Belated Review: CSO Kicks off New Season with Porgy and Bess

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Hey, better late than never. Just in case you were wondering, you better believe I was there for the Charleston Symphony's gala opening concert: soloists, orchestra and chorus sparkled in highlights from Porgy and Bess. My review was scheduled for publication — first in print, then online — but somehow, it never ran. So, here it is:

How better to open the new season than with a gala evening of highlights from Chucktown’s very own operatic monument? George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, set in early-1900’s Charleston, is America’s best-known opera. It’s based on African-American musical styles and themes that the composer soaked up during the summer he spent near Charleston in 1934.

The last time the Charleston Symphony delivered anything close to the full opera was in its full concert version around 10 years ago (and I sang in the chorus for that one). This shorter (60 minutes) concert arrangement (by Robert Russell Bennett) included the most famous songs and choruses, while cutting back to about one-third of the opera’s usual performing length. Arias and duets originally assigned to seven or eight different characters were handled here by only two soloists.

But what soloists they were! Soprano Roberta Laws and bass-baritone Alvy Powell are among the best-known interpreters of the opera’s title roles worldwide, and they didn’t disappoint here. Laws brought down the house with “Summertime” — the opera’s most famous song. But for me, the evening’s most spine-tingling moment was when she delivered “My Man’s Gone Now” — a keening lament — with slashing power and devastating emotion. She went on to shine, along with her partner, in their signature duet, “Bess, You is My Woman Now.”

Powell was even busier, with five solo numbers assigned. He delivered “A Woman is a Sometime Thing” and “I Got Plenty of Nuttin” with humor, panache and rich, ringing tone. He gave saucy renditions of two pieces intended for the opera’s main tenor role (Sportin’ Life): “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “There’s a Boat that’s Leavin’ Soon for New York.” He finished up with the opera’s concluding aria, “Oh Lawd, I’m on My Way.”

The mighty chorus — numbering over 200 singers — simply overflowed the stage, nearly crowding out the CSO’s crack players. It was a true rainbow coalition, consisting of both Robert Taylor’s Charleston Symphony Chorus and Sandra Barnhart’s CSO Gospel Chorus. There were a few slightly ragged moments (precision can be a problem with a chorus that big), but BOY, did they ever crank out the decibels, in choice choral excerpts like “Gone, Gone, Gone” and “Oh, I Can’t Sit Down.”

Our down, but NOT-out orchestra performed splendidly — and Maestro David Stahl held his sprawling forces together efficiently, while demonstrating yet again the special touch he’s always had for Gershwin. The evening was a triumphant example of true community music-making at its best.

While on the subject of this series, here's a choice Eargasm alert for you: BE THERE at the Gaillard this Saturday at 8:00 p.m. for the CSO's next Masterworks program, entitled "Heroic Beethoven." We'll hear the master's stirring Egmont Overture plus his evergreen Symphony No. 3, the "Eroica." But the work I'm most looking forward to is the deep and dramatic Piano Concerto No. 3, with piano solo honors falling to local sensation Sean Kennard. He's a graduate of the Curtis Institute — and has lately been a protege of the College's piano guru Enrique Graf, while racking up an impressive array of major competition wins. See ya there!

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