Boise Philharmonic guest conductor Keitaro Harada shines with all-American program

Conductor Keitaro Harada was the third candidate for the Boise Philharmonic’s music director’s position. He led the orchestra on Saturday, Nov. 12, and Sunday, Nov. 13, in an all-American program that featured pianist Kevin Cole on Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Conductor Keitaro Harada was the third candidate for the Boise Philharmonic’s music director’s position. He led the orchestra on Saturday, Nov. 12, and Sunday, Nov. 13, in an all-American program that featured pianist Kevin Cole on Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

fFrom the moment guest conductor Keitaro Harada’s baton came down on the Boise Philharmonic on Saturday night, you could feel the electricity in the air. It was going to be a special night.

His all-American program of Bernstein’s “On the Waterfront Symphonic Suite,” Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite” drew a sold-out crowd of about 1,800 to the Morrison Center — on a night with a televised Boise State football game. That’s no easy feat.

Harada is the third candidate for the Boise Philharmonic’s music director position to come to Boise to spend a week working with and conducting the orchestra. He is an associate conductor at the Cincinnati Symphony and Cincinnati Pops, and travels the world as a popular guest conductor.

The orchestra launched the search after Robert Franz left the organization at the end of last season. There are four more candidates still to come, and Harada, who also performed with the Boise Phil in Nampa on Sunday afternoon, was definitely a highlight.

Saturday’s concert was outstanding from beginning to end. Bernstein’s music from the 1954 film came across the proscenium with a burst of vibrant clarity that felt incredibly fresh and contemporary. The musicians and Harada handily managed the complex score. With two timpani sets and a full array of drums, bells and gongs, the piece was also a thrilling workout for the percussion section.

“Rhapsody in Blue” sizzled. Carmen Izzo’s sassy, sexy clarinet opening set the tone for a performance that felt immediate and present. Pianist Kevin Cole showed why he’s known as “the man” when it comes to Gershwin. (The piece is perhaps America’s best-known piano concerto — used for a United Airlines ad campaign.)

A tall man, Cole’s large hands moved across the keys in a blaze of technique, pulling both broad sweeping emphasis and delicate nuance from the instrument. He hit the perfect dissonant counterpoints to the orchestra’s fluid accompaniment, reminding the audience why this piece remains one of the most popular in the repertoire.

After multiple standing ovations, he returned with a dazzling version of Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm.”

The finale piece — Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite” — was a reminder of what a fresh approach can do to regenerate something shadowed in cliché. Often forgotten or relegated to the “pop” side of classical, this performance showed the classical depth of Grofé’s composition. Harada and the musicians pulled out deep colors of sound and emotion that echo the journey the composer took to one of America’s most iconic sites.

Again, the percussion section was a highlight, using everything from coconut shells for burro hooves, a wind machine and thunder sheet.

Harada did some sound testing in the Morrison Center’s main hall, looking for sweet spots to discover the resonance of the place, which favors lower register tones. To compensate, Harada placed the first and second violins facing each other along the stage line, next to cellos and violas respectively. He flipped the bass to audience left and percussion to audience right (the opposite of where they’ve been for about a decade), with the timpani above center. The brass moved to above left; the horns, reeds and woodwinds held the lower center.

It not only increased the volume, but also the clarity and resilience of the sound.

Again, the music from the early 20th century felt entirely belonging to the moment. And although Harada said before the concert that the connections to the pieces came through the three composer’s biographies, there were more than a few instances where the tonality, structure and intentions of the music also echoed each other.

Harada’s program highlighted the musicians beautifully. There were solos throughout: concertmaster Geoffrey Trabichoff on the violin solo in Grofé’s “On the Trail” movement, Allison Emerick’s flute in “On the Waterfront Symphonic Suite,” Brad Peters’ trumpet on “Rhapsody in Blue,” and many others. It was a great reminder that the strength of this orchestral ensemble is built on the individual talents of its musicians.

Harada, who likes to be called Kei (pronounced K), exuded a personal magnetism on stage and in person. He was warm, engaging and funny, and connected every time he spoke directly to the audience. His movements were enjoyable to watch. He moved with physical ease and clarity, filling almost the entire space of the raised platform from where he conducted. He spent the intermission in the lobby, greeting patrons and having his picture taken with kids.

On stage, he cut a compelling figure in a snappy, modernist black-flared formal coat with flashes of green that peeked out from under the vent — a suit Harada designed himself. (He designs all his own clothing, he says. It’s a habit he developed while spending so much time on airplanes.)

Harada brought more excitement to the Boise Phil, doing a live stream from rehearsal on the orchestra’s Facebook page and blasting out tweets during his Boise stay.

There still are more candidates to come, but as a cheering crowd, multiple curtain calls and a packed after-party attest to, Harada will be hard to top.

Related stories from Idaho Statesman