Both "'S Wonderful" and "Wow!" aptly describe the Carolina Chamber Orchestra's benefit, "A Gershwin Gala," presented at the Stevens Center in Winston-Salem on June 26. It would have been worth the gala ticket price just to have heard guest pianist Kevin Cole play the encores that ended each half of the concert. These were extended medleys of Gershwin hit songs, much like the composer himself improvised at parties. Beyond impeccable technique, Cole has just the right amount of showmanship to bring these off with style. Many friends of Gershwin who knew his playing style intimately have said that Cole plays exactly like the composer. It would have been easy to believe that the pianist was "channeling" the composer; the encores seemed like inspired improvisation.
Many regular players from the orchestras of Greensboro and Winston-Salem were on stage. Conductor Emeritus Robert Franz founded the Carolina Chamber Orchestra in twelve seasons ago while he was seeking a master's degree in conducting at the NCSA. He left two years ago to become the Music Director of the Mansfield (Ohio) Symphony and the Associate Conductor of the Louisville Orchestra. With restrained gestures, he secured precise ensemble and wonderfully vital rhythms. He or the soloist introduced each selection with brief and informative comments.
Cole joined the orchestra for performances of "I' Got Rhythm' Variations" and Rhapsody in Blue , and both were outstanding. He said the Variations, featuring the composer's favorite tune, were written for a 1934 cross-country tour. One variation was filled with elaborate syncopation, and another was slow and dreamy, with broad leaps of a meow-like string figure. Cole drew attention to a "pseudo-Chinese" variation that involves playing in two keys at once. The wonderfully sassy clarinet solo played by Ron Rudkin was one of many flavorful treats from a first-rate player with whom I was unfamiliar.
There was interesting musicology behind the unusual version of Rhapsody in Blue that Cole played. The first orchestration was prepared by Ferde Grofé for the Paul Whiteman Band, whose players doubled on many instruments. The standard symphonic version that was published contains many little cuts made by Old World editors unfamiliar with the jazz idiom, and the composer was so happy to be published that he didn't raise objections. The version Cole played was the one Gershwin used on a 1925-26 tour with a standard-sized theatre orchestra much like the CCS. Six years ago, pianist-musicologist Alicia Zizzo found and restored the "little cuts," discovered in a copy of the score that been on a shelf in the Library of Congress for more than a generation.
I have never heard a better performance of the jazzy opening clarinet solo than the one played on this occasion by Rudkin. There was piquant muted brass playing led by trumpeter Anita Cirba and trombonist Brian French. There was a very subtle section in which Cole's solo line was supported by "pp" horns. Ryan White's banjo joined the saxophone group, led by principal clarinetist Rudkin, for a colorful segment. With plenty of dash and fire, Cole gave remarkably dynamic and engrossing account of the keyboard part, which sounded as if it were being created afresh from moment to moment. And what a treat it was finally to hear all the notes that Gershwin wrote!
My only reservation about the concert was the use of hand microphones by two fine singers. Tenor Greg Walter, currently a voice teacher in the NCSA's School of Drama, has a winning timbre and a clear and natural way with the words. Janine Hawley, a Kernersville resident, has an impressive resume showing experience at the Met and New York City Opera and in Santa Fe. Her lower range has an attractive, dusky quality. Both have enough vocal heft to have filled Stevens Center without amplification in selections involving Cole, whose work was a model of sensitive partnership. The highlights were Hawley's "Someone to Watch Over Me" and Walter's "But Not For Me." Winning duets with the orchestra were "He Loves and She Loves" and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off." Walter soloed in "Love Walked In" with the orchestra, and Hawley offered "By Strauss," featuring onomatopoeia in three-quarter time.
There was a mob scene at intermission and after the concert as people surged to buy the pianist's new CD, Cole Plays Gershwin . Cole's first NC appearance was quite a success. Deeply moved at his warm reception by both the audience and the musicians, he said one could find something special about everyplace. From his sojourn, he would take away and spread the word about what the treasures Winston-Salem has -- people who support the Arts, the CCS, the Winston-Salem Symphony, and the NCSA. I hope he didn't get writer's cramp autographing so many CDs and programs. Full information about the artist and his recording is available at http://www.kevincoleonline.com/ [inactive 5/05]. The recording contains the solo piano version of Rhapsody in Blue , two fine Gershwin medleys, and more.
In view of the big audience turnout, perhaps regional opera companies ought to pass over European operettas like The Merry Widow and Die Fledermaus and revive some of Gershwin's tune-filled shows.