Covelli’s artistry is high point of well-played BPO concert

Reviewed by Lee Shepherd

In a week of turbulent events that turned America on its ear, the Binghamton Philharmonic Orchestra paid tribute to veterans and offered a much-needed note of hope for the future. Guest conductor Daniel Hege programmed beloved and iconic works by American composers Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, with guest soloist John Covelli performing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

The Forum in downtown Binghamton was filled almost to capacity Saturday night (Nov. 12), a happy sight testifying to the reputation and popularity of the orchestra as a local arts treasure.

First on the program was Copland’s Our Town, written for a movie based on the Thornton Wilder play of the same name. Using harmonies that suggest church hymns associated with small New England towns of the earliest 20th century, Copland cobbled together an orchestral suite.

The music became the backdrop to a slideshow of very fine photos of Binghamton and its environs by preservationist/historian Roger Luther. Juxtaposed current and century-old versions of scenes reminded us of the beauty of the region and its rich and vivid history. (Luther, president of the Preservation Association of the Southern Tier, also gave a pre-concert talk and slideshow about architectural gems in the community. “While music is forever, architecture is fleeting, unless we preserve it,” he said.)

Appalachian Spring Suite opened the second half of the program. The American sound created by Copland suggests wide-open spaces and a young couple’s difficult life on the frontier, ironic since Copland didn’t know the ballet’s story line when he wrote the work.  The BPO’s sound was lush and managed to make the devilishly difficult rhythms and syncopation sound dead easy.

The musicians’ exquisite rendition of the concluding theme, based on the folk tune Simple Gifts, was emotionally touching and comforting.  “This music offers hope for the future, which we all need,” Hege said.

Gershwin’s An American in Paris gave almost every instrument in the orchestra a chance to shine. Conveying an American visitor’s impression of Paris and spasms of “bluesy” homesickness, the orchestra played with vivacity, joy and exuberance. It was sheer fun to hear it.

The evening’s show-stopper, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, brought the audience to its feet in appreciation of Covelli, a former BPO conductor. Solos by the brass, woodwinds, percussion and strings were playful, bending the notes in true blues band fashion.

Although at first appearing fragile and frail, Covelli displayed no hesitancy once he sat down on the piano bench.  What he lacked in power he made up in with musical expression honed over a lifetime as a concert pianist.

Popular for his solo piano concerts in the decade since leaving the BPO podium, Covelli is known for his considerable charisma. After multiple curtain calls, Covelli turned to the audience. “Something happened this week and millions of Americans were affected by it,” he said, pausing as a wave of murmurs moved through the room. “The Cubs won the World Series!”

Over the laughter, Covelli tossed off a delightful and difficult encore, Pasquinade, by another American composer, Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Covelli’s unspoken attitude as his fingers flew over the keyboard was unmistakable: “See, I’ve still got it!”

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The BPO has three treats in store for audiences in December — all at The Forum, 236 Washington St., Binghamton. On Dec. 3, the orchestra will play for The Nutcracker featuring the Rafael Grigorian Ballet Theatre, and on Dec. 10, the BPO will offer a family matinee, “Home for the Holidays,” featuring Jill and Jake Gardner as vocal soloists with members of the Binghamton Downtown Singers. Then, on Dec. 17, the Downtown Singers will again team with the BPO for the Singers’ annual performance of Handel’s Messiah. Visit binghamtonphilharmonic.org for ticket information

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