Gershwin Reimagined

MSO Gershwin Reimagined Laura Mvula and José JamesIt’s stunning to think that the George Gershwin-composed Rhapsody in Blue was first performed in 1924. Many of his songs from stage and screen, such as Someone to Watch Over Me, have become Jazz standards. Even a limited familiarity with the composer’s work was enough to stir my interest in Gershwin Reimagined.

The reimagining here was courtesy of conductor and arranger Troy Miller. Vocals for selected tracks were provided by British-born Laura Mvula, and Minneapolis native José James. Musical force was provided by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

The choice of “force” above was deliberate, owing to a post-bug headache I developed fairly early on. Volume was often used as a fairly unsubtle way of investing particular tunes with drama. I might have been enjoying sequences featuring optimism of the flautists and the merely hopeful woodwind tones, but the massed strings and blare of brass could knobble this. At times the MSO’s volume even challenged the vocals.

These incidences seemed to suggest something of a preoccupation with grunt in this performance – Mvula was even introduced as a “formidable” songwriter. I can only wonder why her bracket of original tunes with fairly pop-similar love-song lyrics belonged in this show.

Gershwin Reimagined might have benefited from what writers know as “Kill Your Darlings”. A good idea, say a simple glockenspiel melody on loop, may have had more value if used more sparingly at a volume that didn’t dominate the tune.

Some of the experiments with Gershwin tunes could take the performance in more unconventional, cerebral directions, such as selections from Catfish Row, the orchestral work which evolved from the music of Porgy and Bess. It was interesting to see some of these tunes rewarded with quite perfunctory applause.

This performance seemed to earn more enthusiastic approval when Gershwin’s melodies were less diffracted by the arranger’s vision, and the tunes tended to appeal more to the emotions.

Mvula’s delivery, say in I Got Rhythm, could have the punch of hot, strong filter coffee, and James exuded a smoky warmth, with S’Wonderful being a prime example. Their playful collaboration in They Can’t Take That Away From Me provided a particular highlight.

We didn’t get Rhapsody in Blue, but there were plenty of curiously appealing slants on well and lesser-known tunes in Gershwin Reimagined. The final applause indicates that the reimagining was a success.

Gershwin Reimagined
Hamer Hall – Arts Centre Melbourne, St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Saturday 1 June 2019 – 7.30pm

Image: Laura Mvula and José James feature in Gershwin Reimagined (supplied)

Review: Jason Whyte