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‘The Gershwin Project’ will feature pianist Peter Nero at UNLV

Pianist Peter Nero made his TV debut at 17, playing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with Paul Whiteman, the bandleader who introduced the jazz-meets-classical piece to the world in 1924.

More than 50 years later, he’s still playing the same tune.

“Rhapsody in Blue” will be on the program Saturday at UNLV when the Grammy-winning Nero, 79, joins UNLV’s Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Ensemble I for “The Gershwin Project,” part of the Charles Vanda Master Series at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“I don’t know how you can do a Gershwin concert without ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ ” Nero says during a telephone interview.

But there’s a lot more to “The Gershwin Project” than “Rhapsody in Blue.”

An excerpt from “American in Paris,” for example. Three preludes. Such popular standards as “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” along with five variations on “I Got Rhythm” — done in the styles of classical composers Beethoven, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Liszt that “goes as fast as I can play it.”

Despite the fact that Gershwin died from a brain tumor in 1937, at age 38, the Brooklyn-born composer left an imperishable body of work, from the Broadway and Hollywood classics he wrote with his lyricist brother Ira to the opera “Porgy and Bess,” on which they collaborated with writer DuBose Heyward.

Even so, “I always try to imagine what he would be doing now,” says Nero, who joined such legendary Gershwin collaborators as Fred Astaire and Ethel Merman for the Emmy-winning 1972 TV special “S’Wonderful, S’Marvelous, S’Gershwin.” That’s because the composer “was just scratching the surface” when he died, in Nero’s view.

“When you think of how young our country is, compared to European countries, when you think ‘who’s an American composer,’ to me, it was Gershwin who personified it,” in Nero’s view.

The pianist last played Las Vegas in 1972, he says, recalling his two-year residency — from 1957 to 1959 — when he “opened the lounge at the Tropicana, which was then the newest hotel in Vegas.”

In those days, “there were three stoplights — on Fremont Street,” Nero remembers. “On the Strip, there were no stoplights, just stop signs.”

Since those early years, Nero’s musical career has included collaborations with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Rod Stewart; his solo recordings include such million-sellers as the “Summer of ’42” theme.

But he also has honed his conducting talents as the founding music director of Peter Nero and the Philly Pops, following a philosophy that combines serious music-making with “feed(ing) people music you think they’ll like.”

Accordingly, “I’ll be at the piano a lot” during Saturday’s concert, exercising “my proclivity to play about 4½ million notes on the piano,” Nero says. But there will be “times when I have to jump up and conduct.”

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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