When conductor Marvin Hamlisch and pianist Kevin Cole get together, a jolly good time is had by everyone. This week the friends match wit and musical expertise in a program honoring the genius of George Gershwin. Hamlisch at the podium, Cole at the concert grand piano and Broadway singer Melissa Errico pull out all stops to send the audience home humming favorite snatches of the composer's masterpieces for stage and concert hall.
Cole is unique among today's pianists for his concentration on the repertoire of 20th-century American classical and popular composers. His fascination with Gershwin's music in particular began early in life when he saw "Rhapsody in Blue," the 1945 movie starring actor Robert Alda as Gershwin with piano solos dubbed by Oscar Levant, Gershwin's close friend and colleague.
"I thought, here's a guy who played serious music in concert halls, but he also composed music for Broadway," Cole said. "I realized that you don't have to settle for one or the other. That's why I knew I could have the best of all worlds. I grew up in Bay City, Michigan, with a family that liked popular music and had a piano, so I took lessons and went on to the Interlochen Arts Academy. After graduating, I went to New York to study privately at the Manhattan School of Music. When I went back to Michigan, I became a freelance musician and played everything."
Not long after Edward Jablonski, author of "The Encyclopedia of American Music," heard Cole play, he declared him "the best Gershwin pianist since Gershwin himself." He was so impressed that he arranged for Cole to play for the Gershwin family, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Burton Lane, E.Y. Harburg, Hugh Martin and other distinguished American composers.
|Hamlisch goes Gershwin|
|» Where: Wolf Trap Filene Center, 1551 Trap Road, Vienna|
|» When: 8:15 p.m. Friday|
|» Info: $35 to $52 in-house, $20 lawn; 877-WOLFTRAP (965-3872); wolftrap.org|
"That's why I'm always excited to play it with Marvin conducting. Of course I've known who Marvin is for a long time, but we never met until someone suggested my name to him. It's a wonderful collaboration. We have the best time together and he is very generous and willing to share what he knows. Once he discovered that I talk, unlike some musicians who simply show up, perform and leave, we began bantering onstage. It freshens everything up.
"Marvin and I have the same philosophy. His audience knows that he is talking to them from the stage as a friend. Several weeks ago, we gave several Gershwin concerts in Pittsburgh, one of them in a nearby town at a theater dedicated to Henry Mancini. No sooner did we get onstage than there was a power outage. While we were waiting and hoping in would come back on, I played a few Gershwin numbers on the piano while Marvin found a flashlight to hold as a spotlight on my face. The electricity never came back on, so we returned to Pittsburgh, where the audience was tickled to learn that his job at our previous concert was operating my spotlight."