Berg and Rodriguez close Festival Miami in a blaze of crossover Gershwin

By Lawrence Budmen

Shelly Berg

The music of George Gershwin drew a full house to Gusman Concert Hall Sunday afternoon for a Festival Miami duo-piano recital by Shelly Berg, dean of the Frost School of Music, and Santiago Rodriguez. This unique musical meeting of a jazz powerhouse (Berg) and classical virtuoso (Rodriguez) produced a festive musical party.

Gershwin’s Cuban Overture immediately found Berg playing with the idiomatic flair and compulsive Latin beat of a true jazzman. Rodriguez was no less impressive, producing torrents of rapid-fire figurations in a lively reinvention of this crosscultural classic. A group of Frost percussion students added brash rhythmic underpinning.

Australian pianist-composer Percy Grainger’s transcription of Gershwin’s three preludes was admirably discreet, true to the shifting moods of these miniatures. Berg had a field day with the fast, jazz-infused first and third preludes while Rodriguez brought elegance and poetry to the blues of the second.

Grainger’s Fantasy on Porgy and Bess is anything but a restrained adaptation of  melodies from the classic American opera. This rarely played showpiece is a finger breaking test of sheer bravura in the manner of Liszt’s operatic paraphrases. Grainger’s Fantasy provided a fine showcase for Rodriguez’s formidable pianistic power, flexibility and stamina.

The program’s second half found Berg coming to the fore with his inventive free-form elaborations on Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm Variations and Rhapsody in Blue. The variations was Gershwin’s last classical score, composed for a 1934 concert tour. In this effervescent potpourri of musical styles, Gershwin transformed his hit tune from the musical Girl Crazy into such diverse genres as a Viennese waltz,  impressionistic idyll, Rachmaninoff rhapsody and even an atonal miniature. Berg took the piece a step further, adding his own fleet, irrepressible jazz improvisations, like musical whipped cream on a sparkling dessert.

Santiago Rodriguez

Delightful two-piano transcriptions of classic Gershwin songs by Frost faculty member Paul Posnak formed a charming interlude. Posnak, who has made solo piano arrangements of the music of Fats Waller and other early jazz icons, captured the cool sentimentality of such ballads as Someone to  Watch Over Me with an almost Gallic sensibility, like a Ravel riff on Gershwin. Here Berg and Rodriguez played with lightness and transparency, reveling in the music’s romantic ethos.

Saving the best for last, the duo offered a rare performance of Ferde Grofe’s 1926 arrangement for two pianos and chamber orchestra of Rhapsody in Blue.

Best known as the composer of such pops-concert standards as the Grand Canyon and Mississippi suites, Grofe was a great arranger who bridged the jazz and classical worlds in the heyday of radio. (The original 1924 orchestration of the Rhapsody for the Paul Whiteman band was Grofe’s work.) His swinging version of the Rhapsody exudes a vernacular pulse and breezy sophistication lacking in Gershwin’s later, more straitlaced symphonic version. Grofe’s glowing saxophone and trumpet parts leap out at the listener while he wraps silky strings around the big band sound.

Berg added his own improvisatory additions to the mix, at one point fusing a trio with bass and percussion in the best intimate jazz tradition. Berg and Rodriguez were simply terrific in this inventive remix of a Gershwin classic, combining speed, agility and eloquence in equal measure. They took turns conducting a first-rate ensemble of Frost students in this one-of-a-kind rendition of an American classic.

After prolonged applause and cheers, Berg returned to the stage for a witty solo improv on Love is Here to Stay, Gershwin’s final song forming an appropriate finale.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment

Mon Oct 24, 2011
at 1:22 pm
No Comments