The 53rd season of the Greenwich Symphony began with a rather oddly-paced program and a favorite soloist, Jon Nakamatsu, playing a note-perfect version of George Gershwin's "Concerto in F." The orchestra was swollen with players for two of the offerings, and the break between the opening "Overture to Tannhauser" and the Gershwin saw the musicians milling and standing about the stage as the piano was rolled onstage.
The third work was Richard Strauss' "Suite to Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme," based on a l7th century play by Moliere. Each work had a strong tie to another theatrical form: opera, drama, and film (Who could forget Oscar Levant playing the Concerto in F in An American in Paris?).
Conductor David Gilbert introduced Deborah Wong, the guest concertmaster, and honored retiring long-term orchestra member Joseph Gold for his 40 years with the Greenwich Symphony, noting that the "spirit of music makes us all young."
Commenting knowledgably on the selections, he spoke of the Tannhauser piece as a classic overture composed to introduce another work. Of the Gershwin, he noted that generic American musical forms -- Tin Pan Alley, blues, and jazz -- were incorporated by the composer in the classical three-movement concerto form, his first. Gilbert called the Richard Strauss Suite "delightful chamber music."
The "Overture to Tannhauser" began with a ponderous statement of principal theme in the low brasses, the violins entering with a second theme. There are many restatements of the grandiose themes within the work: the music swells, with a clarinet leitmotif and a percussive tambourine saving the day by adding color.
The first violin section was a bit messy, but the orchestra pulled together for the majestic closing statement, after which the conductor cited first clarinetist Philip Bashor, and then the full orchestra.
The great technical precision of soloist Jon Nakamatsu, the gold medalist of the 10th Van Cliburn competition, noted in his previous Greenwich performances of the Grieg "Piano Concerto in A" and Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" did not fail him.
Opening with stirring percussion, the music led to the melancholy opening piano statement with Mr. Nakamatsu performing perfect arpeggios and cascading runs, the orchestra at full complement.
While each introduction of theme music -- jazz, blues, Charleston, movie-style romance -- was fully realized in the solo instrument, it is the conductor who must shape the transitions between the episodic musical passages in this work, and Mr. Gilbert managed that beautifully. Crisp and lovely work by the pianist, who interpreted the differing expressions of the movement closed the opening Allegro. The audience then broke into spontaneous applause.
Adagio opened with a bluesy theme in trumpet, the oboe then telling its plaintive tale, calling up a city street in the early hours of the morning. The soloist was occasionally a shade too crisp in his interpretation of the languorous music of the movement, although the cadenza was wondrously executed. The percussion was impressive, the xylophone whirring underneath.
Allegro agitato began with a rousing opening, leading to a mathematical xylophone, a pizzicato reprise of the opening theme, and many filmic motifs, like Gershwin's classic "walking the dog," composed for an Astaire and Rogers film.
Reconfigured to a smaller string orchestra with piano for the performance of the "Suite: Le Bourgeouis Gentilhomme," the players seemed more of an ensemble, and, in performance, this was the most successfully balanced piece of the evening.
With its courtly French opening and hints of intrigue, it mimicked the scenes of the play in a series of musical vignettes.
Skullduggery and scandal were foreshadowed in the opening section featuring piano, hors and woodwinds and a lyrical oboe. The flute opened the consonant second section, while the tuba and low horns informed the thirds.
The insouciant fourth featured a good turn by Ms. Wong, and the low brasses were excellent. Slow, lyrical and stately, the next section featured the oboe. In the following section, the first violinist again was at work, sonorous and ending in a musical lagniappe.
In subsequent sections, the harp was used to good effect, and there were droll musical turnings and a march section featuring Daniel Miller on cello eliciting remarkable high notes. Going to disharmony, with sounds like cacophonous birds, the flute intruded, interrupted. The work ended in a sumptuous waltz.
For information and tickets, visit www.greenwichsym.org, or telephone 401-869-2664.
"¢ "¢ "¢
Both her novel To the Highest Bidder and her music column were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 2004. A freelance writer, she also publishes an award-winning online social magazine in Newport, R.I.