TSO’s Gershwin, Relax!

led by the incredible Wayne Marshall

Nights like tonight are a testament to the importance of an inspiring leader.

It’s not terribly often one walks into a concert with a program of works all by one composer, but that is, as the title of the evening would suggest, what we had tonight. The gem of the evening was Gershwin’s piano concerto in F, a piece that has somehow not reached the status of works like the composer’s Rhapsodydespite the fact that it is equally as if not more satisfying.

The program opened with Gershwin’s Strike Up the Band overture, which Marshall conducted from the platform, standing above the piano from which he would soon conduct the concerto. It seems to me the obvious thought is that we have a gentleman from Britain conducting American jazz-inspired works played by an Asian orchestra. None of that was really relevant, however, because they played the hell out of it. The overture, as overtures are wont to be, was exciting and engaging, in this case, fun. As an American, growing up in an environment where this kind of music is common, I feel there’s no way you couldn’t  hear it and get itand I think that stands true even for local audiences, especially played with the pizzazz (too trite?) that the TSO displayed tonight.

The concerto. So the concertmaster and his stand partner played a bit of hot-potato with a mic on the way out before and during the tuning process, and I was under the impression he was going to give a pre-concert lecture like Varga loves to do, but no. Even when Marshall came out on stage and they reached for the mic (now on a stand), he didn’t take it, but he did prior to the concerto.

Wayne Marshall should give TED talks. While the music seems instantly get-able, he gave a very quick, well-delivered lecture of sorts about the history of the piece, Damrosch, the three-movement form, basic themes, some things to look out for, the spirit of the work. He seems to be the kind of person who could make a grocery list or IKEA assembly instructions riveting, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who could have listened to him speak for much longer, but it was even better to hear him play.

The only other piano concerto I’ve seen in the concert hall conducted from the piano was Eschenbach conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, playing Mozart. I don’t know if it’s common for this piece to be conducted from the piano, but it seemed gutsy and daring to me. And then it made perfect sense. Suddenly the orchestra was, while still orchestral and professional, suddenly a large, cohesive, living breathing organism of a jazz band. They moved and worked together, Marshall as the suavest of suave bandleaders at his shiny Steinway.

In his introductory remarks, Marshall also informed the audience that he would be improvising his own cadenza for the work, stated coolly and calmly as if there was nothing to it. The entire piece, while more ‘classically structured’ in three movements with a slow middle and really wonderful structural elements that unify the work, is unmistakably jazz. It’s not jazz-inspired like the wisps of bluesy elements that one might hear from Ravel, but fully committed, and effective. That’s all I have to say about that. You really had to be there. Suave as hell.

Then came encores. Actually improvisations. After each piece from here on out, we got a talking to from Marshall. “So you liked that? Wanna hear some more? Here’s a little something, an improvisation on something Gershwin wrote,” and it was obviously wonderful. All those cliché jazzy adjectives, cool, smooth, slick, hot, whatever, they applied. The orchestra members watched as intently as the audience did as a very Gershwin theme was presented, unfolded, riffed on, turned around and back and shaken up, to end delightfully and even a little humorously. But the real highlight of perhaps the entire concert was what came next.

Ever heard 70+ people improvise together? I hadn’t either. Marshall says it seems the audience wants more. I paraphrase.

‘I’m feeling good, and so… you never know what can happen… We’re going to see who in your orchestra really knows how to play jazz. Maybe something will happen, maybe it won’t. We’ll see who improvises and how.’

He introduced a simple two note idea, C and G, and started on the piano, cuing principals or entire sections to come in after he’d set the tempo. First to jump in was a violin, and as everyone got comfortable with the idea, all attention turned again to Marshall, who’d cue soloists and cut them off. We got great solo improvs from violin, viola, trumpet, trombone, oboe, cellos, and even a quiet moment for two basses to do their things, all of whom were accompanied by a wonderful drummer. It was a riotously good time, and he gathered the band one section at a time to build to a final roaring conclusion to what was at least a seven or eight minute jam session. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen, spellbinding in the fullest sense of the word.

The second half of the concert gave us Don Rose’s arrangement of Gershwin’s Crazy Girl overture, also tons of fun, and a symphonic suite from Porgy and Bess, arranged by Robert Bennett. Each of them got their brief introductions from our conductor and star of the evening, and the result again was that you couldn’t help but ‘see’ the scenes of Gershwin’s magnum opus as they passed by, tunes like Summertime, iconic and slickly played.

In the spirit of what felt more and more like a jazz club, Marshall took the podium and his mic to tell us how much he loved Taipei, how great the tailors are (and that his shirt was just a few days old), and how he has enjoyed his stay. He said there was indeed an encore to round out the evening, a little piece called Promenade from a movie starring Ginger Rogers, ‘a funny piece about walking a dog, alternatively called ‘walking a dog”, and then he walked off the podium with a wave as the orchestra began to play. Only four or five minutes, it was a slick, laid back gesture to give them the spotlight after he’d been called back to rapturous applause all night. They breezed through the last little piece of the evening, bringing us yet more clarinet and trumpet solos, a little musical dessert to round out an incredible evening.

I said I don’t like jazz, and I’m a bit of a stickler for strictness and formality in the concert hall, but tonight was a hell of a good time, brought together and set in motion by a fantastic orchestra with an inspiring, passionate, talented conductor.

Then again…. that was 1,100 words to describe something rather… ineffable. You really  had to be there, and if you were, I’d be shocked if you didn’t agree with me. Bravi.

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