After the sparkling performance of George Gershwin’s little gem of variations on one of his most popular songs, an audience member asked her husband “Do you want to stay after intermission?” Certainly the atmosphere had been more that of a Pops concert with hearty applause after the first movement of the concerto as well as an ovation at the end; but at that moment it struck me that the ears that savored the pleasures of Gershwin might not relish the kaleidoscopic astringencies of Stravinsky. The much less enthusiastic audience reception for the ballet score affirmed this, despite a performance that capably revealed the colors and shapes of this astonishing breakthrough work.
I’m sure I wasn’t alone in my keen anticipation of this reprise of the 2011 Tanglewood performance of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess — not to here an excellent performance of a “good” version of the opera once again, but to hear it properly for the first time. As I said in my preview of this performance, the Tanglewood performance was totally vitiated — ruined — by the extensive use of amplification for the singers. None of Berkshire Review writers who attended wanted to review it. Although virtually the entire cast consisted of established opera singers, it was thought necessary to provide them with individual microphones.
Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater production of Porgy and Bess, bound for Broadway later in the fall, makes for an evening of very professional, polished theater, with a compelling dramatic presence on the part of the two principals. It is altogether not as moving or exciting as it should be—more of that later. But the show is attractive in many ways, and on the official opening night, September 1st, the audience leapt to its feet at the end and applauded long and hard. Everybody onstage sings and dances very well, and everything is carefully coordinated and flows easily along (choreographer: Ronald K. Brown). Natasha Yvette Williams as Mariah the imposing senior woman in the African-American “Catfish Row” community, and David Alan Grier as Sportin’ Life, the outsider prosperous drug pusher, were especially vivid among the supporting cast—Grier did mesmerizing and almost show-stopping turns with his numbers “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” speaking against religion and conventional morality, and “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York,” seducing Bess away at the end. But all the cast were focused and effective when coming to the fore—Nikki Renée Daniels as Clara opening the piece singing “Summertime” with a real infant in her arms, or Bryonha Marie Parham as Serena, widowed by a violent crime and turning to religion.
Williams has traditionally placed a high value on the arts without exactly pursuing the disciplines to the level of more specialized institutions, like Bard or Oberlin, except perhaps in the visual arts. The ‘62 Center has changed that in respect to theater, and the new facilities, as well as the distinguished faculty who have been hired to go with it, like Omar Sangare, the brilliant Polish playwright, poet, and actor, have attracted the sort of students who might otherwise have chosen Yale or Tisch. The Williams community, Berkshire residents, and whoever decides to make the trip, can expect great things in the future. Music, while very much a Cinderella in terms of physical plant, considering the problematic acoustics of Brooks-Rogers and Chapin Hall, is nonetheless richly endowed with talent of the first order, and many of these assets were much in evidence this past weekend in departmental chairman David Kechley (recently awarded an ASCAPlus Award as well as an Aaron Copland Award composer residency from Copland House), cellist-conductor Ronald Feldman, and, on Sunday, David Porter, Harry C. Payne Visiting Professor of Liberal Arts, who is as much a classicist as a musician.