The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra has a longstanding tradition of toasting the New Year with a concert of Johann Strauss II and friends. Here in the United States, the New York Philharmonic has begun a jazzier tradition with a breezy evening of George and Ira Gershwin. British conductor Bramwell Tovey led the musicians of the New York Philharmonic as they were joined by vocalists Norm Lewis and Dianne Reeves to kick off 2015, broadcast live on PBS from Avery Fisher Hall.

Bramwell Tovey © Tyler Boye
Bramwell Tovey
© Tyler Boye

The concert itself was far from a usual New York Philharmonic performance. The stage was decked out with state of the art lighting design along with curtains that appeared to be sculpted from cake frosting. A team of videographers was spread throughout the hall with robot-like camera equipment run by a team of dwarf-ish looking men, each with a gray beard about two feet long. The show was compèred by Mr Tovey, who came prepared with a quick wit and a mouth full of jokes. All too fittingly, the program began with Gershwin’s Strike up the Band! from the eponymous 1927 musical. Though the title sounds jovial, it surprised audiences at the première with a satirical plot analyzing the motivation behind waging war.

Critics of Gershwin’s time had trouble categorizing Porgy and Bess as an opera. Gershwin himself used the term “folk opera”, and even today, a recent revival brought it to the Broadway stage instead of the opera hall, so it seems the jury is still out. Thanks to Robert Russell Bennett, the music has become popular in the concert hall as well; however, this particular suite, dubbed Catfish Row by his brother Ira, was actually produced by Gershwin himself. Built into five movements, the suite contains familiar songs, as well as incidental music like the “Hurricane”, orchestrated with a wind machine. Tovey played the impromptu piano part in the first movement, clumsily making his way through what may have been improvised by Gershwin himself. The movement slowly drifts into the famous “Summertime”, featuring glimmering solo lines from acting concertmaster Sheryl Staples and oboist Sherry Sylar.

The suite continued with a solo for Porgy, featuring baritone Norm Lewis. Lewis is considered one of the greatest actors on Broadway at the moment because he truly is a great actor, every single movement masterfully deliberated. In addition to his refined acting, his voice can sound convincing with the right microphone. It is difficult to accurately judge his projection and tone because both were artificially augmented, so it would be interesting to hear the voice acoustically. Nevertheless, his performance of “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’” made a good impact on the audience, despite the relentless liberties taken with rhythms and tempi. After the suite finished, Lewis returned full of wide smiles and charming charades to sing two songs with the Philharmonic before the orchestra finished off the first half of the concert with the percussive Cuban Overture.

The second half of the program opened with Gershwin’s lesser-known Lullaby for String Orchestra. One of his earlier works, the piece was originally written for string quartet and fell by the wayside until it was revived in the 1960s from a piano reduction. Following this light-hearted work, the Philharmonic was then joined by the second vocalist on the program, jazz legend Dianne Reeves. She radiates musicianship; her scat-singing is nothing short of genius with every word and syllable placed so naturally that one cannot but feel comfortable listening to her perform. Her fond relationship with her jazz trio, composed of pianist Peter Martin, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, exemplifies an effective model for chamber music communication, which consequently turned Avery Fisher Hall into an intimate scene from the Roaring Twenties, showcasing Gershwin favorites like “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and “Embraceable You”. Reeves was joined in the finale by Norm Lewis and the Philharmonic performing “ ‘S Wonderful” from Funny Face.

Of course, no English-speaking New Year’s celebration is complete without the traditional Auld Lang Syne, and the audience took a chance to showcase their own vocal talents. One optimistically looks forward to next year’s concert of the same theme, perhaps adding a couple friends from Gershwin’s circle to the lineup.

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