The Philadelphia Orchestra slips on Gershwin like a comfortable old mink (or whatever the PETA-proof synthetic is these days). The strings are luxe, the winds stylish. Delivered with the twin attributes of plush and power, Gershwin in the hands of this ensemble is an uninterrupted pleasure.
What there was less of Friday night at the Mann Center in the orchestra's all-Gershwin concert was edge. Jazz, even refined with Gershwin's gloss, needs a sense of daring. André Raphel, guest conductor for the night, was a dancerly visual presence on the podium. A greater individualism, though, was less evident.
The beginnings of a strong personality did come through from the keyboard. Micah McLaurin was the soloist in Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F, and the recent Curtis Institute of Music graduate (he's 23 years old) brought out expressive corners of the piece in a way that was quite touching.
He's got technique and power to spare — you should hear his easy fluidity in Scriabin on YouTube — but he also showed quite clearly in places how deeply he feels about this music. Some of it he dashed off with a Rachmaninoff flourish. Quieter, more introspective moments struck meaning, and in a few of these places Raphel, too, was able to tap down an interpretive layer or two.
You might have wished for other repertoire, something that could have shown more sides of McLaurin's personality, but there's no question that he did a lot with the piece he had.
Raphel — who was this orchestra's assistant conductor during much of the Wolfgang Sawallisch era — opened the program with Gershwin's Cuban Overture, which has not held up well over the years (its kitsch factor has somehow intensified), and closed with An American in Paris, which has. In between came Robert Russell Bennett's arrangement of music from Porgy and Bess, which sounds better than ever.
The orchestra's rehearsal time for Mann concerts is limited, but Raphel found plenty of shine and pep in An American in Paris. The big trumpet solo in the middle, taken by Jeffrey Curnow, lacked shape and direction. But Carol Jantsch, the orchestra's principal tuba player, had the right idea. She rendered that last instrumental solo before the big final splash with just the twist of comedy it deserves.