Tuesday, 03 August 2021

That ain’t Gershwin, by George!

THIS year’s Henley Festival, under its new CEO, Charlotte Geeves, had a slightly different feel to

THIS year’s Henley Festival, under its new CEO, Charlotte Geeves, had a slightly different feel to it.

The peripheral fare — the roving troupe of entertainers in fantastical costumes and masks, on stilts, in bizarre vehicles, and the fireworks, sculptures and art galleries — was, as ever, impressive.

However, on this particular evening, the pre- and post- floating stage acts were not wholly convincing. Not so much in the performances, which were excellent in their own right, but in how they were used.

Darren Hodge, unquestionably an accomplished guitarist, felt out of place in the busy Bedouin tent, while in the Salon, Mydy Rabycad, loud and led by red-headed eccentric Zofie Darbujanova, would have been better deployed in a late-night gig rather than nullifying all attempts at conversation between al fresco diners at the adjacent Crooked Billet’s pop-up restaurant.

One redeeming feature was The Horne Section in the Late Salon, an eclectic mix of stand-up comedy, audience involvement and outlandish music — a bevy of laughs from beginning to end.

Billed as the festival’s classical night and a celebration of Gershwin’s music, the floating stage headline concert, directed by Troy Miller and Fabio D’Andrea, was a misnomer on both counts.

Rhapsody in Blue was almost the only genuine piece of Gershwin. And while it was brilliantly performed by Ji Lui on piano, the accompanying cut-down Philharmonia Orchestra was emasculated by poor amplification (arguably unnecessary).

Conversely, the piano was excessively magnified to the point of distortion, leaving the upper strings almost inaudible. A pair of ballet dancers, Ballet Black, accompanied the slow movement.

Before and after the piano concerto, singers Laura Mvula and Gregory Porter, the eminent jazz vocalist, sang various Gershwin songs, including I Got Rhythm and A Foggy Day, which, while well delivered, were largely unrecognisable in newly-created pop arrangements that owed little or nothing to the composer’s original scoring.

Bizarrely, a Billie Holiday number, God Bless The Child, was sung unaccompanied by Porter. He also performed his own duet Water Under Bridges with Laura Mvula, which worked extremely well, as did Embraceable You, benefiting from more accessible orchestration.

Perversely, of the three singers, surprise guest débutante Shona McGarty (Whitney in EastEnders) was the most engaging, displaying a distinctive, powerful voice and great expression, especially on I Loves You Porgy.

Another interesting choice, Alison Balsom, trumpeter and Gramophone Artist of the Year 2013, gave a well-received account of Gershwin’s Three Preludes.

Overall, however, this “celebration” of Gershwin’s music was misjudged. The producers/arrangers appear to have gone out of their way to abandon Gershwin’s trademark jazz orchestration for the sake of a Hollywood-style “show”.

Why feature classics like Summertime and Someone to Watch Over Me (just listen to Sinatra) and then strip out Gershwin’s own harmonies — the one compositional element that really mattered?

This was a dumbed-down extravaganza aimed more at flattering arrangers’ egos than presenting the sumptuous world of Gershwin’s compositions to an audience that was as receptive as any.

And it was certainly not the right response to the “overwhelming popular demand” for a full orchestral classical concert.

Review: Trevor Howell

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