Review presented by UMB Private Wealth Management
The Kansas City Symphony opened their 2018-2019 Pops series on Thursday with a glittering tribute to George Gershwin and popular icons of the jazz age to a mostly full house. Associate conductor Jason Seber led the orchestra and acted as emcee, illuminating the program from the stage with one-liners and anecdotes from the composer’s life. The symphony shared the stage with pianist Kenny Broberg, a graduate student of the Park International Center for Music and 2017 Van Cliburn silver medalist, and the Grammy award-winning singer of pop and R&B superstardom, Patti Austin, and her band.
The evening began with the overture to Gershwin’s 1930 musical Girl Crazy. The popular concert work is a thoughtfully strung medley of some of Gershwin’s most recognizable melodies: I Got Rhythm, But Not for Me, Bidin’ My Time, Embraceable You, among some lesser-known tunes. With the veneer of a ’20s theater orchestra, the musicians of the Kansas City Symphony had ample room to show off their individual colors in solos and sectional features. Girl Crazy launched the career of the American actress and dancer (and Kansas City native), Ginger Rogers, who was also spiritually present in the second work on the program, the “short little ditty” Promenade (“Walking the Dog”) from the Astaire-Rogers comedy, Shall We Dance. In the film, this music accompanies a sequence in which the passengers on an ocean liner are—you guessed it!—walking their dogs, and features a solo clarinet noodling over pizzicato strings, punctuated by a brass choir. In the Sol Berkowitz arrangement performed by the symphony, principal clarinet Raymond Santos was still center stage but shared portions of the cordial melody with his colleagues in the winds and brass. A Klangfarbenmelodie reminding us that Schoenberg and Gershwin were close friends, if only for a short time.
The lights lowered on the orchestra and Broberg took the spotlight for Gershwin’s Three Preludes for Piano. Gershwin had originally planned to write a series of 24 preludes, then seven, then five (in the version that the composer premiered), and finally published the set of three as we know them today. The good-natured ambiance of the work belies a number of challenges for the performer, both technically and interpretively. Broberg made the preludes sound easy and inevitable, while taking care to highlight the variety of characters in each movement with nimble shifts of dynamics and color. He closed the evening with the orchestra performing the ever-popular Rhapsody in Blue, in which his pursuit of varied character yielded some moments where he broke the surface tension. Seber and Broberg worked well together in an urbane reading of the piece, rarely venturing outside the bounds of good taste.
The venerated Patti Austin, along with her backing combo, joined the orchestra for two sets of songs mostly by Gershwin. Her one exception was the Morgan Lewis standard How High the Moon in which she gave an impressive recreation of Ella Fitzgerald’s scatting (who had in turn borrowed the solo from Charlie Parker.) A seasoned entertainer, Austin held the audience’s attention with stories from her life, some gossip, and at one point gave an impression of Snoop Dogg at age 90 attempting Justin Timberlake’s SexyBack. The contralto opened up her voice in a swaggering arrangement of Swanee, lifting the song from its unfortunate past in minstrelsy and reappropriating it as a big band love ballad to the south.
The Kansas City Symphony has set the bar high for this pops season. If this concert is representative of the rest of the season, there will be many more patrons like the woman seated behind me who left the hall repeating “What fun! What fun! Oh, what fun!”