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Zenph Presents Jazz Legends: Gershwin At The Piano, presented in collaboration with Raleigh Little Theatre and performed at RLT's Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, is both a relaxed and pleasant experience and, conversely, a pertinent study in the limits of technological soul.
The essential frame for Gershwin at the Piano is this: A living pianist plays excerpts from The Gershwin Songbook as the composer notated them, then steps aside to allow "George" — or at least, the Zenph simulacrum — to perform the same piece in his own impromptu, idiosyncratic style. The contrast could not be starker, and the demonstration does a great deal to promote the notion that Gershwin's own recordings generated — and in many case, surpass — the jazz interpretations of his work by later musicians.
But, as they used to ask of Ella Fitzgerald (herself a Gershwin acolyte of note) on the old television ads, "Is it live — or is it Memorex?"
Zenph's "Re-performance® technology" converts audio source back to "live" performance, in this case by capturing recordings made in the 1930s of George Gershwin playing his own compositions. The company is quick to assure us, in its presentation, that its complex system is "as close to a player-piano as lightning is to a lightning-bug." A false syllogism, of course, as both the electrical strike and the luminous insect occur in nature, whereas neither piano rolls nor computer technology do. And besides — isn't there something to be said for the delight of watching a glow-worm sparking?
Ironically, a certain portion of the presentation's charm lies in the way the Zenph technology replicates human error: the wrong-notes George occasionally hit in the recordings on which Gershwin at the Piano is based. The recital's most engaging moments are those featuring period newsreel and home-movie footage (Gershwin with Kay Swift or — unless my eyes deceive me — in a piano duet with the young Burton Lane), recorded voices (Ira Gershwin, Paul Whiteman, and Gershwin himself, on his short-lived radio show), reproductions of George's sketches and paintings and the splendid (if occasionally strikingly racist) illustrations Constantin Alajalov created for the original Songbook, self-portraits by the brothers or the occasional bit of entrancing intelligence such as Ira's memory of George performing impromptu tap-breaks at Broadway rehearsals.
Yet even these pleasures are mitigated by the blurry digital reproduction of the projected visuals, just as unexpected glitches occur in the program order. I was reminded, more than once, of the moment in Sunday in the Park (with another George) when the high-tech art installation short-circuits, causing the artist to announce, sheepishly, "Unfortunately, no electricity, no art."
Despite these cavils, Gershwin at the Piano provides one over-arching, undeniable pleasure: hearing the work of the 20th century's greatest American composer, "straight" and in a reasonable facsimile of the composer's distinctive style. Although one is occasionally distracted by the reproduction of the keyboard projected above the actual piano — which do we look at? — we are still treated to the essence of Gershwin: the loud, song-plugging style; the ragtime curlicues he interpolates in the reprise of "Sweet and Low-Down"; the way "That Certain Feeling" holds the seeds of "Rhapsody in Blue"; the Mozartian riff and blue notes George discovered in the chorus of "Clap Yo' Hands"; the almost Oriental expression in "Do, Do, Do"; and the ineffable bliss of the Preludes. Perhaps because it was performed (by George's friend and protégée Oscar Levant) at the Hollywood Bowl memorial tribute to Gershwin, the Second Prelude has long seemed to me to contain an overlay of melancholy, almost as if Gershwin had written his own funeral dirge. Hearing it never fails to move me, and the Zenph rendition was no exception.
But as my companion at the performance remarked to me later, "It was more moving watching those scratchy films of Gershwin at work and at play, and more thrilling, than watching this piano play with itself, if I may put it that way." The most stirring moments of Gershwin at the Piano bookend the program: Newsreel footage of Gershwin playing, synched to the Zenph reproductions. As my friend also noted, "There is no ghost in this machine."
This show runs through 10/2. For details, see the sidebar.