Friday, July 21, 2006

Review: RPO with Jon Nakamatsu

This Sunday, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra will present its annual New Music Concert featuring the contemporary works of George Gershwin as performed by the living pianist Jon Nakamatsu. The following is my pre-emptive review of that concert:

On Sunday, July 23, the RPO’s audience members rushed into the air-conditioned concert hall in anticipation of one of the most controversial music programs of the twentieth century – an all-Gershwin concert. Allegedly, the Executive, Administrative, Artistic, and Development Directors had all referred to this concert in board meetings as “the improvisational concert.” Now, everyone wanted to know the answer to one simple question: What will happen if the orchestra improvises?

Leave it to the renowned pianist Jon Nakamatsu to steer clear of the answer to that question. He delivered one of the finest interpretations of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue ever realized by a classical pianist. Nakamatsu was recently quoted in the Democrat & Chronicle saying “I've heard pianists try to [make Gershwin sound like jazz] with the Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F, and it distorts what the music is about... Gershwin wasn't a jazz musician.”

Here, here! It’s about time people stopped trying to improvise their way around very technically demanding notes and rhythms. Gershwin was a believer in discipline, not free-for-all. His lectures to graduate students at the Canonical Conservatory of Martha’s Vineyard emphasized the ability of classical music to restore order and civility to drunkenness, to inspire an alarmingly gluttonous zeal for moderation.

Nakamatsu played the Rhapsody with calculating exactitude and mathematical rigor. He meticulously stroked his instrument in a way that inspired the kind of transcendence this Professor has previously experienced only in front of a TANDY computer. Nakamatsu is like a MIDI machine. His performances are even more pristine than Mel Bay's notated corrections of famous improvisations.

It turns out that this concert was a preview of an RPO/Nakamatsu disc to be released on the Harmonia Mundi recording label. That disc, entitled A Good Degree of Gershwin, will be released as soon as it is recorded, mixed, mastered, and packaged. Meanwhile, let’s hope Nakamatsu returns for next year’s New Music Concert, An Evening of Jazz Etudes.

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