The Wichita Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Daniel Hege were joined Friday by singers Lisa Vroman and Rick Faugno and pianist Jeffrey Biegel for a lively and varied celebration of the music of American composer George Gershwin. Vroman and Faugno sang and danced their way through favorites such as “’S Wonderful,” “Fascinatin' Rhythm,” and "Someone to Watch Over Me." They also served as gracious and enthusiastic hosts, introducing the pieces and film clips and relating the life and career of the composer (cut short by a brain tumor at age 38) and his older brother Ira, who after 1924 was George's primary collaborator and lyricist.
Vroman, full-throated and remarkably pure in tone throughout her range, poured just the right amount of emotion into the classic ballads "The Man I Love" and "Someone to Watch Over Me," and especially the sultry "Summertime" from the opera “Porgy and Bess.” Although she changed wardrobe several times, the veteran Broadway singer treated the music like an old friend whom one didn't need to dress up to impress, presenting the melodies clearly and with a minimum of embellishment. This approach, putting Gershwin at the center rather than the performers' virtuosity, could describe the whole evening.
Nevertheless, the respectful tone did not exclude fun, whether it was Vroman showing off her comic side with a "part Polish, part Hungarian, all Brooklyn" accent for "Cousin in Milwaukee" or a salute to the waltz "By Strauss," or Faugno tap-dancing up a storm in duet with principal bassist Mark Foley or Gerald Scholl on the drum set. Faugno was a live wire, bringing out the Vaudeville and Broadway roots of up-tempo numbers like "Fascinatin' Rhythm" and "Slap That Bass" in a combination of dance and song.
“Rhapsody in Blue” finished the program; Jeffrey Biegel went back to Gershwin's recorded performances and manuscripts for his interpretation, using some passages that had been dropped from later versions, resulting in a familiar piece presented in a new light. Biegel's impassioned approach brought out the music's edgier, more modernistic qualities. He was matched by the orchestra, including principal clarinetist Sarunas Jankauskas, whose opening glissando was clean and confident, and just a little saucy.
The orchestra under Hege's direction played with verve and the rhythmic snap of a dance band (the addition of a drum set and saxophones didn't hurt), and had little trouble keeping up with the brisk tempos. The arrangements hearkened back to the style of Broadway and Hollywood in the 1930s, a style now remote enough in time that it seems classic rather than dated. Even the introductions to all of the songs, often left out when played or sung as standards, were included. Both informative and entertaining, I expect this program to mint many new Gershwin fans.
Symphonic WinterFest Schedule
Tickets for all are available at www.wichitasymphony.org or 316-267-7658.
“The Gershwin Experience”: 3 p.m. Sun., Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas. Tickets $25-$67.
“Gershwin’s Magic Key” (4 p.m. Saturday, Century II Concert Hall): One-hour, child-friendly family concert by Hege and WSO using 26 excerpts from Gershwin’s catalog and others to bring the music to life for a young audience. The music spins a story of a chance meeting between the legendary composer and a poor newspaper boy on the streets of New York. General admission tickets are $10 and $15.
“Girl Crazy” (7:30 p.m. Saturday, Orpheum Theatre, 200 N. Broadway): Classic 1943 movie musical starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney based on Gershwin’s 1930 Broadway hit. The story tells of an Eastern college playboy (Rooney) exiled to a nondescript small-town college out West who helps the campus cutie (Garland) put on a show to save the school from closing. General admission tickets are $10.
“Dancing & Romancing” (8 p.m. Feb. 6, Century II Concert Hall): Gershwin gets an assist from Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein, Irving Berlin, Lerner & Loewe and others as the symphony meets the ballroom through the singing and dancing of Broadway veterans Joan Hess (“Crazy for You,” “Mamma Mia!”) and Kirby Ward (“Show Boat,” “Company”). Tickets $20-$70.