Gershwin and All That Jazz: How Long Has This Been Going On?

The name Gershwin brings back many fond memories for me as a child, hours spent drawing my favorite classic movie actors and actresses while listening to records with my grandma. So when I found out that the Pacific Symphony Orchestra was going to be performing Gershwin’s Greatest Hits –and All That Jazz, I jumped at the opportunity to actually see and hear, live, the masterpieces of George Gershwin – easily the greatest American composer of our time.

Grandma and Grandpa were my guests for the evening (lookin' pretty sharp!) and after we were all carefully situated and buckled in - we made the journey to the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Irvine.

A site to behold – entire families picnicking on the rolling mounds of green grass, wine and cheese in hand. Once we made it to the gate it dawned on me that I had overlooked completely the fact that my grandpa was confined to a wheelchair. Katharine Ho and other members of the staff were angels and went out of their way to accommodate us. Awesome. And although this left us slightly further back ( not deep within the orchestra section, but oh well ) everything was great, it all worked out perfectly.

Being moved to the back was good for us but not for Gershwin. It should’ve been called, Tons of Jazz and Oh Yes, Gershwin Too – poor George certainly took a backseat throughout most of the evening. Along with my grandpa’s quips before, during and after every performance, “That’s not Gershwin!” he’d growl - sinking back into his wheelchair, arms tense and folded across his chest.

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I patted his shoulder and kissed his forehead, “It’s okay Grandpa, we’ll hear him soon enough.”

This night was overflowing with stellar performances, mostly of the all that jazz variety; while waiting to actually hear anything Gershwin was long and arduous.

Okay, so it wasn’t Gershwin to the max but it was, never the less, an incredible evening with amazing standout performances, namely pianist Shelly Berg – his face contorting with every touch of the piano keys, “Look at his face!” my grandma laughed, “he looks funny.” I had to smile at her brutally honest observation - he was certainly one with the music.

It was fun and lively, very enjoyable. A good chunk of sound was very Kenny G-ish, melding smoothly into samplings of Bossa Nova. They began the evening with Frank Ticheli’s, “Blue Shades” - which was fun and bubbly. Eventually the tempo progressed – making you want to get up and dance. I enjoyed the shooby dooby doo feeling of “Incandescent, Iridescent, Effervescent” – a joyful arrangement by Berg himself. Although after each piece I couldn’t help but scan my program over and over again – Gershwin where are you?

Maybe it was the energy of the crowds longing for actual Gershwin – anything at all Gershwin, that had Berg running back on stage after the first half; jumping onto his piano bench and flirtatiously tinkling his piano keys to Gershwin’s beloved score, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” This, he exclaimed, would hold us over. The crowd sighed aloud and clapped…it was a small snack before the main dish. Intermission. Finally. Second half. The lights dimmed. Testing the audio and visual. The moment of truth: Gershwin’s marvelous "Rhapsody In Blue". There’s just something about this song that I have always loved, it’s a time capsule of American culture in the 1920’s. It tells a story in every note. The skills needed to master the intensity of Gershwin’s piano solos go without saying, but Berg sliced through it like butter! I must admit that when he began to remix my beloved classic I cringed and buried my face into my grandma’s shoulder. How could he do such a horrible thing?

Is this piece not great enough as it is without him ruining it with his damned improvisations? I held my breath as the orchestra, once again, joined him in bringing it back to the sheet music - just as Gershwin intended. I breathed a sigh of relief – smooth. Since this score is roughly eighteen minutes long ( I swear this version must’ve taken at least thirty minutes) I had plenty of time to find myself kinda, sorta beginning to appreciate the moments he indulged with own takes on the original.

Throughout the score, until the finale - the maneuvering through Rhapsody was flawless. The crowd erupted in approval. I really wished they would’ve concluded the evening with this selection but instead they chose, “An American In Paris” – a tone poem whose purpose was to recreate the sights and sounds of Paris, circa 1928 – it was a bit rough and choppy compared to other renditions I have heard but I enjoyed it never the less. A wonderful night all around, satisfying the jazz appetite but leaving hardcore Gershwin fans a bit undernourished.

Summer Concert Series. Verizon Wireless Amphitheater. 8808 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. Recorded info: 949.855.6111. Box Office: 949.855.8095.

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