July 16, 2006

Ravinia puts Gershwin to work at gala fund-raiser

by Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times Theater Critic

George Gershwin had his work cut out for him Saturday night as the Ravinia Festival presented its annual gala benefit concert. A sweltering crowd decked out in party finery (with the men in full tuxedo uniform) packed the pavilion. And well before the music began, the flutter of white paper fans flapping in the humid air created quite a stir.

But Gershwin triumphed, with the spirit of the single visit he made to Ravinia 70 years ago this summer - just a year before he died at the age of 38 - lingering over the evening. More crucially, what emerged at every turn was the still astonishing audacity and freshness of his music - composed when jazz was in its early stages of development, and the now easily accepted notion of mixing classical, jazz and world beat sounds was decades away.

As Andrew Litton, the program's hugely engaging conductor, noted before he led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the opening work - the rumba-infused Cuban Overture - Gershwin returned from his travels with the sounds of the place he'd just visited packed in his suitcase. For An American in Paris. it was a taxi horn; for this Cuban-influenced piece it was percussion instruments, with gourds, maracas, claves and bongos giving the piece added color and rhythmic punch.

From there it was on to Porgy and Bess, the first great American opera, with Broadway stars Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell in a galvanic set that clearly left the audience hungering for more. Like Gershwin, these two glorious singer-actors know how to make opera seem utterly colloquial and contemporary, and how to fuse the most challenging classical demands with a jazz sensibility. It doesn't hurt, either, that they also are singularly attractive (she, ravishing in a beaded Chinese red gown and he casual but starched in a white jacket), and that they generate intense onstage chemistry.

With the weather providing just the right aura for the opera's setting - Catfish Row in the old black ghetto of Charleston, S.C. - McDonald swept into the feverish high notes of Summertime, brought a powerful, lonely wail to My Man's Gone Now and sent a train racing through the landscape of The Promise Lan'. Mitchell brought a wonderfully cool, crass, sexily dangerous edge to Sportin' Life's song, A Woman Is a Sometime Thing (with the masterful lyrics by Ira Gershwin suggesting he had a handle on rap attitudes long before they existed). He then switched to Porgy's anthem I Got Plenty of Nuttin', subtly infusing it with the air of a present-day philosopher. The two finally joined their clarion voices to stunning effect in the richly layered duet Bess, You Is My Woman Now and demonstrated once again that they have plenty of everything.

Litton served as both pianist and conductor in Gershwin's concerto, "Rhapsody in Blue". And there were engaging stories about the piece's creation and performance, told both by him and host Hershey Felder (who often portrays the composer in his one-man show "George Gershwin Alone" and who led the gala crowd in a singalong).

From the klezmerlike opening glissando solo for clarinet, to Litton's puckish, powerful, rhythmically teasing piano playing, the emphasis here was clearly on the work's jazz-band roots. And it left this listener musing on what Gershwin would be downloading onto his iPod were he alive today.