Sunday, May 18, 2014

Beethoven and Gershwin

Last night we attended our last Colorado Symphony concert of the regular season. It was an interesting lineup, starting with the Beethoven Triple Concerto and ending with conductor Andrew Litton's arrangement of songs from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

The triple concerto is a bit of an oddity and is rarely performed. Even though it is part of Beethoven's middle period, having been composed after the third symphony and the third piano concerto, it is more representative of an earlier style and is not one of his best works. Of course, with Beethoven, the bar is very high, yet I can't help feeling this work seems more appropriate for Michael Haydn or another Classical composer. Even the orchestration is more reminiscent of a concerto grosso than a concerto, using three soloists (not unlike the Brandenburg Concerti). The winds are grouped in twos, with no clarinets or trombones. The piano part is simple compared to his piano concerti and sonatas.

The performance featured three regulars of the orchestra, conductor Andrew Litton at the piano, concertmistress Yumi Hwang-Williams on violin, and principal cellist Silver Ainomae. I do not like the sound of the piano with the sounding board removed, and I do not like looking at the back of the pianist while performing, which is how Litton set up to conduct and perform. I also have to say the group was a little sloppy on tempi and could have used a conductor for the piece. Especially in the first movement, the violin and cello had some intonation issues as well. However, the final two movements were played very well. All told though, the piece is not particularly memorable.

The second half of the evening was quite a change, featuring Litton's adaptation of Porgy and Bess. I have to admit I was skeptical about hearing this version featuring chorus. The original opera is bloated and pretentious. Gershwin himself cut 45 minutes from it before it opened. The story it is based on is melodramatic and full of clich├ęs and stereotypes. Gershwin's only foray into opera, it was widely considered a flop in its original version. Perhaps the only reason that it has survived is that it is full of incredible songs. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong's version will always be the best to me, but there are many other fine interpretations, including the one by Miles Davis and Gil Evans.

Over the years many, changes have been made to the show, replacing the recitative with dialogue, abbreviating it even further, giving the title character crutches instead of a "goat cart" (what were the writers thinking when they put the lead actor on wheels?), even changing it to a happy ending. None of these have worked. Two orchestral suites have been popular, including Gershwin's own Catfish Row. It seemed to me that all possible permutations had been tried, including lifting the songs and playing them in an orchestral "pops" version, which I have heard several times and always been let down by. When I heard that Litton had arranged it for chorus, I thought it would be a similar schmaltzy style.

I was wrong. This is without a doubt, the best way to see this opera. Litton's version is an hour long and retains all the songs, with soloists singing in front of the orchestra. All of the great musical moments are still there, in close to their original form, with the horrible plot removed almost entirely. I suspect most of the audience had no idea how dark and depressing the storyline really is, instead focussing on all the great songs. It always struck me that the only well-developed character in the story is Sportin' life, who is supposed to be a supporting character. Porgy is barely in the opera compared to other characters, and in this version, you really can see that Sportin' Life and Bess would have been a much better story.

The four soloists were all excellent. Howard Haskin gave the best performance as Sportin' Life, although his breathing choices were odd at times. Janice Chandler-Eteme was outstanding as Bess. Karen Slack Blackwell was excellent as Serena, although underutilized. Gordon Hawkins was very good as Porgy, but also underutilized.

However, I strongly recommend checking out this version. It was a great way to end the season!

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