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Philadelphia Orchestra goes Gershwin crazy

Is it a good idea for the Philadelphia Orchestra to do an entire program of Gershwin? A few noses may rise in the air at the thought. But the orchestra's propensity for richly layered colors and pumping out a lot of sound more than justifies a happy encounter with the composer.

Tuesday night's all-Gershwin mix didn’t come on a subscription-series concert. This was date night, a special Valentine’s concert, and, though Verizon Hall was far from filled, it was fascinating to see the average age of the crowd drop by half with the lure of Gershwin.

Orchestra resident conductor Cristian Macelaru, scheduled to lead, was sidelined by illness, and so the task fell to Scott Terrell, an orchestra cover conductor since 2012. Terrell, the convivial music director of the Lexington Philharmonic, had never been tapped to actually conduct the ensemble, and he ended up presiding over Gershwin medleys, An American in Paris, and, with two fine singers, excerpts from Porgy and Bess.

The 90-minute, intermission-free concert didn’t have the interpretive finish of the 2004 Academy of Music Anniversary Concert with Audra McDonald and Simon Rattle that covered similar ground. Still, Terrell managed a few individualistic moves in An American in Paris that suggested layers of thought. He does like to move the music along.

Soprano Talise Trevigne and Academy of Vocal Arts graduate bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana were soloists of great polish in the Porgy and Bess selections. Lullaby for strings provided sweetness, an orchestration of Promenade (Walking the Dog) a little humor.

In the Overture to Girl Crazy and Gershwin in Hollywood, great melodies come in one wave after another. But it’s really only with orchestrations as canny as Robert Russell Bennett’s, and an ensemble to realize them, that Gershwin’s sense of melody reaches full emotional meaning. And here it did. Gleeful, tender, funny, streetwise, or with an ecstasy 10 times lighter than helium -- that’s what an orchestra can do.

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