Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Gershwin and Friends @ Cadogan Hall, London

23 August 2008

Friday night was Music Night at Cadogan Hall as was Saturday night with a tour through the life and works of the Gershwin brothers and a bunch of their collaborators, colleagues, contemporaries and competitors.

The BBC Big Band was joined by Broadway and West End star Kim Criswell for a stroll through just some of the favourites that mark the Gershwins out as geniuses, in any era.

Criswell has a wealth of experience on stage and album and, with an easy air and expansive personality, she’s a fine host for an evening of informal chat and invigorating song. It’s a shame that she was so badly amplified on this occasion. Words were muffled and balance with the band was often askew. Notwithstanding, she projected bags of enthusiasm and warmth, although for many of the songs the vocal line lay high and tempos were on the swift side. I prefer the gravelly leisureliness of Ms Fitzgerald for this stuff.

George and Ira worked as a double act for most of the former’s life (he died just short of his fortieth birthday, while Ira lived on for another 45 years) but both worked with other collaborators at various points. The programme acknowledged a number of them, including Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Vincent Youmans and even Kurt Weill, providing a structure for Ms Criswell to informally narrate us through an entertaining and informative outline of their lives.

The evening opened with Strike Up the Band (shame Criswell’s entrance was slightly fluffed), which took in a medley of some of the other tunes to follow. Swanee, made famous by Al Jolson (did you know George wrote that?), Boy Wanted and Somebody Loves Me followed. There was an impersonation of a polish singer (sorry, didn’t catch the name) in a heavily-accented Lorelei and Criswell went into the interval with another star tribute, to one Ethel Agnes Zimmerman, in the days before she changed her name to Merman, with her hit number I Got Rhythm from “Girl Crazy”.

The second act began with a brassy orchestral It Ain’t Necessarily So and a woozy Summertime, the swiftness of the tour allowing no more of Porgy and Bess. Following highlights included the joyous By Strauss, one of the last Broadway songs before the brothers headed for Hollywood, zappy lyrics which take the mickey out of just about everyone combining with fascinatin’ rhythms.

The real joy of the evening was the sound of the BBC Big Band, led by veteran conductor/arranger David Firman. From the sedate strings of Long Ago and Far Away to the Miles Davis solo from It Ain’t Necessarily So, they floated and stormed through number after number.

Two encores brought Loved Walked Right In and a real showstopper, in every sense, with The Man I Love. An enjoyable tribute to George, Ira & Co.

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