It was only 25 minutes long, but George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue stole the spotlight of the two-and-a-half-hour show.
Under the direction of guest conductor Robert Spano, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played a dynamic program Thursday at Hill Auditorium. The orchestra began the evening with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 2 (“A London Symphony”) and ended with Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story.’ Squeezed in between was a thoroughly modern and exciting rendition of Gershwin’s jazz classic.
For the headlining piece, the orchestra shared the stage with the great Marcus Roberts Trio jazz trio, with Marcus Roberts at piano, Roland Guerin at bass and Jason Marsalis at drums. With a style more reminiscent of the Boston Pops than the New York Philharmonic, the orchestra started Rhapsody with a strong, scintillating clarinet wail that was deceptively conventional. But it was evident once the first piano solo arrived that this would not be the same old Rhapsody. Roberts improvised the solo with complex rhythmic sequences that provided an alternate take on the piece. At first unsettling to hear, the orchestra’s return helped everything fall into place.
The last three piano solos jumped from hard rhythmic bounces to Southern swing to Chopin-style nocturne. Classical and jazz music embraced each another in a way that would have made Gershwin proud; orchestral musicians bobbed their heads as they played alongside the trio. Following the piece’s boisterous ending, the audience leapt into a standing ovation.
The orchestra started the night with a more traditional choice – the Vaughan Williams piece. Although the composer had no intention to embody a place or event, it’s impossible not to associate the sights and sounds of London streets with the interwoven themes of the “London Symphony.”
A beautifully executed and controlled English horn solo opened the second “Lento” movement and painted an image of a lonely grey afternoon. The strings repeated a quiet, pulsing rhythm while quintessential Vaughan Williams chord turns led listeners into a calmer space outside the rush of the city .
The third movement, “Scherzo (Nocturne): allegro vivace,” filled with bustling tunes from the woodwinds and dark calls from the brass was followed by the charging final movement. “Andante con moto-Maestoso alla marcia Allegro,” was a battle of styles, clashing back and forth fiercely until the harp sounded the third-quarter call of Big Ben and the city was filled with silence.
The closing piece, Symphonic Dances, was defined by skillful execution. Wittily interjected with snapping and orchestra members shouting “mambo!,” Bernstein’s arrangement was amusing, but was a bit anticlimactic following the breathtaking Rhapsody.
To top off the night, Spano returned to the stage for an encore to perform an adaptation of “The Victors,” which was arranged by the orchestra’s violist and University alum Max Raimi.
The esteemed CSO delivered a crowd-pleasing performance on Thursday, but not by pandering to the crowd. The orchestra risked losing its audience by interpreting a popular classic in an unfamiliar way. At times, an audience gets a taste of brilliance that doesn’t go unnoticed.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Marcus Roberts Trio
At Hill Auditorium