Proms: Rowdy rhapsody in black and white

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE MAN entrusted with the first-ever Proms performance of the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess made a lightning switch from conductor to bar- room pianist, from the person of Wayne Marshall to that of Jasbo Brown, in the opening minutes of this much-loved classic. One moment he was powering the BBC Concert Orchestra through the jazzy xylophone-crazy incantations of the prelude, the next he had donned his battered trilby and was jangling out the low-down blues on a low-down honky-tonk. He knew where it was coming from; he'd digested it as thoroughly as had George Gershwin himself. And that's important, because the real glory of Porgy and Bess lies in the fact that the Gershwins not only recognised but easily assimilated the legacy of an entire musical culture. They borrowed nothing they could not pay back with interest, and what they borrowed came with all its social and political implications intact. You don't just get the tunes in Porgy and Bess, you get the whole emotional subtext across countless generations of the African- American experience. You get the journey - the hopes, the fears, the aspirations. George and Ira Gershwin could relate to that. When they penned "My Man's Gone Now", the synagogue and the southern baptist church were suddenly of one mind, one voice, one song. And it mourned, it wept, it ached real bad - but it was good, real good.

So you need to know how this music goes; you need to have known it, as it were, in another life. And Wayne Marshall did, he really did. But - and there is a "but", a big one - Marshall is a terrific pianist, but he's a fledgling conductor. And it showed. Not in his face, his body language, and his self-evident relish of all that this great score has to throw at us, but in his ability to realise it in the sound. That's technique. Watching him, you knew how it should sound, how he wanted it to sound. The reality was rather different. Marshall's volatility was clearly hard to read. Ensemble was frequently dodgy, rubatos clumsily turned, and phrasing either short or long-winded. Bottom line: you cannot communicate the multiplicitous phrasings of this score simply by feeling them. Dynamics were all ratcheted up too loud, frequently at the expense of singers (though I liked the edge of the BBC Concert Orchestra - a brazen, showbizzy edge where woodwinds lick it out and horns behave like saxophones), and when he did "find" a genuine climax, as at the end of act three, scene two, where Sportin' Life's temptation of Bess is ripped out in a brassy reprise of "There's a Boat dat's leavin' soon for New York", he spoilt it by over-egging it. As I say - technique, and experience.

My other problem was the chorus. No disrespect to the BBC Singers and Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, but they were white, very white. And that's the difference between being part of the revivalist meeting and simply an uninvited guest at it. Accept no substitutes. You wouldn't, couldn't, among the principals. Several here were veterans of Catfish Row - and while the years may have taken some of the lustre off the voices, Willard White's Porgy and Cynthia Haymon's Bess are still in remarkable shape. When White sings "when Gawd make the cripple, he mean him to be lonely", his life's story flashes before your eyes. When Haymon sings anything at all, you hear a voluptuous woman denied her dignity. "Summertime" finds longing in Maureen Brathwaite's pristine top; as Serena, Cynthia Clarey's soaring melismas can still make it over to the "the other side"; while Michael Forest's Sportin' Life (a little too "soft-grained" operatic for me) finds redemption in Ira Gershwin's waspish lyrics.

So, too, the excellent Marietta Simpson, who sees him off with her deliciously venomous "rap" tirade "I hates yo' struttin' style". That's a scene-stealer up there with Hyacinth Nicholls' Strawberry Woman's street cry. But the Promised Land? Well, maybe next time.

Edward Seckerson