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The Gershwin Threat/The Gershwin Moment

Paul Rosenfeld, whose writings on American modernist composers were once regarded as insightful and prophetic, detected in George Gershwin the Russian Jew “a weakness of spirit, possibly as a consequence of the circumstance that the new world attracted the less stable types.”

Rosenfeld (whose own lineage was German Jewish) also wrote of Gershwin: “His compositions drowse one in a pink world of received ideas and sentiments. The Rhapsody in Blueis circus-music, pre-eminent in the sphere of tinsel and fustian. In daylight, nonetheless, it stands vaporous with it second-hand ideas and ecstasies.” 

Rosenfeld believed Aaron Copland’s jazzy Piano Concerto – music I would call ersatz — an improvement on Gershwin’s “hash derivative” Rhapsody. Copland himself denigrated Gershwin as a gifted dilettante. So did Virgil Thomson. Olin Downes’ New York Times Gershwin obituary summarized: “He never passed a certain point as a ‘serious’ composer.”

My friend Ben Pasternack, a wonderful American pianist, has a different view – that Rhapsodyin Blueis evergreen, the most beloved of all American concert works. And I know from Pasternack that his teacher Rudolf Serkin once advised him to learn Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F – “that’s a good piece.”

These observations summarize what I have long called “the Gershwin threat” and “the Gershwin moment.” The Gershwin threat was seemingly felt by all American-born classical musicians: they feared his genius. European-born classical musicians weren’t threatened, and the list of Gershwin admirers includes Otto Klemperer, Jascha Heifetz, Dmitri Shostakovich, Fritz Reiner, Arnold Schoenberg, Maurice Ravel, etc., etc.

The Gershwin moment is right now. Music historians study and esteem him (they never did before). We no longer segregate Rhapsody in Blue on pops concerts (as the Boston Symphony did until 1997). 

These themes feed “The Russian Gershwin,” the latest installment in PostClassical Ensemble’s “More than Music” initiative. This 60-minute film (embedded above), hosted by Bill McGlaughlin with commentary by Angel Gil-Ordonez and yours truly, centers on a memorable performance of Rhapsody in Blueby Genadi Zagor, a Russian virtuoso who improvises. It also includes three of my favorite historic Gershwin recordings – by Otto Klemperer, Ruby Elzy, and Lawrence Tibbett. Behrouz Jamali has added a wealth of historic photographs. We are pretty proud of it.

If you’d like to chat about Gershwin, “More than Music” follows up our PCE videos with zoom chats. There will be two, both hosted by the inimitable McGlaughlin:

On Thursday, June 4 (6 to 7 pm ET), “A Gershwin Roundtable” features a live performance by  the fabulous jazz artist Karrin Allyson – plus Angel, myself, Genadi Zagor, and Mark Clague, who heads the Gershwin Initiative at the University of Michigan. The main topics will be Rhapsody in Blue, the (much underrated) Cuban Overture, and An American in Paris (which Mark will explain was originally ambitiously cast in something like sonata form).

On Wednesday, June 10 (6 to 7 pm ET) we will tackle the American composition upon which the most nonsense and ignorance has been lavished, and which in my opinion is the highest American achievement in classical music: Porgy and Bess. Our participants will include George Shirley, the first African-American tenor to sing lead roles at the Met; Kevin Deas, one of today’s pre-eminent exponents of Gershwin’s Porgy; and Conrad L. Osborne, a supreme authority on opera in performance. Also Mark Clague, Angel, and myself. The topics at the table will include: should white singers sing Porgy?

To sign up for June 4, click here.

To sign up for June 10, click here.

To read my American Scholarreview of the Met’s Porgy and Bess, click here.

To read Conrad’s review, click here.

To see what Kevin Deas has to say about Porgy (“don’t sing it standing up”), click here.

To see what George Shirley has to say, click here.

To be continued . . .

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  1. […] The Gershwin threat was seemingly felt by all American-born classical musicians: they feared his genius. European-born classical musicians weren’t threatened, and the list of Gershwin admirers includes Otto Klemperer, Jascha Heifetz, Dmitri Shostakovich, etc. The Gershwin moment is right now. Music historians study and esteem him (they never did before). We no longer segregate Rhapsody in Blue on pops concerts (as the Boston Symphony did until 1997). – Joseph Horowitz […]

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