Dipika Guha’s play “Azaan” nearly stole the show at the Oregon Symphony concert on Saturday evening (November 4). Guha’s story about an immigrant who turns up in a small American town but is unable to speak or communicate much of anything with the police was absolutely spellbinding. Probing the issues of what is “home,” “Azaan” fit in seamlessly with the piano concertos of Schoenberg and Gershwin, which were outstandingly performed by Kirill Gerstein.
Accompanied by original music by Chris Rogerson, “Azaan” was a unique world premiere that expanded the boundaries of what to expect at classical music concerts. Bernard White gave a near-visceral portrayal of The Stranger who had survived a horrific attack of mustard gas on his village in an unnamed homeland. His inability to talk frustrated the local policeman (C. J. Wilson) and the interpreter (Babak Tafti), but the policeman’s wife (Anna Belknap), who had lost a son, found a way to hear the thoughts of The Stranger. Rogerson gave the thoughts an memories an evocative outlet through the orchestra with musical lines that darted and drifted into the horizon. Guha’s words combined humor and tragedy to great effect, and the stage directions of Elena Araoz were spot on.
Gerstein delivered an exceptional performance of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto. He didn’t take any chances, though, relying on an iPad or tablet that was placed inside the piano for the score. His playing brought out the lyrical aspects of the 12-tone piece as much as possible even though much of it seemed fragmentary and even fidgety.
The oddity the Schoenberg was followed by “Rhapsody in Blue,” which put the audience at ease. The cool thing about Gerstein is that even though he grew up in the former Soviet Union, he has always studied classical and jazz. Taking the piece at an electrifyingly fast pace, Gerstein added little jazz-inflected embellishments here and there. He even improvised a bit during one of the cadenzas, putting his own stamp on the piece and having a lot of fun with it.
The life-stories of Schoenberg and Gershwin fit the concert program’s theme of “what is home” perfectly. Schoenberg immigrated to America because of the Nazi repression and made a home in Los Angeles. Gershwin, the son of Jewish immigrants, developed a love for jazz that influenced his works, many of which are the most popular “classical” pieces ever created in America.
Stretching things just a bit further, the orchestra, under its music director Carlos Kalmar (himself an immigrant by way of Uruguay and Austria) gave a wonderful performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Overture on Hebrew Themes.” Prokofiev wrote the piece for the Zimro Ensemble in 1919 and premiered it with them in New York City a year later, then followed it up with an orchestral version in 1934. The Oregon Symphony’s principal clarinetist James Shields shaded his playing in wonderfully nuanced ways with woody and edgy sounds that put the audience in a club in New York City with a lively bunch of Jewish musicians.