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Porgy and the White Police Lawrence Tibbett sings Porgy (1935) Though a prominent British reviewer of what became the hit Met production of Porgy and Bess called Gershwin’s landmark 1935 opera “a period piece,” it loudly resounds today. Consider the first act confrontation between a white detective and a black community.  “Race is critical to Gershwin’s conception,” observes the Gershwin scholar Mark Clague in the most recent “PostClassical” webcast, pursuing a Gershwin thread originating with our film “The … [Read more...]

The New Deal, the Arts, and Race — and Today FDR’s New Deal included the Works Progress Administration, which generously supported the arts in unprecedented ways. Employing writers, composers, visual artists, and performers via Art, Music, and Theater projects, the WPA was a massive employment agency -- and the closest Washington had come to emulating European arts subsidies.  The Music Project alone gave 225,000 free or popularly-priced performances, attended by 150 million people, many of whom had been strangers to live concert music.  At … [Read more...]

Porgy Takes a Knee — “Porgy and Bess” and the American Experience of Race “It’s interesting that Gershwin chose as his protagonist a person who’s on his knees. ‘Taking a knee’ has never been more relevant.” That’s Kevin Deas, a distinguished exponent of Gershwin’s Porgy, talking a few days ago on PostClassical Ensemble’s “Porgy and Bess Roundtable” zoomchat alongside another eminent African-American singer: George Shirley. “I’ve been thinking about it the last couple of days,” Deas continued. “There is an automatic sense of empathy with someone who is on their … [Read more...]

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 … [Read more...]

Why Did Shostakovich Join the Party? One of the most controversial acts in the ever controversial life of Dmitri Shostakovich was his tortured decision in 1960 to join the Communist Party – a decision that has variously been portrayed as cowardly, politically pressured, or basically volitional. It is not mentioned in Testimony (1979) – the composer’s influential memoirs, collaboratively written with Solomon Volkov. But Volkov offered his own view, for the first time, in a Zoom chat the other day produced by PostClassical … [Read more...]

Music in Wartime Between 1942 and 1945, the three pre-eminent Russian composers wrote music responding to World War II. These responses differ in fascinating and revealing ways. Both Dmitri Shostakovich and Serge Prokofiev were eyewitnesses to the war; Shostakovich in fact endured the beginning of the siege of Leningrad before being evacuated east along with Prokofiev and other eminent Soviet artists. Prokofiev’s explosive Seventh Piano Sonata (1942), the best-known of his three “War Sonatas,” evokes … [Read more...]

Shostakovich and the State “People underestimate Stalin’s level of control,” says Solomon Volkov. “I once started to calculate how many people in the arts Stalin controlled personally -- that is, read their writing, listened to their music, attended their performances. And it was close to one thousand. And not in some abstract way. This was an incredible, unprecedented amount of attention to the arts, which was Stalin’s habit. So that Shostakovich knew very well that he was under the constant observation of this most … [Read more...]

Music in Challenging Times — An Opportunity Back in the 1930s, American radio – that is, American commercial radio, which is all we had – knew that listeners were amenable to paying attention to what they were hearing and nothing else. A long attention span was assumed. Commensurately, the airwaves were full of classical music – a phenomenon I pondered in my most reviled book, Understanding Toscanini (1987). (Reviled because I foresaw the swift marginalization of classical music, but never mind.) I wrote: “As Toscanini’s … [Read more...]

Furtwangler, Shostakovich, Toscanini: Music in Adverse Times

Wilhelm Furtwangler Dmitri Shostakovich Arturo Toscanini A new podcast, produced by The American Interest (TAI), translates my article on “Furtwangler and Shostakovich: Bearing Witness in Wartime” into a 30-minute podcast with tremendous musical examples.  The distinguished historian Richard Aldous, as interlocutor, expands my purview to include Arturo Toscanini -- a topic of which I've steered clear since the publication in 1987 of my Understanding Toscanini (the most discussed and … [Read more...]

Music and Healing: An Armenian Odyssey

The healing properties of music is suddenly an inescapable topic. Serendipitously, the last concert given by PostClassical Ensemble before the pandemic shut down live music was an exercise in healing. This was An Armenian Odyssey at the Washington National Cathedral on March 4. The final three minutes, documented in the film clip above, evoked the 2018 Velvet Revolution in Yerevan. It consummated a 75-minute Armenian narrative of diaspora, tragedy, and regeneration. The memorable live animation … [Read more...]

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