Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"I sit like Glen Gould"

For almost twenty years Judith Cohen has been the artistic director of the Governor’s Chamber Music Series. In a parlor off of the main entry of the mansion, musicians from Washington and elsewhere have dazzled packed rooms with performances of familiar classics and new favorites.

In a series of firsts, last night was the first time I had been in the Washington Governor’s Mansion (which, when you consider my work as part of the legislative and political process in Olympia is lamentable), the first time I attended a Governor’s Chamber Music Series concert, and the first time I heard Seattle pianist Judith Cohen perform. In just over an hour, Cohen and her co-performers presented a concert that was more cohesive than I was expecting and well played. Surrounded by the elegance of the Governor’s Mansion it is easy to understand why the Governor’s Chamber Music Series has become so popular.

Cohen was joined by the prominent and much loved George Shangrow. Shangrow has built a reputation in the Northwest and abroad as a fine interpreter of an enormous swath of music. Shangrow has also helped build Orchestra Seattle and the Seattle Chamber Singers. But, Shangrow is also a well regarded pianist who has performed with the likes of the Seattle Symphony and the Kronos Quartet.

It was Shangrow’s ability as a pianist that brought him to Olympia last night. To open the concert, Shangrow and Cohen performed Gershwin’s immediately recognizable Rhapsody in Blue. The version Shangrow and Cohen performed was a reduction, for two pianos, of the orchestral version Gershwin and composer Ferde Grofe assembled when Gershwin was a mere twenty six. The reduced Rhapsody was as enjoyable as the orchestral version audiences are familiar with. The two piano version, and Shangrow and Cohen’s performance portrayed the rhythm and buoyancy of the work in a way the richly orchestrated version sometimes does not.

Gershwin’s most popular piece was a smartly chosen lead in for the rest of the concert. Jackson Berkey, a Juilliard trained musician, composer and pianist for Manheim Steamroller was the focus of the remaining two thirds of the program.

Berkey’s music reminded me of a cross between the Neo-Romantics, John Adams, and Alan Hovhaness. Both Berkey’s Nocturne #22 and his Suite for Two Pianos were fairly tuneful, atmospheric and depended on a sustained feeling of movement and forward motion.

I was surprised by the introspection in Berkey’s Suite for Two Pianos. The suite was commissioned to remember the death of a young woman who was killed by a drunk driver. In Berkey’s explanation, each movement illustrates a different aspect of life. The first movement, “Flying High,” crashes on itself depicting life’s onward march. The second movement, “Rainydark and Firelight” is dark and introspective. Cohen and Berkey’s pianos and fingers ruminated over the unexpected tragedy that too often interferes with life. The final movement, “Fading Memories,” was intentionally loose and inconclusive, ending with whispering chimes.

Last night’s evening of firsts was a delightful change of pace for a city known primarily for politics and bureaucracy. Judith Cohen is doing Washington proud by bringing well played music into the Governor’s Mansion. Any trip to Washington’s capitol should endeavor to include a concert in the Governor’s Mansion in the itinerary.

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