Review: Sylvia Sings Gershwin

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Courtesy of The Republic


The Columbus Philharmonic began its 2015-2016 season this past Saturday with class, presenting a program of music by American composer George Gershwin and featuring internationally-renowned soprano and Indiana University faculty member Sylvia McNair.

The orchestra started with the overture to Girl Crazy, revving  the audience up for the evening with snippets of both the recognizable (“Embraceable You,” “I’ve Got Rhythm,” “But Not for Me”) and the less so (“Broncho Busters”) in this medley from the 1930 musical. Launched with tight, energetic rhythms, this piece took attendees through a wide variety of moods—from the spirited, to the dramatic, to the romantic—while highlighting many sections of the orchestra and soloists along the way.

Full of anticipation for the second half (when McNair would appear to perform some of the aforementioned songs), the audience was encouraged to relax with the lesser-known Gershwin composition, Lullaby, here in an arrangement for string orchestra. The first violins set up a quiet rhythmic pattern that served as the pulse of this sweet, lilting piece, while rich and calming melodic themes were passed from section to section.

The highlight of the first half of the concert was most certainly Gershwin’s tone poem An American in Paris. In a thoughtful gesture, Maestro Bowden preceded the actual performance by leading the orchestra in various excerpts from the piece, demonstrating many of Gershwin’s musical representations of a tourist’s experiences in Paris: strolling, visiting a café and a church, becoming nostalgic and getting the blues (literally!), and more. During the demonstration, it was particularly fascinating to see an unusual addition to the percussion section, greatly necessary to accurately convey Parisian streets –taxi horns!

After intermission, Maestro Bowden quickly walked to the front of the orchestra and started the intro to “Man I Love” as McNair took the stage for the first time for a set of songs that also included “’S Wonderful” and “But Not for Me.” McNair’s elegant sound, crystal clear diction, captivating stage presence, and fun interaction with the orchestral musicians made this set delightful, only marred by a slight imbalance of volume between her voice and the accompanying orchestra.

No concert of Gershwin is complete without something from his well-known opera, Porgy and Bess, which the Philharmonic satisfied by playing an interesting orchestral suite arranged by one of Gershwin’s collaborators, Robert Russell Bennett. Following this, McNair returned to sing the famous aria “Summertime” from the same opera, before closing with a show-stopping combination of “Shall We Dance” and “I’ve Got Rhythm.” McNair was adoringly received and  graced listeners with an encore, “Loved Walked In,” accompanied solely and sensitively by Brian Eads at the piano. She mesmerized the audience, so much so that even the freeloading cricket (which had been unfortunately audible during many of the quieter sections of the concert) fell completely silent.


Priscilla Weaver is a doctoral student in organ performance at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and also serves as organist and choir director at Faith Lutheran Church, Bloomington.

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