Lawrence Toppman

Orchestra shows us Gershwin and Copland’s rich, diverse America

William Wolfram plays two rhapsodies by George Gershwin with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra this weekend.
William Wolfram plays two rhapsodies by George Gershwin with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra this weekend. Courtesy of Charlotte Symnphony Orchestra

Optimism has always been America’s selling point to the world: The exuberance of the Jazz Age with World War I safely behind us, the boisterous rattle of construction as great cities grew skyward, the belief that small towns enshrined core values worth preserving, the pluck of cowpokes who helped tame the frontier.

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra took us to the era between 1924 and 1942 Friday, playing two pieces each by George Gershwin and Aaron Copland. From the keyboard flourishes of “Rhapsody in Blue” to the buckaroo ballet “Rodeo,” each showed us America as we once were – or, perhaps, wished to be.

Certainly “Our Town,” Copland’s score for the 1940 film version of Thornton Wilder’s play, exists in a dream world of eternal kindness and folksy wisdom. Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody – known as “Rhapsody in Rivets” after an abbreviated version appeared in the 1931 movie “Delicious” – enlivened a film fantasy where immigrants find nothing but joy in America, and America finds nothing but joy in its immigrants.

American pianist William Wolfram and American guest conductor Andrew Grams brought their countrymen to life with a vitality these works required. That didn’t always mean a big, extroverted sound – though the orchestra supplied that when asked – but the music always pulsed with life.

Grams judged the tempos of all four works superbly, from the wistful nostalgia of “Our Town” to the brash comic exuberance of the concluding “Hoe-Down.” He spent six seasons playing violin for New York City Ballet, so it’s no surprise he had a fine sense of “Rodeo.” Yet he could slow to a gentle amble when “Our Town” depicted unhurried life in Grover’s Corners, N.H.

Wolfram, a Liszt specialist, made “Rhapsody in Blue” stride forward powerfully and brought a pounding authority to the “Second Rhapsody” (which it needs, along with more memorable tunes.) These are classical-jazz hybrids, and he and Grams divided those elements between them.

“Rhapsody in Blue” premiered in 1924 in a version for piano soloist and jazz-band orchestra. Gershwin wrote a regulation piano concerto in 1925, and Ferde Grofé used that as his inspiration when he orchestrated “Rhapsody in Blue” for massive forces in 1942. That’s the version Charlotte heard Friday; if I’ve seen a banjo player among the CSO strings before, I can’t remember when.

Wolfram occasionally bent notes or added flourishes, but he mostly treated the solo part with dignity and strength, as if playing a contemporary concerto by Ravel or Copland. Meanwhile, Grams brought the jazz elements out strongly in the orchestra: nose-thumbing brass, winds that snickered or slithered, and klezmer specialist Gene Kavadlo playing the most sinuous clarinet opening in all of classical music.

Besides being the children of refugee Jews, the two composers had much in common: a love of jazz, births two years apart (Gershwin in 1898, Copland in 1900), parents who came here from Russia, lives spent mostly around New York City.

And maybe it’s fitting that these first-generation Americans should be the ones to show us the towns and cities and prairies that existed long before their families arrived. The eye of an outsider can often be the keenest – and the most affectionate – when surveying a landscape.

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra

When: 8 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.

Tickets: $25.50-$89.50.

Details: 704-972-2000 or charlottesymphony.org.

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