Concert review: IRIS guest Uri Caine boogies to Brahms

Uri Caine performed Saturday with IRIS orchestra at its ninth season opening concert.

Uri Caine performed Saturday with IRIS orchestra at its ninth season opening concert.

The opener of the ninth season of IRIS was a wild ride, from the traditional (a solid Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony) to the roller-coaster boogie-woogie of Brahms.

Uri Caine performed Saturday with IRIS orchestra at its ninth season opening concert.

Uri Caine performed Saturday with IRIS orchestra at its ninth season opening concert.

Actually the boogie-woogie -- and blues, and stride piano, and a rich mix of other jazz forms and invention -- were courtesy guest soloist Uri Caine. The pianist took Brahms' "Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel" and gave it an expression that would have stunned the old composers.

Handel got the ball rolling in 1733 with his Suite in B-flat major. Brahms, in 1861, created his 25 spectacular variations on that theme. Taking it another giant step further, Caine re-orchestrated the Brahms (in 2004) and improvises his own piano performance on each gig.

The result, as heard Saturday night at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre, is a brilliant excursion that honors Brahms as it invokes shades of George Gershwin, Thelonious Monk, Billy Joel -- and you could detect scads of others.

The key is that Caine doesn't simply do a jazzed-up version of a classical piece. That's been tried by others and rarely goes beyond clever or gimmicky since the performer is often simply dabbling in a different form. Caine, however, has chops in both worlds, clearly seeing and hearing the commonalities and possibilities.

His performance was witty, melodramatic, symphonic, light, dissonant, lyrical. He performed with virtuosity both serious and playful. I suspect that GPAC, which just acquired its shiny new Steinway, had some heart-stopping moments as Caine went to work. He not only pounded the keys, he sometimes smacked them with the back of his hand and at one point actually slapped the side of the noble instrument. Now the Steinway is ready for anything.

And for IRIS maestro Michael Stern, it's another triumph in programming with a manic work of improvisation sandwiched between the reliable Beethoven and the gorgeous Mendelssohn overture to The Fair Melusine.

Can you dig it?

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