An afternoon of Gershwin, in the glorious grounds of Kenwood House, on a balmy late summer’s afternoon, gave a whole new meaning to "Sunday in the park with George". The last in the 2013 series of the Live By The Lake concerts got underway at the altogether rather civilised time of 5pm with the event having a strangely grand but nonetheless traditional feel of sitting in front of a rather sumptuous bandstand.
The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra returned to the stage for the occasion with Jae Alexander conducting. Alexander had already amassed years of Gershwin experience from the pit of the Prince Edward Theatre’s Crazy For You run, but with the orchestral magnificence of the Kenwood sound dwarfing even the finest West End show band, he can rarely have conducted such a musically magnificent take on the New York composer's work.
The afternoon’s cast were magnificent. Gina Beck taking time out from her Glinda’s Wicked swansong was a soprano delight with The Man I Love and defined the afternoon’s Gershwin credentials with a sublime Summertime in the second half.
Kerry Ellis, who with We Will Rock You’s Meat and Wicked’s Elphaba performed on both sides of the Atlantic to her credit, must surely be West End royalty, gave the classic Someone To Watch Over Me an absolutely sparkling treatment, having already warmed up with one of the most bittersweet numbers written, But Not For Me.
David Bardsley provided some fabulous baritone work with A Foggy Day In London Town being appropriate for the location (if not the delightful weather).
Michael Ball, billed as the show’s star, was conspicuously absent through much of the first half until that set’s closing number. Walking modestly onto the stage, as Alexander struck up the band, so Ball eased himself into Strike Up The Band, re-imagining the song with soul and sensitivity in a delivery that was simply spine-tingling. The audience who had been baying for his arrival were swiftly placated and as the number played out, the cheers from the crowd as they headed off for a tea and champagne break were rousing.
The second half featured Ball extensively, including a delightful duet with Ellis who gave perhaps the most enchanting corpse ever. Embraceable You had been carefully planned and rehearsed by the pair, yet Ellis, heavily pregnant so therefore of course forgiveable for any vocal wanderings that she may commit, collapsed into infectious laughter and just giggled her way through Ball’s having to turn the prepared two-hander into a solo. It was all rather lovely.
Highspot of the half though was Viv McLean’s Rhapsody In Blue. For one to be able to lie back on the Kenwood lawns, bubbly in hand, gaze at the skies and listen to this man’s virtuoso take on one of the most glorious piano compositions of the 20th century canon, was nothing short of a fine and rare privilege.
Bravo to Rouge Events who have had the vision and tenacity to negotiate with Kenwood’s neighbours and re-instate these concerts as a fixture of London’s calendar. Here’s to the 2014 season and their beautiful contribution to the capital’s Summertime.