Seattle Symphony Ends Its Pops season with a Gershwin marathon this weekend at Benaroya Hall

For decades the Seattle Symphony Orchestra Pops Series was one of its most reliable standbys. Costs were reasonable and box office very, very good. Then, those attending the concerts got older, then older still and inevitably ticket sales began to fall.

The symphony experimented with new programs, new soloists, new conductors in an effort to hold onto the lucrative past and propel it into a lucrative future. Marvin Hamlisch became part of that new world order upon his appointment at the beginning of this season as principal pops conductor.

If the Gershwin quintet of concerts this weekend at Benaroya Hall, ending Sunday afternoon, is any indication of his success, then he is very indiciation of this success, ten grade of his impact, indication, Hamlisch has been highly successful. The concerts have extremely well. The concert on Friday was standing room only, which would make any impresario happy. As important the demographics were terrific: all ages in all manner of dress, even teenagers on a date, from grandparents to a girl in the second row who was born when Benaroya opened its doors a decade ago.

Of course, the music of George Gershwin sells. Always has. Critics may complain about “structural deficiencies” in his larger works, but the many tunes he composer for the musical theater, film and concert stage, on which his reputation rests, remain a part of the American cultural fabric. A brain tumor killed him in 1937, a couple of months before his 38th birthday.

The program did not explore any kind of new territory. And there were no revelations. Rather it was a straightforward recitation of some of Gershwin’s greatest hits. No one seemed to mind. Since this is the closing weekend of Seattle Opera’s of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” half the orchestra is in the pit at McCaw Hall. No mind. Gershwin does not need a 100-piece orchestra.

There were excerpts from Gershwin’s great opera, “Porgy and Bess,” in an artful arrangement by Robert Russell Bennett. There were all sorts of pleasures, including some juicy brass solos. The other big numbers were “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Gershwin in Hollywood” (another arrangement by Bennett) and “An American in Paris.”

A Gershwin specialist, who has long researched the different variations found in “Rhapsody in Blue,” Kevin Cole was the piano soloist in the work. He has a sure grasp of the Gershwin idiom, and the technical means to execute it. The audience was entranced and gave him a standing ovation. He returned the compliment with a breezy encore.

Hamlisch likes to chat up the audience with anecdotes relevant to the music and musicians at hand. Some were quite funny Friday. He told several about the creation of “Rhapsody in Blue” but curiously neglected one of the most famous about the clarinet solo that begins the piece, even though he mentioned the solo. That is Gershwin wrote an ascending scale for solo clarinet for the opening, but during rehearsals, the clarinetist in Paul Whiteman’s orchestra transformed it into a jazzy glissando as a joke. Gershwin liked the effect so much it became part of the piece.

A well-known composer for the movies, as well as his various conducting gigs throughout the United States, Halmisch is also a pianist. And a good one. He played a little: “Swanee,” Gershwin’s first major hit, as well as such standards as “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Embraceable You.” He has a facile touch and a sure sense what makes Gershwin so appealing. He could have played more.

The overture to Gershwin’s 1927 musical “Funny Face” was dropped. I don’t why. No reasons were offered.

Briefly, Hamlish announced next season: a tribute to the 1950’s; a celebration of the 80th birthday of Stephen Sondheim; a Glenn Miller evening, and concert setting of “A Music Man.”


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