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Gershwin Impurities

The American Repertory Theatre’s new Porgy and Bess, with its claims that Gershwin’s is a crippled opera that needs fixing, is controversially in the news. I read that “Gershwin purists” are expected to thunder their objections.

While I cannot agree that Porgy and Bess is any more crippled than, say, Fidelio or Der Rosenkavalier (very uneven works, it seems to me), I would like to know what a Gershwin purist looks like or might have to say. With the possible exception of Johann Sebastian Bach, I cannot think of another composer so inherently subject to a range of interpretive possibilities.

Working for some time on a book on Gershwin and Rouben Mamoulian (who ingeniously directed the first Porgy and Bess), I have taken to calling Gershwin “culturally fluid” – by which I mean that (like Mamoulian) he does not hierarchize “high” and “popular” genres. Concomitantly, his music is interpretively fluid. The first recordings of Porgy and Bess were made in 1935 by white opera singers: Helen Jepson and Lawrence Tibbett – and Tibbett’s “Oh Bess, Where is My Bess?” is the most searing version I know. Seven years later, Avon Long, who sang Sportin’ Life on stage, credibly recorded some of Porgy‘s songs with the Leo Reisman Orchestra. At the Hollywood Bowl Gershwin Memorial Concert (September 8, 1937), Ruby Elzy, the opera’s original Serena, delivered an unforgettable “My Man’s Gone Now” combining the bluesy inflections of a Billie Holiday with a sustained climax on the aria’s high B the likes of which I have never heard equaled. Billie Holiday herself recorded a memorably zestful “Summertime.”

In his indispensable handbook on Rhapsody in Blue (1972), David Schiff incontrovertibly opines that this is a composition with no definitive form. Schiff adds: “The Rhapsody cannot be played as written. Performers either have to reconstruct an evanescent ‘authentic’ style of performance, or have the courage to image a new one.” Gershwin’s own recordings irresistibly apply his bright, quick piano style. Leonard Bernstein’s stately, massive Rhapsody in Blue could also be irresistible. My own favorite pianist in this work is Genadi Zagor, a Russian who combines a life-long jazz sensibility with the technical equipment demanded by a Rachmaninoff concerto. Zagor’s Rhapsody in Blue, I would say, is equally “Russian” (thunderous sonorities; incessant dabs of color and nuance) and “American” (he improvises the solos, insouciantly migrating through a range of jazz piano styles).

Blogging about Zagor’s Rhapsody in Blue following his performance with Post-Classical Ensemble at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (College Park) last September, I went so far as to say: “I was not the only listener for whom [Zagor’s 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 anRomeo and Juliet). The Rhapsody re-emerged kindred to a full-brown concerto whose 25-minute length seemed a fit for its materials and trajectory.”

I reiterate this opinion because this same terrific 2010 performance will be broadcast over the Sirius XM Satellite network Sept. 9 (8 pm EST on Symphony 76), Sept. 10 (7 pm EST on Classical Pops 75), and Sept. 11 (11 pm EST on Classical Pops 75). Also, Zagor plays Gershwin (including an improvisation on Rhapsody in Blue) at a leading Washington, D.C., jazz club, the Bohemian Caverns, on September 22. And on October 8 he opens with Green Bay Symphony season with Rhapsody in Blue.
As for Porgy and Bess, it has proved the most durable opera ever created, judged by the variety of uses to which it has successfully been put; the first Broadway productions (in 1935 and 1941) were already fundamentally different from one another, and neither offered the opera as Gershwin composed it. There are limits to its “fluidity,” I am sure (I have not seen the new Boston production). But if ever there was a major twentieth century composer whose notes on paper are susceptible to dizzy excursions, high and low, it can only be Mr. G.

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