October 12, 2012
The Chicago Humanities Festival will explore the theme of "America" this year, so it was wholly appropriate that its Gala Benefit Evening featured two musicians well equipped to take on distinctly American music.
The 23d annual festival hasn't officially started, but the celebratory dinner and concert Wednesday night at the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago certainly set the tone for the events to come. Chicago pianist Kevin Cole interprets music of George Gershwin and his peers more idiomatically than just about anyone sitting at a keyboard today. Vocalist Sylvia McNair was trained in the classical manner, yet she stands as one of the few operatic sopranos who can be persuasive in the American songbook.
Together, Cole and McNair have been touring the country with a Gershwin show they excerpted for the Humanities Festival soiree and refashioned with music of other American masters. Vocally and pianistically, they captured both the colloquial phrasings and swing-tinged rhythm that distinguish classic American songwriting from the European tradition.
It didn't take more than a few bars of Gershwin's "Summertime," from "Porgy and Bess," to realize that McNair and Cole share a single vision of this music. McNair's silvery vocal lines found a plush, harmonically unorthodox accompaniment in Cole's pianism, the two stretching phrases and approaching cadences with unmistakable synchronicity.
It takes a brave vocalist, indeed, to take on "Summertime," a universally beloved Gershwin lullaby with a storied history of performances and recordings. McNair never was going to match the size and vocal voluptuousness of earlier, more celebrated renditions, but, to her credit, she didn't try to. Instead, she let her light, lyric soprano speak for itself, her translucent tone, alternate melody notes and gentle glissandi a pleasure to hear. All the more considering Cole's jazzy, luscious counterpoint.
Cole joined McNair in singing the Gershwins' "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," and his vocalizing has taken on new interest. For starters, his range has deepened, while his delivery isn't as self conscious as in the past. He sounds less like a pianist who's trying to sing, in other words, than a bona fide singer who happens to be at ease at the keyboard. Vocally, he appears to have benefited from spending time in McNair's company.
The most touching moment of their show came in a medley of Meredith Willson's "Till There Was You" and Richard Rodgers' "With a Song in My Heart," both unfurled at audaciously slow tempos. McNair took her time between phrases, letting the music breathe, as it must, while Cole anticipated her pauses in "Till There Was You" and followed her more rhapsodic gestures in "With a Song in My Heart."
If the novelty lyrics that McNair delivered in music from "Camelot," with Ravinia president Welz Kauffman at the piano, weren't as witty as one might have hoped, they surely showed how elusive the art of musical comedy can be. At the same time, however, this piece, and others on the program, expressed admiration for Harrison I. Steans, the festival board member who received the organization's Humanist Award, and his wife, Lois Steans, also a festival champion.
No such evening is complete, however, without a solo from Cole, who brought keyboard pyrotechnics to a medley of tunes he easily could have titled "Rhapsody in Berlin." Cole provided seemingly nonchalant virtuosity in music of Irving Berlin, as well as a comprehensive knowledge of 1920s- and '30s-style American piano techniques.
The man can make a piano laugh, and how many others still know how to do that?
The Chicago Humanities festival runs Sunday in Evanston; Oct. 21 in Hyde Park; and Nov. 1 through 11 citywide; visit chicagohumanities.org or phone 312-494-9509.
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