An enthused audience, which may have had more than a little to do with the afterglow of Thanksgiving, warmed immediately to the all-American offering tonight at the Kimnel Center, under the baton of visiting conductor James Gaffigan. The first half showcased that quintessential first-generation American, George Gershwin, and his inimitable fusion of jazz and classical styles. The brief but charming Promenade (Walking the Dog) from the film Shall We Dance, with its rolling pace and laconic air, whetted the appetite for his Piano Concerto in F, played by Jon Kimura Parker. Gershwin had spent some months writing it, all the while “praying… to the God of Melody to be kind to me”. And kind the gods were, for the concerto turned out to be a great success. In Parker’s hands, there was a lot to like, and several things to take issue with.

James Gaffigan © Daniela Kienzler
James Gaffigan
© Daniela Kienzler

Striking were the finales of both the first and third movements, crisply intense, rhythmically pin-point and positively exciting, without a hint of sloppiness. And, at other times too, the crispness, the containment was remarkable. For all that, it was an unassuming performance, which had the risk of not coming out with sufficient dominance when needed. At some key moments, one saw his hands in immaculate motion, but the sound was often lost, with occasional chords coming through. And moreover, as this is ‘mood music’, I can’t absolutely say that the kaleidescopic mood swings came out so expressively. Gershwin saw the first movement as representing the “young, enthusiastic spirit” of American life; the second has that cool ‘blues’ feel; the third is orgiastic in its energies. There’s a whole construction of an idiosyncratic American persona in this work: Gaffigan was certainly trying to live that aspect up in his conducting; I’m not so sure that Parker was.

Invited to and subsequently lionized in America in the 1890s, Antonin Dvořák could hardly help falling in love with the place. Among the works that emerged from this relationship was the 1895 Suite in A major for Orchestra (“American”). Dvořák believed that the Americans wanted him to lead them into the promised land of a new national style of music, and so he hastened to oblige. The Suite is easy on the ear and does not make excessive demands; he nods to folk forms, but it is not an exploratory work into wholly unknown musical territory. Tonight’s performance was pleasant, bringing out the lilting, dancing element of the five movements. Indeed, that feeling for dance rhythms seemed to be Gaffigan’s particular emphasis all evening. The third movement, in the Polish style, was chirpy and good-humored; the final Allegro had a good flow.

This was not just about celebrating the national tonight, but the local. Samuel Barber was a native Philadelphian, educated down the road at the Curtis Institute of Music. Stigmatised for too long as a romantic conservative, Barber’s star seems to be on the rise again. The Symphony no. 1, Op.9 made for a grandiose conclusion to tonight’s American program. It was suitably massive; even its lush passages seemed weighted down by extra heavily-drawn bows. The oboe solo in the Andante tranquillo was effective, and the intensification of sound and timbre at the very end was very satisfying: 'a wow finish' as the phrase goes.