Review: Chen, Parker, CSO present positively Olympic performance

Mei-Ann Chen
The Chautauquan Daily

By John Chacona

Thursday at the London Olympics, the world’s fastest man and the world’s greatest half-miler turned in epic performances to make history on the track. The world’s greatest athlete was crowned in the decathlon, and a never-say-die women’s soccer team capped an inspiring journey to the gold medal. It was a day to take one’s breath away.

Guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen seemed to catch some of that spirit Thursday evening on the Amphitheater stage, which opened three years before the first modern Olympiad. She was clearly thrilled to be there, smiling broadly and bouncing around like a gymnast in the floor exercise finals.

And if the Olympic motto of “Faster, Higher, Stronger” wasn’t exactly the theme of the night, it certainly informed the athletic account of the Gershwin Concerto in F Major that opened the program.

Pianist Ian Parker broke out of the blocks a bit slowly, and his dreamy opening statement seemed to promise a reading in the manner of Ravel’s similarly jazz-inspired Concerto in G of seven years later: light, colorful and lightly ironic. In a word: French.

But when the jaunty New York City music in the orchestra came in, Parker and Chen were off to the races in a kaleidoscope of snappy rhythm and full-throated accompaniment from the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. To mix sporting metaphors, it was a swing-for-the-fences reading — not breathlessly fast, but certainly muscular, especially in the orchestra, which blazed forth in its big statements. Parker, head bobbing and upper body swaying to the rhythms all night, was alternately playful and forceful, and when the opening Allegro hurtled to a breathless conclusion, the audience erupted in spontaneous and well-earned applause.

But the Adagio is really the heart of this music, a jazz nocturne with a bluesy trumpeter lamenting under a forlorn streetlamp. But even here, trumpeter Charles Berginc’s (I assume; the brass section was obscured by the piano lid) blue notes had a smile-through-the-tears optimism — the blues of affirmation, not of despair. Gershwin’s New York (early drafts of the work were titled “New York Concerto”) is a place of bustling, can-do optimism, and Parker upheld the notion, swinging his part with the panache of stride piano masters Fats Waller or Willie “The Lion” Smith.

The closing Allegro agitato was less agitated than the opening movement, and one could fault Chen — or Gershwin — for placing the work’s high point two movements earlier, but the finale was great fun, and the large audience exploded to its feet.

It’s hard to think of better music for an Olympic year than Beethoven’s Third Symphony, that paean to indomitable spirit and triumph, and when Chen sprung onto the Amp stage after intermission, beaming like a first-time medalist, one could imagine a heaven-storming pentathlon of an “Eroica.”

What she gave us was an enormously sunny and joyful account of the old warhorse, with swift (though never rushed) rhythms, flowing tempos and a minimum of rhetoric for its own sake.

She didn’t haul around the tempos, as some conductors are wont to do, but kept them moving, relay runners briskly circling the track. The drama that some find in this work was held at arm’s length. It was Beethoven lighting the blazing lamp of Reason, not shaking his fist at the universe, or Napoleon or anything else, for that matter.

The Scherzo, marked vivace, was almost Mendelssohnian in its lightness and grace. Beethoven is sturdy enough to embrace this approach, and Chen and the CSO made a good case for it. Admirers of Pierre Monteux’s way with Beethoven — this writer is one of them — would have found a lot to like here.

The audience agreed, giving Chen and the CSO an enthusiastic ovation. To the winner go the laurels.