Utah Symphony’s Gershwin feast takes flight, with a maestro switch

Sat Nov 16, 2019 at 11:52 am
By Edward Reichel
Pianist Kevin Cole performed music of George Gershwin with Conner Gray Covington conducting the Utah Symphony Friday night. Photo: Kathleen Sykes

A George Gershwin extravaganza is on tap at the Utah Symphony this weekend, featuring three of the composer’s piano concertante works along with a pair of works for orchestra alone. 

Thierry Fischer was to have conducted this weekend but withdrew on the advice of his doctor, due to a back injury. 

Instead the orchestra’s associate conductor, Conner Gray Covington, made his Masterworks debut. Normally leading the pops and family concerts, Covington made the most of his opportunity Friday night in Abravanel Hall. He displayed a solid grasp of the music, knew what he wanted and conveyed his intentions to the orchestra convincingly. His readings captured the spirit of what makes Gershwin’s music so perennially popular.

The pianist this weekend is Kevin Cole. One of the leading interpreters of Gershwin’s music, his love and affinity for this music was evident from the start. While he is understated at the piano, he nevertheless brought power and depth to his playing. 

Of the three works with piano that were on the program the Second Rhapsody is the most infrequently played and the least well known. 

The Second Rhapsody is actually more sophisticated in structure than the better-known Rhapsody in Blue. The form is more concise and focused, with the main theme frequently returning in different guises without the various mood swings that are part of the other, more familiar work. 

Cole dove into it and played it with flair and flamboyance where needed.  Cole and Covington captured the overwhelmingly effervescent character of the work with finely wrought phrasing and soaring lines.

The pianist’s musicality and technical chops were on full display in the other two works as well—the “I Got Rhythm” Variations and the Rhapsody in Blue

For the “I Got Rhythm” Variations, Cole played with a light, nimble touch that underscored the bright and cheery character of the music

Rhapsody in Blue, on the other hand, is a sprawling work, more jazzy, robust and vivacious. Cole brought a fine sense of rhythm to his account as well as wonderfully defined lyricism and nuanced expression. Cole and Covington underscored the carefree character of the piece with cohesion and a seamless flow between sections. A highlight of the performance was principal clarinet Tad Calcara’s delightful opening riff glissando, which slowly inched its way to the high B flat. 

On the negative side,  tempos were occasionally a little too fast and the music felt somewhat rushed and choppy, particularly in the tutti sections. 

Covington offered solid and well-delineated accompaniment in each Cole collaboration, and the balance between piano and orchestra was spot on, even in the fortissimos.

Cole also treated the audience to two fast and flashy Gershwin songs as encores — “I Got Rhythm” (again, but this time without the orchestra) and “Fascinating Rhythm.”

Covington and the orchestra also played Gershwin’s Cuban Overture and the Promenade, better known as Walking the Dog.

The Cuban Overture was given a dynamic reading that captured the syncopated drive and high energy of the music. The performance was spirited and uninhibited, which suited the music. The expanded percussion section and the brass were in top form, and once again Calcara did a beautiful job with his clarinet solo.

The brief Promenade is a fun, innocuous little piece and Calcara shone yet again in his solo playing. 

The only non-Gershwin piece on the program was Andrew Norman’s Sacred Geometry.

Currently in the second of his two-year engagement as the Utah Symphony’s composer-in-association, Norman is an adept orchestrator and the work moves between dense, heavy and highly dissonant textures that are reminiscent of many of Iannis Xenakis’s works to more lightly textured chamber music. The work alternates quickly between these disparate sections and Covington, who showed an excellent command of the score, brought a cohesiveness to the music that allowed it to flow naturally from one section to another.  

The program will be repeated, minus the Norman, 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Abravanel Hall as part of the orchestra’s casual “Unwound” series. utahsymphony.org; 801-355-2787.

One Response to “Utah Symphony’s Gershwin feast takes flight, with a maestro switch”

  1. Posted Nov 17, 2019 at 2:22 pm by Dennis Tolman

    I attended Friday’s performance and cannot say enough about the experience. As a well trained Gershwin listener, this presentation of his music was one of the best I’ve ever attended. Also, this was my first exposure to Kevin Cole as a Gershwin interpreter. Again, I was impressed with the fresh excitement Mr. Cole brought to his playing, which I’m sure have pleased Gershwin himself… especially with the encore improvisations! My only negative comment was the incorporation of the only non-Gershwin number. To me, the “Sacred Geometry” was a complete mis-match to the overall experience, and should have had it’s hearing in a different setting.

Leave a Comment