Review: Bernstein & Gershwin with Drew Petersen

Rising pianist and others earn ovations in Philharmonic concert opener

By: Charles Webb, For The Republic – 

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Maestro David Bowden, music director of the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic, inaugurated the 2018-19 season by featuring America’s two most well-known and beloved composers, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein.

Opening the concert Saturday night with Bernstein’s Candide Overture gave the excellent ensemble an opportunity to showcase various sections of the orchestra in a technically demanding composition. Both composers were among the first to utilize jazz rhythms and chordal sounds with traditional classical scoring. The Candide Overture brings jaunty jazz elements to a piece that has become a staple of orchestral literature throughout the world.

Following such a breath-taking tempo and beginning, we were treated to a stellar performance of Gershwin’s “Concerto in F,” which brings together interlacing jazz and classical elements. This piece demands a pianist of the highest technical and interpretive caliber, and we were fortunate to experience such a performance by 24-year-old pianist Drew Petersen.

Petersen has all the qualities necessary to capture the grandeur and brilliance of this masterpiece for piano and orchestra. He drew from the piano its last ounces of beauty, strength and precision to end the first half of the concert, receiving an immediate standing ovation. The enthusiasm of the large crowd inspired Petersen to offer two encores of Gershwin songs, the last one a fantastic arrangement of “The Man I Love” by early 20th Century pianist and composer, Earl Wild.

Petersen managed the intricacies of this transcription with superior aplomb, again drawing the audience to its feet.

The contributions of several orchestral musicians contributed to the success of the concert. From the first moments that he played stratospheric solo lines to his wide melodic interpretive skills, trumpeter Eddie Ludema brought to life the soaring melodies and rhythmic syncopations of Gershwin’s score. Jia-Rong Gan served as concertmaster for the evening, leading the strings with golden melodic sounds.

The entire cello section, led by principal Liz SeungAh Hong, spent much time “singing” the gorgeous melodies of both Gershwin and Bernstein.

We sometimes hear comments about symphony concerts such as, “There wasn’t a single melody to hum on the way home.” Well, the Philharmonic concert was the exact opposite. You would have to be tone deaf not to be tapping your feet or humming those wonderful melodies long after you left North High School auditorium.

Helping us do that were outstanding instrumental soloists including principal clarinet Samantha Johnson-Helms, Scotty Stepp on saxophone, Alyssa Baranski on flute, and all three trombonists, principal Matthew Williamson, Kyle Malesevich and Austin Pancner.

The last half of the concert was devoted to Bernstein. Orchestras throughout the world this year are celebrating Bernstein’s 100th birthday. The “Overture to Wonderful Town,” one of his many magnificent Broadway musical compositions, led the way, closely followed by “Three Dance Episodes” from “On the Town.” Of course, no concert featuring the music of Leonard Bernstein would be complete without a major sampling of his most famous work, “West Side Story.”

In this arrangement for solo orchestra by Jack Mason, the audience luxuriated in the rich melodies of “I Feel Pretty,” “Maria,” “Something’s Coming,” “Tonight,” “One Hand, One Heart,” “Cool” and “America.” What a magnificent way to finish a concert that left us marveling at the incredible heritage that George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein left the world of music.

The Columbus Philharmonic, under their gifted and imaginative conductor, presented a stunning array of unforgettable tunes that left us all wanting more. I entreat you to discover the musical gems that comprise the rest of a great season.

Bloomington resident Charles Webb is dean emeritus of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.

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