When did “fun” become such a dirty word in classical music?
“Fun” connects to children’s or pop concerts or a playful opera scene long before it becomes fixated on your average night at the symphony. (Not that these species can’t be very smart, too.) But something strange, perhaps dangerous, happens when symphony orchestras eliminate a few key emotions in an attempt to encapsulate the dizzying range of human life.
For a new perspective on entertainment, run, don’t walk, to the Chicago Symphony concerts conducted by James Gaffigan this weekend. They are exciting, life-affirming, ecstatic and knowledgeable. The intermission was a parade of dazzling smiles. I’m still wearing mine.
Thank you Conrad Tao for this. The pianist, who is only 29 years old, is making his CSO subscription debut with these concerts. After Thursday’s dazzling, astonishing Gershwin F Piano Concerto, this debut feels long overdue. Tao was born in Urbana in 1994; When his parents realized they had a multi-hyphenated genius on their hands (Tao composed prolifically and also played the violin for a time), the family moved to Naperville, in part so he could study at the Chicago Institute of Music. As he humorously puts it before the reprise, Tao was an NGO subscriber “from ages 5 to 9,” at which point he attended Juilliard Pre-College in New York, where he has lived ever since.
Judging by Thursday’s performance and reception alone, NGO audiences will soon be nagging Tao like parents begging for more homecomings. The Gershwin Concerto is overshadowed by its slightly larger sibling, “Rhapsody in Blue,” and its many seams are difficult to reconcile. It depends on the interpreter, that’s the point.
But if you’ve shrugged off this concerto in the past, listen to Tao. Like Gershwin, he knows a thing or two about bringing the music of the street to the concert hall: his repertoire includes not only the Three B’s, but also Beach Boys And Beyonce.
From Tao’s first introduction, it was clear that listeners were in the presence of a creative supernova: a syncopated phrase, a heartfelt echo of it, followed by an acceleration that spun its lines into a meaningful jumble. If you had heard a change in the notes, you would not have imagined it: Tao had placed some improvisational manipulations on his cadences, so natural that one could hardly miss it.
What about these strange transitions? Under the fingers of the Tao they became places of joy and discovery. At one point, two-thirds of the way through, the piano almost cuts itself off with a graceful ragtime number. Strange, isn’t it? Try something funny: Tao stopped the rope before timidly introducing the rag.
And that was just the first move. The applause that followed was so enthusiastic that the concert was interrupted for a short time.
When the performance resumed, the audience was treated to some of the season’s best brass and woodwinds so far to open the second movement; sweet and slow, like stretching sleepy limbs. (Spoiler alert: In a perfectly pure move, trumpeter Esteban Batallán uses a fedora to muffle his schmaltzy solo to great effect.) He deftly carried the Tao melodies with graceful wrist movements and big-eared interaction with the orchestra.
The only flaw in this magnificent debut: the Allegro agitato finale passed too quickly for me to appreciate the motoric interplay between the left and right hands. That’s what really drives this movement, not pure speed. Tao wanted to go a few clicks faster than the tempo the orchestra had set in the introduction; so much so that its left-right vamp sounded almost like a tremolo. It was a jaw-dropping, if rather unsatisfactory, show.
Tao’s last word on Thursday: Transcription of Art Tatum’s keyboard-involving version “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” – there was a better balance of face-melting ingenuity, depth and invention. And that’s exactly how Tao added his own imaginative tweaks to Tatum’s fantasy. It’s worth the price of admission alone.
So were the Symphonic Dances in “West Side Story.” Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal’s arrangement of Bernstein’s scores causes the orchestra to laugh and shout. Even if you know it’s coming, it never fails to entertain. At the second cry of “Mambo!”, conductor Gaffigan turned to address the audience, who responded with joy. (This is, after all, a banner program for unconventional orchestral techniques: Violins and violas strum their instruments like guitars in Gershwin’s Andante movement.) Earlier, “Somewhere” had lived up to its promise as one of the most soul-touching moments of the night. , magnificent solos came together in a wonderful bouquet of sound.
In addition to the rest of the programme, the concert’s shorter bookends also made the ends of the bar proportionately shorter. Samuel Barber’s “School of Scandal” Overture and Silvestre Revueltas’s “Sensemayá” (extensive works of genius in construction and orchestration) saw more variable ensembles and solos than the products they compressed. Gaffigan’s interpretations of both were closer to the sound you’d hear at an outdoor pop concert than a concert hall performance: pretty spectacular, but omitting some subtle emotional contrasts.
But as a podium technician, the man is a guide. Gaffigan uses his entire body to manipulate, and in the case of a program like this that means shaking his hips, taking two steps, and bouncing Bernstein. His body language reflected the many rhythms of the night (often layered simultaneously) with crystal clear clarity. He was also a genial colleague who moved through the orchestra to familiarize himself with the solos (with the conspicuous omission of violist Weijing Michal Who deserves a few rounds of applause for her beautiful role in “Somewhere”. To encourage Tao to play again, he crouched down and shouted like a college football coach, giving the crowd a huge round of applause.
Anyway. Go, go, go to the symphony this week. You can even have fun too.
The program will be repeated Oct. 20, 21 and 24 at 7:30 p.m., Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; tickets $35-$250; cso.org
Hannah Edgar is a freelance critic.
The Rubin Institute of Music Criticism helps fund our classical music coverage. The Chicago Tribune retains editorial control over assignments and content.