Gershwin’s “Porgy” at the Pops
Jeff Tyzik leads the MSO through "Porgy and Bess" and some unusual bits of Gershwiniana.
The Milwaukee Symphony Pops celebrated George Gershwin in general and Porgy and Bess in particular Friday evening at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall.
Guest conductor Jeff Tyzik, soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme, baritone Kevin Deas and the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus gave the entire second half to Robert Russell Bennett’s 1956 suite of a dozen numbers from the 1935 opera. Tyzik supplemented that with the duet, “I Loves You, Porgy,” in the first half.
Chandler-Eteme and Deas are accomplished opera singers and sounded the part in the big, Italianate duets, the above and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” which Gershwin assigned to Porgy and Bess. When Deas switched roles to Sportin’ Life, he jumped, like Gershwin, to a rather more vernacular style involving wordplay couched in jumpy, syncopated rhythms. Deas made “It Ain’t Necessarily So” the highlight of the evening by phrasing many lines eccentrically and then turning to prompt the chorus, which responded in kind to his call. The playful back-and-forth also spoke to the charm of Sportin’ Life, an irresistible rascal.
The MSO, for some reason, always amplifies Pops concerts. That hindered these singers, who could easily have carried the hall without microphones. They couldn’t quite figure out where to stand in relation to the mike in “I Loves You, Porgy.” And Chandler-Eteme was also at sea in “Summertime,” which came early in the suite. She took a swing in the direction of melismatic blues-opera diva, but was tentative with her dynamics and looked physically uncertain. But by the third song, “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing,” she and Deas had found the sweet spot. And we found out just how skilled, expressive and poised these singers are. They also had great rapport that was lovely to see and worked in a hint of acting, at a scale right for a concert setting.
(By the way and surely by coincidence, the MSO gave us a preview: The Skylight Music Theatre will give a full staging of Porgy and Bess May 17-June 9.)
Tyzik, a passionate scholar of The American Songbook, reached into the dustier regions of Gershwiniana to fill out the first half. He opened with the overture to Funny Face, a George and Ira musical from 1928. “S’ Wonderful” is the enduring hit from this rarely revived, lighter-than-helium comedy, originally a vehicle for the sibling dance team of Fred and Adele Astaire. “My One and Only” has had some traction over the years, too; Balanchine used it in his Who Cares? ballet to Gershwin songs. Both songs peeked out from this charming pastiche overture, which Tyzik led with an ear toward suave melodies over a bouncy dance beat.
Tyzik reached all the way back to 1914 and Rialto Ripples, Gershwin’s very first published piece. Tyzik arranged the piano rag for orchestra with a prominent solo piano part, which Wilanna Kalkhof played nicely. Another curiosity, the little Lullaby for String Quartet, followed. The full string sections played it, except for a bit in the middle to give us a taste of the original quartet texture.
This program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 5-6. Visit the MSO website for tickets and further information or call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206. And note that more Gershwin is on the way to the MSO: On Jan. 18-19, pianist Stephen Beus will join conductor Francesco Lecco-Chong and the MSO in Rhapsody in Blue.
What are you doing this weekend? Don’t know? Danielle McClune has some ideas.