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Weekend Reviews | Music Review

Hard Charging Diminishes the Bowl's Gershwin Night

July 13, 1998|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Sept. 26 will be the 100th birthday of George Gershwin. July 11 was the 61st anniversary of his death, tragically young, in Beverly Hills. The Hollywood Bowl, as it should, notices such things. John Mauceri began this summer's Hollywood Bowl Orchestra series of weekend concerts will an all-Gershwin weekend.

Gershwin can suit the Bowl, just as he could suit Hollywood. His music is, I think, most effective when presented in intimate settings--hearing Gershwin play it himself at lively parties, we read, was the ultimate intimate setting. But his audience was broad, and the music is built the way a gentleman's trousers once were, with expandable waists. There is room for growth. Hollywood understood that well with its big Gershwin production numbers. In the 1930 film "King of Jazz," a whole orchestra sits atop a giant piano for "Rhapsody in Blue," and how the score glistens.

The Hollywood Bowl has its own spectacular Gershwin history, including having been the site of what was probably the greatest Gershwin concert of all time, a memorial concert in 1937 that featured many who had worked with Gershwin; it was broadcast on radio around the world. (That broadcast has just been released on compact disc on the North American Classics label, and it is a revelation.)

One hears in performances such as Nathaniel Shilkret's suave conducting of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in "An American in Paris"' or in the phenomenally sensitive singing of Hall Johnson and Anne Brown, the original Porgy and Bess, an amazing melding of worlds. It is never one thing, Gershwin's music, and its elements of jazz and Tin Pan Alley and classical counterpoint and Jewish folk music are never separable. If you force any one of them, the music seems to go off kilter. These performers got it. Ironically, in a world in which such hybridization is now more readily accepted than it was in Gershwin's time, we fight it.

Perhaps that is what makes the Bowl feel that a special effort is required to wrest attention from the increasingly frivolous weekend picnickers who no longer separate dinner party and performance. This "An American in Paris," "Rhapsody in Blue" and selections from "Porgy and Bess" felt so much a hard sell.

It was, at times, an ungracious concert on Saturday night, and the "Rhapsody" was an example. Mauceri, who prefaces each work with anecdotes that can be enjoyable entrees into the music, introduced pianist Leon Bates as a pianist who happens to lift weights, and Mauceri joked that the pianist warmed up by lifting the piano. Cute. But somehow the image stuck a little too well.

It was very easy to hear Bates play like a weightlifter. His technique is dramatically strong and sure. He illuminates details, but he attacks each phrase with a concentrated determination, and one feels more a sense of regular cadence than freedom. The setting didn't help.

First there was Mauceri's persistently emphatic conducting. There was the amplification tuned to a very "hot" setting--loud, clangorous, unnatural--which didn't flatter Bates at all. The candy-cane lighting display, a little tired by now, makes the shell's concentric circles look a bit like a carnival act. The glitter remained but the swing was gone. And one wants more elegance, especially when corporations like United Airlines attempt to brand themselves to the "Rhapsody."

I suspect Mauceri's conducting might have sounded more enthusiastic and less bombastic had the amplification not been so fatiguing. It wasn't that it was loud, but that everything seemed to project at the same blaring dynamic, and that was most off-putting during the "Porgy" excerpts, which were sung with unwavering operatic intensity by Marvis Martin, Camellia Johnson and Gregg Baker. The score can withstand that approach at the Metropolitan Opera, but Mauceri might have actually helped sell Gershwin better by speeding up a bit and encouraging the singers to lighten their approaches.

Peabo Bryson, brought in from the pop world to sing "It Ain't Necessarily So," came closest to anyone all evening to capturing the Gershwin sense of ease and sophistication, but he, too, needed a lighter setting. Mauceri himself was best when he was least symphonic. The overture to "Girl Crazy" (the show with "I've Got Rhythm") opened the program with pizazz.

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