The proclamation of George Gershwin as "America's greatest composer" in the promotional material may or may not in itself attract Madison Symphony Orchestra patrons, but an all-Gershwin program certainly does. The house was virtually full for the Friday evening performance in Overture Hall, and the audience was exuberantly enthusiastic.
What matters is that MSO music director John DeMain cares deeply about Gershwin's music, which has been central to his career and identity as a conductor. He leaves no doubt about that in two addresses he makes to the audience, to share his thoughts about this composer.
The first half of this season-ending program is devoted to three of Gershwin's best-known orchestral works. Presented in reverse chronological order, they are: the "Cuban Overture" (1932); "An American in Paris" (1928); and the "Rhapsody in Blue" in its full-orchestra version (1924). Each is a simple procession of lively, memorable tunes set in bold instrumental colors. The last of these three, with its virtuosic solo piano part (which Gershwin designed for his own display), is famous for his assimilation of the jazz and blues elements of Paul Whiteman's band.
Treating these three scores with all the care he would give any classical work, DeMain draws all the razzle-dazzle possible out of them, and the orchestra plays in high spirits. The soloist in the Rhapsody, Croatian-born virtuosa Martina Filjak, brings a positively Lisztian passion to her role.
DeMain is particularly devoted to Gershwin's crowning achievement, his opera Porgy and Bess, which DeMain has conducted more times than any other maestro today. And, importantly, he understands and respects the work as Gershwin intended it, a true, through-composed opera.
From its first presentations, this score has been undermined by fearful producers who have reduced it simply to a Broadway musical, with the "hit" solo numbers and spoken dialogue. That kind of misrepresentation continues today in a current (and heavily rewritten) New York production.
To give a full concert performance of the complete opera is not in DeMain's capacity just now - though, who knows, maybe a Madison Opera mounting some day? But he has chosen to use a concert score prepared by the clever Broadway orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett. This offers a sequence of 11 solos (many with chorus participation), two strictly choral numbers, and two orchestral sections. Not just the obvious hits are chosen, and all are woven into a tapestry with some connecting passages based on Gershwin's music to provide a logical dramatic context.
This version works quite well. It calls for two solo singers, here in the persons of soprano Laquita Mitchell and baritone Michael Redding. Mitchell has a very big voice, and she wants no one to doubt that: but her powerful singing sometimes does slip into the hooty on long sustained notes. With a firm and handsome voice, Redding is a master of suggesting the different characters he portrays. Though set in the rear-stage sound trap, the Symphony Chorus manages its parts with vigor, and DeMain's careful modulation of balances makes sure its work is not lost.
Two performances remain: Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Those who respond to Gershwin's invigorating music will find them a feast.