Conductor Marvin Hamlisch introduced last night's National Symphony Orchestra pops program with a quote from Cole Porter: "Irving Berlin does not have a place in American music; he is American music." Partisans of Aaron Copland or Leonard Bernstein might quibble about the all-inclusiveness of that statement, but in a program titled "There's No Business Like Show Business: A Tribute to Irving Berlin," Hamlisch and the orchestra showed that it was almost true.
This was no small task, and they were ably assisted in it by soprano Debbie Gravitte and tenor Doug LaBrecque (hilarious in "Anything You Can Do"), dancer Jeffrey Denman (who did some numbers associated with Fred Astaire) and no fewer than three choruses. The Washington Men's Camerata and the Washington Women's Chorus made a parasol-dominated production number out of "Easter Parade" and were joined by the Singing Sergeants for a stirring performance of "God Bless America."
In a life that spanned a century, Berlin produced more memorable tunes than anyone else. He was at home in every popular style of his time and all the styles were sampled last night, from the tenderness of "Always," which opened the program with Hamlisch at the piano, to the gentle cynicism of "You're Just in Love" and the hard but funny realism of "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun." The NSO became an old-fashioned big band for a jazzy medley that included "Puttin' On the Ritz" and "Play a Simple Melody" and was a Broadway pit band for much of the program. It played with a fine polish and evident enjoyment, which the audience shared.
-- Joseph McLellan