American composers and a new day – Louis Luangkesorn

This weekend's concert featured Gabriela Montero, fresh off a little Washington DC performance of Air and Simple Gifts in a small venue of 2 million people and a worldwide TV audience. It promised to be something interesting.

Bookended by Berber and Mendelson, Ms. Montero played Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin and the live performance premiere of Air and Simple Gifts by John Williams.  Rhapsody in Blue is probably best known for being played in commercials. Air and Simple Gifts, for its place in the recent 2009 U.S. Presidential Inauguration. For both, Ms. Montero made hearing these pieces live a treat. If your concept of Rhapsody in Blue is the driving theme of a TV commercial, the PSO performance presented many sides to the theme. From the hard driving we're used to hearing, to a light dancing on piano, to strings and horns playing off each other, and winds taking the theme exposed on their own. There is even room for a banjo. And listening to a piano improvise her parts is a treat, especially when someone like Ms. Montero, whose a skilled improvisationist, is the one on stage.

Air and Simple Gifts is also transformed in a live performance. While on TV watching the inauguration it sounded like a straight copy of the Copland Appalachian Spring, live shows many more layers that seem like mere rumbling on the televised version. You can hear the counterpoint in the strings as clarinet and piano take on the main Simple Gifts theme. The piano part becomes an integral weave throughout the piece instead of a murmur under the strings and wind.

I was amused at the program's description of George Gershwin in relation to his contemporary classical composers. It describes Gershwin as a jazz composer dabbling in classical composition. Certainly he is better known for his jazz and folk-style music, along with his many musicals. But this description also fits another composer, who is better known for writing music that is played in a popular culture setting, whose tunes also embed themselves in popular consciousness, setting the theme for a work, or even an event. John Williams, composer for film, and Presidential inaugurals. The comparison is greater when one looks at the criticisms of the piece in various newspapers (not about the playing, but the piece itself). Similar to Gershwin, John Williams is best known for writing music for a popular setting, in his case movie music. His music sticks and conjures up strong images in your mind. What images do I here in Air and Simple Gifts? There is a quiet beginning of a new day, then waking up for the work to do with the Appalachian Spring theme with the clarinet. And the rest of the piece giving that sense that there is much work to be done by all, good work, but lots of it. And for this piece, at this time, that sounds about right.

A concert with modern American pieces just fits this week, with an inauguration just behind us. And it seemed to show the contrast between a brasher, more cocky America of the not-too-distant past, and one that has many challenges ahead in a new day. It made for a worthy performance. Of course, there was the also timely improvisational encore at the end of the first half, when Ms. Montero took requests for a theme to play off of. And what followed was many spirited variations on 'Here we go Steelers, here we go!' Very timely indeed.

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