Bold, exciting and full of memorable melodies, the music of George Gershwin is a popular choice for classical music programmers. Even an indifferent performance can be enjoyable, with plenty of grand gestures and opportunities for toe-tapping. Played well, though, Gershwin can be revelatory.
At its annual ACTEW Grand Gala concert last Saturday night, a large incarnation of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra proved the latter point in a program that featured all the classic Gershwin numbers and two superb Australian soloists.
The evening swung directly into action with a bracing rendition of the overture from the 1927 musical Strike Up the Band, before the arrival of the first guest artist of the evening, soprano Trisha Crowe. With an engaging stage presence, Crowe literally sparkled her way through three classic numbers - By Strauss, a rendition in French of Someone to Watch Over Me and a beautiful A Foggy Day - in a 1930s-inspired coat and gown and glittering silver shoes. Left with little to do on stage during the lush orchestral interludes, Crowe cultivated a sultry, woman-of-the-world persona that was quickly betrayed by the cheeky grin that followed each song.
To end the first half, the orchestra were joined on stage by the renowned Australian pianist Piers Lane for a thrilling interpretation of the first and last movements of the Piano Concerto in F. Written in 1925, the concerto, in this performance at least, had an unsettling intensity, as if Gershwin - one of the first great composers of American popular music - were using the tricks of Tin Pan Alley to explore the dark underbelly of the Jazz Age. I only wish we'd had a chance to hear what Lane and the CSO could do with the more wistful second movement.
Lane returned to open the first half with a virtuosic performance of Rhapsody in Blue. While for this piece one might have asked for a little more swing from the orchestra, there was ample drama and memorable solo playing from several members of the ensemble. Lane brought a welcome thoughtfulness to the piece, which can often be a vehicle for unreflective showmanship. The quieter solo passages were particularly memorable.
Trisha Crowe had the unenviable task of continuing the show after Lane's pianistic fireworks. Her Summertime, sung relatively high in the vocal register, lacked some of the heat that the song requires, but The Man I Love and a swinging 'S Wonderful were much more successful.
The official program closed with a barnstorming performance of An American in Paris, the undoubted highlight of which was principal trumpeter Zach Raffan's lavish bluesy solo. A piece that can often come off as trite, the CSO's American had a surprising, and effective, degree of dramatic intensity.
The audience, already basking in the recollection of two refulgent hours of Gershwin, were treated to a pair of delightful encores - another overture, this time from Girl Crazy, and a version of I Got Rhythm for which Crowe and Lane returned to the stage.
Gershwin's work, with its striking rhythmic complexity and complex dialogue between soloist and orchestra, presents a number of challenges to the conductor.
CSO Chief Conductor Nicholas Milton conducts with a kind of Brahmsian physicality, using all the expressive potential of body, arms and even fingertips to shape the sound coming from his ensemble. The orchestra responded in kind, and the visible connection between conductor and musicians was a pleasure to observe.
Milton makes an engaging MC, his informal and amusing repartee suited to both the nature of the event and the unique character of the CSO itself. Seldom have I seen a professional orchestra enjoy themselves onstage as the CSO appear to do. The results are more than audible. At a time when the future of the ANU School of Music - an institution with close links to the orchestra - is in doubt, this Grand Gala event is an opportunity to celebrate the vital part that first-rate music-making plays in the Canberra community.