[Scene Magazine] New Year’s Eve in rhapsodic blue
The Santa Barbara Symphony's annual New Year's Eve concert includes Gershwin's great 'Rhapsody in Blue,' with piano virtuoso Michael Chertock
By Josef Woodard, News-Press Correspondent
One time each year, and in the waning hours of one year before it yields to the next, the Santa Barbara Symphony has made a habit of going pops. And that's a good thing.
During the rest of the symphony's season, the focus remains on the serious business of concert music and classical traditions, with a few light-hearted touches along the way. But the symphony's now 20-plus-year tradition of putting on the New Year's Eve ritz — early enough to allow for later "Auld Lang Syne-ing" — is the orchestra's way of dipping into the stuff of pops programming, mixed in with sneaky touches of the deeper, more sophisticated stuff for good symphonic measure. Normally staid and proper patrons of the symphonic arts are known to cut loose and misbehave on this night, while the band plays on.
For this year's model of a hats-and-horns-and-bubbly-equipped New Year's bash, Wednesday night at the Granada Theatre, a grab bag of musical chestnuts, showbiz treats and other entertainment items, conducted again by returning favorite, conductor Robert Bernhardt, will also include Gershwin's beloved, jazz-hued American treasure, "Rhapsody in Blue." Doing the piano soloist honors will be noted pianist Michael Chertock, making his Santa Barbara debut.
We checked in with the Cincinnati-based Mr. Chertock recently. He seems the ideal candidate for the job, having worked in the pops realm — including with the high-flying Boston Pops Orchestra — as well as film music projects and recordings, but also with more serious and modern musical ventures in his musical performance diet.
News-Press: You have worked in various corners and niches of the music world, from concerto to pops and back, and contemporary music. Do you enjoy that kind of flexibility, and shifting musical ground?
Michael Chertock: The richness of the 20th-century classical repertoire, popular music and all the music that skirts boundaries and refuses to be nailed down is irresistible. Much that has been created by jazz musicians, film composers, theater composers will share a place with many of the giants of the 20th century, in my opinion.
NP: Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" is such a timeless and great American work. Is it one of those scores you are always eager to have a chance to play, and find new things within it?
MC: "Rhapsody in Blue" is an open and inviting piece but it is also a mystery and a puzzle. Its structure is in some ways a tone poem, a lopsided and short four movements-in-one concerto. Apparently Gershwin himself improvised much of the material and yet there is not a wasted moment. I hope to play it 5,000 times before I am done.
NP: It is also one of those musical treasures that is both accessible and artistically intricate, which makes it fit beautifully on a program such as this New Year's concert, wouldn't you say?
MC: New Year's Eve is the party of parties and Gershwin's music is supremely entertaining. A writer with the Toronto paper said that "Gershwin's music tells you there is a party happening somewhere, and if you play your cards right, you can get in."
NP: You started out your musical life as a prodigy, didn't you? Was piano just a natural choice as a life path for you, as far back as you remember?
MC: Oh, I was no prodigy. I did not begin to practice in earnest until I was about 15, but then with a vengeance. The piano is a good instrument for lovers of complex harmony. The piano is also good for those who love the orchestra.
The composers of the past really used the piano as something of a workstation and through it they often dreamed of larger realities such as string quartet, symphony, opera and theater. Of the traditional instrumentalists, only an organist can create more colors and more volume.
NP: You have released a few albums with a film music theme: has that been a world of special interest for you, both as film fan and musician with an ear for adapting music from film scores?
MC: Film music is very fascinating. I am a huge fan of John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Hans Zimmer, Michael Giacchino and, of course the masters of the Golden Age, such as [Erich Wolfgang] Korngold, [Franz] Waxman and [Bernard] Herrmann. I just had the privilege of meeting André Previn and hearing stories about working inside the Hollywood studios.
With careful thought, there is virtually nothing that cannot be translated into a piano arrangement — although patter songs are difficult. The Telarc label released four CDs of arrangements and transcriptions and some are now being played in Satellite Radio and Pandora.
NP: And then, from a very different angle, I've been listening to your recording of the respected contemporary composer Tod Machover's "... but not simpler ...," a wonderful and somewhat haunting contemporary music project, with some roots in older music. How was the process of working on that?
MC: Tod Machover is a really brilliant musician and composer with an immense grasp of technology and its positive implications, especially in regards to allowing collaborations across boundaries. His latest projects involve inviting entire cities to compose a symphony.
When we recorded "Jeux Deux," a work for hyper piano and orchestra, the orchestra was recorded in Denmark and I recorded the piano part in the NYC Yamaha studios, and the orchestra and piano part were both played and recorded together in the Academy of Arts and Letters to make the final mix.
NP: You have also specialized in music by such composers as Penderecki, Messiaen and Michael Daugherty. Is it important for you to stay tuned into contemporary music and ideas?
MC: This has been an exciting time to look at the work of composers of the second half of the 20th century as well as those like Daugherty, who are very active. I love modern piano concerti and never pass up the opportunity to learn a new one.
The Lutoslawski Piano Concerto is a real masterpiece, with nods to Chopin and even Brahms. Daugherty's piece "Le Tombeau de Liberace" is theatrical and fun with moments of great irony and humor.
NP: Going back to the subject of New Year's Eve celebration concert, do you find that these kinds of concerts, from the more pops side of the spectrum, serve the purpose of both entertaining audiences and training ears for more serious music — almost without making a point of it?
MC: Concerts such as a New Year's Eve gala will often bring new listeners through the door. Hopefully they will hear something that energizes them and will return again. We are obligated to play our hearts out every time.
NP: What do you have coming up in 2015 that you're excited about?
MC: I am looking forward to performing as soloist on a Boston Pops tour of Florida in February and to conducting the State Symphony Orchestra of Moscow in March in an all Gershwin program. I recorded a CD of piano concerti by John Alden Carpenter with the BBC Concerto Orchestra, Keith Lockhart conducting, in Abbey Road Studios last October that should be released in February as well.
NP: Any New Year's resolutions you'd care to share?
MC: New Year's resolutions: to try to learn some Russian and to go camping with my 8-year-old son.