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The Gershwin Circle

by Carol J. Oja

The reign of George Gershwin in American concert music was brief but powerful. From the moment he stepped on the stage of New York's Aeolian Hall in February 1924 for the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue with Paul Whiteman's Orchestra, Gershwin issued a series of challenges. Composers of so-called "popular" music could be serious. Jazz was a credible form of musical expression. A composer could have fun being modern. Critics and fellow composers decried the results, while a few lone voices recognized that something distinctive had emerged. But Gershwin pushed forward, composing Concerto in F (1925), An American in Paris (1928), Second Rhapsody (1931), Cuban Overture (1932), and Porgy and Bess (1935). All these compositions crossed over, growing out of historic European traditions yet unabashedly drawing upon the American vernacular. Today, they continue to occupy a murky middle ground in concert programming, just as they continue to be viewed with skepticism–at least in some quarters.

With the composers brought together in "The Gershwin Circle," a fresh perspective emerges on Gershwin's impact. Oscar Levant and Vernon Duke (aka Vladimir Dukelsky) both spun within Gershwin's orbit–Duke as a fellow composer of popular songs, also as a collaborator with George's brother Ira, and Levant as Gershwin's amanuensis and foremost interpreter at the piano. Focus has most often been placed on Gershwin's impact on his American modernist contemporaries, whether Aaron Copland in the Piano Concerto or George Antheil in his Jazz Symphony. These figures identified primarily with the concert hall. To incorporate jazz, they reached down from an artistic position of accepted authority to elevate an idiom they regarded with varying degrees of condescension.

Duke and Levant represent the flip side of Gershwin's reach. They were positioned primarily on the opposite side of the tracks, musically speaking, making their careers in popular music, radio, and film. Yet they too crossed over and did so much more conventionally than Gershwin. The three shared many experiences and attitudes. All were concerned with audience access–with popularity, a term so often disparaged in the concert world. All had Russian roots–Gershwin and Levant as children of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants and Duke as part of a community of Russian exiles, including also Igor Stravinsky and Serge Koussevitzky, that settled first in Paris and later emigrated to America. All led bi-coastal lives, feeling as much at home on a Hollywood set as a Broadway stage. And perhaps most fundamentally, all felt the strain of a created life divided between two modes of musical expression.

One of the summertime wonders in New York City, from the late 1910s to the mid-1960s, was a concert under the stars at Lewisohn Stadium. Crowds of some 20,000 listened to major orchestras and virtuosi of the day, while sirens wailed on the street below. If you were a regular at those events, you probably heard Oscar Levant, who beginning in 1932 often played in the Stadium's annual all-Gershwin concert. A man of several careers, including prominent roles in a series of Hollywood films and a sharp-witted presence on radio, Levant gained fame early on as one of the foremost interpreters of Gershwin. While still a teenager, he attended the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue and took it upon himself to learn the work immediately. He became the first pianist after Gershwin to record the piece, and he performed Concerto in F at the Stadium's first all-Gershwin concert. As recordings reveal, Levant delivered stunning interpretations of Gershwin–all muscle, with a supple rhythmic swing and facile technique. While Levant's range expanded over the years to include standard European literature, he often described himself as having an "outdoor" repertory–that is, light classics and pops concert fusions for audiences at Lewisohn Stadium or the Hollywood Bowl. He also peppered his performances with patter, delivering what he called "concerts with comments." As time passed, Levant became Gershwin's alter ego. Besides steadily performing his friend's music, Levant hung out at Gershwin's various residences, both in New York and Los Angeles, playing for parties and enjoying an insider status. After Gershwin's death, he never stepped on stage without a watch that Gershwin had given him after their first Stadium concert.

But there were other sides to Levant, including a brief composing career that stretched from the early 1930s to the early 1940s. There Gershwin continued to have an impact at the same time as Levant moved in surprising directions. The result could be schizoid. Levant's composing career began with a Sonatina for Piano, which received its premiere in 1932 at the second Yaddo Festival of American Music. Aaron Copland, who directed the Yaddo concerts, apparently first heard the work at Gershwin's apartment. "The musical structure" of the Sonatina "was quite academic," Levant later observed. "It was a grafting of jazz into a classical mold." Although Levant had not yet studied composition, he learned by listening. Stravinsky had produced a Piano Sonata in 1924, and in the late twenties and early thirties there was a spate of sonatas and sonatinas on New York's new-music concerts, including ones by Marc Blitzstein, Carlos Chavez, Israel Citkowitz, Roy Harris, and Roger Sessions.

The real change for Levant as composer came in 1935, when he began studying with Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles. At the same time, Levant was writing tunes for films produced by the Fox and RKO studios. Schoenberg's appointment books, as recounted in Sam Kashner and Nancy Schonberger's illuminating book, A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant, show that Levant worked with Schoenberg from April through September 1935 and again from October 1936 through November 1937. During this period, Levant wrote the piano concerto featured here, as well as a string quartet and Nocturne for orchestra.

Levant's Piano Concerto embodies these contradictory forces–the blues-based harmonies and pulsating rhythms of Gershwin and the atonality of Schoenberg. Levant himself called the work an "exercise in relentless atonality," but it ranges much wider than that, even including a "boogie woogie" passage, as Levant termed it. It sounds like Gershwin in an acid bath.

A one-movement work, Levant's Concerto has an overall fast-slow-fast shape modeled on a standard three- movement form. Perhaps its closest tie to Gershwin came in a construction of fast-changing snippets. No thematic area gets extensively developed, rather each appears and disappears, often popping up again later. This is true from the very beginning, where a long, Viennese-based section explores several themes in collage-like fragments. Bits of Gershwin cut through in isolated moments of jazz-based orchestration. With the middle section ("Andantino"), the American vernacular dominates. Initially featuring piano alone, the theme there is cast loosely as a 12-bar blues. After a brief orchestral interlude, the piano reappears with the same material, this time with the "boogie woogie" bass mentioned earlier. A final version of this middle theme includes orchestral accompaniment, growing increasingly more gnarled and abstract as it progresses. With the final section of the work ("Fuga"), Viennese angst moves once again to the fore–that is until the bombast of a Hollywood finale asserts itself right before the end.

The Concerto received its premiere in February 1942 as part of a live radio broadcast by the NBC Symphony. Levant was at the piano and Alfred Wallenstein conducted. Virgil Thomson was among a group of critics in the studio with headphones on and pens poised. "Oscar Levant's Piano Concerto is a rather fine piece of music," he wrote afterwards. "Or rather it contains fine pieces of music. . . . The impact of Mr. Levant's battling personality is not absent."

The performance life of Gershwin's Second Rhapsody owes a considerable debt to his "circle." Vernon Duke prodded his friend Serge Koussevitzky to premiere the work–which he did with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1932. And Levant played multiple roles with the piece, at first sitting beside Gershwin for a four- hand audition of it for Arturo Toscanini (who chose not to premiere the piece). Then in 1949, Levant made a highly regarded recording of Second Rhapsody with Morton Gould, also performing it that same year in Carnegie Hall with Dimitri Mitropoulous and the New York Philharmonic. By then, he was trying to revive a composition that had mostly been forgotten.

Second Rhapsody had an unusual genesis, originating in a light 1931 film Delicious, starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. There the score was called alternately "New York Rhapsody" and "Manhattan Rhapsody." It was 8 minutes long and accompanied an urban sequence with "noise," as the accompanying dialogue put it, and "riveters drumming your ear from every side." To make an independent orchestral composition, Gershwin doubled the length of "New York Rhapsody" and reshaped it. Along the way, the work gained yet another title, Rhapsody in Rivets, which has stuck to the piece over the years as a nickname. Ultimately, though, Gershwin decided that its formal title should be "just plain Second Rhapsody," as he wrote his first biographer Isaac Goldberg. Gershwin felt this title was "much simpler and more dignified."

Gershwin later acknowledged that he used "a rivet theme" as "a starting-point." "In many respects, such as orchestration and form, [Second Rhapsody] is the best thing I have written," he confided to Goldberg. But public reception of the piece has not been so kind. It remains "a curiosity among Gershwin's concert works," observes Edward Jablonski, a subsequent biographer. This was true from the very beginning. Second Rhapsody waited a year for its premiere (an extraordinary length of time for a concert work by Gershwin), and the critical reception was mixed.

Second Rhapsody is loosely structured in two large sections with a reprise. The opening theme echoes the city scenes of American in Paris, conveying the sounds of urban congestion more than of a riveter's assault. Throughout, the piano is intensely integrated with the orchestra, with the two often sharing thematic material. The composer who had made the piano central to Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F kept it at the core of Second Rhapsody. At times, the piano's persona is that of a quiet individual amidst chaos; at others, it is a boisterous participant in the action. In one of the opening theme's many incarnations it appears in the piano with a Latin flare, heralding Cuban Overture, which was to be Gershwin's next large orchestral work.

About half-way through Second Rhapsody, an extended middle section begins with a "sweet" theme in the strings. Listeners will hear its harmonic gestures and overall shape as foretelling yet another Gershwin work–this time, Porgy and Bess, which Gershwin began writing a couple of years later. With a military roll in the piano, the opening "rivet" theme returns briefly at the end. Cadenzas pop up here and there, and Gershwin delivers some gorgeously layered passages.

"At the age of fifty-two," wrote Musical America, "Maurice Ravel will emerge from the quietude of his comparatively secluded life at Montfort-l'Amaury and will make his first tour of the United States." And so he did in early 1928, launching a coast-to-coast junket across the U.S. sponsored by the Pro Musica Society. Ravel visited San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland, and Montreal.

He also got to know Gershwin in New York. The two men met at a dinner party hosted by Eva Gauthier–the singer who in 1923 had given a legendary concert of modernist songs and show tunes by Gershwin. Gershwin was reportedly shocked to learn at her party that anyone–even an eminent French composer such as Ravel–had not yet heard Rhapsody in Blue. But he soon set that straight. The two men connected again in Paris that spring, while Gershwin spent a few months there. During that stint, Ravel had opportunities to hear both Rhapsody in Blue, for which he expressed immense admiration, and Concerto in F. Ravel's Piano Concerto in G is most often singled out for Gershwin's impact, but his Concerto for the Left Hand, composed in 1929-30, right after the two men made contact, shows signs of their tie as well.

Unfolding in a single movement, Concerto for the Left Hand was written for the Austrian virtuoso Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I. There are three contiguous segments: Lento, Allegro, and Tempo Primo. Isolated moments of jazz-based writing appear, most noticeably at the piano's first entrance. Initially delivering fierce arpeggios, the piano soon moves into an area with some blue notes and extended harmonies. The piano writing is intensely demanding, both technically and emotionally. There are moments of tenderness, to be sure, but on the whole the work is dark and tormented, with little interest in a Broadway jaunt. This is especially the case with the concluding piano cadenza, which is deeply melancholy.

Copyright Carol J. Oja, 1998

Carol J. Oja is Director of the Institute for Studies in American Music at Brooklyn College, where she recently organized a national conference on Gershwin and his music.


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