Porgy and Bess is everywhere these days. The Gershwins’ “folk opera” opened the season at The Met — a production so successful it necessitated the addition of extra performances to meet demand. It now finds its way to the Philadelphia Orchestra. Although The Met and Philadelphia share a common music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who has spoken at length of his hopes for collaborations between the organizations, what was seen at Verizon Hall was not a replication of the New York production. Selections from the opera occupied the second half of a program that also included compositions by living American composers Gabriela Lena Frank and Jessie Montgomery. 

Marin Alsop © Grant Leighton
Marin Alsop
© Grant Leighton

The Philadelphia performances didn’t have the advantage of scenery or costumes to evoke Catfish Row, but the assumption benefited nicely from several musical factors. None was more valuable than conductor Marin Alsop, a specialist in 20th-century American music, who drew out the various influences of jazz, ragtime, gospel, blues and vaudeville embedded in the score. In a particularly nice detail, pizzicato low strings perfectly mirrored a guest banjo in “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin.” The forceful Morgan State University Choir, under Eric Conway’s direction, added vocal amplitude to the event, and supplied several superb soloists to complement the four leading singers.

Angel Blue sang Bess at The Met earlier this year; here, she provided yeoman’s service across the multitude of female roles. She isn’t ideally suited to every assignment — her “Summertime” lacked spin and float, and she doesn’t possess Maria’s low notes — but at her best, as in the febrile “I Loves You Porgy,” she knows no equal among her contemporaries. Unfortunately, none of her male counterparts rose to her level. Lester Lynch’s Porgy was idiomatic but underpowered, and Kevin Short, alternating between Crown and Jake, mostly bellowed. Chauncey Packer deployed a tangy tenor as Sportin’ Life, but as is too often the case, he oversold the part’s comedy to the detriment of its darker elements.

The two curtain raisers served a very fine purpose: they showed how composers of today continue to marry the surprising and the expected. Montgomery’s Coincident Dances, a love letter to New York, at once suggested On the Town and In the Heights. A pulsing timpani approximated the rumble of a subway car, while a double bass solo line called to mind a quickening heartbeat. Frank’s Escaramuza opened and closed with a similarly authoritative bass drum solo. In between, the composer alternated melodic sonorities and rhythmic noise in ways familiar and unsettling.

The concert’s single biggest success came when the Morgan State University Choir performed an a cappella arrangement of the spiritual “Done Made My Vow to the Lord.” The chorale’s collective effort was striking, but two notable soloists, baritone Cameron Potts and alto Jocelyn Christian, emerged as potential stars to watch.


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