Joseph Silverstein tipped his hat to two extraordinary talents Saturday night at Symphony Hall.
First, composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, whom he eulogized as having been "about the greatest American musician of the 20th century." Then comedian-songwriter-etc. Steve Allen, whom he introduced as "the most prolific composer of our time."The occasion was the Utah Symphony's annual retirement-fund benefit, which began in somber fashion with a broadly elegiac reading, in Bernstein's memory, of the Adagietto from the Mahler Fifth Symphony, the piece he himself once used to memorialize conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos. After which Silverstein led the orchestra in Glinka's "Russlan and Ludmilla" Overture and Tchaikovsky's "Capriccio Italien," vigorous enough, especially the Glinka, but a bit short on sparkle.
Which meant it was up to Allen to provide the chuckles, something he did almost from the first. "I was standing this afternoon out in front of the Little America Hotel," he cracked. "That's where I'm staying - out in front of the Little America Hotel."
Then, "Tonight" show-style, he read messages from the audience, obliged a member of the orchestra with an autographed picture for her parents and took a moment to recognize the charitable work of Grace Tanner. The latter, we were informed, when she became aware of the social problems around her, helped raise over $957,000, which she then used "to move to a better neighborhood."
He also provided a fair amount of music, mostly his own compositions but also a sampling from what he called the "golden age of American popular music" - Jerome Kern ("Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"), Erroll Garner ("Misty") and Rodgers and Hart ("My Romance").
Allen's music may not be on that level, but via his fluent keyboard stylings the lyricism of "Impossible" and jazzy exuberance of "This Could Be the Start of Something Big" fell easily on the ear. To his credit, moreover, except for cocktail pianist Ken Green's discreet support, he also used the home team - i.e., Silverstein and the orchestra - as his backup band, including bassist David Yavornitzky and drummer Don Main as the rhythm section.
If there was a downside it was that, as a singer, Allen proved what a fine pianist he is, and that the show itself ran a little long. Nor did his pot shot at the rock era - i.e., treating the lyrics to the Stones' "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" as poetry - really come off. Not only was the humor itself heavy-handed ("The jerk finally thought of a lyric") but, let's face it, the words are not really what that song's about.
But his piano playing was good, especially in something like the Garneresque jazz number and R&B licks he turned out a la Jerry Lee Lewis. And although I do not find Allen's lyrics all that memorable (who, for example, remembers the words to "Picnic"?), the Latin beat he applied to the menu of a Mexican restaurant in "Carne Asada" reminded us that this is the man who before a national TV audience once improvised a song on the airline-seat sticker "Occupado."
The biggest laugh of the evening, though, was reserved for Silverstein, who when Allen asked who it was that decided to call the local team the Utah Jazz, ad libbed "the same people who decided to call the New Orleans football team the Saints."