Sunday, May 27, 2012

Carnegie Hall 120th Anniversary Concert (PBS, May 5, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

One interesting item Charles and I ran last night was a download of a TVP Kultura rebroadcast of a U.S. telecast of the 120th anniversary concert of Carnegie Hall, featuring the New York Philharmonic with its regular conductor, Alan Gilbert, in a program of works opening with Dvorák’s Carnival Overture (a nice, sprightly potboiler); a performance of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with soloists Emanuel Ax, piano; Gil Shaham, violin; and Yo-Yo Ma, cello; and afterwards, as a concession to Americana, three songs by Duke Ellington — “Solitude,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” — sung by Audra McDonald in arrangements by Larry Hochman — and George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” which had its world premiere in Carnegie Hall on December 13, 1928, with Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Symphony (not the New York Philharmonic, as the Wikipedia page for the work has it; there were actually two classical orchestras in New York for the first three decades of the 20th century before Depression-related financial pressures caused them to merge, playing first under the unwieldy name “Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York” before reverting to the “New York Philharmonic” name). One thing I learned from this show was that the first (more or less) jazz concert at Carnegie Hall was not the repetition of Paul Whiteman’s “Experiment in Modern Music” concert in May 1924 (the original “Experiment in Modern Music,” at which George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” was premiered, had been given at another New York venue, Aeolian Hall, but the same program was repeated at Carnegie three weeks later) but a 1912 “Concert of Negro Music” under the auspices of “The Music School Settlement for Colored People, Inc.” with the Clef Club Orchestra under conductor James Reese Europe and assistant conductor William Tyers (I’ve seen several spellings of his last name, including “Tyres” and “Thiers,” but under whatever name he wrote several songs that became important in the early jazz songbook, including “Panama” and “Maori”) and the Clef Club Chorus directed by Will Marion Cook (Duke Ellington’s composition teacher).

The hard-core classical part of the concert in the first half was played quite respectably even though neither piece represents its composer at his best (maybe they should have flipped it and played Beethoven’s “Consecration of the House” Overture and Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony instead), but when I heard the string section play a glutinous arrangement of the main melody of “Solitude” and heard Audra McDonald’s vocal — absolutely lovely as sound but rather dully and uncreatively phrased — I feared for the worst that usually happens when classical orchestras take on jazz material. Throughout “Solitude” and “Sophisticated Lady” I kept flashing back to Ellington’s own recordings of these songs (especially the “Solitude” as sung, incomparably, by his first vocalist, Ivie Anderson) and missing the wonderful orchestral effects the Duke had got out of his band that seemed lost on the symphony or on Larry Hochman. Then they got to “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” and all was well again: the trombonists were using plunger mutes, the reed section was playing saxophones, the drummer (who’d chattered away annoyingly in the background in the two previous tunes) actually seemed to get into the spirit and the arrangement featured a great solo for jazz bass (the jazz double bass may be the same instrument, in terms of its physical characteristics, as the double bass in a symphony string section, but it’s used so totally differently it might as well be considered a different instrument) that got the orchestra and McDonald into the right groove. The song meant a lot because it did have that swing!

And the spirit got carried over into the performance of “An American in Paris,” which if anything was even louder, more raucous and more rambunctious than Nathaniel Shilkret’s landmark 1929 recording for RCA Victor (which remains my benchmark for the work: impeccably conducted and beautifully recorded for the period, though the RCA CD transfer doesn’t do justice to the luminous original and the 1976 Victrola LP actually sounds better), a beautiful rendition of a work all too many classical conductors and players try to shoehorn into something more sedate, less lively, more “classical.” The download cut off rather abruptly after the music finished, and neither Charles nor I could quite figure out what country it was from (at first the voiceover drowning out Audra McDonald’s original English narration sounded Russian, but as Charles pointed out if it were Russian the lettering on the rebroadcasting station’s logo would have been in Cyrillic instead of Roman — we both guessed Polish as the most likely language, something that sounded Slavic but was written in Roman letters), but the concert itself was a lot of fun and a nice tribute to one of the world’s most prestigious music venues.