I can’t remember the last time that I heard a concert, of any genre, during which I felt so totally connected with the music performed. That’s what I experienced while attending “By George! The Boston Pops plays Gershwin,” Sunday at the Palladium in Carmel, Indiana. The concert, which featured the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra led by conductor Keith Lockhart, was the last stop on the group’s seven-city, seven-state Midwest tour.
Because I am an unabashed fan of the American Songbook and the music of George and Ira Gershwin, I was already predisposed to enjoy the “By George!” concert featuring an ensemble of virtuoso musicians, led by its buoyant conductor, interpreting some of the greatest popular music of all time. I was not disappointed.
Known as “America’s Orchestra,” the world renowned Boston Pops, consisting of 50 members for the concert, were joined by guest artists. They were pianist Michael Chertock, bass Justin Hopkins and soprano Erica Spyres who performed for a nearly full house, made up primarily of a seniors and a sprinkling of young people. The orchestra played many of the Gershwin’s most recognizable compositions including one my favorites— “An American in Paris.” Most recently I had the pleasure of hearing our own accomplished Indianapolis Pops play the score of the film of the same title, while it was being shown. Consequently, it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to hearing Gershwin’s masterpiece performed by the Boston Pops.
A jazz-influenced symphonic poem, “An American in Paris” was written in 1928. It was inspired by the time Gershwin had spent in Paris and attempted to musically reflect the sights and energy of the French capital in the 1920s. As interpreted by Pops, the tempo of the piece conveyed the vitality Gershwin must have surely intended and each of its five episodes was performed with flawless perfection. What a privilege it was to experience such refined musicianship.
Other highlights of the concert were the orchestra’s instrumental performance of “Fascinating Rhythm”: golden toned Spyres with her operatic voice singing “By Strauss”; “Slap That Bass” sung by velvety voiced Hopkins, accompanied by two Pops upright bass players; “an instrumental of “Summertime” from “Porgy & Bess” with concertmaster Charles Dimmick in a stunning violin solo; and charismatic Hopkins and Spyres in a sparkling duet of a medley that included “Embraceable You,” “Somebody Loves Me,” and “‘S Wonderful.”
As far as I am concerned, the Boston Pops saved the best for the last, concluding the program with “Rhapsody in Blue.” From the opening clarinet wail to its dynamic finish, the iconic composition, a combination of classical music and jazz effects, was seamlessly played by the orchestra. Arranged by Paul Whiteman and written for solo piano and jazz band, the piece featured virtuoso pianist Chertock in a precise, exhilarating performance. The 17-minute piece is generally acknowledged as being way ahead of its time when it premiered in 1924. While introducing the work, Lockhart made reference to the fact that it still sounds “fresh and new,” a sentiment with which I heartily agree I tried to imagine how it must have sounded to the Aeolian Hall, NYC opening audience which included luminaries John Phillips Sousa and Sergei Rachmaninoff. No doubt it blew some minds. It certainly still blows mine.
Following a ubiquitous, but in this case, more than well-deserved standing ovation, the orchestra played “Strike Up The Band.” It was an ideal conclusion to a satisfying evening of entertainment. Ultimately, I left the Palladium feeling ecstatic, inspired and fortunate that my fellow audiences members and I were exposed to the singular artistry of Lockhart and the Boston Pops.