With vibrancy and a good deal of enthusiasm, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra brought the music of George Gershwin alive this past weekend. With everything from a huge college choir to an enigmatic harmonica player, Marvin Hamlisch conducted, performed, and joked his way through a special performance that left one thing clear—these musicians love Gershwin’s work. And after their evident enthusiasm and talented performances, I think anyone who didn’t start the evening with their same enthusiasm certainly left with it.
The program kicked off with a medley of music from ‘Porgy and Bess,’
and while it was easy to forget about it as the full program went on,
that selection was actually one of my favorites. The rich melodies,
reminiscent of the agricultural south after the Civil War, were
emotional, varying from sweetness and sincerity to more challenging
emotions of anger and loss. I’ve never seen ‘Porgy and Bess,’ but
having only a sketchy understanding of the plot didn’t diminish my
enjoyment in hearing the rich score.
The college chorus—presenting a colorful spectacle in their
multi-colored sweatshirts proclaiming which college they hailed
from—was talented, and while some of their lighthearted motions
bordered on cheesy, the mood of the songs was so jovial that it was
easy to forgive them. They returned for ‘I’ll Build a Stairway to
Paradise’ at the beginning of the second half and ‘Strike Up the Band’
at the very end.
I was especially excited to hear Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ and I
confess that I have never heard the whole piece played before. The
beginning is unmistakable, but the rest of the piece accomplished
Gershwin’s vision of fusing classical and blues music just as well. The
unique feel of ‘Rhapsody’ kept me entertained to the very end—and if
Gershwin meant it to be as pleasingly deceptive as it was, he certainly
succeeded. Every so often I felt the music turn more toward classical
or more toward blues, yet before long they circled round and met again,
blending their unique and somehow complimentary voices together. Mr.
Cole’s playing was incredible, and as Mr. Hamlisch announced, his
version of ‘Rhapsody’ is as close to what Gershwin actually played as
we can get.
Ms. Glennon and Ms. Koza (spelled, so it seems, with a ‘z’ and not an
‘s’) were both very talented. I felt more impressed with Carly Koza,
and I must confess there was even a drop of envy mixed in with my
admiration. (This confused me somewhat. If I was to be envious of
anyone, it should have been Ms. Glennon. I am closer to being a junior
in college than to being 12 years old. Yet when I was 12 years old my
fondest dream was of being a singer/actress/dancer, and those dreams
have since dissipated. Perhaps I was simply seeing myself as I had
wished I was at 12, dancing [literally] before my eyes. But I digress.)
I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Bonfiglio’s enthusiastic harmonica
playing—never before have I heard a harmonica played so well! If there
is any music that just begs for a harmonica, it is Gershwin’s. I was
glad to see him come out for an encore at the end.
As the orchestra wrapped the show up with ‘An American in Paris,’ I
couldn’t help seeing Gene Kelly strutting down the streets of Paris
with his paintings under his arm and a grin on his face. I’ve seen that
movie so many times, and listening to the theme from it made me want to
run home and watch it again. Having actually been ‘An American in
Paris,’ I know exactly what Gershwin was saying through his music,
which is at times confusing and cheerful, at times excited and bold,
and at times slow and wistful. He truly captured the spirit of being a
visitor to a place that alternately excites, thrills, and confuses one.
George Gershwin died at age 38, but as this concert illustrated, his
music will never grow old. If everyone has this much love and
enthusiasm for his work, Gershwin’s legacy will live forever.