was very popular in the nineteenth-century, frequently as a platform for the display of a virtuosic soloist.
Thus, when Paul Whiteman recruited George Gershwin to contribute to his campaign to bring jazz into the concert hall, it was not surprising that the composer would turn to the rhapsody genre and to the piano as a virtuoso platform. (According to the note in the program book by James M. Keller, Gershwin did not know he had been recruited until he read about it in the New-York Tribune on January 3, 1924.) Scored for piano and jazz band, the work consisted primarily of extended piano solos elaborating at great length on a few song tunes (going back to the Greek origins of the “rhapsody” noun), most of which are introduced first by the ensemble. Gershwin entitled the work “Rhapsody in Blue.”
The music has now become so familiar that it has withstood no end of performance versions. It has also been done to death by any number of appropriations, primarily for advertising, the worst of all being the thoroughly execrable cut-and-paste job for a series of commercials produced for United Airlines in order to stamp an “American brand” on their international travel service. In the midst of all of that attention (both legitimate and otherwise), the jazz origins of the music have pretty much gotten lost. Mind you, while there is no questioning the sincerity that Whiteman brought to his efforts to promote jazz, as a performer, he never really “got it.” Indeed, his failure to grasp the nature of jazz can be found in the nickname he was given, “The Man Who Made a Lady of Jazz.” The real jazz-makers had no trouble appreciating the almost painfully warped connotations of that phrase.
Among today’s jazz-makers, Ozone has firmly established himself as one deserving serious attention; and those who follow him know that he is not afraid to take serious risks in his ventures. One of those ventures has been an effort to put the jazz back into “Rhapsody in Blue,” so to speak. As he put it in a pre-performance chat with Outwater, the notes are all there; but he uses a generous share of them to serve as points of departure for improvisation. The performance thus takes a major leap from the traditional one-movement concerto into a framework allowing the soloist to indulge in a generous amount of serious jamming. For Ozone that meant spontaneous in-the-moment improvisation (which, most likely, is pretty much what a cadenza meant when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was playing one of his own piano concertos).
The result last night was nothing short of jaw-dropping. Indeed, it was not only the entire audience that was riveted by Ozone’s spontaneous creativity motivated by Gershwin’s melodies. It was difficult not to find a member of the SFS ensemble who was just as absorbed. (Quite a few heads were nodding to Ozone’s rhythms.) Indeed, attention to Ozone’s work was so absorbing that one of the ensemble entrances tripped over a minor fumble (but needed only one or two measures to recover fully). If Whiteman’s plan had been to bring the spirit of jazz to concert audiences, Ozone raised the stakes by delivering both sprit and flesh in what may yet be recognized as one of the most memorable performances to be given in this town this year.
By way of a warmup, Ozone first did some jamming by leading a trio with drummer Jeff Marrs and SFS Principal Bass Scott Pingel. This involved a continuation of the Corrupted Classics series that SFS Executive Director Brent Assink had initiated for last year’s Summer with the Symphony concerts. The idea was to take favorite selections from the classical repertoire and “corrupt” them with jazzier approaches to performance. Erik Jekabson was recruited to provide arrangements for those approaches. One of the pieces he arranged last summer was “The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks in their Shells” from Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This time Jekabson took on the “Tuileries” movement from the same source, providing “interruptions” for passages from Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s piano suite.
The result may not have been as uninhibitedly wild as Ozone’s take on Gershwin, but it was no less absorbing. (One could again see more that a few SFS ensemble heads nodding in rhythm when Ozone’s trio took over the performance.) The overall framework actually followed the same sort of give-and-take rhetoric that formed the structure of “Rhapsody in Blue.” However, what was being “given” now came straight out of the scores in the SFS Music Library; and the trio then “took” what they received and delivered a generous share of highly imaginative jamming.
There was also an unexpected bit of innovation in the performance of “An American in Paris” in the second half of the program. It turned out that the proper pitch of the taxi horns in that piece had come into question; and one of the questioners happened to be SFS Percussion player James Lee (“Trey”) Wyatt III. The problem had grown out of a percussion part that put the four taxi horns on a five-line staff. However, a recording made under Gershwin’s direction suggested that he had intended four actual French taxi horns, whose sounds showed little respect for the chromatic scale. Such horns were used last night; and, as a result, even “An American in Paris” brought its own approach to novelty to the evening.
As a result the only real weakness in the program came with the overture Leonard Bernstein wrote for his musical Candide. Outwater found just the right degree of spritely rhetoric through which this music could race through its précis of the episodes that would unfold during the show itself. However, the result amounted to a neat little package tied up with a pretty bow. This would have been perfectly suitable in any number of settings, but last night turned out to be primarily about gutsy adventures, many of them spontaneous, into unfamiliar territory. The Bernstein selection was just too tame for that sort of occasion.