Pop, hot and haute culture around Seattle

Irving Berlin once said, “We’re just songwriters; George Gershwin is a composer.”

No small praise coming from one such as he, and an observation which history has proved true.

 On Thursday, September 26, we attended a Seattle Symphony Orchestra concert paying tribute to this great American composer (the man who did for American classical music what Eugene O’Neill did for American theater) playing short pieces from Gershwin’s work, including an extended selection in the second half, Porgy and Bess in Concert.

 The concert, conducted by Jeff Tyzik, is part of the Seattle Pop series, a decision which, at first, I found puzzling. George Gershwin, and Porgy and Bess, certainly deserve the classical treatment. A couple of seasons ago, Seattle Opera produced P&G, and the music and musical architecture, took my breath away (as did the entire production, in fact).

But Tyzik’s intent, as he explained, was to showcase Gershwin’s amazing versatility, his ability to move seamlessly from popular music to classical, and merge all their idioms into music never heard before. In fact, only Leonard Bernstein has been able to duplicate that feat.

 Tyzik also wanted to present little-known pieces of Gershwin’s, too, and I had no problem with that either. He opened with an early piece, Funny Face Overture from 1927—definitely pop. The next piece was I Loves You, Porgy, from the opera. Oddly, this song is not included in the concert selection so Tyzik included it here, to everyone’s delight.

 Other pieces were Rialto Ripples, Cuban Overture, and, one of my favorites, the hauntingly beautiful Lullaby for String Orchestra.

 The Seattle Symphony performed like the world class orchestra it has become. This is the second full season of directorship under Ludovic Morlot, and he’s done extremely well in polishing and refreshing the orchestra. Even though he was not conducting, the sparkle and superb musicianship was still evident in their near-flawless performance. I say ‘near flawless’ because the French horns stumbled and were a bit muddy in the Rialto piece.

 This was also Jeff Tyzik’s debut as Seattle Pops conductor, stepping in after Marvin Hamlisch’s sudden and unexpected passing last year. He’s personable, energetic, and brought out the best in the performers. This concert not only featured the Symphony but also two soloists and the entire Pro Musica vocal ensemble. The event was a major undertaking and an audacious introduction for Tyzik, but he executed the performance smoothly.

 The second half featured the entire stage in a shortened concert version of Porgy and Bess, arranged by Robert Russell Bennett. But despite the high-quality musicianship of Pro Musica and orchestra, the real stars of the show were the two singers in the role of Porgy and Bess: bass Kevin Deas and soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme.

 These two have performed P&G before, and Tyzik wouldn’t conduct this concert without them. It’s not a surprise. Besides having exquisite voices, the two also had the chemistry to elevate the evening into sheer beauty.

 They’ve performed P&G many times, and their familiarity with the material added to their confident performance. Chandler-Eteme posses a strong, clear voice, one which she very much controls, while Deas likewise has mastered his rich, full bass. They almost didn’t need mics, and when they sang together, their voices swirled and blended like coffee and cream.

 Listening to the music, I was struck by how lyrical the music is, and how much of it has gone into the great American songbook. Very few operas possess so many tunes which have worked their way into popular culture. Only Carmen came to mind, ironically also written by a composer who died young, Georges Bizet. This is just one reason Porgy and Bess stands as one of the milestones in opera, and in American music. This production did it justice.

 This is still the inaugural month of Seattle Symphony’s 2013-2014 season. Maestro Morlot kicked it off with more heightened expectations and brilliant concerts already (which I’ve not seen, but the press and word of mouth has been very positive). This concert adds to the momentum.

 It’s going to be another great season.

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