It’s very clear: Our love for George Gershwin is here to stay. When he died at age 38 – the cause was a malignant brain tumor – American author John O’Hara said, “George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.”
Singer Prudence Johnson believes that “the world was robbed of a lot of great music when Gershwin died.” On Sunday, Johnson and pianist Dan Chouinard will launch their latest CD, “Gershwin,” at the Dakota. The collection of 18 songs includes some newly recorded and some from “ ’S Gershwin,” their 2003 release now out of print.
What you notice when you listen is how pure the songs sound, how spare and intimate. When she sings, Johnson sometimes imagines wrapping them in velvet. Her lush, precise, expressive voice, with its pearls of vibrato, is best unadorned. A smart, sensitive pianist – like Chouinard, an in-demand accompanist – is all she needs.
“These are songs that have been done a lot,” Johnson said. “You’ve heard many different versions of them. Some people have tried to update them. We felt like the freshest way to approach them was to go right back to the basics and strip it all down to the simple song and the lyric.
“Dan’s focus is on the kind of stride and ragtime feel that came out of that era; Gershwin wrote these songs in the 1920s and ’30s. So it’s easy for him to give a performance that’s true to the way the song was written. I avoided ornamentation and improvisation and tried to honor the melody. And we have used most of the verses, the little introductions to the songs written for Broadway shows. A lot of those have fallen by the wayside.”
Johnson and Chouinard have invited Butch Thompson to join them as a guest. He’ll be playing clarinet, but “if he wants to play some Gershwin pieces on piano, we’re not going to stop him,” Johnson said. “He can do whatever he wants.”
Can’t go to Cuba with the Minnesota Orchestra? Neither can we, sorry to say (although blogger Scott Chamberlain will be writing for MinnPost from the tour). But we can all listen live on the radio when the orchestra performs at Havana’s Teatro Nacional on Friday, May 15, and Saturday, May 16, thanks to MPR/American Public Media. Tune in to Classical MPR at 7 p.m. both nights for pre-concert interviews, music and stories, followed by the concerts at 7:30.
The orchestra will travel to Havana on Wednesday, May 13, on a charter flight with more than 4 tons of equipment and 165 people, including 100 members of the orchestra. After a jam-packed schedule that includes musical exchange activities with Cuban students, the two big concerts and a late-night jazz session, they’ll return home May 17, no doubt with plenty of stories to tell.
If you’ve been looking forward to a summer show or two on the University of Minnesota’s Centennial Showboat at Harriet Island, you’ll have to wait another year. Last summer’s flooding forced the cancellation of a big part of the 2014 season, which led to a financial shortfall. Factor in deferred maintenance issues and an already razor-thin budget, and the decision was made to cancel the 2015 season and “explore financial restructuring and new potential for programming partnerships.” Which leaves us bereft of summer melodramas, olios and the best place to view the St. Paul fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Minnesota chefs and restaurants remain Beardless following Monday’s announcement of the James Beard Awards. Gavin Kaysen’s acclaimed Spoon and Stable was a finalist for Best New Restaurant, but New York’s Bâtard took the prize. The Bachelor Farmer’s Paul Berglund, Heartland’s Lenny Russo and Salty Tart’s Michelle Gayer were all finalists for Best Chef Midwest; Gerard Craft of Niche in Clayton, Missouri, received the award. There’s always another year, and meanwhile, Twin Citians have many great restaurants to choose from — and more on the way. Ngong Vietnamese Bistro is on our must-go list, and we were thrilled to learn that three new Italian restaurants are due to open soon. (Thanks for the tips, Rick Nelson.)
Patti LaBelle and the Commodores, vintage rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd and “A Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keillor are all coming to the State Fair Grandstand in September. They join the always eclectic and growing lineup that also includes the previously announced Def Leppard, Carrie Underwood, Happy Together tour (with the Turtles et al.), and our faves, Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson, sure to be a night of great music and general cragginess. FMI and tickets.
Tonight (Wednesday, May 6) at Sun Ray Library: Kao Kalia Yang. Yang is the award-winning author of “The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir,” published by Coffee House Press in 2008. Through the CHP In The Stacks program, she has spent part of the spring as Sun Ray’s writer-in-residence. This public presentation is part of her residency. 7 p.m. Free.
Wednesday and Thursday at the St. Anthony Main Theatre: “Cheatin’.” A story about love, jealousy and adultery, almost entirely hand-drawn by Bill Plympton, the Oscar-nominated King of Indie Animation. FMI including show times, trailer and tickets ($6-$8.50).
Thursday at Open Window Theatre: “Freud’s Last Session.” Playwright Mark St. Germain imagines a dialogue between atheist Sigmund Freud, who has terminal cancer, and atheist-turned-believer C.S. Lewis. Listen in as two great thinkers discuss faith, science, morality, sex and the meaning of life. There’s no right, wrong, or winning side; you’re invited to draw your own conclusions. Director Jeffrey S. Miller is a friend of the playwright. Kurt Schweickhardt stars as 83-year-old Freud, with Nathan Cousins as Lewis. 7:45 p.m. in the Metropolis Minneapolis Building, 1313 Chestnut Ave., Suite 102, Minneapolis. FMI and tickets ($22/26 advance, $26/30 door). Pay-as-you’re-able every Thursday at the door for any unsold tickets. Runs Thursdays-Sundays through May 24.
Friday at the University Club: Scott Donaldson on Romantic Relationships. F. Scott Fitzgerald fans, this is for you. Donaldson, an acclaimed Fitzgerald scholar and literary biographer, will delve into the relationship between Scott and Zelda. This is the inaugural Richard P. McDermott Fitzgerald Lecture, named for the founder of Fitzgerald in Saint Paul, a new nonprofit that celebrates the life and literature of the famous author. 7 p.m. FMI. Free and open to the public.
Friday and Saturday at Chaska Community Center Theatre: “Ole’s Last Bow: A Musical Tribute to Scandinavian Vaudeville.” Despite songs like “Holy Yumpin’ Yiminy, How My Yonny Can Love,” Peter Holbrook’s new musical is not just for Minnesotans with Scandinavian roots. It’s also for Minnesotans struggling to understand Minnesotans with Scandinavian roots. Set in the early 20th century, it looks back on the traveling vaudeville shows that gave newly arrived immigrants from Sweden and Norway a taste of home. Part takes place on stage, where a company performs its repertoire of corny jokes, popular songs and comic routines; part takes place offstage, where romance, hard times and treachery threaten to break the company apart. Starring Douglas Anderson as Ole Ivarsson and Dorian Chalmers as his wife, Ulla, the story is loosely based on the life of a Swedish vaudeville performer known as Olle i Skratthult (“Ole in Laughterville”). Most songs are sung in English, with occasional opportunities for audience participation. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($18). This touring show launched last weekend at Maple Grove Junior High School; next weekend it’s at Mahtomedi High School and Lakeville Area Arts Center Theatre.
Saturday at Jackson Street Roundhouse: National Train Day 2015. You can celebrate Train Day at Union Depot, at the Roundhouse, or both. The Roundhouse offers family activities, a full day of music, and free vintage bus rides to the James H. Hill House, Union Depot, and the Twin City Model Railroad Museum in Bandana Square. The music starts at 10:15 a.m. with Patrick Harison on accordion and continues with Pop Wagner and his cowboy anthems, New Orleans jazz by Patty and the Buttons, Irish music, and folk music by the strings and voices of Sister Tree. Museum admission gets you into Train Day and also the Hill House. 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. FMI.