Two of Broadway’s brightest stars helped celebrate George Gershwin’s 100th birthday a trifle early Wednesday night, as Carnegie Hall opened its 108th season with a jubilantly performed evening of song and symphonic music from “our national composer,” as maestro Michael Tilson Thomas grandly saluted him. Beloved mezzo-soprano Frederica Von Stade tossed off a few favorites with winsome elan, and the San Francisco Symphony sparkled under Thomas’ baton throughout the evening, but it was “Ragtime’s” Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell who nearly brought the house down (and what a house!) with some gloriously sung selections from “Porgy and Bess.”
The tardy arrival of a soignee Hillary Clinton got the evening off to a late start, but the overture to “Of Thee I Sing” quickly punched things into high gear. (One could only wonder what she might make of the program notes, in which we learned that Gershwin attributed the musical’s success “to his belief that Americans were sentimentalists at heart, and that, despite the jokes and jabs, they wanted to believe their president was a decent fellow and that true love would win out.” Never mind!)
Thomas has a long association with the music of Gershwin — dating back to a friendship between his grandparents and Gershwin’s parents — and has been a particular champion of the next piece on the program, the Second Rhapsody, helping to restore the work to its original version with the cooperation of Ira Gershwin. His affinity for Gershwin’s genius, which folded American musical idioms into classical styles, shined from both his sharp, impassioned conducting and his fluid performance of the piano cadenza that forms the centerpiece of the work.
The driving rhythms that course through it — sometimes led by the brass, sometimes by the piano itself — were shaped with exquisite care. And the sweet sentiment at its core came through in both Thomas’ improvised playing — marked at times by gentle ragtime and blues inflections — and the lush sweep of the strings.
Gershwin’s “Catfish Row” symphonic suite, adapted from “Porgy and Bess,” followed, with interpolated songs from the show performed with such artistry and charisma by Stokes Mitchell and McDonald that only the most pedantic of music scholars could have objected. McDonald sang “Summertime” with a sweltering, soulful shimmer that was a model of vocal dramatics. Stokes Mitchell’s powerhouse charm enlivened his solo contributions, and their duets, most notably a much clamored-for encore, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” were perhaps even better. If the talents of these remarkable singing actors — probably the finest on Broadway right now — aren’t enough to warrant a full staging of this difficult but seminal American musical work, one despairs at its future. Sad, also, to note the lack of participation from Broadway proper in the birthday celebrations for one of its greatest composers. (But then what’s Broadway proper these days?)
In any case, the show tunes of the Gershwins have long since risen to take their place among the most acclaimed bodies of song literature. Von Stade is the rare diva who can deliver American pop standards without distorting their natural charms, and although she was overpowered by the arrangement of “Fascinating Rhythm” (not a song that flatters the operatic voice in any case), she offered delightful versions of “How Long Has This Been Going On?,” “I Got Rhythm” and “The Man I Love.” They could only have been improved by a little more urbanity mixed with her girlishness.
The evening concluded with “An American in Paris,” a model of the pictorial music-making that Gershwin excelled at, with its jazzy brass and rhythmic string riffs gliding into richer orchestral motifs that indeed bring to life an image of Yankee insouciance colliding with a city steeped in romance.
All together, the evening was a stylishly chosen tribute to a man whose style has shaped 20th-century American music as much as any composer’s, performed by an array of artists in harmony with his unique vision. TV viewers can judge for themselves, when the program opens the “Great Performances” season on PBS Sept. 30.