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Thursday, November 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 11.0° F  Overcast
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Pianist Garrick Olsen and soprano Emily Birsan dazzle in Madison Symphony Orchestra's Gershwin-themed program
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Garrick Olsen performs with real flair, and Emily Birsan's solos were enchanting.

John DeMain has long been identified with musicals, particularly the work of George Gershwin and his one opera, Porgy and Bess. DeMain has, in recent years, built Madison Symphony Orchestra concerts around Gershwin's music, as is the case for the season closer this weekend at Overture Hall. The concert will be repeated on Saturday, May 3, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, May 4, at 2:30 p.m.

The program was planned with the interesting premise that Gershwin's impact was felt by contemporaries and successors in an almost traceable continuity. Accordingly, the first half is devoted entirely to music of Gershwin, while the second half is dominated by Leonard Bernstein's works, with contributions from two other composers.

That tandem structure was given point by opening and closing each half with material of stimulating parallelism. I fear that Gershwin's overture to the musical Strike Up the Band is not a good candidate for comparison: Little more than the usual string of tunes from the score, it simply cannot stand up to Bernstein's dazzling counterpart to his Candide.

On the other hand, while Bernstein's familiar set of Symphonic Dances from West Side Story is a fine demonstration of the composer's total command of orchestral writing, the rarely heard suite, "Catfish Row," was something of a revelation. It is Gershwin's own suite derived in 1935-36 from Porgy and Bess, incorporating a lot of that score's beloved tunes, but weaving them into a five-movement sequence that covered much of the action of the opera. More significantly, it allowed Gershwin to restore accompaniments and even new material left out of the score for staging purposes. Above all, it is a fascinating suggestion of what creative directions Gershwin might have taken as a true orchestral composer had he not died so prematurely. I think this Gershwin suite is the most interesting piece in the entire program.

What Gershwin needed to overcome, of course, was his identity, which was tied to Broadway theater music on the one hand, and, on the other hand, music for the instrument on which he was such a brilliant performer, the piano. Another item in the program's first half is his 1934 set of Variations on "I Got Rhythm" for piano and orchestra. Avoiding the clatter of his pretentious Concerto in F, and with minimal orchestral exertion, this display piece is built cleverly on Gershwin's gifts for improvisation. It is performed with real flair by the prodigiously talented young Madisonian Garrick Olsen, who followed it on Friday evening with solo variations (presumably his own) on the song "Embraceable You."

Now, in a concert of music by masters of musical comedy, some songs are necessary. But they are not always ideally chosen, and the performance quality varied on opening night. Three singers are featured in these works: soprano Emily Birsan, mezzo Karen Olivo and baritone Ron Raines. They each had solos, and there were also a couple of duets.

Their problem is that all of them used microphones, creating metallic sound not quite in acoustical sync with the orchestra. Olivo and especially Raines are musical theater pros, but, with their mics pressed close to their lips, they gave off deafening blasts that belong more at a rock festival or a noisy nightclub than in a concert hall. Birsan, on the other hand, was more modest in her use of the mikes. She is a trained opera singer who knows how to project in a big hall. She also soars over the other two in artistry.

Drawing on theatrical instincts as well as a voice that always makes my day (or evening), Birsan makes truly musical high points out of her solos. She is cute in a parody song about Johann Strauss (even waltzing briefly with the conductor). She is dazzling in "Glitter and Be Gay" from Bernstein's Candide, an aria really written for her. Also, in a duet from West Side Story with Olivo, she was quite touching.

There were two other composers represented, along with Bernstein, in the program's second half. Whatever the arguments for Harold Arlen as a continuer of Gershwin's tradition, Raines' screaming rendition of "That Old Black Magic" made no case for him. And "Losing My Mind" from Stephen Sondheim's Follies was a pitiful one-shot representation of the most important master of musical theater since Gershwin, least of all in Olivo's overdriven belting.

So, a mixed success in fulfilling DeMain's important commitment to the musical theater tradition as a major contribution to American cultural identity. It is a shame, too, that no real attention is given, to George Gershwin's at least equally talented brother, the great lyricist Ira Gershwin.

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