The Singularity of Gershwin

Joseph Horowitz

The singularity of George Gershwin is an inexhaustible topic.

One thing that sets Gershwin apart is what I’d call his “cultural fluidity.” He is Russian, he is Jewish, he is American. He composes for Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, Hollywood, Carnegie Hall. He is an American in Paris. In Vienna, he is the rare American composer for whom Alban Berg greatly matters.

This fluidity of personal identity and musical style promotes a singular fluidity of interpretation. Rhapsody in Blue is equally Gershwin playing with Paul Whiteman’s band and Leonard Bernstein playing (at much slower tempos) with the New York Philharmonic. Is Porgy and Bess an opera or a show? The first recordings of Porgy’s arias (or songs) were left by America’s pre-eminent Verdi baritone: Lawrence Tibbett, whose “Where Is My Bess?” is searingly operatic. That was in 1935 – the same year Porgy opened on Broadway. Seven years later, Avon Long, who sang Sportin’ Life in the 1942 revival, recorded “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin'” with the Leo Reisman Orchestra —a rendering of Porgy as distant from Tibbett as Louis Armstrong was distant from Rigoletto.

PostClassical Ensemble’s Gershwin festival last week at the Clarice Smith Center (College Park, Md.) focused on the “Russian Gershwin” —itself a limitless topic. Speaking of Porgy and Bess— the conductor of the first production, Alexander Smallens, was Russian. So was the director, Rouben Mamoulian. So was the designer, Sergei Soudeikine. Shostakovich first heard Porgy and Bess in Moscow, in 1945; he called it “magnificent” and compared Gershwin to Borodin and Mussorgsky. Jascha Heifetz arranged six Porgynumbers for violin and piano. For me, Heifetz’s recordings of these pieces, so creatively re-imagined, are among his highest achievements. Heifetz’s “My Man’s Gone Now” combines jazz (for which his affinity is far from casual) with keenings that can only be called Slavic.

Heifetz knew Gershwin; he had hoped for a Gershwin violin concerto. When Gershwin died, Heifetz said, “We should be ashamed that we didn’t appreciate this man when he was here in our midst.” That in fact Gershwin was experienced as a threat by Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and other American classical musicians is well documented (e.g., in my Classical Music in America – and also in my Gershwin articles for the New York Times and the Times Literary Supplement). In the shuttered world of American classical music, Gershwin’s truest admirers were notably foreign-born: Heifetz, Otto Klemperer, Fritz Reiner, Arnold Schoenberg, Charles Martin Loeffler, Carl Engel.

PostClassical Ensemble’s Gershwin festival sampled a wide variety of Gershwin styles. Of the two participating pianists, Genadi Zagor is a Russian who improvises. I do not know another pianist who so combines an alacrity for jazz (from several different decades) with a complete command of Romantic piano color, nuance, and sonority. Zagor performed Rhapsody in Blue (with Angel Gil-Ordonez conducting the Whiteman version) with extemporaneous solos. In the course of the week, Genadi’s solos grew longer and more boldly digressive. I was not the only listener for whom the ultimate Friday night performance registered as an enhancement of what Gershwin set down. Rhapsody in Blue can seem a truncated work. Genadi’s final mega-cadenza mightily prepared the Big Tune (so redolent of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet). The Rhapsody re-emerged kindred to a full-blown concerto whose 25-minute length seemed a fit for its materials and trajectory.

Our other pianist, Vakhtang Kodanashvili, is a native of Soviet Georgia. He delivered the most galvanizing Concerto in F I have ever heard (“terrifically exciting,” wrote Stephen Brookes in the Washington Post). Vakho does not improvise. But his keyboard sensibility is so remote from Gershwin’s (with its considered brittleness of texture and eschewal of the pedal) that a newborn concerto necessarily emerges, unprecedented for its range of tempo and mood.

There was nothing “Russian” about Angel Gil-Ordoñez’s reading of theCuban Overture (whose first interpreter, Albert Coates, was nevertheless born in St. Petersburg). Rather, this exceptional Spanish-born conductor (my close friend and colleague since we co-founded PostClassical Ensemble eight years ago) discovered in the overture’s middle section music as Spanish as Albeniz or Turina, realized with amazing freshness and aplomb.

In the course of the week, I puzzled over the susceptibility of these Gershwin scores to such an array of readings. The wise music historian Richard Crawford (who took part throughout) flooded this question with light when he reminded us of something Irving Berlin said —that Gershwin was “the only songwriter who became a composer.” That song remains so embedded in Gershwin’s music is a big reason that it’s so transcribable, arrangeable, re-interpretable. David Schiff, in his indispensable Rhapsody in Blue handbook (1997), makes a similar point when he writes: “In the music of, say, Stravinsky or Bartok, form, content, harmony, and instrumentation are fused in ways which make rearrangement or cutting difficult.”

In Classical Music in America, I treat Ives and Gershwin as the two supreme creative talents inhabiting my story —and yet (alas) both lie somewhat to the side. Dvorak, in 1893, famously predicted that “Negro melodies” would be the foundation of an American school of music. He envisioned symphonies, concertos, operas, and sonatas infused with the African-American vernacular. He could not have envisioned the fulfillment of his prophecy in popular musical realms as yet unglimpsed. What he had in mind, no doubt, were pieces like the Concerto in F andPorgy and Bess – pieces bridging the crippling hiatus between high and low. Had Gershwin not died at the age of 38, they would not stand alone.