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Of Thee We Sing

The halls -- Carnegie included -- are alive with the sound of George Gershwin's music on the centennial of his birth.

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For those who may not have noticed,George Gershwin joined the classical-music Establishment some time ago, and all the pressing questions about categories and protocol that once so bothered aestheticians don't seem to matter anymore. Is Porgy and Bess opera or musical comedy? Is Rhapsody in Blue jazz or concert music? Are his show tunes fit material for slumming opera singers? Does anyone still care? Symphony orchestras across the land are celebrating Gershwin's centenary with entire programs devoted to his music, Porgy is now firmly ensconced in the world's opera houses, and even his Broadway musicals are recorded on CDs with the same scholarly care bestowed upon fourteenth-century motets. Yes, in 1998 Gershwin is right up there with Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.

It was going to happen eventually. While pop music continually moves on, the whole structure of the classical-music world is geared to serve the past, and Gershwin, too good to lose sight of, had to fall into the hands of the preservationists sooner or later. Besides, rappers and rockers don't have a clue about how to deliver a Gershwin song with the proper style, something that comes naturally to today's younger generation of classically trained American singers, while every native-born pianist and conductor since Leonard Bernstein seems to have the Gershwin idiom in his blood. Beyond that, as one of the country's earliest and most triumphant examples of musical crossover, Gershwin always guarantees good box office, and for that reason alone concert promoters are eager to admit him into the pantheon.

So no one could have been surprised when Carnegie Hall opened its season this year with an all-Gershwin centennial gala featuring the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, a concert later televised by PBS. The evening also celebrated Carnegie Hall's own colorful past association with Gershwin, who used to sneak in to hear music as a youngster and, not many years after that, entered through the front door as a celebrity to oversee the world premieres of his Concerto in F (1925) and An American in Paris (1928). The latter score provided the appropriate finale to Tilson Thomas's varied program, one that showed just how easily Gershwin demolished categories on his way from Tin Pan Alley to 57th Street: scenes from Porgy and Bess (with Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell), the overture to Of Thee I Sing, the Second Rhapsody for Orchestra With Piano, and a selection of show tunes sung by Frederica von Stade.

I doubt there could have been a more knowledgeable or communicative guide through this welcoming assortment of Gershwiniana than Tilson Thomas, equally at home as conductor, piano soloist, accompanist, and occasional raconteur. The tony audience in the hall seemed to know all the music by heart, and only the rarely performed Second Rhapsody jostled expectations. Hardly the comforting sequel to the ubiquitous Rhapsody in Blue that the composer's fans wanted to hear in 1931, this nervous score, with its rhythmic displacements, thematic transformations, and spiky harmonies, still surprises the ear and indicates some of the directions Gershwin might have taken had he lived past the age of 38. Toward the end of his life, when he was richer and more famous than Ravel or Schoenberg ever dreamed of being, the composer approached both older men for lessons in technique. He never got them (they apparently felt that Gershwin was doing just fine on his own), but the Second Rhapsody is still quite a stretch for the tunesmith who wrote "Swanee" in 1919. It was a thoughtful gesture to bring the piece to our attention and remind us that this prodigious musical talent never stopped growing.


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