An Upstart Named Gershwin Gets His Shot
By JOSEPH HOROWITZ
Published: October 2, 2005
THE 124-year-old Boston Symphony Orchestra is about to break with a Boston
tradition. Beginning on Thursday, it offers George Gershwin's popular Piano
Concerto in F for the first time on the regular-season subscription series
at Symphony Hall, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet as soloist and James Levine
conducting. (The same program, which includes works by Charles Ives,
Elliott Carter and Lukas Foss, comes to Carnegie Hall on Oct. 10.)
No longer on the margins: George Gershwin's vexed reputation in the United
States is improving as more major symphonies begin accepting him as a
composer worthy of inclusion in high-minded subscription series.
Antipathy and loathing dogged Gershwin in the elite music realm.
Mr. Levine, who introduced Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" at the Metropolitan
Opera in 1985, also led the Boston Symphony's first subscription
performances of "An American in Paris" last season. The orchestra first
played "Rhapsody in Blue" for its regular subscribers only in 1997, with
André Previn as pianist and conductor.
In its guise as the Boston Pops, the orchestra has long presented Gershwin
for casual summer listeners. That the music is no longer relegated to pops
status is part of a national trend.
Gershwin's marginalization in Boston was a legacy of the orchestra's
seminal post-World War I music director, Serge Koussevitzky. Koussevitzky
championed American music and predicted that the next Beethoven would "come
from Colorado." But although he commissioned Gershwin's Second Rhapsody,
Koussevitzky did not consider Gershwin a potential Beethoven. He preferred
the kind of "serious" Americana found in the heroic third symphonies of Roy
Harris and Aaron Copland, both of which he introduced.
In retrospect, "An American in Paris" is more lastingly infectious than any
of the American symphonies Koussevitzky sampled, but it was long regarded
as a lower musical species. Gershwin's first appearance with the New York
Symphony in 1933, playing the premiere of the Concerto in F with Walter
Damrosch conducting, elicited a similar antipathy. The musicians "hated
Gershwin with instinctive loathing," testified the violinist Winthrop
Sargeant (later a music critic at The New Yorker). They "pretended to
regard Gershwin's music humorously, made funny noises and played it, in
general, with a complete lack of understanding of the American idiom."
Other orchestras were more respectful, but some writers were not. The
critic Paul Rosenfeld, who championed Copland in intellectual circles and
whose Jewish lineage was German, detected in 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's point was that
Gershwin was talented, but vulgar, "a gifted composer of the lower,
Copland, though more polite, was similarly disposed. He omitted Gershwin
from his surveys of important or promising American composers. When Copland
was asked to compare his music with "Mr. Gershwin's jazz" in 1937, he said:
"Gershwin is serious up to a point. My idea was to intensify it. Not what
you get in the dance hall, but to use it cubistically - to make it more
exciting than ordinary jazz." The song forms blithely employed by Gershwin
seemed banal to American composers seeking an up-to-date high-culture idiom.
The performance history of the Concerto in F documents Gershwin's vexed
reputation in American classical-music circles. Gershwin's own renditions
attracted exceptionally large and enthusiastic audiences, but the critical
response swirled with confusion and controversy over the work's pedigree.
Many local premieres were engulfed in short pops numbers by
Rimsky-Korsakov, Smetana, Chabrier and the like.
Damrosch, at Carnegie Hall, gave the world premiere in a program with a
symphony by Glazunov and a suite by Henri Rabaud. In St. Louis, Vladimir
Golschmann (who had already conducted the concerto in Paris to resounding
popular and critical acclaim) positioned it after Tchaikovsky's
"Pathétique" Symphony. Fritz Reiner, in Cincinnati, presented it with
Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, Strauss's "Till Eulenspiegel" and "Rhapsody
But during his later reign as music director of the Chicago Symphony (1953
to 1963) Reiner conducted not a note of Gershwin - not even Robert Russell
Bennett's ever popular "Porgy and Bess" synthesis, which Reiner himself had
commissioned and introduced. Not until 2000 did Daniel Barenboim become the
first Chicago music director to have led all three of Gershwin's choice
symphonic productions - the concerto, "Rhapsody in Blue" and "An American
in Paris" - in regular-season subscription concerts.
This Chicago history is emblematic. It seems that Gershwin most fell out of
favor on mainstream American symphonic programs around midcentury. Then, in
Pittsburgh in the 1980's, Lorin Maazel brought him back. More recently,
Andrew Litton in Dallas and Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco have
conspicuously advocated Gershwin. Of the most prestigious American
orchestras, only Philadelphia and Cleveland continue to marginalize the big
Gershwin scores. The New York Philharmonic alone has never done so. Artur
Rodzinski, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur
and now Mr. Maazel have all conducted Gershwin for regular-season
The experience of Benjamin Pasternack, who regularly played piano parts for
the Boston Symphony in the 1980's, testifies to the aspersions once cast on
"Rhapsody in Blue." As a regular-season soloist with the orchestra, he
played Bartok, Bernstein, Mozart and Rachmaninoff. But his Boston
performances of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" were always Pops events.
