No one does Gershwin the way the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra does. John Morris Russell, the BPO's principal pops conductor, proved that when he started out the pops season with a Gershwin birthday celebration.
It is a happy day for Buffalo when the pops season starts back up again. Russell must feel that way too. He was full of pep and good cheer.
He began the night with a big, glitzy Gershwin melody that kicked off with "Swanee," segued into a nostalgic "The Man I Love" and then swung into a martial "Strike Up the Band." Winding up the medley with a flourish, he whirled around.
"Hello, Buffalo,” he yelled into Kleinhans Music Hall.
True to form as Buffalonians, we all bawled our hellos.
"When I got here on Thursday, it was summer," the maestro shouted. "Today, it's fall. You definitely have absolutes here in Buffalo, and I respect that."
Russell then reminded us of the record of Gershwin the BPO made with then-Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, the album that caught Woody Allen's attention and found its way into the movie "Manhattan."
As always, he had done his homework. With dates and details clearly in his head, he filled us in on the background of every piece on the program. We heard about how a trip to Havana inspired the jazzy "Cuban Overture," how the "Promenade" was written for an interlude in "Shall We Dance" in which society folks were walking their dogs.
The context adds to the music. Thinking of dogs, you could hear in "Promenade" the animals' sniffs, yips and yaps. William Amsel, our principal clarinetist, had the starring role in that piece and nailed the sophisticated fun of it.
All the music we heard, albeit not all of it orchestrated by Gershwin, was witty and wonderful. The BPO, individually and as a group, made the most of every note.
Russell brought out a singer, the young mezzo soprano Nicole Thomas. In a warm, rich voice, she gave us "I've Got a Crush on You" and "Someone To Watch Over Me." The feeling was genuine and affecting, the accompaniments lush, romantic and retro. Everyone involved deserves credit for not hurrying these two numbers, for taking their time. Too often these songs are rushed.
Also on hand was a young hotshot pianist, Ray Ushikubo. He played the "I Got Rhythm" Variations and it was a blast. Ushikobo is just 17 but is tremendously self-possessed. Dressed for success in traditional concert finery, he showed respect for the occasion, and he gave us a great display of virtuosity. He is an entertainer as well as a whale of a pianist. Ushikubo is going to Curtis to study with Gary Graffman and though I wish him the best in his classical studies, I hope he does not lose that side of him, that showman side.
Basking in the "Bravos" that followed his piano performance, Ushikobo then did the unthinkable -- he returned with a violin.
"There is a set of 'I Got Rhythm' Variations for violin, too," Russell informed us. "Buckle up, because here we go."
I'll be honest -- I had heard enough of this particular song for the moment. But even I melted as Ushikubo worked his magic, this time on violin. He got the crowd yelling all over again. I cannot quite imagine what his future will entail, but I imagine it will be bright.
"He'll be back in a minute with a contrabassoon," cracked Russell, always ready with a laugh.
Somewhere in this mix were other Gershwin masterpieces. "Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture" gave us the hits from the opera, including an "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'" played on a banjo. The brass blasted in "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon For New York," and it all ended with great cascades of sound, cresting in a final crashing boom.
Talk about a night of bombast. I found myself hoping Russell would bring the singer out again, to vary the texture. It also would have been nice to hear more of Gershwin's songs, including the lyrics penned so beautifully by his brother, Ira. It would also have added subtlety to the evening.
But who's complaining? Not I, I decided, as the orchestra wound things up with an apocalyptic "An American in Paris."
Strike up the band!
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Pops Concert celebrates the birthday of George Gershwin, Sept. 22 at Kleinhans Music Hall.