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Is Porgy a “Stereotype”? — Take Three

Kevin Deas Kevin Deas, the exceptional bass-baritone who is the anonymous “Porgy” of my previous blog, has written to me at greater length about singing the part – and the importance of the view “from below.” He says: “Being on my knees for my first staged Porgy was revelatory. Not only was it the first time that I’d sung the complete role, it was that perspective that was, in particular, very profound. “I’d sung the concert version (comfortably erect) 10s of times. I didn’t fully appreciate the character. Now when I sing extended … [Read more...]

Is Porgy a “Stereotype”? — Take Two

Sidney Poitier as Porgy Of the interesting emails I received in response to my American Scholar review of Porgy and Bess, the most informative was from a singer with considerable experience doing Porgy on stage. He wrote: “As challenging as it was for me to sing most of Porgy on a cart (the rest of the time I was on my knees), there is no substitute for singing and viewing the world from that perspective.” Gershwin intended Porgy to be pulled by a goat while sitting on a cart. He is a man who cannot stand up. Today Porgy is typically … [Read more...]

Why “Porgy and Bess” and the Met Need One Another

To read my review of the Met’s new "Porgy and Bess," just posted online by "The American Scholar," click here. It begins: That the Metropolitan Opera has opened its season with a fresh production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is cause for celebration. The Met came late to black America when in 1955 it engaged Marian Anderson to sing Verdi—she was already 57 years old. It came late to Porgy when in 1985 it mounted an earlier production—half a century after the opera’s premiere. More than its predecessor, the Met’s vigorous new … [Read more...]

Why Did American Classical Music “Stay White” — Take Two

William Dawson Picking up on my American Scholar piece, Tom Huizenga of National Public Radio interviewed me about the fate of black classical music – and here is his interview. Our conversation was wide-reaching, and ultimately led to this exchange: Huizenga: Near the end of your essay, you write: "Might American classical music have canonized, in parallel with jazz, an 'American school' privileging the black vernacular?" Horowitz: I don't want to sound grandiose, but really it's a question that all of us should be asking today — … [Read more...]

Why Did American Classical Music “Stay White”?

William Dawson In 1893 Antonin Dvorak, teaching in New York City, predicted that a “great and noble school” of American classical music would arise from America’s “Negro melodies.” Dvorak’s prophecy was instantly controversial and influential. But the black musical motherlode migrated to popular genres known throughout the world. American classical music stayed white. The reasons are both obvious and not. This is the topic of my book-in-progress Dvorak’s Prophecy. In the current issue of The American Scholar, I … [Read more...]

What Happened Between Vladimir Horowitz and George Szell?

George Szell “As admirers of Horowitz’s musicianship and resilience, we must face these realities remembering that, in the end, he loaded his baggage onto his back and jogged across the finish line, smiling from ear to ear. Today, the weight of Horowitz’s baggage serves mainly to accentuate the magnitude of his ultimate triumph.” Thus Bernard Horowitz on Vladimir Horowitz. These two are unrelated. Bernard, however, happens to be my son Bernie – whose obsession with Vladimir has been the topic of numerous filings in this space. It … [Read more...]

Busoni, Kandinsky, Schoenberg — Instinct at the Cusp

It’s a truism that, as aesthetic movements go, the visual arts get there first. Think of Impressionism, which didn’t begin to inflect music until Debussy and Ravel – decades after Monet. Expressionism is another matter: the synchrony is amazing. I am thinking of 1910: the year of Wassily Kandinsky’s first non-representational painting. Non-tonal music was simultaneously conceived by Arnold Schoenberg and with the same goal: capturing instinct at the cusp. What is more, Kandinsky and Schoenberg recognized their kinship. And they corresponded … [Read more...]

Harry Burleigh and Cultural Appropriation – Take Two

The annals of the Harlem Renaissance include heated debate over the practice of turning African-American spirituals into concert songs. Zora Neale Hurston Hurston heard concert spirituals “squeezing all of the rich black juice out of the songs,” a “flight from blackness,” a “musical octoroon.” She listed Harry Burleigh among the offenders. But without Burleigh there would be no “Deep River” as sung by Marian Anderson. Angel Gil-Ordonez, the inspirational music director of PostClassical Ensemble, calls Burleigh one of our “lost … [Read more...]

“Heedlessly Controversial” — Remembering Oscar Levant

Reviewing Sony Classical’s invaluable new Oscar Levant tribute in the current “Los Angeles Review of Books,” I write: “That Levant was what he seemed was doubtless a key to his appeal. His authenticity has never appeared more exceptional: no present-day mainstream media personality – not even our President -- is as heedlessly controversial as was Levant every time he opened his mouth.”  I also remark that Levant – who as pianist, movie star, radio and TV personality embodied an American cultural moment one lifetime ago -- inhabited “a … [Read more...]

A Vital New Book about Music and Race

Dale Cockrell's "Everybody's Doin' It: Sex, Music, and Dance in in New York 1840-1917" is a book that will bring to wider attention the scholarship of one of America's most original music historians -- someone whose work fearlessly challenges conventional wisdom. It was my pleasure to review this new Norton release in this weekend's "Wall Street Journal": On his first trip to New York, in 1835, Davy Crockett discovered in the drinking cellars of the Five Points “such fiddling and dancing nobody ever saw before in this world. I thought they … [Read more...]

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