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January 6, 2012

Baltimore Symphony offers invigorating salute to the Gershwin Brothers

It’s not easy inserting an element of surprise into an all-Gershwin program, but the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra succeeds handsomely with this weekend's SuperPops venture.

Conductor Jack Everly has found some cool, off-the-beaten-track items that make the familiar ones seem just a little fresher, and his assured, sensitive guidance from the podium generates a consistently classy level of music-making.

A couple of dynamic guest artists also contribute to what becomes quite an uplifting experience.

Attention is paid not just to the genius of George Gershwin, but the considerable talent of his brother Ira, a first-rate lyricist. Broadway veteran Judy McLane is on hand to sing some of the indelible songs the brothers produced, along with a representative sampling of songs Ira wrote with other composers after George’s death.

But the orchestra gets to play the lion’s share of Gershwin tunes on its own, and that’s where the main surprise comes in — a rare performance of the long-lost Overture to “Rhapsody in Blue,” the so-so 1945 bio pic about the composer.

In a practice that seems terribly quaint today, movies often came with orchestral overtures, just like operas and musicals. The curtain-raiser for “Rhapsody in Blue” was dropped when the film went into wide release and went unheard for more then 50 years, when it surfaced on a recording.

The original score by Warner Brothers music director Ray Heindorf was given by Ira Gershwin to pianist/singer Michael Feinstein, who gave it to Everly. The overture vibrates with the whole glorious aura of vintage Hollywood, when top-drawer studio orchestras were the norm.

It’s jam-packed with wonderful songs and, of course, a nod to the famous work for piano and orchestra that gives the movie its title. Heindorf captures the ...

very essence of the Gershwin style in arrangements filled with color and character. A gorgeously shaded version of “The Man I Love” is a particularly shining example.

The program would be worth it just for the chance to hear this overture live, and to hear it played by the BSO with such polish and flair (Chris Dudley’s tender trombone solo in “Embraceable You” is among the notable individual efforts). But there is more to savor.

Many a Gershwin salute includes Robert Russell Bennett’s finely crafted arrangements of “Porgy and Bess,” and Everly has made room for it here.

But the conductor has also squeezed in Bennett’s “Gershwin in Hollywood,” another terrifically stylish example of orchestral arranging, which includes an ethereal treatment of “Love is Here to Stay” and a version of “A Foggy Day” that sounds more like an underwater day (in a good way).

Speaking of squeezing, including the Overture to “Girl Crazy,” too, is almost too much of a good thing, since that means three big orchestral items structured pretty much in the same song-after-song manner. But it’s hard to complain, even if a few tunes turn up more than once.

The two vocal portions of the concert offer rewards. For one thing, McLane has a refreshingly direct, straightforward approach to the material (you just know she would never stoop to even the slightest “American Idol”-ism in her styling).

Her elegant approach is especially effective in “My Ship,” the Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin from “Lady in the Dark.” That song also features an excellent arrangement. “Someone to Watch Over Me,” from the Gershwin’s “Oh, Kay!,” likewise benefits from the orchestral arrangement, which includes an atmospheric reference to the slow movement from Gershwin’s Concerto in F.

In the case of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” also featuring McLane, Everly has unearthed Conrad Salinger’s richly nuanced orchestration used when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers performed it in “The Barkleys of Broadway.” Again, that old movie magic is conjured up delectably, just by the sounds alone.

Although the program would have been rewarding enough if it had stayed focused exclusively on the song portion of George Gershwin’s career, the inclusion of the evergreen “Rhapsody in Blue” provides a fitting finale.

Stewart Goodyear, who delivered an impressive account of the piece in a BSO concert in 2007, is back for an even more dynamic and absorbing one.

The pianist has a field day with the score. He finds fresh ways to sculpt phrases, but resists the sort of exaggerated ritards and mushy phrasing that some others go for in an effort to sound distinctive.

When he gets to the big lyrical theme, Goodyear is as sensitive as you could want, without getting sticky over it. The jazzier elements produce a terrifically kinetic response.

All the while, he is tightly partnered by Everly and the orchestra (Christopher Wolfe is the vivid clarinet soloist).

The well-stuffed program, which also offers the relatively rare “Lullaby” for strings and the “Walking the Dog” orchestral passage from the Astair-Rodgers movie “Shall We Dance,” underlines something we already know, but bears repeating — Gershwin was a genius. You can’t take that away from him.

The concert will be repeated Friday through Sunday at the Meyerhoff.

On Thursday night at Strathmore, Everly handled a non-musical surprise with aplomb. A film clip meant to go with the "Walking the Dog" segment started up beforehand while the orchestra was playing music form "Porgy and Bess."

The conductor calmly stopped the performance and vamped til ready with jokes.  It took too long to get the matter resolved, but Everly kept his cool. I wonder if he did some great screaming when he got backstage.

PHOTOS FROM SUN FILES (Everly) AND BSO (Goodyear by Andrew Garn)

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:56 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes


Was at the Sunday performance. One of the best performances of Rhapsody in Blue I've heard. Bravo Mr. Goodyear (and the BSO)!

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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