The Hollywood Bowl is a deservedly legendary summer institution, a beautiful natural amphitheater nestled in the Hollywood Hills where great music is the norm. Each year, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association puts together an eclectic lineup of shows presenting not only its own orchestra, but some of the greatest musicians in the world representing all types of music. The Bowl is a treasure not only for patrons of classical music, but for fans of all jazz, pop, rock and the plethora of styles held under the banner of world music. The recent L.A. Philharmonic productions featuring the music of Gershwin conducted by Leonard Slatkin went one better by highlighting the points where jazz and 20th Century art music intersect.
The Gershwin Celebration program was part of a week long tribute to George Gershwin held in mid-July. There were actually three different presentations in the series, two by the Philharmonic itself and a third all-star jazz concert devoted to the Hollywood music of George & Ira Gershwin. The Gershwin Celebration featured three of Gershwin's major pieces, the Concerto in F, I Got Rhythm" Variations and An American in Paris. These were featured alongside two rarely played pieces written by two composers, who also served as arrangers of Gershwin's music: Ferde Grofe's Hollywood Suite, commissioned for and premiered at the Bowl in 1938 based on a ballet presented three years earlier and Robert Russell Bennett's Concerto Grosso for Dance Band and Orchestra.
While the Gershwin material was obviously the meat of the concert, the Grofe and Bennett made for interesting sort of side dishes. Though I would be surprised if either piece were to suddenly enter general circulation among orchestras worldwide, both seemed eminently worthy of the airing they received from the LA Phil and I was glad to hear them. Both pieces were imbued with a strong sense of early jazz and also reflected the sensibility of film scores from that era. The suite by Grofe opened the evening and my initial reaction to the first movement was that it sounded a bit like lesser Gershwin. As the orchestra went on, however, I realized that it was actually more like the music Ellington was writing at that time. The six movements had a programmatic element reflecting various uniquely Hollywood scenarios and the mood varied appropriately, building to a satisfying conclusion. The Bennett concerto was mainly humorous in nature. The jazz licks played by the three reeds and three brass players were pretty hot. The piece concluded on a rousing, patriotic note in the finale.
Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet was the featured soloist on the Gershwin pieces. Concerto in F is one of those remarkably prescient compositions that you sometimes get from a young composer with his first 'serious' piece of writing undertaken at the behest of Paul Whiteman. Eclipsed to some extent by later masterpieces including Paris, the striking thing about the work is how clearly you can hear the seeds of Gershwin's later achievements. Phrases thrown out here and there with individual keyboard runs all suggesting that great body of work to come. Thibaudet is a very physical performer, writhing and grimacing as he expertly rendered the intricacies of Gershwin's piano writing. I'm not always a fan of the showy, 'every note hurts' school of playing music, but you can't argue with the fine results the Frenchman got. Bridging the two major Gershwin works were the relatively light I Got Rhythm Variations, featuring four variations on that great theme which underpins so much of the jazz cannon. An American in Paris served as an appropriate closer for this concert on Bastille Day, rendered exhilarating by the orchestra and still offering revelations of the composer's genius despite its familiarity as a piece of music.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic's Gershwin Celebration concert at the Hollywood Bowl was a great event and a perfect program of music for its setting. The Gershwin pieces were presented with aplomb by the orchestra under conductor Slatkin and their guest Jean-Yves Thibaudet. The revivals of Grofe and Bennett were fascinating as well. The combined influences of jazz and western classical music that informed each of the compositions created a context in which they all thrived and amounted to a feast for the musical omnivores in the audience.