In a celebration of how music has evolved and is still intertwining genres, the Johnny Mercer Theater was full on April 6 for the Savannah Music Festival’s co-production with the Savannah Philharmonic featuring Marcus Roberts.

The Rhapsody in Blue and The Firebird Suite program was an exciting merger of two of the dominating musical forces in the festival: jazz and classical.

Given the name, one can imagine a diverse concert, drawing lines between composer George Gershwin and any number of classical superstars he mingled with during his time. This performance featured those connections and more.

 

The first work on the program was the Polovtsian Dances by Russian composer Alexander Borodin. These were undoubtably the most formal works of the night.

The orchestra began with a bit of a sluggish start, but rose to the occasion as they responded to guest conductor Keitro Harada. Harada’s presence also marked the beginning of an audition process as the Philharmonic begins their search for a new maestro.

As Harada left the stage concluding the Borodin, a platform arose in front of the ensemble, from the orchestra pit, to reveal a drum kit, double bass and steinway grand piano. Composer and pianist Marcus Roberts, accompanied by Harada, along with his jazz trio entered the stage to unveil his complimentary piece to Gershwin’s, “Rhapsody in D.”

“My goal was to connect the jazz and classical genres using a modern compositional framework” Roberts said in the program notes. In doing so he was able to paint from a diverse pallet of “a lot of spice and flavor from American and European cultures.”

As the piece began it was clear that Roberts was the true leader of this ensemble as Harada helped the Philharmonic through accompanying passages. There seemed to be a lot of communication and chemistry on stage, not just between the trio, but the orchestra as well.

However, the Johnny Mercer Theater did not do the ensemble any favors. The large cavernous space carried the sounds of the drum set, placed in front, and often drowned out the rest of the orchestra. But, overall, the piece was a success.

It proved to be a truly original blend of many different musical traditions. Often shifting quickly from one genre to the next. The dynamic nature of Roberts and his ensemble seemed to please the crowd as they gave a roaring ovation afterward.

After intermission, Roberts and his trio reentered the stage to do a very special version of “Rhapsody in Blue.” Instead of a standard piano concerto, as initially conceived by Gershwin, it became a concerto for jazz trio.

The trio took command of this performance as they played at an unusually quick tempo. Roberts used the solo sections Gershwin left to the pianist as an opportunity to improvise. While the trio didn’t completely improvise, it was definitely riffing off of Gershwin’s little motifs and melodies that were written on the page. their playfulness with this piece should make other orchestras rethink how they perform the piece. Their playfulness with this piece should make other orchestras rethink how they perform the piece.

“'Rhapsody in Blue ‘is one of the few pieces that's still in the American psyche enough (so that) when you make stuff up, they still know it's 'Rhapsody in Blue,' and you still can understand it and still can follow it,” Roberts said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.

Every once in a while, when Gershwin met famous composers, he would ask them for a composition lesson. One of those composers happened to be Igor Stravinsky.

Stravinsky, who was known for his sharp wit, asked Gershwin how much money he made in the United States as a composer. When Gershwin responded, Stravinsky said “Then I should be taking lessons from you.”

Together at last, Gershwin and Stravinsky were on the same stage here in Savannah. The final work on the program was the suite from “The Firebird,” a ballet that Stravinsky wrote in 1910 for a Russian ballet company based in Paris. It would become the vanguard piece that launched him towards his most acclaimed ballets, like “The Rite of Spring,” and “Petrushka.”

Hearing the vast contrasts and similarities between these composers was mesmerizing. While they had completely different styles and techniques they both had an ability to capture the attention of their audiences with color, timbre and vast harmonic and rhythmic expressions.

Harada led the Philharmonic through brilliantly still and quiet passages and used overtly large gestures to build them back up to exciting and loud moments. His command over the orchestra was organic. The extended harmonies and techniques Stravinsky employed in “The Firebird” came through even with the faulty acoustics.

This program in particular must have been no easy task for anyone involved. But the hard work put forth by the musicians and the festival to make this happen were well worth the effort.

Let’s hope that we see more high profile concerts featuring living composers at this festival and in Savannah in the future.