A smashing conclusion

The Delaware Symphony Orchestra presents Gershwin and Rachmaninoff

5 minute read
A view from above of the full DSO playing on a wooden stage, with the pianist out front.
Practically spilling off the stage: the Delaware Symphony Orchestra closes its 2021-22 season. (Photo courtesy of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra.)

What you hope for at a symphony concert is exactly what the Delaware Symphony delivered at Wilmington’s Grand Opera House on June 3, 2022: an orchestra practically spilling off the stage playing passionately for a passionate audience.

Maestro David Amado had planned this concert as the opener of Delaware Symphony Orchestra’s (DSO) already long-delayed in-person season, and the concert was postponed again because of January’s Omicron surge. But the savvy programming (Gershwin and Rachmaninoff) functioned equally well as a season finale that featured pianist Lara Downes, whose artistry and musical explorations led Performance Today to name her 2022 Classical Woman of the Year.

An American in Paris

In a pre-recorded talk, Amado said the works were united in several ways, noting that all three compositions call (somewhat unusually) for saxophones. The concert opened with An American in Paris by George Gershwin (1898-1937), a tone poem that premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1928. A hit then and still a favorite, it’s a perfect, succinct summation of the jazz age.

Opening with a sparkling melody that shifts between jaunty and melancholy, the work (described by Gershwin as portraying “a homesick American”) is replete with dynamic changes, a lyrical trumpet solo, and percussion (including snare drums and car horns) evoking the bustle of Paris streets. The often-recorded work’s delicious musical details are especially satisfying in live performance—here, a visceral rendition that had musicians and audience bobbing in their seats as Amado balanced orchestral precision, jazzy slides, and bluesy tempi with precision and flair.

Rhapsody in Blue

Next was Rhapsody in Blue, a beloved jazz concerto with a true tin-pan alley genesis. Brothers George and Ira Gershwin were in a pool hall when Ira read in a newspaper that Paul Whiteman’s band was premiering George’s new work, something the composer had agreed to and forgotten. To make the published concert date (in five weeks!), Gershwin wrote a piano “rhapsody” in place of a full-scale concerto, Ira titled it, and Whiteman enlisted composer Ferde Grofé to orchestrate the work.

Rhapsody opens with a famous clarinet wail, which also has a story. Gershwin wrote it as a straightforward 17-note diatonic scale. But in rehearsal, Whiteman’s virtuosic clarinetist Ross Gorman improvised the cadence as a jazzy slide, something (derided by critics at the time) that met with the composer’s favor and is now incorporated into performances.

The work was a bold statement originally not popular with audiences and critics, and Gershwin was at the keyboard for its 1924 opening. Here, the pianist was the notable Downes, lauded for groundbreaking musical explorations and her work as a citizen-artist. Downes collaborates widely and, as always, brought passion and individualism to her stylish treatment (including a flapper-like 1920s gown and headband) that immediately set a jazz-age tone.

Seen in profile, Downes, a white woman in a long, flowing dress, plays a grand piano in front of orchestra members.
Passion, individualism, and style: pianist Lara Downes with the Delaware Symphony Orchestra. (Photo courtesy of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra.)

Throughout, Downes’s luscious passages rippled like liquid jazz. Her intricate pedal-work often meshed the melodic lines, melting them to create unexpected texture, and she dazzled in a mid-work extended cadenza. Unfortunately, the piano (pushed forward of the proscenium) often seemed muted, sometimes eclipsed by the large orchestra.

Gershwin called Rhapsody in Blue “a musical kaleidoscope of America.” The work is intricate and demanding, and Amado led the DSO in an exciting and spirited reading. There was a rhythmic glitch midway—perhaps the orchestra couldn’t hear Downes—but nothing that stopped its forward motion and dynamism. After Rhapsody’s jazz and dash, Downes offered a contrasting encore: a subtle, affecting rendition of Solitude (from her most recent album) in a nuanced interpretation that showcased Scott Joplin’s lyricism rather than the rag’s expected rhythmic drive.

Symphonic Dances

The concert’s second half was a thrilling work that is a favorite of the conductor: Symphonic Dances by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943). Premiered in 1941 by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, it was written shortly before the composer’s death. Amado called it “a piece by a stranger in a strange land yearning for the past.” The Gershwin works focus and clarify an American sound, but Rachmaninoff’s piece abounds with Russian mystery and uncertainty.

Symphonic Dances has three movements, classically structured musical jewels set in a 20th-century filigree, and each section could stand alone as a masterful tone poem. The first movement opens with a chilling, mysterious march. Among its highlights as it slides in and out of lyricism are a beautiful passage for piano (undergirded by strings) and a poignant, haunting, extended solo for alto saxophone, the only time the instrument is used in the piece.

The second movement is a waltz that Rachmaninoff (staying within the familiar dance framework) almost magically bends to his compositional will. Filled with musical pointillism and alternating from major to minor, it is remarkably beautiful and affecting, played by the orchestra with assiduous attention to its deft harmonic details.

The work’s third movement continues to alternate rhythms and tonalities, keeping the listener slightly off-balance but totally engaged, emotionally and musically. Featuring a meandering Dies irae (a chant from the Latin requiem), it accelerates tempestuously to a dramatic conclusion that is suddenly silenced by the tam-tam, a huge gong whose resonance rises after striking and then fades away. The composer specified that the work ends only when the tam-tam’s sound has faded. Some conductors ignore this and end with the orchestral flourish, but Amado honored Rachmaninoff’s instructions, and a full minute of increasing silence was the capstone of this remarkable work.

Frequent ovations

Amado’s recorded pre-concert talk and program notes by Mike Mekailek gave ample background for the concert, which conveyed a sense of informality and inclusion. Executive director J.C. Barker welcomed the audience with details of DSO’s upcoming season (Amado’s 20th anniversary), and both Amado and Downes chatted about repertoire as the stage was reconfigured for Rhapsody.

The audience—who gave frequent and spirited ovations to Amado, Downes, and the DSO players (especially concertmaster David Southorn, Rhapsody clarinetist Antonello Di Matteo, and Rachmaninoff alto saxophonist Ron Kerber)—seemed reluctant to leave the Grand at the evening’s end.

What, When, Where

Classics I—Celebrate! George Gershwin; An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue. Sergei Rachmaninoff; Symphonic Dances. Conducted by David Amado. Lara Downes, piano. The Delaware Symphony Orchestra. June 3, 2022 at the Grand Opera House’s Copeland Hall, 818 North Market Street, Wilmington, DE. (302) 656-7442 or delawaresymphony.org.

Proof of Covid-19 vaccination is not required at the Grand, but masks are required inside the venue.


Copeland Hall is a wheelchair-accessible venue.

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