The first of this season’s Portland Symphony Orchestra Pops concerts, on Saturday night at Merrill Auditorium, was devoted to the work of two of America’s most prominent songwriters, George Gershwin and Cole Porter. I wish I could say that it did them justice, but it did not.
Everything was upbeat, perhaps too much so, making many of the numbers, by Gershwin at least, seem overblown and not particularly melodic.
Part of the difficulty was in the tremendous overamplification of the singers’ voices. Five large stacked speakers on either side of the stage produced a volume that was painful at times.
The two Broadway stars, tenor Mike Eldred and soprano Jennifer Hope Wills, didn’t need the help. Their job is projection, not subtlety, and they could have reached the entire audience without electronics.
There was also a largely inaudible rhythm section in front of the orchestra. Except for a couple of piano riffs, it seemed to serve no purpose at all.
The orchestra came alive during a well-thought-out medley from “Porgy and Bess.” Unfortunately,it was followed by the most awful rendition of “Summertime” I have ever heard. As sung by Eldred, it reminded me of those ear-splitting, off-key versions of “The Star Spangled Banner” sung by the latest rock star before a football game.
To add insult to injury, someone changed the lyrics to be politically correct, like retouching a Rembrandt. “Porgy and Bess,” like “Huckleberry Finn,” is what it is.
Following that, it was a relief to hear Wills’ best ingenue voice in “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
Cole Porter fared better after intermission, starting with a fine orchestral version of “Begin the Beguine” in which one could hear the wind in the palms. The medley from “Can-Can” wasn’t as successful in capturing Porter’s type of sophistication.
“In the Still of the Night,” was the best vocal of the evening, by far, but still vastly over-amplified.
The Porter section ended with a cute version of “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love,” in which the slightly risque and impromptu verses kept coming, like Noel Coward’s on a good night. It led to a standing ovation and a lively version of “You’re the Top.”
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at [email protected]