With many apologies to Maurice Ravel and Sergei Rachmaninoff, it’s the third “R” on this weekend’s Omaha Symphony program — “Rhapsody in Blue” — that rightly commands the most attention.
Some may see that as a shame, since orchestras across the country present George Gershwin’s iconic 1924 quasi-concerto regularly. But Omahans have additional reasons to check out this presentation of the “Rhapsody,” which opened Friday night and repeats at 8 p.m. today alongside Ravel’s “Rapsodie espagnol” and Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony in E minor.
For one thing, this concert program has been a year in the making — since the last time the symphony performed “Rhapsody in Blue,” in fact. The orchestra’s 2012-13 schedule was still new on April 27-28, 2012, when pianist and Gershwin expert Kevin Cole presented an electrifying version of the “Rhapsody” that restored more than 50 measures lost for decades after its premiere.
This weekend’s version is more “traditional” (though still somewhat longer than the version Leonard Bernstein recorded with himself as the pianist). But as it happens, the soloist — the busy Michael Chertock, chairman of the University of Cincinnati’s piano department — has been here before. He performed the “Rhapsody” with the Omaha Symphony as a last-minute substitute in February 1992, when he was just 24.
What, then, might symphony fans who heard Cole last spring listen for if they come to hear Chertock tonight?
A different side of Gershwin, perhaps. “Rhapsody in Blue,” after all, was Gershwin’s first successful crossover into serious orchestral composing. Chertock performs the “traditional” version (crafted by editors who felt the original needed trimming) with a relaxed virtuosity very much at home in a traditional orchestral setting. Like Cole, he received — and earned — an excited ovation from the Holland Performing Arts Center audience.
But even after the success of the “Rhapsody,” “Concerto in F” and “An American in Paris,” Gershwin remained a Broadway songwriter at heart. And Cole has gained renown for re-creating Gershwin’s own piano-playing style. His performance of the restored “Rhapsody” last spring evoked Gershwin the showman, fully at home in the Jazz Age and eager to win a place for jazz in the orchestral repertoire.
So, who wins? In the end, it’s Gershwin who wins — for the greatness of “Rhapsody in Blue” can be heard in the way that two very different pianists used it barely a year apart to capture the hearts of virtually the same audience.
A quick word on the weekend’s other “R’s.” The Ravel and Rachmaninoff works are truly gorgeous, though their connection to Gershwin is tenuous at best. The symphony’s ensemble performances were exquisite in both works, as were solo passages in the Ravel by Robert Jenkins on English horn and Jason Sudduth on oboe.
If you go tonight, by the way, pay special attention to the start of the third movement of the Rachmaninoff. You’ll hear another example of a great orchestral melody later stolen for a 20th-century pop song — namely, the 1970s Eric Carmen hit “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again.”