George Gershwin, the quintessentially American composer, who died at a younger age than Mozart, was brought joyously back to life last night in Davies Hall. Edwin Outwater, a talented regular conductor in various guises in recent years and perhaps someone who might become even more familiar, began the proceedings with an orchestral suite drawn from Girl Crazy, the stage and then movie musical with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland that alternated Sousa like band themes with a mellow big band sound. From Broadway and Hollywood, the scene shifted to Jazz and the Catfish Row suite from Porgy and Bess, the great American Opera, celebrating the spirit of African-American folk music. Originally performed on the Broadway stage; it has been included in the Metropolitan repertoire and was last in San Francisco Opera’s 2013 season.
Born in Brooklyn and passed away in Los Angeles, Gershwin began as a Tin Pan Alley song smith and reached the heights of classical composition, respected by the likes of Ravel and Stravinsky. He spoke to the American experience by integrating jazz and big band sounds in classical formats. After a 5 minute interval for the rise of the grand piano to front stage, Andrew von Oeyen, a highly accomplished young pianist, performed the piano solo in Rhapsody in Blue with the gusto and verve it deserves. Perhaps Gershwin’s most abstract composition, the concerto distills a kaleidoscope of sounds, whose origins were clearly distinguished in the previous pieces on the program, into a sinuous whole. Opening with the signature glissando clarinet, clean precise piano sounds were offset by the smooth orchestral tones of SF Symphony.
Vocalist Capathia Jenkins performance of selections from the Gershwin Songbook was the highlight of the evening. Brooklyn-born, like Gershwin, Ms Jenkins went beyond channeling Ella Fitzgerald, to bring her own spirited personality to bear, infusing Strike Up the Band, Our Love is here to stay, Clap Yo Hands, The Man I love, Fascinating Rhythm and, of course, Summertime from Porgy and Bess with joyous warmth. After hearing her perform an exemplary sliver from the multi volume Gershwin song book; the cheering audience would surely want to welcome Ms Jenkins back to San Francisco after this tempting selection for a more extended performance.
Finally, the Symphony performed An American in Paris, shifting from a Soundbox like evening, featuring sections of the Symphony to conclude with its elements unified. The 1928 orchestral composition is so associated with the 1951 movie of the same name that this listener could not but help imagining scenes from the movie and seeing Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dance across the soundscape, as the Symphony performed in place.
Gershwin tried to study with various European composers who didn’t want to accept him as they admired and didn’t wish to disturb his distinctive American sound. For more on Gershwin watch the TCM listings for the fictionalized Gershwin Biopic, Rhapsody in Blue, which shows a piano being hauled up the front of a second avenue and eighth street Manhattan tenement into the window of an apartment above the family shop, to set in motion an iconic musical career. Most notable are the close to original performances of Rhapsody in Blue by the Paul Whiteman Band and elements of Porgy and Bess, with some of the original black performers, like Hazel Scott and Anne Brown.
This evening’s Gershwin Salute is the opening shot in the San Franciso Symphony’s summer-long festival drawn from motion pictures like Little Mermaid and a virtual Star Wars Festival, an interesting counterpart to the SF Opera’s Ring across the street, as well as special national days, featuring Russian and Mexican music. Not to be missed is the free concert of Dvorak, Beethoven and Sibelius at Stern Grove, 2pm Sunday afternoon 22 July. An early arrival is suggested for easy access to free street parking and best personal placement, bringing your pre-concert picnic.
Photos: Courtesy of San Francisco Symphony
More information about San Franscisco Symphony upcoming events