Monday, June 22, 2009

Orchestral Gershwin

One of the things I like about my seat at the War Memorial Opera House for my San Francisco Opera subscription is the view it gives me of the orchestra pit. So much attention has been given to the staging and singing of the production of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, which opened on June 9, that I feel a bit of an obligation to play up the instrumental side of the action. Where orchestration is concerned, Gershwin was somewhat of a late bloomer. The worlds of Broadway and Hollywood imposed a "division of labor," where the composer came up with the tunes and an arranger took care of the scoring. Even "Rhapsody in Blue" was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé. However, once Gershwin established his "concert hall credibility" with that composition, he began to work his own orchestral ideas, beginning with his F major piano concerto.

To some extent what I have previously called "the Ravel-Gershwin connection" may have been driven by Ravel's acute listening to Gershwin's sense of melody, harmony, and rhythm in both the rhapsody and the concerto and to Gershwin's development of similarly acute listening to Ravel's orchestration. The first impression one gets looking into the orchestra pit is the synthesis of concert hall and dance band elements, side by side. Most obvious is the use of a trap drum set to supplement the timpani and battery. Then there are the single-reed wind players, most of whom seem to divide time across clarinet, bass clarinet, and alto sax, making the score a bit of a journey through different wind sounds. This is definitely the work of a composer who no longer has to depend on an arranger, coming up with orchestrations through which even the most familiar of the tunes (and this opera has plenty of them) take on fresh coloration in which "classical" sounds cohabit comfortably with more jazzy elements.

From this point of view, I have to say that not enough attention has been given to conductor John DeMain. I first heard DeMain conduct when the 1976 Houston Grand Opera production of Porgy and Bess went on tour and came to Radio City Music Hall in New York. Even under those adverse conditions, he brought Gershwin's score to life, expressing with sparkling clarity how the journey of the opera's protagonists is very much a journey of the music itself. He commanded the same respect from the musical resources of the San Francisco Opera, finding at all times just the right pace to fit the progress of the journey to Francesca Zambello's compelling staging. Most important was the way in which he explored the richness of the music beyond those familiar tunes, territory overlooked in the jazz and pop worlds by just about everyone other than Gil Evans (in his arrangements for Miles Davis).

This production was the perfect antidote for that bloodlessness that so disappointed me in last week's Tosca!

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