Chamberfest review: Herskowitz shines in late night ode to Gershwin

Matt Herskowitz. Photo: Gottfried Simbriger

Chamberfringe — Chamberfest’s late-night “off-venue” series — has evolved into one of the festival’s most popular offerings. It represents the kind of innovative, alternative classical programming and presentation Ottawa sorely needs, and if you still think our staid citizens don’t want to be out past 10 PM, consider that organizers were turning people away at the doors of La Nouvelle Scène for Saturday night’s concert.

Matt Herskowitz, an American ex-pat who now calls Montreal home, has built a career on his equal love and extraordinary facility for classical and jazz piano. What to do when you’re a Curtis and Juilliard-trained musician who doesn’t feel like choosing between Chopin and ‘Trane?  Like the kid in the taco ad says, “why not both?”

Herskowitz played at last year’s Chamberfest with the violinist Lara St. John. This time he was performing a mostly Gershwin set with Montreal’s Buzz Brass quintet. Herskowitz’s pianism combines titanic technique and enormous dynamic range with a daring, almost subversive, completely organic approach to improvisation.

His two powerhouse improvised sections in Rhapsody in Blue reminded everyone not only of Gershwin’s lasting influence on contemporary jazz, but also that there was a time when every classical soloist worth their salt was expected to toss off invented variations and cadenzas at the drop of a hat.

Another standout was Herskowitz’s own arrangement of Gershwin’s Summertime. No lullaby, this: welcome to summer in the bayou, complete with buzzing mosquitoes and slithering, chomping things lurking in the murky water. A creepy, relentless bass ostinato brought to mind the last movement of Prokofiev’s seventh piano sonata.

Regrettably, Herskowitz’s brass collaborators were simply not of the same calibre. Sure, they were entertaining and fun, but the playing was decidedly sloppy, with innumerable cracks and wrong notes and a lackadaisical approach to intonation. Buzz lacks the crisp, surgical precision, the clear sound, the virtuosic éclat of better ensembles. An arrangement of Liszt’s second Hungarian Rhapsody should have brought the house down, but fell flat.

Although many audience members had come to hear Rhapsody, the highlight of the concert for me was the lively, intricate arrangement of Gershwin’s Cuban Overture. The work’s syncopated Latin rhythms and sunny, bustling mood were vibrantly executed and hard to resist. It made me want to hear Herskowitz play it again with a more evenly matched ensemble.

As an encore, Herskowitz and Buzz played an arrangement of the finale from Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.