At Last, a Refreshing Performance of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto

The Houston Symphony gives Gershwin (and Copland) the respect he deserves.

By Olivia Flores Alvarez October 1, 2019

The Houston Symphony’s program ​"Gershwin’s Piano Concerto & Porgy and Bess" ​might have been better dubbed Six Degrees of Aaron Copland. Along with the two selections by Gershwin​, ​the program included Copland’s ​El Salon Mexico a​nd Carlos Chavez’s​ Sinfonia India.

Copland and Chavez were good friends. In fact, Copland wrote ​El Salon Mexico​ after Chavez enticed him to visit Mexico City in 1932. The bait? An all-Copland program at Mexico’s National Conservatory.

Around the same time, Gershwin traveled to France hoping to study with Nadia Boulanger, Copland’s former teacher. Like Ravel had earlier, she rejected him as a student (both claimed there was nothing they could teach the American composer). Equally disappointed and encouraged by the rebuff, Gershwin returned to the U.S. and promptly wrote ​An American in Paris​.

At Jones Hall, the selection of early 20th-century works hung together nicely. ​El Salon Mexico​ and ​Sinfonia India​, while performed in separate halves of the program, both incorporated motifs invoking Mexico.

El Salon Mexico​ was inspired by a famed Mexican dance hall of the same name where guards would reportedly check patrons at the door for weapons and the dancing went on until 5 in the morning. Copland visited the salon and reportedly fell in love with its colorful characters.

The composer’s score is, as was the dance hall, divided into three sections. In the case of the dance hall, each section was reserved for patrons of a particular social class. The score was not as discriminatory. In fact, Copland purposely wanted to compose something that was accessible to ordinary listeners—something populist.

Carlos Chavez’s ​Sinfonia India​, which started the second half of the concert, was written in 1936 and is among the most frequently performed symphonies by a Mexican composer. It’s easy to see why; while heavy on indigenous motifs, it’s extremely pleasing to the contemporary ear. The work incorporates the folk music of several native peoples, notably the Huichol, Yaqui, and Seri. To capture the right nuances, the orchestra used several instruments not usually seen on the symphony stage, including maracas and a ​güiro.​ Still, at just 12 minutes long, ​Sinfonia India​ was noticeably short and left the Saturday night audience wanting more.

For all the Copland connections, the evening really was a celebration of Gershwin. The Houston Symphony deserves kudos for its selection here. Gershwin got his start in Tin Pan Alley, saw Broadway and Hollywood success, composed several songs that became jazz standards, and—sometimes snooty classical music people forget this last part—wrote for symphony orchestras.

When he’s included in a symphony program, it’s most often ​An American in Paris or ​Rhapsody in Blue ​as part of a pops concert. Happily, the Houston Symphony under the baton of music director and conductor Andres Orozco-Estrada, gives Gershwin his due respect.

Gershwin’s ​Catfish Row (Symphonic Suite in Five Parts)​, a collection of highlights from his 1935 opera ​Porgy and Bess​, is built around the well-known “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,” and “Bess, You Is My Woman." “Summertime” especially has made its way into popular culture (Thank you, Janis Joplin!), but in the hands of the Houston Symphony, Catfish Row​ reminded listeners that ​Porgy and Bess​ is an opera, with all of the musical complexity worthy of the designation. Yes, “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin” is a jaunty, seemingly simple tune but Gershwin’s ​Catfish Row​ is, not surprisingly, exceedingly symphonic.

Now considered an American classic, ​Porgy and Bess​ was initially dismissed musically and largely disregarded. Many said the story of an African American community couldn’t possibly be the subject of an opera. At least, not a ​real​ opera. (It was a Grammy and Tony Award winning revival by the Houston Grand Opera in 1976 that renewed interest in and respect for the work. A new production is even on this season at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.)

Later, Orozco-Estrada generously singled out several musicians for recognition during the audience’s enthusiastic applause including pianist Scott Holshouser, concertmaster/violinist Yoonshin Song, trombonist Allen Barnhill, and oboist Jonathan Fischer.

And, just to put a finer point on it, Gershwin’s ​Piano Concerto in F​ leaves no doubt his work is a worthy inclusion on a symphonic program. Guest pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet joined the orchestra for the work,​ the final offering of the evening.

The ​Piano​ ​Concerto in F​ was written in 1925 and based on jazz, which was then just emerging. The first movement, the allegro, was fashioned after the Charleston; the second movement, the adagio, on the blues; and the third movement, the allegro agitate, on ragtime. The spirited, even happy ​Concerto​, from the pounding kettle drums at the opening, to its bluesy trumpet in the Adagio, is refreshingly American. The French-born Thibaudet, unencumbered by the “Gershwin isn’t classical” bias, learned the piece in his early teens and it’s a staple in his repertoire.

Thibaudet, dexterous and adroit, was able to move from meditative and pensive to spirited, even slightly aggressive at times. But he never overplayed, never going for drama when he could find nuance instead.

As for encores, Thibaudet performed a piece by Ravel for Friday night, but for Saturday it was Ignacy Paderewski’s ​Nocturne​. A gentle, delicate work, unfamiliar even to most of the musicians on stage, it was enchanting. (If you’ve never heard of Paderewski, a Polish composer who also turned his hand at politics, make sure to put him on your “Must Do” list.)

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