Gershwin's Americana at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater

Pacific Symphony
Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre

From alt rock acts to classical orchestras, the cozy and scenic Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, formerly (and more dignifiedly) known as Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, has hosted many types of concerts and musical festivals. And although music appreciation depends upon the taste of the individual, it is difficult to imagine that the strains of George Gershwin's most popular compositions would not command respect from anyone who heard them performed — much less all in one program. On the evening of Sunday, July 20, Carl St. Clair opened his 25th season as the Musical Director and Conductor of the Pacific Symphony with performances of An American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue, selections from Porgy and Bess, and the “Overture” from Strike Up the Band.

Gershwin is popularly regarded as one of the prototypical American composers. He synthesized classical music with jazz and yielded wonderfully theatrical music, which has become hallmark Americana. Gershwin referred to Rhapsody in Blue (1924) as “a musical kaleidoscope of America.” It has been influential on numerous musicians and has featured prominently in many movies — most notably as Woody Allen's theme for New York in Manhattan and in Baz Luhrmann's recent film adaptation of The Great Gatsby.


An American in Paris (1928) is a symphonic depiction (culled from his own experience) of, well, an American in Paris. Gershwin's original program notes revealed that the music was to portray: first, someone out-of-sorts with his French surroundings; second, that person's homesickness; and, finally “the street noises and French atmosphere are triumphant.”

Gershwin referred to Porgy and Bess (1935) as a “Folk Opera.” With lyrics by his brother Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward [the opera is based on Heyward's novel, Porgy, and play (co-written with Heyward's wife, Dorothy)], the opera combines classical with folk and spiritual music to tell the story of a disabled, African American panhandler who attempts to save a woman from an abusive boyfriend and a drug dealer in Charleston, South Carolina. The story is based on the true story of Samuel Smalls, and, in 1935, the controversial New York premiere of the opera featured an entire cast of classically trained black singers.[

St. Clair's program boasted an incredible collection of talents — not the least of which was St. Clair, himself. At the end of the program's intermission, a promo video detailed the Musical Director's journey — from seeing Leonard Bernstein conduct on television to conducting the premiere of Bernstein's final composition to helming the internationally renown Pacific Symphony for the past 25 years. One of the sentiments that St. Clair promotes echoes that of his inspiration, Bernstein: that music is not just meant for listening to, it is to uplift and transform people. And whereas Bernstein's legacy includes his famous Young People's Concerts, St. Clair was instrumental in creating several musical outreach programs; many of the children that benefit from these programs were in attendance at the Gershwin concert.

The featured guests included some incredibly talented virtuosos. The first of these was pianist Jeffrey Biegel, who is also a composer and recording artist; additionally, he is responsible for pioneering the first live Internet recitals in New York and Amsterdam. Soprano Angela Brown's resume includes performing in an orchestral adaptation of the late poet Maya Angelou's works, which was adapted for Brown's voice by Richard Danielpour. Bass soloist Kevin Deas had already earned international acclaim with numerous performances in the role of Porgy from full operatic performances of Porgy and Bess . Finally, singer and musical director Carver Cossey's The Carver Cossey Singers well-represented Cossey's tradition of performing heartfelt, classically arranged, spiritually infused singing.

The irony of this presentation is that this rich tapestry of arts was performed under a banner which read “Verizon Wireless Amphitheater” and was chiefly sponsored by a status symbol automobile (Mercedes-Benz). Despite this, the artists and the material that they performed were truly uplifting. Corporations, by definition, may be legal entities (with all of the rights of individual human beings), but the spirit that was felt at this performance was due to a host of talented musicians who breathed life into the works of George Gershwin. It is interesting that such a dichotomy is necessary to grant the arts room to flourish.

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