By John K. Toedtman
The Gershwin celebration Friday night at Riverbend by the Cincinnati Pops and Maestro Erich Kunzel, made clear once again why Gershwin's music always surprises and enchants the listener and will surely endure for the ages.
The program began with a medley of songs from Of Thee I Sing, a spoof of American politics. The Cincinnati Community Chorus, assembled for this concert and directed by Patrick Coyle, sang with a strong voice, although occasionally marred by problems of intonation. The three vocal soloists, soprano Roberta Laws, baritone Daniel Washington, and tenor Keldon Price were the hit of the evening.
The irrepressible tone poem for orchestra, An American in Paris, followed. A cacophony of street sounds including taxi horns and chimes, lots of tricky rhythms and tempi changes were all well coordinated by Maestro Kunzel, who puts as much vigor and elan into the direction of an orchestra as he did 30 years ago. The intermingling of fragmented jazz motives with hauntingly bittersweet lyric melodies is a synopsis of Gershwin's unique ability to combine European classicism and American jazz in one medium on a concert stage.
The "Rhapsody in Blue" for piano and orchestra has probably won more hearts to the piano than any other piece of music. It is so American and yet so classy. According to comments by narrator Alan Gershwin, son of the composer, the "Rhapsody" was composed in 10 days. George Gershwin himself said he composed much of the piece while riding another American institution, the train.
Although the steely sounds and rhythms train wheels make on the tracks can be heard in the "Rhapsody" there are also many places in the music where a romantic lyricism and tenderness can be found.
Unfortunately, pianist Kevin Cole approached the piece with a heavy, brittle touch that emphasized the percussive quality and prevented the rhapsodic moods from singing through on the piano. However, the "Rhapsody in Blue" can survive a less than optimum performance and still enthrall an audience. Cole's encore, "Rialto Ripple Rag" was more suited to his type of pianism and dazzled the audience.
The folk opera Porgy and Bess took 2 1/2 to complete and Gershwin did not live long enough to see its ultimate success. The opera was not well-received at first - perhaps because Gershwin painted a musical picture of African Americans as real people with real emotions of joy and pain. Fortunately Porgy and Bess is now accepted as an American masterpiece.
Kunzel, the Pops, the chorus, and the soloists all contributed to a glorious performance.
Daniel Washington has a deep, commanding voice amply displayed in "Bess, You Is My Woman." Roberta Laws sang "Summertime" so well I don't want to hear it again for a while! Tenor, Keldon Pricea student at CCM stole the show with his jazz rendition of "It Ain't Necessarily So." This Gershwin celebration was a classy event.
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