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In Review > Concerts and Recitals

Porgy and Bess

HIGHLAND PARK, IL
Bobby McFerrin & Chicago Symphony Orchestra

THE CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA initiated their summer residency at the Ravinia Festival on July 8 with an excellent concert traversal of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, conducted by the inimitable Bobby McFerrin. It was a wet and chilly summer night, but the capacity audience could have cared less about the weather.

The evening’s soloists deftly reflected both the work’s operatic and Broadway roots. Leading man Brian Stokes Mitchell provided a real tour-de-force performance. Identified simply as “vocalist” in the program, Mitchell sang Porgy’s music beautifully, as well as that for Jake and Sportin’ Life, and created vivid, specific characters for each. His “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’”, here taken at an unusually brisk tempo, was one of the very best in memory, and he reeked smarmy charm in “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Jake’s “It Takes a Long Pull to Get There” was fabulous. Very few performers have managed to so successfully field the tricky amalgam of legit vocalism and theatrical flair required in this piece as Mr. Mitchell did here.

Mitchell was partnered by the delectable Nicole Cabell as Bess. Cabell recorded Clara in a complete Porgy with the Nashville Symphony some years back, and sounded like a Bess in training even then. She reprised “Summertime” at Ravinia, but we also finally heard her in the title soprano role, and it was something to hear. Her voice was big and creamy, with just enough bite in the timbre to keep things interesting, and she was keenly responsive to text. Cabell handled the jazz/blues influences in the score quite well, particularly with her oozing entry in “What You Want Wid’ Bess?” Her chemistry with Mitchell was palpable, and her exotic beauty sure didn’t hurt.

Baritone Stephen Salters did a terrific job as Crown and the Crab Man. Soprano Lauren Michelle, a recent Metropolitan Opera National Council finalist and Cardiff competitor, delivered Serena’s “My Man’s Gone Now” movingly. Contralto Gwendolyn Brown did double duty as an earthy Maria, a role she essayed at Lyric Opera earlier this season, and a delightfully intoned Strawberry Woman.

McFerrin’s long association with this score was everywhere apparent in his swaying presence and musical acumen (his father, the great American baritone Robert McFerrin, dubbed the role of Porgy for the Otto Preminger film soundtrack, which became “the soundtrack of our lives” per son Bobby). The CSO delivered a gorgeous account of the original orchestrations, including the complete and rarely heard “Jazbo Brown’s Blues” in the Introduction, dispatched with great verve by pianist Patrick Godon. The youthful voices of Vocality, under the direction of Josephine Lee, delivered the choruses with gusto, with special mention to soloists Tramaine Parker, Samantha Farmilant, Lisa Roth, Mike Pope, Saalik Ahmed, and Kyle Sackett. Ko-Thi Dance Company’s six-member African drum ensemble opened the Kittiwah Island interlude, and reappeared after the final calls to send the capacity audience out of the Pavilion and into the pluvial evening with smiles on their faces. With music making like this, what’s a little rain? —Mark Thomas Ketterson

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