Straight Meets Wild at the Marin Symphony

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Tonight's all-Gershwin season-opener at the Marin Symphony was a lesson in combining accuracy with spirit. "I want to recreate it as I think Gershwin would have intended," Music Director Alisdair Neale remarked in his pre-concert talk with author Tobias Wolff, and the first two pieces of the night reflected that philosophy - limited expression within the piece's technical constraints. Neale loosened up in the second half, however, with the help of pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi, whose free-wheeling attitude and unexpected rhythms filled "Rhapsody in Blue" with the passion that Gershwin intended, flying the concert on to its spirited conclusion.

But the night's wild atmosphere didn't start with the concert. 300 guests attended a pre-concert gala dinner, complete with food, costumes, and three Model A Fords parked in front. To complete the Twenties atmosphere: a newly-invented cocktail called the "Blue Rhapsody," containing mostly vodka but with enough blue curacao and triple sec to give it some flavor. According to one bartender, roughly half of the 300 gala attendees tried the cocktail, and the rest stuck to more tradition drinks. The gala's "roaring Twenties" theme set the perfect pre-concert atmosphere for participants and for the concert-goers who passed by.

Meanwhile, Neale discussed Gershwin's music with Wolff, a celebrated author who helped choose the program. "I fell in love with the pure American-ness of [Rhapsody in Blue]," Wolff said, describing the piece's city rhythms, optimism, and tireless forward motion. He contrasted Gershwin's style with that of Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra of his youth, which he described as European, and too classically committed. "Henry James could be an English writer," he said, "but Mark Twain could not." Such was the difference between Gershwin and his predecessors, and the source of Gershwin's emotional depth and playfulness. Neale had many insightful questions prepared, and Wolff's answers helped listeners understand and frame the concert.

A spirited "Star-Spangled Banner" kicked off the concert, but the orchestra quickly slowed down into Gershwin's "Cuban Overture."

The orchestra started the piece in an exceptionally safe and accurate manner, without much spunk or attitude. Indeed, the entire piece was played too accurately, and too carefully, except for a few moments of raucous party. In the slow middle section, Neale missed repeated opportunities for swells or expression. In the end, he only saved the piece's energy with a dangerous acceleration into the end, full of dramatic expression. This moment of flair demonstrated the energy that the entire piece should have captured.

The same deadened expression continued into the "Catfish Row Suite," although moments of this piece shined brightly through the haze. Neale was clearly having fun with the opening, and it showed in the violins' bright, joyous sound, punctuated by an identical bells line. This piece, a compilation of songs from the opera Porgy and Bess, was full of character, and the orchestra played it up perfectly, even drawing laughs from the audience during some trumpet mute theatrics. This piece also featured the luscious string sections that were missing so visibly from "Cuban Overture," a testament to the orchestra's fine emotional expression. Neale also brought out the incredibly exciting and non-standard tone colors in the last three movements. These sections clearly mirrored the opera characters' moods and emotional development, and they allowed the orchestra to connect substantially with the audience.

But the real fireworks came after intermission, beginning with "Rhapsody in Blue." Nakagoshi's piano shenanigans lit the orchestra on fire, and they responded with an ever-amplifying volley of passion, expression, and pure jazz. His unique interpretive style highlighted the schizophrenic nature of Gershwin's piano writing, and provided surprises for those of us who know the piece well. Neale and the orchestra provided a sensitive accompaniment for the piano, deftly adjusting their dynamics to let the piano through.

In contrast to Nakagoshi, the orchestra played with exceptional rhythmic accuracy, which seemed at odds with Nakagoshi's loose, jazzy style. After the concert, Neale told me that he saw the orchestra's style as very similar to Nakagoshi's, and that Nakagoshi had played in a "clean musical style," but the orchestra's desire to play more expressively was frequently evident, for example when the clarinet and trumpet attempted to play their triplet figures with more freedom. The opening of the love section felt rigid, too, as if the underlying rhythm were not allowed to flow properly. Nonetheless, the piano soloist was one of the best I've ever seen or heard, despite (or because of) his missed note and crowded rhythms. Nakagoshi's flexible use of rhythm and tempo imbued the performance with a rare fire and energy, well-matched by the low brass' raw power near the end, and the audience's standing ovation was immediate, lengthy, and perfectly-deserved.

"An American in Paris" closed the concert, riding on the residual energy from "Rhapsody in Blue." The violins began the piece with breathtaking punctuation and dramatic flair. Their incredible energy and drive carried through to the heavy percussion, which highlighted the music's character, juxtaposing the heavy, the light, and the comical. Despite some dragging as the piece progressed, "An American in Paris" was an appropriately peppy finish to such a jazzy American concert.

Taken as a full set, the night's four pieces left some expression unfulfilled, but they also provided many poignant moments of emotion. Neale (of British heritage) should be congratulated for imbuing Gershwin's blatantly American music with such joyous and passionate conducting. He may have played it safe with his expression, but his results were accurate, tuneful, and well-balanced, and well worthy of one of the Bay Area's top regional symphonies.

The Marin Symphony repeats this program on Tuesday, Oct. 6 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are available at

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