Odds are you've heard George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." Odds are that you haven't heard it like it was performed Friday night by pianist Dustin Gledhill and the Utah Symphony.
When the orchestra came out for the second half of a concert devoted entirely to Gershwin's music (this being the 100th anniversary year of his birth), it was a much-reduced group. In fact, the musicians accompanying Gledhill comprised basically the same number of artists, playing the same instruments, as jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman's 23-piece Palais Royal Orchestra, which debuted the piece on Feb. 12, 1924.With the orchestration virtually the same as the original, Friday's audience heard the piece as Whiteman performed it in New York's Aeolian Hall, with Gershwin himself at the piano.
And it was, simply put, very cool.
Most later arrangements of "Rhapsody in Blue" for larger orchestras have made the piece lusher, smoother, more polished. The original arrangement was relatively raw and spare, with saxophones, trumpets and a tuba vying with a small violin section (no cellos or violas) along with the piano.
Friday's performance, which stripped the well-known piece of the layers of veneer it has acquired over the years, gave it a fresh, bracing shot in the arm. "Rhapsody in Blue" alone was worth the concert's price of admission.
The evening's other highlight was a medley of pieces from Gershwin's opera "Porgy and Bess." Soprano Katherine Terrell infused "Summertime" with emotion and feeling, and baritone Lewis Dahle von Schlanbusch did a fun, energetic performance of "It Ain't Necessarily So."
Alas, the two singers' stage movements - moving of arms, some dance steps, looking into each other eyes, etc. - that worked so well in the "Porgy and Bess" medley were distractions during the numerous stand-alone Gershwin songs they performed with the orchestra. The slick presentation made the songs overly packaged, as if the performers were afraid to let the music speak for itself.
But if one closed one's eyes and just listened, one heard some good music.
The rehearsed between-song patter and jokes also generally detracted, with a few exceptions, most notably guest conductor Newton Wayland's very interesting thumbnail history of how Gershwin came to compose "Rhapsody in Blue."
Gershwin, who died in his late 30s from a brain tumor, is universally recognized as one of the greatest American composers and certainly one of the most innovative. He was the first composer to introduce jazz rhythms and melodic twists widely into popular songs and orchestral music, profoundly influencing later composers.
Friday's concert, which will be repeated Saturday and Sunday at Deer Valley and Snowbird, was an excellent introduction to Gershwin for the uninitiated, and a pleasant overview for those familiar with his work.