Thoughtfully programmed pops

Guest conductor James Gaffigan, left, is leading the Philadelphia Orchestra in a program featuring "Rhapsody in Blue," music from the film "On the Waterfront," and selections from the "Swan Lake" ballet. Pianist Stewart Goodyear remains an important Gershwin interpreter, making rhythms speak and phrases snap.
Guest conductor James Gaffigan, left, is leading the Philadelphia Orchestra in a program featuring "Rhapsody in Blue," music from the film "On the Waterfront," and selections from the "Swan Lake" ballet. Pianist Stewart Goodyear remains an important Gershwin interpreter, making rhythms speak and phrases snap.

Orchestra dips into Gershwin, Bernstein, and Tchaikovsky in a light-classics concert.

Posted: March 10, 2012

Since the age of Arthur Fiedler, light classics have easily slipped through the cracks.

Pops concerts are oriented around living personalities. Symphonic programs are often steeped in Mahlerian seriousness. So Friday's program of semiclassical pieces (Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue) and music meant to serve a larger visual element (Bernstein's On the Waterfront film score and Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet) was a welcome break indeed, especially when thoughtfully programmed and performed by guest conductor James Gaffigan with pianist Stewart Goodyear.

Though a New Yorker, Gaffigan is associated with such brainy orchestras as the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic (he's principal guest conductor), though his hyper-alertness makes him nearly ideal for letting these Tchaikovsky and Bernstein pieces command the foreground.

The opening passage in the Swan Lake suite had a momentous brass entrance that reminded you that the ballet's fairy-tale story is about life and death. Other suite selections had grand solos and extended passages of chamber music with violinist David Kim, harpist Elizabeth Hainen and others, all played with the personality essential when a ballet score emerges from the orchestra pit. Gaffigan created spacious platforms for such moments, though elsewhere, rhythms often had a tight, nervous edge.

Written in the early 1950s when the composer was gray-listed, Bernstein's suite from On the Waterfront delivers big-screen moments with nagging inner dissonances. The piece (in only its second Philadelphia Orchestra performance) showed just how much the composer had absorbed influences from the elder Aaron Copland. The lonely, Edward Hopper-esque trumpet solo from Quiet City and the wind writing in Symphony No. 3 came to mind, though filtered through Bernstein's emotional generosity.

Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue is irresistible, though the original jazz-band orchestration makes Ferde Grofé's orchestral version, heard Friday, seem overinflated in music that prefers to hit and run. But pianist Goodyear remains an important Gershwin interpreter, making rhythms speak and phrases snap in ways that the more offhanded composer maybe didn't imagine but might have envied. Still, Goodyear's Gershwinian typecasting has gone on long enough; he's better at Beethoven. More of that, please.

The rhapsody's famous clarinet glissando, played by Ricardo Morales, came off like a drunken acrobat, recklessly swooping all over the place but in complete control. With Morales' trademark tone quality and meticulous musicianship, it's no wonder he received a rock-star ovation - not just because he was so good but also because he announced this week that he will not be moving to the New York Philharmonic after all. At least for now, he's ours.


Additional performance:
8 p.m. Saturday at the Kimmel Center. Information: www.philorch.org or 215-893-1999.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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