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JMI Event - ‘The Glory of Gershwin’ – A Report by Malcolm Miller

The stirring sounds of a large and illustrious audience at the elegant London home of Sir Sydney and Lady Lipworth singing the Broadway hit ‘Embraceable You’ to the deft keyboard accompaniment of Rodney Greenberg, was an unexpected highpoint of a delightful and memorable evening in which to celebrate ‘The Glory of Gershwin’. The scintillating multi-media presentation, devised and delivered with panache by Rodney Greenberg in conjunction with his fellow film and TV director and author Humphrey Burton, was held in aid of the JMI’s varied educational and cultural projects, the importance of which were underlined in speeches by JMI Chairman Jonathan Metliss and JMI Director Geraldine Auerbach. It was the third such event in recent years given by the distinguished Greenberg-Burton duo. Earlier evenings have been devoted to Sir Georg Solti and Leonard Bernstein, and Gershwin – whose biography (Phaidon Press, 1998) was distributed free to guests and signed by the author, Rodney Greenberg – proved to be an equally sparkling and informative occasion.

The genius of George Gershwin came alive in Greenberg’s lively historical and biographical narrative illustrated by eloquent still photography and archival film footage of the maestro himself, complemented by more recent clips from televised performances directed by Humphrey Burton. Underpinning the talk was Greenberg’s main thesis that Gershwin was one of the earliest ‘crossover’ composers, bridging the divide between the concert hall and Broadway stage long before postmodernism. Greenberg explored the evolution of this dual career through a survey of his early song writing career and seminal concert works such as ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and the tone poem ‘An American in Paris’.

With fascinating footage of Jewish immigrants to Ellis Island at the turn of the century, we learned how Gershwin’s parents settled in Hester Street where George’s older brother Ira, who was to become his main lyricist, was born in 1896. Within 18 months of Ira's birth, the family had moved to Snedicker Avenue in the Willamsburg District of Brooklyn, a cut above Hester Street, and eight months after George's arrival on 28 September 1898 (he was named Jacob Gershovitz), the family moved again; in total they lived in 25 apartments in Manhattan and 3 in Brooklyn. The youngest sibling was his sister, Frances (b. 1906), known as Frankie, a singer who lived to be ninety two (she died in 1999): her ravishing recorded rendition of one of Gershwin’s songs was later used to illustrate Greenberg’s discussion. Significantly, the young Gershwin’s earliest influences were some popular classics, for as a young six-year-old he would stand transfixed by early recordings of Rubinstein’s ‘Melody in F’, played by Godowsky (whose son later married Gershwin’s sister); classical music also made its mark from his earliest piano lessons. Yet Gershwin’s imagination was fired by the electric atmosphere of Tin Pan Alley, where (as we also saw in some contemporary footage), he gained a high reputation as one of the best performers of popular hits, when only a teenager. Some remarkable piano roll recordings from that period, of the composer at the piano, held us all spellbound. Gershwin’s first major break came with the opportunity to work with Al Jolson, then at the peak of his career. The result, ‘Swanee’, instantly made the twenty-one-year-old into an international star, with an incredible two million record sales and sheet music to boot. There ensued a string of show-stoppers, such as ‘I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise’ from the 1922 George White’s Scandals which we saw in a 1951 Hollywood film clip. A different, more reflective aspect of the composer emerged in Greenberg’s discussion of less familiar works like ‘Blue Monday’, a proto Porgy and Bess, and the string quartet ‘Lullaby’, premiered only much later in 1967 (by the Juilliard Quartet).

Gershwin was drawn to study with some of the leading composers of his day – such as Ravel and Glazunov, yet it was a quest that remained unfulfilled, since they acknowledged his own gift in the realm of Broadway theatre and in the way he used jazz elements in his concert pieces. Especially interesting was the story of how the famous ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, written for the band leader Paul Whiteman, had been completed in just a few weeks. Rodney Greenberg explained that this was the reason both that the orchestration was done by Ferde Grofé, the pianist in Whiteman’s band and their highly-skilled principal arranger, and why the clarinet opening solo, played by Ross Gorman, indicated as a rapid scale in the composer’s original two-piano short score – was turned into the clarinet glissando that has become an iconic musical gesture of the 20th century musical canon (illustrated on a historic 1924 recording from the year of the work’s premiere).

Humphrey Burton introduced several extracts from a TV production he had directed of a New York Gala Show for the 50th anniversary of Gershwin’s death in 1987, which featured Michael Tilson Thomas revealingly identifying a variety of jazz piano techniques which Gershwin combined in his distinctive style. One of Greenberg’s musical insights was the importance of the pentatonic scale to many of Gershwin’s best tunes, notably ‘I Got Rhythm’, which we also saw in a fiery rendition by Chiva Rivera, one of Burton’s sequences.

Other amazing archival footage included Gershwin in rehearsal, playing for a corps de ballet preparing a show, Gershwin making a speech about the value of musical entertainment, Ira Gershwin in interview about his working collaboration with his brother and how he would set words to George’s tunes, leading to a protracted late night session of reworking the texts. We learned that Ira was a more retiring character than his brother, yet keenly musical as well as literary.

George’s own character and private life received some attention. During ‘Prohibition’, Gershwin was known as the star performer at many private parties, where he was regularly adorned with a gaggle of girlfriends.  His strongest liaison was with Kay Swift, who divorced to maintain their relationship, which however fell by the wayside: the composer was never to enjoy a settled requited love life. Nevertheless his crowning achievement, Porgy and Bess, contains one of the great operatic love duets of all time – ‘Bess You is My Woman Now’ - a superb performance of which we heard in the classic Cynthia Haymon/Willard White performance on video directed by Trevor Nunn, based on his 1986 Glyndebourne production. Greenberg discussed how Porgy and Bess, the first American folk opera, might have been a Jewish opera, for Gershwin had been commissioned to compose an opera on the Dybbuk tale – for the Met, which however was thwarted by an issue of copyright. His use of minor keys and blue notes, however, would have suited both Jewish and black folk opera, and later emerged in the opera.

Sadly Gershwin’s life and career were cut short when he developed an inoperable brain tumour only weeks short of his 39th birthday. In just twenty years, he transformed the world of American musical theatre and made an enriching impact on 20th century music as a whole.

Much credit is due to Rodney Greenberg, and to Humphrey Burton with his added contribution, for leading us through a wonderful appreciation of ‘The Glory of Gershwin’, which raised so many questions and points for discussion. It was a superb way to support the JMI in their continued endeavour to promote the post-Gershwin musical world through activities that encourage the study of Jewish music and its wider cultural impact for the benefit of all.

Malcolm Miller © 2009

Humphrey Burton CBE (Presenter), Lady Lipworth, Sir Sydney Lipworth (hosts),Geraldine Auerbach MBE (director, JMI) Rodney Greenberg (Presenter and biographer of Gershwin).

Leopold de Rothschild (President of JMI), Lord Janner (Vice President of JMI), Jackie Rosenfeld OBE (Chairman of the JMI Mendelssohn Society)


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The Jewish Music Institute is an independent Arts organisation based at SOAS, University of London. It is an international focus bringing the ancient yet contemporary musical culture of the Jews to the mainstream British cultural, academic and social life. Its programmes of education, performance and information highlight many aspects of Jewish music throughout the ages and across the globe for people of all ages, backgrounds and cultures.