Portland Symphony Orchestra
Sept. 30, 2017
by Christopher Hyde
Eckart Preu will be a tough act to follow. One of the finalists in the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s search for a new music director, he conducted an unbelievably fine all-Gershwin concert Saturday night at Merrill Auditorium, with about 3 hours of rehearsal time. The final “Rhapsody in Blue,” with pianist Terrence Wilson, was interrupted by deliberate applause in the middle of the performance, an almost unheard of occurrence.
Given the genius of Gershwin, perhaps the first impression is unfair, but Preu got things out of the orchestra, especially in “An American in Paris,” that I had never heard before, while remaining true to the spirit of the music. He admitted to a special affinity for Gershwin, who was one of the few American composers allowed to be performed in East Germany, where the future conductor grew up. He even did a passable remembrance of a few bars of “Summertime” in German.
To get back to “Rhapsody,” Preu and Wilson played off each other like jazz musicians, resulting in a version as close as possible to the improvisation that characterized Gershwin’s first performance of the work. Authentic it certainly was, but also the most exciting that I have ever heard. Wilson’s immensely long fermatas, as if he were the composer trying to think of what to do next, were heart-stopping.
The balance between piano and orchestra—a much more powerful band than Paul Whiteman’s original—was perfect, with the piano showing through in measures generally lost. Preu and Wilson had worked before on the Gershwin Concerto in F, and I would dearly love to hear that version.
Arrangements of Gershwin melodies from Broadway musicals and the great opera “Porgy and Bess,” were equally well played, but the show stopper was “An American in Paris,” which Preu divided into three movements that made sense: morning in Paris, Paris nights and hangover.
I had never cared for the work before, thinking it a piece of movie music, but Preu brought out beauties of form and detail that made me reconsider. The music became a unified entity rather than a pastiche, with use of recurring motifs that would have made Beethoven happy.
Just one example of many serendipitous details—the plaintive violin solo in the hangover movement, by assistant concertmaster Amy Sims.
Among the shorter pieces that stand out was the humorous clarinet solo, “Walking the Dog,” with principal Thomas Parchman, and a soulful big-band rendition of Gershwin’s last song, “Our Love is Here to Stay,” with soprano Jacqueline Bolier.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at email@example.com.