Sometimes you have to park your assumptions by the door. Last night’s San Francisco Symphony program seemed like the usual summer collection of overplayed standards: Rhapsody in Blue, Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story,” Ravel’s Boléro, and Pavane, with a few bits from Bernstein’s Divertimento thrown in. All nice enough, but nothing exceptional. However, these weren’t warmed-over Fourth of July offerings. With Makoto Ozone on piano, and Edwin Outwater conducting, this was the most imaginative and electric event I’ve been to in a long while.
The San Francisco Symphony recently released their “West Side Story” CD with Cheyenne Jackson and Alexandra Silber to much critical acclaim. The “West Side Story” Symphonic Dances performed last night is the film orchestration of the same music. One gasps at the electric quality of this performance: fresh and vital with more color than any symphony orchestra could possibly muster.
Sans vocals in the hands of these musicians, Bernstein’s genius becomes even more obvious. This performance was like hearing the well-known score for the first time – in ways both big and small. The transition from Somewhere to Scherzo contained hints of Copland that previously escaped me. Cheyenne Jackson sums it up, saying “the melodies are so memorable, but the music is so complex.” That complexity is even more evident in the Symphonic Dances version.
However, that was only the warm-up. Jazz pianist Makoto Ozone joined the Symphony to reclaim Rhapsody in Blue back from United Airlines and a thousand dreary elevators. By playing the Rhapsody, not as Gershwin wrote it in 1924 (back when it shocked audience by combining classical and modern), but rather with long improvised passages that gave rise to wild applause in the middle of the piece, Ozone is more loyal to the original. As a pianist, Ozone elicits that “OMG, I can’t watch” response from other pianists because his virtuosity of attack is so mind blowing. Audience response to Ozone’s performance was so overwhelming, he offered up a small encore from his CD My Witch’s Blue, a jazzy minor key number that opened with long smoky scalar passages into which Ozone tossed a few measures of the Rhapsody, as a bit of a giggle.
All that would have been entirely enough for one night, but the post-intermission show was yet to come. Returning to the stage, the SFS performed a series of short selections from Bernstein’s Divertimento, which he composed for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 1980 centennial. However, this was just a warm up for the jazzed up Ravel that was to follow. Backed by the SFS, Mark Inouye on trumpet, Scott Pingel on bass, Jacob Nissly on percussion and Ozone on piano formed a jazz combo unto themselves, and launched into Ravel’s Pavane pour une infant défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess) followed by Boléro.
The Pavane is a dreamy piece with an easy flow that takes you unexpected places. Principal trumpeter Mark Inouye was astounding, with a lithe, sexy sound.
At first blush, the opening measures of Boléro didn’t offer anything new. If any piece needed redemption, this certainly did, having been used to accompany Olympic figure skaters in every Olympics in memory. However, a bit of patience paid off, as thanks to the aforementioned combo, this version ended with a Stravinsky style pile-up. As he did before, Ozone seemed to be the most generous of musicians, closing the lid of the piano, so it didn’t block the audience’s view of the musicians they were applauding.
Program notes remarked that Bernstein knew where “music fit into our overall culture scheme,” as he “believed in its power to make life better and richer.” Given these summer’s concerts, the same thing could be said of the SFS under the leadership of MTT.