The Americans are coming: Pianist showcases Gershwin

By MIKE CHAIKEN

EDITIONS EDITOR

Thoughts of classical music often turn to thoughts of the Germans, such as Beethoven and Mozart. Or, if you look farther to the east, Russians such as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff come to mind.

But, American composers also have added their touch to the canon of classical music. And the Hartford Symphony Orchestra will raise the American flag this weekend with a performance featuring two renowned American classical composers—George Gershwin (“Piano Concert in F”) and Aaron Copland (“An Outdoor Adventure” and “Suite from ‘Billy the Kid’). Additionally, a more contemporary classical performer from the U.S., Christopher Theofanidis, will be represented by the piece “Rainbow Body.”

Pianist Alessio Bax will be the featured performer on the Gershwin piece. Bax has performed with the London and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras, Dallas and Cincinnati Symphonies, NHK Symphony in Japan, St. Petersburg Philharmonic with Yuri Temirkanov, and the City of Birmingham Symphony with Sir Simon Rattle. Additionally, he was appointed artistic director of Tuscany’s Incontri in Terra di Siena festival in summer 2017. Plus, he launched the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s 2017-18 season in company with his wife and fellow pianist, Lucille Chung.

Bax said he doesn’t like to generalize in terms of quality when it comes to the nationality of composers. “I believe great music is great music regardless of its provenance. There is so much great American music that is so incredibly well crafted, unique and special.

“On the other hand,” he said, “it’s hard to compete with the Germanic tradition, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and so on.

“But why compete and compare?” said Bax. “It’s not what music and art is about.”

As far as Gershwin’s impact on classical composition, Bax said, he “had a huge influence on the classical music world. Take for example the obvious influence he had on composers like Ravel, who started to incorporate jazz elements into his music, soon after hearing Gershwin. It is often said Gershwin made a lady out of jazz, but the truth is that he exposed classical music and composers to it.”

As a pianist, Bax said he enjoys Gershwin because “his writing is so full of life, laughter, and is always fresh. It can be incredibly melancholic at times, but never deeply sad or depressed. There is a joy for life into his music and even into his piano writing, which is contagious.”

For many casual listeners, Gershwin is best known for “Rhapsody in Blue” and “American in Paris.” But Bax said “Piano Concerto in F” “was the first piece (Gershwin) orchestrated by himself. He did not orchestrate the ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ for example. He realized it was a ridiculous thing and taught himself orchestration from scratch. It shows an incredible amount of imagination and talent.

Bax said Gershwin “invented brand new solutions that made his music sound instantly recognizable. He even incorporated the ‘Charleston,’ which at the time he wrote the concerto had just been invented, to great effect.”

“At the same time,” said Bax, “being the concerto is a full classical form, it is also quite an ambitious work.”

“In my opinion,” said Bax, “it is definitely one of the great works of the 20th century.”

And as the audience takes in the first notes of the Gershwin piece at The Bushnell, Bax said, “The Concerto in F is such an exhilarating, accessible piece, so full of life, beauty and excitement that it really doesn’t need any listening tips. Just go with the flow, enjoy the different moods, its exuberance and come along for the ride.”

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra presents “Copland and Gershwin” with Bax on piano and guest conductor Laura Jackson on Friday, April 6 and Saturday, April 7 at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Tickets start at $33, $10 for students with ID.

Tickets are available by calling (860) 987-5900 or visiting www.hartfordsymphony.org

Pianist Alessio Bax performs this weekend with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.

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