Sept. 23 2015 12:54 AM

Lansing Symphony wows with all-Gershwin opener

In 1946, American composer and critic Virgil Thomson was amazed at the success of an all-Gershwin program at Carnegie Hall.

“The works themselves, especially the ‘Rhapsody (in Blue),’ are not so fresh to us as they once were,” he noted dryly. That was about the time Harry Truman had just settled into the White House.

They’re no less fresh in at the tail end of the Obama administration, but audiences adore Gershwin, then and now.

Friday night, pianist Ralph Votapek managed to provoke four standing ovations during the Lansing Symphony’s all-Gershwin season opener — something I haven’t seen in 14 years of reviewing the LSO.

This was no fond, valedictory nod to an aging artist. For one thing, Votapek is granite hard and badass as ever, at least when playing music as familiar to his fingers as Gershwin.

For another, Votapek neither encouraged nor indulged in mawkish sentiment. All night, he sliced like a shark through the romantic billows and surges of an orchestra that’s already in mid-season form. Four works by Gershwin, including the famous “Rhapsody in Blue,” hardly seemed enough for the happy crowd at the Wharton Center.

Wall-to-wall enjoyment like that is rare at a symphony concert, where some music is bound to please more than others.

But the usual rules didn’t apply Friday. Timothy Muffitt, the symphony’s conductor and music director, had stacked the deck.

Votapek is a hometown favorite, with a storied career at MSU going back to the 1960s. He’s also a world-renowned musician, hailed like a rock star on his frequent tours of Latin America.

So parking Votapek on stage for a whole evening of Gershwin was unusual, but not risky.

The other ace up Muffitt’s sleeve was Gershwin, a category unto himself.

Gershwin’s music defies decay — not because it’s feel-good music, but because the jaunty two-steps and Art Deco frosting decay so fast. For all his vaunted American energy, Gershwin is a study in mortality and impermanence. A relentless night of razzle-dazzle would have been monotonous, but a concert that makes you want to go home and make your own short life count is no small achievement.

Muffitt set the bittersweet tone by opening with the longest work of the night, the Concerto in F. The banquet had barely started when the strings hinted at the bill — a haunting, halting melody with a lovely face and a pallid skull beneath. The skull returned, full force, at the end of the first movement.

A wistful slow movement, with many fine solo turns, gave way to a frantic finale that threw the soloist and the orchestra into a tuxedo vortex. Votapek very nearly rushed ahead of the orchestra several times throughout the night. The chase gave the music a tense spontaneity, even in the most familiar bits. (And no American composer used a tam-tam more effectively until Frank Zappa’s climax to “G-Spot Tornado.”)

There followed a light set of variations on “I Got Rhythm” that felt stiff and labored, as such “pops” material often does. But the night’s big revelation was yet to come: the Second Rhapsody, the least frequently played piece on the program, dubbed in its early stages the “Rhapsody in Rivets.”

In the night’s tightest performance, a familiar Gershwin-esque emotional arc, from sky-scraping hustle-bustle to louche languor to a drawn-out, hat-cane-and-teeth finale, were packed into a dense and thrilling 14 minutes.

Part of the fun Friday was picking up bits and pieces of “Rhapsody in Blue” from every piece that preceded it until it rose up, fully assembled, at the end of the night.

If anyone can say they own the “Rhapsody” these days, it’s Votapek, who has played it more than 70 times with the world’s great (and not-so-great) orchestras. He learned it at age 17, when he won a contest and played it with its original conductor, Paul Whiteman. At 76, Votapek is close to double the age Gershwin was when he died.

Thomson wrote that “great mature interpreters” grow to overwhelm the work of composers who died young. Pianist Oscar Levant, the soloist in the 1946 Carnegie Hall Gershwin concert, was the era’s definitive Gershwin performer, but Thomson found Levant had given up spontaneity and become “authoritative” and “masterful.”

Not so for Votapek, whose workmanlike focus sidesteps the whole issue of youth vs. maturity. Instead, he aspires to Gershwin’s own piano style, which Votapek has described as “dry” and “stenciled.”

The spontaneity, as well as the authority, comes simply from sitting down and doing the job as well as possible that particular day.

An overbearing or flamboyant artist couldn’t have held the attention of the hall all night, but Votapek seemed to have everyone in thrall from beginning to end.

Votapek’s only observable expression of emotion all night was a single raised eyebrow, after the audience clamored for an encore. (That eyebrow seemed to ask, “Haven’t they had enough?”)

They had not. Votapek played an autumnal arrangement of “Summertime” that set the song’s famous limpid melody against a cross-current of descending scales, like dying leaves falling across a swimming hole in chilly October.

Thomson, who was no softy, knew when a successful concert had taken place. His 1946 Carnegie Hall review applies just as well to Friday’s Gershwin extravaganza.

“It is a pleasure to find that audiences are still reacting favorably to Gershwin’s music,” he wrote. “It is a pleasure to see an audience react so favorably to all the pieces on a program.

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