Elgin Symphony Orchestra displayed its impressive versatility in presenting groundbreaking works by George Gershwin in its weekend pops program entitled "Gershwin in Blue." The ESO, joined by the Elgin Choral Union, guest artists, and Associate Conductor Stephen Squires will give repeat performances Saturday, April 16th at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, April 17th at 3:30 p.m.
Born into the cultural upheaval of turn-of-the-century Brooklyn, George Gershwin arrived at just the right time and place to carve out a distinctly American musical niche. Combining his Russian-Jewish musical ethos with the avant-garde harmonies of French composers like Ravel and Debussy, together with the panache of American march, vaudeville, theatre and popular song, and propelled by the rhythms of ragtime and the stop-and-go life of the big city, Gershwin successfully fused together elements of early jazz, Broadway, opera, gospel spirituals and European art music in a way never known before or since.
A short, but memorable "hit parade" of his works from Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood opened the program Friday afternoon, to the delight of three generations of music lovers in the audience, who warmly congratulated Maestro Squires on his twenty years with the ESO.
The instrumental highlight of the program was the iconic Rhapsody in Blue, featuring pianist Jodie DeSalvo. First written as a kind of experimental piano concerto for "King of Jazz" Paul Whiteman's band in 1924, the orchestral arrangement retains much of the club-like intimacy of a rhythm section and horns, but adds a beautiful gloss of strings and the drama of orchestral percussion. Ms. DeSalvo navigated the complex keyboard score with an unreserved emotion and humanity that even Beethoven would have admired, a welcome contrast to the mechanical style of some of today's music school products. Exchanging eloquent single-note melodies and ringing chords between piano and orchestra, the ensemble pulled off subtle, unexpected timings like a speakeasy combo, creating an improvisational effect that grabs your attention and holds it like only jazz can do. In a piece that still sounds edgy after eighty-seven years, the ESO brought Gershwin's signature sound vividly to life: the sounds of both the bright lights and the shades of gray that colored New York City life in the 1920's.
Seven hundred miles to the South, DuBose Heyward was writing a novel about African American life in Charleston, South Carolina, entitled "Porgy." His detailed, sympathetic portrayal of "Catfish Row" culture appealed to Gershwin, and together they created the opera Porgy and Bess based on the novel. It premiered in New York in 1935 with an all-black cast and endured numerous revisions throughout its controversial history. The 40-minute concert version heard this weekend features fourteen songs and excerpts arranged for soprano, baritone and choir.
The graceful and elegant soprano of Ollie Watts Davis gave beautiful shape to the lyrics of "Summertime" and "My Man's Gone Now," yet her superb tone and control leave you wanting to hear more than just what this libretto has to offer. The dashing Leon Williams injected a touch of drama into his charismatic deliveries of "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'," animating his solos with just the right body language and gesture. In duets, their voices meshed seamlessly without losing each one's distinct quality.
The Elgin Choral Union provided a robust textural balance in ensemble movements and in call-and-response settings of Gershwin and Heyward's colorful, regional lyrics. Formidable male and female solos added variety to their vibrant sound. Other standouts included fantastic ESO performances on mallets, muted brass, and solo reeds, especially the juke joint licks of the lead clarinet. The Hemmens stage, filled by soloists, orchestra, and choir is an awesome sight, but the words to Porgy and Bess were a little hard to hear for those with more than 20 rows in front of them (or more than 40 years behind them). Nonetheless, conductor Stephen Squires elicited an amazing performance of the ever-changing keys and rhythms of the multicultural nation that Gershwin knew and loved, a musical legacy that is both black and white, urban and rural, highbrow and hepcat, and quintessentially American.