Saturday, November 12, 2011

Herbie Hancock and the Oregon Symphony Part 2

I was really looking forward to the Oregon Symphony Concert. After checking out part of the rehearsal, I was excited to see one of my musical idols, Herbie Hancock, play Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue", among other things, on a nine foot Fazioli grand piano. And after the disappointment of driving around South East Portland looking for a restaurant that seemed to give my GPS device a seizure, my wife and I headed back home. We parked the car  and ended up eating right next to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall at a place called the Art Bar. We were hungry, but I figured making sure we made it to the concert was our top priority, especially after paying 75 bucks a piece for the tickets!

Gregory Vajda
The first half of the concert opened with pleasant and humorous words from conductor Gregory Vajda, who is originally from Hungary, and has been at the helm of the Oregon Symphony since 2005. The first three pieces were essentially "Pops Concert" fare; an arrangement of Duke Ellington's "The Nutcracker Suite", which is Ellington's take on Tchaikovsky's ballet music. The orchestra is technically skilled and things like intonation, precision, and dynamics are at a very high level. As to be expected, it's hard to get a true jazz feeling from an orchestra which is not playing swing music on a regular basis. However, there were some nice solos from a tenor saxophonist(perhaps a "ringer") and also the principal clarinetist.

The next piece was a Gershwin composition called "Lullaby for String Orchestra", which was pretty and relaxing, and not too demanding. I suppose a lullaby is meant to lull one to sleep, and it could have done just that, if I wasn't anticipating Hancock in the second half. The third selection was a watered down medley of Ellington and Strayhorn hits. I was impressed by the Symphony, however, this kind of "Pops" material is not to my taste. But believe me, I've heard much much worse.(We visited my mother-in-law in West Palm Beach, Florida a few years ago, and had the misfortune of hearing Bob Lappin and the Palm Beach Pops. Not only was the music a snoozefest, and some of the musicians had arrived late and had to sneak on stage, but Lapin made a terribly inappropriate comment about how it was the orchestra's 15th anniversary, and how "we hope to see all of you at the next 15th anniversary", somehow not taking into account that the average age of the audience was 86!)

Herbie Hancock
After the intermission, the next half was introduced quite eloquently by my PSU colleague Professor Darrell Grant. Grant spoke about how important Herbie Hancock was to his own piano playing, and how after the morning's rehearsal, Hancock spent an hour talking with some PSU students, giving advice quite generously. "Herbie said, 'Always be open, and being a musician is not the most important thing. Being a human being is the most important thing'", Grant explained. And then Mr. Hancock came out and talked a bit before sitting at the piano.

I couldn't help but think how engaging and down to earth Hancock is. Hancock always seems to be having fun, in his music and his life. The sense of openness and creativity in Hancock's playing is something that has appealed to me a lot over the years of listening to him. And when Hancock launched into a startlingly fresh solo piano version of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints", I thought ,"This is worth the price of admission!" Hancock treated the well known Shorter composition as a series of themes by which to launch improvisations and re-harmonizations, and did not stick to the expected form at all.  It was the kind of performance that makes you re-evaluate everything you thought you knew about music.

It's interesting that Hancock is not known as a solo pianist; to my knowledge, there is only one solo album under his name (called "The Piano", recorded in Japan in the 70's.). I get the feeling that Hancock prefers to have a band to play with, but I'm hoping that he will do more solo recordings in the future. Between songs, Hancock explained,"It took me a while to realize that, without a bass player and a drummer, I can do anything! I can change tempos.......I can change the form......", and then, with a hint of mischief, "I can change the harmony!" Again, the mastery with which he played contrasts the little kid wonder by which he seems to view the world. I thought of another hero of mine, Keith Jarrett, who is quite famous for his solo playing. Yet his personality is also well known; Jarrett is known for his tremendous ego and his arrogance towards audiences which he deems to be too noisy(Jarrett notoriously cursed out an audience in Italy a few years ago.). While I have great respect for Jarrett, I think that, in recent years, his stubborn nature has stifled his creativity, putting him in a somewhat predictable musical box at times. Hancock, on the other hand, has constantly reinvented himself, and is always trying to go further, to go somewhere else, to find the newest chords. And he's not afraid to lose himself along the way. What an exciting way to play music!

George Whitty
I was enthralled by Hancock's reharm of Gershwin's "Embracable You", his on-the-fly reworking of his own "Dolphin Dance" and a rousing, funky version of "Cantaloupe Island". Next on the program was "Sonrisa" which Hancock explained was first recorded on the aforementioned solo piano disc, and then recycled as a tune called "Trust Me", on which Hancock sang using the vocoder. This version was orchestrated by a Portland native, keyboardist George Whitty (who received cheers from the crowd when Hancock mentioned his name!). "Sonrisa" is one of those slightly exotic sounding minor melodies, which is probably why, as Hancock related beforehand, "I thought maybe Chick Corea had written it, so I called him, held the phone up to the speaker, and said, 'Is this your tune?' Chick said no, so I said, 'Whew!'" I enjoyed hearing the tune, and the orchestration was lovely, however, some of the rhythms were problematic due to a lack of precision between the percussion section and the basses and low brass.

Hancock's performance on Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" was even better than the rehearsal;indeed, Hancock's chops were clearly warm, and he has great facility and dynamic range. He mostly stuck to the written music, however, even a few little embellishments were invigorating. It was great to see Hancock perform and overall, I was satisfied. Nevertheless, when it comes to music, my mental wheels are always spinning; call it the curse of the artist's permanent state of dissatisfaction. In short, I can always find something to kvetch about. Whining is one of the great American pastimes!

What I wondered about is the state of music, the state of The Orchestra as we have come to know it, and the state of our culture. Musicians like Herbie Hancock are constantly looking for new ways to approach the music, while typically The Symphony Orchestra in America is by and large about preservation of old traditions, traditions from the Old World. Not everything new is good, without a doubt. And traditions can be important. However, there is always the question of relevance. "Rhapsody in Blue" was written in 1924 by a composer who was considered "cutting edge" at the time, and celebrated for it. Gershwin, although influenced by the European masters, thought that it was important to be contemporary. This is a quote:
George Gershwin

True music must reflect the thought and aspirations of the people and time. My people are Americans. My time is today.

As impressive as it is that Hancock knocked "Rhapsody in Blue" out of the park, my question is, where is today's equivalent of "Rhapsody in Blue"? Who is today's George Gershwin? Why isn't Hancock being commissioned to write a modern day concerto for piano and orchestra?Would it even be for piano? What about Fender Rhodes? Or synthesizer? Maybe the piece would include rappers and soul singers. Or maybe even turntables and loops.....

The New York Phil, which is apparently millions in debt.....
I believe this might be a factor in why the idea of the Orchestra in our time is in danger; the Philadelphia Orchestra has filed for bankruptcy, the Cleveland Orchestra is in trouble, and the New York Philharmonic is deeply in debt. Audiences are dying out. How can new audiences be developed? Is there a way to bridge the gap between the old classics and the musical developments, for better or for worse, of the past 50 to even 100 years? I think these tough questions need to be asked. Otherwise, the Orchestra as we know it might go the way of the dodo bird. The only way you'll be able to hear an orchestra is if you have the Garage Band Symphony Orchestra Jam Pack....


  1. There are some good things being done in American contemporary symphonic music - check out John Adams. His piano concerto for example -

  2. haha... Herbie calling Chick Corea after writing Sonrisa to check if he had already written it - I'd love to hear the recording of that phone conversation.


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