Atypical Gershwin rendition pleasing in the 'best new hall'

The moment we have all been waiting for finally arrived with the first notes of our own orchestra in its new home, the much-anticipated Gallo Center for the Arts. Along with many other music lovers, I have been hoping against hope that a facility designed to accommodate many different types of performances still can function well acoustically for unamplified concert music.

During the weeks leading up to the Gallo opening, we heard various pronouncements about what a wonderful sound the space has, and after Friday's concert of the Modesto Symphony Orchestra, I came away in agreement that the acoustics are a success. From where I was sitting, the sound was clear, powerful, warm and resonant. I was particularly struck by how well I could hear all the layers of musical detail that I had not been able to hear as well in past venues.

And there was plenty of musical detail to pay attention to in this performance led by guest conductor Erich Kunzel, longtime music director of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. Opening with Leonard Bernstein's playful "Overture to Candide," Kunzel immediately set the audience at ease with a tempo that was at once comfortable and energetic, successfully highlighting teasing cross rhythms, bubbly wind solos and punchy brass chords. Too often, conductors attempt to use sheer speed to force energy out of this score, but in the end lose the charm that is naturally written into the music. Kunzel's approach also allowed the tempo in the coda to take flight much more convincingly than it would against a too-hectic approach throughout.

After a brief pause in the action for a tasteful and atmospheric rendition of Leopold Stokowski's orchestration of Debussy's "Clair de Lune," pianist Leon Bates took the stage for Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." The orchestra offered a saucy introduction to which Bates responded with a somewhat jittery account of the first piano statements.

Within a short time, however, Bates found the "zone" and offered what turned out to be a decidedly souped-up version of this well-loved piece. During the first cadenza, there was first a brief hint and then a torrent of improvised notes that told us Bates wasn't going to stick to the score. Since Gershwin made up the cadenzas on the spot at the premiere, and since jazz is in the DNA of a piece like this, why not?

For that matter, Mozart and generations of musicians before him would have done the same thing given that improvisation was as basic to their art as it is to jazz musicians today. Only since the Romantic era have musicians adhered so closely to the notes and other indications on the page that improvisation has no longer been cultivated in the same way. I'm all for respecting the aesthetic tradition of any given style, but in my opinion, Bates' atypical approach to the Gershwin did just that.

The second half brought the audience more Gershwin, this time in the form of the orchestral tone poem "An American in Paris." For me, this performance was the highlight of the evening, and a significant amount of the credit goes again to Kunzel, whose seasoned understanding of this style brought out the best in the orchestra. All sections played convincingly, and their performance of this piece showed off the full range of tonal color that could be heard in our new hall, from the very powerful to the very subtle.

This range also was put to good use in Ravel's "Bolero," which relies heavily on a wide variety of sound for what might be called the longest crescendo in music history. Despite a few tuning disagreements among the early wind solos, the orchestra gave a solid reading that emphasized the multihued orchestration that distinguishes the piece.

After the printed program had concluded, Kunzel quieted the standing ovation to offer his take on the new hall before leading a Sousa march for an encore. He told the audience that during rehearsal, he listened to the orchestra from various places throughout the hall to see how it sounded. Kunzel said he is familiar with many musical venues built in this country during the last 25 years, and after listening to the orchestra in the Gallo Center, he offered his verdict: "Modesto has the best new hall in America."

Come hear it for yourself.

Stephen Thomas is a professor of music at California State University, Stanislaus.