American jazz is an entirely valid component of 20th-century classical music, but in ordinary times it’s easy to find performances where the buy-in isn’t complete or the stylistic approach isn’t uniform. That’s why this week’s streamed concert from The Philadelphia Orchestra has to be considered a landmark of the pandemic era. No matter how many times viewers have heard George Gershwin’s 1924 creation Rhapsody in Blue, it’s likely they haven’t experienced the connection that the Philadelphians’ woodwind, horn and brass players achieved with pianist Aaron Diehl.

Aaron Diehl performs Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue
© Jeff Fusco

Any conductor and orchestra performing with Diehl already has a distinct challenge before them. That’s because Diehl – himself a composer and arranger with equivalent jazz and classical chops – brings a fresh take on Gershwin’s breakthrough concert-hall work with additional mini-cadenzas and other interjections that pay stylistic homage to historic jazz figures from Fats Waller to Oscar Peterson.

So it’s critical that the opening clarinet solo goes far beyond the stereotypical glissando that lands the first upward leap on a high concert B flat. Philadelphia principal Ricardo Morales did a brilliant job of continuing the slides, bends and delightful last-second hesitations in the continuing interaction with principal horn Jennifer Montone and principal trumpet David Bilger before finally handing off to Diehl’s first entrance on the piano. Both Montone and Bilger also achieved wonderfully stylish and jazzy effects on their instruments that seemed perfectly natural rather than show-off-y upstaging of the piano soloist.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jeff Fusco

The performance quite naturally utilized Ferde Grofé's original jazz-band orchestration, which has to be the default option in a pandemic-era distanced performance on stage. Philadelphia music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin took the main early sections at quite a swift pace. Grofé’s orchestration features a rapid rotation of solo work among trombone, clarinet, and various flavors of soprano, alto and tenor saxophones in an arrangement that requires doubling skills among all the reed players. The batting around of these themes made the swift cuts in camera work seem very natural rather than jumpy and over-obvious.

In a short spoken introduction, Diehl implied that his periodic additions and elaborations simulate the atmosphere of the initial February 1924 performance at Aeolian Hall in New York, where a time-pressed Gershwin, who hadn’t truly completed the composition, came up with his own solo passages on the fly. In doing so, Diehl said that he wanted to leave the impression that the entire ensemble, including the pianist, was reacting to one another in the moment in a way that wouldn’t have seemed authentic “when it’s 80 musicians” in a non-pandemic world.

Diehl has a distinctive manner at the piano, familiar from his live solo performances, that never forces the issue and gives the almost eerie impression that he’s letting the piano do the work for him. For his elaborations of the Rhapsody, he sometimes combined a stride-piano manner of Waller’s with skittering figures reminiscent of Art Tatum, and he briefly added a boogie-woogie bass figure to one of Gershwin’s own familiar solos within the Rhapsody.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Aaron Diehl and The Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jeff Fusco

The performance as captured on the stage of Verizon Hall did have one slight bobble, as not all the brass equally caught one of Gershwin’s sudden pullbacks as conducted by Nézet-Séguin. But tone and color of the entire orchestra was spectacular throughout the piece. The orchestra also performed superlatively in the other major work on the program, the Suite from Pulcinella by Igor Stravinsky, the composer’s post-World War 1 entry into his neo-classical phase and specifically scored for a 33-piece ensemble.

A brief opening number, Duke Ellington’s Solitude as orchestrated by Morton Gould, featured principal harp Elizabeth Hainen, but also showed off the orchestra’s legendary strings in a typical 1940s warm bath of close string harmony with obvious multiple divisis within the sections. It served as a very effective table-setter for Aaron Diehl and George Gershwin.


This performance was reviewed from The Philadelphia Orchestra's video stream

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