2007-09-27 / Family

New West Symphony performs Gershwin

The New West Symphony opened its 13th season at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza recently with a program of music by George Gershwin, a composer who, in the estimation of music director Boris Brott, should be compared with the likes of Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann and Tchaikovsky when it comes to richness of repertoire.

The concert began with Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," probably more apt to inaugurate the new season as opposed to adhering to the evening's theme. Copland was a composer who emphasized the heartland of the American landscape, while Gershwin always reflected the sprawling, complex sounds of the Big City.

The evening's guest artist, pianist Stewart Goodyear, is only 29, but he has already exhibited maturity beyond his years in his blossoming career, which has included regular performances in the U.S. as well as in his native Canada. His youth and enthusiasm matches that of the young Gershwin, who wrote the three pieces performed Friday night when between the ages of 26 and 30.

Written in 1925, Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F is constructed in the traditional three-movement concerto form, but it includes the Charleston rhythms then in vogue, a bluesy, nocturnal second movement and a frenetic finale, described by the composer as an "orgy of rhythm."

The concerto was Gershwin's introduction to scoring for a symphony orchestra. It was premiered at Carnegie Hall on Dec. 3, 1925, to a tumultuous reception by the audience but lukewarm reviews from critics, who thought it to be an immature work playing directly to the jazz-happy masses.

Gershwin's music is always positive, frolicsome and fun, reflecting the devil-may-care attitude of the pre-Depression Roaring '20s. The sounds of the city are reflected by Gershwin's use of dissonant intervals, such as major seconds, and dizzying chromatic runs that reverse direction without notice, bringing to mind the image of a runaway subway train.

At times, Goodyear played as if the piano's keys were blazing hot, finishing phrases with an emphatic flourish and suddenly thrusting his hands into his lap. The audience got so caught up in the Concerto that it forgot its manners, bursting into enthusiastic applause after the first movement's conclusion.

After intermission, maestro Brott employed another one of his surprise "preencores" before returning to Gershwin, leading the orchestra in "Pops Hoedown" by Richard Hayman, longtime arranger for the Boston Pops under Arthur Fielder. In this delightful piece, six "hired hands" augmented the percussion section- winners of a silent auction, who got to play such exotic instruments as slide whistle, klaxon horn, duck call and ratchet.

This was followed by the more familiar Gershwin pieces, "An American in Paris" (1928) and the ubiquitous "Rhapsody in Blue" (1924), the latter utilizing the original Ferde Grofé orchestration and also featuring Goodyear on piano. At the conclusion of the "Rhapsody," Goodyear's final, forceful chord was such that it jolted him right off his bench and onto his feet, triggering a standing ovation.

Three encores followed: Earl Wild's elegant arrangement of Gershwin's "Embraceable You," Andrei Shultz-Evler's "Concert Arabesques on 'The Blue Danube'" and an original piece Goodyear composed titled "August."

Possibly in response to the lively but relatively casual aura of the Gershwin pieces, the orchestra relaxed while Goodyear played his encores. Somewhere, Gershwin is smiling and applauding, with his pipe clenched between his teeth.

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