Shelly Berg’s jazzed-up Gershwin sparks Costa Rican orchestra

By Lawrence Budmen

Jose Serebrier  led the Costa Rica National Symphony Orchestra Tuesday night at Festival Miami.

Jose Serebrier led the Costa Rican National Symphony Orchestra Tuesday night at Festival Miami.

The return of conductor Jose Serebrier, Festival Miami’s founding artistic director, and the Miami debut of the National Symphony Orchestra of Costa Rica brought a full house to Gusman Concert Hall on Tuesday night.

But the concert’s real event was Shelly Berg’s stunning traversal of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Berg, the innovative dean of the UM Frost School of Music, is a veteran jazz pianist, composer and arranger. Berg’s strong keyboard technique, considerable classical chops and creative flair produced a one-of-a-kind performance of this American classic.

Shelly Berg

Shelly Berg

Pianists of every stripe have assayed the 1924 Gershwin score. Some jazz and pop players have attempted to rewrite the work. Berg respected the Gershwin original, playing the score with propulsive energy, idiomatic fluency and virtuosity to burn. Fast passages that can sound blurred in some conventional performances emerged cleanly articulated under Berg’s fingers.

Bending bluesy phrases, he imbued the music with a touch of authentic swing. In three key solo sequences, Berg improvised freely, weaving his original variations on the familiar thematic material. At one point he seemed to be creating a new Gershwin ballad from the famous rhapsodic melody, playing in a relaxed, lounge keyboard manner. There was an easy lilt in his playing, something too often lacking in interpretations of Lisztian bombast.

Backed by the terrific duo of electric bassist Dan Montgomery and drummer Carlomagno Araya and his own rhythmic foot stomping, Berg’s fiery jazz riffs were red hot. Coming out of the final cadenza toward a whirlwind finish, Berg was literally bobbing up and down on the piano bench.

None of this seemed artificial or awkwardly superimposed on the music. Berg’s conception was brilliantly original and true to the swinging genesis of Gershwin’s score. From the bluesy wail of Marvin Araya’s opening clarinet solo, the Costa Rican musicians were on the same musical page as Berg. With jazzy trumpets, rhythmic bounce and drive, Serebrier led a high energy reading that did not slight the score’s lyrical interludes.

In his early Festival Miami performances three decades ago, Serebrier led such stellar ensembles as London’s Philharmonia, the Pittsburgh Symphony and New York’s American Symphony Orchestra.

The Costa Rican orchestra is not in that league but it is a solid second-tier ensemble. Except for some raucous brass playing, which was exacerbated by the hall’s bright acoustics and intimacy, the orchestra produced a clean, large sonority, bringing real enthusiasm to their music-making. The woodwinds are particularly distinguished, playing with character, precision and tonal refinement.

The concert opened with Imagenes by Vinicio Meza, a member of the ensemble’s wind section. Opening with a string quartet, the piece becomes a flowing Latin waltz. Idiomatically conceived, the score is a fine addition to the pops literature.

While Shostakovich’s symphonies and chamber music scores are replete with the angst and darkness of the composer’s life and times, his film music represents his lighter, more populist side.

Serebrier led Lev Atovmian’s arrangement of ten excerpts from the 1955 Soviet film The Gadfly. Although there are traces of the more familiar Shostakovich, the score abounds in aristocratic ballroom dancers, folk-infused melodies and lustrous romantic themes. Serebrier has recorded the score and brought authority and strong advocacy to music’s cinematic scope. A mellow saxophone trio stood out in the orchestra’s big-boned performance.

Repeated standing ovations brought three encores from the generous conductor. A plaintive oboe solo captured the moody aura of Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion. Leroy Anderson’s Jazz Pizzicato was deftly managed by the strings and a high-voltage Malambo from Ginastera’s Estancia may have been produced the loudest orchestral playing ever heard in the hall’s confines.

Festival Miami presents the National Symphony Orchestra of Costa Rica under Jose Serebrier 8 p.m. Wednesday at UM Gusman Concert Hall in Coral Gables. The program features works by Marvin Camacho, Serebrier, Bizet and Borodin with flute soloist Sharon Bezaly and the Frost Chorale under Karen Kennedy. 305-284-4940;

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Wed Oct 23, 2013
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