PITTSBURGH, PA — The Pittsburgh Symphony Pops is closing its season with a remarkable program that pays tribute to composer George Gershwin in fascinating and touching ways.
The title “Here to Stay —The Gershwin Experience” is inherently poignant and hints at the concert’s special components. “Love is Here to Stay” is the last song Gershwin worked on, which he did not complete because of the rapid onset of a brain tumor that killed him in 1937 at age 38.
The concert opens with a bit of a film of Gershwin playing his “Strike Up the Band.” As poor as the sound is for this moment, it sets up his presence at this concert in uncommon ways — as a person and in his pacing and style of playing his music.
For much of the evening, including the Pops performance of “Strike Up the Band” that immediately followed the film clip, Gershwin’s own performing style was impressively evoked by pianist Kevin Cole, principal Pops conductor Marvin Hamlisch and the orchestra. Gershwin’s music often is slowed down and sentimentalized.
Pairing “Rialto Ripples” with “Fascinating Rhythm” was more than delightful music. It showed Gershwin’s progress as a composer and Cole’s idiomatic Gershwin style, including swift tempi. The screen over the orchestra that had been used for the film of Gershwin now showed Cole live, which emphasized the wide stride intervals in the left hand. Unfortunately, the visual image was out of sync and slightly behind what we heard.
Two other guest soloists added valuable dimensions to Thursday night’s concert at Heinz Hall, Downtown.
Sylvia McNair sang several of Gershwin’s great songs with affecting style and vocal purity. A widely admired opera and concert singer earlier in her career, McNair was no less cherishable in a poised, not sentimentalized, account of “Summertime.”
Watch: Sylvia McNair — Summertime:
Ryan VanDenBoom brought an appealing personality to his portrayal of Gershwin’s friend Fred Astaire in several numbers. VanDenBoom sang and tap– danced in “The Half of it, Dearie, Blues,” which Gershwin and Astaire recorded in London in 1926. It can be found on an invaluable, but, of course, old-sounding CD set called “George Gershwin Plays George Gershwin” on the Pearl label. Another similarly titled historical CD — substitute “performs” for “plays” — includes Gershwin conducting a rehearsal with five singers and orchestra of parts of “Porgy and Bess,” including “Summertime.”
VanDenBoom also tried his hands at playing percussion, but ended up losing a stick and causing his snare drum to fall over while he danced away. Astaire, apart from his genius as a dancer and distinctive style of singing, played his own drum set.
The film clip that began the concert was only the first of many Gershwin memorabilia that enhanced the concert’s value. In addition to home movies, many photos were shown — a bit too quickly I thought. If you blink, you might miss the photo of Gershwin working on his last painting — a portrait of his friend and fellow composer Arnold Schoenberg.
Cole also delivered a script that provided a personal portrait of Gershwin, and honored his brother and lyricist Ira, who was heard speaking in a recording. While the script would benefit from pruning at the beginning, it was an essential part of the most worthy concert tribute to Gershwin I’ve seen.
Watch: Here to Stay — Short: