Gershwin Memorial Concert
From the Original Vinyl LP
1. Prelude No. 2
Arranged and Conducted by Otto Klemperer
2. Concerto in F (First Movement: Allegro)
Oscar Levant, Piano
Charles Previn: Conductor
3. Song Group
Conducted by Victor Young
(Lyrics by Irving Caesar) - Al Jolson
B. The Man I Love
(Lyrics by Ira Gershwin) - Gladys Swarthout
C. They Can't Take That Away From Me
(Lyrics by Ira Gershwin) - Fred Astaire
Excerpt from the Opera: "Porgy and Bess" -
(Lyrics by Dubose Heyward and Ira Gershwin)
A. Introduction and Summertime - Lily Pons
B. My Man's Gone Now - Ruby Elzy and Hall Johnson Choir
C. Buzzard Song - Todd Duncan and Hall Johnson Choir
D. The Train Song - Anne Brown and Hall Johnson Choir
E. I Got Plenty O' Nuthin' - Todd Duncan and Hall Johnson Choir
F. Bess, You Is My Woman Now - Todd Duncan and Anne Brown
G. I'm On My Way - Todd Duncan and Hall Johnson Choir
with Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Steinert
On July 11, 1937 George Gershwin, the man who made an “honest lady out of jazz” died suddenly of a brain tumor while in Hollywood where he had been composing film music with brother Ira. He was 38. Gershwin’s twenty brief years of creativity produced numerous Broadway shows, the only authentic American folk opera, and a number of more serious compositions for piano and orchestra which bridged the “gap” between popular and classical music – all of it being immortal music that would long outlast its mortal creator.
To attempt to recreate the impact felt at the time of Gershwin’s passing is impossible. The word spread like a forest fire out of control. Gershwin music flooded the airwaves; radio stations from coast to coast broadcast memorial tributes which included such performers as Al Jolson in New York, Fred Astaire in Hollywood and Paul Whiteman in Texas. Planning began for memorial concerts – the first being at Lewisohn Stadium in New York with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. It was an immediate sellout. Then in Hollywood a tribute of massive proportions was announced; a Gershwin memorial concert, on September 8, to benefit the Southern California Symphony Association. Just a few months prior George had played and conducted an all-Gershwin program with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, which turned out to be the concert event of the season.
The Friday immediately following George’s death, all film studios in Los Angeles observed a minute of silence in his memory. Hollywood had been George’s new home (he had moved there from New York in late 1936), his friends would now pay homage to him in the grand style only Hollywood could muster – a concert involving seven conductors, a half dozen singers, two piano soloist and a full symphony orchestra. The program was broadcast live throughout the world. Listeners at home had the extra bonus of hearing Edward G. Robinson and others eulogize George and share their personal thoughts about him.
The night of the concert, traffic on Highland Avenue (which leads to the Hollywood Bowl) was at a standstill. Even with a police escort, some performers spent half an hour trying to enter the Bowl from the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, several blocks away. Fred Astaire saved himself the bother by walking. Attendance was over 22,000, many still arriving when conductor Otto Klemperer began the program.
The Los Angeles Times called the concert “a huge, enormous and colossal success.” The Hollywood Reporter stated that it was “an historic event in American Music History.” That night, twelve years after the first Gershwin piece was heard at the Hollywood Bowl, a new tradition commenced, that of an annual all-Gershwin concert. This tradition has been followed faithfully for the most part, and, in fact, saved the Hollywood Bowl from bankruptcy one year.
Of the many and varied performances at the concert, Ira Gershwin often tells an anecdote about a song anthology by MGM’s Music Department. The orchestra was augmented with extra players to present this overblown Hollywood medley of eight Gershwin evergreens. As they began the pompous proceedings, Ira, who did not recognize a simple tune of his brother (being weighted down with superfluous orchestration), turned in puzzlement to his tone-deaf friend, writer Arthur Kober, to ask what they were playing. That performance is not included in this album.
Otto Klemperer’s own orchestration of George’s Second Prelude is a fascinating document. Klemperer, conductor and music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, arranged the Prelude as a Funeral March for the occasion. He had a great affection for George and his music, and this is the only recorded example of Klemperer conducting Gershwin.
The hit of the evening was Oscar Levant’s rendition of the Concerto in F. Levant, an intimate of George’s, had perhaps a better understanding of serious Gershwin than anyone. George had asked Levant to play the Concerto in a Lewisohn Stadium concert in 193, as he had taken on the chore of performing his two Rhapsodies for piano and concerto, and left a bit overtaxed to handle the Concerto as well. After that Lewisohn Stadium concert, George’s mother strolled over to Oscar, looked him straight in the eye and said, “Promise me you won’t get any better.” Promise or not promise, we are fortunate that Levant adopted the Concerto and Rhapsody in blue in the years following George’s death, and became their supreme interpreter.
The conductor in this performance (only the first movement is included here) is Charles Previn, who conducted George’s first Broadway show in 1919, “La La Lucille,” and is the uncle of Andre Previn.
The song group on this disc was conducted by Victor Young, at that time the conductor of Al Jolson’s weekly radio program, “Shell Chateau.” The trio begins with Gershwin’s first big hit “Swanee.” Jolson’s rendition of the song is as legendary as Judy Garland’s Over The Rainbow, or Paul Robeson’s Old Man River. It is impossible to know how many times Jolie warbled the number after interpolating it into “Sinbad” in late 1919, but one can safely assume that it ran into the thousands.
The late-blooming perennial, The Man I Love, was made popular in the U.S. by Helen Morgan following its success in England. However, Morgan never commercially recorded the song, so we can only imagine how her frail, sad and torchy performance of Ira Gershwin’s lyrics would have sound. We do have, however, Gladys Swarthout’s rendition of the song sung in a gutsy manner unusual for a concert singer. Swarthout and her radio conductor William Daly were both friendly with George and frequently programmed Gershwin music on “The Firestone Hour.”
At the time of the concert, it was thought that They Can’t Take That Away From Me was the last song that George had composed, and Fred Astaire’s singing of this number was introduced as such. Gershwin’s last two film projects A Damsel In Distress and The Goldwyn Follies had not yet been released, and Love Walked In was not to reach the Hit Parade until 1938. Our Love Is Here To Stay, truly George’s last song, did not achieve popularity until 1951 when MGM released An American In Paris.
Fred Astaire and George were close friends who inspired each other to some of their greatest creative moments. They started together in the theatre with their siblings, (Fred’s sister Adele and George’s brother Ira) in the early part of the century. Ira and George wrote some of their greatest songs specifically with the Astaires in mind. Fred’s performance here of They Can’t Take That Away From Me is perhaps his most moving rendition of it, and includes the rarely heard verse.
To many, the serious music of George Gershwin was still a new experience in 1937. While most knew Summertime and It Ain’t Necessarily So, they didn’t know they were but a small part of George’s Grand Opera, Porgy and Bess. First performed in 1935, Porgy and Bess, with a libretto by Dubose Heyward and Ira Gershwin, lasted only 124 performances, and was a financial failure. Critics gave it mixed reviews, with the majority on the negative side.
Gershwin, however, never doubted the greatness and lasting value of his creation maintaining that it would be revived often in the years to come, to great acclaim. He had remarkable foresight.
For this Hollywood Bowl performance, conductor Alexander Steinert (“Porgy’s original vocal coach) led three of George’s original cast choices, along with the Hall Johnson Choir and Lily Pons. Lily Pons? Gershwin had great admiration for her, evidenced by is composition of a piece for Miss Pons which, to this day, remains unpublished. (Ira never cared much for sopranos, stating, “They always sing flat.”) Her rendition of Summertime in a sort of “French English” remains a unique and fascinating document.
Ruby Elzy never made any commercial recordings of the songs from Porgy and Bess, so it is of historical interest to have her powerful rendition of My Man’s Gone Now sung exactly as she did when playing Serena in the original production. Elzy, a favorite of the Gershwin brothers, died tragically at an early age.
Todd Duncan and Anne Brown have achieved legendary status as the composer’s original choices for the roles of Porgy and Bess. They brought depth and meaning to their portrayals of the characters, realizing that perhaps they were creating operatic lovers no less classic than Tristan and Isold, or Pelieas and Melisande.
The Buzzard Song was original deleted from “Porgy and Bess” for time reasons, though reinstated in later productions of the show. Duncan’s rendition of it here is wrought with an emotional frenzy unequalled by any subsequent performance.
The Train Song is a rarely heard choral segment of the opera sung by Bess and the inhabitants of Catfish Row at the close of Act 1.
I Got Plenty O’ Nuthin’ (also known as The Banjo Song) is Porgy’s carefree philosophy of life sung in the second act. When first playing the song for Duncan, George described it as Porgy’s ‘great aria.’ He instinctively realized that it would become Porgy’s and Duncan’s famous trademark the world over.
Perhaps the most moving moment in the opera occurs when the lovers share the passionate duet Bess You Is My Woman. This deceptively simple aria is one of Gershwin’s greatest melodic creations.
The opera ends with Porgy’s triumphant finale, I’m On My Way. It is a tribute to the genius of George Gershwin that his music is more popular than ever today, and that this memorial concert sounds as vital and fresh now as it did when originally performed. As Ira Gershwin wrote many years ago, upon lyricizing George’s last song:
In time the Rockies may crumble,
Gibraltar may tumble
(They’re only made of clay),
But – our love is here to stay.
And so is our love of Gershwin Music.
– Michael Feinstein and Celia Grail
Love Is Here To Stay © Copyright 1938 by Gershwin Publishing Corp.
Used by permission of Chappell and Co.
Cover Painting: “Self-Portrait in Checkered Sweater,” George Gershwin, 1936
Used through the kind permission of Ira Gershwin.
About This Recording
The historic recordings in this album were made available by generous consent of Mr. Ira Gershwin. From his personal collection Mr. Gershwin loaned multiple vault copies of the Gershwin Memorial Concert which he had preserved on custom recorded, sixteen-inch discs. Modern equalization and mastering techniques have been applied to improve the sound as much as possible, but the high surface noise is inherent in the original 1937 recordings.
Produced for Citadel Records by Michael Feinstein
Executive Producers: Tom Null and Chris Kuchler
Production Coordination: Scot W. Holton and John Sievers
Mastering Engineer and Disc-to-Tape Transfer: Bruce Leek, I.A.M.
Plating: Rick Goldman, KM Matrix
Manufactured at KM Records
KM Production Coordination: Mike Malan and Karen Stone
Also available on Citadel Records: Gershwin Rarities – Songs from motion pictures and Broadway shows featuring Kay Ballard and Nancy Walker (Citadel CT 7017)