Philadelphia Orchestra performs Gershwin and Bernstein

Jessica Griffin

When a pianist under conductor Bramwell Tovey’s direction faltered while performing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with the London Symphony Orchestra, another famed composer offered a little advice.

“‘You should do it yourself next time,’” Tovey says Leonard Bernstein told him. “‘It’s much more profitable to do it like that.’ I gave it a try and I ended up doing it dozens of times.”

No, we won’t get Tovey performing “Rhapsody in Blue” next week at the Kimmel Center, but we will get to hear him lead the Philadelphia Orchestra in two signature pieces from Gershwin and Bernstein: the “Catfish Row” suite distilled from “Porgy and Bess,” and the symphonic dances from “West Side Story,” which includes “Maria” and “Mambo.”

Also in store is Benjamin Britten’s “Passacaglia” from his “Peter Grimes” and “Songs of the Paradise Saloon” from Tovey’s own jazzy opera, “The Inventor.”

“Paradise Saloon” will feature Brit soloist Alison Balsom on trumpet.

“You get a complete evening of music that’s sort of devoted to what is basically, with the exception of ‘Porgy and Bess,’ post-war opera characters,” Tovey says.

The evening is part of the Orchestra’s 2014-15 season’s “40/40 Project,” where 40 works not performed in a subscription concert in the last 40 years will be played in honor of music director’s Yannick Nezet-Seguin’s 40th birthday. In the spring, Bernstein’s “Mass,” conceived as a requiem mass for John F. Kennedy in conjunction with the dedication of the Kennedy Center in 1971, will be performed.

“Bernstein’s reputation has only improved since his death [in 1990],” Tovey says. “There was a thought his music might die after his death, but in fact it has been incredibly popular and successful.”

Gershwin himself was at the piano during the city’s premiere of “Catfish Row” at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music in 1936. “Bernstein understood the [Gershwin] Tin Pan Alley connection was very important — the ability to swing,” Tovey says. “The populism of the language was very important and just being a sheer classicist didn’t cover it. You had to have a wider palette of style.

“By the time [Bernstein] came to write ‘West Side Story’ [in 1957], it was only 20 years after ‘Porgy and Bess.’ I think he really clocked what it took to create serious American music out of the jazz genre.”

‘Gershwin and Bernstein’

Dec. 11 to Dec. 13

Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center

300 S. Broad St.

$30 to $105


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