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Music review: 'Porgy and Bess' at the Hollywood Bowl

July 20, 2009 |  4:15 pm


A concert performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic of “Porgy and Bess” began at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday night as the opera always does, with “Summertime.” Nicole Cabell sang the lullaby with full voice and fine emotion. The living, as it so often is in this amphitheater, was easy. The evening was early; the light, gently fading; the air, soft and warm. “Porgy” and its composer, George Gershwin, have long belonged at the Bowl.

The most ambitious memorial to Gershwin was an L.A. Philharmonic benefit 72 years ago, after the 38-year-old composer succumbed to a brain tumor at Cedars of Lebanon hospital 5 miles away. That Sept. 8, 1937, the Bowl was crowded over capacity with an audience of 22,000.  Excerpts from the opera, which had premiered on Broadway two years earlier, were sung by the original Porgy and Bess, Todd Duncan and Anne Brown. Lily Pons delivered an operatic “Summertime.” Alexander Steinert, the score's first conductor, led the orchestra. 

I can’t imagine that many, if any, summers have since passed without Gershwin, in some form or another, at the Bowl. And yet Sunday was the amphitheater’s first full “Porgy.” Somehow such Gershwin specialists as former music director André Previn or former principal guest conductors Michael Tilson Thomas and Simon Rattle never managed to make it happen. Not even former Hollywood Bowl Orchestra music director, John Mauceri, who recorded “Porgy” three years ago in Nashville, could swing a “Porgy.” 

The honors went to Britain's Bramwell Tovey, the L.A. Philharmonic’s principal guest conductor at the Bowl. But even this wasn’t an entire “Porgy.” Tovey used Mauceri’s restoration of the original score of the 1935 Broadway production, which trims nearly 45 minutes from the published full operatic version. Modern audiences are accustomed to hearing that full version.

This is controversial. On his recording, Mauceri argues that Gershwin was an overwriter, and the restoration reveals the composer’s final thoughts. In a new Gershwin biography to be published in September, however, Walter Rimler claims that the proper opera is exactly what Gershwin wanted and that he was forced to make the cuts by the producers of the show who rightfully figured a four-hour opera would not be a money-maker on the Great White Way. (The three-hour one wasn’t either, it turned out.)

Kn3bu4nc I, for one, love all the operatic business and bigness of the original “Porgy,” to say nothing of all the terrific music that was cut (including “The Buzzard Song”), but the trims no doubt made sense for the premiere, and they made sense at the Bowl where audiences can be restless.  Tovey conducted at a reliably good clip, barely pausing for scene or act breaks (the three-act opera broke in the middle for a single intermission). He had us out of the Bowl in well under three hours.

Even at the Bowl, "Porgy" probably could have withstood less rush and more leisure. Still, Tovey, an engaging cast, an orchestra with Gershwin in its blood but playing the opera for the first time and a well-drilled Pacific Chorale caught the temper of a masterpiece. With “Porgy” at the Bowl, a milestone was reached. 

Something can also be said for a concert “Porgy.” Singers decked out in white jackets and splendid gowns in front of a formal symphony orchestra lend dignity to a work of musical greatness and help avoid the queasy racial stereotyping inescapable on a lyric stage.

There was no sense, here, of dramatic consistency. Some singers acted, some didn’t. Some embellished, some didn’t. Some were flamboyant, some were straight. But Tovey’s talent was to make room for all while keeping things going. Nothing felt like indulgence, no moment was dull.

Alfred Walker was a noble, proud Porgy. I’m waiting for a performance where “I’ve Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’ ” is treated as both angry social satire and a swipe at Virgil Thomson (the critic and composer who had a snippy attitude toward Gershwin). Walker treated it as affecting triumph.

Kn3bo8nc Marquita Lister, the Bess on Mauceri’s recording (Cabell is also on it) provided an operatic Bess, grand and tragic. Jermaine Smith, Sporting Life in Los Angeles Opera’s “Porgy” two years ago, grabbed the limelight as an irresistibly over-the-top song-and-dance man. He ended “It Ain’t Necessarily So” in the splits.

There were beautiful, full-throated performances from Leon Williams (Jake) and Lisa Daltirus (Serena). Gregg Baker, who can be a scarily threatening Crown on stage, was this time stern and dispassionate, which made him even more menacing. Gwendolyn Brown was a fabulously vivacious Maria. 

“I do not like fake folklore, or fidgety accompaniments, or bittersweet harmony … or plum-pudding orchestration,” Virgil Thomson wrote in his review of the “Porgy” premiere. I do. And I’m not alone.

This week at the Bowl will bring Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Piano Concerto, with its bittersweet harmony and passages the composer labels as “artificial folk music.” Philip Glass, who more than any other has followed Gershwin’s example to create a uniquely American opera, is the master of fidgety accompaniments. 

History is on Gershwin’s side. I'd like to see “Porgy,” all of it, become a Bowl tradition.

-- Mark Swed

Photos, from top: Bramwell Tovey conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Pacific Chorale and soloists in "Porgy and Bess" at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday night; Alfred Walker as Porgy and Marquita Lister as Bess; Jermaine Smith as Sporting Life. Credit: Jaime Rector / Los Angeles Times