By Annie Alleman, Chicago Tribune, Naperville Sun
Despite his short life, George Gershwin is widely regarded as one of America’s best-known composers.
New Philharmonic, along with some special guests, celebrates the man with “An Evening of Gershwin” at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22 and 2 p.m. Oct. 23 at the McAninch Arts Center at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. Free pre-concert Mac Chats will take place 30 minutes before each performance.
The concert will open with New Philharmonic, under the baton of music director and conductor Kirk Muspratt, performing “An American in Paris.” Then guest pianist Marta Aznavoorian of Northbrook will join the orchestra for “Rhapsody in Blue.” New Philharmonic fans might recognize Aznavoorian from her April 2016 Dueling Pianos concert. Her solo recitals have included performances at the Kennedy Center and New York’s Steinway Hall, among others. She is a founding member of the Grammy-nominated Lincoln Trio.
“(“Rhapsody in Blue”) is quite a staple in the piano repertoire. It is very well-known, thanks to the fact that United Airlines uses it for their commercial,” Aznavoorian said. “That’s opened it up to a wide audience. But Gershwin’s works have always been very well-respected. He tends to write in a very bluesy fashion; very improvisational fashion.”
A rhapsody differs from a piano concerto, she said, in that a rhapsody is a one-movement work, as opposed to a piano concerto which is in multi-movements or variations.
“So a rhapsody is very free-flowing in structure. And this work is very typical in the sense that it features a range of highly contrasted moods, colors, textures and tonalities. This piece exemplifies that. It’s typical in the sense that it has a very improvisational feel to it. It has a very bluesy, jazzy feel to it,” she said. “Audiences love it. All types — classical, non-classical — all audiences love it. It’s very well-written; phenomenally written. The orchestration is incredible.”
She’s been asked to play the piece many times, but hasn’t performed it very often.
“This time it happened to work out and I’m thrilled to be performing it with Kirk and the New Philharmonic,” she said. “I love working with Kirk. I adore his orchestras and the halls in which he performs. The Mac is a great hall. I love the feel of it. He always has a great crowd. And there’s a great reception afterward with cookies — great cookies, like the big, homemade chocolate chip cookies — and coffee and cider. It’s a great concert to bring kids to, as well.”
Following intermission, guest soprano Kimberly E. Jones, guest baritone Bill McMurray and the Northwest Indiana Symphony Chorus join New Philharmonic to perform 14 selections from “Porgy and Bess.”
Jones, a soprano, is an alumnus of the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center and is on the voice faculty at Columbia College Chicago and Merit School of Music. She has previous experience with “Porgy and Bess,” having performed the role of Clara in Houston Grand Opera’s international production, for which she was nominated for a NAACP Awards for best supporting actress. She also appeared with Leon Williams at Lincoln Center for an evening of “Porgy and Bess” solos and duets.
Closer to home, Jones has performed selections from “Porgy and Bess” with Muspratt, in December 2015.
“(It has) beautiful melodies and so many wonderful tunes that everyone recognizes,” Jones said. “It makes everyone feel good and you’re humming the melodies when you leave the theater. It’s great stuff; it’s very special music enjoyed by all.”
Audiences are in for a treat with this show, she said, especially since it’s selections from the opera.
“It’s going to be more updated. If anything, if someone wants to see a new, hip version of an opera, this is the place to come.”
McMurray has more than 30 operatic roles to his credit and has sung with such companies as Chicago Opera Theater and Elgin Opera. He performed several times with the Lyric Opera’s”Opera in the Neighborhoods” and, in 2013, sang the lead role in the Chicago premiere of “Der Kaisser von Atlantis” at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion with the New Millennium Orchestra. He sings regularly with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, where he has been a featured soloist.
He’s performed the concert version of “Porgy and Bess” four times and the opera version three times, he said.
“The role that has best suited my voice in the past has been the role of Jake. He sings ‘A Woman is a Sometimes Thing,’ he’s married to Clara, who sings the most popular aria of the piece, which is ‘Summertime.’ right at the beginning.”
At this concert, he will have six main pieces to sing, he said, and two smaller ones with the chorus.
“I’ll be taking on the personas, if you will, of Jake, obviously, because of his arias; Porgy, of course, and also Sportin’ Life, who is the tenor lead in this show. His (piece) ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ that he sings with the chorus is one that I’ve sung literally over 100 times in my lifetime. It’s a great piece,” he said. “‘If She Was My Woman’ is one of the absolute most beautiful and brilliantly written duets in all of the repertoire of opera. It is so impassioned and loving. Obviously it goes over well with the audience.”
There will be a program with a synopsis so people will be able to follow the narrative, he said.
“Even though it’s a concert version and you just have the two singers with a chorus, we’ve excerpted the most important pieces from the opera so that you can follow along in a sequence of how things are happening,” he said. “Yes, we’re leaving out some main storylines. There’s a death in the beginning … that’s something you have to get from the synopsis. Yet the way we’re sequencing it from the beginning to end will still tell that story. And it gives the audience the idea of this life in that time for the people on Catfish Row. Though they spoke differently, they may have looked differently, but they still have the same basic wants, needs and desires of every other person that has ever lived. You can still get all of that in the concert version.”
Audiences should expect to have a good time, he said.
“They’re going to hear two dynamic singers who are very familiar with this material. Both of us have performed it many times,” he said. “You’re going to hear some fantastic music from the orchestra. They’re going to get a real sense of who Gershwin was. This was Gershwin at his best. This is him going into that area of classical music and taking it up a notch. You hear how well-thought-out he was in putting this together.”
Annie Alleman is a freelance writer.
‘An Evening of Gershwin’
When: Oct. 22-23
Where: The McAninch Arts Center, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn
Information: 630-942-4000; www.AtTheMAC.org