SB Symphony Finale: Porgy and Bess

Gershwin, a Symphony, and a World Premiere

Laquita Mitchell

Few works by American composers have enjoyed the splendid afterlife of George and Ira Gershwin’s “folk opera,” Porgy and Bess. Controversial from the moment it premiered in 1935, this fantasy on African-American themes is set on Catfish Row, a poor district of Charleston, South Carolina, that’s home to fishermen, drug dealers, and murderers. The action swings back and forth across the water as the characters come and go from Catfish to Kittiwah, a fictional island off the coast of Charleston.

When the Santa Barbara Symphony moves into the Granada this weekend, Saturday, May 16, and Sunday, May 17, for its final concert of the season, the players will be in fine company, as the Santa Barbara Choral Society and high-profile vocal soloists Laquita Mitchell and Michael Sumuel will be joining them for the Gershwin. Expect to hear the greatest of all seasonal theme songs, the magnificent “Summertime,” rendered with the taste, beauty, and sheer sonic heft that a full orchestra with a chorus can provide.

In addition to the Americana of Gershwin, there will be two more pieces by splendid American composers: Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 “Romantic” and a world premiere, Arioso for Strings, Oboe, and Percussion by Dan Redfield.

While Hanson was a near contemporary of the Gershwins, Redfield is very much a figure of the 21st century. His Arioso was composed in response to the experience of waiting to board a flight from New York to Los Angeles on the morning of September 11, 2001. Needless to say the flight was cancelled; Redfield made his way from the airport into a stricken and confused Manhattan in the back of a taxi. He describes that cab ride as giving birth to the work that will be played this weekend, saying, “Each firehouse we passed had makeshift memorials of candles, flowers, and photographs strewn out front. As we passed these buildings, I recall hearing strains of the Arioso in my mind.”

Arioso is dedicated to the first responders who lost their lives that day, and it ought to work well with the Hanson and the Gershwin, as Redfield’s style takes the best of American music and reimagines it from a contemporary, Romantic point of view. The concerts are Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.


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