Jewish World Review Jan. 21, 1999 / 4 Shevat, 5759

The Music Men

Remembering and celebrating -- two Members of the Tribe who permanently altered the face of contemporary music

By George Robinson


George Gershwin, self-taught at first, writing "tuneful little ditties" for Broadway and dreaming of composing symphonies and operas.

Leonard Bernstein, a Harvard degree in hand, conducting the New York Philharmonic in his 20s, writing acclaimed "serious" works and striving for success on Broadway and in Hollywood.

Gershwin and Bernstein were separated by 20 years. Gershwin's centenary has occupied a lot of time and space in the music world in 1998; Bernstein's 80th birthday, which fell last January, has been less remarked, but triggered an impressive reissue program from Sony Classical. Taken together, side by side, the two men represent an impressive pair of peaks in Jewish-American music and represent a vivid study in contrasting approaches to the dilemma of the 20th-century composer.

One wonders how aware of that dilemma -- how to sustain a modernist conception without completing losing an audience -- Gershwin was. He grew up in the populist world of musical theater, a veritable fountain of melodic invention. His concert works are distinguished not by their structural intelligence but by the richness of their tunes. Although he would study with several distinguished composition teachers, at the time of his death at the age of 39, his so-called serious works had not yet displayed the kind of architecture that marks out the great composer from the merely talented one. But with Porgy and Bess he found his real place in the Western concert tradition, the opera hall. A sort of Jewish Puccini, Gershwin was born to write American opera.

The failure of much the composer's concert pieces is abundantly clear even on a recording as gracefully executed as George Gershwin: The 100th Birthday Celebration (RCA Victor), a two-CD set performed by the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas. This splendidly performed and recorded set features new renditions of the "Catfish Row Suite," assembled from Porgy and Bess by Ira Gershwin after George's death, the Second Rhapsody for Orchestra with Piano, "An American in Paris" and the Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra, performed ably by Garrick Ohlsson. The big pieces don't work, but they are great fun to listen to anyway. Rating: five stars.

Skip Gershwin Fantasy (Sony Classical). This collection of settings for violinist Joshua Bell and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Williams is brightly recorded -- too brightly for my taste -- and Bell is a splendidly expressive player, but Williams's "Porgy and Bess Violin Fanstasy" sound more like a dry run for one of his Spielberg scores than a transcription of a tragic folk opera. Three transcriptions by Jascha Heifetz are better served by Bell and with Williams at the piano. Rating: three stars.

Herbie Hancock attempts something more ambitious on his new Gershwin's World set. In addition to several Gershwin compositions, Hancock also includes some possible musical influences on Gershwin -- Ravel, Ellington, W.C. Handy and James P. Johnson. He is joined by a carload of guest artists, some of them disastrous choices. Stevie Wonder doesn't really add anything to "St. Louis Blues," and Joni Mitchell's "The Man I Love" is almost as embarrassing as her ill-conceived Mingus album. But when Hancock gathers an all-star team that includes James Carter, Wayne Shorter and Kenny Garrett, one is reminded happily of how much jazz musicians have gleaned from Gershwin and -- no less important -- vice versa. Rating: 3 stars.

Above all, though, George Gershwin was a man of the theater, aided in no small way by his equally brilliant but often overlooked brother Ira. A list of their standards would fill a couple of issues of this paper easily. Michael Feinstein, who worked for Ira towards the end of his life, has made a reputation as a cabaret performer, particularly as an interpreter of the Gershwins, so a Feinstein album for the centennial was inevitable. The CD that resulted, Feinstein Sings Gershwin, (Concord) is to be applauded for including a few obscure or under-recorded tunes like "Delishious" and "Comes the Revolution," but it will never replace the Bobby Short Gershwin two-LP set that is the standard by which I measure cabaret Gershwin. Feinstein is recorded with a lot of reverb to hide the thinness of his voice, his lush piano jingles along behind him painlessly. A dull record. Rating: 1 star.

Was this the Bernstein Century, as Sony Classical is proclaiming it in a series of major reissues of the conductor-composer's recordings? Or the Gershwin Century? It would be interesting to know what Bernstein himself would have said. His recording of "Rhapsody in Blue" was a favorite in my house when I was growing up, and Bernstein was a tarred with the wunderkind brush as George.

Clearly, by any objective yardstick, Bernstein's achievement is the greater. He was, after all, a pretty darn good Broadway composer. And the superb recordings of "Age of Anxiety (Symphony No. 2)," and "Kaddish (Symphony No. 3)" paired with "Chichester Psalms," both featuring Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic, reveal an original voice of late modernism, one steeped in spiritual feelings of great intensity yet able to find musical form to express them. Rating: 5 stars.

The 1974 recording of Bernstein's ballet "The Dybbuk" is equally valuable as a document. Seldom performed and even more rarely recorded, this is heavy and intense stuff, albeit not entirely satisfying. Singers David Johnson and John Ostendorf are masterful. An excellent recording of a flawed work. Rating: 4 stars.

Finally, Bernstein was one of the great conductors of his generation. More than that, he was a generous champion of his contemporaries, as two other discs in this series remind us. The first, a pairing of lesser Aaron Copland works, "In the Beginning" and "The Second Hurricane" show Copland in, surprisingly to my ears, a distinctly Jewish-sounding vein. The former work, a handsome setting of the opening of Genesis, would not be out of place in a synagogue. Rating: 4 stars.

The second disc under discussion features three symphonies by American composers, Roy Harris (Symphony No. 3), Randall Thompson (Symphony No. 2 in E Minor) and the under-appreciated David Diamond (Symphony No. 4). It is hard to imagine these minor but distinct voices getting a better hearing than they do on this set. Rating: 4 stars.

George Robinson is music reviewer of New York Jewish Week. "To Life! Songs Of Chanukah and Other Jewish Celebrations".


©1999, George Robinson. A version of this article first appeared in the NY Jewish Week