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A Dayful of Gershwin

by Marc Shulgold 

Colorado Symphony music director Andrew Litton will certainly have his hands full when he walks onstage for an all-Gershwin matinee in Boettcher Concert Hall on Sunday. He'll be leading the orchestra, of course — but he'll also double as piano soloist and triple as ballet conductor. To hear him talk, it's no biggie.  

“I'll be at the keyboard for all but three minutes, 45 seconds of the concert,” the conductor noted with a little chuckle, seeming to relish all those challenging multi-tasks.

A lifelong fan of Gershwin — and a respected specialist in the American composer's music — Litton will be soloist in the beloved Rhapsody in Blue, and will also contribute occasional keyboard duties throughout the rest of the afternoon.

And what about that ballet conducting we mentioned?

Sunday's audience will enjoy a special treat as four brilliant dancers from New York City Ballet make a rare visit to Denver, collaborating with Litton and company in excerpts from legendary choreographer George Balanchine's balletic love letter to Gershwin, Who Cares? When this ambitious piece premiered in 1970, it exquisitely translated more than a dozen memorable songs into a dazzling display of bravura dancing.

“That will be so much fun,” Litton enthused. “The piece doesn't require a set, so we can just have the dancers perform in front of the orchestra.

“I've been playing those songs as pianist for 29 years,” he continued. “This will be my first time to do ballet in concert.” He'll repeat the program in New York on January 19.

Litton's appointment last December as Music Director at City Ballet may have surprised some folks in these parts, but to hear him talk, it's a perfect fit. Just as he enjoys collaborating with instrumental soloists in orchestral programs, he stressed that working with dancers merely adds to the joy of his profession.

“It's similar to conducting a concerto,” Litton said of his new role with the New York company. “When I rehearse with the dancers and give them a tempo, I'll ask them, 'Was that OK?' Once they hear what you're trying to achieve, they're happy. Balanchine was always very clear about setting tempos. To him, the music always came first.” Litton's tempos are predetermined in conversations with the company's ballet masters, he said.

The concept of inviting some of his new dancing friends to Boettcher Concert Hall came out of discussions with Robert Neu, the Colorado Symphony’s Senior Vice President of Artistic Planning. Litton added that he'd worked with Neu while serving as Artistic Director at Minnesota Summerfest.

The choice of which City Ballet dancers will travel to Denver was made by company managers. But selecting the music for this program was Litton's job. And here, he smartly stayed mostly clear of the usual Gershwinian line-up of Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, Cuban Overture, etc. Sure, Rhapsody is there (played in Ferde Grofé's original jazz-band setting). That masterpiece is inescapable but a look at the rest of the first half's offerings reveals some delightful surprises:

-  The Overture to Crazy For You, a Tony Award®-winning show put together in the early '90s, uses songs from Girl Crazy and several George-and-Ira Gershwin shows. You may recognize snippets of such hits as I Got Rhythm, Embraceable You and I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise (tunes that will pop up later in Who Cares?, by the way).

Dayful of Song is a true rarity, offering a medley of seven unknown Gershwin tunes (and recorded on a Delos release by Litton and the Dallas Symphony a few years ago). “It turns out there were boxes and boxes of unpublished songs that sat in Ira's closet for years,” Litton noted. “Michael Feinstein came along and archived them. Then, (arranger) Sid Ramin and I narrowed them down.” The conductor added that all those hidden-away songs were likely intended for shows that, alas, never saw the stage, when George died suddenly in 1937.

The entire second half is devoted to Balanchine's Who Cares?, with the final choice of excerpts to be made by Litton and the dancers a few days before the concert. The original work, using arrangements by Hershy Kay offered a rich array of 17 Gershwin songs (though Balanchine cut Clap Yo' Hands a few years later). The choreographer created solos for male and female dancers, numerous pas de deux and some large-scale ensemble numbers, concluding with a stage full of dancers in I Got Rhythm.

For those unfamiliar with the light, inventive choreography of “Mr. B” (as Balanchine was affectionately known), Who Cares? will serve as a perfect introduction to his genius. Veteran dance-watchers will revel in the spot-on performances by members of City Ballet, a company built on the legacy of George Balanchine.

Maybe you're a newcomer to 20th-Century ballet. Or perhaps you're an experienced balletomane. Who cares? This is a can't-miss family program of joyful music and stellar dancing.  No wonder Litton can't wait for the fun to begin.

All in the Ballet Family

Megan Fairchild and Ask la Cour, two of the New York City Ballet performers in Who Cares? on Sunday, boast serious dancing-family credentials:

Megan's brother Robert Fairchild is also a principal dancer with the company — and he's married to Tiler Peck, another member of City Ballet. We should also note that Megan is married to Andrew Veyette — yes, he's in the company, too. A native of Salt Lake City, Utah, Megan made headlines (and garnered awards) from her role as Ivy Smith in the Tony-nominated Broadway hit On the Town. In August, she left the show and returned to City Ballet, where she'd danced since 2002, rising to principal in 2005.  (BIO)

Ask was born in Copenhagen, Denmark and joined the Royal Danish Ballet in 2000.  That esteemed Danish company also produced Peter Martins, longtime Ballet Master in Chief with New York City Ballet. Ask's mother Lise la Cour (now a ballet school director in San Jose) had been married to Martins, though she gave birth to Ask and his brother through a second marriage. Ask became a dancer with City Ballet in 2002 and was named principal in 2013. (BIO)

The remaining two soloists in Sunday's concert have a much simpler story to tell:

Ashly Isaacs hails from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she began studies in her father's dance studio. After moving up to the School of American Ballet, City Ballet's official school in New York, she joined the company's corps de ballet in 2010 and was named soloist in June of last year. (BIO)

Megan LeCrone, a native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, got the ballet bug at an early age, starting her studies at age 4 in Greensboro. After spending her summers at the School of American Ballet, she became a full-time student in 2001. Later that year, at age 17, she was invited to join City Ballet, where she was promoted to soloist in 2013. (BIO)

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