George Gershwin is no doubt one of the most popular and beloved American composers in any part of the world where American music is known. This concert, filled with Gershwin's scintillating jazz melodies and harmonies and exciting rhythms in Porgy and Bess, sparkling orchestrations and a virtuoso piano performance in Rhapsody in Blue, and incomparable stylings of some of his most beloved songs, enabled the sizable audience in Meymandi Concert Hall to appreciate his brilliance once again. The admirable performances of fine vocal soloists Rochelle Small and Jason McKinney, the North Carolina Master Chorale, the Tar River Philhamonic Orchestra, and pianist Susan McClaskey Lohr, obviously reflected the artists' enjoyment in making music that challenged their skills. Music Director Alfred E. Sturgis clearly took pleasure in conducting these well-prepared musicians, acknowledging their best performances with smiles of approval.
The suite of well-loved pieces from Porgy and Bess, arranged skillfully by Robert Russell Bennett, was admirably suited to the fine voices of baritone Jason McKinney and soprano Rochelle Small. These talented singers, blessed with ringing, powerful voices that reached to the back of the hall, took pleasure in singing Gershwin's passionate love songs to each other. In no time at all the audience was pulled into the deeply emotional connection between them, clearly conveyed by their body language and facial expressions. McKinney's voice is the bigger of the two and sometimes overshadowed the warm, rich soprano of Small, but most of the time their voices blended well. Moreover, their obvious vocal abilities showed plainly in their superb phrasing, soaring high notes, and expressiveness.
Although all the performances in this suite deserve kudos, there were several that must be singled out for special recognition. McKinney's best numbers were the spirited "I Got Plenty o' Nothin'," "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York," and, with the North Carolina Master Chorale, "It Ain't Necessarily So'" and "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing." Small showed off the beauty of her voice in "Summertime" and the plaintive "My Man's Gone Now." The soloists' affecting duet "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" brought a particularly warm response from the audience. The Chorale, not to be overlooked, sang the spirited "Oh, I Can't Sit Down," " Ain't Got No Shame," and, with the soloists, "Oh Lawd, I'm On My Way." The Tar River Philharmonic Orchestra, which I had not heard before, supported the soloists and Chorale with a rich, warm sound and skilled players in all sections, and added its share of musical brilliance to the performance.
The thrilling instrumental number of the afternoon was Rhapsody in Blue, for piano and orchestra, showcasing the talents of Susan McClaskey Lohr at the keyboard. We have known Lohr's skills for a number of years as an excellent piano accompanist for the North Carolina Master Chorale and Chamber Choir and one of two outstanding duo-pianists performing arrangements of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana and Johannes Brahms' "Liebeslieder" and "Neue Liebeslider" Walzer. In the Gershwin masterpiece, Lohr showed herself an artist of supreme technical skill, meeting every difficulty in this challenging composition with confidence, expressiveness, and great artistry. She allowed Gershwin's musical passion, exciting harmonies, and difficult rhythmic passages to resound through the hall without the slightest flaw. Her playing was in perfect sync with the orchestra, which offered a scintillating performance of the Rhapsody from the opening hot, slowly-ascending blues melody in the solo clarinet to the forte statements that brought the work to a triumphant conclusion. The opening melody and all the permutations of its frequent recurrence in this piece seemed new every time I heard them. The playing of Lohr and the orchestra delighted everyone in the house and received a richly deserved standing ovation.
The North Carolina Master Chorale joined the orchestra to conclude the concert with a "Salute to George Gershwin," arranged by Jack Jarrett. The tunes included in the arrangement are among the composer's best known, and I found myself, like several other people around me, singing softly along with the Chorale in each number. All the well-crafted pieces in this arrangement deserve praise, but several of them must receive special notice, particularly "Somebody Loves Me," "They're Writing Songs of Love, but Not for Me," "Embrace Me, My Sweet Embraceable You," and the beautiful, plaintive "Someone to Watch Over Me," in which the Chorale's warm, relaxed sound recalled for many of us the first time we were touched by these songs. The only complaint I have is there were occasions when the orchestra covered part of the Chorale sound. In addition to these favorite love songs, Jarrett included some of the most well-liked upbeat numbers, such as "Fascinatin' Rhythm" and the blockbuster "I Got Rhythm," which brought down the house and sent everyone out of the theatre humming those unforgettable Gershwin tunes.