CMF: Jazz, pizzazz, patriotism and a lot of fun

Pianist Jon Kimura Parker performs Gershwin, plus Billy Joel

By Peter Alexander July 6 at 12:25 a.m.

The Colorado Music Festival offered a concert titled “Revolution and Freedom” for its not-quite-the-Fourth of July concert last night (July 5). The program offered equal bits of jazz, pizzazz and patriotism, and a whole lot of fun.

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Peter Oundjian

After starting with a brisk performance of the National Anthem, conductor Peter Oundjian and the Festival Orchestra took up the more serious parts of the program, starting with Aaron Copland’s Outdoor Overture. The performance was bright and forceful, with more vigor than clarity in the opening section. The following lyrical passages were enhanced by lovely solos from flute and clarinet.

Oundjian delineated the contrasting sections well, and brought precision and a welcome energy to the performance. Though Canadian-English-Scottish by ancestry, Oundjian shows that he understands American styles of music—or at least how to unleash an American orchestra.

The American theme continued with Gershwin’s Concerto in F for piano and orchestra, with the assured and spirited Jon Kimura Parker as soloist. From the very beginning, he made the concerto his with a strong and sure interpretation. Listening, you might think, “This is what Gershwin wanted his Concerto to sound like!”

Oundjian was an attentive accompanist, finding both playful moments and powerful climaxes in the score. He maintained a truly precise connection between soloist and orchestra: I did not hear a single moment when they were not right together. Several times he and Parker—friends since their student days at Juilliard—exchanged beaming smiles.

The bluesy second movement offers its own challenge. The CMF performance was nicer than real blues—but was it a cautious interpretation, or Gershwin’s desire to write concert music that created that result? It was atmospheric, expressive, but stayed well away from anything that could be mistaken for dirty blues.

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Jon Kimura Parker. Courtesy of Colorado Music Festival.

The final movement was all energy and (that word again!) precision. Parker commanded attention with every entrance, driving the performance as a soloist should. After a rapturous ovation, he played a virtuosic version of Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” as an encore, while a beaming Oundjian stood beside the piano.

The second half of the concert was all dessert, starting with a bouncy and bumptious Overture to La Gazza Ladra by Rossini. From the multiple snare drums trading off the solos that open the overture, it was all a good show, with great individual playing through the wind sections—horns, piccolo, and clarinet being especially noticeable—and as loud as it needed to be at climaxes. It was all, Rossini would agree, “stupendo!”

If any piece in the repertoire can be called a potboiler, it is Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Played for Independence Day concerts everywhere, it is an easy piece for orchestras and conductors to toss off thoughtlessly, but Oundjian took pains to say that it is “always a joy to play this piece! It is remarkable and beautiful, even before the canons come in.”

His interpretation lived up that statement. He showed great attention to musical details from the very opening hymn played by solo cellos and violas through to the end. While parts of it were “very noisy,” as the composer himself once said, with occasional blare in the brass sound, it was never less than thrilling.

The remainder of the program comprised three marches by John Philip Sousa, Washington Post, The Liberty Bell  and of course, Stars and Stripes Forever. All were spirited and great fun to hear in the concert hall, if a little toned down from the best band performances. Stars and Stripes was faster than I am used to hearing it, but did not suffer from the tempo.

A word about the central march: Oundjian selected an enthusiastic audience member from the back of the hall, to conduct The Liberty Bell. A young percussionist with some band experience, the impromptu conductor showed that he had played the piece before. He gave appropriate cues throughout, including offbeat chimes near the end, and got the orchestra to follow a dramatically slower tempo for the very final strain.

Loud cheers followed the final, conclusive “stinger.” Did I say it was a lot of fun? Clearly a good time was had by all. What more could you want for a holiday concert?

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