Concert Review: Hamlisch Celebrates The Genius of Gershwin

OKLAHOMA – Fine Arts Series – Armstrong Auditorium – The Gershwin Project. – On September 8th, a pleasantly temperate evening presaging Fall, Marvin Hamlisch, owner of several Oscars, Tonys and Emmys, one of only thirteen such artists internationally, inaugurated the season’s fine arts series at Armstrong Auditorium with an all Gershwin concert that left his audience cheering for encores.

Having arrived for a two day stay to allow for a rehearsal with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic Orchestra and aided by the flawless Interlochen-trained pianist Kevin Cole, deemed by the Gershwin heirs to be the closest interpreter of Gershwin’s own performance style, Hamlisch and his fellow artists left a treasured imprint on the Oklahomans who came to the Armstrong College campus to hear them.

The quick wit of Hamlisch, his years of association with some of the greatest musical stars of his era, along with his expertise as a pianist quickly engaged his audience in interactive byplay, especially among the young concertgoers, and that brought a warm feeling and special intimacy into the compact, acoustically perfect auditorium.

Although Hamlisch appears formal and somewhat staid in official portraits, in person he exudes in the moment energy and a fine gift for cheery yet informative repartee. His program for the evening was obviously chosen to present an engaging, enjoyable, and memorable overview of not only Gershwin’s attainments overall, as well as the composer’s own received cultural influences along with his remaining seminal ones. “The Gershwin Project” accomplished all its goals as the evening proceeded.

Selections From Porgy and Bess,” Gershwin’s controversial black folk opera, called ‘racist’ during Civil Rights times and only redeemed and accepted in 1976 after being performed at the Houston Grand Opera, quickly recalled Gershwin at his most exotic, under the lush spell of the South—Charleston, in particular—as the violins set the mood and the swirling woodwind accompaniment carried on with the melody.

Soon rhythmic horns, varied instrumental trills, and a syncopated beat enhanced the score, giving full vent to Gershwin’s Harlem connections in New York City, where he was reared during the full force of ragtime amid the paramount black composers of the day, who introduced not only ragtime but also jazz and blues into the urban music scene.

While composing the score for “Porgy and Bess,” Gershwin was reported to have sojourned on the outer islands of South Carolina, where the slaves’ Gullah dialect was spoken, and where the musical cadence of the words wove their spell during the composition of “Porgy and Bess.

When the overture ended with a tympani flourish, the orchestra smoothly wove into the compelling melody of “Bess, You Is My Woman,” that soulful declaration that tears at the emotions with its intense mellowness: Gershwin at his most earthy.

A grand announcement of trumpets, and the audience was led into the soaring and triumphant freedom of “I’m On My Way” with its brisk syncopation and repeated celebratory theme.

Then Hamlisch delighted his audience by bantering with the small children, who “have no idea who I am.” He quickly remedied that notion by seating himself at the grand piano and bouncing out “Swanee,” the song that Gershwin wrote for that famous minstrel in black face, Al Jolson. The tune made both men abundantly rich by affecting all ages with its stride piano bass, lilting chorus, and a piano roll heritage declaring full chords.

A change of mood occurred with the lovely rendition of “Prelude No. 2,” suggesting Gershwin’s early classical training when he commandeered the family piano bought for his brother Ira, the lyricist, and discovered his own future occupation.

The concluding selection of Part I on the program brought forth the universally loved “Rhapsody In Blue.” For this, Hamlisch recalled the story of the well known ‘20s bandleader Paul Whiteman who met Gershwin on the street and famously said, “I’m bringing the blues into Carnegie,” and asked Gershwin to write a new composition to be featured: Hence the root of the rhapsody so quintessentially American.

Featured pianist Kevin Cole, a large man who resembles the actor Red Buttons, has done “tons of research” on the “Rhapsody” recordings. He took over the keyboard as the horns began their famous bluesy intro, followed by trilling woodwinds, and huge brass power. Cole elicited the rapid keyboard runs, crossing his hands at a frenetic pace, and bringing to bear heavy emphases and huge, syncopated sounds, coalescing in a magnificent surge: Dissonance made pleasurable amid full orchestral accompaniment—still amazing no matter how many times one hears it.

Right before Intermission, Hamlisch and Cole interjected a surprise selection, a brilliant dueling piano version of Gershwin’s zippy, pentatonic hit, “Fascinating Rhythm,” which greatly pleased the audience.

After Intermission, a tribute to “Gershwin In Hollywood” recalled seven of the composer’s top film hits—all quite varied in tempo and technique—ranging from a torchy “The Man I Love” to the quietly defiant “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”

LISTEN: Rhapsody in Blue:

Lovely Paula Malone’s pure soprano gave full credence to one of the Gershwin brothers’ most beautiful collaborations, “Someone To Watch Over Me,” which followed the typical “Tin Pan Alley” formula, consisting of a narrative lead in verse before a launch into the specific storyline and chorus.

Hamlisch followed that ballad with his sophisticated and haunting piano version of the ever-popular “Embraceable You” to abundant applause.

The Overture To ‘Girl Crazy’” falls in line with the usual song types that Gershwin composed over the years for various editions of “Ziegfeld Follies” and “George White’s Scandals,” with the exception that this score on which he and Ira collaborated presents a full storyline: A “girl crazy” young man is sent by his rich father to Arizona to “get over it.”

The bright, brisk and charming overture included short versions of hits like “But Not For Me,” and “I Got Rhythm.” In this short, teasing rendition, the Oklahoma City Philharmonic performed beautifully, and Hamlisch lavishly praised them, as well as their conductor, Joel Levine.

The closing piece de resistance, “An American in Paris,” evoked the Gene Kelly-Leslie Caron film and the exuberant score that elevated Parisian street traffic into the realm of high Modernism in music. Taxicab horns honk; the clickety-clacks of slower vehicles echo; jazzy transports enter, as well as tuba beats, and plucked violin strings. Fresh, vigorous, and brash rushed beats increase, and huge crescendos resound, as our great American composer brings Paris home to all.

An American in Paris” brought a sensational closing reprise to a program that will be difficult to surpass, and it sealed Hamlisch’s homage to Gershwin with a spontaneous outpouring of cheers. By Clif Warren, Sept. 9th, 2011

Marvin Hamlisch and Oklahoma City Philharmonic Orchestra