By Ted AYALA
There they were, standing on opposite ends of last Sunday’s Santa Cecilia Orchestra (SCO) program: Antonin Dvorak and George Gershwin. The former represented by his moody “Symphony No. 7;” the latter by his jazzy and brash “Piano Concerto in F.” Though each work couldn’t be more different from the other, it was their respective composers’ fascination with American music that tied the program together. One, the Bohemian, offered the hope of Old World musical tradition married to the idioms of the new, emerging American musical melos. On the other was Gershwin, the embodiment of that promise fulfilled, striding surely as he did both at Tin Pan Alley and Carnegie Hall.
Bridging a musical gap seemingly as wide as the Atlantic Ocean itself seemed to pose no problems for the SCO, Maestra Sonia Marie de León de Vega and guest pianist Bryan Pezzone. Indeed, they reveled in the stylistic juxtapositions of the program.
Gershwin’s “Piano Concerto in F” is a grander, more serious affair than the composer’s earlier (and far better known) “Rhapsody in Blue.” Here the genre blurring that had seized the world’s attention in the earlier Rhapsody is refined further, producing a work that is both more ambitious in scope and subtler in execution.
From the opening, with its four-note timpani tattoo, Pezzone and the SCO swept the audience along. Tempos were urgent in the outer movements, but never inflexible. Pezzone handled Gershwin’s emotional dime-turns – channeling a nocturnal melancholy worthy of Rachmaninoff one moment, stomping away dancing the next – with rare aplomb. His tone was lush, but never soggy, with a natural rhythmic fluency and crispness. Maestra de León de Vega was a sensitive accompanist, allowing for beautifully woven interplay between soloist and orchestra. Though the piano is the star of the show, Gershwin gives the orchestra plenty of moments in the spotlight. None are more memorable than the Andante’s trumpet solo torch song, played with boozy (in the best sense) heartache by principal Darren Mulder.
Melancholy also marked Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 7.” Sometimes compared to Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 6,” Dvorak’s symphony is far removed from the Russian’s manic intensity and all-pervasive tragedy. This is a symphony whose horizons are often darkened by cloud which are quickly dispelled with heaping doses of Bohemian folk melodies and dances.
Though often treated like a stepchild in comparison to the composer’s better known Eighth and Ninth symphonies, de León de Vega and the SCO knew better than that. This was as persuasive an interpretation of this work as one ever could hope to hear. Maestra de León de Vega kept a tight reign on the work’s architecture, yet lovingly caressed Dvorak’s melodies when needed. The SCO winds, always a formidable group, were on their very best form here, playing with ardent lyricism. The handling of the finale, unfurling with inevitability to its powerful coda, was magisterial, masterly.
In the audience was composer Michael Torke, who had come to hear his friend Bryan Pezzone. Talking to him after the concert, he aptly summed up the SCO’s virtues.
“They play with such an incredible energy,” he said. “You can tell they just loving what they’re doing. I mean, when they play, they play like they just can’t wait to do it. It’s amazing.”