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Concert review: Post-Classical Ensemble's 'Gershwin Project' at Clarice Smith Center

'RHAPSODY' NIGHT: The Post-Classical Ensemble's tribute concludes Friday.
'RHAPSODY' NIGHT: The Post-Classical Ensemble's tribute concludes Friday. (Tom Wolff)

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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2010

If you want to scare off an audience, offer contemporary music. If you want to soothe it, offer George Gershwin. Gershwin sits at the Venn diagram intersection of 20th-century art composition and a rich vein of American popular music -- still viewed slightly askance as too down-market in the one field and a glorious epitome of the other.

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This intersection is exactly the terrain the Post-Classical Ensemble is staking out with its "Gershwin Project" -- the realm of what the group's co-founder, Joe Horowitz, describes as Gershwin's "cultural fluidity." The multi-part event began on Tuesday afternoon at the Clarice Smith Center with what was, in effect, a seminar devoted to Gershwin and improvisation. It culminates on Friday night with an orchestral concert, "The Russian Gershwin," that will include two of the composer's largest pieces, the "Rhapsody in Blue" and the Concerto in F, conducted by the ensemble's other founder, Angel Gil-Ordóñez.

Horowitz, one of the canniest thinkers and writers on the music scene, has devoted a large part of his recent career to designing programs to make music more accessible to audiences. This often involves a lot of talking.

Tuesday's event was a conversation with the musicologist and Gershwin expert Richard Crawford, accompanied by vintage recordings of Gershwin arrangements and, yes, some live performance. Vakhtang Kodanashvili, a Georgian pianist, offered 12 of Gershwin's own piano arrangements of his classic songs; and Genadi Zagor, a Russian pianist whose father founded a jazz ensemble, responded with improvisations, weaving themes into a fluid melange that reflected not only Gershwin's music, but the back-and-forth, anecdotal tone of the event itself.

One premise was that Gershwin, as a songwriter-turned-composer (in the words of Irving Berlin), intended his songs as templates that performers would adapt to suit -- though Crawford pointed out that "improvising," for Gershwin, meant varying the melody rather than delving into the piece's harmonic structure. The divergence between template and performance was illustrated through the contrast between Kodanashvili's lush readings and the low-pedal, up-tempo approach Horowitz said Gershwin encouraged himself.

"Why don't you play this music stylistically correctly?" Horowitz jokingly asked the pianist, efficiently incorporating the role of a critic into the performance.

"I did not know I did not play it correctly," responded Kodanashvili, a little ruefully.

But if his reading of "That Certain Feeling" had a dreamy, nocturne-like quality rather than the crisp speediness Horowitz described, he also conveyed the song's singing line and even a sense of the period flair: The ghost of a brilliantined pianist playing tunes for his friends at cocktail hour lurked not far beneath the surface.

Having two foreign-born pianists illustrated another of Horowitz's points: Gershwin has gotten a lot more respect abroad than he did at home, where he was long viewed as a lightweight. It was also notable that Zagor was completely comfortable as an improviser, as few classically trained pianists are on this side of the pond. All of this set the stage for "The Russian Gershwin," which, like Tuesday's event, if it doesn't entirely cast the composer in a new light, will add a glint to some of his facets.

The Russian Gershwin

takes place on Friday at 8 at the Clarice Smith Center. It will be preceded by a lecture by Richard Crawford at 3:30 pm and a survey of Russian recordings of Gershwin at 7 p.m.


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