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Ellington, Gershwin, and a grand 'Grand Canyon Suite'

Charlie Albright, the hotshot young pianist, cuts a captivating figure. Friday morning at Kleinhans Music Hall, he appeared from the wings in a white Nehru jacket and dark trousers.

With dash, he sat down at the Steinway. You knew he would pull no punches and take no prisoners.

His performances of two pieces --  George Gershwin's famous "Rhapsody in Blue" and Duke Ellington's "New World A-Coming" -- were the center of an entertaining American program. BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta is conducting the concert, which begins with John Adams' flashy "Short Ride on a Fast Machine" and ended with Ferde Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite." This concert is on the Classics series, but it could just as easily have been Pops. It is that light-hearted.

Written in 1986 and premiered under the baton of former BPO music director Michael Tilson Thomas, "Short Ride on a Fast Machine" could now almost be considered a classic. Its bells and whistles make it a kick to hear live. The piece was a natural for a Friday Coffee Concert, because if the coffee didn't wake you up, this would.

The sensibilities of modern music lend themselves well to this kind of clever soundscape. Adams' studied chaos has a kind of joy about it, a contagious energy that grabs you from the get-go. The brass in particular shone. There were six trumpets, and they were tight. The musicians seemed to enjoy themselves. The audience did, too.

After that abstract whirlwind, the Ellington seemed positively classical.

Albright, for all his showmanship, takes a classical approach. His articulation is neat and his playing precise, even at lightning speeds. Performing confidently from memory, he made a passionate case for this piece.

Like "Rhapsody in Blue," orchestrated by Ferde Grofe, "New World A-Comin'" was also a collaboration, orchestrated by Maurice Peress. It was a nice change of pace from the usual Gershwin. Still, I found myself wondering, as I often do hearing Ellington's "serious" music, why the Duke reserved his supreme melodic gifts for his songs. Couldn't he have woven "Sophisticated Lady," or something like it, into a piece like this? The listener would have had more to hold on to. The piano part included a lot of arpeggios and other devices that grow repetitive.

At the same time, the music was lovely, if abstract. Albright showed a good sense of rhythm, and the colorful, growling orchestration had an Ellington feel. One interlude saw a smoking clarinet solo (William Amsel did the honors) followed by a tender piano solo. The crowd applauded the piece with enthusiasm.

Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" presented the pianist with a different challenge.

Countless pianists, many of them magnificent, have performed and recorded this piece. Albright was clearly conscious of that, and knocked himself out trying to put his own stamp on it. Sometimes, he took that effort too far.

But when a pianist is that determined, the upside is that you will be entertained. Albright's technique is crisp and in charge. It was great fun to watch him nailing the keys at high speeds like -- well, maybe it was the John Adams, but I thought of a fast machine.

The orchestra got into the spirit, too. The brass again demonstrated zest and togetherness. I wanted to laugh out loud at the eloquent trumpet squalls. Amsel deserves a special bravo for his skillful handling of that smoldering opener. He faces the daunting task of filling the shoes of the great John Fullam, who I regretted to hear is retiring.

Falletta handled the drama with characteristic flair, and ultimately brought listeners to their feet. Albright rewarded the applause with just the right encore -- an over-the-top virtuosic re-imagining of Mozart's "Turkish March."

An unusual treat was still to come.

You might sneer at Grofe's 1931 "Grand Canyon Suite," once confined to Pops concerts, and once part of everyone's childhood. Then you sit down to listen to it, live. And you're surprised.

That beginning -- recordings don't do it justice. In the Kleinhans acoustics, "Sunrise" seemed to come out of the air, starting as a barely audible buzz. Grofe must have been thinking of Mahler. Falletta and the musicians paced the movement gradually and deftly so it built to a breathtaking bright wash of sound. As a friend laughingly whispered: "The sun has risen!"

The rest of the suite was just as much fun. Grofe was a master tone poet, witty and evocative. "On the Trail" is famous for a reason -- it includes the best sound portrait of a donkey since Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Even better, maybe, because you can hear the animal clip-clopping along peacefully, then speeding up, then being reined in. Funny, and masterful.

Finally came the thunderstorm. The wind machine -- it looks like a giant roll of toilet paper -- had been waiting quietly for its turn, and when that turn came, it didn't disappoint. The music, too, sounded as if it were whipping around in the wind. This is a classic worth revisiting. At the end, the crowd rose and cheered. A standing ovation, for "The Grand Canyon Suite"! Bring it on.

The all-American adventure repeats at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 1.






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