Captivating, classical or notBy Ruth O. Bingham
Special to the Star-Bulletin
GEORGE Gershwin's music perches somewhat uneasily between classical and jazz. Sixty years after his death, people still ask whether it was "classical" or "jazz," whether he was "serious" or "popular" (as though jazz and popular composers are neither serious nor their works classical). One can only hope his music will someday outlast the questions.
Yet the questions persist, no longer out of pure snobbishness, but because the distinction between classical and jazz idioms persists. And therein lies the uneasiness. There are good reasons why jazz is usually performed by jazz musicians and classical, by classical musicians. It is a rare artist, indeed, who can perform both well.
Yesterday's Honolulu Symphony Masterworks concert celebrated the centennial of Gershwin's birth with an all-Gershwin Jubilee. The concert featured pianist Lorin Hollander in the Piano Concerto in F and the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers in excerpts from the opera "Porgy and Bess."
Hollander, with the technique of a classical pianist and the soul of a jazz musician, played Gershwin as though born to it. Syncopations and complex rhythms danced from his hands. Hollander the philosopher dominated throughout: the concerto is rarely played so beautifully. Each phrase was nuanced with care, with thought, with feeling. His interpretation was melancholy and lyric rather than raucous and brash - which Gershwin can also be.
The orchestra had a more difficult time feeling Gershwin's jazz, both in the Piano Concerto and in the Cuban Overture. The notes, the rhythms were there, but for the most part, the jazz was not. It was a ballet rendition of the rumba, Cuba without the heat - in short, classical.
The orchestra was at its best in the most lyrical and languid moments - the slow middle section of the Cuban Overture, for example, and the second movement of the Concerto - and in the sweeping climaxes of both works. Despite occasional problems with the choir in "Porgy and Bess," the orchestra loosened up and actually began to swing, which helped propel the closing into a standing ovation.
Gershwin orchestrates colorfully, with notable solos in yesterday's concert by clarinetist Scott Anderson, oboist Scott Janusch, percussionist James Lee Wyatt III on mallets, and flautist Susan McGinn. Kudos as well to the percussionist who matched the slapstick so well to Hollander's accents in the first movement of the Piano Concerto. Less laudable were the numerous trumpet solos, which never relaxed enough to "smoke."
The Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers consist of 19 distinctive voices that melded somewhat miraculously into a rich, warm, homogenous choir. Most of the 11 excerpts were memorable solos. Tenor Marc Summers sang "A Woman is a Sometime Thing" with a voice large and full. Baritone Doug Griffin combined an excellent voice with a captivating portrayal of "It Ain't Necessarily So," one of the opera's funniest and most engaging songs.
Soprano Rozlyn Sorrell embodied the blues style in a moving "My Man's Gone Now," filled with evocative portamento. At the end of the song, she slid up as the orchestra slid down in a stylized keening over the dead, an effect that raised goose bumps.
The singers captured the essence of Gershwin: jazz as demanding as classical music, classical music as compelling as jazz.
What: Honolulu Symphony with the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers
Where: Neal Blaisdell Concert Hall
When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow