Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sydney Symphony–boos for Gershwin?

When preparing the repertoire safety index for the 2011 season, I was really struck by the low scores for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.  Australia’s premiere orchestra, premiere concert hall and most famous conductor, with a program loaded to the gills with rolled gold classics from Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky etc.  Hardly surprising that they come in a distant 5th, ahead of the Tasmania and Queensland orchestras.  I’m a bit jealous of course – there’s just so much must-see music in their program – but it does seem  a bit odd that there’s not a bit more adventurous programming, including of course works from our own contemporary composers (of which there’s very little).

It was therefore interesting to read an article in the Australian about Michael Kieran Harvey playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at the Sydney Opera House – and drawing boos from the audience for his freewheeling improvisation of Gershwin’s music:

The point was that [conductor] Kristjan Jarvi encouraged me to improvise and some in the audience considered it a travesty.

It was hilarious to me that people would care so much," Harvey says, although the response clearly hit a nerve. It's something he returns to twice again during our conversation. "It was surprising to me when it was so obvious that it was in the spirit of improvised music. It was done in the spirit of the jazz piece. At the heart of jazz is interpretation. Even so, we still have this dreadful conservatism about how we expect music to sound.

Improvising Gershwin – the problem is?  One of the reasons he was able to write Rhapsody in Blue in just 3 weeks (it was a commission with a serious deadline!) was by not writing the piano solo parts.  As Gershwin himself played the piano when the piece was premiered, he simply improvised the solo parts and nodded to the conductor when he’d had enough.  After the concert he was then able to write down what he’d just played.  So, if improvisation on this piece isn’t acceptable, is there any place where it is?  Apparently not – not in Sydney at any rate!

Just for the record I got to see the same pair performing Rhapsody in Blue at the Adelaide Town Hall with the ASO – a brilliant performance hugely appreciated by the sell out crowd. 

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