A Simpatico Pair Meet Again In Gershwin, But It Don’t Mean A Thing

Pianist Ivan Levit took bows with conductor Elim Chan and the Los Angeles Philharmonic after a performance of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. (Photo by Alan E. Muraoka)

LOS ANGELES — Conductor Elim Chan, from Hong Kong, and Russian-German pianist Igor Levit are both 36. You can feel their easy generational rapport on a YouTube clip, with both alternately speaking in English and German. Last year, they premiered William Bolcom’s Second Piano Concerto with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, clearly an intense, happy collaboration on a difficult score, of which they gave a punchy, sparkling rendition.

But on Oct. 14 that sense of focus and alliance seemed lost in their reading of Gershwin’s Concerto in F, the centerpiece of a concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which also featured Jessie Montgomery’s Coincident Dances and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances.

Igor Levit (© Felix Broede/Sony Classical)

What went wrong? For one thing, Levit seemed disengaged, at times turning away from the keyboard and peering into the orchestra, and at others turning toward the audience with a mischievous smile. At one point, he even looked at his fingernails. Levit, a virtuoso pianist whose new album from Sony Classical (Fantasia) includes a stunning rendition of Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, often played the Gershwin slowly, which is not the same thing as playing the blues. Or, put another way, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

To be sure, Gershwin’s concerto is kind of an outlier, neither strictly jazz nor classical. The composer didn’t call his score — Prokofiev hated it; Walton adored it — a “Piano Concerto” or “Concerto for Piano.” So there’s some downtime for the piano and long passages in the Allegro outer movements where Levit pounds away within the fabric of the orchestral texture. Could Chan have avoided burying him under the sonic onslaught? Hard to say, but given that she was once a Dudamel Fellow who conducted the Phil just last May, it was surprising how much dynamic leeway she allowed the orchestra in Disney’s acoustically sensitive hall.

At the same time, Chan and the Phil fully committed to Gershwin’s lush Romantic orchestration. There were lovely coloristic touches throughout, including sensitively balanced sonorities between piano and strings, and between piano and woodwinds. And in the moody second-movement intro, principal trumpet Thomas Hooten’s solo conveyed a suave, bluesy sultriness.

Elim Chan (Simon Pauly)

A better example of how Gershwin’s now-popular concerto can be played came in a 2017 live recording on Myrios Classics by Kirill Gerstein, with David Robertson conducting the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Gerstein’s rhythmic flexibility, ear-catching voicing, and improvisational freedom seamlessly complemented Robertson and company’s power and lyricism.

After intermission, Chan elicited another robust response from the Philharmonic in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. Like the Gershwin, it’s a crowd-pleaser that ends fast and loud — in Chan’s reading, perhaps too loud. But in the first movement, she coaxed a richer-than-usual string sound, and fine unison playing from the brass lent color to the second-movement Andante. Chan also captured a sense of foreboding in the finale, which she built to a momentarily riveting silence before bass clarinet, then harp, took us into the rousing Allegro vivace conclusion.

The program began with a warm rendition of Jessie Montgomery’s ten-minute Coincident Dances (2017). The composer wrote in the program note that she was inspired by a short walk through New York’s streets with its “frenetic energy and multicultural aural palette.” In Chan’s account, Montgomery’s score sounded Romantically harmonious and largely consonant, eventually leading to some lively R&B and Latin jazz. Absent any Ivesian brass band-type blaring or daring, the piece, pleasant as it is, tended to come off as rather conservative and stylistically tentative.