Sunday, March 2, 2014

Great Performances: Herbie Hancock, Gustavo Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic Celebrate Gershwin (PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Afterwards Charles and I watched a PBS Great Performances special with the awkward title Herbie Hancock, Gustavo Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic Celebrate Gershwin, which apparently had its origins in a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert but was cut down to fit into an hour of screen time. The big ballyhoo was over jazz pianist Hancock playing the solo part in Rhapsody in Blue, his first appearance — at least that’s what the claim was — playing a “classical” piece, albeit one with jazz flavoring, and following a notated score instead of improvising. Actually he did improvise, briefly, in one of the solo passages, playing his part in a Charleston rhythm and adding a few extra notes, but nothing like the wholesale rewriting and rethinking of the part some pianists are bringing to it today (to the arrogant sniffery of the critics from American Record Guide and Fanfare) on the ground that if a classical piece drew on jazz devices, it should be O.K. to play it as jazz and improvise on it. Hancock’s brief walk on his jazz side didn’t hurt the Rhapsody much but it didn’t help it much either, and at one point Dudamel leaned over to Hancock and looked at him as he played one of the long unaccompanied piano sections. I suspect that was an oddball tribute to what went down at the premiere, where Gershwin had been so rushed he hadn’t had time to write out all the piano part and at one point he told conductor Paul Whiteman he would play his solo by heart and nod towards him when he was done and Whiteman should bring the band back in. Whiteman’s conductor’s score survives and actually has the notation, “Wait for nod,” at that point. The show began with Dudamel and the orchestra playing An American in Paris and, because it ran only an hour, the only selection they had time for between American and the Rhapsody was what was alleged to be a solo-piano version of “Someone to Watch Over Me” but was actually about five minutes of Hancock (seemingly) aimlessly noodling at the piano before anything recognizable as Gershwin’s tune emerged. In both American and Rhapsody (which he played in the later symphony-orchestra version rather than the wilder and more rambunctious one arranger Ferde Grofé created for the Whiteman band’s premiere) Dudamel conducted surprisingly slowly, clearly more interested in — and more at home with — the pieces’ more lyrical sections. Even though at one point Dudamel broke out into a mini-Charleston on the podium during one of the faster sections of An American in Paris, it was clear he was conducting both big works more slowly than most people and savoring their more lyrical sections. That’s not necessarily the way I want to hear Gershwin — my favorite Gershwin conductors are Whiteman and Nathaniel Shilkret (whose 1929 record of An American in Paris, the first one, is still the champ as far as I’m concerned) from the 78 era and Michael Tilson Thomas more recently (and his Gershwin celebrations with the L.A. Philharmonic included great pop voices like Sarah Vaughan to sing the fabulous songs), who can savor the lyrical sections and give the needed jazzy “oomph” to the fast parts — but it’s a measure of how great Gershwin’s music is that it can hold up and still make its effect even with a conductor like Dudamel blandly plowing through the jazzier portions to get to the slower, more lyrical, more self-consciously “classical” sections that really turn him on.