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Continuing its livestreaming concert series, the NC Symphony presented "An Evening of Gershwin and Branford Marsalis," featuring compositions of the former and beautiful performances of the latter. Marsalis, no stranger to the Meymandi stage, has been involved with the NC Symphony since 2002 and now calls Durham home. He performed with longtime friend and collaborator, pianist Joey Calderazzo.
First, a string quartet with nearly as much depth and presence as the full NCS took the stage. Violinists Emily Rist Glover and David Kilbride, violist Paul Malcolm, and cellist Peng Li performed Gershwin's Suite from An American in Paris, a whimsical romp through Parisian and jazz-inspired melodies.
Gershwin's "Second Prelude," originally written for solo piano, was expanded masterfully by pianist Calderazzo and saxophonist Marsalis, whose performance immediately represented their decades of performing together. It opens much like a lullaby, with airy piano chords underneath the calm saxophone tune. The B section's jaunty blues melody is signature Gershwin (it even has a glimpse of Rhapsody in Blue), and it bursts without warning from the opening's placidity. The sudden mood change was a joy to hear from this duet. Unlike the entrance of the B section, the original motive's return was gentler, transitioned with Marsalis' lovely segue and tucked in with a gentle arpeggio.
Historically, NC Symphony concert program orders do not switch up ensembles like this; the logistics of setting and re-setting the stage between performers are typically minimized when performing live. With this new live-streaming format, alternating ensembles on the program is a nice change of pace (and moving the piano and music stands back and forth can just be edited out!). This is one more example of the NC Symphony not simply replacing live concerts with virtual, but really innovating to create something new and different.
The NC Symphony's lovely string quartet continued with two contrasting pieces. One of Gershwin's earliest compositions, "Lullaby," is a soothing piece full of rocking motion in the rhythm and melody. A closing duet between the two violinists (Glover and Kilbride), played pianissimo and in the highest register, was particularly beautiful – wrapped up with a delicate pizzicato cadence from the quartet. Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band," one of the catchiest melodies of Tin Pan Alley, was brought joyously to life in just a few minutes with a string quartet arrangement.
Calderazzo's "La Valse Kendall" begins gorgeously with Marsalis' lyrical portamento flowing freely, before settling into the waltz. The piano's texture could be described as Chopin-esque, but the way it interacts with saxophone is unique to Calderazzo. The two artists played together in a way that was fresh yet familiar, having played this particular piece together for nearly ten years. Calderazzo's cadenza was simply mesmerizing – his left hand continued the waltz chords, while the right pushed forward with passionate syncopation, expanding the original melody over and over again before floating back down to rejoin with Marsalis for the waltz's peaceful conclusion.
"Summertime" is quite possibly one of the most famous melodies ever written, but have you ever heard it played by a brass quintet? This song, and most of the other memorable motifs from Porgy and Bess, was performed by the NC Symphony's own brass artists. Trumpet players Paul Randall and Don Eagle, horn player Kimberly Van Pelt, trombonist John Ilika, and tuba player Seth Horner wove through Gershwin's tunes medley-style, with this arrangement by Jack Gale. The shifts among melodies were beautifully performed by the quintet, up to the final sforzando.