Dallas — The Dallas Winds presented an all Gershwin concert as part of their season at the Meyerson Symphony Center on Tuesday evening. Titled "Hearts and Horns," it was an odd collection of pieces with little in common except the composer and with only a nod to Valentine’s Day.
The highlight of the evening was a superb performance of Rhapsody in Blue with the outstanding pianist Anton Nel. Fortunately, Artistic Director Jerry Junkin greatly reduced his wind ensemble for the performance. It wasn’t the same lean accompaniment that Ferdie Grofé provided Paul Whiteman for the premiere but it was reduced enough that it allowed the piano to sound out, only causing Nel to overplay in the loudest moments.
Nel is a refined pianist who brings an elegant approach to everything he plays. His appearance a few seasons ago with the Dallas Symphony in a Beethoven concerto still stands as a highlight in a life of concert going. More importantly, he is sensitive to the moods of the music and will bring out the humor to be frequently found there, even in the likes of Mozart and Beethoven. This is quite refreshing in a world of molto serioso performances that ignore the humanity of the composer.
Such was the case with his rendition of Rhapsody in Blue. We know from the historical record that Gershwin improvised much of the piano part at the premiere, only writing “wait for nod” in Whiteman’s score during the long piano solos. Nel picked up on this and gave an improvisatory feeling to those same passages. For example, Nel would start a musical idea and then pause, as if to decide what to do with it, and then take off. Further, he didn’t overly romanticize the famous lyrical tune, but played it like a singer—giving it space to breathe.
The only disappointment was that it was impossible to hear the banjo player, which is an important part of the score (in any arrangement). Since we saw him playing, one can only assume that his amplification was not turned on or too low to be heard. (The same was true when he switched to guitar later in the program.)
The rest of the program was a grab bag.
Junkin opened with a spirited performance of the overture to Strike Up the Band. Since the original was for a small pit band, the overture has become a concert standard in several re-orchestrations. No arranger was credited for this concert, but you would be safe to assume it is the one for wind band by the French composer Désiré Dondeyn. Whoever wrote it, it is a masterpiece of translating orchestral music to wind band and got a fine performance; with ample clarity to let all its delights show through the dense texture.
Soprano Mela Dailey joined the ensemble to sing a few Gershwin hits: “By Strauss,” “Our Love is Here to Stay,” and “Nice Work if You Can Get It.” She looked glorious and sounded even better. Dailey has a first-class instrument capable of everything from the opera house to Broadway and cabaret. Unfortunately, she was unprepared for this performance and even needed the music, which was beside her on a stand. This was also evident in her well-sung, but neutral, approach to some very different songs.
The final work on the program was “Catfish Row,” a suite of music from Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. The composer made the suite himself and it contains some of the most complex music in the score, stuff of which it was deservedly proud. (A later suite by Richard Rodney Bennett takes a different approach and concentrates on the big hits and minimizes Gershwin’s more serious moments.)
This arrangement for wind ensemble is by the American composer, conductor and arranger Donald Hunsberger. He is a major figure in the development of wind orchestras and was the conductor of the Eastman Wind Ensemble from 1965 to 2001. In his arrangement, little of Gershwin’s piquant original is lost and you are, once again, reminded of his exceptional genius.
This is a very difficult work for the band and they sounded like they needed a few more rehearsals (but such is almost always the case due to financial restrictions). But mostly, what was missing was the unique style of the music. Gershwin insisted that, except for the white policemen (natch), only black artists perform Porgy and Bess on stage. Of course, this dictum doesn’t extend to bands and orchestras playing the suites, but conductors try to give the music this vital overlay. With same more rehearsal, I am certain that Junkin, usually very sensitive to such interpretative matters, would have come much closer than he did on Tuesday.