The final Prince George's Philharmonic concert of the 2011-2012 season took place last night at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, at the University of Maryland, College Park. The audacious and demanding program was filled with drama and exuberance. The technical demands on the soloist and the orchestra made every moment of the evening a musical cliff-hanger and emotional roller-coaster. The program started with Tahiti Trot, Op. 16, Dmitri Shostakovich's 1927 version of "Tea for Two" from the musical No, No, Nanette.
The evening then began in earnest with the introduction of the evening's soloist, Awadagin Pratt, the first African-American pianist to win the Naumburg International Piano Competition. Mr. Pratt has since then, " performed with nearly every major orchestra in this country [the United States], at the Clinton White House, and on Sesame Street" (Cruice 2000). Mr. Pratt began with an program intermezzo of two solo piano pieces by Fred Hersch, the first of which, Nocturne for left hand alone, gave a glimpse of the power and technical mastery of the piano that was to come in the Gershwin. As a student of piano and music composition, I was astounded at Mr. Pratt's ability to bring out the inner voices of the piece - a technical skill that would be applied with gusto and vigor in the Gershwin Rhapsody that followed.
The first half of the program featured the extremely familiar Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue. Repeated hearings of this warhorse of the American 'classical' repertory may have led me to expectations that exist only in my mind's ear. The orchestral piece's famous clarinet solo opening was slightly askew, and things rapidly went astray from there. And I mean, given the extraordinary tempo that the collaborators chose - things rapidly went wrong right from the beginning. Mr. Ellis however demonstrated his strong bond with and control of his musical partners and by the end had managed to wrangle all the orchestral sections into some semblance of togetherness. A side effect of the struggle to get with the chosen tempo was the orchestra's tendency to overwhelm the soloist. As a pianist, I was stunned to hear a grand piano disappear, a feat that I had not thought possible. But that is the hubris of a once very young student of piano. In this concerted musical struggle, the orchestra surely 'won' out much to the loss of the audience.
The soloist, Awadagin Pratt, on the other hand, was brilliant. The commercialization for reason other than music of this famous piece makes any interpretation extremely problematic. Mr. Pratt's extraordinary technical fireworks and his well-honed skills at bring out melodic and rhythmic features that are usually subsumed by the broader familiar tropes were quite amazing. I continued to be fixed on the inner musical voices and equally important inner rhythms that Mr. Pratt found and showcased. Mr. Pratt's interpretation has made me revisit this old favorite in a new light, and that is a sure sign of a great artist. It should be noted that the incredible speed of the performance hid some if not much of the structural integrity and complexities of the piece the result of highlighting some of the performance pyrotechnics.
After intermission, and with some in the audience, including me, fearing the worst, the Prince George's Philharmonic began its journey through the dramatic universe of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony. My pen and paper were ready to record the details - I was so drawn into the performance that I wrote nothing. The performance was a first-class incontestable tour de force for the orchestra - first rate unbelievable, emotionally wrenching experience. All of the earlier technical performance problems had melted away in the presence of the monumental symphony of the giant of 20th century classical music, Dmitri Shostakovich. There is nothing easy or simple about the Tenth Symphony. It is 50 plus minutes of drama and intensely tragic music, followed by 5 minutes of heroic cheering for having reached the musical summit. The Prince George's Philharmonic took the audience from the depths of musical despair to the mountain tops of human emotion in a world class performance.
From the slow first movement filled with expectations of dread to the havoc-wrought, machine-gunned-filled second movement the orchestra performed as a cohesive ensemble, allowing the conductor to pull from it every shred of gut wrenching emotion he could find. The dance like conversation of the third movement, and the musical references to the composer and his loves were done with a professional bravura that allowed the listener to be enveloped by the structure and the sounds of the music itself. By the time we the audience and the orchestra reached the grandest of finales, we knew we had been together on a journey through the universe of dark demands and dramatic dreams.
Prince George's County's very own Philharmonic can rest assured that it closed its season on the highest note of excellence. Its conductor and its performers took those of us in attendance on a musical journey that was seared into the collective memories. The orchestra reached the top and deserves every accolade for its last performance of the season. I am proudly Prince Georgian and among the many outstanding reason why is the Prince George's Philharmonic.
Saturday, May 12, 2012 - 8:00pm
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, College Park, MD
Charles Ellis Conductor - Awadagin Pratt, Piano
Shostakovich Tahiti Trot, Op. 16
Hersch Nocturne for left hand
Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue
Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 93
"Shostakovich treats his material faithfully, including the verse (twice) in his setting, but the mock heroic opening for muted brass lends a swagger that provokes the first of many smiles during Tahiti Trot. The famous melody is entrusted to various percussion instruments, then to alternately sleek and syrupy strings. The capricious scoring, which calls for glissandi in trombones, then piccolo, ensures that the mood is more than a bit silly."