Observing soloists is always intriguing since each has his or her own style and signature—a way of playing. This past weekend with the opening concert of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, 17-year-old Conrad Tao was the brilliant pianist for George Gershwin’s (1898-1937) Concerto in F Major for Piano and Orchestra. Tao is seasoned beyond his years and he was immediately immersed in the music and in his responsibility to interpret Gershwin’s piece to the audience, yet the young star wasn’t distant. He wasn’t so absorbed that he didn’t connect with the crowd or the orchestra. He enjoyed himself. If he didn’t have the piano in front of him, his body language indicated he might have been dancing across the stage. Some may argue that a soloist shouldn’t be so animated, but it was clear he was having fun and that emotion rubbed off on the rest of us. His relationship with the orchestra and Conductor Fabio Mechetti, was resolute—determined yet relaxed—as though at home with his family.
The music itself is upbeat—the opening much like a Broadway show—and at times calm until the piano leads us back into the jazz expressions familiar to fans of Gershwin. The little xylophone taps that move us toward the intense strings section carry the “story” of the concerto further.
The second movement, “Adagio – Andante con moto,” has recognizable themes reminiscent of Gershwin’s legendary opera, Porgy and Bess. The leisurely tempo and bluesy tone remind us that it’s “summertime and the livin’ is easy.” The piano is showcased more in this movement and leads the rest of the orchestra. The flute, too, has an extensive solo role and complements the mentality of relaxation.
The final movement, “Allegro agitato,” begins with a vibrant introduction and maintains its strength throughout the movement. The piano picks up speed, is a little crazy and adds a whole lot of jazz, baby. If anyone could pull off the Gershwin-esque flair, it was Tao. The young soloist was, in a word, impressive.
(check out this video of Conrad Tao’s opening night rehearsal)
Aaron Copland’s (1900-1990) Symphony No. 3 was the final piece for the evening, and begins by taking the audience to a grand place in America, the old west (which is a recurring theme in many of his pieces). His first movement, “Molto moderato; with simple expression,” is similar to the opening of an epic movie. The sun rises upon the expansive land; the light glimmers in the leaves of the trees that tower on the mountains; the bison are grazing.
The third movement, “Andantino quasi allegretto,” opens with the strings, which are like echoes floating from the evening sky. There is a calm that passes over the land, and spreads itself like a warm blanket over the earth’s shoulders.
In the final movement, “Molto deliberato—Allegro risoluto,” Fanfare for the Common Man, a piece he composed two years earlier in 1942, is highlighted here. The brass—and the trombones in particular—play a key role, as well as throughout the entire symphony. There is a section that appears obscure, lost from the rest of the piece, but it is brief and the orchestra returns with the familiarity of what we became accustomed to in the first three movements. They usher in a return to the land we saw and felt in the opening: a return to richness, the land we know and love, the soil that is familiar—Earth—our home.
What do you love about Gershwin or Copland?
Upcoming Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra Performance:
October 6 – 8, 2011
Rodrigo: Concierto Andaluz
with the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5
Sept. 29 & 30, 2011
Dallas Symphony Orchestra
Sept. 29 – Oct. 1, 2011
Beethoven & Carmina Burana
National Symphony Orchestra
Sept. 30 – Oct. 2, 2011
Stravinsky & Berlioz
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Sept. 30 – Oct. 2, 2011
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra