Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and More
The music of George Gershwin is full of wit and sophistication. A recent concert of Gershwin songs by the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra not only showed how joyful and skilled his compositions are but also demonstrated how Gershwin is one of the most well-known and best American composers. This is shown in his ability to write dozens of songs that became the backbone of the American songbook as well as his ability to compose numerous rousing orchestral pieces that are instantly recognizable. Under the skilled baton of conductor Emil de Cou, the concert featured Tony nominee Kate Baldwin delivering knockout interpretations of some of Gershwin's most famous songs, all with lyrics from George's brother Ira, and pianist Eric Zuber, who performed some superb piano solos during a fantastic arrangement of "Rhapsody in Blue."
While the evening was separated into two distinct parts, with four orchestral pieces and six songs performed by Baldwin, having the instrumental numbers open and close each act provided thrilling musical bookends to each set with the songs a perfect centerpiece. With beautiful vocal control, Kate Baldwin delivered impeccable renditions of two of Gershwin's most famous romantic tunes. "Someone to Watch Over Me" from Oh, Kay!, received a poignant delivery. Baldwin gave a soul searching take on "The Man I Love" that was full of anticipation, and the showstopping "I Got Rhythm" from Girl Crazy was bright and full of life. She also performed three lesser known tunes with the same skill and depth of emotion: the snappy "(I've Got) Beginners Luck" from the film Shall We Dance; the comical "By Strauss"; and "He Loves and She Loves" from Funny Face. The latter song, with these simple, yet perfectly touching lyrics, "Birds love and bees love and whispering trees love, and that's what we both should do," showed how Ira's words and George's music perfectly matched up in their many romantic songs as well as the many witty ones they wrote together. Emil de Cou mentioned that they were using the original arrangements that Nelson Riddle wrote for Ella Fitzgerald's "Gershwin Songbook" recordings she made in 1959, and they perfectly match Ira's simple yet sophisticated words and George's lively and romantic music.
The four instrumental pieces for the evening included the lush, almost intoxicating Latin spirit of "Cuban Overture" that began the concert and demonstrated how wide and varied Gershwin's musical tastes and influences were. "Rhapsody in Blue" ended the first act. This piece is Gershwin's homage to his hometown of New York City. Filled with the noises of the bustling metropolis, including honking car horns, sirens and the rattle of the subway, it has a sweeping, ever changing jazz landscape that features several musical highlights. From the roaring trumpet enunciations to the trilling clarinet solo and the vibrant brass finish, it is no wonder that it is arguably Gershwin's most impressive musical composition. The orchestration by Ferde Grofé allowed Eric Zuber plenty of solo moments to demonstrate his excellent piano skills. Played by a less skilled orchestra this piece could easily fall apart, but under de Cou's steady hand and with some exceptional playing by the PSO and the addition of Zuber's vibrant and passionate piano playing, it was a superb performance of this classic piece.
Act two opened with the overture from Of Thee I Sing with its several evocative violin solos. It was a nice way to show the Gershwins' musical theatre contributions, since this was the only one of the three orchestral pieces taken from a musical that the brothers wrote. The concert ended with George's love letter to his time spent in Paris in the 1920s, "An American in Paris." Like "Rhapsody in Blue" did for New York City, this vibrant and romantic work evokes the sights and sounds of Paris with chances for every section of the orchestra to contribute to the piece that touches upon both the bustling daytime in Paris as well as the romantic nightlife. It was a perfect end to the evening.
Even though the concert was a complete success, considering the evening was devoted entirely to a single composer, I wish that de Cou or Baldwin offered some additional information about Gershwin in their in-between song patter. Just a few facts about the man would have provided some background, especially considering he died so young, at just 38, yet composed so many phenomenal pieces in such a short life. That information would have helped us appreciate his exceptional skills even more. However, even with that very small quibble, there is a vibrant buoyancy to Gershwin's music, and the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra and its two featured soloists had no problem in bringing that to life. Also of note, the sound design of Symphony Hall allows for an impeccable clarity of every note the Phoenix Symphony plays.
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and More with the Phoenix Symphony played three performances on March 27th through the 29th, 2015 at Symphony Hall in Phoenix. Information on upcoming performances with the Phoenix Symphony can be found at www.phoenixsymphony.org.