Friday evening’s concert in Sydney was one of the most entertaining concerts I have been to in a long time. The concert was entitled A Gershwin Tribute, but might just as well have been called A Gershwin Celebration, or perhaps evening A Gershwin Party. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra was on sparkling form under British guest conductor and pianist Bramwell Tovey. He introduced the program himself and at times had the audience rolling in laughter, so much so that one member of the Sydney Opera House foyer staff enquired of me during the interval, ‘What was going on in there?’ Bramwell Tovey engaged us throughout with witticisms, anecdotes, and also various jokes at the expense of the orchestra and even the public!

Bramwell Tovey © Philippe Hurlin
Bramwell Tovey
© Philippe Hurlin

The concert opened with Gershwin’s relatively unknown Cuban Overture. This certainly had a distinctly South American feel to it, with prominent parts for maracas and woodblock underpinning the work with a rumba-like festive feel. This set the tone for the evening, almost transporting the audience away from the concert hall. The orchestra played with great style and precision throughout.

Following this was Gershwin’s much-loved Rhapsody in Blue which featured Bramwell Tovey as both conductor and soloist. As Tovey reminded us, this piece was largely unwritten when it received its premiere by Gershwin and the Whiteman band in 1924. Most of the piano part was improvised by Gershwin and was only later written down. Although the ensemble perhaps suffered occasionally from the lack of a separate conductor, I did not mind this. The orchestra somehow seemed freer, more like a jazz band with a soloist, able to inject their own personality into the music. To this end, there were some wonderful solos, from the orchestra from the famous opening clarinet solo to the sultry, muted trumpet solo. Tovey imprinted his own personality on the solo piano part, clearly enjoying himself. As an encore, he played Gershwin’s song Embraceable You together with David Jones on drumkit, who unexpectedly walked on stage to join in, after the encore had started. This brought the half to a joyous conclusion, with Tovey and Jones playing off each other with their improvisations, perhaps sometimes even surprising each other – but this is what live music should be about: taking risks, even if they do not always pay off.

The second half of the concert featured some more of Gershwin’s songs as well as Catfish Row, a symphonic suite from Porgy and Bess. This half of the concert featured singer Tracy Dahl, making her Sydney Opera House debut, and she performed the songs with much style and charisma. She had great stage presence and was able to draw us in to the world of the songs, drawing us in to their unique narratives. However, the star of this section of the concert was David Jones on the drumkit. His improvised solo during the song Fascinatin’ Rhythm was extraordinary, and featured some of the most musical playing. He seemed to use just about every conceivable technique in those mesmerizing few minutes, and even managed to play the drum with his elbow at one point and used his cheeks as an extra percussion instrument. All of this was done with great humour and in a thoroughly engaging way. David Jones shares his name with a famous Australian department store, thus enabling Tovey to make a joke at Jones’ expense about his lurid choice of tie for the evening.

The final piece in the concert was Catfish Row from Porgy and Bess. This features one of Gershwin’s best known songs, “Summertime” as well as a rather effective orchestra storm scene which includes a wind machine and a ship’s bell. Unusually for an orchestra, there was also a part for a solo banjo. Catfish Row is a great showpiece for orchestra and produced some exciting playing from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, inducing a highly enthusiastic reaction at its conclusion from the audience.

The evening was rounded off by an encore from Bernstein’s Candide, which once again featured Tracy Dahl, who probably produced her finest singing of the evening at this point, as the work enabled her to show off her extraordinary vocal range and ability.

The evening really promoted everything which concertgoing should include – fine playing, pure entertainment, risk-taking, humour, excitement, artistic endeavour of the highest calibre, and of course a wonderful celebration of a great composer.

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