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An American Masterwork

May 22, 2007

Last Friday marked the final concert of Oakland East Bay Symphony’s 2006-2007 season, but it also marked the beginning of its newest initiative, the "American Masterworks Series," which will continue in upcoming seasons. Choosing works that live up to this title is a trickier task than you might expect, as the Pulitzer Prize committee found out three years ago when it controversially expanded the scope of the music prize to include the more “popular” genres of jazz, Broadway, and film music. What should be included in "American" music?
In this respect, Music Director Michael Morgan couldn’t have chosen a better work to inaugurate the series than George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, presented at the Paramount Theater in an abridged concert version. In a throwback to days when accessibility and entertainment weren’t taboo, Morgan freely incorporated "popularizing" ploys that are still shunned in rarefied academic circles. Neither he nor the orchestra were in formal concert dress, instead donning the all-black uniforms of humble stagehands.

Morgan took several liberties with the score, speaking to the audience during the overture (while it was playing) and explaining that large chunks of the music had been cut out in the interest of saving time — something Gershwin routinely did himself but which can strike purists as sacrilege — and that the resulting story gaps would be filled with spoken narration. The result sometimes had the look of last-minute preparations — there were several instances when the subtitle operator had trouble coordinating with the singers — but the audience was won over by an evening of pure enjoyment.
Where Formal Meets Colloquial
DuBose Heyward’s libretto poses special challenges to performers. Singers have to reconcile their vocal training with the diction of Southern dialect. The results are usually amusing, as they were in Friday’s performance. Idiomatic diction like "Yoow iz ... I yiz" was flawlessly enunciated as “You is … I is.” The subtitles kept up a sort of running feud with the libretto’s pervasive slang, rendering phrases like "I’s a-comin' " more decorously into "I'm coming."

But the cast, featuring James Monroe Iglehart as Porgy, Dara Rahming as Bess, and Joseph Wright as Crown, demonstrated how much the mixture of popular and art genres can stimulate creativity. Rahming, for her part, displayed the kind of formal vocal poise that befits her bio (which includes past parts in Tosca, Il corsaro, and The Magic Flute). Iglehart, too, sang in operatic style when he was paired with Rahming. In "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," the two matched each other note for vibrato-tinged note.

But Iglehart is equally at home in the Broadway style, as his musical-theater-heavy resume reveals, and he used this to his advantage, showing more vocal flexibility than any of his cosingers. In Porgy’s signature tune, "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'," Iglehart demonstrated that vibratoless singing, used adroitly, is an equally powerful way to add coloristic nuance to words. He leaned into the lines "Got my gal, got my Lawd, got my song" with straight-toned sincerity, subtly but palpably personalizing the song, and earning a collective smile from the audience.

It was the supporting cast, in particular, who saw to it that the concert version did not lack theatricality. Trente Morant, who played Sportin’ Life with charmingly hammed-up histrionics, including a few rascally dances across the stage, was a standout. The chorus held its own against the featured soloists, admirably executing Gershwin’s lively choral numbers. Indeed, it was during these moments that Michael Morgan reminded us how engaging it can be when art serves primarily to entertain. In the gospel-influenced, hand-clapping "Leavin’ for the Promise' Lan’," Morgan’s energetic conducting, deftly navigating Gershwin’s syncopated rhythms, bordered on dancing.

It is not always easy to take pleasure in an opera that romanticizes the plight of poor Southern blacks. But to the extent that Gershwin was able to identify with the subjects of his opera, as he claimed to do, the importance of Porgy and Bess is less its sympathetic depictions of "low" culture than its use and acknowledgement of the contributions of popular genres to American music.

The "American Masterworks Series" continues next season with another composer who blurs the line between high and popular art, Stephen Sondheim. His Follies (1971) will be performed in concert version in May 2008. If Friday’s success is any indication, we have much to look forward to.

Noel Verzosa is a visiting assistant professor at California State University in Sacramento.