July 16, 2006

Gershwin gala a success, by George

By John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune Music Critic

Ravinia threw what host Hershey Felder rightly called "a real Gershwin party" Saturday night to commemorate the famed pianist-composer's one and only appearance at the park in July 1936.

Audience members weren't climbing trees to catch a glimpse of the performers, as they did 70 years ago here. Some 13,200 people sold out the pavilion and packed the lawns on a steamy midsummer evening, easily topping the 8,000 attendance for that first Ravinia Gershwiniade. What's more, the women's board's annual gala benefit concert, complete with a postperformance patrons dinner, raised roughly $750,000.

The black-tie swells in their tuxes and summer finery fanned themselves while gamely joining in for an audience singalong of many beloved Gershwin songs which Felder led from the piano, much in the suave, martini-dry manner of his one-man show, "George Gershwin Alone." He presided over more sing-along fare during dinner in the party tent.

How flattered Gershwin would have been, knowing that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under pianist-conductor Andrew Litton would be there to affix its imprimatur on his ever-popular Rhapsody in Blueand Cuban Overture. He also would have found it s'wonderful to hear Broadway stars Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell savoring selections from "Porgy and Bess."

Indeed, McDonald wrapped her satiny voice irresistibly around Summertime and teased the rhythm of My Man's Gone Now like a great jazz singer. She was mesmerizing in everything she sang, not simply floating gorgeous phrases but telling stories through song.

No slouch himself when it comes to personalizing Gershwin's music, Stokes Mitchell unleashed his virile baritone on A Woman Is a Sometime Thing and I Got Plenty of Nuttin' before joining voices with McDonald for an ardent Bess, You Is My Woman Now.

Litton proved himself to be a formidable Gershwin pianist with the high-octane performance of Rhapsody in Blue he directed from the keyboard. The CSO players romped through the frisky jazz rhythms of Ferde Grofe's orchestration with similar panache.

Felder bears an uncanny resemblance to Gershwin despite the long blond locks he grew for his stint as "Monsieur Chopin" (due to play Ravinia's Martin Theatre Sept. 7). He also has Gershwin's gift for making himself the life of the party - whether re-creating one of Gershwin's radio shows from the '30s, playfully cajoling the audience or singing and playing more Gershwin tunes at the end of the program. This was just how Gershwin had topped off his one and only Ravinia concert seven decades ago.

As the song says, who could ask for anything more?