Boston Pops pays grand tribute to Gershwins

Monday August 27, 2012

LENOX -- In setting the scene for Friday night's Boston Pops "Gershwin Spectacular," the orchestra's conductor Keith Lockhart credited brothers George and Ira for helping forge a distinctly American musical style by fusing jazz, Tin Pan Alley and classical idioms into a stunning catalog of compositions during a 13-year burst of creativity from 1924 to 1937.

A better tribute than the one assembled by the Pops team for a highly appreciative audience of well over 10,000 would be hard to imagine, thanks not only to the orchestra's ability to capture the essence of George Gershwin's jazz and Ravel-influenced synthesis of symphonic style but also luxury casting of Broadway baritone extraordinaire Brian Stokes Mitchell and Maureen McGovern, the 40-year show-biz survivor who still remains best-known for "The Morning After," from "The Poseidon Adventure" that topped the pop charts in 1973.

"It was recorded when she was 5," Lockhart quipped as he introduced the ever-glamorous songstress (now 63) for a 20-minute set that began with a torch-song melange of "Love Walked In" and "Embraceable You" but quickly segued to a moody take on "Summertime," a scat-inflected "Little Jazz Bird" and a trio of Harold Arlen classics (the only non-Gershwin element of the program) that included "The Man That Got Away," "Stormy Weather" and the showstopping "Blues in the Night."

Vocally, McGovern demonstrates considerable prowess in her ability to spin a long lyric line and weave sentiment as well as hard-headed cynicism into her musical tapestry. Her mellifluous, wide-ranging soprano is an especially good fit with the orchestra and remains well-preserved, in the best sense of the term.

Mitchell, of "Ragtime," "Kiss Me, Kate" and "Man of La Mancha" fame, is a consummate showman. He plays to the crowd with humorous gusto (as in his "Slap That Bass" duet with BSO-Pops double-bass player Larry Wolfe) and a witty rendition of Sportin' Life's "It Ain't Necessarily So" complete with audience singalong. His medley of " ‘S Wonderful," "Fascinatin' Rhythm" and "I Got Rhythm" served as a showcase for stylistic versatility combined with an uncanny combination of vocal power, breath control and sense of timing.

Mitchell united with McGovern for an inspired collaboration on the class-conscious "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" from the Gershwins' first Hollywood musical score, the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers 1937 film "Shall We Dance."

Despite the high-wattage star power, the night belonged to the Pops, Lockhart and stalwart arranger Don Sebesky, whose orchestral transcription of the piano Prelude No. 2 was especially memorable. Likewise, kudos to Sid Ramin, the Boston-based orchestrator who's now 93, for his version of "Love is Sweeping the Country," performed by the Pops with big-band virtuosity.

However, Russian pianist Ilya Yakushev delivered an idiosyncratic, improvisational version of "Rhapsody in Blue," marred by a few dropped notes, some off-kilter rhythm and several mangled passages. His small-scale pianism was no match for Lockhart's boldly sweeping interpretation. Though he cuts a cute figure on stage, Takushev turned out to be a not-ready-for-prime-time player.

As their final piece de resistance, Lockhart and the Pops synched nearly perfectly to the closing ballet scene from "An American in Paris," the colorful 1951 MGM musical that won the Oscar for Best Picture as a showcase for the impossibly debonair Gene Kelly and the sweetly charming ingenue Leslie Caron in her cinematic debut. Although the big screen in front of the Shed initially balked for its descent to join the show, all went well during the 16-minute sequence.

The Gershwin score was modified with some typical Hollywood touches for the film; thanks to precision timing (only slightly off the mark during the brief tap-dance scene), chalk this one up as another Tanglewood triumph for the Pops players, Lockhart and veteran PBS-TV classical-music producer John Goberman.

For sheer dynamism and professional flair, the orchestra remains in the best of hands with Lockhart (in his 18th season) presiding over an ever-widening range of popular repertoire.


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