Sunday, November 16, 2008

Lauderdale and Gershwin: What a match

Here's guest writer Angela Allen's review of the Oregon Symphony concert on November 15th.

When they rolled the Steinway on stage for the Oregon Symphony’s second piece, the audience stirred in anticipation: It was in store for an ecstatic brew of local genes and world-class talent.

Portland pianist Thomas Lauderdale played George Gershwin’s Concerto in F Major (once titled New York Concerto) with passion, aplomb and charming showmanship at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Hall.

Sold out? Not quite, but few left at intermission.

Guest conductor Christoph Campestrini kept a tight, crisp rein on the Oregon Symphony, leading the musicians through Gershwin‘s 35-minute piece as well as the opener, a suitably energetic version of Aaron Jay Kernis’s “Too Hot Toccota.” After Gershwin, he conducted Sergei Rachmaninoff’s harmonious and touchingly melancholy Symphony No. 3 in A minor.

The program was all good and designed to give gifts to divergent classical tastes. But the news is Lauderdale and Gershwin. Surely they would be soul mates if Gershwin hadn’t died 71 years ago. Improv, jazz, classical – they do it all. If several generations apart in America’s musical history, both capture its vibrant spirit and mix it up with enthusiasm and surprises.

Lauderdale, known best for his leadership of Portland’s internationally acclaimed and wildly popular jazzy Pink Martini, is a classically trained pianist. He continues to study with one of first teachers, Sylvia Kilman, who proved an able taskmaster in preparing him for this performance.

In Gershwin’s jazzy symphony – worked out classically, as Gershwin insisted on saying -- Lauderdale dipped and dropped to the music, lifting his shoulders to the notes, his hands flowing like water as he moved into the first movement syncopated with Charleston rhythms. Only a breathtaking moment into the Allegro, he landed in synch with the orchestra. As his hands climbed scales, and he threw his arms into the air, Lauderdale looked boyish and free, mirroring the rhythms, crescendos and the utter zeal of the piece.

The more poetic, languorous second movement opens with a trumpet solo that blew the audience away, speaking of blues. The brass brought the unmistakably bluesy Gershwin to the forefront, but Lauderdale was no slouch. His chops never ceased. Still, hats off to the brass section.

The percussion takes off in the final Allegro agitato, which Gershwin described as “an orgy of rhythms.” The clean finish in a huge final chord was precisely and triumphantly executed.

Then again, there is far more than precision to Lauderdale’s virtuoso playing. He feels the music, and makes you feel it, an impish electrical bolt passing along the current.


A longtime Portland journalist, poet and photographer, Angela Allen contributes to a number of regional, national and international publications and Web sites. She won a 2005 National Endowment for the Arts grant to study classical and operatic music in New York City. Reach her at

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