MSO Pops Gershwin with Hamlisch and Cole
Gershwin, situated as he is amid jazz, show business and the Western classical tradition, has always been in the middle of the pops concert strike zone. Marvin Hamlisch, guest pianist Kevin Cole and the Milwaukee Symphony Pops fouled him off on the first swing Friday night, then went yard.
Everyone warmed up and focused for the remainder of the concert. Hamlisch, a trove of knowledge about Gershwin and a font of one-liners, informed and amused as he cleverly worked his way into Swanee, Gershwin’s very first hit, at the piano. As Hamlisch played, the orchestra slid in right on cue without a cue. Nifty. Wilanna Kalkof took over at the keyboard as Hamlisch conducted a gorgeous arrangement of the Prelude No. 2, and principal oboist Stephen Colburn gave a seductive account of the bluesy, snake-charmer principal theme.
Hamlisch introduced Cole as something of a Gershwin scholar who had carefully researched the piano part to Rhapsody in Blue as Gershwin had more or less improvised it at the 1924 premiere. Cole then played what sounded to me like the familiar version, but that was just fine. Cole’s raucous energy gave the music a nervous edge that served it well. Principal clarinetist Todd Levy killed in his solos, particularly that ascending, sliding wail at the outset. Cole followed up with his incredibly dense and bi-tonally adventurous virtuoso rave-up of Fascinatin’ Rhythm, and it drove the big crowd wild.
Bennett’s venerable setting of assorted Gershwin Hollywood numbers has a lovely bit in which the violins shimmer like the sea on supporting chords as the horns glide in like a gleaming white yacht with melody of A Foggy Day. Otherwise, this medley comprising The Man I Love, Slap That Bass, Love Walked In, Nice Work If You Can Get It and They Can’t Take That Away from Me lurches awkwardly and hastily from one orchestral color to the next. The piece is not nearly as good as his Porgy and Bess setting, but the orchestra played it far better. Hamlisch appeared more engaged, the tunes swing more and the performance had a lot of momentum.
The orchestra sounded best in a spirited, engaging reading of An American in Paris. Hamlisch had an opinion about every bar of this charming tone poem, which read as three bustling days and two dreamy Parisian nights. Mark Niehaus played the many trumpet solos stylishly.
The MSO had nothing to do with my favorite part of this program. First, Hamlisch played Embraceable You and Someone to Watch Over Me with the easy grace of the best cocktail pianist you ever heard. Cole re-emerged and kept the piano-bar feeling going by playing and singing But Not for Me and Little Jazz Bird charmingly.
I won’t say more than this about the encore: If you want to hear Hamlisch and Cole play together, you’ll have to clap for a while to get them to do it. It’s worth the effort.
This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, visit the MSO website, call the MSO ticket line (414-291-7605) or the Marcus box office, 414-273-7206.