The long, long queue winding around Toorak Synagogue for “Gershwin and Me” indicated the popularity of the Live at Toorak series of concerts as well as the combined draw cards of Gershwin’s music and one of Australia’s most notable pianists, Simon Tedeschi. Although this concert had been sold out for some time, the organisers appeared to be unprepared for such large numbers as the process of bag checking and ticket finding resulted in the concert starting nearly half an hour late.
Not that people seemed to mind. One of the major attractions of the concert was the venue itself, and people enjoyed admiring the beauty of the architecture and modern stained glass windows as they waited. That some members of the audience had to remain seated for nearly three hours might have had its challenges, but a handful managed to come and go without undue disturbance – a further sign of what was a relaxed, friendly atmosphere.
When the lights did eventually fade, Tedeschi made his way to the piano heralded by the exciting upward wail that begins Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. With Mat Jodrell playing his trumpet from the back of the upper tier and some appropriately blue lighting, it was a dramatic, spine-tingling beginning. The synagogue almost seemed transformed into something nearer the intimacy of a jazz nightclub than would have been thought possible as Jodrell came down to join Tedeschi under the spotlight to add his stylish brilliance to a piano and trumpet arrangement of Gershwin’s Three Preludes. Both musicians were totally in command of jazz idioms whether quietly intimate melodic blues style or upbeat Agitato Latin American syncopation.
Emphasising the “Me” element, Tedeschi took the microphone from Master of Ceremonies, Vladimir Fanshil, to add his welcome and to explain that the absence of a printed program meant that he was free to play whatever he wanted to play. The spontaneity of improvisation appeared to be integral to this concert, one peppered with a series of anecdotes and interesting pieces of information about the composers and the music being played.
The first non-Gershwin piece chosen was related to Gershwin’s influences and the central place of melody in his compositions. Tedeschi’s performance of Debussy’s Clair de Lune was on the slow side, even those rolling passages of resonant warmth as the music surges were woven into a meditative approach to the music – so appropriate to the venue. It was almost like an exploration of the music at times, a sense of listening as he played that drew in the audience. Another aspect of Tedeschi’s pianism was his lightness of touch; his hands seemed barely to touch the keys at times in this and other pieces as he shaped phrases with effortless control of weight and dynamic. This was a feature of the two short Chopin Etudes, particularly his Aeolian Harp.
Tedeschi spoke about Glinka’s song, The Lark, with its “sense of harmonic inevitability” as being one of the most neglected pieces of music. In a transcription for piano by Balakirov, it is indeed a soulful, compelling work – simple melody ornamented and punctuated by passionate outbursts.
Stories of the Jewish diaspora inevitably include escape from persecution and the horrors of vicious authoritarian regimes. Australia was, for many, such as some of Tedeschi’s family, attractive because of its distance from Nazi Germany. Prokofiev’s persecution by Stalin has been well documented. Born in the Donetsk region of Ukraine his birthplace corresponds to that of some of Tedeschi’s family. Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives has an important place in Tedeschi’s thinking – he discusses it in his book Fugitive, on sale at the end of the concert – and he played about ten contrasting pieces from this cycle of twenty miniatures for piano. Although Tedeschi warned us that they are still challenging for many listeners, it is unlikely that many found them so, but rather found the melodies engaging and more dramatically aggressive pieces an understandable reflection of Prokofiev’s circumstances – we could well imagine the sound of gunfire that surrounded him as he composed.
Justifying the inclusion of a work by Percy Grainger, Tedeschi saw both the Australian composer and Gershwin as visionaries. Reveling in Grainger’s instructions to “bash” and “play faster than you can possibly play” he obeyed to give what was a “huge workout” full of glissandos in an energetic account of In Dahomey, accompanied by kaleidoscopic lighting.
Then it was back to Gershwin with Mat Jodrell for “I got Rhythm” and “Summertime” with a moody, laid-back wah-wah mute.
In keeping with the somewhat improvisatory nature of the concert, towards the end of the evening Tedeschi asked if there was anybody in the audience who could sing. A couple of people actually did raise a hand, to which he responded, “Not you, Mum”, until Andrew Bukenya was handed the microphone. After a short consultation we heard a version of Gershwin’s Embraceable You that was full of surprises. The very personable and uninhibited Bukenya crooned to the ladies, dragged the rhythm around, made sudden jumps from baritone to falsetto and rich bass, and finally shoved Tedeschi along so that he could join him on the piano stool. It was affectionate, light-hearted entertainment.
It would not have been a true blue Gershwin program without the encore – a truncated (Tedeschi was mindful of the time) piano version of Rhapsody in Blue. Bathed in pink light, it was the only way to end a fascinating excursion into the many threads that connected composer and pianist. We may not have had the full symphonic treatment provided for “Gershwin and Me” audiences in other cities, but what we did have was very special, made even more so by words of appreciation from the synagogue’s Rabbi, for whom community is of vital importance. And I doubt that the offer of a homemade chocolate sweet upon leaving the venue would have occurred elsewhere.
Further concerts in the series are bound to be popular – the tickets are reasonably priced, especially for “general admission”; the sightlines are good, particularly in the balcony; the venue is easily accessible, impressive and has excellent acoustics; and the performers themselves are outstanding. Hopefully, the organisers will be able to find a more efficient way of seating the audience in a timely manner.
Heather Leviston reviewed “Gershwin and Me, Simon Tedeschi”, presented by Live at Toorak at the Toorak Synagogue on August 1, 2023.