Concert review: Pops got rhythm in Gershwin special
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The only thing missing was the bejeweled skyline of New York at night as Marvin Hamlisch and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra PNC Pops swirled through "Here to Stay -- The Gershwin Experience," concluding its season with what amounted to a musical exclamation point.
Leading the way was Kevin Cole, a pianist who has made a career out of channeling the cosmopolitan wit and sophistication of George Gershwin, a songwriter who successfully made the transition from Broadway to movies and ragtime to the concert stage.
"The Gershwin Experience" was made possible by Premiere Media LLC, headed by Todd Gershwin, great-nephew of Mr. Gershwin and his brother, Ira, and Daniel Chilewich. They assembled a multimedia production with a script that nimbly traced Mr. Gershwin's life.
The program was dominated by a giant screen filled with archival photos, a nifty Hollywood home movie segment at the swimming pool of Harold Arlen ("The Wizard of Oz") and a projected camera view of Mr. Cole's keyboard from the lower range, a great angle that was somewhat disconcerting because the footage was ever-so-slightly behind the actual performance.
That didn't hamper Mr. Cole, though, last seen here in a more abbreviated role at the Pops in 2007 and who was obviously still at home in the Gershwin lexicon. The audience responded with a rare double standing ovations for his interpretation of the turbulent third movement from the Concerto in F and the sweeping jazz musical landscape of the now-so-familiar "Rhapsody in Blue," studded with Thomas Thompson's deliciously insinuating clarinet solo, Charles Lirette's growling trumpet accents and a low brass climax at the end.
For the most part, though, he treated Heinz Hall as his own Upper East Side salon, delivering Gershwin with a smooth intimacy, from simple accompaniments to rippling arpeggios to crooning songs such as "Love Is Here to Stay," all despite no real physical resemblance to Gershwin.
Not so with Ryan VanDenBoom, who made a smart move (so hard to do) to affix certain Fred Astaire mannerisms -- his sleek hair, coordinated clothing, the use of the arms and particularly the hands -- as part and parcel of his solo highlights.
The only miscue came with the use of a snare drum prop in -- what else? -- "I Got Rhythm," which proceeded to fall apart in the middle of the song. Mr. VanDenBoom handled it well, unleashing a great exchange with drummer Andrew Reamer. But it was amusing that there were no second takes to be had as Astaire might have enjoyed in the movies.
Astaire's pointed song delivery was there, though, and you occasionally had to remind yourself that the casually elegant tone of Mr. VanDenBoom's vocals in "The Half of It, Dearie, Blues" was actually live.
Sylvia McNair, on the other hand, brought her own glamorous style, a rich blend of opera and cabaret, to the evening. Demonstrating beautiful control, her songs ranged from the lovelorn "But Not for Me" to the airy "Summertime."
This "Gershwin Experience" was, in the composer's words, " 'S Wonderful," but gathered its own joie de vivre in polished transitions from film footage to the orchestra and the performers, details not often seen at the pops concerts. Yes, it seems that Gershwin, given the pops' great treatment of his wide-ranging musical panorama, will also be here to stay for a very long time.
First Published June 23, 2012 12:00 am