The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra opened a three-concert centennial tribute to George Gershwin this weekend with a concert performance of "Porgy and Bess" (1935), the American folk opera that may be his most enduring legacy -- except for "Rhapsody in Blue," "An American in Paris" and all those songs.
It was grandly sung by a fine lineup of soloists and Morgan State University's 63-voice choir, which had been well prepared by Nathan Carter.
The leads included Mark S. Doss as the irrepressible Porgy; Cynthia Haymon (on Friday) as beautiful but weak-willed Bess; Tichina Vaughn as Serena ("My Man's Gone Now"); Janice Chandler as Clara ("Summertime"); Thomas Young as Sportin' Life ("It Ain't Necessarily So"); and Terry Cook as Crown.
Chandler, who has one of the loveliest soprano voices on earth, sang Bess (as well as Clara) in the Thursday and Saturday performances. A devout Seventh-day Adventist, she does not sing "impure" music on the Sabbath, which must be an inconvenience and certainly an expense for the BSO. This is the second time in a year that it's been necessary to hire a second soloist to sing the lyrics Chandler won't.
But at least this time we got to hear Haymon, who sings Bess on the acclaimed Glyndebourne Festival recording (1991) of the opera. The last time I saw her, in 1985 at the Virginia Opera, she was on crutches, having broken her leg in rehearsal for the premiere of Thea Musgrave's Harriet Tubman opera "The Woman Called Moses."
At least one member of Morgan State's choir sang as beautifully as the soloists: soprano AnDraea Keene, who had several lines in the elegy to a man killed in a dice game. Keene just won the gold medal in the 1998 Rosa Ponselle Charitable Foundation's All Marylanders voice auditions.
Andre Raphel Smith, assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, led the production, whose only fault was balance. Though it was wonderful to hear this music -- as raffish, anguished, jubilant, passionate, bawdy, corrupt, grief-stricken, violent and tender as the residents of Catfish Row in Charleston, S.C. -- played by a first-class full orchestra, the instruments often drowned out the singers.
The Gershwin tribute continues Friday and Saturday with a pops concert of songs and standards led by pianist-conductor Andrew Gerle. On May 15-17, the BSO will play an all-Gershwin instrumental program with pianist Marcus Roberts playing the "Rhapsody in Blue." For ticket information, call 410-783-8000.
Pub Date: 5/04/98