By Ted AYALA
George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” has become such a deeply entrenched part of the symphonic repertoire that it’s easy to forget its jazzy, Tin Pan Alley roots. When Paul Whiteman and his orchestra debuted the work at their epochal “Experiment in Modern Music” concert in New York City’s Aeolian Hall in 1924 with Gershwin at the piano, the composer ad-libbed the piece’s cadenzas, only writing them down after the premiere.
Pianist Bryan Pezzone during his star turn at Disney Hall with the California Philharmonic on Sunday brought back some of the Roaring ’20s edge to Gershwin’s “American Rhapsody,” taking a cue from the composer himself and improvising the cadenzas to startling effect. His improvisations were nearly Impressionist at times, making for a Rhapsody that was dreamier than usual, with the weaved-in reminiscences of “Summertime” and other Gershwin songs adding to the dreamlike quality of his interpretation. The orchestra under Victor Vener backed him with playing that allowed the pianist plenty of room to maneuver, while contrasting with playing of droll cheekiness and burnished grandeur.
Pezzone followed up the performance with an on-the-spot improvisation that utilized songs suggested by the audience, among them “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Tiny Dancer.” A brief, but exhilarating performance.
Preceding the Rhapsody was another Gershwin chestnut, “An American in Paris,” which was given a dapper and brassy interpretation that would have pleased the composer. The yearning bluesy melody solo trumpet melody was given an insouciant sizzle by Robert Feller, whose suave phrasing and sensuous vibrato was simply arresting.
Sharing the program with Gershwin was the music of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, their music serving as an elegant uptown foil to the former composer’s street-wise brilliance.
Soprano Kim Huber and James Barbour joined the orchestra in well-polished renditions of some of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s most famous collaborations. Especially memorable was “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific, with Barbour’s lustrous voice augmenting the song’s opulence.
The orchestra, again, was on its best form, reveling in the music’s ripeness of expression.
Opening the program was a wistful, but spirited “Carousel Waltz,” with Vener keeping the orchestra on lightly dancing rhythms that brought out all the sparkle and glitter of the calliope the piece it intended to evoke.