Lisa Vroman and Stuart Chafetz

Oh, to have been at that party: Gershwin and Friends

By: David Lewellen

Published April 4th, 2017

Talk to Lisa Vroman about George Gershwin and Cole Porter, and she’ll keep coming back to the night in Paris when the two legendary songwriters played together at the piano until 3 a.m.

“Oh, to have been at that party,” said Vroman, who will be the featured vocalist at this weekend’s “Gershwin and Friends” Pops concert at the Pabst Theater. The MSO has done several Gershwin  concerts in recent years, but this time, the theme is the cross-fertilization that produced many composers’ contributions to the “great American songbook” of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s.

“Who influenced whom?” Vroman wondered. “They all knew each other.” The creative fertility also included lyricists Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, and Oscar Hammerstein — who in his later years mentored the young Stephen Sondheim.

As well as singing, Vroman said, “I’m an educator. I want to tell people things and give them a reason to listen to the next song.” For the songwriters of the early 20th century, that means placing them in context with one another. The MSO concert will also feature the music of Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin and Kurt Weill.

“Call me crazy, but I think people still want to hear this music live,” said Vroman, who sang Christine in The Phantom of the Opera more than 2,700 times on Broadway and on tour. “I love bringing the intimacy of Broadway to the symphonic stage. The orchestra is not a backup band.” That is particularly true because her husband, Patrick O’Neil, is an orchestrator who has done most of her arrangements.

The concert pays tribute to the exciting atmosphere of Paris in the 1920s with Porter’s “Can-Can” overture and Gershwin’s classic An American in Paris, which Stuart Chafetz, who will conduct this weekend’s concerts, compared to a Richard Strauss tone poem – “Yes, it has taxi horns, but it’s got that same thick, rich texture. I learn something new every time.”

Chafetz previously spent four years as the MSO’s resident conductor. “When I think of Gershwin, I think of Marvin,” he said, referring to Marvin Hamlisch, the late composer who was the MSO’s principal pops conductor from 2008 until his death in 2012. “He loved that whole world. He would get that sparkle in his eye about Gershwin.” Sometimes Hamlisch would ask Chafetz to conduct while he played piano, “and I felt like ‘Wayne’s World,’” Chafetz joked. “I’m not worthy!

Hamlisch’s work continues the tradition of the songbook, Chafetz said — “It all comes back to the roots of Gershwin and Tin Pan Alley.” 

Gershwin was an early example of the crossover artist, making both the jazz and classical worlds his own. “Is Porgy and Bess an opera or a musical? Tomayto, tomahto,” Chafetz said — citing an Ira Gershwin lyric that has passed into the vernacular on its own.

On a recent visit, Chafetz noticed that “the orchestra sounds better than I ever remember. There’s a lot of new faces and a rising spirit. So I’m really anxious to hear how it’s going to sound in the Pabst. That venue is a perfect match” for the repertoire.

Chafetz and Vroman have worked together in the past at other orchestras. Since this is the MSO’s third Gershwin-themed concert in recent years, the two brainstormed on how to set it apart and came up with the idea of showing the influences that he and other composers had on each other. On Friday, the two will rehearse with piano at 8:00 a.m., with orchestra at 10:00 a.m., and do the concert at 8:00 p.m. “It’s like a swim meet,” Vroman joked. “I really have to pace myself.”