Pianist Roberto Plano to serve as guest artist while young performers also take stage

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FARMINGTON — At the risk of sounding like he's repeating himself, San Juan Symphony Music Director Thomas Heuser is looking forward to this weekend's concerts in which the orchestra will perform a program devoted to the music of American composer George Gershwin.

"This concert is one I love to do," Heuser said, explaining that he has led programs of Gershwin's music twice before, once with the Idaho Falls (Idaho) Symphony that he also leads and with another orchestra in Cincinnati.

Before he died in 1938, Gershwin produced some of the more memorable compositions for piano in American history, Heuser noted, and the symphony will feature many of those this weekend in its "Gershwin and the Roaring Twenties" program. Those selections will include such favorites as "Rhapsody in Blue," "Summertime," "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "An American in Paris."

Given his history with Gershwin's work, Heuser acknowledged he has a strong familiarity with it.

"And I think audiences are, too — whether they know it or not," he said. "It's very mainstream."

The composer's work appeals to him because of its high-energy nature, Heuser said.

"(It's) free spirited and vivacious," he said. "The music is always uplifting, optimistic and gets you very excited as a listener. … It's fun to play."

Heuser said Gershwin's willingness to work in various styles contributed to his success.

"He was all things to everybody," Heuser said. "He straddled a lot of genres, and that has contributed to his staying power. That's part of the reason his music has survived so well."

Gershwin's personality in many ways mirrored his work, he said.

"He hung around with a lot of Broadway and blues singers — fun people, fun characters," Heuser said. "And he was known to be one of them."

"An American in Paris" evokes Gershwin's adventurous spirit, he said.

"It's semi-autobiographical," he said. "It's written as though he were the protagonist walking down the streets of Paris and hearing the taxicabs. He yearned to be considered a serious composer. He went to Paris, where there were people like (Maurice) Ravel and (Igor) Stravinsky, and he sought their counsel while he was there. This music speaks to that aspect of his personality."

Heuser also expects "Rhapsody in Blue" to strike a chord with listeners at the two concerts.

"(It) is such a wonderful work," he said, referencing its use in a series of United Airlines commercials. "It's short, but so iconic, so recognizable. ... When he wrote it, he was the piano soloist, and he improvised a lot of it on the fly. 'Rhaposdy in Blue' is one of favorite, favorite pieces on the program."

This weekend, the piece will be played by soloist Roberto Plano, a native of Italy who now serves as a professor at Boston University.

"I've worked with him before, in Idaho Falls," Heuser said. "His personality is a lot like Gershwin's. He brings out the fun in a piece."

The two concerts also will feature a group of local youngsters who will be performing side by side with their professional counterparts on "An American in Paris." The group will include 12 violin students and two cello students from Farmington, Durango and Bayfield.

"It's a great opportunity for them to get that exposure and experience," Heuser said.

The Farmington concert will be the first one here this season that takes place on a Saturday night, as opposed to a Sunday afternoon. Heuser hopes that leads to more of a festive atmosphere, and he encouraged audience members to come dressed for the occasion in attire matching the music of Gershwin's era.

"We're looking forward to the Saturday night experience," he said. "It's a night on the town, and the theme is the Roaring Twenties, so costumes are encouraged. It's not a requirement, but if patrons wish to wear bowler hats, pinstriped suits or flapper gowns, it would certainly add to the fun."

Heuser will deliver a pre-concert talk at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18 at the Henderson Performance Hall on the San Juan College campus in Farmington.

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: "Gershwin and the Roaring Twenties," a concert by the San Juan Symphony

When and where: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18 at the Henderson Performance Hall on the San Juan College campus in Farmington, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19 at the Community Concert Hall on the Fort Lewis College campus, 1000 Rim Drive in Durango, Colo.

Tickets: $25 for adults, $18 for those 65 and older, and $8 for students 18 and younger. For Farmington tickets, call 505-566-3430. For Durango tickets, call 970-247-7657, visit durangoconcerts.com or stop by the Durango Welcome Center at Eighth Street and Main Avenue.

For more information: Visit sanjuansymphony.org

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