The Music of Gershwin – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/José Serebrier with Shelly Berg Trio [Rhapsody in Blue … An American in Paris]

Girl Crazy – Overture [orch. Don Rose]
Lullaby [orch. José Serebrier]
Three Preludes [orch. Serebrier]
Rhapsody in Blue [orch. Ferde Grofé, with interpolations from Shelly Berg Trio]
Variations on ‘I Got Rhythm’ [with interpolations from Shelly Berg Trio]
An American in Paris

Shelly Berg (piano) with Chuck Berghofer (bass) & Ralph Salmins (drums)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
José Serebrier

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 30 September, 2011
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

José SerebrierThis mostly excellent concert opened with the Overture to Girl Crazy in an enthusiastic, foot-tapping performance, establishing from the off José Serebrier’s stylish credentials with George Gershwin’s music – one showstopper followed another, the Royal Philharmonic sounded sumptuous and Cadogan Hall’s acoustic seemed ideal in focus and immediacy. Serebrier’s orchestrations of Lullaby and the Three Preludes proved very successful. Lullaby carried with it the free spirit of a calypso, the original string quartet filled out to full strings and winds, including three saxophones that added a cool nostalgia to Gershwin’s haunting expressiveness. Beguilingly played, the RPO winds especially characterful, this is a new version to hear again. So too Serebrier’s scoring of the piano Preludes, respectively suggesting a buzzing city, a gentle bluesy nocturne and, finally, Chaplinesque capers on the sidewalk.

The opening of Rhapsody in Blue could not have been bettered, Michael Whight’s skyscraper of a clarinet solo trilling and sliding the Manhattan skyline into view. Back in 1924 there wasn’t anything quite like Rhapsody in Blue. Ferde Grofé’s subsequent scoring for symphony orchestra doesn’t recapture his innovative jazz instrumentation for Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, but it’s the ‘symphony’ version that is usually played. On this occasion tempos were a little too deliberate and Shelly Berg was a brittle and approximate pianist at times. Disconcertingly and unconvincingly he and his cohorts broke the music’s flow with several improvisation-like interludes. As soloist Berg was more convincing in the ‘I Got Rhythm’ Variations (using the famous song from Girl Crazy), he and Serebrier really inside one of Gershwin’s most-personal pieces, yet this masterpiece was once again intruded upon by the trio and the work’s concision was lost. Had the Shelly Berg Trio played a separate set of Gershwin standards, then that might have been quite something.

The genuine article concluded the concert, the always-fresh An American in Paris, given a corking, polished and indivisible performance under Serebrier’s baton. Perfectly paced, the opening pages were ideally jaunty and carefree, the American visitor delighted to be exploring Parisian boulevards, the music signifying day then night, from joie de vivre to smoochy seduction (those saxophones again). Forget Springtime in Paris, this was Swingtime in Paris. Rabbits, hats: Serebrier had both!

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