In what was probably the most unorthodox collection of repertoire this season, Cleveland Orchestra guest conductor James Gaffigan programmed Arnold Schoenberg's prickly Piano Concerto back-to-back with George Gershwin's beloved Rhapsody in Blue. It takes an unusually versatile pianist to carry off both works. Kirill Gerstein was just the right choice; he has the intellect and technique for Schoenberg, as well as the jazz chops for Gershwin. And it was largely due to Gerstein's talents that these were the highlights of the orchestra's first concert in 2017.

Kirill Gerstein © Marco Borggreve
Kirill Gerstein
© Marco Borggreve

Schoenberg's Piano Concerto was commissioned and sketched in 1942, but because of haggling over the fee, it was not performed until 1944, with Schoenberg's disciple Edward Steuermann as the soloist. Schoenberg's compositional techniques freed his music from conventional harmony, and dissonance was liberated from the strictures of earlier classical music. The piano concerto has, however, many tonal references and is relatively listener-friendly in its romanticism and classical forms: waltz, scherzo, slow movement, and finale. The four short movements are played without pause. Gerstein was an outstanding soloist, and Gaffigan and The Cleveland Orchestra matched him for elegance. Many parts of the concerto are lightly scored; the interplay between soloist and orchestra was highlighted. The opening waltz was delicate. The scherzo was full-throated; Gerstein played it as if it were Brahms. The slow movement featured a long solo passage full of trills, and birdsong-like passages. The last movement was similar in texture to the first, although with different music. The work ended with an abrupt, surprising, and brief major chord.

For those of us who grew up on the orchestral version of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, the original 1924 jazz band arrangement by Ferde Grofé is a revelation. The sounds are bolder and more distinct. It sounds much more a work of jazz than the later version with the "softened" textures of a large string section. After the relative severity of Schoenberg's music, Gershwin's Rhapsody was comforting and familiar. Gaffigan's idea of using the jazz band version was inspired; alas, it was not completely successful. In this instance, The Cleveland Orchestra's famous clarity worked against them. Yes, all the notes were there and played perfectly, but the suavity of a real jazz ensemble was missing. The odd seating arrangement, notably the prominent wind section off to the side, and widely separated groups of players created balance issues, and the ensemble's sound lacked cohesion. Gerstein is also a jazz pianist, and it showed in this performance, with his stylish molding of phrases, voicing of melodies, and even a short interpolated cadenza. But his technical virtuosity was also put to good use in the more "classical" passages.

The post-intermission portion of the program was taken up by Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, a work played frequently by The Cleveland Orchestra. Although competent and with some lovely moments, the overall effect seemed underrehearsed, with some dodgy entrances and occasional ensemble quirks. The later three performances over the weekend, probably came together.

To open the concert, Gaffigan had selected a ten-minute suite of four of the most famous musical cues from Bernard Herrmann's brilliant film score for Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece Psycho, including the opening credits, and the shrieking violins that accompany Janet Leigh's character's murder in the shower, which prompted a ripple of giggling from the audience. The musical segments were attached to one another, with no significant connection. The performance was committed, but the suite itself was a trifle.