MusicFest Vancouver: Artists go ga-ga for timeless George Gershwin
Sylvia McNair is so effervescent you can almost hear the phone lines fizzing. To begin with, the singer is excited about coming to Vancouver—one of the few urban centres in North America, she notes, where she has never performed. She’s enthused, too, about the people she’s coming with: pianist Kevin Cole and tap dancer Ryan VanDenBoom, who’ll join conductor Leslie Dala and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra to kick off the 2012 edition of MusicFest Vancouver with Here to Stay: The Gershwin Experience.
“To sing music I love, with people I love, in a place I’m sure I’m going to love? For me, life doesn’t get any better than that,” says the soprano, in a telephone interview from her home in Bloomington, Indiana.
According to McNair, her role in this tribute to composer George Gershwin and his lyricist brother Ira is relatively easy. “What do I have to do?” she says with playful bemusement. “Oh, I don’t know: be brilliant and charming and look gorgeous? That’s about it, really!”
McNair has nothing but high praise for her colleagues, and especially for Cole, whose on-stage tasks include replicating Gershwin’s piano magic in 1924’s Rhapsody in Blue, arguably the first successful attempt to fuse classical form with jazz syncopation.
The respect is clearly mutual.
“It’s always fun to work with people who have self-awareness, are secure, and have more talent than they know what to do with—and Sylvia qualifies in all those categories,” says the pianist, interviewed while visiting his parents in Bay City, Michigan.
“I told her ‘Somewhere in heaven an angel doesn’t have a voice because you stole it,’” he adds with a laugh. “I know that sounds like a line out of a ’30s movie, but it’s just not that fair that she has that beautiful face and that beautiful voice comes out of it. She’s the real deal.”
For McNair, Here to Stay is a welcome diversion from her own concerts of classical and popular music, and from her day job as professor of voice at Indiana University. For Cole, though, the show is the culmination of a nearly lifelong obsession that began when, by purest chance, he stumbled onto a late-night broadcast of the 1945 Gershwin biopic Rhapsody in Blue. “I was seven years old,” he recalls. “I had already been playing the piano for a few years at that point, but the musical numbers in that movie were done so well that it inspired me more to find out about Gershwin.”
His research paid off big-time when, at 16, he found himself knocking on the New York City door of Edward Jablonski, author of The Gershwin Years and another Bay City native. (As, strangely, is VanDenBoom.) Noting Cole’s uncanny ability to capture the essence of Gershwin’s piano style, the historian soon introduced him to the surviving members of the composer’s circle, including Gershwin’s long-time mistress and muse Kay Swift.
“I’d play for them, and Kay once said, ‘I think I speak for everyone here when I say we haven’t heard the piano sound like that since George,’” Cole says. “It was one of those Twilight Zone moments, because it wasn’t anything I’d studied; it was just the way it came out when I saw the notes on the page.”
As for why a child of the turbulent ’60s should be so enraptured by this decades-old music, Cole can only conclude that Gershwin’s songs are timeless.
“When Gershwin was born, in 1898, he would have heard the clippity-clop of horses’ hooves, and the songs of pushcart vendors, and things like that,” he says. “But then, by the teens, he’d be hearing automobile sounds and skyscrapers being built, so all this industrial machinery and those noises were going on. It was a whole changeover in the ambient sound of the city, and that all influenced him. He heard music in everything, so he just channelled it through that brain of his to create something uniquely American—and the music still leaps off the page.”
Here to Stay: The Gershwin Experience is at the Orpheum Theatre on Friday (August 10).