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Simply Gershwin – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Conductor: Gavin Sutherland
Reviewer: James Garrington

Next year will mark the 80th anniversary of George Gershwin’s death at just 38 years old but, in a period of only 20 years or so, he managed to turn out an almost incredible catalogue of work which included classical pieces, popular songs, and film and musical theatre scores. Such is his legacy that, some 55 years after his death, he won a Tony award for best musical for Crazy for You, which continues to be popular to this day.

As might be expected when there’s such a wealth of material to choose from, any concert can only scratch the surface of Gershwin’s work – but even so this one manages to cram in a variety of styles reflecting the different aspects of his output, from the classical to the romantic, and from jazz to ballad. The London Concert Orchestra sets the tone right from the start, with a lively version of A Gershwin Celebration, which provides a taste of what’s to come.

Performing with the London Concert Orchestra are vocalists Gweneth-Ann Rand and Njabulo Madlala. They both appear at various times through the programme, though it would be nice to hear even more of them – the majority of George Gershwin’s work was popular song, and in many cases, the additional lyrics add an extra dimension. They Can’t Take That Away From Me, for example, is one of the great catalogue songs and loses something when it’s purely instrumental. Jeffers and Madlala do, however, contribute greatly to one of the many high points of the concert – a selection of six songs from the 1934 folk opera Porgy and Bess. It opens with Jeffers performing a haunting Summertime, and includes a plaintive My Man’s Gone Now before wrapping up the first half with a stirring O Lawd, I’m on My Way. The pair’s voices are absolutely suited to this music, and they present it beautifully.

No Gershwin concert would be complete without Rhapsody in Blue, and, sure enough, it opens the second half with a virtuoso performance by guest pianist Viv McLean. McLean is a very talented pianist who plays with a studied concentration – nothing flamboyant, just wonderful music. He also reminds us that prior to becoming a popular songwriter Gershwin was himself a good pianist and presents Two Waltzes in C, the music for which was only discovered some 30 years after Gershwin’s death.

In a concert with many high points, some things inevitably stand out – an atmospheric A Foggy Day by Rand, a lush I‘ve Got a Crush on You by Madlala, and a sultry Fascinatin’ Rhythm performed slightly slower than is often the case, allowing the complexity of the music to shine through. The concert is further enhanced by some nifty footwork by ballroom dancers Leila Stewart and Djordje Tanasijevic, and tap dancing from  Crystal Hantig and Scott Coldwell, the dancers performing brilliantly in the somewhat cramped space in front of the orchestra.

Conductor Gavin Sutherland is both educational and entertaining in his presenting style, presenting an interesting array of informative facts and trivia during the concert, and at the same time keeping the mood light – not a difficult job, as Symphony Hall is packed with people clearly there to enjoy the music and there is much here to enjoy.

As Ira Gershwin himself might have written –  S’wonderful. Who could ask for anything more?

Reviewed on 13 November 2016 | Image: Contributed

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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