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Orchestra Rises to Occasion at Gershwin Show

Pacific Symphony, St.Clair Offer Rousing Performance of Familiar Tunes Music Review


Carl St.Clair and the Pacific Symphony delivered a smart and polished concert of music by George Gershwin on Saturday night at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine. It was an evening of first-rate performances by interesting musicians.

Though dominated by "Porgy and Bess," a complex and occasionally controversial folk opera of prodigious dimensions, the concert began with Gershwin at his breeziest: the overture to his 1930 musical "Girl Crazy." This is a fun--if schmaltzy--run through some tunes that will easily outlive the musical itself, including "I Got Rhythm" and "Embraceable You."

Egged on by the ever-energetic St.Clair, the orchestra offered a rousing performance. The brass, in particular, were edgy and eloquent.

After a somewhat redundant reading of a set of variations on "I Got Rhythm" that Gershwin wrote in 1934, pianist Anne-Marie McDermott and the orchestra got down to business with "Rhapsody in Blue." Despite the best efforts of United Airlines to turn it into a TV jingle, this one-movement concerto remains one of the best American works for piano and orchestra.

McDermott was a delight. Both thoughtful and aggressive, she gave a highly personal interpretation of the work, making the most of rubato passages to put her own stamp on it and rippling through some solo moments as though playing a cadenza.

Orchestra members supported her with excellent playing--including the buttery clarinet solo that begins the piece--and St.Clair was intelligent and sensitive in keeping the accompaniment in step with the soloist.

The major endeavor of the evening was a concert version of "Porgy and Bess," which takes 3 1/2 hours when staged. Though conceived as an opera--Gershwin intended it to satisfy a commission from the Metropolitan in New York, but the Met did not then allow black singers--its acceptance by the opera world has been limited.

The reason, in part, might be that the story and lyrics have a racist tinge. Though many African American artists hold it in high regard, and some argue it is a true portrait of life on Charleston's Catfish Row near the turn of the last century, "Porgy and Bess" is nonetheless a story created by white men for white audiences of 1935 about simple black people, a vision uncomfortably close to stereotypes this country long ago rejected.

Certainly it's not the music that holds back this work. The tunes--including "Summertime," "I Got Plenty of Nuttin' " and "It Ain't Necessarily So"--are deep and glorious and so natural that they have dissolved into the background of Western culture.

A standout in Saturday's concert was soprano Roberta Laws, singing the part of Bess. Her veiled tone, flawless pitch and heartbreaking musicality simply stole the show. In the highest register she is capable of a breathtaking pianissimo that really defies description.

Bass Kevin Deas, as Porgy, was strong and expressive, and the Paul Smith Singers--a small chorus of highly individual and accomplished musicians--completed an excellent cast.

It might not be long now before George Gershwin and his best works are swept into the mainstream repertoire of classical music and opera. Until then, let us be thankful they are still available to put style and substance on summer pops concert programs like this one.

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