Eugene Symphony electrifies audience with Gershwin-heavy ‘Rhapsody’

Teddy Abrams
The Register-Guard

A high-energy conductor and an equally kinetic soloist electrified listeners at the Hult Center on Thursday, as the Eugene Symphony presented George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” — the marquee work and the concert closer — and, earlier in the program, the composer’s less-familiar Second Rhapsody.

Guest conductor Teddy Abrams, director of the Louisville Orchestra and the Britt Festival Orchestra, exuded powerful authority on the podium, and pianist Pallavi Mahidhara brought precision, drive and something like 5,000 volts of musical energy to the two Gershwin works. The Second Rhapsody isn’t heard often, but it has at least as much infectious jazziness and exuberant vigor as its more famous companion piece. Like the earlier work, the 15-minute work alternates driving orchestral passages with virtuosic solo episodes, and the Curtis Institute-trained pianist tackled every one of those passages with clarity and élan.

About 30 minutes later, Mahidhara returned to the stage to deliver an equally galvanic performance of “Rhapsody in Blue.” With infallible control and exquisite phrasing, the pianist brought the same level of finesse and dynamism to her playing. Starting with Michael Anderson’s slide-glissando clarinet solo, the members of the orchestra played with mastery and panache.

Not enough Gershwin for you? As an encore, the apparently tireless pianist executed a brisk and nimble performance of the composer’s First Prelude.

Each of the two Gershwin works was preceded by an orchestral piece composed within a decade and a half after “Rhapsody in Blue.” Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1 has been played by the Eugene Symphony, but not since 1995. It’s a remarkably taut and powerful work, and though the score indicates “in one movement” the 21-minute piece is really in four connected and interrelated movements.

Abrams, using large, forceful gestures, presided over an assertive, propulsive performance of the oft-craggy first movement, which is the wellspring for the melodic material of the subsequent movements. Members of the wind section proved unflappable in rapid-fire staccato passages that propel the scherzo-like second movement.
Read the full review here