An hour before the concert began, people poured into Burbank Auditorium, excited and expectant. They came to hear a new kind of music, a style based on time-travel, a cultural alchemy that merges the past with the present, Rudolph Budginas’ “Piano On the Edge.”
The house was nearly full as Budginas began with an original piano arrangement for Gerswhin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Unless you were very familiar with the piece, you couldn’t sort the Gershwin from the Budginas. But Budginas’ playing had an instant effect on his listeners demonstrated by their thunderous applause.
Gershwin found himself at the center of a debate over this piece for his incorporation of jazz into the classical form. People feared it would somehow pollute “serious” music. It’s apparent, then as now, that you can’t make styles stay apart. They like to feed on each other.
Classical styles have slummed around with rock stars since the Drifters, though mostly in a lush, ornamental fashion. Now, in an age of gay marriage, it’s fitting the past be allowed to join with the present on equal terms. Or amalgamate with it. Or crash with it like errant buses way off schedule.
Budginas made pairings from a variety of classical and rock music. The choices were a matter of personal taste, as were the results. Sometimes awkward, sometimes beautiful, the integration of musical elements was always unique and unpredictable. It made you sit up straight in your seat and ask, “What on Earth is that?”
He joked and poked fun at the dead composers who provided their work royalty-free to his performance. The poking continued throughout as he paired up Bach with Sinatra and cross-fertilized music from Chopin to Radiohead. His receptive audience responded with wholehearted vigor, pleased to pair up their genres as they do their wines and cheeses.
When drummer John Whitney joined him onstage the turbo-charged cultural collision kicked into high gear. His strong and primal playing style was a techno-tribal rock experience of power, versatility and ingenuity.
His mother-of-pearl drumkit flashed colors that reflected off its shiny finish. If that weren’t enough to grab your attention, he occasionally twirled his sticks. Budginas was the bandmaster but Whitney clearly was the nucleus of this hybrid musical force.
Guitarist Kenny Lee Lewis sat before a music stand, put on his glasses and dutifully read his score while fidgeting with his guitar strap. He provided a solid rock accompaniment that was almost inaudible at times, though always present. His guitar solos were few and far between, but when they occurred, it caused the music to soar above the heights of any written plan. Those were the moments the music really took off and became airborne.
Computer technology was the nerdy bandmember of the group. The tech section, led by Alex Ground, fed signals into Whitney’s earbuds, spurring his furious percussion. This in turn locked the band into a precision timing. The computer generated sonic events were prepared in advance by Budginas.
The only misfire of the evening came from the tech ensemble when a signal failed to load properly. It caused a hiccup in the seamless flow of the performance. The perfection of the live musicians triumphed over their technical counterparts.
The collaboration expanded with the addition of the SRJC choir and string orchestra in the second half, compounding the sonic armory. But the acoustics of Burbank Hall didn’t allow for the entire house to enjoy the best balance of the three ensembles in sync. The sound, as well as the views were blocked from the front row sections. The best seats were halfway back on the side aisles.
The evening ended on an upbeat note with everyone vitalized by tapping into timeless things and attracting new possibilities.