By Don Heckman
Santa Monica, CA. The New West Symphony may not be the highest visibility orchestra in the Southland. But they’re rapidly becoming one of the most intriguing music presenters, with programs performed in Oxnard, Thousand Oaks and Santa Monica. And the NWS performance at Barnum Hall Sunday night was an impressive example of the creative range of this stellar ensemble.
The program, the third in the New West Symphony’s 2012/13 Masterpiece Series, was devoted to a pair of works. The initial one, George Gershwin’s Concerto in F Major for Piano and Orchestra, showcased the piano soloing of Norman Krieger. Given Gershwin’s involvement with the emerging jazz scene of the ‘20s when he wrote the F Major Concerto, the work demands a performance in which orchestra and soloist come together with the sort of rhythmic jazz accents that Gershwin clearly seems to have intended.
To their credit, Krieger and the NW S, largely – although not always – did precisely that. Despite its occasionally uneven aspects, however, the Gershwin piece was an appropriate choice, a musical vision of America in the ‘20s, and the perfect lead-in to the highlight composition of the evening, Visions of America: A Photo-Symphony.
What, you might ask, is a “Photo-Symphony?” A mixed-media musical event of some sort is the first description that comes to mind. And the media was indeed mixed, based upon the images and personal reminiscences of photographer Joseph Sohm, read as a voice-over by Clint Eastwood, combined with a symphonic score by pianist/composer Roger Kellaway, and highlighted in five memorable songs by the lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman and the melodies of Kellaway. All of it held together by Sohm’s far-ranging imagery, first published as a book, underscoring a thematic vision of American life – from small towns and family snapshots to epic photos of America in the splendor of its great cities and its memorable landscapes.
The work was performed by the New World Symphony under the baton of its new (as of May 2012) conductor, Marcelo Lehninger, with Kellaway playing piano, and songs delivered by singers Judith Hill and Steve Tyrell, backed by the lush harmonies of the New West Symphony Chorus.
There’s no denying the multi-layered emotional appeal of Sohm’s visual images, which succeeded admirably in accomplishing his desire to “photograph an idea (i.e., democracy).” The narrative, however, despite the familiar timbres of Eastwood’s voice, was at its best in its efforts to illuminate the words and philosophic thoughts of the founders, less intriguing when it veered into personal recollections.
But ultimately it was Kellaway’s score, his songs with the Bergmans, the focused conducting of Lehninger, and the warm expressiveness of the NWS players that brought Visions of America vividly to life. Like Gershwin, Kellaway balances significant jazz credentials with a far-reaching orchestral vision. And I’d wager that his score – performed with or without the mixed media, photographic imagery – will receive many performances as an impressive contemporary work, beautifully tinged with the jazz elements of the Bergman/Kellaway songs.
The concert concluded, there was still more to come in this immensely entertaining evening. Following the orchestral performance, many in the audience gathered at the nearby Sheraton-Delfina Hotel for a Gala honoring the Bergmans in the form of a celebratory fund-raising auction and performance.
The auction, humorously and successfully led by KNBC-TV weathercaster Fritz Coleman, was followed by a brief music segment. Alan Bergman sang a deeply intimate, utterly captivating version of his (and Marilyn’s and Michel Legrand’s) “Windmills of Your Mind” followed by a poignant “The Way We Were.” Tyrell added a jaunty rendering of the Bergman’s classic for Frank Sinatra, “Nice and Easy.” And Kellaway sang “I Have the Feeling I’ve Been Here Before,” written with the Bergmans.
It was the perfect ending to a memorable evening of music, imagery and song. The sort of imaginative musical experience that characterizes the offerings of the New West Symphony. Expect to hear much more as the NWS Masterpiece series continues to unfold into 2013.