George Gershwin occupies a strange place in the symphonic canon.
He was one of Broadway’s most influential show composers, but he was also an equally innovative composer of “classical” (we need a new word) music. The Dallas Symphony’s pops concert this weekend features both sides of his genius.
The program opened with some pure Broadway, the overture to Funny Face; a collection of tunes from the show written in Big Band style, with lots of brass. Even his less successful shows produced hit songs. We heard a good example in an arrangement of The Man I Love from Lady, Be Good.
Gershwin’s first big hit was not a song, but a “lullaby” — a short piece for string quartet (arranged for string orchestra). His nascent “classical chops” are evident from the first note. Another early piece, more Scott Joplin than later Gershwin, a rag for piano called Rialto Ripples, got a terrific performance in this concertolike arrangement with the incredibly versatile pianist and composer, Steven Harlos (on the faculty of the University of North Texas), at the keyboard.
With Gershwin’s eye always toward bringing Tin Pan Alley to the concert hall, he sought out great teachers. Both Nadia Boulanger, the famous Parisian composition teacher of a generation of American composers, and Maurice Ravel, the foremost composer of the era, refused him as a student. Both said that he was already a great composer and neither wanted to do anything that would influence his unique musical voice. But Ravel’s influence and extraordinary skills an orchestrator infuse Gershwin’s concert music. We heard that influence in the Cuban Overture that ended the first half and in selections from his astonishing opera Porgy and Bess, which filled the second half.
Operas need singers and the concert featured two excellent ones. Soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme has a gorgeous voice with mezzo overtones. Her diction was mushy but the sound was glorious. Bass-baritone Kevin Deas has a rich deep bass voice with a bright focus. His diction was as clear as his vocal placement. A surprising standout was the University of Texas at Arlington a cappella choir, directed by Karen Kenaston-French. They were terrific.