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Gershwin gimmick slips; his interesting 1925 piano roll is no match for live performance

TAMPA — Is George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue the greatest piece of American classical music? Could be. It also could be the most overplayed piece of American classical music, but the Florida Orchestra came up with a twist on the old standby to wind up its concert Friday in Ferguson Hall of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts.

The soloist was Gershwin himself, or at least a 1925 piano roll of him transferred to software for a Yamaha Concert Grand Disklavier, a high-tech player piano. This was a gimmick, of course, but there was some musical interest to be found in Gershwin's style. He was quicker and rhythmically more forceful than is typically heard today.

Stefan Sanderling wore headphones to hear the original solo and jazz arrangement by Ferde Grofe, allowing the conductor to coordinate the ensemble between piano roll and orchestra. Still, the performance was ragged, and most of the time the piano was playing away alone, a weird, rather boring experience to watch the keys and pedals move by themselves. I'd rather watch and hear a real live soloist.

Sanderling and orchestra were more engaged by the other American work on the program, the Ives Third Symphony (The Camp Meeting), one of the composer's less craggy creations, quoting hymns like What a Friend We Have a Jesus. He composed the symphony in 1901-04, but it didn't get a full performance until 1946, amazing neglect of such accomplished music.

To open Friday's concert, Sanderling dipped a toe into the Second Viennese School, with Webern's Op. 1 Passacaglia, which has an easy elegance that belies the composer's membership in the 12-tone triumvirate along with his mentor Schoenberg and Berg. Classical Vienna was represented by Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, which featured haunting solo oboe played by Katherine Young.

• The orchestra has designated March as fundraising month — a la NPR's pledge drives — but instead of having a pre-concert pitch by a board member or manager, it is showing a promotional video. Produced gratis by Bay News 9, it will run before each concert this month.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

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Florida Orchestra

The program repeats at 8 p.m. today at Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg, and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater. $20-$67. (727) 892-3337 or toll-free 1-800-662-7286; floridaorchestra.org.

Gershwin gimmick slips; his interesting 1925 piano roll is no match for live performance 03/05/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 5, 2010 11:25pm]

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