Following the advice of his New York manager, he omitted the work from his
The pianist Alexander Toradze reports a similar experience. After defecting
to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1983, he considered
performing the Concerto in F. Two American managers told him that to do so
would harm his professional standing.
"In Russia, if you could improvise and play Gershwin, your reputation went
up, not down," Mr. Toradze said.
When Dmitri Shostakovich heard "Porgy and Bess" in Moscow in 1945, he
called it magnificent and compared Gershwin to Borodin and Mussorgsky. In
the United States the composer and critic Virgil Thomson, reviewing the
work's premiere in 1935, found it "crooked folklore and halfway opera."
For that matter, eminent European-born musicians enjoyed Gershwin for
decades without the qualms typically expressed by eminent American
musicians. Reiner and Arnold Schoenberg befriended him. Otto Klemperer and
Sergei Rachmaninoff admired him from a distance. Jascha Heifetz, who
transcribed tunes from "Porgy," hoped for a Gershwin violin concerto. On
hearing the Concerto in F, the Paris-born musicologist Carl Engel sent
Gershwin a note reading, "You must whisper softly still when you dare
suggest that at last America has a music all its own."
Alluding to the Americans Copland and George Antheil, the important
German-born Boston composer Charles Martin Loeffler wrote to Gershwin in
1927: "It is needless to say that I have pinned my faith on your delightful
genius and on your future. You alone seem to express charm, race and
invention amongst the composers of our time. When the Anthlands and
Coptheils et tutti quanti will be forgotten," he continued, "you, my dear
friend, will be recorded in the Anthologies of coming ages."
And the influential European admirers of American jazz were legion:
Hindemith, Milhaud, Weill, Honegger, Poulenc, Ravel. That visitors like
Stravinsky and Bartok gravitated to Harlem bands, not to the
Koussevitzky-sanctioned symphonists, made Gershwin and jazz the more
threatening to the nascent American symphonic enterprise.
So it is both paradoxical and appropriate that this week's Gershwin soloist
in Boston is a Frenchman. Speaking from the West Coast recently, Mr.
Thibaudet, a product of the Paris Conservatory, said that as far as he was
concerned, Gershwin was "always part of the mainstream repertoire."
"I learned the Concerto in F and 'Rhapsody in Blue' when I was 13 or 14
years old," he added. "These pieces are very well known in France." (Among
eminent French pianists, Philippe Entremont, Pascal Rogé, and Hélène
Grimaud are also Gershwin players.)
Mr. Thibaudet was incredulous when informed that his Gershwin performances
would be a Boston landmark. "I was also told that in San Francisco I will
be giving the first Concerto in F on subscription in 56 years," he said. "I
thought they were joking."
As for criticism of the concerto's structure, he added: "How many people
think about that when they're listening? And who cares? Look at how Ravel
was impressed. He was completely crazy about Gershwin. I think that's a
symptom of his intelligence, really. I think other composers were simply
In 1931 Ravel composed a singular homage: his Piano Concerto in G, music
inconceivable without Gershwin's example. He had earlier penned one of the
most eloquent tributes ever expressed by one composer about another.
Writing to Nadia Boulanger, from whom Gershwin had asked for composition
lessons, Ravel declared: "There is a musician here endowed with the most
brilliant, most enchanting and perhaps the most profound talent: George
Gershwin. His worldwide success no longer satisfies him, for he is aiming
higher. He knows that he lacks the technical means to achieve his goal. In
teaching him those means, one might ruin his talent. Would you have the
courage, which I wouldn't dare have, to undertake this awesome
responsibility?" (Boulanger declined Gershwin's request.)
One moral of this tangled Gershwin tale is that America's classical music
culture - with a late start in relation to the parent culture in Europe -
long overstressed its elite pedigree. Now that everyone has relaxed about
that (even classical music is not immune to easy postmodern excursions
across onetime cultural boundaries) it becomes easy, too, to acknowledge
the genius of a favorite native composer on the outskirts of high-cultural
Roy Harris, who rejected jazz, was once called "the great white hope" of
American music. With the wisdom of hindsight we can appreciate today that
the great interwar hope for American classical music was an interloper who
could seamlessly connect the world of Beethoven with the popular genres
that made American music world famous: with Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and
Hollywood; with Paul Whiteman and Duke Ellington.
Gershwin's early death - in 1937, at 38 - robbed us of the string quartet
he had begun, of the concerto he might have given his friend Heifetz, of an
American opera to build on "Porgy." These are losses that cannot be
recouped. But "An American in Paris," "Rhapsody in Blue" and the Concerto
in F can be properly reclaimed.
"Of course Gershwin called it a 'concerto,' and some people think that the
word 'concerto' dictates a certain European form," Mr. Pasternack, the
pianist, said. "But those criticisms are simply not germane. You know, the
person who first recommended this music to me was my teacher Rudolf Serkin.
'Maybe you'd like Gershwin's concerto,' he said. 'It's a wonderful piece.'
As for 'Rhapsody in Blue,' audiences are simply thrilled and happy when
they hear it, from beginning to end. It always has that effect. I think
it's probably the best-loved music in the entire concert repertoire."