Somehow, you don't need to be told that George Gershwin's Promenade, which opened Friday's Philadelphia Orchestra concert, was written for Fred Astaire: His elegant urbanity and playfully seductive humor are in every bar, not to mention in every nanosecond of Ricardo Morales' clarinet solo during the performance. And I say this as someone who has inexplicably missed the film Shall We Dance, for which it was written.
What isn't obvious is that Gershwin, during this period, was having excruciating headaches and behaving erratically as a result of the undiagnosed brain tumor that killed him. Creating music, for him, circumvented that condition: In fact, he was writing the songs for which he is now best remembered, almost until his end in July 1937. Also known as Walking the Dog, Promenade is often used as an encore, though guest conductor James Gaffigan opened the concert with the piece, casting a positive light on the Gershwin Concerto in F that followed — in a program that was bound to dispel any post-Thanksgiving sluggishness.
The Chopinesque pretentiousness that pianist Jon Kimura Parker brought to the concerto's opening phrase was a point of musical humor that said this is exactly what we are not going to do. He and Gaffigan approached the piece with the right kind of seriousness, liberating the music to have an inviting spectrum of depth and raucousness while not overthinking it. Americans assume that Gershwin is easy because the music is in our blood. But it's not easy.
The considerable surface polish of Parker's playing gave the music an art deco-ish glitter but also clarity that allowed conflicting emotions to surface in passages that might normally seem free of any emotional complication. The second movement trumpet solo by David Bilger rightly conjured the lonely urban American imagery of painter Edward Hopper (who increasingly seems to be the spiritual godfather of so much 20th-century American music). The orchestration has a richness of meaning that lies buried in less-considered performances. Gaffigan even found tragic overtones with each restatement of the main theme in the orchestra. But never were the Charleston rhythms that recur throughout the piece slighted, and, in fact, were harnessed in the final movement to create a sense that underneath the music's superficial sense of fun lay a mechanized frenzy.
Dvorak's Suite in A Op. 98b ("American") is an amiable piece that deserves a periodic hearing when safely embedded with sturdier music but sounds like rightly rejected outtakes from the composer's Symphony No. 9.
Barber's Symphony No. 1, however, commands the foreground decisively — a compact, one-movement piece that's particularly loved by Germanic conductors who like their symphonies rigorous. The West Chester-born Barber ingeniously meshed the standard four symphonic movements into a single, 25-minute span of music. Still, the symphony's first half came off as a lot of anguish over … what? Barber seemed to be writing music that was expected of him with results that feel a bit impersonal. I'd love to be convinced otherwise, though for all of his outward conviction, Gaffigan didn't quite do that. But he did have the Philadelphia Orchestra playing at close to its deluxe best.