Standing alone on the stage of the Eastern Shore home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, pianist Thomas Pandolfi joked that no orchestra was magically going to materialize before the audience’s eyes.
Pandolfi didn’t mean that he was going to limit himself to solo piano music. Quite the opposite. He meant that he was going to render music written for orchestra, or piano and orchestra, even if he had to do it all by himself. Pandolfi’s only help: the Steinway grand at the Todd Performing Arts Center on the campus of Chesapeake College in Wye Mills, Maryland.
Never try to talk this guy out of something new and ambitious! What began as Pandolfi’s trademarked One Singular Night program featuring music of George Gershwin and Marvin Hamlisch turned into a festival of music by Gershwin, Hamlisch and Andrew Lloyd Webber, ending with a solo piano fantasy on themes from The Phantom of the Opera. A woman in the audience said to me as we were walking out, “I still didn’t want it to end!”
In addition to being an active concert pianist performing works in their original form, one of Pandolfi’s specialties is “transcriptions,” which are adaptations of larger works for solo piano. Sometimes they are re-workings of an earlier composer’s chamber pieces by a later composer, such as a “souping-up” of Bach’s music by Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni in the early 20th century. Sometimes they are solo adaptations by a pianist/composer of his own works, such as Gershwin’s 1927 solo piano version (which Pandolfi played) of his 1924 piano-and-orchestra hit Rhapsody in Blue.
And sometimes they are medleys of concert works or show tunes related by composer or style period that are either completely original or inspired by another variation that was written down or recorded by an earlier performer. Inspired by the Busoni tradition and by Gershwin’s fondness for this form of performance, all of these types of transcriptions came into play in Pandolfi’s program.
Rhapsody in Blue is a revelation for anyone who’s ever been stuck on the tarmac on a United Airlines flight listening endlessly to United’s commercial theme song, a melody that doesn’t occur until two-thirds through the actual Gershwin work. Before the United theme comes into play – one hopes the airline finds something else to butcher during the next 10 years before the Rhapsody celebrates its 100th anniversary – the piece delivers a bonanza of jazzy themes filled with blues notes, chromatic scales that magically land in new keys, and inside-out themes that pick up augmented chords and jazz sevenths as they expand outward to major turning points in the piece.
Pandolfi employed Gershwin’s characteristic technique in the Rhapsody of one hand repetitively poking at a single note on top of the other hand’s figure – or the two hands crossing over each other as they traverse the keyboard – to throw that same idea into the transcriptions in the rest of the program. In the Rhapsody itself he had to play Gershwin’s own piano adaptations of his 1924 orchestra passages as well as the original piano lines. In doing so, nothing was left a mystery to the audience. Pandolfi explained that that the Rhapsody’s opening – a conventional clarinet line that morphs into a sultry slide to the top note establishing the key of the piece – was originally an accident resulting from a clarinetist who blew the line in rehearsal. (Gershwin was sitting out in the house and loved it and ordered the mistake to be kept in.) Rendered by Pandolfi on the piano as a hiccuppy change in tempo, Rhapsody in Blue’s opening set the stage for innovation for the program’s evening.
Pandolfi also gave the audience Gershwin’s own transcription on a song called “Nobody But You,” and then performed his own inventions on better-known Gershwin songs like “Our Love is Here to Stay,” “The Man I Love,” and “I Got Rhythm.” His Marvin Hamlisch song-and-orchestra transcriptions were all poured together into a single, nearly 25-minute-long piano solo primarily combining movie themes with songs from A Chorus Line.
And Pandolfi’s Phantom of the Opera transcription made use of splashes of chords each repetitively played two or three times as themes flew up and down the piano – a technique reminiscent of the Rachmaninoff piano concerto that Pandolfi performed last month with the McLean Orchestra. Which makes sense given the “drama to the point of melodrama” flavor of both Rachmaninoff and Webber’s music even if from entirely different genres.
Throughout the program, Pandolfi employed tricks of the best cocktail pianists, like matching the melody in a lower octave (either in the same hand or the other hand) even while also hitting bass notes and other harmonies. He also launched filigrees of rapidly descending countermelodies from the top of the keyboard, a technique that’s shared by many classical piano concertos with jazz artists from the 1940s and 1950s.
At times Pandolfi’s transcriptions take on the flavor of a now-defunct radio format called “Beautiful Music” that survives today in a certain type of elevator music, although I can’t say that anyone in the primarily older audience at this performance seemed to have a problem with that. And the theater music in the program did pay close attention to their original show contexts. As Pandolfi rendered the tricky rhythms of the opening passages of A Chorus Line, which don’t accompany singing but rather match a jazz-dance combination being taught at a Broadway “audition” against a single “rehearsal pianist,” you could then hear him dramatically rise up in dynamics as the “assistant choreographer” in the show leaves the “dancers” on their own to the full pit orchestra. I could hear the iconic “and-a-5-6-7-8!” of that moment right in Pandolfi’s piano.
For some additional “legit” bona fides, Pandolfi added one Gershwin concert work that really is for solo piano – his Three Preludes from 1926. A Spanish flavor that Gershwin baked into Prelude #3 but is largely missing from performances by exclusively classical pianists was clearly and delightfully in evidence under Pandolfi’s more sophisticated reading.
Running Time: 90 minutes, plus one 20-minute intermission.
One Singular Night was performed on November 7, 2014 at the Rufus M. and Loraine Hall Todd Performing Arts Center at Chesapeake College, U.S. Route 50 at Maryland Route 213, in Wye Mills, MD. For future events at the Todd Performing Arts Center, see their events calendar. For future Baltimore Symphony on the Eastern Shore events, go to their events calendar.
For a full listing of Thomas Pandolfi’s upcoming performances, see his events calendar.