Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Gulf Coast Symphony: The Great Gershwin

In case it hasn't become apparent, I am in sampling mode as I settle into our new home in Southwest Florida.   The motto of the Gulf Coast Symphony--which is comprised of volunteer musicians--is "We Play the Music You Want to Hear" and the Gershwin evening filled the bill.

The music director and conductor of the Symphony is Andrew M. Kurtz (who received his doctorate at  Peabody Conservatory, which is where Scott is studying the trumpet).  Kurtz formed the Symphony 16 years ago to add to the cultural enrichment of Lee County.  The Symphony performs a range of concerts over each season (some classical, some pops) in a variety of venues, including two free Symphony at Sunset pops concerts.    Kurtz is also the General and Artistic Director of the Center City Opera Theater in Philadelphia.  I am learning that, like representatives in state government, the conductors of local orchestras seem to have multiple jobs--Maestro Wada of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra likewise is conductor of an orchestra in Massachusetts.

The opening number in the concert was Cuban Overture, a piece composed by Gershwin after a trip to Cuba.  The music was very evocative of the Caribbean and was just one example throughout the evening of the way that Gershwin drew from a variety of cultural influences when composing.  The composition required lots of percussion, with my favorite being the wood block.  (If I came back in another life as a musician, I would want to be a percussionist--what fun they must have running from one instrument to the next creating these wonderful sounds!)    It was a composition that most of the audience had not heard before and it was an upbeat way to get into the evening.

The high point of the concert was the performance of Rhapsody in Blue, which premiered in New York in 1924.  Guest pianist David Pasbrig (another Peabody guy) was really terrific and the orchestra supported him wonderfully.

No Gershwin concert would be complete without some of the favorite show tunes being performed.  I have to say that the choice of guest vocalist, Jason Switzer, was one of the disaapointments of the evening.  Switzer is a baritone who has previously performed with the Gulf Coast Symphony (and Kurtz' Central City Opera) and, while he has a beautiful, classically trained voice, I didn't think he was the right choice for Gershwin show tunes like They Can't Take That Away From Me.   Maybe I've spent too much time listening to Ella and Sarah Vaughn sing these numbers to find anyone else particularly satisfying, but Switzer just didn't swing.  His voice was much better suited to the excerpt he did from Porgy and Bess, Gershwin's famous folk opera.  (I can't ever hear a song from Porgy and Bess without remembering the time that Jay more or less forced Scott to watch the PBS telecast of the Lincoln Center performance of the show.   I recall coming into the room and watching the actor who was playing "Porgy" walking around the stage on his knees.  Never having seen the show, this struck me as ludicrous and I fled the room, feeling thankful that I didn't have to stay and watch.  Just a small confession from this music neophyte!) 

Overall, it was an enjoyable evening and a nice introduction to the Gulf Coast Symphony.  While you would never mistake them for the BSO, I applaud this group of amateur musicians for doing something they love and bringing music into the lives of their community.  It would be fun to go to one of the Symphony's outdoor pops concerts--a picnic, some stars, some nice music--it's hard to imagine a nicer way to spend an evening.   Yet one more thing to add to my ever-growing "to do" list!

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