“The Roaring Twenties” Concert Review – A Night to Remember

Chicago Philharmonic, Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue ", Photo: Elliot Mandel
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For those who braved the rain and attended Chicago Philharmonic’s “The Roaring Twenties” concert March 9th at Northwestern University’s Pick Staiger Hall, a wonderful treat lay in store. The music from and inspired by the 1920s was at once, historic and beautiful, and “packed a punch” with sensational guest soloist Aldo López-Gavilán. The evening was further enhanced with the jazz music in the foyer.

Pianist Aldo López-Gavilán joins the Chicago Philharmonic, Photo: Elliot Mandel

Conductor Scott Speck was the perfect narrator as he explained to the audience the significance of the musical history that was being made around the 1920s. “The Roaring Twenties” featured Aldo López-Gavilán at the piano in a program of music that included: John Harbison “Remembering Gatsby”, Maurice Ravel “Piano Concerto in G Major”, Kurt Weill “Suite from The Threepenny Opera” and George Gershwin “Rhapsody in Blue”. The chosen works demonstrated the way in which Jazz moved to Europe and established this music as a credible art form representing the United States.

John Harbison’s Remembering Gatsby, inspired by Scott Fitzgerald’s great novel, and a shortened version of an opera was the means by which Chicago Philharmonic joined orchestras around the world in commemorating Harbison’s recent 80th birthday. The work was energetic and captured the flavor of the time. 

What stood out for me about the second work, Maurice Ravel’s brilliant Piano Concerto in G Major, was that every now and then amongst the gorgeous sounds, was a hint of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.  And then there was the way that Cuban-born Aldo López-Gavilán (dubbed a “formidable virtuoso” by The London Times), brought a unique interpretation with inspiring energy to this work. This was his Chicago debut. López-Gavilán was incredible to watch, as I listened and felt the energy, control and power of the music he created.

Pianist Aldo López-Gavilán Photo: Elliot Mandel and Conductor, Scott Speck

After a break, the audience was treated to Kurt Weill’s Suite from The Threepenny Opera, which was a socio-political statement and the forerunner of modern musical theater. This work encapsulates the seedy underworld of the gangster antihero Mack the Knife through the eyes of Weill’s 1920s Berlin. This work was dedicated to the working person, the downtrodden.

Conductor, Scott Speck and musicians in Kurt Weill’s “Suite from The Threepenny Opera”, Photo: Elliot Mandel

Everything about this piece fascinated me.  I love the melodies, and knew most of them. But it was the instrumentation and staging that caught my attention.  There was suddenly only a small number of musicians, mostly brass, no strings, a piano and a banjo, guitar and an accordion.  As I listened to the familiar and unique sounds, I realized that these are the instruments that produce this characteristic music. I also realized that I had never seen this performed in person. Those melodies haunt me, still.

A major shuffling took place on stage in preparation for Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a tribute to the great American spirit that Gershwin once called “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.” The stage was now completely filled with the full complement of instruments.  The familiar melodies were reflected with perfection in the intimate setting with wonderful acoustics.  I heard the played recently at an all Gershwin program by the Peninsula Symphony in Northern California but it didn’t sound like this.  The energy, the pacing, the piano in the hands of López-Gavilán somehow made this space feel like we would burst out into blue skies.  But, in fact, the energy of the audience translated into an immediate, enthusiastic standing ovation that lasted long enough for the audience to be gifted with an encore.

The standing ovation for Aldo López-Gavilán, Photo: Elliot Mandel

As López-Gavilán explained before playing his own work, Cuba in influenced by Afro-Cuban music and this piece reflected that. It also offered fingering that was unlike anything I have seen.  It was as though his hands had a life of their own and, could those fingers fly.  What a treat it was to be in the audience that evening.

The Chicago Philharmonic has some wonderful upcoming programs in various venues.  Go to the Chicago Philharmonic website for additional information.

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