There’s a game my friends like to play, when the cameras come out at parties, called “Little Face, Big Face.” Little Face is the sweet, family-portrait smile. Then everyone mugs for a photo in Big Face — eyes wide, jaw open in overt surprise, all oversized expression.
Thursday night it was Big Face music at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts. The Naples Philharmonic Orchestra played at open throttle for much of the three-work program. Even an encore, rehearsed for a Friday night performance in Orlando, was the high-octane Slavonic Dance No. 1 from Dvorak.
Music Director Jorge Mester and British pianist Howard Shelley certainly had a big work in mind for the headliner: George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F Major. It opens with a blasting, piston like motif from the timpani and an urgent call from trombones and oboe that sets up the introspective piano entrance.
The entire work is a loaded grab bag of exuberant breakouts and haunting jazz themes, and makes percussive demands well beyond the usual. The orchestra had to bring in chimes, xylophone, wood blocks and a snare with brushes and a whip.
Shelley is one of the most adroit students of dynamics on the concert circuit today, and Thursday he was clearly keeper of this concerto. He immediately cooled Gershwin’s frantic entrance into an intimate soliloquy, concurrently pulling the orchestra and Mester into a jazzier frame of mind. His playing was knife-sharp, even through the liquid runs of the Andante con moto. He coaxed feather tones from his Yamaha, but could figuratively stand on it as well, thumbing a few emphatic notes as if he would grind them into keyboard.
This concerto is full of split-second timing and sub themes. There’s a bluesy trumpet opening of the second section, at first a bit shaky Thursday, but jelling into jazzy hip rolls from Matthew Sonneborn. Gershwin’s 20th century paradigm requires a lot of brass in quick punctuation, which that section seemed to relish. The violas come out in a sort of barnyard strut and piccolos starred in industrial-age cherub roles.
One sly critic led his review of the Concerto’s 1925 debut with: “Yesterday, following the premiere of his Piano Concerto in F, George Gershwin was arrested, charged with wilful corruption of a classical form.”
It was clear Thursday night, however, that Gershwin meant to revive it.
After the intermission came Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances,” the musical equivalent of speed-reading a Dostoevsky novel. It was the composer’s last work, written in the U.S., but full of Russian feeling from its very first string, timpani and brass boot steps.
There are intermittent soaring segments to sweeten it. The first was a sublime interplay of Donald Rhynard’s alto sax with the other woodwinds in the Allegro, which eventually dissolved into a painfully poignant string theme. In the Andante, it’s a violin solo of longing, performed with rich tone by Glenn Basham Thursday night. Later in the movement, the flute section swoops through a reeling, Ravel-esque waltz for a few ethereal moments.
Perhaps those flutes have come to twitter that the sky is falling. The final dance is a deconstruction of the ancient Latin funeral theme, the “Dies Irae,” in close and clever and somewhat disconcerting variations. Did the composer know his own death was near?
There are no musical pillars to get your arms around in this work, but if you can hang on for the ride, it’s darkly gorgeous.
The alpha and omega, Brahms’ “Academic Overture” Festival Overture and the Slavonic Dances, show the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra at its deceptive best; there’s incredible work going on. But you’d swear the orchestra is having the same fun you are.
Connect with Harriet Howard Heithaus at www.naplesnews.com/staff/harriet_heithaus