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BWW Reviews: Keith Emerson With the South Shore Symphony

As birthday celebrations go, Saturday night's concert at the Madison Theater of Molloy College has to be close to the top of the list. Rock Music legend Keith Emerson celebrated his 70th birthday with pianist extraordinaire Jeffrey Biegel and the South Shore Symphony in an eclectic program entitled: The Classical Legacy of a Rock Star. It was very clear from the get go that the crowd was composed largely of ELP fans looking for a trip down memory lane, but that was not at all what they got. Rather, Maestros Emerson, Biegel and Wiley (conductor of the South Shore Symphony) challenged the audience right from the beginning with several unfamiliar selections including the world premiere of three string quartets by Emerson and a new orchestral tone poem entitled "Glorietta Pass," which the composer conducted himself. It was a bold and daring decision to play lesser-known works rather than more obvious crowd-pleasers such as "The Nutrocker" (based on the Nutcracker) or "Hoedown" (from Copland's Rodeo). Nonetheless, the works were engagingly performed and warmly received.

To begin the evening, violinists Susan Metcalf and Deborah Schaarschmidt, violist Susan D'Ver and cellist Wayne Lipton performed spirited versions of the Emerson Three String Quartets, which were loosely based on solo piano compositions that first appeared on 2002's Emerson Plays Emerson. The first two pieces "Vagrant" and "Soulscapes" were introspectively lyrical ballads, but always present were the signature angular turns melody and rhythm that mark Emerson's compositional style. The third piece, "A Cajun Alley," was a fun, jaunty, blues number during which the composer joined the quartets on piano to finish the piece. The audience went wild as Emerson took the stage, making a good portion of the third quartet largely inaudible.

Emerson spoke to the crowd at length while the stage was rearranged. His witty, if uncomfortable-looking, "stand-up" act was very warmly received. He introduced the next piece "Glorietta Pass," explaining that the piece was written for a film that was never completed. It deals with a little-know battle from late in the Civil War, and was replete with military accoutrements: snare drum, fife, etc. The orchestra played the "Americana-flavored" piece with great relish and Emerson conducted with rigid authority.

The first half of the concert concluded with a powerful rendition of Emerson's "Piano Concerto #1," performed by the illustrious pianist Jeffrey Biegel, who has become a champion of the piece over the last few years. Biegel appeared to be almost bursting with joy as he played the regal first movement. The orchestra really began to hit its stride during this part of the evening as Maestro Wiley drew particularly nuanced playing from his orchestra. The second movement was appropriately lyrical and flowing, with Biegel seemingly dissolving into the music. Once again, the orchestra provided elegantly textured coloring to the pastoral passages. The final "toccata con fucco" movement was furious and passionate. Biegel's left hand ostinato hammered the rhythmic opening with such fury, it appeared the piano strings might burst. His energy was returned by extremely passionate playing by the orchestra as the grand and stately finale was delivered with majestic power.

The second half of the concert featured the orchestra preforming the repertory staple, Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" with orchestration by Maurice Ravel. The work showed the strengths of the South Shore Symphony as conductor Scott Jackson Wiley painted a series of beautiful musical tableaus. One of the nice features of the piece is that it allows for virtually all of the orchestra's sections to shine. From the tricky string playing in "Gnomus" to the fanfare-like brass of the "Great Gate at Kiev," "Pictures" leaves nary an orchestral stone unturned. The piece, a natural crowd pleaser, was brought to the attention of many first time fans by the ELP recording back in 1971, and exposed an entire generation of fans to a world of music they might otherwise never have encountered.

Mr. Emerson returned to the stage to perform a solo piano version of the ELP classic, "Tarkus." The audience ate it up and Mr. Emerson showed that at 70 years of age, he still has a lot of fire left in him. He delivered a cleverly inspired piano reduction of the piece with virtuosity and a flair, playing with the tempi and the textures of the well-known melodies, establishing a fresh take on the iconic progressive rock classic.

The final piece on the program was called "Improvisations on Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man" and featured Emerson being joined by several brass soloists from the orchestra. The number was clearly a lot of fun for both Emerson and the nervous-looking soloists, and which Emerson explained was pulled together with virtually no rehearsal whatsoever. "Fanfare" was followed by a lengthy blues jam session with Keith Emerson and the orchestra loosening up and just having fun.

A rollicking encore of the "Honky Tonk Train Blues" had the whole house buzzing and tapping their toes. To bring the wonderful evening to a conclusion, Jeffrey Biegel returned to the stage and led the entire hall in a rousing and fitting rendition of "Happy Birthday" for Mr. Emerson.

The South Shore Symphony will have a tough time following this one up. As Mr. Emerson said at the evening's conclusion: "Tonight was special and a gig that I won't soon forget." Two full houses of cheering fans would probably agree.

As symphonies around the country seek ways to attract new audiences, this program was a no-brainer. One certainly hopes that it gets repeated again and often!

Congratulations to Scott Jackson Wiley, Jeffrey Biegel and the South Shore Orchestra, and happy birthday to Keith Emerson - we wish you all many many more!

EDITOR'S NOTE: After the performance, Mr. Emerson showed extraordinary grace and patience, chatting with fans and signing autographs for nearly two solid hours - until everyone who had waited got a chance to meet him. This kind of magnanimous generosity is exceedingly rare these days and clearly illustrates the reason for the artist's devoted following over four decades. Happy Birthday Keith!

Peter Danish

Classical Music Editor in Chief

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