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At Tanglewood, a BSO take on Gershwin

By Jeffrey Gantz
Globe Correspondent / August 7, 2011

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While the American Repertory Theater prepares to open its musical-theater version of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess’’ in Cambridge, the Boston Symphony Orchestra is getting ready for its own semi-staged concert performance at Tanglewood on Aug. 26 under Bramwell Tovey.

It might seem the productions were planned to complement each other, but in fact the timing is “absolutely coincidence,’’ according to Anthony Fogg, the BSO’s artistic administrator. “We had no idea they were even thinking about it.’’

“It’s a great piece of music,’’ Fogg says. “A couple of years ago, Bramwell did a performance at the Hollywood Bowl, and we’ve been looking for an opportunity to work with him. He’s a terrific conductor, he’s very efficient, and he’s known to be someone who’s very good at being able to put together big projects in a short period of time.’’

For his part, Tovey, who was born in East London and studied at the Royal Academy alongside Simon Rattle, says he grew up improvising on Gershwin’s music at the piano.

“I was drawn in by the hit tunes, I guess like everybody, and then mesmerized by the depth of the piece. I actually conducted the complete opera for the first time in London maybe 25 years ago, for the BBC,’’ he says. “I wouldn’t call myself a specialist at all, I just love the opera. I’d not been to Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony, so when Tony rang and said, ‘How about bringing “Porgy’’ to Tanglewood?’ well, it’s rather like saying, ‘Would you like to move into Buckingham Palace?’ ’’

This “Porgy’’ will reflect the cuts Gershwin made for the Broadway opening after the opera’s 1935 Colonial Theatre premiere. Gone, Fogg acknowledges, “are a number of chunks of music from the big version you may know from recordings. But it brings it down to a manageable length, and it does move the drama along much more quickly.’’

Tanglewood will also have the all-black cast that Gershwin insisted on for the singing roles, with a number of principals from the Hollywood Bowl performance - including Alfred Walker as Porgy, Nicole Cabell as Clara, Marquita Lister as Serena, and Jermaine Smith as Sportin’ Life - plus Laquita Mitchell as Bess.

“They’re quite amazing, the quality of singing and the energy they bring into the room,’’ Tovey enthuses. “They’ve all sung their roles, and usually they’ve sung other roles in the opera, too, several times.’’

Then there is the eternal question: Is “Porgy’’ a musical, or is it an opera? When it comes to the original, Tovey is in no doubt. “People have said that Gershwin is really a Broadway composer, but that’s a misunderstanding about the nature of Gershwin’s music. I believe it’s an opera. We’re doing it with operatic voices. I think the use of leitmotifs and various themes and ideas gives the whole score a narrative and an architectural structure that is way beyond being a regular musical.’’

Fogg concurs. “I think it’s very much an opera. The models that we know Gershwin had in mind were ‘Meistersinger’ and ‘Boris Godunov’ - big chorus operas with a noble but somewhat tormented central figure - and you can see exactly how he adapted that to his piece. But, you know, it’s such a wonderful piece that it’s open to different interpretations, and that’s what great art is all about.’’

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.

PORGY AND BESS

Presented by the Boston Symphony Orchestra

At: Tanglewood, Lenox, Aug. 26. Tickets: $9-$91. 617-266-1200, www.bso.org