If you were lucky enough invite George Gershwin to your party, you had better have a piano.
For hours, he’d delight himself, and to large extent your guests as well, as he played through his latest tunes and most favorite songs.
“I felt on the instant, when he sat down to play, the newness, the humor, above all the rush of the great heady surf of vitality. The room became freshly oxygenated; everybody felt it, everybody breathed it,” wrote playwright S.N. Berhman.
Fitting, then, that Kansas City Symphony opened its pops series with a party of sorts, the music of Gershwin filling Helzberg Hall. To join in the celebration, they invited the charming vocalist Patti Austin and pianist Kenny Broberg, as special guests.
Jason Seber conducted the orchestra, opening the concert with an exuberant overture from “Girl Crazy,” chalk-a-block with familiar tunes, the quickly shifting characters orchestrated by Robert McBride. There was forward energy throughout, with vitality and good-humor. More than one patron near me couldn’t resist humming along to a favorite bit from time to time.
Yes, the music is familiar to us, blending jazz and popular themes, and some of these works are a staple of an orchestra’s repertoire, but the performance was no less fresh or surprising.
Gershwin’s music astounds. Had he lived longer, what marvels he would have produced. As it is, he left some of the most defining, tuneful songs in the Great American Songbook, and a handful of sterling classical works that continue to delight.
He was an entertainer and this was entertainment, and sometimes it is an extraordinary mark of valor to entertain in a tired world.
Seber is savvy to this, offering genuine enthusiasm and insightful anecdotes during his from-the-podium banter.
Broberg, for his part, concentrated on the piano with an engrossing performance of Gershwin’s Preludes. Broberg, a graduate student at Park University, was Silver Medalist in the 2017 Van Cliburn International Pianist Competition.
Though the pulse was heavy in the first movement, a breezy second movement served as counterpart, and Broberg allowed a bit of theatricality there, ending with one finger on the keyboard with thoughtful and appreciated sustain. Viciously attacking the final movement, at the end he leaped from the bench in a full-bodied flourish.
But then: Patti Austin.
Her rhythm section (Michael Ricchiuti piano, Steve Hass, drums, and Richard Hammond, bass) joined the orchestra to play her on stage with a fast-paced intro to “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.” True, it took about a verse to lock in, voice and drums and orchestra, but still a popping, rip-roaring take.
“Slap That Bass” is a personal favorite, and Austin’s joyous, unbridled approach was glorious. Her commentary, too, as she asked the audience, “Did you pay attention to those lyrics?”
“Where the Gershwins clairvoyant?” she mused, reminding us that the Gershwins (George and his brother Ira) worked during World War I and the Great Depression—a time when people needed reminders of happiness and what is most at stake.
“These lyrics are not to be tampered with,” Austin said.
Peppering the performance with personal anecdotes, she delivered with the thrill of a seasoned raconteur, every joke placed just as surely as the notes in the tunes.
Sometimes, though, it was difficult to discern the lyrics over the drums and orchestra, but less of an issue with mostly familiar words. The shifting lighting, too, lent a distracting component at times.
A luscious “Our Love is Here To Stay,” featuring an excellent trumpet solo, and big band version of “Swanee,” inspired by Judy Garland’s 1961 Newport Jazz Festival performance, closed out the first set.
Her second act started with a rocket-launched “Strike Up The Band,” featuring a lickety-split tutti section that made me hold my breath. More stories, including insight into her “Summertime” recording, with much laughter, and she finished with the only non-Gershwin tune, a favorite by her hero Ella Fitzgerald, “How High the Moon.”
Beyond Austin, the charm of the concert focused on “An American in Paris,” which opened the second half.
Written after a trip to Paris, the full orchestral excitement gave way to pockets of solo voices and chamber moments in just that way a walk through the city can take you from urban chaos to hidden backstreets, complete with hooting cars horns and meandering reminiscence.
There’s a Beethovian quality to the work, the way he plays with our expectations towards the end, the way he brings out the voices (the soloists performing with lively aplomb and just a hint, in some cases, of melancholy), the way he weaves the melodies back into themselves. It’s a riveting piece and the Kansas City Symphony performed with festive conviction.
Even Seber joked, “thank you and good night” after that exceptional “American,” but the real finale was “Rhapsody in Blue,” Gershwin’s showpiece, played by Broberg.
Broberg brought power and skill to his rendition, and plenty of flourish, but at times it seemed as though there were two different pianists at the piano, one hammering out the chords with aggression, another playing the more lyrical sections. His robust interpretation roused the crowd to their feet and, with that, the Gershwin party was over.
Reviewed Friday, Oct 26. Kansas City Symphony presents “Glorious Gershwin” once again on Saturday, October 27 8 p.m. in Helzberg Hall. For more information visit kcsymphony.org.