It was a privilege and pleasure to be in the presence of the great pianist, Armando ‘Chick’ Corea on two nights at the weekend, in addition to meeting him in an informal setting at the Royal Opera House Muscat the night before. Muscat is truly blessed to have welcomed the American Jazz icon to perform Gershwin masterpieces with the Castilla y León Symphony Orchestra and an extraordinary, rare performance of his own 1981 Piano Concerto, re-orchestrated in 2017. The concert opened with Gershwin’s vivacious Hispanic ‘Cuban Overture’ under the guest conductor, Romanian-Austrian Maestro, Ion Marin. It featured the orchestra’s bright clear Brass section, animated fiddle playing in the well-known melody, some fiery Latin percussion sounds and Gershwin’s unmistakable parallel chords.
Spanish inflections in the woodwind and percussion clearly appealed to the orchestral players, with lovely clarinet lines from Carmelo Molina. All the Cuban rhythms and delicious melodies were articulated precisely, with muted solo trumpet (Emilio Ramada) and oboe (Sebastián Gimeno) transporting the audience to a street in Havana. The Overture fairly romped to the end over a syncopated tango rhythm and short percussion cadenza.
Corea came on stage to rousing applause, and his easy, informal manner made everyone warm to him immediately. He allowed the orchestra to retune as he gave some background to his Piano Concerto, and then ‘warmed up’ the audience with some singing exercises! The Concerto owes more to the 20th century musical language of Bartok, Bernstein, Ravel and Copland than Corea’s jazz influences, although the improvisatory cadenzas were clearly jazz-inspired. After a short solo piano introduction, the orchestra had some lyrical melodic material, such as warm, mellow lower string themes using lush, added chord harmonies. The percussion section was expanded for this revision and there was ample opportunity for marimba, xylophone and vibraphone solos as well as timps, gong, bass and snare drums throughout its considerable forty-minute duration.
It would not be unfair to say that structurally the work had a tendency to ramble between styles and form, including a short Bach pastiche at one point. But if the Concerto is perceived as a series of sketches, or streams of imaginings from the composer’s experience, it makes it more accessible, especially on first hearing. Naturally, the virtuosic piano technique demanded was challenging, with tricky syncopated rhythms, sometimes polytonal, at others in angular dialogues with the oboe, always superbly executed with astonishing accuracy. The piano part was well integrated into the orchestral texture, such as the Latin rhythms, Manuel de Falla style, in the middle section. The final ‘exuberant jazz gigue’ was exciting, a Bartok-like treatment of colloquial rhythms, juxtaposing soloist with the orchestra until the final frenzied climax.
After the interval, Chick’s charismatic personality meant more interaction with the audience, explaining that he would perform Gershwin’s, ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ before ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. He improvised in a highly embellished, ornamented jazz solo – not as one usually hears it – using his recognisable virtuoso technique with clashing chromatics over a dominant bass pedal, then a hint at stride piano in his left hand.
On Saturday, ‘The Man I love’ was given similar treatment in Chick’s dazzling styles and moods before it segued seamlessly into a performance of, ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ – as never heard before.
The extended cadenzas were not improvised but written out, presumably by Corea himself, with extra syncopation, jazz and blues harmony which would have delighted the great George Gershwin, no doubt.
The orchestra responded with a Broadway Big-band sound, or a lush, lyrical quality from the superb string section, interspersed with excellent renditions of the famous clarinet solos from Carmelo Molina. Each cadenza became longer and more expansive, including quotes from ‘Spain’ and ‘The Man I Love’, until even the orchestra had an additional Latin section inserted before the bracing finale. Chick Corea’s innovation and faultless dexterity were met with standing ovations.
The prepared encore was a beautiful reinterpretation of Chick Corea’s signature piece, ‘Spain’. Opening with the haunting Cor Anglais solo (Juan Urbán) from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranguez for Guitar, it segued smoothly into a jazz piano improvisation on Corea’s theme, followed by solos from soprano saxophone (José López), trumpet (Roberto Bodi), vibraphone (Cayetano Gómez) and finally back to Corea. The audience responded with standing ovations and shouts for more.
The second, unprepared encore was a return to the final bars of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, introduced with a Blues-based improvisation of the cadenza using iconic Corea chords, licks and a walking bass, bringing the whole momentous performance to an overwhelming conclusion. There were as many accolades afterwards as there were members of the audience - those lucky enough to have witnessed a Living Legend live in Oman.