By Rick Ivey
Legendary pianist Peter Nero proved this week that he still has what it takes to thrill an audience nearly six decades into his professional career.
Still touring the country at 80, Nero presented a dazzling display of talent and showmanship on the Thomasville Entertainment Foundation’s Steinway concert grand piano to an enthusiastic sold-out crowd at the Thomasville Center for the Arts.
Entitled “The Gershwin Project,” the program teamed Nero with bassist Michael Barnett in a performance of various works by 20th century American composer George Gershwin that have become standards and showpieces for Broadway, the American songbook and the concert hall.
With a myriad of great pieces to choose from, Nero said the loose format offered him the freedom to adapt and change the program as he went along, selecting pieces based on the audience response and often improvising Gershwin’s original melodies to give them his own special flare.
He made great choices throughout the evening, from energetic, jazzy medleys and variations incorporating popular favorites like “They Can’t Take That Away from Me“ and “Strike Up The Band“ to Gershwin’s more classical pieces like the beautiful , rhythmic and jazz-inspired “Second Prelude.” The audience roared its approval for an amazing arrangement of variations on “I Got Rhythm,” with nods to and elements of master composers Franz Liszt, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sergei Prokofiev, among others.
The obvious highlight – and finale – of the first act was the “Rhapsody in Blue,” Gershwin’s landmark and groundbreaking 1924 composition which first combined jazz with elements of classical music. Nero gave a moving performance of the piece, showing incredible dexterity in his fast fingering and virtuosic keyboard runs.
After intermission, Nero tore through a 27-minute medley that weaved together many of the best works of Gershwin’s relatively brief career. The athletic piece highlighted countless components of the Gershwin of jazz and Tin Pan Alley in an incredibly dizzying treatment of “Fascinating Rhythm,” for example, and Gershwin the balladeer in the moving and lyrical “Someone to Watch Over Me,” as well as a strong selection of works from Gershwin’s opera masterpiece, “Porgy and Bess.”
Nero and Barnett melded playfully on “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and the spirited “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” while blending beautifully to capture the soaring and often haunting melodies of “Summertime,” “Bess, You is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy.”
Nero’s stamina was incredible, his nimble fingers dancing gracefully, then racing madly, then dancing gracefully again across the keys to sublime effect, while Barnett’s artistry on the axe bass laid a firm foundation on which the pianist built the piece.
That single, monumental medley comprised the entire second act, and it was phenomenal and breathtaking. Who could ask for anything more?
The pairing of piano and bass is an innovative and rarely seen combination, but Nero and Barnett have collaborated in concert for 24 years, and the results are dynamic. While Nero is the obvious headliner, he generously showcased the talented Barnett in a number of bass solo segments to the delight of the audience.
The triumphant concert brought three enthusiastic standing ovations, including nearly three minutes at its finale.
Thursday’s show was not Thomasville’s introduction to Nero.
He first graced the TEF concert series in 1974 with a performance at the Thomasville Municipal Auditorium; as an 11-year-old at the time, I was fortunate that my parents saw the value in seizing every cultural opportunity that TEF offered and allowed my sisters and me to take turns using their third season ticket. I’ve been a Peter Nero fan ever since.
Somehow, I missed his 1996 performance, but there were many in the audience who remembered it well and gushed over their memories with Nero at a casual meet-and-greet opportunity after the concert. Fans from 12 to 95 lined up to speak to the artist, a few even presenting for autograph their prized vintage record albums from among the 70 he has released since 1960.
It seemed everyone had a story. One fan took years of music lessons in the vain hope of emulating the master pianist; another in her mid-50s recalled seeing Nero in Chicago during her pre-teen years. Both were still smitten with their idol years later.
Ever witty, Nero joked that he would see them again in 2035, as he seems to appear in Thomasville every 20 years or so. Let’s hope so.
The Thomasville Entertainment Foundation’s 77th concert season concludes April 14 with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, featuring clarinetist Martin Frost. For more information or tickets, contact TEF at (229) 226-7404 or www.tefconcerts.com.