Dallas — Although billed as Gershwin’s Greatest Hits, this weekend’s Dallas Symphony Pops program was more than that. Yes, the greatest hits were represented: a well-played rendition of Cuban Overture and the obligatory Porgy and Bess. No Rhapsody in Blue or American in Paris or Concerto in F, though, not this time. Instead, several of the works on the program were rarely heard or less familiar, giving listeners a cross-section of George Gershwin’s career.
First up were two instrumentals: the Overture to Funny Face and Jeff Tyzik’s own orchestral arrangement of “The Man I Love” from Lady, Be Good. Both were effectively played by an orchestra with many subs in some sections.
Two less frequently heard pieces followed—the rag Rialto Ripples from early in Gershwin’s career, played capably by the orchestra and Steven Harlos on piano, and the Lullaby for String Orchestra, a lovely piece but not one which most listeners would think of as Gershwin’s characteristic sound. The Lullaby, originally a one-movement work for string quartet, was performed in private musical evenings during Gershwin’s lifetime, but wasn’t performed in public until the Julliard Quartet debuted it in 1967. George Gershwin’s brother Ira characterized the piece as “charming and kind,” an apt description. The Dallas Symphony strings brought beauty and grace to the performance—this is a piece worth multiple hearings, even if, or maybe because, it’s such a surprise.
Janice Chandler-Eteme, soprano, and Kevin Deas, bass-baritone, supplied the voices for the songs from Porgy and Bess, beginning with “I Loves You Porgy” in the first half and culminating with the Concert Version of Porgy and Bess as the second half of the program.
Their performance was something of a mixed bag. “Concert versions” of operas and musicals tend to be a bit awkward—what should the singers do? Act? Not? If so, how much? Chandler-Eteme and Deas navigated that tricky territory ably, especially considering the songs in the concert version were sung by multiple characters in the original “folk opera,” to use Gershwin’s term. Their choice was to do quite a bit of acting, but it was seldom if ever a distraction. The quality of both Deas’s and Chandler’s voices is superb— they have big, projecting, expressive voices and clearly find themselves at home in this music, appearing to take delight in presenting it. As is too frequently the case at DSO Pops concerts, though, the soloists, especially Chandler-Eteme, had some trouble with pitch. Given that this is not an isolated problem, I wonder whether they have trouble hearing themselves or the orchestra when amplified.
Of special note was violist Thomas Demer, who doubled on banjo in “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’.” Although tenor banjo is tuned just like a viola, the two instruments are in fact quite different to play, as I know from experience. But he switched instantly from viola to banjo and back again as if it were, indeed, nothing.
The orchestra and soloists were assisted by the A Cappella Choir from the University of Texas at Arlington. They are fine singers, well prepared by director Karen Kenaston-French. They understandably had some trouble with the faux-black dialect of the lyrics, but truly, it’s hard for that diction not to sound awkward, whether emerging from mostly-white mouths (as in the UTA choir) or African-American ones, as with the soloists.
In fact, Porgy and Bess was rarely performed during the 1960s and 1970s, for exactly this reason. A white composer creates a folk opera with an all-black cast, and writes most of the lyrics in an approximation of a black dialect? A tough sell during the Civil Rights Movement. Then, too, many music historians did not think of it as a “real opera.” So it languished for decades. In 1976, however, the Houston Grand Opera launched a revival, a Broadway production and recording followed soon after, and now many of the songs are delightfully familiar even to the most casual concertgoer.
Race is still a concern when thinking about Porgy and Bess, of course. But for every concern we might rightfully have, perhaps we can also consider this: by creating an opera with an all-black, classically trained cast in the 1930s, Gershwin to some extent at least validated the experiences of black people, even if he was, unavoidably, writing a white man’s perspective on those experiences. And, even if we have some ambivalence about the context, the music itself is undeniably marvelous.
An all-Gershwin program is a great idea, and this one, with its blend of the familiar and the less well known, was especially wonderful, despite a few glitches.