The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: Everyone loves a Gershwin tune. That’s why George Gershwin is the go-to composer when symphony orchestras want to drum up attendance and close seasons on a high note.

May 18, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

 “You know, it is going to be hard to get good seats. This concert is really popular and has very sold well,” said the Overture Center’s box office agent when I went to exchange tickets to last weekend’s all-Gershwin concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra from Sunday afternoon to Friday night.

And she was right.

So I ended up sitting pretty close to the stage, with a somewhat limited vision of the soloists and especially of the full orchestra and chorus.

But one look backwards over my shoulder, out into beautiful Overture Hall, and I saw how packed the 2,200-seat hall was – and it was really packed. That is surely an enviable way to end a season on a high note.

Not that it was unexpected.

By now we all should know that MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below) has a special talent for Gershwin. He is closely identified with the opera “Porgy and Bess.” His recording of it won a Grammy, and he has conducted it some 400 times all over the country, including at the City Opera in New York City from which it was broadcast on PBS’ “Great Performances.”

While I don’t have exact attendance figures, it sure seems like houses were very good, even if the Sunday performance was a little under-attended because of Mother’s Day. One MSO player even commented that it was such a pleasure to play before a big and appreciative audience. So much for the terrific commercial success of closing out the season.

So artistically, how did the MSO do?

Well as you will see below, the critics, including The Ear, are pretty much unanimous in their judgments: the all-Gershwin concert was great artistic success for the MSO and DeMain as well as for the soloists and Madison Symphony Chorus.

How could it be otherwise?

That’s why Venezuelan-born and –trained superstar maestro Gustavo Dudamel (below) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic did a Hi-Def international satellite broadcast of Gershwin. Why Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony did one. Why Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic did an all-Gershwin broadcast for New Year’s Eve on PBS’ “Live From Lincoln Center.” And it also why the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, under Andrew Sewell, opened this past season with Gershwin’s  “Rhapsody in Blue” with the young Russian virtuoso pianist Ilya Yakushev as the soloist.

So here is how the MSO’s all-Gershwin fete sounded to The Ear.

The orchestra and Madison Symphony Chorus performed superbly and tightly and with all the tonal color and dance-like, bluesy rhythms that Gershwin demands, right down to the French taxi horns and Cuban percussion. They sounded balanced with convincing dynamics and a big sound.

The soloists were, for the most part, terrific and absolutely first-rate. DeMain knows how to pick singers, and they brought off the authentic Gershwin sound with infectious conviction. This music left you pleased, happy and satisfied. George Gershwin’s music seems one of the few things that Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, can agree on these days.

I guess that’s good.

The first half of the concert was devoted to the popular shorter pieces: the “Cuban” Overture, “An American in Paris” and “Rhapsody in Blue.” The entire second half was devoted to an extremely well-constructed concert version, by orchestrator and arranger Richard Russell Bennett (below), of “Porgy and Bess” that reduced the four-hour opera to 40 minutes.

The singers, soprano Laquita Mitchell (below top) and baritone Michael Redding (below bottom), both did an outstanding job with the 40-minute concert version of the 4-hour opera “Porgy and Bess.” Redding especially brought out the characters of the roles he sang. He projected right off the stage and was rewarded with loud cheers from the audience.

My biggest disappointment – and it wasn’t all that big– came in the “Rhapsody in Blue.” Dressed fittingly in a bright blue gown, pianist Martina Filjak (below) played the Rhapsody well. She sure has chops, but great interpretations require more than great chops. I found her technique too prominent. She seemed to bang it out at times when it could have used a subtler, softer and more seductive approach. This Gershwin work is more French than Russian, more Ravel than Rachmaninoff. She should listen to Oscar Levant’s old recording.

But what I am really left with is how my overall impression of Gershwin, to whom I previously had paid only passing attention, took shape.

I loved the Gershwin concert while I was in it. But as soon as I left it, I found the music did not stick with me except for some tunes and some lyrics. And it did not make me ask questions or leave me wanting more.

And that, in turn, tells me why Gershwin is so popular.

Gershwin (below), who died prematurely of a brain tumor at 38, was clearly a Tin Pan Alley composer. He composed some dozen Broadway musicals before he even took up writing music for the concert hall. And that experience shows.

There is an ease and naturalness about listening to a Gershwin tune. When the famous Burton Lane song asks “I like a Gershwin tune, how about you?” who could possibly answer “Well, I don’t.” Gershwin’s songs are irresistible. They watch over you.

But if I compare the “Rhapsody in Blue” to, say, Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 or Schumann’s Piano Concerto or Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3, I have no problem knowing which one I would and wouldn’t want to hear repeatedly, which one lacks development and depth, and which one has them.

The “Rhapsody in Blue” is engaging and exciting while it lasts, but then it is over. On the other hand, the other more substantial works may not be as easily digestible, but their nourishment is more sustaining and they continue to yield up insights on repeated hearings.

It’s not that Gershwin is a crossover or superficial composer, even though he is used in a lot of ads. As DeMain explained in his illuminating comments before the performances, Gershwin does indeed define an identifiably American sound. But let’s be honest:  Gershwin’s American sound is closer to song masters George M. Cohan, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern than to composers Charles Ives and Aaron Copland.

You can take Gershwin (below) out of Broadway. But, like the music of Leonard Bernstein – a Gershwin champion and DeMain mentor whose greatest and most beloved is theater music from “West Wide Story” and “Candide” – you can’t take Broadway out of Gershwin. And Broadway is nothing, if not popular.

Little wonder that we remember “An American in Paris” from Gene Kelly’s Hollywood choreography. And little wonder that even “Porgy and Bess,” a genuinely sincere attempt at serious concert music, got treated this last year to a controversial ADD makeover for today’s Broadway.

This love of Gershwin is here to stay.

What did others think?

Here is John W. Barker’s review for Isthmus:

Here is a Lindsay Christians’ review for 77 Square, The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal:

Here is a review by Greg Hettmansberger for Madison Magazine and his blog “Classically Speaking”:

Here is a review by Bill Wineke for WISC-TV and

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